How I ended up in Macedonia

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So, how did you end up in Macedonia? This is a question I’ve been hearing often.

Honestly, it’s a question I’ve also asked myself with a smile.

I have been outside of the United States for about 1 year now. (My blog is whereispoppy.com for those curious). I started backpacking and volunteering in February 2017, around Southeast Asia including Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In July 2017, I went to Romania to explore the country and spend time with my relatives there. In November 2017, I volunteered at an Eco-Hostel near the mountains of Western Serbia, and in December I volunteered for a refugee-aid organization, near Belgrade, Serbia. I prefer volunteering to backpacking because you get to stay in an area for a longer time, do meaningful work and contribute to the community, make friends with locals, and almost become a local!

I honestly never had a plan to come to Bitola, nor Macedonia, nor the Balkans for that matter. But the best experiences are often the unexpected ones.

So back to how I got here in the first place. I suppose I have Facebook to thank.

Here’s why.

I was in Serbia in November (again, not planned at all, I thought I would spend the fall/winter in Germany) working in a hostel near the mountains. One of the other hostel volunteers started mentioning how lucky I am to have both an US and European passport.

I affirm this, and he goes on to bring up something unbeknownst to me at the time.

Something called EVS.

“Look at this Patricia” he says with a grin, opening up a Facebook page called “EVS Vacancies. “You are so lucky”, he says “these are programs about volunteering for NGOs around Europe, in which your accommodation and food is provided, plus you get pocket money.”

“You have a Romanian passport. You can do them.”

My eyes grew wide and we looked at each other silently affirming that the words free and travel are what dreams are made of.

I scrolled through the Facebook page with wide eyes, imagining all the places I could call home.

But, in the next weeks, I forgot all about EVS.

I was in a beautiful area of Serbia, spending my time hiking and cycling, not thinking about much other than the present moment. The end of November came, and I needed to make a decision. I had already stayed here for 5 weeks, it was time to move on. The only thing was, where?

I had already spoken to a refugee organization about volunteering with them. But I told them end of December.

Then, I remembered the EVS page. I remembered bookmarking a program in a place named Bitola.

Ah, Macedonia, …. “well this country is closeby”, I realize… and they had been looking for volunteers for December and January. I knew it would be a long shot, but I sent a message.

And, it turns out they did need still need one volunteer for both months.

However, I had already promised this refugee organization I would come volunteer…

So what to do now?

Luckily the refugee organization said I could come help in December, and the project in Bitola said I could come in January.

So December passed with a lot of hard work, long days cooking food and creating programming. Volunteering for a refugee aid organization was no easy feat.

January came. On the 2nd, I took the night bus from Belgrade to Bitola. I looked out the window as daylight warmed the bus and mountains came into view. So many mountains actually. I began to smile imagining myself hiking and being surrounded by beautiful nature.

Lucky for me, I arrived at the perfect time. January and there were many Macedonian holidays upcoming!

I arrived just in time for Kolede, the fire holiday. Basically, Macedonians make fires in front of their homes to scare away bad spirits before Christmas. They gather together, have finger foods, drinks (including hot rakija, the specialty) and sweets.

With the other volunteers, we went to 3 different homes to celebrate the holiday, 5 degrees outside but we were warm and toasty by the fire. The American in me thought S’mores could be a perfect addition…

I was happy to meet so many friendly people! From the young to the elderly, everybody is intrigued to see you here as a foreigner, and to talk with you. The people also speak excellent English, and bits of many other languages!

We celebrated Christmas as well! Christmas in January; that was a surprise.

The upcoming holidays were Vodici, (Old New Years) Vasilica. That makes 2 Christmases and 2 New Years in one month 😉 (Basically an excuse to eat a lot of delicious food.) Oh, and SO much live music in Bitola! You can go to 3 different locals in one night and hear 3 different bands preform, it’s a cool scene. I got a taste of my first “Rakijada” in Kamarite, the jazz & blues covers make even the most shy of people bop around  (or maybe that’s just the rakija’s doing)!

So January was fun, to say the least! I will tell you all about the sights, the smells, the sounds of these holidays in my next article.

In the USA, January is the most boring month of the year for me. In Macedonia? It’s never-ending festivities. I think I chose an awesome time to come, wouldn’t you agree?

Before this story ends, I have to mention a culture shock while it’s still fresh in my mind (and because everybody is asking what I notice about Macedonians)!

So, I was completely taken aback about how much people care a lot about appearances here in Bitola.

Upon arrival, SFERA’s President, Milcho, told me that there is a street where people walk up and down just to be seen in their fancy clothes. I thought it was an exaggeration… but turns out this is 200% correct!

I walked on Sirok Sokak for the first time, and immediately felt a different atmosphere. “Wow, people sure enjoy spending money on clothing and in cafes”, I thought. Drinking a coffee with friends while people-watching is seriously part of the culture!

Should I invest in a new wardrobe & adapt to the customs? Or, better yet, just be myself & gain more confidence walking up and down the street in my casual clothing? After all, it is what you can do, not what you look like that counts. And I am looking forward to showing Bitola what I have to offer 🙂

I may not have high heels, but I have ideas; here’s to hosting workshops, events, and classes in my new community.

Ciao for now!

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