How I ended up in Macedonia

Happy January EVS
Ilgaz Blog
Happy January EVS
Ilgaz Blog

So, how did you end up in North 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 a year now. (My blog is for those curious). I started backpacking and volunteering in February 2017 in 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 had no intention of visiting Bitola, let alone North Macedonia or the Balkans. 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 and 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 a 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 are 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 few 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 five 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 the end of December.

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

Ah, North Macedonia, …. “well this country is close by”, I realized… 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,  as it turns out, they 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 the mountains came into view. There are 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. There are so many holidays in January in North Macedonia.

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 and 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. It was 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!  I celebrated Christmas in January for the first time.

The upcoming holidays were Vodici and Vasilica (the Old New Year). That makes two Christmases and two New Year’s in one month (basically an excuse to eat a lot of delicious food). Oh, and there is SO much live music in Bitola! You can go to three different venues in one night and hear three different bands perform. It’s a cool scene. I got a taste of my first “Rakijada” in Kamarite. The jazz and blues covers make even the shyest of people bop around (or maybe that’s just the rakija’s doing)!

So January was fun, to say the least!

In the USA, January is the most boring month of the year for me. However, in North 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 by how much people care 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 it 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.” Drinking coffee with friends while people-watching is seriously part of the culture!

Should I invest in a new wardrobe and adapt to the customs? Or, better yet, just be myself and 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!