A Sojourn to Macedonia
Being asked to present at a conference in Macedonia by the Regional English Language Officer of the U. S. Embassy, was thrilling, yet filled me with trepidation at the same time. After all, this was why I had worked for a doctorate degree, to do this type of work, yet when first faced with the opportunity, all of my insecurities rose to the surface. With seventeen years of combined teaching experience, this was a ludicrous reaction.
What could I say that could be of any consequence to these conference attendees? Perhaps, I needed to attend more conferences as a participant before making the leap to presenter. Since meeting my friend Myrtis at the start of my doctoral program, I knew that I wanted to be like her when I grew up. Growing pains are mercilessly difficult to endure.
Myrtis along with her husband Randall, have worked all over the European continent. Myrtis has taught English as a Second Language and English as a Foreign Language in a dozen countries. She wrote a book using Albanian folktales to teach English, while she herself was teaching there. She has written other workbooks for teaching English using United States history as the foundation since. She spent a year in Croatia on a Fellowship, then the next year went to Slovakia on a Fulbright. There is not a country in the world that Myrtis has not formed a contact person. She not only knows how to meet the right people, but she has the knowledge, experience, and confidence to support her decisions to pursue interesting adventures and assignments. Her husband, Randall has given her the freedom for many years to put his career aspirations aside so that she could pursue her professional goals. He has had the advantages of living on the edge through her choices, but at the same time, he has been a true partner in their relationship. Randall is a computer wizard. His talents add a dimension to Myrtis’ work that she most likely would not have the know how for if she had the time and energy to accomplish what Randall can do effortlessly, to help her shine ever brighter than she does on her own merits. They are a team to be admired and emulated.
It is Myrtis who put me in touch with Damon Anderson, the Regional English Language Officer of sixteen countries of our part of the world. His office fortunately, is in Budapest. After first meeting, the three of us quickly transcended a professional relationship to one of mutual respect and friendship. Damon did a bit of arm twisting and convinced me that I needed to go to Macedonia to present at this conference. His enthusiasm of the new university that he had just visited and the teachers working there was beyond my scope of appreciation at the time. Respecting Damon’s judgment, feeling that he was indeed my advocate, I agreed to make the journey and make my way through the professional rite of passage as a presenter. Damon was able to pay my airfare; the university was paying for all other expenses. Ron was going to attend, but we had to pay for his airfare ourselves.
My initial topic for my presentation was “Action Research: The EFL Teacher as Researcher in the Classroom”. This seemed like a reasonable topic for educators, but after sending in the proposal, I started having doubts. What if these Macedonian and Albanian instructors were not as fluent in English as I had assumed? What if this topic is way off the mark for the theme of the conference which was “Teaching English: Moving from the Traditional to the Contemporary”. My worst nightmare was that the U. S. professor from the States that was coordinating this and coerced Damon to send people to give this conference validity, felt betrayed. What if I let Damon down by being a disaster? I had to fall back on my motto since leaving California, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”. Normally, during these times of overwhelming apprehension, I resort to the “What is the worst thing that could happen?” thinking to work my way through the underlying issues and find resolution. This time, though the worst that could happen scenario was to move out of Budapest to save face with Damon and go hide my head in the sand somewhere in the Arabian desert.
Knowing that I could fill a semester with a topic like Action Research, I narrowed it down to Classroom Assessment; a sub-topic of Action Research. After all, I only had forty-five minutes to speak. Having used Classroom Assessment myself, I knew my resistance to it in the beginning, but the power it held for my students and myself as a professional, prompted me to hone in on this area for this presentation. Not only did I have the whole presentation on overhead transparencies, I also had the same thing in same thing as a handout for the participants. I knew that in forty-five minutes, I would never be able to cover the thirty plus pages of work I had accumulated, but it was important for me to give the teachers a ready tool that could be implemented immediately in their classroom. Not only did I have my own reputation to build, but also I had Damon’s trust that had to be maintained, therefore, the presentation took many hours of thought and preparation.
The day arrived and Ron and I made our first trip to the Budapest airport. We had never flown in or out of Budapest before, so this in itself was an adventure. At check in, the reservationist again asked if we had our Visa for Macedonia. We again repeated that the U.S. Embassy told us that we no longer needed one. The night before, I had checked the Macedonian website and they still list U.S. residents as needing a Visa, but I was depending on our governmental informant to be the most current. She told us we could buy a Visa at the airport when we arrived there.
When it was time to go through security, we put our carry on luggage on the conveyor to be x-rayed. My bag was marked for inspection and I had to open it for the security person. It was surprising to me that he checked each pocket of the suitcase, which are many. He opened all of my toiletries and went through each one. Then he pulled out my haircutting scissors. I have had these scissors since I was in Beauty School, over 30 years. They are like an extension of my hand and without malice of forethought; they travel with me wherever I go. It never dawned on me that they could be considered a terrorist weapon since usually they are packed in my checked luggage. I had more concerns about my precious scissors being absconded, than I had fear of being accused of being a potential hijacker. When the security had a confab over what to do with the scissors and me, all in Hungarian of course, they decided that since I was headed for Skopje it was not that relevant to stop me.
Our Malev (the Hungarian airlines) flight was uneventful, but the service was excellent. Although the flight was just over an hour, a light lunch was served. At the airport, we went through Passport Control without a problem. There was no mention of a Visa and the office that had the sign “Visas Purchased Here” definitely had an abandoned look. At the time, we did not realize that most of the country has that same appearance. We were able to exit the airport without a Visa and without a hassle. The airport was smaller than the smallest Wal Mart in the U.S.
As you exit any international section of an airport, the throngs of people waiting to greet you are kept at bay by barricades. They are not allowed to meet you at the gate like a domestic flight in some airports. This was no exception, but as is typical in underdeveloped countries, the masses are mainly taxi drivers trying to convince you that they are there specifically to fulfill your desires for transportation. With great expectation, I had anticipated seeing someone with a sign that read “Dr. James” on it being held by the driver sent by the university. Since I rarely see my name with Dr. in front of it unless I initiate it myself, I am not used to the title that I worked so diligently to achieve. Sometimes the small things in life can be very gratifying. There was however, a person holding a sign. It read “Dr. David Francis”. I knew that Dr. Francis was flying in on Friday and that the driver was for us. He apologized at getting the signs wrong and when we were seated in the car, he showed us another sign that read “Dr. Ryan James and Dr. Ron Schmitz”. Ron was amused by his ‘promotion’ and I satiated with the small bit of professional recognition.
The hotel that we were booked at was a quaint two-story building with a restaurant in off the lobby. All of the desk people, only men, wore traditional Macedonian attire. When we checked in, we were informed that the university had booked us in separate rooms. Ron had a spacious room with a queen-sized bed and I had a small room with a sloped ceiling that looked like someone’s converted attic. It only had room for a single bed. This was not going to do at all. We went down to the desk clerk and told them that we had requested one room with a double bed and that we would share Ron’s room. The clerk insisted that the university had required the two rooms and we should accept this. When I understood that his reasoning for insisting was that the hotel was fully booked and they did not have another room with two twin beds, I made it clear that the one bed was adequate. My point was that we would be saving the university 55 Euros a night for my room and they hotel could use if for another occupant since they were booked anyway. After moving my things into the one room, we went to explore the city. It was listed as a four star hotel, but I believe that you only saw the four stars if you hit your head on the sloped ceiling and counted them as they floated in front of your eyes.
Skopje is not a pretty city. Actually, there are no redeeming qualities that were apparent to these Western eyes on our walk. We later learned that an earthquake flattened the city in the 60’s. After the earthquake, the country was a pawn of communism and wars, so the city was never rebuilt to be a showcase, but of utilitarian needs. The parks and all other landscapes are overgrown with grass and weeds. The buildings are modern in architectural design, but are weary looking needing a new coat of paint and in many instances some replacement walls or windows. We walked to the city center to find a bank with a money machine to get some local currency. The Macedonian currency is called the Denar and the rate was about 69 of them to the U.S. dollar.
As we approached the center, we say a sign for a bank in Macedonian. Their alphabet is similar to Russian, a Cyrillic alphabet, but we knew what to look for thanks to the desk clerk. We entered the bank, which was hauntingly empty except for the six employees that were sitting and chatting behind the counter. It was striking to see that there was not one piece of paper in the entire customer area. There were no deposit slips, withdrawal slips, or even a dried up pen hanging captive from a secured chain. The floor was littered and probably could not recall the last time it had been mopped. All of the employees jumped up as we entered like they had been shipwrecked on an island and we were their rescuers that they had dreamed about. When there was no apparent sign of a money machine, we asked and were told that it was on the other side of the bank in the mall. We left wondering what function this bank could possibly be providing when there was not one customer inside. How were these six people justifying their salary?
Around the corner in a large mall that was three stories of small dismal, depressing shops, we found the money machine. We walked around the mall looking in windows, but it was difficult to tell if a shop was open or not since the lighting was so dim. Many were open, but the merchandise on display in the windows was not a temptation to explore inside any further. As we walked, this young man approached me from behind on my left side. He tried selling me a knife while displaying a fistful of them. When I shook my head, “No!” he further demonstrated that these knives were indeed switchblades. When he pressed the button, a blade emerged that looked like it expanded in length once it hit the open air. It was incredible that a blade that long could have fit into such as compact handle. When I again shook my head negatively, I had this fear that this young man may want to demonstrate the attributes of his wares on my ribcage in order to further convince me of the benefits of owning one of his knives. He did, however, walk away without an incident, but Ron was walking ahead of me so my anxiety was not relieved until the guy was totally out of our proximity of protection.
Restaurants abound in the city and many of them are well appointed in décor and atmosphere. They are probably the oasis in the desert of ruin. We went to one restaurant on the edge of the downtown center and had a beer. We ordered a side order of French fries from the waitress who did not speak any English. A few minutes later, a bartender approached to explain in English that they did not serve French fries without a meal. As a substitute, he gave us a bowl of snacks complimentary. Our two large beers cost under $2.50.
We went back to the hotel and soon after relaxing in the room, we were ready to go again and the phone rang. Dr. Andy Gridinsky, our host was in the lobby and wanted to meet us. Indiana University was awarded the contract for helping to start SEE University. SEE (South Eastern European University) was established to give Albanian students living in Macedonia an opportunity to earn an education. Due to the political strife that is on going, the Albanians have a difficult, sometimes impossible time being accepted into the admissions of the University of Skopje. The University is a joint effort of the U.S. government and the European Union for a three-year commitment at this point in time. Andy, as he likes to be addressed is one of three American professors who was contracted to develop the English department.
Andy is small in stature and slight in build. His nervous energy and body language had me believing that I was in the presence of Woody Allen. That was an image that held for a couple of days. A woman named Annie, a Senior Fellow who is coordinating the Albanian project under the direction of Damon Anderson, accompanied him. She too, is the same body type as Andy, but both are powerhouse of action. The four of us went to dinner at a local restaurant where Andy shared more of the background of the teachers that were organizing the conference. We learned that the conference was by invitation only. Some of the teachers wanted to invite teachers from the high schools to attend, but due to the politics, this was negated. If they invited Albanian teachers, they would have to invite Macedonian teachers as well. Due to the politics, it was thought best to avoid problems.
There were to be a total of about 40 conference participants including the presenters. Andy kept referring to Dr. Francis, Ron, and me as the “big guns” and the “heavy hitters” that lent credence to this conference for the teachers. He explained that without us there, they would not feel it was as important as it was for both their professional development and their self-esteem. With every sentence he spoke, I could feel my shoulders drooping more and more with the weight of responsibility
that was being added to them. When we returned to the hotel, we were informed by the desk clerk that they just received a ‘final’ confirmation of rooms from the university and there was yet another mistake. Ron and I were supposed to be placed in an apartment, not an ordinary room. He wanted us to move into our new larger quarters, but we convinced him our current space was more than adequate and we could stay where we were.
Most of these teachers have never taught on a university level before and most did not even have a Masters degree, not for lack of desire, but for lack of accessibility. They were capable instructors, but many were trained in the old and traditional schools under the Communist regime and were not privy to more contemporary techniques and pedagogy. The university opened late in November, behind schedule due to conflict in the region. For many of them, this was the first conference they had ever attended and it was definitely their first time to be presenters. They were all overwhelmed with fear and Andy asked that we be generous in our understanding of the situation. If nothing else, this was going to be an Experience with a capital E.
The university is located in the town of Tetovo, about 40 meters from Skopje. Due to the continual unrest between the Albanians and the Macedonians, none of the foreign university staff is allowed to live in Tetovo. Local staff is also encouraged to be off of the campus by 5:00 pm. Each morning they are bussed to the university and each evening they are bussed back to Skopje. The same was to hold true for the presenters. Breakfast was served in the hotel breakfast room at 7:00 am. It was a wonderful buffet of assorted cereals, juices, coffee, but most interestingly, an assortment of cheeses that we had never tasted before. At 8:00 am, the bus was ready to transport us to the university. The other international speakers that arrived to present were professors from Albania, Kosovo, Bulgaria, and the British Council sent one speaker.
The university is an eclectic mix of buildings that are modern in design. They were pre-fabricated buildings that were assembled in Austria and trucked to the site where they are now. Most of the buildings are painted in shocking blue, but others like the dormitories are a more subdued deep gold. The multi-purpose room where the cafeteria is is a pale gray color. Although all of the buildings stand out due to their unusual colors, one in particular is painted blue, sea foam green, and gold each color in a broad vertical band down the front. One person suggested it was used as a color sample for the rest of the campus. We all made jokes about the color scheme of the buildings, but it did provide for an eye-catching and exciting atmosphere that demanded attention on the landscape. Even in the dreariness of winter, these colors held the power to raise one’s spirits. The land surrounding the buildings is just now producing grass, which has the faculty very excited. On two sides of the perimeter are apple orchards, which were in bloom, giving the entire campus a country feeling. Surrounding the area are mountains, which make the backdrop look like someone has plastered a huge mural on a humongous wall to decorate the area.
There was a reception opening the conference in the multi-purpose room. Since Friday was a school day, there were many students on campus as well. As we met the teachers, they proudly pointed out some of their students. The ease of interaction between the students and teachers was apparent. Unfortunately, we did not have time in the full schedule to meet and speak with students. The reception was followed by an opening meeting that was attended by the British Ambassador to Macedonia, an Ambassador’s representative from the U.S. Embassy, the Secretary General of the university, and one of the teachers.
Each of the two days was ambitiously filled with workshops and presentations. They had two concurrent sessions for each time slot with a total of twenty-six sessions planned. Half of the workshops were the university teachers presenting and the others were the guest lecturers. The teachers overwhelmed us in a positive way with comments like “We never thought we would be important enough to have guests such as you come here” or “We were told you were coming, but we did not believe that it would really happen. After all, why would you come here for us? Who are we to have such important people have an interest in us?” It was apparent that these comments and other of a similar vein were not being parroted to elicit sympathy or an aggrandized response. They were sincere responses to years of subjugation and repression that has caused a lack of confidence in their worthiness as human beings not even considering themselves as professionals. It was heartbreaking as well as heartwarming at the same time. I have never felt such as sense of being appreciated in my life. Even though Ron did not present, he had as much attention to the point of adoration as I was receiving. Every word that we uttered was attended with great interest and the teachers surrounded us continually during each break vying for our attentions. Interestingly, this was not much different from the other visiting professionals who also demanded our time and attention.
At the beginning, they had set out sign up sheets for each of the day’s workshops, limiting each to 20 participants. My presentation was scheduled for the first thing on Saturday morning. I secretly feared that no one would want to listen to a workshop on research first thing in the morning and that I would be speaking to the ghosts inhabiting the mountains. Each workshop given on Friday was obviously prepared with gusto. The teachers did their best to make their presentations engaging and they succeeded nicely. Interestingly, it was a few of the visiting professors from Kosovo who did not take to heart the contemporary piece of this conference and preached outdated methodology. It was the woman from the British Council who called them to task.
Lunch was provided in the cafeteria at VIP tables for all of us. Dinner was a group gathering at a restaurant in Skopje. It was a great experience to have such a quality opportunity to sit in a relaxed atmosphere with so many teachers and discuss their situations from the different countries. One professor from Albania, shared with us that she had been teaching for over 30 years and this was her very first conference. She lamented that she never had the opportunity before since most conferences are held in the capital city and she would have had to pay all of her own expenses to attend. Since their monthly salary is less than $400.00 a month and she is a widow raising three daughters, it was impossible. Without the sponsorship of the U.S. Embassy, she would not be sitting with us that evening. The heartbreaking part was when she said that she had long ago realized that she was a good teacher, but could have been a great teacher with some additional training. Now she is approaching retirement and will never have the chance to reach her goals. Ron and I were both on the verge of tears many times during the weekend, hearing these teacher’s stories.
It was funny during this dinner that one young female teacher, who was about 25 years old, beautiful, though she wore pounds of eye makeup, sat next to Ron staring at him through the whole dinner. At first, he was amused, but it persisted for so long, he started getting embarrassed. She would not be distracted from attending to his every action for more than a few seconds at a time. She hardly touched her dinner lest it create a diversion for her.
The university teachers are obviously a team. This is a major achievement considering three of them are Macedonian. Some live in Skopje and the others live in Tetovo, which could be cause for additional marginalization. Their mutual respect and camaraderie is apparent both on the campus and off. One of the presentations by a Macedonian teacher revolved her evolution of acceptance not only from her colleagues, but also and maybe more importantly to her students. Her reflections were dramatic and touching to all attendees of her workshop and the consensus was that she should publish this piece.
Saturday morning seemed to arrive too many hours too early. Before I had a chance to be nervous, we were on the bus to the campus. I went immediately to the room where I was going to present and set up the overhead projector and set out my transparencies. Then I did a follow-up to make sure that my photocopied handouts were ready. When I looked at the sign up sheets for the day, all were blank. I had no idea how many people would be in my session. At 9:00, everyone was corralled into the building for the start of the day’s workshops. I was pleasantly surprised, actually shocked, to see all of the seats filled with attentive people.
I explained at the beginning that I knew there was more material than I could ever present in 45 minutes, but if I could get through the first half, they would have all of the tools they needed to be successful in without further instructions. The presentation went flawlessly. My nerves were steel and I felt like I was speaking to new friends, no longer were they strangers. The one thing that I am fascinated about is the use of humor and its cultural implications. There are always some appropriate cartoons or jokes in my presentations to take the edge off. One never knows how this will be understood or appreciated by an international audience. In this presentation, I had a cartoon of an elderly man sitting at a computer, while his wife was on the phone to their son. The caption said “Okay, your father was finally able to catch a mouse, now what do we do with him?” In the picture there was a mouse in a mousetrap hanging over the side of the desk. The point was that although we may think our listener is on the same wavelength of thinking as we are, due to many factors, the message perceived may be entirely different. Therefore, we cannot make assumptions that our listener fully understands our speech. I think that the cartoon drove the point home to myself also, as there was not even a snicker of appreciation from my audience, though I did get a number of smiles.
At the end of the session, the Fulbright Scholar came up to me and said “That was an awesome presentation. I learned a great deal, plus I am so impressed with your preparation and ease with presenting. That was great!” The teachers from the university were my main concern and true audience, so I was leery about their reaction. As soon as I was done, they surrounded me to make comments like “You have the most fluid way of expressing ideas that I have ever heard”, “That was extremely helpful and I cannot wait to try it in my classroom”, “What a wonderful way to provide students with a say in their education, that was phenomenal”, and “Your handout is so complete and useful, it is wonderful.” It went on from there and I felt like a newly discovered movie star being surrounded my fans. I was more relieved to be able to share with them something that they would find useful and that they would implement than the admiration. My goal was accomplished in that they had a tool that they would feel would add to their professionalism and I was successful.
That evening, we were all treated to dinner at yet another restaurant in Skopje. With the conference ended after two successful days of workshops, the change in the teacher’s demeanor was dramatic and obvious. They had gone from ordinary people who had the opportunity to teach at a new university to invested professionals with self-confidence that were interested in pursuing their own professional goals and dreams. The recurring theme of the conversation for the evening was that they thought the three professors from the Indiana project were insane when they suggested a conference. None of them thought they could present since none of them had even been to a conference before. None of them believed that anyone but their own members would show up at all. The outpouring of appreciation for our caring enough to attend combined with the emotionally charged sense of newly discovered self-awareness was more than I had ever experienced and melted me into a lump of emotion.
As is the Albanian custom, there are a number of toasts made during the meal. Dr. Francis toasted their success. I then offered a toast stating “All of your have just experienced a rite of passage. You have transcended the passage from amateurs to professionals and I am proud to welcome you as colleagues.” The irony was that I too had gone through a rite of passage, but it did not occur to me until much later. To get this out with dry eyes was my major challenge for the evening. One of the teachers from the university stood and said “None of you know me. You think you know me, but none of you know my whole name. I have a very long name and now I will tell you what my name is.” He then proceeded by stating his first name, then went around the tables and called out each of our first names and finally ending with his last name. He then ended it by stating “That is who I am.” It was one of the most powerful statements of inclusiveness that most of these people have witnessed and it was difficult for many of them to stay dry eyed. For one evening, people from Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Britain, and the United States were all one. On that note, the evening ended.
Ron and I walked back to the hotel with the others staying at our hotel. We were all elated by our experience. Some of the presenters had to take buses to get there and were facing a journey back that would be up to twelve hours long. The sacrifices that they made to be there to be presenters were as impressive as the conference itself. I cannot say that we would have that dedication.
At breakfast on Sunday morning, we were able to say our good-byes to those from the other countries that were leaving that day. Actually, it was all of them except Dr. Francis, Ron, and myself. The professors from Bulgaria gave us a bottle of Bulgarian wine as a token of thanks for attending. Since they were fellow presenters, this was very touching.
Andy and Annie came to the hotel at 11:00 am to bring the two Albanian professors to the bus station. We walked with them and went for a farewell coffee. After we saw them off to the bus, we took off on our own. We walked to the ‘old city’ to do some tourist things. The old city is just that, old. It reminded us of the small, unpaved roads in parts of Greece, but the shops were dreary and worn. None of them were open on Sunday, Macedonia being an Islamic and Orthodox Christian country. What was out of context was the number of stores selling wedding dresses or renting them; we were not sure which. Also, there were quite a few jewelry stores as well with all of the precious contents removed from view.
At one end was a giant open-air market. Most of the goods for sale were food items, mainly fresh fruits and vegetables. The other things that were for sale were cheap and ordinary items that looked like imports from other countries. We did not see one thing that could be identified as culturally authentic. Ron had come across a store in the mall the first day that sold religious icons and was interested in purchasing one. That store was closed our first day and we never did find it open, so he was hoping to find something similar in this market, but it avoided our discovery. Most of the meats that were sold were not refrigerated and just sat out in the open like many other countries we have been to. Some of the meats were sickening shades of gray.
Later in the day, we went left out of our hotel. Across the street from the hotel is a large sports stadium that looks fairly new, but the tickets booths look like they have witnessed war. There were no events to fill the seats with cheering crowds during our visit. Further down, we came across a huge park that had a lake in it. Within the lake were duck houses, each occupied by the feathered fowl that guarded their territory with as much sense of deprivation as the humans around them experience. The park, though it could be lovely, was overgrown with weeds and grass that did not look like it has had the experience of being mowed for many seasons. The fountains were victims of drought and left to sit without a purpose other than to collect falling leaves. Flowers or other spots of color were absent.
At the end of the road was a children’s park with rides. Although, it was open, it was another dismal example of the state of the economy and the effects of the history of the country. There were a number of rides that sat lifelessly, decaying with the change of seasons, no longer with a sense of purpose. A children’s choo-choo train splashed with Coca-Cola advertising met its eternal rest in the little station. Snack bars were boarded up and some rides were operating with only one child enjoying the pastime. The only amusement that seemed to be appreciated and fully utilized was the bumper cars. While we lurked watching the action, it seemed that all participants were missing the point of the ride. They were driving the cars like they were taking a driving test. Finally, purely by accident, one driver bumped another and mayhem erupted. Once the drivers found they had a socially acceptable avenue to vent their frustrations, they seemed to awaken to the simple pleasures of the ride.
For dinner, we returned to a restaurant that Andy took us to on Thursday evening. They have this assorted appetizer dish that is sufficient for a meal. The appetizers are different ‘salads’, but to an American palate, it really is different cheeses prepared in different ways. This is garnished with three different kinds of olives and a few stuffed grape leaves. The bread is thick and round. They cut a cross in it, but leave it whole then pour garlic butter in the center and toast it. It is delicious with the cheese spreads, oh, sorry, salads smeared on top of it. The other treat is olives that have meat wrapped around them and then are coated with breadcrumbs or something similar and then fried. They are a cardiologist’s nightmare, but they certainly are delicious.
Macedonians do not eat until 9:00 pm or later. When you enter a restaurant at 6:00 pm, they find it difficult to believe that you actually want to eat. We had to get up at 3:00 am to get our taxi at 3:50 am for the airport, so we did not have the luxury to wait to eat. We were also told that the streets do not start jumping until around 11:00 pm and that it is not unusual for people to be out and about until 2:00 am during the week and then get up in the morning for work. This explained why the mall was vacated at 4:00 in the afternoon; however, the stores do close at 6:00 pm. Just like Hungary, I often wonder how some stores are able to stay in business.
With full stomachs and heads light from beer and wine, we made took our last walk to the hotel for this trip. Members of the Macedonian army blocked off our familiar route back to the hotel. Due to the police regulations, the hotel needed to keep our passports handy for any random checks by the police. Since we did not feel comfortable negotiating the G.I. Joes, we took another way back to the hotel. The streets were black. They do not have an abundance of streetlights, so walking back was less than enjoyable. Every extraneous noise gave me pause to survey my surroundings for any signs of threatening behavior.
Promptly at 3:50 am, our driver, the same one who picked us up from the airport was there to drive us back. As we pulled away and were about a mile from the hotel, he told us in very uneven English that the school had not authorized our fare back to the airport, so we would have to pay him the charges. We explained that the professor that arranged for him to come for us was to authorize it and had told us the school was indeed paying the bill. That presumably never was translated, so I was more than grateful we had taken enough cash out of the machine to pay our way. The thought of hitchhiking on Macedonian roads at 4:00 am was more adventure than I was willing to endure. My sense was that there was some double dipping going on, so I made a point of saying I would call the professor to clarify this situation and to make sure he was aware that we had indeed paid the bill.
When we arrived at the airport one hour early as instructed, ready for check-in, security checks, and passport control, the driver announced or we surmised, that the army blockaded the airport entrance. There is only one entrance to the airport. The driver’s English is about as good as our Hungarian, but light years better than our Macedonian. Supposedly, the gate would be opened at 5:00 am. BUT we had a 5:20 flight!!!
Sure enough, the airport personnel are used to this. Security was less rigorous than in Budapest. It amuses me how many people have what seem to me, meaningless jobs. Perhaps this is to provide employment, but I cannot help but wonder what happens to the self-respect and motivation of the individual. There was one man sitting in a booth before Passport Control. He looked at passports without ever opening one of them and handled it back to the owner. Amazingly, the flight departed promptly at 5:20 am and had an on time arrival. Were we happy to be back in Budapest? You bet we were!
To say that this weekend was life changing for me would be a perversion of the phrase. It reached into a level of my soul that up to now had been hidden from my awareness. The teachers touched me with their desire, but lack of opportunity to better themselves. The university offers five Bachelor degrees and four Masters degrees. The only Masters that is missing is in Education. How can an institution of higher learning be so short sighted? The teachers stated that they have been begging for a Masters program with only promises of sometime in the future. This has sparked an idea for an educational equivalent to Doctors Without Borders, Educators Across Borders. I told the teachers there that if they were interested, I would return on my own to provide them with a one-day seminar. I told Andy that I would volunteer my time, money, and energy to fly there once a month to offer intensive classes for a Masters degree if the school would sponsor it. I have also started recruiting volunteer educators who would be willing to provide seminars, teach classes, and be part of additional conferences for these teachers as well as their counterparts in parts of Kosovo and Albania. Teachers are underpaid, under appreciated, and overworked the world over, but you never realize how enriched you are until you spend a weekend with teachers such as these. When I feel this enriched, the only choice for me is to give to others so they feel a sense of self worth. I am relying on other educators being willing to do the same. So I am brainstorming ways to get the word out to other educators of ESL or Teacher Training to be a little part of making the world a better place for future generations.
Although Andy suggested that I may be subject to bleeding heart syndrome (his sentiment, my words), I shared with him that as well as being a trained and seasoned educator, my secondary vocation was as a professional Social Worker. I have encountered adversity thousands of times both professionally and personally, but I never give up. As I told one of the teachers, “We don’t always get what we want when we want it, but if we want it enough, we will get one day.” My goal is to make tomorrow THE day for some of these teachers.
Ryan James, MSW, LCSW, Ed.D.