Trial by Fire

It has begun. I am in North Macedonia and living with my resource family (formerly known as the “host family”). Even though I have only been at my new residence for a few days, so much has happened. Before updating you on my new town and home, I wanted to note a few things that are ‘unique’ about this time in being a Peace Corps volunteer that very few volunteers have dealt with since the organization’s beginning. Since the onset of COVID-19, people have altered their lifestyles to slow the virus’s spread. Likewise, the Peace Corps was forced to change certain aspects of the volunteer experience in foreign countries. Each country has a different approach to meeting the new standards, but I wanted to give more detail on my own situation. The most significant change is the cessation of volunteers training in groups for three months at a central location in the foreign county. After COVID-19, volunteers are sent directly to their permanent site for online training while living with their resource family. Now, volunteers only have two weeks of language training before being sent to an area where very few know English, including the host family. Further, volunteers do not get the opportunity to build relationships with fellow volunteers.

Having little language training has made conversations and learning about my area immensely difficult. For the past few days, my primary translation mode has been Google Translate, and I have never loved an app more in my life. While I am learning Macedonian in the online sessions, many areas of the country (including my own) have dialects that significantly alter the language. And it is crazy how fast they speak. Needless to say, I do a lot of smiling and very little talking. 🙂 I now realize it will take much longer than expected to learn the language. Thankfully, my host family welcomed me into their home and are patiently working with me as I learn the new language and customs. 

To back up a bit, for the first two weeks of our trip, all the volunteers were together in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. For the next few weeks, we will return to Skopje every Friday to do in-person training in Skopje. As I learn the area and get a better feel for the public bus system (which is truly intimidating at this stage), I will be able to visit other volunteers. Needless to say, I really look forward to our Friday training sessions.

I am living in a village in the North Eastern region of the country. For security reasons, I am told not to state my village’s name since it is quite small. The village is a small community (about 1000 people) outside the city of Kochani (about 30k-40k people). The village is a farming community famous for its ‘Golden Rice.’ It is golden in color and is easily the best rice I have ever had. The closest town is Kochani, and mostly rice fields surround the town. The village sits in the middle of the valley with two mountain ranges to the North and South. There is a restaurant, bakery, bar, and market, but that is pretty much it for commercial activity in the town. My village has a primary school with just over one hundred students in grades 1-9. That is where I will be teaching, but I also will be traveling to 3-4 satellite schools nearby to teach. I am very excited to start teaching, but I have a lot of Macedonian to learn in the next couple of months. 🙂

Sunset over the village

Before traveling to the country, I was lucky to be able to talk to previous volunteers who served in this country. Every single one described the country as having the best fruits and vegetables in the world. I can confirm that this is a fact. My host family grows kiwis, grapes, chestnuts, quince (a bitter fruit mainly used for jam), cabbages, peppers, corn, and tomatoes.

Front garden

My host family has been INCREDIBLY welcoming and helpful these past few days. Before I met them, I practiced a line: “Чест ми е шto сум ваш гостин” (I am honored to be your guest). When I greeted them this way, they instantly replied with, “Не, чест ни е што сте во семејството” (No, we are honored to have you in our family). Immediately, I knew I was lucky to have been paired with this family. In my host family, there is Тетка (Aunt), Чичко (Uncle), and Дедо (Grandfather). When I first arrived, they pointed out three cats around their house (two kittens and the mom) that they jokingly called Obama, Joe Biden, and Trump. After I had been there for a few days, they asked if I had thought of names for the kittens. Hoping to escape the drama of American politics while here, I recommended the kittens’ names be changed to Ophelia and Cleo (short for Cleopatra) after two songs by the Lumineers. 

Cleo (light grey) and Ophelia (black and brownish)

So, for now, I will continue with my daily training sessions, which consist of a four-hour language session from 8:00-12:30, followed by one to two meetings on varying topics. We end the day around 3-5 pm. It is a lot of information to absorb, but it helps to practice the material for the rest of the day (whether I like it or not). This has been quite a long blog entry, but so much has happened in so little time. Also, a fellow volunteer in the Community Development group has a very interesting blog. His blog will give you a better idea of what a CD volunteer does for the Peace Corps. He is located on the western side of the country in the city of Tetovo and will be learning mainly Albanian. You can find Dan Roberish’s Blog by clicking HERE. More updates to come. Пријатен ден (Have a nice day!).

7 responses to “Trial by Fire”

  1. Ann and Bill Dodson Avatar
    Ann and Bill Dodson

    Joe, All very interesting and continue to keep us posted. Grandmommie and I love you and think of you often. Granddaddy

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Joe,     We enjoyed your note but don’t quite know just how to respond.
    We want to get all your messages and think of you often. Hope all is
    going well and that you are enjoying your work.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got all of your messages (sometimes it takes a while for them to be sent through). Thanks for checking in, and miss y’all both too!!


  3. Hi- I have a question I hope you can answer? Are some education volunteers in larger towns or in Skopje?


    1. Hi Maggie, thanks for reaching out! Of the 11 education volunteers, 9 are in larger towns (20-40k) and in cities (Skopje and Tetevo). Myself and one other volunteer are in villages. I imagine they will put the new cohorts more towards the south, but if you have a specific reason to be a in larger city, they might take that into account.


  4. I think your experience with not being trained in a group is unique to NM. I know people serving in multiple countries right now and they were trained in a group for the entirety of PST


    1. I agree! I think we might have been the only cohort coming back from Covid that operated in PST like this. I know that our staff went to Thailand to present the pros/cons to a PC conference. I wonder if it was some sort of study, and if HQ will implement this in other countries in the future!!


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