The Yin and Yang of Peace Corps

Life is so incredible! This second year of my service is so much better than the first. I’ve adapted and I can’t get enough of my amazing apartment.


The presence of a yin and a yang have never been so prevalent in my life as they have here. With every positive is a negative and vise versa. Together, the two create harmony and balance. With every challenge there is an opportunity, but it is up to you to discover the opportunity.


Yin/Challenge: Gossip is a huge part of this culture. It is a small community and there isn’t a whole lot goin’ on so it’s easy to sit around and watch others do their thing. I personally DESPISE gossip. I don’t give a sh*t who is banging who or what strangers are doing. I am me and I am happy with my life so I don’t need to talk about others. This makes me very cautious of my movements because I know EVERYONE in town is aware of what I am doing (especially because I am foreign). They talk about who I am hanging out with and quite possibly what I’m having for lunch. This can bother me, but…
Yang/Opportunity: I take it as a challenge in not caring what others think and to always stay true to who I am.

Yin/Challenge: I have had a really hard time relating with people here.
Yang/Opportunity: Embrace my uniqueness and appreciate even more the person that I am.

Yin/Challenge: My apartment was BEYOND freezing during the winter without central heat.
Yang/Opportunity: Exercise to stay warm. (This was tough to do considering I was wrapped in a million blankets.) I also learned to make a fire pretty quickly in my little wood stove in my room at my last house in Kriva Palanka.

Yin/Challenge: The children are really misbehaved at school.
Yang/Opportunity: Developing classroom management skills.

Yin/Challenge: There are no rules here.
Yang/Opportunity: I have the freedom to do what I want without the approval of others. There’s no such thing as a liability form with most things. I can bring in baked goods and give them to students and colleagues without people worrying if there are razors in them.

Yin/Challenge: People aren’t happy and are often very negative. Everyone wants to leave the country. This has been my greatest challenge since I always pick up on how others are feeling.
Yang/Opportunity: Teach a Positive Psychology course. Understand WHY the people are negative. Have empathy/sympathy, but learn how to separate myself and stay my true, happy self.

Yin/Challenge: Language barrier.
Yang/Opportunity: Learning and speaking Macedonian has been so fascinating! There are also volunteers that learn Albanian and live in Albanian communities, but I have only needed to learn Macedonian. Learning the language has really helped me to understand the people better and why they act the way they do based on how they say things. Fascinating!! Locals are always so surprised that I know their language too, which is really cute and helps us to connect on a whole new level, even if they know English. It is so different when you connect with people in their native tongue 🙂

Yin/Challenge: Loneliness.
Yang/Opportunity: I’ve been able to use my ‘loneliness’ to focus on myself. I have been able to accomplish some GREAT personal skills in my free time. I have developed a passion for baking and cooking (very healthily also!) and I must say I’m pretty good at it 😉 I also trained twice during my service for a half marathon. I’m also super close to being able to do the splits from stretching every day. This is something I’ve wanted to be able to do my whole life! I’ve also dabbled in learning how to play the piano, another dream of mine!

Yin/Challenge: When I go running, everyone stares intensely at me. I have had many annoying reactions from locals such as cars slowing down completely to stick their heads out the windows and just stare at me, people yelling “What are you doing?!” or “Where are you going?!” I have also had cars that drive CLOSER to me just so I notice them staring at me..? That’s a weird one. And yes, most of these reactions were from men of all ages.I am fully covered when I run.
Yang/Opportunity: Some days it’s just plain funny, other days it takes away from the meditative feeling I get from running. Some days were so hard to get out there and run when I just didn’t want to deal with everyone staring at me like I’m crazy. I had to do a lot of self talk, especially in the winter, but to get the strength to go out there and just do it felt AMAZING. And to continually go out there and train for the half marathon felt so good. The day I ran the half marathon I felt on top of the world and so strong that I made it. It was an incredibly beautiful day and fellow volunteers and Macedonian friends came to support me which made me emotional 🙂

Yin/Challenge: Macedonia is consistently inconsistent. There are lots of surprises and very often things don’t go as planned or things don’t work out the way you hoped.
Yang/Opportunity: So much of it is out of our control as Volunteers, so just embrace the ride, have patience, and learn to laugh at it. Just let it go.

I have encountered many other challenges on a daily bases, but I like to keep these posts short and sweet. Fellow PCVs can you think of any others?





Secondary Projects

When I signed up for the Peace Corps I agreed to go anywhere in the world… whether that be a hut in Africa, a yurt in Mongolia, a grass shed on the remote island of Tonga, or a beautiful country in Eastern Europe. Sometimes I feel I would have been better off in the jungle with no cell phone service and no Internet, just existing with my community and no outside contact. However, it does the mind no good to think this way. I am where I am for a reason and volunteering in this country has presented me with amazing opportunities (and challenges) that I had no idea were possible during Peace Corps and I am incredibly thankful for this.

Honestly, I came here to give, having no idea how much I’d be getting back.

Not until I volunteered at an all-boys leadership camp, one year into my service, did I finally realize: oh wait…. this is a good opportunity for… ME. I was so focused on others’ well-being that I forgot about my own, and this was actually making me suffer.

I have developed a passion for the youth here. Macedonia is a somewhat conservative and very traditional culture. The younger generation is breaking away from this and I, as an appreciator of unconventionality, naturally enjoy this. The younger generation is happy, playing outside, full of spunk and optimism. The older generation… isn’t. They know how the system works and they have been so severely SCREWED by it. So I find myself wanting to be surrounded by the youth. They make me happy. And many of them are so SMART.

Last summer I had the utmost incredible opportunity volunteering at an all-boys camp called YMLP, or Young Men’s Leadership Program. I was “support staff”, where I was in the background setting up tents, fires, and helping out in any way. We were in the mountains, outside of Macedonia’s highest city. I cannot explain the serenity, the inspiration, and the happiness I found here. Sessions were held every day with young men ages 14-17 on personal development, democracy, environment, health, civic responsibility etc. I LOVED hearing the opinions of these young men. They were so open minded and so smart. And it took place in the woods; my happy place. Words can’t describe how beautiful this was… and I know almost all my fellow Volunteers involved in this week-long camp felt the same. Wow.

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During one of the sessions.
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They were split in to teams, each with a counselor, and before each meal they had their own team chant. So fun.

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Camp was located just outside of this beautiful town Krushevo, Macedonia’s highest city.
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I went on an incredible early morning run every day through the mountains. Such a great way to start the day.
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The Ilenden Monument in Krushevo

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Every night was spent around the campfire. Stars, music, and good company. Nothin’ better.

Another project I did was teach a Positive Psychology course at the American Corner in a nearby city, Stip. Positive Psychology is the study of happiness. How can we live a happier, more meaningful life and why are some people happier than others. Ohhhh this is my topic and it was such a great experience getting to teach this. Naturally, the people that came to the class were people that I ended up being good friends with. I’m thankful this class brought us together.


Another project, and something that I am most proud of, is the GLOW club I started in my town of Probistip. GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World and is found in almost all Peace Corps countries. I recruited some girls to help me lead it and young women ages 12-17 come to our organized meetings twice a month where we do different activities on leadership, team-building, friendship, nutrition, karaoke night, cooking… anything fun and interesting. The girls in this group are simply amazing. I’ve watched some girls take on more leadership roles through the process, which has been so beautiful for me to watch! I can feel myself learning and growing alongside them as well.

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Showing off our friendship bracelets we made during a session on Friendship

Also, every Wednesday I have an English Conversation class with adults. People anywhere from ages 18 to 60 come and it has been fun learning how to plan interesting topics for everyone.

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This session was on traveling.

Also, probably one of the greatest things ever, is I have been able to teach about my favorite topic- the Myers Briggs Personality Test. Almost nobody here knows about it and it has been SO cool teaching about it! People are really in to horoscopes here, so I think they really like learning about a new personality test where they can learn more about themselves. It is so frickin’ awesome that I have had the experience to do this around the country!

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I traveled 6 hours by bus to the city Prilep to teach about the Myers Briggs test to another Volunteer’s high school leadership group. There they are taking the test!
And another group of people taking the test in Stip- a city 40 minutes south of me by bus.

And I’ve done some cultural exchange with the American Corner in Stip….

Talking to 5th graders about what schools are like in the US
I also talked about how AWESOME UW-Eau Claire is to a group of students interested in studying in the US

Another project I have is I helped create a Peace Corps Macedonia Instagram account with two other Volunteers, where we did a 365 Days of Peace project, posting a photo each day of Volunteers’ experiences in Peace Corps Macedonia. We were one of the first Peace Corps countries to have an Instagram account so that was pretty cool 🙂 check us out on Instagram: peacecorpsmacedonia

It is always so hard to sum up this experience in to words and photos. There is so much to say, but I like to try to keep it short so I hope you enjoyed 🙂

Travels with a Craigslister

As I began my two-year-long application process for the Peace Corps I was in my last semester of college and had just returned from eye-opening experiences in India. I knew that when I graduated, I couldn’t get a “real” job since I’d be going in to the Peace Corps so I decided I should explore somewhere new with no ties. I decided Seattle. I had never been there and didn’t know a single soul there. I just heard it had a great music scene, mountains, and water so why wouldn’t I go there? I found a post for an apartment on Craigslist that seemed decent, Skyped with the girl that was renting for 15 minutes, had a good feeling, sent her the rent check hoping for the best, fit what I could in my car, and drove halfway across the country arriving at her door in the middle of the night. Little did I know that this amazing woman would become such a great part of my life and join me in life-changing adventures. Oh what a beautiful soul she is!

Life works when you just GO for it.

She also came to visit me in my beautiful home of Yellowstone National Park (where I moved for 5 months after I was supposed to depart for Azerbaijan for the Peace Corps but it got canceled), where we had a much-too-close encounter with a grizzly bear, without bear spare, in the middle of the wilderness, in an open field, with beef jerky in our back packs. Lesson learned: just spend the 30 bucks on bear spray…

And almost exactly one year after this man vs. nature experience (where I learned that indeed, nature WILL win), she came to visit me for 5 weeks in my home of Macedonia where we got to hop the islands of Greece and work our way east in to Turkey. Man… what an amazing life this is!

Here we are kayaking out to a cave through Macedonia’s stunning Matka Canyon. Taken by a great traveling Australian and Canadian couple we met.
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Enjoying Macedonia’s AMAZING fresh produce and vegetable spreads on Ohrid lake.
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Ohrid’s beautiful Sveti (Saint) Naum Monastery
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The beautiful clear waters of Ohrid Lake
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Three springs meet here and it is believed that if you stick your feet in the water it will bring fertility to women.

And then we made our way through Greece….

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Ancient ruins with the city of Athens in the background.
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Acropolis of Athens
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Rooftop seafood

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We then took a ferry to the island of Santorini

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A friend we made on the ferry. He spoke no English, and we know zero Greek, but he offered us his fruit and told us of his life and the island he lives on.
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Mmmm Greek salad (also very common in Macedonia)
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The beautiful island of Santorini.

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This picture can’t capture it, but it was AMAZING at night.
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We took a boat out to different parts of the island, where I meditatively swam in the clearest waters I’ve ever seen.

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And then we hopped to another island called Mykonos.

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I went on a sunset run along this shore. One of the most beautiful runs I’ve ever experienced.

And then we made it to Izmir, a Turkish city located on the Aegean coast.

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Izmir, Turkey

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One of many Turkish rug stores.

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Turkish coffee. Often comes with chocolate covered espresso beans or a Turkish sweet called Lokum/Turkish Delight.

Just outside of Izmir is a place called Ephesus, which was an Ancient Greek city built in 10th century BC. It also contains the Temple of Artemis, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. So cool!!!

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A library.

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We then flew to Cappadocia in central Turkey. This is an incredible land full of natural rock formations, also known as ‘fairy chimneys’. Cappadocians chiseled homes in to the soft rock, which were later used by Byzantine Christians to hide from the Romans. We rented a car and we were able to explore this incredibly fascinating and unique landscape.

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We pulled over to ask this fruit selling guy for directions. He didn’t speak English, nor do we speak Turkish, but he offered us free slices of delicious watermelon. People just kept GIVING us stuff!

We were then driving on the back roads, admiring the seriously breathtaking landscape, when this little man driving a truck full of apples, pulled over just to hand us some of his apples. Again no words in the same language were exchanged. Just smiles and thankfulness 🙂 I cannot believe the hospitality of this country.

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There he is.
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The apple exchange. Moments like this make me cry.
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It seriously looks like a fairy tale!
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You can see the holes where people lived.
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An “evil-eye” filled tree.

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I then took a sunrise hot air balloon ride over this breathtaking landscape. Never seen anything like it! What an experience!

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We slept in a cave! It was pretty damp in there, but we also experienced great hospitality here and so much Turkish tea!
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We were then invited to a Turkish dinner, which turned out to be just trying to sell us more rugs in their rug store. Super awkward at first, but I decided we should laugh at the situation and enjoy the free food. We also met a man that thanked us for being two American women traveling to their country and not listening to all the terrible things happening in the world. We said we don’t pay too much attention to the news…
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Breakfast with a banjo.

After Cappidocia, we made it to the magical city of Istanbul.

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We took a boat through the Bosphorus Strait, getting to see the Asian side of Turkey.
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The famous Blue Mosque. You can see me standing in that center thing.
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Inside the Blue Mosque.

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The Grand Bazaar. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world.
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Breakfast of course.

Out of all the countries I’ve been to, I think Turkey is one of my favorites. Every where we went people were so hospitable, so kind, and so giving. Not to mention the ancient history of this country was beyond fascinating.

After Krystal and I said goodbye to each other, I flew by myself to Serbia to meet up with some other wonderful volunteers. We stayed in Belgrade, which is the capital of Serbia.

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Checking out the Danube River, Europe’s second longest river.
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The Danube River
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Josep Broz Tito’s grave. This was really interesting to see considering whenever I speak to the older generation in Macedonia they are always talking about the good old days when Yugoslavia was “together and strong” when Tito was in power.
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Remains from the NATO bombing in 1999. So crazy to see this and it honestly made me feel horrible and sick inside.
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One of the largest Orthodox churches in the world- Saint Sava
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There was a Beer Fest in Belgrade, which was SO delicious trying the different beers and we went on a carnival ride.
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We then took the train back home to Macedonia, which I thought was a ton of fun getting our own sleeping cart with the windows down and the moon in the background.

As always, traveling is so eye-opening and life changing. My next post will most likely be about the wonderful opportunities I have had to do secondary projects in Macedonia and my love for working with the youth!

Cheers 🙂

Being Homeless

2015-09-10 17.35.41These past few months I have truly learned the importance of having a place that you call “home”. Not just any home, but a place where you can be comfortable, at peace, and just be you.

Due to a series of extremely unfortunate (and very bizarre) events with my host family, I was very quickly evacuated from my house in Kriva Palanka in May. I was told I had to pack up everything I had as fast as I could and that Peace Corps was coming to pick me up and take me to the capital city, Skopje.

The next day I was told that it was unsafe for me to return to my community and that I’d be relocated in a new town, a new home, and a new school. The news was a shock at first. The worst for me was leaving my students behind. I love them so much and was really getting to know many of them. I saw some great potential and future leaders among some of the boys and girls and I can only hope that they find the strength and courage to get what they want out of life. In a society where motivation is extremely low due to a straight F***D up government where the people have no say, no power, and can’t pursue what they want if they aren’t a part of the right political party, it can be extremely tough to be hopeful for the future.

Although I had to leave all of my work behind, I honestly looked at this new location as a fresh start and new experience. Truly, good always comes out of the bad. And if the bad didn’t happen, the good wouldn’t feel so damn good! When this was all taking place, I just happened to be reading the book, The Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior (sounds super hippie I know, but surprise surprise I loved it). This philosophical fiction matched my philosophies in life EXACTLY. And here is a quote in it that beautifully explains how you just need to go with the flow of life, let go, and accept that not everything is in your control (you’ll be much happier if you do this!)

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For a month and a half I lived in a crappy hotel (with an extremely friendly staff) on the edge of Skopje while Peace Corps was looking for a new location for me. I was without work and unsure of what would happen or where I’d be going next……….. and it was frickin’ great! I used this time to just chill, process what happened, and meet up with other Volunteers around the country. I went on a beautiful hike starting from the world’s largest cross in Skopje, out to Matka Canyon:

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Check out that view man!

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Yup we hiked down this thing to the water. Was definitely strainful on the knees.

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And then I was off to the beautiful and historical city of Ohrid, Macedonia, which holds one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes. It’s 3 million years old! Fortunately I have wonderful, fellow Volunteers that live in this city that took me in while I was wandering.

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This is Sveti Jovan, or Saint John, which is a historical landmark in Ohrid and Macedonia.
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These roses are surrounding the entrance to a paper making store, which houses one of two official copies left in the world of the Gutenberg Press. Pretty neat.

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And then I went off to Pelister National Park, which is one of three National Parks in Macedonia. Some Volunteers and I went on a two-day hike. The first day we hiked up to a планинарски дом, or “mountain home”, which was resting next to a small lake in the mountains. Absolutely beautiful and when we arrived at the mountain home, we were greeted with hot tea made of blueberries and other herbs picked from the mountains. We spent the night, peaked the mountain (2,601 meters or 8,533 feet) the next day, and then made our way down. Absolutely beautiful and it was the first time in a long time that I finally felt away from society.

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Our little mountain home

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Drinking mountain tea by the wood fire.
Drinking mountain tea by the wood fire.
Taken by: Nick Husted

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Snacking by the lake Take by: Nick Husted
Snacking by the lake
Taken by: Nick Husted

And then the day after this two day hike, one more Volunteer and I magically had the energy for another hike in the town of Prilep. It was an anniversary hike so it was a large group of awesome people with people serving mountain tea along the way, Turkish delights, and a warm, free, delicious meal at the end.

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Serving the mountain tea. YUM.

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Doing what I love best. Taken by: Nick Husted
Doing what I love best.
Taken by: Nick Husted

Okay next post I’ll talk about the move in to my new town and my amazing travels in Greece, Turkey, and Serbia over the summer.


Kako e Makedonija? (How is Macedonia?)

I made a compilation of the very common conversations that I have every single day here that I think gives a snippet in to what it’s like for me:

I walk in to the living room to see a new family member over for a na gosti (a visit). He lights his cigarette inside, pours another glass of homemade rakija, says na zdravje (cheers) to his brother across the table, and munches on a plate of assorted meat and sirenje (cheese). I extend my hand for a hand shake to introduce myself. A hand shake is always a common way to greet people, whether it is with a new or familiar face. With women we often kiss each other on the cheek one time or three times. An even number is bad luck. I am also always the first person to extend my hand to introduce myself. People here are very shy towards me.

Me: здраво, јас сум Аби.       (Hello, I am Abby).
Goran: горан.      (Goran).
Me: мило ми е.       (Nice to meet you).
Goran: Ahh знаеш Македонcки?    (Ahh, you know Macedonian?)
Me: Eeee малкy. дијалектот тyка е многy тежко за мене.    (Ehh a little bit. The dialect here is very hard for me).
Goran: Како е Македонија?     (How is Macedonia?)
Me: Добро!          (Good!)
Goran: Добро!? Ха! Македонија не е добро.     (Good!? HA! Macedonia is not good).
Me: Па, има најyбава xрана и јас сакам планините.      (Well, it has the best food and I love the mountains).
Goran:Не не не. Нема работи. Нема пари. Македонија не е добро.   (No no no. There’s no work. There’s no money. Macedonia is not good).

Goran shakes his head at me and makes this clicking sound they make when they disapprove or disagree with something.


I am at the lunch table with my host grandma. Macedonia’s lunch is like America’s dinner. It is the biggest meal of the day and eaten usually somewhere between 3pm-6pm. The TV is on, like always, playing some sort of terrible Turkish soap opera or the Serbian music channel is on; many of these songs I enjoy.

This conversation is all in Macedonian.

Olgica: Abby, take. Take, take. Take some beans. Take some of this meat. Here’s some onions and garlic.
Me: Thank you.
Olgica: Something else? I can make potatoes.

The table is literally already covered in food. My mouth is full of food. And my plate is still full of food.

Me: No, this is good.
Olgica: Are you sure? I can make potatoes. I can make eggs. Something else? Abby, take. Take more soup. Take more meat. Do you want juice?
Me: No, I don’t want juice. I’m good with water.
Olgica: Why? (They always ask why when I say no to something they offer). How about some wine?
Me: No, I don’t want wine.
Olgica: Why? It’s homemade.

She quickly stands up, turns around to retrieve the wine that I don’t want. I notice she has pieces of chopped wood stuck in her hair, like always. She’s been outside all morning in the cold chopping wood to keep our house warm.

At this point I’m stuffed. I’ve ate a little bit of everything on the table.

Olgica: Abby, take more. You eat so little. You are so skinny.
Me: I’m full.
Olgica: I can make something else. It’s winter. You need to eat more.
Me: No, Olgica. This is enough. Lots of food.

This is legitimately the EXACT same conversation we have every single time we eat lunch.

We then sit in silence for a bit. She finally begins to clear the table.

Olgica: In three months, I only made thirty euros.
Me: Only 30 euros!?
Olgica: Yes. I just bought food this month and that was it.
Me: But, only 30 euros, how do you survive on that… Isn’t that hard?
Olgica: Yes, it is very hard.
And in the very same breath, she says:
Take some cake Abby. Take something sweet. Take an apple if you want. Anything you want.

A few tears began to fill my eyes and I am reminded of a recurring thought I have had since being in India, for the people there were just as hospitable.

“Those that have the least, give the most.” – My sister, Molly Nelson

She said this when I returned from my trip to India after I had described my experiences. Those words forever stuck with me, for it has rang true through my travel experiences and also my sister’s. It is incredibly beautiful to me.


This is the average conversation had with random middle aged women that I meet in shops or when we are out visiting a new family member’s house. This is also in Macedonian.

Woman: How old are you?
Me: I’m 23.
Woman: Hm, you are young.
Me: Yes.
Woman: Maybe you’ll meet a Macedonian man, marry him, and stay here.
Me: Mmmm maybe… I don’t know…
Woman: I have a nephew, he knows some English.
Me: Ehhh no thanks.


This conversation is with my host mom in broken English after I had a stressful day of explaining to the students why it’s not okay for them to write “n****r” on the chalkboard, among many other things.

Me: I’m having a hard time here.
Host Mom: Why?
I think to myself how to word my thoughts while being culturally appropriate.
Me: It’s just very different here.
Host Mom: How? It can’t be that much different than America.
Me: Well…. I don’t know… the people… the school system… and stuff….
Host Mom: How can the people be much different? We’re all just people….
Me: Right, but… the people here just aren’t as happy and friendly toward me. I’m picking up on all this negative energy and it’s just GETTING to me. It’s been affecting me since first being here.
Host Mom: Well that’s because people are poor, Abby. People don’t have money here. Some families can barely afford food. Davor in the third grade at the village school comes to school hungry all the time. All he eats is bread.


I wrote this eight months ago, in the winter, when I was at my lowest point during my service so far. Since then the worst has happened and it can only go up from there. I’ll try to make an entry within the next month that updates a bit of what has gone on these past few months and how much has changed……. Cheers!

I’m Here for the Kids

I thought the Peace Corps would be about long periods of downtime, but these past few weeks I have been very busy, which is good because I feel like I am actually doing something.

Something I am most excited about is I have made a “Students of the Month” with the sixth grade and seventh grade students. I made certificates for the ones that have exhibited certain good behaviors in class and then I put up their certificates on the “Students of the Month” wall that I made. I also made sure they got a second copy to take home to show off to their parents 😉

2015-03-05 09.46.34I am truly so pumped about this. I love rewarding and telling people about their positive traits.

I also have made an English Club with my seventh graders where we get together after school a few times a month and do various fun activities. In one of the classes, I had the students write haikus.

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“I want to see you. It’s the moment of our true. Your hand is so blue.” That’s some beautiful stuff right there.

Another one of the students, whose English is super good, didn’t quite follow the haiku guidelines, but I couldn’t help but congratulate him for this frickin’ awesome poem:

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“Let’s see the strength this guy can muster. What do you have on your shoe, some mustard? Who do you think you are some hustler? Forget a ghost. This guy is just a buster.”

Also, twice a week my counterpart and I do English lessons with the parents of the sixth grade students. My counterpart wanted to get the parents more involved with the students’ schoolwork, so we decided to try to teach the material that the students are learning to their parents.

Peace Corps also puts on a National Spelling Bee so I have been organizing that in Kriva Palanka. At the end of March we will have just a local competition and whoever is able to spell all ten words correctly will go on to the regional competition in Kumanovo and then to the national competition in Skopje. I really want the students to make it so I keep encouraging them to study.

I’ve also been making new tests, grading tests, coming up with games to play in some of the classes, and just creating material for our extra English lessons. It has definitely made me appreciate the art of planning because all of this takes a LONG time and I’m definitely not a planner… as we all know.

In between all this, I am training to run a half marathon in Skopje. It will be my first half marathon 🙂

These pictures show just the good things, but don’t be fooled. I still have my continual ups and downs, uncertainties, awkward moments, bizarre occurrences, and feelings of wanting to give up. This shit is hard…. really, really hard. I feel very out of place. My liberal, American views and lifestyle is quite a bit different than the more conservative lifestyle here and I find it hard to make genuine connections although I have found maybe one or two in my community and I will cherish them dearly for the rest of my Peace Corps service.

I have constantly had to repeat in my head, “I’m hear for the kids. I’m here for the kids. I’m here for the kids.” Because… I am. And I genuinely LOVE these students. Truly, so much. I want so much for them and they keep me going and they don’t even know it.

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“Teacher Abby, can we take a selfie?”

This card was from the girls in my sixth grade class in the village school. I feel like I don’t do as much in the village school, so this card really, really meant a lot to me:

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Hello, My Name is Fuck

Yup, that’s right. My name means “fuck” in Macedonian… so in between that, getting awkwardly hit on, and witnessing a fight break out at Christmas dinner over a stolen jacket fifteen years ago that was buried next to the river to cast a black magic curse on my host mom, it’s been one hell of an interesting two months in my new home… to say the least.

So after those two and a half months of training, all of us volunteers got dispersed around this little country (comparable to the size of Vermont) to work our magic. I got placed in a small town called Kriva Palanka, located in the far northeast corner only 15 kilometers from Bulgaria, and close to Serbia. It’s a “mountainous” town (looks like giant hills to me after living in Yellowstone National Park) with a few little shops, a river running through town, and a few cafes and restaurants in which I frequent with the coworkers almost every day after work.

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There’s my new home on the map! Allllll the way over yonder in the corner

Oh man, where to begin.

So I live with a new family now, which mostly consists of a 30 year old, Ema, and her two wild children Lora, who is 4 years old and Ivana who is 2 years old. Ema speaks decent English and is also an English teacher. We speak mostly English at home, making it hard for me to learn the language. (The dialect is much different here than what we learned in our training community. Many Serbian words and people speak extremely fast, which has been a challenge for me). About once or twice a month Ema’s mother Olgica, who works in Skopje (Macedonia’s capitol) doing surveys, and Ema’s father Dane, who works in Montenegro, come to visit. They are constantly shoving food down my throat. I have finally become comfortable saying no, rather than eating more than I’m comfortable eating just to be polite.

My room
My precious bedroom
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I make a fire in my room every day and add the logs all day. Just making some Turkish coffee on top of it on a relaxing Sunday.


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Little Ivana. She can be so sweet, yet such a little 2 year old devil

Monday through Friday I attend school where I teach English. I work in a bigger school (about 750 students total in grades 1-9) with my counterpart Biljana. We work with 2nd grade, 6th grade, and 7th grade. The students are really great. Many are eager to learn, which is a lot of fun and they say hello to me everywhere I go and want to take pictures with me. I also work in a village school (about 90 students total in grades 1-9) twice a week with another counterpart, Daniel. We work with almost all of the grades. The village school is much less structured and some classes have more than one grade in one class, making it rather difficult to give the students the proper attention they need. I plan to be able to help out in this way.

Some of the lovely students in the village school.
And some more of the cuties.

My experience in the school has been full of lots of surprises. Such as suddenly being put in a classroom alone because a teacher is absent and I just kind of entertain the kids for 40 minutes and see if I can get them to understand what I want them to do in my broken Macedonian. Or never really knowing what the lesson is going to be for the day. Planning isn’t really a thing here… I enjoy getting to know the kids’ names. I believe this is a small way of providing motivation for the students because I can tell they feel special when I get their names right. Motivation and making people feel appreciated for their work/personalities is a topic I am extremely passionate about and I hope to figure out more ways to motivate the students and teachers here with time. It has definitely been an interesting experience thus far and I am eager to incorporate some new ideas in the classroom.

I hit a low on Christmas after a series of interesting events. That bitch of a thing called “Culture Shock” finally hit me in one giant, unexpected, overwhelming swarm. But luckily after recognizing it, processing it, and being open to talking about it with other volunteers, things have only gone up and I’ve really been enjoying the chill, social lifestyle of Kriva Palanka these last few weeks.

The holidays in Kriva Palanka, Macedonia were really a good time. The New Year is one of the biggest holidays of the year here. среќна нова година! (Happy New Year!)

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On December 30th I had a New Year’s celebration with all of the colleagues at a fancy restaurant. They are dancing the Macedonian traditional dance called the “oro”. No celebration or gathering goes without this dance. I love it because it is super simple and you don’t have to be good at dancing, so I of course joined. There are faster versions though that I couldn’t figure out so I sat down for those ones.

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The table of food at home for the New Year’s feast. At midnight we all kissed each other on the cheek, said happy new year, and heard some fireworks go off outside.

Macedonia is predominately Eastern Orthodox and they have their Christmas on January 6th and 7th.

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This is a Christmas tree in the main school I work in. It’s made out of recycled plastic bags. Not sure how I feel about it… Kind of bizarre looking, but kind of cool.
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Met up with some colleagues on Christmas. The waiter ended up bringing me a glass of white wine and some red топло вино (warm wine). My colleagues encouraged I drink both, so of course I did.
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For Christmas, they have a big fire in the center where they burn an oak tree and they serve FREE warm rakija (the homemade brandy here) and warm wine. People just stand around the fire, drink their booze and enjoy 🙂
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Cheers-ing our warm rakija with some homies from work.
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Each neighborhood had their own fire too. This is me with one of my neighbors, drinking some more warm rakija. Of course people began to do the oro around the fire.

Later I had dinner with the family. What they do is they bake bread and put a coin inside of it. At dinner they divvy up the bread and who ever gets the coin in their piece of bread will have good luck for the rest of the year. My host mom got the coin and she was extremely excited about it. I was excited for her.

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Oak leaves are a pagan symbol around Christmas time. Oak represents strength, fire, and warmth. Those are oak leaves on top of the bread that has the coin in it, which is on top of some more bread type thing called zelnik that has cabbage in it.
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There’s my host mom to my right, holding her lucky coin. This is the best picture we could get with the kids squirming and what not.

They also have another interesting holiday on January 19th, where they throw a cross in the river and a few people jump in to the freezing cold water and the first person to fetch the cross wins. Everybody stands around and watches.

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Kriva Palanka is known for its amazingly beautiful monastery. One weekend I hiked up to it alone to enjoy some peacefulness. Doing things alone isn’t as common here in this collectivist culture, so people were surprised when I told them I went up there by myself. I enjoyed that they thought it was strange 😉

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Can’t wait to see this in the summer time.

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I also went on an extremely awesome 20 kilometer hike through three monasteries with a local hiking group and some other volunteers. They were celebrating their 7th year anniversary as a hiking club, so at the end they had free soup, warm tea and bread. It was truly a beautiful experience being there in the nature with these people and enjoying their offerings of a free meal. The people on the hike were all so nice and asking us questions about where we are from and such. I love when random Macedonians try talking to me even if my Macedonian sucks.

At one of the monasteries.
At one of the monasteries.
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Through a magical forest with some awesome lichen covering the trees.
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It was so greeeeeeen.
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So much lichen.

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The delicious free meal at the end.
The delicious free meal at the end.
And of course, they are doing the oro to celebrate.
And of course, they are doing the oro to celebrate.

On another day, I went to Skopje where they have what is supposedly the “world’s largest cross”. It is way up high on top of the mountain and this is the view from the top:

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And this is from Kriva Palanka’s first snowfall of the winter. It was absolutely beautiful:

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This is the view from the front door of my house.
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On my walk to work.
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Hanging up the laundry outside. It frickin’ sucks doing this. My fingers were numb after hanging up the wet clothes.

Alright that’s enough for now. I’ll just end this with saying… shit is wild here. That’s my best way to sum up these five months that I’ve lived here. Every Peace Corps Volunteer has their own unique experience, and for me it has been something new every single day full of plenty of ups and downs. It has been incredibly interesting. When I first got here I didn’t see too many differences, but now after talking to the locals every day and just hearing what people have to say I am just amazed at how different Macedonia is than any other country I’ve been to in the world. I’ll save that for another post…. Thanks for reading 🙂

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Even walnuts have hearts 🙂

3 Month Summary

Well what do you know, I finally got around to making this (surprise surprise).

Ohhhh how to sum up everything that has happened in the three months that I have lived here so far.

The first two and a half months were spent cramming our brains with loads of information every day with Macedonian language classes, cross-cultural classes, and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) classes. There were truly days where my brain felt like it physically couldn’t take in any more information. I co-taught in a classroom for the first time ever, learned how to say in Macedonian that I love hiking, nature, running, mountains and drinking coffee without sugar. I got to explore an archeological site from the 5th century, go on an incredible hike (my fav thing to do in life), and have a bonfire at an abandoned old Soviet train station under the most beautiful stars I have seen here yet.
Orion was out 😉

The group of 44 volunteers were split in to 4 different communities to do our training and I was placed in a small town called Sveti Nikole, which is located in a valley of the middle north of Macedonia. Oh what a beautiful town it turned out to be.

Sveti Nikole
The view from near where we attended language class every day.

Sveti NikoleI stayed with a host mom (Makedonka) and host dad (Vacil) who were retired and in their sixties and spoke no English. They lived in a nice home with a fresh pomegranate tree out front, free for the picking when I felt like getting an organic dose of potassium. My host mom ALWAYS knew what I was thinking and exactly what I wanted in the exact minute that I wanted it, it was incredible. I love that woman, she is amazing.

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This is the front yard, with the pomegranate tree to the right.
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These giant barrels were completely filled with grapes to make homemade Rakija, which is like a brandy here that everyyyybody drinks. Especially the men. I watched Vacil make it and of course we drank some together once the process was all done 🙂
That's Makedonka
That’s Makedonka. Pretty sure I love her more than she loves me.
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This is Vacil. The only time I got in their car. On the first weekend we arrived, we went to a monastery at the top of the mountain for a celebration. I think it was Mary’s birthday… or something?

We ate fresh lunch together every day after I would get done with my classes. Makedonka and Vacil were always sitting at home, waiting for my arrival. Before the winter started to hit, we were always eating fresh grapes from their farm, pomegranates, and salad with the most delicious tomatoes, onions, carrots and lots of cabbage. The kitchen is the woman’s domain here and I loved everything that Makedonka made, just because it was made by her. Biting in to cloves of garlic with soup, spicy peppers, and lots and lots of bread. After several weeks they finally understood that I didn’t like eating  a lot of bread… so I wouldn’t get it at lunch, but I’d still get fried bread for breakfast. I’ll take it in exchange for all of the fresh fruit and veggies.

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We made keefly together. Basically rolled up bread with sesame seeds.
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Vacil always falling asleep in front of the TV and Makedonka taking a mini nap too in the kitchen. I think I was the most exciting part of their day…
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Making Makedonka’s most delicious chocolate cake for our awesome language professor Tome’s birthday.
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Some of the other volunteers and I making the cake!
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Our favorite language instructor, in our language class (which took place in a volunteer firehouse) It was awesome.
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When you go to a friend’s house to visit, the mothers love to put TONS of food out for you, after you’ve already said a million times that you are full
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Vacil teaching me how to make pastramilija, a specialty of Macedonia consisting of dough, meat, cheese, eggs, and spicy peppers. His shirt translates to “a smile cures” 🙂  Ya, he’s great.
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Adding the pork on top

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Delicious! I told them I was going to go for a run after.. and they were like noo Abby you are going to drink some wine, eat, and then sleep. They were right….
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Makedonka delivering me homemade caramel pudding as I read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I’m also freezing in my room without heat.
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Along where I would go running very frequently. People were staring at me a ton when I started running, but after running the same path every day people started to get used to it.
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A night out at the one disco in town
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On the outskirts of Sveti Nikole is an archaeological site. They think this was a pool in a Paeonian City sometime in the 6th-3rd century BC.

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Bylazora- an active archaeological site
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Down below is the town of Sveti Nikole
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Vacil making slatko tikva (sweet pumpkin) which Makedonka told me contains paint primer in it…. she said it cleans out your insides. At first I thought there was a misunderstanding with the language…. but no… there is paint primer in there.
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Cooking on the woodburning stove is the most awesome, efficient, greatest thing ever


A group of us went on a hike called Bogoclovitz, which was conveniently located in between Sveti Nikole and the village of Lozovo, another training community. A local 70 year old came with us and his energy was incredible.

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That’s the peak we went up to!
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In the back is an abandoned coal mine. There used to be a village up here, but everyone evacuated from the radiation.
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That teeny spec in the left corner on the hill is another volunteer that made it there first
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At the top of Bogoclovitz
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What would be a hike without some homemade Rakija eh?
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I love this stuff.
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Bonfire in the train station on the outskirts of the village Lozovo. Truly a great night.
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Thanksgiving dinner that we had with all of the volunteers in our training community and all of our host families. We cooked our own portion and brought it to the restaurant. Frickin’ delicious and really cool experience.
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Enjoying our last weekend out together as trainees
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Learning how to make moosaka, a traditional Macedonian dish, while Makedonka learns how to use a camera. She was afraid I wouldn’t know how to cook in my new home.
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Makedonka and I at our swearing-in ceremony
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All of the volunteers that were training in Sveti Nikole, along with our two outstanding Language Teachers. This was at a delicious restaurant after our last language class.
And BAM, after all that, check out that sexy lookin’ group of people. Officially Peace Corps Volunteers. It was a very formal ceremony where the President of Macedonia attended as we took the oath and swore in as volunteers.

My most beautiful experience from those jam packed 2 and a half months:
When words aren’t present, filling up the space, the motivations and actions of others scream 20 times louder in the silence.

With the language barrier, I was able to notice and truly feel the love behind every action of my host parents. Everything they did was driven by love, by caring, by taking me- a total stranger- in to their home. I love how they would lick the spoon and put it right back in the batter, or put their hands all over the grapes, not caring about germs. And how Vacil wears the same shirt every day or how Makedonka hangs my underwear up to dry in the kitchen over the stove where lunch is being cooked. This is what family is.

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