Thursday, July 31, 2008

Notes from Skopje, part2 – taxi drivers, ethnic etiquette, and a lost camera

Then there are the taxi drivers who wait in front of the hospital. Since our car is in storage in Kosovo right now we use their services several times a day, and some of them now count us as friends. In fact, a number of them have really taken to heart our hunt for a house. Every time they see me, they shout out: “So have you found anything yet? I just heard about a place over in Gazi Baba. Do you want me to take you to see it?” One of them ran up to me yesterday with an advertiser newspaper. “Hey, I bought this just for you. Look, it’s got lots of good houses!”

It’s hard to explain to them why we would prefer to live on the north side of the Vardar River where Albanians predominate. The streets tend to be dirtier, steeper, and more twisted over there. There are spots where one could be awakened at the crack of dawn by the call to prayer ringing out from three or four different mosques at once. Even Albanians have quietly expressed reservations. “You’d be better off on the south side of the river. They’re more cultured than we are.”

I shouldn’t give the impression that the river is some kind of solid barrier between the ethnicities. There are plenty of mosques on "the Orthodox side" and churches on "the Muslim side". There have always been Macedonian families among the Albanians on the north side; and as the Albanian population grows, upwardly mobile Albanian families are increasingly buying houses on the south side. It would be nearly impossible to find an ethnically pure neighborhood in Skopje anymore.

Those of you who keep up with me on flickr or facebook will know by now that I lost my camera. We went out on Saturday morning to meet a friend, and there were only a couple of taxis in the usual spot. I didn’t see anyone familiar, so we got in the first one we came to. As always I looked up at the rearview mirror to try and determine the ethnicity of the driver. Most Macedonians display a cross or an icon, whereas Albanians often hang prayer beads or Koranic verses. In this case, there was nothing. That would tend to suggest that he was Albanian since Albanian drivers often avoid overt religious symbols when working on the south side of the river so as not to warn away Macedonian customers. He looked a little bit Albanian – to me at least – but I’m not that good at telling them apart. However, the radio was tuned to a Macedonian station. Mixed signals.

I greeted him and told him our destination in Macedonian, which is always the safe thing to do when you don’t know. If it turned out that he was Albanian, and I switched to speaking in Albanian, he would be delighted. But if he was Macedonian and I started in Albanian, he might be offended. After a minute Mary asked him outright, “Are you Macedonian?” But she used the feminine form of the word, so it came out like, “Are you a Macedonian woman?” He didn’t seem to mind much. He chuckled a bit and said, “Yes, I’m a Macedonian”, using the same word she had used. After that I didn’t bother to try to make conversation since my Macedonian is very limited. I kept my head down and fiddled with my new mobile phone. When we arrived at our destination, I was concentrating on the phone so much that I forgot all about the camera sitting at my feet on the floorboard. I didn’t even miss it till a half hour later.

Since then I scan the faces of the drivers in front of the hospital every time I step outside hoping to see him again. Apparently he isn’t one of the regulars here. To tell the truth, I’m not sure that I would recognize him now if I saw him. If the driver had been Albanian, I’m pretty sure that I would have gotten my camera back by now. We would have chatted along the way, and he would have known where I’m staying so that if he were honest he could have brought it to me. And even if he weren’t honest, I would have known where he lives, how many kids he has, etc. – enough information to track him down.

Of course I tried to enlist the help of the other taxi drivers. “What was the name of the company?” they asked me. “What kind of car was it?” Unfortunately, I didn’t remember anything useful. “Well that’s what you get for just hopping in the car with just anybody!” one of them finally said in exasperation. “You need to learn to ride with your friends!”

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Notes from Skopje - part 1

 We still haven’t found the right house. Time is running out.  It's starting to look like we’re going to have to take one of the wrong ones.

 We’ve gotten to know a lot of nice people while staying here at the Hotel 7 across the street from the government hospital -- Mehmet, the Turkish guy who runs the doner shop below us, for example. There are Turks here in Macedonia whose ancestors were left high and dry when this part of Europe broke free from the Turkish Empire 100 years ago, but Mehmet isn’t one of them. He’s a businessman who came over from Turkey, and he works 7 days a week, 16 hours at a stretch, shaving pieces off of a huge hunk meat that slowly spins and diminishes as the day passes. (Doner is the Turkish equivalent of Greek gyros, but if you’ve only had gyros at the food court in some American mall, you’ve been sold a cheap imitation; this is good meat, not processed pieces-parts.) The temperature outdoors gets almost up to 100 F sometimes, and Mehmet stands there all day in front of the grill slowly cooking with the meat. But he always has a big smile and a friendly "Merhaba!" for me.

Once when there weren’t many customers Mehmet invited me to sit at an outdoor table with him and drink a cappuccino. He is more comfortable in Macedonian, and I’m far more comfortable in Albanian, so we had to keep switching back and forth between languages in order to communicate. Sometimes we turned to his workers, all of whom are Albanian and are therefore fluent in both languages, for help with translation. He told me with sadness in his eyes that he hadn't been home to Turkey a single time in four years. His wife and daughters live with him here in Macedonia, but given his work schedule he doesn't see much of them.

 Mary, the kids and and I often sit at one of Mehmet’s cafĂ© tables with our laptops to do internet. When we booked the apartment online, Hotel 7’s website promised wireless internet. Unfortunately the two-room apartment we reserved is actually on the 5th floor (that’s by European reckoning; I would call it the 6th.) of an adjacent building, so the wireless signal doesn’t reach us. But the doner shop is right outside the hotel office, and I kind of enjoy sitting at a table on the sidewalk and sipping a Coke or cappuccino while surfing the net. We make quite a spectacle since open laptops in public places are not a common sight here.

 We had stayed here at the Hotel 7 a couple of times on earlier visits to Skopje and had a good experience, so we decided that this would be an ideal place to be based while we shopped for a house. It’s clean, comfortable and there was the promise of wireless internet. The price was a bit steep, but they gave us a deal when we reserved it for a month. It was just before we left the States that the hotel management sent us an email informing us that they had made a mistake. The apartment was already booked for three of the days that they had promised it to us. They offered to move us to smaller rooms for those three days and not to charge us, and we accepted.  Moving our bags back and forth was a lot of work, but the real problem turned out to be that the air conditioner was broken in one of the rooms, and Skopje was in the throes of a terrible heat wave those days. The kids got the room with the working a/c of course, and Mary and I toughed it out.  

One morning I woke up soaked in sweat. The sun was pounding into our room, but my body clock was telling me it was only 2 a.m.  The sounds and smells of the doner shop downstairs drifted up through our open window.  I really enjoy eating doner under normal circumstances, but this time the odor of roasting meat was very heavy, almost nauseating.  As I got up and started moving about the room Mary called out, “Mark, you need to put that food in the refrigerator!” After a moment of bewilderment I figured out that she was talking in her sleep. Later on when I mentioned it again she didn’t even remember having said it. 

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My year in the U.S.

We’ve been in Skopje for a little over a week. Before I start blogging about life here, I wanted do a retrospective on our year in the USA. I traveled more than 40,000 miles (65,000 km) visiting those who support us with prayer, money and whatever else. That’s the equivalent of more than 5 times around the earth! (And that’s only counting official travel – not trips to Wal-mart or my sister’s house, for example.) I dipped my toes in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans; and I went as far north as the Canadian border and as far South as the Mexican border. For the first six months Mary and the kids traveled with me in a Dodge Caravan, which was made available to us by my home church in Slidell. In January I was able to buy a car of my own so that the family wasn’t obligated to live on the road with me.

Here are some of the year’s highlights:
· Renewing acquaintances with old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in over 10 years.
· Working with Katherine Paterson, the author of Bridge to Terabithia, on her new book, Country of the Heart. (See this entry.)
· Getting to know my nieces and nephews.
· Seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. (My daddy made that!)
· Fishing, especially at my parents’ house in Bush, Louisiana. They’ve noticed that since they built the house on the lake, they see a lot more of me.
· Preaching at an open air service for the homeless in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. This weekly outreach has been going on for 12 years straight, and it was thrilling to meet some of the people whose lives have been transformed.
· Sharing the Gospel with a Kosovar woman at the home of friends in Florida.
· Speaking to the recovering addicts in the Teen Challenge program in Pascagoula, Mississippi. I’ve never had a more engaging and receptive audience than these ladies!
· Challenging Chi Alpha students to line up their lives with God’s story. The campuses I visited included Stanford, Tulane; U. of L at Lafayette, La. Tech; SE Louisiana U.; Grambling; Alabama, U. of Arizona; and U.C. Davis.
· Seeing Luke emerge as a soccer sensation in a small package.
· Daily walks along the banks of Patton Creek behind our apartment. (Check out the Alabama set on my flickr page for pictures of the snakes, otters and other critters I’ve encountered there.)

It was a year filled with blessings, but still it’s good to be back in the Balkans where we belong.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Fourth of July or Fifth of May?

I ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant today, the Fourth of July.  Is that subversive, or what?  By the way, the restaurant is located in the part of Hoover, Alabama that has come to be known as Guadala-Hoover.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Remembering my life as a plumber's helper

I recently had breakfast with an old friend and former boss.  Jeff is a third generation plumber. Back when I worked for him, he was working for his dad.  We were both poor back then. (I still am.)  Admission to the local cinema was $1 on Tuesdays, and Jeff used to call me sometimes after work and say, "It's plumbers' night at the movies!  Wanna go?"  When his dad retired Jeff and his brother split the company, and both of them have done exceptionally well.

Here's the story of how I got the job.  Jeff and I went to the same church.  He was helping lead the youth group that I was part of.  On Wednesday after the regular youth meetings a group of us would meet for prayer.  I was about to graduate from high school and was planning to attend the University of Southern Mississippi in the fall.   I asked my friends to pray that I would get a good summer job.  Jeff asked us to pray that he would find a good Christian helper.  We all prayed fervently and somenow it didn't occur to any of us that our prayer was already answered.  A couple of weeks later my mom suggested, "Why don't you ask Jeff if he's hiring?"  I took her suggestion and ended up getting the job.  It was quite a while later that we remembered the prayer meeting, put it all together, and laughed about it.  We imagined that God was up there saying, "Ok guys, what do I have to do to make this more obvious for you?"

I ended up working for Jeff that summer and off and on through my college years.  I dug trenches, busted concrete, soldered pipes, and ran out in the truck to pick up supplies.  I've never had a knack for working with my hands, but I worked hard and learned a lot -- though not necessarily about plumbing. For example, I learned to appreciate coffee while drinking the free stuff out of little styrofoam cups at the plumbing supply houses.  (Associative logic rabbit trail:  Reminds me of the W. C. Fields quote:  "A woman drove me to drink and I didn't even have the decency to thank her.") I learned to recognize the smell of marijuana.  I had had almost no contact with that kind of kids in high school, but many of my co-workers on the construction site were toking at work in those days.  One of them was doing community service to pay for a drug conviction, but that didn't stop him.  And that wasn't the only new lifestyle I was exposed to. We installed the plumbing in some rich folks' houses, and I was intrigued by the glimpse that it gave me into their world.  

As Jeff and I reminisced together last week at the Broken Egg (a fantastic little restaurant near the Lakeshore in Mandeville, by the way), we found a lot to laugh about.  For instance, I reminded him of the time that he asked me to blow on a copper pipe to get the excess moisture out so that the solder would seal up the joint.  The pipe was still hot from his torch, and as soon as I touched it to my mouth I yelped and jumped back sporting a bright red circle around the center of my lips.  Once the pain subsided enough for me to see the humor of it, I said, "Wow, I've never been kissed like that before!"

Jeff has experienced heavy heartache and abundant blessings during the last 20 years, and I'm always encouraged when I get together with him to see that he's still faithfully following Jesus. It was especially thrilling to me to hear his powerful testimonies from a recent missions trip he took into the Amazon jungle. 

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Good company?

A list of famous preachers' kids from  Wikipedia's "preacher's kid" entry.

  • Vincent Van Gogh
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Carl Jung
  • Alice Cooper
  • Denzel Washington
  • Condoleezza Rice
  • Marvin Gaye
  • The Wright Brothers
  • Malcolm X
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Ingmar Bergman
  • Tori Amos
  • Nicola Tesla
  • Nat King Cole
  • Jessica Simpson
  • Phil Jackson (both parents)
  • Mark Few