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Lessons learned as a Volunteer in Macedonia

View from my apartment, Joe Martin

After a career in business and government, I joined the Peace Corps in 2012 and was assigned to Macedonia. 

It was a great adventure, which had special meaning for me since I had been a young soldier in the U.S. Army nearly 50 years earlier.

The Peace Corps is a wonderful opportunity to serve other people, experience a new culture and build bridges of understanding. It also enabled me to learn about another country, the world around us and myself.

What are the people of Macedonia like?

  1. Macedonians are cordial, warm and generous. Their favorite pastime is having coffee with friends.  They were very kind to me, often in unexpected ways.
  2. There is a tendency in Macedonia to postpone tasks to the last moment. This can be frustrating for Americans, but somehow the deadlines are usually met in the final rush.
  3. Macedonians often feel powerless to make changes. Whatever is going to happen will happen, regardless of what one might do. Many talented people are leaving the country for better opportunities elsewhere.

What are my impressions about Macedonia as a country?

  1. Macedonia has fascinating customs and a pervasive sense of history. The level of culture is remarkable for a small country that isn’t as prosperous as the rest of Europe. It has many beautiful sights, although they are sometimes marred by litter.
  2. Because of the presence of many different groups over the centuries, there is a legacy of ethnic and religious tensions. The recurring appeals to nationalism seem to aggravate these tensions.
  3. Macedonia is a patriarchal society with clear gender roles, which can be very strict in rural areas, but these roles are evolving over time.

Church of St. Jovan Kaneo
Church of St. Jovan Kaneo on Lake Ohrid

What can Americans learn from Macedonia?

  1. The world is interconnected in ways that most Americans don’t realize. We can’t insulate ourselves from the dramatic changes occurring on the planet we share with others. What happens in the rest of the world affects us in profound ways.
  2. We in America have no idea of what it’s like to experience the horror of prolonged war in our homeland. Going to war is the worst possible way to settle any disagreement. And it’s foolhardy for us to think we can impose our will on others if they come to feel humiliated.
  3. Our religious views, whatever they may be, can be deepened and enhanced by what we can learn from other faiths.

How have my views about America and the rest of the world changed?

  1. Americans are extremely fortunate in many ways and we have far too much stuff, most of which we really don’t need.
  2. Macedonians genuinely like Americans, but most of what they know about America comes from our films and TV. The Peace Corps is a direct and effective way to share the positive aspects of America with the rest of the world.
  3. The wave of ethnic and sectarian violence around the world threatens our common survival as a civilization. All of us are also affected by the impact of climate change.
  4. The United States has to be involved in keeping the peace, but without presuming that we can solve every conflict. And we must avoid generalizations about any other group or religion.

Lastly, what have I learned about myself?

  1. A greater awareness of the dangers from religious strife, especially when religion is used as a cover for ethnic rivalries. There could be no greater blasphemy than the vicious harm people inflict on others in the name of religious doctrine.
  2. A dose of humility. Whenever I began to think I’m a smart American, I would always do something really stupid. We can’t begin to understand the beliefs and culture of others from a distance, and I’ve learned to respect the views of others while appreciating my own at the same time.
  3. The joy of walking. During the three years when I didn’t drive a car, I experienced the benefits of a pedestrian environment in terms of health and social interaction. It was a delight to see people of all ages and backgrounds strolling along the Širok Sokak at all hours of the day and night.
  4. A better sense of what really counts. When all is said and done, one’s family and friends mean more than any accomplishment or wealth. Like other Americans, I need to slow down and make the most of the time I have with others.

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