Saturday, October 30, 2004

I am a Spy

I Am a Spy

At least, that’s what I hear. The village grapevine allows me to receive the content of many conversations where often I am the main subject of discussion. I understand that my romantic life is the most common topic but a few months ago I had a drunken guy confront me about my true occupation. Now, I’m reminded of the blurry look he gave me when I clearly failed to persuade him with, ‘You are right, this is indeed a valuable place and the CIA is smart to put an operative here.’ Today, I was advised that the spy version of what I am doing here is gaining wider support through the three-café circle that is the social outlet. Sometimes, I wonder if my friend should tell me these things because I reminisce about the blissful life of ignorance I once had. I also wonder why I get so annoyed at my small community’s misunderstanding of me.

The Village is called, Vevcani, and it is in the Southwest Corner of Macedonia nestled in the foothills of the steep mountains that form the boarder with Albania. The 2,500 inhabitants have a long colorful history that includes a unique celebration of Carnival, traditional dress and dance, craft in stone-masonry, plus a distinct dialect not widely understood even a village away. Vevcani also has year round artesian springs that are diverted through a network of channels sending water winding throughout the community and down to the fields for irrigation. I live close to the main river outlet and my house has it’s own channel so I am serenaded by falling water as if I live in a perpetual cascade. The summer has provided numerous bright clear days with warm afternoon breezes sliding down the green mountains and valleys that climb directly out of the village. These gentle winds carry into my windows the sweet aroma of colorful flowers that occupy virtually all the gardens of my neighbor’s homes. I live in a peaceful place.

I have been living in Vevcani for a year, midway through my Peace Corps service assigned to the municipality. The spy scenario is not new to Peace Corps Volunteers and we were warned in training that we might be approached with this point of view. Much of what surrounds my ambiguity here is due to the already vague purpose of the Peace Corps, a culture that is inherently suspicious, and the belief that Macedonians think they understand Americans through pop-culture and global politics.

I often wonder what I am doing here too. The Peace Corps main goals are to provide a breathing example of America, for this individual to illuminate the details of an often-overlooked country to family and friends back home, and allow for skills transfer to the organization to which the volunteer is assigned. I’ve been most successful at reporting the intricacies of Macedonia, and Vevcani, to those back home but only mildly successful at the other two. The rumors might have a point because reporting my observation to unknown parties kind of does make me a spy. I wish the pay was the same.

Skills transfer is very difficult due to language barriers and a pervasive resistance to new ideas in a culture wrought with deference to authority and lack of initiative. However, I have had some success with the language, new projects, translation, and even helping with resumes. I have reached some people and might be providing that great example of American character but often feel I am just a decent person who likes to meet other decent people regardless of where you come from. I suppose demonstrating this point alone is core to the Peace Corps but this becomes less tangible over time and the result is questioning these efforts, boredom, or worse, resenting living here at all.

I’ve encountered the omnipresent characterization of Americans through many years of travel but it took living here to understand how believed this fantasy has become. This ranges from the innocent, but impossible, question, ‘How is it in America’ to the more bizarre, ‘You need a Macedonian woman because all American women are untrustworthy. We watch Sex in the City here.’ I guess part of my job is the unattainable goal of describing 280 million people that appear to live in the land of golden opportunity while having such dubious morality.

The current global political climate makes American intentions even more frustrating to explain. Macedonia is a country of 2 million and rarely is there anything else to talk about other than distrust in, and disgust with, politics. You might attribute this to 500 years of Ottoman rule and neighborhood power plays that saw Macedonia fragmented many times on the world stage. The recent years of Yugoslavia, and its disastrous breakup, also supports questioning political institutions and a general suspicion of outside intent. When it comes to my presence, why would I live here when I can be richer in my home country? If you are suspicious by nature, with conspiracy theories providing the root of your perspective of self, and are convinced your picture of America is complete on a cultural, and political, level then you will have an idea of why the American is here. He doesn’t seem to do much. He has no particular reason to live here. He must be a spy.

Thankfully, my annoyance is temporary and simply a part of everyday life. More important, the conspiracy theorists are a minority and I must not let some perspectives divert my balanced approach to people. This is also nothing unusual to volunteers. My frustration is described in Peace Corps literature as the ‘PCV Life-Cycle’. It’s seems I’m in a dip of the temporary curve that the law of averages has determined how my experience will unfold. The negative effect of community perception on me is a sum of the various aspects of living in another culture including loneliness, isolation, and questioning one’s direction in life. This is why my experience will be a wholly singular one that produces more avenues for self-inquiry than tangible results on the ground. I guess that still makes me a spy. It is just that I am scrutinizing myself more than the people of Vevcani.


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