Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Month in Macedonia, Lice-Gate and the Puzzle

I recently spent a glorious month in lovely Skopje, where I supported the Public Affairs section in the U.S. Embassy. Having never done purely public diplomacy work before (I am mostly a consular gal), this TDY was a bit of a challenge and I was rather apprehensive whether my skills were up to par. My very first task upon arrival was to draft a 5-10 min speech for the Ambassador for the annual July 4th reception. I was given 5 bullet points on which to base it and off I went. It took some time, a few permutations, and a whole bunch of research, but in the end, on a sweltering summer night at the lawn in front of the Embassy, I proudly stood in the midst of the 1200-plus crowd of guests, listening to our Ambassador deliver (his version of) the speech I had drafted. You know that feeling when your kid performs super awesomely at the school recital, and, with tears in your eyes, you elbow the person next to you and whisper, “That’s my kid!”? Well, I felt like elbowing the person next to me and whisper, “That’s my speech!” I did not because the person next to me happened to be the speaker of the Parliament and I figured it would have been weird.

In the following days, I drafted a whole lot more speeches, talking points and briefing memos; made friends with various Macedonian Army officials and spent too much time in the Ministry of Defense in preparation of their hosting of 300 U.S. Army soldiers as part of a European military exercise led by U.S. Army-Europe later this summer. I worked with some amazing professionals from the Embassy’s PD section and I already miss them. I also consumed an unreasonable quantity of grilled meats, fresh salads, rakia (local grappa) and wine. Who knew that Macedonia makes a lot and fabulous wine? I didn’t and so, to explore it, I decided to visit a couple of wineries in the midst of a massive heat wave in Skopje. Such is indeed my dedication to wine research. You are welcome!

I organized a tasting at a small, make-shift winery in the middle of the city called Brzanov. You won’t find their wines in the store and you learn about the tasting and the wine by word of mouth mostly. I should have had some inkling about the experience when I called and the owner Dimitar (who spoke impeccable English) asked me how long we planned to taste – 3 or 4 hours. Errr, I typically taste wine for about 15 mins so I was at a loss of words. Deciding to stay on the conservative side, I said 3 since we had dinner plans afterwards. And thus, on a blazing and sleepy Saturday afternoon devoid of any life on the streets of the city, a bunch of us arrived in front of a nondescript house at the end of a dusty street, where several street dogs lay prostrate in front and stared at us quizzically. Inside, in a smallish room with very high ceilings, Dimitar began bringing platters of cured meats and cheese, home bread and decanter after decanter of fabulous wine. It seems that the winemaker of the winery does not use much science when making the wine; he simply trusts his nose. And what a nose it must be! After an hour, he invited us to continue to drink, errrr, taste wine in the cellar, where he proceeded to pour wine straight from various barrels as he continued to explain the unique Macedonian varietals like Vranec and Tamjanika. Oh, the glorious times we had! Three hours later, we all stumbled outside disoriented but very, very happy and jumped in a cab to go to dinner at the Macedonian Village. An “authentic” model village sitting at the top of a hill above Skopje, it has a few restaurants, shops and workshops showing off traditional Balkan crafts. After a feast of meat, rakia and more wine, we finally made it back home around 1 am.

20170702_124321.jpgThe next morning, I had arranged a trip south, where we would visit old Roman ruins and lunch in another fabulous winery out of town. We were supposed to be 5 people, all heroes from the previous day tasting. Only one person besides me made it. Undaunted, we forged south and in about an hour or so, made it to the lovely Tikves winery. It was one of the best winery experiences I have ever had. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you’d know I have visited a fair share of wineries and by now, I am so over taking “the tour.” All I am interested is in tasting the wine and eating the food, if there is one offered. At Tikves, there is a phenomenal restaurant, hidden underground in the recesses of the winery - we literally had to climb down several sets of stairs until we reached the cellar and the restaurant. They have pre-set tasting menus that would cost around $20-30 per person, and include some of the best food I have ever eaten, along with an endless supply of “tasting” wine. A couple of hours later, satiated and very, VERY happy, we took off to see the ancient ruins of Stobi.

20170702_154648.jpgIt was 42 Celsius (107F) outside. There was not a tree in sight, just white, ancient, hot, hot stones. It was very, very interesting and deserving of a long and comprehensive study, thoughtful pondering of Old Civilizations, ways of life and the short duration of the human life. All of that would have been nice. I believe that we managed to prance through the whole thing in record 14 minutes before I more or less passed out from the heat. But it is impressive indeed!

While I was thus gallivanting through the ancient Balkan cultures, drama was brewing back home in Washington, DC. One evening, in a casual conversation with the boys home, the Diplomat mentioned briefly that he intended to take son to a barber to get a haircut. Now, you should know that son sports fairly long hair, of which he and I are rather fond, so naturally, I find discussions of barbers and what their services imply rather distressing. I asked why, and was told that Son is bothered by the heat and scratches his head a lot because of the sweat. Seized by sudden terrifying childhood memories, I carefully asked the Diplomat to check the child for lice. I was right. There were colonies of them in his pretty, soft, long curls. And since the Diplomat had allowed Son to sleep in our bed in my absence, guess who else had lice? Yup, the Diplomat himself. Granted, just a few but enough to freak him out.

In the next couple of days, Son lost most of his hair and the Diplomat purchased every single delousing product on the official and black markets available, applied them obsessively on both of them and then combed and combed the dead critters out. I am pretty sure he was about to burn all of our sheets in the fireplace outside but re-thought and laundered them instead. I was being sent hourly updates from the process, which did make me feel both a little guilty that they are dealing with the little pests alone, but also a little happy that I and my long hair were thousands of miles away.

20170704_022612.jpgBut if you think I was having a grand time every single moment I was away, you are sorely mistaken. I had so much free time after work that I did not know what to do with myself. While I traveled on a couple of weekends to Bulgaria to see family and friends, and went around the Macedonian countryside on others, that still left most of my week nights free. I am one of those people who cannot just sit down and do nothing. Even when I watch TV, I have to be doing something else (like, ironing). To deal with that, I picked up what looked like a nice puzzle that someone had left at the Embassy. It had 1500 pieces and looked reasonably easy to put together. I rushed home, barely ate dinner and began working on it at 6.30 pm. Around midnight, I finally lifted my blurry eyes from the table, to realize that I had barely managed to put together the frame of the monstrous thing, and that left me with another 1450 tiny, tiny pieces to figure out. But it was game on! In the next 2 weeks, I lived and breathed the puzzle. I worked on it in the morning while getting dressed, in the evening while cooking dinner, stooped over it till 1 am every day, and at times felt tempted to go home for lunch and work on it some more. Even when I went out with colleagues, and came home late, I would still go back to the puzzle. It was magnetic and diabolically difficult. One Saturday during the day, I had been concentrating so hard to read the words on the pieces that I physically felt nauseous. I literally had to step away from it for a couple of anxious hours in order to feel better. It took me two exhausting weeks but in the end, I did it. I put the last piece, took a picture and then tore it apart with viciousness I did not know I possessed.

I loved my time in Skopje. I got to do awesome work, meet some very cool people, drink outstanding wine, avoid getting lice and put together a beastly 1500-piece puzzle. After a month, my Mom came to pick me up and drive me back home for my onward adventures in India. For more of that, tune in next week when you will learn about my “Four Countries in Four Days!”