I knew this would be hard. I am looking at the pictures I took on our way to Macedonia, arrival in beautiful village of Brajcino, our stay there, people we met, Prespa lake, Ohrid, Skopje… some of the pictures are blurry just like some memories in my mind but I think that’s just the quality of my camera. I better not doubt the quality of my mind. Not yet.
As I’m trying to write something substantial, I don’t know where to start. I feel the inability to reflect the things I felt. Maybe it’s to soon but as time passes, this dream called Brajcino is just slowly fading. The details are floating away from me as a boat moving lazily to the horizon. To make things worse: on the boat there are some really important people for me. But hell, they are just a drop in the sea of people in my life I still hadn’t the opportunity to meet. Now, the doors have been opened for a little while and what I saw has just blown my mind. I better leave the insides for now and start digging on the outside.
My girlfriend Maja and her (now our, for sure) friend Monika wanted to go together on the youth exchange last year. For the life’s reasons, they couldn’t go. The years pass like days so we were already at the selection of new locations and different topics of exchanges. We didn’t know who will be in the croatian team but Maja and I are really outdoor types who like to spend as much time in the nature as they can. „Increasing Quality of Youth Work – Vulnerable Youth in Focus“, the middle of the june, Brajcino, Macedonia. After doing some reading about the location (Macedonia is in general a country with many mountains and peaks – if I remember well or didn’t mishear, Macedonia has the most peaks over 2000 m), I knew if I had to do the exchange, I’m doing it in this or some similar location! Thessaloniki was interesting in topic but the participants were in a hotel and that just doesn’t do the trick. A remote village in the mountains with a lake in a relative vicinity? Yes, please!
So Maja, Monika, Damir and two younger girls (Pavla and Antonela) from around Novi Marof got into the bus. A few years before, when I went to the international Sanskrit conference in Dubrovnik (a famous town in the south of Croatia – GoT fans will know it), we traveled with a bus. It was a hell ride through small Dalmatian villages. Well, this trip to Macedonia was far more worse. The bus from Zagreb to Struga was one hour late. When it arrived, it wasn’t up to the modern standards (whatever that would be because many people don’t think a bus is a transport vehicle „up to the standard“ of a traveler): we didn’t have enough space for legs, couldn’t really sleep, it was hot and we were (like a bunch of amateurs) sitting in the last row just above the engine… Don’t say a thing, I said enough.
We endured and came to Struga. It was already hot and the climate was in general more suitable for lizards than for humans. We left our luggage at the bus station and went to the city. There we met Aleksandra, Monika’s friend whom she met in one of her previous exchanges. Even now you can see some benefits of meeting new and interesting people from all around the world. Alex was our guide through Struga and helped us to get to the Ohrid (with taxis which are also a story to be told) from where we took another bus (yes, again) to the mountains and ultimately came to our destination: the village of Brajcino. Nikola (one of the organizers) and Saša picked us up. The rain drops were onto us but we didn’t care so much about the weather. I don’t know about the others from the croatian infiltration team but I was thinking about all the new people we will meet.
It goes without saying, we’ve fallen in love with Brajcino almost instantly. The mountains are all around and one of the first things we were told was that there are bears in the forests. Well, hell. I know they can be dangerous but I was really satisfied with the notion I would sleep carelessly while those creatures roam around.
The national teams (there were six teams: Latvia, Belgium, Macedonia, Spain, Greece and Croatia) were staying in three houses across Brajcino – one of them was really old (Vila Tode) and sleeping in it was like being a part of the history and heritage. But I think Carlos, Said, Alexandros and the whole Belgian team could say more about that because they were sleeping in there. Well, I could tell you something more about it too because one of the last days, I was practicing my stealth techniques (under the influence of Carlos I guess) and at 5 am waked up Carlos so we could go to the peak called Cuca (around 2300 m). Unfortunately, Cuca didn’t see us that day but I believe we’ll be back to Brajcino one day and conquer every reachable peak. Pelister, you’ll go down someday!
The croatian team was staying in Vila Kostovski. We shared it with the half of the spanish team. Our host was mr. Boro and his family. I would like to thank them because their hospitality was above any expectation. In general, I think we and the spanish girls were really decent and presented ourselves in the best light we could (considering we filled their fridge with huge amounts of beer and drank raki(ja) on their terrace every day after lunch). Okay, Damir was sometimes coming home really late and when he came into the room he was mumbling some strange combination of words like: „You sucky sucky, me fucky fucky, boom-boom“. His subconsciousness obviously wanted to tell him something but let us leave this topic for another occasion.
It is time to return a little to the interior of the Brajcino experience. I must admit, I had a fear of not fitting in. People are people but what if there will be too much difference? I was ready for a cultural and social shock. I tried to be as open minded as possible. Except meeting new people from different countries of which some have really different customs from ours, the people were disgusted with the fact they cannot throw used paper in the toilet. Since Vasiliki is my second home (now the list also includes Brajcino) and I had a close encounter with Greeks before, it was really not a big thing for me. Yeah, that is our shit on those papers and we need to roll them in other papers (so others will not see that solids and liquids come out of us) and then throw them in the trash can or you can just forget about the papers and wash yourself with water. With all of this suit yourself thing, I think most people went for the first option.
It would be good if we would do an activity breakdown. On the arrival day we were introduced to our houses. Later we met with everyone else in the „restaraunt“ – the main place for the indoor project activities. I remember being shy to look at some of my soon-to-be friends. On the first day we played name games and tried to guess each other’s hobbies and interests. After that we had to write our fears and expectations toward the project. Some of the participants feared they wouldn’t fit in with the group, some of them were afraid of the bears and snakes while I prayed there would be a lot of hiking (I mentioned Pelister and Vasko – project leader and one of the organizers – thought it was written by a Macedonian) and no beer shortage. This last one was a crazy fear because Damir (Tarzan 2017 – look at the picture taken on the shores of lake Prespa) has bought every beer that he could get his hands on. We don’t have to say that the local store owner was more than happy. Another plus for the project – setting the local (beer) economy into motion! After we had lunch (usually around 1 pm), we participated in a treasure hunt. Throughout Brajcino, we had to find or take a photo of different interesting places. We had to make presents for the other teams and make a song about the exchange. Walking around unknown village and taking pictures is nice, but writing a (rap) song is something I can really do. When I cooperate with a Spanish guy and a Greek beatboxer, we are practically unBEATable. Carlito and the psychological bandits of Brajcino feat. BeatBillys a.k.a. dr. Brum Brum – Straight Outta ‘cino. It was a hit alright and we had so much fun making it. Such a shame we didn’t record it in the end because Ogi (official photographer and part of the Macedonian team) had too much work to do and we had no time. The lyrics are safe with Carlos and we wait to record it some other time when we meet in Brajcino.
On the second day the croatian team had a workshop about role of the young people in the community. Actually, every national team had it’s task so we had to talk much about young people and community, ways to make them active, we imagined an ideal system, an island which would be perfect to live on – for young and for old. We don’t have to mention there were a lot of crazy ideas. Some of them included hippie communes, states without government that aren’t falling into anarchy and even dinosaurs. We had intercultural teams (this was encouraged during the whole exchange and some would say it was not strict enough – national clubs were really common) and talked about situations in different countries, what can be done to change the situation, etc. Every evening we had intercultural nights in which teams would present their country, it’s products, fun facts and similar. First to take the stage were the Spanish and the Latvians. Sangria and balzam, songs, customs and dances – we got to know a lot of things about other countries. To be honest, it was about talking the best you could about your country. During the second night, when we were presenting Croatia, we tried to break this „ego-tripping“ custom by showing some of the bad things about our country (actually there are a lot), but we mostly got into a talk about our difficult history (for comparison: Latvia had a more difficult history and political situation but they didn’t mention any of it) – Yugoslavia in which we were like brothers to fellow Macedonians and then the Croatian war of Independence which left scars on all of Croats and Serbs. Some people from the audience asked why are we talking about this – why not the funny stuff only? We had that also, but our opinion is, even if politics is hated, that young people’s apathy and not enough knowledge and information is the main reason why the thiefs and unworthy get to govern us and decide our future. So the first step is to make that conscious. The second day we also had the greek evening with a really funny and witty video about Greece and a crazy dance only for men. To sum things up: tsipouro and rakija don’t make a good (sober) combination. Third intecultural night was reserved for the Belgians and the Macedonians. Belgians had a quiz in which we learnt a lot of stuff about their country but I think that everybody was just waiting to get their hands on those exquisite belgian chocolates. The Macedonians had a talk-show with a visiting Irish guy (until the end of the exchange, Kit became really popular amongst all the teams but especially amongst Croatians – okay, and Baltic princesses). It was really funny and they poured rakija to everyone. In the end, Kiko presented us a very difficult Macedonian dance which actually consists of standing on your leg going up and down for fifteen minutes.
Representin’ the Croatia – Višnjevac, Orehovac, Slivovitz, Pan, Zuja, Pelješac, Špek, domaćica (the housewife), cheese
On the third day we had an interesting lecture in photography thanks to Filip (he was later also a guide through Skopje for the Croatian team) who showed us some basics of photography. We formed the teams and got some tasks to (photo)shoot around Brajcino. Some of us found a hidden talent for photography and an advanced perception for it. On the third day we went to the Prespan lake. The interesting and new thing was that we all went using tractors and sidecars. The day was used to chill in the sun or the shade and playing volleyball (warning: don’t play volleyball with a football ball!). Next day we went to Ljubojno (nearby village) to take some pictures. At the end we had to choose best ones which will be a part of the exhibition. We went to the church of St. Peter and Pavle located higher on the mountain (at some 1300m or more) above Ljubojno. The group was not so interested in (or prepared for) hiking so we went only on two trips (not counting the treasure hunt which led us to St. Petka). The other was to the cave-church (St. Bogorodica) and from there we had a wonderful view over the Prespan lake. Those who climbed to the top didn’t regret it!
On the sixth day we went to Ohrid. We were sightseeing, taking a swim in the lake Ohrid (one of the oldest and deepest in the Europe) and buying some souvenirs. The seventh day we had a presentation about Erasmus+ programs and EVS (European Volunteer Service) and in the afternoon we helped the locals to clean and fix the village building dedicated to socialising which was once a store. Creative girls painted some nice things on the walls of the building. In the evening there was the first rock concert in Brajcino. A band from Bitola named Eruption rocked the village up. It was amazing to be surrounded by all these nice mountains and hear some awesome music. The sound system was good. On the eighth day (the last one) we got the Youth Pass Certificates and after that we went to the Prespan lake again. The sadness started to kick in but most of us were too tired and wrecked to really know we are actually leaving all of our new friends.
There were some language barriers because most of the Greek team didn’t know english so well. I was a little more confused about the Belgians because they were mostly really young people and young people these days know english pretty well. Still I am not sure about them but I think they were just a little bit shy. Actually, this was a perfect opportunity for everyone to put their english skills to practice. Rusty parts started to shine again and sometimes we used signals and hands to communicate. Kinda ingenious but this actually fits well in the description of the project. No matter of our backgrounds (and some of us aren’t so lucky), we needed and wanted to communicate. Is this the human experience? Our social sides definitely worked their way out. When we only came to Brajcino, I was sceptical when Monika said to me: at the end you will cry. Now I know this to be true. Maybe I wasn’t seen or maybe there wasn’t actually a physical manifestation of my tears but I cried alright. I am crying as I write this. The emotional part is definitely the part of the experience.
Language was a barrier but we built bridges. That may be not so commendable but teaching curses and cursing in foreign languages was the absolute hit. Man, I was really enjoying myself every time Carlos just shouted: PIČKA TI MATERINA, and all around us were Macedonians. Malaka was one of those most used words. Okay, maybe I’m imagining this but I think that word „malaka“ got a deeper and more refined meaning during our stay in Brajcino. Yes, okay, it is only a word for a wanker, the grand masturbator in Greek but everyone was using it. I think through this excessive usage, we got different kinds of meaning: you could get an angry „malaka“ or friendly and happy „malaka“. Don’t know about the others but I was always using it in a friendly and positive way. The only thing I regret is not learning some latvian curses but we can always fix that by communicating over the internet.
We learnt a lot about other countries and their customs. We even participated in the latvian pagan ceremony, a festival of the longest day and shortest night in the year. We danced and the celebration culminated in everyone’s jumping over the fire that the local guys started for the latvian girls. Okay, this sounds kinda weird but it is correct. I can only say for myself but let us see what words and thoughts brings in mind every country:
Macedonia – mountains, peaks, simit (a bread in bread – we ate it in Skopje), Brajcino raki, gravče na tavče (try reading this out loud Carlos, I dare you!), kindness, brotherhood, Mende, playing football with the locals, first rock concert ever in Brajcino
Spain – Sangria, exotic, proud and hot temper (don’t get me wrong), Carlos doing crazy stuff and yoga in an ungodly hour, Monica’s wondering and worried face when she sees the afterhillians (Afterhill is Zagorje in Croatian, region in Croatia (in)famous for production and a lot of drinking wine) drinking rakija like it is water
Belgium – trap? rap? WOOSH definitely, music on the mountain (it isn’t really my thing and I hated it but I love my belgian friends so I got used to it), weird hats, the best chocolate and they got a lot of different kinds of beer (which is really important, yeah)
Latvia – paganism, doing all this nice forest ceremonies in spite and in defiance of the christian god who would like us to paint the eggs and decorate the christmas tree, sex in the forest, flower crowns, illegal racing, latvian balzam
Greece – philosophy of the word MALAKA!!!, tsipouro, olives (but I got to admit that the Spaniards are really, really close to the Greeks), vasani ste tuš, eimaistinsvoura
Croatia – please write something and don’t put only rakija 🙂 thank you!
Brajcino Youth Exchange 2017.
Probably the greatest question for everyone is: and what now? A better question would be: what next? Some time has passed and some memories faded but that is only normal. The general memory of Brajcino (the Croatian team has agreed that this really is THE VILLAGE for us) stays forever. The best news is that the Brajcino Youth Exchange story will continue at the end of September when we are invited to go to Belgium, Antwerpen. There, a photography exhibition will be held and money from all the sold pictures will be given to our friend Mende – a little guy from Brajcino who likes to ride his bicycle and play football. We are all staying in contact through Facebook and some of us are seriously thinking about making another project to help make Brajcino great again! Meeting new interesting people, helping those who need your help and expanding your mind – who wouldn’t like that? We shall leave the great conclusions for you, future youth exchange participants. You need to experience it for yourself to truly know it and understand it. Don’t be afraid, just jump!
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