The Foreign Service Journal, November 2011

A s I left the house with my 18- month-old daughter, Haley, one morning, my neighbor, Baba Florika, was out pruning her rosemary bush. She opened her gate to get a better look at Haley in the stroller. “Oh no, no, no,” she asked. Lean- ing over, she took off my daughter’s shoes. “The feet need to air,” she said. “It’s better for the baby. It’s much too warm to be out walking with a baby like that.” I smiled, nodded, and bit my tongue. Haley and I continued walk- ing down the street. Not half a block down, Baba Danche was out sweeping the sidewalk. “Oh, Stephanie,” she crowed. “Isn’t Haley cold? You must cover her feet.” She leaned over and put the shoes back on. I coughed heartily to cover my laughter, but then had to listen to how to prepare mountain tea that would help my cough. I might be 36 years old, have an advanced degree, two healthy, happy children and a somewhat sane house- hold — but here in Skopje, the ad- vice never stops flowing. I receive helpful hints every day. On every outing some well-meaning person will suggest a better way to live my life — from child care, husband care and personal care to gardening and cooking. Inevitably, someone or something is either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry. Babas — grandmothers — don’t have a corner on the advice market, to be sure. My 40-year-old single neigh- bor, Toni, frets about Haley’s “ex- posed” back. He is certain that because she’s not in a onesie, some sort of terrible malady will consume her. And an older gentleman on the bus scolded me for not making my sweat- ing son, Kai, wear a jacket. On one particularly trying day, after at least 10 people had pointed out some fault in my parenting, I ruefully bemoaned what appeared to me as my obvious look of inadequacy to another neighbor, a Macedonian mother with a 14-year-old and a 3-year-old. “Oh, they do that to everyone,” she assured me. “It’s their way of showing you they like you.” Her comment gave me pause. I re- membered the time Nada cut the last rose of the season from her garden and gave it to me to adorn my table for a work-related reception I hosted at my house. And the time Florika rang my doorbell at 7:30 a.m. with a plate full of warm bread, fresh from the oven, for our breakfast. And the time Danche ushered me into her house for homemade burek, a Macedonian sa- vory pastry. I also recalled the time Toni walked me over to the outdoor market, instead of just telling me the directions. And often at the market I’ve heard “Dobra Majka” (good mother) in hushed ap- proval from the babas and vegetable salesmen as I walk by, pushing my stroller with one hand and Kai’s trike with the other. Today Baba Nada calls to me from her gate as I walk up to my house. “How are you feeling?” she asks. “Better, thanks,” I croak. I actually sound worse than I feel. “Tsst. Tsst, you must drink lots of tea, the mountain tea,” she shakes her finger at me. “I am, I am. It’s perfect for this cough,” I nod. “And put your head over a steam- ing pot of water, like this,” she holds her hands to the side of her face and bends forward, almost bumping her head on the fence. “Yes, yes, I will, right away.” “Good, good,” she nods. “Then you will feel better.” I smile. Here I am, thousands of miles from my parents, with a whole neighborhood watching my back! No wonder I feel so safe here. My mother can rest easy knowing that the Balkan babas will look out for me. Stephanie Rowlands teaches English to preschoolers and is a freelance writer. She and her FSO husband and their two children currently live in Skopje. They previously lived in Mexico and Guatemala. N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 1 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 59 J OURNAL Editor S TEVE H ONLEY ’ S C lassic P icks FSJ S EPTEMBER 2008 R EFLECTIONS Balkan Babas B Y S TEPHANIE R OWLANDS Here I am, thousands of miles from my parents, with a whole neighborhood watching my back!