Monday, November 28, 2005

Discrimination, cont.

To be fair, I have to tell you about what my supervisor said this morning. I was complaining about how my new heater isn't working out so well. There's not much confidence in the opportunity to just take it back and demand my money in return. My colleagues got into it though, when they found out where I bought it. They were talking about how shady the people who work there are. My supervisor even said that the woman there "lies like a Bulgarian." So, it's not just one-way discrimination. He's also honest about how the Roma as a people usually auto-segregate themselves. They live in their own neighborhood, use their own schools, are patrons of their own businesses. I can understand why they do it, but I think that just perpetuates discrimination.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Discrimination

The sun has decided to shine again, and my world is quickly turning into a muddy slush. I'm not complaining. It's nice to have sun.
I went to church on Saturday and was invited to three people's houses for lunch. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for diplomacy's sake), I already had plans to go into Velingrad with Angel and buy a heater and a few other valuables (peanut butter! - we're out in Rakitovo, ramen!, and I found Reisen® chocolates!) Well, we found a heater, but they forgot to include one of the parts in the box. It's not doing such a bang-up job of heating my living room anyway, so I think I'm going to just take it back. I paid about $50 for it. It's nice and shiny, but I think it's a piece of junk. What do Bulgarians know about electric heaters anyway? They use woodburning stoves to make everything cozy. Peace Corps won't let us invest in anything that burns wood, or gas for that matter.
Last night, my organization hosted a parent's meeting. They wanted to talk about education and Roma integration in Bulgarian schools. About 15 said they would show. Only about four did. My organization even hosted a dinner afterwards at a restaurant here in town and footed the bill. I'm not exactly sure why the other parents didn't show. Maybe it was because there was a wedding in their neighboorhood (a 13-year-old girl married a 15/16-year-old boy), maybe it's because they were too busy doing other things, maybe they just don't want to hear what the organization has to say. I don't know how you turn down free dinner, but that's just me. Seeing as there was extra food, I ate three salads, some french fries, some cooked vegetables, and some bread. I drank a couple sodas on top of it. No reason to let good food go to waste. All the more for me, I say. And I taught Angel how to play Poker according to Apryl.
Today I pretty much laid low. Maria and Reneta (my supervisor's daughters who speak excellent English) came over today to hang out for a bit. I gave them each a doll yesterday because they both had a birthday this month. They have both decided to name their doll "Apryl." How cute is that?!?!?! So they came to my house with their dolls, and we watched "The Emperor's New Groove." If you haven't seen it, I recommend it highly. It's a classic. For those of you who have seen it, think of all the great lines I could quote to you right now! The girls brought me soda, cookies, and gummy worms 'cause you never show up for a "na gosti" empty-handed. After they left, I spent a few hours reading up on how to obtain grants and put together some other ideas for my service here. I'm starting to get idealistic again. I have my first English class on Thursday. Several people say they are going to show up. I hope I can live up to the hype and keep it going. Please pray for me. After getting all wound up about how much stuff I can probably never feasibly accomplish here, I decided to make pizza. It would have been super-fantabulous had my oven actually decided to COOK it!!! (sigh) After two hours, it wasn't the crunchy consistency I desired, but at least the dough was cooked through. Whatever. I talk about food so much on this blog, you must think I'm obsessed with eating. Well, it is one of my favorite pastimes.
Now, onto the title of this blog. I wanted to tell you all a little more about what it means to be Roma, and maybe a little about what it means to be Roma in the context of Bulgaria. I will start by sharing a couple things that happened to Angel and me yesterday:
I was sitting at the bus stop waiting for Angel to show up when I was approached by Brandy's landlady. The conversation went more or less like this:
Brandy's Landlady: Hi! What are you doing?
Apryl G.: Hi. I'm waiting for the bus to Velingrad.
BL: You're early.
AG: I know, but I'm waiting for a friend.
BL: Oh, is Brandy going with you?
AG: No, I'm going with another friend.
****Here I diverge to tell you a little about Bulgarian grammar. The word "friend" has masculine and feminine cognates: priatel - means a male friend. priatelka - means a female friend. In addition to this, these words can also mean boyfriend or girlfriend. I used "priatel," and this woman assumed I meant boyfriend.*********
BL: Oh, is he Bulgarian?
AG: Yes.
BL: Oooohh!!! That's great! What's his name? (and the conversation continues while she asks me all manner of questions about him... trying to figure out who he is - she thinks she knows him because everyone knows everyone in Rakitovo... except me, I know about 10 people). After this line of questioning, she goes on to ask about my salary.
BL: Who pays you for your work here?
AG: Peace Corps?
BL: And how much money do you make?
AG: (squirming) About 100 leva (I lie).
BL: But how do you live? I would think it'd be more than that.
So this conversation continues until Angel shows up.
AG: Ah, there's Angel
BL to Angel: Ooohh!! So you're Angel.
Angel is thrown for a minute. There's an interesting tone in her voice and she's looked him up and down, apparently surprised that he has dark skin that indicates he's Roma.
Angel: Yes, I'm Angel.
She then begins to question him about who he is, what his family does, and what he does for a living.
BL: Are you going to go to America with Apryl?
A: If I were a suitcase, she would take me, but I'm not, so no.
She talks to us for a few more minutes, and then takes her leave. She runs into someone she knows a few feet away, and they talk to each other with strange looks on their faces all the while looking at Angel and me. Angel and I laughed about it. She wasn't rude, per se. She was pretty pleasant, actually, in spite of the line of questioning. She was just transparent is all.

Second incident.
After coming back from Velingrad with the dolls for Maria and Reneta, Angel suggested we go to a shop here in town to get them gift-wrapped. Here's what happened at the first store we went to.
Lady with an unpleasant look on her face: What do you want?
Angel: We'd like to have some presents gift-wrapped.
Lady: We don't have any giftwrap here.
Meanwhile, we can both see through the window that there's giftwrap inside the shop.
Whatever. So we go to the second shop. Same thing happens. The lady at the counter says there's none available, but as we walk out Angel tells me he saw some.
I'm muttering under my breath, and Angel's asking me why I think they've turned us away in spite of having wrapping paper. We both know the reason, but I don't say anything.
At the third shop, Angel suggests that I ask. And I get my presents wrapped. Now, that's not to say that the third shop would have turned us away had Angel asked, but I find (as a fairly consistent pattern) that people are colder towards me when Angel is by my side. When I'm alone, people are generally more friendly. Then there's my Bulgarian language tutor who told me: "I like the Roma you work with. They're a special kind of Roma. They like to work. Do you understand what I'm saying?" To those of you who have experienced discrimination, I almost feel as though I should apologize for my naïvity. Thanks to a genetic inability to tan, I have never dealt with this before - unless it was "reverse discrimination" where I didn't get a scholarship because I wasn't a minority. Anyway, I'm not going to stop going places with Angel, so I'm trying to think of ways to "Rosa Parks" the town.

As I believe I've mentioned before, the Roma marry young as a general rule. It's a bit of a scandal if you're still single at 18 - and more so for girls than for boys. If you're around 16 and you're still single, people point to the examples of "old maids" in town and ask you if you want to turn out like them.
Women are supposed to remain virgins until marriage. Actually, there are two weddings. The first takes place shortly after the couple decides to marry. There may be no money for a wedding right away, but they will live together in the meantime. After their first night together, the groom takes blood (a symbol of his bride's purity) to his mother. If he does this, there is celebration in the town. Musicians and people gather in the street. They drink and do the "hora." The rakia runs red and just about everyone gets tipsy. I haven't seen what happens if there's no blood, but I know it's a huge scandal, and no one turns the rakia red. If the girl is not a virgin, but the boy still loves her very much, he may cut his finger to trick his mother. As there's no visible indication to show whether a male is a virgin or not, it's really not a concern of the town. When asked if they would like to marry a virgin, many boys say that it's not important to them, but their mother would flip out (i.e. cut him out of the family or something) if the girl weren't "clean." When asked if they would like to marry a virgin, girls usually respond that they'd rather find a boy with "opit," meaning "experience." I will spare you my diatribe about how unfair it is and how silly it is that young people who might not be able to control their passions must opt for marriage. What does a thirteen-year-old know about providing for a family and raising children? I didn't know which way was up when I was thirteen! Good gravy. Moving on.

Education isn't generally community-supported. There is a Roma school in the Mahala (Roma neighborhood) that goes up until the 8th grade. My colleagues, Ani and Valia, have described it to me in this way: At the Bulgarian school, if you don't know where the Mississippi River is, you get a "2" - meaning you fail. At the Roma school, they'll give you a "6" - which means excellent. There is a serious dicotomy between educational standards. The Roma people have reasons that genuinely make sense to them as to why they don't send their kids to the Bulgarian school. I happen to disagree with these reasons, but I must remember that I'm not Roma and I didn't grow up in that environment. Here are some possible reasons:
1. It's too far away. (I don't think it's really that far away, but by the time you get the kid dressed, fed, and ready to go, you might be late for work, and it's just easier to take him to the school that's close-by.)
2. The Bulgarian kids will beat up my kid. (Bullying does take place, and there was an incident where kids from a school in the next town came and beat up a Roma boy - it was awful, inexcusable, and I'm not downplaying it, but the school still insists that it's a safe place to be, and there are some Roma that attend there and can look out for each other. Angel tells me that violence against Roma is nowhere near what it was several years ago.)
3. My kid needs to help with my business, or look after other kids. (This is a reality in the Mahala. There are grandmothers who watch after their grandkids because parents ahve to work or who knows where the parents are? A lot of the children learn to be self-sufficient at an early age. Maybe that's why they can marry young.)
So, there isn't a whole lot of community support for education. Many kids (including our own volunteers at the club) ditch out on school and don't ask for help realizing their dreams because they can't fathom how anyone could possibly help them. At least this is what I think.
So now you know a little more about what I'm battling against. On that depressing note, I take my leave. Count your blessings, people. Count your blessings. Be thankful for all the times someone told you (with or without words) that you were worth something - that your education was important - that you were a capable human being worth waiting for - that you mattered and your existence makes a difference. I believe that, as a child and a teenager you don't know this, and you need someone else to show/tell you until you're able to know it for yourself.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Честит Ден на Благодарността!

Happy Thanksgiving! Best wishes from over here in Rakitovo, Bulgaria!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Trudging across the tundra....

So the white blanket that's put its stranglehold around my town has gotten thicker overnight. My dad called me from Hawai'i this morning, and I got to tell him about how I was lying in my bed watching snow fall outside my window. Fun times. I also get to think about my mom and grandma who are sailing around somewhere in the Caribbean probably drinking mai-tais. Well, I got to build a snowman with some boys and freeze my fingers off. How do you beat that? Huh?
So in my last post, I left off with Kyustendil. Oh! Wait, after I left you all at the internet cafe, I went to pay and talk to the guy who owns the place. He asked me why I don't get internet where I live and said something else that indicated he knows where I hang my hat. Wide-eyed, I asked, "You know where I live?!" He looked at me as if to say, "Please, you silly girl," and then he said, "Of course." I'm just not used to that - coming from a large town. Crazy small town life is freaking me out a little. I need to get used to people asking and knowing exactly where I live. Maybe I can start a secondary project with a stalker coalition, er neighborhood watch.
So Kyustendil was interesting. We went there to see how Roma children integrate in largely Bulgarian schools. I didn't understand a lot that was going on, but I took advantage of drinking tea and eating cakes that every school offered us. Whenever you go somewhere - whether it be an organization that's expecting you or someone's house - there's always coffee, tea, mini-cakes, or cookies. I have to learn how to become a better hostess. I now know to always have tea on hand and some kind of sweet snack. So, we were in Kyustendil to learn how they promote integration and see if we can bring that here to Rakitovo. Some Roma kids study at the Bulgarian school, but there's not many. The Roma school in the Mahala (segregated part of town where Roma live) only goes up until the 8th grade, and the education is sub-standard. Well, we had a hard time integrating just within our groups. As I mentioned in the last post, we were there with another organization from Velingrad. It was mostly comprised of Bulgarian teachers who work in strictly Roma schools. We ended up staying in different hotels (we were supposed to be in one hotel, and I'm not sure why we split up), and I know there was some ill-feeling among the groups. I'm not going to get into here - but I just want to share how I was feeling about it: If we can't integrate among organizations that are working toward the same goal, what hope does Bulgaria, as a country, have of promoting Roma integration? So yeah, I got a little discouraged.
My language teacher from Trud lives in Kyustendil, so I got to meet up with her for dinner and coffee one night. That was nice, except that she wouldn't let me pay for anything! We ate at an excellent Italian restaurant though. They don't have such things here in Rakitovo, so I was feeling spoiled.
Life here in Rakitovo is moving along slowly. I almost wanted to title this post "Idealistic Yet Useless." Maybe we'll reserve that for another time. I spend a lot of my time making contacts, but not getting anything done that's really concrete. I try and remind myself that cultural exchange is two-thirds of my job here, but that doesn't help so much. I've asked my youth group who wants English lessons, and they all want them. We'll see how serious they are about it when we start up next week though. There's also a building near the clubhouse in the Mahala that's been donated to my organization. They want to paint it and turn part of it into a computer information salon. Through Peace Corps contacts, I've found an English NGO that refurbishes computers and gives them to organizations where they can be used for education or community development. We need to find donors to give us the money to pay for the testing and get them over here. Maybe we can do that next week. I'll feel more valuable if I can have a part in applying for money and getting the goods over here in our tiny town. So please pray that this works out for our organization. In the meantime, my organization is combating a largely unhealthy mentality in the Roma community - a disregard for education and a propensity to encourage young marriage. If you're an 18-year-old Roma girl, and you're not married, you're an old maid. More on that in another post. My supervisor looks at me though, and asks, "What are we doing wrong? Why are our volunteers still marrying young? Why are they skipping school?" I can only blink at him and shrug my shoulders. How do you combat a community? How do you tell kids that what their parents tell them is really not in their best interest? If you have any ideas, please! send them over. I wish I could find something they could get involved in - take pride in - see for themselves how smart and capable they are - how much potential they have, but I can't think of what that might be right now. I wish I were smarter. I've been thinking a lot about that lately - about how I wish I had more knowledge in general, but especially about marketing, economics, and how to get youth involved in life-changing projects. I wish I had more charisma and powers of pursuasion. But I'm here with what I have, and I pray that God gives me all I need to do what I can.
I've met some really great people though. Again, a lot of it is about cultural exchange. I go to their houses, eat their food, listen to them tell me how they worry about me because I'm living alone - because I don't dress warm enough ("We know you don't know what winter is in California. You need to learn here in Rakitovo"). There are definitely a few motherly-figures here in my town. A few times, they have said "I thought you were coming over for dinner" when no plan was made to do such beforehand. A couple of them fuss over me to the point of aggrevation. I need to learn to "spokoino" (relax). My landlord came in the other day. His wife had brewed some tea from an herb for good luck. I wasn't sure what it was all about, but I watched as he went into each room in my flat and sprinkled some on the floor. Then, he put some on my head. I'm grateful to be seen as part of the community - someone who needs good bestowed on her just as much as everyone else. Who knows? Maybe it'll ward off evil winter depression. He then told me to come down and check out the internet they have in the house, so I showed them how to search for webpages and gave them some of an apple crisp dessert that I had made. It's all about cultural exchange.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

World of White

My beautiful Rakitovo has transformed into an even more enchanting place to live. It has covered itself in a sparkling blanket of white. It's also turned a little dangerous. I actually just fell and hit my head about an hour ago, but it was due to a combination of stupidity and clumsiness. I was walking to a cafe with some of my friends and we came upon some youth sliding down one of the various grades in the center of town. Wanting to show that I'm still a brave and young myself, I decided to slide down too. *Crash!* And about half-way down I fell on my head and my wrist got in the way too. Poor Angel felt terrible. "I knew it was going to happen," he said. "Then why did you offer to hold my bag?" I retorted, smiling.
I played Bulgarian Poker tonight. Nines and up are separated out of the deck. Everyone gets three cards and that's it. Runs in any suit is good. Runs in one suit is better. Three-of-a-kind is good, too. If you have a good hand from the get-go, you're golden. If not, tough luck. There's no point in bluffing 'cause all you're betting on is how many times the other person can slap you on the hand if they have a better hand. Strange, but amusing to play with a bunch of teenage boys. I tried making a largely improvised version of "Cowboy Cookies" - a Laura Bush recipe my Aunt Cathy sent me. I threw a bunch of crazy stuff in there to make up for everything the recipe called for that I was missing. I didn't get the consistency right though, and they turned into something more like puddles than cookies. I broke them into bits and brought them to the club 'cause I thought they were still yummy. They must have been, 'cause they're gone now. Again, they asked for the recipe, but I don't know if I'd want to duplicate that even if I could! Tomorrow I'm inviting Brandy over for dinner. I'm going to try out a lentil & potato soup and a cornbread recipe my grandpa sent me. That'll take some improvisation as well, and I'm sure it'll never be good as he makes it, but I'm still going to try. I'm turning into a little Betty Crocker! For those of you who know about my lack of cooking skills, you will understand why I'm bragging about such minutiae. For the rest of you, I know I'm rambling. I'll move on.
A lot has happened since I posted about my "SOS Adventures." There has been an Adventist series in Velingrad. A pastor from Wisconsin and a translator from Andrews were giving seminars nearby, and I was able to go to a couple of them. It was great to hear English translated into Bulgarian, plus I got to talk to the speaker and the translator a bit. It's just such a small world - when you can interact with that sub-culture of English speakers over here. Of course, Adventists here talk a lot about Loma Linda (for those of you who know, you understand), and I feel as though the world really is a tiny place. For those of you who don't know, Loma Linda is a fairly prestigious Adventist medical school about twenty minutes from where I attended college. In fact, they were featured in a Bulgarian edition of "National Geographic" that my tutor gave me. Just about anyone who knows me in town knows that I come from an Adventist background. It's just that small. Pretty much everyone knows my business. Ah well, being part of an Adventist community is good for making contacts. I met a lot of young people and actually met the counterpart of another PCV in Plovdiv. And being part of a Christian community is good for my faith.
I was in Kyustendil on Thursday and Friday of this last week because my organization (along with another NGO, "Every Child," in Velingrad) was part of a cultural exchange to learn how Roma children integrate into largely Bulgarian schools over there. I need to dedicate a post to what I understand about the Roma situation in Bulgaria. Look for that to come sometime later. Kyustendil was fun. Oops. I think they're closing the cafe. I'll add more to this post tomorrow. Ciao!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Shameless Advertising

I do this to support fellow volunteers. Please just read the letter I received and at least look at the site. You might find some unique Christmas gifts!

To: All PCVs and Staff in Bulgaria
From: Larry Gemmell, COD Stara Zagora
Re: Please Help

I would be very grateful if you would pass along this web address to your friends and relatives in the States:

www.handknitcrafts.com

For the past year I’ve been working with a group of disabled women living in the Home for the Handicapped in Stara Zagora. The women are craft knitters and, as a part of a SPA Project, we have created a web site to sell their products online.

Each woman’s short biography is posted along with our catalog of offered products. Our intent is to personalize the buying experience as much as possible. Upon receipt of an order, the customer will receive a confirmation letter (email) telling them which woman will knit their product and when it will be shipped. The customer can ask for modifications to the product and can correspond with the knitter by email. We accept all major credit cards.

Shipping to America is free via BulPost and we have an overnight service available, at the customer’s expense, with lower rates than DHL, UPS or FedEx.

Again, our web address is:

www.handknitcrafts.com

Also, any feedback about this site that you might care to pass along to me will be appreciated.

Thanks,
Larry

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Pictures!

Okay, so you begged, you pleaded, you even threatened. Well, maybe you didn't do any of those things, but some people have been saying my blog needs more pictures. Well, my blog doesn't have many pictures, but there is a place you can go to see a bunch of pics (234 to be exact, so pace yourself) that are all out-of-order and topsy-turvy (it was proving too time-consuming to try and organize them), so you'll probably end up really confused. Ah, and something else you should know. You have to sign up for Snapfish to view them. I think it's a relatively harmless thing to do. I, for example, have been signed up with them for years and they've pretty much left me alone. It's only now that I've started using them and my account was still there... just hanging out. And now, for the link. Drumroll please... click here! and then click on the link on the above right if you don't have a Snapfish account. Again, I'm really sorry about the forced registration, but I think they're fairly harmless... maybe one unwanted e-mail you can unsubscribe from. And in a few seconds you can see a bunch of my photos... if you want... so no more complaining!
If you have problems, drop me an e-mail.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Pounding out SOS's

Hey all,
I had to share with you what happened to me early this morning. I woke up thirsty around 4:30 a.m. Upon trying to exit my room, I found that my door was stuck. I had shoved it pretty hard last night because it doesn't close all the way, and I wanted to preserve as much heat as I could. Well, I started tugging for the next 12 minutes or so, but it wouldn't budge. My hands hurt, so I figured I'd look for my cell phone and call someone in a couple hours. I realized my cell phone was out in the living room. Smart. So I thought about climbing out the window, but I decided against it 'cause it was pretty dark... and freezing, but hey! gorgeous stars!! It's a good thing I didn't because it's higher than it looks. Of course my bladder decides that I have to pee. I waited until about 6:30 a.m. - and then I thought I heard my landlords moving around downstairs (I can sometimes hear Enyo snoring from my room! Hehe.) I looked outside again and realized that there was no way I was making it out the window, so I crouched down on my floor and started pounding out SOS's. I don't know if Bulgaria has SOS, but I figured it's universal. The Bulgarian alphabet doesn't even have an S, but Bulgarians know our latin alphabet. Besides, weird pounding coming from the upstairs portion of your house should give you a clue that something is wrong. I heard my landlords rustling around downstairs, and it sounded like they were coming, but no one showed up. I opened my window and started shouting Milka's name. After a couple minutes of that, I started pounding on my floor again. Well, finally they came and rescued me.
Then, this morning in the shower the water suddenly stopped for about 10 seconds. When it came on again, after scalding me, the water decided to go cold. Bleh. I wonder what the rest of the day has in store.... I ate some Honey Nut Cheerios with a banana this morning and had some sense of "normalcy." No soy milk here though (sniffle). Christi, if you read this, have a glass of chocolate Silk for me.
So that was my morning. Milka came in and said, "Oh, we thought something terrible had happened to you. Maybe you were sick, or maybe you drank too much last night and needed help." Do I seem like the type that would get wasted alone in her apartment? Maybe my landlady has that impression. I don't know why. And they took the handle off my door completely, so now there are holes where the heat can escape. That's a shame, 'cause I'm in the midst of a torrid love affair with my heater that's only going to intensify as the winter progresses.
I had to share that with you, 'cause I think it's hilarious, and I thought you might be amused as well. I could tell you about all the good times I'm having - how I went out for coffee last night with some people from my youth group and it was fun times, how I sit in my apartment and attempt to cook, how I look forward to little things like tea and cookies when I get home... but who wants to hear about that? That's not entertainment! So you just sit there and wait, and I'll see what other crazy hi-jinks (highjinx?) I can get myself into over here in Bulgaria.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

My Secret Weapon: Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Augh!!! I almost lost this post due to random internet weirdness. I'm so glad I know the wonders of copy and paste!
One of my many uncles has suggested that I try to turn this blog into a best-seller by staging more dramatic fight scenes -- maybe some Star Wars meets a solitary, wandering Ninja. Here is my attempt:
So yesterday, I was walking down the streets of my village (dodging goats and the nice little remnants they leave behind), when a man approached me and started speaking to me in Bulgarian. Assuming he was insulting my knack for expecting stores to be open when they are scheduled to be, I immediately took offense and whipped out my light-saber. It was a tremendous battle. I won by performing a triple-lutz in the final round. You should have been here to see it. Soon after, I was surround by a bunch of children cheering my name: Ейприл! Ейприл! Other villagers came out, and I thought they were going to have a parade in my honor. It turns out, however, that I had broken one of their many laws and had now jeopardized their entrance into the European Union. They immediately demanded my Litchna Karta (Bulgarian ID). Unable to produce it due to my foreign heritage, they tied me up and took me to Pazardjik (the largest city an hour away). I sat there - bouncing on the bus, bound, frustrated, lamenting my plight and wondering how I was going to escape - when the vehicle broke down and started smoking. While the natives were restless and confused, I took the opportunity to run away into the hills - where I met a goat-herder shouting "Ricola!" Assuming he was insulting my entire family, I immediately produced some numchuks and did away with the squab. Afterwards, I contacted the mothership and made arrangements to return to Tatooine. I will go ahead and live there since I can no longer reside in Bulgaria and there's a price on my head in the states -- international incidents galore.
How was that? I know, I know. No best-selling blogs for me. I must apologize for my mundane life and lack of creativity. But that was for you, uncle, so you know I love you.
Now back to regularly-scheduled programming....
Life has come to a sense of "normalcy," I suppose. My niche here in town has been to try and be the American girl who "shows up." I come into work (even though I spend most of the time on the internet while my colleagues discuss who knows what). I show up for youth meetings (even though I don't understand most of what they're saying while they discuss who knows what). And I try to get invited to as many cultural events and "na gostis" that I can. This last Saturday I went to Plovdiv. I love that city. It's become my Valencia. I would explain what I mean by that, but it would take too long. If you understand, great. If not, that was just for me anyway. So I was really happy to go back for a visit. I texted my "family" on my mobile phone. They want to know when I'm coming back for a visit. And it was hard to know that I was only 5 km away from them, but I just couldn't make the trip. So anyway, I was in my favorite Bulgarian city for a Roma festival. They had a four-day fair celebrating all things Roma, and a group from here in Rakitovo went and put on a performance of singing and drum playing. I have some pictures and some video. I've posted a picture now (see last post), so I don't feel so bad promising I'll share pictures with you. Video is another story. Don't expect more miracles from me. There were other groups from around Bulgaria as well - dancing the kuchek, singing, performing short musicals, and doing free-style dance and amazing acrobatics to hip-hop music. It was fun, and some other volunteers were in the city, but I wasn't able to see them. I was pretty disappointed because I wanted to swap "first-week-in-site" stories. I'm sure there are good ones, but it just didn't work out. When I got back that evening, my landlords had me over for dinner. They're really sweet people. I understand when they speak to me because they're very patient and are willing to repeat things. They seem to understand me for the most-part as well. Some people just have a natural gift for that - like my family in Trud, and I'm feeling fortunate thus far to live under their roof.
The apartment saga continues. On Sunday, I spent the whole day in my apartment - cleaning my kitchen and trying to place some things in order. I cleaned out a bunch of their stuff and have found out the purpose of that off-limits room: Apparently it's Bulgarian custom to reserve a room to store a bunch of your offspring's stuff. Hey, that happens in the states, too. Right now, in fact, there's a room at my mom's place in Sacramento that has a lot of my junk in it. The difference lies in the fact that my mom's not renting out the upper floor where that room happens to be. At least, I haven't heard that she is. So my strategy has been to put all the things I don't want, that came with the apartment, in that room. I'm hoping to develop a different strategy in the near future cause it's more spacious and sunny, but right now it seems to reek of cigarette smoke, so I'm content.
I got my kitchen clean enough to the point that I felt like trying my hand at baking some cookies. Side note: If you have any great vegetarian recipes, please feel free to send them my way. I'll look to see if we have those ingredients here, and then I'll try and learn how to cook. I've already invited my colleagues over to a "na gosti" at my house, but it'll be a "teach Apryl to cook easy Bulgarian dishes na gosti" and they'll cook. I'll let you know how that one goes.... So, back to the cookies. I found a recipe for peanut butter cookies in the Peace Corps cookbook. The thing that's nice about it is that it's a little "Bulgarianized" (how many packets of vanilla - it's in powder form and sold in tiny packets here - and oven temps in Celcius), but it's still missing out on the whole easy-conversion to metric thing (the amounts are still in cups) so it's still some guesswork. I made the batter, cut up a chocolate bar, and decided to try a bit. I must admit, it was pretty yummy, and I was tempted to eat it all in raw form. I turned on my oven and popped them in. Twenty minutes later, they still weren't done! (It's only supposed to take about 8-10 min.) I finally grew impacient and took them out. They were good - a little chewy in the center, but edible. I could only fit about six at a time on the pan, so it took me about three hours to make the whole batch. I was up 'til midnight, but it was worth it. I left the last batch in for a really long time, and they turned a deep dark brown - really hard and crunchy, but not burned. Strange. So I'm learning about patience while making cookies. It's a win-win. And hopefully another win:
I shared them with my youth group last night, and I got some compliments: "What's this? I thought you said you couldn't cook!" "These are delicious! Thank you." "Next time we have a picnic, you can bring these again." "Make more." "Can we have the recipe?"
So I declined to share the recipe with them. You can't give away your secret-brainwashing-people-into-liking-you-weapon. They'd probably make them better than me anyway, and I wouldn't have a "niche" to share with them for cultural events. They can have the recipe in two years.
Well, now I feel a little more "homey" in my apartment, and I'm settling in a little bit more. There's still more to be done, and there are times that I feel this is all just an experiment - and I'll be back in Trud with my "family" in no time. I still haven't comprehended the fact that, yes, I'm living on my own. It's my own space, and I need to personalize it. The only times I feel like I need to do that are when I find other people's stuff inhabiting my drawers! (Like pornographic video tapes. Yes, it happened to me!)
Yesterday, my boss and I were in Pazardjik the entire morning/afternoon - trying to get my documents in order (hopefully that's all straightened out, and I'll have my Litchna Karta by the end of the week so I'll be a legal foreigner working in Bulgaria) and making connections with the Roma organizations in town. I had previously met some of the Roma youth there during training, so it was nice to visit with them again and make connections now that I'm a volunteer. I look forward to running into them for cultural events in the future. On the way back from Pazardjik yesterday, the bus briefly broke down. And our bus from Rakitovo to Plovdiv on Saturday had smoking issues. That part of my previous embellishment was true. These things happen, and I mostly feel sorry for those who are easily carsick. The route between Pazardjik and Velingrad is absolutely gorgeous (natural rock cliffs, autumn trees, and a rushing river below), but terribly windy (not windy as in breeze, windy as in curvy), and we had to make a "special stop" for the kids on Saturday once we got out on the main stretch of highway. And then the route from Pazardjik to Plovdiv is scattered with prostitutes, so that is a scandal. I share this with you not to be scandalized, but so that you will know that there are young girls out in the cold trying to make a living the only way they know how. Someone told me they saw one of the girls crying.
Well, here I am again rambling. I'll give you a break and then hit you with more later. For now: Довиждане!

Miracle of Miracles! Apryl posts her first picture!


David and me at the swearing-in ceremony. He sent it to me, and I've posted it. Now I'm going to have to take time to re-format a bunch of my pictures and see if I can get them on the computer here at work to share with you.
And check back with Jennifer's blog to see more pictures from good times in training.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Extra! Extra!

Read all about it!
Here too!
And can someone tell me what THIS is? Should I be banking mad money?
Hey! And here's a picture of Andy and me at the Seven Lakes! It's amazing what you find when you waste time at work looking for yourself on the internet.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Bizarro World

Imagine the following day:
You wake up at 7:00. You think about getting out of bed, but you know your feet will immediately freeze to the floor, so you debate it for a while. You finally get up, take a shower, and put on three layers of clothing - trying to cover every patch of exposed skin that you can without looking like a unibomber. You go out and meet your colleague and your landlord, who have to accompany you to the Police Station so you can register and avoid deportation. You get in the cab, and it says it's zero degrees celcius outside. "Figures," you think. Just when you're getting warm, you get to the station. The policeman there looks at your passport and visa for a very long time - as if expecting them to start talking to him. Finally, he says that you're registered as far as your address goes, but to get legal documentation to stay and work in Bulgaria, you have to go to the largest town an hour away. Your colleague and landlord take you out for coffee. Your landlord insists that you eat some eggs and have some orange soda with your coffee. You politely decline, but then decide to have some orange juice with your coffee and eggs when he won't let up. He then refuses to let you pay. You then go back to your town, where you enter your office to find a picture of you from the internet splashed all over one of the computers. Your colleagues are just joking around with you, but it still makes you a little uncomfortable, and you're not sure how to express that in a polite, yet determined way because they all speak another language you don't know well. You hang out in the office for a few hours - playing on the internet while others work, joke around, and work some more. Suddenly, a woman bursts in saying that she's going to teach you the language everyone speaks. She invites you down for coffee with her colleagues, who are all teachers as well. They don't have school today because it's a cultural holiday for about 30% of their class. Another 60% knew about the holiday and decided not to show up. Who wants to teach 10% of the class? Might as well not have school, go drink coffee, and smoke. Oh, and by the way, might as well take off Thursday and Friday, too. One of the teachers starts talking to you about how she has a son your age at home. You really should come over and spend time at her house. You smile and nod. Your future language teacher half-jokingly asks you if you need to learn how to smoke. Once again, someone pays for you. No one will ever let you pay for anything. You arrange to meet again with your future language teacher sometime next week. You go back to the office, where your colleagues lecture you about proper etiquette and inform you that they worry about you. They're very sweet, and you know they're just looking out for you, so you try to see things from their point of view. One of them seems to have permanently attached himself to your hip. You know he's just looking out for your well-being. You appreciate his company, as you have few friends, so you happily accept his persistent presence whenever you go out in public. You play on the computer some more, and then you go home to try and clean up a messy kitchen that you haven't even really been able to use yet. On the way home, you run into your only American colleague and she shares with you all the Halloween stuff she got from back home - two days late. You rejoice in the opportunity to eat candy corn. After cleaning a bit, you decide to go out for lunch. At the first place you stop at, the following conversation ensues:
You: "May I have a salad?"
Server: "We don't have a cook at the moment, sorry."
You don't speak the language well, so you don't understand at first. You think she's just saying they're out of that type of salad.
You: "Do you have any other salads?"
Server: "Sorry, there's no one to make a salad."
You still don't understand.
You: "How about some french fries?"
Server: "Sorry. There's no one here to cook."
You finally understand and decide to go across the way where the music is so loud you can't hear yourself think, and there are a bunch of men sitting near you... drinking, yelling, and singing along with the music. Another couple sits at a table and they stare at you for a while. Oh, that's another thing: Everywhere you go, everyone stares at you. So you have your french fries and your salad because you suffer from vegetarianism. There's enough oil on the french fries to cause a cardiac arrest, but you still think it's the healthier option... better than ordering chicken and catching the bird flu! After lunch, you decide to go buy some things at the "Everything for a lev" store. You walk in the open door, and the store is empty. You grab a few things and wait for someone to show up and ring up your purchase. You briefly think about just taking the stuff. They're only a lev anyway, but your moral nature prevents you from doing that. You think you recognize the owner as the one whose cooing and making faces at a baby right outside at the local cafe. You go outside and stand for about a minute before she notices you. At first, she brings the baby inside so you can "ooh" and "ahhh" over it too, but then she tells you to wait while she gives it back to its mother. She rings up your purchases (which happen to be more expensive than you anticipated), and then you head off to the next store... which says it's open, but is actually closed. Stores that say they're closed are actually open, clocks all display the wrong hour (and not just an hour ahead), and people are still staring at you and talking to you in some foreign language. You decide the best thing is just to head back home again and maybe venture out tomorrow. Once in your apartment, you clean up more of the mess that was there before you moved in. You put on Sting - "Englishman in New York" and change all the lyrics to fit your situation. You've heard it here a few times. You take the liberty of cleaning out someone's massive tape collection from a large dresser drawer, and then you realize it's time for a youth meeting. You go to the meeting, where everyone is speaking this foreign language and an even more foreign language. They're constantly reminding each other to only speak one foreign language - the one you only know a little bit of. They have their meeting. You observe. They ask you to play games that bring you in close proximity of the people you don't know. Afterwards, they discuss an incident at school. You don't understand everything, but you know enough to realize that racism exists in your new home, and you feel entirely helpless to do anything about it. Afterwards, the guy who's permanently attached to your hip slowly explains to you what happened. Then, he follows you to the internet cafe where you type to your family/friends back home about your day. Welcome to my life. Welcome to Bulgaria.

Sorry about the lengthy entry there. As the day went on, I realized how bizarre it seemed to be. I'm kinda used to it now, but when you actually think about it, you wake up to how different life truly is from a few months ago. I had to share.
Halloween was interesting. Brandy, the TEFL, invited me to her classroom to participate in her "black party." Everyone dressed up in black, and there was tons of food (I'm proud to say the candy I brought was the first to go - in mere seconds). The kids stood around for a long while because they didn't know what to do. Brandy kept insisting they eat and drink punch. She had some carved pumpkins and some spooky music in the background. It was a fun party, and the kids enjoyed playing "wrap your friends in toilet paper like a mummy" games, but they were mostly confused by the whole event. I think they were just happy to have a party. Hey, might as well. Monday will be the only day this week that people actually showed up for school. As I said before, there's a cultural holiday for some and the rest will just take it off because it's only fair, and because they can. After the party, some of the kids went trick-or-treating, but it was such a big event, that it took a long time just to get from one house to the other. The Bulgarians were really sweet to participate and pass out candy. They really have very little concept of the day. We went to the school director's first. She gave us some candy and then we took a bunch of pictures. We walked to the second house (several blocks away), got candy, and then waited while the candy-giver got her coat and joined us. Then, I had to meet my colleagues, so I made it to two houses for Halloween candy.
My landlords are great. They're really sweet and have had me for "na gosti" a couple of times. Other than suddenly walking into my apartment without a courtesy knock, I'm very happy with them. The apartment is another story. Well, it's a great place. It just needs to be a little de-cluttered. I was all excited to buy things and cook the other day, but then I found that I was out of money and the ATM was out-of-service. As there's only one ATM in all of Rakitovo, I had to wait until the next day to get money out. That's better than some towns where there's no ATM. So I haven't felt "homey" yet. I've bought peanut butter (a delicacy in Bulgaria), and I want to make peanut-butter cookies, but I want to get my kitchen all nice, clean, and proper before I try such an undertaking. It's a process. Well, I have more to say, but Angel is here waiting for me, and I've taken up enough of your time for sure. Until next post, enjoy your logical life. Another volunteer has a joke, "If it makes sense, you've gone too far west." Did I remember to remind you all once again that I love it here?