Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Snezhanka

How many times can I whine and complain about melting snow creating rivers and puddles everywhere I want to walk? And how many times can I lament and moan about how no one shows up to my English classes!!?!?!?!? Okay. I'm done... for now. I did run into a couple kids from my Monday class on my way up, and they were wondering if we were going to have a lesson today. I should have told them "yes" since I missed out on their session. I suppose it is vacation time, and as no one is in school... and apparently we're not in the office either? I showed up today, and no one was there. I hiked up to the Mahala to talk to my colleagues, and I was told that we wouldn't be working until after the New Year. Oh, okay. You see, I have this very special gift. It's called "selective hearing." As my Bulgarian skills are quite limited, I tend to zone out if no one is talking directly to me. If I'm involved in the conversation, I'm good. If not, I'm lost. Then, when something happens, I'm constantly asking, "Wait, what's going on again? Why are we doing this?" Yeah. I'm sure my colleagues are slightly confused by my "dim-wittedness." During training, my family would notice my spaced-out look and say, "Where are you, Apryl? In America?" And my sister asked me many times where I was during the holiday. It's just too hard to pay attention when I don't know what's going on.
My Christmas was a good one. I got to talk to my mom on Christmas Eve and my dad on Christmas Day, so that made the holiday special. Plus, I was in Trud with my family. As I haven't seen them since I moved to Rakitovo, it was really great to go back. My mom started crying when I walked in, and my sister kept hugging me. It felt really good to be missed. And, if I couldn't be with my family in the states, at least I was with my family in Bulgaria - although I think there are other Bulgarians here who would like to think of themselves as my family. So, Christmas was fairly quiet. We watched a lot of cheesy Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel, and we went to "The Station." For those of you who remember from training, "Station" was the prime hangout. Nothing has changed, and I was there on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
My family gave me a pair of giant slippers in the shape of monkey-heads. How cute is that?!?! I also got a rather large chocolate Santa from my cousin. We had a nice dinner on Christmas Eve where we tried our luck at finding the stotinki in a dry cake (if you find it, you have good luck all year), and we each received traditional fortunes in the banitza (pastry dish). Mine said that I would soon be going on an "attractive excursion abroad." We'll see about that. I also received a fortune from Maria that said I'd be going to the states. Hmmm.... Anyway, I had a very nice Christmas with my family, and I didn't want to leave. I was so excited to be hanging out in Plovdiv again that I almost missed my bus back!
Yesterday my organization handed out bags of goodies to children. They waited for me to get back in order to distribute the gifts, and I was grateful for that. We gave the kids things like croissants, bananas, oranges, chocolate bars, chocolate Santas, pretzels, gum, and all sorts of other things good for rotting teeth. I suggested we also hand out toothbrushes, but they thought I was joking. It was so much fun to see the kids all happy and spoiled. Plus, it was neat to see Yanko really excited about arranging the whole thing. Ah, and I got to be "Snezhanka." Snezhanka is Santa's special helper. In traditions back in the states, we have Mrs. Claus, who I guess waits for Santa to return to the North Pole or something. Here we have Snezhanka... who's like, Santa's mistress. Nah, I'm kidding... but I still get the impression that Snezhanka is this nymph-like chalga singer. Plus, she gives out presents! What's not to like? Anyway, I was introduced as "Snezhanka" and the kids started clapping and cheering. It made me blush.
Later that evening we had a dinner party with our entire team and some of our supporters. After some good food and a few drinks, some of us got up and danced the "hora." It was a nice, relaxing evening, and I really appreciate my colleagues. Yanko always does his best to accomodate my vegetarianism in these situations, and it was great to have Valia back as she's been in the hospital with Jeanette. Apparently Jeanette's temperature spiked last night and they had to leave for a while, but I guess it was because her teeth are coming in. When it was explained to me, I thought they were saying that her teeth were falling out. I was trying to tell them that I thought it was a little early for this (she's about two), and they were saying, "No. No, it's not." I was confused for a while, and then the light came on and I'm like, "OHHH!!!" And they laugh at the silly American and we all drink some more and they talk about how they're going to teach me a Roma language. All I can do is smile and wonder if I'll ever get the hang of Bulgarian. If you knew how many different tenses this language has.... I thought Spanish was bad! Oh, and Yanko gave me a statue of this silver girl rising upward like a phoenix or something with the wind swirling behind her. Angel said it was me, and I gave him a look. Angel got the "Gentleman of the Year" award, and he also received a statue of a horse, which he said he's going to name "Aprylcho." He likes to compare me to the horses his dad raises because he tells me I'm wild, stubborn, and unable to stand still. And while he's telling me this, I space out....

Friday, December 23, 2005

Весела Коледа!

"Vecela Koleda!" a.k.a Merry Christmas!
I've posted pictures again. Check out my Bulgarian album, part 2. I've included some winter pictures in there, pictures of my office, and pictures from a play I went to yesterday. Some kids from my organization put on a dramatization of "The Emperor's New Clothes." And then others got up and sang. It was fantastic! Today we were goofing off in the office, so I've also posted pictures of that. I took some great video of Reneta, Angel, and me dancing "kuchek," but I don't know how to share video with you. My apologies. By the by, I got my first package today: Candy from Grandma and Grandpa! Yay! See's Molasses Chips, Fudge, and Frosted Pecans. I'd brought in peanut-butter cookies earlier that morning, but they were gone all too soon and paled in comparison anyway. Mmmm.... My colleagues went crazy for them, and I know they love me more because of it. Hehe. Thanks, Grandma and Grandpa. I'm going to share them with my family when I go to Trud tomorrow. Happy Holidays, everyone! I hope you have a warm holiday wherever you celebrate.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Cold Sparkling White Labyrinths

It’s snowing again. My beautiful town has once more become a perilous place to walk because of a thick white blanket that has smothered it. It has also become a very limited place to walk due to the paths people have had to carve out to get from point A to point B. I haven’t fallen yet, but I’ve slipped more than a few times. I don’t want a reenactment of the scene where my head met the pavement, so I walk around like a crazy rat in a padded maze.
It snowed hard over a couple days this past weekend, and temperatures have dropped dramatically. My room is no longer a haven for heat. It’s warmer than other rooms in my house, but not by much. I’ve had to put on more layers to sleep, and my landlords keep trying to persuade me to sleep downstairs. My boss is also trying to convince me to stay at his house with his family, but I just want to sleep in my own space. Others have suggested I find someone to keep me warm. No offers as of yet, though. I’d like to buy another heater, but I’m already having various electrical problems that I won’t go into right now. I’ll probably break down and buy another one. I’m still sleeping all right though. It hasn’t gotten to the point of desperation, and I have even further measures I can employ if the temperature continues to drop. I just don’t want to have guests over because they’ll take pity on me as they shiver in my home. Hehe. It’s not quite THAT bad. In the meantime, I’m counting the days until March.
On Saturday night, I had a slumber party with Maria and Reneta up at their house in the Mahala. I had an English lesson before that, and Maria was texting me every five minutes on my cell phone to ask me where I was. I know they were excited that I was coming, and were simultaneously worrying that I wouldn’t show up. They’re super cute. They always want me to come over for one reason or another, and Reneta has gone as far as to say that she wishes I lived with them. She can’t figure out why her father, my boss, just didn’t arrange for me to stay at their place for the next two years. She cracks me up.
So anyway, we had a girlie slumber party. We watched “Big Brother” on TV, and then we went up into their room and told scary stories followed by a makeover session. I’ll have to post pictures. I slept in late the next day and woke up to them watching Cartoon Network. They learn so much slang from that channel, and they remember! It’s amazing. “Apryl, what does ‘doofus’ mean? Ani, their mom and my colleague, came in to ask why we were lazing around so late. I fill this really weird role, and I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but it’s kinda awkward for me: I’m a colleague here. I work as an equal in an office with these girls’ parents. At the same time, when I visit their house, it’s like I’m another kid and my colleagues become my surrogate parents. It sorta gives me the heebie-jeebies and makes me giggle.
On Sunday, the girls, Ani, and I went to visit Valia and Janette in the hospital in Velingrad. Poor little Janette has bronchitis. It was so sad just to be there. Janette was sleeping like a little angel, but she was sharing a room with at least two other restless, whimpering children and their mothers who were trying to comfort them. Upon entering the room, I was hit with a horrendous smell, and it felt dirty just being in there. Ani tells me that kids who go there usually end up even sicker, or they’ll come home with other infections like lice or something. It’s better, if one can help it, to just stay home. I wanted to badly to snap my fingers and make the place better. There are many times in Bulgaria when I’ve wanted to do that. If anyone has a magic wand, please send it over via airmail. Janette is home now, but Valia tells me she’s starting to cough more, so they might have to go back. How hard it must be to be the mother of a sick child.
My English class on Monday was great. I teach younger kids and a couple of adults, and the kiddies get into it. They’re so cute! We learned the names of some fruits and vegetables this last time, and they were adorable shouting out words like “mushroom!” “potatoes!” and “strawberry!” They’re really eager to learn, and it makes it fun. It makes up for my Wednesday class with teenagers who don’t even bother to show up, or who have the audacity to walk by and not even come in. I’ve had it with them, and hiking uphill, barefoot, both ways in the snow just to teach a class no one’s going to come to. I enjoyed the wood stove though, and my second Wednesday class (with the truly motivated teenagers) was good times as usual.
I had my weekly Bulgarian lesson on Tuesday, and Katya, my teacher, told me, “Oh, some of my students told me that they have English lessons with you on Fridays.” I responded, “Well, tell them they’re liars ‘cause they haven’t shown up for a lesson yet.” Bleh. I’m bitter. She was funny. Before I entered the house, she gave me a piece of wood to carry up the stairs. “Here. You have to carry this. You’re the first person in our house on this special day (I guess it’s the first day of Virgin Mary’s labor pains or something?), and you’re supposed to bring a gift with you. If you’re a good person, we’ll have good luck all year through. Depending on how the year goes, we’ll find out if you’re good-hearted or not.” I felt badly for not bringing an actual gift, but how am I supposed to know the varying nuances of all these Bulgarian traditions? (sigh) I have a lot to learn.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Imperialism & not understanding any of it... at all

I'm going to apologize right now. This entry is going to be a bunch of rambling nonsense that probably won't even make sense to me after I'm done. Maybe I should reserve these entries for my personal journal, but this is my attempt to be open and honest - and mostly just with myself. So, here it is.
I'm human, and I'm trapped in my own way of thinking. I will never be Bulgarian. I will never fully know the trials and tribulations of living here. Peace Corps is a great organization, but it keeps me in a protective bubble. Even if it didn't, I still wouldn't know. I already have my ideas and I'm set in my ways. Realizing that, how can I fault others for thinking the way they do? And should I try to change it? Is that just imperialism?
This is coming after a round of realizing just how opinionated and vocal I really am. I always thought I was timid about my personal beliefs and I never wanted to create waves. Ever. With anyone. But maybe that's not who I am anymore. I mean, see the last entry on my opinions of teachers on strike... and looking at it through the eyes of my background and my loyalty to my organization over here. Yeah, do I really understand what's going on? Do I know the reasons behind everything people do? No. Do I have the right to be "preachy?" Probably not.
This is also coming after a night of feeling like I had to defend my organization and the people I work with. I was at a party last night with a bunch of teachers who work with the TEFL volunteer in Velingrad. There were a few moments of awkwardness when they learned who I work with. I'm not going to relate everything that happened. I'll save that for my personal journal. Plus, maybe people shouldn't be accountable for things said under the influence of alcohol. I'll only share my own short-comings - which can be easily found without alcoholic beverages. I'm fiercely loyal to the people I work with. I'm too sensitive - I know this. And I need to be more open-minded and see things from other people's perspective. Can people always be accountable for the way they think - for the way they were raised? Can they be accountable for lamenting the problems here in Bulgaria and trying to find a scapegoat for them? Am I any better than them? To the last question, I can definitely say, "Of course not!" I just think I have a better way of thinking (which could be called "imperialism"), and I have the luxury of that because of the way I was programmed, because of the blessings I have that I easily take for granted, and because of my own natural self-centeredness. I'm not being hard on myself. I'm just trying to think some things through - and this is my rambling outlet.
And then after all that - of maybe going too far and reacting to them in a way the might offend, the Bulgarians were still hospitable to me. They still wanted to invite me to their next party and plan some type of cooperative activity. For this I am amazed and grateful. I can only hope I will obtain that level of maturity one day.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Stachka! (Strike!)

"Аз стачкувам" read the tags of many of the teachers as they rushed all around me. There's been a strike going on in many of the schools around the country, and one of the schools in my town (the one up in the Mahala that's comprised of Roma students) is on strike as well. The other schools in town are still in session as far as I know. The Bulgarian teachers up at Hristo Botev (in the Mahala) want more money. They show up at the school, but they hang out in the teacher's lounge - refusing to work. Meanwhile, the kids are running around like wild in the hallways, or they're wandering around in the street, or they're standing around in the school wondering what to do. When asked if they want to study, they say "yes." When asked what's going on, they say, "I don't know." They only know their teachers are on strike and they don't know what to do or where to go.
Yanko and I were there because we want to take some of the kids to Pazardjik for a Roma Festival tomorrow. A bunch of people from around the region are getting together to put on a special Christmas celebration, and some of the kids have been practicing for the show. Well, in order for them to go on a school day, we have to get special permission from the school. When we went to talk to the director, she said we needed to talk to another man. When he came out of the teacher's lounge, I saw that he was wearing a tag to indicate that he was on strike. He refused to sign a declaration allowing the kids to go because he's on strike, and that would be "work (i.e. doing his job)." So, now Yanko is at a loss for what to do. A lot of planning has gone into this event, and now we can't legally take the kids to Pazardjik. I can tell you that my organization is frustrated, but this blog is reserved for personal opinion, so please allow me to go into one of my wordy, preachy, opinionated diatribes.
Teachers should never go on strike. I don't care what problems you have with money, and I definitely think teachers are underpaid in the state. Maybe they're underpaid here, but I think the teachers up at the Mahala make more than the parents of the kids they teach. I cannot think of many more important jobs than those that deal with the education of a child. For this reason, teachers should be paid well, and they should never dare to go on strike. Remember, this is my personal opinion. The education of a child is too important to support your own agenda to the detriment of your students. I have the utmost respect for teachers. I think it takes a special person to work in the field of education, and I think this person should be willing to put the needs of their students before their own - within reason, of course. If you're a teacher, and you're having problems with the system, find some other way to resolve it. Don't refuse to teach and deny children their education - not to mention a place to go during the day. To me it says that you don't care enough about your students, and that's not the proper message to send to a child. Again, I only have the utmost respect for teachers. I don't think I could do their job 'cause I think I lack the self-confidence, stamina, and patience. Teachers (and parents - you're teachers, too), you are beyond value. Never refuse to do your job. It's too important.
I saw a man wearing the "I'm on strike" nametag push a student down the stairs - telling him to get out of the school. I was furious. Argh!!! Stop me. Otherwise I'll go into another rant about how wrong it is to push someone who wants to learn out of an institution for learning. Plus, if you're not going to teach the kids, you might as well let them go on a field trip.
So we're not going to Pazardjik tomorrow. The kids don't get to strut their stuff, and who knows, maybe gain some self-confidence. Instead, they get to run around in the hallways or the streets - wondering what's going on. Or hey, if the problem's resolved, they'll get to attend class - which would be a good thing. I don't know if, as a child, I could trust someone who basically said they didn't get paid enough money to put up with me. Yikes. Here I go again. I can't be stopped.
So Angel, Yanko, and I are going to Sofia tomorrow. C.E.G.A., which means "now" in Bulgarian, is having its 10-year anniversary. From what I understand, C.E.G.A. is sort of like a mother NGO that provides support to other NGOs. We'll go to a party in the evening and then spend the night. It'll be fun, but I rather wish we were going to Pazardjik.
Last week, the teachers who Brandy works with (at a school that's not on strike) invited me to their annual holiday banquet. We were at a restaurant in Velingrad for five hours! We had a huge meal - which the Bulgarians ate slow as molasses. From the way I ate, I probably looked like a half-starved, street urchin. I soon learned to slow down. So between eating and drinking, they would get up and dance the hora - on the dance floor, around the tables, blocking the waiters from getting me my Coca-Cola, holding the hands of strangers. It was an interesting cultural experience to say the least. The cops would be called if other patrons started dancing around your table and interfering with your server at a restaurant in the states.
Speaking of things they do here that they'd never do in the states... they're selling fireworks to minors. Eight-year-old boys are setting off near bombs in front of my house at all hours of the morning and night. This afternoon I passed the firework shop, and two little boys asked me if they could use my telephone to call the proprietor. "Why?" "We want to tell him to come and open up the shop." I looked at the posted working hours; looked at my watch. "Wait five minutes. He'll come." I swear that stand must be raking in the dough. There's always someone buying something there when I go by. Brandy wants to buy a bunch of fireworks from the guy, find out where he lives, and then set them all off out in front of his house at midnight some night. I'm sure there are many boys already doing that for her without meaning to.
My English classes went all right today. Only one boy who was scheduled to come to the first class showed up. Fortunately, Angel and Ani were there to help play Bingo and carry on an introductory conversation with the boy. It was still frustrating though, in that one girl told me earlier in the day that she would come, and he didn't show up. What can I do? I can only show up and see what they do. I'm not a teacher. I'm not sure how to impose rules. I don't want to be strict about formalities and handicap them. I'm not giving out grades. I have to be available if they want to study. I don't want to limit their options. Grr... I just don't want to prepare for a class no one will show up for. Fortunately, I had another class at my home after that. This lesson was attended by more serious students. They stayed for two-and-a-half hours! They so badly wanted to speak English, and they already speak English better than most of the others that "say" they want to study with me. I held the class in my house, and their pleasant personalities also gave the lesson a more "homey" feel. They want to come twice a week to study. This boy and girl make it a pleasure to teach, and as long as I have their lessons to look forward to, I think I can handle this "teaching English" thing.
Angel has also finally come outright and told me that he wants to learn English. I knew he did, but I was waiting for him to ask, and I told him so. He even wrote an "official" declaration saying that he wants to learn. He cracks me up.
Today Peace Corps sent out one of their medical officers to do an informal check-up on me. It was basically an informal conversation to see how I'm adjusting to my site. It's always great when the medical officers come around though, 'cause they bring out their drugs with them and you can peruse the merchandise. Haha! When she hopped out of the car, she said, "Apryl, come over here and do some shopping." So I picked out some choice over-the-counter goodies (free of charge, of course) and praised the Peace Corps for its glorious health plan. I swear I would pledge my life to the Corps if only for the free medical care and OTC drugs. What can I say? I'm easily bought.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

What if the "Hokey-Pokey" really IS what it's all about?

No one came to the two other English classes I held last week. I actually don't care much. It's their decision if they want to come and learn English, and they haven't been able to prioritize accordingly. One girl said that she was in Velingrad. Sorry. Others had work to do. Understandable. But I saw one guy right before he was scheduled to show up for class! He asked me if I would translate something for him, and then he decided to hang out with his friends instead. Can I understand this mentality? No. I'm not going to even try. I just wish I hadn't been up the night before preparing. This last time, I decided to go ahead and play "Bingo" with the people who were in the clubhouse - even though they weren't signed up for English. I think they enjoyed it. Valia won, so I gave her a Snickers bar. Now they're talking about having me teach to younger kids because they keep coming up and asking my colleagues if they can join in on the lessons. I can only hope they have more motivation than the people I work with.
Brandy has been teaching her fifth-grade class the "Hokey-Pokey." Reneta told me she had learned it, but she wasn't sure how to sing it. Another day, Sashko (Valia's son) came into the office and asked me if I knew it. Angel and his mom had no clue what it was, so I asked if he wanted to show them. "Okay, but you sing." So I sang, and we did all the gestures... twice. The kids are very good at it. They just need to learn how to sing the song. The following day we were in the clubhouse, and I told everyone there that Sashko dances the "Hokey-Pokey" very well. "What's the Hokey-Pokey?" So, I told them that Sashko and I would show them later. On our way out the door, they reminded us that they wanted to see the "Hokey-Pokey," so I told them they had to get in a circle and do it with us 'cause it's easier than the "kuchek." It was so hilarious - seeing these teenage boys "shaking all about." We were all in stitches by the time it was over. I can't believe I still remember the "Hokey-Pokey." I guess it's just one of those universal things that stick with you into adulthood.
I had a visitor this weekend. Leslie, a B-18 volunteer in Hissar, came over. It was a nice and relaxing time for me. We came into Velingrad yesterday, got some lunch, and then went and hung out in a cafe in a gorgeous 5-star hotel in town. It started snowing, so we went back home after that. Brandy came out with us to a cafe in Rakitovo a couple times, and I enjoyed hanging out with other girls, speaking English, and just relaxing. It seems like my organization always has something going on during the weekends, and I try my best to show up to anything they invite me to. It was nice to just have a weekend to relax and not think about how frustrating it can get here - or at least to have someone to identify with your frustration. Brandy's going to be going home for Christmas here in a week or so, and I think I'm going to miss her. At first I didn't want to be placed in a site that already had a volunteer, but now I'm glad that I have someone I can vent to, bounce ideas off of, etc.
Dearest Readers: I hope you're all doing well. I hope you're not currently stressing out during the holiday season. It's too wonderful a time of year to let that kind of stuff get the best of you.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Wandering the streets of "Rakia"

“Nyama internet,” is what I was told last night when I entered the internet café. It wasn’t working since the afternoon, so the guy who takes my lev every time I go in there was sitting around with his friends – drinking and smoking. Of course! Why should we go out and fix the problem when we could sit here and smoke and drink like we do when the connection is working just fine? Hey. What do I know? Maybe they have someone on the job right now. I choose to believe that they’re sitting around hoping it will fix itself though – which it probably will somehow because that’s just how things work here. The other day, Angel and I came across a group of people standing around talking while looking at a hole in the ground. “That’s how work gets done here in Bulgaria,” Angel explained. As we walked away, someone put the lid on the manhole and everyone dispersed. “Guess the problem was solved,” I said. Anyway, I love Bulgaria. It just gives me more opportunities for bonding time with my laptop. Moving on….
Every calendar day is assigned to a saint. For example, let’s imagine that there’s a Saint Rori. In this imagined scenario, July 11th is Saint Rori Day. Anyone named Rori would be expected to show up on that day with sweets for colleagues, friends, etc. Just about everyone in Bulgaria has a name day. Of course, you’re expected to bring in sweets on your birthday as well. Yeah, you treat on your birthday. Interesting, huh? Of course, you still get presents from loved ones, but you’re supposed to reciprocate with candies or something. Anyway, back to name days. Yesterday was Nicolai’s name day. Apparently St. Nicolai is the patron saint of all sea creatures. So, in his honor, Bulgarians eat fish on December 6th. It’s strange, because some people (don’t ask me what religion this pertains to or if it’s just a cultural thing) have decided to abstain from meat and other animal products for forty days before Christmas. But, they get to eat fish one day during this meat-fast. On Christmas Eve, a lovely feast is prepared – sans meat. It’s left out overnight for the spirits (or maybe just hungry dogs… I really can’t pin this down) and then they come back on Christmas Day and eat again – adding meat this time. Please check it out for yourselves. It's quite interesting, I'm sure.
Well, my landlords invited me over for lunch yesterday. Milka fried up some fish, and Enyo was all excited about this because it meant that the vegetarian would eat meat. He has been trying to save me from vegetarianism ever since he learned that I (90% of the time) don’t eat anything with a face. (But hey, what else is a chicken good for – besides eggs – if not for eating? I ask you. And those turkeys are just asking for it on Thanksgiving and Christmas.) We go back and forth. Milka, who doesn’t care much for meat either, sticks up for my preferences once in a while. I ask Enyo why it’s so important to him that I eat meat, and Milka says it’s because he wants a partner-in-crime. Enyo says it’s because he wants me to be strong. “Yeah, yeah. You may have been a vegetarian in America, but now that you’re in Bulgaria….” So we’ll see how long I can hold out. And then there’s the alcohol….
Enyo, like many Bulgarians, makes his own wine and rakia (national drink much like brandy). He’s constantly trying to get me to drink his “domashno” (homemade) beverages. So yesterday, we started with some rakia. Fortunately, he had watered it down a bit. It’s really potent stuff. Then he asked me if I wanted wine or beer. What? The rakia isn’t enough? Wine. So Milka goes out to get some wine, and she returns with white wine, which she pours for me. Enyo is put out, because it’s not the red wine he makes. So he goes out to get the red wine, and he starts pouring it into a glass sitting in front of me. When I insist that I don’t want more wine, he says that it’s not for me; it’s for him. Just try it and tell which is better: the red or the white. “I like both,” I tell him. Okay… so it’s not for me. Why is he pouring another tall glass in front of his plate and drinking from that one? So, I’m sitting there eating (I think it’s cod?) and I have three drinks in front of me. They didn’t listen to me the first time I said I didn’t want more fish. So, I had seconds. The second time I was offered more, I actually had to touch the fish fillet with the palm of my hand to keep Enyo from putting it on my plate. Fortunately, Milka stuck up for me this time saying, “Leave the girl alone. She doesn’t want to get fat.” Yeah. Sure. That’s it. Enyo smiles and tells me, “Bulgarians like their women a bit plumper.” Yeah, tell that to all the slender, surgically-enhanced chalga singers who strut around on TV and all the girls (not to mention males) who watch them wiggle their assets hour after hour.
Fortunately for me, someone called on Enyo to take them to Velingrad (he runs a taxi service), and I was able to get away with only drinking the rakia and the half-glass of white wine Milka had poured for me. When asked if I wanted more wine, I was able to wave it off easily by saying I was already a little light-headed. It’s true. I’m a light-weight. So there I am though - heading back to work after lunch, and I’m slightly tipsy. I thought, “How silly it is that I’m wandering the streets of Rakia.” I meant to think “Rakitovo.” Now it’s bad if you say it, but how bad is it if you think it?
My landlords are great. Milka does her best to make sure I’m not lonely – that I’m well-fed and taken care of. She says she’s going to teach me to sew. Enyo likes to joke around with me and ask me what words are in English – trying to see if they relate in any way to German. (I don’t think he’s forgiven me yet for not speaking German, too.) He’s so well-liked, that people show up at all hours to ask him to drive them somewhere. He keeps asking when we’re going to play chess. I’ve played chess a couple times with Sashko, Valia’s cute little boy, but he nearly beats me! How can I compete with a good-natured, German-speaking Bulgarian? Anyway, the point is: I like my landlords, but do you think that I can stave off invitations for the next two years? I’d like to protect my dignity – however much is left. I’d like to keep from wandering the streets of “Rakia.” In other news, we’ve had some problems at the office. We’ve lost one of our workers due to ill-feelings and possible negligence. The jury is still out on the negligence part, but the worker is gone. The thing that’s interesting about Bulgarian office etiquette is that it’s entirely different from anything I’ve ever experienced. Case in point: If the boss has a problem with you, he tells you in front of all your colleagues. Everyone gets to sit there and listen as your faults and inadequacies are laid out on the table. I don’t know if this goes for every office in Bulgaria, but it certainly goes for ours since we’re more or less six people in a tiny room.
If you want to disagree with someone, you just talk over them – and louder. Pretty soon, everyone’s speaking at an elevated volume, and I’m not sure if they’re actually having an argument or if they’re just conversing. I’ve learned enough Bulgarian to know generally what’s going on most of the time, but usually I just trust the tone of the room. My first day there, they had a disagreement about something. I had no clue what was going on, but they were having something out. In my discomfort, I spaced out. We lost a worker soon after that, and now we’ve lost another one. I believe that, so far, I’ve been the token child of the group. They’ve worked really hard to get an American volunteer from the Peace Corps there. If anyone has a problem with me, they don’t say. They’re more concerned with whether or not I have a problem. The tone changes with me, and since I’m pretty much useless in the office anyway, I don’t have many – make that any – responsibilities.
Maybe this isn’t so different from the states, but nepotism is popular in Bulgaria. In a place where unemployment is rampant, it’s important that you look out for those closest to you. In my office, Yanko is the boss. Ani, his wife, is the Children’s Coordinator. Valia, Ani’s sister, is the Youth Coordinator/Office Manager. Then there’s Angel and me – the volunteers.
Work schedules are fairly lax. Actually, the people in my office work incredibly hard, but it’s a little more sporadic than in the states. We show up at the office at 9 o’clock. If there’s no pressing work to be done, we’ll leave for lunch at noon. The office opens again at two, and I’m usually there. The previous office manager would open the place, but now that he’s gone, I don’t know how the schedule is going to be. Angel is supposed to have school in the mornings and part of the afternoon, but if a teacher is sick or something, he’s free to come in the office at that time. Otherwise, he generally shows up around 3 o’clock. We hang out until around 4:30 or 5. Yanko is usually off on business in Velingrad or some other place. Just about everyday, Ani and Valia have work with the kids up at the clubhouse after lunch. Then, three evenings a week, Angel, Valia, and I have meetings with the youth. Ani usually shows up for a while, and so does Yanko. In addition to this, Yanko and Ani have two kids: Maria and Reneta. Valia also has two kids: Sashko and Janette. I have no idea how they work all day long and still prepare food/take care of their kids. It’s a recipe for burn-out. I don’t even think they know how they do it. I’m tired at the end of the day, and I don’t even do that much. Plus, I just have me to worry about.
Dear Readers, if you’re a child, go hug your parents. If you’re a husband, go hug your wife. If you’re a wife, go hug your husband. If you’re a parent, go hug your child. If you’re a hermit, go hug a tree. Hug someone who gives you reason to work to the point of insanity – and yet keeps you from falling over the edge. As for me, I’m going to go hug my heater… or a bottle of rakia to keep me warm. Ciao!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Shot down - w/o a blaze of glory

Here's a quick update for you:
Well, I had my first English session. I think it went more or less okay. The first girl showed up about twenty minutes late. She's really sweet though, and said she just lost track of the time. Two smaller children came in ten minutes after that. So, we went over the alphabet and the numbers through twelve.
A few hours later, we had our youth meeting. They'd like to have a Christmas party on the 23rd. At first they thought about going to a discoteque in Velingrad, but when Yanko reminded them how much it was going to cost, they changed their minds. I tried to offer a few fundraising suggestions. I thought of things I did in high school, that probably wouldn't necessarily work here, but I was hoping to spur them to think of their own ideas that might work. I suggested selling food, and they started laughing. Yanko asked them why they were laughing and said that his daughters did that once. And he gave other examples of selling things. I suggested washing cars (even though I know there's probably not much interest here in that), and I suggested a "Parent's Nite" where we watch kids and the parents could go out. I was politely told that it wouldn't work. Okay, no problem. Yanko understood where I was trying to go though. He tried to spur them on, too, but they weren't having it. They decided (after more discussion) to have the party at the clubhouse where we already meet because it's the cheapest option. Then there was another hour-and-a-half discussion after that about the budget and what to buy. I decided, at the end of the meeting, to try one more time. Here was my idea:
You approach the owner of a cafe nearby. You offer to stage a "Big Brother" production at the cafe. (Big Brother is HUGE here! Everyone and their brother watches it (haha!)) So the kids take on roles of the people who are living in the house in Sofia. You promote it, charge everyone a lev to get in, and then tell the owner of the cafe that you want a percentage of the profits for the night because you brought him extra business. At first, there was silence. Angel and Yanko started talking about how great the idea was. Then, one boy spoke up and pretty much trashed the idea. The others just sat there in silence. I have to go to a language lesson now. Ciao.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Caramel Macchiato Dreams Made Reality

Sofia, the capitol of Bulgaria, is a completely different world from my town, let me tell you. I saw an ad a few weeks back on the internet for red holiday cups at Starbucks. I don't know why that made me nostalgic and sad (a good sad-if you know what I mean), but it did. It's probably because I know a lot of Starbucks addicts, and some happen to be very good friends of mine. Well, I had a caramel macchiato today! I went to some overpriced, French-type cafe (so charming - with a Christmas tree!) in Sofia and ordered the "classic" size, which is about an equivalent to a "tall," I suppose. I just had to share. I haven't really had specialty coffee for a while, (coffee comes in shot sizes, usually) and it was goooood. That was for those of you who walk around with caffeine IVs connected directly to your veins. Imagine my pain! And delight! I started chewing on the lid when it was gone, and Angel just looked at me sideways.
So yeah, we were in Sofia today. My organization planned an excursion for some kids (and adult supervision) to the zoological gardens. It was so cold, and the animals looked so sad. We saw all the good stuff - lions, tigers, bears, and monkeys! The kids were especially taken by the monkeys. It's cool to watch them jump around endlessly, plus they're scandalous little creatures, so it's always cause for amusement.
Reneta was cracking me up. Last night, Angel and I found out from her mom that she and Maria were talking about beating Angel up. "Why is he always with Apryl? He's a boy. He has no reason to be with her." "Well," their mom explained, "he's her counterpart." "Why can't we be her counterparts?" Today at the zoo, Reneta was giving Angel dirty looks and saying, "You can't have her. She's mine," to him in English. She would come hold my hand and say "You're mine!" It cracked Angel and me up. I told him he'd better watch his back, and we would joke about how little girls are going to be waiting to take him down one day. Everyone needs to be someone else's property once in a while, right? Even if it's the property of a 12-year-old girl. I'm kidding! It's funny.
After the zoo, we went to a Natural Science Museum. We saw all sorts of stuffed animals, beautiful butterflies stuck to pins, wiggly things preserved in jars, and sparkly minerals. The best part is that Angel is afraid of snakes. He's so afraid, in fact, that he will not even look at them in their glass cages. He won't look at them trapped in formaldehyde. Everytime we went by one, he would shiver, cry out, grab my arm, and then beg me to tell him when we were onto the next thing - and whether or not it was another snake. Talk about a scaredy-cat. Plus, look at the possible blackmail value... or just annoyance value. This is like, finding kryptonite. I can't wait to find some way to use it to my advantage.
It was fun being with the kids today though. Now I have more little cuties to say "hello" to. And hopefully this will spark their imaginations and encourage them to study more about their natural environments. That's what the organization is hoping at least.
I had my first English meeting on Thursday. I didn't actually teach anything. I just had individual interviews with each one so I could figure out why they want to study English, if they've studied it before, what they already know (apparently not much), and when they're free for lessons. I have never seen so many scared teenage boys. They acted like I was going to eat them for breakfast or something. But hey, when you're 15, older foreign girls are scary, I'm sure.
So I have three groups signed up for different days next week. There are more people that want to sign up for English lessons though, so I may be about to get in over my head. We'll see how serious they all are though. I may end up with only a few people showing up. And then when they realize that everyone else has stopped showing, they might stop as well. Hahaha! Note the pessimism. I'm becoming more Bulgarian by the day! Note the unfair categorization. =P I'm just nervous is all. I've never taught English before, and I certainly don't know how. I fear they'll all hate it and just say, "Screw that." I need a healthy dose of self-confidence, but teenagers are a tough audience. I'm just as scared of them as they are of me.
I'm going over to Maria and Reneta's tomorrow. They invited me over, so now their mom has to cook for me. Haha. Ani's great though; I don't think she minds. She's been telling me to feel free to come over anytime I want. Plus, Valia, has promised to come, too and teach me how to make "mequitsi." If you missed an earlier blog description of mequitsi, it's basically like a fried slab of dough that you can put sugar or jams on. It's super-yummy, and a favorite of mine. (Here I am, talking about food... AGAIN.) I had some the other night that my landlady gave to me. We don't have it in Rakitovo though, so she got it from Velingrad. I was actually kinda sick that night, but I had to eat it anyway. I'm sure it cut a day off my life. Sinful stuff. And I'm going to have it again tomorrow. Yay! I'll learn how to make it, so when I come back to the states, I can poison you all with fried dough and sugar. Forget donuts. This is where it's at.