Thursday, March 30, 2006

Always get it in writing....

*No disclaimers or fake apologies about length. Just read it. It’s why you’re here, right?
I learned a valuable lesson this last week. We’ll get to that. First of all, spring is here!!! It officially on the 20th of March, and I swear it’s authentic or something. It actually started to get sunny and warm around here. People are strolling around outside and taking their coffee on outdoor patios in the center. Birds are singing everywhere at high volume. I told my mom that they remind me of the birds at the Sacramento Airport that like to chirp into the speakers to hear themselves live and in concert. It’s absolutely awesome. It’s even warmed up enough to loosen the death grip I’ve had on my heater. I’m looking forward to smaller electric bills and everyone is looking forward to shedding a few pounds of clothing. And I haven’t been plagued by allergies yet. I love spring!
To celebrate the occasion of the tilting of the earth toward the sun (we even had a partial solar eclipse yesterday!), the school up in the Roma neighborhood had a spring concert. A bunch of my English students participated, and they were so cute in their get-ups – reciting poetry, re-enacting plays, singing, and strutting their stuff in a Miss Spring 2006 competition. It was absolutely entertaining, and I’ll be posting pictures sometime in the future.
Right after this, my world darkened for a couple days. I’ll try and be as brief through this explanation as possible, but it’s not going to be short. So I told you all that we were successful in attracting funding for our Educational Center through a program called SPA (Small Projects Assistance) that works hand in hand with Peace Corps. Well, Peace Corps called me a while back and told me that I wasn’t following the project guidelines as related to our bank account. Basically, we didn’t have enough money in the bank on our end to uphold our contribution. We had two options: throw more money into the bank, or get a letter from our other large donor (C.E.G.A. – Creating Effective Grassroots Alternatives) outlining that they are indeed supporting us through material means as outlined in the budget. Easy enough. So I talked to my colleagues about it, and they called C.E.G.A. We decided to go with option #2. Yanko and I looked at all the things we had put in the budget as coming from C.E.G.A., and then asked them to type up a document saying they had given/were going to give us these things. A week later, a C.E.G.A. representative showed up with a brief list of the things they were providing, and I faxed it to Peace Corps. After faxing the letter, I took a good look at it, and that’s where the problems started.
In the budget for SPA, we had said that C.E.G.A. was giving us 50% of the necessary money to buy twelve second-hand, refurbished computers from England. The letter made no mention of computers. That was the first, obvious detail I noticed as it was a rather large contribution to our budget. In our office, we had talked numerous times about what a great deal it was – how C.E.G.A. had agreed to finance half the price of these computers if we were successful in winning the project. So where were they on the letter? I told Yanko and the representative from C.E.G.A. that we needed to sit down and talk about this letter. There had been a huge oversight. It didn’t mention the computers. “Yes,” said the representative, “it doesn’t mention computers.” I knew right then that we had a more serious problem than just someone forgetting to put something in a letter.
So we sat down at coffee with my colleagues, and the representative started in on me. Now, it’s not fair to blast this lady in my blog. She works hard to help coordinate large portions of funding for our organization. C.E.G.A. does good things for our foundation and supports us in a variety of ways. Suffice it to say that she didn’t speak to me very nicely, and I was immediately put on the defensive. She basically said that I had made up a fake budget to say that C.E.G.A. was authorizing money for computers when they weren’t. I looked to my colleagues for help, but they just sat there. Yanko lamely asked me if I remembered who we talked to at C.E.G.A. about these computers. I don’t talk to C.E.G.A. I don’t have a relationship with them. My organization talks to them and me. I talk to my organization and Peace Corps. That’s how this dance works. I felt helpless and attacked – completely unsupported by my colleagues and hung out to dry. Since they weren’t saying anything, I figured they knew something that I didn’t – that this computer deal had never existed, and someone had misspoke along the way. Finally, I tried as politely as I could to stand up for myself and ask this woman if she really thought that I would put something in the budget that I hadn’t heard from my organization. She then backed off.
**As a side-note to this ordeal, I have to share something quite amusing. When the woman was talking to me about these computers, she said something to the effect of, “What computers? These computers you’re going to get shipped from England along with your mom and dad?” I was offended beyond words. I know I have thin skin, but I couldn’t believe this woman was insinuating that I would pad the budget to try and use shipping as an excuse to get my parents over here on someone else’s dime. I wanted to retort in my broken Bulgarian, “Excuse me. But my mom lives in California, and my dad in Hawai’i. It would take a lot more than the purchase of some second-hand computers to pay their way over here.” I just sat there though – stewing. I’m glad I didn’t say anything. Angel wasn’t there for the meeting, but I told him about it afterward, and he totally supported me and said that no one should ever talk to me that way. When I told him about the comment and my thoughts, he laughed. “Apryl,” he explained, “that’s a Bulgarian saying which people use when they think something is very expensive.” So it’s like something costing “an arm and a leg,” and me actually thinking I would have to give an arm and a leg. We laughed for a long time about that. I told my colleagues later on, and we’ve all had many a good laugh. “What do you want, Apryl… your mom and your dad?” Hey, you can say anything you want about me – well, almost anything, but don’t you dare say anything about Mom and Dad. So I’ve learned a Bulgarian idiom about expense in addition to my bewilderment. It’s all good and educational.**
So anyway, apparently we never had this deal with C.E.G.A. regarding computers. I had to go to my English class, and there wasn’t much we could do at this point, so I took off. There were other things missing from the letter, also. Amounts for some of the materials that were supported were cut to a fraction of what I had put in the budget. This is not to say that C.E.G.A. was no longer giving us a sizeable contribution. They’re being quite generous. The problem is that it wasn’t as generous as we had put in the budget for SPA. I had to go to Pazardjik the next day, so I couldn’t talk to my colleagues about what had happened and what they were thinking.
While in Pazardjik on Thursday for a meeting regarding upcoming ethnic camps this summer (I’ll be working at a multi-ethnic camp for a week in July), Peace Corps called. Basically, C.E.G.A. had not indicated enough monetary support in this letter to meet what we had outlined in the budget and to sustain a successful project with an adequate community/third-party contribution. We had until Tuesday to figure something out, otherwise SPA would rescind funding. I was a little surprised to say the least, but I couldn’t say that I blamed them. We now had a fake budget – built on agreements that were never nailed down in writing, and how could a sponsor support that? I was grateful Peace Corps was giving us a time-limit instead of just saying “sorry” and pulling funding. Frantically, I called my organization. Yanko said he would talk to Peace Corps and try to work something out. He called me three times after that to figure out what we had actually put in the budget – as everything was in English. His main strategy to calm me was just to say “spokoino.” That did nothing. I need to be appeased with solutions, not with someone telling me to relax. He didn’t mention anything about C.E.G.A. Did this mean that he wasn’t surprised about what had happened the day before? Did he know something about their relationship that I didn’t? Had he expected this? I was beside myself. I didn’t know who or what to believe. We were going to lose our project, and there was little I could do about it.
I had some good support in Pazardjik. Other Peace Corps Volunteers were there, and my friends listened to me and supported me as I freaked out. Well, they didn’t support my freaking out, but they were there for me, and I appreciated that. I spent some time talking to them, and I calmed down little by little. I thought about just getting up the next day and going back to Rakitovo. One of them prayed with me, and it helped me realize that going back at that point would be senseless. I talked to my dad that evening, and he had some really good words of wisdom for me that put everything back into perspective. God told him exactly what I needed to hear. So I decided to just stay and enjoy the rest of the weekend. I’m so glad I did. By the next morning, I was actually relaxed. I enjoyed the rest of the planning session and the company of other volunteers in Pazardjik, then I went and bought some Sting tickets (he’s going to be over on the coast come June, and I already have the tickets in my hot little hands – I’m so excited!!), and then I took off for Hissar to visit with some other volunteers.
I was able to spend the evening with some fun people, and I got to talk to my mom, so it was a good evening. I got up early the next morning and went to Plovdiv. An Adventist that I had met here randomly (he happens to work with a volunteer) had asked me to come and speak at his church. So I went and talked about how I thought people could change the world. I was supposed to be a living example as I work for the Peace Corps. FYI Peace Corps: Don’t worry. The congregants know you’re a non-religious organization. No proselytizing going on there. Anyway, I don’t know how much of an example I am, but I tried to leave them with some good thoughts. I was so nervous, and I was praying hard, but people warmed up to me as soon as I was introduced as a Californian working in Bulgaria. I said a few sentences in Bulgarian (which they seemed to respond well to) and then left the rest to the translator. Afterwards, a few people came up to me to talk more about Peace Corps, possible projects, or practice their English. A couple cute boys stopped by and chatted for a bit. I say this country needs a few more cute, Christian males who speak English. Now where’s THAT project? I’m all for that. I’ll even volunteer to converse with them. I’m bad. I know.
After church, I had a good lunch and nice conversation with my hosts, and then we took a hike up one of the hills of Plovdiv. As a side-note, I’m starting to think I really have been invited here to “Bulimia” to help the Bulimics. My hostess let me borrow one of her skirts, and while I was trying to squeeze into it (I swear it was a size 2!), she was telling me how much weight she’s gained, how fat she is, and how she’s started a diet. I wanted to shake her and say, “You’re too sweet, bright, beautiful, and WAY too skinny to think you’re fat.” And then force-feed her after that or something.
They were planning on having an evening of karaoke that night, but I couldn’t stay. I returned to Hissar, where I went to dinner and hung out late with a bunch of other volunteers. The next morning, we got up early and visited a Roman tomb. Hissar has a lot of Roman ruins like that – and various “miraculous” springs. I visited this place during training – and mentioned it in an earlier post. I came home early on Sunday and relaxed.
On Monday, I was feeling nervous about seeing my colleagues again and talking to them. I wasn’t sure what would happen, and I hated feeling like maybe I couldn’t trust them. They had never betrayed my trust before, and they have so much project experience, I didn’t want to believe that they had misled me, but then why didn’t they say anything? I soon found out that they were just as surprised at the news as I was, and that some of them didn’t say anything because they were afraid. Apparently they show surprise and fear by staring straight ahead and keeping their mouths shut. Makes sense. I don’t claim to be good at reading people as I don’t have a “poker face” myself. By the end of the day, Yanko had gotten documentation from the municipality showing that they would contribute a large portion to our project. We also provided personal inventory showing which items we had already purchased for the project. Peace Corps wrote the next day to say that it was sufficient, and we still have financial support from SPA. I’m so relieved. I can’t believe how many awesome concessions have been made for our project. They must really like it. So thank God for that.
People think I must get bored here – as I don’t have a TV and I live alone, but they don’t know how busy things are for me. My landlords have some inkling. They rarely see me. I find all sorts of things to occupy my time. Just because I’m busy doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m productive, however. For example, I made spinach soup last night. It was absolutely awful! Angel tried helping, but it was a lost cause. He brought over a Bruce Lee film the other night, but it was in French. Neither of us understood anything, but I guess that’s irrelevant for Mr. Lee’s films. Someone inevitably ends up insulting Bruce and his friends, and then they apologize when they meet his flying limbs and his awe-inspiring num-chucks. It’s good, wholesome entertainment for all. Who needs subtitles?
Honestly, I’ve been feeling pretty useless lately. I sit in the office with no idea what to do that will actually be of any meaning to anyone. My colleagues keep me entertained – when they speak Bulgarian. I have wonderful female colleagues who love to share gossip and joke around, but sometimes they revert to their native, Roma language, and I feel completely isolated – even if I’m working on my own thing. I have no opportunities to jump in and interact. Once in a great while, I’ll ask them to speak in Bulgarian, and they’re good about it. I don’t want to keep reminding them over and over though, ‘cause I feel they should be comfortable in their environment. I came in yesterday morning feeling cut-off though, and they noticed it. They give me a hard time until I come around though. Yanko came in later and asked me how I was doing – as he always does. I said “dobre,” but Ani said that I was lying. She says I have “cat eyes” that “laugh.” When they’re not “laughing,” you know something isn’t quite right. Yeah, I’m transparent. I’m an only child and I crave attention. Notice me! Pay attention to me! Talk to me! I’ve just never been described like that before. It’s kinda cool.
We finally have a new office manager. I don’t think she’s comfortable with us yet, but I hope she stays. We’ve gone through about 12 girls, I’m sure. They’d show up for an interview, or they’d work for a few days, and then we’d never see them again. Many of them seemed to have problems with the travel aspect of the job. Others seemed deathly afraid of the computer. A few couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed. Some may have been uncomfortable with the idea of working with Roma – and a wacky American. (Random fact: My colleagues have put up this huge poster in the office with an in-depth anti-discrimination law on it. Then, they put up my picture next to it to remind themselves not to discriminate against me – as I’m a minority here. Yeah. We’re crazy. We take some getting used to.) They’d come once or a couple times, say they’d see us the next day or a couple days later, and then just never show up. Sometimes we’d sit in the office – waiting for them. I told my colleagues that I couldn’t believe the interview process we were going through. As the ones holding the job offers, why were we holding our breath for the candidates? They should be catering to us. My colleagues agreed. It all strikes me as quite odd – as everyone here likes to comment often about how there’s no work and no money.
Well, anyway, things are about to get super-busy for me, and then I’ll be out of the office more often. At this point, I think I’ll only be in Rakitovo for 10 days in July. Crazy, huh? And Yanko says that we get a month vacation. He started asking us which coming month we would like to take off. I was stunned and had no answer for him. A month off? To do what? Wander Bulgaria (fun!) and feel even more ineffective? (lame!) I already get 24 days a year from Peace Corps. If I take another month, that’s 55 days, or 15% of my yearly service. No, thank you. It’s nice to know that’s there to fall back on though. Or I can just go for the “Least Effective Volunteer” award. How’s that for world change? If I could change the world for the better just by writing mini blog-novels, hunger would have been eradicated back in August of last year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love you Apes! You are a joy to read.