Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Painting the Roses Red

I have a feeling this is going to be one of those long, rambling, confessional posts. One I should be wearing black for, lighting candles, and listening to Sarah McLachlan. One of those ones that, were I Angelina Jolie confessing every nuance of my blossoming romance with Mr. Pitt, would be an amazing best-seller. Instead, I’m just some random Peace Corps volunteer in some Eastern European country most people have heard of “once-anup-a-time.” And I have this sinking feeling that this blog is going quietly unnoticed these days – like a character in that book in “The Never-Ending Story” who dies if no one reads about them. I could use an Atreyu on a white horse to come and rescue me.
Does anyone remember “Alice in Wonderland?” I have titled this post as such to describe the seemingly fruitlessness of my endeavors (or lack of endeavors as of late). Also because I’ve been doing some painting recently. Makes sense, right? Well, as long as my logic is logical to me… said the padded man in the crazy room.
Two-hundred-and-fifty dollars a month should be enough to change the world, right? Maybe I should consult Bill Gates. I read he’ll be cutting back time at Microsoft to devote more to his $29 billion organization to help 4 billion of the world’s poor. Maybe he should just give them all $7.25. They could see a matinee and get some popcorn – which I wish I were doing right now. “Mission: Impossible III” has finally made its way to the Balkans. Sorry, Tom, maybe I’ll catch you another time. I can’t get anyone to go with me at the moment.
Anyway, back to Bill. I was being facetious. Think about that: 4 billion of the world’s poor. Two-thirds of the world needs something or other than the other one-third of us (I’m guessing I’m in the “lucky” one-third and you are, too) probably takes for granted. So, back to my point (yes, I believe I had one)… $250 a month in salary should be incentive enough to change the world, right? A country? A town? A group? An outlook? I’m prefacing to prepare myself for where I’ll probably be going in this edition. I’m trying to convince myself that I’m being too demanding of myself ‘cause this is going to be one of those self-flagellating posts.
Let’s start with an update of what I’ve been doing. I haven’t been in site much. June hasn’t been a great month for instilling the good ole’ “I love Rakitovo” feeling. I’ve been out of site for pretty much half the month doing side-projects. July will be even worse. I was gone at the beginning of last week for VSN duties. The Volunteer Support Network was designed to provide mental and emotional support to volunteers that want to talk to someone confidentially if they’re having a tough time with site and something service-related, or otherwise. I’m a VSN member. I’ll hold your hand and keep your deep, dark secrets. My deep, dark secrets go directly to my blog. Kidding. Personally, I’ve never utilized VSN. I can usually find support in my site (lucky me!) or with sympathetic volunteers. Usually, I just swallow it down and wait to get over it in my passive-aggressive way. It’s like Wheaties®. I’m sure the built-up bitterness will help me run the marathon. Haha. I wonder how many people will want to utilize ME for encouragement!
Anyway, I was up in the mountains for a session designed to introduce VSN to the next round of volunteers. Right now we’re turning ourselves into “cruise-directors” to give people “Get Out of Site Free” cards. Travel policy has become prohibitive and new volunteers can only leave site once a month for the first three months. The rest of us can get out of site twice a month, but if you stand on your head for an hour, I hear they’ll give you a couple margaritas and an extra weekend just to see you try. What? It’s complicated. You don’t care. Basically, you don’t get docked for a VSN weekend, so there’s this huge incentive for us to plan something for everyone. And who knows? Maybe they’ll adore us enough to remember those good bonding times at the beach and give us a call when they’re freezing and depressed in winter… instead of strangling their counterparts or something. So, I spent a few days up in the middle-of-beautiful-nowhere so I could eat dinner and play baseball with the new volunteers – which was fun. The rest of the time, however, I was hanging out with the 17s (the group that came before me) at their Mid-Service Conference getting strange “why-are-you-here?” looks and questions – which turned out to be fun, too.
On my way back to site, I stopped in Sofia to glean through tolerance-building materials for a “Tolerance Kit” some of us are hoping to put together. I found a lot of good stuff, but can I really just throw some random, already-published materials and rebind them into a manual? If it theoretically makes PCV life easier, one can do just about anything. That’s what we’re hoping for at least.
This last Friday, I went to Pazardjik for a couple days to help choose campers for the Roma and Multi-ethnic camps that will be hosted in the middle of July. I’m glad I went, and I enjoyed my time there - even though culling through applications in Bulgarian is known to cause instant “glazing-of-the-eyes” syndrome. And I got to see “Lucky Number Slevin.” I’ve seen two movies this June (saw “The Da Vinci Code” in Plovdiv). I think that’s a record for me since I came to Bulgaria. I could make it three if I could get my act together and go to Velingrad to see Tom. Three would be unprecedented.
While in Pazardjik, my landlady called, “Apryl, we have guests over this weekend. Can we use that spare room in your apartment?” What could I say? I told her my apartment was dirty, but she said it was okay because they were just going to use that room. Yeah, and the bathroom. Some might say I’m “too nice,” but is it really “nice” if you’re cursing about it the whole time and are dealing with it in a passive-aggressive way. I’m an only child, and I like my space. I particularly don’t like having strangers coming in and out of my messy apartment. One might think that I should bring it up with Peace Corps, but I actually don’t want it to bother me. This is only the second time it’s ever happened, and I want to help my landlords out. They invited me down for lunch on Sunday right before a gaggle of people left, and they really did have a full house. It was madness. The least I could do was let the guests use my spare room. It just sucks, you know. I only wish I could be a better sport about it.
I once prefaced a presentation during training by stating, “I like to call this ‘The Day I Didn’t Care Very Much for Bulgarians.’” I had a volunteer repeat that statement back to me recently. He said that he liked it in the fact that it reminded him that he didn’t have to always like the way things are here even though he’s generally happy with his service – and that it’s normal to get frustrated with the people or the system here. I’m glad it resonated with him. For me, June has been the “Month I Haven’t Cared Very Much for Apryl.” July looks like it might be a sequel. Here’s why:
Well, first of all, I am too hard on myself. I hope I’m too hard on myself. Otherwise, the alternative is that I really am as pathetic as I make myself out to be. That can’t be it. I must be too hard on myself – said the hammer under the nail. Secondly, I haven’t done anything for my community this month – other than paint a door and a window up in the center. Oh yeah, and cull through grants and funding that have led to nowhere. When did I decide I needed to pressure myself to get more funding for our organization? Maybe, somewhere along the way, I justified my “privilege” of knowing English as a method for accumulating material wealth. I am so fortunate to have an organization that doesn’t look to me to get them money. Other volunteers aren’t so lucky. Having things is nice though.
So I feel as though I’ve done zilch in my site as of late. Why? We’ll say it’s because I’ve been helping other volunteers get things done at their sites – which is good times, but it’s not nearly as personally satisfying, and it leads to something everyone tells you not to do: comparing yourself to other volunteers. Everyone’s got a summer project: whether it’s a camp, a sport team to teach kids baseball, an English club, etc. And then you want to have a project in your site that everyone will sign up to come to and you can go to sleep at night telling yourself that you are a “good” volunteer… maybe even a “super-volunteer” as some call them… which can lead to vain-glory. What a horrible, double-edged sword it is to want to be a “good” volunteer… to get recognition and a pat on the back for what you do in site. And yet it’s there.
I want to do something in Rakitovo for my kids. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing. But I don’t even interact with kids anymore. Ever since I went MIA for other projects, my kids stopped showing up for English. I haven’t been able to have a Spanish class in about a month. I finally had a fun one on Monday. I’ve had kids stop me and ask if we’re going to have English. I tell them we’re going to take a break. I’m going to be gone pretty much all of July anyway. Besides, I’m bitter about English. I’m trying to think up ways to make it fun for the kids (and me!) again. When I ask them if they want to have English, they always say yes, but I never know if they say that because they think that’s what I want to hear. Or, maybe the fact that they’re bringing it up means that they’re incredibly bored and just want to DO SOMETHING this summer. And I’d just love to goof off with kids. I’ve been invited to the pool a couple of times this summer, but I’ve had to decline because I’m “working.” It’s not fair for me to bail out on my colleagues because I want to hang out at the pool, but I almost feel like my efforts would be more justified there. I’d be making contacts with kids. And, crazy as it sounds, I do make $250 a month of your tax-payer money to play with kids. Bleh.
My mood is starting to get worrisome. I don’t even like to travel anymore. I can’t believe that I’m bummed I’m going to Spain. I should be enthusiastic and psyched that I get to go back to what’s probably my favorite country. Instead, I feel guilty for not sticking around and trying to do something at site. By the way, I leave in a week. Right after that, I go directly to a Multi-ethnic camp on the Black Sea. I will be in my site for probably less than 10 days in July. I love traveling! What’s wrong with me? Next summer, I’m going nowhere, and I’m signing up for nothing. Right. I’m going to sit in my site and probably lament about how much I was doing the previous summer. Whiney, personal crisis are always such fun, aren’t they?
I had my colleagues over last night for dinner. They were supposed to come on Sunday, but they never showed up. I had cleaned and cooked all day, so I informed them on Monday that they had to come and eat left-over Chinese food. They were half-an-hour late, and I was worried that they would stand me up. It was a nice evening though. They told me they enjoyed the food even though I really thought it wasn’t very good – not nearly as good as the first time I made it and was inspired to invite them over. You know how you feel (well, if you’re me) when you’ve done something that you feel isn’t your best and everyone tells you it’s great, and you feel like they’re just being nice because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you find it patronizing? (giant gasp for breath) Yeah. I could be known for my neurosis. Well, this is how I feel as of late with my colleagues. These amazing people adore me. You know how I know? Because they tell me. Because they’ve taken out their little “what-we-know-of-rating-a-PCV rating system” and rated me close to the top. And I adore my colleagues. The problem with them adoring me, however, is that I feel like I get away with too much. They’re self-sufficient (I’ve always wondered why they applied for a volunteer), and they’re content to let me work on whatever I find pressing at the moment – and go wherever I want for secondary projects. Which is absolutely fantastic! Except that I’m a little kid bumping into walls who needs direction and wish they’d give me something to DO! I’ve run out of creativity for the sheer fact that my self-doubt has told me I shouldn’t attempt anything. Though I haven’t come upon any major failures to justify to the self-doubt I’ve mired myself in, the voices in my head are telling me I’ll fail, so why try. Where have I heard that before? Oh right, Bulgaria. That’s the mentality we’re trying to get these wonderful people away from. Instead I’ve fallen into it. And anytime I think of an activity to do, I’ll tell myself, “Well, I’m leaving in a week anyway, so what’s the point?” So now I’m just hanging out until vacation comes along? Slacker.
The educational center is coming along beautifully – no thanks to me. Did I mention in my last post that I came back to find that they had put walls up? They’re transforming this empty space into something really neat, and they’re amazing me with their can-do attitude. We have doors to each of the rooms now. And we’ve been painting the old doors, the window-frames, and the shutters white. It’s this pristine white that makes you feel pure just looking at it. Plus, I swear the reflection of the sun in it has turned my pale skin a nice pink color. I love the center. It’s hard to explain how beautiful it is in its resourcefulness – meaning we haven’t had enough money to make it “professional-looking.” And it does look a little “ghetto-ish” in some ways, but it’s so beautiful and professional in surprising other ways. And, thanks to my colleagues’ “amazing, wow, knock-your-socks off capabilities,” (that’s the technical term) we’re getting a high-tech $700 heater with a water-pump that should be able to heat our entire center. Basically, they impressed some foreign investors (of course while I was away) and we’re getting more money because of it.
I took an interesting trip with Yanko to Velingrad the other day to hunt down the doors. It was a sweltering day, and we ended up walking quite a distance to some lumber mills before finding what we needed – at the price we needed. But we found them. And Yanko was happy. Afterwards, he took me up to “Kleptuza,” which is a sort of relaxation park with a giant man-made waterfall/lake, paddle-boats, and ducks on the outskirts of Velingrad. It was peaceful and pretty up there. I had always wanted to go. That can be said about a lot of places in Bulgaria. I’ve always wanted to go…. But now I don’t want to leave site, so what is a girl like me supposed to do with her conflicting personalities? Maybe I should name them and dress them up in pretty clothes. Anyway, Yanko and I took another trip today – this time up to a beautiful reservoir with a couple guys to try and nail down a place to hold a workshop and a camp this summer. I’ll probably miss the workshop, but Yanko is going to try and arrange the camp so that I can come. I’m so lucky to have such great colleagues who try to include me in as much as possible.
Here’s the part where I stop my pity-party and “me, me, me” talk and tell you anecdotal “facts” of varying consequence.
Speaking of colleagues, one of them is losing a son to the army on Friday. He’s going to fulfill his “service obligation” to his country. I believe it’s a three-month post. I know the mom is beside herself about this. She can’t even bring herself to eat, and she’s stressing out. She’s got a lot going on right now. A bunch of my other colleagues are remodeling their places in addition to the center, and I know that she wishes she had the money to do some remodeling herself. She also wishes she could get out of the country and find work abroad. You know you’re really integrating when you start thinking, “Maybe things were better here during communist times….” Yeah. A lot of things sucked, but at least you could make a living. I don’t know. I’m lucky to be a citizen of a country where democracy and capitalism “work” for the most-part. And I can count myself in the one-third that I mentioned above. Even my colleague is probably blessed, but when you go back to the fact that it’s normal for people to compare themselves to those they actually interact with… my colleague isn’t “keeping-up-with-the-Jones’” so to speak.
And here’s a random rant for you: I despise “pomoshtni uchilishtes.” There’s some “Bulgarish” for you. Literally, it’s a “helping school.” It’s supposed to be like a “special needs” school, but it’s not. I’ll explain, but – while we’re at it – let’s just talk about how screwed-up the educational system is anyway. So, about these “special needs” schools… they’re mostly filled with healthy, potentially-bright Roma children.
**We interrupt this post for basketball. I bought a ball in Velingrad - hoping that it would get me out with kids and playing again. Well, I just came in from playing. I was by myself for the longest time while the other kids either looked at me strangely or ignored me. High school. What can you do? I even asked a guy if he wanted to play, but he said he was tired. Whatever. You’re not tired if you’re attempting half-court shots. You just don’t want to play with me ‘cause you’re too cool for me. Or you’re scared I’ll school you. Understandable. Finally, a guy I met the other day who wants to practice his English came up, and we played a quick game, and then a girl I know came up, and all three of us played until dark. I miss being a kid. Mostly, I miss being cool.**
So, let’s get back to the “bribe-a-doctor-and-you’ll-get-in” schools. There are two in Rakitovo, and we don’t work with either of them. I’m not sure why, but it might be because they already get a bunch of aid from the state. Guess what other random fact I learned about these “special needs” schools. If you finish eighth grade there, you are permanently barred from obtaining a driver’s license. Why? Because you are “mentally incompetent,” of course, and obviously you will never be capable of driving. It would at least kinda make sense if the school actually was what it was designed for. Everyone knows how it is, but nothing changes. There are few jobs, and people need to maintain the status quo.
We do work with a school that was originally designed for kids with asthma. The curriculum is slightly easier, but I doubt any of those kids have difficulties breathing. The other day, a teacher rushed out to ask Yanko to campaign for more students. I don’t know if this was the reason she was asking, but I do know that the teachers need students to keep their jobs. That’s understandable. My alma mater is going through that right now. They need more students to justify the teachers they have on staff. The difference, however, is I don’t know if the teachers at my alma mater would pass failing students just so the next teacher could have another student in their class. That’s not fair to anyone – especially to the student. The kids just slip right through the cracks.
And there’s a hierarchy of schools in Rakitovo. Honestly, there might be only one school that is worth sending kids to. Even then, some could argue that one would get a better education if they went to Velingrad. It’s a shame.
Maybe I’m ranting about schools because Angel is about to get his diploma, and it’s not going to be pretty. He’s upset about it, and I’m upset because he’s upset. Apparently some of the teachers don’t like him and have given him low grades because of their personal feelings toward him. Unfortunately, I doubt there’s a system of challenging your grades in Rakitovo. It would be nice if they had a straight-forward system like many of my teachers did. These are the questions. These are the answers. If you answered a question incorrectly, you knew why. You got your score. You saw how it was weighted. You knew your grade was your grade because that’s what the computer calculated… not because you were pals with the teacher. Although, I do wish a few of my teachers had bumped up my grade because I attended class every time or they saw me trying really hard or something. Anyway, I honestly believe Angel’s grades suffered because he’s Roma. Maybe some of the teachers didn’t even do it consciously, but it still bites. We could all use some “extra credit” these days… a miracle would be nice, too.
P.S. Oh yeah, now I’m listening to “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. Now there’s a good pick-me up. “Just a small-town girl living in a lonely world….” I hope my next post will be more positive. I have a lot of blessings to be grateful for. Sometimes, I have to let the passive-agressiveness out.


Fuzzmaster said...

"... feeling down Mrs. Brown; and things seem hard or tough, and people are obnoxious, nasty, or daft... and you feel like you've had quite enough...

Two suggestions:

Hum/Sing/Chant a Hymn, it works, trust me!

Say "Pikachu", it is impossible to say this word without smiling... But you have to really mean it, and pronounce it right "pee-kah-chew" ... the "kah" really pinches out the "pee" part when you do it right...

Hehehehehe Chin up, and "...always look on the bright side of life, de dum de dum de dum de..."

Carey said...

"Pardon me, but Mr 3, why must you paint them red?" Some how I had a musical moment of Alice in Wonderland before I got past the title. And somehow through the whole thing I moved from Faulkner to Shakespeare (courtesy of the stream of consciousness, which got me to 'The Sound and the Fury' at the 'vain-glory' danger of being a super volunteer) to saying Amen a few times. We all hit that. I haven't been to a camp nor sponsored one, so I think you're ok there.

I think I might need to read other volunteers' blogs more often . . . help keep me sane and in perspective that it's cool to be a 'normal PCV.' Great seeing you last weekend.

The padded man in the crazy room,