Monday, August 28, 2006

Insert Your Own Clever Title Here



I hate roosters. I especially hate the one that lives in the yard next to my bedroom window. He crows long before the sun rises, and every time he does that, I contemplate how to make a batch of “rooster mcnuggets.” If he met some type of fortunate accident, I would not mourn his absence. I am missing my storks, however. They took off a while back, and I haven’t seen them since. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up and move on. I’m sure it’s also because they’re sick of living on that bell tower with the bells that ring every morning at 7:30. I know I’m kind of tired of living right next to it. The storks taking off also means winter is coming again. *Shudder*
The center is coming along slowly but surely. We’ve been up there pretty much every day recently – installing electrical cables and switches, sweeping and mopping, painting the roof, sweeping and mopping, scraping the paint off our lovely floor tiles, and then sweeping and mopping again. Yesterday, we started painting the outside this beautiful chocolate brown color. Yanko's goat hangs out with us... eating the grass, flowers, and whatever else we give it. I think it likes our company. She cries and bleets when we leave. As far as the color of the paint, I think my colleagues wanted more of a beige shade, but I’m glad they settled on this, ‘cause we really don’t have the money to buy more paint and be picky.
They also want to do various other repairs which, while definitely needed, did not fall in the budget. I got a little frustrated, “Yeah, I want to do these things, too, but we have neither the time nor the money.” The center is scheduled to open October 1st, and while most everything is done, there are still a few big things still pending: the kitchen sink still needs to be retiled, and I still have no idea what we’re going to do about computers. That’s something I’ve given over to God. He’s kept this project on track so far, and He saved it when we almost lost it – twice! So yeah, I’ve put Him on computer detail as well.
We have a new, giant heater for the kitchen. It’s honestly a monster. They cracked a couple tiles just hauling it into the center, and I guess that’s just one of the casualties of this remodeling war. I suppose they can be fixed. It’s not that obvious. This heater honestly looks like a throwback from the communist era though. It looks like it could gobble people alive. I don’t think I’m ever going to want to be in that kitchen alone at night. Hehe.
I took a couple short hikes with some new acquaintances this last week. We had a bonfire the first night, and they roasted hotdogs. I wish I had had some veggie dogs! I came home smelling like campfire and loving it. It’s been a long time since I’ve smelled like that. The following day, we took a hike up to a deformed tree called “the tree of love.” It’s called that because two trunks merge at the base and form an upside-down heart shape. There’s another odd-looking tree nearby, so they’ve christened it “the tree of hate” just to balance things out. I also had a follower on that hike. Toshko is a boy in town who has seemed to take a liking to me. He’s probably about 21, and he lives alone. The poor guy lost his parents a while ago in a car accident. Whenever he sees me, he runs up to talk for a while and practice his English. Toshko is a well-meaning boy, but speaking to him is a test of wills. He insists on speaking only English, which is intensely admirable, but apparently he’s picked up all his vocabulary from studying the dictionary. His sentences miss verbs, connecting phrases, accurate pronunciation, and basic points. I struggle so hard to understand what he’s saying because he basically throws words at me and hopes they stick. I try so hard to remind myself how understanding everyone has been here with me and my Bulgarian, but I lack patience regardless. I need to be better about it because here is someone who actually wants to speak English with me. They’re few and far-between here in Rakitovo.
As a side note, there’s a girl here that I know only by sight. She was married the first weekend I was here in Rakitovo. Hers was the first Roma wedding I witnessed. I saw her yesterday, and she was pushing around her newborn baby. I’ve been here long enough to see a couple get married and have a kid. It’s weird and yet entirely normal at the same time. I feel like I’ve been living in Rakitovo forever.
The town of Dospat is in the Rhadopes, a few hours away from Rakitovo. There’s a beautiful reservoir there – as shown in the pictures. I went there this weekend with my friend, Fanka, for a “sabor.” A “sabor” is basically your county fair. They have carnival rides, bad food stands, musicians and shows, and outdoor markets. So, it’s your county fair – Bulgarian style. Fanka goes every year because she has family there, and she invited me to come with her. I had a great time meeting her family and walking around the “sabor.” I also saw a lot of chalga singers. I won’t bore you with their names, ‘cause you’ve probably never heard of them. These people have become practically part of my daily life, and while I’m actually getting sick of chalga music, I was actually more excited to see them live than I thought I would be.



**Side note: I really am sick of chalga though… with its horrid unrequited love themes… half-naked singers… and the lifestyle it promotes. Most of the songs just take someone else’s music and add new lyrics to them. I’ve often thought, as I’m walking by a house blasting chalga, “You will let these people in your homes and let them influence your life, but you won’t get to know me and see if there’s anything real I can share with you.” At the concert, one of the male singers told a girl that she would make a good chalga singer ‘cause she’s so pretty. Right. Nevermind that we don’t even know if she can sing. She’s hot. Let’s get her some plastic surgery so she can become even more unattainably hot, and then let’s market her and tell her what to sing. It’s a business. We do it in the states, too.**
But anyway, I had a good time hanging out with Fanka and her family. Afterwards, we went to a tiny little “selo” (village) where her grandma lives and spent the night. I met a family friend, and he proposed we get married so he could move to the states with me. When I stated my aversion to that idea, he offered me his son. It was all half in jest. He gave us a ride down the mountain back to Rakitovo the following day. His poor son was in the front seat, and he kept telling him to get ready to marry me and pack his bags for America. It’s not really the first time this has happened. I meet a lot of really great people that tell me they love America and ask me what it takes to go there. One of Fanka’s uncles grilled me about America, but he was fun to talk to. I wonder what the turn-out would be if I put up advertisements offering myself as a bride/free-ride to the states. It’s kind of sad ‘cause I don’t think it’s fair for a country to be so much better off than the majority of the world and make it pretty much impossible for most people to even visit to see how it is. Don’t get me wrong though, I know how blessed I am to come from such a land of opportunity, and I can pretty much go wherever I want.
Speaking of marriage, Mr. I’ll-build-you-a-house-where-we-both-can-live Krum has backed off a little recently. I still see him every once in a while at the center, but he doesn’t hang around as much. I ignore him for the most part when he does stop by. That doesn’t stop him from asking when we can hang out though. Yesterday, he had a cute, little seven-year-old girl come up and talk to me about his intentions.
Girl: “Krum wants me to tell you that he loves you, and he wanted me to give you this.” She then hands me a beautiful rose... which I later fed to the goat.
Krum: “Now ask her if she loves me.”
Girl: “Do you love Krum?”
Apryl: “That’s a secret.”
Krum: “Okay, I’ll go away, so you can tell her your secret,” and he walks off.
Girl: “What’s your secret? Do you love Krum?”
Apryl: “Secrets are secrets. I don’t tell secrets.”
Girl: “If you don’t tell me your secret, I won’t tell you Krum’s secret.”
Apryl: “Fine. Don’t tell me. Keep Krum’s secret.”
Girl: “Okay. Krum told me to tell you that he loves you and he wants to kiss you. Now what’s your secret?”
Apryl: “Na-ah. It’s my secret. I’m not telling you.”
After work yesterday, I finally stopped by the tiny historical museum we have in town. I’ve been meaning to go there ever since I came to Rakitovo on my site visit. Angel pointed it out to me, and we tried to go in, but it was closed at the time. We always said that we would go back, but it’s one of those things that just gets shuffled by the wayside in the midst of life. Every time I’ve thought about it, I’ve found the place closed. Yesterday, I thought about it, and it was finally open! So I went inside (looking like a ragamuffin with my painting clothes) and had a private tour from the very nice curator. I told her a little bit about myself and my work here, how I’ve almost been here a year already and have never stopped by, but it didn’t register with her until I told her my name. Apparently she’s heard of me. Hopefully it’s nothing but good stuff.
The museum itself is really charming. The grounds are nice, and they have an ethnographic and archaeological portion. It was interesting to see how Bulgarians lived in the early part of the last century and then look at a bunch of 12th century (and even earlier!) tiles, stones, and icons found in the Rakitovo municipality. I’m so proud of myself for finally going in. There are a lot of places like that for me here – places I say I’ll check out… places I say I’ll go and explore, and it just hasn’t happened yet. I’ve fallen into a routine that takes me on the same old streets over and over again. It’s sad really.
I had an awesome Spanish class yesterday with Maria and Reneta. They’re so eager to learn, and they catch on fast. I haven’t had class with them in a while, and I need to be better about showing up. They miss their classes when I can’t come, and I miss them, too. English classes will start again in October, and while I’m already getting kids (and a few adults) asking me about them, I’m not excited to start those up again. I need to be better about planning my lessons to make them more fun and easy-to-learn, but I just lack some serious self-esteem when it comes to teaching English. Bleh.
Guess what else! Courtesy of friends and technology, I now have Skype and a video camera. Yes, yes, I'm in the Peace Corps. I should be living in a hole in the ground... blah blah blah. I am hooked up! If you have Skype or anything and want to talk to me, let me know.
As a closing to this post, I will randomly update you on the weather –which is still moody. We’ll have a hot day, and then it will rain, or it will rain in the morning and fog up, and then the sun will come out for a while, and then it will rain again. I love the weather. As long as it’s not snowing, I’m not complaining.
As a post-closing to this post, I will remind you all that I am running a marathon this November. Do you remember that? And I need your support! Is that anything new? Join me in my endeavor to true greatness/insanity! And give money to cute little Bulgarian scouts! Click here to read and donate! Are you really going to say "no" to this face?


By a reservoir in Dospat Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 21, 2006

Proposal to Break a Heart

Storm clouds are gathering on the horizon and thunder is crashing in the distance. I love this weather. It can’t seem to make up its mind. One moment I’m melting and the next minute a storm is brewing. It reminds me of me. “She can be all four seasons in one day” – Sting
I received a marriage proposal today – my first in Bulgaria. The guy is fairly sweet and sincere, but he’s 37, and “the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor,” if you know what I mean. I have a hard time understanding him, and I don’t know what he’s talking about half the time. His name is Krum, and I met him early in my service here. He’s recently been showing up at the office, at the center, at my house to give me gifts such as flowers, food, and various knick-knacks. It’s not everyday a girl gets a marriage proposal, so I’m going to share with you a general idea of our discussion:
We were up at the center, standing next to the playground equipment, and Krum pointed to a dilapidated building without windows.
Krum: “Do you like that house over there?”
Apryl: “It’s nice. It needs some work.”
Krum: “I want to buy that house and fix it up. We can live together, and I’ll take care of you. What do you say?”
Apryl: (fairly shocked) “I’m not going to stay in Bulgaria, Krum. I’m going to return to the states.”
Krum: “You can take me with you.”
Apryl: “It doesn’t work that way, Krum.”
Krum: “But I’m in love with you.”
Apryl: “I’m sorry, but I’m not in love with you.”
Krum: “I’ve been in love with you since I first saw you. I don’t fall in love easily. What am I supposed to do now?”
I lied and told him I had a boyfriend in the states. I was hoping it would discourage him, but it hasn’t seemed to. He followed me home from the Educational Center after we finished painting for the day.
Krum: “Can you buy me some matches and cigarettes?”
I bought him some matches, but I refuse to buy people cigarettes.
Krum: “I didn’t go to work today because I wanted to see you, and I lost my job.”
Apryl: Looking at him incredulously, “You’re saying I’m to blame?”
Krum: “Yes! I need you to find me work. I need to eat. I have no money. I’ve been buying you gifts. What am I going to do?”
By this time, he was kind of yelling at me, and I was feeling uncomfortable. I got him to leave, but this is not going to go away. He’s a persistent guy. I’m praying that he’ll lose interest or find someone else to distract him.
Hey! The sun is coming out agai… wait, nevermind. It’s clouding up again. The weather is suffering from some sort of identity disorder.
So, most of our work has taken us up into the center. We’ve been installing lamps, and Yanko’s been taking care of the cables, switches, and outlets. We also have a guy that’s been installing radiators and is now going to install a giant water-heater or something in the kitchen. I haven’t figured it out yet. Bulgarian really is a tough language. Today, we’ve been painting the ceiling. Please don’t ask me why we’re painting the ceiling AFTER installing lamps. It seems to be a trend in Bulgaria. I’ve heard of that happening with another volunteer. My colleagues are amazing, intelligent people. I just don’t understand sometimes. There are definitely times when they don’t understand me. We still love each other though.
I had a good conversation with my colleague, Tsetska. She invited me over to her house for cheesy bread, fries, candied figs, raspberries, and beer. It’s an interesting combination, but it was good. Her son, Marin, kept saying, “What’s your name? Your name is Gabrielle.” I guess Apryl sounds a lot like Gabrielle. “What’s your name? Kaka Amerikanka (American Big Sister).” He was cracking me up.
“Don’t you dare fall in love and stay here,” Tsetska told me. “Can you really see yourself staying and living in Bulgaria, Apryl?”
And something clicked in my head, “You know I love it here, but I will tell you the truth. Every day, something happens to remind me that I just don’t belong here. I feel foreign every single day. I don’t fit in.”
It’s not that I was ever considering staying in Bulgaria permanently, but I had never expressed out loud how difficult it is for me to feel permanently foreign. I wonder what this means for my dream of becoming a diplomat. I wonder if I really could live abroad long-term. But I also know that I get restless in the U.S. It’s a quandary.
My weekend was fairly uneventful and lazy. I played basketball with some girls on Friday evening and then treated my landlords and their kids to whiskey and chocolates because they fixed my bathroom sink and helped me set up my internet connection (which probably really wasn’t a favor in the long run as I’m addicted). They nearly freaked out. It’s not every day a Bulgarian gets to drink whiskey.
I went to church on Saturday – where they’re trying working through the Adventist interpretation of the prophecies in Daniel 8 and 9. All that math can be frustrating. At the close of the service, we read Psalm 27. I couldn’t help but start crying. It’s a beautiful passage. I was then asked to pray in English. At least they didn’t ask me to pray in Bulgarian, but they all got to hear my voice crack.
Oh man, there’s lightening now, and my electric and cable internet connection is on the fritz. Weather like this is only for staying inside curled up in a handsome guy’s arms. Am I being too vulnerable in this post for you? Haha. I’ll try and stop.
So, the rest of my weekend was fairly devoid of human contact. I was supposed to meet someone on Saturday to go to the pool. Because of this, I turned down a couple lunch invitations. I swear one lady, Sonia, wants me to come to her house every day! She was so insistent that I come, that after telling her I had other plans over and over again, I finally kind of lost it and said, “I can’t come to your house every week!” She got upset with me. “But you have to come every week! You’re so thin! Your mom is going to ask, ‘What’s wrong with those Bulgarians? Don’t they feed you over there?’” “Um, no,” I thought, “She’s going to scold me and ask me why I’m not eating right.” Sonia continued, “We’ll let you go this time, but you need to come next week and every week after that.” I am so fortunate to have these people in my life over here, but I feel smothered. Smothered with love – yeah, that’s it.
ANYWAY, so I get home and get ready to go to the pool with a girl here named Diana. Five minutes before I’m supposed to go meet her, she calls me and says she can’t go ‘cause she has “work” to do. I should be glad that she called at all, but I hate that people here seem to wait until the last minute to tell you they’re ditching out on you. I could have made other plans, girlie! I could have been smothered with love! Diana asked if we could go on Sunday. She’d call me. Did she ever call me? Nope. I didn’t expect her to.
I still didn’t leave my apartment for the rest of the weekend. I don’t feel badly about it, but I just wonder where the time goes. Getting internet in my apartment hasn’t made me all that productive, but it helps a little bit. I finally did my taxes, and I wrote a project to expand the activities of our Educational Center. Yanko would like to turn a portion of it into a career informational center and provide people with help to start their own businesses. It’s a fantastic idea, and I’m sold on it. I just hope we find some donors to agree.
Enyo and Milka are gone to the coast for a week. I wish I could say that I have the entire house to myself, and I’m throwing some wild parties, but their daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren are still staying on the second floor.
In my attempt to be more positive, I’m going to share my favorite moment from today: Seeing my little friend Tanya, calling out her name, having her face light up when she saw me, watching her run toward me, and having her put her arm around me and escort me up to the Mahala. We met my former Bulgarian teacher on the way up, and she talked to me and held my other free hand. These are the tiny moments that I live for over here. And you thought the marriage proposal would be my favorite, didn’t you?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Landmark - Take Two

So, here's another landmark for you courtesy of time: It's been a year since I came to Bulgaria. Yep, one year ago there was this jetplane that brought a bunch of Americans over to serve in Peace Corps Bulgaria. I was one of those on that fateful August 15th journey. Man, time is a funny thing. It can seem like ages ago and yesterday all at the same moment. So anyway, there it is... a whole year.
Today was a good day. Nevermind that my landlord's son and girlfriend are back sleeping in my apartment. Grrrr. And I feel like I can't say anything 'cause the family is so nice to me. Double grrr. Oh man, and now the kid downstairs is screaming, and the parents are screaming back. Did I mention I think I might have fleas again? Did I also mention that today was a good day?
Anyway, I just posted yesterday, but I'm back again with another post because now that I have internet in my home... might as well abuse it. Like I said, today was a good day, so I want to capitalize and share it with you all. There wasn't much going on in the office today. I set up Skype on the computer in the office, and my colleagues think I'm a technical wonder-wizard or something. I love that they're so easily impressed. They were talking to our funding organization in no time, and they're boggled by the whole VOIP thing. Now I just have to set up Skype on my laptop.
In other news, I've been trying to get a death certificate from Canada for someone in the office below us since what feels like forever. She's always smiling and so sweet, but I always dreaded running into her because I hadn't heard anything from them. That's how I feel about people who ask me to find them work abroad as well. None of it really ever pans out, and I hate having to run into them and tell them over and over again that there's no news from far-off lands for a "better" life. Well anyway, she excitedly burst into the office this afternoon and told me I needed to come down and see the mail she got from Canada. So yeah, the death certificate finally got here. That doesn't quite solve all her problems. Now I have to get them to attest that the holder of the certificate has no other surviving relatives, and I have to translate it into Bulgarian, but part of the work is done. There's hope.
And I made pizza today. I haven't been eating well recently. Unfortunately, when I get down, I lose my appetite. I don't care much for cooking as it is, and when I'm sad the last thing I want to do is get up and make something. And then I drop weight pretty quickly. A few have made comments on how thin I've become, and it's infuriating when it becomes inspirational to other girls. "Look how thin you are! I want to look like you! How do you do it?" "Well, little misguided Bulgarian/Bulimian girl, this is what happens when I'm sad, unhealthy, and don't take care of myself. You don't want to be like me. I'm a head-case." So anyway, the fact that I took the time to make pizza with all these great, healthy veggies is cause for celebration.
After lunch, I went up to our center - where the playground equipment looks radiant if I do say so myself. It needs some touching up where some little, eager girls painted and got carried away and in some places that I've missed, but it makes the place look that much better. The kids wander by and look at it in awe. Mission accomplished. Here's the thing though: I've painted a slide set (without the slide) and a swingset (without the swings). So, it's basically climbing equipment. I was talking to a couple of my favorite girls last night online (Woohoo! Good talking to you, Brandy and Christi) and telling them how I think that's so symbolic of this country. On the surface, Bulgaria looks so modern and fully-functional. Why does the Peace Corps need to be here? I mean, I have internet and a washing machine in my apartment for goodness sake! And then you get down into the mentality and the day-to-day life here, and you realize that things just really don't mesh that well. People can't seem to move forward and despite all available technology, things still move slooooowly... like a snail trapped in molasses I believe I just read in an e-mail from a fellow volunteer. So, it's like coming to this playground. Everything is bright and shiny, and you get up on the slide set to realize that you're missing a slide. What? And you go over to play on the pretty swingset only to notice that the most important thing is missing: the swings. How can something like this happen? And you end up banging your head against the wall trying to reconcile the impossibility of it all.
There's a Dido song that really speaks to me. It's called "Life for Rent," and it's encouraged me to take some chances before in my life because it's made me look at things in an interesting light. I like the chorus: "If my life is for rent, and I don't learn to buy, well I deserve nothing more than I get, 'cause nothing I have is truly mine." It's so true, but there's also another line that is so true of my personality: "...I'm so afraid to fail, so I don't even try. Well, how can I say I'm alive?" That's how I feel about life here. I think many Bulgarians feel the same way. I've always thought this country could do with a healthy dose of self-confidence and can-do attitude. They're not going to find it in me, but my colleagues are actually really great at it - doing things in spite of what others say and think. I was talking to a girl the other day, and she was telling me that people in Rakitovo make fun of people who are involved in extracirricular activities. If anyone does anything seen as "extra" in their life, they're regarded as an oddity and ostracized in a way, and even she doesn't know why that mentality permeates this place. I have a feeling she's right, and it's discouraging. But wait! This was supposed to be a happy post. Today was a good day.
So, back to the center. We installed lights today. Yanko has been telling me for the past few days that I can't help him 'cause it's "man's work." Fortunately, our office manager, Fanka (who's a girl by the way), and I convinced him that we could help him. So we held lights while he screwed them in place. Good times.
After that, I went to a party. Today was Maria's (of the famous Maria and Reneta) name day, so she coordinated a gathering to celebrate and remember the camp we just came back from up in the mountains. It was a great party. She had a chair picked out for her guests with their names on them. She interviewed all of us: "What's your favorite memory from camp? Do you miss it? Would you go back if you could?" She then gave us sweets to celebrate her day, and then she had us all trace our hands on a poster as a memory of the camp. Afterwards, we danced and played one of the games I taught them at the camp. There was no way I would have rather celebrated my first year in Bulgaria and the name day of one of my favorite kids.
On my way out of the Mahala, I kept running into people I knew and saying "hi" or stopping to talk for a few moments. It was God's way of reminding me I really have integrated here in a way. People recognize me, and I have a repoire with a number of them. It was exactly what I needed to remind myself that I have come quite a ways since coming to this country. All those seemingly unimportant interactions have not been for naught.
On my way home, I said "good evening" to a couple I usually see out sitting on a bench in the evenings. I was thinking it would be good to talk to them when the woman called me over and asked how I was doing and what I was doing. I said I was fine and that I was going home. "Oh, well, since you're going home...." I stayed and chatted for a bit though... asking any random questions I could think of that came to mind. The conversation on the woman's end started out kind of bitter "We're old, and we have nothing else to do but sit out here," but then she kind of warmed up to me. Her son soon came out, and I found out that he's a journalist in Sofia. He's published some books on Rakitovo, so he gave me a couple. He then invited me to have a drink with him, and he signed the books he'd given me. The woman also told me she needed to give me something for the holiday, so she gave me some ceremonial bread. (Since Maria - Mary - is the name of Jesus' mother, it's a national religious holiday. A bunch of people showed up in their best clothes to bring flowers to the church this morning.)
I also happened to go out to get a drink with the fruit and vegetable man... finally! I've been avoiding him because I've been uncomfortable around him, but I figured last night that I better just get it over and done with. He's a really nice guy - even if he still does make me a little uncomfortable. Now he wants to give me fruits and vegetables. He wants me to come by and not pay for the things I buy. That's not going to fly.
And I met a woman from Germany last night. My landlords invited me down, and I had a light dinner with them. They really wanted me to meet her so that I could speak to her in English and translate a bit. My landlords and their kin speak pretty good German though, so it's really not a problem. She was an interesting person though - and was randomly here for cheap dental work. Enyo happened to be driving her around, so that's how we all met.
So, I'm still meeting people in town. That's two-thirds of my job description. I'm encouraged by it all. It's God's doing. He's taking care of me. And he's using the citizens of Rakitovo to take care of me - even if they can amaze and exacerbate me all at the same time.
And then there's always the comments that make you feel good. "When are you coming to 'na ghosti' at my house, Apryl? You don't need a formal invitation. You just show up." I don't know if I'll ever get used to that. And Fatme, the colleague I mentioned earlier, asked me if I'll come back to Bulgaria after I go back to the states.
Apryl: "I don't know."
Fatme: "Then, you should just stay. I've gotten used to you here, and I don't want you to leave."
Apryl: "I would like to say that I'll come back, but I don't know if that's a true statement, and I don't want to lie."
Fatme: "We'll find you a Bulgarian man, and you can just get married and stay here."
Apryl: "Join the club. I've already got people looking for potential suitors for me."
I can never have these kinds of conversations enough. I didn't know Fatme felt that way. I think that now that we're coming up on a year of service in my community, my colleagues are starting to talk about my leaving more and how hard that's going to be.
Colleagues: "After that, we're never going to see you again, are we?"
Apryl: "I don't know."
Colleagues: "It's going to be hard on us when you leave."
Apryl: "How do you think I'll feel?"
Colleagues: "But you'll be excited to go back and see everyone. We've gotten used to you, and we miss you when you're gone even now."
Apryl: "It's still going to be really hard on me to leave."
These are the things that matter - making connections and becoming a part of people's lives. I have to be honest. It will be said again I'm sure as my service is wrapping up, but I want you all to be clear on this. In this past year, I have taken more from the Bulgarians than I could ever give them in return. Some people think I'm making a huge sacrifice by being over here, but I am actually being spoiled. I will benefit more from this experience than anyone in Rakitovo ever will.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Making a Connection

I write this on Sunday night (August 13th) in the hope that I will be able to post it tomorrow from my own computer with my very own internet connection. Gergana, my landlords’ daughter, took me to the cable place to see if they could hook me up. They were about to close, but I was able to get internet on my laptop there, so I’m hoping they can hook me up at my apartment. I’ve been wanting internet for so long... dealing with barely-living wireless, buying needless equipment and having it shipped to Bulgaria, cracking my head on how to get the guy at the internet café to understand my plight. Anyway, I just hope to have it as of tomorrow – after almost a year here. I’ll probably never leave the house again – or sleep for that matter.
There’s not too much to update you on, but I’m so excited at the thought of posting from my home, I wanted to write. I’m watching “Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” courtesy of John and Rebecca Schwartzhoff. I remember reading this book with my dad when I was young – that and “The Secret Garden.” Those were some good memories of learning to read. Sorry to get all nostalgic on you, but my dad called today, and I always get excited to talk to my parents.
So, I don’t have too much to share with you except for what’s been happening this weekend, I guess. I hung out with a friend on Friday, and we had a very nice chat. I only mention it because it can be difficult to have meaningful chats with anyone here. That’s probably my own fault, but my Bulgarian and cultural frame of reference seems to limit me to fairly superficial conversations. “Hi. How are you doing? How’s the weather? How does your garden grow?” I’m exaggerating, but I guess I just think it’d be easier to get to a more meaningful level of interaction with more people if we all spoke the same language – or maybe if I were just more talented at getting people to open up to me. My counterpart seems to have that talent. Anyway, it was nice to have that interaction with a friend here and then to go to a party with her and her friends afterward. I’m still a commodity of interest here to some people, and that’s nice.
I got up and went to church on Saturday and then went to lunch at Spaz and Sonya’s afterward. I made a salad from fresh vegetables in the garden, and we sat outside to enjoy lunch. They (Sonya especially) have taken a great interest in me and my well-being here in town. Sonya wants me to think of her as a surrogate mother, and they keep trying to get me to come over on the weekdays and visit them. “Tell us all your problems. Do you need money? Do you need food? You know we can help you with anything. Just let us know. Tell us something about you we don’t know.” Sweet and suffocating all at the same time.
After a quick break at home, I went over to see Yanko and Ani. Ani was supposed to show me how to make my favorite dish: “pulneni chooshki.” It’s a baked pepper dish, stuffed with flavored rice. It’s delicious. But Ani wasn’t at home because she needed to go to her sister’s in a nearby town and help with the construction of a house. I found Yanko in the center – working on wiring lights and plugs alone. We just can’t seem to be able to find people around and willing to help, and Yanko tells me it’s “men’s work,” so I can’t help. Instead, we just went out to coffee and had pint-size philosophical conversations with a drunk. My life here really is quite random.
On my way home, I heard a voice calling my name from a balcony. It was a couple girls I know: Geri and Petya, and they came out walking with me for a bit. I treated them to ice cream and showed them pictures from Spain and Prague. I try to remind myself that just hanging out with people is a large part of my job.
I got up early this morning and ran to Velingrad and back. Yanko tells me that’s 24 km, or 15 miles. I don’t know if it’s quite that far, but I definitely feel as though I’ve run a half marathon today. It took me about two hours. My knees hurt, my legs feel like Jell-O, and I have blisters on my toes. Fun times. I told some people around here that I ran to Velingrad and back, and they just gaped at me. Why would anyone do that? One girl asked, “Who saw you do it?” “No one – just people passing in the cars saw me running.” “Well then, how can people believe you?” “Do you not believe me?” She looked at me incredulously. “Well, let me tell you again. I ran to Velingrad and back this morning.” After going on my run, I went over to the center to paint some playground equipment. It reminded me of our community project in Trud during training. How far I’ve come, and I’m still painting playground equipment. Hehe. Only this time, I didn’t have kids helping me. I was doing it all by myself. I was just lamenting how lame it was to be working on this all by myself and how the local community isn’t taking much ownership into it, when three young boys showed up. One of them started touching and stepping on the wet paint. “Do you want to paint?” I asked him. “Yes.” So I soon got all three of them slapping wet paint on rusted metal. They were pretty intense about the whole experience – until I brought along soda and sweets to distract them. Then Yanko and I were left to paint again. We took a break to eat “pulneni chooshki,” which I wasn’t shown how to make because Ani prepared all of it while I was painting, and then we went back to work for a few more hours before I decided to give up for the day. Now I’ve just been here at home – relaxing and wondering what to do about my poor legs. They’re going to be killing me tomorrow. Maybe I’ll be a paraplegic for a day.
Other than that, my weekend (and life here in general) is filled with quiet, rather vague interactions and invitations that rarely come to fruition.
Bulgarian: “Apryl, when are you going to come to my house for ‘na ghosti?’” Apryl: “When you invite me.”
B: “You’re always invited. Just show up whenever.”
But I’m not comfortable doing that.
B: “When are we going to go to the pool in Kostandovo?”
A: “When you invite me.”
B: “When are you free? I can go during the week.”
A: “I work then.”
B: “Oh, well we’ll find some time to go.”
Yeah, maybe during the winter.
B: “When are we going to go to Tsigov Chark?”
A: “When you let me know.”
B: “Okay, I’ll let you know.”
And it just goes round and round. I need to find time when I’m just hanging out doing nothing and just take that opportunity to randomly show up at one of these people’s houses, or call someone up and tell them I’m going to the pool – do they want to come, or say to someone, “Hey, you have a nice, shiny ride. Do you want to go to Tsigov Chark?” Good gravy.
In other random news, my landlord’s grandson is turning into quite the confident little cutie. He smiles when he sees me and says “O.K.!” in a guttural scream. They tell him I’m “Apryl,” which he repeats, but I’m still “Kakata O.K.” to him. He used to shy away from me before, but now he comes up and tries to peer under my dress and say “Kakata O.K. is a pretty girl.” He’s quite the cheeky little fellow. I’m going to figure out a way to adopt him and bring him home.
All right, so that’s it for today. I’ll be back tomorrow to see if I can post this from my living room. Oh, the excitement. I know you’re all holding you’re breath….

Yeah! I did it! I'm posting from a comfortable arm-chair, and I'm in my socks, and I need a shower! Yes! I can post without having to make myself presentable to the public. I know you're all thrilled for me....

Friday, August 11, 2006

Landmark

It's strange how dates and times can take on meaning for certain people. Like today has special significance for me even though it's not really a milestone in my Peace Corps service or anything like that. Other than it being my friend's mother's birthday (Happy Birthday, Linda.), today marks a year from when I said "Good-bye" to my own mother at the Sacramento airport and started my Peace Corps experience in Washington D.C. And what a ride it's been. Those of you who are faithful readers to my blog know that I've had my ups-and-downs. It had mostly been up (with great thanks to God) until recently. And believe me, I wish nothing more than to write more positive, happy things in my blog. I'd like to believe myself an overall happy person. And I don't want you to worry about me. I'm just in a phase right now where I'm having a rough time, and to be dishonest about that would be difficult for me right now. I think of myself as a sincere person. Those of you who know me well know that I don't have a poker face. It's infuriating that I wear my emotions on my sleeve and my body language betrays my state of mind, but it's who I am.
My colleagues know that I've been down as of late, and my boss and I had a talk about it. Yanko tried to comfort me by saying that things are just generally slow for us in the summer because the kids are either gone to the forest for work or they're on vacation. He also said that you can't push someone to do something they don't want to do. This is hard work that we're doing here - trying to change people's minds and make them look at things from another perspective. Sometimes, it's just not going to work. But it's the fact that I don't even know how to try that's getting me down. And I have been busy this summer. I've been so busy, I haven't been here to try anything. A lot of people have told me that they liked the last post because it seemed more optimistic. In a way, that makes me feel down because now I feel like I should apologize for being sad. I can't help the way I feel, but I have power to respond to it in an appropriate way. I'm still here, people. I'm still in Bulgaria. I'm realizing that I'm frustrated and times are difficult, but I'm not planning on running away from this. I want to look at things square in the face and say, "Yes. I'm sad. Yes. I'm having a hard time at the moment. Yes. This hurts. Yes. I'm discouraged. Yes. I will get through it. No. I refuse to give up. No. I refuse to leave. No. I refuse to think that this is how it's going to stay." I'm being honest with my feelings and honest with the fact that I really don't know how to deal with them, but I trust God to work it out and help me learn from this. This has to serve some purpose, otherwise what was all of it for? I don't like being down, but I'm not going to lie to myself and tell myself that everything is good at the moment. I just wish I could be more of an actor around my colleagues and people in town, because I'm sure they'd rather deal with a happy Apryl than with the shape-shifter as of late.
I'm hoping things will pick up. Earlier in the week, I went and visited a friend who I'm hoping to get back to studying English with me. It was a nice visit, and in the end she invited me to take a trip to see some relatives at the end of August. I hope that pans out because it sounds like a lot of fun. I haven't been able to study English with her yet, but maybe next week or something. Angel also says that he will start studying English with my everyday starting Monday. I know he's really busy though, so I'm not sure if that's going to happen. I hope he does though, even if it's selfishly so I have something to do.
The guy at the internet cafe - after basically having a customer/internet service provider relationship with me for ten months - asked me to join him and his friends for a beer one night. I declined at first, but when he asked me why, I realized I didn't have a good reason. So I went and talked to him and his friends for a bit. He invited me to come along on a trip they're planning to the sea at the end of the month. It's his birthday, and they're going to a metal concert out there. I don't really know them well enough to do that - so I told them I had other plans (which is true), but he's back to generally ignoring me like before. Can I just turn into a junior-high girl for a moment here and say, "Boys are weird." Okay. Glad to have gotten that out of my system.
I was over at my landlord's house the other night, and after three glasses of wine (apparently too much by my standards) got into a pretty heated discussion with a guy about the Roma. He basically said they were all the same, and he didn't like any of them. Why was I here to work with them? I should be working on behalf of "real" Bulgarians. It was an amusing conversation - just because he was actually so good about the debate. I've laxed a little, too. I realize that I'm not going to change people's opinions just like they're not going to change mine. And if I can just make them think, then I'm doing my job here. It was the most amusing, "I hate the people you work for/Why are you such a close-minded jerk" exchange that I've had since coming here. Those conversations usually just wind up with me being pissed of. The alcohol probably helped.
I got a package the other day from my mom and a couple friends. The goodies inside are great, and I've got some movies now to waste more time with. Yes! I watched "Moulin Rouge" last night. I also got some stuff to try and connect to the wireless network here. Unfortunately, those things aren't going to work from my apartment. I'm frustrated, but now my landlords' daughter, Gergana, knows that I've been frustrated about it, and that I really want internet in my place. We're supposed to go today and talk to someone about getting a cable or something wired up. We'll see how that goes. Maybe I'm just condemned to a life here in Rakitovo without personal internet. I shouldn't whine. I am in the Peace Corps for goodness sake.
So anyway, a year since I last saw my mom. A year since I was last in Sacramento. For many of you who read this, it's been more than a year since we last saw each other. Believe me, I feel the time. I feel it, and I miss you all. Here's a big hug from me to you. And a big "thanks" for reading. And a big "thanks" for time to make me aware of how long I've missed you all and how blessed I am to have you in my life.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Empty Nest

Have I ever mentioned that Bulgaria has some of the best tomatoes in the world? They really are flavorful and delicious. If you love tomatoes, you’re missing out. If you hate tomatoes, that’s a shame. I just came back from a lunch with my landlords where they fed me fish (one of the few things with a mother that I’ll eat with them – much to their delight), tomato, onion, and dill salad, and french fries. I think one of the only reasons they’ve invited me is ‘cause their son and his girlfriend are staying in my place again. I wonder if they know how much it bugs me, so they “bribe” me with these lunches. It’s so frustrating that they’re such nice people. I would love to bar them from staying at my place, but I find myself powerless to tell them “no.” It’s such an invasion of privacy, and I feel like my apartment is “American territory.” It’s one of the few places I can relax and be my neurotic self. Now that they’re showing up almost every weekend that I’ve been here recently (which hasn’t been many), I’m resenting it more and more. I know they live in Plovdiv (where it’s hot as hell), and they want to escape to the mountains for a weekend, but what right do they have to stay in my apartment?
I returned on Friday from a 10-day camp in a mountain paradise about 45 min. from Rakitovo. Some of my colleagues, some kids, and I were up at an elevation of about 1,800 km (about a kilometer up from where we live now), and it was absolutely gorgeous up there. We stayed at this charming mountain lodge where we were pretty much the only guests for the time we were there, although others came in and out. The workers and permanent figures at the hotel became a fairly close cast of characters for us, and would sometimes interact with us during our activities at the lodge.
Every morning, we would get up a little before seven and then I would lead “gymnastics” (as it’s called in Bulgarian) at seven-thirty. It mostly consisted of doing some stretching, aerobic exercises, and some games. This would be followed by breakfast at eight. Afterwards, we would take off on a walk along the roads and trails that surrounded the hija (Bulgarian for “lodge” – I’ll probably throw it in here a few times without realizing it, so I thought I’d better clue you in now). We would gather herbs and plants for teas and seasoning (I got some lavender, thyme, and some other flower for some natural teas this winter) and we would sing songs, play games, or find other ways to try and entertain each other. After a few hours of this, we would return to the hija for lunch and then have free time to watch tv, sleep, play cards, read, hang out, etc. In the late afternoon, we would either go outside and play or do some kind of craft. I took the opportunity to teach the kids a little origami, share coloring pages and pens with them, help them create masks and other crafts, and teach them a few of the fun games I know. I also taught several of them how to shuffle cards – which they took great pleasure in showing me once they got down the shuffle and the “bridge.” It was fun to pass on to them the “knowledge” I contain. I find it so trivial, but they were impressed by it and were anxious to imitate. After dinner, we would usually have some type of show followed by more games or an improvisational discotheque in the café. The kids really got into the “shows.” They usually presented a skit extolling the virtues of education or the dangers of early marriage. They would follow this up by skits from “The Slavi Show” (a Bulgarian Leno or Letterman) and make each other laugh with their multiple impressions. I was flattered because I was asked to join a group and be involved with their skits, and I was also surprised to be invited to take part in an impromptu dance competition (where I took second place)! Then, the next day we would start it all over again. In the beginning, we were only slated to stay for seven days, but then my boss offered us the possibility of staying three extra days. I think some of the kids could have stayed even longer, but they were excited to come back to Rakitovo when it was all said and done.
I had a wonderful time up there. I don’t know if I would call it “relaxing,” but it was a nice break from everything I had been doing – especially since I’d kind of had it with camps. The kids were completely loving and absolutely wonderful. Of course, we had a few, minor behavioral problems, but they could be traced back to something we had been egging them on to do and they took it too far. They also fell in love with the most “ginormous” and adorable rottweiler while up there… another constant character at the hija. This charming “puppy” came with a wealthy, handsome boxer who seemed to take an interest in me. We spent a few afternoons together, and he took me up to a nearby international sporting complex to see the facilities and came on one of my runs with me.
My runs were some of my favorite parts of my whole time there. I think the kids were intrigued by my runs as well. I hope it will encourage them to get involved in more physical activities. It was refreshing and invigorating to run up there – even though it took me a while to acclimate to the hills and the elevation change. I would regularly come across springs and stop for a drink, or I would come across wild strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries and stop to munch. Yeah, the natural beauty of the place was a distraction, but it was so fulfilling in other ways. The random people we would come across were so simple and sweet. I think I could live a life in the middle of nowhere for a while – although there would have to be a few more surprises.
Also cataloged in some of my favorite moments are the sudden rains that would unexpectedly keep us in the hija. We would take to playing cards or I would read a book while everyone else took a nap. We did get caught in the rain once, however. We had walked far from the hija to visit a reservoir. We hadn’t been there ten minutes when water started falling from the sky. After walking miserably in it for a few kilometers, we found someone who agreed to drive us back to our lodge for a small fee. Ah well, just another one of those camp memories, right? I have great memories playing with the kids, too, but is it sad that topping the list are pretty much moments spent alone? I guess that’s just how I recharge sometimes, and I have to be okay with who I am.
I know I have been pretty down and negative in my blog recently. Emotionally and psychologically I have been having a really hard time. It’s one of those normal stages in life, and while I’m still dealing with it all (my recent feelings of frustration, sadness, loneliness, inadequacy, insecurity, and purposelessness have a habit of appearing at any given moment), I found this site to be a place of healing. Well, at least it’s hopefully a start. Being close to God’s beauty can have a way of doing that. And even though I don’t always feel Him nearby in a tangible way, I have this comforting feeling that He refuses to abandon me and will eventually lead me out of this tunnel – ‘cause He knows how dark and scary it is to be here. I just hope I come out smarter and stronger.
Ah! Also included in favorite memories: getting to talk to my wonderful and understanding mom on the phone for over an hour while I walked around in the mountains! I love you, Mom!
I don’t have much travel coming up, and that’s a comforting thing. Being away from site so much has left me feeling very disconnected from Rakitovo and its residents. My social circle has definitely shrunk due to my absence and people just generally getting over the novelty of my presence here (something I remember complaining about in earlier posts). It’s time to make a renewed effort to get out and interact with the people in my community. I will have to grab on with a stranglehold to any passing invitation to hang out – instead of declining as I’ve recently taken to doing.
Of course, there will be Peace Corps-related reasons to be leaving site soon enough. A new round of volunteers from the Youth Development program will be coming in (tomorrow?), and that means that we’ve been in country for about a year (whoa!) and are about to complete a year of service here in October (double whoa!). Along with this comes various activities that bring us into contact with the new trainees, mid-service conference meetings, mid-service medical/dental check-ups, and I’ve been asked by Peace Corps to come and talk to the new trainees about Project Development and Application. It’s almost ironic. Here I am feeling like the most useless volunteer that ever set foot in Bulgaria (I know it’s irrational and silly, but when have feelings ever been rational?), and Peace Corps keeps asking me to come and inspire new recruits.
This weekend has been pretty nice and relaxing. I wish I were getting more done, but I tell myself that I need the mental break and alone time for the moment. I can’t get into the habit of doing that though, but it’s been nice for a couple days. I went to church yesterday and just couldn’t bring myself to accept a lunch invitation. After eating lunch at home and dozing off for a bit, I took a long hike up into the nearby hills. Upon arriving back home, my neighbors asked me why I didn’t stop in for a bit and say hello. It’s about time I did. Sheesh. I don’t even know my own neighbors. So I met the people who live next door, and they introduced me to their granddaughter – who lives in Spain and speaks the same three languages I speak. She’s a beautiful, sweet girl. We have a friend in common, so hopefully that will translate into all of us hanging out. Jon, the Velingrad volunteer, and Leslie came by to visit Brandy, and we had homemade Mexican food together and went out to a local café afterwards. We had one of those flash summer storms that seem to punctuate life here recently, and it finally gave up around midnight so we could go home.
I came home on Friday to find my storks MIA. The little ones weren’t gone for long, but it looks as though they have found their wings and have taken to going on sporadic jaunts around town. I feel such a connection to them ‘cause I’ve been watching them grow up on that church bell tower since early spring. I know it’s silly and a little tacky to be said, but I truly hope I can find my “wings” again sometime soon, too. Isaiah 40:31