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.

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