Friday, September 22, 2006

Autumn Falls

Welcome to my 100th post! Yay! :::Confetti and glittery stars are falling on your head right now!::: Continue reading for your chance to win a free, gift-with-purchase blender! Only 39.99 leva! Feel free to dance to an offer so good as this one.... Put on some music, and start bouncing off the walls.
I swear the change of weather came out of nowhere. One day it was hot, the next day it was cold, and it's been cold ever since. It's been gray and rainy. My hills have turned from peaceful shades of blue to eerie, but no less beautiful, shades of grey - yes, grey with an "e" describes their color best. I like the weather, but I like staying home in this weather. Fall wouldn't be so bad if winter didn't directly proceed it.
I'll take this opportunity to give you all an update on the center. We got some people to come out last Saturday and help us clean up the outside - pull weeds, repair the fence, etc. Work has started on the kitchen sink. It's pretty, clean, and white. An alarm system has been installed. We still have a number of things left to do: paint the roof, finish the sink, install the computers, put in some more equipment, and do some minor repairs to make the place look "spiffier." Opening is scheduled for October 11th. I really hope everything will be ready by then.
This weekend, I went over to someone's house for "na ghosti" a couple times. There's this little girl in town that has been asking me when I'll come over for quite sometime, and I keep forgetting to come. I was surprised when they wanted me to come back the next day, but I soon found out it was so I could translate a letter they had received from the states. I was a little annoyed, but I mean, that's what I'm here for, right? And they fed me, so why should I complain? After that, I went over to help a couple of my colleagues and Lubo celebrate his name day. It was the day of "nadezhda and lubov" (hope and love), and Lubo (short for love) had us over for some drinks and snacks. He's a really great guy. He's an expert on traditional Bulgarian dances, and he teaches classes here in town. He has a group that's sponsored through our foundation, and they go all over the place. In fact, at the last festival, my buddy Sashko took the prize for "best dancer." Lubo also let me use his studio when my volunteer friends came over to give modern dance lessons. He always says "hi" to me and asks how I'm doing. Anyway, Lubo's house is insane. It's got so many traditional Bulgarian paraphernalia on the walls and all around, it's almost like a museum. If I wanted to show anyone in one place what Bulgaria is, I would take them there. The place reeks of Bulgaria. It's awesome. We also watched videos from the festivals, and I had a really good time just hanging out.
This week has been a little strange. I up at the center for a bit on Monday - waiting for Veska to come so we could talk to a teacher about getting her ready for college entrance essay-writing, but she never showed up. I haven't heard from her since. In the afternoon, I had to hop on a bus to Dupnitsa for more training exercises with the trainees.
I got into Dupnitsa in the evening and proceeded to check into the wrong hotel. I was in my room for a few minutes when the phone rang, and the lady at the front desk told me I wasn't supposed to stay there. As there is only one hotel in town, I had no idea what was going on. Turns out there wasn't enough room at the hotel for all of us, so Peace Corps had arranged that we would stay at a place on the outskirts of the city. It was really out in the middle of nowhere, but it was quiet, pretty, and a place to sleep. The other volunteers who were coming in were just as confused as I was, but we were at least able to find each other and have a nice dinner.
The training sessions went well from my point of view. Toni, a friend and a volunteer, and I gave a session on tolerance. We played some games and had a couple local Roma girls come in and talk. It seemed to go well. We got some good feedback from the trainers and the trainees seemed interested. After that, we had a minority panel discussion with some other volunteers that work with minorities - mostly the Roma. Basically, a facilitator asked us questions while the trainees listened in and added a few questions of their own. I think it went well, but I can get a little effervescent when it comes to minorities. Maybe I almost got into the session a little too much. I needed to take my chill pill beforehand, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. Hopefully the trainees enjoyed it as well.
I missed my bus on Tuesday. I might have made it, but I refused to get scammed by the taxi man again, so I got out of his cab and stood out in the rain to take public transport to the bus station - where I found out there were no more buses to Velingrad that day. Boo! So, I went to Pernik and spent the night at Toni's place. Yay! Only to get up the next day and take the same route back to the bus station. I ran into Yanko and Tsetska on the way there, and they invited me to hang out with them and go on to C.E.G.A. We would talk to them and return to Rakitovo the following evening. No, thank you. I wanted to go home.
Now that I'm here at home, I'm kind of running around confused. I went to Valia's house on a whim and played with Janette for a while. I couldn't find my other colleagues, and I didn't know what else to do. Yesterday, Maria and I hung out in the center. We searched for things to do and occupied ourselves with small activities. We also spent some time studying English. I went to the Roma school with her to make some arrangements and got mobbed by kids. I love getting mobbed by kids though.
Here at home, everything is all insane and crazy. Earlier this week, I came home to find a guy drilling holes in my bathroom floor. Later that day, they drilled holes in the floor of my hallway. This is a good thing, because they're installing some nice radiators around my apartment. I hope to walk around in a bikini this summer - as my landlords have promised me. Thing is, everything is out of place and a complete mess. So, guess who decides to show up this weekend. Yep, my landlords' son and his girlfriend. People are in the middle of hammering away in my apartment when they wander in and throw their stuff in the spare room. Was I told? No. And now that they're doing remodeling in my room, I have nowhere to sleep. I was told later that I would be sleeping in that spare room, and they would sleep downstairs, but now the girlfriend is coming in asking me to move my laundry because they're not going to sleep downstairs. Wait. This is MY place. Where am I going to sleep? Be nice, Apryl. Be nice. The other day, I talked to a lonely baba (grandmother) who wants me to come and live in her house for free! She has two extra beds, and we could live "like sisters."
It's interesting having all these people in my apartment though. They wander in and converse with me. They wander around my house and see my unmentionables drying. It's great stuff. Enyo is still trying to convince me to find a Bulgarian to date. I've got the guy who's installing the radiators asking Enyo why he doesn't just introduce me to his son and telling me that I wouldn't be typing this right now had a Bulgarian not invented the computer. I love living here!
I have to go back to work later this evening. My organization is going through some tough times right now. It seems like everyone is on their last nerve, and a few of my colleagues talk about quitting. I don't know what to do. I feel totally helpless, and I wish I could find a way to convince them to stay. I don't know what's going to happen, but please channel good thoughts our way. We could use them.
Oh, I guess it's only my 99th post. No less cool, but no blender for you.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Visit to Rakitovo

I forgot to tell you all about one of the coolest things I have seen so far in Bulgaria, and it took place right in our "chitalishte" (cultural center) in Rakitovo. On the sixth of September (Bulgarian Re-Unification Day),I had the opportunity to witness my first "deaf musical." We were treated to lip-syncing, signing, and dancing - all by a group of people who couldn't hear. Someone in the front row was giving them all their cues, and they were AMAZING! My favorite part was when they all came out in flamenco-ish clothes and danced and "sang" to "Volare" by The Gypsy Kings. It was great. A deaf musical. I never thought I'd see the day....
Today is the first day of school throughout all of Bulgaria. This morning, kids and teenagers have been going to schools around town - loaded down with flowers. I miss going to school. More than anything I miss being little and getting ready for school - imagining how it would be and going with my mom to buy all those clothes and school supplies. Life was so easy then. I just had to look cute (looking cute was so much easier back then), show up, listen, and get my work done.
I remember how it was here last year, too. I came to Rakitovo for my site visit, met my colleagues, and became a little more familiar with what my work would be here. I went with my colleagues to a couple of the schools in town, and we saw the opening of the school year. We also prepared some supplies and goodies for first grade, and I was taking pictures while they passed them out. Everything was so new and exciting. It was Brandy's first day of school, and she didn't know what was going on. I was dragged around, but I loved it as I didn't know what to do anyway. This would be my town... these would be my colleagues... these would be my kids.
This year was a little different. We didn't budget school goodies for first grade this year. There was a miscommunication about what we were doing today, and I planned to go up to the center with ratty clothes. After a huge discussion about where we were supposed to be and last-minute official invitations from a couple of the schools, I was told to change into nicer clothes and go to the office. But then no one came to the office. So I went to the school and wandered around - saying "hi" to some of the kids and teachers, and I gave a flower to Brandy - who was a lot more "in the loop" this year about what was going on and what she had to do. Everything is more familiar and more comfortable. The kids are no less adorable, but I'm sad. How I long to go back to this day last year when everything was chaotic, but we had something to do... when I was filled with trepidation, but it was all so new and exciting. When I was just a visitor in Rakitovo.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Rabota"

There is an expression here in Bulgaria that some people use when they want to talk about a job that's half-finished, or a task that isn't done very well, or something that's corrupt. You get the picture. They'll call it "Българска работа" (Bulgarska rabota). It's really a shame 'cause it's defeating to stamp an ethnic name on something like that. There's also the phrase "tsiganska rabota" when one wants to talk about the same kinds of things. This is degrading to the Roma. It just depends on who's saying it and where it's coming from.
I share this with you to tell you how degrading language can be sometimes and to preface something that I will just call corruption - regardless of who does it to whom. I got into a cab in Sofia this weekend to get to the bus station. It's my own fault 'cause I'm usually smart and ask about how much it's going to be beforehand. This time, I just hopped in and asked the guy to take me there. I guess I was wearing my, "I'm not from here, please take advantage of me" sign 'cause he took the longest route with the greatest amount of traffic. We were in the middle of who knows where when the meter jumped up to 20 leva. Since the ride is usually 5 leva or less, I was appalled. He had previously suggested he just drive me all the way back home for 70 Euro. I balked. "Do you really think I can afford that? Just take me to the bus station." As soon as it got up to 20 leva and we were just sitting in traffic watching the meter run, I shoved the money at him and got out of his cab. I was upset.
I got on a bus and tried to figure out how to get to where I needed to go, but there was really no direct way, and I soon found myself going the opposite direction of where I needed to be. I got out and thought to myself, "Am I going to distrust another cabbie because of what this guy did to me?" I knew I was really close, and a cab ride could only cost another couple lev. Again, I made the mistake of getting in without asking... looking... taking in my surroundings. When we got to the station, I asked how much. The guy wouldn't even tell me. He just pointed to the meter which showed almost another 20 leva and rising fast. WHAT!?!? I sunk in the back seat. How could this happen twice in one day? I said, "That's not possible." "I'm more expensive," he said, and he pointed to the window where it showed his price per kilometer. He was more expensive, but I still hadn't traveled that far. Not knowing what to do and being the person that I am, I gave him 20 leva. I demanded change. He didn't give me the correct amount back. I was livid and got out... wishing him "nice work."
This is discrimination! I'm smarter than this! I've lived here for a year now! I wish I had asked for a basic price beforehand, but I really wish I had known what to do at the point I was being exploited. What if I hadn't been carrying 40 leva on me? That's a lot of money! I thought about not paying them, but that was the only idea that came to my head, and I knew it wasn't exactly feasible. I should have written down their license numbers or some other form of identification. Now, all I can do is stew in the injustice of it all and ask God to deflate their tires or something... which I suppose is not the Christian thing to do.
Bulgaria faces a lot of corruption. It's one of the many struggles Bulgarians are dealing with in their ascension to the European Union. It's a tough problem that is not easily solved. I have talked to a few people that "purchased" their college diplomas. I have talked to others who figure they can pay off a policeman if they get stopped along the way. And then there's the whole mess with the schools here. Yesterday, Yanko pointed out to me teachers from the "special needs" school in town. They were going up to the Roma neighborhood to sign up normal, healthy kids to fill their school. Parents oblige because they think the easy cirriculum is what's best for their children. It's heartbreaking.
At the bus station in Velingrad, there are a string of cafes surrounded by bricks and bars. To get to them, one has to either walk several meters down the way, past the barrier, and then walk back to the cafes. Or, you take the "easy" way and duck under railings leading to the train tracks, and then squeeze between the walls to get to the cafes. The architectural feat of this place is mind-boggling and symbolic. Where is the entrance? Why would anyone build cafes and then wall them off? Why do things not make sense sometimes?
I was visiting a training site earlier this week to help out with a Project Design and Management session. My language teacher from training days in Trud, Ani, was there. Ani's the greatest, by the way. I love her. Anyway, she pointed out a cross in town. "See that cross? That marks the site for a second church in town. We already have a church here that isn't in use because it doesn't have a priest. So why would the mayor want to build a second church when we still have no priest? Well, the mayor's husband is a contractor you see...."
My colleague, Ani, says, "But Apryl, you're lucky. After this, you can just go home. What will we do? We can't leave this environment." It's true, and I almost feel guilty for it.
Anyway, I was in Dupnitsa for a few days helping out with a training session. I mentioned in my last post that I wasn't looking forward to it. It turns out that I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. Other than getting to stay in a nice hotel courtesy of PC, and getting to do some kick-butt Tae-Bo for the second time in my life, I was able to meet some friendly, new Youth Development trainees, and I enjoyed sharing my limited project experience and insight with them. The topics covered in PDM (Project Design and Management) are pretty dry, so we (three other presenters and myself) were delighted that the trainees seemed to be engaged in the session and gave us positive feedback when it was all over. In a way, I'm a little jealous of the new trainees. They had just gotten back from "permanent site visit" where they visit their two-year post for the first time. For me, of course, it was a time of trepidation, but I miss the "newness" of coming to Bulgaria and learning about my site. It was an exciting time, and I liked seeing it again through their eyes. In a way, I wish I could go back and do it over again just to have that "fresh" idealistic feeling. I almost can't wait to see the trainees again this next week when I help out with a couple minority/tolerance-related presentations. I say "almost" 'cause I'd still probably rather just stay here and work on the center.
Speaking of my favorite project, we're trying to push back the opening date. Since the first is a Sunday, my colleagues don't think that's a good day to open - still not sure why. They wanted to push it back to the fourth, but I'll be hanging out with Peace Corps again for our B-18 Mid-Service Conference that day. Gotta get together and "celebrate" our year in country. Plus, we'll get to "impart wisdom" to the new trainees once again. So now we're shooting for the 11th. My half-birthday. Like that should matter when you're 25. Ha!
We cleaned up the kiddie desks and the chairs we bought and put them in the classroom. Ani was so excited to see how it all come together. That room is pretty much done - and crowded! We just have to put up the whiteboard now. "Malko po malko." (Bit by bit.) They've also put some tiny glass windows between the doors and the ceiling, and they've thrown some more storage furniture in some of the rooms. On Saturday, we're supposed to get together and paint the roof. Crazy, huh? We've put up flyers around the Mahala (Roma neighborhood) and invited parents to come and help out. We really hope someone comes. We don't want to be the only ones doing daring, circus stunts on the roof of our center.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

What Does It Take to "Win" You?

It's almost 2:30 a.m., and I just realized I was supposed to be somewhere tonight. I feel terrible. This cute little girl has been asking when I'll come over to her house, and I always make a plan with her and then promptly forget it. I'm a horrible, horrible person. Hopefully she will forgive me... again. I'll have to show up unannounced with a giant box of chocolates or something - all for her.
I went to a tiny "selo" (village) called Samuil last weekend. I needed to get out of Rakitovo, so I asked the volunteer there if I could visit him. Thankfully, he obliged, and it turned out really great 'cause a few of my other volunteer friends were visiting as well. His selo was having its town "praznik" (holiday), and he had invited my dancing buddies Jerramy, Amy, and David to come put on a quick dance demonstration featuring swing and salsa. So, I got to hang out at the fair and watch. It was a pretty decent fair for the size of the village, and I loved hanging out with those guys. A friend of David's also made homemade Italian gnocchi for us. It took a while, but it was delicious and worth it. I had never seen pasta made from scratch before, and now I know how.
Yanko and I went to Pazardjik earlier in the week to figure out some things for the center, and now I believe we're getting some computers. Praise God! After trying to get ahold of the guy for a week or so, I believe we'll be receiving six computers for the low, low price of $802. I'm wondering what quality they're going to be, but the guy seems really eager to help us out and wants to throw in some extras for us. I'm still praying for these computers. It's not going to matter how much we paid for them if we can't run programs on them and hook them up to the internet. And we got some chairs for the center, too. We've been able to economize on those as well, and that's always a good thing. The opening of the center is looming before us. We've scheduled the date for October 4th, but now I realize that I'm going to have to ask my colleagues to change it. I'm scheduled to be smack dab in the middle of mid-service conference with Peace Corps that day. I could probably get out of it, even though it's "mandatory," but I wouldn't be able to get anyone from Peace Corps to come to our SPA opening.
I've been hanging out quite a bit with Maria and Reneta recently. They're always eager to show me how much they remember from our Spanish classes, and I've had them teach me some words in their Roma language. I would really love to learn Roma while I'm here - even though I'll most definitely never use it once I get back home. There are two Roma languages here: one that's more universal and another that's spoken locally. Angel speaks both, and my colleagues speak the local dialect. They've been telling me that if I want to learn a Roma language, I should get Angel to teach me the universal one. I haven't seen Angel in a really long time though, and even if I did see him, I should be speaking English with him. Maria and Reneta already know English, and they say they'll teach me in exchange for Spanish. They're excited about the progress I'm making. I'm a quick study. I've already learned how to tell someone to "eat boogers."
Valia's daughter, Janette, turned three on Friday. We had sandwiches heated in their new microwave and a delicious cake. I bought her some jewelry and some markers, and she really seemed to take a liking to the markers. She wanted to draw something right away. They told her not to put the jewelry on yet because, unfortunately, she has ringworm. Her mom and brother have ringworm, too, but she's covered. It seems to be spreading around town from cats. Maria has a few spots, too. The poor guys have some medication that turns their skin purple and green. So there was Janette - beautiful and happy as a three-year-old can be... singing "Happy Birthday to You" in English... with purple spots all over her face. It breaks my heart.
I've said it a few times in this blog, but I have to say it again that I really admire and adore my colleagues. They are such amazing people, and I feel sorry for Bulgarians who don't take the time and get to know them just because they're Roma. Ani feeds me... a LOT! She made my favorite dish, stuffed peppers, on Friday, and she made a batch without meat just for me before she even invited me over. I've been eating there a lot recently, and they've been really busy with remodeling. I really hope I'm not imposing. Valia is so sweet. I think she was sad when I decided to leave on Friday - probably because she's purple and stuck in the house all day. I think she was just glad to have the company. Fatme is great. I met her dad the other day, and he said, "You must be Apryl" before I even introduced myself. "You must come to the house and visit." So I'm assuming she's been saying good things about me... and she works so hard up at the center. She's leaving for school soon though, and that's a bummer. My colleagues Tsetska and Maria are so awesome. Maria tries to mother me and tells me I'm too thin. She just got back from "vacation" which she spent picking hops everyday. Now she's trying to convince kids and parents to go to the best school we have in town. Tsetska also treats me well and gives me good advice. And then there's Yanko. My boss is so intellectual and insightful. He works non-stop. Anytime I hear someone say that Roma are stupid and lazy, I think of him. The fact that he's Roma is negligable. My boss is intelligent and diligent for any ethnicity. We were in the center after working hours on Friday - just trying things out and seeing how we wanted to place the computers among other things. He always asks my opinion about things, and I'm flattered. A lot of our decisions are made as an entire team, and that's put our work to a slight halt as many of our colleagues are still on "vacation" - really working on remodeling or preparing for winter or other projects. After looking at the center as long as we could, we sat out on the bench and had a good discussion. I find myself turning to him more and more for advice. I don't always take his advice, but more often than not, I find it insightful. He gives me a new perspective on a lot of issues.
Now that school is about to start back up, more and more kids are coming to us asking for books. Unfortunately, we don't have it in the budget this year to help them purchase school books. It's a pity, but it's also frustrating the way they "ask." "Where are the books you're supposed to give us?" Umm... in the bookstore? Unfortunately, books are expensive, so I understand their desire for us to give them to them, but the way they demand it is surprising. And we have teachers on our backs, too. "I don't have enough kids in my class. Can you get some kids for us and send them down?" So you try and convince Roma kids to go to the primarily "Bulgarian" school because it's better for them. But then the teachers at the Roma school get frustrated with us because we're taking kids away from them and they see it as us trying to put them out of a job. And it becomes this tug-of-war between the schools and the kid's caught in the middle. I don't know what the answer is. I see all sides, but when it comes down to it, I want the education that's best for the child. And then the parents are a whole other issue I'm not even going to go into.
Let's turn to a lighter note, shall we? Apparently, the story of Krum has been fairly popular with the readers here. I was fortunate enough to "skype" (yes, it's a verb now) with my mom and a couple friends from church this evening/morning, and they were laughing about my traumas with Krum. Okay, so yeah, it's funny. You come here and deal with him. No, I admit it really is funny. So, lucky for all of you, there's another guy whose set his sights on me and the situation is comical. So, I met this guy a couple weeks back through a friend. He lives in a "selo" (you all know that word now, right?) a couple hours from Rakitovo, and pretty much as soon as I met him he figured I should marry him so he can go to the states. I told him to get in line. He said I should flip the line so he's in front. Well, I don't know how old this guy is, but he's old enough to have a 17-year-old son. When I balked at the idea of marrying him, he offered me his son. The next day, he drove my friend and me back to Rakitovo. His son was in the car, too, and he kept telling him to pack his bags because I was going to marry him and take him to America. His poor son appeared so uncomfortable. Well, now he's started texting me on my phone. Nazam is his name. I'll try my best to translate from Bulgarian:
Nazam: "Hi chickie! How are you? Have you thought about my problem and America?"
Apryl: "No. I have no intention of marrying you and taking you back."
Nazam: "Hey! You wrote me back! That's okay that you're not thinking about America right now. How are you?"
I don't send a response, so... a few minutes later....
Nazam: "Have you gone to sleep?"
Nazam: "Hello?"
...and then the next morning....
Nazam: "Good morning, chickie!"
Nazam: "Surely I'm boring, and that's why you're not writing me back."
Apryl: "I have no money on my phone to write you back."
...later in the day....
Nazam: "I'm sending you a phone voucher so you can answer my earlier questions." And yes, he sent me a code so I could recharge me phone, but he sent me the wrong code.
Apryl: "I can't charge my phone with that code. It's not the right phone company. Don't send me vouchers."
...a few minutes later....
Nazam: "I want to talk to you. Here's another voucher."
This time he sent me the right code, so I recharged my phone.
Nazam: "So, I don't care about America anymore. I want to know what I have to do to be with you."
Apryl: "Um... I like someone else. Give it up."
Nazam: "Do you ever think we can be together? I want to know what it takes to win you."
Apryl: "NO!"
Nazam: "Does 'NO!' mean that there's hope?"
(This is where I think about that scene from "Dumb and Dumber" where Jim Carrey's character asks Lauren Holly's character what the chances are that they'll get together. "Like... one in a hundred?" "More like... one in a million...." "So, you're saying there's a chance....")
Apryl: "No. You don't know me. Don't hope for me. I like someone else."
Nazam: "I may not know you, but I get a feeling about people pretty quickly. Do you believe in love at first sight? I want to know how to win you."
Apryl: "No. I'm not a prize that you can 'win.' Give it up. There's no hope. You don't know me. I like someone else."
So this was the gist of the conversation, and I haven't heard from him since. I'm sharing this all with you 'cause the Krum story was so popular, and I figured you might like to hear more. I was asked earlier if I make this stuff up. No, people. Of course, it's all written down here from my perspective, and it's translated from Bulgarian, so of course things are a bit skewed, but they REALLY happen. And they REALLY happen to me. So have your laugh guilt-free 'cause you know it's true.
I'd better be getting to bed. It's going onto 4 am, and I have to go to Dupnitsa tomorrow. I'm helping out with a Project Design and Management seminar for the new recruits. I have to go back for a Tolerance session the following week. I hate saying that I don't want to go because I feel so honored to have been asked to help out, and I really admire and respect the people who have asked me to come, but I really don't want to go. I don't feel like I have much to impart to new recruits and that my time could be better served here helping out with our center. I especially feel sorry for Kate, the really sweet technical trainer for this training. I tell her "no" to half the things she asks me to do, and I know it's not easy to coordinate these things and find resources for them. Getting asked by Peace Corps to come do technical trainings is flattering, but it does not make you a good volunteer. So, what does? I don't think I've figured that out yet. Is it... the number of marriage proposals one receives by any chance? How many people you can get to ask you to take them back to the states?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Back By Popular Demand

...or not, but if you want to see some topsy-turvy photos.... Click here.