Saturday, January 27, 2007

Damned If You Do(n’t)

So, I’ve pissed off Peace Corps. Usually, PC and I have a beautiful relationship. They leave me alone, and I don’t bug them. They think I’m a “good” volunteer, and I let them live under that delusion – hoping I can one day believe it myself. Today was different. Today I made PC mad.
So, a friend of mine has been planning a “language refresher” for those who speak Bulgarian at an advanced level. A language refresher is a wonderful thing – at least I believe it is. I have never attended one, but it sounds awesome in theory. You get five volunteers together who would like to spend a couple days catching up on their Bulgarian grammar, vocabulary, syntax, etc. You invite a PC language trainer to come out and “refresh” you, and PC pays for it. How much better can it get?
So I was really looking forward to this refresher. Four other volunteers and I worked out the dates, and then it fell to another volunteer and PC to plan it all. Well, while I was in the office earlier this week, my colleagues suddenly started talking about a couple of huge meetings they would have over the weekend. One meeting (which will be later today – I’m up writing this ‘cause I can’t sleep) will be with several, small groups around the region to try and see if we can turn their ideas into feasible projects. This will take place all day tomorrow – er, today. And then the meeting on Sunday will be with parents to see what ideas/initiatives they have for us. My colleagues asked if I would be here for the meetings – in that nonchalant way that meant they had assumed that I knew and would be here. I said, “No, actually. I’ve already made plans to go to a Bulgarian language workshop.” They were visibly disappointed, and someone said, “What? Why do you need more Bulgarian?” I felt badly, but they had told me too late. I’d already made my plans, and I was looking forward to them.
Well, today I realized that I really needed to be here for the meetings, and I cancelled at the last minute. I admit that this is not the way to “win friends and influence people.” Plus, it makes me a huge jerk. Peace Corps wasn’t happy. They couldn’t cancel the session because they’d already contracted a trainer and booked her hotel. They said that this advanced language refresher, however, would be the first and last of its kind. Ouch. Now, I understand that PC is upset. They put a lot of time, effort, and money into getting a trainer and finding her a place to stay. Their frustration is justified. That being said, let me tell you my sob story.
So, I was going along through the week – feeling guilty that I wasn’t going to be here with my colleagues, but also realizing that I had already made plans and couldn’t bail on my friends. My colleagues should have told me earlier, and that was that. And then, one by one, my colleagues all fell victim to the flu.
The flu has taken over Bulgaria, I swear. It’s on the news just about every night about how many people have the flu. And if it’s not taken over Bulgaria, it’s definitely taken over Rakitovo. Every day, we hear about someone who has the flu. In fact, a school here shut down for a couple days to have “flu vacation” as they didn’t have enough students to hold classes. So, that’s that. It’s an epidemic.
My colleagues all have the flu. Every single one of them is sick – except me, and I’m downing vitamins. Tsetska is MIA. We haven’t seen her in a week, and we can only assume that she is ill. Ani looked horrible on Wednesday – when I last saw her. She was getting ready to leave for a great training opportunity on the other side of the country. I don’t know how she traveled, but she did. Anyway, she won’t be here this weekend. Yanko looked horrible as well, but he’s spent the last two days in Pazardjik – talking to heads of ministries and listening to people glorify the situation of the Roma now that we’re in the EU. No comment. Their kids, Maria and Reneta, are also ill. Valia wasn’t in the office on Wednesday, as her fever bound her to her bed, but she came in Thursday and Friday – looking extremely ill. Her kids, Sashko and Janette, are under the weather also. Fatme has been in the office – eyes glazed over and coughing. So it was Valia, Fatme, and myself in the office today. They were coughing, hacking, and shivering with chills. I was hanging out in one layer because it was hot in the office, and I’m physically sound. I was working on my SPA evaluation reports that are breathing down my neck.
Anyway, I was listening to them talk in their croaky, tired voices about the meetings they had this weekend. The conversation was punctuated by a cough every now and again. They were talking about all the things they had to do in order to host all these people. And it hit me, “I have to stay here. My place is with these crazy frogs.” So, I sent a text message to the volunteer planning the language refresher. I later sent an e-mail to PC – asking them not to cancel. And I made Peace Corps mad – understandably. I should have figured this out earlier, but I know that I’ve made the right decision with respect to my colleagues – and even with respect to PC since they’re always talking about how our place is in our site; especially when our colleagues are having problems and need us. Heck, even if they don’t need us, our place is in site. Peace Corps is constantly talking about how we need to stick around. They probably don’t necessarily mean that when they’ve expended time and money to get us someplace else, however. (sigh) So now, these people better show up to this meeting is all I gotta say.
In other, random news, I realized today how much I really like chopping wood. Man, do I love chopping wood. It’s one of the greatest things. No one’s ever let me chop wood here before to get it ready for burning. Today, I took it upon myself to get some wood chopped for my English classes. It took forever, but I got out a lot of aggression. I kept getting interrupted, however. Maria’s husband found me – trying to get me to figure out how to call her in Italy for him. (“What’s my phone saying?” “You want me to translate? But it’s in Bulgarian.”) Even after I was successful in connecting them, he didn’t want to learn for himself how to do it, he just wanted to make sure he could find me again so I could do it for him. (sigh) And then I had to go buy some matches. A box of matches here costs about 3 cents, and the guy at the store (which was in the midst of some serious obstacle-inducing remodeling) gave me a couple boxes for free. That was nice of him. Meanwhile, another guy in there insisted he treat me for coffee. “I have work to do,” I told him, “maybe another time.” And then I had to stay for a little more to convince him that I really couldn’t stay, and the first guy started talking about how well I speak Bulgarian. You really want to help me out and impress me? Come help me light this stove. Anyway, Maria’s husband happened to be in the clubhouse when I was preparing the stove, and I got him to help me light it. Unfortunately, I think I chose wood that was a little too wet, and it never really caught. It soon was cold again after my kids showed up.
We made books today – with pictures and the names of fruit in English. They seemed to like that pretty well, although they lost focus toward the end. I guess an hour of that is pretty impressive for eight-year-olds with the attention span of gnats. Oh, I love those kids. They’re the best. So, we did that, and then it got too cold. One adult came for my adult class. I suggested we go get some coffee and have English, but she was a little sick and not too keen on that. She suggested we just not have class. Okay….
I had dinner at Maria and Reneta’s tonight. The guy who’s going to (fingers crossed) fix our radiator problems, stopped by and had a small glass of rakia. We were hoping he could fix it before today so we could have our meeting in the center, but he’s just too busy. Hopefully, he’ll be able to fix it while we’re having our meeting though, so it will be ready for Sunday. That guy is great, but he sure does love to talk. He’s incredibly knowledgeable, and he loves showing it off. The conversation, mostly dominated by him, ranged from Greek history to Atlantis to how the Bible is false. “I know more than most professors!” And yes, he actually did know quite a bit. It was impressive. It was also thought-provoking. He warned me to be mistrustful of those who wear glasses. According to him, all people who wear glasses are just waiting to take advantage of you. Nevermind that my mother wears glasses. There was even one point when he talked about the beneficial minerals found in cigarettes. Awesome. I reminded him about rat poison and carbon monoxide, and he admitted those were in there, too. Mmmm… all those carcinogens… you don’t know what you’re missing!
“Phantom Baba” of the “Haunted House” came by and found me. Apparently she had been at a birthday party when I came to call the other night. “But you saw the house. It’s nice, right?” Uh…. She was really cute. I gave her some of the candies I had brought over, and she hugged me, “Oh, you’re so sweet. When can you come by the house and visit me?” Uh…. It turned out that it just wouldn’t work this time around. She was going back to Sofia before I would get a chance. She invited me that minute, but I was already cooking and in for the night. “Oh well. We’ll find each other next time.” I gotta go check out that house in the daylight. Then I’ll be better informed about whether or not I want to go there in the evening.
And as a final downer for this post, I thought I’d share with you that an 11-year-old girl “married” and 18-year-old boy this week. She attends the same school as Maria and Reneta, and her younger sister studies English with me. Apparently, this boy would hang out at the school, waiting for her. I’m not sure if they were dating or what. I’m guessing they had sex, and that’s what made them “married” (that might be an equivalent in Roma culture). He suggested they run off to Greece. Her parents found out. Maria told me they cut off all her hair and confined her to her room. Who knows what’s really true and what’s hearsay? We were discussing it in the office, and my counterpart was saying that the police don’t usually do anything if the child is over 13. They wash their hands of it if the parents try and protest. It’s funny. Now that I’ve been living here for a while, 13 is acceptable in my mind, but that’s the minimum. Okay, “acceptable” is not the appropriate word. In my mind, thirteen and married happens in my community. Eleven and married is apparently taboo for everyone.
Ah, here’s a couple links for the film studios I ran through. Boyana Film Studios, owned by Nu Image, is pretty impressive. They’re capable of hosting the entire production process, and they’ve done some heavy work. Check it out. You’d be surprised as well. I didn’t know people filmed in Bulgaria. Rumor has it that the PCVs in Sofia have had some bit parts in films. If the Bulgaria PC experience is a far cry from the Africa PC experience, then the Sofia PC experience is also quite removed from the Rakitovo PC experience. Ah, to be a PCV in Sofia. What a trip!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Haunted Ambivalence

So the rest of last week went well. Like I mentioned in the last post, my younger kids had a show for “Baben Den.” It went really well. I was so proud of them. They translated correctly (for the most-part), sang loudly, and did all the motions. We sang a couple songs: “Hello, How Are You?” and “Head and Shoulders.” And I have no doubt that we charmed all those senior citizens. We got compliments, and we also received cookies and cakes for our efforts. It was crowded and really warm inside, so we waited outside for the show to start. I thought the kids were doing well, considering. There were a bunch of them (yay!), and there was nothing for them to really do while they were waiting. Sure they were teasing each other, shouting, and testing my nerves a little bit, but they’re little kids, and we were outside. Lubo was there with his dancing group – as they were also slated to perform. He came over three times and told my kids to be quiet and calm down. They listened to him. They don’t really listen to me, but I didn’t think they were being too insane. We were outside, anyway. I think Lubo thinks I have no control over my kids. I felt so silly. Haha. Well, I have little control over them at times – let’s put it that way. But it all turned out great, and the kids were awesome when it was time to perform. Then, we gathered around and watched the dancing group. They had some Bulgarian “Narodni” (national) Dancing first, and then they followed that with some typical Roma “kuchek.” The elders appreciated the national dancing, but they really got into the “kuchek.” They stood up, swayed, and clapped their hands. Then, one of the “babas” (grandmothers) came over and started dancing with the group. It was awesome!
This weekend, I went all the way to the coast on the other side of the country to say farewell to one of my favorite PCVs. Jerramy (I’ve mentioned Jerramy before – of Jerramy and Amy – since we’ve taken trips and done projects together) has decided to go a new direction with his future. He’s going to travel to Prague, Italy, and Switzerland to work on a few farms and experience the life there. His food and housing will be covered for the work that he does. After about three months of that, he will go back to the states to start firefighting and earning money for graduate school. Amy will stay here. I admire them quite a bit. I don’t think I could say good-bye to my spouse – after all the time supporting each other through this PC experience and living in a foreign land together. It’s amazing.
So anyway, I had a good time over the weekend, but I didn’t get much sleep. Took an overnight train to Burgas, couldn’t get in the sleeping car, crashed out on a long seat, woke up in Burgas at six a.m., went to a café, saw the sun rise over the sea, and then finally met up with the others. We had a fairly relaxing day, and then a dinner party in the evening. The crowd was great. I liked the group of people that I was with. They made me laugh. I tried to play some “Texas Hold ‘Em,” but I lost my two leva (about $1.20) pretty quickly and had to bow out. (sigh) That night, I stayed up until 5 a.m. playing games with some people, and then I tried to get some sleep before taking a train all the way back at 10 a.m. the following morning. I was surprised I wasn’t more tired, but I didn’t come into work at all on Monday. I just couldn’t deal with it.
Yesterday, my classes went well. I get excited when I see people catching on and making progress. It’s almost enough to make me enjoy teaching English – but not quite. When it comes down to it, I just don’t enjoy it. I don’t know why. I have to find some things that help people that I do enjoy. Thing is, I’m scared. Maybe I’m just discouraged. Maybe I just lack the creative power. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe a lot of things….
I’ve started taking Bulgarian lessons again. This time, I’m taking them from an actual, Bulgarian teacher. I’m excited about this. I had my first lesson yesterday.
This week, I have to wrap up my SPA project. We have to do the evaluations and talk about what our work has accomplished. It’s honestly very disheartening. Yes, I have my classes. Yes, the interaction is great, and I truly hope that its having some effect. However, we dreamed bigger things for that center, and we’re only doing a small percentage of it. Also, we’re not even using the center at the moment because the heating system doesn’t work correctly. Grrrr!!! And now bills have started to come in for rent. Electricity will surely not be far behind – along with water. It never ends.
I want to keep helping to find a way to sustain this center. This means finding money from somewhere. This means writing a project. This means that my colleagues need to sit down and find some room on their already overflowing plates to write with me. I also just found out that, if I want to extend for a third year (oh! the ever-looming question!), I need to turn in my application (with all the possible exaggerations I can invent to tell them that my work is invaluable here) on my birthday: April 11, 2007 – the day I turn 26. I feel the weight of my life moving through my hands like slippery, sparkling waters. The waters used to look so clear. Now they’ve taken on a muddy texture.
So, yesterday I was invited to “na ghosti” by an elderly lady that I met on the bus to Rakitovo. Apparently she lives in Sofia, but she has a house here in town. She was coming in to look at the house. After exchanging about two sentences with me, she invited me to come over. I agreed to come the following day, i.e. today. So, the time came around when I was supposed to go, but I didn’t really want to. I didn’t have classes today because the center’s too cold, the kids are sick, and the school is closed for “flu vacation” anyway. I wanted to take the evening off to relax as I wasn’t feeling so great myself.
Well, I finally got together some homemade candies (yay for packages from the states!) and dragged myself out into the drizzling evening. Yes, we finally got rain – and wind! And I wander around the area where she told me she lived. I went to the old clock tower – a landmark in our town, and I wandered. I found someone coming out of their house, and I asked her if she might know the woman. She pointed to a house up on the hill, and I took some streets up there. Finally, the street led to this muddy path, and I went to #17. There it was, in all its dilapidated glory: the house the woman had told me to come to. It looked completely abandoned and entirely spooky in the pale moonlight. All the sudden, I felt as though Halloween had descended on me, and I was about to enter the Twilight Zone. The house loomed in front of me, and it looked as though it had long been left to the effects of time. I looked out on the town. All the lights of my tiny Rakitovo were dazzling. It’s really a great view up there. I decided to try knocking on the door anyway. I don’t think I would have wanted to go in even if someone had answered. One knock, that’s it. Then I left. When I turned around to open the gate, I saw a pair of eyes staring at me. It was just a stray dog who decided to start barking at me. As I walked out the gate (at first I pulled it the wrong way and had the ridiculous feeling that I had somehow been trapped inside), I looked in the open window on the second floor and saw something that looked like a person staring at me. Silly imagination. I’m going to have to go back in the daytime and laugh at all of this. Afterwards, I trekked back down the hill next to the old clock and wound my way home. It’s weird the way your mind can play tricks on you. Maybe that’s what it’s doing to me the whole time I’m here in Bulgaria. Maybe I’m not really in Bulgaria. Maybe I’m in a snow globe on someone’s desk. Anyway, the lady (maybe she had been a phantom herself) had said that I could have lived there while she was staying in Sofia. Really? That place? Awesome. It looks like something I would have explored with some friends on a dare in a midnight escapade, but the view was astounding. Had I not been so scared, I would have stayed up there to enjoy the beautiful eeriness of it all. I’m going to have to find a partner-in-crime to come help me explore Rakitovo at night. Any available, cute boys out there?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"Entertainment" and VD

If I have to translate another song or try to explain to my kids what a rapper is saying, I think I’m going to flip out. Okay, not really, but I thought I’d take my time to rail my frustration against the music industry. Why did you immoral people have to come up with such catchy songs with heinously vulgar euphemisms? I did not sign up for this peace mission so I could explain to young, impressionable minds what “promiscuous” means or what the song “Smack That” is really saying. I did not anticipate having to try and understand or interpret the lyrical prowess that is Snoop Dogg or Eminem. I have twelve-year-olds going around; singing songs they don’t understand – songs about blatant sex and rampant immorality. I sit and watch with them videos showing scantily clad women in positions of perceived power. “That’s right girls, your power lies in your sexuality and your ability to shake what God gave you. The only way to hold sway over a male is to enchant him with your body. So, forget about expanding your mind. Forget about being funny, kind, endearing, honest, generous, patient, or all those beautiful myriad of warm personality traits that come together to create a unique and sensational person. Be a painted, hollow shell of a gorgeous person, and attract the most powerful man you can find. And how are men powerful? Did you have any question that it was by having money, cars, houses, and all those other material possessions that paint some grand picture of status?
I am no better than these musical artists and the people who market them, but I don’t want to have to take responsibility for their work. I want them to come and say to these young kids, “Yes that song is talking about violent sex” and “Actually, the song I sing (and you repeat) is using architectural euphemisms to talk about the parts of my body that I barely cover.” We all buy into the machine so easily. I know I’m not immune. I feel so fortunate to have grown a little beyond that, however. I appreciate the men I come in contact with who make a point of showing that this is not the sort of woman they are looking for. Woman could do their part as well by helping men be more secure with who they are. I don’t know if we’ll ever completely get away from the idea that, “Who I am is what I own,” but, for the time-being, I could use some popular songs about daffodils… and honestly about sunny, happy, yellow and white daffodils, people! Don’t use “daffodils” as a word for something else. I see how your minds work….
Okay, I thought I was done, but I’m not. I’m so tired of these songs “featuring” other artists. Yes, they’re catching. Yes, they sell. Yes, they promote both artists. Yes, it’s great that people are collaborating. But what are they collaborating for?” There’s nothing I can’t stand more than a fairly, sweet song that has some rap bridge in the middle that makes absolutely no sense – or takes the song in an edgier, sex-laced direction. We’ve got some girl/guy singing about harmless interest or attraction, and then we’ve got some girl/guy rapping in the middle about harmful interest/attraction. Grrr…. It ruins the whole song.
Okay, now that I’ve expended my breath on that, let’s get to the actual update of events. I mentioned in my last post that Angel had been accepted for a seminar in France. Over the weekend, he decided that he wasn’t going to go. He has good reasons for turning down the opportunity. They’re well thought-out, and it probably is the best decision in the long run. I can’t help but be a little disappointed. I got caught up in the excitement that I had helped him to go somewhere and hopefully have a life-changing experience. But that’s me. I worry a little too much about how I feel about things and how I impacted them. You all know this about me. I like to see tangible results. Ah well, slowly but surely God is teaching me that He’s in charge, and I’m just a little me. I can do a lot, but I can only do so much. I have to accept that.
As many of you know (and yay! for you if you got the day off), Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I will never be Dr. King. Events and opportunities helped shape who he was and the work he did. There is evidence to suggest that he wasn’t the most admirable of men in his personal life, but God used him in astounding ways. He, and the people he inspired, did amazing things in our nation. If he were alive today, would he be able to pull the same thing off here? Well, first of all, he wouldn’t be a part of the minority here looking for equal rights and opportunities. Secondly, he wouldn’t understand the culture because he would be an outsider. Would he even find the masses here who wish to work with him? And who shaped him? If he had been here, would he have been shaped to do great things? Do you ever wonder about the people who prepare “great” people? Why am I hypothesizing about such non-possibilities? Because, deep in my heart of hearts, I wish I could make an impact like MLK Jr., Ghandi, Mother Theresa, or any of those amazing few who were able to change courses of history. It’s selfish, and I’m incapable of the love that’s required. That’s what God is for.
I look at the state of the world (first from my local level here and then from an international level on CNN.com), and I beg God to come soon and put an end to it all. And I honestly think, (which astounds me, believe me) “God, even if you don’t take me with you, even if I perish and am lost forever, please come and put an end to this façade. This place is little but pain and ridiculousness. Yes, life is still beautiful and worth living, but it’s taken away too quickly and filled with hollow joys that last but a minute. Come and put an end to it all. Swap it out for a life of eternal joy that’s free and fair for everyone.” And I think these things, and I tell myself I have no fear of death, but I know I will dread my end when it comes.
All right, so here I am on a philosophical tangent… yet AGAIN! Let’s get back to the events at hand, shall we? That is, if you’re still reading. Oh yeah, I mentioned Martin L. King, Jr. because I had grand visions last year of doing some kind of tolerance-building activity in my town – based on his work. That didn’t happen. Ah well, I don’t need a special day to do that. Will I be able to do it at all?
So, I couldn’t have my computer class on Friday. I found one of the students who was supposed to come, but she refused because the center wasn’t heated. We’ve been having some pretty gorgeous days here. No snow. No rain. Brilliant, cool, sun. It is, however, still pretty cold in the center since the heater doesn’t work. So, I came back down before my other classes and told my colleagues that it was high-time to fix the radiator system – even if I had to pay for it myself. It was fixed over the weekend. Today will be the first day back in the center and trying to use the system. It appears that one of the heating slats had busted when some water possibly got stuck inside and froze. So, in the long run, it wasn’t the fault of the guy who installed it. I apologize on my blog that the previous rant about it included him, but I’m still frustrated with the general lack of quality, follow-up work. That doesn’t excuse him for lying that he was in Greece. Who knows how much this is going to cost us now? Hopefully, it won’t be much. That heating system is really fragile and is not constructed in the best, possible way. I’m afraid it won’t be long until something happens again.
My English classes have been going well. It’s a matter of getting the kids back in the habit of coming. This week has been good. The parents are a little more wishy-washy. I don’t know what the solution is. I have a few new students, which is tough because they haven’t learned the sentences we have the whole time. I can’t turn down people who want to learn, however. My younger kids have a show for some pensioners on Friday. Over the weekend, there will be a holiday called “Baben Den.” It’s basically for grandmas. If a new grandchild is born over the past year, the mother comes to the grandmother with some special water for her to wash her face in. Then, the child gets some water on him/her as well. The grandparent gets the child a gift, and the mother gets the grandparent a gift. Then, they say some nice things to each other and go to the municipality for a dedication ceremony. So, to show their appreciation for the elderly, my kids are going to the pensioner’s club to sing “Hello, How Are You?” and “Head and Shoulders.” It’s going to be great. The pensioners will have no idea what they’re singing, but they’ll be so cute! They’d just better show up.
I had an incident on Monday where one of the girls in my class smacked a boy over a game we were playing. He wailed something fierce, and I wasn’t sure how to react. I got all the kids out of the room except for those two. Then, I tried to get them to talk to each other. The girl asked for forgiveness, but the boy ignored her. Finally, I asked her to leave, and then I played an English game with him. He seemed to warm up after that. Man, am I not ready for children. I don’t know how to react when these things happen. I can barely deal with them properly when they just run around like banshees. I can’t take violence.
Yesterday, as I was going through the activities of my English class, I randomly had one of my girls throw her arms around me and say, “I love you so much, Apryl. I don’t want you to leave in a year.” Awwww…. That made me melt, and I suddenly felt like a weight had been lifted off me. I hadn’t gone to work in the morning ‘cause I just needed a half-day to hang out in my pajamas, relax, and get my wits together. I didn’t know what was up with me, but I felt a weight I couldn’t explain. Yesterday was a great day for my English classes. I felt like my kids were understanding stuff, but it’s more amazing when they feel that way. It’s like a light goes on in their head, and they think, “Oh, wait. I actually can do this. I can understand this.” I wish I could bottle that feeling.
I have been getting home late for one reason or another as of late. I get home late, and then I stay up too late, and then I’m tired for the next day. It’s a vicious cycle. People see me out and about at night, and they think I’m working so hard. Well, let them think that. I don’t see any reason to change their perceptions. Haha.
I’m actually in the center right now. Ani, Tsetska, and I came to fill the heating installation with water and light the stove. Now, I’ve been left here alone to make sure that the fire doesn’t go out. I hear the water running through the radiators, and the pump was making some noises earlier. I’m having flashbacks of the day it practically blew up on me. It’s probably because I’m here alone and have no one to comfort me and say, “It’s okay, Apryl. This is normal. It’s doing its job.” At least the radiators are getting warm to the touch, and the really weird noises have stopped for now. Yanko assures me there won’t be a repeat of what happened to me several weeks ago. I wish I could be so sure.
So the weekend was pretty great. Enyo and Milka’s son and live-in girlfriend-in-law were back at the house, and I found out when I returned late Friday night. I wasn’t too happy about that, but I consoled myself with the thought that at least I’d be leaving early the next day. I went to meet a friend, and we hung out together on Saturday. Then, Sunday we got up and went to Sofia for a “hash.” A “hash” is basically a run. A bunch of ex-pats get together and run a specific route that one of the “hashers” has laid out. It’s all very involved to explain, so I won’t explain everything. Basically a big group of walkers and runners got together at the Boyana Film Studio in Sofia. The runners follow a particular trail shown with flour. Certain symbols mean different things, and if you reach what’s called a checkpoint, you have to pick up the correct trail again. There are other markings meant to distract you. It was a fun run, however, with lots of stopping and checking things out.
So, like I said, we ran through a film studio. We entered a sort of Arabian world, and there were also all these shops that were supposed to be saloons, restaurants, goods stores, etc. Signs decorated the landscape, and I knew I should have brought my trusty camera when I saw a sign that said “Gibson.” Soon after that, I shouted out, “Look! Venereal Diseases!” There was actually a sign that said that in huge letters. Above it in smaller letters, it said, “Fight the Enemy at Home.” Oh yeah. I really wish I had a picture of that.
After completing our run and ending in the “coliseum,” we had a short “hash” ceremony and then went to eat at a pizza place. I ended up sitting next to a very nice German who works at the German Embassy in Bulgaria. It’s amazing who you meet and what you find out about them at these kinds of events… these ex-pats, these perpetual wanderers if you will. Some of them were about to move to other countries for work. I look at them, and I wonder if I’m seeing my own future.
That night, we stayed with some ex-pats in their lovely apartment. I mentioned their place in a previous post. They’re the ones that had us over for Irish breakfast on New Year’s Eve. Anyway, we stayed in a very comfortable room, and the bathroom floor was even heated! I didn’t want to leave the bathroom! It’s a far cry from the way I live in Rakitovo.
Oops, Yanko just came into the center and found another place that leaks. It looks like it’s really due to the installation work this time and not the radiator itself. We’ve found a reason to be upset with that guy again…. Man, I just want this to be over and the heaters to work the way they should. (sigh) And the boiler is making those boiling noises again. Yanko tells me it’s okay. (double sigh) At least he’s here, too….
And it just did it again…. The water is boiling, and the plastic tubing next to the boiler popped out and dumped water all over the wall and sink. It wasn’t as dramatic as the last time that happened, but at least I wasn’t scared. Yanko was here, and he shoved it back in. He did a few things to get it to calm down, he told me not to put anymore coal on the stove, and then he left. Now I’m here with it, watching so it doesn’t pop out again, waiting for the fire to go out, wondering how I’ll hold my classes and keep an eye on this at the same time, and feeling surprisingly calm, considering…. Like how I give you all a play-by-play?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Yay! I'm Sneaky!

We got some really amazing, unexpected news to lighten the mood in the office today - and the mood of my counterpart. Let me explain:
So, it turned out that there was an opportunity to apply for a study session in France called, "Campaigning for Roma Rights and Equality of Opportunities." Some colleagues thought that Angel would be perfect for this session, and they decided to send him the application and encourage him to apply. Well, he finally read his mail on the day of the deadline. I translated the questions and guidelines for him (it was all in English), and I could tell that he was really interested. When I started to tell him that we could fill out the form together, he started to get more and more discouraged. "Apryl, I'm not going to apply. It's too late. I don't want to do this at the last minute and turn in something that's no good." I thought that was silly. I could tell that he really wanted to go, and there was plenty of time to get it done. "At least now," he said, "I know what I want to do."
So, I decided to fill out the application for him. If he was accepted, I hoped he would be happy. If not, he would never know about it anyway, and it wouldn't matter. I hurried to get the application in before the deadline (it took me forever to find it on the internet - it was hiding so well!). It was an easy form to fill out, but I thought that maybe I hadn't gotten it in on time anyway, and I got a little discouraged. For some reason though, I just had this good vibe that he would be chosen. Oh well, we would know soon enough. Or rather, I would know soon enough. So I filled it out on Friday. He should receive an e-mail on Monday if he had been accepted. Monday came and went, and no one mentioned anything about it. "Oh well," I thought, "I guess it just wasn't meant to be."
So today, I was in the office during lunch. The phone rang, and it was a representative from our mother organization in Sofia. "Hi. Who am I talking to?" "This is Apryl." So he starts talking to me in English. "Hi Apryl. How are you? Can you give me Angel's phone number?" "Sure, I can, but who is this?" I was having a hard time hearing him, but I definitely heard him mention the seminar in France. I was hopeful that it had to do with Angel's acceptance, but again, I wasn't sure. So, I went out with Ani and Valia for lunch, and we met Angel in the center. He was talking to them about an application he had apparently sent in for the workshop in France. "But I didn't send in any application! There's some kind of mistake!" But he knew, and he looked at me. "There's no mistake," I told him. He smiled, "You filled it out for me." I shook my head "yes" and went inside.
Pretty soon, I was outside again - talking on Angel's phone to the representative who had called the office earlier. "You filled out the form, and Angel didn't know?" "Yeah, I did. I know I probably shouldn't have, but I could tell that he really wanted to go." It turned out that I had put the wrong e-mail address for Angel on the form, and they hadn't been able to get a hold of him. They wanted to know if he was interested in going as they hadn't heard anything. I was so glad that they were still looking for him instead of moving onto the next candidate.
My colleagues are happy, too. Yanko high-fived me, and Ani said, "This is why you need to stay in Bulgaria for the rest of your life... to show us how to take the initiative and get things done." Valia thought it was a huge gesture, and Angel thanked me for "waking him up... once again." Hey, I'm feeling pretty proud of myself here... obviously. I like doing sly acts of kindness for people. It's rare I feel like I'm actually of tangible benefit to someone here, so you gotta take these moments when they come... and brag about them! Of course, ultimately, the credit goes to God. I was praying about this one - as I pray about a lot of things here.
So, out of 82 applicants from Bulgaria, two were chosen. Angel is one of the two. Right now he's getting serious about making plans to go to France for eight days at the end of the month, and I'm doing my best to help him get there. We're all so happy for him.

Открих Америка! (Otkrih Amerika!)

In Bulgarian, there’s a phrase that’s kind of like “Eureka!” I used it as my title up there. It literally says, “I discovered America!” Yeah. So, I think I know what’s wrong with me. Haha. Well, there are a lot of things wrong with me. Nobody’s perfect. But I mean that I think I know why I’m not as happy here as I once was. The answer is a complicated mix of reasons that all boil down to this: I’m restless. I can give something my attention for a good nine months – maybe a year. And then I want to do something else. I loved this job. I loved this site. I loved everything. Now, I still love this job. I believe in its goals and objectives. I still love this site. Rakitovo is cozy and pleasant. I don’t love everything anymore, but I still love most things. It is, however, a subdued love. It had to come. Time changes things and brings someone a nice level of comfort. People are more comfortable with me, but that just means it’s easier to ignore me. I hate it.
So, yeah. I have ADD or something when it comes to these things. I’m an adventure-seeker, and I thrive on change. It’s scary, but this feeling of stagnation is even scarier to me. I thought it was a phase. I hoped it was a phase. Well, it’s not phasing out. And I’m tired of feeling badly about it. And I’m tired of working to take two steps forward only to feel like I’ve taken three steps back. That’s what this job is though. If I want to really do something that matters, if I want to work in this capacity, if I want to… (sigh) then this is what I have to accept. Nothing worth doing is easy. And who says that one should avoid doing difficult things? It just takes a special person to try working over and over to change things. Someone once said that the definition of lunacy is trying to do something over and over – hoping to obtain different results. True. But we can’t help but be crazy here. We’re a bunch of crazy frogs. And we do change our tactics a bit, but basically we’re working with a group of people who don’t always want to work with us. It’s human nature. When it’s convenient for them, they work with us. When it’s not, well… we’re screwed.
Take the other day for example. My colleagues planned a workshop on the outskirts of Velingrad. Valia and Ani ran all over the mahala after work a couple evenings – asking parents to come and take part. At first, many people were very happy to sign up. “Oh, it sounds great. Oh yes, we’ll come.” Then, the night before they were scheduled to leave for the training, Ani and Valia ran all over again to remind them. “Oh, I can’t go.” And they would find a million little excuses as to why they couldn’t take part. For example, “My child can’t sleep without me,” and other crazy reasons they could have thought of BEFORE we booked the hotel… BEFORE we put down an advance for a certain number of people… BEFORE we went through the hassle of preparing the materials for all of them. So, I believe about thirteen people were signed up to go. In the end, only six went. I don’t get it. Free food and a free night outside of your town. What could be wrong with that? All you have to do is attend a few informational sessions and give your opinion.
What’s the most frustrating thing is just the “flakiness” of people. I vaguely remember life in the states, and I’m probably giving it too much of a nice, rosy glow in this respect, but it seemed to me to be a land where people followed through. If they didn’t follow through, they had a damn good reason, and they did their best to try and tell you beforehand what that reason was. They didn’t just decide to not show up and then leave you to figure out what’s going on in their heads. This is Bulgaria. I’m not supposed to be overly negative in this blog, but I absolutely detest this: People don’t show up for one reason or another, and you’re just supposed to accept it as a fact of life. You ask them later why they didn’t come around, and they blow you off with some vague answer like you were just supposed to know that they weren’t going to come. Or maybe you have some work you’re relying on them for, and you can’t move without them doing their part. And then they just decide, for some reason, not to do their part, but they don’t tell you until you actually track them down and ask them what’s up. And, after the deadline, you’re left to do their work. Like today, my colleagues wrote a letter that someone at the municipality was supposed to write. Yeah, we help each other out, but what ever happened to doing your job? I doubt anyone is really serious about anything here. I include myself in that sentence. ‘Cause the feeling just pervades and seeps into my blood as well.
Another thing I don’t like about my perceived Bulgaria. There seems to be no guarantee of work here. You do a crappy job; you still get paid. What you did falls apart prematurely; you’re not obligated to come and clean up your mess – free of charge. There isn’t always this concern for quality of work here, and there should be.
Take, for example, our ever-present troubles with our stove. I haven’t been using the center for the past couple days because a part of a radiator decided to break on us and spill water out onto the floor. So, how long have we had these radiators? How long have they been installed, and how much use have we gotten out of them? How many months has it been since October? And how many times have we actually lit a fire in there because everything has been as it should be? I could probably count the number of times on my fingers. It’s too early for the radiators to be wearing out and acting up. Something was wrong with them from the beginning.
But you can’t get a hold of the guy who installed them. “Oh, he went to Greece for work,” his wife says when Yanko calls them up. Later, Yanko’s friends tell him that they just saw the guy somewhere earlier that day. The guy knows why we’re calling, and he knows we’re not happy. I don’t want to accuse him of shoddy work, but his work is falling apart, and it’s his responsibility to make sure that it’s quality. We paid him for it. So, we can ask someone else to come and look at it, but who knows how much money he’s going to want? And we don’t have money to throw at something that should have been working in the first place.
My classes are going all right this week. It’s a little slow after the vacation, but at least I’m having a good time. I think that matters quite a bit in my own, little head. My kiddie English class on Monday was fun. We were in the old clubhouse where we could light the stove. I taught my kids the “Head and Shoulders” song. After that, they went absolutely crazy. There were toys in the clubhouse, and they were distracted. They were shooting each other with toy guns, playing with hool-a-hoops, and running around like banshees. I tried to get their attention back, but it wasn’t working. Then, one girl decided to write on our whiteboard with permanent marker. Boy, was that fun trying to get off. After that, they listened for a bit, but then they were back to acting like lunatics. Finally, I’d had enough and shouted at them “Good-bye!” I told them to get out. I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. They stopped in their tracks and looked at me like I had just killed all of their goldfish – if they had goldfish. You know that look.
They started to gather their stuff, and then one of them spoke up and pleaded, “Apryl, we want to stay.” Pretty soon they were all looking at me with those “Bambi” eyes that every child is gifted with. I smiled, “But you’re all acting nuts! I don’t want to be here with you right now while I’m trying to teach you English.” “We’ll be good! We promise!” “Are you sure?” “Yes, we will be on our best behavior.” “Okay.” So we sat down and started English again. They were really good this time – just like they said they would be. Their attention waned a little toward the end, but I had fun with them.
After that, one adult came in for my Adult English Class. She’s the most serious of all my adult students. I don’t know if other adults came, found the center closed, and moved on, but I was trying to look for them. We had a good lesson though. She’s slowly getting down the possessive pronouns. “I have a pen. This is MY pen. You have a pen. This is YOUR pen, etc.” While we worked away at English, the volunteer’s group hashed away at their initiative.
So we have this opportunity with our main sponsor…. Okay, so the young people who we used to meet with regularly have an opportunity with the main sponsor. They’ve been encouraged to come up with a plan they wish to carry out, write a proposal for it, and then submit it to the main donor for funding. After they receive funding, they’re supposed to carry out this project. Again, that’s the real question because, as I complained about toward the beginning of this post, people aren’t really the best at following through here. Our volunteers are kind of models for it as well. So, there’s been a lot of discussion about… “If you come up with this plan, are you really going to follow through with it? Who’s in for real?”
And they talk, and they plan to meet, and it gets really discouraging when people show up a half an hour late, but they’ve come up with a plan to clean up the Mahala – the Roma neighborhood. They’re going to start by presenting their idea to the municipality and trying to get them to buy into their initiative. After that, they will talk to the local citizens of the community and try to get them to get excited about it (and involved) as well. Then they’re going to plan a day when they will actually pick up trash on the main street leading into the Mahala. I don’t know how many outsiders they’re going to get involved in their idea. Even they aren’t expecting many, if any, but they’re ready to do it themselves. After they clean it up a bit, they’re going to put public trashcans out in the streets. Besides everyone’s own trashcan, and a few large containers the municipality takes care of in the center of the Mahala, there really aren’t many places to throw trash. This actually wouldn’t matter if people would just take the time to throw trash where it’s supposed to go, but they hope to encourage people to be more aware of what they’re doing with their rubbish by putting more trashcans in the Mahala.
Once they’ve installed the trashcans, they hope to pass out brochures on the health and aesthetic benefits of living in a clean neighborhood. At the same time, they want to obtain signatures from the local residents for more large containers. They will invite the media back to show what they’ve been able to do already and the signatures they’ve collected. Then, they will go to the mayor and the town council with these signatures in the hope that the municipality will give them some large containers. It’s a pretty bold plan considering there are only about six people who are (it’s still a maybe) really serious about it, but I know they can do it if they buckle down and follow through. The toughest part will be getting their community to buy into it as well. I’m praying it works out for them. I will be so proud of them if they just undertake the initiative.
After all this, they’re going to remodel the clubhouse (the old one we used to use for everything before we had an educational center with a heating system that doesn’t work) for their own uses – make it a little more “adult” in nature (there are a lot of kiddie paintings on the wall), and give it some needed repairs. Then, it can be their place to hang out and hopefully plan more initiatives. I hope I live to see the day… or rather that I’m here to see the day. That’s asking a lot more.
So far, they’ve been able to come up with a goal, an objective, and a bunch of activities that go toward that objective. After that, they were able to assign tasks and responsibilities to each person. Who will make the brochures? Who will contact the media? Who will talk to the media? They, of course, all want to be on TV, but they don’t all want to talk on TV. I was with them the other day when they were writing down who’s responsible for what, and I tried to work out a rough budget with them.
So, they were meeting the other day while I was having my English class on the other side of the room. I hope they worked something out and came to an understanding. I think they did, but I’m hoping it’s to the point where their acknowledged leader, Angel, can translate the proposal onto paper. The project is called “A Clean Start.” I suggested that title, and I hope it truly lives up to its name in a variety of surprisingly happy ways.
After they busted their heads for about an hour and a half, we went to a local café and got down. Haha. Well, I watched as some of them got down. There’s a new member of the volunteer’s group with a lot of personality. He’s a character in his own right. I’ve seen him around, but I had never really interacted with him before. As I saw him dancing on the floor – with moves I’ve never seen anyone here in Bulgaria use – it hit me, “This guy is a Roma version of ‘Fonzi’ – from that show ‘Happy Days.’” He was a well-tanned Henry Winkler. I laughed to myself and enjoyed watching him weave around the room with girls and boys alike – making faces of displeasure every once in a while at his coffee (all mix, not much water = sludge). He’s famous in the Mahala, and now I have the pleasure of getting to appreciate his spunk as well. He’s a pretty punctual guy (frowns a lot when the others are late), and he seems pretty into the project. His ideas get a lot of airtime because he’s not afraid to talk. The other day, he helped me chop some wood and take it over to the club so we could have a fire while we planned. I already love him.
On Tuesday, I had a few kids for my older-age English class. Again, I had kids ask me when we were meeting only to not show up. I would be frustrated if I cared. Trying not to care as much and leave the responsibility to them (how it’s supposed to be), I don’t worry about it as much. We played some games with fruits and vegetables, and we all had a good time. They’re a little more focused, so it was a bit easier with them. I have one kid who’s really smart and does super work on his own, but he seems to get bored when he’s in a group and has to deal with others. He will interrupt me to ask if we can do some random thing off-topic. Anyway, now I’m rambling off-topic.
Yesterday, after working in the office a bit, I went up to the center to try and have my computer class. I ended up sitting there for a bit trying to read some joke – an initiative for a “Man’s Club for Dressing Up Woman to Do Tricks.” Thomas had sent it to me. Everything was in Bulgarian and I was trying to understand as much as a could – laughing every time I did understand something. (In fact, at this moment, I just shared it with my colleagues, and they got a kick out of it. Maybe when I’m done with my service here, I’ll finally understand most of it.) Finally, half an hour late, an apologetic Reneta showed up, so we did some things on the computer.
Afterwards, I went to Reneta and Maria’s house for some Spanish. We had a good lesson (they always astound me with how much they remember – they honestly have a flighty teacher), but it was interrupted by a sweet girl I know here who needed some English help. Thing was, she had a test the next day on some animal traits that she needed to memorize. I didn’t know how to help her. We went over each thing – translating what they meant and reading it out in English, but it’s up to her to memorize it and find out what’s going on. The frustrating thing is when you see someone who’s been studying English for a while, but they still can’t stumble through the easy things. She’s a sweet girl with a talent for dancing, but all this time she’s been ditching classes and not taking English seriously. It’s a shame.
I also had a boy, who used to be a part of the volunteer’s group, randomly show up at the center yesterday to ask for English help. I was trying to figure out his motives. “So, you have a 2 in English,” (which basically means he’s failing) “and you want to turn that frown upside-down into a 5 or a 6” (which are excellent grades). “Well, Apryl, we’re in the European Union now, and it’s about time we learned, right?” I couldn’t argue with that. Whatever your reason for wanting to learn English, it’s a good one if you ask me… as long as you really want to learn it and won’t just leave me sitting there in the cold – late into the night – wondering where you are.
Last night, after finishing up my Spanish lesson and having dinner with the Krivonozov family, I met Brandy at a local café and racked up quite a bill. We had a good conversation though, so it was all worth it. We finally got home late last night, and I went straight to bed.
Today, we’ve been talking about what our working plan is over the next year. We gotta get crackin’ and write our proposal until March of 2008. We haven’t exactly started on it yet, but it will be weird to be here for it because this is the first time I can understand what’s going on and actually try and help them formulate such a plan, but it’s also hollow because I will most-likely not be here to help them fulfill whatever activities they plan out. My close-of-service date is October 10th, 2008. I can leave anytime a month before that, and about anytime a month after that. Any longer, and I have to fill out a proposal to stay a bit. One can decide to stay a few more months if they need to, or one can even opt to stay another year.
Readers, this is the moment where I confess to you that I have honestly been thinking about staying another year. I know I’ve been having a tough time as of late, and, considering all the things I wrote above, you’re probably sitting there going, “What? Apryl, you’re strange.” But I honestly have given it a lot of thought, and although I haven’t made up my mind yet, my colleagues tell me that they’re not going to let me go. Of course, they joke around saying that knowing that I have my own free will and can decide what to do with my own life. Maybe I have to get on with it. I don’t know. There are days when I think, “I want to stay here another year,” and days when I think, “Why do I want to stay here another year?” Honestly, this has become my home, and I don’t want to leave so soon. However, there’s still plenty of time to change my mind. I’m moody and flakey like that. It’s the Bulgarian in me. =)
I went to the school and found a teacher to give me Bulgarian lessons. I haven’t taken Bulgarian lessons since the start of last summer, but I want to start taking them again. I found a really nice lady at the school Brandy teaches at, and I’m supposed to meet with her for my first lesson on Monday. I’m excited about that. My landlady asked me, “Why do you want to learn Bulgarian? You already know Bulgarian!” “Yeah, but I’m tired of using the simplest words possible to express myself. I want to expand my vocabulary and speak a bit more correctly.” She wasn’t convinced. It’s good enough. Why do I want to mess with it? Many people here tell me, “If I knew English as well as you knew Bulgarian….” Yeah, well, I know I speak well. One can always do better. And this will be something for me. I’ll be learning instead of always playing the role of teacher. I miss the student role. It turns out that my new Bulgarian teacher also teaches French! I’m going to have to find a way to capitalize on this. I don’t know how, but I’ve gotta find a way! I still want to learn Roma, as well. Like THAT’S going to happen….
Ah, someone is coming to photograph my kids today for a brochure for the foundation. I’ve been telling a bunch of my students and reminding them over and over again. I hope they come. I’ll hunt them down and tickle them if they don’t. So, let me move on to something totally random. I know you weren’t expecting that from me: randomness!
So, the giant map of America still covers one wall of the office. People come in, look at it, look at me, shake their heads, and talk about going there. It’s useful for explaining where places are in the states, and I don’t get those “Did you go to New York on the weekends?” questions anymore. It’s a little hard though, when just about everyone comes in and zeros in on California. “Oh, how I wish to be there.” Then they look at me, “Do you know where I would go exactly?” I don’t say anything. “Sacramento.” I just smile. My mom’s in California. My dad’s in Hawai’i. And they think that I must be the most foolish person to ever have crawled the earth to want to come to Rakitovo. Explaining that I didn’t exactly choose Rakitovo (or Bulgaria for that matter), but that I’m actually really happy with how things worked out, doesn’t really do anything for the conversation. I get tired of these conversations. It seems like I have one every time I meet someone new. “You could be making so much money there!” No, actually, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be making so much money there, but they don’t understand it because they don’t want to understand it, and they have no basis from which to really understand it. I say, “There are poor people in the states,” and they counter with, “Yeah, but they’re lazy, aren’t they?” “No, actually there are some people who work really hard at multiple jobs and are still struggling.” They look at me incredulously, and I just want to change the subject to the weather or something. And yet, I have to have these conversations. It’s part of my job here. Anyway, poor reader, I’m starting to ramble. I’m going to let you go. Have a good day, and go give someone a hug. Tell them it’s from a girl in Rakitovo. Ciao!

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Holiday Mental Break

I took a break from Bulgaria over the past couple weeks. Sure, I was still here, but mentally it just didn’t figure in. It was really nice because the state of mind in which I currently reside is usually not a fun place to be. My motivation here is really suffering. But anyway, allow me to go back in my mind to a time when I was just visiting and relaxing in Bulgaria, ‘cause it really can be a wonderful place if you’re just there on holiday.
Over the Christmas break (we got the weekend plus the 25th and 26th off), some friends (Thomas, David, Jerramy and Amy) and I went to a town in the central northern part of the country. Veliko Turnovo was once the capitol of Bulgaria, and it’s still hailed as one of the most charming towns in the country. I had never actually been there – only passed through on a bus one time, so I was anxious to check it out. We got a couple rooms at a new hostel over the holiday, and decided to check out the town. Veliko Turnovo is cool for a couple reasons: They have a castle on a hill where human settlements date back to B.C. times. Then it was a Byzantine fortress, followed by a power center of Bulgaria during the 12th and 14th centuries. The second reason V.T. is interesting is because of the architecture of the buildings built up along the river. A huge canyon leads down to a winding river, and the varying-colored houses are built along the bank – one on top of the other. It’s an interesting sight, but other than these two things, I didn’t find much interesting about the former capitol of Bulgaria. The center was nicely decorated for Christmas, and there were more pizzerias than any person could ever want, but it was gray and gloomy the entire time we were there.
I still enjoyed being around those guys. We ate out a lot, hung out at a few cafes, walked around to a couple sites, visited the castle, and slept in. Christmas was a nice, fairly lazy day. We slept in quite a bit, and then we went out to eat. Afterwards, we went to a large mall in town and saw the dragon movie “Aragon.” After walking around a bit in the mall, we walked back to the center of town and went to an elegant restaurant. After dinner, some of us went to a karaoke bar. Amy and I sang a couple hits by “Roxette” and “Dire Straits,” and even though the microphone wasn’t working well for us, we had a good time. Poor Jerramy and Thomas were good sports and hung out until we were about ready to go. We could have sung one more song, but anyway…. We got to sing karaoke for Christmas! Woo-hoo! The other Bulgarians in the bar were pretty fun as well. They were singing some interesting songs.
Once back in Rakitovo, I was still on my mental holiday. I wasn’t feeling well. I think I came down with a re-lapse of my cold – only a little stronger this time. Yanko let me go home and rest since there wasn’t much going on in the office on Wednesday. I lazed around until the evening, when I went to pick up some presents for my colleagues. I then met them out in the cold of the night (it’s getting chilly here) to go to Velingrad for our year-end party.
The party was all right. The music was loud, and I wasn’t feeling well. I didn’t want to dance at first, but my spirits actually brightened toward the end of the night when I got up and started to dance. Pretty soon, I was getting some attention because people at other tables were finding out that I was from California. It’s an amazing thing that happens when someone here finds out I’m from California… especially when it comes to men. It’s like a superpower. I change form. Their eyes get wide and I suddenly become more attractive, more interesting, and overall just irresistible. It’s so obvious and comical when it happens. Pretty soon, I was getting songs dedicated to “the girl from California” and the band was coming over to play their instruments next to me. People were insisting that I get up and dance. It was pretty silly, but it was fun.
Once we were outside, I gave my colleagues their presents. I told them that it was the last time I would be celebrating these holidays with them, and for this reason I wanted to give them something. They were really moved by it, and just about all of them gave me kisses. I was happy to make them happy. They were really exhausted and burned out by the end of the night.
The following day, I slept in. I had seen some of my colleagues drinking quite a bit and just figured that they had done the same. Nope. They had been working. I felt silly when I came in after lunch and found them here on their lunch break. They didn’t care though. They never show any outward signs to me that they care when I come in late. They always politely ask how I’m doing.
On Friday, we had a slightly tense discussion in the office, but it was cathartic in a way. To sum things up and be as honest as honest can be, this work is psychologically difficult. We plan plans, we strategize strategies, and we eventually hold events. The problem is getting other people as excited about them as we are. Sometimes they don’t show up for the meetings. Other times, they show up and pretend to be interested. Maybe they really are interested, but sometimes getting people to follow through is like dragging stubborn horses through mud. It’s not pleasant for the cowboy or the horse. And who wants to be in that kind of relationship with their fellow citizens?
So, we had a conversation about our work. The problem with many of us in the office (myself included) is that we take things personally. I know some of my colleagues feel the same way, but I will speak for myself. I’m tired of people not showing up for things and me feeling responsible. I know it’s not my fault, but I tell myself it is. If I were only like this, if I only did that, if only if only…. Maybe if someone else were in my place, my work would have some kind of result. It’s a painful feeling and state of mind in which to live in. And the problem is that we just don’t realize how valuable we are to each other. We think we’re dispensable, when really it’s just the opposite.
My boss has a good analogy for this situation: Do you think we could grow palm trees in Rakitovo? First of all, the soil isn’t right, the climate isn’t good for it, and the people might not want to take care of palm trees. But this is how my crazy head thinks, “Well, if I could just get the right soil in town, set up some greenhouses, and then convince the people that it would be viable to grow palm trees in Rakitovo, then we could do it. And then I think, “I’m just not the right person for this because I can’t do it.” And I take it personally and I feel terrible at the end of the day.
But enough about my crazy thoughts. Let’s continue with the holidays. On Friday, after staying late to help my colleagues with a brochure (even though they said I could leave early), I headed out on a long trip to Dolna Banya to meet up with Thomas. It took me twice as long to get out there because of the train schedules, but he and a colleague of his had dinner for me once I got there. The next day, we went out to Sofia. Thomas has some connections with a few ex-pats that live in Sofia, and they had an available apartment for us to use. It was AWESOME! Just to give you some idea, the apartment was located right next door to the American ambassador’s house, so you can imagine what kind of neighborhood we were staying in. The apartment was huge – especially for the two of us, and it’s one of the nicest apartments I’ve seen ever – let alone Bulgaria. We joked about going over to the ambassador’s house, getting past the guards, and asking if we could just hang out for a while – considering we were neighbors and all.
The following day, Thomas’ friends invited us over for an Irish breakfast. There was a full spread of Irish delicacies like fancy breads, jams, blood pudding, bacon, sausages, and Irish tea. We spent time with a group of ex-patriots and a couple Bulgarians. It was an interesting group to hang out with, because I have never really spent a lot of time with that crowd. They have a lot of experience living abroad, and it’s interesting to see their view on Bulgaria – as they get to see it from a different perspective. And if we thought our apartment was nice, the little we saw of their place was amazing. The taxi had the hardest time trying to figure out how to get there, and the architecture was really interesting. Floors went up and came down, and there were all these stairs and levels. So yeah, it was a break from the Bulgaria I’m used to. I liked it, but I felt very out-of-place.
We went back to our luxury apartment and hung out a bit before we met up with some of our Peace Corps friends (Tim, Alex, and Andy) and a couple people they had met at their hostel. There was even a Columbian there, and we were able to speak some Spanish. It was nice for both of us as we don’t get to speak it all that often.
We went out for dinner, and then we lost them when Thomas and I went to some concerts in the center. They had some really great Bulgarian rock groups, and the crowd got into it. Then, they brought out some traditional groups, and people in the center started dancing the horo. Thomas and I were up on some steps, and we had a good view of both the stage and the crowds. As it got closer to midnight, some important people (but don’t ask me who they were) came out and started talking about the European Union and how great it was that Bulgaria was about to enter it. The deputy minister of Bulgaria came out and gave a speech, and then the president came on the video screens and gave his annual New Years’ speech. There was some technical glitch, however, and we couldn’t hear the first half of the president’s speech. Thomas and I both thought it ironic. Here they were, entering the EU with technical difficulties. And then they put up a sign that said, “Welcome Europe.” Again, we thought that ironic and a little fitting. It was like Bulgaria was accepting Europe and not the other way around. I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way, but that’s the way it looked.
Once midnight came (the countdown was fast and a little out of sync), we were treated to a fireworks show. Then, there was more talking about the EU and more music. Thomas and I met up with the other volunteers at an Irish pub in town. We then went back to the apartment and slept forever. We lazed around on the first until Andy, Alex, and Tim came by to have dinner with us. They’re cool kids and all, but we mostly just wanted them over so we could show off the apartment. After dinner, we went out for ice cream. It was good, but the waitress just assumed that I was tipping her half the price of the bill and didn’t give me back my change until I actually looked at her like, “So, are you going to bring me my change or what?” Then she finally fished around and dropped it by. I was pretty mad about that. Sure, we were in a neighborhood where maybe that kind of stuff happens a lot, but I couldn’t believe her nerve in just taking my bill and not making change. Even then, she didn’t give me the correct change, so she didn’t even give me the option. She took her own tip. I found it highly presumptuous and was livid.
Thomas and I were sad to see the next day come because it meant that we would have to leave the apartment. We went back to Dolna Banya and resumed our normal lives… once we were able to finally find transportation. Man, the buses just shut down. That was weird. I came back to Rakitovo on Monday, and I decided to try and go up to the center to see if I could light the stove and the radiators. I ran into Angel along the way, and he came to help me. We were trying to fill the boiler with water for a whole hour, but it was to no avail. What we didn’t realize was that Yanko had turned a valve so that all the water would spill to the outside. We just figured that the pipes were empty and needed a lot of water. It was strange that it would take that long, but we decided to let it go. We had a good chat instead. No one came for classes anyway. It’s vacation time. It’s normal. I followed it up with dinner at Yanko and Ani's. That was nice until I got a splitting headache and some nausea. Maria wanted me to stay and have a slumber party with them 'cause I felt like I couldn't move. I was glad when I was finally able to get up and walk home.
Yesterday, I hung out in the office and then went up to the center for a meeting with our volunteers. They have an initiative group, and they want to do a project to clean up the Mahala. The meeting went well – considering other meetings have led to a circular nowhere. Valia was there, and she did a good job of making them think and keeping them on track. I really hope they’re able to realize their idea. One student showed up because she thought we would have English. I told her to go home and take a break. We’d meet next week. It was a good thing I told her this because no one else showed up. Ah well, maybe next week things will go back to normal. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the change.
After the meeting, the young people invited me to have coffee with them. I declined because I’d already accepted an invitation for coffee with a guy from Velingrad. He met me at the Christmas party with my colleagues and stole my number from his cousin’s phone without her knowing. Just another guy who thinks I’m fascinating ‘cause I’m from California. But I went out and had coffee with him and some others. It was a fun evening. It’s always nice to meet new people and talk to them. Pretty much anytime I’m introduced to a new boy and I tell them where I’m from, they have a huge reaction and then they’re even more interested in talking to me. They get to tell me about how crazy they think I am for living in Rakitovo, and then we get to talk about money. Finally, at the end of the night, they get over concerned about when they’re going to see me again. It never ends. What a weird superpower. I’d have picked invisibility or something much cooler.
P.S. My friend, Maria, was in the office when I was writing about the palm trees. She thought I was seriously writing about putting in palm trees in Rakitovo, and she thought that was an excellent idea. She had no clue that I was writing an analogy. Oh, the innocence of children. I love how they dream big. I didn’t have the nerve to tell her that it was just an example and that it’s not going to be an actual project. I like the attitude she has. I get tired of the defeatist, wishy-washy attitude that a lot of people clutch onto. And I include myself in that statement. Nothing drives me crazier than Apryl Gibson. That’s why the mental vacation was so nice.