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.

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