Sunday, April 01, 2007

Apryl Fools

“Let’s Sign a Petition to Change the Official Spelling of the Month April to ‘Apryl!’”
April Renamed Apryl in Honor of Plucky Peace Corps Volunteer

You know you’re all misspelling the month anyway ‘cause you love me so much. Let’s just make it easier on you. My friend, Thomas, thought up the second title.
Anyway, I was going to write an April Fool’s post – you know, one filled with all sorts of varying misdeeds and lies like, “I’m coming home tomorrow. Meet me at the airport,” or “Bulgaria is holding a parade in my honor. I’m the best volunteer in the history of the Peace Corps.” But I figured I’d hold off on being mean, ridiculous, and just telling blatant lies. Besides, I’m not that clever. I never much cared for April fools day. Back in elementary days, kids seemed to especially like picking on me for the sake of my namesake – even if it was just to call me a fool. But I digress. Let’s get to the update. I’ve been keeping you all hanging for a couple weeks.
It’s not that I don’t have anything to say. It’s just that, I don’t know, by the time I get my day done and I come home, I just don’t feel like going through the effort of sitting down and updating the dear ole blog. I’ll get right down to it. I have lots to tell you all, but you know that.
Where should I start? How about the weekend before last at the language refresher? I went and learned some more Bulgarian. Oh yeah. It was SO fantastic. I always learn so much at those refresher things. And they try a variety of methods to get us to catch onto things. The day is never boring. My friend, Toni, was cracking me up though, ‘cause she kept insisting that we shouldn’t take any breaks. Props, Toni, if you read this. You’re hardcore. The day before, we had a meeting for the Minority Committee. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but this committee is also the brainchild of Toni. We’d like to get together a forum where volunteers can discuss minority issues and get feedback on how to work with minorities in Bulgaria. We’d also like to put together a toolkit that volunteers can access and get ideas with doing tolerance building activities and other information about minorities and minority issues. My involvement with a Roma organization makes me a natural fit for this kind of committee. I’m all about working with the largest (and possibly most misunderstood and discriminated) minority in this country.
Afterwards, we went out for some St. Patrick’s Day celebrating. We met up with some more friends and headed out to an Irish pub for some good food and beer. I had a good time, and then it was over to Toni’s to crash before our language refresher the next day.
That Monday, we started something new with our center. I think I mentioned that there would be some changes. Well, we’ve been finding out that the current users of the center – mostly Roma – aren’t quite as serious and involved as we had been hoping that they were. We decided to start a new campaign to open up my computer and English classes to the entire population of Rakitovo. Why we didn’t do this from the get-go, I don’t know, but my organization did want to have a special focus on the Roma to help them get ahead. Well, they don’t want it. At least, they don’t act like they want it. Give it to someone else.
So, in this meeting, I had them play a couple icebreaker games that they all seemed to enjoy. I don’t think Bulgarians have much experience with the icebreaker games. It’s something we regularly do in groups in the states, but it’s a new concept to Bulgaria. They really enjoy it. Everyone likes playing games… especially in a situation that would otherwise be stiff and awkward. My boss congratulated me afterward. He really liked how the meeting went. Mostly because the result was that I had three new computer groups and two new English groups by the end of the session. This was in addition to the current classes that I already had. He joked that I would be sleeping up in the center from now on.
Well, I’ve cut back a little. I told one kid that we weren’t going to meet for English anymore. He’s smart, but he’s a punk. He doesn’t show up consistently, and there’s always an excuse. One day, I was standing outside waiting for him to come to English. He was standing across the way from me… looking over at me. I called him over. “What?” He didn’t move. “Come here.” He sauntered over and shuffled his feet. “What?” “We’re not going to have English anymore.” “Excuse me?” I gave him the reasons why: “I’m busy, and you don’t come. I have better things to do – like teach other classes to people who actually show up.” It then turned into a conversation like this:
Student: “I want to come. I just forget.”
Apryl: “Yeah, you forget every single time. I have better things to do.”
S: “Please? I’ll come. I promise.”
A: “No.”
S: “Please?”
A: “No.”
S: “Yes.”
It went back and forth like this for a few more rounds. And then he gave up, “I was just kidding anyway.” Right.
I told another one of my students – one who was actually showing up and participating well… taking 2’s (F’s) in English and turning them into 6’s (A’s) at school ever since he started working with me – that the price of the course would be going up from 1 lev (60 cents) a month to 10 lev a month (6 dollars). I haven’t seen him since. I’ve told my kids that the price for them would go from 1 lev to 3 lev a month. This is not an outrageous hike. A few bucks to study English for a month is nothing when the going rate is several times that amount. Plus, these funds don’t pay anyone. They go for the maintenance of the educational center. I’m not sure how many of my kids will stick around at this new price though. I know they love coming to English, but it doesn’t always translate into participating. Here is a horribly stereotypical statement, but I find Bulgarians will usually find a way to talk themselves out of a situation that has become the slightest bit uncomfortable for them… even if it’s of benefit to them in the long-run. “What? You changed the terms of this class? I don’t want to do this anymore. What? Learning how to use a computer and speak English takes trial and error? I don’t want to risk making mistakes. I don’t want to do this anymore.” I feel as though Bulgarians are afraid of taking risks. People here have some great opportunities to start up successful businesses. There are people waiting in the wings to give them loans and see them succeed, but they’re too scared. But again, I digress. Maybe it’s not a “Bulgarian” thing. Maybe it’s a “Rakitovo” thing.
Anyway, the one student I had that dialogue with above decided not to talk to me at first. Now he’s back, however, ‘cause he’s learned about the wonders of baseball and is asking to play when he sees me. I’ll get to that.
So I have a bunch of new classes. I teach about 15 hours a week. It’s interesting. I have six computer classes a week. They’re all learning how to type without looking at their fingers. Some are picking it up pretty quickly. Others are secretly plotting my death, I swear. A lot of them say, “I’m never going to learn this. It’s just not going to happen.” I HATE that. Go ahead. Defeat yourself before you’ve even tried. Walking was hard at first, but you did it ‘cause you had to. Learning to talk must have been a trial, but you were a kid. What do you remember? Now you’re old enough to see how hard things are. You believe in the impossibility of things. You let it get you down, and you shy away. I’m here to push you off the cliff and into the water. Trust me. It’s good for you. Again, I’m rambling.
I have a class full of mostly unemployed mothers. I have another class of people who work in the building where our organizations’ office is. These women actually do work with computers, and they know their stuff. Unfortunately, they’ve only been trained to load predictable information into a predictable program. They haven’t been taught how to make programs work for their interests. My other classes are filled with Roma who just have a general interest in learning how to use computers. They realize that one can’t survive in this information age without learning about basic technology. However, my dear readers, you need to know that these students are working with a HUGE handicap. Everything is in English.
Programs, in my opinion, are amazingly user-friendly. Imagine, however, using a program you had never seen before where everything was in Japanese. It wouldn’t matter how user-friendly it was. You’d be confused out of your noggin. And I have to remember that. I try and stress to my students, “Don’t let me get away with telling you it’s easy and taking for granted how familiar I am with the program. I’ve been using Word for 10 years! If I gloss over something, and you don’t understand… ask.” I’m too used to it. I forget how difficult it can be to navigate a foreign system. Computers are second nature to me, and I have to remind myself that some people have never sat down in front of a computer before. Plus, they’re trying to learn from someone who doesn’t know all the Bulgarian terms for things. It takes a lot of patience on both our parts. I’m running around to six computers trying to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
My English classes are a little more straightforward. They’re filled with teachers! And all at varying levels. It’s a little insane, but we’re getting through it and having fun. We’ve started out from the beginning. I picked up a free, new, lesson book, and we’ve been using that for classes. It’s great! Everyone’s doing fantastically so far, but there’s always one who refuses to speak up out of fear of making a mistake. It’s natural. It doesn’t always come easily for everyone. I’ll ask her a question, and she won’t respond. The interesting thing is that she’s quite confident otherwise. She’s put us off-kilter in the office a few times with the demands she’s made while stopping by. Getting a simple sentence in English from her, however, is like pulling teeth. It’s a strange dichotomy.
So, the classes have been going well for the past couple of weeks. I’ve been teaching my kids some songs, the hokey-pokey, and most importantly of all, baseball!
Ah, the wonders of baseball. How I miss playing it. It all started when I decided to teach my kids the days of the week. Well, I had already taught the days to them, but we were doing a review. I was having them toss a monkey I got in a care package (thanks, Tom!) onto sheets a paper with the days of the week on them. Then, I was having them turn around and hit the softball I was pitching to them. In case you’re wondering if they really have baseball equipment in Bulgaria, let me just say that my sweet mother brought a bat and a couple balls over to me while she was visiting. There are some baseball teams in Bulgaria, but I imagine most of them are facilitated by Peace Corps Volunteers that are supported by friends and family back home, and I have no idea if you can find equipment in this country. So, my kids did a fantastic job. Pretty soon, kids walking by became interested and asked if they could play. We’ve played a couple impromptu games without me going into depth about the rules. They started only running one base at a time on a hit, and I let them. As we do not have any protective equipment or gloves, most of these hitters would be scoring runs every time they step up to the plate. That’s ridiculous. If you are reading this, send gloves and helmets! Let’s bring “America’s Favorite Pastime” to Rakitovo!
So it’s been fun. The kids like it because it’s a new game they have never played before. And who doesn’t like trying to hit things with bats. I’ve got a good crowd right now just because they’re all fascinated with it. I’d like to get something more formal going, but I can only do that with gloves. At the end of this post, I’m going to put a more “official” “begging for donations” paragraph.
Last weekend, I went to a birthday party. One of my cute, little students turned eight years old. The interesting thing, however, was that the party wasn’t so much about him as much as it was an excuse for his parents to invite friends over and do some drinking and dancing. This has been the norm to many parties I’ve attended, however. The men got hammered and then gyrated to the amusement of the women. It’s not exactly my idea of a good time, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. The next day, I went to Plovdiv to meet up with Thomas and hang out for the day. We then went back to his site and went to Sofia the following day. It was a busy weekend. The reason we were in Sofia was because of the “hash.” I’ve mentioned the hash before. A bunch of ex-pats and a few Bulgarians get together to run a flour-marked trail or go on a walk. They then go out to a local restaurant for dinner afterward. I enjoyed the hash because we ran a beautiful train (or rather speed-walked as a good bout of it was uphill) and eating out at restaurants has become a luxury for me. After the hash, we had to hear about the various “sins” that took place on the event. The past couple times I’ve been on the hash, I’ve been accused of “sins.” Last time, it was for peeing on the run. This time, it was for “screaming,” as I had raised my voice at someone to get their attention. The “punishment” is standing in the center of the circle and downing a pixie cup of beer while everyone else sings a song. It’s fun though. It’s like being inducted into some silly society. Afterwards at dinner, I sat next to a nice couple from the German Embassy, and I talked with the woman about the work I do with the Roma. She is fascinated by them, but she can’t figure out how to get direct contact with them. I’ve got direct contact galore.
That evening, we stayed with a couple of the ex-pats. I’ve mentioned them before as they’ve hosted both Thomas and me a couple of times. They are lovely, generous people. In fact, one of them is coming out tomorrow to look over our center and see if we can get some funds for it from a charity organization that she belongs to. Hopefully, the meeting will go well, and we’ll get some more sustainable income for the maintenance of our educational center. Speaking of the center, look what I found while perusing the internet: Our center! I helped write that article. I’m not a fan of how it turned out, but hey, it’s out there. That’s pretty sweet!
This last week, I didn’t go in the office much. I had other things to do. One of them was waiting all day for the cable guys to never show up. Boy, was that fun! It’s like waiting for the cable guys in the states, so you can’t complain that it’s a “Bulgarian” thing. My internet hasn’t been working so great ever since I tripped over the cable and ripped a chunk out of the side of my computer. Hmmm… I wonder why? Anyway, I’m hoping the internet guys can do something about it, but it’s probably not going to happen. Bleh. I hate having to hold the cable a certain way to get my internet to sort of work. Lame!
My colleagues have been in the office working hard, however. We’re still waiting to hear what our budget is going to be for the next year, and they’ve been writing a project to form an informal women’s organization. It’s a great idea, and I want to be a part of it. I try to give input wherever I can, but my colleagues seem to have a really good grasp on the idea and what they envision. They don’t need my guidance so much. They’ve always known more than me when it comes to this stuff. I’m honestly lucky for that.
The school has been calling me out a lot recently for consultations in English. They’ve been doing project writing and some teachers are applying for workshops. I think it’s great, but I don’t like that they always call me at the last minute. I can’t be available all the time. I actually refused to come the last time ‘cause I was busy teaching classes. I’d said “no,” and I was proud of myself.
This weekend, Thomas came over, and we spent all of Saturday watching movies and being lazy ‘cause it was a dreary day. I don’t know if I’ve ever watched so many films in one sitting. I liked it, but Thomas got restless. Today, we hit the bazaar in Velingrad. I came back and cleaned up a bit before getting on the net a bit and then heading to church. I love the Evangelical church here. For one thing, it’s right next door. The location is ideal. And the room is filled with nice women who are constantly bringing in sweets. Usually, the only male present is the pastor. He’s a really nice man. And I love it there ‘cause we sing a lot! The homily is short, and then we sing again! Today, I put a leftover candy wrapper in the offering tray. Yeah. That was a great faux pas. I hope no one saw me. Okay, so apparently they use a little trash can on the piano as their offering container. I didn’t know, and I put my candy wrapper in it. I only realized my mistake when someone knocked over the trash can, and a bunch of coins and bills fell to the floor. No one even noticed the wrapper, however, and I think they put it back in. I just stared at it – dumbfounded. Well, don’t I feel like a sacrilegious idiot. Someone’s going to find it and think, “What jerk put their trash in the offering container?” I’m going to hell.
Easter is coming up this next weekend, and everyone’s getting ready for it. I don’t know how many kids will show up for my classes because they’re all on vacation, but I’m still having class. I’ve been asked a few times if I’m going to America for the holiday. It’s traditional here for families to be reunited during this time of year. My landlord’s son and girlfriend-in-law were here this weekend, but I evaded having them stay here by telling them Thomas was coming, and I needed that spare room. Whew! That was close. Then, I had to get the son to take me to a local bus stop to pick Thomas up as the buses had stopped running by the time he got there. Awkward! Oh well. Enyo insisted we have some wine, but I deflected that one with the fact that I was in the middle of cooking, so he brought a bottle up for us instead.
Now we’re to the part of the blog where I tell you random things about Bulgarian culture and events in my life:
In Bulgaria, many of the small towns are peppered with these announcements that are posted almost everywhere. Mostly, they’re death announcements. You’ll find them posted right after a person has died, six months after they’ve passed on, and even a few years afterwards as memorials. They’re everywhere. Eventually, they’ll usually come down from public places, but you’ll find them on the doors of just about everyone’s houses for years to come. Death is something just about every family here has experienced. So, here’s what I’ve been thinking: It’s morbid and probably a little crass, but I would be amused by it. What if I made one of these announcements for myself? Put my picture up there and posted these flyers all around town, and then just walk around among the living like nothing had happened? Wouldn’t that be great? I wonder how many people would come up to me saying, “Oh, Eypril! I thought you were dead! I saw the announcement….” And I’d just shrug like, “Yeah, it was a misprint.” And how many people would just look at me like I was a nutcase. That wouldn’t change much of anything. I already get those looks a lot anyway.
It’s salad season. It won’t be long before all the yummy fruits come into season. Bulgaria is a goldmine of delicious fruits and vegetables. It’s almost a sin how inexpensive it all is, too. Bulgarians think nothing of it, but anyone who knows better raves about it. You all don’t know what you’re missing out on. The abundance of fresh produce here is to die for.
The “shterkils” (storks) are back! I’ve talked a lot about them in past posts because a couple have taken up residence on the bell tower of the church across the way. They mate, they raise a family, and then they move on for another year. It feels like they haven’t been gone so long, but it’s nice to see them back. I really identify with them in a lot of ways. I don’t know why, but I just feel a kindred spirit in them somehow. They’re beautiful. Thomas and I were out on the balcony, when I saw one come swooping in on its glorious, black-encrusted wingspan. It nipped and played with the one I hadn’t seen already sitting in the nest. There’s something comforting in seeing them again… like the world does continue as it should and some good things are inevitable.
It’s the time of year where people have taken to setting trash cans on fire. The smell is absolutely disgusting. And then you see some Roma combing through the remains of burnt refuse. It’s a depressing time of year. The funny thing is, the garbage bins have been burnt so much, I can barely make out the “Do not light” signs painted on the sides. Oh, Rakitovo, I love you so.
In happier news, for me, I’ve been getting quite a few packages recently. Yes! You people are the best! If you are reading this, and you sent me a package, give yourself a pat on the back. My colleagues are always amused, and they’re always asking if it’s from my Grandma and Grandpa Gibson. If it’s not, they ask, “Isn’t it about time you wrote those grandparents and told them to send you another package?” They’re fans of my grandma’s fudge and pecan puffs. So, Gibson’s, give yourselves an extra pat on the back. Now that it’s “my month,” I’ll probably have to “cherpa” a lot at work. I could use some candy, people, to appease my co-workers.
In other news, I’ve taken up playing pente online. I’m not very good at it, as pretty much everyone kicks my butt, but I’ve really enjoyed playing with my grandfather. It’s a good way for us to keep in touch, and I learned pente from him when I was little. I still haven’t learned how to beat him though.
In supplementary news, I’ve found out that a dear uncle of mine has been very sick. These announcements of illnesses are always hard to take. Didn’t you people get the memo that you’re all supposed to stay healthy and avoid making major life changes while your Apryl is away? If not, I think you need to consult the handbook “How to Manage Your Life While Apryl is in the Peace Corps” once again. At least he’s getting better. He must have picked up and run through his copy of the manual.
My life is very strange and disconnected. I don’t tell you this for sympathy. I tell you this to try and see if I can understand it all by putting it down in words. I haven’t talked to many of my friends (except for random notes via the internet) and family in a long time. I don’t even talk to my parents all that often. Normal interaction has been replaced by games on the internet, notes on online social network, the random e-mail, and the random phone call. I spend time with my colleagues, (I was over at my boss’ twice – almost three times – last week for dinner and a viewing of “reality TV” (VIP Brother is a celebrity version of Big Brother, which is a phenomenon in this country)) I get together with Americans every once in a while, and then there’s the myriad of people that I interact with in town, but I don’t have many “friends” to speak of in the traditional sense. My social life is like a strange, laboratory experiment that seems foreign and unhealthy somehow. But, the weirdest thing, is that it honestly doesn’t bother me. I’ve learned how to keep a lot of things in – things I would probably rashly tell people before I’ve processed them. I’ve learned to really appreciate “me” time and not get bored with myself. I don’t know how to explain it. Something about it feels like it should be unhealthy and bothersome, but I’ve really adapted to this new way of life. The disconnection is a little disconcerting, but it’s my life. What can I do with it?
So, readers, on Friday I asked my colleagues to help me apply for a third year. No, it’s not an April Fool’s joke. In fact, I think it’s too early to say whether I really want to stay for an extra year or not, but the need to say one way or another is coming up sooner than I would like. I have to make a decision. I cannot get the desire to stay an extra year out of my head, so I’m going for it. I don’t know if Peace Corps will approve it, but I’m going to at least try. Either way, if it’s meant to be or if it’s not meant to be, I trust God to take care of it. As a final note, please send baseball equipment! We could really use some gloves and helmets. If you’re interested, please drop me an e-mail. Just one glove means the difference between catching a ball and getting smacked in the head with it. I fear for my kids, and they really want to play baseball. It’d be a great, learning, team-building opportunity for them. Plus, I’d have another thing to do with kids that I enjoy. One of my students commented that I looked sad a lot recently. It’s probably due to fun deprivation. I want to get out and play more! My response to that comment was to try and teach her how to waltz. I need more activity in my life! Send us fun in the form of baseball equipment! Thank you.
P.S. I have Istanbul/Qatar pictures up.

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