Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Life Still Surprises

Imagine not getting paid for two months. Imagine that you have a family to feed, and you haven’t been paid in the last two months. Imagine your child is sick, and you haven’t been paid in the last two months. Yeah. That’s actually happening to my colleagues. It’s absolutely awful. Unfortunately, in the practice of good form and tact, I cannot go into the reasons why. To do so might jeopardize their opportunities to get paid at all one day. It’s not my place. Besides, what do I know? I don’t even have a “real job,” and I always get paid in a timely manner.
There’s something going on here in Bulgaria (and there in Libya) that I haven’t taken the opportunity to mention yet. I can’t believe I’ve let it slip this long. Anyway, five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor are accused of deliberately infecting 426 children with HIV back in 1998. Go here for the Wikipedia article. They have been sentenced to death (twice now) by firing squad, but their still waiting for an appeal – or rather, a miracle. Nevermind that there is evidence to suggest that some of the children were infected before the nurses even arrived and that poor sanitary conditions are to blame. However, Libyan officials will not allow outside scientific evidence to be allowed in the trial. They are going only with what their scientists are saying. It’s such a terrible situation, but it’s done something rather unique and fascinating here in Bulgaria. It’s given people a cause to get behind and support. Soon after the second death sentence (this last December), people started wearing ribbons with the colors of the Bulgarian flag on them. On these ribbons was printed, in both Bulgarian and English, “Ne ste sami – You are not alone.” You go everywhere, and you see these ribbons. It’s pretty fascinating. Schools and organizations have even held public protests to get people mobilized and try to draw attention to the issue. I’m impressed with their desire to come out and support a cause. I’m sorry, but you rarely see that in Bulgaria. It’s refreshing. Hopefully, the issues will be resolved fairly and in a timely manner. It’d be great to see those nurses (and, of course, the doctor) come home.
I have received e-mails and phone calls expressing surprise at my decision to stay a third year. It seems that I’ve been giving a very strong impression that I am unhappy here. Hmmm…. How do I explain this? Yes, my job can be frustrating – and even downright infuriating – at times. There are times when I want to pack up and go, or I’d rather just sit at home than go teach classes. This doesn’t mean, however, that I am unhappy. Happiness is a state of mind, and I wouldn’t be staying here if I were unhappy. I have definitely struggled with the third year question. Who wouldn’t? There are a lot of unknowns. Will I be useful to my organization? Wouldn’t it just be better to get a new volunteer with a fresh outlook on things and different talents? Shouldn’t I be getting on with my life? I’m not getting any younger, and I have so many things I want to do. I have decided that I enjoy my work and my colleagues enough to give it a shot, and I believe that, if it’s difficult, it’s probably worth attempting.
Along this line (trust me, it’ll make sense in the end), I’d like to confess to you my addiction to MySpace.com. It’s a site that puts you in contact with people all over the world. On one site, you can see pictures of them, info on them, blogs, comments, mail, etc. The problem with MySpace, other than the fact that it’s eternally addicting, is that you can, in essence, “stalk” a person without them ever knowing (well, some have profile trackers, but anyway). I have spent hours clicking on profiles and leaping from one stream of consciousness to another. I can catch up on a person’s life without ever talking to them. I can find out who’s engaged now, who’s having babies, who’s working where, and even (yes, I did find out this way once) who has succumbed to a painful death. It’s personal and yet completely impersonal. So, I’m rambling. The reason I’m telling you this is because I wanted to share with you what a fellow volunteer says about coming home after planning on staying for a third year – because I thought it was great and meaningful. Of course, I haven’t asked her permission to repost this. I’m not even in contact with her anyway. That’s the wonder of MySpace. But anyway, it gives you even more to read on this blog.

and coming home is something you've dreamt about every moment since you decided to leave bulgaria. for months and then just fourteen hours more, you imagine the terminal, the person you love waiting, running into open arms, heads buried in necks lost in a movie-made-real-made-for-movie moment—the moment when your new life begins. you imagine that everything is going to be fine, easy, logical.it's america. it's home.in reality it's trying to get through customs with a dog crying at the top of its lungs in a crate. it's exhaustion and stress drowning out the excitement of your happiest moment. it's realizing in two weeks, in two months—you're never going back to bulgaria the same way. your home there is gone.settled now, i want to wrap my experiences there up carefully--fold my words neatly around the sides of my memories, store them somewhere not too near my heart. my last week in bulgaria, i sorted through the clutter of that life—tearing up photos, choosing which memories to keep—not out of hate—there just never is enough space. every life has its limits. i already knew which letters, which trinkets wouldn't matter in a year, in five. still, i had to take more than i'd ever be able to fit into this new dream of my life.and the strangest part about living in (undisclosed city) now, is that it was where i "staged" with 58 other new peace corps volunteers… before we left for bulgaria. on our last night, we went out to a bar to enjoy one last american beer. i don't remember much else about staging, except the panic attack i had the next morning as we were leaving, when i realized i had lost my… license somewhere between a restaurant, a bar, and the hotel. after being reassured by peace corps staff that i wouldn't need it in our travels, i eventually accepted the fact that it was an insignificant piece of plastic i wouldn't need for the next two years.move me forward two and half years.i am back in (undisclosed city), dressed casually in my new life. (significant other) and i go to a movie downtown, and are heading back to his car, when i recognize the block we are walking along. "i've been here," i say, stopping in front of a window, seeing billiard tables through the glass, remembering vaguely sitting on those bar stools and small talking anxiously with the people i'd live with in a completely foreign place."OMG! maybe your license is here," he says, remembering my license story."even if i did lose it at this bar, it wouldn't be here after two and a half years," i insist.but (my significant other) is a shade more optimistic than i am, and goes inside to ask if there is a… license in the lost and found. he comes out and says i was right, no license. i say i told you so--he says he knew i would say i told him so.he adds, "it's not like you actually believed i would come out and just say, 'here it is,'"—and pulls my 2D rectangular with rainbow graphic tanned 23 year-old self from his pocket. i do an ecstatic, but modest, best-of-the-80s dance move montage while screaming, "OMG OMG!!! you found me!"and i meant it.

I wonder if I will “find me” here. I’ve certainly found a part of me. I can’t imagine “finding all of me” only to say good-bye again. Just another stage of life. Moving on. Making new experiences and moments that I will only say good-bye to.
Today I told Yanko that, ever since I was approved for a third year, I’ve been missing America more. His eyes grew wide, and he said, “Don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind! There’s no one here anymore to let you go.” When I told him that there’s a volunteer here who’s been approved for a fourth year, he said, “And you can stay a fourth year as well. We’ll just marry you off to a Bulgarian.” A lot of people say that: “We’ll just marry you to a Bulgarian, and then you’ll be tied to us forever.” Um… yeah… that sounds pleasant…. Sign me up for that!
I’ve been spinning the idea of a volleyball camp around in my head for the past few weeks. I finally went down to the school and talked to the P.E. teacher there about my idea. She seemed to like it, and she shared it with the other P.E. teacher. They both seemed really into it at first, but then we started really talking. That’s the thing with people here. They think they can appease you with what they think you want to hear. You have to pry out of them what they really think. They finally started talking about the frustrations they have with students at the school and their lack of interest in sport. Plus, it’s not like people are going to want to pay to be part of this camp during the summer. They’d rather just goof off with their friends. I would have loved to go to a volleyball camp when I was a teenager! I still would! The problem with being a PCV, is that you have to challenge the accepted attitudes of people here while, at the same time, deciding which battles are actually worth it. Sometimes they’re right. In the case of Rakitovo, it’s easy to be skeptical. There’s a mood that permeates the town which says, “I’m not going to be involved… especially if I have to pay for it! And if I do participate, and I don’t understand it the first time, I’m giving up!” Needless to say, that’s completely unproductive. I spent a lot of time today reminiscing about my high school days, and it was the extracurricular activities that really made the experience for me. I don’t know if those teachers got paid for all the extra work they did, but I’d like to thank Mr. Dunlap, Ms. Gladwell, and Mr. Thornton for helping make my high school experience. I think I’m a healthier, more confident person because of it. Plus, I have all these great memories that I think people here are really missing out on. I feel sorry for them. The P.E. teacher had an interesting idea though: Why don’t you teach the kids how to play baseball?
I’ve been playing baseball with my kids on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I wish you all could see how absolutely adorable they are. One kid fits the part so well when he’s ready to hit – he just looks so natural. It’s like he should have a backwards cap on and a couple smudges under the eyes. When I tell them I have to go, they always make sure they know when we’re playing again. And they won’t let me go until they get a straight answer – none of this wishy-washy stuff. Since we still don’t have gloves, we’ve been playing a variation where they just run one base at a time. I’m still the only one who has braved plucking a batted ball out of the sky. I assure the kids that actual baseballs are much smaller and harder. No injuries so far, but I’m waiting for someone to get socked in the head. Then I’ll want to crawl into a hole and die. America’s favorite pastime, huh? Not here. My kids are all clamoring to make sure they know I want them to be on a team when one actually gets formed.
In a previous post, I talked about how we were applying for funding from an International Women’s Charity. We were approved! Yay! So, they’re going to cover the administrative, monthly consumables of the center, and I think they’re also going to get us a video projector! That’s great news. God surely does provide. No more worrying about where the money for the next month is going to come from. I forgot to mention what happened when they arrived for their visit. Okay, so they were all piled into this huge, Mercedes van. It was obvious that they were foreigners. I walked up to the van and greeted them, and then I went and called my colleagues over. I heard someone say, “Oh, there go the ‘tsigani’ getting money again.” I don’t know if I’ve ever used that word in this blog, but it’s usually a derogatory word for the Roma. It depends on who’s using it and how it’s used. Usually, hearing something like that would frustrate me, but it only made me smile. Yeah, that’s right. We worked. We did something, and they came. Maybe you should do something meaningful.
The great thing that’s been happening recently is that I’ve been hearing more and more about teachers and other organizations applying for grants. They’re realizing how many opportunities are available to them through the European Union, and they’re getting up and doing something about it. I talked to my former, Bulgarian tutor today, and she told me that she’s planning an exchange between Bulgarian and Spanish students. Bulgarian students would go to Spain, and Spanish students would come here to do a cultural-learning exchange. It would all be financed by the EU. It sounds like an awesome idea. I hope it works out.
Rakitovo has been going under quite a transformation recently. It seems as though everyone is remodeling and expanding. It’s quite interesting. I’m glad to see that people have the means to expand and change things. It can’t be as bad here as they all say it is. “I can’t believe how poor I am! See my new, designer outfit?” Yeah….
Have you ever been in a moment where you knew something undesirable was going to happen as a result of whatever you were doing, but you went ahead and did it anyway? That happened to me today. I was in the new store in town, and I was looking at some glasses that I knew were super fragile due to the low, low price on them. A case of six was up high on a shelf, and I thought to myself, “If I try and take it off the shelf, one of them is going to fall and shatter.” I wanted to buy these glasses, however, so I went ahead and reached up to grab them. Sure enough. One fell out of the case, bounced a few shelves down, and then promptly shattered upon ground zero impact. I was embarrassed. The worst was when I tried to pick up some of the bigger pieces ‘cause I kept dropping them and making them into smaller pieces. Of course, I bought the five remaining glasses. I wonder how long it will take before I splinter the remaining ones in my kitchen sink. I’ve already lost four of another set. Did I mistakenly buy the ones made out of sugar that they use in the movies to smash over people’s heads? Good gravy!
I’ve been stopped a lot by “babas” recently. I’ve learned that you should never smile at an unknown “baba” unless you want to shoot the breeze for a while. First, they try to place you because they don’t really recognize you, but they think they do. “Are you so-and-so’s daughter?” And then they latch onto you and coo over you because they think you’re the sweetest thing ever to have come to Rakitovo. Oh, but you work with the “tsigani?” And there’s that word again in a not-so-nice connotation. My favorite is when a “baba” goes on and on about how her pensioner’s allowance doesn’t cover food. Meanwhile, she’s pushing enough food on you to feed an army. That happened to me when I stopped by to visit the “baba” who lives in the haunted house.
What about my classes? Why, thank you for asking! Classes are classes. They’re going well, but, every once in a while, I lose one or two people. It just makes it easier for me to pay attention to the others who are left. It’s still maddening though. It seems like few people really take anything seriously. A few of my students were consistently showing up without paying the monthly fee for the center. They would always say they were going to bring it the next time, and then the person who was supposed to pay wouldn’t show up. Finally, I said, “Where’s the money?” “Oh, um, well… we’ll get it to you tonight.” “Right, well, until then, we aren’t going to study.” “Okay, we’ll leave it with Yanko.” Did they show up? No. Have they come back? No. Finally, I ran into one of them, and she asked if I had other available times. “What? You haven’t paid. You can’t participate at this point. What you did is pretty rude, and now you’re asking about other times?” “I know, but I had a problem. I couldn’t come.” “Right. Did you tell me about it? No. You just kept going along like it was nothing, and then you disappeared.” (Oh, and by the way, when’s that English class again that I keep asking about but really have no intention of show up to? Oh! I thought you told me a different time the last five times when I asked you. OR, my personal favorite: I can’t come ‘cause we don’t have the money to pay for it. Meanwhile, my arms are loaded down with snacks and cigarettes from the supermarket, and I’m just going to act like you didn’t see that.) See? I talk about this and you must think that I hate it here. No. I hate the lies and excuses people come up with here. I hate the mentality that says, “Let me complicate your life by telling you what I think you want to hear – that thing I say I’ll do that I actually have no intention of doing. If you get upset with me for it, I’m going to turn it around and make it seem like it’s really your fault I didn’t follow through. And then when you do something that interests me again, I’ll be your friend and interact with you. Until then, I’m not going to even acknowledge your presence.” Reader, you’re probably wondering what I’m rambling about. Nevermind. Wait! Here’s another thing that makes me want to scream: “Well, he’s not serious, so why should I be serious? She didn’t follow through, so why should I follow through?” Since when do you let someone else dictate your life and steal your opportunities to make a difference?
Prime example: We’re forming an informal women’s group that can get together and cook, sew, share make-up tips, drink coffee, and gossip. Then, we’re planning on hitting them with some workshops about education, safe sex, domestic violence, trafficking of persons, health and hygiene, and a bunch of other fascinating, while simultaneously uncomfortable, topics. This project is one of the reasons I’m staying for another year. When my colleagues tell these women what the plan is and where to meet, they say, “Oh yes! That sounds great! We’ll be there!” Then, when the time comes, they’re nowhere to be found. Only one or two will come at a time. A lot of them complain about how they do the same thing over and over in the Mahala – how there’s nothing new, and there’s nothing to pique their interest. Well, here’s something new. Why don’t you come to this? Now, we’re in danger of losing the few that do come because of the many that don’t come, but say they will. Grrrrr…. After all that complaining, can I tell you that I despise people who complain? (sigh)
This weekend, I went to an anti-trafficking seminar with my colleague, Fatme. Fatme, the office manager, is the baby of the office. She’s the newest employee, and she’s the youngest. My other colleagues practically made her go on this workshop with me. She’s really not comfortable in situations where she has to travel and interact with strangers. At first, I was a little unsure of having her come along with me for these reasons. Would I have to hold her hand the whole time? There was certainly a little hand-holding going on, especially at the beginning, but she soon made a lot of contacts at the seminar, and she actually had a good time. Well, as good a time as one can have while talking about what equates to human slavery. It was great to see her open up like that. Yanko noted that she almost seemed like a new person when she returned, and he said it was time to “throw her into the fire” a little more often. Of course, she won’t like it at first, but hopefully she’ll react and adjust as quickly as she did this last weekend.
The trafficking seminar took place in Borovets, and it was interesting to be back there. It was where I spent my first week in Bulgaria – along with the other trainees in my group – and I’d been through there again, but I haven’t stayed. It was interesting walking around the center again. It felt as though I had just been there, although I obviously understood a lot more this time in comparison to last time. The weekend was a nice one. It didn’t end so well, but that’s an event that will stay filed away in my head for the time being.
There were two interesting moments (above all others) during the seminars. First, I suggested that those who solicit sex have a part in the blame. If prostitutes weren't in demand, there wouldn't be a sex trade. This suggestion was promptly laughed at. One man there said that sex would never be taken off the market as a commodity, and another woman said she didn't think you could forbid someone for buying something that was being sold on the market. I told her I disagreed. I made the mistake of using cigarettes as an example: Everyone knows cigarettes are bad for you. In fact, cigarettes have a sticker on their carton that actually tries to dissuade the customer from buying them. But at least the consumer is informed of the dangers. I think men should be made aware that the "prostitute" might not be with him because she's actually chosen that profession, and he could be victimizing her. The seminar director came by, and she asked what kind of ideas we had to stop trafficking. The man said, tongue-in-cheek, "We have an idea here to work with the customers." I was livid. I felt as though I was being mocked. Later, I felt vindicated when another group, actually, it was Thomas who said the same thing. And then a judge who works on this very issue at the U.S. Embassy said the very same thing. Victory for Apryl! Later, while we were working on project ideas, the man came up again with a sly smile on his face. "What ideas did you come up with? I know you're full of ideas." "No, I had one idea, and it was laughed at." He acted defensive, "No, actually! You can see that others mentioned your idea. It's even being tried in Sweden (prostitution is illegal there - and the crime is on the one who buys sex - not the solicitor), but you can see that it doesn't have any effect." (Really? Of course, I stopped at the first article that supported my view. You can see what a wonderful, objective scientist I am.) When he said that, I decided to get up and walk away muttering, "Right, so there's no effect. Let's just not even try." He was still smiling in that knowing way later. I couldn't figure out if he was intrigued by me or if he thought me completely silly.
The second interesting incident, according to the world of Apryl, took place when a very nice, elderly man started complaining about the all the institutions that should be doing something (but obviously weren’t) to combat the problem. Yes, yes, of course. That’s true that they should be doing something. But what are we doing? This is the opportunity to take matters into our own hands and do something to change the situation. It’s much easier for people here to point out who isn’t doing their job than it is for them to take responsibility and do something. The mentality is, “It’s not my job. Why should I do it?” And I could take some of my own advice. I do a lot of complaining on my blog. But this is my OUTLET! This is how I stay sane. I write it down, and I see if it gets read by stalkers who can actually identify. And then this person wonders why I’m staying for another year. It’s a wonderful relationship that comes back full circle with more complaining in my next post. Think! You'll be able to read this nonsense for another year! You know, if you want....
I think the hardest thing about staying for another year is missing the “American” connection with my group. The majority of them are going home, and I’m not going to have that support like I had before. In the beginning of my service, I didn’t much care to be in the presence of other Americans. I couldn’t wait to get back to Rakitovo. Now, other Americans are my sanity! It’s such a relief to be around other people who understand you. And I’m not going to have that next year. (sniffle) I remember my friend Michelle, a volunteer in Bolivia, telling me that she spent a lot of time her first year out in her community socializing. Her second year, she kept more to herself. She didn’t have the desire to go out as often and do the social thing. I’ve found that to be true for me as well. After a long day of teaching classes or what have you, I just want to go back to my apartment and be by myself. There’s only so much “Bulgaria” one can take. I wish I could spur myself more to drop in on people and interact, but it sounds like even more work.
After all this drivel, reader, I know I still have more to tell you. I’ve just forgotten it all. Ha! I’ll write again tomorrow if I think of something. It is late, however, and I think I’m going to go to bed. Ah, guess what! We’re getting a new Peace Corps Country Director. That should be interesting. It will be a bunch of figuring out how this person operates and what a volunteer can/can’t get away with – as sad as that sounds.

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