Monday, May 28, 2007

Invented Scenarios

God takes excellent care of me. I’m so incredibly blessed.
So, I came back yesterday from a week-long hiatus from my life here in Rakitovo. I was at Slunchev Briag (Sunny Beach) from Monday to Thursday. I probably shouldn’t have gone. I’m not exactly sorry I went, but my being there was incredibly pointless. I felt like I was crashing a party, and, in a way, I was. On Monday, after a long delay due to lack of adequate transport, we took a crowded minibus to Pazardjik to switch to a more appropriate vehicle. The ride was long, and we stopped often for smoke (yes, most of the 12th graders smoke), snack, and potty breaks. They drank and played chalga pretty much the whole way. It was a long trip.
Finally, we checked into our hotel (it was nice!) and Brandy and I got our own room. We didn’t spend a lot of time with the other teachers or the students. We mostly hung out together. We were all given the freedom to do pretty much whatever we wanted. The teachers didn’t many obligations to the students, and no one was really liable to anyone. It was very different from any school-organized trip I had ever taken.
I had been to Sunny Beach once before. I wasn’t all that impressed because it’s a coastal area with hotel after hotel. It’s okay, but it doesn’t resemble any of the rest of the Bulgaria that I know. It was incredibly expensive as well – maybe not for tourists, but for volunteers on a PC budget… yeah. But I still had a good time exploring the areas along the coast – even if the beach in that part of the country is ugly and spoiled. The interesting thing was that you heard English spoken everywhere. I had a good time trying to convince people that they should speak Bulgarian with me. “What? Why in the world do you speak Bulgarian?”
The first night, Brandy and I went and got some dinner, then we went for drinks at a restaurant that played great cover songs from artists like The Cranberries, U2, Brian Adams, Coldplay, Oasis, etc. The second night, we had a formal dinner with the teachers and students at the hotel. Our girls took an extra hour to get ready. They spent a long time getting primped and pretty in their formal, ball gowns only to discover that the girls from other schools had decided wear dresses that were a little more casual. They sat at their table for ten minutes, only to look around at the other girls and feel out of place. Then, three at a time, they went upstairs to change. Half an hour later, pretty much all of them were in smart, casual wear. Oh, to be a teenage girl again. Wait, nevermind. I don’t miss the insecure neurosis of that age. I’m neurotic enough as it is. I don’t need peer pressure to push me over the edge.
Earlier that day, I had taken a walk alone down the beach. I set down a towel and began to read a book, but light raindrops soon started to mess with my vibe. I thought about getting up and going back, but I was really just enjoying sitting on the beach. Pretty soon, a man stopped and struck up a conversation with me. It turned out that he was an Egyptian living in D.C. Small world. We went and got a drink, and then he invited me out that evening. I told him that I had plans, and he said that I could come find him after the ball – even if it was at 3 a.m.
So, after the ball, at about 3 a.m., I went to find him at his hotel. Brandy was a good sport and came with me. First, we went to a club that seemed to be hopping. The guy said they would be open until 6 a.m. We paid the four leva to get in – only to find that it had been deserted. The Egyptian was frustrated. “Why did they let us in if no one was here?” Brandy and I shrugged. “This is Bulgaria.” He tried to take it up with the guy who let us in, but the man only shrugged and told me to tell him that everyone had gone to have sex.
Afterwards, we went to a club that was actually hopping. Some of the students were there, and there was techno on one floor and chalga on another. Brandy soon left, but the Egyptian and I hung out a little bit. Finally, we couldn’t take the techno anymore, and we didn’t want to hang around for chalga. He suggested we go back to the previous club. Yeah, no one was there, but they had decent music. The two of us could just dance. Um… okay.
So we went back. We were the only ones there, and we danced for about three songs before they turned on the house lights and turned off the music. The Egyptian was frustrated and tried to talk to the D.J. “There’s no one here. We’re not going to play music for two people. We’re going home.” The Egyptian tried to argue, but the D.J. just shrugged. We went downstairs, and the Egyptian tried to talk again to the guy who had originally let us in. He didn’t speak much English, and he resorted to trying to talk to me in Bulgarian. He said something in Bulgarian that basically means, “So, four leva is a big deal to you?” but it comes across much ruder in the native tongue – like, you’re cheap. A security guard followed us down, and he tried to get us to leave. Finally, he turned to me and asked if I was Bulgarian. “No, but I speak some Bulgarian.” He told me to explain to the Egyptian what was going on. “Okay, but first let me explain why he’s upset.” I shouldn’t have gotten into it. That whole time, I was keeping my mouth shut and just thinking, “This is Bulgaria. This is Bulgaria.” But I went off.
I explained the guy at the front and the security guard that it wasn’t exactly appropriate, and the conversation went something like this:
Apryl: “You said one thing and are now doing another. You said that this club would be open until six, but you’re closing early.”
Guy: “But no one is here. You want us keep the club open for two people? Normally, we’re open until six, but no one is here. What do you suggest we do?”
Apryl: “I suggest you give him his money back.”
…and it just went around and around like that. Mostly, it was me trying to get them to be aware of their discrepancy. “The Egyptian agreed to pay you money based on what you told him. We went upstairs, and no one was there. You decided not to fulfill your part of the agreement. You should give him his money back.” I don’t know why I got into it. I’m not an argumentative person, but, sometimes, I like to argue in foreign languages. I get even more passionate about it, and it’s more fun!
Afterward, I wished another Peace Corps volunteer had been around. We could have gotten into a conversation about Bulgaria and the woes of things here – just how different it was from the states. At the same time, I was glad that it had happened. There is still that part of me that feels like she gets taken advantage of in these situations, and it was glad to be reminded that this was “normal.” In the part of the world where I come from, these practices would be seen as shady. It was nice to see things from the point of view of someone who had been living in the states recently. “Oh, so that’s why I think the way I do. I’m not so crazy.”
I had wanted to make it to Sozopol while I was there, but that just didn’t happen. We got up late for the most part, and the days pretty much escaped me without a whole lot of production. I guess that’s what vacation is for.
On the final day, I packed up and went to Bourgas to catch a bus to Razgrad and visit a friend of mine there. Greg and I were busy with baseball pretty much the whole time I was there. It was fun, but it was exhausting. On Friday, I went with him and a couple other volunteers to back-to-back practices. It was hot, and I almost didn’t make it for the second practice. I helped out where I could, but I didn’t do a whole lot. It was nice to be a part of it though. That night, we saw a crazy, electrical storm. It was like the clouds were “speaking” to each other with lightning. We couldn’t hear any thunder, but the gray sky was perpetually lit up with streaks of yellow. It was beautiful, and I felt like God was talking to me.
On Saturday, Greg and I got up early to catch a train and meet his team and two other volunteers in Samuil. We then went to a town called Golyamo Gradishte to play against another volunteer’s team of kids. I spent the day calling out batting order and taking stats for the two games – one between younger kids and the other between older players. I had a really great time. The kids were fairly well-behaved, and they seemed to have a blast. Some of them were really adorable and had amazing personalities. Samuil won both games, but the last one was especially close.
The whole affair made me wish I lived in the northeastern region of the country. Many of the volunteers there practice baseball with kids, and they coordinate games between their teams. They arrange travel, and they have a crazy amount of equipment: bases, catchers’ gear, helmets, balls and bats galore, uniforms, etc. They have all done a lot and worked together to get something really amazing going. Of course, they have had the support of family and friends back home (you can’t get this stuff in Bulgaria), and the municipalities have helped them out with arranging transport and a place to play.
I looked at those kids – how they met and interacted with one another, how they bonded over a new game and took pride in their accomplishments, and how they were able to get out of their towns for truly memorable moments. I looked at it, and I was honestly jealous. I thought, “This is making an impact. Even if it doesn’t last after the volunteers leave, these kids will always remember this summer. They will talk about how they once played baseball. They will see it on T.V. and be reminded of a whole slew of good memories. I really wish I could be a part of this.” I really credit those volunteers for finding something that seems to be having such an impact, and I’m a little envious.
I had a long and lame bus ride back to Rakitovo on Sunday. It’s weird. I used to really miss Rakitovo, but now I have a hard time coming back – even after an extended vacation. Once I’m here, I’m okay and happy. For some reason the thought of coming back really stresses me and makes me nervous. That was probably for a couple, silly reasons that I’ll get to in a moment. The weather was crazy. On the six-hour bus ride from Razgrad to Plovdiv, I was melting. The ride from Plovdiv to Pazardjik was met with raindrops. While I was waiting for a bus from Rakitovo to the Kostandovo stop, I was greeted with a heavy downpour. I kept switching my sunglasses for an umbrella and back again. I love summer storms.
I met my colleagues this morning just as they were walking out for coffee. They soon delegated tasks and Yanko and I went to Velingrad. He and I both had errands that we needed to run, and we kept each other company the whole morning. I was glad he was there. Like I said, I had been nervous about a couple things that I will tell you about now, but Bulgaria and God impressed me today. I don’t know. I’m a silly girl, but…. I had been worried about a couple things. The first was that, while at Greg’s, I couldn’t find my house keys. I knew it wasn’t really a big deal. So, I lost them. I’d get new ones made, but I just didn’t want to deal with it. I prayed about it. Upon unpacking my bags at home, I still couldn’t find them. I was sure I had put them in a pocket of my purse, but they weren’t in there. I felt all around, but I just couldn’t find them. Later that evening, a thought suddenly came to me: “What if there’s a whole in that pocket and they fell into the lining of the purse?” I couldn’t feel a hole, but I shook my purse and heard something that sounded like keys rattling. I dumped out all the contents of the purse, and the rattling was still there. I finally found a small hole in the pocket. It was so small; I don’t even know how the keys got down there. I had to rip it a little to get them back out, but I had my keys!
I was pleasantly surprised by something else that happened to me in Velingrad today. I’d been dragging Yanko around to try and find lithium batteries for my alarm clock. It’d been working for the past two and a half years, but the numbers have finally faded into oblivion. I figured the problem was with the battery. A guy at an electronics store opened it up for me so that I could see what kind of batteries were inside, but he didn’t have any to switch it out. I went to a few other stores, but they either didn’t have the batteries I wanted, or they tried to sell me a cheap version of them. I finally found a Kodak store with the batteries I wanted, and I decided to get them even though they were over four times as expensive. I asked the guy to open my clock and switch them out, which he did. After that, we discovered that the clock still wasn’t working. He checked the power of the batteries, and we found that they weren’t the problem. Thinking I already knew the answer, I asked if he would consider taking back the batteries he had sold me and giving me back my money. He started to tell me how this was Bulgaria and he couldn’t resell the batteries because he didn’t have them in packaging now. Reluctantly, however, even as he was saying how Bulgarians would think he was cheating them if he sold them individual batteries from a box, he pulled out my money from the till and handed it to me. I was pleasantly surprised. Thumbs up for customer service in Bulgaria!
The other thing I was really worried about was my laptop. I had left it in Velingrad for repair, and I hadn’t heard from the shop. They said they would call me when it was ready, but I never heard from them. I started imagining all sorts of crazy scenarios: They had broken my laptop and didn’t want to tell me. They had stolen my laptop and sold it for spare parts. It’s absolutely nuts, I know, but I had no proof they had my laptop. I started to think they had done whatever they wanted with it and would say, “What laptop? It’s your word against ours.” An unknown number had called me earlier in the week, but I didn’t have a record of it anymore. Was it them? Were they trying to reach me so quickly? And I revert to the little girl who used to think her dad had died in a horrible car accident if he was two minutes late in picking her up. I’m nuts. I know. So I was beginning to think of what I would do if they had stolen my laptop, and I was trying to contemplate my life without my laptop. Man, would that suck.
So, of course it was there when I went to the shop. Only the girl was there again, and she smiled when I walked through the door. She said she had tried to call me earlier in the week, but there hadn’t been an answer. She even tried calling me today, but it wasn’t around. The good news is that I got my laptop back. The bad news is that they weren’t able to repair it ‘cause there’s no such part in Bulgaria, apparently. The good news is that she sold me a USB LAN that I can use instead of the broken piece. The bad news is that I can’t figure out how to install it. The CD seems to be a pirated version, and it doesn’t have any setup files. I’m so confused. The apparatus was lighting up earlier, but I couldn’t get a connection. Now, it’s not lighting up. I don’t get it. I’ll have to get someone here to look at it or take it back to Velingrad. Meh.
Ani told me that the kids have been asking when I get back so we can play baseball again. I hope there will be a good-sized group for tomorrow. I got a package from my mom with a couple kid gloves in them. (She also packed a new, nifty alarm clock in the box! How did she know? She’s Mom, that’s why.) My colleagues were utterly confused and fascinated by them. We tried to put our hands inside, but they were too small for even the smallest of our hands. They started asking questions like, “Now, only the goal-keeper wears a glove, right?” and “Do you wear gloves on both hands?” I had a couple classes today, and those went fairly well. Today was a good day. Just getting back into a routine, right? And hopefully not letting my imagination run away with me.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Protocols and Oranges... and Raindrops

I'm here at the internet cafe for a quick update. My computer is in Velingrad for repair. Man, was that hard turning it over to the lady in the shop. I tried, in my "razvalen" Bulgarian to explain to her what the problem is (the part where the internet cable plugs in is messed up), and then she said it would probably take a couple days for the guys in the shop to take it out and get it fixed. After all the arrangements were made, I held onto my laptop case and just blinked at her. "This laptop is my entire life. I'm kind of scared to leave it here." She just smiled at me and took it in the back.
The crazy weather started this last Friday. I was on my way to Velingrad with my computer when sudden, giant drops of rain came falling from the sky. I got caught in it along with my laptop. I ran all the way to the computer store, but I was still soaking by the time I got there. I then headed out to a nearby store and pretended to be interested in phones while I escaped the rain. Afterwards, I headed to an M-Tel store and signed up for a year of phone service. I've been on vouchers all this time, and it has been costing me a ridiculous amount. I figured, since I'd be here for another whole year, I'd actually get a plan with a year contract and everything. The guy at the store (I've seen him a few times before and he pegged me for a Peace Corps volunteer) recognized me and made sure I knew that I would have to be here another year. Yeah, I know. And then he started asking me what I do here. When I explained to him, he said, "Would you ever think of starting Spanish classes here in Velingrad?" I guess he already speaks some English, and his cousin married a PCV who served three years in Velingrad. I thought, "Yeah, I'd come to Velingrad to teach you Spanish. You're cute!" But, of course, I didn't say that.
The rain finally let up, and I returned to Rakitovo. I went and exchanged this shirt I got as a present for a guy I translated for. Now, I have a shirt that says "University of California" on it that I got here in Rakitovo. It's cool. Afterward, I went to a ball to celebrate my friend, Fanka's graduation from high school. It was a lot of fun, even though the weather was pretty bad. We went to a restaurant and we ate and danced into the evening. Fanka was wearing a glittery, purple number that I hadn't been super-impressed with on the hanger, but it looked absolutely lovely on her. Whenever I go to a celebration like that, or I attend some extravagant event due merely to connections or the kindness of people here, I really count my blessings and think how fortunate I am to have "fallen" into Bulgaria. At events like these, people talk to me more. I turn into the novel American again. People who ignore me otherwise start talking about how they want me to take pictures of them. They then talk about how they want to send their kids to study with me. One guy I knew by face only, started saying he wanted to send his young son to me "in a year" to study English. "I won't be here after a year," I told him. "What about our children?" Comments like that are flattering and frustrating at the same time. If I'm so "important," take advantage of me now. Otherwise, realize the truth that these things are, in the end, up to you, and my being here doesn't really hold much importance in the way of things. If you want something, go out and get it. Don't rely on me.
I excused myself from the party early and went over to "Kliment Ohridski" - the school where Brandy works. They were having their ball ceremony that evening, and all the girls were dressed to the nines. I was invited to go along, but I declined this year. I just didn't want to be a part of it this time around. I wanted to be a spectator. Plus, I had to get up early the next morning and go to Plovdiv. I relaxed that evening. It's interesting how my evenings change when I can't use my computer. It makes me wonder what I did before I got the internet. I lived here a whole year before I got the internet. What did I do in the evenings? It makes me debate whether or not I really should bother having internet in my place, but it's very nice. I just have to be more pro-active about my time on it. Anyway, I did some "Sudoku," read, and fell alseep on the couch a few times. It was nice.
This weekend, I went to Plovdiv for a Minority Committee Meeting. I got there early and wandered around. I love Plovdiv. I don't think I could ever get tired of going to that city. Part of me wishes that I'd had my site placement there. Anyway, we had a good meeting full of productivity. We're working on an informative toolkit with sources new volunteers can use in our sites. Another girl and I had finished our portion of the kit, so we reshuffled some things. Plus, leadership was refocused as the founders will be moving on here soon. I'm glad to still be able to be a part of it, but I was happy to see it passed to others hands without a "Well, Apryl, you're staying another year. Is this something you want to take on?" I digress.
I had a good weekend with my "family" in Trud. I hadn't seen them since my mom and I visited last October. It had honestly been too long. Vili and I went out with a couple of her girlfriends. I had a good time with them. Now that my Bulgarian is better and I'm not too wrapped up in my shell, I'm a little better about including myself in the conversation when appropriate. As long as I can keep them from gossiping about their friends, I'm safe 'cause I can relate.
One of the girls, Irina, wanted to go to a piano bar. Another girl, Sylvia, was definitely against the idea. Irina won out because we argued that every other place would be full. So, we went to this piano bar. It was obviously for the "older crowd," but they played a lot of songs I knew. Songs by Clapton, Sting, Dire Straits, etc. I enjoyed myself, but Vili and Sylvia sat in the corner while the Irina and I danced and sang along. Finally, we left Irina there with some people she knew and went on our way. Sylvia started saying she'd never again go to such a place - only for "babas and dyados" (grandmas and grandpas).
We met up with another friend of Vili's, someone I'd met during training, and we went out for drinks. He started talking to me about life in America, and I was tired and wasn't up for the conversation. I'm tired of trying to convince people that life in America isn't all that great. I don't know how to explain it. There's a fine line I like to walk. People here think Americans make a bunch of money and pay little for their goods. If they thought about it, they'd realize that an economy can't exactly work that way. Income has to match, more or less, the needs of the society. Of course, Bulgaria has a long way to go towards this equilibrium, but that's the way it is for the mostpart. I just try to remind people that we certainly have those who are poor. Usually, if they think the U.S. is a land of incredible wonderment and perfection, they'll say, "Well, that's just if they're lazy." I'll try and explain that there are some who work two jobs and still can't make ends meet. Problem is, they've only heard about someone's friend who went to the states and got rich doing some mundane job. I try and argue that they may have had incredible help from those around them (an established community of people like them who are already there), and they probably do a great job of saving their money. But, yeah. It depends on if the person wants to listen to me or not. Last night, I didn't feel like explaining, and I got to the "Yes, I agree that there are more opportunities in America. Society is structured there to help a large number of people be 'successful'" part of my argument a lot sooner than I usually do.
After sleeping a few hours, the family went to Shishmantse to see the extended family. My "cousin," Nelly, was supposed to be there. I hadn't been to Shishmantse since training, and Nelly hadn't been able to come out with us the night before. It turns out that Nelly had to work, and she wasn't there when we showed up. Vili and I looked at each other. Nelly was the only reason we had come. Our "mother" soon sent us into the other room while she did some chores. We watched TV and soon fell asleep for a few hours. We're spoiled "daughters." We got up to have some lunch, and then Vili cut her grandmother's, uncle's, and mother's hair. She also cut her "sister's" hair. I have a new style. It's pretty short, and I like it. I didn't think she would go that short on me. She keeps trying to get me to grow my hair out.
We then returned to Trud, and we were there for an hour or so with the whole family: Vili's brother, Kiro, was there with his wife and daughter. I hadn't seen the daughter, Kristina, for a long time, and it was amazing to see how much she had grown. Unfortunately, she had a fever, but she was still smily and spunky. She would wave by clenching and unclenching her fists, and her mouth would open into a wide grin. She seems a happy child. I'm sure she's spoiled. Everyone was doting over her the entire time we were there. She was always the center of attention.
Vili drove me to the bus station, and we agreed that I need to stop by more often. I have to take the time to make it to Trud. Those people are just too important to me, and they spoil me. I need some spoiling in Bulgaria once in a while - especially with people I can just relax around. They're excited that I'm staying a third year.
I almost missed my bus to Velingrad. It was hilarious. I was standing out in front of the bus, and I didn't see many people inside. The driver was sitting there, but the door was closed, and there were other people sitting out on the bench in front of the bus. I was waiting for him to open the door so I could get on, but I was standing a distance away to be out of the rain. All of the sudden, he started the bus up and started leaving. I turned to the people on the bench and asked, "Where is that guy going? That's the bus for Velingrad, right?" They affirmed it was, but they didn't seem worried about it. I ran out, and the driver stopped the bus. I apologized and said, "I didn't realize you were letting passengers on 'cause the door was still closed." That was funny.
So, after a ride with a speedster in the driving rain, I made it in one piece back to Rakitovo. It's good to be back for an evening. I'm leaving tomorrow to go to Sunny Beach with the recently-graduated 12th graders. One of my English students is their homeroom teacher, and she invited me to go with them. I think I already mentioned this. My bank account is hurting, but I'll be in a four-star hotel this whole week. I'm excited. We leave bright and early tomorrow, so I'd better get home and get packed! I just hope it doesn't rain!
*Side note: If you knew Bulgarian, you would laugh at this... maybe. So, this is for my readers who speak Bulgarian. I forgot to mention in my last post that, during the proejct writing, we were having a discussion about "sustainability" and "measured outcomes" and all those great "project terms." I was asking Yanko how we'd show our project had been a success, and he said we'd sent protocols to our donors. Bulgarian-speakers, do you know where this is going? So, I repeated back to him, "Okay, we'll send protocols to the donors." But instead of saying "protokoli," I started to say, "portokali" (which is oranges) and my colleagues were reduced to laughter. Tsetska was almost rolling on the floor. Hey, if we can convince donors they should sponsor us with some oranges as bribes, I'm all for it. Plus, it's always great to have a good laugh at my Bulgarian. These are the moments I hope my colleagues remember long after I'm gone.
** Post side note: A friend passed this along. It's a quote taken from a musician by the name of Chris Smither, and it fits well with how I feel about languages:

My father is a language professor – Romance languages – and he saw to it that my sister and I were exposed to other languages and learned them at a very young age. And there was never any question about whether it was valuable or not. It was just one of those things — if you can speak more than one language, you’re a better person. You will think better. You will do better. It has served me well! It instilled a love of language in me. Language is not something that I take for granted. Many, many people do. They don’t think. It’s not a conscious thing to them any more than breathing is, and they don’t really have any formulated ideas about what it actually does and the importance of knowing how to express yourself. Learning four languages does that because it automatically shows that there are things you can do in one language that you can’t do another. And all of a sudden you realize, ‘Oh! It’s not the same. It’s not the same as breathing,’ you know? So that’s subtle but, to me, it’s very near the center. It’s very near the center.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Bright and Happy

I wrote recently, but I’m writing again ‘cause I love to write. You know this about me. You don’t have to read this if you don’t want. All the other entries you were required to read. Didn’t you know? But this one, you don’t even have to bother. Go ahead. Take a break. Drink some iced tea and lie in your hammock in the shade. Take a little, spray bottle and squirt yourself in the face. I give you full permission.
Strawberries are in season. Have some strawberries. Sprinkle some sugar on them. Dip them in whipped cream. Slather them with chocolate. Eat them without confections. They’re delicious on their own. Now that you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for them, I think you should indulge yourself. Is your mouth watering?
I’ve been locked in the office the past couple of days – project writing. Like I said, I really like project writing. My head has been hurting, but it’s been like a good hurt (if that’s possible). I’ve been hashing and slashing with my colleagues. The conversation sometimes gets a little heated when we don’t see things the same way, but it all works out in the end.
Mostly, it’s that Yanko likes to make posters and have everyone see the project. There’s definitely something to be said for this. Everyone needs to be on the same page. He’s a very visual person. Almost anytime he’s explaining something, he has a sheet of paper on the wall and a marker in his hand. I’m more of a “Tell me what you want. I’ll plug it into my Excel spreadsheet here with some nifty formulas, and I’ll tell you what the outcome is,” kind of person. Yanko likes a pen, paper, and a calculator. I’m glued to my laptop, and I just smile. The women laugh at the dichotomy between Yanko and me. They know I’m doing it the budget automatically, and they just look over at the computer every once in a while to see what’s going on. I try to give and take a little when I can. Yanko has WAY more experience with project writing than I do. I have to remember this. Sometimes I get so bogged down in how I want the layout to look, that I forget it’s not just me writing, and I forget that I really do have quite limited experience in this area. Yanko will say, “Apryl, explain the reasoning why we want this in the project: It will produce this outcome and lead to this and that.” And Valia, Ani, and Tsetska will have been watching me the whole time – writing in English – and they will say, “She already put that in, Yanko.”
Other times, he would jump from activity to activity in the budget, and they would say, “Wait, Yanko. She’s still putting in the cost for this, or the explanation for that, or she’s cutting this and pasting it elsewhere.” They would jump from one thing to the next, and I would have to say, “Wait. I’m still on the last thing we talked about. You have to let me formulate it. My fingers and laptop are not as fast as your thought process.” So there’s definitely something to say about the limitations of computers. Our brains are amazing!
At one point, Yanko and I were getting into a slightly heated discussion about salaries and administrative costs. Did this person’s salary count as project or administrative costs? I told him I wanted to call my program manager at Peace Corps and ask her opinion. He then said that he would call all his friends that he’s written a bunch of projects with and get their opinions.” It was funny. Yanko has a bit of a temper, but I fortunately get away with this stuff without him flying off the handle. I tried to diffuse the situation by making a bet with him. The women said they wanted to be on the winner’s side. We decided, at least for now, that we were both right. It just depends on how you word the justification. Anyway….
I sent the project off yesterday, after looking over it a few more times, doing some more translating, currency conversion, and the like. This is the work I enjoy doing. I want to translate quality projects. I want to live my life speaking another language on a daily basis. We’ll see if that’s what God wants me to do as well.
From my thought processes and the way I write in my blog, you probably think I suck at formulating my thoughts and putting them in a brief, coherent format for a project. Haha. Shows what you know, suckers! No, I don’t know what you think. I just know the way I write in my blog and I think, “this side of my personality does not write good projects.” No, she doesn’t. She has to learn to be concise and persuasive. Free-format is not my strong suit. I will explain all day long and say the same thing five times over in four different ways. But I like that. I like forcing myself to be a good writer. I like playing with words and editing thoughts, “Okay, so this would sound better if I put it this way, or this word carries a better nuance than that one.” I think that’s probably why I like writing and languages so much.
My colleagues, especially the women, have a lot of faith in me. They think I’m a pro. Haha. Silly girls. Ani said, “I was watching Apryl – how she did this, how she wrote that, how she put this here and that there.” We were talking about the differences between Yanko’s and my strategies. “She has a different view on things. She looks at things more from a donor’s perspective. The person who’s reading the project – how will they see it? See how she got Angel that opportunity to go to France?” I laughed. I’ve written two or three successful projects, hardly enough to say I know what I’m doing. Watch us not get this one. Then they’ll sing a different tune. Hahahaha. No, they’ll be fine with it. And I’ll still believe I’m a good project writer. It’s my favorite part of the project cycle: formulating ideas, dreaming big, writing and re-writing, fingers flying on the keyboard, hoping your convincing someone else that your ideas are fund-worthy. I’m a nerd. That’s enough of that.
My favorite things that my colleagues say to me: “Apryl, you’re so smart. Apryl, you write Bulgarian so well and so quickly. Apryl, you speak Bulgarian like a rockstar.” Hahaha. Valia told me that she would be moving to Velingrad. “Why did I stay a third year, then?” I asked her. She seemed to like that. She cracks me up. We’ve all gotten really attached to each other. Many times, the women talk about the possibility of working elsewhere, and then they say, “But I’m so used to working here! It doesn’t matter that I’m frustrated most of the time and I make so little money! I want to stay here and work with all of you!” We talk about the silliest things here, and we joke around so much. It’s hilarious.
I had to cancel another couple classes yesterday. Well, the second one I didn’t have to cancel. The second one I played hooky (bad Apryl!) and shot the breeze with my fellow female colleagues. I’m rarely in the office with them like that. I suspected that my student wouldn’t show up. I was wrong. She did show up, and she probably waited outside in the heat for her teacher. I’m lame. It’s times like that when I say to myself, “Self, what right do you have to complain when your students decide not to show up?” Yeah. I’m hanging my head in shame right now. I hope you’re satisfied…. Hehe.
I’ve also been working with another volunteer on an “FAQ Section” for a minority kit a bunch of us volunteers are putting together. We took volunteer’s questions on how to deal with discriminatory comments and paired them with their own answers. I think it’s turned out rather nicely. Peace Corps volunteers are taking the initiative to stand up to prejudiced language and attitudes. They also do it fairly boldly and tactfully. Their suggestions on how to deal with discrimination are pretty awesome. I hope it’s making a real impact in their towns.
Playing baseball yesterday was so awesome. My kids and I took a long walk to the stadium, but it was worth it. The vice mayor was there waiting for us. He had arranged with the groundskeeper for us to use the field. Yanko had talked to him, and they made sure that everything was ready for us. It was so cool! The grass is cut nicely, and everything looks beautiful. Unfortunately, there was some trash lying around in the stands, but I just used some of it for bases. Some lines were already sprayed on the ground, and they were at good angles for a small, baseball field. My kids and I had a lot of fun playing. We were there for about an hour and a half.
Afterward, I came to an understanding with the groundskeeper. At first, he started saying how they didn’t pay him after five, and I thought he’d put up an argument about us having to use the field later than that. He didn’t protest, however, and he said we could come in Tuesday and Thursday evenings. He also said, “Did you leave that trash out there?” and I was so embarrassed that I’d left my “bases” on the field. I took my kids back out, and I told them never to let me do that again. Hehe. I picked up all the trash and threw it away. Next time, I think it would be a good idea to have each of my kids pick up one piece of trash before they leave and throw it away in a nearby bin.
Walking back to the mahala was fun. My kids were in a good mood, and I scolded them for stealing unripe plums from people’s trees. Some of them took me by the hands and started speaking to me in Roma. “Apryl, say this: 'Kamaraf tu!' (I’ll beat you!) 'Tu havas li chi dukaf tuka?' (Do you know I love you?)" They were so silly.
Once we got back to the Roma neighborhood, Ani and Yanko were out on a bench waiting for us. “Was the vice mayor there? He called and said that he was waiting for you. Then he called me again when you were there and said he was watching you play.” My kids were beaming, and Ani and Yanko beam when they see happy kids – tired from play. (And then unicorns hopped out from behind the trees, everyone held hands and walked a rainbow path to Utopia… am I making you sick with my positivity?) Ani asked, “What’s the name of this team?” Reneta said, “How about the ‘California Peaches?’” Everyone seemed to like that, for now…. We’ll have to get uniforms with peaches on them. Hahaha. And an outline of the state of California will be in the background. Awesome. Afterwards, we played a few more games, and then I went home.
My boiler has been broken. The light comes on, and it stays on, but the water doesn’t get hot. I told Enyo on Saturday, but he has yet to fix it. So, on Sunday, I went over to Brandy’s and took a shower. The awesome thing about showers in Bulgaria is that each one has a personality. Usually, if you’re staying with a PCV, and you use their shower, they have a list of rules for you to follow. Here are some examples:
“Don’t touch the shower head. It’ll fall down.”
“My boiler is small, and hot water lasts about five minutes. Get in there. Do your thing. Get out.”
“If the fuse on the boiler pops out, just pop it back in.”
“Don’t change to the handheld. It won’t work.”
“When you turn the cold handle, only do so a little bit. A little goes a long way. Sometimes it will get too cold, and then you have to turn it a bunch to get it back to the temperature you want.”
“There’s an exposed wire in my bathroom, and sometimes water hits it, hits you, and gives you a shock.”
Okay, so the last one is slightly made up and Peace Corps would have a fit. But we all have our shower issues. I then took a shower in Enyo and Milka’s new bathroom (they just remodeled it) last night. There were no shower stories. No fun! But it was so wonderful in there. Everything was new, clean, and water stayed where it was supposed to. They have a shower curtain up and a separate shower area from the toilet and sink. You don’t know how novel that is. It was awesome. I wish they would remodel my bathroom in that way, but I wouldn’t want to go through the hassle. If they could just fix my boiler, that would be great.
I finally had an English class today. We studied the alphabet – finally. They soon came to realize that the alphabet didn’t help them so much because words are spelled without much thought to rules or format in English. We had a good time spelling a bunch of random names and words. I started giving them high-fives ‘cause they were doing such a good job, and they were smiling wide. “When you’re smiling, the world smiles with you.” It’s so true. Attitude counts for a lot. I tend to forget that. I need God to remind me. Plus, one of the teachers brought in a bag of ripe strawberries. That probably has something to do with why I’m in such a good mood.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What the Future Holds

Have you ever agonized over a decision? You waited until the very last minute to make it. Then, once you went with what you thought was the best option, you began to feel as though you made a horrible mistake? Let’s be honest. That’s how I currently feel about my decision to stay a third year. Meh.
Angel told me, if I did stay, to make this year my year. I agree, but is that really why I’m here? If it were really my year, I’d get out and see Bulgaria more. I’d go out and see neighboring countries. Um… unfortunately the friends I would travel with are all getting ready to leave. Good one, Apryl. I’ve bailed on trips and opportunities to see new things because of my work here. While I believe I did the right thing in those instances, it didn’t make me happy. I don’t know.
My organization coordinated an educational session with a local doctor this past Thursday. The theme was “Preventing Unwanted Pregnancies,” and they posted fliers all over the mahala. The fliers generated some mild interest, but not one person came. I’ve come to the point where I don’t feel anything anymore when this happens. It takes too much energy to get frustrated. In the meantime, some of my AWOL students showed up again for computers. I excused myself from the doctor and my colleague to teach a class I wasn’t exactly ready for.
I’m still playing baseball with the kids. More have heard and are getting interested, but I can’t get ethnic Bulgarian kids to come up to the mahala. I need to pin down the stadium and get a schedule, but I’m having a hard time getting an opportunity to sit down with Yanko and the vice mayor. It will all work out in the end. In the meantime, my kids are getting better and better. Reneta is scary powerful. I told her that if she wanted to hit like that, she’d have to hit higher. While some kids have gotten dinged pretty hard by the ball, I’ve been lucky that no one’s been seriously injured. Good luck can only hold out so long. Angel showed up, and after nearly striking out, he hit his first ball over the school. He said he felt like he’d returned to his youth in that moment.
I’ve been getting up and going running again recently. I really enjoy it. The mornings and the mountains are beautiful here. Last weekend, I decided it was time to visit the graveyard. Weird, I know, but it’s a part of the town, and I had never been there. What struck me was the elaborate design of some of the headstones. That and the fact that a lot of the people buried under them had died incredibly young. I wandered around and finally made my way to the fresh piles. It’s so sad. Nearly every day, the church bell solemnly laments the death of someone through a plaintive toll. I don’t know why people die here so young, but it seems to be common. I found tombstones of many who were about my age.
I forgot to mention this in my last post, but Brandy and I went to Yanko’s that Sunday for “Georgiev Den.” People here usually get together and eat lamb. It’s the Bulgarian Military holiday. It’s also something like New Year’s for the Roma. It signified the first day of the working year – when the Roma would pack their belongings and go into the forests for extended periods of time to work. Brandy cooked a delicious meal, and Yanko barbecued some pork chops. We drank entirely too much wine and had a bunch of fun laughing and talking to one another. Brandy and I came home later in the evening, and we pretty much passed out. The great thing was that Brandy and Yanko had a really good conversation. On the way home, she told me, “I should work for your organization, and you should have been placed at my school.” I don’t know about that, but it is a good reminder of how fortunate I am.
I have given up one of my classes. My little kids don’t come anymore, and while I love them, I’m glad to be free of them. They’re wonderful, little nuts who were my only reason for going up to the center on Fridays. Now that I have my Fridays free, I’ll have to get out more often.
I was invited to go to Sunny Beach on the Black Sea coast with the graduating class from Brandy’s school. The class teacher is one of my English students, and she invited me to come along. She said that I wouldn’t even have to chaperone or anything. I was invited as a guest, and I could do whatever I wanted. I talked to my organization, and they said I should go. So I’m going. Brandy is going, too. It should be fun. I can’t complain about four days in a four star hotel on the Black Sea.
This weekend, I’ve been doing a lot of project writing. I actually really enjoy project writing. I don’t know if I’m any good at it, but I enjoy formulating ideas and putting them down on paper. My colleagues and I have worked together to develop the project. Now it’s up to me to put it all together in English. I don’t know if we’ll get it, but the process itself is fun. I think I also like it because I very much like writing – as proved by the mere existence (and length!) of this blog.
On Saturday, Brandy and I went to Velingrad to look for an outfit to wear to the Senior Ball. It’s funny. I don’t go to Velingrad that often, and I feel like a lot has changed since the last time I was there. Either that, or I don’t pay attention. You would think I would go to Velingrad all the time, but I hardly get there anymore. It’s a shame.
Things are coming along slowly but surely for a volleyball camp this summer. That’s mostly my fault. I’m not exactly sure how I envision it or even how I’ll run it! I just know I’d like to hang out with some girls and play volleyball over the summer. Nineteen girls signed up. That’s too much for lil’ ole me. I have to find a way to cut back on their numbers. The teacher was signing fifth graders up after I explicitly said I wanted older girls. Oh well. Now I’ll just have to be the one to disappoint them when I say, “Sorry, older girls only.”
I had some interesting insight about God I wanted to share, but it has escaped me. It’s too bad. I guess I’ve just been bumping into Him a lot because I’m reading “The Purpose Driven Life” and I’ve read a few Newsweek articles pertaining to God recently. Plus, I went to the Evangelical church today. I like them ‘cause they’re all nice women who shake your hand and say “Slava na Boga” which basically means “Glory to God.” Plus, they sing lots there. Anyway, I’d really like to sit down with God and get several things straight.
Speaking of Newsweek, the magazine has had a couple things that really make me think about Bulgaria. One is an ad for Shell (who, by the way, funds our organization as it were). It goes like this:
Isn’t it high time someone got negative about negativity?
Yes it is.
Look around. The world is full of things that, according to nay-sayers, should never have happened.
And yet “yes.”
Yes, continents have been found.
Yes, men have played golf on the moon.
Yes, straw is being turned into biofuel to power cars.
Yes, yes, yes.
What does it take to turn a no into a yes?
Curiosity. An open mind. A willingness to take risks.
And, when the problem seems insoluble, when the challenge is the hardest, when everyone else is shaking their heads, to say: let’s go.
I think Bulgaria could use a healthy dose of some of that. There was also an article with the guy who won the Nobel Prize in Economics last year. He talked about how culture and attitudes can affect socio-economic status. I agree with that. It certainly seems to smack true here. Anyway, I’m sleepy. I’d better go.
Okay, so now it’s Monday, er Tuesday early morning. I spent all day hashing out the women’s project we’re working on with my colleagues. It was a long day for all of us. I came home with a monster headache and fell asleep for a few hours. Now I’m up again to get some things done before I give the project another go-around. It’s due tomorrow, er later today. I missed two classes today due to this behemoth, and I feel guilty. (sigh)
I just got word that someone I knew passed away. I had a complicated relationship with this person. He was my classmate, at times a friend, at times a bully, at times a horrible nuisance, at times a great source of entertainment, at times a lot of things at once. Most of all, he was young. I haven’t seen him in at least ten years now, probably more, and now he’s gone. The idea in itself is just sad, and I feel badly for his family and friends. Not only Bulgarians die young….

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

What’s Your Agenda?

I doubt many people here really know why I am in Bulgaria – if only because the truth is so hard is nearly impossible to believe. There’s not really a precedent for it as far as I can tell. Many people are trying to “escape” Bulgaria. Why would someone want to come here and live? She must be making an exorbitant amount of money. Why else would she be here? I don’t mind too much that they don’t understand. What frustrates me is that they don’t want to understand, and I get a lot of mistrustful looks here. It’s weird. I feel integrated and yet not. The people who have accepted my presence here (whether or not they really understand it) are sweet to me and interact with me. Mostly, it’s the looks I get here in the Mahala. Even after all this time, I still get peered at sideways and over people’s shoulders. It’s started bothering me more and more. I guess I’ve just started noticing it again recently. It seemed like it went away for a while, and now it’s back. No one likes getting looked up and down and evaluated by a person with a frown on their face, and I don’t like it any more than the next person. I would have thought people would be used to me now. I will always be a foreigner.
It got me thinking: If people in Rakitovo kept blogs, what would they say about me on them? I have no doubt that people talk and hypothesize about me. I doubt they keep journals on me though. I imagine they get together over coffee and discuss what on earth the American could be up to. I wonder what they would say if they could document their impressions of me. I’ve heard the rumors: I’m here to sponsor my foundation. I’ve been sent all the way here to work with Roma (what a waste!). I make money from the foundation, but I also find them lots of money. Since the United States sends me money, I must be raking in the dough. I’m a poor mite who lives on bread and water. I’m here on a program exchange to take a Bulgarian back with me. I study here and am getting high school credit. (Yay! They think I look young!) My only income is from the activities in the center, and if they can keep people from coming, I won’t get paid. The list goes on. It would be interesting to hear what else is said about me. It’d be cool if someone thought I were a political exile. Actually, you know what would be awesome? It’d be great if people understood what I was really here for and tried to imitate the ideal – not that I always live up to it.
Have I even explained why I’m here? I probably did once. Yes, I believe in service and its importance, but it’s not like I participated in a whole lot of volunteerism in the states. It’s something that has become more important to me since being here. I joined for the experience. Peace Corps is a brand name, and it’s something I can put on my resume. I’ve learned another language. I’ve lived in another country. I’ve interacted with another culture. I’ve become a more prismatic kind of person. There are more shades to my character now. Here a lot of you might have thought I was doing this to help people. Well, that’s a nice by-product. But would I be here if I weren’t getting something for myself as well? In the end, people are right: I am here for my own gain.
Maybe people have been looking at me differently the last couple days because I’ve been dressing more nicely. The weather is really warming up (with a few, scattered showers), and I’ve had the urge to wear skirts and sandals. I draw more attention to myself that way. Those who don’t even know me stop to comment, and those who know me don’t recognize me. Hiking up the hill to the mahala in these shoes is a killer.
So, there were my random thoughts. How about an update? I was wrong in my last post. We actually had last Monday and Tuesday off. I showed up at the office on Monday, and everything was locked. I called Yanko, and he said that we had the day off, but we would definitely work tomorrow. I showed up the next day, and it was locked again. I called Yanko, and he told me to meet him in a nearby coffee shop. “I’m sorry, Apryl. It’s the 1st of May. It’s a national holiday. Even I got up this morning and got ready for work, and Ani asked me where I was going.” I think the first of May is like Labor Day here in Bulgaria. So, what did I do those two days? Very little. On Wednesday, I called in ‘cause I needed another mental health day. There are days when I don’t feel like facing Bulgaria. It’s sad, but it’s very true. You probably wonder why I’m staying a third year. Well, sometimes even I don’t know. I just get the impression that I have more to learn. I couldn’t make up my mind, and the deadline was approaching. I’m trusting God to let me know.
On an aside, I have heard from some of you that it’s strange I’m staying ‘cause I’m so unhappy. Unhappy? What? Where would you get THAT impression? Is it because my blog is all doom and gloom and commiseration about how I feel I’m making such a little impact here? It’s difficult here for sure, and I have very trying moments. I wouldn’t say I’m unhappy, but maybe I have a different definition about what that means. I haven’t done many difficult things in my life. Sure, I’ve done challenging things. There’s a difference to me though. I’ve never been so tried and personally tested in my life. I usually run away from such situations – or I’m just lucky to have been able to avoid them. God has truly blessed me. Since when does difficult equal bad? It’s something I’m trying to teach myself and others here. Since when does difficult equal impossible? Might as well give up and not try. Well then, where would we be?
My classes are going all right, but I think I’m about to lose a couple more. People haven’t been showing up for a variety of reasons, but it’s not like anyone tells me before I hike all the way up here and plan. I’ve taken to not planning. I always bring something I can do in the center just in case. Now, for example, I’m writing you when I’m supposed to be having a computer class. They didn’t show, so I’m updating my blog instead. It all works out. Last week, I was pretty frustrated though. Wait, I take that back. I don’t get frustrated in Bulgaria anymore. It’s a waste of time, and it only affects me. So, my students didn’t show up for a computer class a couple weeks ago. Coincidentally, we were having a school board meeting here at the same time. I believe six schools said they would send representatives. Two came. Only one showed on time. It’s not just me. It’s a culture. Future Foundation has been trying to get an informal women’s group together. The women come one or two at a time. It’s infuriating. You start looking for somewhere to place the blame, and you start with yourself. You wonder what it is about you that you can’t get people to show? It goes back to my boss’ analogy of planting palm trees in Rakitovo. How can you make people care? When does it become “vogue” to give a crap? I’ve been thinking about this climate change issue. It’s suddenly “in” to think about conservation and efficiency. How did that happen? Well, I think everyone should have a cause they’re passionate about.
Anyway, I REALLY digress. I’m passionate about blog-posting. Stop reading now. So, my students didn’t show up for a computer class a couple Thursdays ago. I saw one of them the next Thursday at the bazaar. “No one showed up, did they?” she asked. “No, where were you?” “Well, I was at the dentist, and the other girl had to go to Varna (a city over on the coast).” “Wow. Well, are you coming today?” “Yes, we will be there.” Did they show up? Take a wild guess. Anyway, it just frees up my schedule a bit. I just remember my colleagues telling me that they would be more serious because they weren’t Roma. It makes me laugh. Everyone’s got an excuse. Sometimes mine is that I just don’t want to deal with Bulgaria.
Let’s talk about something more positive, shall we? My adult English classes are going well. I’ve lost a few students, but I’ve also gained a couple. They’re really catching on, and we have fun laughing and learning together. They’ve been asking me where I get my teaching methods, and I really don’t know what to say. Peace Corps, other volunteers, my own memories from school, what would be a definitive answer? Plus, I have an awesome English book that I got from an English teacher here. The people who put it together have done a fabulous job, and it is self-explanatory. It makes my job really easy. I can’t believe I haven’t been using it all along. I wish I’d discovered it earlier. I don’t know what I was thinking trying to teach all this time without a certified English book. I must have been off my rocker. Other people have done all the work for me. Why would I want to put effort into something I’m not even educated for? Anyway, it’s amazing. The adults tell me that I have a knack for teaching, and I’m great at explaining things. They’re happy with their learning experience and with how far they’ve come. Who knows? Maybe I could become a real educator one day. Whoa! No! If anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that I have profound respect for honestly capable teachers, and I don’t want to attempt to join their ranks.
I really respect one of the teachers in the group. She already speaks English so well! She still comes faithfully. Yesterday was a good example. She was telling me how her sister is on a macrobiotic diet, and she was explaining to me how she eats brown rice and seaweed. In fact, we were looking up “algae” in the dictionary before the other students showed up. And here she is, coming to class to learn “Anna’s brother’s name is….” If anyone has the right to say, “Screw this!” she does. I doubt I would go to a Bulgarian beginner’s class. I get a little testy when my tutor tries to teach me things I already think I know! She’s amazing.
I’ve been teaching Excel to my computer classes. They’ve all been pretending that they own stores, and I’ve been teaching them how to use formulas to figure out how many products they’ve sold and how much money they’re making. My kids are especially fascinated by this. “Whoa! Look how rich I am!” Yes, kids. Excel is fun! I’ve certainly gained a newfound respect for the program. There are hundreds of formulas in there, and I know about eight. I’ve learned most of them from the sheer fact that I had to look them up to teach the classes. I’ve been teaching Reneta PowerPoint. I think I shared this. She’s been making some really great presentations both here and in the office. She’s funny.
For my Spanish class, we’ve been reading famous fairytales. It worked like a dream last time, and I’m going to do it again today. Maria and Reneta are really smart girls who have minds like steel traps. Still, the fact that they already know these stories by heart really helps. They understand what’s going on without having to know the words. So, in the meantime, they learn the words.
Baseball has been going fairly well. I have a solid group of kids that show up consistently. And I’m trying to get the stadium scheduled so that we can play there on a regular basis. Last Friday, I invited some ethnic Bulgarian boys to play with us. Bulgarians and Roma rarely mix in my town unless they have to. My dream is to get a mixed team going. So anyway, they found a field we could play in down by their school. My kids were great. They followed me out of the mahala and all the way down to this field. It was a hike for them, and I joked that I was taking them to Kostandovo (the next town over) to have them play. Of course it was awkward at first. Anytime you throw Roma and Bulgarians together for the first time, there’s a bit of tension in the air. I tried to get things going as soon as I could so they would concentrate on playing instead of skin color. It seemed to be going all right for a while. Of course the teams were very segregated, and some of the Bulgarian boys tried to take control of the situation – much to the chagrin of the Roma kids who’ve been playing with me for a while and understand quite a bit of the game. The kids, however, were doing fabulously in the game. They were sliding into bases! I haven’t even taught them that yet! The ground was wet, so it made it easier for them. At one point, the Bulgarian boys were encouraging a Roma boy, and there weren’t any fights breaking out. I thought it was going all so well. In the end, however, the Roma kids started to refuse to bat. When we huddled up after the Bulgarian boys left, they told me they weren’t willing to play with them again. I begged tehm to give it one more chance. Besides, we would be playing in the mahala the next time. They’d have to come to our neighborhood. (The Bulgarian boys complained how far away it was – nevermind that my kids had come all that way to play with them.) After a lot of cajoling, I got them to agree to give it another chance. It shouldn’t have mattered. One Bulgarian boy showed up, and Reneta brought him. He wasn’t part of the group we saw on Friday. I was frustrated because I felt like it came down to a lack of respect. Getting a Bulgarian kid in the mahala, however, can be tantamount to walking on water.
I was walking out of my house and around the corner when one of the Bulgarian boys called me back.
Boy: “Apryl! When are we going to play baseball?”
Apryl: “I’m playing with the kids today.”
Boy: “Oh, where are you going to play?”
Apryl: “We’ll be up in the mahala.”
Boy: “Oh, when are we going to play in the stadium?”
Apryl: “I don’t know. We’ll have to see.”
Boy: “I didn’t come yesterday because I was in Velingrad.”
Apryl unconvinced: “Oh.”
Boy: “And I probably won’t come today – seeing as the ground is wet and all.”
- It had sprinkled an hour earlier or so. Not that it mattered. They played on wet ground on Friday. And it started raining last night while I was playing with my kids. They begged me to keep on playing.
Apryl covered in sarcasm: “Right, well, seeing as it’s wet and all….”
And now I’m in a quandary. In a sense, I want to “punish” those boys for their attitudes. I don’t want to invite them to play anymore, but I want a mixed team. And where do their attitudes come from? Maybe they’re not allowed to go into the mahala alone. What do I know? I’ll probably give in and invite them to play once we’re in the stadium. They’d better be nice though!
I’ve mentioned before that a women’s charity has taken an interest in our work here. They’ve agreed to finance the center: rent, water, electricity, and security. Originally, we thought that they might give us a video projector and money for heating during the winter. It was not to be, but at least they’re taking on a portion of the costs. We’re ecstatic. We have until December to search for other sources of funding. Ideally, in my mind, the municipality should be taking responsibility for it. In their strategic planning, they talk about the creation of an educational center and its benefit to the town. Meantime, they make us pay the rent and utilities on it. I don’t understand.
The municipality has been repaving the sidewalk in front of the center, however. They’ve been tearing up stones and laying them back down in a flatter configuration. They’ve also created a ramp and an entrance to our center. It’s pretty great except kids come along and think it’s cool to write their name everywhere. I’ve been scratching it all out. I’d rather have cement look scratched than have to see “Ivan” or “Marina” every time.
I’ve been trying to go out and impose on people a little more. People complain that I don’t stop by and see them anymore, so I went and spent an evening with my friend, Fanka and her mom, Julia. Fanka showed me her dress for the Senior Ball. It’s shimmery and purple: not something I would have picked out, but it’s fabulous. It’s interesting to see another year of school wrap up. It won’t be long before another one begins. Kids, school, grades, directors, ditching… I could write a three-part series on what my perception of it all is here in town. Anyway, I also went to see the people who always invite me home after church: Sonia and Spaz. Only Spaz was there, and we had a good conversation. He started comparing Bulgaria to Latin America (in the fact that many countries there are poor and Bulgaria is poor) – saying he didn’t think there was much difference. I told him that I begged to differ as I’d actually been to Latin America, and I’ve seen how people live there. Bulgarians have a lot to complain about, sure (I don’t envy what they have to deal with as far as corruption in this country), but many of them refuse to see how blessed they are. They compare themselves to their western European neighbors, and they think they’re suffering. I don’t always see it. Many of them own beautiful homes with several stories, and they have nice things like cable television. They have a lot of the symbols of status that show perceived “well-being.” I tried to explain the difference in living conditions between myself and my friend in Bolivia. She lived in a one-room house without heat or electricity. In that sense, Bulgaria is a cake-walk. Having effectively killed that conversation, he started talking about what it was like for churchgoers during Communism and the miracles that happened for them. That was fascinating.
Today started out as a full day. One of my former, adult English students wanted to sit down and talk about how she was going to learn English. She’d come to a few of my classes in the beginning, but then she stopped showing because she said she had something else going on. If you ask me, it was because she was too nervous to try and speak. Getting a word out of her was like pulling teeth. I asked her how she intended to learn. She wanted me to write things down and transcribe their sounds into Bulgarian when I had free time and give that to her. I started by flat-out denying her. I told her she’d be very disappointed because she wasn’t going to learn that way. Besides, I had classes, and why should I take extra time out for this? She kept pushing it, and I tried to dissuade her. Finally, because I knew she wanted to do hotel work, I ripped out a list and started writing down some sentences that you frequently here in reception. I told her to learn those and then come to me when she had done that. I would test her. If she knew them, I would write more for her. If not, well…. She agreed. I’ll be surprised if I see her again. I started asking her what her name is and where she’s from. She reluctantly answered and then refused when I started really repeating and pushing her. “I sound like a parrot.” Well, how do you think a person learns a language? You say things twenty times over. You make mistakes. You catch and correct yourself. You sound funny to native speakers. You laugh at yourself and hope you find sympathetic listeners. You, my dear woman, want to learn a language without speaking. It’s like wanting to learn how to swim by looking at water. You’ll only frustrate yourself in the end.
Milka, my landlady, had arranged for me to do some translating for a wood firm we have here in Rakitovo. It was set up through an acquaintance, and I was escorted to a very nice office next to mine. The saw mill is famous in town, and I had no clue that they had a firm in the building next to ours. There are many things I don’t know about Rakitovo. Anyway, some Greek men came because they wanted a certain cut of wood. It’s cheaper to get wood here, and Bulgaria is close. Anyway, it was a really interesting experience. The two men spoke to each other in Greek. One then turned to me and said some things in English, and then I translated in Bulgarian. Everyone’s phone kept ringing, and they’d retreat from the session to talk to someone else. The interesting thing was, I didn’t exactly feel needed. They already knew what they had wanted from each other, and they had already worked out a deal. Plus, they were speaking “wood.” It was strange. Sometimes they understood each other without me having to translate. Visual numbers and specifications helped, too. I can’t say I understood all that was going on, but they knew. I talked to the Greek guy who spoke English a little bit. He asked me what I was doing in Bulgaria. I explained in a couple sentences about Peace Corps. He told me that I’m a very good person. “You’ve known me for two minutes,” I told him. “I can just tell by the way you express yourself,” he told me. “Next time we’re here,” he said, “you will be invited back, and we will talk more.” Sure thing. Take me to Greece!
The Bulgarian businessman, I’m guessing the owner of the firm (Palisander), drove me up to the mahala for my class as I was running late. I told him I didn’t think they really needed me. They had understood each other very well. “It’s because we understand wood,” he said, “but we still needed a interpreter.” He pulled out a wad of twenty leva bills and tried to throw one at me in the car. We had an argument about that. I told him that I honestly couldn’t accept his money. It compromised my role as a volunteer. Fortunately, he got it in the end and muttered something about coming to an understanding with Milka. I was happy. Once again, I’ve found fulfillment in playing interpreter.
Today was a special day. I was invited to go to a chapel I had never noticed before. Once inside the grounds, I found ancient ruins and was invited to take part in eating lamb soup, rice, and bread. Like I said, I do not know my Rakitovo. The chapel was really charming. It was a simple, wooden building with various paintings and icons. I lit a candle and said a prayer for those back home. Once outside, one of my teacher students explained to me the history of the place. It had been around during the time of the Thracians and the Romans. Rakitovo is actually near the road from Rome to Istanbul. And there were Christians there long before Christianity was accepted in Bulgaria. They’d built the original church. In 1971, during Communism, it was refurbished as a cultural site. Now they open it for holidays like this one – where they sacrifice a lamb because it’s a certain name day or something. Interesting.
So, I just had my English class. Maria was funny. She said, “You should really think whether or not you want to stay here a way year.” “What,” I said, “you want me to leave?” “No, but you’re a good person, and you don’t deserve to be treated the way you are. I want you to have good memories of the Roma.” Basically, out of the blue, she told me that I shouldn’t stay a third year. She’s been vocalizing her wish that I could stay this whole time, and now she’s unselfishly telling me that I should get on with my life. (sigh)

P.S. First of all... this post is so long it doesn't need a P.S., but I just found a PDF file talking about people's opinion of the foundation in Rakitovo. I won't link it 'cause it's in Bulgarian, but it basically said in an interview with Roma that everyone (except one person who says we help with English and computer classes) interviewed claimed we only steal money, and we don't help them. If we've done anything in town, they haven't been witness to it or partaken in it. (double sigh)