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)

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