Monday, June 25, 2007


I don’t particularly care much for feelings. They confuse me, and it’s not that I think I’m an exceptionally logical person, but I really don’t care for how irrational they can be sometimes. Where do they come from? What are they based on? Sometimes they can be traced back to something real. Other times, you feel an emotion (or a variety of emotions at once), and you just don’t know why. I know God made them for a very good reason, and they’re vital. I just hate when they get the best of me.
This weekend, for the first time in a long time, I felt lonely. I have bouts of loneliness here, but they’re usually a pretty superficial sense of isolation. I get over it pretty quickly. Recently, I’ve been having this deep longing to connect with someone on a meaningful level, but I can’t figure out who that someone is. There are many people here that I care about, and I’m certain they care about me. It’s another thing, however, to find someone you can really relate to. Just being in their presence makes you feel understood, and you feel you’ve found a kindred spirit.
I’ve adjusted to spending a lot of time alone. It’s something I’ve adapted to since I was young – being an only child and all. It seems like Peace Corps is just conducive to the isolated life. Well, at least if you’re a single volunteer. One would think that Peace Corps would be a lot of excitement. It certainly is in the beginning. Then you become adjusted. You find yourself with a lot of downtime. And somewhere along the way (at least this is true of me), the thought of being by yourself is more appealing than the thought of going to someone’s house and being reminded that you don’t quite fit in somehow. You become lonely. Yet, you still prefer true isolation to searching out a company of people in which you know you will still feel very alone.
Yesterday, it was stiflingly hot. I had to get out of the house, though. I was talking to God how lonely I felt. I hadn’t gotten far, when I came across an acquaintance. She attends the Evangelical Church here in town that I sometimes go to. I knew God brought her along at that very moment because of the way I was feeling, but I was ungrateful. Selfishly, I didn’t want just anyone I knew to come along. I didn’t think this was a particularly good solution to my problem. She invited me to come along with her, and I couldn’t think of an excuse not to go with her.
It was hot. I was moody. I wanted to take a walk where I wanted to go. I didn’t want to get carted around. She was soon pulling at me to go certain directions. I don’t really like people touching me – especially when the weather is stifling. And I don’t like being told what to do. She started telling me about some problems she was having, and then she asked me if I had any money I could loan her. I get very defensive in these situations. I don’t like being viewed as the financially secure foreigner who’s here to help in that “Aren’t you a sponsor?” capacity. She started talking to me about how she’s tired of living in Bulgaria. She’s tired of her work. Man, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that…. Again, selfish me, I didn’t want to be having this conversation. I wanted someone to come cheer me up. “God, I know you did this. You’re teaching me a lesson. You got it wrong. I don’t want this at the moment. I don’t want to play sympathetic listener. I want someone to come listen to my problems.”
We went to a fellow acquaintance’s house to pray with her, but she wasn’t available. The lady I was with then invited me to the house where she works/lives. She takes care of an elderly woman who’s incapacitated. Walking in the house was a good lesson to be reminded of. I have no right to complain (not that it stops me), as I really do lead a life of luxury. The woman was lying on her back. Her mouth was open, and she was staring at the ceiling. She was so old and fragile, and she was wearing a diaper. A few flies buzzed around her. Was she waiting for death, or was it waiting for her? And I was reminded how much I want. Who am I to demand anything? I could be strapped to a bed with no options for getting out. I could really be trapped in my mind.
But let me continue whining ‘cause it’s my blog, and that’s what I do. So, the woman I know started talking about how it would be great if I took her back to the states with me and found work for her. I get so tired of this conversation because I actually do feel for the people here. I wish I could take them all back to the states (if that’s what they really want), but it would actually be better if their standard of living just improved here. She started asking me about my home back in the states. She was assuming that I would move back in with my mother and father once I went home (as is the culture here), and what, she would come with me? I explained to her that, while yes, my parents would help me if I needed it, I actually didn’t have a place to live back in the states. She was surprised by this. This conversation was followed by a line of questioning about how much my boss pays me (“Um, he doesn’t.) and what kind of house my parents live in. “Oh, I thought God sent you into my life to help me, but it appears you have just as many problems as I do,” she said.
Okay, so people can’t be expected to be familiar with our culture. It was certainly true of me. What did I know of Bulgaria before I came here? I just get tired of the same questions and having the same conversations. I lose patience for the same traditions. “Here. You have to eat something. Are you sure you don’t want to eat this? You must at least have some cookies. Are you on a diet or something?” (Repeat this dialogue twelve times in succession).
Once I faded in her eyes as the trophy foreigner sent to answer her prayers, things got a little better. Maybe I calmed down a little bit. She asked me to pray, and I told her that I would only pray aloud if I could do it in English. I didn’t know what to say. I was at a loss for words, and I was frustrated at God for answering my prayers in a way I didn’t like. I had barely opened my mouth when she started crying. I didn’t say anything meaningful, but my praying was meaningful to her.
Afterward, we went up to the mahala to spend time with one of her neighbors. They spent the whole time speaking the local, Roma dialect, and I stared off into space and went someplace in my head. It’s interesting to me when people do that. They just start speaking in a foreign language and let you stare into oblivion. I can’t imagine doing that to another person and them being okay with it, but I get it done to me every so often. The interesting thing is that I didn’t feel quite as alone as before. Strange.
My acquaintance wandered off for a while, and I spent some time talking to the old woman we went to visit. It’s interesting because I’m quickly questioned about my social status with Roma. How old am I? What am I doing here alone? Am I married? She started talking about how she would have never let me go to Bulgaria were she my mother. One thing that’s very interesting to me is how Roma comment to me that I’m still young for marriage. In the Roma culture, I’m an old maid – way beyond my prime. They, however, tell me that I’m a “hubovo momiche” (nice girl), and I’m still young for marriage. “Once you’re married,” she confided to me, “you turn old.” I laughed. She told me that, the previous week, a twelve-year-old girl had married in front of her place. I think it was her granddaughter. Actually, it wasn’t the marriage itself, it was just the virginity ceremony to ascertain her purity, but it’s basically marriage in their eyes. Twelve-year-olds getting married. :::shiver::: Twelve-year-olds having sex. :::double shiver::: I asked if the twelve-year-old was “old” now. The old woman laughed, “Yes, but you’re still young. Why don’t you stay here, and I’ll take you on as my daughter? Poor girl. You don’t have a mother and father here.” One minute, I’m seen as the prosperous foreigner, next I’m just that poor girl who lives alone. I just feel like I’m rarely seen for who I really am – or, at least, the image I have of who I am.
So, yeah. I’m mental. I’m thinking of having Peace Corps provide counseling for me. It’s free. The only drawbacks would be the trips to Sofia and the psych stuff on my records. Meh.
Here’s another random, mental thought. What is success? Who defines success? I’m so tired of magazines and societal trends telling me I’m not good enough. I’ve had enough of them telling other people the same thing. These people then become dissatisfied with their way of life, and they think they should be entitled to something different. They should. I mean, in this global economy we live in, we get to easily see what others have. Wait, why don’t we have those things? What’s wrong with us? Man. No wonder we’re all medicated. Have these disparities always existed? What’s left for the poor man who works himself to the bone and watches the rich man live in comfort? And the rich man still doesn’t have what he wants. This random thought brought to you by the fact that I was reading Roma folktales this morning, and they all start with, “Once upon a time, there was a poor Rom who couldn’t make ends meet.” Bleh.
This weekend, I’ve been putting together a PowerPoint presentation for my organization. Their ten-year anniversary is coming up on the 10th of July, and they asked me to put something together for them. I hope they like what I’ve come up with thus far. Other than that, I’ve been working on another project.
My landlords had their son and girlfriend-in-law stay here again. Once again, it frustrated me. Nothing new. I told Yanko to look for a new place for me, and I’m going to remind him again tomorrow. He mentioned that there were some leads, but none of them have been fruitful as of yet. They invited me down to lunch today. Apparently, they had fried some fish just for me. Enyo’s name day is today, and his son, Emil, had a birthday. I felt as though I was being bribed. I didn’t feel deserving of the meal. I do my best to ignore them all when those two are here staying in my place. It doesn’t matter how many meals they fix me or favors they do for me. I can’t handle having people who aren’t my guests stay in an apartment I, er, Peace Corps pays for. They still don’t even bother to let me know they’re coming. I want out. Actually, I want them out.
We had another heated argument in the office on Friday. It’s so wearing day after day. One minute, we’re fine. The next, something comes out of nowhere. I really don’t like feeling tense and helpless in those situations. Moments like those really mess with me and my current (and very unbalanced) definition of success. It doesn’t seem like we should be arguing the way we do. If we expect to be of benefit to this town, we’re certainly not going to do it by having strife in the office. One thing I really dislike is that Yanko rarely admits he’s wrong. He argues you into a corner, and you feel trapped. I respect my boss a lot, but there’s room for improvement. I spoke up about something I observed between him and his wife Ani. It was directed to him, but he immediately turned on Ani and said, “See? This is where you mess up,” as soon as I was done explaining. We were all flabbergasted. I had been talking to him! I was trying to explain to Yanko that I think it’s impossible to divide work and home. He tries very hard to make it clear that he and Ani aren’t husband and wife in the office. Sorry. In my eyes, you’re always husband and wife. You can’t separate the two like that, and you’re her boss. I don’t care how talented you are, I don’t think it’s possible to divide the lines like that. From 8:30 – 5:00, you’re colleagues in an office. Any other time, you’re husband and wife. No, sorry. I don’t think it works that way, and I’m just as stubborn in my viewpoint as you are. If you argue with Ani as her boss, she’s not going to just accept it like that. And Yanko argues with Ani the way a man who knows all his wife’s quirks and vulnerabilities would argue. He just doesn’t see it. (sigh)
I went on to remind him about the “open window at the center” incident. “If it had been Valia or Ani,” I told him, “you would have laid into them.” Ani and Valia quickly agreed. “Did you see Apryl’s reaction?” Yanko said, “She turned red and apologized. She didn’t try to argue or deny her mistake. It’s really important to me how someone reacts.” We tried to tell him that it wasn’t true that his reaction was based on my response. “Even though I knew it was Apryl before she admitted it, it didn’t change my reaction to the situation.” We all rolled our eyes. It’s not that I want Yanko to yell at me. No. It’d be great if he stopped going overboard in general.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Yellow Journalism: Extra! Extra! Apryl Disses Bulgaria!

Sensationalism. It's a pretty powerful thing. That's probably why Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote that "the pen is mightier than the sword." It can liberate nations, draw people into war, and get your average Peace Corps Volunteer into hot water.
So, I told you all in the last post that I was interviewed by a journalist from Sofia. The interview went well (from my viewpoint), and the journalist sent me a copy to read before publication. Well, right before it went to electronic print, someone in charge decided it needed a punchier title. Imagine my surprise when I went to the website and saw, in bright, blue letters, "Apryl of California: People in Bulgaria Are Accustomed to Having Others Do Their Work for Them." I wanted to crawl under a chair and die. The Bulgarian version of the article can be found here along with some pictures. If you don't read Bulgarian, I will include a translated copy toward the end of this post.
I felt horrible. On the one hand, I realized why the person did it. It's their job to get people to read these stories. On the other hand, I couldn't believe I had been taken advantage of like that. The title had very little to do with the article. I had tried my best to talk up the things I liked about Bulgaria and always remain positive. I realized, however, that when the journalist asked me what I saw as Bulgaria's "problems," I should have just kept my mouth shut.
The journalist wrote me to give me the heads-up and to apologize that the title had been changed at the last minute. I wrote her and said that I felt awful because, not only do I represent myself, but I represent the foundation I work for, the Peace Corps, and ultimately, the United States. I could just see Bulgarians getting defensive in the face of this "Californian who thinks she knows so much about Bulgaria." This is why Peace Corps-related blogs are required to come with a disclaimer. I wish the story had come with a disclaimer.
Anyway, I felt the best thing was to admit to what had happened. I sent the story to Peace Corps, and I showed the article to my boss. No word yet on Peace Corps' reaction. My boss, Yanko, wasn't fazed. I started out by saying, "Yanko, I've made a mistake. I need your advice." I then showed him the title of the piece. "So?" he said, "It's true!" I pointed out in the text that I had said "maybe..." "Maybe people here are accustomed to having others do their work for them." "Apryl," he said, "Do you want to be honest? It's your opinion, and it's an educated one. You know because you live it. You see the struggles we go through because some people refuse to take the initiative to get things done." He read the article and had some comments regarding things I'd said about writing projects ("You should have said 'developing and carrying out projects'") and not expanding on the point that volunteerism isn't part of the vast definition of Bulgarian culture. He also laughed at some points, asked for clarification about others, ("What do you mean you don't like standing out here?") and again reassured me I hadn't done anything wrong. "You give people a different viewpoint. I would rather someone be honest and disagree with me than pretend to be nice, and nothing gets resolved." I told Ani about it later, and she said the same. When I told her the title of the article, she said, "It's true!" I explained to them both that my trepidation was due to the fact that I represent a couple of important organizations (and ultimately a country), and I didn't want to get them into hot water. She basically said the same things as Yanko.
This actually comes at a good time because I had a pretty heated disagreement with my organization on Monday. I called my program manager at Peace Corps and said, "I'm having a crisis moment. Why did I decide to stay a third year? My organization doesn't even listen to me." It's good to be reminded by Yanko that he (at least he says) respects people that can disagree with him and try to point out his error. I was so upset with them all on Monday. It's really complicated, so I won't go into it much here. Basically, it seemed like they were all conspiring to screw a couple people over - and one of those people was someone I thought we all cared about. I disagreed with their methods, and I felt like my loyalties were being called into question. When I spoke up, I felt like they were channeling their frustrations on me. I still don't know how it's going to turn out, but it looks as maybe inactivity is going to resolve that one. I just hated it 'cause I didn't know what to do. I still don't. It's one of those "damned if you do, damned if you don't" moments.
Yanko has been really uptight this whole week. We finished up a project on Tuesday, and he was a bundle of nerves the whole time. Petty disagreements break out in our office due to the most minute of understandings that are taken way out of context. He doesn't have much patience in those moments, and he puts everyone on edge with the tone in his voice. I'm usually safe from ridicule and criticism 'cause I'm still "the golden volunteer." (It's a term I've taken to calling myself since no one really blows up at me.)
For example, I left a window of the Educational Center open this past Monday. The alarm was on, and the room was an isolated one - meaning it was locked from the outside and didn't lead into any other rooms in the rest of the center. I still don't know what would have happened if someone had tried to get in though. An acquaintance saw it and mentioned it to Yanko. He hiked up to the center, heart racing, only to find that everything was in its place. Now, this was a huge mistake on my part. I felt terrible. Yanko mentioned it by calmly asking who had been the last person in the center. I told them all that I was at fault. No one yelled or said anything about it to me. Yanko kept mentioning how scared he was, and how he had been sure that all the computers would be gone. I, again, told him that I was very sorry. He just grabbed the back of my neck as if to say, "Don't worry about it. It's all right." I know that, had it been anyone else, he would have laid into them and made them wish it was the last mistake they ever made.
I don't know how I feel about it all. On the one hand, I'm very glad that I side-step most of the yelling. I don't do well with confrontation, and I don't do well with direct criticism. It's something I have to learn to not take so personally. On the other hand, I don't think it's fair. And I think my organization respects my opinion as long as I agree with them. If I disagree, it's more of a process to get them to listen to me - especially if it's me against them. I suppose that's normal.
There are other things that make me think that my opinion is sought and valued. I was up at the center today, painting a European Union flag with Ani, and she was asking me what she thought I should do in regard to her daughters. They're entering adolescence, and they're starting to do what adolescents do. I feel honored that she asks for my opinion, as I have no daughters of my own, but I still feel awkward challenging her viewpoints. I worry about saying the wrong thing or giving unhelpful advice. I mean, what if she actually listens to me? Who can say what outcomes may come of it, and who am I to say how she should raise her children? She has stopped Maria and Reneta from attending our baseball practices. She basically didn't like the crowd they were hanging out with. I think they're good kids, but I respect what Ani is trying to do.
I finally had another baseball practice today. By the time we hiked up to the stadium, everything was locked. I had my kids climb through a hole in the fence. It's okay. The groundskeeper said we could do it, and others "broke in" and exercised while we were there. The hardest part was getting the bicycles over the fence. It was an adventure. The frustrating thing, however, is the kids seem to get lazy once we get to the stadium. It's like the walk takes it out of them or something. Plus, it's been really hot, and they were more interested in playing with the sprinklers than in playing baseball. It's frustrating to me, 'cause they beg to play, and then they get lazy once we actually do get the game going. Baseball is not really your "fast-paced" sport, and the basemen especially seem to quickly lose interest and wander off. It aggravates me. I still love those kids though. The best is walking to the stadium with them and having the most random conversations about why the hour is different in California. (Before I explained to them how the sun and rotation of the earth work, they said, "Man, something is messed up with the time over there in California.)
Anyway, without further ado, here is the article translated into English. The journalist who interviewed me apparently pitched a fit and got the title changed a bit, i.e. one word was thrown in. She was really apologetic about the whole thing, and I'm grateful to her for what she was able to do. Anyway, I have a newfound respect for those who claim they don't get a fair deal from the media. I'm front-page news. At least for today....
Apryl of California: People in Bulgaria Might Be Accustomed to Having Others Do Their Work for Them

Apryl Gibson is a 26-year-old American from California who lives in the small, Rhodope town of Rakitovo. She works as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Youth Development program. In spite of the fact that, after a few months, her contract in Bulgaria should be up, she has decided to stay here another year. This is the story of an American in Rakitovo, told by Apryl in pure Bulgarian.

I’ve been in Bulgaria since August of 2005. I didn’t choose on my own to come here. Peace Corps said, “If you’d like, we have work for you in Bulgaria.” I agreed because I looked on a map and saw exactly where the country is – I saw that it was a great place near Turkey, Greece, and Romania, which also meant that I would have the opportunity to travel all over Europe. I wanted to meet new people, become acquainted with a new culture, and to learn a new language.

My program is called “Youth Development.” Right now, I work with a non-governmental organization – Future Foundation, and I teach English, Spanish, and basic computer skills. If I can be useful to my organization, we write projects together, and I translate them into English. I also play baseball with kids from Rakitovo. This sport isn’t very popular in Bulgaria, and it’s something different for them. This is what I’m able to do. It’s interesting for the kids. They ask, “What are these gloves? How do you use the bat?” And they have a lot of desire to play. We wrote a project for USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and we opened an Educational Center for Children and Parents, in which different courses are held. I only hope that more people in Rakitovo will take part in them.

My first impressions of Bulgaria were very good. We arrived at the airport in Sofia, and after that Peace Corps hosted us for a week in Borovets. It’s beautiful there. After that, I lived with a family in Trud. They welcomed me nicely. I only knew, “Hello,” “Nice to meet you,” and how to count to ten in Bulgarian. They were very patient with me – in spite of the fact that I couldn’t speak the language, they tried to communicate with me – to ask me, “How was school today? What did you learn? What do you know now in Bulgarian?” Here in Rakitovo, people from my organization also were very kind and hospitable toward me – a foreigner. I felt very comfortable and I said to myself, “I’m really lucky.”

In general, Bulgarians are very hospitable. We don’t do that so much in America. At least, we’re not like that in my family. To meet a person, let’s say a foreigner, and to say, “I live in such-and-such town, for example, along the Black Sea Coast. When you come there, you have to come visit me,” that makes a great impression on me.

It was strange to me, that Bulgarian kids are taught to refuse something when you offer it to them. A volunteer from our group has a joke: “You have to tell the child ‘Zapoviyade’ (Here you are) three times before he will accept something.” For example, you offer the kid a piece of candy, and you say, “Here you are.” His initial response is, “Oh, no thank you. I ate. I’m not hungry.” So you say a second time, “Here you are.” Again, “No thank you. I honestly don’t want it.” However, on the third time, “Here you are,” he tells you, “Okay, okay.”

At the beginning, it was difficult. We still didn’t know anything about the culture and there were several interesting incidents. Besides me in Trud, there was another volunteer there who is currently no longer in Bulgaria. She was ill, and her acquaintances from the village wanted her to drink something. They offered her “rakiya” (Bulgarian brandy), but she refused it. Instead, she agreed to drink vodka. They gave her vodka in a shot glass. In our culture, when you’re given a shot glass, you drink it all “in one shot.” They thought she would sip it slowly as she ate her salad (as is the custom here), but she “shot” it. After that, people in the whole town, even those who didn’t know her, would say “vodka, vodka” when they saw her.

I miss my friends and family most. I also miss trivial things, like Mexican food for instance. I miss that I don’t have to explain who am I and what I’m doing here. It’s doesn’t matter how much Bulgarian I know or how long I live here, I will always be a foreigner. I miss that most of all. Sometimes it’s good to be “unusual,” but I’m not like others here, and I feel that every day. For this reason, I miss just being Apryl and feeling relaxed with that. I know that (in America), when I make a mistake, not everyone will see me and talk about it. I’m not saying that everyone here knows me, but more people know who I am, as opposed to me knowing them. There are different attitudes, but the people aren’t to blame. After all, I am a foreigner.

I don’t know many people, but they approach me asking for English lessons. Or, for example, when our President Bush was in Sofia – I was at the meeting, I saw him, I shook his hand. Some people from Rakitovo knew that I was going. After the meeting, I spoke with them and showed them pictures. But after that, others came up and said, “Oooh, you met the president!” That’s interesting to me because I haven’t lived in a small town before. For example, I go to the internet club (this was towards the beginning of my time here) and the guy there asks, “Why don’t you have internet in your apartment – there with the Bangiev’s?” I said to myself, “This guy knows where I live.” (*Side note: I actually, in a very dumbfounded manner, asked the guy, “You know where I live?” He looked at me like, duh, and said, “Yes.”) At this point, I wasn’t used to that, but now I know that I have to be careful with what I say or do because sooner or later, everyone will know about it.

Bush takes people in very quickly, and that made an impression on me. He gets close to people; gives them his hand, and you feel comfortable speaking with him. There were people there from the organization (Peace Corps), from the embassy, and from USAID. That’s something that’s never going to happen in America. I spoke with my father on the telephone, and he was astonished. In America, you would never just meet a president like that. You have to either work at an embassy, or do something that just by happenstance gets you to see him. I am sure an opportunity to meet an American president will never come around a second time, unless I become a diplomat.

The Bulgarian language is very difficult. The alphabet is different, but I had to learn it. When you don’t have anyone to communicate with in English, whether you want to or not, you begin to speak Bulgarian. I still go to lessons. To practice, I read Bulgarian, in spite of the fact that it takes me a long time, and sometimes I get lazy. At the moment, I’m reading a book of short stories by Elin Pelin, and I think they’re really interesting. I want to read other books. For instance, I want to read works by Hristo Botev, Ivan Vazov, and I want to read “To Chicago and Back.”

I haven’t been back to America for two years, and I think that, more or less, I’m used to how they do business and other things in Bulgaria. Recently, I was at Sunny Beach with an acquaintance that lives in America. This is a very good example of the difference between life here and there. We went to a discoteque in Sunny Beach. It was a two-floor establishment, and there was great music. The guy at the entrance said, “We have a good party here. Come on in.” We went up to the second floor, and no one was there. We had paid four leva per person.” We went back down and spoke to the employee, asked why he had lied to us. “Why wasn’t there a party? Why weren’t there any people?” And he said, “Well, what do you want? People have gone to have sex.”

We went to another place, but we didn’t like the music. We decided to go back to the previous club. It didn’t matter that there was no one else there. We would dance. We entered, danced, and after maybe two songs, the DJ stopped the music, turned on the lights, and said, “Let’s go. The end. We’re not going to play music for two people.” But they had said that the discotheque would work until six in the morning. I’ve lived here, and I understand why they don’t want to work for two people. But still, you have the feeling that something isn’t right. They’ve said one thing, but another is happening. The person who was with me got pretty angry, and he couldn’t understand why it happened that way.

We went downstairs, and we talked to the employee and a security officer. They spoke a little English, and they started to argue. The security officer asked if I was Bulgarian. I said that I wasn’t, but I speak Bulgarian. “Okay. Explain to him that there’s no point in us working for two people.” In general, I’m not argumentative, but I love to argue in foreign languages. I said, “I simply want you to know what’s going on here. You said something, and for this reason we paid four leva and entered the club. Now, something different is happening. A person can’t promise something, and then do something else totally different.” And he started saying, “Oh, so you guys are upset about four leva.” I got very angry because it had nothing to do with the money. I wanted to tell that guy that this incident was a small representation of a larger problem.

This is one of the things that I don’t like about Bulgaria. It’s not very nice to say one thing and do another. You promise to go somewhere, and then, later, you don’t show up. You promise something, because you don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings. In the end, you don’t fulfill your promise. It was strange to me in the beginning, but again, a person gets accustomed to these things – even if she doesn’t like it. If I see that my kids aren’t coming to their lessons, sometimes I get lazy and say, “Well, I have other work, other engagements, or I simply don’t feel like going, and I’m not going to have lessons today.” This isn’t good.

A little while ago, we invited a woman to our town. This woman is an expert on labor contracts and insurance. She gives very good information to people – how a labor contract should be prepared, when a person can take sick leave, etc. We invited a lot of people, and everyone said that they would come. In the end, five or so people came. I don’t like that about the culture here. I can’t say exactly what problems exist here in Bulgaria, but if something needs to change, it’s that. When a person promises something, they should follow through and do it.

And maybe people here are accustomed to having others get things done for them. Many times I have heard, “That’s not my job. The government has to do that.” Yeah, okay, but if you can take part in this work, to have drive and initiative…. Maybe that’s what Bulgaria needs. It’s not important what the government does badly – there are always problems there – but what can you do? If someone can take up just one cause… for example, to work with illiterate children and give of themselves voluntarily, I think that this would be good for the whole country.

People here look at me a bit strangely, and they wonder how a person could come here from America and work without a salary. It’s not that I don’t get a salary, but I don’t make much money, and it comes from the U.S.A. And people figure that there must be some kind of fraud in this. Maybe I make a lot of money and participate in some kind of corruption. I don’t blame them because this culture (volunteerism) doesn’t exist here. But I try to explain: If it’s good for them, it’s also good for me – to have this kind of experience, to return to the states and say, “I worked with Bulgarians. I saw another culture. Right now, for me, the experience is more important than the money.

In general, my service should last two years. I will stay for a third. I can’t say that I’m unhappy with my work here or that I don’t see an effect. I see an effect, but it comes slowly. And I ask myself what will remain of me after I leave. I want to see the results of our work, to see them continue, and to have some kind of sustainability. For this reason, I stay.

We have a kind of maxim at Peace Corps: You can never give as much as you get in return – from the people here. It doesn’t matter what I do; how much I get people here to think or do things differently, I will get more from this than they will. When I return to America, I will have on my CV that I worked with a famous organization, I’ve been to Bulgaria, and I’ve communicated with the people here. If I want to study Russian, it will be a bit easier for me. I will be able to go work somewhere where they’re looking for people with international experience. This is a big plus for me. I can only hope that I can give the people of Rakitovo at least a little of what I’ll get in return.

Apryl has a blog in which she shares her impressions of and experiences in Bulgaria. It can be found at
Written by: Nelly Tomova

I left a comment on the bottom quoting myself, "For this reason, I miss just being Apryl and feeling relaxed with that. I know that (in America), when I make a mistake, not everyone will see me and talk about it." and also, "...but now I know that I have to be careful with what I say or do because sooner or later, everyone will know about it." And then I said, "Now I feel like a bad example of an ungrateful foreigner or a Peace Corps Volunteer." I went on to thank Nelly for her professionalism, but then expressed my disappointment with the title. I shouldn't have spoken up about what I saw as problems in Bulgaria.
So far, one other person has commented to try and encourage me and tell me not to worry. They go on to say that I should be careful with journalists and always make sure I read their stories before they publish them. Apparently, this person lives in California. I tried to explain, in my "pure Bulgarian," (Yeah right! More like broken Bulgarian!) that the journalist had sent me the draft, but someone decided to change the title at the last minute to make it more interesting. And maybe this person in California ended up reading it because of the title, or maybe just because they're in California.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Attempt to Understand

Ahhh, the weekend. I love weekends, but there’s never enough time to get in all the nothing you wanted to do. I haven’t been nearly as productive as I should have been, but I did get some cleaning done, and the place looks a little better. It’s been a good weekend in Rakitovo. I’ve been leaving my site more on weekends, and it’s always nice to take one and stay home – especially if it’s a good one.
I realize that I’ve lost a lot of readers. After two years, I can’t expect people to be faithful to my blog. Life comes in. Engagements come up. Who wants to devote a half hour to reading the epic blog? So, Apryl’s still in Bulgaria. What else is new? I know. I get it. I understand.
There is one girl who reads my blog, however. She’s a journalist for an online magazine in Sofia, and she came across this drivel somehow. If you go back a few entries, you’ll find she left a comment. Anyway, as she does stories about foreigners living in Bulgaria or Bulgarians living abroad, she decided to come and interview me. Of course I was flattered. What can I say? It’s flattering when someone finds you interesting enough to share your story. Ironically, she has a friend who works with USAID, and this friend came across the story of our educational center. The friend was originally going to come as well, but she wasn’t able to make it. We laughed at how small Bulgaria is.
I think the interview went well. I was just glad we were able to do the entire interview in Bulgarian. I did have to resort to a few English words, however, as I can't quite express myself perfectly in the language. As she reads the blog, I couldn’t really fabricate answers. And it’s a good lesson to remember that I should always be honest in general, and that I should be aware of what I put out there on the internet. She referred back to earlier posts in the interview, and I could tell the girl had done her homework. I was impressed. Anyway, if you’re reading this now, Nelly, kudos to you. I wish you much success in your work. Please don’t get discouraged by how weird people think volunteerism is here. It’s worth it! You’re young, and you have a lot to give.
My friend, Rumen, came over yesterday afternoon. I was surprised to get a call from him asking if he could come over and use my internet. Rumen and I share a deep, mutual respect for one another, but it’s not like we hang out or anything. He wanted to come check his test scores, and the wait at the internet café was over an hour.
I diverge a bit to explain what university entrance exams are like here in Bulgaria. They’re awful. I have never seen anyone agonize over anything like I’ve seen Bulgarian students agonize over these tests. They’ll spend tons of money on preparation classes. You can bypass them if you’re wealthy or you have connections, but most of my friends are financially challenged and have to rely on their smarts to get them in. Basically, you take a test in order to be approved to study a specialty. The university takes the grades from the tests combined with the grades from your high school diploma and mixes them together in a complicated cocktail to decide if they’ll let you in. If you don’t do well, you can always study another specialty. So, we’ve got aspiring doctors who are studying to be historians because that’s what they were able to get in with. It’s nothing like the SAT, and it’s a little more destiny-defining than our qualifications in the U.S.
Rumen didn’t do so well on the test, and even though it was a pre-test, he was feeling like the world was crashing in on him. I felt so badly for him, but I didn’t know what to say. I just accepted that it was something I was fortunate enough not to understand, and I tried to listen. I suggested we go for a walk, and he agreed. We went for a long walk to Kostandovo and back, and it was very pleasant in spite of the circumstances. We talked about life in Rakitovo, and I told him that I understood more than he gave me credit for – having lived here almost two years and all…. I had never spent much time alone with Rumen, and like I said, I have a deep respect for him. He’s another one here that I want so badly to succeed.
When we got back to town, he suggested that we go up to the mahala to find Angel and go to a café. It sounded like a good idea at first, but it didn’t seem to turn out that way. Angel did try to encourage Rumen a bit, (he would be better at it than I because he’s more familiar with the system, and he’s taking tests as well) but he seemed to want to spend more time talking about how pleasantly surprised he was at how his tests went. I am happy for Angel, yes, and I’m sure Rumen is happy for him as well. It just wasn’t the appropriate time for him to be gloating about his successes while Rumen sat there and got moodier and moodier. I was so frustrated with Angel. He didn’t seem to be taking a sincere interest in his friend’s plight.
We were at a café where the music was so loud, we couldn’t even hear each other talk. Angel wanted to talk about his scores and about how I couldn’t possibly understand the situation ‘cause I’m not Bulgarian (true), and Rumen just sat there and ruminated. It seemed like an unhappy end to an unhappy turn of events that had been made momentarily tolerable. What a shame. I hope Rumen is feeling better.
Last night, I sat outside with my landlords, their daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons. We watched as Enyo and his son-in-law put a roof over the garage and Milka gave critiques – only to be chased away by Enyo. I don’t hang out with my landlords as much as I should, the situation being exacerbated by them having some habits I don’t particularly like, but I do enjoy spending time with them. I should do it more often. This afternoon, I was invited to lunch. Milka and her daughter had fried some fish, and they put it together with potato salad and tomatoes. It was delicious. I think they’re excited that I eat fish, so they’ll invite me over for that.
Last night, I went over to Brandy’s for a bit. She’s closing her service (COS-ing… it’s been “verbed” in Peace Corps) in a couple weeks. So is the volunteer in Velingrad. Leslie, a volunteer from my group, was there as well. We had a few drinks and ate peach cobbler with ice cream. It was delicious, but I was exhausted, and something about it didn’t feel right – just in the sense that it didn’t feel like a good-bye. I can’t believe Brandy (or anyone else for that matter) is leaving soon. It’s just a matter of weeks, and then I’ll be the only American in my town. It’s sad when I think about it, so I try hard not to.
This Friday, the eighth graders (and the younger grades below them) completed their school year. We went around to some of the schools and watched the ceremonies they had for them. At one of the schools, I was picked out from the crowd and brought to the front by the teachers I have English with. “Why did you show up late? Where have you been? Come to the front. You’re a special guest.” Just then, my colleague, Tsetska, decided to ditch me. I felt uncomfortable, but it wasn’t too bad. I was given a carnation and led into the new museum they had just opened in the school. It was very interesting, and it was very communist. It only makes sense. The school has been open since the 60s, and some of their proudest moments came from those times. It’s all in how you look at it. To me, I find it all fascinating.
We were led up to the teacher’s room, and I was treated to coffee, milk and cocoa, juice, and scotch. The teachers were all very sweet and friendly to me. If you remember back in the day, this is the school that I had taught at for one day. Ah, what an interesting experience that was. Now, I have three teacher-students from that school, and we have good fun in our English classes.
The first director (ever!) was there to celebrate the festivities, and they had him speak. They wanted him to share his favorite memories, and I could just tell that it was going to have a communist overtone. I mean, that was when he was director. It would make sense for him to say something about the system of education at that time. I hoped my being in the room wouldn’t make anything awkward. Fortunately, it didn’t. There was one point when he said, “So, Columbus discovered America in 1492. They say it’s nice that Columbus discovered America, but it would have been better had he never discovered it.” I smiled and hoped no one would notice me. A few people made murmurs of disagreement, but the silence of the moment passed quickly.
You may find this odd, but I actually LOVE moments like this. Communism, the little I know about it, is utterly fascinating to me. The times I’m living in, here in Bulgaria, are also extraordinary. Here they are, joining another union (the European Union) in the hopes that it will help them fulfill their dreams. People who lived in Communist times, and still cling to them, are so intriguing. I hope I will not be misunderstood when I say this. I do not support Communism, and I don’t want to seem like I’m making fun. Quite the opposite, actually.
It’s fascinating from a psychological standpoint. So, you live with a system of lifestyle your whole life. You grow up with it, you take part in it, you live by its ideals, and you pledge yourself to the party in power. The next thing you know, it’s gone. A new system of thought comes in, and you’re left foundering to try and rationalize all those years. Could you have been wrong all this time? No. I do not blame anyone for holding onto those values. Psychologically, it’s asking a lot of a person to believe one thing for so long and then expect them to switch their ideology. Cognitive dissonance comes in big time. I’m sure, were we Communists now, we’d still be clinging to democracy and arguing that it was the best system available. Oh, the good old times – when we prospered under capitalism. I have the blessing of growing up under an ideology I still get to cling to as “the best we have available at this moment – considering we’re flawed beings.” And, for some, Communism was a good time. Everyone had jobs. Everyone had food. There were always excursions to the sea. If you were an especially “good” Communist, you got some great perks. On the surface, it looks like a great idea.
Anyway, I was soon asked to stand up and say something. Fortunately, the room was chaotic and I was able to let the moment pass. I did, however, wait until I one of the last people in the room. As I was smiling a lot, and he didn’t know me, the former director asked one of the teachers who I was. “This is Apryl. She’s an American.” He didn’t even blink. I was impressed. “Does she read Bulgarian?” “Yes, and she speaks it as well.” He ended up giving me a signed copy of a book called “Rakitovo Humor.” Oh diplomacy, I love you. I went back to the office and relayed the story to my colleagues. They got a kick out of that.
I finally got my computer fixed. For those of you who are aware of the saga of my ever-wobbling internet connection, you know how happy I am. It wasn’t a serious problem. I tripped over my internet cable one night and pulled it out from the port by force. This caused the port to move a bit, and I’d have to hold the cable a certain way to get a connection. Once I finally got around to take the computer to Velingrad to have it checked out, they said that they didn’t have a replacement part for me in all of Bulgaria. They sold me a LAN USB, which turned out not to work. I was there in Velingrad all this last Monday while the guy was trying to figure out what the problem was. In the end, he ordered me an Ethernet PC Card, and that’s been doing the trick. I’m so happy.
When I went on Friday to pick it up, I had a good conversation with the girl there. We had interacted a few times, but we’d never talked to exchange stats or anything. While I was playing around with the connection there, she began to ask me what I do and why I was in Bulgaria. She said that she spoke some English, and I made her speak to me. In the end, she invited me to coffee if I’m ever back in town, and I said I hoped to see her again – but for reasons non-computer related. I don’t know if we’ll ever hang out, but it would be good for her to practice her English. Would be, would be, would be…. That can be said for a lot of things.
This last week was a rather relaxing one. I only taught a few classes. I showed a few people pictures from the embassy, and it seems like the whole town knows I went and saw George Bush. I get asked about it a lot, and everyone wants to repeat the story about how his watch suddenly went missing in Albania. What really happened to his watch? Was it stolen? Did it fall on the ground? Was it really returned as the White House claims? Did he just put it in his pocket? It’s interesting to create conspiracy theories, but only George Bush knows what became of his watch. It’s interesting to watch the video, though. One second, his watch is there. The next second, a bunch of hands grab his wrist. The following second, his watch is gone. Awesome.
We didn’t play baseball this week because the weather has been uncooperative. It’ll start out a hot, gorgeous day. Then, like clockwork, it’ll cloud up around 2 p.m. and we’ll get vicious lightning, thunder, and heavy rains. I actually like this weather. I understand how it can be infuriating, but I really love it. My kids wanted to argue though – trying to convince me we could run around in mud. No, thank you. In other news, I got the vice-mayor to get us the stadium again. The fact that there’s also a soccer team there at that time isn’t going to be a problem. At least, that’s what he said. Yay! The stadium is going to get pretty booked come July, however, when other teams come and use it. Whatever. We’ll take what we can get for now. If only the “California Peaches” (that’s our name) could find another team to play with, we’d be on cloud nine.
Future Foundation hosted a meeting with a regional expert for work issues (contracts, fair employment questions, salaries, etc.) up at the center this week. Unfortunately, only a few people attended, (same old story) but it was a good meeting for those who were there. I think they got a lot of good answers and useful information out of the session. Hopefully, when she comes again, there will be more attendees. A lot of people promised they would come, but…. It’s just the same old song sung in the same old tune. We know what to expect now. Lame.
It was funny, ‘cause she turned to me quite often in the meeting. I’m a person who returns smiles and tries to appear like she’s listening intently – even if she doesn’t always understand what’s going on. It’s like that poster I used to have in my room back home, “Keep a smile on your face, and everyone will think you know something.” Either that, or they’ll think you’re a dimwit trying to plan a conspiracy. I get a lot of attention from people when I smile at them and they can’t place me. “Whose daughter is she? I’ve never seen her before.” Oh, small towns. Anyway! She finally turned to me and said, “Yes? Do you have a question or a concern you’d like to share?” I laughed. “No. I don’t get my salary from this country.” My colleagues were amused, and I was explained.
Working for Peace Corps can be great. Someone else pays your salary, so you don’t have to be the most upstanding employee ever. It’s an interesting situation. Sometimes, the only pressure you feel is the pressure you put on yourself to be a “good volunteer.” At the end of the day, you still get your stipend. Of course, there are many other downsides that balance out this interesting perk.
So, this week, I’ve been feeling better about my decision to stay a third year. Of course, it’s not based on anything. This week wasn’t particularly productive or outstanding. If you know me at all, you know how my opinion on this can change by the minute. Discussing this issue with PCVs from my group this past Monday was complicated. They were all talking about COS plans, and then I was asked why I had decided to stay a third year. I really couldn’t give them a good reason. It was lame. I felt like I should be defending my decision with solid arguments, but I just couldn’t give them anything. They probably think I’m a crazy nutcase who thinks she doesn’t have options in life. It was actually embarrassing, but I guess I didn’t want to be seen as some “ultra-successful volunteer in whom the ‘passion’ hadn’t died,” because that’s just not true. But why would I stay for any other reason? I didn’t give them credit that maybe they could possibly understand where I was coming from, and I didn’t want to try and explain myself to people who are looking forward to leaving. Why shouldn’t I join their ranks? They’re making the choice that’s right for them. And they just wanted to understand why someone would choose to stay. Their curiosity makes perfect sense. I just couldn’t justify it. Sometimes I don’t even know why I’m staying a third year. I’m going to miss them. That’s for sure.
I went to see my friend, Fanka, this last week. I had attended her senior celebration last month, and she’s another girl I desperately want to see go on to university. I went to drop off a CD with pictures from her party, but she insisted I stay. I showed her and her family pictures from President Bush’s visit, and she started talking about how I just had the best life. “Who is like you, Apryl?” I started to feel uncomfortable. She had just come back from her senior trip to Greece, and she was showing me some amazing pictures. It was her first time out of the country, and I could tell she’d been bitten by the travel bug.
The problem here in Bulgaria is that there is no equilibrium for everyone. The culture of “keeping up with the Joneses” has hit this country big-time, and many get to see the “luxuries” others take part in. In theory, they’re living well and should be taking part in these “luxuries” as well. It’s not coming so easily though. It’s a slow process, and, in the meantime, the fence has been lowered so everyone can compare the shades of someone else’s grass. This theme for 2007 in the European Union is the “European Year of Equal Opportunities for All.” We’re almost to July, and for some people who really want what others have, the theme hasn’t been fulfilled.
Rumen was talking about how he just wanted to study so he could get a good job and start a family. He sees how his family struggles to get by, (legal minimum wage is about $123 a month – that’s only if it’s legal – and I make more as a volunteer!) and he wants to give his family something better. I laughed because that’s actually a life I’m trying to avoid at the moment. He wants to get out of Rakitovo, and I’m here because I don’t want to get a comfortable, stable job and settle down with a family. Not just yet…. Rumen was saying how I must lead such a charmed life. I’m young. I’m free. I didn’t want to hear it.
Yes, I must live the life of a Bulgarian’s dream. I have to accept this. I am incredibly blessed. I don’t know many who have the same opportunities as I. I didn’t stress about getting into college. I didn’t worry too much about where the money was going to come from. There were systems in place to help me get to where I wanted to be. The systems are still there, and they still support me. I do lead an incredibly free, blessed life. And all this was practically given to me because of where I was born. I can go almost anywhere I want. I can do almost anything I want. I have the luxury of taking these things for granted. It makes me feel guilty for complaining. Ever.
I get sad, too, people! I want to feel justified when I feel badly. I still experience a lot of the same hurts and disappointments with life. I’m incredibly blessed, but I’m not immune to illness. I still suffer heartbreak like anyone else. I feel frustration and helplessness. I have insecurities, and I have a hard time admitting mistakes. I can resort to denial to make myself feel better. I get lonely and experience isolation. The blessings have their drawbacks. I’m free, but that just means I don’t have the same emotional ties with people here. I’m the perpetual outsider. I just don’t feel I should be explaining that to anyone here at the moment, and that makes me a little annoyed. So I tell the epic blog… and anyone out there reading.
My dad called me yesterday. Man, was it good talking to him. He hasn’t been reading, so he didn’t know I met President Bush. Oh well. It was good hearing his reaction over the phone. It’s more fun that way. Happy Father’s Day! Everyone, go hug your dads! I’m just sitting here eating fresh cherries and waiting for the internet to perk up. I have an enraptured life. Who can complain?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Stolen Bulgarian Mastercard

I found this while blog-stalking another volunteer. I laughed out loud when I read this. Thanks, Andrea. I only wish I could aspire to your wit.

Trip to the Police Station On Foot: 16 minutes
Figuring out the Right Window: 4 minutes
Waiting in What Can Only Be Described as a Mob While Strange Chinese Guy Breaths on Your Hair: 25 minutes
Waiting at Window While Pink-Sweatered Bulgarian Women Disappears: 11 minutes
Retrieving Your Lichna Karta: 5 minutes
Knowing You’ll Never Have to Return to The Sofia Police Station: Timeless

Some people are content with public confusion, chaos and disorder. For everyone else, there’s America.

*Lichna Karta is the Bulgarian equivalent of a Driver’s LicenseYou might say that the DMV is not your favorite errand either. But let me assure you that there is really no comparison. This was my fourth trip to the police station over the course of three weeks. All for one purpose.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Why have I titled this blog "GWB?" What could it possibly stand for? Great White Barnacles? Gooey Winter Bananas? If I reiterated that this blog represents my views only and not that of the American government, would you have some clue? If I used the acronym POTUS (this threw me off forever), would that have some kind of meaning for you?
How about if I said they were initials? Would you know who I was talking about? George Walker Bush? Could it be? AKA The President of the United States? Would I have something to share about him in this post? Maybe you should read on....
I don't have a whole lot to update you on. After that whole diatribe on numbness, I started feeling things again. I just... bleh. I wish I could remember more from last week, but I'm distracted by other things at the moment. It doesn't matter. I taught my classes. I sat around in the office. Same old story as every day. There is one thing: One of my students made a PowerPoint presentation about how I'm so intelligent and helpful, and how he likes me a lot 'cause I've taught him English. This will sound absolutely horrible, but I wanted to smack him for it. He stopped coming to my English classes long ago. He was one of my most promising, and he just kind of... wandered off. Lies of flattery. It hurt me more than anything. And Maria... oh yes, Maria. Maria, a girl who speaks English frightfully well. A young girl with so much potential. A friend with so many opportunities to shine in the future. (sigh) I've talked about Maria (of Maria and Reneta) so very many times. She's amazing. She's beginning to make choices that do not appear to be in her best interest. She's starting to act shady and to break promises. These are the stories that break my heart the most and make me long to give up on people and only care about myself. I already care about myself way too much, but these incidents are temptations to become the most self-centered person in the history of selfishness. It hurts.
Anyway, we started playing baseball again now that the strange weather has stopped (it's been stormy every day), and I pulled out all the new gloves my mom sent over. Thank you to those of you who contributed. Thank you so very much. My kids are excited - and a little confused. I don't think they quite see the purpose of them yet, and catching is a little awkward still.
This weekend, I went to Plovdiv to hang out with Tim. He was in my training site, and we've been pretty good friends ever since. He lives on the opposite side of the country, so I was glad to have the opportunity to hang out with him. He was in town for an art fair with the youth center he works at. The girls that came with the group make fashion designs and sculptures. They're extremely talented.
I imposed on my host family at the last minute. I felt weird about it, and I was thinking that I was getting a weird vibe from them, but they tried to assure me that I was welcome anytime. My host sister is just always so great and accomodating. We met up with friends and had a good time going out in Plovdiv. I love that town. I also had a good chat with my host sister. She's not the most open of people, so it's hard at times to really get her to share. We had a good conversation over coffee and ice cream one day, and I learned to appreciate her even more than I already do.
She drove me to the bus station at 5:30 this morning so I could catch a 6 a.m. bus to Sofia. President Bush has been in Bulgaria over the past couple days, and we Peace Corps Volunteers were given the opportunity to go to a "meet and greet" at the U.S. Embassy with him and his wife, Laura. Some volunteers were even given jobs related to the events of the past couple days. It was a pretty surreal sort of experience. At first I was really upset with Peace Corps because I had asked them to include me on information regarding protocol and meeting place, which, for security reasons, they got at the last minute. I was (seemingly) excluded from such an e-mail, and I was frustrated. It's a good thing I brought a few materials I thought I would need and got information randomly from other volunteers. It turns out that the e-mail ended up in my spam box. (sigh) Anyway, sorry Peace Corps. I must confess I was mad at you for a while.
We met this morning and then went over to the embassy at about 11:00. We basically chatted to pass the time and wait until his arrival at 2 p.m. We went through two stages of security: once when we came in and then again right before he arrived. We were outside in a courtyard when he came by. He was introduced by the ambassador, and then he gave a short speech. Please don't think ANY of the dialogue that follows is verbatim. I don't have a great memory, and I swear my brain was fried while we were waiting for him out in the sun. He talked about the valuable work Americans do in Bulgaria. He thanked us for working toward democracy. He talked about how great it was for us to be allies. He thanked our Bulgarian counterparts for working with us. He said it was just so obvious how far away we are from home over here (Amen! We PCVs smiled at that one.), and he said a few words about the G-8 Conference he'd recently attended in Germany. He said maybe two words about Iraq and Afghanistan. Mostly, he just thanked us for our work because the crowd was made up of USAID workers, embassy employees, and PCVs... basically what's called "the mission community."
Afterwards, he smiled, threw off his jacket, loosened his tie, and jumped in for a photo with the children of Embassy workers who study at the American school. Once that was over, he made his way down the line. I had always heard that President Bush was a very affable person, and he lived up to it today. Surprisingly, he shook hands and talked to every person who wanted to interact with him. He held babies. He posed for pictures. He was in his field. He talked about random topics like bike riding and Atlantic beaches. I'm sure everyone has a story. We were comparing them after he went on his way. Let me share mine with you:
He was making his way toward me, shaking hands. I was surrounded by other PCVs, and I made sure I grabbed his hand when there was a break in the chit-chat he was having with another attendee. I said something like, "Thank you for supporting Peace Corps, Mr. President." I never would have imagined that I'd utter a sentence like that. "You're Peace Corps Volunteers!" he said. And then he began to ask what kind of work we do. While he was talking to those around me, I took the opportunity to lift up my camera to try and get a picture. He was right in front of me. I couldn't see anything, however, and it didn't seem to be working. After a few seconds, he said something to the effect of, "You gotta turn that on there, darlin'" He and those around started laughing. I turned my camera on, and I snapped him. My hands were shaking so violently, I'm surprised anything came out. This happened to the intense amusement to those around me. I hate that I get like that in such situations. So it's the president. Pshaw! I should have asked for a photo with him.
Other PCVs have photos with him, and they have stories about sitting next to Karl Rove or talking to Josh Bolton or hobnobbing with who have you. I almost grabbed the First Lady's hand, but she left the scene before I could grab her. Oh the life - everyone waits for you hours in advance. Snipers on the roof. Kissing babies. Your own security staff. Hundreds of people preparing for your presence. It's nuts. Well, this is a story I guess I can tell. I had to come all the way to Bulgaria to meet an American president. It couldn't have happened any other way.

He looks so funny in this picture! But that's what he gets for teasing me! Hehe.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Roller Coaster of Numbness

Sometimes you're going along and everything feels right. You can't believe your luck. The world seems happy and supportive. No one can do you wrong. Other times, you feel as though you're getting "bitch-slapped" (excuse the language) by forces beyond your control, and you don't know why the universe has decided to align against you. What did you do to piss it off?
I'm feeling the latter this weekend, and it's only Saturday. (sigh) The thing is, I'm getting more and more numb to these sorts of things. It's only how I feel at the moment. This too will pass.
It makes me more and more aware to how numb I've become to a lot of things. What used to catch me off-guard and hurt me has just become a fact of life that I barely react to anymore. If God allowed these things to affect me more, I'd be a basketcase who left Bulgaria long ago. I realize I'm a lot stronger (and in some ways weaker) than I ever imagined. I'm not sure why I decided to stay in Bulgaria a third year. I just know it was a feeling I couldn't shake. Maybe I should get my "feel-o-meter" checked.
The picture to the above left is an example of what my kids like to do to me. Maria planned a picnic (without food) in the hills of Rakitovo. I came late, but that just makes the kids anticipate my arrival all the more. Hehe. My favorite memories from Bulgaria will be of kids running toward me, screaming my name, and arguing who saw/talked to/touched me first. I need to learn to relax and enjoy the simple pleasures more.
This week went by like any other week for the mostpart. I have nothing truly noteworthy (as far as events) to comment on, so I'll probably do more philosophizing as I just can't do a short post. My English classes were all right. A municipality worker asked me how many more lessons we had before the next round of payment. She plans on finishing out the pre-paid lessons and starting up with a course at the "obshtina" (municipality). My first, and very normal reaction, was to feel hurt. "What, you don't want to study English with me anymore?" But I quickly caught myself. The obshtina was holding free, English classes in coordination with requirements from one of the multitude of Bulgarian ministries. It's going to give its workers the opportunity to become more valuable in the job market. It's making steps to improve the system. This is awesome! Plus, I sometimes like to forget that teaching English isn't exactly my "cup o' tea." It's just that it can be fun, too.
This week, we were learning "Do you like...? Yes, I like..../No, I don't like...." One of my favorite teacher-students said, "Apryl, do you like sex?" I couldn't stop laughing. She continued with "Do you like young girls?" My eyes went wide. She had gotten confused on the sexes. I was doubled over. Once I had regained my composure, I told her that I like men.
I was explaining a game to another group of adult learners, and I told them it was something I liked to play with "my kids." One of the 40-somethings said, in very broken English (We, of course, also you children?) that they were also my children. It touched me. And I understood!
As for my computer classes, well, I told Reneta that we'd no longer be learning together. She's learned (like a superstar) everything I could possibly teach her at the moment. She's a whiz at making PowerPoint presentations. Her typing could use more practice, but she'll have to take that on herself if she wants to get really good. I'm trying to knock classes down one by one. The summer will be interesting. The fewer classes I have to worry about, the better. I turn away anyone who asks me about English - especially the people who constantly stray. Talk to me in the fall.
Milka, my landlady, has been gone helping out her daughter and grandchildren and Pazardjik, so Enyo invited Brandy and I to come over and have dinner and drinks with him and his son-in-law, Misho. It was an interesting evening. People kept calling to ask one of them to take them somewhere. (They both drive taxis.) As they had had a little to drink, Misho especially would start talking as though he were wasted. "Man, I've had too much to drink. I can't take you anywhere. I'm wasted. The police'll get me!" Brandy and I thought it was amusing. At least they were being responsible.
Yesterday was "International Children's Day." I spent the whole day in the office with my colleagues. It was nice - as I usually have to leave at some point to go up to the educational center and hold classes. We didn't get a whole lot done. I filled out some donor contracts and got Yanko to sign them. Other than that, there wasn't much to do, and we went out to coffee. After lunch, we were all in goofy moods. We decided to do some project writing, but only Yanko was really able to focus. We discussed ideas and target groups, and then Valia pulled out some wax to wax her legs for the first time ever. We females were pretty mesmerized by the process. Yanko felt like he had fallen in a rabbit hole. I love my colleagues. Sometimes they can frustrate me, and sometimes I think they're pretty odd. I mean, who waxes their legs in the workplace? Sometimes they ask, "What do you think of us, Apryl?" Before I can answer, someone will say, "She's used to us by now. She's just as crazy as we are." They're a lot of fun.
Like I said, Maria planned a picnic on Friday. She asked me to bring my baseball equipment, so I did. The kids then argued about whether they would play baseball or "Survivor BG." Most of them picked baseball, much to others' dismay. I'm always surprised by my kids' desire to play. Earlier in the week, we waited two hours for a soccer team to finish training (and the maintenance guy to cut the grass) so we could play for a bit. Then, on Thursday, we out-waited rain (under a small covering) and bullies so we could play. One kid ran all the way in showers so he could participate. Crazy nutcases. I couldn't tell them, "Let's just go home." (By the way, to those of you who contributed, my kids are SO excited about the new gloves, balls, and helmet. Thank you!) So, most of the kids played baseball while I did "tests of will" with the kids who played survivor. One of the agreed-upon "tests" was to make me "Queen of Spring." That's the picture you see above. I walked back through the mahala looking like that. Everyone stared, but they always stare. Apparently someone told one of my kids that I was "a crazy Italian."
In random news, I think I told you I picked up a USB LAN to try and fix my internet connection. It bites. I got it to work, finally, but it only works sporadically. Sometimes, plugging it in freezes my computer. Now I have to go back to Velingrad. Lame.
I was in Velingrad today for a church service on health. Of course Loma Linda was mentioned (for any Adventists that might be reading this blog). It seems like any news article (Nat'l Geographic was highlighted exclusively) that talks about longevity has some blurb on Loma Linda. I enjoyed it because the speaker talked up oatmeal - it's health benefits and how it makes a delicious breakfast if you add some dried fruits and honey. I eat it all the time, but people at store look at me like I'm from another planet when I buy it at the store. "What? That's baby food." And I got some commiseration when I shared that people look at me like I'm nuts when I go out running. I'm just trying to be healthy and off-set all the junk I eat, people! Everyone here thinks I'm on a diet or something.
After the church service, my host just assumed that Mitko (one of my kids) and I would want to impose on someone and have lunch. Who knows how long we would have stayed there? Mitko and I raced to catch the bus. (We missed it, and we caught a taxi back.) As I left, I realized I made a mistake. I probably should have stayed and fellowshipped with Velingrad-ski congregants a bit. They're very nice people. In fact, I met a woman from Trud who works with a PCV. It's a small world! I just get frustrated when people assume and try to plan my day for me. It's something God has to work on with me. I especially have little patience with the woman who plays hostess at the church here. Anytime I see her, she's pressuring me to come over to her place and eat. Saying "no" once isn't good enough for her, even when I have a very legitimate excuse (I already have plans. It's 9 pm, and I want to go home.). She has to ask five times and then talk about how great it would be if I just came over, which makes me want to come over even less. She's not a bad person. She's just persistent. And I'm stubborn. If anyone needs changing in this situation, it's me.
I was watching "The Ten Commandments" today, and I was relating it to my experience here in Bulgaria. I'm not saying I'm God or Moses or anything like that. Good heavens, no. It's just unbelievable watching the Israelites witness God's astounding miracles one moment and then acting like He doesn't even exist the next. "Look, God parted the Red Sea! God, who?" In my opinion, many people here know what's needed to make their lives better, and they will admit they know what's needed. They choose, however, to ignore it and avoid taking the steps necessary to make it a slightly happier place to live. Living here in Bulgaria has really made me appreciate how infinitely patient God is with me. God has been more understanding of me than I have ever been of the myriads of people who just don't follow through.
Back in training, my Bulgarian teacher made a parallel between Bulgarians and the Israelites in the wilderness. "It took them forty years and a generation to die out before they were ready for the promised land. Maybe it will take us just as long." It's not my place to judge so much. I just comment on what I perceive - whether it's right or wrong. If it brings me closer to God, I see it as a good thing. And I have a newfound appreciation of God in Bulgaria. He's so patient with me, and it makes me love Him all the more. I fall so short though, even when I'm trying to trust Him. It reminds me of a lyric by "Jars of Clay" that I love: "I hope that you might settle for this love I have for you."
Random question: Why is this blogger site in French now? It's been this way for a couple weeks or so. Or is it just me? Am I just that cool?