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?

No comments: