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.


Anonymous said...

аз лично прочетох разказа с интерес, и не мисля че заглавието ми повлия в една или друга посока. не мисля, Apryl, че ще бъдеш разбрана погрешно, поне не от тези които са прочели цялата статия.

hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in Bg !

El Kot said...

Yeah, April, I second all that was said by commentators. The title of the article is mostly true, and the article itself is mostly true too. It gives useful insights to Bulgarians about what our behavior looks like when seen from the outside. And believe me, this lack of initiative and reneging on one's word, aside from being correctly described, is something that many Bulgarians (me included) strongly dislike. True, I'm from Sofia, and that's a world apart in Bulgaria (as you know), but still...
And congrats for deciding to stay another year; I hope everybody involved will benefit from that (you included ;)

Tina said...

Your interview was pretty decent, however, the title of your blog is a bit disturbing. I suppose Bulgaria is not that famous around the world but it's quite nasty to mistake the name of a country for an eating disorder. It also shows a kind of contemptuous attitude towards the country. Perhaps that's not what you meant but it's not flattering either.