Sunday, September 30, 2007

If I'm English, You're... "Takova"

I get called "Anglichanka" here a lot. People confuse my nationality and refer to me as "the English girl." I don't know why it bothers me so much. Maybe it's because I've been here two years, and they can't seem to get it straight. Maybe it's because I've never even had the pleasure of visiting England.
"So, what's life in England?"
"I've never been there."
"Oh, yeah. What's life like in, where was it you were from again? California?"
*Two to five minute explanation about my concept of whatever I feel like sharing about life in California*
"So... do you miss England?"
*Huge, exasperated sigh*
What's also annoying is when I walk by a group of people and I hear the word "anglichanka" whispered under their breath. That's when I turn around and look at them defiantly. You didn't even bother to ask me who I am.
The kids, however, are by far the cutest. My absolute favorite is a quote from a boy at a camp we had last summer. It was captured on video: "And here is a game taught to us by the English girl from California."
Speaking of favorite conversations,here's an almost verbatim one I had with an adorable girl the other day.
Girl: So, you're from England...."
Apryl: I'm not from England. I'm from America.
Girl: So, you don't really speak English. You speak American.
Apryl: Well, some English people might agree with you, but we really speak the same language.
Girl: How can you speak English if you're not from England?
Apryl: We speak English in America as well.
Girl: That doesn't make sense.
I was trying to think of ways it made perfect sense, but I wasn't getting far. Maybe it's because of the distinctiveness of languages that match up with nations over here. Romanians speak Romanian, the French speak French, the Germans speak German, the Spanish speak Spanish, etc. There aren't many nations that don't claim their own language. Before I left before Bulgaria, many Americans asked me what language they speak over here. Even I wasn't sure in the beginning. "I think it's Bulgarian," I said. "I think they have their own language." We did wonder if they spoke Russian, however.
It's funny, because I've never considered myself all that nationalistic. To me, being "proud" to be American (or any nationality for that matter) is like being proud of having a heart that beats. There isn't much that you *did* to be part of that nationality because no one gets to choose things like being born, everyone comes from somewhere, and hating where you come from is just counterproductive. However, one thing I love about being "American" is that it isn't an ethnicity. A lot of people talk about being African-American, or Puerto Rican-American, or Canadian-American, but there's always the option of tacking the "American" on the end there. I don't think every country has that linguistic capacity. I, for example, could gain citizenship here, and I would never be "American-Bulgarian." It also kind of devoids me of a cultural heritage, but then, we made our own traditions growing up. I have the freedom to do the same with my own children. I used to lament the lack of a cultural background. I still do, but really only to the point that I wasn't raised bilingual. I feel like I found out late in life (though it's never TOO late) that I love languages.
So, I don't know why it bothers me when I'm called English, but it grates on my nerves. I now understand my friends whose relatives came from diverse places such as Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, etc. and how they get frustrated when people blanket them with the term "Mexican-American." I'm thinking of starting a campaign to call everyone I meet "Rusnatsi" (Russians). I think they'll look at me like I'm an idiot, but it will be great to randomly ask people how they like living in Russia.
In other news, I've picked my favorite Bulgarian verb: "Takovam." It's universal. Basically, it means, "Do that thing. You know, that thing." Here's an example: "After work, I'm going to... 'takovam.'" It's a verb with a wide range of meanings. It can also be used as a noun: "Can you 'takovish' and hand me 'takova?'" Literally, "Can you do that thing and hand me that thing?" I LOVE IT. We should have a comparable word - one word, mind you - that applies in such a universal way. It's like a "get out of jail free" card for learning certain, impossibly difficult words in Bulgarian.

Hypothetically

Imagine the following situation:
You're the director of a "special assistance" school. You receive funding from the government to room and board children with "special needs." Problem is: Most of your kids are happy and healthy - devoid of "special needs," but their parents are taking advantage of the situation at your school to help their own economic situation. You know that these kids are bright and capable of more than the education your school can offer them, but you don't want to mess with the system. As a bonus, you know your kids won't have the option of getting their driver's license if they complete 8th grade at your school. Also, if school attendance goes down, your staff is in danger of losing their jobs. Unemployment is rampant. What would you do?
Welcome to Bulgaria.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Elections: Cool By Association

The local mayoral elections are coming up, and it's like high school all over again. Rakitovo is small enough that just about everyone knows everyone - or at least everyone knows someone who's related to someone, so they know everyone by only a few degrees of separation. Questions such as, "Who are you voting for?" and "Who's running?" are not uncommon. Rumors and gossip abound. My boss, Yanko, is running for municipal council, and he likes to be "in the know." Elections are going to be next month, and I'm sorry I'm not going to be here for democracy in action. A couple people have joked that I should run for something. Awesome. I would love to be the mayor of Rakitovo. I wonder how long it would take before they impeached me.
Yesterday, we had our fair to celebrate the "European Year of Equal Opportunities for All." As is habit, I was designated photographer. Angel and some of his friends passed out balloon and brochures, and my other colleauges ran around like crazy getting everything in order. The show went well - with a lot of people of all ages and backgrounds participating. We had hoped for a bigger crowd, but I would say the "chitalishte" was 65% full. I had a good time hugging kids and joking around with them. A handful of the Roma boys that I've been playing baseball with are now enrolled in an integrated school with better educational standards. I'm so thankful for that. One of the boys asked me this morning what was going on with baseball. When I told him that we'd wait until next year to play again, he said, "Next year! It might as well be forever." Time is an interesting concept in children. I wish I could go back to the days when a year felt like forever.

Pictures from the fair.

Fair crew.

Something interesting about Bulgarian culture: People don't necessarily introduce you here when you casually enter a group. For example, let's say you come upon a friend drinking coffee, and you sit down with her. Now, it's obvious you don't know the other friend she's sitting with, but no one bothers to introduce the two of you. You have to take it upon yourself to introduce yourself to new people. When someone wants to meet you, they'll still say something like, "Well, aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?" But then they'll get a response like: "Well, go ahead and introduce yourself then." It's very strange to me. People can sit at a table for hours without having made each other's acquaintance.
Today, my colleague, Tsetska, and I were sitting at a cafe when a guy came over and started talking to both of us. He had seen me carrying a bat around town, and he started joking with me about how I'm the "girl with the bat." "What do you carry a bat for?" He turned to Tsetska and said, "Aren't you going to introduce me to your colleague?" "Go ahead," he was told. "Introduce yourself." He then started asking if I liked Cyrillic letters and how he could join the Peace Corps. He was a goofball.
It's interesting being the American around town. As I've mentioned before, many people think I just came with bucketloads of money to help the Foundation and... who knows what else? I don't think they've necessarily thought beyond that. I'm American, therefore I have suitcases full of money stashed somewhere. Sometimes people try to play the "cool by association" card. I don't necessarily understand that one. The other day, one of my neighbors was hanging in the center with some guys drinking coffee. As I walked up, he turned to one of the guys who was watching me and said, "Look how we know each other." As I walked by, he smiled and said, "Hi, how are you?" I returned the greeting and continued on my way - all the while feeling their stares. It is like high school. I'm like the untouchable one - I'm not necessarily known or understood, but you can impress people if you can show that we're used to having some kind of interaction. I don't get it.
And I still get stared at in the center - not so much as I used to since people are used to me, but there's an overwhelming amount of men who drink coffee in the center in the mornings (and sometimes all afternoon as well). They don't seem to tire of staring at me. I can't wait 'til I trip on a step and fall flat on my face. It will be interesting to return to the states, where I can't possibly be introduced as "The American."
So, I found another place to live. Well, Yanko had already put this place in the works from the beginning. I was slated to move in with a former teacher (and also one of my former English students) before her daughter objected and sent me searching for other housing. Well, her daughter rescinded her objection, but I had already found a new place. Now that this other place fell through, I'm back with the teacher. Her house is lovely. The only "complaints" (if you can call them that) is that I have to walk through her living room to go to my apartment. That, and the rooms all have a disconnected feel because it actually feels like living on the second and third floors of someone's house - not a separate apartment. It's hard to explain without you all actually *seeing* it, but I'm sure I'll be posting pictures after I move in. Now it's just a question of Peace Corps approving it and her putting in some additions like an electric stove and a refrigerator. Otherwise, the place is awesome. I will have a big bed (as opposed to the twin I sleep in now), and there are balconies all around. I think I'm going to have to share a balcony so she can hang clothes, and I'm not exactly clear on whether or not she'll be using the washing machine in the kitchen or not, but I feel like, at this point, anything is better than having to live with perpetual "unexpected guests."
Tomorrow, I'm seeing another friend off as she leaves Bulgaria. On Sunday, we're continuing our work on a mammoth project proposal. My colleague, Tsetska, has submitted a formal resignation. My colleagues aren't going to be in the office for part of next week, and I don't know where that puts me during that time. Have I mentioned in this post yet how much I'm looking forward to going back to the states for a visit?
Sharing a random thought that crossed my mind today: Another volunteer just told me that he doesn't "feel like [he] owns [himself] here." True. Today I was thinking, "Never have I felt so amazingly independent and yet so utterly helpless."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Rock On!

Check this out, and then come join me!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rationale

"There is a way that may seem right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." Proverbs 14:12
"Vseki edin chovek e prav za sebe si." - This, more or less, means that every person is right in his own eyes. It makes me wonder what's truly the right. Take the teacher's strike that's going on right now. On the one hand, you can identify with the teachers. They should make more money. But then, so should pretty much every laborer in Bulgaria. On the other hand, you wonder who they're really hurting in the long run, so what's the point? Yes, the teachers are still on strike. I wonder how long it will last. I can't imagine educators striking in the states.
And then there are my English classes: people don't seem to understand why I'm not teaching as many classes anymore. I get the feeling they seem to think that's my job or something. I'm not the only act in town. If you really want to learn English or how to work on the computer, there are plenty of other opportunities. Search them out. I'm doing what's right for me, but I don't think people in town necessarily see it that way.
Also, some of you have been asking what my living situation is now-a-days. Have I moved? Have I not moved? Well, the answer is the latter. There have been some problems with remodeling the place I'm supposed to move into, apparently. I finally called the homeowner, a.k.a. the guy who was supposed to be my new landlord, and he rattled on and on about how some contractors lied to him and yadda yadda yadda, and they're not going to do remodeling this year. He suggested I look for another place. Um... yeah, thanks for telling me, buddy. I should have called earlier, but I thought they hadn't given up on it yet, and that they would certainly tell me if they had. I guess I forgot for a second that I live in Bulgaria.
Meanwhile, my current landlords are telling me that they want me to come and visit (of course!) once I do move. They seem to have warmed a bit to the situation, although they still talk about it as though they're baffled as to why I think I would be "more comfortable elsewhere." Milka even said I was welcome to come back and sleep there. That just made me laugh, but it was a nice thing to say.
In general, things have been going pretty well recently. I went on a hike to the Seven Lakes in the Rila mountains this past weekend. I've been wanting to go back there ever since I went the first time during training, and we couldn't see anything because of the fog. I was worried the same might happen this time, but the weather was pretty perfect. I almost didn't go. My colleagues decided to work during the weekend, and I felt like I needed to stay with them. Fortunately, Yanko insisted that I go.


I am definitely out of shape, and I have a habit of overpacking, but I absolutely hate being cold and being unable to do anything about it. One minute, I'd be wearing four layers, the next I'd be peeling them off of my sweaty body. About 50 of us went. It was a trip scheduled for the new trainees, and pretty much all of them went. That was impressive.
I had a good time talking to the new trainees (B-22s) and hanging out with them, but I found that I sometimes had a hard time keeping the conversation going. I have often said that I'm an extrovert trapped in an introvert's body. Sometimes I just don't know how to connect with people. Maybe that comes from being an only child. I find that I can connect relatively well with currently-serving volunteers. There were a bunch of B-20s there, and I enjoyed talking with them as well. It makes me think that I'm better able to communicate with people who have been in Bulgaria a while - as opposed to those who are "fresh off the plane" from America. So, imagine my fear, reader, when I come back to the states and try to reconnect with you. Expect long silences and an Apryl who seems withdrawn. I just might not know what to say.
So, we saw all seven lakes, and we hiked to the top of a mountain with spectacular views. I sat forever and looked down into the clouds below me - watching mountain peaks and lakes appear and disappear in the haze. One could also see a rainbow in it all. Fantastic. That night, most of us got together for a few drinks and some dancing. It was great to see the repoire of the new group. They seem to get along well and to be very inclusive. Our group (B-18) was great, but I wouldn't have called it an inclusive group. I like being around the new trainees. They give me newfound enthusiasm for volunteer work, and I'm starting to feel better about my decision to stay for a third year. It's still hard watching my group leave though. Just about every day, someone trickles out and says "Сбогом." (Farewell.)
The next day, we hiked down and stopped by a waterfall. So, yeah, it was a great trip, but it made me nostalgic for the time when I went with the B-18s during our training. Also, the CD (Country Director) made an announcement today that it's the last hike of its kind that's going to be happening during training. Peace Corps doesn't want the liability of having 50+ volunteers together in the mountains without supervision. It's lame, but I also wouldn't want to be the person making such decisions. There was an incident the first night, and a trainee was sent back to the states because of it. I don't always agree with Peace Corps, but I can see where they're coming from. In the end, they make up an organization that can't handle public relations nightmares. Peace Corps can't risk bad publicity.
So, I returned to my site tired and worn out - for one day. I helped with some project writing, put up some posters for our "European Year of Equal Opportunities for All" Fair (which is happening tomorrow!), and I taught an English class. Yesterday, I got up early and caught four different buses for a four hour trip to Bobov Dol - a training site. I was there to assist the trainees with their youth meeting. I got there early, so I went and had lunch at one of the girls' houses with three of the four trainees. Afterwards, they showed me three glorious pools that drew crowds in their heyday. Trees and stagnant water now occupied them, but people in town talk about how awesome they once were. The trainees wished they could do a project to restore the pools.
After the small tour, we walked to the school and gleaned project ideas from a solid group of young people. The trainees soon had me in charge of writing, in Bulgarian, the project ideas up on the board. After a long discussion, the trainees were able to reach a consensus with the kids: they'll be cleaning up and restoring a local play area.
After the session, I debriefed with the trainees. I really like the group in Bobov Dol. They're pretty laid back, and they're pleasant even when they're stressed out. I hung out with them for a while, and then I went with a few of them over to the project site in question. I can say this: It has nowhere to go but... better.
I returned to Dupnitsa for the night and got Chinese food (another ethnic food I can't wait to eat in the states) with another volunteer. I was exhausted by the time I went to bed.
Random question: You're the manager of a hotel, and your guests (not Apryl!) leave blood stains on the mattress. What's your plan of action? It's obviously going to gross out your other guests. Yeah. Blood stains. Eww.
This morning, I got up to help out with a Tolerance Session. I had helped with the session last year, but it was in a different format. Another volunteer and I had a wealth of activities for the trainees to do. They were constantly moving last year. This year, they had a panel made up of two Bulgarian counterparts and myself, and they wanted me to talk about gender tolerance and my work with women. I know. I'm just as confused as you are. My work with women? Okay, so I told the technical trainer (my friend, Anna) that I would basically BS it.
Fortunately, I was the last to go, and I was the only one who didn't need translation. I had a lot of nervous energy, and so I tried to calm myself down by standing up (which the trainees did with me) and getting them to laugh - which they thankfully did and were pretty responsive to me. Their smiles of encouragement and recognition (both when I was initially introduced and when I talked) made it that much easier. So I talked about baseball. I talked about the girls' volleyball camp we had over the summer. I talked about English classes and other classes. I tried to share ideas with them on how to get females involved in whatever you're doing. Afterwards, I was told I did a good job, and they said it was helpful. I hope it was.
So, here I am to remind you, once again, how small the world really is: One of the trainees is familiar with the Carmichael area of Sacramento. I told her that I went to school there, and I gave her the street intersection. "Oh, I know where that is," she said. "Isn't that an Adventist school?" I told her to stop freaking me out, and she just laughed. She has family in the area.
Also, one of the trainees in Bobov Dol attended Andrews University - again, for all you Adventists. He had some friends who went to La Sierra University (where I attended), and he's Adventist. We talked about the decision to join Peace Corps vs. ADRA and discussed a few other things only we would understand. Crazy. The world is one heck of a tiny place.
So, tomorrow is the fair that we've been planning for quite some time. I hope people show up. The program has been trimmed slightly because any teachers that are leading dancing/singing/acting groups are on strike and might be too busy refusing to work to let their kids participate. Otherwise, we have pensioners and disabled persons participating. It's going to be one heck of a show. I hope people show up. I don't think it has been well-advertised. I'm planning on standing out in front of the "chitalishte" (cultural center) tomorrow in a special t-shirt while handing out brochures and balloons. I'll also be taking pictures, since I seem to be Future Foundation's designated photographer. I hope it goes well. Of course, I will be letting you all know.
I do like the theme of the campaign though. As I mentioned before, it's the "European Year of Equal Opportunities for All," and C.E.G.A. has come up with a campaign slogan: "Put Yourself in My Place" They have a brochure that explains that no one chooses their ethnicity, abilities and talents, sexual orientation, social status, etc. "Many times we ask children what they want to be when they grow up - a lawyer? a doctor? an astronaut? Have you ever heard anyone say they want to grow up to be Roma? a beggar?" What cracks me up is they go on to talk about smokers and vegetarians. Of course, there are still choices in life. But, yeah! Don't discriminate against us vegetarians... or rather, pseudo-vegetarians!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Jealousy

I'm so jealous of this guy. I think I could take him - especially having gone two years without eating one.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Soapbox Gets a Little Bigger....

I'm here to climb up on my soapbox again. I don't think project funding should be determined by people you know personally. There's too much question about whether your project was approved (or vice versa) because of your relationship to that person. Well, Peace Corps does it with SPA, but somehow it's different. And I think you should always be able to submit your documents electronically, so you can be sure that everyone on the commission is seeing all of your documents at the same time, and there can't be any "discussion" if a document is suddenly "lost." Why am I saying this? Well, a few weeks ago, we were helping schools and pre-schools in the area to apply to the Minestry of Education and Science. One of the guys reviewing the submitted documents is from Rakitovo. Because we know who he is, we get to now speculate why some projects were approved, some weren't, and some had their documents mysteriously "vanish." If the commission were filled with people we didn't know, we wouldn't even have the pleasure of speculation. Bulgaria can be like a small town sometimes. I think committee members who approve projects should be taken out of the equation when institutions in their towns are on the line.
In other news, the schools are about to go on strike... again. I already had my rant about why I think teacher's should be paid well and shouldn't strike. What's going to happen to the students? I saw on the news today (of course, we all know how the media can be....) that teachers were having a "Day of Silence" as part of their pre-strike activities. In one class, students were doing the horo instead of studying. It turns out that we might have a hard time holding our fair for the "European Year of Equal Opportunities for All" (I love the European Union and its brevity) without teachers to bring together the students to participate. All that work.... I'm going to momentarily climb off my soapbox and get something to eat.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

My Little Soapbox

I dreamt that I was eating a burrito the other night. It was mostly tortilla, and I couldn't get to the good stuff inside. It was torture! I woke up with my stomach growling. Seriously, when I get back to the states, I'm eating Mexican food at least three times a week! I plan on gaining some serious weight - since my clothes are hanging off me over here and I can't seem to feed myself properly. "Is there food in Rakitovo/America?" is a question I've been asked twice too many times. I can't wait to gorge myself... in 62 more days.
Speaking of my schedule, I announced to my colleagues that I only have about 25 working days to give them until the New Year. I was so scared to tell them. They seemed to take it well - although who knows whether or not they began grumbling behind my back. Whatever. I have other things going on. I can't be in two places at once.
Let me randomly climb up on my soapbox and talk about September 11th. Six years ago: Remember how devastating it all was? No one cared what was going on with Britney Spears or any other celebrities? We thought we had outgrown superficiality, and some of us cared more about making major life decisions or going to church. Well, the other day, on CNN.com, I noticed that Britney was back on top. Second was another entertainment story, and third was a story about a 9/11 memorial. I admit it: I read the Spears story first. Remember six years ago - when we were all so traumatized that someone would hate us enough to construct a plot so vile... and our government (debatably) knew nothing about it? Remember how vulnerable we felt? Remember how we thought that it might be the end of the age of superficiality? Well, I never thought that. I knew celebrities would be back at the top of the news in no time. I don't think there will ever be an end to the age of superficiality. As long as we can get our news when we want it and how we want it, we will always want to know what famous people are doing to screw up their lives. *Climbing down off soapbox*
My colleague shared with me the other day how she's doing all she can to make her house a good place to live for her four-year-old son. She wasn't talking about now, mind you (although I'm sure conditions are currently adequate for a four-year-old); she was talking about making it a suitable place for him to take over when he grows up. I know that's the pervading idea here (houses get passed on for generations), but I don't think I've ever heard someone actually say it. I asked her, "What if he doesn't want to live there when he grows up?" She said, "I thought of that, and I would hope that he would at least sell it and reap the profits." The idea is so foreign to me. In the states, the kids usually go out and find their own house when they grow up. I like it that way. I don't know. It seems like it's not a good lesson in self-sufficiency when the kids knows that he can pretty much rely on his parents until they die. I'm not judging. I'm just comparing and saying I like the idea I've grown up with better - although it would be nice to have a ready-made house to live in forever if I wanted to.
I played baseball with a bunch of boys yesterday, and a lot of them were rather new to the game. We had a good time except for the fact that we kept loosing the balls into a thicket of gnarly plants, and I kept sending "my little soldiers" in to retrieve them. We always got them back - except for one. When I left the field, there were some boys still risking stinging nettle attacks to try and find it. I really impressed on them how valuable the balls were. What impressed me was the fact that these were all new boys. They weren't the ones who have been playing with me all this time. They were awesome. I wonder if they found that ball. I hated to break to them that Thursday would be our last day. It's getting colder, I'm getting busier now that I have classes again, and work in the office is insane.
I'm writing this post as lightning is flashing outside. I LOVE IT! My hair is still soaking wet from when I walked home from Yanko's in the rain. Part of me wanted to just stand out in the rain. I had Spanish with Maria and Reneta, and I didn't have an umbrella. I don't particularly like the winter is coming, but I love the cold mornings in Rakitovo. There's this smell in the crisp air that is so familiar and makes me feel alive. It invigorates me, and I'm willing to let it stick around as long as it continues to warm up in the afternoon.
I got home, and there was a woman waiting for me. Misho, my landlords' son-in-law, said that I had a guest, and pointed to her. I said, "Okay, yeah, but look at me!" I looked like a drowned rat. I quickly changed and grabbed some things 'cause I thought she was going to take me to another woman's house (a woman at the Evangelical Church and I had made plans for me to go to her house), but it turned out she had just come because she wanted to sign up for English. I'm tired of this English. I've cut out my kid classes (much to the chagrin and confusion of kids around town), and I'm so tempted to get rid of my adult classes as well. I don't know why I'm so against it. Maybe it's because I have to go up to the center every day because of them. Or because I know I'll have to go up earlier come winter to light the stove. Or because, while I'm good at it and enjoy it to a certain extent, I'm not fulfilled by it.
We've been working on a huge project in the office. It's in Bulgarian, so I can only help so much, but my colleagues make a huge deal about how vital I am to the process. It's part of the reason I feel badly (but not too badly) that I'm going to be MIA so much in the near future. I love planning on how to make a difference. I love the idealism of it all. I don't necessarily love putting that plan into action, 'cause that's where you can see where you screwed up and planned things that people really aren't going to follow through on. Or you see how your ideas didn't quite get the expected results. I love writing it all out in a project, however, and being optomistic.
It's time to admit a personality flaw: Okay, so we all know people in our lives that annoy us to some extent. The "problem" with claiming Christianity, however, is that you're supposed to love those people - even if you don't like them. Well, there's a boy in town (I've mentioned him before) who's a rather nice fellow, but he drives me batty. He comes up to me and throws words at me in English, hoping something will stick... like spaghetti. For example, he'll sit down next to me and say, "The school! The windows! The payment! The coffee!" Repeat this dialogue at least three times. From this, I'm supposed to deduce that he's finally been paid for the work he's done on the new windows at the school, and now he wants to take me out to coffee. Augh! I need a decoder ring for this boy. No conjunctions and no verbs make Apryl very grumpy.
So, there I was in church, listening to the preacher talk about how we are expected to spend time with those who annoy us. Immediately, he comes to mind. It isn't until after the service that I notice that he's actually in the church! "No!" I scream to God in my mind, "I'm not ready to be tested in this capacity yet!" Most everyone else in town seems to like him, but I'm guessing that's because he speaks Bulgarian to them (with conjunctions and verbs and everything!), and he's an orphan. Orphans deserve a high love quotient. I just can't seem to not want to avoid him. Pray for me.
My laptop is still being lame! Seriously. I'm having the hardest time getting the charge to stick. How am I going to waste time if my computer decides to die on me?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Broken Heart That's Still Beating

You probably saw the title and thought, "Oh, great. Another 'woe-is-me' post from this crazy navel-gazer." Actually, it's a line from a song that I really like. It's become my theme song of sorts for the moment. It speaks volumes to me about my current situation in Bulgaria, my relationship with God, and life in general. I love it.
On a random tangent, have I raved about the produce in Bulgaria? Good gravy, that stuff is amazing. And it's cheap! I don't think I've had a bad tomato in this country. I just finished eating a fruit salad with chunks of green apple, a peach, kiselo mlyako (a delicious, sour-tasting yogurt), and muesli. I think I might die from the deliciousness of it all. I'm still hungry, though, and I'm still dying to eat Mexican food. I plan on eating it at least three times a week while I'm in the states (only 68 more days to go!), so I'll actually look forward to another 11 months of deprivation. So, I took a couple days off last week 'cause, you know, they were holidays. Well, it turns out that my colleagues went to the office on Thursday (Hello! Do we know what a national holiday is?) and did some project writing. I found out from Reneta when I was walking to baseball: "Today is a holiday? But my mom and dad were in the office." So, on Friday, I went and found the entrance locked. There are several offices in our building, and the main entrance was locked. So, I made plans to high-tail it out of Rakitovo. I found out the next week that my colleagues had locked themselves inside so as to not be disturbed while doing some project writing. Did anyone call me? No. I told this to Yanko, and he said, "We wanted to let you rest." Huh? He agreed to call me if they were working. I said, "Oh, so you just conveniently forgot about the volunteer." "Nooo!" he said as he grabbed my head in his hands, "We just wanted you to relax." Okay, so wait... what was the whole speech about before where I'm Future Foundation's "property?" and I need to be spending more time in the office doing, um, project writing? (sigh)
Oh, and here's something interesting: Bulgarians will switch a holiday for a "working Saturday." For example, last Thursday was a national holiday. So, to "make up" for it, this Saturday is a work-day. Huh? What's the point of a holiday? Holiday = day off NOT "switch for Saturday." Even dictionary.com agrees. It's a freebie. It kind of works out 'cause kids and teachers have to go to school on Saturday regardless. September 15th is the first day of school. It's written in stone, and it doesn't matter if it falls on Christmas. (Like my wit?) It's always the first day of school. Of course, it's not a REAL day of school. It's more for first-graders to go and give flowers to their teacher. They walk in, see the classroom, let their moms take pictures, and then go on their way. The upper-grades show up, but it's kind of a moot point for them. Wait, am I using "moot" correctly?
So, I escaped to Byala Slatina this weekend. My friend, SaraBeth, of volleyball camp days lives up there. When we had our site placements two years ago, she came over and said, "We work under the same parent organization! We're going to be seeing a lot of each other!" And, yes, while both our organizations are tied to C.E.G.A., she visited me for the first time because of the volleyball camp, and I finally made it up to her site this last weekend.
I had an awesome time with her, and it made me think I should have made the effort to get up there earlier. She took me out to eat at fabulous restaurants, and we had a great time talking, over innumerable cups of tea, late into the night. She took me to the Adventist church in the Roma mahala. Most of the youth she works with attend that church, and they were warm and welcoming to me. Adventists. Small world, huh? So, yeah, I had a great weekend. I got up at 5 a.m. on Monday to catch a bus back to Sofia. I literally had five minutes to say good-bye to my friend, Andy. He came to the central bus station to give me a hug and put me in a cab for the south bus station. He wasn't ready to be leaving Bulgaria. And as selfish as this is, it made me feel good to hear. So many people are looking forward to getting out of here, and the mood is kind of contagious. Andy was feeling just the opposite, and it was refreshing... especially for someone who actually is sticking around.
I literally *just* made my bus from Sofia to Velingrad. I asked the taxi driver if he thought we would make it on time, and he said, "Sure, but I could drive you directly to Velingrad. I'd only ask for 150 leva." "Hmmmm... 150 leva in a taxi vs. 10 leva on the bus. No, thank you. You think I'm wealthy 'cause I speak Bulgarian with an accent?" I thought he might purposely sabotage me so I might consider it. I was trying to make a 9:30 a.m. bus, and the next one wouldn't be until 1:30 p.m. It's quite the dilemma if I miss the first bus, but it's not a 150 leva dilemma. Fortunately, he must have broken 138 different traffic laws (and made my knuckles permanently hinged and white) to get us there on time. He started asking if I knew what route the bus takes so we could cut it off on the freeway. I tsked and nodded my head "no." Fortunately, we were able to cut the bus off at the station. I thanked him for "the exception," (What? I meant to say "adventure!" He must have wondered what I meant by "the exception." Silly Apryl and her silly Bulgarian - this is why I'm not at a "Superior" level.) and jumped on the bus. The driver literally pulled out as I was stumbling to a seat. Ah, transport in Sofia. Good times.
I made it back to the office on Monday afternoon, and my colleagues were all in exceptionally good moods. Yanko brought in cookies and soda - for what reason, I don't know. Ani had cut her finger during lunch, had practically passed out, and then was laughing about it in the office. Valia was more subdued - confiding in me her latest dilemma. Ani soon turned to me and said, "You're about to take over all my work for this week." She and Valia had to go to Veliko Turnovo for the rest of the week for a seminar. "Really? Awesome. What do you want me to do?" So, she explained, and I wrote everything down. "I know it will get done if I give Apryl something to do," she said to everyone else in the office. Of course. Why wouldn't it? It's just so rare that my colleagues actually ask me to help them in their program-specific work. So, what did Ani want me to do? During the "Week of Active Citizenship," we want to have a fair commemorating the "European Year of Equal Opportunities for All." Go and talk to six local schools about participating in this fair the end of this month. Talk to the "chitalishte" (every town has a cultural center) about space. If you can get a headcount of participants, talk to a local cafe about appetizers. I was up to the challenge.
So, yesterday, I gave four of the schools a heads-up. Basically, I got the same reply from all of them: "We can't give you any information about participants until after the first day of school." Yes, yes, but could you please keep it in mind? All except one school is willing to participate... at least, in these early stages of "hey, sounds good," they want to participate.
Yanko was laughing at me 'cause of the way I've been talking to people on the phone. It's one thing for people who know me and for those I talk with in person. At one of the schools, all the teachers were leaning in to hear how I'd express myself. It caused me to stumble over the more elaborate words. It's another, however, for people I haven't interacted with, and we're on the phone. "Hi. I'm the volunteer who works with Future Foundation, and I apologize for my 'broken Bulgarian.'" Yanko thinks it's hilarious, but then he adds, "If they spoke English half as well as you speak Bulgarian...," and he just shakes his head. People have been very patient and accommodating. I just like having something to do that's so "out of the norm."
A couple representatives from C.E.G.A. were in the office today. I have had a tepid relationship with them ever since the whole "What computers? We never promised you computers!" incident. Yeah, sometimes I can hold a grudge past its expiration date. I'm courteous when they come in the office, but I usually don't interact with them beyond, "Hi. How are you?" Well, I've decided to open up more the past couple times that they've been there. And they've warmed up to me as well. One has taken to supporting me with my project-writing suggestions, and she catches my eye when she's talking about how to formulate goals, objectives, etc. I think she respects my "oh-so-expansive" (eyes rolling) project knowledge. Quite a turn from, "You can't write fake items in the budget!" The other woman was joking with me and winking at me.
The interesting thing is, I could put the mood of the conversation on "repeat" with C.E.G.A. We get together. We sit down and eat some salty snacks, cookies, and we drink some soda. They look over what we're doing, and then Yanko and C.E.G.A. reps get into a heated discussion (filled with jokes to break the tension) about why we're doing things the way we're doing them and why they're wrong. Then Yanko will ask for money for something, and C.E.G.A. will deny it. The nice thing is, the jokes really do lighten the mood. I don't know. I really think we have an interesting love/dislike-to-some-extent relationship with C.E.G.A., but we both need each other. The funny thing is, as of late, I find myself agreeing more with the stances C.E.G.A. takes on funding issues. In the past, I would have almost always agreed with the other side - whoever it may be.
I'll be back in English classes next week. I've decided only to continue with the teachers. That will be plenty for me this round. I've done the "four classes a day" thing, and I'm over it. My kids have been asking when we'll have English, and now I get to look into their disappointed faces when I tell them we're not. I know. I'm the "bad guy." It's just that it's a "pick your assignment" adventure as a volunteer, and I've decided I don't want to teach classes all day long to people who may or may not show up. As the teachers were the most reliable and well-behaved, I've decided to go ahead and continue with them.
It will be interesting trying to explain my upcoming schedule to them, however. Basically, I'll be completely unreliable until after the New Year. First, Peace Corps will be knocking at my door for some "experience" support until the trainees swear-in. After that, I'm going on a trip for a couple weeks with a COS-ing (do you know the acronyms now?) volunteer. Then, I have about half a month until I return to the beloved motherland for six weeks. I love being a pseudo-slacker. They'll just have to take what they can get.
And now, for the weather report. We had some nice days last week. They were followed by rain. Ever since then, the weather has decided to get progressively chillier. The sun shines, but there's a chill in the air. I love it. Everything feels fresh and awake. I feel alive. I just don't want it to get any colder. Last year, Jack Frost gave us a wimpy excuse for a winter. I'm thinking he'll unleash with a vengeance this year. I can wait. I am placated by the thought that I'll be spending over a month of this Bulgarian winter in my beloved California.
The new group of trainees found out their site placements this last Monday. They met their counterparts yesterday, and I can only imagine that they are all in their new sites today. I almost envy them. Yes, it was a completely nerve-racking and stressful time, but everything was so new and interesting. I don't think I want to relive it, but I want to experience something utterly soul-baring, heart-palpitating, this-is-going-to-change-everything new. It'll probably be another year before anything like that happens, but I should be careful what I ask for.
I'd like to state my gratitude to my amazing and wonderful laptop. It has been there for me many a time. It doesn't matter whether I'm lonely or what-have-you. My laptop has seen me through varying trials in this Peace Corps experience. I'm so grateful to have it - even though it's also a ball-and-chain of sorts. So, yeah, I'm addicted to it. That being said, it's being completely infuriating. For a while now, it's been overheating. Yeah, geniuses put the fan on the underside of the laptop, so I don't see how it's supposed to cool itself... while it supports itself... while doing complex calculations. I've basically dealt with that problem, but now the power cord isn't connecting properly with the computer. I have to fiddle with it to recharge the computer/stop it from draining its battery. Well, this has started to overheat as well (if it's not connected properly) and I've actually caught it smoking on a couple occasions. SMOKING! There's no smoking while recharging the laptop! (sigh) I feel a Christmas wishlist present in the works.... Otherwise, what else will I find to drain my time with by posting to this blog, etc?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Edumacated

Okay, so that final comment in the last post got me thinking that I want to explain (what little I truly know) about the university education system here. Have I done this before? I think I have, but now I know a little more, and I want to share new information... well, based on what I've been told. I'm ASSUMING it's true. It makes me want to get down on my knees and thank the good Lord for the education system we have in the United States. Here are some things I had the pleasure of taking for granted when I applied for higher education.

1. Schools courted me. I didn't really have to go looking for a worthy university. There were thousands to choose from, and hundreds were sending me junk mail to remind me of their existence.
* This is not something I've heard of in Bulgaria. There are a handful of universities, and you go looking for them.
2. If you want to go to university, you can. The only question is it might be harder to get into a specific school.
* It's hard to get into a university in Bulgaria. For just about anyone. Apparently, you either have to be wealthy or "the best of the best." Period.
3. If you're willing to take out loans and work hard for scholarships, college is financially feasible.
* Finances stop many people from attending university in Bulgaria. And the rumor is that the financially secure don't worry about testing their way in. They can pay someone off, and their admission is taken care of. I talked with a guy once who admitted to buying his diploma.
4. Standardized tests (SAT, ACT, etc.) covering a range of subjects are used by just about every university to determine student selection. This is combined with high school grades.
* Each university has its own test, and you test into a specialty. If you want to apply to a university, you have to take their test. This is combined with high school grades.
5. I could change my major at anytime. One moment, I'm a BioChem major. The next, I'm doing Liberal Studies if I want... even if my grammar sucks and no one thinks I can write worth a damn.
* Once you state your preference of study, you're locked in at least until the next year - where you can change as long as you have good grades and there's space. So sorry if you decide that you don't want to be a Sociologist after all. And, if your grades suck, well... pay us some money to overlook you, or you'll be out of luck.
6. Discrimination was something I didn't worry about. Sure, I hated that I didn't get as many scholarships because of my being a WASP and not a minority. Reverse discrimination! However, my everyday life as a WASP more than makes up for missing out on some free money.
* (sigh)

I have a friend who finds herself in an interesting predicament: She did well on a university entrance test, and she was selected in the first round of candidates. The irony of it all is that she didn't mark her preferred specialty as her first choice, and she can't change it now. "What do you mean you don't want that specialty? You aced the test and you placed in the first round? What more do you want?" Yeah, well, I decided I didn't want to be a Communications major; I wanted to be a Spanish major. And now my Spanish bites! Anyway, in my case, I changed my opinion on a dime. In her case, she's no longer excited that she was accepted despite all the odds.

Bulganish/Spangarian/Bulganski/Ispangarski/Españuro/Bulgañol

It’s a mouthful, I know, but we’ve settled on “Spanglish” as a term to describe the mix of Spanish and English. Now, I’d like your vote for term to best describe the mix between Spanish and Bulgarian. This is what I was speaking yesterday when some Spanish bikers randomly showed up at a bus stop on the way to Velingrad. I heard them jabbering in their distinct Castilian accents, and I immediately asked (in Spanish) what part of Spain they were from. I tried to talk to them a little more, but it was a painful process as my Bulgarian was getting in the way. I told them that my “Bulgarian” was messing up my “Spanish.” Thing is, I forgot to mention that Bulgarian is my third language. I never told them my nationality, and they probably thought I was just some Bulgarian who spoke Spanish rather poorly.
They were exchanging niceties with me, and I kept shaking my head at them (Bulgarian for “yes;” just about everywhere else in the world for “no”). It was also hard to hear them above the rain. They complimented me on my Spanish, but I know how good it can be, and I was getting incredibly frustrated. Every time I’d try to think of a word, the Bulgarian version would pop out. They probably thought I was crazy. One biker stayed behind, and I started talking to him just to keep speaking Spanish. I lamely explained that I had some girls (not my daughters) who study Spanish with me, and I wished they had been there to practice with real Spaniards. He didn’t get why I referred to them as “my girls.” Then I started explaining to him that I wished I could go back to Spain because it was so beautiful there. He pointed to the surrounding areas and said it was pretty amazing here. I agreed, but told him I was tired of living here. I wanted to return to Spain. He looked at me like I was crazy, “I live in Paris.”
On his way out, he said that his girlfriend was from Bulgaria. “Oh, what part?” “Oh, well, she’s actually Turkish, but she lives in Bulgaria.” He asked me if I understood. Oh man, he asked me if I understood. My Spanish must be SUCKING! I barely reacted to the girlfriend comment. I was frustrated with my lack of language ability (now I couldn’t even think in Bulgarian!), the fact that I wouldn’t be able to speak Spanish anymore with him, and that the bus was running late. I don’t have an “on-off switch” in my head: Speak Spanish! Now speak Bulgarian! I would love to have to translate for a Spaniard and a Bulgarian. They’d probably die laughing.
But here’s how the scenario might have played out in their heads if I looked as crazy as I felt, and I love this scenario. It’s awesome.
Scenario: Bulgarian girl waiting for bus stop in the rain. Whoa! She speaks some Spanish. That’s nice. But she says that her Bulgarian is messing with her Spanish. How does your maternal language mess with your foreign language? I’ve never seen that before. Okay, so now she’s talking about her girls, but wait, they’re not her daughters. How are they “her” girls? And now she’s talking about how she wants to go back to Spain. She lives in this paradise, and she’s tired of it here. I tell I live in Paris, and she asks if I speak French. As I’m leaving, I tell her I have a girlfriend, and she looks visibly disappointed. Was she trying to get a relationship/ticket to Spain from a broken conversation in the rain at a bus stop? Psycho!
I love it. If I ever run into them ever again, I’m going to shout in English, “I’m an American!” and then I’m going to go get Maria and Reneta to talk to them in Spanish. Speaking of the Bulgarian language, I learned that they have a special word for “rotten eggs.” My landlords’ son-in-law told me that his son’s diaper smelled like (I forgot the Bulgarian word) and then he explained to me that it meant “rotten eggs.” Leave it to Bulgarians to have a separate word to describe the olfactory pleasures of spoiled poultry products. “No, the adjective with the noun is too much – let’s create a whole, separate word! Additional bonus: it’ll screw with foreigners!” Bulgarians are intensely proud (and they should be) by how rich their language is. It’s so rich, barely anyone speaks it properly. Then again, how many speak English flawlessly? A grammarian would have a field day with my blog!
So, I was in Dupnitsa over the past couple days assisting with Project Design and Management workshops for new volunteers. The first day was relaxed and actually pleasurable. The second day was more of a struggle. Project Design and Management isn’t the most interesting of topics, and it’s kind of intense. Writing projects can be a painful process, and trying to explain how to do it properly won’t always win you fans, but it really depends on your audience. We received good evaluations for both workshops, but the difference in atmosphere was palpable.
Besides work, being in Dupnitsa was fun because I got to hang out with other volunteers whose company I enjoy. We supported each other, went out to eat a lot, and I just liked being out of my town with other Americans. I was at the Peace Corps office yesterday for a while (got stuck ‘cause of rain and sudden lack of taxi cabs), and there were quite a few B18’s (other volunteers from my group) hanging around. I was listless, and being around them wasn’t helping my “feelings of futility.” Some had already COS’d (closed their service), and others were in the stage of COS’ing. I always like running into people in my group, but this time it was just a reminder that they were all “moving on,” while I was “staying behind.” The rain cried the pain I felt. I had little desire to move and return to my site. In fact, I caught a ride with a fairly pleasant conversationalist of a taxi driver who talked to me about how much he hated the Roma. I barely reacted. Former Apryl would have at least tried to get him to admit to having a Roma acquaintance he liked. Current Apryl didn't want to get into it. He tried to get a rise out of me by asking me if I liked "black people." (sigh) Don't even try, buddy.
Now that I’m back in my site, I really can’t describe what I’m feeling. I’ve started counting down the days until I return to the states for special leave (74 days!), and I really don’t want to be counting down the days, but here I am. Lame. Were I COS’ing, I could be going home in four days. I don’t want to think about that. I hope having “cold feet” at this stage is normal.
Today is “Съединение на България” – basically Bulgarian Unification Day. It’s the third I’ve celebrated since being here. I’ll celebrate it a total of four times before I leave. It’s odd to think about. But, for now, I have the day off. We’ll see if I’m going to get tomorrow off as well. We might be doing project writing. Ah, the sweetness of working for an NGO. I can’t take vacation like some other volunteers, and I sit in my town instead. Yes, I would like some cheese with my whine. I’m a bit hungry.
P.S. If you want to see something *interesting* about Bulgarian and Roma relations, go back to this post and see the last comment I just found. I don't even know how to react to it. "Anonymous," if you're still reading my nonsensical blog, I understand that there are problems with the educational system, but I haven't seen anything to support your claims. My Roma friends struggle just as hard (if not harder) to get into university. So, while what you say might be true, I haven't personally seen any evidence to back it up. Plus, if you talk to me and truly know who I am, you realize that I'm not the person to "sympathize" with in such matters. (sigh)