Sunday, October 14, 2007

Little Trip to Sanity

So, Peace Corps needs to come out and do a check of the apartment I'm planning on moving into. I was going to have them look at both possibilities and then choose the best one. Well, apparently Peace Corps is too busy to come out at the moment, so they sent me a checklist to fill out. I have to look for things like... making sure the apartment is "away from landslide prone locations, rivers and ravines, rail stations and major industrial pollutants" and "safe water heaters" and the like. So, with my little list in hand, I went to the first place: the place where the guy said he wasn't going to remodel and then decided that he would remodel after all. We woke up his napping wife, and I felt like a jerk for imposing. Yanko wasn't fazed, however. She took us upstairs and showed us what they were doing. The place was getting ripped apart. I couldn't answer any of my questions, which was just as well. I was thinking how cool the place was, when we ran into her husband as we were walking out.
"So, you saw what we were doing up there," he said.
"Yeah," I replied. "When will it be ready?"
"Well, you can see how much we're doing. It'll be a while."
I explained to him my upcoming travel plans and told him that I had hoped to be in before I went back to the states. He wasn't so sure, and then he started talking about how they were making the place exquisite for me; they would buy new furniture and everything. Okay, that sounded cool. "So, that means the price is going to go up."
My heart sank, "By how much?"
"I can't let you live here for less than 100 euro."
Why was this guy talking to me in euro? We deal in leva here. "So, 200 leva."
I started talking about how that seemed like a lot of money and Peace Corps wasn't going to agree to pay that much. He then started talking about how America is a wealthy country, and Peace Corps has money to burn. I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide. Everyone could see how uncomfortable I was, and they were just laughing, so I decided to make the best of it.
"You wanna give me a car, too? How about a goat and some chickens?"
They just laughed. I'm honestly tired of people thinking I have unlimited access to money. My only problem is where to spend it all. Sure, geniuses. Let's think about that again....
So I wrote Peace Corps. Sure enough, I was denied. It was a relief. I called the guy and told him.
"Well, explain to Peace Corps that you're getting a whole floor and...."
I cut him off, "They're not going to go for it." They had already approved the first price when he quoted 160 leva a month, and I told him that 160 was going to be their ceiling. He tried to talk me into fighting for it, but I told him I had found a place when he told me that he wasn't going to remodel, so I was going to stick with that. Now, I'm just hoping that works out. Again, hopefully it'll all get clarified before I go to the states.
What's funny to me is that the place I currently live in is better than that other apartment, and it has all the amenities he's talking about giving me. It's sad, but we all know the reason why I can't stay there any longer. Speaking of the reason I can't stay there any longer, they were back again this weekend. I had to escape. I'll get to that.
Enyo and Milka invited me to go to Enyo's sister's place for dinner. She had made "pulneni chushki" (stuffed peppers) and "mequitsi" (fried dough), and since those are my absolute favorite Bulgarian dishes, I couldn't refuse. It was interesting going and seeing the house Enyo grew up in; raised his family in for a few years. There were once 11 people all living in that house. Amazing. I still refuse to feel guilty for wanting to live alone - no matter what Bulgarian culture dictates.
So, as I said, my two least favorite non-guests came by, and I had to get out to preserve my sanity. I called a friend and asked if I could visit her, but she never got back to me, so I decided to go to Sofia and play "independent girl hits the big city." It was the best idea I've had in a long time. I thought, as a plus, I could pick up some books Thomas had been wanting. Well, that goal wasn't fulfilled, but the trip was definitely worth it.
The hostel I usually stay at was full, so I got to try out a new place. The owner was a really friendly guy who carried on a pleasant conversation with me in Bulgarian. When he found out I was from California, he asked if I spoke Spanish. Then he started talking to me in Spanish. Whoa. Awesome. Then his friend came by with gin and tonic. Then a real, live Spanish girl showed up. We were enjoying listening to the owner strum his guitar and sing songs in Spanish. I was jealous of his ability to switch between English, Spanish, and Bulgarian with facility. I've complained about my struggles with that. The brain is an amazing thing. Mine is always ready to produce the Bulgarian word for something when I'm looking for the Spanish one. Fascinating and infuriating.
That evening, the Spanish girl and I went out. I tried my best to speak Spanish with her, but I was failing miserably. Of course, I understood everything she was saying. I just struggled to respond. We spent a lot of time speaking in lame, old English. Meh. We had a good time, though. We found a restaurant with traditional, Bulgarian food, and she told me to order for her. Then, we walked all over the center to try and find a place to get a beer. I dragged that poor girl all around. She was a good sport, though. And I loved listening to her speak Spanish. No one beats the Spanish at speaking Spanish. I love that language.
So, I went out to look for books and do some shopping therapy. I found some Spanish schoolbooks for my lessons with Maria and Reneta. I'd been wanting that for a long time. As for clothes shopping, it seems that one can never find anything they like when they're actually looking. C'mon girls, you know what I'm talking about. You want to buy yourself something cute to make you feel good, and everything is either too expensive or just isn't your style. You go out to support a friend with her shopping therapy however, and everything is calling out to you, "Buy me!" Yeah, so everything I liked was ridiculously expensive. I did splurge on some jeans, though. Anyone with me would have sworn that I actually am an American with money to burn. I waver between loving my new jeans and having buyer's remorse.
Clothes shopping in Bulgaria is an interesting experience. Usually, when you go in a store, you get ignored. No one is at the front to greet you. Sometimes they do greet you, and that's nice. And you're left alone to shop. I've been in stores at times, however, where they won't leave you alone. That's the most unnerving of all.
Like today, I walked into a brand name store, and the girl was right by my side. Huge smile. "Can I help you find anything?"
"I'm just looking, thanks."
She smiles, and I wander off to look at some enticing denim. As I'm fingering it, she's right behind me. "Do you want to try that on?"
"I'm sure I will in a minute," I reply.
I grab a couple pairs, and she's Smile. "That's going to be too big on you. You're going to need a smaller size."
Smile. "This is fine." I think I know what size I wear. And even if it is big on me, I know what I like.
Smile. "You need a smaller size. Here, I'll get it for you."
Fortunately, she couldn't find a different size of either of the jeans I was holding. I almost got both pairs 'cause they were that awesome and made me look that good, but then I regained my sanity. Her colleague was right there next to her. Smile. "Can we interest you in a blouse or a sweater to go with your new jeans?"
Smile. "No, thank you."
Smile. Credit card. More smiling. Deal closed. They're happy, and I'm happy... except for brief, anxious moments of buyer's remorse, "Apryl, you could have done so much more with that money. What was that everyone says about the wealthy American?" All that hovering on their part must equal a pretty hefty commission. Maybe they're working their way to affording their own pair of ridiculously-priced jeans. Well, I'm wearing them as I type this, and I'm telling you... I can feel how awesome I look in these jeans. Hahaha.
So, I went to another book store to find some books for Thomas, and I came face to face with the eerie stare of one of the employees. It probably would have bothered me, except that he was really cute. I felt his eyes on me, and I figured he was probably thinking I'd look great in the pair of jeans I was holding onto. Haha. Either that, or he thought I looked like a complete goofball. I asked the cashier something, and she motioned to him that she thought an old guy in a heavy overcoat had stolen something. He walked out for a moment, then he came back in and said to her quite seriously, "Just because he's an old guy in a big coat doesn't mean he stole something." He wandered off, and she made a face. I smiled at her, but I thought, "Oh my goodness, I love this guy." So, M-Tel guy in Velingrad, bookstore guy in Sofia... I'm adding to my list of "Bulgarians I'm not-always-so-secretly infatuated with." Just in case you briefly forgot that I can be a superficial girl... yeah. Cute boys drooled at from afar, expensive jeans, good conversation... it was a great weekend for "independent girl takes on big city." Mostly I just enjoyed the conversations and time spent with new people. It's been something I've really missed, and I've been craving it for a while. I'm don't think I'm a great conversationalist, and I think I put too much pressure on myself at times... the extrovert trapped in an introvert's body.
While waiting for the bus, I ran into the famous Krum. He has started talking to me again as of late, and he's always a joy. He broke into a smile when he saw me at the bus station, and he came right over and started whining about how how he was really hungry. He wanted me to help him out. I gave him four leva, and he was off! A minute later, he was back with "vafla" (a wafer with chocolate in the middle) for me. I tried to refuse, "I don't want this," but he shoved it on me. As the bus was taking off down the road, he hailed it down. We thought he was getting on, but he only jumped on long enough to say, "Where's Apryl?" When he saw me in the front row, he shoved a red carnation in my hand - along with a card that said "I love you" and a stick of gum. Then he jumped off again. The bus started talking about how he must really be in love with me. I couldn't decide whether to be mortified or die of laughter. He used most of the money I gave him to buy me presents. Oh, Krum.
Anyway, I'm off this week on a trip around Europe. Wealthy American strikes again! When I come back, countdown to Operation "Visit Motherland" is in full-effect and full-force! Whatever that means.... I'm just excited... and terrified.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Ten Ten Forty Ninety Nine Point Nine Nine

So, before you even join Peace Corps, you know the date your service will end. This makes sense, but let me just take you back to that day - the date is now unknown... sometime in 2005 - when I was sitting in my room and contemplating whether or not to accept the invitation to Bulgaria. Actually, it wasn't so much contemplation as I had already made up my mind. So there I am, looking at my invitation and at the top it says that, if I accept this invite and actually go to Bulgaria, my service will end 10.10.2007. "Whoa," I think, "That sounds SO far off...."
In reality, it's just a fixed point to guide you. The truth is, you can close your service (COS) a month before that date or a month after. Any time other than that needs approval from Washington. But I thought I would mark this date with a post just to get me thinking about the "insteads" of life and where they take you:
1. Instead of accepting my first invitation to be an English teacher, I decided to stick around and wait for the next invitation to Bulgaria. So, instead of being a B-17, I was a B-18. And here I am.
2. Instead of working in a school somewhere in Bulgaria, I wound up working for an NGO in Rakitovo. And here I am.
3. Instead of taking a different tack (one over which Peace Corps threatened to rescind my invitation), I decided to play by their rules and not pass up my opportunity. And here I am.
4. Instead of going home today, I filled out forms to get my Bulgarian ID renewed. And here I am.
5. Instead of going home today, I'm staying for a third year. And here I am.
6. Instead of my official COS date being 10.10.2007, it's now 11.10.2008 because I've decided to stay and extra year AND take special leave to the states. And here I am.
You kind of wonder where life would have taken you otherwise. Anyway, that was just for my own enjoyment. I actually filled out a memorandum stating that I was staying a third year and would be adjusting my COS date to November 10th, 2008. I put it off... wondering what would happen if I just didn't sign it. Dutifully, Peace Corps called me.
I went to renew my Bulgarian ID today, and the ladies at the police station in Pazardjik were all very helpful and nice, but I felt like I was getting taxed everywhere. They wanted 10 leva plus another 1.50 tax for every form. I had to pay a lev just to get the forms in the first place. So, I'm hoping my 24 leva will get the job done. I wish I could say that I'll never have to do this again, but I will have to do something to get permission to stay until November when it expires next year.
The lady, who has always helped me at that police station, was wondering why I was even bothering so early. My card doesn't expire until the end of the month. Well, I'm going on a trip, and this needs to be done now. "Yeah, but you're an American citizen. They're not going to deny you entry." I just want everything done and in its appropriate place. I've heard stories, and I'd rather be over-attentive than be another "story."
I brought my laptop into Velingrad to try and get it repaired. They refused to do it. Apparently the guy only works with desktops. I would have to go to one of the bigger cities. Fine by me. I'll just take it to the states and get it repaired there. I hope it'll ween me a bit from the internet, but I doubt it somehow.
I called a group of my teacher-students today. They hadn't showed up for English yesterday, and I wondered what was up with them. Well, now they're on strike as well, and they have to stay at the school all day to fulfill strike requirements. All right, well, we're not going to have class until November then. I'm not going to be here. I wonder what they'll have to say when I tell them we might as well not have class until after the New Year.
Speaking of, today is the 40-day mark until I go back to the motherland! I think of the biblical significance of 40 days and I think... I can make it! I'm so excited to go home. You don't understand. I think I started counting down at 80 days, and now we're halfway there. It's been flying by. Plus, I have a trip coming up next week (Slovakia, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands) to distract me in the meantime. I swear I've already checked out. November is going to be interesting.
Angel said something the other day that really made me think: "Apryl, sometimes you can't get what you want. No matter how much you want it, you just can't have it." It started me thinking about the things I have wanted in life, and what I did to get them. He's right, but I still feel like I've gotten 99.99% of the things in life that I've wanted. I don't necessarily feel wealthy or spoiled, but maybe I should. Or maybe that's just the way I grew up. If you want something, go get it. Huh. I wonder what you think. How do you feel about that? Have you gotten the things in life that you've wanted?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Buy-In, Opt-Out

The teachers are still on strike. They're really holding out. Well, so is the Ministry. They refuse to raise salaries, and the teachers refuse to go back to work. Meanwhile, the kids... I'm not sure what the kids are doing. They're probably doing much the same thing that they did during summer - only now it's kind of rainy.
On Saturday, I went to Velingrad to try and get my laptop repaired. The shop I went to last time I needed my laptop fixed was completely dark, and it said they were looking for someone to work in the store. I went to another place, and the only person there was the store manager. As always, the actual technicians weren't around. He figured out that the problem lies with the connection on the computer side. Basically, the plug (where you attach the charger) in the computer moves around, and my computer can't recharge without me holding it in an exact position. He told me to come back this week. I hope I can find time.
On Saturday evening, I went up to the Mahala. Yanko had asked me a couple days before if I wanted to see a "real Roma wedding." One of his relatives was getting married. Ani and Valia reminded him that I had, but the truth is I've only been part of the eating and dancing. I've never seen some of the other traditions that take place at prescribed points in time - some at midnight. I was intensely bored at home, so I went. I met Maria and Reneta at their house, and Reneta started complaining about how she hated being dressed up, and how ugly she was, when in fact she was quite lovely. We soon heard the drumming, and we went down the street to watch a group of people dancing the "horo."
Afterwards, we were shuttled into a hall for food and drinks. The wedding would last two days. The first evening, the parents of the bride were hosting the ceremonies, so they stood near the front door and accepted gifts and well-wishes from... well, it felt like the entire Mahala. People ate in shifts and then left. A few danced. I saw Angel standing outside, so I went to talk to him for a bit. He had just completed his first week at the university in Plovdiv, and I wanted to know what his impressions were. According to a local rumor, Angel and I are married. Whatever. I once heard that we were engaged, but I was never notified as to when we actually got married.
I returned home early because I had to get up at 5 a.m. the next day. I caught a bus out of Rakitovo at 5:20 a.m. I planned on going to Bobov Dol and help the trainees out with their youth activity. It wasn't long into my trip before I realized that rain awaited their project: a park improvement/clean-up. On the bus to Dupnitsa, I ran into another training group from a village called Dren. They were on their way to a bigger, university town - Blagoevgrad - to hang out, and I was enjoying my conversation with them so much, that I almost wished I could ditch out and go to Blagoevgrad with them.
I finally made it to Bobov Dol a little after 10 a.m. Traveling such distances honestly doesn't faze me anymore. It's just something you do. I hope that's something that stays with me in the states. Maybe it's because I'm not the one driving that I just don't care. I found the trainees seeking shelter near the playground - along with their language trainer, the PC technical trainer (my friend, Anna), and a couple Bulgarian kids. They decided that, in spite of the rain, they would go ahead and get started. One of the kids left for family reasons, but the other stayed. We mostly picked up trash and carted a bunch of sand off the blacktop. They tried to bend the bottom of the slide out, but it proved too rusty and unweildy.
Carting all that sand to the side of the playground was hard work. We banged on it with shovels and a pick-ax to break it loose, and then we carted it to the side of the playground. The sky was gray pretty much the whole time, and it basically drizzled on us non-stop. There's still a lot for them to do, but they got the bulk of the heavy stuff done. It reminded me of our project in Trud, but we had a few sunny days to help us out.
Afterward, we went to a fabulous pizza place. I had a pizza with onion, pineapple, and olives with thick crust! I'm only mentioning it 'cause it really was amazing - with entire rings of pineapple! Anyway, after we stuffed ourselves, I debriefed the assignment with the trainees. They were proud of what they had accomplished. It was true that they had worked hard - in the rain. From an American perspective, we were busy bees. The problem was, however, that they didn't have community involvement - other than the one really cool girl that decided to stay and help.
This is the trap one can fall into as a volunteer, and I myself have fallen into it many times. I have talked on this blog about the desire to be a "super volunteer," or at least to fit one's personal definition of what a "successful" volunteer looks like. Well, the American can run around and do all she wants, but if there's no community by-in, it's not going to be very meaningful or last long. Basically, for most things in this Peace Corps experience, nothing matters if the community doesn't have vested interest in it.
We Americans are used to saying, "If it is to be, it's up to me." If we want something done, we'll get it done. Bulgaria doesn't always work like that. I don't want to step on any toes here, but I really think the prevailing attitude is, "If it is to be, the government needs to do it. And if the government's not doing it, well, then it's up to us to complain." I'm not saying every single Bulgarian thinks this way. (Haha... notice how defensive I get now that I know that Bulgarians read my blog.) Anyway, from an American perspective, us moving sand from point A to point B in the rain looked like a bunch of hard-working, determined go-getters. From a Bulgarian perspective, I'm sure it was just silly. "What are these kids doing out in the rain? Don't they know that's how you catch a cold?" It's rare to find a Bulgarian working outdoors in the rain... because they're clever. It makes sense.
Anyway, Anna pointed this out to me, and I pointed this out to the volunteers, and I hope I didn't demotivate them. I even said, "I probably would have done exactly the same thing in your position. From my own perspective, 'cause I know how hard it would be to do this, I would respect you more if you went to Peace Corps and said, 'We didn't have community buy-in, probably due to the rain, so here's your money back,' than if you did the whole project yourselves. It's not your job to rebuild a playground. It's your job to get the community motivated to do something together." Well, they can't give the money back at this point, but I was reminding myself of something very important. Of course, they did get the use of shovels, pick-ax, and wheel barrel donated. Plus, they had some other people working on things in the background. I really hope they're able to get some more kids out there to get involved in the project. They're a great group of trainees, and I have enjoyed working with them as a resource volunteer. I only hope I've been a good resource. They swear-in as actual volunteers and move to their sites next week.
That night, as I couldn't get back to my site, I stayed in a hotel in Dupnitsa. I went out to dinner with Anna, and we had a nice conversation. I find it very easy to talk with Anna. I can't do that with everyone here. I'm usually quiet, but I feel like I can't shut up around her. She's a good friend. After the evening was over, as we've done a few times before, we found ourselves saying a "just in case" good-bye. I absolutely HATE those kinds of good-byes. Basically, you don't know if you'll see the person again before they leave the country, so you start out by saying, "Well, just in case I don't see you...." It's no one's fault that it's that way, but I absolutely hate that. If it's the last time I'm going to see that person, I'd prefer to know and actually say "good-bye."
Yesterday, I spent most of the day coming back to site. I was planning on getting up at 5 a.m. again, but one glance in the mirror at my bloodshot eyes told me I needed to go back to sleep. How good is that as a litmus test? "No, I can't come into work today. My eyes are too dark a shade of red." When I finally made it back to site, the office was empty. I went up to the Educational Center and had an English class. One of my students invited me back to her house for dinner, so I went. Afterwards, I hung out for a bit with my landlords. They're in the process of fermenting grapes for wine, so I had to go see how it was done. I think they appreciated my interest, and they invited me to stay late for tea. I still have to move, however. Apparently Peace Corps can't come out anytime soon, so I have to go through a checklist of the new place myself. Bleh.
Today, we had some guests from Pazardjik who led a discussion about contraceptives and safe sex. At first, we didn't have any attendees. Ani, Valia, and Veska went around last night - asking people if they would come. Of course, as usual, almost everyone said they would. When it was time for the meeting, however, no one showed. Ani and Veska went out and grabbed women off the street - just so people would be there for the session. I really hate that. "If you're not going to come, say you're not going to come. What will I do, hate you? Hold a gun to your head and tell you that you have to come?" Better to tell me you're not going to come, so I know what to expect. Why lie to me? Then I really will have a problem with you.
My English students didn't come for their lesson either. Well, sucks for them. Now I won't be able to have a lesson with them until November - if that even happens.
I have to go get my "lichna karta" (Bulgarian ID) renewed if I want to legally stay in the country. It expires at the end of this month, and I have to get on it 'cause I'm leaving for a trip on the 17th. I'll return on the 31st, and I'm not sure what immigration officials will have to say about me trying to enter the country again on the very day my ID expires. Bleh... "lichna karta" renewal... this will be the third time I go to Pazardjik for this reason, and it's never a pleasant experience. I always have to go more than a couple times to get it done.
Elections are coming up, as I've mentioned before, and everyone's got an agenda, a platform, and now advertisements to go along with it! One of the mayoral candidates has taken over a building in the center of town, and he's put up his apparent vision for Rakitovo. I'm guessing from a drawing there that, were it up to him, he'd bring investors in to build luxury apartments in our tiny town? I'm confused, but it simultaneously makes me wish I had the right to vote and be glad that I can't be a part of democracy in action. As I said before, Yanko is running for the municipal advisory board. Here's his poster:

Awesome. He looks just the right amount of serious/scary.

Friday, October 05, 2007

In My Place, You Must Put Yourself

In "Yoda Speak," I've decided to write this blog. Okay, not really. I'm alone in the office at the moment. Yanko went to Sofia to deliver our project, and Ani and Valia are having people fill out surveys in Pazardjik for a different project. I'm at "work," and I'm bored, so I'm posting to the infernal blog. November, apparently, is National Novel Writing Month, and I'm just trying to flex my fingers in preparation.
My computer is officially out of commission at the moment. The charger refuses to make a connection to the computer to recharge it. I feel lost without my computer, and I wonder what to do when I get home. I wonder how I lived without internet in my home for a year, and I wonder what I would do if I didn't have a laptop. A lot of different stuff, that's what! I'm pathetic.
I thought I would share with you something I read in C.E.G.A.'s most recent bulletin. It's a commentary with regard to the event we had last week for the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All. C.E.G.A., along with their partners (i.e. us) had a campaign titled "Put Yourself in My Place." The Bulgarian version is linked up above. Note: In the past, I've avoided using the Bulgarian words "tsigani" to describe Roma peoples. Although it's acceptable here (what really matters is the way you say it), I don't use it because, as far as I know, it comes from a word meaning "unclean." Check myths here. Plus, it just sounds harsh to me. My colleauges, however, frequently refer to themselves and others as "tsigani." My boss even prefers the word over "Roma." ("Who decided to come along and call me 'Rom?' I'm a tsiganin!") Anyway, I digress. My point is that I'm going to use that word in this article because it carries so much more meaning and weight - not to you possibly, but to me. Okay, so here's my translation of the article:

Look Through My Eyes; Put Yourself in My Place
I'm writing for you. Yes, for you, sitting in front of the computer; reading this bulletin. For you, who can use a computer - even internet. You can even work with them. You've even installed Adobe. For you - who's completed your schooling, probably even attended university. Even more probable, you work in an office. We're going to talk about you for now.
I've heard you ask where you can sign up to be "Tsiganin." Because they, the "Tsigani," don't pay for electricity, but they use it. They don't work, but they receive money. They sit around and do nothing - they "live the life." They even want a house built for them. And you, no one wants to build you a house. But you've studied, in school and in university, and you work hard.
I will tell you now where you can sign up to be "Tsiganin." It's easy. Go and move into the small neighborhood of "Constantine Velichkov." However, don't take your computer, or your new clothes. Don't take your recent earnings. Leave your debit card behind. Burn up your diploma - both from high school and from university. If you want, you can even cut up your identification card. Live there for a few years (if they don't knock over your house in that time), but don't forget that you no longer have a diploma. So, if you're going to work, it'll have to be manual labor - 5 leva to cut up some wood; to carry something."
Live there for two years, and if you like it, stay. That way you'll truly be "Tsiganin."
If you don't like it, return to your computer and never again dare to ask where you can sign up to be "Tsiganin."
We can all talk - and not just about that. We can well discuss every question under the sun. We can discuss inflation, education, the government, the DPC [Movement for Rights and Freedoms - a well-known political, and sometimes controversial, party in Bulgaria], the elections, the holes [in the roads], and salaries. We all have a plan to integrate the Roma - one suggests a fight, others war, others special schools, and there are a bunch of other ideas - each better than the first. We can spit and taunt well. We can even do that better than we can talk.
We lose more human and valuable abilities, however; like how to understand how others feel. When we talk about how bothersome pensioners are, how they always want to take our seats on the rotten tram - as if we knew how a 60-year-old's legs feel. Of course, we've never been 60 years old, but have we ever thought about that?
When we write in forums or on the wall, "Tsigani for soap!" do we think of the strength of our words? Do we think how these people might feel - the ones we want to turn into soap? Can we, before we start to hate, to insult, or to kill, put ourselves in the place of those we want to kill? Can we understand where they were born, what their childhood was like, how they got along with their parents, what kind of house they lived in, what kind of problems they've had, their joys and sufferings, or how they got to this place? Can we look through the eyes of another... to really put ourselves in their place?
If we could, surely we would know that it isn't easy to live in a country where you don't feel at home, neither do others around you want you to feel that way. And there's no where for you to go to feel "at home." And no one ever asked you if you wanted to be born here - the way you are.
Yes, I am a "Tsiganin." Also, I'm gay. I'm Muslim. I'm handicapped. I'm young, and I smoke. I don't have anywhere to live. I'm from Bulgaria. I'm a little bit different. I'm Jewish; I'm Adventist. But I have a good sense of humor. So, before you shun me, insult me, or hate me, put yourself in my place.
- Vladislav Petkov

So, I'm still hanging out in the office. A few people have stopped by. My former colleague, Tsetska, was here. I wish she worked here still, but I understand her reasons for going. Another man was here who wanted me to help him fill out a declaration. I told him that I'm not a Bulgarian, and I'm not "in-the-know" with such forms, and he scurried out. I was trying to explain that I would help him, but I might not be of much help. He complained that he couldn't read the form. I could at least have helped him do that. What would it like lose your eyesight, or to be illiterate? I admit that I sometimes have a hard time putting myself in the place of others 'cause it's just so hard to imagine. Taking everything, and I mean everything for granted is second nature.
Another guy came in to look for books for his daughter - an acquaintance of mine who's attending university. I ripped apart our library to try and find two books for her. He ended up taking thirteen, no, fourteen because thirteen is an unlucky number. Meanwhile, he asked me how I like Bulgaria, about my family, and about my last place of work. He told me stories about times when he worked in Russia while Bulgaria had strong ties to the Soviet Union. These are stories I've told and heard before with others, but it's a little different each time. Man, is it boring in this office alone.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Mad World

And I'm back with a brand new addition! I should try "rapping" a blog sometime. I'm sure it would turn out horribly! Or, I could write a post in poetic line. Iambic pentameter and all that good stuff. I'm totally going to name my kid "Iambic Pentameter." Let the playground beatings commmence. I've thought of other names I want to name my hapless firstborn. They're mostly names of Bulgarian "celos" (villages), like Menenkyovo or Apriltsi, but I want it to sound foreign and strange - no matter what. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I have yet to reproduce.
Enough of that. I'm here to give you an update and preach about a few other things. I went to Sofia on Saturday to say "cbogom" (farewell) to another volunteer friend of mine. It's not really hitting me that these people are leaving - or maybe I'm just apathetic about it in general. I will miss her, but it wasn't like I was sad at her departure. I was just enjoying spending time with her. It's funny, you live here for two years, but you (well, some of us) just don't get together with other volunteers as much as you thought you would. I was mostly glad to see her and hang out. I wasn't worrying about saying good-bye.
Ever since I've returned home, I've been at the office pretty much non-stop. I haven't been having my English and Spanish classes because I'm just too busy with the project we're working on. It's due this Friday, and we still have a LOT to get done. Well, a few big things are in the hands of others, but we're still scrambling to get our part done. We had a big shock this week when the pre-schools decided not to partner with us. We weren't sure about one pre-school, but we were counting on the other pre-school to definitely sign up with us as we've helped them in the recent past with a project, and we have a good relationship with the director. It turns out that what I posted Sunday was prophetic in a way. Part of our project included transferring all the children from the segregated, Roma pre-school to desegregated pre-schools. Our "ace-in-the-hole" balked because the Roma school is a branch of the desegregated school. She wasn't about to lose employees unless the municipality either ordered it, compensated them, or found them other jobs. We're upset, of course, but one can't help but understand the situation she's in - just like the situation I posed in Sunday's post.
Also, we're worried that the municipality will refuse to be our partner. If we don't have the support of the municipality, we don't have a project. So, even if we get all our stuff together, the refusal of one person (the acting mayor, who makes her dislike of us no secret, by the way) to sign a document declaring partnership can sabotage all our work.
The interesting thing is, I'm not really stressed by all this. I'm writing during a break at work - I have to go back later this evening, and other than this headache I have pounding between my temples, I'm not really feeling distraught by the gravity of the situation. I don't even know if truly appreciate the gravity of the situation. It's a massive project, but I figure that if God wants us to get this project, we'll get it. If we can't handle it, we won't get it. I don't know why I'm so blasé about it. We´ve put a lot of work into this project.
Okay, so that there above was yesterday. Today I write to inform you that the project has been completed and will be on its way with Yanko to Sofia tomorrow. Ani and Valia will be in Pazardjik, and I'll be in the office alone to play secretary and answer the phone. We were here last night until 1 a.m. It's been crazy, but I kind of like it, actually. I've been feeling useful in the office, which is where I'd like to feel useful. Mostly, we've all just been playing musical chairs. I work in an office about as big as your bedroom (unless you live in a mansion), and we share two computers between five/six people. You can't work on the project on two computers because any update you make to one application won't get applied to the other and which one is the true copy? Fortunately, the budget was separate from the project, and our accountant was able to work on one computer while we hashed out the application form.
The acting mayor, once she finally saw the project, budget, and everything, signed the partner declaration and gave us other needed documents without blinking an eye. Once we had her on board, we were able to really hussle and get into it - realizing that the rest remained on us to get completed.
Like I said, I actually enjoy the atmosphere. We're stressed, but it's to the point of hilarity, and we're able to joke with each other to relieve the tension. Plus, I felt like I was really of assistance. One of our colleagues quit in the middle of the process, but we were able to come together and get it done. I've been eating a young bachelor's diet (sans microwaveable (Did you know the dictionary also allows the spelling "microwavable? I didn't.) dinner because I don't own a microwave, and they don't really have those in Bulgaria), and I really want a good, solid meal, but I've been feeling fantastic. Well, now I'm exhausted, but it's a good exhaustion.
I think I'd prefer doing this over English classes - and that's what I've been doing the past week: working on this project and cancelling my English classes.
So here's our project idea: The Minestry of Education and Science is calling for projects that "create a pleasant environment for intercultural education." Basically, it's to stimulate integration and cooperation between different cultures. How will we do that? Well, we plan on having "cultural days" in the schools where the children will be informed of the traditions of different ethnic/religious groups. We also plan on giving schoolbooks and school materials to motivate Roma children to go to integrated schools. We want to have "ethnic corners" in the school, where traditional objects from each culture are on display for all to see. We also wanted to put them in the pre-schools, but, as I said before, the pre-schools refused to partner with us. We want to celebrate traditional and religious holidays together such as Easter, "Bairam" - a Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, Christmas, Vasilitsa - the Roma New Year, and April 8th - International Roma Day. We plan on having various after-school activities (music and dancing, arts and crafts, etc.) and "spring schools" - in which kids will have the opportunity to get away at camps and study a bit in the meantime. We also plan on working with parents to get them motivated to take part in their children's education and get acquainted with other parents from different ethnic backgrounds. There will be workshops and seminars for them as well as the teachers.
It's a great project, but it's huge. It's 58 pages, plus documentation, and we want financing somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 leva (about $72,100). It's going to be a lot of work if it's approved. As I said before, I trust God to take care of things, and we're not really too worried about whether it gets approved or not. I mean, of course we hope it receives funding, but we realize that there might be better projects out there. Plus, as I said before, I believe God won't allow us to take part in anything we can't handle. He got us this far.
Okay, so moving onto another topic: I just found out that I again have two options regarding a place to live. The guy who said he couldn't find anyone to do remodeling work has now apparently found someone. And I'm in a quandary again. I plan on waiting for Peace Corps to come and look at both places, give their approval, and then I'll decide from there. What can I do?
The other day, I ran into an acquaintance here, Toshko, who said he had a cough. I immediately took a step back and then realized, in the back of my head, that it was unnecessary because I haven't heard Bulgarians ever talk of "germs" here. He looked at me funny and laughed, "I'm not diseased. It' because I drank sparkling soda the other day." Ah, of course. What was I thinking?
I came across another volunteer's blog again the other day. I like reading Andrea's blog because she has a way of identifying the minutiae of life here in Bulgaria that frustrates and confounds me, her, and apparently other Americans. Many times I have tried to figure out just what it is about Bulgaria that sometimes rubs me the wrong way, and she has a way of cutting through and putting her finger on it. Take this post about our habit of apologizing. Customer service is something Andrea and I have discussed before, and it's something you don't find much of on this side of the pond. Most waitresses are flippant and rude, people crowd you to get on a bus as if there won't be enough seats, and even customers begin requests with "Give me...." The women at the market/fast-food store/cafes think I'm ridiculously polite with my "May I have...? Would you please hand me..?" and they find it amusing - but in a good way. So anyway, I'm used to what Andrea calls "Apologizing Americans" - at least in the customer service world. It doesn't matter the request: "Excuse me, do you serve tea in this restaurant? Do you carry my favorite brand of peanut butter? Do you have any C-4 or nitroglycerin on you?" I expect a "sympathizing mock frown" that shows me you care about my needs, even if it's utterly ridiculous that you should have such things. Many times, I get a "no" that feels about as good as a slap in the face. "Well, EXCUUUUSE me for ruining your day by asking!"
Andrea once relayed an incident that happened to her husband, Boudreaux, that also struck a chord. I must have heard about it over a year ago, but I haven't forgotten it. Apparently, he was getting up from his seat on the bus, when the cord of his iPod got tangled and stuck somehow. He was having a hard time getting it loose, and a gentleman across the way was watching him. He looked at the guy and smiled as if to say, "How silly of me," and the guy just stared at him in return. No reaction whatsoever. A group of us talked about how we expect people to look at us and smile when those things happen - you get a sense of comraderie in return, and you don't feel so foolish. It's unnerving when people just stare at you with a blank expression.
Now moving onto the topic of money. I don't think I'll ever get away from the Americans are just inherently wealthy. I was in a market the other day, and I bought a Snickers® and some pretzels. I paid for it with a 20 leva bill, (about $14.50) and the lady was commenting on how we Americans (As far as I know, I'm the only one she's currently acquainted with) don't crumple our money. Personally, I have a long wallet that allows me to slip bills in without folding them, but I don't think that's an accurate statement. She continued by saying, "Maybe that's because you have so much." It was all I could do to keep from rolling my eyes and hurrying out.
Yesterday, I ran into a teacher-acquaintance who's currently striking. He explained that they were still striking and expressed his frustration that the responsible Bulgarian ministries were still withholding raises. I think teachers here are paid reasonably on par with the salaries of other workers, but I can't say for sure, and few people here are paid "reasonably" in the general sense. He started asking me, "How much do teachers get paid in the states? A thousand dollars?" I was having a hard time trying to explain to him that it's not necessarily about how much you get paid; it's about how much spending power your salary has. For example, you could be paid $1000 a month as a teacher, but what will you do if rent in your city is at a base $800... plus utilities, food, entertainment, kids (if you got 'em), etc. A teacher making $1000 a month here would be grossly overpaid. A teacher making $1000 in the states would be grossly underpaid. Take me for example: I live fairly well on my PC living allowance in Bulgaria. If I had to live on this sum in the states, I'd be out on the streets.
Mostly, I just want to start changing my answer when Bulgarians ask about salaries and money in the states, "Yes, we make hoards of dough. In fact, people just go around passing out "Being American" checks for $10,000 about once every few weeks and say, 'This is for living in America. Congratulations. Be happy.'" I realize I shouldn't mock people who are struggling financially, and I really should count my blessings that I currently live so securely.
As I mentioned before, the teachers are still on strike. It's been almost two weeks now, and they're still holding out. There's talk of children possibly having to repeat the school year, and parents are frustrated that they spent money on schoolbooks. I really don't get it. I was telling my teacher acquaintance that I had never heard of teacher's striking in the states, but apparently it has happened. I guess in the states, as inconvenient as it is, you can always go to school in a neighboring district. In Bulgaria it's not always that easy. I couldn't imagine, as a student, having to repeat a school year or having to attend summer school because my teachers refused to teach. It will probably cut into their vacations at least, and the kids aren't happy about that either.
What a crazy place, but there's something about it: I still really like living here. It hits me sometimes - as I walk the moonlit streets in the silent night, as I contemplate the mountains that surround me, as I witness the galaxies go whirling by me on my way home - I like living in Bulgaria.