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.

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