Friday, December 12, 2008

First Impressions of Home

Disclaimer*: Nothing in this entry will be "right." I'm going to blame it on the jet lag.
I'm back in the states. I got back yesterday. I already miss Bulgaria. I haven't even been here 48 hours, but if the first few moments are any indicators, this whole "re-entry" thing is going to hit me hard. I already signed up for a mentor. I'm hoping connect with another Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (besides the ones I already know) to try and get through it. Plus, Peace Corps gave me mental health vouchers before I left. If I can find them, I can go talk to a specialist a whopping three times! I'll be cured!
Ireland was great. My mom and I visited a lot of great spots. We went to the following places: Dublin, Enniskerry, Kilkenny, Killarney, Blarney, and Liscannor. We also drove through a bunch of amazing locales. If these places mean nothing to you, let me just saw that we saw a lot of green, toured a few castles, visited some amazing cliffs, entered some enormous churches, drank a bit of Guinness, and we kissed the Blarney stone! Mom did a really good job of driving on the "wrong" side of the road, and I played the role of navigator since the GPS wasn't working. We saw a lot of southern Ireland that way - by driving all around it. We divided our time between hotels and bed & breakfasts (some not actually including breakfast), and the people were amazingly friendly and nice. We had people come up to us on the street and give us directions when we were lost. A bus driver even pulled up alongside us and asked if we were okay, 'cause I'm sure we looked utterly confused. The accent is great. Some of their sayings we found extremely amusing and now want to use in daily conversation. Plus, Irish boys be cute. I had a really good time with my mom.
My bags and my belongings made it stateside - intact. Only the lid of one ceramic cookware broke, which is an incredible shame, but is amazing considering all the breakables I packed. Considering the price I paid to haul it across Europe, I'm feeling very grateful that only one thing broke. I'm already unpacked - sort of. A lot of the things that were sitting in my bedroom here have been packed away since my mom has taken on a remodeling project with the help of some family members. The house looks amazing. It takes some getting used to, but I love it. Nice, new things are usually easy to get used to. It's the presence of Mom here that makes it feel like "home," - otherwise I'd probably feel like I was staying in some stranger's house.
So, I've started working on going through plastic crates and slowly transfer my clothing back to my closet. I use "my" as an adjective, but I'm trepidatious to start thinking of this place is mine. I don't want to get too comfortable here. American culture is not as accepting as Bulgarian culture on the whole "living with my parents into my late 20's" thing. "Hi. I'm Apryl. I'm 27. I'm unemployed. I'm unmarried. I live with my mother." This may have worked for George Costanza in "The Opposite" episode of Seinfeld, but I doubt it's going to work for me.
So, yeah. I miss Bulgaria already. We landed in San Francisco, and the city was nice from the plane. Once we were on the ground, however, the only beautiful thing I saw were the smiling faces of my grandmother and grandfather. The city was brown, hazy, and it lacked that sparkle I remember San Francisco having. Maybe it was just the day. We soon hit bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway as we were driving toward the haze. It's not as quiet here as it was in my tiny, mountain town. I saw some friends last night, and I saw my uncle today. Other than that, I haven't really been out, and I don't know what to do with myself. I'll have to busy myself by getting my space in order, followed eventually by my life.
I woke up early and flipped through infomercials of every kind - telling you what was wrong with you and what you needed to do to "correct" it. I zoned out and stared at the opposite wall. I'm so lost that I don't even know what I'm thinking when I do that. It may hurt people to read this, but I miss home. Home is a state of mind, but for me (for now) home is Rakitovo. I don't want to sound ungrateful, 'cause I'm from an amazing place with a loving family. It doesn't mean that I want to go back. I just miss her.
P.S. I got this note from a friend of mine in Rakitovo. She's in high school. This just makes it all worth it:
Thank you, Apryl!
Hey, Apryl! I just wanted to say: Thank you for being here, for wasting ur time on us, for always being that nice and helpful, for changing Rakitovo and our ways of thinking... For the 3 years u've been here u have done soo much for all of us and most of all you became part of our lives.
At first when I thought of writing to you I just wanted to thank you for the recommendation u wrote for me and which helped me win the scholarship I was applying to, but that made me think also of all the things you've done and what a great volunteer was sent to us. Благодаря ти за всичко и няма да те забравя! :)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


I made it to Dublin last night - with all my luggage. I'm in an internet cafe. The queen is on TV. Apparetnly she's giving a speech at Westminster. I want her crown. It's pretty awesome.
I'm in Ireland! I've dreamed of coming her for quite some time, so I need to make this short. The flight over was a bit emotional. I was talking to my former colleauges and getting teary-eyed in the airport. Then I met a talkative, Irishman who'd had quite a bit to drink, so the flight was good. Walking through Dublin with all my bags was quite the adventure, but I made it all right.
I went to C.E.G.A. (Future Foundation's partners in Sofia) yesterday, 'cause I needed a printer with internet, and I couldn't think of a place where I could get that. They hugged me and gave me gifts to take with me. Awesome. More luggage. They were small. Anyway, then Greg took me to the airport - where I ate a huge fee 'cause I just have to bring loads and loads of things back with me, and now I'm in Ireland! I don't know what to say. I'm just - here. My mom is coming tomorrow, and I hope we're going to have a great adventure.
The "saga of the painting" had a happy (and completely misinformed) ending. After asking Yanko to get in touch with the lady at the courier firm and then getting in touch with her myself, no one called me to let me know what the status was on the painting. I finally got a hold of her again yesterday. She let me know that it had been delivered on the 25th of November. Super. My dad hadn't contacted me to let me know that he had gotten it, so I wrote to tell him that it was supposed to be there, and could he please check again? This is the e-mail I got back from him:

Yes – The painting arrived. I love it! It’s been hanging on my wall for several days and every time I look at it I think about how far it traveled. The artist will probably never know that their sailboat traveled all the way to Hawaii!
So sorry. I know I was supposed to report right away. I was wanting to get a picture of me holding it – perhaps by the ocean.
Thank you so much for all the effort to get it here.

I'm going to kill him. Meanwhile I'm sitting here thinking - after all that effort, all those frazzled nerves, the painting just "disappeared." He has two choices: Death by hug suffocation or... I'll think of another method later. I gotta go. I'm in Ireland!

Monday, December 01, 2008

One Last Ditch Effort

Welcome to my 250th post. Can you believe it? Two hundred and fifty posts. I'm writing this under the influence of 200 grams of rakia. Should be awesome.
Thursday was Thanksgiving - for those of you who may not know.... During the morning, I was here with Greg and his girlfriend. We went to Dunkin Donuts for some bagel sandwiches in the early afternoon. They then left for Dimitrovgrad to visit the girlfriend's parents. Angel showed up later in the day, and we went for Indian food. After attempting to call my family several dozen times (they thought their phone was going crazy and actually called the phone company, but I think Skype/Greg's computer was on the fritz), I finally got through to my Grandma's house. It was nice to talk to them. My grandma gave me good advice: "Don't be so hard on yourself." My uncle "Ra-Ra" actually had the best comment of all:
Rob: What are you doing for Thanksgiving?
Apryl: Well, actually, it's past mid-night here, so it's technically no longer Thanksgiving, but I went and ate Indian food.
Rob: Let me get this straight: For an American holiday, you celebrated in Bulgaria by going for Indian food.
Apryl: (laughs) Exactly.
It was an international holiday. At least I wasn't alone, and that's the important thing. There were other English-speakers in the restaurant. It wasn't so bad.
My colleagues called me to wish my a happy Thanksgiving. They were eating a cake that the new volunteer had made. Ani asked why I didn't come over and hang out with them. Honestly, I don't have much time anymore. But even if I did, how lame is it to say "good-bye" and then say, "Oh, psych!" and show up again. Lame! That's why I didn't even really entertain the idea a couple weeks ago. I almost saw Yanko this week, but it didn't work out. He says that he's going to come to the airport to see me off, but I find that kind of a stretch. Ani and Reneta both had birthdays this week, and I called them. I'm here, but I'm not here. It's so weird. It's hard to admit to people that I'm still in Sofia, 'cause it doesn't really make sense - to either them or me.
I took an "I'm depressed - again, so I'm doing nothing - again" day on Friday. I was supposed to go to Plovdiv and meet my "sister," but I decided to just hang out in Sofia. I had the place to myself, and it was nice. I didn't feel well, and I didn't feel like going anywhere.
On Saturday, in the afternoon, I went to Plovdiv to meet my sister so that we could go to Kurdjali. We hadn't made concrete plans, but, fortunately, we found a bus. I used "Couchsurfing" once again, and we connected with a great host. Rado came to pick us up at the bus station, and he took us to his place so we could meet his parents and drop off our stuff. Afterwards, he and a friend of his took us on a night tour of Kurdjali. The town is a really great place. Vili and I had never been there before, so it was interesting for both of us. Plus, we had really great and talkative tour guides.
Rado then took us to a traditional Bulgarian restaurant to meet up with some more friends and listen to live music - again provided by people he knows. The food was great, we danced various horos, and they even sang "Hotel California," in my honor - at which point one of the guys at the table asked me to dance. Plus, my Bulgarian was complimented endlessly throughout the whole weekend. I couldn't have asked for more.
The next day, Rado was gracious enough to take my "sister" and I to Perperikon. We had planned not to disturb him. We had said good-bye to his parents and everything (without waking him), but he chased us down as we were leaving the house, and he informed us that he would be hanging out with us - if we accepted the pleasure of his company. Fantastic.
Perperikon is about 20 km from Kurdjali, and there are no buses there, so it was really awesome to get the ride and the personal tour guide. We walked around the ruins and took myriads of pictures.
Afterward, we visited a monastery in Kurdjali and then went to a restaurant that was sitting out on Lake Kardjali. The lake was absolutely beautiful and very calm. You could even feel the restaurant bobbing a bit. Plus, you could see fishermen catching and slaughtering fish out the windows. Haha. It had a great atmosphere.
We then went to a coffee shop that had an interesting interior and various flavors of thick hot chocolate. Then Vili and I caught a bus back to Plovdiv. It was the first trip that I've taken with my "sister." I honestly hope that it's not the last. We had a great time.
I then accompanied Vili back to Trud. We ate dinner, and then we slept for hours. It was great. My host dad asked me if I'd returned from America. We joked about that for a while. My host mom made my favorite Bulgarian dish, peppers stuffed with seasoned rice, and we looked at pictures from our trip. Plus, my host niece was running around and being cute. It was nice to be with them once again. I hung out with Vili at the salon where she works, and then she and a friend dropped me off at the bus station. It was difficult to say "good-bye" to her, because we honestly don't know if this will be the end. She's thinking about coming to Ireland with me for a couple of days, but that's a stretch. I have to check some things here on the internet, but I honestly doubt it will work out. It's worth a try though. Other than the company, it would be nice to have an extra "pack-mule" for my luggage. No, really. Her company would be awesome to have.
I got back to Sofia this evening. Greg and I went out for my last, Bulgarian meal. He treated me to a couple of rakias. Awesome.
So, I'm leaving for Ireland tomorrow. In 24 hours, I'll be in Dublin. I can't believe I'm actually leaving Bulgaria for who-knows-how-long. It's been so hard for me to go. I imagine, however, that it'll be like every other "good-bye:" unreal. I haven't come to terms with the fact that I've been saying "сбогом" to people here. Many have the feeling that they'll be seeing me again, and I have that feeling, too. There are so many other places in the world to visit before I come back, but I might be back regardless. After three years, it's hard to leave a second (or third) home, saying it's "forever." That just seems absurd. In the meantime, I should set this aside and welcome a new adventure with open arms.

P.S. By the way, the "saga of the painting I [sent] to the states" has taken a turn for the inevitable, that's-what-makes-this-story-so-good, worst: It hasn't turned up stateside, and it was supposed to be there two weeks ago. Of course! Should I have expected anything less? Grrr and double grrr....

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mac Attack

I just got back today from a fantastic trip to Macedonia. I started out by catching an afternoon bus to Skopje. The border crossing was a bit interesting as a guard on the Macedonian side informed me that the medical insurance cards that I presented to him were unacceptable, and I would be needing to purchase insurance for my stay. It sounded like a scam to get three euro out of me, but I didn't give the money directly to him. Rather, I gave it to a sleepy guy in another building, and I received a few papers saying I now had health insurance for six days in Macedonia. Whatever.
The rest of the journey went without incident, and I arrived in Skopje around 9:00 p.m. I tried to send a text to the guy I was staying with only to find that my cell phone refused to work, so I set about trying to get some funds and use a pay phone. It turned out that the pay phone only accepted a certain kind of phone card, so I had to go and find one of those. It's a good thing that Macedonian and Bulgarian languages are so similar. I was finally able to contact my host and then take an overpriced, but entertaining, cab ride to his place.
My host, Igor, was my first couchsurfing experience. The idea of couchsurfing is to connect travelers with local communities, which will hopefully lead to an increase in cultural understanding. In basic terms, however, it's a chance to crash on a stranger's couch. It sounds a little scary, but I had only heard good things about couchsurfing. The site tries to minimize risk to its users, but one just never knows. I was nervous for several reasons. That being said, Igor was a fantastic host. I started asking him right away about former Yugoslavia and tried to figure out how Macedonia and Bulgaria were similar. He patiently answered my questions to the best of his ability. His mom made macaroni for me and put a spicy ketchup and oregano on top. They also gave me juice, coffee, and some chocolate wafers. I gave them a bottle of Bulgarian wine.
The next day, sleet was falling, but that didn't keep Igor from showing me around Skopje. We went to the old part of town, saw some mosques, saw some bazaars, saw some cultural objects, saw some malls, etc. We had some lunch, and I ate some beans in a traditional, Macedonian dish. We were kind of at a loss for things to do, but we didn't want to give up and go back. We tried to go bowling, but they were closed. We ended up going to an art gallery. Then we went for coffee. While at coffee, we ran into another friend of his who was having coffee with a Canadian couchsurfer. We then walked around with them. We had an interesting tour of a mosque and stumbled on a Macedonian wedding at an Orthodox Church.
Wet and cold, we retreated back to his place where I had a lovely conversation with his father. As I mentioned, Macedonian and Bulgarian are very similar. At first, the father thought I was Bulgarian. There were only a few sentences that I had to ask him to repeat so as to understand them. He shared his wine with me, and there was pizza to eat as well. I sat and warmed myself by the stove while Igor tried drying our sneakers by rotating them around in the oven.
Later that night, we went out again for a meeting with The Hospitality Club, which is basically the same concept as couchsurfing. There were drinks and people dancing tango. I met a lot of interesting people (there was a sweet, Hungarian girl who latched onto me for a bit) who spoke amazing English, and I enviously observed the tango dancers. We were invited out to a dance club, but Igor had other plans for the evening, and I tagged along with him.
We ended up going to a rock club and meeting up with the friend we had run into earlier in the day. We didn't stay there long, however, because Igor had some other friends that he wanted to hang out with, so we left and went to a club with harder rock. Igor's friends were friendly and great. They seemed to have a lot of Macedonian pride. I was told that it was better to speak English with them, and I was asked which was better: Bulgaria or Macedonia? I responded by saying I'd spent the last three years in Bulgaria and the last day in Macedonia. "Okay, okay, but we have better beer, right?" I conceded that their beer was better. I don't care much for beer anyway. They responded by getting us three rounds of tequila shots. "I think your friends are trying to get me drunk," I told Igor. He just laughed.
It was a long day. We got back to his place at about 3:30 a.m., and then we stayed up talking until about 6 a.m.
Four hours later, we were up and eating breakfast. Igor asked me if I'd like to go and check out an aqueduct nearby. I agreed, and we walked a few kilometers out to go see it. I walked on top of the aqueduct, but Igor was a bit more cautious. We chatted there a bit longer, and then we went back to his place. I told him that I wanted to catch the 3:30 p.m. bus to Ohrid, but he convinced me to take a later one. I stayed and ate with his family, and then it turned out that he took me to the bus station right after the 4:30 had left. I ended up having to wait until 6:30 to catch the last bus to Ohrid. I wasn't too happy about that, but it could have been worse.
Ohrid was awesome. Once I got into town, I caught a taxi to my next couchsurfing destination: a Peace Corps Volunteer's residence. The only problem was, I wasn't exactly sure where I was going. I gave the taxi driver the directions that I had, but I couldn't figure out where her house was from there. He didn't want me to get stuck somewhere, so we ended up calling her. She appeared within a few minutes and even covered my fare when I didn't have small change.
I hung out that evening with her and another PCV. We stayed up late comparing PC Macedonia and PC Bulgaria stories. The next day, I got up and Karen, my host, made me coffee. She also gave me a detailed itinerary of what to see while in Ohrid. I grabbed my things and set out for some alone time.
Ohrid was absolutely beautiful. First, there's the gorgeous, clear lake that's shared by Albania. In addition to this, you can run into historical beauty just about every five minutes. I saw many beautiful churches, an amphitheater, a fortress, and old city walls. I snuck into the "closed" fortress when no one was around, and I even walked through an excavation site. There were lush trees and snow-covered mountains. It was amazing. I'm including a picture here, but I wish I could include tons more. There were so many beautiful sights.
In the afternoon, I went for a fabulous lunch with the two PCVs. The waiter kept bringing us traditional food to sample - telling us that it was on him. We also met a friendly English couple who had recently moved to Ohrid. After a few hours of conversation in the restaurant, Karen and I went to get some coffee. We then went back to her place so she could get some work done, and I could watch CNN.
The next morning, I got up and hit a few more sites in Ohrid. Then Karen and I went to another town on the lake called Struga. She wanted to pick up some items from a COS-ing volunteer there, and she had a meeting with a colleague. I had planned to visit some cave churches and then continue on to another town where I could catch a bus back to Sofia. All those plans fell through. Her colleague was busy with another project, and I found out that the bus schedules weren't conducive to my plans. We ended up getting some lunch and walking around Struga. We then went back to Ohrid. She and her colleague did some project development while I was happy to read/doze on the couch.
That evening I caught an overnight bus back to Sofia. There were no problems at the border, and I arrived here at about 6:00 a.m. this morning. I was able to get back to Greg's before he left for school, and I crashed for several hours on the couch. It was snowing today in Sofia, and I made a few calls to my former colleagues. Ani had a birthday the other day, and Reneta's birthday was today. I might be seeing Yanko on Friday. My former landlady, Margarita, asked if I would be coming back for a visit while I was here. Angel's supposed to be coming out to Sofia tomorrow. I miss those guys. Otherwise, part of me still wishes I were in Macedonia.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Progressing & Raising the Bar

It has been an interesting week. I've figured some things out, but a lot has been lost as well. I've spent much of my time sitting in my friend Greg's apartment while he's been away at work all day. Greg gets up early and comes home late. He works 11-12 hour days. I've asked him if it's a recipe for burnout. Every day, when I ask him how his day was, he answers, "Long." Who can keep up that pace?
Anyway, Greg goes to work, and I stay in the apartment alone. I'm so grateful for the place to stay, and the freedom to "readjust," but I get lonely. On Monday night, I took him out to dinner and we went bowling with a couple of his colleagues. On Tuesday, he and his girlfriend went out with some of their friends, and I stayed in. Yesterday, we went out to dinner again. Tonight we stayed in and had dinner. Sometimes we play video games. Other than that, I haven't been getting out much. The weather hasn't been enticing. Today was sunny, so I decided to go and buy a bus ticket to Macedonia (a neighboring country for those who may have missed a recent geography lesson). Actually, the technical name is Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), but that's a history lesson for another day. Afterward, I walked around a bit, but I felt pretty lonely.
Originally, I was going to take a solo trip up to Romania, Hungary, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. I bailed for three reasons: 1. I took another look at my financial situation and decided that it would be a stretch. 2. I was pushing it on time. 3. Winter in these places wasn't particularly appealing. There is a fourth reason, which is a little harder to admit: I'm scared. I'm not scared of other people or striking out on my own. I'm scared of being lonely. I wish it didn't bother me, but I know how I am. I would have a hard time making friends with other travelers, and I'd be experiencing a lot of things alone. I don't really enjoy traveling alone. I tell myself that it shouldn't stop me from visiting these places, but it's just who I am. I have intense respect and admiration for those who strike out on their own (one guy from my group traveled alone for almost a year after his COS), and I wish I could be like them. I'm not. I think of myself as pretty brave. I don't mind going out on my own when I have a specific objective to accomplish. In fact, sometimes I even prefer being alone in those cases. When it comes to sightseeing, however, I don't really like to be alone. So I decided to back out. I'm not too surprised, but I'm a bit disappointed in myself.
I have to get out of Sofia, though. I'm planning on taking a trip to Macedonia for a few days. Then I'll come back for a couple days. My "sister" and I are going on a trip to Perperikon next weekend. Then I'll be flying out to Ireland the following week to meet up with my mom. It's nice to have a plan after a week of drifting. I appreciate Greg's patience. He's basically said that I can stay here as long as I need. It's good to have friends like that.
I've thought about going back to Rakitovo to visit, but that would be pretty much pointless. I had to pull myself away from there. Plus, I've said "good-bye" to everyone. How lame would it be to go back? "Yeah, I know we hugged and had this tearful good-bye. I still haven't left yet." I think that would just mess with people. It's no less awkward when they call, "Where are you now?" "I'm still in Sofia...." Seeing my "sister" again wasn't something I was planning, but we're both excited that it's going to work out.
A year ago today, I got on a plane and flew back to the states for about six weeks. I eagerly got on the plane because I was dying to see everyone there again. That and Mexican food was waiting for me. I had a fabulous time. I also knew that I was coming back to Bulgaria. This time, I'm dragging my feet. I have no desire to leave Bulgaria. Leaving does not guarantee a return this time. I'm terrified. It's not something I consciously think about. It's just there in the back of my mind. It's for the best that I now have a plane ticket which will take me away. Inevitability needs to consume me.
I had a dream the other night. I dreamt that I was back in the states. I remember thinking about Bulgaria and experiencing this heart-wrenching feeling that she was so far away from me. I could literally feel the distance. It made me sad. I haven't been feeling that way about the states, but that's probably because I know the states are waiting for me with open arms.
My luggage is the new saga of my life (although no word yet on whether the painting made it to my dad safe and sound), and I don't know whether to ship it or to try and take it on the plane with me. Originally, I was going to send it on ahead while I was traveling. Now that those plans have fallen through, I'm wondering if it would be cheaper to check it as excess baggage on the plane?
On a tangent, I have to brag about this: Peace Corps pays for the flight home. The volunteer can either take a ticket outright to the nearest airport to their home-of-record, or HOR as us acronym-happy people refer to it, or they can take cash-in-lieu. Peace Corps calculates the current cost of a ticket home and then give that to the volunteer if they choose the second option. I probably should have changed my HOR to my dad's place in Hawai'i. I could have taken you taxpayers for all you're worth. (Actually, I'm looking at airfare, and it's about the same as to Sacramento. Oh, well.) Anyway, I'm spending about a fourth of the amount they gave me to get back to the states. I wonder if this is a record or something.
So, yeah. You've probably understood that I've been frustrated with myself for still being here - for stalling while trying to figure out how to function again. I've been assured that this is normal. I've appreciated the words of encouragement that I've gotten from my fellow RPCVs. I know that it's normal. I think I just wish I dealt with it in a different way than holing myself up in a friend's apartment. Why can't I be the person who deals with it by drinking and partying every night? Haha. If I did that, I'd definitely want a different way of dealing. Well, there went one week. It could have been a bit more productive, but it wasn't a waste. Next week will be filled with Macedonia, more Sofia and non-Sofia Bulgaria, and then Ireland will be soon behind followed closely by the U.S.A. It's good to be on track, but I'm also still nervous. It's been nice to observe the United States from several thousand kilometers away. I've been simultaneously proud of and frustrated with her while sitting on my perch. Now I have to be a part of her. Meh.
Thanksgiving is coming up next week.. I've been trying not to think about it because I might actually be alone. Let's continue not to think about it, shall we? I'll figure something out.
I'm not sure what to do with this blog after I get back stateside. I'll probably read it just to digest, laugh at my naïveté, and reminisce. I think I might also write down a few things as I remember them - part of the process of digestion. I think I'll have a hard time letting go of this blog as well. It's been a very cathartic method of processing my experiences. Basically it's been a good friend.
I wanted to write down something Yanko said to me as we were driving to Sofia. He kept grabbing and squeezing my shoulders. He didn't want to let me go. "Apryl, you really raised the bar. You accomplished things in Rakitovo that I would never have imagined possible before I met you. It would be hard for anyone to fill your shoes." High praise. "Raising the bar" was a phrase Angel had used the day before, but for entirely different reasons. By the grace of God, I have affected people. They have affected and blessed me more.
Many people have told me that I will be missed - that I was really loved in Rakitovo. I was talking with a friend of mine who told me, "It's going to be hard. We're really going to miss you here." "Yeah," I said, "but you all get to just miss one person. I have to miss all of you. I think it's going to be harder on me." Her answer was, "I don't know about that. We're really going to miss you." I still think I'm going to miss them more.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Aftermath

This post will consist of chaotic ramblings. I blame in on the Coca-Cola Blak. More on that later. I am still in Bulgaria. I've made it out of Rakitovo, but I've only made it so far as Sofia, and there's no definite date for departure. Basically, I've got to hit that magic number of days between getting done what I need to get done and not wearing out my welcome. It's a bit difficult falling in that role between house guest and "squatter." I am slowly trying to get out of here, and it honestly sucks. Getting questions like, "So, when are you leaving Bulgaria?" from my friends in Rakitovo are difficult (like Maria just asked me on Skype.) Everyone asks me - whether it's on the phone or Skype - and I just don't know. Maybe they wonder why I'm dragging my feet. Maybe they wonder why I'm not with them. I just don't know. Argh!
I was in Rakitovo until Friday of last week. It took me that long to get all my stuff together, clean up the apartment, and say final good-byes. The weirdest/most awkward part was running into people I had told that I would be leaving on Monday. "Oh, Apryl. You're still here." That look of confusion was something I just didn't want to deal with. The explanation was that I needed to be home in my apartment and get my stuff together. I just couldn't do it in those weeks leading up to my COS. I was too busy running around doing other stuff and trying to get my "good-byes" out of the way. Then, after saying good-bye, I was still there. (sigh)
My colleagues said that they would help me pack, but I just couldn't figure out how exactly they could help. Yanko got mad at me that I wasn't calling him for more help, but I just didn't know how they could help me out exactly. I did call him a few times to help me get rid of items I no longer wanted. I gave away tons of stuff, and then I still had too much stuff. I looked at everything and got mad. But then I realized that all this stuff was an accumulation of things people had sent me because they cared about me. I didn't want to let it go. I still have way too much stuff.
Angel did come and help me clean on Friday. I was so grateful to have someone vacuum my apartment/clean my fridge/make me brunch. It was a huge load off my shoulders while I was trying to get other stuff done. Those are good friends.
A few more coffees, a few more dinners, a bunch more hugs and kisses, a few more gifts, and then I was finally able to say, "Okay. I'm leaving on Friday." Yanko arranged some type of transportation with Enyo. We used his taxi, and my luggage and I caught a free ride to Greg's apartment. Before leaving Rakitovo, however, I was driven up to the Educational Center for last hugs with my colleagues and some of my girls. Breath-taking hugs, tears, promises of return. Ужас! Several people have told me that they have a feeling that we'll see each other again. I have that feeling, too. It's hard to deal with it, however, when I'm still in Bulgaria.
So, I've come to Sofia, and my bags are still too big. I'm waiting for Greg to get another bag for me so that I can repack my belongings - maybe give some more stuff away. It's going to be expensive to ship home. Why do I have to be so attached to stuff? Other than that, I've been trying to plan out my route for travel after I finally do get my act together. For now, I'm drinking a Coca-Cola Blak - which is basically Coke mixed with coffee. It's awful. Ah, Bulgaria. I just can't leave you, can I? Every couple hours or so, I get a call or a message on Skype, "Where are you? When are you leaving Bulgaria?" Augh!
Have I ever felt so lost? I'm not sure. I was talking to a friend the other night, and she said, "I envy you. You are a free-floater with no obligations." She's right. I need to see the bright side of this. They also have other terms for such people: "slacker" and "bum" are a few that come to mind.
Other images are coming to the mind that I want to share with you. Bulgaria has been good to me. I'd just like to leave so that I can appreciate her a bit more. Maybe I should just leave my luggage here with Greg and buy a ticket for the next train out of the country. Grow up, Apryl. Stop whining. Anyway, as I was saying, I will never forget some of the images of Bulgaria that are burned in my mind. Along with the people and the warm memories, I will remember trucks spilling over with cabbage, horses and carts running down the middle of the road, donkeys bathing in dirty rivers, and old man dragging an old refrigerator down the street - he was pulling it along by a rope tied around its middle, and it was making the most horrible scraping sound, getting caught in the middle of a herd of goats.... These are the images that might come to mind when people think of Eastern Europe, but I hope you've gotten a more "accurate" picture of Bulgaria from my blog. This is part of the reason why the address is "aprylsbulgaria." It's not your Bulgaria. It's not even an accurate view of this beautiful country. It's my view of things here.
Living in Bulgaria has given me a clearer picture of life in my native homeland. I will always be grateful for the good and bad. I've grown, I've learned, I've experienced a wide range of emotions. I wonder who I would have been had I never come. There's no way of knowing that girl anymore.
I'm rambling. I'm going to go. I'm just frustrated with my circumstances right now, but I have no one to be frustrated with except for myself.
P.S. Oh yeah. We had an earthquake the other day. Well, either we had a couple earthquakes, or we had an earthquake with an aftershock. I didn't feel the first one, but I woke up in the middle of the night when the earth shook again. Greg lives on the eighth floor, so the couch I was sleeping on was bouncing when it hit. Whew! I've never felt an earthquake in Bulgaria before. That'll give you goosebumps.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Вече не съм доброволка от корпус на мира (I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer)

I am a free agent. I can't believe it. In about an hour and a half yesterday, I was able to finish up all the paperwork that tied me to Peace Corps. I feel like a lost kitten. I'm back in my town - finishing up packing and basically avoiding the inevitable. Sometime over the next week, I'm going to have to leave. Again, I can't quite believe it. I feel so lost.
I'm in the internet cafe 'cause I no longer have internet in my home. I have been spoiled having internet at home. I can surf the net in peace and quiet - and in my pj's! Now I'm surrounded by a bunch of boys playing various video games and yelling the few curse words they know in English. I miss my internet.
I went and visited my host family over the weekend. Vili had work on Saturday, so I hid out in her room - watching movies and sleeping. That night we went out with an acquaintance of hers in Plovdiv. We got home at a reasonable time and then slept late into the next morning. My "mom" made my favorite meals for me, and we spent a lot of time hanging out. The next day, Vili spoiled me buy getting me a bunch of souvenirs from Plovdiv. I bought her a necklace. We went to eat. Then we had an almost-tearful good-bye at the bus station.
When I got home - late. Some of my colleagues were waiting for me. They fed me (I've been doing a lot of eating) and gave me gifts. Reneta was mad that I had shown up late. She thought that I had flaked on them. She perked up once I showed up. It's interesting to see how much Reneta has changed. When she was younger, she used to cry when I didn't show up when she thought I should. Now she gets angry. My colleagues were happy to hear that I wasn't ready to leave right away. I don't think they really want to deal with it either. Ani even offered to let me live with them for a month! What would I do, though? Until now, I've been living like a volunteer. Now what? I should live like a cat?
Closing my service (COS-ing) was easier than I expected. I had to fill out some documentation, see some people, and get some signatures. Considering how chaotic my life has been recently, I wasn't expecting it to go so smoothly. I guess I was better-prepared than I had expected. I thought I would have to spend the night in Sofia, but I was able to come home.
Today, I spent most of the day inside. I've gone "na-gosti" (visiting people) a few times. There are still people I need to spend time with. I still expect someone to see me accidentally and to call me out for saying that I was leaving on Monday. Mostly, this time is for me. With everyone wanting to see me, I couldn't pack and get my things in order. Now I'm able to do that. Only I'm still having a hard time 'cause people have felt the need to give me large, breakable gifts. I'm not complaining that people love me. I just can't figure out how to get these "symbols of their affection" home.
Meh. I'm in limbo. I don't know when I'm actually leaving, but it's going to have to be sometime soon. People who do know that I'm still here ask when I'm going, and I know it sucks to be telling them, "Maybe tomorrow... maybe the day after...." They can't get closure that way. I feel like a ghost walking around town. I have to get moving on.
In more entertaining news, I was offered a marriage deal yesterday. He said I could stay in Bulgaria and live in his nice apartment in Sofia while he goes to America and lives in California. I could even have lovers! This would fall in line pretty well with my goal to become a trophy wife. If only it weren't a joke, I'd have to give it some more thought....

Saturday, November 08, 2008

This Might Be It. What If This Is It?

I'm nowhere near ready to get out of Bulgaria. I know that Monday is my last day as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I just can't believe it. This week has been rather exhausting, but I'm running on adrenaline, so I'm good. I don't think I'll actually be getting out of Rakitovo on Monday. Whether I'm ready for it or not, I'll no longer be a PCV come Monday at midnight. This doesn't mean that I have to be out of my site by then. I don't think I'll have my stuff together by then.
After a long week, I got a lot of stuff done today, and I'm feeling really accomplished at the moment. Every single day has been a chore, however. Let's start with something that I did that wasn't so smart. I don't know where my head was, but sometimes I do things that really go against good common sense.
This last Saturday, when I was waiting for a bus to take me to Velingrad to meet up with my colleagues, I was approached by a guy here that I know. I've talked to him a few times, but he's a few cards short of a deck, if you know what I mean, and I've maintained my distance. He asked me when the bus was coming, and I said it should arrive any minute. Well, the bus never came, and the only taxi left for Velingrad. He said, "Come on. I'll give you a ride." I mulled it over for a half-second before I agreed. The bus obviously wasn't coming.
Once I was in his car, and we were driving to Velingrad, I thought, "That was really stupid, Apryl. What are you doing in this guy's car? Why was he just hanging out at the bus stop?" It turned out that he was waiting for a friend and had nothing better to do. He was driving pretty slowly, and he started to ask me, "How is it that you trust me?" He then started talking about how I know his sister and his nephews, and for this reason he could never do anything to me. He then insinuated that, did I not have this relationship with close family members, he would have... what? Taken me out back and beaten me? I tried to get him to stop talking about it and tell him that he couldn't do bad things - even to a girl he didn't know, but he just kept bringing it up. Fortunately, he drove me to the hotel without incident. I'm an idiot.
I had a good time with the colleagues. We ate, talked, listened to music, drank, danced, and laughed. I don't think I've ever drank so much, so I figured that I'd be struggling the next day - or even during the night. I had a headache when I woke up, but that was it. Maybe I wasn't as "mermeloskena" as I thought.
I went home at a reasonable time the next day, and I started getting some stuff together. I cleaned a bit since I was planning on having guests over, and then I went to meet up with some kids to play baseball for the last time. It was fun, but it was also a little frustrating. I have a hard time dealing with bad sportsmanship, but I think we're all programmed to be bad sports - especially when we're kids. We also played a bit of frisbee. As a final gesture, I told the boys there that they could have my frisbee. That was a mistake. They couldn't agree on who should be in charge of holding onto the frisbee, and I heard the next day that they pratically "broke" it. Nice. I'd actually like to see how they could accomplish that.
That evening, Emily, Reneta, Petya, and Jeina came over to make Mexican food. I was annoyed that Maria didn't show up, but what could I do? We had a great time. I mostly delegated and made sure that everything was going smoothly. The others played the role of sous-chefs. We talked, laughed, and ate good food. It was fantastic, and I'm glad that we were able to do that one last time.
On Monday, I spent the whole day in Pazardjik for nothing. Enter the continuing saga of the painting. I went because I was informed that I would have to go to the customs office there and get a customs declaration. I wasn't informed, however, that I would be needing any sort of documentation when I went. I was just told to go. So I went and checked on my "lichna karta," or personal ID card. It wasn't ready yet. Big surprise. "Come back on Friday - after lunch." I kind of don't understand how your ID card can expire, and you don't get a new one right away (even when you applied over two weeks before its expiration), but who am I to judge? This will be important later, however.
So, I walked across Pazardjik to get to the customs office. They were really helpful, but they couldn't do anything for me because they wanted to see the document I had obtained from the National Art Gallery stating that it wasn't a cultural object. Nice. That document was attached to the painting - which was somewhere in Sofia. One of the men talked to the woman in my town that works for the courier firm, and they came to an understanding. He told me, "Nothing will get done today, though." By then, that was obvious. "So, how much is this painting worth?" When I told them, they were incredulous. "You're going through all of this nonsense for some run-of-the-mill, inexpensive painting?" I hung my head, "I know. I know."
I was irritated. I had gone to Pazardjik for nothing, and I lost the whole day. On top of this, I received a super-disappointing phone call about an unrelated issue. I grabbed some food and then went to a bus stop to wait for my bus back to Velingrad - except that the bus never came. It turns out that the bus no longer passes through the street where I was waiting. Nice. I walked to the bus station to wait for the next bus - which would leave an hour and a half later.
The bus station was crowded, so I decided to go to the train station to try and find a place to sit down. The train station was crowded, so I went and just sat on some cement near the train station. Worst. Most. Pointless. Day. Ever.
I was soon approached by a young, Roma boy. "Do you have the time?" I just wanted to be left alone, so I told him that I didn't. He soon came back and asked if he could sit with me. It's a free country. He sat down and started talking to me, but I was aware of his entire family looking at me with amused expressions. I pretty much gave him one-word answers. Honestly, I was very aware of my belongings. I couldn't figure out his agenda. He seemed like a nice boy, however, and it seemed like he just wanted to chat and entertain his family. I finally told him, "I'm sorry. I've just had the worst day, and I don't feel like talking to anyone." He was quiet for a bit, then his train came and he offered me his hand, "You never know. We could see each other again."
I got home, and I called the lady from the courier firm. I was beyond frustrated, and she was embarrassed by the situation. She would have to get the certifcate from the National Art Gallery, and then I could go back to customs. That would probably take another couple days. I asked her if I could go to the customs office in Sofia - since I would be there on Wednesday and Thursday anyway. Meanwhile, I was thinking, "Why am I still dealing with this? Why am I not being told exactly where I need to go and exactly what I need to do? Honestly, why am I being asked to run around - losing time, money, and nerves?" This is the part in the story where I tell people to never use the courier firm "Citi Express" - if anyone cares. I don't know what their deal is, but I'm extremely irritated with their service. I only dealt with the lady in my town, but she's representative of a firm that had me running around like a chicken with my head cut off.
That evening, however, Maria invited me to her birthday party. Plus, the women of our informal women's group had a party to send me off. There was so much food, and they all chipped in to get me a great gift. We laughed and had a good time. They really saved the day. Otherwise it would have probably gone down in history as one of my "lost" days in Bulgaria.
Anyway, I was waiting for documentation to be sent back to me on Tuesday, so I decided to go to Velingrad. I went there to get four things done. Only one did I actually succeed in accomplishing. First, I went to the bank to try and close my bank account. The lady who ended up helping me wasn't so bad, but she was kind of cold to me in the beginning. "Why do you want to close your bank account?" she asked in a flat, cold tone. Um... because I want to. Because it's my bank account and I can do whatever I want with it? I responded that I would be leaving Bulgaria. "Oh, well, in that case...." In the end, however, I couldn't close my bank account because I didn't have a valid "lichna carta." Nice. "Come back on Friday when you get your 'lichna karta.'"
I then went to the mobile operator M-Tel and tried to close my account with them. "You can't close your account because your contract isn't up." Okay. I had figured they would just make me pay the tax for those months until my contract expired, but she told me to leave money with someone to cover the next couple of months - and then my contract would expire anyway from lack of use. At least, that's what I understood. I was 0-2. Meh. I then had to go to a bank and pay a tax. The hardest part was finding the bank, otherwise they were eager to take my money. 1-2. I then went to a local phone service. I am trying to get the programmed M-Tel network off the phone that Thomas sent me so that he can use it in the states. But the guy wasn't in the office. 1-3. Grrr....
I met a friend later that evening for coffee. I've been frustrated because, instead of meeting people for coffee and saying my good-byes, I'm running around trying to get the smallest details done. However, it's probably good that I'm running around like this. Otherwise, I'd probably be pretty sad.
On Wednesday, I went to Sofia. I had been asked to participate in an event including various volunteer organizations here in Bulgaria for European Youth Week. I went with pictures and brochures - to represent the Peace Corps. Three other volunteers and one of my program managers were there, and we had a pretty good time. I even got to talk for a few seconds to present Peace Corps Bulgaria.
Before that, however, I met up for coffee with a friend of mine who's studying at a university in Sofia. Rumen is a young, cute, guy who likes to walk around holding my hand. He dropped me off at the event - giving me a huge hug and multiple kisses on my cheeks. "Who was that?" asked my program manager. Arm candy can be fun sometimes.
After crashing for the night, I tried to get a few things done in Sofia. I went and dropped off some materials at the Peace Corps office. I also had a good conversation with the staff there. Then, I went to customs office at the airport to try and figure out how to obtain a customs declaration. The girl at the agency I was told to visit really couldn't grasp what I was talking about. She took me to a colleague at another agency. They couldn't believe that I was filling out a declaration for such an invaluable piece of art. Yeah. By that point, I couldn't believe it myself, but it was necessary. Anything with material value over 22 Euro needs a customs declaration. My painting fell right above that range because I arbitrarily assigned it the value for which I had actually paid for it three years ago. "Bravo na men," as they say here. Plus, I got the impression that the mere fact that I was trying to send it to the states was another reason for the required declaration. I don't know if that's really true.
Finally, after a lunch break, I was able to find someone who would fill out the declaration for me. Enter the next problem. Yanko's name was actually on the certificate I took from the National Art Gallery. The migration declaration would ahve to be in his name as well. Plus, only he would be able to submit the documentation once it was filled out. Otherwise, I could approve this guy to do it - for 70 leva. What? I was already paying 20 for the declaration itself. Why would I want to give this guy another 70 leva for five minutes work? No. If Yanko had to submit the documentation, then Yanko would be submitting the documentation. He suggested I go ahead and try it saying, "No one ever really pays much attention to these things anyway." I went to customs and tried to submit the documentation to a woman who was already looking at me rather sourly. It didn't take long for her to ask, "Where's Yanko? His name is on this declaration, and it's obvious that you're not him - nor do you have the authority to submit it on his behalf." "Fine. Give me my papers back." I started tearing up then and there. I was reaching my threshold for this lunacy.
I came back to Rakitovo, and I had dinner with my landlady. I then had dinner with my ex-landlords. It's all part of my campaign to get everyone in while I can. While I was getting my documentation taken care of in Sofia, a guy from Rakitovo called, "Apryl. Are you free tomorrow night? A group of us want to get together with you." I started to get frustrated because I had wanted to make other plans, and I hate promising people that I'll be able to squeeze them in. He started to get pushy on the other end of the line, and I told him that I had to go. He insisted that I keep a couple hours open the next evening. Fine. Okay. I'll see what I can do. I was turning into a brat. It's not that I don't want to see people. It's just that it's all very stressful for me. I thought I had taken my leave of this group of people when, before I left for Sofia, we had coffee with the other Americans in the region. They had a bigger surprise in store for me.
I asked Yanko to come with me to the customs office in Pazardjik today. I figured that we could leave the declaration there. Another problem reared its ugly head, however. Since Yanko's name was on the certificate and the declaration, his name needed to be on the invoice as well. In essence, Yanko needed to be the one who was sending this painting. Because the invoice would change, the number on the invoice would change, and the number on the customs declaration would change. I needed to get a new customs declaration. My work in Sofia was all for naught. I lost it. I started stamping my foot and thrashing around like I'd gone mad. This was the last straw. I started throwing documents around. Yanko was trying to calm me down, while everyone else in the office just looked at me like I'd lost my mind.
To make things worse, I had just introduced myself to the latest employee to join the organization. We were having a pleasant conversation, when it was ruined by a ringing phone informing me that I would have to pay another fee/lose more time getting a new customs declaration. This employee, however, said that she had heard really good things about me. She wouldn't let this side of me damage her impressions of me - which apparently she had received from others. Plus, she understood what it's like to be frustrated by Bulgarian bureaucracy. Right. I know she'll always think of me as the crazy girl who lost it five minutes after we met - especially since I'll probably never see her again. Good job, Apryl.
Yanko and I went to Pazardjik, and things got better from there. We finished some work he had to do, and then we went to the customs office. "Hi. Do you remember me?" Of course they did. I explained the situation to them, and they said that it wasn't necessary to get a new declaration. They would correct the already-existing one. And they did it for free. Yanko and I were floored. After getting a bunch of stamps and convincing the agent there to give me back the certificate from the National Art Gallery, "Um... I'm no expert, but I think I'm going to need that...," we went and grabbed some coffee. Then I went and picked up my "lichna karta" without a hitch. Our bus back to Velingrad was late, so I was unable to get the telephone situation taken care of, but I was able to close my bank account. They even went out of their way to bend the rules and shut down my debit card as well. Otherwise, it's not protocol to do both on the same day. Man, is it weird to be cut off financially from Peace Corps. I officially have no more income coming in - even if it's just a living allowance which covers my basic expenses. That money is gone, and it's a scary feeling. I then made an imporant phone call and was treated with respect by the person on the other end. Honestly, I expect people here (from whom I'm trying to extract information) to be rude to me on the phone. Many people in customer service positions aren't actually that pleasant. How dare you call them and ask them your "trivial" questions. People who are nice to me - especially on the phone - have made great impressions on me. I appreciate those who answer my questions patiently and clearly. They deserve a special place in Heaven.
Today I got things done. It felt so good. I left the documentation for the painting at the rep's house, and she says the painting should travel on Monday. I told her to not take it personally, but I hope that I never see again before I leave Rakitovo. I've been at her house nearly every night this week - trying to figure out what the next step is - after several missteps.
I then met up with some friends for dinner tonight. They went all-out. We had delicious food and drinks. Plus, they gave me a giant gift, which I have no idea how I'm going to transport. We talked about history, rakia recipes, and sang songs. It's nice to be appreciated. What can I say?
Obviously, Bulgaria has been frustrating me recently. I still love her. There are some great people here who make me feel special and who definitely go out of their way to help me out. Yanko is taking care of my telephone situation tomorrow so that I can go to Trud and visit my "family." He even switched his shiny, new phone for mine so that I wouldn't be without a phone while I'm away for the weekend.
Yanko and Angel have both said something to me that struck me this week. "Apryl, through you, America came and lived with us for three years. America is no longer an abstract concept for us - something you read in storybooks about heroes. America came to us and gave us something to aspire to." I can't imagine a more flattering compliment. Even when I'm losing my mind, and I'm at my wit's end, I'm fulfilling the second goal of Peace Corps.
Anyway, this might be my last, official post before I'm no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer. I still don't know, however, how long it will be before I actually get out of Bulgaria. I can feel her pulling me back - trying to keep me here with her. I once had a friend talk about Bulgaria - how there wasn't much about her to really fall in love with. At the time I agreed. Bulgaria wasn't like Spain, for example. I fell for Spain the moment I met her. Bulgaria took her time while trapping me in her clutches, but she's done it. Now that she's done it, "escaping" her won't be easy. I don't think I'll every really "escape."

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Plot Thickens....

It seems like every time I get things together and wrap up something, there's always one more thing left to do. One more stamp to get. One more signature to obtain. I HATE IT! I'm so over this painting. Dad, I love you, but no one should have to go through this much red tape to send some brush strokes to the other side of the world. It turns out that now I have to go to Pazardjik to get a migration declaration with a stamp on it. I just asked the lady, who works with the courier firm, if I need to have the painting with me, and she doesn't know, but she believes that I can show up without the painting. I'm not doing so well with "belief" right now. I want an answer. Doesn't really matter 'cause the painting is apparently just sitting somewhere in Sofia. I'm so irritated. Why can no one tell me the correct process from beginning to end? Why do I have to go to five different sources to get the correct answer, and even then I still need a stamp, a signature, maybe I'll have to dance some horo. Argh!
I'm sitting here at home updating the blog when I should really be on a bus to Velingrad to meet my colleagues for a party we're having tonight. I had a lot to do today. Yanko sounded irritated when I told him that I'd be lagging another hour to get on the bus, but that's what happens. I have things that have to get done. Parties can wait.
The Halloween party last night was a smashing success. I'm attaching a picture of my cowgirl outfit.
There was a rock band, a DJ, and food enough to feed a small nation. Some of the costumes were pretty awesome. It was basically put together by a small band of students at the school - led by a couple of girls. I'm intensely proud of them. Plus, I had a blast. I hope they will continue to be responsible for student life activities such as these. They could make that school a really fun place to be.
I had my last English class the other day. We had a good time, and people are starting to give me gifts. Meh. I don't really want to transport the breakable things that they give me, but I'm overwhelmed by the gesture. Most people don't want to say "good-bye" at this point 'cause they think they'll still run into me over the next week. I can't promise my time to anyone these days.
I'm starting to feel pretty stretched. People need me to be in five places at once, and I'm having to decide which things I can just ditch out on all-together and which things I'll just have to show up to a few hours late. I'm feeling the time weigh down on me. I could talk more about this, but I really need to get ready to go.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Saga Continues....

So, it looks like I spoke too soon in proclaiming the happy end of the saga of "the painting I want to send to the states." It was stopped at migration. Apparently I have to fill out some kind of document. The lady at the courier service here was able to obtain one - otherwise I would have had to have gone to Pazardjik to get it. I just hope it doesn't involve spending more money. Meh.
I had my last English class today. Crazy. Last English class in Rakitovo, Bulgaria. No more teaching English. No more reasons to use the Educational Center. Otherwise, I'm still packing up and giving things away. I helped with decorating for the Halloween party tomorrow. I think I'm going to be a cowgirl. Apparently my colleagues found an appropriate hat for me. In other news, I made an excellent "kitchen sink" soup tonight - as in it had everything in it but the....

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lagging Tenacity

There's this funny, little bug flying around my room. It has this armored body in the shape of a shield and a tiny, little head. I used to flick bugs like this off my clothes all the time in the last couple places that I lived. I don't think I've seen them before coming to Bulgaria. I think I might even miss the little buggers. They were always good for an unexpected scream.
The past few days have entailed a lot of looking around my house and not knowing where to begin, or doing a couple things and then not knowing where to go next. The "saga of the painting I want to send to the states" has come to an end. I have done all the steps to send it there. Whether it will get there or not is another question entirely. No. I have faith.
I think Yanko is more excited about this painting than I am. My colleagues are all impressed with the lengths I went to to get it sent. Nevermind that shipping it cost me three times the price I actually paid for the painting.... I just had to get it stateside. When I saw that painting, I saw my dad. Yanko said he wishes he had a daughter as "tenacious" as I am. Yeah, well, I know my dad will enjoy the painting... as long as it makes it through customs.
I've been going through my books, papers, and documents. I'm super-excited that there's a canister near me in which to recycle paper. You have no idea how liberating it is to dispose of Peace Corps Manuals as green waste. :) Today, I got up and got rid of over three-fourths of my clothes. I didn't even hem and haw about giving them away. Usually I'm a pack-rat who's attached to her clothes - especially shirts tied to a particular event. It was time to let go of some things, and I'm proud of myself for doing it.
This afternoon, I had a farewell lunch with some of the teachers that I've been teaching English to over the past year. We've had a lot of fun and many good memories together. They gave me a small souvenir - saying they were keeping in mind the amount of luggage I probably have. That was really considerate. They had a lot of nice things to say. One of the women didn't know any English when she started with me, and now she puts basic sentences together rather beautifully. She said that she would always remember me for helping her get to this point. These women are amazing, and we had a fun, final class with them yesterday. I will miss them, and I will never forget them. Fortunately, Emily is going to continue with them for the time that she is here. I would love to come back after that and see the progression that they've made.
I also packed up all my Spanish materials and a few English ones that I had borrowed from my colleagues. I added some lotions and candles that I had hanging around, and I headed for the office. I tried to give Ani back a Bulgarian book that she had loaned me, but she said that I could keep it. It was a really sweet gesture. She's had that book since she was in sixth grade. I just wasn't able to get around to reading it, but I want to. I have to. I started to try and explain to them what was in the bags and what they could take, and Ani just started crying. Then I started crying. Then I changed the subject.
This weekend is probably going to be filled with a lot of tears. There's a lot going on, and it's honestly overwhelming. Some of the high schoolers are doing a Halloween project. Let me take that back. Calling it "Halloween" is apparently "too American" for some people here in town. These same suggested calling it a "Pumpkin Holiday." The kids decided to call it an "Autumn Ball." It's still Halloween. There will be candy and kids dressing up in costumes. I have no idea what I'm going to wear, but I'm looking forward to it. I just hope there are a lot of people there. The kids in charge have worked hard on this one.
My colleagues are planning a party for us this weekend. One of my colleagues will be leaving the foundation next week as well, and another will be getting married soon. It's time to have a party. I'm sure I'll cry. There will be alcohol. I'll be crying for sure.
You never know what kind of impression you're going to leave people - especially people you don't know. Yesterday, I was walking by this beautiful yard that I admired all through the summer because of its gorgeous varieties of flowers. I noticed that most of the flowers had been uprooted, and it made me sad because I'd always told myself that I would eventually take a picture of these flowers. This older women in the yard called out to me, "We're neighbors." I smiled and said, "Yep." We live right across the street from each other. She then went on to tell me that her granddaughter used to go to the stadium to play baseball, and she said that her granddaughter really loved it - said I explained things well to the kids. That made me feel really good.
Not three hours later, I was dumping a bunch of paper into a recycle bin in town, when I caught a lady looking at me. I smiled. She smiled back. Then she asked, "Why don't you play baseball in the stadium anymore with the kids?" Nevermind that the time has changed, it gets dark much earlier, and it's gotten a little bit colder, I told her that I was leaving soon and that I needed to get things together. Oh, really? We then got into a quick conversation about where I'm from and how long I've been here. I don't remember ever seeing this woman before, but I'm guessing she must have seen me somewhere with my baseball stars. It makes me wonder what other impressions I'm leaving people. I imagine that for every handful of people who think well of me, there must be at least one who's not so enthused. Oh well. As Elbert Hubbard once said, "To escape criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." So true.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Two Weeks Notice

I officially have two weeks until I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer. I can’t believe it. It still hasn’t sunk in. How will I define myself? What will I do now? I feel as though I’m going through the motions – preparing for something that isn’t really going to happen. It’s hard to feel motivated when you’re neither excited by it – nor do you feel that it’s real. Don’t get me wrong. I’m looking forward to going back to the states. I certainly don’t want to stay in Bulgaria indefinitely. I just…. It’s sad, and it hasn’t really hit me. I don’t know how to tell myself that this is really happening.
Milka, my former landlady, asked me tonight if I had felt this way when I was coming to Bulgaria. “No,” I said. The awesomeness of a new adventure and the profound change that it would bring to my life was too big to ignore. Now, I’m returning to something familiar, and it’s hard to be adventurous about it. I know it will be an adventure, but it will be familiar territory that might terrify me if I’m unable to navigate it as before. Does this make any sense? Meh.
I was gone all last week, and I went into the office this morning for a bit. My colleagues told me that they missed me, and that it would be hard when we said our last good-byes. Yanko wanted me to pass on a lot of information to Emily about the things that I’m involved in for the organization, and so I took her to my house for a few hours today to do that. I still have a lot to do/decisions to make before I get out of here, so I’m starting to limit my time in the office, and I’m ending my classes this week. It’s just hard ‘cause I still want to hang out with my colleagues and be involved in the things they’ve got going on. This feeling doesn’t help me be productive at home. I just want to curl up and watch things like fake news commentary like “The Daily Show” instead of actually dealing with “the end.” Today, Valia commented that we would have “a lot of crying to do,” and then she started tearing up. Then I started tearing up ‘cause she started tearing up, and… sigh. I’m not ready for this. It’s good that it’s coming whether I’m ready or not.
Last week was a nice week. It was a trip away from reality. I touched on it a bit in my last blog post. I had my pre-COS, which basically meant medical appointments, site evaluations, writing a Description of Service, and an exit interview. I think I was tired in my last post, and I didn’t get into some of the details of that, but there are still some things that I want to share.
I’m in good health. I caught a cold on Wednesday, but I’m fine other than that. The doctor wanted me to show her where I had fallen on my leg (a little over a month ago), and I warned her that I hadn’t shaved my legs in a while. She said, “That’s okay. We don’t check for that.” I had to laugh. My weight is down. She didn’t seem concerned. It’s better than where it was at mid-service, but it’s lower than it was last year. I’m concerned. I have a barrier that I don’t like to fall under. After my physical, I met up with Greg and couldn’t get enough to eat. First, I had chicken and rice, broccoli, and leftover “shopska” salad at his place. Then, when we were out later, we got gelato. Afterwards, I was hungry again, so we went to a restaurant where I got pizza. Then, I made Greg come back with me to the gelato place to get some chocolate mousse. After eating the mousse on the way back to Greg’s place, I picked up a bag of chips. The only reason that I stopped eating was because it was time to go to sleep. I just couldn’t get full. I wonder if I’ve put on any pounds.
I saw the dentist on Tuesday, and the hygienist said that she liked the color of my teeth. “Do you bleach them? What do you use? You’ve achieved a good color, here.” I get a lot of compliments about my teeth here in Bulgaria. Thanks, Mom, for the braces. Thanks, Colgate®, for the whitening strips. Thanks, God, for the good genes. As far as I know, whitening strips haven’t caught on yet here in Bulgaria, and bleaching is prohibitively expensive. Only a few people get braces. I get the impression that the dentist is someone to be feared. Some people have said to me that they’d rather have their teeth fall out than go see the dentist. I feel fortunate for the oral care which the contracted dentist gives us – generally supported by your taxpayer dollars. In three years, I’ve only received cleanings. My fillings are so good, he thought he had done them. Healthy teeth, healthy smiles.
The exit interview was an interesting experience. I sat down with the Country Director (CD) and answered a few questions about how I feel with regard to my service and my close of service. She asked, looking back on my service, would I see Peace Corps service in Bulgaria as a “blip” in my life, or as a major stepping stone to the rest of my career. A “blip” in my life?! How can I call this fresh, crazy ride that has been one-ninth of my existence-so-far a “blip?” As I mentioned before, we had a discussion on whether the U.S. Peace Corps should be viewed as a development agency or as a goodwill organization. Two of the three goals of the agency would point to more of a “friendship/ambassador” role. One goal, however, is related to development. We Americans really hone in on this goal. We want to get things done. It’s how we fill out our reports and evaluations. It’s how we show that we have value. It’s how we justify our investment as taxpayers. Anyway, the CD also told me to keep in mind the new volunteer training for next year. Peace Corps Bulgaria might encourage me to apply for a job position as a technical trainer. Hey, I’d do it for three months if I hadn’t found my next adventure by then. My ten year high school reunion is coming up, and I’d like to be able to add, “…but I’m going back to Bulgaria to train new volunteers next month,” if I have to confess to everyone that I’m unmarried, unemployed, and still living at home.
I went and talked to my Program Managers at Peace Corps – Ivan and Zhana. Ivan always likes to give me a hard time, and this last conversation was no exception. I was telling them that people in my town were lamenting the fact that they were unable to find a Bulgarian for me over the course of three years. Ivan said, “But you lost two of those years with an American.” I corrected him by telling him that it was one year – and I didn’t “lose” any time with him. He then proceeded to give me advice. “You want to meet someone? Stop scaring men. And stop wearing those shoes.” I looked at my ratty, old sneakers with paint stains on them. Scaring men? More like men scare me. “Go out to the discotheques,” he continued. I rebutted, “Well, I can’t imagine meeting the guy I’m looking for at a discotheque.” He wasn’t fazed, “Then go hang out at the library. Go to the art museum.” I could do nothing but laugh.
On Thursday, I took off on a mini-adventure. I wanted to go and see the Russian church in a village called Shipka. It’s beautifully ornate with golden, mushroom-like tops. I loved getting a look at it. I then wanted to take a hike up the mountain beside the church to visit a monument that was built in honor of the partnership forged between Bulgaria and Russia to drive out the Ottomans. I asked a woman at an over-priced food stand how long it might take to get there. “Well, that depends,” she answered. “Worst-case scenario?” She told me that it would take about half an hour. I don’t know if she understood that I wanted to hike to the monument, but I was encouraged by her answer. It was almost three-thirty when I set out.
An hour and a half later, I had lost the path and was fighting brush and thorns to try and bust my way to the top of the mountain. I constantly thought that the monument would be “just around the corner.” I eventually turned around and found the trail again. It was probably another half hour before I caught sight of the monument again – on a distant hilltop. The sky was starting to turn to evening. “Okay,“ I thought. “I’m not going to get there, but I want to get closer to an open clearing where I can get a good shot to take a picture.” Another half hour or so, and I was suddenly next to the hill where the monument stands. I couldn’t turn back then. The clouds were getting menacing, however, and that blue cloak of dusk was starting to settle around me. I still couldn’t turn back. I saw the monument. I saw some other monuments. I had to walk up the hill to be next to the monument.
No one else was around, but a security guard soon drove up. “Looks like no one else is around,” I told him. “Yeah,” he said. “Everyone has gone home for the day.” It was a little after six, and the monument closed at five. The guard then proceeded to ask me a bunch of questions like, “Where are you coming from? Shipka? The village? Wow. Bravo. Where are you from? How are you going to get back down?” He followed me while I snapped some more pictures. Then, he invited me into a room that had obviously been set up for personnel – couches, sink, coffee-maker, TV, ashtray. I thought that he would eventually offer to give me a ride back to the village, but he just kept asking me questions. “You’re an American? How old are you? You want a cigarette? You like chalga music?” I could see that this was getting me nowhere, and I was starting to get increasingly uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the sky was getting darker. I abruptly stood up and announced that I was leaving. I had to get to the village before dark. “I wouldn’t risk it,” he said. “The forest can be dangerous at night. I can see that you’re not scared, but you can stay in a hotel here.” He then walked me outside and pointed to two hotels several hundred meters away. He suggested that I stay in the more expensive of the two. I pondered it for about two seconds and then turned and ran down the mountain.
As I was running, I thought, “I’m stupid. This is stupid. I’m an idiot. If my colleagues knew what I was doing, they’d freak. If my mom knew how stupid I am, she’d freak.” I just kept running – stopping only when the terrain was too rough to safely take at that speed. I slipped a few times; fell once. I didn’t injure myself. I am an idiot. I made it down the mountain in half an hour and basically got back to the village five minutes before the sky went irrevocably black. Then I caught a bus to Kazanlak and stayed with the volunteer there.
The next day, I went with the volunteer to the orphanage/children’s hospital where she works. The facility was nice, but the cases were sad. We went into a playroom with several workers there. Handicapped children would lie motionless on their backs and stare with vacant eyes rolled back into their heads. Children suffering from Down’s Syndrome would drool and bite their hands and tongues. There were those who opened their mouths in silent screams; those who lay curled in awkward, twisted positions; those who hit themselves, those who made strange, insect-like noises; those who were unable to walk, and one whose legs were entirely useless. He propelled himself around the room by moving his torso with his hands. He also liked to be touched and hugged. There were also healthy, bouncy children. It was hard not to focus all of my attention on them. I don’t have much of a maternal instinct. I’m even worse around children with special needs because I’m afraid that I’m going to do something to make their situation even worse. Apparently a lot of the more handicapped had, until recently, spent long periods of time in their beds with minimal interaction. Since an independent, American missionary has come to the facility, that has changed. It’s now the policy that every child get out of bed on a daily basis. More needs to be done. The people there aren’t bad people. They’re just not trained to work with these kids. The volunteer and I spent a lot of time touching kids, holding babies, playing and talking to those who could respond. I admire the volunteer, the missionary, and the staff there. I don’t know if I could be in such a place day-in and day-out.
Afterwards, the volunteer took another American and myself up to see a Thracian megalith. Basically, the ancient peoples of Bulgaria had set up a pile of rocks in such a way as to view the summer and winter solstice. It was an easy hike (I was still sore from my run down Shipka peak the night before), and it was really cool to see. We had great views of the valley below and the towns scattered across its surface.
After that, I caught a bus to Shumen. I’ve wanted to visit Shumen for quite some time. The volunteer there from my group had told me that I needed to see a monument visible from space. He was exaggerating, of course, but it was a huge marvel. The currently serving volunteer took me around. We walked up to the statue (1300 steps), but there was so much fog. It was a little hard to see. It gave the place an eerie, mysterious feeling though, and that was pretty cool. We also visited the largest mosque in Bulgaria. We went bowling, hung out, ate good food. It was a good weekend.
The next day, the time changed in Bulgaria. We “fell back” an hour. My host and I knew this, but we couldn’t figure out if the electronic clocks we were using on our cell phones automatically updated or not. It was 4:30 a.m. She called a cab for me. When I found out the real time, I wanted to tell him to come back in an hour, but he got all weird and frustrated on me. He readily agreed when I kiddingly suggested he take me at that moment, and I would just wait at the bus station. On the way there though, he kept asking what I would do for an hour since it was dark and nothing was open. I wasn’t amused. He asked me if I wanted to pass the time by accompanying him to buy a bottle of whiskey for a friend. No, thank you. I spent about nine hours getting back to my site. It was a long day, but it could have been worse. I was just happy to be back home.
Tonight, Emily and I were invited to have dinner with the young missionary couple in Velingrad. We had a good time chatting and sharing stories about living here in Bulgaria. I talked a lot ‘cause I get verbose when other service providers ask about my experience here. Today I was reading a comical list entitled “You know you’re Bulgarian when….” I was laughing and nodding my head at a lot of things that are included in that list, but the last thing I read stopped me dead in my tracks: “You prefer your neighbors’ suffering more than your own happiness.” It was so truly profound. Let me preface this by saying that Bulgarians are lovely people who will always hold a place in my heart. I am eternally indebted to them for this experience. But this statement is so true. Let’s think of society as a ladder. The higher up you are, the more you know, and the more you can turn around and help up the person behind you. In Bulgaria, it seems as though the person “behind” you is constantly trying to pull you back down. Forget about helping me up later. I’d better pull you back down here with me just in case. If I’m going to be down here on this level. You’re going to be here, too. Do you think you’re better than me? It’s very, very sad. Yanko has told me the following many times: Picture that we’re all in Hell, and we’re separated by countries. Each country has its own cauldron. A devil has been posted at each pot to make sure no one gets out. In the “Bulgaria cauldron,” however, no guard is needed. You know why? The people themselves fulfill the job by pulling down anyone who attempts to escape.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Few Steps Closer....

I'm in Sofia at the moment doing Pre-Close of Service responsibilities. It mostly involves some paperwork, some medical check-ups, and an exit interview. I came in on Monday and went through a physical. Yesterday, the dental hygenist scraped all the plaque off my teeth, and I got a clean bill of dental health from the exuberant dentist with shiny gems in his teeth. I also met an acquaintance for a magazine interview. I was rather trepidatious considering the last time I offered to do an interview, but it was fairly painless. There weren't many questions. I honestly wonder if the guy will have enough material to do a story. Maybe one day I'll actually get to see the articles.
Today I had my exit interview with the Country Director. The most interesting thing that came out of that was a debate on how to look at the Peace Corps. Should we market it as a development organization or a diplomatic organization which promotes peace and friendship? Other than actually being here for pre-Close of Service, nothing is really helping me figure out that I'm actually leaving Bulgaria in a few, short weeks. I'm the worst procrastinator. Unless I'm being forced to figure something out, I won't deal with it.
Other than these visits, I've had to fill out my Final Site Evaluation and my Description of Service. As for the Description of Service, it's a little difficult to sum up three years of service in two pages. How many people did I impact with this activity? What were the results? Is it worth mentioning? It's almost sad to see three years come down to two pieces of paper. It will be the only official, written record of my Peace Corps service.
Administrative stuff aside, it's fun being here in Sofia. I can get away from my site for a bit, hang out with my friend Greg, and eat good, ethnic foods. That's basically what I look forward to the most while I'm here in Sofia. Greg and I have been playing a Star Wars video game with Lego characters. We've been having fun. The days have been relaxed - with really only one or two things needing to get done per day. Of course, I could have been more productive had I wanted, and I did get some other things done, but I've mostly been knocking small things down one by one.
This weekend, I took a fun trip with my landlady, Margarita, and her daughter, Katia. On Saturday, we went to this amazing cave called Ledenika. The interior had tons of stalagtites and stalagmites. It was beautiful. We then continued on to a town in northeastern Bulgaria called Belogradchik. Ever since I saw pictures of the rock formations in Belogradchik, I knew that I wanted to go and see them for myself. It was great. We visited a fortress there and saw the rock formations. I also ran into other Peace Corps Volunteers who were visiting as well. The next day, we visited a nearby cave called Magura. Magura was very different in design from Ledenika, but it was no less beautiful. Afterwards, we went up to the town of Vidin, which is on the Danube River next to Romania. We visited Baba Vida - a fortress on the banks of the Danube. We looked over at Romania and then made our way back to Rakitovo. I was grateful to have been able to make the trip. These are things I probably would have never seen otherwise.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rockin' Frustrating Quasi-Sagas

Life here is a bit frustrating. I feel like I've turned into some sort of ghost in limbo. I've got one foot in, and I've got one foot out. I'm here, but I'm not really here. I'm trying to wrap up my life here, but I can't seem to get anything finalized. My COS (close of service) date looms ever closer, and I haven't done much to prepare for it. Yet, in a way, it feels like I'm already gone.
I've been trying to end my classes, but either they don't all show up so I can inform them that we will no longer be meeting, or I can't bring myself to bring down the hatchet. In the meantime, I find myself cancelling a lot of commitments to try and finish up other commitments - which only get half-done. It's all so discouraging.
I have gotten something rather monumental done, however. I mentioned before the "saga of the painting I want to send to the states." It turns out that the most recent portion of the saga has been fairly painless but a bit of a hassle. So, I mentioned that I had to go to the National Art Gallery to get a seal of approval that basically said that I wasn't stealing Bulgaria's precious art.
My colleagues and I were going to Sofia anyway for a meeting with C.E.G.A., one of our partners. I hauled the painting along with me. Before the meeting, Yanko and I swung by the National Art Gallery. A woman basically asked me a few questions about my painting, then I got a certificate and a stamp. Afterwards, I paid three leva. The whole process took about five minutes. The most annoying part was just carting the painting around with me everywhere I went.
The past couple days, as I mentioned, we've been in Sofia having meetings with C.E.G.A. Basically, we gave an account of what we've accomplished over the last few months and what we still have to do before the end of the year. I found it fairly interesting and participated in the session fairly actively. Plus, we went out and ate some fairly delicious Chinese food. I think Emily had a pretty good time as well, but it's difficult when you're still at the beginning stages. I imagine she must have been pretty bored throughout the meetings, and I'm sure she zoned out. I did the same thing three years ago. Five minutes have gone by, and I don't know what you're talking about? Yeah, I'm going to go somewhere else in my mind.
We got back yesterday and Yanko, Emily, and I went straight to the "chitalishte" (cultural center) to discuss a library project that's being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Basically, the idea is to make the library an attractive and informative place for people to visit. Also, the goal is to get the community to really invest in the chitalishte and help it to flourish. In other towns, the chitalishte is an active,thriving part of the community. In Rakitovo, unfortunately, the chitalishte is fairly inactive. It would be super-fantastic if that could change, but it's going to take everyone working together instead of taking the time to try and finger-point to lay the blame. Blame me. I'm leaving in a few weeks anyway. Now that you've found a scapegoat, what can you do to make it better?
Again, I was able to participate fairly actively by sharing one idea that I had to get kids to read. In fact, one of the other participants spoke up and said that she didn't agree with my idea. That's how you know that it's a provocative thought! Basically, I suggested a reading rewards system. She didn't like the idea of giving rewards to kids who, in her words, are already spoiled. The facilitator followed it up by sharing some basic psychology: Most kids don't have a natural, internal desire to read. The idea is to offer external stimulation until the external becomes internal. How you decide to do that is the debate. Discussion! Thought! Disagreement! Psychology 101! I love it! Now I'm waiting for... action!
This morning, Yanko and I had an informal discussion with the project facilitators to try and reach some sort of conclusions about how the project could work. Basically, the Gates Foundation would provide funding for computers, software, and training. These computers could be used to access the internet for information or contact other libraries for inter-library loans. The municipality would be responsible for remodeling the library to make room for these computers - along with making the library a more attractive and inviting place to visit. The community would be responsible for finding people to be trained to use these computers and help others find the information their looking for. It's also the responsibility of the community to work on programs to revitalize the library and give everyone a greater access to information. These members/partners would also be responsible for pushing the municipality to pay more attention to cultural activities - thereby securing more funding for the chitalishte. If everyone works together, it should be a win-win-win situation. If not, there will just be twelve more computers sitting abandoned in a room.
Today, we went to start the process of getting Emily's "lichna karta." A "lichna karta" is a personal, Bulgarian ID. Every citizen of a certain age has one, and foreigners residing long-term are also required to get one. We Peace Corps Volunteers have to renew ours every year. We wish we could just get one for two years, but I think someone somewhere likes torturing us with bureaucracy. The United States is certainly guilty of such things as well.
Yanko and I dragged that poor girl around Velingrad. It wasn't our fault, but it still must have sucked for her. She was a good sport. We went between the police station and a couple banks three times, and she had to fill out the same document three times. There was always a mistake to be found somewhere, so... yeah. It didn't get done today. We'll have to go back tomorrow to present all the documentation and then, in about a month, she will finally have her "lichna karta." Once we get done with her, I will have to do the same as well. (sigh) I have to go through the same process to stay in the country for ten days 'cause my card expires at the end of this month. (double sigh) I don't even want to talk about it anymore.
How about rocks in your beans? Rice? Flour? In Bulgaria, you gotta sift through these staples to make sure there aren't any in your packages - ones you've bought in the store. I'm not complaining. It's really not that difficult to sift through and search for foreign objects. My problem is that I'm lazy. I made beans the other day. Before I cooked them, I found a tiny rock, which I duly threw out. The problem is, I didn't look too hard. I ate beans for a few days 'cause I made a lot. Boy, were they yummy. On the last day that I ate beans, I chomped down on a rock in my last bite. Crack! What a way to ruin the last morsel!
On the topic of rocks, check out what a friend recently wrote to me:
Your blogs rock!
Seriously. There's always something in there that makes any reader feel they're a part of what's going on, and there's always parts in there that just makes me laugh and to not take the world so seriously. You really have accomplished so much there. Just thought I'd mention that.

Thanks, Tom. I'll credit you when I try to convince editors to publish my forthcoming book - based on my blog.
P.S. In spite of allusions made in my previous post (okay, outright declarations), we did not get drunk out of our skulls the other night. Two of the women went to bed without even having a drink, Yanko monitored his alcohol intake, and the rest of us nursed a glass of wine. We're lame. Or we're really smart. Take your pick.
P.S.S. I have yet another reason why I want to work for an embassy abroad. Holidays. Not only do you get to take of American holidays, but you get the ones of the country that you're serving as well. For example, I got a memo here from the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria. They have 16 holidays this year, and that doesn't even count the four that fall on weekends. I'm going to take a survey of all U.S. embassies. I'm going to find the one with the most holidays, and then I'm going to scratch and claw my way in so that I can have the most days off. It's an ingenious plan.