Thursday, January 24, 2008

Съществувам!

"Sashtestvuvam!" That's a fancy, Bulgarian word that means, "I exist!" One of my colleagues denied my existence today. It's okay now. We worked it out. But I still have to digest it in my blog.
A meeting of the municipal council was scheduled for today. Seventeen municipal board members would come together and vote on a variety of motions. One of them was about a letter that we had submitted regarding the Educational Center. Basically, since we're maintaining a municipal property for the good of the community, we wanted our rent lowered from about 40 leva a month the ridiculous sum of one lev a month. There's another non-profit in our town that pays that amount, and we wanted the same to apply for us.
Yanko was supposed to attend the session, but he was in Pazardjik, and he wasn't sure if he would be back in time. I had to go to the municipality office anyway (I had mail to pick up (Grandma, that package finally came through), and the post office is in the same building.), so I inquired about the schedule for the session. I saw that it would start at 1:00 p.m., and we were the 17th item on the list. There would be plenty of time for Yanko to get back.
Well, Yanko missed the 11:30 bus from Pazardjik, and he said he would catch one at 1:00. Could a couple of us go to the municipality to at least be there when the meeting starts so we could explain/defend our position if need be? We discussed it in the office, and right away I said I would go. I feel strong ties to that center. I know all about it, I've been with it since its inception, and I use it more than anyone else.
A few minutes later, the question came up again: Okay, well, who's going to go with Apryl to the municipality for the municipal board's session? One of my colleagues (who will remain unnamed for the sake of propriety) nominated herself and another colleague. The second colleague said she had a lot of work to do, and she didn't really want to go. I said to them, "Well, then, the two of us will go." The first colleague declared, "I don't want to go alone!" My jaw nearly dropped to the floor. Didn't I just say I would go? Do I not exist? I stuttered, "What do you mean go alone? I'll be there, too." She continued to affirm over and over that she would not go alone to the municipality for the meeting - meaning I didn't count. Someone else had to come.
I went home briefly to change for the session, and I decided to call up one of my program managers. When something like this - hurtful, astounding, and completely unexpected - happens to me, I need instant emotional support. I'm not looking for advice or anything. I just need someone to listen to me. Maybe that person throws in an occasional "Man, that sucks," every once in a while for sympathy. That's all I need... someone who can imagine how it would feel if it happened to them. Thing is, the B-18 friends that I would call in such a situation are all gone, so I called up program.
I think my program manager was thrown off by me at first. I can't blame him. "Wait, what do you want?" "Just listen to me and then laugh with me when I'm done." So, I explained the story to him, and he suggested I talk to my colleague. "Yes, that will be done. I just need someone to listen to me right now." Sometimes Peace Corps thinks I'm looking to them for solutions. Most of the time, if I search them out, I just want them to listen or to let me bounce ideas off them. He finally caught on, "Sorry. All I can do is listen." Exactly. That's what I want.
After instant emotional consolation, I started crying. I screamed and wailed in my apartment. After two years, my colleagues don't trust me. My colleagues don't think I can go into a municipal meeting and get things done. I might as well not exist. I felt utterly useless. I think that's my greatest fear in life... feeling like I'm useless. So, I pounded on the table, I had an emotional fit, and it felt good.
After a few minutes of that, I went back to the office - feeling much better. My colleagues had convinced another man (a former colleague of the Foundation's) to come with them for emotional support. I had nothing against it, but I felt like again I was being dissed. So, the four of us went to the municipal council meeting.
We knew Yanko would probably be there before they even got to us - after all we were #17 on the agenda. Sure enough, the opened with a discussion about their salaries. It reminded me of the U.S. Congress voting raises for themselves. Actually, I just found out I have it backwards. A pay raise for Congress is automatic - unless Congress members vote to reject it. So anyway, the municipal council soon went into a heated debate about how much they should make. Fun times. A lot of outside people were there, and one even dared to challenge them on it. I understand it must be frustrating to watch public servants raise their salaries while you're struggling to get by. I'm sure we all wish we could just vote ourselves raises.
Anyway, that was educational and fun to watch - honestly. After that, they went through a couple more motions and then took a break. Yanko showed up. We went through a bunch of more motions and votes, and then it finally came around to us. The municipal board chairman noted our presence and then opened the floor. One of the local school directors stood and said something to the effect of, "We should be grateful to Future Foundation for taking on this municipal property and using it for the good of the entire community - not just the Roma. I have students and teachers that study with this girl here (she couldn't remember my name and Yanko threw it in), and I'm very happy with their work in that center. The council members were already acquainted with the motion, so there wasn't a need to actually discuss it. Sixteen members (one was absent by this time) approved the motion - some eagerly raising their voice in a thunderous "za!" to show that they were for it. There was no need for any of us to even speak a word.
At the next break, I stood and shook the hand of the school director, thanking her for the kind words she had said about our work in the center. I smiled at a few of the council members and ducked out with my colleagues. The two women that were with me started talking about how it was important that we all work together in spite of our differences. It's amazing how positive you can feel about someone when they have just voted in your favor. Actually, it's very human. "Wow," you think, "that person was in my court. Maybe they're not so bad after all...." If only that were a feeling you could carry with you all the time about every person you come in contact with. Then, my colleagues started discussing why they thought people were supporting us. Was it because we helped them out with this favor that one time? Was it because they saw that others were voting "za?" I'd like to believe people in our town support the idea of education and the people who work for it. Maybe that's too easy an explanation. It's hard to get past the idea that everyone's motivated by some personal vendetta.
So, after work, I sought out that colleague. I said, "You know, your opinion of me matters a great deal. I look at you not only as a friend, but as someone I turn to for council. When you said 'I don't want to go alone!' after I had already stated that I was going, I felt like my existence didn't matter." I told her that I realized that maybe she wanted someone who spoke perfect Bulgarian to go with her; someone who would stand up and defend the center; maybe someone with a stronger personality." She said that she did, and that she wanted someone who knew about things in town - about the center, and about the fact that there's another organization in town that only pays 12 leva a year in rent. Thing is, I did know about that. In fact, I've worked many times with the director of that organization - including assisting her with writing a project. I can't say I know the town or its mechanisms nearly as well as my colleagues, but I think I know more than they give me credit for - or that they're willing to trust me with. It's frustrating. Two years, and sometimes I feel like I've made such small gains. She did apologize, however. She understood how I felt, and finished my sentence, "When you said you wouldn't go alone, I felt...." "...like you weren't even there, like you weren't even a person." Exactly. "Sorry about that."
So, now that I've digested all that for the nebulous internet, how about I continue on to an update? I know you want to read more....
Monday was "Baben Den," which is like a holiday for grandmothers and babies. All the children that have been born over the past year go to the municipality and receive gifts. There's a program, and relatives and friends show up. I was glad that Yanko suggested I go with Fatme to see her relatives. It was interesting. I ate bread, chocolate, and I had a sip of rakia. I saw some people I knew. I actually got in a picture. I observed a lot of well-behaved babies. I had a boy sing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" for me in front of his relatives, and we both chimed in on "...and a Happy New Year!"
I was able to get Yanko and Krum (our accountant - not THAT Krum) to put together an account of our transactions in the center for one of our donors. I was frustrated that Yanko wanted to put over 600 leva towards the purchase of coal. I even told the donor that I understood if they didn't want to support us again (we had discussed the money going to other overhead expenses when they were first here), but I received an e-mail saying it was all right. They had given us freedom to use the money for whatever we needed to maintain the center. Turns out Yanko was right again.
Yanko has been insanely busy lately - running around helping the municipality with a project they're writing. A week after I first told him about it, I finally was able to get him to come over and look at my kitchen sink. It wouldn't drain. In fact, I had even tried using a solvent to unblock it, and nothing happened. I don't know who designed the drainage system in my new place, but I swear they designed them to clog. My shower drain is no better. He and Vesco came over to take apart the pipes underneath the sink. There was a lot of junk blocking the way. After they cleared all that out, they started scratching their heads over a chunk of solid, white, sugary mass that was blocking the pipe. "Oh," I postured, "you know what that is? I think that's this solvent." "Ah," they replied, "I noticed it was starting to tingle on my hands." It was really stuck in there, but Yanko was able to get it to finally unblock and dissolve by soaking the pipe in hot water. They weren't able to put it back together without leaking, so Yanko said he would replace one of the rubber washers while he was in Pazardjik. He was looking for that when he missed the 11:30 bus. My colleagues started commenting on that, and I felt like they were insinuating I was to blame for him missing the bus. Please. I tell myself not to be so sensitive. Yanko was too busy to replace it today. Fortunately, I ran into Vesco, and he took care of it for me.
A dozen people have been coming through the office lately. Our working space is no larger than a child's bedroom. It's cramped for the six of us. If anyone wants to come in for any reason, it's a game of "musical chairs" trying to get everyone seated and comfortable. We'll literally have ten people already in there, someone else will come, and my colleagues will say, "Sit down somewhere," regardless of the fact that to sit down would defy the laws of physics. I admire my colleagues' ability to make room and continue to invite people in. It's like a game of "let's see how many people we can fit in this tiny space." Personally, I'd tell people to go away and come back when we get a bigger office. I can't get used to it.
Last night, I went to a cafe my landlady has here in her own backyard. A group of people get together there every evening to hang out and play cards. I don't know how long the tradition has been going on, but I'm astounded by the ability of people to get together every evening for the same activity. I have been wanting to go for a while now - just have always needed to do something else, come home too late, or feeling too drained. I've been wanting to learn a game called Belot - which I swear is the national card game or something. It's pretty popular here. So, I went and hung out with my landlady's niece for a bit. She was preparing the cafe, and she gave me a couple of drinks (not THOSE kind of drinks) on the house. She's been taking care of her aunt's place while she's been gone, and sometimes that includes looking out for me.
A couple men came into the cafe shortly, and one proudly proclaimed he was the best Belot player ever. The other tried to buy me a beer. They had gregarious personalities that instantly draw you in. The first guy sat down and tried to explain Belot to me. I like to think that I'm a quick study and a card-shark in training, but I must admit that the strategy of Belot was too difficult for me to figure out last night. I was able to crack a few jokes, however, and I always love meeting new people.
A few more couples came into the cafe, and after some gossip, we began to play cards. Six of us sat down to play a version of rummy. They helped me out quite a bit with the first game, and I actually won. I had very little luck afterwards, but I enjoyed the company. I was amused. Each time someone came into the cafe (they were all men after that), someone piped up and said, "Come meet an American!" I would shake their hand and tell them my name while the other women would loudly inform me of his status if he were single, "Oh, he's a bachelor," while giving me a knowing look. Except for the smoke, I enjoyed the atmosphere. It's nice to know I can go somewhere and hang out if I really need to get out of the house... without imposing on another family.
I had dinner with Enyo and Milka tonight. It's amazing how much more I like them now that I'm not living with them. I really did like them before, but now I like them even better. I feel like our relationship is more honest. I find myself telling Milka things I wouldn't tell other people, and I wonder why that is. I pretty much keep everything in, but they've been really good to me.
It's amazing the ways God helps you get by. Unfortunately, I'm the type of person who needs constant validation. I have a friend who's said she'd like to meet "the sane, rational, calm, non-reassurance seeking version of [herself]." I feel a lot the same way. Anyway, while I was feeling "useless," apparently people decided to take note of my outward appearance today. An older man I know in town saw me for the first time since I've been back, and he said, "You've only grown lovelier since you've been here." Reneta said that I looked like a "movie star" with a scarf Thomas gave me last Christmas. Also, while I was talking to my colleague about her comment, another colleague suddenly turned to me and asked, "Do you want to drink coffee with my cousin?" She was on the phone with him, and I guess I caught his eye at "Baben Den." "Okay, but when? I'm busy through the rest of the week." He was talking through my colleague, and he thought I was blowing him off. I took the phone. "What's your name?" "I'm busy this week. Are you free Monday evening?" "Okay. Listen. This is where you're going to meet me." He sounded a bit put off, but I think it was a mix of awkwardness and confusion when I took charge of the situation.
Bleh. I've never really considered myself that astoundingly attractive on a purely superficial level. So, being seen as "Miss America" is not exactly believable nor something that I desire. I'd rather feel useful that "pretty." So far, my colleagues haven't shown me that they really need me here. I'm beginning to wonder what this third year is really going to be about.... Meh. God's in charge. In the meantime, it's nice to be flattered. I'm not going to lie. I'm a validation-seeker.

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