Monday, July 28, 2008

Metal & Melnik

* This is probably going to be one of those posts that's super-involved. You might want to skim.
So, I went to the Metallica concert on Friday. It was an interesting day. I got up early 'cause I was nervous about making sure I got there and everything went well. I started my time in Sofia by going to the Peace Corps office to get a few things done. I ran into Ivan, one of my program managers.
Ivan: Oh, Apryl, I went to the Roma camp for a bit last week. I saw Angel there. (Angel's facilitating the camps this year.) I have to tell you, it was like watching Apryl facilitate - only in male form.
I burst into laughter.
Ivan: Don't tell him that, though.
Apryl: Oh, I'm telling him. I have to tell him now. That's a great compliment.
Ivan: Don't tell him.
Apryl: What you mean to say is that he was good. And you don't mean just "good," you mean really, really good.
Ivan: I mean to say that he was perfect.
I laughed some more. What I should have said was, "How do you know he gets it from me? Maybe I get it from him." I keep getting compliments about my counterpart from Peace Corps - as if I had something to do with his development. "I understand that you've helped Angel with facilitation skills. Bravo! He is a fabulous facilitator." Right. Angel was a fabulous facilitator before I met him.
Anyway.... I finished up my work at Peace Corps and then headed over to the concert site to try and figure out what the story was with these tickets. Like I said, my friend's husband said that he was able to get eight for me. I wanted to track them down. I got to the stadium, and it was pouring rain. That didn't stop the diehard fans, though. People were already lining up hours before the concert. Fortunately, I had brought an umbrella. I decided to approach a security guard and try to explain what a "will call" was to him. Did the stadium have anything like this? He looked at me fairly unsympathetically and told me to call my friend. I hesitated a moment and then decided to try another security guard.
I went to the other end of the stadium and approached another guy who looked at me a bit more sympathetically, but gave me the same response. "You'd better call your friend." I was hesitant. My friend's number was for a mobile phone in Holland. How much was it going to be to call him from my cell? I decided I'd better track down these tickets - especially since I have no idea where they could be. I called my friend. "It may be a little early for the tickets," he said, "but I will try to track them down for you."
I hung up the phone, and then I was approached by a guy with an Irish accent, "Can I help you?" I probably looked at him incredulously, but decided to tell him my story. "I know this probably sounds crazy, but I have a friend who works for the band. He got some tickets for me, and I'm trying to track them down." He then started telling me about how he travels from show to show and has gotten into helping out with the concerts as well. "Same with my friend," I said. "What's his name?" I told him his first name, and he smiled - he followed this by saying his last name and his nickname. I burst into a huge smile. "You know my friend!"
So, I called my friend. "Hey, I met an Irishman here who knows you. I don't want you to worry about me." Then, the two of them talked. More talking to Holland by cell. They were really helping me out, but I cringed a bit. "Oh, then I will take excellent care," said the Irishmen as he hung up. "He has informed me that you are one of his wife's best friends, and I am required to take good care of you." Awesome.
We stood out there in the rain - talking about the band, my friend's recent birthday (I even saw pictures of him covered in shaving cream), and waiting for someone to come along and give us some information. He again asked to use my phone - and ended up making a call to a wrong number (again to Holland, I think), and then he called my friend again (definitely to Holland) to try and get someone out to help us. Pretty soon, a girl came along and informed me that my tickets should be at a location across from the stadium in a couple hours. I exchanged a couple numbers with them (one for the ticket office/headquarters and one for the Irish guy) She then walked off with my new, Irish acquaintance. I was so grateful for my silly luck.
My friend from Holland called again, but since I didn't pick up, I had to call him back. He told me that the tickets should be at a certain location in five minutes. I tried to hunt down this place, and I found a trailer that looked like it was selling tickets. I asked, but they didn't have any tickets in my name. I decided to take a chill pill. No more calls to Holland. If they weren't there in a couple hours, I would start making some calls. I now had a landline in Sofia that I could work with.
I went to a trendy cafe' and spent a couple hours sipping a chocolate mocha and reading Newsweek. I'm so sophisticated. What was interesting was watching all the metalheads walk by. Everyone wearing a black shirt looked suspect, and most of them had Metallica tees. One guy came into the cafe' in a dark, black trenchcoat that was cinched at the waist. I actually took a step away from him at the counter. He looked like he might shoot up the place at any minute. But anyway, it was just interesting watching hoards and hoards of people walk by in black.
T minus three hours to the concert, and I decide I'd better go back again and try and check up on these tickets. I go up to the trailer, and they hand me an envelope. There's a label that says "Metallica." My name is printed on the label, and it also says "7 tickets 2 working," and it has my friend's initials. I cautiously opened the envelope and looked inside. There were six tickets and two large, purple stickers. My heart leapt. What do these mean? Do I get to go backstage? I asked the lady at the ticket office. She said she didn't know, and that I would be better of asking someone at the front. What? How can you not know what this means?
Remembering my experience with the security guards, I decided to call the Sofia landline I was given to try and figure out what the deal was with these tickets. "Oh, those should get you backstage."
"Really?" I said as calmly as possible. "Awesome! Can they get me into the actual show, 'cause I only have six tickets here, and I'm supposed to have eight."
"They should, yeah."
I hung up. "They should? What do you mean 'they should.'" Shouldn't you know whether or not these can get me into the actual stadium? I decided not to worry about it too much. Obviously they meant something, and if they could get me backstage, why shouldn't they be able to get me into the actual show?
In the meantime, my Bulgarian "sister" started calling me. She wanted me to meet her at another location a ways away. When I was halfway there, she called again, "You know what? It's too far away. Don't meet me there." Okay.... I decided to go to a bridge by the stadium and wait there for my other contacts.
I was there on that bridge for probably a good couple of hours, and only one guy found me.
I almost lost the tickets during that time. Here I had been guarding them like a hawk, and I almost lost every single one. I had given this guy's ticket to him, and he gave it back to me while he wandered off to take care of some business. I stuck the ticket back in the envelope and put the envelope back in my purse. A few minutes later, after pacing a bit, I turned and noticed an envelope lying on the ground near me. I felt a shot of adrenaline. I bent down, and sure enough, it was my envelope. Everything was inside, but I couldn't believe my luck. If someone had just been paying a bit more attention.... Thousands of people were walking by. Someone could have really lucked out, and I would have been screwed. I must not have actually put them back in my purse like I thought. Good gravy. Someone was looking out for me.
I guess the bridge I had chosen wasn't a good location to meet - or I wasn't explaining it in a helpful manner or something. I had to meet three more people including my "sister," and none of them found me. After a bunch of frustrating phone calls which only served to run down my phone battery, I went with the one guy who found me to the center of the madness - right in front of the stadium. In spite of the crowd, it was a better place to meet 'cause I found the group of Americans with little trouble. Apparently, it's easier to find a group of 10 Americans in an almost-throng than it is to find an isolated, American girl on a bridge.
Finding my "sister" was harder. My phone was dying, and I was getting more and more frustrated. We were talking about the same landmarks, but we couldn't find each other. She told me to go stand by "the police car," which I did. Then, she called me when she was standing by "the police car." We were standing at two different police cars. Then, I saw the back of her head when she called to say she was standing by a certain billboard. Whew! Everyone had been found.
I took her to meet some of the Americans who were hanging out, and they all thanked me for getting tickets for them. They were all really gracious about it, which I appreciated. I told my "sister" that I had a surprise for her. Did she want to know now or later? She told me she wouldn't be able to contain her curiosity. I pulled out the purple passes. "What's this?" she asked. I toyed with her a bit, but then finally said, "I think we're going backstage." We talked a bit more, and then decided we'd better be getting in. The concert had long started, but there were still huge crowds outside.
We didn't know where to go, but we decided to take our chances in one of the "smaller" throngs of people. They were crowding in to go through a rather weak security check. Once through that part, we went and presented our purple passes to a guy checking tickets. "What am I supposed to do with this? This isn't a ticket." Uh-oh. I called Holland again to try and get in touch with my friend. No answer. I tried calling Holland to get in touch with the Irish guy. No answer. I called the ticket office. I explained the situation.
"Did the envelope look like it had been opened?" Super. Had someone taken out our tickets? Were there originally eight inside? Or only seven like the envelope said? My mind was racing. "It didn't look opened, but it might have been."
"Okay, I'm coming out to find you. Can you describe where you are?" Crap.
"It's not just me. There's someone with me."
"Okay, just tell me where you are." Crap. Crap. Double crap. Not this again. Not this game where I play the part of a needle in a haystack. I looked around, but most things were written in Cyrillic. The girl on the phone didn't speak Bulgarian. I finally found something that looked worthy. "Okay, I'm at entrance three, and there's a banner that says "Bronze" on it."
"Okay, I'm coming to find you."
After about five minutes, my phone rang. "Hello?"
"I'm standing right behind you."
She came down the stairs and I gave her a smile of relief. "You're really good at finding people."
"I saw you answer your phone," she said briskly as she handed me two tickets and wandered off.
"Thank you...."
My "sister" and I walked halfway around the stadium to find our entrance. Once we got there, I saw a banner that described the location as "Next to the Stage." I squeezed my "sister's" hand to point it out to her. We offered our tickets to the ticket lady, and she let us in.
Okay, so "Next to the Stage" is still several meters away from the actual stage. It's a soccer stadium. The soccer field is next to the stage. And the stands are a ways away from the action, but they were still cool seats. We would be able to make out the faces of the band members. We sat down pretty much right in the front and took notice of the people who were already drunk/drugged out of their minds.
My mind was racing, "These purple passes mean something. I have to figure out what." Pretty soon, I saw a Bulgarian guy wearing the same thing. I went up to him and asked what they were about. "This," he said, "gives me access to the tents and things behind the stage." He pointed to another badge he was wearing. "It's no good by itself, though. You have to have this one as well to get anywhere." I was incredulous, but the others with him said the same thing. I looked around. The few people who had purple stickers like mine had badges as well.
I decided to write a text to my friend. Maybe I had jumped to conclusions about these purple stickers. Plus, he had said that they would be leaving right after the show. He told me that they were arriving right before the show. Obviously, there just wasn't time for this whole "backstage thing." I had the whole "backstage - after the show" idea in my head. I didn't even think to try and get back into "off limits" zones before Metallica got on stage. So, I wrote a text explaining a bit about my ticket situation and ask about the purple passes. The text wouldn't go through. By the time the text went through, Metallica was already on stage. I knew my friend wouldn't get it now that he was working. Whatever it was, I had missed out. I tried to forget about it and enjoy the concert.
Metallica was awesome. I mentioned in my last post that I've never really been a fan. Dark, angsty metal music does not speak to me. Most of it sounds like noise to me. I have a newfound respect for Metallica, however. I can't speak much about the lyrics, 'cause I couldn't really hear them... but I really enjoyed the music. The guitar playing was amazing, and it did not sound like noise. The band knows how to put on a good show. Plus, the fans were great. A lot of them were singing along as well as they could. When Metallica played "Nothing Else Matters," everyone was singing along to every single word. Man, if I could only get 40,000 people to undertake some initiative for change.... I admire and envy the influence of a band like that. Why don't we all go out and plant some trees after the show? Good gravy.
After two and a half hours of rockin' good times, Metallica left the stage. My "sister" and I exited with the herd. We decided to ditch the idea of looking for a taxi and decided to grab some food instead. She actually ran into a friend she knows from Trud. While they were catching up, my friend wrote me a text. "Those passes were to get you backstage." I wanted to laugh, cry, and strangle something all at once. As mentioned before, his wife and I are close, and he had a big hug from her for me. Regardless, in a place like this, it's cool to see someone who represents a life you lead in another part of the world. I wanted a piece of California/good friends to intersect my life for a few minutes that evening. Coincidentally, he was in Sofia, and despite my confused, frustrated, half-hearted efforts (not to mention a bunch of calls to Holland), I was unable to see him. Damn. Damn. Double-damn. I wrote him back, but he was alredy gone - probably on his way with the band to catch a plane back to Italy - a brief respite before the next show.
My sister and I went out and got some pizza and a couple cups of tea. I was exhausted. It had been a long day. We had a good conversation, and then we caught taxis to our respective "crash" arrangements. I stayed with a friend of mine in Sofia - stumbling in past 1 a.m. Once on the couch, however, the adrenaline kicked in again. I couldn't sleep. I read more Newsweek.
The next morning, my eyes felt as though they had had four tons of sand poured in them. I knew I had to get up. "Are my eyes red?" I asked my friend. He just laughed, "Yeah." Gah! I felt better after coffee, pancakes, a peach, and good conversation with my host and his girlfriend.
I had decided that I would go to Melnik. I've been telling myself that I would take more adventures on my own. This weekend was the perfect opportunity to do it. I need to get out and see more of Bulgaria. Melnik is a bit of an oddity. It's the smallest "town" in Bulgaria - near the Greek border. It used to boast over 20,000 inhabitants. Now, the number is about 250 - 300. Plus, it's famous for it's wine. How can you go wrong?
I caught a long, but direct bus ride from Sofia to Melnik. We hit a lot of little villages along the way, and the passengers were constantly changing. When we finally hit Melnik, we were mobbed by "babas and dyados" (grandmothers and grandfathers) who were trying to offer us rooms. I probably should have tried my luck with them, but I decided to strike out on my own. The first place I tried didn't have any rooms available. The next hotel I tried wanted 60 leva for the night. It didn't look nice enough for 60 leva. I decided to keep trying. Every "mehana," restaurant, and "krachma" was offering rooms for rent. It shouldn't be too hard. I decided to try a place standing next to an old building with Moorish-looking architecture. I rang the bell, and a lady called to me from the window. After establishing that there was an available room and that I was alone, she told me, "It's 40 leva for the night." I hesitated. Forty leva would send me right back out in the street. "But I'll give it to you for 30." The room ended up being clean and comfortable. I found out later that the TV wasn't even set up next to an outlet. Clever. I just needed a place to crash. It was quiet, charming, and safe.
After dropping off my stuff, I read up a bit on Melnik. Apparently, the Rozhen Monastery was nearby. I decided to set out and see if I could find it. Man, was Melnik touristy, but it was absolutely charming. I started my hike amid beautiful trees, awe-insiring sand formations, and a menacing, barking dog. I'm glad to say I left the dog behind quickly. The walk was invigorating. I congratulated myself for going on this venture alone and drank everything in deeply. Was it amazing! After thinking I must have gotten lost at least half a dozen times, I finally ended up at the monestary. I walked around and admired the grounds and the church for several minutes. A priest was praying a fairly long blessing, and I listened to his monotone singing while I studied the paintings on the wall.
Dusk was approaching as I scurried back down to Melnik. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to outrun the darkness. I made it back to town just as those ominous blue tones were painting every corner of my part of the world. You know that blue hue everything takes right before darkness envelopes you? It followed me back into Melnik. I decided to grab some food, and that's when I cursed my isolation. Eating out alone is not as invigorating as taking a hike alone. I felt oddly isolated, but there was a cute, little boy who had no fear in coming over to my table and climbing up on the seat next to me without reservation. He had the most beautiful smile. He was followed by his young parents - constantly chasing him out of my life. I wanted to enjoy some wine with my dinner, but it was more expensive than what I was willing to pay. I decided to go to the market and buy a bottle. I'd probably have drunk it then if I'd had a corkscrew. I decided I'd rather take it home and share it with someone anyway. I was exhausted anyway and soon fell into bed.
I got up the next morning and walked around the town - drinking in the absolute charm of it all. There are a lot of old houses, churches, and ancient structures. It reminded me of a trip I took with Thomas to a place called Kovachevitsa. Absolutely charming.
I decided I needed to get out of there as early as possible to try and get back to my town. My hostess was surprised that I was leaving already, but I didn't know what transportation pitfalls might lie ahead. When I went to the bus stop a little before nine, a bunch of Bulgarians and foreigners were already waiting there. A little after nine, a tiny van pulled up. It was obvious that we weren't all going to be able to climb in. I made it on, but the driver ended up having to call another guy to take half the group.
We ended up making all the stops in the neighboring villages - picking up a few people when we could; telling larger groups of people that they were out of luck. A man was called upon to constantly open and shut the van, since it was difficult to grasp from where we were. I thought, "I know that guy." I'd met him once in Dolna Banya while I was visiting Thomas. Once we got to the next town and got off, I approached him. At first, he thought I was the daughter of an acquaintance. When I mentioned Thomas' name, he said, "Oh! Rakitovo, right?" Small world.
It turned out that I couldn't get to Velingrad from any of the other towns on my way up north. I ended up having to go all the way to Sofia and spend a bunch of money. Blast! One of the reasons I don't like living in this part of the country is that it's difficult to get to many places in any sort of direct configuration. I'm sure there are many other volunteers who have it worse than me, but I like pointing out my frustration with absolute ridiculousness. Why should I have to go further north just to get south again?
Anyway, I made it home, and I had an absolutely lovely weekend. I called the friend who sent the hug with her husband, and we had a lovely chat about how I missed seeing him and missed out on my hug. Those are the breaks. It's just another story to tell.
Today, I opted to stay home and finish up the project translation that I needed to do. I went out to teach an English class, get caught in the rain, and talk to Reneta about the latest camp she attended. I got some good work done, but it's still hard to come back into reality. I feel like this weekend is an example of how my life would be if I could just do whatever I wanted - and had a limitless supply of money. I love my Rakitovo, but it's like a slap in the face. It's no Melnik, and it's no Sofia. It's where I live, and it's not going to seduce me with charm or try and put on a show for my senses. How I love you, Rakitovo.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Metal

I'm going to a Metallica concert tomorrow. It's interesting. I've never been that much into Metallica. They have one song that I really like and a few others that I enjoy all right, but I'm just not a fan of heavy metal. I have to respect their longevity, and I do think they're talented musicians. They're just not for me. It turns out that a friend's husband works for them. When she found out from him that they were coming to Sofia, she suggested that I go and invite some friends. He was able to get me eight tickets to the show. So, I'm bringing eight very random people along. Just about everyone I had originally got the tickets for ended up making other plans, but it wasn't hard for more than enough people to find me and snatch them up. Now, I'm just worried about finding these tickets. Hopefully, they'll be in an obvious spot, and I won't have too much trouble tracking them down.
Otherwise, I talked to my friend's husband, and he says the band has been based in Italy - just flying out to other, nearby countries to perform a concert here and there. Ah, the life of a rockstar. At first there was talk of meeting the band to interpret for some fans, but it looks like that's not going to happen. Most diehard fans know how to say, "I love you! You're the best band on the planet! Your music rocks! Etc." at least in broken English. Smile and take a few pictures. They don't need me. It's good - otherwise I probably would be star struck, even though I'm not a fan myself.
The weather has been crazy as of late. It's decided to thunder and rain. I absolutely love it. It just screws up my whole day, though. I couldn't go to baseball, and one of my kids said that he was waiting for me - in spite of the rain.
Yanko and I were up at a restaurant on the foresty outskirts of Rakitovo. We had been invited up by one of the pastors because a group from California were there visiting and carrying out evangelical seminars. I met a man who said he's given sermons at my alma mater. I was also asked to do some work for them. They'd like me to go along with a girl to the doctor to determine what can be done for an eye injury she has. We'll see if that pans out. Otherwise, they were very nice, and I had a great time "practicing my English" with some of the Roma boys who were up there.
When Yanko and I came back, the clouds looked threatening and were grumbling. I heard the downpour before it reached us. It was crazy. It sounded like it was on top of us, but I wasn't feeling any drops yet. I turned to my right, and there it was: a downpour of rain about 20 meters away and gaining on us. I don't know if you've ever seen rain come for you, but it's an amazing sight. It's rare when someone gets to see the edge of rain, and I only had a moment to appreciate it before I yelled to Yanko, "Run!" We were able to duck under a shelter right as it came on top of us. We stayed there for about 10 minutes - along with a shepherd and about 10 sheep. Then, it finally cleared up enough for us to get to my home before it started pouring again.
Today, I had a good time playing baseball. The stadium was covered in water from the rain earlier in the day, but we didn't let that stop us. At first, only five of us took to the field, but we were soon joined by a bunch of others. We had fun sliding all around the bases. All of us got wet, and probably the majority of us fell down at some point. One guy swung the bat so hard, he spun around, slipped, and fell on his back.
I wonder if anyone has injuries like mine - or maybe mine hurt more 'cause I'm the oldest one there. I ran up to catch a flyball and stopped suddenly as I was just about to reach it. I totally crashed. The ball came down on my chest, and I dropped it. My back and neck are out of whack, and I'm wishing I had a hot tub and an awesome masseuse on hand... or even a hot masseur!
My English classes are going well. I have one class that wants to continue on and on without taking a break. I have another class where a few are trying to figure out how to take a break 'cause they have a lot going on this summer. I'm trying to get everyone to hang on as long as they can since I'm leaving in November, and I don't know how they'll continue learning English afterwards. Otherwise, I would love to say, "The heck with it all," and just take a break from myself.
I feel ultra-lazy. I keep myself occupied with translating projects, teaching classes, playing baseball, and hanging out late with kids in the Mahala, but laziness breeds laziness. Today, I stayed home under the pretense of translating a project in the quietness of my own home (we had another fight in the office yesterday), but I didn't get much done. Bad Apryl.
Yesterday, I made my favorite Bulgarian dish "pulneni chushki" (peppers stuffed with seasoned rice) at my boss' house. They turned out well, and I definitely want to make them for my grandfather when I get back to the states. Did you read that Grandpa? He's always hinting that he would like me to make some Bulgarian food for him.
I got a great answer to a question I was pondering in my last post. I'm going to just go ahead and post the whole thing here for you - I like it so much.

Apryl:
"It makes me wonder about people who immigrate to the states. Being this submersed in a culture reminds me constantly about how different I am and how uncomfortable and lonely that is for me. What about those people who go and live out their lives in the states? Are they honestly comfortable in their own skins or do most of them do it just for the sake of a "better" life? Is it that they weren't comfortable in their own culture to begin with?"

Krasi:
"Yes, living in a different culture than your own is an uncomfortable and lonely experience. You've lived in Bulgaria for 3 years. I've lived in US for 13. That's 10 more years of loneliness. True, I was not comfortable in my own skin while living in Bulgaria, but it took all those years of struggle and loneliness in US to "find myself" and to want to return to Bulgaria and make a difference there. True, most Bulgarians leave Bulgaria looking for a better life. Sadly, they don't find it abroad. A "better life" is an internal state, which we can't find outside ourselves, let alone in another country. I appreciate your exploring and expressing all these issues in your blog. ...it feels great to know that you're a kindred spirit."

So, that's it for me at this time. I'll be back to talk about the concert and my weekend adventures in the next round.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Life for Rent

I'm currently listening to a song called "Life for Rent" by Dido. I love her music, and I've always loved this song. It's about taking ownership of your life and not being afraid of the risks and chances necessary to make it worth living. As silly as this probably sounds, this song has convinced me to do a few gutsy things. It reminds me that life is worth taking risks and chances. There's a line that says, "...I am so afraid to fail, so I won't even try. Well, how can I say I'm alive?" So true.
I have hope for Bulgaria. I really do. I think it's going to be a long, hard road, but I have faith that Bulgaria will improve in the long run - that eventually people will stop running away to look for a "better" life. It's Rakitovo that I'm disillusioned about. Rakitovo makes me sad because it's a beautiful town in a gorgeous location, but it seems to be developing at a rather stagnant pace. Is there such a thing as a stagnant pace? Oh, Rakitovo. How I love you. How I wish I could wave a magic wand and make you the best version of yourself that you could possibly be, but I don't even know what that is.
You know what's been getting me down lately? Well, a few things, but I'm frustrated with the boys I played baseball with last summer. They bugged me all winter to ask when we'd be playing baseball again. When the time finally came, it seems that they would prefer to stay up at the Roma Mahala and smoke cigarettes or hang out with friends who aren't the greatest influences and then become "not the greatest influences" themselves. It breaks my heart. This is life. You give and give, and then what? You get your heart broken. This may sound dismal, but I honestly wish the world would end. I wish the world would end 'cause I believe in a God who's going to make an amazing place we can't even fathom - where there will be no possiblity of getting our hearts broken. Even if I'm not there, I wish the world would end. It's a bunch of nonsense.
This week the puppy next door, K.C., broke her leg. She greeted me as I came in the gate. I petted her and then went inside. A few minutes later, I heard a bang or a thud of some sort followed by her screaming and whining. I came out where Baba Svetka was already trying to console her, and I tried to calm her down as well. No one saw what happened, but we think she might have fallen off a balcony. She got up after a few minutes and went inside - hobbling on one leg. She's been bandaged up, and she's still so adorable with her leg in a cast. She's gotten used to it as well, and she's just as active as she is when she is able to use all her limbs. Funny girl. K.C.'s immediate family has been away at the sea all this week, so Baba Svetka has had to take care of her all alone.
Baba Svetka is awesome. She's my hero. She's a tiny great-grandmother, but she works harder than most people I've seen. She's constantly out in the garden or putzing around the house, and I'm constantly admonishing her for doing heavy lifting when no one else is around. I've only had the opportunity to help her take a huge pile of trash to a container several hundred meters away. And it was heavy! That lady's got muscle! And she's constantly got bruises or some kind of wound from her activities. She brushes it off like it's nothing. I think she's in her 90s or something? I forget. All I know is that I want to grow up and be like her. Otherwise, I don't want to live 'til my 90s. Hopefully the world will end before that anyway.
I forgot to tell you the big news in Rakitovo. We finally got a real supermarket. As in the kind where you can grab a basket and pick out your own stuff, and then you wait in the check-out line to get your items rung up. This is big news. All the stores in my town have been, "Wait your turn and then tell me what you want. I'll get it for you and ring it up simultaneously." This is the wave of the future. This was the grocery store that I patronized when I was living at my old place. Unfortunately, it's a bit further away for me now, so I still shop the old-fashioned way, but it's nice to know that it's there if I don't feel like reciting my entire grocery list in Bulgarian for everyone to hear if I don't want to.
As my time here draws to a close, a lot of people have taken to asking me if it's possible for me to extend my service. I usually answer that it isn't. It's semi-true. Fourth-year volunteers happen. There's one in Bulgaria, now in fact. However, it's not common. It's not something Peace Corps approves on a regular basis, and it's not something a lot of volunteers wish for. Very few apply for a third year. Imagine a fourth. I tell people that I would have to get down on my knees and beg Peace Corps to let me stay. I doubt that's true. More like it would take the citizens of Rakitovo getting down on their knees and begging me to stay. We all know that's not going to happen. That would be really awkward and uncomfortable, too.
It seems like people think, "You've stayed for three years. You must really like it here. Why not another?" Actually, this third year has served to remind me about all the things I'm not so crazy about here. I love Bulgaria, and I will always be thankful for what my experience has taught me. I can't spend another year here. I think I would lose my mind and PC would have to pay for years of therapy. This experience really messes with your self-worth while at the same time building up your self-confidence in the strangest ways. It's a mind-trip. So, I tell people that I'm ready to move on. It's the truth. It's usually followed up by a statement of frustration about how they were unable to marry me off while I was here: "There are so many good suitors...."
It makes me wonder about people who immigrate to the states. Being this submersed in a culture reminds me constantly about how different I am and how uncomfortable and lonely that is for me. What about those people who go and live out their lives in the states? Are they honestly comfortable in their own skins or do most of them do it just for the sake of a "better" life? Is it that they weren't comfortable in their own culture to begin with? I don't know. This experience has taught me that, while I love living abroad, I think I love living in the U.S. more. Of course, if I got a foreign service job, I wouldn't be as integrated and could possibly therefore... still feel lonely? I don't know. It's a tough one. I'm stubborn, and I still think I want to spend the majority of my life living abroad. We'll see.
I got to see an old friend in Plovdiv on Thursday. Josh and I went to the same university for our undergraduate studies, and he happened to be coming through with a choir and orchestra from an Adventist school on the east coast. I knew he was coming, but I didn't know where he would be on what day. He wrote me from Greece to say something to the effect of, "The ensemble will actually be in Plovdiv tonight, supposedly in the symphony hall. I don't know what time. I don't know much else.
I won't have Internet access, and we're off to Bulgaria now. Hope we can figure something out...." Right. I debated it for a few minutes and then I called my boss.
I was able to get a ride with some of my colleagues to Pazardjik and then I went on to Plovdiv on a bus. I called a volunteer who lives nearby, and I called my "sister." They were able to help a little, but I still didn't know where I needed to be and at what time. It was nuts, but I hoped I could find him. I hadn't seen Josh in about three years, and he's now living on the east coast, so it was worth the shot.
Fortunately, I soon found a poster advertising their concert. I called up my "sister" and told her she needed to meet me and come along. The volunteer declined to come. I did finally meet up with my "sister" and two of her lovely friends (one with children in tow). I enjoyed hanging out with them, and then my sister and I went to the concert. When it was time for the show, the ensemble still hadn't shown up. We dropped off my "sister's" friends, and then the tour buses finally appeared.
I yelled "Josh!" as soon as he got off the bus, and we had a great time catching up. I also saw another mutual acquaintance of ours who went to the same university for undergrad. It was great seeing him again and meeting his wife. They rushed for the concert, and it was a spectacular evening. They put on a wonderful performance, and the Bulgarian crowd was gracious and absolutely loved it. Someone even took time to present flowers to the soloists and bouquets to the conductors. I thought it was a really hospitable touch.
Afterwards, after some minor confusion, Vili and I went and ate dinner with Josh and the rest of the ensemble. We had our own table with Josh, however, and I did my best to include Vili in the conversation - translating most of it for her. Vili has met a couple of my stateside friends, and they have both loved her. She's enjoyed them as well. It's more proof that I have an awesome "sister" and I have fantastic friends. I stayed at my host family's house that night. We got home late, and I got up early the next day to catch a bus back and get some work done.
On Friday, I spent the night with Reneta. Maria is gone at a camp on the Black Sea this weekend, and Reneta really wanted me to come and spend a night with her because she was feeling lonely. I remember the last time I spent the night with those girls. Reneta kicked me most of the night. This time I had more space since it was just the two of us. The only thing that's interesting now about Reneta is that she must have really vivid dreams because she cries out in her sleep - sometimes in Roma, sometimes in Bulgarian. I'm waiting for her to start shouting in English. I will congratulate her for dreaming in a foreign tongue. Anyway, I would yell back to her, "Reneta! Calm down!" And we would soon fall back asleep until the next time. Now Reneta is gone at camp. Maria will be back soon. I'll spend the night with her if she asks - and if she can promise neither to kick me nor shout at me.
Greg came to visit this weekend. Greg is a former PCV from my group who took a teaching job in Sofia at an English Academy. He's extremely busy, and he loves the teaching. I'm so happy for him. It'll be a great résumé-builder for him - not to mention the experience. Anyway, he finally made good on a promise to come and see me. He's been to Rakitovo once before, but not since he's been back to Bulgaria in this new role. We had a good time cooking. I made Chinese food last night, and he made pancakes this morning. Other than that, we watched a movie and walked around Velingrad together. His time here was short, but I reallly enjoyed having him. I find I get used to the company of wonderful Americans, and it's hard for me to see them go - even after a day.
Oh, I don't want to go to work tomorrow....

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Beautiful Bulgaria

I live in one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth. The Rhodopi Mountains are absolutely gorgeous, and I don't get out nearly often enough to enjoy them. This Friday, my colleagues, some of their children, and I decided to take a hike to a cave in the region called "Lepenitsa." We started out early in the morning, and Yanko and I returned 12 hours later (the others had caught rides on the way back at some point). It was a long day, but it was absolutely breathtaking.
We took a bus to Velingrad and started out from a man-made lake area called "Kleptuza." Reneta and I hiked most of the way to the cave together - talking about this and that. Once there, we built a fire and spread out a picnic. I wish I had known there would be a fire. I would have brought some marshmallows for roasting.
After lunch, we decided to explore the cave. We contorted our bodies to fit through the opening, and it was pretty cold. We made it just inside the enterance - just to the point where we could see the river rushing through, and then the flashlight went out. We should be thankful to God that it went out at that point. Any further in, and we might still be there. Disappointed, we came out of the cave and continued our journey back.
We decided it would be best to continue on and go to Rakitovo instead of turning back to Velingrad. It was a very long walk, but the scenery was beautiful. As I said, pretty much everyone else decided to catch a ride home, but Yanko and I wanted to walk. He showed me a Communist monument (a tent in the forest where rebels camped out in the 40's) that was completely hidden by trees. He introduced me to some of the sites in the area. It's sad that, even though I live here, there's so much I haven't seen in the region. I need to get out more.
Once home, Yanko treated me to a soda because it was his birthday. We were both too tired and aching by that time to talk. I went home, got a shower, made some dinner, and relaxed. The next day, I slept until noon. I'm not surprised - considering the hike I'd taken the day before and the fact that the night before that, I'd only slept for an hour. I'm crazy. I know. I've been sleeping a lot this weekend. It's been nice.
I've also been able to hang out with friends. A friend of mine, Rumen, returned home for a few days. He's been living, working, and going to school in Sofia. I've only seen him once this whole year, so it was nice to hang out with him and catch up. He's the sweetest boy, and he's so cute and funny. He's also very young. There are moments when I just feel so old sitting next to him, but it's nice to be reminded how it was to just start out in university. Where do the years go?
As for the rest of life, it's pretty much "same ol', same ol'." The office is a tense place to work. It seems like we can't go for an extended period of time without some sort of crisis. Yanko got frustrated and decided not to come in. He's been working up at the Educational Center. Honestly, sometimes I wish I could just say, "Enough is enough," and not go in anymore. I hate bickering - especially in an office - especially in situations I feel I shouldn't be a part of. It's probably the most toxic work environment I've ever been in. (Like I have so much experience.) I love my colleagues as people, but I hope I never have to work in such a confined space with such personalities ever again. I better watch what I wish for. Four more months, and I'm out.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Fields of Sunflowers

How often do I mention how beautiful the nature is here in Bulgaria? Not often enough. On my trips across the country this summer, I've had the opportunity to see fields and fields of big, beautiful sunflowers. It makes me want to jump off the bus and get lost in them. In fact, I met a sweet girl on a bus to Plovdiv recently. She said her family had a lot of farm land and cultivated sunflowers. I should have asked her if they'd consider letting me frolic in them.
The weekend has been fun. I spent most of Saturday at a local pool with Reneta. We had a good time talking and hanging out. I taught her how to sit on the bottom of the pool, how to do a handstand on the bottom of the pool, and how to swim underwater. I also got a nice sunburn pattern on my back, my feet, my legs, and my face. I looked like a tomato. I hate when I get sunburned - especially on my nose. I feel like it's red enough. Meh.
Like I said, Reneta and I had a good chat. I asked her what one of the coolest things to happen to her in her life was, and she said, "Meeting you." Awww... melt my heart. Reneta is a chatterbox. She told me a couple times to say something. "What do you want me to say?" "I don't know. Just say something. It's boring when you don't talk about anything." So true. And that's how I feel. I just don't know what to say to people half the time.
I have few friends here in Rakitovo - real friends. I know a bunch of people. I recognize and say "hello" to scores of people in my town. There are several people that I can chat with for five minutes or so. People have commented that "everyone" knows me in this town. I doubt that's an accurate statement, but I do stand out. It's normal for people to stop me in the street and talk for a few moments. Friends? Few. It's rare for someone to actually call me up and say, "Hey Apryl, let's go out." I go out, but it's more of a "when I'm seen by happenstance" kind of thing. It's rare for someone to actually think of me while I'm sitting at home and ask me to come out. (As I write this, someone is texting me asking me to come out, so I'm experiencing something rare at the moment.) I have to get out and run into people for anything to happen. I miss people thinking of me when I'm not around and calling me up. Hmmm... well, now I'm going to go out and meet up with someone who's thought of me, so I'd better wrap this up soon.
The town "praznik" has been fun. They say that our municipality actually can't afford it. I don't know if it's true, but it's disheartening to see oodles of money being spent in the span of three days which could (maybe) go to improve the town. Of course, as mayor, what do you do? I don't envy the job. If you didn't spend money on the town's "praznik" and go all out, the population would probably be even more upset, "Look at our mayor. We can't even celebrate our town's 'praznik' like we should. We must be really suffering." I don't know. Better to put it on, even if we can't afford it.
I hung out with some friends last night, and I took some kids I know to the rides. I met up with the "guy who didn't bother to learn my name," and we stayed out late. He knows my name now. I asked him where he learned it, but he just said he's known it all along. Sure. I have to admit that it's cute when he calls me by my name. I grabbed his phone last night and searched through his contacts. There was my number, and what was written as the contact name? "Amerika." Nice. I had a good laugh about that. I hope you do, too. Krum found me last night as well. He was drinking, and he started yelling at me to give him money. I said I wasn't going to listen to his yelling and walked off.
Today was the actual day of the town's "praznik." Yanko called late last night and gave us the day off. I was so excited. I slept in late and lazed around until the afternoon. Then I went out, talked to some people, and ate some fair food. I stopped by at a local hardware store where the girl also gives manicures and pedicures. She had told me to stop by before, so I took the moment to get a manicure and a pedicure. I now have butterflies with glitter all over my nails.
This evening, I went out to hear the concerts. I met up with my friend Fanka and danced the horo, rode some rides, ate some cotton candy, and walked around. She actually called me. I even got on a ride with my new friend - "manicure girl." I'm good once I get out of the house. Sometimes it's the getting out of the house that's tough for me.
As a brief sidenote, I've begun to notice that many gorgeous women are with less-than-average looking guys. Bulgarian women are absolutely beautiful. Bulgarian men are... well, there are a few really attractive ones, but most don't come near the women on a totally superficial level. I've always wanted to be a non-superficial sort of person - especially since I don't consider myself physically striking, but I can't help but notice these things. I think of myself as good-looking, but in an average sort of way. Here are all these absolutely beautiful women on the arms of so-so men. It's strange to me, 'cause I think that all the men I've kissed (and there haven't been many) have been better-looking than me. How is it that I end up with such good-looking guys? And here are all these gorgeous women who are missing out? I'm not complaining. Just making an observation.....

Friday, July 04, 2008

It Was Written/Хиляда cosas que contar

I realize it's been a while since I've updated. Of course, there are a thousand and one things that I want to share, but I'm going to forget something. It's inevitable. I've been pretty busy lately. By the time I get home, I just want to, well, go to bed.
This weekend is the town "praznik," meaning it's the official town holiday. I'm not exactly why they've chosen the 7th of July, but they have. There will be chalga! At 2:54 you can see one of my former English students. Some of it isn't so bad. I'll probably listen to it back in the states when I feel nostalgic for Bulgaria. Should be an interesting weekend. It's like a county fair. Can't have the town "praznik" without some chalga.
Last weekend, I took a trek across the country to Sliven to hang out with another volunteer who COS'd (close of service) on Wednesday. We went to the town of Sozopol on the coast for one last hurrah, and we ate Mexican food with other volunteers in Sliven. It was fun. I had always wanted to visit Sozopol, and I love Mexican food.
My English classes have been going well. Of course, I wish everyone could catch on quickly, but some people just don't have a knack for language. We can repeat it 20 times, and they'll still make the same mistakes. Guess we just have to repeat it 21 times. Spanish classes are something else. Maria and Reneta catch on and absorb everything like sponges. It makes me jealous.
Baseball is going all right. I've started taking a frisbee and a football with me when I go. At first, the kids didn't know what to do with it all. They were running from game to game like crazy people. We were having fun. Yesterday, I got frustrated with them and left early. I don't appreciate not being listened to. The number of kids who come is constantly fluxuating. A lot of them are pretty little. We have fun though.
The office is... well, lame. I don't even want to talk about it. The other day, I went with Yanko up to the segregated, Roma school to present a project idea we'd like them to partner with us for. Yanko asked that I present the project. I was nervous because I know that my organization doesn't have the greatest working relationship with the school. While I was reading the project activities that we have in mind, one of the teachers was reading a newspaper. Others were making negative comments. In fact, the director even had to ask some to stop talking. In the end, however, some asked enlightened questions. I figured they hadn't been listening, but it turns out that most of them were paying attention. In the end, they agreed to partner with us on this project, but it was noted that probably not every teacher would be ready to work with us.
I don't know what to say about it all anymore. There are so many grudges and chips-on-shoulders being carried around in this town. I don't know what's right and what's wrong anymore. It's hard to trust someone again whom you feel has let you down in the past. And no one's perfect. There's always going to be someone who lets you down in some way, and it seems like it happens a lot. Angel has described it something like this: The first year is the year of learning. The second year is the year of working. The third year is the year of truth. I think he's right. Is it really true that almost everyone is as miserable as they seem to be? I hope they're just really outstanding actors.
I've been spending a lot of time recently doing the "na ghosti" thing - meaning I go and visit other people. It's nice, but it keeps me out late. The other day, I had three "na ghostis" in one night. I think I overbooked. It was fun, though. What can I say? It's good to get out and spend time with people. Usually, my days are so long, and I just want to get back home and be on my own. I find myself mentally exhausted. I've been tired and haven't been sleeping well lately. Being with people is good for me. It's also good to be fed 'cause I think I'm losing weight again. Meh.
The other day, I ran into Milka, my former landlady. She's started taking English classes with me, and she's catching on well. She scolded me for not coming over to celebrate "Enyovden" (her husband's name day) with them. I had no idea it was Enyovden. She cracked me up. If they really wanted me to come, they should have called. I still can't get used to the culture of dropping in on people here. Meanwhile, they think my habit of "scheduling" is strange, and sometimes hilarious. So, I've told myself I'm going to listen more when people say, "Drop on by - whenever you're free." It's good for the soul.
I'd like to talk to you about the animals in my life. Of course, there's K.C., the yellow lab who lives next door and is my true love. She's getting bigger, fatter, and lazier. She used to come over and jump all over me when I came home. Now she waddles over with some "present" or other in her mouth (usually some plastic wrapper) and she's content with a pat on the head. I think it's hot for her. Plus, I don't know how much she gets out. She escaped today 'cause the storm we had opened the front gate. I found her in the street by our house, and she dutifully came home. I love her. Her only flaw is that she barks at my male guests.
Maria and Reneta's cat recently gave birth to four, cute little kittens. I love watching them play. They're so full of energy. I was watching them greedily nurse from their mother this evening. And it was so cute hearing them all purr in unison. I would be tempted to take one if I didn't have to give it back in five months. That, and it'd probably drive me crazy.
Of course, I already have pets if you count the ants. I think they're starting to take the hint, however, that they're not welcome guests. However, I spray them, they find somewhere else to hang out. I spray them again, same story. I can't figure what they're after in the bathroom, for example. You should see them scurry when the vacuum cleaner comes on. Sucking up ants - what fun!
Of course, it's the fourth of July right now in the dear ol' U.S. of A. I really wish I were in the states to celebrate. I'd rather be there than here for the town "praznik" for no other reason than just, well, it's a holiday that feels like "home." I love the traditions I've kept in the states for this holiday. Of course, I think this is the last major, U.S. holiday - unless you count Labor Day. Anyway, I'm chatting with a friend online. I'd like to share the jist of a snippet of our conversation here:
T: Wussup?
Apryl: Nothing. Updating the blog. Watching a cockroach wander around and get lost on my paisley rug.
T: I love the visual. I wonder if paisley hypnotizes them.
Apryl: He's my entertainment for Friday night/early Saturday morning... fourth of July... this is sad. Uh oh. He's on his back, now. I think this is the second demise of a bug that I'm going to watch today.
Super.
I don't know how to describe my state of mind recently. I feel... muted. I feel like my personality has become extremely bland, and I have no opinion about anything anymore. I've lost interest in just about everything, and I don't know what to do with myself. It's strange. It probably sounds like depression. I'm disappointed in myself. I expected better from me. I lost myself somewhere along the way.
This last weekend, one of the national news stations gave a half-hour report about the Peace Corps in Bulgaria. It was pretty interesting, and of course positive. One thing the report said is that we're given enough money to live at about the same level as our Bulgarian counterparts. I'm not so sure about that. I see how little my colleagues make, and I wonder how they survive. It makes me embarrassed about my financial situation. My mother was looking over my tax information a few weeks ago, and she asked, "Really, Apryl? Is that how much you make?" I laughed. On a tax form, I look like I must be dying in more than extreme, abject poverty. In reality, I live comparatively well.
There's a saying in Bulgarian that I've been hearing a lot recently, that basically means "it was written." They say this to mean, "Your destiny is written down, and you can't escape your fate." Anytime something good or bad happens (usually this applies more to the bad than the good), they'll say "it was written" as if it were meant to be. Okay, but I don't like this. You don't know what's "written," and I feel like you have to live as though you were in control of your destiny. I tell people this, and they say, "Yeah, but you still can't escape what's been written for you." Okay, but you don't know what that is - so you might as well live as though what you do matters. Maybe I'm misunderstanding how they mean it. There's just such resignation in their voices when they say it. I don't know.
Krum is back in the picture. Remember Krum? He's been asking me to find a wife for him and reminding me that he thinks he's in love with me. He keeps bringing me roses and asking to borrow money. He's an interesting guy. When he's in a stable state of mind, he's a hardworker, and he's polite. When he isn't, he's whiny and unnerving. He's run after me just to give me roses. One day he came into the office to give me roses and ask for money. My colleagues scolded him for busting into the office. "But you're not even working," he retorted. I had to laugh. He was right. Almost all my colleagues were lounging on the couch, and I was just sitting in another chair. Oh, Krum.
It seems like I've been asked a lot as to why I haven't found a nice, Bulgarian boy to marry and settle down with. I joke with people, "Well, if a boy hasn't been able to snatch me up in the last three years, obviously there just isn't one to snatch me up." This is always met with disagreement. I've been told that I haven't been looking hard enough. My standards must be too high. I must just not want one. It's inconceivable to them that I'm just not Bulgarian marriage material. Nevermind that pretty much all the guys here that are around my age are already married. Some have even suggested that I not let that stop me. Please. Not everyone wants the American girl, okay?