Sunday, September 28, 2008

Killing the Waiting/Head Examinations

"Pizza" is even printed on the plate in case you get confused as to what that might be.

I made a fabulous pizza last night. This whole, "teaching myself to cook while I'm in Bulgaria" has succeeded - to a point. I can make four or five pretty good dishes that I'd never made before coming here. Even Angel commented that I've grown by leaps and bounds in the kitchen. Still, I'm far from my goal of really teaching myself to cook. This is due only to my laziness. Cooking for myself does not encourage ingenuity. I have to thank Thomas, who always preferred me to cook for him (or to help me cook) than to going out to a restaurant in town. Living by myself has made me a bit more domestic, but I have a long way to go.
Getting out of here and the presedential elections have been on my mind a lot recently. I'm not going to comment on the race for the presidency. Getting out of here is something I'm dealing/not dealing with all the time. All I do is sit around and let all the things I need to figure out before I COS bump around in my head:
1. Should I do some traveling afterward even if it means traveling alone? If so, where should I go?
2. What should I do with my luggage?
3. How much luggage will I have?
4. What's the best deal on a plane ticket?
5. How do I transport big things home?
6. What do I need to do before I get out of Bulgaria?
One could argue that it's a bit early to think about these things, but it's really probably not. As I mentioned in an earlier post, "Няма време," which means that there isn't any time. The thing is, I can't bring myself to get up and get anything pinned down for sure. I just sit here and freak myself out.
In the meantime, I still have people asking me why I'm leaving, encouraging me to stay, and even jokingly informing me that they're going to find a way to stop me from going. My usual answer is, "If I stay, my mother with come to Bulgaria and beat me." Mom, they get that it's a joke. Or I tell them, "Take it up with my mother," and this is followed by a "We'll get her to stay, too." I'll also tell them that "every beginning has an end." I knew I'd be leaving when I came to Bulgaria. Staying another year isn't going to change that. Even my invitation came with an end date.
It's flattering that people don't want me to go. Giving them an honest answer as to why I'm leaving isn't always the easiest. To some it seems to come down to a question about whether or not I like Bulgaria. "Don't you like Bulgaria? You're sick of it here now, aren't you?" The answer is not that easy. I've only given a couple of people a straight answer, but even I can't articulate it all that well. The simplest reason is, "The time has come for me to go." The more involved answer is, "I've given just about all I have to give. There's no more room for growth/self-development here in Bulgaria." Both the selfish and unselfish reasons for why I'm here have reached their apex.
Mostly, I just want all these things figured out. It's the knowing that I'm going in a little over a month and waiting for it that's killing me. I honestly think that I'm still going to be taken by surprise, "What do you mean I only have two weeks left? When did that happen?" Again, there's an awesome Christian song that slightly relates to this: It's Alright by Third Day.
I love this song and what it says about God. Everything feels so overwhelming and scary sometimes, but it just brings us one more day closer to when we get to go HOME.
I'm floating along here pretty well (other than damning my own unproductivity), but there are a few things that are getting me down other than the fact that I'm leaving: I have a friend in Pakistan in the moment. She's there while her husband is having an operation they could never afford here in Bulgaria. I got a text soon after the operation was over, but that was the night before the bombing in Islamabad. I haven't heard from them since then. I tell myself that there was no way they could have been there, but I'm not sure if something else has happened in the aftermath. My e-mails and texts have gone unanswered.
There's also something else that's breaking my heart at the moment: I'm not sure if I've talked about Mitko before, but I probably have. Mitko is the most amazing little boy in Rakitovo. He's about thirteen, but he looks like he's eight. I think I met him at church, and he used to come to my English classes. Basically, he used to hang out with me whenever he could. He was the most helpful little boy ever, and he was always ready and willing to do just about anything I asked of him. He was also one of my most faithful baseball players. Learning and loving God was of utmost importance to him.
Now, I rarely see him. When I do see him, he's hanging out with boys who also used to play baseball with me, but the rumor is that these boys smoke. I see them cutting class and ducking into corners (probably to light cigarettes), and I've seen them hanging out at the noisiest cafe in the Roma neighborhood (where older kids go to drink, dance, and flirt). Just a few months ago, Mitko commented to me, "Apryl, those boys don't want to play baseball anymore. They'd rather do bad things." A week later, he was hanging out with them instead of me. Once, when he and another boy walked to the stadium with me (and then ran off when we got there - inspiring my head to almost explode), I found them later and sat down to have a chat with him. He nodded the whole time, but it's one of those things where you know that nothing you say is going to reach these kids. Break my heart wide open.
Last night, I was reading an article in a magazine by an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) who was here in Bulgaria. I've mentioned her writing before in this blog because she has a great style. She basically wrote about watching a promising and bright child/friend succumb to schizophrenia. The epilogue shared that this girl's closest friend got pregnant and dropped out of school. It's an awful story, and yet it's so realistic. Many times, we're shown the "happy side of life." Every story has its "happy ending" where someone overcame all odds to succeed. People have told me that they should take my PC experience and turn it into a film. I think, "It wouldn't work 'cause my PC experience is not a 'conquering' story." For some PCVs, their story works out that way. Mine did not.
She also makes a provocative statement about leaving:
When you leave a country, you can't tie up every loose thread. You have to leave what's done, undone. You are not leaving a job. You are leaving a life. You are leaving children you spent years with - they were little when you met, you remember when you couldn't understand one another, but you'd smile, and they'd smile, and there was always a way to say I think you're wonderful.
It's easy to cut the fraying edges, hem neatly the distance between what happened there and your life here. It is so far away, there's nothing you can do now. You tell yourself that; it must be true.

I just had coffee with the guy who's probably the most frustrating person for me to talk to in town. I've mentioned him before - the one who throws English words at me like spaghetti, hoping something will stick. Mostly it just comes out as a jumble of confusion. I don't know what he's talking about, and I get frustrated. He asked, "So, will another English girl come here and work for the foundation?" I finally lost it. "No, but another American girl will come." I gave him a hard time. "I've never been to England. Please. If I'm English, you're Russian." He took it pretty well. "Sorry, I just... I have so many things on my mind. I got confused." I apologized for giving him a hard time, but it was a half-hearted apology. C'mon. You've known me for over two years. Get it straight. Still, I shouldn't have been so hard on him. We had just come from church. Plus, he's leaving for Slovakia this week. He kept confusing it with the Czech Republic. Poor guy really has got a lot on his mind.
I went with Yanko to continue the search for an apartment for Emily, A.K.A. the next volunteer. We have a couple options already set up, but we're keeping them open. Yanko is one of those guys who wants the best, and that's a good quality - especially when it comes to the comfort of the volunteer. I've been a big benefactor of that relentlessness. He had a lead on an older gentleman who lives in a rather large house. After five minutes of talking to him, however, it was clear that he wasn't quite all there upstairs. He asked Yanko who he was. Then, he asked, "So, whatever happened with that girl who decapitated her husband?" After trying to figure out who he was talking about, Yanko just pretended he knew what was going on. It turned out he wasn't offering the place - which was just as well, 'cause we weren't going to take it.
Afterwards, we walked around for a bit and stopped at one of the cafes for coffee. We had a pretty good conversation, and Yanko said something that was very flattering. It was something to this effect: "I regularly look at your life and use it as a guide for mine to determine whether or not I'm on the correct path. You're a catalyst for so many things, 'cause you live in the world of my dreams. I would like to live there - even if it were just for a year." Whoa. Earlier in the day, I told him I was in a funk 'cause I felt like so many things were coming up on me, and my problems were too big to handle. He tried to help me crack them one by one, but it really comes down to the fact that I'm leaving, and it's that big change itself that's looming over me. He said, "I would love to have your problems. Why don't we switch?" Good point.
It hit me again when I watched the first presidential debate between McCain and Obama. Barack Obama said the following:
"My father came from Kenya. the 60's he wrote letter after letter to come to college here in the United States because the notion was that there was no other country on earth where you could make it if you tried. The ideals and the values of the United States inspired the entire world. I don't think any of us can say that our standing in the world now... is the same."
I agree with him, but my boss is obviously still star-struck by the United States. I explained the "glass ceiling" to him, and he just stared at me with his mouth open. "I can't believe it." I share other shortcomings about the U.S. with him, and he says the same, "I can't believe it." To him, the U.S. is the epitome of the "ideal country," and California is its "ideal state."
Yanko has said that there's one thing he doesn't like about me: my stubbornness. He tells me that I need to learn to be more flexible. I don't know. I've always considered myself pretty flexible, but there are definitely some things that I'm hard-headed about. He'd like me to change that, but I tell him that it's good to have one thing about me that he doesn't like. If he liked everything about me, that wouldn't be interesting in the least. Perfection is so boring. Also, he keeps trying to get me to start thinking about settling down and starting a family. His interest in this confuses me, but maybe he'd like to see me come back to Bulgaria with a couple of rugrats in tow.
As I mentioned, the weather has taken a turn for fall. And it's not one of those nice falls, where you're crunching in leaves, eating apples, and wearing a light sweater over a long-sleeved shirt. This is Jack Frost disguising as whatever term we use to anthropomorphize autumn, and he's making us hunch over and want to hide in our houses. I hate this time of year 'cause it means lighting stoves. Lighting stoves is my kryptonite 'cause it means that I have to do it in the Educational Center to hold my classes. Meh. Hey Weather! Can't you just hold out a bit longer? We had an agreement here! I actually cancelled my Thursday English class 'cause I thought that it might be too cold in the center. The system needs to be checked out before we start lighting the stove.
Work is work. We started writing a project, and I've been calling the schools in the region to try and set up some times when we can meet, present our ideas, and get feedback about any ideas that they might have. Other than that, we've had a couple of meetings with women and young girls that I've invited to take part in the women's group. Now, we're thinking it'd be great if they formed a girl's club that could help us out with some of our activities. For example, we're having an ethnic festival in October. We'd like them to wear shirts promoting the event and pass out flyers. Also, an ambulance will come to our town and give free gynecological examinations to women. There will also be check-ups for children. We'd like them to encourage people in the Roma neighborhood to go and get checked out. So far, they've agreed to everything. We had a nice meeting on Friday where we talked about the different ethnic groups that live in Rakitovo. I'm encouraged by this progress, but it's up to the organization to keep up with them. I've seen promise before - only to watch it fall apart, which is followed by disappointment, finger-pointing, and hurt feelings. It's hard to be inspired about anything these days. Or maybe I get inspired about the small "victories" these days.
And here's your random, cultural difference for the day: I was walking to the self-service supermarket the other week. I had a lot of things to buy, and I decided that I just wanted to go and pick them out myself. I ran into someone I know along the way. I really like her and her son, but they're struggling financially. Many times she will stop to tell me the state of her finances. She once told me that she thought I was the answer to her prayers because God had sent me to take her back to America with me. What do you say to that? It's not just her though. Others have encouraged me to take them back to the states or to find jobs for them once I'm back there. Anyway, I like her, but it's almost always awkward for me to talk to her. Here's the conversation we had:
Apryl: Hi.
Woman: Hi. Where are you going?
Apryl: To the supermarket here.
Woman: Do you always come here to shop?
Apryl: No, but I wanted to come 'cause I can pick out my own things. It's a bit of a more relaxed environment.
Woman: But it's more expensive here.
Apryl: Yeah, but I like the calm environment.
She looked at me like I had two heads. I must have been out of my mind. Why would I spend more just so I can pick out my own stuff when I can pay less to have someone else get it for me? I was thinking about it, and it truly is ridiculous in a way. However, that's how we Americans are sometimes. Sometimes we'll pay more just to avoid having to interact with others. We probably do need our heads examined.
As a final thought (before I probably think of something else to add that's been bumping around in my head), I'd like to thank those who still read this blog. My good buddy Andy has become a "follower" on this site. Thanks, Andy! I've met amazing people through this blog. Thanks, Misty! And I just got this message the other day:
Hey Apryl,
I've been reading your blog [for] a while and now I learned that you're leaving soon... as you said "няма време"! I just wanted to say that when I found your blog you made me laugh and this made me visit "you" pretty often. It's funny to see your own country through [an] American's eyes:) I found so many истини that I didn't [notice] before or I just was used to those истини so in a way you opened my eyes. Thank you for that!
Thanks, Blaj! It's people like you that make me feel good about purging my feelings for everyone to see over these three years. It's as if all my excitement, tears, frustrations, elations, fears, and guts have been *splortched* all over a wall to create a beautiful picture in words. I'm proud of myself for keeping up this public journal for three years - for better or for worse.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Putting the “Pro” in Procrastination

I am a time-waster. There. I've said it. I'll talk more about that some other time....
It's cold! In the span of a few days, I went from short sleeves to three layers. I went from sleeping in shorts and a t-shirt, with a couple blankets lightly tossed around me, to sleeping in a couple think layers and having three blankets pulled up and tucked around my throat. What has happened to the weather? Where was this mild transition into cold weather that we call "autumn?" I'm supposed to start stylishly wearing long sleeves with a cute sweater during the day - not look like an "oompa-loompa." I refuse to turn on any heaters at this point. We had an understanding with the weather: It's not supposed to snow until after I COS. At this rate, we'll soon be in booties and look like this kid. The funny thing is, it's supposed to warm up again in a few days.
Last Monday was the first day of school. I was invited to attend one of the local schools for the ceremony. This school was thisclose to closing, but they were able to keep it running for at least another year. In all honesty, it should probably be closed, but this would lead me into a diatribe about the educational system here, and that wouldn't be pretty. I'm glad I'm not a politician. I have friends who work at that school.
Anyway, I went to the ceremony for the first day of school, and they pushed me up front to stand with the priest, the chairman of the town council, some deputy official from Pazardjik, and some teachers. I thought they were going to ask me to say a few words, but they just had me stand there awkwardly while others said many words. I was officially introduced as an official "guest" and given flowers, but I wanted to crawl under a rock and die of shame. I didn't expect them to do that. I don't even think that they expected them to do that. I was the only one up there wearing jeans. Highlights: Other than standing there awkwardly, the director referred to me as English - as in from England, the priest sprinkled me with holy water, and I had a prime view of the backs of people's heads as they sang and performed. Honestly, the program was good. I could have enjoyed it just as much had I just been lost in the crowd.
I don't talk much about local government. Government basically exists so that we all have something to take for granted and complain about. This administration that came into office last year certainly gets its fair share of criticism. However, I want to take the moment to praise this administration for a moment. I certainly am not their biggest fan, but they have a few visible projects that have pleased me. One is finally getting around to putting recycling containers in the town. I now have the option of dumping my paper, plastic, and glass into one of three color-coordinated containers posted conveniently around Rakitovo. Before, I used to have to go to Velingrad if I really wanted to be "green." (I only did this once to recycle a bunch of glass, so don't think of me as too much of a tree-hugger. Before, I used to throw everything straight in the garbage.) Now, my town has given me the convenient option of going "green" locally. This is monumental. I only wish they had held some kind of campaign with students from the local schools to educate people in town about them. Of course, it probably doesn't take a genius to figure out what it's all about, but a good campaign can't hurt. If I see one of the containers smoking, I think I'll go ballistic. (My town has a habit of lighting the trash in certain containers on fire if the municipality doesn't get around to emptying them quickly enough.)
Yesterday, I went to the second-highest point in the Rhodope mountains. It's a place called "Syutka," and it's several kilometers from here. At first, when I was called and invited to come, I thought about my bum leg, and declined. Then they said that we'd be taking cars most of the way. The walk was only a few kilometers, but it was mostly straight up and then straight down again on the way back. My leg didn't like that too much. Peace Corps probably wouldn't like it too much either. Just a few days earlier, we had spent ten minutes on the phone (me doing every leg exercise in the book), to try and determine if just, perchance, it was something more serious than a bruise.
I had a great time up at Syutka, though. We took our time and came across several patches of blueberries. I had the blue tongue and lips to betray my gluttony. Once we got to the top, everyone brought out the various breads, meats, cheeses, fruits, jams, vegetables, and alcohol that they had brought for the occasion. Bulgarian hikes are always the best 'cause they build a fire pretty much anywhere they please and get down to the eating and drinking. It's simple food, but it's always good. If there's another group nearby, we must engage them in conversation and song. In the states, we'd probably give them a nod and make some comment about the weather or the difficulty of the hike. Not in Bulgaria. You must join us for some alcohol and a song about how proud we are that we aren't Greeks! Afterwards, we might even take a picture together! It's awesome. Of course, I always get introduced as being the "token American" that gives the group its "international" credibility. This is followed by someone looking me up and down, making a frowny face, and saying, "But... does she understand Bulgarian?" I kid a lot, but honestly - Buglarians are some of the most hospitable people that I've ever met. I wish I had found this group earlier to enjoy other such hikes. I might even have learned some of the songs!
Today, is Bulgarian Independence Day. I had to work. My colleagues decided that it would be a good time to get some project development done. They're right, but I really didn't feel like working on a national holiday. Nevermind that I don't get U.S. holidays off. I rarely get Bulgarian ones, either. I shouldn't whine so much. It's not like I'm constantly working. It's just that I find myself constantly dipping into my lunch hours and evenings to work as well. This is not my colleagues' fault. I do this to myself. The problem is, even when I'm just sitting in the office listening to my colleagues talking about all the work that awaits them, I feel drained. As the days dwindle down to my COS date, so does my desire to be productive. Honestly, as far as the office goes, I'm ready to leave tomorrow. As far as actually getting ready to leave, I've done nothing.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Time Differences

Bulgaria is about the size of the state of Tennessee, but there is so much to see here. I'm sure there's a bunch of stuff to see in Tennesee as well, but it amazes me how much history and beauty is contained in one, small country. I've been spending some time checking out some things that I just haven't gotten around to checking out thus far. It's been good.
On September 11th, I went to visit the mosque in town. I hadn't planned it that way. And I didn't even realize the coincidence until I had already been there for an hour. I had always wanted to visit our local mosque. I can hear the calls to prayer from my home. I had just never found a good "in." Well, some of the boys I play baseball with will run off with the excuse that they have to go to the mosque. On Thursday, when I saw them, I asked if it would be possible for me to visit sometime. At first they were confused by it. "Why? Do you want to convert?" I just said that I was interested, and they were really great about it. "You want to come tonight?"
I went to the mosque, and I hung out with the boys for about an hour until the last round of prayers. I was dressed in a long robe and my head was wrapped in a scarf. I sat to the side while a small number of people prostrated themselves several times. Afterwards, they came up and started asking me questions about why I had come. They made sure to let me know that I was welcome to come back anytime. I don't know if I'll go back. I just had to experience it once.
I admire the discipline of true Muslims. The getting up early, praying five times a day, fasting during daylight hours for a month - it's pretty intense in my book. Their dedication makes me self-conscious. Wouldn't I do the same if I loved God that much? Of course, there are a few things I just can't accept, and they mostly have to do with gender issues. The women are separated from the men. The women were wearing long coverings and headscarves while the men wore street clothes. For many women who practice Islam, this is not a problem. I respect their views, but it's a problem for me. Anyway, I'm glad I went. I'm not sure if there are more in this town, but at least I can say that I've been to all four of the services of the religious groups I know to exist in Rakitovo. It makes me feel more "cultured" somehow.
Today, I went to the ruins of a medieval castle/outpost called Tsepina. I've been wanting to go for the longest time. It's only a few kilometers outside Dorkovo, - a town with the coolest name in our municipality - and I've had no excuse except that, until now, I haven't really had anyone to go with. I figured I would walk there. It would have been a long walk. A few weeks ago, I helped a tourist group clean up a local chapel in town. When they found out that I hadn't yet been to Tsepina, they said that we should take a trip. They made good on their promise, and we checked out the ancient ruins and cisterns. It was awesome. I didn't realize that such a place of important history and power was located in our region. The entry I've linked up above doesn't do it justice according to what people in my group shared with me today. It used to be the political center of a far-reaching kingdom. Eventually, it was just handed over to the Ottoman Empire. Anyway, it was great - except that I misjudged the height of a wall and totally busted my leg when I tripped onto it in front of a bunch of people. My best moment to date....
After the hike, we had a typical, Bulgarian picnic: cucumbers, tomatoes, various cheeses, various roasted meats, and various sodas, and various forms of alcohol. I was encouraged to put rakia (a strong alcohol) on my leg injury. It burned like the dickens, but we can be sure not a microbe survived. I'll be hobbling around for the next few days, though.
Once again, I was getting attention for my Americanism. They were marveling at my ability to pass for a "Rakitovka," and they asked that I make a toast for them. Meanwhile, the group of pensioners next to us started to sing traditional songs, and our group eventually joined in. When I was introduced to another pensioner as an American, he paused, "Well, there's nothing wrong with that." Haha. I think some people are still used to the times when we were diametrically opposed to one another.
Of course the picnic had bread. I'm not sure what Bulgarians would do without bread. Here is another one of the random thoughts that I want to share - not knowing if I've shared it before. For Bulgarians, bread is the staple of any meal. The thought of eating a meal without bread is unfathomable. I've heard that part of the reason is because bread is a cheap, but filling addition to any meal. I've been admonished many times for not eating enough bread. I've also been asked how I can eat certain foods without bread.
Bread is also a measure of living standards. "Uh oh. Bread has gone up in price. We must be living in hard times," or "We haven't had enough snow this winter. There won't be enough ingredients for bread, and the price will go up astronomically. How will we survive?" I often use it as a standard for ratio when measuring standards of living. "Yeah. We make more money in the states, but bread is around $2 a loaf." Really, I should be talking about housing. "Yeah, we make more money in the states, but we have to pay astronomical prices for rent." Most people in my town own their house. Of course, it's usually passed down through generations.... There's really no comparison. Many people in Bulgaria do not make enough money. I just feel like I'm constantly being asked to justify that there are people struggling to make ends meet in the states as well.
I hate talking about money! It seems like it's one of the first topics on people's tongues when people find out that I'm from the states. "What's the average salary there? How much do your parents make? How much does your mom pay for electricity? How much is your grandparents' retirement? How much do you make here in Bulgaria?" I am not comfortable talking about these things 'cause I feel like it's taboo in the states. Plus, I honestly don't know the answers to many of these questions. I am met with stares of disbelief. "How can you not know how much your own mother makes?" "Um, it's not something we talk about." I'm met by more stares of disbelief. "How can you not know how much your closest friend makes?" Many times I've been written off as just incompetent or uninterested. A few times I've lied about my salary here in Peace Corps. Otherwise, if I can get away with it, I just say, "I live well," and let them come to their own conclusions. For me, it's none of their business. For them, it's all their business. Cultural differences are fascinating.
I forgot to mention something in my last post when I talked about Trud. I wanted to lament the loss of my "family's" garden. Donka and Kostadin are my "parents," and their children, Vili and Kiro, would be something like my "sister" and "brother." I talk about Vili all the time in this blog and mention her as my "sister." I don't talk much about Kiro. I've never been close with him. He lives in the same house, but I don't see much of him. He's married and has a cute daughter who's about two now. Well, he's decided to build a house on his family's property. So, from what I understand, his parents have sold some of their property to help him build this house. Really, it's none of my business, but it seems to me that the current generation is making extreme sacrifices to help out the next. This seems typical of Bulgaria. I admire the closeness of family ties. I do not admire the dependence it breeds. Our culture of tossing kids out of the nest as soon as they come of age is seen as pretty heartless in some cultures. I see it as necessary to get the kids to "fly." Of course, I say this knowing full well that I'll be moving in with my mom again in two months. Hypocrite! Anyway, the point of this was to mourn the loss of my "family's" garden. My "family" used to have the most beautiful garden with potatoes, tomatoes, peaches, strawberries, plums, raspberries, and just about any other fruit and vegetable you can imagine. There were grapes and overhanging vines everywhere. It was a yard of beauty. Now, it looks like a desert wasteland. Everything has been uprooted. A number of cars are parked where I used to pick strawberries. It breaks my heart.
I want to share something that is inherent to Rakitovo. Well, I don't know if other citizens in Bulgaria do this, but we sure do. Despite the fact that we have some very nice, pristine sidewalks, we really like walking in the road. It can be along the side of the road, in the middle of the road, what-have-you, we are determined to walk on the asphalt. It's hilarious. It's as if we say, "Your sparkling sidwalks be damned! Build the prettiest sidewalk you can imagine! We will preserve it by walking in the street." Even I have developed an aversion to walking on the sidewalks here in Rakitovo. I think it's a "When in Rome..." thing, but it also has to do with regularly walking streets that either don't have sidewalks, have cracked or overgrown sidewalks, or have sidewalks that are obstructed every few meters by planters with large trees growing in them. I would think it was a Bulgarian thing - except other Buglarians have commented on it, "So, are those people in Rakitovo still walking down the center of the road?"
I've been seeing more foreigners coming through our town. They're usually easy to pinpoint with their huge backpacks and confused expressions. Many times, I've wanted to go up and ask them if they need help. By the time I get up the nerve to approach them, however, they've usually made the appropriate gestures to someone else, and they're on their way. It's so odd to see them in our town, but it's a good sign. In theory, we are a good tourist center for this region. There are a lot of things of interest around us. I'm still bristling at the fact that I haven't been able to find Rakitovo in any guide books. I have to share one thing I'm proud of. Apparently, one of my older English students saw some Germans coming through and asked them, "Where are you going?" This may not sound like much, but it's monumental. She used present progressive tense correctly, and she isn't even one of my strongest students!
I've mentioned that my organization will soon be starting a huge project with the Ministry of Education. For this project, they have created a job position called a "mediator." This person would be required to walk the Roma kids to and from school. They would be expected to be in constant contact with both parents and teachers to resolve any issues or problems that might come up. Also, they would be expected to work together with the team to identify parents that can take part in other activities of the project. My colleagues have tried to offer me this position. "Why don't you come work for us?" Um.... I once said, flat out, "I don't want to work for you." I think this was a bit blunt, but it was true. I could never actually work for my organization. The cultural differences in working habits are just too big to overcome. I think I've mentioned before (in this blog) that, were I actually working for my colleagues, I would quit. And, in case there are any ethnic Bulgarians reading this, this has nothing to do with them being Roma.
My boss mentioned it again to me over this last week, and I said, "How would I survive? Half my salary alone would go to rent." He answered, "Yeah, but can't you come to some agreement with Peace Corps?" Yeah, right. I'll be a "volunteer" with the Peace Corps half the time, and the other half I'll receive a salary from you guys which should really be going to some other, more-qualified resident in town. That won't blur the lines or anything. We're not asking for problems with that.... I don't think so. I told him that, despite the difficult moments I have when thinking about my departure, it's time to go. I want to go. It's time to move on.
Here's another interesting tidbit about Bulgarian culture. It has to do with the time when Emily (the next volunteer) was here. I mentioned that we had dinner with "guy who never bothered to learn my name." I should give him a name. From here on out, he will be known as Tsanko. This works because I actually bothered to learn his name before we even arranged to be at the same place at the same time, and this is his actual name. So, Tsanko was walking Emily and I back to Emily's hotel. He was asking me why she was staying in a hotel. To him, it seemed so rude that no one had offered to take her in. "Why isn't she at least staying with you?" In the beginning, Yanko had considered having her stay with him, but I said, "Put the girl up in a hotel. Peace Corps will pay for it." In Bulgarian culture, it seems rude not to open your home to a guest if they need a place to stay. In American culture, many of us would rather stay in a hotel than with strangers - especially if we can't even really communicate with those strangers. Cultural differences strike again! We're dealing with it again at the moment since Emily and I will be living in the same town for a month. I've been asked a few times, "Can't she just live with you?" I think, "Well, she could if we were hospitable Bulgarians instead of 'give-me-my-space' Americans." These are times when I really think our American independence and individuality is a little ridiculous. Of course, I don't complain 'cause it means I still get my own space.
Yesterday, I went with Angel to go and find his horses. Some of them hang out in a wooded area between Rakitovo and Velingrad. Once we found them, I helped him get a few of them rounded up so he could put medicine on their legs and retie some of their binds. Mostly, I took pictures. They were such sweeties! And they were so beautiful! Angel has been promising me, since basically the moment that we met, that he would take me out to see his family's horses. He finally made good on his word yesterday. I've been giving him a hard time over the years, "When are you going to take me to see your horses? You keep promising, but you never take me." I'm like a broken record. Finally, I asked him outright if he would take me the next day, and he did. Finally. We took quite the walk, but it was worth it. I must have seen about 12-15 horses. He now says that he's going to put me on a wagon and take me out to see them the next time. Um... you've been promising for three years that I would see your horses, and I just saw them. How much faith do you think I have in the prospect of hopping on a wagon with you in the next two months?
This is the new/old thing that's frustrating me once again in my final days in Bulgaria: "Има Време." (Ima vreme.) This translates to, "There's time." I hear it all the time now that life as I know it as winding down.
"When do you leave again?"
"In two months."
"Oh! Ima vreme! We'll see each other and hang out before you go."
People I haven't had coffee with once in the past three years are telling me "Ima vreme" and that we'll get together to drink coffee before I go. Um... what? I know 60 days sounds like a lot, people, but it's really not. Think how quickly the last two months went. Think how quickly the last three years went!" This is nonsense. "Няма време." (Nyama vreme.) "There's no time."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Built Apryl Tough

I've been playing with the Advertising Slogan Generator again. I just got this one that I'm using as the title. This one is also good: "Eight out of ten owners who expressed a preference said their cats preferred Apryl." How about this one? "Nobody better lay a finger on my Apryl." Ah, Random Slogan Generator, you make me smile.
I'm posting again 'cause I wanted to be random. I've got a lot of thoughts bumping around in my head. I thought it'd be great to get some of them out of my head and write them down.
1. I'm really going to miss Bulgarian fruits and vegetables. Have I mentioned before how wonderful, delicious, and natural they are? I'm going to miss being able to walk to the local fruit stands and any of the various grocery stores near me to pick up one or two items. The thought of getting in a car just to go get salt or something is going to appall me to no end. I can start cooking now, and if something is missing, I can leave the food on the stove and make a quick trip to the store. I'm going to miss that.
2. Future Foundation is really privileged to be getting another volunteer. I talked to a bunch of other volunteers who are not getting replaced. Fewer volunteers came this time around, and competition was tough. Rakitovo was lucky to get one. Maybe it's good they didn't pass this one up and wait until next May.
3. Yesterday was September 9th. On this date in 1944, the Bulgarian government fell under Soviet influence. Talking to Bulgarians about communism is almost always interesting. I remember very little of the Cold War, but I definitely recall a time when we were diametrically opposed to many of the countries in this part of the world. I remember the jubilance and hope that surrounded the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember being told how awful and scary the Soviet Union was. Of course, they were being told the same things about the United States on this side of the world. Many people here remember those times fondly. Others long for the stability of those times while embracing a capitalist system. Of course, a generation is now coming into adulthood who have no way of making the comparison. Many times I've heard Bulgarians make the comparison to Moses wandering around the desert with the Israelites for 40 years: "Well, the old generation had to die out in order to raise up a new generation that was ready for the promised land." I don't know what I think of that per se, but there is definitely something to be said about being raised to think one way all your life. All of the sudden, you're told that this way is "wrong," and we're going to try something else. How quickly do you think you would adapt?
4. I notice so many thoughts that bump around in my head and are typical American: "Nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it. Don't just stand there. Do something! I am in control of my life. If something goes wrong, it's not due to outside forces - it's something wrong with me." I've been reading through the Peace Corps handbook about working together with volunteers. There are many good tips on how a majority of Americans think. They've got us "pegged" pretty well. In addition to those mentioned above, they share that we tend to look down on inherited wealth. We're more of an "I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps" kind of people. We love "rags-to-riches" stories. Of course, if you take the "pull myself up by my own bootstraps" mentality, it's total nonsense. I, along with other Americans, admire those who aspire and achieve material success, and there are some great stories out there, but no one could possibly "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." Somewhere along the way, someone helped you out. No man is an island. Along with our other various sayings, I really have come to appreciate one of Kennedy's while I've been here: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."
5. Many times during my service here in Bulgaria, I have had the overwhelming urge to call up family members and former teachers to just scream, "THANK YOU!" I'm far from perfect. My life hasn't been ideal. It's still been pretty great considering the alternatives out there. I'm so thankful that I've been instilled with the "You can be anything you want if you put your mind to it" mentality. It's just so much easier to get through life if you feel like the system is designed for you to succeed. It might be blind idealism, but I'd rather be built to take risks and believe in the "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" mentality.
6. Many times my mom has said, "If you complain about America, I think you should be required to live in another country for a while." I agree with her to a point. I think we are required, not only to complain about oversights within our government, but also to take action to change them. This is active citizenship. Bulgaria is slowly moving beyond the complaining stage to the "what are we going to do to change it?" stage. But my mom is right. Americans (not all, but many) have it good. We're perpetual consumers, and we have a standard of living that is envied in many parts of the world. I haven't lived in the states for the past three years, but I remember having it good. As I said before, the system is designed to help me succeed... or at least help me out. Social services, for one example, may not be perfect, but they exist and are developed. I'm now grateful for so many things that I always took for granted. Angel has said many times, "If you want to love America more, come to Rakitovo." I love both, but I'm grateful for what Rakitovo has taught me about living in the U.S.
7. I'm going to miss small town trust. A number of times I have happened to be somewhere where I forgot my wallet, or they couldn't give me change. "Come by later today, tomorrow, or even next week to pay me." Awesome. I'm always sure that I do 'cause I don't want to lose that trust. Plus, you gotta pay for a service. There's also another saying here that I like, "C'mon. Neither you nor I are going to get any richer or any poorer." I hear this when I can't give a friend or an acquaintance a few stotinki (cents) for exact change - or even when I had to tell my former landlady that I had already paid her for a previous electric bill and needed her to return the 40 leva I'd given her a few days before. I see Bulgarians as materialists, but they're definitely not stingy.
8. I still get a lot of people trying to convince me to stay. "You're so used to it here. You already know the language. All you have to do is find a husband. Don't you like it here? What will the foundation do without you?" The last question is particularly frustrating. I have given a lot of myself to my work here, but to insinuate that I've raised the foundation up to great heights is just ridiculous. I think it's people's own blindness to how things really are. I mentioned in a previous post that the foundation won a huge project with the Ministry of Education and Science for European structural funds. We also received a certificate for writing the "best developed project" out of hundreds of candidates. My role in this was small, but still significant. However, I doubt my presence mattered to a degree where the outcome would have been any different. They still would have won the project. Most likely, they still would have taken "first place." Talking to people around town though, you would think that it had everything to do with me. I tell them it was a team effort, but they brush it off. "Yeah, yeah, but...." Maybe people are enamored with this idea of "the American - who just knows how to do everything 'better,'" or maybe people honestly still have a hard time seeing a Roma organization take the lead. I wish they realized just how competent my colleagues really are.
9. I have taken some pretty great strides since I've been here - mostly in regard to the language. I feel blessed that God has given me the ability to learn languages. I'm definitely not the best out there, but my talent makes me lazy. The idea of sitting down and studying a language out of a book while I'm alone is not appealing at all. People here compliment me on my language as if I had everything to do with it. More like it's just a mix of things: I have a natural knack. I listen and try to parrot people. I spend a lot of my day in the target language. This more has to do with what God has handed to me than any "pulling of the bootstraps" that I've done. I'm actually pretty lazy by nature. It would be like taking credit for having blue eyes or two legs. What I am pretty proud of is that I've learned to type in Bulgarian. I've memorized the placement of the cyrillic letters on the keyboard, and I can type at a decent rate without looking at my fingers. I can type dictated letters almost as well as any of my colleagues. That's pretty cool. I have a cyrillic option on my keyboard laptop, but I don't have cyrillic letters on my keys. I have to work by memorization. There's also a phoenetic option where the cyrillic letters match up, more or less, with their latin counterparts. This, however, only confuses me. I have a hard time typing Bulgarian quickly with latin substitutes even though I have our QWERTY down. Weird, huh? I've had both Americans and Bulgarians complain about trying to type Bulgarian on my keyboard. Suckers.
10. I made peppers stuffed with rice again tonight. This time I made them with my landlady. I'm hoping I can replicate them once I get back stateside. They really are yummy.
11. I know that there are other thoughts bubbling in my head, but they're not coming to the surface at the moment. As I think of them, I'm sure I'll be back to share.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Turning Points

So, I met the new volunteer last week. Her name is Emily, and she's great. She seems pretty laid back, and I hope that she and Rakitovo will make a good fit. I had her over for dinner on Wednesday, and Angel came over later to meet her. The next day, she met her new colleagues (besides Yanko and me), and then we went to the Thursday bazaar and then up to the segregated, Roma school for a meeting with the teaching staff. After a break, we took a walk around the town with Yanko. That evening, after coffee with my colleagues, she came with me to an English class and baseball. There were tons of kids along with four Americans (plus one American baby), and it was chaos, but it was fun. After that, we went to dinner. It worked out that we ended up at the same restaurant as "guy who didn't bother to learn my name" and some of his friends, so we ate with them. That was a little odd, but I spent most of my time talking to Emily and ignoring the stares of the boys who wished they knew what we were talking about.
The following day, we took her to meet one of the pre-school directors and the director of the main, integrated school. We then took her for a walk around the Roma mahala. After a quick break for lunch, we went to a cafe with a couple English-speaking girls who've been active in the town. We then took a walk up to the local park. After a break, she went to Yanko's house for dinner. I decided to leave her with them since I'd been by her side almost non-stop since she got there. I wanted her to hang out with them alone - be the center of attention. I found out later that Ani had made my favorite dish (peppers stuffed with seasoned rice) and even marked the veggie ones with toothpicks just for me.
On Saturday, we took her on a basic tour of Velingrad. Then, I went with her to Sofia so that she could be sure to find her bus back to her training site. I also managed to show her the location of the Peace Corps office while we were there, so it worked out well. Hopefully, she'll remember how to get around if she needs to get to the office and NOT take two years to find the best way like I did. I feel like such a dolt when I think about the way-out-of-the-way route I used to take to Peace Corps Bulgaria headquarters. Silly girl.
Anyway, I like Emily. She was a trooper to say the least. You can see from the above program that we dragged that poor girl everywhere - introducing her to all sorts of people that she could barely communicate with. It must have been exhausting for her. Many times, I thought back to my first visit to Rakitovo. How much did I really understand? How much did I rely on the few people who spoke English to clue me in on things? Looking back, it's easy to believe that you understood more than you really did - that you spoke the language better than you really did. Hindsight is pretty much always skewed. I remember a lot of things, but mostly I remember doing a lot of walking around with Angel. Plus, our visit was shorter. I only had one full day in Rakitovo. Emily had two.
What else can I say about it? My emotions were a rollercoaster all the time. I had a good time - especially on Thursday when we were all running around doing various activities with the kids. Seeing Emily reminded me of how far I've come in the past three years, and it was a good feeling. Playing interpreter was tiring at times, but it also reminded me that my language skills are more than just "decent." There were also times when I was struck by the transition, and I felt sad. Explaining to people (especially kids) was difficult. Kids take it to heart and sometimes react with anger. You feel like you're betraying them in a way. All the way to baseball, some of the kids were singing songs in English that I'd taught them, and it made me feel good to know that they still remembered a thing or two from me. Kids surprise me with what they remember.
This weekend, I went to Plovdiv and Trud. September 6th was Bulgarian Unification Day, and the president gave a speech at Unification Square in Plovdiv. I told my "sister" about my interesting week. She said, "But that doesn't mean you're leaving, right?" "November 10th." She got tears in her eyes, and I gave her a hug. "I'm sorry. I should have waited until later to tell you." I can't cry yet. I'm flattered when others are affected so strongly, but it still hasn't hit me in a way that incites tears. I know the day will come when I will shed tears as well, but September 6th, 2008 was just not that day. Later that evening, we ended up running into another group of volunteers, and we followed them to a local discotheque. We were having such a fun time, that we were the last of the group to leave. I don't get the opportunity to hang out with large groups of volunteers very often these days, and I was reminded how crazy they are. I love them. I got hugs and kind words from the lot of them. It was a good ego-boost - especially since they're from other volunteer groups, and I don't get to spend much time with them. I feel like I did a good job inspiring "the next generations" or something. Hahaha.
The next day, I hung out with the volunteer in Trud. Patty is COS-ing (do you know the acronyms now?) soon, and I wanted to see her before she went. It was funny 'cause they were having a cultural fair, and I ran into a group there from Rakitovo. I surprised them when I went up to the front of the stage while they were singing and playing. The accordion player almost lost track of his fingering. "What are you doing here, Apryl?" Afterwards, Patty and I listened to people from Trud and Rakitovo go back and forth saying, "This is our girl." "And this is our girl." Plus, I ran into a few others from Trud who still remember me, and that's always great.
My sister treated me to a manicure and a haircut, but we mostly spent the day lazing around and recovering from the night before. We went out with Patty that night, and Patty and I did a good job keeping the conversation in Bulgarian to make sure that my "sister" was included. The next morning, I got up unreasonably early to accompany my "mom" on the van into Plovdiv so that I could catch a few buses back to site. My "mom" also began crying when I told her I was leaving soon. At first, I didn't think she was going to cry. She said, "Well, we knew this was coming. It's time for you to go back and be with your family there." She said all this with dry eyes. I was surprised 'cause she's an emotional women. I mean, she started crying when she met me for the first time, and I stuttered out, "My name is Apryl. Good afternoon. It's nice to meet you." But, I turned around, and there they were - the tears. Yikes. I can't deal with this yet.
Yesterday, Valia's daughter, Janette, had a birthday. I went to Velingrad with Ani to eat some food and take part in some of the festivities. I bought her a princess set that came with a crown, a mirror, a comb, a wand, and some sparkley shoes. She walked around in the shoes and the crown, waving her wand everywhere. She made the perfect little princess. After over-eating, I ended up taking a nap. It wasn't bad, considering I'd been up at 5 that morning to catch transport back to my town.
I also stopped at the bank yesterday. Yanko wanted me to check on the status of a bank account we have for a project that's supposed to start any day now (and has been that way for the past eight months). I went with the account number, and stuttered something to the woman at the window about needing to check on the balance. She looked it up and asked me, "Is this your bank account?" "No. It's for a foundation I work for." "Well, there's 18,020 leva inside." "Wha? Eighteen-thousand and twenty leva?" She smiled. I'm thinking, "Is it too late to try and make up some story about it really being my account?" Anyway, it's time to get cracking. The monster project is starting with the Ministry of Education and Science. We also received word today that another (much smaller) project has been approved, and that means even more work. I'm glad my colleagues will be busy. They need to be busy. Busy is good. Yanko and I spent the day trying to calculate the activities that need to happen before the end of the year. Believe me, taking activities that were supposed to run for 12 months and cut them down to four, is not so fun. That's just on paper. What about fulfilling them? I do not envy my colleagues.
This evening, I went to a cafe with one of my favorite women in Rakitovo. She works at the photocopy place, and I see her once or more a week. Honestly, I've only really gotten to know her recently, and this is the first time that we've gone out, but I absolutely love her. She's great. It makes me sad that we're just now getting to know each other. She's leaving for Pakistan soon, but hopefully she'll be back just as soon, and we'll get some more time to hang out. As we said good-bye, she gave me a bunch of kisses. "You have to get used to that if you're going to live in France, and I'm going to come visit you." She's awesome.
Otherwise, this whole "coming to the end" thing has been good for my ego. Ever since Yanko went to the Peace Corps training to meet Emily, he's been talking about the good things Peace Corps staff has said about me there. Plus, he keeps sharing good examples of things he's learned from me that he apparently related there. Today, I sat in the office as he sang my praises to a guy who used to help out in the organization, but now lives in Spain. The guy had asked me to weigh in about why I think Bulgarians are so patient to deal with a bunch of the nonsense that goes on in the country. This was followed by a discussion about how great I am. My head must have swelled two times its size, I swear. I'm brave, responsible, smart, helpful, and I speak the language like a rock star. There will be no bringing me back to earth after this.
If Yanko's had negative things to share, he's been staying pretty mum about them. The only thing he says is, "We made a lot of mistakes in regard to our behavior toward you, and I want to make sure we do it better this time." He lamented not being more direct with me when there was some kind of problem I was causing or something. Of course this makes me think, "Okay, so what kind of problems?" But, he's right. If something was wrong, they should have taken a direct approach. I can't be a mind-reader. That's their problem.
It looks like Yanko is going to be Emily's counterpart. It's good for him 'cause he'll be privy to a lot of things that he may have never known about working with a volunteer. I have had no complaints about Angel as a counterpart. He's been absolutely amazing from a volunteer's perspective. Otherwise, Yanko has gotten it in his head that Angel should have been more communicative with the organization about some things he figures they should have known. I have no idea what he's talking about, but now he has a handbook to reference if he needs to. Angel made things up as he went along, and I honestly think I've had the best counterpart in the history of Peace Corps. Problem is, Angel thinks this as well. His head is almost as big as mine!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

State of Mental Health

I meet the new volunteer tomorrow. I hear that her name is Amy. Apparently she's young, she has blue eyes, and she's open to the world. She already sounds great. Let the comparisons begin... but let's not linger on them, okay? I'm both looking forward to and dreading this first meeting. I think we just need to get over it so that I can stop acting like a 12-year-old. Or maybe I can revert to someone who's even younger. I wonder how I'd look in pigtails.
I've taken the past couple days off of work. Well, I went in yesterday morning and then left soon after that. I decided to stay away today as well. I think I'm already checking out on some levels. I went to an English class, and I went to baseball. I just didn't want to go into the office. Did you know that "mental health days" have become a regular part of our vernacular? In fact, October 10th is the official World "Mental Health Day." I think I'll have to keep that in mind when my original COS date (October 10th) comes around. I am an avid believer in and supporter of the "mental health day." Only, Yanko called me halfway through it and urged me to try and get over my funk.
The Americans in Velingrad came to baseball today. They brought a few friends. Unfortunately, we didn't get to use the stadium because there was some kind of soccer match going on there, but we went to a nearby field and played. It was fun. Unfortunately, it was completely chaotic and it was getting dark by the time we started playing, but it was still fun. The guy said that he would continue to come as long as there was baseball to be played. Glad to hear it. Hopefully, it will be even better on Thursday.
I've been getting a lot of food recently. Not only have my "baba" and my landlady been giving me various dishes, but people have been giving me fresh fruits and canned items. I feel bad accepting the fresh stuff especially 'cause it usually goes bad with me. I'm not one to sit down and eat an entire bag of pears. It's just not going to happen. I try and give away as much as I can. The rest just sits around until it spoils and I eventually end up throwing it away. I love that people here are so generous, but sometimes I really think their generosity goes to waste, and I wish they would be generous to someone else.
Now that I'm leaving, I get a couple of repeating questions. The first is, "Can't you extend your contract?" This is usually asked when people see how disappointed I am in leaving. It's hard for me to answer this one. In theory, had I wanted to stay longer, I would have been able to. It's not that I don't want to. It's just that it's no longer right for me to stay longer. How long could I possibly stay? I have to leave someday. I have to move on with my life. We knew this wasn't permanent. People just figure, "Well, you look like you want to stay, so... stay." It's not quite that easy. I do and I don't want to stay. We're leaning more toward don't than do. It's just that nostalgia is hitting me hard now that we're coming to the end. I know I'm really going to miss this place.
The second question I get is, "You weren't able to find a husband and settle down while you were here?" This is just silly to me. Like I should have found a nice, Bulgarian boy and made him mine. What about respect, love, understanding? What about the chance meeting of it all. I get told, "You're a pretty girl. You're nice, and you're hard-working." Basically, they're saying that I'm a catch, and I shouldn't have been left to get away. Plus, there are some that think 27 is way past prime marrying age. I wish I could snap pictures of some of the looks I've gotten. Just picture horror, and you've about got it. I still feel so young. I turned around, and I was 27. I usually tell them that all the good guys my age are either already married or live in bigger towns far from here. This is usually met with either agreement, disagreement, a proposition to introduce me to a single friend or relative, or a suggestion that I should get over my aversion to dating married men. Nice.
Tonight, I got a phone call from a guy who could either be my father's or my grandfather's age, "I'm sitting up on this ridge, looking at some beautiful scenery, and I thought of you. So, I decided to call. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?" "Uh, no. There is something wrong with that, and I'd prefer that you didn't call me." "Oh, sorry." "Yeah." He kept trying to find ways to "accidentally" touch me the last time I was around him. I soon excused myself and left.
So, there's this aforementioned guy. Cute guy who didn't know my name still calls me every once in a while so we can get into some silly argument about nothing. Krum is a loose cannon. I haven't seen M-Tel boy in Velingrad in quite a while, and he's probably married or in a serious relationship. He's too adorable to be available. These are my prospects. Hey, people are right. I'm a catch. I deserve to be with someone my age, who's stable and happens to know my name. Am I asking for too much?