Sunday, September 14, 2008
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."