Monday, October 27, 2008

Two Weeks Notice

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

1 comment:

T. Renee said...

hey lady!

you're right. it is tough to find that way to define yourself post-peace corps. but we all feel that way, if that is any sort of consellation. GOOD WORK! We love and miss you and respect all the hard work you've put in all three years. i really commend you. I couldn't teach an english class for 3 weeks - and you do it for 3 years? bravo, be, bravo!