Friday, August 14, 2009

Why I'd Make an Awful Political Prisoner

I'm back in the states. (sniff) I had two weeks of downtime in Bulgaria, but I kind of screwed it up. Basically, I outstayed my visa, and I couldn't stop worrying about it. It's a long, convoluted story. Maybe I'll get to it later in this post. Otherwise, it was a great two weeks.
I started out by going and visiting the host family for a few days. I was well taken care of - as always. Good, fresh food from the garden. It was so hot, however, that we didn't do much. I spent the first day just lying around, and I was tired all of the time. After a while, my "sister" and I started getting kind of testy around one another. I decided that it was time to get moving on. I told her that I would be going, and she started crying. So, I promised that I would come back. I wanted to leave a bag there anyway. I had a lot of stuff and didn't feel like hauling it around the country.
I then went to Rakitovo and stayed there for about a week. I had a good time there, but it was again overshadowed by my worries about my visa and the arrangements that were trying to be made to change my flight and get one of my cousins over here. More on that later. I saw a lot of people, which was great. I got a lot of hugs from the kids. I felt very loved. One of the groups in town even gave me this fancy certificate with a wax seal on it for the work that I had done with them during my service, and I got an autographed copy of a book one of the members published. Fancy... and most undeserved.
Probably one of the best things about the trip was seeing three of the nearby, currently-serving volunteers get together for a friendly baseball game with their kids. They used the equipment that was donated to me a few years ago. They were great with the kids as well, and they all wanted to play again once it was over. I was impressed with the volunteers. They were so calm, and the kids were calm around them. It made me think that I probably yelled too much at the kids when I was doing baseball.
I finally pulled myself away from Rakitovo, and I went to visit one of my Pre-Service Training colleagues in Dupnitsa. She and her parents were in the midst of a remodel, but they took great care of me. More excellent food. Good times. They made me promise to come back.
I then went back to visit the host family for a couple of days. In all these places, it was hard to say good-bye, but there were no tears this time around. People would ask me in all seriousness why I didn't just get a job in Bulgaria full-time. Then they would joke with me that I should have found a Bulgarian to marry. I actually did get a marriage proposal, but it was from someone that I honestly could never seriously consider marrying. I think our good-byes were tearless because I had already come back. I mean, some people had never expected to see me that soon, and I came back. I think they realize how much I'm tied to Bulgaria, and they figure that I'll be back again soon. I'm not so sure, but it was better than a second, tear-filled good-bye.
The night before my flight, I went to Sofia. I had to be up at 4 a.m., so I needed to make sure that I was there the night before. I met up with a couple of friends and had dinner, and then another friend stayed the night with me as she was scheduled to pick someone up at the airport the following day. I was a bit nervous and agitated, but I still had a good time.
So, the saga that overshadowed my final two weeks:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
- Matthew 6:25-34

I kept thinking about these verses, but I still couldn't stop worrying. I'd wake up in the night and think about it. I'd talk to God about it. I still couldn't stop worrying. It was clouding my final weeks in Bulgaria. I hated worrying, but I couldn't seem to stop.
So, I outstayed my time in Bulgaria. According to laws regarding foreign tourists in the country, I had ninety days to spend, and then I'd have to get out. Otherwise, they could hit me with fines ranging from 500 - 5000 leva. (It's a lot of money, trust me.) Or, they could possibly put some sort of stamp in my passport not allowing me to come back for a while. By the time I realized that I needed to get my visa extended, I was three days over. Peace Corps had sent a letter over asking for this from the beginning, but I'd missed my window, and I was screwed.
It's a long, convoluted story that I won't share here. I talked with a lot of people. No one could give me a straight answer as to what would happen. Discussing it only made it worse. I even got a hold of a connection to someone who works at immigration in Sofia airport, and she couldn't even tell me what would happen. "It depends on whose hands she falls into and what that person decides to do with her." Nice.
This is why I say that I'd make an awful political prisoner. They couldn't detain me - at least not for long. All they could do was fine me and ask me not to come back anytime soon. This thought alone terrified and tormented me. It shouldn't have. This isn't North Korea - where detained journalists were recently in the news for obtaining freedom and returning to the states. This isn't Pakistan - where people are threatened with death by the Taliban. This is Bulgaria. Lighten up, Apryl. I just couldn't. I joked about being a criminal, but I really felt like one, and I felt horrible about it.
In addition to this, my cousin was wanting to come and visit. She wanted to be sure that she could fly back with me on the same flight. I had to have Peace Corps work to arrange my ticket back. They couldn't turn authorization over to me. Each passing day saw the ticket prices for my cousin go up. I was stressed, and I couldn't sleep at night. I had to change to another location, 'cause I wasn't sure that I could get back in Bulgaria. The prices for my cousin were outlandish. Finally, I got a response from Peace Corps. Changing my ticket would be prohibitively expensive. I might as well buy a new one. I couldn't guarantee that my cousin and I would be on the same flight. Forget it. I apologized to my cousin and told her that we'd try another time.
But then, a light opened up. An idea came into my head that wasn't there before. It was so simple, I wondered why God didn't reveal it to me before. I was riding a bus, and it struck me: I have a stamp that allows me to be here until the end of October!
Last year, when I was still a volunteer, I was getting my "lichna karta", or personal ID card, renewed. I would only be in the country for another month, but I had to get it renewed for an entire year. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous. Now, I think God was looking out for me in advance. In addition to the ID card, which I no longer had, I got a stamp in my passport verifying this. The only problem was that it was in my Peace Corps passport in the U.S.
I begged my mom to send me photocopies of my passport information and the stamp. She took it to my grandfather and had him do it. I couldn't believe how clear the pictures turned out. There it was... plain as day - a stamp allowing me to stay in Bulgaria until the 31st of October. I printed out some copies and prayed it would work. I also prayed that whoever I met at immigration would be understanding.
I got to the airport, checked in, and went straight through security. I wanted to be there early in case there were any delays. I thought I'd be a bundle of nerves, but I felt surprisingly calm. I looked at the booths for immigration and saw a woman looking my way. "Here goes, God," I thought and walked over to her. I said good morning, handed her my passport, and here's the conversation that ensued:
Woman: (After inspecting my passport for a while) Do you speak Bulgarian?
Apryl: Yes.
Woman: You've outstayed your tourist visa.
Apryl: I know.
Woman: So, you know that you're only allowed to come in for three months.
Apryl: Yes.
(Long pause. I was waiting to see how she would react, but she didn't seem to know how to deal with it.)
Apryl: But I have a stamp in another passport that allows me to stay until the end of October. The only problem is that I mixed up my passports (may God forgive me for this lie), and I left it at home. I have a photocopy of it, however, and the stamp.
Woman: Let me see this photocopy.
I pulled it out and handed it over - explaining that there were two pages. She cut me off. She got it.
Woman: (After inspecting the photocopies) Where is this stamp that allows you to stay until the end of October?
I probably should have been terrified at that point. What? The stamp wasn't there? I knew I had checked and double-checked. But she handed the copy back right away, and I could see it - plain as day. It practically took up the whole page, and I was wondering why she couldn't see it. Maybe she was testing me?
Apryl: Here.
Woman: But you don't have the 'lichna karta' that goes with it?
Apryl: I had to leave it behind. It's not mine. It's your government's property.
She smiled and nodded knowingly. She then shuffled some papers. I knew I was in the clear.
Woman: I don't know how long it took you to learn Bulgarian but....
Apryl: Oh, many, many years.
Woman: (After stamping my passport) When will you come back to Bulgaria?
Apryl: (Radiant smile and quiet sigh of relief) Oh, that's what I wanted to hear. I hope it will be soon. Thank you.
She smiled.
Apryl: And thank you for being so kind to me.
The smile vanished. Maybe she knew that she had let me off the hook and just wanted to be rid of me. I didn't need another invitation. I grabbed my passport and scuttled out of there - thanking God for taking care of me. Then I flew back to the states. The best thing is, I'm still able to go back to Bulgaria whenever I want. I hope it will be soon.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Back in the Ranks

So, once again, I am unemployed. After the Trainees swore in and became Volunteers, we had a lot of paperwork to process. On Tuesday, we had a final debrief. All Pre-Service Training Staff was there, and we talked about PST. Mostly it was a time to pass out kudos for success. Out of the 62 Trainees who came to Vratsa to begin training, 62 were sworn-in as Volunteers. Pretty friggin' awesome. There were also many suggestions as to how training can be improved. Apparently they're expecting around 80 people to come.
I also had to give a presentation on Youth Development Technical Training as part of my debrief. It went all right. The best part were the comments afterward from the Youth Development Program Staff. The Program Manager said some really wonderful things about my work - to the point of embarrassment. Apparently I had taught her something about giving feedback to Americans. I find that interesting because I think that it's something that I need to work on. I also had an exit interview with the Training Manager, and she only had good things to say about the work that I've been doing over the past three months. Of course, I'm not perfect. I crossed some professional boundaries in efforts to befriend Trainees. It's a good lesson for any job where I might take a leading role among my peers.
After my presentation, YD Program Staff rushed up to me with huge smiles on their faces. They looked absolutely giddy, and they had a small package in their hands. There was a short speech, and then they were pushing me to open it. "Hang on a second." I pulled out a card I had made for them with a black and white picture of us from swearing-in. I had written some of my favorite "character traits" on it. The YD Staff at PC Bulgaria are honestly so fun to work with. We all share a similar sense of humor, so it works out well. They gave me a beautiful, silver necklace. It looks like a flower with pearl-like beads in the center. Very thoughtful.
Yesterday was a nightmare. The PST offices in Vratsa were being torn down around me, and I was working on final reports and running back and forth to the police station for some issues with which I'm currently dealing. It's one thing when you have a problem and it's just you who's dealing with it. You rely on your friends for moral support, and you deal with it. It's another thing when you have to bring your friends into the problem, otherwise there's no way to solve it on your own. This is very difficult for me because I hate being a burden and inconveniencing people for something that's my own fault. It tears me up inside.
So, everything is getting broken down around me. I'm printing files for my final report. I'm putting things in folders. I'm rushing about. Pretty soon, I get a message on my computer that I'm no longer attached to the server. Awesome. I was just about to transfer some files there. Guess I'll have to put them on CD and hand them over that way. Soon after, a guy came to shut my computer down. Awesome. I was just about to print a cover page and a table of contents for my report. No worries. I'll do it the "old-fashioned" way with a pen and paper. So, I did. I can't wait to see the look on the next Technical Trainer's face when they see my report from this year. "Ummm... what's up with the pen and paper? How 'ghetto' was Apryl? Did she even do her job?" Ha! Good thing this all happened after final interviews. (wink!) Hopefully someone will be able to make heads and tails of it.
We were driven back to Sofia, and I hung out in the Peace Corps office for a bit. It's hard to let people go. And it's always that awkward, "Is this the final good-bye, or am I going to see you again?" I hate that. It's better to act like you're going to see each other again - even if you might not. So, I hope that I'll being seeing PC staff again before I leave Bulgaria.
For now, I'm hanging out in Trud with the host family. I took a bus last night with all my luggage. I swear I hiked across half of Plovdiv with all my bags. I was pouring sweat by the time I caught the van to Trud. I threw all my luggage down and sat on the floor - trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. Of course the driver had to start bantering with me when I got on - much to the amusement of the other passengers:
"You don't seem Bulgarian."
"That's because I'm not."
"What are you?"
"I'm a person."
"I know that you're a person. What I mean is where are you from?"
"I'm from the U.S."
A few minutes later... shouting in the van so all the other passengers can hear:
"Where is it better? Bulgaria or America?"
"Bulgaria is more beautiful."
"More beautiful... but is it better?"
"It's better because it's more beautiful."
"Yeah, but you don't have the problems that we have here."
"How do you know? Have you ever been to America? And the women here are more beautiful."
"Ah, the women, but what about the men?"
Hesitation. "The men are better-looking, too."
"I don't know about that."
...and on and on until he dropped me off exactly where I needed to be in Trud. Sometimes it's worth the craziness that I put myself through just to have even crazier conversations like this one. I'm so sad that I'll have to leave soon.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sworn-In and Shipped Off...

...and that time I almost went to Kazakhstan? But we'll get to that.
The trainees are now volunteers! Woo-hoo! My work here is done. You're welcome, world. Actually, I have some final reports and then I will officially rejoin the ranks of the unemployed.
The Swearing-In Ceremony was great. Outside it was hotter than Hades. Inside it was relatively cooler. Lots of hoop-la. Lots of media. Lots of great moments. Lots of important people. In fact, after the ceremony, the Deputy Chief of Mission from the Embassy asked me which site I would be moving to for the next two years. I wish. I'd do it all over again for the great health care. Afterward, I ate some delicious appetizers and ran around trying to get sweaty pictures with my trainees. Good stuff. I'm so proud.
The day before, we had our last HUB. We had this whole wrap-up session for half of the trainees, and I was scheduled to co-facilitate it. It was insane. I've facilitated and co-facilitated tons of sessions in front of these guys over the past couple months, but my heart was still pounding with nervousness like it was the first day. I confessed to them that they "terrified me just as much as they had the first day," and they just looked at me like I was nuts. I've been told that I hide my nervousness well. Maybe that's the one poker face I have. At the end of the session, I pretended like I was getting all "verklempt," and I said, "I love you, guys!" Applause.
I had the opportunity to repeat this shenanigan at the end of the day when I was speaking in front of the entire group. It just turned out that I was the last one to talk to them in their last session of the day. I tried to offer the floor to the Country Director, but she just let me have it. Odd. So I told them how fun they were and how incredibly glad I was that I got the opportunity to come back to Bulgaria to hang out with them. This was all true. Then, I said, "I already did this in front of the other group, but I'll do it for you, too. I then pretended to tear up, and I said, "I'm gonna miss you guys." Then I just walked off. Applause. I was so embarrassed. I could feel myself turning red, and I just wanted to find a chair to sit down in. Wouldn't you know it. Of course you can't find a chair when you need one. And the trainees just sit there until both the Country Director and the Training Manager tell them to go. That's it. Show's over.
The funny thing is, a few of the Bulgarian staff came up to me afterward and commented on how it's normal to feel so emotional after these 10 weeks, and then one of them confessed to me that they'd recently let loose some waterworks. Then I got really uncomfortable. Am I really that good of an actress? Did you think I actually cried? And asking this question has one of two outcomes... neither good: 1. I look like a jerk for pretending to cry and mocking the situation. 2. I'm trying to hide the fact that I cried. Well, I guess it's the former, 'cause I didn't cry. Sorry to disappoint.
I hung out with some of the volunteers after the ceremony, and then I went to one of the YD satellite sites for a last party with the town members and some volunteers. Problem was, the "party" was a real downer. Everyone was sad because the volunteers were leaving, and tons of people were crying... for real. And I was so proud of them. Crying means that the past two months have been terribly successful. Hearts have been opened and lives have been changed - as idealistic and lofty as that sounds. I saw it last night. And yet, I felt incredibly uncomfortable. I didn't need to be there. This was their moment. I had lived my own and moved beyond it. I thought back in my head to all the "see you laters" that I've had here in Bulgaria. The tears. The real tears. And I thought about having to say good-bye to people for the second time around. And I thought about saying good-bye to the volunteers I'd just dedicated the last 10 weeks of my life to. And it's so short, but it's a lifetime. And I didn't feel like that was the place for me. This was their moment. My moment lies elsewhere.
Today, we've been processing final evaluations. I loathe evaluations because I let what people think gnaw at me. The other Technical Trainers had warned me, "Your YDs really love you, Apryl." I guess they scoped out some of my feedback before I got to it. I'm astounded with the Youth Development volunteers. Either they really love us, or they got tired of filling out the forms. They gave us all wonderful appraisals. By "all" I mean YD staff. I'm absolutely delighted that they love the program staff. This is what is most important because it means that they will not feel uncomfortable approaching them over the next two years. And they were all exceptionally generous in their appraisal of me. Only one trainee had a bone to pick with me, and this person still rated me highly. Quite undeserved. It's a good thing that we can do self-appraisals so that I can give staff a vision of reality with some tougher criticisms.
T-minus four days, and I will be gainfully unemployed again. The plan is to hang out in Bulgaria for a couple weeks to visit friends and family. Then, maybe I'll be able to get my cousin on this side of the Atlantic for a while to travel with me. We shall see. For now, I'm working this weekend.
Oh! Kazakhstan! Right. I was going to mention this. For about a week there, the possibility seemed to exist that I might go and help them with their Pre-Service Training for three months. It didn't work out. Mentioned. There are more sordid details, but I would prefer not to share them in my blog. It was cool to think about the possibility of Kazakhstan for a while, and to even have staff over here recommend me to them felt like a huge "kudos" for my work. Good stuff. I believe that something even better awaits, and I'm impatient to find out what that is. In the meantime, feast your eyes on this!


The best B-25 Youth Development group Bulgaria has ever seen!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Cautionary Tale

Only one more week, and the trainee caterpillars will sprout their wings and turn into beautiful volunteer butterflies. Does the corny imagery make you want to gag? Awesome. I hope so. I can't believe it. I'm a little nervous 'cause I've been enjoying this gig so much, and I don't know what's coming next.
This last week was pretty good. On Monday, I went to one of the satellite sites to hang out for their day camp/community project. The trainees there decided to play a bunch of relay-type water games with the kids. They then separated into groups to play sports, do arts and crafts, or sing songs in English. I was really impressed with the number of kids that came, and they seemed to have a wonderful time. Kudos to the trainees.
The next couple of days were spent in the office - working on final reports. On Thursday, the three other Youth Development satellite groups decided to have their day camps pretty much simultaneously. Fortunately, I was able to go to all of them for about three hours. The first group did a park clean-up followed by some water games. Fortunately, I was able to stay long enough to see how much municipal/citizen support they got (a lot!), pick up trash, and witness how many news networks took an interest in them (three). I wasn't able to stay for the water games.
I then went onto the next site where the trainees had done a project with some of the kids in the village to paint some trash cans, paint a sign to encourage people to keep their trash out of the river, and play some water balloon games. Unfortunately, I missed most of this project, so I didn't get to help much. I remember have a delicious lunch and helping to fill water balloons. Then, they generously gave the Training Manager and myself a water balloon to take to the next satellite site.
The trainees in the final site did a lot of interesting games/songs/dances with the kids who showed up, and we had fun with all the relay races. One of the trainees and I even got into a canned whipped-cream fight. It wasn't a fair fight. Her can was full while mine was on its last legs. So, I was pretty much covered while she didn't have any on her. A successful yet exhausting day. I'm thrilled with the way the day's activities/projects turned out for all the satellite sites, and I'm especially happy that they received so much support.
On Friday, I decided to go up and visit the Close of Service Conference. I wanted to see the volunteers there (I had interacted with a bunch of them during my own service), and I also wanted to listen to a panel dedicated to re-integration/getting on with life after Peace Corps, etc. Peace Corps had invited five people to talk about their experiences of life after Peace Corps/living abroad/etc. At the last minute, the Country Director asked me to sit on the panel as well. I told her that I felt like a failure at re-integration. What could I share? So, I shared the tough time I had moving on with life when I was in the states after my service ended. One of the volunteers joked that I was "the cautionary tale." I was candid about sharing how I was pretty much listless after returning to the U.S. There was a lot of laughter, so I guess they found it funny. I know my situation is not unique. I got a lot of good insight from the other panelists. I guess I just see this return to the U.S. as my second chance to try at re-integration and move on with my life. I still don't know what that's going to entail exactly, however. God will just have to take care of it.
On Friday, right about dusk, I decided to take a walk. I ended up in the mountains, and then I came upon a clearing. While walking along a well-worn path, I found some blackberries. Treasure! I greedily helped myself to as many as looked ripe enough to be delicious. Soon, I saw a soldier in the distance. He was wearing fatigues and carrying a firearm. "This has 'international incident' written all over it," I thought to myself. I could tell that he was coming for me, but I wasn't about to just run off. It took him a good several minutes to get to me. By that time, I'd downed quite a few blackberries.
Once he reached me, I politely said, "Good evening." He returned the greeting and informed me that I needed to make myself scarce. I said, "I can't walk around here?" I found that really weird. I knew I was near a military base, but I was in a beautiful, natural clearing. Maybe the Bulgarians are really protective of their blackberries. I just lamented the fact that here was this beautiful area, and your average evening stroller couldn't go and hang out there. What's the world coming to?
Yesterday, one of my roommates and I decided to go to Pleven. I had never been there, and I heard that they had some really interesting artwork in the town. It wasn't too far away considering the fact that we caught quick international trains to and from the town. It was sweltering yesterday, though. And I didn't have much energy to do anything else than see the panoramic painting that we had gone there to see. Still, it was a nice day.
Afterward, I went out to a discotheque with some friends. I can't believe I managed to stay up until four in the morning. Because I managed to stay out that long, I haven't gotten much done today. The same roommate and I were talking about going on a walk to a nearby village and do some swimming in the river that twists through the mountains here. I think I might have blown it by sleeping too late. So now I'm just having a lazy Sunday.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Turnabout

The rain has been crazy. It stopped for a couple of days to do some sweltering. Then it started up again just in time for the weekend. Two of the Youth Development training groups were supposed to have day camps over Saturday and today. Both have been postponed. So instead of running around and playing with kids, I've been cooped up indoors. Yesterday wasn't so bad. The rain just spit for a while, and I was able to go out. I called my mom and talked for a long time. I joked with the lady at the phone place and said, "My mom talks a lot." (It's not true.) She had heard me speaking English and replied, "Oh, so you're not completely Bulgarian?" I just smiled and nodded in negation. Today, I think I'll end up going stir crazy. Wind, rain, and it doesn't look like it's going to let up soon.
This week we had feedback interviews. Program staff and I went around to each of the satellites and talked individually with the trainees. The next two days, we had HUBs. It was exhausting for both the trainees and for staff. I liked HUB, though. There were a lot of currently-serving volunteers around, and the Bulgarian staff had a great (optional) session on Communism. I learned so many new and fascinating things. It was terribly interesting.
It's also nice because we've been able to hang out with the volunteers and trainees after the sessions. I've had some fun and some interesting conversations. One current volunteer told me, "Your blog is famous for being long-winded." "What? People read my blog?" Many of the trainees asked me what I'd be doing after this little experiment. One expressed surprise that I wasn't here full-time. She then offered to contact some people to give me a job/place to live. I thought that was really generous. I basically have been telling people that this is my second chance at reintegration into the United States. I hope I'll be better about it this time.
I think I've mentioned this before, but it's interesting how quickly time can change everything - outlooks, opinions, loyalties, etc. For example, I was a volunteer just eight months ago, but the trainees don't see me that way. Sure, I was a volunteer once, but now I'm "staff," and they'd much rather hear something from the mouth of a currently-serving PCV than they would from me. Also, on my end, I've become a lot more sympathetic to staff. I can see and understand some of the frustrations that they have with volunteers and trainees.
Overall, in my opinion, the training has been going well. Sure, people are exhausted. Sure, there are some frustrations and petty arguments. Sure, there are sessions that could have probably been left out of the program. Sure, it's good that swearing-in is coming up, and they'll be able to actually go to their sites and get out on their own. But I'm happy with training. I've appreciated these guys, and they seem to be comfortable with Program Staff. That's one of the most important things to me. Develop a good rapport with staff now, because they will be the ones who have your back if you get into a sticky situation in site.
On Friday, some of the trainees were exposed to Roma culture firsthand. Some leaders from the local, Roma community came by to talk to them about the Roma. Then, they went outside and played various sports with a bunch of Roma kids. There were hula hoops, jump ropes, frisbees, soccer balls, playing cards, etc., and it looked as if everyone were having a great time. Afterward, we saw some traditional dances and heard some singing. Then we all got in the action and started dancing.
After this, a bunch of us took a walk to the Roma neighborhood. The idea was for the trainees to see how some Roma live. First, we were taken to a very nice house. Then we were taken to a slightly poorer family's house. Finally, we were shown a house of the poorest of the poor. Some of the trainees had been taking pictures, and, when we got to this final house, one of the women standing nearby became enraged, "Why are they taking all these pictures? Have they come to a zoo? Do they think they're in a jungle looking at animals?" Our hosts and some of PC staff tried to diffuse the situation, but she would not be calmed down. I could see her perspective, and I thought that she was right. Who were we to come into her neighborhood as tourists? I would hate it, too. She asked, "Why don't you actually help us?"
What struck me as interesting, was that while this was going on, someone turned on some music, and there were kids dancing in the street. Some of the trainees soon joined them - shaking their hips and limbs in arrhythmic attempts to do the local dance. It was honestly hysterical. Soon, the local people started whipping out their cell phones and taking pictures. Turnabout is fair play. The only thing is, we get to go back to our privileged lives after having invaded theirs. She's right. It doesn't quite seem fair.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Tropics of Bulgaria

Every time I step outside, it rains. I've been caught in the rain every day over the past five days. It's absolute nonsense. It's July! It's like living in the tropics during the rainy season or something.
I had a really great weekend. At first, I was bummed that I was spending my fourth consecutive Fourth of July here in Bulgaria. It's one of my favorite holidays, and I love spending it with friends in the states, but what are you going to do? On Friday, I caught a ride to Sofia and met up with one of my favorite people from Rakitovo. She's been living in Sofia for the past six months or so. We met for coffee, and I ended up spending the night at the place where she's staying. She's living with a friend of hers and that friend's son. They were both really sweet to take me in. The mother is a designer/artist, and she's quite talented. I enjoyed looking at her art on the walls. The boy was excited to speak to me in English, and he wanted me to play with him on his PlayStation 2, so we played a Harry Potter game.
The next day, I woke up to my ringing phone. It was Yanko. At first I thought something was wrong, but he just wanted to wish me a happy 4th of July. My friend and I had a lazy morning getting some coffee, and then I hopped on a bus to Plovdiv.
I made it to my host family's house in time for a late lunch, and it was yummy. They then took me out in the yard and insisted that I fill a bag with apricots and plums. Their son has started building a house in the yard next to theirs, and it's interesting to see how much the space has changed. I saw some pretty, white rabbits with red eyes and a spider that would give you nightmares. Ah, life in the country. I spent a lot of time sleeping, eating, and hanging out. Yesterday, my sister and I took a trip into Plovdiv to pick up her scissors and some ice cream. I also found some clothes that I couldn't resist. Then, we went back home, and she chopped off a bunch of my hair. What a great weekend! I had fun being with surrogate family and friends.
This morning, my sister took me to the train station, and I caught a train back to Vratsa. It's been kind of a lazy day at work. I'm sleepy anyway. I don't know what my problem is. It seems that I can never get enough sleep. I think my eyes are suffering from all the time that I spend in front of the computer, too.
This week should be another long one. Tomorrow, Program Staff and I are visiting all of the Youth Development satellite communities. We'll have interviews with the 13 trainees in our program. Then, on Wednesday and Thursday, there will be sessions all day. Fortunately for me, as of now, I'm not responsible for leading any of them, so at least there's that.
The end of the training period is coming up here quickly, and I don't know what to do with myself. I spent some time looking at graduate schools, and I'm thinking that's my best option. Instead of finding a job and making money, I'll probably look into getting into debt. It might not be the best option in this economy, but God will take care of me.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Just a Comment....

These daily, beautiful, flash summer storms are really cramping my style. Cracks of lightning... booming thunder... and me looking out the window of my office... wishing I had an umbrella. How am I supposed to get home? Not to mention that I was looking forward to visiting the pool....

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Winding Up & Winding Down

It's been busy. I thought I'd get a break with the trainees at their permanent sites, but no such luck. The trainees came back from their permanent site visits, and then we've had a couple of all-day sessions pretty much back-to-back. On Thursday, I went to a nearby town to meet up with all the Youth Development trainees. The preparation was stressful because I made it so. I'm a sort of neurotic personality. I'm a control freak. I really like having things my way. I'm also a people-pleaser. I want it my way, and I want everyone to be happy about that. Umm... this is just not possible. You see where the problem lies? This is where the neurosis starts. Let's not dwell on that. The sessions went well. We played some games. I think the Trainees liked it. Of course, you never know what people are really thinking until you see evaluation forms, but I've decided I don't care about those anymore. I know how much hard work I put into these sessions, and I'm not going to let some low (or even high) evaluation change the value of my efforts. I still love the trainees. No problems there. And I'm still enjoying my job.
I did take Friday off though... except for that hour when I was in the office. This weekend, I was in Rakitovo. I decided to go because Angel took off for a conference in Turkey for a month. I wanted to see him before he left. Otherwise, I was scheduled to go to Plovdiv to see the host family. I'm going to try and go next weekend. Rakitovo was nice. It rained a bit, and I kept to myself a lot of the time. I didn't feel like running around and going "na gosti" at people's houses the whole weekend. I did see my former landlady, and I was pleased to meet her elder daughter whom I've heard so much about. She lives in Canada, and I wasn't sure that I would ever get the chance to meet her. I was glad I pulled myself out of my funk to make the visit. I also got to see a couple of other people that I hadn't seen yet, so that was good.
On Monday, we had another session for about half of the day. I wasn't scheduled to lead out any of the sessions this time, but one of the volunteers who was got sick at the last minute. Fortunately, she had sent me all her ideas, so I got someone to let me into the office in the middle of the night so I could retrieve the e-mail she sent me. It was a team building session, so we ended up playing a lot of games. I think the trainees had fun. The session was repeated twice, and there was a good-sized groups for both times. I spent a lot of time running around in my high-heels, so my thighs are killing me today.
Afterward, some of us went on a field trip to a resource center. A resource center is a facility which works toward the integration of special needs kids into regular schools. It's a new concept to Bulgaria, but it's a good one. Hopefully, they will have much success. It was a field trip that had been requested by one of the YD trainees, so it wasn't scheduled from the beginning. I had to make a special trip to meet the staff and arrange it beforehand. I think it went well though. The staff seem really nice. They're wanting to apply for a volunteer.
We're getting here towards the end. I mean, there's a little less than four weeks left of training. A lot of the trainees have been asking me what I'll be doing after this. They always look disappointed when I tell them that I'm going back to the states. I appreciate the sentiment. They are a great group of "kids." Several members of PC staff have tried to encourage me to try to find work here. Even my grandmother is saying it might be a good option - due to the financial crisis. I joke that my grandmothers used to tell me that I couldn't find a husband here, work, etc. - anything that would jeopardize my return to the states. Now I have one saying that I might be better off if I just stayed here. I find that hilarious - of course in a sad sort of way.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Halfway Through

The trainees have left for their permanent sites for the next three days, and we are officially halfway through pre-service training. I hope their visits go well. I have the duty phone today, but I haven't heard from anyone yet, so I'm hoping for the best.
It's nice to finally get a break. Yesterday was a full day. I had to lead out in a couple sessions and they had me do some interpretation from Bulgarian to English. I love interpretation though. It doesn't feel like work. The only thing that's hard is that I don't have much of a poker face. I never have. If you start to prattle on and on, my face will show a bit of terror. I start to wonder if I'll remember everything. Also, when the speaker starts to say something interesting - or something I don't necessarily agree with - my expression will change. Some of the trainees have commented on this, and one of them told me, "I always think, I wonder what Apryl will say now." Sometimes the jokes don't always translate either. We'll all laugh when the Bulgarian speaks. Then, the trainees will look at me expectantly. But, sometimes it just doesn't translate. I have become rather entertaining to one of the trainees it seems. We have a good time together, and she tells me that she has a hard time looking at me during the sessions without laughing. Great. She's also pretty hilarious. I love the Youth Development (YD) Trainees, though. They're so cool. Some of us play frisbee together. We have fun together.
The YD Program Assistant gave me another compliment. He says that my interpretation is awesome. I'm not so sure about that, but he's encouraging me to take a university exam to measure my Bulgarian and get a certificate if possible. And they've been encouraging me to translate from Bulgarian to English because, while I'm definitely no better than the rest, I'm a bit faster. We went to visit a nearby cave called "Ledenika" (I've visited it before on a trip during my service), and they wanted me to interpret what the guide was saying. Problem was, he was speaking very quickly and running all his words together. Plus, he was using some terminology that I didn't know. So, that didn't last long, and I begged them to take over for me. Oh well.
Vratsa has been an interesting place recently. Local elections are coming up, and a bunch of political parties have been putting on concerts. We've had some pretty famous names roll into town. It's always the same: flashy music, political banners, propaganda, etc. You think someone would try something different. Am I really supposed to vote for you because you brought DJ "X" into town? I just don't understand. It's the copy and paste methodology. Meanwhile, we get to enjoy some concerts.
I had a nice day today. I slept a ton and read some. I also went on a hike with a couple of my colleagues to visit the place where Hristo Botev (huge poet and revolutionary hero) was killed. The area was beautiful, and we took a lot of pictures. Then, we went to a secluded restaurant, and I ate fruit salad and drank hot chocolate while watching the impromptu soft, summer rain fall. It was a pretty great break. It's back to work tomorrow. I might be able to take a day off this week. We'll see. It depends on how well I get everything else covered.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Disconnected Ramblings

I'm still busy. Today was a good day, though. All days have been good days, but today I mostly got to hang out. The trainees have now found out where they'll be living for the next two years, and they've met their counterparts. Good stuff. They seem fairly happy thus far. It takes me back to the days when I found out my site and met my counterpart. Ah, nostalgia. It's pretty cool looking at it from the other side now, though.
A couple of organizations from Rakitovo applied for a volunteer. Only one was seriously considered, but it was decided that they would be encouraged to apply again next year. Rakitovo already has a volunteer at my former organization, and there just aren't enough volunteers to go around.
The past few days have been long days. Tomorrow will be one as well. The trainees are staying in hotels (by program) with their counterparts. The Youth Development trainees are in an absolutely beautiful place, and we've been taking the time to get some frisbee in. I have been eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them - and then I go back home. It's really nice to be with them, but it's a long day. Today, I didn't have a specific role for any of the sessions, so I got to kick back a bit. That was nice. Tomorrow I will have to lead out in a couple of sessions. This is the norm anyway, so it's not a big deal. I need to take a day off here soon to compensate for the extra time that I've been working, but I don't know when that will happen. As soon as you get one event knocked down, another one comes up. The trainees will be leaving to visit all their permanent sites, but I have to prepare for the next round of sessions. It never stops. I'm loving it.
I talked to my colleagues yesterday. They finally got some money that was six (or more) months overdue to them. They were able to take two months of salary - otherwise the rest went to pay off loans and compensate other workers. This is from a European Union project, and it seems "coincidental" that the money should come through right after parliamentary elections. I wasn't paid my first month here in Bulgaria, and I was feeling the strain. I can't imagine six months. Makes you grateful for what you have.
Apparently the mayor of Rakitovo died yesterday. No one expected that one. Also, I wanted to take a moment to express my sadness at hearing that we lost a former volunteer from my B-18 group. Fredy was such an interesting cat, and apparently he passed away in a traffic accident in Ukiah. He was working in Mendocino at the time. I feel it for two reasons: this was a former colleague of mine; he passed away in a place I know well. It's hard to swallow.
Yanko keeps asking when I'll come to Rakitovo again for a visit, but I was just there. It's a long trip, and the only reason that I'm able to go at all is because of my wonderful colleague who lives nearby. It's time to make a trip out to Trud to see the host family. I miss my "sister" terribly.
I'm feeling very far away and disconnected from home. I'm so busy here; there's rarely time to think about the states. I'm with my colleagues here all the time. It's a good thing that I like them. And I certainly hope that they're not sick of me yet. We work together. We eat together. We live together. It's been working out really well so far. I hope it continues.
It's good to know that I haven't lost the Bulgarian. I've been learning a lot of knew words and terminology this time around. I'm in a new setting with a bunch of different organizations that are converging at the moment, and my vocabulary is growing. This is terribly exciting for me. I can't even tell you. Still, it's a bit daunting when a trainee is going on and on about their work with children who are mentally challenged or with women in domestic violence shelters or how they've been assistants to occupational therapists. Your mental "dictionary" doesn't always extend far enough. I become more and more impressed with those who work at Peace Corps for their command of the English language. It's rather inspiring. Still, I'm giddily confident in my Bulgarian. I don't like making mistakes, but I put up with them for the reward that comes from conveying ideas in another language.
I'd better end this rambling. Another long day awaits me tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

No Rest for the Weary

I’m still a very busy girl. I’m going to try and catch you all up on what’s been happening, but I’ll probably miss some things, and I’ll only hit the bigger things that I remember. A couple of Fridays ago, the Youth Development Trainees and I went to visit a home for children with mental disabilities and a boarding school for delinquents. It was a long day, but most of the trainees seemed to like it. The boarding school was pretty modern and the children seemed well cared for. The director of the place was very nice. I think she might even be younger than I! The Trainees asked a lot of good questions, and we got to see how donors (like the largest mobile operator in the country) have taken care of the place. Most of the Trainees were really active and loving with the kids. That was nice to see. The boarding school was an informative visit, but only in theory. We didn’t get much time to interact with the kids. The staff was nice enough to answer all our questions, but it would have been more useful to see and talk to the kids as well. The best part was the bus that half of us took to the nearby village where the boarding school resides. It looked like an old, Russian, war-era van. I don’t even know how to describe it, but it would have been pretty scary were it able to go over 30 mph. Fun times!
Over the weekend, I decided to go to Rakitovo. Yanko had been calling and asking when I’d be coming. “How can you work so much? Don’t they know that you need a break? We need to see you.” So, I went. Fortunately, I think I mentioned that I have a colleague from the next town over, so I caught a ride with her. It was a good visit. There’s never enough time to see all the people that you want to see, and there are always others who complain that you never stay long enough, but… it’s good to feel loved. It was a good break. Vratsa is a great town, but I love my Rhodope mountains.
Last week was exhausting. We had sessions all day at HUB on Monday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Program Staff and I traveled around each of the satellite sites to do Feedback and Permanent Site Placement Interviews. I had to go to two community meetings in two different satellites on Wednesday evening. I even interpreted for one of them. I then had another community meeting in a distant satellite on Thursday after working at the office all day. On Friday, I had to go to Sofia for the Permanent Site Placement meeting. Then, the driver raced back so that I could attend another community meeting. On Saturday, I hit my wall. We had more sessions during something we call “Clusters.” I was supposed to talk about Project Design and Management. I didn’t even know what I was talking about anymore – I was so tired. The Trainees all had a glazed-over look. They said that they were tired. The volunteer who was helping out saved the day. He did a good job. Otherwise, I think the session was almost a bust. We’re all just so tired. There’s only so much working from sun up to sundown that I can do.
After the session, I went out to lunch and did some shopping with some of the Trainees. I like hanging out with them in that atmosphere. I can’t always play the role of “Trainer” and feel so distant from them. I think they sometimes forget that I was once a volunteer myself. They’re a great group of kids, but the best compliment that I’ve gotten so far is the following: They thought that I was here for the next two years, but I informed some of them that my contract ends and I leave after training. Some of them were visibly disappointed. “Aw, that sucks,” said one. Makes me feel good.
Program Staff has been pretty good about letting me know that I’m doing a good job. I have an ongoing joke with the Program Assistant because we’ve just known each other for so long. He started out by kidding with me about how disappointed he was that I was given the job of Technical Trainer and how he didn’t like working with me. A few weeks later, he was saying in mixed company how I should apply for a job with Peace Corps somewhere as a Program Training Officer. I laughed about that and told him that I could neither believe one or the other. I must fall somewhere in the middle. Others have suggested that I start thinking about working for Peace Corps. I’m not really looking to do that at the moment, but… maybe someday.
I was on the news again. A local journalist wanted to cover one of the community meetings. It went well – except that I blanked out a couple times. She thought it was great, and I guess it was broadcast on some network. Some of the Trainees saw it, but I haven’t seen it. I joked with them and asked if I looked good. Apparently I did.
On Saturday, my friend Greg called to inform me that he’s going back to the states this week. I thought that he would be staying to the end of July. We even had tentative plans to travel together after my contract ends. It turns out that there was a bunch of misunderstandings with the school he works for, and he’s going back this week. I hopped on a train to Sofia and spent Sunday with him. I can’t believe he’s going. I’m going to miss him.
Angel was supposed to come help out with some of the sessions regarding Roma, but he’s going to Turkey for a month to study English. It sounds crazy, but it sounds like a lot of fun. I’m happy for him.
The Trainees find out their permanent sites, i.e. where they will be living for the next two years, on Thursday. I already know, and I’ve known since last Friday. They know that I know, and some of them have been teasing me about it – trying to figure out a way to get it out of me. I just hold it over their heads and relish the information I have. Knowledge is power.
And that’s about it. I’m still very busy, but I’m happy. I like my job. It can be a bit overwhelming at times and I certainly wish I had some more free time. But hey… at least I love my job.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

How to Keep a Technical Trainer Busy

I have been pretty busy lately. Yanko keeps asking me when I’ll be able to come to Rakitovo, and I just don’t know what to tell them. Even if my weekends are free, it’s a long trip. The job is going well, though. I still like the trainees, and we’re having a good time.
On Friday, the Youth Development trainees and I went to an orphanage in one of the training sites. I had arranged transportation for some of them from a couple of the sites, so I got up early and went to pick them up. The visit itself was great. The orphanage obviously had made sure that everything was in its place because they wanted to impress us. Even the stuffed animals on the beds were all in a specific layout. We got to see some of the kids, but only the young ones because the older ones were in school.
The trainees seemed to enjoy the visit, and they asked a lot of questions. We have another field trip to a home for kids with disabilities and to a boarding school for truants on Friday. Hopefully that will go as well and be just as interesting.
Over the past couple of days we have had HUB sessions. HUBs are basically a time for a large group of volunteers to get together and have general training sessions on a variety of topics. Since there are 62 volunteers, we decided to split them up and have our first HUB session with them over the course of two days. Two different groups came in, but the sessions were pretty much identical for both days. The topics were on Bulgarian history, key organizations in the country, the volunteer in development, PACA tools, and a dating panel. I was asked to assist with a couple of the sessions, and I did my best. The days were long, and I think today went better than yesterday. I hope the trainees liked it and found it useful.
Training is in full swing, and I am super busy. I can’t wait to get back into the office tomorrow so I can get some actual work done. I was glad to help out with HUB and interact with the trainees, but I feel like I lost some time because I have so many other things that I need to be doing.
There isn’t really anything as far as story-wise to share. I have snippets of information that I would like to convey, but that’s about it. I will talk about them here-on out.
I finally got paid for the first time since I’ve been here. That’s a relief. Drawing from my bank account in the states was lame for two reasons: 1. watching your savings dwindle sucks. 2. my bank charges me five dollars plus a currency conversion fee every time. So, it’s nice to have money.
I have been hanging out a bit with some Bulgarians that I’ve met here in Vratsa. They’re all men, so it’s been interesting. They told me that I have a nice smile and asked if my teeth are real. I appreciated the compliment.
One of my flat mates cooks good food, so I have been enjoying when she cooks for us. Other PC staff have come over and enjoyed as well, so we have good conversations over tasty food and wine.
I also eat out a lot. This is nice as well.
It’s interesting because one is constantly comparing the difference between Americans and Bulgarians. One of the comparisons that invariably comes up is direct vs. indirect communication. It’s pretty much understood that Bulgarians use a lot of indirect communication to try and convey a point. This is true for the most part. Of course, there are always the exceptions to the rule that leave you flabbergasted – like when someone tells you that you’ve been getting fatter or someone from staff informs you in no uncertain terms that a session you were involved in was flat out “boring.”
Training has been going well so far, but there are, of course, always ways to improve. The format is new for everyone, and some of the colleagues are new. It’s hard to fit everyone’s expectations. The meetings are endless. Lunch and after work aren’t even sacred. At the end of some days, we can’t even see straight. It’s stressful, but I’m liking it. The trainees are great, but we’re also up for evaluation. The tide could change at any moment.
Vratsa has been buzzing with a holiday celebration honoring one of the national heroes, Hristo Botev, who was killed nearby. During one of the sessions, sirens went off to commemorate those who died for Bulgarian freedom. It was oddly inspiring to see a room full of Americans and Bulgarians – standing in silence for a few minutes to commemorate the heroes of Bulgaria. I absolutely loved it.
My dress has come under scrutiny. I’ve been told that I need to make sure that I dress more professionally. I don’t have a problem with my dress. It’s just that they consider jeans appropriate. Flip-flops are not. I started thinking sneakers were allowed as well. Apparently not. It depends on what you’re doing/who you’re seeing that day. You get mixed signals. So now, all I have are high heels. I don’t have to wear them every day, but I’ll have to wear them often. That’s fine, ‘cause when I do dress professionally, I get a lot of compliments on my style.
During the HUBs, they gave the trainees a brochure with the staff pictures inside. They spelled my name wrong, and they didn’t have a current picture of me. So, they used a picture they have on file that they had taken of me four years ago – when I was getting my first Bulgarian ID. Problem: This picture is absolutely awful. I was told not to smile because Bulgarians don’t smile for professional documents. When I don’t smile, I look angry. So, of course, this picture of me makes me look like I’m a serial killer who will cut you if you cross me in a dark alley. At least the trainees find it amusing. I’m glad they’ve already gotten to hang around me a bit and see me before they saw this picture – otherwise they’d probably avoid me like the plague.
That’s about it. I work. I eat. I sleep. Sometimes I hang out in the amazing town of Vratsa. I’m loving it, but it’s stressful. More later.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bulgarian Valley Girl (Hitting the Ground – Running)

Sixty-two new trainees have joined us here in Bulgaria. They arrived on Wednesday, and I just got back from Initial Orientation with them in a beautiful mountain resort in the Rila Mountains. I’m pretty impressed with them already.
I went to the Sofia airport on Wednesday with a whole delegation of staff and currently serving PCVs to meet the new arrivals. Bulgarian National Television was there to film their arrival for the news, and I was asked to give an interview. After the interview, I waited to greet the new trainees and help make arrangements for their luggage. Although they were tired, most were smiling and enthusiastically greeting us at the airport. Sixty-five were supposed to show, but two did not come at the last minute. One of those was a Youth Development (YD) trainee – the program that I’m helping to facilitate – and we were a bit disappointed to see our program go down to 14 trainees.
We quickly got everyone organized and on the bus. Then I hopped into one of the nice, Peace Corps SUVs (It’s hard not to feel important when you’re riding around in one of those shiny vehicles), and we followed them out of Sofia and toward the Rila mountains. We arrived a bit before them and stood outside the hotel to greet them with bread, salt, honey, and carnations – a traditional, Bulgarian welcome. You could feel the excitement in the air.
So, the following days were filled with basic sessions on the overview of Peace Corps Bulgaria and what we expect of them during training; how they can be successful volunteers. The first morning, another YD trainee decided to go home. Now we are down to 13. I think this is the smallest YD group since its inception in 2003. I had a couple sessions that I needed to assist with and facilitate, and they seemed to go well. I was pretty nervous, but the trainees have been really understanding and optimistic thus far, and that helps. The best part was that I got to sit down with the YD Program Staff and have individual interviews with each one of them. This gave me the time to learn more about them and start making individual contacts with them. I’m hoping they’ll still like me at the end of PST. We’re overwhelming them with a bunch of different assignments.
On Saturday, they learned about their satellite sites (where three, four, or five of them will be living at a time with a Language Trainer), and we started talking about host families. It was a day full of emotion. That evening, we had an official dinner complete with traditional, Bulgarian dancing by a professional group and horo – in which almost everyone took part. Afterwards, we were allowed on the floor to do our own thing. A lot of the volunteers got up to do the “electric slide,” the “bunny hop,” and limbo. I was so impressed how their group worked together to form dance circles and lines – encouraging people to run down the middle and strut their stuff; including the Country Director and her family. I absolutely love how they’re not self-conscious, and they seem to really support and like each other thus far. They’re gung-ho about the language. They listen and take notes in each session. They laugh and ask questions. They’re super-interactive. They thank you for sharing your experience. They’re fun, and they’re absolute sweethearts. You honestly couldn’t ask for a much better beginning to Pre-Service Training. I’m praying that they will keep that optimistic spirit for the next nine weeks.
Yesterday, they met their host families here in Vratsa before spreading out in 15 different communities/satellite sites. Before their arrival, the families were ushered into a hall, and we discussed some of the cultural differences that might present themselves over this period of time. The other American Technical Trainer and I shared some stories about good times and misunderstandings within our host families and our host communities. They laughed and talked with us afterward. It made me miss my host family in Trud. After some administrative business, we waited for the trainees to arrive. The families were so excited, and you could feel the anticipation in the air.
Once the buses showed up, the excitement was palpable. The trainees started getting off the bus and, one by one, finding their host families. I grabbed a lot of great pictures of Americans and Bulgarians trying to communicate to each other. There were a lot of smiles and a lot of hugs. I was excited just to be a part of it – and I was excited for them. After a few cookies, soda, and administrative tasks, the trainees were off with their new host families. We stayed by to clean up, and then some of us went out for dinner and drinks – congratulating ourselves on a successful initial orientation and toasting the work to come.
As I mentioned before, I gave an interview for the Bulgarian National Television Network News. I didn’t see the report on the news, but there’s a link on the internet where you can see it. The video is on the right side of the screen.
I will do my best translation of the text and will comment at the end.

New Peace Corps Volunteers Among Us

Sixty-three American Volunteers from Peace Corps will work with children in orphanages, with toddlers, and also with cultural centers. This is the new addition to the current composition of Peace Corps already among us, who will dedicate two years of their lives to helping small and underdeveloped communities throughout the country. The volunteers will teach English; they will develop projects to make use of the potential and resources of the communities.

At Sofia airport today, a group of foreigners were distinct from everyone else. They are not in the country as either tourists or for business, but to assist the Bulgarian population. These are the volunteers of Peace Corps. One of the more experienced representatives of this organization, created by President Kennedy, is Apryl Gibson from Minnesota. She has already passed three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria, as she’s been working on a project for an educational center.

Apryl Gibson, Peace Corps Volunteer: “Before, there wasn’t an educational center in our region, I mean in Rakitovo, and now there is, and we were all happy about that – that people can go there to participate in meetings, to have English classes, to draw, to play, to be together, etc.”

She says that one of the most satisfying moments in her work as a teacher has been when the children would start to sing songs in English, or when they showed her that they had learned something on the computer. She humbly calls these “small” successes. She even asserts that, as a volunteer, she receives more than she gives.

Apryl Gibson, Peace Corps Volunteer: “This is a big plus for me. I can already dance horo. I speak another language. I have international experience.”

Even if, at the beginning, we’ve looked at Americans from Peace Corps with a bit of suspicion, our great curiosity towards foreigners prevails, and we are desirous to converse with them. The interest is mutual because the newcomers do not know much about Bulgaria, but they have already learned: “Greetings!” “A,B,C,D,E…”

So, the interview went fairly well. The reporter incorrectly stated that I was from Minnesota, but she caught her mistake and already apologized to me before I even saw the report. You don’t always get the full story with the media, and, if I had my druthers, I would change a few things.
These are fairly minor, however, and they’re not the reporter’s fault. I just would have made sure that it was clear that I wasn’t a teacher during my time as a volunteer, and my project wasn’t the educational center. I also would have changed my comment about some of my greatest “successes” as a volunteer. I was on the spot, and she was asking me how I knew that my work had effect. It was all I could think of at the moment. I do not feel that these are my most rewarding moments during my service, but it’s hard to pinpoint which ones are for a sound bite. I also would have stated that one of the advantages of serving here is the wealth of friends and contacts you make. It’s hard to be eloquent when you’re inexperienced and you have a camera and a microphone in your face.
Another thing that I would change is that I say “nali?” twice in pretty rapid succession. It’s not translated in the text, but it’s in the video. In this sense, it means something like, “right?” or “you know what I mean?” or “don’t you agree?” I think it makes me sound like a “valley girl” – one of the stereotypes we have of Californian girls sometimes. I feel like I should be popping some gum, twirling my hair, and saying “like, don’t ya know?” in the news report.
I know I’m being overly critical. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments from Bulgarian staff on the report, and my Bulgarian came across well. I’m really proud of myself, and I’m glad the reporter included the part about “receiving more than you give.” It’s not every day that I get featured on national news.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bulgarian Swimming Lesson

...ask not for whom the whistle blows... it blows for you.
I decided to check out the indoor pool today with one of my colleagues. I was having a grand old time in one of the lanes - splashing around, when I saw the guard on duty come up and stand on the platform behind me. He was a spry, old man. "Hey!" he whispered, "hey!" I turned around, and he said, "Not like that. Like this!" and he proceded to show me how to do a proper freestyle stroke. I decided that I would do it like he showed me just to humor him. A few minutes later, he whistled at me and came over. "That's good," he said, "now try it like this. You gotta get your head further in the water" and he showed me again. So again, I did my best to try and impress him. Later, he whistled again and hopped over to me. "That's good. Now, how about this?" He tried to show me some moves, and then he asked me, "Do you swim?" I nodded my head in negation, and he decided he'd had enough of me. He then wandered off to coach some kids. And that was the end of my swimming lesson. Later, he came out in a shirt that said "USA Adidas," and I smiled to myself.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hitting the Ground... Speed-Walking


Some of the views from my office.


Life has been crazy here over the past week. I’ve been enjoying myself, but it’s hard to find any free time during the week. The trainees (this is how I will be referring to the future Peace Corps Volunteers) will come in a couple of days, and it’s been nuts trying to get everything ready for them. Once they get here, we will be leaving Vratsa and going up to a resort village in the mountains to do Initial Orientation for five days or so. After that, they will come back to Vratsa to meet with their host families and go to their respective villages. Then we will hit the ground running. Training will be in full swing.
Last week, I had training for the first couple of days. I didn’t have to do much except interact in some of the sessions, but the chairs were hard, and all I could think about was how much work I had to get done back at my desk. The other days, while trying to wrap up some assignments for the Youth Development trainees, I also had to make some visits to some of the satellite sites around Vratsa. The Youth Development trainees will be spread around four local towns/villages, and I needed to go to these sites to meet with mayors, school directors, cultural center directors, directors of special institutions, etc. to get to know them and inform them that they would be visited by the trainees once they arrived. It was fun and interesting work. Everyone was very open and nice. It was just time-consuming. I’d be out at a satellite or two for most of the day, and then I’d come back to the HUB center in Vratsa and work on assignments. Then, I’d go eat and return home to sleep. Like I said, it’s been fun and interesting. My Bulgarian Language Trainer from Pre-Service Training when I was in Trud (Ani), is a Language Trainer at one of my satellites, so I got to hang out with her. In fact, I got stuck in the satellite because there wasn’t a train between noon and five p.m. These are just things to keep in mind and make life more complicated.
So far, there haven’t been any difficulties. It’s just a bunch of running around and coordinating with various people. And I’ve been spending a lot of time making contacts and getting complimented on my Bulgarian. My head is swollen because people just keep saying how well I speak Bulgarian. It comes and goes. Some days I feel like I speak it like a rock star. Other days, I find myself fumbling with the most basic sentences.
This weekend, I decided to hang out in Vratsa. Gokhan, the other American trainer, and I decided to check out the discotheque on Friday night. I was sitting on a bench in the center, waiting for him to show up, when I was approached by a Bulgarian who started asking me about what was going on at the local theater. For the most part, I can get away with a few basic sentences in Bulgarian without people catching onto the fact that I’m a foreigner. Anything more complicated, and people start asking me, “Why do you talk that way,” or “Are you Bulgarian?” So, this guy continued engaging me in conversation, and it soon came out that I’m from the states. He was so excited, ‘cause he said that he loves foreigners. Gokhan and I ended up going out with him and a friend to get a drink and then go to the local discotheque. He’s one of those people that just has a zest for life and can be a bit overbearing. He reminds me of a guy in my town who was that way. He insisted that we meet up again on Sunday.
On Saturday, I mostly stayed home. One of my colleagues, Katya, is a wonderful cook and enjoys cooking for others. She has treated Gokhan and I to many a wonderful meal already. So, we hand a long lunch with her on Saturday. Then, I was still tired, so I just hung out, read, and napped.
On Sunday, I decided that I would go climb up one of the nearby hills to visit a place called “the hija.” It didn’t take long to get there, so I admired the surroundings and the views of the town. Then I took a long walk along the river. The walk was beautiful, and I even passed some rock climbers. (Rock climbing is a huge past time here in Vratsa because the mountains are ideal for it.) I walked until I decided it was a good place to stop and just lounged in some shade by the river. Then, I walked back. Gokhan soon showed up for dinner, and then he and I went out to meet the boy we had met a couple days before. He showed up with a beautiful, red rose and informed me that it was for me. So we walked around, met up with some more friends, chatted, and went to coffee. Now he wants me to call him tonight when I get off work. I’m not so sure about this whole thing. His friends have indicated that he has a reputation of being quite the ladies’ man. And so far, I’m just not interested.
Otherwise, it’s been normal to be back here in Bulgaria. Like I said before, sometimes it feels like I never left. The only weird thing is that I’m not in Rakitovo. I love Vratsa, though. It’s a great town, and it’s definitely up there in my list of favorite towns of Bulgaria. The surroundings are beautiful, and the center is laid-out well. The people that we met who live in Vratsa don’t seem to crazy about it, but then who’s ever crazy about the place where they grew up? Unless you have actually lived in other places, it’s a “the grass is always greener syndrome.”
I miss Rakitovo. Part of me wishes that I could be there as well, but I don’t think I would like to go back to what I was doing when I was a volunteer. Those days are over. My job now is very different. It’s interesting hanging out in Rakitovo, though. I forgot to mention this last time. There are people who know that I’ve been back to the states, and they ask me how it is over there. Some have asked me how it is in England. The most interesting, however, is when kids come across me. Most of them just figure that they haven’t seen me in a while. They get excited when they see me and ask me when we’re going to play baseball. It’s the same when older people see me on some roads I used to take to the stadium. They smile, say hi, and then ask me when I’m going to be bringing the kids along with me.
In other news, I thought I’d share a bit of an ego-booster. I didn’t realize how competitive this job was. I figured that myself and maybe a couple other people had applied for it. Not so. There were actually quite a few candidates. It reminds me of how privileged I am to be here. It also makes me a bit nervous, and I start thinking, “Why me?” I just hope that I do the job well.
The weather has been a bit interesting. It’ll be hot, and then the sky will cloud over. We’ll have rain and some thunder and lightening for a while. I love it. I can’t take the constant heat. I think I’m catching a cold.
So, that’s it for now. I’ll probably remember some other things that I wanted to share and left out, but I’ll have to get to it another time. I don’t know when that will be exactly. I haven’t set up my laptop at home because of some electrical issues, so I don’t have access to internet at my apartment yet. Work is busy, and I don’t usually have time to sit down and write. It’s about to get even busier, so who knows? Until next time….

...at one of the satellite sites....

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Figuring It Out

I am really enjoying being back here in Bulgaria. In some ways, it feels like I never even left. I love my surroundings, and the pace of life fits me well. I think I mentioned before some of the things that I was dealing with when I was in the states. One of the things I mentioned was the "big fish, small bowl vs. little fish, big bowl" scenario. In America, I felt like a tiny, insignificant fish in a giant bowl. I'm timid. I'm mousy. Here, it's the opposite. I feel important, exotic, confident. I carry myself differently. I like who I am here. I just wish I could figure out how to continue to be that person/see myself this way in the states.
I’m still trying to figure out my job, however. The volunteers will be here in two weeks, and there is a lot to do to get ready for their arrival. One of the things I must do is put together their assignments for Pre-Service Training (PST). This is in coordination with the other three technical trainers that represent the other two programs. Peace Corps Bulgaria hosts three different groups of volunteers: Teaching English as a Foreign Language, Community and Organizational Development, and Youth Development. This time, 65 trainees of all these programs will be coming into the country at once. I’ll work with all of them, but I’ll be specifically targeting the Youth Development (YD) Volunteers, and there are about 15 of them.
It’s been a bit difficult over the past few days just figuring out what to do exactly. I spent a few days revising their assignments and making contacts in the local satellite sites (where they’ll be staying with host families), but then I kind of found myself listless. All of Bulgaria and the staff in Sofia has been on vacation since Friday, and the Training Coordinator here has been off for a few days. So, I’ve been trying to keep myself occupied. I helped the Language Coordinator out a bit with some of her work, but I have generally been feeling like I should be doing something more productive with my time – but not sure exactly what that is. I keep waiting for someone to rush in and say, “Apryl, where are we with…?” and I’ll shrug and respond, “Oh, I was supposed to do that?” But I just can’t think of what “that” is. I hate that feeling.
I spent the weekend in Rakitovo. We got a ride to Sofia on Friday, and one of my colleagues is actually from Batak – which is right next to Rakitovo. We picked up her car in Sofia and then continued on our way to the Rhodopes.
I had a great time. I stayed with Yanko and Ani. I got up early on Saturday morning to go on a hike with some people from a hiking group in Rakitovo. We were only supposed to go to a place in the mountains called “Pashino Burdo.” Once we got there, after a couple hours, they informed me that they wanted to continue up the mountain to a place called “Montaritsa” and over to “Tsigov Chark” to the Batak Reservoir. I informed them that I was anxious to get back to Rakitovo as I was staying there as a guest and felt it rude to be gone all day. They wouldn’t let me go back down on my own, however, and no one wanted to come back with me.
Here comes the awkward moment where I become “the person who’s being difficult.” I informed them that they didn’t tell me that the hike would last the whole day and these other locations. I was informed that we would go to Pashino Burdo and that’s it. I said, “I don’t want to ruin the trip for you, but…” And then I was interrupted by some other guy at the lodge we were at in Pashino Burdo. “You don’t want to ruin it? Then don’t. It’s that easy.” I was frustrated. They said they would try to make it quick. Uh-huh.
So we started on our way. It turned out that a group of hikers from Sofia were waiting for us at that lodge (“hija”) and would be coming with us. They were talking about trying to find a rock formation in the fog, but it was decided that we wouldn’t do that in the prospect of saving time. One of the women from our group came up and hugged me saying, “I’m gonna kill you.” I know she was joking, but I was upset. “Well, maybe if you had told me beforehand….” Had I known it was going to be an all-day thing, I wouldn’t have come in the first place.
We started hiking quickly and were soon wet because it was rainy and cold. Plus, up in the higher elevations, we could still find places with a meter and a half of snow. There was no path, so we had to rely on the expertise of the men in our group. My socks and shoes were soon soaked. Before long, we made it up to the top of the mountain and started our descent. Again, there was no path. The woman came up to me and said, “Don’t worry. In three hours we’ll be in Rakitovo.” Fighting my inner devilish tendencies, I reached up only to brush some dirt off her face.
Man, was it gorgeous. I didn’t have a pack and could therefore just worry about keeping my balance. I moved quickly. I would think to myself, “Oh, this is so beautiful. Wait! I’m angry! Don’t forget, Apryl, that you’re angry!” We stopped briefly for nourishment which included wine, bread, cheese, meat, and vafla. We made it down to the bottom, and there were these beautiful converging waterfalls and streams. I wished I’d had my camera. And, glory be, there was a car at the bottom – waiting to take me back to Rakitovo.
When I got back to Ani and Yanko’s, they were there to commiserate with me and offer me nourishment in the form of lentil soup. I changed into dry clothes and just relaxed. Later in the evening, I met up with my friends Angel and Rumen. Krum, of former fame, is also back in the picture. He would follow me around town and try to talk to me about how much he wants me to finance a project he’s working on. He obviously wanted to spend time with me, but I felt completely uncomfortable. Apparently he’s been making overtures to the new volunteer, Emily. He said he’s going to plant a palm tree at the Educational Center in her honor. My colleagues joke that Krum is having a hard time deciding between us.
On Sunday, I met a friend for coffee, and she made me lunch. She made a lettuce and cucumber salad and scrambled eggs with leutenitsa, and it just tasted so good to me. I’m loving the fresh food. I’m eating so much and yet I can feel the weight melting off. On a TMI (too much information) note, my bowels have changed as well. I then met Emily for coffee and later met Gabe (a missionary in Velingrad) at the stadium for a soccer match. It’s been good seeing people and catching up.
In the evening, I went back to Yanko’s to wait for my colleague to come and pick me up. Valia came over with her daughter, Janet. Janet had no problem sitting right up in my lap and giving me hugs. I thanked her for a card she sent me, and she asked, “How did you know it was from me?” Then she told me a fairy tale called, “The Three Golden Apples.” “Do you know any fairy tales?” she asked me, and I was reminded of the time I stumbled in my Bulgarian to tell her the story of “Snow White” a while back.
Janet was eager to get me to come home with her. “Do you want to come back to my house? We’re having potatoes!” I informed her that I very much wanted to, but that I couldn’t because I was getting ready to leave. She then said, “I have a secret I want to tell you.” I leaned in close. “If you come to my house, I’ll give you a lollipop.” “Oh, what temptations you offer!” I told her, and everyone laughed. My colleague soon showed up, and we went to Sofia for the night. The following morning, we got up early, picked up another colleague, and came back to Vratsa.
Since then, I’ve been feeling listless. I’ve been thinking maybe it would have been better if I had just put in to get those days off. It’s been nice here, though. Quiet. Beautiful. I’ve been sharing dinner, laughs, and interesting conversations with some of my fellow colleagues. A man at the local market asked me, "Why do you talk the way you do?" I just laugh and explain. You get to know people little by little. It’s good. I’m happy. I’m ready to have a clear course for work, however. Bulgaria gets back to work tomorrow. For now, Happy George’s Day and Happy Army Day.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Back in Bulgaria

Surprise! I've come back to Bulgaria. This time I'm actually working for the Peace Corps - not as a volunteer, but as a free agent. I'm not contracted by any government. I'm self-employed as a contractor, but my official title is "Technical Trainer." Crazy.
I'm going to help with the next PST (Pre-Service Training). Sixty-five volunteers will be coming through at once for all programs: Teaching English as a Foreign Language, Youth Development, and Community and Organizational Development. It's going to be chaos. Today is my second day on the job, and I'm starting to learn the ropes of the process and what I will be doing exactly.
I'm living in a town called Vratsa. It's fairly small as far as big cities go, but it's still a good size. It's definitely more populous than Rakitovo. Our training center will be at a local language school, and they recently renovated some rooms for our use. I have my own computer and work station. Plus, the view is of some high, beautiful mountains in the near distance. It's absolutely gorgeous. I've been to Vratsa twice before, and I love these mountains.
I live in an apartment with a couple other technical trainers. They are Bulgarian women, and I'm hoping that the living situation will work out well for all of us. The apartment is nice, but there's really only one real bed. One is a pull-out from a couch, and the one that I'm sleeping on at the moment doesn't have a real mattress and kind of just sags. I slept okay last night, but PC said that I would be getting a real mattress soon. We might have to find new apartments for some other people, however, as their living arrangements sound even worse than ours. I could go into some length about some of the oddities of our apartment, but I'll just share this: our landlady had covered just about all the bedroom windows with paper. We asked if we could take this down. She thought that odd as the sun apparently comes in strong, and she figured it would bug us. "What do you need to look at?" she asked. "You'll just be at work all day anyway." Still, we insisted. She was very nice about it. The thing that got me, however, is that the master bedroom has a view of the street and some ugly apartment buildings. The other "bedroom," which had never been used and is now my room, has a wonderful view of the mountains. I don't get it.
So far, it's been awesome. I got into Sofia on Friday, and my friend, Greg, met me at the airport. He took me to his place, and I informed him that I wanted to stay awake until nightfall. This was at about six o'clock. He suggested either going for a walk or playing a video game. I chose the latter. It turned out that this video game was kind of complicated, so he had to explain quite a few things to me. I could feel myself nodding off. At one point he asked, "Apryl, are you okay?" I opened my eyes. I had fallen asleep. I set down the controller and said, "I'm sorry. I just can't do this." I turned over on the couch and promptly fell asleep.
My luggage showed up in the middle of the night. As it was, I ran to catch the plane to Sofia in Munich. My bags didn't make it. The luggage service was so good about coming around and delivering my bags.
The next day, I went to Rakitovo. Oh man, was that awesome. Only four people knew that I was coming, and I'd only informed one of them. The other three were informed by Peace Corps. My former colleagues didn't know. I was walking up the street, and it was interesting. People were stopping and talking to me, and you could tell that some of them just thought they hadn't seen me in a while. "When are you coming to my house to visit?" Word spread quickly, and people thought their informants were lying to them. "How can Apryl be here? You must be confused." My colleagues were all so happy. Yanko couldn't stop hugging me. He actually cried and said, "There's a God." They all kept looking at me and touching me to make sure that I was real. Almost everyone commented that I was fatter. I love Bulgarians. There's no hop-scotching around the issue. You've gotten fatter. Some thought I had lost weight, but that's definitely not true.
I had a good day going around and showing up on people's doorsteps. Everyone was surprised, and all the reactions were good. I haven't drank so much liquid in a long time. Everyone insists that you come in, and they all have to offer you something. The hospitality is fabulous. Enyo insisted that I have a glass of wine with him. I downed it as I was late to my next meeting. In the evening, my colleagues and I got together to eat french fries and drink beer. The celebration went late into the night, and I faded, but it was good.
The next day, I went to Plovdiv and Trud to visit my host family. I walked into the living room, and my host dad was shocked. "What are you doing here? You came back." My sister was so happy that I was back, and she wouldn't let go of me. My host mom cried, but she always does that. She's so sentimental. Unfortunately, our meeting took place at the hospital in Plovdiv. She's in for some tests, and we're all really hoping that she's going to be okay. You can see the toll that it's taking on her family. They're so worried about her. Now that I know about it, I'm worried about her as well.
So anyway, I'm back in the BG. It's good to be back. I've been reminded of a couple of cultural things that were so sorely missed.
1. Buses. In general, there is assigned seating. Every seat is numbered, and you're given a number with your ticket. Depending on a variety of variables, which I don't fully understand myself (I think it has to do with the number of people riding the bus taken in relation to the number of people who just insist on riding up front), people choose to either follow or disregard these seating placements. I usually just head for the back and figure that no one who actually cares where they're sitting will get all the way to me. Of course, there are always those who disregard the seating and sit towards the front. They then get into disputes with those in whose seat they've occupied. These disputes usually end with the "rightful" owners having to find another seat. Meanwhile, both parties are muttering about how unreasonable the other is being, and I'm just sitting there wishing the bus would leave already.
2. Nothing gets done the same day. Okay, almost nothing. Today, the one other American technical trainer and I needed to get to the police to get registered. The man on duty was very nice, but we couldn't register because we needed signatures from our apartment lessors. Tomorrow. I went to re-activate my phone with M-Tel. It turns out that I'm still on contract. I wish I weren't still on contract with them, but I'm back online with my old number. Done. Yes! Then, we went to the bank to try and open a bank account. The bank didn't want to help us out because we weren't registered with the police for the address at which we're staying. Tomorrow? Getting things done in Bulgaria usually takes more than one day - especially if you're relying on the help of other institutions. Maybe that's just a foreigner thing, but I remember it from my service as well.
So, I'm back in the Bulge. Being home was nice, but I wasn't sure of what to do with myself. Instead of really integrating and getting back into things, I decided to apply for a job with the Peace Corps and interview to come back. I'll be here for the next three months. Home was great: Family, friends, French, and karate. There were also tough times. There were plenty of surprises - both good and bad. For now, I'm glad to be back. And I'm glad the blog is back. I hope that you're glad as well.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Честита Баба Марта!

Today is the first day of March and one of my favorite Bulgarian holidays - Baba Marta. I've mentioned this celebration before, and I'm really missing all the hoopla. I want to exchange red and white friendship bracelets, wish my friends health and happiness, and watch the skies for storks over the coming month. Just missing Bulgaria.
I talked to a couple of my Bulgarian girlfriends today, and they were telling me a bit about an anti-AIDS/HIV concert that they had. Their idea was funded by the Peace Corps, and they got about 100+ people to come out on a Saturday (and Valentine's Day no less) to be entertained and learn a bit about HIV and AIDS. I'm so incredibly proud of them. Today also marks a year since we did our first project together: a fundraiser for a sick classmate. I only wish that I had been there to take part this time.
In other news, I'm still trying to find my way. I'm counting on God to show me what's next.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

American Fifteen

Have you ever heard of the "Freshman 15?" It's typically where a new college student goes away to school and quickly ends up gaining 15 pounds. The reasons for this are varied but usually boil down to the new independence colliding head-on with a lifestyle change. Well, I have gained 15 pounds in quick succession since returning to the states. It's not that scary, considering the fact that I needed to put on weight. Instead of people taking in an eyeful of me and shrieking, "Good heavens! Why are you so thin?" they don't say anything at all. This is a plus. What is disconcerting is that I don't believe the quantity of food that I eat has changed. It's the quality. Meh.
I'm still trying to get my life together and in perspective. In reality, I've only been back to the states a little over two months, but it's hard to believe. It feels much longer. I started taking a couple of classes to try and give my life some structure but karate is probably about to end since I've injured myself twice and can't afford the classes. French is going all right, but it only serves to remind me that the only way I can really learn a language is to go and study in a country where that language is spoken... lived... breathed.
I took a Foreign Service Officers Test on Friday. It was interesting. The parts I thought were going to be difficult for me didn't seem all that difficult. The parts I thought I would breeze through seemed to give me a bit of trouble. I give God the credit for getting me to brush up on the information that I needed to. As I mentioned before, the selection process is competitive, and I'm cautiously optimistic. Even if I pass the written test, there's no guarantee that they will like my answers regarding my personality. I might not be asked back for an oral interview. It seems that others have more belief in me than I do in myself - especially my Grandma. I certainly know the power of positive thinking. My grandmother is already incredibly independent after recent knee surgery. I'm just a realist. Maybe that's the "Bulgarian" in me. I need a little more belief in myself.
Speaking of Bulgaria, there's a chance that I may be going back for a few months for some work. It's so uncertain, however, that there's really not much point in mentioning it. Here I go again with the pessimism. I would love to go back to Bulgaria and have something to do for a few months, but I'm too nervous about getting my hopes up.
And this is also the problem that I have when people ask me what's going on, or what the next step for me is. I feel like I'm pulled in a bunch of different directions, and I don't know which ones will pan out. I don't want to comment on ideas I have right now (that I'm not entirely sure about) and then be reminded of them while I'm still here doing "nothing." "Hey, what happened to that....? Weren't you going to....?" It feels like I'm all talk and no action. And I'm still trying to acquaint myself with the cultural "rules" (that I know don't really exist) here in this country. Like, how long can a grown woman live with her parents and be unemployed before she starts over-staying her welcome? What's the appropriate length of re-adjustment? Two months? Five months? Nine months? A year? "Okay, so after three months and six days, you should be comfortable in the states once again. You should go out and look for a job, and you should be acting like a responsible adult." I know there are no answers to these questions, and I'm not really looking for answers. I'm looking for some concrete sign that everything will be okay. The great thing is, I believe in a God who tells me that He wants the best for me, and that everything will be okay. It's just one of the luxuries of my life: too many choices.
I've been perusing Peace Corps blogs of Bulgaria. A lot of our blogs (including mine) are filled with a bunch of navel-gazing - a conglomeration of self-righteous opinions which we tell ourselves have some kind of real importance 'cause we were insightful enough to put them into witty musings. The thing is, I find myself critiquing other blogs. I say to myself, "What are you talking about? That's not the way I remember Bulgaria at all! Correct your grammar! That's not right...." When really, there is no "right." It's an opinion. Maybe I'm just jealous that I didn't come up with it myself. I even recently stumbled upon a blog of someone who recently received an invitation to serve with the Peace Corps in Bulgaria. He's so excited, he might as well have received an invitation to fly to the moon (which may seem mundane to some astronauts). My first reaction is to mock him. Bulgaria is awesome, but does he have any idea what he's getting into? Then I think, "You're such a b****! Let the boy be happy. It is exciting." The truth of it is, I'm jealous. I'd like to go back to the days when I received my invitation and was bouncing off the walls - there was just no camera there to capture my reaction. The internet has become a crazy place. So many feel compelled to share what they're thinking at any give moment - myself included. Why is that? But it can be good at times, too. It's nice to overhear my grandfather saying how proud he is of the things I did in Bulgaria, and the only reason he can speak with authority is because he's read my blog. There is one blog that I've been meaning to get to. The entries are even longer than mine, but I've been told it's one of the best PC Bulgaria blogs out there.
I was asked a bit about my experience at a luncheon with some church members yesterday. They all asked really good questions, but one of them surprised me: "Did you have a friend over there?" I've gotten this question a few times, but usually it's dripping with amusement, and it's generally taken to mean, "Did you meet anyone special over there?" I usually ask, "Like a boyfriend?" The answer is most often a twinkle in the eye. Then I answer accordingly. This woman clarified, "No... like a friend." She was asking if I had honestly made one friend in Bulgaria. I was flabbergasted. Three years? No friends? I think I would have shot myself. I certainly wouldn't have stayed for long. Two of the three goals of Peace Corps center around making friends. Who can live without friends? I must be careful, however. The more critical I get about the questions that are asked of me, the more I find myself asking the same questions I criticize others for. We all ask questions that seem perfectly reasonable to us but can come off a bit strange to the other person.
Friendship is something that I've thought a lot about over the past few days. While in Bulgaria, I always missed my friends over here in the states. And I always thought that the number of friends I have stateside are more numerous than the number of friends in Bulgaria. I would think, "I can't wait to get back, so that I can be with all my friends." Coming here, I've realized that a lot of my friends are actually on the other side of an ocean. I guess I over-calculated the number of friends I have in the states. Or it's that we're spread out, and it's hard to keep in touch - even in the same state. Bulgaria just felt so small and more cozy. I certainly had more cordial relationships with my acquaintances. Ah, small town life. I miss it. But I certainly treasure my friends here. I'm a lucky girl. I get to miss friends in different parts of the world.