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.