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.

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