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


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....