Friday, July 22, 2011

Once Upon a Time....

This blog used to be something pretty special - not only to me, but to the internet. My blog used to come up pretty quickly in searches having to do with Peace Corps Bulgaria, Rakitovo, and even my name.
That time has passed now. Having not updated this blog in over a year and a half has done the trick. After all, I am no longer in Bulgaria and therefore cannot comment on my life there. The url is "aprylsbulgaria." If Apryl is no longer in Bulgaria, Apryl cannot continue to write in this blog.
So why am I writing now? Well, aside from being reminded of this “place” by receiving a random Skype call today from someone I met through this blog – someone I haven’t talked to in almost two years, I was in Bulgaria three weeks ago. I can never stay away for too long. I thought it was worthy of a post in this derelict account of a life that still feels very real to me.
So why was I in Bulgaria? I should give some background information first. I am currently attending graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. I work for the Harriman Institute on campus, which is affiliated with issues/questions/research in the former Soviet Union. The institute offers a certificate program which would be a lovely addition to my diploma. In order to fulfill one of the certificate requirements, I must speak two languages in the region. I already speak Bulgarian, so I am currently in Turkey to learn Turkish. Granted, Turkey was never part of the Soviet Union, but it’s still essential to the region. Many Central Asian republics have their roots in Turkic languages, and I suspect this may soon become a critical language. As I’ve told several people, I’m hoping to “connect the dots” eventually. It has more to do with optimistic faith in the future and a general love of languages than any real logic. Also, I knew that if I studied Turkish, I could fly in and out of Sofia and give myself at least a couple of weeks in Bulgaria. I’d be lying if I said this did not factor into my decision. So, I came to Istanbul on a fellowship from my university to learn Turkish, and I made a stop in Bulgaria. Caveat: Where possible, I will remind the reader of names and relationships, but I will not go out of my way to do this. This post is for me anyway – not you.
I was absorbed by Bulgaria as soon as I landed. It all flooded back to me in a rush, and it was like I hadn’t left the airport that day I worried that I’d be fined and detained for overstaying my visa. (I think I even saw the seat in the terminal where I made relieved calls to my colleagues to inform them that, yes, I’d be leaving the country – but that could just be in my head.) Of course, it couldn’t all be easy. Since I got in late, I had to spend my first night at a hostel in Sofia. I was hungry and had to ask the people hanging out there to give me some advice on where to go. (Thank goodness for my ability to still speak Bulgarian well enough to impress male twenty-somethings.) Once I got out in the city though, I couldn’t get my bearings. I ended up eating chips and walking around while things came back to me in pieces. Granted, Sofia has changed, but it hasn’t changed much. Of course, Sofia was never completely familiar to me even when I was living in Bulgaria. At one point, near the presidential palace, I was walking by a bar with loud music, half-naked women dancing on tables, and Azis laughing in a corner. “Ah, yes,” I thought, “I’m back in Bulgaria.”
Of course, I booked it to Rakitovo as soon as I could the next morning. The ride there was nostalgic – with female strangers oversharing personal information in a crowded cabin on a train towards the Black Sea followed by the slow “I-think-I-can” chugging through the mountains on my “toy-sized” train to the Rhodopes. I stopped in Velingrad to try and reactivate my phone, but I ended up having to buy a new phone number since I hadn’t used it in over a year. This was unfortunate as several phone numbers of friends and colleagues were on the phone book of the old card. (And I made my mother scour the house for it and mail it to me in New York before I left.) It was a trifle, however. I would just put the old card in my phone to look up the number and then use the new card to call it.
I called Angel (my former counterpart) from Velingrad and had him meet me at the bus stop in Rakitovo. When I arrived, he picked me up with a huge hug and informed me that there was a huge wedding celebration happening in the Roma mahala (neighborhood). It would have been more surprising to hear that there wasn’t a wedding. Some things never change. After a cup of coffee and a couple games of pool, we made our way up to the mahala.
The wedding was right at the entrance to the neighborhood, and Angel and I had to walk through the crowd with all my bags. I felt someone latch onto me out of nowhere and had to pull away to see a beautiful and grown-up Reneta.
We wove through the revelers and made our way to her home – where Maria was preparing dinner. As soon as we got in the door, the sisters began arguing with each other. As the yelling was in Romani, I had a hard time understanding what the problem was. Angel looked at me apologetically and tried to calm the girls down. Reneta kept apologizing to me in English in-between shouts at Maria. Maria hadn’t even glanced my way. It turned out the argument was about how long Reneta had been away at the wedding. Maria had expected her earlier and couldn’t reach her by phone. I got agitated and made my way over to Maria. “Is this why you can’t say ‘hi’ to me after not having seen me in almost two years?” She already had tears in her eyes and hugged me reluctantly. She later apologized.
Maria had returned from the states the week before. She was an exchange student and completed her junior year there. Her return has been hard not only on her, but on those who love her. Of course, we all knew it would be coming, and it’s to be expected. She and her sister were arguing over something trivial that betrayed deeper hurts and frustrations. At one point, Maria said, “See? This is why I want to go back.” My heart went out to her. I understand her pain. Reneta will leave for the states herself in a month to complete her junior year. She promises not to change, but I’ve told her I know better. To be resistant to change would mean being resistant to the experience. It would be pointless to go otherwise.
Yanko (my former boss) soon showed up and began chatting with me happily. Ani (Yanko’s wife and my former colleague) returned late from a seminar and hid from me – only to laugh as she jumped out at me from behind a wall. Valia (Ani’s sister and my former colleague) showed up the next morning, and I did the same to her. She immediately asked me about my love life. I congratulated her for getting right to the point and accepted a gift she’d made for my mother.
The reunion was sweet, but honestly it was more satisfying when I surprised them two years ago. The happy surprise and continuing disbelief (especially by Yanko) was exceedingly gratifying. This time, between a couple of Skype chats, Facebook messages, e-mails, and the effectiveness of word-of-mouth in a small town, few people were surprised by my visit.
In a town where few Americans come to live, I felt like a rock-star during my service. Most people knew me, and I took on a skin of tremendous confidence in Bulgaria. Still, I’m a self-conscious person at heart. I did not know how people would react when I came back. Two years is a long time – especially for prepubescents, and that’s the demographic I targeted during my service. There was a group of kids that used to spot me from a distance and run up to hug me and escort me through part of the mahala. I figured they’d be too big for that now. I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, they had grown, but they weren’t too big to still give me hugs. Others were more reserved. I think it had more to do with them than me. They had changed in ways that they weren’t willing to share with me, and I respected that by smiling when we made eye contact and keeping my distance. Of course, some of this was due to my own aversion to awkwardness as well. Still, some surprised me by hugging me and engaging in long periods of hand-holding as they asked about where I was living, what I was doing, whether or not I was married, and anything else they could think of. I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to while I was there, but now it means I’ll have to take the time to see them on my way back to the states.
I had a great time. I danced the horo at the aforementioned wedding. I got sunburned on a long walk through the mountains surrounding Rakitovo with Yanko. I took my colleagues out for french fries and beer. I met old friends for coffee. I ran into a guy I used to date and fended off his advances. (More on that in a bit.) I hung out in my old office. I showed up at people’s houses and allowed them to feed me. With Angel, in Velingrad, I got caught in the rain during a walk tempered with extremely enlightening conversation. I played baseball with kids that were pestering me every day to break out the bat, balls, and gloves. I walked through the town in the cool of the evening right after the sun hides behind the mountains and the evening light is just perfect, and I revisited old haunts and memories. The nostalgia hit me hard in unexpected waves and rendered me powerless. I found it hard to leave.
Yanko wondered what must be going on in my head – what it was like to be in Rakitovo two days after having been in New York City. Honestly, it didn’t make an impression on me. I’m used to living in both places. My colleagues say it’s because I’m adaptable. Perhaps... although, I did experience some frustration when I tried to take a day-trip to Sofia.
Yanko informed me that the seven a.m. bus from Velingrad to Sofia was still running. It’s a bus at a time that, for many reasons, means it’s easier to just wait for it on the side of the road outside a tiny town in the Rakitovo municipality called Kostandovo. So, I got up in the wee hours of the morning to shiver (it was uncharacteristically cold the week I was in Bulgaria and, packing light, I didn’t bring a jacket) by the side of the road and wait for a bus that wasn’t coming. Funny thing is, I wasn’t alone. Someone else was waiting for the same bus. Finally, he said, “Looks like it isn’t coming.”
“Why is that?”
He shrugged.
A half hour after I’d gotten off the local bus, I boarded the same one and headed back to Rakitovo. I grabbed some breakfast and sat out at a café where I knew my colleagues would pass by and see me. It was so cold. I caught a glimpse of a guy I used to date and hid behind my book – hoping he wouldn’t see me. My colleagues showed up, called the bus company for me and reserved me a ticket for an afternoon bus, and took me up to the office – where they lit the stove so I could get warm… in the final days of June. I was sullen.
I couldn’t explain my mood. Yes, I had plans in Sofia, but they could be easily shuffled. I had experienced disappointment like this hundreds of times during my service. I was still indignant. I was frustrated that things weren’t working in the country to facilitate my plans. I was angry that this was something about Bulgaria that hadn’t changed. Privatization and competition between transportation services had changed bus schedules and reduced the convenience of the consumer. The prevalence of taxis that run between Velingrad and Rakitovo (faster and for the same price as the bus) has reduced the number of trips the bus takes – along with the size of the bus. A conflict between the bus station in Velingrad and bus operators to Rakitovo means that the bus now parks at the train station. Competition between bus operators of the Sofia-Velingrad line means that travel has become less expensive – but it’s also become more uncomfortable and more inconvenient. The consumer isn’t actually better off. I was angry.
Back to the play-by-play. I went to Sofia for the day to see my colleagues from Peace Corps. I met up with volunteers I used to train who were about to close their service. (Crazy! Has so much time passed?) I wandered around the office to see who I could see. Dani (Language Coordinator) gave me some Turkish language materials and the rest of the staff gave me beautiful smiles and big hugs. Zhana and Ivan (Youth Development Program Managers) took me out for food and a beer. I met up with Aleks (administrative colleague) for dinner and crashed at her flat for the night. It was fantastic. I got up early the next morning and hurried back to Rakitovo. It’s hard to stay away for long.
I promised that I would share a story regarding a guy I used to date. (I’m not sharing because he’s worthy of even a paragraph. I’m sharing because I am flattered by most male attention, and I think it’s interesting. There’s a reason lots of blogs and articles are devoted to dating and flirting. “Interesting” is a relative term of course, but it’s my blog. This is for posterity.) His name is Tsanko. He was the guy I hid from behind my book on that morning I wanted to go to Sofia. So why was I hiding from Tsanko? He and I were never a good fit, but he was cute and persistent. He tried to start things up again the last time I was in Bulgaria – living in Vratsa – and I figured he’d pursue me this time if he got the chance. I reasoned that it was just easier to avoid him entirely.
I ran into him unexpectedly at a café I didn’t think he patronized. My colleagues were sitting at a table right next to him and some of his colleagues. I tried to avoid his eyes, but he disarmed me with a smile. There was nothing to do but return the expression. Later that evening, I was walking around the town and allowing the nostalgia to wash me in waves, when I decided to walk past the house where I used to live. I came across a kitty cat. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to get the cat to come to me when a man appeared from the shadows. It took me a second to realize it was Tsanko.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m tormenting a cat.”
“Ahh… a cat? How are you?”
I couldn’t figure out how he’d appeared randomly out of nowhere. I rarely just ran into Tsanko when I was living in Bulgaria. He mentioned that he was on his way to a café and that I should join him at some point.
“My car’s right here.”
I was starting to put the pieces together. We stood there awkwardly.
“Say something,” he finally said.
I shared that I was just visiting on my way to Istanbul to learn Turkish.
“Is your phone number the same?” he inquired.
No, it wasn’t. And my phone wasn’t on me, so I couldn’t give him my new number. And I really should be going.
“Oh, I thought you were staying here.” He gestured to the house where I used to live.
*Click.* It finally clicked. He appeared out of nowhere. His car was parked out in front of the place I used to live. He thought I was still staying there. He’d been waiting for me. How long had he been waiting for me? I shuddered a bit.
“Here. I’ll give you mine, and you send me a text when you get back to where you’re staying.” He found an old cigarette carton and I found a pen. He wrote down his number.
I got home and debated whether or not I should text him. Tsanko is harmless, but his stalkerish tendencies made me uneasy. It reminded me of Krum – the off kilter guy who used to follow me home and promise to build me a house… where we both could live. It was a little odd. I finally gave in and texted him. I knew he was with friends at a café, and I could use a little suspense to make the evening more interesting. Let me reiterate that I knew Tsanko was harmless. I decided to let him know I was seeing someone in the states for good measure.
I went to the café to join Tsanko and three of his friends – also named Tsanko. The waitress – a girl just finishing high school – was all over the Tsanko I used to date – who’s a year younger than me. I breathed easier. I knew he liked getting her attention in front of me, and I hoped he actually liked her. Maybe the evening would be even more benign than I hoped. After getting kicked out of the café, Tsanko insisted on giving me a ride home. As soon as I was in the car, he began touching my leg.
“I have a boyfriend in the states.” I pushed his hand away.
“Where are the states? That’s far away.”
“The waitress seemed to really like you.”
“So?”
“I think you should pursue something with her.”
He thought about this for a moment. “Maybe… but the heart wants what the heart wants.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “Is that what you were thinking with? I thought it was a different organ.”
Tsanko laughed as I hopped out of his car.
I had made a plan to go visit my host family a few days before leaving for Turkey. Problem was, I just couldn’t seem to tell Ani, Yanko, and the kids. I knew that I wouldn’t be coming back to Rakitovo, and I didn’t know how to leave. It was really strange. It was as if I were paralyzed into inaction. My sister finally called to ask, “Where are you? I’ve been expecting your call. Are you coming? Have you forgotten me?” I finally jumped up and pulled myself together. I told a surprised Yanko and Ani that I was leaving. I would see them again in two months. I ran into Angel and had him wait with me for a friend who would drive me to Pazardjik. As he left, he picked me up again in another huge hug.
I made it to Plovdiv and saw my sister’s new apartment. She moved in with her boyfriend, and they had remodeled the place. It was beautiful. Vili says she’s ready to start having babies. It certainly looks that way. We had dinner at her place and then met up for dessert and drinks with three of her girlfriends. I slept for hours and hours before we made our way to Trud to visit my host mom and dad. They took us to Hissar to fill up on a particular type of water. Hissar is famous for its history and variety of mineral waters. When we came back, Vili gave me a haircut, and my host parents made my favorite dish: pulneni chuski (stuffed peppers with rice). We crashed early because the three of them had to get up the next morning for a two-day excursion with their church. I got up with them to say good-bye. My host mom insisted I stay the night there if I wanted and that I help myself to whatever I wanted in the fridge. I adore my host family.
I decided to go to Sofia to hang out with some volunteers. One of them was getting a tattoo, and the others were coming along for moral support. I went along for the ride. Before that, however, I needed to arrange my travel to Istanbul. I needed to be there in less than 48 hours, and I still hadn’t made definite plans. I bought a ticket that would get me to the city three hours before my first class started. Then I bought a ticket to Sofia.
It was good to hang out with volunteers again and hear about what they’ve been up to. So little has changed, and Peace Corps is closing the program in less than two years. It’s mind-boggling. We then went to Dolna Banya hang out for the night.
It was with a little trepidation that I returned to Dolna Banya. I used to date a volunteer there (I dated a lot in Peace Corps), and I spent many a weekend in the town. Cognizant of the nostalgia that crippled me in Rakitovo, I was worried something similar might happen in Dolna Banya. My fears were unfounded, however. While the current volunteer lives right next door to where my ex used to live, and their apartments must have had the same interior designer, I didn’t give it much thought. And I didn’t see the town really at all. We hung out for the evening, and then I got up the next day and got on a train back to Trud.
My plan was to get back to my host family’s house, take a shower, take a nap, and then catch the last method of transport to Plovdiv so I could catch my overnight bus to Istanbul. As soon as I got to the house, I realized that I’d have to ditch my plan. I saw my host sister-in-law (I know it’s a weird term, but just go with me.) doing laundry through the basement window. Uh-oh. She, my host brother, and their daughter had been at the beach, and I wasn’t expecting them. I called out to her and made chit-chat. My host brother came to the door and surprised me by greeting me warmly.
My host brother and I have never really found common ground. In fact, I forget that I even have a host brother. He wasn’t living at the house when I was living with the family. My few encounters with him were touch-and-go. There were times when he took Vili and I out, and I thought he was a bit aloof, but I figured that was normal. Then there came the day that he found out I’d be working with Roma.
When I found out what where I’d be living and what I’d be doing in Bulgaria, I was ecstatic. I thought the Roma would be fascinating. It would be a challenging group to work with, but I knew it would be intensely enlightening and rewarding. I was a bit concerned about telling my host family, however. The Roma face intense discrimination in Bulgaria, and I loved my host family to pieces. I was afraid to find out that they might be bigots. I didn’t want to have that conversation – especially not a couple months into my service with a family I adored. While it was apparent that my host family was not as open-minded as some, they did not give me a hard time. They have never had anything bad to say and generally avoid the topic in my presence.
My host brother was a different story. On one of his visits to the house, he regaled me with comments on how terrible Roma are, and he did not mince words. I didn’t have enough language or interest to defend a group of people I hadn’t yet met, but I considered my host brother brutish and uncouth. I generally tried to avoid him. I went to his wedding when his family invited me, and that was a lovely affair. I saw him a few times on visits to my host family, but our interactions were limited. His wife seemed nice enough, but we never really clicked.
Since his daughter was born, they’ve been living with his parents. They’re currently in the process of building a home, and my host parents are looking forward to having their house back to themselves again. In the meantime, as I mentioned before, Vili has moved out. Vili is estranged from her brother, and they do not talk. She adores his daughter, and I think she has a cordial relationship with her sister-in-law, but she does not talk to her brother. I think she sees a lot of the same characteristics I see in him, but for different reasons.
So I’m uncomfortable around my host brother and his family. I didn’t want to go back into the house without Vili and my host parents, but there was nothing I could do. I made small talk with the host brother and mentioned that I’d be leaving soon for Istanbul so I could go study Turkish. At first he said, “Wow. You’re going to know a lot of languages.” After a few moments of silence, however, when the conversation had already died (I was walking to my room, and he was rummaging in the fridge), he added, “Turkish is a ‘gaden’ language.” I froze. Yep, I was pretty certain I didn’t like him. A million thoughts raced in my head. There’s no such thing as a “gaden” language. Language is just language. I can see someone calling a language beautiful, but “gaden” was unacceptable. I just replied, “Well, I’ve never studied Turkish, so we’ll see.” And then I exited as quickly as possible.
He may be one of my least favorite people, but his daughter is a gem. She shied away from me at first, but then she kept coming to talk to me in Vili’s room. My only complaint was that she kept getting into Vili’s stuff. She brought in a pad of paper and some markers. We colored together. It was a good way to pass time. I wanted to make a hasty exit, and I knew I still needed to go somewhere to use the internet, so I left two hours earlier than I was planning and headed for a local café. Surprisingly, I ran into Vili and her parents – returning from their trip. Vili eventually met me at the café and then took me to her apartment in Plovdiv – where her boyfriend greeted me warmly. She fed me and then took me to the bus station so I could catch my bus for Istanbul and not have to wait at the station for hours. Have I mentioned I adore my host sister?
I caught an overnight bus to Istanbul and tried to sleep along the way. I was awakened at the Bulgarian border so I could get my passport stamped. I was tired and disheveled. Basically, I was a hot mess. Of course, the most handsome Bulgarian I have seen in my life was working the border that night. As I was the last one in line with the foreigners (and looking like a hot, American mess), he casually strolled over and reached out for my passport. I avoided his eyes and handed it to him. He glanced at the passport, glanced at me, smirked, and handed it back. Then he went back to his post. The bus operator figured I was done and tried to wave me through the border.
“No,” said the guard. “She has to get a stamp first.”
There was absolutely no reason for him to look at my passport. He just felt like asserting his authority. It’s too bad he was so good-looking. I wanted to give him a quick “What was the point of that?” look/glare. Completely out of it, I thought I was in Turkey. I started to pull a $20 out of my wallet to pay for a visa to get in.
“There’s no fee,” said the agent.
“I have to pay for a visa,” I stated lamely.
“But you’re still in Bulgaria,” the agent smirked. “You’ll be in Turkey in five minutes.”
“Well, I’m not awake yet.” I retorted with a smile.
I cursed myself for not pulling it together to speak Bulgarian. It’s how I attempt to impress and let handsome people like him know that they can’t get the best of me. Too late. I got my passport stamped, and then I crossed into Turkey.

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