Thursday, December 13, 2012

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Коледа

I got hit on.  Finally.
Christmas has come to Plovdiv, and there are lights everywhere.  Some decorations are pretty, and some are glowing orbs of ugly.  To be fair, most are in good taste.  There's even a small Christkindlmarkt in the center. I was admiring some miniature (severely overpriced) Christmas trees along the main boulevard.  One of our volunteer coordinators had the idea to ask the municipality to buy these trees for the local technical high schools.  Then the schools - for fun and as a kind of advertisement - would decorate their tree according to the specialization of their school.  So the automotive school attached toy cars to their tree.  The fashion design school turned their tree into a doll in a dress.  The school that deals with electronics put circuit boards and pipes on their tree.  And the food technology school put carrots and plastic plates with pictures on their tree.  You get the idea.
I was admiring the twelve trees when a guy came up and said he would sell me one for cheap.  He asked me what it would take to ask a girl like me out without seeming too impertinent.  I teased him that us Californian like flowers.  It's almost too bad that I convinced him to "make like a tree" (and leave, get it?) because he was cute!  Oh well.
Work has started to get a little bit better.  I was finally able to sit down with the head of the organization, aka my boss, and get her personal attention.  I shared with her some of the ideas that had been marinating in my head, and she liked them.  And suddenly I have four or five different projects with different levels of priority to work on.  It feels good to be busy, but more so to feel as though you're adding value.
The weekend before last, the volunteers at my organization organized an educational initiative for December 1st (World AIDS Day).  Volunteers gave out red ribbons and hugs, had pedestrians attempt to properly place a condom on a plastic model, engaged passersby in Jeopardy!-like games, passed out informational pamphlets, and spontaneously "attacked" other volunteers with HIV and AIDS until the "Condom Militia" came and "saved" them.  It was all quite festive.  Later that evening, I joined some of the volunteers for local outreach at a cafe.  Then I went with them to a discotheque for a charity campaign to collect funds for a boy who needs constant physical therapy.  It was a busy day.
December 5th is the UN-designated International Volunteer Day, but we celebrated the Sunday before.  Again, it was a festive program with games, prizes, music, dancing, and, most importantly, cake.  We were also celebrating 13 years of NAVA - the organization I work with, so it was celebratory all around.
I still get together frequently with my favorite people in Plovdiv:  Angel and Vili.  My organization is hosting a Peace Corps training, and there is an American Christmas/birthday party this weekend, so it will be a busy yet fun one. 
I'm going to The Netherlands next week to visit a dear friend and her family.  I'm so looking forward to it.  It'll be nice to get away for a bit.
I've also met a cute Hungarian.  Good looking people, rewarding work, upcoming vacations, time with friends, and a festive mood in the air.  So many reasons to be jolly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thought vs. Reality

I finally made it to Rakitovo a few weeks back. 
The weather was gorgeous, but no one was out.  It seems to have gotten even quieter there somehow.  I stayed with Baba Tsvetka in the house adjacent to where I used to live.  My former landlady, Margarita, was out of town.  I had planned to stay in my old place anyway (as she had invited me regardless of her presence there) or in the hotel.  Someone appears to live in the hotel room on the first floor (that's where I stayed when I visited for the very first time), but it doesn't appear to be in operation any longer.  I don't know who would stay there anyway - other than me in a pinch.
I was properly spoiled by Baba Tsvetka and also made the rounds to a few places.  I saw Yanko and Ani.  Maria had her 19th birthday, and I stopped by her new house to give her a present.  I saw Reneta.  Angel and I went out and checked on his horses in a local field.  And I mostly just ran into people if they happened to be out.  But, like I said, very few people were out.
The next weekend, I went to Varna with a group of our volunteers.  It was actually a lot of fun, and I felt like I got the chance to get to know some of them better - especially since we were all packed in a van for the six-hour ride there and back.
The following weekend, I went to a small village in the Rhodopes to celebrate Thanksgiving with 10 other Peace Corps Volunteers and some Bulgarians.  The weather was gorgeous, so we took an awesome hike through the hills nearby.  We played games.  We cooked and ate a lot of traditional and non-traditional Thanksgiving food.  (My cooking skills relegated me to dish duty.)  We went out at looked at thousands of stars.  We relaxed and had a really great time.  I felt grateful to be invited - especially since I'm not part of their contingent, and half of them didn't know me.  That's hospitality for you.  The volunteers in my region have been great about including me.
This past weekend, I stayed in Plovdiv.  I went out and saw some friends.  I cleaned my apartment.  I turned in some applications.  It was a much-needed break.
I have been going to a lot of shows with Vili recently, which is amazing.  We went to a jazz concert.  We went to see a modern version of a Bulgarian play called "Bai Ganyo."  (To my shame, I barely understood a word of it.  My lame excuse is that some of the actors didn't project well.  Also, they spoke too quickly in dialect.)  We went and saw a Bulgarian musical featuring the music of Queen - which was pretty awesome.
I've also been to see some movies:  Looper and Cloud Atlas.  Like I said in my last post, it is certainly different in the city.
For about a week, I was busy with a campaign to help a friend of mine.  I referenced him in my last post.  He is still in critical condition in the hospital, and he is not well enough to insert the shunt.  I'm praying for him - as I know are many others.  I'm still in awe about how quickly the campaign came together.  I had brainstormed another idea with a volunteer, and she was excited and on board.  It really was a great idea, and I was looking forward to collaborating with one of the volunteers.  We'll just have to keep it in mind for something else. 
Work is... well, I have mixed feelings about work.  I'm generally busy, which is good.  As my program manager at Peace Corps seems to enjoy saying, "This is the most important thing."  I find myself constantly wishing I were better... smarter.  But I bet a lot of people wish that about themselves.
I've started a love affair with the radiator in my apartment.  I have a fairly large living room that doubles as my bedroom.  This thing can heat - as long as I close the doors to my hallway and kitchen.  If I go in my kitchen, I can feel the temperature drop by several degrees.  But I keep the window open in there, so that's not surprising.  I wish my bathroom had a window, but I digress.
I'm being extorted by a baba in my building.  (I kid.) I've taken to visiting an 84-year-old woman about two-three times a week.  She suffers from dementia, and she believes that there is no one around to care for her.  (The neighbors tell me a son comes in and checks on her about once a week.)  She has taken to keeping her door propped open in the mornings, and when she hears someone coming, she cries, "Help!"  She then complains of chest pain.  I try to visit not because I'm a good person.  I actually find myself getting rather impatient with her if she's downcast.  I visit because this is someone's grandmother.  (In another life, this could be my grandmother.  But I've been blessed with two very healthy grandmothers.)  I visit because one day I might be 84 years old.  And if I live that long, God forbid that I think I'm all alone in this world.  Because dementia makes it true.

Monday, November 19, 2012


I have a lot to update this blog with, but we will get to that... eventually.

For now, my friend Ivan was in a terrible car accident in Rakitovo.  He's been in the hospital in Plovdiv for a few weeks, and now doctors say he needs a shunt to regulate the intracranial pressure in his brain.  The shunt costs about $2800 and is not covered by insurance.  Both of his parents are unemployed.  For the past few days, at the request of his father, I have been doing an online campaign to try and help Ivan get the shunt.  As of this post, we are a little over $200 from reaching our goal.  If you would like to learn more about ways you can help (there are other ways besides donating), please click here.

Thank you in advance for your prayers and warm wishes for Ivan and his family.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

It's Different in the City

My clothes smell of smoke.  The weather has turned cold, and I'm wearing the same heat-retaining underclothes I wore to a bar last night.  Technically, Bulgarians are no longer allowed to smoke indoors - being in the EU and all - but I don't know what the rule is for bars.  Wikipedia tells me it's not allowed as of June of this year.  But Bulgaria is not a country that's quick to play by the rules - especially when smoking is a cultural norm.
I was out last night with a couple of volunteers from my B-18 contingent who happened to be visiting.  One of them, like me, kept a pretty comprehensive blog during his time here.  He said that he felt compelled to "get it out there."  Even if no one read it, "it made the experience real."  I know exactly what he meant.

I've taken on an English student.  One of the volunteers will be going to Cyprus in about a month for a short training.  We're going to be meeting twice a week so he can practice his English.  Others have mentioned interest in speaking English with me, and I'm wondering how long it will be before I get back into having classes.  I'm reluctant because it's not my favorite thing to do.  At the same time, I feel guilty denying people who want to learn.  English opens a lot of doors.
I spent a few nights out with Vili this week.  We went to the mall to see a movie.  I also convinced her to come to a jazz concert with me.  It was long, but it was awesome.  Eastern Europeans rocking jazz....  I was impressed.
I saw Angel briefly.  He had run into some mutual friends of ours from Rakitovo, and I caught up with them in the center.  They had not expected to see me, and there were crushing hugs all around and promises to meet up soon.  After they left, I learned that Angel was comforting our mutual friend, Vesco.  Vesco, who used to work with Future Foundation in Rakitovo, is in Plovdiv because his son is here in the hospital.  His son was in a terrible car accident, and it's unclear just how badly he's doing.  Vesco wasn't making any sense when he was talking to me, and I struggled to respond.  I know he was trying to say how good it was to have me back in Bulgaria, but who can be coherent when their son is touch-and-go in a hospital?  All I could say was that I would pray for him.  Vesco thanked me and said my prayers would work because my spirit is "pure."  God knows this isn't true, but I know He hears and answers prayers regardless.  Thank you, Lord.
The U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria, Marcie Ries, happened to be in Plovdiv on Friday and decided that she would like to meet with Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in the region.  She was originally scheduled to come to my organization, and my colleagues were understandably excited.  At the last minute, plans changed, and we moved to a cafe just down the street.  Her husband (a former U.S. Ambassador to Greece), mother, and assistant were in tow, and we were five PCVs.  It was a relaxed and informal conversation about our impressions of Bulgaria.  I was greatly impressed that she took that time with us, especially since she's only been here about as long as I have - a month.  I've never heard of a U.S. Ambassador coming to hang out with PCVs just because.  So cool.
As we were saying our goodbyes, her mother suggested that I come and visit them in Sofia.  She seemed sincere.  I stuttered.  How do you just show up as a guest at the Ambassador's residence?
I offered Ms. Ries a bag filled with goodies from my organization.  I expressed to her my colleagues' disappointment that they hadn't been able to meet her.
"How long are you here? I'll come back," she said.  Again, it seemed genuine.  So cool.  


Wednesday, October 24, 2012


I’ve forgotten how Bulgaria can do this to me.  You would think, after almost four years of working here, I would understand this environment well enough to maintain emotional stability.  This is not to say that I have recently had strong, emotional outbursts.  I just find my feelings rapidly jumping from joy to sadness to anger with seemingly little provocation in seemingly short periods of time – something that rarely happens in the states.  Honestly, it’s not like it happened all the time in Bulgaria (that would be too emotionally exhausting), but it’s been about four years since I’ve been in a situation like this one – working exclusively with Bulgarians in a grassroots environment.  Here’s what I think is tripping me up.

  1. I don’t speak Bulgarian as well as I thought.
Don’t get me wrong.  I speak Bulgarian very well, and I know it.  I can be almost egotistical about it.  But I find myself still tripping up over hard to pronounce words and terms that I have simply forgotten.  My grammar has fallen apart a bit, and I get easily frustrated over it because I question myself and get tripped up.  Explaining abstract concepts is extremely challenging.  Sometimes I get the impression that some people don’t have the patience to listen to me, and that drives me absolutely crazy.  Not only do I get frustrated with the person for not listening, but I get frustrated with myself because I feel like it’s my failing that I can’t get the words out fast enough.  The other thing that drives me absolutely mad is that, when I ask, “What?” people seem to assume that I literally didn’t understand.  Nine times out of ten, I just didn’t hear them. 
  1. It’s taking a little longer to figure out my role than I thought.
My colleagues have been pretty busy and are probably waiting for me to figure out a lot of things on my own.  There have been only a couple of meetings where we have sat down and discussed where they need assistance and how those needs might match up to my experience and strengths.  In fact, since starting this post, I have had a meeting with my program officer from Peace Corps and a couple of my colleagues.  That was especially helpful in giving me some perspective.  I really should be more patient, but then I think about how I only have five more months here.  Time is short.

  1. I don’t work with Roma.
After having worked almost exclusively with Roma minorities for three years in Bulgaria, I’m extremely disappointed that not one person I’m working with is Roma.  I have asked my colleagues about it, but so far I basically get shrugged shoulders as an answer.  It is true that there are probably few Roma around that fit the target group of the organization, but I’m frustrated that there’s not a more concerted effort to go out and find Roma that might fit the bill – whether it’s for volunteer activities or for trainings.  I’m going to see if I can help in this area.

  1. I hate feeling useless – even when other people tell me I’m not.
I have been out on a couple of trainings with my organization to develop leadership skills in young people.  One of the newest initiatives in Bulgaria is that of student mediators.  That is, training students to help in the process of resolving problems which frequently come up among their peers.  I have been asked to be a co-leader of these groups.  Obviously, I can’t lead sessions.  I was mostly there to help pass out materials and lead out in some games.  Even with that, I felt underutilized.  I wasn’t really needed.  My colleagues obviously appreciated my assistance – and frequently said so – but I still felt fairly useless.  I hate feeling that way, but the only answer is to be more patient with myself.  I’m never going to speak Bulgarian to the point where I can lead out a training session on such complex issues.
At this point, I help out where I can.  My colleagues sung my praises when Peace Corps was here, but I wanted to bang my head on the table.  

  1. I haven’t had time to go to Rakitovo, or really anywhere – even around Plovdiv.  
I hate feeling like I do so little, and yet having it take up all my time.

Things have been pretty good otherwise.  It’s getting colder here, and my colleagues frequently scold me for having blue lips.  I went to the circus with my sister one evening last week.  I hope to go to a jazz concert with her later this week.  (There are advantages to living in the city.)  I was able to go to Trud to visit the host family and came home with leftovers of my favorite Bulgarian meal, fresh tomatoes from the garden, and an awesome haircut.  I just need an attitude adjustment.   

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Temperament Changes

"Don't you have someone at home who can scold you for going out without a jacket?
That was the second time someone I didn’t know had stopped me to tell me I was an idiot for leaving my apartment with only a short-sleeved shirt.  The weather in Plovdiv has changed, literally, overnight.  One day it was hot and suffocating.  The next, it was windy and chilly. 
I missed the change because I was ill the day it happened.  I’d been in my apartment for hours on end, and it’s deceivingly warm in there.  At least I know it’ll keep me at least five degrees warmer than whatever is going on outside during the winter.
As I mentioned in the last post, I was a guest on a local morning show in Plovdiv.  If you’d like to see the video, you can follow these steps:

  1. Click on this link to the DC Cable Television site and scroll within the video area until you get to "Utro - korpus na mira - 4.10.2012 part 2."
  2. Click on that link and wait for it to load at least to 24:30, as that's when my segment starts.
  3. If you don't know it yet, it might be useful to learn Bulgarian.
This past weekend, I was involved in a leadership training workshop for 80+ young people from three schools around Plovdiv.  I had been asked to be a co-leader of one of the groups.  However, not having been given concrete responsibilities, there wasn’t much I could contribute.  This drove me absolutely insane – and it showed.  The woman I had been assigned to work with wasn’t aware of my abilities and therefore didn’t seem comfortable trusting me with many responsibilities.  She said I could help her with some of the games only to shoot down all of my ideas.  I quickly got frustrated.  She saw this and soon gave me some leeway to help her out with some of the games.  In the end, it worked out well.  The kids seemed to have a lot of fun.  Let’s hope they learned something in the process.
I am slowly beginning to piece together what NAVA (the organization I work with) expects from me.  After the fall of Communism, many western countries and businesses rushed in to try and support the non-government sectors in Eastern Europe.  With Bulgaria’s entry in the European Union over five years ago, more and more donor organizations abroad are expecting non-profits  here to survive on their own.  Peace Corps’ imminent exit is just a small example of this.  Therefore, organizations like NAVA need to find ways to survive after their sources of funding dry up. 
NAVA has decided to sell some of their services in order to fund the rest of their activities.  One of these services is camps.  So, now some of my colleagues and I are trying to brainstorm ways to raise money with these camps.  If anyone has any non-traditional ideas about how to raise money or even how to brand camps to increase interest, I would love your input.  My brain is only capable of storming so much.
I haven’t been to Rakitovo yet.  I’m not sure when I’ll make it over there.  I’ve seen Vili, my host parents, and Angel.  Speaking of, how is it that someone you haven't seen in over a year can tell the difference of eight pounds on your body, when you can barely even tell the difference?  Meaning, my mother and sister have informed me that I'm currently the perfect weight, and I'm not allowed to lose any while I'm here.  I guess that's my opening to ask them to feed me.  I still have many more people I would like to see, but that involves finding time and getting on a bus.  All that sounds so overwhelming right now. 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Here We Go Again

I'm back in Bulgaria.  Are you surprised?  Sometimes I feel as if I’ve never left.  California and New York feel years and miles away – and yet happening all at the same time.  It’s as if my life is made up of a bunch of multicolored crayons left out for hours in the sun.
This time, I’m working with Peace Corps Response.  I’ve been assigned to an organization called National Alliance for Volunteer Action (NAVA) in Plovdiv.  I’ll be here for six months.  As Plovdiv is my favorite city in Bulgaria, I’m excited to be here.  Interestingly enough, however, I’ve been missing my small town in the mountains.  Rakitovo felt more accessible somehow.  Plovdiv feels so big – which is certainly weird for someone coming from New York City.  I miss being able to just walk wherever I needed to go.
I got to Bulgaria last Thursday and went in to the Peace Corps office in Sofia on Friday for training.  As Peace Corps is wrapping up next year in Bulgaria, there were fewer staff members in the office.  It felt a little empty, but the warmth still radiated from everyone there.  They were very welcoming and all excited to see me.  After a brief swearing-in ceremony, I ran around to the different departments for an updated training on PC Bulgaria policies.  Before long, I was on a bus to Plovdiv.
Once in Plovdiv, I was met by Vera, my counterpart, and a young volunteer from NAVA.  They took me to my apartment, which is quite simple and nice, but far from the center of town.  (I’m still figuring out the bus system.)  Vera has been very sweet and pleasant.  She seems to have boundless energy and greets everyone with great enthusiasm.
On Saturday, I went out for a tour of Old Plovdiv with a bunch of young volunteers from NAVA and P.U.L.S., a sister organization in Pernik.  It has been a wonderful surprise to meet so many motivated young people here.  Plovdiv has changed a little bit in that they’ve opened an archaeological site in the center of town.  Considering it’s been covered ever since I first came here seven years ago, it’s been a pleasant surprise to sit it open.  Sofia has done the same.  It’s opened up extensive ruins from the Roman era in the town center, and it’s absolutely amazing.
Later that day, I was able to meet up with my host sister, Vili, and we went to visit the family in Trud.  On Sunday, other than picking up some things for the apartment, I slept. 
There’s a new ambassador in town, and she invited Peace Corps staff and volunteers to her residence in Sofia on Monday evening.  It was nice to see some of the staff that have moved on and the volunteers that are still hanging around from when I last worked for PC in 2009.  On Tuesday, there was a Peace Corps Legacy celebration – heralding over 20 years of successful work in Bulgaria, along with recognizing the fact that its work is coming to an end.  Several organizations, some headed by former Peace Corps staff, are looking to take over the work.  It’s inspiring to see how Peace Corps has positively affected almost everyone it’s touched.
Yesterday was my first full day in the office.  I was asked to update the website with an article about Peace Corps’ Legacy Celebration.  I was also asked to translate some project guidelines.  It looks like I haven’t quite forgotten Bulgarian yet.  Afterwards, there was a meeting with the young volunteers.  We then went to the center of town, where the Move Week campaign was happening.  I guess like I looked like I wanted to be involved, because I was immediately given a t-shirt and cards to pass out.  A little later, there was Zumba.  I have never done Zumba, and I never expected to see it for the first time in the center of Plovdiv – with a bunch of Bulgarians following along.  It was amazing.  I don’t know if I’ve just been living in small-town Bulgaria, or if Bulgaria has really changed.  I’m hoping it’s the latter.
This morning, I was on a local morning show.  I’ve done television interviews before, and I always leave wishing my Bulgarian were better.  I go back in my mind and think about all the mistakes I’ve made.  I should get over it.  It’s the message that’s important.  Bulgarians are very forgiving because they know how challenging the language can be.
Anyway, here we go again….