Monday, July 22, 2013

The Blood of Raspberries Stain My Hands

Summer has long come to Bulgaria, which means that people are out enjoying picnics with neighbors on their stoops, fields of sunflowers are bowing their heads under the late summer sun, the outdoor markets are overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, and my time in Bulgaria is coming to an end.
As I’ve stated many times before, I wish I had been more vigilant about keeping a record of my time here.  This Bulgarian “adventure” was more familiar, but no less interesting.  My time here was heavily marked by protests.  They began back in January, when electric rate increases were announced.  This led to the resignation of the then-government and subsequent elections back in May.  When the new government started showing similar problematic symptoms as those previous, people announced they’d had enough and took to the streets again.  Thus far, this parliament has refused to resign.  It will be interesting to see where the future takes Bulgaria.  I pray with all my heart that it’s a more hopeful, brighter place.
Living in Plovdiv has been a little like living in any other large city.  I take public transportation to and from work.  Goods and services are more expensive.  I used to be able to save quite a bit of my living allowance when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.  As a Response Corps Volunteer, I’ve been having a harder time staying within my budget.  The fact that I can have delicious Mexican food delivered to my apartment has not helped.  The city also has its perks.  Something is always happening.  I’ve been to quite a few plays, shows, concerts, and I’ve even taken Zumba lessons.  These things are wonderful mood-lifters – especially after a tough day at work.
The relationships the city offered also felt more distant.  I went to fewer “na gostis” (visits to people’s homes) this time around by far.  I found it harder to open up to those around me.  I was invited out less often for coffee in the city as opposed to a small town.  My inner introvert used all of this as an excuse to spend more time withdrawn.   I also relied heavily on the couple of friendships that really mattered to me – my “sister,” Vili, and my former counterpart, Angel, were both in Plovdiv and I got together with them often.  This is not to say that I didn’t form wonderful new friendships or ignore previous ones.  I just clung to those two most strongly and formed deeper connections with them both. 
The assignment this time around was rewarding, but it was also challenging for me – figuring out my limits; wondering how I could best be of use to an organization that is trying to grow in a number of different ways.  I learned a lot about myself, about my limits, about working with volunteers.  I also spent a lot of time in front of the computer.  I found myself missing being outside and working with my hands; working with others.  I took fewer pictures.
An analogy came to me the other day.  I caveat what comes next with the obvious reminder that this is my point of view.  Ask another PCV about it, and they could find it ridiculous.
I think Peace Corps Volunteers are like unlabeled seeds.  We willingly give ourselves, in this case to Peace Corps Bulgaria, for planting in a vast garden of possible schools, non-profit organizations, cultural centers, and local governments.  We need a certain amount of special care.  Some of us need more sunlight, some of us more shade, some more water, some less, some demand fertile soil, others are fine with more rocky terrain, some of us will need to close our petals at certain times of the day, others will show their colors at all hours.  You get the idea.  But we’re unlabeled.  So no one knows, including us to a certain extent, what kind of environment we need in order to thrive.  We arrive in Bulgaria, and Peace Corps tries to figure out where we might best be planted.  Sometimes the volunteer gets planted in just the right garden, and they flourish.  Sometimes the match isn’t quite right.  You get a beautiful tree with no fruit.  Or maybe you have to allow the tree another season to really produce.  Or you have a few flowers, but everyone knows the plant is capable of more.  Sometimes, the match is so bad that the plant cannot grow.  In this case, you cannot blame the environment for being what it is, and you cannot blame the plant for its needs.  It was an improper match.
What’s my point?  My point is that I think I was matched well for the times at hand.  I’d like to think I’m a weed or some other tough plant – thriving and growing whether the gardener pays any attention to me or not.  I suspect I am more finicky.  I struggled at my first organization, but I received a lot of attention and care.  I got plenty of sunshine and was watered regularly.  I quickly learned the language, the culture, and I felt integrated almost immediately.  I struggled a lot at my second organization, but I thrived in this environment because I had already survived a few seasons in Bulgaria.  I didn’t get the same care as at the first, but I didn’t need it.  Had I been placed in the second organization when I first came to Bulgaria, I don’t think I would have thrived.  It would have been too difficult for me to break through, to integrate, or to understand how to be of use.  Had I been placed in my first organization at this point, I would have felt too limited; too hindered by the lack of available resources and possibilities. 
So, to conclude, I’m a finicky plant.  Organizations are like different gardens.  Peace Corps did a decent job placing me.
My time here is coming to an end.  I’m still in Bulgaria, but I’ve already said an awkward farewell to my organization.  My boss left on vacation, and I won’t see her again.  Therefore, we had an official good-bye at the office last week.  A bunch of people happened to be there for a meeting, and so I was presented with a t-shirt and a scrapbook filled with people’s thoughts and well wishes.  It really felt like “good-bye.”  But I still keep showing up in the office – even though it feels like I’m already gone.  It’s not always clear when my activities are going to take me away from Plovdiv, so my colleagues are constantly asking if they’re going to see me again.  I had tried to arrange my calendar to do some sort of farewell tour, but it’s chaotic, and I fill the holes with returns to Plovdiv.  There are fewer things more awkward than saying “good-bye” and then continuing to show up.  But it’s not like I asked my organization to have a “thing” for me a week and a half before I close my service.  It’s just the way it happened.
The end here was pretty good.  I got to work on a camp in the Rhodopes with some amazing young people.  I attended one of the best picnics ever.  I had an interpretation experience that reminded me why I really love doing interpretations.  I have been able to attend some good-bye parties for some wonderful people.  I have visited some spots in Bulgaria I’ve always wanted to see – and they did not disappoint.
I’ve come back to Bulgaria so many times, that it’s hard to believe I could really close a chapter on this part of my life.  I have found reasons/excuses to come back over the past five years.  I can’t accept the fact that I might be out of excuses.  It feels like I’ll just be back in a year or two, ‘cause that’s what I’ve been doing since 2008.  Since then, I haven’t been away for more than two years.  All signs point to this being the end.  I feel like it might not be, however.  

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Hop Over to Istanbul

It's been pretty busy at work, so a trip to Istanbul was just the ticket to get away and relax.

It's my fifth or sixth time there, so I had planned to visit other parts of Turkey.  Things didn't work out as hoped, but I'm not complaining.  It was a lovely trip.
I was able to stay with the man who had hosted me over the summer of 2011, and he spoiled me with delicious food and tickets to a Goran Bregovic concert.  I was also able to make a new friend, as another young woman was staying with him at the time.  She took me to a play (I understood nothing), and we discussed our love of Goran and Zumba.
I also spent a lot of time walking around one of my favorite cities in the world.  I went to old haunts and explored new destinations.  As one of the largest cities in the world (any way you slice it), there's always something to discover.  My host joked that most other places are "villages" in comparison - especially after I told him that I was coming from a reasonably-sized city in Bulgaria.
I took a book to my favorite destinations, caught up with a friend I'd studied Turkish with - and her new daughter, and just soaked up the lack of routine.  My only lament was that my Turkish wasn't better.  I feel it has only *slightly* improved since I left two years ago.  As my host is one of my favorite people in the world, it broke my heart a little that we couldn't communicate more, but maybe that's one of the reasons why we get along so well.
As I mentioned, work has worn me out a little.  April was a stressful month due to our GlobalGiving project.  It was the first time the organization had tried crowdfunding, and there we all feared that it wasn't going to work for us.  The very first night of the campaign, the reality of trying to raise $5000 from at least 40 people in 30 days was weighing heavily on my mind.  I picked up my Bible and immediately opened to Mark 10:27 - “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”  I still questioned how, and then I happened to flip a few pages and unexpectedly landed on Matthew 14:13-21 - the parable where Jesus feeds the 5000.  How were we going to raise $5000 in thirty days?  I felt God was telling me He had already taken care of it.  Of course, this didn't keep me from staying up nights worrying.  The only consolation I found in that is that I spent a lot of this time in prayer.  And I begged God not to let the campaign resolve quickly, so I would need to trust Him the entire month.  That prayer was certainly answered as well.  The worry, reliance, and tentative hope lasted the entire 30 days.  And He came through!  We were able to make our goal and help a wonderful group of people - which is a relief.  Our project was also featured a couple of times on a local TV station.  I prayed I would publicly thank God, but I failed.  That was disheartening.
As of today, I have two months left to my Peace Corps contract in Bulgaria.  I understand it's also the day Peace Corps officially concludes its programming in Bulgaria.  I've been finding reasons to come to Bulgaria with Peace Corps so long now (three different excuses in almost eight years), it's hard to believe that option will no longer be available to me.  Of course, I feel it's long been time for me to move on.  I have more mixed feelings about Peace Corps itself leaving.  It's hard to fathom.
I have made a few steps to transition out of here, but these have mostly involved submitting resumes, drafting cover letters, and scheduling the infrequent interview.  Other than that, I'm plugging along as if I'll be here for the foreseeable future.  Maybe it's hard to visualize because nothing is foreseen after that date; I cannot imagine life beyond Bulgaria.  And how will I just "hop on over to Istanbul" now?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Another Bulgarian Birthday

A week ago, I passed my fourth (nonconsecutive) birthday in Bulgaria.  At this point in my life, that means that 1/8th of all my birthdays have been celebrated here.

I never imagined this.  Even this time around, I figured I'd be back in the states in time to celebrate with family and friends stateside.  But life never takes you where you expect to go.

I can't complain.  As birthdays go, this one was pretty awesome.  My colleagues pitched in and got me fitness classes at a local studio.  Angel showed up at my office with a rose.  Vili surprised me at the office with a bouquet and a shirt picked just for me.  My colleagues had left by then, so the three of us chatted, laughed, and took a bunch of pictures.  I had been given a coupon for a detox massage about a month and a half before, so I took the opportunity to schedule the appointment on my birthday.   It was an hour-long full body massage followed by half an hour under some heated blankets.  Afterwards, I felt pretty weak, and I couldn't get enough water.  Even throughout the night, I would wake up to drink water.  I also took the opportunity to spoil myself and order Mexican food.

Birthday celebrations continued as the next day I went out to Mexican food with some other Peace Corps Volunteers.  I also went to Rakitovo for the weekend.  It was great to see old friends, play baseball with kids, and just be up in my mountain town.

Work has been stressing me out, but the upside of this is that I have been praying a lot.  I've listened to this sermon three or four times, and I've been finding a lot of comfort in reading my Bible.  I've spent moments recalling all the times that God has pulled me through before, and I remind myself that I believe that I'm exactly where He wants me to be.  It's tough because I can be a little obsessive and neurotic, but I remind myself that God made me this way and He doesn't condemn me when I come to Him with my tics.  I pray my weaknesses glorify Him.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Still in Bulgaria

I can't believe it's been about three months since I've posted. 

Living in Bulgaria used to incite this *need* to write.  It was like a catharsis - like if I didn't get it all out and write it down, it didn't really happen.  Maybe that's what it was like to live in Rakitovo.  Life was more relaxed.  It moved more slowly.  I had more time to observe, reflect, and write.  Living in Plovdiv is completely different.  I don't know if it's the reality of living in a city that's becoming increasingly more westernized or I've just gotten used to living in Bulgaria.  I think it's a combination.

How is Plovdiv (and by extension Bulgaria) becoming more westernized?  I think I used to have a better example I stored in the back of my mind, but now it's long gone.  It was probably how I get Mexican food delivered to my apartment.  I give you something I saw last night. 

Sunday was Easter in the states.  While some Bulgarian Christians celebrated on Saturday, Orthodox Easter isn't until May 5th.  So, traditional Easter (even for those who aren't observant) is May 5th.  A lot of the traditions are the same.  Eggs are colored (while not necessarily hidden).  Family gets together for a big meal - sometimes consisting of lamb.  Something that's different, however, is the Easter Bunny.  In fact, I was talking to some of our volunteers here on Sunday about Easter, and they were telling me how interesting it is that we associate Easter with rabbits and eat ones made of chocolate on that day.  Well, later, at the store, guess what I saw.  Chocolate rabbits (and other animals) wrapped in colorful foil and promoted on giant billboards around the parking lot.  When is Easter again?  What do chocolate rabbits have to do with an Orthodox Easter that is still over a month away?

Sometimes I wish there were Bulgarian traditions that would make their way into Western Europe and across the pond.  Baba Marta is one of them.  I've talked about Baba Marta before, as it's my favorite holiday.  On the first of March, you pass out red and white bracelets and pins to your family, friends, and colleagues.  These items supposedly carry health and luck.  When you see a stork or a flowering tree, you're supposed to tie the items to the tree or bury them under a rock.  This supposedly ensures health, luck, and happiness in the coming year.  Right now, the trees are blooming all around Plovdiv.  Not only are they naturally gorgeous, but they are filled with these red and white ties.  It's beautiful.

I was supposed to leave March 18th.  Sometime around mid-January, my boss began asking me if I would consider staying.  Honestly, it was a tough decision.  It took a while to get started here, and I felt a bit like I was spinning my wheels.  When I prayed about it, God gave me a dream in which I found myself visiting friends in the states.  I was in a panic, however, because I had to get back to Bulgaria.  I took that as a sign that I should stay.  After that, the decision wasn't so hard.  For now, I'll be here until July.

One of the reasons I was asked to stay was to help out with NAVA's GlobalGiving campaign.  (If you don't know, NAVA means National Alliance for Volunteer Action, and it's the organization I work for.)  GlobalGiving is one of the largest crowdfunding platforms in the world that caters exclusively to NGOs, and NAVA has the opportunity to become a permanent member, which means it would be able to put a variety of causes up on their site for support.   

What is crowdfunding?  Crowdfunding is the act of obtaining small amounts of capital from a large network of people.  So, say you have a great cause.  You don't know many people who are independently wealthy who would fully support it, but you know a network of caring individuals who could donate a few dollars here and there to help make the cause a reality. 

NAVA has a great cause.  There is a home for adults with intellectual disabilities - St. Vrach - on the outskirts of Plovdiv.  I've been there.  It's a pretty cool place.  All the men there (it's all men) just want to come up and talk to you, see what you're doing, and hug you - which can be unnerving if you're not prepared for it.  The men frequently pass the time by coloring, drawing, painting, and working in the garden when the weather permits.  They also have a weight room where they can work out.  Still, these men are pretty isolated.  They don't get many visitors from the outside world, and they don't have many opportunities to contribute to society.

So NAVA plans to start an occupational therapy workshop for 15 men at St. Vrach.  Young volunteers will come into the institution to train the men to make arts and crafts from corn husks.  These Bulgarian crafts are gaining popularity due to their consideration for inclusion in UNESCO.  The plan is to sell these items and then reinvest the funds into the workshop and the men.  So, not only is the project sustainable, but the men will get the social interaction from the outside world that they so desperately need. It's a win-win!

This project has pretty much consumed my time as of late.  But life isn't all work.  I've been going to shows, hanging out with friends, and trying to enjoy sporadic warm weather.  The one thing I haven't done much is leave Plovdiv.  I'm thinking of getting away for some tulip-viewing in Istanbul.  It's my favorite time of year to go, it's so close by, and it could be a nice break. 


Saturday, January 05, 2013


After spending a lovely evening with some Bulgarian friends I had made in New York City, I had a wonderful, and much-needed vacation in the Netherlands over Christmas and the New Year.  I stayed with a friend whom I've known for several years, her husband, and her almost-one-year-old daughter. 
The first few days were filled with the purchase of presents and food, a dinner with friends of the family, and a lot of walking around the town of Groningen
On Christmas day, we went to visit the largest steam pumping station in the world.  Depending on weather conditions, it's only turned on about once or twice a year.  So, we (along with a rather large crowd) went to see all the wheels and gears pumping to keep parts of the Netherlands from flooding.  My friend mentioned that the Dutch have an understandable obsession with water - as most of the country is under sea level.  The country is crisscrossed by canals and various waterways - a lot of which come very close to residences.  And there's a delicate balance to try and keep just the right amount of water within and a whole lot of it without.  Afterwards, we came home and had a wonderful Christmas dinner.  (I ate a lot of rich and delicious food while I was there.) 
The next day, on the 26th, we celebrated Second Christmas.  My friend is married to a Dutchman, so his father had been with us the day before.  On the second day, his mother, brother, sister, and their significant others came over.  It was a busy Christmas.  We opened presents.  (His parents even brought me something!)  We had another fancy dinner, and we played a game. 
My friends and I spent the coming days playing more games, eating more delicious food, and going on a few day trips.  We went to Camp Westerbork, which functioned as a concentration and transit camp during the Second World War.  We went to Fortress Bourtange, which was built during the Eighty Years' War and is located near the German border.  I went down to Kinderdijik, where the largest concentration of windmills in the Netherlands is found. 
My friend and I went out on the town a couple of nights, and for the New Year, they had friends over.  We ate a lot of food, played a game, and watched the local fireworks at midnight.  I had a really great time just hanging out with the family and playing with the little girl.  And the Netherlands, while gray, was beautiful.  I could see myself spending significant time there. 
My flight back was eventful.  It was too foggy to land in Sofia, so we were diverted to Varna - a town on the Black Sea.  (I wish I had taken a picture from the plane of Sofia.  The fog made it look like soup, and only the top of factory smokestacks were visible from the air.)  After about six hours in Varna, I got on a plane that stopped in Burgas and then continued on to Sofia.  After getting to the airport around 1:30 a.m., there was some confusion about getting my passport stamped, and I learned my luggage hadn't made the trip.  Maybe it was somewhere still in Paris.  It took a couple of days, but I learned my bag has arrived.  I'll have to go to Sofia tomorrow to pick it up.  Other than this minor snag at the end, it was a really great trip.
I've been back at work for the past couple of days where things have been busy for me.  In fact, I need to work this weekend.  Problem is, I'm just still in a vacation frame of mind.