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  My inner introvert used all of this as an excuse to spend more time withdrawn.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.