Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Last Days in Bulgaria

The last days of my Peace Corps service are rapidly passing. I am a little overwhelmed and extremely grateful for all the people I've met, the things I've learned and the time that I had here. I have a few days to clean, pack, wrap up, give away, reminisce, and plan the next steps in my journey home.

In order to give you a balanced look at what I'm taking away with me, here's a list of things I'll miss and things I won't. Since we always remember the first and last things we hear, I'll save the best for last.

Things I won't miss: Going to the post office (always an ordeal), cockroaches cockroaches and cockroaches in the shower (it was really quite a pleasure to drown those!), fleas, hungry homeless animals, gray, peeling bloc apartments, handwashing my clothes, being encouraged to overeat and overdrink, everyday apathy, my stove, not being able to contact family or get paperwork to the US, dodging puddles, holes in the street, sheets of ice, arguing with teenagers, corruption on the local level, being told what to do by nosy babas, train travel, excessive chalga, macho dudes in tiny t-shirts, the burn of rakia.

Things I will miss: Svetla's laugh, fresh cherries from the tree, joking with students, going na gosti to Elena and Emil's apartment, Elitsa's and Milka's voices, positive reinforcement for a good attitude, "Bastoons", volunteers who understand everything I've experienced, riding with Nancy and Slavi in the bread truck, surviving the ride from Sunny Beach with Stella's support, sharing tales and advice with my sisters, the mountains, the sea, brutal volleyball tournaments that shame the volunteers, the baseball boys and their (sometimes overboard) honesty, the way the sun sets on my terrace, sharing music, dancing (playing) horo, being challenged by Jason, tea with the ladies, Fornetti, Tutku, spinach banitsa, Targovishte wine, stopping and talking on the street, Fani's inflections in Turkish, milk with instant coffee, 3v1, having real discussions and being surprised by the points that my students bring up, learning how little I know, successful home repairs, Bulgarian slang, being well connected in town, knowing that I can always ask for help, my English ladies who make me laugh so much!, hospitality hospitality hospitality, English t-shirts that make absolutely no sense, the Americans who have chosen to make Bulgaria their home, stepping into the bathroom and already being in the shower, Galya's style, Sevgyul's bright greeting each day, Maria's sense of adventure, tiny toy animals that punch or fall down, the weird stuff that David and Rob send me, seeing the US through other people's eyes, random usage of Turkish in town, our "company", purple leopard print, broken conversations at the school for the deaf, Razgrad where everything is just better, life improvers-Shaun, Kari, Radka, Sonia, seeing goats on a daily basis, strong women who carry the world on their shoulders and can manage anything, being told what to do by nosy babas, being encouraged to overeat and overdrink, train travel, excessive chalga, macho dudes in tiny t-shirts, the burn of rakia.

This is just a short list. I'm sure that when I'm back in the US I'll be going on and on and on about my experience've been warned and I'll try to dial it down. Here are some pictures of the ball, and since I "graduate" at the same time as my students, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, WOOOO!!!!!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010



Bending over, she shades the small candle from the wind. She rocks gently and grief pours from her as steadily as her young daughter stands by her side. She makes the sign of the cross and the candle flickers. We watch, silently allowing the song of the priest to fill the heavy silence. Despite the sunlight and the blooms that surround us, we are all chilled by the wind that snuffs the little candle.

Since chance and propriety didn't allow a real one, this is my mental picture of the Zadushnitsa ceremony that I attended yesterday for the musician and father we remember, Nikolay Karalanov. Always smiling and teasing someone, quick with a joke and eager to share how proud he was of his daughter Raya, he will be sorely missed. Thoughts and prayers go out to Raya, and his muse, his lovely wife Orfeta.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Multiethnic Camp- We need your help!

Over the past two years one of the things that I've mentioned in my e-mails and informal conversations and chats has been the segregation of the Roma (gypsies) and the tension between the ethnic Turks and ethnic Bulgarians due to the Ottoman Empire's 500 year occupation. Racism and intolerance is a really big problem for both youth and adults. One of my most eye-opening experiences has been my participation with the Roma and Multiethnic Camps. The organizers are young Bulgarian, Turkish, Roma and Bulgarian Muslim leaders, and the exchange experience is invaluable to the participants, high school youth from all over Bulgaria.

There's another great group of organizers working on the camp this year, including my friend, Matt Piscitelli, who has taken over my role as the volunteer organizer. However, they need funding. If you can find it in your hearts and pockets to help us fund the camp this year, there's a link on the Peace Corps website with further information and a way to easily donate online. Donations can be as little or big as your budget can spare. Click here for more information:

Here's the description of the camp:

The camp “Zaedno Napred” (Forward Together) will unite 40 high school students, eight youth leaders who participated in last year’s camp, and influential community members to share experiences, exchange ideas and debate issues in an open forum. The camp will be eight days long with a two day pre-seminar in preparation for the camp. This camp will give youth the tools to understand their dynamic role in society and how to deal effectively with the challenges that they and their communities face. The camp will equip promising youth with information, leadership skills, debating skills, and motivation to develop and improve their lives and their communities. Session topics will include human rights, ethnic integration, history and identity of ethnic groups in Bulgaria, leadership skills, community responsibility, sexual education, discrimination and human trafficking. Social and governmental leaders will be brought in to discuss these topics, share their own experiences and talk about the role of youth in society. Knowledge of self and cultural identity will help participants define their roles as future leaders and productive citizens, and help their communities find an effective voice in Bulgaria’s democracy. Participants will be encouraged to put their newly acquired skills into practice immediately as they return to their communities and start youth groups, work on community projects, and participate in national youth networks. Through the involvement of organizations and community members from other cities, Multiethnic Youth Organization Forward Together (MYOFT) will build upon their pre-existing network of valuable contacts, thus increasing progress toward ethnic tolerance in Bulgaria.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

Thanks for your support!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bulgarific, Bulgarad, Bulgaridiculous

So the last time I posted the weather was still pretty miserable, in fact, one day in March, I slipped on the ice and hit my head on the tiles outside. Yow. But things have gotten much better since then.

I've recently been hanging out with some sweet young people in my town who have moved back home from the bigger cities where they studied in the university. One of them, Elitza, is an award-winning folk music vocalist, and she wowed the socks off me at a na gosti dinner at our friend's house. Here's some photos of the cooks and the singer. I'm going to send along a clip (if technology doesn't fail me) so you can hear it, because it is really unique.

I also started training recently for something I never thought I'd do. A couple of my students run with a group in town, so I joined in. This is an orienteering group. Basically we run around according to maps and find hidden flags. Scavenger hunt, only think harder and more getting lost. At least that's how it went down for me. On Easter weekend, I attended my first event, and luckily my friend Kari went along for moral (and directional) support. Well, the coordinators hearing that this was our first event signed us up for the 14 year old division. Glad they did, because a 2km course took us not one...but two hours! Yowsers. Yup we were grimy after slipping and sliding and scratching our heads and dashing around for so long, but in the end we found all 12 points and didn't fall off the side of the mountain (heave huge sigh of relief here).

That night, all the participants went out to eat and we scurried off to the church for the Easter Vigil. I sang with the choir and then we all went out and circled the church three times for the Holy Trinity, father, son, holy spirit. Also it's a great opportunity for socializing, and I'm pretty sure I saw some of my students who had already begun the festivities with a bit of rakia.

The next day I began the arduous task of packing up some of my things. I will be doing that until I leave here, and it's intimidating. Kind of scary the amount you can amass in two years. Earlier last month, we had our Close of Service (COS) Conference in a beautiful town in central Bulgaria. It was a time for reflection and panic mostly, as we talked about the dire economic situation waiting for us in the States. It was also a good chance to say goodbye to the volunteers we won't see as much before we head back.

I got in the travel frame of mind lately with a spring break trip to Istanbul with some volunteers and their friends and family from the States. It was a great opportunity to practice the Turkish that I've been studying here (and even though they were mostly tourist phrases and simple sentences, I got a kick out of it). Also, here's some big news that maybe I haven't shared yet..I got accepted to a small private university in New York for my Master's in International Political Economy and Development. Some of the folks on the trip to Istanbul were from New York, so they prepped me on some of the differences (for example, wear whatever you want because no one is surprised by anything....cross the street more aggressively, Emily!'ll want to live by these train lines....and everything everything everything is expensive). If anyone has any more advice to help me deal with the culture shock, it would be greatly appreciated!

It was a little difficult getting back into teaching, but this week I'm working on a volleyball game volunteers v. students like last year, and we're planting some trees and doing a cleanup for Earth Day. I'd like to hear what everyone is doing for Earth Day and how everyone is in general!

On one last odd note, I just stopped at the post office (a frustrating experience every time) and picked up a box to ship some things home. On the way I saw the man who grazes his goats outside my apartment. Partially because I'm still in a tourist frame of mind and partially because I want to have proof that people really did graze their animals in my yard when I go home, I chatted up the man (Ivan) and took a picture of him and his goat (who was really really hungry). The little boys nearby who were taunting him by calling him a villager drew closer when I left, so I'm hoping they now saw that it was acceptable to have a conversation with Ivan (I hope they didn't decide to harass him further!).

I hope you and yours are healthy wealthy and wise, or at least healthy and happy!


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Baba Marta

Spring Holiday Season Begins!

Finally, after surviving a long and especially snowy winter, Bulgaria rewards us with a series of spring holidays. The first, and my favorite, is the tradition of Baba Marta (Grandma Marta). Like spring, Grandma Marta is a capricious old gal and since she will change about the weather a bit in the next month, she gives us something to hang on (to). On the first of March, we buy little red and white bracelets called Martenitzi and give them to our friends and family. As we give and receive the Martenitza, we wish each other luck, happiness, health, love and success. You can sometimes spot a teacher from far away because of her massive, bright red arm with a wild assortment of beads and even action figures attached to the Martenizi from her students (little wonder why this is my favorite of the spring holidays!). The white is a symbol of peace and fertility and the red is symbolic of the blood that Bulgarian soldiers have shed fighting wars. There's a legend that a dove carrying a piece of white thread was injured and when Khan Asparuh saw it, the red and white thread looked like a Martenizta (please correct me on the historical accuracy there, if you have more specifics). Nowadays we wear these bracelets and pins (sometimes the Martenitzi are pins made out of thread in the shape of a boy Pijou and a girl Penda) until we see the first bud of spring on a tree or a stork. We then place the Martenitza on the tree or under a stone. I only saw one stork last year (since they're harder to come by in town), but soon my town will be covered in red, white, and green as things begin blooming (what's not to love about this holiday!).

The next major holiday we celebrated was the Bulgarian Independence Day on March 3rd, 1878. This was the day that the treaty was signed that liberated Bulgaria from the Turkish Empire. For a better explanation, try my friend Jason's blog, On March 3rd, we generally have a flag raising ceremony in the center and people go to leave flowers and wreaths at the Russian monument in our town. My day consisted of lots of walking around town and drinking too much coffee in the café.

I've included some pictures of a show that recently came through my town, The Pirin Ensemble, a vocal and dance folklore ensemble. It was really impressive, and one of my friends that sings Bulgarian folklore explained to me how the dancers were wearing traditional Bulgarian costumes for different aspects of rural life, for example one woman was sowing seeds, another group of girls were pinning flowers to the hats of their young men, and the men were wearing handkerchiefs on their heads to protect their heads from the sun while they reaped wheat. They did all this while rapidly dancing to the haunting music of a women's choir and a folk orchestra, strings, clarinet, bagpipe and all. It's one thing to watch typical Bulgarian dance on television and quite another to see it live.

This month I had a mini celebration of my own. Instead of having a test in my literature classes, we played Jeopardy. The winning teams got to come 'na gosti' to my apartment and we ate Mexican (ok, Tex-Mex with Bulgarian ingredients) food, something that was new to my students, although a little too spicy for some. We also made S'mores by candlelight and hilarity ensued, including a séance, scary stories, and swing dancing. See for yourself in the attached pictures.

There are many holidays to come and I was quite surprised last year by all the days off in May last year. The burst of cheer in March has us off to a nice start.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Looking Back on Another Year in Bulgaria

This year has been exciting. After the snowfall, everything looks clean and bright. At school, I was busy with classes and trying new things to try to keep the students in the mood to study, but that was a losing battle as the holiday vacation drew near. I've been to lots of celebrations with the club where I study Turkish, my school, and the town choir that I sing in. Basically, I've eaten so much and danced in circles for so long, I'm more than a little dizzy. I celebrated Christmas Eve with my friend Radka and her family, and I've gotten the chance to rest and catch up with friends in town.

Top Five Most Memorable Things This Year:

5)Working the Group "Forward Together"-This is the name of the organization for the advancement of Roma youth. In many ways in Bulgaria, the Roma are marginalized (even self-marginalized) from fully participating in society. A lot of youth get stuck in a cycle of low expectations, illiteracy, and unemployment. This summer I worked with other volunteers at a camp run by energetic Roma leaders and other Peace Corps Volunteers to promote youth that show motivation, leadership, and success in their studies. I am helping them to keep their efforts going by working on the logistics with the organizers for next year and to bring in a new group of volunteers to work at the camp. This is a project that I feel really lucky to be a part of.

4) Celebrations at School- This year I organized a group of my students to act in plays for Halloween and Christmas (here, most people celebrate Christmas with presents and parties, even though it doesn't carry the same religious importance since it was forbidden during Communism and because there is such a large Muslim population here). Still, we put on a comedy show about Santa, an overworked Mrs. Claus, a depressed Rudolph, and the return of Grandpa Frost (the Communist Santa) with help from a special guest, Al Capone. I was so proud of the final product and I think that the kids were really happy too. I also made American Christmas cookies for ALL of my students (over 100..) and we listened to the song "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" in classes (if you haven't heard that song recently, it's worth a listen!)

3) My Friend's Wedding- My friend Nancy got married on November 30 in the town of my training site. She and Radoslav will live here for the next couple of years, and then maybe move to America. It was a beautiful event, and I got to see the people that were with me for the first part of my journey here. Nancy, an American volunteer, and Radoslav met when Nancy started going to the traditional Bulgarian dance group, and after almost two years as friends, they started dating. Six months later they tied the knot. As a gift, the dance group came dressed in traditional Bulgarian costumes and performed for all of us. It was amazing!

2) Marathon Training- The race itself was unforgettable, but I learned about the difference between American and Bulgarian expectations in fitness. Basically, women don't do it in public, so I stood out a lot. I also got a lot of support from my friends and colleagues because most people had never met anyone who had run a marathon before. My favorite memory was running around the track during a football (soccer) practice and hearing kids yell out in surprise, "Hey, she's really fast!" (Now, whether that was true or not doesn't matter, it was a great confidence booster!)

1) My Family's Visit- I met Erin in Spain and we traveled back together through Portugal to Bulgaria. I have now found a best traveling buddy, and I hope we can have a lot more adventures together in the future. My mom and dad joined us in Sofia and together we saw my town and the mountains and seaside of Bulgaria. I missed them so much and saying goodbye was really difficult, but I came to appreciate this country even more after seeing it again for the first time with them.

Being around the ones you love is what makes this time of year special. I wish health, luck, happiness and love to everyone this holiday season, and I wish that the coming year might be even better than the last!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fall, fall autumn

"All three witches together now... Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble..." Petko realizes a few seconds later that he was a witch also. I wonder if he rides the short broom to school.

We did Macbeth today in my literature class, and I had fun. I don't know where the energy came that allowed me to jump around the room explaining the story in as physical a way possible (to aid in their comprehension) at 7:45am, but it was there. Maybe it's because of my more relaxed schedule this week compared to the last two months.

One of the big differences is that I am no longer training for a marathon. That's right. On November 8, I ran a marathon. 4:58 is not record time by any means, but I finished it in spite of all the challenges of training in the fall as an English teacher in a small town in Bulgaria. There were many days when I didn't have the energy after teaching, or the earlier lack of sunlight was restricting the amount of time that I could run. I also fell. Twice. It was as hard on my pride as my body, as I fell in front of groups of people and have the scars to prove it. Some children taunted me and I can't tell you how many people asked me "Why are you running? No one's chasing you!"

It was all worth it though in the end. My teacher friends call me "our hero" and I have a shiny new medal to try not to lose. The trip itself was great. Seven of the volunteers travelled together and we had time to explore Athens (did I forget to mention that the marathon was in Athens?!?) and met a lot of nice runners along the way. We had a very supportive group and along the route I saw some of the other volunteers. I finished right in the middle of the group, and it was really nice to see their faces when I ran across the finish line. I even got a bit weepy.
Along with the beginning of the school year, I have started taking Turkish lessons on a regular basis to understand the large Turkish minority in my town. It has been moving slowly, but I recently passed through a Bulgarian Turkish village where my friend James volunteers and was able to understand some basic conversations that took place. Proud points! Now if only I could actually express myself...These things take time.
My goodness gracious! There are a lot of festivities to plan for this year. We just celebrated Halloween by trick or treating in the halls at school and throwing a Halloween party for the school. In my adult English language lesson, we made a Jack'o lantern. During the day I dressed up as the math teacher at our school, Mr. Nutsolov, who was a good sport. Nothing is scarier than a math sometimes and Mr. N has a way of intimidating students with his strict demeanor. At the party, my students passed pumpkins quickly, bobbed for apples, wrapped mummies out of toilet paper, and put on a play that they had written under my direction. The play was a modern adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, complete with Lil' Red and her friend Mary going to a disco, a birthday party, a dancing baba (grandmother-me!) and a big bad wolf with a secret twin sister. When I find the recording, i'll post it online.

The next festival is Thanksgiving, so I'll probably make stuffing and pumpkin and apple pie for the teachers. Does anyone have a good homemade stuffing recipe? StoveTop Stuffing is pretty much nonexistant here. I was successful in making pumpkin curry soup from scratch and I used this recipe On Thanksgiving weekend, however, I have something even bigger to plan on. My friend Nancy who just finished volunteering in the town of my training site is going to tie the knot with a Bulgarian friend from her dance group. There should be lots of dancing, and it'll be good to see my host family again.

I found this online and it made me chuckle-kids answering questions about marriage.
1. There sure would be a lot of kids to explain, wouldn't there>Kelvin, age 8
1. Tell your wife that she looks pretty, even if she looks like a truck.>Ricky, age 10
Kids can be so wise.

On another note, we are full-fledged flu season here. Because of the H1N1, or as one of my students called it the pork virus, many students were absent and we just got back from a mandatory week long vacation. The vacation allowed for me to have a week to contract the flu and combat it before my marathon and to have some recovery days after the marathon. Thank you, swine flu. I am now facing an ear infection, but things are relatively back to normal.

I posted some pretty pictures from Halloween, the marathon in Athens, and my neighbor Elena and I making pickled vegetables called Turshia. An interesting part- they put aspirin in the jars before they fill them with water! I hope you find it as eye-catching as I did. Also there are pictures from James's village.
Keep on writing/commenting/and recipe sharing!