I say this every time I write, but seriously so much has been going on that I can hardly keep up in writing :) I've got a routine down at the school now, and things are going a little more smoothly. By teaching literature, I spend a lot of time re-reading the classics, which sometimes is a pain and other times a great pleasure (I just listened to The Scarlet Letter by streaming it from a website called LibriVox.org- by doing so, I was able to crochet a scarf and hat at the same time).
The month of October really blew by quickly. Some memorable moments were my participation in an exchange project with my school. On Halloween I went to Romania to meet with other teachers from Spain, Portugal, Poland, Romania, and Turkey. It was a good opportunity to bond with my fellow teachers and to help improve the other teachers' English skills. Romania seemed a lot like Bulgaria, but slightly warmer, and listening to others was a real trip. Romanians and Bulgarians share a common Communist history, and thus a lot of Soviet architecture and city planning, but linguistically, there are great differences. Romanians maintain more of the Roman language, Latin, and so it sounded closer to Italian or Spanish only with an Eastern European twist and some shared vocabulary with its neighbors. I met another Peace Corps volunteer working in the town and helped to teach a class with her, and the students' behavior didn't seem too different from my Bulgarian students. I guess teenagers will be teenagers the world over. While in Romania we went to an old salt mine that was open for visitors and tourists. Inside the salt mine is a beautiful little church (for the miners since they would spend so much time down there) and playground equiptment, chessboards, souveneirs, and other games (for the tourists that come to spend time in the salty air for many an afternoon). The next day we went to Bran Castle, the former home of Count Vlad the Impaler, or the inspiration for Dracula. The exhibition was beautiful, and we toured the entire castle, but it wasn't very scary as most Romanians look at Count Vlad as a hero, not a bloodthirsty ruler. We also went to a beautiful town in Transylvania called Brasov, and it had all the characterists of Romanian achitecture on the Hungarian side, with high turrets and large churches and state buildings. It was quite beautiful.
Before leaving on this trip however, we had a mini Halloween celebration at my school. I made spiced applesauce and pumpkin pie for the teachers (which they loved and made me give them the recipe), and in my 8th grade class we played Halloween games and had a costume contest. I was really impressed with some of the costumes, including Spring, a skeleton, fairies, and a China doll. I myself dressed up as a Bulgarian grandmother, or baba. I definitely got some strange looks walking around school that day! A few days before, I carved a pumpkin, and prepared Haunted Boxes with different food items to simulate brains, a dead man's thumb, eyeballs, etc. The kids all gave away what they were but the look on some of the other students' faces were pretty priceless when they reached into the boxes. The students also bobbed for apples and had a contest in teams to make the best mummy by wrapping each other in toilet paper. It was hilarious and although we didn't always speak English, it was one of my most festive Halloweens in quite some time.
The next holiday, Thanksgiving, was a little more low-key. I made cornbread, apple cobbler, and stuffing for the teachers, but somehow I got hungry and accidentally ate all the stuffing before it made it to school :( I went hiking with some new Bulgarian friends from the English class that I teach and hit the gym after all the holiday food. It's starting to get cold here and there was already snow on the mountains. I still occasionally go to my dance class on the weekends although I'm not really a morning person on Saturdays. On the weekend after Thanksgiving I met with a group of volunteers from a nearby town and we celebrated by eating too much and playing board games. It was really comfortable and we were able to swap stories and advice for teaching and working in our communities.
Just yesterday was another holiday that marked a big milestone for me. On World AIDS Day, I went with some of my students to the Riokos, or health services center in my town and made a presentation for the students from the school for the deaf children in our region. In my classes we had made HIV/AIDS awareness posters and some of my students from the language school where I work came and presented theirs. A teacher from the deaf school translated and some of my colleagues came to watch as we showed a film with subtitles and a dramatic discussion group called "8+" came and did a scene showing risky behavior. "8+" was made up of Bulgarian students and it was a good opportunity for them to integrate with some of the students from the school for deaf children. I was relieved that everything went well and that my first real project to address a need in the community worked without a lot of hiccups. The students had a little discussion afterwards (using translators) and it was a good opportunity to remind them of the importance of protecting themselves because most of the students had only learned about HIV/AIDS from reading cartoons.
Besides the issue of HIV/AIDS, now is a serious time for most Bulgarians with the effects of the international financial crisis, stemming from the U.S.'s recession. Bulgaria as a developing nation is extremely dependent on foreign aid and funds from the European Union (since 2007 when Bulgaria was admitted). Hundreds of millions of Euros have been suspended by the EU because of Bulgaria's lack of transparency and failure to act against organized crime. Bulgaria also has a tiny stock market that has been subject to financial vulnerability, with the stock index falling 80% this year. Bulgaria shares the same level of financial risk as other small, vulnerable economies (such as Iceland that actually went bankrupt due to the international financial crisis) and is rapidly losing foreign investment. This manifests itself in everyday lives as I speak with my friends that work in upper management and project up to a 30% decrease in production next year and the loss of many jobs in American and other international factories in Bulgaria. This will be a difficult year. I don't know when things will change, but for now in some Bulgarian cities it is not too uncommon to see a Mercedes share the road with pedestrians and a donkey cart. More anti-corruption action needs to happen to encourage investor confidence to ride out the recession.
I missed everyone during the holidays (and have never been more grateful for Skype!). I hope you're all staying warm and taking care of yourselves. What has everyone been up to? Write me back!
To life and health,