Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dre's Survey

Diminutive of your name: Emi

Favorite Bulgarian word: oozhus, or oozhasno

Strangest thing ever seen in your bathroom: my landlady, yeah that was awkward

Best duner (falafel) place you’ve discovered: I like the one in Dupnitsa, my first time. I was a little hesitant to try it, but it provided me with satisfaction and a hunger that is now hard to fill.

Craziest thing that’s ever happened in class: Halloween. Toilet paper everywhere, half the class in their pajamas, and laughing and screaming galore.

Favorite Bulgarian beer: Ariana dark for the winter 

Favorite Bulgarian town/city/village: tough to say

Ever ridden on a donkey cart?: It made my day after falling down a mountain four times and ripping the crotch of my pants. A lift home was in order.

Best thing you have purchased in Bulgaria: a fan. Boss ice cream

New hobby/pastime you have discovered since being here: I crocheted a hat, and I now can make crème caramel. Also I now have more of an appreciation for yoga.

Favorite type of rakia: The kind Radka’s dad made, I think it was plum.

You are granted power to rid Bulgaria of one type of pest that constantly tortures you.
What do you choose?: a tie cockroaches/locusts/grasshoppers.

Best English t-shirt you’ve ever seen: Bright yellow "Start Seky"

Which do you hate more–dumpy pants or clear bra straps?: Why are the pants dumpy? I don’t understand…

Favorite Bulgarian salad: I like snezhana with lots of crushed walnuts

First thing you think of when you wake up on a school day: Just five more minutes, please…

Last thing you cooked: Rice, heated up some purlenka

Do you like chalga?: Only with dancing and fellow chalga enthusiasts.

Would you rather spend a week without water or power?: Hands down water for the fan/heater and of course, my laptop.

If you could choose one amenity to have, which would it be–washing machine or air conditioning?: Washing Machine. I have come to hate the bucket.

You have a free day–no classes, no engagements of any sort. How do you spend it?: A good book, coffee or drinks with friends. A walk around the center, maybe. Also if I’m in the mood, cooking.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ima Crisa

WARNING: I got introspective on a train ride, so this is an analysis of my experience of the economic crisis in Bulgaria, so if you only want funny anecdotes feel free to skim or skip this blog entry.

I'm on a train. I'm returning from the Mid-Service Conference in a town in the mountains. Red-roofed cottages dot the hills and occasionally a vibrant blue swimming pool catches my eye. A home swimming pool is an anomaly for Bulgarian families, but it makes sens. Even though the brain drain is taking place and the best and brightest Bulgarian youth and English-speaking professionals make their homes in Western Europe and the U.S., there are also many (older) laborers who work menial jobs abroad and improve their homes with the money they've saved when they return. The life of an immigrant is difficult, so one must feel enormous satisfaction when he or she can return home and be the only villager with a pool.

According to experts on the news, Bulgaria is deep in the economic crisis. When my friend explains that his factory will stay open during the usual vacation weeks in August, he sighs and I hear the familiar line "Ima crisa." Even my next door neighbors, who have an improved standard of living as pensioners because of the money their daughters send them from Italy, are concerned because of the rising cost of utilities. Most Bulgarian budgets can cover just enough for utilities, food, and the occasional clothing and entertainment purchase, so when factories shut down or have layoffs, there are little savings to fall back on. Fragile household budgets can also explain the popularity of homemade rakia, or brandy, and wine, and it they are great sources of pride for the home-brewer.

In the government sector, there haven't been as many layoffs, but the pay for public service jobs has always been very low. Before the beginning of my service, I heard about the teacher strikes that interrupted school for two months, only bringing about a nominal raise in salaries. I recently visited a school for disabled children just outside my town. My impression of the school was that it was a warm, inclusive environment and that it managed to serve the needs of its students with wide ranges of abilities and behaviors. The school may be shut down soon because of the Ministry of Education's integration initiative, which would place these students in general high schools and have one more teacher in classes with a special needs student, a very similar practice to the American school system. The teachers at this school were fiercely opposed to the policy, insisting that their students would fall even futher behind when attending an ordinary school. Their concern was personal too, however, as lately more and more schools have been shut down as a result of the reduced enrollment due to lower birthrates since the fall of Communism. These teachers feared for their livelihoods in a country where schools compete for the money they recieve for teaching each student, and only the schools that please the students survive, as students can change schools as they wish.

On that day, the minute I entered the schoolyard, an orphan girl introduced herself by staring at me and took my hand. When it came time for her to go to class and for me to leave, she wouldn't let go. I think that some students, especially orphans and institutionalized youth could benefit from integration policies, and Bulgaria is a place where institutions for the marginalized have been socially and financially neglected to an alarming degree. Ima crisa.

During that visit, I spoke to the gym teacher about life in Bulgaria. He works two jobs, as do many of the teachers there. He also owns a bar in town and explained how most Bulgarians don't have time and can't afford to travel to the beautiful parts of their own country that tourists usually see, especially the Black Sea during the summer. I asked him if he knew who he was planning to vote for in the upcoming election. He laughed and told me that it made no difference, and that the political parties were made up of Todor Zhivkov's (Bulgarian leader under Communism) cronies. He said the future of Bulgarian politics with then fall into the hands of the cronies' children. He then explained how high the taxes are for small business owners and how no one can make a profit. Before leaving for Bulgaria, I had heard the same sentiment from U.S. small business owners about the unfair taxation in a democratic context, and the Bush legacy can make one question when the best and brightest actually rise to the top, or whether money, family and connections really conquer all.

The gym teacher gave me a ride home-in his convertible. So maybe my earlier skepticism wasn't holding water. He later invited me to his house that he described as a mess because they were doing repairs and installing-wait for it- a swimming pool. Ima crisa. So people are getting by here. Life is getting tougher, but some Bulgarians have met the balance between over-working and improving their standard of living.

The elections just took place, and in a strange concurrence, the democratic group GERB, which means heraldic or emblem, won. Their slogan? To Prove that Bulgaria Can! (ie Obama's Yes We Can). Some of my friends here were cynical, citing the fact that the new Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, was Todor Zhivkov's bodyguard, and predicted that he would be a figurehead for the same policies. Others were more hopeful. They noted his successful work in Sofia and the larger voting turning (some of my colleagues had to wait in a long line to vote for the first time this year). The next year will tell, and as my language abilities improve, I think my consciousness of politics and economics will improve.

I have one year to go, and going to that conference was a reminder of how fast the time passes and how precious an opportunity I have. My goal is to limit the time that I spend with volunteers (while it's necessary to have a break from time to time) and limit my time online chatting in order to make myself more aware of the world around me and to do what I came here to do.

Keep posting comments, and if any of you can share your experience of the crisis back home, I would really appreciate knowing what I've missed and what to expect when I return.