Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Back to Bulgaria

I have been very fortunate. This summer was a whirlwind of activities, travel, planning, and meetings. I started out by attending my Mid Service Conference in the beginning of July where we discussed our experience so far and lessons we've learned. Even though the answers to our problems seem so clear in these meetings, the application is often still a challenge and escapes me at times.

I was fortunate to help out at a leadership camp for Roma youth. It was one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had so far as a volunteer. Maybe it's because something magical happens in a week at camp, friendships are made, games are played, discussions are had, and we learn a little about ourselves in the new environment. My favorite discussion was the one about problems facing Roma youth. In small groups, the students came up with a list of the problems and possible solutions in their communities. The solution for most of the problems was continuing education even though it is traditional for Roma families to start young, with wives giving birth as young as 12 or 13 years old. We also discussed prejudice and why it exists and how to overcome it. I learned a lot by helping out at this camp, and I this year I will be working with the facilitator to plan for the next camp.

In the second half of the month, I held a teachers English course and had a great time. The atmosphere was less hectic and we were able to hang out after the course together. During this time I also planned for my family's visit to Bulgaria.

I met my sister, Erin, in Spain (thanks to you, discount airlines!) and we spent about a week in Barcelona and Madrid before flying to Lisbon for a few days. I felt guilty about the excursion because it's something that I was able to save up for with my money from the U.S., and my colleagues wouldn't have had the same ability to pay for such a trip. However, the time that I spent with my twin was priceless. She was the perfect person to travel with, not to mention that she is a Spanish teacher and had studied near Madrid. We stayed with friends, and their hospitality was unforgettable. Some of my Spanish knowledge came back as I listened to them speak, and I was even able to communicate again (although I tended to mix in some Bulgarian).

All of the places we went were beautiful, but I felt truly lucky to go to Lisbon, because it is something that I dreamed of when I studied Portuguese in college. A lot of Portuguese people understand English well, especially youth, because they don't dub Portuguese over English television shows and movies. I did have to find our way around a couple times in broken Portuguese with older people and it was a trick. We finally met up with some project partners from Lisbon, and they were such sweet hosts and shared the culture in a way we couldn't have experienced on our own. If you want to know where the polite Portuguese hold their passion, listen to a fado like some of these, http://www.deolinda.com.pt/.

Erin and I returned to Bulgaria, and we picked up our parents at the Sofia airport. We made a rookie mistake and got into a cab right in front of the exit, who proceeded to charge us 40 leva instead of the 7 leva that it normally would cost to get to our hotel from the airport. I gave that cabbie a piece of my mind, though. I showed my parents Veliko Tarnovo, my town, Varna, a historic town on a peninsula in the Black Sea, Nessebur, and a small town in the mountains (with the help of some very knowledgeable volunteers-you know who you are!). There were things that I was sure they would love that they didn't, there were things that they loved that surprised me. Overall, I think they feel more comfortable that I've introduced them to my friends that care for me here. It was so good to see them again that I miss them even more.

The following week, a group of adult students took me hiking to the seven lakes at the top of the Rila Mountains and the next day we climbed the tallest peak in Bulgaria, Moussala. It was good to get back in the practice of speaking Bulgarian again, and I acclimated, feeling like I was back home.

Once I returned from the trip, I began planning for the school year. Two odd anecdotes to relate on that front. Every day I walk by a woman who has clearly lost her memory. It is the highlight of my day because she never fails to repeat the same thing. Who are you? Where do you live? I used to be young too, you know, and you're going to be old like me someday. We were the first people in our neighborhood to get a toilet. The first!

I love that woman. On the other hand, returning home from school can be problematic. I live in a Soviet apartment building (that might've scared my folks a little when they visited) that is always under repairs. One fateful day as I stepped into my elevator and pressed the button, it rose about two inches and stopped. I tried again. Same thing. I tried to open the door to get out, but I was locked inside the elevator. I knew this was a bad thing, so I called for help. Luckily a neighbor came by and as I banged on the door, he explained how to open the door by opening a panel and turning a knob. Once out, I resolved to always take the stairs, but seven floors to my apartment is a lot sometimes. Maybe I like tempting fate with my occasional laziness.

Attached are pictures from the camp, the mountains, and the trip with my family.