Thursday, May 14, 2009

Outbound for Liberia

Preparing for my long-awaited departure for Liberia, two pieces of advice have guided my thoughts. My first day in Bulgaria, our Country Director recommended that we "leave all our expectations at the door." If anything could have defined my Peace Corps experience, that was it. The idea that we could somehow be prepared to understand the challenges and rewards that each of our unique skill sets would bring to the communities we lived in was premature. It would take us months to realize that more-so than any language barrier, "success" was impeded by our belief that what worked in American communities would work in Bulgaria. Only when we abandoned our ideas about how to cut and paste American examples onto the current community were we able to help Bulgaria address its development needs in a way that was more inclusive and more sustainable.

I know that no matter what I do today or how many books I've read about Liberia, when I step off the plane in Monrovia, I will be stunned. For me, the only way to proceed is to simply accept that, and to be ready to adapt.

The second piece of advice was to bring rain boots. While some people may bless the rain down in Africa, hopefully these boots will keep me from cursing it!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

malko na balgarski...

Veche zapochnah da broq neshtata koito shte mi lipsvat. Obache, nqkaksi ne moga da gi izbroq. Milosta, Lubeznosta… kak se broi tokova neshta?

Chustvam se tolkova kasmetliva che po vreme na tiq 2 godnini se zapoznah s mnogo hubavi, inteligentni i mili hora. Ponqkoga, imam chustvato, che nikoga prez jivota si, ne sam bila povecha obichena ot sega. Otvaraiki rutseto, bulgarite v Pernik sa mi prieli kato chast ot semestvoto si. Osobono kato mislq za samestvoto na moqta sutrudnichka, razbiram koklo veliko neshto e da vzimash nqkoi kato dopulnitelen chlen na samestvoto si. Nadiavam se i na tqh da razbirat kakvo sa napravili za mene. Dumite ne mi stigat… me moga da obisnq do kakva stepen sam blagodarna. Sled tiq 2 godini, taka se chustvam kato u doma ci, che na mene mi a muchno da si hodq.

Istinata e, che sam si izjiviala bezbroini ujasni neshta- nai-veche tova ojesh e na blogodarenie na Korpusa i lipsvaneto na jelanie da razbirat kavo stane (osobono kato tova neshto predstavlqva neshto “neconfortno” da napraviat.). Znam kakvo e da se usetish opasnosta u doma si. Izjiviqh mnenieto ot drugi che sam mursaliva i che ne iskam da se opravq neshtata sama. Chesto se chustvah samotena, bez nadejda, oburkana i poburkana. Borih se za neshtata koito na drugite ne im se struvashe da napravq- imam predvid che vqrvam che vseki idin ot nas trabva da ima shans na ranvo da usepqm, osobono horata ot multincva.

Osven tova, kakvo nosq v sebe si? Poraznah- povecheto otkolkto po-malko. Pokajah na sebe se che moje i izik da naucha. Prikarvah vremeto i migove kakto tribva- kakto idvat, ne kato sustezanie- koi kolkoto moje. Razbiram, che chuvek naistina moje da vuzdeistva ha rezultatite na nashiq jivot, ili puk da okazva vlianie na nqkukvo promiqna kum dobro. Naistina, tolko mnogo neshta moje da napravim koito pomagat na horata…. Da stanesh obiknoven dobrovolets i da uchasvash vuv pochistvane v kvartalniq park…
chao Bulgaria! Vinigi shte se gordq s Vas!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Where they don't speak Bulgarian

I had no idea what stop we needed to get off at. Those are the kind of adventures I participate in as of late- deciding that I have a pretty good idea where a bus might take me, though harboring the thought that in actuality, I'm not so sure... But to be more correct, its not that we didn't know where to get off, its that we weren't even really sure what we were heading into. Finally we spotted the Red, White and Blue and jumped out of our seats, pushing by the locals to get to the door before the driver speed away. The Russian Embassy. Part I.

On September 17th, it was freezing. Only a month before we had been running for the shade and substituting practically every meal for cold liquids and ice cream, but today was decidedly gray. And cold. Did I mention cold? Christin and I had a small list or errands to run before braving the consular's office of the Russian Embassy in pursuit of visas. After reading practically every webpage dealing with Russia and Russian visas, we were skeptical that Russia would be ebullient to grant the likes of us- young "good-willed" volunteers, fluent in a cousin language, educated in a former strong-hold of the USSR - tourist visas to the Motherland. None the less, we decided to brave the bureaucracy. We'd contacted travel agencies, hotels, hostels, private companies in search of the two coveted documents in the process; an official invitation (required for all foreigners) and a hotel voucher to confirm our stay. Now it was go-day. After finishing up our errands, we took a break for lunch. At 12:45 sharp, we made our way to the consular's department.

It was with shock and desperation that I began piecing together the sign infront of the embassy's consulate entrance. Working hours- 9am-12pm, M-F except for every 3rd to last wednesday of the month...WHAT??!?! We both immediately began grumbling about the lost time and money involved in getting to this step, and I personally began replaying moments from earlier in the day- if I hadn't helped that poor, lost Canadian dude, we would have caught an earlier bus, if we had simply run by the consulate to see what the hours of operation were, we surely would have been accepted...etc etc. We commiserated and agreed to meet up the next, just this time, a bit earlier.

One would think that Bulgarian is spoken in the Russian embassy in Sofia. But as with every endeavor into bureaucracy, thinking seems to get you nowhere. We stuggled at the first window, baffled by the fact that neither our American passports nor our pleas for the conversation to occur in Bulgarian were considered. Luckily the guy behind us was more than willing to translate the Russian into Bulgarian, and in a short while, we realized that I had no proof of health insurance. Christin advanced to line #2 as I made a detour to the German Embassy where a friendly lady issued me aan ffordable travel/medical insurance policy for up to 10,000 EURO. Back at the Russian embassy, I was greeted with more Russian. Then a quick interview and a large sum of money ($150 for I week in Russia!) were exchanged and we were dismissed.

Guess what language they spoke when I returned to pick up my American passport?

Russian lessons, anyone?

filosofstvane...thoughts on conformity

I love capital cities. The mixture of expats, diplomats, and nationals who are desperately fleeing from the past, and those who stubbornly refuse to admit that, like time, tradition all too easily passes into the world of things ephemerally treasured.

The interminable question seems to be; change or tradition, or perhaps, conformity versus individualism? But here is my question- need we live our lives based on the philosophical stipulations set down by long-since deceased old white dudes?

Here are some recent conversation topics that I've had in the last two weeks that have brought me to this post.
*Country music- is the old stuff as good as the new, and more importantly, is the new stuff really even country?
*Architecture- areas of downtown Sofia are obviously influenced by Vienna-educated Bulgarians
*Success- Why is an individual's redefinition of the standard of success cause to incite hostility in others?

When we choose a different path in life, some people seem to see that as a challenge to their chosen path- as if our declaration of what’s good and right for us is inherently a denunciation of theirs. Ever so more is this true if the offended party is living a typical and successful life. So what is it about the average person that they feel a need to be so possessive about an experience that is really more about the collective – society’s goals- to the extent that those who deviate, either “above” or “below” the mainstream, are seen as a threat?

Conformity allows society to run smoothly. Without conformity, there would likely be political and social chaos. Conformity means that Coca-Cola can more easily observe the average 14 year old American and determine what kind of product to release. After all, isn't it nice to go to the store and realize that you like all the stuff that's available? (I assure you, its much better than going in and realizing that half the products scare you into hunger...)

Idividuality, on the other hand, is the thing that bring us new ideas. Sure, conformity is the thing that makes them happen (acknowledgement of employee-employer responsibility, free markets, mass-media campaigns, etc), but without the innovative person who is willing to deviate from the norm, where would the new ideas come from?

Everyone is glad that Steve Jobs gave us the iPod, yet Cat Stevens can't come back to America. Go figure.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

episodic moments

As grape season flourishes here in the "Shopska" region of Bulgaria, I'm reminded of my first Bulgarian autumn. Two years ago I found myself living in a part of the country where people are immensely caring and warmer than their compatriots (so I'm told...). Everyday I woke up to a full breakfast - tea, coffee, milk, toast, homemade jellies, fresh fruit, and who knows what all else - and I scurried off to language class with Courtney, Erica, Alex and Anna, where conversation inevitably turned to commentary about fleas or the best pretzels, or why in the world Anna preferred nescafe when a perfectly good cup of turkish style coffee was the exact same price...

But when I think about that fall, I think about my wonderful and loving host family, and all the things they tried to explain to me, all the situations I couldn't yet comprehend, and the hilarity that ensued once we realized that I'd confused the words for "more" and "stop" at the dinner table! I think I often baffled them; spitting out the grape and watermelon seeds, not drinking 3 cups of coffee a day, and taking an interest in the small-time agriculture/harvesting that many families participate in.

Gathering grapes in the family vineyard is a memory that I'll never forget. It must have been 90 degrees, the air thick with a rarely experienced humidity, and the whole family was off to pick grapes. When my first pleas to assist the family were ignored, I had to utilize my entire vocabulary to convince them that I was truly interested! After a quick lesson from our next-door neighbor Mira I became a sanctioned grape cutter, and with the most dangerous looking pair of shears I've ever held in my life, I began happily snipping away. There were a few incidents with bees, but all in all, I think it was some of the only manual labor I've ever enjoyed. I think about it each year, and I wish I knew what week was grape gathering week, because I'd drop everything to go down and help once more!

I've got nearly 6 weeks left as a volunteer here, which means its time to start making plans and securing plane tickets!! My friend Christin convinced me into a trip to Russia, so I've been spending the last few days trying to get the travel visa in order. In the meantime, I've stumbled upon some very interesting sites!

you've heard of volunteering, nannying, eco-tourism, etc...but now...MISERY TOURISM!

offered, as far as I know, only within the freezing depths of Russia, misery tourism offers something that the well seasoned traveler has yet to experience; the realization that life outside the affluent is complete disparity.
check it out for yourselves!


Lately I've started reading blogs of other Americans who live in Bulgaria, and I fear that most of this time, I've been depriving any of you readers out there of a clear picture of Bulgaria. So many of these blogs are filled with pictures from everyday life, products that you can buy, or simple anecdotes that by now, seem normal. In my last few days, I'll see if I can't remedy that on some level....

Monday, August 27, 2007

A meme from Andrea

Four jobs I have had in my life:
1. Tractor driver
2. Bartender at a nascar bar
3. Political Organizer
4. Research assistant

Four countries I have been to:
1. Taiwan
2. Austria
3. Macedonia
4. Italy

Four places I’d rather be right now
1. Anywhere in America, waiting to see the lunar eclipse
2. Inaguration Day, Jan. 2029 (see me? I'm on the left!)
3. A nice fancy gym with lots of unoccupied elipticals
4. Rockefeller Center, christmas morning

Four foods I like to eat:
1. Lime tostidos!
2. Lettuce wraps from PF Changs
3. anything from Subway
4. rice and meat stuffed peppers

Four people that I would like to tag:
2. Apryl
3. Koubi
4. Alex

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Flexing my vocab muscles

There was a time in my life when I believed that swearing was unnecessary. I was of the opinion that my lexicon had been enriched by a multitude of institutions and that surely I could think of a more intelligent way to express myself, and if I couldn't, well, I was just a result of poorly allocated governmental funds... Bearing in mind the rather high opinion I had of my linguistic ability, I smugly sifted through the pages of a discarded GRE book left in the Peace Corps office. In only took a minute for that smug expression to slide off my face, replaced by a look of disbelief. In that moment, the library echoed with a string of obscenities that more than compensated for all those bygone years...

Much like a fresh-faced 18 year-old, newly graduated from highschool, or the 20 something clutching the much-sought-after diploma, I've found the end of my Peace Corps experience to be surrounded by an unending and familiar refrain; "Wow! So, what are you doing to now?" Anticlimactially, I responded as honestly as I could, expressing frightening uncertainty about my future. Finally, however, I resigned myself to the fact that just choosing an option would abate the questioning from others, and on a superficial level, from myself. The choice: GRE preparation!

After some investigating, I realized that quite a few PCVs had found time during their service to take standardized tests such as the GMAT, GRE or LSAT, and that some of the testing schedules were as readily available as there are in the US! Step two was to find some good study materials and a study partner who would be more adamant in study behavior than myself. (As a college student I was notorious for taking test after reading through my notes once or turning in papers that were still warm from the printer. I once handed in a paper with math problems written on the opposite side, much to the amusement of my roommates who later hung it on the fridge.) My parents brought me a GRE book from the states, and I found a study partner after my friend Mladen told me that he wanted to study in the US.

Now, let's return to the vocab. Americans, evidently, use significantly fewer words in their daily lives than the average Bulgarian. Maybe we're lazy, or maybe we use more slang, but whatever it is, its been a great source of joy in my workplace. "How is it possible that you don't know all the English words?!?" they asked me. I tried to explain that a lot of these words are only used in literature (some aren't even used at all, I'd wager!) and aren't part of everyday speech. After another round of chiding, I pointed out that the word "ambidextrous" was conspicuously missing from the Bulgarian language...this was the closest I could come to redemption. My pride wilted once again after my first study session with Mladen. Not only had he studied about twice as many lists as I had, he also had a disturbing knack for giving pin-point definitions to the words that challenged me the most!!!! Further investigation revealed that a disproportionate amount of the words are exactly the same in Bulgarian. We (I) then decided that you have to be Bulgarian to get a good score on the GRE verbal...


The newest crop of PC volunteers (officially "trainees" and not "volunteers" until they earn their wings) arrived in country last week. I was asked to be a resource volunteer, which means that I will help during the training session to transfer skills and knowledge that we've picked up during our two years here. A few days before our first official meeting with the newbies, currently volunteers were warned that a new dress code was in place for incoming volunteers, and we were "strongly encouraged" to adhere to it as well. Normally, I like rules. I'm kinda into them. I think they make society run more smoothly. This time, however, I had a bit of a beef with PC. They asked that and PCVs who had visible facial piercings remove them before interacting with the new kids. The policy actually alluded to the idea that volunteers who were not in compliance with this policy (whether when interacting with the new people or working in their own cities) we not effective volunteers. Naturally, I got kinda fiesty and wrote some emails about the flawed policy implementation (you could, for example, have a purple mohawak, and that was acceptable) and received several phone calls, and finally PC stepped down! It was a pretty exciting moment though, and this is a highly abridged version of the event.


I never wrote about Spain! Spain was a pretty good time and I got to swim in the Mediterranean sea, meet up with a friend, go to clubs til 6am, eat some crazy food, see some awesome buildings, and survive 5 hours waiting for a train! I also saw a train dining car for the first time in my life, ran into a former PCV from Pernik, reveled in the availability of licorice, and saw an amazing classical guitar concert!! All in all, a pretty good time! :)