Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Last Post

I am back in Ohio. I've been out of Bulgaria for just over a month, and I've been in the U.S. for nineteen days. During one of those nineteen days, I watched High Fidelity for the first time. John Cusack's constant efforts to think of Top 5 record lists has had me thinking about Bulgaria and the past two years in terms of Top 5 lists since I watched the movie. This has been pretty convenient, as I've been struggling to categorize, to evaluate, and to conceptualize all that I've seen and done.

So, you guessed it, my final musings on Bulgaria and all that the Fulbright opportunity has opened up to me will be composed and presented to you in a long series of Top 5 lists. They are not perfect lists, nor are they necessarily entertaining and mind-blowing things to skim over, but they will forever serve as reminders for me of beautiful memories, sights, smells, and experiences that I will want to return to again and again. I'm happy to share more in-depth upon request! There are many lists, because I experienced many things. Skim 'em over, take a really really quick peek at what I've taken home with me, and leave a quiet moment at the end of your read to lament along with me the death of this two-year blog journey. Here we go.

Top 5 Bulgaria Experiences to Have
1. Hike the Seven Rila Lakes
2. Break into Buzludzha in the Stara Planina mountain range
3. Attend a village kukeri festival (like the Shiroka Laka festival)
4. Watch a folk dance performance
5. Watch the sun rise over the Black Sea coast

Top 5 Bulgarian Foods 
1. Lutenitsa- vegetable spread
2. Shopska salad- cheese, tomato, and cucumber
3. Banitsa- a flaky cheese pastry of wonder
4. Tsa Tsa- tiny fried fish (whole!)
5. Ayran- salty yogurt drink that changed my perspective on life

Top 5 Bulgarian Words/ Phrases
1. zapovyardate/ заповядайте = Here you go!
2. spokoino/ спокойно = calm, calm down
3. trutka/ трътка = rump (chicken butt!)
4. osmifka/ усмивка = smile
5. kotka/ котка = cat. duh.

Top 5 Bulgarian Songs
1. Byala Rosa/ Бяла Роза
2. D2- Dve Sledi/ Две Следи 
3. Trupkata (my old ninth graders will never let me live this down)
4. Desislava- Radina Mama (I think that's what it's called) 
5. Sitno Shopska (a folk dance from Western Bulgaria)
** 2 bonuses that my students would laugh so hard over
---- Otivame na kupon 
---- In the Forest 

Top 5 Student Memories
1. That one time where I tried to teach comma placement using grains, and 9a ate all the "commas" before I could check their work
2. That one time that every group in 11a had their commercials finished on time, and I may have cried a little
3. When my shyest group of students had the sassiest commercial presentation and everyone LOST THEIR MINDS
4. When Plamena G gave a speech during my first year about Bulgarian history, and everyone in the room got cold chills
5. When 10v and I had a beautiful circle talk together and everyone understood each other for a glorious moment

Top 5 Dimitrovgrad Spots
1. At the top of Penyo Penev park
2. Overlooking the town on the footbridge over the train tracks at sunset
3. The field of sunflowers behind the big Sunday Pazar
4. On the banks of Maritsa River
5. The stadium near my school

Top 5 Bulgarian Cities/ Towns
1. Dimitrovgrad, duh
2. Veliko Tarnovo
3. Shiroka Laka
4. Sofia
5. Gabrovo

Top 5 Countries Visited
1. Scotland
2. Slovenia
3. Montenegro
4. Romania
5. Croatia

Top 5 Cities Visited
1. Budapest, Hungary
2. Istanbul, Turkey
3. Tallinn, Estonia
4. Prague, Czech Republic
5. Dublin or Berlin or Bergen (don't make me choose!!)

Top 5 Travel Encounters
1. Meeting a new friend on the train who became a part of the BEST community, a person who I'm still in contact with (BULGARIAN TRAINS ARE THE BEST)
2. Running into a high school church friend in a Dublin McDonald's "OH HEY"
3. Drifting into a nonchalant Norwegian coffee shop and staying for hours, talking to other customers and having the world's best cup of coffee from the world's coolest old Norwegian man, who hand-ground my coffee beans in an antique grinder and roasted them logger-style in a cast iron kettle over an open flame, and who then bought me a block of cheese to take home as a gift
4. Staying in the same hostel in Montenegro as a Bulgarian lady whose old English teacher was the father of my American friend, and then spending the evening as a big group drinking wine late into the night on the old walls of Kotor. Such a small world!
5. Spending an hour in a sheep barn on the Isle of Skye while an older lady told my friend and I all about her life raising sheep all on her own on the tip of a lonesome island

Top 5 Travel Tips
1. When you feel like maybe you should approach someone, DO IT. Just...why not? The strangers I approached or spoke to somewhat hesitantly often ended up being my favorite memories from travels
2. If you're going to wing it, look up your transportation options and lodging options beforehand. There's nothing worse than telling yourself you'll figure it out, only to find that the plan you finally decide on won't work because there aren't transportation options that work with your plan
3. WING IT. Do it. Traveling without sure-fire plans leaves the door open to meet new friends and opt for unforeseen experiences
4. Keep a little notebook for thoughts, directions, quotes, etc. Finding my travel notes again as I packed to leave BG was like being knocked over by a wave of memories
5. When in a group, pay attention to when your bodies need food, a drink, sleep, etc. Forgetting to properly care for your body while traveling is too easy, and it often leads to extreme crankiness. Travel is leisure time, to an extent, so care for yourself!

Top 5 BG Take Aways
1. I will always give chocolate on my own birthday. This is something Bulgarians always do, and I thought it was such a sweet way to say "I care about you all, celebrate life with me today please!"
2. I'll celebrate Baba Marta in the U.S. and give martenitsa to all my friends to celebrate the arrival of spring
3. I hope to one day be able to lay a table spread as beautifully as the teachers in my school... the teacher's lounge always looked like a magazine picture
4. Recipes-- working on perfecting many BG foods
5. Retreating to nature-- many people have village houses, do their own canning, make homemade wines and foods, and take frequent hiking trips. I want these things in my life

Top 5 Life Take Aways from Two Years Abroad
1. Working with teenagers is the best, they're so creative
2. Empathy for the individual, complex life that each person leads
3. I now know my strengths and what I have to offer
4. This strange awkwardness or discomfort that I used to feel talking to new people, or walking into a full room... it is just gone. I can go anywhere, talk to anybody, and be a leader with relative ease
5. Patience for my turn, for people I interact with, and for myself. Breathing is also good!

I've had many people ask me what it feels like to be back home, and the flat-out answer is that it feels weird. What strikes me is how very normal home feels, in an extremely disconcerting way. All is much as I left it, though I feel like a totally different person moving through oddly familiar landscapes. My dad keeps telling me I'm too liberal now and he hopes I "readjust quickly"... *chuckle*

I'm overjoyed to see those I love again, and to see places that I have missed for so long, of course. However, I feel as though I am carrying my experiences and memories around with me, and that it will take some time to find a way to set them down gently and allow them to gather dust. Even writing this last post, the one that should be grand and filled with eureka moments and inspiring revelations, feels a little too close to really release in.

So what's next for me? To keep it brief, I'm applying for jobs, trying to invest more time in developing my writing, playing frisbee (always!), and continuing to work with the BEST Foundation from afar. Readjusting, and moving forward with bold and sure steps! Graduate school in the distance.

Thank you, Bulgaria, not only for the experiences you gave me, but for the lasting friendships, the chance to do some good work, and the space to grow as an individual. A month after I left you, you are still giving back to me. България за винаги!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Paradise with Shopski

This past weekend, I had the incredible opportunity to play in an international ultimate frisbee tournament in Jena, Germany with the Sofia-based team, Shopski Otryad. Although I haven't played real, competitive ultimate in two years, frisbee has strangely been a key thread in my time in BG. I've written about this before, how it sort of became the unofficial sport of the BEST Foundation tournaments, how my students like to play, and how one of my closest American ETA friends is a fellow frisbee lady. Into all of this is woven Shopski, the most spirited and welcoming group of men and women I have encountered, and that's saying a lot because I LOVE my ultimate community back home. Shopski possesses something special, and I think that something is this openness to growth, to help, to love, to spreading the heart of what the sport is. To them I owe the greatest thanks for welcoming me onto their team this year.

This was my first international tournament, and some of the rituals and activities struck me as very different from what I know in the U.S. It should be noted that I've only played college ultimate, and have only tagged along as a groupie to a few club level tournaments, and my international experiences are limited to this one weekend. These are simply the differences that I noticed, as one averagely- experienced American ultimate player.  Onto the meat of this fine sandwich!

Tournament Structure.

This tournament took place on four fields for 24 teams. Gameplay was 35 minutes long, and each game ended with a loudspeaker broadcast of Superstar DJ. Every. Thirty-five. Minutes. Needless to say, it is my new favorite jam.

I must say, this was quite a challenge for me mentally. 35 minute games doesn't give anyone the time to really dig deep into their willpower, nor did it allow for teams to throw some experiment plays. This is probably the only part of the tournament I would have changed if I were queen.

The Spirit.

Rarely this weekend did I feel any animosity from other teams, and when I did it was just one random rotten apple on a team during intense moments. Oh wait, those rotten apples also sincerely apologized for distasteful behavior such as yelling, slamming/ spiking discs, etc after games in post-game spirit circles. Like, an apology that told me they knew their behavior detracted from spirited ultimate.

!!! My beach tourney trucker hat off to you, brave honest people.

Now, I know spirit circles are becoming more of a thing stateside (it wasn't a norm I observed at tournaments when I played two years ago), but I have to say how genuinely jovial they felt at this tournament. Players clapped after each team spoke, words were chosen carefully and praise was given where praise was due. Criticism was constructive and well-received. Special gifts were given (ahem rakia ot bulgaria) and silly games were played.

Side note, I've talked to many American players who think the spirit stuff is fake and cheesy, and to them I say HOGWASH. If true camaraderie became the norm, we wouldn't have to assume that spirit was forced or spirited activities were useless. Myself, I value the community and the love that supports ultimate more than the actual game. One doesn't exist without the other. I vote to keep playing ships and sailors with a side of schnapps passed around the circle.

At the Saturday night tournament party, the dj only had vinyl discs from the 60s and 70s. o.O That was...different.

Awards Ceremony. 

The Jena tournament closed out with a big, hilarious ceremony, which a teammate thinks is more of a norm for ultimate in Europe. Do we do this, U.S.? I just recall teams leaving after they lost on the last day of gameplay, not sticking around to play out consolation games. I loved the closing ceremony, and thought it was a great way to build community and end an already wonderful weekend. Lots of pictures with other teams, (like so),

recognition for things other than simply winning first place, true beauty happened (and no, I'm not just talking about my own face). I really hope this is something that starts showing up at American tournaments.


Co-ed and communal. Yowza, was not quite prepared for that. All but three of the 24 teams were from Germany, so this shower situation was normal for most people at the tournament. The normalcy of it all pushed me to, you know, just accept it if I wanted to feel clean after a day's play. And verdict? Ain't half bad. Luckily, some of the shower goers brought jars of pickles to share, along with some wonderfully loud and boisterously echoing shower songs from the menfolk. Perhaps this is all just another attempt at building the ultimate community? One might say, a nakedly unabashed attempt?

The Takeaways.

Overall, the spirit at this tournament seeped into every second of my experience. Where I've often felt that Spirit of the Game was an idealized notion that we sometimes catch shining glimpses of during game play, this tournament was SOTG realized, come to fruition in reality. Perhaps this was just the one time a German tournament got it perfectly right, or maybe SOTG was clearly a part of the recipe because it wasn't a series type of tournament, but I don't think that's the case. Based on discussions I had with other Americans at the tournament and with German players, this type of spirited play is the norm and is an expectation.

There are many, many wonderful things about ultimate in the U.S., and there was incredible spirit to be found in nearly every tournament I have attended, but I for one want to make the personal effort to reach out to more players at tournaments.

I will always shake hands with my opponents.

I will strike up more conversations with players from other teams on the sidelines, because we are all part of one big community.

I will cheer for other teams and applaud their efforts when they make big plays.

I think as a group of athletes, we can do something for one another by focusing on what we give to other teams in addition to what we take away at the end of the day. I ALWAYS go in to win, and I try to leave it all on the field like everyone else, but glory tarnishes over time, while the wonderfulness of spreading fondness and being supportive breathes new life at every turn.

To Paradisco Jena, thank you for putting your all into this tournament, what a pleasure it was to be a guest among the other teams taking part, and THANK YOU for the beautiful contribution your support made to ultimate in Bulgaria. I will remember this tournament.....ehhh... probably forever. I'm so excited to see Bulgarian ultimate players on an international stage, and I can't wait to watch the growth that will explode in this country over the next few years.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Lines Composed Upon a Sidewalk

My first thought upon hopping off the bus after being out-of-town for a week and a half:

Dimitrovgrad, your air smells like spring!! Hey buddy :)

My second thought upon hopping off the bus after being out-of-town for a week and a half:

What am I talking about, I've been crying on the bus for the past three hours and my nose is stopped up. I can't smell a thing. I'll be leaving Bulgaria in two and a half months...HOW DID THIS SNEAK UP SO FAST?? And how will I be able to leave? (easy...my visa will expire!). 

My third thought, walking through the tunnel which runs under the train tracks separating the north side of town from the south side, when Chicken Fried by Zac Brown Band came up next on my ipod:

THIS SONG. I used this in one of my first lessons last year, and I listened to it so many times in so many classes...ever since, I have felt extreme panic every time it comes on. Now, I know I'll think of Bulgaria every time I hear the song that I used to first explain home and small-town life to my students. OH THE TEARS. Also, how cute.

My fourth thought, while walking down the cobbled street on which I dwell:

FINE, I'll finally admit it: Students, I want to hang out with you and get coffee with you to practice conversation and throw the frisbee with you and walk through parks with you as much as possible from now until the time I leave, because I really love hearing you talk about the illuminati and football and League of Legends and how much you "hate" Chalga and your thoughts on Obama vs. Putin and your distaste for schoolwork and your inexplicable love for One Direction/ Rihanna/ insert top-40s-singer-that-I-pretend-to-know-about. I really do love it all, and I really do love learning about your lives. I can never say this enough.

My fifth thought, upon unlocking my apartment door for the first time in a week and a half:

Daggonit. I forgot to take out the trash before I left. My apartment smells like a rancid meat shop. I am still a child. Living alone is hard.

My sixth thought, upon dropping my bags and looking at my empty laundry hamper:

I washed every item of clothing and all towels and folded them all and put them all away before I left, with the foresight to think about how happy I would be to discover this upon returning home from a week and a half out-of-town. I AM AN ADULT. Living alone is easy!

My seventh thought, upon sitting on my couch:

I have been self-narrating my own thoughts during my three-minute walk from the bus station to my apartment, and wondering whether to tweet about it, make a Facebook status about it, or write a blog post...

Blog wins. And curse you, technology, you and your evil influences.

*     *     *     *     *

The end of spring break had a note of finality to it last year, and it feels like the final chapter of a wonderful, wonderful book right now. While I've been away from my town for the first days of April, spring has arrived in BG. With spring comes a bit of sadness, and with sadness, the need to write stuff down. A short little post, boring for probably everyone... involved... (Dorf, that's for you) but a necessary one for ME! I needed to process the last three hours I spent on the bus, thinking about how time is my enemy and my inspiration, as I try to wring as much Bulgaria out of the Towel of Life as I can. To make up for the crappiness of this self-indulgent post, here are some fun pictures from my spring break road trip from Sofia to Slovenia, then to Austria, and then back. We literally drove across Europe. That was pretty cool.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

View of the city

Piran, Slovenia

Casual church on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea

Sea how pretty? Sea what I did there...and here...?

Who run the world? Squirrels.

Lake Bohinj, Slovenia. Basically, just go to Slovenia.


Danger. Stupidity. Adrenaline. Not me.

Tic Tacs!
(The guy that made this sign was a Realist)

Wolfgangsee, Austria

I took this while riding a bike SKILLZ

Deedee! Get out of my laboratory!

It was very cold

And, back home to my love Bulgaria. Aren't her sweeping fields just spectacular?

*     *     *     *     *

~ Highlights (or lowlights, whichever you prefer) of SB 2015~

- Finding that our GPS directed us to the Serbian border, not the Romanian border as we'd assumed, which was a problem because our rental company said NO to driving outside the EU (what a tranquil drive! And why is the bridge to cross into Romania so far outside of Vidin?). Backtrackin'

- Finding that the receptionist of the supposed 24-hour reception hotel we'd booked was asleep when we finally crossed the border into Hungary at 1:30am.

- Driving all night to Ljubljana because everyone else in Hungary was asleep, too.

- Ditching our GPS and using maps instead because it was the worst and maps are more fun

- Finding that every single grocery store in Slovenia was closed one day because Slovenia is catholic and oops, we've been living in an orthodox nation and forgot about christian Easter being a week earlier and Slovenia is not the United States so people get to go home on holidays

- Finding that every single grocery store closes early always actually and people just deal with it

- Driving up and over a mountain that we were not expecting

- Staying at a hostel where no Australians were present (miracle!)

- Watching (and acting out) Crossroads and Bring It On

- Creating a snapchat masterpiece in Salzburg to the tune of My favorite Things in honor of Julie Andrews, accidentally deleting said snapchat, and then recreating it at a lake because daggonit that thing was brilliant

Monday, March 23, 2015

And We Danced.

Last Friday, the students and teachers from my school gathered in our town's sports hall for the annual Пролетно Надиграване. Ahem. The Spring Dance Competition. Teams of five to seven participants from our school and others in town joined in the fun to showcase their talents and abilities in national folk dance.

The teams have been practicing for weeks, working to recognize the songs for each and to master the complicated steps that subtly differentiate each one. Folk dances are accompanied by guitar, accordion, bagpipes, and sometimes even the haunting melodies of folk singers (yay my favorite!!).

The event began with an introduction from the school dance instructor, Stefka Ivanova, and a wonderfully adorable dance troupe of bouncing children.

Judges were introduced, bread with honey was passed around, and two students from my school sang to begin the festivities, while a third accompanied them on the guitar.

Kalina serves bread to a judge

Galena and Yuliana sing, while Birsefa makes a face like the devil 

Each team wore matching outfits which in some way gave a nod to the costumes of old, when such dances were a regular part of Bulgarian life. Most of the groups were a mix of girls who participate on our school's folk dance team and their classmates who simply dance for fun and to uphold Bulgarian tradition. 

The folk dance team is probably the most visible school activity at Ivan Bogorov. Schools here don't have the same established sports programs at every high school like they do in America. We have a volleyball team, but other than that, I think most sports groups are affiliated with the city. I could be wrong! Understanding how sports work here is more difficult than advanced level sudoku for me. The dance team practices every week in a special room on the first floor of our school. Every Wednesday, I hear music drifting through the halls as the girls gather to practice. They have been the spearheads of this event, and helped make it possible.

I give to you...THE COMPETITORS *ding ding*

The ladies of 9a and 9b

The upperclassmen, team one

The upperclassmen, team two

The ladies of 10a 

8th grade superstars

The teachers! (forgive me)

Each team moved with such grace, poise, and spirit that it was hard for me to recognize which ones were superior to the others. I simply sat in awe for two hours as I watched everyone competing. Folk dance is moving and very, very emotional to watch. 

I asked some of my students who are on the school team to tell me a bit more about their experiences dancing, and I hope you enjoying learning about their involvement as much as I did!

Milena (left) and Kalina (right) are two of my wonderful, spirited ninth grade students. Both girls grew up in a village outside of our city,  called Dobrich, and began dancing there. They've been dancing together since they were 9 or 10 years old, for nearly six years!

Plamena (far right) is one of my talented tenth graders, and she has been dancing for 3 years.

So the big question. Why do you dance?

P- I love to dance Bulgarian folklore dances. So... in this way, we keep the Bulgarian spirit [alive], and--
M- Yeah, it's fun, we meet new people... and--
P- and it is good to know your history and your dances.

How many dances do you think you guys know?

P- like 30... 30
M- No no, noooo! 50
K- Yes 50, more than 30
S- So between 30 and 50?
M- Yes. Upwards!

Ok, Milena and Kalina, how many years have you girls been dancing?

K- Wait a minute...
M- From... 9 or 10 years old, in Dobrich.
K- Yes, since 5th grade. 5th grade or 4th grade, this is the first time we started it.
M- For six years.
S- and Plamena?
P- I have danced for three... three or four years.

Awesome. Which are your favorites?

K- The hardest ones are our favorites because once you get to know them, um--
M- You are feeling proud.
K- You are feeling proud that you know them, that you can dance this hard dance and--
P- There are... [similar] elements in many of them--
M- You feel so proud and... nice
K- Yeah and... usually they're the ones we enjoy the most, not only because they're the hardest,  they just make us... happy, like when you dance break dances, you know, they are fast and there are so many moves. It's kind of the same as when you dance one hard [dance].

What does it feel like to do folk dancing, what does it feel like when you are all together in your costumes, when you're holding hands in front of a crowd. How do you feel?

M- You get emotional because... all the things... they--
P- It's very emotional. When you see all the people standing up-- and, applause...
M- and clapping, it's really cool.

Do you feel different when you do folk dancing than when you do other kinds of dancing?

M- Yes!! I... I can't dance! I can dance just... like... traditional Bulgarian dancing. I'm just like... *does the disco*
K- But she can twerk!
S- She can twerk?!
M- Yes! *laughter*
K- Just watch some videos!
P- And you can see, we are representing the beautiful girls of Bulgaria!

Why is it important for people your age to carry on traditions like folk dancing and singing, why is that important?

M- Because everybody just dances other dances and we are forgetting...
P- We are forgetting the Bulgarian spirit.
M- Bulgarians are forgetting their past, and their dances and their traditions, so--
K- We try to remind them what we really are--
P- What they are.
K- Yes, where we come from, what our traditions are.

Where do people normally do dances?

K- In the past, they danced every night when they'd gather--
M- Every night at the center.
S- Every night?!
M- Yes, young boys and girls would just meet and start dancing, singing...
K- And get to know each other.
S- How long ago?
M- Maybe, 100 years ago.
K- Yep. There is where they would meet their future wives or husbands, that's where they'd meet and get to know each other.
M- But now we dance just... at competitions or celebrations.

Anything else you want people to know about dancing?

K- They may seem very difficult to learn to dance, but they are really simple when you try to understand them, they are not that hard and difficult, you have to try it.
M- When you dance one dance right, when you do it, you feel... so so happy, I...I can't explain it to you.
K-Yes and they have to try it.

Last question. Do you want people in other countries to try Bulgarian dancing?

M- Yes, yes...and I'm sure they will love it. And, you, too!

* * *
Subsequently, I learned two dances with the girls. And I do love it, I really really do. Dancing has always felt freeing, the action that makes me feel the most me. Learning the dances that my students and friends here cherish so fondly is an honor.

I'm always impressed when I see Bulgarians dancing, as it seems so effortless. I feel like I have tree stumps for feet when I try to join, in extreme contrast to their sprightly steps and confident posture. I know how I feel when I get one right- in sync with the rhythm and the group, a little less like an individual and more like a part of a pulsing, living something larger than myself- so I can only imagine how special it must feel to dance with your closest friends, representing your heritage. Horrah for horo!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ode To My Hood

Today was an especially nice day in my city, one in which I had the pleasure of listening to our symphonic orchestra play famous movie tracks such as Skyfall, the Indiana Jones theme, the Rocky theme, and music from the Harry Potter films. The event came as a surprise to me, as I'd been informed of its existence about an hour before the curtains rose! Shivers, smiles, and foot-taps were all a part of my experience, and such a wonderful one it was.

I'm sorry to say, I've not done such a hot job of blogging about my town, which is ridiculous because it arguably boasts one of the most fascinating histories in all of Bulgaria (in my humble opinion... more on this at a later date). No worries--I'm not going to linger on a boring, lengthy excuse for my blogging hiatus. Instead, I'll simply say that I've really been living much more this year than I did last year, and it's kept me busy! Here's a little taste of my evening (listen carefully for the disgusting throat-clear around 1:45...adds such flair).

That's right, I found a lil Hogwarts in my city esta noche. I felt so inspired listening to the orchestra tonight whose members, I might add, were sporting some killer musician-style flowing locks. While sitting back in awe, I couldn't help but think about how much art and creativity surges through this city. There are dance classes and art courses. There's yoga, folk dancing, constant photography showcases, and many many youth programs. For a city that I'm told holds no more than 30,000 people, that's an incredible amount of culture and community life. Take it from me, o-students-who-complain-of-nothing-to-do, your city has So. Much. To offer. If you're bored, you probably aren't looking hard enough for opportunities. Ouch, sorry. Believe me when I say that having such cultural opportunities at your fingertips is an amazing, amazing thing...something I was not afforded while growing up. 

I wrote this silly little poem as a tribute to the town that surprises me over and over again. Take note: I am not a poet, nor will I ever claim to be. Yes, I graduated with an English degree. No, I most certainly did not think carefully about the number of syllables in each line or anything that might require me to think too hard after a long day. Sue me! I do love my banitsa line, though.

Oh Dimitrovgrad,
How I love thee more with each passing day
From the parks that guard you at both poles
To Maritsa River that swiftly tumbles by.
I love the carefully planned streets you boast,
And your lively Nedelya Pazar,
Largest of all in Bulgaria.
Dimitrovgrad! Linear, tree-lined Dimitrovgrad!
How it thrills me to peruse your magazines,
To wander your open spaces, to dwell in your cafes.

Sweet Dimitrovgrad,
You alone boast the confident ancestry
Of people bravely starting life anew
In a town planned for youthful workers,
And created as a model for the future
Of a hopeful nation.
Your peoples came from the four corners,
And your 'welcome' sign trumps
All others in comparison.
Dobre doshli, indeed.

Dear Dimitrovgrad!
How I long to share the world over
That this place is full of life:
Full of music, dancing, singing, and creativity,
A town brimming with talent, with pride.
Even your crumbling buildings - your abandoned,
Overgrown theaters - whisper Romantic notions,
Secrets of years past, of quiet solitude
Found amidst the steady heartbeat
Of a town worth exploring.

My Dimitrovgrad,
You offer me the sweetest fruits:
Friendly smiles and a centralized avtogara,
A pleasant home and salty banitsa.
I have found in thee a true love,
Tiny city which wraps me in her
Uneven sidewalks.
Construction dust on my boots
reminds me that a new city
will soon unfold.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

That one time I joined a Bulgarian choir

Last year, while taking a leisurely walk through my town, I heard singing. Beautiful, powerful voices drifting out from one of the faded but stately buildings lining our central walkway.

I wondered...A choir, perhaps? If so, could I join in? I had immediately felt potential excitement welling up in my soul, and had scribbled a reminder in the tiny notebook I carried on my most leisurely of walks. I was bound and determined to find out more about the singing I'd heard that day, and began straight away my search for vocal art. One colleague, an angel of a friend, was kind enough to help me investigate. She diligently asked around about the singers, but to no avail. The mystery choir remained mysterious.

During university, I had fully intended to sign up for a choir, but was never able to fit a course into my schedule. Instead, I got my fix by performing Bohemian Rhapsody at numerous karaoke clubs. And yes, I was phenomenal on all occasions.

I'd had the fleeting hope that perhaps Bulgaria could be the place I'd get back into singing, as it was a great passion of mine in high school. I had even written about this in my original Fulbright application. What with teaching and my commitment to coaching speech and debate, though, this aim fall by the wayside. The tiny flare of possibility I'd felt during that walk disappeared after my no-such-luck inquiry, and I felt kind of bummed. 

Timing is everything though, right? This past Monday, that same helpful friend called me over in the teacher's room and shared that the new math teacher was a member of the town choir. THE CHOIR! IT EXISTS! Our new colleague invited me to attend practice the next day, and I felt ecstatic to say the least. One might even say my hopes were beginning to...crescendo...

So, I recently attended my first choir practice in five years. Before arriving, I hadn't really given details much thought. I love to sing, and I can read music. I love the Bulgarian vocal tradition, and I am now able to read cyrillic. Not much else to it, right?

Oh, Sarah.

Readers, do YOU know the word for choir in Bulgarian? I certainly didn't. Nor did I realize I didn't know this most vital of words until I found myself in the building that housed the choir practice room.

I arrived on practice day and quickly felt panic set in. I tapped a lady on the shoulder.

"Ummm...Izvenete? Kude e....ah...lalalalala?"

Excuse me. Where is....lalalala? These are the great communication skills I presented to a total stranger. Sorry, lady. Lady was helpful, though, and ushered me into the choir room, a small space with two tiers of metal chairs and a well-worn piano. And lots of microphones.

Once in the room, slightly reassured by all the kind faces and mild exclamations about the "angleeski" teacher attending practice, I relaxed a bit...THEN PANICKED SOME MORE. The ladies told me they had performed in Ohrid last year. And Belarus. And I think the Czech Republic and Poland?? My God, these women must be AMAZING singers. They are a small number, they MUST have tried out to be here. Bulgarians have wonderful voices and a strong vocal tradition, what was I doing in their presence? Was I being presumptiuous, just walking into their midst and declaring "tuka sum!" Here I am! Should I have asked to try out instead of just showing up? What if I can't pronounce the words correctly? What if they realize I AM A FRAUD AND I CAN'T ACTUALLY CARRY A TUNE I HAVE BEEN DELUDING MYSELF ALL THESE YEARS BECAUSE I PROBABLY NEVER COULD.

HEAVY. BREATHING. Heart racing. Face turning red. Shoulders tensed. Toes curled. Older lady taps me on the shoulder.

"Sa-rah. Az sum Baba Vaska."

Baba Vaska. She's a grandmother. Oh bless the good Lord, grandmas don't make fun of people. I might be okay.

"Kvo class? Sopran? Purvi? Vtori?" 

"Yes. Da. Uh, kind of...both? Purvi ee Vtori..?"

"Da. Sopran. Tam." Soprano. Go sit there. Smiles, indicates. Hands me sheet music. The class starts to warm up, and I start to chill out.

Warm-ups in Bulgarian are ...exactly the same as warm-ups in America. Scales, weird made-up words. Emphatic gestures from the director. This particular director had very, very emphatic gestures, and I found myself laughing over her contagious energy.

The choir was small, but the women sang from the gut. They created a powerful, room-filling sound. I felt like I could fit in with their singing style, though, and I let my curled-up toes ease comfortably back into the front of my boots, let my shoulders drop down a bit. I straightened up, and joined them. Very quickly, I realized what one of my 8th graders told me recently. Music unites people, and really, music is a universal language.

Learning to sing the evening's selection was just like learning a Latin or Italian song in high school choir. The pattern of the words takes a little time to pick up, and I had to do more listening to sound than making sound for the first few run-throughs, but I eventually got it and "joined the choir". Chuckle, chuckle, dad joke. I walked home accompanied by the choir members and promptly forgot the words I'd just learned. I remembered the notes, though, and I've been humming them since Thursday, the melody of my weekend. I'm so excited for this newest of endeavors!

Monday, October 20, 2014

I feel as though I can finally breathe again...

For the past two weeks, I have been planning like a mad lady for two huge speech and debate training events, all because I got coffee with a friend in March and started discussing a silly little dream we shared.


In the early spring of this year, I found myself sitting across from a fellow ETA at a cafe in Plovdiv. We were trying, in a most vague of ways, to put together a budget and basic outline for an idea we had hatched just two weeks before, a student leadership retreat for Bulgarian speech and debate students. 

Before sitting down to plan, I'd just been ridiculed by the most hipster man in Bulgaria for trying to order my дълго кафе c мляко with my broken language skills, and my face was still American flag-red from the sad experience. In shame (me) and somewhat clueless (both of us), we got to work, sketching up rough plans for this hypothetical retreat. 

I think our guiding goal was something along the lines of "we should find a location that feels retreat-like. Yeah, that'll teach 'em... skills..." We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

You see, we were both first-year coaches of speech and debate clubs at our respective schools, through an organization called the Bulgarian Forensics League (BFL). BFL was founded a little over a year ago by Fulbright Bulgaria teaching assistants, such as myself. Last year was their first full year in existence, and BFL amazingly acquired NGO status over the summer, becoming the BEST (Bulgarian English Speech and debate Tournaments) Foundation.

My friend and I were hoping that, if we outlined this student leadership event, BEST could find a way to create and host the retreat. Thinking about this now, I have to stop and laugh, because that whole implementation part fell onto our shoulders when they somewhat unexpectedly asked us to join the exec team in the spring, right after our naive and blind coffee shop planning session. So yeah...I found myself planning and dreaming as a team member of this brand spanking-new NGO in Bulgaria over the summer. Haha?


So far, it's been an amazing ride. We have four national tournaments planned for the year, and we just wrapped up the new coach training. I had the pleasure of watching the student retreat come to life in the form of the first annual BEST Student Ambassador Leadership Retreat two weeks ago, and couldn't have felt more happy! Two students from each participating BEST school came together for a weekend of brainstorming, planning, idea sharing, team building, singing, dancing, frisbee, pine trees, name tags, ice breakers, and reflection. 

We sang silly songs about pizza hut and jabba the hud, the princess pat and boxes of mixed biscuits. We danced our hearts out to ABBA and classic rock, we threw frisbees and bumped volleyballs, we got to know one another over shopska salad and action plan templates. Most importantly, we got to see a glimpse of the great things that can happen in Bulgaria when we give bright teenagers the chance to share their ideas and collaborate with their peers in new, challenging ways. 

I went home exhausted, but happy. I have great enthusiasm for BEST and for its potential to literally change how students view themselves and interact with their world.  If you'd like to learn more about the wonderfulness that is happening in Bulgaria, you can view BEST's website and learn more about the organization. Be sure to read about mah babies, the Student Ambassadors! You can learn more about my school's speech and debate team on our gofundme account

 Students and I spreading the word during school!

My goofball little friends