Thursday, December 19, 2013

I bid thee adieu, 2013!

The 2013 portion of the school year is winding to a close. Students in my school are busy preparing for tonight's Christmas (Koleda) concert and, even though the term doesn't end until the last of January, I feel a sense of finality settling over the school as everyone preps for a well-deserved break. Myself, I'm prepping for my first Christmas spent abroad. My friends and I will wind our way in a meandering sort of path up to Germany, hitting Vienna for Christmas and Prague for New Year's (!!!!). Before I depart my school, town, and Bulgaria, I want to share some of the lessons I've learned this year (both in Bulgaria and in the U.S.) with those who are keeping up with me via this blog.

1. There is no substitute for hard work in achieving success. My thesis, my time with Fever, the effort of finishing my degree, and the work that goes into preparing for each day in the classroom has taught me this obvious lesson. Over and over, it is reinforced.

2. The internet is my friend. I sometimes rue our modern connectedness, but I think I would have given up on striving toward effective teaching long ago if not for the support my friends and family offer me daily through snapchats, emails, facebook posts, and skype calls. It is truly remarkable that despite the distance, my momma and poppa are still just a phone call away.

3. The internet is my foe. I can so easily come home, plop down on my couch, plug into my virtual existence, and forget to live here and to get out in my community. Sometimes, I fall prey to this. I come home just around the time everyone in the states is waking up and I always have notifications waiting to be checked. Every day, I have to make myself reach for my novel or running shoes instead of my laptop upon arriving home. It's a challenge.

4. News is awesome. Since beginning undergrad, investing an effort in understanding global news stories has been on my plate of things to do. Unfortunately, I never made time for this. Now, however, I'm a part of what American me would consider global news. I feel so much closer to all that is happening outside the U.S. (because duh, I am) and I've finally taken the time to learn about foreign political leaders, protests, trade union scariness, etc. Checking the daily news is, without a doubt, one of the best changes I've made in my life.

5. News isn't always where I'd expect to find it. Recently, I led a lesson with my older students which introduced Time Magazine and the annual Person of the Year title. We discussed the news and various news sources as well as what the title has meant historically. Not surprisingly, they were all outraged that Miley Cyrus was up for what is widely considered to be an honor. Ha! Surprisingly (to me), they taught me without knowledge of doing so that word of mouth news has changed to word of Facebook news. They said they check the weather for the day by checking their friends' Facebook statuses, they look for election results in stories posted on Facebook, and they find out about celebrity news through video shares that pop up in their news feed. Of, course, I do the same thing, but I've never stopped to think about how we are actively revolutionizing the way news is shared through our online habits.

6. Community is my number one need. Though some of my friends may beg to differ, I promise I am an introvert. I do love to be in front of a crowd if it means a performance or any kind of impromptu entertainment, but I find people and conversation and crowds to be draining most of the time and I need frequent moments of aloneness to keep my energetic spirit charged. However, I still need community. Since I live alone, I need solid community now more than ever. Thanks be to God, my previously created communities still make an effort to keep in touch with me and my newest communities, the other Bulgaria ETA's and my colleagues/ students in Dgrad, are becoming such important people in my life.

I'll end with a "quote" shared by one of the most influential figures in my life to date, my old youth leader. Note the quotes around quote...I'm not 100% certain that this is exactly what he said! Give me a break, memories are fallible. My youth leader said once that "the only sign of life is growth." I feel that I've grown this year, and by growing I know that I am truly living!

Cheers to everyone back home and everyone here in Bulgaria that has helped me learn these lessons. May your holidays be the most resplendent and everlasting kind of bright!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Turkey Day!

Let me tell you a little bit about Thanksgiving in Bulgaria. The holiday isn't celebrated beside roaring fires. Pies on pies on pies? Nay. Jumbo turkey stuffed with all manner of herbs and vegetables? Not happening. Family football game in the backyard? Uh-uh. I missed Thanksgiving as I've always known it, Thanksgiving with momma in the kitchen, grandma fussing over the gravy, dad grumbling about football and peeling potatoes, sisters fighting over who gets to eat the leftovers in the pumpkin pie mixing bowl, grandpa giving me a high five and making coffee, hands pruning up from peeling boiled eggs, family talk and good food and lit candles and all the happiness.

But I didn't miss Thanksgiving altogether! In fact, I was lucky enough to take part in two beautiful, unique Thanksgiving dinners. I was able to make pumpkin pie, to whip up mashed potatoes, to taste and smell roasting turkey, and to count my blessings alongside good friends.

My fellow teachers, school staff, and I had a dinner in the staff room on Turkey Thursday. The school's carpenter, who turns out to be a master chef (legit), prepared two flawless turkeys, one made in the Bulgarian way and the other prepared "American style." I made my first-ever homemade pumpkin pie (roasted dat pumpkin, rolled out dat crust) and all the other teachers contributed a dish- pickled veggies, macaroni and cheese made with sugar, roasted pumpkin slices, homemade wine in fanta bottles (classic Bulgaria), flavorful rice dishes. It was the most zaney, mixed-up Thanksgiving of my life, but it was delicious and made me feel so at home.


One of the teachers, one who doesn't really speak English, told me "You, our family, all of us," while motioning to the other staff members. She was telling me that I was a part of their family at that moment, and I nearly cried! This was their first Thanksgiving, and they were nearly as giddy as I felt! I felt so at home, and so grateful that they shared this wonderful holiday with me.

The second turkey dinner was celebrated in Plovdiv with some of the other ETA's. We rented a house, shopped together, and dug in up to our elbows in butter (waddup, Paula), sauces, herbs, and flour to make the dinner. I spent three glorious hours making pies, making fun of Kanye's "Bound 2" music video, and relaxing with a friend and good tunes. Dinner was, of course, hilarious. We said grace in three ways- with a jewish prayer (prayer? song? sorry, my Jewish friends!), with a catholic prayer, and a protestant prayer. We passed around a bottle of spirits and declared what we have "beam" thankful for this year, we toasted to our health, we watched fun videos. A merry time was had by all.

ETA's celebrating!

Just a little table humor.

The pie queens! Homemade apple, cheesecake, and pumpkin. Uh huh, honey!

I had assumed Thanksgiving would be difficult and that nothing could fill the void of missing my family's dinner for the first time in my life. The day/ weekend was weird and it was at some points really hard, but it was perfect and fun. So glad to have a solid group of people here in BG to share my experience with!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Kardzhali and stuff

Has ever the picture of a far away, exotic, lovely place captured your soul and in an instant, lain hold of some future moment in your life? This happened to me when I began researching Bulgaria's beautiful spots and ancient ruins.

About a month before I left Ohio, I started an intense search of the spots I should visit once I arrived in BG. I combed through travel blogs and creeped on Pinterest boards until I compiled my list of must-sees. Immediately, I was taken by pictures of Dyavolski Most (Devil's Bridge), an ancient bridge spanning the Arda River in the Rhodope Mountains. I don't know what it was about this bridge that appealed to me so much (literally, it is just a bridge), but I knew I had to see it in person. And I did!

A couple weekends ago, I visited a fellow ETA, I.K., in Kardzhali, about an hour's bus ride south of Dimitrovgrad. Another friend, Kardzhali's ETA from last year, M, who is currently teaching elsewhere in Bulgaria, was also visiting. Our host ended up feeling a little ill, so M served as my tour guide for the weekend, showing me around his old town. 

I had told M how much I wanted to see the devil's bridge and asked if he knew of any way to get there. Success, he not only had an old colleague in town who loved hiking, but also really wanted to see the bridge! So we went! Me, M, and two awesome Bulgarian teachers. The best part? These teachers are awesome ladies who gather mushrooms and herbs on their various treks, so I got a crash course in mushroom hunting! We drove through the lovely Rhodopes for about an hour before parking just far enough from da bridge for a brisk autumn walk.

It's no surprise that our destination was called the devil's bridge. Truly, the valley in which the bridge sits feels a little mysterious. It lays just a bit beyond a small town called Ardino, and the road to get to the bridge feels abandoned and like a secret. There are several legends about this 15th-century bridge. One is that in certain light, a person standing atop the bridge can see the devil's reflection in the river below. Another claims that the devil's footprint can be found on a stone of the bridge, while still another claims that the bridge, which has not needed repairs in over 500 years, is so sturdy because its creator built his wife's shadow into the structure when she died. Spooky!

I was such a happy lady during this weekend. Aside from checking off a big item on my Bulgaria list, I got to spend time with some good friends and see other lovely Kardzhali sights. First off, if you know me, you know I love anything old, anything mysterious and forgotten. I am deeply moved by traces of a different era and my creative, thinking side is intrigued when I see places and buildings that were once glorious and are now past their prime. It makes me wonder, and my wonderment makes me think and imagine. So of course, it took all I had in me to keep from bouncing like an idiot when M took me on a tour of Kardzhali's old buildings. EEP. Actually, it didn't take too much too keep me body was still processing my recently-inhaled espresso. But IF I'd been in a prime state, I would have bounced! So much bouncing would have happened!

Don't they just make you think a little bit? Make you wonder what they looked like when they were brand-new? Ahh, the lovely past.

I also saw this really wacky grouping of stone formations called the 'stone wedding.' These rock formations make up what looks like a wedding procession. My friends and I took a little walk around them. Other neatness included a walk around the town's dam (where I had to sneak pictures because the guards worry that people taking pictures are looking for structural flaws in the dam and intend to flood Kardzhali if they find weaknesses. Haha, Bulgaria!).

Since this last adventure, I've just been laying low in Dimitrovgrad. I took day trips to Plovdiv during the last couple of weekends, where I sat in normal coffee shops (GOD BLESS YOU COSTA COFFEE) and ogled at locally-produced crafts. I love the city, it's like my cultural center, only an hour away by train. Other than these day trips, I've been getting to know my students better. I now meet with 8th graders once a week to walk around town and practice English in a less formal environment than the one created in school, which has been so wonderful. I've also had some really serious talks with my older students about opinions concerning their futures, their country, and the world. These meetings, these talks-- theses are the experiences I love. The travel, the Bulgarian must-sees are noteworthy, but my day-to-day reality is the kids I teach. These daily interactions and the goofy kids I teach are what I'll remember most about my time here, I'm sure. When we have good days together, I feel that I've never been more satisfied. The good days aren't everyday, but when they happen, they're priceless.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Travel update

Most of my weekends here are spent traveling, either to Sofia or another city in Bulgaria, and up until last weekend I'd only stayed in my town on weekdays. I couldn't help it, all the sites in Bulgaria were calling to me! Travel within the country is really cheap and convenient, as there is a fellow Fulbrighter living in nearly every large city which means free housing. Bus fares are really inexpensive and there's nearly always a route that will take me where I want to go (save this morning, when I foolishly assumed I could get to Sofia early on a Saturday. Nope. Blog time!). And truly, I LOVE THE BUS RIDES. They afford so much time for reflection and give me a chance to understand Bulgaria’s topographical layout. Each bus ride adds to my mental map of the places I've visited and when I return home, the flat map hanging on my apartment wall takes shape and thickens with personal reflections brought back from each weekend's adventures.

Here's a quick recap, mostly through photos, of what I've been up to on the weekends. I've now been to the Black Sea, Plovdiv, Varna, Stara Zagora, Veliko Tarnovo (the medieval capital!), Gabrovo, Buzludzha, and of course good ole' Sofia (the modern-day capital).

One of my first Bulgarian ventures landed me in Plovdiv, an absolutely stunning city about an hour bus ride from my. A buddy and I took a quick trip here one weekend and found it to be well-paced and more unique from other European cities than the capital, so refreshing. We attended a huge city-wide arts and music festival, complete with live jazz in the streets and art shows in all the city's galleries. Made some friends, shared great conversation. A successful trip! The below photo captures the city's famous Roman ruins...a forum/ theater/ gladiator fight arena. Yes, gladiators. Gore!

The following weekend, my friends and I stayed with another ETA in Gabrovo. It was a very nice visit, but my bus ride to the city started out kind of rough. On this particular trip, my stop was not the final destination, so I needed to be really aware of road signs and distance traveled. However, I was feeling terribly car sick and kept dozing off and on while my bus wound through the mountains. At one point, I woke up at one of our stops in a state of utter confusion and tried to ask the man sitting in front of me where we had stopped. I thought I asked him correctly in Bulgarian, but I saw the what-are-you-saying look on his face, so I repeated myself slowly. He still had no clue what I was trying to say. A voice behind me said "Tell me in English." So I did. The voice then explained where we were, asked what I was doing, and informed me smugly that most people in Bulgaria understand English. The pictures below are from that weekend, during which I also saw Buzludzha and Veliko Tarnovo.

These two fine specimen are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Yes, I'm serious. No, I am not quite sure what they're doing in Gabrovo. Welcome to Bulgaria! Actually, this was a really neat display. Both sculptures are made from repurposed trash-- old shovel heads, oil drums, etc. Innovative!

Below are some pictures from Buzludzha, the abandoned communist monument. It's situated on the highest point of the surrounding hills and offers the most breathtaking view! Plus, abandoned building and exploration!

This is the window we had to climb through to enter. A determined group we were.


After Buzludzha, we ventured to the old medieval capital, Veliko Tarnovo. Why ins't it the capital anymore, you ask? I think the easiest response is that Bulgaria wanted to keep a closer eye on Serbia soooo, to Sofia and the border!

And then my travel destination from two weeks ago, Varna, a seaside city! And this lady with an infinity symbol on her behind! And this beautiful cathedral! And these kittenses! I LOVE ALL THE BULGARIAN CATS. I'm getting to the point in this blog post where I'm just typing away like a crazy lady!

My first glimpse of the Black Sea. The clouds were full to bursting, the beaches were vacant, and I was sharing a deeply meaningful conversation about how I want to spend my life with a good friend. A day for the books.

And lastly, my latest jaunt. This past weekend, I decided I was just too tired for big travel so I opted instead for a day trip to Stara Zagora, a city roughly 40 minutes from me. I met up with a friend and we had a wonderful time catching up and exploring the historical sites of the city, including the ruins pictured below and a really odd yet moving commemoration to Bulgarian volunteers who had fought the Turks in the Russian-Turkish Liberation War. Read more about the monument here.

Bulgaria has an incredibly diverse landscape for being such a small country. There are sections that roll like the sea and on cloudy, brooding days remind me of English moors. There are flat, scrubby lowlands that run parallel to distant mountain ranges, reminding me of driving through the flat expanse of Boulder, Colorado which runs right next to the rockies. Everything is at once familiar yet completely alien, and I love it. Traveling here fills me with the strangest sensations! 

Monday, October 14, 2013

It's always the same old thing

As of this moment, I have four weeks of teaching under my belt, and as does any job, teaching here has its ups and downs. A lesson will be a smash with one class and a total bore to the next, I'll hear students hush one another so they can hear me talk one moment and then I'll have to take cell phones (and tablets, and video games, and more cell phones) away the next. I have a lot of different classes to plan for each evening (whaddup grades 8-12), and I live the evening life of a middle-aged cat lady, sans the cat.

These mediocre, turbulent days are often stabbed through with shining beams of sunshine, though! Moments of sheer jubilation, like where a student about knocks my socks off. For instance, this triumphant moment: I had one of my 11th grade classes read a short story aloud, popcorn style, earlier in the week. Getting them to read was like pulling teeth! Groans and eye rolls and Bulgarian curses that I never want to understand. With one paragraph left of the story, I asked the class somewhat sarcastically if anyone was dying to read the last bit. A student's hand shot up in the back of the class, a student I'd kind of come to assume was uninterested in anything I had to say. I nodded and she eagerly finished the story. I was humbled and overjoyed in the same moment, and also reminded that no one student fits in a schema with the next. The quiet ones never fail to shock me.

Or the moments after class, when the younger students crowd around me to ask about my high school or ask if I like to sing or just simply smile at me and giggle when they can't think of anything to say.

Or the moments when they share an opinion so well formed, so poetic, I am ready to melt.

Or, you know, when they run into a translation error and I have to bite my tongue to keep from grinning. Oh, alright, I laugh out loud and just can't help myself. But I always correct them gently with an understanding smile! There are a lot of beautiful occurrences that keep me working hard for the kiddos.

One of my favorite moments, though, is a recurring moment and is one that truly causes me some heartache. Almost all of the individual conversations I have with the young people winds its way to their futures and goals. And, to their fear of not having a guaranteed successful future if they stay in a smaller town in Bulgaria like Dimitrovgrad.

Some tell me they must leave Bulgaria if they are to have a future at all. BOO. I hate this! Bulgaria is so lovely, and the tiny towns are so neat, that I hate the thought of a not-so-positive economic future for those who stay here. The dudes also tell me that everyone is leaving the villages and must find work in towns in order to make a living. One student even told me that he thinks Dimitrovgrad won't exist in the near future. All the talented youth are leaving their hometowns to seek their fortunes elsewhere, leaving behind nothing but an aging generation and the few who choose to return.

Sound familiar, America?

Brain drain. That's what this is, and that's what keeps me awake at night. I'm seriously living such a paradox right now. My main job here is to teach my students English. Yes, I am also here for the purpose of global communication and international understanding, but these students are much more valuable college applicants if they can speak English and so my main job is to help them learn the language. When I stare the thing in the face, I can't get past the knowledge that what I'm teaching is in part contributing to brain drain.

The same thing happens back home. People in smaller towns leave to receive an education and tend to stay gone in order to make a living. I did it, most of my friends are doing it, and most of us will not take our new knowledge back to the communities that raised us. Or (and I see this here, too) the students don't think they'll be able to make it in a bigger university, a big town, or financial struggles hold them back. These things make me sad.

Of course, I want my students to have every opportunity to live a good life, and of course I understand why they talk about moving to a bigger city like Sofia or Plovdiv. Regardless, my biggest concern always is and always will be our rapid-paced run toward an urban world, and the remains of what is left in the dusty, tiny towns.

So I'm stuck. I want my students to succeed, I want kids everywhere to have great opportunities and to find the resources to help them live fulfilling lives, but I also want the world to slow down a little. This is my wistful, tired post-weekend post, and I promise that I'm a happy, chipper individual most of the time. Right now, though, I'm lost in thought and wonderment at the complex issues facing this ole planet and her people.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bulgarian Blunders

I have lived in Dimitrovgrad for nearly three solid weeks and have been away from the U.S. for about a month and a half. Though I'm quite settled, learning to live alone- and I don't mean alone like off-campus where you can still hear top 40's blaring from the nearest greek house, or alone like mom is just a car ride or a phone call away alone- has been a difficult transition. Every sound I hear is a groan or a creep with a mysterious and unknown origin, mostly stemming from outdated plumbing and thin walls, and every spoken word in the stairwell drifts into my flat in a language I don't fully understand. I'm not a huge television sitcom or drama fan, but I've taken to "watching" several episodes of various shows a night while checking papers, cooking dinner, or lesson planning. I was ready for many things when I chose to move here, but absolute silence save the occasional creepy water drip sound wasn't on my list of expectations.

In spite of the strangeness of my new accommodations (which, for the record, I have come to love), I have created such a nice little home and routine here. I start out each day with an americano, a trip to the bathroom, and a shower, usually in the same place. 

Yep, I can take care of it all in one place. Check out my cute coffee situation below! I start out the day with energy to do embarrassing things! Also below: I found a lot of old, pretty dishes in my apartment, so I made pleasing little arrangements!

One of the biggest challenges in my town is the market situation. There are plenty of tiny grocery markets, butcher shops, and vegetable stands around town, but being an American, I of course went to the large western- style store, Kaufland, for groceries at first. I needed options, dang it! Here's the problem, though: Kaufland is a twenty minute walk from my apartment. I suppose I could have taken a cab, but I instead chose to roll up a duffle and several cloth totes in my backpack seeing as I am car-less and the bus system here does nothing to help me whatsoever. Toted home all that you see pictured below and then some. I also cried when I got home because my back was useless after carting six giant water bottles and more cleaning supplies than I can hold in my hands in said backpack.

I triumphed, though! My first true housewarming cooking came in the form of candied orange peels, which I'd sampled in Dubrovnik and decided to try my hand at as soon as I was able.

OMNOMNOM. Must dip in chocolate next time! Also fun in Bulgaria is the realization that all your recipes from home call for cups of stuff instead of grams and partial liters, thus making accurate measurement difficult and darn near impossible. Ahhh, Bulgaria. Or ahh, naive little american lady. Always a challenge in the kitchen. Actually, this is funny: So for birthdays, it is a tradition of sorts to supply treats for sharing with one's friends and coworkers. My birthday was the second day of school and I thought it would be the neatest thing to try making buckeye candies for everyone since I'm an Ohio native. Now, I know what you're thinking. Peanut butter is hard to find outside the U.S.! You're right, but I'd seen some at the big grocery in town and decided to try it out anyway, despite the strange consistency of Bulgarian "peanut butter." Big blunder. See below.

Needless to say, I did not supply my new friends with delicious chocolatey, peanut butter goodness. Instead, I made banana bread. Still tasty! However, my forays and occasional fails at the big store convinced me to give the tiny markets a shot. I did, and check out this beautiful (and crazy cheap) produce! This tomatoes cannot be surpassed. Truth.

I keep my produce next to my cat, Kotor. He is super cute, no? He is my only friend in the flat, no judgement.

Moving on. So something else strange here in BG..."chestnuts" are scarily similar to buckeyes! The trees are everywhere! I collect them as I walk home from school and have befriended several squirrels.

I wish there was a graceful way to segway from squirrels and buckeyes to school and amusing student drawings, but...perhaps the best I can come up with is a strange bridge that I'll build between the buckeye, my alma mater's mascot, and the Unipotato, my 9v class's mascot. They're a creative bunch.

Laughter, laughter. For one of their first assignments, I asked my 9th graders to practice using descriptive language for explaining various dishes and types of food. I then had the seasoned describers create a menu for an imaginary restaurant, using only descriptive phrases to list the dishes they would offer (green, tiny circles and skinny, crunchy, orange sticks for peas and carrots). Below is my favorite menu. Worldly children, they are.

School has been an inspiration, a blessing, a torment, a challenge, a blast, a terror, and so many other things. Once my schedule and emotions are a bit more tame, I'll post more extensively on my teaching experience, but for now I'll end with a beautiful little moment. After every class, I am swarmed with students who want nothing more than to ask questions about the U.S., to tell me about their current projects, or to ask my favorite songs and free time activities. Also, hearing them sing camp songs in Bulgarian accents is just about the most amusing thing I can imagine. I adore these kids, the chatty ones and the diligent workers alike. Ciao! (oh, and below is the center of town!)