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 Every sound I hear is a groan or a creep with a mysterious and unknown origin, mostly stemming from outdated plumbing and thin walls, and every spoken word in the stairwell drifts into my flat in a language I don't fully understand.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!)

Monday, September 16, 2013

First day of school! First day of school!

 I don't quite know how to describe my first day in a Bulgarian school other than as an experience. For starters, I have a very temperamental alarm clock and, you guessed it, I woke up about half an hour later than I planned. After a speedy breakfast and shower (and surprise skype call from mom wishing me luck on my first day), I did what I do best...I ran to school to arrive on time. Sigh, some things will never change. Surprise, the starting ceremony was to begin a half hour later than I'd thought. Sweaty, anxious me enjoyed some banitsa (salty bread stuffed with cheese) while I calmed myself and prepared something brief to say to in front of the school when announced.

I'm not sure what the typical first day of school is across the U.S., but I know for my high school the day usually consisted of a rule-heavy assembly, classroom expectations, and schedules. Not so in Bulgaria! Here, every school in the country begins on the same day with what can only be called a celebration of the new year. Student after student bestowed their teachers with beautiful flowers in every color and variety. A cameraman was present, as were the mayor and a dj. That's right, a dj. At half past ten, the whole student body gathered in the school yard for a festive ceremony led by two upperclassmen. Students, teachers, and important municipality persons gave speeches (bulgarian bulgarian bulgarian *applause* bulgarian bulgarian *laughter* bulgarian bulgarian ciao!) and shared brief performances. Flags were raised, the anthem was sung, the school's history was read.

I was introduced as well and asked to say a few words, which I did very nervously. I also threw in some Bulgarian words much to the students' amusement. One of the students sung an English song to welcome me, which was awesome. It was a pop song and I'm pretty sure it was about a relationship, but whatever, still cool. The overall atmosphere of the ceremony was lively and all the speeches were shared over a gentle hum of chatter and laughter.

My favorite parts of the morning were learning some of the traditions of my school. For example, some of the older students welcomed the 8th graders (the youngest students in the school) in an absolutely baffling way. Apparently 8th graders are referred to as 'rabbits' because they are so timid and skittish. The tradition is that older students bring a basket of carrots and cabbage to the microphone and inquire of the 'rabbits,' "What is this?" in English and German, expecting the new kiddos to answer in both languages. Then, all are given carrots and cabbage. I was also given a carrot and cabbage because I am a apparently a rabbit, too! After the ceremony, various teachers explained to me what was said during all the speeches and I was encouraged to eat and eat and eat. These were the happenings of my first day as a teacher in Bulgaria. I'll meet the other teachers for dinner tonight and will begin real classes tomorrow morning!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

This is the way...the way to adventure!

It's been quite awhile since my first post, over three weeks in fact. In that space of time I've finished up my training as an ETA in Pravets, traveled all over God's green earth, met the teaching staff in Dimitrovgrad, and officially moved into my new digs. I wish I could share all about the wonderful things I saw, the new foods I tasted, the people I met, and of course the awkward travel moments that are just a sad truth of my life. However, no one wants to read a novel, so I'll settle for a sharing a recap instead.

The second week of FISI was much like the first-- informative, beautiful, and maddening all wrapped into one, with the biggest difference being the level of closeness my new friends and I ascended to. I think we all moved beyond that polite stage where everyone wears their best face all day and dug into the more nitty gritty of who each of us are, the good and the bad. In short, the second week brought us all closer as a strange little Bulgarian family unit. I'm definitely going to need these people in the coming year, far flung though we may be.

As far as travels go (get it? as far as travels go? I'm traveling... far... never mind), holy cow where do I begin? Well, at the beginning, of course! Two of my friends and I set out on the 26th from Sophia with a flight to Budapest, Hungary.

Yeah, we were excited and took full advantage of the tourist-y, English language welcome mirror. Hey, at least Budapest is self-aware of itself as an international destination, eh? Moving on. So a quick run-down of the city for those who, like me (til now), don't get out much. Budapest is split into two very different city sections by the Danube River, the Buda side and the Pest side. Creative. Buda towers above the Danube, with the Buda castle at its crest, looming from the top of a large, reinforced hill. It is the quieter, pricier, less tourist-flooded half of the city, all windy streets and colorful residential buildings. It features one of my favorite city sights, St. Mathias Church (seen below)! It is also the site of my first of many encounters with bright pink restrooms...what gives, Europe?

The Pest side is quite the opposite of Buda. It's streets are laid in well-planned grids, it is cheaper, more full of life, and is where most tourists stay. It houses Parliament, St. Stephen's Basilica, the Jewish quarter, and the largest of the city's Turkish baths (high fives for swimming in a thermal pool that feels like everyone took a simultaneous leak).

My favorite part of this Budapest trip was hands down the chance I got to sightsee and catch up with one of my frisbee teammates, who joined me in the city for three days. We shared so many wonderful talks and some nice Hungarian wine, it was a splendid adventure. Other highlights include a night walk of the city, a visit to the museum of terror (a commemoration to those who suffered at the hands of the communist and socialist regimes), and a trip to the baths of course! AND GOULASH. One of the more flavorful nasty looking meat dishes I've tasted.

The travels continued southward on the 29th, with the next stop being Zagreb, Croatia, interceded by a long train ride, a sad omelette, Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories entitled Interpreter of Maladies (highly recommended), a stop at Lake Balaton, and the travel version of Apples to Apples. Let this be a lesson to you, friends: always research the currency and conversions of the country you're entering beforehand, saves a headache and a lot of confusion when you're unable to find the conversion rate and have no wifi access in the dead of the night upon arrival in Croatia. Ahem.

So Zagreb. My friends and I rented an apartment a little ways outside the main city center and were met by the apartment owner on a shadowy and graffitied street corner late on the night of our arrival. Sketchy. Quite literally, what with the graffiti. Let me tell you, this man was a CHARACTER. Neon pants, tomato red chucks, salt and peppa Einstein style hair, polo with a sweater draped over the shoulders, and the zaniest electric blue eyes of my life and yours. A really friendly, chatty sort of fellow. The kind who tells you his family history and almost keeps you from getting dinner before the restaurants close with all his talk but who also offers you the gift of Croatian chocolate as a welcome present. I liked this guy. He recommended some wonderful city sights and offered a great, if not ridiculous, introduction to the city. He also said Croatia is safer than Bulgaria. Hmmm... but Zagreb has such a nice pace and houses some wonderfully talented local crafters and artists. And it houses the Museum of Broken Relationships, can't forget that one. I stayed in Zagreb for two nights.


Also visited were Plitvice Park, Zadar, and Dubrovnik, each lovely in its own way and pictured below. 


The above is an old Roman forum in Zadar

Cheesin' on the sea steps in Zadar

Above is the fortified old town of Dubrovnik, where I spent three days. GORGEOUS. The most eventful thing to happen to me in Dubrovnik was equal parts disappointing and awesomeness. Shifting into story mode. On my last full day in the city, my group chose to end our hot, walking-heavy day with a late lunch and a few hours spent wading in the Adriatic. We had spotted a secluded-looking beach from the walls of the city, well beyond where most of our fellow sightseerers were venturing and set out after a huge food regret of a lunch, uphill for at least a mile, maybe more. The sun was scorching, our feet were tired, but that beach looked blissful. We crested the hill that leads down to the tiny beach only to be stopped by some security men and were turned back with the explanation that the area was being used for filming. However, on our walk back to the town, we passed a couple who informed us that the filming was for the fourth season of Game of Thrones. !?!?!?!! Obviously, we got out binoculars and our zoom cameras to sneak a peak. Sure enough, we spotted filming crews and some medieval-looking flags. As for our beach time, we just ended up at the crowded beach and were still able to relax and enjoy the deliciously cool little waves. Neat. A shot of the old town rooftops can be seen below.

I think my favorite stay of the trip was the final destination of Kotor, Montenegro. The small city is situated just at the base of the surrounding mountains with sea water filling in the low valleys. Like the places I visited in Croatia, Kotor was also surrounded by high, thick stone walls. The old city's fortifications climb quite high above the city and end in a large ruined fort that overlooks the harbor and mountains. Beyond the walls of the fort climbs a steep, winding trail which leads to the top of the mountains. Fun fact- Montenegro's eleven year old children with barbie backpacks are far more superior hikers than a pack of 20-something Fulbrighters. The city itself is windy and made completely of stone, with old buildings sagging tiredly toward one another in a really beautiful way. Our hostel, Montenegro Hostel (aptly named) was a friendly, welcoming establishment and served the best five euro meal I've tasted. My hat off to you, middle-aged German cook lady. Below are views of the old town, from within the walls and from the fort, followed by a view of the harbor from the highest point I reached on the mountain trail.

Aside from a sleepless 12-hour overnight bus ride that passed through Kosovo, my travels ended pleasantly with a last meal in Kotor of risotto and prawns followed by a highly necessary espresso. I experienced some really magnificent cities and had a really relaxed, worry-free trip, but the sight of Dimitrovgrad's central bus station was perhaps one of the most welcome sights I've laid eyes on since arriving in Bulgaria. Next post will be more entertaining than this whirlwind travel recap and will shed a little more light into my day-to-day life. Til then!