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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lessons and Looking ahead

First things first, I owe readers an update and a bit of context. For those not in the know, I spent the past year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bulgaria, and I leave home in one week for year two in my town, Dimitrovgrad. 

I tried, I really tried, to write a thoughtful yet void-of-sap blog post about what these past two summer months have meant for me, and how they've helped me synthesize all that I learned and experienced during my first year as a Fulbright ETA. Things did not go according to plan. It was still sappy and I don't think anyone but my grandma wants to read that hogwash. I also tried to liken my summer to a juicy, greasy cheeseburger for a few paragraphs. You don't even want to know.

So what was this summer for me, besides being an in-between for my two years with Fulbright? It was road trips, reading, writing, and planning. Google hangouts, visits to see friends and family, a lot of musical discovery. It was a great time to invest in meaningful friendships, but it was surprisingly a lot of time, yet again, spent with myself. The only bit of regularity to my summer was the frequent list-making I did: lists of new ideas, checklists to complete (or not complete), a summer bucket list, lists of good food I need to have before going back, lists of lessons learned, and the list goes on with a drawn-out etc! I feel like I spent my summer months dreaming, gearing up for the year ahead, and finding rejuvenation for my soul. In the spirit of keeping up with this list thing I've got going on, here's a list of experiences from my first Fulbright year that I found meaningful, and that I hope will be continued in this next year.

Traveling cheaply
Frisbee and working out with students 
Music sharing with students
Keeping up with friends and making new ones
Making videos
Listening to country music
Thinking about and focusing on my religious walk
Cooking and eating well
Teaching wacky lessons
Speaking Bulgarian
Visiting villages
Vegetable Markets
Daily walks around my town
Banitsa banitsa banitsa

I'd like to expand briefly on a few of the items on this list, as I think they require some explanation and attention.
  • BFL. BFL is an English-language speech and debate organization formed in Bulgaria two years ago. In a nutshell, I learned that I love it and a large majority of my efforts this year will be put toward making this organization rewarding and sustainable in BG and enjoyable for my students.
  • Blogging. I started my first blog last year and discovered a love-hate relationship. Blogging is EXHAUSTING, yo! I realized a little slowly that the blogs my readers enjoyed the most were not my travel updates, but were instead those that taught them about Bulgaria or provided funny anecdotes of my day-to-day life. Duh Sarah. So, I've been re-thinking my approach to this blog. I hope the coming year offers readers more frequent, digestible, and real tastes of This Bulgarian Life. I also hope to improve my writing: to be more straightforward and to balance my cheesy, jovial sense of humor with readable stories. The afore mentioned cheeseburger metaphor approach might not have been my best attempt. I'M TRYING, OKAY.
  • Listening to country music. Now, I am quite the bluegrass fan, but country is not a genre I ever thought I'd take delight in. There's something so American about the music, though, and I just couldn't help sharing it with students and listening to some of the older artists when I found myself missing home. Result: I think I might actually like it. OH NO. I want to sincerely apologize to my childhood friend Emmy, who always shared a bond with me over our mutual hatred of country songs. I'm going to gear some musical efforts toward learning more about the old stuff this year.
  • Teaching wacky lessons. The most important thing I learned over the course of last year was what type of activities most engaged the young people I spent time with each week. Toward the end of the year, I started bringing in ridiculously comical blog posts and zany games, outlandish news articles and simply interesting reads about our world. I think we were all bored by the "important" things I tried to teach them, and I realized FINALLY that no one wants to talk if they're not excited or moved in some way. I want to really, really strive to bring interesting, unique, and relatable topics to class this year, and to find ways to help my more shy students feel comfortable practicing English with me. I like having fun, and I'm pretty sure Bulgarians do, too.
  • I made a stupid parody youtube video of Robin Thicke's sad Blurred Lines at one point when I got tired of grading essays, just because I basically would give my right foot to be the female version of Weird Al and it was late and I hadn't eaten supper yet and sometimes, I get a little excited. People loved it, I had a blast making it, and I feel like I will be supremely disappointed in myself if I don't take my talents to the wider YouTube audience with more frequency. Friends, hold me to this!
So yeah, that's my list. My mind is open, and my journal is waiting to be filled with anecdotes. Being home with my family these past two months has been so nice, and I have loved every second that I spent reunited with my wonderful friends. Summer was quiet and largely uneventful, but then I guess that's the joy of being home again-- finding joy in silly little things like salsa in the cupboard, pandora working flawlessly, free water, and having my friends within a couple hours' driving distance. 

One last week home! 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Disc + Students = Happiness

Exactly a year ago, I spent an afternoon tossing disc with three really great friends. We were at Bonnaroo, a music festival in Tennessee, and we’d been concert-going for hours. We needed a break, and we needed to relax a bit. All of us being ultimate players, we did what we do best- we found a somewhat unpeopled field between the festival stages and started opening up big, floaty throws to one another across dry and trampled grass. After awhile, others began to join us- there’s something about seeing a forehand huck in the midst of flower crown-wearing girls and sunburnt guys and knowing that you’ve found your people in a sea of strangers. We met players from other college ultimate teams and spent a glorious few hours throwing, catching, moving, and feeling completely free, if not somewhat dehydrated. 

I remember this afternoon with extreme clarity not because something tremendous happened, but because the moment filled me with such a sense of “this is how life should feel” that I’ll never again doubt the power that frisbee has to draw people together.

One of my goals this year was to play frisbee with my students, because DUH I knew they'd love it...who doesn't love tossing flat, circular plastic around on a hot spring day? Surprisingly, this was a really hard thing to make happen...maybe when I told them “it’s fun, guys!” they thought of the sort of “fun” I promise before beginning a mildly not boring class activity.

After a while, I dropped it. I stopped suggesting that students toss at a park with me, or that we try to organize a game together. I stuck my head down and got involved with other projects, focused on lesson planning. In my heart of hearts, though, I felt sadness. The knowledge that I was letting a really great bonding opportunity pass gnawed at me most of the year, but I just kept putting frisbee on the shelf (actually, on a tiny white hook in my entranceway, where it decorates my boring wall). 

Very recently, though, I decided give frisbee another chance. I figured the only way the young people would try frisbee would be to throw during our lunch break, even though my school's courtyard is a concrete lot and I knew that my disc was going to die a rocky, scratchy death.


It. was. FUN. In a way that English class will never be, in a way that cafe visits will never quite achieve, this short space of time was fun- the perfect way to gather with my students and share something I love with them. Because of frisbee, I've had real conversations with some of my younger students for the very first time, and because of frisbee, I feel like I can carry a guaranteed smile into school each day, provided I remember my disc.

Just last week, a small group and I headed to our nearby stadium and tried to play an actual ultimate game. Everyone played really well, but after awhile the organized event broke down into people tossing multiple discs, running for deep throws, break dancing in the grass, and just hanging out. I had such an incredible time, and I couldn’t help remembering that afternoon I spent at Bonnaroo with my best friends, connecting with random strangers and just living for the pure joy of living.

our stadium

(ain't it a great tree?)

There’s something about frisbee that brings people together. I don’t know if it’s the feeling you get when you release a smooth, long huck, or if it’s the fact that throwing allows you to connect with people wordlessly and from afar while simultaneously having time to reflect, to ponder on your own, in community yet in harmonious solitude. 

One of the most important things I’ve learned about myself this year is that I love community and I am really, really happy when I can help create connections within people groups. It's taken me a long while, but I finally feel like I've built community with my students and my school, and I know that this community will be the foundation for any great work that happens next school year. My little plastic circle helped cement together the communities I’ve been constructing all year.

If any future ETA's read this, please know that one of the best ways to impact your school is to share what you love with your community. When you are enjoying yourself, your passion will inspire others. Don’t be afraid to invite people to join things multiple times because we all need a little push every now and then. Be open, accept and give invitations, and you’ll have a really fulfilling year! Though this week is my last week teaching for the current term, I don’t really feel sad because I know that next year will bear more fruit and will be a continuation of all the goodness I’ve experienced thus far.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Letter to Nina Dobrev

Dear Nina Dobrev,

I wish you could step into my high school classroom in Bulgaria, just one time, when we're talking about heroes. When we're talking about role models. When we're talking about famous celebrities. When we're talking about celebrities we'd like to have lunch with. When we're talking about Bulgarians who inspire us.

I apologize, I have not introduced myself. I'm Sarah, an American and an English teaching assistant in Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria. I don't know if you've been to Dimitrovgrad, but it's a really nice city- very green, peaceful, and family-centered. My school isn't huge...I know nearly every student and, I must say, I don't think there is one I teach who would have anything negative to say against you or your career.

It's so'd think after nearly a year in Bulgaria, I'd be blogging about Hristo Botev, Vasil Levsky, or Penyo Penev, traditional Bulgarian heroes. Instead, though, I'm blogging about you...a Hollywood celebrity, a modern-day hero to my young people.

Ms. Dobrev, I'm not sure if you understand how much your success and accomplishment has meant to my high school students and, probably, to Bulgaria. In case you're somehow unaware, I want to take this time to tell you a little bit about how I've come to know your name.

So first things first, I hate blood. Hate it. I hate thinking about it, talking about it, seeing it. Naturally, I tend to steer clear of vampire shows and have to skip over the gory parts in vampire novels (I'm not counting my high school Twilight was soft and I was deluded). So, in all likelihood, I would never have learned much about your career if not for Bulgaria.

When I first started teaching, one of the initial questions my students asked me was if I'd heard of Nina Dobrev. I told them I hadn't, and they were ANGRY. Frustrated! Nina is awesome, they told me, how had I not heard of her? My sincerest apologies, students and Nina!

Their fandom wasn't surprising to me...of course they were excited, a Bulgarian was in one of their favorite TV shows, occasionally speaking their language for all the world to hear! What was surprising, though, was the deep respect I'd soon learn that they hold for you.

Ms. Dobrev, you are more than just an actress to my students, you are a constant inspiration and perfect picture of what success means to many of my lady learners. You're sharing your culture in a small way to a worldwide audience, and you look classy as hell doing it. There are two things I've learned my students are passionate about: national pride and looking fabulous (for all their snapchats and selfies!). You tie both into one neat bundle for them with such grace.

Your show has even sparked one of my favorite outside-the-classroom discussions about vampire literature and the human fascination with monsters, giving me the chance to share Romantic literature with my students. Romanticism from The Vampire Diaries, who would have thought?!

In conclusion, I suppose I just wanted you to know how much pride you are bringing to your country by living your dream. You represent more to them than just a great Bulgarian success story, you stand for what hard work can accomplish. So, I ask just one thing of you: that you never forget that all of Bulgaria is watching and that you are on a pedestal for the youth of your home country, and for young women in general. As such, you have the great power to help shape how they view themselves and how they view what women are able to accomplish.

If you ever actually stumble across this letter by some crazy off-chance, please please please give a shout-out to Dimitrovgrad! My students would love you forever :)



****To my readers that are NOT Bulgarian and who, like me, have never seen The Vampire Diaries:

Nina Dobrev is one of the stars of the CW's The Vampire Diaries. She was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, and moved to Canada when she was very young. In the original book series, Nina's character is a vampire from Germany, I think. However, after directors overheard her speaking on the phone in Bulgarian, they rewrote the role to have Nina's character be a vampire from Bulgaria. In the show, flashbacks show really old Bulgarian life and often have her speaking the language. If you've never heard Bulgarian, check the show out and hear something truly awesome! She's bringing a little bit of this country to American viewers in a really unique, cool way. Yay Bulgaria in the limelight!

Friday, May 9, 2014

An "Opa" Week

Opa is perhaps the single-most useful word I’ve come across while in Bulgaria.

Drop a dish? opa.
Run into someone? opa.
Mix up student names? opa.
Need to express that yes, you messed up but it doesn’t really matter that much? opa.

Opas come in many forms, and in these two stories, mine came in the form of long, drawn-out, accidental Bulgarian ceremonies. Enjoy my pain, readers.

* * *

It’s 5:30pm on a Wednesday, and I receive a call from my friend and fellow ETA, S, in the neighboring town. Now, S is a jazz aficionado and is lucky enough to have a sweet coffee shop, the Jazz Cafe, in his town. It’s a place I’ve visited a few times and enjoy immensely. So S calls me, says that the Jazz Cafe’s owner is playing tonight with his band at my town’s library. Cool! S doesn’t give me much more info, he just knows the music will be starting at six. 

I arrive at the library about ten til six, find a few rows of chairs and some instruments set up in the courtyard, and settle in to enjoy the set, placing myself inconspicuously in the back row in case I decide to make an early escape. I’m the only person seated at the time, so I crack open my book and read a bit while the band warms up and runs sound checks. 

The library courtyard 

Some of my students walk by on their way to folk dance practice and tell me they are preparing for a show set to take place in two days, on Friday morning. I ask if it is the type of performance I can attend and they say that yes, it will be no problem for me to go. Excitement! I love watching folk dance. This becomes relevant later.

About fifteen minutes elapse and people start to drift in. As they drift, they greet one another. There is a palpable energy flowing, excitement in the air. This is all fine and dandy, but I notice that people are dressed up. DRESSED. UP. Like, dressed to kill (students, do you remember this phrase from class two weeks ago?).
 This is my first sign that I should pack up and skedaddle. Do I? No, oh no. 

I sit quietly and watch as a horde of Dimitrovgradians, all at least 20 years older than me, shake hands, kiss cheeks, set up more chairs, and pass around pamphlets. I try to sink into my chair and pretend like not present, as I’m clearly out of place. One man, dressed in a suit, ushers four very old, very fancy men to a table in the front, where they are given water and small cups of espresso. The men promptly light their cigarettes (of course) and lay some books on the table. The jazz band had not resumed their play yet. 

Pretty soon, enough new rows of seating have been added so that my back row seat is now in a prime, front-of-the-pack locale. ALERT, SARAH, ALERT. RUN! But I stay seated and watch as the evening’s host pats backs and whispers important last-minute reminders and messages. He turns on the mic, taps it, and the gathered crowd begins to settle in, to wait expectantly. By this point, I am confused and feeling awkward and pretty certain that I am not sitting in an audience awaiting a jazz concert. I am also pretty certain I’m not supposed to be in attendance of this event.

The host begins, thanks everyone for attending, recognizes several important guests. He introduces the men seated round the table. His cigarette smolders in his free hand. 

“Zdravete!” Ensuing speech.

Now, I should add in here that Bulgarians, in my experience, are LONG-WINDED and are always sure to thank every single person who could possibly be thanked. It’s exhausting but so gracious!

Resuming. So the host speaks about the old men, who are as cool and aloof as a pack of siamese cats. They each, in turn, speak. I catch the name “Ernest Hemingway” from one of the men, followed by a description of some author, along with much sassy fluttering of his free hand and murmuring from the crowd. Multiple camera men are filming the speakers, flashing cameras are going off. I’m getting cold and am messaging S, asking him what in the world he got me into!

The elderly gentlemen stand up, in turn, and each read from the books they’ve brought. Bulgarian poetry. I see “Penyo Penev” on the cover of one volume, and a light clicks. I’m at a celebration ceremony for Dimitrovgrad’s famous poet. Ahhhhh.

Feet scuffle as guests shift in their chairs, laughter dances across the courtyard at certain moments during the readings, and I sit. Cold and trapped. Near the front, teeth chattering, messaging back and forth with S. Laughing inwardly at the ridiculousness that is my life. Only in Bulgaria!

Many cigarettes are lit, much water is drank, and many poems are read. My teeth begin to chatter and my feet begin to go numb. I’ve been sitting for two hours and still haven’t gotten my groceries or lesson planned. Or heard jazz music. Only have heard Bulgarian. Opa. 

As soon as the talking and reading and general broohaha breaks, I get up and hightail it out of the courtyard before I freeze to my chair. Escape! Sweet, sweet escape! As I am walking away from the library, I hear live jazz music start to play. Sigh. I call S and he tells me “oh yeah! It slipped my mind to tell you that the concert is part of a celebration for your famous poet! I figured the music would be at the beginning.” Face palm. 

In the end, I got my groceries , kind of heard some live music, and saw some of Dimitrovgrad’s fancies so...success?

If only my opa’s for the week ended here.

So Friday morning arrives, the day of my students’ dance performance (remember? from the beginning of my story?). I have my coffee, watch a bit of The Neverending Story, and head out to Dimitrovgrad’s theater. I arrive and find a MASSIVE line of people, mostly children. I see my students, though, dressed in their folk costumes and smiling like a thousand suns as they greet guests. They usher me inside and tell me to take a seat, the show will start soon. 

I head inside and marvel again at the theater. It’s beautiful and dated in a good way, I love it. I run into a colleague, the students’ physics and dance teacher, who tells me in broken English that this is a celebration day. Cool! 

No, not cool, Sarah! RUN, YOU FOOL.

I take a seat and notice that all the guests are...children. Like, all of them. I feel weird but decide to “spokoino” and wait it out. The stage is decorated with flowers and balloons, and there’s a slideshow with pictures of the town’s middle school. Uh-oh.

Yep. I’d wandered into another two-hour celebration ceremony which I probably wasn’t supposed to be attending. Man, I really need to start pushing my sources for more details. I was sitting in a celebration ceremony for the 50th anniversary of one of our town’s schools. It also involved all the dance studios, performing groups, and talented people in the community. 

Even though I found myself in a place I probably wouldn’t have placed myself had I known what I was getting into, I still enjoyed the ceremony immensely. I got to see my girls dance (I am their biggest fan), watched several INTENSE gymnastics routines, heard a traditional singer, and listened with delight to some folk music, played by my school’s music teacher! 

Two of my talented 10th graders! Such goofy girls.

Lessons learned: Opa moments are awkward, but can often turn into wonderful experiences, and it sometimes takes enduring a little awkwardness on my part to learn more about my town and see my students in action. Wandering blindly into weird situations kind of comes with the territory of living abroad, you know?

Bulgaria’s like a pan of multi-variety never know what you’re gonna get!


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Signs on Signs on Signs

Funny things. I like 'em. I like to take pictures of them when I travel, I like to collect them, and I like to compare them to other funny things. I enjoy looking for patterns among variation, and I like to see if those patterns can tell me anything about a place.

I've seen quite a few cat stores this year, some sweet graffiti, and I've happened upon a lot of hilarious advertisements. My favorite funny thing, though, isn't so funny when one considers it on its own. The funny only grabs me after I begin to think about the thing as part of a system so regulated, yet so uniquely individual in each new place, that I start to appreciate these cute little wonders and to look for small differences in each of my destinations. 

These funny things are road signs.

Road signs. I love them. I don't mean "City X 15 km" road signs, but rather those that are meant to direct and help humans, that most hopeless and confused race, navigate the world. I'm talking pedestrian crossing signs, don't let your dog poo on our sidewalks signs, and what you can/ cannot do type of signs. Some are just great posts I found on concrete, or on church doors, but most are road signs. Some feature language that just has me rolling when I should be walking.

About midway through the fall, I started noticing how delightful some of the little figures can be, or how fitting a sign's pictures can be to the particular country in which I spot it. I think the signs I'm used to seeing in Ohio are fairly generic, so little differences strike me as cute and memorable. 

I like to think each sign has a little spice of its mother country thrown into its metallic make-up. The Austrian pedestrian crossing signs feature men wearing cute little hats. The verbal signs in Scotland are cheeky and perfectly literal. I've noted subtle yet delightful differences from sign to sign. I hope to keep collecting these useless pictures and one day remember how much merriment I got out of looking for flat, symbol-laden unintentional jokes during my Fulbright year. For now, though, here's my underwhelming collection of European signage. Enjoy!

These are all pedestrian crossing signs. They are just the best.

Dawww my first sign picture, taken during FISI
-Pravets, Bulgaria-

-Budapest, Hungary-


-Vienna, Austria-

-Ft. William, Scotland-

-Plovdiv, Bulgaria-

-Bratislava, Slovakia-

-Prague, Czech Republic-

This one looks like Chewbacca children are crossing the street!
-Smolyan, Bulgaria-

-Dresden, Germany-

-Bergen, Norway-

 Absolutely, hands down, the best sign in existence.
-Broadford, Isle of Skye, Scotland-

Short skirt, yo. Very unlike Istanbul.
-Istanbul, Turkey-

I'm also a fan of the stoplights with tiny, glowing people living inside them.

Note the below signs/ lights and how cutely they encourage cycling!
-Vienna, Austria-

The following four are crossing signs in Dresden, Germany, and are a pretty famous little quirk that appears on German postcards. All the lol's.

A couple random, but great, signs.
-Prague, Czech Republic-

-Istanbul, Turkey-

 Thinking of letting your dog relieve himself without scooping afterwards? Think again, and never forget these very graphic signs.

This one features a fresh, steaming poo pile. It also features a Scottie in Scotland. Cliche, or adorable?

 Also found in Scotland

This is too much, Norway.
-Bergen, Norway-

-Prague, Czech Republic-

Scotland, again with the Scottie. How do the other dogs feel? Underrepresented? 
-Ferry to Mull, Scotland?-

These guys are in Bulgaria, and I always read them with a country accent.
Really, it's not that funny but I can't help myself.
-Kardzhali, Bulgaria-


These next six photos are all from Scotland, and they're just...the most literal things that could be smacked on a sign. IDK.

Not could, but do.
-Ft. William, Scotland-

They weren't kidding
-...., Scotland-

This one's a bit fuzzy...are the pedestrians vicious, savage things that attack? 
Are we watching out for them? Regardless, beware!
-Oban, Scotland-

Don't yield, give way.

Just.... Way to make 'em remember why they get to park so close. 

At any time!!! 

-Vienna, Austria- 

No photos, fedoras, ice cream, or Scotties/ poodle thing. Very specific.
-Dresden, Germany-

Dem hips doe.
-Budapest, Hungary-

I actually love this totally looks like the silhouette of a Bulgarian laborer, hat and all.
-Plovdiv, Bulgaria-

*Not a road sign*
-Sofia Airport, Sofia, Bulgaria-

That's all, folks! Hope this glimpse into the world through my sarcastic lens cap has provided a bit of enjoyment and added a little chuckle to your day! Peace and blessings.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Travels and Traditions

I've essentially taken a three month hiatus from blogging. Exciting things just kept happening and I never found much down time to share with everyone! Съжалявам!

So what's been going on in my life, you ask? So much. So. Much.

First off, lots of travel! I took a nice tour of central Europe over the winter holidays, spent a long weekend in Norway (lifelong dream, check!), and just recently took a night bus to and from Istanbul (No...sleep...til Turkey!). Christmas in Vienna, New Year's in Prague... what is my life? My favorite pictures from the cities can be seen below.


Left: the church where I attended Christmas Day service in Vienna; Right: decorations that hung all over Dresden


Lennon Wall in Prague

THE BEST statue outside of the Turkish baths in Budapest

Norway gets two pictures because IT'S MY FAVORITE.

Also noteworthy, five of my brilliant students competed in a national English speech and debate competition, the Bulgarian Forensics League. The League was started last school year as a Fulbright initiative, and now students from all over Bulgaria have the chance to meet other English language learners and practice their skillz. I bonded with my students and we had a truly magnificent time. They make me proud and inspire me!

The MOST noteworthy experiences in the new year have been, for sure, all of the Bulgarian traditions that take place in the spring months! Find a comfy chair, grab a glass of rakia, and let your mind wander to Eastern Europe, where ancient traditions are still thriving and people are dancing horo like it's their job.


Kukeri are the name for costumed Bulgarians meant to scare away evil spirits and ensure a bountiful harvest (and fertility maybe?) for the coming year. Think old, rusted bells hanging from the waists of fur-clad, masked drunk men. Huge headpieces. Wooden, snarling masks. Feathers. Babas who are secretly men in drag (or not so secretly...I've never seen grandmas with such hairy chins). And, what I can only describe as a tendency to "party boy" any observer who looks warily upon the festivities.

Festivals take place all over the country (and throughout the Balkan peninsula) during the spring. Some are small, local celebrations. Others are larger and take place in cities. I've attended two so far. One was the international Surva festival in Pernik, BG, which was actually a contest between different groups, and the other was a village celebration in the breathtaking mountain town Shiroka Laka. The village celebration was much more intimate and felt more like a living part of the culture than did the Pernik festival, which was more like a fond homage to an older, fading Bulgaria.

Перник Кукери (Pernik Kukeri)

Широка Лака Кукери (Shiroka Laka Kukeri)

I cannot begin to put into words how big my heart felt while I was in the Rhodope Mountain town right amongst the bagpipe players, the horo-dancing Bulgarians (a large, circular folk dance), and the buzzing life of it all. Love it.


So in Bulgaria, the arrival of spring is celebrated with a beautiful tradition called Baba Marta (Grandma March). On the first day of March, Bulgarians give red and white bracelets, called Martenitsa, to their friends and relatives as a wish for good health (symbolized by red thread) and happiness (symbolized by white thread) in the coming year. Bracelets are worn until one sees their first stork or blossoming tree of the year. Yes, I said storks. The nests are everywhere! I thought my students were joking at first...I think the only stork I've seen is the stork on the Vlassic pickles jar (is that even a stork?). Anyways, these first signs of spring mark the moment a person should remove their bracelet and either tie it to a tree branch or hide it under a rock. Spring!

My wrists are heavy with bracelets from my students, colleagues, Fulbright friends, and random others! The martenitsa can be seen on branches throughout the year, as a vestige of each spring. It's so cute. Trees all over my town are decked out in red and white as we welcome spring breezes, sweet rain, new growth, and sunshine. I even gave some bracelets to my family when they visited so that a little piece of Bulgaria can make it's way back to lovely Ohio!

ETA's on the 1st of March!

(Martenitsa selfie with my 8б class)

The first blooming tree I saw, in Plovdiv!
(photo cred goes to Annie Craycraft on this one)

The new months of 2014 have been very rewarding and have been a great opportunity for me to learn more about the annual traditions in Bulgaria. Very soon, my students will compete in a folk dancing competition against one another and their teachers, we will all be taking a week off for break, and the cold months of winter will disappear behind us (THANK THE MERCIFUL HEAVENS). I keep telling my young people that, though Americans tend to "go big" on holiday celebrations, not many of our traditions have the same sense of unity as those celebrated here. I like the difference!

Chau chau, y'all.