Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bulgarian Dance Class: The Real Bulgaria

When a foreigner lives in a country quite different from where they came it is inevitable that the constantly forming opinion of the current home’s culture and people will be slightly characterized by jest. I do not think this necessarily comes from ill intentions, dislike or arrogance of any kind. I also do not believe that such lighthearted views always stem from a closed mind, for open mindedness must surely be required to even look long and deep enough at a culture to develop such a cultivated, albeit amused, opinion. I find that simply, this is what happens when one culture is juxtaposed with another. I went for coffee with a friend not long ago and she took to asking me to deny or confirm the “facts” regarding Americans she heard from her Bulgarian friend living in Chicago. This friend said all Americans are fat, eat junk food for every meal, wear ugly tank tops under everything and dress much less fashionably than Bulgarians. As a result, this was the understanding Eli had of Americans before Kevin and I showed up. I found it interesting that these were the elements of culture and society the Chi-town friend found important enough to share, but I am sure I can match her in choosing odd and ultimately unimportant things to focus on. Indeed I had to bite my tongue concerning her high regard of Bulgarian fashion (I am still working on plans for and being that at that very moment I myself was wearing a tank top under my shirt as I do everyday, I had to resist the urge to question back why Bulgarians find it necessary to do the complete opposite: wear sheer and transparent clothing with no consideration of privacy or their undergarments which are fully exposed beneath. But hey, cultural difference. I accept that. I may not agree with the action, but I accept it nonetheless. However, I concurred with her understanding that Americans were generally fatter than Bulgarians, but that not all Americans were fat. Given I accept that eating and lifestyle habits in America warrant larger people, I am quite convinced that genetic differences which make these Bulgarian women so skinny do actually exist. And yes, most of the food we eat is junk. I could argue that chicken hearts are junk as well, but again, cultural difference.

Based upon my six months of personal experience and like the Bulgarian living in Chicago, I too have developed an opinion of my current country characterized by amusement, strangeness, laughter, oddity and bizarrity. I will never consider it negative, for I love Bulgaria and its people and do not expect that to change despite my future encounters. But Bulgaria is a strange place. And I can say that because I fully allow Bulgarians to say that America and its people are crazy. Anyhow, I find that my lighthearted yet amused take on Bulgaria and the “odd” (remember, odd is not bad) things I have noticed is best summed up by describing a Bulgarian dance class. So readers beware and go back and read the entire first paragraph over to remind yourselves: becoming offended or believing I think I am better than this country and its people is simply not allowed here. And honestly, this reading is best for those in Bulgaria who can actually uncover the “Bulgarianness” of this account, but I will let everyone give it a shot.

Earlier in the summer Eli told me that in October a dance class would begin at the chilatilshte (community center). I was very excited about this believing it would hold the key to community integration and self-survival in Samokov. She said it was generally for older teenagers but she was sure the teacher would be glad to have me and as it turned out, she was. So two weeks ago I venture over dressed in the closest thing to dance wear I have - leggings, sweat pants, t-shirt and a sports bra. You know, normal exercise gear. I show up slightly early to find all the doors locked and after about three circles around the building, I find some children. One of them knows me from school and alerts the others to my lack of Bulgarian. We small talk and I stand there waiting with them, figuring they are also intending to attend dance class (although this is not easily guessed with their lack of dance apparel). After about fifteen minutes of awkwardness (what is the old teacher doing hanging around us outside the chitalishte?), one finally asks me what I am waiting for. I explain I am going to take dance class with them, which initiates exasperations of “ohhhhhh, she is not really just a friendless lonely loser”. In pure Bulgarian fashion the teacher shows up twenty minutes after class should have started. We go upstairs to a makeshift dance room where I am awkwardly taken aback when everyone starts getting naked. Yet instead of putting on the expected leotards, leggings or grungy workout gear, I am met with bodysuits under baggy jeans (those in Bulgaria know what I am describing and for those who are not, somehow the bodysuit with the snap crotch which was quite popular in 1992 has made its way back to Eastern Europe and not in the “I’m hipster American Apparel style” kind of way), jeweled and glittered belts and mesh tank tops over bedazzled bras. But then I remember Bulgarian girls never sweat, so I feel like Captain Fatty. This deserving title is confirmed as we make our way to the floor for “warm up” and the mirror reflects back the genetic difference I spoke of earlier. Thinking the language of modern dance translates nicely across borders, I expect a normal, grueling warm up with dance moves. I am in dance class. Instead I experience what can best be understood by visualizing the scene in Troop Beverly Hills where Shelley Long and friends are working for the dance patch - a few jumping jacks, ponies and unsynchronized flailing of the appendages in Jazzercise style circa 1986. This lasts a total of about three minutes but around minute 1.5 most of the kids decide this is far too vigorous exercise, give up and sit down exhausted while I am still shaking what my momma gave me (and thanks for that mom…). So apparently this is considered warm up and whereas in normal (and by normal I suppose I mean American) dance classes next will come the across the floor combinations, this class turns into a free-for-all with kids performing random stunts. With no organization whatsoever, I am dodging children left and right as cartwheels and ill-performed constructions of human tricks are competing to take my head off. The teacher dressed to impress braless and in all pink simply stands in the corner watching while I stand in the other chuckling to myself. Finally some control is taken and everyone gathers together to learn a new dance. But the teacher has not come prepared and instead asks the kids if they have any ideas for choreography. I mean I am all for including the students, but this seems like a waste of time – time is money people! Then I remember where I am. All eyes turn to me as I am asked if I would like to dance in front of people with them. Sheer terror rips through me as I imagine having to perform on the cement “stage” in the center of town at some town holiday while all my students stare at me incredulously wondering how Captain Fatty Miss Amy made it into dance class. My life will be over but I cannot tell my fellow dancers this. I agree and wait for instruction, but first and foremostly important is a discussion about the outfit to be worn. So this is what everyone does. The costume is fully planned out before the dance moves have come but hey, a costume excites me too. Idly standing around waiting for someone to come up with a move, my head is swirling with all sorts of all ideas that I keep to myself because they aren’t reminiscent of a Rhianna video or overtly sexually explicit in a Pussycat Doll sort of way. Slowly a dance is created and I get to work performing what reminds me of my 5th grade pom routine in Drill Team. Finally, I start to get the exercise I came for. But here comes the kicker to my already hilarious dance class: in the special Bulgarian kind of way, the progress made is interrupted by the children asking for a smoking break. OF COURSE in what should be a venue for health and exercise promotion a break to allow teenagers to curtail what little lung capacity and endurance they had to begin with is given. Smoking break over, the dance with choreography similar to something I would see on Mortal Combat backed by Chalga music is given a few more moves, practiced (but not by all because some of the children are completely pooped from the oh so strenuous activity and pick up their cell phones to take a pochivka (break)) and then class over. Everyone starts stripping again to put back on their original clothes which are more bedazzled in the Eastern European way than their dance outfits, which is hard for me to imagine. And btw, I do need to find myself a Bulgarian bedazzler because it has the capacity for more jewels and bling than any American bedazzler does. I walk out in the same clothes I started with that have not seen a drip of sweat and instantly call Janel to discuss and laugh about this lovely integration activity. Sickness and travels have not allowed me to return, but I shall and when I do, an update on dance attempt #2 will be provided.

Sarcasm and crazy dance classes out of the way, my teaching has been awfully and unfortunately curtailed by a strike. Most of Bulgaria’s teachers have been on strike for the entire school but my school, for reasons that change depending on whom and when I ask, was in session for three and a half weeks. The teachers are paid incredibly poorly here – about 440 lev a month (roughly $315) - and are protesting this and the lack of government spending on education because most funds are spent on reforms required by the EU (and education is a sector of society left largely unregulated by the EU). Most of the other volunteers have not even begun teaching, which is awful considering we had all summer to do nothing. I got lucky and had a considerable amount of time in school, but last Wednesday my school decided it was time. It is a pretty horrible thing as the striking teachers are required by trade unions to be in the school for eight hours a day but cannot work. As such they are incredibly bored and becoming increasingly grumpy. As a volunteer I obviously cannot strike and in theory still hold classes, but the kids are dropping like flies because they only have Geography and English to attend to. I still have students from my younger classes so we spend our time playing games. All in all however, the strike is INCREDIBLY frustrating and the government cannot seem to get itself in shape to end it (this is the 5th week). There has been talk of canceling the school year, which would seriously impair my work here, but I suppose I will cross that bridge if I get there.

Last Friday some of the teachers frustrated with being holed up in the teacher’s lounge playing Tetris all day decided to go on an excursion to the Rila Monastery and invited me to come along. I lived right next to his thing while I was in Bobo but never went so I was glad to finally see the most popular tourist attraction in Bulgaria. The Rila Monastery is the largest in the Balkan region and is still active all these years after it’s establishment in the 10th century. Apparently Friday was the holiday for Saint Ivan Rilski (do not quote me on any of that) so the place was flooded with people. This monastery is beautifully out of this world and the inside is incredibly ornate and embellished. Clearly a foreigner to religious ritual and more so to Bulgarian Orthodox, I had no idea what was happening as my hands were being filled with candles, flowers, socks and other random materials or when I was led to some altar/relic expected to cross myself and start kissing the picture of Mr. Ivan himself, which was no doubt carrying Hepatitis or something given the number of people that had salivated on it. I might have offended some people with my lack of interest in pretending I was a devout Orthodox follower and unwillingness to look like an idiot by trying and completely failing, but the only person that yelled at me was some old grouchy woman for walking on the wrong side of the church. Regardless, the place was beautiful and it felt good to get out of Samokov and engage in some history – even though it was only an hour and a half away, it reignited the travel bug.

After the Rila trip I headed down to Bobov Dol to have an Amanda Bynes/High School Musical/every other badly funded tween movie marathon with Janel (and Uncle Greg, I finally watched She’s The Man and am trying to figure out why this is your favorite movie. Please enlighten me). Upon arrival and during our fruitless search for oatmeal in every shop in that town having forgotten the Bulgarian word, we experienced our first snow. This is not a joke and to prove it, we made a little movie you can watch here. Given the grouchiness and discomfort that snow and any other kid of wet weather brings to this girl used to the Los Angeles sun, I am really not looking forward to winter. The weather has been the bain of my existence with my street turning into the Great Nile this week so my hiking boots got their first break in as I waded through the great waters. I have been hesitant to wear them so far given that they are not the most beautiful shoes I have owned (and I don’t hike), but I decided it was time to forget about that because they are waterproof. To give everyone a bit of an idea of what Samokov is like in the rain (and if you want some shots of my neighborhood and town) click here and here.

Insignificant blabbing over with, I passed my six month mark this week. 6 MONTHS IN BULGARIA! Not that I am counting down, which I am really grateful for. I frequently have missionaries ask me how long I have left which leads me to believe they think about the timeline a lot, but I never can do the math. Anyhow, I can hardly believe it has been so long and as these things do, it has flown. So much has happened – so many wonderful and awful things. So many weaknesses have been exposed. So many strengths have been cultivated. So much fun has been had. So much frustration has been experienced. So much love has been given. So much laughter has erupted. So many buses have been ridden. So many nasty things have been eaten. So many discos have been danced in. So many awkward incidents have occurred. So much donkey poo has been stepped in. So many fleas have been biokilled. So many kids have been loved. So many great relationships have been developed. So many great changes and growth within have come. So many important perspectives and understandings have been gained. And so much gratitude for heading the inspired call and accepting the blessing of being here to be able to experience life in such a unique and important way has filled my heart.

And finally, some very special and important people in my life have had a special month. My dear friends Elyse, Hagop, Lindsay, Amy H., Ray, Taryn and Keven all deserve a big HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Kev also deserves an extra congratulations for his upcoming nuptials (make me proud Kevs ;) !!) My bestest friend in the entire world Nel had a darling little boy Easton so tell him crazy Auntie Amy loves him already! And the rest of you I just love, miss and think about all the time. So drop me a line!

Happy Halloween!!! (a complete description of the big Halloween party in Veliko Turnovo and my costume made from nothing other than a box will come next blog!).


Renee said...

Thank you for the bit on the body suits...after several links I found myself reading about "crotch" on wikipedia. You should try it...

Tricia & Steve said...

Loved the video links from your blog especially with you saying hello to everyone. We felt as if you weren't so far away instead of 6,500 miles. Dance class and costuming - just a bit different than what you have been accustomed to, right? Have a Happy Halloween! Can't wait to see pictures of the "box" costume. What will it be this year?
Love mom and dad xox0x

Sara said...

How is it that you are the cutest person with the best wardrobe AND you're in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria???? LA is missing you. We think about you lots.

Anonymous said...

Not sure where to post this but I wanted to ask if anyone has heard of National Clicks?

Can someone help me find it?

Overheard some co-workers talking about it all week but didn't have time to ask so I thought I would post it here to see if someone could help me out.

Seems to be getting alot of buzz right now.