Monday, December 3, 2007

Celebrating the American Holidays Under a Cold, Wet, White, Icy Blanket.

Winter is here. I have been in denial about this for a good period of time and cannot say this is not still the case. When it was fifty degrees outside (which for the record is way too cold for me) I imagined that was the worst it was going to get. Wrong. After a rather warm evening that blessed Kevin and I with a brilliantly clear sky for trying to recall whether one can see the same constellations here in Bulgaria as in Hawaii but giving up and inventing our own instead, we awoke the morning of Nov. 10th to be “icily” welcomed with that wrath of that once beautiful sky. Everything was completely covered in white, which by the end of the day measured around nine or so inches. Despite the unfortunate permanent existence of this substance in a town with two warm-blooded volunteers, admittedly it was indescribably beautiful. I think one of my favorite memories in Bulgaria thus far is sitting with Kevin that morning enjoying a big breakfast and watching my town sleep under this comforting and beautiful white blanket while discussing the beauty that is life with Mariah’s Christmas croonings providing the perfect soundtrack. For as simple and calm as this memory is in comparison to most of the strange, scandalous and/or somewhat ridiculous others I find myself tallying up here, it will stay with me as most fond. We even dared to go out onto my balcony to experience the first snow, for which my wardrobe and shoe collection is unprepared. I mentioned this a while back and believed I had tackled the problem with my proud purchase of a North Face coat, fleece and head wrappy, ear covery thing. That’s right kids – North Face. Unfortunately, every time I think I am taking a step in the right direction for becoming prepared for this I am harshly informed that I am not. Once again donning every piece of clothing I own, the experience of me greeting this first snow was candidly caught on video, as well as complaints about the footwear the snow compels me to sport.

Despite its initial beauty, the snow gets old real fast. In theory I am okay with winter weather – before it was nothing personal. However, in the past I have befriended this wintery friend while driving/riding a heated car that could be parked close enough to a door to make wearing stiletto heeled boots or my red, suede 80’s slouch booties still okay. But here in Bulgaria, this little problem with the snow quickly became personal. I must walk everywhere with its constant company. And you cannot trip, slide, freeze, slow or cause me to become unfavorably and unexpectedly wet without expecting a deep strain in our relationship. Further problematic is that these idiotic Bulgarian drivers find it funny to speed up and spin out in the giant puddles of a foul mud/sand/oil/ice/snow/donkey poo mix and purposely drench the innocent passerby with this concoction of disgustingness. I am also still somewhat a slave to fashion, which I mean in the least superficial way and consider it a tribute to art and human decency. As much as I try, I just cannot bring myself to wear the ugly hiking boots that will get me through this mess dry. I stick to my suede knee-highs, which clearly are not waterproof but unlike the ugly hiking boots, shield my pants from the above-mentioned street juice and keep me warm. Plus they match. So despite the lose-lose situation, I believe I have made a wise choice. I have, however, given the waterproof socks a shot and am quite glad I have (thanks mom and REI for making me spend that seventeen bucks a pair). Regardless, the Bulgarian women who are wearing boots more insensible than my own seem to walk through the town normally and with no unforeseen problems. And no, I am not ridiculous enough to dare bare a heel here. But here I am slipping and sliding all over the place wondering if my life is going to end or my back will become broken with each new step. It honestly is as though I am ice-skating and there has not been a single time in the last ten years that this has been accomplished with pants dry at the end (and there are multiple ways pants get wet….). I am just waiting for the day when I tumble down the steps in front of my school with all of my students pointing and laughing as the whole school quickly learns that Miss Amy totally ate s***. To add to my wintery embarrassments, I was recently informed that I do not wear a scarf properly. I have been on this earth for twenty-three years and only now did someone take it upon themselves to tell me this very critical piece of information. Apparently the manner in which I have been donning this essential piece of winter wear is as a “fashion scarf,” and not as something that insulates the neck and body. After being laughed at and ridiculed upon this observation, some colleagues took my scarf and showed me the correct way to wrap it so that heat remains inside. This was never a problem in Los Angeles. Needless to say, these days the quality of my life is centered on the physical state of the ground – snowy, slushy, icy or wet. I am finding slushy to be the most tragic as it is a combination in the worst way of the four, but I am willing to take a poll on this one. Any ideas?

With the weather out of the way, I am due for an intense update. It is not that I have not wanted to update the blog, but more like I am always grading papers or out of town and without the spare moment to actually do so. So grab a cup of coffee, fetch your glasses, turn on some sweet tunes and prepare yourselves for some reading.

My favorite time of year was about a month ago – Halloween, before winter arrived, when fall was still in full swing and the idea of costume creating was always on the mind. Bulgaria is certainly beautiful during this time of year, and I saw colors of trees and foliage I never have before. All of the volunteers headed out to Veliko Turnovo for the annual Halloween debauchery…err, party. But one wouldn’t really know the difference. Us Bobo’s spent weeks planning out of costumes, because if you know me, you know this is very important. The ‘Shevo was going to be represented in that costume contest and thankfully, Janel took the prize with her costume as the Techenie. I have been planning a blog dedicated solely to this subject, but for now I will simply inform you that techenie is Bulgarian for draft of wind and the Bulgs HATE it. It is evil. Us Americans find this hilarious and paid tribute to the Bulgarian culture by turning Janel into the “evil” draft. Staying true to tradition, I made my costume out of a box. For those not blessed to know me during the strange but wonderful high school years, I was known as showing up for class on Halloween as a random appliance made from a box – refrigerator, stove and cheese grater. Anyhow, this year I was a Borovets vafla, which is a delicious chocolate wafer bar, as well as the name of the mountain I live under. Needing to be absolutely positive that I would have the necessary item for my costume and unwilling to take the risk of not finding one, I traveled across the country with a box. I made it on foot through Samokov, on a bus to Sofia, through public transport, on to a minibus and through VT with my boxy friend in hand (as well as a large Styrofoam hat-like creation). Met with laughs, comments, raised eyebrows and many stares throughout this shameful travel, I arrived in VT to find boxes everywhere! But all was not lost as we simply picked up another for Sehee, who with Kevin, I got my costume making claws into to transform these previously unwilling costumers into something fabulous. All in all the party was good fun full of dancing and booty shaking, but with a rented house and unlimited and free alcohol, little sleep and far too much craziness made me happy to hit the road (this time without the box… a sad goobybe my dear vafla ).

Back in Samokov, Halloween was celebrated once again as the Brits decided to give it a go. Now this is not a British holiday and they were not nearly as excited about the costume making as we (err…I) was. Jan and Chris were actually going to show up without costume, which is a sin against Halloween so Janel and I got to work making costumes for everyone. I would say we did pretty well and brought the box back into play creating a wonderful dice for Jan that got passed around the party. I went as a shower and danced the night away (click for video), showerhead, curtain and all. And last but not least, I spread some of the spookiness to my kids with a Halloween party on the first day back from the strike. I showed them pictures of Halloween costumes, made Halloween treats and decorations, played spooky music, and turned them into toilet paper mummies. In 5th grade this turned into a giant toilet paper fight somewhat difficult to stop, but all in all, good times were had.

Never getting any rest, the Bobos headed out the next weekend to Sofia to greet Sehee’s friend Diana from the states and allow her to introduce her boyfriend Ljudimil to the family. This was actually the first time staying the night in Sofia and I had forgotten how much I love city lights. I am a child of the night. We stayed in a hostel where we made tons of traveling friends who we took out with us. Being around them definitely gave me the travel bug so I am looking forward to our upcoming New Years excursion to Istanbul and spring break getaway to Morocco and Spain (if all goes well). I may also just not come home after this Bulgarian adventure… Anyhow, during a night out in the student town with Sehee’s boy and his roomies, I heard one of my favorite pick up lines in Bulgaria so far:

Random man (who wearing an eye patch, leather pants and a small vest with nothing
underneath looks as though he should be dancing in one of the cages in the corner. But
altogether not too terribly unfortunate looking): дсфклйвервоилскджк,мнжклсйк
(something in Bulgarian)
Amy (not intrigued enough to let on she understands): Sorry, I don’t speak Bulgarian.
Mr. Leather: I speak English.
Amy: (hmmm… that didn’t work.)
Mr. Leather: Why is good girl like you so boring?
Amy: You trying to call me boring? (knowing his English just sucks)
Mr. Leather: No, I think why good girl like you look so boring.
Amy: Sorry to disappoint.
Mr. Leather: Can I help you with this?
Amy: No, but thank you.

Now unfortunately the Sofia weekend was not a proper big girl night, but I think that will have to be done without boys in our party. Perhaps soon when Janel’s friends come to visit. HEAR THAT PEOPLE, the other PCVs have friends who come to visit. So give it a try, we show people a good time.

The next weekend was Thanksgiving, but before I got together with the Americans bringing Turkey Day to Bulgaria, it was time to celebrate Jan the Brit’s birthday. I headed out to the village for a fabulous dinner party complete with an appearance by our favorite Bulgarian family – Stanley, Marinela, and Marina. I am pretty sure there are Moulin Rouge connections (go to early blog posts for this reference) given the amount of monopoly money they won from the community chest, but they are some of the greatest people here in Bulgaria and I learn a lot about this country from them. And goodness they can party. Ducking out early the next morning to get a bus to the Thanksgiving feast, I walked to the bus stop to find a flood of blood come rushing down the street accompanied by the distant squeals of some unhappy animal. Apparently it was time to die. I am wondering what happens when that blood finds its way in to the water supply, which I know is not well protected. Anyhow, I finally made it to Bobov Dol and upon walking to Janel’s apartment I found three cold and hungry cats that loved me. Now I love cats, but they hate me. I used to force my childhood cat Marbles to be my friend by dressing her up in my baby doll clothes so she could not move, tying her in the stroller with a jump rope, or stuffing her in my bed so she would sleep with me. She was never having it and got wise to these moves pretending to comply only long enough to lose my attention at which point she would bolt. One time mid-flee, I jumped to shut the door forcing her to stay inside, and unfortunately for poor little Marbles, beat her. Her head got caught in my trap and I think I gave her a concussion. She fell over for a while and I was convinced I killed her but sure enough after a few seconds she stood up, glassily eyed stumbled a few steps and then was on her way out. I let her go that time. Anyhow, I called Janel to see if she would accept a new pet, which she vehemently refused and a bit later after playing an old cat lady to the amusement of all the village’s passerbys I said goodbye to my new little friends. Up in Janel’s apartment everyone was hard at work cooking up a feast, which I jumped on board. Surprisingly, for as difficult as it is to find mainstay ingredients and American Thanksgiving essentials in Bulgaria, we had a darn good dinner if I do say so myself. It was nice to have a delicious meal and remember the holiday, but as this was my third in a row out of the country, I am becoming a pro at forgetting it ever existed. Unfortunately, the food was so good I slipped into food coma and passed out with Brian and Kai on the bed for three hours. By the time we got up, everyone else was ready to sleep so we spent hours playing twenty questions in the dark. This is what we do to entertain ourselves…

In between all those weekends I am at school – all the time. And it goes without saying that this is the hardest part of my week. I really don’t know what to say about it other than it is the most frustrating thing I have ever experienced. It is constant trial and error. Furthermore, it is one of the few experiences in my life that despite the amount of effort and work I put into making it succeed, I have no real control over the outcome. Nor can I tangibly see any positive results for most of the time. Perhaps this is somewhat like parenting. Teaching is incredibly rewarding when it is good, but terribly depressing when it is not. And here, toss a coin – its either or. Sometimes I let the troublemakers get the best of me and write them off as lost causes. I also think I have been giving these kids too much credit – I kind of expect them to take responsibility for themselves, be self-motivated and want to do well. But then I realize they are still just kids and still need a loving hand guiding them along the treacherous path. One day my counterpart and I were discussing an 8th grade boy who is a terror in both of our classes. She told me that he does not have a mom, and his dad is an alcoholic who spends all day with friends, always leaving the kid alone. As such, school and his troublemaking friends are his only sense of place and family. Hearing this hit a core, as I was shocked at how un-empathetic and shallow-minded I had been. I was angry that he is a royal pain of the worst kind and not thinking about why that is or what I could do to help. I am still not exactly sure, but it was an eye-opening experience. Mostly, school is primarily hard because I want to be some sort of miracle worker – I want to these children to learn and understand and speak English and be excited to do well, but at the end of the day, some of them just do not care. And figuring out what to do to change their attitudes and minds about is the hardest part. At first their subsequently disappearing interest was because I was an interesting foreigner, but as that wears off the deeper problems quickly appear. Any advice would be well received.

Still on the school topic, two weeks ago I gave my first parent teacher meeting a try. Now this is the most ridiculous thing about the Bulgarian education system I have encountered so far and there are many. In the States parent teacher conferences are exactly that – a conference between a parent and teacher. Here they should call it “embarrass parents and children and shame them to death in front of all of their peers and colleagues.” What happens is all of the parents from each grade meet together in a classroom while the different teachers rotate from room to room and comment on every child to their parents – IN FRONT OF ALL THE OTHERS. This is almost worse than the habit of telling a student how poorly he/she is doing in front of the other students, for while the teacher is berating a parent telling him/her how terribly misbehaved or how stupid their kid is, the parent is shirking back in fear and shame no doubt horrifyingly embarrassed that all the other students must be thinking he/she is a terrible parent who cannot control or help their child. No positive feedback is given, all negative. No suggestions for what the parent can do to help are laid out, only what the kid is doing wrong. No discretion or tact is used, just public disclosure of everything including bad grades. Private behavioral issues are complained about for all to hear and judge. It is awful. What is more terrible is that I had no idea what was going to happen in this meeting until the moment I walked in. In broken Bulgarian, which was probably the one highlight of the meeting for these parents, I tried to discuss the good things about their children, to which I believe they were quite surprised. Even with the kids I had problems with, I wanted to let the parent know I liked them and thought they had potential, but just needed some motivation. During times like these I wish I spoke Bulgarian fluently in order to adequately express what I wish. And quite unfortunately, the 8th grade students (who are my worst) were with their parents, so this mess had to be done in front of them. Now how is that considered effective? Regardless, later that night I had an 8th grade girl thank me on Skype for not complaining about her like all the other teachers did. I told her I liked her and thought she was doing well and it was as though she had never heard such a thing. Positive reinforcement people. Positive reinforcement.

All in all, I am doing okay. I feel this blog is misleadingly optimistic and positive, but I think those are my best qualities so why not use them? Plus you guys do not care about the difficult stuff. However hard it may be, not a day goes by that I do not thank God for giving me this opportunity or assuring me and allowing me to know with 100% of my being that I am supposed to be here. I want all of you to know that. There is work for me here – more kinds that I share on this blog, and I am so so thankful to be a part of it. I see the blessings pour in each and every day as I am in such a special venue for understanding who I am, the gifts I have been given, what I am capable or can become capable of doing, and how the things that influence my life and make me who I am really matter. I am wonderfully blessed with my challenges and weaknesses, which someday I know I can overcome and can make strong. I am thankful for all of the 2nd and 3rd and 4th chances given to me over and over and over again to get things right. I am also overwhelmingly grateful for an amazing partner and site-mate with whom I can travel this wonderful and difficult journey and who allows me to recognize and understand many of the aforementioned things. And Kevin, I have told you a million times before how blessed I am to have you here with me, but I just wanted to make it public I am not sure what I did in a previous life to deserve you as a site-mate but I am grateful to whatever PC plan that put us two opposite oddballs together.

Christmas and the holidays are coming so you all CAN send me a nice, loaded care package with peanut butter, Reese’s, sour cherries, cute jewelry, American Apparel warmness and issues of the Economist or music mags if you’d so like? …Yah? I hope all of you have wonderful holidays – whatever they may be. I miss and love you all tremendously and more grateful than I can say to have you in my life.

A few shout outs: Ali, congrats on making it to the real world and getting the purse strings cut by mom and dad. And happy birthday! Jen, you FINALLY made it out of college. Well-done sister! Dad, happy “finally a year older than the age to get the senior discount at the movies” birthday. Keven and Lauren, Candice and soon Jamie and Karen, congratulations on tying the not! Wish I could be there with you. Sarah Kesssstttthhhhhelman, HAPPY almost BIRTHDAY to my most favorite lisping little laundry partner bee! Colin, I am real glad you are okay and I miss you! Natalie, congrats on that giant baby! Isabird, hope you had fun celebrating the birthday without having to push me around South Bank in a wheelchair. Prrr. LondonAmy, Happy Birthday to you who ALSO had to push my handicapped butt around during your celebration two years ago – hope you are wonderful. Jen Bell, a big CHESTIT ROZHDEN DEN to you. Eric, I love you. And to Mom, Dad and other family – thank you for being the most wonderful I could ask for.


Katy said...

Amazing; Amy, I am in awe of your experiences and your photos and prose are a delight to read: BIG hugs from London (and if you want to borrow the chili pepper suit, you can ANY TIME!

Kevin said...

:) a little late catching up on your blogs...but still very enjoyable:) It's bringing me back to all the good times we are having here partner...good to have you on this ride (fo'reals!)

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