Friday, March 21, 2008

It's a Holiday Everyday!

Housekeeping as usual:
CLICK HERE for pictures of the month of holidays
CLICK HERE for pictures of the trip to Sandanski

A year ago around this time I was preparing to come to Bulgaria. At that time and perhaps still now, no one seemed to have a clue where Bulgaria was or anything about it. Well, thanks to this has all changed. The barely tolerable but deliciously addictive king of celebrity gossip has brought Bulgaria to the entire Bulgaria’s geographic location, its political and economic situation or even a deep glance into the culture and people of this fine country. No… he brought the world this:

And let me tell you that I am glad he did, because it is deliciously funny. I have watched it more than I choose to admit and my students sing it all day, every day. However, all the world knows about Bulgaria now is that this country has a hideous offspring of American Idol that brings out all the cooks in this country and sends the fashion police soaring with sirens. But that is why you read this blog, right people?

Chestita Baba Marta! Chestit praznick! Happy Women’s Day! Happy Independence Day! Happy school celebration day! Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I wake up nearly everyday in March to learn it is a holiday. Some I knew about beforehand, some I did not and wonder why people are throwing explosives in the streets. Either way, I support the Bulgarian tradition of celebrating… well… basically everything.

It all started with Holiday #1, which is Martinitsa on March 1st. In theory I believe this holiday is a welcome to the coming spring and everyone gives their friends and family little red and white bracelets and greet you with, “Chestita Baba Marta.” This means Grandma March in Bulgarian and upon asking my students one day who Baba Marta actually was I was met with a few quizzical looks from those pondering, who is Baba Marta? Others tried to explain she was somewhat akin to Santa Clause in that she does not actually exist while another emphatically proclaimed in a heartfelt manner, “She lives in your heart.” I still am not exactly sure who she is but I think its safe she is like the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy but bringing health, luck and happiness instead of eggs and quarters. At the end of February little stands begin to pop up everywhere you can imagine selling these martinitisi. Janel and I were in Blageovgrad on the way for a Holiday #2 weekend and saw tons of martinitsi stands. It seems that the ratio of martinitsi to Bulgarian citizens actually living in this country is insanely large and I wonder how the sellers compete or what happens with the extra martinisti. Some of the martinitsers depart from the traditional look and adorn pictures of Bulgarian chalga singers, Christina Aguilera and Ariel from The Little Mermaid with red and white embellishments. My students adorned my wrists and neck with more bracelets and necklaces than I can keep count of. It became difficult to get them on and off everyday and write on the chalkboard with so many things dangling from my hands so I sadly had to ditch them. By tradition you are supposed to wear them until you see the first stork of the year, which marks the beginning of spring. You then put the martinitsi under the nearest rock or hang them on a tree. Interestingly after a month of very warm and wonderful weather, the stork made its first appearance two days ago during a freak three-day snow dump. I am keeping the martinitsi as souvenirs though – no use in littering.

Holidays #1 and #2 are very close to each other as March 3rd is Bulgarian Independence Day, which celebrates Bulgaria finally restoring an independent state in 1878 after 500 years of Turkish Ottoman reign. Janel and I headed to Sandanski with Kai to meet Kellen and get some sun in our lives and on our skins. Sandanski is situated very close to the Greek border and apparently enjoys the most hours of sunshine in all of Bulgaria (and apparently Jesus was born there… and lived there… and died there…). It is a beautiful town with more people, cafes, young folk and parks adorned with oddities than any of our towns. Unfortunately for probably everyone, upon exit from the bus station Janel and I ran into the largest thrift store I have to this date encountered in – and certainly the best. We went back the next day with the boys so I could basically buy out the store, specifically the sunglass bin where I found a stockpile of old vintage sunglasses that would sell for like 30/40 bucks in the states easily and upped my vintage sunglass count obtained in Bulgaria/Turkey to seven. Clearly I do not need these, but they were so difficult to resist… and the perfectly tailored 1960’s pencil skirts… and the 1980’s t-shirts…. and….well yah. The four of us visited Melnik, which is a popular tourist destination in Bulgaria being the wine capital of the area. Apparently Winston Churchill had two bottles of wine a week imported from Melnik, even during the war. Here they brew wines in caves and the town preserves well its 19th century architectural style and overall feel. Visitors can take tours of the caves, which we did in true annoying American style. Back in Sandanski we spent a lot of time at cafes, basking in the sun and playing gin rumy, where we found that the giant 1970’s sunglasses I supplied everyone with can be used as covert cheating mechanisms.

Back in Samokov after another grueling week of work, I unexpectedly encountered Holidays #3 and #4. For quite some time builders have been working on a giant sports facility of some sort here in town. The opening ceremony was on March 8th, which was large and prestigious enough to attract the presence of the President of Bulgaria. The week was busy for all preparing for the big day and in efforts to up its reputation, the municipality finally painted road lines on the main street that passes through Samokov, on which the basketball arena is located. But typically Bulgarian, they only painted about 200 meters of the road – that which the President might see. I doubt Sir Bulgaria was checking to see if the roads were properly painted upon his procession into the city, but considering the amount of time it takes to get anyone to do anything around here, I find it difficult to understand why the truck with the paint didn’t just finish the job. Oh well. Useless to wonder these things. I was out and about with my new friend Toli, who is the younger brother of my friend Vela, a teacher at my school and learned it was not only basketball day, but also the official women’s holiday in Bulgaria. I did wonder why all the ladies were carrying around flowers and acting extra jolly. Later that night Kevin and I snagged tickets to go to the basketball ceremony so we caught an all-star game and cultural performance. I could go on and on and on and on about how amused I was by the whole affair, but Kevin also pointed out I am too critical, to which I agree. Regardless, I was struck by how much Bulgarian sports model themselves after the sports atmosphere in America - complete with American sports music, cheerleader types (although these ones were wearing chaps and were 16 year old girls…), half-time shows and so on. The best part of the night was the cultural performance, but only about 25 people out of the thousands that were previously in attendance stayed to watch – sad. It was full of beautiful and interesting dance and music.

Holidays #4 on March 9th was the real surprise. The previous day I noticed that my street had been blocked off on both ends by parked cars and someone had compiled a giant pile of evergreen tree branches and sticks in the middle of the street. I passed this off as something somewhat normal here - absurd and clearly inefficient. When I left for church Sunday morning, as well as when I came back from Sofia the situation was still intact. While trying to get some work done later that night I was rudely interrupted and annoyed by hours of explosives being thrown into the street and fireworks being shot off into the sky. Now I must explain something here first: unfortunately it is not abnormal to hear gunshots, explosives or fireworks at any moment of the day here. At first it startled the hell out of me, but then I became used to it. However, the incidents were generally random and did not continue for long. On this particular Sunday night they lasted for hours. I was not happy and said a piece or two to the no one listening that night. The next day I walked to school to find that the pile of tree debris previously stashed in the middle of the road was replaced with ashes and a few scorched pine needles. Strange. It was not until that night during my Bulgarian tutoring session on Bulgarian holidays that Eli explained that the previous night was a holiday. Apparently it is called Sirni Zagovezni and boys prepare fires in the middle of the street, which are supposed to scare the bad spirits away. They then jump over these fires and light off fireworks and other explosives. All young people visit the older folk and ask for forgiveness for any misdoings they might have committed. There is also some ritual involving a piece of halva or an egg on a string that kids try to bite without using hands. Lastly, it is the last night of the kukeri – some crazy tradition where men dress up in absurdly scary masks and outfits to cast out the evil spirits, which people previously believed came back to the living during the winter. Samokov did not really have a Kukeri, but other towns with PCVs have huge Kukeri celebrations. After hearing all that everything made sense but it’s amazing what your mind can do when you have no context to place anything around.

Holiday #5 was two days later with the official school celebration. Apparently every school in Bulgaria has one of these, usually falling on a special date having something to do with who your school is named after. Mine is Avksenti Veleski who is some church guy – I do not know much more and given the lack of Bulgarian, did not really learn too much during the play that reenacted parts of his life. This was a day of no studies, which was nice and all the students came to watch a special program. It lasted about 45 minutes and included some traditional Bulgarian babble and blabber. As usual, I did not understand much but smiled and nodded emphatically (the wrong way though, because if you remember here in Bulgaria yes is the headshake for no) when people asked me how wonderful the whole thing was. I was later kidnapped to go to a teacher’s banquet. Usually I stay out of teacher related things, which is something I should not do but do anyway. They are a key source of integration but I just do not get the feeling they like me too much. Mainly because my first introduction to them was through my counterpart, who is not the most popular girl in school. So when I became associated with her, they wanted nothing to do with me. I also never go to the teacher’s lounge or escape during the breaks or ditch class to smoke cigs or drink coffee with them. I prefer to keep an eye on my crew of conniving little students who would probably destroy the room and copy homework in my absence. But come to think of it, this is done in my presence … Regardless, I was taken to a marathon na gosti where all the teacher’s tried to marry me off to their sons or explained to me that American girls prefer Bulgarian men because they are “more emotional” to which I had to try really hard not to laugh and scoff at. This is complete nonsense. I attempted to make my escape when the other teachers started to trickle out but my director would not allow this, insisting I go eat ice cream with them. Five hours after the event began, I finally arrived home and passed out on the most deserved nap I have ever had. It is amazingly exhausting breathing thick, smoky air while listening to Bulgarian teachers gossip and try to pawn off their sons for so long.

Holiday #6 is Todorovden on March 15th. The week before at church some of the missionaries told me that one of the members of the branch invited everyone out to some horse races every year. Like me, they thought this was strange but a welcomed and interesting change of pace so everyone was excited to go. I was thinking Kentucky Derby Bulgarian style. I learned from Eli again that week that these horse races are part of this holiday, which I assumed the missionaries, like me, did not know about. It is fun being the clueless American. This is an Orthodox holiday which is celebrated on the first day of the Easter fast – the 7 weeks before the big day where people have to go vegan. This never actually happens here. Women prepare a special bread topped with garlic, which apparently shuns evil spirits. Young men decorate horses and then take the horses to the local church and ride around it and then back to a young, unmarried woman who supposedly is expecting the arrival of her Prince Charming. After this, they race the horses as part of the celebration. It is also the name day, a celebration bigger than one’s birthday here, for anyone with Todorov or any derivative of that. Janel and I were planning on attending these horse races with the elders, but after planning it out, realized it was going to take us forever to get there and haircuts were more important. Plus we needed to meet a ton of other volunteers in Sofia for Sarah and Laura’s St. Patrick’s Day/Birthday celebration – Holiday #7. We spent the evening eating gloriously hot and spicy Indian food and unthinkable amounts of sugar in the form of cake in celebration of two great births. Unfortunately that put Beckie, Amanda and I in food coma so we did not last for the Irish pub portion of the evening.

All in all I think seven celebrated holidays is insane yet wonderful and I don’t count out the possibility there were I was unaware of. Easter is the next biggie, which is larger than Christmas so this should be interesting. I am not sure I will be sticking around to see it however as there are plans to hit up Macedonia and Albania. Next week is the beginning of the BEST holiday – spring break. Sehee and I are taking off to Greece with nothing more than books, blankets and beach dresses. Do not expect to hear from me.

Other than the holidays nothing extraordinary has been taking place – still chugging along with this thing called school – succeeding some days, failing others and getting used to the wringer it is putting me through. Been trying to get out more, make some friends and stop the progression of hermit-ism, but even that has its good days and bad ones. I am anxiously anticipating the arrival of a permanent spring, because I realize I HATE this winter bit. Actually that is not a new realization. And definitely looking forward to summer with no school! And in honor of my birthdays and others’, I will be planning the most awesome 80’s prom the world has ever seen on May 31st (so PCVs… keep that open and get on the outfits now!).

Still look forward to your calls and emails and miss and love you like crazy. Special birthday shout outs to LA Lady/Fellow Days Lover/4 Man Plan Giving Emily Winnie, Ben’s cookie and London wheelchair pusher Andrea Hughes, my cow-poo girl Tanya Wennmacher, the infamous and enigmatic Ryan Hale, old roomies Laura Patterson and Kristin Andruska (miss you girl!), MDA buddy Allie Anderson, Miss Britney Tripp, PCV’S Lauren, Lenny, Valerie, Sarah, Anna, and Laura, my first friend at USC Erik Valentine, the bloodlessqueen Sarah K., Glendale 7th love Rebecca and Big Booty champ Nick, the sweetheart Rebecca Baird, and last but not least my favoritetest, bestest most amazing former boss Mr. Scott Glovsky (go to for all your HMO fighting needs!). Also big congratulations for Jina Benster on the engagement, as well as birthday wishes. Eric Hagen – I love you and think you are great! Kayla – hope you are enjoying being PREGO!!! Cannot wait to see you and Chels! Rowland – still waiting for your call back to hear drama on your life. Meghan Priest – “sniff, sniff” SQUAKKKK, and Sarah, Elyse, Mitch and Hagop – miss watching purple spandexed crazies (or just Hagop), not hitting golf balls and commenting on a mysterious green thing in a certain someone’s teeth with all of you.

And finally – here is something I enjoyed this week. The fabulous Katy Perry and Ferras. They will both be big – you wait. I predicted it with Sara B and look where she is now and here I go again. I am also of ALL SXSW goers.

1 comment:

Ryan said...

I'm not a stalker or anything and am not a link to anti virus software. I found your blog linked to by Renee and Sara and had to say you keep a great blog. One of my MY BF's served in Bulgaria and I always wished I did the peace corp, so its fun to check in on your experiences. I'm forwarding this to my friend. Keep up the good work.