Thursday, May 29, 2014

Reflections on a year well-spent

Today I said a final goodbye to students, colleagues, and the school that has been my family for the last 10 months.  Like all goodbyes, this one was difficult, especially since it was stretched into a painful 2 week process of "lasts."  I had the last Fulbright meeting, a last trip to the Black Sea, my last Bulgarian lesson, a final coffee with my mentor teacher, and 16 "final" classes.  Today's goodbye was more challenging because finally, it really was the final goodbye.  Tomorrow I will pack up and clean my apartment and by Sunday evening, I will be back in California.  It's an overwhelming contrast, being in Bulgaria one day and California the next.  People who know me well know that drawn out good-byes are one of my least favorite things.  It is painful to be caught in the emotional limbo of saying goodbye before physically leaving a place- it's too close to the end to start something but too much time to do nothing.  The silver-lining of my 2 weeks of goodbyes is that I have had a copious amount of time to reflect on my time in Bulgaria, to identify strengths and lessons I have learned, to let go of objectives that were not achieved, and to consider what I might do differently if given the opportunity to do the year again.

By far, the best thing about my time in Bulgaria has been the people I have met.  Throughout the year I have been impressed by how bright my students are.  There also has not been a day at school that I have not been surprised (for better or for worse) by their endless creativity.  I am curious to see what Bulgaria will look like 15 years from now and am eager to see what sort of futures my students will build for themselves.   My colleagues are friendly and welcome my questions about Bulgaria.  Even the number of bewildered stares I get on the street has decreased over the course of the year.  Ruse has grown to feel like home to me.

When I look at Bulgaria I see a nation asking to be seen for what it actually is, not just for generalizations that are convenient or comfortable to believe.  Sure, corruption is still in play here, but I'm quite certain corruption exists in some form everywhere.  In Bulgaria I have found great resilience in an environment that my American psyche would have me imagine as a  post-communist wasteland of gray housing blocks.  It is as if the country, the very land itself is protesting against this stereotype.  There are bright fields of mustard and poppies and unusual yet breathtaking canyons and rock formations.  This resilience is also reflected in the Bulgarian people.  To be openly hopeful can mean painting a target on one's self, exposing one's self to the sting of disappointment.  Often people are not openly hopeful, in fact it is not uncommon to encounter people who are openly cynical.  But just because hopefulness isn't out there for the world to see does not mean that it does not exist.  There is a deep layer of joy in Bulgaria.  The type of joy known by those who have survived past pain and disappointments.  It is a hopeful joy that things will be better.  It is not common practice to wear joy publicly here.  On more than one occasion I have been asked by a student, "Miss, why are you still smiling?"  In Bulgaria, joy is a gift that is carefully protected, taken out and examined in the safety of one's own home or in the presence of those who have stuck around long enough to be worth sharing with.  Smiles are given to those who have revealed their own vulnerabilities.  This is a very different attitude than I am accustomed to coming from California, but I have come to appreciate that when Bulgarians smile, it is truly a precious moment.

My time in Bulgaria has been overwhelmingly positive.  I am happy and comfortable here.  I want to protest leaving, to tell time that it has run out too quickly and that I'm not yet ready to go, but life goes on and it is time to see what adventures Chicago has in store.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What's the story about all those furry men?!

         It's long overdue, but this blog update is dedicated to the photos of all the men in giant furry costumes that I posted on Facebook back in January.  They are called "кукери" [Koo-kay-ri], or Mumers, and are part of an old tradition that is celebrated annually in Bulgaria.  Although several festivals exist all over the Balkans, the Surva Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria is the largest of its kind in all of the Balkan Peninsula. This tradition has pagan roots and takes place as Winter begins to transition to Spring (between Christmas and Easter nowadays).  The Kukeri are believed to scare away demons and impurities of winter to make way for a blessed and prosperous Spring.  According to the Surva website, "The symbolic meaning of the winter and pre-spring rituals performed by single men is related to the end of the old year and the advent of the new and to the upcoming awakening of nature for new life. These rituals represent the wish for a rich harvest, health and fertility for humans and farm animals. They are intended to chase away the evil spirits and prepare people for a new beginning."  Although tradition states that only single men participate in wearing the costumes, this rule has loosened over time. I saw several women and children in costume the day I attended the event.  
The main attraction at the Pernik event is the costume parade.  Even in snowy weather, spectators lined the streets for hours to watch 100s of folk groups pass in elaborate costumes.  The parade ended at a central stage where each group had an opportunity to perform as part of a competition.  If you're interested in learning more about the history of the festival or want to see more photos, you can check out the Surva Festival Website

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Winter Fun: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years

Fact: I haven't updated my blog in ages
Excuse: I've just been having too much fun! 

Happy February Friends! 

So much has happened since my last update.  Since it would be impossible for me (and boring for you) to relay everything that has happened since November, I have decided to post of few pictures of some of my favorite moments from the last 3 months.

1. Thanksgiving: I spent the holiday in Berlin visiting Laura, Benno, and Frida.  

The most exciting part of Thanksgiving was getting to meet one of the newest members of the family.  This is Frida. 

I spent actual Thanksgiving day at a German Christmas market.  Don't worry, we had a more traditional Thanksgiving celebration that Saturday.

I helped stuff the turkey.  This was my first interaction with a Thanksgiving turkey in its pre-cooked phase.  I would be delighted to never encounter the bird in this stage of preparation again!  

The feast! 
2. Christmas Vacation: I spent my vacation traveling around Bulgaria and Budapest with Jacob.  We had a lovely time.  One of the first things we did was visit my friend while Nova TV was at her house filming a Christmas special about how expats in Bulgaria celebrate Christmas.  If you're interested, I make an appearance around 2:00.

Next, we headed to Budapest for a week.  We spent a lot of time walking around the city, admiring beautiful architecture, and playing cards.  If you are ever in Budapest I highly recommend the free walking tour and the Terror House Museum.  

We spent Christmas Eve on a beautiful dinner cruise.  Here we are getting ready to leave.  

Christmas PJs! 
We spent New Years in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.  Celebrating New Year's Eve is a huge deal in Bulgaria. Visibly, the celebrations seem to surpass even Christmas.  Unlike California, Bulgaria does not have stringent laws about fireworks.  In practice this means that anyone can purchase and light large fireworks. Although we didn't buy any ourselves, we definitely enjoyed watching fireworks go off all around us at midnight.  It was like a 4th of July show times 10!  

3. Learning to live in snow: By Bulgarian standards, I have been extremely fortunate about the weather this year because we have only had 2 weeks that really constitute winter climate.  Most of December was relatively warm and January even had sunny days.  After a week of trying to navigate through heaps of snow, learning to walk on ice without slipping, and being colder than I have ever been, I have come to the conclusion that I don't like winter very much.  I miss California's sunshine and 50 degree winters.  I finally bought a winter coat, which has not only kept me warm but has also helped me blend in with locals more than my red peacoat did.  
The park near my school.
Benches along the "road" to school.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

"Wait... It's November?!"

     Well, I'm not sure how it happened but somehow it's already November.  In many ways, it is a blessing how quickly time has been passing.  There's no time to be homesick if you don't even notice the month has flown by.  I'm in an unfamiliar state of having enough to do to feel busy but not overwhelmed enough to be efficient in getting things done.  (If you know my overachiever tendencies, you know that this is unfamiliar territory for me.)  The result is that I fluctuate between marveling at how little stress I have in my life and feeling guilty/lazy that I am not squeezing maximum potential out of every wonderful second I get to spend in Bulgaria.
     Teaching continues to be something I enjoy, even though teaching high schoolers can be full of unexpected challenges.  My students amaze me in their ability to fluctuate between very perceptive comments and questions and somewhat juvenile tactics.  They are certainly a very creative bunch.  A very eye-opening interaction happened on a day that I decided to demonstrate for them how I always seemed to know when they were texting under their desks.  I sat down at the desk in the front of the room and pretended to be texting, including a variety a facial expressions, such as smiling for no apparent reason.  There was a collective "Oh..." around the room as the students realized how obvious it really was.  
     One of my favorite things I got to do in October was coach some students for the regional round of a speech contest.  We had a day long workshop the day of the competition where students practiced their speeches, gave and received peer feedback, and participated in mock interviews.  It was a long day, but I hope it was also a helpful day.  Three of the students I coached made it to the national round of the competition, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for them.  I can't take credit for their success, they each worked very hard,  but I was very proud of how well they did at the regional competition.
     There are days that I question how helpful my presence is here or how effective I am as a teacher. I know English because I grew up speaking it, but I've never studied it formally.  I know about America because I have grown up there, but I've also been asked on several occasions, "Are you sure you're a real American?"  But giving speeches and performing are things I know.  They are activities I have enjoyed for years.  They are things I have studied and things I have taught before.  So the opportunity to coach students for the speech competition was a wonderful reminder that there are helpful things for me to do here.  Starting this week, I will also be co-teaching a Speech and Debate club/class on Wednesday afternoons.  I'm very excited to get to work with students in a less formal setting and to get to teach a subject I know well.  
      In addition to teaching, I have also had many opportunities for exploration and adventure.  I also had my first house guests! Two of the other ETAs came to stay with me the weekend before Halloween.  We carved pumpkins, made tacos, and spent a lovely afternoon in Bucharest.  It was neat to get to show friends my new home.  I also spent a weekend exploring historic Bulgarian sites including Etara, Buzludzha, and Shipka.  
The second largest administrative building in the world (#1 is the Pentagon), built by Ceausescu .  

Poetry for sale at a folk museum in Bucharest.

Near the end of October I asked myself, "which is sadder, not carving a pumpkin this year or having to carve one by myself?" Luckily I had friends to carve with! 

The final product! Mine is the one on the far left.
Halloween at school! 
The city of Gabrovo is known for having particularly stingy residents, which lead to Gabrovo being the butt of many jokes.  The city has decided to embrace this stereotype and has a wonderful humor museum.  This room felt more like a fun house than a museum.
"You might be from Gabrovo if..." exhibit. 

The historic village of Etara.

Buzludzha was an old party meeting point.  Many people say it resembles a space ship. 

After climbing through a sketchy window, this is what I saw.

But then I walked upstairs and saw this stunning hall.

The pictures don't accurately convey the decaying beauty of this room.

That's Buzludzha in the background.

Shipka: an important site in the Turko-Russian War.

The socialist art museum in Sofia is definitely worth visiting.  My favorite part was the political posters gallery which was full of propaganda posters from the cold war.  It was very interesting to see propaganda posters from "the other" side.  

Wise words from Senator Fulbright. 


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Autumn in Ruse (aka California's Winter)

It has been just over three weeks since I moved into my apartment in Ruse.  Due to a canceled ATM card, my apartment is not quite as homey or furnished as I would like it to be, but there is plenty of time to remedy that situation.  Overall, the apartment is lovely and seems to be the perfect size for me.  I have a dining room/kitchen, an enclosed balcony type room with a stove and a clothes line, a bathroom, and a large bedroom/living room!  I was very surprised to see that my washing machine is in the kitchen, but the stove and oven are on the enclosed balcony.  One of my favorite things about the apartment is the flooring.  Some of the rooms have a beautiful stone floor and the others have hardwood flooring (this is especially helpful in minimizing my allergies.) 

Although the adjustment to living alone, after being constantly surrounded by people for a month of training and traveling, was difficult, I have become rather fond of having some alone time to reflect on my day and strategize for future lesson plans.  One of the best coping strategies I have employed for when the apartment seems too quiet is listening to podcasts.  My favorites so far are from BBC World News and NPR.  I also recently discovered a podcast called, "Stuff You Should Know," and have downloaded about 500 episodes full of interesting facts (watch out, I'm going to come back a trivia master!).   

I have been teaching for almost four weeks and I am happy to report that I have had far more enjoyable days than frustrating ones.  Generally, my students are interested in learning about my life and the United States, but it can sometimes be challenging to motivate them to put in the effort required to learn a foreign language (English).  Two of my favorite lessons so far have been "designing a dream high school" with the 8th graders and discussing things that are "stereotypically American" with the 9th graders.  One day, I showed a youtube clip of Americans being interviewed about "American culture."  At the end of the video, I asked the class "did anything surprise you?" One student raised his hand and said "the Asian girl." "What about her surprised you?" "She is so skinny!" Turns out, what was surprising to the student was not that there are Asian-Americans, but rather that someone could be both American and very thin! This led to a rather amusing conversation about American food and the way Americans are stereotyped as overweight and junk-food obsessed.  This interaction also allowed me to see something that I consider very hopeful- none of the students were surprised by the amount of ethnic diversity portrayed in the video.  In fact, one of the Americans in the video said that when she thought of American culture she thought of "white families." Many of my students were quick to comment that they don't view America as predominantly white at all.  In a globalized world with accessible media, the export of ideas about the prevalence of ethnic diversity in America seems like a very positive outcome to me.  

I'd like to take a moment to explain the title of this post, "Autumn in Ruse (aka California's Winter)."  Autumn officially began on September 22, and the weather in Ruse seems to have caught on to the change of season.  For the last 3 days, it has been raining non-stop with temperatures in the 40s and 50s, and it's only the beginning of Fall!  What Bulgarians call "fall weather," I call the deepest darkest part of California's winter.  When I told my students that this weather was the type of weather I associated with winter, they laughed at me in disbelief and told me it was going to be a "very long, cold winter" for me.  I will definitely have to invest in some boots and a winter jacket very soon. 

The city center.

I love fall! 

This bear statue is in the park behind my school.  Every time I see it, I am reminded of the California flag! 

The theater, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.

"Freedom Monument" in the city center.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Traveling around the Balkans

      I spent the last couple of weeks taking a whirlwind tour of several Balkan countries, including Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Needless to say, it was a very interesting, fun, and often exhausting trip.

      We started in Skopje, Macedonia- a lovely city that is undergoing a major beautification process in hopes of attracting more tourists. Mostly, this was manifest in more statues than anyone could count and large ornate fountains that were occasionally synchronized to the classical music being broadcast in the central square. The best way I can describe Skopje's center is to say, "Imagine if Disneyland decided to make a European city center, that is exactly what Skopje looks like." (A side note for those familiar with Chapman and it's many fountains- whoever is in charge of city planning for Skopje could give President Doti a run for his money, they may have even more fountains than we do!) Although the central square was beautiful, my traveling companions and I spent most of our time in the Old "Turkish Corner," an area of the city marked by cobblestone streets, bazaars, and delicious food.

      A fun fact about Skopje: Mother Teresa was born there! It was very neat to visit the museum commemorating her work and to learn more about her birth place. (For me, visiting Mother Teresa's birth place felt like coming full circle. In January, I visited the Mother Teresa house in Kolkata, where she spent the later part of her life.) Coincidentally, we visited the museum on what would have been Mother Teresa's 103rd birthday, which meant that the curator was very excited and even brought candy for all of the museum's visitors.
One of Skopje's bridges (full of statues of Macedonian artists)
A fountain featuring Alexander the Great in the middle of the city center
Fertility fountain at the start of old town Skopje.  Different statues around the fountain depict different stages of motherhood.
Rain, ice cream, flip flops, my bag from Piyali, and Eastern Europe- basically all of my favorite things are captured in this picture! 
      Our next stop, Montenegro, was a mixed bag of very positive experiences and a few unpleasant ones. Although I was unimpressed by my initial impressions of Montenegro (people seemed unwelcoming, which was a sharp contrast to the hospitality we experienced in Skopje), I was very happy to discover that the country had redeemed itself by the end of the week. Some highlights from this part of the trip were cliff jumping in Budva, swimming in the Adriatic at Svt. Stefan, and exploring old town Kotor. 
Cliff jumping in Budva! 
Sunset in Bar, Montenegro
Svt. Stefan


Dinner with some of the other ETAs in old town Kotor 
Exploring old town Kotor! 
Climbing up the old fort in Kotor

We made it to the top just in time for sunset! 

View from the top of the fort

The common area of our hostel in Budva
     In Montenegro, we also had our first exposure to "hostel culture," which is basically an environment in which everyone at the same hostel hangs out together and shares travel stories and tips. We experienced community with near strangers who were all in an unfamiliar setting together and were therefore extremely friendly and open. Most of the places we stayed for the rest of our trip were chosen based on tips we had heard from people we met at hostels. We also ran into many people we had previously met at other hostels we were staying at later on in our trip. It was very fun and comforting to walk around Sarajevo and run into people we had met back in Montenegro.

      Although I was very happy to have the opportunity to visit every country on our itinerary, Bosnia was my favorite by far. It is amazing and inspiring to see how much hope and warmth there is in a country that had been war-torn less than 2 decades ago. We spent 2 nights in Mostar and 3 nights in Sarajevo, I'm glad we were able to visit both, because they have a very different feel from one another. 
Inside the sniper building

      In Mostar, it was impossible to forget that there had recently been war there. Many of the buildings still have bullet holes in the walls and there are several signs around town saying "Never Forget 1993." That being said, Mostar is a lively city in which life goes on, even the the past is never forgotten. I had never before been in a place where youcould turn a corner and go from a bustling cafe to a war cemetery. In many areas of the city, you could feel the pain that has been held in that space, even without knowing exactly what happened or what that pain is. One of the most eerie and powerful things I experienced in Mostar was going to the "Sniper building," which looks a bit like a thrashed parking structure but is really a bombed out building. There are still bullet shells on the ground littered around broken glass. Climbing up the various floors of the building, seeing all the destruction, and imagining snipers using the building was horrifying and left me unsettled for quite some time. In spite of the darker, heavy moments of my time in Mostar, there were also many hopeful and inspiring moments. A particularly inspiring interaction was meeting a young woman working in a shop who is studying to be an engineer so she can be a part of her city's rebuilding process. Hope is alive in Mostar.

The cemetery on the hill in Sarajevo
On the old bridge in Mostar

      My first impression of Sarajevo was that I absolutely loved it. The city has a vibrant lively energy, beautiful old architecture, and a complex history that reaches beyond the collapse of Yugoslavia. One of the first things we saw in Sarajevo was the Latin bridge, which is the sight where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering a series of events that led up to WWI. After dinner,, we walked up the hill to a cemetery that overlooks the city. The city skyline was beautiful at sunset and the cemetery was still and peaceful. While we were there, the evening call to prayer began. Each mosque gives its own call, so for several minutes, we heard various calls to prayer echoing all around the city. It was as if the call was cradling the city, holding it together in spite of all of the brokenness it had experienced. That night, we went to a pub that had live blues music. It was a very interesting experience because from the inside of the pub, we could easily have been at any other pub in the world. In this setting, it was easy to forget that we were in Sarajevo. 

      The more modern areas of Sarajevo are similar to the modern areas of any city. On main streets, it was hard to believe the city had been under siege in the 1990s.  
A Sarajevo Rose.  These "roses" can be found all over the streets of Sarajevo.  They indicate places where three or more people were killed during the war.  
 Although the past continues to shape and make up a large part of the city's identity, it was very hopeful to see the way in which residents promoted other aspects of their city's identity as well such as hospitality, job opportunities and modernization, and the beauty of the architecture. Although the war history is a big part of what draws tourists to Sarajevo, it is by no means the only thing that makes Sarajevo a good city to visit. It was lucky that I had such a good first night in Sarajevo because unfortunately, I spent the rest of our time there sick in our hostel room. It is definitely a city I hope to visit again, hopefully next time it will be in better health!