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!   

Monday, August 19, 2013

Arriving in Bulgaria

     Sunday marked one week since my arrival in Bulgaria.  It has been a very full, stimulating, exhausting, awesome, and wonderful week.  Most of my time has been spent in ETA training, Bulgarian language class, and various panels about Bulgarian culture.  There have also been many wonderful experiences of community among the ETAs and other Fulbright International Summer Institute participants.  On Friday night, there was an end of FISI celebratory dinner at the golf resort across the lake from our hotel.  My favorite part of the night was learning a few Bulgarian folk dances. To return the favor, the ETAs taught everyone dances to "the Wobble" and "YMCA."  It was a night of good company, food, and dancing.  

On Saturday we went on a field trip to Saeva Cave and Troyan monastery.  It was a relief to escape from "the compound," (which is the nickname I have somewhat affectionately given to our luxurious hotel) and to interact with Bulgarians in a more authentic setting.  

Another highlight from my week was meeting my mentor teacher and learning more about what my life in Ruse will be like.  I will be teaching 16 half classes (a half class has 13 students instead of 26), 8 groups of 8th graders and 8 groups of 9th graders.  It sounds like I will have plenty of room for creativity during lesson planning as long as each week's lesson is relevant to the unit they are studying in their regular English class. Meeting my mentor teacher and participating in teacher training all week made me very excited to settle into the city that will be my home for the next 10 months. 

I have been pleasantly surprised by how much being in Bulgaria feels like returning to one of my homes.  I definitely left part of my heart here when I left Blagoevgrad in December of 2011.  Even though I am in a town I have never seen before, it feels comfortable and familiar.  It makes me smile to hear some of the same songs being played on the bus now that were also popular while I was in Blagoevgrad.  I am looking forward to the new challenges, opportunities, and memories this year will hold.