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.