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.