The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of Elon University, the U.S. government, or the Peace Corps.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas!!

Весела Коледа!!

A very Merry Christmas to you and yours from

"And the first time that you opened Your eyes, did you realize that You would be my Savior?
And the first breath that left Your lips, did You know that it would change this world forever?

And I celebrate the day
That You were born to die
So I could one day pray for You to save my life


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

For Thanksgiving, I tried to make my grandmother's fudge pecan, but due to a serious of unfortunate kitchen compensation attempts, it was a no go. It would have tasted fine, but I tried to make one GIANT pie instead of two little ones (because I lacked the necesassary pie plates/pans), and it just wouldn't cook right. Very soupy - not transportable on public buses.

But after telling my two Bulgarian counterparts about said pie, they made me promise I would make it for them one night. So last night, I went to Mariana's apartment for dinner with the much anticipated pie in tow. Yet again, my oven cooked it kind of funky (half was PERFECT, the other half a little undone...) but as far as I knew it was edible.

Not only did the pie turn out absolutely delicious (yummmm), but it was the first na gosti (a noun and a verb in Bulgarian that describes visiting friends or family) I had attended where I was 100% involved in the conversation, 100% of the time.

It was fantastic!!

I'm finally finding a sense of humor in Bulgarian (my saving grace: and only 5 months in - not bad!), and the converation just flowed. If I didn't understand something, time was taken to explain it a different way, and then we pressed on.

It was definitely an exhausting evening, but not as exhausting as it used to be!

Малко по малко - little by little, making progress! :)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Katie = Pavlov's Dog

In the US, I could care LESS about McDonald's. I have no opposition to it, but I could go months (longer?) without giving it a second thought...

But here? As soon as I get on that bus from Samokov to Sofia, my mouth starts watering.

It's sad... really.

And this exit sign is the ONLY indication from the outside that this McDonald's is not on the corner of Rt 236 and Pickett in Fairfax!

(Hey Abby! While I'm mentioning international fast food chains, maybe I should bring up my internet, my INDOORS bathroom, my personal hot water heater, and the three supermarkets within 10 minutes walk from my OWN apartment... yeah, see - I can hit below the belt too. Although, my Peace Corps experience sometimes lacks some of the things I specifically signed up for... sigh, hehe. LOVE YOU!)

Monday, December 8, 2008

This is exactly what I pay my friends for:

"Remember that you prayed for guidance when you made the decision to join the peace corps, so instead of projecting to an uncertain destination, center yourself in the present - as the future is just an expansion of now!!"

Thanks Danny! Its funny how emails of encouragement always seem to come at EXACTLY the perfect time. So keep them coming! I promise to write back. :)

Seriously though... I have been in this constant spiral of forgetting why I came here in the first place, but in addition to having some of the greatest friends and family members back home supporting me every step of the way, I've found myself growing less and less stressed out even though things are still kind of crazy.

Jumping through hoops to get my new passport (and eventually my Bulgarian ID) is proving to be a bit of a challenge, but its helping me realize how incredibly awesome my two counterparts here are. I work with two women at my organization, who are both full time teachers yet also pouring their hearts into Svetlina (my organization). They are tired and burned out, but managing to laugh the entire time as we walk - yet AGAIN - back to the police station for more paperwork (it was only like the 5th time today in about two weeks). I'm finally finding my sense of humor in Bulgarian with Katia and Mariana, so as much as I did NOT want to show my face back at the police station, the three of us rolled in laughter as I went about complaining.

Cause what I am I trying so desperately to learn here?

Sometimes it's more important to change your perspective rather than your circumstance.

This weekend I went back to my training village for the day on Saturday. I needed to pick up my personal passport (which I need for my paperwork and for some reason left in Kraynitsi), but I also thought it would be nice to have a short visit with my host parents. I brought them Merry Cherry Bars, a few tomatoes (remember? They disappeared in the villages months ago... but I can buy them in Samokov!), and paper napkins with Christmas trees on them. After a delicious homemade lunch (I forgot how good Svetla's meals were), an incredible ego boost on how fast they think my Bulgarian is improving (ha, had them fooled!! :)), I caught the bus back to Samokov with a bag full of potatoes, apples, Rakia (Bulgarian moonshine...), and the homemade wine that I helped harvest grapes for this summer. All in all it was a good visit! Other than the fact that all of my geese and rabit friends are gone, there are considerably fewer chickens, and Bessie the pig met her maker a few days ago. О боже... the reality of village life hit!

Sunday I spent a much needed mental health day around the apartment with my wild child kitten, and then my roommate from PC training events passed through the hang out with me for the night.

And to top it all off... today was the first English lesson with my core kids that DIDN'T make me want to extract my teeth one by one. I caught their attention without bribing them (go figure), I didn't feel incredibly inadequate language wise (see what an ego boost can do?), and I actually occupied a whole hour (yeah - all I have to survive is 60 minutes) without mercilessly stretching out the last 15 minutes or so. It was great. We practiced the Latin alphabet (Bulgarian is all Cyrillic), reviewed our colors, learned some numbers, and then put it all to use by playing UNO. It was great!

Its those small victories that are helping me get through the day. Like, there is this one little boy at "Trust Me" (day center for kids with disabilities) who has severe autism and is in a wheelchair. They have trouble keeping him focuses because he can't communicate verbally and will just throw fits. Usually they wheel him around the entire time... every day when I walk in I give him my heartiest "Hello Mitko!" in Bulgarian, and everyday I get no response. Until last week... when I gave him my usual greeting, waited a second or two, and then found my place with my buddy Ivo. After a 5 second delay, I hear "Sttttrraaaazzzsssttttiiiii" coming from little Mitko!

Completely made my day, and for just long enough I forgot about the creepy guy on the bridge, the nervewracking photo line up at the police station, and realized my wallet/passport had been stolen.

I forgot just long enough to remember to thank God for being my Saving Grace and for bringing me here.

James 1:26-27 -
Anyone who sets himself up as "religious" by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

Friday, December 5, 2008

I have this problem -

When I get frustrated, I can't understand a lick of Bulgarian.

Which is kind of a big deal when you live in a foreign country and the world already seems to spin on without you anyway.

Today I met up with one of my counterparts and headed into Sofia to FINALLY pick up my Bulgarian ID. When we got there, the little fear I had that this was going to be a challenge since I no longer have my Peace Corps Passport came true... Sure enough - my ID Card is linked to my PC Passport and Visa, and since I had to report them stolen, I wasn't able to pick up my ID card. Turns out, that all of the info on my ID card matches the Passport that no longer exists, so now not only do I have to jump through hoops to get my new Passport (I thought since I never had to do anything in person the first time that it would be that easy... I was wrong - really its not that big of a deal, everything is just amplified here), but once I have it, I have to apply alllllll over again for a Bulgarian ID card. And considering I started this process the week after I got to Samokov, and this is the first week it was ready for pick-up... yippee.

At any rate, hence my frustration.

I spent the rest of the day hanging out in Sofia with my counterpart, her daughter, and her daughter's boyfriend, and barely even hearing all of the Bulgarian going on around me. I am getting to the point where I can usually understand conversations I am directly involved in (usually greatly relying on context) and can SOMETIMES pick out enough words in other people's conversations to get a general meeting, but today... I was tired. I was frustrated. And EVERYTHING was a challenge. Especially trying to understand anything in an all Bulgarian environment (and for a good part of the day we were at a graduation ceremony for a Bulgarian college). So I pretty much gave up trying in drifted off into my own world.

After an exhausting day, I was with Ascen on the way home in the car after dropping off my counterpart, and asked him where he lived since he said it was close to me.

I asked in Bulgarian.

He answered in Bulgarian.

It was quiet for a minute.

And then he says....

"We can talk in English now."


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

When it rains... it pours.

But holding out for the moments of sunshine make things so much better...

Things have been a bit on the crazy and frustrating side lately... last week I had a run in with a creep while out for a walk near my apartment building (rest assured - I am fine... nothing ended up happening), and the police called me back into the department yesterday to show me pictures of possible suspects. Last week when I made the initial report, I became very clued in to the reality of the ethnic issues here in Samokov - as hard as I tried to convince them that the individual was of Bulgarian decent, they kept trying to help me "remember" that he was Roma. I did finally convince them, or so I thought, because yesterday they showed me about 10 photos, and 8 of them were Roma men, one looked so Roma that me, my counterpart, and the detectives assistant all mistook him for such, and the last guy was about 15 years too young. Long story short, I think that they are taking this seriously because he was Bulgarian, and they can't dismiss it as just another "gypsy" incident, but I was just hoping this whole thing would go away when I reported it. Anyway, yesterday when I left the police department, I realized my wallet was missing. I had it when I fought with my counterpart over who was going to pay for lunch, and then we walked together to the police station, and I never touched it. I don't want to believe someone could have lifted it (and I don't know how that could have happened), but I never took it out of my purse, and my bag is too deep for it to just fall out. I am beyond confused.... pretty much everything is replacable (with some effort), but being that it wound be back at the police department for a completely different event within an hour after addressing something else, I am convince the police here (who made up some of my favorite people in DC and Burlington), probably hate me. And with good reason. I am only proving that this 22 year old American girl can't take care of herself. Sometimes I get sick of getting tested. For once, I would like it to just be EASY. But apparently my life doesn't work that way. Never really has.... **sigh**

On a much more encouraging note... two good friends of mine from Sofia came to hang out with me and my kids today. I had made contact with a missionary family here before I left the US, but I never expected to be blessed by the further connections. This is the oldest son in the family and Allison, who is staying (only for a couple more days!!) with them for part of her gap year before she starts college in the fall. The kids LOVED them, and I think Allison and Jordan got a kick of their 2 hours of rock star status. :)

We spent the time with the kids decorating the organization for Christmas. The kids played with tinsel and garland and decorated two awesome trees. The holiday appeal drew about 20 extra kids I had never met before, and after a little decorating contest, we enjoyed chocolate chip cookies from Allison and Jordan, then played volleyball outside with some of the older kids. It was a lot of fun to have some extra help and just enjoy a relaxing time.

And now... I no longer have to come back to a quiet, empty apartment!!

Meet Maitap!!

In Bulgarian, "maitap" (mайтап) means "fun" or "joke," and this little troublemaker is a four month old who in one short hour, officially mastered how to climb my drapes... literally. As a matter of fact, there she goes again... :)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Things are certainly picking up, which is definitely a good thing. This past weekend wasn't so great - among other things, I lost water for about 4 days and internet for 2 (if I lose those every time it snows, I am in for a LONG winter!!). Neither were that big of a deal, I definitely made due without water, and now know to keep my 10 Liter bottles filled and ready, and not having internet was actually kind of refreshing... It is nice to have both amenities back though!

I'm still making some really good contacts, and next week should start finding more ways to get down into the Mahala and make more direct connections there. There is a pretty active Roma church and community center, and it would be a great way to meet people and have more direct contact down there. As I've mentioned, my organization is in the entirely Roma school, but its not actually in the Mahala. In some ways, its great, because it draws the kids out into the rest of the community. It also keeps ME out of the Mahala though without some careful planning. But, things are coming along...

I have my ups and downs with my kids, per usual. Its good because I can tell they get excited when I see them at the organization or when I am out and about, but per usual with youth work, its hard finding the balance between being a friend and being someone they will respect and listen to when we do need to be serious. Some aspects of management will get better as my language improves, but my director keeps reminding me that SHE has trouble keeping their attention - "and I speak Bulgarian!" I do feel for them though... Mondays I teach English, and the kids speak only Romski at home, Bulgarian in school and in town, and now they are expected to sit through my English classes. I know the importance of English in today's society (especially with the EU affiliation), but I feel as though they should be focusing on Bulgarian so we can first push them to be leaders in Samokov, then Bulgaria, and THEN the greater market. But, for now... baby steps.

And tomorrow is Thanksgiving! I am going into Sofia to enjoy the day with an American family I met through connections back home. I never expected to be so blessed by them, but their connections are continuing to amaze me as I meet people who are working all around Bulgaria and providing me with additional areas to serve, as well as being in support of MY work. I also have some errands I need to do in the city (my Bulgarian ID should be ready, and every time I try to go to the Sofia police station to work all that out, its an adventure...), and I am on turkey duty for our B24 (my group of volunteers) Thanksgiving reunion Saturday.

So, Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!!
Miss everyone SOOOOO much. :)

But thanks to the wonderosity of Skype, I get to talk to some of my cousins tomorrow! Oh, and other family members as well. ;P

New band obsession - Tenth Avenue North... and a simply great video that makes me smile. Enjoy.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Yesterday I wore a tshirt while playing with my kids...

Today I woke up to 6 inches of snow, and its been snowing all day!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My backyard!

Well, the closest thing to what would constitute a view from my backyard...

It also represents impending doom.

Freezing cold... bitter... freezing... windy... freezing... wet... FREEZING... impending doom.

Did I mention freezing? :)

But wow... gorgeous.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Despite a weekend wrestling with the location of my heart (its no secret I left it back in Urban America), today was the first totally awesome day I've had since I arrived in my new home of Samokov, Bulgaria.

I slept in a little bit before my Bulgarian tutoring session this morning, and the lesson itself didn't go very well... After many nights of labored sleep, I was a bit sleepy during my lesson, and just all out frustrated as I tried to (AGAIN) explain to my non-English speaking Bulgarian tutor that I still didn't understand the same concept I didn't understand last class when she tried to explain it in Bulgarian only fit for a native speaker...

But at the end of my lesson, where we reserve the last 20 minutes for just conversation, we actually had a REAL conversation. And I was completely honest with her for the first time. I told Mariana how much I missed NYC and how I left my hear there. I told her how hard it was to leave, and how much I miss the friends I was starting to make. I told her about how I am excited about working in Samokov, but I want to spend my evenings and free time during the next two years studying all about homelessness and PTSD so when I go back to Urban America I will be ready to serve again - but more equipped this time. We talked about how I wanted to do a program that allows me to live in a community for a year working in a urban practical experience, so after that I could get my Master's Degree in Urban Studies in only one year. We talked about how I wouldn't survive 2 more years of grad school that would keep me out of my dream any longer (that would be FIVE years from now until I was done and ready to go), and how the reason I did ok at Elon because of the service-learning component and how I learn by DOING. I didn't even know I was CAPABLE of having this conversation in Bulgarian... but I did it. We talked for the last 20 minutes, and then for a little longer while she ate lunch.


If that wasn't enough, I walked into "Trust Me" today, and the first person to notice me was Ivo and he shouted, " Katie, Katie, KATIE!!!!!" right as I walked through the door. That in and of itself could have made my whole week. But it didn't stop there... I spent the next couple of hours playing Memory and Dominoes, and spelling out letters on the peg board with Mirayla.

After work I went to the big grocery store to look for Almond Extract for the Filkins' famous Merry Cherry Bars for Christmas (I got cherries and M&M's in my last care package from home), and found REAL brown sugar and baking cocoa!! Two things I haven't been able to find till now...

When I got back to my apartment, I found an email reply from one of my Elon professors with all of the information I need to try and get Jackson Katz' MVP Program (from my Violence in Families Service-Learning Class at Elon) culturally adapted and translated into Bulgarian for my kids.

And a little while ago, I got back from a 3 and a half hour dinner with a Bulgarian neighbor from who owns a private English school in the block next door. We shared an amazingly good pizza, talked about life, her kids, Bulgaria, the segregation between Bulgarian and Roma, faith.... and how she can help me with my mission here!! Tomorrow she is going to print out invitations to invite my core group of kids to join her in Friday English classes with her Bulgarian kids...

Wow... again!!

Has anything changed from the last couple of weeks?

Probably not.

My circumstance is still the same - I MISS the city and what i was doing there, and I will continue to miss it over the next two years and I can't wait until God brings me back to do what I am on this earth to do.

It will be a slow process, but maybe my HEART is starting to change..

No matter what, it was a good day. :)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Work wise, the last week or so have been pretty good. I've been settling into a bit of a routine, which is helpful. And making not-so-random contacts with random people.

Last Friday I went to work at "Trust Me," (an organization for kids/young adults with disabilities) and it was the first day there that I actually felt relatively productive. Normally its really just a standing play-date with Ivo, a 23 year old sweetie with a few missing teeth only improving the greatest smile ever. Because he's not of school age, they basically just have him play all day... my goal is that once my Bulgarian is good enough, I want to come up with something a little bit more worthwhile that will keep his attention. Until then, it's football and catch in the school yard, and "dancing" when its too cold to be outside. There are usually only about 5 kids, and about twice that in the staff department... so needless to say, I spend most of my time hanging out and trying to pick up more Bulgarian. On Friday, though, after my time outside with my buddy Ivo, I went inside to hang out with Mirayla - an incredibly sweet 13 year old. Normally Mirayla gets very nervous around new people, and I haven't been an exception (I'm such a funny looking American). After a sufficient amount of time sitting doing nothing while Ivo bounced around the room, I went and got a memory game to play with Mirayla. It took some prodding and some help on my part, but I got her to play with me! It was so great to see how excited she would get when she made a matching pair and head the pleasure of teaching me all the Bulgarian words I didn't know for the pictures on the cards. After we exhausted the attention span for Memory, we graduated to putting together puzzles. A bit of a challenge, but the spacial relations are definitely something good for her to work on, and yet again her smiling success when she found a piece that fit could light up a room.

Life wise... its been a big a challenge lately. I'm used to hard. I like hard. I wanted hard.

I normally crave a challenge, and I was looking forward to the day to day challenges of assimilating into a new culture. I didn't, however, anticipate the void I would feel every day as I think about the people and work I left behind in Urban America. I am on this earth to do the work I was doing... and somedays it hurts a lot as I wonder why I left...

In the big picture, I know why I left; I really do. And I believe in what I am doing here in Samokov, Bulgaria; I genuinely care about the kids I am working with... But I left my heart back in the US. That was no secret when I accepted my invitation and got on that plane 4 and a half months ago... but its the truth - its my reality.

Everyday I catch up on the news and it hurts to hear about the current economic crisis and the number of people ending up on the streets in cities all over the US. More and more people are ending up homeless, and that's bound to make access to resources for those already living on the streets even harder... I can't stop thinking about how if Obama can deliver on his word, even more veterans will be returning back to the United States in the relatively near future, and the sad reality is that even returning heros from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to have no where to go... (

Two years is a long time to be away from what you know you are called to do. I know a lot of 22 year olds don't have that much focus, and many people would tell me I have the rest of my life to follow that dream and serve in Urban America, but thats where my heart is and its hard to be away. I love my kids here and I know they need me, and I WANT to help them find the hope that they need to succeed, but that doesn't make it any easier.

For all my ways are before you
I let your hand become my help
My soul longs and adores you
Let my cry come before you oh Lord

Revive me, according to your loving kindness
Revive me, that I may seek your word
Revive me, according to your loving kindnes
Revive me, oh Lord

Oh, Revive me
Revive me

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Happy Veteran's Day!

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

I fall into this political chasm of general partisan confusion... I refuse to identify solely with one party or the other - I stick to my beliefs and principals. I avoid conversations that aim to encourage me to commit to one political leaning over the other, rather I discuss and vote the things that are most important to me, and respect that what makes this country beautiful - diversity.

You will never hear me make threats of leaving the country in protest to an election or an issue. Honestly, I'm more mature than that, and love the freedom I have given too much to stoop so low as to threaten to do so.

In fact, I left my country to SERVE it because it is my right and responsibility to do so - to defend my love for my country in the outside world that is often blinded by the sheer power our nation possesses, and the divisions that have sadly arisen from it.

There is one thing I am certain of, however, and will defend to my death:

I am PRO the men and women defending our country,
and those who have done so selflessly in the past.

A few years ago on a Friday morning I sat in a freshman religion class in a combination of shock, dismay, and panic as I heard my professor agree with one of my classmates that my grandfathers, dad, brother, and many close friends were all going to hell because they are/were in the military.

I cowered in my seat as I rehearsed many responses in defense of my loved ones.

I did nothing.

I said nothing.

I thought much.

All weekend I hated myself for sitting by and doing nothing as I heard people attack the salvation of the courageous men and women I have known all of my lives - some of the most dedicated, loving, giving, and courageous people anyone will ever meet. I've heard people attack our nation's service-members before, but never had it gnawed at me in such a way.

On Monday my mom called at an unusual time, and asked when the last time I had heard from Ben was. Ben was a corporal in the Marines, and had been deployed in Iraq for some time.

About the time I was sitting in that religion class on Friday morning boiling over comments of my classmates but not standing up for my beliefs, Ben and a fellow marine were stopping a suicide bomber on the outskirts of camp - giving their own lives, but saving the lives of every other man in their unit.

Don't tell me that one of the most popular guys of the Barcroft Youth Group - the guy whose smile and passion for God could light up a room full of teenagers and bring them to their knees in desperate worship - is going to hell because he gave his life for his country.

Don't tell me that because every officer, marine, soldier, sailor who loves God can't meet their maker because they paid the ultimate sacrifice or served the country that HE created.

Dad (and mom - the ever supportive Navy wife :)) - you will never know what an amazing example of loyalty, dedication, and love for this country and Christ you have been to me for 22 years. I guess when I was little and told you I was following in your footsteps to the Naval Academy, you knew better than I did that that wasn't in the plan for me, but I am so thankful to be able to serve the same country you did but in a different capacity. I love you BOTH for providing such an example patriotism.

Ryan - you aren't a veteran yet, but I LOVE YOU and I am sooooo incredibly proud of you!

For all the other veterans and servicemembers in my life - In a mere expression of gratitude, and on behalf of all those that too often forget about you, THANK YOU. For everything.

Keep singing for Jesus Ben...
Can't wait to worship with you again some day.

I'm still a horrible bass guitar player
(I never did get the double on stage like you wanted)

but I love our Creator even more than I did in HS, and just like you taught me -

THAT'S so much more important.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

"Do they even have Halloween in Bulgaria?"

"Only if there are awesome Peace Corps Volunteers who decide to show Bulgarians how its done!"

More than a week after the actual holiday... with a lot of substitutions for normally integral Halloween materials... the party that my site-mate Amy and I threw for our kids yesterday went off without a hitch.

You know it must have been a good party if I went home at the end of the night covered in pumpkin guts, frosting, slimy spaghetti, and a little bit of glue.

Amy and I even managed to hunt down a Baba selling pumpkins in the Pazar. She only had two (very small) pumpkins with her, but the next day I returned with three of my girls and the Baba actually packed up her little basket of pears, took us to her house, and sold us 9 pumpkins. My kids were super excited to be able to help as they thought about the concept of carving pumpkins that I had told them so much about (a totally new concept for them), and I think we totally made the Babas day! 9 pumkpins only cost me 20 leva (about $14), but I bet that was more than she makes in a few weeks selling her apples and pears at the Pazar. So everyone was happy, and my kids even got candy from her and I got an invite to come back and visit!

As I've mentioned numerous times, I work for an organization here in Samokov that is based out of the only 100% Roma school outside of the Roma neighborhood. Amy teaches English at a predominately Bulgarian school in the center of town. We figured that if we held the party at my organization and invited both of our groups of kids, not only would we get to work together as Samokov's Peace Corps Volunteers, but it would be a great opportunity to get our kids to interact and have fun together. We knew the chances were high that we'd notice a lot of divisions throughout the evening, and they did exist, but it was awesome to see our kids mix long enough to cover their friends (or "mummies") in toilet paper and cheer each other on as they dug "eye balls" out of slimy spaghetti using only spoons between their lips.

All in all, the kids seemed to have a blast, my counterpart was happy, and other than the weather suddenly turning into winter on us, everything went off without a hitch. I learned a lot about what it takes to make this sort of thing happen, and my prayer was answered that this be a good learning experience and first shot so that in the next two years, I can continue to find ways to bring these kids from very different worlds, together.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

"Do you remember when we were just kids and cardboard boxes took us miles from what we would miss? Schoolyard conversations taken to heart, and laughter took the place of everything we knew we were not..." - 'Inevitable' by Anberlin

Kids are kids - no matter where in the world you are.

I value few things more than the consistency found in that statement.

But its not an exaggeration to say that some kids are given much more room and freedom to actually BE kids.

But who gets to choose which kids are given every opportunity and which are labeled "FAILURE" without a second thought?

This isn't supposed to provoke some deep theological, moral, or political discussion here.

This is reality.

My reality.

The reality of the kids I worked with in North Carolina, DC, Virginia, and New York.

The kids here.

Every day I walk past a variety of different schools in Samokov, and often have to remind myself to suppress the frustration raging deep in my soul... most of the schools in the city are predominantly attended by ethnic Bulgarian children. These schools are usually freshly painted in vibrant colors (sans graffiti) with manicured lawns and {relatively} observed trash cans.

My organization operates in the one 100% Roma school in Samokov that is outside of the actual Roma neighborhood. Next time you are in Samokov, take a little walk down one of the main drag's and take a look, you can't miss it - the "gypsy school" (as it is not-so affectionately known) is a drab gray color with more broken windows that I can count, trash overflowing from the dumpster, more than just a smattering of graffiti, and a building that might look abandoned if it weren't teeming with kids and no one seeming to care if they are actually in class or not.

The school doesn't even offer classes after the 9th grade, so if the student decides to challenge their "right" to marry at the age of 14, they will be thrust into one of the Bulgarian schools, where chances are they won't be well enough equipped academically to succeed. So what option do they have? Go back to the Roma neighborhood that their parents hardly leave anymore because of the community wide resentment towards their existence, forget about any thougths of higher education, and get married. {**This is often the reality in Bulgaria, but Samokov seems to be a bit of an exception to the extent of the segregation - please try to refrain from tough judgements on this reality**}.

I fell in love with the Bulgarian people and the culture here from the day I stepped foot in the beautiful Balkan mountains, and moreso when I met my "family" in Kraynitsi. These are loving people living in a country that has unfortunately seen so much oppression (although more passive than in other former-Soviet countries) in the past decades that they don't know any different way to view the world. Now that the country has joined the European Union, all of Bulgaria needs to take drastic steps to meet the various EU standards. Unfortunately, the Roma people, one of the same groups that got overlooked throughout years of governmental squelching, is still so far on the back burner that they seem to be left behind again.

I've worked hard in the past few years to try and give voices to those society often neglects to address, but I don't think I've ever stood in front of such a large mountain of obstacles knowing that in reality I will accomplish very little in the next two years...

But I digress...

Now that I have been in Samokov for about a month, I am FINALLY starting to settle into some semblance of a routine:
  • Mondays: enjoy a slower morning either studying Bulgarian or scouring the internet for various project/grant ideas, then head over to my organization to "teach" English (aka, break up fights and exhaust my VERY limited list of Bulgarian directives/commands).
  • Tuesdays: an hour and a half of Bulgarian language in the morning (with a tutor who speaks ZERO English and explains grammar to me like I am a native speaker... I'm hoping this pays off later instead of getting the best of me), then I head over to the organization for arts and crafts with my kids.
  • Wednesdays: I'm hoping to soon get involved with a soup kitchen over in the Roma neighborhood a couple mornings every week, but that requires I can manage to book it across the city in time to be at "Trust Me" to work with kids with special needs for the afternoon (another overlooked people group in the country - kids here are often immediately institutionalized, but "Trust Me" is run by parents who are trying to keep their kids in the school system. Its pretty incredible...)
  • Thursday: Bulgarian language in the morning and then the organization to hang out with my kids and play sports (blustery Bulgarian weather permitting - although it is downright gorgeous right now!!)
  • Friday: Hopefully soon to be soup kitchen time, then back to "Trust Me" to hang out with my other kids. ;)
Това Е...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Quick Guide on How to Meet Your Bulgarian Neighboors:

With the anticipation of living in your Soviet-Style Block apartment for the 2 years, it makes sense that you would want to befriend those living closest to you, especially since you are probably the only person in the entire building (or neighborhood/city/country) with an up to date fire extinguisher. Let's be honest, if anyone in the building has a cooking mishap, they are bringing you all down with them... and potentially quite literally.

Practically aside, it would also just be nice to have a few friendly faces in a world that sometimes seems to spin without you...

After only living in country for a mere 4 months (what? When did that happen?), its not a surprise that your Bulgarian language skills are sufficient for juvenile requests and modest introductions only.

Here are a few handy dandy tips on creating situations in which it is possible to meet your floor neighbors:

1. On a particularly cold evening, start by plugging in the electric heater that is without a doubt, older than you are. Most likely, within the following hour, it will make slight, but still rather substantially nerve wracking exploding sounds that will alert your next door neighbor there is a problem. Probably out of initial concern for the wall that separates your place from his, he will come to the rescue - providing the perfect situation for you to introduce himself for the first time... and giving you the opportunity to alert him that you come complete with a fire extinguisher should he need its services.

2. Bake good old fashion American cookies, then very awkwardly knock on the door of each neighbor. If you are lucky, one door might be answered, providing a great opportunity for you to get really nervous and forget the first things you learned in Bulgarian language training - how to introduce yourself. They will probably laugh at you just enough that you calm down a little and start over with your introduction. If they understand you the second time, they will skeptically accept the offering of cookies, and introduce themselves to you. In English. Chances are, you will probably develop a love/hate relationship with the occasional English response when you lease expect it. But learn to love it... especially when you learn that it is in fact true that if you bring someone a plate of something homemade, culture says they are supposed to RETURN the plate with something yummy on it!! Just when you think you may never see them ever again, just wait for a knock on your door with a huge piece of deliciousness on it. THEN you may never see them again.

3. Start freezing to death and get the bright idea that maybe the bigger heater of your two might just work if you try it ONE more time. In this situation, you will most likely blow a fuse... If odds are in your favor, when you walk out in the corridor to turn the hall light on so you can see the scary old fuse box that you have absolutely no idea what to do with it, the last neighbor you hadn't met will just be closing the door thinking she escaped you. Here is where confidence in your awkwardness comes in handy... lunge towards her in a way where she might get too startled to close her door, and thrust your hand towards her by way of introduction. This would be a good opportunity to wow her with your well practiced, mechanical introduction (Аз съм новата доброволка от Корпъс На Мира... Аз съм Американка... Аз съм yadda yadda yadda), and she will reply with a rapid fire response in Bulgarian explaining all about her son that is about your age, speaks English, is single, and probably coming for a visit soon. Really, you only caught the gist of that because it has gotten to be a pretty standard response from anyone who could be old enough to have a son your age and they realize you are single and living by yourself. The safest thing to do here is smile and nod, and right before she tries to say goodnight and close the door, don your most pathetically helpless expression and show her your handful full of fuses. Not only have you introduced yourself and gotten your problem fixed, but she also probably now thinks you are incapable of taking care of yourself and will hopefully follow up the introduction with lots of free food and advice.

Now, there are many other ways to create awkward situations in which meeting your neighboors can be facilitated, but most Peace Corps Volunteers would agree that bribery and mild explosions are the most fool-proof way to "integrate" (Peace Corps buzz word!!).

Comments containing feedback and further advice are always welcome.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Soviet-Style Block Apartment? or Bomb Shelter?

At least not even the boogie man can get into my apartment!!

I am, however, foreseeing a problem if I need to get out of my block in a hurry... but I guess we'll cross that bridge when we need to.

**Please note the chunk of plaster they removed on the right side of the bar... :)

О Боже...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Yet again, just what The Doctor ordered...

I'm just going to come out and be honest (something I haven't been doing a whole lot with myself lately)... this was not a very good week.

It may even have been a bad week.

Instead of allowing myself to be encouraged by my friends, family... heavenly Father, I ignored it (or tried) and hoped my feelings of impatience, confusion, and loneliness would go away. As you would expect, they didn't. I look a lot of walks out to the river behind the Blocks to try and "process," (or not process) and pretty sure I found myself in tears every night this week out of sheer frustration.

Here's the thing - even before I left for Bulgaria and the Peace Corps, I would have told you that my heart is in the U.S.. Right before I received my invitation to Bulgaria from the PC, I almost decided to call and give up my spot. I mean, I was doing a job I loved, had a couple opportunities to STAY doing jobs I loved, in a city I was passionate about, with people who will always have a place in my heart.

But as people keep reminding me, the city WILL be there in two years.

I would give anything to have more time investing in the relationships I was building with people like Danny, Stevie Ray, and Maximus... especially with so much going on with economic stability in the US -

My mom sometimes laughs at me (all out of love - I know :)), but I tend to put my heart into every job and experience I find myself in. Even when I thought things couldn't get much worse at Camp last summer, I knew I was where I needed to be and fought hard for those kids. Each job has been something "I could do forever." I often wrestle with where I see myself headed career wise, but I could see myself joining the Police force with friends in Burlington, taking a job with Boys and Girls Clubs or Boys Town, or hitting the streets again in New York. Its never been hard to fight through the struggles and pour my heart and soul into something - its how I'm wired... and my best friend wasn't the first person to tell me the other day that that is one of the things she she loves about me. :)

The Peace Corps has been my dream for a long time.

But what do you do if you are living your dream, and you're not sure its your dream anymore? I expected things to be hard here - I chose PC because I WANTED to be pushed, pulled, pressured... I'm so used to working for things, but I've never felt as disconnected and constantly frustrated as I am here. I miss the passion... Its non existent (for the first time since I can remember), and it scares me.

Yesterday, though, I had the opportunity to be surrounded by fellow Believers for the first time since I left the US.

I got to sit and be a part of a family for the first time in months.

I got to talk to people who in this country fighting for some of the same things I am.

And it felt right.

These next two years are not going to be easy, and two years is already starting to feel a lot longer than I anticipated, but I am reminded again why I left the people I love most in the world, and why I left what I do believe to be my life's calling for 27 months: to see and experience LOVE in a whole new way.