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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. ;)
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