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, October 27, 2009

Fighting a champion-less battle...

As "future" Peace Corps Volunteers, we often romanticize the coming Peace Corps experience. We read and hear about mosquito tents and daily water regimes, living without power (and God forbid - INTERNET ;)), and two years without a real cheeseburger.

When the day comes and you receive an invitation to serve in the Eastern Block for the next 27 months of your life, part of you knows better, but you still envision something resembling a mud hut, dirt roads, and the third world.

Then you actually get here... and while many of us still deal with the occasional "squatty potty," donkey cart, flea infestation, or exploding appliance; we all rest assured knowing that the closest McDonald's is "reasonable" bus ride away (how badly DO you want that cheeseburger?), internet is accessible (often at home), we can catch a movie or go bowling if and when the need/desire arises, and as far as European travel, the world is our oyster.

It can be distracting as a Peace Corps volunteer to know these luxuries are not just accessible, but often affordable. Not exactly the sacrificial lifestyle we all envision during those days of anticipation.

However "spoiled" we might be with amenities, all of the Big Macs and Bruce Willis movies in the world don't stand a chance against the emotional battle we fight here. If I was posted in the Africa or South America regions, my job as a PCV would be to offer grass roots development, usually by way of offering a skill set to achieve something tangible. When I left after my 2 year tour, I would leave knowing that if I built the well my village needed and transferred those skills to help in the future, I was successful.

Here, though? Reality is that I very well could leave Samokov in April 2011 leaving only a minimal trace of sustainability towards continued development. Sure, I'll have built relationships with some amazing kids, and that can't be taken away from either party. But what about the continued fight on racism and segregation? Soviet "ideals?" Corruption? Educational reform? I may be Pavlov's dog when it comes to that promised Mickey D's cheeseburger when I embark to the capital a mere hour away, but no amount of processed beef-like substances can lessen the emotional battles that can occur here.

Are we fighting a losing battle? Maybe.

Does that make it any less important? Nope.

Is our presence here viable and extremely crucial? Absolutely.

PC Bulgaria isn't any better, worse, easier, or harder than any other post in the Peace Corps. It's just different...

Maybe a developmental presence here is even more important. Because in posts that have never seen development, they don't know what they are missing. But here in the Eastern Block, entire people groups are being left behind in an otherwise developing world. Minority Groups (Roma and people with disabilities specifically come to mind) lack opportunity. It's there, it's just hard or impossible for them to access. Mindsets from former goverments are generations away from entirely being turned over.

The need is here, and after a 9 month "sabbatical" (haha, perfect...) I am so incredibly blessed and thankful to have acquired a new perspective to approach my current task in life: giving a voice to the voiceless, and loving on people who need it the most here in Samokov, Bulgaria while doing my part to help change the way they see the world, and most importantly - change the way the world sees THEM.

"The end of communism is still remote because communism, more than a political ideology or a method of the government, is a state of mind. Political power may change hands overnight, economics and social life may soon follow, but people's personalities, shaped by the communist regimes they lived under, are slower to change. Their characters have so deeply incorporated a particular set of values, a way of thinking and of perceiving the world, that exorcising this way of being will take an unforseeable length of time."
- How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, by Slavenka Drakulic -

One point for the stubborn American!

Today I quested my way back to the migration office in Sofia to tackle "step 2" of my permanent residency card. The goal was to return triumphant, and hopefully with even a fraction of the gratification I felt earlier this month when I successfully completed the first step for my card.

After knocking on the window, the woman was immediately like, "Filkins?" Not so sure how I feel about being so quickly recognized at the police station in a city where I don't even live (maybe thats better than being known where I DO live? Hmmm), but I chuckled to myself at the reality of the situation.

**Briefly to catch anyone who doesn't know every detail of "Katie's series of unfortunate events" early last winter: I started the process for my first residency card about a year ago. I went into Sofia for the first two steps, then only a week or so before my actual card was ready, my passport was stolen out of my purse just after reporting another... incident... Your residency card is directly linked to your passport, so they wouldn't give me the card until they processed a new one for the new passport. So we started the process over. I applied for a new passport and while waiting for it, I decided it would be fun to go ahead and break my leg and make everyone's lives - namely my own - miserable. Then this summer, when I decided to return, I decided to frustrate both the US and Bulgarian governments with this little story of mine, but here I am. So yes, I'm pretty much famous all the world over.**

So, under an hour later (victory is mine!) I left the police station with a promise that my card would be ready for pick up in about a month.

History would indicate that if I can make it through this next month bez (without) incident, I should be in the clear. AND NO SKIING!!

Promise. :)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Seriously... these are some really special momicha's!

I got to spend the afternoon with them in what started out as a "photography as art" lesson, and turned into an all out photo op around Samokov. In addition to being absolutely gorgeous, Petya (left) and Galia have pretty incredible hearts.

Love it.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

"Head and shoulders, knees and toes (knees and toes!)!

I got to color and sing "Head and Shoulders" with the most adorable little kids today! It was my first day in the kindergarten, and we learned some body parts in English before breaking out the colored pencils and talking about sea animals that start with the "r" sound in Bulgarian. So fun!

I spent about an hour and a half with them before lunch and nap time, and I am really excited about returning a couple times every week. The kids are absolute sweethearts, and it looks like in addition to mini English lessons, I will get the chance to work with little Hristo. He's six years old, and has Down's Syndrome. One of the "at-risk" groups in Bulgaria are special needs children. A disproportionate number of children in orphanages and institutions are Roma or children with developmental disabilities. Usually, these children are institutionalized at a very young age, so last year when I worked at a day center for special needs kids, it was an encouraging and progressive thing to be a part of. But, they were well staffed and even better resourced, so I decided that even though I loved the kids and young adults there, it wasn't the best use of my time since they were already established and doing so well.

Anyway, Hristo is technically "main-streamed" with the rest of the kids in his class (meaning he is with them all day...), but I noticed that since he isn't capable of performing at the same level as his classmates, he usually sits in the corner and plays since the teacher is spread relatively thin and can't afford to give him one on one attention. So I asked if I could work with him while the other kids are doing their lessons after our English session! The teacher basically told me that whatever I could offer, they wanted. Especially English, since they had wanted to introduce some English words to the kids to help with cognitive development and to prepare them for school in the next couple of years (kindergarten here is technically preschool...). So, I am glad to be of help, but I am also excited about the opportunity to work with Hristo and even though my experience with special needs children is limited (and a bit dated... I worked with some autistic grade school students on a weekly basis while in high school... infrequently since then!), maybe come up with some models for more active participation and interaction from the special needs students. Instead of merely "keeping them busy," I want to encourage emphasis on the development of their cognitive and motor skills.

And, he's a cutie! I got the biggest grin when I gave him a hug on my way out today. Not to mention another little boy asked when I could come back and sing with them.

It will definitely be something to look forward to every week. :)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Where is FALL?!?

The first thing my counterpart said to me a year ago when we met was, "you know its cold in Samokov, right? You know its in the mountains and one of the coldest cities in Bulgaria, right? You'll love it!"

Now, whenever I mention being cold, she laughs and says she warned me! Thanks Katya... :)

Last year I moved to Samokov on October 9th, and it was weeks before I routinely used my heater. This go around, I've been using my heater to knock the chill off of my freezer box for awhile, anxiously anticipating the day the gentleman downstairs lights his first fire... And a couple nights ago, it SNOWED!! I was on my way up to a local village for a little na gosti with some friends, and the first time I left my apartment I ran back upstairs to grab my rain coat to help defend against the icy cold precipitation. But little more than a minute later when I walked out the front door of my block, I groaned as I was greeted with SNOW. Wet, and lots of it. The cold front came all too fast for it to stick - the ground is still too warm, but not for long! It snowed for hours that night, and the next morning when I looked up to the mountains, I longed for the lost Fall Season as I noticed the ski slopes (a mere 15 minutes away) were COVERED in snow! I've been told to expect a longer, colder winter this year. And considering I only made it to 2 days after christmas last year, I'm in for a long haul until April! And to think, I willingly decided to sign up for a THIRD winter next year. Oozhus.

Other than impending doom rolling into my mountain town (brrrr... long underwear, scarfs, and hats ALREADY!?!?), things are going well. I met with a teacher and then the director of the kindergarten down in the Roma neighborhood earlier this week, and I will be able to help down there a couple mornings a week. I am excited! I miss spending time with little kids, so this will be something to look forward to, in addition to another avenue to spending time down in the other part of town.

Speaking of which, my photography contest (that i was SO excited about for a ton of reasons) appears to be a bust. None of the kids have showed up for their sessions various reasons. I'm hoping to grab a few to at least set an example of how fun it could be for the other kids, but so far its not working. I find it very hard to engage the kids outside of our designated times and programs. I seem to get them as a captive audience every day for an hour after school, but then thats it. You can't get them to plan ahead very far, and none of them will return later in the evening because of work and family obligations. So my new goal is to find the best way to maximize the small amount of time I DO have, and ways to engage them for additional activities... its a challenge, thats for sure!

On another note, yesterday I was finally able to finish fine tuning my first project! Well, rather, the letter of intent to show my interest to be considered for the grant! I submitted a years worth of enrichment and integration programming to be considered for funding by the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe. It's extremely competitive, and I won't hear anything back for awhile, but if we pass the first wicket, I'll hear again and be invited to submit the ENTIRE project for the next step. So, for now, we wait... and work on other ideas!

Brrrrrr. Seriously, its cold. And I'm not ready. We only got like 5 days of fall before winter and freezing temperatures hit. And I seem to be a bit homesick this week...

Friday, October 9, 2009


Even though I took a rather unanticipated 9month "sabbatical" and can't truly celebrate with you all yet, CONGRATULATIONS!!!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

“Many times with Jesus, genuine love and hope came in the oddest of packages. It was friendship; He laughed with them. It was life; He ate with them. He healed them. He loved them. He hung out with them. He became their friend in their environment, their neighborhood, their home… their gutter. He provided Hope to people with common pain and illustrated that normal people with normal problems and normal pain are the cement that forms the foundations of the gutter.”

- The Gutter, by Craig Gross

Monday, October 5, 2009

Overwhelming week... awesome weekend. :)

This week was a little bit of a reality check. Nothing legitimately frustrating happened (and we all know I'm a magnet for those "incidents!"), I just felt a little frustrated and down.

But I had a super fun weekend! Went out on Friday night with some new friends and had a blast, then had a na gosti (dinner and visiting as a guest) with good company that resulted in the obligatory Bulgarian food coma (yummmmm), then spent Sunday with my friends in Sofia!

And then, to top it all off, I had a very self-gratifying and productive day in Sofia today. I spent the night last night because I had to head into the city today to restart the process for my permanent residency card (lichna karta). I had to apply all over again since I never actually received my card last fall and its now expired... but I was determined to try and complete step 1 by myself. My counterpart was on standy here in Samokov, but she had to work until after lunch, so I braved it alone, and was able to call her and tell her she didn't have to come!

The first step was FINDING the police station. I didn't know how to distinguish the one department from others when asking for directions (no one knew if it had a name or not), so i totally winged it and ended up finding it pretty quickly, then was even able to ask for directions for a photo place to get the pictures I needed taken. Then I went into the office and was able to handle the entire process! I was missing a form, but we worked it out that I can bring it for step 2. She asked me why I didn't have a colleague with me since usually foreigners have someone with them, but I said she was working and I was going to try and figure it out. She said I filled out the forms beautifully, and she was impressed at how well I did. Haha, in reality I was terrified, but when I walked out of there having completed the first step, it felt amazing. :) I rewarded myself with a McDonald's cheeseburger!