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Thursday, May 31, 2012

From the Archives: Two. Integration.

I have been thinking a lot about community integration these days.  Maybe it is because my two years of living in Bulgaria is quickly coming to an end or because the new group of volunteers just swore in.   Either way, the idea of community integration is one of the most important lessons learned in training. According to the Peace Corps, community integration is the key to success as a volunteer in Bulgaria. When listening to the endless lessons in training, I understood cultural integration as another way of saying that the volunteer should work hard to be liked by everyone in the village.

The first year of service I was so worried about villagers liking me. If anyone gave me less than a Nancy Kerrigan smile I was hurt and immediately tried to make connections about what they had heard or what I had done to offend them.  It wasn't until my second year in the village, when I got swindled out of 25 leva, in 5 leva increments, that I began to understand the true meaning of community integration.

After I lost my money I felt really stupid and told no one. But, as always happens in the village, word spread like fleas in my bed, that I had been duped.  As villagers heard the the news they approached me with their own stories of how they were owed money by the same woman, and their cousin, and their father's brother, and the magazine on every corner.   In an instant I felt part of the masses-one of the only times I felt just like everyone else instead of "the American" in the village.  It felt good to lose 25 leva. And then I realized that this was truly community integration. The fact that I was just like everyone else. They confided in me and I got to rage about my lost money in the cafes and in the fields.  And most importantly that is was normal to be upset with the perpetrator, not greet her in the street, and not care what she thought about me.

As I thought about this new concept of community integration more experiences continued to enlighten me. One evening as the sun set over the mountains, a group of third grade boys and I were engaging in our usual intensely fought soccer match.  As I went to block a hard kicked shot, the ball flew into my grumpy old neighbor's garden.  He emerged from the thick vine climbing up his fence and screamed at me about the cost of his tomato plants that I apparently had just killed. He yelled at me as if I was any little boy who had done the same. I was just another annoying villager to him and not someone special.  I sincerely apologized and went home with a half smile.  Because it is nice for people to look after you for the first year of service. But after a place truly becomes your home it feels nicer just to be part of the community.

The point is that no one who lives in a village of 900 people likes everyone-that is simply human nature, transcendent of culture.  It is abnormal to do so.  To live in a village that is connected by one paved road means that you will sigh when you see someone you have burned bridges with walking on the opposite side of the street, put your head down, and pass silently.  And that is o.k.

Will I ever get that 25 leva back?  Definetly not.  But was it worth knowing that I was a true villager?  Most definetly.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

From the Archives: One

I have been back in America for six months now.  And the other day I reopened my blog to see what I had written in the past three years.  I came across a lot of drafted stories that I never published.  So I thought I would bring some of them into the light.

This one made me laugh out loud.

One day in early November a couple of my third grade girls approached the teacher's desk and handed me a card they had made.  It had pictures of snowmen on it and two poems. Where they got the text from... only the dusty Soviet books in the library know and Google translate know.  The text below is exactly how it read.

fireworks after Germany.
Donfire before bell.
How nice!

Snowman, sunglasses, faanta-
stic lesson
write to me soon!
Lots of kissis!
Give my love to Miss Kei

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A rebuttal of sorts.

I made a video to celebrate the end of my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria. When I posted it on YouTube I was surprised by all the negative comments I received from Bulgarians about the depiction of their country. I would like to have a turn to speak. First of all, I never set out to make a documentary film about the Bulgarian nation and all that it encompasses. Like the title and description of the video reads, I took video footage of the Bulgaria that I saw and knew best. And the Bulgaria I know best is the Muslim minority. For people to say that this is not Bulgaria, however, is to deny the fact that there is a vibrant minority population that holds Bulgarian citizenship and, yes, is therefore Bulgarian too. To be Bulgarian is not a singular thing. Bulgaria is not just Sofia. It is rural too. It Orthodox Christian, Muslim, and Roma.

Critics say that this video is not Bulgaria. What is not Bulgarian about it? People are eating banitza and dancing the horo. Kids are playing in the snow and celebrating the New Year. Men are slaughtering a sheep to celebrate a holiday. People are kuchecking at a wedding, playing football, and drinking rakia. There are huge blocks and houses with red roofs, mountains, sunflowers, roses, and the black sea. This is Bulgaria. And just because some women, in some shots, are wearing traditional muslim attire, does not make it any less Bulgarian. The critics are right that Bulgaria is more than footage from one village. My video is shot in Altimir, Gorno Dryanovo, Blagoevgrad, Sofia, Pavlikeni, Gotse Delchev, Kazanluk, Razlog, Ribnovo, Shiroka Luka, Bansko, Garmen, Rila, Sozopol, Ognianovo, Varna, Buzludzha, and Burgas. But they choose not to see the rest of Bulgaria because they are too focused on discriminating against the Bulgaria they don't approve of. My message to them: learn to embrace diversity.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

questions people have asked me recently that i want to remember:

"Are those your real teeth?" -Ayshe in the store insinuating that I had dentures.

"How many horses does your family have?" -Albein as he smoked a cigarette at his table.

"Do they have songs in America?" -A Roma teenager on a ride down the mountain.

Bimo:" If the babas don't where shalvari (traditional attire) then what to they wear?" Me: "Jeans and sweaters." Bimo: no words, only a gaping mouth.

Friday, June 3, 2011

to go on a walk in bulgaria.

to go on a walk in bulgaria means that Nuka calls to me though my window. we walk nary 10 steps and call for Sabatka. while we wait for our friend we converse with the women sitting outside the closet size store on multicolored plastic stools. then we proceed another 30 steps to another store where Nuka buys a bag of sunflower seeds. with the packet of seeds pushed tightly in Nuka's pocket of the brown columbia fleece that i gave to her last byram and the rest evenly distributed amoung our hands we proceed down the road. as we walk in the evening light the mountains pop out like carboard cutouts in a storybook. kids weave and bob on bikes, babies get pushed in stollers, men sit on benches, and women gossip in the cafes. we gossip too. sometimes i imagine Nuka and Sabatka when they are 80 years old having the same routine talking about those weird days when the American joined them on their walk. the pace in which we walk is painful. it is the slowest walk capable of womankind plus a mandatory shift of all bodyweight to the back heels, thus, making it even slower. it is the anthesis of exercise especially when eating a bag of sunflower seeds. but the point of the walk is not exercise. the point of the walk is to have something to do; to talk about what has transpired since last nights walk and if nothing has happened to talk about the romances on one of the many turkish soap operas. the walk is a ritual in bulgaria not meant to be done alone and never for fitness' sake but only meant for the sake of doing.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

korban byram.

korban byram is celebrated 70 days after shakir byram to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his only son. on this day villagers sacrifice a lamb and give a lot of it away to friends and family. i have a refrigerator full of food. happy korban byram. happy eating.

shakir byram.

shakir byram, also known as eid-ul-fitr, is a muslim holiday that celebrates the end of ramadan. it is celebrated many different ways all over the muslim world but in bulgaria is consists of a lot of individual-sized chocolates, short walks, long conversations, family, drinking coffee, and eating meat. shakir byram is celebrated over three days, the first day being the most important. on this first day the men of village wake up at five in the morning and go to mosque. there they pray for several hours and when they exit their procession signifies the end of ramadan, the period of fasting, and the beginning of byram the holiday of celebration. when the men return home the family shares their first meal together during daylight in the last 30 days. this feasting and celebrating in each others company lasts for three long happy days.

this byram i was invited to the village of Ribnovo. in bulgarian muslim culture it is typical after marriage for the woman to move into the house of her husband. Nuka, my friend, is from Ribnovo and when she married Albien, she moved to Gorno Dryanovo. although a river only separates the two villages, Nuka makes the trip to Ribnovo once or twice a year because ofthe terrible road conditions and lack of access to a car. to say this was a special ocassion is anunderstatement. with a knock at my door Ali, Nuka's son and my fifth grader, told me we were leaving. because Ribnovo is a very conservative village i packed a lot of clothing because i was unsure of what to wear. i felt ridiculous when i threw my backpack into the hatchback and realized that the only thing the family of five had packed was food. someone made a joke about my bag and we were off in our borrowed car.

we arrived in Ribnovo an hour later and greeted everyone at Nuka's mom's house. it was a happy occasion that Nuka had arrived back in her village. as the family caught up the children took part in the traditional custom of wishing their elders a blessed byram by kissing their hands and putting them to their foreheads. the elders in return gave children a small bill of money as a gift. as new family members arrived the children made the rounds wishing their aunts and uncles a happy byram and collecting money they later spent on fireworks and plastic
imports from china.

the day consisted of family coming in and out, going for walks around the village, eating chocolates, and conversing. there seemed to be a lot of young girls in the village and they immediately took on the responsibility of showing me around. there were few moments throughout the day when a girl was not holding my hand as we walked through the village. Ribnovo is known for being one of the most traditional villages in bulgaria and has retained many customs that can only be found there. in a bulgaria that seems almost obsessed with being seen as 'modern' it was refreshing to see a place that is proud if it’s past.

one such custom is called the движение (divizhenie) which directly translated means movement. the dvizhenie is a tradition where men choose their wives. every night the eligible boys line up on both sides of a narrow street. the eligible women walk up and down the aisle in pairs of two or three and the boys watch the procession. the boys call out to the girls, the girls smile and retort with something, and then eventually the boy may get the courage to ask a girl out for coffee. if the girl is willing they leave the divizhenie together and find a dark corner in the village to talk for a half an hour. if they like each other they will become a couple and maybeeventually marry. if they don't then it is back to the dvizhenie to find another partner.

i had heard about this tradition from Nuka and was interested to see it take place but had no interest in taking part. but one minute i thought i was walking hand in hand with two of my fast made friends and the next thing i knew we were walking in the dvizhenie. i walked for about two minutes before i started to feel extremely uncomfortable with all the cat calling and touching. i told my friends i would wait on the side of the road and watch. they, however, being their hospitable selves, would not let me wait alone and so we stood together hand in hand watching all the girls in their finest clothes walk by and all the boys picking out their dates or maybe their future wives. at the end of the night i was almost delirious with exhaustion. i am not sure if it was a result of my sugar consumption that day or just the pure exhaustion that comes from being a foreigner in a strange land but when my head hit the pillow, i did not wake up until morning.

in the morning i woke up to a complete breakfast and a traditional outfit laid out for me to wear. after watching several videos of past family weddings and eating a full breakfast on a full stomach the women in the family dressed me meticulously in the traditional holiday clothing and we headed out to the streets. everyone asked who i was, not because they knew i was a foreigner, but because i was a new face in the village. when they found out that i was an American dressed as a woman from Ribnovo they were shocked and then humored. all day we walked through the streets greeting people and wishing them a happy byram.

when we arrived back to Baba's house we ate a large meal of lamb, grapes, soup, bread, and salad. i have still yet to master the art of deciphering parts of lamb when all parts, including brain and tongue, are piled into one large bowl. this talent is extra hard to master because usually when i am choosing a piece of meat everyone is watching to see what i will choose therefore heightening the pressure. so once again, i choose hastily and wound up with a mostly fatty bone on my plate. i picked away at it throughout the meal and when i did not know what to do with it next it was time to go.

we loaded into the car and off we went back to Gorno Dryanovo. but because no trip in bulgaria is complete without a spontaneous side trip we off-roaded in our tiny barely alive hatchback into a tobacco field to get a view of Gorno Dryanovo from the other side of the mountains. it was a bumpy ride but when we made it the view was majestic. the color of the tobacco plants against the mountains looked as if it had been photoshopped and the happiness of being together with family and full bellies made for a most memorable moment.