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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.

1 comment:

  1. It’s never too early to think about the Third Goal. Check out Peace Corps Experience: Write & Publish Your Memoir. Oh! If you want a good laugh about what PC service was like in a Spanish-speaking country back in the 1970’s, read South of the Frontera: A Peace Corps Memoir.