Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 Year in Review

This year felt like two different experiences. Pre Bulgaria and Post Bulgaria. I had to think hard about the first half of the year. It feels like another year in itself. Pre was all about State College, finishing up Elements, navigating relational insanity, needing a grounding point and feeling lost. It was also a semester of team work and art making, seeing CommonPlace open and hosting WHY Workshops. And Bulgaria... it was all about learning basic living all over again. It was my new start. And it the old me came too but there has been a lot more to show the cracks and weak spots... and growth. I still feel a general "epic fail" emotion as December closes. It is being countered with a reminder that I am not my hope. And I need hope.

What did you do in 2013 that you've never done before? 
Lived in another country
Pre champ standard
Opened a local art gallery coffee shop place. Hello event planning!

Did you keep your New Year's resolution and will you make one for this year? 
2012: Just do it. Stop waiting.
2013: Yeah... about that..
2014: wear more dresses.

Did anyone close to you give birth?
Some people got pregnant!

Did anyone close to you die?

Did anyone close to you get hitched?
Emma Tingle and Matt Payne
Mooney and Foxy
Kent and his girl
Lindsey and Isaac
Greer and Nathan
Jon and Jillian
Kaitlin and Greg
Maggie and Dan

What countries did you visit? 
Dominican Republic

What date(s) from 2013 will remain etched upon your memory?
May 13ish
May 27
July 17

What would you like to have in 2014 that you lacked in 2013?

What's your biggest achievement this year? 
CommonPlace in State College
WHY Workshops.
Living abroad
The small language victories
Final showcase

Biggest failure?
Evading repentance for too long.

Did you suffer illness or injury? 
Various stomach issues in Bulgaria
Mental... low points.

What was the last thing you bought?
My checked luggage to Sweden for Christmas.

Whose behavior merited celebration?
Anyone who wrote me a letter.

Where did most of your money go?
Travel. Food. New starts.

What did you really get excited about? 
Getting a Fulbright
Glen Workshop
Dating Robbie Fraleigh
Opening CommonPlace

What song will remind you of 2013?
"This is Not the End" by Gungor

Compared to this time last year, are you happier or sadder? 

What do you wish you'd done more of?
Being genuine.

What do you wish you'd done less of?

What was your favorite TV show?
Parenthood. No other competitor comes close.

What were the best books you read? 
Anna Karenina

What was your best musical discovery?

What did you want and got? 
A Fulbright to Bulgaria
Dating Fraleigh
A new start
What movies did you see in cinema? 
Catching Fire
Ender's Game

What did you do on your birthday? How old did you turn?
24. BBQ and Sangria night at the Haven. Shared with Fraleigh.

What one thing would have made this year more satisfying? 
A way to track teaching. More new friends. Attending the weddings I missed.

How would you describe your personal fashion?
I can pack it in a backpack and go. Mascara if I am lucky. Introduction of H&M.

What kept you sane?
Elements team: Steve Erica Josh Kristen
The Browns. Gary's office on day long loans. 
Phone calls home
The Calvary Prayer team
My team of 6 women who pray for me daily
The small victories 

Who was the best new person you met?

What was a valuable lesson you've learned?
Admit you were wrong. 
Accept the things that can't be helped. Don't give up on the things that can. 


Friday, December 27, 2013

What to Do [Guest Post: Peter Eckert]

It's two days after Christmas and I am in SWEDEN with my lovely Swedish "Family". I'm so grateful for their care. On the note of international travels and heading towards New Years Reflections, I'm sharing with you the last piece in my correspondance with Peter Eckert. In this final piece, he talks about bridging the gap between how we talk about and describe cultural transition and what we can actually do in the midst of it.

It may not be advice you want to hear [see previous posts], or that I want to live, but embrace the struggle. Live it fully and deeply. Don’t try to rush the process, and don’t become resentful of it. I’ve tried both, and neither is helpful. Let the change happen in its own time, and have grace upon yourself while you wait. God uses your imperfections as quiet blessings, so don’t embrace them, but be okay with feeling the imperfection. Your joys aren’t what mold you as a person, your struggles are, and as crummy as they are, they’re also a priceless gift.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas! Весела колада! God jul!

This year, I am in Sweden for Christmas. Jönköping with my mother's Swedish sister, Marie, and her family. In high school, Marie lived with my mom down in Georgia. They've stayed in contact and close friends over the years.

It is my first Christmas away from my family. A first of mixed feelings. Sweden is incredible. Not seeing my family is hard. The family here has taken me in as their own. It is still not "my" family. 

Me and Marie
Sweden is a marvelous place. It is ordered and polite. Shining and clean. Progressive and stubbornly traditional. Short winter days and long, sleep filled nights. And a terrifying amount of Christmas Food that needs to be eaten! I'm helping with that task.

Traditional ginger bread in the shape of pigs. Guess which tray is mine?
Yesterday, we went to Marie's parents house. It was a day of feasting, opening presents, playing games, and talking. Lots of talking. I have not gotten the chance for such good dinner conversation in ages. We sit at the table and talk politics and history and stories from Marie's time in the USA and my vague memories of my first visit to this city 20 years ago.

900 year old church for Midnight Mass
One of the interesting pieces of Christmas abroad is hearing all the terrible music the USA has exported for this time of year. Even in Bulgaria, I hear "Santa Baby" but my students do not know words to "Away in the Manger". Last night, I got to rectify this problem by attending a Midnight Mass. I got to hear my favorite hymns in Swedish and learn a few more. We took communion, a reminder of the story that actually runs through this whole day. Then a man played "Oh Holy Night" on a trumpet. I let the words run through my mind:

Long lay the world/
in sin and error, pining/
till He appeared/
and the soul felt/
its worth/...
the weary world rejoices/
for yonder breaks /
a new and glorious hope.

That is a Christmas song. 

Floorball. My "Cousin" Victor's team.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Bulgarian Forensics League

December 14-15 was the first forensics tournament! I had never been to a tournament before. Heck, just a few months ago, I did not know what forensics even was. Now, I coach the first speech and debate (aka forensics) team at Dobrichs Geo Milev high school!

The whole project has been delightful. The students on the team are dedicated and creative folks, bringing their unique personalities and talents to the table. And we definitely have personalities. They are each stubborn in their own ways and high energy... did I mention stubborn? Our meetings are a ruckus combination of witty asides, confusing tangents, and sharp rebuttals. They have also shown themselves to be gracious people, willing to learn even when they lose, willing to accept change and the unexpected, up for adventures and new challenges.

In forensics, there are 5 events students can choose to participate in.

Oratory: composing a speech on a chosen topic.
Prose: dramatic interpretation of a piece of published prose.
Poetry: dramatic interpretation of a published poem.
Duo: dramatic interpretation of text with two people.
Karl Popper Debate: 3 person teams debating a value proposition in a timed speech-crossexamination-rebuttal style.

I am not known for my logic skills. I can get passionate but argumentation has been a new skill for me to learn. It has been a lot of fun. Robbie helped get that process started when he helped coach the team for a day. Before the tournament, we even had a 4 vs Dana debate in my living room. Fun times! I made the greatest first speech about how the internet actively disentigrates human culture. Not that I really believed what I was saying...

We are definitely learning as a team! I am excited for our second tournament in February. Lots of preparation to do! I think we will bring home some trophies this time. :-)

Hannah (past Fulbrighter) and I catching up!

Students thinking hard!

New friends! These ladies were judges at the competition. The one on the left is my Bulgarian instructor!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Identity Re-Formation [Guest Post: Peter Eckert]

This is the second in a series by Peter Eckert on Cultural Transition. I would share more about my own revelations but I haven't found my own words for this process yet in a way that will help others. For the other Fulbrighters out there or other going through a parallel renegotiation, may these words encourage.

We all hate uncertainty. The grey parts of life are uncomfortable, so we establish ourselves around the “certainties” of our lives - for some it’s family, or intellect, or beauty, or community, etc. And in a way, we all know that. What we don’t always acknowledge is that our culture is no different. It’s the silent pillar upon which we construct our world. It gives us clear rules for self-expression and quietly chisels out the shape of our identity. For example, in my case, as I mentioned in the last letter, being friendly was culturally encouraged and a safe way to express myself. When I got to America, that was no longer true, and something that I’d rested my sense of self upon disappeared. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

"Will You Teach Me English?"

Exhibit A
Around 3am, during our overnight drive to Sofia, I grumpily tried to answer my driver's questions. He talked and talked and I only occassionally woke up enough to answer. "You know why I invite you?" he asked. He didn't wait for an answer, "Because I need to practice my English. This is the only reason."
Exhibit B
It was towards the end of a hard week. In fact, the end of a hard month. The kind of month with lots of grey rain and sleet and snow. The kind where the emptiness of an empty apartment seems a little too accusatory. The kind where...

You get the idea.

I hadn't been to salsa in a month. But last time I was in Varna, I saw one of the ladies from the class. She passed me and Robbie as I was childishly pointing towards the full moon that had risen above the busy Varna center. We had said hello and she said she wanted to talk to me more. I was excited. A friend!

After salsa, she asked to talk to me again. We chatted as we changed out of dance clothes and back into street clothes for the icy trip home. "My husband needs to learn English good for his job. Can you teach him?"

The Friendship Game
I get it. I do. My native tongue is a money maker. It's a strong need and it's everywhere. That's why I'm here on Fulbright at all: share my language, share my culture, find a love for theirs. I wouldn't get to do what I do if people didn't need my language.

But I've been here six months. And at the end of it, I have one good friend in Dobrich, and she works too much to call me consistently for a coffee date. One. This isn't for lack of trying. I've gotten numbers from people at salsa. I've tried to befriend teachers. I talk to people in stores. Nothing. Zilch nada. So when me hope rises with the thought Aha! Someone wants to be around me! and I find out they just want what I can do without trying, this skill I have that almost doesn't feel like a skill...

It is kind of like being rejected. Or wanted for my money. Or wanted for my looks. Or something else, some small piece of me. Of course English is part of me, part of my identity.

However, now, on nights where I walk back to my apartment for an early bedtime, I wish someone would stop long enough to wonder if I'd like to be their friend.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Transitioner vs Adaptor [Guest Post: Peter Eckert]

One of the unexpected pleasures of being abroad and blogging is the sudden communication opening it offers. One acquaintance of mine from high school contacted me through a letter to let me know he had been reading my blog and had found it encouraging. I met Peter when he and his family were in Hershey, PA "on furlough" from Niger.  He had, for all intents and purposes, grown up there. During that year (ninth grade for me), the Eckert family was part of our home schooling community based in the Hershey EFree church. I was surprised to hear from him about a month after moving into my new Dobrich home.

I'll be honest: I didn't "get" the Eckerts when they lived in Hershey. They were a family that functioned along completely different cultural lines. I was in ninth grade. I didn't have the maturity to even imagine what it was like for them and acted accordingly: with distancing and no small amount of my own awkwardness. Ironic and humbling, then, that this "strangeness" is exactly what has enabled Peter to speak to my current experience 10 years later. His wisdom and insight on the Bulgaria process have been invaluable.

He gave me permission to share some with you. I have constructed several posts out of his letters and emails. They hold together as a short treatise on the beauty and struggle of Cultural Transition. It will appear on the blog in several pieces.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

So This Teaching Thing...

"How do you see the world?" using pictures
 I came to Bulgaria as  Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. It's the thing that consumes my thoughts and my time. It's what changes a good week into a bad week and a bad week into a Great week. It hasn't been easy. It's the harder and happier things, the mix of both, that I find the most difficult to blog about. Oh, if you've been within ear shot of me since September, you've heard all about the ups and downs. Blogging was a different animal all together. Here is my attempt:

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


After such a fantastic spring of posting through October, I've dallied. I've run around the country, spent time with The Boy who came to visit. All in all, I've been distracted, disoriented, etc. etc. etc.

One gem from this past month:

I'm in love with youtube poetry.

Mostly Sarah Kay.

I must share her with you.

I got hungry for poetry words, for Mary Oliver and Jane Hirschfield, for Susannah Childress and Billy Collins. Hungry to read. Then I found youtube poetry.

Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire
If I should have a daughter
When Love Arrives
The Type

Food for my weary soul. Food.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Protestant in Bulgaria

My tongue chases the blood of Christ
dripping down my hand,
from His Body, cradled between my fingers.
I miss.

I scribbled those words yesterday after we took communion at the Methodist church in Dobrich. The wine had soaked in the bread faster than I could place it in my mouth. I tried to clean it up without the indignity of licking my hands like a child with melting ice cream. There was no help for it. No one noticed, most likely.


A few pictures of a lovely city near Dobrich and on the Black Sea. It's a different world just a 40 minute bus ride away from where I live. Hard to believe they exist so close by and so independently.

A small cave formed under the Roman Bath House Ruins where someone lives. Sleeping bag, trash, and excrement found

Bulgarian Book Treasures. And poetry.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Beginning of November Reflection

I leave for Sofia in an hour. One night in Sofia. Then a weekend in the mountains. Then the GRE.

Oh the GRE. I've been studying for a few months. If nothing else, I can say that I'm consistent: the score I started with is the score I'll end with. Almost no change in months of practicing.

The start of November was a good one. I don't know what it is about the turn of October into November but it is a change like the changes of April into May. One season quickly falls into the other with scarce days in between.

November is a yellow month: yellow light fading towards winter white, yellow leaves falling in night time rains.

Dobrich is changing to me. I didn't mind it when I first arrived--it was new. Then, I spent a month wondering how I would establish a life here. Now, 2 months (how impossibly short!) after moving in, its changed into a place I know I can be. This past weekend assured me of it. I spent time with a new friend, was promised a cat "on loan" whenever I want it, learned about volunteer work in the community, and danced. Routine. Order. A comfort and chance for creativity!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

13 Suggestions for Homesickness/ Culture Shock

Since I posted about culture shock, I've been paying more attention to what alleviates the pain or makes days easier to navigate. Then, a friend asked for some suggestions on dealing with homesickness. Threw some things down on paper and thought I'd share them here as well:

Nota Bene: Every person is different. The suggestions I found on websites for dealing with cultural shock were only marginally helpful. Make your own lists. The key is to pay attention to your insides: what helps? What doesn't?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Love in Excess (Dance)

 The original draft of this was buried in Blogger drafts from 2012. I updated it, tweaked it, and now share it with you.

One of my students back at PSU loves to dance. She's an architectural engineer. As most architectural engineers I've met (I even roomed with one), she is over committed and over-worked. She recently wrote a post about how she knows that dance isn't her calling in life. It isn't what she's skilled at. For her, it doesn't make sense that she loves it and wants to invest time in it. One time she posted on my wall, "I gave up my dance dreams a long time ago. I try not to think about it too often."

 I ask these questions too, especially since I know that the more I invest in dance, the more I want to do it. And yet my time is limited. I can't put everything in that I want. We're in the same boat: as far as I can tell, dance isn't going to be my life.

 However, since coming to Bulgaria, I've come to the opposite sense: maybe dance is going to be my life. Or, at least, in my life. Can anything truly be said to be our whole lives?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Balchik / балчик

I got the itch to go a'wandering on Saturday. The weather was perfect. Warm in the sun. Fall crisp and crunch in the shade. A few wandering clouds. A breeze.

Took a bus to Balchik, a coastal town. Fell quite in love with its hilly streets, stone steps leading to more streets and back alleys, rocky lined shore, the sea.

It felt good to see a bit of independence. The nagging sense of "I am a child" dwindled in the audacity to pick up and leave town for the afternoon. Confidence in my ability to get there, find something wonderful to do, and get back the same day. I even packed myself a lunch.

The time away gave me a chance to re-start my insides. The water and sun rested me. I even wrote two "shitty first drafts" of poems when I got home.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Dance in Bulgaria

Salsa Party, Dobrich
I seriously might just write pages and pages about dance in Bulgaria. I have no idea where to begin with this. Any moment of any dance experience I've had so far could turn into a mini essay, a blog post, etc. I'd like to turn studying dance in Bulgaria into a kind of writing project but I don't know what the goals of it would be or where I should start... other than dancing as much as possible. That I can try arrange.

The signs were all over town. I couldn't read most of the words but "SALSA" was very readable. Salsa. I like salsa. I love salsa. The first week in Dobrich, I asked the student showing me around to translate the sign. We ended up going to the grocery store where the club met and got the times and prices. Friday. I'd be going dancing in my new town just less than a week after I first arrived.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


I kind of love my 11th classes.

No offense to anyone else. I just don’t see them as much. The 11th Classes I get with Lucy on Tuesdays and some extras on other days AND my Thursdays. Thursdays. The. Best. I’m up super early, almost done teaching by 9am. They are tired, dragging. But I try to rush in with “guns blazing” as it were.
My second week, I led us straight into a class long look at that most pernicious of writing class issues: plagiarism.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Culture Shock

Shock. Adjustment. W Curve. Stress.

I knew this phrase before. But I hadn't read much about it.

Okay, anything about it.

The word shock connotates a kind of violence. A jolt that stops the heart before it can catch its step and keep beating. The sudden chance of everything. Explosive. Traumatic. It happens all at once and it hurts and rings in your now deaf ears.

Moving to Bulgaria wasn't like that. Moving here felt like normal life. I didn't notice anything that looked or felt like shock or a shut down. It just felt like normally hard weeks or normally good weeks.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Year of Long Books

I just didn't have time. That's what it felt like and was true in many ways. With multiple books for multiple classes, tackling the immense library of the world with 600+ page books felt seemingly impossible. With campus ministry, I read lighter books that would fit in my bag during the day.

There were a few exceptions.
  • I read "The Brothers Karamazov" while traveling in India.
  • I read "Lord of the Rings" for the who-knows-how-many time. Probably shouldn't count.
  • I read "Trilby" for a class. Kind of. More like skimmed for the parts that would help my essay.
  • I read...

That might have been it when it comes to super long books.

Here were various attempts:
  • "Middlemarch" on audio book
  • "Crime and Punishment"
  • "Anna Karenina"
  • "As I Lay Dying"
  • "The Sound and the Fury"
  • "Bonhoeffer: A Biography" by Eric Metaxas
  • Others
I just couldn't stay interested long enough to finish.

But here. Time is slower. The chance to focus and push through is different.  The Kindle also changes it because I don't see the huge chunk of book that I haven't finished yet. I spend more time on buses between cities or waiting to teach a class.

Since arriving, I've knocked off 4 hefty books. From beginning to end. I wasn't rushing it either. I took several weeks on each, thinking, mulling, etc. I wrote a mini essay after Anna Karenina and have tried to look up things on the local epics "The Bridge on the Drina" (Serbian) and "Under the Yoke" (Bulgarian).

I've declared this to be the Year of Long Books. I like this idea. I like knowing I have a year where I can actually expect to finish "Les Mis" if I start it or pick up a biography on Einstein and engage with it. This is new. This is different.

Any recommendations? So far I have "Les Mis", "Crime and Punishment", something by James Joyce, and the Bible (yes, the whole thing) on my To Read list.

This will be interspersed with lighter fare. So pass those suggestions along too!

Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Weather Changes

It's cold. I refuse to turn the heat on yet.

So. I wear all of my clothes. All the time. I'm wearing somewhere around 5 various types of layers in this picture.

Now where are my gloves...?

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Weddings in Bulgaria

The other day, I was working on decorating my hallway. I heard horns blaring. I thought, "Oh, someone's getting married!" Here, the wedding party drives from the legal office where they sign the wedding papers to the church in a line (kind of like a funeral back in the states?). Everyone BLASTS music and their horns. The bride and groom are in the first car. I heard the horns getting nearer. Then they stopped and live music started. Since I'm on the top floor, I knew I could see them from the roof. I ran up the stairs to the roof, looked down, and watched this dancing scene unfold. The wedding party danced to the live music (musicians are the far left, holding a white set of bag pipes and a black accordian). The wedding vehicle had white material tied to it. I watched from my bird's perch and cheered when they finished.

Congrats, neighbor!

Without Internet, Teaching Continues

True to the pattern so far, my biggest emotional crises come when the internet goes.

Am I addicted? That's a question for another post.

Mostly, I think its a control issue. I'm struggling to structure my life, to feel like I have things ready when they need to be... and yet I have huge swaths of empty time. Structuring that empty time is stressful. I have several "side projects" that I'm working on personally. Large novels I've never read (another post for another time), GRE studying, essay projects, trying to find people to invest in...

All that to say, it brings into question each small function of my insides. Why is THAT there? When did I start doing ()? How come I can't ___?

Today, however, such questions are laid to rest for a few minutes as I teach my kids something from American culture:

The Cupid Shuffle.

I came all this way to teach the Cupid Shuffle? Yes. Yes I did.


And for my Elements crew: #YOLF

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Whimsy Reigneith in ToasterBox33!

 My hallway is distinguished by having all its windows covered in black prison like bars.

Not so nice.

So I bought some material, cut it up, and VOILA! Whimsy all around!

Oh. And my apartment got a name while I was about the decorating. 

Toaster Box 33.

 Apartment 33. Top floor of an old Soviet Union style apartment building... that looks rather like a toaster.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Geo Milov Language High School

It happened. I'm a teacher. In Bulgaria.

Note my panicked face.

This was from Day #1, September 16th. I got up early to have plenty of time to "get ready". There is no getting ready for meeting your new students in the chaos that is the First Day.

In Bulgaria, the first day is a celebration. At our school, everyone gathered in the yard (cement space, sized like a parking lot but for outdoor activities). High school begins in 8th class and correlates with 9th grade in the States. 12th class
are the ages of college first years. On the first day of school, the 9th class chases the new 8th class, trying to get them to take bites of carrots and turnips. This is a nation wide joke: the 8th class are called "rabbits" because they are so nervous and jumpy on the first day!

I was jumpy myself. It felt like the first day of school for me but I wasn't allowed to look nervous. Everyone seemed to know each other. I sat on a bench until my mentor teacher found and watched the running around.

My principle and various others gave speeches. Then we all went inside. My teacher gave the rules to her classroom of 11th students. I introduced myself briefly. Smiled forcefully till my cheeks hurt. Everyone was in high spirits. Everyone was wearing their best. One boy decided this meant he chose to wear a shirt with a barely clad woman on it. One boy opened a beer and sipped it when Lucy wasn't looking.

My schedule
What I didn't know is that Lucy intended for me to go with the students to a cafe. The class whisked me away after just a few minutes inside the classroom. I was starving, hadn't brought money, and wasn't quite sure where in town I was. At the cafe, the music blared and it was hard to start conversations with some of the students, many of them incredibly shy with their new American teacher! I had been warned that smoking happened at high rates with the students. That's different than watching your 16 year old students light up. Or sip a beer they snuck into class. In many ways, the first day was so overwhelming and full of culture shock. I didn't know how to handle it.

I handled it by going home and sleeping for two hours. It was an incredible exhaustion. I wondered: am I going to make it this year?

However, teaching has been nothing but a one good surprise after another. I've been impressed with my students. Pleased with what they know and how they think. A handful sometimes, but not a bad one.

The schedule is pretty light so I can spend a lot of time trying to come up with engaging and different lesson plans. I'm (gratefully) not considered a core teacher. I'm supplementary. 100%. And it's great! I can do what I think they need to fill in the gaps and give them practice.

One thing I'm not used to: getting up at sunrise. For the first week, the moon was setting just before the sun came up! It was a full moon and filled my room with moonlight from one end while morning light was filling the kitchen from the other end of the apartment!

Tea. It is the key to everything.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Language: Responsible Travel

Grocer. Evening.

I walk into the grocer for the first time. Maybe for the last time. I don't have the need or the courage to step back in the front door quite yet.

I walk into the grocer for the first time. Next door, the corner of the building is covered ground to first floor ceiling pornographic advertisement for Flert Vodka. I was told this grocer was owned by a family.

A family. This means they won't have any youth helping run it. All the youth have left Dobrich. To Varna. Sofia. Germany. Sweden. The United States is rarer.

I walk into the grocer for the first time. The lights are off. They don't turn on the lights during the day, I think, to save money. The sun is setting but not too earnestly yet.

I have practiced. I wrote the names of 3 vegetables on my phone.

Молуа, искам домат, пепер, и крацтабица.

Please, I want tomato, pepper, and cucumber.

I give the numbers. 3. 4. 2.

She nods and places them on the scale. Then she asks me a question about the peppers. And I don't understand. This confusion continues for several minutes. A line forms behind me. 3 or 4 women. The one directly behind me doesn't speak English either, but she is trying to help. I finally understand there is something about the numbers and the colors and what kind of peppers I wanted.

I didn't want complicated peppers. I forgot that different kinds of peppers even existed. I didn't know how to say "I want both". Or "I want green and red." Or "I don't care, give me whatever you want, however many you want."

I finally point at both peppers. Да и да. Yes and yes.

The grocer lady looked at the women behind me and let off a string of sentences. They didn't reply. She motioned towards me, shrugged her shoulders; kept shrugging them toward her ears, head bent. People don't really roll their eyes here. Not that I've seen yet. Shoulders do more talking.

She's mad at me.

I walk out of the grocer.

My motto in Dobrich has been, "Making friends, one embarrassing story at at time." And a lot of times, it's worked. The old women outside of my apartment. The girl at salsa who will probably become my best friend here. The neighbors, confused that knocked on their door to hand them a loaf of banana bread.

But this time, I didn't make friends. I made someone mad.

I'm trying. I really am. My friend K.C.expressed her commitment to not going to countries where she doesn't have a working knowledge of the language. Especially if she is going to spend extended amounts of time there. Ed, a guy with Navs Bulgaria, in response to my stated frustrations with language learning, had said, "If you love people, you'll learn it. It will come." Why language? It's an intimate thing, this naming of vegetables. Familiar. Childhood. It seems to be the things themselves. It is not merely a signifier when it comes down to the language(s) we've spoken since consciousness.

I know this. I feel that weight when I walk into the teacher's lounge and school and mutter a shy "здраьете hello".

This is going to be a long process.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Hey Friends! I threw up a blog introduction page. Probably should have done that ages ago. The link is in the top right corner of this page!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ideas Have Consequences

In Bulgaria, ideas really do have consequences.

History. Literature. Culture. News. It all comes from ideas, things getting built and played out over time. "Before the War" could mean before WWI in this context. While in Serbia, people talk about Clinton as if he were the most recent president rather than in office almost two decades ago. The movement of the Austrian-Hungarian empire (waaaaaay further back in my knowledge of European History than I'd care to normally traverse) has in the flesh consequences for how my current residence relates mentally, socially, economically to the EU.

"The Changes" that seemed to have happened yesterday? That was the fall of Communism.

It's not just that time seems to move its way differently through this part of the world. It's that the long term consequences of a few ideas are still playing out, will continue to play out.

Take some architecture.

Someone (may he be ever restless in his grave) came up with the architecture that reflected Soviet values. And up it went all over Bulgaria.

This is the old communist headquarters in Dobrich. A massive, hulk of a building. More like something meteoric that fell from the old and rocky heavens, or something that sprang out of the earth. Mountainous. Immovable. Lots of box like right angles. My friend Irina said last night over coffee, "They wanted us to know that we were all the same." Or, perhaps, they wanted everyone to know that they were very, very small.

Above is my apartment building. A toaster-shaped, 8-story mistake.

Even the old soviet values of economy and functionality disintegrate with time. But with what kind of result? Above is one of the sorely neglected buildings tucked under the trees alone the Dobrich city center. The soviet architecture looms. This gently stands, an elegant survivor. It's Romanian and survived the overhaul of the city into soviet architecture.

This building assumed that a little bit of detail and a curled balcony railing was good for a person, more good than the economy of an apartment building.

And this is the abandoned train station from a Bulgaria older than the one the communists left behind in the 90s. Red shingle roofs. Paint peeling off stone arch doors. With age and deterioration came elegance and poise.

I'm not a student of architecture. I read building the way I read a new poem, surface words, instinct filling in the holes, feel instead of word parsing. I'm sure many of my friends could give a more historical read on what I'm seeing every day now. I'm a student. I have a lot to learn.

What I can say is that ideas and values made the very buildings of this town that I now live in. What was thought up centuries ago, half a century ago, affects my daily life. In fact, it always had. I just get to see it and appreciate it a lot more directly.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dobrich, 1 Week

I celebrated living 1 week in Dobrich tonight. Glass of wine. The roof of my building. A sunset.

School starts tomorrow.

What I've learned so far:
  • The town is smaller than you'd think.
  • Soviet architecture should be banned.
  • Doners are awesome.
  • High school kids are a fast and sure look into any place and culture.
  • Help comes.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


I've been thinking about hospitality.

This week, I worked every day to make my apartment a place where I can be hospitable. To me, this means a space where I can rest: my eyes, my muscles, my mind. If I can rest, then I can offer rest to others out of my rest. It's starting to come together. I'm not a visual aesthetic, but I can put things in order... if I try. There is no pintrest genius happening over in Dobrich. Just a basic ordering and sorting. My new kitchen towels sure don't match anything else I own.

I've also been thinking about how hard its been for me to receive hospitality since I arrived in Bulgaria.

I've received a lot of hospitality.

Free word play on sound and association for 10 seconds: Hospitality. Hospital. Hostel. Hospitable. Hostess. Hostage. Host. Virus. Virtual. Viral. Hostage. Hindrance. Helpless. Helpmate. Help. Home. Hole. Humor. Human.

Here is an example:

The day before I was supposed to arrive in Dobrich, I had lunch with a sweet Bulgarian woman named Danche. She's friends of friends and so hosted me during my first visit to Bulgaria last summer. I spent 5 days sleeping on her couch and exploring Sofia slowly and fearfully. I never made it to the center. My furthest excursions were to the nearby park and market. She fed me. Asked anxiously about my jet lag. Now, when I'm in Sofia, we get lunch together. To my great frustration, she usually pays. During our last lunch, I asked if she could help me understand the website for the bus station. She said she could do better than that and called her son. Long story short, the next morning, she and Vasco picked me up in a car they had borrowed from friends, my bus ticket in hand, to help carry my luggage down six flights of stairs and transport me to the bust station and make sure I was on the right bus.

Their simple gesture to help turned into an all morning sacrifice on their part. They gave me hospitality far beyond what was needed.

My first response was embarrassment. I'm a grown woman. I'm supposed to be living in this country and be competent enough to buy a ticket. Isn't this what the Fulbright Commission wanted when they paid for two weeks of language lessons? And my lovely friend Danche and her son, seeing me unable to do this, doing so much to make my life happen the way it needed to. Why?

I had almost not asked for her help with the website at all. But I had just sent a friend a long email encouraging her to see her limitations as a chance for God to work in others by getting the chance to serve her. Hypocrite was the word that came to mind as I vainly tried to find out what time a bus left for Dobrich.

While they were on their way to get me, I noted to my boyfriend, Robbie, how humbling and embarrassing it was. "Humbling, yes. Embarrassing, no. Accept the love," he texted back.

Oh. Right.

See, I like hosting others but hate being hosted. Like in my word play, I think of words like "virus". Things that suck the life.

When I'm walking, I can feel strong and competent. I don't feel heavy. My muscles and bones are holding me up. They are strong. When someone picks me up, I feel large and bulky, a burden. Suddenly, gravity claims every atom of mass and tells me just what it takes to hold me up. I hate that feeling. It took all the joy out of piggy back rides a long time ago.

Since arriving in Bulgaria in July, I've been almost completely dependent on someone at some time. Make it before that point; more people than I care to admit helped me get through the rough time between the end of one job at Calvary and the start of the Fulbright, with meals, places to stay, an ignored and growing tab. And in Bulgaria: graciousness to host me when I wanted to visit a city; help to get to bus stations; carting me around central Bulgaria so I could teach at a camp; someone going to a pharmacy to find me contact solution (first in Elena, then in Serbia!). What was I supposed to do?

Accept, I think.

I am not self sufficient. I never have been. I have to learn this. Accept this. Respond with deep gratitude. Get off my butt and help someone far beyond what seems reasonable because I've been helped that way.

It's a pride issue. Seriously. But then, what isn't?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Settling In

I'm sitting in my Dobrich apartment. 7th floor. There is an impressive sunset happening on the other side of my window, the one I moved my desk to face. I have to admit: I wasn't counting on the sunsets the night I moved in.

That was Saturday. It took 8 hours to get from Sofia to Dobrich by bus. Buses are slow. Timely, but slow. This one was particularly large, lumbering along and stopping at various large towns along the high way between Sofia and Varna. Then on to Dobrich. The bus driver would occassionaly turn around in his seat to smile at me or offer a small wave when the bus would take breaks. It was his encouragement to the strange idea that an American would suffer the 8 hours to a town like Dobrich with more bags than made sense for a weekend jaunt. Certainly not a tourist visit.

Tourists don't visit Dobrich.

As far as towns go, it's key characteristic seems to be its average status. At least, that's what my students tell me as they guide me around the city center in pairs on different days this week. They like to announce in the first few minutes that, "I hate Dobrich. There is nothing to do here. It is dirty." It is there way of saying, "I'm cultured. I know that there is a big world. I don't love here too much. Don't think less of me."

But I think I'll like it here, their protests to the contrary. I like that I now know where to get the best pizza slices and doner. I like that there is a wine store a few blocks from me and that the sommelier knows my face at this point and offered to let me pay for a wine bottle opener "later" if I didn't have enough leve on me at the time.

My apartment has taken some work. Will take some work.

The night I arrived, it loomed rusty and ill lit. Soviet era structure. If I could go back in time, I would change soviet era architecture. I wonder what kinds of beauty would have happened in the world if these infernal apartment structures hadn't ever happened to humanity in Eastern Europe. Lucy and I took the tiny "lift" to the seventh floor, the top. I wondered if the lift would actually make it that far. My windows and door were bared with black bars. I have to unlock a black bar door to get to my front door. The apartment lights wouldn't turn on right away. The water came out of the pipes brown and choking. The toilet didn't respond to any pleas. The floor came up on my feet in black sticky messes. A limescale covered dish rack stank beside the kitchen sink. Dead cockroaches on the floor. Bare lightbulbs hung on a wire from the ceiling. The bed things smelled mildewy after being in a cupboard the whole summer.

I wanted to go home.

When Lucy left, I thought, "What?! You're leaving me here?!" It was so quiet. I wasn't even sure if people lived on the same floor as me. What was I doing here? I slept in my new sleeping bag, body tense, talking myself into calm and into sleep.

I did sleep. Then I faced Day 1.

Lucy is the hero of this story. She and her partner, a British man who settled in this town five years ago, picked me up and took me with them on their Sunday routine. We bought cleaning supplies and cooking oil and food. Then after she fed me lunch, she helped drag cleaning equipment from her place to mine and worked with me for four hours. The apartment changed. The light switches, black from skin oil and grime, were visible again. While the toilet still didn't work, it was clean. She showed me which sheets to use to make the bed. We cleaned the floors two different ways.

It's coming together. Today, I bought covers to go over the "light bulb on wire" look. Yesterday, I bought glass jars at a market and put tea and breakfast granola in them and lined them up with my tea mugs on the most convenient shelf. My finger nails still smell of onion and garlic from my first so-so attempt at cooking.

Before you know it, this place will even have name!

Beauty is creeping its way in. I feel like I'm mounting a domestic fight for Redemption to make its mark.

School starts Monday. Then my energies will shift to figuring out what on earth I'm going to teach them. They get grammar and vocab from one teacher. Literature from another. So that leaves me... all my favorite things?

To be continued...