Saturday, August 31, 2013

Guest Post at FifthTimeACharm

Hey Friends! Got a guest post on a friend's blog, FifthTimeACharm. Check it out!

Wandering Around the World

Here, I look at some of the spiritual aspects of preparing to come to Bulgaria. Rather, its what I learned about God while freaking out about coming to Bulgaria.

Friday, August 30, 2013


 The real reason I came back to Bulgaria: the light at sunset and dusk. It is unique. Old. Golden. It settles and calms.



Evening walk

Plovdiv Church

Sunset, Plovdiv
State College, the week I moved out. The light I tried to document here reminded me of the light I was returning to.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hard Days

 Written During Training Last Week
An addendum: the day described in detail here took place a month ago.. I wanted to contrast the real life experiences and difficulties that long term travel entails rather than the easy to sell story that travel is awesome ALL THE TIME. Thank you to many of you who wrote me encouraging letters and notes. I'll continue to have hard days. And good ones. 
Love, Dana
My heart is heavy tonight. I find my heart grow wearing towards the mid-end of each week here. Something hangs and I feel the fatigue of being away, that no time in the next month will feel familiar or restful. That all is new around me. That the new things in me are starting to grow, but painfully.
The thing is that travel sounds great on a blog. Social media is designed to share the beautiful things, the happy moments. If we can’t write epic poems or great tomes of literature about true happiness, then at least we can post a picture and status about it.
But travel isn’t that easy or clear. Especially the long term kind. I’m only a month into my long term travel. I have found it to be very difficult.
Tonight, my heart is heavy for one of my Fulbright teammates. (Check out her blog at Imagine the Impossible. In fact, check out all the Fulbrighter blogs. Some pretty amazing people are out there posting their stories.) I will not say why. But I am praying for her as I write this post.
The heavy heart has been growing this week, though. I’ve had moments each of the weeks of been here. The frustrating days where nothing works. My most common culprit is internet failures. I can imagine some astute mentor in my life nodding and making comments about how its good to be free from internet.
No. It’s not.
Its part of being able to stay connected, of staying part of home. Right now, it’s crucial for communication with RF. We’re figuring things out, making it work.
Hard days happen. Communication breaks down. The body malfunctions or is miserable. Fatigue catches up.
One of the hardest days for me so far was during the second week of language camp in July. I had taught the second day. Someone gave me a critical (but well intentioned) suggestion on my teaching method. I felt ill and fatigued due to Femaleness, so tired that I laid in bed the previous two afternoons and was feeling weak and sleepy just then. Someone told me that one of the more difficult kids had told the camp director I was a bad teacher (this was later proved to be a miscommunication and untrue). I hadn’t heard from RF in two days because of internet cutting out. My body was covered in flea bites that I had gotten throughout the previous night, the pinching keeping me awake and angry. I almost missed getting into the van because I didn’t understand Bulgarian for “Time to go soon.” The whole day was a wash.

When I couldn’t get RF on the nonexistent internet for yet another evening, I was done. I skipped dinner and walked to the football field outside of camp, found a corner where the trees hid me, and sobbed. I couldn’t stop.
Even when listed out, I don’t quite know what of the litany of complaints caused the being wracked by sobs. I was crying so hard, I tried desperately to breathe and couldn’t quite manage a breath. My family was far away. My boyfriend was far away. I felt like a failure on every score. I felt alone.
I would be lying to you as a reader if I didn’t tell you about these kinds of days. It’s not fair to you. I give you beautiful moments because I believe in the enduring necessity of beauty. “How it matters” Sara Groves sings. I believe in the benefit of being here, whatever that elusive benefit may be to me or others, because I don’t think I would have chosen nights about once a week where I weep and cry because relationships seem so impossible. Travel is not everything.
Faith is perhaps the better word for what makes it better the next day. Everything is unknown to me right now. I have to trust in something that Knows. I can’t depend on controlling things or how people perceive me or or or… I’m going to spend the whole year finding the end of myself and then having to get up the next day.
It’s okay. IGBOK as the sticker on my journal says. “It’s Gonna Be OK.”

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Thoughts on Fulbright Summer Institute, Week 2

·      Walk with Sam and Morgan back from our end of the week dinner. Morgan and the horse I was afraid of.
·      “Sweat. Salt. Honey. Breathing. These things are my cure-alls” –Morgan
·      “This is the way.” –Stefka, Bulgarian instructor. Trying trying trying to learn Bulgarian from this remarkable, patient, snarky professor.
·      Evening heart to hearts with new friends on the patio by the lake.
·      Soaking in the bathtubs.
·      Writing blog posts.

·      That might be everything. Just the internet quitting everyday. I really do value wifi more than meal times.

Live music in downtown Pravets

Thoughts on what it means to be trained:
We’re in a immaculate resort in the poorest country in the E.U. We are functionally being paid to vacation. We learn Bulgarian sitting in desks and try to use phrases when we walk the mile into the center of town. The nearest town used to be the “Semi Conductor Capital of the World” and built all the computers for the Russians; now it is close to empty. We start to complain that 5 lev bottles of wine are pricey (this amounts to around $3). Various professionals at the tops of their fields give us lectures and we don’t remember a single slide or piece of information they give us. We are told “Turks are stupid” and we are told “If you try things too dramatic in your classroom, they will not respect you”; we are told “American volunteerism is the greatest export to the world”; we are told, “You are no longer private citizens.” We eat enormous meals and drink lots of “кафе” to keep us going. The sun sets golden and we can watch it from our balconies. I panic when I try to say basic “Thank you” phrases to the women who come in to make my bed. Why did I stop making my own bed? I washed my clothes to feel grounded again. 

These two weeks were our heartfelt, graceful, embarrassing welcome to Bulgaria. I feel welcomed and valued. I am scared I will let this whole country down when I don’t measure up to the ideals of education and democracy and intellectual exchange that Fulbright and the United States picked me to represent.

Responsible Travel: I don't know

What does it meant to travel well? Be a good traveler? See the world with responsibility?

I ask questions 10 ways before I’m sure what I’m asking. Before I know what the question is. A philosophy friend once suggested that asking the right questions is closest to having the right answers. And it’s a question I’ll be mulling over this year.
I’m not sure how to begin the process. Because I’m asking this question as I’m living in another country, as I’m about to start two weeks of travelling around the Balkans to different places.
This question occurred when I went to India through PSU in 2010 for three weeks. It was a complicated question about “service” and western intervention in other cultures. The question soured the after trip processing that our team did.
It occurred last summer and I talked about it in the “tourism of the holy”.
It came up for me again last weekend when our group of Fulbrighters went to a monastery and a street fair about an hour away from our hotel in Pravets. We walked around with a huge crowd. There were people everywhere, eating cotton candy, beer under the tents, carrying their children or pushing them in strollers through the cobbled courtyard. There was a long line to enter the church, candles burning outside on the vestibule. The ceiling was darkened by the centuries of  burning candles and incense. I didn’t know how to stand in the church. I don’t know how to venerate an icon. I wouldn’t even if I knew. I felt distanced from the tourists who might have been worshipers, touching the icon and standing around the room, lighting their candles. I watched the light come in from the ceiling, dusty and strung with cobwebs.
I left after a few minutes, unable to feel settled and walked behind the church. There was a gate to a construction zone. Alex decided to walk in and I followed. We ended up in the bell tower, the bells anchored from ringing with ropes tied to the ledge of the small wooden stairwell.
Later, we walked around the market before we ate lunch. And I wondered at my resistance to be moved or awed by the church, at the distance I felt. I wanted to worship. I felt like I was faking it if I tried.

I expressed this discomfort on the walk to K.C. I wanted to feel guilty as a spectator, to somehow negate the process of tourism of seeing. Did I think I would pick up culture and allure like burs in the woods as I saw different sights? What did I think seeing meant?
K.C. rejected this feeling of awkwardness. That travel is not the same as tourism. The same action can be an act of respect with the right spirit instead of one of distancing. “Travel demystifies the ‘other’ and we see common humanity.” So in what way is travel a respectful and loving process? In what way do I see things without imagining that the goal is for me to be a more charming and interesting person?
Aviva said in a post, "The art work and the architecture and lighting are just so beautiful you can't help but look up and believe in God - any God." K.C. also noted that allowing someone into a space of worship is allowing people to be in the same experience at the same time. I wasn’t sure how this could completely be true. People have very subjective experiences of the same moments.
Perhaps this post is merely to present the question. For you to know that this theme might meander its way through other posts. Keep it in mind. Share thoughts. I’m new to this!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Little Girl at Opera, Pravets

Dance, crossing the cultures

Iliana and Alex’s church met in the building. Owned the building, even. Why the new wing had a suspended floor and full length mirrors was never quite explained. The air conditioning unit worked only sporadically. Still, even dripping from the late afternoon humidity, my body immediately breathed a little between those walls. A dance studio. This was a space I could exist in.
I had been in Bulgaria two and a half full weeks at this point. I was feeling out of place and stiff, traveling to various cities, staying in different beds. My stomach and legs were covered in flea bites from the bed I had stayed in the week before. I felt in the way and burdensome even asking to attend this lesson.
They were going to drop me off at home after the trip to the market. I said I would really rather come watch their Bulgarian folk dance class. Iliana said I could run the sound for them. I said that would be fine.
When we arrived, I met a Bulgarian girl who spoke English with a Texan accent (she picked it up from movies and, inexplicably, a summer she working buses in Long Island). It was her first time at the folk dance lessons. We chatted about places we had traveled and how we really didn’t know about folk dancing. I had only seen it demonstrated once the week before at a camp by several high school girls.
The class was to be a casual one. The normal instructor was on holiday. Of course. It was August after all.
I watched jealously as Iliana introduced the newcomers to stretches. How long it had been since I warmed up in first position! But I diligently hit the play and stop button.
Then Alex said, “You know you can join us.” I said I would love that. She laughed at me. “Why don't you ask for the things you want?”
I joined the class. We skipped and stomped and pranced around the room. It was easy for me. Years of latin footwork were in my feet. I had danced complicated routines that professionals threw at us before. A dance that repeated itself for 6 minutes in a circle? I got this one.
By the end of the evening, I was flushed red and beaming. By the end of the week, I had mastered several of the harder routines that they had learned so far. Alex was thrilled. Iliana smiled approvingly. I couldn’t understand Bulgarian. That didn’t matter. I could dance.

This past weekend, we had an “end of the week” dance party at the golf course across the lake. It was supposed to be a swanky meal. We dressed up. I put on a full face of make up for the first time in several weeks. The music lit me up inside. Apparently, Bulgarian’s really go for latin music. There was merengue and salsa for much of the night. One of the other Fulbrighter’s danced a highspirited merengue to one of my favorite songs, one I used dance with RF at the Lion’s Den in SC. Several other folks invited me to salsa as well.
Then the Bulgarian folk dance came on, one I had learned a complicated form of the week before. I watched the Bulgarians eagerly link hands and start dancing, making sure I knew the steps. I jumped in and started going, shouting out instructions to the other Americans. A lot of them got it! The next time a song came on, I jumped to the head of the line and lead the group around the room. Maria, one of the Fulbright directors, came up to me afterwards, “I didn’t know you could dance folk dance!” The enthusiastic smiles from other strangers confirmed that they were equally impressed.
Bulgarian is hard for me. Languages (in abstract) have always been difficult. Please, let’s not discuss the trauma I sustained in my first junior high French class. But in dance, I find a sigh of relief from this strain of trying to communicate. Words are not necessary.

A smile, music, a few steps on time, and I am part of a whole dinner party, part of a whole country.

And in the same step, I am completely me, nothing left behind.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Into the Woods, Version Bulgaria

 Fulbright Training, Free day

Six of us decided to get out of dodge. Life in a resort grows stale faster than the normal toils of everyday life. We wanted to walk, especially to try and get into the mountains just across the lake from where we're staying for training. A hike, if you will. Someone got directions by land marks to a trail. "Just go to the monastery in town. There is a trail right behind it that goes 5k." Got it.

Town is a solid mile walk, within sight from our spot on the lake. We made it into town around 10:30, walked towards the hills. No monastery. Huh. No sign for one either. It's early Sunday morning so no one was around to ask. We kept going, kept heading for the hills. After a while, there was a small path going off to the right. It was clear by the poop everywhere that it was a foot path used to herd animals. We kept going, me and Sarah taking turns pushing through the bushes in the woods. We found our way to creek. Kept going.

Then the trail just stopped.

We turned around. The day was moving along as it was and we were already two solid miles away from the hotel. But then we realized that on the top of a steep bank opposite us, several Bulgarian style brick houses marked the end of the woods we were in. A car went by. A road. Sam had abandoned his flip flops by this point and was barefoot. A road sounded like a good idea. I lead us down to the creek again and across. Scrambled up the bank.

Then we had what Sarah called "the 'Homeward Bound'" moment of the trip. There was a steep drop between the top of this bank and the edge of the woods. Whoops. I ran along the edge of the ledge we were on and found a brick shed.

Then stumbled into someone's back yard.

The thing you should know about yards here is that they all have fences. And gates. No one was in sight and it seemed too difficult for the six of us to get down. So I walked to the gate.

It wouldn't open.

Then Sarah joined me. Then Morgan. We couldn't get the gate open.

Then we saw the dog. The really big black one.

Then I heard a car coming. I did the first thing my body wanted: I ran. I ran back towards the shed, trying to get everyone to hide, making sure the passerby didn't see us fighting to get out of a yard.

This was dumb. KC was at the back and said she felt like she was spinning from our crazy rush backwards toward the ledge. Sam brought us to our sense. "No! Stop! What are we doing? We're completely innocent! Just walk out!"

The passing car wasn't passing. It stopped and a man got out, very surprised to see a group of people emerging from behind the shed and meeting him at the gate. Then the owner of the house came out. The dog saw us and sprinted towards over, eager to make new friends rather than rip our limbs off. The owner was also surprised. We all started laughing and trying to apologize and explain in broken Bulgarian that we're just Americans and were walking in the woods and got lost. Turns out the owner didn't speak much English and was Austrian. Eventually, he got the picture, grinned and explained in rapid Bulgarian to his neighbor, the old woman passing on the road, and his wife who we were. KC, who has the widest language experience, said he said, "Never in my life have I seen something like this." At this point, we were laughing cheerfully at how absurd we looked and felt. He let us out of the gate and onto the road, pointing us up the road for further walking or back down the hill towards Pravets.

We arrived back at the hotel at 12:50, a solid 3 hour hike.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Pravets, Bulgaria. RUI Resort.

I've been here since Sunday evening. 50 people packed into a bus outside of Sofia Airport and made enthusiastic introductions as we drove through the countryside to Pravets. It's a quiet spot just an hour outside of Sofia. The days are hot and dry. The evenings are cool. The stars, hazy behind light polution from the resort. The hotel is fancier than it has any right to be, especially for this girl, unused to hotels of this scale and elegance. All of the desserts are appropriately fancy and fluffy. I cannot eat fluffy desserts. I realize I am one of the few people in the world who objects to fluffy creams the way I do.

In many ways, I feel like I stepped out of Bulgaria for the week. Maybe this feeling will continue till the end of the conference, August 24th. After 3 weeks of staying in a rural hotel and then being part of family life in Plovdiv (thank you Iliana, Vlady, Alex, and Abi!)... this is something else. I will confess that my energy and emotions immediately spiked when I got around so many Americans at once. There is an enthusiasm to the most distant American acquaintanceship that lends spirit and vigor to my days here. A relief, in a way. I didn't know we could all carry that personality inside of us.

The days are full of lessons. How to teach. I could rant forever about how much I hate learning about teaching. I much prefer the culture discussions and Bulgarian lessons. 

I'll leave the rant to this: learning to teach is like learning to play a board game without the board or pieces in front of you. Just instructions. I'm bad at learning new games anyway.

Strange opportunities present themselves. Today, Sam and I got to read a poem for the audio pieces that go with the official, Government issued textbook for 11th grade English! For the next decade, Bulgarian high schoolers will be burdened with my voice attempting to express the line breaks and breaths in a Dickenson poem! Tonight, there is a live performance of Aida on a stage by the lake. My first opera. Free, open air, mountains, lake, distant thunder.

The Fulbrighters are a dynamic crew. Interesting. Enthusiastic. Quick learners. Diverse interests. Heavy readers. Committed travelers. Just put a few of us in a circle and all sorts of nerdiness will ensue. I'm impressed by them. Today, on a walk to the center of sleepy, ghost like Pravets, I cornered one fellow Fulbrighter and asked at length about what she studied in college. I know next to nothing about “statehood” and “political identities” and how nation-states interact with culture and art distrubiton. But it was fascinating! I made the mistake of asking some very probing questions in rapid fire. She said she felt like she was in an interview. Woops. I gotta work on that middle ground of conversation, between surface details and the intimate thoughts and processes of our lives.

I’m also grateful for the friendships I see them offering to me. It isn’t easy for me to feel part of a large group dynamic unless I feel like I have intimate knowledge of the people in that large group. I have a large capacity for relationships… but I am so an introvert when it comes to large group dynamics with strangers. I’ve been learning that I can distance myself early on in groups and that’s a hard defense mechanism to reverse later (ex. SuperGroup as an RA at PSU). I’ve tried this week, to some success and some interntal failures. Last night after a difficult few hours, I made myself stop in at a spirited gathering of Fulbrighters before bed. I was weepy and tired. They sat me down, gave me hugs, offered solutions to some of my problems, told me I’d be feeling better in the morning, that we’d all face such nights. I was grateful. Grateful I stopped in even though I wanted to hide. Grateful that they welcomed me even if I couldn’t stay long.

Our first week ends tonight. A free weekend then another week of language lessons, light training, and resting.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


I never thought I'd say this:

I love my Kindle.

My dislike for ereaders never even made it into a blog post. I just didn't care enough about the technology to bother ranting about the death of paper books. It was a tragedy. It was repulsive.

Now, I love my Kindle Touch.

Got it cheap. Through a family member of a friend selling a "used" one, though it hadn't even been registered with Amazon yet. I hadn't even taken the idea of getting one seriously until I was debating book purchase at Glen Workshop (Image Journal). Christy came up behind me, "You know you shouldn't buy any books. You need to be buying ebooks now." Right. I'm moving to Bulgaria for a year. But I can still pack books right?

Wrong. When it came down to the weight limitations of dragging a years worth of clothes and other paraphernalia across the ocean, books weren't priority.

(Wow, it hurt me to write that sentence, "Books weren't priority.")

After the learning curve of working the kindle machine, I have to say it serves its purpose very well. Easy to read. Nice to hold. Long battery life. A whole library with a touch. I'm flying through "Anna Karenina" right now and I can pack my kindle in a very full back pack. Something not possible with a normal 600+ page Russian novel. And there is really nothing like a Russian novel on long trips.

Perhaps this says more about what I've learned about packing. What I've come to see about how painful it is when you pack too much. How easy it is even when you don't quite pack enough. It's a huge relief to see me put a weeks worth of things in a daypack and GO. No more of this massive suitcase lugging nightmare.

It also says something about being able to access books in English. I can read the same novel as RF and talk about it when we skype. I can get some classics for free (like G. K. Chesterton mysteries and Tolstoy and Jane Austen). My obnoxious issue with just picking something is quieted by the choices presented, rather than actually dragging all 6 of the books I want to be reading at once with me.

(smacks face with hand)

Oh my. I just wrote a whole post on convenience. Don't tell Wendell Berry. Please.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

UNO, or Cultural Exchange, or How I Almost Lost it at a 12 Yr Old

The kids here love UNO. They got in trouble for leaving it out overnight at camp. The only thing they had to do was apologize for leaving it out and they could get it back. It took 24 hrs, but someone (most likely unconnected to the leaving it out issue) apologized because they wanted it back. Over the weekend between two camps, I watched Sammi (featured right) who was staying for both camps. He ended up stealing my heart. Gosh I miss that kid! He loved to play me UNO, one of the few requests who could get out in English. He'd scrunch up his face and blink a million times, trying to work the words out of his mouth. "Uh. Eh. Um. Ee. Uno?" He breathed a sigh of relief when I understood his request and we played about 10 rounds straight.

Last week, in Plovdiv, I spent most of my time with Abi, a precocious 12 year old girl with nearly flawless English. She took me around the city and to her favorite cafe, an upscale, New York feel cafe called ArtsNewsCafe. Black walls, cushions on the floor, copies of Frieze and Art Review on the shelves. And games. She picked UNO to play.

It had been a long day.

Let's make that a long few weeks. I'm still getting my feet wet here. That process will likely take most of the year if not longer. I've made several offensive mistakes. My friend Joe (worked at camp this year, was Peace Corps here) observed that there is opportunity to offend or miscommunicate every few minutes. "You have to learn to be okay with it."

UNO was one of those things.

Did you know there are cultural rules to UNO? That some people have rules about the zeros and the 7s and what time you have to say UNO when you get to that final card? I didn't. I had no idea there were other rules. And Bulgaria has some particular ones.

When I played with Abi, I kept losing because I violated some rule I didn't even know about. I tried to explain my rules. Her bright, 12 yr old self just looked at me with wide eyes and refused to admit that there could be other ways of playing the game. 4 cards here. 2 cards here. She wins by almost a whole hand. We argue animatedly about when you have to say UNO. Somehow, I'm always the one who has to concede the rules. She's a stubborn one.

I got pissed. Fast. I don't like losing. I especially don't like losing on technicalities in a game that should require next to no thought.

I got so pissed that I nearly started crying. We had to end the game and I turned to an arts journal for a while before we started a game of chess. What was wrong with me? I'm twice her age. Literally. Why is losing to her so painful and frustrating?

UNO was the culmination of cultural miscommunications. The small rules that you can't know until you break them. I'm punished by that horrified look on my host's face when I don't take my shoes off right away, or worse, walk into a bedroom with them on. I'm punished by a lecture after I don't greet my "elders" at the hotel for breakfast. I say that in the PA, not addressing strangers can be respectful because you are acknowledging their right to be alone, that not making eye contact as you walk down the street is perfectly okay, that we're all just trying to get somewhere out of the cold. I'm rebutted by a comment about the "satanic" influence of self reliant values.

I didn't know. Sorry.

Punished is a strong word. I just don't like being "wrong" so getting consequences for things totally foreign to me feels like unjust punishment.

But that's how it works. The rules are slightly different. I learn. No one has hated me yet for not knowing these rules yet. I'm the one who walks around tired and frustrated that not everyone plays UNO like my boring American family played it growing up. It's a small thing, this game of UNO. But it shows how much pride I have in following the rules. I have a lot to give up before I can say that I've loved this place as I should. I think of Paul here and re-know his statement in a letter, "To the Jews I am a Jew. To the Greeks, Greek." What an astounding thing! So unnatural! So divine!

I gotta learn to be a good loser. Because it isn't losing. It's a game of UNO, a small cultural difference that ultimately doesn't matter. I can give this up, must give this up, to love.

Let it go. There's more to find here.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

More to say

I have more to post than I can now account for. Be patient. I shall be reunited with my laptop on Thursday and shall crank out some good stuff. Till then, I'll throw up some pics and a list of brewing posts.

Why I love my kindle 
How UNO caused internal meltdown and became a metaphor for cultural encounters and acceptance.  
Hard days
Hospitality. The receiving side of a lost art I suck at anyway. 
Dancing Covers a Multitude. 
When you aren't American enough 
Light. The real reason I came back. 
Hair cuts in another language. 
You never really leave yourself behind.