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...

Remembered: September 11th

A student helped me light a candle in the Orthodox church down the street from my place in Dobrich, Bulgaria.