Monday, September 14, 2009

Bulgarian Birthday Blog... Bost?

Zdraveytey everyone!

(Sorry about that last title word. I so wanted an alliteration.)

So as many of you know, last Friday was my birthday. Because of that, I’ve decided that this post will be about my birthday and Bulgarian birthdays in general. But first, I’d like to say that Jill said that there would be a chair lift. More on that in a few minutes.

So in Bulgaria, there is a bit of a reversal of roles. Instead of everyone giving the birthday person presents, the birthday person gives away things. I spent that day walking around my school in Town #2 handing out little pieces of chocolate from a box I had purchased that morning. It’s a much more fulfilling experience, actually. It’s like Christmas-lite. There’s also the potential of a nice dinner at your home with friends or out at a restaurant. But if you go to a restaurant, be ready to pay for all of the meals there. Finally, one other thing of note about a Bulgarian birthday is that they don’t fuck around with their birthday candles. I don’t know if it’s regional (as in Bulgarian or Eastern European or just European) but the candles are literally stationary fireworks set into a cake. It’s like two fountains of sparks erupting out of a couple sticks. So in Bulgaria, you light use Roman candles instead of those piddly little wax ones in America.

As for my own birthday, that Friday was pretty uneventful compared to my Saturday. On Friday, I went to work, gave out chocolates and came back to my apartment. That evening, my counterpart in Town #1 invited me over to her house for dinner. I played with her 3-year old daughter who also had a birthday that week. My counterpart gave me a nice photo album and a picture frame as a gift. I’m currently in the process of figuring out which photos I want to put in them.

Saturday, however, was a much different story. I would go as far as calling it a cross-cultural adventure at risk of sounding particularly corny. So the idea was to visit Sofia and take a trip to the Vitosha mountains. When it was suggested, I thought it was a pretty good idea and Jill mentioned something about a chair lift to the top. So when I arrived in Sofia, Jill, Carolyn, Whitney and I started on a long series of tram rides to the base of the mountain. During the tram rides, we met a small child who after watching and listening to us jabber along in English shouted to us, “You’re American and I’m American too!” As it turns out, his mother is Bulgarian but she had a job in Los Angeles for some time where her son was born. We all had a good laugh and exchanged phone numbers. It took another 10 minutes to reach what we didn’t know was our stop but we realized after the tram a 180 degree turn. After a short climb to a restaurant, we discovered that there was no chair lift that Jill had previously mentioned. Instead, we decided to attempt to make the long trek to the top. I would like to mention at this point that I am very out of shape. A decently long gentle slope is enough to send me packing. Thankfully, after I generously estimated about 20 minutes of climbing we found a small campsite with benches that had a used campfire pit. I called it a day and I decided to stop. Whitney also made the wise decision that the climb was beyond her power and together we set up a base camp for our troupe. Before they left, we made sure to mention that we’d have joined them if there had been a chair lift. Some 10-15 minutes later, a group of 3 high school students from Sofia came down the path and met us at the camp site. We spoke a little and they asked if they could start a fire. It seemed to be the appropriate thing to do as we were not utilizing the given resources. We helped them gather some dry branches and sticks and what have you and after we got a fire going, they pulled out some pork steaks. To cook them, they found a big flat rock a little further into the forest and used that as their makeshift frying pan. They didn’t even wash it. After they were finally set up, they began to offer us their extra food. They had some potato salad-esque side dish, a large baguette and an extra steak that Whitney and I split. We spent the next 2 hours chatting with these kids as we waited for Jill and Carolyn to descend. That it actually took 2 hours makes me really really glad that I didn’t go. The kids spoke really great English. They mentioned that they were part of some kind of summer camp in England outside of London. Anyways, after the girls had come back, the boys literally skulked off the path and into the forest. I don’t know if I was the only one that noticed that, but it certainly freaked me out just a little on the inside. After that, we wandered around Sofia trying to find a restaurant. We eventually decided on the restaurant Olive’s. It’s an American themed restaurant with retro posters on the walls. The food went from cheap to expensive but the service was super fast. I would recommend it if you find it.

Anyways. That was my day: a failed attempt at hiking directly followed by an impromptu barbecue on a rock followed by a double veal burger. Good deal.

This is the Peace Corps and your birthday will always be an unexpected adventure.


Monday, September 7, 2009

Free Association

Zdraveytey everyone!

Today I wish to do something a little different. I usually take my time to write my blogs and I usually re-read them, and do a little spot editing along the way. This time, however, I want to do some Free Association. Essentially I'm going to just write and jump from topic to topic every once in a while. To help me do this, however, I've employed the use of a timer. Each paragraph you read is the product of 3 minutes of off the top of my head writing. At the end of the 3 minutes, I'll finish my sentence then change the topic based on something in that last sentence. The reason I'm doing this is because I know that there are things I haven't gotten around to talking about since I've started this blog. I wanted to see if this could help jog my memory around. So to start it off, I've decided to start by using the closing line of my last blog post:

"This is the Peace Corps and even though they prep you over and over about the fucking 4 leva/km taxis, you will always jump in one no matter what. *shakes fist*"

And here we go.


So I’m shaking my ambiguously aimed fist in the direction of the Taxi drivers not the Peace Corps. In fact, we had a 45 minutes session during training where the biggest message from them was “DON’T GET IN THE WRONG TAXI OR YOU’LL BE PAYING THROUGH THE NOSE!” Of course, as I said before, that was most certainly not on my mind when I went into the parking lot of the train station. I just jumped into a taxi and took off. During that session, we were shown pictures of the legit taxi companies and their logos. Then we were shown the logos of the terrible, wallet-pillaging taxis. To the untrained eye, they were more or less the same. You change a C to an O and you’ve got yourself a fake freaking taxi. Fortunately this was only the case in Sofia.

Sofia is a big city much like New York and another stereotypically big city that you would find in America. I’d like to use another good example but that’s really my problem: I’m a suburbs sort of guy. My house in Miami was in the suburbs. My house in Kingston was more or less in a suburbs-esque Jamaican environment. My university was it’s own corner of the city and might as well have been considered a suburban type of area considering that the community that a college provides. So when I got there I was more or less lost and overwhelmed by the amount of people and the hustle and/or bustle of the environment.

At my satellite site, Not-Amsterdam, the normal course of the day was get up, eat breakfast, go to school or Bulgarian lessons, hang out afterwards, go to the gas station bathroom 10-15 minutes away (depending on how fast I walked) then home again for dinner. It sounds rather relaxed but 4 hours of language lessons added on top of the 3-4 hours of English teaching came up to a pretty full day. And N-A was a town where nothing happened. I described it before but the area was mostly broken houses and farms. I wasn’t really sure what to make of it all as I arrived. I tried to figure out why they would put me here. My language trainer said something about us being survivors but the only survival experience I had was living behind a large automatic gate with spiked fencing on top.

My language trainer, Elitsa, was one of the most helpful people I had the pleasure of working with. She was well-versed in Bulgarian culture, her English was excellent, and she had been working with the Peace Corps for several years so she was able to impart wisdom onto us as in the form of stories a lot of the time. I am not sure if I’m at liberty to talk about these stories but I’ll just say that they were certainly pretty helpful. She was also a great counselor for our group as we had several in-house related problems concerning our living situations which I KNOW that if I mentioned those on the internet I’d be breaching some sort of code of trust with my other sitemates.

Here’s something I haven’t gotten around to talking about yet. The site mates that I had at the satellite site were certainly 2 of the best people I could have had to experience N-A with. They were incredibly intelligent and they were both very outgoing in their own ways. Especially in a group of 3, I think we had a pretty solid construction. Kay was the encouraging one. She was always there to push us on when we were had lower energy levels (which, if I may add, was a lot of the time). Tyler was the one with great vocabulary and creativity as he would always remember that one word you would forget and be able to use it in a context that would stick.

My training in Linguistics counted mostly for two things: Phonology (essentially the study of sounds we make) and Grammar. When it came to learning the language, I was confident at the pronunciation and the sentence structure. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken a single class in Morphology (the way phonology creates words) or Semantics. What these courses might’ve helped me in was the memorization of the words that we were learning during training. Even now, I feel like I can’t remember anywhere from 50-75% of the words we learned during training. I’m sure that this isn’t true but at times it seems like that I just can’t find the word that I need at the right moments.

With that being said, I can't seem to find another paragraph in that last line.


That was surprisingly taxing even though it took all of 20ish minutes to write. I promise to you that I didn't edit a single paragraph after the 3 minutes were up. I'm also glad with the results. The experiment got me talking about my Language Trainer and my site mates at Not-Amsterdam. I certainly had fun with it. If you guys liked it I can try it again in a few months to see what else surfaces to the top of my head.

This is the Peace Corps and so much crap happens that I can't document it all.