Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Snow Fell on Preslav...

I got out of the apartment the other day to take a walk around in the new snow in Preslav and take some pictures. This has to be one of my new favorite things to do, even though I get crazy looks from the locals. I usually get looks of disbelief when I tell people that I come from a place that doesn't experience snow, followed by, "Why are you out walking when it's so cold out? You should go inside."

Regardless, I think Preslav takes on a completely new personality under a layer of snow. It adds something to this place - a new and different beauty from the one I was introduced to a few months ago (wow, I've been here "a few months" now, feels crazy). I love just walking around and taking it in... There's something about it that takes my mind off the stresses of life here - a quiet and stillness under that pure and clean blanket - and it's very refreshing for me.

Here are some of the pictures I've taken around town... enjoy!

Tomorrow is New Years Eve, and I'll be spending it at the Dom with the kids, so that should be an all day adventure and a lot of fun. Stay tuned for the details!
Until next time...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Very Merry PC Christmas Special

In the days leading up to Christmas, I was feeling pretty physically drained and emotionally burned out from an oh-so-fun combination of a full schedule at work and some overall frustrating developments around town among other things. It had been a rough week for me, and it was time for a break. I didn’t think I would be able to make it out to the Christmas get together, but luckily my schedule opened up and I was able to head out.

I took the night train to Pleven once again. Even though I was on time, and the train was well heated as snow fell on the tracks outside, I had to stand for the entire 3.5 hour journey since it was packed, proving once again to me that there is no such thing as a pleasant train ride in Bulgaria. I did however get to eat at the good Chinese place in Shumen before heading out, so all was not lost…

I got to my friend’s place at 8 in the morning on Christmas Eve, where I promptly collapsed and napped for a few hours while waiting for some of the other friends to arrive. The highlights of the day were trying to piece together a Norman Rockwell puzzle and drinking hot chocolate over some good conversation.

This was not the main event, however. We were treated to a rented out mehana (traditional BG restaurant) courtesy of my friend’s coworkers. The salads were good, and the liver… not so much, but it was eaten with happiness anyway. We were visited by carolers dressed in traditional Bulgarian clothes (and our friend who hosted the get together joined in on the action). Next up was the white elephant gift exchange, in which I got a jar of peanut butter, which I'm pretty excited about.

Christmas was spent in a more subdued manner, with good people and good conversation, and copious amounts of hot chocolate while inside watching the snow outside. It turned out to be a white Christmas after all, with huge flakes that piled up quickly. The snow buried Knezha under a gorgeous sparkling blanket throughout the course of the day that covered the rough patch I’d been going through with a cold clean beauty that was relaxing and refreshing.

Of course, there were other Christmas highlights: We played football in the snow, in which Leslie made a Sportscenter worthy miracle catch that will probably live on in history as one of the greatest plays ever… Friends cooked up a nice meal together which was enjoyed by all… Getting to talk to the family back in the States through the wonderful creation that is Skype... Having a dance party that can only be described as “American…” However, the best part about the time there was the friendship – enjoying the connection with my other group members that I’ve described before as a big hilarious dysfunctional family, which is true, but they’re also some of the best people I’ve ever spent time with… Awww. (Thanks guys haha)

I got back into Preslav and into my now very frigid apartment feeling energized and ready to get back into the action, and I’ll be spending New Years at the orphanage with the kids, which should be both interesting and really fun. I’ll be sure to keep you all in the loop about the coming events, and I also have some random other posts coming up as well.

Until next time…

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Koledni Kuponi

It's been a busy week here in Preslav. People are gearing up for Koleda (Christmas), and that comes with many, many kuponi (parties). I've had the pleasure of going to many of these, and want to share some of that Bulgarian Christmas magic with you all.

The week started with the annual Christmas concert at the obshtina (municipality), featuring multitudes of kindergarteners forgetting the words to techno versions of Bulgarian Christmas carols. I didn't think it was possible (think about this: Traditional Bulgarian Christmas carols remixed into techno and sung by Chalga stars, partially in English, then having little kids sing and dance to these crazy tunes while wearing traditional costumes) but Bulgaria proves me wrong again.

My band made a rare appearance and performed a song at the concert, wowing everyone with their skills. When I say “my band,” I’m talking about the rock band that my language tutor is in, and I go to their practices every once in a while since they’re right after my tutoring sessions. They’re called “Chernoriztsite” (the Black Shirts), and they have a wide repertoire of Bulgarian rock covers, and as well as English renditions of “I Want to Break Free” and “Hot Stuff.” I’ll try to record some of their stuff and will post it later.

While at the concert I met one of the nicest people I’ve ever seen here. His name is Joe and he comes from Tanzania. He’s lived here for 15 years now, and has a Bulgarian wife and 2 kids. He invited me over for tea and while there we talked (in English!) about life here in Bulgaria. It was one of the best times I’ve had so far in Preslav, and I can tell that we’re going to have a great friendship over the next couple of years.

The next party in the lineup this week was the orphanage Christmas party. Since many of the children at the orphanage go home for holidays, we had the big celebration this week. I feel I need to elaborate a bit more on this situation. Here in Bulgaria, many of the children at the orphanages aren’t “orphans” the way we would consider them to be (that is, without parents). Instead, many times children will be sent here if their parents cannot afford to raise them, but are still permitted to go back at certain times of the year, such as during holidays or vacations from school.

Anyway, the party was a big success, and even the staff was really into it. Pretty much from the day I got here the kids told me “You’re going to be Diado Koleda (Santa).” I didn’t know how to take this at first since I’m pretty sure I don’t have the credentials for the job. The direct translation of Diado Koleda is Grandpa Christmas, and I’m nowhere close to being a grandfather, I’m not 300+ pounds, and I don’t have a white beard. Still I donned the red suit, strapped on the beard and gave my jolliest ho ho ho. It was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve done so far here, but hey the kids loved it, so I guess I did something right.

The kids spent the rest of the day tearing into the chocolates they were given, and playing around with the little toys they got, as well as proudly wearing the scarves sent over from a previous volunteer in the States.

But that’s not the end of the festivities… Tomorrow I have a staff party at the nicest of the 3 restaurants we have here in town, where I’ll break out my best horo dancing, for which I’ve been taking a class in my free time. Horo is the traditional Balkan dance in which everyone makes a circle and does a pattern of moves while going around the circle. These can be really easy (like just kicking your foot a couple of times) to really elaborate patterns involving a lot of hopping, spinning and other craziness. That’ll be another post for sure. I seem to be building up a lot of topics to post about later, but I think they’re all interesting and worth spending a separate post on when I get the time and things slow down a bit (which will be after New Years probably).

Also on the agenda is the Yasli Christmas party, for which I’ve been commissioned to be the videographer. The kids have been practicing a couple of Christmas songs, most of which they still don’t know, but it’s really cute to see them try. Pictures to come.

On actual Christmas I’ll be traveling across the country to be with a bunch of friends, so that will definitely be fun, and I’ll be spending New Years here in Preslav (which seems to be a bigger deal than Christmas here in BG) with the kids.

Until next time…

Friday, December 12, 2008

Detski Yasli

Up until this point, I’ve spoken very little about my second assignment here in Bulgaria. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that I couldn’t actually work there until I had a Bulgarian health card, which in turn required me to have Bulgarian residency, which I now have. Also, the work at the orphanage has been very engaging and challenging, which has caused me to spend a lot more time not only at the orphanage itself, but also working on things to do there when I’m not actually there. Regardless, I still feel that my time at the Yasli is important, and that the children there can benefit from my being there every morning.

The closest American counterpart to the Bulgarian Yasli would probably be what we call preschool, though there are also elements of a nursery in there. The children’s ages range from 1 to 4 (though most are 2-3). This short span is a time during which many complex and important developmental goals are accomplished, making the Yasli a pretty important place. The difference between the Bulgarian preschool and the American version, like so many other places here, lies in the staff’s interactions with the children. Here, there is a much more hands-off policy when working with children, and the Yasli is no different. In my first few days I observed that that the staff’s role was mainly physical care of the children (feeding, changing diapers, etc.), while there were little to no coordinated activities. The children are mainly just given a pile of toys, and left alone for a while.

The first thing I figured I would try to do was to get more one on one interaction with the kids, since the simple act of even speaking to children at this age can be a valuable developmental tool. For example, the simplest babbling is a sign that the child is trying to distinguish the correct sounds and rules of language for use later. With the younger kids, what I’ve been doing is simply playing with the children and looking for signs of emerging language and trying to encourage it. I reply with actual Bulgarian, and they try to repeat it, and the cycle continues until they get distracted or bored. With the children who can speak already I've been trying to encourage longer conversations and counting. I also help out with the discipline side of things, and also with first aid if needed. I figure this is about the extent to which I can go at this point, but even so it’s better than nothing.

People who work with children here in Bulgaria have very skeptical views about the abilities of the children they work with. Whereas we in America are raised with a very “can do” spirit, and early development is encouraged (i.e. learning numbers and pushing literacy), it seems that people here in Bulgaria figure that children cannot learn anything until they are enrolled in school. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and from what we are taught seems quite backwards. I asked if maybe I could make a circle with the kids at the Yasli and try teaching numbers or letters, or at least basic sounds. I was basically laughed at and told that they don’t know anything yet. After that, I was informed that children here don’t learn the alphabet until first grade, which was a bit shocking to me. It is this lack of confidence in children that has continually been the bane of my existence here in Bulgaria, and is a constant source of frustration in both of my places of work. At the Yasli, there is no confidence that children can learn anything at such a young age. At the orphanage, there is no confidence that the children can rise out of their at-risk state and eventually do something great with their lives.

Without an emphasis in strengthening the abilities of your children, what kind of investment are you making in the future of your country?

Then again, that’s one of the things that the Peace Corps is here to address. Again, it seems after reading this post again that I sound pretty negative, but I really am pretty hopeful that I can do something here… at least begin to start to instill some confidence in these children, and emphasize the importance of this early and critical stage of life. The staff is very friendly and open to me in both places, and they are great people with a lot of heart. However, the challenge comes in working with the culture - suggesting without criticizing and observing without looking down upon. I am, after all, a "very young boy" myself, as my coworkers tell me almost every day...

Perhaps eventually I’ll be able to get some more coordinated activities with the kids there, but, as with the orphanage, I am still trying to gain the trust and respect of the staff at this point. When my Bulgarian gets a bit better, I hope to also maybe get a parent’s group together. Though I don’t have any parenting experience, it might be good to coordinate some kind of forum where they can get together and talk. Things are still hazy on that front right now. Just wanted to share a bit of a different side of what I do here in Preslav with you all.

Until next time…

Monday, December 8, 2008

Veseli Praznitsi!

Happy Holidays!

The Christmas season is in full swing in Preslav! There are flashing colored lights everywhere you look, kids are excited about "Diado Kolada" (Santa Claus), there's a definite winter chill in the air... The only thing missing is a Walmart having a huge sale.

Tonight was the tree-lighting ceremony in the town center, which rain threatened to cancel. Luckily, by the time all the speeches were said and songs were sung, the rain had cleared up, allowing the members of the obshtina to flip the switch on this beauty after all:

Doesn't look like too much here, but it's a real pine tree right off the courtyard in the center, and it's huge. Pretty awesome sight when coming in to town, especially with the other buildings on the center lit up as well (the chitalishte, church, town hall, and obshtina building)...

After the lighting ceremony some huge fireworks were set off right next to the church, pumping everyone up for the series of Christmas events the town will be coordinating...

Apparently they do Christmas big here, with a lot of events announced in the coming month, including a wassail in the town hall, countless concerts from kids and adults alike, and a gigantic banitsa making competition which was really hyped up to me by my sitemate. I love me some banitsa, so I'm looking forward to it (food post coming later).

I've gotten into the spirit myself with some decorations laying around the apartment. I just happened to find a nice little fake Christmas tree which I decorated today in honor of the tree lighting in the center. All that lie underneath right now are a couple of chocolates, but perhaps at some point I'll have some legit gifts haha.

Aside from the tree I have some random garlands strung around, and the most outlandish and ridiculous light I have ever seen (left to me by the previous volunteer) hanging from my terrace. It's star shaped and flashes like a strobe light in different colors. What better way to spread Christmas cheer than to blind any and all who dare gaze upon this amazing decoration?

Until next time...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thanksgiving Bulgaria Style

Thanksgiving (ден на благодарност - den na blogodarnost - lit. "day of thankfulness") came and went without much fanfare in Veliki Preslav. People here have some idea of what it is after hearing from other volunteers about it, but it gets looked at kind of strangely from their point of view - "Day of Thankfulness? Turkey? football?" It doesn't quite come together the way we see it, which is a day to spend time with the family, and be thankful that we have people to lean on (in my opinion at least).

I didn't really do anything special the actual day of Thanksgiving. In fact, I had to go in to work since we volunteers don't get American holidays off. It was alright though... I baked up a batch of chocolate chip cookies (more like chocolate chunk, since they don't have chocolate chips here... ended up just smashing a few chocolate bars) and handed those out to the staff. I also explained some Thanksgiving traditions and did some art stuff for the kids. They were more interested in the Pilgrims and Indians part than the turkey and family part ("Did the indians kill the people afterward?" No... Yay for movies!). That night I made hashbrowns and eggs haha.

However, over that weekend, I was able to get some real Thanksgiving food and spend some time with friends and enjoy the holiday. Even though we were thousands of miles from home, we managed to come together as a great big dysfunctional family for Thanksgiving. Coming together was a challenge though, starting with a missed train and an overnight ride in an unheated cabin and ending with missing the bus stop and having to walk (more slipping on the ice than walking) back into the town where we were supposed to get out. It all came together eventually - well worth the missteps - and a good time was had by all.

Turkey was brought in from Sofia, potatoes were mashed, cakes and pies were consumed, football was watched. Something was brought by each of the 20 volunteers that were there, making for a legit Thanksgiving meal, and an great time with great friends.

In other news, I started at the preschool yesterday. Well... to call it a preschool is a bit of a stretch. The kids are 2 and 3 years old and completely ridiculous. It should be interesting to see what I can do with them. I'm not really sure why I was assigned to work there, but at least it gives me something to do in the morning... More to come on that later.

Until next time...