Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

I was talking to a friend the other day. He’s a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Uzbekistan. Like me, his primary assignment was teaching English as a foreign language. Among other things, we discussed the difficulties of teaching English in the former U.S.S.R. and its satellites. One thing we agreed upon and laughed about was how the noise that greeted us every time we opened the door and entered school sent a shiver down our spines and made us cringe. It’s a difficult noise to describe. It’s not the noise of children happily playing in a schoolyard. It’s not the sound of kids shuffling between classes and to and from their lockers. It’s the sound of chaos. And it’s a sound which only emanates from schools where teachers are relatively powerless and students control almost everything. It’s a sound I have wished, for several months now, I wouldn’t hear when I opened the door and entered school.

Yesterday I got my wish, fittingly on my birthday. When I walked through the door and entered school, I heard nothing other than the sound of water trickling from a faux waterfall. The school seemed deserted. There was none of the typical chaos – no screaming teachers barely audible over the cacophony of students’ voices, no fights to break up, no students to corral and shepherd to class. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday present.

But school was quiet for a reason. Over the weekend, a group of former students, in their late teens and early twenties, had been in a car accident. The driver was drunk. He lost control of the car and rolled it several times. Kids died. One of the kids was the older brother of a current student. All of the kids had friends at our school.

Today is the memorial service. The school was even quieter. It sucks. I’ll take the sound of chaos any day over the sound of silence.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

485 Years

On March 3, 1878, the Treaty of San Stefano was signed, liberating Bulgaria from nearly five centuries of Ottoman oppression and putting Bulgaria back on the political map (for those keeping score, the Turks ruled Bulgaria from 1393 to 1878 ... that's 485 years). In recognition of their emancipation (of sorts), Bulgarians celebrate the National Day of Bulgaria or Bulgaria’s Day of Liberation every year on March 3rd. I'm just enjoying a day off from school, but there will be celebrations around the country - despite the Turks' continued influence in Bulgaria.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Баба Пепи

The most recent баба I interviewed is Баба Пепи (Pepi). When I asked Пепи if I could take a photo of her for the blog and then had to wait for her to brush her hair and put on lipstick, I knew she was going to be different. And she was and is. Here is some of her story.

• Пепи was born in 1938 in Село Радуловци (Radulovtsi). Don’t be confused by the signs to the village which read Родоловци (Rodolovtsi); Пепи claims that she liked that name better and was able to convince the people responsible for putting up the signs to spell it the way she preferred.

• Пепи has two daughters and two grandchildren, a grandson and a granddaughter. The most exciting moment of her life was when her grandson was born.

• Пепи is the youngest of six siblings: her brothers were born in 1919 and 1923, and her sisters were born in 1925, 1929, and 1933.

• When Пепи was six years old, her father died. After fourth grade she moved to Sofia to live with her eldest brother.

• After sixth grade, Пепи’s brother married and had no place for her to live. She then moved in with one of her teachers, who wanted to adopt her. But Пепи moved back to Село Радуловци after just one year. She dropped out of school the following year after completing seventh grade.

• Пепи first met her husband while performing a play in Село Пищане. She ended up choosing him as her spouse because he was nice and he had written her a very beautiful and touching love letter. They were married in 1960, had their first child in 1961, and moved to our town in 1963.

• She wanted to be a hairstylist but ended up becoming an accountant for the cooperative for six years before working as a store manager for twenty-eight years.

• Comparatively speaking, Пепи is well-traveled, having visited Berlin, Prague, Poland, Hungary, and the former Yugoslavia. She also traveled to the Black Sea on an annual basis after getting married.

• Like so many of her contemporaries, she too seems to favor a communist Bulgaria over a democratic Bulgaria. According to her, while there were few choices and a limited number of available products under communism, they were affordable. Now, the stores are full, but the things being sold are too expensive to buy. Furthermore, under communism, she says people lived without fear – without fear of the future or day-to-day survival and without fear of being assaulted, robbed, raped, or murdered. Because such things are commonplace now, along with earthquakes, typhoons, and other natural disasters, she believes the world is soon coming to an end.

• Пепи said she doesn’t give her kids or grandkids advice because they are all smarter than her. She just wants them to be honest, respectful, and hardworking. She is proud of all of them, particularly her two daughters.

As limited as Роза’s photo collection was, Пепи’s was extensive. We sifted through several shoeboxes worth of photos and picked out some of the more interesting ones. I hope to label them at some point, but even without labels they tell a great story.

Баба Марта

A few weeks ago I noticed small stands appearing on the streets of Sofia and in the bus and train stations. The only things being sold at these stands were bracelets of red and white yarn and small red and white yarn figures. I’ve since learned that these items are called мартеници (martenitsi), and they are exchanged on March 1st in honor of Баба Марта ("Grandmother March"). Баба Марта is a mythical figure who theoretically brings with her the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The traditions associated with Баба Марта are quite interesting and well worth reading about. You can either do a Google search for Баба Марта, or read my friends' blog about her.

Баба Роза

Баба Роза (Rosa) is the most recent баба I interviewed. Here is some of what I learned about Роза.

• Роза was born in 1939 in Село Гургулят (Gurgulyat), a small village located nine kilometers from where we now live.

• Роза has two sons and three granddaughters.

• Her parents were loving and kind, and she and her three siblings (two brothers and one sister) had a peaceful and happy childhood.

• As the baby of the family, Роза had minimal responsibility growing up (usually nothing more strenuous than feeding the family chickens and pigs), and she often played with friends. Among other things, she played with toy dogs made of fabric and went sledding.

• Роза’s family had three steers, a cow, a calf, a horse, a donkey, 50-60 sheep, plus pigs and chickens. Each year they would raise baby pigs until they were large enough to sell. They would sell all the pigs except for the mother pig and one young female. The mother pig would then be slaughtered in early winter, and the young female would serve as the new mother pig the following year.

• During World War II, Роза recalls a convoy of Russian soldiers and horse-carts heading through the village on their way to Serbia and eventually Austria. She also remembers hearing about the bombing of Sofia from people who had evacuated the city to Село Гургулят.

• She met her future husband when she was in second grade and he was in fourth grade. They liked each other and started “dating” when she was in ninth grade. At the time, dating consisted of nothing more than going for walks together. A joint coalition of parents and teachers (something like the PTA) kept an eye on the kids and strictly enforced a curfew. In any event, shortly after they started dating, her future husband joined the army and left town.

• From eighth grade through eleventh grade, she attended the school where I now teach. It was the only high school in the area, and eleventh grade was the final grade. She said discipline was not an issue whatsoever. There was no drinking, no smoking, and no drug use. The worst thing that went on was boys playing cards. She recalls her class in eighth grade consisting of nearly 200 students. By the time she graduated from eleventh grade, the number of students had dwindled to fewer than fifty.

• She graduated in June, got married to her sweetheart in November, and gave birth to their first child the following November.

• Like some of the other баби who grew up in villages, Роза lived without electricity until she moved here (she was twenty-one at the time).

• In September of 1959, she and her husband and first child moved from Село Гургулят to our town. She says this was necessary because there was no work in the villages. The local cooperative operated out of our town and was giving away land in an attempt to grow the city. Initially Роза and her husband rented a house, but, in May of 1962, they started building. They finished their house, the first one on the block and still Роза’s home today, in October of 1962.

• For thirty years, Роза was a housewife and an accountant, learning like a sponge from more senior colleagues.

• She once visited Romania for three days as part of her work with the cooperative, and she later visited the former U.S.S.R. on an eight-day holiday.

• Роза liked the social order and security that communism provided. Everyone who wanted to work had jobs, unlike today where none of the young people who live around her have jobs. She also liked the food better, claiming it was more organic. As a result, she is proud to have been and to be a member of the “Червената Бабичка,” a group of old women who remained loyal to the communist party and were largely responsible for keeping them in power in Bulgaria even after democracy came to the country.

• Роза is at peace with and proud of the way she has lived her life and wouldn’t change anything. She has lived an honest life and remained true to herself and what she believes in. She wants her granddaughters to live similarly. Despite having an affinity for Turkish soap operas, she advises her granddaughters to live simply and to avoid the stress of living a soap opera type life. She also stresses to them the importance of having God in their lives.

• She thinks the biggest problem with the world today is that people waste too much time trying to become rich instead of enjoying the company of family and friends.

• She also thinks that the “ignorant” men she grew up around were wiser than the educated people of today. Her reasoning is three-fold: first, back then people were living life instead of watching it and learned through personal experience as opposed to instruction or observation; second, people were more moral and less inclined to cheating and stealing because they feared being shamed by the community; and third, they were God-fearing.

Баба Роза now.

Баба Роза then.

Interestingly, Баба Роза's family didn't have a camera when she was growing up, so she doesn't have any photos until after she was married. I suppose the lack of photos tells as much of a story as the photos themselves would have told. Anyway, here are some family photos from over the years after they got a camera.

Баба Седефка

A short time ago, I interviewed another баба, Баба Седефка (Sedefka). Here is some of her story.

• Седефка was born in 1936 in Село Табан (Taban), a small village near the town of Драгоман (Dragoman).

• She was the youngest of three children. They generally got along very well, but only because her sister refused to take the bait and fight with her and because her brother was good at keeping the peace.

• As the youngest member of her immediate and extended family (Седефка’s family shared a home with an aunt and uncle and their six kids, all of whom were at least ten years older than Седефка), Седефка was really spoiled. Her aunt really loved her and went so far as to anoint her the “Golden Child,” and Седефка was excused from the hard work and manual labor which her brother, sister, and cousins endured.

• They lived without electricity or running water, and Седефка’s work primarily consisted of gathering and carrying firewood and bathing her cousins.

• They ate most of what they produced, only rarely selling a chicken or sheep.

• Even though it was a four kilometer walk each way to and from school, Седефка was happiest when she was in school. That lasted until the seventh grade, which was the highest class available at the local school. She wanted to continue her studies, but the family had no money to enroll her in another school. This depressed Седефка, and she spent a lot of time alone crying. She rarely left the house, prompting her aunt to tell her, “No boys even know you exist.”

• She met her future husband when she was twenty-one and he was twenty-five. He was her brother’s best friend, and was serving in the army and living in Plovdiv. Not wanting her brother to know of their relationship, they kept it secret as long as possible. He even sent letters to a neighbor’s house so no one would know of the relationship. Two years after first meeting, they were married.

• After getting married, Седефка and her husband tried for more than two years to have a baby. She suffered a pair of miscarriages and spent much of the time crying. Her husband was supportive, but she worried that he would divorce her (apparently a high percentage of husbands left their wives under such circumstances, leaving the wives shamed within the community).

• Седефка gave birth to the couple’s first child when she was twenty-five and had their second child when she was thirty. She also has four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

• There was no work in Село Табан, and Седефка and her husband decided to move. But they argued over where they should live before she ultimately persuaded him to move to our town because of its strategic location along the railroad. Despite this, life remained difficult. Седефка says she was miserable. There was very little available work, forcing her to work in a factory for three years before finding a job as a cook.

• Седефка provided an interesting perspective when I asked her to compare life under communism versus life under democracy. In the early years, communism equaled hard work which in turn equaled bread and cheese. Even so, her family was able to build not one home but two. Still, she describes life under communism as a lot of hard work for little in return. By contrast, she said that she now receives a pension of approximately 200 BGN per month. Her medication alone costs her 100 BGN per month, and there is no way she could survive without the help she receives from her children and grandchildren. But now, she says, other people are working for her.

• When I asked her of what she is most proud, Седефка said it used to be building homes but now it is her kids and grandkids.

• Седефка is hardly alone when it comes to having pride in building. All the баби and the lone дядо with whom I’ve spoken built the homes they still live in today. They did so with very little money and a lot of hard work and are justifiably proud of their accomplishments.

• Седефка is hopeful that the world in general and Bulgaria in particular is changing for the better. Her advice to her grandchildren is simple: slow down, take your time, and enjoy life – you can learn everything by watching television.

• The best advice Седефка ever received came from her beloved aunt who told her, “When you get married, never let your husband know you can cook. With six kids and a husband expecting me to cook for them, I’ve spent most of my life in the kitchen. Don’t waste your life in the same way.”

I was constantly distracted while listening to Седефка tell her story because I couldn’t stop looking at her hands. Like many of the Bulgarian баби, including several of the ones I’ve interviewed, Седефка has huge hands. They are working hands – the size of and as leathery as baseball mitts but with a vice-like grip. When I got up to go, I extended my hand toward hers. She took my hand and it disappeared, first in her right hand and then in both of her hands. As I thanked her, she clasped my hand, giving me a nod, look, and gentle squeeze that told me without a word that telling her story had meant far more to her than it did to me. And that’s what makes this project fun.

Баба Седефка.

Village life.

Баба Седефка and her husband at a friend's wedding.

Several photos of Баба Седефка's husband.

Баба Седефка's brother.

Баба Седефка's daughter on her wedding day.

Several photos of Баба Седефка's son.