Monday, January 31, 2011

Банско (Bansko)

Several years ago, I went skiing for the first time (sort of). My then girlfriend and I made the short drive from Las Vegas to the ski resort of Brian Head, Utah. Since it was my first time and her first time in a long time, we signed up for ski school.

After three hours or so of lessons, everyone in our group was declared fit to go skiing – everyone except me, two young girls, and six Chinese women who seemed to understand almost no English whatsoever. In any event, my girlfriend and the rest of the group went off with one of the instructors and headed up on one of the lifts. The young girls, the Chinese women, and I stayed behind for extra help.

One by one, my girlfriend and the others came skiing down the hill. While most of the others went back up the lift for more, the girl’s parents and my girlfriend came down to the bunny slope to check on our progress. At that point, the girls were deemed fit to go skiing, but the Chinese women and I were told we still needed some more work.

Once again, my girlfriend went up the lift and then came back down a short time later. When she returned the second time, the Chinese women were let loose on the slopes. I, on the other hand, was told I was too big and dangerous to go skiing. I had no problem keeping my balance and turning. I just couldn’t stop using the wedge method. And until I could demonstrate an ability to stop by using that method, they weren’t going to permit me leave the bunny slope. They feared I might crash into and seriously hurt someone. Fair enough.

Despite some one-on-one lessons, I couldn’t get the wedge method down to the instructor’s satisfaction. So, when my girlfriend returned from a third run down the slopes, we called it a day and headed back to the warmth of our cabin.

Until this past weekend, I hadn’t attempted to go skiing since. But some friends invited me to join them in Банско (Bansko), and I decided to give it another try. This time, I never even made it to the bunny slope. Unable to stop properly, I snapped off my skis and called it a day after bailing several times to avoid slamming into innocent bystanders on the hill at the base of the bunny slope. The folks in Utah were right: I am a menace on skis. I wasn’t concerned with my own safety, but I was worried I might seriously injure another skier.

Everyone else in the group seemed to enjoy the skiing and had favorable things to say about Bansko as a ski resort. From my perspective, the town is extremely touristy and overpriced – at least in comparison to other Bulgarian towns. The setting is beautiful and the surrounding mountains spectacular. But construction and ambition (and perhaps corruption) seem to have outpaced reality, and many buildings remain unfinished and the restaurants and clubs appeared desperate to attract customers. It’s worth visiting at least once, even if you aren’t a skier, but there is very little authenticity to the place. It’s a version of Bulgaria that probably appeals to most foreign tourists, but it doesn’t do much for me.

Here are some photos from the base of the slopes and from the gondola ride up.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Хляб от тиква

Това е рецепта за хляб от тиква (или кейк от тиква).

400 грама брашно
600 грама бяла захар
9 грама сода за хляб
9 грама сол
3 грама мляно индийско орехче
3 грама мляна канела
500 грама тиквено пюре
160 мл вода
235 мл олио
4 яйца
60 грама нарязани орехи (по избор)


1. Намазнете и набрашнете 2 тавички за хляб. Загрейте фурната до 175 градуса.
2. Премерете количествата брашно, захар, сода за хляб, сол и подправки и ги сипете в голяма купа. Разбъркайте сместа до еднородна. Добавете тиквата, водата, олиото, и яйцата (и орехите). Разбърквайте докато стане гладко.
3. Изсипете сместа в подготвените тавички.
4. Пече се около час.

Хляб от тиква

This fall, I made a lot of pumpkin bread (or pumpkin cake as they call it) for Bulgarians. None had ever tried it before, and most liked it (or at least pretended they did). Several asked for the recipe. Hence, here's a recipe for pumpkin bread ... in Bulgarian.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Crying Uncle

When I was a kid I often played with kids three years older than me. Every once in a while I’d cross some invisible boundary and incur the wrath of one of them. This usually resulted in me being put in a headlock or having my arm twisted behind my back. If I tried to fight back or squirm free, the pressure would be increased or the angle tweaked in such a manner to intensify the pain and remind me of my place. This would continue until the pain was unbearable, at which point I’d cry “uncle” and be set free.

Although I’ve mentioned this use of the word uncle a few times in my English classes, I hadn’t really given much thought to the expression until recently. To cry uncle is to acknowledge weakness, to surrender, to indicate a willingness to give up a fight. And that’s generally not part of my constitution. There are times, however, when there is simply no sense in fighting.

Nearly five years ago at this time I was in Savador da Bahia, Brazil. One day, I headed out for what I thought would be a leisurely Sunday afternoon at the beach. As is typical on Sunday afternoons in Brazil, the beaches were heaving with people. I first walked along the seawall from Praia do Porto down past Forte Santo Antonio. After exploring the area around Forte Santo Antonio, I walked back to Praia do Porto, enjoyed some coconut water, and headed down toward a rock wall at the base of Forte Santa Maria.

There were many children jumping off the rock wall into the water, and it seemed safe enough. But I got a bad vibe while standing on the rock wall, and, almost immediately, several locals started staring at me. Trusting my intuition, I started heading back toward the beach.

One of the locals then called out to me, "Mi amigo, que pais?"

I responded, "Estados Unidos," and started walking away.

I stopped when he said he had "no problema" with the USA.

He then asked if I wanted any "maconha," which is Portuguese for marijuana.

I politely declined.

He then tried to sell me various and other sundry things.

Each time I answered, "Não, obrigado," which is Portuguese for "No, thank you."

With each "não" answer, I could sense his frustration growing. And as his frustration grew, so did my level of discomfort, so I started walking away.

At that point he jumped in front of me, put his hand under his shirt as if he had a weapon, and started yelling at the top of his lungs. Four of his friends quickly surrounded me, two on each side, and there was nowhere for me to go. While confident that he didn’t have a weapon, I was unsure about his friends. And he had the scariest eyes I'd ever seen. It wasn't as if they were filled with anger or hatred, it was if they were empty – reflections of a person with no soul. Being outnumbered at least five to one, I saw little benefit to resisting and raised my hands above my head.

As he went through my front pockets and found nothing but sunblock, his frustration grew. At once, I had to keep from punching in him the face and from laughing at him. Muttering to himself, he eventually hit my back pocket and found 14 BRL (less than $7) and some keys. After ripping off the cheap Timex watch I was wearing, he muttered again about having no problem with the USA and started to walk away. Before leaving, he reminded me I was in Brazil.

Not concerned about the money, but not wanting to deal with the hassle of getting a locksmith to open the locks to which the keys belonged, I grabbed his wrist. Somehow, I remembered the Portuguese word for keys ("chaves") and demanded them back. He resisted and tried to pull away. I tightened my grip on his wrist and took my other hand and attempted to pry open his hand, again demanding "los chaves." With that, he opened his hand and returned the keys, again muttering that he had no problem with me or the USA. As he handed back the keys, I said, "Obrigado," and walked away.

Where am I going with this? First, there are times when it makes no sense to fight back, and to survive and prosper we must swallow our pride and surrender to that which we simply can't overcome. Second, perhaps more importantly, despite knowing it was the best decision I could have made at the time, being mugged still was still a lousy experience. It left me feeling violated, humiliated, and inadequate. To a lesser extent, teaching in Bulgaria, or trying to, often leaves me feeling the same way.

I started teaching English here in September of 2009. One of the first things I did was evaluate my students to determine their level of English. To this end, every student in the school was given a written and an oral test.  Almost all of the students had been studying English for several years. Some had studied English for as many as eight years and most no less than four.  Imagine my surprise then when, before curving, just twelve out of approximately 120 students passed the exams. Even more shocking was that the overwhelming majority of those who didn’t pass didn’t even know the alphabet or how to count to ten. It was if they were being exposed to English for the very first time.

So I started asking questions. What had they done for four years, six years, eight years? How was this possible?

The short answer seems to be that the Bulgarian education system was excellent but harsh under Communism. Since the fall of Communism, it has been undergoing slow and painful changes and reforms which many folks have been reluctant to embrace. As a result, many schools tend to be as political as they are educational, and at such schools there is an unhealthy imbalance of power among the various players. The government controls the purse strings, but, because Bulgarian schools are funded in large part based on enrollment, the kids and their parents often act as the real puppet masters.

Where do the teachers fit in? Some fight the inevitable changes, thereby slowing progress. Others dance for the kids and their parents whenever they tug on the puppet strings. And others, including most Peace Corps volunteers, try to accelerate change without offending those fighting it and without getting caught up in the strings of the puppet masters and their dancers.

Kudos to the Bulgarian government for recognizing the need for change and for choosing us to be a part of it. Further props to the schools who host us knowing that there has to be a better way. And let's face it. If things were working as they should there wouldn't be a need for us in the Bulgarian schools. But, without more support, what we are facing is a nearly impossible task. Given the political circus we're unwittingly thrown into, it's not surprising that so many of the teachers desiring to bring about change (including many volunteers) end up giving in to the system or giving up. Indeed, in a system designed for us to fail, most of us have one of two choices. We either admit to being failures, or we give in to the system, stop caring, and stop trying.

Admitting failure isn’t easy, but the simple truth is I am a failure as an English teacher.

Sure, there has been progress. Despite working without any books, the number of kids who were able to pass this year’s midterms, without a curve, increased to 59 out of 152 (that’s a nearly 500% increase from where we started). And it doesn’t stop there. The number of kids earning 6s, 5s, and 4s (the equivalent of A, B, and C) also increased significantly.

But that still leaves 93 kids who have not attained what I consider to be a basic level of competency in English. Many of these kids have improved, some significantly, but many others have not. Some kids simply don’t attend class regularly. Others attend class but don’t pay attention. Others have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, which I simply don’t know how to address.

Not reaching those kids makes me a failure. And it’s something for which I accept full responsibility.

But one person can only carry the weight of so much blame. And unless others are willing to step up and be held accountable, it probably won’t be long before I’m forced to do what so many before me have done and cry “uncle.”

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Чичо Брайън

A couple other volunteers recently visited me at my site. One of the first questions they asked was, “What do your kids call you?”

I hadn’t really thought about it before then, but I quickly processed the information and told them, “Most kids just call me Brian, but some kids call me Чичо (Chicho).”

Чичо is Bulgarian for uncle. As in English with the word “uncle,” чичо is used not only for the brother of one’s father or mother and the husband of one’s aunt, but also as a form of address for an elderly man. So, when the kids call me “Чичо,” they are more or less mocking me for being an old man. I’m OK with that because I am an old man and there are far worse things they could call me. And I’ve come to think of it as a term of endearment more than anything else.

Very few of the kids I teach come from anything even remotely resembling a nuclear family. Some of kids have seen their families torn apart by alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, and/or adultery. Others have had one or both parents leave to live and work abroad. Still others have had parents pass away. While the situations differ from household to household, these “families” can’t be called anything other than dysfunctional.

As an example, we have a tenth grader who lives in an apartment by himself. For a variety of reasons, he can’t live with his mother. He used to live with his father, but supposedly his father’s live-in girlfriend hates him. The solution was to throw him out of the house and put him up in an apartment of his own.

The principal at our school has made it clear she would like me to extend my service and stay at least one more year. I hadn’t seriously considered it until recently. But knowing how my nephew had been hurt when I left him in Belgium, and knowing the rejection and pain that the kids here are subjected to by the people closest to them, I can’t help but thinking maybe I should stay. If I leave as scheduled, I'll be just another person who put in the bare minimum and then abandoned them. One more person who got out as soon as a "better" opportunity presented itself. Is that the message I want to send? Or is it better to send the opposite message? Maybe for once what some of these kids need is for someone to say to them, “I don’t care if I can make more money somewhere else. I don’t care if my life will be easier if I leave Bulgaria. I don't care about a career or trying to start my own family. I don’t care about any of those things. I care about you, and I want to stay to try to help you.” Maybe what they need is a чичо.

Then again ... to be continued.

Me and one of my students. His mom works as a cleaning woman in Western Europe.

Uncle Brian

Three and a half years ago I was lucky enough to become an uncle. Two years later a second nephew came into my life. Unfortunately, my nephews live in Colorado and I live in Bulgaria. As a result, I see them far more often in photographs than in person and far less often than I’d like. But when I do have the opportunity to see them, I try to take advantage of it.

This year, they (along with my brother and his wife) visited their grandparents in Belgium for Christmas. I was able to find a cheap flight, so I decided to spend Christmas in Belgium with at least some of my family.

My flight out of Sofia was delayed by fog. As a result, I missed a connecting flight in Frankfort and arrived in Brussels several hours late. A blizzard in Belgium made for an icy runway and a somewhat treacherous landing and slick roads and a slow ride home, but we eventually made it no worse for the wear.

Hoping to see me before he went to bed, my eldest nephew had stayed up as late as his dad and his strength would allow. Sadly, he had fallen fast asleep long before we walked through the door, so our reunion would have to wait until morning.

The sleeping arrangements were such that he and I shared a bed. Weary from travel and full from the first of many delicious homemade Belgian meals, it didn’t take long before I joined him and passed out.

Morning came quickly, but I woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed. As I laid in bed reading, my nephew began to stir. I turned to look at him. He was buried beneath a sheet and several blankets. Only the top of his head was visible. Perhaps subconsciously feeling that I was watching him, he pulled the covers down halfway past his eyes and snuck a quick glance before burying himself completely under the covers. I that split second, even though I saw nothing more than his head from his eyes up, I could tell he was smiling and happy to see me. I waited, and, sure enough, within a few seconds his head reappeared and he tried to sneak a second glance. When he tried for a third time, I buried my own head under the covers the instant our eyes met. This set him off giggling, and, after a short time playing this game, he was ready to wrestle.

For the next five days, I played my expected role: punching bag, human trampoline, and all-around glutton for punishment. On several occasions, my brother, his wife, and I went out to explore the nearby towns and countryside. My nephew was invited every time. Every time he declined, choosing instead to stay at home with his grandma.

The time went all too quickly, and it was soon time for the ride back to the airport. Knowing, perhaps instinctively, that this would be the last time he would see me for a while, my nephew chose to come along.

When we arrived at the airport, my brother got out of the car to wish me well and say goodbye. He then asked my nephew if he could say “goodbye” to me. My nephew said nothing, gave a very brief shake of his head to indicate “no,” and turned from us and stared straight ahead.

My brother then asked my nephew if he could give him a “high five.” My nephew turned to his dad and gave him a high five.

My brother then asked my nephew if he could give me a high five. Once again, my nephew said nothing, shook his head “no,” and turned from us and stared straight ahead.

It was a powerful statement and an awkward situation. One of my main motivations for going to Belgium was to see my nephews. Yet, in doing so, I had clearly hurt at least one of them by leaving so quickly to return to Bulgaria. It would be easy to say, “He’s just a kid. He doesn’t understand. This is life.” But I couldn’t help but thinking maybe he had it right and that I was the one who didn’t understand.

And then I started thinking about my kids - not my kids, my students - so many of whom have been abandoned by one or both of their parents … to be continued.

My eldest nephew.

The little guy. He wasn't walking when I saw him last spring.

Papa chasing the little one.

This is my big brother. I hadn't seen him in almost two years. It's a good thing he didn't spend Christmas in Wisconsin. He might have been mistaken for a bear and been shot. Gotta love the pre-oyster look versus the post-oyster look. At least he didn't ralph like my other brother did when we got together (of course, there was no rakia drinking this time).

Did I mention the food was amazing? I ate two of these guys.

A Closer Look at Sofia

Over a year ago, I wrote a short piece about Sofia. I've come to know Sofia better since then, but I have nothing more insightful to add. At some point, I'll post more photos from Sofia but to better understand the history of the city and of Bulgaria, watch this promotional video. The host is a bit insufferable at times, it is essentially a paid advertisement, and not everything is accurate (check on the elevations of Mount Olympus and Mount Vitosha), but the video reinforces much of what I had written about Sofia - things which most folks, Bulgarians included, are unaware.