I just returned from a yearlong Fulbright fellowship in Ruse, Bulgaria to my home the previous year, Shanghai, China. And yes, it is quite possible that I’ve chosen the two most disparate places in the world to live. But, as you can probably imagine, it has expanded my perception of the world and my place in it in ways that I couldn’t have imagined three years ago when I began my senior year of college.
I left Bulgaria the first week of July feeling a profound melancholy and instant nostalgia. I stared out the window, barely blinking, until the sun lowered and cast an antique hue across the expanse. Our bus traversed the bucolic countryside, sputtering its way to Istanbul, where we’d be flying away from this place.
Outside the window were miles and miles of sunflower fields. I remembered seeing these when I first arrived in Bulgaria, but because we came in August, the flowers were dead and withering, shells of their former selves. The circle of life is, by name, not linear, but this death-to-life deal left me unsettled. In my last moments on that bus, the symbolism was fierce: how was I leaving Bulgaria right when it was getting good? Right when the sunflowers had finally erected in golden unison? I had forged ahead through the weeds, and arrived at another time and place, where the world was colorful and hopeful.
I had spent that afternoon with one of my 9th grade classes, finally bereft of the teacher-student formalities, finally comfortable, finally understanding what it was all about. Of course, in moments of purity such as this, I forget the bleak winter, the insatiable cynicism, the feeling that I wasn’t good enough or welcomed. I think that those memories will become funny stories, or at least anecdotes demonstrative of the situation I was dealing with – not moments of bitterness. They already have, actually.
So, I left Bulgaria with an open mind and lingering sadness, not because I wanted to stay another year, but because it’s hard to leave a place that is in the process of being awesome. I made a genuine promise to all my friends there that I’ll be back one day, and I intend to see that through.
I have found myself back in this place I left over a year ago, with much the same life: same job, same friends (plus or minus a few), same twenty-block square that we never leave.
Although we’re happy to be back here, we do feel in some ways that we have outgrown Shanghai. It’s a pretty difficult place to live. The pollution is thick. The culture is so different. It’s easy to slip into a state of perpetual childhood. The money is good out here, and the livin’s easy. Last weekend, we spent an entire afternoon at a huge pool party on the top of a 5 star hotel. With a primarily expat attendee list, the whole thing was like MTV Spring Break, except in a country where millions of people can’t even fathom paying what we did for a pitcher of beer.
I know many people who would grow defensive at my saying this, but I understand why anger is brewing against Laowai’s (foreigners) here in Shanghai. So many people come here because they have nothing else to do. They want an easy time working at one of the thousands of English teaching companies in the city. They make more money in a month than many Chinese people do in a year, but with zero experience teaching. Of course, there are plenty of people who have come out here with “real” jobs, and I know dozens of genuinely good people out here. I just can’t help but feel sometimes like I’m apart of something destructive. That I’m contributing to something destructive.
My one respite is that I hope that my interaction with my students will ultimately serve this fragile country. I don’t develop nearly as strong relationships with the kids here as I did in Bulgaria (I only teach test prep here, and the classes only last a couple of weeks), but I hope that my values rub off on them in some way, that they receive world-class education in America, and that they eventually return to their country and salvage it.
In the meantime, China, for me, is a means to an end.
Something about Shanghai saps my energy to write. This was the case when I lived here a year ago, and it was a fact that was highlighted when my mind began to race and my fingers poked effortlessly at the keyboard the minute I set foot in Bulgaria, that place that now seems so far away from me.
It’s not that I have nothing to say. It’s not that I have no news to share. It’s just that my life could easily be transplanted in San Francisco, or New York, or Austin right now. Though I am technically living abroad, my life here is not an experiment in cultural immersion, nor is it a mission to make a difference and leave a mark. My days are spent like any other.
I wake up at 7, read the news (which, if I want to read news of the nonfiction variety, can only be done after purchasing a VPN to ensure untraceable internet roaming), and make tea (in my kitchen that is one floor down from my actual apartment), then go to work (dodging innumerable electric motos, cars, and nasty smells along the way) where I spend my day teaching (the pubescent faction of Shanghai’s upper elite) until around 6:30 (when I am insufferably too tired to even think about cooking, as I’ve become adept at convincing my conscience that it’s acceptable “just this one time” to order in), then proceed to whatever evening activities are in store for me (which occur diurnally and usually end up in me spending/drinking more than I intended to).
So, because I enjoy blogging and, if anything, I want to keep this site as a sort of keepsake for when I’m older looking back on these years, I’m going to try and keep this up. However, if there are any loyal followers out there, this will be less of a travel blog, more of a life blog. If you don’t like it, then that’s just too bad. It’s not for you, it’s for me.
Stay tuned for a catch-up entry that will bring everyone (myself included) up to speed about my situation, my goals, and my general philosophies on life and the world.
Today was my last day of school in Bulgaria. I’ve already been having final classes with various groups of students, but today felt final. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I ended each class with, “Oh, but this isn’t goodbye, I’ll see you around school before Friday!” That last day happened today though.
I don’t really want to rehash every little detail that happened today and this week, as I’m not sure it would resonate with anyone but me.
A million ideas, thoughts, memories, and fears are crowding out my reason, rendering me incapable of expressing my feelings accurately, so I’ll keep the philosophical “greater meaning” post for after I’ve had a few days to process.
For now though, I will say: there are some things that I will really miss. There are other things I can’t wait to get away from. But as for the things I will really miss, I will really really REALLY miss them.
Honestly, that’s about all I can say for now. My next post will be typed outside of Bulgaria – it will be the bridge between this chapter of my life and the next one.
The past month has delivered our final events of the year with Caritas-Ruse. First, the thirty children in the Coming Together program (the afterschool tutoring and mentorship program for disadvantaged children) completed their school year successfully and were rewarded with a “graduation” party at Nedelya, a café known for its delectable cakes. Although I only worked a couple of times with these children throughout the year (Chris did several more projects with them), I was reminded about how privileged I was to work with such a remarkable organization. Many of these children were around 9 or 10 years old and illiterate, and yet they finished the year off with a bang, passing the mandatory national exams to proceed to the next grade level. Though I spent relatively little time with them this year and I still can’t speak enough Bulgarian to have a full-on conversation with them, they were eager to communicate and hang out.
The second event felt disturbingly final. It was Caritas-Ruse’s 20th year anniversary party. We had a big celebration in the park and the whole Caritas family was there – all the “clients”, i.e. those who are members of the various programs, representatives from Caritas’ western branches, the volunteers, and the core group of about 5 people we worked with directly to make things happen, plus dozens of other people affiliated with Caritas. It was a way to showcase all that the organization has done over the past twenty years, and express gratitude to those involved. Even though it was crazy hectic (I was in charge of organizing the volunteers who were doing various tasks all over the event), it was still moving.
The big event!
My wonderful students who came out to volunteer for the event.
I can’t believe how lucky we were to find Caritas, and how lucky we were that they decided to trust two unknown Americans who randomly dropped in one day. They were one of the few things (other than my students and Chris) that kept me sane this year. There were days when I felt deeply isolated and sad here. Sometimes it would be the result of a specific incident, and sometimes that steady torrent of discomfort that afflicts every expat everyday becomes too burdensome to suppress.
At this point, I usually crack.
Then, I would sometimes eat ice cream. Sometimes I would download sappy chick flicks. Usually I’d purge all my thoughts in Chris’ direction. And other times, I would go to Caritas. An hour talking with one of them would spin my mood 180 degrees, and I’d be back in the game. Why that is, I can’t really explain. Maybe it’s the internalization that this is the world they live in, and the only way to make a difference is to plow through the bad, grasping the good until it’s blue in the face. Optimism is their life-blood.
I can’t convey enough my gratitude.
Chris and I with (from the left) Martin, Yoana, and Annie.
All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.
When I think back to the beginning of my year in Bulgaria, I remember the presumed distance between me and June. Back in September, when June 2011 hadn’t happened too long before, when I had barely started school and hadn’t met any of the other Fulbright ETAs, when my anxiety loomed before me in anticipation of September 15, the first day of school, I couldn’t even fathom June. Since I had no idea what to expect, I had no idea who I would be then. I assumed I’d feel fulfilled, comfortable, and confident in all that I’d accomplished over the ten months. I’d move on to the next chapter assured of the mark I left here, another year abroad under my belt, another valuable addition to my resume.
In many ways though, this time does not feel final. That could be because I still have a month left and lots of loose ends to tie up. I’ve made friendships with people and students here that I will always maintain, so I’m not saying goodbye forever. Contrary to my expectations, it doesn’t feel like I’m on the verge of finishing a good book. That feeling should feel more finite than it does. Rather, it feels more like this experience has given me a gentle push in a new direction toward a life that I didn’t know would be mine. This whole time, a secret builder has been assembling a bridge for me to cross, as I leave this place behind - physically, never totally. And even after I scale the bridge, it will always be there, a reminder of the path I have carved. Inevitably, Bulgaria will forever be a part of me.
And I like to think that I will forever be a small part of Bulgaria.
I have been waiting and waiting for several years now to go to Bosnia. Ever since a teacher of mine in high school, Mr. Sethre, spoke to us about this small, unknown, misunderstood country, I have been fascinated. I didn’t realize that I wanted to make a career out of Eastern Europe until college, but my interest was piqued way back in Mr. Sethre’s European History course in 10th grade.
A fellow Fulbrighter, Amy, and I decided to take a very ambitious trip to Sarajevo the day after I returned to Bulgaria after my sister’s graduation in Rhode Island. It was Wednesday, and we had to be back by Sunday evening, traversing Serbia in the process and braving the Balkan buses.
We spent our first night in Belgrade, Serbia due to the unexpected bus time changes the morning we arrived at the station in Sofia. It was my second time, and her first. It was uneventful, since we were crunched for time and wanted to get to Sarajevo ASAP, but we did happen upon a parade of people that was being led by a diverse crew of orthodox priests, soldiers, and regular citizens. A super delicious falafel sandwich was another highlight.
A motley bunch.
After just one night, we boarded a bus to Sarajevo. This took a loooong time, which was strange to us, considering how close the two cities are on the map. We started off on a fairly modern-looking highway, but we soon downgraded to ditch-filled country roads that snaked back and forth in union with the mountain incline. The same was true once we crossed the border into Bosnia – what could have taken an hour in a straight-shot situation took about 5 hours.
However, it turned out that it was well worth the haul.
I was worried I’d be disappointed in Sarajevo, since I had such high expectations. But I discovered that my expectations were not concrete enough to merit disappointment – they were based on ideas I’d heard about, events I’d read about, other people’s positive reports about the place. It was fantastic to discover it on my own accord this time.
Despite the rain, I was enthralled with this city.
People hanging out outside Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque.
It was a wet, wet weekend. Still beautiful though, no?
The old indoor market that used to sell all kinds of produce and spices and today sells everything but that.
The Despic house - a museum showcasing the different styles of the Ottoman Period and the Austro-Hungarian period.
Ottoman style on the first floor…
…and Austro-Hungarian on the second.
The Latin Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia, were killed by Gavrilo Princip.
Bosnian men. Not unlike Bulgarian men.
Bosnian coffee! And rose lokum. All very Turkish, but don’t tell them that.
I do love a good bric-a-brac photo.
The National Library was destroyed in the siege of Sarajevo. Almost all of Sarajevo’s most important texts were burnt to ashes. It’s now the City Hall, and is being renovated with the help of the EU.
What all of Sarajevo would look like if it weren’t for reconstruction efforts since the war.
Remnants of war.
We walked up to one of the many hillside cemeteries where victims of the siege of Sarajevo are buried.
I realized for the first time how similar all the Balkan cultures are. Bosnians claim rakia as their own, while the Bulgarians scoffed at this idea when I returned and told them. The similarities were convenient though, as Amy and I had no trouble getting around - we spoke Bulgarian the whole time, and understood a lot of Bosnian.
The Eternal Flame, which commemorates WW2 victims. Also serves as a cozy stopover point when you are out walking at night in the freezing rain.
The hotel where all the foreign journalists covering the war stayed from 1992-1995.
5 whole minutes of sun!!
An old Austro-Hungarian building destroyed from the war, never cleaned up.
Old guy tending to his stuff.
The trip was far too short, although we were only 50% disappointed when we discovered that we received incorrect information about the bus that would take us back to Sofia. We ended up staying an extra day, although the journey home consisted of a 6 PM bus from Sarajevo, Bosnia, a border crossing at midnight, an arrival in Nis, Serbia at 4 AM, a bus to Sofia at 4:30 AM, and then a 5 and a half hour bus ride from Sofia to Ruse. The journey took almost 24 hours, but I can’t tell you how worth it it was. I could write paragraph after paragraph of thoughts, observations, questions, and details from the trip, but I fear this wouldn’t do it justice. But I will say that this has soothed a lot of my fears about Eastern Europe, and my involvement in it, in the future and for the next month and a half.
This trip helped me answer a lot of questions, but also posed twice as many more. This is all well and good, since Sarajevo would hardly have been intriguing if I had unraveled all her mysteries in 4 days. We’ll see where this takes me.
I must admit, I’m kind of freaking out. I’m currently packing (or avoiding doing so, considering I’m actually blogging) for a week-long trip back to the US to see my younger sister graduate from college. My whole family will be there for the celebration, so it’s an opportunity to see everyone without flying to 4 different states to do so.
So, why am I freaking out though? I’m not really sure, to tell the truth. It’s my home, right? It should feel comfortable, not strange. I’ll be seeing my family and, while they most definitely ARE strange (just kidding! Kind of.), I really can’t wait to see them.
I suppose that after two years of creating two separate lives in two places other than the US, I feel less and less like I have roots anywhere. Not that Bulgaria is 100% comfortable – I can still barely speak the language, and the cynicism continues to bother me daily. I was even fed up with China by the time we left.
Not to mention, things are amazing in Bulgaria right now. First of all, I experienced my first true spring. It is most unfortunate that it was followed by my first true winter, but I suppose there’s a reason for the cheesy sayings about the good only being good when it’s followed by the bad.
Second of all, to quote yet another cheesy saying, you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I’m starting to realize what is special about this place. I’ve realized recently how much I’ll miss my students, my alternatingly busy and easygoing lifestyle, and my European adventures. I feel as though I need to seize every moment before I leave at the end of June.
Still though, family time will be good time. And I’m going to eat a lot of Mexican food.
The self-explorer, whether he wants to or not, becomes the explorer of everything else. He learns to see himself, but suddenly, provided he was honest, all the rest appears, and it is as rich as he was, and, as a final crowning, richer.
This past weekend, Chris and I went with a group of friends to Buzludzha, a peak that rises up in the middle of the Stara Planina. At the top is a tremendous, decrepit
flying saucer monument built by the former Communists in Bulgaria. Today, the whole thing is falling apart, smells like mold, and risks final collapse - which makes it all the more riveting.
The first day, Chris, two other Fulbrighters (Cascade and Michael), a Peace Corps volunteer (Brett) and I arrived at a chalet that we hoped was near the monument. We were veering from Lonely Planet’s reliable trail, and most of the information we found on the internet was in Bulgarian. Chris spoke to the woman in charge by typing words into Google Translate and reading them out loud.
The crew enjoying the sunshine.
After relaxing a bit, we walked up the hill in the general direction of the monument.
Spring was only beginning to show its colors up here.
Some info about the monument: in 1868 it was the sight of a battle between Bulgarian rebels and their Turkish occupiers. In 1891, several Bulgarian socialists met together in this area to form an organized socialist movement. Both of these events culminated in the establishment of this memorial, which was later opened in 1981.
But long gone are the glory days of Communism in Bulgaria, and thus the building has been forgotten in time. In fact, many Bulgarians scoffed in disbelief when we told them we were on our way to see the monster.
Graffiti on the front of the building.
Old socialist sayings, with some letters holding on for dear life.
We were momentarily disappointed when we saw that the front doors were closed. We searched the periphery of the building for a secret entrance, but retreated back to our starting point when we realized there were none to be found.
You can imagine our shock, though, when Chris simply pushed on the front door and it swung open! We were the only ones there, and the Bulgarians at the chalet warned us against going inside, but our curiosity overwhelmed our fear of being caved in (granted, it took me a bit longer than the others to warm up to the idea of entering a condemned building). The first floor was absolutely terrifying. It was completely dark, and smelled of black mold. But there were stairs off to the side, which we eventually ascended.
Here is what the inside looked like several decades ago:
Here is what we saw:
Many of the mosaics were still in tact, though a lot of them had been picked apart by people with sticky fingers, or had simply fallen to the ground.
Completely falling apart.
After playing around in the monument, we sat at the top of the hill.
The next day, Delvina, Melissa, and Alex joined us for a picnic and another trip up to the monument.
"Hope 2012" - our contribution to Obama’s campaign
Another statue close to the monument. Ataka is the right-wing nationalist party in Bulgaria. Not good.
And that night after dinner, Cascade lit a fire outside the chalet.
I’m usually tempted to travel outside Bulgaria when I have a long weekend, but this weekend was perfect to see some more of Bulgaria and spend time with friends before I leave in a couple of months. The more I see (and the farther away from last winter we get), the more I realize how much I will miss this place when I’m gone.