We ended up catching the bus.

Q. How many Peace Corps volunteers does it take to change a light bulb? A. None. Peace Corps volunteers don’t change anything.

Flimsy cabinets are padlocked shut. There’s a sad little three-bladed fan and a rusty hot plate. An empty egg flat and a jar of lyutenitsa, unopened, among jars of plum compote, opened. Julie’s dozing in a furry red chair. The sky is growing pale behind the whorehouse wallpaper curtains.
I spent my 26th and 27th years teaching English to Bulgarian teenagers. Their English mostly did not improve. My Bulgarian mostly did. I ate lots of beans and drank some beer and tried to stay warm. I helped my ex-boyfriend fail to start a business. I turned down invitations and accepted invitations and walked home late at night. I slept on trains and hard bus station seats and four-poster beds and shared single beds and woke up alone. I scratched my mosquito bites until they bled and asked the people next to me to watch my stuff while I swam in the sea. I shadowboxed fourth-graders and accepted fruit from strangers.
The 5:22 train is delayed by at least 100 minutes. The station chovek comes out rubbing his belly and laughing at us with all our baggage at 5am, hurrying in the dark to catch a train that isn’t coming for another two hours. There aren’t enough locomotives because the State hasn’t bought new ones for forty years, he says, laughing. This is his job.
Stop, sit down, let your best-laid plans fall away. Maybe you’ll get there in time for the bus. Maybe you won’t. Maybe you know someone who knows someone who’s going in the same direction. Maybe not, maybe not. Maybe you won’t get to where you’re going and you’ll still have a good time.
For a minute you feel readier to be gone than you’ve ever felt in your life. Then the laughing man invites you in where it’s warm. Julie falls asleep and the tiny radio hums a faraway Rhodopean wail. The fog rises in the valley and you wouldn’t change a thing about this dingy bleary-eyed moment. Not one thing.

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I am busy.

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The Moon Landing


There are fifteen minutes or so between when the bus gets to the village and my English lesson starts. I use this time to say hi to the pensioners Nacho and Elka, and round up kids and badger them into attending. Today’s fifteen minutes would have to be utilized especially effectively. English classes were moving from the school to the community center. Several students had a firm, inexplicable allegiance to the school, and refused to enter the community center.
“Miss, when are we having class?”
I step off the bus and this is the first question I always hear. I guess our English classes have been rather sporadic lately.
“Now!” is always my answer. Even if the real answer is, “in twenty minutes,” because I figure it’ll take everyone twenty minutes to get their act together anyway. Not Pamela, though. Pamela offers to walk me to Nacho and Elka’s place and wait while I talk to them. She’s holding a bouquet of pale purple and cream lilacs, pink and yellow tulips, and flopping white irises.

Pamela is fifteen and finishing eighth grade. Pamela knits long, fat, brioche stitch scarves and picks flowers often enough that when she sees me, she gives me the bouquet and says she picked it especially for me. In fact, she probably just picked it, saw me, and figured she’d pick more for herself later.
“Thank you so much Pamela! I love lilacs, they smell so good.”
“I do, too,” she replies, “I love the white ones because they smell better. You should smell the irises, too. They have a really nice scent!” The fragrance of lilacs overpowers the bouquet from a foot away, but I lean in and discover the irises have a light, sugary scent. My grandma used to have dark irises around her ‘water feature,’ a little barrel that dribbled into a rocky puddle installed by my dad. Still, I’ve never actually smelled one before.
“Miss, did you hear about the mayor?” I did hear about the mayor. A month ago, he got sick with “the yellows,” liver failure associated with Hepatitis A, and last week, he died.
“It’s sad because he was a good person and I don’t know if we’re going to find another mayor like him.”
Pamela yells, “UNCLE NACHO!” as we approach his house/storefront. At Nacho’s, he tells me dirty jokes while his wife chases a fly around the room. “I’m sorry,” she explains, “but when a fly comes into the room I won’t rest until it’s dead. I go all around the house, sometimes, with the vacuum cleaner tube.” We’re talking about our lives, and the common theme of the conversation is that it’s really hard to make things happen in Bulgaria.
“Let me tell you a joke,” says Nacho, “Now tell me, what year did your country walk on the moon?”
“1969,” It takes me about thirty seconds to say this, and any year, in Bulgarian.
“Well, they asked Neil Armstrong, ‘is your nation the first to make it to the moon?’ and he said, ‘Not exactly. One day many many years ago a great ship landed on the moon. They stayed there for ten days and then left, because they were too scared to open the door. And that ship was from Bulgaria.'” The joke is that Bulgarians are paralyzingly risk-averse, and prone to starting projects they don’t finish.
Later, when Nacho walked me to his friend Zaketo’s place, he stopped to chat with a construction crew. In a village that now holds one thousand of the five thousand people who used to live there, a new house was being built, stickers on the windows.
“Who’s house is that?”
“That house was bought by a Russian. The Russian wants a sauna and a shower, and they started building it, but they don’t know where the water will drain,” Nacho explained as he tested a patch of wet cement with his foot.
“Russian work,” I replied, referring to someone buying cheap property in a destitute little village in a satellite republic with a milder clime, and building a lavish house with a sauna on it.
“No,” Nacho stopped in his tracks, “Bulgarian work.” Bulgarian work is the sauna that doesn’t drain, the crowded van to the village that’s replacing the big bus that broke down, the handle of my washing machine that’s made out of a coat hanger, the mayor dead at 54 of a preventable disease.
Pamela waits on the bench outside the pensioner’s little store, and then we walk together to the community center. Uncle Nacho reprimands her for calling me “Gospozha,” which is how married women are supposed to be addressed. All my students call me “Gospozha.” I let it slide because I realize that I seem ancient to them, and I’d prefer they think of me as someone old and crusty. It’s not exactly respect, but it’s getting there.
“This young lady is not married yet, Pamela! You will address her as ‘Gospozhitsa!'” She apologizes to me and I tell her it’s okay, I know the word “Gospozhitsa” is really long.
“That’s not why, Gospozhitsa,” She says, “Kids only call you ‘Gospozha’ because all of our teachers are married. My cousin, she’s married. She got married when she was thirteen and now she’s sixteen and has two children.” She says, to support her point.
“That’s crazy!”
“Crazy, and not normal. Well, normal, but not right.”
“You’re not going to get married soon, are you, Pamela?” I ask, half-joking.
“No way! I’m not getting married for a long time.”
A car slows next to us. A neck-less man with sunglasses perched high on his bald head asks Pamela where Gabriela is. He doesn’t greet her, or me, but his tone is pleading and jovial.
“I don’t know,” She says, “over there somewhere.” After he drives away, she says, “That’s Gabriela’s father.”
“Really?”
“Yes.”
“But, isn’t Gabriela your sister?”

One time a few days before Christmas I shared a dark, frozen bathroom with several older ladies and Pamela. Pamela went first and ran back to the Christmas banquet to keep dancing her famous, inimitable kyuchek. The woman in the stall next to me whispered as we squatted,
“That girl is so good. Her whole family is good, and big. Five children. And their father lives in another village and has nothing to do with them. He has another family and takes care of them instead.” The woman named off all five children, and I recognized all the common features of five of my students. The tiny, muscular woman lacquering a floor in the mayoralty, who begged me to let her youngest grandson, Mario, into my class even though he was at least a grade below everyone, was also the grandmother of Pamela, Gabriela, Mariyan, and Denis. According to my bathroom buddy, she looked after all the kids while their mom worked. The grandmother was a very strong and hardworking individual, she said, which I already knew after witnessing her tolerance for heat and toxic lacquer fumes.
“Yes, the Gabriela that’s my sister, she is,” Pamela finally answered with no commitment.
“So, isn’t that guy your father, too?”
“Well, not anymore. I told him I’m no longer his daughter, that we don’t know each other and we have nothing to do with each other. He’s started to come around regularly, Gabriela still talks to him, that’s okay I guess.”
“Is it uncomfortable for you that he comes here more often?”
“It doesn’t affect me. He’s not my father, I told you. He lives elsewhere, he looks after kids that aren’t his.”
By now we were in front of the community center. It was a warm, sunny, breezy day, but the girls balked at my idea to hold class on the shady benches in the center. They, rightly, argued that public outdoor English lessons would attract all sorts of the wrong people. Several other semi-regular English students scampered around the town center. They didn’t want to have class in the community center, but they all heard I was in town and wanted to see me and talk to me, possibly to persuade me to hold class in the school, or to be persuaded to come to class in the community center. I couldn’t spend much time talking to them because my core group was begging me to “Come and start class already! Моля ви!” so I told them they were welcome any time, climbed up the stairs with Pamela, Georgana, Marchella, Diyana, Deeyana, and Temenushka, and left the undecided kids inside the spaceship, looking out at the moon.

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Winter in photos

A little of this:

Some of this:


And a lot of this:



But most important is this:

Click on the logo to learn more about the project Cam and I are doing with the crafters in his lovely village.

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Нещо от зимата

It’s winter in Bulgaria. The stray dogs who make it have to be hearty.

Stay tuned, for an essay about Camcheto and my new project:

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Happy International Volunteer Day! This is why we do what we do.
Kindergarten Graduation

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Its Own Cure

Today I taught in Ж_________ for two hours after school. No one threw fireworks at us and even the most vicious or painfully shy kids repeated “A is for apple.” I teach two groups, one right after another, the exact same lesson. There are four girls who study in the first group, and then stay and repeat the lesson verbatim in the second group. They don’t get bored. One of them, Iliana, told me her dream is to study at a language school and travel the world, to meet “many different people.” It sounds played-out to Americans, but Iliana lives among many people who have never been west of Shumen, and studies with children who think that England is one of the United States, and that it’s possible to travel from Bulgaria to Miami on a train. 
 
Here’s a poem by Marge Piercy. “Inspirational poem” sounds like something that would be published under a title that begins with Chicken Soup for the... “Motivational poem?” Now I’m thinking of something printed under a photograph of an eagle framed in the waiting area outside the dentist’s office. I guess I’ll go with “Light a Fire Under Your Ass poem.” Piercy’s examples all use writers (that knitting gets the brush-off makes me smirk), but she offers sound advice for anyone with a dream, whether it’s to start a business or a family, or to reform a diseased education system. Truly living your dream doesn’t mean talking about living your dream, getting paid for living your dream, or being remembered for living your dream. It’s the act of working your hardest at what you love the most.
 

For the young who want to

Talent is what they say 
you have after the novel 
is published and favorably 
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really 
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Copyright 1980, Middlemarsh, Inc.
from THE MOON IS ALWAYS FEMALE 
Alfred A. Knopf, New York

 

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