As we Peace Corps trainees begin our education, 12th graders all over Bulgaria are completing theirs. The graduates of Iskar celebrated on Saturday night. I remember reading somewhere about a small-town American high school prom, where each couple made a red-carpet entrance, flanked by parents and relatives taking pictures. It was designed to make the teenagers feel like celebrities. If Iskar is typical, a similar ritual happens all over Bulgaria every year.
A few hundred people assembled in front of the entrance of the school. In a town where many houses are abandoned, and where what seems like almost everyone goes abroad or has a family member abroad looking for work, being in a crowd of that size felt festive and important. The cluster of couples assembled on the front steps. Many of the boys wore dress shirts to coordinate with their dates’ gowns. The entire school, from 1st through 12th grade, has fewer than four hundred students, so I would guess there can’t be more than two dozen graduates. Some brought dates from lower grades. Our host families testified to at least one known pregnancy among the graduates.
The cars that dropped off the couples were Toyotas, Audis, Mercedes, many decorated with balloons, and they rolled through the crowd slowly, part of the show. If you google image search Bulgaria, you will probably find a photo of a leathery old man driving a donkey cart next to a stone-face Mafioso in a shiny black Audi. It’s the cliché image of the country, rolling towards modernity at 80mph and 3mph all at the same time. On Saturday night, none of the couples rode donkey carts to the ball. If their parents didn’t have a car, or didn’t have an adequate car, they found friends or relatives to drive them.
There are five of us Peace Corps trainees in Iskar, and all but one came to the ball with their host families. We huddled together in the crowd gossiping about our host families and their foreign antics. Behind us, the host families most likely had a similar conversation about us. The host families were all acquaintances and relatives before we arrived, while we Americans only met each other a week ago. For us, this was a chance to speak English and participate in a “Bulgarian cultural event,” while all around us strangers watched their daughters, sons, cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters on one of the proudest days of their lives.