Nenko was the last one to slip into class before I locked the door. This year, I explained, I’m resorting to a sort of nuclear option to fighting tardiness. When class starts, I lock the door, and anyone on the wrong side of it stays there.
The majority of 11Б identify as Turkish. They live on the other side of the train tracks, or in villages nearby. A clutch of lovely girls have about twelve feet of ropey black hair between the five of them, and huddle in a corner whispering until someone reprimands them for speaking Turkish during school. But this morning, none of those girls were present, and the only five students in class were Hristian, Kristina, Anelia, Stanislav, and Nenko. This year would be very different, I told them in English. The Three Be’s (Be On Time, Be Prepared, and Be Respectful), would be strictly enforced, with a specially added clause prohibiting the use of cell phones in class.
In Bulgarian I added, “Tell your mothers, your friends, your lovers, and your babas that you’re studying English at this time and you can’t answer the phone.”
“Not my girlfriend, Госпожа, she can’t go that long without calling me,” answered Nenko, his hand raised as a wink to the third “Be.”
The five students in front of me are all cooperative or good at English. Hristian and Nenko are the latter, Anelia the former, and Stanislav and Kristina are both. Since last spring, the stair-stacks at Nenko’s temples have been extended into three stripes that hug his entire hairline like goggle straps. He’s thinner but no taller than he was last year, and his face has somehow grown into his puggish dark eyes, one of which wanders a little to the side. Stanislav and Hristian are both still waiting for their growth spurts, Kristina’s skin has cleared, and Anelia has mercifully ditched her hair extensions.
“Госпожа, what languages do you speak?” Nenko asked in Bulgarian. He was employing a familiar technique to distract me from my lesson. This time I went with it, but in English.
“I speak English very well, Bulgarian so-so, and Russian and Spanish just a little bit. What languages do you speak?” Nenko speaks Bulgarian, Turkish, and a little English. The other students all answered that they speak Bulgarian and a little English.
“So, Nenko, you speak Turkish at home with your family?”
“No,” he laughed like that was a silly question, and answered in Bulgarian, “I speak gypsy at home because we’re gypsies.”
“Really?” Romski hadn’t been included in his list of languages, “Teach me something in Romski. Like, hello. How do you say ‘hello?'”
“Ами, we don’t say ‘hello.’ We say ‘So keres.’ It means, ‘What are you doing?'”
“So keres,” Stanislav repeated under his breath.
I shared the few words of Turkish I knew: “Do you speak English?” and “Do you speak Bulgarian?”
“One year in Bulgaria and she speaks more Turkish than we do!” Kristina said to Hristian in Bulgarian. I told them I needed to learn a few words of Turkish before going to Turkey with my boyfriend in October.
“You know, it’s different in Turkey than here, Госпожа,” Nenko said, “The Turks here aren’t really Turkish. Okay, some are Turkish, but most of them are gypsies like me.”
“Is it true that some Romi won’t admit that they’re Romi, and instead say that they’re Turkish?” I asked in Bulgarian. Nenko said yes and the others shook their heads in agreement.
“Ами…it’s a little better to be Turkish than to be a gypsy, or that’s what people think. Gypsies want to be Turkish so people will treat them better.”
“But, Nenko, you don’t have any problem saying you’re Roma. Why is that?”
“I am, I’ll tell anyone. We’re all people, why should I say I’m Turkish if I’m a gypsy? Or Roma, whatever you want to call it. For me, I say ‘gypsy,’ not ‘Roma.'”
“You prefer the word ‘gypsy?'”
“It’s just that ‘Roma’ is a more European word. Here in Bulgaria it’s more common to say ‘gypsy.’ We are gypsies.”
I wrote this entry two weeks ago about the first day of school. I didn’t know that, due to current events, my own boldness, and my students’ thoughtfulness, this would be only the beginning of our discussion about ethnicity in Bulgaria. Stay tuned this week for a discussion of the recent clashes between Romi and ethnic Bulgarians, from the point of view of the students of Tzar Simeon Vocational School.