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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.”
“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.
Alfred A. Knopf, New York



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Scarf Notes

“Are you making another scarf?” Aunt Toni asked. She’s the server at The Cafe on the Corner. I was recently promoted from Preferred Customer to Customer Who Sits at Auntie Toni’s Table. My friendship with Toni was sealed when I introduced her to my Nana and my Actual Aunt Judith. Toni is a grandmother herself, raising her grandsons while their parents work abroad. She felt as much as anyone the importance of their visit, and the honor of meeting my Baba. Toni was already dear to me for her butch demeanor, delicious cafe, and for finding my phone one time. Apparently, it fell out of my bag while I was eating. She picked it up, called my school, who called my friend Nataliya, who called my next-door neighbor, Dolya, who rang my buzzer holding her cordless telephone.
“You have a phone call!” Dolya said when I answered the door.

Nana and Toni

Usually I miss the lunch rush, so Toni gets me a chicken leg and some cabbage and sits with me to watch The Slavi Show while I knit scarves and eat. Christmas is coming. Scarves don’t take much yarn, it’s easy to make them varied and attractive, and they’ll fit anyone.
“Oooh!” Toni leaned in, “What about the scarf you made for your friend?” The word “friend” is gendered, and with an ever-so-slight fluttering of eyelids can be used for “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”
“I finished it! I think he likes it a lot. And look, he gave me a scarf too,” I passed her the scarf hanging on my chair. Toni gave all the appropriate exclamations while examining it carefully, praising its color and softness, and speculating as to its warmth (“много„).
Camcheto bought me a red and purple scarf in Athens with tiny threads of rainbow tinsel. It couldn’t have come at a better time since I lost a similar scarf about a month ago. Okay, not really similar; it’s cotton and rayon instead of silk and cashmere, and pale blue with butterflies. And I was hardly destitute without it, since my scarf collection still hovered in the high teens, but the blue scarf was one of my favorites. I hoped the new one, being of a similar size and texture, would fill the void it left behind when it blew off my laundry line, or thoughtlessly decided to stay on a train after I got off.

Second from left: Lost blue scarf. Second from right: New purple scarf. Not pictured: At least four other scarves languishing in my apartment.

It did fill the void, and so thoroughly that when a strange woman stopped me on the street to ask me if I’d lost a blue scarf I almost said ‘no.’ Then I remembered the shiny aqua butterflies that look so good with a tan.
“Yes! Where did you find it?”
“In my store. In the center.”
“Мале…I’m so sorry! What a fool I am for leaving my things everywhere. Where is it now?”
“Nothing бе! It’s still in my store. It will wait for you there.”
“Thank you so much!”
But the blue scarf did not wait for me there. A few hours ago the buzzer rang, and at the door was another strange woman.
“Excuse me, miss, but didn’t you leave a scarf at my friend’s store?” In her hand, the blue scarf had been neatly folded and slid into a plastic bag. She and I both live and work in the same two buildings, it turns out. How she and her friend determined their mutual connection to the mysterious scarf-dropper I can easily guess. П________ has a population of over 12,000 people, of whom exactly 1 is American and leaves her shit everywhere.
This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that scarf-aquisition is not a zero sum game, and blue butterflies can hang next to purple flowers (okay, not “next to,” since my scarves are organized by color). I’m thankful for the delicate web of gossip and goodwill that delivers people and goods to their destinations every day in this great big village. Looks like I have two more scarves to knit.


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Lip Service

On Wednesdays, I have the privilege of teaching 11A for both 4th and 6th period. For the second year now they are promising to be my best class: cooperative, interested in English, and close to each other. Even with the obstacles of drop-outs and unreliable buses from the villages, they are much further ahead of my 11Б class, which has been scheduled for 7th period almost every day of the week, meaning half the class can’t attend and the other half can’t be bothered. 11A also happens to be entirely comprised of self-identified ethnic Bulgarians and Romi, in fact Romi who call themselves “Romi” and not gypsies.

I had a straightforward review lesson planned for 4th period. The kids would help me make a list of verbs that were irregular in the past simple tense (there are lots of them), and then do exercises to help themselves memorize all those irregular participles. However, it hardly seemed like the time for boring English lessons. The Friday before in the village of Katunitza, a young ethnic Bulgarian had been killed by a van, driven by a Roma man rumored to have associations with a notorious mafia boss, Tzar Kiro, who was also Roma. The event sparked a massive backlash against Romi by angry Bulgarians all over the country, particularly around Plovdiv, where Katunitza is located, and in other major city areas. Over two hundred people had been arrested, Tzar Kiro was in hiding, and his house had been burned to the ground. Other volunteers told me stories of ethnic Bulgarians and Turks railing against the Romi, and Bulgarians and Romi screaming at each other in the streets to “get out.”

On the surface, my lovely town of П–––––– shows no such tension. But over the last year I’ve had enough conversations to know that everyone in Bulgaria harbors certain ethnic assumptions and suspicions. I can’t be sure how many of my students are Romi, but many people say over half of them are. Since most statistics claim that less than half– maybe much less– of Romi in Bulgaria finish 12th grade, I can only assume that my Romi students are exceptional. Conversely, my Bulgarian and Turkish students are exceptional in their willingness to study alongside Romi, when across the country I’ve heard reports of Romi ostracised or persecuted in schools and workplaces that are mostly ethnic Bulgarian. My students are a fascinating mix, and generally kind and respectful to boot; a perfect test tube for discussion. I throw in a couple questions and see what bubbles up, and this year my Bulgarian is finally at a level where I can appreciate most of what they have to say. It’s hard to focus on teaching them English when I have so much to learn from them.

So I took a detour last Wednesday morning, writing a list of English words on the board and asking the students to read them as I wrote: riot, corruption, bribery, to bribe, to accept a bribe, violence, protests, racism, until Stefan said,
“You watched the news last night, didn’t you, Miss?” Laughter filled the room and I smiled, too. My biggest fear was a tense, quiet room where the kids were too afraid of each other’s differences and my judgement to speak up. Already it looked like my worries were for naught.

“What’s happening in Bulgaria right now? What happened in Katunitza?” I asked as if I didn’t know.
“There’s going to be a civil war!” said Vasilena.
“There already is a civil war!” said Julien. Several students gave a little nod and kissed their teeth in skepticism. Julien is growing up to be just like his father, who teaches geography: a wiry, fast-talking man.
“There won’t be a war,” insisted Stefan and most of the students agreed with him. I was also incredulous about the war prediction.
“Julien, is there a war here? It seems pretty peaceful to me.”
“It’s different, here, miss, because we don’t have a Roma mafia. Here the gypsies are fine, just like everyone else.” More than a few times I’ve heard Bulgarians and Turks complain that there are “too many gypsies” in П–––––––, and warn me against crossing the train tracks.
“Is there mafia here? Is there corruption?” I asked.
“Those are everywhere!” everyone responded.
“So we do have them? Who are the corrupt people here?” People got cagey.
“Umn, here it’s just more mixed. Everyone kind of does everything. And there are Turks, too.”
“How do the mafia get rich? Why don’t the police arrest them?”
“The mafia pays their salary, Miss!” said Veronika, and a couple other students mimicked her as she rubbed her thumb and forefingers together.
“So, in Katunitza, the mafia is Roma. But who are the police?”
“They’re Bulgarian!” Veronika answered.
“But, now the protesters are also Bulgarian. They’re saying the Romi cause crime and have special rights. Do you think they have special rights?”
Stefan rolled his eyes and was silent. Stefan is wise to all my feigned innocence about this topic, and generally hangs back in these conversations. Sanya just laughed, “No, Miss! Only the rich have special rights!”
“The police take bribes because the pay here is nothing.” said Veronika.
“So, should they get paid more?” I asked.
“NO!” The room erupted in laughter.
“If they do their job, let’s pay them well,” said Plamena. A few people ceded begrudging head bobs, and Sanya finished the sentence, “but first the corruption must be cleaned up.” Sanya is plump and cheerful, and Plamena is blonde and dry-humored. They are inseparable. They hold hands, apply each other’s mascara, and finish each other’s sentences. They are virtually impossible to stop from cheating on tests. I don’t think they conceptualize sharing answers with one another as cheating, since, much like we let our cell phones remember phone numbers for us, I think Plamena and Sanya assume that they will always be together, and that any piece of knowledge in one girl’s head is always accessible to the other, and therefore fair game on a test.

“Who is responsible for the corruption, then? The Romi mafia or the Bulgarian police?” I asked.
“Everyone is responsible, Miss,” said Vasilena, “No one trusts the police, no one respects them. They take bribes from anyone, either Bulgarian, Turkish or Romi.”
“So why are Bulgarians protesting against Romi? All over, not just in Katunitza?” I asked. Again Julien piped up,
“There in Katunitza this Tzar Kiro rules everything. He runs the town, the police do what he says. He doesn’t do what they say. And he says he’s not only the boss of Katunitza but the boss of the Romi. He wants Romi in government so they will do what he wants, all over Bulgaria.”
“The boss of the Romi, нали?” Again I feigned innocence. Sweet, nervous little Stella had run off to the bathroom. Several students were absent, most of whom lived in villages nearby, and Stefan never calls himself Roma although his father is. So I knew the answer to this question before I asked,
“Who in this room is Roma?” Sanya grinned and raised her hand. Throughout this conversation, and all of our conversations about this topic, I wonder how much of the restraint, and respect, that the Bulgarian students show for Romi has to do with Sanya. She is a proud, confident girl, and liked by everyone. Sanya is at once more integrated with Bulgarians and Turks, and more outspoken about her Roma identity, than almost anyone I’ve met. Without her in the room, this could have been a very different conversation.
“And Sanya,” I asked with a smirk, “Is Tzar Kiro your boss?” The whole room giggled and Sanya laughed and shook her finger at me.
“Miss, you know most of us want to live like everyone else! Just to go to work, have a little extra for our families and live a normal life. Corruption, mafia, we don’t have any business with these things.”
“The problem, Miss Dunn,” said Stanislava, “is Bulgarians want to blame all the Romi for the actions of only a few. We can’t say they are all mafia because of Tzar Kiro, just like they can’t say we are all like the football fans at the protest who hate them.”
“Why are the police accepting bribes from Tzar Kiro if Bulgarians feel this racism against Romi? If the police are Bulgarian, why would they help this Roma boss?” I asked.
“The police aren’t racist,” said Sanya, “Money makes them blind.” Heads shook in agreement.

The news last week was dire. Even more disheartening were the reports that many of the protesters were minors, some younger than my 11th grade students. It seemed festering fears and resentments were bursting all over the country. Prime Minister Borisov was saying all the right things, that this was a criminal matter and shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of ethnicity, and indeed, it looked like my students knew how to say all the right things as well. In the States we sometimes call that ‘lip service.’ Americans are aware that they’ll be stigmatized for overt racism, so they become fluent in codified insinuations, and on the surface, everyone tows a hollow line of tolerance and equality. Most people here still don’t feel obligated to tow that line, however, and Bulgaria, like the rest of the Balkan states, has recent and ugly examples of state-sanctioned racism in her history. As my students tumbled out of the room in high spirits, I had to believe it was more than lip service. Saying all the right things can be the difference between peace and violence.

Yeah, I've used this picture before. So sue me.


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Първи Час

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.

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