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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Interpreting for Amateurs

Dr Radi is a short man of fifty-four with an excellent patio. We met at the mayor’s name day party, and since I run by his house regularly, I was obliged to share a few meals of homemade wine and cured meat with him and his various relatives. Like most of the houses on the east ridge, this one has a beautiful view, obscured in the summer by a camouflage net to keep out the afternoon sun. Dr Radi sits at the head of the narrow table, facing the view, always within reaching distance of the kitschy little tap barrel full of wine. Yesterday he gave me a call.
“Are you free tomorrow at nine?”
“Nine in the morning? Yes, кажи бе.”
“Uhh, we need some interpreting from you.”
“Who does? Why?”
“Some English and Bulgarian language.” No shit, I’m thinking. I suspected Dr Radi wasn’t purposefully being cagey about the interpreting job; he probably just didn’t know any details himself.
I asked him the same questions when I met him in front of the municipality building at 8:55. He tried to take my hand as we went up the stairs and I pulled mine away.
“Well, how are you Eli? When are you going to come over again?”
“Who am I interpreting for?”
“The mayor. And someone who speaks English.”
“What are we going to talk about?”
“Ами…” We reached the top of the stairs and Radi was saved from my questions by Darina, his lovely and industrious niece. Darina works there as an assistant. Five times a week she wakes up at six to run to the site of the old Ottoman fortress at the top of the east ridge. Sometimes I go running early enough to be passed by her on her way up.
“Eli! Did you run this morning?” she asked. I was so pleased to be able to say that I did that my annoyance with the mystery interpreting assignment disappeared. Darina led me into the mayor’s office, where I shook hands with him and a tall Danish man in a plaid shirt.
“What can I treat you with?” asked the mayor. He’s tall, robust, and authoritative. He smoothed his yellow tie as he sat back down.
“Umn, coffee, if it’s easy for you, Darina,”
“We can get you some whiskey if you want it,” offered the mayor, and the Dane chuckled, understanding only the word “whiskey.”
“No no, just coffee please!” I called to Darina. Then a few awkward seconds went by as Darina made my coffee and the two men and I smiled at each other, before I said, “Okay, uhh, кажете,”
“This is Piere. He is a farmer in one of the villages, he says something about corn,” said the mayor.
“I grow corn and the gypsies are stealing it. All they do is steal.” said Piere.
I read somewhere that a professional interpreter is supposed to interpret exactly what they hear, without changing any words or participating in the conversation herself. But guess what, I’m just a volunteer so I do what I want.
“I have many Romi students and they do not steal.” Then I turned to the mayor and repeated Piere’s words and mine in Bulgarian.
“Why do they steal? Because they don’t have education,” the mayor answered, “That’s why I’m working to help them stay in school.” I was surprised and kind of pleased with that answer, but as I translated it I had a feeling it wouldn’t satisfy Piere.
“Listen,” he said, “When the carbines go through and harvest the corn, some of it falls on the ground. We can’t use this corn, so we told the people they can come to take it if they want. Still, it’s not enough. They are stealing it while it’s still on the stalk. They boil it and sell it at the seaside for one lev.”
I thought of the barefoot men in shorts stepping over me and my friends while we lay sunbathing in Varna. They’re usually wiry and deeply tanned, and all somehow yell in the same nasal cadence,
The corn salesmen weren’t pushy like the men selling shell necklaces, and many bathers were eager to see them walk by, and to buy an ear of corn. When they passed, I wondered how many of my students would work as beach peddlers.
Piere went on, “Since 2007, these gypsies are going everywhere in Europe. Before in Denmark we had no problems. Now we have problems. They come from Romania and Bulgaria and they can go anywhere they want.”
“There was a professor from our town,” the mayor replied, “she went to work in Denmark, actually. Because of her– only one person– one hundred people in Denmark have a good opinion of Bulgarians. Now, because of maybe one hundred bad gypsies, ten thousand people can have a bad opinion of gypsies.”
I translated. As the only American in town, I am somewhat familiar with this phenomenon.
“What do you suggest?” I asked the mayor.
“You know, you are an educator, that we have many schools with Romi students. The key to integration is education. We have the vocational high school for agriculture. Here agriculture is a big industry, not only people growing their own gardens but big farms, like his. Many large farms call the director of this agricultural school, and he recommends the best graduates for jobs. These students are Romi, they live in these same villages. Many of these people want to work, they don’t want to steal. If more of them have jobs, there won’t be so much stealing.”
I turned to Piere and tried to translate it all. I personally liked the mayor’s approach, but I wasn’t sure how Piere would feel about the suggestion that the way to stop thieves, essentially, is to hire them.
“Perhaps,” said Piere, “but it is not only the Roma mentality that must change. The Bulgarian mentality must also change.”
I swallowed hard and repeated that back to the mayor.
“I knew a Roma man,” said Piere, “two years ago. I was ready to hire him. I have no problems with anyone. This man was qualified. But my workers would not work with him. It’s hard to find good people, qualified people. What can I do? Can I hire one person and then seven people leave?”
The mayor sat up straight and smirked, “You are the boss. You tell them who they work with. They don’t tell you.”
“What do you do about this problem?” I asked the mayor myself.
“Listen, I am the first mayor of our town to employ four Turks, and three Romi here. One of my deputy mayors is a Turk. She helps very much because the Turkish people in the municipality trust her and we can work with them better. I hope someday to have a deputy mayor who is Roma. People are changing, Bulgaria is changing. It is a slow and hard process.”
I thought of my students, a mix of Romi, Turkish and Bulgarian, and felt grateful that I had no advice to share on this subject. Rowdy and irresponsible as they are, I’ve never seen them ostracize or insult each other because of ethnicity. Those unruly teenagers are doing just as much to change Bulgaria, and Europe, as the mayor’s staff. I translated, and then talked about my students, and then I really went off-script.
“He’s right. It will change. I know it. People ask me all the time, what are you doing here? What can you do in two years?”
“You’re here for two years?” asked Piere, “Where are you from?”
“Umn, I’m American. Surely, in two years I won’t see much. But, I know I’m a part of it and it will happen.”
The mayor followed enough to interject, “You help them to learn some English, they can get better jobs.”
“Not only that, but my students, especially the girls, see me and how I live, that I’m not married and I don’t have children, and I’ve traveled all over the world. I’m free. Maybe one or two of them will see that and think she can live how she chooses. I hope, anyway,” The words felt silly and grandiose as they came out of my mouth, and at the same time I wanted to believe them, and I did.
My coffee cup was empty. The mayor refilled our water glasses.
“I’ll give him the contact for the director of this school. Here we support the large farms, we want them to expand.”
“All you have to do is take the guy’s phone number,” I said to Piere, “you don’t have to make a decision today. And he says he supports your farm, he wants to help large farms expand. When people like you come to Bulgaria and start businesses, you’re creating jobs and opportunities, so young people don’t feel like they need to leave Bulgaria.”
Piere smiled, “I have some security guys now. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of the corn. It’s not a big problem.
“I first came here in 1993. I lived here for four years. In 1997 I went back to Denmark and started a business selling Bulgarian wine there,” he spoke and I translated, “but I missed Bulgaria. In 2004 I came back. I sold my house in Denmark, gave away all my furniture, and drove here. When I got here I gave my car away. I love Bulgaria. I don’t want to go back to Denmark.”
It turned out we were all in agreement. We love Bulgaria. Things will change. It’s a long process.


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Само за Плажа

It’s been a good summer. More writing to come. In the meantime, here’s a really big tomato.


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Nenko and Aziya of 10Б

A little story from 10th grade:
During their final test, my co-teacher said to a student,
“Ivelina, you’re pregnant aren’t you?”
“Yeah, since when did you know?” Ivelina responded without looking up from her test.
“You should start running at the track, look at you!” As she said it, my co-teacher gestured towards Ivelina’s stomach, bursting out of the trendy little cropped vest she wore over her t-shirt.
“How can I run when I’m pregnant?”
I let out a little sigh of relief. Ivelina’s not pregnant.

I understood every word of the conversation but completely missed the sarcasm at first. Both possibilities- that Ivelina actually is pregnant or that my co-teacher was just criticizing her weight- seemed to me equally likely.

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The Commute Forward

This is the essay I wrote for Peace Corps Bulgaria’s annual essay contest.  My mom discovered I won the contest while dutifully stalking me on Facebook and asked me to post the essay here.  Thank you very much to those who have already read it, and particularly my dear friends who helped me revise and edit it.

The Commute Forward


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