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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.
“Why?”
“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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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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Kinya, 9th grade

My school occupies the back half of a grammar school, the basement and third floors only. The teachers at the grammar school lock their nice warm bathroom on the third floor, so we dash down to the unheated basement every time we need to use the bathroom. Coming down the stairs yesterday, I was stopped by Kinya, a 9th grader I haven’t seen in my class for at least a month.
“Госпожа, why am I failing your class?”
“Because you never come to class. I haven’t seen you in over a month.”
“But, can’t you give me a 3 [the equivalent of a D, the lowest possible passing grade]?”
“How can I give you a 3 if you don’t do anything, if you never even come to class?”
“I come to class!”
“No, you don’t.”
“A few classes I’ve missed, but-”
“No, you’ve only come to a few classes. Listen, I almost never give homework. All you have to do is come to class and participate, and you don’t do that. That’s why you’re failing.”
“Well, sometimes I just don’t come to school!”
“And why?”
“Because it bores me.”

This conversation was going nowhere and I needed to use the bathroom. I left Kinya on the stairwell. Her classmate, Biserka was with her. As I came back up the stairs, Kinya entreated me with different tactic.

“Ms. D___! I didn’t mean that English class was boring! I meant that other classes were boring!”
“It doesn’t make a difference what’s boring. I don’t have any problem with you thinking English class is boring. If you don’t come to class, you will fail.”
Biserka was sitting on the stairs, laughing at Kinya’s desperation and her predicament. As I passed her I asked,
“What’s so funny Biserka? You’re failing too.”

How did I feel leaving them there? The vice director overheard us, and gave me a “You sure showed them!” little smirk as we passed on the stairs. And for a moment I was pleased that I could verbally smite teenagers на български, and tried to fool myself into thinking I’d just taught these girls an important lesson about consequences.

But I reached the top of the stairs deflated, because the truth is that Kinya is right. School is boring. And not in the character-building way that it should be, but in a maddening, wall-hitting way. Teachers write cryptic exercises on the board and students listlessly copy them into notebooks, with no explanation, synthesis or discussion, their notes never to be studied or even glanced at ever again. Every so often the teacher demands to see the inside of the notebooks, and the kids who bother to bring them open them up to reveal pages and pages of this copywork, each student’s notebook identical. When I ask students to produce English words or sentences on their own, without copying them from the board, they write a pseudo-phonetic gobbledygook of Latin and Cyrillic letters, still unable to distinguish individual English words after illegedly studying the language for eight years.
The end of my first term as a teacher approaches and I face the possibility of failing at least a third of my students. Some of them are merely names on the attendance roster, people I have never seen before, who may be married or enrolled in another school. Like Kinya, many of them seem bewildered by what I expect from them, which is nothing more than attendance, punctuality and a good attitude. Others, like Biserka, have no idea they even are failing and don’t seem to care in any case. On one hand, I glibly pass out 2’s, telling myself that high schoolers have plenty of personal responsibility, and it’s up to them to pass or fail a class.
But I’m haunted by the other meaning of the verb “to fail,” because to fail a student means not just to write them a failing grade, but to fail as a teacher to engage them.

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Learning Out Loud

“Arright, here’s the deal. I don’t feel like doing any work today.” It’s amazing how much noise a handful of teenagers can make. “But I didn’t say you wouldn’t do any work. You can ask me whatever questions you want, but I’m going to answer them in English, because this is English class and speaking Bulgarian all day is a huge drag. So listen up if you actually want to know the answers.”
The students in my 9A class are intensely curious about me. They often interrupt our lessons to shout personal questions at me, which I deflect with a swift “Ask in English!” It’s a class of 31 kids with an astounding truancy rate; I average about eleven students each class which I’ve heard from other teachers is 9A’s best turn-out by far. One day last week a student shot up his hand and shouted, “Госпожа! There’s 19 of us today! I think this is a record!” Even with such a small group, herding their unruly little minds in the same direction for forty-five minutes is a task akin to passing sweeping health care reform in America. They yell, they flirt, they run around the room. They try to get me to repeat Bulgarian obscenities. Several of the kids are motivated to learn English, but still hopelessly noisy and undisciplined.
Discipline is a huge problem in Bulgarian schools. The bigger problems, though, are conformity, apathy and fear. When asked to write sentences or produce anything creative, it’s not uncommon for every single student in a class to write exactly the same thing. 9A’s insatiable spirit inspires me even as it turns my hair white. They ask surprising questions, not just about me but about the English language, and some of the more advanced students go out of their way to write something unique and delightful.
Example: A few weeks ago, in response to the question “What do you like to eat?” little Denis wrote, “I like to eat sausage and intestines and the horse. I like to nibble the ears of the pig.”
Several factors contributed to my decision to give 9A a free day today. My counterpart (and friend) and I were both suffering after a late-night “planning session” that included way too much домашно wine. I’d been teaching since 7:30am. Another teacher hadn’t showed up for work, which meant her students were wreaking havoc in the halls all day and making it nearly impossible for the rest of us to teach. Finally, someone pulled the bell 25 minutes early during 4th period, which sent dozens of gangly screaming teenagers into a state of total unmanageability. Today was also auspicious, because 9A’s worst-behaved student was among one of the many absences. His attendance is perversely impeccable, so today was a rare opportunity to engage the rest of class without him monopolizing all the attention. I also knew that his friends would tell him we had a totally awesome free day without him, and I couldn’t help but hope that would really annoy him.
So go ahead, kids. Ask me whatever you want.
“Does that piercing hurt?”
“What do they eat in the United States?”
“Do they eat crocodile?”
“Have you ever eaten crocodile, Госпожа?”
“What’s a smurf? Is it like a dwarf?” Smurfs, I explained, were blue and had their own TV show. “Dwarf” is a much broader term. The plural of “dwarf” is “dwarves,” and it occurred to me that the plural of “smurf” really ought to be “smurves.” But it isn’t, it’s “smurfs.”
Sultana is a thin girl with a strong nose and two feet of frizzy black hair. She prefers to be called Suzy. At least once a day, Suzy interrupts class to yell, “I love you Miss!”
A tireless romantic, Suzy asked me, “Miss, do you have a boyfriend?”
“No.”
“Do you have one in the States?”
“No, I have no boyfriend anywhere. Who here has a boyfriend?” I asked the class, “Raise your hand!” Four girls proudly shot up their hands.
“And who has a girlfriend?” Only Viktor, broad-shouldered and over six feet tall, raised his hand. “And what does your girlfriend think about your eye?” I referred to Viktor’s recent football injury, which had burst a blood vessel and turned half of his right eyeball bright red. “Госпожа, but it looks much better than it did last week!” He protested in Bulgarian. I agreed that it did.
But they would not be so easily distracted from their teacher’s relationship status. Viktoria, who I’ve secretly nicknamed Posh Spice, rested on her elbows and turned her palms out to me entreatingly, “And why don’t you have a boyfriend? Don’t you want one?” This is another question I’ve already prepared an answer for. “I’m waiting to find a boyfriend who likes to cook and clean.”
”You’re not going to find that in Bulgaria,” said Hristomir, the only student who understands nearly every word I say in English.
“Hristomir says I won’t find a guy who cooks and cleans in Bulgaria. Who agrees with him?” Several hands went up. “Boys, do you cook? Do you clean? Do you help your parents around the house?” The response was inconclusive.
“Girls, what about you? Do you help your mothers?” In the boys’ defense, the girls were equally unlikely to say they helped around the house.
“Viktor? Do you help your mother? Do you cook and clean?”
“Yes, Госпожа! I’ll cook, I’ll clean, I’ll feed your cats!”
“You already have a girlfriend, remember? What about you Denis [of the intestines and sausage and the ears of the pig]?” Denis sucked his teeth and nodded to say ‘no.’
I asked every student in the room, “Nasko, do you help around the house? Hristomir? Stilian?”
“Stilian doesn’t help his mother Госпожа! He lives by himself!”
“What?”
”Stilian’s mother is in Greece!”
I looked at him and asked him in Bulgarian, “Stilian, is this true?”
“Да.”
“Where is your father?”
“Don’t ask about his father!” Hristomir wagged a finger at me.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Fifteen.”
“And you live alone? No brothers or sisters or grandparents?”
“My brother is visiting for New Year’s. Then he has to go back to Greece.”
Stilian’s clothes are clean. His hair is trimmed, he’s well-fed and he shows up to class most of the time. “So, you know about cooking and cleaning?”
“Да.”
The kids hopped over desks and jostled each other as they said goodbye to me. As always at the end of 9A, I held my head in my hands for a moment and gave out a great sigh, stunned at the relative quiet. I turned around and looked at the board. What had we accomplished today? Each kid might have said three words in English. On the board were some new words: “smurf,” “crab (“I looovvve crab,” simpered Posh Spice in Bulgarian).” A picture of a turtle, labeled “turtle.” The phrasal verb “to clean up after (oneself).”
Sweet, quiet Maria was the only one left in the room.
“Miss? Thank you for a wonderful class.”

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21.9.10

purvi u4eben den
Teenagers are thoughtless, and when they’re better at something than an adult they can be mercenary. They’ve been studying English for years and most of them can barely manage “Hello,” yet they fail to appreciate my labored and hastily acquired Bulgarian. They stare, they laugh. Some of them correct my mistakes or pretend they don’t understand me.

Nataliya teaches English alongside me and she assures me my Bulgarian is excellent. She says the students are only cruel because they never respect young teachers and they sense fear. This is hardly comforting, since I can always study Bulgarian but there’s nothing I can do about being young and scared. But the truth is my Bulgarian is not that good. It could be much better, and it really should be considering how much I use it. On Tuesday Nataliya tried to tell me that Bulgarian was one of the hardest languages to learn and I snapped at her. No, it isn’t. I know because I’ve studied Russian, for one. Bulgarian is like Intro to Slavic Languages and that morning I was mangling it.

I was sitting in the English classroom between third and fourth period, when Sukriye walked in. I met her the week before in the hallway, where she took my arm as if we were intimate friends in a Jane Austen novel.
“Where are you from? Are you going to be my teacher?” She asked breathlessly, without introducing herself. She wore the ubiquitous acid-washed jeans and black hoody. She was tall and voluptuous and her hair hung thick and blue-black to her waist.
“Are you taking the Professional English class?” I asked. Sukriye was crestfallen for a moment, but her black-rimmed eyes lit up afresh when I told her I would help out in Nataliya’s classes, and that we would see each other there.

On Tuesday morning, there I was, and she was just as happy to see me again.
“Госпожа! Hello! Do you speak Turkish?”
Her question was a bitter reminder that not only was my Bulgarian failing me, but that there are hundreds of languages on this planet that I do not, and likely will never speak, and that Turkish is still one of them.
“No. I have enough problems with Bulgarian,” I didn’t look up.
“Добре!” Her hand made a happy little flourish, “I will teach you Turkish!” Her big bright eyes were blind to my dejection, and sparkled with insufferable enthusiasm for teaching me Turkish. I use a similar tactic with my uncooperative English students. I smiled and looked up.
“Добре. Как е ‘здравейте’ на турски?”
“Merhaba,” She pronounced the word for me a few times. Behind her, a few other students had filed in. They were talking and playing with their cell phones.

I repeated Sukriye, loud enough for the other students to hear, “Merhaba.” Sukriye’s smile broke wide open, and the students all looked at me with wonder. The new American English teacher had just said “hello” in Turkish. I said it again to be sure of myself and the whole class erupted in cheers.

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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.

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