To the 24s

I guess you’re pretty excited. Hell, I remember being ecstatic; I remember the weeks before leaving for staging being anxious and ready to go. To finally go! This was the moment I had be waiting for for almost a year! I decided to apply to the Peace Corps after meeting a recruiter while interning in DC. 30 minutes later, I started my application. I was amped. May the following year, in the middle of finals week, I finally knew what I’d be doing post-undergrad. It was a great feeling. However, I remember being scared shitless as well. What the hellam I doing!? I’m about to leave everything and everyone I know to move to a foreign country-where I can’t read the alphabet, let alone speak the language-to preform an ambiguous task. Let me reassure you this feeling is fleeting. Everyone is in the same boat. And that comforted me. We’re all in this together. There is a strong sense of camaraderie and it certainly helps getting though tough times. I’m sure you’ve been scouring the internet looking for an idea of what service is like or the timeless question of: “what do I pack?” so I decided to write this post to help you out.

What to pack: It’s pretty safe to say what you have set aside is too much. My recruiter told me all I needed was a toothbrush and a towel. I was skeptical but you really don’t need that much. I recommend you bring plenty of jeans (and some a few sizes too small for when you lose weight), an extra pair of shoes, boots, a good soft shell jacket for rain and snow, plenty of photos your friends and family. Bring a nice smallish backpack good for weekend travel (I have a 33 litre one that works great). If you do plan on bringing lots of things, don’t worry about paying extra for a heavy bag. It’s cheaper to do that that have stuff sent from home.

Language: Don’t freak out about it. You’ll have about four to five hours of language lessons a day by very competent language trainers (LTs) during training. You’ll be surrounded by Bulgarian 24/7 and there will always be a chance to practice it. You WILL learn the language. In some ways, it’ll be beaten into you. There is no escaping it. If it’s any comfort, I took twelve (12) semesters of Spanish throughout middle school, high school and college and at the end, could barely hold a conversation. With my Bulgarian I can hold a three hour conversation on just about anything. Hell, I’ve been able to explain basic economic principles and the US election with a guy who runs a market. Bottom line: don’t fret.

Day to day life:The life of a Peace Corps Volunteer varies from person to person. I work in an office in at the city hall of a medium sized city. Others work in cultural centers, some work in the field.  But pretty much everyone has free time. Lots and lots of free time. On paper, it looks like I’m quite busy teaching computer classes and working on projects. But in reality, these only take up a few hours a week. How you utlize your free time is what matters. If your not doing anything, it’s pretty much your own fault. There was a period where I wasn’t doing much so I talked to a local teacher about getting some kids together to practice English in a cafe. Next thing I knew, I was invited on a school excursion, learning about life as a teen in Post-Communist Bulgaria and getting invited out for coffee. Sometimes you have to fight for work and other times work finds you. There’s a reason why it’s call the toughest job you’ll ever love. Since my host organization wasn’t having too much work for me, I started working at a local school. Next school year, I’m teaching their eight hours a week. It may not be the job I came here to do, but I’m adapting to the needs of my community.

Integration: I love integrating. I mean, it’s interacting with new people and culture. It’s great! You learn about Bulgaria, Bulgarian history and traditions and they get to ask all the questions about America they’ve ever had. I’ll try not to stereotype and speak from experience. At first, most Bulgarians can be distant and cold, especially the older generations. Who can blame them? Bulgaria endured 500 years of Turkish oppression (“Turkish Yoke”) followed by 50 years of Iron-fisted Communist rule. Needless to say, some can be very standoff-ish. This can be compounded by Western Europeans flocking to the Black Sea every summer and getting tanked. Sunny Side and Golden Sands are pretty much the Cancun of Europe. However, showing that you’re learning their language they tend to open up immediately. Once you break down these walls, Bulgarians can be some of the most generous people you’ve ever met. You’ll befriend people here that you’d never be friends with in the US. I live across the street from a baba (grandmother) who calls me her son. She’s fantastic and really makes me feel at home here. Don’t worry about making friends, especially in small villages where you’ll be the local curiosity. Chances are, you’ll become a rock star pretty quick.

Training: Training lasts about eleven weeks and it’s a crash course in language, culture, integration, and developing sustainable projects. You’ll arrive in Bulgaria and immediately be whisked away for a secluded week’s worth of training. It’s pretty intense and you’ll be exhausted every day. I wouldn’t say it’s culture shock that sets in but more of a “Holy hell this is getting real” sort of feeling. I mean, you’ve been trying to get into the Peace Corps for a year, and here you are. After this initial orientation, you’ll be taken away and meet your host family for the first time. This are the people that will take care of you for the next three months and your introduction to Bulgarian life and culture. At first it’s a stressful experience. No one in my family spoke any English and I had about five days of language. I didn’t know the difference between “Ц”, “Щ”, and “Ш” and certainly couldn’t talk about much. That first weekend felt like it was three years long. And it didn’t help I was still getting over jet lag. But my host family was very supportive and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

You’ll have language everyday followed by technical stuff. You’ll be required to carry out a project while in service which can be lots of fun. Every other week or so you’ll meet up with everyone else in your group for two days of combined training (HUB). Here you’ll meet some current PCVs and get more in depth training on basic stuff. And then, about eight weeks in, you find out where you’ll be going. You’ll meet your counterpart (your liaison to your work and community) and before you know it, you’ll be on a bus headed to your new site. This is when senioritis sets in for training. You don’t want to study the language any more and you want control over your diet again. That day comes, you say teary good byes to the family that took you under your wing. You head to Sofia, get sworn in during a media circus of tv cameras and Bulgarian government officials and BAM! you’re at site, all alone. Suddenly you miss training. But you’ll get into your groove and before you know it, a year has pasted. Seriously, time flies by in the Peace Corps. People back home say they can’t make a two year commitment. But seriously, it goes by in a blink of an eye and it seems like two years isn’t enough!

That’s more or less it. There is no way to write anything that can encompass everything. Feel free to email me if you have any questions.

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One Response to “To the 24s”

  1. Katie Says:

    They! This is awesome. 🙂 Thanks so much for leaving me a comment, but especially for writing this! I’m less nervous then I think I should be (give me another couple of days, haha), but you definitely touched on some of the questions I have! Meet you soon, I guess? Thanks!

    Katie

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