17 April, 2009

The LPI, which stands for “Language Proficiency Test” is the test Peace Corps Volunteers take to get their language skills ranked and rated. There are a total of ten levels. In order to “pass” training, volunteers must get a score of at least “3” (Novice High). This rating varies from post to post but the standard is “4” (Intermediate Low). Bulgaria is lower because Bulgarian is a tougher language than say, French.

I’m writing about the LPI because last week I took the test again for the first time since MSC (Mid-Service Conference) in September. At that point, I had stalled at Intermediate Medium (“5”), the ranking I received at IST (In Service Training) in February of 2008. They say you need at least three month before advancing levels. What do these levels mean? Out side of completing PST (Pre-Service Training, the first thee months of PC service; before you become a volunteer) not much. Though if you plan on going to grad school, a government language assessment usually gets you out of the requirements. I took it again to see my progress as well as fulfill this prerequisite at my grad school.

I surprised myself and receive “Advanced Low” (“7”). The questions got much tougher. No more “describe what you do every day”. I got questions like “do you think Bulgaria entered the EU too early?”, “What can Bulgarians to do fight corruption?”. Yeah, no fluff there.

The description of “Advanced Low” do a really good job describing how  feel about my Bulgarian: Fluency within certain areas (for me this would be describing life in the US, my work, what I do everyday, etc) but trailing off with an expected twist or complex topic (say, how to defeat corruption in Bulgaria).

All in all, I’m impressed with how far my language has improved. I’ve gone from “I am a banana” to “I believe in some areas, Bulgaria joined the EU too early”. And this from a guy who too 12 semesters of Spanish.

So, for the B-25s fretting about the Bulgarian language: just worry about the Cyrillic alphabet for now (which, once you get the hang of, is super easy). The rest will be beaten into you. There is no escaping that. Also, you’re going to make an ass of yourself. Every day. The sooner you accept that, the more confident you’ll become and the faster you’ll be able to speak.


Football Tournament

17 April, 2009

Last weekend was Chirpan’s Fourth Annual Charity Football (soccer) Tournament. The even had a lower turnout than last year. This is largely due to the fact that it was during spring break and most volunteers and students were on vacation. But it was the only time the stadium was available so, I’ll take what I can get.

We had four teams: a semi-professional team from a village (the Rangers), a group of Turkish medical students from Plovdiv, children from the Center and Peace Corps Volunteers.

The tournament started out with an exhibition match between the Rangers and PCVs with most of the water being carried by the med students.

The final score was 4-1, Rangers. The med students weren’t too happy about the outcome, but in my book, not getting shut out was a victory in it’s self.

The tournament began with the med students taking on the Rangers and the PCVs taking on the kids from the Center. The med students won and and so did the kids. The PCVs were left fighting for third against the rangers and the kids for first.

The end result was: Med students, kids from the Center, Rangers with the PCVs falling dead last.

But winning wasn’t important; it was all about having a good time, raising some money for the Center as well as their profile in town. After the game, we enjoyed a beer on the field and the PCVs taught the Turks how to play American football. Later that day, we went to the Center to take a tour of the facilities.

All in all, a good day; despite the low turn out. Hopefully this will become a sustainable tradition.

From Football Tournament
Football Tournament

I nearly wet the bed

16 April, 2009

This happened last night and includes this unfortunate title.

Bulgaria is a land of loud noises and things that will scare the living piss out of you. For instance, and I believe I can speak on behalf of every volunteer, past and present, have cursed the night sky when throwing out the trash and having a stray cat jump out. It always happens when you least expect it and it triples your heart rate vidnaga. These loud noises include cars backfiring. I had never heard a car backfire until I moved to the BG. Also firecrackers and gunfire. This story is about the latter.

I went to bed last night around midnight. And headed quickly to slumberland. Have you ever fallen asleep but your mind is still aware. You know what’s going on around you but your body doesn’t react. No? Perhaps I have a self-depreciating superpower. Anywho, I was like that for about an hour; my body was completely relaxed and my mind starting to slip into sweet sweet semi-consciousness and then… BAM BAM BAM BAM. HOOOOOOOOLY SHIT! What WAS that!? I couldn’t have been a car, too many of them; nor firecrackers. Who the hell sets off fireworks at 1am on a school night? Had to be a gun…and right under my window. Ok, back to sleep….

Wait, I left my grill gate unlocked and my door won’t put up much of a fight (hence the grill gate). This is when my body had fallen back into an unresponsive heap in bed. My mind was frantic.. WAKE UP WAKE UP! No? OK….zzzzzzzz. Two hours later BAM BAM BAM BAM! HOLY SHIT! I need to lock that grill gate. But my body refused to sense the urgency of my mind. And then out of now where…my bed room door popped open. HOLY SHIT SOMEONE IS IN MY APARTMENT AND IS GOING TO MURDER ME WHILE I LOOK LIKE I’M ASLEEP! BODY, WAKE THE FUCK UP! (Note: my door popped open because the door is too big for the frame. It wasn’t built like this, it’s just that everything in my bloc is, well, Soviet. In fact, the whole bloc is slowly sinking…)

My body stirred and I gasped for air (not why I didn’t that, perhaps my body was wondering why my heart rate was so fast). I sneak through my living room, fumble for the keys and lock my grill gate. Whew! I crawl back into bed, satisfied I wasn’t going to be murdered. I started to fall asleep. WAIT! You didn’t check the kitch……

And this is why I feel so tired today.

Deep Thought

16 April, 2009

I may live to regret giving 30 third graders my Skype contact info….


13 April, 2009

In response to a request, I am posting a crazy story.

Though I would have never hitchhiked in the US, I’ve done it several times in Bulgaria. It is a way a life for several Bulgarians who live in remote places with little regular, if any, transportation. In fact, the Lonely Planet guide book waives it’s universal rule against hitchhiking to make an exception for Bulgaria! So, as the the title of the post and the introduction suggest, this is an amusing story about hitchhiking.

I was going to Plovdiv, the second largest city about an hour west of Chirpan. I was watching for a bus at the bus stop. It is common practice in Bulgaria for people to come up and offer a ride to people waiting to earn some extra cash for driving to their destination. They usually charge the average bus ticket price. (so…I was a little misleading with the title. I didn’t actually search for a car, it just fell into my lap).

So I’m waiting with a bunch of other people: a few older women with what appears to be a nation-wide edict top have either maroon or electric blue dyed hair, and a super drunk dude wearing camo with a a giant bag of empty yogurt containers. Under normal circumstances, (ie, my life before Peace Corps) this would be an unusual collection of people. However, this is Bulgaria. You become somewhat immune to these situations. Anywho, the dude, Mishu (short for Dimitar), offered me a ride. I accepted since it would get me to Plovdiv faster than the bus.

I got into the front seat of the car and the drunk dude got into the car with me. Mishu started to ask me questions, mistaking me for a Bulgarian at first. After it became evident that I was a foreigner, we moved onto my work here and the Bulgarian language. The drunk dude, grabbed that back of my seat to pull himself closer to me. He spoke into my left ear: “Boy…where were you 7 o’clock last night?” “What?” “7 o’clock. Last night. Where were you?” “I was at the Chitalishte (cultural center). Mishu looks at me with a smile and puts his thumb to his mouth like a bottle; the universal gesture for drunk. The dude seats back into his seat.

A short while latter, we reach his village. He struggles to get out of the car. He gets out and reaches back in for his giant bag of used yogurt cups. Mishu and I roll down the windows to get rid of the alcohlic stench. We continue to talk about my work and languages. He starts to speak to me in French. I don’t know a single sentence in French but for some reason, he is convinced I do. We then reach the invevitable topic of the Bulgarian economy. I’ve heard this same woeful story several times about the lack of work, the stagnet wages and the inflating costs. It turns out that Mishu is a barber and offered to give me a hair cut the next time I need one. I already have a hairdresser and I like her a lot so I politely declined. He started to talk about his son, who is a body guard. Now that looks intense but in English, that translates two ways: body guard and security guard. He then offers for me to hire his son as my personal body guard. Why I would need such a service is beyond me, though I’m sure I’d be the only Peace Corps Volunteer in the world with one! I, once again, decline his offer. At this point, we arrive in Plovdiv. I pay him and thank him for the lift. (I have since gotten a ride with him again).

To recap: I was offered a ride with a barber who spoke to me in French and offered me a haircut and his son for personal protect with a drunk vet in the back seat with a trash bag full of yogurt containers who asked me about my whereabouts the night before.

….just another day as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria…

Quote of the Day

13 April, 2009

Jimmy, are you coming to our party?
Sure! When is it?
Whenever we make it.

I love this country

An Atypical Day at Class

26 March, 2009

It started out as any normal day at class. As soon as I walked through the door, I got bombarded with my kids. Aye! Mister! What iz dis? (point to a truck. I swear, my kids speak better English than the 4th grade!) And then it got weird.

There were two teachers talking to each other about something serious. As one of the teachers left, the teacher that sits in with me filled me in with the details. One of my students stole some important documents and they were trying to figure out who. They asked the person who stole the documents to step forward. Not surprisingly, they didn’t. They asked anyone if they had any information. All we got were shrugging shoulders and “ne znam” (I don’t know). And then they called the police. Whoa, wait what?! Yep. They called the police. On seven six year olds. And, in typical Bulgarian fashion, they didn’t call 166. They called a family member. Not that this is a bad thing; it’s very typical. Most work gets done through friendships and family member–back channels. Since I’m friends with one of the mayor’s drivers, I occasionally get a lift around town, one of the teacher’s husbands is the postmaster and I no longer have to pay a fee for packages. I’m sure this is nothing new for any Peace Corps Volunteer integrated into their community. (also, it’s not like I just take, I do give back to these kind people).

Any way, back to the story. The kids, understandably, were quite concerned that the teacher had called the cops on them and were desperate to prove their innocence. They offered to have their bags and pockets searched. They looked under the cubbyholes, desks tables and chairs and implored each other to give up the important documents. Nothing was working. The teacher took one of my favorite kids (and the biggest trouble maker (you can’t really blame him, he’s six and has younger twin brothers a year old at home)) out of the classroom for further questioning. The lunch lady stood by the window, “I just saw a police car drive by…” I was starting to think that this was just a ploy to get the kids to turn over the documents.

With all the drama going on, I really didn’t have a good opportunity to actually teach. It was snack time and I had to fill out the teacher’s log of the lesson I didn’t teach. With the still mystery unsolved, the teacher pulled the massive book off the self (the book like like, 1 foot by 3 feet) and opened it up to the correct day. And that’s where the important documents were. None of the students had stolen them, they were just misplaced by one of the teachers. The kids, understandably were jubilant. Case solved!

Oh, and they were doctor’s notes excusing two students.

A question gone awary

20 March, 2009

Yesterday I had a meeting with the man I’m organizing the football tournament as well as another project. I wanted to know how widespread Chirpan’s TV coverage is. He called the TV station and I scribbled some thoughts/other questions to ask as he spoke with them. “I’m here with my American friend. He’s very nice and speaks Bulgarian very well…” I cracked a smile as I jotted some notes and thought to myself “I think he’s stretching the true a bit”. He put the receiver down, “Jimmy, the coverage is for the city, the surrounding villages and some nearby cities in the region. And you have an interview in 30 minutes.” “Whoa, wait, what!?” “They’ll be coming to your office. This is a good opportunity to talk about the tournament!”

The result is this:

The sound isn’t too good since I recorded it with my camera off my tv. Note the long windedness of my answers. This is a trick I learned early one: if you talk for a long time, you may answer a question that the journalist wants to ask and thus saves you from the embarrassment of not understanding a question. My fifth week in country I was interviewed on TV and it was a horribly long expirience.  Live and learn.


20 March, 2009

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go on vacation to Istanbul, Turkey. Travelling to Turkey seems to be a rite of passage amongst Bulgarian Peace Corps Volunteers; every volunteer I know has gone. I and another volunteer, left from Plovdiv on a midnight bus after going to a very nice Turkish restaurant.

The bus was more or less empty and we hit the road southeast to Turkey. We reached the border around 03:30. As Americans, we had to purchase a 90 day, multiple entry visa for 20 USD. We crossed the border and then had our bags searched (in the most liberal sense).

Four hours later, we woke up at the MASSIVE bus station. Seriously, this bus station is the size of like, two professional football stadiums. According to wikitravel.org, you can get anywhere within 1,000 miles of Istanbul.

We then set out to explore the city. A few things came as a surprise to me as I did research: 1) Istanbul is the world’s fourth largest city with over 11 MILLION people. Pretty crazy. 2) It wasn’t officially called “Istanbul” until Attaturk ingloriously renamed the city when organizing the postal system in 1930. That fact made me feel kinda stupid since I thought it was renamed during the middle ages. And 3) “Istanbul” is Turkish for “the city”, which if you just said that, everyone way back when knew what city you were talking about as Istanbul was the wealthiest and most populous city back in the day (I’m being vague since I don’t know the time frame. This is just want i remember from a tour book in the hostel).
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Kukeri 2009

19 March, 2009

This is how you ward of the demons (from the beginning of the month). These photos were taken in Shiroka Laka. I was there last year.

From Kukeri 2009

Kukeri 2009