Living in a foreign country sometimes feels like walking in about three feet of water. It’s a lot of work to keep going some days. Of course, even in familiar surroundings life can be tough going.
Last night we were at a dinner with about thirty teachers from my school, Peyo Yavorov. Thursday was the unofficial celebration of Peyo Yavorov, a Bulgarian poet. Since his birthday falls in the summer, we have to choose a day during the school year to celebrate so we won’t have school! At the dinner last night, Kate and I sat with another English teacher, a French teacher, and a German teacher. Of course we had much to talk about with the English teacher, Teddy, but it’s still hard work to make Bulgarians speak their native language with us. It’s a combination of our fears and their fears. The fear of misunderstanding and being misunderstood is great among all people. After eating our salads for over an hour and a half, we finally got our orders taken and the waiter came back with our food about an hour later. By that time, the rakiya and wine had been flowing generously. The gym teacher, who asked Kate to dance at the Christmas party, began asking all the women to dance with him. A single musician was singing and playing his synthesizer. After asking a few women for dances, he eventually came to Kate and she obliged to dance with him – only after he asked me, of course! He told me to dance more often and to loosen up – I had a difficult time doing that with people I feel fairly distant from. But he eventually forced us to get out on to the floor. Half embarrassed and half flattered, Kate and I danced through everyone’s applause. Hey look! It’s the Americans dancing to Bulgarian music! And he eventually got everyone out on the dance floor. He caught my ear and started telling me about his daughter who lives in Virginia. And through his slurred speech, he told me how much he misses her. Then he started speaking about life here in Bulgaria and I made the comment that I am living here in Bulgaria, almost like a Bulgarian. He immediately corrected me by saying, “ti ci mnogo dalecha ot moite problemi” – “you are very far away from my problems.” He then went on to list the litany of problems that I have heard so many times before from Bulgarians. No money for food, travel, to see loved ones far away, and more. I knew that he had a few too many glasses of rakiya, but his directness still caught me off guard. And he’s right – I’m very far away from his problems, but we’re here, trying to do something about it.
The day before yesterday, Thursday, was the celebration by the students for Peyo Yavorov at the theater in the Center. It was full of skits by the students. Some of them were hysterical and others weren’t so great – including one where a girl seem to expose a little more of herself than I think she had hoped too. Kate thinks that it was intentional, but I still think it was a mistake. Anyhoo, probably the best skit was when two students, dressed in cave men outfits, came out on the stage while some kind of mysterious music played. One lit his lighter and the fire awed them. Then the other pulled out a cigarette and tried to light it. Just as he did, the hall monitor came rushing out on the stage and the two went running away. The theater erupted into laughter. The hall monitor is an old, rough man. It’s a typical scene in life of Peyo Yavorov high school. Usually the students go outside to smoke, but in the winter they can sometimes be found sneaking a smoke in the corners of the school. I’d say about half of the students smoke in my school. It was amazing to see all of the students at the theater. The place was packed, standing room only. It was definitely the day off from school and the 10am start time. I think in America most students would stay home and not even bother coming to anything related to school if there was no school! There were a lot of inside jokes that Kate and I just couldn’t get because of the language and cultural barriers. However it was good show, that made me feel, for the first time, that I sort of am a part of this high school.
I’m now teaching American History at the “Institute” which is like a local community college. It’s located up on the hill that overlooks Silistra. Nearly every person I have spoken with about it is careful to not to call it a college or university. I teach about ten students per week on Wednesdays. I teach in English, but it’s hard work since their English is fairly basic. I think I may know more Bulgarian than many of the students know English. So I communicate through English, Bulgarian, body language, and acting. We just got through the Revolutionary War. It’s a very basic course. Just about anything I teach is new information, though I was glad they had heard of the Declaration of Independence. After three weeks of teaching the course, I think I’ve finally learned how to teach them – slowly, repetitively, and determinedly. Most of them are about 19 or 20 years old but I wish they wouldn’t ask me to leave the classroom if they have to go to the bathroom. “Vie cte golemi hora” – “You are big people”, I told them, so please don’t ask me to go to the bathroom – just go. I know it’s out of respect that they ask me, but I don’t really want that much respect – or maybe I just don’t want to know. Some of them have a look of fear as soon as I start speaking English, but we make it through the lessons.
Tomorrow, Kate and I have been invited to lunch with a couple that lives in the block next door. They both used to be English teachers at my high school, but since she had a baby and he has decided to teach only at the Institute, we don’t see them at school anymore. Their newborn daughter, Donica, was born about the same time as Abby, Jen and Brian’s daughter, our niece, so we’ll be able to see how big Abby is. We’re glad that we got to know them before they stopped teaching at the high school. I’m sure one or possibly both will again teach at the high school. There is a limited amount English teachers in Silistra. And the principal knows where to find them when he’s short on help. That’s how things work here – people know people and you’re usually only about two handshakes away from knowing the whole town. Work isn’t found on credentials, it’s found on whom you know.
Copyright 2000/01/02, Josh and Kate Miller.