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Thursday, December 11, 2003  
What's going on? Oh, oh yeah, the site's moved. It can now be reached and will be updated at the much more pleasant address Adjust accordingly the bookmarks and links you maintain so religiously. Of course, I just bought the domain name, the server space I owe to the man behind Lex Libertas and so the site's actual address will always have to pay tribute to him.

For the time being (and hopefully not forever) the archives will still be here. So if you want to see something I wrote in the past year, this is the place to go. However, I think everybody will find the new digs homey and hospitable.

See you there!

12/11/2003 05:16:00 PM | PERMALINK

Wednesday, December 10, 2003  
Ahh Wednesdays
For the last few weeks Wednesdays have started early and ended late. I've talked about them before, but it never hurts to praise my favorite day again and again. I get up at 6 or 6:30, relax for a little while as I get ready for the day, and head out for school around 7:30 or so. I teach two eighth classes, which usually go well since the students are still pretty drugged from sleep and have yet to wake up enough to become pains in the ass.

Then, at about ten, I go back home. Today, I ran into one of the orphans who walked with me along the way and, in a heart wrenching attempt to screw with me, showed me about five different things he'd like to get for Christmas. I gave him two leva for oranges he wanted to buy and some time in an internet club, which I gather is one of the orphans' few entertainments during winter.

Back at the apartment, I made myself some French toast and settled in on the couch. Usually, I wind up taking a nap for an hour or two, or three, but something just didn't connect today. I wound up going to bed, reading some Tortilla Flat, dozing off, then waking up a second later after thinking I was going to be late for my Bulgarian lesson. This happened for about a couple of hours until 3:30, when my alarm went off, I stared at the ceiling for a couple of minutes, then got up to go study some Bulgarian. Two hours of study, coffee, and cookies later, I always come to the internet club to check up on things and do that one thing that makes every Wednesday--read the Onion, top to bottom.

Today, in addition to a brilliant article about a point in teaching I've come close to but never reached, I chuckled audibly at just about everything on the site. Also, the Lakers won, which kind of wrapped the whole day in a tidy bow.

After the internet club, I'll go home, check homework for tomorrow's classes, and watch the WWI documentary on the Discovery Channel at midnight. I can't really say that Wednesdays are the most productive day of the week, but it's nice having a day where I relax and actually do something . Makes the week flow a little easier, especially when Thursdays always wind up being a challenge.

For the last couple of days, I've been orally testing the eighth classes, and I really hate giving tests, I've discovered. The problem is, every student speaks English passably well, but I have to draw the line somewhere. I wind up dropping students I know speak the language well down to the equivalent of a "B" for not using full sentences or messing up word order in slight ways.

It's awfully stressful. Pretty much every kid here wants to learn the language and learn it well, but sometimes they just can't keep their mouths shut during the test. I gave about four "2"s ("F"s) for talking when not allowed and, in a moment of pity for the great students that just couldn't keep themselves together for forty-five minutes of testing, gave them a nigh impossible extra-credit assignment to have the privilege of taking the test. Fortunately, the students are well-disciplined enough that this doesn't seem like rolling over and exposing my throat to them.

Some volunteers have had to get so strict on cheating as to impose an actual, fully-functional bell curve on their classes. This smacks of weeding students out. I would never want to give a kid a two just because he wasn't keeping up with the rest of the class, but I suppose if that's what they need to do to maintain order, then that's what they need to do. Discipline, especially in the younger classes, seems to be paramount.

So what does this coffee-inspired divergence mean, exactly? Well, it means that I only had to suffer through a couple of hours of teeth-grinding testing before I got to relax the rest of the day. That was pretty nice...

Anyway, what I now realize too late was an unfortunately dull entry peters out as the bulk of another Wednesday comes to an end, and as I search for a decent way to end this post..Oh screw it, the post is over. Good night, everyone.

12/10/2003 06:46:00 PM | PERMALINK

Tuesday, December 09, 2003  
Silistra's frosty center.  It has a chewy outside.

There have been signs in Silistra for about 3 weeks now. The first Christmas trees began popping up in store windows then. Since that beat Thanksgiving--which most of the volunteers I've talked to seem to agree is the beginning of the standard Christmas explosion in America--Bulgaria seems to be right there in the Christmas spirit.

I find that impressive, somehow, but have yet to put my finger on why. Maybe it's the growing presence of a community identity, something that didn't seem to exist in summer but grows every day now. Maybe it's just that I've gotten to know the city well and am noticing the details. Whatever the case may be, it's the holiday season in Bulgaria, and Silistra seems about as ready for it as Sofia was when I visited it last weekend.

Lights lace the town center and store windows, although houses are still bare. There's finally a thin film of frozen snow on the ground, not enough to qualify for a white Christmas, but there are still two and a half weeks. I haven't seen any department store santas, but that doesn't mean there won't be.

Most of all, the students are into it. My slackest class last week got into singing Christmas carols, and to get through the last ten minutes, I even managed to pull all twelve days of Christmas out of the deep recesses of my memory. One girl, a singer, left her usual seat in the back and hopped quickly up front when I started writing the lyrics on the board. They all really ate it up. Even mentioned it to Vanya, my counterpart English teacher, in her next class with them.

The gloves are beginning to come out and snowballs, scraped together off the park lawn, are getting thrown lamely across the street toward the school.

I'm going to go up to the orphanage this weekend and do whatever I can to pull off an early Christmas there, since I won't have another free weekend until the New Year. I'm thinking of just going as a Santa, bringing them whatever goodies I can get together, and take their wishes. We'll see how that turns out, I'm sure there will be pictures.

Of course--and here's the problem--if I do a pre-Christmas Santa, how do I not disappoint them when the big day arrives? I could leave 70 or 80 candies with the director up there to be dispersed on the morning, I suppose that would work. But it's something I'm going to need to make sure I have nailed down before I go.

12/09/2003 04:54:00 PM | PERMALINK

Saturday, December 06, 2003  
I've been thinking about putting up a kind of written cultural time capsule on the site. Something to the point that I can look back on in a year or so to remember what I was watching, listening to, and reading in the heady days of December 2003. Some may find it interesting, others may not. But here, unapologetically is...


Most of the books I've read (some for the second or third time) since I came to Bulgaria in April:
The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay--Chabon
The Citadel--Cronin (On the front it says it's now a Masterpiece Theater movie. That fits it really well.)
Travels With Charley--Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby--Fitzgerald
The Thin Man--Hammett
The Way Some People Die--MacDonald
Uncle Tom's Cabin--Stowe (The fact that this has been banned in some libraries absolutely baffles me)
Tender is the Night--Fitzgerald
A Man in Full--Wolfe (The best 700+ pager I've yet read)
The Perfect Storm--Junger
The Sun Also Rises--Hemingway (Can't get enough of the greatest party novel ever)
The Grapes of Wrath--Steinbeck
The Barbarians Are Coming--Louie
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe--Adams
What's Wrong With Dorfman?--Blumenthal
Hannibal--Harris (Hannibal Lector is Sideshow Bob in this book. No question about it.)
The Once and Future King--White (Probably the best read thus far)
A Farewell to Arms--Hemingway (Hemingway started it as a downer, and by God he would end it as one, too)
The Salmon of Doubt--Adams
Oliver Twist--Dickens (Turns out Oliver is the long lost cousin of Charles Darnay, Ebenezer Scrooge's much younger half-brother, and a personal friend of David Copperfield's former roommate. Who knew?)

The book I'm now reading:
Tortilla Flat--Steinbeck

Some of the movies I've seen:
Matrix 2+3
Terminator 3
X-Men 2
Bad Boys 2
Charlie's Angels 2
2 Fast 2 Furious (When's "2 Pointy 2 Breaky" coming out?)
Johnny English
(What an absolutely terrible movie summer it was. When you line it all up like that...)
Pirates of the Caribbean (The best of a bad crop. But still pretty good)
The Italian Job (Nice little caper movie)
Dumb and Dumberer (Okay, I'm stopping this right now)

Favorite video at the moment that no else here seems to like all that much:
Outkast--Hey Ya

Video that all the girls say is all the guys' favorite (giggle, giggle):
Kylie Minogue--Slow

Favorite videos from artists that I'd never heard of, but guess I probably should have:
Lene Marlin--You Weren't There
Texas--Carnival of Girls
Fun Lovin' Criminals--Various Videos
Paul Van Dyke--Nothing but You
Propeller Heads--History Repeating

Video that most guys really like for the “giggle, giggle” reason:
Dido--White Flag (also “Life for Rent” for that matter, but that’s a newer single)

Favorite techno, outside of “Nothing but You”:
Chemical Brothers f/ Flaming Lips--Golden Path

Favorite rock:
Limp Bizkit--Eat You Alive (There! I said it! I like the song and I love the video. What are you going to do about it?)

Close second for favorite rock:
Evanesence--Going Under

Favorite German:
Scooter (But that’s really the top of a pretty rotten barrell)

Favorite Bulgarian:
Oh, please don’t make me choose. Probably Slavi, but that’s just because I saw him live, I suppose.

Favorite video of an artist whose country of origin I still don’t really know:
Moloko--Forever More

Favorite group to make fun of mercilessly with other volunteers:
Black Eyed Peas (But all they want is to stop “the Bloods, and the Crips, and the KKK!” They are after all, just a bunch of “conscious cats” who didn’t want to release a song about “ugly people” after 9/11. Oh, just shut up, shut up.)

Favorite Music Channel:
Euro VH1. All videos ever released get played here. The Police are singing “Wrapped Around Your Finger” right now. It’s good stuff)

I think that about covers it. If I think of anything else I’ll put it down later.

12/06/2003 09:01:00 AM | PERMALINK

Thursday, December 04, 2003  
Tuesday, one the girls in my eleventh class approached me after class and told me that the girls’ volleyball team would be playing at PMG that night. “Would I come out and support the team?” she asked. Of course, my first thought was “There’s a girls’ volleyball team here?” but that thought passed quickly and I told her that I would come.

So, that night, after my regular visit to the internet club, I walked to the gym at PMG. PMG’s is probably the best gym in Silistra. It has a good solid floor, 4 baskets, and a decent amount of sitting space around the court. The first time I had visited I was playing a pick-up basketball game after the city’s teams had finished for the night. When I arrived before the second half of the last game, I’d estimate there were about 30 people there watching. I can’t remember who was playing that night, because I had been so taken aback by the fact that there was any kind of city-wide basketball at all.

I bring that up because the language school’s girls’ team (EG) was playing PMG Tuesday night in a first round game of a small tournament. As soon as I walked in, the girls noticed me and cheered and kind of clapped. I felt honored, but later realized that it was only half because of who I was. Turns out I was one of two, maybe three people from EG there supporting the team. More on that later.

I walked across the court to the single row of benches along the side of the court opposite the team benches. The PMG crowd had already gathered and filled the benches so I stood next to the bench on the EG side of the court. When I entered, the teams were in their pre-game discussions. The game started shortly after I took my position.

It wasn’t what you would call pretty. It was entertaining, worth going to. But no. No, it wasn’t a good-looking game. EG played pretty well considering that they didn’t seem to have a girl who could get both hands above the net at the same time. Neither did PMG for that matter, but PMG had an artillery division when it came to serving. They had a few aces that dropped hard and fast on the sidelines. It didn’t help that the ceiling in the gym is low, and most of the bumps off the harder hits went straight up and high. A ball into the ceiling was side-out. Anyway, that night it was three blow-outs and good night. Dejected looks for EG all around.

After the game I went up to the girls to congratulate them on an entertaining game, and before I even made it to the group they gave me grins and told me not to say anything. I gave a shrug, thanked them for the invitation, said that I had had fun, and that the match-despite the loss-had been entertaining. They thanked me for coming and told me to come the next night, when they would win. I said that I’d come, of course, and wished them good night.

A day of teaching later, I cut my Bulgarian lesson a bit short so that I could make it to the game on time. I arrived at about the same time I had the night before, and took the same spot next to the benches. It was a colder night, and everyone in the not-really-heated gym had their thick coats on. Fortunately, the games went EG’s way and they won three close games to sweep the team from-well, I never did figure out what school they playing-but it was a well-played victory nevertheless, and they were all a little more receptive to my congratulations after the game.

I walked out happy, they walked out happy, and three-quarters of the audience stayed in the gym to watch the next game. I was, again, one of maybe four or five non-participants from the school watching the game. PMG was up next and by the time EG’s game was over, there were about 60 or 70 students in the gym. This confirmed that, as rumored, volleyball is more popular than basketball in Bulgaria. But it didn’t explain why no one from the language school really bothered to come to either game.

I think this might be another of those things I’m going to want to focus my energy on. People need to come to these games. And not just students either. During the second game, I noticed that apart from the coaches and referees, I was probably the only person over twenty in the gym.
Sports are a great way to get the community involved in local schools, and since there aren’t bands or orchestras at the schools not dedicated to music, sports in Bulgaria are really the only way for the community to get involved in the schools’ activities. Sports might just be something schools should advertise and not leave up to word-of-mouth from students.

Of course, I say this as if it applies to all of Bulgaria. It doesn’t. In the smaller towns, if a school is lucky enough to have a gym, it usually has no room for an audience and no sports program to go along with it. As in most cases, Silistra is just big enough to have all the nice things that go along with a big town. I’m lucky in that, I suppose. But it also makes my job more about improvement than creation. Many volunteers are the only people around to coach their teams, making it pretty easy to get involved. But here I feel like I have to show my worth in order to be part of the circle.

Fortunately, coming to two games seems to be enough at this point to label me a booster, if not a die-hard fan. So I think things are off to a good start.

12/04/2003 03:04:00 PM | PERMALINK

Wednesday, December 03, 2003  
The Big Thanksgiving Group.

Well, if you must know...I'm approaching my first blogaversary and want to give the old girl a makeover in time for the big event. It'll mean a new address, a new look, a new host (Thanks Owen), and new pages if I can get them ready in time. Unfortunately, it also means that most of my time in the internet club is spent tinkering with the new template.

So, to sum up, there will be a new post tomorrow about girl's volleyball here in Silistra and sports in Bulgaria in general. Tune in at the usual time to get that update. Until then, please accept the above photo of the Thanksgiving group as a peace offerering. See you tomorrow.

12/03/2003 07:48:00 PM | PERMALINK

Monday, December 01, 2003  
Coldplay's "The Scientist" has been running through my head today, or at least a few lines from its chorus, since I can't really remember any of the other words to the song:

Nobody said it was easy,
No one ever said it would be this hard,
Take me back to the start.

Now, the song's about starting over in a relationship where the singer (usually Chris Martin, but it could be anybody really) overthought everything and kind of ruined it all. While this is certainly applicable to certain areas of my life, it really isn't what kept the chorus running through my head all day.

Sunday, following an incredible Thanksgiving Saturday, I raised what I thought was an interesting question. I asked whoever was around at the moment if these fantastic weekends we've been having make it easier, harder, or about the same going back to class on Monday. While everybody around answered "harder," I said that, for me, it made things easier. No matter how hard each consecutive week is, a weekend will always be there in the near future, giving us all a chance to vent, hang out, and have fun. Hell, sometimes the weeks are pretty fun themselves, they're a grab bag, really. I never know what to expect Sunday evening.

So that's why I've come to accept Mondays as a new start to each cycle; a cycle that gets easier as the months unfold. There are challenges pretty much every day, but as long as I have a chance to take those challenges and talk about them at some point in the future, maybe bringing solutions if I've found them, life gets easier and there's a better a chance of a week becoming fun again. I've finally figured out that things will be hard, occasionally nigh impossible, but if I learn from it, I can take everything back to the beginning every Monday and rework it, at least to a certain extent.

What does that mean in the context of the day? Well, it means that I had to shout a couple of times today and act good and mean, but I got more done than I did in my classes last Monday, and the kids were better behaved. I checked all the workbooks, did an overview of a test next week, and ran through a quick lesson for AIDS Day, since it's an important subject and I wanted to keep the day pretty lax on testable material since the eights will have a big, giant test in their other English class tomorrow.

Brings up an interesting subject. The eights are pretty confused at this point in their lives about what they can do to prevent AIDS. One suggested the pill, and another suggested the pull-out method. I corrected them both, and made sure they knew about their real options, the best being abstinence. As I've learned though, one day of teaching does not a huge impact make, so I've kind of made a memo to myself to repeat some of these lessons when the opportunity arises in the future.

As progressive as Silistra seems to be (AIDS Day was pretty well covered city-wide, where other cities would need a little prodding from volunteers), the post-communist values vacuum my colleagues are always talking about still sucks hard here. Kids take most of their lessons from TV, and parents expect schools to train their kids in values just as they did under the communists. It's a generational thing, so it'll take a while to bring in better values than those coming out of Britney and Co. But it'll happen someday, and I'm glad I'm here to help it on its way a little.

[Grinding transition gears until they shatter in order to save a little internet club time]

Thanksgiving went delightfully well. About eleven volunteers gathered in Pleven Friday evening. Before the big gathering, I went with Kate (Pleven resident and incredible hostess) to a couple of her classes to make things flow a little easier there. Following that, a few of us went to Pleven's Billa, a large Western-type grocery store (Jeff: "So Kate lives in America...") and the eaters bought a snack to tide ourselves over until dinner while the others did some Thanksgiving dinner shopping. Later, we all went and ate at a great Chinese place and got our venting (or our venting about other people's venting) out of our systems at the dinner table. Then we got to sleep at some reasonable hour after a big meal. Day one ended with full stomachs and relieved heads.

Thanksgiving Day (observed) began whenever it was we all decided to wake up. Some of us took a walk and, since it was a cold, drizzly day, threw around a football instead of playing what would be a sloppy and muddy game. Chance, Sharad, Jeff and I sat in a downtown cafe with a football in hand and scarves around our necks. We talked about life and literature and India and we all felt incredibly haughty and preppy.

On the way back to Kate's, I bought a kilo of mandarins on a whim in the pazar and shared them with everybody. Mandarins are absolute candy in Bulgaria, you unwrap them and pop the bits in your mouth (the same process everywhere in the world, I suppose). We went through the bag pretty quickly, but it was just a small part of the appettizer spread laid out on the table that afternoon. There was bread and butter and spreadbale cheeses and wafer cookies and wine. Everything we needed to get through the afternoon and arrive at the turkey.

We passed the time by watching a strange HBO double feature of The Shipping News and Best in Show. Also by playing Scrabble and Yahtzee. It was only the second time I'd played Scrabble here in Bulgaria, and I'm clearly rusty, but it was also good fun. I started a horribly wrong trend with the fake word "vike" after Minnesota native Ryan substantiated it. Jeff, then, at some point played "saep," or "peas" spelled backwards, which we grudgingly accepted. Then it got all out of control as Chance used his fake word option to play "synj" on a triple word score. I can't really remember his fake definition. It was all out of control, or at least as out of control as a game of Scrabble is likely to get.

Dinner had the requisite turkey (one of the few Billa had, apparently) front and center, with all the usual bits surrounding it. Although there wasn't any sweet potato or cranberry sauce to be had in Bulgaria, we made do with casserole and squash with walnuts. There was also mashed potato and gravy and well-made stuffing. I'm not sure I could have had a better meal anywhere in the world. It was incredibly well-made, in fact. A meal only Peace Corps volunteers could pull off.

Since I had nothing to do with the creation (not wanting to pack an already crowded kitchen with what meager services I could have provided), I eagerly volunteered to do the cleaning. I took care of the dinner's dishes right after the last plate was set down on the floor. Family tradition, I suppose. Whoever it is that doesn't do the cooking should do the cleaning. Seems like a solid enough rule, and I was willing to stand by it.

Over pumpkin bread and the last of the wine, we talked about life in general and our plans for Christmas, having forgotten about school following the discussion the night before. We all went to sleep one-by-one, and when we felt the time was about right. The last thing on the TV that night was a dubbed version of Battlefield Earth, and we used our last powers of sarcasm and irony to make fun of the horrible make-up and the fact that not a single shot in the movie is level.

Morning came, people began to leave, we played Uno, and I asked my question about the weekends. Jeff hadn't quite figured out his travel plans well enough so he and I, both living in the same mostly inaccessible region, took an afternoon bus back to Silistra. Jeff took the couch at my place and left on a bus for his small town of Isperih this morning at 6:30 and the weekend was over.

Most of us will be gathering in Sofia this weekend for various important reasons and we'll talk, play basketball, and have another fun weekend in the midst of carrying out the toughest job any one of us will ever love.

12/01/2003 07:47:00 PM | PERMALINK

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