Unemployed and Underpaid Youth of the World: Unite!

Two weeks ago in the teacher’s lounge between classes, all of us had our eyes locked on the TV news, which streamed video footage of violent protests and announcements of the prime minister’s recent resignation. There was no great outcry over this, or even a sense of great concern. It felt like people were almost as equally bothered that all the coat hangers had been removed from the lounge over the weekend during renovations. To be clear, no once was jumping up and down for joy that the parliament was, well, not really there any more; but neither was anyone packing up their families to flee to Switzerland. It felt like any other day. And then the teacher on my left said this:

 “The bad thing would be if a Communist party gets elected now.”

Luckily I didn’t have a mouthful of banitsa when I heard this comment, because I would have choked on it. “What?” I said to him. “That could happen?”

“Yes, and then Bulgaria would lose all its EU funding, because the European Union has a policy not to give funding to Communist governments, because all the money gets taken by the politicians. If they give a country 100 euros, 100 euros disappear. But if the government is not Communist, maybe the politicians take only 10 from every 100.” Ah. Well, that’s logical.

Since then, I have heard opinions both supporting and denying this possibility. It seems that no one really has a clear idea of what is going to happen. The fact that some people think it is realistic, though, is illustrative of one of the most surprising things I have observed in my time in Bulgaria: Most Bulgarians don’t hate communism.

As an American, I grew up with an image of communism as a cold shadow devouring happiness and hope, knocking down every hard worker in its path and tossing a gnawed-on crust of bread over its shoulder as compensation. But more often than not, it is remembered as just one in a progression of imperfect political systems. Some people even talk about nostalgically:

Sure, you weren’t allowed to travel or listen to the music you wanted to, but at least you had a job and a place to live. But the past 20 years since the changes happened have been more terrible that we ever expected. When things changed, we thought, we were OK before, and now we will be a little better, but we lost all of the good things that communism had brought and fell into crisis. It is 20 years later and we still haven’t recovered. Now people pick food out of the trash bins — you never saw this before.

Of course some people remember those years in a more sinister way. I’ve heard impassioned diatribes about communism having stolen the youth of those who were entering their 20s as it fell. But for today’s young people who have grown up walking streets full of potholes and beggars, it’s hard to imagine that the current system could be better than what their parents remember as a system of lifetime security, even if they weren’t as free as they would have liked.

Since the government’s resignation, protests run by angry young people have continued and rallied against the corruption in the political parties, specifically the mafia presence in government and business. This is a generally accepted reality in Bulgaria, felt even by those who have never held any job. Last Thursday, one of my particularly cynical students responded to a question about what success looked like by saying that he wanted to be a boss. “Of a company, or like a mob boss?” I joked.

He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. They’re the same.”

My students didn’t have any ideas on how to change this situation, or even a whole lot of optimism that it is possible to change it. So far the solution of many young Bulgarians has been not to flee to Switzerland, to but to emigrate to Germany or the U.S. Hope is not a predominant value.

As far as I can understand it, this is the frustration that has been fueling the protests. The feeling that people are being pushed down, honest attempts at success squashed by corruption in government and business. Of course, other students scoffed at this attitude and said it is born of a habit of attributing personal failure to outside forces. Whatever the problems, there is consensus that the current system isn’t working and is possibly worse than the past — even if the past is only something you have grown up hearing about through vague dinner conversation.

New elections are scheduled for May, which caused a burst of excitement because it means we will have an extra day off of school. For the most part, the swell of expectant joy stops there, though. The protestors have yet to offer a concrete plan for improvement; what they agree on now is anger.

[I realize this is a complex issue with more sides than I can understand, having been here for such a short time. Therefore every opinion expressed here has been taken from a real conversation or compilation of conversations I have had, and I acknowledge that none of them fully captures what is going on or a perfectly generalized view. This is merely a representation of my impressions from my unscientific method of questioning friends, colleagues, and students to try to make sense of things.]

 

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The Time I Took in a Bulgarian Street Dog

[There are some big things happening in Bulgaria right now, namely the prime minister’s resignation amid country-wide protests. I’m still trying to fill in all the gaps before I post about that, so as not to invalidate my political science degree. Instead, I give you a post about what is easily the most spontaneous thing I’m ever done. I took in a street dog. From the street. With fleas, and with no planning whatsoever. I’ve had this written since I took him in and shortly thereafter found him a new home in December, so it’s almost too old to merit posting, were it not for the heart-melting picture of him getting a bath in the sink.]

Dear Oliver,

It’s not often in my life that I’ve cried over the loss of a man. But with you, there wasn’t anything that could stop the tears. Giving you up, even though I knew it was the right thing, felt like giving away a little piece of my own heart, a piece that I never even knew was there before I had you.

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The first time I saw you, you were hobbling down the street with a broken leg and giving off little yelps, hoping that someone would pick you up and give you a home. I could barely move as I watched you limp from person to person; you came to me and stood quivering between my boots, and I knew I couldn’t leave you all alone that night. Before I knew it, I was conspiring with the school security guard to hide you in the cleaning ladies’ closet until school was over. Then I scooped you up in a cardboard box, and off we went, sneaking out the back way to avoid being seen by the principal. You kept poking your head out, probably wondering where I could be taking you, hoping it was someplace warm. The whole way home I wondered what in the world I was doing, and why I hadn’t analyzed it and made some sort of graph first, but I was too happy to care, carrying such a handsome puppy back to my apartment.

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We got home and my sink turned brown with all the dirt I washed out of your fur. All I had to feed you was some yogurt I borrowed from a neighbor and some sausage from the freezer. You were so weak you couldn’t even hold your head up. So you just snuggled your nose between my elbow and side and fell asleep in my lap as I picked out a small army of fleas from your fur. We sat like that next to the radiator for two hours, and I couldn’t believe you were mine to take care of. In the days to come, I would come to love the way that you tried to wind your whole body around my ankles in a hug, and the way that you clutched your forearms around mine when I carried you outside, and the way that you would fall asleep in my arms for a mid-morning nap.

At first I wasn’t sure what to call you. I had had the name Oliver picked out in case I ever had a dog, but I wasn’t sure if it suited you. But after I absent-mindedly started singing “Food, Glorious Food” while feeding you once, I knew it was right. The Bulgarians called you “Ollie” as you sniffed their shoes and followed them through the park. Though you had been alone on the street only a few days earlier, you were now enchanting to everyone who came across you.Of course, I soon realized that my fifth-floor apartment was a less than ideal home for you. You were going stir-crazy being cooped up in here while I went to work, and my furniture and fingers were suffering from your teething phase. So I started looking for a new, permanent home for you. You were surprisingly difficult to give away, since most Bulgarians are looking for a big, burly guard dog rather than a scampering puppy. And on those days when you curled up in my lap, hiccupping as you drifted off, it seemed like we could last that way forever, if only you would sleep through housetraining.

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Now you are in your new home with a yard, and I hope the transition wasn’t too difficult for you. The past week without you has been strange. Everything is back to normal, but sometimes I still expect you to come bounding over to greet me when I open the door. I still think of you when I pull my socks on in the morning and a toe sticks through a hole you chewed, or when I find a shred of paper or fabric on the floor that bears your unmistakable teeth marks. There is a little muddy paw print on the floor that I just can’t bear to wipe up. In a decade or so when my kids beg me for a puppy, I’ll pull out pictures of you and make them listen to the story of how I found you. I’ll tell them that you probably have grandpuppies by now. When they wear me down and we go to the shelter “just to look,” I will half expect to find you again and fit that little piece back into my heart.

Love, Aubrey

Oliver3

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An Announcement

It’s official: I’m a grown-up. After a couple years of wondering when I would get there, how I would know, if I would like it, I suddenly happened upon it. Earlier this fall I thought I was there when I spent a full week debating whether to buy a Brita water filter, doing cost-benefit analyses between the pitcher and bottled water while standing in the beverage aisle. Clearly though, I hadn’t fully arrived, as I forgot to factor in the monthly purchase of new filters, which would have skewed my analysis in the opposite direction. But last week this new life stage came and left no room for uncertainty. How did I know? Brussels sprouts. That’s right, I bought and cooked and ate them, all with no prodding from someone older and healthier than I.

Here in my little corner of Bulgaria, green vegetables are scarce at this time of year. Do not be deceived by the garden bounty photos from the canning post. I began feeling some withdrawal around mid-October, as the last of the tomatoes and zucchini dried up, losing market space to dirt-caked, imposing root vegetables. Occasionally there would be a few wrinkly heads of broccoli in the grocery store next to the romaine lettuce. But right now we’re mostly down to potatoes, turnips, and some other tubers that I have no idea what to do with. I have mostly been going with frozen spinach and carrots, but the grand balance of my diet has been tipped more heavily toward cookies.

Then last week I was at the store, and there was a crate full of sprouts. I picked up a box, looked them over skeptically, and put it back down. I’m not that desperate, I thought, and went along with my shopping. The next day I came back for some milk, and they were still there. Looking over another box, I considered the way that all my internal organs are probably shriveling and plotting to shut down on me while I sleep. I sighed and put it in my basket. Maybe they wouldn’t be as bad as I remembered.

They weren’t. Once home, I cooked roasted them with garlic, the way that all those progressive food bloggers say has transformed their view of Brussels sprouts (or maybe this is reactionary, not progressive, since it uses an oven instead of a microwave). It didn’t exactly transform them into cotton candy in the oven, but I did eat far more sprouts than I ever have in one sitting before, without even throwing any away. This is something no child does for herself, so I was left to conclude that I had cast off the ways of my youth. Yes, all my older family members should feel free to applaud quietly at their computers. It’s been a big week.

Now that I have reached this milestone, I’m not really sure how to handle it. I spent tonight baking and knitting (truly), but my guess is that’s jumping a little too far ahead in life. So what do I do next? Open an IRA? Host a Tupperware party? Get a mullet? I already feel old at work when I realize that my students did not grow up arguing over which Backstreet Boy was the cutest. (Obviously Nick won then, but Brian is the clear choice in retrospect. He has a dreamily stable career and family life.) I don’t even know the names of the One Direction boys. On the other hand, my mom made the comment over winter break that I have been 30 since I was 3, so maybe I have been here my whole life anyway. Either way, bring on the grown-up vegetables. I can handle them … unless, of course, they are mushrooms. Then I would rather be sent to time out.

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Why Don’t We Call It ‘Jarring’?

Fall means two things in Vidin: One, the sidewalk-cafe regulars (aka everyone) begin to mount their fervent resistance to the indoors, bundling up and switching from frappes to hot chocolates but refusing to budge from their chilled outdoor seats. I was taken captive weeks ago by the indoors, and now I can’t even stand it when the cafe owner insists on keeping the door open. Two, the plastic tomatoes invade the markets. Judging by the number of exasperated remarks I hear, I would rank that the greatest national tragedies in the Bulgarian consciousness to be, first, 500 years of slavery to the Turks; second, the past 23 years of economic devastation following the collapse of communism; and third, importation of inferior produce. In particular, I have been warned numerous times of the garlic from China.

Never one to skimp on a good meal, however, the Bulgarian does not resign himself to these offerings but prepares months in advance for the barrenness of winter. He spends the summer growing tomatoes, peppers, and carrots in his village garden and then preserves enough to keep himself content until next spring. Recently one of my colleagues invited me to see the canning process firsthand.

I learned a lot that day. Perhaps most immediately, be careful not to get a finger caught in the meat grinder. Also, with time and determination, humans can throw off the chains of nature, at least partially. Months after they have been forced to surrender in the outside seating battle, Bulgarians will continue to champion the cause of the domestically grown vegetable. Yes we can!

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Sunday Surprise

This Sunday morning I woke up with the plan to spend a leisurely morning listening to a sermon from my church in Chicago and walking along the river. I haven’t figured out yet what I’m doing for church here. I know from my Sofia friends that there are a couple evangelical churches in Vidin, but I haven’t yet gotten the details about them. So I popped my headphones in, prepping for solo church with worship music from my church in California. (These albums were my go-to last summer when I was feeling lonely in Sofia. The music is beautiful, and they have been so instructive in pointing me toward the Lord rather than getting mired in thoughts.)

I had barely made it to the end of the block when I heard another song drifting through an open window. A roomful of people were singing in Bulgarian, and even though I couldn’t get most of the words, the music had that worshippy sound about it. Major key, guitar, emotion, happening on Sunday morning — it all clicked. I crossed the street and stood under the window, catching a few of the church words in my vocabulary. At best, I thought, I have stumbled across a small Bible-believing church, and at worst, it’s a cult that meets in a small room with only one exit. Figuring small-town Bulgaria probably wasn’t a hotbed of cultish activity and that the scary cults probably meet at a more conspicuous time than 10 a.m. on Sunday, I opened the door and walked in.

Inside was a church of about 30 people, some young and some old. I sat in an empty spot in the back, and a young boy in front of me turned around every few minutes to size me up as the newcomer. Without translation for the sermon, I was able to glean that the pastor was speaking about the greatness of God. (Admittedly, this realization was helped by his playing a YouTube clip of “How Great Is Our God” in the middle of the message.) After the service, I met an American woman (from California!) who, with her husband, helps run some of the church’s ministries. As I have found with most Bulgarians and Bulgarian Christians especially, they were automatically welcoming and offering their help for anything I needed. The morning had turned out to be a surprise blessing.

I still might check out the other churches in the area, but it was so encouraging to happen upon a Christian community within sight of my apartment. Who knows what other surprises Vidin has.

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Finding the Good

I was planning to post pictures of my town, Vidin, today, but a digital malfunction has corrupted almost all new photos I take. (If anyone has any tips on how to fix this, I would appreciate them.) I can only guess what your imaginations will yield on the subject of a poor town in northwestern Bulgaria, but rest assured I have an apartment with four walls (give or take a broken window) and running water (though I’ve been warned it sometimes gets shut off).

After a week of Fulbright orientation and a little traveling, I spent a few days in Sofia, excited to see friends from last summer there and spend time preparing to teach. When I told my Bulgarian friends in Sofia that I was posted to a foreign language high school in Vidin, they responded almost universally with raised eyebrows and pursed lips, trying to hide their aversion and avoid scaring me. Bulgarians, though, are known more for their bluntness than their optimism, so it wasn’t long before I realized I had been assigned to a struggling town in the poorest region of the country. Some tried to point me in a brighter direction: “It’s actually safer in the poor areas. All the criminals have moved on … because there’s nothing for them to steal,” one friend said. But most just wished me luck half-heartedly and went on to tell me how insistent Bulgarian teenagers are on behaving badly in class.

On the bus ride here, we bumped through village after village of crumbling terra cotta and cement block buildings, and I prayed that we weren’t there yet. When the Danube appeared in the window, I knew from my Google Maps research that we must be close. I filled the last 15 minutes of the ride by panicking. What in the world I was doing on this bus, going to a place that even Bulgarians themselves don’t want to go? My plane ticket home was dated July 2013, though, so I just got off at the bus station, sat on a bench and pulled my luggage around me, and waited from a teacher from the school to come get me.

The two weeks since then have assumed a rhythm of teachers meetings (of which I pick up a sentence here and there), daily trips through the labyrinth of the public market, and visits from the repair man fixing my stove. I shed a few tears with my mom over Skype somewhere in there, but at this point I think I have found some good things to cling to.

I have been poking around for some spots that I can claim as my own, and one of them will be the river walk. We are situated directly on the Danube. Along our bank is a long park with tall shade trees and ice cream stands and perfect reading benches that look over the river, onto Romania. Walking along the river, my thought is, “How beautiful. Lord, thank you for placing me here.”

Most of the residents probably wouldn’t apply that description to the whole town. The recent depopulation/brain drain indicates that Vidin doesn’t have a new golden age coming any time soon. Students regularly ask me, “Why are you here?,” sincerely confused as to what good I can see in a town they dream of getting away from. It is an exercise sometimes to find the good, as I stub my toe on another piece of broken sidewalk and swerve right to avoid walking under the building that’s shedding concrete shards as it waits to be renovated. But beyond all that there’s good here, and it’s beautiful; and I need to keep that in my imagination, too.

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Pigeons

Dear pigeons who live on my rooftop, directly above where my laundry hangs,

We all know where this is going. Today, I did my first load of laundry here, and it was not long before I made the connection that my balcony happens to be your, er, rest stop between my roof and the one across the street. You’ve left such a wealth of territory-marking evidence behind that I can only conclude that you believe you have rights to this property or, worse, that you are excrementally targeting my domain for your own amusement. Either way, this has got to stop.

I imagine today you flew between city lampposts and watched as I stepped out onto my balcony, intending to string up a laundry line, something I have never had to do before. You probably heckled me from the gutter as I peeked around at my neighbor’s balcony to get an idea of the best way to do it. You see, the owner of my apartment has left me with only one horizontal pole to tie a line to, so I was planning to improvise and tie the other end of the line to the AC unit, until the neighbor leaned around the divider and called over to me. By this point you must have been ROFL-ing (ripping out feathers laughing) as I shrank, afraid she was going to yell at me for peeping at her laundry. As pigeons, you surely know the fear that a yelling Bulgarian woman can strike into a skittish heart.

But you probably don’t know how meaningful it was to me that instead of yelling at me, she called over her English-speaking daughter to offer me help. They had been watching me too as I puzzled over my laundry line, and seconds later the girl’s shirtless father showed up at my door, bringing with him a thick cloud of garlic. He strode through my living room to the balcony to devise the more crafty and neighborly plan of tying my line to the top of our shared balcony divider. Never has a laundry-related task made my heart swell so.

No, I’m sure you have no idea of how meaningful it is to be the recipient of strangers’ random acts of kindness when you’re in a foreign land. You and your crow-nies have probably been terrorizing this bloc since you rebelled your way out of the nest, never allowing yourself to feel vulnerable, escaping to the sky every time someone startled you or invaded your personal comfort bubble. You don’t know how lonely it is, hanging your laundry up in a foreign land, crunching dried pigeon drops beneath your feet every time you turn to grab another pair of socks. No, you just fly overhead without a care in the world.

You may be well aware that nothing would be so disheartening to me as waking up to find my just-washed laundry soiled, and you may be planning your night raids around this very bit of reconnaissance. It’s plain to me that you have the upper hand in this battle. You’re lighter and faster, and there are no threats with which I could realistically follow through to terminate your activities. I could make some quip about pigeon pie, but I would never desecrate my oven with such an ingredient. Therefore I can only appeal to the shreds of goodness that I pray you carry in your tiny pigeon hearts. This is a town of a thousand balconies, many of which are abandoned and come with no angry, fist-shaking renters. I implore you, in the name of my white sheets and grown-up blouses and the kitchen towels I just bought, move your business to those balconies!

Sincerely hoping our paths part here,

Aubrey

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Have Some Pie

Dear friends and family,

I’m making you a pie. I’m going to eat it, but I’ll think of you the whole time.

After two weeks of being in travel limbo between Chicago, Sophia, and Belgrade, here I am at last in Vidin, Bulgaria, where I will be stationed for the next 10 months. More precisely, I’m sitting on the floor of my living room, next to my fridge (yes, still in the living room), waiting for my pie to come out of the oven (which is in the kitchen, next to the washing machine). While twiddling away my first night of solitude, I have chosen butter and sugar as the lights of my life.

Technically, I’m sitting on the floor waiting for my pie, but in spirit I’m back in my parents’ kitchen, where they will soon scold me for leaving flour on the countertop but thank me for dessert; I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen, where she is crumbling butter and sugar over her Dutch apple pie; I’m in my college apartment, where my roommate is making her signature blueberry pie with the intended recipient’s initials cut into the crust. From her baking high horse, she is elaborating on the importance of high-quality fruit. Her pie has a small mountain of fresh blueberries oozing juice through cracks in the pastry. My plum and nectarine pie is oozing its own fresh fruit juices, with nectarines from the market and plums from my friendly neighbors one floor down.

(If we’re being picky, it’s not actually a pie. It’s a crostata. But pie is so much more welcoming and homey and, well, American, than crostata. All my applicable memories have to do with pie, not crostata.)

As I’m sure I will say about so many other things this year, this is the first time I have ever baked a pie myself. With it, I’ve learned a few things, most importantly that my oven has a hot spot in the back and that the “4” on the dial is roughly 350 degrees Fahrenheit. And that food can fill you with cheer and warmth and memories of friendship, but I already knew that one. Thank you for being with me as I have prepared to come here for the year and for being with me tonight as I remembered all your encouragements and advice, pie-related and otherwise. Hopefully I will be able to restrain myself and share the pie and count it as a step toward making new friendships and new memories, but I’ve already eaten half of it while composing the last paragraph, and breakfast is only eight hours away.

Love, Aubrey

P.S. I know you’re probably far more interested in details about where my town and where I’m living than what I’m baking, and those will come. But pie requires far less unscrambling of emotions. Plus it tasted like the perfect end of summer.

(Pie inspired by this recipe, which was inspired by this recipe. I didn’t have the luxuries of whole wheat flour or a food processor, but I did slip some ginger and cinnamon into the fruit mix, mainly to show off my new spice collection to myself.)

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