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.