One month accomplishments

In some ways it feels like I’ve been here way longer, but actually it’s been just over a month since I first landed in Sofia, and here are some of my accomplishments:

1) I still do not have a microwave! Although I do use one at school sometimes to heat up my lunch, I’ve mostly been cooking things fresh (picking up ingredients on my way home from school) and heating up leftovers in the oven. Strangely enough, I haven’t really missed it at all, and I figure it’s better and healthier not to have one, so I’m going to keep trying to go without.

2) Related to #1, I roasted chicken! which I had never done before. Unfortunately, I left my camera at school that day, so I couldn’t take a picture of it, but in general I’ve also been cooking more, including tonight’s dinner, chicken breasts with creamy mushroom sauce:

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PS – The mushroom sauce was delicious, largely, I suspect, because of the quantities of French butter that went into it.

3) I took up Balkan dancing! Observe a sample (this is not us!):

One of the phys ed teachers runs adult classes after school, and I started going last week. In addition to solving my lack of physical exercise besides walking, it was really fun to do some folk dancing again. It’s a lot harder than it looks – there are much faster and more difficult patterns than the one in the clip above.

4) This one is a longer story. Today I purchased a DVD player at Technopolis, brought it home, set it up, and realized it didn’t work. That is, I was pretty sure it didn’t work. I worried that there might be some really obvious step in DVD set-up that I was failing to do which would cause it to work, but really what else is there to do but plug it in and push “power”? The manual was only in Bulgarian, but I could tell that it listed 3 steps for set-up and then the rest of it was just details about how to skip chapters and set up subtitles, etc. I tried it in different outlets, I looked for a reset button that might need to be pushed, I pushed the power button on and off several times. Nothing.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

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"This city’s made us crazy, and we must get out…"

That was the feeling last Friday when the six new teachers finalized plans to jump ship out of Sofia for a couple of days and hit up Bulgaria’s “second city,” Plovdiv. Only two days of actual teaching so far (but two weeks of faculty orientation and planning) and we were all worn out. Of course, as the weekend wound down, it was simultaneously a relief and a stress inducer to be back in Sofia. Even with five years of teaching experience, I still need to figure out how not to have a complete meltdown on Sunday evenings. 

Plovdiv is about a two hour bus ride from Sofia (shorter on the way back, since we were able to get off the bus earlier, closer to our apartments, and not have to sit through all the traffic and congestion getting back into the city center). We stayed at Hikers Hostel, which was really great – very friendly and helpful staff, and a nice atmosphere with the other guests stopping over in Plovdiv from all over – Turkey, Spain, Germany, Slovenia, Poland, just to name a few. Interestingly, I also felt like we encountered a much higher percentage of English-speaking Bulgarians (waitstaff, etc) in Plovdiv than in Sofia; granted, we were in sort of the touristy part of town, but we speculated also that in some ways it makes sense for a smaller city (with a prominent university population) to have more English speakers than the all-encompassing melting-pot big city Sofia. 

Plovdiv is known for Roman ruins in its Old Town (where the hostel is), as well as a lot of art galleries and festivals. I also spotted no fewer than four wedding parties during the 26 hours or so that we were there – you’ll see in one of the photos that the ancient Roman amphitheatre is a popular place for post-ceremony photos! Also featured in the photos: a sampling of Plovdiv’s extensive population of undoubtedly germy but nonetheless extremely cute stray kittens. I had to restrain myself from luring one of them into my backpack and smuggling it home with me. Aside from the other logistical problems, though, I don’t know that the kitten would appreciate being transported into Sofia’s extensive population of even germier and considerably less cute stray dogs. It seems like Sofia ended up with all the stray dogs and Plovdiv all the stray cats in, like, all of Bulgaria. Like it was some kind of agreement between the two species. 

I’m pretty tired and have a big day tomorrow (heaviest teaching load of the week, and meeting my seniors for the first time!), so the rest of this post is going to be mainly some photo highlights (as always, more will be posted later on facebook):

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Shop talk

It’s First Day Eve, so time for a little teacher nerd talk. I know there is at least one current and one former teacher reading, so I thought they (and anyone else, I suppose) might find this interesting. Also, it’s good to remember now and then that I am actually here to work, not just get fat on cheese and fiddle with pictographic gadgets and piss off a lot of Bulgarian cashiers.

Because of the requirements of the Ministry of Education, high school students in Bulgaria typically take 12-14 classes a year. The first time I heard this, I wondered how this was possible, and whether the classes were semesterized, meaning 6-7 a semester – a much more manageable number. I’ve since learned, however, that while a couple of classes might be semesterized, the majority of them run the full year. We operate on an 8-period day, which leaves 40 possible periods each week for classes. To fit 12-14 classes into a student’s schedule, classes don’t meet every day, and many classes meet just once a week, sometimes for only a single period (40 minutes).

At our school, English teachers actually luck out in that we get to see our kids more often than other teachers do (which also means we have fewer kids – one of my colleagues teaches 8 sections of a class, each one meeting once a week!). My schedule for the year looks like this (and yes, taking a picture of my computer screen ended up being the best way to capture this, until I acquire more advanced blogging skillz):

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So I meet with each English 10 class in two 80-minute blocks + 1 40-minute period each week, and I meet with each English 12 class twice a week for 80 minutes. Then I also teach a 40-minute Conversation class, plus an 80-minute elective which will start in October. Plus I need to schedule in my own Bulgarian language lessons – 2 40-minute periods a week.

Complicating this: on Mondays, there is a 45-minute “exam period” in the morning before 1st period, so that all sections of a class can take an exam at the same time. This means all periods on Monday are 35 minutes long instead of 40, and blocks are 70 minutes instead of 80. On Tuesday, lunch is an extended block with advisory time and intramurals, so every other period (I think it’s the odd-numbered periods) are shortened to 35 minutes while the even-numbered periods stay 40 minutes, so blocks are 75 minutes long.

Every school, every schedule has its quirks, but this one’s definitely going to take some getting used to.
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Earthquakes and other firsts

I experienced my first earthquake yesterday! The new teachers were sitting in the conference room having an orientation session when it felt like someone just dragged the building about two feet to the side. By the time I registered what was happening, it was over. Guess I spoke too soon about Bulgaria not having had any earthquakes recently. The dean of students said he’d never felt one in his 6 years here, so I took him at his word, but I guess that streak is over.

Then later that same morning, I was sitting in my classroom with the windows open when I heard gunshots outside. The school is next to the police academy, so I’m just going to assume it was some kind of training exercise. Actually, it’s not that unusual to hear bang-bang noises in Sofia, although usually I think it’s firecrackers. Either that or the Bulgarian mafia at work.

OK, now that I’ve successfully made my mother incredibly paranoid about my safety here, onto other surprising firsts…I saw another Asian person today! TWO Asian people, in fact! I was at Billa when I heard (accented) English being spoken behind me, and I turned around reflexively and saw a man and a woman about my own age. The woman and I made eye contact and I think registered some mutual surprise, but we didn’t talk, although in hindsight I wish I’d said something. This was almost as exciting as the earthquake.

Also at Billa, I purchased a basil and a rosemary plant. I’m not a plant person at all (evidenced by my murdering one of my old roommate’s plants recently), but I’m trying to do more cooking, and since my apartment has a small balcony, I thought I might try to start a little herb garden out there:

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So far I’m just keeping them in the pots so I can bring them in in the winter and honestly because I don’t really know what to do with them other than water them occasionally. Any advice from more plant-savvy people would be welcome. The balcony doesn’t get that much sun, which is why I put them on the ledge instead of on the floor, though I went back and forth for a while, not knowing what would be best.

Now I just need to hope there isn’t another earthquake.

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Grazing goats is prohibited

Everyone who has traveled to a non-predominantly English-speaking country has probably encountered humorous signage, either because the translation is amusingly inaccurate, or because the content itself just doesn’t seem to translate well.

This was part of the sign welcoming a group of us to Rila National Park on Sunday:

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Given that we had to ride a chair lift a good 10-15 minutes up the mountainside to even get to this sign, it begs the question: WHAT goats? The ones that rode up the chairlift with us? Or, had we chosen to take an alternate route, the ones that we herded either up the steep mountain slope or across the expansive and even steeper Rila Mountain range from the nearest town (perhaps accompanied by the strains of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Climb Every Mountain” — or, naturally, “The Lonely Goatherd”)? Or is it supposed to be, “Grazing goats ARE prohibited,” in which case – what are you supposed to do if you spy a traitorous wild goat committing this cardinal sin? Tackle it? But the use of “is” seems to imply a gerund – we are being warned off about grazing our goats, just as we are being warned not to walk our dogs without a leash (or, as it says off-camera, “a hobble”). It’s all just very perplexing.

Befuddling, too, are the various signs and labels on the appliances around my apartment. In theory, I think these pictographs are supposed to help make things more universal – after all, no need to decipher any Cyrillic or look up words in a dictionary. However, witness the entirety of the control panel on my washing machine…

…which led to my washing my clothes twice this morning, because I couldn’t tell if it was done the first time or not when the light underneath the lock symbol started flashing red (in my mind, flashing + red light = BADNESS), and so I experimentally pushed some buttons again, which led to it starting a completely new cycle. Which I could not figure out how to interrupt (the door stays locked throughout a cycle, which I’m sure is a handy safety feature and all, but less so when you’ve just mistakenly set your underwear to go through another spin and actually you just want to get them out now, please).
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Road trip! and back to school

First of all, thank you to everyone for the individual emails and I promise I will get around to responding to them eventually!

Things have been busy, as you can imagine, though sometimes in surprising ways. I have long stretches of time where I have nothing really to do, so I just keep pounding the pavement and exploring. I walk around the malls and shops a lot to get a sense of what’s available here, and I’ll make small purchases: a corkscrew here, dish towels there, a toaster. I feel like Marjane in Persepolis II when she keeps going to the store to buy one item at a time to draw the experience out.

Last Sunday through Tuesday, the new teachers plus some senior staff went on a road trip to Rila, Melnik, Kovachevitsa, and Bansko (plus some potty stops at little villages along the way whose names I don’t remember). I’m used to living on rivers and by the sea, so it’s quite a change of pace to be driving and hiking through so many mountains. You pass by villages that seem to be perched on air, their concrete foundations tenuously affixed to steep cliffsides and sheer drops, and you wonder (or at least I do) what inspires people to live there. Breathtaking, yes, but one little tremor (and Bulgaria is apparently in an earthquake zone, although they haven’t had one in a long time) and your house is plummeting thousands of feet to sea level.

Highlights: 
#1-4: Rila Monastery
#5-6: Melnik
#7-8: Rozhen Monastery in Melnik
#9: Awesome monastery cat…very friendly
#10-13: Views in and around Kovachevitsa
#14-16: Bansko – a major ski resort in the winter, but pretty chill in the summer
(more pictures will be available on facebook this weekend)

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