Pros and cons

Thanksgiving dinner party preparations are under way – a bunch of exhausted, burned-out teachers finished entering their quarter grades by 5 pm and then headed down to the cafeteria kitchen to start burning some other stuff. I got home at 10:30 and there were still plenty of people there; when I left, the highly old-school stacked ovens that remind me somewhat uncomfortably of concentration camps and/or crematoriums had just charred the first round of apple crisps, and people were picking off the singed oats.

I’m headed back over there in about an hour or so and will be there all day, culminating in an American-style Thanksgiving dinner in Bulgaria for 150 people. It is both a really fun and bonding experience to be cooking on this scale with my colleagues in an outdated, industrial-sized kitchen and somewhat emblematic of the things that we don’t have here – namely family and friends, but also other conveniences. Since it’s too sad to talk about missing people, I thought I’d use the eve of my 3-month anniversary of arriving here to reflect on some more mundane pluses and minuses of living in Bulgaria.

Things I miss:

  • CVS. The kind of all-purpose store where you can duck in if you need snacks for a party, milk, white-out, a birthday card, contact lens solution, make-up, laundry detergent, a magazine. I never appreciated CVS so much until I was stuck in Belgrade without a pen, but it’s true that there’s no such store here. The closest thing is the mega-department stores like Hit or Carrefour, but even those are more like grocery stores, or a Target/Walmart scale (not to mention way overwhelming in the case of Carrefour).
  • Staples. Goodness knows at home I could spend way too much time at Staples poring over all the possibilities, but I miss it. I also miss having variety in the students’ school supplies – when I collect notebooks each month, there are about seven or eight different designs total, and I’ve seen all of them, again, at Hit or Carrefour. They also don’t make a whole lot of sense (pineapples! a picture of pens!). And why index cards have never caught on in Bulgaria mystifies me, what with all the memorization the students have to do. (Thanks Bec, for sending me some!)
  • Self-service stores and kiosks – being able to just go in somewhere and get what you need. I know this is partly because the fall of communism made a mess of Bulgaria’s retirement and pension plans, so you have all these people who should be retired who need jobs, but it nevertheless grates my independent American sensibilities (and my lack of Bulgarian language skills) to have to walk into a pharmacy and ask for whatever I need, even if it’s just something like moisturizer. And Carrefour really needs to implement some self-service because their checkout lines on weekends are insane.
  • BAGGERS. Given that BG has so many people it needs to employ, you’d wonder that the bagging idea hasn’t caught on in big stores. Maybe I’m an obnoxious, entitled American, but the fact that I buy a cartload full of groceries and then have to stand there for an extra 5 minutes after I’ve paid, trying to figure out how to package everything, while the cashier just sits there idly and looks at you – this is annoying.
  • More (and better) bags in general would be helpful. I know, I’m a hyper-consumerist American who’s ruining the environment. Still.
  • To continue on the wasteful, consumerist American bent, I do sort of miss toilets that actually flush. Like, completely.
  • My overhead projector. I feel naked teaching without it. And projecting from a laptop isn’t the same. Also, I REALLY REALLY REALLY miss the poster-making machine in the library of my old school.
  • Trader Joe’s. Everything about it.
  • Cranberry sauce, pumpkin puree, and other canned products. Bulgaria has only very basic canned vegetables available and, inconveniently, not a whole lot of stuff that’s needed for a traditional Thanksgiving. We actually did manage to find some fresh frozen ones this year, but apparently cranberries are rare in Bulgaria – my Bulgarian student tutor was completely mystified when I asked her what they would be called in Bulgarian and asked me to describe them to her. She came to class the next day and said, “I looked up those berries you described to me – they’re called червени боровинки.” Red blueberries.
  • Chinese food, Japanese food (there is sushi, and there are some upscale Japanese places now in downtown Sofia that I’m planning to check out), Korean food, Ethiopian food, Indian food (there is some, again downtown), Thai food, Vietnamese food, Mexican food, Portuguese food. You get the idea.

Differences in Bulgaria that actually make sense to me.

  • The coin deposit for the shopping carts. I don’t know if it would work in the U.S. or if people would just be too careless and not care about getting their quarter back or whatever, but it’s true that you just don’t see stray shopping carts in big parking lots around here. Which is good because the drivers are so horrific it would be a nightmare.
  • Lockers at most major stores. I don’t really like them forcing me to put my bags in the lockers before entering the store, but the idea that they’re there actually makes a lot of sense. And the fact that it’s a coin deposit, again, so you aren’t actually paying for the locker.
  • It’s like this almost everywhere else in the world too, but I like that VAT is already in the price so you know exactly what the bill is going to be. This is especially useful in grocery stores where I can count out my small coins for exact change in advance and not be left fumbling at the register (just before I have to fumble with bagging my own items).
  • Also like this in a lot of places, but I enjoy assigned seats at the movie theater. And the amazing amounts of leg room.
  • Though the lack of convenience stores bugs me, I do like the little markets everywhere, with the home-grown produce and the little babas selling flowers.
  • The toilets do make sense to me in theory. It’s basically the 2-flush system that more environmental places in the U.S. are starting to use – one button for a “number 1” type of flush, a different button for a full flush. But in my practical experience, neither one of the buttons generally effects any kind of true flushing at all.
  • Bringing chocolate for others on your birthday or name day. This is a tradition I really like. When it’s your birthday, you bring a few big boxes of chocolate and you offer it to your co-workers, classmates, or the people you would see that day. Kids bring a box of chocolate to class and offer it to their teacher and classmates. It avoids the awkwardness of whether to tell people it’s your birthday, because instead of announcing it with a passive-aggressive implication that they should do something nice for you, you’re announcing it because you’re doing something nice for them. Also, there’s always the hope at school, when you’re having a bad day, that maybe it’s somebody’s birthday and there are chocolates in the teacher lounge.
  • Though I complain about the quality and variety of office supplies, some of them are relatively inexpensive. Sheet protectors, for example (which is useful). Also small notebooks, and post-its are cheaper (though inferior quality). The one office supply that really makes more sense to me here than in the U.S. is the hole puncher (or punch-holer, as my kids call it – I also love that). Instead of the giant hulking 3-hole punchers that always get stuck and then scatter white paper circles like snow across your classroom floor, here they have small 2-hole punchers. Binders have two rings, and the holes are around the middle of the paper. I asked some of my students once how they make sure they punch in the right place (because if you’re too far off, then your paper is going to be clipped in the binder too high up or too far down. They looked at me like I was crazy and said, “You just kind of guess. And if you do it wrong, you punch it again.”
  • I feel I’m not explaining the punch-holer well. I’ll have to take a picture of it and post it, but I don’t have one at home.
  • I just wrote a lot about food so I won’t say more, but the super-cheap (by our standards) and high quality wine and beer are a definite plus.
  • I have a separate entry planned on some of the baffling conventions of Bulgarian composition that make their way into my students’ English composition, but I do like that the student handbook at my school has a clause in it that the 8th grade ESL teachers strongly enforce, known as QUALITY MATTERS (abbreviated QM). In practice, this basically means that you can ding kids on any annoying little habit they have or any pet peeve of yours (ragged edges on paper, margin specifications, double spacing, headings, crossed-out words) and chalk it up to the QM principle, and they sort of have to just take it. Actually, most times they do just accept it. Sometimes their obedience and lack of questioning is bizarre to me, but I think also it’s just a cultural thing that the teacher has the right to tell you exactly how s/he wants something, and it’s your job to do it. It’s nice. I like it.
  • Finally, also a cultural thing – the kids are just flat-out polite. They say “good morning” every time they see you, even if they don’t know you, they hold doors open, they knock before they enter your classroom, all without coaching. Again, it is just expected, and they do it. We could use more of that back home.

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