In defense of Sofia (sort of)

Berlin is sprawling, clean, efficient, quite navigable and friendly, but not really a place I think I would choose to live.

Granted, Sofia is not really a place I would choose to live either, if given other options (I am aware, of course, that I DID choose to live in Sofia, but I’m talking about a more settled-down, permanent sort of way). If it came down to it, though, I would still pick Berlin over Sofia for certain ease and quality of life factors. Berlin is by far more cosmopolitan and has an interesting nightlife and student scene. It’s not necessarily a place I’d return to for culture and beauty. But it’s a highly liveable city – unlike, at times, Sofia.

That’s not to rag unnecessarily on Sofia. It does have its positive qualities, and there are certainly worse places to live. This led to a discussion with my colleagues here about which cities in Europe and the U.S. we would rank BELOW Sofia in terms of desirability. Keep in mind these are personal opinions and certainly not meant to insult anyone. Also, we restricted our criteria to capital or major cities; otherwise we’d be opening ourselves up to every backwater town imaginable.

This is what we came up with (in no particular order):
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Travel perspectives

I haven’t been able to follow the ongoing Egypt protests as much as I would like, but I was thinking lately about how my perspective on the issue is different after traveling there and meeting and speaking with Egyptians.

If I had never been to Egypt, I think I would be interested in the developments but nowhere near as invested. It might sound a little cheap, but I am actually worried about Ahmed and Dr. Sherif and Saleh and the other Egyptians we met. I’m wondering about their involvement in the conflicts. And I find myself thinking, “Go, Egypt, go go go!” It’s simply fascinating to me that I was there a few weeks ago and getting a very frustrated but very stagnant and hopeless vibe from the Egyptians we spoke to; they weren’t happy with the political situation, but they didn’t seem to feel that anything could be done about it – after all, “Egyptians don’t travel” was the motto in more ways than one.

Now, in a matter of days, feelings of empowerment and change are sweeping the country. Sure, it must be scary – some of the riot footage on TV looks terrifying – but compared to the stillness and apathy and learned helplessness that I witnessed, it’s remarkable. And being in Berlin now and tracking the legacy of freedom and oppression and seeing the historical photos of the Wall protests, it feels like something’s coming full circle.

This is the wonderful broadening of perspective that traveling gives you – it humanizes situations and presents new connections and just overall makes the world a little smaller and your experience a little more extensive.

Memorializing murder

I’m in Berlin for the weekend (this was spontaneously decided upon on Wednesday night) and overall enjoying the trademark efficiency and infrastructure here – as my co-workers say, it’s nice to be in a “real city” for a little while.

Today I visited the Holocaust memorial – or, as it’s officially called, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This was a fascinating experience – I hadn’t really followed the development and opening of the memorial that closely – that in some ways was very different from what you’d find in the U.S. For one thing, there’s the official name. It’s a superlong mouthful, but there it is on every sign and label. And wirhin the memorial information center itself, the word “murder” is frequently used – far more often than I remember from the U.S. Holocaust Museum, although it was quite a while ago that I was there, so I may be misremembering.

Then there’s the design of the memorial itself. It seems deceptively simplistic at first – just slabs of granite, no symbolic number or seemingly greater significance, but then slowly it sneaks up on you: it’s like a graveyard in the middle of Berlin. And it really is the MIDDLE of Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, and Bundestag all a stone’s throw away. It’s eerily quiet among those stelae, and the ground is concave, so you get further and further surrounded by these massive stones the farther you walk in.

One thing I found most striking about it was the conscious and deliberate acceptance of responsiility, by placing it in prime location downtown and continually referring to Nazi actions as “murder.” It was amazing to take in, and I just don’t see that that would ever happen in the U.S., that there would be such clear admission of guilt and desire to remember and preserve that wrongdoing for the sake of future prevention. Perhaps the sheer scale of the crime necessitates it, but I don’t see the U.S. ever doing the equivalent (as a funny coincidence, the American Embassy is across the street). I don’t think we’re good at admitting we’re wrong, and we certainly don’t like to publicize our mistakes.

I’ve thus far found much of Europe to be far better about this than we are. I found the Berlin memorial a tribute to the modern German people as well as to the murdered Jews, and can only wonder if the U.S. would be able to acquit itself as well in a comparable situation and avoid a totally revisionist history.

Little blues and Bulgarian education

Today I learned that the Bulgarian word for “bruises” is синини, which translates into something like “little blues” (син means blue). However, mine are distinctly not blue, but rather purple, and green, and yellow – pretty much any color but.

My skiing bruises took a few days to manifest, but now they are out in full force. I neglected to mention when I posted before about Borovets that it was a very Bulgarian experience. By this I mean:

1) It was incredibly foggy at the bottom of the mountain but clear at the top (take this as a metaphor for whatever you will)

2) The beginner slope and many other trails were closed, meaning that I was learning to ski on a RATHER steep incline and my co-workers (who actually know how to ski, to different degrees) went down a supposedly “easy” blue trail that then morphed into a difficult/black diamond trail partway down because the blue section further down the mountain was…you got it, closed.

3) However, it was unclear whether these routes really were closed, as we saw numerous people just ski past the signs and head down.

4) There was an open area at the bottom of the mountain (where the difficult/black diamond trail finished), where children were sledding with their parents. Coupled with the fog, this made things a little treacherous for those actually skiing down the mountain. Luckily, I did not have to contend with this because I was busy racking up синини on the non-beginner slope up at the top.

Oh, Bulgaria.

This whole habit of not fully thinking things through occurs in the classroom as well (ok, yeah, it’s an awkward segue)… Continue reading

Sectionality

The first of hopefully a series of posts doing some actual reflecting and processing of my job here, not just my silly side jaunts and adventures in household appliances.)

One of many differences between Bulgarian and American education is that Bulgarian students attend all of their classes with the same section – they travel as the same group of students all day long, every day of the school year. Our school is actually unusual in that the sections change from year to year, and 11th and 12th graders actually have some classes, including English, in — gasp!! — mixed sections; in many schools in Bulgaria, students remain in a section with the same kids from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Different sections develop distinctly different personalities. Take my two 10th grade sections. One of them is full of very sweet, generally very well behaved students who are meticulously organized and diligent about homework and classwork – give them a set of instructions and questions to answer and they are happy to do their best to obey. They generally ask good questions and make good connections. However, only about half of them participate regularly in class discussions. I have to impose certain measures to get everyone to speak in a class – because when I directly state it, and it’s required of them, they will do it, but otherwise they’re mostly happy to sit back on their heels and let the outspoken members of the group carry the load. They also don’t tend to do as well on papers or tests – they do worse than you would expect, based on their homework and their quarter grades.

My other section has several tense dynamics, in particular conflict between the boys and girls in the section. Some of the boys are too good friends with each other and cause a distraction for themselves and sometimes hurt feelings, bullying, or distraction for others. Other than a few very precise and focused students (mostly girls), they are a complete disaster when it comes to homework and minutiae – I wish I had taken a picture of one student’s cumulative Macbeth homework, every night written on a different kind of paper, with French handouts and Human Geography notes on the back, a corner ripped off of one sheet, half sheets mixed in with whole, lined with blank, and two nights of homework missing. I had to piece together several other kids’ homework in a similar fashion. And while the more organized kids in that section do tend to be girls, there are also girls whom I love dearly but are completely flaky and scatter-brained in a way I just don’t see in my other section, from boys or girls. A considerable number of them didn’t write their name on the front of their semester exam. Nearly half of them have had their cell phones confiscated, by me or other teachers I know about (and this already happens way less than it did at my old school), compared to one kid in the other section.

But they all participate in every class, without being explicitly required to do so. Even on their worst days they have a dynamism to them that the other section doesn’t have. And they are bright as all hell – they can routinely wipe the floor with the other section on major assignments – their papers especially, on the whole are light years beyond – and a much higher proportion of them have top grades than in the other section. There are kids in there who might not write down a lick of homework or class notes, yet they were listening the entire time and can synthesize all the information into a kick-ass essay that rivals my seniors’ for quality.

Of course this happens everywhere – different classes have different personalities. But what’s so interesting to me is that these kids, this combined personality, stays with them all year. These kids exist as an entity. They are most often referred to by their section numbers and are often discussed and compared by teachers as whole sections (i.e. “what’s the naughty section this year?”). For Bulgarian students, parents, and teachers alike, what section they are in is a Very Big Deal. And this would just NEVER happen to this extent in the U.S. Elementary school yes, but not really beyond that. My school in the States does this to 9th and 10th graders, but I always got the feeling it was more out of necessity/schedule restraints than an actual desire to keep the kids together; I think if there were any convenient way around it, we wouldn’t do it. The sections get broken up as quickly as possible once the kids hit 11th grade and there’s more of an attitude that this is what “real” high school is supposed to be like, that this is the natural state of being.

I started thinking about why this might be. Is it the American fixation on the individual that prevents us from shuttling kids around in pod-like formations, with no differentiation or chance for diversity? Is it the Bulgarians’ bizarre system of organization and record-keeping that keeps them enamored of this system? Is it a Communist holdover? Or is our rhetoric of independence and self-discovery just as limited and “backwards” as Bulgaria sometimes seems to be? Continue reading

Flu-cation, all I ever wanted…

Something very unusual happened this weekend.

I had a weekend.

You have to understand how rare it is for just about any teacher not to do ANY work from the entire span of time starting from Friday evening until Monday morning, on just about any weekend during the school year. Even here, where I’m able to do so much traveling, there is a trade-off. I lesson-planned in Plovdiv and Koprivshtitsa. I graded papers in Belgrade bars and on the overnight trains. I graded quizzes on the plane to Barcelona. Egypt was a major, major exception for me, and my two fellow teacher-travelers both brought work with them on that trip.

But now, because of flu-cation next week, I will have time during the week to grade and I won’t have any new incoming material to grade or classes to plan for. So my original plan for a weekend from hell grading-wise turned into a completely free weekend, for once.

I spent all day Saturday being completely lazy at home. The only productive things I accomplished were doing two loads of laundry and some dishes, swapping the nightstand with the broken drawer on my side of the bed for the nightstand without a broken drawer on the other side of the bed, and vacuuming most of my apartment. Otherwise, I sat around and read the NY Times Most Emailed, watched parts of movies and random YouTube videos, played fetch with the cat, and took at least three naps on the sofa, often in the middle of all the aforementioned activities. I was eventually coaxed out of the apartment to go to campus and play board games and hang out with the other teachers, which was a very pleasant evening.

Today, three colleagues and I went to Borovets, a ski town outside of Samokov, about an hour and a half southeast of Sofia, and I went skiing for the first time (because although I grew up and lived most of my life in New England, I somehow had to come to Bulgaria to go skiing). We settled on this idea because much of Bulgaria currently looks something like this:

These pictures are all of campus before we left this morning, because I was too busy falling on my ass (and my knees, and my hips, and my elbows) all afternoon to take any pictures of Borovets and its pretty snow-covered pine forests. Note the distinct lack of students in any of those campus shots (ok, yes, it’s the weekend, but this is basically what the teachers will be reporting to all week). School – Students = POINTLESS for teachers — except, of course, to enable a true weekend. So…maybe not so pointless after all!

Miscellany

It is snowing lightly here in Sofia, and my kitten is transfixed watching the fat flakes drift past the window.

Now that I am officially on flu-cation and have all next week to finish my grading at work with no students, I am enjoying a lazy morning at home, although I barely know what to do with myself. I probably will end up grading at some point just out of sheer force of habit and momentum – I’ve already apparently trained my body this week to wake up after 6 hours of sleep and start grading essays, because it insists on continuing to want to do this. I have 76 more to go, although I don’t have 31 of those yet and won’t have them for a while because of the flu-cation and delayed exams. Between the end of my holiday break and the end of this semester (originally a span of 3 weeks), I will have read and graded 201 essays.

I think I will also take this week to catch up on some writing and reflecting. Every so often I jot down an idea for a blog post or a longer piece of writing, but then I don’t have time to go back and actually compose it. So, in the interest of housekeeping, here is the random-association / cliff notes version of some blog topics…  Continue reading