Eff you too, Sofia Poshta!

This has been a while coming, but I have a bone to pick with you, Sofia Poshta.

Exhibit A – my Christmas/birthday package from home, loaded with Trader Joe’s goodies, Chinese groceries, and my rainboots: 

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Exhibit B – a bridal shower invitation from a friend and former co-worker (I can’t make it, by the way!):

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Into the abyss

Apparently I’m like the Angel of (Figurative) Death because I’ve had two 10th grade students and one 11th grade advisee leave the school in the last couple weeks, and I have another 10th grade advisee who looks like it’s only a matter of time before he gets the boot as well. 

This is one thing that never gets easier, no matter where you teach. Students will think I’m making this up, but there really is a little hole left in your life when they leave, especially when they leave with no closure. Students at my old school left for various reasons – moved, dropped out, expelled, got pregnant, GED, etc – while my kids here generally leave for academic reasons (either the school doesn’t accept them back because their GPA is too low, or the parents pull the kids because they don’t want to pay that much tuition for what they consider substandard grades), but it’s still really hard to let go of them, no matter what you personally thought about them or how much of a pain in the ass they might have been. It’s like Pilate says in Song of Solomon, “You can’t just fly off and leave a body.” Even though it’s often the kids who think they’ve been punished, I do feel a bit abandoned, every time. 

At my old school, because of the reasons behind their departures, kids often left without any warning or notice at all. One day they’d be in your class, the next they’d be gone forever and you’d never know what happened to them. Sometimes you wouldn’t even know they’d officially left the school; you’d eventually just have to surmise what happened to them, or do your own investigation (do not even get me STARTED on the worst of these for me – I’m still LIVID). Strangely, though, even though my Bulgarian school is smaller and in many ways more organized and more put-together, with a less transient student population, the same phenomenon occurs.

I knew in advance about one of my 10th graders leaving (failed to meet GPA requirements), but he still never signed out with me personally or said goodbye; I can understand why he didn’t want to have to face down each of his 14 or so teachers one last time given the circumstances of his departure, but I still wish I’d been able to see him. My 11th grade advisee basically left during the flu vacation, with no warning at all – I’d seen him in advisory a few days earlier and we’d discussed final exams and there was absolutely no mention of any impending withdrawal. And then if I hadn’t picked up on rumors and some threadbare info from other teachers that same day, I wouldn’t have known about my latest 10th grader’s transfer at all. I asked him about it during a quiet moment in class, but I think if I hadn’t spoken to him about it, he was never planning on telling me directly, even though his whole section knew and his mother had come to parent conferences TWO DAYS previously and not uttered a word. 

In some ways, it’s comforting to know that it is this way worldwide. American, immigrant, Bulgarian, it doesn’t matter – it’s not like my Boston city kids are especially remiss in notifying people of their general whereabouts. But in another sense, it’s even more insulting and hurtful that it’s so widespread. I mean, when I moved to Cambridge and then to Bulgaria, I informed my weekly yoga instructors both times because I didn’t want them just wondering where I’d suddenly disappeared to. No, it’s not like the news rocked their world, but it just seemed like common courtesy. It doesn’t seem so much to ask that schoolteachers, who see kids every day, get the same kind of consideration. Do students and parents think we just don’t care? That we don’t notice? Give us some credit! Good teachers truly love their kids, even the “bad” ones. It is in many ways very much akin to parenting. And, like with family, you don’t just get to fly off and leave a body, without saying goodbye.

Къде е автогарата?

I write this lying on a very comfortable bed in the Lucky Light (Лъки Лайт) Hotel & Spa in Velingrad after a supremely relaxing day doing nothing with my female co-workers, but getting here yesterday ended up being a tale of two bus stations for an американка like me. Because of some logistical issues with car availability, I volunteered to be the sole person to take the bus to Velingrad. I figured it would give me a good opportunity to learn a bit more about Bulgarian transit.

My first obstacle was finding the old bus station in Sofia, София Юг (Sofia South). I’d received some general directions and looked on Google Maps, but as is typical with my experience here so far, finding it in real life turned out to be a lot harder than it initially looked. This is because София Юг turns out to be little more than a shack beneath an underpass, with four spaces for mud-streaked, tired-looking buses to pull in, and I walked past it about three times, searching for the bus station along side streets nearby, before I realized what it was. In fact, my Bulgarian instinct kicked in on my last pass when I looked over and thought, “Wait a second…dilapidated buses parked near each other beneath the underpass…an OK Taxi…aaaand a banitsa stand – that must be the ‘station’!”

Upon arrival in Велинград, I found myself in a parking lot on the outskirts of town in front of a shabby-looking building labeled “автогара” in Cyrillic script above peeling yellow paint and blue tin awnings. It was dark, it was drizzling, an alternative version of “Semi-Charmed Life” was blasting on the radio, and the station seemed abandoned except for a light on behind the drawn curtains of the каса counter and a small animal running around beyond the open doorway of a door labeled, “Please keep the door closed!” in Bulgarian. At first I thought the creature was a fuzzy kitten, based on size, but then I thought it was a puppy, and then for a few brief moments I wondered if it was actually a piglet because it was roughly the right shape, much bigger upfront than in the back. I finally decided that it was actually a puppy, just a weirdly shaped one. This was largely confirmed when the puppy squatted and shat in the ticket line area in front of the каса counter, barked triumphantly at its achievement, then proceeded to sniff and growl at its own excrement before running around in circles on the station floor again.

This is so Bulgaria. Even in the capital city and a spa town, this is the state of the public transit buildings. I mean, don’t get me wrong – you still get where you need to go. You just see some interesting extra sights along the way.

Random notes on a lazy Sunday

So wonderful to see a former student of mine traveling, writing, and thriving even after not graduating on time (or in a conventional sense) from high school. She’s getting an education the old-fashioned way – living it – and recently came home after witnessing first-hand the protests in Egypt:

I chose to explain my experience in Egypt during the protests this way because, since I have gotten back to Boston, many people have been talking about what is going on as if it is a joke. So what better way for me to explain it than to put you in my shoes? Hopefully you can learn the lessons I have.

One: Things are never as passive as you perceive them to be at first glance!

Two: We take too many things for granted!

Three: It is one thing to stand up for yourself, but it is another thing to stand up for a stranger you later will call your brother!

Then there was this in yesterday’s NY Times, which was an interesting connection and taught me a little more about some Bulgarian history – always good to know.

Also inspirational: Finding decent Mexican food in Sofia! We finally tried Taqueria last night before heading to BSD and found it completely satisfactory (smoke-free is a nice touch). Overall a very pleasant night out, which has led to a slow start today, but that’s what Sundays are for, no?

The numbers game

File under: Quiz questions I wish I could actually ask kids…

You are lethargic, apathetic, and disengaged in class today because:

A) You partied too hard this weekend after finals and are now hungover
B) It’s been 2 full weeks since we’ve held regular classes, so you forget how to be a student
C) It’s a shocking 15 degrees (C) outside today, so you think it’s spring already, and the senioritis epidemic has hit early
D) You are depressed over your final semester grade
E) All of the above 

This actually happened with my seniors today. At least as far as D) goes, I can somewhat sympathize. I know students think that all teachers are out to get them, that we’re all part of “The Man” holding them down and, for seniors, preventing them from getting into good colleges, but I actually think Bulgarian students, and our students in particular, have a bit of a legitimate beef, not with the teachers’ grading policies, but with the schools’ and the Ministry’s set grade scale.

In Bulgaria, this is how the grades work:

91.5% and above = 6 (in most schools in Bulgaria, it is 90.5% and above)
80.5% – 91.4% = 5
70.5% – 80.4% = 4
59.5% – 70.4% = 3
59.4% and below = 2 (failing)

So to some degree, the numbers are approximately equivalent to our letter grades, with several notable exceptions: Continue reading

Rabbit, rabbit

Last Thursday was Chinese New Year (китаийска нова година) and on Wednesday night I had 8 co-workers plus one significant other over for New Year’s Eve dinner. It was my first time preparing anything like this, and I rather think there wasn’t quite enough food, but there was plenty of wine and people seemed happy. I made Taiwanese mei fun (long noodles for long life), dumplings from scratch (for good fortune), fried stuffed eggplant, and a tofu dish from a packet that I thought was ma po tofu but turned out to be absolutely nothing of the kind. It ended up tasting something like salty glue, although my gallant co-workers said that it was perfectly acceptable once you dumped loads of chili sauce on it.

There are two problems with acquiring Chinese groceries in Sofia. One is that there aren’t a lot of places to buy ethnic foods. Hit and Carrefour both have slowly expanding ethnic food sections and there’s an organic food store in the mall that carries some stuff as well, but the focus is mostly on Japanese (mainly sushi supplies) with some Thai. I sought out this promisingly-named store downtown…

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…but found that it mostly stocked with kitchenware rather than groceries (I might go back to further inspect their wok selection, however). This was where I bought the cursed tofu packet, and where I encountered my second major problem with acquiring Chinese groceries in Sofia: the ingredients and instructions are all written in Chinese and/or Bulgarian, neither of which I am fully literate in. (The sad thing is that I might actually be more literate in Bulgarian now than I am in Chinese.) Hence, glue-like tofu requiring copious amounts of chili sauce.

This whole process made me think more about being Chinese in Bulgaria. Continue reading