Fake it till you make it

I’m on fire today – TWO posts in one day!

Actually, it’s really just because I’m totally overheated from hauling myself back from the mall in the heat, and now can do nothing else but sit on the couch in front of the fan drinking water, so I figured I might as well air some more random thoughts out into cyberspace.

The mall also gave me a story to relay. I bought desperately needed new work shoes, went to Peek & Cloppenburg to get a work wardrobe refresher (despite my admiration of the more minimalist, simplistic European wardrobe, I really needed at least 1 new article to be able to throw into the mix this year if I was going to keep my sanity), Carrefour for printing paper/a new shower curtain/a hammer (“and these…are not the hammer!”), and stopped by the little Jeff/Vivacom store booth outside the Carrefour on my way out in order to put another 20 leva on my cell phone.

Well, usually this is very simple and goes off without a hitch, but for some reason the salesgirl who was working there today decided to actually BE a salesgirl (oddly enough, the saleswomen at the shoe place and P&C were also very friendly and helpful today) and launched into this long pitch about something I could sign up for something that wasn’t a contract but that gave me a better deal than just buying a 20 leva pre-paid voucher. She pulled out a price chart and explained to me the three price tiers of this program, and how you could purchase a within-network package and/or an all-networks package, the minutes, text messages, the whole deal…and all in Bulgarian.

Now, I’ve been having a little bit of re-entry rockiness with my Bulgarian. Much like I’m sure my kids will be with their English, I’m just a little slower on the uptake and it takes a hair longer for me to recall words and conjugations and to be able to string together sentences.

So this just proves to me how little language you actually need to know in order to be sold a cell phone contract (I know, it wasn’t a contract). It was impressive and a little frightening all at the same time. On the one hand, it’s encouraging to a language learner that a native speaker understands you even when your verb conjugations and adjective endings aren’t all correct. But on the other hand, what could I eventually be lured into purchasing or signing away based on understanding 20% of the verbal explanation/agreement?? 

Here, I understood the gist of what she was saying (or at least believed I did) and asked some questions (with likely very poor grammar) to clarify the essentials, and we had a good 10 minute transaction…which culminated in my not being able to purchase the better deal anyway because my Bulgarian ID card is currently expired and I haven’t gotten my new one yet, and I didn’t have my passport on me (not expecting to need it). So nice little salesgirl Yana had to just sell me the 20 leva voucher that I had asked for in the first place and, I suspect, possibly lost out on a bit of a commission, but she was super sweet about it. So if you need to get your cell phone options explained to you, I suggest you go see her. 



Whereas my students’ English is on the whole excellent, I’m at the point now where I actually feel like I’m regressing somewhat in my Bulgarian and actual improvement would take a Herculean effort which I’m not quite sure I have. When you first start learning a language, every new vocabulary set is applauded and you feel accomplished just for being able to do small things and string together short sentences. But now, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that I have FIVE Bulgarian tutors (the one official teacher employed by the school, two of my students, and two Bulgarian teachers who do a language exchange with me where I also work with them on English), I’m learning a lot that, in turn, sets me back further.

Verb Tenses – Now that I’m trying to actually say real things in Bulgarian, I’ve come face to face with all kinds of horrible complicated Bulgarian tenses. For example, there is a finished and a continual form of every verb in Bulgarian – it’s sort of like simple vs. progressive form in English…except not really. (You can have the equivalent of past simple continual in Bulgarian, for example). The finished form is for a completed or finite action. The continual form is for repeated, ongoing, or general action. Meanwhile, I’m also learning past and future tense, and there are different conjugations for finished vs. continual in those tenses as well. Add to that the fact that I haven’t been able to just sit and master ONE of these tenses/forms (heck, I never even fully mastered all the different conjugations for present simple) before getting thrown another one, and it’s like, “Muhhh…brain…huuuuurts” (CONTINUAL ACTION).

Vocabulary – Also now that I’m trying to say more things in Bulgarian conversations with my tutors, I just start Bulgarifying existing English words when I don’t know the Bulgarian word. This actually works a surprisingly high percentage of the time. However, it can also trip me up in the reverse direction. For example, last week my boy student tutor was teaching me football-related terms:

Student Tutor: “So do you know what a corner [kick] is?”

Me: “Yes. Oh! And I know how to say “corner” in Bulgarian, too! It’s ъгъла.” (uh-guh-la [or uh-guh-wa, heh] – the only word in Bulgarian that starts with the letter “uh”)

Student Tutor: “Oh, well actually…that’s true, but in football you just say корнер (cor-ner…said with Bulgarian pronunciation).”

Me: Mmph.

Pronunciation – This also leads to another problem of Engarian: Bulgarians are really really picky about your pronunciation. Even when context is provided and there’s really only one word you could possibly be saying, Bulgarians still pretend they can’t understand you because of your pronunciation.

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Let there be light

Life has just been too crazy in the last six weeks or so and I’ve slacked off on posting. Anything I would have posted would’ve just been a gigantic whining session anyway, because that felt like all I was really capable of. I am way behind on all manner of updates – Italy trip, faculty talent show, more kids being morons – and I’m sorry to waste my first new post on something as mundane as this, but I have a free-ish evening (as in, I decided it was going to be free, not that I am actually lacking in things to do) and my bathroom light just flickered out and it’s annoying that I now have to pee and shower in the dark until I figure out how to replace it, and it reminded me that I need to vent.  

The light fixtures in my apartment are curious things; I first discovered this early in the year when I had to try to find replacement bulbs and could not for the life of me figure out where to get them. The bathroom light looks to be some kind of halogen bulb under a cover that seems to be screwed in place, and as I have neither screwdriver nor replacement bulbs for that, and the bathroom is in the interior of the apartment with no windows, it might be awhile before I can actually start seeing anything in my bathroom again. The rest of the lights in the apartment consist of bulbs that look like the bulbs in overhead projectors, stuck into spotlight-type fixtures, the bulb itself left exposed. I have no idea if these are actually more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs or what the deal is, but in addition to being somewhat hard to find and expensive to replace, these bulbs, I discovered, coupled with the light fixtures in the apartment, have an unpleasant tendency to explode. 

I discovered this one morning as I was getting ready for school. I flipped the light switch in the hall, only to have one of my hallway bulbs explode. And when I say explode, I mean EXPLODE. As in, visible sparks, sound like a gunshot, shaved 5 years off my life, thousands of shards of broken glass EVERYWHERE that then immediately had to be swept up in the dark because I sure as hell wasn’t about to try any more light switches in that moment and it was 5 am and pitch black outside and Romy was getting curious about what all the shiny things on the hallway floor were. 

It just doesn’t quite seem…let me see, how do I want to put this…SAFE. AT ALL. And I haven’t been willing to put another bulb into the same fixture socket since the incident, and that happens to be the hallway light right outside the bathroom, so now that the bathroom light’s gone out (thankfully without exploding), I’m feeling the loss of this particular light all the more. I am not sure what building code requirements are like in Bulgaria, but they certainly don’t seem to preclude the wiring being prone to power surges that could, you know, explode things. I also would like to not feel as though my options in this apartment are either to be shrouded in perpetual darkness or to wear a hard hat to protect myself from showers of falling glass splinters. It doesn’t seem to be too much to ask. 

There I go whining anyway, even though I was trying not to. Life is too hard sometimes!

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…


…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

I must be famous or something

I have joked about this, but honestly a longer post about what it is like to live (and teach American literature) in a largely racially homogeneous country is eventually due.

For now, though, I will simply share this anecdote: While waiting in line at the FujiFilm store to get photos printed as part of a Secret Santa gift, I was standing behind a man and his daughter, who was maybe around 6 or 7 years old. The store was busy – lots of people getting personalized Christmas cards printed – and the man was sort of spacing out, gazing around, waiting his turn, etc. His daughter, however, saw me and froze absolutely still, her mouth hanging open. She stared at me for a good few minutes. I caught her eye a few times and then pretended to be looking around the store, only to see out of the corner of my eye that she was still staring at me. 

This happens to me here on occasion. Despite the fact that I have seen other Asians here (sometimes several all at once) and there is apparently a Vietnamese-Bulgarian community, you do sometimes run into 6-year-olds (or, for that matter, adults) who have never seen anyone who looks like you and can’t help gawking. 

One of my co-workers said next time it happens, I should just start chatting at the kid in Bulgarian. I’m afraid her little head might explode. 

Getting in the spirit

My students kept asking me if I was going to decorate the classroom for Christmas, which made me feel like I was being a horrible scrooge because I wasn’t planning to (but seriously, my classroom is the size of a shoebox and is already full to the brim with student work). I’m still not going to (probably), but the thought did make me pick up some lights at Carrefour this afternoon to decorate at home, at least:

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I do like having the lights, although in a strange way they also can make me sad.
And in the spirit of housekeeping, these are very old photos (from around 2 months ago) that I forgot to upload. They are from my walking commute to school and then on campus, to give you a better sense of my neighborhood and work environment (the building on the left in the second on-campus picture is where my classroom is):

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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:

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