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formality: No official stuff here! The opinions, facts, and babbles on this page are the product of my wandering mind and have no official connection to the US Peace Corps.
notes from Bulgaria
Friday, 9 June 2006
Omurtag Day
(wrote this one 2 days ago, June 7)

Just about every town in Bulgaria has a special town day, except that in the past Omurtag would just choose a day every year to throw a little party and consider it done. Finally, this year, under the admittedly fantastic leadership of my former school director who now heads up the cultural programs for the municipality, Omurtag has an official town day--a day chosen to coincide with the date on which Alexander Alexandrov, Bulgaria's second astronaut who just happens to be from Omurtag, set off on his journey to the cosmos 18 years ago. Sasho, as we call him, was of course here to help us innaugurate the big day.

As if the first ever official town holiday isn't enough excitement, things truly get electrifying when you stir in the presentation of the brand new Flag of Omurtag.

A marching band and baton twirlers from Gorna Oriahovitsa, about an hour's drive away, was called in to help us celebrate the occasion. They were very good, even when they decided to try to dance a flamenco-like dance to some Spanish song that I can't remember the name of. They also danced with pompons to a traditional horo song, which I found very amusing.

So the astronaut congratulated the town, some guy who wrote a song about Omurtag came out to sing it, and then some priests came out to bless the flag. (These priests had to be called from Targovishte, since Omurtag's priest, the one who would walk around talking to his shovel and his empty whiskey bottle--see entry for Easter 2005--drowned himself in the lake about a month ago.)

I always find it fascinating that priests are always called to bless something for official town ceremonies, student graduations, etc. Especially since Omurtag, with a population of just about all ethnic Turkish and Roma, is no more than 10% Christian. I've gotten used to it and I know it's just a tradition that's ingrained here and that everyone accepts, but I decided to ask some of my colleagues about it just to see what sort of conversation it would start.

"Why do priests bless the flag when hardly anyone in this town in Christian?"

"They just do. The flag needs to be blessed, so the priests bless it."

"But not a single person holding the flag that the priest is blessing is Christian, and hardly anyone watching is, either."

"That's just what they do. We're used to it."

(At this point the priest had finished his blessing and was walking around the entire square dipping a small, leafy branch called zdravets into a pail of holy water and then shaking it at the crowd. We were standing towards the back, to far away to be thus blessed.)

"Did you know that in America, official ceremonies aren't supposed to involve religion? Church and state aren't supposed to mix."

"Why? Is it because when things are supposed to be official, they don't want silly things like religion to interfere?"

Heh. Almost. (I decided it was wise to stay away from discussion of the happy holidays and pledge of allegiance fiascos, etc.) "No, no, no, it's one of the founding principals of America. Religious freedom. To the extreme."

"Well Americans are mostly Catholics anyways. Catholics are stricter, it's probably because of that."

"I don't think any of that is true, but...well..."

"Hey, do you want to go to the market now? I need to buy some underwear."

"Ok."

"Ok."

That was that conversation. There's supposed to be a concert outside later but it's thunderstorming now and we no longer have an indoor theater because the private owners decided to turn it into something mysterious and no one quite knows what but it's been under construction since fall--so tonight's events may sadly be cancelled. Then I was invited to this official cocktail tonight for people who had a part in "culture week"--my play was part of that.

I'm writing a final exam right now, and my 11th graders have been pretty stressed out/whiney so I decided that instead of putting the text at the end of their exam that I was going to put, I would write them a little story that is admittedly below their reading level. It goes like this:

Once upon a time, there was an American who came to Bulgaria to teach students to speak English. She liked most of her students very much and thought they were very smart, but some of them were very noisy and made it difficult for anyone to learn. At the end of the year, they took a big test to see how much they had learned. Most of the students did very well—although the test was a little bit harder for the students who rarely came to class. It was especially easy, however, for the students who did not come to class at all, not even on the day of the test. At the end of the test, instead of putting a very difficult text, the teacher wrote a very short and very simple story. It began "Once upon a time, there was an American who came to Bulgaria to teach students to speak English…"

Then there's five silly questions at the end, including do you like the teacher in the story? Why or why not? Heh. School here is a joke anyways, and I amuse myself.

Oh, so, the play! The play!

Where do I start? Basically I am just glad it's over. I don't feel as proud of it as I guess I should because every step of the way was such a frustration that I'm just glad it's done. I can't even say that most of the actors gave it their all; I guess two years hasn't been enough for me to get used to the concept of volunteering to do something such as act in a play and rather than give it everything you've got, give it just enough so that it can be done in a satisfactory way. And it was satisfactory. Of course only I know how it could have been if we had rehearsed a little more, and if I had been able to convince the students that acting is more than just knowing your lines. But from the view of someone who didn't sit through the whole process, I think the play was a success. And it was. I guess.

Such a list of frustrations from the day of the play, a full day of running around, battling with paper and tape and thumb tacks and glue in the wind (the school handyman quit and so I was left with a few students to try to put the scenery together in the wind because it's too big to assemble inside), fighting with my director about this, that, and the other thing (I think I actually offended him this time, but he has no idea how much he's offended me during this whole process, so I see it more as a much-needed venting session. Oh and did I mention that three of my actors were at a badminton tournament until 45 minutes before the play started? (We realized this conflict three days before the play and the director tried to get me to find 3 backup actors--when I insisted it wouldn't be possible with this population he insisted I play the lead role because I have endless amounts of free time to learn thirty pages of Bulgarian "what, oh now you're shy?"--I was finally able to convince him it was a horrible idea.)


Oh and we (I) made programs to sell and baked stuff for a bake sale (3 of the girls also baked) to sell to the audience, which they think is so funny ("just like Americans do in the movies!") to raise money for a cast party afterwards. But we couldn't find anyone to sell them. Out of 250 students in our school, not a single kid (or teacher) agreed, so when the people started coming, I started selling, though I really needed to be with my actors...luckily after some more fighting with my director "No, even Americans are not capable of doing ten things at once, though I think today I've been doing at least 9..." I finally found some sympathetic friends to take up the sales for me so I could go give the nervous actors their pep talk, and we were able to raise enough to take the entire cast out afterwards.

There were probably a few hundred people in the audience and, considering their motivation and preparation levels, the kids were great. Do you want to know what my director's compliments were at the end of the play this time? It's actually a thousand more times complimentary than last time because it involves a tad of positivity: "See, you kept getting worried over nothing, but it was fine."

I actually have had some nice compliments from some of the other teachers, which is good. And several people said that they would never ever have the patience to work with these kids, which also made me feel accomplished. One of my friends who sold the baked goods for me said to me after "There were boys in the play! I didn't know there were boys! I thought there were just girls--how did you manage to work with the boys? They're impossible!" Almost impossible, but, then again, look! We did it! Possible. I guess it's not such a minor accomplishment after all. And it's over with.

The next night (last night) we had tickets to see Neil Simon's The Odd Couple in Targovishte, which seemed like a very good play, except I sat next to Spassova and she kept whispering to me and between her whispering and asking questions and the people around us yelling at her to stop whispering, I didn't quite get that lose-yourself-in-the-drama feel. We have tickets for some Woody Allen something or other, it wasn't quite clear (but I don't think Woody Allen will actually be present for the performance) next Monday. It's all so dramatic.

And now I'm going back to writing my final final exam.


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