Fulbright Features: Bulgaria teaching adventure filled with everyday lessons

Penn State students and alumni are traveling around the world to conduct research, teach English, attend masters degree programs and more as part of the Fulbright Scholar Program, a highly sought-after nine-month international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This is the third story in a series of essays written by Penn State student Fulbright winners who have returned from or have just embarked on their trips.

While the official total won’t be released until November, at least 15 students have been offered the scholarship this year, according to Penn State’s University Fellowships Office. Last year, 11 Penn State students received the prestigious scholarship. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website. Click here to read more Fulbright Features.

 

“What do you think of Bulgaria?” I have been asked this question more times than I can count. I have seen the look of doubt and hope, the squint of the eyes. Sometimes, the question comes more directly, a thinly veiled guide to the answer they want: “Do you like Bulgaria?” I am stuck between two polar answers. Yes. Or no. To which I always reply, “Yes, I like Bulgaria.” I can even say, truthfully, that I love it.

But this answer does not satisfy me and only rarely does it satisfy the question asker. My students have started to say, “Yes but … you’ve lived here now. What do you think?” To these questions, I flounder for an answer and deflect with playful sarcasm.

Yes or no does not do justice to the place I am supposedly justifying or affirming. Nor does it do justice to the complexity of my experience here.

What about this place made me reapply to Fulbright after one rejection and then a three-week trip here in 2012? Something other than merely “liking.” And I’m not sure this quality has a word. It is not majestic, not in the way of the American Rockies or the Swiss Alps. It is not regal, not in the ways Western Europe totes around its monarchies and crown jewels. It is not ethereal; it’s too grounded and earthy for that. Perhaps it is like new wine aging into old wine, stubbornness and experience aging into wisdom and humility, slowly, painfully slow, but enduring. Like Tolkien’s description of the Shire, “where change comes slowly if it comes at all.”

I sometimes call these sneak attack Bulgarian beauties. It is the quality that I saw after nearly 24 hours in transit back from Croatia, in a Biomet bus tugging its way across north Bulgaria, the fields bright yellow with spring flowers, low rolling hills and cliffs, the deep yellow light in the evening.

It’s the quality of the Rila Monastery in a December snowfall, snap shot still, pine and snow breeze not even disturbing the lines of fresh snow on the edges of the church roof.

It’s in the abandoned train station across the street from my grim and rusting apartment block, the setting sun lighting up the windows and doors as if the building were on fire.

It’s in the low cloud of coal smoke on a clear winter night, a bright halo of light-catching dust over my city.

My student, Gergana, unintentionally described this quality in an essay about her grandmother. She describes her grandmother in the kitchen: “She is dressed in her casual but comfortable clothes, chopping potatoes and then putting them in a pan on the cooker. She looked so focused on frying that for a moment I forgot about my questions.” A moment has sprung on Gergana by surprise, a kind of waking dream attention to something very common. Her grandmother’s attention for the potatoes is unexpectedly beautiful and distracts her from her questions.

But everyday life does not sustain these moments. Bulgaria is like a waking dream and, simultaneously, the first sip of coffee after waking from that dream, strong and bitter.

It's complicated. It's been a difficult year. Bulgaria is a complicated and difficult place. Bulgaria is also a place worth knowing, worth returning to. And someday, I will.

Language

Describing Bulgaria plays tricks with language. So has my year, one long trick of language. The year has been a long game of language differences (literal and metaphorical), complex grammars without a handbook that you only learn by mistakes, like that card game, “Mao.”

For example, my students and I had an interesting cultural moment on the night train after the last BFL (Bulgarian Forensics League) tournament, one where we did not get sleeping compartments. We were in two compartments and sat up all night. During a fun party game around midnight, a student said, shocked, “Miss Dana! Where are your shoes?” I had taken off my boots and was moving around the train in my thick wool socks and hadn’t thought a thing of it. My feet didn’t smell.

My Bulgarian teacher and friend, Rosi, explained on my behalf. “It’s an American thing. It isn’t strange to go without shoes in America.” The student nodded, shocked, trying to understand. I’ve always liked going barefoot or with as little shoes as possible. I thought this was a description of Dana. I had no idea that the option to have this preference was a deeply American thing.

These kinds of things can be hilarious and fun to discover. Over time, they can also contribute to a sense of isolation, of being the other, such a blatant experience being very new for me.

There were also moments of deep connection where language, literal and metaphorical, did not get in the way. Each of these language moments played out in different ways through my year. From them, I learned a lot about myself and about cultural adjustment.

BFL (Bulgarian Forensics League)

On a lunch outing with my students, one student made the audacious claim that Fight Club was infinitely superior to Titanic. I don’t know how those two could even be compared but they were. Someone else replied, “What is your criteria?”

Winning.

I’ve learned a lot through BFL. I still struggle with debate structure, but oh well. My kids seemed to have figured it out eventually. One girl moved from her first practice of constantly stopping, turning red, and saying, “I failed, I failed,” to a calm, poised presentation on the problems.

Other students constantly impressed me with their leadership potential. One student has now volunteered to help the next Fulbright English Teaching Assistant start a team and help with BFL leadership. Two students are eager to be part of the Student Ambassadors. These kids are my pride and joy.

Winning second place small school division at the Kirjali tournament was a highlight.

What I’ve learned:

You need to be grounded.

— Find the things that keep you sane. Maybe these are new things, a new food or hobby or hang out spot. Maybe these are buried deep in your life stories, like church is for me. Finding these places will affect the rest of your life in a new place.

—Finding something outside of your “job” that can be your job. That can give you structure, like BFL.

— Things get better over time. I was a far better teacher in February than I was in September. Give the hard things time.

Last Updated September 23, 2014