A Different Person Returns

It has been a month since I returned from Bulgaria, though it feels like it’s been much longer. Once I settle back in a familiar place, I fall under the illusion that I never actually left. But then there’s reverse culture shock and I remember how long I’ve been gone.

Reverse culture shock is the process of adjusting back to a familiar place and culture. I had a difficult time with culture shock in Bulgaria, which took the form of anxiety when leaving my apartment, frustration with value differences, unreliable infrastructure, organization, struggles with language barriers, etc. After having navigated those difficulties, I was dreading the process of reverse culture shock. Many people I know had told me that it’s far worse.

During the 10 days I spent in Los Angeles, reverse culture shock happened in small moments: facing too many choices at the store or on a restaurant menu, not knowing (or even having a preference) when asked “well you’ve been gone for so long—what do you want to do?,” sticker shock over beer and everything else, getting back in the driver’s seat and hello LA traffic. Many of the small moments I experienced were of the euphoric nature: diversity! Mexican food! Indie/alt radio stations! The Pacific Ocean! My friends!!!

Portland was a rather different story, perhaps because I’ve never considered Los Angeles my home, and it’s too large and sprawling to ever seem “familiar.” It also happens that I’ve not really lived in Portland for five years now, having left for college and then to Bulgaria, making some changes particularly startling.

I recognize the constant level of stress I have any time I leave my grandparent’s basement, where I am currently living. It was the same stress I had to battle each time I left my apartment to go to the grocery store across the street in Smolyan. There, the stress was the constantly unfamiliar. Here, it is the stress of things that should be familiar but are now estranged. It’s the stress of constant human interaction (in English, which was a relief at first) after months of solitude. It is the frustration of having a verb or a proper noun on the tip of my tongue but the inability to articulate it.


I feel the dissonance of being back in the socio-cultural milieu that produced the anxieties I worked so hard to shed in Bulgaria. I am a more relaxed, comfortable, blunt, flexible person than I used to be, but will I remain so now that I am back in a place where people ask me multiple times per day why I have yet to find a job, and what I am doing with life, and how far have I gotten on this list of 20-odd things to do?

My first weekend in Portland, my mom and I tried to spend the day together. We drove from Sherwood to downtown, passing by larger numbers of homeless in the park blocks and in front of city hall than I ever remember their being. We go to Powell’s, where getting lost in a sea of books is made uncomfortable by the sheer number of people clogging the aisles like plaque in hardening arteries. It made my own chest hurt, and became hard to breathe. From Powell’s we drove up to Multnomah Village, where some of my favorite stores are gone, the parking spaces are reversed, and there is quite a bit of construction. It wasn’t the place I knew anymore, and I had no desire to be there. I don’t know where I live or where I’ll be, so going shopping holds no appeal. To relax a little, Mom picks the place we used to have Sunday brunch way back before my parents got divorced. They hand us a food menu, though we’re not hungry, and ask what we want to drink though the drinks aren’t listed anywhere on the menu. “What do you want?” she asks. “God, how am I supposed to know?”



Since then, things have been getting better. Culture shock comes in mostly manageable waves. I’ve found it helps to do new things, to approach and explore Portland as if I don’t already know it (because I don’t anymore) and to make connections with people who don’t already know me (because I don’t anymore either). I went to the Oregon Brewer’s Festival for the first time, went dancing, found new bars, and picnicked in new parks. Eventually I’ll revisit the old, but for now I’ll wait.



48 weeks ago I boarded a plane fairly certain I was making the biggest mistake of my life.

I knew it would be hard and lonely and that I would change in big ways. And I was right– it was the hardest and loneliest year of my life.

On Wednesday I’ll be getting on a plane again, and while I’m sad to be leaving and nervous about the culture shock I will face, I know it is not a mistake. Going home is exactly where I should be going right now, but I’ve learned enough and changed enough to know that getting on the plane to Bulgaria was not a mistake either.

Over the year, I’ve written notes and reminders about things I meant to fit into blogs but never quite made it. So here they are now, some of this year’s outtakes.


My favorite word in Bulgarian is nadezhda, which is also a common name. It means hope. It’s also the name of the impoverished Roma district in Sliven. Ironic, or wishful?

On one of my first bus rides through the Rhodopes I saw a herd of wild horses. I have not seen them during any of the dozens of bus rides since.

On that same early bus ride, the bus came to a halt in the road, delayed by a herd of sheep who didn’t mind car horns.

One thing I won’t miss about Bulgaria are the occasionally aflame sidewalk trash cans. This was never something I witnessed in Smolyan, but saw in spades in Burgas. People would not bother to put out their cigarette before tossing it in the trash, resulting in a foul smelling fire.

After a rain, worms, slugs and huge snails would take over the sidewalks and stairs of Smolyan.

There’s a small clothes kiosk on my walk to school. When it opened in September, the shop attendant’s bleached blonde hair was dyed a faded blue to match the denim of her jumpsuit.

The first impression my Bulgarian students made on me was their passionate love/hate relationship with chalga music, love of horror films, Tupac and comedy movies. For the first time I met people who like Step Up as unabashedly as I do.

I think my next impressions were shock at the willingness to blatantly lie on university applications and the abundance of cheating, generally.

One time in the fall I went to school to find a boy playing soccer outside in his underwear at 9 a.m. in 40-degree weather. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t bring clothes for gym.

One of the more surreal moments early on was watching a teacher show a 10th grader how to roll her own cigarettes.

Early on my 12th grade German classes were the most difficult; they were ornery and it was impossible to do any activity that involved giving directions because I never could convince them to take out pens or notebooks. By the time they left they were some of my favorite classes though. I just had to let go of the idea of planning something and be willing to just hang there and talk with them.

I hosted my first couchsurfer this year, a woman from France traveling by herself through Bulgaria. It was great to have that extra motivation to do touristy things. If it were not for her, I probably would never have made it to the art gallery. Three floors of fascinating work, and when we arrived a half hour before closing that day, the doors were locked, the lights were off, and we were the first visitors to come by.

One of my favorite memories of Bulgaria will be the time we went to Rock N Rolla on Shelby’s birthday. It was karaoke night, but the audience choices were largely heavy metal. We stood there unknowing in a crowded room of Bulgarians all singing along with genuine gut-felt passion to Iron Maiden’s Fear of the Dark.

Closing of the Year

This week has been one of lasts: last Monday teaching, last Tuesday in Smolyan, last Wednesday night in Bulgaria. But in truth, my time here has been winding down gradually for a while.

In May, my school held its annual Festival of Languages. This is the highlight of the year for the school. When I started in September, the kids were still talking about last year’s Festival.

Students as modern-day gangsters come into contact with a Bulgarian national here, Vasil Levski, who has traveled forward in time.
Students as modern-day gangsters come into contact with a Bulgarian national here, Vasil Levski, who has traveled forward in time.

The festival challenges each class to perform a play, 14 classes in all. Some perform in English, others in German, Bulgaria, hybrids of two or three. One group performed a telenovela-style play in Spanish. In the weeks before the play, regular class time turned into rehearsal time. The day of the festival, regular school was cancelled and the school met at Smolyan’s theater to watch the student plays. I acted as a judge, conferring with the other teachers, two 12th graders and the Principal on which plays and performers were award worthy. The plays themselves ranged from classical literature and fairy tales to Bulgarian history, morality tales to exciting bank robberies. A theater full of kids mouthing along to Thriftshop while everyone takes their seats, traditional folkdance and bagpipe to start off the festival, electric guitars in the intermission. It was a surreal day that marked the beginning of the end.

Since the Festival and the abundance of days off in May that followed, the attention span of my classes shrank dramatically. Some days felt more like babysitting than anything else.

The 12th grade classes officially left school in mid-May, though most had stopped coming many weeks before. Their school-leaving ceremony (formal graduation wasn’t until June) was a celebration and a fashion-show. The only part of the ceremony I could really understand was the chant from one to twelve that each class yelled when they took the stage, and chanted sporadically throughout. The Principal led the school in the horo, and when the 12th graders left, they did so in cars that honked constantly through the night, cruising around town and cheering.

Saying goodbye to the 12th graders
Saying goodbye to the 12th graders

Now, this week, it really is the end. I’ve been saying a lot of goodbyes and some have been better than others. There are classes and individuals I will really truly miss, but it would be a nostalgia-stoked delusion to say I will miss it all, or miss them all. It would be sin of omission to pretend that there weren’t days this year when I would walk into an empty or half-empty classroom and a chorus of hallelujah would play itself out in my head. But there are also classes I missed when they were inexplicably all absent, and many kids to whom I wish I could’ve said goodbye.

The classes I had with the 8th graders this year had by far the best dynamics, and were the most fun to teach. Though their English level was lower, they always seemed the most willing to listen, the most willing to participate, and the most willing to reciprocate by teaching me. It might be a product of the age, and that’s something that surprised me—that I would connect most with the youngest of the lot. Those classes have not surrendered to the teenage ideology that apathy is cool, but maybe that is still in store for them. I hope they resist, if it is.

Saying goodbye to some awesome 8th graders
Saying goodbye to some awesome 8th graders

But in every class, there were a handful of students I enjoyed getting to know. The students who would help maintain control in the classroom, or who would simply keep talking to me when the others turned their backs to play cards, or the ones who showed up to watch Doctor Who when the rest of the class had stopped coming forever ago. I probably won’t forget the kid who threatened to kill me, or the ones who threw fireworks out the window, or continued to yell out racial and homophobic slurs after asking them not too, but maybe I will forget them. The impressions that those students made aren’t permanent. The connections and good memories I did make with students this school year are indelible.


May, in photos

My school held a festival of languages, which started out with some traditional music.
My school held a festival of languages, which started out with some traditional music.
One of the original plays put on by the German-language 9th graders. So many guns and Arab-stereotypes.
One of the original plays put on by the German-language 9th graders. So many guns and Arab-stereotypes.
A view of Vratsa from the hill we hiked.
Some cows grazing in Vratsa.
A view of Vratsa from the hill we hiked.
The school-leaving ceremony for the 12th graders in front of the school.
The school-leaving ceremony for the 12th graders in front of the school.
Students dancing the horo with the principal and teachers of the school.
My mentor teachers and I in the break room.
Our tumultuous off-road ride to Buzludzha.
Our tumultuous off-road ride to Buzludzha.
A view out over central Bulgaria
A view out over central Bulgaria
The disintegrating communist monument of Buzludzha.
The disintegrating communist monument of Buzludzha.
Sticking my head out the shining red star of communism.
Sticking my head out the shining red star of communism.

“What is that noise?”

If I had been at any other beach, I would’ve assumed the siren at noon was sounding a tsunami warning.

Next to us, a cab driver got out of his car to stand in the rain. Amanda and Paul and I huddled over an overhang out of the way, deciding where we would get coffee. The clerks in the shop behind us stopped where they were, stacks of folded sweaters in hand. Others huddled in the mall entry, or stood under the umbrellas of outdoor cafes, their cigarettes and coffees getting colder. In the square across the way, three kids huddled under the umbrella of their dad, and not far from them, away from any cover at all, a middle aged woman froze mid-step on the sidewalk, her left heel still raised.

We watched the eerie lifelessness of the scene, holding back giggles at the absurdity of our own ignorance in the face of some collective cultural knowledge of what behavior that siren warrants. A hundred feet away, young sales people struggled with a plastic sheet, trying to give their promotional booth a water-proof roof. They were also living proof that we had not just become an M Night Shyamalan movie. After three minutes everyone resumed their daily lives: folding sweaters, drinking coffees, driving taxis, playing with the kids.

A moment of silent to mark the death of liberator and war hero Hristo Botev, and just one of the many surreal moments here that remind me I’m an outsider, watching the lives of others with nary a clue of what is really going on.

Hristo Botev, 1875
Hristo Botev, 1875

A Review of Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey by Isabel Fonseca

Bury Me Standing
(Note: I use Roma and gypsy pretty interchangeably in this piece, though that is not technically correct. Both here are umbrella terms for numerous and distinct tribes who have various specialties of craft, peculiarities of dress, and differing levels of integration within the surrounding cultures)

“Never before… has a group been so persecuted and so unlovable.”

Bury Me Standing is still largely the book on the Roma in Europe, even after two decades. Her work, part anthropology, part travel writing, part historical investigation, captures the reality of Roma lives in Eastern Europe during the years of transition from communism to capitalism. Though technically out-of-date, it’s likely that much of what she observed 20 years ago has not changed, or at least not for the better. She moves across Europe living with families, interviewing people, going to weddings and funerals, leadership conventions and bride markets.

In Smolyan, the Roma are a visible group, often cleaning the streets or shoveling snow in bright, reflective safety vests. It is rarer here that I encounter beggars, though I’ve certainly seen it across Bulgaria and the other countries I’ve traveled this year. To the caricature of dark, raggedy children begging and brightly-skirted women holding infants asking for money, Fonseca adds a much needed dose of historical and sociological context. From their migration from India to four centuries of slavery in Romania (which is why, to this day, there are more gypsies in Romania than anywhere else) Fonseca moves through a millennia of history in an attempt to uncover how the Roma became the default political scapegoat and the most hated minority in Europe.

“On the whole, lying is a cheerful affair. Embellishments are intended to give pleasure. People long to tell you what they imagine you want to hear. They want to amuse you; they want to amuse themselves; they want to show you a good time. This is beyond hospitality. This is art.”

My only objection is her lack of objectivity at times. This is not an academic text, and never claims to be, but I was occasionally irked by the mixture of academic and subjective. And while she uses dialogue often, I sometimes felt as though she were “speaking for” her subjects. Her fondness for the people and communities is clear though, and I think her closeness to them leads to one of the essential functions of the book; rather than patently rejecting the maladaptive gypsy behaviors/stereotypes of lying, stealing, and begging, Fonseca reframes these stereotypes.

Stealing, for example, is a common accusation lobbed at the Roma. When someone comes into sudden wealth, or even maintains a level of wealth, it is often assumed by outsiders that the funds or material goods were ill-gotten. Fonseca’s approach considers the Roma history of nomadism and trade—gypsies are, and have long been, the consummate capitalists. This culture of unregulated capitalism has not always meshed well with the economic paradigm of their surroundings. Here in Bulgaria, I often encounter suspicion of those who are better off than the rest. The immediate assumption is corruption. So it is easier to understand how the Roma, with their opaque and separate economy, came to all be branded as thieves.

As an American in Bulgaria, I’ve often felt uncomfortable with racist jokes, stereotypes and epithets that all too-closely resemble the racism directed towards African-Americans and Native Americans. So far out of my cultural context, I’ve struggled with how to respond to such comments, and how to open a dialogue about oppression. Bury Me Standing gave me fact and fodder for starting those conversations and holding substantive discussions.

Recommended for: anyone moving to or traveling in Eastern Europe, where Roma populations and the hatred against them are at their highest. In my time here I have met people who unabashedly hate the gypsies (the Bulgarian ultra-nationalist, anti-Roma political party Ataka was the fourth strongest party in this year’s parliamentary elections), but I have also met people who do not hate the gypsies, but simply are frustrated that there is no progress towards integration.

Bury Me Standing

Blisters in Bucharest

While the 12th graders had exit exams and the 7th graders had entrance exams last week, some Fulbrighters and I took off for some extra adventures in Romania.

Bucharest, Romania
Bucharest, Romania

Meaghan and I had been gettin’ our beach on in sunny Varna on the Black Sea Coast, when we decided to travel north to the Romanian beach city of Constanța. Hopping a bus from Varna to Constanța isn’t the easiest thing to do, as Romanian and Bulgarian bus companies don’t seem to communicate much about their international routes. The only Bulgarian bus was at 130p, which was a later start than we wanted, but the Romanian buses we learned about online never showed up.

We took a taxi to Romania. Our super-bro roommates were headed the same direction and negotiated with a taxi driver, who turned out to be a very nice guy with a son working in Texas, to get us to Constanța. Meaghan and I only paid about $20 each for a ride that was much nicer and had much more leg room than the bus!

For less than the cost of the only hostel in Constanța, we spent a night in a hotel on Mamaia, a stretch of coast that in June supposedly turns into a mini Miami Beach, but in May was almost completely deserted.

Wednesday we bussed it to Bucharest, through a region of Romania that was very much like the American Midwest; unending fields of rolling grasses in square plots through which the highway stretches forward and back to both horizons in a stick-straight line.


Atheneum, Bucharest, Romania
Atheneum- Bucharest, Romania

Bucharest beats Sofia by a mile, our group decided unanimously, but the amount of traffic was something I haven’t seen since leaving Los Angeles. The central park area, the historical center, and the palace of parliament were all impressive features of the city, but on such an enormous scale. We spent so much time walking that my blisters had blisters.

Statue outside old communist party headquarters- Bucharest, Romania
Statue outside old communist party headquarters- Bucharest, Romania

Bucharest, Romania

One-way train: ~$33 youth price, (Bucharest-Sofia, 11 hours)
Accommodation: Stayed at Puzzle Hostel, which I would not recommend. Though close to the train station, it was unusually hard to find because construction has obliterated entire intersections. Our hostel owners had nothing to recommend in the neighborhood, meaning anything worth doing was a 30 minute walk away in the Old Center.
Good for: eating, dancing, shopping
You should: hit up Expirat to dance to indie/alt-music with good drink prices, and you should wear good shoes for the walking tour. Try the Romanian McDonalds menu.
Notes: People in Bucharest (waiters, sales people, etc) would wink after a transaction. We all noticed it, but I could find nothing about it on the internet! Lemonade was a popular drink on every menu, something that you definitely don’t find in Bulgaria.
The Romanians we met and talked to didn’t hold a very high opinion of Bulgaria. Instead of the standard “why?” in response to hearing that we live and teach there, we would be told how we shouldn’t go there, how dangerous and dirty it is, how full of gypsies (this is the pot calling the kettle black, here). Bulgaria is where Romanians go for a cheap holiday. In the end, there are plenty of similarities between the two. Romanians dance more, though, and that makes all the difference.