Going Back

We’re going back! Toward the end of October. It’s just for a week, but it will be the first time Stormy and I will have returned to Bulgaria since we went back to celebrate at The Ball in 2004. Memories rush back as we think of what it was like when we were there, and we’re looking forward to seeing some of the people we knew. There is a little trepidation as well. We’re twelve years older now for one thing, maybe a bit slower, and the resilience we relied on as volunteers may have ossified a little. Bulgaria will have changed too; we hope we’ll still be able to get around with what remains of our old familiarity. The language we learned has been packed away like an old souvenir up on a high shelf in the spare bedroom closet. There are Bulgarian phrases and random words that rattle around in my head from time to time, but they’re not much more than in a tourist phrasebook. Still, it’s exciting to be traveling to that place that means so much to us.

As a side benefit, it will be a respite from the yammering back-and-forth cynicism and hateful diatribes of our current political process (though don’t get me wrong our democracy is perfect and a model for the world and we should export it everywhere even if by force oops no I mean be a shining example of how a country should be governed). I hope the subject won’t come up. I do recall, though, how I was mercilessly held to account for U.S. foreign policy in 2003 by my eleventh-graders and by strangers on the street, about the events broadcast on BTV and CNN, red and white and orange flashes in the dark sky and American soldiers pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein while Iraqi fighters shed their uniforms on the run and melted into the night. It was the first-ever American preemptive strike, setting the “America will never” bedrock military principle afire and leaving it to smolder in the ruins of another country. They thought we were doing it for oil. Our country, in the eyes of the old-line European countries with so many more centuries behind them, was looked upon as a two-year-old having a tantrum. A two-year-old with bombs.

Lady Liberty Crying

From friend Chasen’s Facebook page. I don’t know where he found it.

One might have thought we would have grown up as a country since then, having been through such perilous times and so many challenges. I wrote last month about the severe divisions we Americans are feeling these days as our elections approach; drawing closer to November the acrimony has only intensified. Looking at the picture of Lady Liberty, I know that many of my friends will have different ideas about why she’s crying. I hope to put it aside for a while, or if I can’t do that I might find a new perspective.

As in our own beautiful country, Bulgaria has lots of beautiful places that we enjoyed while we were working there, with mountains and seashore, forests and fascinating cities, towns and villages. As it is with life wherever we find ourselves, it was the people — the real human contact — that made it so great to be there. We’re looking forward to seeing our Bulgarian family, school colleagues, former students and neighbors, who made such a difference in our lives with their open and generous spirit.

We won’t get to see everyone, of course. My former students are scattered all over now, in their professional and family lives all over the world. People move on, and some will never cross our paths again. I remember so fondly the brash young guy in my classroom, who later apologized on behalf of himself and his classmates for giving me such a hard time (he said they called it climbing on my head). He was the one who set our goal of coming back for the Graduation Ball. Warm memories, forever locked in time. His name was Georgi. Our hearts were touched, time and time again, right up to the day we left.

A little after midnight, we said our goodbyes. One of my students, Maria, gave me a little slip of paper from her family’s Easter bread, with Kusmet, Good Luck, written on it. She wrote her name on the back, with her class number and “I won’t forget you.”
     — Breeze, p. 337

I still have that little slip of paper in my wallet.

Life Artist

Trump.

Clinton.

Your Vote CountsIf you are like some people I know, one of those names throws you into paroxysms of loathing, disgust, or rage. If that’s true for you, everything you read and hear confirms that you are right. If (that name) prevails in November, life will be unbearable. Everything that happens for years after that will demonstrate to you that you were right all along.

“You have a confirmation bias!”

“No I don’t! You do!”

“See? I told you so!”

I have friends and brothers who stand on one side of that divide, and friends and brothers who stand on the other. I do not think their thoughts.

“Out of the cacophony of suffering and chaos that can mark human life, the life artist sees or creates a symphony of meaning and order. A life of wholeness does not depend on what we experience. Wholeness depends on how we experience our lives.”
     ― Desmond Tutu

Life artist. A life artist. What does it take to be an artist? My sister is an artist, a real one in the usual sense of the word. She paints and draws with passion and intelligence. She teaches art too, has for years. Our dad used to ask her when she’d get a real job, not just making pictures. She knew all along, though, that what she was doing was important and rewarding. She would open new worlds for young people, one after another after another. She would save some kids’ lives. With art. Her art.

In recent months she has faced some big challenges — you know, that C-thing — meeting them head-on with passion and intelligence. That was when I started to notice her mastery as a life artist. She decided what to do (what picture to paint) and started by assembling the tools to do it. Some art projects need charcoals, paint, canvas and brushes; others need medicine, instruments and machinery, a healthy diet, rock-solid belief and gritty determination. Both need vision, seeing beyond what is to what can be. I see a pattern here. Attitude.

“We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our attitudes.”
     ― Charles R. Swindoll

I admire my sister the artist. She takes the 10% and smothers it with the 90%. Kills it.

We're All Screwed 2016We’re all screwed! Ha, funny little thing to say, or is it your belief? I don’t want this to be the attitude I choose. No matter what happens in November, I will still live my life. Do you really think we’re all gonna die, or that you’ll have to defend your home against marauding (that name again) supporters? C’mon. We’re friends. We love the same country.

I remember not-so-many words from all the countless sermons I have heard in oh-so-many church services over oh-so-many years. Some of those long-remembered words (I was about ten, but sixty-some years later I can still hear Fr. Herbert’s voice) are these:

Two men looked out from prison bars.
One saw mud; the other, stars.

I want to be a life artist. It’s a real job, and it’s about attitude, choosing my own attitude. I choose how I experience my life.

And, oh yes, I vote.

Surprising Bulgaria


Best of Bulgaria! A travel advertisement. Now, that sounds interesting. Friendly and generous people, scenic mountains and seashore, vibrant cities, bucolic villages, rakiya, Shopska salad… mmm, tomatoes! Peppers! Sausages! Best yogurt in the world! Oh, sorry. Where was I?

Oh yes. I saw an ad recently for a tour organized by Rick Steves, the famous PBS travel maven. It was billed as the “Best of Bulgaria in 12 Days” tour.  Hm. Of course I want to go back to Bulgaria “someday” to visit. I want to see old friends and see how the country has changed since Stormy and I worked there as Peace Corps volunteers. How many years, let’s see… 2002 when we started… but… but… <counting, runs out of fingers> No, it couldn’t have been so long ago! What’s happened to all those years?

dancer smileI looked around on this newfangled Interwebs thing and found a video of a travelogue that Steves had done on Bulgaria. About time! That beautiful country is long overdue for the kind of good press that Rick Steves serves up! I started watching and was surprised at how little the place had changed since I was there. The opening scenes showed a picturesque old city tram, just like the ones we used to ride. The street scenes, the way people were dressed. It all looked the same. Curious, I cross-referenced a bit and saw the program was produced in 2000. Whoa! That was just before we were there! I never saw that show and no one we knew ever mentioned it. Wow, I thought, what a great slice of information and color we missed! It would have been great to have seen it in preparation for going. We surely would have recommended it to friends and family to share the experience. (But oh, hey, instead I wrote that book…) We didn’t have much Internets back then, and YouTube had not yet absorbed the whole of human experience, so we didn’t know what we were missing.

So anyway, here’s a link to the Rick Steves video so you can see what Bulgaria looked like to an American visitor, way back in the early 2000s… (The video hangs up at 2 minutes but jumps back in after a 20-second gap. Amerikanska rabota.) Surprising Bulgaria.

rilaI knew right off that this was a quality piece of work: he pronounced “Sofia” correctly, with the emphasis on SO. He also covered the obligatory head-nod and head-shake code, where n = y and y = n. Easy, right? Modern city life, shops and cafés contrasted with horse carts and rural workers hand-tilling fields. Check. Shopska salad with rakiya, check. Smiles, Balkan music, colorful costumes and folk dancing, check.

I really enjoyed his itinerary, covering some of my favorite places and giving some good, concise historical background as well. He introduced a young man, a Peace Corps volunteer, who seemed to serve as his tour guide. The volunteer was shown hosting a radio program, in Bulgarian and English. He was so affable and knowledgeable, I thought, wow, this guy was sharp! Brent Hurd. I looked him up and saw he came to Bulgaria as a volunteer in 1996, a few years ahead of us. He apparently stayed over several years after his two-year stint, as many did when they fell in love with the place and the people (or a person, such as the attractive fiancée who appeared in the show). He was an excellent co-host and guide for Rick Steves’ Bulgaria story.

makgohalgcThe travelogue, under the easy and informative tutelage of Steves and his Peace Corps guide, featured cheerful little encounters with all kinds of people. It was a time of hope for the younger generation, he said, showing sunny pedestrian malls with full café tables and smiling young people browsing the shops. The older generation felt left out of whatever was going on, as he soberly noted a little harsh reality, with the old patterns changing too fast to keep up with the whirlwind of societal change. woman on cart

Steves noted that Modern Bulgaria is a multiethnic yet peaceful state, which is a standout accomplishment in the Balkans. He was as impressed as we had been with the Bulgarian people he met during his tour.

“How do you make a modern Bulgarian? Mix Bulgars, Slavs, Thracians, Armenians, Greeks, Romans, and Turks. Cover and let simmer for about 45 years of Soviet rule. Break open and let run free.”
    Rick Steves

I think that’s a pretty fair summary to squeeze into a half-hour TV tour. Even though things have changed, it reminded me how much I want to go back and visit again. I looked up more on Brent Hurd, the Peace Corps volunteer who squired Steves around. He became a documentary filmmaker and journalism professor, worked for Voice of America, and was a Fulbright Scholar. He died in 2008, on the anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination, in an accident in India.

We all know it’s important to tell people you love them, because you never know when it will be the last time. Seems like a good rule for places too. I still want to go back and visit Bulgaria again. Someday. Maybe this year.