30 June 2012

Epilogue - What Everything is Made Of

The sun bakes the mountains of Macedonia into a blue haze off in the distance. Many kilometers behind me, it shines peacefully down over a wide expanse of fields rife with plants waving in the gentle breeze.

Yesterday was St. Peter's Day, the traditional beginning of the harvest season in Bulgaria. It is a beautiful, blazing summer morning. I was up at dawn, packing the last of my things, making sure I had forgotten to pack nothing except what few negative memories I had of my year in Bulgaria and my trepidation at the most challenging of journeys I was about to embark on.

Out in the fields of the great, beautiful, mountain-rimmed expanse of the Sofian Plain, perhaps, a few women in traditional costumes have gone out to reenact the ritual of the beginning of the harvest, singing their mournful duets back and forth to each other, the ritual an empty vestige of what once was, a defiant survivor of an age past.

We reap what we sow. Life has a way of taking what we choose to pour into it--energy, apathy, joy, sorrow, defiance, resignation, love, hatred, passion, interest--turning it around and backward and head over heels, blending it into a mystic elixir, and presenting it back to us as the cumulative content of our life. The last two months have been painful and trying for me, but they have not diminished--in fact, perhaps they have enhanced--the experience I've had this year. It has been a year of growth and trials and discovery and accomplishment. I have experienced more than my share of twists and turns, which have been, perhaps, fitting for a year spent in a foreign land as the result of a lark and a dumbly blind eye to fear. I have tried, at every turn, to spend my time well, to make the most of what this year has been--an opportunity - an opportunity to discover and meet people and change myself and become things that I have always wanted to become--and I have been repaid in kind. I have begun to see that the content of life is, to an extent, self-determining.

Nothing in this world has value except for that which we assign it. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about mundane things, like money or gold or houses or water or cars or trees or air. It is the use or the consequences of all these things--and how we interpret them--that determines their value. Things that we want and need are valuable; things without which life would be little different than it is now are not.

Life is about people. One thing that is valuable in this world is the relationships that we forge with our fellow Travelers In Life. Not to delve into a series of wretched platitudes, but human relationships are the closest things we have in this universe to something that is intrinsically valuable. Knowing other people allows you to know yourself. Loving other people allows you to love yourself. Finding and meeting and discovering other people opens up a world of self-discovery that can change your life. And the greater the challenge it is to do so, in whole and in part, the greater the rewards that lie in it are. We reap what we sow. Relationships, like Life In General, are largely self-determining.

I have been many people this year. We are all many people over the course of our lives, and we will continue to be so, on and on until our precious time on earth runs out. We live our lives under many different identities as time marches forward, and we see the world through many different lenses as we learn and grow as people. This year, I have lived through many different stages of my life and had many different relationships with many different people. Shakespeare, in one of his most overquoted gifts to the English language, said "All the world's a stage,/And all the men and women merely players;/They have their exits and their entrances,/and one man in his time plays many parts." The last line of that, though it is the one that is most often overlooked within this torrent of insight into the human condition, is, to me, the most profound and important one. It speaks to the many different roles we all fill, sometimes all at once, and this is of the utmost consequence to our relationships and our personhood.

I found myself, this year, through the vehicle of a titanic, momentous journey, because I had so much searching to do. In the last few months, I have again lost myself a little bit, but the journey I'm about to embark on will be less momentous and less extensive than the one I have just completed because, now that I have already found myself once, and become, at least temporarily, the person that I wanted to be, I have much less searching to do in order to find myself again. The person that I now want to be has changed by degrees from that previous incarnation of my hopes for myself, but the distance between who I am and this new vision of who I need to be in order to be satisfied with myself is much smaller than the one that confronted me previously.

I am ending this year the way I began it - leaving for someplace exotic and exciting and new, someplace about which I know nothing, in order to find myself once more. Travel, it would seem, is a productive way to discover things about the world and about other people and about yourself. Maybe it is the isolation inherent in it - no matter who you may be with, you are far from home, outside of your comfort zone, forced to grapple with your surroundings and to come up with a new identity that will suit you and allow you to cope with a new version of the world around you. That's certainly what I'm prepared for, and my hope is that it will bring me back to a place in which my life is complete and whole and centered and the richness of the world once more hides around every corner, behind every door, beyond every sunrise.

I close my eyes and I'm back there. And there. And there. I think about what this means, and I think it is that I really, truly love LA and that it has genuinely become home. Separated from it by thousands of miles, I can't stop thinking about it, and I suppose, if I am frank with myself, that I haven't this entire year. The urge to run back there, to resume the life that I led, has grown stronger and stronger as the weather in Sofia has converged with that in LA, as I have attempted to repair the cracks that the last couple of months have put in my life, as this year has drawn to a close and the time for leaving has grown ever closer. It was just a year ago that I had to go through the process that I have gone through in the last several weeks, only last year's was much harder. I was a lesser person, and the content of my life had come to a triumphant head, and it was a place of comfort I was leaving. It is easier to leave this place because of what lies ahead and because of the person I have become, but there is still a very big part of me that wants to stay.

It has truly been a privilege to know everyone I've known, gone everywhere I've gone, and done everything I've done this year, and I mean that, sincerely, earnestly, without the saccharine sentiment that typically accompanies these sorts of statements. It has been, above and beyond any of the details and pitfalls and triumphs and personal changes I've gone through in the last 11 months, an overwhelmingly positive year. I have discovered, for the first time, that I have an enormous amount of influence over what happens to me, contained in the simple facet of my attitude towards life and all the situations it has a way of throwing us. We reap what we sow. We drive down the highways of our lives with nothing but our personhood, our ventures, our relationships, our faults, our joys, our loves, our passions, our identities, and all the rest, using them and adapting them and changing them to try to make as much sense as we can out of the Universe.

I will, after some indeterminate amount of time, return to the country that I had the privilege of calling home for the most formative year of my life. And it, and I, and the world will be changed, and I will have to do whatever I can to make sense of those changes.

I will adapt one of the greatest closing monologues in film's history to sign off to you now and for good. So I ask: 

When will I be going back? And who will I be?

The Year in Review, Part 3: The Things

Part 3 in a 3-part retrospective of the year I've spent in Bulgaria.

This morning, I ate the last banitsa of the year I have spent in my latest home. Maybe it was the sentimentality of the event, but I would venture to declare that it was the most delicious banitsa I've had this entire year. Hot, greasy, and rife with melting butter and sirene, it was just about the most wonderful culinary way I can think of to say one last, delicious goodbye to this land of domashna xrana and topli zakuski.

If not quite as much as it has been the people and the places that have made this past year so great, the things I have experienced here have done their own small part to replace those that I left behind in the States. Me being a fat kid at heart, food has been a major focal point of my attention in this place. And, let me say, there are a few things I'm really going to miss about the food in Bulgaria. 

Ayryan. Shopska salata (although this, easily made, will be coming back with me to the US, and will continue to meet its end in my stomach, perhaps joined by a splash of rakia). The beer here--cheap and delicious--will be sorely missed. I will not welcome with open arms the chance to pay $8 for a beer again, vastly preferring to pay 80 cents, instead. Shumensko, Zagorka, and Pirinsko will join Yuengling on the list of cheap, really good beers that I will not be able to drink on a regular basis. 

Open-bottle laws will likewise be something I will not be pleased to go back to. Not that drinking in public is something I find integral to the enjoyment of my life, but it's nice to sit in the park and share a beer with people. Such bench parties are, in fact, mainstays of Bulgarian cultural life at this time of year when the weather is warm and the air heavy in the creeping darkness, and they are consistently fun and pleasant. I will miss these open-air gatherings almost as much as the price and quality of the beer.

One item of food I will not miss is the Bulgarian idea of pizza. I found myself missing a few things from the US in the last few weeks--most of them food-related--one of which was the hot slice of mozzarella perched atop a veritable ocean of tomato sauce that you can get at any reputable pizza establishment Stateside. While I appreciate the effort made on the part of Bulgarian entrepreneurs to introduce this monument of culinary excellence to the Balkans, their adaptation of same simply does not cut it. Kashkaval is not mozzarella, and ketchup is not tomato sauce. It's as simple as that, and these things add up.

But with so much good food and beer (and wine, as well) in this place, sitting down for long dinners amongst good company is a way of life, and it's something else I'm really going to miss. We have the wrong idea of eating in the States - it's typically a rushed affair, for justifiable reasons or not. Eating out, you can expect to get the check as soon your food is eaten, and you certainly never have to ask for it. But here, as long as the conversation, which can stretch on and on ad infinitum, and the drinks, which can stretch on even longer, are flowing, dinnertime abides, defying clock and circadian rhythm. I'm convinced, after spending several evenings this way, that this is healthier, more enjoyable, and a better use of time than any I can think of. 

Living in LA, I've gotten used to a complete and utter lack of public transportation to ferry people between points A and B. Sofia's public transportation, though, while universally delayed, is extensive, and there is usually a way to get between two points in the city on a tramcar, trolleybus, or good old autobus. The infrastructure leaves something to be desired, and the pace of these modes of transportation is usually equivalent to speeds not exceeding those of a sprinting human, but if it should come down to the choice between sprinting for several kilometers and riding a noisy, slightly pungent tramcar for the same distance, I'll gladly pay my lev and save myself the trauma.

Of course, if one wants to pay slightly more, one has at one's disposal what is perhaps the best institution in the city - the cabs. Taxis in every city are highly idiosyncratic beasts, but when it comes down to it, Sofia's may be the best in the entire world. First of all, they are criminally cheap. Getting from one extreme side of the Center to the other will cost you 5 leva - about $3.50. Second of all, the range of personalities one may encounter in such cars is award-winning. This year alone, I have gotten in both a shouting match with a truly despicable character who tried to take advantage of the fact that I was a foreigner, not knowing that I knew enough of the language to make rather repugnant insinuations about his mother, and an extremely good-natured conversation about the Eurocup and who should win it based on the quality of the women in each participating country (the resolution we came to, of course, being that Bulgaria should win going away). Joe Jackson was right - in this city, at least, you never know quite what you'll find, stepping out into the night.

It seems to be that, on any given weekend night, most of these cabs are headed in the direction of any one of a number of chalga clubs. Chalga is, more or less, folk music thrown in a blender with electronica, the results of which are simply stunning, and not entirely in a good way. The lyrics are vacuous, the beats are unimaginative, and the genre gave rise to this guy. But there is a goofy, intriguing subculture surrounding this music. Starting around 1 AM, clubs start filling up, week after week, with big guys--huge chests and massive biceps unabashedly on display--and their miniscule, crimped-hair, barely-dressed girlfriends. It is a thing of beauty, and something amongst which I actually wish I had spent more time.

Closely related to this institution of gaudy popular culture, for the younger folk, is the Bulgarian version of prom, which coincides with their graduations. Imagine, if you will, that for two weeks in June, the city is filled with cars honking at every opportunity--and sometimes, at the most inopportune of times--balloons and streamers trailing from their roofs, hoods (a safety hazard if ever I saw one), antennae, and anywhere else such things could conceivably be attached to an automobile, the drivers' sobriety in question, the passengers waving and calling to friends and random passersby alike. They gather in public places to display their finery, the boys, as in the States, in tuxedos, the girls in dresses that would scandalize Lady Gaga. Welcome to the Balkans. 

One of the vestiges of the country's 45 years of Communist government is a considerable amount of infrastructure remaining from these years of the People's Republic. In every city, you can see two things that will remind you that this was, in every way, an Eastern Bloc nation not so long ago: Faceless, unattractively nondescript highrises and monuments to either the glory of Socialism, the friendship of the Russians, or the heroes who died for the cause of the Revolution. Many of the highrises, originally uniform and equally nondescript on the inside, have since been gutted and remodeled into attractive units, retaining their cinderblock-and-prefabricated-concrete façades. 

The monuments, though they possess differing degrees of visibility depending on where you are, are nevertheless ubiquitous in city and village alike. Less than 10 minutes from my old apartment, in fact, is Orlov Most ("Eagle Bridge") park, at the center of which stands a sculpture, perched atop a 25-meter-tall obelisk-shaped pedestal, of a Russian soldier with his arm upraised, AK-47 held aloft, flanked on his right by a Bulgarian woman and on his left by a Bulgarian man, symbolizing the liberation of Bulgaria by the Red Army in 1944 and the eternal debt of gratitude owed to the Russians by the Bulgarian people. It is a fascinating cultural insight that monuments like this exist here, and in such prominent and frequent numbers. Imagine the attempted construction of something similar in the US. Would it ever get off the ground? Unlikely.

One of the things I think I will miss the most about living here is hearing the lilt of the Bulgarian language every day and the game of trying to make out enough words to discern the meaning of a sentence. It has been a challenge for me this year, one that I have undertaken mostly gladly, to learn as much Bulgarian as I can. Language holds the key to culture and personality, and the more of a people's language you know, the better, I think, you are able to understand them. As this was part of my goal this year, it was something I really wanted to do.

For someone who spoke no words of any Slavic language prior to learning this one, it was a impossible, at first, to make any sense of the underlying components of the way this language operated. But as I learned more and more, the mechanisms it uses to convey information became more and more clear to me. Now I'm at the point, though I still don't possess a very big vocabulary, where its structure and organization make sense. In the vast scheme of the world's languages, it is probably one of the simpler ones, despite its idiosyncrasies. It conveys information in straightforward ways, with much nuance and shades in meaning conveyed implicitly. It is a textbook example of a low-information language, contrasting sharply with English, which posseses many different ways of saying the same thing. It is also a lyrical language, with a lot of good consonants to hang onto, something I similarly like about German. I would dearly like to keep speaking it, though the opportunities I'll have to do so in the immediate future look fairly scant. 

Bulgaria has a lot of interesting, cool, pleasant, delicious, or otherwise positive institutions that have made it a really wonderful place to spend the year. All of these things I will miss, along with this land and its people. Home is not everywhere, but this year, I've discovered it many, many kilometers from the land of my birth.

24 June 2012

The Year in Review, Part 2: The Places

Part 2 in a 3-part retrospective of the year I've spent in Bulgaria. 

It is that absolutely idyllic point in a hot, dry day when the air is in the process of cooling and it has reached that temperature when one cannot feel the presence of heat or cold on the skin. It's like being in a swimming pool that has similarly reached that perfect temperature in which one simply floats, feeling nothing to indicate that there were anything surrounding them. It is abhorrent to me, around this time of day, to jog or hurry or do anything at any pace other than relaxed, a hint of sleepiness just on the periphery of my consciousness.

Sofia is gorgeous in the early summer sun, especially around 5 or 6. For some reason, I usually hate this time of day (Douglas Adams having once perfectly labeled it the Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul), but when the weather is upliftingly, soul-affirmingly warm like it has been for the last few weeks and the shadows play their way over the ground, it's actually one of the nicest times in this city.

Sofia really is lovely, despite all of its shortcomings. It's a city that seems shaped--in my mind, at least--by its dual identities as a European city in a poor country. It is laid out in a circle, with points conveniently radiating outward from the center, and it is, in every way, designed to be lived in, contrasting with some other cities I've visited that seem to be lived in despite the difficulties presented by doing so. It has a system of public transportation that seems extensive compared to most cities in the States, but pales in comparison to some of its richer European counterparts (a host of German cities comes to mind). It is a city of 1 million plus, but the area that this population occupies seems quite small. Its distinct neighborhood-level divisions and its concentration of public spaces and eateries result in a small-town feel in more than a few places, which I really like.

I may be spoiled, having lived where I did up until two days ago, when I bid adieu to my penthouse suite studio. I lived in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city, and it was central to a great many things. Sofia University, the Institute of Art Studies, Orlov Most, the Borisova Gradina, a wealth of bars, shops, and coffeehouses, Zaymov Park, Alexander Nevski Cathedral, and everything I needed to live were within an easy, short walk of my apartment, and the more time I spent out among these things, the more I enjoyed the nature and culture of the city. 

Once I got outside it, however, was when my eyes began to be opened to the greater nature of Bulgaria. Living in the largest and richest city in a country will teach you some things about that country, but it can also create a bubble through which it may be hard for other facets of the place to penetrate. Sofia really has been lovely, this year--though I am not certain, were I to stay indefinitely, how long I would continue to feel this way--and I can't really imagine a better place in Bulgaria to have been, considering my affinity for urban culture and the accessibility of certain things that come with it. But to really get to know a place, you have to experience as many of its locales as you can.

The first time I left Sofia and came back--the last weekend in August, when Greg, Fred, and I went to Burgas for the weekend--I had a minor revelatory moment when, after gliding through endless kilometers of hills and fields, our train suddenly emerged in the veritable center of the city. Having spent most of my entire life in the States, where urban sprawl has transformed the outskirts of many cities into endless tracts of houses, it had never occurred to me that there were cities without suburbs, into which one could simply emerge as suddenly as one looked back out the window. Sofia, at least, is one such place, where the country starts as soon as one has passed its last industrial plant.

This fact led to what was perhaps my biggest eye-opening moment of the entire year. On Lazarovden, I went out to the village of Gorni Bogrov to observe the ritual of the Lazartsi in whatever form it still existed. When I got there, I was floored by what I found - a rural Bulgarian village with narrow roads that one could walk across in 10 minutes. To be sure, the houses were somewhat modern, and the roads were paved, but there, smack dab in the middle of an endless plain with mountains rising in the background, was a small cluster of houses whose limit was defined by a one-lane road running around its periphery. Each house had a garden, some had horses, and once you stepped across this road, you were definitively out of the village. Quite frankly, I had not expected to find something like this in 2012 in a member of the European Union. My conception was that the rural village had died, but, as it turns out, it was just a few kilometers away the whole time.

Of course, I've gone to a host of other really cool places in the time I've been here. I've spent this weekend, in fact, in the seaside town of Burgas hanging out with some fellow Fulbrighters for our last collective weekend in Bulgaria. Burgas--and its coastal neighbors that I've visited, Byala and Varna--are extremely pleasant this time of year, as is to be expected. The Black Sea coast is, in a lot of ways, nicer than what we have in the States; though the culture is decidedly different, it offers most of what one might find at the Jersey Shore or in the beach cities of the South Bay, only with finer sands and (in general, at least) less trash. The weekend we spent in Byala was obscenely pleasant--though that was due in large part to the company--and the time I've spent in Burgas has been much the same. I was never much of a beach person, but I'm beginning to enjoy the setting more and more.

One of Bulgaria's biggest draws is its geography, which is on full display during the 400-kilometer journeys from Sofia to the coast. The country is bisected latitudinally by the Stara Planina (literally, "Old Mountains"), the Balkan Mountains, which are stunning in and of themselves; one of my big regrets from this year is not having made time to explore them. In the eastern half of the country, they form the northern boundary of the Thracian Plain. Much of the land to their north is uneven, forming endless foothills to the range until these run up against the Danube Valley. To the south, in the west of Bulgaria, several other mountain ranges rise to meet the Balkans, forming much of the terrain that has shaped the culture of shopski kray.

When we all first arrived in Bulgaria for FISI at the beginning of August, we were immediately swept off to the skiing town of Bansko, nestled in the Rila Mountains (in the summer, it had functioned as mountain resort for the rich and well-connected). The landscape was, of course, gorgeous, and it was a rather idyllic setting for us to gain our first exposure to this place. Mt. Vitosha, which looms over Sofia like a watchful protector, is one of the symbols of Bulgaria, and is an important peak in the Balkan Range. Sofia, which lies on an elevated plain between the Balkans and Rilas, is, one forgets, a mountain city, and there is a lot of good, accessible hiking to be had. I was fortunate to have had a day, in the beginning of the year, to hike Mt. Vitosha, though I wish I had done it more than once.

There are also a lot of cool things to see and do within plausible day-trip distance of Sofia. Plovdiv, another of the largest cities in Bulgaria, is a 2-hour drive/bus ride from the city, and its Old Town offers a lot of very cool things to see, historical and otherwise, which many of us did back in October. A few weeks after that, I took a short trip to the nearby city of Pernik for St. Ivan Rilksi Day, which was a much better time than I expected, and in December, Greg, his family, and I took another such trip to Belogradchik, about a 3-hour drive from Sofia, to visit the Magura Cave, which was awesome in every way.

Perhaps the thing that has made so many great things possible this year has been Bulgaria's relatively small size. The furthest point in the country from Sofia is 7 hours away, and bus tickets are extremely cheap compared to what we're accustomed to in the US (Chinatown buses notwithstanding), so really, the sky's the limit. The biggest limitation to my traveling this year has been the constraints of time I've been under. But as far as the plausibility of internal travel is concerned, Bulgaria is a place that is about as good as it gets. There are a lot of fascinating and wonderful things, all much different from each other, and all within a not-obscene distance from each other, either. I'm glad that I've taken the advantage of it that I have.

On Wednesday, we will conclude this 3-part retrospective, as the year draws to its inevitable close, with a look back at the veritable host of things that I have come to love about his place and that I will surely miss in the coming years. Onward ho to the bitter end, and thanks for being here, y'all.

20 June 2012

The Year in Review, Part 1: The People

Part 1 in a 3-part retrospective of the year I've spent in Bulgaria.

I'm not entirely sure that this post should be the first in this retrospective series. What I've come to realize is that an outsized part of the way I feel about a given place has to do with the people I meet there - people make experiences; experiences make feelings. I've also come to discover that I'm really more interested in people than most other things in the world. So I sort of feel like this should be the last, culminating chapter in this miniseries - but maybe it's just as well. I've already started; let's talk about the people I've met this year.

When I arrived in Bansko in August, I knew nobody. I was, as you'll recall, brimming with trepidation at the idea of being thrown into a new situation--social, cultural, and geographical--with no contacts and little command of the local language. My experience, having yet to have begun at that point, could have gone in literally any metaphorical direction. I was in for some kind of year, but the scary part was having no guarantee of what kind of year it would be.

FISI proved to be a godsend for how I would make my initial contact with the people of Bulgaria. It worked as those who organized it had conspired: Our first interactions with Bulgarians were with ones that had much in common with us, so the initial bonds developed easily. I made many friends those two weeks, not just with Bulgarians, but with Serbians, Croatians, and many others. Having that early nexus of contact was comforting, and it would prove invaluable to have a rudimentary support system already in place by the time I and my compatriots were finally released into the wilds of this country. More rewardingly, that support system grew into a web of friends, with some of whom I've kept in contact through the entire year. This place has been a lot less scary with them around.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned living in Sofia this year, not coincidentally corresponding to one of the primary aims of the Fulbright Program, has been that of openmindedness, and, more specifically, cultural relativity. The general idea was that, being acculturated to a certain society with its own norms and values, it would take an open mind to accept a different society with different norms than my own and to realize that, no matter how different the behavior of the people in that society might be, it would be as correct in that society as mine had been in my own. As simple and intuitive as that sounds, that consciousness has not always been easy to maintain this year.

Sofians, by habit--that is, by acculturation--do a lot of things that Americans might perceive as rude. Some things that we take for granted in our society, both small--smiling, saying "please," holding the door for people, giving the right of way--and larger--avoiding incursions into personal space, waiting in lines, and even refraining from low levels of public shaming--are not generally facets of the culture here. This is changing somewhat, especially--being subject to the highest degree of exposure to Western European culture in this country--in Sofia, but I have witnessed the breaking of all of the above American morés here. What has been surprisingly difficult to keep in mind is that these actions, performed by Bulgarians in their own society, have violated no social principles.

That's not to say that I haven't witnessed, and even been party to, genuine mistreatment in some instances. Jerks exist in every society, and Bulgaria is no exception. But the concept of cultural relativity is that values and norms in a society are, by definition, right within the context of that society if the social order accepts them, and if they persist, then it means that the social order has indeed accepted them. Every culture's customs, in other words, work in maintaining a functioning society. Even if some of the actions I've witnessed here violate the values of American society, those rules do not simply apply here, just because I'm an American. A society should not be expected to change for my sake. There is no set of universal human norms, save, perhaps, one or two, and so it is unfair when anyone thinks less of another culture because of theirs. Thence has derived my lesson in openmindedness.

I found, this year, that the degree to which I was able to integrate into this society was largely dependent upon my command of its language. Language being people's primary method of communication, this is not surprising. For most of the year I struggled to gain a better understanding of the language so that I could do things like have conversations, and progress was slow, but tangible. By this point, I can go out into the world and not be completely at a loss, which I'll claim as a moral victory. A lot of people speak English in this city, typically depending on their age, and they generally appreciate it if you make a good-faith effort to communicate with them in their language.

The generational divide doesn't just pertain to language use. The fact that many younger Bulgarians speak English while many older Bulgarians speak Russian is but one vestige of this country's fascinating recent past. This divide even extends, I've found, to manner, customs, and outlook. Younger Bulgarians tend to be more receptive to Western culture, and, less predictably, even tend to be more optimistic. If I knew more about the dynamics of this society and the psyches of its people, I could speculate that this has had to do with growing up in a "free" society as opposed to a "censored" one, one that is integrated into Europe and the rest of the world like it hasn't been in generations, one whose inhabitants have greater opportunities for mobility and wealth and individualism than their parents before them, but, sadly, I don't feel that I know these things well enough to make any sort of confident statement about them. What I've observed, to a large extent, is that younger Bulgarians tend to be more trusting and less skeptical than their older counterparts.

One of the things of which I've become acutely aware this year, something which I hadn't really thought about in any depth prior to my arrival here, is the fact that Bulgaria, despite its former membership in the Eastern Bloc, despite its location down in one of the more isolated corners of the continent, despite its proximity to the Middle East and, though less so, to Africa, is still a European country, and its inhabitants are still European people. As such, there are elements of its society that I've perceived to be pan-European. As it has turned out, I like Europe. I like the people's propensity for sitting in the park, drinking beer when the weather is nice. I like how dinner can take hours and hours, the meal and subsequent socialization being a process rather than an event. I like the fact that public transportation exists here, and the quasi-comical culture that accompanies it.

And I love the sociability of the Bulgarian people. This sociability was one of the first things I noticed about their culture when I arrived, in the midst of a heat wave, in the late Sofian August. At a time when the inclination of the average American would be to stay inside and turn on the air conditioning, Sofians refused to be deterred--many of them being without air conditioning in the first place--and came out in force to distract themselves from the heat. This was not just a warm-weather phenomenon, either, though the people of this fine city have come out in greater numbers over the course of the last few beautiful weeks than I have ever seen. Throughout the winter, round about 5 o'clock, the cafés, bars, and restaurants began to fill in identical manners to the ways they have filled on these recent warm summer evenings, only in the winter months, the drinks were hot and the doors were closed, the tables and chairs safely ensconced inside their establishments.

Just down the block from my apartment is a small park, and at the same time that Sofia's plethora of establishments (the sheer number of places to stop in and get a drink or something to eat being something I really love about this city, though we'll get to that in the next post) are getting full, this park--and, as I've discovered, seemingly every public space in the city--is overrun with families, children, adolescents, and adults alike. Babies are especially popular sights, much moreso than in the States, the significance of which I don't know enough about to speculate on. Though this results in a setting that is a bit too loud to be idyllic, it is nevertheless pleasant, and insightful, to boot.

This is representative of something that I always imagined when I pictured my ideal community: a group of people who spend their lives outside their homes, savoring the weather when it's nice, distracting themselves from it when it isn't. This was always my conception of the American dream - a vision of a community that lived its collective life not in isolation, but in the presence of the rest of its collective self. And, at least in this way, the Bulgarian people have not only fulfilled my idealization of community, they have, in some way, redefined it. When the day comes for me to find some place to settle down, to pick a group of strangers amongst whom to live in a place that may or may not be totally alien to me, this is the standard to which I will hold each prospective home. The people of Sofia have shown me that community like this can exist, and it is something I will forever hold a significant desire to be a part of.

It seems almost bizarre, but I have witnessed the realization of many small American dreams in this land so far removed--geographically, historically, politically, culturally--from America: unspeakably perfect, warm summer evenings, what seems like the entire population of the city out to enjoy the weather in all its splendor, ice cream vendors on every corner, adorable children happily frolicking in the glory of air that seems tinged with magic, dogs happily chasing each other, parents attending to their newborns, adolescents in the throes of tweenhood bravely forging ahead in their quest to find their place in this world, a sun that seems like it will refuse to set tonight, a world at contented peace. In its own not-entirely-superficial way, the dream of the white picket fence is thriving tonight, and I am fortunate to be, in this moment, surrounded by it.

If this has resulted in an overly romanticized or idealized account of the residents of this place, then so be it. The evening is beautiful beyond compare, and I am in a peaceful and generous mood I have rarely experienced so overflowingly. I am sitting in the Borisova Gradina with the first golden raisins I have tasted in a year, I have given my spare change to beggar and busker alike, the children are flying kites, smiles ablaze on their faces, so far from quarreling that their attendant father must certainly be as contented--for the moment, at least--as I am. It is difficult to be objective about this place or its people when surrounded by so much pleasantness.

I have had a true myriad of experiences with the people of Bulgaria this year, but overall, that body of experience has been decidedly positive. Fulbright is supposed to serve the purpose of cultural integration, understanding, and experience, and I certainly feel like I've accomplished that. I've had a good time here, and it is mostly attributable to the people who have populated my life in the past year. I will leave this place with positive memories of this society, maybe even having learned a few things. In that respect, my purpose here has been fulfilled.

17 June 2012

This Post is Not Entitled "The Final Countdown"

But it started to hit me this week that I have, as of yesterday, two weeks left in Bulgaria. 13 days from now, I will be leaving this good land.

This will be the last post of this blog's typical quotidian, mundane nature before I turn it over to my alter ego, who, despite remaining nameless, specializes in sentimental and poetic writing.

Anyway, yes, this was my third-to-last week here in this wild, wonderful land so recently behind the Iron Curtain, and I've started to realize how much I'm going to miss it. It has been such an enormous year in terms of, well, everything, and that isn't something I will ever be able to forget.

The first draft of my thesis is done, and, as of Friday, reorganized into a coherent narrative that builds a case for my findings in a logical, step-by-step manner. This next week I will rewrite, consolidate, and edit down, leaving four days in my final week for proofreading before I hand it in on the 29th, after which I will enjoy one last day in Sofia before departing the next day for the start of my Epic Trip of the Century.

This, I suppose, would be the most opportune place to tell you about the trip that I've been hinting at for months. From Sofia, I depart for Skopje, Macedonia on the 30th of June, following which I will spend the next five weeks traveling through Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France, and Spain, culminating with a few days in Madrid, after which I will fly to my Urheimat of Pennsylvania and officially end my Great European Year Abroad.

I will be relying on nothing more than buses, trains, carpools, Couchsurfers, hostels, family friends, a small amount of cash in my pocket, a sizeable backpack on my back, my ukulele, a couple years of education in foreign languages, and the wits in my head to survive as I traverse and explore, in all facets of its great, exotic mystery, the boondoggle that is the European Continent. This will be a trip more expansive and ambitious than any I have ever undertaken in my life, but though it comes with a certain amount of risk, I am maybe-a-hair-inordinately eager to put myself to the test, just as a final proof that I can survive out there in the world. In that respect, this year could be seen as a prelude to that test, but that view would be injudicious to the enrichment and experiences I've had here and the ones I will have out there. This year abroad has been more than just a test - it has been a portal, a crucible, an adventure; so will the next seven weeks be.

I always get sentimental around this time of year, with lots of things drawing to a close, which inevitably means I have to say goodbye to certain people and things. But I'll try to save that sentimentality for the coming two weeks. These last four posts will be so replete with saccharine platitudes, they will give you a headache.

For now, my feelings extend little past overwhelming happiness to have had an entire free weekend to relax and breathe a little. Friday, I met Irena, Fulbrighter Melissa, and her friend Diana in the Center to participate in that quintessence of Bulgarian social culture, lounging in a streetside café at the culmination of the workday in the early evening, drinks and snacks at hand, unwinding in pleasant company. Yesterday, friend of the Fulbright Program Georgi was in town from Pleven, and we repeated in largely similar fashion. 

Today has been a day of reading (my current pursuit being Stephen Hawking's classic A Brief History of Time) and, most enjoyably, picking up my drumsticks and beginning the long process of getting my hands in shape suitable to come out of retirement from competition, which I will do in September. I also went out onto Vitosha Blvd. for the last time and busked, turning my normal hour into a 100-minute barnburner, figuring, as it was my last time, that I would pull out all the stops, and the people of Sofia rewarded me well for it. It was even--dare I say it?--a little fun.

The result of these two days of by-now-seemingly-gratuitous abstention from work has been a vastly more pleasant weekend than any I've had in a while. I needed it, and it's been nice to have a little time to enjoy this place like I used to before I got busy in January. Rediscovering how pleasant the city is--especially in the warm weather, which has been accompanied by a general uplift in the collective mood of the people here--I realized that I really am going to miss it, the people, the things - but like I said, that's a topic for the next few posts.

It has been really great and even intermittently therapeutic to be able to talk about my days on this site. If you've stuck with me for the entire year, wandered off and come back, or even been a latecomer to this blog, I am honored to have your readership, especially considering the frequently unexciting nature of my day-to-day, which has, of course, translated to frequently unexciting content on this site. To be quite honest, I wasn't entirely sure I would either have the discipline or the readership to support a year-long travel blog, but I'm glad I made the commitment to do this. It's been a place where I've been able to work out some things for myself, as well as a place to record events I might otherwise have forgotten, so that, in some distant point in the future, I might stumble back across it and be that much more able to lucidly Remember When.

It's given me a nice dose of perspective to be able to go back and, with the benefit of distance and hindsight, recall moments from this tremendous year abroad, how they made me feel at the time, and compare those feelings to the ones I have now, now that the year is mostly behind me. I've certainly done a lot of changing these last 10-odd months, and a lot of things that once seemed alien to me are now commonplace, just as my life has changed in numerous ways.

But, before we go down that road, I'll leave you to your pleasant Father's Days, and wish my own Father a very happy one, accompanied by my love. I'll be back in a few days to begin wrapping up this wild, startling, totally unexpected but gratifying and momentous year.