The Balkan Sprint

Have you ever experienced that sinking feeling in your stomach when you realized a mistake? Perhaps you slept through a crucial meeting or forgot to turn in an important assignment for school. Like most people, I’ve had this feeling a handful of times in my life, but perhaps none was as upsetting as the one I experienced a few weeks ago.

After a wonderful week in Croatia, I hopped off the bus in Kotor, Montenegro. Even though I had to shorten and change around the dates of my trip to fit my school’s exam schedule, I was having a great time. While strolling through sunny Kotor, halfheartedly looking for my hostel, but more just trying to soak in the city, my mind started to wander:  I couldn’t believe that my time in the Balkans was coming to an end. The previous 10 months had flown by, and I felt so fortunate to have learned so much.

I then started thinking ahead to the next couple of days. I’d go back to Silistra for the last day of school, have a goodbye dinner with my amazing neighbors Krassy and Nadia, and then head to Sofia for goodbyes with my friend Valentin and the Fulbright staff. Oh, and of course I had plans to get coffee with Diana, who had put me in touch with the school in Alfatar I had volunteered with a few months before. When was that meeting again? I glanced at my watch: June 29th. Wait a minute…June 29th?

That’s when it hit me. That gut-wrenching feeling when you know you’re right, but begging to be wrong. If today is the 29th, that means tomorrow is June 30th–the last day of school. If my watch is right, then my flight that was meant to get me back to Bulgaria in time had left a few hours ago. A quick glance at my phone confirmed my suspicion, and the full weight of my mistake starting to sink in:  I was going to miss the last day of school. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing my final opportunity to say goodbye to the students who had made my year so transformational and enjoyable. How could this have happened? I rushed to the nearest cafe to regroup.

“I’ll take a Coke, please,” I told the waiter, knowing it was the cheapest way to the WiFi password. My laptop calendar was the final nail in the coffin, as I confirmed for the third time that it was indeed June 29th. I realized that I had been working off an older version of my itinerary that I had put together before adjusting my travel schedule. It was a silly mistake, but it was also a big one. Before my Coke arrived, I had already scoped out numerous flight options, realizing that my predicament was pretty bleak.

It was about 2:30 p.m. and I needed to be in Silistra, Bulgaria by 8:00 a.m. the next morning. It didn’t take me long to realize that this wouldn’t be easy. Because Silistra is so remote, there were literally zero flight options that would get me to Bucharest, Romania (the closest airport to my hometown) early enough for school. Once I had exhausted my flight options, I started thinking outside the box. Maybe I could drive…Google Maps showed a 14.5 hour trip, but the route would take me through Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia all before crossing Bulgaria in its entirety. I entertained the option for a few minutes before realizing that was probably not wise. I would have no cell service for navigating, and had no idea what sort of visa requirements (if any) might be necessary to pass through places like Kosovo.

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 9.29.20 PM

Drive from Kotor, Montenegro to Silistra, Bulgaria

If driving from Montenegro wasn’t an option, maybe I could fly somewhere closer, and drive from there…Aha! Belgrade! I had just been on a road trip from Silistra to Belgrade with Krassy, so I knew the route decently well. A quick glance at Google maps suggested it’d take me roughly 9.5 hours to make the drive. That meant if I could get to Belgrade by 10:00 p.m. and drive through the night, I could probably make it! I quickly pulled up Kayak, and found a direct flight to Belgrade leaving in just a few hours–I had a plan! I slammed my laptop shut, left a few Euro for my Coke, and flagged down a cab as quickly as I could.

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 9.29.45 PM

Drive from Belgrade, Serbia to Silistra, Bulgaria

I arrived at the Tivat (Montenegro’s capital) airport stressed, but happy to have at least some semblance of a plan. After purchasing a surprisingly cheap ticket, the waiting game began. I used my 30 minutes of free airport WiFi to start researching rental car options, but held off on booking anything in hopes that I could find a better deal at the airport. I sat patiently for the short, 50 minute flight, trying to plan out my next few moves.

Upon arrival, I headed straight to the rental car kiosks in search of something very specific: an automatic transmission, GPS, and the proper tags to get me across the border. I also needed the flexibility to be able to pick the car up in Belgrade, but return it in Bulgaria. I learned right away that it wasn’t going to be cheap. Most rental car companies charge exorbitant “drop fees” to drop off a car in another country.

I started to get worried after striking out at Budget, Dollar, and Thrifty rental car services. Finally, I caught a break at Enterprise, where they told me they had an automatic car that met my needs…but it wouldn’t be cheap. I stopped at a few more desks before the agent at Sixt took an interest in my problem, and bent over backwards to help find me a solution. Unfortunately, he came up empty handed, so I returned to Enterprise and told them I wanted the car. One agent smiled and opened the drawer to get my keys and the appropriate paperwork. All of a sudden she froze, and looked sheepishly up at the other agent, whispering something in Serbian. My stomach sank again. She looked at me apologetically and said, “I’m really sorry, but we just realized the cars we have available don’t have the right tags to get you across the border.”

Defeated, I grabbed a seat back in the waiting area, grasping for any possible solution. Every minute that passed put me one minute closer to missing out on my last day of school. If the Belgrade airport doesn’t have any solutions for me, perhaps I could rent a car from somewhere else….maybe even Sofia. At about the same time this thought occurred to me, the Sixt agent came over and sat beside me. “What if I have one of my guys drive you to Sofia?”

“That would be helpful,” I said, “but I actually need to get all the way across the country, which is another 6 or 7 hours Northeast of Sofia. “Would the Sixt branch at the Sofia airport have a car I could rent, and pick-up late tonight when I’d be arriving?”

We walked back over to his desk, and found a car that met my specifications at the airport in Sofia. I called the agent there, and he agreed to wait around until 12:30 a.m. for me to pick up the car. Things were starting to fall into place! The price he quoted me was the same price it would have cost me to rent the car in Belgrade, and drop it off in Bulgaria–expensive, but worth it to me to get back for the last day of school.

I started to get a bit suspicious, however, when I began to understand how their driver planned to get me to Sofia. Rather than using a car from Sixt, we headed over to another rental kiosk (the cheapest, I presume), and proceeded to rent a car under my name. It dawned on me that these guys would make a killer profit off of me by essentially charging me the drop fee, but then not having to pay it since the driver would bring the car back to Serbia once he returned. Realizing that the helpful agent was more likely trying to play me, I headed out to the taxi stand to do a little price comparison. Through chatting with a couple of the drivers, I realized that a taxi to Sofia would be about 2/3 the price.

After a short bidding war between a taxi driver and the guys from Sixt (I was essentially running back and forth between the two), it became apparent that taking a taxi was my best bet. I think the three guys from Sixt and the other rental agency were a bit frustrated, but they were unwilling to match the taxi driver’s price…I guess splitting the fare three ways wouldn’t go very far. The guy who won my business was more excited than a kid in a candy shop. I like to think it was my good company he was looking forward to, but in all likelihood it was his good fortune to score such a long ride.

I glanced at my watch as we hopped in the car, and calculated that we’d be in Sofia shortly after midnight. We made a quick stop at a gas station for some snacks and drinks. As we walked into the gas station, the driver turned to me and whispered in broken English, “If you want…you can get some BEER for the road”…typical Balkans. Despite my refusal to buy beer, my driver insisted on buying me snacks and a water for the road. “Thanks for the snacks,” I said as I took my seat in the car.

“Thanks for Sofia,” he responded. It was clear that this trip was a big deal for him, as he spent the first 15 minutes of the ride chatting excitedly with his wife about it. Once he finished up on the phone, he began showing me all sorts of pictures and videos of his wife. While I wanted nothing more than to get some sleep in preparation for my nighttime drive, I didn’t have the heart to quell my driver’s enthusiasm. However, after the 5th or 6th video and several dozen pictures, I politely told him that I needed a nap. Sleep didn’t come easily, but I spent the majority of the 4.5 hour trip trying to get some rest.

We pulled up to the Sofia airport at around 12:45 a.m. After paying my driver and wishing him well, I rushed into the airport, where the rental car agent was waiting for me. As he pulled up my paperwork, I took advantage of the WiFi to fire off a couple of important e-mails. Most pressing was to let my mentor Valentin know my plans, as I would need to retrieve my apartment key from him upon arrival. I had left the key with him so he and the school accountant could inspect my apartment and decide whether or not another Fulbright grantee would live there next year.

Ten minutes later, and I was on the road to Silistra. By the time I left, it was about 1 a.m., which would put me home around 7 in the morning…just in time for a quick nap and shower before school! I spent the majority of the ride chugging coffee and blasting Bulgarian music with the windows rolled down. While I was upset with myself for an incredibly stupid travel mistake, I was pleased to have mitigated the damage. The last day of school would prove to be memorable, and made the expense and inconvenience of my “Balkan Sprint” worthwhile. More on my last day at school coming soon!

Advertisements

Visiting a Roma school

About a month ago, my school officially opened our newly renovated first floor classrooms. Thanks to funds from the America for Bulgaria Foundation, eight new classrooms were outfitted with fantastic new technology. The smart boards, laptops, speakers, and rentable tablets are giving teachers new resources to teach and students new ways to engage with material. My school had a big ribbon cutting ceremony which was followed by a “showcase lesson” to demonstrate the usefulness of our new technology.

Two of my wonderful colleagues and I conducted a class on leadership with our 8th graders. My students did a wonderful job handling the added pressure of lurking government officials, education ministers, and America for Bulgaria representatives. After the lesson, an education official in my region named Diana approached me, and asked if I’d be interested in visiting a nearby primary school that would love to meet an American. I readily accepted her offer after learning that she worked for Parallel Silistra, an organization dedicated to “community development in the fields of respect for human rights and gender equality, European integration and international cooperation, economic development and promoting economic activity, environmental protection, sustainable development and educational activities.” We exchanged contact information, and agreed to solidify a date to visit the school in the near future.

A couple of weeks later, I met up with Diana and her friend Valo after a day of teaching, and headed to the nearby town of Alfatar. Now at this point, it’s important to give you a little more information about Alfatar and its inhabitants. Situated about 20 kilometers outside of Silistra, Alfatar has a largely “Roma” or “Gypsy” population. The Roma constitute a sizable minority in Bulgaria (and much of EU, for that matter), and unfortunately they typically have the lowest socioeconomic status in the country. Now the cause of that low status varies greatly depending on who you ask. From my experiences, the average Bulgarian will tell you that Gypsies are “lazy moochers who aren’t interested in working or contributing to society in any meaningful way.” Others would argue that the Roma population has been ostracized by society, which has caused their current living situation and prevented them from improving it. Regardless of the causes, it’s overwhelmingly obvious that many Roma people live tough lives, and have not managed to mesh with Bulgarian society.

Unfortunately, most of the momentum to integrate the Roma vanished after Bulgaria achieved European Union (EU) status back in 2007. This is because to become a member state, countries hopeful to join the EU must demonstrate a commitment to protecting the rights of minorities. Once member status is achieved, that motivation vanishes.

Having heard so much about the Roma population, I was eager to visit Alfatar so I could further develop my own impressions. As we pulled up to the school, it was immediately apparent that money was tight. While the language school where I work had just been outfitted with smart boards and laptops, there was a noticeable lack of technology and resources in Alfatar. I appreciated the creative lengths teachers had gone to to offer an attractive learning atmosphere for the students. Elaborate designs pieced together from bright construction paper adorned the walls, creating a happy, upbeat environment.

Overview class 2

Teachers welcomed us at the door, and students offered us a bread roll filled with Bulgarian сирене cheese–as we entered their classroom. The topic for the lesson was “introducing your family,” with the underlying goal of showing acceptance to people of all backgrounds…pretty heavy (but important!) stuff for a group of 1st graders! The teacher started the lesson by showing pictures of people from around the world wearing cultural clothing. The conversation focused on the differences between traditional Bulgarian and Indian outfits.

culture difference

Now it was time for the students to introduce their families. One by one, they explained pictures of their families while the teacher walked the photos around the room for everyone to see. The students were interested, and had many questions about where the photos were taken and who they were looking at. A few kids in particular were so excited, they could hardly stay in their seats!

family pictures

I was a little nervous when my turn came around as I’d be speaking entirely in Bulgarian! Fortunately, my practice sessions with Krassy and my Skype lessons paid off, and I was able to explain my pictures, and field a range of questions. The class was especially amused when a young boy asked if I was married, and I responded: “No, are you?” They thought that was hilarious. If only my audience back home was as easy to please with my sense of humor!

Sharing family picture

Our next activity was to draw/color a “class mom.” Essentially, we worked together in two groups to create a mother’s face that incorporated characteristics from all of our mothers. I got to show off my artistic talent by drawing the ears on the portrait in the first picture below (sorry, Mom). When he saw what I drew, one of the kids literally put his head in his hands and sighed, deeply disappointed in my failed attempt. Fortunately, everyone else just thought it was funny and the kid who drew the lips made me look like Rembrandt.

Me with portrait ears Me with portrait 2

After the class, the teachers and the school director all met over tea and cookies. They explained their current financial situation and the pressure it was putting on their resources and programming. I felt really bad for them as they described countless efforts to apply for grants, only to be turned down time and time again. Their clear commitment and dedication had yet to pay off, and that can be incredibly frustrating. To be honest, it was unclear to me why I was involved in the roughly 45 minute meeting. It almost seemed as if they expected me to have a solution or connection for them to take advantage of. After hearing their story, I was disappointed that I couldn’t do more. As we said our goodbyes, I agreed to return for another guest lesson, and I’m hoping to fulfill that promise in March.

I find myself growing increasingly interested in and troubled by the issues plaguing the Roma communities in Bulgaria, and think it’s a cause that needs substantial attention. I often find myself challenging Bulgarian opinions when I hear about “lazy” or “dangerous” Gypsies. I do worry, however, that the situation will not improve until the Roma have access to and take advantage of educational opportunities. I know several of my Fulbright ETA colleagues are passionate about this issue (and even working to combat it), and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts below if you read this!