Skype Q & A: Kindergarten class learns about Bulgaria!

Recently, most of my posts (and time) have been dedicated towards the fundraising project I’m working on with 10A. But today, I wanted to take a short timeout from project updates to tell you about a cool experience I had this week. Elizabeth Noell, my former neighbor and family friend, teaches kindergarten at Sedge Garden Elementary School near the the town I grew up in. On Tuesday afternoon, I had the opportunity to Skype with her class (and a group of 3rd graders that joined us) about my experience in Bulgaria.

After giving a brief introduction, I was asked a number of questions ranging from “What foods do you eat in Bulgaria?” to “What do you miss most about North Carolina?” My Mom and sister Emily had joined for the conversation (you can see them in the back below), so in answer to the latter question, I had fun joking with the students that the thing I missed most about North Carolina was BBQ!

Q and A Skype

Students were eager to ask questions and learn about Bulgaria!

During the next 30 minutes, I shared many things I hoped the students would find interesting. Check out this local news piece by FOX Channel 8 WGHP for some highlights of our session!

  • How to spell Bulgaria – I gave the students the opportunity to try first; hilarity ensued (B-U-L-I-G-E-I-R-E-A).
  • Where Bulgaria is located on a map – I was pleased they knew it was in Europe, because some of the adults I spoke to before leaving hadn’t managed to get that far.
  • The approximate population in Bulgaria – Initial guesses from the students anchored around 25,000, so there was an element of surprise when I told them it was closer to 7 million!
  • Popular dishes in Bulgaria – I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and I’m hopeful my growling stomach didn’t come through on the Skype call as I described shopska salad, sarmi, and banitsa. I didn’t think this was the right audience to tell about rakia!
  • Popular jobs in Bulgaria – I talked about some of the big industries in Bulgaria like sunflowers and rose oils. I also explained that there are many people in Bulgaria who want to work, but don’t have the opportunity. It’s hard to have an elementary conversation about unemployment, but I think I managed to express that it’s indeed a big problem here.
  • Technology in the classroom – I gave a dual answer to a question about what technologies are available at my school. While I wanted to highlight the amazing technology we have at our school thanks to the America for Bulgaria Foundation (smartboards, tablets, laptops, speakers, etc.), I also wanted to emphasize that many schools are alarmingly under-resourced. I challenged the students to think about how their learning experience would be much more challenging without technology, and shared that as the reality for many Bulgarian students.
  • What my students are like – I liked this question because it gave me the opportunity to brag about my AMAZING kids. The kindergarteners and third graders were impressed when I told them that most of my students know 3 or 4 different languages and are exceptionally bright and creative.
  • What sports are popular in Bulgaria – It was fun to talk about the different meanings of “football” in America and Bulgaria (and the rest of the world, for that matter). I also shared that volleyball is an incredibly popular sport here and that my students dominate me when I train with our school team. I was also thrilled to get a question about my own favorite sports team, because it gave me the chance to gloat about Duke’s win over UNC on Saturday night. In fact, I might miss that more than the BBQ. I managed to wake up at 4 a.m. for both Duke/UNC games this year. For the most recent one, that meant watching curled up on a bean bag in my freezing cold hotel lobby while snow dropped in buckets outside. I was sharing a hotel room with my school’s bus driver Nikolai (I spent the weekend in Pazardzhik for a BEST Speech & Debate tournament with my students–more on that later), and believe it or not, he didn’t seem particularly interested in waking up for the game. The receptionist was beyond puzzled as she watched me set up shop for the game. “Do you ever sleep?” she asked me in Bulgarian.

The students’ enthusiasm and curiosity was so infectious that I was legitimately sad when the session came to an end. After the interview, it dawned on me that there aren’t many better ways to fulfill the Fulbright mission to “enhance mutual understanding” than by instilling a genuine curiosity about foreign countries, languages, and cultures in a group of young people. Hopefully, something I said planted a seed of interest that will grow into a strong desire to learn about people from other backgrounds all over the world. We need more of that.

A big thanks to Elizabeth Noell and her class for inviting me to speak!

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My Best Friend in Silistra is a 60-year-old man

I’m an extrovert. I constantly seek out the company of others, and rarely prefer spending time alone. Looking back, I’ve more or less been completely surrounded by people since starting college. Duke was a nonstop social overload (that I loved) and with so many young people at Target and in Minneapolis, finding friends to socialize with was never a problem.

It’s been a different story so far in Silistra. Sure, I enjoy the daily interactions with my students and colleagues, but it’s just not the same as what I’m used to. Silistra (and much of rural Bulgaria, for that matter) lacks young adults. After graduating high school, many aspiring students decide to study and work abroad. At the very least, they opt to move to Sofia or Plovdiv where there are more opportunities for education and employment. That coupled with the language barrier has made making friends challenging.

Enter: Krasimir

I first met Krasimir (Krassy) a little over a month ago. My teacher mentor Valentin was over at my apartment helping me figure out how to get my apartment wired for the Internet. We were out in the hallway talking, and all of a sudden the door across the hall from me swung open. I looked up and was surprised to see an older man with a gray mustache and distinctive beer belly staring back at us…in nothing but his underwear. He was very inquisitive, and began asking Valentin about who I was and what problems we were having with the Internet. It was only after about 10 minutes that he finally excused himself to put on some pants. He returned quickly, however, and insisted we follow him into his apartment.

We sat around his living room table and discussed the problems we were having with the Internet setup. For whatever reason, Krassy made it his personal mission to help us, vowing that he had friends who worked for the cable company, and that he would call them right away…well, right after we joined him for a glass of whiskey. He told us a bit about his background: he has a window business, a daughter living in the UK, and a wife who works in Varna (a beautiful Bulgarian city on the Black Sea Coast). My favorite thing he said, however, was translated for me as, “I just can’t believe how many friends I have!” With his outgoing personality and affable nature, I believed him!

Now because the conversation was mostly in Bulgarian, I was pretty quiet. However, after only about an hour, I somehow made enough of an impression on Krassy that he said I was “like a son” to him, and he has treated me that way ever since.

Krassy, me, Krassy's wife Nadia

Krassy, me, Krassy’s wife Nadia

A couple times each week, Krassy rings my doorbell right around dinner time, and beckons me into his apartment. The three course meals he prepares are a welcome change to the pasta, sandwiches, and cereal I was “cooking.” At first, conversation was a little frustrating. My Bulgarian was still very limited, and Krassy doesn’t speak any English. Despite the language barrier, we actually understand each other quite well, but I have to imagine we would be quite a spectacle for any onlooker.

As a fly on the wall (and yes, there are plenty of actual flies on the wall), here are some things you would likely see:

  • Drawings. Lots of drawings. When neither of us can find the right words, we draw pictures. We just recently went through the last sheet of what started as a brand new notepad!
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Bats and a little geography lesson

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Krassy teaches me how to tell time and wear a funny hat??

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The sound effects Krassy makes to describe a pig are hilarious

  • An intense game of charades. Body language and gesturing are essential for communication when words alone are insufficient.
  • Me writing intensely. I always bring my own notebook, and leave with a new page of Bulgarian words and phrases. Krassy always points to random objects, and tells me the word in Bulgarian. My pocket Bulgarian-English dictionary is always nearby too.
  • Me telling Krassy that I’m full and can’t possibly eat anything else.
  • Krassy subsequently serving me more and insisting that I finish it.
  • Krassy repeatedly telling me that his pet rabbit “peshoo” is in the mafia (I find this especially funny).
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Peshoo leading a mafia meeting

  • Krassy chain smoking…it is the Bulgarian way, after all!
  • Krassy calling across the balcony to his neighbors who speak a bit of English when we need help translating.
  • Krassy giving me instructions on how to get over my cold: drinking one liter of tea with lemon and honey, soaking my feet in very hot salt water (still don’t understand this one), putting a heating pad on my face (“make sure you don’t go above the 1st setting!”). Oh, and a dash of rakia, of course.
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Krassy’s Cold Remedy

  • Krassy explaining what’s being said on TV. His favorite shows are Serbian music television, the news, and shows about aliens or Egyptians. Every once and awhile, he turns on CNN in English, and asks several times if I can understand it…I still can, Krassy.
  • Krassy telling me that I need to get flannel pajamas like his before winter arrives.
  • Krassy insisting I talk to people on the phone when they call. I’ve spoken with his wife, mother, and friends in a mixture of Bulgarian and English. This seems to be of particular amusement to Krassy, as he always laughs hysterically in the corner.
  • Friendship. I’ll be honest, I was a bit skeptical about Krassy at first. I didn’t want my social life to revolve around my 60-year-old neighbor, and I thought the communication barrier would be insurmountable. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I now look forward to spending time with Krassy, and feel fortunate to have a neighbor so invested in my well-being.
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Krassy being Krassy

I’m about to leave for Bucharest, where I will be picking up my parents and younger sisters. I can’t wait to show them around Bulgaria…and introduce them to my best friend in Silistra, of course!