Tough Goodbyes

After an emotionally taxing day, packing up my apartment was not easy. I made some progress, but it didn’t take long for exhaustion to overwhelm me. Despite all I had to do, I allowed myself to fall asleep early, knowing that the next day would also be hectic.

Eight hours of sleep felt great. I woke up with more energy than I’d had in weeks, and finished up the majority of my packing quickly. At 11:30, I started the walk to school for the last time. Valentin, my mentor and friend, had told me that I had a final meeting with the principal at noon, and I didn’t want to be late. When I arrived, Valentin was waiting for me on the steps of the school with a big smile on his face. “I hope I’m not too casual,” I said as I walked up to him. I had packed most of my work clothes, and was donning my Silistra t-shirt from the day before.

“You’ll be fine,” he said. “Wait out here. Let me make sure the principal is ready.”

No more than 30 seconds later, Valentin bounced back down the front steps of the school, and ushered me inside. I expected we’d be going into the principal’s office, but instead he led me to the teachers’ lounge–“strange,” I thought.

When the door to the teacher’s lounge swung open, I immediately realized that there would be no official send-off meeting with the principal, as I had expected. Instead, the “meeting” was a guise for my going away celebration. As I walked in, I noticed that the large teachers’ table, usually overflowing with textbooks and grade books, was covered with a vast spread of Bulgarian dishes. Valentin called for the group’s attention, and shared some words about my role as a teacher at Peyo Yavorov Foreign Language High School.

Now I have to take a minute to talk about Valentin. He has popped up in my blog from time to time, but until this point, I think I’ve failed to communicate just how instrumental he was during my time in Bulgaria. Without Valentin, my life in Silistra would have been tough. In addition to showing me around town, Valentin taught me how to pay bills, lesson plan effectively, and navigate a foreign culture. He has been a great friend outside the classroom, and a great co-teacher and partner inside the classroom. An exceptional teacher, he not only teaches students English, but also instills important values, and does it all with a great sense of humor and a big smile on his face.

After Valentin spoke, the school principal said a few words, and presented me with a gift: a hand-carved wooden sculpture of two owls. At first, I was a bit perplexed, but as she started explaining, I began to understand. The owl is our school mascot, and the big owl with outstretched wings symbolized me, the teacher, watching over the baby owl, which represented my students. I felt honored to receive such a gift, and will treasure it for a long time.

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School principal and me

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Peyo Yavorov faculty and staff

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English Department! (Margarita, Kremena, me, Aneta, Valentin)

A couple hours after the school celebration, it was time for another tough goodbye. Nadia had taken a day off of work to be in Silistra (she typically worked in Varna during the week), and she and Krassy had prepared a fantastic goodbye dinner. They invited Valentin as well, and it was fun for me to have them all together. I savored every bite of my shopska salad, knowing it might be my last one for some time, and even treated myself to an extra glass of rakia, fully aware that the plastic two-liter bottle from Krassy filled with the stuff wouldn’t fit into my already overflowing luggage.

Towards the end of dinner, after Valentin had left, I tried to articulate to Krassy and Nadia just how much their friendship meant to me. And to be honest, calling our relationship a “friendship” just doesn’t quite do it justice, because in reality, they treated me like family. I started off trying to express these feelings in Bulgarian, but quickly realized I didn’t have all the words I needed to fully express myself. Frustrated, I switched to English. I knew Krassy wouldn’t understand the words, but I made sure our watery eyes connected, and knew that he understood exactly what I was saying, despite the language barrier. All the time we spent together enhanced my Bulgaria experience, and it would not have been as meaningful or as enriching of a year without these friendships.

Fortunately, Krassy, Nadia, and I have been in touch over Skype! I got Krassy set up before I left, and have had lots of fun reconnecting with them. We’re still working on keeping our faces aligned with the camera, but are making progress! Of course, Krassy always wears his USA shirt for the call!

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Skype call with Krassy and Nadia

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Skype

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Journey to Silistra!

Journey to Silistra!

11 hours!?! I was shocked when my mentor Valentin told me how long it had taken him to reach Sofia. Bulgaria is a small country (roughly the size of Tennessee), so I hadn’t expected such a long journey to reach my new town. Now I was starting to understand why the Fulbright Commissioners had expressed some concern about placing an ETA all the way out in Silistra.

Anticipating the long trip, Valentin and I got an early start on the last day of orientation. We made our way to Sofia’s central train station, purchased our tickets, and stocked up on snacks for the day. As I lugged my huge duffel bags around, I realized once again how terrible a job I did packing…luggage with wheels would have been smart. I was surprised by how little information was available at bus and train stations. Valentin had to run from place to place to figure out when our train departed, which cart we were supposed to sit in, and what track we’d be on. I’ve noticed this several times in Bulgaria. Schedules are out of date or simply unavailable, and changes/cancellations happen frequently with little to no communication. It’s no wonder Bulgarians have such a “go with the flow” mentality!

The train was pretty slow moving. Most of the rail tracks are in poor condition, which prevents the old Soviet trains from moving at their top speeds (not that their top speed would be anything to write home about). Though the train ride was long, I was glad we did it. After having spent the last month in a nice resort or downtown hotels, I felt like I was seeing the real Bulgaria for the first time.

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Train ride to Silistra

Following a couple of train changes, we arrived in the small town where Valentin’s wife and daughter would be picking us up. The final 2 hours of our journey by car were pleasant, as I got to know Valentin and his family better.

After almost 12 straight hours of travel, we arrived at my apartment. It was dark out, but I could tell the building was newer than some of the communist-style block apartments across the street. We carried my luggage up the 4 flights of steps to my apartment. I was exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to collapse in my new bed. Valentin pulled out my apartment key, and unlocked the top of two bolt locks. He moved down to the second, but the key wouldn’t fit. He tried the other two keys on my key ring. No luck. He passed the keys to me to try. No luck. His wife and daughter tried. No luck. It appeared we were missing one of the keys to get into my apartment. A couple of phone calls later, and we realized that the key we needed was with my landlord’s brother in a town almost an hour away!

Fortunately, we all found the situation pretty humorous, and decided to grab pizza at a nearby restaurant to pass the time until my key arrived. An hour and a half later, I was finally in my apartment (pictures to come in a later post), and asleep within minutes. I couldn’t wait to start exploring my new home town the next morning!