Our faculty are not just classroom educators, they are advisors, coaches, animal lovers, woodworkers, kayakers, quilters, running enthusiasts, and much more. They bring vast life experiences unknown to most. Faculty member and English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Director Allison Rainville shared with us a story about her time in the Peace Corps during the late ‘90s.
From June 1998 to July 2000, I served in Bulgaria, a small, former Communist, Eastern European country bordering Turkey, Greece, Romania, Macedonia, and Yugoslavia where I taught English and did some teacher training at the English language high school in the fourth largest city in the country.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is scary. The Peace Corps’ website makes it seem as if it’s always fun and interesting and life changing. People join the to “save the world”, but it is so much more than that. It is fun and interesting and life changing, but it is also challenges you in ways you could never predict.
When I arrived in Bulgaria, I spoke no Bulgarian. For the first three months I livec with a host family who didn’t speak English. I learned Bulgarian pretty quickly by living with them, and by the end of my two years, was very proficient in Bulgarian and sometimes mistaken for a native speaker. But that first night with my host family, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d gotten myself into. The Peace Corps had told them I had food allergies but not what I was allergic to, so trying to explain to them what I couldn’t eat turned out to be a comedy of errors. Imagine explaining that your allergies are not life threatening to someone who is afraid they’re going to kill you with dinner, when you can barely even say hello in their language.
Two days later, I had become proficient in at least one aspect of communication. Bulgarians nod in the opposite direction from us. They do up and down for no, and side to side for yes. My host mother was adamant that I learn how to do it “properly” – she would not accept it any other way. The first time I remembered to nod the rightway was even more important than the first time I was mistaken for native speaker of Bulgarian. This sounds like such a little thing, but when so many communication skills are lost to you as you are learning a new language, even the little things count.
I’d been in Bulgaria for about nine months when NATO started dropping bombs next door in Serbia. I found myself under scrutiny for my citizenship and supposed allegiances. To the Bulgarians, it wasn’t NATO dropping bombs, it was the United States, and as U.S. citizens, we were warned to stay out of the public eye so that we wouldn’t be the targets of violence. I still walked to work and saw the graffiti that people painted on the sides of buildings equating my country and me with “Slav killers” and worse. When my parents heard these stories, they decided not to come and visit me like they had promised they would.
There were times when I would spend hours in my neighbors’ apartment talking about anything and everything under the sun, including our feelings and opinions about NATO, Serbia, and Slobodan Milosevic. We would often talk about politics and what was difficult about living in Bulgaria since the Communists lost power. It was an enlightening, and sobering, experience to realize that some Bulgarians actually wished that the Communists still ran the country, but I couldn’t fault them for their reasoning, since they lost almost everything – life savings and jobs, but also trust and security - in the political and economic instability that followed the fall of Communism.
There were days when I wished Bulgaria to hell. The day I discovered a man behind me on the bus had lifted up my skirt and was exposing my backside to the rest of the bus. The day fake ticket takers targeted two friends of mine on a tram in Sofia as we were traveling across town and followed us off of the tram when we refused to pay their fine. The day someone dismissed all of the language skills I was so proud of by telling me that I made mistakes like children do. They always teach you how to be polite in a foreign language; they never teach you how to be spitting mad.
The memories I’d rather forget are largely eclipsed by what I’d rather remember: cross-stitching, conversation over tea and homemade goodies with my friends, both Bulgarian and American. Watching the sunrise over the Black Sea from my apartment, and seeing my first total solar eclipse from cliffs overlooking the Black Sea. The night one of my choir mates, after singing with the group for a couple of months and talking to me on several occasions, came up to me after rehearsal one night and told me that until the director had mentioned it during rehearsal that night, he had not realized I was an American. The looks on my students’ faces when they realized I understood what they were saying to each other in Bulgarian.
I want to recognize that many Americans go abroad each year as volunteers in the Peace Corps with only the skills in their heads, and come back richer for having given themselves without asking for anything in return.