A stranger's journey through a city that is alive

8:25 am, the phone rings like a fire alarm and Adrienne White jumps up. A quarter hour later she is in the ER with her mother who is sick and being diagnosed with severe anemia. Three hours later White is on my doorstep waiting to drive me to Wal-Mart.

“She just needs to drink vitamins,” the 22-year-old shrugs at my question why she isn’t with her mother. I nod and put on the belt. If it was me, I would have stayed home with my mom for a week.

But this is the States.

Of course White did her duty. Nobody would accuse her of abandoning her mother in a time of need. She did pick her up, she stayed with her in the hospital, drove her back home and bought her pills. The social responsibility is fulfilled, the norm is kept, the family crisis is prevented.

But it was somewhere on the way from her sick mother to my doorstep that something suddenly came up missing.

The panic. The illogical fear. The annoying protectiveness. The emotion.

The concept of family clear, this daughter drove away from her sick mother’s house to go to Wal-Mart with her colleague. As a friend, I was grateful. As a daughter, I had a hard time grasping the reality of how different family duty is being perceived around here.

“Why are you surprised?”asked Violeta Zheliazkova, a Bulgarian student in Microbiology and an environmental activist. “This is the country of the babysitters.”

And that is how this topic came to my attention.

Every American going on vacation has inevitably seen the big signs, loud commercials and sparkly brochures of resorts, restaurants, amusement parks. What do they have in common is two words around which revolves the whole idea of vacation.

Family Fun.

During my first summer in the States these two words hunted me down even in the deep forests of Wisconsin. I would shake my head, stare at the commercials and blink with wonder at why is family fun so important? Are Americans such traditionalist that they don’t go vacationing alone or with friends? The overuse of that word actually made it sound cheap and insincere to me.

So what is it about people here that makes them put family on such an obvious pedestal? Well, maybe the word “obvious” made it… well, obvious.

Little time did I need to realize that, just like so many other things, “family” is a social code, a structure deeply inherited in the very blood of the social manners of the American people. Family is the skeleton that brings about everything else.

Great idea! I thought.

However, as some big family groups interacted in front of my eyes, I sensed a formality that Americans themselves could never fathom. Family may be the skeleton of social interaction in here, but it is a skeleton of duty, of Thanksgiving dinners and formal gatherings, all of which so popular and obvious, that they become mandatory.

That said, I am not stating that these people don’t love each other or don’t care for each other. But having a huge group of family members while being thousands of miles away and seeing them a few times a year doesn’t make for a strong relationship.

It is the social code that gets them together.

And it is the social code that takes them apart, as it requires formal meetings and technical duty, but does not, and could not, require emotional connection between the family members. After all, emotion has no way of being measured by the hour as they cut the Thanksgiving turkey.

Another explanation for this technical precision of family closeness can be stretched in the word “distance”. Or if we go back to Zheliazkova’s statement – “This is the country of the babysitters.”

Parents in the States are sometimes separated by thousands of miles from their children every day. Not only that, the grandparents and close relatives may be on the other end of the country with zero chance to help with the small kids. A babysitter is the logical answer to a society spread on a huge territory with insane working hours.

There is one more major event that marks the difference in the European and American family structures – senior parent.

To be a senior in America means to live in a senior home when you no longer can take care of yourself. Your kids may help move your stuff and then they may pay the monthly fee. But for the 3 years I have been dealing with American people, I haven’t heard of seniors taken home by their children.

In Europe, not taking care of your elderly parents is a social shame of the utmost scale. Letting your parents enter a facility marks you as a bad, ungrateful and cold-hearted son/daughter for the rest of your life.

“This is an awful thing done by children ungrateful for the sleepless nights their parents had while raising them,” said Aneta Kineva, a Bulgarian teacher who spent the last 5 years of her life taking care of her cancer-sick parents.

However, as you take care of the sick of old parents, chances are there will be a lot of inner turmoil and sense of injustice because your life suddenly revives around somebody sick and old until their dying breath.
“I had no personal life,” said Aneta.

On the other hand, the connection parent-child in the States doesn’t mutate to this point of frustration since children don’t take care of the parents and just go visit them in their facilities.

Thus, In the European case, emotions bring together and tear apart the members of the family. In the American case, the formality of the social code combined with huge distances and secluded way of life sometimes make for somehow impersonal relationships between close relatives.

Let’s go through the life of an average American and see the differences with the European model.
As a baby the kid usually gets the mother’s attention since being a stay-at-home mom seems to be pretty big around here. As the kid grows up the parents go back to working long hours and driving around the state and that’s where the babysitter shows up. Another person to take care of you instead of your parents is not unhealthy, but it does blur the definition of a parent a lot. Not being used to having their parents around so much, the early teen years are the rebellion of the apocalypse and the hostility may go on for years. At the age of 18 most Americans leave their homes for good, move to another state for college and visit their parents during the winter break. By the time they finish college they have usually found a job in said state and would, naturally, prefer to stay there and work rather than going back close to mommy and daddy. As time goes by, children are being born and the grandparents are far away, so the babysitter scenario repeats itself.

Of course, this is a generalization. But a logical one.

This is how the scenario would develop in Europe:

The baby is being born and immediately occupied by at least two aunts, grandmothers and random neighborly ladies from the block. When the parents aren’t at home the grandparents stay with them since they live either in the same city or close to it. As the kid grows up the parents are always home during the weekend and late afternoons since European working hours are way fewer than American. By the time they are 18 they apply for college, but due to the short distances a lot of students stay home and just commute to university. Moving out doesn’t happen at the age of 18 to the majority of Europeans. It is maybe a few years later that the young people get their independence. Usually in less than an hour distance from their parents, just because no European country is so big that it takes 3 days to go through it. As the already grown-up kids move away, the bond between them and their parents has been transformed into something a lot stronger than what it was when they were 18. This is a bond of emotional investment. Not the obligation to spend Christmas with them, but the infuriation when they knock on your door at 10 p,m. asking how you are.

It is the array of emotions from love to annoyance to infuriation that make European families a lot more emotionally invested in each other… and a lot more chaotic. Europeans don’t talk so much about family as a word, but they act as a family intuitively due to their close proximity to each other.

At the end of my shift, after Adrienne White drove me to Wal-Mart, a familiar-looking girl walked to my register. Amber Hicks, my colleague, smiled and waved. “I am here with my family who came to visit me,” she said, her eyes shining and her cheeks red. Yes, an amusement park is not the most intimate place to see your closest relatives, but something in Amber’s shining eyes told me a different story… The story that the formality of interaction between American families and the chaotic emotional communication of European families is a difference not in the amounts of feelings, but in the way of their expression. The players are the same, just the board is different.

The man is in his forties, tapping his finger on the counter, head tilted to the right. Petia Yankova smiles and takes a breath.

“And your Zip Code, please?”

“What?” the man almost shouts..

“Your ZIP CODE, sir, zip code.” she keeps smiling as she pronounces the word louder.

The guy nods now and gives her a 5-digit South Carolina number with a deep grunt in his throat. She hands him his tickets and he goes through the door with a short “goodbye.”

“Southerners,” Yankova says and shakes her head. “They don’t even want to listen.”

Petia Yankova is a student from Europe, Bulgaria. She has been coming to the States every year since she was little. She has half grown-up here and makes a distinction between The South and The North with the passion of every other American. A distinction I knew nothing about.

“They are annoyed that they have to deal with somebody with an accent,” Yankova continues. “But how can you have an accent in the word “zip code?”

I nod and wonder, is it the annoyance of that concrete individual that bothers her, or is it the fact that it is coming from a Southerner?
Of course, all of Europe knows about the Civil War and the uneasy relations between the North and the South. We know it because we have been told about it, watched movies, read books and listened to people repeat it over and over again. But, for 3 months working in the North I have never heard anyone say something about the south.

“Northerners keep to themselves,” Yankova said. And maybe she is right. Or maybe, just maybe, her developed passion for making the distinction between South and North is fueling a generalization that might or might not be correct.

In Myrtle Beach, where I work this summer, however, whenever I would mention my previous summer in the North, I would hear jokes, see strange looks and, well, yes, hear more jokes. The biggest irony of all – a Facebook status of former sports editor Mark Wolemann from Minnesota: “Going out for a ride in a place – Myrtle Beach – that doesn’t seem to believe in bike lanes, bike paths or sane driving.”

As I first arrived in Wisconsin I was told that sanity and driving aren’t very compatible there either. “Be careful with the rednecks, they drive dangerously,” somebody told me as I got on my bike. After getting almost ran over a dozen times in Myrtle Beach, but not even once in Wisconsin, I smile – how come Myrtle beach people don’t believe in sane driving, but at the same time no one believes in Wisconsin’s sanity where the drivers are a lot more sane through hilly roads, loops and rocky angles. It is a curious dichotomy.

That said, there are undeniable differences between North and South that even as a European I cannot miss. The economic issues are more than obvious. “People in the north can’t afford to retire there, it is too expensive,” says Kim Meyers, a manager in Myrtle Beach who moved here from Maryland a few years ago.

There is also the different lifestyle born out of that economic difference. The northerners have “A great sense of urgency,” says Jim T, Meyers’corporate advisor who moved from Ohio to Myrtle Beach for the summer. After Chicago’s rally driving and people running around me for a day, I know exactly what he means.

And coming to the political division, it only comes to serve as another example how people get to each other’s throats during political campaigns. It is natural, it is even expected since a good argument with a passionate opposition gives a lot more ground for improvement.

All these are valid differences, physical and existing. It is what I find inside these people’s heads that makes me doubt the necessity of this Berlin wall of South against North. It is the self-persuasion, the never ending desire to make this difference even deeper and to fuel the sense of isolation from one another that makes me wonder, why bother?

The thing is, I didn’t really feel the division between South and North until I heard about it and was forced to notice it. “Unlike some other internal divisions in Europe, the US North-South dichotomy has gained some special publicity through Gone with the Wind,” said Yulia Shenderovic from Belarus who currently studies Public policy in Oxford, UK. The divide between South and North has been carefully maintained by Americans in all forms possible with a somewhat fanatical persistency. And when you repeat something long enough, it becomes real, it can be felt.

A simple reason may stand behind this almost instinctive hostility and self-persuasion. Maintaining the status quo. “Americans have a strict social order – it is that way, because it should be that way,” said Nadezhda Naidenova, a Bulgarian specialist in European Studies and International Relations. “You have a new neighbor, you go bring them cupcakes and smile because it is the way it is, not because you like them.”

And if such a simple rule applies to such a simple situation, then how can it be any different for the descendants of civil war soldiers and children of parents who remember tales of division and stubbornness? Maintaining the Status Quo in terms of South vs North comes to be one of the biggest social responsibilities of contemporary Americans. One that they cannot avoid even if they want to, because it is not up to them to destroy the order. “I think that people in the US don’t choose how to act,” said Bulgarian Agi Stoyanova about her experience in Colorado Springs. They just have to be that way.

And this is why, as foreigners, we don’t feel this division. It is not in our nature to support it. “In Europe you don’t have to bring somebody cupcakes if you don’t like them,” said Naidenova and shrugged. Building a barricade of words to support an invisible divide only works so far.

But I look around and wonder – isn’t it exhausting to maintain that order, to support the wall of prejudice that may have otherwise been gone? How honest is the opposition South-North today, so many years after the civil war? Yes, people believe in it, but do they know enough about the other side in order to make a valid argument why they don’t like them in present time? “I found it interesting that almost none of my US friends have even visited the South,” said Shenderovich. If you have never been to a certain place, if you have never communicated with its people, how can you be so passionate about not liking them?

It all comes down to something simple – communication, openness, sincerity. This is what strikes many Europeans as they come to the States – the lack of sincerity and close relations between people here. “The majority of the Nantucket residents are indifferent to each other more than most Western Europeans seem to be; and way more than Eastern Europeans who maintain more or less sincere relationships within small communities,” said Asen Dimitrov, a Bulgarian who worked in Massachusetts.

If you are indifferent to the people around you, how much more indifferent would you be to a community that is said to be opposing to you and you are reminded of that more or less constantly. Sincere communication is the basis of all relationships and with this lacking what is left is to follow the model of prejudice. “Redneck” may be the most offending word for an American. For me, building friendships in Wisconsin and Chicago, it was a curious example of a reality so distorted that it was no longer real. Self-persuasion is a powerful tool, powerful enough to last generations, even though today nobody gives a rat’s ass about the civil war.

In their way of maintaining the status quo, Americans have convinced themselves to divide each other because of their inability and desire to be more open, sincere and curious about each other. This lack of freedom, born out of the rules of the social order, builds the contemporary South vs North division in my eyes. Political and economic differences aren’t the key, it is the relations between the people and the deeply inherited obligation to be divided that makes for this opposition.

At least during the civil war they had actually something to fight about.
But, after all, what do I know about this anyways. I’m just a European.

Welcome to Blagoevgrad

A small city, full of young people, harboring two universities and multiple high schools- this is Blagoevgrad.

In the beginning of this blog there was the question “What makes young people live here?” We found that the old residents loved their city, enjoyed its beautiful nature and its students, saying the last were the reason for Blagoevgrad to be “alive”. Some said Blago turned out to be their destiny. Some of the younger generation had luck, got a job and stayed in the town, although admitting that if they hadn’t found a job, they would have been gone by now. And finally there were those who loved Blagoevgrad, did not want to leave, but had no other choice due to the lack of jobs.

So the initial question got its answer- Young people don’t live here. “They come here to study, find partners, find friends, find a social environment and want to stay, but if everyone wanted to be successful right here in Blagoevgrad, it wouldn’t be possible,” said Sylvia Domozetska, a local Blagoevgrad journalist. The saturated labor market and the lack of serious industry is the reason why Blagoevgrad cannot offer its newly graduated students even simple technical or economic positions, said Domozetska.

Blagoevgrad is the best town for living for 2010, according to Darikn radio's survey- An announcement put in the municipality.

Despite the fact that young people do not stay here after graduation, they are still the essence of the town and appear engaged in the town’s activities. We visited several municipal institutions that offered students various activities from arts to education. Sofiya Yancheva, head secretary of the Blagoevgrad Municipality, summarized the main institutions that attract young people. “Our view is that the youngsters, students from high schools and universities, are the future of Blagoevgrad, they hold its fate in their hands,” Yancheva said, explaining why they support these institutions.

Yancheva explained that the large amount of students in the town is due to Blagoevgrad’s status as a regional center – students from the Blagoevgrad and other districts come here as early as 7th grade. They get in mathematical, language and a number of technical high schools varying from textile and clothing to electronics and even economics. “We have a full range of technical high schools,” said Yancheva and smiled.

Children leaving at sunset, after a visit in the regional museum Blagoevgrad

As we got acquainted with how the town keeps its students engaged, Sylvia Domozetska expressed her view for Blago’s future- a student festival center. “I would very much like it for the young people to enjoy themselves in different festivals, thematic meetings,” she said. She expressed hope that all the municipal institutions can work together towards this goal and something more- towards establishing tighter connections within the community. “By building a bridge between these institutions we can create a bridge between the different majors in the universities, between AUBG and South-West university, and even the high school students,” she said.

So this is Blagoevgrad- the town everybody loves, the place most people leave, the educational center that keeps its students engaged, treasuring and nurturing its young minds. It is the town that is young and alive.

Here is the last video from the city that is a live, shot by me- the stranger who now is now not such a stranger to Blagoevgrad.

And this is the message Sofyia Yancheva wanted me to share with the rest of the Blagoevgrad community:

“To the youngsters of Blagoevgrad: be alive and well, you are the future of Blagoevgrad, I wish you to have artistic personalities!”

ENG version

BG version

This was all from BlagoevgradToday- May it stay young Tomorrow and Forever…

Blago – loved and left

I found something extremely curious- young people don’t like talking about the uncertainties of their futures. For the first time in 3 months I was faced with interviewees that were very, very unwilling to talk. With or without camera.

The older generation was also not  very eloquent, their reason being too much anger or shame. The tendency is for older people to be proud of their city and not to admit its issues while the ones who admit them are so angry that they don’t want to further talk about it. Here is how I ended up with an 8-second interview with a very animated and loud-talking secretary of a local high school “Lasil Levski.” Missis Jordanka Erdinska was nothing but precise and… nothing but short in her interview.

South-West University Professors were unwilling to talk, asked if I had permission to put their students in front of the camera and one even refused to tell me if there is a PR person in their building. The South-West University students, on the other hand, had many different answers to the question ‘Would you stay in Blagoevgrad after graduation?” Most students really like the city, but as one of them said after the camera was off “Some things do not depend on wish only”- she wants to stay, but she is not sure if she will be able to.

My main interview was with Tatyana Bezinska, a senior in AUBG. She brought me back to the beginning of this blog, saying something an 70-year-old lady once told me.

From the very start of this blog one phrase stayed in my mind. A phrase from my first interview with the old ladies across the villagers market- “Blagoevgrad is alive city.” So this became my headline- a journey through a city that is alive.

Today Tatyana told me again the reason why Blago is alive- its 20% university students population. “This just makes it(Blago) more alive. Young people are cool, they just make the whole environment better” The same young people that, even though they want to stay, are most likely to abandon Blago because of lack of jobs.

 

 

Now I know …

Now I know ….

 

A blog entry from my JMC professor about smoke in Blagoevgrad- one of the not so bright sides of the city that is alive (and smoking)

Art, children and Blago

The headquarters of the Arts Centre- The Director's House

Blagoevgrad is a small city, but its educational power surpasses its size. This week the old city of Varosha presented its way of attracting young people – the Blagoevgrad Arts Centre.

The Centre has an anniversary this year- 20 years since its creation in 1992. It is organized around the old houses in Varosha– each old house is under rent for a different art unit. The units are Literature, Drawing, Music, Dancing, and the newest branch- Ethnography, which opened in June last year. The arts training can be group or individual and the number of children currently enrolled is 390. The Centre is an institution under the municipality and is sponsored by it.

The programs children can participate in include ballet, national dances, different musical instruments like mandoline, piano, guitar, choir for national songs, etc.

The teacher in House Ethnography, Antoaneta Apostolova, talked about her art while helping her individual student Kiril Mitev make a Christmas collage and listening to Bulgarian children songs. Her art studies what ethnography means- from “ethnos” (people) and “graphos” (write.) ”The children learn about the Bulgarian people and what the Bulgarian people has learned throughout the centuries,” said Apostolova.

The wall in front of the Directors's office is full of diplomas from various art competitions

The technique she uses is called “Torcevanie”– the kids cut colorful materials(paper)in squares, use a special technique to swirl the paper around a stick and glue it to the image they want to recreate. “This develops the childrens’ skills because this swirling requires steady hands and lots of patience,” said Apostolova. “And I am very handy,” said the 10-year-old Kiril with a proud expression on his face.

The official wallpaper of the centre

Apostolova views the arts centre as a means to keep children away from computer games. “All the shootings and blood and killings in these games provoke children, violence accumulates in the childrens’ psychy and at a certain point it surfaces,” she said. “We need to find other games for our children, games that develop our children in a non-violent way.” “I like hide and seek,” said Kiril.

“I like coming here, it is fun, it teaches me different techniques” said Kiril Mitev without looking at me- he is very concentrated on the tip of the Christmas tree he is doing.

The Ethnography House serves as an ecology club as well- Apostolova teaches children to recycle and craft with materials that most people would throw away like toilet paper cones and cans. She showed me a Christmas wreath made by toiled paper cones and colored paper flowers, all painted with nail polish by the children. “They did the polishing with great pleasure,” Apostolova said.

Apostolova believes Blagoevgrad is a busy city that manages to keep its young people up until a certain point. The two universities, multiple high schools as well as arts centers and other institutions occupy the students, but “once they graduate university, the young people run away,” she said.

You can hear rest of the interview with Apostolova in the next video as well as the interview with the director of the Centre- Magdalena Nikolova. Nikolova said that the old town of Varosha gives the students the opportiunity to work what they started in the Arts Centre, thus keeping its young people in Blagoevgrad.

In the interview is also a six-year-old student of House Music, accompanied by her teacher with whom she won a gold medal in Sofia in a recent competition.

The exact technique “Torcevanie” can be seen in the following video

The official entrance

It is a serious business- going to the Blagoevgrad Community Center Library. Mostly because there is an orange cat guarding the entrance and effectively sorting through the serious readers and the ones who just came to make pictures, shoot videos and disturb its calm nap.

Joke aside, the Central Blagoevgrad Library is indeed a calm and quiet place with helpful personnel and a homely atosphere, maybe due to its small, but tastefully arranged interior, including flags, wooden benches and old-fashioned wooden stairs.

There are books in Bulgarian as well as in English, reading space and even a clock on the wall, picturing Nikola Vaptsarov– the patron of the Community Centre- the building in which the library is situated.

About the library’s founding here is going to talk Ginka Mehandjiiska- head librarian. Right after her, the 26-year-old Stoja Bacheva, a student form the South-West University, will share her library experience and what makes this particular library appealing to Blagoevgrad citizens.

And here is the rest of the interview with Ginka Mehandjiiska where the Community Centre director jumped in to reveal a contract between one of the former AUBG provosts and the Community Library- a contract for AUBG students to visit the library and get acquainted with the rare ancient books stored there.

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