Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Blood on the Doorsteps

Yesterday, after my classes, I went into town to get a sandwich for lunch. After filling up, I returned to school to check on a few things we've been working on.

I was met at the front door of the school by two students who made it a point to show me some blood on the doorsteps. There had been a fight, "a very good fight," they told me, between two of the other students.

Details as to exactly what happened remain sketchy, but this much is known. The fight involved two boys, an 11th grader and a 12th grader. They had gotten into a small fight on their way home the preceding Friday. They didn't get out of their systems whatever they needed to get out on Friday and brought their hostilities with them to school on Monday. The boy whose blood was on the doorsteps was injured pretty badly, and he was in, and might still be in, the hospital because of some serious damage to one of his eyes.

It wasn't my responsibility to monitor the hall or the front of the school, but I couldn't help but thinking, "Would this have happened had I been around? And, what, if anything, would I have done had I been there?"

Teenage boys get in fights. I got in a couple fights as a teenager, and, even though I've diffused more than a few fights among students, I'm always tempted to just let the kids duke it out, particularly when one of them needs nothing more than a good ass whipping. But, as a teacher, one of our roles is clear – to do our best to provide our students with a learning environment in which they feel safe – and I always end up throwing myself in the middle of whatever scrap might be about to erupt into something more serious.

In such situations, there is no moral dilemma. I know I'm doing the right thing. I don't feel good or bad about it. It's just something I do instinctively without emotion or feeling.

I had a very different feeling a few months ago when I dealt with a slightly different issue. I was teaching after school English to a couple elementary school kids. One of the kids, a boy, asked if he could go to the bathroom. I let him go, but he came back crying. When I asked him what was wrong, he initially refused to answer. After calming him down and telling him everything was going to be fine, he told me that one of our students, a 9th grader who was playing ping pong in the hall in front of the bathroom, had pushed, hit, and bullied him.

This infuriated me, and I went out and confronted the 9th grader. When I first approached, he knew why I was coming and just started laughing. This infuriated me even more, and I grabbed him and asked him what he had done. At first he denied doing anything and said he and the other boy were friends. After yelling at him until he had no doubts I didn't find anything remotely amusing about what he'd done, I dragged him into the room where we were studying English and demanded that he apologize to the other kid. He did so, and genuinely, but I was still seething.

Later that afternoon, I encountered the 9th grader on my walk home. At first when I saw him I felt nothing but anger. But as I got closer I saw in him the same fear I had seen in the younger boy earlier. At that moment, I realized I had bullied and intimidated the 9th grader in exactly the same way he had bullied and intimidated the young boy. And I felt like shit.

In an attempt to salvage the situation, I met with the 9th grader and the school counselor the following day. I explained to him why I was so upset and why his behavior was unacceptable. He listened calmly and understood completely. But sadly, his behavior hasn't changed. My actions in "authority posturing" or whatever else you want to call it only reinforced the idea in his mind that you get your way by pushing around those who are in a position of comparative weakness.

No question. Teachers have a duty to protect their students, especially the younger and weaker ones. But students must be protected not only by the teachers but from them.

I'd like to believe that international politics is somehow more complicated than this, but it's really not:
  • Emotion in decision making must be minimized. At best, emotion clouds reason. At worst, it eliminates reason altogether.
  • The old saying, "Do as I say, not as I do," just doesn't fly.
  • When your conscience tells you you've done or are doing something wrong, you should listen to it and change your behavior. This goes for individuals as well as countries.
  • Might isn't right, and the time for "bullying" to end has long since passed.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Groundhog Day

If you've seen the movie Groundhog Day, you get a small idea of what winter was like here this year. Every day, I'd wake up, look out the window, and see snow falling and a couple fresh inches of powder on the ground. Or so it seemed. Since Баба Марта popped in, snows have become somewhat less frequent, and it's no longer accumulating to the same degree. But it's still happening. Snow is still falling.

I'm trying to say positive. One good thing about winter? Frozen waterfalls. This is Боянски водопад (Boyana Waterfall), the largest waterfall on Витоша (Mount Vitosha).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Birthdays, Women, Wine, and Valentines

Last year, I wrote about some of the differences between how Bulgarians and Americans celebrate birthdays. What I didn't mention is that my birthday falls on a very important day in Bulgaria (and many other places around the world) – International Women's Day. Largely an afterthought in the U.S.A., International Women's Day is a big deal here: combine Mother's Day and Valentine's Day and you pretty much have International Women's Day. As such, it's not a great day to have a birthday.

Bulgarians also celebrate Valentine's Day, but February 14th is equally well known in Bulgaria for another celebration – Трифон Зарезан (St. Trifon's Day). On Трифон Зарезан, grape growers theoretically go out and prune the vines in their vineyards, pour some wine over the vines for good luck, and then proceed to celebrate by drinking lots and lots of wine. The folks who I know who celebrate Трифон Зарезан generally skip all but the last step. Since I didn't have a valentine and wasn't up for a night of heavy drinking, I didn't celebrate anything on February 14th.

Last fall, however, I did return to Крайници (Krainitsi) to help some friends pick their crop of grapes. Between eight of us, we picked approximately 700 kilograms (1,500 pounds) of grapes. Those grapes were subsequently used to produce a winter's supply of red wine and 150 liters of Bulgaria's national drink, rakia. At some point, I'll provide step by step instructions on how to make rakia. In the meantime, here are some photos from our weekend of grape picking. Let's hope 2012 is equally productive.

The process was fairly simple. From 8:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., we picked grapes. We picked big purple grapes, pink grapes, white grapes, green grapes, tiny purple grapes ... at least seven varieties in all.

The grapes went from the vines to buckets ...

and from buckets to crates ...

then the barrels were prepared ...

and the grapes were mashed ...

and then transferred to the barrels.

By 7:15 p.m., all the grapes had been mashed and dumped into the barrels, all the buckets and crates had been cleaned, and we were sitting down enjoying a sampling of the previous year's efforts. It would be a couple months before this year's hard work would pay off.

There were lots of bees and wasps enjoying the nectar from the grapes. I got stung a couple times, but it wasn't a big deal.

There were also a few harmless butterflies enjoying the nectar.

This is Rexy, the family pitbull.

Far more menacing was this mouse murdering hen.

A few other shots from around the village.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The "Gypsy Bride Market"

Cold beer. Grilled meats. Fried fish. Cotton candy. Candied apples. A variety of other sweets. Girls all dolled up. Boys eyeing up the girls, wooing them, and vying for their attention. Adults mixing, mingling, chatting, and matchmaking.

The so-called "Gypsy Bride Market" seemed to be several things rolled into one: a fair of sorts, a reunion of sorts, a matchmaker's convention of sorts, a prom (or debutant ball) of sorts. Whatever it was, it was nothing like the cattle auction it's been reported to be by the media. I expected to be uncomfortable, and I was. Not because this was some archaic and patently offensive sale of young women, but because we had no business being there. We showed up uninvited and brought nothing to the party other than our presumed moral superiority. Despite this, and even though we were there at least in part to judge, we weren't shunned or otherwise made to feel unwelcome. On the contrary, everyone was accepting if not overly accommodating and friendly. What made me uncomfortable was the voice in my own head that kept asking, "Who the hell are you to judge anyway?"

For more on the market, read my friend’s post.

Here are some shots from the event.

These two girls were at the center of some controversy. A freelance reporter from Spain wanted to interview them (and any other girls hoping to be "bought" at the market). The reporter couldn't understand or speak Bulgarian, so without help from a translator she was useless. Anyway, an elderly gentleman claiming to speak on behalf of all Калайджии said no one could be interviewed or photographed until an official translator showed up. The girls' grandmother took exception to this and a small pissing contest ensued. In any event, maybe the girls found love because a few hours later they both were with boys.

This girl was one of the "lucky" ones. She and her new husband both seemed pretty happy.
Gotta love the media getting in someone's face to "get the story."

Alas, I didn't find a bride worth purchasing. Instead, I bought a horsewhip at this stand. A 5 leva souvenir from my first and, in all likelihood, last visit to a bride market.