Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Zakah. Pass it on.

The crackle of the Ezan sounded harsher in Marrakech than it did in Istanbul. Somehow the call to prayer felt more prosaic, less like an invitation to a dreamy otherworld as I lay in the riad bed. Somewhere above me doves were waking up on the roof, and out across the city devout Muslims were unrolling prayer rugs. I wasn’t one of them. No, I was rolling myself up in a plush purple quilt, quite willing to let the sun rise without me.

Having traveled to Marrakech for three days of experiences before hitting the road for surf camp on the coast, I was spending more time under this purple plush than I had expected. These experiences screamed with intensity and after spiced couscous lunches, Brett and I generally found our way back through the winding streets and in our solid wooden door for a long process-it-all nap.

Marrakech was a city of blinding white stone plazas, mopeds, snake-charmers, twisty roads melting into sunlit stucco, veils of heat and veils of silk. It was a Muslim city, and therefore a city of Zakah – the giving of alms – one of the five pillars of Islam.

 I had little knowledge of Islam or Zakah upon arrival, though I understood a few basics about the prophet Muhammed and the pilgrimage to Mecca from my 9th grade “Introduction to Religion” class. I also knew the post 9-11 backlash against Muslims had been awful, that I loved the sound of the call to prayer, that I thought it was a lovely thing to watch my star player bravely refuse to take a day off from practice when Ramadan overlapped with our tennis season. 

Like in every other big city I’ve visited, people begging filled many of the urban crevices of Marrakech. But there was one key difference. People were giving money to the people begging. Each coin dropped into each hand fulfilled a bit of the command for Zakah, and each giver walked away blest, as the gift blessed the person in need. Those without sat patiently, and those with, shared. What an amazing sight to see. Though we couldn’t claim to be practicing Zakah, Brett and I began to carry pocketfuls of chang so we could participate in this gentle practice of sharing.

One day as I slipped out of the shaded buzz of the souks, I found myself in a sunlit courtyard, dark-hued rugs draped for sale across a huge wall on one side. On the other side, olive vendors proffered jars of green beauty – olives stuffed with garlic, almonds, onions, dusted with herbs, swimming in rich olive oil. Tourists, locals on mopeds, even the occasional wooden cart or pony flowed through the courtyard. Two young children were working the area, trying to sell three punching balloons dragging behind them on long strings.

The older girl was not so old that she had to cover the long wave of dark hair falling down her back. Her shoes reminded me of the kind of shoes you can buy at Walmart, except the way they look years later on a dusty card table at a rummage sale. As I watched from an olive counter, she spotted a young couple just entering the courtyard.

 The man and woman walked near each other but did not hold hands. Each licked a dripping ice cream cone. They separated. As the woman browsed the wares in the courtyard, the man looked up to see the older girl approaching, her blue punching balloon extended toward him.  How could she be so bold? A man in his mid-twenties, with his girlfriend, could hardly have need for a punching balloon. Yet the young girl seemed unafraid, and soon, though she still had possession of her punching balloon, she was licking a dripping ice cream cone. His ice cream cone. Zakah. As I peeked through the crowd, I saw her younger sister licking one of her own, the young woman’s. Zakah.

Sharing an ice cream cone is so simple. So is sharing an arm. The next day as I fended off the constant calls of the stall owners to “step inside. Just for a second. Very good price. Very nice. Very lovely” I got stuck in a crowd stuck in an alley. We were near the sweetest souk, where merchants reigned on high from above neatly balanced piles of nougats, pistachio cookies, and colored taffies. What was the hold-up? A donkey tugging at a high-piled cart filled most of the lane, so the flow of human traffic was limited to one person across. No easy thing for a crowd this size. No easy thing for an older blind man trying to make his way home. Pressed against the entrance to yet another shop, I watched a younger man give his arm to the older man, calling ahead for the busy shoppers to make way for them as they passed the donkey cart. The way parted, and the old man slipped safely through. I expected the young man to go with him, assuming it was his son or nephew. But no, shaking his head worriedly, the young man went back the other way to his stall. He just wanted to help, and he worried that he couldn’t help the old man – a total stranger – any more. Zakah.

These days it seems almost all the public discussion about Islam can be summed up in a few broad strokes – people afraid of terrorism, condemning a religion, people afraid of hate, condemning condemnation. There is so much more to know than this, so much more to learn. I don’t claim to have that knowledge, only a few experiences that opened a window to something more. How might life in everyday America change with the addition of Zakah? Last week as I left the grocery store unwrapping an ice cream bar, I kind of hoped I would see someone who needed it more than I did. I looked, but no lonely child appeared. I plan to keep looking. Zakah. Pass it on.   

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Choose your own story

Now that I am away from Bulgaria, I find that certain moments from the last year are frozen in my mind as images. Tonight I started thinking of the everyday ones, rather than the grandiose ones. I tried to catch them in a few words below, as first lines of stories I could write. 

So, which story would you rather read? Here are their first lines...

I searched for the tiniest hand of ginger as the birds chirped from the rafters above the produce section.

People never smiled back at me, but I couldn’t blame them, since they were waiting for the bus.

A view of sun-streaked Mount Vitosha framed the miniature versions of a missile and a tank rooted to the crown of the hill.

The cell phone beeped quietly from somewhere to my left, and every student in the room coughed.

I wondered if the clip clopping outside was yet another pair of high heeled black leather boots or a horse tugging a cart over to the Italian grocery store.

She leaned out from one window in the grid, a reminder that every window in every building in every one of these geometrical neighborhoods shielded a life of which I knew little.

His raspberries looked fresher than hers, so I guiltily switched allegiances for the day.

I turned to see two dogs streaking silently towards me; I should probably have shouted “ne” instead of “no.”

Walking away from a soft-hued painting of Plovdiv, I suddenly sank through a floorboard. If I worked in the Ethnographical Museum, I would just watch people traversing the floorboards, hoping to catch the looks on their faces when that one gave way.

The cat appeared to be lying on its back, head propped up against the wall and feet extended, reminding me oddly of someone reading in bed.

In a weird way, the overflowing garbage can in the neighborhood park was really a fountain of youth. It spilled forth teenager's beer bottles and toddler's juice boxes. 

The smell of fried fish drifted across the ramshackle roof of the stall, across the parking lot William the dog guarded, over the glassy office building with the nit-picky security guard, through the bars of our gate, and up my wrinkling nose.

No one in my neighborhood ever got used to the sight of my running outfits.  

Everywhere I looked I saw happy people with bunches of lilacs. Finally I got a scissors and headed for the park, convinced I wasn't the only one stealing from the public beauty. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Vermont Flavor

One of the crop of swinging benches along Lake Champlain

The view from the bench

As each country in Europe has its distinct flavor, so does each area of the United States. Vermont's flavor is soft and pure, with hints of maple, pine, and lake water. 

In Burlington, Vermont's largest city, bus drivers chat to their clients; everyone's clothes appear to be freshly ironed; kayakers, Sunfish-sailers, and ferry-boat drivers dip through the gray waters of Lake Champlain. At the co-op, at least twenty varieties of Annie's organic Macaroni and cheese is available, and people choose tiny wooden crates of strawberries from the produce aisle. At the used book store, "Thai Yoga" and the "Real Food Revolution" feature boldly in the display. I found myself suggesting that people I didn't know "have a good day", swinging on a lakeside bench, and buying fudge from cheerful shopkeepers. 

On the drive from Burlington to Middlebury, Steve and I saw a couple of droopy cows eating on a hill, looking as though they were long term gossip buddies chatting about their kids' achievements in between mouthfuls. We passed an ice cream stand called "Cremees" at the edge of a field with a burgeoning line, and made a mental note. Sun streaks hit the forested mini-hills on both sides of the road, and rust-orange cloud edges hovered just above the not-too-distant mountains. 

Ah. Vermont. 

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Art of the Layover: Chicago

Those of you who read Brett's post "The Art of the Layover" know that our travels this year taught us how to appreciate a seven hour stopover in strange environs. No more do we fear the foreign metro map, the chance of getting stuck at security and missing our flight, the questioning stares of the passport officials as we explain that we are entering their country for just three hours.

Our layover experiences in Frankfurt and Milan prompted me to spend yesterday's lengthy wait in Chicago, in Chicago. I simply passed through customs, through baggage claim, up an escalator, onto an airport tram, onto the blue line metro, onto the blue line bus, and boom! There I was in the friendly city! 

I had been awake for almost twenty four hours, and the fraying straps of my shoulder bag were cutting through me with the weight of a day's worth of plane entertainment and snack miscellany.  But Chicago proved worth it. I ambled down State Street - smiling to see so much that was familiar after so long abroad - then down along Lake Michigan and through Millenium Park. 

It felt strange at first to be back in the U.S., but even stranger - and nice - to realize how much I had in common with the people I was seeing. They smiled at me, they dressed like me, they sat in the Corner Bakery and Jamba juice eating my favorite foods, ran through fountains in swimming suits, rollerbladed along the lake as I have been dreaming of doing for a year. Amusingly, I still had a slight outsider feeling as I have been gone doing different things for a long time. Funny that being American makes me an outsider abroad, and living abroad makes me feel a bit outside in America. But I think that will pass quickly, as it has also begun to do abroad. I'm going for a smooth blend - just like the one I had at Jamba Juice before heading back to the airport...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Teaser: Summer Trips

It is a rainy day in Sofia, Bulgaria, fitting for the first day of final exams. Also fitting for a bit of summer dreaming. This is my last post before heading out for Vermont, so I thought it would be fun to give you an idea of what will be coming later this summer. The first picture is of the Sognefjord in Norway, where Brett and I will be wandering, biking, and paddling in late August. The second picture is of Kyrgzstan, where Brett, his guide and their ponies - I love that there are ponies - will be hiking in just two short weeks. These pictures come from National Geographic, but soon, so soon, we'll be posting our own! Have a fabulous summer everyone, and check back for the further adventures of B and b come fall.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Colors of Koprivshtitsa

Scenes from the Village

The only village church we saw

My father and Marilyn

Koprivshtitsa (with sun!)

Koprivshtitsa, a tiny village in the mountains, is one of Bulgaria's "museum towns," a picturesque nod to the golden age of Bulgarian architecture, and only an hour and a half from Sofia.  My parents were in town for the weekend, and we decided to make a visit, since the last time we went everything was closed (for Monday?!) and covered with snow.  This time the weather was perfect, and it seemed that every corner presented a new wandering opportunity.  We aimlessly followed the winding village streets for a few hours, and then settled in for a traditional lunch (shepherd's salad, tarator soup, and pork tongue) at an outdoor cafe.

Below are a few of the homes which are now museums.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Year in Review: 12 Months, 16 Countries







Czech Republic










Soon we will be departing from our first year of international teaching and travel for some.... traveling. I'll be going to Vermont, Brett will be going to Kyrgzstan and Ohio, and then we'll both be meeting in Minnesota before heading for Norway. So there may be less posts in the next few months, but there will be a renewed onslaught come September. In the meantime, a few highlights from this year....

Brett ran a marathon in Vienna. Betsy learned to surf in Morocco.

We explored the underground depths of Magura Cave, Bulgaria, the castle hillside of Prague, and the most popular shopping street in Dublin.

We ate gelato and pizza in Milan, brioche in Paris, baguettes in Oxford, tapas and pomegranates in Barcelona. We also ate Indian food in Bulgaria, Italian food in England, and Thai food in Germany.

We walked through the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Cathedral of St. Sava in Belgrade, the Koranic School of Marrakech and the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria.

We visited the Imagine graffiti wall in Prague and the Museum of Communist Statues outside Budapest. 

We enjoyed the holiday spirit of the Christmas Markets of Vienna, Brussels, and Prague. 

We walked along the Thames in London, the Cherwell in Oxford, the Danube in Budapest and Belgrade, the Seine in Paris, the Black Sea Coast in Sozopol, the Aegean coast in Thessaloniki and the Golden Horn in Istanbul. 

We hiked the West Highland Way in Scotland and Mount Vitosha in Bulgaria. 

Brett became a softball umpire for enthusiastic 8th graders. Betsy learned to cook. Brett learned a lot of Bulgarian. Betsy learned some Bulgarian, and basic phrases in Arabic, French, Serbian, Turkish, and British (yes, British). 

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

St. George's Day

In the fall, the American and Canadian teachers of ACS throw a Thanksgiving party for the Bulgarian teachers of ACS.

In the spring, the Bulgarian teachers of ACS throw the St. George's party for the American and Canadian teachers of ACS.

For those of you who don't know, St. George is the Bulgarian patron saint of victory. According to legend, there was once a small mountain village terrorized by a dragon. The people could not fight off this dragon, so they were forced to sacrifice one child per day to him, leaving the child alone and afraid by the lake. One day, as a beautiful young maiden sat awaiting her doom, a handsome young man rode in on a white horse. It was St. George! He slew the dragon and rescued the maiden, and became the patron saint of victory. So goes the legend, which was vividly and hilariously acted out for us at the party.

We celebrated with homemade bread and roasted vegetables, wine, grilled meats, and cherry-chocolate ice cream. Every table had a traditional Bulgarian plant in the middle - the name, roughly translated, is "health", and every Bulgarian house outside the city has it planted in the garden. Our assistant head of school - Maria - told me her mother folded some of the plant into her Bulgarian-English dictionary when she first visited The United States, and she didn't find it until twenty years later!

After dinner, the entertainment committee organized funny games for the international faculty - telephone (with Bulgarian phrases), a floral wreath-making race, a milk-the-sheep race, and more. Everyone won prizes, and every contest seemed to be declared a tie.

You can see pictures of the festivities by clicking the link below. These are my friend John Stephens' pictures, and they heavily feature his young boys. I tried to just pull a few of the photos to post, but for some reason it is impossible. The boys are really adorable though, so oh well.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

So happy together!

Today marks the end of our first year as Team Potash. It's been good, to say the least. Thanks to all of you who helped launch us out into the world together! 

and Happy Anniversary Brett! I'd do it again in a minute.

Baking Nostalgia

Looks like some kind of alien topography

ah ha, that makes more sense
and the final construction...

Some of you - probably only the ones who live on Cooke St. - will remember that I had a business making cinnamon rolls when I was little. As with so many foods I have cooked/baked this year, you cannot buy cinnamon rolls here in Bulgaria. So last night I made some. So far we've eaten nine.

Ha ha. Fooled you. We had our friends Sam, Leslie, Adrian, and Nate over for lunch, so they helped a little...