Well, here we go…the big wrap up of the year in Bulgaria. Let’s see if we can sum it up!

Mostly, the whole year was a ginormous learning experience, which is oh-so-trite to say, I know. But really it was. If I had to narrow it down to one life lesson, I would say that I truly realized for the first time all the benefits there are to being a citizen of the United States. There are so many freedoms and opportunities that we have here on a daily basis that other countries don’t even know they exist. I think the Egyptian diplomat I befriended through the newspaper job captured it best when he said, “The number one export from America is not movies or products. It is the dream. The dream that you can determine your own life’s success”. I had never thought of that before, but when he said it (after my first two months of living there), I really understood what he meant. So, here is a list (in no particular order) of freedoms and opportunities, big and small, that we don’t even realize we have:

1. We travel freely. When we want to go somewhere on vacation, unless it is Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan, we go. We can literally close our eyes and point to a map, book a flight and go. Seems normal to us, but really, it isn’t. I witnessed the difference many times. Mark’s partners cannot come here unless they apply for and get a visa beforehand. This can take months. On the long train ride from Croatia to Prague, we stopped at every border to have our passports checked. Never one time did my passport ever warrant a second glance. Usually they just winked at me, stamped it and moved on. I inspected the stamp and cooed over how many I had acquired so far, like a game. But other people would get nervous, jittery, visibly uncomfortable. Several times the inspectors would take our special tools, mini flashlights or magnifying glasses, to really check out someone’s documents. There were even people taken off the train. We witnessed the same scene in the airport–when WE were the ones entering the country illegally!!.

2. We live in a fair and just society. Before you get all defiant on me, like “Ummm, no we don’t!!!, hear me out. Our government is a bit corrupt, sure. We have mobsters and gangsters that control some neighborhoods. But overall, that is not the case. When you feel like you have been wronged here in the States, you have recourse. You can call the police or go to court. Sure there are mistakes and it doesn’t work all the time–we don’t live in a utopia, you know. But in general, there is fairness and justice. You can stand up for yourself here. In other places, you can’t…AT ALL! For example, when Mark and I were getting treated poorly by the Bulgarian Consulate and we tried to file complaints, nobody cared. They just said “that’s how it is here”. We never did get answers or help, despite hiring lawyers and talking to judges. In the end, all those people just took our money and ignored us. Chances are, that wouldn’t happen here. And if it did, you could find a way to get some help.

3. We have social programs. I know, how very Democrat of me to say that. But you can’t truly appreciate our tax-funded benefits until you have been somewhere that doesn’t have them. Sure, our Social Security is a joke. But it is something. There, the old ladies just sell flowers or herbs they grew in a window box and hope to make enough money to live on. It’s really sad. They already live in near squalor and they can’t even afford that. The streets have huge holes in them. You can’t even call them potholes they are so big. When it rains, they are impassable. Their teachers make $200 a month, and you cannot live in Sofia on $200 a month…well, not if you want to eat, too. Many Roma (Gypsy) children run around with no shoes or jackets, even during the winter. They steal sugar from the restaurant tables to eat it.
4. We believe we control our destiny. I mean, think about it…can you remember when the first time was that someone said to you, “If you want something, you can do it, just work hard and you can do it”? That mantra is practically beaten into us here. “You can do anything you set your mind to” is like a national saying, like E pluribus unum is. And we believe it. More than that, it is like a deep part of our psyche that we don’t even think about. If you want to go to college, work hard and you will. If you want to make more money, work harder, get more jobs, and you will. Well, this was NOT the main way of thinking there. Most of the people we ran into were very fatalistic, shrugging and saying, “That’s just how it is here” or “you get what you get”. There is no sense of self-determination at all. Believe it or not, you need that self-determination to be happy. It’s not about money at all. It’s feeling like you can make yourself happy. Other countries feel like it’s all out of their grasp, they have no say, and so they should just plod along through life. Very depressing.

5. If you want something, you can find a way to get it. This seems insignificant in comparison to the previous ones, but it is crucial in day to day living. Here in the U.S., if we want peaches in January, we can find a way to get them. If we want a special out-of-print book, we can find it. We can even get medications sent to our very doorstep from other countries! But that is not the case in the rest of the world. “You get what you get”. Amazon does not even ship to Bulgaria. If you get someone to ship something, it is subject to very corrupt customs officials who usually rifle through it, take what they want and then tell you that it never came. There are no luxuries for the common folk over there.

I’m sure there are many more, and I could go on and on, but probably you are snoozing by now. The point is that there is no other country on earth that has what we have. There is a feeling, an atmosphere, here that just doesn’t exist in other places. I’m sure some of that comes from feeling at home here and not feeling so at home there. But then, I think that is the bottom line. I could never feel totally at home there. I feel like there are so many programs and so much plurality here that our immigrants can eventually feel at home. And they must….’cause they keep on comin’! 🙂

With all that said, I am so glad we spent the year in Bulgaria. We are different people now…and for the better. I learned a lot about life and myself. It is not in my nature to take many risks. I like a calm and predictable life. Going over there was a HUGE risk for me (I’ve lived in the same 10 mile radius for my entire life!). And I survived. I did more than survive. I thrived. I made friends, found a job or two, learned a bit of the language, got over my immense fear of flying, even traveled BY MYSELF!, and even kept a public journal (hint: THIS IS IT!) I came back with new ideas on how I want to live my life. I loved the simplicity of our lives over there and I am working everyday to keep our lives simple here–no unnecessary junk, no wasteful consumerism, cut down on the drama, etc. We ate fresh, seasonal food over there and we have never felt healthier, so we are trying to do that here.

But most importantly, we missed our family and friends, all the little stories and jokes that really give meaning to life. Sure, we had a bit of that there with our new friends, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t like here, when you have known someone for 20 years and with just a look or a few words, you know the joke that’s about to come. (Plus, the language barrier was difficult to get over in the joke department). So we are making a pointed effort to stay more connected without family and friends. We are notorious hermits, but we are slowly breaking out of that, and MAN….you socialites are definitely night owls, you must not go to bed at 8:00pm like me…!

Well, I hope you have enjoyed the whole year we have recorded here. If nothing else, I hope it entertained you. I know I really enjoyed writing it! It’s not often that people get all these chances to see and experience the world like I have, so I hope I have sincerely expressed my appreciation for all these adventures. And if it got lost in my humor and sarcasm….well…just know that I have had an awesome year and wouldn’t have changed a thing. Well, except for that whole living illegally because we couldn’t get a visa from the Bulgarian government part–I might have changed that.

And there you have it…that’s what it all meant!