Category Archives: SE Balkans 2014



13 November 2014

She stomped onto the bus, long, loose red curls swinging from side to side, framing her weathered face. With a gruff expression, she brought us to attention with a shout of “hello.” She leaned against the side of a seat, resting momentarily. After gathering herself, she stood up straighter, emboldened, and shouted forth what information she deemed critical for us to know: “let’s get one thing straight: I am not a missionary, so don’t call me that.”

This proclamation was bold, and instantaneously, I loved this woman.

Despite her disassociation with the term “missionary” the work Sylvia devotes herself to is bringing forward the kingdom of God. She moved to Bulgaria and has loved and been loved by the people for the duration of her time here. She is an anomaly: after her organization failed to provide her adequate funds, the Bulgarians supplemented her salary and supported her. This is completely unheard of and testifies to her work ethic and cultural sensitivity. Currently, she is working at one of the few Syrian refugee camps. For two days, she briefly allowed us into her world.

When we first entered the camp, everyone was forced to acknowledge a spirit of despair that permeated our beings. Our surroundings reinforced what we felt intuitively: the sky was dark, full of foreboding clouds, our feet sank into the soggy ground, and the land was stacked with rows and rows of temporary housing. The air was slightly damp and I noticed how quickly my fingers and toes seemed to turn to ice.

We stood at the gate, freezing, gaping at our surroundings for what felt like an eternity. Finally, our group was herded into another building to meet with the camp director. The residents at the camp had been informed that a group of Americans were coming and had formed a large group, waiting to see us. We marched through the clump of people, holding one another close. I looked up occasionally, stealing glances that I had been warned against. My eyes met blank faces of young men, older men, children, mothers. I remember the collective large, dark eyes. They did not look at me expectantly nor defensively, I was merely being observed and I have never felt more vulnerable.

I found myself ushered into a classroom reserved for the camp administration. The room had buzzing fluorescent lights, gleaming desks, and our muddy shoes squeaked as we trod over shining linoleum tiles. Enticed by the prospect of a view, I wandered toward the window. Looking out, I saw the large group of residents slowly making their way back into the grid of temporary housing, smoke billowing up from trash fires; I saw the wall that separated the camp from the city. On the horizon, I could see the outlines of communist block buildings. All I could see was oppression– current and historical traumas. And none of it felt real.

The week before, our group was exploring the city of Veliknovo, Turnovo. While in Turnovo, we had the opportunity to meet with several different men who shared ideas and perspective with us at the university. I felt particularly impacted by Marian’s discussion. He adamantly insisted that humanity is at its best when it is engaging in relationship.

As Westerners, we can find ourselves wrapped up in our individuality – thinking only of ourselves in a cyclic and destructive way. After establishing the prominence of this tendency, Marian asked us, in the most gentle and unassuming way, “what is the cost to love?” Our simple answer was a whispered response of, “nothing.” Marian continued, and telling us of the beauty that abounds when we break out of these cyclic mentalities. The most basic reward of relationship is to have the eyes of another, acting as mirrors for us to see ourselves. As we engage further, synergy of people and energy is produced. We learn how to give and be given to. The synergy molds us, changing us for the better.

I could not escape Marian’s words that day in the camp. I could not escape the vacant stares. I was nervous to engage with the residents.

Our group was organized into two before we left the classroom. A handful of us assembled groups of shoes to be dispersed to family groups. The rest of us spent the day slushing through mud, dragging metal bed frames from one building to the next, then assembling the beds.

Initially, we were watched as we carried the bed frames from building to building. The residents were curious about us, but withdrawn. An hour into the process, several young boys had enough of simply observing us. They joined in, happily running through the mud, meeting us as we emerged out of one building, taking the bed frames from our loaded arms, carrying the weight themselves. The boys were ecstatic — invigorated by the work and the opportunity to simply do. Each time they met me with expectant, outreached arms, eager to shoulder the burden of the heavy metal frames.

The next day, our group organized games and activities for the children in the camp. We found ourselves in a similar classroom as the day before, one that felt completely surreal and entirely unused. We threw down crayons, markers, face paint, balloons, and candies onto the shiny, unblemished desks. Children and mothers flooded in, and in moments, the room was transformed. The room, once stale, now housed squealing children, proud mothers, and all of the resultant joyful noise. I thought of the synergy that Marian spoke so passionately of — here, I could see it blooming.

For the hour, I painted faces of the residents. I was given the opportunity to give all of my attention to each child in the seat right in front of me. I tried to give safety and affirmation to each person as I traced simple hearts onto pure cheeks. The smiles I received in return made me swell with affection. I will cherish those exchanges for the rest of my life.

Throughout, I considered the paradigm shift that I experienced. I moved from fearfully stealing glances and seeing vacant stares to learning how to maintain meaningful eye contact. Before establishing relationship with the residents, I hated my reflection in their eyes. In that mirror, I saw my privilege and felt nothing but guilt. As the relationship evolved, so did the reflection. I began to appreciate the ways that I could give and be given to. I hope that my eyes mirrored back the beauty that I saw, the resilience, the hope.

I will also never forget Sylvia’s initial greeting: she does not proclaim to be the sole giver. She engages in relationship. She stands beside the hurting. She makes room for synergy by not claiming superiority. She is not found in vacant classrooms — she will be found trekking through the mud, delivering shoes, exchanging smiles, giving meaningful squeezes. Within Sylvia’s synergistic relationships, she is constantly moving, constantly changing, constantly learning. She is constantly giving, constantly engaging in relationship, constantly learning how to love more fully.

-Hanna Heishman

Traditional Mehana Meal Entertainment

Learning Bulgarian time

5 October 2014 DSC_2282

Time flies.

Our first assignment once we had settled into Bansko was to head out into town, find a cafe, order a drink, and sit for at least 2 hours. Andrew stressed the importance of this assignment: in the Balkans, afternoons are leisurely and time is understood relatively. Here, productivity was not measured in activities completed, but rather, in relationships maintained and bolstered by quality time. Elated, many of us were convinced that we had just been given the easiest assignment. We trotted down the cobble road in pursuit of a cafe, loudly and obnoxiously excited, breezing past the locals seated on benches along the road.

The challenge of our assignment became apparent 20 minutes after ordering our drinks, when quite caffeinated, we twiddled idle thumbs and tapped our feet, anxious to move once again. After all, the reality that we were finally in Bulgaria had just set in — and we were ready to go, to explore, to document. Somehow, we persevered, sitting through our allotted time, before dashing off on the next adventure.

Eventually, we were able to appreciate the leisure, but not before being sufficiently frustrated by it. To name a few testing moments: We have had dinners at 10:00 at night, had waitresses forget about us, and learned to sit in traffic. Slowly, but surely, our eyes began to register the beauty of the minutia events; people watching and journaling became favorite activities, and waiting lost its excruciating pinch.

I knew that our group had embraced Balkan time when one afternoon, I passed by Amber, seated with two babas on a bench. The babas had enveloped her in their arms, whispering to her. Amber was immersed in the interaction, smiling and squeezing the women’s hands, affirming their words, but doubtlessly not comprehending any of their Bulgarian wisdom. But no matter, she was creating relationship and engaging her present surroundings.

Nearly always, we are given the opportunity to soak in the sweetness and goodness of the present. All we are asked is to tune in and engage. This revelation transformed my experience, and I am confident that this narrative is shared amongst the group. Together, we have been actively seeking out the divine and the lovely, which we discover in both the ordinary and the extraordinary.  God has revealed Godself to us as we are overwhelmed by natural wonders, but we also sense God in smaller moments. Conversations with waitresses, taxi drivers, and housekeepers have left us amazed. In broken Bulgarian – English, we have pieced together life stories, full of both joy and suffering.

Now, a month into our cross-cultural experience, the first few days in Bansko feels worlds away. But we carry with us our significant learning, and are eager to apply it to our new context: Plovdiv. The city dwarfs meager Bansko, offering endless activities and excitement. For the first few days, we scurried round the city, trying to do everything that the city offered, before realizing the impossibility of this effort.

We are asked now to be intentional about how we spend our time, where we engage, how much energy we put forward. In a city, with opportunity around every corner, we have to be intentional about taking time to appreciate each activity and interaction to the fullest extent. We are continually learning how to slow down, how to open our hearts to the present, how to listen for God. For now, we are encountering the divine in silly moments with host families, in the creativity of street art, and the energy of the bustling city.

We are milking each moment, loving it entirely.

-Hanna Heishman

Traditional Mehana Meal Entertainment

Relationship beyond language

3 October 2014

BabasYana, my beautiful Bulgarian host, is a typical Bulgarian grandmother through and through. Two things I have come to realize throughout the past week and a half of living with her is that 1) She notices everything, and 2) slippers are key to success in life.

When I was first dropped into her apartment in Plovdiv, Bulgaria I was unsure of the possible success of the situation. Here I was a 20 year old from a small town who spoke minimal (and that’s being generous) Bulgarian, and I was supposed to live in a big city with a woman I didn’t know. A woman who doesn’t speak any English (besides the word hockey)? I was pretty sure the entire thing was going to be a disaster, but it is not. The whole arrangement is working quite well, and I hope it continues to do so.

Yana is so gracious. She is constantly over feeding us delicious food, wondering if we are wearing enough clothing, and packing us snacks to take to our Bulgarian lessons (that’s after the ten course breakfast we eat). She keeps the chuckling at my misspoken Bulgarian to a minimum, and tries to inform me what is going on whenever we watch television, whether it’s Bulgaria’s version of Big Brother or the news.

Sometimes it’s frustrating when I can’tPlovdiv get across what I want to communicate, or sometimes it’s sad when she is desperately trying to tell me something important that I can’t get. Both of us get exasperated sometimes, but whether we straighten it out or save it for another day, I believe that the needs of both parties are being met. I feel the most connected to Yana when we are doing the simple things, like making food or sharing photos. We have found ways to connect without using language. Through love, food, laughter and our general flawed natures we are recognizing each other’s humanity and forging bonds that will hopefully last for a long time to come.

-Devon Fore

A beautiful beginning

Goodbyes and hellos
Well wishes and bus rides
Finally getting there
Jet lag

Gazing out bus windows,
Picturesque landscapes.
Flashbacks to past travels
Tight, cobbled streets
Breathtakingly beautiful
Babas and stray cats

Greeted with bread and the salt of life
Settling in and finding ground
Traditional architecture,
Romantic stone walls holding histories
Red roofs and red roses
Geranium leaves

Venturing out to the
Pirin mountains, a hike to crystal waters
Slippery rocks
A divine energy embracing us
Endless skies and endless love
Exploration of God’s creation

History lectures
Smoke clouded memories of
Stories of empires and communism
Incredibly in depth
On sight, hands deep learning

Meals shared
Full of pastries and cheese
Meat and potatoes
Piping black coffee
Juicy fruit
Endless calories and conversation
nourished bodies, fed souls

Roma day camp
Smiling faces
Musical exchanges: hymns and Bulgarian ballads
Flower crowns and sticky bouquets
Tiny fingers clutching mine
Heavy hearts, but full embraces

Sunday mornings,
Smiling translator
Familiar melodies, sung in a different tongue
Flickering candles
Blessings to children
Shining icons, gleaming gold

Dance lessons
Edno, dve, tre–1,2,3
Gendered dance off
Joy in mistakes
Laughter in learning

Continued excitement
Departure for Greece in the morning!

In the past week and a half, we have been blessed with a multitude of experiences and sacred moments. It would be difficult to provide any concise and complete picture of our first steps into a semester of adventures. So, we provide what we can: fragments and phrases from a beautiful beginning. From our first departure, to day camps and dancing lessons, we have been richly fulfilled.

-Hanna Heishman

Traditional Mehana Meal Entertainment