Katharine Clark ’03
You’re leaving New York?” queried a confused cousin. During
the next month prior to my departure for the Peace Corps, similar comments
raced around my head. I broke the news press conference-style at a family
gathering, after which family and friends formed two distinct camps. The
first burst with the same optimism I had, while the second held an opposing
opinion based on a rather grim post–9-11 worldview.
The latter group’s arguments were ultimately its undoing, because
9-11, which occurred during my junior year at Columbia, convinced
me that one thing America needed was a humbler, diplomatic, more culturally-sensitive
Incurably curious and captivated by civilizations, ancient or otherwise,
I was lured to Columbia by its Core Curriculum and location
in the world’s microcosm, New York City. Two-hour trips, via screenings for
my film major, transported me to nations with whose languages and customs
I was unfamiliar. Columbia’s strong population of polyglots, particularly
professor Annette Insdorf, inspired me to experience the lives and
languages of other lands.
I was attracted to the Peace Corps by the reason for its founding
on September 22, 1961. Spearheaded by Sargent Shriver and
supported by President John F. Kennedy, the agency’s primary goals are to promote tolerance
and understanding of the United States in the 71 countries where the Peace
Corps currently serves; these aims were designed to combat America’s
arrogance and ethnocentrism as chronicled by William J. Lederer and Eugene
Burdick in their 1958 fiction-based-on-fact exposé, The
Ugly American. Inspired by the idea of my, albeit small, role
in this effort, I applied to be a Peace Corps volunteer.
A motley band of Peace Corps trainees, bonded by a common
strain of idealism and pre-orientation icebreakers
in Chicago, arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, on April 19, 2004.
I braced myself for a culture shock that still has not hit. Bulgaria,
our home for 27 months, is an Eastern European jewel; the former Soviet
satellite is one of the most developed countries hosting
Peace Corps volunteers and is slated for European Union accession in 2007.
Despite Bulgaria’s apparent modernity, there are things I miss.
Bulgaria’s roads are not for the faint of stomach. While Americans
tend to appreciate customer service, here it is rare to tip, which I believe
perpetuates the cranky waitress/taxi driver stereotype. Capitalism is
catching on, but slowly. I am able to live without being attacked by department
store perfume vigilantes, but I would not mind someone waiting on me in
a store. While shopping in Sofia, I discovered the last purple sweater
in the store was adorning the window’s mannequin. When the
salesgirl declined to offer it to me, I asked and was refused.
Katharine Clark ’03 (center) holds the Bulgarian coat of arms with
school principal Nevenka Bardareva and students Vera Gloshkeva, Uliana
Galabova and Georgia Dimitrova in front of St. Paissi Hilendarski Elementary
School in Bansko, where Clark teaches English to grades 1–4.
The political climate is a striking visual as well as ideological contrast.
The baba (grandmother) generation tends to be nostalgic for the Communist
days, when pensions were higher and everyone had a job. Younger people
appear to be embracing democracy and the influx of Western films, music
and fashion. While grandmother wears a twice-darned rubber shoe, granddaughter
totters down the same cobblestone road in sky-high stilettos.
My assigned town of Bansko is situated among
three mountain ranges: the Pirin, Rila and
Rhodopi. A ski town of 10,000, Bansko is an amalgamation
of sophisticated businessmen and traditional
farmers. The population swells when the country’s
elite occupy their winter chalets. Bansko boasts
nearly every modern convenience, and if you
time your showers right, those periodic water
halts are minor inconveniences. The townspeople tend to make everything
themselves: cheese, jams and sausage. The majority of their fruits and
vegetables are of the garden variety. Milk comes straight from their cows,
eggs from their hens.
I live alone in an apartment and am the only
American in town. In fact, I am “the American.” Or I was until
I lived here several months and became “Katarina.” Now the
locals have embraced me as one of their own, aided, I suppose, by
my Slavic appearance. (My maternal grandmother
was of Russian descent.) In turn, I adopted the name
Katarina and celebrate my name day, for Saint
Ekaterina. I have learned to sing native folk songs while wearing
traditional costume, and to belt out a Banski ballad. I have made
a conscientious effort to learn not only the language but also the
infamous dialect. My friends and English students have helped me
create an unofficial Banski/Bulgarian dictionary that never fails to entertain
and often is asked about at parties.
The striking clash between the pastoral and the present manifests itself
in amusing ways. One day, after leaving a cafe on Bansko’s main
thoroughfare, I spotted a pair of cows ambling up the newly paved road.
Drivers regarded them as little more than everyday obstacles, like errant
We certainly “live in the now” in Bulgaria. With the multitude
of birthdays, name days, anniversaries, national holidays and even new
purchases, we are almost always celebrating something. Such merrymaking,
however, does not distract from residents’ English-language studies
or my secondary projects. In addition to teaching English at a primary
school (and serving as everyone’s unofficial tutor), I am replacing
the school’s old blackboards with white ones, creating an English
library with books donated by Darien Book Aid, volunteering at
a center for disabled children and coordinating public relations for
a Fulbright researcher studying the deinstitutionalization of Bulgarian
orphanages and whether European Union requirements are being met. This
summer I was a translator for National Park Pirin, a UNESCO site.
My most time-consuming project has been writing a proposal for
the renovation of our school’s 60-year-old gym. Of greatest concern,
apart from the inevitable dust, is a floor littered with gaps
akin to potholes. I am soliciting sponsors stateside. Finding funding
is a challenge, as budgets are tight and the newly rich in town (who
have sold their land to make way for new hotels) are not eager to part
with their bounty.
But teaching English and campaigning for school improvements
is only half my mission. As an ambassador of “goodwill and friendship,” my
students and I chat about American culture; we play musical chairs, “duck,
duck, goose,” 20 questions, and … we celebrate. As much a
child as my students, I relish my role as holiday events planner and have
introduced them to Valentines, leprechauns and pots of gold (foil-wrapped
chocolate coins), and Easter egg hunts. If nothing else, I will be remembered
for introducing them to Reese’s peanut butter eggs (sent by my parents) — a
On Halloween, we carved pumpkins, told scary stories in
the dark and bravely dipped our hands into bowls of eyeballs (peeled
grapes), brains (cooked spaghetti) and vampire hearts (slimy potatoes).
I was delighted when at a colleague’s gathering, one teacher exclaimed with excitement, “We
are eating vampire hearts!” referring to the banitsa pastry laden
with shredded potatoes. Our Christmas festivities, which
I helped organize before heading home for the holidays, included a
pageant featuring English-language carols and a fashion show.
Without imposing athleticism on them, I encourage my female
students to play sports. No longer shocked by my marathon
training (“You run
for how long?”), the girls broke into athletic activity with as much
enthusiasm and vigor as the boys during our inaugural Sports Day. Events
included wheelbarrow races and hopping contests as well as the more traditional
dashes and distance races. Now, they want to learn how to play soccer.
Bansko’s first girl’s soccer team began practicing in
After consuming record amounts of yogurt (this country is famed for its
Lactobacillus Bulgaricus strain) and imbibing tiny amounts of rakia, the
90 proof national spirit, I hope to have convinced the Communist holdovers
I am not a spy. In July 2006, when my Peace Corps stint expires, I will
leave behind a warm-hearted country, with a strong sense of nationalism
bolstered by uniquely Bulgarian traditions at an exciting moment in its
But, the big city beckons. After all, the rhythm and pace of my life is
distinctly New York.
Katharine Clark ’04 will return to
New York this summer after two years in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria.
She hopes to obtain a master’s in international relations and pursue
a foreign affairs career in the United States. She may be reached