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Arubiana in Bulgaria

Arubiana in Bulgaria

By Xenia Nieuw

Bon Bini!
By Xenia


Bringing the sunshine with me all the way from the Caribbean island of Aruba, my name is Xenia! For the next 8 months, I will be living in Sofia and volunteering at Foundation Values, Virtues, and Integrity.

I am studying at the University of Aruba, and I am almost done with my Bachelor’s degree in Organization, Governance, and Management. I learned a lot during these four years, and I am excited to put to practice all of the knowledge I have gained.

I love to dance, sing, read, and smile! I love to spend time outdoors, and I am truly falling in love with Bulgaria's nature.

I decided to volunteer because I wanted to get to know myself better, explore new places, challenge my abilities, and discover different cultures and people! What better way to do this than to fly thousands of kilometers away from my comfort zone?

My passions lie mainly in the empowerment of others. Through this project, I would love to empower and inspire others, especially through non-formal methods like art! I might not be able to bring the sun and the sea from Aruba, but what I will bring is the warmth, hospitality, and kindness of the Aruban people.

Time Flies!
By Xenia


I am almost through the second month of my 8-month volunteering project. Funny enough, I feel like I've lived here for years! My extremely confused internal GPS is the only reminder that I, in fact, have not lived here for years. Bulgaria is truly a melting pot of a variety of cultures, much like Aruba!

I think I took some of the Aruban weather with me, because it is hot here! The sun really knows how to make a girl feel right at home.

Planning and organizing youth exchanges, going on breathtaking (literally) mountain hikes, and an extensive on-arrival training have taken up most of my time since arriving here. We are four volunteers and our main responsibility is to assist the VVI Foundation with their projects.

There are so many amazing things to mention about Bulgaria, but I think what truly takes my breath away is the Bulgarian nature! There are no words to describe the sheer beauty of her. Another interesting thing I've noticed is that Bulgarians really love their dairy! Many of their traditional dishes are made with yogurt, milk, and / or cheese. Last but not least, I am fortunate enough to have found a family far away from home! My fellow volunteer Carla has helped made my time here so far, super awesome! 

Everything Happens for a Reason

Home is Wherever I'm With You
By Xenia


For the last 28 years, I called Aruba home.
Today, if someone asks me where I'm headed after a long day of work, I say "I'm going home!". In this case, I would not be heading to my home in Aruba. On the contrary, I would be heading somewhere far (and I mean, far) away from what I previously called home. Does that mean I don't consider Aruba my home anymore? No! Aruba is still my home, too. I guess 'home' is not a monogamous word for me. It seems that it is possible to consider multiple places as your home.
This begs the question, what is a home, then? I believe that your home is where you feel safe. Where you feel free to be your most authentic self. 

Basically, where you feel free to fart. There. I said it. 
But what happens when you are a person who travels often? I am by no means an avid traveler, I've so far only had a taste of what it feels like. Yet, I still wonder. What happens if home keeps changing? Will you never be able to be your truest self again? That sounds unlikely, considering you might turn into a super gassy shell of a person. Jokes aside, I have personally come to a conclusion. Home is not something physical. Home is the way you feel, the way you attach certain emotions to the places where you feel your most comfortable. So, to get to the point: can we pack up our emotions like we do our luggage, and assign a different place to make us feel home?

Or, what if we assign this feeling to ourselves, and feel home no matter where we are?  


Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

Snow and Mush
By Xenia

As someone coming from an island, we are used to the heat and the sun. For some, living in a place where it's always summer sounds like paradise. I'm not here to deny that, that's definitely true! Aruba is easily considered an island paradise.

But, for someone who has lived in paradise their whole life, I was looking forward most to the winter season I was going to experience here in Bulgaria. Boy, am I experiencing winter!

I finally saw snow, and it was like a serene white blanket that snugly covered the trees, bushes, streets, and roofs. This lasts for about 5 seconds, though. As soon as the hustle and bustle of the city awakens, the serene white blanket turns into a brown mush.

The combination of the cold and the snow turning into mush has many people complaining. Yet, I find myself loving the winter season regardless. It is so different to what I am used to, which allows me to take it all in and accept it as it is, cold, mush and all.

This brings me to the point I'm trying to make: when you continuously live something every day, in and out, sometimes you are only able to see the mush. You forget the beauty of it all, and it becomes more of a nuisance. But, if you could try and see the mush with eyes of a newcomer, imagine how much easier it could become to be grateful for where you are in that moment. Or, if you do this and look at your surroundings and you do not feel content, maybe it is time for a change. Either way, I would like to keep and apply this lesson wherever I go.

Bulgarians Say What?
By Xenia

What is yes, and what is no? A nod is yes, and a shake of the head is no, yes? No! Or perhaps yes? Nobody knows for sure. All I know is, is that some people shake their heads for yes, and nod for no. We've learned its best to just verbally ask whether it's a yes or a no. 

How is it that the sun sets when it's supposed to be night? As someone who is used to the sun always setting between 6 and 8, to see the sun still shining after these hours blew me away. Speaking of hours, I also noticed that people generally do not use AM or PM to distinguish the time. It's either 4 o'clock in the morning or 16 o'clock in the afternoon.

It's funny to think that being here, time feels like it's passing by slowly yet quickly at the same time. Before I go too deep contemplating the meaning of time, let me mention that this Arubiana is freezing her curls off! To say that it's only Autumn scares and excites me all at the same time. If only there was somewhere to go where I can take a little break from the cold weather… if only there was a country bordered to Bulgaria that still has hot weather…

I went to Greece y'all! One of the perks of being in Bulgaria is that after a 13-hour bus ride, I found myself in Athens, Greece! Not only that, I was lucky enough to have met several Greek locals during youth exchanges that I've assisted with who were kind enough to show us around and grace us with their amazing company. I closed my eyes and I felt home. Thank you to all those who took their time for me in Greece.

Let's Talk About Skillz, Yo

Bo Por Compronde Mi Palabra? 
By Xenia

When I first started, I was fluent in English and in my native language, Papiamento. I had an advanced level of Dutch, and a basic level of Spanish. I was looking forward to having 2 Spanish roommates, because I believed I could improve my Spanish with their help.

It was interesting to note that the Spanish from Spain and the Spanish from Latin America are quite different. The styles are different, and there are many words that differ. I also did not expect that some cities in Spain have their own language, for example Valencia has Valencian, and Cataluña has Catalan.

With the preliminary research I did on Bulgaria, I immediately realized that learning the language was going to  be difficult. I was not wrong. Fortunately, there are many helpful websites and videos that I used to get familiar with the basics. During the beginning of the project, we had some help of one of the coordinators to learn some more basics in Bulgarian. The fact that many people in Bulgaria did not speak English, it pushed me to get even more familiar with the language. While we shopped for groceries or had to get public transportation tickets, we had to rely on hand gestures and Google translate for communication. Sometimes, when others noticed we were struggling, they would try to help us even if they could not speak fluent English themselves. I found this to be very inspiring.

Social media is a very helpful tool when it comes to keeping in touch with people. Through this, it allowed me to continue speaking with several people I had met. It even helped me with discovering other countries, since the people I now consider friends took their time to show me around and give me a place to stay during my travels. An interesting point I noticed was that everyone communicates differently. This  applies to body language, face-to-face communication, but communication through virtual means as well. I learned that I cannot assume a person's mood, personality, or thoughts based on virtual communications alone. In fact, I cannot assume these even through face-to-face communication. It is imperative to voice your questions so that people have the chance to explain their thought process.

Cruisin' Through Life 
By Xenia

Before joining this project, I was finishing my last year year of university, finalizing my thesis process. Because of this, I already knew I am good at research and that I love to write. I know that I am a good listener, and I am good at finding solutions and giving advice to those who ask for it. 
I found out I am also a pretty good mediator, as I can easily place myself in another's shoes and come close to understanding their thought process behind certain behaviors and decisions. I learned that I am good at conflict resolution, and I realized that I can take on a helicopter view during disagreements, even when I am involved.

At first I found it challenging to work with people who had a different work-ethic as I do. It bothered me and annoyed me to no end. Eventually, I learned to find the positive in the differing work-ethics. I even learned from them! I was able to pick out methods to help me find ways to balance out my own work-ethic. I admit that I am the type to rush out the gate at full throttle and run out of fuel half-way, which leads to me running on an empty tank for the remainder of whatever project I need to finish. Smart? No. Giving a 100% all the time for every single thing is not necessarily the best way to go. So, spending time with people who are more relaxed showed me that it's okay to take it easy. It's okay to cruise at times, and actually (try to) enjoy the process in the meantime. 

8-Month Experience Into Life Lessons 

As the volunteering project is coming to an end and I am due back to Aruba in a few days, I spend my days reminiscing about the last few months. When thinking back, I realize just how much I did and how much I've changed because of the situations I was in and how I decided to handle them.

 I've laughed, I've cried, I've gotten angry, I experienced intense happiness as well as intense sadness. I noticed that it is easy to get caught up in the emotions that are labeled as negative. It feels as though there is no end to it, and sometimes it makes you feel as if you're drowning in it. On the contrary, feelings like intense happiness and joy feel as if they pass way too quickly. Perhaps because you spend even more time hoping and wishing for the "negative" feelings to pass, which in turn makes them last even longer. In trying to force yourself to feel good, you don't give yourself the chance and freedom to feel what you truly feel.

So, as difficult as it is to feel certain emotions, I have learned the importance of allowing yourself to feel them and to sit through it. I used journaling to help process during difficult moments, and when it got too much for even journaling to help, I would turn to someone I love and trust. Although I've learned many more things during this project, I have to say that this realization may be one of, if not, the most important one. All in all, this experience has been life changing for me, and I would not change any part of it for the world.