Back from Bulgaria
I had a totally incredible experience. In a land where people rarely smile as they pass you on the street - it's more of an extended stare of disdain and distrust - there were moments of laughter, hilarity, new friendship, happiness, giggles, and play. I loved my time in Bulgaria and am considering a return this fall for another tour.
For now, I'd like to capture my observations of the country. These are not hard facts but just the "welp, that's different" moments I noticed.
Very Pretty - This country has tall, snow capped mountains and miles and miles of farmers' fields and green valleys. It's not a wreck of strip-malls and big box stores, at least, not yet. So, the eye gets a lot of rest and enjoyment when driving through beautiful Bulgaria.
The Stare - I understand that I come from a culture of smiling (less so since the advent of smartphone addiction), friendly efforts to connect, and optimism. So, I can say without judgment, Bulgaria does not offer these social graces. Instead, as I stood in the priority line for my Ryanair flight from London to Sofia, the word that emanated off my fellow passengers was "gruff." This was my subjective read, not the truth. It was just so hard to induce any smiling or chatting at all.
Tiny Windows - There are vestiges of times gone by when people would open a small, sliding window, serve their customers things like baked goods or postage stamps, then shut the tiny window again until the next client came along. It felt at times like a humorous remake of a scene from a movie about Eastern Bloc countries but it was absolutely real. I'm used to store clerks feeling obligated to chat with me and make me feel welcome into the store where they're standing. Again, there is no judgment. I simply encountered minimal efforts at what we call customer service in the U.S. I don't believe it matters widely, yet, in Bulgaria.
Family Matters - I was in Bulgaria for one religious holiday and one Sunday. I saw lots of parents and kids spending time together on these days. I loved seeing how much family matters to the people of Bulgaria. Children were dressed up and holding their parents' hands as they walked through the town square to play at the many children's play areas available. Other adults could sit on a bench and relax and keep a community eye on the kids. Sometimes, in the U.S., I feel like children are meant to disappear or stay separate from everyday adult life. In Bulgaria, as I often felt in other countries I've visited like Peru and Mexico, everyone appreciates and loves children and their existence in wider society. They're adapted to and included without shame or extra efforts to control or distract them. They're kids. They live. And, they're gonna want to play and spend time with their parents.
Muscle-Bound Men - In terms of what is considered good-looking in any culture, there are wide variations. I think of the extra-skinny punks in London and the extra-curvy women of Latin America. All honored. All beautiful. Just not the same everywhere you go. In Bulgaria, the men love to bulk up and look extremely strong. So many were fit and muscular. I saw almost no young men who weren't at least lean. A lot of the young guys shave their heads, which I would consider a very masculine look. And, my favorite, was the shaved head with the long, bushy, squared-off beard. You'll find Bulgarian heroes on their currency and in statues with that look. Buzzed on top and then the most hairy, rad, massive beard on their chin. The owner of the gym I worked out at had this look and he looked fantastic. Just saying...
Coffee - Lavazza vending machines keep this country moving. For about 30 cents USD you can get a delicious, dark espresso shot in a paper cup any hour of the day outside multiple buildings in most towns. Bulgarians may not have a Starbucks on every corner, but they're serving themselves plenty of delicious coffee all day long. I got into the groove. I never managed to use a vending machine but I had a lot of espresso at small shops and gas stations on our long drives around the country. I love a country that loves espresso because it's so delicious and strong and yummy.
Mix of Flash and Rural - Bulgaria is a country with a mix of very modern shops, like a Land Rover dealership along a major road in Sofia, and then mostly small stores that carry local products and seeds for growing tomatoes. The country still has plenty of farming going on in the house-by-house sense. Sofia, the capital, is the only major city I saw. In it, I didn't see many gardens because people live mostly in apartments. But, the moment you get out of Sofia, you see that most people live in single-family homes with gardens and chickens. There is subsistence farming going on everywhere you turn. I awoke to the sound of a cock crowing dozens of times at our neighbor's place, every morning starting around 5 am. Plus, our neighbors had beautiful rows of veggies starting to pop up for springtime. There are plenty of fruit trees throughout the countryside - looked to include apple, plum, pear, and fig. The "food not lawns" movement is alive and well in Bulgaria. They just never had the lawns. I saw almost no lawn mowers. Instead, I saw tractors and shovels.
Under Construction - This country has so many improvements going on. Roads being resurfaced, new bridges half-completed, dirt piled up to make way for new highways, and taller buildings coming up in the capital. You can get a delicious chicken-and-mash dinner at a high-end restaurant for about seven dollars. So, this country and its GDP are not at the same level of wealth as many of its Western European neighbors. But, it seems strongly oriented toward growth and leveling up the quality of life of its inhabitants.
Cracked and Peeling - Again, I mention this as an observation and not a judgment. This country is dotted with buildings - homes and apartment buildings especially - with cracked and peeling paint. The homes are stucco on the outside and big, by any country's standards, but they are often in need of painting. Many of the apartment buildings have an almost multi-colored coat vibe. I take this as a pragmatic focus on putting money where it matters. Food, kids, and based on my observations, cigarettes. I get it. It just differs from so many communities in the U.S. We would mark many of these structures as urban blight but in Bulgaria they're active, typical, and full of people.
I never figured I would go to Bulgaria. I should think of other countries on the "never figured" list, like Malaysia or Greenland. Maybe I need to keep a more open mind or assume the least likely thing will happen.
For now, I know why I'm headed east and I'm very nervous-cited (nervous and excited!) about it. I'll be joining a group from The Flying Seagull Project as a verified Seagull (I'm trained!) to play with kids in refugee camps. I know, how amazing and unexpected to think there is an entire organization of humans dedicated purely to bringing fun to kids in tough situations? We don't bring snacks or wise words, we bring hula hoops, juggling balls, obstacle courses, magic shows, games of tag and duck-duck-goose and whatever else we can think of that's fun.
Why did no one think of this before? Well, I'm sure some folks did and it's pretty incredibly needed and appropriate if you think about children. They need to be wild, be free, and express their wackiest energy in, ideally, a safe space that allows for that. And, if they've suffered great losses or are in a highly unstable phase of their life, they might need a little extra encouragement to be silly by some well-trained adult weirdos, I mean, professional clowns.
In my case, I'll be very junior on the team and learning. I went to training in London in February to meet the great leader of all this silliness, Ash Perrin, and take in his multi-decade wisdom and knowledge. Things that are fascinating (to me) about what I learned are the following:
1. You gotta ignore the language barrier. These kids will be from, well, everywhere. I'm not sure where from, exactly. But, we can assume a mix of languages and, quite possibly, no or minimal English. So, how do you teach kids duck-duck-goose and lead them through it without being able to say, "Alright, let's start in a circle and you are going to tap people on the head and say..."? Good question! I began to learn to manage this task at training. You use big gestures, sounds, and minimal, repetitive, "sounds like what it is" words to teach. Ash shouts the Greek word for circle and draws a big circle with his hand, using his pointer finger to encourage the kids to circle up. It works!
2. Use call and response. We've all seen military people line up, march around, and get into formation while singing or calling back and forth with their commander. This is kinda what we clowns get the kids used to. Ash works it so well! He circles them up then quickly moves them through a silly, easy, repetitive, loud series of shouts and movements that get them synced up. It's like their learning a dance routine for a flash mob.
3. Go slow and repeat, as often as possible. With the kids in these camps and refugee settings, there will be some neurodivergence, various levels of hearing and sight, developmental differences, and just plain agitation and anxiety. The inclusive energy must be on high. Everything's working. Everyone is included. Everyone matters. You can watch if you want but please stay nearby and engaged. All of those messages must be repeated through our tone and eye contact and motions to keep the group together and involved however possible.
4. Be fun. "Energy! Energy! Energy!" Ash used to shout that at us during training until we were all shouting it, too, and clapping, and dancing around the room. The Flying Seagulls rarely walk into a room. They run. They trip and fall and get up to a round of giggles, and then take a bow. They ride in on Penny Farthing High-Wheeled Victorian bicycles or play the violin, guitar, and tambourine. If a situation is low-energy or tense, the Seagulls masterfully break up that vibe and elevate it as best they can. The kids respond to the energy by finding their own and giving it back. "It's time to play!" the Seagulls say, with everything they do. And, kids need that moment like a camel needs water in the desert. It may have been a while and it sure feels good.
5. Appreciate the kids. "Oh, that's good." "Well done!" "Did you just learn that?" "Bravo!" Think of any way to say good job and douse these kids with appreciation and you're getting the idea. Here they stand, all full of energy, creativity, natural skills and abilities coursing through them and we give them a chance to try something new. Tell them how well they're doing it, say the Seagulls. Be amazed! Help them see how they can do this and so much more. Help them feeeeel that by acknowledging and appreciating their great work.
I leave soon for my journey. I've packed almost completely. I imagine I will like my co-workers very much and that I'll want to adopt a good portion of the children that I meet. I don't expect to see life on earth in the same way by the time I return. I'll feel impassioned in ways I do not currently know and when I learn those ways, I will tell you - right here on this blog.
I renamed my long-time "improv-based team building" workshop to the "You're a Genius" workshop. It's fun to see folks get a little weirded-out by the title, but also perked up. What if you are a genius and why do I keep insisting that you are?
Well, shoot, you are a genius...and so is everyone else. The origin of the word "genius" connotes an innate ability, something you were born with. As I like to say, I believe we all have a well of creativity inside of us. It is infinite. You can not dry it up. It is always available to you (unless you need a snack or a nap). It is unique to you. And, the world needs to hear it.
Am I really all that darn creative?
Some people throw pots, some people organize closets, some people cook amazing dinners. There are many forms of creativity. But, technically, even powering through your morning which includes unexpected emails, missing lunch meat, detours on the road, and bedhead means you handle the unexpected, constantly. Where do you get those solutions, like a spritz of water and some hair gel or quick stop somewhere with both coffee and a salad for your lunch? You constantly have solutions and ideas flowing to you. Where do they come from?
Okay, don't think about that too hard or things will get real weird and deep for many of us but let's just focus on this constant flow. Constant! You have what you need in every moment to solve your situation, including maybe listening to what someone else is suggesting. You're still engaging and deciding.
In my "You're a Genius" workshop we work that vein of creative flow, highlighting it over and over. You'll play game after game after fun-fun game that gets you not only feeling your own creative flow but acknowledging and building on others. Shazaam! That's right. It's that amazing.
The games are designed so there's no sense of performance, acting alone in front of the crowd, or winner-versus-loser energy. The games rely upon everyone contributing and working together, their geniuses melding like molten gold into swirl into a formation of beauty and pure shine. Or, something like that.
I usually spend about 90 minutes with a group. That's enough time to take them through the following phases:
1. I have no idea why I'm here. My work/team/friends have made me show up here and I'm being a good sport by hoping it will be pleasant and go quickly.
2. Okay, this reminds me a bit of recess in third grade. I think it's fun but what's the point?
3. Hey, I see what she's doing here. All of these lessons from the games relate to the myriad ways we're all struggling to get along at work. Hmmm...
4. I WANT TO PLAY MORE GAMES!!!!
There are so many games. Sooooooo many. They're designed to bring out this creative flow in each participant by having general qualities of:
1. Everyone takes a turn but they don't know when or how their turn is coming so they have to be ready to be surprised and bring their creative heat to keep the game moving along.
2. There is no real end point or goal other than collaboration. It's that "how long can we keep this balloon off the floor" type game but with our minds. The games are safe for people of all physical abilities.
3. They're structured so people know exactly what they need to do and their role is well within their reach if they simply trust themselves and allow that wonderful thought they're having to pop out of their mouth.
For example, we play "Let's Go on an Adventure" where each person contributes one line in a story of an adventure, starting it with "Yes, and..." "Yes, and we'll go to Tahiti!" "Yes, and we'll drink frothy drinks with umbrellas." "Yes, and we'll photograph our beautiful selves to post on Instagram." "Yes, and we'll be noticed by travel magazines and paid to take more photos." And on it goes! You get the idea. FUN! It's purely joyful and silly and simple and requires both listening and contributing.
Trusting the genius
Trust yourself to know if your team or family is in the mood for some fun and bonding. That's a creative thought you're having. And, if so, please include the sort of games I'm talking about that encourage recognizing their innate creativity, over and over again. I have videos on YouTube explaining some of the ones I use. Because, once a person recognizes that they have this tremendous creative font - unending, ever-ready, unique to them, and so appropriate and needed in the world - they'll approach every situation with more confidence and optimism. Not just optimism in their own capacity, but a realization that everyone around them is a genius as well and that means very great things are possible when we all work together - as geniuses since we're all geniuses.
My 5 Tips Before You Go Onstage
I received a lovely text today. It said:
"IM SO NERVOUS for the show tonight. Any pointers?!?!"
It was music to my ears. This would be yet another friend who is putting herself on stage for the first time to tell jokes to the public. K does her first standup set tonight and I consider my coven of comediennes one stronger.
Here is some of the advice I gave her that I have now given many times to those facing an audience:
1. You are giving a gift. I was taught as a Catholic, sin-avoidant child that getting in front of people to entertain them was selfish or just plain odd. As I began to do it more, I came to a very different conclusion. Taking the time, effort, and bravery to put oneself in front of others for the purpose of teaching and entertaining them is giving a gift. They can accept and listen if they want to. But, you're the bomb for putting it out there. The world needs entertainers and teachers.
2. Breathe. If you can tell yourself "Breathe" every time your panic rises, then breathe just a little deeper, you're doing a good thing. It will help and it will distract you in a positive way.
3. Know that it will be over soon. Finishing is your goal. This event is only small blip in the epic movie that is your life. Like past final exams, tooth extractions, and plane flights in the middle seat, this too shall pass and you shall be wiser and more aware of who you are and what you're capable of for having done it. In essence, you'll be a more interesting person. Good work!
4. Everyone is rooting for you. New performers often think of the audience as a terrifying, life-sucking force. That can be true if they're drunk, loud, and want to battle. But, I find that the audience is often wishing for you to do your very, very best. They want to be entertained. They want to be pleasantly surprised, for you to delight them with your unique style of humor and one-of-a-kind thoughts. They'll happily accept anything close to good and, beyond that, they're dazzled.
5. Never ever compare yourself. It's okay to learn from others and pick up tricks and tips. But, if you feel that someone did a great job, that in no way diminishes your ability to do a great job. Every performer has a style, a stamp, a flavor, edge, unique vibe. Your only purpose is to hone and develop your own. I like to play music, bring people on stage to play games with me, and talk to the audience like we're just all having a big chat at the dinner table. Those are aspects of my style that I've figured out over time. Just do things and see what you like. It's all good. It's all learning.
That's it for now. There are more things I can share someday. These would be practical things to do when you're in front of a crowd, like watch the pace of your speech, don't drink too much until you're done-done, keep your posture upright, look side to side, notice if the energy is dropping and do something about it (which might be just acknowledging that fact out loud, "You guys getting sleepy?"), thank the emcee, compliment the staff of the event you're a part of, and much more. I'll cover those in another post.
For now, it's time to go to the show. I'll try to get a pic with K tonight to post here.
I write here about comedy, improv, and intuition.