WILSON: --on February 20, and I am interviewing Leigh White for thePeace Corps Oral History Project. This is Angene Wilson and I am interviewing Leigh White on February 20, 2005, for the Peace Corps Oral History Project. So Leigh, tell us your full name first.
WHITE: It is Leigh Anne Paige White.
WILSON: And where and when were you born?
WHITE: I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on April 25, 1979.
WILSON: And can you tell me something about your family, and somethingjust about growing up?
WHITE: I was born to a teenage mother. My mom was fifteen. And so forthe first couple of years of my life we lived with my grandparents. And when my mother was eighteen, she married my biological father and 00:01:00then three years later had my little brother, Andrew. And he's six and a half years younger than I am. And we grew up in Knoxville and I went to the same elementary school and middle school and high school which was a mile from my house, and graduated from there in 1997.
WILSON: And are there any other particular things you want to say aboutwhat it was like growing up?
WHITE: Well, I come from a very large family. So my grandmother, mymaternal grandmother, is one of eleven children. She's the youngest of eleven. And we lived on the same street growing up. I lived there until I graduated from high school, as my great grandmother and many of my aunts and uncles lived in the houses surrounding her on that same street. So from a very large family and we're also very close. And then my paternal grandfather is also one of eleven. So on that side of the family, it's also very large. I have many aunts and uncles and 00:02:00cousins, and they also live in Knoxville. So all of my family lives there. And so Christmases and holidays are just very big occasions. So I'm used to being surrounded not just by my immediate family, but being around a lot of people, and being very nurtured by all the aunts and uncles. And feeling part of a big, a big family.
WILSON: Where and when did you go to college?
WHITE: I went to college, it was Bellarmine College at the time. It'snow Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. I started there as a freshman in the fall of '97 and graduated in the spring of 2001.
WILSON: And how did it happen than you chose Bellarmine when you werefrom Nashville?
WILSON: Knoxville. Excuse me.
WHITE: It's okay. One of my friends, my very good friends, graduatedfrom high school a year before me. And she chose to go to Bellarmine. So I'd been to visit her at Bellarmine. Not to visit the school so much, but just to see her and her friends throughout my senior year 00:03:00in high school. And you know, when I was just deciding to apply to colleges, I chose Bellarmine because I knew it. I'd enjoyed the time I spent there with my friends. And it turned out that I chose six schools to apply to, and I said wherever I get the biggest scholarship is where I'll go, because I liked them all. So Bellarmine gave me the biggest scholarship, so that's where I went.
WILSON: And what did you study?
WHITE: Communications, which is a very broad kind of major. But Ifocused on print journalism during the time I was there. And I'm not, I've never worked in print journalism, other than the time I spent working on the student newspaper. I worked on the newspaper for four years at Bellarmine. And I was the section editor for two years, staff writer for one year, and then the editor in chief my senior year.
WILSON: And did you go right into the Peace Corps after college?
WHITE: I did. I graduated the second Saturday in May of 2001, and mid-00:04:00June, 2001, is when I left for the Peace Corps.
WILSON: How did you find out about the Peace Corps? Or what made youdecide to do that?
WHITE: Well, I knew that when I was starting my senior year, I knewthat I wasn't ready to go directly to grad school after graduation. And it felt like I was just too young to start working an eight to five job somewhere. I just felt like there was something more out there to do. And I knew several people who graduated from Bellarmine who had gone into the Peace Corps. As well as we have one professor of philosophy at Bellarmine who was in the Peace Corps. So she talked about it frequently in her classes. So it always sounded interesting to me. Plus it meant living abroad, traveling, finding a new language, learning a new culture, all those things. And then there was the part of me that wanted to serve my country in some way. And I never thought 00:05:00that I would join the military. (laughs) And I know that's one way to serve your country, and that wasn't something for me. So I really saw it as a win/win situation for everyone. I thought I would be a good quote unquote "ambassador of my country," and then at the same time I knew I would be getting a lot of benefit out of it. So it was a good, and I didn't have anything tying me down. I didn't have a house or a house payment. I wasn't married. I didn't have any kids. I didn't have all these things that were tying me to here. And so it was very easy just to pick up and leave. Especially as I was transitioning from kind of my college childhood, more into adulthood.
WILSON: What was the process of joining? What did you have to do inorder to join? And how long did it take? And that kind of thing.
WHITE: Well, since I knew that I wanted to go as soon as I graduatedso there wouldn't be this lull in time where I'd have to get some part time job or whatever, I started applying in August of, so the 00:06:00beginning of my senior year of college is when I started applying. And it was kind of a long process, but I knew I had time. But I did turn everything around as quickly as I could. I got everything in and as soon as they sent me the next notice, I turned it in. So I mean, the first thing was just filling out a lengthy application, essays, and all that stuff, and sending that in. And then once that passed, I think, then I went and met a recruiter in Lexington to do a personal interview. Because they will interview you over the phone, but I thought it would be better to interview in person. And so I came to Lexington to interview with the recruiter. And then the next thing I knew, she said, "Okay, that's great. We can let you in. But now it's time for the medical stuff." So I had to go through all this dental examination and paperwork and medical information paperwork. I also had to do an eye exam and everything to go along with that. Once that 00:07:00passed, I think somewhere in there there was getting fingerprints. And I mean, it's kind of a blur now. But I remember in February of 2001 I was teaching English as a second language to adult students through the Jefferson County Public School System in Louisville and--
WILSON: You were doing that--
WHITE: As a volunteer.
WILSON: As a volunteer. Okay.
WHITE: And I did that nights. And so I remember I got the notice, myinvitation, in February. And it was on the same day that I had to teach this class. And so it was to Bulgaria. And I went into the class and there was actually a Bulgarian woman in my class. And so I was so excited, because all of my students knew I was applying to go into the Peace Corps, and so excited to tell her that I was going to Bulgaria. And she just looked at me and said, "Why would you want to go to Bulgaria?" (laughs) You know, she's worked so hard to get to here. And she doesn't understand why an American would be kind of in her opinion running away.
WILSON: And had you put down Bulgaria as a choice? Or did you say you'd00:08:00go anywhere in the world?
WHITE: I said I would go anywhere in the world. I figured that thepeople who run the Peace Corps knew better than I did where I was needed, where my skills could be used beset, just where I would fit the best. So I let them do their work. And I said I would go anywhere.
WILSON: So you found out that you were going to Bulgaria in February.And then?
WHITE: And then it was just waiting. I mean, I had to finish upmy final semester of college. And you know, they already had told me that I was leaving in June. So it was just, at that point just anticipating, starting to read up on the country to learn more about it. And just getting very excited.
WILSON: So you went to Bulgaria in June. And let's see. Did you havestaging someplace for a couple of days?
WHITE: Yes, we were in, the whole group, and I think there wereabout fifty-four people in my group, we left all at once. We met in Washington, DC. That's what's called staging. And we were in some 00:09:00hotel there. And we had a few preliminary classes about, kind of some ice breaking sessions. Some last minute, "Be sure you want to do this before you get on the plane." And just pieces of information about what to expect when we first arrived in the country. I mean, it was very--
WILSON: And you had all your luggage with you and ready to go.
WHITE: Yes. Piles of luggage were with me.
WILSON: And your group was what number group in Bulgaria?
WHITE: The eleventh. The eleventh group.
WILSON: So they'd been in Bulgaria since--
WILSON: 1991, right after--
WHITE: Right after the fall of communism, I guess, is when they struckup a deal with the American government to just start allowing Peace Corps volunteers.
WILSON: And what were the jobs that your group was going to do? Werethey varied, or--
WHITE: Not too varied. We had education, I was an education volunteer.And in that, we had primary and secondary education. So there were elementary school teachers and high school teachers, basically.
WILSON: And you were--00:10:00
WHITE: I was an elementary school teacher. And then we had communityeconomic development. So those were business type volunteers working with governmental agencies. The municipalities in the towns where they were stationed or also nonprofit organizations as well, helping them. And then there were environmental volunteers. So there were three main groups.
WILSON: And there were already volunteers there, so there were what, ahundred or so in Bulgaria?
WHITE: Yeah, there were about a hundred when we arrived.
WILSON: And so you got to Bulgaria, to the capital? To Sofia?
WHITE: Yes. We arrived in Sofia.
WILSON: And then?
WHITE: And we got, this is such a funny, I mean everyone's soapprehensive and excited. I mean, we're exhausted from having traveled, and layovers in all these airports across Western Europe. So it was great to finally arrive. At the same time, as we flew in, we flew in and we're looking at like these slums. They're not slums, but 00:11:00it's just not very pretty around the airport. So as we're landing on the strip, you just see these terrible large block apartment buildings everywhere. And it was just like oh my God, am I really going to spend the next two years of my life here? So there was a little of that. And then there just the logistical stuff of getting all your luggage, making sure it actually arrived. And then they had this huge truck outside the front of the airport. And they were just throwing all fifty-four people's luggage into the back of this truck. And we had like an overnight bag that was with us that we were to take until the main part of our luggage was delivered to us. And we all got on this double decker bus. And I remember there were currently serving volunteers there who were there to greet us. And they had, we arrived in June. It was cherry season in Bulgaria. So they had these huge bags of cherries, and they were just feeding us cherries, these fresh cherries, and they were so delicious. And then we, then all of the 00:12:00Bulgarian staff from the Peace Corps got on, and they were giving us this information, "We're going to stop here in about twenty minutes for you to use the bathroom, and you can buy a drink," and all this stuff. "And then we're going to stay here tonight." It was just so much information. All I wanted to do was sleep. So the first, probably the first three days were the hardest there. But it was, we were well received. And we got to a little, kind of a, we went to another hotel where we all stayed together, which was kind of out in the middle of nowhere, near the town we were going to do training. And we spent the first two days there. And they had this huge meal prepared for us the first night that we got there. And they had performers come in for the traditional singers and dancers came in and put on a show for us. And it was so wonderful. And they were just so full of hospitality. And at that point, you knew that it was just, it was going to be a good fit. So it was nice. 00:13:00
WILSON: And you trained for?
WHITE: Ten weeks. In a small town called Panagyruishte. And that was,there were probably about sixteen thousand people in that town. Very historic town in Bulgaria. It was known as, it's the site of the April Uprising, which is the overthrow of, kind of the plotting to overthrow the Turkish government that was there. So that's where all of the renegades kind of gathered up in the woods. So we learned a lot about history while we were there, too. And then also it's where some very old gold artifacts were found there. So we just got to hear a lot about the history because we were living it. And we were in the town where we could go to the museum and see exactly where things had been discovered. So that was very neat, too. But then when we got to our training town, that's when we also got to meet our host families, which was a whole other story. Because we'd been in this small little hotel for two days. And then we all got on this bus and they told us, "Okay, 00:14:00now you're going to go meet your host family." And just when you think you can't be any more apprehensive it's like, oh, no! These people, you feel like you're going to live with them for the rest of your lives. It's just ten weeks, but it feels like it's going to be forever. So we had this game where we had, they had given everyone puzzle pieces of Bulgaria. So they cut Bulgaria in half. But all different ways. So the host family had one half of Bulgaria, and the, I had another half. So you had to go around, you had to mill around all these Bulgarian families trying to match up your half of Bulgaria. So I was probably one of the last people to find my host family. I was beginning to think I wasn't going to have one. (laughs) And so I met my host mother and father, Danka and Sergei. And they were just so, such lovely people. And I couldn't have been matched with a better family. I mean, they each had kids from previous marriages, but none of them 00:15:00lived with them. So it was just the three of us the entire time, which was much better than many of the other volunteers, who were living with extended families, aunts and uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins, little siblings. And it was just the three of us. And it was nice. And we were in a three bedroom apartment. So we had plenty of space, which was really out of the ordinary, too. And anyway, they were just really excited to have me and wanted to do anything to help me learn the language. Because at that point, I knew nothing. So it just progressed from there. But I knew I was lucky when I found them.
WILSON: So they were your host family for the three months of training.
WILSON: And then, after training in what, in Bulgarian? In history?
WHITE: Right. We had mainly training, I would say 75 to 80 percent ofthe training was language. And then there was a part of the remainder that was cultural training. And then part that was technical, meaning what you're going to do in your job. So for me, it was learning how 00:16:00to teach. Not only how to teach, but how to teach in Bulgaria. And at the end of that they had a little, you know, we had a swearing in ceremony where we went from trainees from the ten weeks that we first arrived to being actual volunteers in the country.
WILSON: And did everybody stay?
WHITE: No. There were several people who, not several, but some peoplehad to leave for medical reasons. Some people had to just, they knew they weren't going to, it just wasn't for them. They realized after living there for a few weeks that this just was a bad decision on their part. And so they went home. But people pretty much, the only people who left, left of their own accord.
WILSON: Right. So you were left with what?
WHITE: Forty-eight, forty-nine people.
WILSON: So five or six left.
WHITE: In our group. And so we swore in. And then we got our town.Well, actually before we were sworn in, we received our placements. 00:17:00And the placements, you know, were based on our strengths that they had witnessed during the training. So language strengths as well as technical strengths. And how well we had gotten along with our host family. I mean, all of these things just really played into them knowing okay, she wouldn't be successful in a tiny mountain town where she's going to be snowed in 50 percent of the year, or whatever. And then we also had all of the placements up on a board, so we got to know about the sites. We knew where we would be working. We didn't know where they were located. But we knew the type, they were describing the schools for the education volunteers. And we, in our interview that we had with our technical trainers, we got to put in our two cents as well. "Oh, I think that one sounds like it would be a great fit for me." And so it turned out that the one that sounded neatest to me was the one where I got placed. And it's simply because I didn't have a 00:18:00technical counterpart. I had a person who helped me with things at my site as far as housing and paying my bills. She was a teacher at my school, but she wasn't an English teacher. So most of the time you're partnered with someone who does exactly what you'll be doing. But in my case, I wasn't. And so because I wasn't partnered with an English teacher, that meant that I didn't have an English speaking counterpart. And so I had to have a strong language background after the ten weeks of training for them to send me to that spot.
WILSON: And you obviously did.
WHITE: And they thought that I did. So that's where I got sent. AndI really do think that that's one of the reasons. Coupling that with the fact that I taught very young students, so it's not like I could teach entirely in English. That's one of the reasons that my Bulgarian got to be so good. Which is really one of the most, my biggest accomplishment there. And I never thought that I could learn 00:19:00to speak a foreign language fluently because I'd had six years of Spanish. And it was just also classroom based. It never seemed very practical to me. And I just think that there's probably a problem in general in this country with teaching foreign languages and how it should be done. So I thought that I couldn't do it. I could not learn a foreign language, it just wasn't in the cards for me. And so when I began to stop thinking before I spoke in Bulgarian, it just came to me naturally, that was just amazing to me. And it was definitely a huge personal accomplishment.
WILSON: So you were dreaming in Bulgarian as well?
WHITE: I, yeah, I had been dreaming in Bulgarian during training.
WHITE: And that was weird. It wasn't, you know, they weren't paragraphsin Bulgarian. But I did dream in Bulgarian.
WILSON: So where were you located?
WHITE: I was stationed in Chirpan, which is a town about the size ofthe town where we were training in Central Bulgaria, very close to the 00:20:00second largest city in Bulgaria, which is Plovdiv. So it was about an hour and ten or fifteen minutes bus ride from Plovdiv.
WILSON: And tell us something about what a day was like in your job.You were an elementary teacher teaching English.
WHITE: Right. Well, I always--
WILSON: And you can start with what it was like to get up in themorning. You were staying with a host family then, too?
WHITE: No, no. I had my own apartment. Which I guess is anotherinteresting place to start. Because most people think of the Peace Corps as living in a mud hut in the middle of Africa somewhere. Well, Eastern European placements aren't like that. I mean, you live, you're supposed to live like your counterparts would. And so my counterparts don't live in mud huts. They live in apartments. Some of them lived in houses. But I lived in a very small apartment on the second floor 00:21:00of a typical Eastern Bloc apartment building. I had a small bathroom with a shower and a toilet that flushed and a sink with hot water. And had a small little entryway. And then I had the main room where my bed was and everything was in this main room. My dining table, my TV, everything. And I had a TV. And I had fifty-something channels with cable and VH1 and MTV and CNN and BBC and the Hallmark channel, among many other obviously Bulgarian channels and European stations as well. And I had a very small kitchen, a little terrace with a stove. But I had pretty much everything that I was used to having. I mean, it wasn't as nice as what I was used to here. But I had a telephone in my house. I mean, I didn't have a washing machine and I didn't have a dryer. But other than that, I pretty much had anything that I was used 00:22:00to having here. So I would get up in the morning on a typical day and eat a little breakfast and strap on my backpack--
WILSON: Like what?
WHITE: Usually some sort of yogurt and maybe muesli. Some fruit. Butthat was typical. Or maybe some toast with some cheese on it or some jelly or jam, or something like that. So very typical, what I would think. Not a lot of Bulgarians have fresh milk like we have here. They mainly eat yogurt. I could have bought fresh milk, had I wanted it. So having that. And then strapping on my backpack. And it was about a twenty-minute walk to my school, which was on the other side of, it's a small town. But still, I was on one end of the town and the school was on the very other end of town. So I would walk, and it was great. You know, I'd walk right through the center, and I'd see the same things every day. Now some days were better than others, because some days it was raining or snowing or really cold or really 00:23:00hot. But you know, it was good exercise and it gave me time to clear my head, to get out of the home mode and to prepare myself to go teach. So it was just kind of this psychological thing for me every day. It was a good buffer. The twenty-minute walk was a good buffer for me. And I would get into school and go into the teachers' room. And all the teachers gathered in the teacher room before classes began. They weren't always in their classrooms like elementary school teachers are here. And then we would sign in. There was this huge book that we had to write in every day. Every teacher had to write the subject that he or she was teaching for every class, every hour, in this huge book that was then turned in to the Ministry of Education to check. Anytime that there was a check, somebody from the local government or the regional government would come in to check this book to make sure it was all written in. Now that didn't mean anything, really, but we had to fill it out. So that was one of the things that I would do usually when I 00:24:00first got there. And then the bell would ring and I would go into my class. And the classes were about forty minutes long. And I taught anywhere, usually taught three to four classes a day. So it wasn't a very rigorous schedule.
WILSON: So you were teaching like what grade levels? Or what age group?
WHITE: I was teaching first through fourth grade.
WILSON: First to fourth.
WILSON: And you would teach each one of those English for every day?
WHITE: Well, I didn't teach on Fridays. I had Fridays off. So I taughtMonday through Thursday. And the first graders, this is something from the Ministry of Education. They set how many hours of a foreign language they have to have. The first graders had three hours. The second graders had four hours. And the third and fourth graders had five hours a week. So some days I would have more classes than others. But at least three a day, up to five, sometimes six. Depending on the day. And it changed with semesters and years. So it worked out. 00:25:00And sometimes there were more, like the first grade had two classes. There were two first grade classes. I didn't teach them together, so I had to teach three hours to each of the first grade classes each week. So that was six hours to the first grade. And then, of course, so I was done around lunchtime with all my classes. You know, 12:30 or one o'clock I was done. So I got in there at eight. Then by 1:30 I was home and ate lunch. And would prepare, I had a lot of homework to grade all the time, and preparing for the next day took up a lot of my afternoon. And then I also, as the secondary project, taught English to adults in town. And I had one class that I taught at the school, which was something my director wanted me to do. So once a week I had a class at the school. It got people out to our end of town where the school was, and to see the building. And it was just good exposure for the school. And that was really for very elementary 00:26:00learners. And then I had three classes that I held in my apartment. They were very small. But I did them on levels. So we had some lower levels, and then we had very advanced speakers. People, I didn't really have to advertise. I mean, people came to me and they said that they wanted it. So I said, well, if this many people are saying they want this, then that's how you build your secondary project. It's based on the need of the town. And if there were this many people who were interested in talking to me then sure, I'm going to invite them over. So it was really a good time. And very social. You know, I had planned lessons. But it usually, we digressed a lot and spent a lot of time just chatting. Or talking about customs. "Well, here's how it is here," if there was a holiday coming up. "And how is it in America? Do you guys celebrate this?" So it was a lot of cultural exchange, too, in those classes at my apartment. But all very fun. Sometimes we'd meet at cafes or out if the weather was really nice. It just varied, based 00:27:00on the time of year.
WILSON: And what did you do for recreation, when you weren't teaching?And on vacations, on school vacations? Did you travel?
WHITE: Well, I did. I spent most of my time, vacation time, traveling inBulgaria. So we took a lot of weekend trips. Since I had Friday off, that was used as time that could be used for the secondary project, or for planning or whatever. Sometimes I would use the three-day weekend to go see some festival in a nearby town, or something like that. And I traveled around a lot. But I did go to Prague as one of my personal vacations. And then I went to Greece. I went to Athens in Greece as another one of my personal vacations. But Bulgaria is wonderful, and it didn't make sense for me to leave it a lot, because your money goes further if you stay in Bulgaria. I knew the language already. And it has everything for every season. There are great ski resort towns for 00:28:00the winter, and a lot of hiking, and any sorts of outdoor activities like that. And then for the summer, they're on the Black Sea, so there are plenty of resort areas there for going to the beach, or parasailing, or doing any number of beachy type things that you could do there on the weekend. So it was easy just to jump on a train or a bus and go over to the sea for the weekend, or something like that.
WILSON: What were your interactions with what Peace Corps calls hostcountry nationals like?
WHITE: Well, I found most of the people in my town loved me. I mean, Iwas--
WILSON: Were you the only American?
WHITE: I was the only American in town. And most people treated me likeI was the town puppy dog. Everybody wanted to show me off, and watch over me.
WILSON: And they hadn't had somebody before?
WHITE: I was the second volunteer in town. So at first, they didcompare me a lot to the first American who was there. And she was also at the same school I was at, so there was a lot of time spent 00:29:00trying to say, "I'm not Miss Karen," the former volunteer, "I'm Miss Leigh." A lot of people, she was the first American they had ever met, had a very interesting time because they thought that her personality was indicative of all Americans' personalities. So she saw that, people saw that we weren't the same, and that was really good, a good lesson for them to learn, that not all Americans are the same. But I had really great, I didn't have any trouble making friends. I really followed the advice of what they told us during training, which was, "Don't leave, you're to be involved in your site. So don't go running off to meet up with volunteers all the time on the weekends, or gathering these big huge groups of Americans, because you're going to lose part of the experience." And that is so true. Because if I traveled on the weekends, it was with other Bulgarians. It wasn't with other Americans. I rarely met up with other Americans. And I spent 00:30:00a lot of my time just as a guest at someone's house for dinner on the weekends and all sorts, so I had plenty of friends. And I met a lot of these through doing the adult classes. And I had strong friendships with them. And of course, I am now married to a Bulgarian. And I met him, I met him--
WILSON: Is she going to tell the hour and a half story now, or the--(laughs)
WHITE: No, I'm not going to tell the hour and a half long story abouthow we met. But I met my husband very early on. I met him probably, or I saw him for the first time the first week after arriving in my town. And then we met in August, end of August of 2001.
WILSON: So Nikolai is from the town where you--
WHITE: Yes, my husband Nikolai is from the town where I worked andwas stationed. And then we were married in December of 2002. So we 00:31:00were together for a little over a year before we got married in the country. So of course that changed everything, because that meant that I was, there were newspaper articles written about our marriage and everything. And I'd turned into what they call a Chirpan, that's the town where I was, a Chirpan daughter-in-law. So that meant that I was, that's something that they would use to describe a Bulgarian. So if you married someone from another town, you would become a daughter- in-law to that other town. So I became instantly one of them, if I wasn't already. Because they already said, "Your Bulgarian's so great. You're like a Bulgarian, Leigh. You're like a Bulgarian." And then I married one. So it went even further to support their belief that I was half Bulgarian anyway.
WILSON: So you were married for the last, for the second year of yourPeace Corps?
WHITE: Yeah. Second year. And that was a whole interesting thing,too. It's not easy to marry a foreigner when you're an American in that town. But it's even harder after September eleventh when you're a 00:32:00serving Peace Corps volunteer. You have to jump through a lot of hoops.
WILSON: What kinds of things did you have to do?
WHITE: Well, first I had to get it cleared with the Peace Corps officein Sofia. So I had to go to them and say, "I want to marry this guy." And I did it to my country director, and she said, "Well, that's fine. I need you to write it up for me." So I had to say that I wasn't going to ask to move, because if he'd been from another town, you know, they didn't want to have to replace me and find another site for me. So I didn't have to, because he was from this town. They also wanted to know that I wasn't going to ask for any more living allowance to support him. But he worked, so I wasn't going to need that. And basically to say that it wasn't going to interrupt my service at all. So she said, "That's fine." And then the Peace Corps, before they would even give me permission, did a background check on Nikolai through the local embassy as well as the FBI. And once those two 00:33:00things had passed, then I got to go to the consulate and start dealing with how the consulate was going to let me get married. And so I had to swear I'd never been married before, and if I had, that it had ended in divorce legally. But I hadn't been married before. And so I signed this paperwork. And then I had to go to my local town. And the guy at the consulate said, "Well, good luck. Because a lot of people, especially in small towns in Bulgaria, aren't going to recognize this document that I'm giving you. But don't worry, because even if they wont let you get married there, you can always come back to the capital to get married." Well, that was going to be a pain. I mean, his whole family wanted to be there. And we didn't want to have to transport the whole party hours away to the capital. So it worked out that, I mean, and everybody in the local government building in the municipality who 00:34:00had to approve the wedding and everything, they just loved me. And they had no problem just accepting the paperwork that I had. And it worked out really well, so, but--
WILSON: But then you had to go through more paperwork when you cameback, right?
WHITE: Oh, yeah. No, it was all done there.
WILSON: So everything was done there. Okay.
WHITE: So I got the initial paperwork. And then once we were officiallymarried, then I had to take all that paperwork and go back and start getting, figuring out how he was going to come here with me.
WILSON: That's what I meant. Yeah.
WHITE: So, but I don't want to make it sound like I took all of my timeas a volunteer to get married and bring my husband back. Because it was a lot of work, but it definitely didn't overwhelm me or anything. I still was very involved in the community. And even more so, I think, not that I'm saying that all volunteers should get married to host country nationals, but it definitely brought me a step closer in their eyes. They respected me more, because they knew I respected them 00:35:00enough to marry someone from there.
WILSON: Was your marriage unusual? Or had other volunteers married inBulgaria?
WHITE: I've heard that Bulgaria has a high percentage of volunteers whomarry. I'm not sure. I've never looked at the statistics. People just say that a lot of volunteers get married to host country nationals in Bulgaria. And so, but definitely in my town, there had only been one other volunteer. And she didn't marry a Bulgarian. So the people in my town thought it was really kind of cool.
WILSON: What about your family here? Did anybody come?
WHITE: No. Nobody came. My grandparents and my brother and my greataunt came to visit in the summer of 2002. And so we had already decided that we were getting married, but I hadn't told anybody here because I found it hard to bring that news up on the phone or in an email or whatever. It was just too personal. So my grandparents were 00:36:00going to come to visit anyway. And when they came, we just decided that's when we would make the announcement. And we had kind of an official dinner with his family. So that was when they were here. And then the wedding was only six months later, so they couldn't really justify coming back.
WILSON: But that was nice that you had somebody there who met--
WHITE: Right. They did meet his whole family. Then my host parentsfrom Panagyruishte, they came to the wedding and actually stood in as my surrogate parents.
WILSON: Oh, how nice!
WHITE: Yeah, it was nice.
WILSON: What were your interactions with Americans, including PeaceCorps volunteers, like? Did you do much--
WHITE: Well, I didn't really run into any Americans who weren'taffiliated with the Peace Corps. I don't remember, I don't think I ran into any Americans there. But I didn't particularly like the 00:37:00other volunteers much. I thought that they were, I thought, I had this preconceived notion that all people who would join the Peace Corps would just kind of be a certain way. And they were very different. And I was going there for all the reasons I mentioned earlier. But I found that a lot of people were using this as some political stepping stone for a way to get into foreign service. And that didn't interest me at all. But there were quite a number of people who were also using this as just a stepping stone into other government service. It might not be in the foreign service at all. They just thought, this is a way to get me in the door into other government jobs. And a lot of people ended up moving back to Washington and being very involved in politics. And that's just not why I was there. And I also thought, like I said earlier, a lot of people spent a lot of their time on the weekends just getting together with each other and partying together on the weekends 00:38:00or whatever. And I just didn't think that's, I didn't go halfway around the world to hang out with other Americans. I mean, I can do that and stay right here in the US. So I didn't, I had two other friends, three other friends who were Peace Corps volunteers. And we talked on the phone or we emailed occasionally. And we probably met up, you know, two or three times a year. So not very often. But it was nice sometimes. You have a hard day at school and nobody else who would really understand it except another American. So you call and you kind of vent out that way.
WILSON: How, you had phone and you had email. How often did you usethose to stay in contact with your family back home or friends back home?
WHITE: Very rarely did I use the phone, because it was very expensive tocall back. Sometimes I would just go a little bit crazy and not even care about what it was going to cost, and then I would get my phone 00:39:00bill at the end of the month and-- (laughs)
WHITE: Right. But I didn't really use the phone very much at all. Butpretty much I went to the internet cafe. And there were about four or five internet cafes in my small town. Probably once a day.
WILSON: Oh, really?
WHITE: Yeah. Maybe once every other day. But I was there prettyfrequently. It was very inexpensive. It was probably about fifty cents an hour to use the internet, so it was very cheap for me to get on. And you know sometimes the connections weren't very fast. But it was still a great way to check up on news and just stay in contact with people. It was much cheaper than writing letters, too.
WILSON: So you weren't writing letters to your family, you were emailingthem.
WHITE: Well I emailed, I mailed birthday cards, and for holidays Imailed cards. And I did write my grandmother most frequently, and I probably wrote to her at least a letter a week the entire time I was there. And she wrote me tons of letters, too. Because we're very 00:40:00sentimental and romantic about this whole not losing letter writing to email. So we kept it up.
WILSON: That's great. And now you have a--
WHITE: Yeah, I have stacks of letters. In fact, my mother-in-law stillhas all of the letters I received there in her apartment stashed away somewhere because I couldn't bring everything back. There was just too much stuff.
WILSON: Do you have a couple of particularly meaningful, memorablestories from Peace Corps? And why are they meaningful still? It hasn't been that long.
WHITE: It hasn't been too long since I've been back. But I guess oneof the most memorable moments was when I first arrived in the town, Chirpan, where I lived and worked for the majority of the time I was there. I was really scared. Again, there were so many new experiences in the first three months that it was just overwhelming. But when I 00:41:00first arrived, I got there by train. And so I was just getting off at this train depot and not knowing if I was going to know who I was supposed to be meeting there. Well, it worked out because there were film crews there from the local TV station. There was a reporter there sticking--
WILSON: For you. Wow.
WHITE: Yes! Sticking a microphone in my face. And there were, mycounterpart was there, and she had a big banner that was painted that said "Welcome." I mean, it was just so overwhelming that I couldn't believe that, so I knew it was going to be a positive experience. If that many people were waiting on me and were excited to see me, and it was newsworthy enough, then I knew that it was going to be an experience that was going to be good for everybody involved. So that was really nice. And then probably just, you know, there were so many little experiences every day that happened with a student or with a 00:42:00parent of a student. You know when you just have a breakthrough and it's like, I think any time you're teaching, when you see a kid light up, or when you see something click in their brain to say, "Oh, I get it now!" I mean, that's just amazing no matter where you are in the world. But it's especially amazing when it's in a foreign language. And you're making a connection with people. And I think it's so easy to make connections with children. They're so forgiving and so unassuming. And they don't have any ideas about how things should work or why they work the way they do. They just accept things. And I think that that was great. I think if I had been just going into the school every day and just having interactions with the children, let alone their parents and the colleagues, my experience would have been 100 percent great. But having to work with other adults, your fellow 00:43:00teachers, it doesn't matter where you are in the world, it's just hard sometimes. And then having to deal with parents who don't necessarily see eye to eye with you on how you give homework or anything like that.
WILSON: Did you find you were using different teaching techniques? Orhad different expectations?
WHITE: Yes. Definitely.
WILSON: Or the philosophy, maybe?
WHITE: I think that Bulgarian teachers have just a different way ofteaching. They do more oral testing. And they don't do it on a regular basis. It's more like pop oral tests all the time. But not for every student, not for every day. It's a different form of testing kids' knowledge. I like to do it all at once. I like to let the kids know when it's going to happen. I'm not very much for pop tests. I don't think they give, they stress little kids out especially. I think maybe for high school kids it works. But for first graders, it's too much for them. And I did have an expectation that anybody 00:44:00can learn. And that also, because I was putting all this time into preparing my lessons and into grading my papers and everything, I mean, I went to Bulgaria to teach. So I took myself very seriously. And I wanted every student to take my class seriously. It wasn't fluff. It wasn't something that was extracurricular for me. And it wasn't extracurricular in their programming, either, but some parents did think that, oh, you know, it's a foreign language. They need to work on their Bulgarian. As long as their Bulgarian's good and their math is good and their history's good, that's all that we really need. This English is not that important. But they got as many grades in English, and English was on their report card along with math, along with Bulgarian. So I took it seriously. I think if I hadn't, less students would have taken it seriously. Yes, there was a difference in approach and technique and everything. But you know, I stood my ground and I 00:45:00thought that if I took it this seriously, surely everyone else will see how important it is.
WILSON: What was it like to come home?
WHITE: Well, I was coming home with a husband, first of all. So thatadded a whole other level of just change in my life. So I was different in that I had been in this other country where no one, most people I knew hadn't been there. Only those four people who came to visit me had been there. But it felt like, in many ways, although I'd remained in contact with several friends via email, or some on the telephone, or letters in the mail, it felt like I had somehow been dead for two years. And that when I came back, people were glad to see me but kind of surprised, too. You know, it was like, "You're not supposed to be there." I didn't feel like tons of people were waiting for me to come 00:46:00home as much as I was waiting to come back. Not that I was trying to rush away, because I was now leaving behind so many friends, so many students, my in-laws, my niece, my sister-in-law. So I was leaving all that behind, but then I was so excited to come back and get back into things again. But there weren't that many people waiting here excited to see me. So it took a really long time to get back into the swing of things. And when I came back, I came back to Knoxville, Tennessee, because that's where my family lived. And I was there for about six weeks before I moved back to Louisville. And it was just a really weird transition time. I didn't have a job. I didn't have a place to live. I mean, I was living with my family. I had this husband. The economy was terrible. I didn't know how I was going to get a job. I was very stressed out about how I was going to pay for things. Because the readjustment allowance which the Peace Corps gives-- 00:47:00
[Side a ends; side b begins.]
WHITE: So the readjustment allowance that the Peace Corps gives you,it seems like it's going to be enough money, but it's probably enough to live for about a month, two months, on your own. And finding a job doesn't happen that quickly. So I just decided that since my whole adult life had been in Louisville, outside of the time I spent in Bulgaria, that I was going to come back to Louisville. I had more connections in the business community. And I felt like it was just going to be easier for me to get a job there. So Nikolai and I moved back to Louisville. I didn't have a job. I had a little bit of readjustment allowance, and that was just--
WILSON: And this is, month and year?
WHITE: This is around August, yeah, August of 2003.
WILSON: And you never considered doing teaching there, right?
WHITE: Well, I'm not, I don't have a degree to teach here. So I wentback and just started talking to people. And I got a job within a 00:48:00week of moving back. So it all worked out in the end. But the initial part was very stressful. Because the, whole time I was trying to enjoy seeing my family again, those six weeks. But at the same time, I was so nervous about how I was going to pay for things that it wasn't enjoyable in some regards. But one of the weirdest, I remember one of the first things when I came back was going to the grocery store for the first time. And that was so strange to me. I just walked into the grocery store. And I'd been used to shopping in these little small one-room places where you'd go in and everything's behind the counter. So you go up to the cashier and say, "I want eggs and flour and bacon and sugar," and they bring it all to the counter and ring it up for you. So that was the extent of my choice. And I had not, there wasn't a large selection of things. I mean, you wanted butter, there was one kind of butter. You either bought it or you didn't. And then coming 00:49:00back here and just like walking down an aisle with soup, you know. (laughs) I mean, it's like how do you choose what soup you want? I was so used to having just a choice. If you wanted soup, you bought this kind or you didn't buy any at all. So going back into the grocery store for the first time, that was one of the really weird moments of just overwhelming choices that we have here in the United States. That was really strange. And then at the same time, Nikolai was adjusting to being here on the first time. And he was on a plane for the first time in his life to come to the United States. So there were a lot of things going on with him that happened to me when I first went to Bulgaria. And then there were all of these cultural readjustment things that I was going through. It was just a very weird time. (laughs) But now I'm back, and nearly two years later it hardly seems as if I ever left. But I do have a much stronger connection to other 00:50:00cultures now, especially Eastern European cultures. I'm so excited to meet anyone from Eastern Europe now and talk about how I was in the Peace Corps, and what I did when I was there. And just show them respect and intrigue and all of those things for the part of the world where they come from. Let them know that they're here, and I know how hard it is because I did the same thing.
WILSON: Are there many people from Eastern Europe here in Louisville?
WHITE: Yeah, there are. I think the last time we heard, there werelike 140 Bulgarians in Louisville. So we've met several Bulgarians in Louisville and in southern Indiana. And we meet up with them and talk to them on the phone. It's just great because all of these people, even from Chicago, or all over, there are tons of Bulgarians in Chicago. But anybody who I have this weird connection, just this 00:51:00Bulgarian connection, I would call anybody on the phone. I've never met them before but I'll call up a Bulgarian on the phone and say, "Hey, I was in Bulgaria." So it's a very strange connection. So we have a pretty strong connection to things Bulgarian in Louisville. When you wouldn't think, I never knew that there was anything Bulgarian in Louisville before I went to Bulgaria.
WILSON: What do you think the impact of your Peace Corps service was onthe country? On Bulgaria? And then what was the impact on you?
WHITE: Well, I really thought, and I think most volunteers think this,that you're going to move mountains when you're in the Peace Corps. That you're going to go and you're going to have this huge project, and it's just going to turn the country around. Well I quickly learned that wasn't going to be it. I mean, it was making individual connections with individual people that was really going to help them hopefully in the future. And so I think, I can't say that, I don't like to say my effect on the country. I can say my effect on the school, on 00:52:00my fellow teachers, on my students. I think that I've shown my fellow teachers at the school what enthusiasm can do. And they were all overworked and underpaid. And they all had tons of things going on at home that they had to worry about. But showing them that I could bring different celebrations and organize different things without a lot of money or without a lot of materials, that it could be done. And that it should be done, for the kids' sake. I mean, it's all about teaching them, and there are many ways to teach. And so I think that they got to see a lot of that, too. And just my promptness. I think sometimes Bulgarian teachers are a little bit lazy. And so I was very on time all the time, and I showed them that when the bell rings you get up and go. Just small things like that you do, you set examples for people. 00:53:00And I think that that made an impact on my fellow teachers. And then my students, of course, I think, and I know from teachers that have had them, English teachers that have had those students since they've been with me, that they have a very strong background now in English and that they, I think, are privileged to have had a native speaker teach them. But I think it will help them in the future as they go forward and continue their English education. And then I just think the impact on the local community, not just my English teaching or anything like that, but just letting them see who an American is and what an American is like, that that made a huge impact. Because it makes the world seem a lot smaller when we're off the silver screen and we're in their local cafes and we're just normal people like they are. So I think 00:54:00that that was a great experience. Now the effect it had on me, I think that I'm much more adventurous now than I was before. I think that I'm willing, I thought I was before, too, but I think I'm much more willing now to try new things, and to continue to build on all of the experiences that I've had there and carry that over into my everyday life now. So I don't want to over, bother people with the fact that I always talk about Bulgaria. But that does color everything that I do now. And somehow it just give me a whole other perspective on the way things work and how not every country in the world is so driven to work like we are here. And I tried, it's a great perspective for me, because I think we do need to be more focused on families here and 00:55:00spending time with your loved ones. Because that's what life's about. It's not about just working, about being at the office all the time. And I think that's what we spend so much of our time here doing. So I think that I, even though I work a lot, too, I do try to keep it into perspective that family is the number one important thing, and that's where I need to spend my focus.
WILSON: And the next question, obviously you can answer very quickly.Because the next question is in what ways are you still in contact with anyone from your Peace Corps experience. And since you've married, you have that.
WILSON: But I assume you're still in contact with people back inBulgaria, with former students and teachers?
WHITE: Former students, not so much, because they're little.
WILSON: They're little, yeah. Yeah.
WHITE: And so probably, we're going back this September to Bulgaria. So00:56:00we'll see all of them while we're there. But as far as friends that I made, the adult students that I had, I remain in very close contact with them. And in fact, one of my fellow teachers while I was in Bulgaria, her birthday was today and I just called her on the phone this morning.
WILSON: Oh, great!
WHITE: So it was just nice hearing about, she was telling me about abig thing that they had, a fundraiser they had done for the school. They put on a play. And they had earned a lot of money in November when they did that. And now they're using that to transport kids. They have some kids that don't live in the nearby area, so they have this little van that goes around and picks them up. So they have to pay for gas and everything for this van. So it helps keep the school open. Because the town is slowly dying. I mean, people move away into bigger cities. So there aren't as many kids. In order to keep all these schools open, they have to go pick up kids from the surrounding villages and everything to bring them in. So it was just neat talking to her again and listening about, just about the same things that were 00:57:00going on when I was there, and to hear it all. So I'm still very much in contact. And everyone knew we were coming back. She said, "Oh, we heard you're coming back in September!"
WILSON: Ready to greet you.
WHITE: "We heard you bought a house!" And I mean it's like you tell oneperson and everybody there knows. So it's not very hard to keep in touch with people in a small town.
WILSON: What's been the impact of Peace Corps on your family? You talkedabout grandparents coming to see you. And you can speculate a little bit ahead, if you want to, and think about what it's going to mean when you have a family, too, if you want to.
WHITE: I think, well, I know that many people were very disappointedin the fact that I'd chosen to go in the Peace Corps. Because they thought it was a waste of my time. They thought that I just had so much 00:58:00potential, and that I was just throwing it away by going to volunteer in some foreign country. They didn't really see the benefits to it. I think most of those people have changed their opinion about the Peace Corps now. But that was hard, too. I mean, it was hard to not have everybody 100 percent behind you when you're going to do something so different and so scary. But I think that for many people in my family, it was just something that was to be expected of me. Because I was always doing something weird, according to them, so this was just right in line with what I normally did. And that was okay. But I think that people now have more, obviously people were interested to learn more about where I was and what I'd been doing, even those who hadn't come to visit. So they now have another understanding of geography, of other cultures and everything. And then my husband, of course, is constantly, any family occasion, we're talking about Bulgaria. So 00:59:00they're constantly learning about it. I think they see that the world is smaller now, too. And then for us, I mean, as our family continues to grow, my and Nikolai's, as we have kids, that's definitely, they're going to be bicultural, bilingual, all of that stuff. It's going to be a constant back and forth between spending summers in Bulgaria or whatever with the grandparents, and going there for holidays. It's just, you know, it's not any different than if you have, you're going to California for all your trips. You're just going somewhere else for vacations. So I think it's always going to be a big part of our lives, the Peace Corps. Because it's how we met and it's how our family began, really. So, and it was kind of the end of my childhood. So a lot of things happened in Bulgaria, so I'm glad that I did it. And I 01:00:00wouldn't change anything about my experience or anything.
WILSON: What's been the impact, do you think, on your career? And explainwhat kind of a job you have now. What you've done since Peace Corps.
WHITE: Well, I work at Kindred Healthcare, which is, I work atthe corporate office, which is in Louisville. And I work in the communications department. And I had worked there while I went to Bellarmine. So that's kind of how I had the connection to get back in there. I do, we have an in-house design agency, so I do a lot of copy writing for ads. So my English kind of, teaching English and being grammar oriented and proofreading and all that stuff, it all ties together. It's just in a different forum, it's not in a classroom, it's in an office. But that's still what I do. I do a lot of script writing, speech writing, account management, all sorts of things fall into my job. But I don't really know that the Peace Corps has helped 01:01:00me get this job. I mean, I could have gotten it otherwise. But I do think that just being a self starter, which is really what you have to do in the Peace Corps. You have to manage your own time. You have to follow your own projects. You don't have anyone looking over your shoulder so much about what you're doing. You really have to be self motivated, I think, to be in any Peace Corps position. So I think that that helps, having that. I don't really think, I think it probably developed more as I was in Bulgaria. But I already had an inclination towards that before I went. But that obviously helps. Anything with time management is good in any job, I think. And you would just be surprised how many people, even in my office, like they're so, they hear I was in the Peace Corps, it's just a conversation starter all the time. They think it's very fascinating.
WILSON: What has been the impact of Peace Corps experience on the way01:02:00you think about the world and what's going on in the world? Current events? Politics?
WHITE: Well, lest we get into a very controversial discussion, you knowI think that as I said, the world seems a lot smaller and people seem a lot more similar the more you travel. I think you have to, I think it's easier to see that when you live somewhere and see how other people work. But you know, and when you travel and you see the similarities between people, you realize that we have no reason to fight wars or even really to have borders or boundaries or anything that holds us back. Because it's so, it's restrictive when it doesn't need to be. All these things are just these artificial kind of barriers that we put up between ourselves that create these problems for us. And so I think I'm sympathetic to anyone who, I think I'm more sympathetic now 01:03:00to the underdogs, to the economically challenged, whatever. I think that they all have stories to tell, and great customs to share with anyone. And I'd be happy to meet anybody from any country that's our enemy or our ally and have dinner with them. I mean, when you've got people who are willing to make that connection and want to learn from other people, the possibilities are so endless as to what that can do. But when you say from the beginning, "Oh, I hate such and such nationality," or, "I hate that country because" whatever, I mean, these are false sort of, I don't know, they're just false reasons for hate. You're just perpetuating this hate that goes on in the world when it's not necessary. So in a general way, that's how I feel about that. 01:04:00
WILSON: This is the last question. What do you think the overall impactof Peace Corps has been? And what do you think its role should be?
WHITE: In the world?
WILSON: Yeah. What has its overall impact been? And then what should beits role today? I mean, 2005 instead of in 2003 or 1962, when we were in Peace Corps or whatever.
WHITE: I think the Peace Corps, I think that the mission needs to change.I think that the three-pronged goals of the Peace Corps, you know, to provide resources to countries who have identified those as challenges, and then to bring a little piece of America there to share with them, and to bring a little piece of that country back here to share with Americans is just creating a greater understanding of other cultures.
WILSON: I thought I heard you say the mission should change. Itshouldn't change.
WHITE: No, it shouldn't change.
WILSON: Shouldn't change. Shouldn't. Okay.
WHITE: I think the three goals of the Peace Corps are just perfect. AndI think we could work until the end of time and it's not going to be enough to accomplish those three goals. There's always going to be lack 01:05:00of understanding of other cultures. And I think it's just absolutely wonderful that this country gives money to such a cause. I mean, it's weird to see how they fight battles with part of our tax dollars, and then they have these wonderful programs like the Peace Corps. And I think goodness, it's such, what an experience, you know, to really give to any American who wants it. And I think more Americans should take advantage of it if they're so inclined. But I don't think that, I think that the Peace Corps has grown a lot in that they're much more organized in their approaches than they were in the beginning, and much more systematic about the way they train people and the way that you become involved in your community. I think they're very successful at it, but they've only improved on it and are continuing to improve on it all the time. So that's a really good strength of the Peace Corps. 01:06:00But as far as, I don't think their goals should change. I mean, because they're just so universal and timeless, really.
WILSON: We always ask is there a question that we didn't ask that youwould like to answer? In other words, if there's something else you want to say.
WHITE: Well, no. Not really. I mean, I think, I could go on and onfor days about Bulgaria. I mean, it's two years in my life that I feel like I could spend the rest of my life telling about. And I probably will, in some respect. No, I think I've covered kind of the bases. I guess that's it.
WILSON: Thank you.
WHITE: You're welcome.
[End of interview.]