Thursday, November 10, 2011

Home – Finally - - Day Four

Home – Finally - - Day Four

November 4, 2011
30 Months – Two and a half years!   It is a long time to be away from your house - - your home.  What will it be like?  Will the house be OK?  Will the car start – after you get a new battery?  Will there be mold, smells, water damage, etc.?  Will it be the same as you left it?  Will you remember it?  All of those questions, and many others were running through our minds Wednesday morning as we walked with our backpacks (which had all of our belongings with us for the past seven weeks of travel) to the front door. 
We cautiously walked in.   We were amazed.  Everything was OK - - no everything was GREAT!  The house (our home) was in good shape.  Lynn started taking the sheets off the furniture, and finding the sheets, quilts, and the electric blanket for our “king-size” bed.  I worked on getting the car tires pumped (we had a friend drop off a compressor), and purchasing a new battery.  I put the battery in the car – looked to the heavens for some help – and turned the key.  It started immediately!!  The engine just purred – no blue smoke – nothing.  I slowly backed it our of the garage, and took it on a short test drive.  By the time I got back,  Lynn had our bed made.  We hugged each other.  Now all we needed to do was get water back in the house, and the heat working.  Mid-morning, Roger (the 75-year old master plumber we use) showed up, and started working to get us water.  Lynn and I worked on figuring out why the heat would not work, and got the gas fire place started to provide some heat.  (I had forgotten we had the fireplace with the flame that started with a simple “twist of a knob”).  We got the heat working about the time Roger finished getting the water running.  We also called the cable company asking for them to turn on the internet for us.  We had not seen TV for two years, and did not think we needed it now. But we wanted our “life line” - the internet.  By late evening, we had internet, heat, water, and a car.  Life was good – no it was GREAT. 
Day two dawned beautiful, and we had been so tired from our travel day, and the first day of being home, that we we both slept ten hours without any “jet lag” problems.  Day two was when, I really started to have time to wander around our home again – and not be working.  That is when things started sinking in for me.  I had a series of stunning surprises.  The first was when I opened my closet.  It was filled – very filled – with clothes, and shoes.  There was a five foot rack with shirts, pants, and series of shelves with some shoes.  I had forgotten I had those.  The three foot wide wardrobe I shared with Lynn in Bulgaria had been fine.  (I had more than enough in Plovdiv.)  But it got worse.  In the master bathroom - - (yes we have two full baths – with heat – on the second floor), I have one large shelf with just my underwear.  On the shelf under that there are two more shelves with all my biking and exercise clothes.  But then Lynn mentioned that I had a drawer full of tee-shirts in the dresser.  I had a dresser! - I had forgotten.  It has five drawers filled with sweat shirts, warm clothes, sweaters,  - - and one drawer is filled with just Tee-shirts! 
Remembering again and stunning surprises have been the predominant theme of the first days home.  Lynn and I will open something, and scream “look at this”.  Our small condo has 2,200 square feet.  Our apartment (home) in Plovdiv Bulgaria had less than 500 square feet.  We loved it there, and made it comfortable.  We simply accepted what we had, and dealt with each challenge as they came.  Our “selective memory” never focused on what we left.  Rather, we lived in the present, and made the most of what we had.  But the past four days have been a little like Christmas morning - - over and over again. 
The picture at the beginning of this blog was sunset from our back yard at the end of day one.  We had forgotten how beautiful they were, and that we can see them every night.  We did remember our big comfortable bed, but it is better than we remembered.  Tonight, we walked 30 minutes into the center of Hudson.  We could have driven, but walking (just like in the Peace Corps) seemed more normal.  We walked through the woods down to the river, and walked along the river to the center.  We wanted a “Dairy Queen” ice cream.  (For those of you who don't know, Lynn and I first met at a Dairy Queen where she was the assistant manager.)  After getting a cone, we walked the one block down to the river.  Hudson is a small town with about 12,000 people located on the St. Croix River, which is a 225 mile National Scenic River (like a national park).  All along the river is just a long park.   It was sunset, and the geese were flying in, and landing along the walkways.  As we walked along, we were finding new things which were not there when we left.  The town library had been moved down near the river next to the Phipps performing arts center.  Phipps was starting “My Fair Lady”  Friday night.  We will get tickets for next weekend.  My favorite bike shop was still there, and all of the small restaurants were packed – just like most Friday nights.  The local craft store was having an open house and it was filled with people.  We went in.  I had some free wine.  We checked out some unique Christmas ornament, and met two people Lynn knew from teaching.  Hudson is a wonderful little town, and it was good to see it again. 
After we walked home, and were having dinner, I was struck by a strange thought (I expect I will continue having these for the next few weeks).  Lynn and I had really left a lot when when we joined the Peace Corps.  We had a wonderful home in a nice town.  After 40 years of marriage, and a successful career, we had amassed a lot.   The sacrifice we made would look like it was extremely significant to other people.  And - - as I looked around after “re-finding” so many things during the past three days, it was significant.  Yet – Lynn and I never thought of it in that way.  In fact we never thought of our time in Bulgaria as a sacrifice.  For us it was a wonderful adventure – a fantastic experience, and a period of amazing growth.  And - - we helped others - - and may have made a “difference”.   What more can you ask for?  We did not need all the “creature comforts” that are here in our home.  But - - after two and a half years – it is nice to be back!

Thanks for reading
outside the front door with our "travel backpacks"

Friday, September 9, 2011

Time to Say Goodbye – All Good Things…..

Time to Say Goodbye – All Good Things…..
I started writing this blog about three weeks ago.  Now it is 48 hours before we leave Plovdiv.  Our lives are scattered right now - littered with conflicting emotions.  I expect this blog will mirror  these confusing feelings.     We know it is “Time To Say Goodbye”,  but we don’t seem to be completely ready. Or, maybe it is just that we were unprepared for all the events and pressure leading up to the final days in Plovdiv.   Although we are conflicted, we also know “deep down” that “All Good Things must end”, and so must this stage in our lives.   It is time to move on…. To the next adventure – what ever that may be.               
Actually, as I try to put the last 29 months into perspective, Lynn and I started the commencement to the next stage in our life in May 2009.  We just did not know what was going to be happening to us then.  Now – at the end of our service, I’m still not sure we understand what has happened to us.  But I do know we have learned, changed, and grown.  And what may be one of the most important parts of this growth is that the strong love we had for each other has continued to get stronger through our service.   Just like during the early years of our marriage, we have both continued to be independent.   We each have had separate challenges as well as common obstacles.   It is the sharing we have done as each of us learned new things which have made our bond stronger.   If you ever want to test the “metal  of a marriage” – try throwing yourselves into a new country, language, culture, and job, - - and combine that with moving into a 440 sq. ft apartment.   Oh – and start all this on the first “official” day of your retirement.   And – yet – as I look back at it, there were never any real problems.  Yes, there were lots of adventures, mini-adventures, challenges, and setbacks.  But as you move forward further into this “Peace  Corps Experience”, you seem to forget all the bad times, and celebrate (and remember) only the good times - - and there are lots of them! 
So - - what really is this  Peace Corps experience?   I have been trying to explain it (and write it down) for almost a year.  I know I am closer to understanding it, but I also know I don’t have it completely figured out yet.   One of the things I do know about the Peace Corps experience is that you  must painfully drive yourself through a very small  keyhole. When you pop out the other side, many volunteers begin to blossom and change.  But it is hard to really understand the experience until after you have been home for some time.   You need to put it into perspective, and that is hard (almost impossible) to do with out returning to your home in America.  We have not done that, and we can only guess at some of the things that will happen based on what other returned volunteers have told us.  Things like just standing in a grocery store isle paralyzed at the full isle of cereal choices.   It is kind of like the scene from the movie Cast Away when Tom Hanks has returned and they have thrown him a party.   He is left alone in the room, and walks around the table loaded with food, fish, ice, a lighter,  and ends up sleeping on the floor because the bed is just so different.  Although I doubt our re-integration into the US will be as dramatic,  both Lynn and I are expecting some interesting experiences.  
In the meantime, we have wonderful memories of experiences here.  Many of them are not what we expected.  Things like:
To love another country.  To make so many friends.  To learn more about the differences between Americans and others.   To be so accepted by the younger volunteers.   To stay up so late so often.  To love walking to the bazar.  To love walking four miles home through the beautiful boulevards and parks in Plovdiv.  To love looking at the mountains 30 minutes from us.  To get fresh vegetables from the stands every day.  To become more in sync with the cycles of the season based on foods at the bazar.  To make as much of an impact .  To experience “minimalism”, - -and like it.  To be so frustrated with Americans - - and to appreciate America so much more. 
On my final formal report to the Peace Corps,  the last question asks me to describe a successful experience during my service.  I don’t think I gave them what they wanted. Instead,  I asked  How do you measure success?  What are the criteria for having a "successful" Peace Corps Service? 
Are you successful if you have worked on (or helped obtain) a major project?   Or are you successful if you have made many host country friends - - and done nothing more? 
Are you successful if you have learned a new culture?  Or are you successful if you have learned to "love" the new culture - maybe even more than the one you left in the US?
Are you successful if you have grown personally - have gained different perspectives, and are able to live with much less than ever before?
Are you successful if you have gone through the Peace Corps Experience - and come out of it changed - but you are not sure in what way?
Are you successful if you have made an impact on your neighbors, friends and colleagues? And they have made an impact on you!
Or - - are you successful if you have just done LOTS of work, projects, and completed many things. 
I don't have a good answer to any of these questions.  But I believe I have been very blessed with my Peace Corps service because I believe I have done almost all of these things – and more.   But it is important to remember they are just that - things and nothing more.  The really significant parts of my Peace Corps Service can not be quantified - - and those are the most important parts of the experience.  How I have changed, and how I have changed others.    However, even having done all these things,  I know there were more ways I could have done more, - - or learned more.  But it is too late now.  But it has been enough - - and it has been good - very good!  And Now - - It Is Time To Say Goodbye! 
Thanks for reading.

I have found myself listening & watching these youtube clips at least once a day for the last 4 weeks. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bulgaria Mountain High –

Bulgaria Mountain High –

 Lynn and I only have one month left here in Bulgaria, and we are trying to do all the things we have wanted to do, but have not the opportunity to accomplish.  Attending a wedding was one of the things we wanted to do – and thanks to Kay and Tyler, we did that.  This past weekend, we had another special experience.   Bulgaria is a relatively small country (about the size of Tennessee), but it is filled with mountains.  During our two years here, many of you have seen some of the pictures, and heard about our trips into the nearby Rhadopi moutains just south of Plovdiv.   But…. We have wanted to visit the Rila mountains, and see the seven lakes.  This past weekend, we visited the Rila’s, but not the seven lakes.  But we think we ended up in a better place.  We climbed the highest peak in Bulgaria (and the sixth highest in all of Europe) Mt. Musala (9,600ft -  1.8Miles high), and it was AWESOME!!!  
Bulgarians often tell us about the “spirits” of the mountains, and the energy hidden in the vast mountain tops.  In fact every August, hundreds of people dress up in white garb, travel to the mountain peaks, join hands in a circle, and perform rituals hundreds of years old which celebrate that special spirit. 
We are not sure about these specific ceremonies, but Lynn and I definitely did feel the “spirit of the mountains” this weekend.  We were in one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen, and it was hard not to feel the creator’s power as we viewed the beauty and grandeur constantly around us.  It also makes you feel terribly small and insignificant – but full of the wonder of it all.   It was a complex set of conflicting emotions while constantly being overwhelmed.  Our only regret was that we did not make this trip early in our service, so we could have repeated it often. 
Musala Hut lower left corner
This adventure began when Vladimir (one of the people from our English class) called us.  Everyone in the class knows we love the mountains, and wanted to visit the Rilas.   He and a friend (Sergae) offered to organize a trip to Mt. Musala.  We had to look at a map to figure out where it was.  But we jumped on the idea.  Vladimir has done this trip a couple of times, and knew how to check on everything.  The bus left Plovdiv at 7:30AM Friday.  Two hours later we were dropped off in the Borovets (elevation 4,265 Ft.).  Borovets is the oldest ski resort in Bulgaria.  It has a gondola that goes up 3,400 Ft. on the side of Musalla.  The gondola ride was amazing in itself.  But the 7,600 foot world it dropped us off at was almost like the moon – but with a clear blue sky above.  We strapped our packs on, and headed off on the almost flat carriage road for the two-plus mile, one hour walk to Musala hut (7,800 Ft.) where we would spend the night.  The hut is nestled in the bowl of  Mt. Musala next to two sparkling glacier lakes.  Bare rocky summits surround you overpowering your visual senses while you often hear the sound of spring waters pouring over the rocks crashing towards the clear blue lakes dotting the rock-filled canyons. 
Although it was only a “short” 1,800 foot climb from the hut to the top, it took us three hours to trudge the rock fields, and walk up the shear climbs to the top.  We had never been that high, and we both found ourselves getting slightly dizzy as our bodies desperately tried to get quickly acclimated to the high altitude.  Vladimir was a wonderful help, putting himself between Lynn and the ever-present cliffs, and always checking on me and Sergae to be sure we were all doing OK.  The views all along the way were spectacular, and we often stopped for “photo opps” using them as rest breaks.  But toward the top, we came over the crest of the ridge, and had our breath taken away by the views westward where we could see all the other Rila Mountain peaks.  Within 15 minutes of reaching the ridge, we were at the top.  The pictures actually do a good job of showing the magnitude of views.  We took some special “Lynch Lunch Pictures”, and I “Lorded Over” some of the scenery.  We spent a long time on the top, and an even longer time slowly coming back down.  
Diner and Breakfast - No restaurant can beat this view!
The weather during this trip was perfect.  A front had passed through on Thursday, and Friday and Saturday were crisp, cloudless, with warm sunshine.  We know the perfect weather had a special impact on our trip.  We got back to the hut about 7PM after stopping and just sitting in the sun near the lakes several times during our descent.  Musala hut is very rustic, but functional.  The old tables outside have a beautiful view, and we shared some of our food with two other ladies (one from New Jersey, and the other from Israel).  We monitored the sun set by watching the shadows slowly move up the side of the mountains in front of us.  After sunset, we checked our flashlights, visited the “very primitive” outhouse, and headed back to our beds in the hut.  But the mountains had one other special surprise for us before we got into the hut.  The full moon was rising over the mountains where we had just watched the shadows climb during dinner.  We all stopped, and silently watched the white edge of the moon slowly rise over the ridge like the moon coming out of a full eclipse.  We tried to get a picture, but we were in too much awe, and the pictures did not come out.  We finally all crashed in our beds by 9:30, and slept soundly for about 10 hours. 
Vladimir - on the mountain medow
Saturday dawned just a beautiful as Friday.  Breakfast was at the same table outside where we had dinner.  We had to catch a bus from Borovets at 4PM, but there was plenty of time to spend in the mountains before departing.  Lynn and Sergae hiked up to the second lake, sat in the sun, and soaked up the mountain energy.  Vladimir and I took a very challenging (about 1,200 Ft. straight up) hike up the ridge opposite Mt. Musala.  I thought we were crazy a couple of times during the hike, but the massive mountain meadows  on the top coupled with more fantastic views made it worthwhile.  Vladimir and I found a quicker trail down, and by 1PM we were packed up ready for the hour “flat” walk back to the gondola.  It was hard to leave.  The beauty continued to surround us on the walk out.  But – all good things must end. We jumped into the gondola, and were whisked down the mountain. 
Lynn and I are popping advils, but are doing fine.  And the memories are worth any minor aches and pains.   Enjoy the pictures.  We took 300.  We hope these few will give you a small idea of the fantastic 30 hours we had. 
Thanks for reading….
Just your average lunch stop!!!!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

THE WEDDING – най-добри (THE BEST)

THE WEDDING – най-добрият  (THE BEST)

 Life is often marked with  seminal moments, tough decisions, or special events  that change your life; the birth of a child, graduation from school, a new job, moving far away, illness, or … getting married. 

One of those special events happened to Lynn and I this past weekend.  It was a wedding.    It was the marriage of Kay and Tyler, two volunteers from our group, who chose to marry here in Bulgaria because this is where it all began.  Their wedding symbolized so much of what our two years here have been about.  It was the cherry on the cake, the capstone event of a wonderful two years.  It was simply “The Best!”

Kay's house perched on the slope
Kay's Village is nestled on the center of the slope of the mountain
It took place in a small mountain village in the Southwest corner of Bulgaria about a 7 hour bus ride from Plovdiv.  Although it was only 7 hours away physically, like so many things here in Bulgaria, it was like stepping back 50 years in time. The wedding blended Bulgarian and American traditions. It was a perfect example of why we are here: to learn about other cultures and to share our American culture with other nations.  This event touched Lynn and I in several ways, and it is impossible for us to simply write one blog entry about what this all means.   So.... over the next few days there will be several blogs from both of us talking about our perspectives of the wedding.  We have a couple hundred pictures, and will share some of them in each of the blogs. 

Their Wedding "evite" picture!

Kay is from the Minneapolis area, and Tyler lives in Jacksonville, Fla.   They met the first day as B25s, and went through PST (pre-service training) together.  After pre-service training, Kay was placed in the Southwest Bulgarian Mountains, and Tyler in the North central plains – probably about 7 hours travel from each other. They were both teachers, and somehow they kept the relationship going (and growing) - - not an easy thing to do here in Bulgaria. 

Kay's village is tucked into the side of a mountain. There are about 800 people living there.  There is one road running through the village, with a few side “paths” off the main road. Most of the houses are built into the side of the mountain on the “up” side of the road, or are built on pillars on the “downside” of the road.  The main road ends about 5 Km beyond Kay's village at another small village.  There is one bus out of town early in the morning, and one returning at 5PM.  There are plenty of horses, goats, and horse drawn carts.  The village is on the south side of the mountain, and the views into the mountains of Greece are spectacular. It is the kind of place we all imagine ourselves when we start our Peace Corps application.  

The culture of the village is “Pomak”.  Pomaks are native Bulgarians who were forced to convert to Islam during the Ottoman rule, and now continue to practice Muslim traditions. In many of the wedding pictures you will see the women in the traditional “working or dress jacket”, and colorful scarf.  Kay is another one of those amazing volunteers who has been able to integrate into the village life, and speaks flawless Bulgarian.  A strong bond formed between the village people and Kay.  Kay and Tyler were sure they wanted to marry, but were not sure about marrying here in Bulgaria. About 6 weeks ago they decided to go for it, and once that was decided, the village took over; just like the old quote about it “takes a village to raise a child”.  Well, at Kay's, the whole village enjoys a celebration, and they helped make it happen. .As you look at the pictures, you will see the wedding parade blocks the one road through the town (thankfully there are few cars going through), and then takes over the town square (well – it more of a triangle). Like everything else in Bulgaria, weddings take time - - lots of it.  Following is the time line of events for the wedding. 

4PM – The 20+ volunteers who were staying at a hotel at the bottom of the mountain get picked up by a Van. (I wish I had a picture of this Van, and the 20 volunteers crammed into it.  It was kind of like that old college world-book challenges about how many kids can fit into a VW bug.)  It is about a 30 minute drive up the twisting, and curvy mountain road, and we arrive at 4:30. 

4:30 - When we get there, we all go to the small school where Kay has worked. Tyler is there, and his grooms men  help him prepare for the day.  The rest of us roam around checking out the small school, and the new athletic area just completed as one of Kay’s projects.. 

5:00PM – A small (but very loud) three piece band (clarinet, drum, and accordion) lead about a dozen of Kay’s students to the school.  They are there to formally pick up Tyler, and then lead him down to Kay’s home. If the groom lives in the same town as the bride, the groom’s friends and family would meet him at his home and begin the procession. But before we leave the school, there is the some horo dancing to be done on the new soccer court. A few villagers watch from the street above.

 5:20 We all move up the steps from the school, and follow the band slowly down the street to Kay’s.  Along the way, we begin to pick up more Baba’s, young students from the school, and locals.  When we get to the house, the way is blocked by a rope strung across the street. There are several traditions Tyler must go though in order to see Kay and be allowed to “take her away”. Much of it had to do with offering MONEY. Kay’s school director acted in her behalf and made sure Tyler was offering enough!!!! I believe he was given some money along the way from villagers to insure he had enough. While Tyler was negotiating a bride price, Kay was inside surrounded by women, peering through the window, looking through a ring searching for her future husband. Once Tyler was allowed inside there were a number of other rituals. Tyler had to find Kay’s wedding shoes and stuff them with money.  We were not a part of proceedings inside and are not sure what else happened, but it took awhile!.  At last they were escorted out by the school director. (think Dad). 

6:00 Kay is out of the house, and the next batch of horo dancing begins, lead by Kay.  The street is very narrow here, and the temperature is in the high 90’s, so most people just watch.  The crowd somehow multiplied at this point.

6:15 – Just before the band is ready to start leading Kay and Tyler back toward the center, the Babas on the balcony of the house opposite Kay’s start throwing candy into the crowd.  Just like in the US, this creates lots of excitement as all of the children (and many volunteers) grab for the candy.  One of the Babas showed Kay how to hold her wedding gown out to catch the most candy.  

When the candy has all been tossed out, the musicians lead the procession back through town.  It was amazing.  There were Babas on every balcony, rooftop, and side street watching, and then joining in on the walk.  I really can’t explain what it was like.  The band, Kay and Tyler waving to people as they walked by, mobs of people and friends coming up to them as they walk along all made this an experience like I have never seen before.     

The Town Center - Dancing in the streets

6:40 What would normally take 10 minutes, took about 25, but alas we finally arrived at the village center.  A big sound system was set up there, and our little band now had a male and female singer, plus an electronic keyboard.  But most importantly, we probably had almost 400 people with us, and they were all ready to DANCE!  And that is what we did!  For the next two and a half hours!  The only things that slowed us down were the horse drawn hay wagons, cars, and one big truck that had to break through the horo dance line in order to get through the square.  It was here that Kay threw the bouquet to the single women. Since there were only American women and some small children prepared to catch it, the assumption is that this is not something done in Bulgaria or at least not this village.

9:00 The 107 official guests entered a small hall in the center where there was an official ceremony, food - - and of course  - - more horo dancing. We are still not sure if Kay and Tyler are “officially married” in Bulgaria, but since we heard the question of each with a response of “DA” from each, and a signing and witnessing of a document……it is quite possible it is a legal marriage. Rarely is there a church wedding here, and the signing of the document is actually the ceremony. During the reception, the volunteers took over occasionally, with songs prepared especially for Kay and Tyler, sung by our very talented B25s. We sang our theme song “Are we Human or Are We Dancers”, John Denver’s “Take Me Home”,  and generally had one last bonding session.  

12:45AM   The van showed up, and we began the process of trying to find all the volunteers, to be stuffed back into the van for the ride back to the hotel.  Kay and Tyler, and a couple other volunteers were in the car in front of us. 

1:30 – Back to the hotel.  Sunday morning everyone was up early, coming and going by poolside as we all prepared to go our individual ways again. We then start another stage in the Peace Corps experience - - but more about that in a future blog. 

That was the flow of events, but the flow of emotions is much harder to chronicle.  Lynn and I have never experienced an event like this.  And we were part of it with some very special friends.  The hundred degree heat, the hours of dancing, the long hot bus drives getting there, the crammed van rides up the mountain, filled with laughter and song all made this weekend very special - - and very hard to adequately explain or describe.  We hope some of the pictures will help us share it with you.   And that the future blogs will give you some more insights into why we felt this was so special. 

Thanks for reading,
Mike and Lynn

She never left her post of the second floor window above the square!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The wedding _ Lights, Camera, Action

The wedding _ Lights, Camera, Action

 There is a very interesting story “twist” to Kay and Tyler’s wedding.   As you look at the picture at the top of this blog, you will notice the sound boom, and professional camera.  You may think this is just the normal wedding video crew, but you would be wrong.  This is one of the two film crews  from NOVA TV, a national Bulgarian network.  They were filming the entire wedding because – in addition to being “rock star” Peace Corps Volunteers – Kay and Tyler are going to be TV stars this Fall here in Bulgaria.  Kay and Tyler, plus two other members of our B25 group have been “hired” to be the lead characters in a unique TV show.  
The concept for this show is very positive, and it uses Peace Corps Volunteers in an appropriate way.   As volunteers when we first meet Bulgarians, there are several questions we expect to hear.  Things like – “where do you live?”,  How long have you been in Bulgaria?  Why did you come to Bulgaria? and Do you like Bulgaria?   The last two questions hit upon the very negative perception Bulgarians have of Bulgaria.  They have a problem understanding why anyone would come to Bulgaria because so many of their friends and relatives are leaving!  And – many Bulgarians don’t like many things about their country, and expect that the volunteers would feel the same way.  But – to the surprise of most Bulgarians, Peace Corps Volunteers here love Bulgaria.  It is a beautiful country, with wonderful people.   That does not mean we don’t get frustrated with culture and things here.  However, we have learned how to see beyond all that.  It is kind of like how Lynn and I love to take the trains here.  Although there are often dilapidated houses and factories right next to the tracks,  I don’t see those any more.  I only see the mountains and beautiful fields in the background.   The idea for the TV series is to show Bulgaria to Bulgarians through a “non-Bulgarians’” eyes.    We don’t know the title yet, and it will not start until October.  But most of the volunteers think it is a great idea.   The story of how all this got started is also interesting.
Some of you who have been keeping up with this blog may recall how I talked about the B25 talent show during our Close of Service conference in early May.  This was the second talent show we had done during our two years here.   The day before the show, PC staff told us the hotel management had heard about the show, and would like to watch it.  Would that be OK?  We said sure.  So… during the show, there were six folks in the back.  However, those folks were not from the hotel.  They were from NOVA TV.  I’m not sure how they got the idea.  I assume one of the staff with PR connections had mentioned our talent to them.   During the show, they got to see some wonderful performances.  Almost every talent combined special Bulgarian traditions, culture, and phrases.   Whether it was the poem written by Matt, or the songs composed by Cory and Anna, or even the bosa (this is a terrible breakfast drink loved by Bulgarians, and disliked by volunteers ) speed drinking contest.  Kay’s contribution to the show was a ten minute video she did which perfectly showed how most of us feel about our lives here.  She had video of her village combined with traditional Bulgarian folk music and rock music from a group called “Killers”.  When it finished she got a standing ovation, and screams for copies.  We all wanted it. 
After the show, PC staff told us who the people in the back really were, and that they wanted to talk with many of us.  For the next two hours, while we danced, talked, reminisced, and had a beer (or two), the NOVA folks talked to some of us.  Kay was one of the people they talked to most.  A few weeks later we found out, they had decided four of us, plus one other volunteer who has been here for three years would be part of this show.  All five of them are amazing volunteers, who have integrated well, have good language skills, and truly love Bulgaria. They all officially finished their service during the week before the wedding, in order to work on this program.
None of us knows how this will eventually turn out.  The camera crew was at the wedding on Saturday. Then, they whisked all of their “potential stars” away to Sofia on Sunday.   Monday was the volunteers first official day as NOVA TV performers.    Although we don’t know the outcome or impact of this show, I think it is a great example of how the Peace Corps can make an impact in ways that none of us would ever have imagined when we all got on the plane two years ago.   While I don’t know if the show will change the perception Bulgarians have about their country, I hope it will start to make some small “in-roads” to crack their negative perception.  Maybe this can be the first step toward making Bulgarians see “beautiful Bulgaria” instead of focusing always on the negatives.   But – no matter what - having four of our volunteer group involved in this project makes me feel proud to have been part of this Peace Corps experience.
Thanks for reading

Monday, July 18, 2011


Small tobacco field

Although we spent only a bit more than a full day in Kay’s community, it immediately felt very different from many of the other villages we have visited. Often, a village is inhabited primarily by elderly and middle aged adults. Schools struggle or fail to stay open with the minimum 100 students, and funerals are a far more common event than weddings. There may be one or two small magazines (stores) with the basic necessities, and of course at least one café. The gardens are worked, but often it is obvious that their sizes are shrinking as the owners’ age and can not manage the bigger task of planting, tending and harvesting the gardens of their youth. The streets are very quiet and vehicle traffic minimal. The young adults and their families have left to find work wherever they can. Some are within country, others outside the country. There are no jobs, no way of providing for a family in most of these little villages. We often say the villages are “dying”.

World map on the school wall next to the entry door....part of the project
Kay’s village felt different though. Granted it was a special weekend, not only because of the wedding, but because the new sports field (Kay’s project) was dedicated with a celebration the day before the wedding. There were an additional 25 or so Americans in the village and of course the camera crew from the national television station was there as well. All are reasons to draw people out. 

New combination basketball, soccer court.

However, it was not those things that made it feel different. As we walked out of town on Friday afternoon to admire the scenery, we passed a number of large lumber trucks, saw mills, wood drying sheds, tobacco fields, tobacco drying racks, piles of rock and more that were evidence that one could earn a living here. These things with the potential for sustainability were not lying dormant. This community was using the natural resources surrounding them, to generate income and sustain this village.  Children greeted us (in English) as we walked to the store for dinner supplies, and people of all ages were part of the wedding festivities.  I’m sure living here is full of challenges, and that many of the young people are drawn to the cities to go to universities, and for a better life, but somehow this village sitting precariously on the mountain edge is still hanging on! BRAVO GORNO DRYANOVO!!!!!!
Tobacco drying! A subsidized crop that will not be subsidized for long!

Piles of slate "harvested" from the mountains.

Tobacco drying racks. Will there be enough tobacco this year to use them all?

Saw mill and wood drying sheds on the mountain edge.