Saturday, December 19, 2009

While Shepherd’s Watched Their Flocks…..

While Shepherd’s Watched Their Flocks…..

Merry Christmas from Bulgaria!!

Bulgaria’s contrasts constantly amaze Lynn and I. Shepherds watching their flocks were one of those surprises. When my host family told me they had sheep, but they were grazing in one of the mountain pastures, I pictured a large fenced in field. Then as we were driving around, I started noticing men standing in fields with long sticks in their hands. At first, I did not understand what they were doing. But then I realized that whenever I saw these solitary figures in the pastures or on the slopes, there were always sheep nearby. They were shepherds! They would be with their flocks rain or shine, day and night. The Shepherds could be very old or middle aged. Even in the heat of summer, they always seemed to be colorfully dressed. And… they all carried a staff!

As I hiked around our training site, I would come upon shepherds in fields with spectacular views of the mountains as their constant companion. I became awed by these lonely people. I found the phrase from the Christmas carol sung during midnight mass running through my head… “While Shepherd’s watched their flocks by night”. As I watched them watching their flocks, I realized what they were doing had not changed much in 2,000 years since that first Christmas.

Over our short time here in Bulgaria, these shepherds have become one of my symbol for the old traditional parts of this wonderful (and confusing) country. And with Christmas just days away, we thought it would be appropriate to show you who the angel called to visit the manger that night 2000 years ago.

And like those first shepherds, we don’t have gifts to give. However, we can share some of the things we have learned in our short seven months here. Hopefully, one of our insights will make you smile, cause you to reflect, or nudge you to appreciate what you have even more.

Things we have learned:
It seems to rain more often when you always have to walk in it.
Kids are kids – everywhere
Walking is wonderful – you get great exercise, you are outdoors, you see more things, and most importantly – it slows you down.
Reducing the size of your plate reduces the size of your waist!
Buses – are great for teaching you patience because you have to wait for them.
Americans have no idea how lucky they really are
People are highly adaptable (peace corps volunteers everywhere prove that every day).
Shared values create bonds of friendship no matter where you are.
TV really is worthless – particularly when everything is in another language.
Even in a large group of people, you can be very lonely
Culture is so much more than food and customs - - it’s a very different way of thinking!
The things you miss the most are the things you thought about least
Two hour dinners help build strong families, and good friends
Life is a constant challenge – it’s your approach that makes the difference.
Stepping out of your comfort zone opens a world of possibilities
It is easy to set priorities when you have nothing!
How easy it is to be so happy with so little!
Never -- never give up on your dreams!
It is amazing how much a strong love can grow even stronger!

Have a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Весела Коледа и  Честита Нова Година
Lynn and Mike – in Bulgaria

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Private Things - - Rated “R”

Now that I have gotten your attention with the picture and the “catchy” title of this blog, I will explain something that no one in the Peace Corps fully explained until we got here!
The photo at the beginning of this blog is a picture of the toilet at our training center during the first ten weeks we were here. It is called a “Turkish toilet”. I assume it is called that because during the 500 years of Turkish rule, this is what Bulgarians used! By the way, this is a “co-ed” bathroom.
So.. for a guy taking a “leak”, this is not a problem. But ladies must squat – no matter what! Our training center toilet was actually comparatively clean. However, it was not without some problems. Our training building had two floors. The second floor bathroom was directly over the one we used on the first floor. If you were using the first floor bath, and someone flushed (yes – you can flush them) upstairs, the pipes would leak and droplets would start dripping on you. When the drops started falling, you would always speed up (or try to stop) whatever you were doing. It only took a couple of days for all the ladies in the training group to only use the second floor toilet.
One other thing about the first picture is important. You will notice there is a small wastebasket near “the hole”. There is generally nothing unusual about having a wastebasket in the bathroom. But ALL of the toilets (Turkish or Western) have a small waste canister near them. In Bulgaria toilet paper is NEVER put into the toilet! You wipe yourself—stop the automatic reflex to drop it into the toilet, pull the paper out, and put into the convenient, nearby waste container. I really don’t know why! I have not asked! I just do it - - because that is what everyone does in Bulgaria!
Although all of the public toilets in Bulgaria are Turkish, many homes have western style toilets. Following is a picture of the toilet in our home. It is probably more recognizable.

Some of you may be wondering where the shower (and curtain) is located. Well – the entire bathroom also doubles as the shower. We close the bathroom door and turn on the shower. There is a drain in the center of the floor. Although it is a little inconvenient, ( you have to mop the floor after a shower, and the floor may be wet for several hours after a shower), it is really a very efficient system. But, it is very different from the large, plush, multiple bathrooms found in US homes. In Bulgaria, functionality trumps pampering, pleasure, special features, and large baths.

Following are some photos of the men's bathroom in my office building.

Notice the plumping (or lack of it) in all the sinks.

The urinals are not functional. Except for one pipe that perpetually drips water onto the floor. It is kind of like an eternal flame, but this is a perpetual drip. I’m really not sure when it gets cleaned, but it is at least once per month.

The door is off the hinges, and there is a broken window next to the door (this helps keep the room cool in the winter, and allows “fresh” air to constantly flow in).
Early in November, the fire department inspected our building. Trash and the piles of papers which were in the empty offices were tossed out. My bathroom got a new door - - with a lock! A couple of days later, they locked the door, and put a “CLOSED” sign on the door!
Lynn’s situation is similar. There are 25 teachers, and approximately 500 kids (grades K-4) in the building. The teachers share the Turkish toilets with the kids.
Using Turkish toilets can force some “behavioral” changes. First you have to strengthen your quad muscles in order to use the toilets. Second – there is an art to doing this without soiling your clothes (I have not figured this out yet!). Third – you try to be much more “regular” so you use them as little as possible. Fourth – you have to be very careful about what is in your pockets. Each year several volunteers have their cell phones, wallets, money, or ID’s eaten by the “terrible Turkish toilet”. Fifth – After a short time in Bulgaria, everyone is more comfortable talking about things like this.
All of this quickly blurs into the daily fabric of life in Bulgaria. Soon you are not even noticing the toilet - - - until your cell phone slips into “the hole”!


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Are the Clothes Dry Yet?

It has been slow arriving, but winter is here. It is cold, grey and wet.  It means a change into the heavier jackets to stay warm, boots for navigating the wet muddy streets, waits for the bus that feel much longer than usual and the challenge of doing laundry!

Doing one load of laundry can be a multi day affair. The process begins by listening to the weather report and checking my work schedule looking for a “window of opportunity”. I need a minimum of 2 hours free time before leaving for school to wash and hang a load of clothes (the quickest wash cycle is 90 min.). Having that free time in the morning on a clear day is becoming a challenge. Yes, the clothes are hung under the cover of the balcony, but if there is moisture in the air or winds driving a rain, it can take days for everything to dry. The other option is to turn the apartment into a Chinese laundry and drape clothes throughout. Mike recently rescued a drying rack from the curb and that helps.

Last night, when we got home at 10:30, with a stripped down bed waiting for us, I went to the balcony to pull in the sheets. Hmmm! Dry or not dry? I think they are dry but oh are they cold. Spread out two chairs and hope that draping them for an hour in the heated apartment will finish them off!  Yes! It did the trick.

Hanging clothes in the cold winter air, and cascading that sheet over the backs of two chairs pulled from the depths of memory images of either my mother or I on our knees reaching out a second floor window pulling in clothes off the pulley line that were stiff with cold. “Tents” I exclaimed to Mike as the last edge of the extra large sheet covered the chair. I have many fond memories of nesting under the dining room table, chairs and anything else that would support a blanket on rainy days when my brothers and I would be trapped indoors for days. At times the living room and dining room became a maze between “forts” if the four of us decided to each have our own space. Bless my mother and her patience!!

Ah! So the clothes are washed and dried. Some are finished in 16 hours; others will go the full 24. But what about the ironing? I have found a towel on the kitchen counter works just fine! Yes they have ironing boards in Bulgaria, but they are relatively expensive and it will just be one more thing to try to find a hiding place for. We have no closets and only two doors to hide things behind. Both are quite full already. So I will stick to the counter-top and manage quite well.

As challenging as this may seem, my heart goes out to the volunteers who do not have a washer, and must do all their laundry by hand. Some do not have balconies, thus the drying rack in their (sometimes one room) apartment is their only alternative. Obviously it is not only volunteers in this situation. There are still some Bulgarian households who face the same challenges, but for them, they have been doing it for a lifetime.

Needless to say, we think twice before declaring an item “ready to be washed”!!!  


Sunday, December 6, 2009

St. Nicholas Day – Никулден and Christmas Preparations

December 6th is the name day for St Nicholas here in Bulgaria. Everyone who has a derivative of the name Nicholas ( and there are many of them) celebrated with family and friends on Sunday. It is an accepted belief that St. Nicholas is a miracle worker and the “keeper” of the fishermen. For this reason fish is traditionally served on St. Nicholas Day.

In an attempt to follow customs, we went to the fish market Saturday and bought a live carp. We were warned about how and where we asked for “carp” because the name in Bulgarian can also refer to lazy unemployed people who sit in the café all day. Sooo…..asking for Шарани (sharani) in the café will result in a very different response than asking for it in the fish market! When we got to the fish market cleaned fish were available, but Mike thought he could reach into his memory bank from about forty five years ago and clean the fish himself. It would save him 1 ½ lev and we all know how Mike is driven by saving a buck!! He did not hesitate, and it looks like the memories came back clearly. Our Bulgarian tutor gave us some suggestions as to how to prepare it, either baked, stuffed with mushrooms, walnuts, onions, and a bit of tomato sauce or pan fried in a cornmeal dusting. We actually had the fish Saturday rather than wait for Sunday (thinking if we got sick, we would have a day to recuperate). All turned out well, the fish being very moist and tasty. Although this was our first time to the fish market, there was very little drama associated with it, only a little vocabulary review before going into the market. Guess that means we are integrating!!

On Friday night we strolled home together from Mike’s work place window shopping and enjoying the Christmas lights hung across the pedestrian walk through the city center. There is a large tree outside the government center and a few carnival rides at one end of the walkway with food, candy and trinket booths. Nearby is a stage set up for concerts and performances daily until New Year Day. We can determine what time the performances are but it is not always clear when reading the Bulgarian what we might be seeing. I don’t think it really matters. We’ll try to catch a few performances during the next month, but what we would really like to see is a full choir or the symphony. It has been very difficult to get that kind of information on the net, which has always been our primary source for such things back home. The visitor center sometimes has information, but not for everything going on in the city. We often seem to hear about things after the fact which is frustrating.

We visited several lev (dollar) stores today looking for a little Christmas tree, lights and decorations. We found many scrawny little trees, but settled on one about 1 ½ meters high (big table top size) that we did purchase and set up when we got home. With Christmas music we had downloaded before we left home playing on the computer (hooked up to our donated sound system) it started to feel very familiar. Even though the tree is little and pretty cheesy, it is all much more than we ever expected in the PC. The next week will be spent looking for or making some little decorations. We have not seen anyone selling cut trees on the street corners or vacant lots, so unless this is something that happens in the last week before Christmas, everyone must have an artificial tree if they have one at all. So many apartments are so small it is hard to imagine a full size tree fitting into them. We did start seeing some Chinese imports for Christmas in the stores awhile ago, but in general there is a much lower level of commercialism surrounding the holiday here than in the states.

We are unsure what we will do with our time during the holidays. We are thinking we will spend Christmas right here just the two of us, with time to skype the family and participate in their celebrations. There is a spa resort about 40 minutes from Plovdiv that many have recommended, which might be nice for two nights in the middle of the week followed by a return to Plovdiv for New Year’s Eve. During the 45 years of Communism, Christmas was not a public but rather a private family time, however New Year’s Day is a party time. So our guess (and it is only a guess) is that there will be a lot going on right here for us to enjoy. Many volunteers go back and visit with their host families for at lest part of this time, and although we have considered, we don’t have plans to do that right now.

If we don't connect with you before the holidays, know that you are in our thoughts. We love knowing you are out there participating in our journey from your arm chairs!!! We wish you a Christmas day full of wonderful memory making moments, and peace, good health, and love throughout 2010.

Merry Christmas to All

Lynn & Mike

Giving Thanks From Bulgaria!

Last weekend was Thanksgiving for the Peace Corps Volunteers in Bulgaria. Bulgaria does NOT celebrate a holiday like Thanksgiving, so the volunteers have a normal work day on the fourth Thursday of November. But on the following weekend, the volunteers “cluster” together throughout Bulgaria to celebrate, and be with their new “family” during Thanksgiving. That is exactly what we did here in Plovdiv. There were 13 volunteers (about 10% of the total volunteers) in our small apartment. It was a GREAT time!

Those of you who are family know that for more than 20 years, Lynn and I always celebrated Thanksgiving by having both sides of our families come to our home. We would have a 20+ pound turkey and all the “fixings”. We would work the night before cutting, slicing, making stuffing, and getting the “bird” ready. On Thanksgiving Day everyone (even if there were 25+ people) would sit down at one long table for dinner. Thanksgiving was a very special holiday for Lynn and I. In 37 years of marriage, we were only home once at Christmas. But we were always home at Thanksgiving – and most people came to us.

When we moved from New England, and as the boys got older and moved away to college, our Thanksgiving tradition slowly diminished. One year Lynn and I actually went to a restaurant for Turkey dinner. But we missed the family, laughter, and shared work of our “Thanksgivings past”. All of the traditions, work, and joy returned to us this year here in Bulgaria!

But getting to this wonderful celebration was not without a “few challenges”! But our life here in Bulgaria is constantly an “adventure”, and Lynn and I look forward to each new twist in our lives.

The first challenge was getting the turkey! In the US, you have limitless options for turkeys at Thanksgiving, and you can get BIG birds easily. Not in Bulgaria! Turkeys are not plentiful, and generally the best time to get one is at Christmas. We did find some frozen birds that were about 9 pounds. But many of the local folks told us that we could order bigger birds at “this or that store”. We probably spent the better part of a week visiting those stores. But everything turned into a “wild goose (turkey) chase”. The message was consistent. Yes you can order a larger bird, but only for Christmas. So… finally, we found some frozen turkeys that were about 10 lbs each - - and bought two! But then we went looking for one of those aluminum pans to cook them in. NOT in Bulgaria! So… our counterpart said his parents had some big pans they used to cook holiday meals, and would get them. But would the two turkeys fit in the pans, and then would the pan fit into our “smaller than normal” oven. Measurements were made of the oven, and three pans arrived to test. One of them was perfect – and just fit in the oven.

OK – we had the Turkey (s)! But what about the pies? You can not have Thanksgiving without lots of pumpkin and apple pies! However, there were a couple of problems doing this. First, we have not seen pies here like the pies at home. In fact, we were having problems trying to find pie plates. We did find circular baking dishes, and decided to use them. All of our pies now became “deep dish”. Next was the challenge of making pie crust without shortening. A hundred years ago, they used pig lard. And, in the end, that is what we used. Lynn had to do a test of a deep dish apple pie. It was almost perfect. All of the men in my office loved it! The last challenge was the pumpkin pie. This was a little harder. There are pumpkins in Bulgaria. Well – at least there are very large “round with ridges” grey squash which they call pumpkins. They use machetes to cut them! We did not think they would really work. Thanks to the internet, we were able to learn that a butternut squash was almost a perfect match for a pumpkin. We have lots of those here! We had a recipe, but we did not have the tools to “puree” the squash, and then there was the issue of making a “deep dish” pumpkin pie. A potato masher, and lots of time “beat” the squash into the right consistency. Lynn added the spices, and we cooked it. Adding some “home (hand) beaten” whipped cream, and everyone thought we were back in the US.

We were not the only ones cooking. Everyone brought food, or made it here. Our little kitchen was always humming with people making something. We had foods like “spicy corn” (this is really good), salmon hors d’oeuvre, sausage dressing, apple squash, apple cake, gnocchi, mashed potatoes, along with plenty of wine and “rakia”. And, when everything was ready, we were all able to sit down at one long table to share the feast. During dinner, we all shared the stories of our favorite (or normal) Thanksgiving. It was interesting to hear what others had done. A few of our guests said that this was one of the most traditional Thanksgivings they had ever had.

For Lynn and I, it was doing what we had loved doing with family for so many years. We were able to bring back almost all of the traditions. We had guests the night before, and worked to get things ready. We went for a walk/hike up one of the hills in the center of Plovdiv before the big feast. Everyone shared in making the meal. There was the long table, and everyone able to sit at it. And most important, before sitting down we all joined hands, and one at a time told everyone what they were most thankful for.

What was even better was the new “traditions” that we added. After dinner and deserts, we stayed at the table and played UNO. Then we settled down for a movie projected on the wall. We watched a 25 year old film called Volunteers. It is a spoof about Peace Corps volunteers in 1962, and seemed appropriate. At breakfast the next day, we introduced the concept of eating deserts, and other volunteers introduced us to “turkey omelets” (they are very good).

Late on Sunday, the last of the guests left to go back to their sites. Lynn and I put the air mattresses away, cleaned up, listened to the quiet, and missed all the noise, hub bub, and excitement. But, many of the guests are already asking if we will do it again next year. The answer is YES – definitely!

Mike and Lynn

Saturday, December 5, 2009

So Your Town is a Cat Town!!!!

We had a visitor a while back who made the observation that Plovdiv is a "Cat Town". This, of course is opposed to being a "Dog Town". I had never paid much attention to the animal population but his observation raised my curiosity. It didn't take long to see what he was talking about. Mike and I had both already experienced a quick rise in blood pressure when a cat or two unexpectedly came flying at face level out of the dumpsters positioned at the edge of the street as we walked by. The dumpsters are their feeding grounds and there can be a half a dozen at a time in the vicinity of one dumpster. I wonder if cats are territorial? They come in all shapes and sizes, pretty and ugly, but nothing about them makes me want to take one home. They can of course be found almost anywhere, not just hanging around the dumpsters waiting for their next meal.

A November 2009 survey of stray animals in the city reports 7,623 cats and only 686 dogs. Whether the numbers are accurate or not, the ratio probably is. The advantage of being a "Cat Town" is that cats are not nearly as bothersome as dogs (at least in my opinion). Sofia on the other hand appears to be a "Dog Town" as was Varshets (our training site), but the worst place I have personally experienced stray dogs was the mountain village where we spent our first three nights in Bulgaria. I really did not like walking past the many dogs that laid claim to the area around the hotel no matter how often we were told "oh, the dogs are not a problem!" I'm always afraid in this kind of setting of the pack mentality developing quickly.

This whole stray cat and dog thing is reflective of "government at work" or perhaps "not at work". There have been programs of mass euthanasia to try to eradicate the problem , but they have since been outlawed. Here in Plovdiv there is currently a "catch, neuter and release" program, but many argue it is not aggressive enough. Add to the stray problem the irresponsible owner problems particularly of "latch-key" dogs, who are free to roam and come home at the end of the day!

I don't spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about the cats and dogs here in Plovdiv, but it is just one more part of city living that I have not previously experienced. Adaptability is the key here! I have learned to either walk behind or give a wide birth to the dumpsters particularly if it is after dusk!!!!!


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Work - The Reason We Are Here

If you have been following our blog, you may have noticed that we have not really talked much about our work. Yes - - you know that Lynn is teaching English to elementary school kids, and that I am working in an NGO. But we have not really talked about what it is that we are doing except in a very general way. We have done this on purpose. Although the work we are doing is simple, it is part of a very complex social issue in Bulgaria and in Eastern Europe.

We are not sure how to explain it, and we were not sure that we understood it enough to correctly tell you what it is. However, we feel it is time to start trying to explain our work. We will NOT be able to do this in one blog entry. (See Lynn’s blog following this for more insights.) We believe we will be talking about our work in several blog entries over the two years we are here. So… this is the first of many installments. This will be a long entry, and there is a link at the end which provides more background. Please feel free to send us an email if you have questions, clarifications, ideas, or whatever.

So… Let’s get started!! We imagine all of you have heard about “Gypsies”. I know we had heard about them before we arrived from movies. They were transient, migratory people traveling around Europe in wagons. They were kind of like circus performers, or the medicine man in “Wizard Of Oz”. In Bulgaria and Eastern Europe Gypsies are also called ROMA. What Lynn and I did not know was that Gypsies are very real, and there are millions of them. They are also the poorest; most disadvantaged, and segregated people in Eastern Europe. They live in separate areas called Mahalas (the Bulgarian word for Ghetto). Mahalas are located in small villages (where my NGO focuses) and large cities (where Lynn’s school is located).

Mahalas are very unique, and have their own society, and cultures. In every mahala, there are the better parts, and the worse sections. But you must remember that all of the mahalas are very poor to begin with. Lynn works in a mahala called Stolopinovo. Stolopinovo has approximately 60,000 ROMA crammed into a relatively small space. It is the largest mahala in Bulgaria, and one of the largest in Eastern Europe. Buses do not drive into the mahala. Some of the streets are paved or cobblestone. A few of the streets have “grey water” running in them. Most of the streets are very narrow, dirt tracks with sub standard houses lining all of them. There are not many “tin shacks” in Stoliponovo. Most of those were removed during the hepatitis “scare” in 2006.

The ROMA have their own language, culture, morals, work ethics, educational aspirations, … and very few dreams. Centuries ago, they emigrated from India, and their skin is slightly darker than most east Europeans (although they are similar to people of Turkish descent). The ROMA social issues are similar to the segregation of the blacks in the US early in the 1960s. However you have to combine this with some social issues of the American Indian. If you mix these two, you begin (just begin) to get some insights into what the problem is like. But you also have to remember how most Americans felt about blacks back then. Today Bulgarians and eastern Europeans - - even the most educated - have STRONG prejudices against ROMA. The Bulgarian say that: “They are lazy, and dirty. They steal! They don’t pay their bills!. They have too many children. They are stupid. They don’t work. My taxes (Bulgarian welfare) is taking care of them, and they should take care of themselves.” Those are the nicer comments Lynn and I hear! The problem is that a few of these comments have some facts to support them. But, if you dig, you can quickly come up with reasons for this. For example, ROMA don’t work. Well, that is true. But it is because the unemployment rates in the mahalas can be 40 to 70% of the male population. ROMA schools are sub standard, kids leave early, and employers will not hire them - - even if they do want to work (which most of them do).

Peace Corps volunteers are not generally focused exclusively on ROMA. Out of the 62 who came over with us, there is only one other who is 100% ROMA. Because Lynn and I are a couple, and both completely focused on ROMA, we have a unique opportunity to see this issue from different perspectives. I get to view it from the small village perspective because my NGO focuses on ROMA mahalas in small villages. Lynn sees it from the very large mahalas in the big cities like Plovdiv. In the states, Lynn and I used to have very interesting conversations when we got home from work talking about what had happened each day. We still have those types of conversations, but they are more intense, interesting, and emotional than they ever used to be. I visit the villages a couple of time per week, so I spend more time reading and learning. Lynn is in the middle of things every day at school. We are constantly comparing experiences, and trying to learn as much as we can in order to be better at we are trying to do.

We are a very small part of a much bigger issue. The profile on our blog says that “we hope that whatever effort we put forth in the next two years helps at least one person better their life.” Now Lynn and I believe that we have the potential to impact many more than that. But we also have no illusions about how hard this may be to do, and that we may not succeed, and we may be like Don Quixote simply jousting windmills.

But now you know a little more about this experience. We hope you will follow along with us. No matter what, we expect this will be a major life learning experience. Please be sure to read Lynn’s blog entry which follows this. Compare her “walk to work” with the blog I did a couple of months ago about my walk. I am also attaching a link to a very long article done in March 2007. It gives some good background on ROMA in Sofia and Plovdiv. I will also try to complete a blog entry on what I do in my work by the end of November. In the meantime, here is the link:

Thanks for all your comments in the past. Please keep us in your thoughts.


Friday, October 30, 2009

A Walk Through the Mahala

Not long ago Mike wrote a blog about his commute, the walk down the tree lined, cobbled streets, through the parks and city center with all the glitzy stores, past the Roman ruins and finally winding his way through the maze of narrow ancient streets of the “Old City”. Whenever I walk any part of it I marvel at what a wonderful city we live in.

As in all cities though, there is another side of town that tourist brochures and locals do not want explored. Such is the neighborhood where I work. Stalipinovo is on the northeast outskirt of the city, and when viewed on a map, distinctly separate from the rest of the city. It is its own bustling community with street vendors, butchers, dress shops, magazines (little everything shops), cafes etc. There are schools, a medical center, community center, mosques and churches. There are people moving about on foot, on bikes, in cars of various vintages and in horse drawn carts.

My forty minute commute to get to the outer edge of Stalipinovo drops me off in the back of the neighborhood close to the river which is its northern border. I then walk about 12 minutes through the neighborhood to get to my school located very much in the center. Coming in from the back is significant, because as in all communities, resources or “wealth” is not distributed evenly, even among the poor. The back of the neighborhood has a very different look and feel than the front. This is where the poorest of the poor in Stalipinovo live.

I’ve been doing this walk for about eight weeks and many of the sights and sounds are now familiar. The walk feels different depending what time of day I’m going to or leaving from school. Early mornings are quiet with only the shop keepers stirring, arranging their merchandise or sweeping the ten feet of street in front of their stall or door. Men of all ages are leaving for work, most on old bicycles sized for someone else with a large baskets strapped to the back fender. They head out into the city as collectors, bringing back from street curbs or trash bins anything that has any value to be “recycled” in the mahala. Some leave pushing just the framework of old baby strollers, makeshift wagons used to bring back wood of any kind that can be burned in the pot belly stoves rigged up for winter. By mid morning there is an increased level of energy as women roast peppers over open fires, children run freely, and small groups congregate to chat. The energy surge continues throughout the day and as I walk out later in the afternoons there are often music systems set up blaring “chalga” music for all to enjoy. Young girls in orange, purple or lime green sequined gowns may be dancing in the street surrounded by friends and neighbors as part of the three day wedding celebration typical of the “gypsies”. Teenage mothers carrying babies swaddled in beautiful blankets walk about on their way to market or to visit with friends. Men young and old are caught up in their card games, mothers are hanging out windows shouting down to kids below and the boys below whistle a shrill sound to get the attention of a friend seven stories off the ground. Kids are crying or laughing, being scolded or spanked, playing with “trash” toys or creating a game from a piece of twine. Women walk arm in arm, some the same age others from different generations. Men wait by their cars with a cardboard sign in the window “TAXI”. Smoke is starting to spout from little chimneys of little shanties that you know will never keep the cold at bay as the weather really turns cold.

As I make this walk I stay on the main streets, but still find it necessary to “pick my way” to school. At one corner I usually have to decide if the street with water or the slope of mud is the best alternative, I usually opt for the mud and take a wide route to its outer edge. Trash is everywhere especially on Monday mornings, when the ladies with the brooms come out to clean up the weekend mess. There are often dump trucks and front end loaders in the area trying to keep up with the trash but it seems like an impossible task. The back of the mahala has the largest collection of “blocs” with gaping orifices running the length top to bottom of the stair wells where windows once offered protection. There are no tree lined streets, very little green at all. The surroundings are grey and dull, but the Romi women make up for that with the colorful clothes they wear. Most wear the traditional long skirt with colorful tops. Their sense of fashion is dictated by what they have, not by what looks good together. Colorful patterned socks are characteristically part of the outfit.

It would be so easy to focus on all the things that are wrong here, and there are many. What is wrong though, is to generalize as is done so often about the Romi. We hear they are lazy, unwilling to work, not clean, not smart, not.. ,not…,not……. What I see when I look beyond what catches your eye first, is women dragging carpets down 6 flights of stairs to scrub them in the fall just as my Bulgarian neighbors did. I see laundry hanging from lines on rooftops, between fence posts, and on balconies just like I see in my neighborhood. I see people shopping at the Pazar for groceries or snacking next to the street vendor selling grilled meats. I see kids walking to school with English backpacks of Hannah Montana or Spiderman in both neighborhoods. I see bus loads of women in safety vests being driven to their respective neighborhoods to clean the streets of others. I also see the poverty, the injustices, the wretched living conditions, and children playing in places that make me cringe. But when I get to school I see children with energy and excitement in their eyes, smiles on their faces and a sense of pride when they have been successful. It helps to keep the focus!

These two cuties reflect what we are all born with, hope, enthusiasm, and an innate belief that life is good.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bored - - Not This Week!

I’m not sure this week is a normal week for Lynn and I, but we seem to be “trending” more towards weeks like this of late. So… to help you understand our life here a little more, I thought I would review our calendar for this past 6 days.

The hours of my “daytime” job are basically 9 to 5. However, I arrive anywhere between 9 and 9:30, and leave anytime between 4:30 and 6PM depending on what we are doing. What I do each day can be very different as you will see this week. Lynn’s hours change each day, and then they change again each month because her school is on split sessions (second and third in the AM, and first and fourth in the PM). They switch times each month. You also need to remember that it takes Lynn almost one hour to get to school and another hour to return. It takes me between 30 and 40 minutes to get to work (if I’m not walking). Normally, we would have Bulgarian language tutoring Tuesday and Friday mornings for three hours. But, because of this week’s schedule, we did not have time for any tutoring.

On Monday I went off to work, but got there later because I was going to be leaving after 6PM. Lynn had to be at school between 10:30 and 2:30
Monday night Lynn and I started a new project. We are leading a conversational English class at the Plovdiv YMCA. (Yes – there is a YMCA here in Plovdiv – who knew!) This class is between 6:30 and 8PM every Monday evening. At the moment, we will both go. In the future, it may only be one of us.

Tuesday -
On Tuesday Lynn had school between 8:00 and 3:00, and I had to be at work a little early. My NGO and I were attending a seminar at one of the local hotels. This seminar was in response to a long 30+ page survey we had done regarding effectiveness of agriculture extension services in our region. There were several agricultural college professors, a high-level government official, and other public and private agricultural consultants attending the meeting. We finished the report and discussion by 1:30, and then had lunch at one of the nicer restaurants in the hotel. For a short time, I almost thought I was back in corporate America. We even had the same “rubber chicken” that we would have at home.

Wednesday -
On Wednesday, Lynn had school from 11 to 5:15. I had work at a normal time. However, Wednesday afternoon, my NGO was sponsoring a seminar for minority girls in one of the villages about 40 minutes from Plovdiv. We are trying to provide some life alternatives and role models for these kids. Right now most of the girls believe they should be married by 16, and have a baby by the time they are 17. We had four role models for them to listen to, and each model was pushing the importance of getting an education (beyond 8th grade).

Wednesday evening, Lynn was picked up at school by members of the medical department from the Peace Corps office from Sofia. They were visiting Lynn and I as part of their annual site visit to all volunteers. The staff visits our apartment to make sure it is safe, and we are doing well. Since they were staying the night in Plovdiv, Lynn and I had dinner with them in the center, and got home about 10:30PM.

Thursday -
On Thursday, Lynn has to be at school between 8 and 12:30. I worked my normal time, and walked home in the evening getting home by 6PM. Thursday evening, we had another volunteer (John) staying with us, and I picked him up at the bus station around 7:30 (a two mile round trip walking). John was staying with us, because he and Lynn had business together on Friday.

Friday -
On Friday, Lynn and John left the apartment at 6AM to catch a 6:30 bus to Sofia. Lynn is the “Emergency Warden” for the Plovdiv region of Peace Corps volunteers. If there is a crisis, Lynn and John are responsible for getting 14 volunteers “out of Bulgaria in a hurry”. The training for this responsibility was at the US Embassy in Sofia all day Friday. I just had a normal 9 to 5 day at work.

Lynn did not get back to Plovdiv Friday night till about 8PM. She brought another volunteer couple home with her. Everyone was very tired. We ate out, and then came back here to talk some more, and get a good nights sleep.


All four of us slept a little late, and then we took our guests on a walking tour of Plovdiv. They had to be back at their site (a 2.5hr bus ride from here) for a special dinner, so they left mid-afternoon. We came home, did some of the weekly cleaning, talked to the boys on Skype, had dinner, and went to bed early.

Sunday – is a day of rest. It is foggy and dreary outside - - a good day to catch up, write blogs, and relax. My counterpart and his wife came over to visit for short while early in the afternoon.

The calendar is stating to fill up for the next three weeks, and then we have another couple of very busy weeks starting on Friday Nov 13th. But … that is another story.


Sunday, October 4, 2009


The B-22s are COSing!! Translation is the 22nd group of Bulgarian Peace Corps volunteers are Closing Out their Service (COS) after being here for two years. Plovdiv was the meeting place for the B-22s during their service here. Birthdays, and some holidays, were celebrated here. Their going away party was here. It combined a bachlorette party on Thursday, a birthday party on Friday, and the going away party on Saturday. And… because we are in Plovdiv, Lynn and I were invited to dinners with them. It was interesting talking to them as they reminisced and prepared to say goodbye.

The Peace Corps works hard to prepare you for “reentry”. Three months before the end of service, they have a week-long conference that addresses getting new jobs, going to grad schools, and the emotional aspects of closing service and returning to the states. It is hard to explain the emotions the B-22s are going through. Most of them are heading back to another “unknown”. But it is a different unknown. America is home. But they have changed a lot!. They have survived and thrived in situations most Americans will never understand. They are different, but going back to “THE SAME”. They are used to working and solving problems. But with the economy, and being half way around the world, very few B22’s have a job waiting for them.

And… then there is the difference. They may look the same as when they left the states, but all of them have a different life perspective after this experience. When you have lived with so little, it is hard to reconcile “so much” back home.

The emotional toll can be high. One of the young ladies was telling us she was experiencing panic attacks and shortness of breath, but she was not sure why. She is engaged to another B22, is trying to coordinate a future life with her fiancée, wants to go to grad school next year, does not have a job, and is not sure where they will end up. Symptoms of anxiousness seem small compared to the challenges she is facing.

The emotions of retuning are not only happening to the young. We have been following the blog of an older couple living in Samoa. He has just returned to Minneapolis. Here is a quote from his blog discussing his “re-adjustment” after coming home.

The slogan on my Peace Corps ball point pen reads, "Life is calling. How far will you go?". Well, we went. Now what?

My feet feel frozen in concrete, unable to move in any direction. What difference does it make whether I attribute this state to retirement, Peace Corps, or my own reticence? Sure there are things to do, people to meet, activities to fill out the day. I may be riding my bicycle around the park bike paths, pushing the remote channel changer, or setting out to read every Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but these actions just fill the time between sleeps. Indeed there is pressure to step in where I was before, but of course time changes all things and what was is no more.

One of the traditions of leaving is to “pass-on” stuff you have accumulated during your stay. One of the B-22’s took pity on us, and delivered a car full last night. It was his last night at site, and he leaves Bulgaria tomorrow. We got everything he could not ship including: towels, clothes, shoes, spices, Rakia, broccoli, books, speakers, games, a hair dryer, a vacuum, a TV, and ….chocolate Chips!!!! One of the things he said was “ It is strange how in one night all of the things I thought were important to me now have no importance at all”. Our job will be to carry on the tradition when it is our turn to close out service.

The torch is being passed, and the guard is changing. It is all part of that thing called the Peace Corps Experience. At times, that experience seems to be hitting us every day. But when you are in the middle of it, sometimes it is hard to know what it is. Maybe you finally can start putting it all together when you have finished and are back home. I’m not sure, but I think that Lynn and I will find out - - probably in the Fall of 2011, when we return.

In the meantime, here is to the B-22’s. They are an amazing group of young and old people. They have experienced a lot, and been changed. Lynn and I wish them all the best, and lots of luck. However, with their attitude and hard work, the “good luck” will happen. “RAISE YOUR GLASSES TO THE B-22’S - - NASDTRAVE!!!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Venturing Out!!!

I’m not sure why, (My Bulgarian is not getting better!) but Lynn and I seem to be getting “more adventurous”. Lynn traveled to Sofia by herself, and got there even when the train she was on never left the station. (and there were no other trains). I traveled with my counterpart to Veliko Tarnovo (4 hours north) last week for a PC conference. Krum drove, and I navigated us through the mountains – it was easy. Next weekend, Lynn is doing a seminar for current PC volunteers in Kazanluk (about a two hour train ride northeast). I am going with her. And Monday (Sept. 21) we made our first “day trip” adventure outside of Plovdiv. We visited Bachkovo Monastery which is about a 40 minute bus ride into the Rodopi mountains just south of us. Most importantly, we got there and back without having any “adventures” (i.e. problems). Even better, we found a gorgeous place to visit.

We both had Monday off as part of the Bulgarian Independence day long weekend. The weather was spectacular. Clear skies, crisp air, beautiful early fall day. We had read about the monastery. It is the second largest in the country, and is located a short distance into the mountains. It was first built in 1063, but has been “rebuilt” several times due to wars and destruction. We had visited a small monastery during our pre-service training, and wanted to see this one. So… we packed up our rucksack and took off. When we got there, we had to walk through a half mile of “trinket” stands with food, toys, clothing, pottery, and honey stands before getting to the entrance. It is almost like the bible story when Christ tossed out all of the “money changers” in front of the temple. I guess some things don’t change over time.

We had brought Lynn’s camera, and were hoping to get some good pictures of the Monastery. However, they did not allow any photography anywhere inside the walls. I was a little bummed out. However, we had a great time just wandering around the grounds, talking to one of the monks, and visiting the 300 year old chapel.

We had read that there were some short trails that were “not well marked” according to our guide book starting from near the monastery. We found them outside the gate, and decided to take a walk! Four and half hours later, we got back from our “short walk”. It was unbelievably beautiful!!! The trail continued going up further into the mountains. Along the way, there were several other buildings associated with the Monastery. These included small 400 year old chapels situated on cliffs or nestled in-between 300 year old trees, and monk “hermitages”. In addition, there were other local hiking trails continuing even higher into the canyons. Everywhere there were spectacular views.

It was great to be out of the city. It was wonderful to find this treasure so close to us. We will visit it again – and probably often (unless we find other spots just as nice). Enjoy the pictures of our day.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Wood Stove . . . In The Back Yard!!!

There are several blog entry ideas from our training site, which we did not have time to complete during pre-service training. But they represent an interesting facet of life here in Bulgaria. Therefore, from time to time, you will see Blogs which do not represent our lives here in Plovdiv, but things that have happened to us during training. This is one of those entries.

The kitchen of my host family is on the lower “half basement” floor. This is also the level where all of the canned foods, wine, and rakia (a kind of “white lighting”) are stored. The kitchen is small compact, and functional. It is also where the old wood cook stove is located. The newer electric stove which they use is located in the small hall just outside of the kitchen. In the winter, the wood stove provides heat, as well as a surface to cook on. This wood stove looks just like pictures I have seen of the wood stoves used in the US more than 100 years ago. I had never seen one of these working, but I had certainly used many of our wood heating stoves to heat (or simmer) foods on when we lived in New Hampshire.

Early during our training, I came home to find Yancho putting a new wood cook stove in the back yard. This new one looked just like the one in the kitchen, so I assumed (incorrectly) that the old one in the kitchen was moved into the back yard, and that here would be a new stove in the basement. But…. that was not the case. The one in the kitchen was still there. And I was left puzzling about why we had this nice wood cook stove out next to the chicken coop.

While I was trying to figure this out, Yancho was busy putting the finishing touches on the stove installation. He made sure that it was level, checked all the door hinges to make sure they opened and closed easily, and decided we need to have a “test” fire in the stove. We needed to do some work on the door hinge where we put the wood, but otherwise, the smoke went up the short 6 foot makeshift metal flue, and the top of the stove got hot very quickly.

But I was still confused about why we had a wood cook stove (and a nice one) in the back yard. All my experience with wood stoves involved heating the house, moving hot air, and making sure we had enough wood to take us through the winter. There was never any reason to heat “the back yard”. Within a week, I would understand.

In the villages in Bulgaria, everyone has gardens, and everyone one puts up (cans) all the food they have. And they have lots. We had more than 120 tomato plants, plus two apple trees, and a pear tree. That did not include all the pepper plants, potatoes, etc. Nor did it include what was gathered (harvested) from the hillsides (things like black berries, raspberries, mushrooms, and what ever else could be eaten).

A few days after the “back yard” wood stove was installed, we had some guests. The guests brought about 20 pounds of strawberries for us. They had been picking in their garden, and had too many berries for themselves . So… we got the extra. The next day when I got home, the mystery of the wood stove was solved. All of the canning is done on this stove. It is efficient. It can be done in summer, and not heat up the house. It does not use any electricity, so it saves money. And the heating surface is large so you are able to can lots of jars at the same time. At my host families home, that would be important.

Now about those axes, and hatchets that appear at the top of the blog. They look old! And I think they are old - - maybe even from medieval days. But… do they ever work well. Yancho would sharpen them by hand, and I think I could shave with them when he was done. I have had a chance to use them, and they split wood as easily as anything I have ever used. It’s just another one of those lessons about “judging a book by it’s cover”. Things don’t always look as they appear here in Bulgaria. But it is always “interesting”.