Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pre-Service Training (PST) - aka Peace Corp Bootcamp

I probably should not have titled this entry that way, but if you relate this PST experience to what I have been told an Army boot camp is like, then there are some similarities. The one big thing that is missing is the Phys Ed part. And that is a BIG difference. However, the emotional stress, and non-stop activity of going days on end with meetings, (in the army they are called briefings), language training, large group meetings which require travel (often in cramped hot busses), more meetings, and then back to have dinner with people who don’t speak English (and you are suppose to speak Bulgarski), then homework, sleep (if the dogs, roosters, thunder, or the heat do not keep you awake), and then do it again the next day.

Our first meetings were on Monday may 18 in Washington DC. Many volunteers were up before dawn to travel to DC, where our first meeting (it lasted seven hours) started at Noon. We had Tuesday morning off till about 10, and then it was hurry up and wait as all 62 of us started on the trip from the US to Bulgaria. May 18 was also the first day of 13 days of non-stop meetings. Our first day off was Sunday May 31. We had the following Sunday, June 7th off. Between June 7th, and June28, we have one day off. Our small 6 person training group lives from one day to the next. We think that a little of the pressure begins to let up at the end of June. But - - we could be wrong. Assuming all of 62 volunteers make it through this (and that one of the key goals of the PST – to make it), we will be sworn in as official Peace corps volunteers on July 24th. That is when the “protective bubble” of PST will disappear, and the real challenges (adventures) will begin.

OK – now that I have made some of you believe that you should feel sorry for Lynn and I. And maybe you think that this is just a stressful and terrible challenge for all of us. You need to all remember that I do have a tendency to “embellish” facts. Yes - - everything I said was true, but there are some other important things to consider.

First – the Bulgarian Peace Corps staff is awesome! They have done this before, and they know what they are doing. Although at times I feel like we are kittens (or cats) that need to herded, there is a reason and purpose for almost everything that happens. And the staff generally tries to make sure we know why we are doing things. Remember, they have ten weeks to make each of us a positive functioning contributor to Bulgaria. We need to be able to speak, travel, live on our own, and work with other Bulgarians at the end of the training.

Second – Bulgaria is a beautiful country with spectacular scenery every where you look. Our first five days here were orientation. They took place in the Rila mountains in the southwest region to a “resort”. This may not have been an ultra-modern resort like at Brackenridge Colorado, but it was about a mile up in the mountains surrounded by snow capped peaks. I was able to run a couple of times (well maybe walk fast) up the old ski trails, and Lynn did some Yoga in mountain pastures. We were all “jet lagged”, and the meetings were long, but we were with good people in a spectacular location. The first picture in the “First Impressions” blog entry was taken there. I have also included some other pictures of the mountains at the orientation site in this blog.

Third – Bulgarians are wonderful, caring and giving people. All of our host families are very special. They are different, but each of them are helping us to learn about their country and language, and take their tasks very seriously. The folks here love to talk to you (even when it takes five minutes to get one sentence understood), and learn. They also go out of their way to help you. Twice when I have been in a car lost (I’m not driving), and we have stopped to ask for directions, and the person we asked, just got in the car, to take us there, and will then walk back to where he was. The first time was a little scary. Normally in the US, when someone jumps into the backseat of the car, you are expecting to have your “car jacked” and stolen. Not to have someone make sure you get where you are going. They also love to sit and talk - - and they laugh a lot. Laughter is one of those things that transcend language. Even if you don’t know exactly what is being said, you can generally get the jest of it.

Fourth – our language trainer (Slavi) is amazing. The PC language trainer is much more than a trainer. Yes – she teaches us 3-4 hours per day Bulgarian, and tutors us individually each week. But she is also our mentor; cultural expert, Bulgarian history teacher, protector, and sometimes a little like our mother. But most importantly, she has become our very good friend.

Fifth – we have a good training group of 6 people at our site. We get along very well. We try to help each other when one of us is having a bad day (and we all have them). We work hard often going 90 minutes of language study without a break. And we laugh a lot. That helps us get through many of the tough times. And through all of this we are living and training in a beautiful little village surrounded by mountains with hot mineral springs and tree-lined streets.

So… the bottom line is that this is HARD! But the Peace Corps told us it would be tough. But there is an awful lot of good things happening to help us get through all of this. And… We are more than half way finished now!!!


Monday, June 15, 2009


Last Friday was the last day of school for the primary grades 1-8. There was an awards ceremony in the town square on the front steps of the chistaliste (cultural center) for academic excellence. Mike and I attended primarily because my 12 year old host sister was receiving the award for being the best 5th grader. She studies Bulgarian, Russian, English, Math, Geography, History and Science, Music, and fitness. I’m so glad we were there to experience this universal pride of accomplishment.

As we watched the families gather, dressed nicely for the occasion I felt like I could have been anywhere in America. On the steps were children dressed in costume to perform a short play, majorettes to do some dance routines I’m sure they borrowed from the drill teams of Texas, and another group of children in traditional Bulgarian dress to do some Hora Dancing. There were T shirts and computer generated awards proclaiming the child’s name, the school they attended and their outstanding accomplishments. There were proud parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles attentively listening, cameras clicking and a general air of festivity. I recognized many of the students, the ones always in the front rows of the classes I have taught over the past two weeks. Dinner at the local CafĂ© followed the ceremony for many families.

Before leaving for Bulgaria, Mike and I were saddened knowing we would not be in Hudson for the summer months which are filled with outdoor concerts, kayaking, biking, and the joy of outdoor dining and the energy the St Croix River creates in town. Tonight there were eight PC volunteers dining on an outdoor Mexana patio with the river tumbling by just below us. It is hard to imagine that if we had put together a “dream location” for our training site that it would have been any different than where we are. I’m awed each morning when I step out my door and look up at these spectacular mountains.

We are coming up on the half way point of our training. Tomorrow June 18, we travel to our Hub for the announcement of our permanent sites. We then spend two days at the Hub with our counterparts exchanging information about ourselves, work experience and planning for the future. Together we travel to our sites for the first look of where we will be for the next two years. It seems we have to get back by bus or train on our own!!!!! The distance from our permanent sites to the Hub could make it a very interesting ride home!!!!

We are enjoying life here in our “bubble” coddled by our host families and supported in every way by our trainer. Although there are still full days, and projects awaiting us, the stress is decreasing perhaps because we can now occasionally get more than our basic needs communicated. All this will change once we are at our permanent sites and we are on our own having to find and purchase what we need, without people slowing down when talking and limiting there conversations to the very limited vocabulary and primitive speaking patterns we are used to using and hearing. The bubble will burst and we know that, so we are enjoying what we have while still feeling the excitement of what is ahead.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

First impressions


-Spectacular views.

-Green, green green forests, mountain sides, gardens, fields and grape arbors.

-Snow capped mountain peaks rising 8,000’ all around us.

-Shepherd’s tending their flocks.

-Men haying with sickles and wooden pitchforks.

-Vintage tractors or donkey draw carts in the fields.

-Donkey drawn carts and goats traversing the streets one block on either side of

the town center.

-Flower and vegetable gardens filling every square inch of property surrounding homes.

-Parks with playgrounds, flower gardens, picnic tables, ball fields, river and wooded walking paths.

-Every home with vine covered terraces.

-Abandoned buildings and unfinished buildings in every neighborhood, town, and municipality.

-Dogs and cats everywhere.

-A beautiful stone fountain in the town center with walking boulevards radiating in all four directions from this central point.

-Outdoor cafes and weekly bazaars.

-Modern glass and chrome spa hotels next door to abandoned or decaying homes

-Detailed architectural mineral baths built during the 30’s.

-Communist block buildings one after the other in the big cities.

-Bare classrooms with concrete floors a black or white board and student desks.

-Women sweeping the park walkways with leafy tree branches along side town park crews with gas powered backpacks spraying insecticide.

-Seniors working 12 hours a day in gardens, chopping wood, gathering mushrooms, picking berries,

-Grandfathers making honey, collecting fresh eggs,

-Women making jams & compotes.

-Young women pushing contemporary sports strollers.

-Saw mills in basements, pouring out into the neighborhood street.

-Twelfth graders parading through town preceded by majorettes and a few horns on prom night.

-Small old Fiats with torn upholstery,chipped paint and loud unreliable engines along side shiny new BMW sports cars.

-Citizens sweeping sidewalks with handless brooms

-Children on bikes riding through town

-Recye receptacles throughout town

-Cars pulled into the fields and families enjoying the local river “swimming hole”



-Cukoo birds out of sight but clearly heard from long distances

-Hoofs of horse/donkey drawn carts on town streets

-The steady beat of Bulgarian music

-The cascading river

-Church bells on the hour

-Dogs barking, cats screeching, roosters crowing

-Voices raised

-The chop of wood being split

-Car engines struggling to stay alive

-Cow bells in the streets of town

-Greetings of neighbors and friends

-School children cheering a point scored in volleyball

-School corridors and classrooms echoing with the sound of voices, and chairs scraping the floor.

-The clinking of glasses in toast of good will

-Language that can not be understood

-Stories of other PCV

-Many different bird calls



-Doing yoga on a mountain top with a 360 view of Gods’ wonders

-Walking into the unknown day after day

-Meeting people who have opened their hearts and homes to strangers

-Tasting fresh garden strawberries dipped into just harvested honey

-Walking paths into the forested hills.

-Playing Uno to learn colors and numbers in Bulgarian

-Exhaustion from 13 days of intense language and cultural integration without a break

-Watching all my whites turn blue while doing my laundry for the first time

-Trying to remember all the little things necessary to take a shower and to still keep those things that are supposed to be dry, dry when you are done.

-Turkish toilets (involves squatting and at a minimum rolling pant cuffs)

-Remembering to carry toilet paper/tissues with you at all times

-Buying a needed item independently (with the help of sympathetic shop keepers)

-Trying new foods as well as familiar foods prepared in a new way.

-Traveling by mini bus for 50 min in the stifling heat over bumpy winding roads

-Holding on for dear life as the cab driver, uses both sides of the road to maneuver around pot holes and patchy road surfaces on country roads at 60 mph

-Laughing hysterically with other trainees at some silly thing that has happened to one of us.

-Being close to tears from frustration and the feeling of being overwhelmed.

-Feeling pride when recognizing how much we’ve accomplished in three weeks

We are about to begin week four here in Bulgaria and in some ways it feels like we have been here for the summer. Mike and I are in a very good situation perhaps in deference to our age!!

I am not questioning the reasons for our good fortune, and am grateful for the wonderful surroundings, great site mates, talented and caring trainer, good food, hot water showers, and a five minute walk between Mike's home and mine. The language acquisition as expected is slow, but when we heard what we are learning in ten weeks is equivalent to two years of college courses, we can take comfort that it is not rolling off our tongues. Bulgarian has a lot of gender agreement endings on words between nouns and adjectives, some variations in sentences structrue and a more complicated way of pluralizing nouns. As with all languages, there are also many exceptions to the rules.

At the start of my second week I was teaching a 40 minute English class to 6,7,or 8 graders. Definetley learning by being trowh into the fire. It will continue this coming week and ito the following one. We will have a short break then begin a summer class for those interested. This will be more fun as we will not have to follow a perscribed plan and it will be with kids who are excited about learning English.

Mike and the other development members of our group are just getting a community project started. We must identify a small simple need of the town, work with the key people within the community and have the project completed by the middle of July. We have to be quick learners here. No time to dilly dally, which is counter to the culture.