Friday, July 17, 2009


I’ve been trying to understand the use of sidewalks here in my town since I arrived. Generally they are made of paving blocks. Depending where you are in town, they may be plain concrete squares, or quite decorative ones in patterns. Most of the center of town is a pedestrian way with various kinds of blocks, stones and bricks. It is well maintained and there has been an extensive project underway extending this pedestrian way another block. Along the walkway are many benches, flower gardens and of course the shops and restaurants and outdoor cafes. This area is lovely and well used by both residents and tourists.

Away from this pedestrian way most of the streets are tree lined. The roots have heaved many a block over the years, making the footing quite uneven. The older sidewalks along the adjoining and parallel streets to the center also seem to provide many a crevice for growth of all kinds.

When we arrived in May many of the sidewalks away from the center were impassable with weeds dominating the space. But little by little residents came out with hoes, and bent in half attacked the weeds, clearing the sidewalks in front of their homes. A pile of debris would be left by the curb and disappear within the week following with the appearance of a dump truck manned by several town workers with pitchforks. I learned the practice of clearing/cleaning the sidewalk in front of your home is a carryover of a mandated during Communist times .It was an individuals responsibility to keep the sidewalk in front of their residence clear and clean. Even those living in the block housing would work together on Saturdays to tidy the area in front of their building.

As some portions of sidewalks here in town have been cleared others have become blocked with piles of logs, stacked awaiting the maul. Some have been chopped, split and stacked into the many nooks and crannies around the houses, but not all.

The weeds and stacks of wood create barriers for walkers. They however are not the worst interference to forward movement. Sidewalks also act as parking places, so it is not unusual when trying to make it from one end of the block to the other to have to circumvent 3, 4 or 5 cars parked on the sidewalk. Not all of them operational.

Along with the obstacles to circumnavigate are the big and little animal “bombs” one must tiptoe around. Depending in which direction from the center you travel, you may be sharing the sidewalk with cats, dogs, goats or occasionally a cow. There are no paths dedicated to animals.

So…….what you most often see is people walking in the streets, sometimes opting to step onto the sidewalk when they have a clear (but not always clean) shot of making it to the next corner, or when dodging the occassional car.

Just a little something to think about the next time your walking on a sidewalk!!!!


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Site Selection - It is getting Real!!!

The site selection process is a significant Peace Corps “ceremony”, and I believe it is done the same way in every country where the Peace Corps is located. The staff will make up an outline of the country. This is generally done on a Gym floor. For our selection, it was done outside in a large parking area. Then the staff will put pieces of paper in the appropriate location with the names of the town - - not the names of the volunteers going there. With 62 of us, we needed a large place draw the map, and then fit all of us on it.

Individual names are called out, and staff members give you a rose, and lead you to the paper with your town on it. You then stay on that spot until all of the other volunteers have been lead to their towns. The ceremony and the process have some important implications.

You have to remember that none of us have cars. No volunteers anywhere in the world have cars – or can drive cars. You will rely on public transportation. In most countries this is much better than in the USA, but it is still slow. Standing on your town card in it’s approximate geographical location within the “Bulgarian map” is important. You want to know who is located in the same region as you. Those volunteers will be the ones that you can easily reach on public transportation. So… you want to know who they are, and start working on how you can get to them. You also want to know where your PST training site mates are, and how long it will take to reach them. Since it can take one day to travel from one side of Bulgaria to the other – especially if you are going to or coming from a very remote location, you may not be able to see some of the friends you have made during PST. It can also cost 20% of your monthly allowance to do a round trip across the country. The ability to get to other volunteers can become important – especially around holidays.

So - - That is the ceremony process. However, there is an enormous amount of work that happens long before the actual ceremony. That is where the Peace Corps staff comes into the picture. OK - I have mentioned the Bulgarian Peace Corps Staff in earlier blogs, but I think I need to say a lot more here. This group of approximately 20 people is amazing. They are smart, considerate, caring, professional and wonderful people. Let me give you a couple of examples.

We arrived in Bulgaria May 20th. We had been traveling all night, and most of the day.
A few of the 62 new trainees had never been out of the country. We were all tired, anxious, and a little stressed. As our feet hit Bulgarian soil, our first challenge was getting through customs. Many customs locations are large, confusing, chaotic places with long lines, multiple signs, etc. And the language is different. As we entered the large area, there was this women at the door to greet us, and tell us what line to go through, and what to do after that. And she was saying it in ENGLISH. I remember thinking “Wow, this is helpful!”. I was heading for the correct customs line when it dawned on me that “this women” was the Bulgarian Peace Corps Director – our new Boss! She was on the other side of the customs “booths”. She was the first person we saw from Country Peace Corps. She was there to greet us practically when our feet touched Bulgarian soil, and she was helping. I know the symbolism of the PC staff being there to help did not hit me then (I was tired), but it has since. Because the entire Bulgarian Peace Corps staff is the same way.

Yes – there are peace corps rules that have to be explained, and followed. Yes they sometimes seem to be overly concerned about our safety (but maybe they should). But I have still been very impressed. These 20 staff people have to choose the sites for all 62 of us. This decision will impact every aspect of our lives for the next two years. And they have 4 weeks to learn as much about all of us as possible in order to try to make the best possible decision. And the staff works hard at this. Lynn and I feel like most of the staff knows us VERY well. And that includes everyone from the country director down to our language trainer. I have a feeling like they are checking on us (or maybe ranking us like they do at West Point) almost every day. I don’t mean this negatively. Site selection is THE CRITICAL first decision. If there is not a good match, then the volunteer’s effectiveness may be hampered. Or worse – the volunteer may terminate early (ET) and return to the states. And if this happens, then all of the year-long preparation to get good sites with Bulgaria will have been wasted. So it is important for the volunteers, and for the staff.

The site selection decision was made on June 12. That meeting is with most of the staff, and I believe everyone can have some input on each of the volunteer’s site selection. I have assumed that it is very similar to the annual performance reviews that are done in corporate America. But there are some key differences. At work, management is just trying to rank employees and decide if they are going to get a 2%, 2.5% or 3% raise. Maybe there is some discussion about possible promotions for a few folks. Here in Bulgaria, the PC staff is trying to put a large matrix of critical items together to make a life-changing decision. They have selected “counterparts” (the partners we will work with for the next two years), sorted through the requests from towns in Bulgaria asking for help, worked hard to get to know all the volunteers, and now need to make the decisions.

With all my six sigma background, I have imagined massive spread sheets, projected on the walls with all of the critical factors ranked and sorted. I’m sure it is just a matter of ranking items, and the answer will just “spit” out the end of the excel file. -JUST KIDDING- – In Fact I am SURE that is probably NOT the way Peace Corps does it. Maybe some day I will find out just how one of these site selection meetings are run.

In the meantime, all I know is where Lynn and I are going are going one of the largest cities in Bulgaria (but I’m not sure if I can tell you exactly where in this blog – yet). Much more about all that, and our site visit in future blog entries.


Time of Plenty

When asked to describe themselves, Bulgarians will say they are close to nature. For those living in all but the biggest cities this is certainly true. Those in the cities, do what they can with whatever land or pot of soil they have to stay connected, but it cannot replicate life in a small town. As I walk through our town of about 10,000 people, most with their own homes, I love and admire their gardens. It is rare to see a yard with grass, as all available space is planted either with flowers or fruits and

vegetables. Even the trees are producers of fruits, nuts, and blossoms for tea or honey. Backyard chicken coops are a mainstay of the landscape. Many families have land outside the town proper where they will have a second larger garden, and grazing goats or sheep. At this time of year they are always busy working at any number of things to prepare for the winter. The cycle is old and repetitive. We missed the preparation of the land and the planting of the gardens, but that work is beginning to come to fruition.

It seems like something new and different is being harvested and preserved everyday. The strawberries that did not make it past the mouth of those harvesting them or onto the table have been boiled into a sweet drink called compote or preserved as jam and put into cold storage. Before that the cooks in the house got creative with the abundance of wild mushrooms harvested from the woods at just the right time. Fresh peas made a brief appearance, and the vines are growing heavy with the mainstays of the Bulgarian diet, cucumbers, tomatoes, and green peppers.

For the past few evenings my family has been busy making their own cheese from the sheep milk collected by dayado (grandfather) . He disappears often on his motorcycle and I’m never sure what he will return with. Today it was the first raspberries. Foods just seem to appear. Earlier this month there was a Christian holiday for which special foods were prepared. One of them was a desert made with barley, nuts, honey, lemon, sugar etc. From some secret hiding place appeared walnuts harvested last fall. We did not use all of the cache, and they disappeared with the same stealth as when they appeared. The cherry trees and another that bears a fruit somewhat like a dewberry have been littering the walkways. The fruits of the apple, pear, apricot and plum trees have taken shape and are growing.

The grape vine that somehow produces a leafy ceiling for the entire terrace grows forth from the most unlikely of places. It hugs the foundation of the house, its roots topped by the cement blocks of the sidewalk. The vino made in the fall will be added to the cold storage room, which I’ve yet to see, but know sustains life throughout the winter.

Stacks of wood are also appearing on sidewalks, along foundation walls, under cover of an overhang or tucked into protected crevices. All of this work is long and hard, as there is very little in the way of technology to make it easier. There are no log splitters, roto-tillers, or electric milkers to lighten the work. Most often I see elderly people bent in half preparing and working the garden with an old hoe. I am anxious to watch this cycle of plenty come full circle, and am saddened knowing I will be a city dweller forced to rely on others for my sustenance.