Monday, August 31, 2009

Old Mother Hubbard Went to the Cupboard!

Ok ladies (and maybe a few gentleman) this one is for you! I’ve done it before and I’m sure many of you have as well. Starting fresh in a new home with an empty refrigerator, cupboards and pantry, necessitates a long tour of the many grocery stores in town. It takes a while to sort out which one is closest to you, which one has the best produce, or the most reasonably priced cuts of meat, and which store designer thinks the way you do so finding what you are looking for doesn’t take three laps around the store and assistance from an employee to find what you want.

By dropping a hundred dollars (or more), you can be back in action, surrounded by old favorites that you never seem to be without. Within a few weeks you freezer may be full and within a month all feels familiar.

Well…….it hasn’t been quite like that here in Bulgaria. Indeed when we arrived the cupboards were bare, not only of food, but of all things needed to prepare it! Here in Plovdiv we actually have many options compared to the smaller towns including full size grocery stores. Stocking up however, is limited by what you can carry in a backpack or shoulder bags. If both Mike and I shop together, we double our capacity! The easiest thing to do is stay local, and there are stores the size of a walk in closet (just downstairs from us) to a national chain within a twenty minute walk.

Also within this range are many, many little fruit and vegetable stands including a decent sized farmers market (Pazar). Discovering them and knowing what they carry is an ongoing process. Everyone has bread (the Bulgarians are very big bread eaters), beer, yogurt, soft drinks, cookies and candy. Their size determines what else they may have, but even this can be deceiving. I’ve learned to ask as many things are tucked away somewhere out of sight.

Finding the stores is the easy part. Having a list is a harder way to shop than just buying what is available. Most of the smaller stores keep the majority of their products behind a counter or in a deli type case necessitating asking for a desired item. That means knowing what it is called in BG.

Pointing works sometimes, but it always seems they have a question for you to make it complicated. Shopping in the larger stores (this is a relative term) allows one to browse and compare products. Here pictures are a great help, but they don’t convey all the necessary information. Is this tuna in water or oil? Occasionally I get lucky and there is some English on the label. I’ve given up on looking at nutritional value for the time being. Can you imagine what monosodium glutamate would look like in BG?

Buying meat is the most interesting task when shopping. Chicken is easy. Chicken is chicken and packaged in much the same way as in the states. I actually know the names of the various kinds of meat… lamb, pork, ham, beef, veal and fish.. It is all the descriptive words that go with it that make my purchases a mystery every time. Think for instance of all the kinds of steaks we have in the US: London broil, flank, sirloin, T-bone, rib-eye etc. Now we are not fortunate enough to have much in the way of steak here but there seem to be an equal number of varieties of pork (a favorite of BG). The phrase a rose by any other name is still a rose. Well, sausage by any other name (and they have many) is still sausage! I've learned how to read "universal meat" and stay away that one!

Settling on what to buy is determined in part by the cost. Everything is sold by weight measured in grams or kilograms. Some products will have a fixed cost (dry goods in particular) but then we get back to the meat or deli counter and it is a decoding game one more time. I got a funny look when I tried to order 200 kilograms of ham instead of asking for 200 grams. That is like asking for the whole pig! I had been so focused on pronouncing correctly the item I wanted and the word for 200 that I messed up what little I did know. Even the items with a fixed price can surprise you when you get to the register. The product labels and prices are on tags on the shelf in the vicinity of what you are looking at. We’ve been shocked several times. Out of the 15 items I bought most recently three were very different from what I thought I was paying.

After four weeks and many trips to stores of all sizes I now have a few reserves built up, but simply can't imagine ever having or needing what I used to keep on hand at home. I don't yet know what a good price buying in bulk for future needs is silly. I'm curious if and how my shopping habits as well as those of the Bulgarians will change as the cold weather arrives. I expect to see lots of cabbage in those pazars and just in case you didn't know I'm not a big fan of cabbage!

Despite these adventures, Mike and I are not withering away. We often combine Bulgarian cuisine and American favorites in the same meal. Baking has been a bit of a challenge and nothing has come out quite right yet as I am not used to the conversions to metric measurements. The cookies have all disappeared though. We are filling our freezer with delicious fruits that are the equivalent of pennies a pound right now and will not be available when the season for them passes. The blueberries, raspberries and peaches will be a welcome change in the deep of winter.

Items yet to be found: chocolate chips,confectionery sugar, hot chocolate in bulk, spinach, lettuce, a decent peanut butter, bagels and humus. (iknow some of them exist, just haven't found them yet!)

What we love: fresh harvested honey, fresh fruits, cirene cheese on everything

What we miss: beef…a good old fashioned hamburger, New England ice cream stands, Wisconsin corn on the cob, and Maine lobster!


PS I brought my camera with me to one of the larger stores I shop in to show you the deli case and the mass of price tags clustered together for the foods in the freezer case and on the shelf above it, but I thought this might draw the attention of the managers viewing the security cameras, and I knew I did not have the language to explain my way out of that situation.

Still doing things the hard way!

I first noticed it in the village. Area rugs, many of them full size or stair runners hanging over fences or grape arbors. I don’t know why but I didn’t expect to see it here in the big city. Not true.

On one short street on my way to the grocery store the other day there were rugs hanging over the balconies of five different apartments. Many days we are woken by the beating of rugs by the lady across the street.

I see vacuums in the stores, but either they are considered an unnecessary expense, not thorough enough or it is simply a matter of old habits being difficult to break

I watched my neighbor proceed one day through the process of washing a large rug about 12x12. It started by lugging it folded in fourths out to the driveway and hoisting up and over a metal rod (part of the arbor). The beating began and lasted quite awhile, attacking it from both sides. It was then removed, folded in fourths again and dragged to the back of the driveway. Here it was hosed down extensively on both sides and brushed with a handless broom (I’ll come back to this). Again this took a long time, turning, brushing, and hosing over and over again. Finally it was quartered again and lifted back onto the arbor bar for drying. The beating of the rugs happens on a fairly regular basis, but I’m guessing the washing of the rugs is a seasonal or annual event requiring hot sunny days for drying.

Back to the handless broom. Again, I don’t know the reason for this but it is very prevalent. Think of a regular straw broom, and then cut the handle off at the top of the straw. This is what is used to sweep almost everything including their sidewalks. One must either bend in half (which is what they do) or squat to reach the ground. It has to be back breaking! When I get an explanation,I’ll share it with you!


Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Different Commute!

If you read about my first week of work, you may remember that I can walk to work (when I don’t get lost like I did on my first day). I can also take a bus. Using the bus takes between 25 and 40 minutes depending on how long I have to wait for the bus. Walking fast takes 50 minutes. It is about a 4 mile walk, and it is good exercise. But most importantly, it is a very interesting walk. I try to walk two or three times per week.

So one Saturday when Lynn and I were heading to the big “farmers market” in the town center, I took pictures of “my commute” to share with you. I have put captions on all of the photos and they tell most of the story. I will add some detail here, but you can follow all this by just looking at the photos.

My commute starts out winding along the cobble stone streets of my neighborhood heading toward a small busy road that heads toward the center of the city. Before I get to the city center, I have to pass through the “transportation hub” of Plovdiv. There are two bus stations, and the train station all clustered together.

The tunnel I show in the picture is several hundred yards (meters) long because it has to go under one of the bus stations, all of the train tracks, the train station, and then a under a wide four-lane road. There are several tunnels like this in Plovdiv, but none of them are as long. However, most of them have small shops lining each side. By small, I mean they may only be 12 ft long by 5 feet deep. I am always surprised at how busy (or empty) they are. The one tunnel here is really “the best” - - if that can be said of any of them.

The large cobble stone street after the transportation hub is very different. It is very pretty, and the sidewalks are wide and easy to walk on. But this boulevard has the nickname of “Shoe Street” because two of every three shops on both sides of the street are shoe stores. Like almost all of the shops in Bulgaria, these are very small (not as small as in the tunnels, but not large like in the US). Lynn and I have not figured out how these stores survive. We don’t see many people in them, and the competition is all around them. But based on the number of shoe shops on this street (and other places), Bulgarian women must have closets full of shoes. Either that, or the shoes get destroyed quickly on the cobble stone streets and rocky sidewalks.

Next, I enter the large city square, and then head off down the pedestrian way. This takes you toward the “ancient” city at the other end of the walkway. The photo at the beginning of this blog shows Plovdiv City Center from one of the small hills in the “Ancient” part of the city. The pedestrian walkway is in the middle of the photo between the two small hills in the center of the picture. You can not see the walkway, but you can see the Radopi mountains looming up in the background. They are about 50Km south of the city.

As you walk down the pedestrian way and you get closer to the ancient city, you begin to pass by some of the ruins which have been excavated.

After the pedestrian walkway, I zig zag onto several of the old ancient stone and cobblestone streets (they are more like trails). Then it is into another shorter tunnel under a very busy wide modern intersection, and I am quickly at the building where I work.

I’m not sure how I will like this walk when the weather starts getting colder, or the leaves have all been stripped from the trees, and it is dark walking to and from work. But I’m hoping that even with the seasonal change, I still will enjoy the walk. If not - - then there is always the bus, and the shorter walk home from the bus stop.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

First Week of Work - - It’s The Little Things!!!!

Well I finished my first week of work. It was definitely the most different first week I believe I have ever experienced. But what surprised me were all the little things that we/I take for granted in the US. Following are a few examples.

1. Environmental controls - (this means heat and air conditioning). Our office is on the top (fifth) floor of a government type of building. All of the offices on the floor are empty except for my NGO and one other office. There are no environmental controls anywhere in the building. If you are in the lower floors, the stone of the building help keep it cool (or warm). On the top floor, you have the sun hitting the roof, and the heat coming at you. This week was VERY WARM. Monday and Tuesday were 100+. The little digital thermometer in our office was reading 34-35C (95F). The temperature dropped slightly Wednesday thru Friday, and it was only 92F in our office on those days. I had worked outside in that kind of heat. But I had never worked (or tried to work) at a computer at that temperature. It was a little difficult. I found the sweat from my hands and arms made “mousing and typing” very hard. Also, I got tired much quicker.

2. Ergonomics – I am used to desks, and chairs that can be adjusted to proper heights, and keyboards at correct levels. All of our chairs are adjustable in five different directions in the US. You become so used to all this, that you forget about it, and take it for granted. A folding chair or “kitchen type” chair can get slightly uncomfortable pretty quickly. We have two old office chairs, but they were being used by “salaried” employees – not the volunteer. One of them went on holiday for the rest of August, and I immediately took her chair.

3. Stairs and no elevators - I mentioned that we are on the fifth floor. But I did not say that there are no elevators in the building. The stairs are pretty wide nice marble steps. There are some wide cracks in them, and there are a couple of three inch wedges chipped from them. I actually like the stairs. I take them two at a time, and get a small bit of exercise. However, I noticed that anyone else visiting us comes into the office “huffing and puffing” and out of breath.

4. Building Maintenance - It rained hard Thursday night (we needed the rain here). Friday morning going up the stairs, I noticed a large (10 ft by 3 ft) puddle of water on the fourth floor near the turn around on the stairs going to the fifth floor. There was a similar puddle on our floor (fifth). I was told that one of drain pipes backs up every so often during heavy rain. When we left for the day Friday afternoon, the puddles were still there.

5. Traveling to the villages - We support minority farmers in the villages 30-60Km outside of Plovdiv. This week, we had some important visitors from the US who wanted to see what we were doing, and how we did it. They had driver and a new VW Passat. It was nice and it had air conditioning. Our “much older” VW does not have air conditioning, and the window next to me is “stuck” in the up position. Tuesday was another one of those 100+ degree days. It was a great day for me, and our visitors. However, I found myself remembering that both of our cars at home have great air conditioning. Just another one of those small things we take for granted.

6. Getting to work - This turned out to much more of a challenge than I expected. It is about 4 miles for me to walk to work, and that is what I did on my first day. I had walked back home from the office last week, and had the route all worked out. Well - - I thought I did. The office is just on the other side of the very old part of the city. Lots of very small, narrow curving cobblestone streets. It is very quaint! It is also very easy to get turned around, disoriented, and lost! I was 5 minutes from the office. I went left when I should have gone right. I quickly knew I was in trouble, but there are lots of trees in Plovdiv, and I could not find my bearings. I just kept getting further away. When I got to the river, I made another incorrect turn – and it got worse. Of course we do have great city maps. But…. I had already checked this all out, and left the map at home! Finally, I had to call the office, and try to tell them where I was. It was kind of like “at the corner of “walk and don’t walk!” By the time I finally found my way back, I was almost an hour later than I had planned to be. This was one time when I was glad I was just a volunteer, and they are not paying me! I started taking the bus after Monday.

So… that was part of my first week at work here in Bulgaria. It probably sounds much worse than it really was. The people I work with are GREAT. They are caring, hard working, and want to help others. They are also very understanding of “the crazy American”. In this blog, I just wanted to focus on some of the things that I found myself missing. These are the little things which we in America often take for granted. I know that I did - - and I found that I missed those little things more than I ever imagined.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

First Week in The City

For years as Mike and I looked forward to retirement, I fantasized about living in a city environment for the first year of retirement, a place like Boston, or San Francisco, a city manageable in size, a place with a history, a place with universities and opportunities for continued learning and cultural events a plenty. Never did I imagine that my dream would come alive anyplace other than in the US. But it has. Our home city for the next two years will give us all that I imagined and more.

We have been here for 6 days now. We have already enjoyed two free evenings of international folk dance, set in an old Roman amphitheater, dined in a Turkish restaurant with other PCV (volunteers), checked out the upcoming schedule for the State Philharmonic Orchestra, navigated our way across town on buses, and found the bare essentials for our apartment on our own.

Our neighborhood provides a small safe haven. It is a labyrinth of short dead-end streets squared in by four main thorough-fares. It is a mix of Communist era bloc apartment buildings, new contemporary apartment buildings, single family homes dating back 80-100 years and 3-4 story older multi-family homes.

There is a large school filling the block next to us followed by another block of green space where young families, bubbas and friends gather particularly in the evenings. Every street has at least one little store, vegetable stand or outdoor café. There are restaurants, clothing, shoe, flower and book shops on the ground floor of many of the newer apartment buildings or old bloc buildings along the edges. All the essentials can be found within this square. There is a vet, hairdressers, seamstresses, insurance agents, liquor and tobacco shops, dollar (or lev) stores, hardware and auto parts stores, internet offices etc. Missing is anything resembling a chain or box store. Reminds me a lot of the neighborhoods of NYC as seen through the eyes of Shawn.

Other than a bed, wardrobe, table with 6 chairs, 5 glasses, and 8 bowl/plates our apartment was bare when we arrived last week. One of our counterparts went home and got us a sheet, comforter and two pillows for the night. With the few groceries we had picked up and a jack knife we brought with us we were able to put together a salad for dinner. However, Mike had to walk the streets for 45 minutes just looking for forks so we could eat. The dollar store was our first stop on day two. We’ve since gotten sheets and turned the one given to us into a bedroom curtain taped to the window with two sided tape. The pillow shams have been sewn together to cover the glass door. Without them, we felt like the ladies of Amsterdam. Dinners are usually spent staring back at the lady across the street on the second floor who is staring at us through our uncovered living room window. As soon as I figure out how to bake without measuring cups or ingredients I recognize, I’ll introduce ourselves with some sweets!!

Laundry had piled up during the last week of training and the first week here. Our dilemma in taking care of it was how to dry it. In Bulgaria, about 80% of homes have a washing machine (most often in the kitchen). We are one of the 80% so washing the clothes was not the problem. Rare though is a home dryer! No problem! Take them to the Laundromat. No there are none and our apartment does not have the clothes lines strung across the balcony like EVERYONE else has. We’ve been warned to be observant of culture and were not sure how hanging our clothes over the edge of the balcony would be accepted. So we held off as long as we could. Finally, I did what PC has suggested over and over again regarding grass root projects and used available resources. I did have a broom and a mop, when laid from one ledge to the other created a mini drying rack. With the hot afternoon sun helping and a few items laid to the inside edge of the ledge we got the clothes dried. We are still working on a permanent solution but are struggling with making the lines reachable for me without strangling Mike. Maybe Mike should hang the clothes out to dry!

Along with all the new aspects of daily life, we are pleased to see many carryovers from the village life we have experienced for 10 weeks. Smoke wafting into our second story window alerted us to the fact that our neighbor was canning on the street below. A fire pit was set up on the sidewalk topped with a half barrel of boiling water and filled with jars of fruit being preserved. This is how my family in the village preserved food. While watching over the operation dayado (grandfather) and friends pulled up old stools or crates set out a backgammon set and enjoyed the time together. Two hours latter only the lingering smell of smoke and a charred circle on the sidewalk gave hint of the afternoon’s activities. We have seen ladies with tree branch brooms cleaning the sidewalks, people walking in the streets, and two horse drawn carts trotting along side city busses. There are still young mothers with baby carriages everywhere you go, loud talking between neighbors, and a few cars older than Scott on the streets (though not nearly as prevalent as in the villages.)

Public transportation has been the biggest headache so far. This is discouraging since we are dependent upon it. After the Folk dance performances on Fri evening we waited about 45 min just off the main walking blvd of the city for our bus but it never showed. The cabbies must be we aware of the inconsistencies as they were lined up ready to serve as people gave up on the buses. Yesterday (Sat) we wanted to go to a larger store on the outskirts of the city. Mike and I spent an hour looking at a very good map of the city with bus routes laid out clearly. We traced routes and finally found the one from our neighborhood to the store. #4 was a mini van, came in a reasonable amount of time and off we went. OOPS! There is also a Bus #4 that follows the same route but makes the critical turn toward the store. We were on the van, not the bus. That mistake cost us a long walk in the sun. Today we wanted to get to a park on the west side of town. We packed our bag and set off after consulting the map. Again after waiting 45 min. with no #17 bus in either direction we gave up. We will have to find a source that gives us the information about how often the buses run, if there are weekend exceptions etc., but our experience in all of Bulgaria is that there is a reluctance to print any of this information (even for trains). Could be a cost issue, frequent changes or just not wanting to be held to it and endure the wrath of those who could come back and complain. Whatever the reasons, I’m sure there will be many more of these incidences before we find the information we are looking for or the experience to know what to do. Better Bulgarian would also help. We can probably ask the questions at this point but understanding the answers is another thing all together!

I’m sure this city will offer all that Mike and I dreamed of for retirement along with the additional benefits of learning about and living within a new culture. We are excited about our work yet have a realistic view of how difficult it will be. (More to come on the work later)

PS Recommended book about Bulgaria: Street Without A Name by, Kapka Kassabova

Saturday, August 1, 2009

TA- TA - - - DUM! The Влок (Train) Ride

Riding the “rails” in Bulgaria can be quite an experience.
Most of the PC volunteers take buses rather than try to cope with the “older” trains. They can be late, slow, unreliable, and uncomfortable. However, the easiest way for Lynn and I to get from our Pre Service Site to our permanent site in Plovdiv was to take the train. We made the 5 hour trip on Saturday July 25. It was approximately 45C (110 degrees F) that day. Most of the trains are old - - which means they don’t have air conditioning. In fact, many of the windows are “stuck” in the closed position. Our train was an “express” train that crossed the mountains, and then moved along the central valley of Bulgaria. This blog talks about that trip.

Clicky – Clack is the way a train sound is generally described. However, that is not the way that I heard it as we moved slowly through the Balkan Mountains. There would be a quick TA-TA followed by a different DUM sound with a little more time between the TA and DUM than the TA-TA. But the sound is not really what you focused on because the mountains that you were passing through were gorgeous. We followed the Iskar River through the mountains for almost two hours. We were in the Iskar river gorge with the mountains all around us. The Iskar is the longest river in Bulgaria, and the only one that actually flows through the Balkans.

Every so often you would see part of the mountains cascading down toward the river, and wonder where the train was going to go. That is when it would descend into the darkness of one of the 22 tunnels we passed though during the first two hours of our trip.

The mountains we were passing through are part of the Balkan mountain range which runs East and West through the Northern part of Bulgaria. The Balkans are also in several other countries to the West and North of Bulgaria. In the states, you sometime hear this larger area of several countries referred to as the “Balkan Peninsula”. The mountains are slightly higher than the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern part of the US. The highest mountain is approximately 7000+ feet. My guess is that most of the ranges on either side of the Iskar gorge were 4,000 to 5,500 feet - - but I’m not sure.

The pictures show the awesome beauty of this one train ride, and help give you an idea of the spectacular scenic resource Bulgaria has. As we climbed into the mountains on the slow moving train, the temperature dropped into the high 90’s. I spent most of the first two hours hanging out the window snapping more than 100 pictures.

This train ride also highlighted some of the stark differences about Bulgaria. Yes - - you can see all the beauty that is almost everywhere in this country. But you also pass by some of the economic realities of Bulgaria. They are everywhere along side the train lines. During the Communist period (1944 – 1989), everyone worked, and there were functioning factories everywhere in Bulgaria. But with the change to a democratic – capitalistic society almost all of those factories shut down. According to some Bulgarians, this happened “almost overnight”. The result is that you find factories through out Bulgaria which almost look like they have been bombed out. The windows are all broken, and everything is in disrepair. Lynn or I will talk more about this in other blogs. However the symbols of bleak empty factories along side of the tracks were a constant reminder of some of the economic issues in Bulgaria.

From a personal perspective, this train ride may have been like a train ride across the US 80+ years ago. It was very hot. We had a compartment to ourselves. Each compartment has six (or eight) seats in them. Smoking has been stopped officially on the trains now - - but it can still happen in some compartments. We did not have that problem. We did get the window in our compartment to go down. But most of the windows along the “walking side” of the train car did not go down. They were stuck in the “up position”. That stopped most of the “cross draft” from one side of the car to the other. However, the temperature was so hot that even a breeze felt more like a blast furnace. As we watched the Bulgarian country side move by, we noticed that any sheep, or cows or goats were all clustered together under the shade of the one tree in the pasture. I even saw a hawk on the ground standing in the shade of a pole - - instead of sitting on top of it.

After the relative coolness of the mountains, Lynn and I just sat quietly in the seats sipping water, and watching the world go by. It seemed to be better if you could somehow enter into a type of “Zen-like” zone, and just try to block all the heat away. All of the heat made me think of the times I had been stupid and gone for a long (four hour) bike ride on days when the temperatures were close to 100. But just like all those rides, we survived it, and it was not that bad.

When we got to our permanent site, all three of our partners (counterparts) were waiting to meet us. They had two cars. One was for all our baggage and the fan we were given by our host families, and the other was for passengers. They made the short ride to our apartment. When we first saw our place a month ago it was not finished. It was just bare walls and tile floors. The land lord did a great job of completing the kitchen area, and we had a bed and a kitchen table. It was great to finally get to our own place - - and be able to start the next step in our Peace Corps adventure.