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!!!