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!!!!!