Wednesday, December 22, 2010



Yankee Swap.  The concept of this gift exchange is foreign to many Americans and the rules and details are discussed annually at our family Christmas gatherings. We thought it a fun way to share some of our traditions with our Bulgarian friends.  The gifts they brought clearly reflected their understanding of the “swap”.

The gift I chose from under the tree and was left with at the end of the evening was a leather purse “чанта/ chanta” in Bulgarian. It is an absolutely essential part of a woman’s life and for the most part the bigger the better. I could do a whole blog on Чанти, but not now.

Krum fessed up and said it had been in his house for years. It was obvious it was a vintage piece, and very well made especially compared to what is bought today. The leather was rich but not yet supple as it was clear it had barely been used. I accepted it graciously, knowing I would never use it and would have to find a home for it upon departure along with many many other things that are part of our daily lives.

Ah, but without knowledge, one can not have appreciation. Two days latter, Vesse our Bulgarian friend and language tutor was here for a lesson. As part of our lesson, we usually have to tell her in Bulgarian what has happened to us during the week. The party details took forever to recount, and of course when we tried to explain the Yankee Swap, there were numerous questions.  We showed Vessse our gifts and her eyes lit up when she saw my purse.  She has one (bigger than mine) as a keepsake of her mother.

During Communist times, being a teacher was a prestigious position. Only teachers had purses like this. They were not used daily but brought out and slung over the shoulder for special occasions, school celebrations and holidays. The women paraded with their students as part of the festivities, and each had these distinct bags that set them apart as “teachers”.  Vesse’s mother and grandmother were teachers as is Vesse. She was encouraged by both to study hard so she could become a teacher.  I’ve met Krum’s mother Irene (my mother’s name as well). She is a teacher, one of my favorite kinds: a kindergarten teacher. This had been her bag when her work was held in high esteem, unlike today.

So it seems appropriate that I should come away with this purse. Instead of trying to find a home for it here in Bulgaria, I will bring it home with me and hang it upon the wall with the many other mementos from previous generations of my own family. It has come alive with this story and worth preserving and sharing.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

What A Difference A Year Makes!

What A Difference A Year Makes!

What a difference a year can make.  Lynn and I are constantly surprised at what we can do in the second year of service, and how much our perspective, outlook, and impact has changed.  This year, the holidays are a good example of this difference.
Last year, Thanksgiving was great.  We had 13 volunteers with us, and it was just like being in the US.  However, there was lots of stress trying to put it all together.  We spent weeks looking for turkeys, and had several bad starts tying to make pumpkin pie, and other things.   This year was a breeze.  We really did very little planning for our 10 guests, and everything went smoothly.  Knowing what we were dong meant we had more time to share Thanksgiving traditions with our Bulgarians friends this year.   The way we did that was with food.  We have learned sharing traditional foods (either Bulgarians sharing with us or us with them) is a great way to explain cultures.  American pies can not be found here in Bulgaria.  In fact, you will not even find standard pie plates.  Their Tikva squash has the shape of a pumpkin, but is a dull gray color.  However, the tikva is very sweet.  We made “Tikva pies” for everyone during the Thanksgiving week.  Monday was for my colleagues.  Tuesday was the second pie for our Conversational English class.  Thursday there was a Tikva and an apple pie for Lynn’s colleagues at school.  We used the pies to explain the family Thanksgiving traditions, and they loved them. The only thing left were a few crimbs.  There were many requests for recipes, but Lynn is not sure that even if the directions were written in Bulgarian, they would be able to make them without seeing one being made. Maybe some things are better left a mystery!!
Christmas this year will also be very different.  Although Lynn or I have not purchased any gifts yet (we will get each other some small things next week), we have been very busy – in a good way.  And… it will continue until we leave for Rome on December 27. 
On December 10-11, our NGO had their annual meeting (and Holiday party).  We had about 65 people attending the meetings, and the dinner.  These are all Roma families we have helped, and the dinner was much more of a celebration than a dinner meeting.  There was lots of music and dancing sprinkled in between plenty of homemade wine and rakia.  But everyone was up and attending the meetings Saturday morning. 
Immediately after the annual meeting concluded Saturday, Lynn and I were off to Na Gosti (visiting friends) with a person who has an office on the same floor where I work.  Mimi and I have become close, and talk often.  She has one son working on Cape Cod, and another daughter in College here.  The day before going, Lynn and I got a lesson in making traditional Bulgarian holiday bread.  It is called a “holiday Pitka” (roll).  Actually it is large round bread, decorated with symbols of “good” things from Bulgaria.  This includes strawberries, grapes, apples, birds, wheat, and other things.  Our Tutor (Vessi) helped us make it.  Mimi’s family was impressed, and it was really good.  We combined the Bulgarian Pitka with their traditional Bulgarian dinner and one of Lynn’s American Apple Pies.  The entire evening was wonderful. 
Just before our Annual meeting, I started pushing to have a Holiday party for my colleagues.  Last year, (in late January) we all went out to a small restaurant for dinner - - but that was all.  I got people interested, and convinced them we should have it at someone’s home.   Lynn and I actually wanted to do this at our place, and share more American Holiday traditions with our friends.  So… this past Thursday evening, we had nine of us here in our small (but efficient) apartment/home.  And it was GREAT!  I had explained the concept of a “Yankee Swap” to all my colleagues.  This was not easy because there is not even a good translation of the ward “swap” in Bulgarian.  And then to get them to understand that you really don’t want to purchase a gift, just find something in your home which you don’t want and bring that as a gift was a challenge.   Maria is living with her grandmother, and asked if she could swap her, and Ivan said he had an old cot that he wanted to get rid of.  They got the idea!  And – just like in the US - everyone had a great time giving (and taking) other peoples gifts.
Another wonderful part of this party was the preparation.  Other than making Christmas cookies and another pie there was very little else for us to do. EVERYONE brought something.  At one point almost everyone was working in our little kitchen.  They were putting traditional Bulgarian Christmas eve foods into the oven to warm, cutting up appetizers, preparing breads, and pouring drinks.  This is not generally the way we see things done when we Na gosti.  When Lynn commented that it felt very American having everyone in her kitchen, we were told it is very normal among good friends.  That was good to hear, and even better to watch!  I think what was most exciting was to see all these people who we have come to care about deeply, relaxing and enjoying each other. They really don’t take or make time for themselves, and this seemed to be an exception. When we watched a bit of a video tape, what stood out was the laughter. It was 1:30 before the party ended. We had Bulgarian language tutoring Friday morning at 9AM.   We were not as “sharp” as usual - - but it was worth it.  Most importantly, I think my colleagues will do this again next year – even if we are not here to share with them.   
This evening, we are going to a free concert at the large music high school in the old city section of Plovdiv.  A girl’s choir will be performing, and we have been trying to get to one of their concerts for several months.  They travel outside of Bulgaria, and are suppose to be very good.  Going to Christmas concerts performed by students is something we have enjoyed doing for years now and it is so nice to keep a tradition like that alive while we are here.  After we get back from that, we will be skyping into the Garrigus Christmas party in Massachusetts.  With luck we will hook Scott into the call as well. Not the same as being together, but a great substitute. It will also be great to spend a few hours catching up with people we don’t normally have a chance to see.
This coming Tuesday evening, we will have a Christmas party with our conversational English class at the YMCA (where the classes are normally held).  We did this last year, and had a wonderful time.  This group of people has taught us so much about Bulgaria.   I expect we will have 12-15 people attending.   Wednesday evening is Lynn’s school Christmas Party.  Last year, Lynn was sick, and we did not attend.  We have been to other social events with them, and it is always fun.   Thursday, Lynn, Petya, and I will go to a Christmas Concert with the Plovdiv Symphony.   This will be the first time we have heard them.  We have been told they are good, and I’m sure we will enjoy it. 
Then it will be a quiet Christmas Eve here, and skyping with my family in Connecticut.   We will try to get to a Christmas Eve service.  Last year, the service times were not listed, (or maybe we just misunderstood) and we ended up attending on Christmas day.  Then it will be packing up for our Rome trip.  We have to be in Sofia December 26, because our flight on Monday is very early in the morning. 
This year is so very different from last year.  And it is much better!  One of the few things that is the same about this Christmas and last is that we are not with family.  Actually, this year we are spread out even more.  Scott is in Iraq.  We are in Bulgaria.  Shawn and Chrissy are in NYC.  Everyone else is in their home.  But – everyone is safe and healthy – and those are really the most important things. 
Lynn and I continue to be amazed by our experience with the Peace Corps.   We have never questioned our decision to try this.  It is very different from what we expected, and it is so much more.  Our holiday wish to all of you is to Never ever give up on your dreams. Always be willing to take chances, and to step into unknown places.  None of this is easy, but our experience says that it worth it – VERY worth it! 

Have a Merry Christmas – and a Wonderful New Year!

Thanks for Reading – Keep Dreaming!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Other Car Is A BUS/VAN/TRAM!!! How It Works

My Other Car Is A BUS/VAN/TRAM!!!
How It Works

I know I have talked about walking A LOT here in Bulgaria, and there have also been one or two blogs which mentioned that I miss my car (all the parts of it).  However, I have not really explained the transportation system here in Plovdiv.  Although it may look like the public transportation system in any other town, it is really much different.  Yes – it does have taxis, buses and trams, and vans, but that is where the similarities stop.  So… let me try to explain how city transportation works here in Plovdiv. (Oh – by the way the Sofia city system is much different than here.  Plovdiv is much better!) 

Before we even start talking about the buses, I need to explain a little bit about the system, because it is very different from what an American would expect.  There are NO BART (bay area rapid transits) or NYC transit systems.  Plovdiv has five different bus companies.  Each company has its own routes.  But most of the company’s routes overlap.  For example on the major roads near the city center, all of the companies will have bus routes there.  Every bus has a number on the front and side window.  (By the way, these numbers are NOT lit up at night, and can’t be seen in the dark.)   The most important implication of this spider web of five different companies is that you may not pay just one fare to get where you want.  THERE ARE NO TRANSFERS because; there is no way for the companies to get funds from their other competing companies.  The impact of this for the  riding consumer is that you will have to figure out the bus route which will get you to your destination without getting off, and getting on – and paying twice!.  That generally means you will take much longer routes to reach work.  Efficiency and timeliness are not considerations here.  Public service is not high on the priority list either. But, I have never heard any Bulgarians complain about the system.  In the US, there would be thousands of irate citizens converging on city hall to complain about the non-integrated public transit system.  But not here!
Oh – there is one other important thing to know about this system.  Yes – every bus and tram and van has a number.  And they all go different places, and their routes overlap.  But  - - there are duplicate numbers.  For example, there is a #3 tram, and a #3 van.  There is also a #4 Van, and a #4 bus.  And their routes overlap.  So… when you are struggling to figure all of this while looking at very small bus/tram/van numbers on a large city map, it is very easy to get screwed up.  When we first got here, that did happen a few times until we had memorized more of the system.  It was a little bit of an adventure to jump on the #3 Van expecting it is going one place, and end up in the other part of the city because you really wanted the #3 tram.  Thankfully, we got that figured out very quickly!

Another interesting part of the transit system is the ticket payment process.  This system works, but I am amazed at the simplicity of it.  Every bus or tram has a driver and a conductor.  The conductors collect money (it costs one Leva – like one dollar), and gives you a ticket.  Every conductor has his own system for holding each type of coin, and where to keep the bills. It appears to me that the conductors have to purchase their own bill/change purse because none of them are the same. Although they will give you change, it is best not to give them more than a 5 leva bill. But the most interesting part of the system is the ticket.  Each ticket has a number on it.  These tickets look almost like a “little league Lottery ticket”.  The conductor knows how much money he/she starts with, and the beginning number on the ticket pack.  Each number is a Leva.  At the end of the run (or day) the ticket numbers have to agree with the amount of cash he has taken in. 
If you take a intercity bus from the bus station to another city, often you pay the bus driver, and he will use a similar system.  However, then the tickets all have different leva amounts on them.  So, if I pay nine leva to go to city of  Smolyn (three hours south of us), I will get a 5Leva ticket,  and two 2Leva tickets.  It all seems “old world” to me, but I have to admit that it works. 
Trams are  longer than buses, and have fewer riders
Now that I have helped you figure out where you are going, and what bus to take, and you have gotten your ticket from the conductor; it is time to talk about the trams.  They are a story all by themselves.  Most of the buses and trams are second hand from Germany.  You can almost always find some German language label somewhere in the vehicle. 
The trams are the oldest vehicles in the system.  They are electric, and connected to wires above the road by long flexible rods which “ride along the wires”.   However, the trams are the slowest form of public transit, and the most prone to problems.  When the trams are going through an intersection, there will be multiple wires and wire connections they have to transverse.  The tram will have to carefully “crawl” through the intersection hoping to keep the poles on the correct wires, and to get safely through the “wire intersections” above the road.  Often this does not happen.  And when one of the rods “flys off and up”, the tram will stop - - in the middle of the busy intersection - stopping traffic in all directions.  Then the driver will put on heavy gloves, and go to the back of the tram to pull down the rope connected to the rod, and reconnect the rod to the wire.  Although this generally only takes a few minutes, it does mess up the traffic in that intersection.  All of the other car drivers in the city understand this problem with the trams.  They will do everything they can (including cutting off the tram) to get in front of the tram. I am always glad Trams are very big because those little cars will get hurt much more than we will if we hit them when they are cutting us off. 
So… that is where we will stop for this time.  My next  "transportation" blog will talk about the ‘Grand Prix” race car drivers of the Plovdiv City Transit System, and the joys of riding in non-air conditioned buses with all the windows closed when it is 95 degrees outside.  Till then - -

Thanks for reading

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


School. What is it like? That has been a tough one to answer, and probably the reason I haven’t written any blogs about it.  Unless you have experienced teaching in an American ghetto, it will be difficult for you to imagine what it is like day to day. We can look at it from many perspectives, examining it by looking at the students, the teachers, the administration, the facilities, and lastly the educational system at a national level. Each can be scrutinized regarding their attitudes, their behavior, their motivation, their level of performance etc. Of course each of those could be a PhD dissertation. So, instead of trying to tackle the whole thing I’ve decided to write a weekly update, highlighting the good and the bad from each week. In time it should hit on the many variables of teaching in the Bulgarian educational system.

Yesterday was a classic day, with a number of individual events that are quite typical. A year ago, I would have been beyond frustration, shaking my head and wondering how this could be. Yesterday, I just accepted this as the way it is, decided what I had any control over and how I wanted to proceed next!

My first class was my only 6th grade class. It follows a 20 minute break (like a recess for the whole school). The problem with this time slot as well as first period is getting the students to class on time. It is not unusual to start a 40 minute class with about 8 kids. The rest stroll in as they please, often eating whatever it was they purchased at the break. Some are up to 20 minutes late. They might have to ask to enter the class and explain their tardiness, but there are no consequences for being late. They are not expected to make up the time, to complete the work on their own, nothing. In reality there are no consequences for most behavior….only the most extreme. This a fairly large class of 25, but lately less than 18 have peen present. Non-stop talking is an ongoing issue.  Teachers constantly try to talk over their students, yell at them to quiet them, or bang a very large stick on the desk to get their attention. The kids are the quietest when they are writing. I don’t know if it is because this is the one constant in their educational lives or because it requires intense concentration. The first activity I tried failed. With the smaller groups we have been doing an opening exercise, standing in a circle and quickly greeting the person next to us, practicing my name is… what’s your name… are you….this is……he/she is…..etc.  With almost everyone present, arriving at different times, I just could not get it to work. Separating those who were pushing, jabbing, teasing etc was a constant. If I got the talking under control it was for less than a minute.Because their English is so poor, only a handful can do this without me modeling every word for them. I gave up.  We moved on with the lesson, and the rest of the class was a bit better if you think calling out, talking, combing hair, doodling, or doing nothing at all are acceptable. We sang some songs about days of the week and months of the year and had a hands on activity (sitting at their desks). when the bell rings, they do not wait to be dismissed. They are up and out!

With an hour and a half break I decided to hustle the 8 minutes to the other building ( our school is housed in two buildings a few blocks away from each other) to observe a 3rd grade class who’s behavior has been worse than usual. LOUD is the first thing that comes to mind followed immediately by PHYSICAL. However, as I was approaching the school 2 ½ hours into the day I saw many of the kids on the street heading home. When I got to school, the teacher explained the kids were supposed to have Art, but the Art teacher had something else to do, so the kids were released for the day. THIS IS NOT UNUSUAL!!! 

OK move on to something else. Petya ( my counterpart) appeared with news that she was just told that she would be on vacation starting tomorrow, until Dec 20. Apparently the central government decided that employees could not carry more than 10 days of vacation, leave, or whatever they call unused paid time into the new year. My thought was did they not see this as a problem sooner?  Because our directors call on Petya to do so much extra work, she has accumulated about 20 extra days over the last few years. If she does not take them now, she looses them. She may loose some of them anyway, as they are expecting her to be back for the last few days before break to write all the monthly reports for the assistant director  that need to be submitted to the central government. Why Petya does all the secreterial work for our little school is a question we keep asking ourselves. The anser seems to be because she knows how to and no one else is paid to do it. 

We talked about my covering classes for her, but decided against it. We are trying to get a major funding proposal finished before Christmas and this will give us time to work on that. Also the assistant director had been assigned to cover for her ( but will be teaching health and safety, not English). Apparently she will be paid extra for these hours. We are both convinced that if I am there, she will find a reason to not be in class, but continue to be paid as if she was. We both suspect the classes will be dismissed early a number of times as well. So, there will be no English for 3rd and 4th grade for the rest of the month. 

As part of the paper trail, Petya had to sign and submit a form to the school secretary. However, the secretary was not at school during the lunch break and Petya had to wait until 1:00 to drop the paper off ( that was all she had to do). Oh, but at 1:00 she has a class.  Too bad for the kids. They get written off, don’t have English and the paper gets delivered on time.

While she was waiting for the secretary to show up I returned to the other building for a class with a few of the teachers who want to learn English. I wasn't seeing anyone. Inquiries led to one not being interested today, one having a name day and going out with friends,one unaccounted for, and the last not in school because he is on vacation using up his extra days! Back to the other school for classes.

When Petya returned (the one secretary is in the other building) we prepped for two back to back classes. Planning, if there is any, usually occurs in the few minutes before class and consist of identifying a topic to be covered. The classes were OK. Nothing extraordinary  either good or bad. Finishing up the day though took a little time as Petya had to enter marks for the months of November and December into the mark books for the three third grades (I don’t know what happened with the fourth grades?)  This took about 10 minutes as we quite randomly gave each child a number (1-6) six being  an excellent. They were not based on anything other than general impressions of their English. There have been no tests, no quizzes, no grades on daily work, and no measurable marks of any kind since September. Sometimes a student would get the same mark for both months sometimes a different mark for the two months. If they were a “good” child they would generally get a higher mark whether their English was good or not. The lowest mark was a 3 even for those who rarely attend and really don’t know anything. The reason being, it really doesn’t matter, because the government has decided that no child in the elementary level shall be retained. In general, marks are not reflective of what a child knows.

So that was my day at school. Unfortunately, after more than a year, none of those events surprised me. Do they bother me? Absolutely. Do I loose sleep over them? No, not anymore. Have I given up? No. Though many of these problems are systemic and I have little or no power to change them, I can still try to raise questions, help an individual teacher change what happens in his/her classroom, and put my energy into making a difference for these kids.They need every ounce of help they can get. The good news... when the classes found out they would not be having English for the rest of the month they were very disappointed. Though I won't be teaching English to the majority of my classes in Dec, my plan is to work with them teaching them 4 square and other outdoor organized games. This will be in Bulgish...a combination of English and Bulgarian. Life goes on!!!!


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

АСЕНОВГРАД – Asenovgrad

АСЕНОВГРАД – Asenovgrad 
 Asenovgrad is a small city located 25 minutes (by train) south of Plovdiv.  It has about 55,000 people, and the elevation in the city is 900 Ft. above sea level.   It is a town Lynn and I visit often.   The round trip train ride costs each of us only 1.40Leva, and it is a great escape from our more crowded city. In 1230 Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II strengthened the local fortress Stanimaha (now called Asen’s Fortress) and because of this reason the city was named after him in 1934 (literally city of Asen). Among its more unique claims is that it is the wedding dress capital of Bulgaria with more gown shops than any other place.  It also has more chapels and churches per capita than any other Bulgarian city (15 total including one at Asen’s fortress).   
Most importantly, it is nestled right into the base of the Rhodopes  mountains.   Within two hours of getting on the train in Plovdiv, we can be high up in the hills around Assenovgrad.  From the Assenovgrad train station, it is a quick walk along the short pedestrian walkway next to the river before you take a left and start taking narrow streets leading steeply uphill.  There are trails in the mountains all around this small city, and Lynn and I have only started finding all of the connections, and ways to get from one trail to the other.  We wish there was a local map with all the trails, but we have only been able to find a map with the major trails throughout all of the Rhodopes mountains.   Of course without a good map, it just means you have more adventures, and also have to talk to more people to try to figure out where this (or that) trail may lead. 
The Cliff from half way up - at the West end of the ridge
This past Sunday afternoon, I decided to head to Asenovgrad, and try to connect some of the trails we have taken in the past couple of months.  In order to do that, it meant I had to climb up a very steep (almost cliff-like) section of one of the ridges, and see what was at the top.  I had already taken a small trail more than half way up the ridge, and we had seen other people coming down this trail.  We just did not know where those people had been coming from.  We had never seen anyone along the top of the ridge.  But I just had this “feeling” there had to be a trail up there.  So… off I went.  I had lots of water, some food, and my map (without all the trails) with me. 
That small trail I had been part way up on an earlier trip, got steeper, and pushed around behind the cliff exterior.  I was thankful for that, and hopeful that I would find out that this trail came out on the top.  As long as I kept going up, I figured I was going in the right direction.  It turned out that this trail did take me to the top, and it was Spectacular!!! You could sit on the top of the cliff, and see into the rest of the mountains off to the south.  Lynn and I like this ridge because you face the south and get the full effect of the late Fall and early Spring sun).   We can go here, find some rocks, and just sit in the Fall sun soaking up the warmth like a snake.  From the cliff on the top, the view was awesome.  And… the trail kept going. 
Looking East along the ridge.  
So… Like any explorer, I followed the trail to see where it would take me.  I found a walk that I will try to repeat often.  The trail continues along the top of the ridge.  But what I did not know until I walked the ridge was that the top of this ridge is almost a “knife edge”.   The top was normally not more than 100 feet wide.  In many places it was only 30-40 Feet wide, and most of it was a barren rocky top.  That meant, I had unbelievable views whichever way I looked.  To my left, the ridge dropped dramatically off 2000 feet to the valley floor where there was a patchwork of grape, wheat, hay, and other fields.  The view toward the valley was unobstructed for as far as the haze would allow.  To my right, the cliffs dropped to the small stream in a valley a thousand feet below, with a view into the higher (almost 4,500 Ft) mountains south of this “front-range” ridge that I was walking. 
The trail took me along the ridge for about 50 minutes until I reached the ridge end, where I was amazed to find a small chapel.  Even more surprising were the 15-plus people there who were restoring the chapel. It is rare to find Bulgarians working to bring back old structures.  More amazing was that they were doing it here in the middle of the mountains.  I was not able to figure out how they got the mortar bags, bricks and sand to the chapel.  There must be some old logging road off the edge of the ridge near the chapel.  But I guess finding that trail is just one reason to make another trip to Asenovgrad. 
Asens Fortress with my ridge walk in the background
Although I could have headed off the eastern edge of the ridge at the chapel down into the forest, I decided to return back along the ridge to another trail I found near where I climbed up on the ridge.  It was a glorious sunny November Sunday, and I wanted to make the “ridge walk” again.   So.. I headed back, stopping often.  When I got to the end, I parked myself on the cliff, had some apple slices, soaked in the sun’s warmth, and enjoyed the view.   While I was there, some other people arrived including a couple of young “mid-twenties” girls and their small “dust-mop” dog.   We all decided to leave the cliff at the same time.  I asked them (in Bulgarian) which the fastest way was down.  On the trail I came up, or the new trail I found going down the other side.  They told me the new trail, and they were going down that way.  Since I was not sure where exactly this new trail would come out, I was happy to let them lead the way.  It was much quicker. But what was more fun was the conversation on the way down. 
Irena and Dianna both lived all their life in Asenovgrad.  They had gone to college in South West Bulgaria about a three hour drive from here.  They have graduated, but are looking for work which they cannot find.  They showed me where they live, and I assume they are living with their parents – like so many other Bulgarians.   They asked me all of the usual questions.  How long have I been here, where do I live, where do I live in the US, do I like Bulgarian food, do I like Bulgaria, and on and on.  I also asked about them, where they went to school, what they did, etc. (By the way, this was all in Bulgarian.)
The trail we were on ended up on a large high rocky cliff-like peninsula which projects into the edge of the Asenovgrad.  Lynn and I see this cliff wall every time we visit.  There is also another chapel at the end of this cliff peninsula.  Our trail down the mountain took us past the cliff to the front of the chapel where the girls talked to some other folks.  Then we headed backwards along the trail we had just come on behind the chapel to the cliff.  I was confused!  There is no way down, and I kept asking where we were going?   Irena told me to watch and learn!  And we headed over the  cliff edge on a small foot path that zig zagged down the cliff.  At one point, they told me they were mountain goats – and I agreed.  But we got safely down, and I learned the trail.  At the bottom, they asked if I knew how to get to the train station.  I did.  We parted, and I headed to the train station and home to Plovdiv. They went back to their homes.
It was a wonderful day!!!
Thanks for reading

Monday, November 1, 2010


Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

One of the Seven Lakes
What started as a trip to Istanbul ended as a jeep excursion into the Rila mountains.  Twice a year our faculty ventures together on an “excursion”. Most often it is in Bulgaria, but this fall a plan was in the works for two nights in Istanbul. That never came to fruition, I’m guessing because of the expense. An alternate plan was developed; a one night trip to the beautiful Rila Mountain National Park to the mountain top resort of Panichishte the place we spent our first four nights in Bulgaria with Peace Corps. It is a beautiful location and this time the promise of a lift ride to the top to view the famous Seven Lakes enticed us to join the group. The excursion is an opportunity to dance, eat and drink together. Not everyone goes, but for those who do it is usually a fun time.

We set off in a luxury bus right at noon on Friday. It is about a four hour trip, none of it on highways. First through the flats and then up and over one pass after another. Looking down in some locations, you know that puny little guard rail would never stop a full bus from careening off the edge. But our driver was cautious and the edges of sheer cliffs became less threatening. As we neared our destination, it all looked familiar. Interestingly, some colleagues had never been here. We find this to be true often as we talk about places we have been in Bulgaria. We have certainly been to more places in Bulgaria than either of our counterparts.


The Panorama Hotel was appropriately named. It sat in a clearing facing south with wide expanses of mountain views. The sky was a clear deep blue, bringing the outlines of the snow covered peaks into sharp focus. A large patio even in late October with the sun shining was a wonderful place to sit and enjoy all this grandeur.


Mike and I immediately set out on foot in search of this new lift reported to be about twenty minutes away. We found the signs but it was more than six kilometers away.  Too far for a late afternoon trek.  Instead we just enjoyed a shorter walk with some colleagues.

News broke early that the lift was not working, a great disappointment for those of us who had planned to ride it the next day. We had come prepared for what might be a cold 20 minute ride and a 30 minute walk once on the top. Seven Lakes sits at about 9,000 ft.

There are two things that are consistent among Bulgarians. Most often plans come together at the last minute even for rather large events, and details just aren’t part of the plan. In America, one of the planners certainly would have confirmed that the lift was operational at this time of year. As a result of always being in “crisis mode” they are good at scrambling and solving problems on the fly, or  just accept things as they are. This time there was a plan within a few hours of hearing the lift was not working to take jeeps to the top of the mountain where the lift would have dropped us. All was well and good.

Saturday morning was just as clear and beautiful as Friday had been. It would be perfect at the top, with opportunity to see all seven lakes from one vista point. At the designated time three jeep/four wheel drive vehicles were parked out front and ready to go. It was a squeeze getting everyone in. Ten people were packed into my jeep: a father and son in the passenger seat, four women sitting two forward and two back in the back seat and four good sized people cramped into the way back with very little head room! As we left I thought there were still people waiting to go and thought there must be another jeep on the way. I never did sort that out. 

The first 15 minutes were on a newly paved road and there was much laughter and excitement. A few expressions changed as we reached the bottom of the lift and started up the rugged construction road. We zigzagged back and forth under the lift several times and expansive views opened up a few times. This was going to be SPECTACULAR!  We splashed through puddles formed by descending streams and bumped over good sized rocks. I didn’t care for the driver smoking and talking on the phone while driving, but at least we were not on cliffs edge while he was doing it.

During one of the phone calls I heard him say чакай!  Wait! And before long we were stopped. Another quick call and we were on our way. Around a bend and up a VERY steep incline. Part way up and we could go no further. Ice and spinning wheels! Back down and try again. Same thing. Third try unsuccessful. Time to lighten the load. Everyone out. Back down with only the driver and another attempt. Over and over again while we watched. Up ahead of us the first jeep had cleared this part of the hill, but was enacting the same scene on the next part of the hill. Below the third jeep waited patiently. Our driver eventually tried an alternative route from the lower waiting point, only to get hung with two wheels in the air 20 yards from the road. The first jeep eventually gave up as well and returned to the flats, quickly rescuing the hung jeep. 

"I know I can, I know I can"!
Not this time, but next time for sure!

Everyone OUT!

Rescuing the "hung Jeep"
Eventually we had to admit defeat and turned to return. However my jeep which was packed like a Volkswagen full of clowns on the way up now only had five people in it and one was not someone who had come up with us. Where were the others? Had they been shuttled back already? Another mystery!

Back over the stream puddles and rocks feeling disappointed. Will we have the opportunity to return to the Seven Lakes again before we leave Bulgaria? The snows remain on top into summer and they are not easy to get to. Bummer!

Suddenly my jeep turns off the road and we are attempting an ascent up a logging road, much worse than what we have already experienced. Now there were trees to dodge and much bigger stumps to get hung up on. What is he doing?  A failed attempt one way just means try again another way, and that is what we did several times. No one in the jeep is saying anything, just numbly sitting and watching.  In the meantime the other two jeeps have stopped and are waiting on the road. Again failure, more discussion and off we go again to the base.

Oh No! NOT our driver. He heads back from where we just came and sure enough we try again (with the five of us still in the vehicle). On our way up the impassable stretch we see a VERY LARGE logging vehicle backing down. This is the kind of machine that has tires larger than I am tall (no laughing) with treads as deep as my hand. If he can’t make it up certainly we can’t. But no, once it is out of the way we try again, first forward then in reverse. I’m thinking ( in Bulgarian) enough already. What is motivating this man to be such a fool?  Is it the money for he would garner in this one afternoon a week’s salary, pride, or stubbornness? God knows. All the while we are just very quietly accepting this. I could not stand the foolishness any longer and said (in Bulgarian) “Enough, this can not be done and there is not enough time to go to the top.” I got no response from anyone, but within minutes we were turned around and heading back.  The other jeeps were no where in sight. They had not waited to rescue this fool hearted colleague if he had once again got us hung up! Once we hit paved road there was a collective sigh of relief.

Feeling safe, I enjoyed the vistas that would appear as we descended, but became alarmed again when the jeep stalled for no apparent reason. A few tries of the crank and nothing. Had he emptied the tank of fuel with all those attempts up the hills spinning wheels furiously?  The driver hops out, grabs something from under the driver’s seat and lifts the hood. Blinded by it we can only guess at what he is doing. The sounds of a compressor certainly leave me confused. Unhook the compressor and back in the jeep. Several more false attempts and I’m thinking surely we have run out of gas. His stubbornness is rewarded and eventually he gets the jeep started and we are off again!  The hotels are looking familiar and we are now within walking distance to the hotel if anything else should go wrong.

Once back, there seems to be some commotion among the teachers which neither Mike nor I could understand. We try to sort it out by watching and listening but eventually have to turn to Petya to translate. Apparently those people that did not return in my vehicle are STILL on the mountain. They had decided to walk to the top. All but one have cars at the hotel as they are planning to extend the long weekend by going other places nearby. They are in touch with the group and it is estimated that it will be four hours before they return. There is talk about a jeep waiting to pick them up but where? We have learned to just go with the flow as there is nothing we can do. However it becomes clear 38 people riding the bus back home are going to wait for the ONE person who decided on her own to hike to the top. Mike and I certainly would have joined her if we had known it was an option!!!   There is surprisingly little discourse about the waiting….once again just accepting things. Petya says, “We have no choice. She paid for the bus”.  As Americans you can imagine our thoughts about that. She is not being stranded on the top and once down there are two cars heading toward a town with buses to Plovdiv!!  But we wait. Her four hours were only two but I can tell you she was not a popular person when she returned. The director had a few words for her, we boarded the bus and headed home.
There is a good chance Mike and I will  get to Istanbul and return to the Seven Lakes long before many of these Bulgarians do.

As crazy as it was, we had a good time. The camaraderie, location and weather were all worth it plus we had another Bulgarian adventure!!


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Visiting Villages #3 The Difference

Visiting Villages #3
The Difference 
This blog will be the last in this series about visiting villages.  The first two “Visiting Villages” blogs talked about specific events (i.e. a walk in the woods, and picking potatoes).   However, the real important aspect of visiting villages is the DIFFERENCE!   Visiting a village is very different from our life here in Plovdiv.  Plovdiv is a relatively modern, cosmopolitan small city.  In the villages, it feels like you are stuck in some sort of time warp in the year 1930 (or a little earlier) anywhere in rural America.   I think there are several reasons for this “flashback feeling”.    
The community - Villages are definitely a community.  And like any small group, they are tightly knit, but with a few “stray” pieces of thread.  They have their local drunks, and town politicians (most towns have a mayor), and problem children which the entire village knows about.  There are probably several “baba benches” where many old ladies will watch to goings-on in the town, and gossip.   Young volunteers can never get by one of these groups without being asked “Where are you going?”, “Do you need food?”,  What are you eating?”, or “Your hair is wet - - you will be sick tomorrow!”.   In some other part of the village, there is a group of old men sitting around a chess board or playing cards.  They are generally complaining about something, and pinning for the “old days” when things were always better.   An early version of “Mayberry” without Sheriff Andy often comes to mind when you are in a village.
The work – lots of it - - Another thing that binds villages together is the work.  Everyone has a garden!  It is the center of their home.  There are no grass lawns where families play, and husbands pick weeds and dandelions. Every square foot is used.  There are no shade trees, but there several fruit trees in many yards.  If there are lots of flowers, then there may also be several bee hives in the back yard. Oh – and there are generally some chickens running around a pen.  The shade comes from the grape vines and the arbors they grow on.  And then there is the garden which is full of tomatoes, peppers, beans, potatoes, onions, and anything else you may be able to eat or can.   And in August when it is dry, every plant will be watered by hand with a bucket and a ladle - - every day.  There is not modern power equipment to take care of the garden.  I have watched old men with 50 year shovels turning the dirt in the spring.   And if they are lucky, a neighbor with a horse and plow may come by and give them a hand.  Villagers are in the gardens every day working with old hoes, picks, or shovels so there never seems to be any weeds in a village garden.  In the fall, at harvest time, the wood fires are started on the sidewalks, or backyards, or outside stoves to begin the canning process.  This will go on for days, and they will literally fill up an entire room with jars.  The small “walk-in pantries” we have in the US are puny compared to what you find in the canning room of a village home.   From Spring to Fall, the work is almost endless. 
Sharing everything   - Another important aspect of village life is helping and sharing with others.  Volunteers are particular targets of this sharing.  I know some volunteers who will get tomatoes, peppers,  wine, rakia, and cucumbers just walking home through their village.  During PST, there were constant examples of this trait.  My host dad had four bee hives.  He was constantly giving honey to people for any help they gave him.  I remember one night during dinner when another village folk stopped over with a very large pail of fresh picked strawberries.  His crop had come in, and there was more than he could use.   The next day, we were cooking strawberry jam!  One day in Plovdiv after a storm, I found an old couple trying to clear a tree limb from the road using an ancient axe.   The old man had a cane, and it was almost comical (if it was not so sad) to watch him trying to swing that axe.  I came up, took the axe, and had the limb cut up in about 15 minutes.  As the old ladies dragged the cut wood toward their home (they wanted the wood for their stove in the winter), one of them went off and came back with a bottle of homemade rakia for me.   Everyone helps, and everyone gives something back. 
The connections -  One night after eating at the only restaurant in the village, we were heading home.  We had to pass by the local bread bakery.  Our village volunteer knew some of the people who worked there.   They worked from 8PM to 3AM every night, and made all of the bread products for the entire village.  It was close to 11pm, the door was open because it was a warm Fall night, so we went over to say hello.  It was great to see this operation.  There was bread coming out of the big old ovens, other breads in pans raising, and still others fresh out of the oven.  The manager offered us parts of a large circular bread by pulling pieces apart.  It was still warm.  Then she spread a black jam-like substance on the bread.   Now what – I thought.  What is the “tar” on the bread.  Well – I didn’t know what it was, but it was wonderful.   Even though we had just finished dinner, we polished off the bread (and tar jam) before we left.   The following day on the way back from our walk, we passed some villagers picking red berries about twice the size of cranberries.  They grow on high-bush plants.  They were called Drinki.  Our friend stopped to talk to them and we ended up with about 5 pounds of berries to take back to Plovdiv with us.  But – we found out they were what the “black jam” we had at the bakery was made from.   Two days later, Lynn and I figured out a way to make the jam from the berries (even though it has pits), and we now have 6 jars of that great Jam.   Connections like that happen all the time in a village. 
The Seasons - Probably the most important factor in village life is the seasons.  Their life is still dominated by seasonality, and the weather.  The preparation, growing, and harvesting are the major cycle of village life.  Even though they may be watching TV at night, they are still growing, and harvesting the same way it was done decades (or more) ago.   And when winter comes, the village shuts itself down.  There is less bench sitting, and fewer parties in the street.  However, there are still lots of celebrations.   During December and January (in addition to Christmas and New Year), most of the name day celebrations are held.  These are like Birthdays on steroids!   It is the day of the saint you are named after.  Those days are when the home made wine and rakia are spread from home to home.  Thankfully, everyone can stumble back to their own home when the days are done. 
Lynn and I are so lucky to be able to experience village life in addition to our city life.   In America people take trips to Plymouth plantation, or Williamsburg to learn about our history, and the way life used to be in America.   Here – you don’t have to pay money, or make a long trip to the East Coast.  All you have to do is take a short 40 minute drive out of any city and visit a village – and travel back in time.  Lynn and I are very happy with our city life.  But we also love having the chance to experience village life with other volunteers.  It is all part of the Peace Corps experience, and as they say in the MasterCard commercials – it's priceless!!!!
Thanks for reading. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Visiting Villages #2 - Potato Picking

Visiting Villages #2  Potato Picking

It is Fall.   The weather has gotten cooler and grayer, but it is not cold yet.  In the villages, there is a flurry of activity.  Just like squirrels before the winter, village folk are busy bringing in every harvest they have.   In Bulgaria one of the harder harvests is picking potatoes.   When we visited our friend, you could see people all thru the village walking around with large “dirty white” burlap, or multi-colored bags heading back to their homes one bag at a time to bring in the potatoes – or apples, or pears, or tomatoes, or…
As we were returning our walk in the woods, just outside of the village there was a group of people working hard in one of the potato fields.   The views of the mountains from their potato field were beautiful.  However, we doubt many of the workers took any time to “view the local scenery”.   They were bent over pulling the potatoes out of the ground.   We believe they knew there was heavy rain coming the next day, so there was some urgency to getting this done before the field turned into a muddy quagmire. 
The village we were visiting is a “mixed religion” town.   There are many Muslims, and also many Christians.   The younger generations of both religions are not practicing either.  But they all work together.   In this field there were two Muslim women in traditional “work garb”, and several other women and girls in western clothes. (Lynn took note that there were NO men working in this field!)  What you are wearing has nothing to do with the work which must be done.   
And the work is similar to what has been done for ages.   No matter how you bring “up the potatoes”, you still have to bend over, pick them out, clean the dirt from them, put them into buckets, and then into bags for transporting.  Sometimes there is a small tractor with a special equipment to turn the soil, and bring the potatoes up toward the top.   Other times, it is just lots of digging with a pitch fork.   The hardest method is to use a big type of hoe to “pound the dirt”, and turn over the soil.   That is what they were doing in this field.  But, whatever method you use, you have to be careful not to damage the  “tubers”.     
We stopped to watch this activity, and take some pictures.   Our walking path was quite a ways from the work field, but it was still easy to see the activity.   However, we did not stay long.  Our fellow volunteer is known by everyone in the town.   We had already gotten about 6 pounds of fruit from other villagers picking berries just before we reached the potato field.   We did not want to be given 20 more pounds of potatoes to take on the 5 hour ride back to Plovdiv.   Even though we were tired from our long hike, there was a small part of me, which would have liked to help in the field, and bring some of the potatoes home.  Maybe that is just part of my Irish “potato” ancestry pushing up to the top. 
Thanks for reading

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Visiting Villages #1 - A "Walk In The Woods"

Visiting Villages #1
A “Walk in the woods”

One of the things Lynn and I do as often as we can is to visit other volunteers.  Often we are visiting folks near the rail lines because it is so much easier to reach them.  However, the more interesting trips are when we have a chance to visit fellow volunteers who live in the more remote (generally mountain) villages.  Getting to these villages can be an adventure in itself.  But the experience of “village living” is always worth the five-hour rides in small “van-like” busses which follow roads that weave along mountain streams or in constant “S” turns as they go up and down the mountains. 
The part of these visits which is most interesting is that they are like time machines. They take you back 60-100 years ago.  Village life is completely controlled by seasons – planting, growing, harvesting & canning, in the spring, summer and fall; and then resting, celebrations, and drinking homemade wines and rakia during the cold dark months.   These places are often nestled high in the mountains with every day views that a hotel would charge a ‘kings ransom” to give you.  The volunteers are watched 24/7, and everyone knows where you are, and what you are doing.  They are also given free food from the gardens or invited for “na-gosti” (visits and food).   It is a VERY different life from the one Lynn and I live (almost anonymously) in the cosmopolitan city of Plovdiv. 

A couple of weeks ago, we had an opportunity to spend time in a small village less than 10KM from the Greek boarder.   From just this one visit, we probably have three blog entries.  The following is a blog about just five hours of that visit, during which time we took a very long, challenging, and beautiful walk in the woods.    

We had to walk out the back of the village, and along the way we picked-up two colleagues who worked with our volunteer friend.  As we got nearer the edge of the village, there were mountain fields where hay had been stacked.  And, there were small orchards with people working bringing the apples, pears, or what ever else was planted.  From the pastures we could see our destination. It was the next mountain top.  But in order to get there, we had to descend almost a thousand feet to the valley below, and then hike up to the open pastures on the top of the next mountain.   As we began the descent, we started to hear chain saws.  In the mountains, lumbering is a significant business.  During the walk, we watched several trees crash to the ground (BTW – trees do make a sound when they fall in the forest).  After close to an hour we reached the stream with a bridge crossing the gorge below.  There was also a spring “spigot” for us to fill our water bottles, with a “communal” cup for anyone to drink from.   Then it was uphill for an hour and half. 

During the climb, we passed several storage buildings with thatched roofs, and mud and stone walls.  Inside was hay, wooden pitchforks, or just anything needed for work in the mountain pastures.  During the hike up, I felt kind of like a bear getting ready for winter.  We passed more springs, and found a few blackberries to eat.  Then we found a walnut tree near a stone wall.  We almost did not make it to the top because of this.  We spent lots of time cracking the nuts on the stone wall, and eating the moist nut meat inside.   When we did get to the top, we found there were several apple trees there with small, sweet apples to munch on.  All this natural food combined perfectly with the grapes, cheese, homemade bread, and chocolate bar we had brought along for the picnic lunch. 

Even though, the weather was overcast, it was beautiful sitting up there, looking out on the vistas, and soaking up the silence.   We must have stayed there for an hour and a half.  And then it was time to head back down.  We spent as much time at the walnut tree on the way down as on the way up, but finally did get to the stream, and then headed back up to the village.  It was a great walk.   We were jealous of our fellow volunteer who can do this walk anytime.  But we decided to try to visit him again in the spring when the mountain flowers are everywhere. 


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Our Work Is International News!!!

Our Work Is International News!!!

Who Are Gypsies, and Why Is France Deporting Them?   

Roma, on Move, Test Europe’s ‘Open Borders’

I know that there are still some of you who don’t really understand what it is that Lynn and I do.  Actually that is pretty reasonable because we don’t really talk about it in these blogs.  About a year ago, we both did one entry on our work, but that is not much.  One of the reasons is that the work arena we toil in is very large.  We are a very small insignificant part of a much larger picture.  If we focus on the small part we do, it is really hard to understand how it fits into the “big picture”.   And if we talk about the big picture, you don’t really understand how what we do fits into it.  It is kind of like seeing the vast green forests of the Appalachian Mountains from a roadside lookout without ever being able to see individual trees – let alone the branches of one tree.  

Well, international events have helped to make that very large picture a little easier to see and understand.  We first heard about the news when we were in the US for Shawn’s wedding.  Driving down from NH to Mass, there was a 15 second news clip about France sending back (deporting) thousands of ROMA to Romania and Bulgaria.  Lynn and I were surprised to hear about this European news in the states.  We were not surprised about the action!   

Both of us are 100% dedicated to working with Roma (or Gypsies as they are called – when they are not called things much worse).   We each have a vastly different perspective on this problem.  Lynn works in one of the largest Mahalas (Ghettos) in Bulgaria (or Eastern Europe).  It has 45,000 plus people in less than 2 square kilometers.  She teaches English in one elementary school which has about 500 kids in it.  Although we believe she is know in the Mahala, her sphere of influence is primarily within the school.   

I work in nine small (with less than 5,000 Bulgarian and Roma people) villages within 100Km of Plovdiv helping to provide income generation opportunities (primarily farming) to about 80 families.  Our group touches about 350 people total.  We have been developing our model for more than ten years, and we have become very successful within our limited sphere of farming families.   The funding which I helped get for my NGO this past year is a test to see if we can “franchise” our model, and put it other places in Bulgaria - - and maybe in other countries.   If we can be successful, then we can potentially impact thousands of disadvantaged Roma. 

But – right now – Lynn and I are only impacting a very small number of gypsies that are part of a vast problem throughout Eastern Europe.  This problem has spread to Western Europe since Romania and Bulgaria became members of the EU a couple of years ago.   All this brings us back to the news from France.   Deportation of European citizens who are now able to cross boarders freely should not be happening.  But one of the many results of the financial crisis is a lack of job opportunities.  The Roma went to Western Europe to find jobs.  But there are very few opportunities now.  So… they take welfare funds, or beg on the streets, or a few of them may pickpocket or rob others.  In the meantime, they build “squatters” camps in any vacant places they can find. France has decided they know how to solve this problem.   Send them back to where they came from!   I think this must be some “basic instinct” in mankind.  I believe Arizona has just passed a bill with similar intent.  But, I suppose, deportation is a much better solution than the genocides which have occurred so many times in human history. 

But just like immigration reform in the US is a complex problem, the Roma problem is even more complex.  Gypsies have been roaming throughout Europe for more than 500 years.  The hatred and bigotry has been passed down and grown from generation to generation.   Europe has developed a huge program called “Decade of Roma”.  It is a ten-year program to fix the problems.  But you can not expect to wipe out hundreds of years in in-grained learning and bias in just one decade. 

And, you can not expect the Roma to make needed changes in ten years.   The Roma cling to their culture and heritage which can be very different from the cultures in the countries they are residing.  Then, the European press (like the American press) focuses on specific events (like 11 year old girls having babies), and sensationalize it.  The rest of us then make the assumptions that “all of them are doing that!”.  And so it goes – on and on and on!    

Following are links to very good articles which do a much better job at giving you a glimpse of the bigger picture than I ever could.  One is from the New York Times, and the other from Time Magazine.  Both are considered “liberal-biased” press, but they seem to have a pretty good perspective from what I can see here with my “feet on the street”.   If you have the time, take a look at some of the other links from these articles.  And – if you really want to get a sense of things – take some extra time to read a few of the comments at the end of the articles.  During the past year,  I have found reading article comments can provide a  “unique” perspective into the emotions, bias, (and sometimes hatred) on Roma and other inflammatory issues – both in Europe and in the US.  

Lynn and I don’t have any “silver bullets” or brilliant insights to solve this problem.   We are still learning all of the aspects of the issues.  And – when we leave next August – we will probably still be learning.  But, while we continue to learn, both of us try to take small steps to have an impact on a few people.  And – who knows – maybe in another decade - or two – someone we have touched can make a substantial impact on that “big forest”. Then maybe all the trees and branches can be seen and their beauty shine through like when the autumn leaves change the drab green vistas into brilliant, vibrant pictures.  We can only hope!

Thanks for reading