Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Heat Pump Is Blowing Cold Air!

The Heat Pump Is Blowing Cold Air!!

Three weeks ago Lynn and I did a blog on “Staying Warm”. We ended that blog by saying that Mother Nature had been very good to Bulgaria so far this winter because it had been unseasonably warm. We never should have said that! Within a couple days of posting the blog, all of Bulgaria settled into one of the worst cold spells in a decade. But – like with so many other things here – we learned several new things.
First – we have a new Climatique (a heat pump). Most of the new (and upgraded) apartments have these. They are great. They take the heat from the outside, amplify it, and blow it into your home. In the summer, they reverse the process, and they are air conditioners. However, if the outside air is very very cold (down around 0) and dry, then they can freeze up, or just not work correctly. Every so often ours would make “grinding sounds”, and would blow cool/cold air. Once we even saw it blowing a white mist into the room. Thankfully this did not happen often.
Second – Small 20 dollar space heaters are awesome! Lynn bought one of these in December. It was on sale, and seemed like a good idea. Actually – it was a great idea! When the big system was blowing cold air, we carried this little “turbo heater” into the room, and it warmed things up. We also used it in our bed room (which does not have heat) to keep it warmer during the night.
Third – Bathrooms in Bulgaria are NOT heated. Most bathrooms are in the center of the building, and have a water tank heater in the room. Since the bathroom doubles as a shower stall, the idea is to just take a shower to heat up the room. But if you want to use the bathroom for other things early in the morning, or in the middle of the night; it can be awfully cold. I also found out that many folks in Bulgaria just don’t clean up much in very cold weather.
Fourth – those big communist marble buildings that do not have any central air conditioning in the summer don’t have any heat in the winter. There is one big university cafeteria that we visit often. There is no heat in the building. Everyone eats with their coats on! Since the food gets cold pretty quick, we only went there once this month.
Last – if you spend most of the day with your shoulders “crunched” up around your ears, your shoulder muscles tend to get pretty sore by the end of the day. Thankfully, we figured that out quickly, and stopped doing it.
All of these things were really very minor. We know there are many folks home in the US who have been colder than we were this month. We were really in very good shape. We were warm most of the time with very little change to our routines and life. However, we know that was not the case for many other volunteers. We talked to one volunteer who is living in the mountains south of us, and his water pipes had frozen five days before. He had no water, and was not sure how to fix them. Others were living in sleeping bags much of the time. If you want to get a real sense of what life is like for most volunteers here during the winter check out this blog entry.
Lynn was seeing many of the people in the mahala getting bags of coal from horse-drawn carts that constantly went around the streets. I was working in a new site with a large wooded area across the street. There were people over there all the time looking for dead pieces of wood they could take out.
In the last two days, the weather has gotten more normal, and the ice is melting. And the heat pump is working correctly again! We hope the real cold is done for the winter, but this time, I don’t think we will say that. February is still winter – even in Bulgaria!

Sunday, January 17, 2010


It’s winter, and it’s cold here. Not Wisconsin cold, but cold .In the city of Plovdiv, we see things that we only thought we would see if we had been in a village.  Smoke is one of those things.  Smoke is everywhere around us.  You can smell it the minute you walk out of our building.  You can see it hanging like a deep white haze every day.   And it is spewing from small chimneys on the roofs of homes like it was coming from the furnaces of communist’s factories.  The smoke is a symbol of the work which is put forth to try to keep warm – even in the cities.  

For decades Mike, and I and in time Shawn and Scott had rituals and routines tied to the seasons for the downing, transporting, splitting, stacking and finally the burning of wood to stay warm through the cold winter months of the Northeast. This year"s work was for next year"s heat, giving the wood time to age. It all started when we moved into our first house in Ashland, Ma.,( a little 800 sq ft ranch) and ended when we went south to Texas 23 years later. In a tiny room at the end of the that first house was a Ben Franklin stove which we burned so hot at times it would glow orange.. It is a wonder we didn’t burn the house down! As we upgraded houses though, the wood stoves improved incrementally as well. It was always a good feeling when we saw the three or four cords of wood stacked in the garage ready to burn.

All those experiences swirl in our heads as we watch the many ways in which Bulgarians go about trying to stay warm through the winter. The possibilities range from a central heating systems, to the burning of a variety of materials in stoves to most recently electric “climatiques” which double as air conditioners in summer.They are usually good for heating one room.

During the summer in Varshets we watched as truckloads of wood would be delivered to the front walk of many a household. The work, so familiar to us of splitting and stacking began. My host family had a central heating system and burned wood chips. They too had a truckload delivered out in front of the house, which was then carted by wheel barrel or bucket to a holding bin, much like a coal bin on the basement level of the New England house I grew up in .

So often, Plovdiv feels much like a large village as the activities here mimic the villages. In the fall neighbors had coal delivered to the front yard and worked for days bagging it and hauling it to the basement. The little balconies of little bloc apartments became storage areas for little piles of wood. The “thunk, thunk, of the ax slicing through rounds of trees could be heard coming from hidden backyards, or front sidewalks as families prepared for winter’s cold.

Nothing made from wood is simply discarded. As apartments are upgraded, from old wood framed single paned windows and doors to new double-paned air-tight ones, the old are stored in the back yard to be used as needed or left beside the trash bins for someone else to quickly rescue and transport home. Often it is either the elderly or the Romi, who travel about on their bicycles outfitted with large plastic milk cartons strapped over the rear wheel or with baby carriages converted to wagons that salvage them.

As I travel through Stalipinovo (the mahala where I work) men, women, and children of all ages are participating in some way in the “heating process”. Young boys are sent to buy a bag of coal from a street vendor, hoist it on their shoulder and start climbing the two to eight flights of stairs, to bring it home. Little, little children are responsible for picking up the smallest pieces of wood for kindling on the site where it was split by someone three times their size. Wood splitting is rarely rounds of trees. Usually it will be a shipping palette, pressed board scraps, or broken furniture from construction or renovation sites. One day I stopped to help an elderly woman struggling with three plastic bags full of wet punk wood she was trying to bring home. As I approached her from the back I could see she was having a hard time managing the ripping bags and the weight of the wood as she stopped every few yards to rearrange her load. Together we managed to get them closer to her home, but I couldn’t help but think of how little heat they would provide for such a great effort. She could not afford the luxury of “seasoned wood”. 

Staying warm may also be the result of reducing the size of your living space considerably. Many families, particularly in the larger village homes stay in one or two rooms for the winter, relying primarily on the cook or wood stove for heat. Day beds are part of the furniture (even in the kitchen) year round, but take on a new life as the kitchen becomes the bedroom when night falls in winter. Adding a plaster exterior to the old brick homes helps as well as those new windows and doors, but that requires an income stream larger than the pensions of the elderly.

We are very fortunate. We have a climatique, air tight windows,and insulated walls. Not a draft can be felt. We know how fortunate we are and we are thankful for this good fortune. Many volunteers like many Bulgarians struggle daily to stay warm. If they are totally dependent on a wood burning stove, it may be hours after arriving home before they begin to feel warm. If they are in an old building which "leaks air" like a punctured air mattress, they are fighting  a loosing battle to be warm. Mother nature has been kind to Bulgaria this winter,even to those fighting the battle to stay warm,. It has been unusually mild. We can only hope it will continue that way for another month or two.

Lynn & Mike

What's In The Bag? A "Mini Adventure"

What's In The Bag???

Lynn and I have almost gotten comfortable trying to do just about anything.  We still get “goofed-up” or terribly miss-understood, but it is happening less and less often.   But it still happens.  The big difference is that now we do more laughing (along with our colleagues) about what has happened.  Following is an example of one of these events.  

Lynn and I enjoy going to the grocery store together.  Lynn often needs some help carrying back food, and we still have fun trying to figure out what some things are on the shelf.  There is also the large “Bazaar” for most of the block before the grocery store with 20-plus booths filled with vegetables, honey, wine, etc.   We both enjoy getting fresh food at these booths. 

Since the weather is colder, we are finding we are spending more time cooking up soups, stews, etc. than we did in the summer.   Lynn is still the “master Chef” in the kitchen, but there is always lots of cutting, pealing, chopping and stirring for me to do.   We enjoy working together to see what we can create in the kitchen. 

For the past couple of weeks, we have been craving some good “old-fashioned” chili.   We can’t get any beef for chili meat, but there are other meats we can substitute. In addition, there are plenty of hot spices and hot peppers here that we can work with to make a good chili.   We decided that we wanted to make the chili with a base of beans.  We wanted red kidney beans.    We had already made a simple white bean soup in December, and we have made lots of other bean soups in the past.   As we walked along the bazaar, you could see the plastic bags with the white beans next to the bags with the larger red beans.  We just had to find out how much the red beans cost, and how much the bag weighed.  The first couple of booths had bags with more than we needed.  We found a vendor with the right size bag, and bought it. 

When we got home, we got a large bowl of hot water and put all the beans into the bowl to soak overnight.  On Sunday morning, we got up and started making all parts of the chili.  Meat was cut and browned, onions, spices, tomatoes, etc. were cooked up.  The beans still seemed a little “crunchy” to us, but we put them in with everything else, and had this very large pot filled with a rather good tasting chili.  We knew the crunchy beans would soften up as they cooked for the next several hours. 

We had our chili Sunday night.  It was good, but the beans were still crunchy.  We also noticed that some of the beans seemed to have split exactly in half.  But, the chili was still good.   We had enough for two other meals.  One for Tuesday after our evening conversational English class, and the other we froze. 

Tuesday’s chili still had those crunchy beans.  This just was not making any sense to Lynn and I.  We started “poking” around more in the chili.  Many beans had split in half.  They no longer had the red color, but were white.  The red color seemed to be a thin film that cooked (or slipped) away.  And… they were still crunchy.  They never got soft.   We looked at each other – and at the chili, and asked “Are they PEANUTS?”   That did not make sense.  We had never heard of peanuts being sold in the bazaar.  They were in bags next to the white beans we had cooked before.  But they were not red beans like we were used to, and they did taste a little like peanuts. 

So… I started asking about peanuts at work.  Sure enough - - Those red bean-looking things in the plastic bags are peanuts.   A couple of my colleagues wanted to try our “peanut chili”, and kept asking if this was a special “American meal”?  It is not! 

But we still have one more meal waiting for us in the freezer, and maybe those peanuts will get soft!  I doubt it!  Actually, the peanut chili is not all that bad. However, I don’t think we will make it that way again. 

So… just when you think you are getting adjusted to life here, you buy peanuts when you thought they were beans!!  Keep laughing. 

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Buying Wine In Bulgaria

Sell No Wine Before Its Time - - NOT in Bulgaria!!

Like so many other simple things in Bulgaria, buying wine here is almost like entering into another dimension. YES – you can buy bottles of wine in the larger grocery stores, small neighborhood stores, and smaller kiosks along the streets. But, I’m not sure how many people (other than me for the first few months I was here) purchase it that way.

In Bulgaria, grapes are literally everywhere. If you have a house (in a village, or in a city) you will have grape vines covering your car, back yard, or walkway. In addition, there are large vineyards scattered around the country on the lower slopes of the many mountains in the north or south of the country.

This year was very wet, and produced a “bumper crop” of grapes. Grape prices plummeted, but wine production went up. So… where is all the wine? Almost every house makes their own wine. Most of it is a deep red wine, but there are also some white wines. At Christmas, name days, and holidays, the homemade wine will be served. But, it actually appears before that, and throughout the cool months. And like the grapes, it is everywhere.

The vineyards are south of Plovdiv. If you are driving on the roads in this area, you will find many places where there are cars pulled off the side of the road, with bottles on the hood of the car. Just stop, and buy it. When you go into the larger barzars, you will always find some of the vendors selling homemade wine. I’m not sure where they get the wine, but it must be local.

Buying wine at first can be slightly daunting. But where alcohol is concerned most men will overcome any fears to get it. These wines are not like the legendary Paul Masson wines that “will not be sold before their time”. The grapes are harvested in September and October. I was told to wait (at least) till the end of November to purchase homemade wine. Also, the homemade wine is not packaged in corked bottles. You simply take a plastic 2 liter water (or beer) bottle, and “fill-er-up”. When I first saw these, I thought they were selling coke. The bottles were the same size, and it was a dark red wine. I’m glad I took a second glance to figure it out!

If you don’t want to purchase wine from a car hood, or at the bazaar, you might be able to get it from the 10 gallon plastic casks outside of some of the small neighborhood stores. They sell it by the liter (and I think they supply the empty plastic bottles). You can get white, red, or merlot! “Step right up – and have a taste”!

Since buying wine this way is a step down (well – maybe a couple of steps) from a screw cap bottle or even a box wine, you have to be careful about what you buy. My first couple of liters was purchased from a bazaar booth, and the bottom of the plastic bottle had a “sludge” coating. I can’t really say it was very good - - but it did not cost much!

But, in the past couple of months, I have learned more and gotten a bit more sophisticated (if that is possible). So… here is the short story (with pictures) of my Christmas wine buying trip. My NGO helps and support small farmers in the Plovdiv Region. Some of these folks have vineyards. Because of that, we have an “inside track” on where some of the best homemade wines can be found.

On December 23rd, we traveled southwest to a small town to purchase the wine. We had called before, and gotten the price, and placed an order. There were three of us going. We were purchasing 50 Liters of wine! (We wanted to be sure there would be wine for the holidays!).

So… where would you go to buy the wine? By the side of the road – to a local farm – to a small bazaar - - - NO you go to the local high school. It happens that the father of director of the one high school in town is the best winemaker in the area. We go into the director’s office, and there is a small coke bottle with red wine to test. It is very good! We pull out our cash, and pay.

Then there is a call made, and we leave the school to go to the road where our car is parked. Soon, another car pulls up behind ours, and the transfer is made. (Are you picking up on the similarities of this transaction, and purchasing “contraband” in other countries.)

By the way, as you can see from the pictures, we have moved up in the scale of purchasing wine. None of the “little 2 liter bottles for us”! We purchase it in 5 liter bottles – with a bigger yellow screw cap! We shake hands, wish everyone a Merry Christmas (with all this wine, it should be merry), and head home.

I was not sure how all this would really work. Our fridge can not hold 5 liter bottles. But since it is winter, you just leave the big bottles on the balcony. We purchased a 40 cent funnel, and transferred the wine to smaller bottles in order to pour into a glass. Possibly most surprising, was that the wine was really good. Today is January 9, and I will finish off my 10 liters today. Thankfully, I had some help during the holidays to drink it. But we will have to make plans for “second run” to the village soon.

In the meantime, I will go back to the grocery store and buying wine there. But when I’m drinking the store bought wine, I will be thinking about the next batch of 5 liter bottles.

Have a healthy heart and Stay warm – have a glass of warm red wine!

Oh – if you would like to read a review of the “Beers of Bulgaria” check out this link. Brian is another Peace Corps volunteer, and he did an “exhaustive” study for his blog.