Saturday, March 13, 2010


It is only a twelve mile drive to the village of Kochevo outside Plovdiv, but it was a step back in time of about 60 or more years. Yesterday we went to the burial of Krum’s father.

As with most new situations we find ourselves in, we knew little before we left. We did know that we should buy individual flowers in an even number. Odd numbers are for happy occasions. We were surprised when the shop lady would not wrap them as they usually do. They needed to remain loose. We weren’t sure why.

We raced with Ivan (Mike’s boss) to the village and were one of the last to arrive at the family home.  Krum’s dad Yanko was being waked in the living room before burial. A quick hug with Krum, his wife and his brother and we were escorted into the living room to pay our respects. The small wooden coffin was open and lying atop the frail body were all the loose flowers. We added ours. We stepped back outside, spoke for a few minutes with a friend and with Krum’s mother. While we were doing this by the side door, the still open casket was being taken out the living room window, to the waiting hearse…..a red commercial type van with a hatch back. The coffin was slipped in, the water jugs of additional flowers and a wreath were tucked in next to it. Everyone gathered behind the van and waited a few minutes while the family ran around attending to last minute details…..finding a rope, putting things in bags, filling buckets with water and other things leaving us wondering why?

At last all were ready and the procession to the cemetery on the other side of town was lead by an Orthodox priest and a friend carrying a black hand made wooden cross with Yanko’s name and age sketched in white paint.  The van with both the hatch and coffin still open followed next. The family and some friends walked through the muddy street immediately behind the van. Others retreated to a waiting bus or cars on the dry pavement for the short drive to the cemetery.

The coffin was maneuvered with difficulty through the snow and slop to the open grave site. It was laid to rest on the edge of the grave. Heaped high on the other side was the freshly dug dirt. Everyone gathered around for the service. There were blessing and prayers by the priest, an anointing with oil of Yanko’s hands and the symbolic placing of dirt onto the body. A eulogy was read by a friend. For the final farewell by the immediate family, each member came forward and cupped Yanko’s face in their hands. The final symbolic gesture of pouring a cup of ashes over Yanko by the priest was completed. A white sheet was drawn over his face, and a blanket brought up and wrapped around his body from within. This left him ready for the final resting. The cemetery crew came forward, the smaller of the two dropping down into the grave. The mysterious rope was thread under the front of the coffin. Still open it was lowered to rest. Two plastic bags, one larger than the other and a cloth bag from family members were added to the grave. I wondered if like the Egyptian pharos, he was being sent to the next life with things to treasure or help him on his way. At last the simply decorated lid was place over him. Uttering a last prayer, the priest threw a handful of dirt onto the casket. Everyone else did the same.

With dirty hands, we waited single file to partake in the ceremonial hand washing. Water from a plastic lev store bucket was poured over our cupped hands and dried on a bright blue bath towel. With clean hands, we broke off a piece of ritual bread to be eaten immediately. Next Krum and his brother Stefan distributed to each guest little plastic bags of goodies…… an apple, a roll, some candy bars and a little cup of a home-made dessert. We still must ask what the origin of this tradition is and if the items in the bag are symbolic or just goodies.

We were invited to return to the family home, a typical modest four room brick building with many out buildings including the toilet and a big yard with “things” piled deep along the back fence. Once again the priest invoked some prayers as we all stood with lit candles. We were at the edge of the group just outside the door listening to the prayers amongst the sounds of incessant dog barking throughout the neighborhood, crowing roosters and cackling hens in the back yard and the ping of melting snow dropping onto the piece of tin protecting the stoop.

With the extinguishing of the candles the service was complete. It was followed by a social gathering with food and spirits upstairs in the living/bedrooms. The table was set with foods we see often, as guests settled onto the edge of the beds or straight back chairs to celebrate Yanko’s life. We stayed just short of an hour as Ivan had to return to Plovdiv to teach a weekend class. It was still quiet when we left, everyone politely eating. Ivan said it would loosen up with the drinking of wine and Raikia and the smiles and laughter would follow. Surrounded with friends and family, Krum, his brother and mother would be able to laugh today, but tomorrow would bring back new sorrows.

Having gone through the death of my own mother just fifteen months ago, the contrasts were sharp, and yet the sorrows and loss was universally the same. Missing yesterday, was the quiet and attentive funeral director, taking care of all the little details, the shiny, pillowed coffin, the pictures and video remembrances, the music and the church service.  Family and friends were dressed the same yesterday as they always are, ready for a day of work. Mike’s white shirt, tie and sports jacket were conspicuously different. Beneath the plain clothing though were lives filled with memories of Yanko as a husband, father, friend and co-worker.

Though it felt like we had traveled through a time warp, there was something grounding in the simplicity of what we saw yesterday. Our modern day practices of arranging and pre-paying for our own funeral services, have in some ways “sterilized” the process of closure after death. I’m not sure I would have changed anything about my mother’s funeral, for no matter what the rituals are; the loss and emptiness remain the same.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Dying In Bulgaria

Dying in Bulgaria

This will be a different blog entry for me. No pictures - - no tongue in cheek comments. Probably more “stream of consciousness” and a lot less organized. But the subject is more important and more universal. We all do this - - but only do it once. We all die. But as I get older, I gradually begin to slowly understand how different that one-time event can be for each of us. And… how much your country, culture and government may impact it.
You may be wondering what is prompting this blog. Actually it is several things wound together with a fuse which got lit yesterday afternoon. Krum’s father died yesterday at about 1:00pm. Krum is my counterpart. A counterpart is the person the Peace Corps picks to be your primary work partner while you are “in country”. It is kind of like an “arranged marriage”. And, like any marriage, some work well and others don’t. Mine is very good! In the past 10 months, Krum has become much more than just a colleague - - he is a friend. Krum is 29. His father was 55. His father had stomach cancer. He died two days after having his first surgery, which was only a few months after being diagnosed with the cancer. Krum never saw his father after he went into surgery. Two weeks ago, Krum found out he was going to be a father - - and his Dad would become a grandfather.
I am blessed to be working with several amazing people here in Bulgaria. George is one of them. George is a college professor teaching business strategy. He knows almost everything about Bulgaria. He worked for a short time in America, and speaks excellent English. He was my primary partner working on this very large project we just finished. He is kind of like my “Yoda” over here.
Just before Christmas, George found out his best friend had lung cancer. George knew this person since there were in kindergarten together. George made several trips to Sofia with his friend and his friends’ wife to try to get help. But, by mid-January the friend was in the hospital. And three weeks later he died. Like George, he was 48.
Two weeks after that George got another call. His uncle had died. It was cancer - - again. And it happened quickly - - again.
In the middle of all this, Lynn and I have had the opportunity to talk and learn about Bulgarian health care. During our conversation English class, we dedicated one entire night to health care. We have also had dinner with the Peace Corps doctor from Sofia. And, of course, there were several conversations with Krum during the past four months.
This is probably where the blog will get even more confusing. I’m not sure I have all my facts and data correct. And I probably will not remember all of the quotes I have heard accurately. But I would like to try to share them with you.
It seems to be commonly understood that medical procedures and health care here are not good. People do not pay much for it, but you also get what you pay for. This is one of the reasons if any Peace Corps volunteer needs surgery, we are generally flown out of country. It is also part of the reason Peace Corps Bulgaria has two full time doctors to service 120 volunteers. And, it is why (as I write this) I am on a 2.5 hour train ride to see a dentist and get my teeth cleaned.
Bulgaria has a rapidly aging population. Outside of a few large cities, most villages have few young people. These villages are literally growing older and dying along with their aging inhabitants.
As you travel in Bulgaria, you can find lots of hospitals. Most of them are small communist block buildings which are not recognizable as hospitals. There are no large emergency room entrances where ambulances rush in with sirens wailing. In fact, Lynn and I have only seen two or three screaming ambulances in the past ten months. I have been told the hospitals are darker and drabber places than hospitals at home. Two weeks ago, Krum was trying to explain this to me. He jokingly said that hospitals in Bulgaria should have a slogan like “ARE YOU SICK? LET US ASSIST YOU IN DYING”. Today that quote has a bitter sting and seems so hollow.
During our conversational English class on health care similar themes were discussed. The Bulgarian government does not provide much money for health care, and very few guidelines or rules. One of the people in the class felt it was part of a governmental “grand plan”. “If you don’t develop a sophisticated health system, people just get sick and quickly die. It keeps the costs down.” He was not joking. He believed it!
Shortly after that class we had dinner with the Peace Corps doctor. She explained that since Bulgaria had become part of the European Union in 2007, the EU requires higher standards for many things. This includes health care. But Bulgaria can not meet those standards without more money which it does not have. So… the Bulgarian solution is to close 150 hospitals rather than upgrading them. Almost all of these hospitals are in the rural areas of the country, where the villages are filled with those same mostly old people. Now those village people may have to travel 60 to 120 miles to get to a hospital and health care. But, most of these people do not have cars, and many have problems walking to the local grocery store. So… every emergency will be too late and many will have the same deadly result.
All of this brings me back to home - - to America. Now I don’t want to make any political statements, or get into a debate. But I do know that health care is the big issue home. However, sometimes I wonder if we can truly make decisions or have respectful debates without experiencing something dramatically different.
And – at the same time – I know some folks following this blog are very sick, or have spouses and loved ones who are struggling with serious illness. I think the operative word is “struggling”. In America we can struggle with sickness. We have the infrastructure to fight! If we are sick, we can get quality help and we can beat it. What ever – IT – is! I have always taken that hope for granted. It is just there! In America, you may decide NOT to fight. But it is your choice! Not something made for you.
I wish I had some brilliant conclusion to all these ramblings - - but I don’t. They are just part of the complex patterns and puzzles of life. Just a glimpse of life - - and death – from another perspective – and another part of the world.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 1, 2010


BABA MARTA DAY:  In Bulgaria, "mart" is the word for March and "baba" means grandma. In old folklore "Baba Marta" was portrayed as a volatile and moody woman. It is believed that when she was happy, skies were blue and the sun would shine, but when Baba Marta was disgruntled, she would bring rain and wind to the country.

We have heard that Baba Marta Day is a uniquely Bulgarian holiday and under this name that is true. There are however, other countries in the region which have a spring celebration on the first of March with traditions that are close in nature to ours, but celebrated with a different name.

THE TALE: The celebration has its roots in ancient Bulgarian history. There are a variety of tales to explain the celebration but one is that this ritual honors Mars, the god of war and spring. Bulgarians have had a troublesome and war-weary history and it is said that conflicts often started at the beginning of March. As warriors left their wives to go to fight, women gave their husbands red and white strips of cloth to tie round their wrists. Some gave small woolen figures of a girl and a boy. The colors represented the blood of the warriors and the pale faces of the women they were leaving behind.

On March 1, Bulgarians give martenitsi to their family, friends and neighbors. This may be in the form of a simple bracelet of entwined red and white wool or a brooch of red and white wool tassels. Front doors are decorated with enormous red and white pompoms or with woolen dolls called "Pizho and Penda". Pizho is the male doll and is usually crafted from white wool. Penda is the female, red doll and is distinguished by her skirt. Animals are also adorned with their own special martenitsa. Young people and teachers, in particular, can be seen with a wrist full of red and white bracelets. 

Some say that the red and white are the colors of Mother Nature. The white wool represents the melting snow and the red twine represents the setting sun, which becomes more and more intense as spring advances. Others say that the white symbolizes man and the red woman, or that they represent purity and life or health and strength.
When you receive a martenitsa, you must wear it until you see a stork or the first buds of a fruit tree, for they symbolize the true arrival of spring. There are also a number of things you might do with it once you remove it and that seems to be regionally dependent. Here in our region, they are removed (sometimes a whole arms length of them) and hung on the budding tree, while making a wish.

School children sing songs to Baba Marta throughout the month of March and some still make their own martenitsi, but most purchase them from street vendors and the holiday has become far more commercialized. Today’s martenitsi may incorporate fancy beads and popular characters like Spiderman or Barbie. The sidewalks are lined with vendors all selling virtually the same merchandize. It is hard to imagine how each of them can make any money, but they apparently do.  It is clear that when the holiday passes, the merchandize is packed up, stored and brought out again one year from now.