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

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Wedding

Shawn and Chrissy  MARRIED!!!!!!!

It was wonderful, beautiful, emotional, fun, exciting, thoughtfully planned, and a reflection of Shawn‘s and Chrissy’s love for each other.

Since they live in Queens NY they held the wedding and reception close to home. It was held on the east shore of the East River, on an open air hotel rooftop with the Queensboro Bridge and the Manhattan skyline as backdrops. The weather was a bit windy but warm, bright and sunny.  The day was permeated with a sense of joy, intimacy and celebration. 
Dan, Shawn, Cousin Megan, and Sean
Before the ceremony friends and family (including Shawn and his attendants) were mingling and taking pictures. When it was time to begin everyone took their seats and places and the ceremony began. 

Mike and I and Chrissy’s attendants walked into Simon and Garfunkel’s 59th Street Bridge (also know as Queensboro Bridge) reflecting the whimsy of the day. The ceremony held so many words of wisdom and truly expressed what is important in a marriage.  Shawn and Chrissy were standing just feet away from us and it was an unusual delight to see and feel their emotions as they pledged their love, said their vows, exchanged their rings and accepted the responsibilities as well as the joys of marriage.  

Chrissy, Mom & Dad


We'll be right back!
 Following the recessional out one door, the wedding party reappeared a few minutes later through a different door and the picture taking and festivities began.  In due time, the guests boarded a big yellow school bus to be shuttled the few miles back to the hotel where we were all staying until the reception began.  An outdoor patio provided a gathering place for the pre-party! A few hours later the school bus returned for another trip to the reception hall, also nearby. 

Shawn's rather large family ( nine others missing)
Chrissy's rather small family

Wedding party.
While we were enjoying the first party, the bride, groom and attendants went for pictures to Gantry Park (also on the shore of the East River) where Shawn had asked Chrissy to marry him. Following that Shawn, Chrissy and the photographer stopped at a few iconic locations, then took the #7 train to Grand Central Station for more pictures both in the subway tunnels and at the station. They are unique and amazing pictures. 

On the #7 train from Queens to grand Central
Missed that train!

Grand Central Rail Station

A prayer for Scott led by Mike's dad Grampa Lynch,toasts and  speeches proceeded the dinner .

Our thoughts are with you Scott!
The surprise of the evening was the revelation of the honeymoon destination. Shawn had planned the honeymoon; with the only other person knowing where they were going was Scott (who wasn’t telling anyone from his location in Iraq). With a beautiful purple and white lei from Hawaii, we all (including Chrissy) learned of their plans.
Everything about the day was an expression of their love for each otherand  . They planned and touched every part of this wedding, leaving only the final implementation to others. Touches of purple (Chrissy's favorite color) were everywhere right down to her shoes and the argile socks for the men.

Love those socks!
Pretty purple shoes!

Every song we heard or danced to was selected by them. The music ranged from Kermit the Frog singing Rainbow Connection to Frank Sinatra and Kenny Rogers with a variety of great dancing music from Hip-Hop to the Twist. We even introduced the traditional Bulgarian Horo , a part of every Bulgarian wedding to the reception. Chrissy made all the invitations, centerpieces, flower arrangements and props for a photo booth set up at the reception. Their selection of venues from the rehearsal dinner to the places for pictures reflected much thought and their attention to the comfort and ease of their guests in such an overwhelming city was highly evident.

Young Ben stole the show!
Bulgarian Horo Dance with the father of the groom in the lead!
Getting down!

               Our visit with family and friends at the wedding was extensive, starting on Saturday and spilling through the day on Monday before we boarded our own plane back to Bulgaria. I’m so glad we took our vacation time up front before the wedding. Everything following would have been anti-climatic.!!!! The only thing that could have made it better would have been to have Scott with us for this oh so special day.

                                 Thank You Shawn and Chrissy for a wonderful day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Coming To America

Coming To America -

I had the Neil Diamond song rattling around my head most of the plane ride to JFK airport, and it seemed an appropriate title for this blog.

America – USA – Home – I had not been there for 15 months. What would it be like? What about all of those things that I missed – how great would it be to have them again? And, - then – what about returning to Bulgaria – would I miss all of them all over again? Like most things in life, the expectations were very different from the reality. Following are some of the impressions and feelings I had during the trip. It was a “fast-paced” hectic trip. I have tried to make this blog “cryptic” with quick – choppy thoughts – kind of like the entire trip.

1. Tuesday Aug 24 - English – spoken everywhere! We flew British Air. From the Sofia airport ticket desk everything was in English. I had forgotten how much energy it takes to be trying to constantly translate what you think you are hearing.
2. We had a great flight from Sofia to London mostly because of wonderful Bulgarian young lady who sat with us. She studied in Cambridge England, and has a law degree and a finance degree. She is currently working for the Bulgarian Ministry of Finance. She symbolized all that is hopeful about the future of Bulgaria.
3. Heathrow airport – terminal 5. WOW! Signs everywhere! Efficient people transportation! People explaining expectations – in English (and other languages). Lots of stores to window shop in, and places to eat!
4. Bathrooms without wet floors from plumbing leaks
5. Finally into JFK, and seeing Shawn and Chrissy. A fire in the Long Island Railway computer center has stopped many trains – almost like Bulgaria – but the cabs work fine.
6. At Shawn and Chrissy's place – time for a beer. What – a 12 ounce bottle! That is about the same size as a “juice glass” in Bulgaria.
7. Sticker Shock – How much did that puny bottle of beer cost? $3.50 – Yikes!!!! Take me back to BG where I can get 2 liters (almost 64 ounces) for about $1.95. One bottle is enough for two nights!
8. Wednesday - Sticker Shock Again - $50 to hem Lynn's gown. One week earlier in BG we shortened and took in three pair of pants for 16 Leva (about $11). My wallet will be cleaned out in just one week!!!!
9. Taking the Shore Line North train to New Haven to pick up a car and see Pat and Molly. We rush thru Grand Central terminal to catch the train – but walk back to just look at the beauty of the station. The Sofia and Plovdiv train stations are “out houses” compared to it.
10. On the train. We have not eaten all day. Lynn still has some BG peaches that survived the plane ride. One bite, and I'm longing to be back. It is hard to get fruit and vegies in the US like we get everyday here in BG.
11. We get to Pat's. Molly, Colman and the boys are there for dinner also. They start asking about life in BG, and we keep talking – and talking - - for almost two hours!!!! We got “talking about Bulgaria” out of our systems, and apologized. However, no “eyes glazed over”, and everyone said they were interested. (We hope that is the truth.)
12. Thursday – Our bank card does not work so we can NOT get cash, and Lynn has to make an emergency visit to the dentist. We are a “half day late” on our schedule, and it is only the second day. The hectic “American pace” is quickly creeping back!
13. We get to Cape Cod late in the day, but we were still able to spend a couple of hours on the beach with Meg, Bob, and the kids. Then off to diner at a restaurant on the water. American food portions are HUGE. We had forgotten that!
14. Friday – Spent the entire day with Dad on the Cape. Although we did lots of things to help him, it was a slower day. But, at 87 years old, Dad is very active. Went out to diner – but this night, we split one meal between Lynn and I.
15. Saturday - Left the Cape early heading to NH to see friends. Made our “first” stop for Ice Cream at Kimball’s in Westford Ma. This is one thing we both really miss in BG, and by the end of the trip, we had OD'd on home made American Ice Cream!
16. Had a late lunch (about two hours after the very large portions of Kimball’s ice cream) with Bill and Janet at the Bedford Inn.
17. After a long lunch, it was a 10 minute drive to visit and spend the night with Deb and Randy. It is so wonderful to see friends and have time to talk and visit with all of them!
18. Sunday - Randy has an extra bike and helmet, so we take off for an early morning bike ride. I am amazed at how good I feel doing it. But more importantly, I remember how much I enjoy biking around the New England (or Wisconsin) back roads. It was great - - but I wish I could do it every day.
19. At noon we are off to the NH coast (Rye) to visit with Cindy and Doug. When we get there, we decide to go to Kittery Maine to sit on the harbor, and eat lobsters and steamers. This place used to be walking distance from where Pat lived, and we have spent many long, relaxing afternoons here watching the boats, drinking beer, sipping wine, and eating lobster. Lots of great memories – and we added another memory Sunday afternoon.
20. After a short rest, we head to Rye beach for sunset. There were very few people on the beach, and we enjoyed the sound of the crashing waves, and quiet conversation with Cindy and Doug. It was very relaxing. We finished off a wonderful day by having Doug take us to a New (for us) home made ice cream place. It was almost as good as Kimballs.
21. Monday – Left early for Ken and Paula's in Mass. But they live near Kimball’s (Yup – we had more ice cream!). We also met with Kristen and Ben, and played mini-golf. It was fun! Surf and turf for dinner at Ken's. Food overload is setting in - (well actually, it is strongly in place)!!!
22. Tuesday - Ken showed me an overnight mail package I had gotten from my bank about refinancing our home. I had not really considered doing this. However, a couple of long phone calls, and some quick research convinced me I should try to do it. The rest of the day is getting paperwork, and going to the bank to apply. It is really hard to explain to a banker how a Peace Corps volunteer gets paid because we don't have a salary – just a living allowance! I'm not sure we will ever get the loan, but we are still working on it.
23. During this entire trip, Lynn and I were constantly shopping. We had a long list of things we wanted to purchase and take back with us. But that meant that every spare moment we had (and there were few of them), we were checking the “shopping list”, and off to try to find things. In the middle of this, we accidentally found a perfect backpack for Lynn. It was a women' extra small, and it fit like no other we have ever seen. But backpacks were not on our shopping list, and demanded we make logistical decisions about our travel plans (which don't exist) for the end of our service trip. The pack was back in NH, and on Tuesday Lynn and Paula made a three hour round trip drive to purchase it.
24. Late in the day, we head back to Connecticut to spend the night with Pat. We also visit with Richard and Yvette, and have a quiet dinner with Pat.
25. Wednesday - We sleep in, and run errands in the morning. Pat takes us to a small Long Island Sound town nearby called Stony Creek. We sit on the porch of an old general store on the harbor and have lunch. It is really beautiful. Then we take a long walk on a rail trail along the marshes in the town. It is another wonderful afternoon. We finish off the day with a big dinner with Pat, Molly, Colman, and the boys. We did NOT talk about Bulgaria during this meal!
26. Thursday – More errands and final frantic shopping in the morning. Then at noon it is off to New Haven to drop of the car, and take the train back to NYC and Grand Central. We are heading off to see Shawn and Chrissy, and maybe help with any final preparations for the wedding on Sunday.
27. We cook dinner for them at their place. There ARE LOTS of things we can do to help, and we are very thankful to be there and able to help. We head back to our hotel (where we will stay in one bed for four nights) at midnight.
28. Friday - Did I mention that were lots of things we could do to help for the wedding? We worked till about 7PM, and left the kids to themselves. We met with Ken, Paula, Roy and Betty at the hotel later that evening.
Saturday thru Monday – Shawn and Chrissy's wedding. IT WAS AWESOME!!!! The kids planned everything – even down to every song played during the reception. But this is where I stop this blog. The wedding (with pictures) deserves it's own blog entry.

Our trip back to Bulgaria was uneventful, which is what you want. As I walked home the first day back, I remembered the familiar smell of grilled food as I walked by a restaurant. A few blocks later, as I walked past an old communist “bloc” apartment building, I could smell the sweet septic aroma rising from a leak some place. When I got home to the apartment, the dogs were constantly barking across the street, the old Russian cars without mufflers were slowly bouncing up our cobblestone street, and there was the constant noise of people walking and talking in the street under us. But Lynn was there. I had bought a bottle (big) of beer. There was fruit in the house, and a shopka salad to be made by me. It was good to be home!!