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.