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!!!!