Wednesday, July 20, 2011

THE WEDDING – най-добри (THE BEST)

THE WEDDING – най-добрият  (THE BEST)

 Life is often marked with  seminal moments, tough decisions, or special events  that change your life; the birth of a child, graduation from school, a new job, moving far away, illness, or … getting married. 

One of those special events happened to Lynn and I this past weekend.  It was a wedding.    It was the marriage of Kay and Tyler, two volunteers from our group, who chose to marry here in Bulgaria because this is where it all began.  Their wedding symbolized so much of what our two years here have been about.  It was the cherry on the cake, the capstone event of a wonderful two years.  It was simply “The Best!”

Kay's house perched on the slope
Kay's Village is nestled on the center of the slope of the mountain
It took place in a small mountain village in the Southwest corner of Bulgaria about a 7 hour bus ride from Plovdiv.  Although it was only 7 hours away physically, like so many things here in Bulgaria, it was like stepping back 50 years in time. The wedding blended Bulgarian and American traditions. It was a perfect example of why we are here: to learn about other cultures and to share our American culture with other nations.  This event touched Lynn and I in several ways, and it is impossible for us to simply write one blog entry about what this all means.   So.... over the next few days there will be several blogs from both of us talking about our perspectives of the wedding.  We have a couple hundred pictures, and will share some of them in each of the blogs. 

Their Wedding "evite" picture!

Kay is from the Minneapolis area, and Tyler lives in Jacksonville, Fla.   They met the first day as B25s, and went through PST (pre-service training) together.  After pre-service training, Kay was placed in the Southwest Bulgarian Mountains, and Tyler in the North central plains – probably about 7 hours travel from each other. They were both teachers, and somehow they kept the relationship going (and growing) - - not an easy thing to do here in Bulgaria. 

Kay's village is tucked into the side of a mountain. There are about 800 people living there.  There is one road running through the village, with a few side “paths” off the main road. Most of the houses are built into the side of the mountain on the “up” side of the road, or are built on pillars on the “downside” of the road.  The main road ends about 5 Km beyond Kay's village at another small village.  There is one bus out of town early in the morning, and one returning at 5PM.  There are plenty of horses, goats, and horse drawn carts.  The village is on the south side of the mountain, and the views into the mountains of Greece are spectacular. It is the kind of place we all imagine ourselves when we start our Peace Corps application.  

The culture of the village is “Pomak”.  Pomaks are native Bulgarians who were forced to convert to Islam during the Ottoman rule, and now continue to practice Muslim traditions. In many of the wedding pictures you will see the women in the traditional “working or dress jacket”, and colorful scarf.  Kay is another one of those amazing volunteers who has been able to integrate into the village life, and speaks flawless Bulgarian.  A strong bond formed between the village people and Kay.  Kay and Tyler were sure they wanted to marry, but were not sure about marrying here in Bulgaria. About 6 weeks ago they decided to go for it, and once that was decided, the village took over; just like the old quote about it “takes a village to raise a child”.  Well, at Kay's, the whole village enjoys a celebration, and they helped make it happen. .As you look at the pictures, you will see the wedding parade blocks the one road through the town (thankfully there are few cars going through), and then takes over the town square (well – it more of a triangle). Like everything else in Bulgaria, weddings take time - - lots of it.  Following is the time line of events for the wedding. 

4PM – The 20+ volunteers who were staying at a hotel at the bottom of the mountain get picked up by a Van. (I wish I had a picture of this Van, and the 20 volunteers crammed into it.  It was kind of like that old college world-book challenges about how many kids can fit into a VW bug.)  It is about a 30 minute drive up the twisting, and curvy mountain road, and we arrive at 4:30. 

4:30 - When we get there, we all go to the small school where Kay has worked. Tyler is there, and his grooms men  help him prepare for the day.  The rest of us roam around checking out the small school, and the new athletic area just completed as one of Kay’s projects.. 

5:00PM – A small (but very loud) three piece band (clarinet, drum, and accordion) lead about a dozen of Kay’s students to the school.  They are there to formally pick up Tyler, and then lead him down to Kay’s home. If the groom lives in the same town as the bride, the groom’s friends and family would meet him at his home and begin the procession. But before we leave the school, there is the some horo dancing to be done on the new soccer court. A few villagers watch from the street above.

 5:20 We all move up the steps from the school, and follow the band slowly down the street to Kay’s.  Along the way, we begin to pick up more Baba’s, young students from the school, and locals.  When we get to the house, the way is blocked by a rope strung across the street. There are several traditions Tyler must go though in order to see Kay and be allowed to “take her away”. Much of it had to do with offering MONEY. Kay’s school director acted in her behalf and made sure Tyler was offering enough!!!! I believe he was given some money along the way from villagers to insure he had enough. While Tyler was negotiating a bride price, Kay was inside surrounded by women, peering through the window, looking through a ring searching for her future husband. Once Tyler was allowed inside there were a number of other rituals. Tyler had to find Kay’s wedding shoes and stuff them with money.  We were not a part of proceedings inside and are not sure what else happened, but it took awhile!.  At last they were escorted out by the school director. (think Dad). 

6:00 Kay is out of the house, and the next batch of horo dancing begins, lead by Kay.  The street is very narrow here, and the temperature is in the high 90’s, so most people just watch.  The crowd somehow multiplied at this point.

6:15 – Just before the band is ready to start leading Kay and Tyler back toward the center, the Babas on the balcony of the house opposite Kay’s start throwing candy into the crowd.  Just like in the US, this creates lots of excitement as all of the children (and many volunteers) grab for the candy.  One of the Babas showed Kay how to hold her wedding gown out to catch the most candy.  

When the candy has all been tossed out, the musicians lead the procession back through town.  It was amazing.  There were Babas on every balcony, rooftop, and side street watching, and then joining in on the walk.  I really can’t explain what it was like.  The band, Kay and Tyler waving to people as they walked by, mobs of people and friends coming up to them as they walk along all made this an experience like I have never seen before.     

The Town Center - Dancing in the streets

6:40 What would normally take 10 minutes, took about 25, but alas we finally arrived at the village center.  A big sound system was set up there, and our little band now had a male and female singer, plus an electronic keyboard.  But most importantly, we probably had almost 400 people with us, and they were all ready to DANCE!  And that is what we did!  For the next two and a half hours!  The only things that slowed us down were the horse drawn hay wagons, cars, and one big truck that had to break through the horo dance line in order to get through the square.  It was here that Kay threw the bouquet to the single women. Since there were only American women and some small children prepared to catch it, the assumption is that this is not something done in Bulgaria or at least not this village.

9:00 The 107 official guests entered a small hall in the center where there was an official ceremony, food - - and of course  - - more horo dancing. We are still not sure if Kay and Tyler are “officially married” in Bulgaria, but since we heard the question of each with a response of “DA” from each, and a signing and witnessing of a document……it is quite possible it is a legal marriage. Rarely is there a church wedding here, and the signing of the document is actually the ceremony. During the reception, the volunteers took over occasionally, with songs prepared especially for Kay and Tyler, sung by our very talented B25s. We sang our theme song “Are we Human or Are We Dancers”, John Denver’s “Take Me Home”,  and generally had one last bonding session.  

12:45AM   The van showed up, and we began the process of trying to find all the volunteers, to be stuffed back into the van for the ride back to the hotel.  Kay and Tyler, and a couple other volunteers were in the car in front of us. 

1:30 – Back to the hotel.  Sunday morning everyone was up early, coming and going by poolside as we all prepared to go our individual ways again. We then start another stage in the Peace Corps experience - - but more about that in a future blog. 

That was the flow of events, but the flow of emotions is much harder to chronicle.  Lynn and I have never experienced an event like this.  And we were part of it with some very special friends.  The hundred degree heat, the hours of dancing, the long hot bus drives getting there, the crammed van rides up the mountain, filled with laughter and song all made this weekend very special - - and very hard to adequately explain or describe.  We hope some of the pictures will help us share it with you.   And that the future blogs will give you some more insights into why we felt this was so special. 

Thanks for reading,
Mike and Lynn

She never left her post of the second floor window above the square!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The wedding _ Lights, Camera, Action

The wedding _ Lights, Camera, Action

 There is a very interesting story “twist” to Kay and Tyler’s wedding.   As you look at the picture at the top of this blog, you will notice the sound boom, and professional camera.  You may think this is just the normal wedding video crew, but you would be wrong.  This is one of the two film crews  from NOVA TV, a national Bulgarian network.  They were filming the entire wedding because – in addition to being “rock star” Peace Corps Volunteers – Kay and Tyler are going to be TV stars this Fall here in Bulgaria.  Kay and Tyler, plus two other members of our B25 group have been “hired” to be the lead characters in a unique TV show.  
The concept for this show is very positive, and it uses Peace Corps Volunteers in an appropriate way.   As volunteers when we first meet Bulgarians, there are several questions we expect to hear.  Things like – “where do you live?”,  How long have you been in Bulgaria?  Why did you come to Bulgaria? and Do you like Bulgaria?   The last two questions hit upon the very negative perception Bulgarians have of Bulgaria.  They have a problem understanding why anyone would come to Bulgaria because so many of their friends and relatives are leaving!  And – many Bulgarians don’t like many things about their country, and expect that the volunteers would feel the same way.  But – to the surprise of most Bulgarians, Peace Corps Volunteers here love Bulgaria.  It is a beautiful country, with wonderful people.   That does not mean we don’t get frustrated with culture and things here.  However, we have learned how to see beyond all that.  It is kind of like how Lynn and I love to take the trains here.  Although there are often dilapidated houses and factories right next to the tracks,  I don’t see those any more.  I only see the mountains and beautiful fields in the background.   The idea for the TV series is to show Bulgaria to Bulgarians through a “non-Bulgarians’” eyes.    We don’t know the title yet, and it will not start until October.  But most of the volunteers think it is a great idea.   The story of how all this got started is also interesting.
Some of you who have been keeping up with this blog may recall how I talked about the B25 talent show during our Close of Service conference in early May.  This was the second talent show we had done during our two years here.   The day before the show, PC staff told us the hotel management had heard about the show, and would like to watch it.  Would that be OK?  We said sure.  So… during the show, there were six folks in the back.  However, those folks were not from the hotel.  They were from NOVA TV.  I’m not sure how they got the idea.  I assume one of the staff with PR connections had mentioned our talent to them.   During the show, they got to see some wonderful performances.  Almost every talent combined special Bulgarian traditions, culture, and phrases.   Whether it was the poem written by Matt, or the songs composed by Cory and Anna, or even the bosa (this is a terrible breakfast drink loved by Bulgarians, and disliked by volunteers ) speed drinking contest.  Kay’s contribution to the show was a ten minute video she did which perfectly showed how most of us feel about our lives here.  She had video of her village combined with traditional Bulgarian folk music and rock music from a group called “Killers”.  When it finished she got a standing ovation, and screams for copies.  We all wanted it. 
After the show, PC staff told us who the people in the back really were, and that they wanted to talk with many of us.  For the next two hours, while we danced, talked, reminisced, and had a beer (or two), the NOVA folks talked to some of us.  Kay was one of the people they talked to most.  A few weeks later we found out, they had decided four of us, plus one other volunteer who has been here for three years would be part of this show.  All five of them are amazing volunteers, who have integrated well, have good language skills, and truly love Bulgaria. They all officially finished their service during the week before the wedding, in order to work on this program.
None of us knows how this will eventually turn out.  The camera crew was at the wedding on Saturday. Then, they whisked all of their “potential stars” away to Sofia on Sunday.   Monday was the volunteers first official day as NOVA TV performers.    Although we don’t know the outcome or impact of this show, I think it is a great example of how the Peace Corps can make an impact in ways that none of us would ever have imagined when we all got on the plane two years ago.   While I don’t know if the show will change the perception Bulgarians have about their country, I hope it will start to make some small “in-roads” to crack their negative perception.  Maybe this can be the first step toward making Bulgarians see “beautiful Bulgaria” instead of focusing always on the negatives.   But – no matter what - having four of our volunteer group involved in this project makes me feel proud to have been part of this Peace Corps experience.
Thanks for reading

Monday, July 18, 2011


Small tobacco field

Although we spent only a bit more than a full day in Kay’s community, it immediately felt very different from many of the other villages we have visited. Often, a village is inhabited primarily by elderly and middle aged adults. Schools struggle or fail to stay open with the minimum 100 students, and funerals are a far more common event than weddings. There may be one or two small magazines (stores) with the basic necessities, and of course at least one café. The gardens are worked, but often it is obvious that their sizes are shrinking as the owners’ age and can not manage the bigger task of planting, tending and harvesting the gardens of their youth. The streets are very quiet and vehicle traffic minimal. The young adults and their families have left to find work wherever they can. Some are within country, others outside the country. There are no jobs, no way of providing for a family in most of these little villages. We often say the villages are “dying”.

World map on the school wall next to the entry door....part of the project
Kay’s village felt different though. Granted it was a special weekend, not only because of the wedding, but because the new sports field (Kay’s project) was dedicated with a celebration the day before the wedding. There were an additional 25 or so Americans in the village and of course the camera crew from the national television station was there as well. All are reasons to draw people out. 

New combination basketball, soccer court.

However, it was not those things that made it feel different. As we walked out of town on Friday afternoon to admire the scenery, we passed a number of large lumber trucks, saw mills, wood drying sheds, tobacco fields, tobacco drying racks, piles of rock and more that were evidence that one could earn a living here. These things with the potential for sustainability were not lying dormant. This community was using the natural resources surrounding them, to generate income and sustain this village.  Children greeted us (in English) as we walked to the store for dinner supplies, and people of all ages were part of the wedding festivities.  I’m sure living here is full of challenges, and that many of the young people are drawn to the cities to go to universities, and for a better life, but somehow this village sitting precariously on the mountain edge is still hanging on! BRAVO GORNO DRYANOVO!!!!!!
Tobacco drying! A subsidized crop that will not be subsidized for long!

Piles of slate "harvested" from the mountains.

Tobacco drying racks. Will there be enough tobacco this year to use them all?

Saw mill and wood drying sheds on the mountain edge.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Mike and I thought we would introduce you to some people who are a regular part of our lives. They may be someone we see almost every day, once a week, or once a month, but they have all become special people in our lives. Let’s start with Златка Георгриева - Zlatka Georgrieva .

Zlatka is a 36 year old native of Plovdiv. We see here 3-4 times a week depending on how often we walk to the market. She has a fruit and vegetable stand in the bazaar. Neither her prices nor the quality of her produce are the best. I think what first attracted us to Zlatka was her smile. She always has one for us, and makes every effort to understand us and be understood by us.

We interviewed her awhile ago to find out more about her. She has been selling produce since she was 16 years old. She lives in the same neighborhood as the bazaar, but has only been in this location for the last two years or so. She spent seven years in Hamburg Germany, also selling fruits and vegetables.  She returned to Bulgaria when she was pregnant with her daughter.

Everyone sets their stand up in their own way. Zlatka has a narrow middle aisle just big enough to step into
to see what is further back on the stand.

Back side of her stand.
When asked if she liked her work she quickly responded “No”. Though not excited about her job, when asked what she would like to be doing, she couldn’t think of anything “I don’t know” she said with a look of resignation. Yet when asked if she would still be here in twenty years there was an equally emphatic NO!. She would like to return to Germany.  Escaping Bulgaria is a common theme among workers. They don't leave because they love to travel or because living and working in another country is a status symbol. They go to other European countries to work because there is work that pays so much more. Often only one member of a family will go from several months to several years, leaving the rest of the family behind. I hope Zlatka and her family are able to return to Germany for awhile.

It is understandable that she does not like her work when you find out she works 50 weeks a year, seven days a week, and about 12 hours a day. That changes a bit with the seasons. Her mother( who also sold fruits and vegetables most of her adult life) helps out by filling in for her one Sunday a month and for two weeks in the summer when Zlatka goes on vacation to the Black Sea. When I asked her about being outside in the extreme cold, she said the plastic she wraps the stand in keeps her warm enough. When asked what was the worst thing about the job she said it was listening to the people all day. (Bulgarians tend to complain a lot) 

 Everyday she goes to a warehouse to pick up her fruits and vegetables, loads them in the car, unloads them at the stand, spends the day standing in whatever weather elements are present , loads the car with unsold foods, then goes home to care for her 6 year old daughter, make dinner, clean the house etc.

I don’t know why Zlatka always has a smile for us. Maybe because we have one for her and we never complain about life’s woes!!!!!!  


Sunday, July 3, 2011

отиде до вилата Visiting the Villa (aka – going to the Cabin)

отиде до вилата
Visiting the Villa (aka – going to the Cabin)
The "weed-filled" left half of this building is the villa!

This past weekend, Krum, and his family (including an Aunt) took all six of us in his small car on a short 35Km drive to his father-in-laws villa.   Krum has not been there for two years, but has promised to take Lynn and I there for some time.  It was a great day, and gave us another perspective of Bulgarian life. 

The "foundation car" died before this climb.
Plovdiv's elevation is 164 meters (approximately 538 feet) above sea level. The very small village of  Бойково  (Boikovo)  took about 30 minutes to reach, but it is 1,106 Meters (3,628) feet above sea level  and is located the mountains just south of Plovdiv.  From my office window, I look out over the roof tops of other buildings and into the Rhodope mountains.  The road to Boikovo is long, curvy, and basically ends at the village center.  The “road/trail” from the center for the final 300 yards to the villa is a challenge for any vehicle other than a four-wheel drive.  Krum's car made it, but two years ago, the foundation car did just died half way up that last stretch from the village center. 

There is a very strong “cabin culture” in the US upper mid-west.  We know many people who spend most of the summer on a lake in all manner of small (or large) houses.  But what we found out this weekend, is that the Bulgarians have been doing similar things for a couple of centuries.  The difference is that while we go to the lake to cool off, they head high into the mountains to catch the cool breezes of summer.  Although Krum's in-laws home was “spartan” at best, there were several homes in the village which were very nice.  A few of them had to be owned by people from Western Europe because some of them had lawns with lots of grass.  Most often Bulgarians are more practical and use every inch of land to plant gardens. 

The water for the villa comes from a spring further into the mountains.  However, we could not get it turned on.  So... we went for a short 10 minute walk up to the spring to fill the five liter plastic jugs.  On the way, we met some of the neighbors cooking a lamb on an outdoor spit.  On the way back, we were stopped by them, and invited to have some rakia, beer, meat (not the lamb because it takes about 6 hours to cook, and they still had another hour to finish it). It was really nice, and fun just standing around talking and enjoying the beginning of their party.  They have a family “compound” (just like the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod – well almost) with two buildings, a fabulous view, and constant breezes for the three brothers and all their families.  One of the older women had just made some bread, and we all devoured it.  Three hours later when Krum, Lynn and I returned from a hike around the village,  there was only a pile of ashes where the fire had been.  The spit, and roof were portable and had been put back in storage. 

In addition to the Lamb roast party food, we also had our own small party with shopska salad, bread, fried chicken, and Lynn's homemade cookies.   After spending a couple of hours grazing on good food, Krum, Lynn and I went out for a long walk around the village and onto the trails in the woods nearby.    The pictures don't really capture the “quaintness”, and the unique aspects of many of the old (and new) homes. 

When we got back to the villa, it was time to start packing and cleaning up to get ready to leave.  However, we were not going very far on the first leg of the trip home.  A couple of miles down from the village center there was a trail leading to a refurbished chapel.  The trail continued onto a knoll with spectacular views to the north and onto the Plovdiv plain.   

Following are some more pictures of the “Bulgarian Cabin (Villa) Life”.   We had a great time, and hope you enjoy the pictures. 

Thanks for reading

This is the town center- the one bazar was opposite this cafe