A chronicle of my experiences as a Peace Corps Community Organizational Development volunteer in Bulgaria.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

You Say You're Speaking Bulgarian??

The Peace Corps has done an excellent job in bringing us to Bulgaria and training us to do our jobs. We've been taught and trained and given ample opportunity to learn through exercise and experience. During staging in Philadelphia we were given a broad stroke introduction to the Peace Corps experience and introduced to each other. Then, as a group of 59, we were brought to Bulgaria and taken straight away to a Training Complex in a town called Strelcha. There we were given some basic language lessons, a lot of orientation material and our agenda for the next ten weeks. When we were thoroughly comfortable with life in Strelcha and its routine, we were divided into training groups and sent off to live in twelve "satellite" towns with Host Families. So, for the past seven or so weeks I've been living here in Saedinenie with Veneta & Stoil and experiencing intensive immersion type language training. It hasn't been all language lessons, however, as we've been given various assignments designed to teach us to travel, order food, ask directions, find information on specific topics, etc. But during our time in our "satellite" towns, our primary focus has been on language.

The Peace Corps has one of the finest language training programs in the world. Thousands of individuals with just as many individual learning abilities have been taught to speak and understand a plethora of languages. We have four or five hours of formal class a day, we live with non-English speaking families in small towns where English is considered a foreign language (can you imagine?) and we participate in exercises designed to force us to use our new found knowledge and skills. It's awe inspiring.

Some of us, however, are proving to be resistant to persuasion and are progressing rather slowly. In fact, one of me is progressing so slowly that the incredibly talented team of PC language teachers is now trying to determine whether it wouldn't just be easier to change the official language of Bulgaria to English than it will be to teach me Bulgarian. For example, we've just learned future tense and other than having Veneta's aunt read my coffee grounds and tell me what's gonna happen, I'm not all that interested in talking about the future. Next week we learn past tense which is supposed to be the most difficult part of the Bulgarian language. There are no simple rules for changing verbs to past tense and I have a lot of trouble with tenses that have simple rules. So, I've decided that I will deal with the past tense by ignoring anything that happened before right now. See, that didn't just happen and I won't talk about it.

One of the outside exercises we took part in this past week was a trip into Plovdiv to see a show at the Roman Forum (yes, another Roman Forum!). This show was called "This is Bulgaria" and it represented the various regions of the country as well as their history in song and dance. It was really interesting and the dancing was truly wonderful. The only small problem was that we were sitting on hard cold marble steps the width of curbs and there wasn't even a five minute intermission during the three hour show. The feeling still hasn't returned to my butt.

I've got a lot of work to do this week but fortunately we're going to be in town for the next couple of weeks. Then on October 22nd, with any luck at all, we'll be sworn in as full fledged Peace Corps Volunteers. All I have to do is pass the language exam. Maybe they'll have it in English??

Friday, September 17, 2004

A Night At The Opera

On Tuesday we were all gathered together in Pazardjik to meet our Counterparts and be escorted back to our permanent sites for a few days of orientation. My Counterpart is Darina Draganova, Project & Training Manager for the Stara Zagora Regional Economic Development Agency. We left Pazardjik and went to Stara Zagora Tuesday night and I spent the next two days being ushered from one meeting to the next. I've met half a dozen people who interact with our Agency in one way or another and they all seem to be looking forward to having me in the city. I didn't understand why until Darina and our Executive Director, Petya Atsinova, explained to me that as a PCV I'm a source of free labor and they can't afford to hire anyone right now. Free at last, free at last. I don't think MLK, Jr. had this in mind. The city of Stara Zagora has a reputation as the prettiest city in the country and it certainly is the nicest one I've seen so far. It has clean tree-lined European streets and I never saw one goat, cow or donkey the entire time I was there.

Stara Zagora is home to the Zagorka Brewery, makers of Bulgaria's most popular beer, two universities, a nationally recognized theater and opera, and the most famous puppet theater in Bulgaria. I'll have an apartment somewhere in the center of the city as soon as they locate one for me. The Agency will find it and rent it, but the PC will pay my bills. It brings tears to my eyes to think that my tax dollars are finally at work in a good cause, my own personal comfort. The city is also home to an archeological site containing two Neolithic houses. These have been dated back 8,000 years and are claimed to be the oldest known dwellings in any civilization. I think Darina has one of them in mind for my apartment.

The Agency does a variety of things including translation services, project design and implementation, market analysis and support for small and medium sized enterprises. I'm not entirely certain what it is that I'll be doing but I've seen my desk and it's full of papers so apparently I have work to do. The Agency consists of four ladies and me and we work with Municipalities and NGO's (Non-governmental Organizations) offering them any assistance needed to develop or create business in the Region.

My last night in town I went to the Opera. Aida was playing and it was somewhat of a surreal experience. It was held outdoors in the ruins of an ancient Roman Forum and it occured to me as I waited for the show to begin that I was sitting in a Roman Forum in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria watching an Italian opera about an Egyptian love triangle being sung by Bulgarians. The show was excellent and I'll cover a little of it for those of you who aren't as cultured as I hope to become. Okay, first the spear carriers and handmaidens take positions on opposite sides of the Forum. They strike poses and look nice. Now here I have to dispell an old myth, In Aida the fat lady sings almost right away and the show goes on for another three hours. I know it doesn't make sense, but there it is. Another thing that happens is that the handmaidens actually begin, at one point, to Walk Like An Egyptian. the band missed a wonderful opportunity here to break into that tune but they trudged on with Verdi. During the Second Act, ten or so Ballerinos (I'm guessing that this is the proper term for male ballerinas) begin to perform a dance taken right out of Monty Python. Allow me at this time to share some information, it turns out that at no point is it considered appropriate during a performance of Aida for one to laugh out loud and slap one's own knee. The ballerinos are being perfectly serious about their dance and don't appreciate having one find humor therein. Nor, it seems, do one's fellow opera buffs. That being said, the prima donna performed an aria or two, a triple salchow and one paseo de muerte and the opera was over. Next month I'm going to try to attend a performance of the puppet theater. Unfortunately, my picture is being circulated in the fine arts circles in Stara Zagora so I may have to resort to disguise.

Tomorrow I'm off to Sofia to visit my folks. Check out the new photos and tune in next week for more fun.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

'Til The Cows Come Home

If you're doing anything until the cows come home, you have to stop at 7:40 pm. That's when the cows go home past my house anyway. There are eight of them and they wander up the street every night at twenty to eight. It makes an excellent counerpoint to the herd of goats that marches past at 7:00 am every morning and serves as an alarm clock for me. There is also a herd of turkeys that a Baba drover moves through the vacant lots across the street, but on an irregular basis.

Sunday was Saedinenie Day and we had a big celebration that included fireworks, a speech by the President of Bulgaria, a re-enactment of the military engagement that took place and a Hora (line dance) that included the entire town and lasted for several hours. Many of Veneta's relatives came to town and one of her aunts turned out to be a fortune teller. Veneta asked her to come back to Saedinenie later in the week to tell the fortunes of the five Americans and she seemed quite pleases to have been asked. My fortune, told from cards and coffee grounds, is that I will be hugely successful and very rich, I will return to the States and start a new business with an old friend and live an extremely long, healthy and happy life. I admit I was sceptical at first, but now I truely believe that Auntie has a gift. It's eerie.

We had language classes for four days and two independent projects to complete during those days as well. We held our second community meeting to help design a project for us to work on until we leave. Together with two ladies from the Municipality we have agreed to try and get trash bins installed around the park to help alleviate the litter problem. Our second task was to meet with a member of a local minority group to interview him/her. Veneta introduced us to a Roma woman (gypsy) who's been her friend since childhood and we talked to her for an hour or so over coffee. All of these experiences are designed to teach us how to integrate into our new communities.

On Friday I learned that I will be living and working in Stara Zagora for the next two years. It is a large city in the center of the country and is supposed to be very pretty. I'll have an apartment eventually but they haven't rented one yet. On Tuesday I go to Pazardjik to meet my counterpart. Each PCV is teamed up for the duration of his/her stay with a counterpart from the sponsoring organization. Then on Wednesday, my counterpart will take me to Stara Zagora for a brief orientation. I'll meet the people I'll be working with and get to see some of the city. On Friday I'll head back to Saedinenie to get on with the rest of my training. I know that I'll be working with an organization that is building support structures for small businesses with a focus on disabled people and impoverished women. We will be getting involved with designing micro-credit projects and training workshops. It all sounds interesting now, I'll know much more by next week.

Today I went with Veneta & Stoil to the Monastery outside of Assenovgrad. The Monastery was pretty and interesting. On the way to it Stoil and I played Let's See How Fast A 1985 Lada with three working cylinders, two working gears and one working brake Can Go. The car has linoleum on the floor and hums along at twice the speed of smell. It was a great day with perfect weather and a beautiful ride through the mountains. Veneta's daughter owns a restaurant in Assenovgrad and we had lunch there before hiking up to the Monastery. Bulgaria is a mountainous country and I've begun to notice that mountains go uphill. It seems to be required!!

I'll try to get some pictures of Stara Zagora online next week. Until then, watch out for cows.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Quite a Busy Week!

We started the week with a Cluster Group meeting in Panagyrishte. This is a meeting of four or five satellite groups and is held in place of a full Hub Meeting, which is a gathering of all the clans and is held in Pazardjik. Now pay attention, there will be a short quiz. During the Cluster Group Meeting we debriefed on our visits to various PCV's, had a session on the Bulgarian school system (it's much like ours) and visited an orphanage. Then we headed back to Saedinenie to study for our first language class in a week. It turns out that I do actually forget everything I know in six days, so language class was somewhat stressful. The head of the language department chose that day to visit our class which put Maria (our language teacher) under some pressure as well. It was during this class that such things were said as, "take me to your brothel, or my dog will drive your car!" We hammered away at language for three days and by Thursday were more or less back in rythym. We also had to go shopping for food, plan and cook a Bulgarian dinner for each other. This was an unqualified success if I do say so myself. We made palachinki, chooshki biyourek, and shopska salad. Palachinki are crepes and we filled them with shredded chicken and mushrooms for the meat-eaters and veggies and rice for the grazers. Chooshki biyourek are peppers that are filled with a cheese and egg mixture, flattened and fried. People from both ends of the food chain seem to enjoy them! A shopska salad is simply tomatoes, cucumbers & feta cheese. The tomatoes are wonderful here, but we'll only have them for another few weeks and then they'll be "over" until next summer. Stoil insisted that I bring a bottle of his wine and another bottle of rakia to the festivities and everyone agreed that "he 'da man!!"

Stoil is truly cool. He looks like Walter Brennan in any old John Wayne film, wears an ankle length pink housecoat with panache, and roars outrageously at any politician unwise enough to appear on TV during dinner. The other night he poured us each a small neat whiskey instead of rakia and I noticed the difference immediately. For one thing my vision never actually blurred and I didn't hear the roar of jet engines that always accompanies a glass of rakia. It's tame stuff this whiskey and I don't feel it's a proper drink for men. We'd best save it for the ladies and small children.

Further to the week. We also had a visit by Carl Hammerdorfer, the head of the Peace Corps in Bulgaria and with site assignments coming up next week, this added to our general stress levels as well. We are always being assessed and this was just one more notch on the site assignment pistol. Then we had to arrange for and facilitate a Community Meeting. That means that we were expected to go out into our community and invite people to a meeting to give us a general idea of what they think we could be doing here to help out. This meeting was held on Thursday night and we had nine people show up. They gave us several ideas and we're supposed to choose one to work on while we're here for the next few weeks. Their ideas ranged from complete the sewerage treatment plant to giving some of the senior citizens a few lessons on the computers. Brian and I are willing to tackle the sewers but I think computer classes are going to win out in the end.

Then on Friday we had a Hub Meeting in Pazardjik. We are usually taken to and from Hub Meetings in a PC van because the bus schedules between there and Saedinenie are pretty bad. The van picked us up right on time but we were told that we'd have to make our own way home. So after the meeting we headed for the bus and got on one going to Plovdiv where we could catch a connection to our town. We were able to catch the last bus out of Plovdiv and found ourselves standing in the aisle. When the bus was completely full, and we were jammed against each other like people who knew each other much more intimately than was proper, the driver said in Bulgarian, "everyone move back" and he let another fifteen or twenty people on. It was one of those adventures that still doesn't seem like fun even a day or so later.

Anyway, this weekend is the big Festival here in town. Saedinenie is where the revolution began that eventually led to the overthrow of 500 years of Ottoman rule and we're going to whoop and holler about it all day Sunday. I'm really looking forward to being back in the midst of a crowded square filled to overflowing with sweaty strangers.

By the way, for those of you who are interested, I have added a couple of photo albums that will show something of the area and people I'm with.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?