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

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Stara Zagora

A week ago today Veneta & Stoil drove me from Saedinenie to Stara Zagora and then they left. My group from Saedinenie has been spread out to the far corners of the country and I have to get to know a new city and a new group of people. I'm settling into my apartment and I think I'll be very comfortable there for the duration of my stay in Stara Zagora. Of course, the weather has been wonderful and I might be singing a different tune when Winter sets in. Apparently, the practice is to collapse down into one or two rooms and keep those rooms heated. Fortunately, I have some options because of the generous space I've been given, so I'll play it by ear as the weather turns colder. My office is well equipped with heaters and each of us has one nestled under our desks. All in all, I think it'll be alright.

I've spent this week putting stuff away and going on long walks to try and find odds and ends that I still need for my apartment. I still don't know where any of the stores are or which stores sell what goods and just wandering around is my way of discovering what's out there. I get to the office just before nine each morning and it's only a five minute walk from my apartment so I don't have to worry about catching a bus. One big drawback to living in a major city is that I don't walk past the Baba's on their benches and thus I lose an opportunity to gossip and practice my Bulgarian every morning. Stara Zagora is just like any other big city, in the morning people are hurrying to school or work and they bustle with energy but don't stop to smell the roses. It would have been very difficult to have been stationed in Saedinenie for two more years because there just wasn't anything at all to do in that small village, but I will miss it and I'll go back fairly regularly to visit. In fact, Veneta has already called to ask when I'm coming "home" because I've already been away a week!!

I have my own desk and computer at work and I sit by the window which can be very distracting. It occurred to me that in my entire working career, I never once had an office with a window. I'm beginning to believe that I was a lot more productive because of that. There are five of us here at REDA (Regional Economic Development Agency) of Stara Zagora, four ladies and me. There wasn't an awful lot for me to do this week, so I just tried to observe and keep out of their way. Petya gave me a chore to keep me busy and asked me to review our website with an eye towards updating information and correcting awkward English grammar and phrases. It took me three days to go over every page and I typed up nine pages of notes which I dutifully handed over to her. She looked at my report as though a bird had crapped in her hand and dropped it on a pile of papers on her desk and that's where it will live from now on is my guess. On Monday I'm supposed to begin polishing the English version of a training proposal we're bidding on. It has to be emailed to the sponsor organization by the end of the day Monday and they'll have it ready for me sometime late Monday morning.

I've been told to just bide my time and observe before leaping right in and trying to "help" so this kind of work is perfect for me for now. At lunch I take walks around the city to try to see what's out there. I've found a couple of movie theaters and two or three casinos along with a great bazaar and a beautiful theater. It looks like it'll be a great place to live.

On Monday, we're going to begin interviewing tutors for me. The PC encourages us to hire tutors to continue improving our language skills and in my case, the sooner the better. Initially, I'll try to get three hours a week with a focus on conversation skills. My goal is to be able to ask with confidence, "Where can I buy soap?" and to understand the answer.

It's time to go explore now, so until next week...Ciao!!

Monday, October 25, 2004

I Do Solemnly Swear...

On Sunday night, Oct 17th, we had a Farewell Dinner for our Host Families in Saedinenie. We took over one of the small restaurants and had them cater a dinner. There was food, rakia and wine, and then music and dancing the Hora. That's a tradition at any Bulgarian gathering of more than three people. I have pictures and some video of that night and will upload them as soon as my cable is installed at home. Lindsay came up with the idea of taking a picture of each of us with our families and giving them the pictures in frames during dinner. Veneta was so pleased she started to cry. Stoil just had another rakia and then got up to join the Hora line. Here, men don't cry, they dance!

It was a busy week that began with cramming for my LPI (language proficiency interview) and culminated with signing a lease and moving into my home for the next couple of years. We took our LPI's on Tuesday and wanted to do well on them. There are several levels to the LPI and it's mandatory to achieve a level of Novice Mid in order to avoid re-testing in six months. My own personal goal was to get one level higher, Novice High, by the end of training. I took the test and had to wait until after Swearing-in to learn that I actually scored an Intermediate Low! It's hard to believe that scoring a Low in anything is good news, but I actually did much better than I expected and I'm really pleased. I headed home for lunch right after the test and discovered a party in full swing at our house. Veneta's lela (aunt), the fortune teller you met in a previous posting, had come by with some of her other relatives to celebrate my accomplishment. She told everyone that I did very well on the test before I even got home and they saw no reason to keep the rakia corked while awaiting the formality of my arrival. It's really handy to have a seer in the family.

We were all gathered together in Pazardjik on Thursday for a final day of admin meetings and instructions on beginning the process of getting our Lichna Carta's. Those are the Bulgarian equivalent of a Green Card and allow us to live and work here for one year. Then we'll have to renew them. It's a long bureaucratic process and I was told to begin it on the first day of work in Stara Zagora. The next morning we boarded a bus for Sophia and were taken to the gate of the PC Headquarters. Then,on Friday, October 22nd, 2004, Ambassador James Pardew swore into service the 56 of us who made it through training. The ceremony took place on the grounds of the PC Headquarters in Sofia and was followed by a brief Reception. After which we were all kicked out of the nest and sent to our permanent sites without the coddling and hand-holding we'd come to know and love as Trainees. Now I am a full-fledged Volunteer!! The ceremony itself was short and sweet and I have a video of it which I'll try to put on my website as soon as I get my computer back online. After the Swearing-in, we all milled around congratulating each other and one by one the new Volunteers drifted off towards the bus and train stations to begin their journeys to cities and towns spread all across Bulgaria. Sara, for example, had about a 12 hour journey to a small town on the Black Sea. I just picked up my overnight bag and hopped back on a bus to Saedinenie for a final night in my own bed. Veneta & Stoil were happy to have me home for this extra night and I felt like having another night of pampering before striking out on my own.

On Saturday they drove me to Stara Zagora, a trip that takes about an hour and a half by car and two and a half by bus through Plovdiv. We managed to find Petya, the Executive Manager of REDA (the Agency I'll be working for), and she took us to the apartment. Peace Corps wants our homes here to be safe and comfortable but not ostentatious. By PC standards, my apartment probably borders on ostentatious. It's on the 8th floor of an older building in a very nice part of town. My two terraces face south and east and I have two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen and one and one half bathrooms. The furniture and appliances are all old but clean and serviceable. I have about a five minute walk to work and ten minutes down to the center of town. Last night I took a chair out onto my terrace, lit a cigar and as I watched the night lights of Stara Zagora twinkle below me, I thought of all the PC Volunteers who revel in hardship and brag about having no running water or electricity. Then I switched on CNN on my TV and watched the news. Petya took me out to Metro (a store like Costco or Sam's Club) so I could pick up bedding, kitchen stuff, cleaning supplies, etc. I unpacked and on Sunday took all the debris down to the dumpster. I then went back upstairs and read a book for an hour. It was still nice out so I thought I'd go for a walk and nose around the neighborhood but I couldn't find my keys anywhere. I tore the place apart and finally realized that the only place they could possibly be was with the trash I'd thrown in the dumpster. I had to go back down to the street and crawl into the trash can to rummage through my own stuff to find the keys. As I was crawling back out, I saw my new neighbors and said, "Zdravete!", which is the polite form of Hello. They are really impressed with the new PC Volunteer next door!!

I started work this morning and have already worked on one small project. However, most of the day and most of this week will be spent in settling into my place and my office. I think I'll have a high speed connection at home before the end of the week, so I'll try to get some new pictures online then. For now, I've got to go off and do Volunteer type stuff, that's what they pay me for.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

All Good Things Must End

Our time in Saedinenie is drawing to a close. We'll be tested on language on Tuesday and wrap up training on Wednesday, then we'll be taken to Pazardjik on Thursday morning for our last Hub meeting as Trainees. We'll overnight in Pazardjik and be bussed up to Sofia on Friday to be sworn in as full fledged Volunteers by the US Ambassador to Bulgaria. Then the PC will cut us loose and we'll make our own way to our various permanent homes. Some of the group have commented on the fact that the PC has coddled us and shepherded us around like children since we got here and then, Bang!, they just cut us loose when we need assistance the most. Some people will have to move to their permanent sites on public transport from Sophia with all their worldly goods and chattel. I will hightail it back to Veneta's house for homemade chicken soup, stuffed peppers, clean laundry and a good night's sleep in my room. Then on Saturday, Stoil will drive me to Stara Zagora. Allow me to say, "Yippee!!"

We went to a truly pointless meeting in Sophia earlier this week and it was quite an experience. I had to get up at 5:30am to catch a 6:40am bus to Plovdiv. It was raining. There are no streetlights on my side of town. There are streetlights on the other side of town but they rarely work. There are no sewers or drainage culverts. The streets are nothing but potholes knitted together with strips of blacktop. You know that you've found a deep pothole when the water comes right up over the top of your boot. It was cold. But, we all made the bus and we caught the 9:00am express bus to Sophia after racing across Plovdiv to the South Bus Terminal. In Sophia we sat through a meeting in which a woman with a heavy accent read the slides to a Powerpoint presentation for one and one half hours. The slides were loaded with tons of economic data past, present and to come. It was the answer to an insomniac's prayer. After they woke us all up, we went to visit the PC office and were suitably impressed with how the 'other half' lives. We keep being reminded that "we're Volunteers and they're not". Finally, we went to lunch at a vegetarian restaurant that Maria knew about. It might have been the best meal I've had in Bulgaria. I will definitely take any of you who choose to visit to this place. The fried ice cream for dessert is worth the trip to Sophia.

Today I decided to go into Plovdiv to shop at the MegaMarina. That's the closest thing to a US grocery store we've got here. It's really nice and very well stocked and I wanted to buy Veneta and Stoil a couple of bags of miscellaneous treats to thank them for taking such good care of me. Up and down the aisles I went and without any further ado, I filled a shopping cart right up. They rang up my total and it was about what I expected. The only problem was that I didn't have enough money on me. I'm not sure why I didn't, but that didn't matter right then. See, in Bulgaria there is no such thing as a credit card or a personal check. Everything is paid for in cash. Everything. You want to buy a car, bring a large plastic bag filled with money. So there I stood with a line of grumbling Bulgarians threatening to get nasty held up behind me. Wait, there's an ATM right in front of the store and I've been issued a card so I can collect my allowances. Oh, unfortunately the ATM at the MegaMarina isn't actually working right now. Well, if everyone will just be patient, there's another ATM across the highway at the bus station. Okay, I shake a leg and run over to the bus station where I discover that my ATM card has been deactivated for some administrative purpose that I will learn about on Monday. Now I have to go back to MegaMarina without the wherewithal to pay for everything I've loaded on the counter. They begin pulling items back and when we hit the amount in my wallet I pay for the stuff and leave. I believe I'm permanently banned from MegaMarina, but it might only be for six months. My language skills still aren't up to dealing with banishment.

Veneta and Stoil were very pleased with the stuff I brought back. It's raining and tomorrow we have the farewell dinner for our Host Families. We've arranged an evening at the local restaurant and everyone is excited about it. People we don't even know stop us on the street to congratulate us on having such a wonderful party. We're celebrities here and the fame has gone to some of our heads. I've been known to offer autographs to any gathering of more than three people.

Well, it's time for me to head back to the house. Dinner will be served promptly at 8:00. Boy, will I miss the level of pampering I've experienced during the past two months.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Have a Little More...

If any of you are thinking of joining the Peace Corps, and I wholeheartedly endorse the idea, there are one or two things you'll have to understand. First, the PC has an excellent training program that begins by moving you in with a Host Family. In Saedinenie we have five Host Families and five very different experiences. One thing we all have in common is the stated goal of each of our Host Mothers to feed us all the remaining food in Bulgaria at each and every meal. Veneta piles my plate high with double or triple the amount she and Stoil eat and if I'm ever so foolish as to actually empty a dish or glass, it is immediately filled back up. In addition to the food on my own plate, there are always a wide variety of "side" dishes who's number and weight cause the table to buckle in the middle. I'm expected to constantly take food from these plates as well as my own. Veneta watches like a hawk and if I take a forkful of feta cheese, she immediately points out that I've missed the salami. If I go for olives, the feta cheese is pushed over to me. No matter how much I eat, Veneta always asks me to "have just a little more..." It seems that all the Host Mothers live in a very real dread of having one of their volunteers starve to death in their homes. Fat Chance!!

In my opinion, Bulgarian drivers are, by and large, careful and considerate. They take great pride in owning a car, which could be the most expensive thing they ever buy, and they don't take unnecessary risks with them. Stoil will push his ancient Lada up to sixty or sixty-five mph, but only on good, straight and empty roads. I've also witnessed no instances of road rage or other acts of stupidity. This goes against my own stereotype of drivers in developing countries as machismo driven maniacs. If the PC allowed it, I'd feel very comfortable driving here. Driving any motor vehicle, however, is cause for immediate dismissal and a one-way ticket home. It really isn't a problem and we all learn to work the bus and train system, just like the vast majority of Bulgarians. Stara Zagora, my permanent site and the city I'll be moving to in two weeks, has blocked off several streets in the Center of town for pedestrian traffic only. It really makes the city a nicer and quieter place to live.

When I arrived here in August, Veneta and Stoil were constantly harvesting one crop or another from their garden. Everything is preserved in jars and bottles for the Winter. Lately they've been jarring and pickling a mixture of cauliflower, carrots and cabbage that will be consumed throughout December, January & February. The grapes are all down and Stoil's oldest son, Ivalyn, will make this year's batch of wine and rakiya with them. I think I've been invited to join in on the work in a week or so, but I'm not certain that I'll be able to because of my move to Stara Zagora. I've definitely been invited back to Saedinenie for the pig roast in December. There's always a big party when the pig is slaughtered and butchered. Nothing on the animal is wasted. Veneta even makes soap from some of the fat. I've tried the soap, expecting it to smell like bacon, and was surprised to find that it's really pretty good. It doesn't smell at all because there are no chemicals or perfumes in it. It's just like pure glycerin soap and can also be used as shampoo. I plan on bringing a chunk with me to Stara Zagora so my guests can use it. Other than soap, the meat is processed in the usual ways. Bacon, chops, loins, etc. are all taken and frozen. Some of the meat is dry cured and becomes 'Babek' which is a very delicious pork jerky and is eaten all year long. Sausages are made from almost any part that can't be readily identified. One pig will feed the family for the rest of the year. Of course, it isn't the Bulgarian way to have meat at every meal or every day.

We are continually reminded that our primary job here is to become goodwill ambassadors for America. Our objective is to let host nationals get to know Americans other than the ones they see in the movies and on TV. We've been very fortunate in Saedinenie in that the community seems to have enjoyed having us here as much as we've enjoyed being here. People greet us when we walk down the streets and if we leave town for a day or two, people ask us where we've been. Often, we don't even know the people talking to us, just that they are part of the town and they are aware that we're here and they like it. When we sit in a cafe, people strike up conversations with us and express interest in what we're doing. They all ask how we like Saedinenie and don't we wish we could live here for our whole time in Bulgaria? It's a great place to be right now.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Where Have They All Gone?

At breakfast tables everywhere across America the one burning topic of conversation that unites generations in common concern is, where have all the accordians gone? I, myself, used to lie awake at night pondering this mystery. Well, you can all rest easy now, they're here in Bulgaria - all of them! Every band in the country has at least one accordian player and that musician is always prominently featured right out in front. So there you go.

Although we haven't done too much other than study language this week, a couple of little things have happened. A major International Trade Fair is being held in Plovdiv this week so our group took Friday afternoon off and went into town to check it out. There are a lot of exhibitors showing their wares in a very large and modern facility. We couldn't seem to discover just how the show was arranged. In America a trade show will represent something with a common theme, printing, cars, computers, etc. This Trade Show apparently represents anything from large construction equipment to a small firm that makes plastic dresses. There was no rhyme or reason for the layout of the booths and you might find jack hammers located right next to a booth selling the latest fashions in hair coloring. Much to our disappointment, no one adopted the American custom of giving away freebies so we all went home empty handed. All in all it was about as interesting as a Trade Show focusing on the sand industry.

Another interesting cultural experience this week was that coal was delivered to homes throughout Saedinenie. Aside from being a graphic reminder that winter is coming to Bulgaria, it was very interesting to note the way coal is handled here. It is dumped into driveways and onto sidewalks in front of houses and businesses and then it is shoveled into cellars, bins, sheds, or whatever. The interesting thing about this is that it is primarily the Babas who do the shoveling, even in homes that have healthy teenage boys the Babas shovel the coal. Two Babas with shovels can clear a small mountain of coal in a morning and still have time to sit on their bench and gossip in the afternoon. Can you imagine Grandma at home shoveling coal while her teenage grandson sits upstairs and watches videos?

I have received a letter from my counterpart in Stara Zagora informing me that they have found me an apartment. It's in the center of town which is really nice and it has "sunny rooms" which is encouraging. However, it's "not luxurious" and they "will try to make it nice" for me before I get there. When I joined the Peace Corps I distinctly remember reaching an understanding with them that my accommodations would, at all times, be luxurious. Isn't that what volunteering is all about? There are only three weeks of training left and it would be an understatement to say that the time has flown. We've all been told that tutors will be set up for us in our new cities so we can continue our language lessons. In the meantime, we'll be back in the travel exercise groove beginning with this week. We have three days of language in Saedinenie and then go to Pazardjik for two days of technical training. The following week we'll go into Sofia for a day of networking and identifying sources of revenue for our organizations. Our biggest concern at this point is how each of us is going to move all our belongings to our sites over the weekend of October 22nd.

My site mates have all gone on a mountain hike this weekend, leaving me here to hold the fort. Just as I was about to volunteer to go along with them I remembered the monotonous tendency of mountains to go uphill and I've got quite a bit of homework to work on and a document I've agreed to try to translate into English for the ladies at the local cultural center (Chitalishte) which is where our classroom is located. It'll be my first shot at a formal translation and I think that with Stoil's rakiya and my own cigars, I should manage just fine.

Until next week, I hope you are all well and happy.

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