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

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Oh, That Chalgah Singer!!

Bulgaria has Chalgah singers and you don't! These are invariably slim attractive women who sing very passionately while striking poses that require them to thrust various body parts hither and yon. While they are not necessarily scantily clad, although most are, what clothing they do wear is usually fitted as a second skin. The music is unlike anything you'd be familiar with and is typically Bulgarian. It's a bit like pop rock with a dash of Bulgarian folk music under a Turkish influence. I don't think the music itself is as important as the presentation, which is always extremely dramatic. It's also interesting to note that all Chalgah singers only have one name, Maria, Daniela, Tatiana, etc. Chalgah is bigtime here and there are a couple of channels on tv that are dedicated to the art form. The nationally known Chalgah singers are every bit as famous here as Britney Spears. There are magazines devoted to following their lives just like movie stars and every little girl wants to be one.

On Saturday I went to Plovdiv to meet up with Brian & Kate so we could go to Saedinenie together for our Community Project Benefit Concert. Our community project had been to get trashcans installed around the town center and park, but time ran out on us before we could get the funding although we did have the plans in place. We were going to throw a concert for the town and use the proceeds from ticket sales to buy the trashcans. The ladies from the Cultural Center organized the concert after we left town and set it up for last Saturday. They did a fantastic job, the concert was great! Local talent got up on stage and sang and danced and played musical instruments. It was mostly school kids, but the current PCV in Saedinenie sang a Beatles tune and Pavlina, Stoil's daughter, got up and belted out a couple of Chalgah type numbers. Then an announcement was made that we had a 'special' guest who'd come to help out. The sound system blared and out came...Tatiana!! Yes, that Tatiana. Tatiana the very very famous Chalgah singer. It was as though (your favorite singer's name goes here) had popped out on stage at your local high school benefit talent show. She was tastefully attired in red leather pants and a furry white semi-top with a sleeve. Oh, and of course she was wearing the mandatory nine inch spike-heeled boots. She lip synched her way through several of her best known numbers and blew kisses to the crowd. For her last song, every little girl in Saedinenie under the age of ten was invited up on stage to dance with her. I will predict that Saedinenie will produce several of the next generation of Chalgah singers as a direct result of that gesture.

This week was fairly quiet. I had a couple of lessons with my tutor and I think it will go fine. On Wednesday night I decided to do a small load of laundry. It's been very cold here lately, in fact it snowed during the day on Wednesday, and I have to hang my laundry in the bathroom to dry. It takes about the same amount of time as it does when I hang it out on the terrace but there isn't as much space so I have to do a small load every couple of days to be able to get it all to dry. Every time I use the washing machine it breaks and I have to go down to get Hristo (my landlord) to come up and fix it. This time I was almost going to go down and get him before I started the load, but I didn't. The machine had been running for about three minutes when all the electricity in the entire apartment went out. I thought that the washer had shorted out and taken the fuses with it. That meant no water and no heat. I went down to Hristo's apartment and dragged him up to discover that the washing machine was fine, it was the fusebox itself that had blown up! So he simply ran a wire that bypassed all the fuses to restore electricity and promised to get me new fuses shortly. I finished the load of laundry without further incident.

There are many different types of Peace Corps experiences. For example, volunteers in small towns or villages have a much different experience than those of us in larger cities. In many ways their experience is much more akin to what I think of as a 'real' Peace Corps experience. The Peace Corps goal of integrating fully into your community seems much more attainable to volunteers in the villages. I hope that in time I will become more a part of the 'community' here in Stara Zagora, but for now I feel much more comfortable and much more a part of the community in Saedinenie. I still feel like a visitor here in Stara Zagora. Apparently, this is a pretty common feeling among newly placed volunteers. There is a predictable drop-out rate among volunteers who arrive at their new homes just as Winter sets in. We've lost two more campers this month and the grapevine says that several more have their bags packed. The problem is that we're new in town. We don't have defined jobs or responsibilities. We're not involved in anything relevant or meaningful. Many of us don't speak the language very well. It's cold. It's dark. We don't know anyone where we live and the people we do know live too far away to visit without a major hassle especially in bad weather. And, of course, the Holidays are coming up. Family and friends back home will be missing us and we'll be wondering why we are here and not there. Eventually, a percentage of volunteers just decide that they can be doing something more useful with their lives and head for home. However, the majority stay and just keep on plugging away. The PC tells us that we'll spend an indeterminate amount of time in the 'swamp'. We'll feel like we're not getting anywhere and we're always bogged down. It'll take us time to get out of the 'swamp' and to find things to do that will be fulfilling. It's made clear to us that we have to find these things ourselves, no one is going to hand them to us on a plate. Some volunteers just stop looking for anything to do and are content with the rounds of visiting and socializing that take place. Some volunteers throw in the towel and go home. But, most volunteers just keep trying to find something to do that will help their community in some small way and will make a small difference in people's lives. Eventually, most volunteers are successful.

Those, at the moment, are the challenges that I and several of my friends are facing. There is no defined roadmap out of the 'swamp' but we all share ideas and encourage each other in small ways. The ray of light at the end of this tunnel is the knowledge, based on PC experience, that when it's our turn to leave, we won't have had time enough to even begin all the meaningful projects that occur to us.

I, personally, am hoping to work with disadvantaged Chalgah singers who were born with two names.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Happy Thanksgiving

Much of PC philosophy is embodied in the requirement for all volunteers to become fully integrated into their host communities. That's also the primary reason for the emphasis on having us learn the language. We are required to be at our sites during all working days and are encouraged to remain at site on most weekends. We're seen to be more effective, and safer, if we truly become part of the local community and that doesn't happen if we blow town at every earliest opportunity. These are well thought out policies that contribute enormously to our success as volunteers. Another policy deals with holidays. We are not given time off for our American holidays, but we do get to observe the local Bulgarian holidays. Again, this just helps us become less 'foreign' and more like our local friends. It makes good sense.

Unfortunately, Thanksgiving isn't actually a Bulgarian holiday. Who knew!? Therefore, on Thursday when you are all sitting down to your turkey and football games, I will be at my desk working to achieve World Peace. Before you all begin drafting letters of protest to the US Ambassador on my behalf,let me hasten to add that I too will celebrate Thanksgiving. What we do here is pick a weekend around Thanksgiving and gather together in some likely spot and eat turkey and watch soccer on TV. My apartment, it turns out, is a likely spot and my friends are gathering here this weekend. Locating a turkey turned out to be a challenge. It seems that turkeys don't become readily available in Bulgaria until Christmas but a colleague of mine at work called around and found one that I bought sight unseen over the phone. It would be delivered to me at the office the following day and I had a real fear that it would be led in on a leash! Fortunately, it was delivered frozen solid and wrapped in plastic like any good turkey should be. It is a Brazilian turkey that was exported by a French company to Germany and then sold to a store here in Bulgaria. It's about the size and shape of a duck, so it may very well have been walked here from Stuttgart. No matter, we've got a turkey. The gang will include Brian & Kate, Sara, Lindsay, Maria, Matt and the other Brian. Hopefully we'll all wear birkenstock sandals, play records and sing old folk songs. Does anyone remember all the words to "Kum Bye Yah"?

Everyone will begin arriving tonight so naturally this morning the last remaining elevator gave up the ghost. The elevator that 'works' stopped working on Monday and we were reduced to using the elevator that 'sometimes works'. Then, during the night the elevator that 'sometimes works', didn't. I live on the eighth floor which is really nine floors up because you don't start numbering floors until you've gone up to the second floor which you then call the First. So, now I get to walk up and down nine floors to go in and out. As Rumiana said when I complained, "In Bulgaria we call this exercise." In America we'd call a lawyer and sue somebody! I sure hope my friends have packed lightly.

Work continues to be a bit of a mystery. We've spent the better part of this week looking over the bid sheet for the project to coordinate the work on an archeaological site in Kardjali. It's being funded by the European Union and many of the requirements don't seem to make any sense at all. For example, seven or eight experts are identified that would have to be hired, A Team Leader, an Architect, a Historian, etc. In each case, one of the requirements is that they be fluent in spoken and written English. In the case of the Team Leader, we have a man who is letterperfect for the job but is fluent in Bulgarian and French. The sponsoring organization says, "No, find someone who is fluent in English, even if he doesn't have this man's work and experience credentials". It makes more sense to us to hire the most highly qualified individual and supply a translator (if needed), but we've been told to go with a less qualified person as long as he/she meets all the requirements. We're so disgusted that, as of today, we're still undecided as to whether we'll submit our bid. This is a large project and bids were by invitation only so we can't be too cavalier about dropping out.

I've started to put together a short film to add to my website. I hoped to have it up and running by the end of the month but I may not make it. In order for it to work, I need to keep it under 5 minutes in length. Unless you have a really highspeed broadband connection, anything longer than 5 minutes becomes painful to download and open. The problem I'm having is that the rough cut I'm working with is already 27 minutes long. I keep trying to edit it down and it just keeps growing like some alien fungus. Every time I go into it to chop out a bit, I find something new to add. Apparently, it's decided to appear in theaters near you very soon. Or, I may decide to chop it up and post it as sequels, "Bulgaria, The Early Days", "Bulgaria, The Days That Came Right After Those Days", "Bulgaria, Another Couple Of Days", etc. Anyway I promise the wait will be worthwhile because you'll see such sights as turkeys, real Bulgarians, pseudo-Bulgarians, goats, and assorted buildings all accompanied by highly inspirational music.

I've got to go down to the train station now to pick up the first arrival, so think of me lying on my couch on Saturday (Thanksgiving Day in Stara Zagora) stuffed with Brazilian turkey, and hoping that the Stara Zagora Beroas finally manage to beat the Lovech Liteks. Beroas!! Beroas!!

Friday, November 12, 2004

A Week In The Life...

It's been a busy, hectic and interesting week. I spent most of last weekend visiting Veneta & Stoil in Saedinenie and just hanging out with them. Veneta was very interested in knowing how I was doing with shopping, laundry and the like. She showed me, briefly, how to hang stuff on the line, but it didn't look like rocket science to me so I politely cut the lesson short when Stoil asked me to help him lift some propane tanks into his trunk. It was great to be 'home' and sleep in my own bed. Veneta instantly dropped back into her food-pusher identity and I basically had to waddle back to the bus. I probably won't get to see them again until Christmas unless they make the trip to Stara Zagora.

The PC Country Director and Medical Officer came to Stara Zagora to see how Matt and I were getting along and to check out our apartments. Both apartments passed the safety and security inspection so neither of us has to move. Then they took us to dinner at Rasputin's, which is Stara Zagora's version of Charlie Trotter's newest joint. It's way beyond a PCV's allowance tolerance! I asked for a flu shot and our Medical Officer (Andrea) brought one along and harpooned me just before dinner. The medical care I'm receiving now is the best I've had in years. I broke a filling a couple of weeks before training ended and mentioned that I'd like to have it fixed once I got to Stara Zagora. The medical staff told me that the only dentist I could use is in Sophia and they would set up an appointment for me. I went up by bus, had my tooth taken care of, had lunch and rode back to Stara Zagora that same afternoon. Our dentist has modern equipment and a nice manner. He found three or four other old fillings that are ready to go so I'll be taking the Sophia trip another few times. It takes a little over three hours each way by bus and the ticket runs around $15.00 roundtrip. On the Stara Zagora-Sophia run you get an assigned seat, a beverage service and a movie. I think of it as riding a very low slow airplane without any wings.

I've been working on getting my Lichna Carta (Green Card) since I got to Stara Zagora. The first step in the process was to register with the police. You stand in a long line and finally get to a very small window where a woman looks over your passport and all the forms you filled in beforehand. You were able to fill in these forms because the PC knows what you need and provided them during training. However, the woman behind the small window doesn't like the forms the PC provided, so she throws them away and gives you forms that she likes better. It doesn't matter that they are the exact same forms as the ones she threw away, she likes them better. Then you go away and fill in the new forms. When you're finished, you stand in line again and finally get to the small window, which is conveniently placed slightly below waist level, and bend way over to give the woman back the forms she liked better. She takes them and gives you a small document that she's stamped and tells you to go pay your "taxes", get a receipt and come back. You have to pay your "taxes" at a bank that's right next door so that isn't too bad. Of course, there's a long line but you're used to long lines by now. You pay your "taxes", get the necessary receipt and hop back onto the line to the small window. When it's your turn, you're told that you need four photographs and there are businesses across the street that will take just the right ones. The ones the PC provided are not ones she likes so off you go to have new photos taken. You wait on line for the photos and then get back on the line to the small window, clutching your precious new photos that you really hope the woman will like. When it's your turn at the small window you have to assume a very awkward position so that she can see your face and match it up to the brand new photos. It's entirely possible that your face wouldn't have matched up quite so precisely to the photos the PC provided so you are somewhat grateful to the woman for having the foresight to make you get new ones before she even checked. Then she gives you a receipt that shows that you've registered with the police and tells you to come back in ten days. So, of course, you do. You stand on line and, when it's your turn, you give the woman your passport and your registration form and ask for the forms to apply for your Lichna Carta. But wait, first you must pay some more "taxes". So you go to the bank next door, pay your "taxes" and return to the line. Now you receive a new form that has to be filled in on a typewriter, handwriting is forbidden. Fortunately, there is a small enterprise across the street run by two women, one of whom has a typewriter. You wait on line, hand her your blank form, passport and registration form and she goes to work. Once your form has been completed by typewriter, you get back on the line to the small window. When it's your turn you discover that you don't have a photocopy of your passport and learn that, incredibly enough, there is a small business across the street (next to the photography studio which is next to the typewriter business) that will photocopy your passport for you. There is no line at the copy business so you are able to get back on the line to the small window in record time. The woman looks over all your documentation very very thoroughly and finally sighs in defeat and accepts your application package. That's all there is to it; four weeks from today I can go back down to the police station, stand on line to the small window and receive my Lichna Carta. Couldn't be simpler.

Our Agency (REDA) is quite busy now. We've just been awarded a project to design a training program to help Macedonian food & dairy processors meet EU standards and code. I'll get to help set this one up and there's some urgency to it, as it will take place from December 8th to the 12th. I am also putting together a half day Customer Service training module to be given to employees of the Municipal Government's service center. On top of that we are evaluating whether to bid on a project to coordinate the development of an ancient Thracian archaeological site into a tourist attraction. That's me, food & dairy expert-customer service guru-archaeologist-tourist guy. Still, it gives me something to think about while I'm standing on line.

On a more personal note, I'm getting better at shopping and cooking. I made an excellent pot of lentil soup this week that carried me through five meals. I keep scrubbing the apartment and either it's getting less musty or I'm just getting used to the smell. I managed to do a couple of loads of laundry last night and although the spin cycle on the washing machine now shakes down the entire kitchen, my clothes come out ready for the line. I checked on the status of the clothes on the line this morning and discovered that most of them were, in fact, on the floor. I should have paid much closer attention when Veneta tried to teach me how to hang up laundry. Slowly I'm settling in here and it's beginning to feel almost as good as Saedinenie.

One last word about the Customer Service module I'm going to give to the service staff in the Municipality, among the first participants will be a woman who works behind a very small window in the police station. I do hope she's taken the time to fill in her required course registration form in advance!

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Let's Get To Work!

Over the weekend I sat down on a chair in front of my washing machine, an appliance so old that it may very well have been used to clean the last King of Bulgaria's socks, and translated the instructions printed over the door into English. A man in need of clean underwear will undertake such a project even on a sunny Fall day. Using my handy Bulgarian-English dictionary I more or less got the gist of things and decided to barrel ahead. Throw the lever over the sink to divert water to the washing machine, got it. Set the selector dial to 'white', 'normal', 'hot', no problem there. Put laundry soap into the tray on top, we're sailing now. Hit the 'On' switch, and away we go. Water flows through the soap and into the machine and it starts spinning around (it's a front loader and you can watch your stuff wash if there's nothing good on tv), a couple of clockwise revolutions, a pause, a couple of counter-clockwise revolutions and repeat. Nice, huh? Don't tell me that forty year old Eastern European appliances can't take the heat. Several hours later it occurred to me that my undershorts were probably clean and the washing machine was still going back a couple of turns, pausing, and then going forward a couple of turns. I went in and edged the dial forward a notch and the machine began to move through its next cycle. Okay. I'll just have to remember that it's automatic until it hits the 'wash' cycle and then you have to nudge it along manually a bit and then it's automatic again. Unfortunately, it then skips the non-functioning spin cycle altogether. So I have to lift out my dripping socks and drawers and wring them out in the sink before I can hang them on the line. What to do? I did what any sensible renter would do, I complained to my landlord. Last night Hristo showed up with a bag of tools and proceeded to dismantle the washing machine in my kitchen. He pulled wires apart and soldered them back together, he whacked things with a large rusty wrench and he made subtle adjustments with two different screw drivers. Now I have a washing machine that still isn't quite automatic, but at least the spin cycle works. In the States this machine would have been a member in long-standing in a landfill somewhere, in Bulgaria it gets fixed and used for another ten or fifteen years. And as Hristo says, "Nyama problem".

And then came Wednesday. I was extremely productive on Wednesday. Our office secretary had to spend most of her morning dealing with the cable tv people for me which put her seriously behind in her work and then I downloaded a particularly nasty virus into our network which forced her to spend most of her afternoon cleaning up my mess. I looked at an old email account on Yahoo that I thought I'd deleted back in the States and lo and behold there was a letter in it from "Dave". Heck, I know Dave and the attachment was a list of political jokes so I opened it right up. Bear in mind that most of my experience is on Macs so I'm not as constantly aware of the dangers of viruses as those of you who grew up on PCs. So now Toni is especially happy that the Peace Corp decided to send her a volunteer to help her out.

Wait, it gets better. They turned the water off in the city for two days so they could do some work on the pipes. They gave plenty of notice and everyone stocked up on buckets of water. Then there was a rumor that we'd have water sometime after 6:00pm last night for an hour or two. I did what any sensible person would in that situation. I turned the faucet on in my sink, planning to run and take a shower as soon as I heard the water come on. I got caught up watching CNN and went to sleep. The water never did come back on. At least not until 5:30 or 6:00am when I was fast asleep. Remember that faucet I left on in the kitchen sink? A dish somehow floated over the drain and blocked it. My downstairs neighbors are also particularly happy that the Peace Corps decided to send a volunteer to Stara Zagora to help them!!

Finally, a word about the 11:00pm news. The news at 11:00 here is read by two young women who are stark naked except for the shoes one of them was wearing the other night. The sports scores are read off by a third young woman, also naked. Other than that it's just like CNN, only nuder. Last night they were discussing the American electoral process, a subject they became quite animated over. It was heartwarming to see foreign broadcasters take such an interest in our most basic democratic institution.

I'd like to write more now, but it's getting late and I don't want to miss the news.

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