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

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Happy New Year, Dead Guy!

I spent Christmas in Plovdiv with my friends from the Saedinenie study group. We all gathered at Brian & Kate's apartment on Christmas Eve and then took the bus into Saedinenie on Saturday to visit our Host Families. It's always great to see Veneta & Stoil again and eat tons of home cooked food. They make sure that I leave their place weighed down with Domashna Rakiya and Domashna Vino. Domashna means homemade. Although my language skills are still weak, I've always been able to communicate pretty well with Veneta. She understands my garbled first grader Bulgarian and uses words and phrases I'm familiar with when she talks to me. There are still times, however, when I miss the message by just that much. Veneta has an uncle who lives here in Stara Zagora and works on the local paper. She was explaining to me during our Christmas dinner that her uncle was "pochivka". "Pochivka" can be used to mean at rest or on vacation or a time of relaxation. I said that it was very good that he was resting and that I planned on resting soon too. Okay, I didn't know that "pochivka" is also used to mean dead. Surprisingly enough, here in Bulgaria as in much of the rest of the world, it is considered impolite to respond to someone who has just told you that one of their dear relatives has died by saying, "That's great! I'm planning on dying soon too!" Lucky for me, Veneta knows me and gives anything I say a most generous allowance. I believe the only time I ever actually offended them was when I insisted on paying for gas for their car after they'd driven me to the mountains on a sightseeing trip. They accepted it only after I assured them that it was the custom in America for the passenger to pick up the tab for the gas. However, we'll have no more of those bizarre American customs, thank you. Remember, this is a country where you give everyone you know gifts on your birthday.

There was talk that we might have this week between Christmas and New Year off from work. It didn't pan out that way and we're wrapping up the summary report on a project that was completed over the past summer. That's fine with me, because I don't have any plans and I enjoy the Agency. I'm only a ten or twelve minute walk from my apartment and I tend to go home for lunch. That gives me a chance to turn on my radiator and heat up my living room so it's nice and warm when I get back home at night. Today when I got to the building the elevator was once again "pochivka". I actually don't mind climbing the stairs as it's the only exercise I'm getting these days. So I started up and as I climbed, I could hear what sounded like a large group of people coming down. This is sort of unusual in the building as I rarely see more than one or two folks at a time in the halls or stairwells. The stairwell is narrow and as I rounded one turn, I was confronted by half a dozen burly men carrying down what looked for all the world like a coffin. They were wrestling this long box down our very narrow stairwell. Of course it couldn't be a coffin because it didn't have a lid on it. It was just a coffin shaped box filled with flowers. And a dead guy! Okay, it was a coffin. I have no idea why it didn't have a lid but that wasn't overly important right at that moment. I was squeezed up against one wall and the men murmured what were most probably apologies as they squeezed by pressed against the other wall. They stopped for a breather when I was more or less face to face with the dead guy and I couldn't help but notice that he looked sort of annoyed. It was probably because there were no elevators for his last trip out of the building but it might have been because his relatives didn't spring for a coffin lid. Feeling somewhat uncomfortable and not being able to move, I managed to blurt out the only Bulgarian phrase that came to mind, "Chestita Nova Godina". Happy New Year! The murmuring turned ugly at that point, but their hands were full and I was able to scamper up the stairs out of harms way. We've really got to do something about those elevators!!

I wish all of you a very Happy and Healthy New Year! See you in 2005!!

Sunday, December 19, 2004

On The Road Again

I spent this past week traveling back and forth from Stara Zagora to Sofia to visit the dentist on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It's about a 3 1/2 hour bus ride each way so it made for a long week. The PC dentist is a Bulgarian who was trained in Sweden and speaks perfect English albeit with a Swedish accent. He did a fine job on my teeth and I don't have any worries about the quality of my care for the two years I'll be here. A small side benefit of the many trips to Sofia is that I now have a pretty good grasp of the public transportation system in the big city. The bus arrives at the misnamed "Central Aftogara", which is the bus station on the far north side of the city. The PC office is south and west and it takes two trams to get there. The dentist's office is in the Kempinsky Hotel which is on the southern edge of Sofia. A bit of trivia about the Kempinsky, it's the hotel used by the man who shot the Pope. He stayed in Room 911 the night before his assassination attempt. Our dentist uses Room 110.

The public transportation system works differently in Sofia from the rest of the country. Everywhere else you just get on and purchase your ticket on the vehicle, not in Sofia. There you must go to a kiosk and buy your ticket before you get on the bus, tram or trolley. Then after you get on, you have to take your ticket to one of the little ticket punches and stamp it yourself. Periodically a ticket checker will board the vehicle and demand to see your punched ticket. If you don't have a ticket or you have a ticket that hasn't been punched, you are subject to a fine. It's sort of like the honor system with a gray area.

I was able to make good use of my trips to Sofia to meet with a few people who might be able to help me draw up my request for funding for the disabled knitters. Networking is the name of the game here and I'm out of practice. My colleagues at work have developed an incredible network and they are able to bring in experts in almost any field whenever they have a need for advice or assistance. For example, we've been asked to provide training for two new groups, a group of pharmacists from Bosnia and a group of journalists from Armenia. Our expertise is in setting up the training programs and we'll just go out and subcontract with local experts on the pharmaceutical business and journalism. However, these two groups won't be arriving until next February so we probably won't begin working on the projects until after New Year. Right now the only contribution I can make is to tap into the PC network and I'm still learning just how far that network extends.

The weather here has turned rainy and cold so I used Sunday to cook. I made two big pots of soup and I'll live off of them all week. One is a lentil soup with onions, carrots, garlic and big chunks of ham and the other is a chicken and mushroom soup with some veggies and rice thrown in for good measure. The bread here is wonderful and my next project is to learn to bake. By the time I leave Bulgaria, I'll be reasonably self-sufficient.

As with the States, this coming week will be a slowdown week. We won't work on Friday and we'll have a very light schedule between Christmas and New Year's. Some of my friends are gathering in Plovdiv for Christmas and then going into Saedinenie for the day on Saturday. There seems to be some concern on their part as to whether or not they are invited back by their host families. My attitude is that "I'm family and they're stuck with me!". If I tag along I'm sure Veneta and Stoil will be delighted to see me, and if not, they'll fake it.

I'll try to get one more journal entry in sometime over the Holidays, but if you don't get to it; Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and a very Happy and Healthy New Year!!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Death in the Morning

(With apologies to Ernest Hemingway and anyone else who believes they deserve one)

The day began, as it often does, early in the morning. It was cold out, but it wasn't raining and there was no wind. The American was glad of that for he was uncertain about the day's work under the best of conditions and foul weather might have made it too difficult for him to continue. He had his coffee and sat in the small room off the kitchen and waited. The Woman who owned the house asked after his comfort and he assured her that he was fine. Nothing much would happen until the men arrived, so he just drank his coffee and waited.

A little later but still quite early the men did arrive. They came in one by one and went into the kitchen where they took seats around the table and waited for the Woman to bring them coffee. They were rough looking men, the kind of men with a hard bark to them, men well suited to the task. The American was pleased that he hadn't shaved that morning and hoped that he too looked like a man of purpose.

A small pot sat simmering on the stove and from time to time one or another of the men would walk over to it and smell the rising fumes. One of them, the Biggest of the four, waved the American over to the stove and invited him to smell the liquid. The American did so and wondered why they were warming paint thinner on the kitchen stove and whether or not it might explode. He supposed it had some purpose in the morning's work. He was tapped on the shoulder and turned to be handed a small clean glass. While he stood wondering what the glass was for, warm amber liquid was poured into it from the pot on the stove. He could feel the heat in the palm of his hand and it felt comforting on the cold morning. Each man received a small clean glass of the liquid and the Oldest of them raised his and said, "Haidi, Nazdrvey!!" and each man touched his glass to each of the others and sipped his drink. It was the homemade rakiya for which the Older man received justifiable acclaim. Sugar had been added according to tradition and it had been warmed by the Woman before the men arrived.

The men drank their rakiya and talked in muffled tones as the Woman brought in steaming bowls of soup. This too was tradition. Bowls of chicken and rice soup into which each man squeezed half a lemon and added substantial amounts of salt and pepper were served piping hot. Then all but the American ate one small raw hot pepper and they were ready to begin their work.

Each man pulled on some form of protection against the cold, an old tracksuit, an old sweater, a pair of stained and dirty overalls. The American had neglected to bring old or dirty clothes and so went to the killing dressed for a Sunday walk in the park. He watched as they each pulled a knife from a pocket or belt or sheath, the Brother's knife was wrapped in a piece of old newspaper and stuffed down the front of his pants. The knives were uniformly long and as sharp as razors. The American remembered that he too carried a knife in his pocket, a small folding knife that he used to clip the ends from his cigars. He decided to leave it there. The men whetted their knives on an oiled stone and set them side by side on the outdoor window ledge. Then they moved down the alley towards the pen and one of them, the Oldest, carried a length of nylon rope.

They entered the pen without speaking and the Older man quickly snared the huge animal by a rear leg with the rope. The hog seemed to sense that things were going to go badly for him and made a futile attempt to retreat into his shed. He moved too slowly and too late. Each of the two younger men grabbed an ear, the Older man pulled steadily on the rope and the Brother simply threw his own bulk against that of the animal and together they began to move it away from the pen, back up the alley and onto the patio of paving stones in the front courtyard. The American stood aside to let them pass. They dragged the screaming terrified animal to the very spot where the American had sat beneath the grape arbor and smoked his cigars. Then they threw the struggling hog onto its side and while three of them sat on it, the Oldest man stuck one of the long razor sharp knives into its throat.

The high pitched screaming immediately changed into a drowning moan of pain and terror as the blood flooded out of the wound and down the pig's throat at the same time. The men all held the animal down as it struggled to regain its feet and escape. They knew their business and the hog would not escape. It would indeed die after some few minutes of struggling and moaning. There was a quantity of blood and gore on the paving stones and the wound in the pig's throat was vivid red against its snow white hide. The American was satisfied that he hadn't fainted, vomited or otherwise embarrassed himself.

When the pig was well and truly dead, one of the hard men lit a hand-held gas burner that shot a blue flame four feet out from its nozzle. The Grandson, who had been watching silently with the American, was dispatched on an errand. The Big man took the flamethrower and began to singe the hair off the pig by moving the blue flame in long easy sweeps up and down the dead body. Each individual hair glowed as brilliantly as the filament in a lightbulb and then blackened into char. The other men stood with the American and watched.

The Grandson returned struggling under the weight of ten liters of wine. Then he ran back into the house for a tall pitcher and a single glass. The Old man filled the pitcher and then poured the glass full of the red wine. He just held it, watched the flamethrower and didn't drink. Finally, when the white hog was blackened down its entire length, the flamethrower was shut off. Each of the men picked up his knife and together they began to scrape the black layer away. They were talking now, telling jokes to each other and stories. The American stood apart and held the glass of wine he'd been handed. He watched but didn't understand the jokes or the stories. The men worked on the hog with their knives as if they were giving it a shave. Using quick easy strokes they scraped away the black char and in fifteen minutes or so, the hog was white again. Then they rolled it over onto its other side and repeated the process. The hair was burned off, the skin was charred black and the men scraped it back to white. Every part of the pig received this treatment, the legs, tail, head and ears, all were blackened and shaved with the long sharp knives. A wooden plug was inserted into the pig's butt, and the flesh on its rump was scorched and scraped too. The Grandson stood with the American and explained in broken English that this process "disinfected" the pig.

When the entire animal had been "disinfected", the men walked over to the small outdoor sink and washed their knives. The American held out the glass of wine to the man nearest him but that man just chuckled and shook his finger back and forth. Then they turned the flamethrower back on and the Big man began again to blacken the skin.

Now other members of the two families began to arrive. Wives and daughters walked over, looked at the pig and went into the house where the Woman was setting the table. Newly arrived men stood around the pig and smoked and offered advice on how best to blacken and scrape. The mood was light and they bantered back and forth. The Big man handed the American a knife and took the glass of wine from him. He was shown to a blackened area on the animal's flank and he began to scrape it clean. As with most things that other people do well, it was harder than it looked. At one point he tore the skin he was scraping and stopped to show the men his error. They laughed and slapped his back and told him not to worry. He finished his small area.

When the hog had been scraped white for the second time, the flamethrower was again lit and with the same long fluid strokes the Big man turned it black for the third time. This time was different. Warm water was poured over the charred animal and salt was rubbed into the skin. The American was given great hands full of salt and rubbed it into the black skin just as he saw his friends do. The blackened skin was smooth, hot and pleasant to touch on the cold morning.

Then the scraping began in earnest and the spectators crowded closer to the pig. The Brother scraped one leg clean and cut a small piece of skin from it. He held it up for all to see and then popped it into his mouth. The other three legs were cleaned and quickly, The Big man and the Older man cut small pieces from them and ate them. A piece was cut away and handed to the American. It felt like a small patch from a wet leather glove. The American held his breath and put the piece of white skin into his mouth. It was soft and the fat clinging to the underside of it was still warm. The Grandson was offered a piece but declined saying, "I don't like this thing". The glass of wine was now passed from man to man and each took a long swallow from it. When the glass reached the American it was greasy and smeared and the wine tasted better than any he could remember.

The spectators were given pieces of skin after the men and they too were passed the glass of wine. The glass was constantly refilled from the pitcher and the pitcher from the big bottle. The for the third and last time, the hog was scraped clean. It lay in the cold morning sun looking as though it had been carved from a single piece of alabaster. It's ears and tail were removed and set aside. It was rolled onto its back with its legs sticking straight up in the air and its head was removed and it too was set aside. The legs were taken off at the first joint and set over with the head. They would be used to make a special dish later in the Winter. The four legs and the head would be covered with water and onions and then frozen. The Woman explained all the steps that would follow but the American didn't understand her. She just laughed and assured him that it didn't matter because he'd be back to eat it and would see for himself.

A cross was cut into the skin between the upraised forelegs. It was half an inch or so deep and the Brother filled it with salt. Now each man took his knife and cut pieces of skin from the legs, dipped them into the salt, ate them and drank from the communal glass. Between them, piece by piece, they ate all the skin from the legs.

The cross was a tradition dating back to the time of the Turkish rule. The Turks were allowed to confiscate any and all food from the local population but, being Muslim, they never took the pigs. The people say that their pigs kept them from starving for 500 years. The cross helps them remember their faith and their history.

Finally, the belly was opened and the entrails removed. The kidneys and part of the liver were taken into the small cooking shed where the women began to grill them over the fire that had been kept burning all morning. As these organs were grilled, they were cut into bite-sized pieces called "meze" and brought out for the men to eat as they butchered. The single glass of wine was passed freely to any man who wanted a sip. The American ate and drank but wasn't asked to help with the butchering. The hog represented a yearlong investment and it was food for the two families for the coming year. This was no place for an amateur to earn his stripes.

Now choice morsels of fatty muscle were being cut and grilled and the American stood next to the Grandson and they ate together and wiped the grease from their mouths with their hands. The Grandson held up a grilled piece of pork dripping with melted fat and smiled, "This is why the pig has to die", he said and ate it in one bite.

The pig was butchered and sorted into bins, skin and fat here, ribs over there, organs in yet another bin, nothing was thrown out, everything would be used. A huge vat filled with cabbage was cooking over a fire in the shed. The Woman moved amongst the bins and indicated which pieces she needed and the Grandson carried them into the cooking shed and dumped them into the vat. When cooked this mixture of pork and cabbage would be bottled and divided between the two families.

It was early in the afternoon when they finished butchering the hog. After it had disappeared into the bins, the killing ground was cleaned of blood and ofal and the tools put away for another year. The men cleaned themselves at the outdoor sink, stripped off their overalls and went into the house. The women took over and began to serve the food they'd been cooking through the day. It had been a good day and both families were in high spirits. Rakiya was brought out and glasses were filled. Toasts were offered back and forth and more rakiya was called for. The rakiya had been made by the Big man who had been taught the craft by his father, the Older man. The wine was also home made by these same two men and it too was acclaimed throughout the region.

The American ate and drank until he could do no more and then reminded the Woman that he had to catch a bus back to his own city. He stood in the yard with the Older man and they sipped a last rakiya beside the empty pen. On the bus ride home from the village the American thought back to the Summer and the nights when he and the Older man would stand out by the pen, smoke cigars and talk to each other and to the pig. He thought he might miss the pig but then remembered the fresh pork roast in his bag and thought about how he would hand rub it with garlic and marinade it in red wine and spices grown by the Woman. Then he would roast it slowly with new potatoes and carrots and apples and it would be perfect. This, after all, was why the pig had to die.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


Two guys came to my apartment earlier this week to install a high-speed cable for my computer. The same company that provides our internet access at work had agreed to wire my apartment and Petya's too. I was told that it would cost 15Lv a month and that there would be some limitations on speed or quantity or something. Sometimes it's difficult to figure out what I'm being told. But sure enough two days and several hours after their appointed time, Moe and Curly showed up (I was already there). The first thing they did was look over the plan of attack. Then they shattered my neighbor's planter that contained his tree and had been moved into the hallway for light. Next they punched a large hole in my wall inside the front door before they finally drilled a hole through the frame where the landlord had carefully indicated he wanted it to go. Once that was done, they ran a cable into the room I wanted to use for my computer and put a connector on the end of the cable. Then they explained to me that it wouldn't work, because I use a Mac and the 15Lv/month service only works in a Windows environment. Then they left. So, now I have a high speed internet cable sitting on the floor of my room and people wonder why I'm not particularly grateful. I can have it hooked up to my computer but that will cost 33Lv/month and that isn't what I was promised. At the moment we're at an impasse. I refuse to pay and they refuse to provide me with service. Negotiators are being called as we speak.

I did finally get to pick up my Lichna Carta today. Now I am officially a temporary citizen of Bulgaria. I even get to pay the Bulgarian entrance fee when I go to the museum. Every Bulgarian has a Lichna Carta and must carry it on their person at all times. The police have the right to stop you at any time and ask to see your card and if you can't produce it, you can be fined.

From the day I arrived in Saedinenie until I moved to Stara Zagora, Veneta & Stoil worked every single day in their garden. They spent the summer growing, harvesting, bottling, canning and preserving food for the coming Winter. This isn't done out of any sense of rejection of buying one's food in stores, it's done for survival. They live off of the food they grow all year long. I was given a great opportunity to watch and in some cases to help them as they made juice and jams and compotes and dried fruits. I plan to head back to Saedinenie this weekend, but this will be my last trip there for awhile. On Saturday morning the pig will suddenly succumb to a severe case of cut throat. As Tony Soprano might say, "Tomorrow the pig sleeps with the fishes!" Judging from the size of the pig, it promises to be very unpleasant for the fishes. I've been invited back to join in on the party. It may seem strange that butchering a pig is a cause for celebration, but there are good reasons for it. It's traditional in villages for families to acquire a piglet in January or so every year and fatten it for slaughter in December. In many cases this is the only meat they will be able to afford during the following year so in terms of stocking the larder it is an occasion to celebrate. There is also an historical reason, during the 500 years of Turkish rule in Bulgaria, the Turks were allowed to confiscate any and all food from the native Bulgarians. The only things they didn't take, because they were Muslims, were the pigs. The Bulgarians believe that the pigs kept them alive. Therefore, there is usually a party of some kind built around the slaughter and butchering of the pigs. None of the pig goes to waste. The pig becomes sausages, chops, ribs, bacon and ham. The skin is scorched and eaten as the hog is butchered. Veneta & Stoil even make soap from some undetermined part of the animal. I do plan to take pictures and some video of the event if it doesn't get too ugly. I might be able to post some of this online if it isn't too graphic. I saw the pig on my last visit to Veneta's about two weeks ago and he's doubled in size since I left in October and must weigh in at better than 300 lbs now. It's going to be very interesting to see how Stoil and his sons plan to take him down. I'm assuming that hand grenades from a safe distance are probably considered bad form. Anyway, it is comforting to see that he's no longer the cute little fellow I used to talk to after drinking Rakiya.

I've begun working with a group of seven disabled women who formed a small hand knitting enterprise about a year ago. They live here in town in a Municipal institution that is no better or worse than similar institutional homes in the States. These seven women knit scarves and shawls which we then deliver to a crafts store in Sofia. We select, buy and deliver the yarns to them and give them the patterns for the various pieces. They do the knitting and we deal with all aspects of the financial transactions. There are a whole catalog of problems facing this small enterprise right now and I'm trying to work out a viable plan to keep them going. The most pressing concern is that the funding that has been supporting them has ended. They aren't in a position to become self-supporting yet and cannot continue without our assistance. We cannot continue to provide that assistance without acquiring additional funding. Even if we do get new funding, it is not certain whether they will ever become independent of some sort of assistance. Apart from attitudes formed by a lifetime of receiving State care and a general lack of basic business skills, the law requires them to turn over 70% of any income they receive to the Home. It takes them approximately 24 knitting hours to produce one hooded shawl. After costs are deducted and the State claims its 70% of the remainder, the knitter is left with about 6 Leva or roughly $4.00. The reality of the economics here produce a massive disincentive on the part of the Disabled to work. So my current challenge is to find a way to keep them afloat long enough to discover a way to make them self-sustainable and provide them with enough income to make the effort worth their while.

I want to thank my brother-in-law, Greg, for his generous offer, on behalf of his company, of 250,000 lbs of yarn. I am assured that this is enough yarn for at least a dozen sweaters and several pairs of mittens.

Next week I will travel to Sofia on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for my final dental appointments. The dentist is a Bulgarian who was trained in Sweden and is used by the entire expatriate community. He has up-to-date western equipment and I feel very comfortable with him. I have meetings set up with various people in Sofia for each day and hope to find the beginning to solving the funding problem for the knitters. I also have a small stack of documents that have been translated into or written in English which have to be edited for grammar and spelling.

That's life in the big city.

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