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

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Ready, Fire, Aim

I enjoy playing around with my video camera and then making little movies on my laptop computer. The PC encourages us to get involved in our communities outside of our primary assignments. Most PCVs find secondary projects that involve working with kids. My Bulgarian tutor is a teacher in the local high school so I put all this together and asked her to speak with her director about having me start a Film Club. Once the ball was rolling, I met a volunteer who lives in Pazardjik and told him about my plan. He said that he had already started a Film Club for high school kids in Pazardjik and invited me to attend a meeting to see what they were working on. So, on Wednesday I trundled off to Pazardjik to meet up with Josh and visit his club. Within five minutes I knew that I was in way over my head. I make little home movies and put some sound with them and a title or two. When I get real tricky, I add a plug-in special effect. Then I sit back and wait for the Academy to call. Josh worked on Jackie Chan's "Rush Hour" and has a degree in fimmaking. After listening to him explain 'master' and 'coverage' shots, I knew that I don't really know anything at all about making films. Which, of course, makes me eminently qualified to teach others. If all goes according to plan, my Film Club will begin with the new semester in February. I'm out looking for jodhpurs, riding boots and a monocle now.

Then on Thursday night I attended a performance of "Rigoletto" at the local theater. The Theater is the prettiest building in town, in my opinion, and stages plays, ballets, concerts and operas. Until Thursday I'd never been in it but the Agency has some kind of membership card that gives us discounts on tickets so I ponied up all of three leva and joined a hardy group of culture lovers at the opera. The performance was a lot of fun to watch. The Theater is quite small and beautifully maintained and every seat has a great view of the stage. Because the stage is small, the set was pretty ingenious and the costumes were terrific. The singing was good but the whole experience was great. I'll probably become an opera buff before I leave Bulgaria.

On Friday I went to Plovdiv to meet up with Brian and Kate to go together to Sofia the following day to work on a Habitat for Humanity project. We had dinner and then, because we had to get up at 5:00am the following morning to catch the bus, Brian and I realized that the only option we had was to immediately call a cab and head for the bowling alley! Kate, having retained most of her sanity, declined to join us. The Plovdiv bowling alley is a very modern facility with Brunswick automatic scoring, free shoes, and black lights with glow-in-the-dark bowling balls. After bowling, beer and cigars, Brian and I headed back to his place where we got a little sleep and then woke up in time for the bus. Kate wasn't feeling well and the weather was lousy so Brian and I went by ourselves to Sofia. We met Sara at the bus station in Sofia and the three of us took a cab to the Habitat project site. We were the first of about twenty volunteers who showed up to help and the turn-out was surprising considering the weather. The freezing sleet was coming in horizontally on the brisk Bulgarian winter wind. After signing in, we were assigned tasks that we felt comfortable taking on. Brian, for example, built an interior vent wall (sort of a chimney-like affair) out of bricks. Sara and I were handed strange looking tools and told to dig grooves in the walls where ever there was a black line. Very little wood is used in construction here. The interior walls are made from some sort of soft cinderblock and then covered with plaster. Electricity is run to outlets on flat wiring that is laid into grooves in the cinderblock and then plastered over. Our job was to dig the grooves for the wiring team that followed behind us. Aside from hauling firewood in from the woodpile, it was the least technically challenging task being assigned. However, when anyone asked what we were doing, we simply stated that we were "groovers" and soon everyone else wanted to be "groovers" too. By the end of the day we decided that we had earned a promotion to "master groovers" and are considering beginning our own union. Actually, with the good turnout, we got a lot done on the building. I also got to meet a man who has commited to buying one of the eight units. All the families who will eventually live in the building are required to put in a minimum of 500 hours of their own labor and it was really nice to meet the man who took obvious pride in the work he was doing on his own home. At lunchtime, Habitat had Subway sandwiches delivered and we all were given as much food as we could hold. By the end of the day, it was too late to catch a bus back to SZ so I went along with the others to one of the two Hostels that PCVs use in Sofia. The good news is that it only costs 12 leva (the Sheraton costs 170 Euros), the other news is that there are three rooms with beds covering every square inch of floor space. They had three empty beds and Brian, Sara and I ended up in three different rooms. My room had nine beds filled with an assortment of college aged people, all of whom went out at about ten o'clock for a night on the town and then proceeded to come home in shifts beginning at about one in the morning and continuing until five or six. Hostels are interesting places and I'm glad I experienced it, but there's a definite reason they're known as 'youth' hostels.

Project applications for PC funding are due on Friday and mine is nearing completion. I am requesting money to renovate a room in the Home for the Disabled so the women who are trying to start a knitting company will have a warm and comfortable place to work. The Home has donated a specific room and we're still trying to help the women get their business going. Applications for PC funds are highly competitive and take quite a bit of work to complete. Whether our application is funded or not, it's been a learning experience just getting it ready to submit.

So, among the skills I've come to Bulgaria to learn are: film making, teaching film making, opera, home building (specifically grooving), hosteling, and filling in government grant applications. My horizons are expanding so fast, if you aren't careful they might knock you down.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Editing, This & That!

"The rate of criminality in crimes registered in the region decresed upwardly to 57,89% having less impract through this year and to last year. Some of the newest crimes are going to be 5,443 homicides and other public nuisance but unregistered by the police. Also will be motor vehicle catastrophes too."

Some of my work involves editing English text that other people have translated. This paragraph was in the Chamber of Commerce's annual report and seems to forecast some fairly grim times ahead for Stara Zagora. Fortunately for us, the anticipated 5,443 homicides will be nothing more than "public nuisances". Brian was asked to edit the English version of his Agency's website and worked through all 22 pages diligently making corrections and suggestions. When he was through the Agency asked him to hold off before uploading the changes because they wanted to "get a second opinion". They hired a French Canadian to check Brian's work and then told Brian to upload the Canadian guy's text without altering it. So, the website has a new and interesting look complete with a whole new set of errors.

Most volunteers have cell phones but here they're called "GSMs" or "mobiles" or diminutively, "moby's". We rarely use them to call each other because the costs are prohibitive. Text messaging costs a fraction of calling so we just send text messages back and forth. In Bulgaria, it doesn't cost anything to receive either a call or a message, just the sender is charged. We can also go onto our computers and send messages for free to our friends' gsm's. One relatively ridiculous form of chatting is to send computer messages to your friend's phone and receive his computer messages on yours. As volunteers, we can be extremely thrifty! We don't have call plans here, we just buy vouchers in various denominations to recharge our phones. Typically, we'll put 30 leva at a time onto our GSMs and recharge once or twice a month depending on personal use. GSMs also help satisfy our safety and security requirements. It's essential for the PC to be able to contact us at all times and as long as you have your GSM, they can reach out and touch you where ever you may be.

I have several options for grocery shopping in Stara Zagora including a Billa (an Austrian supermarket chain) and Metro (some other foreign chain). I rarely go to either because they are both located on the outskirts of town. For fruits and vegetables, I go down to the pazar or market. It's an open air market with approximately 100 stalls selling everything from avocados to zucchini. Most of what's available right now has been imported, but in the Summer the selection and quality of the fruits and veggies is unbelievable. I also go to the market to buy my eggs and honey. I get the eggs from an old woman who has an egg stand near the potato man. Her eggs are graded by size and the price per egg is clearly marked. You tell her how many you want and then select the eggs that appeal to you. I learned to pick out my own eggs after I discovered that she had a habit of giving me eggs that had small cracks in them. Nothing I hate worse than walking all the way to the pazar, buying nine or fourteen eggs, walking all the way home and discovering that one of them is broken; at a cost, I might add, of several stotinki! I buy meat from a butcher up the street from my office and I can pick up assorted odds and ends from the small 'magazine' (store) across the street from my apartment. When I have to stock up on foodstuffs, I go to the 'supermarket' about two blocks from my place. This is a grocery store that's about the size of a White Hen and is pretty well stocked. I get my bread from any of the places where I shop. I tend to find myself in one store or another almost every day. Maybe I'll become better organized and cut that down to every other day before I leave. The food here is plentiful and relatively inexpensive and our PC allowance is more than sufficient. Meat is available in the forms of chicken and pork. I can't find a good steak yet, but I'm not through looking.

Television is interesting here. I get about 50 channels on my cable and about half of those are dedicated to either soccer or chalgah singers. There are a couple of channels that broadcast in English. I get Cnn, The Hallmark Channel, The Animal Channel, and after 10:00pm the Cartoon Network becomes Turner Classic Movies. I also get a British History Channel. For those of you who worry that I may lose touch with my finely developed fashion sense, I can watch the Fashion Channel 24 hours a day.

I plan to go to Pazardjik this Wednesday to visit a PCV who has started a Film Club there. I was thinking about doing the same in SZ and want to see how he's organized his club and what they do. The PC encourages us to get involved with kids as a way of integrating into the community. My language tutor teaches at the local high school, so she can help me set up the club if I decide to try it.

On Saturday, I'll go up to Sofia with Brian and Matt to work on the PC Habitat for Humanity project. As most of you know, I can't hang a picture on the wall so this will be truly interesting. My assumption is that they will have someone stand behind me and hold my hand as I swing the hammer. On the other hand, maybe I'll do all the electrical wiring? It promises to be a most interesting day.

That's about it for now. We're having a delightfully mild winter here and activity at work is picking up, so for now, I've gotta go.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Back to Work?

While it's difficult to get back to something you haven't really begun, the new year has started off well. After spending a typical week of searching the internet for stories about the sports teams I follow, sending countless emails to all and sundry, and trying to dream up creative ways to kill time, I was sent to Sofia on business! Last Friday I was asked to go up to Sofia to plunder and pillage the PC Library and the American Center reference library for "reference books". The American Center is in the new American Embassy compound which is completely across the city from the PC office. I have now become even more expert at getting around in the big city. Unfortunately, most of the reference type materials that we can use here at the Agency are no longer printed. So much information is available online, that all I could gather for us were one copy of last year's almanac and a list of relevant url's. The Embassy is every bit as accessible and welcoming as the vault at Fort Knox. While it's completely understandable in this day and age, it is a daunting experience to gain access to the premises. Long gone are the days when you could walk up, ring a bell, flash your American passport and ask somebody for a list of cheap hotels. The Marines are out in force and they aren't wearing dress blues anymore! The American Center has a very handsome new facility in the Embassy building but it doesn't have any books on the shelves or computers on the desks. I suppose it doesn't really matter because it's practically impossible to get in anyway. Even after visiting them, I'm still not certain what purpose they serve. The PC office has a very nice small library for the volunteers to use. Reference books are signed out just like in any other library but they also have a room full of books that volunteers can just take. These are books that have been donated by volunteers for volunteers. The system works pretty well, after you've read your paperback books, you drop them off at the PC library and you're welcome to take home anything that interests you. On your next trip to Sofia, you just swap them out again. For me, a trip to Sofia usually means about an 18 hour day including the seven or so hours on the bus. So for my 18 hours on Friday I proudly produced one 2004 American Almanac and one dog-eared copy of a David Baldacci paperback.

I met with my program manager when I was in Sofia to express my concern that I wasn't being very useful to my organization. He is coming to SZ next week to see if he can give me any assistance in integrating more quickly into the flow of the actual work here. It occurred to me that, while I spoke to him about it, I never have sat down with Darina and Petya and talked to them about my concerns. So, Monday I sat down with them and told them that I didn't feel as though I was pulling my weight. They are always extremely busy and I am now an expert on surfing the internet! They explained to me that they were told that the volunteers would need three months to "acclimate" themselves to their new surroundings and they shouldn't ask too much of us prior to that time. They pointed out that, technically, my three months wouldn't be up until Jan 22. However, they were willing to begin early if I was. So, we began to review all the work I'd done and no one had looked at and now I seem to have a couple of real projects to get involved in. I've had a couple of other false starts so I'm waiting to see what happens before I begin to celebrate, but it does look promising.

We've been blessed with a relatively mild winter so far this year. That's fortunate because my apartment, like 90% of the other dwellings in Bulgaria, doesn't have any form of central heat. I use a portable radiator that I roll from room to room to heat up one area at a time. Volunteers in small towns tend to use wood burning stoves, but in the city we use small radiators. The practice is to heat one room and just live in it. We are asked to be conservative in our use of utilities so my plan to keep my apartment hot enough to be picked up by thermal imagers from space went down the drain. All in all though, I'm comfortable enough.

Next week, on Thursday and Friday, the PC will send a language instructor to SZ to give four or five of us a two day refresher course. Then in February, our group will spend a week in Bankya (a town just west of Sofia) in a meeting to improve our Project Design and Management skills. As a part of that week, we'll be tested again on our language skills. Off and on over the next two years we'll be given the LPI test and we'll receive a certificate after our final shot just before we leave.

So, the new year is off and rolling and I intend to roll right along with it. My only resolutions are to improve my language skills and to meet more Bulgarians. That shouldn't be difficult, they are all over the place!

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