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

Friday, February 25, 2005

We Have Neolithic Dwellings And You Don't!!

Last week we all put on our slogging clothes and slogged on through IST (In Service Training). The bulk of the week was structured around lectures, seminars and training events about Project Design and Management. Our counterparts were invited to attend this training week with us and many did. Each organization requesting a volunteer has to commit to providing the volunteer with a counterpart who will act as guide, interpreter, and mentor through the two years of service. My counterpart is Darina. The head of my program in the PC (Community and Organizational Development) is Dimitar. Dimitar came to SZ, met Darina and immediately exempted her from attending the PDM workshop week. Darina has been successfully designing and managing projects at a highly professional level for the past ten or twelve years and the week would have been a huge waste of her valuable time. Some of the counterparts and PCV's did get a lot out of the training. As with most of the things PC Bulgaria organizes, it was well thought out and well run. The material was pitched to a reasonably basic level due to the wide range of skills amongst the 100 plus attendees. That made for some long sessions for people who came equipped with a grasp of the material. On Friday we were given a whole day of language lessons served on a menu that allowed each of us to pick and choose both topics and levels that suited us. I found it to be the most useful day of the week. My first night in Bankya I roomed with my sitemate from SZ, Matt. There are a group of younger volunteers here who are known as the hard-core partyers and Matt is a fully paid up member in good standing. Our room was surrounded by rooms holding others of his ilk so I didn't get much sleep that night. I asked to change rooms the next morning so my bitching and griping wouldn't dampen the party mood. The 'resort' we were staying in was some sort of convalescent hospital and I was given a room to myself in another wing. It was appreciably quieter among the recovering heart attack and stroke patients, God bless them! The biggest negative to the week, however, was that it rained every single day. We were fed breakfast and lunch in the 'resort', but had to walk to town for dinner each night. It was cold, dark (Bulgaria doesn't really believe in streetlights) and raining every single night. Most of us caught colds as a sort of diploma for completing the course.

On Saturday I headed back to SZ and all the mundane chores that go with living alone. Shopping, cleaning the apartment, doing laundry and cooking dinner. It was nice to be home after a cold wet week in Bankya.

We have a couple of interesting things on the horizon. Europe Day is May 9th and we've put in a bid to become the local coordinators for the festivities in our region. If selected we'll need to organize a series of outdoor cultural events built around Bulgaria's pending European Union accession in 2007. We're talking about staging a concert in the ruins of the Roman Forum, having an outdoor performance of the National Puppet theater, and creating a Taste of Stara Zagora Day, modelled after the famous Chicago celebration of food and festivity. There is also a drive to improve the visibility and access to the Neolithic Dwellings in Stara Zagora. Some years ago, when workers were laying a pipe through an open piece of ground near the Trakia University one of them noticed that they'd dug through something that looked both very old and man made. A team of archeologists took over the excavation using whisk brooms instead of backhoes and discovered the remains of two homes. Both homes were destroyed by fire but much of their structures could be seen in the rubble. Carbon dating of some of the recovered materials (wood and wheat chaff) proved the homes to be about 8,000 years old, making them the oldest such habitations in Europe. Yes sir!! Right here in Stara Zagora, who knew!?! They are one of the best kept secrets in town but now we're thinking of promoting them a little to attract tourists. It'll help if we put up a sign to help people find them as they are located behind the university and the only access to them is to walk through the parking lot and grounds of the hospital. Anyway, we're now looking into various ways to improve access and to promote awareness. Next on a list of interesting things, my project to help the disabled ladies has been approved. Next week we'll begin drafting the final plans and then begin the work. I'll be responsible for working with Malcho to help him create a business plan. Malcho lives in the Home for the Disabled and was selected by the women to work as the manager of the business. Like the seven women, Malcho is in a wheelchair and is physically disabled. None of the women wanted to take on the responsibility for managing the enterprise and they introduced me to Malcho. He is very excited about getting to do this and I'm looking forward to working with him. Finally, I have a meeting set up with a group of kids at the local Foreign Languages High School for the week after next. My contacts in the High School have sent around a notice that I would be interested in starting a Film Club and there has been enough of a response that I'll meet with them in two weeks. My total lack of knowledge inspires complete confidence in my inability to perform! How hard can it be, Andy Warhol once shot an eight hour movie of the Empire State Building!!

So, that's it. Fun stuff on the horizon and next month it'll be Spring. The ice has melted in my toilet bowl and I actually hung laundry out on the terrace last weekend. It froze solid in minutes, but I did it and that's the important thing. We're going to switch our internet service provider at work to pick up a DSL line that will improve our speeds here exponentially. HBO is now offered in English as an option on the local tv cable. Raffy (the Italian ice cream franchise) will re-open in the Center next month and my washing machine hasn't had an 'episode' in three or four loads. The Hallmark Channel is showing too many reruns of "McLeod's Daughters", but some hardships are to be expected. This is, after all, the Peace Corps.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Chicago Cold!

One of the first things I heard about Bulgaria, before I arrived, was how cold the winters are here. I was told to prepare myself for truly brutal cold. I'm from Chicago so I'm used to fairly unpleasant winters. Chicago gets a weather system that comes down from Canada and is known as an "Arctic Air Mass". This is a hammer of extremely cold dry air that pounds into town on an express train of a wind. It is so cold that any exposed surface of skin hurts like it's been burned and then just goes numb. There is very little snow but what snow there is comes in flat and level and blinds you. Sub-zero temperatures are the norm, sometimes for more than a week at a stretch. So, until this week, I haven't been too impressed with the Bad-Boy Bulgarian Winter. Okay, so it seems there's also a "Siberian Air Mass". Who knew!? Just like home, the cold air arrived on a strong wind that swept down from the nearby mountains and froze Stara Zagora like a marble statue. Much of the country has been buried in snow but we didn't get more than an inch or so here. Instead, we caught the wind and the sub-zero temperatures. The wind was so strong that it blew over a tree near my apartment. At home, I had central heating and once I was out of the wind and safe inside I sort of enjoyed listening to the weather rattle the windows and the shake roof. I could turn the thermostat up to seventy or so and sit by the fire and 'brave the elements'. In most homes in Bulgaria, heat is provided by either a small wood burning stove or by electric radiators and heaters. No matter what you use to heat your home you can usually only afford to heat a small part of it, a room or two at the most. In the hardest months of the winter, people tend to collapse their living space down into one or two heated rooms and to seal off the rest of their home. I have an electric radiator that is mounted on wheels and can, therefore, be rolled from room to room. I tend to keep it in the living room where I sit and read, and now, eat my meals. I also have a small open electric heater in my bedroom which does little more than keep frost from forming on my floor. My kitchen is unheated and a pork roast I took out of my freezer and set on the counter to defrost took three days to do so. My bathroom is also unheated and cold plastic toilet seats provide a most unpleasant wake-up call. The bathrooms don't have separate showers, just a shower head that comes out of the wall and rains down onto everything in the room, sink, toilet, you, etc. The drain is set into the floor. Although my shower drains pretty well, there is usually some water lying about on the floor and it's been frozen solid all this past week. It's a very unusual feeling to be standing in a scalding hot shower and sliding around on ice at the same time. The "Siberian Air Mass" is supposed to last until the middle of this week. It isn't quite as bad as the worst of winter in Chicago, but here it's harder to find a warm place to sit and enjoy the foul weather.

I finished an application for a SPA Grant last week. SPA, as you may remember, is a Peace Corps funded program that offers small grants for community development projects. The process is very competitive and the application takes quite a bit of work to complete. A somewhat common theme of our experience as PCVs in Bulgaria has been the unending pressure by our organizations to "get us a grant, get us some money". My second day in Stara Zagora, I was asked to begin applying for a SPA Grant. Mind you, we didn't have a project in hand yet but there was money on a table somewhere and we should begin reaching for it. So, many months ago I looked around and began to think that the women in the Home for the Disabled might qualify for some SPA assistance. If we could get them set up as a small business, it appeared that this might be what SPA was created to fund. So I began working on designing a project that would help the women turn their knitting enterprise into a self-sustained business completely independent from outside funding. The Municipality and the Home were approached and agreed to dedicate an unused room for the exclusive use of the business. It was also agreed to classify the women's knitting as "Work Therapy" which would exempt it from a 70% 'tax' on income that people living in the Home have to pay to help defray the expense of living there. A large part of the project will be to select and train an individual to manage the business once we step back. The application form is seven pages long and forces you to consider your project in graphic detail. I was able to fill in all the blanks except for the budget. My language skills aren't up to getting price quotes yet. My colleagues said that they'd do the budget with me so I shouldn't spend any time on it. Our project has three main components; first, we'll renovate the room into a nice comfortable workspace for the women; second, we'll select and train an individual in basic small business management skills; third, as part of the development of a business plan we'll develop a set of marketing tools. The bulk of the money we're requesting is for the renovation of the room and the purchase of a computer, printer and software. The justification for the computer is that we're designing a website to take orders and we also need it for general business record keeping and accounting. Applications were due by email on Friday and on Thursday we were working on the budget. I had added a coffee maker and a radio/cd player to the equipment list to make the room a more inviting and comfortable place for the women to work. I noticed that a couch, tv and coffee table had also been slipped onto the list. "Why are these items being requested?", I asked. The women are all in wheelchairs and can't use a couch without a great deal of physical assistance and they are going to be using the room for knitting, not watching the soaps. Oh, they might have 'visitors'. It also turned out that the computer would not be installed in their room, but in the main computer room of the Home for 'security' reasons. After a mildly heated discussion I realized that the room would soon become a staff lounge and the computer would be available for the general use of the population of the Home. I explained that this was fine as far as worthy objectives went, but it wasn't the project we'd been working on for three months and that we'd have to miss this deadline and re-do our application to more accurately reflect our new goals. Diplomacy, as Will Rogers once said, is the art of saying, "nice doggie", until you find a big stick! So now we have an agreement about the use of the room and the computer, both will be dedicated to the exclusive use of the women. If their enterprise simply fails to become self-sustainable then the Home will enjoy the use of a nicely refurbished room and a decent computer and that's not such a bad thing either.

A word or two on cooking. I have become quite a good maker of pots of soup. On Sunday I generally whip up a large pot of one sort or another of wholesome delicious soup and eat it throughout the week. Yesterday I made a pot of chicken and rice soup with onions, carrots and a hint of garlic. That was the intention anyway. First, I popped four boneless chicken breasts into the oven to cook. I rubbed them with garlic to give them a little flavor. I remembered to pull them out of the oven when the smoke alarm kicked into panic mode as black clouds of chicken tainted smoke billowed across my ceiling. No problem, I just cut them up and threw them into the pot charred skin and all. Upon reflection I should have scrapped the black crusty bits off first. Anyway, as the soup started to simmer the odor of burned stuff began to permeate the apartment so I crushed a couple more cloves of garlic into the soup to initiate a direct frontal assault on the wretched burned chicken parts. I added more water and another onion and let it simmer for some time, then I smashed in a couple more cloves of garlic, just to be sure. I wanted a brothy soup with a hint of garlic and I ended up with a stewlike soup that has driven all the vampires and werewolves back into Romania. I added some pepper and another onion and even though it brings tears to your eyes, it isn't half bad. An added benefit is that after eating a bowl or two for lunch, I have a much larger personal space at work in the afternoon! I call it "Burned Chicken with a Whole Helluva Lot of Garlic" soup and the recipe is yours for the asking.

I'm completing the editing on a short movie about the Habitat Day and hope to have it posted by the end of this week. So, from Bulgaria..stay warm, stay healthy, and "find us a grant, find us some money!".

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