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

Monday, March 14, 2005

A Language Conundrum

Sunday was a beautiful day in Stara Zagora, the first really Spring-like day we've had this year. It was sunny and warm and people came out to walk through the town in their light jackets and shirtsleeves. Most of the cafes in the Center put their sidewalk tables out so Matt and I decided to grab a couple of chairs, order a couple of coffees and watch the local citizenry parade by. When the waitress came over to take our order, I decided I'd rather have a coke. Matt ordered his coffee and I asked for a coke. She brought back our drinks and gave me my coke in a bottle with a tall clean glass alongside. I then asked her for a glass of ice on the side. Ice in Bulgarian is "led" and is pronounced "let". "Mozhe lee let?" is May I have ice? She looked at me as though I were speaking Martian and bobbed her head up and down in a motion that means yes everywhere in the known world except Bulgaria. Nodding your head up and down here means No. Emphatically No. Shaking your head from side to side, which we have always used to mean No, means Yes. Anyway, she was bobbing away, emphatically, so I asked if they were out of ice and she got very annoyed and snatched my coke bottle from the table and stomped off. Stomping off is the same here as there, it means you're annoyed and, if you're a wait-person, will in all probability affect the size of your tip. She returned a few minutes later with a bottle of coke light, but no ice. I hate coke light. I surrendered and gave Matt the coke light and we discussed various new approaches I might take to get a regular coke with ice. I called her back over and said, very slowly in my best schoolboy Bulgarian, May I have a regular coke with ice. Ice. Water in Winter!! That did it and she looked as though she had just deciphered the Rosetta Stone and said, Oh, you want ice! And when she said 'ice' it sounded to me just like when I said 'ice', but nevermind. Tonight I'm going to take a shot at discovering where they hide the mayonnaise in my supermarket!

The point here is that as English speakers, we're used to having non-English speakers butcher our language and we are used to trying to figure out what the other fellow is saying. In Bulgaria, many people are prepared to hear only two things; perfectly spoken Bulgarian or some language that they don't understand at all. The concept of having a sympathetic listener is non-existent in many places here. Also, almost no one orders ice for their drinks until Summer. So there was that little cultural barrier to cross as well. Or, she might just have been a bad waitress!

Our Film Club had its second meeting on Tuesday. I had been told that there would be some attrition as we went along so I was curious to see how many of the original thirty kids would reappear on Tuesday. Well, forty-three of the original thirty showed up. Go figure. At least three of the new enlarged group also took time to explain to me that three or four of their friends would come to the next meeting but were busy that particular day. So figure fifty as a good round number, divided into groups of four or five, all writing scripts based on nothing but the limitations of their fervid imaginations. Then remember that we have exactly one small Canon video camera to share amongst us and you can see that this might become something of a challenge.

Next Friday we'll be conducting a Customer Service session for the employees at the Municipal service center. We'll put the final touches to the program on Monday and Tuesday. The Service Center is located on the ground floor of the Obshtina (town hall) and seems to be a model of efficiency. People needing to conduct business with the Municipality come to this one central point and take a number. They are waited on in turn and can come back at any time to check the progress of their paperwork on one of the self-serve computers. From my brief observations of the staff, I would conclude that they are professional, helpful and efficient. Naturally, these are the people I have to teach Customer Service to, not the surly waitresses at the local cafes. I intend to rely heavily on the "Well, what do you think you can be doing better?" method of facilitating.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Neolithic Dwellings Redux

I went back to Saedinenie last Friday to visit Veneta & Stoil. I haven't really worked my way into any sort of social life here in Stara Zagora so it's really nice to go back to that small town where everybody knows my name. I was greeted by half a dozen people on the walk from the bus station to Veneta's place and had to stop and tell each of them what I'd been doing and how I really preferred Saedinenie to Stara Zagora. In many ways, that is the truth too! I had the usual belt popping meal with Veneta and Stoil and then he and I watched soccer for awhile and drank a glass or two of his homemade rakiya. I asked them if they planned to get a new pig and a new PC trainee in the Spring and they gave me a definite 'yes' on the pig. I offered to speak with the PC on their behalf if they want a new trainee on the condition that the new guy doesn't get 'my' room! There are limits, after all. Right now, my room is filled to bursting with all of Veneta's plants and potted shrubs. She even has several trays of veggies that have been started from seed and are beginning to sprout. The next group of trainees will arrive in April and will be comprised of TEFL's (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). Then in August the next group of COD's will arrive and our group of B-16's will be almost half way home. Veneta hasn't decided whether she wants a new guy or not, but I'm sure she'll let me know.

They lit a fire in the wood burning stove upstairs for me and I crawled under fifty pounds of quilts and blankets and was actually quite comfortable during the night. The next morning, during breakfast, the doorbell rang and Brian and Kate turned up at the gate. They had come to town to visit their own Host families and to see if they could buy some of Stoil's homemade (domashna) vino and rakiya. The vino is a hearty red table wine that is quite good and the rakiya is an award winning beverage with just a hint of Jet A fuel combustibility. I tried to buy a bottle of each to take with me back to SZ and got thoroughly chewed out for my trouble. Someday I'll learn. They loaded me up with wine, rakiya, fig jam and stuffed peppers to ease my journey back home. It is always great to get together with the two of them!

Back home I went about my chores and did a load of wash. I failed to notice that a pair of brand new navy colored socks had snuck their way in with my white unmentionables and now my shorts are all a very attractive dingy grey color. At least the washing machine worked without destroying anything this time.

Tuesday, March 8th, was the International Day of Women. I brought flowers and candy to the four ladies I work with and congratulated them heartily on being women. They took me out to lunch as the token male in the office and we ate in one of the nicer restaurants in town. I was set to order the pork chops with garlic mashed potatoes but was convinced at the last minute to change to the special, lamb. When my meal arrived I discovered that a hunk of lamb consisting of part of a spine and maybe a hip had been removed from the animal with the surgical precision of a Viking's axe and then charred so thoroughly as to disguise any evidence that it had ever been organic matter. The coal-like lump of matter sat stolidly in a pool of lukewarm oil but it did have a solitary raw green onion as a garnish, so the meal wasn't totally inedible. One of my colleagues had quietly ordered the pork chops which arrived looking absolutely wonderful. They were moist and succulent with a light breading and the garlic mashed potatoes looked so good that I, briefly, considered bludgeoning her to death with my club of lamb and stealing them. Serves me right for eating in a public restaurant on Women's Day.

As I've mentioned previously, there are two Neolithtic Dwellings in Stara Zagora that have been determined to be over 8,000 years old. We believe that they could and should be a major tourist attraction but the City doesn't really publicize them. Now we're putting a project together that proposes to improve access to the Dwellings, upgrade the facility that protects them, and announce their existence to the world. Oh, and in addition to that, we also would like to rebuild them to their original state (prior to the fire that burned them to the ground 8,000 years ago). Actually we are proposing to build full scale replicas of the originals right next door and have them be part of an interactive exhibition. Visitors would be able to make bread and pottery in the homes just like the inhabitants did so long ago. I've begun referring to them as the Neolithic Condos and Timeshare Association and that was how the original proposal was titled until the little language misunderstanding was sorted out. So, for those of you who are interested, pre-construction pricing is still available on the New Neolithic Dwellings!

It was time today to don my jodhpurs, monacle and beret and snap my riding crop smartly across my palm. Yes, the Film Club kicked into action at the local Languages High School. Many of you have had experience dealing with young people, some on a professional basis. I have not. I found myself delivering a monologue on film making to a room full of small statues dressed exactly like teenagers. When I asked, just before they left, if they were interested in coming back for a second meeting they gave me an enthusiatic group head nod and filed out. The teacher who was helping me assured me that this level of behavior is completely uncharacteristic and that they will certainly misbehave next time. In the Bulgarian school system, these kids are the best and brightest. When they are in grammar school, the kids take tests to determine which high school they'll be eligible for and the school requiring the highest marks is the Language School. Many of these kids will go to colleges or universities in England, Europe or the States. The Science and Math School is next, followed by other 'specialty' schools and then the general education schools. If enough of them are interested and return on Tuesday for our second meeting, I think I'll enjoy working with them over the next year or so. They all speak English and the movies will be in English as part of the agreement with the school. I've asked them all to try and help me with my Bulgarian so it will be fascinating to see what new words I learn.

Next Tuesday the Opera is "Tosca". It oughta be a hoot! So, until next time, as we say in the Corps, "Peace".

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Chestita Baba Marta!

The first of March, in Bulgaria, is known as Baba Marta Den or Granny March's Day. On this day people give everyone they know a small decoration made from red and white yarn. These decorations are either pinned to the clothing or tied around the wrist like a bracelet. The decorations are called Martenitsi and they represent good luck, good health and happiness throughout the coming year. The white yarn represents the outgoing snow and the red yarn represents the sunshine of the coming Spring. The Martenitsi are worn until you see the first tree in bloom or the first stork, then you throw them into the nearest river so that your luck will flow like a river. If there isn't a convenient river nearby, you hang your Martenitsi on the nearest fruit tree to ensure that you will have a prosperous year. During the last week of February, the town center was chock-a-block with vendors selling Martenitsi. You'ld be amazed at the variety of small decorations that can be made from red and white yarn. Although it's snowing and cold today, I walked down through the center to see if there were any vendors left and discovered that this is probably their busiest day of all. Hundreds of people were buying last minutes Martenitsi for those awkward situations where someone you've forgotten about pops up and nails you with an unexpected wish for good luck! So there I stood, a foreigner absolutely festooned with red and white decorations looking somewhat like a walking Christmas tree, frantically buying as many Martenitsi as I could fit in a pocket. Today you wear all the decorations you've been given, but I'm told that tomorrow you can reduce the number to one or two and then begin looking for a leafing tree or a stork. For a grown-up man to be wearing delicate little red and white yarn tassles and bracelets might be thought to be embarassing, after all would John Wayne ever wear Martenitsi, but it's mandatory here and everyone has them and you wear them until you see a stork. Hey, look! Isn't that a stork?

March 3rd is Bulgaria's National Day. This year it falls on a Thursday so the government has declared a four day weekend and we all get Friday off as well. To make up for this missed day of work, we will all work a six day week the following week. People I've spoken with seem fairly non-committal about the Saturday so it will be interesting to see who actually goes to work that day.

Another tradition in Bulgaria concerns the celebration of birthdays. Your birthday, or Rozhden Den, is a truly special day and you kick off the celebration yourself by treating everyone around you to a party. You bring chocolates and cakes and wine to work and later you invite your friends home to help you celebrate. Of course, people give you gifts too, just like at home, but you don't hang around hoping someone will remember your day. I like this pro-active approach. Hey, it's my day and you're going to celebrate it!! Most Bulgarians also have a Name Day. There's a calendar of Name Days and you get to celebrate just as though you were having a birthday on your Name Day. Again, you kick off the proceedings and treat one and all to a party. Unfortunately, there is no Bulgarian equivalent of Larry, so I'm going to just have to pick a likely sounding name and use it.

Na Ghosti is a visit or more literally, guesting. So I'll go na ghosti to Veneta & Stoil's for a day over the long weekend. I haven't seen them since Christmas and it will be nice to just sit around and catch up. I call them or they call me once a week or so, but it's very difficult still for me to talk on the phone. I do better sitting face to face with my dictionary firmly in hand. I'm also planning a day trip up to Kazanluk, a town about an hour north of Stara Zagora. Kazanluk is famous for being the burial place for Thracian Kings and has so many burial chambers that the government has had to stop excavating them because they can't deal with the volume of archeological treasures that they have already uncovered.

Which reminds me, there's a Bulgarian saying I'd like to share with you; "kogato doide slapata nedelia, nay pita kakvo iskash." Which translates to, "When Blind Sunday comes, it doesn't ask what you want." Don't ask me, I don't have a clue but people say it often and in a wide variety of situations.

In the meantime, I'm the tall American covered in red and white yarn searching the skies for any sign of a stork!

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