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

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Just An Update

This week has been fairly busy so far. The funding has come through for the project with the ladies at the Home for the Disabled and we've been out to see them twice. We'll begin renovating their workroom next week and I've begun taking photos and video of them and the facility so I can put either an album or a movie online soon. None of the ladies was interested in becoming the manager of their enterprise and they suggested that we give the job to Malcho. So Malcho (a wheelchair-bound, Roma, dwarf) and I are starting to write up the Business Plan for the enterprise. He is extremely positive and enthusiastic and also seems to be determined to have me do as much of the work as he can possibly offload. But this is an exercise in futility on his part because I am supposed to transfer skills here and, after raising two sons, I'm an expert at delegating. We're beginning to look at designs for new products and we're creating a website to display and sell our hand knit crafts. All in all it's quite interesting and everyone involved is determined to make the project succeed. While we were designing the project, we agreed that one measure of its success would be if additional ladies asked to join as we went along. Apart from creating a self-sustainable enterprise, we're looking to improve the living conditions and self-esteem of the participants. An indication of improvement will be to have non-participants ask to participate. Last week we welcomed our first new participant and now the Hand Knit Crafts of Stara Zagora cooperative has eight knitters and Malcho!

The kids at the Languages High School are working on their movie scripts with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, we missed having our meeting for three weeks in a row due to vacations, my trip home and a miscommunication between me and my tutor. In spite of that, three groups have done first drafts of their scripts and one has completed an initial revision. I suggested that the kids form themselves into groups of four or five so they'd have enough people to share the work and not too many to impede forward progress. One of the 'groups' is a young woman. In the beginning Iliana would drag one or two helpless volunteers along to give the appearance of a group. Each time we'd meet, she'd let me know that 'Ivan' was being replaced by 'Zdravka', 'Stefka' was being replaced by 'Maria' and so forth. Finally, she said, "I really want to do it all myself, I don't work well in groups!" So she is Scriptwriter, Producer, Director & Cinematographer. I remain the Executive Producer on all films and she's stuck with it...I own the camera. One of the other groups has eight or ten people and is still trying to write the first page of their script. Several members of this 'company' appear at each meeting and assure me that they are nearly ready to begin and will have an initial draft very soon. The groups that have written scripts have all produced comedies. Two of these are actually inoffensive enough, with editing, to have some promise but one would undoubtedly lead to my immediate expulsion from Bulgaria and the PC. On the other hand, it would be the funniest movie of the three.

This coming Saturday I'll go back to Saedinenie to visit Veneta & Stoil. Saturday night we'll drive to Asenovgrad to celebrate both Bulgarian Easter and Tsonka's birthday. After dinner we'll go to church (at the monastery in Bachkovo) and then drive back to Saedinenie. On Sunday we'll have a proper Easter Feast at Veneta's and then I'll be allowed to waddle back to the bus to go home to Stara Zagora where I'll fast for a week! Veneta gets her new PC trainee on Friday, so I'll meet the new guy just a day after he arrives at their house. I offered to come visit on a different weekend but Veneta wouldn't hear of it. Easter is a holiday for families so I have to be there. Hopefully, the new guy won't mind. I don't think it would have bothered me when I first arrived.

Finally, last night we had a good old fashioned thunderstorm. Lightening, pouring rain that lashed at my windows and winds that shook the town all reminded me of home in the Mid-west. Now the lime trees are beginning to blossom and soon the town will smell like tea brewing, or so I'm told. Stara Zagora keeps getting prettier every day!

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Springtime in SZ

In just a couple of weeks the next group of PC volunteers (B-17's) will arrive in Bulgaria. They'll spend their first week sequestered away in Strelcha and then be dispersed to their various training communities and homestay families. All of a sudden we won't be the Newbies anymore. We're making progress. We've been integrating with varying degrees of success into our permanent communities, we've been learning to speak Bulgarian..again with varying degrees of success and we've begun to tackle a community development project or two. Of our original group of 59, six have ET'd (early terminated) and we've had one medical separation. Two of our group decided to marry each other and many of our group have formed less permanent attachments. A couple of us have moved from our original sites to new communities and we've all survived our first Bulgarian winter and probably deserve some sort of patch for our jackets.

The incoming trainees/volunteers are TEFL's (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and will all be assigned to schools throughout the country. In August, the next group of COD's (Community Organizational Development) trainees/volunteers will arrive and we'll mark our one year anniversary. One of these two groups will have some of their number sent to Saedinenie for training and Veneta & Stoil will soon be introducing a new volunteer to Bulgaria. I'm happy for them but I've stressed that the new guy can't have my room!

I'll be going back to Saedinenie to visit for the weekend of April 30th - May 1st. That's Easter weekend here and it also happens to be Tsonka's (Veneta's daughter) birthday. So I'll travel to Saedinenie, hop into the Lada and ride to Asenovgrad, eat and drink at Tsonka's birthday feast, ride back to Saedinenie, sleep, then eat and drink all day Sunday for Easter. On Sunday evening I'll roll onto the bus back to SZ and not touch food for a week!

SZ has turned green and beautiful in the last two weeks. Flowers are up and trees have their new leaves. Of greater importance, however, is the fact that the Raffy Ice Cream stand is once again doing business in the Center. Progress is measured in small steps and this year it can be seen in the addition of at least four other ice cream carts set up to compete with Raffy. I firmly believe that there can never be too much ice cream, so this is a welcome example of a free market economy responding to the laws of supply and demand.

The funding for my SPA (knitting) project came through today so we'll begin kicking it off this afternoon. I'll be posting photos and videos as we go along. The Film Club has been on Spring Break and will resume meeting next Tuesday. I'm sure the kids all spent their holiday working diligently on their scripts! I'm as busy as ever at work but still can't really put my finger on exactly what it is that I do. Oh well, I'm having fun and Bulgaria is beckoning, so I'll start getting out there and seeing some of it soon. Petya is going to England in May and Darina is going to Finland. I'm thinking of Bojhentsi or Kazanluk and maybe a hike in the Rhodopi's.

The only 'hardship' I am currently suffering is that both the elevators in my apartment building are broken. No one seems to know when or if they will ever be repaired and my eight flights of stairs seem to get longer every day. I was whining about it at work and Rumyana just said that this is for 'fitness' and some people pay a lot of money to go to gyms to workout. She's right but I'm still going to whine about it until they're fixed!!

Monday, April 04, 2005

Lines In The Sand

Just like in Chicago, Spring comes and goes here. One day it's warm and sunny and the next it's blustery and cold. I bought an umbrella this weekend because it dawned on me that I spend a lot more time walking here than at home. On rainy days at home, I got into my warm dry car in the garage and drove it to work. Then I parked right next to the door and ran between the raindrops to get inside. Anywhere I went during the day I traveled by car and the biggest inconvenience I ever faced was getting from the car to the building without getting soaked. Here I walk. It takes about fifteen minutes to get from my apartment to my office and about twenty minutes to get back home. It's the same distance but it's downhill to the office and uphill home. If I need to go to the market, I walk. The telephone in town is another fifteen minute hike and the big stores on the outskirts of town take almost an hour to reach on foot. There is a good public transportation system, but you'll get soaked waiting for a bus. So I broke down and purchased a fine umbrella. The weather reports were immediately revised to exclude any forecast of rain for the duration of the Spring.

The whole concept of waiting your turn on line is different here. I received a package last week and went down to the Post Office to pick it up. Just like at home, packages that are too big for the mailman to carry have to be picked up by the recipient. You get a notice and take it to the packages window and present your id. Then you pay 90 stotinki, get two or three forms stamped and take your package away. While I was on line, several people came in, walked straight up to the front of the line, completed brief transactions and left. I mention this because it is perfectly acceptable to cut into the line if you have a quick transaction. No one in the line objects as long as you don't tie up the service agent for longer than a minute or so. This applies to most lines, not just the post office. The Municipal Information center has just installed a "Take-a-number" system to help control the amount of time people have to wait for an agent. The biggest complaint from both the customers and the agents is that no exceptions are made for people who just have a quick question or a fast transaction. Imagine walking up to the front of a long line, butting in and saying, "Oh, this will only take a second." You would single-handedly bring back tarring and feathering. This system is more cordial and works very well here unless there is a loud American in the line. "Hey, wait your turn! The back of the line is over there!" Fortunately, not a lot of people understand me.

However, when it comes to lines to board a bus, all the rules go out the window and survival goes to the strong. I once waited for a bus to Saedinenie in an unruly mob of forty or so people. The bus stopped with its door directly in front of me. There was a space of about two feet between me and the door and I was the last person but one to board. People flowed around me like I had taken root and I still can feel the bruises on my ribs from being elbowed aside. I report with pride that I did manage to beat an elderly lady laden down with packages onto the bus. I got the last seat and then surrendered it to her anyway. That, by the way, is a commonplace courtesy here as well as at home. Anyone who obviously physically needs your seat more than you do is welcome to it.

I just finished giving two customer service seminars to the employees in the Information Center. The hardest thing to get them to realize is that the citizens coming in for help are actually their Customers. I don't think that this is particularly a Bulgarian perception as much as a Government employee perception. So most of the seminar was spent trying to help them change their way of looking at their customers. The argument that seemed to be most acceptable was that, although their customers don't have an option to go to another Municipal Center for information or service, they do have an option to behave well or badly when they come in to ours. If they are treated like valued customers rather than units to be processed, they might choose to behave well in return. "Okay, we'll treat them well, but we still won't think of them as 'customers'." Small steps, small steps.

As you may or may not be aware, I've had a couple of personal emergencies back in the States. Because the most recent emergency involves an immediate family member I am being given Emergency Leave. I have felt that from Day One, the Peace Corps has treated me extremely well especially since my arrival in Bulgaria. Emergency Leave has to be authorized by the PC administrators in Washington and requires a request from a family member and confirmation by a physician that the situation is serious. Once my EL was approved, the local PC staff have jumped through hoops to get me onto a flight back to the States. I spent last night sleeping in the 'Sick Bay' in the PC office in Sofia and today one of the PC drivers will take me out to the airport for my flight home. Everyone in the office has gone out of their way to give me as much assistance and support as they possibly could during a stressful time. I plan to return in about a week and they will meet me at the airport and put me on a bus back to Stara Zagora. By the way, I'm leaving Bulgaria on the prettiest day we've had here in six months!

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