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

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Dreaded 'Tuhchenie'

I haven't noticed an awful lot of cultural dissimilarity between Bulgaria and the U.S. which probably means that I'm just not very observant. However, I have picked up on a few differences which bear noting. These, of course, are the terribly misleading head bob, the vastly superior rhozden den, the totally unacceptable sequential meal service in restaurants and the dreaded tuhchenie.

In all the known world nodding one's head up and down signifies a positive response or reaction. In short, it means 'yes'. In Bulgaria, however, it means 'no' and it means a quite adamant 'no' at that. The opposite is also true, turning one's head from side to side may be negative in all the world but in Bulgaria it represents an enthusiastic 'yes'. I was on a train last week and was in a cabin with just one other occupant, a young woman. The train pulled into the next station and more passengers got on. A man came down the aisle, stuck his head into our cabin and asked if the unoccupied seats were available. I looked up from my book and nodded. He looked slightly put out and walked on down the aisle. The young woman looked positively alarmed until she talked to me and realized that I wasn't Bulgarian. We each had some room to stretch out in so it wasn't a total disaster. Eventually, even PCVs begin to bob and nod in the Bulgarian fashion, which leads to confusion of a different sort. You see, Bulgarians are very aware of their uniqueness in the head gestures department and, sometimes, if they know you're a foreigner, they'll switch meanings to accommodate you. Then, the only way to determine which answer is being given is to watch the index finger on the right hand. No matter which way they move their heads, a 'no' is almost always accompanied by an abrupt shaking of the right index finger.

Rhozden dens are birthdays. In the U.S. people above a certain age tend to downplay their birthdays as though bringing attention to the event is tantamount to soliciting gifts or parties. In Bulgaria the tradition is for you to treat everyone you know to candy, cake, wine and food on your birthday. It's as if you were saying, "Hey, this is my special day and I want you to help me celebrate!!" Here there is no cultural need to ignore the day, on the contrary you are required to announce it and expected to lead in the celebrations. It's always a treat when a colleague bursts into the office carrying a tray of candy and announcing, "It's my birthday, have some candy. We'll have wine this afternoon." Birthdays and 'Name Days' are very special occasions and are never ignored. Your Name Day is the day of the Saint you were named after. It's treated just like your birthday and, again, you are expected to lead in the celebrations, not hang back modestly and hope someone else remembers it.

In restaurants, meals are served as soon as they are ready. In a party of four the first meal may come out in ten minutes and the last might not be served until forty minutes later! Even when two people order the same dish, there is no guarantee that one won't be served immediately and the other forced to wait another half an hour for his meal. This kind of service would lead to rioting in the States, but here it, apparently, isn't even recognized as odd. No one ever waits for the others to get their meals because there is no way to predict when that might happen. As soon as your meal arrives, you start to eat. Everyone expects you to start and it isn't considered impolite to do so.

My language tutor, Darina, was the first to alert me to the potentially fatal dangers of the tuchenie. We use my apartment for our lessons and she sat on the couch one hot day wearing a jacket and all but shivering. It had to have been in the eighties in my apartment, the only thing making it bearable was the cross-breeze from the two open terrace doors, so I asked her if she was feeling alright or was she ill. She said she felt fine, so far, but wasn't I aware of the tuchenie? There was a tuchenie in the room and I was oblivious to it. I looked around a bit nervously for something that might sting, bite or chew it's way through my heart. I didn't see it and Darina finally asked me if I would close either of the two doors. Apparently, with one door closed the dreaded tuchenie would be rendered harmless. Bulgaria gets hot in the Summer. Airconditioning is not as prevalent here as in the States. Rooms become stuffy and overly warm. Someone opens a window to let in some air and you, a few minutes later, go open an opposite window to let a cooling breeze waft through the room. Are you insane!! You've just let in the dreaded tuchenie. It is a well known and accepted fact that any draft or breeze through a room will result in your immediate illness and possible death. One open window is all that is necessary as long as nothing else is open to create a draft. 'Tuchenie' is the word for draft and it is malignant in meaning. There doesn't seem to be a Bulgarian word for pleasant cooling breeze. I have two terraces or balconies in my apartment. One faces east and the other south. If I open both doors, I get a very lovely cross-breeze through the living room which makes my couch a perfect place to take a nap on a hot weekend day. This, my colleagues inform me, is like playing Russian Roulette with all the chambers loaded. So, the next time you open doors or windows to create a lovely breeze through your home on a hot day, remember the tuchenie and wear your mittens!

A final small cultural difference I've noticed is the requirement to establish everyone's age and a woman's weight. Within minutes of meeting people, it is very common to begin asking, not only your age, but the ages of everyone you know. Ages of every relative you have must be announced. Weight, especially for women, is also a subject of profound interest. It's difficult to imagine meeting a woman in the States and asking her to state her age and weight to a group of people she doesn't know, but it's happened to most of my friends here. In one private home, a scale was dragged out and the women took turns weighing each other. These people, as with all Bulgarians, had a tv so they weren't just looking for a way to kill time in the evening. I don't really know why there isn't much interest in finding out how much men weigh, but we're generally exempted from the 'let's weigh each other' game.

By and large, Bulgarians are warm, generous, well-educated and very welcoming. The cultural differences between them and Americans are small and interesting rather than large and divisive. In my own experience, people in the smaller villages are easier to get to know, but people in the cities are every bit as friendly and interested in you once you do meet them. I think some of the small differences will, unfortunately, disappear as Bulgaria enters the EU and becomes more "European". I am confident, however, that Bulgaria will always be an outpost of vigilance against the dreaded tuchenie.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Further Adventures In Laundry

One of the first things I managed to accomplish upon arrival in SZ was to find a dry cleaner for my shirts and suits. Locating a 'hemichesko chistene' was no mean feat and, once I found them, I wasn't about to let them go. They charged me 2 leva per shirt which is about what I paid in the States. My shirts were lightly starched, ironed and put on hangers or a hanger anyway (all five shirts neatly stacked on one hanger). The collars were beginning to look a bit grey but I just figured that the dry cleaning stuff here wasn't as effective as that at home. The other day I went in with four shirts and a new woman was behind the counter. This wasn't a problem because I knew what to ask for and how much to pay. Unfortunately, the new woman didn't know how much to charge and told me I owed the equivalent of 3.5 leva per shirt. We then had a long discussion which may or may not have involved a theory of macro-economic parameters, supply and/or demand, the influence of pre-accession into the European Union on small market post-socialist economies and why had the price of cleaning my shirts had nearly doubled! Finally, she said that the 3.50 leva price was for 'dry cleaning' and ironing with starch and hangers. The 2.50 leva price was, it seemed, for 'washing' and ironing with starch and hangers. The 2.00 leva price was nyama (non-existant). Fine, just wash them and etc. and I'll pay 2.50/shirt. When I got back to the office I told Toni about this conversation and repeated the word for 'washing' only to learn that it wasn't the word for washing, it was the word for ironing. It seems that I've been taking my shirts in and having them ironed and starched for six months now. Not cleaned, which explains the grey collars, just ironed and starched. So Toni called the 'hemichesko' people and explained that the lunatic American really did want his shirts cleaned too. They explained in return that I'd owe more money when I picked them up. Fine. I picked them up today and the woman gave me back 2 leva. Go figure. You may wonder how a purportedly intelligent person might not notice that his shirts hadn't actually been cleaned and I can tell you that there are a couple of good reasons. First, of course, I are a idiot. Also, it was Winter and the shirts didn't get all that dirty.....

I rode the trains this weekend. Whenever I've travelled in the past I've taken buses but the train schedule was more convenient so I finally got to ride a train. I took the train out to Varna on the Black Sea and rode it across the green Thracian Plain. All the crops are beginning to come up and the country is remarkably lush and beautiful. The last part of the trip skirts the foothills of the Stara Planina or Old Mountains before, finally, winding down to the sea. Varna is Bulgaria's main Black Sea city and the PC has a small contingent of volunteers lucky enough to be posted there or nearby. This, by the way, would be a good time to steal Germany because its entire population seemed to be in Varna this weekend. The city itself is quite pretty and is busily gearing up for its summer rush of tourists. There is a large pedestrian area in the center of town that begins at a magnificent cathedral and runs down to the sea. They also have a modern well-stocked supermarket. When Sara and I were in Saedinenie we began talking about how much we liked eggplant parmigiana and for months have threatened to cook one together. We were able to find all the ingredients in her supermarket and managed to make one excellent dinner on the first try. Sadly, there was no convenient way for me to bring any of the leftovers home with me, so Sara got them all. Better planning will see me making the next one at my house.

Last week it became apparent that Malcho couldn't continue on as manager of the knitting enterprise. His true aspirations seem to be along the lines of becoming a two and a half foot tall rap artist. At any rate, someone had to let him know that his services were no longer required. Rumyana works most closely with the project so I just assumed that she'd give him the bad news. When I talked to Petya and Darina about it, they both said that there was no problem with firing him and either of them would do it when he came to the office on Friday. I suggested that we say something to him like, "This isn't the right business for you. I'll help you start up something that's more suited to your skills. etc." Petya just said, "no, we'll just tell him he can't do the work and we have to find someone else." A little strong perhaps but direct, candid and honest. Well, Malcho showed up for his meeting on Friday and Rumyana was awol. As soon as Malcho walked in, Petya made a 'very important' phone call and indicated with much head bobbing that she'd be tied up for a very long time. Toni disappared into the ladies room and Darina had the look of someone who didn't move fast enough. So I fired Malcho. I was forced to rely on two memorized phrases and a lot of hand gestures. Eventually Darina came to our assistance and translated for me. It was a thoroughly unpleasant experience but it's over and we can begin looking for someone who can do the job.

A couple of the groups from the Film Club are ready to begin filming. Thanks to Chris and Lisa we have two video cameras now and can film two angles on each take. That's film talk for being able to film two angles on each take. Hopefully, we'll get started this week and have a movie or two finished by the end of summer.

A final word on Holidays. May 24th is Sts. Cyril & Metodii Day and is a national holiday in Bulgaria. Sts. Cyril & Metodii, as you may recall, were Bulgarian priests who formulated the Cyrillic alphabet and it's an important day on our calendar here. This year, the holiday fell on a Tuesday and the Monday before it was declared a day off too. It isn't exactly a holiday, but everything shuts down nonetheless. It's a bit like the Friday after Thanksgiving but here it's an official day off. Unlike the day after Thanksgiving, however, the whole country will now work on Saturday to make up for the extra day off. So we get a four day weekend followed by a one day weekend. This Saturday is the makeup day for last Monday and I, like ninety-nine percent of the rest of the country, feel some sniffles coming on..cough, cough.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Zdrasti ot Stara Zagora

I suspect that you're hoping to read more of the continuing saga of my adventures in laundry but I'm afraid that I must disappoint you in that regard. For two weeks in a row now I have run the peralnia (washing machine), hung the clothing on the line, and brought it in without mishap. I did have a slight appliance malfunction when my forty year old refrigerator fell over, but that's a story for another day. This was a week for work, not domestic chores.

One of the PC requirements here is that we write up bi-annual reports on our activities, projects and progress in our communities. Our reports were due on Friday and I took advantage of the opportunity to review everything I'd done since I arrived here. My primary function here is to integrate into the community and to introduce Bulgarians to Americans and America. PCV's are, first and foremost, goodwill ambassadors. In order to help us accomplish this task, we work in schools, municipalities, ngo's and other organizations where our various life experiences can be shared with our hosts. I have an advantage over some of my PCV friends in that they have joined right out of college and I waited a little bit before volunteering. Approximately thirty-five years in fact. I was assigned to REDA because of my work background and this too offers me an advantage. REDA has a shopping list of projects and proposals and, as I've stated in the past, is run by two very professional hard-working women. A couple of my good friends have been assigned to Obshtinas (like City Hall) and literally have nothing at all to do. All day long they sit at empty desks, or in Sara's case, on a chair in the middle of the room, and try to think of things to do. This seems to be a fairly typical experience for volunteers assigned to Obshtinas. Why do Obshtinas not only apply for PCVs but actually compete to have them assigned you ask...the only answer we can come up with is "Who knows!?!?"

However, while my friends struggle to find ways to make their experience here meaningful to themselves, they have both become welcome and valued members of their communities. Both have made many Bulgarian friends and have found ways to let people see how bright and decent Americans can be. In my opinion, they are each doing far more to advance the goals of the PC than I am with my laundry list of projects.

My two primary projects are the hand-knit crafts project and the film club at the high school. I've been working for a couple of weeks now with Malcho to help him write up the business plan so we can get started, but he is proving to be more interested in being called "Boss" than in planning the business. I've tried to explain to him that if he can't write a coherent business plan, then he won't be able to manage the business and if the business doesn't have a manager, then there won't be a business and if there isn't a business, then there won't be anything for him to be "Boss" of. Unfortunately, as was said in "Cool Hand Luke", "we seem to have a failure to communicate". I'll continue to try to work with Malcho, but we are beginning to suggest alternative candidates for the job to each other. The eight ladies have lived in institutions their entire lives and are disinterested in becoming the manager of their enterprise. We are hoping to find a good qualified person to manage the business from within the disabled community here in Stara Zagora and I, personally, hope that Malcho can be persuaded to put a little more effort into his training.

My Film Club is still quite active. I've received five scripts and they all have some potential as student films go. One story in particular is quite original and will make a very good short film. I've offered to be available if the kids want to work on their movies over the summer and some of the groups indicated that they might do just that. Several groups have quit but there are still about five who continue to show up at every meeting and seem to be pretty interested in producing a movie. If any movies do actually get made, I'll post them online.

One of my responsibilities in the Agency is to respond to various emails from English speaking correspondents requesting information on businesses in the Stara Zagora region. Our website generates a fair amount of inquiry from abroad and Bulgaria is becoming a booming area for foreign investment with EU accession right around the corner in 2007. I have begun to prepare a list of the services we offer to foreign investors that we'll post on our website and I've begun urging Petya and Darina to begin thinking about charging for the work they now do for free. I'd like to set a fee schedule up for our services and post that too. Petya and Darina will spend days gathering information, setting up meetings and agendas, making reservations for visitors, etc. without ever charging a stotinki. They then sit at their desks until eight or nine o'clock at night to finish up the work they didn't have time to do during the day. They provide services that foreign investors can't get for free elsewhere and they do a better job of it than anyone else can, so they ought to be compensated for their time and talent. Hey, it's my soapbox I'll make any point I choose!

I fully intend to wander down to the center today to grab a chair at an outdoor cafe, have a cup of coffee and watch the people promenade up and down the main street. It's a sunny warm day and the trees are all fully leafed. Then I'll wander over to the market to buy some mushrooms and tomatoes to have with my dinner of beef tips with rice. Later tonight I'll begin editing some video I've shot during the past month and if it turns out to be anything interesting I'll post it. So , as we say here, "Priyatna Cedmitsa"..Have a nice week!

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Easter All Over Again

This past weekend was Easter as celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church. I had plans to visit Veneta & Stoil in Saedinenie and then go with them to Asenovgrad to celebrate Tsonka's birthday. I learned during the week that the new crop of volunteers would be going to their host families the Friday before Easter which was the day before I was scheduled to go to Veneta's. I called Veneta to find out if she had forgotten that she'd have a 'new' guy the day before I was supposed to arrive and she said that she remembered but it didn't matter because it was Easter and I had to be with the family. I was touched and assured her that I'd come. My plans were to travel by bus to Saedinenie on Saturday.

Saturday morning my phone rang and it was Veneta asking me when I planned to arrive so she could plan lunch. That was a bit unusual as it has never mattered when I showed up before. I told her what time I thought I'd get there and that I'd see her soon and I was looking forward to it. I took the bus to Plovdiv, transferred to the North Bus Station and, while I was waiting for the bus to Saedinenie, my phone rang again. It was Veneta making sure I was on my way and wanting to know when I'd arrive. This happens as frequently as fish ride bicycles so I asked her if anything was wrong. She said "no", they just wanted to make sure I was on my way.

When I walked into Veneta's front courtyard, the laundry on the line indicated that the 'new' guy was either a woman or a man with somewhat eclectic tastes in undergarments. Inside the house I found Veneta and Mickey (the new trainee) standing together with looks of relief and after saying my "hellos" I began to translate all their questions for each other. In the entire Bulgarian population, Veneta is the person I can communicate with the best. She knows which words I understand and works at using them in ways that make sense to me. She manages to make it sound as if I know what I'm saying and Mickey was visibly impressed. She said she felt a bit overwhelmed and didn't know if she could ever learn to speak as well as I do! With a perfectly straight face I advised her not to use the measure of my skills to set her expectations, after all, "I have somewhat of a gift in these matters". Later I confessed that I am the very worst in my entire group at language. It is nice to know that, until they begin their lessons, I'm better than most of the new guys.

We had a meal and I helped Mickey and Veneta get to know each other and then the four of us piled into the Lada and set off for Asenovgrad and Tsonka's party. It is the custom in Bulgaria to boil and paint the Easter eggs on the Thursday before Easter. If you can't do it then, it must be done on the Saturday. Veneta had a large basket filled with painted eggs to bring along. Tsonka and Vasil own a restaurant/cafe and the music was pumped up and the rakia was flowing when we arrived. It was a typical Na Ghosti, a party that has no predetermined time for ending. We ate and drank and sang such Bulgarian classics as 'Stari Moete Priateli' and 'Tezi Pari'. You should have been there! Then, at ten minutes before midnight, we all picked a painted hardboiled egg from a basket, took a candle and walked around the corner to one of Asenovgrad's forty churches. We joined a crowd of several hundred people there and lit our candles. At midnight the church bells rang and everyone wished everyone else a healthy and successful year. Then we squared off, two by two, and smacked our eggs together. The idea here is to break the other fellow's egg while leaving your own unscathed. You continue whapping eggs with your group until there's only one left whole. My egg surrendered on the first knock and was promptly peeled and eaten as an example to all the other eggs.

We went back to Pchela (Tsonka's cafe) and ate, drank and sang a little more. Stoil, by the way, never touches a drop when he's driving. Then at one or two in the morning we were able to leave for Saedinenie and some sleep. Easter morning we all got up and had coffee and breakfast. Then we just sat around and I did a little more translating and then we had the Easter lamb for lunch. At lunch we did the knocking eggs thing again and, this time, I picked a champion egg..but I'm not sure what it meant because in the end I just broke it and ate it anyway. At 3:30 pm I started back to SZ loaded down with food, wine and rakia from Veneta because SZ might not have food now (you never know) and got home in time for a fireworks display that seemed to be aimed at my balcony. I went to bed tired, happy and very very well fed.

On Monday I planned to have Brian and Matt (the two volunteers here in SZ) over for dinner. I intended to make moussaka and went out in the afternoon to buy some of the things I still needed, primarily yogurt and eggs. There are half a dozen little stands in our marketplace that sell eggs so I headed there first. It may interest you to learn that on the Monday after Easter, the only eggs in the country that haven't been hardboiled are those emerging from the egg-end of the chicken! The spaghetti was pretty good, if I do say so myself.

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