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

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

One down, one to go!

It's been a fairly busy Summer. I am still working on my two basic projects, helping the women in the Home for the Handicapped start a knitting business and working with a group of high school students who are interested in filmmaking. Somehow I've decided that I am eminently qualified to offer assistance in both areas even though my experience with hand knit clothing is limited to wearing sweaters my mom made for me and my experience in movie making is limited to adding pirated audio tracks to blurry moving images shot with my Canon digital camcorder. Still, I'm having fun and, with any luck at all, I'm not doing too much damage.

My sister Lisa, her husband Chris and their son Philip apparently bought a map, discovered Bulgaria's location, realized it was not in the middle of South America and came for a visit. Many have threatened, they showed up! I met them at the airport in Sofia and while I was waiting for their plane to arrive I struck up a conversation with the woman at the Avis car rental booth. Chris had reserved a car and I thought I'd check to make sure everything was okay. I explained to the woman that these were very important people and shouldn't be given any old car. She believed me and we went outside and together we selected the newest car in the lot. When my family arrived, the woman looked somewhat skeptical about their VIP status until my very large nephew produced the world's biggest jar of Hellman's mayonnaise from his backpack and presented it to me. That sealed the deal, anyone carrying that much mayonnaise in his carry-on luggage was either very important or very crazy and she wanted to get us going as soon as possible either way. We were on the road in half an hour and back in Stara Zagora two hours after that. By PC rules I'm not allowed to drive while I'm a volunteer, so I became the navigator on most of our trips to visit other areas of the country. Navigating was an interesting experience because many of the roads on the map didn't actually exist on the ground. Often it seemed as though a road should be in a particular place, possibly connecting to a bigger road just across a field, and I suppose the mapmakers felt that way too because they drew one in even though no one had gotten around to actually building it yet. However, many of the roads that were on the map were also on the ground so we eventually got from here to there and back again. Oh, and the mayo...the mayo that's readily available here is used indifferently on sandwiches and Lada axles. When they said there might be hardships in the PC, I didn't imagine they meant a lack of good mayonnaise!

I went out to the sea with my family and left them in Nessebur (a resort town) because I had to get back to work for a couple of days. The Bulgarian Black Sea coast during the height of the season is like any other tourist destination, crowded, noisy, bustling, fun and frustrating. It all seemed to be summed up by a sign on the door of a shop selling souvenirs that read: Sorry, We're Open! Lisa & Chris came back to Stara Zagora and together we took day trips to Veliko Turnovo, Plovdiv and Saedinenie. Once when cruising back and forth looking for a road that turned out to be a figment of the mapmakers imagination, we spotted an old MIG-15 or 16 which proved to be the highlight of Philip's trip. Finally, we headed out for the Rila Monastery and Sofia. Rila is the largest and most beautiful of the many monasteries in Bulgaria and was well worth the trip, even across a road that appeared on the ground but not on the map. If you walk out the back of the Monastery and proceed up a gently sloping road for about three kilometers, you come to a trail. If you then climb up the trail for approximately another kilometer, you come to the cave of St. John. He was the holy man for whom the Monastery is named. He lived as a hermit in this small cave for many years. The cave has a main entrance and a smaller hole exiting up the slope towards the back. Legend has it that if you are worthy you can crawl out of the cave through this small exit. Apparently, this frees you of all sin. I say with pride, we all made it out without lightening striking any of us. It was a tight squeeze for Philip, but he's a teenager! I was chagrined to learn that the crawl from the cave does not imbue any protective powers against sin, so I'll probably have to do it all over again in a while.

My family left on a Friday and I spent the weekend in Sofia, working on the Habitat for Humanity, eating in good restaurants and meeting up with friends. Then it was back to work with a push to get the HandKnitCrafts.com website up and running. It's coming along. We're waiting for some technical advice on pricing (Mom, we're waiting!) and a couple of other minor glitches to be ironed out and then we'll go live. The renovation of the room is almost finished and the ladies are spending a lot of time in it because it's nicer than anywhere else they can go. We're all pretty enthusiastic about the way things are going and everyone hopes that we can make it fly. We will be offering hand knit coats, ponchos, scarves, skirts, tops and bags. Each item will be custom made upon receipt of the order. The customer will be told which woman is making the item and will be able to read her biography on the website. Every item will ship within 14-21 days from receipt of the order. Every item is fully guaranteed. We won't equivocate, if you want to badger or bully a poor old handicapped Baba by sending back a product that she painstakingly knitted with her one good hand, very well we'll refund your money, you pathetic loser.

The filmmaking is also proceeding. We're shooting a movie now that I have a role in. I play a gangster-looking guy, but a Bulgarian gangster-looking guy. I wanted a movie with me speaking Bulgarian to take back home with me. The Film Club is made up of 15-17 year old girls, we're filming in the park and sometimes the whining becomes deafening. "It's too far! It's too hot! It's too uphill! Why don't we have cokes? There's a bug! My nail polish is scratched! Why don't we have cute guys in this movie? and so on. After two full days of shooting, the girls decided we had enough and announced that it had been a very successful experience. I need to get them together again for one more afternoon and it will be easier to put toothpaste back into the tube than to round them all up.

I have two terraces in my apartment. Each terrace has a doorway with two glass doors. I leave the doors open during the day to get a nice breeze through the place. One day a strong wind blew through and slammed shut one of the doors to the dining room terrace. I came home to find shattered glass all over the place. My landlord, Hristo, pulled the door out, re-glazed it, and stuck it back up. I learned my lesson and from then on I put a chair in front of the open doors. This past week, while I was at work, another strong wind blew through Stara Zagora but I wasn't concerned because I had a chair in front of the doors. When I got home, the chair had been thrown across the room by the force of the wind that had slammed the doors shut and the terrace was an inch deep in shattered glass. This time both doors were shattered. Hristo just shakes his head when he sees me at his door. Now I have placed heavy stools in front of the doors. Wouldn't it be safer to just close the doors, you ask. Probably, and your point is....?

On August 9th I celebrated the anniversary of my arrival in Bulgaria. It's been a great year and a wonderful experience and from this end seems to be going by very quickly. I'll see you all at home soon.

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