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

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Turkey and Its Day

Thanksgiving is traditionally held on the last Thursday of November except in Bulgaria where we hold it whenever some of us can gather in one spot at the same time on a given weekend close enough to that actual day. This year Thanksgiving was this past weekend. My apartment is the largest amongst those of all my friends so, by default, I am the host. I wouldn't have it any other way. This year there were to be twelve of us and people were traveling from every corner of Bulgaria to attend. Different people came with different expectations and different visions of the perfect Thanksgiving dinner as remembered from their own homes and families. However, one expectation held in common by them all was that there would be a turkey cooked to a soft golden brown and dinner would begin when the turkey was ready. Everyone planned to bring a dish or a bottle of wine or a dessert, everyone planned to come with a hardy appetite and everyone, without exception (even the vegetarians) expected to see a turkey on the table. I was responsible for the turkey.

Please understand, there are turkeys in Bulgaria, lots of them. Turkeys gang up in packs in every village and make it their business to strut about and to gobble around in the wee small hours of the mornings waking up honest citizens from their well-deserved rest. 'Pyweeka' is Bulgarian for turkey and you can find them everywhere. Except in stores at Thanksgiving. I went out to Billa (a big store), I went out to Metro (the other big store), I searched high and low and found not a single solitary pyweeka, frozen or otherwise. Here it's more of a Christmas sort of meal so there may be turkeys available in the stores around that time, which will be small consolation to a group of turkey-deprived American Thanksgiving feasters.

Last year my colleague Rumiana helped me get a turkey. It was a turkey raised in Brazil by a French company who then sold it to a German food distributor who in turn shipped it to Bulgaria. This United Nations of turkeys looked suspiciously like a duck but it served its purpose. However, with twelve of us planning to dig in, the UN bird would never do. We needed a real pyweeka with some meat on its bones.

Once again, Rumiana came to my rescue. She and her husband own a house in a small village nearby and she offered to get me a pyweeka from her neighbor who had a flock of them. I said that I would gladly buy any turkey available that weighed between five and eight kilos. Rumiana said that she thought the birds were in that range now but that they would probably weigh less after I killed them and removed the parts that you don't eat. Oh. Well, the neighbor would actually kill the bird so that it wouldn't make a mess in Rumiana's car but I'd get the feathered remains to do with as I pleased. Oh.

Plan B involved me going back to Metro and Billa and looking for two or three of the biggest frozen chickens I could find. I was in the process of convincing myself that I could tie three chickens together and no one would know the difference when Rumiana said she'd located a place that had honest-to-God frozen turkeys...just like at home! She ordered one for me over the phone, hung up and told me I'd have to pick it up the next day at Neego. Wonderful! Excellent! Superb! We have a turkey I can understand and deal with, a frozen turkey with all the inedible bits already removed.

What's Neego? Unfortunately, I waited until the next day to ask this question and Darina (another colleague) said, "it's the Beef & Pork Institute". In a weird Bulgarian sort of way it makes perfect sense that you can only get a turkey at Thanksgiving from the Beef & Pork Institute. Okay, but can I walk there? No. Oh, can I catch a bus? No. Well where is it? Now, you can go anywhere in Stara Zagora by cab for one lev and you can get to any of the outlying parts of the city for one lev fifty stotinki but you can't get to Neego for less than nine leva. We rode so far and so long that I do believe we crossed two international borders on the way. Neego may actually be somewhere in the Middle East. Toni (the colleague who always gets stuck "helping Larry do simple things he's incapable of doing by himself") came with me and when we finally got there she suggested that we ask the cab to wait or risk having to walk back.

There was a line with approximately twenty people on it waiting for turkeys. There was a closed door and one by one people would be invited in to get their turkeys. I was the only one there with a cab waiting with its meter ticking. At the rate the line was moving it was going to be a very long and costly wait. I badgered Toni into going up to the head of the line and I knocked on the closed door. This caused audible grumbling up and down the line. I walked into the turkey distribution room as soon as they opened the door and said very loudly in English, "Hello, I ordered a turkey and I just want to pick it up. Do you have my turkey?" A few people in the line spoke up sharply and I turned and said loudly and in nearly perfect English, "Yes, I'm here for a turkey. I'll only be a minute and then you can all do whatever it is you are doing." Toni was hiding behind a pile of frozen turkeys.

The woman in the distribution room understood that the quickest way to get rid of me would be to give me my turkey, so she did. As I was walking out and everyone on the line was giving me the death stare, I said, "Thank you for understanding, it means so much to a Canadian like me." But I had acquired what was possibly the world's most costly five kilo turkey and I was happy. Toni ran to the cab with her coat pulled over her head just like those people being pulled into and out of police stations on the news.

My friends arrived and we all really got into the spirit of the Holiday. We had pumpkin cooked with butter and brown sugar, a green bean casserole with crunchy onion rings on top, garlic mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, a shopska salad, gravy, stuffing and a turkey large enough to feed twelve with leftovers. For dessert we had an apple crisp, banana bread with chocolate chips, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream and fudge brownies. We took time during the meal to go around the table to give each person an opportunity to say what he or she was thankful for and everyone remembered family and friends. Wine and rakiya flowed throughout the evening and Brian and I repaired to the terrace to smoke cigars while everyone sat around groaning and rubbing their stomachs. It was a great evening.

On Sunday, after everyone left I puttered around tidying up and then pulled some turkey out of the fridge to make a sandwich. It was quiet and peaceful and I put my sandwich on the table and went to switch on my iTunes. Just then a hose that supplies water to the toilet tank in my bathroom corroded completely through, separated from the tank and began to shoot water around the bathroom as if it were a fire hose. I ran to shut off the water and the faucet handle broke off in my hand. Everything I tried to stuff into the hose shot across the bathroom like a shell from a howitzer. I was forced to run, soaking wet, eight floors down to get Hristo my landlord. He came up, found the main water shutoff valve (under the sink in the guest bathroom), stuck a ten stotinki coin and a piece of inner tube into the butt end of the hose and said he'd be back tonight with a new hose. I mopped up the mess, changed into dry clothes and ate my sandwich. Nothing spoils the taste of a turkey sandwich the day after Thanksgiving. Nothing.

I have quite a bit to do during the next two weeks. I'm trying to complete a video for Habitat for Humanity by December 1st, I have a powerpoint presentation due by November 30th for my colleagues here at REDA, there is a committee meeting I have to prepare for and attend also on December 1st and I have to find ways to get the knitting business kick started. Our web address is: www.handknitcrafts.com so please take a look at it and tell others about it if you like it.

Then I'll be going to New York for Christmas to see my family. So, in case I don't get another chance to write before the end of the year, Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Holidays to you all. And remember, it makes all Canadians look bad when one of us crashes the line for frozen turkeys.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


There is a party held by tradition in Veliko Turnovo each Halloween. Many PCVs attend this party and use the occasion to blow off steam, drink, dance, drink some more, form piles of bodies on the floor and elsewhere, drink a bit more, grope and fondle, slap and tickle, drink just for the hell of it, sing offkey, and finally, drink to amuse themselves while playing drinking games. We're in Bulgaria for only two Halloweens and I missed the Blue House Party in Veliko both times. However, Greg the PCV in Nikolaevo, a nearby town, invited the three PCVs from Stara Zagora and another three or four volunteers from the Valley of the Roses (our basic region) to join him for dinner and a bonfire on Saturday night. We all met up at Greg's place and spent the afternoon walking around his small town. He took us down through the mahala section or Roma quarter and introduced us to many of the people with whom he works. I didn't realize that we'd be going through this part of town so when the rest of the group went off for coffee, I ran back to Greg's to get my cameras and then went back into the mahala. Mahala is just a nice sounding word for ghetto. There is a marked economic difference between the Bulgarian part of a town and its mahala. I've been warned by colleagues and coworkers to never venture into that part of a town because a) they'll steal everything you have on you, or b) they'll kill you and then steal everything you have on you. It was a bright beautiful day and I didn't feel any sense of impending danger so I went back to see if I could take a few pictures.

From the first quick glance, the section looked like any impoverished shantytown in any underdeveloped part of the world or Illinois. Walking through the streets, however, I began to notice two things. First, the neighborhood was clean without trash or litter lying about. Houses were small and poor but for the most part, freshly painted and tidy. Laundry hung on lines and gardens were well tended. Second, like the Pied Piper, I attracted an ever growing entourage of children. One little guy in a Tom & Jerry (cartoon characters not ice cream vendors) sweatshirt appointed himself my guide and insisted that I see all the important sights in the neighborhood. That sounded good to me so I let him lead me to all the important sights, which consisted of his Baba. I then had to abandon any hope of getting interesting pictures of mahala life in favor of taking photos of as many people as I could in the shortest possible time. This was a lot of fun and it gave me an opportunity to talk with some very friendly people. After I'd take a picture or two on my digital camera, the kids would rush up and pull it out of my hands so they could see the picture. They'd pass it around and everyone had a comment, then they'd run back to find a new spot to pose and demand more pictures. They called me Chicho or Uncle (at least I choose to believe that's what they were calling me) and like a good uncle, I promised them that Greg would give them copies of the pictures. Way to go, Greg!

I've posted some of the pictures and I have a bit of video that I'll put online later. Although it doesn't show in the few shots I have online, every second house in the mahala had a satellite dish on the roof and a horse and wagon in the front yard. By the way, although I was tugged on, pulled at and handled quite shockingly in some cases, not a stotinki was missing when I headed back to the cafe to meet the others. In fact, the toughest negotiation I had was to convince Mihailov (?), my pint sized guide with four gold earrings, to accept fifty stotinki for his fee instead of the twenty he'd suggested.

I recognize that we have volunteers who work regularly in the Roma sections of towns but this was my first experience there. The differences between Bulgarian and American cultures are subtle and ones of degree for the most part, the differences between American and Roma cultures are huge and worth learning.

I made it back to Greg's just in time to help buy the groceries and rakiya for dinner. We all pitched in and made a Uruguayan dish that Greg had learned to cook when he lived there. Lentils, tomatoes, sausages, rice and anything that was lying around went into the pot which was then cooked in the oven, casserole style. After wishing each other a Chestit Halloween!, we dug in and ate every scrap of the dish. Then we got into the important business of the night, carving the tikvichi. Again, a group effort seemed the most efficient use of manpower so one person drew, another cut an eye, someone else hacked out a nose, etc. When the pumpkin was carved we carried it and a large bag of supplies up the mountain to the ruins of an old Roman fort. Greg had gone up the day before and hidden a store of firewood there so we lit a bonfire and toasted marshmallows. Rakiya, in case you've been wondering, is what the arson squad would refer to as an "accelerant". It also goes quite nicely with s'mores! Thank you.

The next morning, after a breakfast of cheese omelets, we all headed back to our respective sites. Apparently, the time had changed that night and I stood out in the freezing wind for an hour and a half waiting for a bus I was convinced was an hour late. I had actually been told about the time change, but chose to question the accuracy of the information. Yep, they were right.

On Monday I had to go to Sofia to have a biopsy on my left hand. I have a skin 'event' on my hand. It isn't fungus or a rash or parasitic, it's an event. The dermatologist says its a granuloma something or other and no one knows how you get it or how you get rid of it. It doesn't itch or burn and it isn't contagious but it just slowly moves around on the back of my hand. Sometimes it goes away of its own accord. But they took a chunk of it out to send to the lab in the States because that's PC procedure. The doctor put a single stitch in to close up the cut and the stitch will have to come out in a week. My choice is to go back to Sofia to have a stitch pulled or to pull it myself. The PC doctor has agreed to let me try to pull my own stitch out but insists that I be on the phone with her while I'm doing it. How tough can it be? Cut the stitch above (or is it below?) the knot, grab the knot with the tweezers and pull until a) the stitch comes out or b) I faint dead away. So take that all you PCVs living in Africa bragging about how tough you have it. I will be performing a surgical procedure on myself next week. Gimme a mirror, I'm sure I can remove that tumor from my brain with my Swiss army knife and this sewing kit.

Okay, I was hit by a car today. Well, 'hit' is a dramatic word that, in this case, stands for 'nudged'. It was my own fault really, I wasn't paying any attention as I was walking to work and the car had clearly established right of way on my part of the sidewalk. She was trying to pass a line of cars that had foolishly stopped for a red light and, as is fairly common practice here, pulled briefly onto the sidewalk to do so. As a pedestrian I was obviously more agile and should have leapt out of her way. She was forced to brake and lost her place as the light changed and the other cars (her competitors in the daily Bulgarian "How fast can your car go?" drive to work) pulled away from the light in a miasma of burning rubber. She accepted my apology pretty ungraciously, clumped her way over the curb back onto the road and roared off in hot pursuit. I'm considering mounting a horn and flashers on my jacket.

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