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

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Puhtoovaneh is travel in Bulgarian. I did some of that recently when I went back to New York for ten days to spend Christmas with my family. Because my flight didn't leave Sofia Airport until 2:30 in the afternoon, I planned to take a bus to Sofia that morning rather than go up the night before and stay at a hotel in town. I was chatting with my colleagues, Petya and Darina, about my plans and mentioned that I was planning on catching the 9:00am bus which would get me to the airport stop at about 12:00 noon. I could take a cab from there and be at the check-in counter by 12:30pm. They both began to explain the flaws in my reasoning to me, which consisted mainly of "you have to leave earlier in case 'something' happens". I've ridden the buses here for the past eighteen months and 'nothing' has ever happened but I bowed to their persistent and well-intentioned advice and decided to catch the 8:00am bus. The extra hour at the airport wouldn't really bother me and I planned to relax there with my book and a cup of coffee.

So I awoke early on Saturday morning, showered, picked up my bags and headed for the aftogara (bus station). I got there just in time to catch the 7:30am bus to Sofia, took my seat, accepted a cup of coffee from the attendant (stewardess?) and settled back to enjoy the movie (Lords of War). I mentally thanked my colleagues for their advice because the extra hour and a half relieved me of all time related stress in the beginning of my long journey to New York. Between Stara Zagora and Sofia the express bus makes only one stop, in Chirpan. After stopping in Chirpan it's a straight shot to the city and most of that distance is covered on a very modern divided highway. Just as we accelerated our way onto that highway, however, the dreaded 'something' did happen, there was a loud bang from underneath the bus as some part of the suspension chose that moment to die. The driver slowed the bus down to a crawl and for the next few miles we were tossed around in our seats like popcorn while the undercarriage crashed and shuddered its way over every bump in the road. We finally reached a filling station and pulled off the highway and the attendant announced that there would be a short pochivka (rest stop). Soon three men in blue work smocks began to poke and pry under the bus and eventually one of them came onto the bus to crawl down into the underneath through some removable panels in the floor. There was a great deal of banging and rattling going on as the 9:00am bus from Stara Zagora drove past us towards Sofia. From where I sat, the 9:00am seemed to be mechanically intact.

The three men in blue had our bus back on the road within an hour and we made very good time from the filling station to the tunnel. Sofia sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains and the highway from the east climbs partially up the elevation then cuts through the last bit with a short tunnel. We exited the tunnel into a heavy snowstorm and a pea soup fog. The road was slick with snow and visibility was non-existent so we were back to a slow crawl. An hour later we were at the stop closest to the airport and I quickly grabbed a cab and set off. The driver was a grizzled old fellow with one tooth and a ready grin to show it off. He was obviously proud of his single remaining tooth because he had framed it in gold. We chatted a little on the way to the airport and I mentioned that it was a shame that it was snowing because I was supposed to fly out later that afternoon. "Oh, the planes won't be bothered by the snow", I was assured by the cab driver. That was a relief. "No, it's this fog that will cause all the accidents." In Bulgaria you must always wait for the other shoe to drop.

I made it to the airport with time to spare, flew to London, changed terminals and caught the flight to JFK. My bag stayed on in London for a couple of extra days but it, eventually, made it to New York too. To celebrate my homecoming, the transit workers in NYC walked out on strike the day after I arrived. That didn't matter in the least because all I wanted to do was visit with my family and friends. My sons brought our baseball gloves with them from Illinois and we spent three days when the weather was absolutely beautiful playing catch in Central Park. I had a double bacon cheeseburger at Big Nick's and hot dogs at Papaya King. We went to see King Kong and I discovered that there is a price difference between New York and Stara Zagora ($10.75 vs. $2.00). Most of all, I just visited. It was Na Ghosti (long visit) time in New York.

My ten days seemed to go by in a heartbeat and the next thing I knew I was standing at the airline counter checking in for my flights back to Bulgaria. I had specifically requested an aisle seat and was surprised when the agent told me that they'd had to change my seat because the flight was so full. I began to whine that I'd had that seat reserved since August and I have long legs and I need to get some rest on this flight and.....when she interrupted me to explain that they were upgrading me to business class. Oh. Well, thank you very much. I had a very relaxing flight to London, changed terminals, caught the flight to Sofia, a cab to the bus station, the bus to SZ and was back home in an effortless 23 hours. I guess my bag had seen enough of London because it made the entire trip with me this time.

My trip back to the States was wonderful but it also felt good to get back here to Bulgaria. For now, this is home and it was good to get back home. It's the nature of this Peace Corps business that when you're well and truly settled into your life in your host country, it's time to leave. My COS (completion of service) date is October 10, 2006 and the time between now and then will pass very quickly. I've decided that in January I'll start figuring out what it is I want to do after my time here is up. I've got ten months to come up with a plan.

Well, New Year is right around the corner and I plan to spend mine with a glass of Stoil's domashna rakiya, a hand rolled cigar and my iTunes. I'll be on my balcony watching the SZ fireworks and, if you're in the neighborhood, you're welcome to join me.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Happy Holidays

On Saturday I'll take the early bus to Sofia and get off at the first stop on the outskirts of the city. There I'll grab a cab and take it to the airport. In the early afternoon I'll fly to London where I'll transfer to a flight to New York. All in all the trip will take about 20 hours but getting to see my family and friends at the end of it will make it all worth while. Besides, I didn't have any other plans for Saturday.

Things have been reasonably quiet here for the past month. There is only one group working on a film at this time. Nikoleta is determined to make her movie which will include animated ghosts and a spontaneously appearing hotel. During the first round of film projects I advised all the kids to keep their movies simple, to keep the stories short, to keep the casts small, to keep the dialogue to a bare minimum and to work in a group of four or five students. Nikoleta wrote a script about a spaceboy who performs a couple of 'special effects' miracles and then beams back up to his own planet, complete with flashing lights and sound effects. She had a cast made up of half the tenth grade and filmed in three different locations. One of her lead characters dialogue sheets were eight pages long. She never formed a group to help her and she was also the only one who actually finished her movie.

This time around I've said that anything goes except animation, we just can't do animation. Nikoleta is pushing the frontier ever farther by combining animation with live action and a cast that includes six individual speaking parts and three ghosts. I'm helping her develop a more coherent story than she started with and I'll help her with the cameras and editing when the time comes. She's on her own for the rest of it. We had a cast meeting this week to read through all the speaking parts (three girls and three boys) in order to begin to work on the dialogue. The meeting began with Nikoleta and her production team (she has succumbed to my nagging) and the three actresses but no boys. Finally, one brave kid showed up and was immediately assigned a part. After waiting about fifteen minutes, he was sent out to recruit or shanghai two other boys. He returned to the room about ten minutes later with a couple of his friends and received a standing ovation from the girls. The kids only had time to read about three of the twenty pages of the script before the bell rang calling them to class. Nikoleta is very very very persistent and we're going to run through the script again on Friday.

Handknitcrafts.com started out well but has since fizzled somewhat. We received a few orders and the website gets a lot of hits, but we haven't done much in the way of business lately. That is mildly disappointing but not disastrous because we still need to do a lot of work on setting up our procedures for processing orders. I am supposed to be interviewed by a couple of reporters from the States in the next few days and if I can get a plug into some papers back home it should help. The women aren't using the room to knit in unless I go out to see them, then they all come rolling down to the room and we sit and chat for a while and they knit. As soon as I leave, however, they all return to their own rooms to knit. It turns out that they are just used to knitting by themselves in their rooms and, more importantly, they sit and watch their soap operas while they work. Now I'm working with them to try to convince them to use the room to knit at times when the soaps aren't running. Putting a TV into the knitting room isn't the solution we're looking for, because a) we don't have the funds b) it would require installing cable and the monthly subscription fee and c) the staff would soon take it over.

It's become colder lately in SZ. We really can't complain though because it's milder here than anywhere else in Bulgaria. We're protected from the bitter weather that comes down from the north by two mountain ranges. It certainly isn't as cold as either Chicago or New York have been this past week! On the other hand, I'm out in it a lot more here. I don't have a car and my apartment doesn't have heat. I use a single electric heater to heat up one room and the bill for doing that can run as high as 300 leva a month. It's just the way things are here and spring is only three months away!

Further to my adventures with appliances, my refrigerator fell down last week. Actually, it didn't make it completely to the floor because a kitchen wall got in the way. Apparently, two little foot type things on one side felt that after 40 years of holding up the refrigerator (a Minsk 16) they'd had enough. I'm not sure how they fell off, but I came home to find the fridge slumped over against a wall like a man feeling the effects of too much rakiya. My best guess is that the feet simply vibrated off after years of supporting a cooling unit that turns on and off with the quiet smoothness of a cement mixer. I was surprised to see that even on its side, the fridge did its job and the inside was still cool. At its best, the inside is still warmer than the rest of the kitchen during the winter. So I propped it back up and jammed the feet back in. It never missed a beat!

The Christmas lights are up in town and it looks really wonderful. The double rows of trees are strung with small white lights and the Obshtina is festooned with all sorts of decorations done in lights. There is a big Christmas tree in the main plaza and a row of temporary shops set up on Tsar Simeon Blvd. to sell all sorts of Christmas junk. SZ is a pretty town anyway, but the Municipality does a really nice job of lighting the place up for the Holidays. I'll be back here for New Years Eve and I'll have a ringside seat from my balcony for the fireworks display. Then I'll have to round up another project or two for the next few months. I'm considering something devoted to appliance repair.

Happy Holidays to all of you, and I'll see you next year!

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