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

Thursday, January 26, 2006

It May Be Your Teapot, But It's My Tempest!

When we celebrated the completion of the renovation of the Knitting Room in the Home for the Handicapped last November, among those present for the party was a youngish woman living, temporarily, in the Home. In addition to unspecified handicaps that kept her confined to her wheelchair, she also had a drinking problem and was in the Home in an effort to regain some control of her life. During this brief period she befriended the women of HandKnitCrafts.com and often found time to join them as they worked. She didn't knit but sat with them and talked and gossiped and listened as they talked and gossiped and as they complained about life in general. Then the youngish (30's) woman left the Home, thought about her experiences there and wrote a letter to a penpal in England. The penpal was a vicar in a small town parish and Evgenia (the youngish woman) took great pains in her letter to him to: 1) reconfirm her overpowering love for Christianity in general and God in particular, 2) confess the personal burden she bears as a result of being overwhelmingly beautiful, 3) admit to backsliding ever so slightly on the whole alcohol thing and, 4) accuse me of the 'brutal exploitation' of the handicapped women of Stara Zagora.

How do I know this?, you ask. The Vicar, bless his well-intentioned soul, turned out to be married to the sister of the wife of the British Ambassador to Bulgaria. Small world, no? Through chain-of-command the letter wound up on His Excellency's wife's desk; who, by the way, is the Chairperson of Traditzia - the shop in Sofia where almost all of our knitted products are sold. One of the women in the shop faxed us a copy of the letter and we were, initially, somewhat at a loss for words. Then I began to find some words but, fortunately for you, I seem to have lost them again. Evgenia described the person doing the brutal exploitation as being 'the artist man' and my colleagues and I all agreed that, as I'm the only man involved in the project, she must have been referring to me. I've been accused of many things in my life, including the brutal exploitation of handicapped women, but I've never been called an artist! The nerve!

Our primary concern was to learn how Evgenia had developed this opinion. Was it a reflection of feelings held by the women with whom we'd been working for over a year? We arranged a meeting with the ladies and met them at the Home in the Knitting Room. After the usual banter and small talk, we began to ask them how they felt about the work we were doing for them. They assured us that they appreciated all we were doing but that A) we should sell more of their shawls so they can have more money and B) they don't want to work very hard anymore. This was not new, 'more money - less work' has been their theme song from day one. We, again, explained that start-up businesses don't quite work that way and had a fine old animated and boisterous conversation. With the four of us and the eight of them and their wheelchairs in a 15x20 room animated conversations are something to behold. This is pretty typical of our meetings and during the shouting and arm waving someone or another will be sure to begin passing out cookies or chocolates for their birthday or name day. Then we wrap it up and everyone says it's been fun and we leave.

So Petya mentioned the letter and the 'brutal exploitation' and the room went silent. Now that is different. The room is many things but one of those things is not quiet. The women knew about the letter, having been told of it by Evgenia. There was a bit of sheepish to-ing and fro-ing of wheelchairs and then they said that Evgenia had listened to them while they worked and misunderstood their general complaining about work, money and life and had written the letter without telling them. Then they stated emphatically that they want to do very little work and have someone give them a great deal of money. So, they have arrived at the place in capitalism where we all aspire to be; my work here is done!

The final bit of sweeping up was for Petya to make a daylong trip up to Traditzia to assure the Ambassador's wife that we were not brutally exploiting the women (and that I'm not really much of an artist) and that we were continuing to put a great deal of uncompensated time into helping them. It should be noted that, while I am a Peace Corp Volunteer, my colleagues are not compensated in any way for the many hours they spend each week trying to help the women form a sustainable business. The Ambassador's wife understood and during their meeting made the universal sign of putting your thumb to your lips and tilting your head back to indicate that she knew Evgenia. So all is well and our escutcheon is unbesmirched.

We are currently drafting a proposal to an EU funding organization for a grant to enable us to develop our Agency into a one-stop shopping center for foreign investors seeking to relocate all or part of their businesses to Stara Zagora. We want to build a set of web tools that will offer a vast amount of information to prospective investors, market our ability to hand walk them through the governmental processes involved in relocation and offer a menu of specific fee-based services. The most remarkable thing about this proposal is that it isn't due until the end of March and we're actually working on it now! This project seems tailor made for us and we seem determined to put some time into writing this proposal.

I traveled to a nearby village with some of the girls from the Film Club to begin filming Stancho's movie. The group has found a very good actress to play the part of the girl and Stancho's baba to play the part of the baba. The story revolves around the reasons the two don't like each other and calls for them to be fairly rude and mean to each other. Desi, the girl, has some acting experience and can be rude and mean on command, but Stancho's baba keeps looking at the camera and breaking into an ear to ear grin. She is one of the happiest people in Bulgaria and Stancho has to keep yelling at her to, "be a witch!" They've gotten off to a very good start and only need to keep at it to end up with a pretty good film. Nikoleta's movie is also moving along. She's doing the film with the animated ghosts and the cast of thousands and the magically appearing hotel. So far, she's still working with her cast on tightening up the script and hasn't begun filming. Mila & Eva are in the middle of shooting their really short film about a boy who decides not to run away from home and are waiting for the weather to improve before filming the last scene. I've shot about an hour's worth of film for the Roma project and have been trying to make contact with various people who are involved with that community. Jennifer, the PCV working with me on the project, and I want to have some film taken from the back of one of the many horse-drawn carts that are on every street. Our plan is to stand behind the driver and shoot over his shoulder which, admittedly, will fill the screen with the southern end of a north-bound horse, but will be a nice clip for the movie anyway. Unfortunately, the PC has just issued a directive prohibiting riding on horse or donkey carts. Oh well, they don't prohibit high school girls from riding on the carts so I'll have to ask Stancho to risk her life and limb for the sake of my movie. Now that's brutal exploitation!

Well, it's time for me, the artist man, to grab some crayons and begin to doodle on napkins. Hey, those things could be worth some real money some day! More money - Less Work!!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Baby, It's Cold Outside!

I got off the plane in Sofia on December 27th after having spent ten days visiting family and friends in New York City. Sofia is much like NY, only smaller. Oh, and colder. Ah, and a little more worn down. But, the public transportation does actually work in Sofia. The transit workers were on strike in NYC which seemed to be their way of saying "Merry Christmas" to the cabbies in the city. Not a single meter was turned on during the entire strike and the cabbies needed to hire cabs to carry home their take. The cab ride from the Sofia airport to the Centralna Bus Station runs about 7.50 leva if you don't get ripped off. It also helps, in Sofia and anywhere else, to know where you're going and which roads are acceptable. No, I do not want to just jog by the Rila Monastery on the way to the bus station!

It was snowing in cold wind-driven flurries when I arrived and I queued up in a short line for a cab . I threw my baggage in and asked the cabbie to take me to the bus station. Then I did the inexcusable in cab riding etiquette in any city in the world, I nodded off. I'd been traveling for over 20 hours at that point and the cab was warm and the radio was playing classical music and I'd just eaten a big meal on the plane and....I nodded off! When the cabbie woke me up at the bus station, it took me a moment to remember where and who I was. Oh yeah, I'm the guy who couldn't manage to fall asleep in a British Airways fully horizontal sleeper seat across the Atlantic but immediately dozed off in the back seat of a Bulgarian taxi with only one out of four serviceable shocks and an odor emanating from under my seat that could easily peel paint. Now I remember. More annoyed at myself than the driver I snapped, "Kolko?" to find out how much of his retirement I was about to fund. He said, "Sedem e pet decet". 7.50 leva, right on the button. And a very Merry Christmas to you, Tiny Dimitar! I gave him ten and wished him all the best for the Holidays. I've heard horror stories from friends and colleagues of cab rip-offs in Sofia, but, touch wood, I've always been lucky.

Back at home several hours later I was in the process of unpacking and unwinding when my phone rang. My sitemates were ringing to let me know that it was Matt's birthday. As I've mentioned previously, one is obligated to treat on one's birthday and this was my chance for a free dinner, so I hopped down to the Unigato Restaurant for pizza ala Matt. It was a fine way to get back into the swing of things here. I was really enjoying the evening when, apparently, I dozed off again. During some lapse in my attention my sitemates all agreed to have a New Year's Eve party at my place.

My original, if boring, plan for New Year's Eve was to make myself dinner, have a glass of Stoil's homemade red wine, then have a glass of his homemade rakiya with a good cigar while standing on my balcony watching the fireworks. I had no intention of going out to any New Year's Eve parties. However, the party came to me and it was a great night. Alex brought dinner and Jennifer, Jessie brought champagne and cards for two card games she wanted to play and Matt brought his famous 'blackies'. Those are brownies that he scorches while baking them until they are almost impossible to dent with human teeth. Proving that PCVs will eat anything as long as it's free, we even finished off the crumbs which resembled chocolate flavored gravel much more than food. Alex cooked a delicious chicken curry dinner in my kitchen, we all drank Stoil's wine and rakiya, we played two card games whose rules seemed to change each time I drew anything that might win and, finally, at midnight we went onto the balcony to watch the fireworks.

During the eighteen months I've lived here, the Municipality has set off fireworks displays from the roof of their building to celebrate various public holidays. My balcony affords an unsurpassed view of these displays and I was certain that the New Year's Eve show would be truly memorable. Well, it was a memorable show all right. The Municipality's fireworks were okay. They only lasted about ten minutes and lacked a grand finale. They came and went, however, lost in the firestorm of the Mother of All Private Fireworks displays! I'm not sure whether the national sport of Bulgaria is soccer or rakiya making but next in line is outdoing your neighbor in the home explosives department. From balconies, terraces, yards, street corners and parking lots across Stara Zagora they began. Following an initial salvo of small Chinese firecrackers on a string, the volume and frequency of explosions increased and grew until the night skies over SZ reminded me of the tv pictures of the night bombing of Baghdad. New Year's Eve in Stara Zagora was indeed like Baghdad in the Balkans. The period of heaviest intensity lasted almost an hour and the gunpowder and cordite were so thick in the air that you could still taste them the next day. Interspersed amongst the explosions were the sounds of ambulances racing here and there to put someone out who had accidentally set fire to himself or to recover one minor body part or another that had accidentally been separated from its owner. I would seriously suggest amending the Bill of Rights to allow the possession of weapons grade fireworks by anyone with enough rakiya in them to light the damn things! By the way, the two card games were Asshole and Bullshit and if you know what the rules are, please tell me because my sitemates have the scruples and principles of cab drivers when it comes to cheating at cards.

Now we're well into the new year and for the B16s (I am a B16) we're on the homestretch. We have until October to complete our two years and three months in Bulgaria and then we'll become RPCVs. I was talking with some other volunteers about project ideas that might take me up to my COS date and was asked by the volunteer in Kazanluk if I'd be interested in doing a documentary film. We are beginning to explore the idea of creating a documentary about the Decade of Roma Inclusion in Bulgaria. Eight European countries have begun to implement an action plan to very deliberately ensure the integration of their Roma minorities into their mainstream societies. Because this will deal with discrimination, segregation and prejudices, we have to determine whether we can frame it in a positive light. I think it will work if we focus on the good intentions of the national plan and the very positive benefits to all involved if it succeeds. So this might be my sayonara project.

SZ is in the lee of the Sredna Goras and is, therefore, spared the very worst of the Winter weather in Bulgaria. I guess I've gotten spoiled because it's gotten cold this month and I find myself complaining. I complain to my colleagues, to my sitemates, to waitresses and checkout girls at the market, to cab drivers and unfortunate strangers who happen to be stopped at the same traffic light as me and now, I complain to you. It's cold outside. It's also cold inside. My little radiator is like the small engine that could, only it can't! It heats one room in my apartment but 'heats' is a relative term used only in comparison with the other completely unheated rooms. In the morning I often find ice on the floor of my bathroom, but it melts under the hot water of my shower. I get dressed in the morning in unheated rooms by putting on clothing that is stiff with cold. Try leaving your clothing in your freezer overnight someday to get a feel for the meaning of the word "refreshing" in the morning. But the cold doesn't last for long here in SZ and I want to take advantage of every possible opportunity to whine.

Now I've got to bundle up and take my camera out to film, uh, people and, uh, things about, uh, you know, like Roma and stuff. Michael Moore, step aside.

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