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

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A Mayonnaise Tragedy

I'm quite certain that my nephew Philip is returned to the woods every summer to run free with his own kind, large bears. Last summer, however, he was forced by his parents to miss that seminal experience because they needed him to carry a jar of mayonnaise to Bulgaria. By 'jar' I, of course, mean 'drum'. Philip lugged a drum o'mayo across the Atlantic and into Bulgaria so his Uncle Larry could eat his tunafish sandwiches made with his preferred Hellman's mayo. I should be eternally grateful, his parents didn't seem to object too strenuously to his presence on the trip and the bears in the woods got more food for themselves. Unfortunately, my level of gratitude has been diminishing along with the mayo and, I'm distraught to announce, both have reached the very last drop of their existence. It may be time now to consider shipping young Philip back to Bulgaria on a mission of mercy.

When I was home visiting family and friends at Christmas I bought myself a gift. As I've become more and more interested in filmmaking, I realized that I wanted a better video camera. I have two small Canon digital camcorders but I've always planned on donating them to the Film Club when I leave Stara Zagora. So, eventually, I was going to buy a new camera anyway and if I bought it when I was home for Christmas, I could use it during my last few months in Bulgaria. It took a considerable amount of jumping through various hoops to get the camera ordered and delivered during the ten days I was home. Just to add to the hassle factor, they sent the wrong size lens filters which had to be exchanged. The company I dealt with online was Beach Camera and I would recommend them if you're looking for any type of photographic or video equipment. Anyway, before I left the States, I had the new camera with all the proper accessories. I used it a bit here in SZ and the difference in quality was noticeable.

As I've mentioned, I'm in the process of filming a documentary on the Decade of Roma Inclusion. In February 2005 Bulgaria, along with seven other eastern European nations, signed an agreement to create and implement action plans to integrate their Roma (Gypsy) populations into the mainstream societies. I've begun interviewing people across a broad spectrum of Bulgaria's population to try to determine their level of awareness about the action plan and their feelings towards it. Last Friday I went to Plovdiv because my friend Kate had arranged for me to interview a group of Roma heroin addicts. Kate works in an outreach program that provides counseling and clean needles to these people. We met in the 'clinic' and found several men who were willing to talk to us. Some of them preferred to be interviewed with their backs to the camera, some were too far gone to really understand our questions and some were willing and able to offer some very interesting opinions and insights. They felt that things will never improve for them because of their addiction but that things might improve for Roma children if they can find jobs when they leave school. One of our questions asks, "Do you think things will be better for you in five years, in ten years?" Not one of them could imagine himself being alive in five years.

From the film's point of view, the interviews were very successful. Kate had also arranged for us to interview a group of prostitutes later that evening. We would have to buy packs of cigarettes for them because while they talked to us they would be 'on the clock' so to speak. It was still early so we decided to have dinner in a local restaurant while we waited.

Between volunteers, friends and counterparts, there were five of us at the table in Restaurant Diana. We had a table back in a corner against a wall and settled in to have a light meal, a beer and some conversation. There wasn't room on the table or chair for my camera bag so I put it on the floor by my foot. The new camera and bag were fairly large and there was a wall behind me but I was still uncomfortable about leaving it on the floor so I kept glancing down to check on it. At one point I looked down and it was gone. Someone had managed to pull it away from my foot without any of the five of us noticing! We called the police and the inspector didn't seem to believe it either. Fortunately, Kate and her Bulgarian friend Dobi were there to convince the inspector that someone had somehow taken the bag right from under the big dumb guy's feet and that instead of yelling at me, he might want to look for the thief. The thief, of course, wasn't hanging around in front of the restaurant playing with his new camera, this isn't the way of thieves. He was long gone. Dobi went with me to the Police Station to file a report and our meeting with the prostitutes was cancelled. The camera had the piece of film we'd shot with the addicts in it, so that was gone too.

Brian suggested that I contact the credit card company to see if they had any sort of coverage for this situation so on Monday I did. As you might imagine I was referred from pillar to post and back again before I finally got to talk to the buyer's security unit. They have opened a claim file and are sending me a volume of paperwork to complete. I also have to send the police report, a notarized letter explaining the situation and all receipts and statements. After they receive all of this, they'll decide if I have any coverage. At least they didn't say "no" right off the bat. So, for now, the film project is on hold and I haven't decided whether or not to replace the camera right now.

On Saturday I went to visit Veneta & Stoil in Saedinenie and had a really wonderful afternoon. Veneta met me at the door with food and kept feeding me for the four hours I was there. Stoil and I drank domashna rakiya and domashno vino and watched the Winter Olympics. I reminded him that we got to know each other while watching the Summer Olympics in 2004 and that called for another round of rakiyas. They heat their house with a wood burning stove (pechka) which does an adequate job downstairs but leaves the upstairs as cold as a polar wind. They were very understanding when I explained that I'd be returning to Plovdiv to sleep on Brian & Kate's couch. When it was time to go, they loaded me up with food, rakiya and wine for the trip home. You never know when a party might break out on the bus and heaven forbid I should be without a couple of litres of rakiya!

I'll be spending the balance of this week in Sofia working with the SPA Committee on reviewing the latest round of project funding requests. Brian is also on the committee and we've made a practice of having dinner together at a local restaurant that serves a very nice steak smothered in a dijon mustard sauce. We smoke cigars, drink rakiya and solve many of the world's more difficult issues. All in all, it's an evening I'm looking forward to.

Everything has gone really well for me here and I've been enjoying my PC experience immensely, thoroughly and without reservation, at least right up until now. Now, as you may suspect, I'm a bit depressed. I didn't realize just how important mayonnaise is to me. So, Philip, wherever you are, tell the bears you can't see them again this Summer because I'm out of mayo!!

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