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

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Play Ball!

Last weekend I went to Hissar to join a group of volunteers who were planning on taking a hike. Hissar is about an hour north of Plovdiv by bus which, like Stara Zagora, puts it in the foothills of the Sredna Gora. The outing was planned and coordinated by the VSN or Volunteer Support Network, a group of volunteers who serve as peer counselors and shoulders-to-lean-on. The VSN thought it would be nice to set up a weekend for anyone who wanted to visit Hissar, go for a swim in the hot baths, see the Roman ruins and take a short walk through the surrounding countryside. It sounded good to me and my friend Kate was doing the coordinating so I decided to tag along.

We had very comfortable rooms in a sanitarium that had special rates for railroad employees. After determining that none of us had ever actually been employed by a railroad at any time, they charged us full whack. That came to almost 13 leva per person, or about nine dollars. We dumped our things in our rooms and gathered out front to wait for our guide for the walk around town. Georgi showed up right on time and was dressed in full camouflage with military hiking boots. This was a man who took his walks about town seriously.

Promptly at 11:00am we started off at a brisk clip. We barreled past ruins and hot springs without so much as a brief, "That's a Roman ruin" or "These are some of our famous hot springs", from our tour guide. We walked to the very edge of town and then took a brief rest while our guide ran off to his apartment for something he'd forgotten. Ten minutes later he returned and we were off again. This time we struck out across the fields behind Hissar towards the foothills. We marched for an hour across fields and through orchards and, as the foothills grew closer they began to seem more like footmountains. We stopped just short of the serious uphill part of the hills and the guide showed us where he intended to take us so the faint of heart could bail out then and there. I can usually faint with the best of them but I would have been the only one so I trudged on with the pack. Just before we began the climb, a friend of Georgi's joined us. He too was in full camo with military boots and he was packing heat. For reasons I never quite figured out he had a very large pistol holstered on his hip. I suppose if any of us broke a leg or something it would have been more merciful to shoot us rather than leave us to the wild squirrels and lizards.

The path began its climb into the Sredna Gora and we climbed right along with it. I was huffing and puffing like a steam engine, an old steam engine, but I was keeping up with everyone and it kept looking like we were almost there. 'There' being a nice spot the guide was taking us to for lunch. As a group we soon fell into a groove; we'd hike for ten minutes and then rest for ten minutes. It made the hike longer but seriously curtailed the coronaries. Up and up we went and I knew that I was in trouble when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay came down the path shaking their heads and telling us to go back because it was too difficult. I had a fleeting feeling that the VSN was trying to kill me because I'm old.

Finally, without the use of ropes, pitons or an escalator we made it up to the highest point on the planned hike and stopped for lunch. It was a very pretty spot with a natural spring of cold water and a view of the entire valley. We ate and relaxed and gathered our strength for the tumble back down the hill. Some people were theorizing that going down is harder than going up, don't let them kid you, going up is all effort and muscle pain, going down is losing your balance and rolling a lot. We got back to the sanitarium at about 5:00pm, showered and headed off to dinner. After a very nice dinner in a local restaurant, we found another place that served real carrot cake and had dessert there. I was asleep like a baby by 10:00 and woke the next morning feeling great. Until I tried to move my legs and discovered that each leg weighed about twelve tons. Maybe I shouldn't have had that extra piece of carrot cake. In a month or so, when my legs begin to recover their strength, I might try this hiking thing again.

March 30

It's that time of the year again. Baseball season begins this weekend and my fantasy team, The OverPaidPrimaDonnas, is poised to defend its role as the perennial bridesmaid in our league. Our draft was held yesterday and this year's team has some promise which is a serious handicap considering that our major strength has always been the quality of my whining. Nonetheless, in spite of a bizarre set of draft rules that once again conspired to prevent me from acquiring even one frontline pitching ace, second place is well within our expectations. We're No. 2, we're no. 2!!

March 31

Several months ago I had dinner with a group of friends in Pazardjik and ended up sitting across from Lori at the table. Lori told us all that she was leaving the PC because she'd joined the Foreign Service and had to terminate her PC service to begin training. It all sounded pretty interesting to me so I asked her how she went about joining the Foreign Service. It seems that there is a rigorously competitive process for obtaining one of these State Department jobs. Lacking a presidential appointment (ie. Condaleeza Rice) you first must pass a Foreign Service Written Exam (FSWE), then a Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA) and finally, be high enough up on the list of qualifiers to be called for the one and only group training class each year. Here's a rough approximation of how the numbers work out; 30,000 people sign up for the free FSWE, about 5,000 of these don't even show up on test day; of the 25,000 who actually take the exam, approximately 10% achieve high enough scores to be offered a shot at the FSOA; some of these 2,500 then reconsider and drop out but about 2,000 will go through the day-long ordeal of the FSOA; less than 10% will be put on the list for potential entry into the Foreign Service. Then you just wait to see if there are openings in your cone (State Department talk for Field). You can stay on the list for 18 months at which time, if you haven't been offered a job, you can begin the whole procedure again or go find a day job. Lori was too modest to go into all these numbers, I dug them out of online State Department statistics.

The FSWE is a five part exam. Prior to taking it you have to declare which of the five FS cones you want to specialize in, the choices are Political, Public Diplomacy, Economics, Consular and Management. The SD site has a wealth of information on each and an online interactive test to help you decide. Part one of the exam is the job knowledge section. Multiple choice questions testing your knowledge in a wide range of subjects such as economics, history, geography, math, cultural events, political science, US legal system, management theory, etc. Upon finishing this section, you proceed immediately to a multiple choice section specifically designed for your cone. There is a 50 minute essay and then a multiple choice test on English and another that assesses your general life skills. A minimum score will be determined by the SD and only exams scoring above that number on the multiple choice sections will have their essays graded. Two out of three of the exams that qualify to have their essays graded are then rejected because of essay deficiencies.

Daunting to say the least. However, as it seems that my dream of being appointed a Senator will never come to fruition, I've signed up for the FSWE being held this Saturday in Sofia. I must be clear here, I don't want to campaign, run or engage in any political process to become a Senator, I just think it would be nice to have the job and I'd accept it if someone decided to give it to me. I probably stand a better chance of that happening than I do of passing the FSWE, but I'm going to give the test a shot anyway. After all, I have to find something to do when I grow up.

By the way, Lori, as a reward for her outstanding achievement, has been sent to Sudan for her first assignment which, of course, leaves the French Riviera wide open for the next group!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Sportin' Ladies

A Bulgarian newspaper reported today that there is a high level of concern in Germany, host nation to the soccer World Cup, over the probability of a mass influx of 'sex industry' workers drawn by the huge crowds of, predominantly, young male fans. Fans of soccer, that is. Anyway, this sudden increase in Germany's already prodigious population of hookers, sportin' ladies and working girls will come primarily from 'Eastern European' countries and Number One on the hit list is (drumroll, please)...Bulgaria. WoooHooo! We're No. 1! We're No. 1!

I have spent most of my time here helping to develop mechanisms to assist Bulgarian businesses in recognizing, understanding and implementing European Union requirements, regulations and standards to prepare them for eventual accession into the club. Not once have I had the opportunity to consult with 'sex industry' workers or, sadly, to conduct any research into the requirements, regulations and standards set for these entrepreneurs in Germany or any other EU country. Then again, I'm not a big fan of soccer either.

The opera is back in town! After missing most of the season because the company was touring America, of all places, the Stara Zagora opera is back in business right here in Stara Zagora. Three weeks ago there was a false start to the new season when the lead soprano (a real soprano, not a New Jersey mobster) came down with an ailment, real or imaginary. The whole shebang was postponed until tomorrow night. As of today she's in fine fettle, so there are hopes that the curtain will rise on Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" and the show will go on. We have a large modern opera house in town that was partially destroyed in a fire a dozen years or so ago. It is still under repair and, from time to time, there are brief flusters of activity and the sound of hammers and saws can be heard in the building. Then a long period will go by without any progress at all. In the meantime, the operas are held in the local theater, which is fine with me. It is a small but very pretty building just a five minute walk from my apartment. There isn't a bad seat in the place and the acoustics are just fine. The stage isn't very large and requires some creative set design, but that's just part of the fun.

I was invited to the prom today! One of the seniors from the film club stopped by to ask me if I'd go to their prom on May 24th. I won't need to rent a tux or buy a corsage, however, as I'm being asked to stand by the wall and film the dance. I haven't seen any of the Film Club kids in a couple of months as they seem to all have developed new interests or become too busy with school. I had to explain to her that my 'good' camera was stolen and that I'd have to use the old, smaller cameras. She gave me a "now what should I do" sort of look and told me she'd think it over and let me know. Oh well, at least I won't have to polish my dancing shoes.

Apparently, we're having an intercom and buzzer system installed in my apartment building. Neither of the two lobby doors lock, so this will be a radical change. There is a telephone mounted just inside my apartment door which doesn't do anything at the moment. I guess they'll hook it up and I'll buzz in visitors, guests, delivery people, thieves and miscellaneous others. In a building that can't agree to chip in to pay to get the elevators fixed properly, this is a very interesting development. The lobby was just painted and part of the stairwell has also been cleaned up. By the time I move out the place could become downright respectable. I have been very comfortable in my apartment these past two years and I'll miss it in a masochistic sort of way. The appliances still conspire to do me in and the radiator is on its last legs, but I suppose it will all last until I leave. The view from the two balconies is great and my neighbors are all very nice to "the English guy". Matt was coming up in the elevator recently and was asked by a building resident if he was going 'na ghosti' to the English guy's apartment. That, I guess, would be me. Since our primary mission as PCVs is to foster a better understanding of Americans amongst our host country nationals, I'm pleased to say that I've tarnished the reputation of Englishmen and left our own unscathed.

At work I seem to have accidentally stepped through the looking glass. We've been working on an application for a grant from the EU agency Phare. A requirement of Phare applications is that they must be submitted in English and my role on past applications has been to polish the final draft. Generally, the application is written by Petya and Darina, always at the eleventh hour, with a great deal of heated discussion and enthusiastic waving of this or that set of guidelines or regulations. Then, five or ten minutes before it has to be sent off, I'm asked to re-do the English. This time was different. I was asked to actually write up the application to begin with and then we'd all sit around and edit my efforts together and send it off. This, after all, was the most important application we would file this year and to prove it, we were starting to work on it a month in advance! So I spent a couple of weeks working my way through the application and then sat down with my colleagues to discuss it and make any necessary changes. Imagine my surprise when I learned that I hadn't written a single acceptable word, not one. In my innocence I had mistakenly read the instructions for completing the application and followed them, unaware that my colleagues simply use those instructions as a sort of code for creating their own interpretation of the 'secret' meanings of the various terms. I actually took part in a very bizarre conversation explaining why the terms "target group" didn't actually apply to the group being targeted by the project but to a group that hadn't even been mentioned up to this point. However, when it came time to define the benefits to be received by the target group I was to describe the benefits to my original group of targets. So, it seems, I've been relegated back to polishing their English on the final draft. There's a lesson here somewhere.

March 17

Last night my neighbor came and rang my bell. She and her husband are about my age and, during the week, their granddaughter Hristina lives with them and attends the primary school next door. Hristina is in the fourth grade and is taking an English class, her grandparents don't speak any English and my Bulgarian is limited to saying hello to them in the elevator or hall. At her grandmother's (baba's) prompting, Hristina drew herself up to her full 3'10", pulled a ruled sheet of paper from her pocket, looked me in the eye and then began to read aloud, "On Saturday morning the door in the downstairs will be locked for always. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? I have for you one key. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? Here is your key, it will make the door to unlock. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?" I told her, in Bulgarian, that I did understand and that she spoke English very well, which made her baba very very happy. Then I asked how my infrequent visitors would be let in and was told that they would have to call me and I would have to go down and let them in. So much for the high-tech intercom system that I thought we were getting in lieu of elevator repair. Oh, and the elevators still won't be repaired.

One final more serious note to my sophomoric attempt at humor in the opening paragraph; many, if not most, of the Eastern European sex industry workers who will be in Germany will not be there voluntarily or from any spirit of free enterprise. They will be victims of human trafficking who will be there through force, coercion and/or deception. Bulgaria is, unfortunately, a primary source of young women forced into prostitution in other countries. The PC is very active in raising the awareness levels of the prevalence of these trafficking activities (known as TIP or trafficking in people) among high risk groups of young people across the country. Young women are lured by the promise of employment or educational opportunities to leave the country with 'sponsors' who then take their passports, documents and money and virtually sell them into truly horrific situations. Hopefully, as we shine more and more light on this practice, these cockroaches will be forced back into the sewers and their prospective victims will be safer. Our role as PCVs is to shine those lights.

Lastly, I went to "Madame Butterfly" on Tuesday night and it was terrific, even if it was a bit surreal to watch an Italian opera set in 19th century Japan about an American sea captain and a Japanese courtesan sung by Bulgarians. To aid the audience in understanding the plot, subtitles were flashed on a screen above the set in very blurred Bulgarian script. Well, thank goodness for that or I wouldn't have had a clue what was going on. As it's an Italian opera, the heroine dies in the end (it's the German operas where the fat lady sings) and she did so with panache and a level of histrionics suitable to a prima donna. Next time you're in Stara Zagora, catch the opera.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Say, That Looks Like A Sheep's Stomach

Kukeri is a celebration of Spring that is unique to Bulgaria. It traces its origins back to Thracian times and is meant to drive away the ghosts that come out in the Winter and to ensure a successful agricultural season. Traditionally, the celebration or festival takes place in the early Spring in mountain villages throughout the country. The participants are men from the village who dress in traditional Kukeri costumes and slowly parade up and down the town to the accompaniment of horns, bells and drums. For the most part Kukeri costumes consist of sheepskin pants, belts hung with cowbells and ornate masks or headpieces that can resemble anything from animals to mythical monsters. Each costume is custom made and uniquely individual. Kukeri is also an excellent time for the folk dancing troop of the village to perform and if any neighboring towns care to send their dancers, they're always welcome. So the men perform this ancient ritual and the ghosts of Winter are chased away and the crops are assured. There are three big Kukeri festivals held here, one in Pernik just outside of Sofia, another in Shiroka Luka way down south in the Rhodope Mountains and the third in Koprevshtitsa in the Sredna Gora.

I had a dentist appointment and was actually in Sofia the weekend the Pernik festival was being held. I was aware of it and knew of several PCVs who were going, but I missed it anyway. It wasn't for a lack of interest. One of the things I want to see the most here is a Kukeri festival. I just sort of ran out of steam that weekend and never made it to Pernik. So that left Shiroka Luka and Koprevshtitsa. Unfortunately, Koprevshtitsa came and went without raising a blip on my radar and I missed that one too. Shiroka Luka is the good one anyway. If you're only going to see one Kukeri festival, by all means make it the one in Shiroka Luka. It couldn't have been more perfect because the festival was being held on the national three day weekend in March.

Actually, it would have been a bit more perfect if I hadn't had the flu for two weeks. Matt and Jessie were planning to go from Stara Zagora and asked me to tag along with them. I just didn't feel like taking the four different buses that the trip to Shiroka Luka required and decided to stay home. I was finally beginning to feel better and I thought a quiet weekend at home would get me back on my feet. Then on Friday I got a call from Sara, who was visiting Brian and Kate, letting me know that they were all going to Kukeri on Sunday morning. All I had to do was catch a bus to Plovdiv and then a friend of Kate's would drive us there in her car. We'd be back in Plovdiv in time for me to catch an early bus back to SZ. It was perfect. So Saturday morning I slept late and made myself an excellent breakfast of bacon and eggs. Then I wandered down to the bus station to catch the bus to Plovdiv. I had a bit of difficulty crossing the main street here in town because there was a huge parade of men wearing sheepskin pants and cowbells. There were troops of folk dancers in wonderful costumes and traditional Bulgarian folk music echoed throughout the town. I had a bus to catch and didn't get to see much more than that. I cut in front of a large man in sheepskin pants wearing an enormous deer's head with antlers at least ten feet tall. The whole thing looked suspiciously like a Kukeri Festival, but that couldn't be because no one had mentioned that we had a really big celebration right here whenever I said that I really wanted to see one! Ten minutes later I was at the bus station and on my way to Plovdiv. I was sorry to miss the Kukeri parade in SZ but my consolation was that I was going to one of the three most famous festivals in the country.

On Sunday it turned out that we were not going to Shiroka Luka after all. Shiroka Luka is some 200 kilometers from Plovdiv and we were going to a festival that was much closer, in Pervanets. In a way this was even better because the festival in Shiroka Luka would be packed with tourists and half the Peace Corp and this smaller festival would be easier to manage and a lot closer to home. After one false start (we stopped in a town very similar to Pervanets but not actually Pervanets) we found the town, parked and took up positions on the sidewalk. We could hear the parade farther along up the street and could see the beginnings of it coming towards us. We got our cameras out and began to shoot.

Down the street they came but instead of the traditional Kukeri parade, this was a group of villagers dressed in Halloween costumes carrying enormous wooden replicas of Turkish swords. Many of them did have on the belts with cowbells and there were drums and horns, but for the most part there were small boys dressed as small girls who ran around whapping you on the back with inflated sheeps' stomachs. Everyone got whapped to some degree or another with large men, cute girls and friends seemingly taking the brunt of the whapping. This may have been to drive out evil spirits, to cleanse all and sundry of assorted sins or merely because the small boys really enjoyed having an opportunity to go around hitting strangers with inflated sheeps' stomachs. In traditional Kukeri only the men take part. The folk dance groups have women participants but Kukeri is a 'guy' thing. Pervanets, however, is much more politically correct than tradition demands and women were well represented in the rolling insanity. I exclude the group of four young men dressed a nuns, who whapped away with a somewhat religious fervor, from the ranks of women. There were real women taking part in the parade, most of whom were dressed in some form of harem attire and were shaking it to beat the band. The 'band' was one guy with a clarinet and two guys with drums. All in all the word that comes most readily to mind is 'bizarre'.

After brushing off each others coats, we bid farewell to Pervanets and the inflated inner organs of domesticated livestock. We drove a way up into the mountains and stopped at a terrific bakery out in the middle of nowhere to buy some of the best bread I've had here. That says a lot because the bread here is uniformly excellent. Then we drove back into Plovdiv and I caught the bus to Stara Zagora. I suppose in the back of my mind I was hoping that the Kukeri festival would still be going on in town when I arrived. It wasn't.

I'm hard at work now preparing a grant proposal that will help turn my agency into a ROSIO, that's a Regional One Stop Investment Office. The idea is to create one central location for collecting databases of information to assist potential foreign investors in making the decision to move here. This is basically what we do now, but on a less formal basis and we'd like to have the ability to improve our data collection capacity and to better represent the entire region. It's an important grant for us and we're putting a lot of work into it. A measure of the seriousness with which we are taking this application is the fact that it isn't due until the end of March and we've begun working on it now. Typically, we would go to panic stations a couple of days out and frantically hammer away at our keyboards until the last minute. Frantic hammering is the watchword of the day now and we'll be at it until the package is in the mail.

I have quite a number of vacation days stored up and I'm not allowed to use them after July 10th because the PC has a rule that no vacation may be taken within the last three months of service. I'm not sure why this rule exists, but it does. So, I'll begin taking my vacation time in April and won't be at work much between then and July. Then, I'll literally be on the homestretch. I COS on October 10th and will probably head for home a day or so later. Between now and then, I have to decide more or less where 'home' is. Maine, New York, Chicago, or maybe someplace sunny. I still have time to figure it all out. Right now I have to hammer away frantically or risk getting whapped with the sheep's stomach that Petya is inflating at her desk.

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