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

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Incredible Shrinking Group

The Peace Corps asks for a commitment from volunteers to serve in a host country for twenty-seven months, three months as Trainees and then two full years as Volunteers. This timeframe is made abundantly clear to each applicant at every step of the joining process. It can take up to a year to complete all the required steps and receive an invitation to join a group being sent to one country or another to begin training. There are lengthy online forms to complete, thick packets of paper forms to fill in, personal interviews to take, medical, dental and vision exams to pass, background checks to undergo, fingerprints, references and resume..all thoroughly checked. Then, from the day you receive your invitation to join, your timetable is very clearly laid out before you. Prior to your arrival in your country, your COS date is set. My group, the B-16s, arrived in Bulgaria on August 9, 2004 and on the calendars we were given on our first day, listing all the significant waypoints of our time here, was our Completion Of Service date, October 10, 2006.

Many volunteers do not stay until their COS date. People leave for a variety of individual and personal reasons. Some people find that they miss home, family and friends more than they ever could have anticipated and they leave. Some people discover that they don't like living in a 'foreign' country as much as they thought they would, especially when the electricity goes out, the water stops and the neighbors don't understand them. Sometimes their jobs don't make a lot of sense or aren't particularly rewarding and people begin to envy their friends at home who are starting 'real' careers or have gone on to grad school. Trainees and volunteers alike become disillusioned, fed up or just plain unhappy and they leave. There are also family emergencies and personal situations at home that force people to leave early. The reasons for leaving, and the decisions to do so, are always personal and people begin leaving at a more or less steady pace almost from day one. Volunteers who leave prior to their COS date are said to ET, or Early Terminate. This decision is voluntary and PC doesn't put pressure on people to stay if they want to go home. Then there are some who want to stay but aren't able to do so. There are people who become either too ill or injured to continue to serve and are medically separated from the PC. The PC term for this situation is MedSep, a tidy bureaucratic label for an unfortunate group. Finally, there are the few volunteers who just don't get it. A very small number of volunteers have to be Administratively Separated, generally for behavior issues related to running afoul of either PC policy, common sense or good judgment. If we weren't volunteers this would be called 'being fired' but we'll just call it ASing.

So, if you don't ET, MS or AS, you COS and get your DOS. Your DOS is your official Description of Service and proclaims to one and all that you served your full two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer with honor. For some people, that's enough to keep them here.

Most volunteers start out with a little trepidation and a lot of enthusiasm and most fully expect to COS. Fifty-nine B-16s got on the plane to fly to Bulgaria on August 8, 2004. There were supposed to be sixty of us but one woman was unable to join us. If I had been asked, at that time, to bet on how many would COS I would have bet that we'd lose no more than six people. This is why I don't gamble!

The B-16s are now officially on the endangered list. At last count there were more California Condors than B-16s! We are down to thirty-one hardy souls but the grapevine is humming and that number will certainly shrink (we could be talking Spotted Owl territory here). All of the people from my training group in Saedinenie are still here and both Lindsay and Sara have extended to stay a third year. Brian & Kate will stay for an additional month or so to help train the new arrivals and I will COS on October 10th and become the first of the Saedinenie's to leave.

There is no easy way to categorize the people who have left early or to categorize those who have stayed for that matter. Age, gender, race and creed are equally represented in both groups, as are intelligence, humor, and character. Most of those who have left have probably done the right thing for themselves; while those of us who are staying have found ways to make this a meaningful experience in our lives. It is, however, apparent that the Peace Corps is not for everyone. If you're considering joining, it might be worthwhile to try to talk to a couple of people who left early just to get their perspective. Personally, I think this has been a terrific experience and I fully intend to take advantage of every minute of it.

Among the advantages offered is private language tutoring, however, PC policy dictates that my language lessons must end on July 10th. I suppose that after two years of lessons, they feel that there's no point in throwing good money after bad and that I won't learn enough in my last three months to make the expenditure worth while. I can only hope that my tutor, Darina Murteva, can maintain her perfect record of 'never saying a single thing the same way twice' until July. While this isn't necessarily helpful when you're trying to learn a language, it is a very impressive feat when extended to twenty-four consecutive months. It's a bit like Joe Dimaggio's fifty-six game hitting streak, no tutor to come will ever approach Darina's capacity as a Bulgarian thesaurus. I've become very comfortable with our routine. Twice a week she comes to my apartment and, while I drink my coffee, she talks to me in very formal and proper (some might say ancient and archaic) Bulgarian. Periodically I'll try to get a word in, but usually it's easier on both of us if she does all the talking. I nod and make "umm, uh-huh and oh" noises until the hour is up. I truly believe that her Bulgarian is improving as a result of our sessions and I feel really good about that. Yesterday she was talking about something or other and switched to English halfway through. For a minute I thought I had finally begun to understand Bulgarian because I knew what she was saying!

The grapevine or rumor mill among volunteers is well oiled and running with its usual efficient lack of accuracy. It's interesting to note that the rumors have evolved over time from "who is sleeping with whom" to "who is leaving this week" to "PC is going to put a whole new set of rules in place to make us unhappy". Rumors have high entertainment value especially when they take on an air of bombast and outrage. Currently, people are dithering over an announcement of probable policy changes within PC Bulgaria. So far, no specific changes have been made but rumors of draconian new rules have created pockets of mumbled rebellion. In my opinion, PC policy in Bulgaria is designed to keep us safe, assist us in our work and our communities and support us during our stay here. My guess is that the new policies will be designed to improve on that level of support. If not, I suppose I'll take to the barricades and shout down the Man (shout the Man down?).

My apartment reminds me of a big leafy tree. When I arrived in October 2004, it was in the full blush of its Summer with healthy green leaves and strong solid roots. Time, however, has been unkind to my apartment and it has now entered the Fall of its existence. Like leaves turning brown and falling, bits and pieces of my apartment have begun to disintegrate little by little. I have one shower, two toilets and three sinks, none of which can be turned completely off at this time. It's like living in a rainforest. Above my entryway door is a panel of "bushoni" or fuses. These burn out with methodical precision and need to be replaced about once a month. My landlord Hristo simply takes them apart, braids some new wire into them and screws them back into the panel. Lately, they've been popping with even greater frequency and Hristo has now given me a little chart showing me which appliances cannot be operated simultaneously. The water heater can't be used when anything else is on. The radiator can't be used if the tv or stove are being used. The washing machine can only be run when all the lights are turned off and the refrigerator is unplugged. The stove has three hotplate burners and an oven, but only two of any combination can be on at a given time. Ahhh, now I get it, no wonder I've been blowing all those fuses. I have this nasty American habit of keeping my fridge plugged in when the lights are on.

So, if I'm the last B-16 left in Bulgaria, I'll turn out the lights when I leave...or just plug in the refrigerator and turn on the tv.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Put Your Pencils Down!

The Foreign Service Written Exam was held at the American Embassy in Sofia on Saturday. I was registered to take the exam so I went up to the city on Friday to take care of some admin stuff at the PC office. 'Admin stuff' is sort of a code phrase for 'play with my fantasy baseball team' on the PC internet. I ran into a PCV I knew and we had lunch together. He was in Sofia to take the exam too so it was the natural topic of conversation during lunch. Although he had registered, he wasn't entirely certain that he wanted to take the test this year. We discussed the numbers and the odds for actually making it into the FS. Approximately 30,000 people register for the test and somewhere around 125 end up being offered jobs. Daunting odds by any definition. We split up after lunch but agreed to meet later for dinner. When I got in touch with him at about 7:00pm, he said that he was on his way home and had decided to wait until next year to take the test. Okay...only 29,999 people left in the competition. The odds are getting better all the time.

Bright and early Saturday morning I got up, showered, had breakfast and caught a cab to the Embassy. I clearly remember the days when you could wander into any US Embassy in the world by waving your passport and saying you were looking for information, directions, a cheap place to stay or help. There were usually a couple of very smart looking Marines in full dress uniforms at the door who would direct you to one office or another. The Marines may still be there, but now they're in full battle dress with kevlar body armor and automatic weapons. You don't see much of them because they're tucked away in highly impenetrable defensive positions. It's just a reflection of the realities of the time that the US Embassy is now Fort America and is as welcoming as a maximum security prison.

I had a letter from the FS directing me to report no later than 8:00am to the Embassy and when I arrived at about 7:30am I found a few other PCVs milling around in front of the entry/security point. They explained that we wouldn't be allowed in until 8:00am. It was cold and even though it wasn't raining, it was damp. A nice gesture would have been for the Ambassador to send out coffee and doughnuts to us, but because it was Saturday he was probably home in bed. Hey, he could have left someone a note. "A bunch of cold Peace Corps Volunteers will be milling aimlessly around in front of the entry/security point. Send out some coffee and doughnuts to them, will you? Oh, and I have a feeling that at least one of them prefers Boston Creams." See, that's what successful diplomacy is all about.

Promptly at 8:00am they began to process us through security five at a time. Large men in black uniforms guided us through bulletproof rooms, metal detectors and heavy fortress-like doors. We were told to surrender our cell phones and any other electronic devices. Our names were checked and double-checked against a list and we were, finally, escorted into the Embassy itself. It took about half an hour for us to clear security, and they were expecting us. I don't think you'd stand much of a chance if you just wanted to drop by and see the place. Your tax dollars at work in a highly secure environment.

The room to be used for the exam was set up and ready for us. Each of us was assigned a table and each table faced a set of windows with a magnificent view of Mt. Vitosha. Vitosha is still covered with snow and, with a bright blue sky behind it, was a very pleasant distraction. From the empty tables, I'd guess that almost half the people who registered decided to sleep in that morning. The two proctors said, "no talking", read the rules, distributed the first test booklets and we were off to the races.

Six hours later we were through. Well, it wasn't a straight six hours, there was a fifteen minute break. On the front of each test booklet, there was a Non-disclosure Agreement that had to be signed. This basically states that if I reveal any of the questions I will be prosecuted, denied employment in the FS, called several naughty names and made to wait outside without doughnuts or coffee for some indeterminate amount of time. I can, however, tell you that I spent several months brushing up on various topics such as history, economics, management theory, geography, the US political system, the US legal system and the US Constitution complete with all 27 amendments. I bought a study guide that gave me a course of action and I took it. I don't think that what I did could ever be confused with actually studying, but I did spend time reviewing these areas in a helter-skelter fashion. I can say with complete confidence that out of a total of 400 odd questions (some were very odd) I feel really good about my answers on four or five. By 'really good' I, of course, mean that there is a 50% chance that I guessed correctly on them. The other 395 questions are a crapshoot. I spent a great deal of time both looking over the US Constitution and taking some online geography quizzes. The single geography question on the exam referred to an area of the globe that was inadvertently omitted from the set of quizzes. I did, however, nail the Constitution question. There was also an essay which had to be written by hand. I was assured that handwriting doesn't add to or detract from your score. My handwriting started out at illegible and ended up being a series of squiggly lines that represent really insightful words and sentences.

The test results will not be available until the end of July. I think I've done fairly well, but whether that's well enough to move on to the next step won't be known until then. All in all it was a very interesting experience and I rode the bus home to Stara Zagora feeling very confident that I was the only one on board who could pick the 17th Amendment to the US Constitution out of a lineup. For the short period of time that I actually remember all this stuff, I intend to impress friends and acquaintances alike at every gathering and when I forget the facts...I'll just make stuff up.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Many of the volunteers in Bulgaria keep online journals (journals, blogs, xangas, call them what you will) and I make it a practice to read about half a dozen of these on a regular basis. I read two because they're written by friends, one because it's written by an ex-PCV who is certifiably insane, one for the pictures and two others because they are so well written. I like good writing and I particularly enjoy stumbling across good writing in unexpected places. I've never seen any statistics on the subject, but I'd guess that the percentage of online journals that are witty, interesting and well written is a one digit number, a low one digit number. Many journals are simply used by their authors as whine racks and contain little more than an annoying recitation of whatever is making that person unhappy at that moment. Be assured, there is always something making these people unhappy. Life is a conspiracy against them. Given the opportunity, these folks would suck the pleasure out of a Spring day. Their message is dreary, their syntax is awful and their spelling is atrocious. They do, however, make finding the good ones all the more rewarding.

Now, in one of the good ones, I've been tagged. Tagging, it turns out, is the practice of defining a category, then making a personal list of specifics on your own journal and, finally, challenging, commanding, directing or asking a specific person or group of people to create their own lists on their journals. As in, "Tag, you're it!". I had to look it up.

So, Lucia thought about guilty pleasures and came up with seven that she was willing to share online. Now she's tagged me, and some of her friends, to list seven of our own guilty pleasures. Most of you who read this journal know me very well and, therefore, can appreciate my problem. While having an abundance of pleasures, I very rarely have guilt. But, as I've been tagged, I'll give it a shot.

The Peace Corps. I suppose that quitting work and going off to satisfy a dream I've had since I was in college should qualify as a guilty pleasure. I know I've enjoyed this so much it probably should be illegal, fattening or contagious.

Cigars. Since my Uncle Bill threw away my White Owls and gave me a box of Upmanns way back when, I've always loved a good cigar. I smoked them before they were the rage, during and since. I still limit myself to one or two a week, not from a sense of guilt but rather because I seem to enjoy them more when they're rationed.

The OverPaidPrimaDonnas. This is my fantasy baseball team and I spend many many many productive hours managing them. In our league the 'Donnas are known for the quality of their (my) complaining and the fact that they usually come in second. Until I get a real life, this will have to do.

The Sheraton Balkan. Okay, I admit it, I prefer the Sheraton in Sofia to the Hostel Mostel. So shoot me.

The two-hour Bulgarian cup of coffee. Sitting with friends at one of the outdoor cafes in Stara Zagora on a Spring or Summer day and making a cup of coffee last a couple of hours while we watch the parade go by and solve a universal problem or two is another thing I should probably feel guilty about, but I don't.

Weekend nap. I like to lie on my couch, with both my balcony doors propped open, and sleep during the day on a Summer Saturday or Sunday. It is essential that I have a book cracked open on my chest and music playing in the other room. Even though the breeze through the room is the dreaded tuchenie, I sleep like a baby. I guess if the weather outside is especially terrific I could feel a little guilty. I'll think about it next time and let you know.

Evening ice cream. The street vendors are back! Like snowdrops or crocuses the ice cream vendors are beginning to appear on Tsar Simeon after a long Winter. One by one they will open until there are eight or ten of them up and down the street. Raffy's, Gelati, and Mr. Sweet's all peddling ice cream cones by the gram. I make it a habit to walk to the center each evening after dinner and buy a cone or two. So much ice cream, so little time. If I buy a cone at Raffy's and then walk all the way down the street to the bottom, I can pick up another cone at Mr. Sweet's for the long haul back up the street. Hey, it's for the exercise. Walking is good for you.

Well, there you have it. I could go on but now it's your turn. Sara, Alex, Matt and Jessie...Tag.

By the way, I'll be at the PC office on Friday and the Sheraton on Friday night, I'll have a cigar with dinner at Ruini and head back to SZ on Saturday. There I'll set the lineup for the 'Donnas before having coffee with Alex, Matt & Jessie for a couple of hours. I'm hoping for a sunny day for my nap on Sunday so I'll be well rested for the long walk for ice cream after dinner. Life is good.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?