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

Thursday, May 11, 2006

We Start Work At 8:30!

I tend to be fairly punctual. I show up on time and appreciate it when others do the same. Yesterday, however, I was late for work. In fact, I was over an hour late for work. But I have an excuse.

I was walking to work in a great mood. The weather was gorgeous and I was actually whistling as I went along. It was one of those beautiful Spring days when the sun was out and the morning air was crisp and clean. I was wearing a light jacket and jeans and, as I walked, I was thinking about my sons' upcoming visit. Then something hit my head.

It wasn't a thought because a thought wouldn't have been so viscuous and gooey. A thought would have been less tangible than the very tangible thing that hit my head and oozed down into my hair. No, the thing that hit my head was more on the order of very tangible birdshit. I can't swear that it was from a bird, judging from the size of the mess, it might have been from a small winged hippopotamus.

When I felt the 'thing' hit my hair, my reaction was to put my hand up to feel around to identify the 'thing'. I suspect you might have reacted similarly and now I understand how a wolverine can be induced to chew off its own paw. All I'll say on the subject is that when I saw the mess on my hand and realized what was spread like a beanie across my head, I stopped whistling and the day lost a lot of its luster. I ran back home, jumped into the shower and began to shampoo the real poo out of my hair. For almost an hour, I had to fight off the urge to shave my head. Then I very calmly got dressed and went to work.

My colleagues were in a great mood when I arrived at the office because we have finally acquired our first paying client! This was a banner occasion and called for an out-of-office celebration. We are contacted by many foreign companies seeking information or assistance regarding moving to Bulgaria in general and Stara Zagora in particular. We do the research and send back our replies, we set up contacts, agendas, hotel reservations and meetings. We escort visitors around and translate for them during their meetings. We negotiate on their behalf. We do all this without any compensation from anyone. REDA lives off of its ability to acquire EU funding for specific projects and when we don't acquire projects during a cycle, we don't receive any income. We are not supported by the government on any level, local, regional or national. Our objective is to become self-sustainable and wean ourselves from our dependence on grant money.

As a first step towards achieving this independence, we have developed list of services that we are uniquely qualified to offer and a modest fee schedule to go along with them. Now, when we're contacted by foreign companies seeking information, we send back a complimentary first general reply and then offer to represent them locally and send along our standard fee schedule. My colleagues were, initially, concerned when most of the companies receiving the fee schedule didn't contact us again. I kept trying to explain that these companies were only interested in having us do an enormous amount of work for them if they didn't have to pay for it. The world is filled with 'customers' like that and you only stay in business if you avoid them. We offer a genuine value to companies through our network of contacts and our top to bottom knowledge of the region. We have the ability to provide in-depth research on any issue of interest to a foreign investor more accurately and in far less time than they can do for themselves. I have been convincing my colleagues that we should only expend our efforts on behalf of companies who recognize our worth.

A British firm has decided to build a Health Spa in our Region and to surround it with a development of new single family houses. They have paid us for all the work we've done on their behalf to date and asked us to represent them throughout the entire project. It's hard to describe how excited we are about this. I even began to whistle again.

I began this entry over two weeks ago and then my sons arrived and then my parents arrived and then my sons left and now I'm showing my folks around. And then the dog ate my homework.

One final observation. When Andy and Ian were here we noticed that we walk differently than most Bulgarians. We tend to walk quickly to wherever we're going. We talk along the way, but we don't waste time or steps. The purpose of walking out to TechnoMarket, for example, is to get to TechnoMarket. Bulgarians stroll. They amble, wander and mosey. Young women walk arm in arm and speak to each other in whispers. Old men also walk along arm in arm and re-live old battles won or lost. Periodically, all Bulgarian walkers stop and have conversations that require the participants to be stationary. We hammer along from A to B with the objective of arriving as soon as possible. For Bulgarians, the getting there is half the fun. I've noticed this as I've rushed past most of the population of Stara Zagora on my very important missions to get to one place or another. There are roses in full bloom on every vine in the city and I haven't bothered to appreciate a one of them. So, I have made a promise to myself to slow it down and to be more Bulgarian in my getting from A to B. I intend to literally stop and smell a few roses along the way.

The only apparent drawback to this is that is makes me a much easier target...say, are those large birds flying this way?!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Building Bloks

The color of communism wasn't red, it was gray. Everything from the landscape to the mood of the people became a uniform washed-out shade of gray. Career paths were decided by central planning committees and assigned with rigid observance to political priorities. People who probably would have made excellent chefs or bus drivers or astronomers were given work as architects and told to be creative with the huge surplus of concrete that, apparently, existed throughout Eastern Europe. So they created the "Blok", a solid gray rectangle of an apartment building that is unsurpassed in ugliness. Bloks have all the splendor but none of the warmth of caves. They can be anywhere from seven or eight stories tall to well over twenty and contain from six to twenty apartments on each floor depending on the length of the building. Each apartment will usually have a balcony or a terrace and that is the only feature that gives the building the appearance of a habitat for people rather than a concrete bunker for storing large pieces of machinery.

Concrete is remarkably durable and will be crumbling down and decaying throughout Eastern Europe for centuries to come. Most of the major buildings in Stara Zagora are made of concrete and were designed by men and women with excellent political backgrounds and a presumed talent in some field other than architecture. They are truly ugly, cheerless and totally lacking in inspiration or art. But they are functional. And the homes inside these buildings are just like homes anywhere else. People here have the same appliances, electronics, fixtures, plumbing, rugs and tiles that people acquire wherever they live. People own the interiors of their apartments but haven't quite formed the co-ops necessary to keep the exteriors and public areas (elevators, hallways, entryways, etc.) in a livable condition. Perhaps they don't yet understand the relationship between the value of their own apartment and the appearance of the common areas of the building.

I pay three leva a month towards the cleaning of the common areas of my building. We recently had our entryway repainted and locks installed on the exterior doors. Grass was planted on a small island in the parking lot that had previously been used as an ad hoc trash bin. Every so often, a collection is taken up to pay for one or another improvement and signs are always posted on the elevator doors tattling on the apartment owners who refused to chip in. Discussions are held in hallways and on the benchs by the fountain outside and little by little the building is improved and a stubborn few skulk along for the free ride. I am usually exempted from contributing because I am a 'renter', not an owner. However, my next door neighbor is in charge of collecting for our floor and I can usually convince her to let me put in my share. Before you become all teary-eyed over my generosity, a share is never more than five leva or about three bucks.

Stara Zagora is changing. New buildings are being built all over town. Roads, sidewalks, parks and plazas are being improved and upgraded. Gray concrete pillboxes and bunkers are being replaced by buildings with curves and colors. Older pre-communist architecture is being rediscovered and renovated and the town is starting to assume an identity of its own. Or maybe it's just Spring.

From my balcony I look down on a building that was an eyesore and was torn down to make way for new construction. My street, Metropolit Metodii Kucev, is a beautiful divided two lane road with a tree-lined path containing half a dozen ornate fountains running down the center. It begins up at Ayazmoto Park and runs past my building down into the center of town. Property values on Metodii Kucev are understandably high. Buying property is sometimes difficult because of the title disputes arising from ownership claims from the times before, during and after communism. However, on this particular building title was proven and the developer tore it down and began to prepare the site for his new building. Just as a property developer in the States, he cleaned off the old rubble and dug an excavation for a new foundation.

Unfortunately, that's when he ran into the Roman ruins. So now, all work has been temporarily halted while the site is excavated with whisk brooms and dental picks. These aren't as efficient as backhoes and steamshovels, but they do less damage to priceless antiquities.

You've probably figured out by now that the whole reason I'm writing this piece about architecture and building sites is that I just learned how to put pictures on my journal! My little digital camera had stopped working and I assumed that the battery was worn out. I hiked all over town looking for a replacement, couldn't find one and asked my sons to buy me one and bring it with them when they visit. Then, the old battery took a full charge and has been working perfectly ever since. Go figure! I have no idea how or why any of this stuff works and that's why it's taken me two years to figure out how to put pictures on this page.

REDA, my agency, is thinking of requesting another volunteer. This is a great place to work and my colleagues will see to it that the new person is kept busy. We are transitioning from a purely grant supported operation to a self-sustained consulting agency and there will be plenty of work for another volunteer for the next couple of years. REDA has to find its niche because much of what we do is covered by the Chamber of Commerce and some of what we do is now done by the brand new Tourist Office that opened next door to the Gallery. In my opinion, our niche is pursuing and attracting foreign investment and then assisting those investors in making contacts and working through the labyrinth of laws and regulations necessary to begin doing business in Stara Zagora. Information and contacts, in this day and age, are very saleable commodities and REDA has both in abundance. However, change is difficult and even though we have taught courses in Change Management, we are having a bit of difficulty in facing the future ourselves.

It's Friday and we're shutting down for the weekend. We're closing before six o'clock because Darina's daughter Nadia just turned seventeen and is having a party at their apartment that requires Darina and her husband to vacate the premises. Petya and I spent most of the day telling her horror stories of our own children's unsupervised parties (because that's what teammates are for) and Darina left looking as happy as a soldier on a suicide mission.

Next week should be relatively slow here and then my sons arrive. They'll come in on Saturday and stay for two weeks with my folks arriving during the boys' last three days. Then my folks will stay until the first week or so of June and then I'll have a couple of weeks before my COS conference in July. Time's flying!!

The cafes are open and I'm going to go find a chair and a cup of coffee and watch the sights stroll by. Have a great weekend, everyone.

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