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

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

All Good Things...

It's been two years since I joined the Peace Corps and began serving as a Community and Organizational Development volunteer in Stara Zagora. I've just completed all my COS paperwork during a three day marathon in Sofia and have just one more half-day scheduled at the office on September 15th to tidy up my finances, hand in my identification cards and shake hands with friends I may not see again. Peace Corps took this most recent opportunity to poke, probe and prod me during my final exit medical exam. I received a dental check-up complete with tooth cleaning and an eye exam complete with a new pair of spectacles. I participated in an 'exit' interview with the Assistant Country Director and rode the bus back to Stara Zagora.

My time in country is now measured in days and my plans are centered on getting around to seeing all the people to whom I want to say 'good-bye'. This coming weekend I'll go to Saedinenie on Saturday and stay for the night. I'm bringing Veneta a Bulgarian-English dictionary so we can write letters back and forth. Plans are in the works for the girls from the film club to get together for a night of roasting marshmallows and making s'mores and I'll leave one of the two remaining video cameras with them. My sitemates in Stara Zagora and I will see each other off and on until I leave and have a final beer at Drums the night before I slink out of town. Brian and Kate and Sara will come to Sofia on my last night in the country and we'll have dinner together. Then, the next day, I'll catch a flight back to the States and my "excellent PC adventure" will officially have come to an end.

I'll return to a place where appliances and elevators tend to be unremarkable things that function as they are meant to and rarely develop personalities of their own. I'll drive or fly everywhere I want to go rather than catching an express bus or the 'fast' train. I'll eat fruits and vegetables that look physically perfect and taste like paper and buy eggs in cartons in the supermarket instead of from my 'egg guy' in the pazar. On the other hand, I won't have to put up an umbrella when I use the toilet and I won't have to choose which room to heat during the winter. I'll be home in time for the baseball playoffs and the football season.

I've sent in a couple of applications to the Peace Corps for jobs here and there. While I'm waiting to hear back from them, I'm preparing for the Foreign Service Oral Assessment. I'm scheduled to take it on October 16th in Chicago and I have a long way to go to get ready. I also plan to wander a little and meander a bit here and there, visiting old friends and fellow returned volunteers. Mooching off friends and sleeping on couches could become a new way of life for me. The Peace Corps' third goal is to introduce people back in America to the culture and ways of your host country. This is accomplished by giving talks in schools and other organizations and by just sitting around telling your stories to friends and family. I'll try to bring some domashna rakiya home with me to help the story-telling along.

So, that's it. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Peace Corps and my time in Bulgaria. I hope I've accomplished something useful for the people with whom I work, but I know that I've received a great deal from them. I'll leave here on September 16th and it won't be very long before the countdown begins until I can return to Bulgaria for a proper Na Ghosti.

So long, Bulgaria. Ciao za cega.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Snake Eagle

it really doesn't pay to be a 'creature of habit'. When I first arrived in Stara Zagora, I needed to find all the usual things, a dry cleaner, the grocery store, a pizza place, a barbershop and so on. With a little help from my colleagues I soon located all the shops and services that allow you to carry on in a new city. The "freeziyorkata" or hair stylist I've been going to for two years has her shop on a side street about five blocks from my apartment building. She is a dour woman of indeterminate age, but probably older than rocks, who cavalierly runs an electric clipper around my head just above the ears, chops away at the top with a pair of scissors, whacks my neck two or three times with an old towel and says, "zapovyaditay", there it is. When she's done my hair is shorter and, because I will never be a viable candidate for modelling in GQ anyway, I pay her and leave without requesting that she even out the rough spots or tidy up my sideburns. Although my level of satisfaction is low I keep going there because she knows me and the whole experience is familiar and therefore comfortable.

For the first time in two years, I went to get my hair cut and the shop was closed. She's old, she's grouchy and she doesn't cut hair very well, but she's always there. I just stood at the door
and stared into the darkened shop. I knocked in case she was in the back and had hung the "Closed" sign in the window just to discourage less determined customers. Eventually, however, I had to accept the fact that she was indeed closed for the day and I wouldn't be getting my hair cut. As I walked the five blocks back to my apartment I passed two or three other hair salons. Through each doorway I could see people getting their hair cut and I wished that my freeziyorkata had chosen that day to work. A block away from my building I passed by a modern well-lit clean shop and noticed that the two women in it were sitting watching tv. Because I am the wildly impulsive adventurer that I am, I walked in and asked for a haircut.

A very attractive young woman sat me down and actually asked me how I'd like it cut. She then took me to a sink, washed my hair, gave me a fifteen minute scalp massage and a haircut that was exactly like we'd discussed. She was pleasant and talked to me the whole time, once even laughing at a joke she was telling. Including her tip, it came to exactly one lev more than the other place. My time here is running out but I'm scheduling at least two more haircuts before I go!

As many of you are aware, I'm not 'handy'. That is to say, I cannot repair things that break around the house. I cannot fix electrical stuff, plumbing stuff or appliances. Most of my friends and every Bulgarian over the age of five can repair almost anything that breaks, but I cannot. I firmly believe that this is why God created landlords. It's Hristo's apartment and it's his responsibility to ensure that it remains in working condition. I pay rent, he is obliged to provide me with a rentable premises. Lately, I haven't felt like running down to ask Hristo to repair every little thing that's broken so many little things are no longer in tip top shape. For example, the toilet in the small bathroom has two or three leaks from the tank and the ceiling. I once tried to repair the floating arm thing in the tank myself, but ended up snapping it off and creating a waterfall that required shutting off all water to our half of the eighth floor. Now I'm not allowed to attempt further repairs to this particular toilet. The tank is located up by the ceiling about ten feet above the toilet. When you're sitting on the john, it feels like it's raining. My solution has been to hang a small umbrella by the toilet which guests are welcome to use.

The plastic faucets on all three sinks are also slowly disintegrating. Through a program of swapping, I have managed to keep the hot and cold faucets on the kitchen sink and in my main bathroom functioning. I only have five weeks remaining and my goal was to make it to the end without having to ask Hristo to come up and fix anything for me before I depart. Then the cold water faucet in my bathroom began to spin around like a top without actually turning the water on or off. I discovered that if I put a bit of pressure on it, it would engage enough to give me cold water and I could continue to brush my teeth or keep from being scalded by the hot water. I can live with such hardships because I'm a PCV. Unfortunately, over time the amount of pressure required to activate the cold water faucet increased slowly but insidiously u
ntil I was bracing against the wall opposite the sink with my feet to get a bit of cold water. It began to appear as though I'd have to call Hristo one last time. Before doing so, however, I decided to take a shot at fixing the thing myself in spite of my track record of thoroughly destroying anything I've ever tried to repair.

I broke out my Leatherman tool which had heretofore only been used to clip the ends from my cigars and began to bang on the front of the faucet with the heavy pliers. Using a pair of pliers like a hammer seemed like a good idea at the time. While I was whacking away at the recalcitrant cold water tap, I would try to spin it periodically to see if it had decided to be fixed yet. I noticed during one such trial period that a piece of chrome on the very front seemed to be coming loose. I managed to stick the Leatherman beer-can-opener tool under the edge of this loose bit and pried it away from the faucet. There, to my surprise, I found a brass screw hanging onto its screwhole by a single thread. I carefully extended the screwdriver tool and drove that wanderer right back into place. Then I reinserted the frontpiece and turned the cold water on. Then I turned the cold water off. I did this several times and felt very pleased with myself. I admit it's not on the same level of repair as taking a spacewalk and replacing solar panels on the Hubble Telescope, but I feel I might be able to manage even that very soon.

This week I took my counterpart Darina's daughter Nadia out to visit Matt at the Raptor Rehabilitation Center. Nadia is sixteen, loves birds and wants to be a veterinarian. Matt is one of my sitemates here in Stara Zagora and he's done a terrific job for the past two years working at the Green Balkan center dedicated to Bulgaria's birds of prey. The Center heals and releases injured birds, protects endangered birds and their nests and establishes breeding programs for rare birds. They have a brand new facility and Matt has been instrumental in developing their volunteer programs. They depend on a network of volunteers to help them and work closely with the local school systems and with conservation groups from across Europe to solicit assistance. While I sit at a desk writing grant applications, Matt monitors the nests of Imperial Eagles and feeds kestrels that are mending in cages at the Center. I think it's important to understand that there are a wide range of experiences available in the Peace Corps and a wide range of opportunities to bring your own skills to bear. Nadia was really delighted to be allowed to enter one of the cages with Matt to handle a Honey Buzzard. I took pictures and stood ready to club the savage beast to death with my camera if it turned on its handlers. Honey Buzzard might taste good if roasted slowly over a mesquite fire although if it's endangered Matt probably wouldn't let us eat it. He's conscientious that way. By the way, this particular bird is one that Matt has 'gentled' for use in his visits to the local schools.

I'll be leaving Bulgaria a little sooner than I had planned. M
y original COS date was scheduled for October 10th, but I'm going to head home on September 16th instead. We are allowed to schedule our actual departures within a thirty day window around our 'official' COS date and I need to be back in Chicago for a Foreign Service Oral Assessment on October 16th. The Oral Assessment is the second step in the process of getting a job with the State Department and it promises to be a very 'interesting' (in the long, stressful and draining sense of the word) day. Part of the required preparation for the day is to fill in government form number SF-86 which will allow the State Department to begin conducting a security clearance for me if I pass the Oral Assessment. This form is almost thirty pages long and asks for information on you from the day of your birth to the present. Candidates are given their results at the end of the Oral Assessment and, if they are successful, they submit their SF-86 forms and begin the third and final step in becoming Foreign Service Officers. After the written exam and oral assessment, there remains only receiving the medical, security and suitability clearances to be placed on the list of eligible hires. The State Department then draws from this list as their needs dictate and you can remain on it for a maximum of eighteen months, after which, if you haven't been offered a job, you are deleted (from the list) and have the option to begin the whole process over from step one.

So now I'm spending my time getting ready to leave Bulgaria and undertaking a quest to be gainfully employed at some unspecified point in the future. As always, I'm searching for challenging work in interesting places surrounded by beautiful women. I'm willing to negotiate on the 'challenging' work part. But wherever I end up, please stop by if you're in the neighborhood and if you need to use the toilet, please put the umbrella back on the hook when you've finished.

This is the Saedinenie Study Group, the only study group from the B-16's to make it all the way without losing a single member. Lindsay, Kate, Brian, Sara and I are all still here!! I'm the 'short-timer' with only five weeks to go before I get a wake-up call and a flight home. Let the countdown begin.

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