October 2, 5, 11 and 19
October 2, 2001
Today I had an experience with Customs in Yambol that ended up being successful, but for awhile seemed a little "touch and go." I was not aware at the time but Customs Officers here are known for being corrupt. (I was aware however of the somewhat "panicky" looks on people’s faces when they knew we had to pick up a package from Customs – and I was sure that it didn’t mean anything GOOD.) In the past, if a package came through that looked interesting, they might open it and keep the contents (I’m glad I DIDN’T know about this ahead of time!). However, there is now a new government Minister who is cracking down on the Officers and has fired many of them already. This gives you a little background to the following experience…
I was informed last week by my School Director that a package was awaiting us in Yambol – and that it had to go through Customs. Rel had told me yesterday that we would drive over to Yambol on this coming Thursday. So it was totally unexpected when Rosie came in to school at 9 am and told me we were going today and that we needed to be at the Mayor’s office in ten minutes. She released the students (there are no substitute teachers – the students just go home when a teacher does not arrive) and we met the driver and several other workers who had to go to Yambol (there was no room for Rel so he stayed behind). Upon our arrival at the post office, we found that the Customs office didn’t open for another half hour, so we hung out at a café. At the specified time, we returned, only to find that we had to wait another 15-20 minutes for the Customs Officer to show up (typically Bulgarian). We were last in a line of people waiting to get packages (even though we arrived almost first – again typically Bulgarian; waiting in line is archaic here).
While we waited, I told Rosie that I thought the package would be magazine pictures sent by a neighbor to be used for teaching (since I knew that package had been mailed on Sept. 6). Therefore, the "Educational Materials" on the envelope would be accurate. Then we saw through the window that the return address on the package belonged to Rel’s brother and sister-in-law (Bill and Pat) who I knew were sending Rel a digital camera for his birthday. Now what to do?? I then explained to Rosie that it was a camera and a birthday gift for Rel. Rosie did the talking when we got inside. She told the Officer that the package was papers for school. He told her to open it; she opened it partway and pulled out the papers Pat had included also (to use for teaching aids). The officer then pulled it open further, took out the box; I opened it, and he asked how much the camera was worth. I had been instructed by the PC office to declare not more than $50, so that’s what I said (he didn’t believe me). He asked what it was for and I told him a computer. He talked further with Rosie in Bulgarian. Then he set the box down and waved his hands like we were done. I wasn’t sure what that meant. But he shook Rosie’s hand, then shook mine, smiled and something in Bulgarian. I signed some papers and we left with the camera. She then told me that, at first, he thought we were trying to fool him. We had told him it would be papers and it was a camera instead. Rosie explained to him that I THOUGHT it would be papers and that I was just as surprised that a camera was included - AND the fact was that it was a birthday present for my husband and was totally unexpected by me. He believed her and didn’t charge me the 100 leva in duty charges that I would have had to pay otherwise. He even told me to tell Rel "Happy Birthday." So Rosie saved the day! She said after we got home that she had also told the Customs Officer laughingly that she would be happy to tell the new Minister what a big help he had been to us. He shook his head and said, "No, no don’t do that!" – probably afraid of what that might mean to the new Minister.
So now we have a digital camera that we can use to take photos and get them up on the web. Maybe by the next newsletter, Rel will have completed a web site you can check for some photos from here. Rel has started working on it already…The camera will also come in handy to send photos of student pen pals back to the States and even possibly help Rel to generate new markets for products being made here in the area. (We have been eating some delicious white, creamy, thick yogurt made from buffalo milk – made at a buffalo farm here that is trying to locate markets for its products.)
Usually Rel and I take walks through the town when we need to get out for some exercise. Last Sunday was no exception. As we turned the corner on one street, we could hear somebody behind us first whistle then start yelling something. When we finally turned around, an older woman was running toward us saying something in Bulgarian. She came running up, grabbed my arm (many Bulgarians walk arm-in-arm and don’t seem to have "boundary" issues like we Americans do), kept chattering in Bulgarian, and began leading us back to her house: typical 3-story, brick, with a huge garden in the courtyard. She took us inside (at the lower level) to meet her husband who was lying on a couch (single bed typically) watching "football" on TV (soccer to us). I could pick up a few words of what they were saying but Rel could pick up most of it. The woman called someone on the phone (regular phone, but many younger people here carry mobile phones) then brought out their rakiya – another typical Bulgarian custom. This was the beginning of a "na-gosti:" a get-to-gether of people that has no definite beginning or ending time. Soon the couple’s young granddaughter (university student) arrived and she spoke English so that helped with our communicating. What started out as a simple walk turned into a small gathering.
Even though it was a surprise to us and in some ways, an intrusion on our time, it was such a good thing to happen because it resulted in our learning more about the townspeople. Costa and Kuna are about our age. Costa is a retired railroad worker and is laid up due to leg problems (and is NOT supposed to be drinking rakiya!). Because of that, Kuna does all the work around their place. Their retirement pension is 40 leva a month – which would be about $20 in American money. So the work that Kuna does is all related to meeting basic needs with such a small pension. She has a huge garden, as I said, with corn, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers and more. There are several peach trees. She has pens inside their courtyard for the animals which she maintains herself – the pens and the animals both. There are chickens, rabbits, a pig, and a burro. On an open wood fire, she had some chicken broth in a big pan simmering (a wood fire is better she says because it saves money from using electricity). Inside her "canning" shed, she had a pot of rakiya (from grapes) fermenting, and on the shelves she had many canned goods prepared for the winter. She picked tomatoes, peppers and a HUGE cabbage for us and sent some canned peaches home with us as well. (Cabbages grown here are so much bigger than ones in the States – I think it’s all that natural fertilizer from the animals.)
As we talked, Kuna served up some salad made of cabbage, tomatoes and peppers with vinegar, kind of a sweet and tart salad. They shared with us family photos and Marianna, the granddaughter, was very gracious in her attention to us (again typically Bulgarian with young women who really seem to be gracious beyond their years) telling us of a little family history. What used to be a thriving small town with large families living near each other now is a very depressed town (Straldja of course) with families torn apart because of the need to find work elsewhere. So families are not as physically close. However, neighbors are still attentive and helpful we were told. While we were still there, a neighbor came and brought her grandchild I believe. Kuna it seems is a local healer so the woman brought the child for Kuna to "lay her hands on" (I think there is more than just that but I’m not sure exactly what it is). Marianna explained that her grandmother is known for this in the community and has even helped Marianna’s healing even while Maianna is away from home.
After several hours, we left (almost dark and colder by this time). As we approached the entrance to our "bloc," we heard someone whistling and yelling again. We turned and saw a car pull up and park and two men beginning to walk toward us. We looked around to see if they were trying to reach the attention of someone behind us. But seeing no one, we waited. They were both Bulgarians but the passenger had spent some time in the States and spoke English. His friend wanted him to meet us. We spoke awhile and they invited us to a café but, after we explained we’d just returned from a na-gosti, they let us off the hook. Now I am beginning to see why we will have to go away for a weekend to really get rest and get away from everything. These kinds of things may be happening more regularly the longer we are here. That isn’t all bad but it may get a little wearing after awhile…
Steve Taylor, our Peace Corps Country Director, sent all the volunteers an e-mail the other day. Peace Corps Washington wanted to inform all PC Volunteers (in all countries) of a heightened alert – because of terrorist activity. Steve did confirm that we are safe here in Bulgaria but Washington admonished us of several things. I thought you might find them interesting although it seemed a little scary to us. However we do feel safe in our community: it is true that once PC volunteers join a community, the locals become protectors. And that’s what we feel here. But here are a few of the "heightened awareness" guidelines: (1) Please stay in regular contact with your families to let them know you’re safe (2) Security precaution: Let Sophia office know when we will not be at site and where and how they may contact us (3) Travel to Middle East will not be approved until further notice and no traveling to Romania over Halloween – too big a security risk to have many Americans gathered in one place at a time (usually a big PCV party is held there but not this year) (4) We are being asked not to gather in large groups and even when in small groups, always to be aware of what is going on around us and (5) Contact anyone in Sophia if at anytime we are feeling anxious or unsafe.
About two days after all volunteers received the above e-mail, we got an e-mail invitation from two scatter-brained "twenty-something" volunteers near here inviting all volunteers to their town for a Halloween party - so much for no large gatherings! When I observe some of these young people and their behavior, it seems a miracle to me that Peace Corps has lasted as long as it has, knowing that it was started with only young people. I think we older people have added balance and clearer heads to what must have been a pretty flaky and, probably at times, rather unruly program of volunteers. That’s not to say that age is necessarily tied to maturity because I’ve also observed some immature older people as well. I just think the program is much better balanced with good representation from ALL ages.
Enough preaching for now. More later, Edith
October 5, 2001
I observed a funeral procession the other day. As I walked home from school, one of my students left his friends and came over to walk by my side - without a word being spoken. As we approached an intersection, we saw a large group of people walking down the street toward us. This young man put out his arm in front of me to signal me to stop and wait. With a man walking along side to lead him, a horse was pulling a wagon with the coffin inside. (Many wagons here are of wood and seem to be homemade as this one was. They are made into a V shape with the bottom of the V being flat to make the "bed" of the wagon.) The coffin seemed to be open because the lid was up but I could not see to the other side of it. (The coffin was also wood, homemade and painted gold.)
Behind the wagon, there were two large wreaths carried by a person on either side of each wreath (the wreaths were as tall as the people carrying them). Behind them, were the family walking arm-in-arm and comforting each other. And behind them were walking a large group of what I assumed were family and friends. I'm not sure where they were headed. I don't know if this was the "beginning" of the funeral since they were coming from a mainly residential area and seemed to be headed toward one of the local churches. Or if this was the "end" and they were headed toward the cemetery. This procession almost seemed to me to be the original version of what was later used as a model for funeral processions in the States - like the one for President John F. Kennedy.
Today is Friday and I have a day off from school. In fact there is no school today because everyone is out picking grapes (this also affected the pensioner's club meeting I visited - they were very tired from picking grapes all day). After the picking, then the process for making rakiya and wine is begun. This is all a family affair. Not only are younger children involved, but also older ones from the university who come home to help their family with the grapes. Marianna (Costa and Kuna's granddaughter) tells us it's almost like a holiday because family and friends who may be separated by distance all gather together to get the job done - and they get to visit with each other at the same time.
Later in the day, I saw wagonloads of white bags and blue ones being pulled into town by very tired animals. Rel told me those were the grapes: white bags for white grapes and blue ones for blue or dark grapes. Even after the hard work of picking, there's still much work in changing the grapes to a drink.
An example of recycling here is that the homemade wine is bottled in plastic liter bottles that originally held soda. And rakiya is bottled in glass bottles covered with labels from brand-name wines. Our hostess from last evening (Marianna's mother) sent a bottle of wine home with us and it is in a plastic liter bottle. What looks like grape juice in a soda bottle is actually wine. I'm learning through experience (at the Mayor's home in Sliven) to become more alert when being offered what I think is a "grape soda." However, the homemade wine here probably equals in taste the really expensive wines that might be bought in the States. It's the "fiery" rakiya (much worse than whiskey which I was given years ago to cure a cold, resulting in shocking my system more than curing my cold) that I could really do without. One of the things suggested to us in training was to accept the rakiya when offered but to drink it only in small sips - or just act like we're drinking it. Bulgarians are very proud of their homemade rakiya and wines and it's a snub to that pride to refuse it
Another adjustment we've been making is to eat what we are served - like last evening at the "na-gosti" at Marianna's home. In most homes we have visited (including the Mayor's), the meal is set out on a large coffee table that is sitting in front of the sofa in the living room. And is also facing the television set which is always left on. Individual salads are prepared and served on the table first. In most cases, it is a "shopska salata" - cut up cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, onions topped with grated cirine cheese and a single black olive. A dressing of vinegar and oil may have already been added or can be added later. Next is the main course which again is served on individual plates. There is no choice in serving size so we end up eating what we are served (this has been true in almost every home in Bulgaria we've visited). This has been a real challenge at times since neither of us eats red meat (before coming here, however, we agreed we would try to eat whatever was served). Last evening our main course was two steamed whole red peppers (which were very good), sitting on a bed of deep-fat-fried French fries, and placed next to two long, round meatballs made from beef (called kufte). We both finished our meals but I'm paying for it today. In addition, we two non-smokers were in a room with four out of the nine others smoking - in a closed room, remember - no drafts. What we don't do in the name of PEACE!!
Let me insert in here what we knew and didn't know about Bulgaria before coming here. Most of what has happened so far we either knew about or had been pre-warned about. Before ever leaving home, the Country Director sent a letter saying that anyone who could not tolerate some cigarette smoke should not bother coming, since most Bulgarians smoke (for whatever reason - either because they grow tobacco or American cigarette makers are targeting poorer countries outside the U.S. for their markets). We were warned about the home-made rakiya and wine. We have been well-trained in differences between our two cultures (laid-back attitude about schedules, etc.) so that much of what has happened has not been a surprise. We learned that the two most common health problems among PC volunteers are upper respiratory ailments (much cigarette smoking and NO emissions standards) and diarrhea - both of which I suffer from this morning. So most of what has happened we knew about previously, we have expected it and have been willing to accept it. Thus far anyway…
Another young volunteer has left and is now back in the States. After the tragedies on Sept. 11, he just felt he needed to be at home. I'd kind of like to do the same thing - go home. But I'm not sure I'd be able to live with myself if we left before our two years are up. We have made a commitment and expect to stand by it unless conditions get so bad - or if we are evacuated from the country. I wouldn't want to be evacuated either. Within the last several weeks, volunteers in the three "stan" countries around Afghanistan (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan or Kyrgyz Republic) were evacuated and those volunteers are now home. They were a week in Washington working with counselors to deal with having to leave the country within 24 hours and not being able to bring about closure to their experience - not being able to say goodbye to students, people, or to explain why they left. Peace Corps has said programs in those countries have been "technically" suspended but they do hope to go back at some time in the future. It's just difficult for volunteers not to be able to make a "normal" transition back to the States.
I visited the Pensioner's Club for the first time this past week and found them younger than I had thought. Most were my age or somewhat older (the oldest is an 80-year old woman) and they could all dance and sing. Though there was no electronic music, that did not stop them from welcoming me with traditional folk music and folk dance. The 80-year-old was a famous singer at one time in the city of Stara Zagora and she still has a very good voice. Mid-way through her first song, most of the others joined her and also began their dance (kind of a line-dance, circle-type dance). All of the dances were accompanied by singing and no instruments. At one point in a dance done just for me, one of the dancers came over and layed a hanky on my shoulder. It wasn't until she took it off and layed it on a man's shoulder that I realized what I was supposed to have done. He took it off and acted as if he were putting money into it and gave it back to the dancer. She looked over at me, smiled and seemed to say "See - this is what you are supposed to do." So even though I can't speak well or understand, I can still learn from them.
They invited me to join them in dancing the "horo" which we had learned while in training. I find it much fun and the dances so far not too difficult to learn. This group has won awards for their dancing. Over the holidays, they travel to different cities to perform and even compete every August with other groups in a town near Panagyurishte. It's difficult now to perform here in town like they used to because the culture center is not in any shape to use. After it burned down 40 years ago, they have been able to rebuild only as there has been money to do so. The outside has been completed but they still have $300,000 worth of work to do inside before it can be used again. It is beautiful from the outside and will be a good attraction to the town if (when) it gets finished.
This week when I go back, the Pensioner's Club will have a traditional Bulgarian costume for me to wear. And they want me to go with them to Yambol on Saturday. I'm not clear if they are performing there. I'm not sure I can explain the feeling I got when I saw how pleased they were that I came Wednesday night (they meet at 8 pm because they have animals to care for and can't come any earlier). They seemed almost like young children who are happy to see a special teacher arrive. I had told Galya (my tutor who went with me - her grandmother is in the group) ahead of time that maybe we could just stay an hour and leave. I thought we would be able to just slip out without being noticed. No way. Everything they did that evening was done in my honor so there was no way I could have slipped out unnoticed. In fact, they kept their activities rather short because I think Galya told her grandmother I didn't want to stay late.
I don't believe the honor given me was because of who I am but more because of the fact that I am American. They also need funding for their Club - which was also mentioned to me at one point during the meeting. They had planned to invite Rel to visit also because he is the person in town that all organizations are hoping to get help from. Part of his job is to locate or research ways to generate funds for non-governmental organizations like this one (his is a rather pressurized type of job!).
I was glad that Galya accompanied me to the meeting and walked home with me. Even though the main street in town has street lights for several blocks, they were not turned on and probably won't be during the colder months. It was very dark walking the four blocks into town. I took my flashlight and was the only person who had one. Even walking down the steps from the door at the end of the evening, there were NO lights. I don't understand how these older people can see well enough every week to negotiate those steps. I held my flashlight on the steps until they all got down safely. It's the same way throughout most of the town at night. Whatever lights there are are in private homes and courtyards. Even my "bloc" doesn't have any light at the entrance (they are supposed to provide that wherever a PC volunteer lives). But as long as I have a flashlight and rechargeable batteries, I should be O.K. I'd also prefer to not have to go out much at night. I think Rel will go with me this week and take pictures to put on the web.
Rel now has several web sites set up. They are:
http://drsloan.freeservers.com -- This address is basically my school, building, students, and principal so far. I'll keep adding to it as activities take place and I can get more photos.
http://straldjahome.freeservers.com- Photos that we are taking showing where and how we live - and we'll keep adding to this also.
http://straldja.freeservers.com-- Rel's sight of photos of his work here.
This weekend we hope to take more photos - like the entrance to our building. The photo on the web makes our building look pretty good but doesn't really show the "whole picture."
I'll keep you posted, Edith
October 11, 2001
How do I start? Where do I start? What do I DO? I have a long break from school today because Rosie and I are taking turns teaching and this is her day. I came home, got our trash, and carried it out to the trash bin. I’ve learned to stand back when throwing trash in because cats begin scrambling out of the bin and scare me half to death. But today there were no cats, surprisingly. Today after throwing my bag in, I saw inside what looked to be the dark hair of an animal? Maybe one of the cattle had gotten inside? But what popped up was not an animal but the head of a woman – SHE was going through the trash in the bottom of the bin! (The trash had recently been emptied.) I was so taken aback that all I could say was, Excuse me, gently put my plastic bottle inside, and leave. Then beat my chest with "why, why, WHY does this have to happen?" Why does there have to be such a disparity between the have’s and have-not’s in the world?
I have seen in America people reaching down and going through trash bins. And Rel had told me that the Roma go through trash bins here. But I never in the world expected to find a person down INSIDE the bin itself – just like one of the cats. Then I realize that, with what we are doing here, we aren’t even scratching the surface! There is so much need that there’s no way we can meet it all. What we do is only a drop in the bucket. And if I allow myself to dwell on it, I can get more depressed. So what to do???
When all else fails, take a nap. I/We can’t solve all the problems here. We can only hope that what we do has SOME impact on SOMEBODY'S life for the better.
Today we went to Yambol with about 30 members of the Pensioner’s Club (Rel put photos of them on the website drsloan.freeservers.com). There was a gathering of four different regions in Bulgaria of traditional singers and dancers. The costumes (both "aprons" and skirts) are so interesting because they are handmade – by mothers, grandmothers, aunts. One of the skirts worn by a Straldja dancer was 100 years old. And it looked like new (worn only for these special occasions I'm assuming). Other "aprons" are made of silk and the handiwork is very intricate.
The dancers sing while they dance; that is their only music. As you can see from the pictures, the dance is in a line with each dancer's arms hooked into the belt of the next dancer. And the dance really tells a story. Even though I don't understand the words of the songs, I can guess at the "story" being told. It's usually something about the relationship between man and woman. It's fun to watch and people laugh at the antics between the men and women who are participating.
The Straldja dancers were the best group at their presentation. With their headdresses, gold necklaces and costumes, they were beautiful on stage. I was very impressed. I can see how they would miss not having their building repaired so that they can put on programs for their own community.
Again, I had planned ahead to leave early if the day at Yambol got too long. Surely they wouldn’t stay all day. But we did stay until the very end, around 4:00. The pensioners are so loving and so appreciative of our presence and they watch out for us so well that we try not to do anything that would disappoint them. They are just great people!
When I was first introduced to several of the men pensioners, they kissed my hand! And when we rode the bus together over to Yambol, they saved the first seat in the bus for us. When we arrived at the Center in Yambol, the head of the Straldja group just marched us down to the very first row of seats in the theater - so we got a VIP front row seat. They just go out of their way to make us feel welcome.
This past week, I’ve had more work than before. Three afternoons a week now I teach an hour and a half English class (S.I.P. Class) for those students who want extra opportunities to learn (kind of like an elective class at a high school in the States). The work itself really isn’t that difficult; it just requires more planning AND means I walk back and forth to school several times – this week carrying a heavy CD player in my bookbag (one we brought with us from the States). Then I end up being physically exhausted by evening.
When I taught before in the States, I had a car. So whatever I carried to and from school wasn’t a problem – I just put it in the car. Here it’s a whole different story. So I’m thinking of ways that I can "lighten" my load and don’t have to carry so much.
We've been in school for one month and I'M READY FOR A VACATION!!! I'm utterly exhausted. I just finished trying to teach 22 6th graders about Halloween (S.I.P. class). Have you ever thought what it might be like to explain Halloween (1) to young students who have no clue, (2) can't speak English except for several who know SOME English, and (3) I can't speak Bulgarian well enough to explain it in their language. AND do it with very limited supplies. (Using the internet was a big help and provided all my teaching aids.) By the time an hour was over, it was a veritable zoo! (As a contrast, the day before working with 7th graders was great!)
In Bulgaria, there is a festival in spring (and in some places at New Years) called "Koukeri" and it is similar to our Halloween. People (mainly men) dress up in huge head masks, cover themselves from head to foot in costumes (sometimes made from hides), and wear large cow bells around their waists. The purpose is to ward off evil spirits for the new year and for the new growing season. Connecting our celebration of Halloween to the students' knowledge of Koukeri helped to some extent but didn't last long. The answer lies in trimming the class down to those students who are there because they want to know more English, and not just to play.
Wednesday (today) is my day off and I needed it. I also think I've warded off some depression by writing (am I REALLY having any effect by being here???). I also sat down and figured the number of days we have left before we come home - 683 days to be exact. If I keep saying two years, it seems as if the number never changes. At least with the days, I can see the number falling at a regular rate. The realization also came to me that each day here, I am making an emotional investment in my future. If I can make my "present" as satisfying as possible and as free of depression as possible, then my future will take care of itself - and the days will go by more quickly.
One last note: Last evening we "na-gostied" with several young couples and a young man at the apartment of one of Rel's young colleagues (in the next "bloc"). Ditchko came over about 7:15 and asked us to come to their place about 8 (no schedules here!). It was the first opportunity to listen to young people talk about the condition of Bulgaria (5 out of the 7 there knew some English). It seems that the leaving of the Communists was felt mainly through a total loss of markets for Bulgarian products. The Communists were the only market Bulgaria had and when the USSR disintegrated, there was no more market. And these young people do not see much hope for any future markets - or of attracting production companies here to even make products (the attitude of "pulling oneself up by your bootstraps" is not part of the Bulgarian psyche). There is, however, a ceramic factory at the edge of town that makes roof tiles and they do export their products. There is also a pipe-making factory and even a winery. So production companies do exist. But how to attract more is a major problem. Advantages to such companies though are (1) cheap labor since there are so few jobs and people want to work and (2) the fact that Bulgaria is such a stable country that there's not much likelihood of uprisings or other unrest.
To get a fuller understanding of a lot of the economic and political goings-on (since that's part of his job), you may want to ask Rel to put you on his mailing list to receive his newsletters. His address is: reldavis @ yahoo.com
Just one more thing: Rel came home at lunch saying that a security officer from the Mayor's office stopped by to talk to him. A white powder had been mailed in Sophia but when investigated, was found to be soap powder. So the security officer gave him 3 telephone numbers to call if we, as Americans, should receive anything suspicious in the mail. The government doesn't think there's anything to it but just in case…Edith
October 19, 2001
My walk to school every morning is different than any that I've ever experienced in the States - even the fact that I walk to school makes it different. As I walk the three flights down from our apartment, I feel how chilly it is this morning and wish I had worn nylons under my long skirt. My spring jacket and cap keep my upper body warm. I cross the street in front of our bloc, over the footbridge that crosses the "channelized" stream, then start down the street that the animals usually take into and out of town. I say "Da brotro" (good morning) to the older man that sits in front of the small café that I pass (and where we buy our ice cream in small individual containers). I watch where I walk so that I don't trip over loose concrete or step into animal droppings.
In front of and behind me there are many groups of students walking the same direction as I am. Scattered among the students are also adults walking to work. Some students join me at times but not this morning. I smell wood burning somewhere and enjoy the crisp autumn air. I hear the clop of horses' hooves as they pull wagons along the street that I had crossed in front of our bloc. (Cars and trucks also travel this street but it's the horses and burros pulling wagons that interest me the most.) Some of the wagons carry sticks and kindling wood, others carry people who are piled in. One wagon has a child sitting up front with his school bag, next to his grandfather. They later turn in at the school drive.
I pass homes and courtyards and look for some "babas" sitting on a bench out front but none this morning. Too chilly. Near my turn to the school, however, I see a "dyado" come out of his courtyard gate, walk down to the corner of his fence, climb the fence (concrete on lower half with iron on upper part), and with his long wood pitchfork pull some dried grass or corn husks (fodder) off the top of his shed roof where it has dried. I'm assuming he will be feeding his burro that I usually see in the courtyard. As I get closer to the corner to turn towards the school, other groups of students from the other direction join our "parade." Many students say, "Good morning" to me with a friendly smile, both younger and older ones. The young ones tend to be grinning from ear to ear (I'm still an oddity here). The really young ones may say "Good money" which I finally realized the other day was their version of good morning - they say it any time of the day.
I come to the last intersection before turning in at the schoolyard gate. Catty corner to me is a young milk cow tied to the old stop sign. It has been tied there before so it is no surprise to me (probably waiting for the cowherd to come by). I look to my left to see if the herd of goats and sheep are coming. They are still a ways down the block. Waiting patiently in front of the school is a smaller herd of goats and sheep, with the owners keeping them somewhat corraled. They graze alongside the road or mill around in the middle of the road. A car comes and the animals slowly move enough for the car to drive through. This small herd will join the bigger herd once it gets to the corner and then will continue on out of town.
I turn in at the gate and I can hear some younger students come running up from behind to tell me "good morning" and then giggle with each other. Other students inside the building yell through open windows "good morning" or "hello" (pronounced more like "helwo"). I walk around the end of the building and can hear some Bulgarian music from inside somewhere. I think it's coming from the "kitchen" where cooks are preparing pastries for breakfast. I climb the 7 or 8 steps, pass through the main door into a wide hall where about 6 water fountains are lined up to my left. There's a wide expanse of brown, wavy concrete blocks that form the decoration for the otherwise plain entrance hall.
The aroma of the baking pastries is immediately evident and my mouth waters (the school kitchen prepares these pastries that are sold in the town centre also). There are bonichkas (cheese-filled), keeflas (jam-filled), and another pastry I don't know the name of. It looks like a large grilled half of a hot dog bun and the top is dribbled with something like ketchup and mayonnaise (sounds neither appetizing to me nor looks appetizing but it seems to be a favorite with both students and staff). Several students stand around in the hall eating their pastries. They also greet me as I walk by. I climb the stairs to the second floor where I enter the staff room (used for meetings only) and sign my name in the "Materialna Kniga" (Material Book) to show that I have arrived in school. Then I climb three more flights to the staff/store room where I leave my jacket and where the teachers on our floor gather to drink coffee and, in my case, tea.
Even though it's only about five minutes before the first bell (it's with the second bell that teachers are to enter the classroom), I'm the first of our group to arrive in the storeroom. Ten minutes later, the second bell rings. I gather my bag, leave the storeroom and walk across the hall to my classroom. Students see me and begin running from several different directions to get into the classroom before I do. All students stand when I enter the room. One student stands sentry by the door and another stands on the platform in front of the chalkboard and near my desk. As I enter the room, we close the door. The student on the platform says, "Ms. Sloan, the students are here and ready for our class in English. All students are present (if there are no absences)." Then I say, "Good morning, Class." They respond with a chorus of, "Good morning, Ms. Sloan." I thank them and tell them to be seated. And a new teaching day begins.
During a break between classes, I take some "word cards" I made for class back to the storeroom where several other teachers are drinking "café." I ask Rosie about teaching English to some of the staff but she says that maybe next term would be better. As I start to put my word cards away, Noska (geography teacher and closer to my age) grabs one of the word cards and tries to pronounce it. I help her. I also use my masking tape to tape it, then the rest, up on the wall (like I do in class). She asks about "Az iskam" which is "I want" in Bulgarian. So I write it on another "card" (made of grey, cheap, thin newsprint paper but the only thing I can find - no such thing as index cards here), add the Bulgarian version underneath, and tape it to the wall. Rosie adds the Bulgarian pronunciation underneath so Noska can sound it out. Making the "w" sound is difficult for Bulgarians - it is a combination of the "oo" sound and then a short "a" sound (a little like "doo wap" without the "d" and "p"). But I see how hard she tries and I understand how much she desires to know English. So I say to her (through words and action) that I will leave some paper and markers (cheap but they do the job) on the table. Each day I will put up some English word cards if she will put up some Bulgarian ones - that way we will learn from each other. So I think our English (and Bulgarian) classes have now started spontaneously. Maybe in a year's time we will actually be able to talk with each other - at least using more words and less action in the process.
Several interesting developments lately: On the way to school early last week, trucks lumbered by on the road and Rosie explained they were French soldiers who train at a camp not far from Straldja. If I hadn't known that, I would have been a little more fearful of what I heard and saw later. As I sat at home working, I heard this horribly loud racket coming from down on the street. Looking out the window, I saw an army tank rolling down the street. A real tank with it's gun focussed forward, looking like it was headed for the front lines! Then another, and another. And for such huge vehicles, they were moving right along. Several evenings later, there was an even longer line of them moving in the same direction (maybe 7 or 8). On the way to school the next morning, Rosie's daughter talked about them and confirmed that they were the French.
This past week, we have heard what has sounded like fighter jets screaming across the sky. I saw one again on my walk to school yesterday afternoon. They are very fast and very loud. It is very unusual for us to hear anything in the sky since we don't see commercial planes or any other kinds of planes flying overhead. Rel tells me there is an army base in Yambol and the planes are Bulgarian. We are a ways from Afghanistan but all this "hardware" is a little disconcerting.
Today (Saturday) we had planned to go to Yambol for some shopping. However, I developed some swelling in a throat gland yesterday - probably infected from Rosie's cold that she came to school with. We decided to put off our shopping until next week. We are cognizant of the fact that there is no ready-made medical help close by as there is in the States. Although we have a medical kit given to us by Peace Corps and though we can always get medical help over the phone from Sophia (and even go to Sophia if we have to), it's not quite the same as being able to drive cross town to the ear, nose, and throat doctor. So we do what we can to prevent anything that develops from getting worse.
Rel will be adding more photos today to our website "http://straldjahome.freeservers.com" They include more photos of the inside of our apartment, the entrance, and the view outside our stairway window. Enough for now (no third page this time)… Edith