Edith's Newsletters from Bulgaria

-- Through September 3, 2001


It’s difficult to describe all that has happened to us since we left Washington on June 19. It’s just as difficult to describe Bulgaria as we have experienced it so far. But I’ll try – on both counts.

We first met our fellow Peace Corps trainees on Monday and Tuesday of last week. There are 54 of us: young people of course in their twenties but also a surprisingly diverse group of "older" people. There are four couples (including us) who seem to be about our age or older; one older single man in his 70’s – from Tampa; three single women who seem to be in their 60’s or early 70’s (one whose husband passed away just a year ago); and several single women in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s. So we don’t feel quite the oldest nor the only paired couple.

After initial orientation with Peace Corps paperwork, we loaded onto two buses for Dulles Airport. We realized then that we weren’t the only ones overloaded with too much luggage. For most of us, it’s all we can do to carry and manipulate our own luggage, including the carry-on bags ( I’m using a cart for mine since it was so heavy my legs almost buckled beneath me when I first put it on my back in W. Palm Beach, as Lori can verify!). And each time we’ve loaded up for another move over the last week, it’s the same thing all over again.

We flew on Lufthansa on both flights, first to Frankfurt, Germany, then on a smaller plane to Sophia, Bulgaria. After seven hours on the first "leg", I was sick with "motion sickness" when we landed. It was about midnight our time and, though I’d tried to sleep on the plane, we were both very tired. We went looking for the "day room" we were told about – so that we could rest for 3-4 hours before the next flight out. It required our having our passports checked, leaving that part of the airport that we knew about, and going off in a maze through the rest of the airport. Rather scary really since we weren’t sure we’d be able to find our way back. Also the guards spoke German which I couldn’t understand; they also looked rather intimidating . The Sheraton was located across the street and after some extra walking (with those heavy carry-ons!) we rented a room for $109 – worth every penny! We showered, slept, changed clothes before finding our way back again to the airport. This time I took a Dramamine before the flight and had no more motion sickness.

At Sophia, we were bussed from the plane to the terminal – which looked like one you might find in a small town in America: one level, spread out. This one was different, however, since it was rather drab, built only for function and not beauty. The Peace Corps Country Director awaited us along with about 30 other current volunteers. They greeted us with extra toilet paper! With our luggage, we loaded onto a bus headed for a 2-day orientation at a small-town "resort" (more on this later). Since this would be a two-hour ride, our P.C. nurse practitioner filled us in on what we’d find over the next several days. She warned us about the "rest stop" we would make along the way and about the "resort" we’d be staying in.

The rest stop was an open air market type and motel attached. The restrooms were located in a small separate building – and we had to pay to use them (paid by Peace Corps). Also we had been warned that these restrooms were unusual in that they were like ours back home: had a regular seat, had toilet paper, and it flushed. (Though I don’t wish to dwell on this topic, explaining it gives you a clearer idea of how much different it really is here.) It was explained to us by the nurse that Bulgarian sewage systems cannot handle toilet paper. Consequently we have to remember to deposit it in a can by the toilet. We also must remember to carry our own toilet paper with us wherever we go – and we share with those who forget. Even this, however, is much better than experiencing the use of a Turkish toilet. The details of this, however, I’ll save for another time…

Our first two days of orientation were held at what used to be a resort for families of Communist party police. At that time (prior to 10 years ago), it must have been a really nice place based on Bulgarian standards. Now the swimming pools are empty, the tennis courts are no longer in good shape, buildings are shabby and grass needs mowing. What was really great, however, was the view over the valley to the mountains. The resort is situated on a side of the mountain which allows for this great view. The meetings there were useful because they helped us with the transition to Bulgarian culture. We experienced their food for the first time, their showers (which were in the bathroom but had no curtains), a big dose of their language with our first lessons, and their dancing – which was performed by an award-winning group made up of grandmothers ("babas"), parents, and children. Colorful and unique!

Our beds were covered with blankets. What was different was that they were placed inside a sheet (to keep them clean I suspect). A large round hole is in the middle of the sheet covering and the blanket is placed inside through that hole. So when we saw the bed, it looked very decorative: it was white except for this big round design in the middle – the blanket peeping through. We have the same thing now at our host family’s home. Seems odd seeing sheets with big holes in them hanging on the clothes lines but that’s the way they buy them here.

Traveling through the country was an experience. On the 4-lane highway (highway may be a little strong) and 2-lane roads, we would meet wooden carts pulled by horses or donkeys, people herding goats, sheep, or cattle, motorcycles, bicycles – a real mixture. The countryside is both interesting and beautiful, particularly with the mountains in the distance. And the red roofs of homes in the villages. From a distance the homes look much like ours: stucco, tile roofs, 2-stories. It’s only when we actually drove through the villages that we could see the poverty. Broken windows in homes, missing glass altogether in some homes on second floor, patched stucco – just too much to describe. What is really healthy though are their gardens, in their courtyards and front yards. And all this is true in most villages we passed through.

After our two-day orientation, we were bussed 20 minutes away to the town of Panagyuriste (Pan-uh-gur-ish-tay) where we met our host family (with whom we stay for our 10 weeks of training). But more on that and other topics (like Bulgarian food, frustration of trying to communicate without knowing the language) will have to wait for the next installment…

Good-bye (Duh-vizh-duh-nay),


July 1, 2001

Hi All,

It is Saturday and we have just returned from the Panagyuriste bazaar, which happens every Saturday. It’s a lot like the "flea markets" we have in Florida: lots of fresh fruits and vegetables for sale along with other items such as clothing, shoes, sunglasses, and other odds and ends. There are several differences however. The bazaar is a place to see and socialize with other family and friends in the community. Young parents show off their babies and adults chat with each other on the plaza and in the cafes. It is also more appropriate to wear more "formal" clothing when going to the Bazaar - such as dresses and long pants as opposed to shorts and T-shirts, even when the weather is warm like it was today. In fact, men wear shorts around the house but wear long pants in public (although we’re seeing more and more men with shorts).. Except for children, I’ve seen very few women wearing shorts (particularly "babas" like me)– so I wear them around the house and change into a dress to walk to town. I made the mistake of wearing shorts to the Bazaar last week (with my hiking boots on) and felt out of place because I saw no other women wearing them.

Speaking of clothing, there seems to be one of the strangest dichotomies here. This is still a very rural area and community (dating back thousands of years) and yet the teeneagers and young people wear clothing one might see on the TV program "Baywatch." Let me illustrate. The other day as Rel and I walked back from town, we saw a herd of goats coming toward us on the street (concrete street with sidewalks on both sides). This was late afternoon and the goats were being herded back home from the field where they had grazed all day. We watched as two or three went into one courtyard, four or five into another, a small group into another, etc. We continued down another block and could still see more traveling down that street to "home." It was almost like seeing "kids" coming home from school – separating and each going to their own home. Another day, in about the same area, we were confronted with a cow walking down the street. The herder was walking along the sidewalk and, just as we reached the corner, the cow turned in front of us and started down that street. We heard some mooing from one of the homes and a returning "moo" from this cow. Carts pulled by horses or donkeys (mostly farmers and gypsies we are told) are constantly traveling the streets along with the cars and motorcycles. As a result of all this farm life, we have to always be on the alert and watch where we are walking (one of the main reasons I’m sure that we always take off our shoes before entering the home). Other volunteers have described some of their families as having cow, rabbits, chickens, etc. in the courtyards of their homes – along with their gardens.

And yet, and yet, most young women wear, what has been described as, "trendy" clothing. They wear the shortest of skirts, the tightest of tops, the highest of platform shoes, the tightest of pants, and the heaviest make-up. I know parents here care about their children based on our experience so far with our host family. So the "why" of this dichotomy remains a mystery (more info below). I guess I’ll do as Peace Corps suggests: "Constantly asking ‘Why?’ stands in the way of discovering the ‘What.’ If one is patient, the ‘Why’ eventually becomes obvious, and a deeper understanding avails."

Our host family is made up of father and mother (in their late 30’s) and two daughters (14 and 10). The older daughter paints as a hobby (acrylics) and the younger one plays the accordian. Georgi is an engineer and Petja is a secondary teacher of Bulgarian. They are very generous people and look out for us (just as all the host families seem to do). When Petja walks with us to school in the mornings, she lets us know when to cross the street. They both have been very helpful and patient in our learning Bulgarian. And they are very family-oriented. When Petja got out some canned preserves the other day, I assumed she canned them herself last summer. But Georgi said they did it together as a family. (He and his oldest daughter have driven to a lake several hours away to go fishing and plan to bring a big one back.) Children spend most of their time outdoors playing with each other rather than inside watching TV (most families have a TV). Adults are usually out and about talking with each other. There’s always activity going on outside.

Though both Petja and Georgi are professional people, they do not make much money – as is true for most people in Bulgaria. They live in an apartment house that looks like most other apartment buildings in the town. The best way to describe the outside of it is to say it could fit into "the projects" of Chicago. It needs repair, paint, and maintenance desperately. Plaster is missing from stairwell walls, mailboxes have holes where there used to be locks, the elevator is open to the floors as we pass by going up and down. But most of the town looks the same way so this really isn’t any different. Old, old buildings (Panagyurishte is 4000 yrs. old) have been patched many times and many still need much repair. Some homes look as if they had been started then, because the builders ran out of money, it was abandoned. However, the inside of Georgi and Petja’s apartment is spotless; nothing out of place (except in OUR room). This is also true of the courtyards of homes we pass by: swept clean, with gardens and flowers well cared for. There are three bedrooms in our apartment, a living room, kitchen with a back patio/porch (we’re on the sixth floor), two other patios one of which is used to hang laundry, a water closet that includes just the toilet, and a shower room for the "open" shower and a sink. The furniture is simple and utilitarian. Most Americans would have much difficulty cooking in the kitchen since there are few cabinets, an apartment-size refrigerator, and a sink. The table is set in the corner next to a built-in bench. Petja’s cooking stove is out on the porch (good idea since it keeps the heat out there). I’m not familiar with the European form of cooking stove but it does have burners on the top and possibly an oven underneath though I really can’t tell.

Petja’s cooking however is outstanding. According to the Peace Corps contract (and host families get paid for housing us with Georgi and Petja getting double with the two of us), the host family provides breakfast and dinner meals during the week, and all meals on week-ends. That allows for several things: it frees us to spend our time studying without worrying about fixing meals in an unfamiliar country but it also allows us to partake of real Bulgarian food. Since we included on the Peace Corps questionnaire the fact that we don’t eat red meat, the family has not served us any. (We’re also lucky in that they do not smoke as do most Bulgarians.) For breakfast, we usually have bread with cheese melted on top, fresh fruit, and expresso-type coffee/tea. The cheese is either kaschkavaal (yellow) or cirene (white). The white cheese is like Greek feta cheese. Both cheeses are very good. (Bulgaria is known for good cheese and yogurt.) Sometimes Petja adds some other vegetable or meat to the melted cheese.

For lunch, we usually eat at a café. We’ve learned that the better meals are either salads or pizza; we’ve found a good pizzeria near the school. Chicken and fish are just not as good as in the States. For dinner, we’ve had a variety of dishes: fish that Georgi caught (with many tiny bones!), baked chicken (I think; no batter), delicious cold cucumber soup, tomato and cucumber salad, fried zucchini (served with cut up garlic and yogurt, mouzaka (can’t find the correct spelling) which is like the Greek dish only without meat, homemade ice cream.. It’s just all been very good. We drink mainly water and only the bottled kind. Peace Corps provided us with a distiller. Georgi makes his own "rakiya," a very strong brandy (described by the guide book as "fiery") and, according to Bulgarians, is supposed to cure everything. Georgi tells me that if I drank it, I’d be able to speak Bulgarian with no problem! We can also buy Cokes here and "Fanta" sodas but nothing is served with ice (can’t trust the water). I miss our ice tea!! We always have some fresh vegetable or fruit served with this meal also. We have had fresh apricots, bing cherries, red cherries, apples, tomatoes, cucumbers all of it grown around here. Some of this Petja bought at the bazaar. This fresh fruit however won’t be available in the winter. We’re told it will be potatoes, onions and maybe a few more things. So we enjoy it now while we can. I have seen very little green, leafy vegetables like spinach or lettuce. I’ll have to look harder for it next time at the bazaar.

Later in the week:

I’ve seen now how Georgi cans fresh fruit with Petja. A friend brought them two big boxes of apricots from their garden. Petja filled her jars with the apricots, sugar and water. Then, while she took us to her graduation exercises on Sunday, Georgi built a fire outside, set a large barrel with water inside on the fire, and put the apricot jars inside to boil and seal. By the time we got home in the afternoon, he was almost done. They put up about a hundred jars I think. So all the canning is done outside. She spent the rest of the weekend making preserves. They have a deep pantry where they store all their canned fruit (and rakiya) for the winter.

We’ve had several speakers over the past week that have helped me to understand better the economic situation here and why so much is in disrepair. The U.S. Ambassador and his wife came last week and really gave us a much better picture. Ten years ago, the Soviets left Bulgaria and took whatever they had collected with them. For the 40 years they had been here, it was a Communist government and all decisions were made from the "top." For 800 years before that, the Ottoman Empire ruled and decisions were made from the "top." There obviously has been a long history of autocratic government that has not allowed the people of Bulgaria to have any say over their future, or even how they lived on a daily basis. Consequently, the last ten years have been a time of adjusting to something that is really very foreign here: making one’s own decisions or creating a democratic government. Early on, corruption was a way of life – so that a few people took advantage of many, and the country as a whole really suffered. We’re told now that corruption has steadily decreased over the past four years. In the meanwhile, however, there is a depressed economy (it has shown an upturn over the past several years) which explains why there is no money for any repairs for roads, buildings, or workers’ salaries (I’m told teachers have to wait several months sometimes to get paid).

It partly explains also the influence that American films and TV have had on the young people here. Once the Soviets were gone, it left an opening for the influence of other countries. Most Bulgarians think that what they see on TV is what Americans look like. So, since all of us Americans are wealthy (this is what they get from TV), they emulate us by copying the clothing seen in movies and films. That really hit home when we watched a movie on TV the other night. For the first time, I studied the clothing. Goldie Hawn really was wearing the kind of clothing young people wear here. So I really can’t blame them.

We’ve also had several presentations from Bulgarians themselves, giving us their perspective on their history under Communism – the good (free health care and education, guaranteed jobs) and the bad (much much difficulty if you didn’t follow the party line). One of our culture sessions on this topic got really heavy. A presenter broke down crying, remembering discrimination her family had to endure (her grandfather was an American). All of us sat there wide-eyed listening to these stories. It’s not that we Americans are so pure (remember McCarthyism and Japanese-American internment during World War II). It’s just that a lot of what we read in school we were now listening to from those who experienced it. There are Bulgarians who wish that the Soviets were still here – at least they had jobs and health care. With the economy so depressed and the lack of money, that perspective seems understandable.

Enough for now. I was very tired last night and hadn’t had enough sleep this past week – stress, long days and no naps. We were supposed to have gone fishing with the extended family but, instead, stayed home and slept (till noon in fact). I must have needed it. Next installment: Our training, the schools here, money, and Macedonia.

Love, Edith

July 14, 2001

Hi All,

It is hot here today as I am sure it is where you all are. Since we live on the sixth floor, it seems to be worse up here. In addition, Bulgarians keep their windows and doors shut no matter how warm it gets (lack of screens is probably part of it). Though our family has a floor fan in the living room (it just appeared one day), it didn’t get turned on until we went out and bought a fan for our bedroom. We have been told that Bulgarians do not like drafts; they feel that they cause sickness. We didn’t know about this when we took a car trip to another town with father and daughters about the first week we were here. It got very warm in the car (needless to say, no A/C) so Georgi opened the window in the top of the car. It was still hot on our way back so Rel opened his side window and let the fresh air blow through. His was the only side window open which I thought was rather strange. Now I can understand. Doors to rooms inside are also kept closed so it’s rare to have any breeze coming through. We keep our bedroom window open some but have to kill flies as a result.

The training group here is 53 or 54 people. (It’s one less now; a 20-year old trainee went home about two weeks ago.) We are divided into three different assignment groups. The largest group is the teachers who will be teaching English in both primary and secondary schools (I’m in that group). The second group is the "community economic development" people (CED’s for short) and Rel is a part of that. The third group is the "eco-specialists" who work mainly on environment projects like parks, rivers, etc. (On our way to school, we walk along a mountain river that is polluted from the copper mine upstream.) We all attend classes every day on three main areas: Language of course (and CED’s get the most training since they will work with people who speak no English), Technical, and Culture. (Also some Medical which gives us our shots and trains us on ways to remain safe and healthy.) In Technical, we learn about the Bulgarian aspects of our particular assignments. For example, in the teaching assignment, we are trained in how Bulgarian schools are run, how they work, and techniques we can use that will be effective with the students. CED’s get can idea of projects that have been started by other Peace Corps Volunteers in towns around the country. And the same with the "eco" people. Culture classes have included some of the information I’ve already told you about: like the visit from the Ambassador and his wife, discussions on the last 10 years of Communism, etc.

We attend classes at a local high school every day from 8 am to 5 pm. Most of the classes are language classes with technical and culture spread out among them. A typical schedule for me would have been language class from 8:30 to 10:30, another language class from 11:00 to 12:30, a technical class from 1:45 to 3:15 and another language class from 3:30 to 5:00. This week, teaching trainees will be starting "Model School." This is a two-week "school" set up by Peace Corps staff. Local school children are invited to a local school to take a course in English – only in the mornings. We Peace Corps trainees will be the teachers. This not only gives local children an opportunity to learn English from native speakers but it also allows us trainees to "practice" our skills in a real Bulgarian school with "real" students. We’re told that we will have 400 students which will be about 26 or 27 in a class. Should be interesting; I’ll keep you posted.

Rel returned over a week ago from a 3-day project that was set up for all CED’s. They had to visit a town and see how a project was started by a Peace Corps volunteer. So Rel and two other trainees left early on a Thursday morning (with Jason, the volunteer who lives in the town) on a bus for Kirkovo, a small town south near the Turkish border. They had a 12-hour bus trip (with two bus changes on the way) some of it through mountains. (This is a trip that would probably take us several hours in a car.) They got a better "feel" for what will be expected of them when they get out in the field.

Without Rel to help me interpret (he’s the "star pupil" in training since he knows the language better than any other student), I’ve kind of fumbled my way. Petja and I use a combination of sign language and various nouns and verbs to understand each other (I’m still working on creating complete sentences!). It’s very frustrating, a little bit like being back in first grade again.

The Peace Corps staff here is made up almost entirely of Bulgarian nationals. And they are the ones teaching us during training. We’re told this staff is unusual in this (being natives) but the people here are very intelligent and these staff members in particular have had lots of training in English so they speak very well. Our technical staff (for the teachers) is very good so I feel all this time in intensive training is worth it. Also some of the end-of-first-year volunteers come to assist the training staff so we’ve met several of them.

To really see the schools here, one has to overlook the physical facilities which are in very bad need of repair and maintenance. (When I saw the empty "trophy case" in the main hall with broken glass and no care, it just about did me in – knowing how proud our American high schools are of their sports prowess.) The students I’ve seen and talked with seem to be pretty typical of teen-agers: they giggle and punch each other, particularly the group of boys I talked with. Early in our training, we visited two schools, one local and one in Pazardzik about an hour away. The one in Pazardzik has a PC volunteer (Julie) currently serving there. Her teaching methods are muich more current than is presently used in Bulgaria. She gets up and moves around, uses real objects to teach the lesson, gets students up out of their seats, moving around, involved. She has had a very positive impact on that school and it showed when we walked in. Painted hallways, living plants, a feeling of more energy and more interest in what was happening there. The Bulgarian here locally tended to use only what was in the text and followed it word for word while sitting at their desks (or standing at their desks) the whole period. So maybe if Julie has had that much impact in one year at Pazardzik, there’s hope that I (and the rest of the teachers) can also have a similar impact: bring Bulgaria into the 21st century when it comes to teaching.

The paper money here is called the "lev" (singular) and "leva" (plural). The currency rate here now is about 2.30. Peace Corp trainees receive "walk around" money while we’re going through training. It amounts to 100 leva every two weeks, or 200 a month. Since we have no rent and only have to buy lunches, it is enough to get us through. We’ve found that buying "phone cards" to call home really eats up that allowance so I don’t do that very often.

Later in the week:

This is now the end of our fourth week – and I WANT TO GO HOME!!! ENOUGH ALREADY!!! We are told that the fourth week is one of the worst: everybody’s tired, both staff and trainees. (Peace Corps has the emotional cycles of training pretty well mapped out and my fourth week followed the "down" pattern.) Last Monday was my "horrible, no good, very bad day." (Another trainee told me she just broke down crying at breakfast that same day – so it’s not just me.) Although it improved some, I’m back down in the dumps again. I’m just tired – and there’s no relief in sight. At least for another two weeks, things are still going to be hectic. There’s just too much to study with the language and still keep up with planning for, and teaching in, the Model School. And Rel will be gone again all this next week. Maybe that will give me time to have space to myself for a change. I think that’s part of the problem: it’s so hard to find either time or space to have "alone" time.

In two weeks, we will all be told where we will be located for our permanent site. Then we will have three days to visit that site. I’m hoping that it will be a place where we will be comfortable in our own space – and not too cold this winter! Since Rel is a CED, we’re told the contract calls for a washing machine (teachers don’t always get a machine). So we’re hoping for that as well. Petja has one but it is small and doesn’t have a spin cycle so I wring everything out by hand. I use it for Rel’s jeans and such but with my clothing, I wash most of it by hand. I also don’t want to monopolize Petja’s water or machine with my several loads. So I keep those loads to a minimum.

On Macedonia: Into our second week of training, the Peace Corps volunteers in Macedonia were evacuated to a town in southern part of Bulgaria. Anti-American sentiment became a problem so they were removed. A Peace Corps team from Washington DC came to meet with them. They stayed for two weeks to see if the situation might clear up or change. It didn’t. About half of the volunteers (who had just completed their training!) went back home and the rest will be re-trained for another country. We have been reassured that the situation is different here in Bulgaria. And, from what we can tell, it’s true. We do have a new government with the coming back into the country and becoming Prime Minister but we, so far, don’t have the unrest that is happening in Macedonia. I’m glad because I sure as heck don’t want to have to go through THIS again. (A refreshing note: We older trainees have formed a support group among ourselves so I’m hoping that will help me as well.)

One more thing: Jason, the volunteer in Kirkovo, told us there were two things that make it difficult to work with people in Bulgaria. One is that it is hard for Bulgarians to work for something that may not benefit them in the short term but may end up benefitting others in the long term. So it’s hard to work for the long term benefit for anyone. An example might be a project that begins to clean up the environment and a lot of the benefit isn’t seen until years later. The second thing is that it is hard for Bulgarians to work as a team. They are scared to share their ideas. And Bulgarians don’t work, or do anything, unless they have been told by a "higher-up." In Jason’s town, that is the Mayor. The Mayor must approve all projects and all work. If he doesn’t, the project is dead. So even if good ideas are developed by Peace Corp Volunteers, the ideas don’t go anywhere if they are not approved by the town "power." That can make it difficult to get anything done. And one thing that makes working here very frustrating.

Georgi who is in administration in the local mine, has worked 12 days straight now including weekends. HE DOES NOT GET PAID FOR WORKING WEEKENDS. Where we might get double time for that, he gets nothing. That’s just the way it is done here. He could refuse of course but then he’d be out of a job. And there just aren’t that many jobs around here. In fact, people are leaving Bulgaria rather than moving in so it’s a diminishing population as well.

Next day:

I’m doing much better today. Awoke this morning at 5 a.m. with an inspiration of how to teach my units at the Model School starting Monday. That has helped. Another thing is that Peace Corps set up an excursion for today for trainees and host families and we just got back. We all took a bus to "The Assenova Fortress" (just outside of Plovdiv) which was built in the 12th century. It’s located on what looks like a mountain island in the middle of a mountain pass, which was why it was so important. The second place we visited was the Sveta Bogoroditsa (Virgin Mary) monastery in Bachkovo, which is the second largest monastery in Bulgaria and is definitely one of the most important religious and cultural centers of the Bulgarian Middle Ages. It was founded in 1083. It was razed by the Ottoman Empire in the late 14th century. It was rebuilt in the 18th century. One of the oldest and most interesting buildings in terms of architecture is the little chapel. People bought candles out in the courtyard then took them inside to pray. Paintings in the chapel from the 18th century are still very well preserved. It’s hard for me to believe that both places we visited today are so old…

This kind of trip is all a part of our "Culture" learning as well.

Enough for now… Next newsletter in several weeks.


July 28, 2001


It’s the end of a long, LONG week of studying, writing lesson plans, teaching, AND trying to get enough rest just to keep going. Taking the Monastery trip last Saturday put me behind so I started the week already tired. Developing lesson plans from scratch for the "Model School" was very time-consuming and teaching middle school and high school students for the first time was nerve-wracking. But I muddled through and have just three more days of teaching. The end of this next week will be the ending ceremony for the students. The two-week school was good for the community since it’s their first opportunity to have native speakers teach them English. It was also good for us: it helped pin point grade levels we feel comfortable teaching in. I was surprised to find I like middle school kids – more than working with 10th graders. However, almost every day was satisfying, particularly when the students really work in class to do what we ask and to understand.

Many of the middle school and most of the high school students have had some English or have had it intensively. So if a student doesn’t understand, a fellow student can "fill them in." That’s not so true of the lower elementary grades. For them, this was the first time anyone has tried to teach them English (they start learning English in the 5th grade here). One of our elementary teachers told us of her first day or two with the second grade. The children were "skittering around in class" going hither and yon – like spiders she said. Since she doesn’t know Bulgarian that well yet, she was trying to get control by talking to them in English. It had no effect; the kids were here, there, and everywhere in the classroom. She cornered several however, got them lined up at the front of the class and turned to work with the rest of the children. They were gone; they’d just simply left the classroom! So I guess I should be thankful I’ve been assigned to secondary school…

Another trainee has left but not because she wanted to. Dee Dee was about my age or a little older, a widow and was staying here with a single woman about her age. Last weekend the hostess hired a driver and took Dee Dee to a neighboring town. On the way home, the driver fell asleep and hit a light pole. Dee Dee was in the back seat and had her leg broken in two places. (The hostess was in front and was more seriously hurt.) We’re told that when Dee Dee awoke in the local hospital, there was no one around who spoke English. And since she is in my language class, she doesn’t speak very good Bulgarian. (Someone on Peace Corps staff is supposed to be here every weekend – we had been reassured of this – but no one was around when this happened.) So Dee Dee had a pretty rough time of it for several hours until someone came. A special plane was called in and she was flown to a hospital in London. It will take six months for her leg to heal so she won’t be back in our group – although she can reapply later.

Driving around here is something else. First, the cars may not have "workable" seat belts. If there are seat belts, they’ve been "non-commissioned" – attached to the back seat so you can’t use it and so they don’t have to sit on it (they don’t use them obviously). The second thing is that the drivers here are crazy and they also have the right-of-way. We wouldn’t dare try to get across the street if a car is anywhere near because they do not slow down for pedestrians. They also pass before hills and curves so we put our lives into their hands when we ride in cars here. Last Tuesday I didn’t have much choice. Georgi (host) got it in his head that, because Rel would be staying at a hotel in Pazardzik (for the CED program), we should drive over there to see him – about an hour away. I thought I’d told them earlier that I wouldn’t be able to go because of studying and planning (and resting). But about 10 minutes after I’d laid down, I was awakened to get dressed and go to Pazardzik. Georgi drove rather fast on the way over (I think he was upset I hadn’t been ready) but slower on the way back. And he is a good driver. But when we are guests of these families, it can be difficult at times to refuse to do something – as in this case. So we hope for the best. And of course time is getting shorter with the families so there will be fewer opportunities to be in the cars with them.

Here we walk everywhere. As PC volunteers, we are not allowed to drive a car or motorcycle. If we do, that is grounds for "separation" from PC. Probably most of the people here do not have cars anyway. Most people are out walking in the evenings, sitting at cafes, and children are out playing (it stays light until about 9 or 10 pm). Rel and I walked to a café after classes yesterday and sat in the cool shade with a breeze. The view is spectacular. The mountains are off in one direction above the plaza where people walk. The other direction has a view of an old eastern orthodox church with its seemingly ancient bell tower. It’s my favorite place to sit downtown so I need to take my camera next time. There’s so much poverty in many areas that it’s really refreshing to see the beauty around us.

We have reached the half-way point in our training. From here on out, things will begin to speed up. All three sections of the program (tchrs., CED’s, and eco-logs) are going through self-evaluations, language evaluations, and technical evaluations. This next week, we will all have "placement interviews" and on Monday, Aug. 6, we’ll find out where we will spend our next two years. Descriptions of the teacher assignments were put on the wall this week – but not the names of the towns. In our interviews, we’ll be able to voice a preference but, in the end, we’ll be told where we’re assigned. We’re told that Peace Corps tries to get us our preferences as best they can but it’s still a big guessing game as to where we’ll be. Some of the younger group got pretty "hyper" this week about where they may be; it was difficult for them to focus on teaching. But we older ones figure that it will all work out like it’s supposed to.

Once we find out our placement, we will travel there and spend three days. We will meet the "sponsoring group(s)." These are the people who have invited Peace Corps there. They provide our housing and a counterpart in the job – a person who helps us get adjusted and works as a partner to us on the job. Since there are two of us doing two different jobs, we expect to have two sponsoring groups and two counterparts. And probably be in a medium-size town, hopefully not real big. We will come back here for the final several weeks of language and the final swearing-in ceremony at the end of August. Then we’ll be on the road to our permanent site.

Even though there is poverty all around us, there are so many things that are interesting and beautiful. This town is in the mountains so even though it can get hot during the day, it usually cools off in the evenings and is a very pleasant place to walk. I enjoy seeing the goats being herded through town and the burros and horses pulling carts loaded with loose straw or hay. At any time day or night, we can hear the clip, clop of the hooves of those animals. I can look up and see the mountains above us; they are always changing depending on where the sun is and how clear the air is. The drive to Pazardzik is also beautiful because we’re driving out of the mountains down into the valley. From a distance, the villages look so picturesque with their red tile roofs. Because we walk everywhere, life seems slower here. When we walk with Petja into town, we walk at a slower pace. At first this seemed frustrating but now has become very pleasant. It is also true that life here IS slower because that’s the Bulgarian way. Time here is not of the essence. The most important thing is family and friends; schedules have very little importance. One Bulgarian staff member who has spent time in the States has become accustomed to our way and has been trying to get info from her family on their plans – so that she can plan the dates for her vacation. Her family doesn’t understand because they don’t plan ahead; they just do things as they feel like it. This is one thing we must remember so that when we are on the job and there is a celebration, we don’t become frustrated at the interruption of our work day…

There is something that I need and that could come in handy when we arrive at our permanent site. That is pictures torn out of old magazines. Pictures of people doing things, close-ups of people’s faces, different places around the U.S., fruits and vegetables – anything with lots of color. (There is nothing like that here.) These would be helpful for school because pictures communicate without words and can be a very good tool with teaching English. So if you have any old magazines and want to help, I could use the pictures. As soon as we know the address of our permanent site, I will let you know – the pictures could be mailed there (just in a regular or manila envelope marked "Educational materials").

Since I wanted to keep this newsletter shorter than the last one, I’ll close for now…. Edith

August 4, 2001


We have finally gotten our computer up again after about a week without it. Now I know what it’s like not to have ANY means of e-mailing back home – or receiving any e-mail (talk about really feeling alone!). The converter blew up and we had to have it rebuilt. The electricity here is so different that it requires that we be extra careful about plugging into an outlet. The one time we weren’t, we had trouble. So we have learned at least one lesson…

Another Peace Corps trainee has returned home, but maybe not permanently; he wants to return. The problem is that he has been using here a "snoring machine." Supposedly before he left the States, his girlfriend complained about his snoring so he got this machine. That in and of itself would not have gotten him "separated" from Peace Corps. The fact that Peace Corps knew nothing about it, however, did. Peace Corps documentation warned us that if we didn’t disclose all current medical "problems" to them before we left, that that would be grounds for "separation." He appealed the Peace Corps decision which was made in Washington DC on the grounds he didn’t know it was considered a "medical device." However, Washington ruled that because it went through his insurance company, he "should have known." He was flown home this past week but expects to begin another appeal process in the States. The PC Country Director here, the training staff and trainees have all signed a petition asking for his return to Bulgaria. He is an economist by profession (has a doctorate in it), has worked hard particularly on his language, and is well-liked. We’ll see what happens but it goes to show that Peace Corps does not give empty warnings.

For about the fourth time since we’ve been here, we were without water for several days (the first time was within the first week or two after we arrived). We now realize this happens rather frequently. The infrastructure is so old that pipes break and at least part of the town, or all of it, has to do without water for awhile. When it first happened, we were pre-warned and our host family filled up barrels of water so that we would have it for flushing and for sponge baths. This last time however there was no extra water available. I can’t tell you how awful it is to feel so grungy!! Trainees would compare notes in the mornings at school to find out who had had water in the morning and who hadn’t. (Young women wearing pigtails or hair bandannas were obviously some of the ones without water.) To my detriment, I just got really annoyed with lack of water this last time. But the fact is that there is nothing one can do about it. And to keep my sanity and health, I must learn to adjust to it when it happens. A current PC volunteer says he’s almost become immune to lack of water now because it happens so often in his town. The volunteer in the larger town of Pazardzik told of a month when there was neither electricity nor water available. So maybe I’d better count my blessings.

Everyone has been aflutter this past week because on Monday we find out where we will be assigned. At Rel’s placement interview with the CED program, he was told they were 90% sure we would be placed in a "small town" in southern Bulgaria - and that his "counterpart" would be the Mayor of the town. Of course in my interview with the TEFL program (teachers), nothing of the sort was said. They are much more closed mouthed. Last Thursday, the Country Director was here working with the staff making their final assignments. The towns have received a call and a follow-up letter informing them they would be receiving a volunteer(s). Since there are more requests than there are volunteers (in every category except eco-logs), some of the towns that requested a volunteer will not get anyone. This does, however, make it a little easier to try to place us in a compatible environment.

Yesterday our host family took us to a small town south of here, about two hours away. It’s the village where Georgi’s parents and brother and family live, and the town where he grew up. So we got to experience what a village is like from the inside. In fact, it was a little like going home to the farm to visit family in the summers. His parents live in a typical Bulgarian home which means they have a huge "truck garden" inside their courtyard, with a pen holding several chickens and several pigs. A half a block away (where the mother was born), they have another huge truck garden. And on our drive in, Georgi stopped at a very large field (rarely do we see fences around here) that had grape vines. This also belongs to the family and it is from these grapes they make their beer, wine, and rakiya. The "street" that the home is on is a dirt road. The toilet is an outhouse without a bench to sit on (a Turkish toilet with just a hole in the floor), is made of brick and looks like it’s been there for centuries.

I did not get to see inside the home where the cooking was being done. We ate outside on the patio in the shade and shared our food with all the flies that gathered around. Dishes are washed at an outside water spicket and sink then taken inside when they are dry. We ate baked chicken, potatoes, and a tomato and cucumber salad. One thing I’ve realized about the way chicken is fixed here: most of the time it is cooked medium And it was no different yesterday. I really do like my chicken well done but we both got it down – just as we’ve been able to eat all the chicken liver that Petya has fed us (something we NEVER eat at home). Both families however have been very accommodating because neither of us eats red meat – and we haven’t been served any.

We were surprised to find out that Georgi’s parents are 60 and 61 but they both look as if they are at least 10 years older. His father’s face is wrinkled into a permanent squint, from working in the fields and garden all the time I expect. He had an aneurism in his leg several years ago so walks sometimes with a cane. His mother cannot eat apples because of her teeth – and told us we would have to study harder to learn the Bulgarian language since we couldn’t understand her well enough! They are very proud of their gardens and showed them off to us. But Georgi tells us they can’t really make any money when they try to sell their produce. Although they may have small pensions (he was a house painter and she a weaver by trade), their gardens and produce would hopefully bring in extra money. That just hasn’t been the case. On our drive over, we saw lots of people along the roadside at intersections (like in America) trying to sell watermelons, tomatoes, squash, zucchini so there’s lots of competition. The beets we saw in the garden were being grown to feed the pigs, not for the humans to eat – which we thought was interesting. May be a different kind of beet than what we eat…

In September, Georgi and Petya and family will drive over to his folks and begin "preserving" the food for winter. Although Georgi makes enough to buy food from the market in the winter, it is his responsibility to his family to help them "can" food for the winter. So he works long days then helps his folks the rest of the time. His oldest daughter will be expected to do the same for her folks when they get older ("pensioners" they call them here). Obviously life is not easy. Seems almost like America was years ago.

I just found out that we’ll be driving today to a camp about 10 kilometers from here where Anna, the youngest daughter, is staying for two weeks. So AGAIN my time and space are not my own. All week we’re in school and on weekends, we’re at the mercy of the host family’s plans. I shouldn’t complain because it allows me to see other places in the area. However, I’m beginning to go a LITTLE stark raving mad with NO time or space to myself!! I’m hoping that maybe our trip to site this week will allow for some of that, but there’s no guarantee. We expect that our "counterparts" will have some occasions planned for us to meet local people while we’re there. Probably, as one of my resource teachers told me, the only way we’ll really be able to "get away" is when we travel to another place to take a short break.

We both received feedback on our Bulgarian language progress this week. I seem to be at the typical level for most PC trainees at this time – which is better than I thought (Novice-High). Rel, on the other hand, has positively SHOWN. In the ten years Peace Corps has been here, only one other person has scored as high as Rel has done at this point in the training. He’s mid-Intermediate. All the language instructors are very proud of him. It makes us feel good also because NONE of the younger whipper-snappers have come close. When we were first arranged into language groups, all of us older ones were grouped together – they thought we’d all be as slow as turtles. But Rel has proven them wrong. Only SOME of us are slow as turtles.

There are times when I get just a little peeved at the younger trainees. They’re typical 20-25 year olds I think: everything centers around THEIR parents, THEIR activities, and THEIR ideas; they rarely ever LISTEN to anyone else. There have been exceptions to this of course but the exceptions are rare. Last week, I arranged another luncheon for the older group of trainees. We ended up with 21 people chatting with each other. It felt very comfortable. When I looked over the numbers, it seems that we have 31 trainees in their 20’s or early 30’s. There are 21 people who are around 40 or older. So we do make up almost half of the group here. The problem is that most of the Bulgarian staff is younger so they tend to pay more attention to the younger trainees. However, the woman who heads up the language instructors is our age, met with us as the luncheon, and encouraged us to continue our contacts with each other. So we have an "advisor" on staff.


We just got the location of where we will be for the next two years. It is a small town called "Straldza" (pronounced "Stralja"). It is located about an hour west of the Black Sea. On the Bulgarian map, it is located west of Bergas (on the Black Sea) and closer to Sliven. We’re just south of the main road that runs between Sophia, the capitol of Bulgaria, and Bergas. I don’t know yet what grade levels I’ll be teaching but it looks like there may be some higher grades – and that’s not something I’m excited about. We’ll find out tomorrow. We will either go there by bus or train on Wednesday. It’s supposed to take 5-6 hours – long ride. I’ll let you know how things go in my next newsletter…

August 12, 2001

Hi All,

Beginning Sept. 1, we will be living in the small town of Straldja. I will receive my mail at the school and that address is:

Edith Sloan

SOU ‘P. Yavorov’

17 A. G. Stantchev Str.

8680 Straldja

Yambol region


Our new phone number is: 011-04761-24-46. Since we have a phone, we will continue to have e-mail once we move in. Since we do not arrive in Straldja until Sept. 1, it’s better not to send anything until after that date. Peace Corps has told us that padded manila envelopes usually arrive with no trouble. So many trainees have had items such as clothes sent to them in a padded envelope. Boxes mailed from the U.S. are much more expensive. If a box is sent, it should be labeled "Educational materials" or "Books" (writing that on manila envelopes may also keep them from being opened) and sent to: Edith Sloan, P.O. Box 259, Sofia 1000, Bulgaria. That’s the address of the Peace Corps office and BOXES sent there will be more likely to reach us (regular mail should be sent to my school).

Our home for the next two years is in Straldja, a small town or village in southeast Bulgaria. To get there, we were bussed by Peace Corps to Plovdiv (about an hour trip) then transferred to a train (which took another 3 ½ hours). The train ride was over mostly flat terrain so there were no mountains to slow us down. The train and tracks are just old, the train stops at many towns, there is no air conditioning and the day we traveled, it was about 100 degrees Farenheit. It was miserable traveling. However, we did meet some interesting young people along the way who were happy to talk with us in order to practice their English.

The Deputy Mayor, the School Director, Rel’s counterpart and my counterpart were all waiting at the train station when we arrived (we had left Panagyuriste at 6:45 am and arrived in Straldja at 4 pm – with time to tour Plovdiv while waiting for the train). We were taken to the Mayor’s office where he awaited us. The local journalist was also there and, since we are the first Peace Corps to ever serve there, we were interviewed for the local radio station - this in a town of about 6000 people, not a large place!

Straldja is located in the plains, more like Florida than most other parts of Bulgaria. It was very hot while we were there so summers will also be somewhat like Florida. It does get cold in the winters but not as cold as it would be if we were in the mountains. I doubt that there will be much snow, if any. (It is supposed to be noticeably cooler there when we arrive on the 1st.) The town’s primary industry is agriculture. Several factories in town have closed so unemployment is about 35%. The town, however, is very safe and I have no qualms at all about living there. Herds of sheep and goats are led out of town each morning to graze and back into town in the evening (it actually seems about 7am that they leave and 7 pm when they return). We can hear their bells ringing as they come down the road. There are also many horses and carts on the road as well so it is delightfully rural. There are a variety of "magazini" (small stores) in town and some cafes, and even a hotel. Most of the homes are made of old red brick with the red tile, although some of the newer ones are gray or white stucco. My school is large and well-maintained compared to some of the schools we’ve been in. I like my counterpart and the School Director so I’m looking forward to working with them.

Our apartment is in a "bloc." A bloc here in Bulgaria is an apartment building but "bloc" is a good word for it. Blocs were built by the Communists during the 40 years they were here supposedly so that everyone could have their own home. The problem is that they are ugly, ugly, ugly. They are a blight on the beautiful Bulgarian landscape. They are gray, concrete, heavy-looking rectangular buildings that have absolutely no redeeming qualities other than you can get a lot of people in them. I was hoping that they existed only in larger towns (we live in one here in Panagyuriste) and that if we went to a smaller town, there would be none. Wrong. In almost every town the train traveled through, we could see bloc after ugly bloc. So it should have been no surprise to us to see that our apartment was in one of the few blocs in town. Come to find out, however, the Deputy Mayor lives in one bloc, the School Director lives in the next one, we are in the third one and another of Rel’s colleagues is in the fourth one (there may be only the 4-5 blocs in town). So we’re not alone. (Interesting note: The Mayor lives in a large town about 35 kilometers away – in the states he’d have to live where he was Mayor - and the Deputy Mayor is his cousin.)

The apartment should work out well – eventually. Both the bedroom and living room are large, the kitchen and bath are small. There’s an entryway to take off our shoes and a terrace to hang up our clothes (even in the winter when they freeze!). There is a bed with old-type springs so we tend to roll toward the middle, with the mattress being just a mat. There is a large display cabinet in the living room with lots of shelves, a small table and two chairs; no such thing as a sofa or easy chair. If we want a TV, we’ll have to buy one. The kitchen has an apartment-size fridge (half the size of a regular one), a sink, some cabinets, and an interesting stove. The bath has a leaking toilet tank that needs to be repaired; we put a bowl under the leak while we were there (we also brought our trusty duct tape in case it doesn’t get repaired). AND the apartment hadn’t been cleaned since the previous resident had died in January! On the front door, there was a large black ribbon bow and posters showing the photo of the man who had died.

Here in Bulgaria, deaths of loved ones are commemorated by hanging posters of them all around town. We have seen them here on fences and gates at homes (always accompanied by a large black bow) and at churches and even on light posts. (One trainee several years ago mentioned to a staff member that many of these people running for office looked too young!) I’m not sure how long the posters and ribbons stay up (as I learn more about this, I’ll fill you in). We took it all in stride. We didn’t look too hard at anything in the apartment and ended up staying just two nights instead of the three we were supposed to stay. We took the train to Plovdiv and checked into a downtown motel that actually had air-conditioning, the first time we’ve had that since we left Washington. It seemed so cool and luxurious that we had a hard time leaving the room to walk around the old town part of Plovdiv.

We have had the opportunity now to visit both Plovdiv and Sophia, two of the three largest cities in Bulgaria. I had not been enthused about visiting either one because of the warnings we had been given about pickpocketing – with backpacks, purses, and even pockets in our clothing (so far, no problem since I wear my purse inside my clothing but a fellow trainee had a black bag stolen from her backpack as we walked along talking – no valuables luckily). However, I have been very impressed with both cities. The older parts of both cities display so much history, hundreds and hundreds of years, that it would be difficult to NOT be impressed. Plovdiv uncovered the remains of several Roman arenas or stadiums dating from about 300 C.E. with the one overlooking the city currently being used as a theatre. In Sophia, a church called St. Petka was uncovered which stands on the site of several ancient pagan temples – which would date it back 2,000-3,000 years ago. Communist sculpture, on the other hand, is a blight on the landscape. It’s blocky, chunky, too angular, and too big. EXCEPT for the Bulgarian twist applied to some figures that we saw in Sophia. The absolute agony and suffering that Bulgarians have undergone under the domination of others (Byzantines who blinded the entire Bulgarian army, Turks, and most recently Communists) is expressed so well in these figures that it almost makes me hurt just to look at them. A difference in our histories is another factor that makes it a challenge to try to understand this culture.

This past week, I’ve come smack up against a cultural difference that has caused problems for me in one of my classes. A woman, about my age, has been in my language class this week (our classes are rearranged every couple of weeks). There are only four of us in the class. Initially she managed to have the attention of the instructor 80% of the time - just through interrupting the other three of us with questions to the instructor, which he would then answer. I began to hold my hand up each time she tried interrupting me and when she stomped out of the classroom about the third time I did that, the instructor reacted by taking pity on her and calling on her even more! In our culture, that kind of classroom behavior (constantly interrupting other students) is considered rude and a good teacher would not allow it to happen. In Bulgarian culture, however, interrupting an instructor (or anyone else) is seen as showing keen interest in the topic and therefore it is considered a compliment. (Bulgarians in conversation are constantly interrupting each other.) When I approached the language coordinator about the problem, her first question was NOT "how often does this happen?" or a question concerning the fact of BEING interrupted or even a question about distraction caused by such behavior. Instead she asked what the questions were ABOUT – the assumption being that to interrupt is O.K. if the questions have to do with the lesson. So, though our staff knows English quite well, they have a ways to go to understand our culture. And of course the same is true with our learning the Bulgarian language – we may learn the language to a degree but learning the subtleties of the culture take much longer.

Several more trainees have left. The 78-year-old woman (the oldest one in our group) decided to leave. Prior to coming here, she had been depressed after her husband’s death and thought that coming here with Peace Corps would help bring her out of it. Instead it became worse so she decided to go home. (Also DeeDee her friend was the one who had the car accident and had to go home.) A young female trainee left also; our guess is that it became too much for her. It really amazes me that single women, both young and older, come here on their own, go through the "pressurized" training on their own, travel alone to their sites with limited knowledge of the language and find their way back again. And then are willing to live alone for two years where, much of the time, they are the only ones at their site who speak English. (Many of them have also traveled before – only three of us out of the whole group had never been out of the country.) So it’s really not surprising that some (both men and women) just say the heck with it and go home. I don’t think I could have done this alone. The adjustment to the culture and all the pressure during training is very difficult. On the other hand, with our "swearing in" only two weeks away, I feel very proud that I’ve been able to make it this far. I believe that if a person can get through training and be comfortable (that’s a relative term) at their site, that they’ll be able to make it through the two years.

We have one more full week of classes. The last week will be our LPI (language proficiency interviews) where we are interviewed in Bulgarian - and taped – for a half hour. This provides us with a "rating" of our being able to understand and speak the language. The actual swearing-in ceremony (when we become official volunteers rather than trainees) will take place on Thursday, Aug. 30. These ceremonies are always a big thing but moreso this year since this is the tenth anniversary for Peace Corps Bulgaria. Many country officials, both Bulgarian and Washington office Peace Corps, have been invited so 400 people are expected. It’s probably more like a typical graduation ceremony in the States. The next day we leave Panagyuriste for Straldja – and begin another whole part of this adventure.

We have been here less than three months but I swear it feels like three years. We had been warned that training would be one of the most difficult parts of this assignment – and they were right. Part of that of course has been adjusting to the country, culture, foods, etc. as well as to all the studying and work we’ve been assigned. But I can already feel myself "adjusting" to, and really enjoying, some changes – like the rural activities of farm animals moving about town, the laid-back attitude of the people, the spectacular vistas of the mountains. And learning about the history which is SO different from ours (at least from those of us who haven’t been dominated by another country or culture). That isn’t to say that I don’t miss home. There’s so much I do miss – like being able to easily talk with family, running to the store and being able to find whatever I need, and simple things like drinks with ice. But maybe I’ve made it "over the hump" – at least THIS hump. On to the next one… Edith

September 2, 2001


Rel and I are now full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers (no longer "trainees") after having been sworn in on Thursday, August 30. It was somewhat anticlimactic. Having overcome the initial transition to this country, its culture, people, and food, then having successfully undergone all the stresses of training, and all this in less than three months, nobody needs to tell us we’ve achieved something - we KNOW it, in our bones!

The Swearing-In Ceremony in Panagyuriste was overly long as many of these kinds of ceremonies are but it was well-attended by townspeople, host families, and Peace Corps staff (of course). Our main speaker was to have been the Ambassador but we were told an emergency had arisen and he was unable to come. Instead Sharon Miles, his wife, addressed us. We were not aware until we arrived in Straldja that the "emergency" was either a bomb threat or an actual bomb found in the American Embassy in Sophia. Since we have not been receiving any news here, and can’t as of yet understand the fast-spoken language (my counterpart’s husband told of the cause of the emergency), we’re not clear as to what actually happened. But since then, we have been hearing some news from BBC on our short-wave radio and have heard only about Macedonia but nothing about a bomb in Sophia. So maybe it was just a threat. Quite possibly it could have been connected to a Palestinian demonstration that had taken place in Sophia the week before but we don’t really know.

Although a bomb threat can seem disconcerting and even "scary," we all along have been reassured by Peace Corps that Bulgaria is a stable country, unlike Macedonia, and that it is VERY unlikely that problems will arise. Though we don’t know all that has happened politically over the last three months since the returning King Simeon became Prime Minister (he was exiled while a young child), our contacts with people in the country have been very positive. Since Bulgaria has to meet a lot of standards in order to join the European Union, they've invited Peace Corps to help in that process. That’s why we are here: to transfer skills, to promote a better understanding of American people, and to better understand people of cultures different from our own.

We live in a fishbowl. Bulgarians take one look at us Americans and know that we are not of their country. In the large cities like Sophia and Plovdiv, we are easily identified as possible prey for picketpocketers. (Rel and I have been lucky so far; he wears a money belt and I wear my bag inside my clothing). But in the small towns and villages (which is most of Bulgaria), we are just stared at. As we walk down the street here in Straldja, it’s difficult to know exactly what’s appropriate when seeing people for the first time. Bulgarians, we are told (and experienced in Panagyuriste), don’t automatically smile and say hello when meeting people on the street, even in small towns. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when, on Friday evening as Rel and I walked home and I greeted a man with "Dobur Den" (Good Day), he responded by saying "What?" as if I’d threatened him (he obviously knew SOME English). I repeated it, he relaxed and gave me a thumbs up.

On the other hand, as Rel and I shopped in many of the "magazini" (small shops) over the past several days, store owners have been very friendly and warm towards us. Our approach was to purchase something in the store. After we paid for it, I introduced myself, then Rel, and extended my hand. Invariably, the owner broke into a big smile and introduced him/herself to us. I can’t tell you what a great feeling it is to be appreciated – and I think maybe the feeling is mutual. I’m looking forward to getting to know the people of Straldja better.

The day after we arrived was a little different, however. There is a law in Bulgaria that, within the first 48 hours of a foreigner’s arrival in town, the foreigner must register with the police (when staying in a hotel, the hotel takes the passport and handles the registration). There is also a law that every person in Bulgaria (other than tourists) must have an identity card called a "Lichna Karta." So we spent most of our first morning here with our counterparts at the police station in Yambol, 30 kilometers away, registering at the police station and beginning the process for a Lichna Karta (our town is too small to handle this). We were given a long, involved form that had to be completed and were told to go to another office to get it typed. A woman came to that office, unlocked it, and took us in to where there was a large desk and a copy machine nearby. On the desk sat a small portable typewriter that looked a little out of place on that big desk. But that’s what she used to complete our forms - no computer or even an electric typewriter. After we paid her 8 lev for the forms and the typing, we were sent back to the first office to complete the process. Bureaucracy exists everywhere including Bulgaria.

This area is known for its agriculture (there is also a winery here that produces wine well known throughout Bulgaria) as is much of Okeechobee County. There is a difference however. People who farm the land (we saw a lot of wheat) live in the villages and go out to work in the fields each day. They do not live on the farm land itself. They live in homes that include large-size courtyards. And in the courtyards are gardens as well as pens for farm animals and places for cart-type wagons. When I remember my question to an instructor when we first arrived in Panagyuriste, I feel somewhat embarrassed. When seeing carts pulled by horses through town, I asked her if they were mainly farmers. Her answer was that they were farmers and gypsies. What I didn’t realize at the time is that farmers and gypsies make up the villages and towns. There is no distinction between many townspeople and farmers; they are one and the same.

As I said, the farm animals are housed in the villages. Several shepherds are paid by owners to herd the sheep and goats out to pasture each morning and bring them in each evening. Those are the bells we hear as the herds come down the street each day. Villagers keep several each but by the time the whole group is together going out of town, it is a good-size herd (and there isn’t just one herd; there may be three or four). There are few, if any, fences on the farm land. So the shepherd stays with the animals as they graze during the day. The villagers have the goats’ milk to drink and possibly to make their yogurt. (I miss my milk and cereal for breakfast – local milk is unpasteurized). We have not seen cows herded through town like this, however. In Panagyuriste, we would see a single cow being herded through the streets to home but so far, none here. When Rosie, my counterpart, asked about our farms in America, it was difficult to describe the numbers of cattle that I remember seeing graze in the fields near Okeechobee.. "Mnogo, mnogo krava" (many, many cows) is about all I could say.

As for the gypsies, I know little at this point. We have been told that they are not respected by most Bulgarians. Here they are called "Roma" and they live on the edge of town. They have their own school although some will be attending the school I’ll be teaching in. There seem to be several groups of Roma in Bulgaria. One is the group who have been well trained in the art of pickpocketing (even children are experts) and they are transported to large cities to practice their "craft." The other group are those like the ones who live here. They have few resources and their unemployment rate is about 90%. (Gypsies originally came out of India around the third or fourth century and have never been truly accepted by any of the European countries.) On our walk this morning we passed through an area of town that may have been either the Romas or Turkish population (Turks are also "persona non gratis" since they were earlier and cruel conquerors of Bulgaria). We talked to several children ("talked" may be a little strong – we understood some of their words and used some they seemed to understand). They showed us the way back to the center of town and seemed to appreciate the several stotinki (coins) that Rel gave them in thanks.

Tomorrow is our first day at work - Rel in the Mayor’s office and me at school (school begins for the students on the 15th) so I must get more work done. My new "washing machine" can handle about one small load per day we’ve discovered. It is a plastic tub with an electric motor attached. The motor gets hot after two loads and we dare not even run one load more than about five minutes (after running my first large load for 8 minutes, the motor just quit). I rinse and wring by hand and hang the clothes on the lines out on the terrace. Wash day is a little different here…

More next time, Edith

September 3, 2001


What a day! Like no other first workday I’ve ever had! It started out as a typical "first" work day (teachers’ planning day) at school. At the staff meeting, I was introduced to the other teachers by the School Director (Principal), then was presented with a beautiful bouquet of flowers – a tradition in showing appreciation to teachers here. Rosie, my colleague and counterpart, took me up to the 5th floor where we spent about a half hour going through the store room and classrooms. After a discussion with the Director as to which classroom would be "mine" (I’m still not sure), Rosie suggested that she, Noska (another teacher), and I go get Rel from the Mayor’s office and have coffee at a café. And that’s what we did for most of the morning: we sat at the café and drank tea and coffee!

During our culture classes in Peace Corps training, we learned about the differences in work ethic between Americans and Bulgarians. I’ve stated before that time is NOT of the essence here. What IS important is time spent with family and friends. Schedules and timetables have little meaning. Our first workday here was a prime example and something for which we were somewhat prepared - but that preparation did not lessen my astonishment at the seeming disregard for the importance of work. That’s not to say, however, that something important wasn’t achieved. We three teachers will be working together this year and getting to know one another (despite my limited language skills!) can help the team process. We also spent time talking with the Deputy Mayor, Rel’s counterpart, again building a good working relationship. So, in the end, there seems to be method to the "madness," something we Americans can learn from Bulgarians.

Flexibility is another important skill here. Initially I was told by Rosie that our work schedule this week would be 8am to noon. On our walk to school, she explained the schedule was changed to 8am to 4pm with an hour for lunch. At the staff meeting, however, the Director said teachers would leave at 1pm today (which aroused a cheer from the staff). Before returning home, the schedule was changed again so that tomorrow we work only in the afternoon (tests will be given to students in the morning). A key to living and working here, I’m learning, is to be able to go "with the flow" no matter how confusing it may seem to me.

Another cultural difference I believe influenced our leave-taking from our host family in Panagyuriste. On our last day there, Petja (our host "mother") awoke feeling ill. But she and her two daughters attended the Swearing-In Ceremony. It was afterwards, while I took photos, that I realized Petja was crying and having difficulty keeping her composure. Since Petya’s mother had been ill, we thought that might be some of the problem. However, while we awaited the loading of our luggage (some of it is still in Panagyuriste), I made conversation with Petja by reassuring her that in several months’ time my Bulgarian would probably be much improved. In the process of asking me if I remembered our first evening in their home, she again "broke down" and had to leave the room (Rel had done all the talking that first evening since my Bulgarian was almost nil). As we finished loading the car and began our final good-byes, Petja again was weeping, then the two daughters, then tears welled up in Georgi’s eyes. I’m not sure what we have done to deserve such grief at our leave-taking. (In fact, we thought they’d be happy to see us go – after even three days, guests begin to stink like fish, as the saying goes!) But clearly this wasn’t the case. Possibly, again, this is a reflection of the importance of families in this culture. Having lived in their home for three months, met their families, traveled on short trips with them, brought small gifts, spent time with them just talking and learning the language, we became part of their family – possibly like another set of parents/grandparents.

Next day:

There are some things here that are heart-wrenching. There is no money for repairs in the school (as there is no money for many repairs to buildings in the town). Of the 4 or 5 classrooms we’ll use on the fifth floor (top floor), all but one have missing glass in the windows. Windows have cracked and pieces of the glass are either missing or laying on the window sill. Rosie has assured me that a window in my room will be repaired. But there are so many – and this isn’t particular to Straldja. Every school we’ve been in here has had the same problem. And what happens in the cold months of winter? (One volunteer had told us of the difficulty in writing on the chalkboard in winter with having to wear gloves. But she was in the mountains I thought. Surely not a problem that we could have!) Could part of the problem not just be lack of heat until December but also the fact that the windows are open to the weather?? Another classroom Rosie showed me had large water stains in the ceiling. The Director explained that there was no money for repairs to the roof. So the ceiling probably continues to leak.