September 20, 2001
This is a "picture" of our physical surroundings. We live on the third floor of a five-floor apartment building (a "bloc") that was built around 1990 or 1991. Our building is a gold color and is the third one situated among six blocs total in the whole town. We are located in the northern part of town and just south of the "Roma" (gypsy) section, which is on the northernmost side of town. Luckily our apartment faces south (toward the "centre" of town) so that we should stay somewhat warmer in winter. A view I miss, however, is the mountains that can be seen to the north.
There are two entrances into the building. Our entrance is closest to the street. It is a one-door entrance with what used to be a glass side panel to the left of it. That side panel, however, has been broken so there is still glass there but with a large hole in it. Since it faces the north, there will not be much to keep out the cold wind later on.
Just south of us and facing the street is a mini-market. On the other side of it are three more gray blocs facing the same direction as ours. And just north are two blocs facing the street (most of our colleagues live in one of these six blocs). There is also some asphalt parking between the buildings. Much of the area surrounding the blocs is grass but the grass does not get mowed - by mowing machines. Animals do graze at times however. On either side of our bloc, there are large, rusty waste bins where we put our trash. Since they are not emptied often, they tend to become full to almost overflowing. A breeze or wind can move the trash from the bin out into the tall grass and get caught there. So we have pieces of trash that are caught up in the grass surrounding most of the blocs.
Besides the north/south "thoroughfare" that passes in front of our building, there is also another street, just east, that runs parallel to it with a creek (contained in cement) in between. Behind our blocs is what we would call an alley. Both the alley and the parallel street are busy mornings and evenings with sheep, goats, and cows being herded either into, or out of, town. At one point, the animals are herded between our blocs to get across the street. Just this morning, there was an older man herding(?) some turkeys as they fed in the grass near the waste bin (they usually feed over on the parallel street). Wagons being drawn by horses or burroes (along with cars and trucks) continually travel the main street. Although I really enjoy hearing and being around the animals, it feels very strange to hop-scotch around animal droppings on our sidewalk as I go in and out of the bloc.
As in Panagyuriste, two- or three-story brick homes with red tile roofs make up most of the dwellings. There are some more modern homes that are made of grey or white stucco. Most of the homes have courtyards that are clean, neat, and have beautiful gardens. There is no florist in town because everyone grows their own flowers. It’s also difficult to buy tomatoes since most people grow their own. Rosie thinks her mother has never bought tomatoes; they’ve always been a part of her garden.
Although it is still somewhat difficult to get accustomed to the surroundings, it is even more difficult to understand the un-awareness of safety problems. (And maybe it isn’t as much unawareness as it is lack of money to do much about it.) For example, while still in training, we visited an old, old fortress that has much historical significance for Bulgaria; many people visit it Since it is located in the mountains, it is set up high with cliffs that drop away into the valleys below. The walkway to the fortress, and even one above it, had no guardrails, no handrails, no safety warnings, no fences. The walkway itself is made of large smooth boulders that would really be slippery when wet. It probably looks now much as it did many years ago – which I guess isn’t all bad. But that was one of my first experiences realizing that there is a big difference in safety standards between Bulgaria and America and that I’d better get used to it.
When we cleaned the schoolyard a week ago, again I was taken aback to see the amount of glass found between the cement tiles. That part was swept. But in another walkway behind the school (evidently not much used), there was so much glass in one area that it looked as if a window was broken out – and the glass was left to lay there. To be honest, I’m not sure it is still there. But the teachers I was walking with didn’t express amazement or say a word about it as we stepped over and around the glass. Embarrassment maybe? Or just commonplace? I still have much to learn…
I go into much detail about our physical surroundings but it doesn’t give a true picture of the people themselves. Almost all we’ve met have been friendly, warm, giving – and curious about America. (As I walked home from school the other day, some younger students said," Hello" and followed me – even into a shop. As I awaited my turn, one of them brought over her notebook and asked me to sign it!) Our colleagues have been accepting, helpful, and basically supportive in our striving to learn the language. They behave professionally and they dress professionally – much as we do in America. Men wear shirts and slacks to work and women wear either long skirts or long pants with matching tops and medium-heeled shoes. (Sensibly, women do NOT wear pantyhose! – although this winter the few pair I brought may come in handy…when I’m not wearing my longjohns!)
People are also concerned for their children. THE top priority for the Mayor’s office (who distributes money in the town and municipality) and for other groups in town is to provide more funding for the schools (there is a Roma school and several smaller ones in surrounding villages). That is the only source of income the school has except for a couple hundred leva per year that come in from land rent. The library is severely lacking in books. But it’s not just library books. One of the classes I’m teaching is an 8th grade English class. So far we have no books. While still in training, I purchased some out-of-date textbooks. So yesterday I spent the day ripping out pages and putting them in plastic (to keep them in good shape). Individual students can work with the pages simultaneously. And I can use them for all three grade levels I teach: 6th, 7th, and 8th. The 6th and 7th graders are using "textbooks" (what we would call workbooks since they have soft backs) that they had last year. When it comes time to purchase new books for this year (I’m unclear when that will be), only about 40-50% of the students will be able to afford to buy them. The school cannot buy them for the students.
On a visit to Sophia during training, Rel heard about extra books that the American Embassy had in storage and he ordered some for our school. They arrived last week. They are children’s stories ("Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel") that will be helpful; I can get the older students to practice them as if they were reading them to a younger brother or sister. There is also an outfit in America that collects books and sends them to Peace Corps Volunteers, so Rel has completed an application for that. Before leaving home, I prepared an "M Bag" from the post office: filled it with books (but not textbooks as much as teaching books) and Lori has mailed them (costs $1 per pound from the States to here). We are exploring all avenues that we can research in an effort to find funding, books, contacts within foundations, whatever. If you know of other sources for any of the above, just let me know. We are beginning our research now (and will continue it) because it takes a while for mail to arrive here from the States.
All of this need reminds me that we have a job to do here and, despite getting down sometimes, that’s one thing that keeps me going…
This next week I visit the pensioner’s club (retirees). I’m hoping to not only have a chance to learn more of the language by getting involved but to also learn some Bulgarian dances. And share with them some of my clogging…I’ll keep you posted. Edith