September 10, 2001
The electricity was off all day today. About two or three times a year I’m told, the electricity is turned off in order to check the transformers. Computers were down at the bank where we pay both our water and electric bills so they will have to wait until tomorrow. The telephone bill is paid in the post office.
The Municipality of Staldja pays the rent on our apartment while Peace Corps pays for our utility bills (except for the telephone, which we pay). We receive a monthly living allowance comparable to that of the people we work with. That means that we receive 320 leva each per month for living expenses (about 2.1 leva equal a dollar). The average living wage for Bulgarians is 250 leva per month and minimum wage is about 80 leva per month. In dollar amounts, we live on little but compared to most Bulgarians, we live quite well. Peace Corps is also our medical provider while we are here. At the end of our two-year stint, we receive a "readjustment allowance" equal to $225 per month for the months served.
"Pensioners" (retirees) receive approximately 50-160 leva per month depending on their previous work and how long they did it. Dora is a pensioner who sells vegetables down the street from our bloc. Upon introducing ourselves as "dobrovoltcee" (volunteers), she pointed to herself also as a volunteer: she makes the bare minimum off of her sales, and we always leave her extra. In return, she has provided us with fresh cirene (cheese) made from goat’s milk and this morning, she gave me a bottle of fresh milk from her goat.
Periodically we eat at a café in the "centre." (Most cafes serve mainly drinks; only a few serve meals.) We watched some remodeling of a building facade going on as we sat there. All construction on buildings like this is done by hand. There are no power tools; just a hand saw, hammer and nails. Cement (and plaster) is mixed on the ground (literally) then carried up to higher floors via a bucket on a pulley. Workers walk gingerly along the scaffolding since it is hand-constructed and seems somewhat unstable. Work seems to move slowly but it does get done, as we observed while in Panagyuriste. We’ve seen several buildings here in Staldja where work is being done and it is a hopeful sign…Because so many buildings are in such poor shape, there’s really no way to go but up.
One of the things that we both find difficult here is remembering how to shake our heads when saying "yes" or "no." During training, it wasn’t a big problem because most of the Peace Corps staff shook their heads the American way. But here in Straldja, it is done the Bulgarian way. To say "da" (yes), we are supposed to shake our heads from side to side, which to us looks like "no." And to say "neh" (no), we are to move our heads up then down. I find myself unconsciously nodding my head up and down when agreeing with something, then mid-nod, I remember to change to a side-to-side shake. The result is that my head ends up going around in circles as I try to do it correctly! Then I feel like an idiot…I think this will take awhile to get right. When Bulgarians shake their head and say "Da," it takes a few minutes to realize they are saying "yes."
I feel awful today. Rosie came over last night to tell us about the attack on New York and Washington. We immediately turned on our TV (luckily we bought one last week) and sat glued to it the rest of the evening. I almost hated to go to bed for fear we would miss something (it was still afternoon there). I had told Rosie I would work at school today even though it was my day off but changed my mind when I awoke. I again sat glued to the TV.
As we watched TV last evening, a member of the "Security Police" came to our door, evidently to check on us (it was difficult to understand him). When he saw we were O.K., he smiled and left. Andrea (nurse practitioner and safety officer) from the Peace Corps office in Sophia called later this morning. The office was told by Washington to call all volunteers and have them contact their families to say that they were O.K. (as far as we know, our families are safe.) She also said that the office was keeping a "low profile" (took down their flags) and suggested we do the same. This was after Rel had already gone to the office and completed an interview with the local cable TV station! So much for a low profile…
It’s at times like this I wish I were home. I’d rather be around family when crisis happens, even though presumably we are safe here. There is nothing much we could do at home but it would just be much more comforting! Instead, we are here. It will be June 30, 2003, that my work here will be completed – so it’s really less than two years away. Rel, on the other hand, will finish on August 31, 2003, so I will wait the two months for him to finish before we leave here. It may be rather premature to be discussing our ending date – who knows what could happen between now and then. It just tells me I’ll be ready to come home when the time arrives! (Maybe I’ll even start marking the days off on the calendar! I’m just homesick!!!)
I went to school today, Thursday. (I’m glad I did because I really got depressed yesterday staying home and watching the aftermath of the tragedy.) As we arrived near the School Director’s office, she came out, walked over to me, and put her arms around me. I just lost it! I hadn’t been able to really shed tears over the attacks until then. (Rel had told me that people in his office on Wednesday had been very grave and sorrowful.) In the teachers’ meeting following, the staff stood and maintained a moment’s silence in sympathy. Individual teachers came up to me and said words of sympathy. One teacher has a son in Chicago and hasn’t slept well since the tragedy. When Rel and I went to the Mayor’s office this morning (on our way to Yambol to get our "Lichna Karta"), a man neither of us knew stepped into the office and shook both our hands in sympathy. So when CNN says that Europe is grieving over the attacks, it is true. We have experienced that grief here.
A cheerful aspect of my day at school on Thursday was to see students working out in the schoolyard, probably 50-75 students and staff. They brought their hoes and brooms (with no long handle). It was a day to clean the yard, which is made up of about 12" square blocks of cement. Between the blocks, weeds grow and even pieces of glass can be found. Those with tools used them and those of us without tools, used our hands to pull weeds. After about 2-3 hours, the yard was clean of debris. I mentioned to Rosie that I wished I’d brought my camera to get pictures of the students working so hard. She asked if our schools in the states did this cleaning with the students and I had to tell her that we had staff who did the cleaning. Her response was that the school has no money to pay for that – so the students do it. In my mind, this day of clean-up seemed a great way to involve students and ingrain a sense of pride in their school.
Monday, Sept. 15, is the first day of school for students all over Bulgaria. I am told that we will have about an hour-long ceremony in the schoolyard to welcome the youngest students to the school. The Deputy Mayor will say some words and students may say some poetry. The first year that Rosie brought her daughter to school (14 years ago) and stood there thinking about HER first day, she turned and found HER first teacher standing at her side. Tradition is long-running here…
Enough for now… Edith