Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001


Last Friday, the 14th, the fire siren in town went off – much like small towns in America to mark the noon hour. Only this continued for much longer. Rel and I were both working at home and wondered what it was all about. It wasn’t until we watched local news in the evening that we realized that towns all over Bulgaria had also sounded their sirens – in memory of the victims of the tragedies in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

I’m still feeling sadness over the tragedies and feel such helplessness. Not to the extent of course of the families of the victims but it’s there nevertheless. Watching CNN has probably exacerbated my feelings because I can see that I’m unable to share in the "coming together" of those who are grieving – a form of release. In fact, Peace Corps in Sophia has e-mailed all volunteers and told us NOT to isolate ourselves and sit in front of the TV, but instead spend our time with others – to get our minds off what has happened….

Because we needed a few things and to just get away from everything, Rel and I took the public bus over to Yambol yesterday. That was an experience in itself – taking the public bus. There are two kinds of buses: private and public. The private ones are bigger, more comfortable, and cleaner – and even 10 ct. (ctotinki) cheaper than the public ones. But on weekends to Yambol, the numbers of buses are fewer and most of them are public. Thus we ended up on a public microbus. Remember also that vehicles here are not in the best of shape and many of them break down enroute. We didn’t have that problem yesterday; in fact, we arrived within a half hour. However, these buses tend to be well-used (not cleaned often), drapes at the windows are closed, windows are closed (most Bulgarians believe that drafts make people sick), people are packed in tight and most of them do not bathe as often as we Americans. Needless to say, we were very happy to get out and walk in town as soon as we could.

Until we got SO tired from all the walking. We then realized how it is so much more convenient to shop with a car. There were items we were pricing so that, when we can get someone with a car to bring them home, we can then buy them – like bikes. It will be easier to get around in town and even to villages in the area once we have bikes. There is no hurry, however, since Peace Corps requires us to wear helmuts and also provides them but they are not here yet (Bulgaria doesn’t have them and they had to be ordered from the States). By the time we arrived back home, we were exhausted. Younger PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteers) can probably take this more in stride than we older ones. Or maybe we just need time to adjust.

Yambol, unlike Sophia or even Pazardzik, does not have any American eating places. We have seen McDonald’s in both of those places. In Sophia, there was also KFC, Pizza Hut, and Dunkin’ Donuts (which was NOT open on a Saturday morning!). Although, there is not the range of selections in the menus here that there are in the States, there is much that is similar. One thing we could count on at the McDonald’s we visited was that the restrooms would have "normal" toilets and be relatively clean. (One of the "Top 20 ways you know you have been a PCV in Bulgaria is when you go to restaurants for the quality of the bathrooms.") Men and women may have to share a sink to wash hands but the toilets themselves are separate – and are clean.

On Monday:

What an interesting first day of school! On our walk to school, Rosie coached me on a traditional greeting among staff on the first day of school: "chestit purvie uchebin den!" (Happy first day of school). It’s like a holiday here. The students and staff both came dressed in their "Sunday best" with the students carrying flowers, which they gave to their teachers (one of the primary teachers had to put her bouquets of flowers in a grocery bag in order to hold them all). While the 500 students gathered around in the school yard, students raised the Bulgarian flag, recorded music played, and older students read a greeting over a PA system. The "newest" students (first-graders) were honored with a special place in front. At a signal from their teachers, two of them walked forward, gave a short speech (done very well I might add!), and one of them released a white dove which flew off into the sky. Very impressive. The School Director then lead the first-graders into the school with everyone else following. On the way, she sprinkled water on the ground in front of them and, at the door, an older girl dressed in traditional Bulgarian costume welcomed the students with a large loaf of bread made special for the occasion (this is the same way we as trainees were first greeted when we arrived at our first location in Bulgaria). Students tore off a piece as they entered the school for the first time as students. The student body stayed only long enough to meet with their classroom teacher (one per grade level) then went home. Staff gathered at a local restaurant, ate together, and talked – like a family Rosie explained.

There are people here that I really want to talk with: the School Director and many of the other teachers to name a few. But I CAN’T SPEAK THE LANGUAGE WELL ENOUGH! It is so frustrating – wanting to understand them and to be understood in return. Rel and I are both being tutored in the Bulgarian language now twice a week so I am working at it but I wonder if I’ll ever be able to really converse in Bulgarian. It’s such a long, slow process.

Last week (after we used hoes to clean the schoolyard) one of the teachers explained (via Rosie) that she had been a journalist when the Communists were here. She was forbidden to take photos of women who were using hoes. The Communists did not want people to know that women did that kind of work. If Rosie had not been there to interpret, I would have missed all that. I would love to ask questions, learn more, but lack of language knowledge stops me. I can see how I miss out on learning more about the Bulgarian culture just because I don’t know the language well enough. Maybe that’s the incentive I need to keep working at it…