Edith's Bulgarian Newsletter

August 2002 Archives

August 2, 2002 News from Bulgaria

Straldja at this time of year seems much like many towns in the United States: hot, dusty and deserted. When I walked into the post office yesterday, there was only one clerk working (usually two or three) with a fan moving the air and total quiet, with no other customers around. On my way to the bank, I met only two or three people on the street. And in the small grocery store, I was their only customer. The "dog days of summer" also exist in Bulgaria.

Actually it's somewhat of a relief. After our trip to Greece, we have needed some quiet - to recuperate and to heal -- after a vacation, no less! The downside of the trip was that we started out really tired from sitting up all night in the Sofia bus station (down in the underground because the actual station was locked up about midnight). The train that we were supposed to take began in Budapest but ran into a problem with a collision in Rumania. So rather than leaving at the scheduled 11:15 pm, we left at 8 am after the train finally arrived the next morning. That set us on a course of a continual lack of sleep which resulted in Rel being pickpocketed in Athens, right before we boarded the ferry to Crete. As our PCMO keeps telling the PC volunteers, there's a greater chance for this kind of theft to occur when you're tired - and that was certainly true in our case (in three days, we had had about five hours of sleep). The tiredness caused us to be more careless and (1) we failed to put cards and cash in the moneybelt Rel was wearing, (2) didn't hear "warning bells" when the hotel clerk in Athens told us to take the Metro rather than calling the taxi that we had requested. The pickpocketing was a professional job, we think set up by the hotel clerk. (We have since heard that the parent of another PCV was also pickpocketed in the Metro in Athens.) The cash couldn't be replaced but hopefully charges on the credit cards will be taken care of (Lori, my daughter, was very helpful in getting some financial problems with this straightened out -- and Lorien, Rel's daughter, provided needed encouragement). It's much more difficult to call in a theft when one is overseas and unfamiliar with in-country phones and phone cards (something I'm sure professionals count on) and doing it all within a limited time.

The feeling of course is one of first, being invaded, then the anger and frustration set in. I was right in front of Rel but didn't know what was happening -- nor did he, until he felt in his pocket and his small billfold was gone (they were also trying to get into his moneybelt). It didn't help either that we were an older couple carrying too much luggage. However, pickpocketing is a liability of traveling -- and a wake-up call for the next time, like when we're traveling on our way home next summer (one year from last Wednesday!).

The upside, however, is that we got to live our dream of visiting places that, up until now, we'd only read about in books. The Acropolis in Athens was the first site we visited. From our hotel window, it was not difficult to locate because it sits high up on a hill and several of the buildings can be easily seen from anywhere in Athens -- which is spread out for miles and miles around the hill (a PCV had told me that Sofia looked like a small town in comparison and she was right). All the pictures I had seen of the Parthenon did not show any restoration going on but when we arrived, much of the outside, and inside, was lined with scaffolding where restorative work is currently being conducted (more on this later). The size of that building alone is awesome. What must it have been like to see the 39-foot-high statue of Athena inside looking out from atop this high hill. The three remaining buildings, (Erechthion, Temple of Athena Nike and the Parthenon) are roped off but most people move quietly about and through this large space. Not only are much of the buildings made of marble (big blocks of it are roped off to the side, pieces of the buildings it seems) but the very stone we walked on was also marble (not tile - rock!). The bright sun shining on top this high, high hill, walking on marble among such venerated buildings, in a place of such long, long history, felt totally awesome.

That feeling remained as we walked among the other three archeological sites on the islands of both Crete and Santorini. In Crete, we explored the remains of Knossos, a Minoan civilization site dating from as early as 2600 BCE, discovered in early 1900's by Sir Arthur Evans, a British archeologist. At the Iraklion Musuem the previous day, we had viewed all the artifacts from that site including frescoes, pottery, jewelry and goddess figurines including the famous "Snake Goddess." All just beautiful, beautiful, beautiful stuff! We hiked up a mountainside in the Lassithi Plateau (reached by bus going up, up, up on a cliff-hanging one-lane road) to then climb down, down into the Dikteon cave, "one of the oldest and most outstanding sanctuaries of Minoan times." In Santorini, we joined a group to view the remains of Akrotiri, another early settlement which traded with, and was highly influenced by, Minoan Knossos. Visiting Santorini alone was an experience since, except for two places on the island, it is totally formed from a volcano. Thus the land is very fertile, except for the fact that it rains only in the winter. All homes collect rain water to be stored in cisterns for later use. However, that isn't sufficient for all the water needs so ships bring in more.

All sites we visited were undergoing continuous restoration. According to a source of mine published in 1990, the work at the Akrotiri site had then been stalled - due to lack of funding from the Greek government. Everything was covered in plastic, stored until the time when work could be restarted. Now archeologists are busy at work. As I said before, the Parthenon is also lined with scaffolding, when all photos I've seen in the past showed no such work being done. It's my belief that the influx of funds for the current restoration work at these sites (and on many other buildings and roads) is largely due to help from the European Union.

As Rel and I waited for the train in Sofia, we met a young man (originally from Holland) who has been working in Turkey for eight years with an environmental organization (he and Rel talked through the night!). As we waited outside the train to pass through the Bulgarian/Greek border (at least a 3-hour process - first the Bulgarian side, then the Greek side, collecting our passports both times!), I mentioned some differences I was noticing between the two countries: in Greece, the customs station was new and well-maintained, modern equipment was being used to build curbing along the tracks, there seemed to be an air of growth and prosperity. Edwin's response was that it had been very different in Greece 10 years before, with more similarities to Bulgaria at that time (Greece was a "Peace Corps" country in the 60's maybe?). Within the last 10 years, Greece has become a member of the European Union -- and, according to him, it was that membership that has now made a big difference. Bulgaria, as well as other non-member countries, are working very hard to become members of the EU (Turkey just abolished the death penalty to be better able meet EU membership criteria). There seems to be one "sticking point" in that progress: a nuclear power plant in northern Bulgaria. When that becomes clarified, EU membership eventually should be a result.

Other organizations here are also influential in "lending a hand." The United Nations Development Project has funded projects like "Beautiful Bulgaria," resulting in facelifts of culturally important buildings (a sign outside a building in Yambol advertises this project) and like the "JOBS" program whose purpose is to create jobs through encouraging entrepreneurship. Besides Peace Corps, there are volunteers working here from other countries like Japan, Scandanavian countries (Holland sponsored a grant that our school received for computers) and possibly Great Britain (Rosie had several British English teachers as a student in Bourgas but is uncertain if they were volunteers). Eventually the improvements I saw in Greece may be a reality also in Bulgaria.

Ridng the bus to and from Yambol (like we did today) never ceases to be an adventure. We're never quite sure what the bus will look like; it ranges from a large blue and white bus to a smaller yellow microbus to a white van (today it was the yellow microbus). Although we have a bus schedule, we can't really depend on the arrival times listed, or even where the arrival will take place. Private buses arrive and leave in the Centre while public buses leave from the train station, two blocks away. Today we shuttled back and forth between the two places until we met the microbus halfway between; luckily it stopped for us. Other "unknowns" are whether or not we will be standing or sitting and whether or not it smells clean (more a problem with public buses which we rode today). However, whether private or public, the buses do get us to our destination and for that we are thankful.

Sunday we rode our bikes out to the restaurant owned by Rosie and her husband (it was eight kilometers and took us 45 minutes one way). She was so happy to see us that she herself fixed us a meal (she and Rel often trade recipes). Our host family (during training last summer) from Panagyurishte stopped at the restaurant on their way to the Sea yesterday and told Rosie they will stop to visit with us on their way home tomorrow. I haven't seen them since last Fall; since then, Petya (the mother) has been taking English classes so maybe we'll talk more in English when they get here. I hope our water is turned back on by then. None last night at 10 pm and none this morning. And I feel so grungy! More later…Edith

August 16, 2002 News from Bulgaria

I've got flea bites all over my body - on my back, sides, around the waist, legs and feet. With our traveling to Panagyurishte this week and then on to Sofia, I accumulated a few bites just through the normal activity of being out and about, something to which I'm more susceptible than Rel. But by the time we had arrived home last night, I had them everywhere. After analyzing it, it seemed that they could have only come from sitting in an old overstuffed chair for about a half hour yesterday morning -- in the hallway of a hospital in Sofia.

I had made previous arrangements with our medical office to have my six-month eye check-up and Boyko, our doctor, took me to the office of the well-respected eye specialist (she had also checked my eyes last winter before our return to the States). The only place to wait for my appointment was in the hallway chairs (like when our own hospitals become overcrowded and patients have to wait in beds out in the hallways). Next time, however, I think I'll stand.

When Rel had to return to Panagyurishte to help with training, I decided to accompany him. He had volunteered also for the Orphanage Committee, which raises funds for orphanages around the country (their only funding comes from the government which is very lax in their contributions). This was the week for the auction, one of the fund-raisers. Items sold at the auction come from volunteers returning to the States from their two years' service and range from things like clothing to kitchenware. The new trainees have the opportunity to buy items they didn't bring but may need (a small bottle of chili powder went for at least 3.50 lev) and the proceeds go to the orphanages. After two days' work, we collected between 700-800 lev.

Visiting Panagyurishte for the first time since our training last summer was an eye-opener. Without the stress, tension and pressure of training, I found myself appreciating much more the beauty of the town. Located in the mountains and surrounded by them gives it a natural beauty that other towns located in the plains lack. But there was more to it this time. Much improvement has taken place since our arrival over a year ago (Peace Corps usually trains two consecutive years in the same town). I wasn't sure if the improvements were real or imagined, since this time I was coming from Straldja rather than from America. But the bus station now has new concrete walkways to buses and new roof overhead. Windows in the "banya" that houses the pool (new pool this year) are no longer all broken; they have been replaced by whole windows or white coverings. The streets are cleaner and gardens along the sidewalk are better maintained with less trash. The park now has newly painted benches and a new children's playground for which the latest PCV found funding. I was also told that the Mayor in the first meeting this summer confirmed that they were able to make many improvements due to Peace Corps' training there.

It's amazing how much a place can change when there's money available to fund improvements. Already the grant that Rel got for the Roma school's playground here in Straldja has made an impact, just from the repairs done to the wall surrounding the school and playground (it LOOKS so much better). The Roma school not only created their own NGO (non-gov. org.) but also approached the ceramic tile factory in town to donate tons of clay for the surface of the playground. So it seems that the attitude of "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps" may be starting to work here. Even though I submitted my SPA grant for our English Resource Room in June, it won't be reviewed until Oct. then, if we get it, the funds won't be available until December. So sometimes it takes a while, but maybe our patience will be rewarded. Rel also has several more grants entering their last stages of possible approval. (Rosie told us today that the Yambol radio station mentioned Rel's Roma school grant "on the air" and gave his name.)

I've been considering writing a "partnership" grant for the women's quilting group. However, I feel I'm already in partnership with at least three U.S. sources that have been providing materials. I just received a package of fabric pieces from the Tantie Quilters in Okeechobee, a box of quilting books and magazines collected by Nilsa in North Carolina, and a box of more fabric from my cousin, Carolyn, in Seattle. Now the next challenge is to put it all to work with the group here in October. START YOUR ENGINES! With the sewing and creative skills that these women have, I'm hoping they'll just be able to take off on their own. (Transferring inches and feet to millimeters and centimeters as well as English to Bulgarian are the biggest challenges!)

I'm thinking that some students at school may be interested in putting together a "tied" quilt during the school year. The project would require, again, both their English and math skills, to say nothing of their creativity skills.

Just before we left for Panagyurishte, we had dinner at the hotel with Rosie, her husband, and Martina her daughter. Rosie explained that Aug. 2 was a name day called "Ilinden," the feast day for St. Ilia (Elijah), so that women with that name celebrated. It seems that St. Ilia was believed to send thunderstorms and lightning. "Elijah, in Bulgarian Orthodox tradition, is a transmuted version of Perun, a pagan god of lightning and stormy heavens…" (Balkan Ghosts)

In talking about names, Rosie also explained that, under Communism, there was a list from which parents could choose names for their children. Any name, like John, that sounded too American was not part of the list. Traditionally here, girls are named for their grandmothers and boys for their grandfathers. However, if, during Communism, that name wasn't on the list, it couldn't be used.

There is a legend here, Rosie said, about a dish called "Amambaildah." While Bulgaria was still under the Turkish yoke, a Turk came into a home and demanded food. He was fed a dish of sweet and sour eggplant that included garlic, onions, sweet peppers, sugar, vinegar and salt. After so much of it, he began to yell, "Stop, stop, I've had enough." And that's how the dish got it's name. "Amambaildah" is a Turkish word meaning "Stop, stop, I've had enough."

A well-traveled and knowledgeable person told us the other day that those countries under Soviet rule who retained their own identities despite difficulties have had a much easier time of it since the Soviet downfall than those who didn't. For example, Bulgaria, despite 40+ years of Communism, didn't really adopt the Soviet identity but instead remained true to its own history and traditions. However, other countries that were actually member states of the USSR, like Moldova (which never had their own country anyway), Uzbekistan are having more problems making the transition back to their own country identity. With the Soviets, it was "total governmental control and no local say, resulting in a pessimistic 'can't do' attitude so why try" and that's difficult to overcome. There is some of that here in Bulgaria but not to the extent, we're told, that it is in these other countries.

Rel tells me that the Mayor of Straldja, while visiting a Maryland city in the States for three months last winter, attended city council meetings and came away very impressed with the way local citizens spoke out in the meetings and actually participated in the decision-making process. Here, there is no such thing: no sunshine law, no ombudsman (representative of the people in government), and citizens are not told of upcoming meetings, let alone be invited to them. So the Mayor is now creating a booklet describing the relationship between the administration and local citizens. Whether or not that will result in more openness and citizen participation in government here remains to be seen.

A Straldja story: Michael, a member of the local Bulgarian Orthodox Church, explained today why the wall paintings in the church (icons) are so badly faded and in need of repair. It seems that the paint was supposed to have had eggs in it to help retain longevity. However, the painter, instead of adding the eggs to the paint, ate them! Although he also painted churches in the nearby villages of Atolovo and Zimnitza, the paintings have evidently not faded as quickly -- because the parishioners watched to make sure the painter didn't eat the eggs! He also liked to drink and one day, while he lie painting horizontally near the ceiling, he rolled off the scaffolding and died.

Michael, with a partner, is now planning a week-long "grape festival" in late September. They hope to attract investors for the grapevine "farms." We are told that this is a very fertile area for grapes and, indeed, much of the land is given over for that purpose. In addition, there is a brewery in town that makes wine and rakiya that is well-known throughout Bulgaria. Two years ago, Michael had such a festival in mind but could not find enough interest among others. Now there seems to be more interest and people that are willing to help. As I say, just a little investment of money (like Rel's grant) seems to create a "heads-up," people notice, and maybe, just maybe, a sense of "can-do" and prosperity is beginning. More later…Edith

August 22, 2002 News from Bulgaria

There are definitely SOME advantages to not knowing the Bulgarian language well. Because I don't really understand what's being said, my presence at teachers' meetings is neither encouraged nor required. According to Rosie, I'm not expected to attend initial meetings that will take place several weeks prior to students' arrival at school this September. I can continue to use my time instead to hopefully complete the inventory of books now present in our English Resource Room (books sent from the States) and to prepare without interruption for the first days of school with the students, which is Sept. 16.

In talking about the Bulgarian language, another volunteer told us of his experience at a train station recently. He had to change trains in a town strange to him and, since the "board" in the station did not list the information he needed, he asked a conductor for help. Instead of explaining it to the volunteer who seemed to have difficulty speaking Bulgarian, the conductor just requested that the volunteer stay near him. While they waited, an older woman with many bags approached the volunteer and asked him to help carry her bags (something Rel has done very often). The volunteer did understand the jist of her request but, before he could do anything, the conductor waved at her and said "Toi neh razbirim" ("He doesn't understand"). The conductor instead pointed to three young men standing nearby and told them to carry the bags for the woman. The woman got the help she needed but from three stronger, younger men.

It was brought home to me again this week how entrenched I've become into the community. When another American (PCV) came to visit us for several days this week, I found myself hoping that he would do nothing in public to embarrass us (like I felt when groups of trainees visited). It is important to me that we keep the respect and good will of our community -- just as I felt with the communities in the States.

Part of that is because of the generosity and good will that these people pay to us. For example, Rel and I walked through town the other day, taking a different route than we had previously. As we passed her home, an older woman came out through her gate, walked over to us and shook our hands. After smiling and saying a few words, she turned and walked back through her gate and we continued with our walk.

Early last week, Michael asked if we would like to visit a village that evening where a single parishioner family is restoring their Bulgarian Orthodox Church. (Also the daughter-in-law needed help in applying for a visa to join her husband in the States.) While we visited at their home, the family filled the outdoor table with food; they were very solicitous and really treated us like celebrities. They also explained that it was a tradition that when a guest visited for the first time, the guest would leave with a chicken and a bottle of rakiya. So they asked if we wanted our chicken "dead or alive." At first, I thought they were kidding. But within a few minutes, the family parents and friend took a large knife, walked out to the pen nearby, and after a lot of squawking, brought a rooster around to the other side of the house. Later, when we left, the mother handed us a bag with a dressed and cleaned chicken inside!

We have been invited to attend a fair in that same village tomorrow. We will again be guests of this family and have already been told that a traditional dish called "kurban" will be served. Kurban means boiled mutton and comes from the old Bulgar tradition of animal sacrifice -- a lamb was slaughtered as a sacrifice. It's my understanding that the meal will be like a lamb stew, made in a very big pot. Since Rel and I don't regularly eat red meat (we did eat some homemade sausage that they served last time), it's a puzzle right now as to how we will handle it. We will probably take a taste but fill up on the salad (I'm also thinking I will eat before we leave so that I won't need to eat much there). Then again I may be worrying needlessly.

In 1948, Dobie's grandfather (Dobie is Rel's 23-year-old colleague) was a clerk in the Straldja municipality. He wrote a petition criticizing the Communist regime and threw it down to the street from the second-floor offices above. Because everyone knew his handwriting, he was identified as the culprit and was put in jail for three years. When Michael (somewhat of a local historian) told us this story, Dobie was serving as translator but she didn't want to translate this story. Rel and I both told her she should be proud of her grandfather, who was willing to stand up for what he believed. We're not sure whether or not the fact that he was jailed made it embarrassing for the family at the time however.

Michael also showed us a photo (that Dobie didn't know existed) of her great-grandfather greeting Tsar Boris (father of our current Prime Minister, previously King Simeon) in the village of Atolovo. Her great-grandfather was Mayor of the Straldja Municipality. The occasion was the "opening" of the village created by Lord Atol from England for refugees from Macedonia fleeing from the Balkan wars (1920's). Michael said that Lord Atol was on his deathbed when he asked his wife to create the village and build the homes, which still exist today.

In talking about town history, I asked Dobie if there were ever a time that the animals were kept outside of town instead of inside the courtyards (the Deputy Mayor among others dislikes having the animals housed in town). She related that there were four "cooperatives" outside of town that used to house the animals. At that time, only small animals like chickens were kept in home courtyards. Come to find out that the "cooperatives" were formed when the Communists took over. All families were required to "give up" their animals (except for chickens) to the "cooperatives." This must have been the time when Rosie's grandfather's pet calf was taken from the family when he was still a young boy -- something he's never forgotten (a story related in an earlier newsletter).

A similar story was told when we visited the Mayor of Voinika yesterday. On a guided tour up to the local "heezshya" (a hunting lodge) and monastery ruins, we passed some large broken-down cement buildings on the edge of town. These were the buildings where all the animals were housed during Communism. The Mayor has purchased three of them and next fall, expects to hire local help to restore them (providing some employment for locals) for his own animals that he currently keeps in his courtyard. It was his rooster that was given to us the other evening to bring home and eat. And it was this day that we were expected to partake of the "kurban."

When we arrived, there were two big pots placed over wood fires out near the small orchard. As we passed by, led to the table in the shade, we could see the sheep meat cooking in broth in the pots (the sheep having been killed the day before). There were no vegetables in it, as we would have had in the States to make a stew -- just meat and broth. And all kinds of meat: liver, skin, strands of meat, and other pieces. When we sat down at the table, there were plates of already-cooked skin and intestines, kind of like hor d'oeruvres for people to snack on. Both Rel and I concentrated on our plates of salad. But on our return from the "heezshya," each of us was given our own heaping bowl of sheep "supa." This was despite the fact that Rel tried to explain that we don't eat much meat and, when they brought the bowls, tried to beg one bowl to share rather than two. The servers would not have that, however. For them, this was a special occasion (Mayor's Open House is the last weekend in August every year) and we should have our own bowls. This was the moment I had dreaded -- but I didn't see any way out but to try to eat it (the daughter-in-law had told us to "just try it"). Large pieces of bread helped to get the bites of meat and broth down. But when I saw Rel finally give up (he ate less than I!), I stopped too. It hardly looked like I'd made even a dent in the soup. When someone finally questioned why we hadn't eaten, we explained that we didn't eat red meat, only chicken and fish. Also, we explained, the doctor wanted us to stay away from much fat. The Mayor seemed to understand, went over to his grapevines and picked a heaping bowl of grapes for us. Cut up watermelon was also placed in front of us.

It must have been somewhat difficult for them to understand how, when everyone else gobbled up this tasty traditional dish, we could not eat it. But they seemed not to "skip a beat." They immediately took steps to make amends and provide something we could eat. This is just another example of how hospitable and generous these people are and another reason I would not want to do anything to disappoint them.

In honor of the Mayor and town, several interesting guests attended this celebration. The first was a son of the Mayor (the other son is working in Texas) who is married, lives with his wife in Sofia, and visits his 9-year-old daughter, who stays with her grandparents over the summer. The other "celebrity" was the Consul General of Greece. Since they both spoke English well, we had some interesting conversations with both of them. But those conversations will have to wait until the next installment of this newsletter.

By the way, my last newsletter (8/16/02), I am told, will be published in the late November issue of the Peace Corps Writers Newsletter (alumni group writers), which appears on the website at More later…Edith

August 27, 2002 News from Bulgaria

Gosh, so much pounding, hammering, sawing, drilling and painting is going on at school this week. As in many schools in the States, these weeks before the first day of school are spent making repairs and just generally "sprucing up" and, here, it's in the hallways and stairwells. Missing plaster on walls, under windows, and even whole classroom doors (one had been missing since early last spring) are being replaced. There is a familiar air of excitement and energy "afoot" in preparing for the return of students.

What is so different is that I don't remember seeing this kind of work taking place last year. However, we didn't arrive in Straldja until the last day of August and I didn't start working in the school until several days after that. (When I told Rosie last night about all the repairs, she said the Municipality must have provided the money.) Whatever is true, it is good to see all that energy being applied toward bettering the looks of the school -- and by extension, creating a more caring attitude that may be reflected in both student behavior and learning. (And much of this is being done by male custodians who, by the way, had been rather invisible throughout the last school year!) If they also carry repair into the walls and windows INSIDE the classrooms, that will even be better.

In the last issue of this newsletter, I told of the celebration that we attended in the village of Voinika, at the home of the Mayor, Georgi. Two of his visitors were interesting for us to talk with. The first was Georgi's son who lives in Sofia, is well-educated and works for a company that sells Lucent (old AT&T) products. He looks to be in his late twenties or early thirties and both he and his wife speak English well. At one point, I explained that living in Bulgaria provided the opportunity to hear and see all that goes on in Europe, something we didn't receive in as much detail in the news in America. And that when I lived in the States, I was interested only in what happened in our country and really thought the rest of the world revolved around us; I felt that probably most other Americans felt the same. And that, he said, was a problem because he felt that America intruded into conflicts in both Serbia and Macedonia that were internal problems of the countries to be solved by them, not by any other country like America. That dis--ease with America's intrusion into Macedonia, I told him, was reflected in the antagonism toward, and threat felt by, Americans to the point that, over a year ago, all Peace Corps volunteers had to be evacuated from that country. So it seems that although Bulgarians have much sympathy towards and interest in America (so many want to go to America!), there is also a broader view that maybe everything we do isn't always considered right or just.

The second visitor to Georgi's home was the Consul General of Greece, Athanasios Kallidopoulos, and his wife (his wife conversed with Georgi's wife and I believe is a friend of hers). This is his third posting in Bulgaria, having had a similar posting previously, and one also as Deputy Chief of Station to the Greek Embassy. His most recent position was in Spain, and prior to that, in Perth, Australia. I observed that all his travel and living in other countries must provide a much wider view as to what is happening in the world. He agreed and said that his views are now so different from those of his mother who has lived nowhere else but in Greece. He was in Kotel recently to help open an office that will provide training for future employment through importing and exporting between Bulgaria and Greece. For business purposes, the two languages of Greek and English will also be taught there.

Since his favorite hobby is cooking, he and Rel got into discussions of recipes and differences between the Greek cheese, feta, and the Bulgarian cheese, cirine (feta is made of 70% sheep milk and 30% goat milk while cirine is made up of all goat, sheep or cow's milk, rather than a mixture). I personally like cirine better but I kept my mouth shut! He invited us the next time we're in Plovdiv where he is located, to visit and he will cook us up something himself (he has cooked for as many as 200). Rel also thought he might be a resource in working with exporting Bulgarian crafts.

The Consul General also confirmed what I had learned when we visited Greece: that the improvement now visible in Greece (repaired roofs, painted buildings, general upgrading of property and an air of prosperity) came as a direct result of joining the European Union. The fact that Greece is an EU member is precisely the reason, he said, that Rel and I had such a long wait at the border on our vacation trip into that country. Greece is the only country bordering on Bulgaria that is an EU member. Consequently, anyone entering Greece can enter any other EU member country without passport or inspection. Greece, then, has the responsibility to make sure that everything is as it should be upon entering their country.

This is also another reason why Bulgaria may have a more difficult time in its bid for EU membership. Right now Bulgaria and Russia have a special understanding about traveling between the two countries -- less of a hassle than elsewhere. If Bulgaria should join EU, that relationship would have to end. Plus then Bulgaria would be a "EU border country" for places like Romania, Macedonia and Serbia. Its border procedures would have to meet EU standards, like Greece has to do now for Bulgaria and Turkey.

Another problem in Bulgaria is lack of accountability when it comes to receiving funds. It seems that even now, the EU is providing some funding but there seems to be some uncertainty as to how those monies are being spent. As an EU member, there would need to be greater accountability. With Bulgaria's history of corruption, that could be an "uphill climb."

Peter, a young man in his late twenties, asked me the other day to help him write a resume (something Rel told him I'd done in the States). He said he'd put some information together so that I could put it into a resume format. He is a photographer and had found out about an opening on a ship: to take photos of passengers I believe (he is a good photographer and speaks several languages including English). It was my understanding that later, on the same evening that he requested this, he would pick us up and go to a restaurant where we could talk about his resume. We did go to a restaurant (one where he had taken us before) and we met his brother and family there along with a family friend. We sat and talked till quite late -- but nothing about the resume. The next evening, Peter called and asked to come over to work on it. I cleared and cleaned off the table. As we started to go through what he had written, I explained that I would take notes, then finish the resume on the computer the next day. No, no, he said. He had one interview in Sofia the next day (and another one on Tuesday) so would be catching the bus at 3:30 am. So he needed the resume NOW. Rel "jumped" onto the computer, I sat next to him and with both of us working to understand, clarify and revise Peter's work experience, we completed the resume in two hours (we ate dinner at 9 pm). Peter, though, seemed ecstatic. He walked out a proud man. What made his resume relatively easy was the fact that he had a lot of good work experience directly related to the job for which he was applying. So in that sense it was easy. On the other hand, that's one of a very few resumes I've done at the "blink of an eye." It also reminded us of the importance Bulgarians place on time spent with family and friends over anything work-related (since that's what took priority over resume-writing). We're keeping our fingers crossed that he got the job.

This is our second fall season here and the fruits and vegetables are very plentiful. I walked down the sidewalk yesterday to the photo shop and could have reached up at almost any time to pick a big bunch of red or white grapes hanging from the vines. There have been lots of tomatoes, green and red peppers, watermelon, peaches, eggplant, zucchini, apples. When Rosie brought us home last night from the "na gosti" (we were their guests) at her friend's restaurant (her husband baked a great dish of stuffed peppers and grilled some delicious fish), she loaded us down with much produce from her mother's garden. The trick is to eat it all before it goes "bad" and to really appreciate it now because we won't see much of this come winter. If he has the time, Rel will cook up some "crisps" or hot dishes that will use some of the fruit.

Rosie explained several weeks ago about some of the measurements cooks use here in their recipes. For example, a recipe may call for a "coffee spoon" (a small spoon used only for stirring coffee), a "teaspoon" (regular size spoons that are not all that common) a coffee cup (like a demitasse cup), a tea cup (more like a regular-size cup or mug). Before Rel leaves next summer, he promised he'd give her our sets of teaspoons-tablespoons and our cup measuring containers. I thought maybe they would use only liters but she said they also use cups -- but they are coffee cups and tea cups. Their "silverware" includes the small coffee spoon, fork and knife (mainly the fork is used). Larger spoons (like soup) are used only when soup is being served. And the knife tends to be a sharp one rather than one just for butter.

The weather's been getting noticeably cooler over the last several weeks. No more hot summer nights, or even days any more. My hay fever's been kicking up from pollen in the dry air. I'll be happy to see the first frost -- so will my itchy eyes and sneezy, runny nose. The winter, however, I could do without!! More later…Edith

August 31, 2002 News from Bulgaria

We have something that's just as irritating here as it is in the States -- car alarms! One would think that living in a small, rural, economically depressed community in southeast Bulgaria would protect us from such 20th century inventions. Not so -- it's right below our windows; during the day, early in the morning, you know the drill. And it's grown from one vehicle, a green Explorer-type, to now include a red later-type model.

The same thing could also be said of cellular phones. Only here, they are never turned off -- not even in Peace Corps professional meetings, let alone other kinds of meetings and places. We seem to meet this problem coming and going. When we returned to the States last February and were waiting to go through Customs, the Customs officer in charge yelled to all of us in line to turn off our cell phones and, if we didn't, they would be confiscated. What we're realizing is that living in Straldja doesn't mean that we've left ALL of the modern world behind...

Materials used in building homes is another story, however. It's interesting to see how creative people can be when it comes to using what they have instead of going to the lumber yard to buy it. In our walks around town, we had noticed long, narrow tree trunks, cleaned of most of the bark, standing on end as in a teepee or leaning against second story homes. Now we know what they're for. About a block from where we live, a one-story home is being built. As we passed, we could see that the framing for the roof of the home was made of those uneven, round tree trunks, sawed to the needed length. It's a little like looking at the work of early American pioneers who must have used a similar method in their home construction.

Building is something that has also been happening at the local "hizha" (pronounced heezshya). Last weekend we visited one in Voinika (mainly a hunters' lodge). Yesterday we visited the one just outside Straldja. It's located in the "Stara Planina" foothills about five miles from here and was initiated and begun by volunteers from the community. Although the buildings (there are about six of varying sizes) were started in 1963 and actually opened in 1972, work continues as the volunteers constantly try to improve the property. Making the hizha accessible to groups of students to study nature is now a main goal of the group and, with that in mind, a building housing showers and bathrooms (the laundry room is already completed) needs to be finished. Finding funding is something that Rel might be able to do to help.

As I understand it, the hizha movement started in Bulgaria with a man by the name of Aleko Constantinoff, who lived from 1863-1897. He was an observer of people and traditions and known for saying that "You must know your country first in order to love it." Later in life, he organized a group of people and went to Vitosha Mountain, just outside Sofia and it was out of that meeting that came the idea for organizing the hizha movement. Hizha's made it possible for people to hike through the country, particularly through the mountains, and have a place to stay -- kind of like our camping cabins in campgrounds. Only the hizha's are more like lodges, or dormitories, or even as huge as some resorts. This whole idea would make it easier for people of Bulgaria (as well as others) to travel through the country and get to know it. In honor of his achievement, there is now a monument of Constantinoff on Vitosha Mountain.

Constantinoff also traveled widely himself in the latter 1800's. In writing of those travels, he developed a character he called "Bi Gonyo" to help describe not only his travels but the typical Bulgarian character of traders in those years after liberation from the Turks. Bi Gonyo was a trader in rose oil (something Bulgaria is known for) and was clever but only for himself, not for the community-at-large. He used people's positive attention to get something, not always money. And he was happy with that. In the story of his visit to Vienna, Bi Gonyo's companion was exclaiming over the architecture and culture. Bi Gonyo's response was, "When you've seen one, you've seen them all." He appreciated only the bargain he could get when selling his rose oil.

Examples of stories about Bi Gonyo ("Bi" was an old term to denote respect) include "Bi Gonyo in Switzerland," "Bi Gonyo in Vienna," "Bi Gonyo at the Opera House," and "Bi Gonyo in Dresden." In the story called "Bi Gonyo in the Bath Room," he was visiting in Vienna and decided to go to the public bath (like a pool). Upon his arrival at the bath, he was disgusted because he could find no hook on which to hang is omnipresent bags, the ones carrying his rose oil. He had one nail in his shoe, however, and with his shoe, he hammered that nail into the wall and hung up his bags. The whole time he did this, he was cursing at the Austrians in Bulgarian.

He went into the bath area and saw a lot of people. How was he supposed to undress himself now? Besides that, he was afraid someone would steal his rose oil. Although it was forbidden, he jumped into the bath with his clothes on and, the whole time, was shouting, "Oh, what a great place!" Immediately people scattered from the pool, not only because of his clothing but also because of the smell. He took soap and used it all over his clothes and body. After taking off his clothes, he then beat himself on the chest shouting, "Bulgar! Bulgar!" (Bulgarian, Bulgarian), because he was so proud of himself and his actions. All the school children in Bulgaria learn about Aleko Constantinoff and the character he created called Bi Gonyo.

Our hosts on the visit to the hizha were two of the men who have worked on it since 1963, when they were still students. Maya, wife of one of the men, cooked our dinner for us (fried fish and French fries in a pot on a propane burner) as we sat at a picnic table out under the trees. As we talked later, she and her husband told of some of the happenings during the period of Communism. If someone wanted to buy a car during those years, their name would be put on a list. Money for the car would be deducted each month and, after waiting 15 years, they would get the car. Maya also told what happened to young people who were caught wearing jeans or listening to the Beatles -- they were put in jail. She explained that parents who remembered what life was like before the Communist takeover did not tell their children, probably out of fear. So as children grew up, they knew nothing different. It is only now, she said, that those children, now adults (close to her age?) are beginning to realize what they went through during that time.

Rel and I just got back from a trip to Sofia and Velingrad, a town in the Rhodope Mountains. I discovered why the lumber we saw here in Straldja is so tall and straight: it's probably pine. We saw pine trees in the mountains that looked just like what we see here used in building. We were traveling down the mountain in a small train on narrow gauge tracks. It was just like the "slow" trains we take sometimes to Bourgas, only it was narrower of course. The cars had only four rows of seats and the seats themselves were narrow to sit in (when a pensioner got on and sat across from Rel with her carry-on cart in the aisle, his legs had to be twisted out into the walkway -- not the most comfortable two-hour ride). Of our whole trip this time, this train ride was the most interesting. This same pensioner (a retired sculptor on the train with her friend, an artist) argued with the conductor when he came by, telling her to move her cart out in the area between cars. She refused and, although we couldn't understand it all, it was clear that she got the upper hand when the conductor backed down and left. We got a big kick out of her assertiveness just as the retired train engineer did at the other end of the car, who was grinning ear to ear.

At places along the track, we seemed to be only inches from some boulders along the side. There were many plants growing right out of the rock but one in particular caught our attention. It was a light green, lighter green toward the middle, many-layered blossom, looking something like a poinsettia as we looked down at it from the top. The widest bottom layer could have been 8-10 inches across on some of them. It was so unusual because it seemed to be flowering right out of bare rock. Rel identified many berries growing in profusion along the tracks: raspberries, elderberries, blueberries, blackberries and shipkas (rose hips). It would have been great to pick some. At the mountain base, the pensioner pointed out several buildings that housed mineral baths along the mountain stream.

We saw fields of sunflowers that have turned very brown, with their blossoms drooping toward the ground. Some of the plants had nets over the heads to catch the seeds. As we got closer to Straldja, there were combines out in these fields beginning to harvest the flowers. Corn is still green but a few are just beginning to turn brown. As we passed homes in some villages, there were already cut corn stalks leaning up against the houses -- maybe to dry for animal feed or bedding? Tobacco fields gone to seed were also plentiful. Several weeks ago, I took a photo of several wagonloads here in town of tobacco that had just been cut.

I never quite get used to the temperature change between higher elevations and what we have here in Straldja. At 3:30 am here when we caught the bus to Sofia, it was still warm enough without a jacket. But when we had a rest stop in Plovdiv several hours later, we had to get our jackets on. And in the mountains, I had to use two blankets at night to stay warm (beds here are always twin, never double). One interesting view from the bus was a car we passed. It had a platform built over the roof and on the platform were many bunches of grapes. Other signs of interest: "Non Stop Gas," " Non Stop Bar." We guess that means getting it "on the go," like our convenience stores. Crazy translations. More later…Edith