by Edith Sloan
After two weeks of holiday vacation, the "pazaar" (flea market) was very busy in the Centre today. Tuesday of each week is the day Turkish peddlers bring their wares to town and much of the population turns out. (In fact, Mondays and Tuesdays are the big shopping days. By Friday and Saturday, the Centre is practically dead.) I had forgotten it was Pazaar Day until I left the apartment to get my hair cut and saw all these people walking into town. There seemed to be a lot of chatter and enthusiasm, greeting one another and stopping to talk.
Despite the several feet of snow on the ground and icy snow on the streets, there were still 10-12 "booths" set up. A booth may consist of several tables with items like clothing laid out and a screen surrounding them with more clothing hanging. Or it may be one table with all the items laid out like household items (soaps, cleaning items, etc.) or even lingerie. It could be the back of a truck opened up for business (vegetables when they're available) or, with plastic buckets and rugs, it could just be displayed out on the ground, in this case, laying on top the snow. No fresh vegetables for sale now. Mainly, it is things like regular shoes (tennis shoes and heavier work shoes) and some foot coverings made of rubber (worn alone with socks or over cloth shoes); jackets and pants; small kitchen and work tools; small battery-powered items like clocks and radios; plastic buckets of all sizes; and cheap rugs (the one I bought sheds tremendously). Although this is not much, it supplements what is sold in the small shops here. And unless a person has transportation to go to Yambol, or Sliven, this is the only place to do shopping. Larger towns like Yambol, Pazardzik, and even Panagyurishte, have a fruit and vegetable market that is open every day. Yesterday Rel brought home a bag of prunes (more seed than pulp) and some dried herbs from the Yambol market.
Driving to Yambol or between any towns right now is rather a treacherous business. Rel rode in the "city" car with some other municipality employees into Yambol yesterday to check on a package that had been mailed there (except for books, please continue sending all packages to Sofia!!). Although snowplows had cleared some snow away, a layer of ice has remained so driving was slow. Even on what would be considered a "main" road between Yambol and Sliven, it was no better. A Peace Corps staff person in Sofia had planned to send me a book through the mail but warned me that it would probably take awhile to arrive because of the roads in Bulgaria. Three mountain roads in the western part of the country are closed for the season. This is one time I'm quite happy not to be able to drive a car!
We now have a "new" old heater. This one is all electric and works with no problem. But I miss the one with the heater fan - it was such a great clothes dryer. It would get hot on top and on the sides and blow hot air out from below; anything I draped over it would dry in minutes almost. It is still here and is still hooked up so I've decided that when I do laundry (almost every day), we'll turn on the old heater and keep it running until it stops altogether or until I get my laundry dried for that day. And use the "new" one as a back-up. We now have two bigger heaters (with one of them "iffy") and two small space heaters. So I think our heating problems have been pretty well solved for the rest of the winter.
Speaking of snow and heat (our two main preoccupations these days), some schools have been called off for another week - which would mean four weeks of holiday vacation (but not us; we go back on Monday). It seems that roads are still a problem since some children travel from villages into town for school and having enough fuel in the schools for heat is still a problem.
I had three errands to run in town today and thought I'd take you along "for the ride." My first stop was the post office which was on my way into the Centre; I had planned to mail several letters and purchase an Internet card (until we get hooked up to the Internet through the Jobs Office, we have to buy cards). I did notice large numbers of people milling around in the street and in front of the post office. Seeing that they were all older, I realized this was the day pensioners go to the post office to collect their pensions (30-40% of Straldja residents are pensioners or retirees). This is done once a month and always means long lines at the windows inside. (Not a lot of money, however. Rosie's mother taught for 35 years in a local kindergarten and receives a pension of 30 leva a month - $15)! Knowing that it would be a long wait, I decided to come back in the afternoon. When I returned later, I went through the main double doors into a wide hall. To my right was another set of doors with an office on the other side. That's where we paid our phone bill ($26 last month). Walking straight ahead, I passed through another set of glass doors into a room that would be similar to a post office in the States. In the center of the room was a free-standing counter for customer use. Sitting upright atop that was a quaint circular book made of plastic covers which contained sheets of paper yellowed with age. These typewritten pages listed all the names and phone numbers of Straldja residents. Along the opposite wall was a long counter extending from one end of the room to the other. There were about four windows and usually two of them had "clerks" but only one of those has ever waited on me. (The other is a male who sat working at a desk; if the clerk wasn't there when I was ready, he notified her in the backroom that she had a customer.) I gave the clerk my letters, she looked at them (some were for U.S., some for Bulgaria), weighed them, used her calculator, then told me what I owed. After I paid her, she stamped the envelopes and kept them ready to send out (we never see postage stamps here; the clerk just stamps the envelopes herself).
My next stop was the bank which was located in a suite of offices in a larger building in the town Centre. I needed to use the ATM to withdraw some cash from our living allowance which is deposited into our accounts automatically by Peace Corps each month). Inside the double doors was a vestibule. Directly ahead and to the right were several small offices: one office is where I paid our water bill (about $2.50 per month), another office further down the short hall was for the bank manager. I went through another set of doors to my left into a larger room. Immediately to my left was the small area where the Security officer sat. Straight ahead, the rest of the space was taken up by a long counter (similar to what we have in the States) where three tellers sat. To my right along that wall were two small cubicles (one where I went to pay our electric bill - highest so far at $80 last month). On busy days (like today), there was a teller in each of those cubicles. I took my bankcard to the ATM machine which sat on the counter near the tellers. One teller helped me put the card through, punched in the right numbers for the amount ("kolko?" - how much?), then punched in my pin number (it's all in Bulgarian of course and I had to get up on my tiptoes to see it!). I waited several minutes until a receipt rolled out of the machine. After I gave another teller this receipt, she keyed something into the computer and the printer printed it up. Then the teller took my small receipt, glued it onto the larger sheet from the printer (double-thickness), I signed at the bottom then carried it over to one of the small cubicles. I handed my papers to that teller, she stamped them, gave me a copy, and handed me the cash. That's the procedure for withdrawing money from the ATM at our bank here in Straldja. However, in Yambol and larger cities like Sofia, banks have very similar machines to the ones we have in the States so they are much more convenient.
My last errand was to pick up some food from the small grocery store (but the biggest in town) about a block from our apartment. It is family-owned (ALL stores here are family-owned): this one by mother, father, and thirty-something son. When I entered, I could see another line at the counter and knew it would take awhile to get what I needed. To my left was a counter, then meat cooler, that were parallel to the wall and extended halfway down the room. At this end were boxes with fruits and vegetables; at the other end, were the check-out counter and a covered food preserver containing cookies, cakes, yogurt. On the wall behind the counter were shelves containing things like boxes of juices and milk, packets of hot chocolate, many small packages of snacks and different kinds of candy. The shelves on the wall past the check-out contained items like flour, sugar, honey (if we're lucky!), oil, some canned goods, pasta, and bottles of wine and rakiya. On the far wall opposite the entrance were cleaning items and paper goods. The long wall to my right held shelves of laundry soaps at the far end, then open shelves of unwrapped bread (long, somewhat flat, oval-shaped loaves), bottles of soda, a cooler of sodas and beer and a smaller cooler of individual containers of ice cream. Another cooler of frozen meat and vegetables sat in the middle of the floor at the far end.
I waited patiently in line, something Bulgarians do not feel compelled to do. Many tend to just gather up around the check-out (or bus doorway or wherever) ignoring all those others already there. (More than one previous volunteer has told how he had to elbow some little old ladies in order to finally get waited on. We waited in a bus line one day when a young woman just walked up, got in front of us with no apologies and proceeded to get on the bus ahead of us.) With my turn at the check-out counter, I told the mother what I wanted and she went to get it. That's true of most stores all over the country: Customers don't go to shelves and help themselves; they tell the owner and the owner gets it (also the price of the item is attached to the first one on the shelf so the clerk always takes the item behind that one). With each item she brought back, she weighed it (fresh fruit), figured the cost with a calculator, then wrote the figure on a sheet of paper. When I asked her for some "greshno chocolad" (hot chocolate), she asked how many packets. Although the packets come in boxes, most people buy only one or several packets at a time; it's unusual to buy a whole box as we do. It's similar with Kleenex. Most of the time, it's sold in small packages of 10, not in boxes.
When I had finished with my list, she totaled up the long column of figures she had written on her paper. After telling me the total, and while I pulled out my money, she double-checked her addition on the paper to make sure it was correct (her son sometimes double-checks using the calculator). If we've forgotten to bring a shopping bag, the owner will load up our groceries in plastic bags. Today however I remembered to bring mine so ended up with one big canvas bag. And sitting right on top was the clear plastic bag filled with six eggs (no such thing as egg cartons here).
WE GOT CNN BACK TODAY! Rel had talked to the people in the cable office, several people in the municipality office, and to Ditchko who used to work for the cable company (it was Ditchko who had convinced the company several years ago to get CNN). It made a difference. So now we feel like we're back in touch with the real world - at least one that is real to us.
In my last newsletter I mentioned the angiography for my eyes recommended by the doctor in Sofia. It seems that Washington Peace Corps agrees that it needs to be done (mainly because I have several permanent dark spots in one eye) but they feel it's too risky to have done here. Consequently, they want me "medi-vaced" (medically evacuated) to Washington so that it can be done there. It is not unusual that a volunteer is medi-vaced to the States; Andrea, as a volunteer, was medi-vaced for a procedure and then returned to her site.
According to Andrea, it will take a minimum of two to three weeks before we return here (I'll be in America on my 60th birthday, January 29th!). Even though Rel is not being medi-vaced and his ticket won't be paid for by Peace Corps, he is still coming with me. If something really serious would be found in my eyes (which Andrea doesn't think will happen), Peace Corps may decide I shouldn't return. (Before a medical evacuation, the volunteer must leave a list behind of items to be mailed home in case the volunteer doesn't return.)
As it stands now, we will fly out of here on January 21 and I would start with medical appointments (several for the eyes and one mammogram) the next day, on the 22nd. Whether anything is done in Washington to correct the eye problem depends on what the angiography shows.
How do I feel about all this? I'm glad Peace Corps is concerned about my eyes and is having them checked now rather than later. I don't relish going through the test but I would prefer that than to let it go. And I don't relish the flights back and forth - they are long and uncomfortable (about nine hours). What I'm REALLY not sure about though is coming home now, then having to come back to Bulgaria in several weeks' time. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It was easier to stay here when there seemed no possible way to go home. But now that we will BE home (more or less), how will I feel about coming back here? Will I want to stay home once we're there? Or will I still be able to honor our commitment and return with no difficulties? I would have preferred not to leave here until we were all through so that I wouldn't have to make a choice. But we also MADE the commitment of the two years. So, unless Peace Corps says otherwise or something unforeseen happens, we will probably return to finish out our commitment. Right now, however, I have very mixed feelings about the whole thing.
I'll be sending out one more newsletter before we leave here. And by then, I may know more. Later, Edith
Our bus broke down on the way to Yambol yesterday. It was very cold when we walked to the bus stop earlier. There was a heavy fog and all the trees were covered with a "hoary frost;" it looked as if someone had taken a can of fake snow and sprayed it heavily on all the trees. The only part of the trees not covered were the trunks. It was beautiful but it was COLD.
Dobie, Rel's colleague, had invited us to meet Dobrina, a friend of hers who now lives in Yambol. We met Dobie at the Centre from where she said the bus would leave. After I reminded her it was Saturday and the buses leave from the bus station on Saturdays, we headed in that direction and saw more people waiting when we arrived. It was about a half hour later when my toes were starting to freeze that the bus finally came. Thank goodness the bus was warmer inside than it was outside.
Since this was the bus with the longer route through several villages, we headed south out of town. At the first village, the bus stopped to let off some passengers and that's when the motor died - and what heat there was died with it. The driver said that someone needed to get out and push the bus in order for the motor to start again. Now this was a full size bus! I never heard of people trying to push a BUS to get it started. Not only that but the roads were covered with ice - how were they supposed to get any traction? But the five or six men including Rel (although he had already fallen once on the way to the bus and sprained his wrist) tried to push but didn't get it far. One of the other men did lose his footing, fell and sprained his wrist also. So the men piled back on the bus and we sat and waited, supposedly for another bus to come. Eventually a car came and three or four women got off and got into that car and left. After another 15 minutes probably, five or six young men from the village came, said something to the bus driver and walked toward the rear of the bus. The men on the bus jumped off and they all pushed together - this time they got the bus moving enough that the driver got the motor started again. Even though we stopped in several more villages for passengers, the bus continued to run and got us into Yambol with no more problems.
We arrived at Dobrina's apartment building later than planned and still chilly from the bus ride. When walking into a building new to me like that and in a bigger town than Straldja, without thinking I expected that the halls and elevator would be like apartment buildings in America: warm, painted, well-lit, well-maintained. And I'm always taken aback when they aren't - it's almost like a constant culture shock. Dobrina's apartment, however, was nice, clean, well-maintained but still cold. Neither Rel nor I had dressed as warmly as we could have because we thought we'd be inside, forgetting that most families here cannot afford to heat their homes well.
Despite the cold, however, we enjoyed Dobrina and her husband's warm hospitality. She has worked at the ethnological museum in Yambol and is familiar with clothing indigenous to different parts of the country. She has taken that knowledge and, using photos and actual particles of clothing, has created and sewn designs onto linen (can be actually used as a table cover but more than likely framed for the wall). The choice of her design and the colors she uses are based on the clothing and colors that come from that particular region. In this way, she continues, in her creative way, the traditions that have arisen in each region of the country. For example, the piece she did reminiscent of a village near here looked a lot like Straldja costumes that the pensioner's wear: red and white are dominant but are worked in with other colors and are embroidered. In designs from the Rhodope Mountains area, on the other hand, the aprons or overskirts are mainly woven rather than embroidered. And the colors are mainly orange (brownish) and yellow woven into a plaid. Her designs from the area of Sofia, are much more "airy," pastel, spring-like with lots of flowers. From Pernik, near Sofia, the colors are predominantly brown or darker colors but still very beautiful. Some of her designs include symbols that could be found in Native American art, something that both she and Rel agreed could be because those symbols tend to be universal.
Her work is absolutely beautiful. Since I am not familiar with all the different kinds of hand-stitching and since she does not speak English, I am not clear on exactly what kind of stitches she uses in her designs. To me, it looks like embroidery combined with some cross-stitching. She has a large stock of what looks like embroidery thread; and I believe she said the thread was cotton. It is the "durable" kind she said; it does not fade with age. She showed us a piece she had done as a young person at home (she looks to be in her 40's) and the linen had faded with age (got whiter) but the color of the threads were still vibrant. Her pieces come in all sizes from small (about 2 ft. square) to about the size that would cover a single bed. One of the larger designs was done in red and blue, so with the natural linen background, it looked like our American red, white and blue.
Although she wants to sell her work (prices range from $30 with the small piece, to $80 for a larger piece, to $120 for a longer piece, and $250 for the almost-single-bed size), her main interest is to provide women in this region an opportunity to work and make a living. She wants to be able to continue creating designs from authentic Bulgarian clothing, etc., teach other women how to sew them, and then sell them through exporting. To do this, she needs start-up money, someone that will invest in the project. So, needless to say, Rel and I both are keeping our ears and eyes open for such opportunities. This next week, I will bring at least two pieces of hers back with me so others can actually see the kind of work she does - and which she wants to replicate with other women's help.
It was Tanya's (colleague) birthday the other day so she treated Naska, Rosie, and me to a lunch at the hotel. When people here have birthdays, they treat everyone else - either to bon-boni (chocolates) or by taking them out like Tanya did for us. (On my return, I will have to do the same for celebrating my birthday.) As I told them about flying home, it came out that two out of the three of them have never been in a plane. In fact, Rosie has never been out of Bulgaria (the size of Tennessee). When I asked 8th-graders at school on Monday to explain what they would see traveling across Bulgaria, it was limited to mountains and plains. And when I asked them what restaurant was on the main road near Pazardzik, no one knew it was McDonald's (a favorite of kids here). So if most of Bulgarians don't (aren't able to) travel much and then Americans like us talk about moving around the U.S. as children and we fly back and forth to America, it becomes more clear why many Bulgarians think that Americans are rich.
My workshop for the Peace Corps environment volunteers' in-service training session in Stara Zagora went well (small group but receptive to learning how to put a lesson together, how to make it interesting and how to minimize disruptions). Rel went with me and we had a relaxing time not only talking with the other volunteers but also in talking with Steve Taylor, the Country Director. With his help, we got confirmation on our flight to Washington on Weds. Jan. 23 (leaving here at 7:20 am, with a layover in Munich, and arriving in Washington at 3:15 pm the same day because of the 7-hour time difference). We'll leave Straldja on Monday morning (7-hr. train ride), complete paperwork on Tuesday before flying out on Wednesday.
One of the biggest concerns voiced by both Steve and people here in Straldja (like Valentina, my Director, and Rosie plus Rel's colleagues) is that, once we get back to the States, we won't come back to Bulgaria. They have voiced it repeatedly and shown it in their eyes. Until I went to Stara Zagora and spoke with two different people, then returned here to the students, I couldn't really be sure myself whether or not I really WANTED to come back. I didn't talk to Steve about that feeling (although he would probably understand since he has also been a volunteer) but I did speak to two people who are closer to my age than most other volunteers. Without my even saying anything first, Ken who serves with his wife in Shumen, said they would not wish to go back to the States during the two years for fear of not wanting to return to Bulgaria. Lauren, younger than I, has to return to the States this spring to check on her parents (her father has macular degeneration). She too is concerned that, once she's home, she will not want to return. So it seems to be a concern of more people than just myself and may even be a concern of many volunteers across the board - something I did not realize could be true. I thought I was the only one to have this feeling. As a result of finding the opposite, a load has been lifted from my shoulders. I went to school today and the students were very glad to see me and I to see them. Their disappointment in hearing that I would be gone for awhile was also heartening to me.
So it could be that I "have turned a corner." I feel wanted and needed here. I feel part of a team of people (other volunteers) who are undergoing what we are undergoing, fighting the same battles we are fighting and having the same fears we/I am having. Despite the difficulties (and they aren't nearly as bad as others I've read about!), the rewards (so far) outweigh them. After four and a half months, it seems that some adjustment has been made on my part and I'm beginning to see that we can help meet a need - and maybe just that is enough to keep me wanting to come back.
I see our trip to Washington as a nice "breather," a helpful break, a chance to see and spend time with family, and get a taste of what it is like to be in America again. And, if given the chance, it can be the rest we needed in order to continue serving and completing our two-year commitment.
The big question of course is whether or not the Office of Medical Services will give me the "green light" to return (and that's the only way I CAN return). The general consensus of medical here in Bulgaria is that my problem is not serious enough to warrant removal from service in Peace Corps (by the way, at any one time there are 20-30 volunteers from around the world "medi-vac'd" in Washington awaiting their "green light" to return to their sites). But that's no guarantee. What I HAVE decided, however, is that whatever happens is supposed to happen. I can always request a second opinion but if the final answer from OMS is that I will stay in the States, then I will be happy with that. If the answer is that I return, then I will be happy with that. My top priority of course is my vision and the health of my eyes. Once that priority is taken into account, then I can either stay or go and be happy about it. (Then, of course, the very next day I'm not so sure about it all - I really do go up and down with it…)
We have three "na-gosti's" (parties) to attend this weekend. I think people are concerned that, if we don't come back, this will be their last opportunity to invite us over. Tonight we go to the apartment of my School Director (whose twins are home visiting from college), tomorrow we go to Rosie's mother's house (which we understand is almost like a museum with the hand-built home, wine casks in the basement, costumes hanging on the walls), and Sunday we go to Naska's apartment. (Naska had a "name day" today - she was named after a saint - so there was a table full of food again in our planning room at school and Naska was greeted by many staff members with a handshake, a kiss, many gifts and "chestit imat din" which is "Happy Name Day.") So it's a busy weekend already. In preparing all of our belongings here, I am separating out all that we wish to have returned home in case we don't come back and Peace Corps would have to pack it up. If we do return, there will be some re-organizing to do and putting things back where they belong. But by doing this, I'll be prepared for anything. Plus we're required to give Peace Corps a list of what will need to be sent home in case they do have to mail it back.
We have decided that since we're going to be in the States anyway, we will request some time there to be used for vacation. If all goes well and the medical part of our visit is successful, we will take some additional time and hopefully travel to Florida before flying back here (this all depends of course on the results of the tests). We will be staying with members of Rel's family in Washington, my daughter is flying up, so this is a good time to visit with family. We will continue to have e-mail and I will continue to keep you abreast of what is happening on our end. So, as ever, more later…Edith
Walking to and from school yesterday was a combination of slipping, sliding, and "schlupping." With the rain overnight, what used to be snow became foot-deep slush. It's impossible to be in a hurry because that just slows things down even more.
The students didn't seem to mind (they just seem to take everything in stride) and my last day of school (before leaving for Washington) proved rather normal. My seventh-graders were in good spirits and seemed to be enjoying our exercise on learning the meaning of, and pronouncing, some nouns before changing them to adjectives. Teaching these pronunciations was an eye-opener. For example, one of the words was "enthusiasm." As I pronounced it slowly and enunciated it clearly, they began giggling. I realized then how really odd that word sounds, when you say "en-thus-i-as-m". They rolled it around on their tongues for a while, adding the stress to the second syllable. When I pronounced the adjective "enthusiastic," we had to change the stress to the fourth syllable, add the "tic" and they thought that was also funny. Many of our words sound very strange to them. (Since it's not part of the Bulgarian language, the "th" sound as in "thing" is difficult for them to make, but they still have fun sticking their tongues out between their teeth and blowing.) One of the benefits that we bring to teaching English here is providing correct pronunciation, something I prefer teaching much more than grammar.
Last night we were at Valentina's (School Director) until midnight. Besides us, she had invited Rosie, another couple (Mima: store-owner, Mitko: ex-deputy mayor), and a cousin of her twins who were also there. When we arrived at her apartment (same layout as ours), she had the large coffee table set for a meal. Each place had a salad, knife and fork, and several glasses. Several plates of another salad were placed in the middle of the table. A sofa sat on either side and when the other couple arrived and were seated, we were invited to eat. The salad was cut-up cucumber mixed in creamy yogurt - like tarator soup only the soup has water added (also cold with the same ingredients). It was delicious. When we finished, Valentina brought an additional helping of the salad on another plate. The main course (for us) was chicken steak over French fries and covered with mushroom sauce (others had pork or beef). It was much more than I could eat but again very good. Before we had totally finished, more plates of meat were brought. This was a game bird (partridge we were told) that was hunted by Mitko and the little I had was very tasty. For dessert, Valentina served us a large helping of homemade custard covered with chopped nuts.
Although we couldn't understand much of the Bulgarian, Rosie served as translator. When Mima started playing her tapes of Bulgarian music, four of us women got up and danced the "horo." The only space we had was at the end of the room but that didn't bother them any. The adults sang folk music together, a kind of entertainment that takes place almost everywhere we've been. The pensioners sing, a group of men were singing together one evening at the hotel dining room. It always reminds me of the reunions my mother's family had in Ohio. She and her siblings would gather around the old organ and sing, just as they had done when young and living at home. That was their entertainment, just as it is here for Bulgarians.
Today we went to Rosie's parents' home here in Straldja. She had already told us that, when life was more prosperous, visiting dignitaries were brought to their home for a tour. It was built in the 1960's by her father and grandfather.
As we walked through the courtyard gate, I could see the garden stretching way to the back. On either side of the walk, there are two buildings: the main house to the left and a two-story building to my right. Overall, it looks to be at least 1/4 - 1/2 acre of land. Most of it is garden space but the two-story building has a one-story extension that goes almost to the rear of the property.
Immediately to my left as we moved down the walk was a small formal garden covered in snow but the evergreen hedges were in view. As we turned left to enter at the rear of the home, we passed an outdoor water supply. It reminded me a little of the old brick barbecue grills that families used to build in their backyards in the States. It was low in front where the basin was. The pipe for the water spicket came through the back wall which was much higher than the basin (probably about my height). The whole thing was made of stones that came from a river: they were somewhat thin and round and were laying flat giving the whole thing an interesting texture.
Inside the rear entrance was an enclosed "back porch" surrounded by windows. This is where we removed our shoes and put on slippers. We wove our way through a small kitchen (deep sink, cabinets, a refrigerator) and into what seemed a combination dining and family room. (Out of about six rooms and a beautiful wide hallway, this was the only room that was heated.) The first thing I noticed upon entering was the mural on the far wall. It was a water, beach, palm tree scene much like something found along the eastern shore of an early South Florida. The room seemed small because there were two single beds that lined two walls making an L-shape. At the other end of the room, was a cabinet upong which sat a TV (that was turned on, of course). On the fourth wall were two doorways with a large heater (like ours) in between. In the center of the room and near the beds was a regular-size table set with treats like small tangerines, two round cakes (like pound cakes and without frosting), and two plates of pumpkin bonichka - it has a similar crust to baklava but the filling is much like pumpkin pie.
After we had coffee/tea and treats, Rosie's mother brought out some of her handiwork to show us. The tradition for mothers and grandmothers is to make many pieces (crocheted, cross-stitched, knitted, or woven) for table, bed, or furniture coverings. They begin when the child is born and by the time the child marries, there is a nice collection to start house-keeping with - the Bulgarian version of our "hope chest." At the wedding celebration, the collection is taken out and shown to all those in attendance (like we would show gifts at a wedding shower).
There are two daughters, Rosie being the youngest (the older daughter is married and lives with her husband's family). When Rosie settles into a home rather than in an apartment (her husband has started building one but it is unfinished because they ran out of money - something very common to see in Bulgaria are partly-built homes), she will take these gifts her mother and grandmother made for her and use them. Rosie's mother also has several coverings prepared for her two granddaughters when they marry.
To lay out her work for photos, Rosie's mother took us into the other parts of the house. Along with wainscoting on the family room walls, there was wood lining the wide hall leading to the main entrance. A beautifully large wooden door with side windows graced that entrance. On either side of the main hall were two rooms: One was a large bedroom where Martine, Rosie's daughter, sleeps while visiting. On the other side is a double-roomed living room. On the far wall are shelves with a TV. The whole room is beautifully furnished with various draperies and furnishings. It was surprising to me to see such a large living room; most rooms in homes we have seen have been small with doors that can be shut between all the rooms.
The main bedroom had a double bed which again was unusual to us since most beds we've seen and slept in are single or youth-size (not quite double). A canopy extending from the wall made up the headboard. There was a small TV in this room along with several space heaters - that added heat at night I'm assuming. Although all the rest of the house was beautiful, it was cold. So we were quite happy to return to the family room.
On our way out, we climbed the stairs to the second story of the other building. This large room had a fireplace (made with the same river stones), a large wooden table with benches surrounding it, and several Bulgarian costumes hanging on the walls. The family cooks and eats here when they entertain and have "na-gosti's." Downstairs was where Rosie's grandfather lived. Altogether the visit was very rewarding. This was our first opportunity to see inside a beautifully crafted home in the middle of a small town like Straldja. We can appreciate the skill and effort that went into creating it.
We arrived Wednesday evening. Over Thursday and Friday, I completed all my tests. So far, everything looks good and we SHOULD be able to return to Bulgaria with no problems. However, I have not yet had official word so we sit here and wait until we do. My daughter is visiting from Florida, Rel's daughter is here and we have been doing some sightseeing. With the spacious hotel room that Peace Corps provides and the great hospitality of Rel's sister-in-law, we have had a very comfortable stay. If all goes well, we will visit more of Rel's family in Florida before flying back to Bulgaria (maybe by Feb. 6). More later, Edith
We're back! We arrived back in Straldja on Wednesday, Feb. 13, kind of worse for the wear. While in the States, we both contracted a particularly virulent strain of the flu despite the fact that we had gotten our flu shots here in Bulgaria (sent from America). Consequently, we were gone longer - closer to a month than for just two weeks. We didn't leave Florida as early as planned, stayed in Sofia for three nights still fighting off the flu, and, upon our return here in Straldja, have taken things rather slowly. I think commuting quickly between two very different cultures can be physically, as well as emotionally, draining.
We, however, thoroughly enjoyed our time in the States visiting family and friends. The first hurdle was achieved when I got the word that my eyes are "holding their own," that I have the beginnings of dry macular degeneration but that the "progress" of it is very slow and may never even get to the point of serious vision problems. So after two days of tests in Washington, I was released from the medical evacuation list and within several more days, was given the "go ahead" to return to Bulgaria. Although it was good news to know that my eyes were O.K., it was also clear that I could not use them as an excuse not to return to Bulgaria. We had already decided that if we COULD return to Bulgaria, we WOULD. This, then, left no "out" of that commitment. Part of me was happy to be returning but another part dreaded the changes and readjustment required to return.
For several days in Florida, we visited with family, met with friends who have been supportive of our work here, visited with students at Central Elementary School who conducted a Book Drive for students in Straldja, and attended an Open House sponsored by the Tantie Quilters. We came away with a greater love and appreciation for the people who have accepted and responded to what we are doing.
We had been out of the States for seven months when we flew into Washington in January. There were many things that "hit" me upon our arrival. The orderliness of everything was quite obvious: people stood in line and awaited their turn; there were signs to areas where taxis could be gotten; believe it or not, cars seemed to move in appropriate lanes actually using turn signals; grass was mowed with some flowers in bloom; and our hotel room was very neat and clean. What I realized even more though was that everything smelled so clean. It took me a while to realize that I wasn't smelling smoke hanging in the air, or vehicle emissions, or even a lot of cigarette smoke. I wasn't having to "hold back" from breathing because of old, stale odors from either rooms, people, or even riding on public transportation (Metro). It was the absence of these odors that finally hit me and made me appreciate the cleanliness of our own country.
When we first walked into our hotel room (with carpeting, overstuffed chairs and sofa, tables with lamps, a bed that was higher than two feet off the floor), we thought we were in heaven! Easy access to whatever we needed in stores felt like a real luxury. I had forgotten there were so many choices in types of restaurants. The sun was shining, buildings were whole and streets were in good repair. These are the kinds of things I used to take for granted but now find that, had our American history been any different, it could have been very much more like Bulgaria - and, in fact, like most other countries of the world. In our view, there are more countries in the world like Bulgaria than there are like America.
During our absence, the snow all melted and, despite the fact that it's only mid-February, there are many signs of spring. Fields as well as gardens are newly plowed. There is green grass beginning to poke up through the brown. The biting cold seems to now be a fact of history and the sun shines brightly much of each day. I'm back to the routine of doing some laundry every day: scrubbing (after the 5 min. of machine agitating), wringing, rinsing, wringing, and hanging up to dry outside. I've asked Rel for a wooden bench that I can keep in the shower - to set the washing tub and rinse tub on so that I don't have to lean over so far. My back creaks when I straighten up!
On Valentine's Day, Rel participated in the celebration called, "Blessing of the Grapes (or Vines)." The group went out to the grape fields where words were spoken, songs were sung, some vines were cut (a vine was sent home for me), and homemade wine was passed around to be shared. Later in the afternoon, a Valentine's Day celebration took place at the school. Some students have told me that it was about "love" which sounded much like the way we traditionally celebrate Valentine's Day. On our trip through the country, we did see many shops with red valentine balloons and many boxes of candy with red hearts on the covers.
One shock I had upon our return was to find that Rosie was gone "abroad" for a month and wouldn't return until mid-March. It seems that a friend of Rosie's had to undergo a bone marrow transplant in Spain and, since the friend speaks only Bulgarian, Rosie has gone to do the translating for her (this is Rosie's first trip out of Bulgaria and she traveled by bus). My first thought was how will I understand what is happening at school if Rosie isn't there to translate for me?? For now, however, Galya (my previous tutor) is teaching several classes so she has helped with the translating. I need to spend more time studying Bulgarian so that at least I have a rudimentary understanding of what is happening. Ani, the Assistant Director, has asked Rel to teach several classes for two weeks and he has agreed. But even then, he will have to travel to Vallingrad during part of that time to participate in a conference on the selling of Bulgarian crafts.
Now that I'm more into the "groove" of being back, there are things about Bulgaria and about Straldja that I enjoy and that I realized I missed while we were gone. The quietness or laid-back-ness of the people is one. There is no "rush-rush," press of people hurrying here and there, cacophony of sounds from everywhere (cars, planes, too many things happening all at once); just the simple sounds from animals and nature (roosters crowing, burros baying, birds chirping). I'm also back where people speak Bulgarian and, since I know little, I can blissfully continue on with my thoughts (it was almost disconcerting in the States that I could understand all that was going on around me!). Right now, there is very little interruption from the outside world once we are home from work. So I feel few demands on my time. And because I'm still readjusting, I need all the time I can get.
Today was my second full day of teaching since we returned - and I'm utterly exhausted. I'm ready for Spring Break, which doesn't happen for another month and a half! Part of the problem is that both Rosie and Galya are gone now so there's no one at the school who can speak English. Even with Rel's knowledge of Bulgarian, we still couldn't understand Valentina (Director) when she came upstairs to speak with us this morning. When we had gone into school on Friday, it was very clear from Ani (Assistant Director) as to which classes we would be teaching (Rel is covering two classes for Rosie and I am teaching a full load). Over the weekend, however, Rosie called, said she preferred that Rel teach 5th classes instead of 7th and 11th, and said that she would call Valentina to tell her. As I expected, Valentina did come to talk with us but we couldn't understand what she was trying to say. And, of course, there was no one to translate. In addition, Rosie's fourth-grade daughter showed Rel the Teacher's Edition for 5th grade expecting that he would be teaching that class. I kept to my regular schedule as Ani had laid it out but Rel taught a 5th grade in addition to his two other classes - then decided that was a little much. So things are rather confusing right now.
One of the biggest problems is that when a teacher is gone, the students are in the classroom (or halls) mainly unsupervised. I can understand Rosie's concern for her 5th classes when there is no teacher: they just get no instruction. But I also know Rel and I can't do it all. There is one other young woman in town who speaks English but she works in the JOBS office. She would be great to teach the 5th grade since she also knows Bulgarian. But her UNDP (United Nations Development Program) contract doesn't allow her to give the time to the school.
It's interesting here because of the power that the teaching staff has (they also get paid next to nothing). In the States, it would not have occurred to me as a teacher to "override" the Director's decision (or even that of the Assistant Director). But in Bulgaria, all staff are on a more level "playing field." If, for example, a teacher wants to know about a schedule change, she/he would call another teacher rather than the Director. When I first arrived, Rosie said that a maintenance person would give me a schedule of when the bells rang so I'd know when classes were to start! A clear hierarchical structure, at least in the schools, does not exist.
Back to checking student papers! More later…Edith
NO MORE WRITING ON DESKS! I'm getting tired of sloppiness and defacing of property! So I took my bottle of window cleaner and six cloths to school. Each of the four classes got to take their turn at cleaning the tops of the desks in our room (some acted as if the cloth would bite them when they touched it; others were very enthusiastic). The inked writing on the desks had appeared while I was gone; the writing was so interesting that I had several students come in after classes yesterday just to read what was there. In addition, students were carrying their food into the classroom to eat after the bell rang - bonichkas (something like a piece of pizza) and drinks. There is time during breaks for students to go to the "cafeteria" or to the corner café (1/2 block away) to buy their food and to eat it (that is what is done here) - but it is not necessary to bring it into the classroom. And, lastly, they needed to be reminded the wastebasket is where we put trash, not on the floor and not in the desks.
I'm beginning to think similarly about the yard in the front of our bloc (apartment building). I'm tired of seeing trash blown all through the grass. It may be that I will get a trash bag down there and begin cleaning it up myself - in between the animal droppings. I can't do much about the rest of the town nor about the rest of the school building but I can take care of my small part of it. At least I'll feel as if I have SOME control over my environment. (Maybe our trip home had impact in more ways than I thought!)
Even after all the work of cleaning desktops the other day, a student was absentmindedly writing on his desktop in class today. It has obviously become such a habit with some students that there is no consciousness or awareness that it is something they shouldn't do. As with the trash all around, people (like us) don't really see it after a while - or just ignore it Again I think cleanliness can reflect pride so maybe that's another place to start. (It seems to have taken a trip home to bring back to me that it could be different - if we worked at it.)
Rel came home at noon saying that there was a large group of Roma (gypsies) milling around the center of town. When he asked Dobie what it was all about, she told him the Roma were demonstrating against the "Welfare" administrator. Rel assumed that their anger continued from an incident last fall when the Roma were very upset that they had received foodstuffs from the administrator rather than money (I don't know if the foodstuffs were a substitute for money they regularly received).
This sounded a little more serious when Rel checked his e-mail and found a CNN clip sent by a friend. It seems that, during this same week, 1000 Roma in Plovdiv went on a two-day rampage after their electricity was turned off. The city said that $3 million of bills were unpaid. Windows were shattered, shops looted, buses and cars smashed and a policeman injured. This happened in the largest Roma enclave in Bulgaria (Plovdiv has three such enclaves.) What particularly bothered me about the clip was the following statement: "The troubles reflect GROWING UNEASE [my caps] in this impoverished Balkan country of 7.9 million residents." And it went on to say that, "the economic woes have aggravated long-standing divisions between the Bulgarian majority and the gypsy minority. The gypsies say the root problem is unemployment. The jobless rate among Bulgaria's 300,000 Roma population is about 70% compared to a national average of 18%." In Straldja, the average unemployment rate is 40% but the Roma rate is closer to 90%.
Added to this is the fact that our current American Ambassador is being transferred now and Steve Taylor, our Peace Corps Country Director, finishes his tenure in Bulgaria this summer. So it seems that everything that we thought was pretty stable is in flux right now. Even in my small world. With Rosie, my counterpart, being gone for a month (or more), I feel almost as if my "foundation" has been kicked out from underneath me.
Despite all that, however, each day here seems to proceed much like the day before. Without the snow covering the ground, the herds of sheep and goats (some cows) travel more regularly through town and out to the fields. We can hear the shepherd's whistle, the sheep baa-ing and their bells ringing both mornings and evenings. The clip-clopping of burros and horses pulling wagons is a more common sound now that the weather is getting warmer. The gardens are plowed and I can see some green already shooting up. Naska tells me that she has planted "luke"(onions), "kartoffie" (potatoes), "chesen" (garlic), and "markovi" (carrots). Later she will put in tomatoes, pepper, cucumbers, beans ("bop"), and spinach.
At times, I bemoan the fact that I can't understand or speak Bulgarian very well. However (even without Rosie) Naska, Tanya, and I have some pretty good discussions. They are a mixture of single words that I know (or they know), phrases, hand motions and facial expressions. Even Ani, the Assistant Director, speaks more English than I thought. She is Russian (married a Bulgarian, moved to Bulgaria then got a divorce), rather forbidding with her unsmiling face, and seemed unfriendly towards me from the beginning. However, she has put herself out since my return to talk to me about my schedule. AND, the other day, actually asked me what classes I preferred to teach next year! So, though I'm still upset Rosie is gone, I am doing fine - maybe even better than when Rosie was here…
Yesterday was the first fire drill I've participated in at school. It was typical of much of what already happens in the school (laissez-faire, laid-back). Rel and I had been "signing in" on the second floor when it dawned on me that I was hearing the bell ring intermittently - at home the signal for a fire drill. When I saw many students shuffling toward the stairs, it was confirmed and we joined them. Some teachers accompanied their classes, other students seemed to be more or less on their own. There did not seem to be much stress on hurrying although everyone moved right along. At the lower level entrance door, the Director waited. Younger students seemed to mill about on the lower level (they have a different director who is renting the first floor) with no adult direction or supervision. Outside we joined other students walking in groups toward the middle of the enclosed school grounds (almost a U-shape of buildings surrounding it). Again I saw several teachers obviously moving with their students but generally the student population stood in a large group, milling around and talking with each other. Although our Director joined us on the grounds, younger students were continuing to move in and out of the entrance of the building without any kind of supervision. After several minutes, one teacher led his students back into the building and the rest of us followed.
It's almost March 1 and we can see many "martenitsa's" for sale in the shops (handmade by Straldja residents). March 1 is called "Baba Marta" (Grandmother March) and it is in celebration of the coming spring. There are several legends in Bulgaria about this day. One is "that once upon a time in Bulgaria, a Bulgarian Khan sent a white dove to his daughter somewhere in the North. The dove carried in its mouth a red string, to show the father had arrived safely from a long journey." Although there are many such legends, Bulgarians celebrate this day to wish one another life-long health and happiness. Everyone gives each other a "martenitsa:" a token made of interwoven red and white yarn. It is said that the colors signify the male and female of nature and recognize the coming together of opposites to bring the new growth of springtime. The white is male, winter and death and the red is female, blood and birth. According to tradition, you must wear the martenitsa until you see a stork, a sign of the coming spring. When you do then you hang it on the first tree you come across.
An historical version of the celebration involves the "commonly-held belief that the first of March signals the end of winter and the demise of its evil forces and demons, and marks the arrival of Baba Marta, harbinger of the long-awaited summer. The personification of the month of March, Baba Marta is portrayed as an old woman of changing moods. When angry, she blows wind and snow; when happy, she smiles and the sun shines. In the past, rituals included a thorough house cleaning, after which the refuse was thrown onto a large fire around which people danced, chanted, sang, and generally made all sorts of ruckus to frighten away the demons of winter. Precautions were then taken to placate Baba Marta. Martenitsas were made by the eldest woman in the family from red and white wool (signifying summer and winter, respectively) as amulets to ensure good health and fertility for the coming year. They were placed on children, young women, small animals, and fruit trees, and worn until the first stork or swallow was seen. If the observed bird were resting in its nest, the year ahead would be unproductive; if standing, it would be marginal. But if the bird were flying, the coming year would be bountiful. The martenitsas were then either kept as protection against bad luck [like our rabbit's foot] or placed under a stone to predict the future. Nowadays, people rarely dance around fires and they don't worry too much about Baba Marta's moods, but they still put on a martenitsa or two on March 1 to celebrate the coming of spring."
Cheating in school is a way of life here. We were warned of this fact by other PC Volunteers while still in training last summer and I have experienced it many times since. But it's only recently that I've put my creative skills to work - just to see how I could circumvent this tendency. Today with the 7th class was my first opportunity.
During tests or for any other work, students regularly look over at each other's papers, tell each other the answers when asked (in Bulgarian of course), and check with the notes they've hidden inside their books. The problem is that less motivated students copy from the more motivated so that it's difficult to ascertain who knows what. I know they can't understand me when I speak English to them but their written work and tests reflect something different. And though we are encouraged to give students homework, there's no guarantee that it was done by the student. So grades for homework do not reflect students' knowledge either.
Although students have individual chairs in the classroom, their desks are built as one. Most of my classes take up most desk space so there's little room to spread out. The one class that is smaller, however, is my 7th class and they were the ones that were scheduled for a test today. I had just enough space that I could seat one student at each desk and put the last one up at my teacher's desk. This evidently was the first time any of the students had not had someone beside them whose paper they could see. It was the look on their faces that was the clue. Some reflected panic, some kept looking for a neighbor that was a lot further away than before, some just kept looking at me (rather than the paper) as if they should be able to read the answers in my face. One grimaced at me like he had a horrible stomachache - until he actually settled down and got to work (Later: He did not hand in his test but instead took it home, finished it, and brought it back the next day for me to accept - all completed!). Out of the 15 students, six kept their eyes glued to their work until they were finished. For the others, I had to keep my eyes on them every moment to prevent whispering, talking, or stretching to see someone else's answers.
To be fair, Bulgarian students place a much higher value on grades, whether they are earned or not. They begin "primary school" at the age of seven (kindergartens are private and housed in separate buildings around town) and finish at age 14 (grade 7) or 15 (grade 8). Some students go to schools with intensive language instruction, or schools of art (grades 8-12). The rest attend regular high schools (like Straldja) or professional schools (grades 9-12). To get into the "language schools," however, students must pass a test. I think (though I'm not positive) that the grades they have accumulated until then also impact on their entrance. So, by hook or by crook, it behooves the student to get the best grades they can throughout their primary school years. For those who attend regular high schools, it seems a matter of pride that they would earn the highest grades possible. For whatever reason, cheating is commonplace and it takes all my skill to figure out how to get around it.
When it was time for Rosie to attend high school, she chose to attend a language school in Bourgas (an hour east from us on the Black Sea). She was required to take an entrance exam and felt lucky to pass since there were so many students who applied but were not chosen. An aunt and uncle lived in Bourgas so she stayed with them during the week and came home on weekends (she took the train back and forth). Other students choose to attend a language school in Yambol which is closer and requires only a 45 minute bus ride to and from each day. This is the reason our high school goes only to grade 11 this year; some students have gone to Yambol to attend school (probably those who are motivated and can also afford it).
There's an historical factor that may have influenced the "cheating problem." It could have been a survival skill learned during the Communist regime. Everything we heard during training from native Bulgarians was that they had to be very careful about what they said when the Communists were in power. Some, even when telling a joke, walked way out in the fields to tell it for fear of being overheard. People would just disappear one day, seemingly for no reason. Bulgaria's chief prosecutor in 1992 stated, "For half a century the Communist party acted as a mafia, terrifying the people and misusing billions of dollars." Another source: "Official investigations in the early 1990's revealed that tens of thousands of Bulgarians had been detained as political prisoners in a Soviet-style gulag of labor camps. Labelled 'Enemies of the People's Republic' some of the victims were incarcerated for such minor infractions as joking about their communist rulers or listening to rock and roll and wearing Western-style dress." Openness and honesty obviously didn't pay!
Rel is in Vallingrad for several days of meetings with two colleagues from the JOBS office. (Vallingrad is located east of us about 3/4 of the way to Sofia and in the mountains south of Septemvri). Their first meeting was to begin on Monday at 2 pm. In order for the three of them to arrive before the meeting and traveling by train, they had to leave Straldja at 11:40 pm on Sunday evening. They had to arrive in Pazardzik for their connections to a bus. They arrived about 5 am in Pazardzik in order to transfer to a bus. The problem was that the bus station was closed and locked and they were shooed away. Luckily, they ran into a taxi driver who said he was going to Vallingrad anyway and he would drive them there for 12 leva. They arrived at the hotel in Vallingrad about 5:30 am which then allowed Rel to get SOME sleep before the meetings began.
The trip home was just about as bad. Since the meetings lasted longer than planned on Wednesday, they missed an earlier bus to Pazardzik so left about 6 pm. On arrival in Pazardzik, they found that there would not be another train leaving for Straldja until 12:30 am. So instead they caught a train to Plovdiv leaving at 8 pm. From there, they found a train leaving at 11 pm that would pass through Straldja. Rel arrived back in our apartment at 3 am. (This is all for the distance of 200-250 kilometers!) Unless a person owns a car (and not that many do), hop-scotching from one connection to another is the only way to travel.
Actually, except for the time factor (trying to make connections) and the slowness of the trains, getting around in Bulgaria is relatively easy (buses are faster but they also break down). It is very convenient for us to walk to the train station here in town, hop on a train and travel to a nearby town or across country. (It's also cheap: $10 each for a first-class roundtrip ticket to Sofia.) But it's also like everything else: it doesn't pay to be in a hurry. Eventually, one arrives at their destination.
Except for a week during training, this is the first time since we've been in Bulgaria that Rel has been gone and I have been alone (during training, we were staying with a host family). Although I miss him, I've also found that I can function quite well on my own. There's been no lack of communication at school (using single words and actions), store clerks have understood my grocery requests, and my meals have been adequate (it's been three days now and I'm running out of ideas!). A benefit to Rel's absence has been to find out that, though my communication skills are limited, I could probably use whatever creative skills I have to survive and even function quite adequately in Bulgaria.
Since our return from the States, I've also discovered that homesickness rarely occurs any more. It's possible that all that was needed was a chance to "touch base" with home, family and friends. Now it seems that my energy level has increased and more time is spent on plans for school and a community project - rather than pining away for home. Time is also passing and our time here is getting shorter. So if there is anything to be achieved, it must be started now.
It seems "the proof is in the pudding" - about functioning quite adequately without Rel. I have been invited to be a SPA Committee member for the next year (Small Projects Assistance - we review grants from PC volunteers and make recommendations to the Country Director). This means that I will have to travel BY MYSELF at least five times over the year - to Sofia and back. That alone caused me to seriously consider turning down the invitation. However, in thinking about it more, I realized that Rel and I together have made that trip so often that it has become quite familiar. The learning experience from working with SPA seemed too valuable to turn down. So I accepted the invitation and, this next week for the first time, I will be traveling alone cross country (other single women, some older than I, have done this with no problems!).
March 8 is Women's Day in Bulgaria. It's so interesting sometimes to see commonalities between cultures: the things that run through both cultures that are similar. America celebrates Women's History Month in March. And I do believe that March 8 is considered International Women's Day. So maybe there's a reason for those similarities! Here "Women's Day" is celebrated like our "Mother's Day" only it is for all women and girls. I'm told that there will be much celebrating, particularly in Sofia where I will be on Friday, March 8. I'm not sure what form that celebrating will take and I haven't yet found any information on the history of it. But I'll let you know when I find out…
Ivelina, the music teacher, brought us a big bag of fresh spinach today and, as with most fresh vegetables here, the leaves are huge. This is the season for it. We haven't seen fresh spinach since leaving the States. Something else we haven't seen for awhile (at least since last fall) is ice cream. This past week the weather has gotten warmer and we've been hankering for ice cream but haven't been able to find it in any of the stores (or even in the two restaurants) in town. It too must be seasonal! More later…Edith