Edith's Bulgarian Newsletter

July 2002 Archives

July 7, 2002 News from Bulgaria

The quilting class celebrated the successful completion of their projects last week - and agreed that they wanted to continue with more patterns come October (too hot now and they're busy with outdoor work, like gardens). Rosie baked her special bonichka (pastry with cirine), others brought crackers, fresh tomatoes, rakiya, wine and Rel and I brought sodas and slatkee (small sweet pastries). The women talked and then broke into singing old Bulgarian folk songs. One of the songs was particularly meaningful to the retired teacher since it was the favorite of her husband who had died. Before everyone left, both Rel and I got photos of their finished work. Rel will create a website of the class with photos taken at the beginning of the course, middle and end; I'll let you know when it's up and running.

I'm feeling physically tired, but there's no rest for the weary. I found out when we were in Sofia that more trainees will be visiting us for several days later this week. Rel will have four community development trainees and I will have five teacher trainees, nine in all. (Part of the responsibility for training new personnel falls to PCV's who have been here already and can speak to conditions of living and working in a Bulgarian town.) We're planning a full several days with them and do look forward to sharing what we have learned along the way. On their arrival Thursday, we hope to have several horses and wagons ready to give them a tour around town and some outlying sights (like the hot springs along the road to Loznetz - people like the Roma go there to wash their clothes). Since neither Rel nor I have yet had such a ride, we will be looking forward to it also. We'll hope it doesn't rain since here the weather is much like Florida in that clouds gather in the afternoon and rain threatens.

The trainees will be staying in our local hotel. Rel and I visited it last week just to be sure of the condition of the rooms. They look much like other hotel rooms we have stayed in, particularly the first nights we were in Bulgaria. Each room has two single beds, its own bath and is clean. The baths have had much repair (continued patching around the base of the toilet) but they do include not only the toilet but also a spray attachment to take a shower. Interestingly, hotels we have stayed in don't always have a private bath. It's usually down the hall or even on another floor. Last week our hotel in Sofia had a private shower in the room (set up in a corner inside what seemed to be a closet) but we had to go down the hall for the toilet. Another fact we're learning about hotels is that they may have either hot water at certain times of the day; or, as last week, there is no hot water at all; or, as Rosie and I found out last fall in Stara Zagora, the water may be totally turned off for parts of the day. It's better not to have any expectations when checking into moderately-priced hotels.

We expect that when we are finished on Saturday, most of the trainees will want to go on to Bourgas to the beach or back to an interesting city like Plovdiv to explore before returning to Panagyurishte. That's what Rel and I did when we first visited here in August of last year. It was so hot (as it is now) and of course there is no air conditioning. We stopped in Plovdiv on our way back and stayed in what seemed to us an expensive hotel ($70 where normally rooms are on average 35 leva) but it had air conditioning - first time we had experienced that since we left the States. I'm sure these trainees may be just as anxious to get somewhere where they can be cooler. It has been hotter earlier this year than last, even in Panagyurishte, which is higher up in the mountains.

The trainees are visiting just in the nick of time since we are planning to take our vacation starting Monday (Peace Corps Volunteers get two days vacation per month at $24 per day and, since we haven't taken any vacation days yet, we have several weeks coming). We went in to Sofia partly to check out tourist agencies for traveling down into Greece (we were considering Turkey also but have heard on TV news that the government right now is very unsettled). We thought group rates through a tourist agency might end up being cheaper than if we took off by ourselves. What we learned is that such agencies in Bulgaria are different than their counterparts in the States. Bulgarian clientele tend to be more interested in "going on holiday" and spending time at the beach - which means that agencies are selling primarily beachside hotels. They gave us brochures showing the hotels and what they have to offer (meals, pool, etc.). What we are interested in (visiting historical places) is called a "classic tour" and there does not seem to be much interest in that, at least locally. We did learn, however, that we can take the train (with a bed to stretch out) down to Athens for about $85 for both of us one-way. Advice from guidebooks and from another PCV is to take a bus since the trains can be slow. Once in Athens, then we can find a ferry to Crete, which is really where we want to go.

I do not like traveling by bus - even though private buses here are nice, in good shape and better than the trains. Our trip to Sofia last week was by bus for the first time (much like a tour bus in the States). The seats were clean and comfortable, an attendant sold us our tickets and, partway through the trip, even brought a snack and drink around to each person on board - much as they do on an airline flight. Halfway to Sofia, a video is shown on the screen up front (English with Bulgarian sub-titles, with the volume turned down since most people would be reading rather than listening). However, the seats are just as cramped as they are on an airline flight and it is not as easy to get up and move around as it would be on the train (I can sleep better with the train rhythms and with more seat space). The "no smoking" graphic at the front of the bus doesn't keep the driver from smoking. With some air conditioning, it was cooler than outside but stuffy.

On our trip back, I spent more time looking out the window than watching the video. In our five-hour trip, I saw field upon field of both sunflowers and wheat, probably more wheat in total (sunflower oil is produced here). Sometimes each would be separated from the other, at times going as far as the eye could see; other times a large field of sunflowers would appear in the middle of a much larger wheat field. Wheat is high and some fields have already been cut. In total, I saw about 10 threshing machine or combines during that 150-mile trip. I could see workers pitching straw bales up onto trucks. One animal or a tractor would pull the wagons once they're loaded.

In Straldja, many loads of straw are being pulled into town, mainly by tractors. The tractor usually pulls two wagonloads of straw bales (pitched in by hand), it pulls up in front of a house, then the driver unlatches one side of the high-sided wagon and the bales fall down onto the sidewalk. In fact, coming home from getting my hair cut today, I saw such a tractor and wagons unloading in front of a house about a block ahead of me. I hurried so that I could get a photo before he was entirely finished. When I got there, I saw a grandmother (about my age), her granddaughter, and a great grandmother. I asked if it would be alright to take a photo of the straw and the wagons. The grandmother responded with "Nyama paree" (I don't have money). So that she understood clearly what I wanted, I asked again with my finger pointing to myself, then to the camera (with"snimkee" meaning photo) and pointing to the straw. Again she rubbed her fingers together and repeated the same words. It seemed that she wanted me to pay her some money for taking the photo. I asked "Kolko?" (How much?) and she shrugged her shoulders. When I asked "stotinki?" that did it (I didn't have any small leva with me, just change, which is what I was trying to get across). She probably thought I was saying one stotinki (less than one cent) and she just turned and walked away. So I just left.

I was totally taken aback and felt embarrassed by the whole thing. This is the first time I've had such a response from anyone in Straldja; usually they go out of their way to be friendly and helpful. Since I didn't recognize the grandmother or granddaughter, Rel thinks that these are members of the family visiting from the city and helping out the great grandmother. We have been told that family members and friends who are gone during the winter (for school or otherwise) come back to Straldja during the summer. I guess this was my first experience with them.

Communicating clearly can be a problem and it can sometimes be funny. We had received a phone call several weeks ago to attend church (as related in a previous newsletter). Rel thought it was an invitation to the evangelical church, which is where we went. Come to find out, however, we were supposed to go to the Eastern Orthodox Church. The man who had called saw Rel later in the week and asked why we didn't show up. Rel had to explain that we did - only to the other church. We saw Michael this week and he has again invited us to the Eastern Orthodox Church. I thought we'd done our duty by attending each church at least one time, but it seems like we'll have to correct our mistake. So it's off to the Eastern Orthodox Church this Sunday…

Other crops we saw on our bus trip were corn (not as high as in the gardens here; it's over six feet), grapevines and some other plants I didn't recognize: clumpy green plants that looked like huge caterpillars in the fields, a plant with a purplish tint and possibly tobacco. So much for my "scientific" report. More later…Edith

July 13, 2002 News from Bulgaria

That was refreshing! Nine PC trainees visited here for several days; it was great interacting with a group of Americans - in English no less!! There was a nice mix of ages (maybe 20's thru 60's?) and backgrounds, with three couples and three singles in the group. We had originally planned to squire them around town in wagons pulled by horses but, alas, the horses and wagons were busy in the fields. So we had a short walking tour before dinner on Thursday. Friday was a busy day after their continental breakfast here with us (breakfasts here like ours in the States are rare). In the morning, the four CED's spent time with Rel while the five teachers were with Rosie and me at the school, meeting and talking with some other teachers and Valentina, the Director, learning about documentation and other "ins and outs" of teaching here. At the trainees' request, we spent some good time with the four or five primary teachers who met us at the school (three of the trainees are primary teachers). The Bulgarian teachers gave me an unexpected compliment when they answered a question by Harlowe, one of the trainees, as to their best advice for the trainees in working with Bulgarian students. Toward the end of their response, the teachers stated that the students really like the chanting, singing, activities that they have with me in class, so that maybe the trainees could do some similar things with their students (kind of nice to hear!). We finished the afternoon by visiting other places in town like the train station and bank and showing unusual places where we pay bills. Despite the hot weather, the group hung together and were patient throughout.

Friday evening was special. We had invited about eight or nine community people (mainly younger) to meet with the trainees for dinner at the hotel and six were able to come. There was enough good conversation among the whole group that the Bulgarians invited all to move to the one other restaurant in town for drinks (live music at the hotel restaurant was fun for them to dance to but difficult to have much conversation). Rel and I spent a short time with them there before returning home and to bed.

Some of the conditions were not all that easy for the trainees when you consider this was only their third week (easier however than in El Salvador where Gin Church, a friend, e-mails us about her training there for Peace Corps). Although the hotel was Straldja's "finest" (and only one), it would certainly be different in many ways than hotels in the States. Lack of air conditioning or even cool breezes would have been one problem in such hot weather. Places to eat and types of food were also very limited. Two places had difficulty handling the numbers of people who descended on them all at once. The "Dancing" Restaurant had a limited menu because they didn't know 11 of us were coming so were unprepared with enough food. The hotel restaurant served all 17 in the evening (they had been pre-warned) but it took several hours for all of us to get our meals. Although the wait was very long for some of us, those trainees took it well in stride.

Most Straldja residents seemed interested in our visitors. Dora, a pensioner from whom we buy vegetables, handed out apples to the group as we walked by. Some of my students we met on the street stopped to speak briefly to the group. The primary teachers showed up at the school despite the fact that their classes have been out for over a month. All seemed to want to put their best foot forward - which made us feel proud. And in the process, Rel and I seemed to be considered by residents to be one of them, very much a part of the community. As the trainees left on the train Saturday morning, several people commented on the fact that our guests were leaving: WE were no longer guests - the TRAINEES were the guests.

In fact, a result of this visit by the trainees has made me realize how entrenched into the community I have become. I am very much American of course but didn't realize that I would consider myself an "insider" of Straldja when other Americans (in this case, "outsiders") came to visit. It's almost like being in limbo, much the same I would imagine that Bulgarian Peace Corps staff must feel much of the time. Although they come from the Bulgarian culture, they work and live much of their lives within the American culture through their Peace Corps work - kind of live in limbo, in other words. Both they, and we, serve then as bridges between two cultures. Maybe not easy at times but really not a bad place to be…

Today Rel and I visited the Eastern Orthodox Church. The only other time we had visited was during a local holiday, named after St. Michael, the name of the church. At that time, the Church was crowded with people standing. Today, however, Rel and I and a few others were the only ones attending. It seems that during the Communist period of 40 years, if people attended the Church, they would lose their jobs. So the Church was really not used. It's been difficult in the ensuing ten years to encourage attendance. As a result, the building (1860) and wall paintings inside (1950) have all deteriorated. Michael, the one to invite us, is hoping Rel can find funding to help restore this local cultural and historical place.

After the service, Rel wanted to take photos of the building and so was invited into the "inner sanctuary" at the front of the church, the place where the priest moved in and out of during the service. Ivelina, our school music teacher and a church member, told me that "women were not allowed back there." This reminded me of an incident told by one of the trainee couples when the Bulgarian host family father directed the wife of the trainee couple to go help with some work that would be traditionally a woman's job, while the host encouraged the husband of the couple to continue to sit with him despite the husband's discomfort with the situation. Bulgaria is no different than many countries where the woman seems to be considered a second-class citizen, or even just an object. She has specific roles to play in the home, IN ADDITION TO all the other work she may have to do - in the garden, at a professional job or other work, or working daily side-by-side with her husband (as Rosie does all summer and every weekend in their family-owned restaurant). Many of the movies we watch on television are considered "action" movies here but are what I would consider violent movies, with much of the violence directed toward women ("The Profiler" is an example of such a regularly scheduled program, one that we have tried to watch but find that we can't because the violence toward women is so distasteful). Young women's scantily-clad bodies are depicted in large posters in many private buses, on street billboards and on many TV channels while their counterparts (scantily-clad young men) are practically invisible.

"Baba's" (grandmothers) many times eat alone in the kitchen while the rest of the family eats in another part of the house. This happened when we stayed in a guest home while visiting Nessebur on the Black Sea Coast. The parents with their child ate in the same room we did but the grandmother ate alone in the kitchen (and this would have been originally the grandmother's home since it was built by the grandfather). Older women are given no slack. Many carry big bagloads on their backs. They struggle alone with their bags to climb up the high steps onto the train. They push heavily-loaded carts alongside the men. Dora pushes her heavy cartload of vegetables alone every day to and from the small shed where she sells them. Canes may be common among older people but wheelchairs are very uncommon, even rare, with motorized chairs being totally unknown.

I guess these are pictures of a hard life in a poor, very traditional country. But I see women carrying the brunt of the poverty.

How did I get onto this subject? The Church. The Church carries on the tradition of women's "otherness" by not giving them access to places considered "sacred," those places for the male priest only. This certainly was not discouraging, however, to the 17-year-old who sang the liturgical music (a cappella) before and during the service Sunday morning. After the service, we were invited to join a small group of parishioners for rakiya, soda and nuts out under the grapevine terrace in front of the building. The 17-year-old fervently and adamantly defended the rightness of his faith, even when there was no need to. For conversation, Rel had described a difference between our church and the Eastern Orthodox and it was at this time that the young man declared that his church was the only "right" and "true" church. Not so different, really, than the view held by many other people and cultures around the world.

Wednesday of this week we begin our vacation, taking the train south through Greece, with a one night's stay in Athens, before boarding a ferry to Crete. After a five-day stay (which I fervently look forward to having heard so many good things about it from Anthe Kallas, who lived many early years in Greece), we'll ferry to the island of Santorini (Thera) for a three-day stay before taking our last ferry back up to Thessaloniki in northern Greece. Then it will be a matter of several days by bus and train through Sofia before arriving back home at the end of July.

The next newsletters (started up again in August) may be filled with observations from our travels. I'll keep my notebook, and camera, handy…Edith