by Edith Sloan
Yesterday we saw what seemed to be a Roma wedding. We were working in the apartment when we heard what sounded like the beating of a drum coming from somewhere. I didn't pay too much attention until Rel yelled that it was a wedding down on the street. About 20-30 people were walking down the side of the street towards town. The bride was in a long white dress and was near the front. A drum and fife (or pipe or flute) accompanied the group. Bringing up the rear were a woman pushing a baby carriage and then a young couple walking arm in arm. I watched to see if they were dancing the "horo," a traditional dance done in the street at weddings, something we saw in both Hassar and Panagyurishte. In those places, the wedding party held hands in a long line (the bride and groom included). They moved sideways down the street with first three steps to the right then a kick with the left foot and a kick with the right foot; again three steps to the right then the two kicks, over and over (at the Pensioner's Club, we do this in a circle). But this wedding party was not doing that and we just assumed it was a Roma wedding. It was coming from that direction. Rel was able to get a photo of it.
Even the weddings we have seen are really adaptations of what happens in the west - in America and elsewhere. The real traditional Bulgarian weddings have no long white dresses for the bride. Both bride and groom are dressed in a special Bulgarian costume, varying somewhat among different regions of the country. The groom's jacket (may be long or short) is black and intricately embroidered at the sleeves and on any ties that may be wrapped around him. He wears white underneath with an embroidered cumberbun-type of wrap around his waist and pants that are loose at the hips but tight around the calves of the legs. The woman's outfit is layered and tends to be very colorful with lots of red and other bright colors in the weaving and in the trim. Again, the trim is intricately embroidered. She wears a crown of flowers which may include some gold or silver trim (the gold was originally Turkish coins and the silver originally gypsy coins), a veil over her face (the one we saw was red). Her dress is the traditional long-sleeved top and long skirt with a tunic or long jacket trimmed very often in very delicate flowers. Over her skirt is the (what I call) apron that is also very colorfully trimmed (there is an apron both front and back on some costumes). Several highly decorated loaves of bread ("with spirals, rosettes and figures of doves which are an expression of good luck blessings") are also part of the ceremony. We've learned of this from the Ethnological Museum in Sophia, from their published book, and from programs on TV. I don't know if any families still practice the traditional ceremony but it would certainly be interesting to see.
Today I traveled by bus alone to Yambol. This is a workday for Rel and I didn't want to wait until Saturday to try to get some shopping done. I'm still not very good with the language but I figured that if there were a problem, I could stumble around with a word here and there or pull out my dictionary.
It was, and still is, a gray, cold day. I caught the bus (regular size rather than microbus) at the bus station since the private bus did not show up at the Centre as my schedule said it would. I watched the fields as we drove by. Many are bright with new-growing green which is probably wheat coming up. This municipality is known primarily for the wheat that they grow. There is even a stone statue near a village just outside of Straldja that shows a woman holding a large sheaf of wheat. At one point, I saw at least 20 or 30 cattle grazing in a field. When I looked for the fences, I saw none but, instead, spied the shephard with his shephard's staff standing alongside the road keeping an eye on them.
Shopping in Yambol is nothing like shopping in the States at this time of year. The centre really looks no different than when we first arrived in September. There are no huge displays of Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or Christmas items. One gift shop did have several jack-o-lantern candles but that was about it. The shops tend to be very small, focusing on a particular type of item like shoes, or clothing or appliances. The appliance stores are where we go to find bicycles - which we are hoping to get on Saturday. (Rel's colleague will borrow his parents' vehicle so that we can bring them home.) And interspersed among the stores are cafes, where today most people were sitting inside.
Even with my limited language skills, I was able to purchase a workbook for school, some toiletries we needed, and some Christmas gifts. So maybe I'm not as helpless as I thought. Even though I couldn't find the Yambol bus station (somebody is going to have to draw us a map!), I did catch the return bus without any problem. In February, I'm going to have to travel alone to a teachers' inservice meeting possibly in Sophia. So that will be the real test of my survival skills.
My young Bulgarian tutor has been in Burgas the last two weeks studying for tourism. She left me a long test to do while she was gone. I may have studied several hours so far, not nearly what I should have done. But working with colleagues at school and trying real life excursions like today are also a part of the learning process. The other day, I put some English words up in the storeroom for Noska (colleague) to learn - "good morning, good afternoon, and good evening." She wasn't there when I arrived but when I entered the storeroom between classes, she came forward and greeted me with "Good morning." Without thinking, I returned the greeting - and then it sunk in. She was speaking English! She laughed, came over and pinched my cheeks. Now I've got to prod her to put more Bulgarian words up for me!
Several magazines from a friend arrived at school the other day (magazines seem to get through customs without any problem). The package had been opened by Customs and when the School Director handed me the package, she took out one of the magazines (Family Circle I think). She looked with curiosity at the cover, opened it to a page advertising women's cosmetics, smiled, touched it with her hand. The page opened to a card attached (one of those subscription cards), she fingered it, and seemed to be asking what it was. Another teacher looked over our shoulders. This was something new to both of them - and something new for me to see their interest and wonder. She also tried to ask what I used it for. Using sign language didn't cut it so Rosie later explained it to her (I use them as a supplementary text almost for activities like creative writing, building knowledge base, etc) . Rel says there are magazines here but of a much different quality.
Bulgaria seems to excel in the growing of vegetables (and in fruits and in roses where most rose oil comes from). When Rel and I walked through the bazaar Tuesday, we saw these huge, what looked to be, green onions. The problem is they were the height of sugar cane or of a corn stalk and tied into bundles. Rel found out later that they were indeed onions. People buy one bundle and it lasts through the winter. They bury them outside in sand, then, as they need onion, they dig them up, cut off what they need and re-bury the rest. This also seems to be the season for cauliflower and turnips both of which we bought. Rel has been cooking great stews using chicken bouillon as a base. He puts in whatever fresh vegetables we have and adds some spices that Rosie picked up at the"Billa" grocery in Sliven. Sometimes he adds dumplings. These hot nutritious meals are great on a cold evening. Sometimes he adds cirine cheese over the top or I eat kaschkavaal. The bread is also fresh; we buy it without any wrapping. Rel has also been making cookies and fresh fruit cobblers. All this cooking helps keep the apartment warm and smelling delicious!
I just spied another wedding party parading down the street from another direction. Again there was a drum and fife and they were playing Bulgarian music (lots of trills). This time I saw a group in front dancing the "horo." And it is co-o-o-o-ld out there.
Next time: Cold weather in Bulgaria and sharing Halloween in a Bulgarian school… Edith
I'm going to have to be careful of what I say. This past week has been cold, down to freezing in the mornings when I walk to school. It's been difficult (since we've lived in South Florida for the past 16 years, Rel even longer) to figure out how to dress -- to stay warm enough to prevent colds and yet not overdress so that at noon I have to carry clothing because it warms up. The first day of cold I wore my heavy wool cape coat (overkill) and the next day my spring jacket with a hunter's vest underneath (better).
Friday in the storeroom I was sharing my quandary about what to wear with both Noska and Rosie. I explained by saying I hadn't lived through cold weather for 16 years. Noska said something (in Bulgarian), Rosie laughed, and I said, What? What? Noska had pointed out that in two years time, I could go back to living in warm weather but they would still be here living in the cold. And of course she's right. As Peace Corps had told us in training, no matter how bad it may get here for us, we can still go back to America when our tour is up.
It was also a rather profound statement since it could encompass not only perceptions of how people here view us but also what the end result of our stay will be. I don't like to think that Noska's statement could be a metaphor for what we accomplish, or don't accomplish, while we're here (that nothing really changes as a result of our being here).
One thing that made it colder this past week was the blowing wind from the north. I observed others as I walked to and from school, particularly the first day it was cold. Although some wore thicker jackets (some children and young men), most did not. Spring jackets with no hats or gloves, or women in their long skirts, socks and cloth shoes (slipper-like) with several layers of sweaters were much more common. Professional women, like Noska, Rosie, office workers, wore just their suit pants and coat, no outer coat (although Rosie did wear an additional jacket the second day). In the Centre, I did observe one woman (office worker?) wearing what looked to be a long black leather coat but that was very rare.
Some children of course have more clothing than others. Two girls in my 6th class kept their gloves on during one class (I remember being horrifed when I first learned of this possibility during training). Others, like Ventzy an 8th grader, have only a thin jacket to wear. And this is only the beginning of the cold I've been warned. It will get much (?) colder than this before the winter is over. The winters here are supposed to be comparable to those in the Midwest in the States.
Although the school building is not heated yet (we had been pre-warned by current volunteers that heat won't be turned on until December), it feels relatively warm as I've walked into the building. I am on the fourth floor and my classroom is on the south side so, thus far, it has stayed relatively warm -- despite the fact that one window has some glass missing at the top. (I can look out over a roof next to our classroom and see much broken glass scattered across it - all I believe from classroom windows.) Our storeroom, on the other hand, is on the north side so it is cold in there. I don't work in there because there isn't much table space but I do go in to sit down (I'm on my feet during classes) and to get a brief respite from the students.
Two of my students in one class have the name of "Dimitor." They both brought in "bon-boni" (boxes of chocolates) on Friday, offered me one and shared the remainder with the rest of the class. Although this is the typical way to celebrate one's birthday (bring chocolates to share), they brought chocolates because it was their "Name Day." In the Bulgarian branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, there are some saints who have special days. And if one has the same name as one of those saints, that person can celebrate it as their name day. During a long break between classes, Noska grabbed my arm and took me two floors down to the storeroom of the mathematics teachers (bigger room with with sofa, chairs and coffee table). There were about 10 teachers celebrating with boxes of chocolates, small cookies, nuts, cokes and wine. Part of the celebration was for the Name Day but also for Tanya's twin boys who had a birthday that day (they are in college).
Two interesting observations: As I sat here writing, I could hear some pounding coming from outside. When I looked out, I saw a man with a rug-beater (like ones used when I was young) beating either a rug or blanket that was hung over a wooden cross bar above some benches. This is the way both blankets and rugs are cleaned (there are also electric vacuum cleaners here). As we ate breakfast this morning, we turned on the TV and watched a Charlie Brown and Snoopy cartoon in German. There is also a French channel, a Turkish channel, the international CNN channel in English, and the rest are all Bulgarian.
I'll close out the above discussion on heating with the way our apartment is heated. A large-type heater (4' long x 1 1/2' wide x 3' high) was provided for us in the living room. The heat is regulated with the top knob and the blower with the lower knob. It takes a while to get heated up (like the burners on the stove) but once it is heated, holds the heat for a long time after being turned off (it would seem to be a hazard if there were small children around because it is very hot to the touch). When the lights are out at night, we can see the red burning inside. There are also two flat cement bricks placed in the bottom; they also hold heat for awhile. It would probably be more efficient if we closed all the doors in the rooms. The problem is that the bathroom is just off the entryway so that if we closed the living room door, the bathroom would end up being very cold. As it gets colder, we may end up closing all doors anyway. Yesterday, we bought a small efficient heater in Yambol that we are using in the bedroom. We may use that to heat up the bathroom in the mornings before our showers.
Our water heater is also in the bathroom and it doesn't hold the heat as well when it's cold. (When we first arrived, my School Director explained that we should turn the water heater on about an hour before we needed it, then turn it off when we're done with showers. Otherwise, if we left it on too long, the water heater would go - and here she spread out her hands from a fist like there would be an explosion.) Needless to say, we try not to leave it on an overly long time.
Today was our Halloween celebration at school, the culmination of the past three weeks of work. All students who wished to in 6th, 7th, and 8th classes could bring a costume they made to school. We had focused primarily on the witch, skeleton, ghost (who said BOO! causing students to jump which my students loved) and bat. So most costumes were mainly those creatures. We had learned a song I found on the web so they practiced it. With the costumed students in front and remainder in back, each class visited several other classes, gave a brief history of Halloween in Bulgarian, (which I wrote and Rosie translated) then read the song they had learned. At the end, we all yelled "Trick or Treat" and several of the students passed out wrapped candy I had bought for this purpose. The students really enjoyed seeing the costumes, particularly one of the sixth grades - several of those students made great witch costumes and one student made a skeleton costume, just out of a black shirt with white stripes sewn on to look like bones and all with great homemade masks. Rel came over and took pictures for the website and hopefully will get them on the school website before too long (in his copious spare time!).
Thursday of this week (Nov. 1) is a school holiday in Bulgaria. It's purpose is to celebrate the culture. There may be some dancing down at the Centre. So I have Wednesday free (although I'll probably visit the Pensioner's Club again), Thursday free, and Rosie told me this evening that we will also be off on Friday (although we may have to make up that day later, possibly on a Saturday). So right now I'm certainly not being overworked.
It's just as well. Both of us have been ill off and on over the past month. First Rel wrenched his back when he tried to move the bed, the next week I stayed home over the weekend to protect my throat from a worsening cold, after that Rel got a bad cold, and now this week I have the flu. The weather has warmed up considerably since last week when it was so cold (feels almost 70 degrees today). This changing weather brings on these kinds of illnesses for everyone in Straldja we're told.
Enough complaining… Next time, Edith
I met another interesting young couple last night. Rel had met them when they had come to his office to ask for help in marketing a music tape that the young man had recorded. Rel invited them to dinner. She speaks some English so we used mainly English with some Bulgarian words thrown in and were able to communicate pretty well. Stephan, the young man, has a physical problem from the Army so he is unable to work. Marianna would like to work but is unable to find it here in Straldja so they are on what we would call "welfare." They get 21 leva a month plus a carton of canned goods (she got sick from some of it so doesn't eat it anymore). In return, she must work five days a week doing cleaning jobs with the gypsies, something she is very embarrassed about. Last winter, they could not afford to have heat (I think they live in the home of his mother who is ill and lives in a monastery). With good reason, they see themselves as not having much hope.
What to me made them so interesting were the talents and skill they seem to have beyond music (he's a self-taught synthesizer and violin player) but that they don't recognize as being valuable assets. For example, she brought as a gift a small container of dried mushrooms that she carried in a very attractive Christmas covering. When I questioned her about it, she explained she had designed and made the cover herself (she went to a school where she learned design). This one was cotton but she also makes them out of linen. She asks approximately 10 leva (which is $5) for the cotton and 15 leva ($7.50) for the linen. The problem is finding the money to continue buying supplies; this one she had made a year ago (she uses a combination of stitching and fabric paint). So we ordered several and paid her up front so that she could purchase supplies. Rel will take photos of her samples and get the pictures on the web (she has designs other than Christmas also). If people are interested, we can see that she gets the orders and money. For something authentically Bulgarian, very attractive, and made here in Straldja, paying $5 (or $7.50) is a real bargain.
But that wasn't the end of it. I had noticed their winter jackets when they first arrived so, as they were getting ready to leave, I commented on them (I was wondering where someone with no money could have gotten such nice winter coats). That's when I found out that they make all their own clothes, including the winter jackets. They were matching, were navy blue with some red trim at the pockets and lining I believe. For interest, they had made like a large white zigzag stitch (only better) around pockets and collar. And they looked very warm. With much difficulty, they had made them with the machine they had (it isn't equipped to do the "puffy" lining). She explained that they needed winter coats so they made them. The shirt he wore, his pants and jacket, plus her skirt, vest and blouse they had made themselves. For those of you who sew, this may not seem unusual - except for the fact that, to do this in America, it would be more expensive to make the clothes than just to go out and buy them. These clothes are warm and typically Bulgarian in style. In contrast, the boots (shoes) that they put on when leaving were very old and worn; this is something that would be much more difficult to make at home.
We have been searching out stores, items that people in Bulgaria make themselves so that we know they are authentically Bulgarian. My colleague at school brought in some beautiful cross-stitching she had done. A neighbor (parent of one of my students) came over Sunday and brought samples of her "Bulgarian lace" (she called it "crochette"). It included not only small furniture coverings but also tablecloths for round tables. She brought her books that showed patterns and said that I could choose a pattern and she could make it. And THOSE patterns included bedspreads for both a single bed and double bed. The price for the round tablecloth was 300 leva (about $150). With Rel's help, we plan to include photos of all the work done by these local artists and artisans and get them on the website. We can vouch for their authenticity.
Today, Thursday, was a holiday for Straldja. It was the celebration of St. Michael, which is the name of the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church here. This is a big celebration each year for Straldja. Schools were out and activities have been going on since Tuesday afternoon. Rel attended many of them and took pictures. One activity involved students from school (I was teaching a S.I.P. class at the time). Students were organized into teams and were given questions to answer - they dealt mainly with Straldja I think. Rel said that the students were given the questions in writing and they responded in writing. So the people watching the competition didn't really know what was being asked or answered. However, the prizes for members of the winning team were "footballs" for each student (we call them soccer balls). Yesterday one of the activities was a race that evidently students were involved in. Rel waited for it to start but had to meet me so didn't get to see what actually happened.
This morning we joined residents in "Democratic Square" to watch the raising of the flag and to listen to a few words from the Mayor. From there, we walked to the Church where there was to be a service in honor of St. Michael. One reason we wanted to go was to see the inside of the Church (a wooden fence surrounds the property so we really hadn't ssen the outside before this either) and also to see how such a service would be conducted.
The bells were ringing as we entered the courtyard; they were being rung by hand with two long ropes to the ground. The bells themselves are housed by the front gate in a wooden structure much like that used by our forest rangers in the States, only not as tall. We could see inside the church as we walked toward the entrance. Many lit candles were on view. Along with the candles and lit chandeliers, all the color from throw rugs on the floor, the paintings on the wall, and the colorful robes worn by the priests, it all seemed very Christmasy. Very thin candles are sold just inside the front door and these are carried to the front of the room, lit and put into multiple candleholders set around. (It is the job of one woman during the service to remove candles that have burnt down making room for new ones.) People came and went during the whole time we were there, lighting candles and acknowledging pictures of saints along the front wall.
The Church itself is not large. It was built in the 1800's and shows much wear, particularly in the paintings that were done on all the walls. The later edition of paintings are framed and hung on the front wall. The service itself was very ritualistic, with priests coming and going, saying prayers with their hands and with words. We, the congregation, were standing through all of this; the only chairs were along the sidewalls and not many people used them. Several dignitaries were in attendance. The "metropol" (the second highest ranking person in the Bulgarian E.O. Church) conducted the service along with priests visiting from other parts of the country. The other dignitary was one of the candidates running for President of the Country. He's a wealthy businessman (sounds like New York City!) and lives in Yambol. As we understand it, he ranks about 8th in a field of eight candidates.
The music for the service was done without any instruments other than the voice. A soloist (priest) replaced what would have been organ music prior to the beginning of the service. What I really enjoyed, however, was the small choir (I say small because the space could not have held many people) placed in a balcony loft at the rear of the room. A younger priest in front would sing some phrases, then the choir in back would respond with some. There were about 3-4 parts singing in harmony. I could hear the leader, prior to each "singing," quickly hum the notes for each part so that they were always on key when they sang. For me, the choir was the best part of the service and was the part that reminded me most of home.
With standing for almost three hours and also smelling incense that whole time, I began getting a headache so I left before Rel. He stuck it out through the whole thing. There was to be a meal afterwards and he was invited but chose to come home instead. Who would have thought that standing that long could be just as tiring, or moreso, than taking a long walk. There were more activities this afternoon but I figured I had experienced enough for the day. It was more important for me to spend time planning lessons for tomorrow. Our assistant program director for teachers is visiting (from Sophia) my class tomorrow so I must be well-planned and ready.
More later… Edith
November 10, 2001
Rel and I went on a longer excursion today than we had originally planned. Our idea was to go to Yambol to do some shopping. We checked our bus schedule and agreed we would leave at 7:10 a.m. from the bus station, a bus that we have taken before (microbus). We arrived before 7 a.m., didn't see the microbus but did see people waiting at a bus stop across the street (where I had previously caught a Yambol bus). When the bus came, it was heading in the opposite direction, even though one of the towns listed on the bus sign was "Yambol." Rel asked the driver about Yambol and the only thing he could understand was that we were probably going someplace else first - the driver told him "Chaka, chaka," which means wait, wait. Since it was chilly outside, we decided to just stay on the bus and see where it took us: no meetings to attend, no place where we had to go to be on time so we just decided to "go with the flow." (We thought we might even end up in Sliven, a larger town west of here, but that would have been O.K. too. We could still do shopping.)
We started out of town going northeast (Yambol is southwest) and stopped at a village about five kilometers from Straldja. All the other riders got off. The bus driver told us again to "chaka, chaka" and he worked awhile on the air brakes (?) of the bus (something had been making a lot of noise when he put on the brakes). When he finished, we headed once again back to Straldja and to the same bus stop we had just left awhile before. Rel went up to the driver to pay but again the driver said, "Chaka, chaka" so Rel came back saying he thought we would be going to another village before going to Yambol. He was right. This time we headed east out of town. This was an area neither of us had seen before so it was interesting to see many, many rows of grapevines. Since there are no fences, owners have marked their grapevine rows to show which belongs to them (we're assuming most of the owners live in Straldja). By the way, grape vines are held by concrete posts rather than wood - many, many concrete posts. We think the reason for concrete is that people would steal wood if it were there. About ten kilometers later, we arrived in another village where all the riders got off. This time, however, a new rider got on which seemed rather promising to us.
Then, back to Straldja again to the same bus stop, our third visit there this morning. Rel again went up to the driver to pay and this time the driver took our money, so we knew we were now headed to Yambol. We started out of town with the new riders but instead of turning southwest as we would normally do, the bus continued straight south. We figured we would be visiting another village before Yambol and, again, we were right. This area we had not visited before either (it is in the hills south of town) so we were interested in seeing the fields and villages as we passed through. (It's prettier in the hills than down here on the plains.) But by this time, we were both chilled through. We could see our breath when we talked to each other. So we were quite happy to see the outskirts of Yambol up ahead and got off very happily. What would normally have taken us about 40 minutes ended up being almost a two-hour ride - not something we would have chosen to do particularly on such a chilly morning but it all worked out O.K. in the end.
Monday we leave on a train for Sofia. I'm scheduled for some medical work (teeth -shiver, shiver - and a mammogram) and Rel needs to have his blood pressure checked again. We would rather take a bus since they are faster, believe it or not, but making bus connections in Yambol or Sliven is too big a problem so we're left with the train (we've also heard some horror stories about the bathrooms on the trains). The only benefit is that we should be able to sleep without too much trouble. And the leg of the journey between Plovdiv and Sofia will be new, at least by train. Again, on Monday we have no appointments so whenever we arrive will be O.K. We return on Wednesday so I'll fill you in…
On our return:
Seven hours one way to Sofia makes a long and tiring journey. (The train stops at every small town on the route.) We did, however, meet a young man who learned English in school (also German) so we had an interesting conversation to while away the time. I asked him about the graffiti I saw on a building at the Pazardzik train station as we passed by. It said "F--- off USA!" Maybe there was anti-American sentiment that we weren't aware of. But his response was that the concern of most Bulgarians is not what's happening in America but rather how to survive from day to day and put food on the table for their families.
The Peace Corps office in Sofia has changed since we were there last (before Sept. 11). In keeping with the "high alert" and maintaining low visibility, they have taken down the American flag and have removed the "Peace Corps" emblem from the building. Where before the drive-in gate was left partially open with one outside guard on duty, there is now a small guardhouse by the walk-in gate and it is that guard who lets us in to the grounds. The large gate is closed at all times and there are about three uniformed guards on duty in the street outside the gate in addition to the guards inside. I imagine this is much like many places in the States now…
Most of the time we had in Sofia was spent on medical appointments (thankfully a minor problem with my teeth, hopefully a "cleared" mammogram, and Rel's blood pressure closer to normal). A description of the medical facilities here might be informative.
My first appointment was with the dentist (located less than a mile away - walking). Peace Corps uses about 3 or 4 different ones - ones they have checked out for standards close to American. This dentist had his own office on the third floor of an old building that was not well maintained except for the inside of his office. He is the dentist while his wife is the assistant. It is a very curious thing to sit in the one dental chair in the one office (with the waiting room on the other side of the arch doorway) with my mouth wide open and two people practically bumping heads over me trying to see inside my mouth. After checking, he wrote out an order for an x-ray (as Peace Corps said he would). We (Peace Corps assistant and me) walked another 1/4 mile to another old office building, climbed two flights, rang a bell and were let into another office space. I was taken into a room where the x-ray machine was located and had the "picture" taken. While I waited for the film to be developed to carry back with me, the young P.C. assistant also had an x-ray done since she knew she would need to have work done on a tooth eventually. Then it was back again to the dentist who confirmed that the problem was with my gum. To start the process of healing, he applied a "string" saturated with medicine into my gum. Usually in the States I would not experience much pain until I returned home and the Novacaine wore off. But here there was no Novacaine; just "typical pain that comes from visiting the dentist," according to this dentist. After two hours, it was up to me to pull the string from my gum.
My next appointment was for a mammogram. With the P.C. assistant again accompanying me, we walked another half mile to another building which, once inside, looked more like a hospital - minus the antiseptic smell. The receptionist sent us down the hallway to a room. As we arrived, the door opened and a bearded man in his 40's (?) stepped out. He wore a white tunic and I assumed he would be the one doing the mammogram (Andrea, our P.C. nurse, had sent me with a hospital gown since she knew a gown would not be provided and that the technician might possibly be male). Before we stepped into the room, however, another woman came up and began talking with the technician and a 3-way conversation ensued. Shortly, however, he waved me into the room with the P.C. assistant following (as she had been instructed to do by Andrea). The P.C. assistant (I can't remember her name) told me later that the other woman had received a call from the Swedish Embassy requesting that a woman from there be given a mammogram immediately - so that I would have had to wait. But the assistant reminded the technician of the amount of work they received from Peace Corps and I was waved in.
The mammogram machine looked like those in America. Again, it was a very strange feeling to have a male conduct my mammogram. He was however solicitous and reacted with concern when the machine squeezed too tightly (more so than technicians I've had in the States!). The ultra-sound was also similar (conducted in case Washington, DC, where the film is read, would have any questions). He read the film in the room and announced that I had no problems. He seemed very sure and I wondered at that since I've had several mammograms in the States that were questioned by those conducting them.
Flu shots will be given later since it has not yet arrived through State Department mail. Several countries like the Ukraine have found anthrax in their State Dept. mail, so all mail was returned to Washington DC. It will be sent back once the mail has been cleared of anthrax. (Mail through regular channels has not been a problem.)
Our train trip home was uneventful but beautiful since it came through the mountains. More later…Edith
Bulgaria had its Presidential election this week and the Socialist candidate won. Actually, it was a run-off election last Monday between the Socialist candidate and the candidate backed by the Prime Minister, King Simeon. The previous Monday, none of the candidates had received more than 50% of the vote. (Because people vote in the school buildings, we had no school on either one of those Mondays!) The position of President is largely that of a figurehead but the fact that the Socialist candidate received more votes means, in essence, a "no confidence" vote for the Prime Minister. When originally elected, the Prime Minister promised it would take him about 800 days to make a change for the better in Bulgaria. But, according to a recent report on CNN, the tragedies of Sept 11 have resulted in making poor countries poorer. Funding that would normally be available to poor countries is non-existent or has been diverted elsewhere (the slow-down of the economy hasn't helped either). What few markets Bulgaria had may not be available so Bulgaria is also feeling the "pinch" - and they had so little to begin with.
This is also the week of Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving Day, I will be teaching and Rel will be working in the Mayor's office. There is no such celebration here. However, Rel has been planning and working towards preparing a Thanksgiving meal on Saturday the 24th. We took the bus to Sliven last Saturday so that we could get groceries from the big grocery store, "Billa." And tonight Rel is picking up the turkey, one that was raised in a neighboring village, and cleaned, so this is probably the freshest turkey I've ever had for Thanksgiving. It will not be as large as those we've had before (only 7 lbs we think) because the turkeys don't grow as large here. We may have to fry up some extra meat for the 10 colleagues we have invited. Rosie will be coming over early to help Rel since she loves to cook and wants to learn how to prepare an American stuffed turkey. Rel also practiced making a pumpkin pie since his counterpart donated a large pumpkin (a long-necked variety with very little seeds and a lot of meat in it). We'll find out how well Bulgarians take to an American Thanksgiving Dinner, at least as close as Rel can get to it.
For the month of December, I had been planning to teach for the S.I.P. classes a unit on "Christmas Around the World." I had planned that the students would teach me about their Christmas here and I would tell them about the American ways of celebrating Christmas. Luckily I checked first with an adult - who said that essentially Bulgaria really doesn't have ways to celebrate Christmas. With the Communists here for 40 years, that kind of thing was not encouraged. There are traditions however that are very, very old and that still take place. One has to do with slaughtering a pig. As I understand it, the slaughter takes place in the street. As the time gets closer, we will be able to experience it and maybe understand it better (the family of Rel's counterpart said they would not do it this year since there is so much fat on the meat). Another tradition is that men go around in groups and sing at different houses. The families must feed the singers and that includes providing rakiya. After awhile, as you can imagine, the "singers" become rather inebriated. However, the tradition of singing at houses (minus the rakiya) sounds somewhat like our Christmas caroling.
Because this was OUR holiday and I was missing a REAL Thanksgiving, I decided to spend my teaching time playing Thanksgiving word games with my classes. During the break after my first class, I went into our storage/planning room and found the table set with a variety of "cookies," apples, hot chocolate (it was very cold outside) and, from the Director who came in, a bouquet of beautiful yellow and white mums. "Chestite praznik," (happy holiday) they told me. If I couldn't be at home celebrating Thanksgiving, then this was probably the next best thing.
I have not traveled out of the country except to Bulgaria but I would be willing to bet that there aren't many other places in the world where the people are as open and welcoming as they are here. This morning's surprise celebration was one example. Another example was our visit (Rel and me) last evening to the Pensioner's Club. We hadn't been there in several weeks (with colds and traveling). When we walked in, we were welcomed like long-lost family. People clapped, women came over and kissed me, chairs were pulled out for us to sit down, food was set in front of us (celebration of a member's birthday), and the men gathered around Rel and kept up a lively conversation. Women talked with me but the best I could do was catch a word here and there and smile and nod. I did understand though one of the women asking for two more copies of a photo I had taken of her and her grandson. In return, she will knit me some "booties." If there is a time when we need morale-boosting, the place to go is the Pensioner's Club. They make us feel honored every time we go.
A friend has asked me to describe a typical teaching day here in Straldja. So here goes: I teach four classes: two classes of sixth grade, one of seventh, and one of eighth. Tuesday, for example, I arrived at school before 8 a.m. - (before any of my colleagues which is usually the way it is). At the second bell, I gathered my books and went to class. I taught one sixth grade for 40 minutes. This is actually my most difficult class. I had a problem with some students playing around so, at the 20-minute break before the next class, I kept them in the room to finish their work. At first, they seemed somewhat offended that I would do such a thing but eventually buckled down and completed their work.
My 8th grade then came in for a 45-minute class. Our textbook included a story about Native Americans and, since students in the S.I.P. class have been studying that, they provided for the whole class more information than what was included in the text. Another 10-minute break and I had the second 6th grade class. These students are often noisy but very energetic. I've taught them several children's verses that they know very well, like "One, Two Buckle My Shoe," and "B-I-N-G-O." They repeat them with gusto! Those verses seem simple to us but they rhyme so they're fun to say and also provide me the opportunity to help students with their pronunciation. For example, with "5, 6 Pick up sticks," they tend to say "seex" rather than "six" and "steecks" rather than "sticks" (there is no short ”i" sound in the Bulgarian language). After a second 20-minute break, my last regular class of 7th graders came in. This is the smallest class I have (17 students - the largest is 24) and the most fun to teach. By the time we were finished, it was about 11:30. I started home for lunch and met Rel along the way (most days we are able to eat lunch together at home). I took a nap while Rel went back to work. At 2:30, I walked back to school to teach the 6th grade S.I.P. class for an hour and a half (we're finishing up our unit on Native Americans). When that was finished, I came on back home.
Luckily, I don't have to teach all four classes every day and I have S.I.P. classes only three days a week. Rosie and I share the teaching of the 6th grade. She teaches them on Mondays and Thursdays and I teach them on Tuesdays and Fridays (we both have Wednesdays off). This makes my Monday quite relaxed. I teach 7th and 8th grade classes during the second and third periods of the day then I'm done until the S.I.P. class at 3 pm. So I come home, do laundry, study until I go back in the afternoon. On Thursdays, my schedule is different. I teach 7th grade at 8 a.m. then the 8th grade at 12:30 pm. So again, I come home between classes and get some other work done.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher, I'm encouraged to develop a secondary project within the community. I'm not sure at this point what it will be. I'm very interested however in helping the local artists and artisans develop a market for their work so they can sustain themselves. Through the teachers and Rel, I have met several talented people who have produced some beautiful work. Rel has taken photos of their work and we will be putting them on the web. As I've alluded to before, the cost of their products in American dollars is very reasonable. I am investigating procedures on how someone in the States can purchase authentic Bulgarian art and handiwork directly from the artists. Also I'm investigating how American dollars can be changed to Bulgarian leva without an exorbitant fee attached. As soon as we have the website set up and a purchase procedure identified, I will let you know.
Next Tuesday, Rel and I leave for Valingrad, a resort area, for 4 days. We have a language training session there with all of the PC volunteers who are in southern Bulgaria. Since my language skills are still very basic at best (I'm taking a one-month vacation from my tutor), I'm not entirely enthusiastic about going. However, there are hot springs/baths there so we will take our swimsuits. So maybe the time away will be relaxing, in that sense anyway.
We think of you all and wish for you a very Happy Thanksgiving… Edith
That's the last time Rel will try to bake a turkey here. From now on, it will be chickens only. The problem is that turkeys here are not like any turkeys in the States. Although this was a "fresh" turkey having been just killed and "dressed," it was the toughest bird we've ever had. It was thin to begin with (Rel took a picture before putting it in the oven), only about seven pounds - but the biggest turkey around. After he cooked it for the specified time, he still wasn't sure it was done. The skin was so thick and there was so much fat just inside the skin. He cooked it longer and we decided it was probably done. Then there was the problem of cutting it. In the States, the meat practically falls off when the turkey is done. But here, cutting it with a regular knife hardly even dented it. So Rel called Rosie to bring a knife with her, a serrated knife. Rel finally got it cut - but then there was the problem of CHEWING it. As I said, the next time it will be chicken - the one Rel fixed yesterday turned out just fine. When we were in training, we were told that fixing and eating turkey in Bulgaria was not very popular. Now we know why!
The rest of the meal that Rel fixed for Thanksgiving Dinner turned out very well - green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin, candied carrots, dressing, and the dessert of pumpkin and pecan pies (he worked his tail off!). And most of our guests ate most of the food. One thing they really liked seemed to be both the pumpkin pie and the pecan pie. Rel had found something like "Dream Whip" to beat and put over the pies. So that went over pretty well. The cornbread was less popular but it wasn't because of the cooking. Some foods like corn meal are so different here that no matter what Rel does, they still don't taste right. Another example is pasta. No matter where we buy it, it still clumps together in gooey gobs once it's cooked. It's kind of like the turkey - because it has the same name as the one we use in America, that doesn't mean it will BE the same or even TASTE the same. This is another cultural difference we're trying to get used to…
It snowed for the first time yesterday - on our Thanksgiving celebration (it's snowing again today). It was/is snow flurries, not hard, blowing snow; just enough to see it. This morning there was snow on top of house roofs, a sprinkling on the ground and snow on the mountains to the north. It's been cold here but we have stayed fairly warm surprisingly. Facing south helps a lot. The large heater in the living room has been putting out good heat (it also makes a wonderful clothes dryer). We haven't had to use the small heater very much that we bought for the bedroom. If our sponsoring agencies (the school and the municipality) were paying for the electricity, we would be more careful about limiting the use of them (we're supposed to limit our use of heat in the daytimes but not allow it to go below 65 degrees). Since Peace Corps decided that Straldja couldn't afford to pay for our utilities, Peace Corps foots the bills.
It's interesting that things we take for granted that are always there take on much more importance when they are not there. For example, at home during Thanksgiving I would turn on Macy's Thanksgiving Parade and watch it off and on during the morning. It wasn't all that significant to me but it was something I could watch or not watch. This year there was no choice. Although we do get international CNN, they did not broadcast the whole parade, just a few minutes for their news programs.
Thanksgiving was difficult for me, moreso than I think for Rel. I didn't like working on Thanksgiving Day; I just didn't like to be out of our country on Thanksgiving. Even though people here have tried to alleviate my homesickness to some extent, it just isn't the same. Christmas will be just as difficult. That's why we will probably travel to Burgas on the Black Sea for several days over Christmas. It's a new place that we haven't been yet and it may help to take my mind off not being at home. Several volunteers have told me that after the first year here, they were able to get over the "hump" and the rest of the time has gone rather quickly. The "end" of our first year is six months away but I'm hoping that that will go quickly once we get over the holidays…
Something else I took for granted in the States was clean air, particularly in the winter. Here there is so much burning going on: first leaves (like we used to do when I was young), then paper for heat (saved over the summer months), then wood for many homes, and then soft coal for stoves. Even though this is a small rural town, the air gets very thick with smoke. This is one of the reasons upper respiratory ailments are a common problem for volunteers in Bulgaria. I just never realized how beneficial our "clean air" laws were in America. This also may be one of the reasons that, for a month at a time in the winter months, "fog" can hang heavy over the town. Talk about getting depressed!
Early in the school year, I discussed the problem of a lack of textbooks for my students. That problem has been solved by Leslie Zoroya, the daughter-in-law of my sister. She works for the Los Angeles school system and has been able to get five boxes of textbooks donated for my school. The problem now is in getting them mailed here. If she mails them in M-bags, which is the cheapest way, it will cost $1 per pound. At the moment, I am hoping for an approximate weight of the books so we will know the total mailing cost. Based on one M-bag I had sent earlier in September, I would guess the mailing cost for the textbooks will be about $100 and possibly more (Leslie will let me know of the "ballpark" figure and I will pass that on to you). If you would like to make a donation toward this mailing, please let me know. To make the donation easier, a check can be mailed to my daughter, Lori Potter - rather than sending it here (fees for changing dollars to leva are astronomical!) - and she can deposit it into our account. She then will send a check to Leslie for the mailing. Lori's address is: 27 Hunter Rd., Okeechobee, FL 34974.
This is a good time of the year to thank all of you who have sent us packages, pictures, letters, goodies - AND e-mail. Everything we have received we are thankful for, and invariably have put to good use. Having contact with you has helped to sustain us in the difficult times and has provided encouragement for us along the way. I've come to understand how important and valuable that contact is. Thank you…
More after our return from Valingrad…Edith