By Rel Davis

My home for the next two years will be a small town called Straldja, located somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

No exactly nowhere. But it might as well be.

No one has ever heard of it. Few people even know where its country (Bulgaria) is located. The nearest big city is Bourgas – and whoever heard of that?

Straldja is a tiny municipality in the wide flatlands just south of the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria. It looks – superficially, at least – like the American Midwest. Flat, rural country. Lots of wheat and livestock. Chickens and turkeys. Mountains off in the distance. Look closer and . . . well, Toto, it certainly isn’t Kansas!

The horse or donkey drawn wagons that share the roads with Soviet-era autos with names like Lada would tip you off right away. So would the herds of goat and sheep that share the same roads. The Cyrillic names on the road signs would be another indication that you were in a not-quite mirror image of the American heartland.

Straldja could be caught in a timewarp, in fact – something out of Star Trek where people from the American Depression run around with cellphones, where offices with people typing letters on ancient portable typewriters are next door to offices where people are designing modern webpages on the latest computers, and where every home has a garden and stocks of home-canned vegetables to get through the next cold winter – along with satellite TV in the living room.

Not just Straldja, of course, but all of Bulgaria is like that. It’s the Depression and the 1950s and the latest technology all competing to see which is the "real Bulgaria."

But my home will be Straldja.

My wife and I are Peace Corps volunteers, you see, and we’ve just been assigned here to the town of Straldja, the place no one ever heard of. We aren’t your typical Peace Corps people, mind you. I’m in my mid-sixties and Edith will be 60 before we leave Bulgaria.

A "municipality" in Bulgaria isn’t what you think of in the States when you think of "municipality." It’s a unit of government somewhat analogous to a county in America. Bulgaria is divided into 22 regions (called "oblasts") and more than 200 municipalities.

Straldja municipality contains the town of Straldja, with about 6,500 people in it, and 22 villages. Maybe 20,000 total in the entire municipality. More than 80% of the land area in Straldja is agricultural land. The area produces wheat, livestock, tobacco, truck crops of fruits and vegetables, and lots of grapes. It’s famous for its wines (in Bulgaria, at least) and for its rakiya – the fiery brandy of the Balkans. The wines, by the way, are truly excellent. The rakiya, well, truly fiery!

The infrastructure of the municipality is slowly collapsing, like the infrastructure of every other municipality in Bulgaria. When the Soviet system collapsed, so did the Bulgarian economy. Dependent on Russia as its primary market, Bulgaria entered the Free World and a deep economic depression at the same time. Ten years later and things might be getting better, but it’s hard to tell.

Unemployment is widespread. Official figures for Bulgaria as a whole give unemployment as 20% but it’s probably considerably higher than that. An unemployed worker only receives government assistance for one year. After that, it’s easy to get dropped through a bureaucratic crack in the sidewalk.

Straldja is more open about its problem. Around 40% unemployment. In a small community like this, it’s hard to keep up a false front.

That’s why everyone has a garden, with lots of vegetables and lots of fruit trees and lots of grapevines, and a goat or cow and a few chickens or turkeys or geese for good measure. And that’s why they spend most of the summer and fall putting fruits and vegetables in jars and making wine and brewing rakiya. They’ll need it during the winter to come. And if they happen to have a job, why some relative will need it, or a good friend will need it, or the folks back home in the village will need it.

Almost every Bulgarian has a home in a village. It’s where they were born. Where their parents live (or lived). Where they might retire eventually. People who live in apartment houses (and there are many who do, in the Soviet-era bloks that sprout like industrial mushrooms all over the country) have a garden in the village, and a goat or a cow as well. That’s their lifeline.

Minimum wage in Bulgaria is 80 leva a month – less than $40. A retiree makes 50 leva a month – less than $25. A school teacher makes 150 leva a month – less than $75. And statistics show that to survive in Bulgaria you must earn at least 250 leva a month – less than $125.

The average income in Bulgaria is 250 leva a month, which means an awful lot of people shouldn’t be surviving.

But survive they do. On canned vegetables and freshly bucketed milk and home-made yogurt and cirene (like feta cheese). On odd jobs and errand-running. On the largesse of family members and friends.

In that respect, Straldja is typical. Lots of people are unemployed. There isn’t a lot of money flowing around town. But the people survive. People work hard putting food away for the winter. And the people know how to have a good time. And how to enjoy beauty.

Every home has a garden filled with cabbage and corn and tomatoes and cucumbers and watermelons. But in every garden there is always something else as well -- lots and lots of flowers. No matter how poor they are and how much they need the food, they always make a place in the garden for beautiful flowers.

The good times? Don’t forget all that home-made wine and home-brewed rakiya! "Na gosti" – having people over for a party – is a national pastime in Bulgaria. Lots of delicious food and plenty of fiery brandy, in Bulgaria that makes a party.

Walk down the street in Straldja – my home for the next two years – and you get a feeling of the hopelessness of a country in the midst of a 10-year depression. Most of the homes are in need of repair. The streets are often unpaved or potholed. Lots of businesses are closed and many buildings stand empty. Factories are silent and their crumbling roofs paint a picture of despair. And the gypsies, poorest of the poor, roam the streets in their tattered clothes, garnering what few stotinki (pennies) they can before going back to their homes which have no electricity, no water, no sewage and no paved streets, potholed or not.

But when you talk to them, in your broken Bulgarian (gained after a 10-week crash course in the language), their eyes light up and they smile and you can see the hope of a better future reflected in their smiles.

That’s why Edith and I are here, by the way. We were invited here by the people of Straldja to help them find the future they hope for.

Edith will be teaching English in the local school. English is the language of the Internet and it’s the language of something called the "market economy," something Bulgaria is trying so desperately to have as its own. Modern jobs require a knowledge of the Internet and of computers and for that the children will need to have at least a working knowledge of English. Edith will be leading many young people into a new tomorrow, and the chance for a better-paying job.

I will be working for the local municipality, teaching the people how to function in a market economy. I’ll also be trying to bring physical assistance to the community – grant money if possible, western business investment if we’re lucky.

My job won’t be easy. No one’s ever heard of Straldja.

Except, of course, for you. Right now.

Now that you’ve heard of it, why don’t you consider giving it a visit? Your dollar can go a long way here. We’re about an hour from Bourgas, a major resort on the Black Sea. We’re at the edge of the foothills of the Balkan Range, called the "Old Mountains" by Bulgarians, with lots of fishing in crystal-clear streams and miles and miles of untouched forests. We’re close to ancient sites with thousands of years of history behind them – ancient Thracians, Greeks, and Romans lived around here.

Bulgaria is a peaceful oasis in a sometimes chaotic Balkan environment. And where else would you find a republic where the former king is the current Prime Minister?

(Rel Davis and Edith Sloan are current Peace Corps volunteers in Straldja, Bulgaria. They can be reached at: reldavis@yahoo.com or at drsloan42@yahoo.com. Their website is at: http://reldavis.freeservers.com.)