E-MAIL NEWSLETTERS FROM BULGARIA
By Rel Davis
Newsletter Number 1
This is to get you all up-to-date on how we're doing. I think I'll begin by quoting from my journal for the past few days:
Sunday, June 24, 2001. Panagyurishte, Bulgaria. 8 a.m.
We have just completed our first full day with our host family. They are Georgi and Petja Seferinkina, and their daughters, Milena (14) and Anna (10).
Georgi and Petja are in their late 30s (37 and 38). Georgi is an engineer in the local mine and Petja is a teacher at the local high school.
Milena studies English and is an artist. Anna plays the accordion. Georgi likes to fish and Petja enjoys literature.
The learning curve has spiked!
Edith and I went to our staging event last Monday, June 18, in Washington, DC, along with 54 other Peace Corps volunteers.
We stayed that night at the Georgetown Holiday Inn and flew out Tuesday via Lufthansa, leaving around 4:30 p.m. Arrived in Frankfort, Germany, Wednesday a.m. about 5:30 (11:30 p.m. our time).
Edith and I checked into the Sheraton for 2 or 3 hours sleep and a shower (cost $100 but it was worth it!)
Flew out via Lufthansa again on Wednesday afternoon to Sofia. Then by bus to the small town of Strelcha, 13 km E of Panagyurishte.
We had two days of orientation and shots. Got our first "walk-arou nd" money (105 leva, about 7 leva a day.) About 2.1 leva per dollar.
Friday evening, we left by bus for Panagyurishte. At the school where our training is to take place, we met with our host families.
The Seferinkina's live on the sixth floor of a soviet-era apartment building about 15 minutes walk from the school. Very nice apartment -- hot shower and all.
Petja is a great cook -- stuffed peppers the first night -- and Georgi is very helpful with the language.
We walked around town twice on Saturday. Visited the pazara (outdoor market) and Petja bought groceries.
Met a lot of other PC volunteers walking with their host families!
Saturday evening, we walked to the Internet Store, where we e-mailed for the first time. Georgi is trying to arrange Internet access from home here.
We found a street full of linden trees (Lupa durvi) full of blossoms. I want to pick some for tea!
I'm glad I studies Bulgarian so diligently earlier, although I still feel quite inadequate. Edith needs to do a lot more studying.
Today we are supposed to go on an outing to a nearby city. Tomorrow, we begin classes.
Sunday, 6/24/2001, 4:25 p.m.
We went to the town of Hisar today, mainly to get mineral water for the family. The water comes from deep in the earth. We drank water from 400 meters down and 2000 years old. The water is quite hot when it emerges from the earth.
It’s all free. We filled up a half dozen containers to bring back.
Hisar is an old Roman fort and bath. The ruins of a great wall remain – built in the fourth century by the Romans. It was destroyed after the 1876 Revolution because it was then a Turkish fort.
Ruins of Roman springs are there as well – begun in the 3rd century.
The town is beautiful. We saw more linden trees and picked a bunch of blossoms for tea.
On the way to Hisar, we stopped where people were picking cherries. We picked some off trees and ate them. They are a sour variety used in canning and compotes, but quite good. We also saw people cutting herbs by the roadside and harvesting linden blossoms for market.
We had tarator (cold cucumber garlic and yogurt soup) for lunch, and carp (caught by Georgi, of course). Delicious!
I’ll send more later. The food here is wonderful. Fresh fruits and vegetables and home-made yogurt, ice cream and preserves. The city cut off our water for a couple of days – but that’s what Peace Corps volunteers have to expect, right?
We are really enjoying the experience. Wish you were all here.
Newsletter Number 2
Hi! It’s Saturday, July 7, 2001, and we’ve just completed our second full week of school here in the town of Panagyurishte, Bulgaria.
School is hard and rewarding. Hours are long. And there isn’t a lot of time to rest. Edith is sleeping in this morning. We were supposed to go with our host family (the Seferintini) fishing this morning, but she wasn’t feeling well so they went without us (all but Petya, our hostess, who stayed behind to make sure we had lunch today.)
Panagyrishte is a small city of around 20,000 population, located about 90 km east of Sophia. It’s surrounded by low hills. It’s a quiet place. With more than 20% unemployment, most of the people also have gardens. Many people, even in the city, keep goats and cows and sheep. We have a small Roma (gypsy) population here, but the bulk are Slavic descent and nominally Orthodox Christian.
Our host family consists of Georgi, an engineer in the local mine (the city’s major employer), Petya, a teacher at a local technical high school (light industries), and two daughters, Milena, 14-year-old student who speaks a little English, and Ani, 10-years old. They preserve large quantities of fruit and vegetables for the winter months, and Georgi makes his own wine and rakiya.
Life is rough for most Bulgarians. The average salary is 200 leva a month – less than $100 a month. The average school teacher makes only 140 leva a month (about $65). And retired people subsist on pensions of around 50 leva a month – which is below subsistence level even in Bulgaria. Everybody has a garden or has family with a garden, and they have to grow as much food as possible to augment their income.
Having the Peace Corps conduct their classes in Panagyurishte is a major economic boon to the city. With 54 volunteer trainees, about 30 staff members and teachers, and visiting staff members, we contribute a large amount of money (by local standards) to the community. Each family receives 400 leva a month to house and feed each volunteer trainee (and staff member). This is equal, of course, to twice the average salary in Bulgaria! In addition, each trainee receives "walk-around" money of about 200 leva a month, for lunch, snacks and incidentals, and that also is mainly spent in town.
The people here are generally friendly and helpful. Petya is a wonderful cook and both Edith and I are probably putting on weight. They serve us no red meat (since that was our preference), only vegetables, fish and poultry – plus the cirene (feta) and kashkaval (yellow cheese). Plus, although most Bulgarians smoke a lot, our host family does not smoke at all. We have a large bedroom (the largest bedroom in the apartment) in the Seferinkini’s sixth floor apartment. Plus hot-water showers and about four meals every day! And . . . the blok (apartment house) even has an elevator!
Georgi (who like Petya does not speak English) is extremely helpful with the language. He speaks slowly and clearly and rephrases statements often until he finds a word I understand. I spend most of my time at home speaking only Bulgarian, which is really quite useful.
A typical school day: We wake up around 6 a.m. Get showers and get dressed. Petya has zakuska (breakfast) ready for us around 7. I generally take the Bulgarian coffee (espresso) and Edith has tea (usually herbal). Petya serves fruit, pastry and/or a sandwich (usually cheese toasted on bread) with juice. At 7:30 we walk to school. Classes all day: Lots of Bulgarian language classes. Cross-cultural classes. And technical classes. Edith’s classes involve TEFL, of course, and teaching techniques. Mine tend to be oriented toward the legal and administrative structure of the country, because I’ll be working with local governments.
At around 5 p.m. we get out of school (unless there’s a special class) and go home. Petya has a light snack of juice, pastries and coffee ready for us. We usually study in the evening and around 8 p.m. is supper (vecheria).
Field trips for on-site study of language and culture are part of the class structure. Edith and the other TEFL volunteers went to Pazardjik last week to visit schools there. (Pazardjik is south of here about 30 km.)
My first field trip will be next week. On Thursday morning at 6, three of us in the CED (community economic development) program will leave by bus for a tiny village down near the Greek border. The trip will take three buses and about 12 hours (to go about 200 km as the crow flies) because we’ll be going over the Rhodope mountains. We’ll spend Friday visiting the local Peace Corps volunteer and observing his work. Then we’ll come back on Saturday.
Since Edith’s language is not as good as mine, this will be a challenge for her, to communicate with the family while I’m gone. They’ve already announced that they will walk with her to and from the school to make sure she doesn’t have any problems!
We will not know where we’ll be assigned after training until around the sixth week (in August 6). There will then be a field trip to our site and a chance to meet with and get to know our counterparts. Each volunteer works with a Bulgarian counterpart to provide a liaison with the community.
Graduation will be August 30, by which time we will be expected to speak Bulgarian well enough to survive on our own in some isolated community. The training program used to be 12 weeks but with budget cuts, etc. we only have 10 weeks to complete the course. When we graduate, Edith and I will be assigned to the same community, but with different assignments, of course.
Bill: happy birthday! Or in Bulgarian: chestit rozhden den!
More later. Write or send e-mail. Our snail-mail address is:
Rel Davis & Edith Sloan
P.O. Box 259
Sofia 1000, Bulgaria
Report No. 3 from Bulgaria
Well, it’s Sunday afternoon, July 15, 2001. I’m back in Panagyurishte after a three day trip across country. As part of our training for the C.E.D. (Community Economic Development) program, we were required to visit a current Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) at site and experience a typical workday. Three of us were assigned to the municipality of Kirkovo, where a PCV named Jason Stowe is assigned. Besides myself were John (a tall midwesterner just out of college) and George (a retired accountant from Florida.)
We met Jason last Wednesday evening at the Starata Kushta (Old House) restaurant here in Panagyrishte. The next morning, the four of us caught the 6 a.m. bus to Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, which is located southeast of here. We reached Plovdiv without trouble (about a 2-hour ride) and went downtown for breakfast. We ate at a Turkish restaurant built into an ancient mosque. I had Turkish coffee with a kind of pudding – boiled wheat with fruit, raisins, nuts and strawberry syrup on top. I forget the name of the dish but it was delicious. The coffee is served with a tiny glass of water with a little spoon of white gummy sugar in it.
We walked to the bus station (across the town from where we arrived) and passed an ancient Roman arena – part of it still being used as a theater today. We climbed one of the city’s seven hills and visited an old Roman fort.
We got to the bus station 5 minutes after the bus left (the walk took longer than expected) so we had to wait for the next bus more than an hour later. We caught another bus (another 2-hour ride) to the city of Kurdzhali, a predominantly Turkish city south and east of Plovdiv. We had missed our connection with the bus, so we had a couple more hours to wait. So we explored Kurdzhali. Bought fruit at a local Pazar (market) and looked at the old mosques, etc. Kurdzhali has only about a third of its population of a few years ago, thanks to the "assimilation policy" of the last Communist leader, Zhivkov. He decreed that all Turks and Pomaks (Bulgarian moslems) had to change their names to Bulgarian ones. Since this violated their religion, a couple thousand Turks fled the country for Turkey.
The third bus (another 2-hour ride) took us to Kirkovo. The bus had engine trouble on the way, so we were stuck by the side of the road about an hour (100-degree temperature) until they could get the bus operating again.
We arrived in Kirkovo well after 6 p.m., a 12-hour ride to go about 200 kilometers.
Kirkovo is a tiny village of about 600, but is also the seat of government for the municipality of Kirkovo, which extends over a wide area and includes about 300 villages and 25,000 population. It’s nestled in the Rhodope mountains, surrounded by serene woods, a wandering stream, and carefully tended fields of corn and tobacco.
The population is entirely Muslim – mainly Turkish but with some Pomaks. They grow the small-leafed Turkish tobacco because the soil is not suitable for many other crops. Every home has a well-tended garden with fruit trees and vegetables (and usually lots of flowers as well.) The work is back breaking but the people are busy all the time.
While I was there, most of the village was up at 4 a.m. (at first light) out in the fields harvesting tobacco, or attending to livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, chickens etc.) Around noon, the temperature gets too hot to work in the fields, so they return home, to string the tobacco for drying and to preserve garden and tree produce. Around four or five in the afternoon, they return to the fields and work until around 10 p.m.
Jason (our host) works for the municipality and is working to get computers into the school system and try to find ways to bolster the area’s employable base. After income per capita in the area is about a third that of Bulgaria as a whole (about 70 leva a month – less than $35 a month.) He had an appointment that morning with a business man who was to help get a project started. The man didn’t show up. Apparently that is the Bulgarian way! We observed a computer class at the local school, at a computer lab Jason had helped bring to the community, and I learned some computer terminology in Bulgarian.
Mouse: mishka (the word, of course, for mouse.)
Floppy disk: flohpee deesk
As you can see, many of the words are just English words spelled Bulgarian.
After the workday was over, we took a walk into the woods in search of herbs, because the Rhodopes are reputed to have more herbs growing wild than any other place. We really didn’t know what to look for, but in the two-hour walk, we found:
Leepa (linden, great for tea.)
And a form of mint.
The herbs were all over the place. I’m certain we could have found more if we’d known what we were looking for! I brought samples home with me, of course. We also found a leaf that a Turkish farmer assured us was great for dermatitis if consumed as a tea.
At the local restaurant (the only one in town, though there are a handful of cafes, where you can get, of course, coffee), I tried out the "sirene po shopska" (baked cirene, like feta cheese), "kashkaval pane" (yellow cheese and bread fried), and tsatsa, a tiny fish, deep fried, that you eat whole.
We returned to Panagyurishte yesterday, a trip that took only nine hours but involved one trip of two-and-a-half hours with 30 people crammed into a 15-passenger bus.
Arrived here tired last night.
This is a really amazing country. The people mainly live in poverty but their energy and industriousness keep them going. Everybody grows and cans fruits and vegetables. They work hard all summer putting up supplies for the winter. And they make do with what they have.
One interesting thing is that every home also has lots of flowers growing. They might not have any money, and they spend many hours every day just surviving, but they always make time for the flowers.
Bulgarians are a highly educated people, on the whole, and illiteracy is extremely low (much lower than the U.S.) They are, as a people, underpaid and lacking in most of the luxuries we tend to take for granted in the States.
But they are also an inherently happy people –full of jokes and singing and dancing.
The fruits and vegetables here are all organic (they can’t afford fertilizer) and uniformly delicious. They have mineral springs all over the place (both hot and cold) and the mountains stretch on forever, filled with trees and herbs and lots of wildlife.
Sometimes I wonder if perhaps we in America haven’t lost something in exchange for our relative wealth. I haven’t tasted a peach as good as these over here since I was a kid and ate the peaches my grandmother grew.
Life in Bulgaria can be frustrating, sometimes uncomfortable, and constantly mysterious, but sit down to one of their wonderful meals, or walk along an ancient stream and across a stone bridge built by the Romans, or look up at a sky full of stars with the Milky Way as solid as a road across the sky, and you wonder what America really has to offer that could top all this.
My love to all.
Fourth Report from Bulgaria
Saturday, July 21, 2001
It’s hard to remember what I’ve written and what I haven’t. This message will deal with "a typical day in the life of a Peace Corps Trainee in Bulgaria."
I leave day after tomorrow (Monday) for a five-day field trip to Pazardzhik, a city a few miles south of here. All of us who are to be Community Economic Development volunteers will be going, though half will go to a smaller city, Velengrad, instead. About 9 of us will be in Pazardzhik. We will be meeting with the deputy kmet (mayor) and with social agencies and business leaders in the town. Our job will be to develop a "needs assessment" and write a proposal for a community project in the city – as a training exercise for what we’ll be doing individually in cities across Bulgaria when we graduate in August.
At least I’ll get to stay in a hotel in Pazardzhik, which means showers ought to be somewhat dependable.
We just got back from an all-day trip to Assenovgrad – a small village south of Plovdiv (Bulgaria’s second largest city) – and site of two places of historical importance: Assen’s Fortress, an ancient ruins that dates back to Roman times and seems to perch precariously on top of a mountain, and the Bachkovo monastery, second largest monastery in Bulgaria, built in the year 1083. We went with our host family, Georgi and Petya Seferinkini and their daughters, Milena and Ani. Yesterday was Georgi and Petya’s 15th wedding anniversary and Edith and we gave them as an anniversary present a cordless telephone. It only cost between 30 and 35 dollars but to them it was an extravagance.
Anyway, a day in the life of a Peace Corps Trainee in Bulgaria:
Every morning we get up around 6. Edith sometimes gets up earlier to write in her journal. If there is running water, we get a hot shower. (The water has been off about 5 days out of the month we’ve been here.) If there is no running water, we get a cold sponge bath.
Petya serves breakfast whenever we get in the kitchen, which is usually around 7 because we have studying to do before that. Breakfast is coffee and/or herbal tea. (I was sick to my stomach last week and Petya gave me a tea made of thyme, oregano and centurion root and it fixed me right up!) For breakfast we usually have sandwiches (bread toasted with kashkaval – yellow cheese --, butter and/or "peleschki salam" – chicken sausage), but might have noodles (covered with sirene, like feta) or sweet rolls. There is also always fresh fruit for breakfast.
About 7:30 a.m. we leave for school, which is about a 15 minute walk from here. Morning classes are usually Bulgarian language as we are getting a crash course in language. In a little over a month, we will be out in the field working in a community where most likely not a soul will speak English. It will be convenient to know enough Bulgarian to get around. Right now, we are learning how to order things in restaurants and travel around the country (field trips also help). I’m also getting a crash course in political and business language. For the next two weeks, Edith and the other TEFL (teachers of English as a foreign language) trainees will be conducting a "model school" at a local school. Every morning, they will be teaching Bulgarian students English – under the supervision of Bulgarian teachers, of course. Both of our host-family’s girls are taking classes there.
For lunch we go downtown to a restaurant. Often it’s to a pizzeria near the school. "Pizzas" are not what you’d expect. We usually get the vegetarian pizzas – tomato sauce (if you don’t ask for it, they don’t put on the sauce!), corn, black olives (with seeds), and chopped peppers. Really quite good but not what you’d get in the states. Other times we go to a kind of cafeteria where you stand in line to get whatever you like. Salads and stuffed peppers are my favorites there and Edith likes the chicken filet. A third option is to get a "job" sandwich (a pita stuffed with whatever) and take it back to the school to eat.
After lunch there are more classes, often more language classes, or technical classes on our job specialization, cross-cultural classes on relating to a different culture, or medical sessions on the stresses and illnesses often attending Peace Corps volunteer service.
At 5 p.m., we get out of school. We usually walks back home through town and do whatever shopping we need to do. When we get home, Petya has a snack laid out for us: coffee, juice, cookies or pastries and, of course, fresh fruit.
Then we study in our rooms. Last week we bought a fan for our room because the heat gets rather overbearing at times. There is usually some form of homework and always there is studying for the next day’s language session. Between 7 and 8 in the evening, is supper. This usually involves a salad (sometimes preceded by "tarator" – a cold soup made of yogurt, finely chopped cucumbers and garlic, really delicious). The salad may be "shopska" (cirene topped tomato and cucumber) or simply cucumbers and/or tomatoes. The main meal is usually vegetarian (since that is our choice) but it might include some poultry (chicken) or fish. All the foods are well seasoned and always delicious. There is also bread (a good, thick bread with lots of flavor). Fresh fruit and dessert conclude the meal.
After dinner there is either studying or watching TV with the family. They try to watch a movie with Bulgarian subtitles and English dialogue if we’re watching, so we can understand the movie and pick up on the Bulgarian by reading the subtitles. It does help a lot.
Just before going to bed (usually around 10), I have to fill up the distiller and turn it on so we’ll have distilled water the next day.
On weekends, of course, we eat all four meals at home, and usually have time to walk around the city during the day. The city is not like a typical city back home, mind you. Livestock roams the city streets all the time. Cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys and horses are everywhere. Horse-drawn wagons share the streets with cars. The widespread livestock droppings are the primary reason why one always takes off one’s shoes before entering someone’s home! The houses tend to be "crumbling" on the outside, though inside they are invariably clean and well kept. Every home has a garden filled with growing vegetables, ubiquitous grape vines and fruit trees. Most everyone also has livestock, even right down town. The cattle (sheep, goats etc.) are gathered up each morning (either by a homeowner or by someone paid by all the owners) and taken out into the countryside to graze (usually only one cow or goat per family.) In the evening, the livestock is brought back into town and the cows or goats wander off to their own house on their own.
The people here tend to be friendly and helpful. This afternoon at the monastery, Edith bought a straw hat to keep off the sun. As we were looking down into the river that runs through the town (about a 30-foot drop down from the road), the wind blew the hat off and into the river. We figured that was the end of that, because the river at that point is surrounded by steep concrete walls. However, a fisherman down in the river waded over and picked up Edith’s hat, carried it across the rapid current (finding a footing at the shallowest places) and took it to the other side of the river where Milena took it from him by wading into the water after scrambling down a steep cliff. All that work for a 4-leva (less than $2) hat!
A few comments about the Bulgarian mentality:
Bulgarians consider it extreme cruelty to neuter a dog (that’s against the animal’s nature) but think it’s normal to beat a dog, kick one, or run over a dog with a car, or let them starve to death on the streets. That’s just the natural way things work.
Also, Bulgarians as a rule think nothing of giving wine to pre-teens at the dinner table, but think it’s truly terrible that some parents in the States would give their children coffee to drink.
So, shaking your head yes and nodding your head no isn’t so strange after all!
Well, that’s about it for this week. I’ll be gone all next week so I’ll try to catch up on e-mail when I get back.
Wish you all were here to share this marvelous experience.
Report No. 5 From Bulgaria
If you haven’t received all my reports and would like to get an earlier one, let me know and I’ll send it to you. Also . . . Edith is sending out weekly reports as well, so if you’d like to get her reports too, just drop her a line email@example.com.
E-mail access is somewhat limited. We have Internet hook-up at our host family home, but they have to pay extra "impulses" for the service. For this reason, we hate to use it too often, or for too long. When we get to our permanent site (around August 1), we’ll probably have better access to e-mail.
I got back Friday from a week-long trip to the city of Pazardzhik, about an hour south of here. We stayed in a communist-era hotel (3-star). It had a shower but no TV. Instead, there was an old phonograph player that was broken. But the room looked out over the central square (ploshtad) and a statue of Vasil Levsky, a hero of the 1876 revolution against the Turks. Levsky had lots of legends built up around him and his physical prowess, so one of the major "football" (soccer) teams in the country is named after him.
In Pazardzhik we met with the deputy mayor, the head of the regional labor office, several members of an NGO (non-governmental organization) on economic development, and the president of a local toy manufacturing company. We also walked through a Roma (Gypsy) community.
This latter visit was kind of depressing. 20,000 Roma are crammed into a tiny ghetto with no sewage, no running water and very little money. Many of the Roma make their living by begging or pickpocketing, and after going through the Gypsy Quarter, I can understand why.
We were in Pazardzhik to do a "needs assessment" and now must write up a report on what we found – in the form of a grant proposal. Tuesday, our host family drove down to Pazardzhik for shopping and brought Edith with them. We went with them through the Bazaar and then all had dinner there. Edith and my wedding anniversary was while I was away. I had bought a box of candy to take back for Edith but was able to give it to her down there.
This weekend is the half-way point in our 10-week training program. Monday (tomorrow) we have our "mid-term exams." These will be in the form of a preliminary Language Proficiency Interview (LPI, a tape-recorded session where our language skills are assessed) and a series of four Simulation Stations where we are expected to act out language tasks in country: in a store (magazin), at the post office, in a café and at a party. (Edith had hers last Friday, while my group was away.)
Things should be a lot faster from now on through the end of training. Next week, will be a two-day Experience Exchange Conference where we talk with other PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) about what it’s like to work in Bulgaria. A week from tomorrow, we will learn where we’ll be spending the next two years – our Site Announcement. Everyone is anxious to find out where they will be living. August 6, at the end of the day, will be the announcement. Two days later (on Wednesday) we will all leave for a three-day visit to the new site, and the opportunity to meet our Bulgarian Counterpart (the person who will be working with us in the municipality or NGO we’ll be assigned to.)
Edith and I will be assigned to the same town, of course, though we’ll be working with different entities. She will be assigned to a school and most likely I will be working for a municipal government. We’ll have two counterparts. Since the entity we work with is responsible for providing us with an apartment, I’m not sure how it will work in our case – with two different organizations to deal with. It should be interesting.
If our permanent site is a good distance away, of course, much of the three-day visit will be spent on the road – bus or train transportation in Bulgaria is most often difficult and time-consuming.
Once we get back from our site visit, we will have a couple of weeks of intensive language training. My group will have a two-day conference (probably in Sophia) with government ministries. Then, in the 10th week, we have our "finals," LPIs again (but longer ones.) Then we are sworn in and become full-fledged volunteers. And leave for our permanent site.
Contracts for our positions (signed between the Peace Corps and the Bulgarian counterpart organization) call for volunteers to get an apartment with a desk, table and two chairs, a bed and a stove, and hopefully a shower. In addition, CEDs (my area, community economic development) are supposed to also have a clothes washer and a telephone. Most do, although some do not.
In addition, the Peace Corps gives us a small "settling in" allowance to buy things like dishes and bedding and maybe even a TV (if we can find a used one cheap.) If there was a PCV in the community before us, we can often buy all this stuff from them. (At the end of our two years we can’t take the stuff back with us so we either sell it a new PCV or give it away).
We are actually looking forward to being on our own. It’s nice having a host family, with meals provided for us, during training, but it will be good to have our own space and be able to do our own cooking again.
The trip to our permanent site should be interesting, however. We brought two huge suitcases of stuff with us (I had the laptop and a computer printer in mine). Since we’ve been here, we’ve picked up a fan (on a 5-foot stand) plus we have two Peace Corps medical kits, a water distiller and tons of PC reports and training manuals to take with us. Hopefully, we can take some of the stuff along on the first site visit and leave it with our counterparts there.
I’ll try to get this off this afternoon. My love to everyone.
Report No. 6 from Bulgaria
Well, it’s been a busy week. If you sent me a message and haven’t received an answer yet, it’s because we’ve been off the internet for more than a week. The voltage converter got switched to 1500 watts instead of 50 watts, and I burned out the converter on both the PC and the printer – plus the transformer itself. Bulgaria uses 220 volt systems and all our American equipment uses 110V. So we have to "step-down" the current in order to use our equipment over here. We brought two transformers with us and one of them burned out the first day here. The second one is (was) a double-watt system.
Well, in the States, they would have sent off for new converters and the estimated cost (equipment only) would have been better than $150 for all four converters. The man who initially set up my internet connection here is a family friend of our host family. He was a student of Petya’s (our hostess) sister when she used to teach Russian lit in college.
Anyway, he came over. Looked over the situation and took all four converters home with him. He rebuilt each one from scratch and brought them back last night. They all work perfectly. He had to rewind the coils and replace most parts (they were "burned to a crisp") It took a lot of labor so it was an expensive job. He wanted 65 leva (a little over $30) for everything. A real bargain! I was extremely glad to pay what he wanted.
Anyway, we’re in business again. This, by the way, is the Bulgarian way. They fix everything instead of just buying new things. A Bulgarian, we are told, knows how to fix everything. So some of the repairs are a little "rough around the edges" (neatness is not as important as function). But they get everything done.
This is important since the average salary here is 200 leva (less than $100) a month. A school teacher will make 150 leva a month. A retiree, around $50 leva a month. An executive, maybe 300 leva a month. Just getting by isn’t easy on that kind of salary. With that $100 or so, they must pay rent, utilities, and taxes, plus buy food, clothing etc.
As It said at the beginning, it’s been a busy week. On Tuesday, we had our preliminary LPIs (Language Proficiency Interviews), along with Simulation Stations (four rooms where you must role-play common situations – restaurant, grocery store, party and railroad station.) These are to evaluate how well we are doing.
Peace Corps ranks people by skill according to a standardized scale. After 5 weeks, most people are at the novice level, with one or two expected to be at the lower intermediate level (out of 50 trainees). I went in for my LPI (a 15-minute exam which is tape-recorded) and they kept me there for 30 minutes. I received a rating of Intermediate Middle, which apparently is an extreme rarity. I guess I’m now the "star" of the trainee program (which is probably going to be a status that will be difficult to live up to.) Anyway, everyone’s been congratulating me all week, but I didn’t know why until I learned my score yesterday.
Also, yesterday we were tested on our technical skills (details about local and national Bulgarian government) and as a fluke I got the highest score. I think all the young trainees (some of whom are extremely bright) are wondering how an old codger like me could get higher scores than they do! Of course, I study all the time and don’t go out partying. Maybe they’ll get more serious now and try to catch up!
Today (Saturday), we are supposed to go on a trip with our host family to the small village where our host’s family lives. That should be interesting. Georgi’s family lives on a farm and all the children come back frequently to help harvest the fruits and vegetables. Then they all work to preserve the food so everyone will have enough food for the winter. That’s another way they survive here in Bulgaria.
Ani, the youngest daughter, is away at summer camp for two weeks, at the Panagyurishte Colony, a city-owned camp about 10 kilometers from town. On Sunday, we are supposed to drive up there to pay Ani a visit. That also should be interested. It’s up in the mountains (the Sredna Gora – or "middle woods" – mountain range.)
Then on Monday we learn where we’ll be spending the next two years in Bulgaria – where our permanent site will be. We’ve been told that Edith and I will be in a small town in the southern part of the country, but not near the Black Sea. We are hoping for the mountains, of course. Southern Bulgaria has the Rhodopes, the Pirins, the Rilas and the Sredna Gora mountain ranges.
Next Wednesday, Edith and I will take a bus to our new site, for a three-day visit in the community. There, Edith will meet with the director and teachers of the school where she’ll be teaching, and I’ll meet with the mayor and city government where I’ll be working. This will be the first time this town will have Peace Corps volunteers, so our apartment most likely will not be ready yet – and we’ll probably be something of an oddity in the community. Maybe the first Americans most of the people will have seen.
After we get back, there will only be three more weeks of training before our "swearing-in" ceremony and our departure for the new site.
It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been in Bulgaria about six weeks. It seems like months. The schedule is tiring. It is, after all, the first time in several years that Edith and I have had to work a full day without stopping. And with the studying, there isn’t a lot of free time. We miss our afternoon naps! We are kind of taking it easy this weekend, however, knowing that the next four weeks will be extremely hectic and stressful.
I’ll try to get this off today, and check my e-mail at the same time.
Report from Bulgaria – Number 7
Well, we now know where we’ll be spending the next two years of our lives. It’s a small town called Straldja, located about an hour away from Bourgas, the largest resort on the Black Sea coast. Straldja is on the plains just south of the Balkan Mountain Range. It’s an agricultural community. The municipality where I’ll be working covers the town of Straldja and about 15 villages surrounding it. The town itself has about 6500 inhabitants and the municipality, around 17,000 total.
Unemployment is around 35%. 30% of the town are Roma (gypsies) who live in a separate quarter in the northern part of the town.
The mayor (kmet) is a young (40-ish) surgeon. The deputy mayor (a cousin) is 30 years old and a school teacher. My counterpart is a young (22 years old) woman just out of college. She doesn’t even work for the city but is the only English-speaking person in city hall. She’s a consultant for the local JOBS center (a small-business support network funded by foreign aid.) The JOBS office is in city hall and that, apparently, will be my office as well.
We will have a small apartment located on the 3rd floor of a soviet-era blok (apartment building). No elevator so we’ll get a lot of exercise. The apartment has a bedroom and living room, both fairly good sized, a small kitchen and small bathroom-toilet. There’s also a small balcony (where we hang out our clothes) and an entry hall, where people leave their shoes.
The kitchen has a tiny fridge and a tiny oven with two burners (electric). They are going to try to put in a washing machine for us. We’ll see. The toilet tank (which here is usually suspended up around the ceiling) was leaking quite a bit, but they promised to fix it in the three weeks before we move in. There is only one bed, but they are also supposed to bring in a second one (for guests.)
The apartment originally belonged to someone who worked at the city hall. He passed away around the first of the year and the apartment hasn’t been lived in (or cleaned) since. They also promised to clean the apartment before we move in September 1. On the door of the apartment was the traditional black ribbon and "necrolog" (a sheet of paper with the dead person’s picture on it and a brief biography.) Hopefully, that will be down by the time we move in! These necrologies are ubiquitous throughout Bulgaria. They are hung on houses, outside churches and even on downtown walls. New ones are posted after 40 days, 1 year and sometimes 10 and 20 years after death.
The apartment does have a working phone. Our new address (Sept. 1) will be:
BX b, No. 10
Telephone: 04761 2446
(From the States: 011 will get you to Bulgaria).
The apartment is a short walk away from city hall (where I’ll be working) and the school where Edith will be teaching.
Huge herds of goats and sheep are led through the town both morning and evening. There are more horse-drawn wagons than automobiles in town.
We went there Wednesday, taking a bus to Plovdiv and then a train to Straldja. We were met at the train station by the Director (principal) of Edith’s school and Edith’s counterpart (an English teacher there), and by the Deputy Mayor and my counterpart. We got tours of the city hall and the school on Thursday, and opened up bank accounts at a local bank. (Peace Corps gives us our living allowance through direct deposit in the bank account from Sofia.)
It was terribly hot when we were there. The second night, the city provided us with a fan, which helped a lot, but (along with the bathroom problem) we decided to leave early. We left Friday morning. The deputy mayor came to the apartment and walked with us to the train station, carrying Edith’s bag.
We went to Plovdiv first (Bulgaria’s second largest city) where we got a room in a downtown hotel (Hotel Bulgaria). It was expensive, but Edith was ready for a bit of a rest – and air-conditioning. We got a chocolate shake from a McDonalds in downtown Plovdiv and walked around the Old Town. Saturday afternoon, we caught the public bus back to Panagyurishte.
Three more weeks and we’ll graduate from school and be sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers. Then we leave for Straldja.
By the way, if you happen to have any English texts or other books lying around not being used, the Straldja school needs references for its library. They can use: crossword puzzles, cookbooks and recipes, books on American customs and celebrations, anecdotes and joke books, songs from America, folktales, cartoons, maps, brochures, photos of America, along with brochures and magazines (the kids like fashion mags and gossip about famous people.) All of these can be used to help the kids learn English.
If you decide to send any books, remember to use an M-bag. Ask your post office. They provide a canvas bag. You fill it up and pay $1 a pound to get it to Bulgaria (a bargain over the usual price.)
I’ll try to include our Cyrillic address below:
55 Хемус Ул
Вх Бь, Ап. 10
If the Cyrillic can’t be read by your system, use the English translation above.
Report No. 8 from Bulgaria
Well, today (August 18) is exactly two months from when we reported to Peace Corps in Washington, D.C. (though it seems like a much longer time than that.) We have less that two weeks before we are sworn in and become Peace Corps volunteers. Next week will be intensive language training (with some administrative training, technical training, and last-minute medical warnings thrown in for good measure.) The last week will include our LPI’s (Language Proficiency Interviews), meetings with our counterparts (the Bulgarians with whom we’ll be working for the next two years) and the swearing-in ceremony itself.
The country director (Steve Taylor) told us this week (a few of us by chance had lunch with him in Sophia on Thursday) that he’d just ordered 300 engraved invitations to our swearing-in. A couple of carloads of national media will be coming down to Panagyurishte for it as well.
Not all for us, of course. This is also the 10th anniversary of the Peace Corps being in Bulgaria. In fact, in bureaucratese, we are going to be known as "B-11’s" – the 11th team of volunteers to come to Bulgaria.
We went in to the capitol twice this week (my team, that is, the community development trainees.) On Friday, Edith’s group (TEFLs – teachers of English as a foreign language) went in to Sophia as well. So Edith and I stayed over Friday night and toured the city a bit. Went to the ethnographic museum and walked around the city center a bit. We stayed in a minuscule "hotel" for the night. It was clean but not much else. It only cost 20 lev (about $10) a night apiece so it was a real bargain. We also got to tour the Peace Corps offices in Sophia. They are in a rather quaint old building right down town: in typical Peace Corps fashion, a little decrepit but comfortable.
The ride back from Sophia by bus was spectacular – right over the mountains and every bend revealed another postcard panorama.
A little about Bulgaria. If you can imagine the United States around the turn of the 19th Century (around 1900), you’ll have an image of what much of the countryside is like. Heavily agricultural. A lot of people still ride around in horse (or donkey) drawn carts. A cross-country ride by car or bus is a real trip! Wagons with loads of hay share the road with herds of sheep, goats or cattle, with a lot of people just walking along right in the highway. In the countryside, every home has a large garden and at least one goat or cow. They grow their own food and can huge quantities for the winter.
At the same time, they have television and video-tape players and cell-phones. And the economy is a mix of 1930’s Depression and 1950’s love-affair with technology.
The country is schizophrenic in other ways as well. Soviet-era monuments abound, with stolid, clunky Socialist Realist statues and large, megalithic hunks of concrete behind them. And in almost every village, large apartment buildings (called "bloks") provide living space for a large number of the population. We are living in a blok now and will live in one when we get to Straldja.
Yet, the people practice an extreme form of capitalism that makes America look like a socialist state! Dog-eat-dog capitalism. Social services are underfunded, so the retired live on an average of around $25 a month, and the medical system is so poor, many patients have to go out and buy surgical equipment on the open market in order for a surgeon to operate on them! The infrastructure is crumbling because corruption has drained the country of huge sums of money and nothing has been spent in years on such things as water pipes, trash disposal and public buildings.
Which makes working here a real challenge.
Yet despite all that, the country itself is often stunningly beautiful, with mountains everywhere, vast virgin forests, hundreds of charming villages teeming with red-brick homes topped by red-tile roofs, and hundreds of rivers and streams filled with fish. And the people, by and large, are hard-working and honest folk.
The training has been grueling (and it isn’t over yet!) Another young person left the first of this week for America. So far, 13% of our group has returned home, either by choice or for medical reasons. That’s high for Peace Corps, they say.
My blood pressure is higher than it ever was. Might be the high salt content of the food here. Once we get to our own apartment and I begin cooking again, I should be able to limit the salt content a lot. We’ll see then whether I can bring my pressure down naturally.
This week I experienced a little home-sickness. I miss everyone there. I have, however, committed myself to two years of service in Bulgaria so I intend to stick it out.
Love to everyone,
Number 9 From Bulgaria
Yesterday was our last real day of classes. Next week we have our final LPIs (language proficiency interviews). Mine is Monday at 9:30 a.m. Edith’s will be Wednesday morning. These again are taped and we’ll be evaluated for how well we can communicate in Bulgarian. The teachers keep asking me if I have a Bulgarian grandfather or something. I believe my knowledge of Esperanto helped me learn Bulgarian, and being able to speak another tongue made it easier for me to speak Bulgarian.
We went to the home of one of the trainees’ host families last Thursday for a practical lesson in preserving food. As I mentioned earlier, incomes are extraordinarily low in Bulgaria and everyone preserves food for the winter. They either have gardens around their houses (EVERYONE) or (like our host family, who live in a "blok" or apartment building) go back to their parents’ home to pick food for canning. We figured we’d better learn how to do it so we’d be prepared for the winter ourselves. The only vegetables available in winter are potatoes, cabbage and some very expensive imported items.
Anyway, we went to this home up on top of the hill here in Panagyurishte and helped can some food. The hostess made a delicious eggplant garnish, some pickled cucumbers, some tomato juice and some preserved peaches. We helped with the slicing and preparing and grinding of the vegetables. Everything is done by hand. The tomato juice is prepared in a special grinder and placed in old coke bottles, with the original caps put back on with a handy little tool that every home has around. Everything is boiled in water for the prescribed amount of time. So now we have a small larder of home-canned foods to take with us to Straldja next week.
How we’ll get there is still up in the air. Our counterparts (the Bulgarians who will be working with us for the next two years) are supposed to be coming to Panagyurishte on Tuesday for a series of meetings with us and with the Peace Corps staff. They are supposed to "help" us get our luggage back to Straldja. If they happen to bring a car from the mayor’s office, they’ll be able to do that. I don’t think either of them drives a car, so that’s probably not an option. We have tons of stuff to get to our new site. Not only the winter clothing and computer equipment we brought over, but also a water distiller, two Peace Corps first aid kits, stacks of reference materials, a floor fan and two lamps that Edith bought and other miscellaneous junk – and now a bunch of jars of food!.
Oh well. We might have to hire some local person to drive all our luggage to Straldja and then go there by train ourselves. We’ll see next week.
Next week will include the LPI’s, meetings with our counterparts, meetings with the administrative staff (expense money and all that) and, of course, the "swearing-in ceremony," which apparently is going to be a big deal. I said last week that this is also the 10th anniversary of Peace Corps in Bulgaria. About 35 Bulgarian journalists are scheduled to be present. We will probably be on the front page of every newspaper in the country next weekend.
Also present, of course, will be representatives of the new government in Bulgaria (Movement for Simeon II, called the "king’s party"), deputy chief of Peace Corps from Washington, and the U.S. Ambassador, along with other dignitaries. They are expecting 450 people in all. It will all take place in the downtown Uchilishte, which is kind of a culture center (there is one in every town in Bulgaria). I’ll have to wear a suit, of course, the first time since I’ve been here, and probably even a tie. I hope it isn’t too hot that day!
The ceremony is Thursday and we’ll probably leave for Straldja on Friday, to be back there over the weekend. That will give us a little time to get the apartment straightened out and cleaned up a bit. We are hoping it’s in better shape than when we were there before. They promised to fix the plumbing, fix the heater, clean up the apartment and try to install a clothes washer, but we’ll have to see. It isn’t a wealthy municipality, after all.
A little about our living expenses. We are not paid a salary, of course. Instead, Peace Corps will give us living expenses that they’ll deposit into our back account each month. We will receive about 320 BGL (Bulgarian leva) each month. This is a little more than the average salary in Bulgaria (250 leva), but it includes money for a little travel each month. In dollars, one dollar is worth about 2.10 leva, so we will receive about $160 a month to live on. This is, by the way, taxable income! We’ll have to claim it on our income tax return and pay taxes on it. For younger volunteers, of course, it isn’t enough to be taxable, but with our pensions, we’ll end up paying part of our expense money back to Uncle Sam.
This amount has to cover our food and travel and any other living expense we might have. Peace Corps will help us out with utilities, however, but the phone bill must come out of our pocket. It isn’t a lot of money by American standards but it probably would seem like a lot of money to many Bulgarians. Retirees here receive about 50 leva a month (less than $25) and school teachers earn around 150 leva ($75) every month. And probably one in five Bulgarians doesn’t have a job. I really don’t know how many of them survive. The gardens and the family cow or goat probably help out a lot, but a lot of people are living in or on the brink of poverty.
The Bulgarian people are extremely hardworking. They are also an honest, intelligent and well-educated people. Bulgaria is also about the only nation in this region that made the change from communism with no violence (just look at neighboring Yugoslavia). They seem a peaceable and hospitable folk. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to do any good while I’m here, but I certainly hope so. If ever a people deserved a better life, it’s the Bulgarians.
Another thing. The economy here in Bulgaria could actually be a boon for American travelers. The dollar goes a long way. The mountains are pristine and absolutely beautiful. The rivers are filled with fish. The Black Sea is probably the least expensive seaside resort area in the world. And the country is literally covered with ancient ruins that date back thousands of years. Turks, Byzantines, Romans, Greeks and Thracians all left their marks here (plus probably the original people we call "Indo-Europeans" as well). Since I’ve been here, I’ve walked through 2000 year old Roman ruins, visited Greek ruins older than that, walked under a Roman bridge still being used by Turkish farmers in southeast Bulgaria, and visited an ancient Bulgar fortress and several Orthodox churches and monasteries that date from 500 to 1300 years ago. And I’ve been busy in school most of the time!
I’d really like to organize a trip for some of you to come to see Bulgaria first hand. Let me know if you are interested.
My next newsletter will be from Straldja. If you want to find it on the map, look at a map of Bulgaria. On the Black Sea coast, about the middle of the Bulgarian coastline, you’ll see the city of Bourgas. Due west of Bourgas about 60 kilometers will be the small town of Straldja. That’s where Edith and I will be spending the next two years.
By the way, if you want to write, or send anything, send it to me in care of the municipality where I’ll be working:
12, Hemus St.
12 Хемус Улица
Actually, Bulgarians are pretty good at reading Latin script, in case you can’t master the Cyrillic!
I’ll try to get this sent out tomorrow (Sunday) evening.