Reports from Bulgaria Numbers 20 to 25

by Rel Davis

Report Number 20 From Bulgaria

Update of our current websites: We now have a lot of information on the web -- articles, newsletters and photos. Here’s a run-down on some of them.

<> This is our original website. If you haven’t checked it out lately, try it again. New web design, just finished this week. Here you’ll find an archive of all the newsletters both Edith and I have sent out since we’ve been in Bulgaria. You’ll also find articles on Straldja, photos from America and some photos from Bulgaria. Talks I gave before coming to Bulgaria. Etc. You can even hear the Bulgarian national anthem.

<> This is Edith’s “work” website. Photos of her school, teachers and students. It’s her “official” website. Also photos of the Pensioner’s Club and their folk singing and dancing group. Great photo of Edith in native costume!

<> This is my “official” website. Features information about the municipality of Straldja, with some photos. Also photos and articles about the orphanage and, soon, about other activities such as the Roma (Gypsy) school, the swimming pool, etc. New this week: photos of the vocational cooking class at the orphanage.

<> This is a special website for photos of our home here in Straldja - the apartment and the blok (and soon, photos of the various neighborhoods.) New this week: more photos of the apartment and blok (with views from the building.)

Remember, if you’d like to subscribe to Edith’s newsletter (which is now being published in the Okeechobee Times newspaper), contact her at <>.

News items:

We stayed in most of last weekend because Edith was coming down with a sore throat and needed to take it easy. Next weekend, we hope to go to Yambol, the regional capital, and buy a couple of bicycles. Peace Corps is sending us bike helmets next week, so we will be able to ride the bikes then. Ditchko, the JOBS team leader, is trying to find someone who will drive us to Yambol. Often, it’s better just to pay someone to take us over there and back than it is to rely on the bus - especially when we will be carrying two bicycles!

Went to the local “pazar” this week and picked up some bike locks. At 3 leva ($1.50) each, they were a bargain. (Also found some cauliflower and turnips - vegetables we hadn’t seen before now.)

The weather is definitely fall-like now, with temperatures around 20 Celsius (about 58 Fahrenheit) for highs and lows about 8 C. (about 45 F.) In Florida, this would be winter weather! Here, it’s considered comfortably warm. We haven’t had to turn on the heat yet, however. Our apartment is located on the south side of the building, so it stays relatively warm. That should be a real advantage during the coming winter.

Sunday afternoon, we heard some rather unusual music from outside - just a drum and a flute playing an oriental-sounding tune. Looking out the window, we saw a Gypsy wedding procession going down the street. Took a photo and will have it on the web (the straldjahome site, <> ) this week. Ethnic Bulgarian weddings also involve a street processional, but usually the wedding couple and guests are dancing the Hora down the street. The Roma (Gypsy) couple were just walking ahead of a large crowd of attendants.

Soon afterward, we heard the bells of the sheep herd returning to town and I got a photo of it. Will put it on the web as well.

Roma school: I met with the Director of the Roma school on Friday. Here are my preliminary notes:

The Roma school has about 400 students but only about 250 show up each day. Students fail to show usually because they have no clothing, no shoes or are having “family difficulties.”

There are also two kindergarten programs associated with the school, and two small classes in the village of Lozenets (north of Straldja). There are 16 classes (called “parallelki”) in all, from 1st through 8th grade.

There is a staff of 34 -- 22 teachers for regular course work, plus 12 part-time “social workers” for the afternoon program.

The school provides textbooks, which stay in the school. Students can only study at school. Texts are at least 5 years old. Children stay in the same room all day - teachers move from room to room.

There is a breakfast program (as in all schools in Straldja) but there is a question as to whether it will continue after this year. No lunch program of any kind.

There is a SIP (elective) class in religion in the afternoons.

Equipment: No PC. No copier. They have an old typewriter but it is broken and there is no money for repairs. The national natural gas company has promised to donate a single PC to the school, for administrative use. No equipment of any kind for academic use.

NEEDS: Buildings are badly in need of repair and painting. They have virtually no equipment for teaching. They need just about everything. Many of the children have inadequate clothing, no shoes, and inadequate food at home.

I have a meeting next Friday, Oct. 26, at 10:30 a.m., with the students and teachers. I’ll report on it next week.

Spices of Life! Last week, Rositsa, Edith’s counterpart and my tutor, went to Sliven to the Billa supermarket and brought back a few items I’d asked for. First, of course, was a large bag of muesli (since I’d used up what I’d bought before). Then, there were four packets of spices. Oregano (“rigan”), white oregano (“byal rigan”), thyme (I forget the word for it), and ginger (“jinjifill”).

It’s amazing what the right spices can do. Over the weekend, I made spaghetti, with oregano, and it tasted almost like real Italian spaghetti. The main spice over here is “chubritsa,” usually translated “savory,” which is quite nice - but it isn’t oregano.

Then I decided to make some ginger snaps with the ginger. The recipe calls for either brown sugar or molasses, plus ground cloves. I looked up the word for molasses (“melaso”) and went around to some stores. The word “melaso” might be in the dictionary but it isn’t in the vocabulary of people in Straldja. I did find some cloves, but not in powdered form.

So I made the snaps anyway, using honey instead of molasses and doubling the ginger to replace the ground cloves. They don’t have the same “dark” flavor as those made from black molasses, but they taste almost like home!

It’s amazing what little things can make a person happy!

Working conditions: On Monday, the power was out at the Municipality, so I had to work most of the day at home. I spend a lot of time waiting to talk to people, or waiting for the power to come back on. In my 45 years of professional activity, this has to be the toughest working environment I’ve ever been in. I finally got a PC at work - no printer, no CD and no Internet, however. If I want to print a document, I have to save it to floppy disk and take it home and print it on my little printer at the apartment. Internet usage, of course, is only from home and at my own expense.

I even have a key to the office, finally. Last week. Before that, I couldn’t show up to work early or I’d have to wait for someone to let me in. And the people I’m supposed to be working with (the mayor and deputy mayor) can’t speak English and won’t speak slowly enough to communicate with me. (I get along fine with my language abilities with most people here.) So communication is often limited.

Not complaining, mind you, just stating the facts.

I expected it to be rough here, and it really isn’t as rough as I’d expected. The apartment we have is quite comfortable and the people in the community are really nice. And I think what I’m doing here - and what I can do here - is really important. It’s just that - as an American, I guess - I sometimes get a little impatient with the pace of things here.

I like to get to a job and get it done right away. Here, things tend to be a little bit more easy-going. I guess I need to relax more and not take things so seriously. The only problem with that, is that things ARE serious around here. There are more needs in this community than I could ever hope to find solutions for in my two years here.

This week I start on my first big grant proposal - to get a computer network and one-stop customer service program financed for the municipality. Keep your fingers crossed for me! Next week, I’ll write a grant proposal to get the swimming pool at the local school back in operation.

And I’m supposed to be starting to teach an English class in the evening, here at the municipality, if they get it organized this week.

Step by step (“stupka po stupka” in Bulgarian). There’s an old Esperanto poem I need to keep in mind: “Ech guto malgranda, konstante frapanta, traboras la monton granitan.” -- “Even a tiny drop of water, constantly falling, can bore through the mountain of granite.”

Love, Rel

Report No. 21 From Bulgaria

Well, it’s been a quiet week in Straldja. Edith was sick with a cold last week and I caught it over the weekend. Both Rositsa (Edith’s counterpart) and Ditchko (JOBS team leader) had colds as well. It’s been going around the town. They say it’s usual for the beginning of winter - and end of winter - to have an epidemic of flu around here.

Edith began this week with a real touch of flu -- fever and stomach upset. She missed work on Monday (first time).

The weather turned bitterly cold last week, and it’s still cold now.

I completed my first full grant proposal, a project with the U.S. Defense Department’s “Humanitarian Assistance Program.” I hope to get enough money to fix the swimming pool at the local school. To support the grant proposal, I put up a new website, with photos of the pool: <>.

On the subject of websites, I also put up photos of the “na gosti” at Ditchko and Tanya’s apartment, and photos from out the window of our apartment. Both can be found at: <>.

The visit to the Roma school was quite interesting. I went around to a lot of classes and took photos. They’ll go up on the web this week, if possible. They had just received their new PC from the national gas company, and were trying to learn how to use it. Their PC didn’t come with a modem, so I’m going to try to come up with the $30 or so required to buy them one. With a modem and a 10-leva Internet Card, they could be on the web.

The building is old (1960’s) but is kept in good condition, considering the lack of money. The dining hall in the basement needs a lot of work, however.

The children were like children everywhere. Curious, of course, about this strange American visitor. Alternately shy and boisterous. The younger ones were interested in what it was like in America. The older ones were concerned about the bombing in Afghanistan (many of them are Moslem.)

There weren’t a lot of children in school on Friday, because it was probably the coldest day yet this year. When it’s cold, the lack of proper clothing keeps a lot of children at home.

I met with the teachers as well. Their questions were about what it was like to teach in America. They wanted to know if there were any schools in America with problems like theirs. I don’t think there ARE any schools with these problems in America - a crumbling building, no funds for repairs, no money for books, underpaid teachers, and a student body in abject poverty. Even the poorest school district in America does a much better job at keeping an infrastructure going.

The problems here are compounded by the political system. Funds for schools come from the local municipality but the school Director (same as our Principal, but with full executive authority over the school) is appointed by the national Ministry of Education. So local authorities pay the bills but have no say over the school administration. And municipalities are all financially strapped. As a result, schools tend to be in terrible shape - regardless of who the student body is. Roma are not well respected in Bulgaria, so schools for Roma children are not provided for even as well as those for Bulgarian children. The word “Roma” is the Gypsy word for themselves, but many Turkish people live among the Roma as well.

Edith and I went to Yambol over the weekend in order to buy bikes. Terribly cold weather and I was coming down with my cold at the time. Ditchko and his friend Plumen drove us over to Yambol in Plumen’s father’s car, a 15-year-old Lada - a Russian auto.

Our intention was simple: go to the ATM machine in Yambol and get out enough money from our American bank account for the bikes. There is a limit per person of 200 leva a day, so if we each got out 200 leva (about $100) we’d have enough money to buy two bikes. We also needed to get an ink cartridge for our printer, and hoped to be able to buy a small space heater for the apartment.

First thing that happened was that the phone linkage between Bulgarian banks and US banks was down, so the cards were rejected because of “incorrect PIN.” We ended up using what Bulgarian cash we had and buying a black ink cartridge (for 63 leva) and a space heater (for 65 leva.) That’s right, the most expensive space heater costs about the same as one little ink cartridge. 60 leva, by the way, is about $30.

The space heater works great, and was a good buy. We needed it over the weekend. The computer is right next to three large windows in the bedroom and it gets quite cold right there.

Anyway, we had about decided to wait until next week to buy the bikes, but Ditchko suggested, just as we were heading home, that I try the ATM one more time, to see if the system were working yet. Bad move! This time, the machine “ate” my card. It was confiscated because I tried three times to get money out with an “incorrect” PIN.

First thing Monday morning, however, Ditchko called the bank in Yambol and they say I can come pick up the card. We are trying to arrange a driver from the municipality to take me over to Yambol to get it.

Probably we’ll go to Yambol next weekend to pick up the bikes.

So no harm was done.

Last week, when the weather first began to get really cold (nights around freezing, days 40 to 50 F.), Ditchko lit up the stove at the office in the Municipality. It’s a wood- and coal-burning stove. All summer, he’d been putting waste paper into the stove, so it was packed.

He lit it up and within minutes the room was toasty warm. The heater is amazingly efficient. Tanya, his wife, works right next door, so she brought over a Turkish coffee pot and they boiled up some coffee on top of the stove. That and the heat made things quite comfortable that day. I took a couple of pictures and will try to get them on the web.

Later, they put some coal in the stove. On Monday, the stove was again working, and again with coal.

While we were in Yambol Saturday, we passed by a used-book vendor on the side of the street. Found a couple of real treasures there! An old Esperanto-Bulgarian dictionary and an Esperanto-Bulgarian phrase book. It should make my vocabulary learning much easier, because I can relate the Bulgarian word directly to the Esperanto one. English and Bulgarian words often don’t mesh well together. Both contain enough ambiguity that many words in both languages have multiple cognates in the other language. Esperanto has minimal ambiguity, of course.

Edith found an old English dictionary (we hadn’t brought one along) and some school art tools. Well worth the trip!

On Monday, a young couple came to see me at the office - confidentially. Mid-twenties, maybe. He has a full beard and long hair, a real oddity among Bulgarians. They are members of a group called the “White Brotherhood,” a mystical Christian movement that is unique to Bulgaria. The group practices vegetarianism, a strict lifestyle and on special occasions (such as the summer solstice) travels to a mountain to “meet the sun.”

This couple, Mariana and Stefan, are the only members of the sect in Straldja and thus feel ostracized. She’s an engineer and has been out of work for more than four years. He is a musician and composer. What they wanted to see me for, was to see if I might be able to help let other people know about him and his talents. I hope to have them over to the house later in the week so we can hear Stefan play some of his own music on the violin.

I’m also fascinated with this religious movement and hope to learn more about their beliefs and rituals.

Also on Monday, I received a formal invitation from a local primary school (grades 1 through 4) for their “Patron’s Day” holiday program on Wednesday morning. The children will be singing folk and other songs. Thursday, November 1, is the school holiday, “National Awakening” day, which honors the renaissance in culture in Bulgaria at the end of, and after the overthrow of, Turkish rule. I will, of course, attend!

Edith has a holiday on Thursday, which is a national school holiday. On Tuesday, the members of her SIP (elective) classes will put on masks and go around the school showing off what Halloween is like in America. There is no similar holiday in Bulgaria.

In the spring, there IS a mummer’s tradition in Bulgaria, called Kukeri, in which men in costume go around the community dancing, but this seems to be more related to the “Morris Dancers” of England. In fact, Kukeri costumes look very much like the “green man” or masked figure of the Morris dance.

I’ll get this in the mail tonight. More next week!

Love, Rel

Report No. 22 from Bulgaria

Well, we discovered what the problem was with the bankcards last weekend. When I went to Yambol Wednesday to get my card, I found out they didn’t have my card at all! Last week, you see, Edith had borrowed my bankcard just in case she couldn’t remember her PIN (since I knew mine.) Later, she gave me my card back. But it wasn’t my card; she’d given me hers! So last Saturday we were trying to get cash out with each other’s cards and our own PINs. And it was Edith’s card they confiscated.

Oh well. On Thursday, Edith went toYambol to get her card (they wouldn’t give it to me, of course.)

Banking over here is a little strange. For example, our living expenses are paid directly into the local bank account by the Sofia office. To get it out of the bank here, we have “point-of-sale” cards. Now, a “point-of-sale” card, one would think, could be used to buy things in stores, right? Wrong! It means you can take it into the bank and withdraw cash. Period.

Here’s how it works. You walk into the bank. There’s a tiny machine (just like the “swipe-through” instruments that country stores back in the States use to accept credit cards with) on the counter. Usually, it isn’t turned on and a clerk has to come over and get it started. Then, she keys in some codes and at that point you swipe your card through. Then you put in the amount you want, and finally your PIN.

Then you wait. If you have enough money in the account, and if your PIN is right, it eventually prints out a tiny receipt. This you tear off and take to a second clerk.

This clerk opens up your account on her computer, keys in a 15-digit code (from a code book, the code changes every day), puts in the same information you just put in earlier, and prints up a receipt in duplicate. She takes the receipt from the printer, cuts it down to size, glues the first (tiny) receipt onto the top sheet, and gives it to you to sign.

At this point, you take the two receipts over to a third clerk, a cashier. She then opens up your account on her computer, keys in her special code, and gives you the money. It isn’t an easy procedure to get money out of the bank over here. If there are people ahead of you, it means you have to wait in three different lines.

Now, if we get to Yambol, the regional capitol, we can also use our “point-of-sale” card at the ATM machine. Just put in the card, key in your PIN and amount, and get the cash immediately. There are, sadly, no ATM machines in Straldja.

Anyway, now we have to arrange another trip to Yambol to get our bikes.

Also on Wednesday, we went to the Patron’s Day program for a local (grades 1 to 4) primary school. I took some photos and these should be on the net sometime soon. The kids were really cute! They are taught to perform publicly at quite an early age over here and the performances of many, especially the fourth graders, were really quite polished. They dramatized traditional poems which were really long and complex - and all from memory. (Memorization is highly prized over here, and the educational system is built around it.)

There are both Roma (Gypsy) and ethnic Bulgarian children in the school and they seemed to get along well together.

My business English class at the Municipality started on Wednesday evening. 18 people were registered but only 3 showed up. The problem probably was that what was originally a free course turned out to be a fee course. The Municipality discovered at the last minute that they didn’t have a blackboard, and no money to buy a flipchart, so they decided to charge 10 leva each for the class and take the money to buy a flipchart. (A flipchart in Bulgaria can cost 100 leva easily -- $50.)

So I started the class with 3 people and no flipchart or blackboard. I’d better get used to it! This seems to be the way things work around here.

While I was in Yambol yesterday, I went with Dobi (the young woman in the JOBS office here) to the Regional Water Management Office to take some paperwork to them. The building, and the halls inside, would make a resident of a Chicago housing project ashamed to live there. Wires sticking out of the walls, large holes in the concrete, no paint at all. Even though it contained the offices for a major government agency, it looked like the worst slum imaginable.

Again, it’s typical of things around here. The infrastructure is crumbling because of a lack of money. The feeling is that what little funds there are would be better paid as salaries or benefits than used for cosmetic purposes. I agree, of course, but it’s still kind of sad to see public buildings looking so decrepit.

Wednesday evening, we were at home when the doorbell rang. I went to the door and it was a little old lady I’d never met before, who said that she needed help lifting something. (My Bulgarian wasn’t good enough to figure out what.) I went downstairs and in front of the building was a taxi. Her husband was standing up by the cab, being supported between another man (he looked Roma) and a young boy. I took the boy’s place (he couldn’t have been over 10 years old) and we helped the old man inside. He’d obviously been to the hospital and could barely move, much less walk. When we got to the stairs, we had to carry him the rest of the way in.

It was obvious that they couldn’t afford an ambulance (which are now private - no public ambulances any more) and were getting the old man home from a hospital visit. The interesting thing is that the old woman knew she could get help from the American volunteer upstairs. (You have to remember that retirees over here have to live on from $27 to about $70 a month - maximum.)

On Thursday, Edith and I were invited to the charter meeting of the new Retired Teachers Club in Straldja. Guests of honor turned out to be the Mayor, and Edith! We were introduced as “Edith and her husband.” Of course, Edith being a retired teacher from America, she was considered an important addition to the meeting. She has also performed at the Pensioners’ Club (dancing and singing) and a lot of the people already knew her.

By the way, my daughter Lorien (who lives in Columbia, Maryland) has signed up to walk in a three-day, 60-mile march for breast cancer research - from downtown Baltimore to downtown Washington, D.C. It’s an ambitious undertaking and I’m really proud of her for doing it. She will need sponsors, of course, so if you’d like to donate to a good cause, please get in touch with her: <>.

Lorien was marching for good causes back when she could barely walk! At three or four years old, she carried a picket sign in demonstrations in South Florida on behalf of Cesar Chavez and his Farm Workers. And although she loved to eat grapes, she stopped doing so during the entire period of the UFW boycott of California grapes. This was before she was old enough to go to school!

When I met with the teachers and children at the Roma school last week, I picked up a list of some of the things they need there.

If you have any ideas, let me know.

On Friday evening, the young couple who were in the White Brotherhood came over for dinner. The real name of the sect is "Disciples of the White Brotherhood." The "white brotherhood" are angels. They go into the mountains to be close to the angels.

Really intense people! They are vegetarian and don't drink alcohol -- two very unusual practices for Bulgarians! So they are ostracized by the main part of the population. They brought us a gift of dried mushrooms, picked and dried by Stefan. They make all their own clothes. But, being unemployed, they live on welfare. They have to work five days a month (cleaning streets, etc.) and for this they receive 21 leva (about $10) and a box of canned foods. Tough life! More next week. It's bitterly cold outside today (Saturday).

Love, Rel


 Our apartment in Straldja is provided by the Municipality.  Our utilities (all but the phone, which we pay), however, are paid by the Peace Corps -- this municipality is the only one right now with Peace Corps volunteers that can’t afford to pay utilities.  For this reason, we hesitate to complain if things aren’t right.

 This week, however, I did complain.  The fan on the heater went out on Sunday, just as temperatures began falling.  On Monday night, forecasters were calling for the possibility of snow!  Luckily, the heating element on the heater works, so we do have some heating.  And the little space heater we bought last week also works.

 Knowing how quickly the municipality responds to problems, however, we aren’t holding our breaths.  We just hope they get something done before the winter is over!  The school, by the way, said they’d send over a repair person right away.  (“Right away” does not mean the same in Bulgaria as it does in the States, however.  Two days later – lightning speed over here! – the school repairman showed up.)

 Our bike helmets are supposed to get here this week, along with some prescriptions Edith asked for.  But the bikes might have to wait until after the winter is over.  Might be too cold to ride them for awhile.

 We are planning on going in to Sofia around the week of November 12, for medical check-ups.  It will be our first visit out of town since we got to Straldja.  While in Sofia, we hope to meet with our program sections as well.  We’ll probably leave on Wednesday (Nov. 14), spend Thursday at the office, and come back on Friday.  The train ride takes about 7 hours.  But it ought to be a nice break for both of us.

 Sunday afternoon, there was another knock on our door.  Turned out to be a neighbor of ours who makes lace.   She’d heard that Edith liked lace, and her son is a student in one of Edith’s classes, so she dropped by with some of her work.  Edith ordered a bunch of small pieces (for presents) and I bought a larger piece (20 leva) for Edith.  The young woman, Yanka, spoke no English, of course, and her son knew only a very few words.  She was surprised that I could speak some Bulgarian!

 She did have a beautiful large piece, a tablecloth, that Edith liked.  When we save up the 300 leva, we’d like to buy it.

 At work, I finally got some bids for computer equipment.  I need these to prepare my proposals for grants.  Looks like we can get enough PCs for the entire municipal administration (about 7 of them) for less than $10,000 (and that includes network software, 2 years of Internet hookup, two laser printers and two scanners.)  Now at last I can begin to write the actual grant.  As I mentioned earlier, sometimes the slow pace of things around here can be rather frustrating.

 I’m drafting some letters to send to Rotary clubs back in the States.  They have a program called the Rotary Orphan Train that matches clubs in America with orphanages overseas.  I’d like to get one to “adopt” the orphanage here.  If you know anyone in Rotary, either put in a plug for me or send me their name and I’ll send them a letter.

 Oh, and if anyone has a used modem lying around – it can be a slower model, systems here rarely are faster than 28.8 anyway – send it over.  The Roma school has a new computer for administrative work, but no modem.  I’d like to get them on the web.  You can see the photos at:

 It was cold in the office Monday morning.  They had a small electric stove going, but it wasn’t doing much good.  So Ditchko put some wood in the stove and lit it up.  Warmed up the room nicely – and very fast.

 I understand they aren’t so lucky at the school.  Edith says the halls are freezing, as are most of the schoolrooms.  Now I know why she dresses up like an eskimo every morning!

 Dobi, the young woman in the JOBS office, thinks she can find a local person who would sell us a turkey, already prepared.  You usually buy them alive and slaughter them yourself.  Cost around 20 leva but I’d like to get one for Thanksgiving dinner.  If we can get a turkey, I plan to prepare a traditional dinner and invite over some of our Bulgarian friends – probably on the Saturday after Thanksgiving (we’ll all have to work on Thanksgiving, of course.)

 We got a personal invitation from the Mayor’s office for “Archangelofden.”  Thursday, Nov. 8, is Archangel Michael’s Day in Bulgaria.  Since the town church is known as Archangel Michael’s Church, it’s a town holiday.  No work on Thursday.  Starting on Tuesday (“Youth Day”), there are activities going on.  Wednesday is “Sports Day” and Thursday is “Town Day.”  Lots of folk singing and dancing, I understand.  I’ll get photos. 

Report No. 24 From Bulgaria

Well, we got a complete, 2-hour tour of the territory of the Municipality yesterday (Saturday) and it only cost us 2 leva (about a buck) apiece. Well, it wasn't SUPPOSED to be a tour of the area. Actually, we were going in to Yambol yesterday for some shopping before we left for Sofia tomorrow (Monday) and we went down to the station to catch our 7:10 bus. About 7 a.m., a bus pulled in and everyone got on, so we did too. When I tried to pay, the driver wouldn't take our money, saying to "wait" because he wasn't going to Yambol yet.

We stayed on the bus and waited. He drove north first (Yambol is southwest of here) to the village of Lozenetz. Everyone got off and we returned to Straldja. He still wouldn't take our money. Then another crowd got on and we drove off east and south, to another small village. Then we returned to Straldja. This time, the driver took our money. Another crowd got on and we drove off again -- south. We stopped at maybe a half dozen villages all over the southern part of the Municipality, and finally (after two hours) we pulled into Yambol -- from the south.

The trip normally takes less than a half hour. But we got a chance to see much of the area that we've never seen before. Without a car (and Peace Corps volunteers are absolutely forbidden from driving cars), it isn't easy getting around. That's why we want to get bikes. We'd have a little more travel flexibility.

Anyway, it worked out fine. We got into Yambol right about the time the stores opened at 9 a.m. Shopped around a bit. Bought some heavy winter jackets and got Edith some high boots for the snow. And picked up some gifts.

Before we came back, we stopped into a pizzeria in town and had vegetarian pizzas for lunch. There is not, of course, a pizza place in Straldja. In fact, there are only two restaurants in town. Lots of small cafes, but what food they serve invariably contains meat, so we can't eat there. Anyway, a pizza is a real treat for us. Yambol, being a much bigger town, has lots of different restaurants, including several pizza places.

Although I try to fix some "American" style foods from time to time, as "American" as we can get with the ingredients at hand, most of our food is Bulgarian style.

Our most common dish is a "guvedzhe." This is a Turkish word and actually applies to the dish the food is cooked in, an earthenware dish with a lid equipped with a tiny hole to let out steam. The dishes come in various sizes. We picked up one large one, a middle-sized one and two individual serving dishes. Cooking in them is incredibly easy.

First, I cut up a selection of fresh vegetables: onions, potatoes, sweet peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes are the common ingredients, but I've also used cabbage and turnips when they were available. Then you put a small amount of water or broth (they have a great chicken bouillon here) in the bottom and put the whole thing in the oven at about 300 degrees (C) -- that's a really hot oven. Just before it's ready (about 30 minutes) you put a large hunk of cirene cheese (like feta) on top and return to the oven. You can also put in "chubritsa" the all-purpose spice over here or (in my case!) oregano, and salt and pepper.

Soups, made on top of the stove with essentially the same ingredients are also quick and easy to make.

When fresh vegetables are available (and they are still available now), I also make a Shopska salad for the meal. Just dice up one large cucumber and a couple of tomatoes -- along with a small onion and a small sweet pepper ("chooshka"), if you feel like it. Mix it all up and then sprinkle cirene cheese all over the top. You can make the same thing in America; just use feta cheese instead of cirene. The word "Shopska," by the way, refers to the area of Bulgaria around Sofia. A "Schop" is a person from that region. They are the brunt of jokes by other Bulgarians because they tend to be rather serious minded and literal minded.

Here's a "Schop" joke: Two Shopska police officers in Sofia were standing on a street corner when a tourist came up and asked them for directions in English. They just shrugged their shoulders. He asked the same thing in German. Still, they couldn't understand. He tried French and Russian and even Greek, but still they couldn't understand him. Disgusted, the tourist walked off. When he was gone, one officer turned to the other and said (in Bulgarian, of course), "Maybe we should spend the time and learn another language." "Oh no," the other responded, "that tourist knew five different languages, and it didn't do him any good at all!"

Other dishes I've made here include "Gris" pudding, stuffed peppers, and palachinkas.

"Gris" pudding is not really one of my favorites. It is actually semolina pudding. Semolina is the hard kernels of wheat left over when flour is milled. In America, thanks to the wonders of advertising, it's known as "cream of wheat." Here it's called gris. I tried making cream of wheat but (not having the directions handy) it came out terribly lumpy and tasteless. Oh well. My tutor then told me how the Bulgarians use it, in gris pudding. You put milk in a saucepan (how much? Just some milk). Then you pour in some sugar (how much sugar? A lot.) Then you heat it up to scalding (not boiling) stage, and then pour in some semolina (how much? Some). Stir it up good and then take off the heat, pour into small cups, sprinkle some cinnamon on top, and refrigerate. It hardens into a pudding. Taste isn't too bad, but the texture is definitely "cream of wheat." Don't you like these recipes? That's the Bulgarian way!

Stuffed peppers are made much like we do in America. The peppers over here ("chooshki") are usually long and thin and have a lot of flavor. I cut off the stem and take out the seeds. Stuff them with rice. (They don't pre-cook the rice over here, or parboil the peppers, but I usually do. Cooking doesn't take as long that way.) Put in lots of chubritsa spice. Then place them in a flat pan known as a "tava." Put some water on the bottom and put in the oven. Takes about a half hour at medium heat.

They are served covered with lots of local yogurt. Really very delicious. You can also fry up zucchini and serve it the same way.

The last dish I mentioned above is palachinka -- which is really the same as a Swedish pancake or a French crepe, only it's served rolled up with cirene cheese inside. Take about a cup of milk and break in two eggs. Whisk well (I don't have a whisk over here so I make do with a fork) and then pour in flour slowly (while beating) until batter is just starting to thicken but is still liquid enough to pour easily. Pour (4 or 5 tablespoons at a time) onto a greased frying pan (oil should be at "crack" stage) and spread around by tilting the pan. Turn once and then place on a plate. Sprinkle about a spoonful of cirene over the middle and roll up.

Great with fruit preserves.

Oh yes, for Thanksgiving, I've picked up a really long pumpkin (called a "violin pumpkin") for the pie. Seeds are supposed to be in only one end, and the flesh is said to be redder than the round pumpkin and more tasty. I'll let you know!

Well, that's enough rambling for today. I'll get this in the mail and write more when we get back from Sofia.

Report No. 25 from Bulgaria

Well, we went to Sofia on Monday and returned to Straldja on Wednesday. I didn’t go back to work until Thursday morning, however. I was beat! It was a fairly easy trip, but it still wore me out.

Mainly good news all around from the medical checkups. My blood pressure is down. Not as low as I’d like, of course, but a lot better than last summer. It’s now 118 over 88. I guess that’s still within “normal” range for a 65-year-old. And my weight is also down considerably. Since I’ve been in Straldja (a little over two months), I’ve lost 22 pounds. To the Bulgarians, that’s terrible. Weight loss is not something they appreciate! I attribute it to my own cooking - mainly vegetarian, low salt, low fat. When I left Panagyrishte, I weighed 195 (the heaviest I’d ever been). Now I’m at 173, which is much more like normal for me. They also told me to slow down a bit. Not to try to do everything right away. Oh well.

Edith’s tests were also good. The tooth problem was a minor gum inflamation, so a root canal is not going to be necessary. And her other tests came out negative. She was told not to strain her back so much (she’s been carrying a heavy backpack to school and back every day.) So we bought a small suitcase with handle and wheels that she can use going to school. Edith lost about 9 pounds since Panagyrishte.

Trains are a fairly easy way to travel over here, but tend to be much slower than buses. Trains have to stop frequently while buses can go straight through. Also, the train has to follow the tracks, of course, and buses can cut across.

Anyway, we caught the train Monday morning. The only ticket you can buy from Straldja is a second-class, no reservation ticket. Second-class cabins have eight seats, four on each side facing each other. The trains are usually crowded in second class, and smoking is common. The ticket from Straldja to Sofia cost about 9 leva ($4.50). The trip was fine, but the cabin was constantly crowded. The last part of the trip was interesting. A couple of young men, college students, got on and one could speak English fairly well.

On the way back from Sofia, we bought first-class tickets, reserved, no-smoking. We were the only people in the cabin the entire way. First class cabins have only six seats so there is a lot more room. The train came back a different way, following the Balkan mountains the entire trip, and the scenery was spectacular. It’s a much shorter distance so we assumed we’d get in sooner than the 7 hours required for the trip to Sofia. However, at one point, the train backed all the way down south to the town of Stara Zagora, and then came back to Straldja. So the trip took about the same amount of time. By the way, first class tickets cost about 2 leva ($1) more, but they are well worth the extra buck.

While we were in Sofia we stayed at a hotel called the “Mariot M.” Now this isn’t the Marriot Hotel you know about. It’s a tiny little establishment with cheap rooms. (Cheap for Sofia, that is.) Cost 50 leva for two of us the first night and 40 the second. The hotel was fairly near the train station and fairly near downtown Sofia where Peace Corps headquarters are located. So we could walk everywhere.

As long as we were in Sofia, we decided to catch up on some American-style food. Had lunch once in McDonalds (fish and chicken sandwiches, of course) and once at a KFC. Our last evening, we went to a Chinese place (our first time since we left the States.) Food was good, but different from Chinese food back home. Servings were HUGE, so we ordered much too much food. Oh well. Next time we’ll know better.

Things have really changed at the Peace Corps in Sofia since we were there last (before September 11). There is no sign outside announcing the Peace Corps. No American flag flying outside the building. Bulgarian police are conspicuous on the sidewalk out front, and the gates are now kept closed at all times. To get in, you have to get a guard in a bullet-proof guardroom to open the door by remote. It used to be open all the time and very relaxed. The terrorist attacks changed all that. Apparently all U.S. government offices all over the world are using the same procedures.

Although there have been no threats against U.S. interests in Bulgaria, we have all been asked to “keep a low profile,” that is, not to make targets of ourselves. Sad, how a few violent people can influence the lives of millions of innocent folk.

While in Sofia, we got our pneumonia shots but couldn’t get the scheduled flu vaccine. These vaccines are held up in diplomatic pouches that have been impounded in Washington because of the anthrax scare. Some anthrax was identified in pouches to a couple of embassies (including the Ukraine), so all pouches were ordered back to D.C. unopened for processing there. No one knows when all this will be straightened out, but right now there isn’t a lot of mail coming through diplomatic pouches. The Peace Corps medical officer is trying to get permission to buy flu vaccine from France, and give that to us at the upcoming language training session, at the end of this month.

(Edith and I, by the way, will leave for Velengrad, a small resort community south of Panagyurishte, on Tuesday, Nov. 27, and will spend the week there in language classes. We’ll return on Saturday, Dec. 1.)

When we got back to Straldja on Wednesday afternoon, the temperatures were quite warm. I was comfortable in my shirt sleeves. But Thursday morning broke very cold, and I was back to wearing my overcoat and scarf.

Saturday, we plan on going over to Sliven by train (about 30 kilometers away) to do some shopping at the Billa (a Swiss-based chain of supermarkets). Dobi wants to go with us and help us shop. She’s the one, you’ll remember, who’s arranging for us to get a turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner. She’s really fascinated by the American culture. I’ll try to find some sweet potatoes and cranberries and marshmallows. Most likely, none will be available so I’ll have to figure out substitutes. Carrots or pumpkin for the sweet potato and there’s supposed to be a small mountain berry available that’s kind of like cranberries. But what do you substitute for marshmallows?

Thanksgiving dinner should be fun. I’ll bake the turkey and stuff it like I do at home. Make mashed potatoes and Texas-style white gravy (with giblets if they come with the turkey). Try to find some green beans. And maybe make up a big pan of cornbread. I’d like to make a pecan pie, but they don’t have pecans over here. Maybe I could make the same thing but use walnuts. We’ll see! (They call pecans “American walnuts” over here!)

I picked up an ear infection on Friday from somewhere. This changing weather isn’t agreeing with me! I guess my body is still acclimated to South Florida.

Thanks again to everyone who has sent things over for us and for our work. I just learned that the Okeechobee Genealogical Society is sending another $75 for the orphanage, and Paul and Irene Cummings (and the Cocoa Beach CUUPS) have sent over a bunch of playground equipment for the orphanage. I know the kids will appreciate the gifts!

More later.

Love, Rel