Today is Thanksgiving. Our Thanksgiving will be Saturday and preparations are well underway. We did go to Sliven last Saturday and got about 100 leva worth of groceries at the Billa supermarket. As I feared: no sweet potatoes, no cranberries and no marshmallows. Took the train over and Dobi went with us.

I baked up the pumpkin Dobi got for us (the long, thin one they called a “violin” pumpkin) and got a huge bowl full of pumpkin meat. We’ve been eating it as a vegetable and I made a pie on Monday night as a trial run. No pie plates, of course, so I had to cook it in an oblong pan Edith picked up at the hardware store. Tasted pretty good. At least the JOBS office staff seemed to like it. I’ll probably just candy the pumpkin and serve it instead of sweet potatoes. And hopefully make a couple more pumpkin pies (if I can locate something like a couple of pie plates). UPDATE: Found some steel pans that “look” like pie pans in Yambol. Will try them out as pie pans. They don’t have “pies” in Bulgaria, by the way.

For cranberries, I picked up a jar of something called “French grapes.” The picture on the front looked like cranberries, so we’ll give it a try and see if it goes well with turkey. Pat sent me a recipe for marshmallows. Now if I can only find some gelatin, I can make my own.

Dobi’s mother went to a nearby village where they raise the biggest turkeys and bought one for us. Cost 22 leva and weighs about 3 and half kilos - about 7 pounds. Back home, I usually bake at least a 26-pound turkey. I think I’d better pick up a chicken or two so there will be enough meat for everyone Saturday. We’re expecting around 8 guests. I picked up the turkey Tuesday evening and met Dobi’s mother and “Sunny,” Dobi’s cat.

I was able to find some brown sugar in Sliven, so that should make things easier! I also picked up a bag of walnut meats and I’ll use that to make a “pecan” pie.

The menu for Saturday looks like this:

Most of these foods are completely unknown here in Bulgaria, so it will be our guests’ first taste of a number of typical American (or Texan) foods.

I’ve also been working this week on a SPA (Small Projects Assistance) program grant for Edith. SPA grants are funded by USAID and allow Peace Corps volunteers to apply for small sums (around $3000) for special projects. Edith’s project will be to build a Language Resource Center at her school and would provide for books, a computer, a TV and VCR, etc. Keep your fingers crossed for her.

I haven’t decided what to do my own SPA proposal on. I need to talk with the Director of the Roma school again and see what they might need. What they need the most, that is. They need a new playground, I know. But they also could use a resource center like Edith is applying for, or a computer lab, or . . . Well, they actually don’t have ANYTHING, so it might be difficult deciding what to ask for!

I also need to put in a small grant proposal for the orphanage (under what is called the “Partnership” program) but I need to talk with the Director there and find out what they need the most. The Partnership program allows us to prepare a grant proposal that is sent back to the States where Peace Corps staff tries to find “partners” who will make donations to support the proposal. It isn’t a sure thing, but no grant proposal ever is. Update: I talked with the Director and they desperately need toilets in the building where classes are held. There are none there. If the children need to go to the WC, they have to leave the building and go back to the dormitory - a rather long journey.

I already have grant proposals out for: a one-stop customer service center at the Municipality (through the Peace-pack program), an entertainment center for the orphanage, and one for repairing the swimming pool at Edith’s school (through the US military’s humanitarian assistance program). I have information for writing a proposal to get the Chitalishte (culture center) rebuilt, but I don’t have a foundation yet to submit it to!

There are too many needs and too few resources.

There are some other grant possibilities I’d like to get moving on, but the Municipality moves VERY slowly I’ve discovered. For a couple of these, I might be able to get some funds to rebuild the water supply system in town, which is very old and very, very leaky, but the deadline comes up in a couple of days and I haven’t gotten anything back from the Municipality. Oh well. They tend to say: “We could never get that grant,” and then proceed to do nothing about it. I keep trying to get them to see that they WON’T get a grant if they don’t submit a proposal.

I think my main job here in Bulgaria will be instilling a little more optimism into the environment. Pessimism runs very deep here. I’m hoping at least some of my proposals are successful so the people can see that things can work out positively.

It isn’t really their fault. Hundreds of years of foreign domination - fifty years of communist central planning - and ten years of severe depression - these have all conspired to give the population of Bulgaria a bleak image of the world in general.

So I have to keep my optimistic perspective above all else, and somehow teach it to others.

Marianna and Steven - the young couple who are members of the mystical Christian group, Disciples of the White Brotherhood - came over Sunday and brought examples of their handicrafts, which I took photos of and hope to get on the web this week sometime. Marianna does painting on linen and muslin and Steven does hand-made copper jewelry etc. I’ll let you know when I get the pictures on the Internet.

I also took photos of some cross-stitch work by one of Edith’s fellow teachers, and also of the crochet and lace work by Yanka (our neighbor). We went over to their apartment Tuesday evening for “na gosti.”

She gave us both a “martinitsa” and showed us a wide selection of them that she has made. (I’ll get photos of these on the web as well.) Martinitsas are traditional ornaments which are given to friends on the first day of March. They are always made of red and white yarn, but the design varies considerably. Anyway, when you give one away, you say: “chestita baba marta,” which means “Blessings of Grandmother March.” You have to wear the martinitsa until you see the first stork, at which time you take it off and leave it on a tree or other living plant. Yanka asks 1 leva (50 cents) for each martinitsa. If you are interesting in getting some, let me know.

Edith paid the phone bill this week and was shocked to discover it was 70 leva, a small fortune over here. Most likely, it’s the “impulse” or phone charges for the Internet. We buy “Internet cards” and use them, but we also have to pay long-distance charges as well. It’s expensive to use the Internet! Hopefully, we’ll have direct service early next year through the JOBS office. That would be a lot less expensive. And, if my “Peace-pack” proposal goes through, I’ll have a good PC at work, with Internet connection. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with paying for it all out of our living expenses.

The municipality did agree (finally) to pay for any future ink cartridges for the printer, and they came up with some paper and paperclips for supplies. At least it’s a start.

Wednesday, we went into Yambol to get some more money out of our American bank account. The extra phone expenses, a new Internet card, and Christmas gifts kind of wiped us out! We also bought the pie pans and extra supplies for Thanksgiving dinner.

They have a strange form of mixer over here. Kind of a long wand with a tiny blade at the end. Anyway, I picked up one in Yambol (for whipped cream and for mashing potatoes.) Most of them cost around 50 leva ($25), but I found a Bulgarian-made one for 15 leva ($7.50). It only has to last for two years, after all! And it came with a one-year guarantee at that.

Oh well. I’m at work today. Have a happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Love,  Rel

Report No. 27 from Bulgaria

(In this issue: cooking … traveling … restaurants … the mayor … and politics!)

Cooking can be a real challenge in Bulgaria! Thanksgiving dinner was, well, different. Everyone showed up. There was Ditchko, the young man who is team leader for the JOBS (business information center) office where my office is located, along with his wife, Tanya. Dobi (Dobrinka, the young woman who also works in the JOBS office and who is my usual translator at work) was there. Also present were Rosie (Edith’s counterpart and the other English teacher at Edith’s school) along with her husband and her daughter, Martina. And there were two other teachers from Edith’s school, Donka and another Tanya. Eight in all. With us, 10 people for dinner.

I had picked up a frozen chicken and baked it with the turkey. Good thing, too. The chicken came out fine. The turkey? Well, now I know why they don’t roast turkeys in Bulgaria! It was small, as I’d mentioned earlier, about 7 pounds. The skin was at least a quarter inch thick and tough as iron. Most of the bird was fat and what lean there was, was almost as tough as the skin. I had to borrow a sharper knife just to be able to get a little meat off the thing! You don’t know how lucky you are to live in America and have access to a nice lean turkey for Thanksgiving.

The cornbread was also a bit of a disaster. They don’t have water-ground cornmeal over here like we’re accustomed to in the States. It’s more oily than ours, and has a different flavor. So far, I’ve made cornbread following two different recipes and each time it comes out the same - oily and with a strong flavor that’s not at all like cornbread I’ve made in America. Oh well.

The oven is part of the problem. Temperatures seem to be a random selective process, with little resemblance to what the dial says. I made two “pecan” pies (with walnuts, of course), putting them into the oven at the same time. One burned on top and never cooked all the way through and the other came out fine. Different places in the oven have entirely different temperatures. The pies tasted great, however, and people seemed to like them.

Our guests seemed to eat a lot of food anyway, so I guess it wasn’t too bad. I was disappointed, however, that it didn’t taste more like an “American” Thanksgiving dinner. As Edith says, of course, they don’t know any different, so to them it was a treat.

The “French grapes” were definitely a form of cranberry, but made from dried cranberries. They tasted like very sweet cranberry sauce, but chewy. Oh well!

Woke up Saturday morning to light rain that quickly turned to snow. Had snow flurries all day Saturday, leaving a fine coating of white on the ground Saturday night. On Sunday morning, there were more light flurries, but by the end of the day, all the snow had melted. It’s still bitterly cold out though.

We leave Tuesday morning for the resort community of Velengrad, down in the south central part of Bulgaria, for a language seminar. We’ll take the train to the town of Septemvri (named after a battle there at the end of World War Two that took place in the month of September) and then take a bus to Velengrad. The town is noted for its hot springs and there’s supposed to be a heated pool at the hotel, so we are looking forward (hopefully) to a swim or two while we’re there.

Classes will take place Wednesday through Friday and the conference ends after breakfast Saturday, so we won’t be back in Straldja until sometime Saturday evening at the earliest.

Next Monday evening, the Peace Corps medical officer, Andrea, is coming to town for a visit and will be staying the evening with us - our first overnight guest in the apartment. This will be a routine survey of our living conditions and health conditions in the community. Andrea, who is a nurse practitioner, lives in Sofia with her husband. She was a member of a Unitarian church back in the States, so we all get along quite well. I plan to fix dinner for everyone that evening. Andrea had offered to take us out to dinner, but there are only two restaurants in Straldja and the menu choices are rather limited.

We might be getting a pizza place in town, however, A woman who works at the Municipality (mother of the young man, Ivan, who’s been to our place a couple of times), asked me for advice on what kind of business to start. They’ve built a “storefront” business place into the ground floor of their home (located between the city hall and the school.)

She was talking about starting a sewing business, with several sewing machines to be installed in the site. Jokingly, I suggested a pizza place, because there isn’t such a thing here in Straldja. I mentioned to her that I often get home tired and don’t feel like fixing dinner and that I will suggest to Edith that we “send out for a pizza.” Then we both have a good laugh and I set about cooking dinner. Anyway, now she’s seriously thinking about putting up a pizza parlor. It’s near the school, so she probably would get a lot of day-time business from school kids.

If she does open up a pizzeria, we’ll have three eating establishments in town! By the way, several of the small cafes in town offer food - of sorts. It’s mainly meat - sausages and meatballs - so it’s nothing I can (or care to) eat.

Prices are very reasonable for cafes and restaurants here. A cup of espresso coffee costs 30 stotinki (about 15 cents). A soft drink might cost 50-70 stotinki, the same price as a bottle of beer. You can get an ice-cream Sundae for about 70 stotinki. At the hotel restaurant, where we get dinner, prices are: chicken shish kebab: 1.20 leva (60 cents), French fries: 80 stotinki, Shopska salad (tomatoes, cucumbers and sirene cheese): 1.20 leva, sirene po Shopska (baked sirene cheese): 1 leva. Edith and I can eat a large meal there for less than $5. (A stotinki is a hundredth of a leva, and one dollar is worth about 2 leva.)

And when you consider the local hotel rents rooms for around 13 leva a night, this could be a quite reasonable place for a vacation. We’re on the railroad line, of course, and are an hour from the Black Sea and a couple hours (or less) from the mountains. Straldja even owns its own “mountain cabin” (only a few minutes from here) but I understand its facilities are rather primitive - but incredibly cheap. Mountain cabins are kind of like primitive hotels, with (as I understand it) only rooms for rent. I haven’t been up to the Municipality’s cabin but hope to soon.

The mayor of the Municipality, Dr. Andon Vasilev, is hoping to get over to America this winter for a visit, what with cheap airline rates etc. The biggest problem over here is in getting a visa. Most visa applications are turned down - to avoid illegal immigrants in the States. I’ve written him a letter that might help him get a visa.

He’s a professional surgeon and now mayor of a city government with a 3 million-leva annual budget, but his salary is not much more than what a regular worker makes. His wife works as a school teacher to help them make ends meet, and they live in a modest apartment over in Sliven. I think he has some distant relative in Baltimore, so he plans on flying into there. Any more visits around the country will depend on how his budget holds up. If you are in that area and could give him a ride into the country for a day-trip, that would be very helpful. Let me know if you could help.

From everything I’ve heard about him, he’s a rarity in Bulgaria (or any country) - an honest politician. He doesn’t intend to run for office after his first term and only ran this time because his mother wanted him to. He has put up street lights all over the town of Straldja (another rarity in Bulgaria) and is trying to get as much positive done as he can before his term ends.

There’s been a bit of a “coup” in the municipal council in the past couple of weeks. The former communists have taken over the council and now they are giving the mayor a major headache. I think he’ll be glad when his term is over!

Politics in Bulgaria are sometimes rather strange. The current Prime Minister is Simeon II, who at the age of 6 was the last “king” of Bulgaria. He leads a party of young technocrats drawing nominal support both from the right and the left. The new president of Bulgaria was an upset win by the former communist party, ousting the right-center National Democratic incumbent. The King’s party holds power through a loose coalition with the Turkish minority party. Our mayor is an independent but aligned with the “blue” or ND party. The council is now “red” or communist, and the city budget is controlled by the regional governor, who is, of course, of the King’s party. The “reds” hate the “blues” and are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the King’s people.

Luckily, politics in Bulgaria is traditionally nonviolent! Even though they argue vehemently for their own party politics, they don’t resort to physical attacks on each other. But the strange mix of politics sometimes makes it difficult to get anything done at the local level.

And the former communists here in Straldja are, for the most part, apolitical! It’s more of a social club than anything else. We’ve made friends with a number of people who are “reds” - they joined the communist party for the same reason a lot of people in the States join the biggest church in town - it’s good business!

But it’s sometimes hard to keep the people - and their politics - straight. We have several layers of friendships here. The people at my work tend to be “blue” - aligned with the mayor. One group of people we’ve met (including some at Edith’s school) are “red” - in the social group of former communists. One couple are members of the mystical Christian sect known as “Disciples of the White Brotherhood,” and they are outcasts to everyone else in town. And then another large group is truly apolitical - either not aligned with any party or at least who never talk politics.

That latter fact is an important one. People either don’t talk politics or don’t tell you what they really think about politics. I think that’s a holdover from 50 years of a centralized government. Before the recent presidential elections, polls showed the ND incumbent ahead by a wide margin. He lost by about 3 percentage points. The polls are never right over here, one Bulgarian told me, because people don’t tell the pollsters what they really feel.

Well, that’s enough for now. More when we get back from Velengrad!

Love, Rel

Report No. 28 from Bulgaria

Well, we are back from our visit to Velengrad. Velengrad is a mountain resort town noted for its natural hot springs. The hotel we stayed in was a luxury resort hotel, Bulgarian style. Rooms were comfortably furnished, but extremely cold (we slept under three blankets to try to stay warm). The “hot” water was lukewarm at best. About the only warm place in the hotel was the “bar” which had a fireplace and sold hot chocolate. Even there, on the coldest night they didn’t light the fireplace!

The meetings were generally interesting, but tiring all in all. We were glad to get back to Straldja. We got in on Saturday evening.

The trip there involved a train and three buses, plus a long walk up a steep hill (in snow). Coming back, we caught taxis in town (a dollar for both of us) and got first-class train tickets (an extra buck each).

While we were in Velengrad, Peace Corps brought down our mail. There were three large boxes and several big envelopes. Two boxes were Christmas presents (and Christmas decorations) from daughter Lori. One huge box contained sports equipment for the orphanage (plus 4 - count them! - 4 bags of chocolate chips), from the Cummings’ and from the CUUPS group in Cocoa Beach, FL. Also there was an envelope of books and 3x5 cards from Lorien and envelopes with lap quilts from Tantie Quilters in Okeechobee.

Since we couldn’t carry all of it on the train-bus-taxi ride home, we sent it back to Sofia. The Peace Corps medical officer, Andrea Ballard, came in to Straldja on Monday on an official visit, so she brought the boxes down with her.

Also while we were in Velengrad, I worked with the PCV Orphanage Committee to raise money for orphanages around the country. I gave massages a couple of evenings while other members did manicures etc. There was also an auction of used clothing. All in all, I think the committee raised around 200 leva.

The hotel restaurant had its menu in English (apparently just for us) but it was really funny. “Sauce” was spelled “souses” (as one example of many) and some “translations” were completely nonexistent English words!

The funniest item on the menu was in the drinks section, where they listed “Bulgarian sin” and below it “Imported sin.” Since the Bulgarian was right underneath it, I knew they intended to write down “gin.” (The Bulgarian word is “dzhin” since they have no “j” sound by itself.) It took me a while to realize why “gin” became “sin.” The cursive and italic letter for the Bulgarian “g” sound is a backwards “s.” Apparently, the person who typeset the menu was trying to find a lower-case “g” and guessed that the Latin “s” was the same as the Bulgarian “g.”

Anyway, before we left, someone “corrected” the menu. They changed the “s” in “sin” to a backwards “s”!

When we got back here, the apartment was cold (of course) and it took awhile (most of the weekend) to heat the place up. When we turned on the living-room light, the bulb “blew up” and scattered all over the floor. The weather is really cold, with a hard northerly wind ever since we’ve been back and a spitting rain all day Sunday. This means the wind blows in around the front door, which faces north.

On Sunday, we walked down to the hardware store. I bought some insulation for the front door, some light bulbs for the living room, and some machine oil for the heater (which frequently makes all sorts of weird noises.) I put insulation all around the door - which helped a lot. Put up a new light bulb. And oiled the fan in the heater. The fan, by the way, still makes all sorts of weird noises. So I just hit the fan every once and while to get it to shut up.

We also picked up a lot of groceries on Sunday. Then, Sunday evening, we discovered that the refrigerator has given up the ghost on us. Now I’ve got a lot of spoiled and spoiling food on my hands - and company coming in tonight! I put the cheese in a zip-lock bag and put it out on the balcony, along with a lot of the groceries. It should all stay cool enough out there (with temperatures around 0 degrees Celsius - 32 F.)

I don’t know what we’ll have to do to get another refrigerator!

The school gave us the name of a local refrigerator mechanic, but didn’t know the man’s phone number. Turned out, he and Ditchko went to school together, so Ditchko called him and he will go to their place after work (some day this week) and Ditchko will bring him over to the apartment to see what he can do for the fridge. (Ditchko lives in the blok next door to ours.) Meanwhile, we are keeping our food in a cardboard box out on the balcony.

I asked around about getting an “elha” (Christmas tree) for the apartment and apparently sometimes people do bring them into town to sell. We’ll just have to wait a bit longer. I’ll try to get to the “pazaar” Tuesday and see if they have any.

Report No. 29 from Bulgaria

A traditional Bulgarian Christmas Tradition - A Pig Slaughter

The Bulgarian word for Christmas is “Koleda.” People from around Straldja say that the name is derived from the Bulgarian word “to butcher,” because the primary ritual of this time of year is the slaughter of a pig.

The Bulgarian word “kolya” means “to slaughter or butcher.” A “kolach” is a butcher. “Kolbasi,” of course, is sausage and a “kolbasar” is a pig butcher or sausage maker. So that certainly makes sense.

When I asked the Peace Corps language instructor a couple of weeks ago about it, she insisted that the word “koleda” comes from the Greek word “calend” meaning the first of the year, and that the word “koleda” therefore means “new year’s day.”

Well, I certainly know better than that! The word is “calends” and it isn’t Greek, it’s Latin, and it doesn’t mean the first of the year, but the first of the month. The Romans had three words for important days of each month. “Calends” was the first day of the month. In fact, the word “calendar” literally means a “collection of calends,” that is, a listing of the first days of each month. The other two important Roman days were the “nones” or ninth of each month, and the “ides,” approximately the middle of the month, falling on the 13th or the 15th depending on the month. Everyone knows that Julius Caesar was killed on the “Ides of March,” or March 15. My birthday happens to fall, by the way, on the Ides of September (September 13.)

The Romans had a saying, when they talked about something that wasn’t going to ever take place, that it would occur on “a Greek calends,” because the Greek calendar didn’t have a calends!

Anyway, the word “koleda” more than likely DOES mean “day of slaughter.” I think the “calends” story is a bit of folk etymology invented to convince the communists that it really wasn’t a religious holiday at all!

In this part of Bulgaria, which is located in what was, four thousand years ago, the ancient land of Thrace, the most important ritual at Koleda is the slaughter of a pig. Quite possibly the origins of the ritual are Thracian.

On Saturday, December 8, 2001, Edith and I were invited by the mayor of Straldja (Dr. Andon Vasilev) to witness the ritual. We were picked up by car at around 9:30 a.m. and driven to a home in the eastern part of town. The day was bitter cold, with a dusting of snow on the ground. We had awakened to see drifts of snow scurrying down the street before a fierce wind.

The slaughter took place, of course, outside, though most of the time it was done inside a “greenhouse,” an outside structure composed of a frame covered partially with light plastic. At least it blocked most of the wind and, with the flame used to singe the pig’s bristles, kept slightly warmer than the outside.

The location was the home of Todor, a friend of the mayor’s. About 8 men took part in the actual slaughter, while the women were inside preparing dinner. I took a series of photos of the slaughter and of the “na gosti” afterwards.

Outside the greenhouse was a large pot on a metal frame over an open wood fire. Two men were busy cutting wood, stoking the fire and keeping water boiling in the pot. The water was used to clean utensils, to wash the bristles off, and to clean every part of the process.

The pig, a huge sow, was killed with a knife to the throat, which really succeeded only in allowing the poor animal to drown in its own blood. It wasn’t a quick, painless process.

When the pig was finally dead, the carcass was taken inside the greenhouse and placed on a large metal table. A hand-pumped kerosene burner, plus two propane burners, were used to singe the carcass.

As the process was just beginning, the women came out with “greina rakiya,” like a hot toddy made of rakiya and sugar, which was immediately passed around to all the men. Inside the house, the women also drank the “greina rakiya” (warm brandy) along with herbal tea.

The carcass was charred twice, first for the visible bristles and the second time to cook the skin and remove the final bristles. After each charring, the skin was scraped repeatedly with knives.

Portions of the skin were taken off and rolled up in small bundles, placed on a plate with salt, and passed around to be eaten. I passed on that! I hadn’t eaten red meat in many years and wasn’t about to start the process with pigskin.

Other portions were cut off and put inside a wire frame to be cooked in the fire under the water pot outside. This was later passed around for everyone to eat and I did take a token piece. Also, a large pitcher of home-made white wine was passed around to all the men.

The mayor, a professional surgeon, worked as hard (if not harder!) than the others. In fact, he was called upon to select out the organs, etc., using (of course) his surgical skills!

Everything (except the blood, which is not used in this region, though it is in other areas of Bulgaria) was used. The hams and larger meat portions were tied with string and hung up outside to drain. The intestines were cleaned thoroughly and used to make sausage - which would boil in the outside water pot after the butchering was completed.

When the butchering was over, we went inside for the “na gosti” or party that followed the process. More home-made rakiya and white wine were passed around and there were snacks available. The home was quite nice, with a large fireplace in one corner of the living room, ablaze with rather friendly flames.

The “dining room table” in a Bulgarian home looks rather like what we’d call a coffee table in the States. It’s a long, low table, surrounded by couches, chairs and stools, located in the living area. Everyone sits around the table for dinner.

The hostesses brought out bowls of what they call summer salad, a pickled combination of vegetables - peppers, carrots, cauliflower, okra, etc. - and bowls of fried bits of pork liver and pork lean portions. Everyone ate from the same bowls of food. Later, the main dish, a traditional stew of pork and cabbage, which had been boiling in the kitchen all morning in a large cauldron, was served. Here, everyone got an individual bowl to eat from.

The mayor brought out a large bottle of his own home-made wine, a red wine, to join the other products. There was also “lemonade” and coffee available, of course. The lemonade is a lemon-flavored soda.

Later, cake and some of my chocolate-chip cookies were brought out, along with some “American-style” popcorn.

Everyone was extremely friendly. They put on traditional Bulgarian music on a CD player, and people would do some traditional dancing. Edith joined in for most of them. I did the “horo” a couple of times, but I don’t know any of the other traditional dances here.

The “na gosti” lasted until almost 10 p.m., more than 12 hours! This is apparently about normal for Bulgaria. The last thing they served was some of the sausage, that had been cooking for several hours.

On Sunday, by the way, Edith and I walked downtown for some shopping (the refrigerator still isn’t repaired!) and passed by a garage where people were slaughtering a pig - exactly the same way we’d seen the day before.

(Later in the week)

Now that the wind has died down (thank goodness!), the city is suddenly filled with smoke. Walking outside is not unlike walking through a forest fire. Temperatures Monday night were 14 below zero (Celsius - about 7 above in F.), but Tuesday didn’t feel nearly as cold as over the weekend because the wind had died down considerably.

Heating here is usually by wood or coal, and the smoke pours out of chimneys all over town. The haze hangs heavy over the entire area. The smell is not that unpleasant, however, no chemical scent at all. Just natural wood smoke.

We paid our electric bill yesterday and were a bit shocked! We heat with electricity, of course, so the recent cold spell meant we’ve been using a lot more of it. Our electric bill was 118 leva (about $59), up from only about 20 leva the month before. Luckily, Peace Corps pays our utilities, so we’ll get the money back eventually.

Edith left Tuesday afternoon with her counterpart Rositsa. They are attending a conference in Stara Zagora (100 kilometers southwest of here) on writing grants. They are taking the grant proposal I prepared for them a couple of weeks ago, to get a “language resource center” at their school. They’ll be back in town Friday evening. It’s Edith’s first train trip in Bulgaria without my being along. At least she isn’t all by herself.

Also on Tuesday, some of the workers in the Municipality made a Christmas wreath for me and brought it into the office. I hung it up on the wall in the office. It’s exactly like a wreath back in the States. They said the wreath isn’t traditional here, but they’ve started using them since there has been more contact with the west. I explained the traditional meaning behind the wreath - in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse belief - and they were really interested in learning about our culture.

Ditchko (the JOBS office team leader) is hard at work putting together a website on local crafts. We hope to get it up and running sometime in January.

More later,

Love, Rel

Report No. 30 from Bulgaria

I finally got the photos from Archangelofden (Archangel Michael’s Day) up on the web. They are at <>. Photos from our recent language In-Service Training (IST) in Velengrad are also on the web: <>.

The html code for the pig slaughter ritual has been completed but still needs to be uploaded. The Internet connections here are so slow, uploading is usually a long, tedious process. I hope to get the photos on the web this weekend.

Reminder of our websites:

Our basic Bulgaria website, including archives of many of our past newsletters, is at: <>.

The Straldja website, with photos of the municipality and the orphanage and Roma school, etc., is at <>.

Edith’s website, with photos of her school: <>.

And photos of our apartment and the town: <>.

I went out to the Roma school on Thursday to meet with the Director. The school building is quite old and really run-down. No money for repairs or basic maintenance. I asked her what they needed the most, as I hope to put in a proposal under a USAID-Peace Corps program called Small Projects Assistance. The building needs painting, the fence outside is run-down, and the playground is a disaster area.

Her first comment was that the Municipality would never let me put in a request for funds for them, because they completely ignore the Roma school. Since all projects require the local people to contribute at least 10% of the funds, she felt there was no way the city would ever give them the 10% required.

I asked if there were any funds at all available. She said the city had finally agreed this year to budget 1200 leva (about $600) for repairing the school building’s roof - but only because the roof was beginning to leak. The funds will be available this spring.

So - I’m going to prepare a proposal for fixing up the playground, rebuilding the fence around the school, painting the building AND fixing the roof. This way, I can claim the city’s contribution toward the roof as part of the grant! The Director is having a budget drawn up now and I’ll try to get the grant submitted sometime in January, well under my deadline. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

While I was at the school, all the children clustered around the Director’s office door wanting to wave at me. They asked the Director if I would be able to attend their Koleda (Christmas) party next week. I agreed to attend. It’s supposed to be next Friday, December 21, at 10:30 a.m. I won’t be able to get presents for all of the children, of course, but I’ll try to find a way to take a big bag of candy along.

Most of the children there were around 8 to 10 years old. They act like children everywhere - full of activity and mischief - but their clothes are usually somewhat on the ragged side, and their faces often are dark in color, reflecting their East Indian origins.

On Friday morning, I went with Ditchko to the nearby towns of Aitos and Karnobat, where other Peace Corps volunteers are stationed. We went in a municipal car, with the “bigger” Ivan driving. We had planned to go there Thursday, but the regional governor came for a visit and they figured they might need the car around here.

Ditchko had to go to Aitos to pick up some heaters for the new office - lowest bidders were there - about 40 kilometers away. The two volunteers in Aitos (Judith Ahrens and Doug Kramer) weren’t at home. Friday is their day off. So we stopped in the town of Karnobat on the way back to see if that volunteer (Lisa Fiala) was in. She was gone, too, to visit her boyfriend who’s in the Peace Corps in Africa.

It was, however, an interesting trip. Aitos is nearer the mountains than we are, and at a higher altitude. Here, it’s been cold, but sunny and with a very slight breeze. In Aitos, it was VERY cold, overcast, with a high wind and spitting snow. Miserable weather! Aitos is rather a pretty place, however, nestled in the foothills.

Karnobat, on the other hand, looks like a factory town in Depression Appalachia! The bloks there make Straldja’s bloks look like luxury apartment buildings! Everything was incredibly run-down, much more so than in Straldja.

Both Aitos and Karnobat are much larger towns than Straldja. Aitos has an ancient mosque in the town center and has a large Turkish population.

On the way over, we kept passing by circular mounds in the middle of fields. Some were steep but most were relatively flat. In every case, plowing stopped at the mound circumference and the hillock itself was just covered by grass (and in a few cases also with a tree or two).

They certainly looked artificial. I don’t know whether they are ancient burial mounds, and hence potential archeological sites, or just those strange places like the ones in England called “fairy circles” where farmers are afraid to cultivate. Maybe both of these - or neither.

I’ll have to ask around.

I found out this week that my request for a small grant of $250-$300 to buy a TV set for the orphanage was turned down. I guess it wasn’t considered important enough. I’ll have to tell the kids sometime that I didn’t get the money for it. They have no TV set now and the kids were hoping we’d get one. Oh well, maybe next year.

We might get our refrigerator fixed this weekend. Two weeks without a fridge is rather wearing. Every time I put something out on the balcony it freezes. Anyway, Toshko has promised to come fix the “hladilnik” on Saturday at 5 p.m.