Reports From Bulgaria Numbers 31-36

by Rel Davis

Report No. 31 from Bulgaria

I’ve been sharing an office at the Municipality with two young people - Ditchko and Dobrina -- who are with the JOBS (Jobs Opportunities through Business Support) program (under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program.) This is an NGO (non-government organization) trying to help the development of small and medium businesses in Bulgaria. There are about 20 such offices around the country and several of them have Peace Corps volunteers assigned directly to them.

I’m not assigned to the program, however, since I work directly for the Municipality and report to the mayor, although I am supposed to provide “support” to the JOBS program.

Anyway, it’s a new program and they’ve been using an office in the City Hall since last summer. They have new offices now, across the street from the Municipality (and also owned by the Municipality) and on Monday, Dec. 17, they moved into the new facilities. Eventually, I’ll be sharing the office here with the city’s finance officer (who happens to be Tanya, Ditchko’s wife.)

So on Tuesday, I came to work and the office was ice cold. The little lady who starts the wood-burning stove in the morning thought everyone had moved out! She promptly realized her mistake and got a hot fire going right away. Though the temperatures were so cold outside that the stove couldn’t keep the room warm enough.

It’s really cold these days - coldest I’ve been since I lived in Montana back in the 1950s. Temperatures are around 5 below (Centigrade) for a high, with lows from 10 to 14 below. In Fahrenheit, that would be a high of 23 and lows between 6 and 14, I think. It snowed on Sunday and Monday and we’re supposed to get snow on Tuesday as well. The wind is blowing fiercely from the north, so it’s really tough walking. I have no idea what the wind-speed temperature would be!

Our blok (apartment building) is in the north part of town. Walking to work is not bad, with the wind to our back, but going home is tough! On Monday, with the snow blowing parallel to the ground, I had trouble seeing where I was going!

I will also have a desk and PC at the JOBS office if I want it. I’ll be able to use the server PC over there. Since they’ll have direct Internet access (starting in January), I’ll probably spend part of my time over there.

Edith came up with some good ideas about increasing tourism in Straldja and I’ve written a report for the mayor and municipal council proposing they adopt some of them - a craft center, tours at the local winery, tours of old homes in town, and some “fast-food” restaurants in town. I’ll have to get Dobrina to translate it into Bulgarian for me.

On Monday, I attended a meeting of the committee responsible for the local radio station, a Municipality-owned station. Have you ever heard of cable radio? That’s what they have here. Most homes have a radio on the wall connected by cable to offices above the Post Office. They also have a regular program on the local TV cable network. In addition, every morning around 11:30, the radio news is broadcast all over town by loudspeaker.

Anyway, the meeting featured home-made pastries and home-made wine (alcohol consumption at work is considered normal here, at any time of the day). One member of the committee is the Director of the local Post Office (in charge of telephones, of course - the radio cabling is connected through phone lines), so I got a tour of the telephone center in town.

Another member is part of the Municipality office for cultural affairs and she invited Edith and myself to the Koleda (Christmas) festivities on Friday evening at the nearby village of Zimnitsa (named for the ancient Goddess of wheat). A city bus will pick us up and take us over to the village, about 7 kilometers away. I’ve no idea what will take place, but we’ll see. Probably the “Koledari” (men who go around the village singing) will be featured.

Also on Friday, I’m supposed to go out to the Roma (Gypsy) school at 10:45 a.m. for their Koleda party.

And on Friday, Edith’s classes will be having their Christmas parties, featuring the breaking of piñatas and the singing of “Feliz Navidad” - yes, they’re learning about Mexican holidays as well as American. She’s been working with them for a couple of weeks, making piñatas out of papier-mache. The local cable TV crew is supposed to be filming them for broadcast. We’ll try to get photos for the website as well.

Should be a busy week.

Next week, there will only be two working days. We’re off on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the day after Christmas. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I think we’re off the following week for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day - Monday and Tuesday.

In Bulgaria, by the way, Christmas Eve is called “Budni Vecher” or “future evening” (“the evening that will be”). Lots of food is served on that day, but no meat can be eaten, only “postna hrana” or “fasting food.”

I’d like to take a couple of day trips over the holidays, including a run over to Bourgas on the Black Sea. We can get there by train (about an hour’s ride). Probably catch an early morning train and come back in the evening. We also have to go into Sofia soon to get the rest of our shots. Edith wants to go in right after Christmas.

It’s the coldest it’s been in this part of Bulgaria for about 50 years, or so we’ve heard. The Black Sea is freezing. Ice on the Black Sea is considered extremely abnormal. And they also haven’t had snow in Straldja for awhile. It’s been at least 10 years, they tell me, since they had as much snow as we had this week.

“Well Toto, I don’t think we’re in Florida anymore!” (Or Kansas either.)

There IS a bit of Oz to this place. Kind of an air of innocence - and in winter, the people bundle up a bit like Munchkins.

The sleds are interesting. They’re designed for being pulled along the street, not for sliding down hill. They have seats with backs on them. They are built high off the ground. And many of them have a steering ski in front, with a steering wheel attached. I have photos up on the web now: <>. The sleds look like they belong in the Land of Oz.

I’ll have to learn more Bulgarian now, by the way. No one in the Municipality speaks a word of English - only Dobrina and Ditchko could speak it and they are now across the street.

Still no refrigerator in our apartment - it’s now been two and half weeks. I asked about another repairman in town and everyone says there aren’t any. If nothing is done today, we’ll have to contact Sofia and have someone there call the Municipality and the school. (Late flash! We got the refrigerator and the heater fixed on Tuesday evening. Seems three different people from the Municipality called the repairman and told him to get to our place!)

As I mentioned earlier, daughter Lorien will be running in the race for breast cancer research this spring, from Baltimore to Washington. She’s collected a third of the funds she needs to qualify. She figures if she can get 61 people to donate $20 each, she can get the rest of it! If you’d like to help out a good cause (and support her new fitness program!) let her know.

We went to a party at the hotel on Wednesday. The unveiling of the new Municipality calendar, featuring artwork by students at local schools (winners in a competition last fall.) They gave us a free copy of the calendar. Most of the winners were students of Edith's so she's thrilled to have such a souvenir.

More later.

Love, Rel

Report No. 32 from Bulgaria

Well, it's been an interesting week, so far. On Friday I watched some of Edith's kids try to break a piñata, went to a Christmas (Koleda) party at the Gypsy school, and went to the nearby village of Zimnitsa for a traditional Koledari contest -- and got a minor case of frostbite to boot. I'll put up a small web page with one photo each. You can link to it from <>. On the same site is another small page with three photos of Koledari dancers outside our blok. But more on these a little later on.

As we get closer to the holidays, the realization that we really are half way around the world from home becomes ever stronger. We've made a lot of friends here, and good friends too, but they will never make up for the many friends and family that we left behind to come here. I think I'm beginning to fully understand the basic angst of the immigrant or refugee who may never again see "home" or the people back home. At least for us, we know that in a year and a half we'll be coming back to America and we'll see all you good people again.

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot?" It's probably just the echo of "Auld Lang Syne" that's triggering a bit of nostalgia! Anyway, have a very merry Yule and a much better New Year than the last one. And "tak a cup of kindness" for us this holiday.

Cats, Gypsies and Trash bins. Outside our blok (apartment building) are a couple of large trash bins, kind of like primitive dumpsters. Whenever I take out the trash, I have to be careful not to throw it onto a cat, because now that winter is here, that's the favorite hangout for all the neighborhood stray cats. There are always some scraps for them to eat and, since most people heat their apartments with wood stoves, and the trash bin is where they dump the hot ashes, the bin is also a rather warm place to get in out of the cold.

It really breaks my heart to see the poor cats out there, some of them only tiny kittens, but there doesn't seem to be a lot I can do about it.

The cats aren't the only sad thing about the trash bin. Whenever I take out the trash, there are always Gypsies (Roma) waiting around -- to pick through whatever we throw away. They seem to like our trash better than others, probably because we throw away a lot more. They salvage plastic bottles and jars and just about anything else they find there. One time, two Gypsies got into a fight over which one would go through my trash bag first.

It's a rather primitive recycling system, I suppose. One of these days I'll try to find out exactly what they do want and put all that in a separate bag -- to make it easier on them. But I think they also salvage kitchen scraps -- along with the cats -- and I'm not sure I have the stomach to find out precise details.

Piñatas in Bulgaria. Edith's classes this year learned not only about American Christmas traditions, but also about Mexican ones. They all made piñatas out of papier-mâché and Edith stuffed them with candy (a lot of it sent over from America, which thrilled the children no end!) On Friday morning (Dec. 21), the last day of school, they got to break the piñatas. I took some photos and, as I said, one is on the web. The papier-mâché was made of sterner stuff than they expected, so it was a task getting the piñatas to break!

After the piñatas, the teachers put together a Koleda table in the teacher's break room (really a storeroom). They had coffee and homemade wine and banitsas (cheese pastry) with fortunes in it and pitka (Christmas bread) and various snacks. My fortune was that I'd win the lottery. Of course I don't play the lottery, but a friend bought me a lottery ticket afterward -- just to be sure!

This was my second full breakfast of the day.

A Roma Koleda. After the piñatas, I went up to the Roma school in the north of town for their Koleda celebration. I picked up two kilos of wrapped candy for the children and took it along. When the snow first fell, hardly any Roma children showed up at school -- no warm clothing. That's when the school's teachers try to collect old clothing and distribute it in the Roma ghetto ("mahala").

On last Friday, however, ALL the children were at school. The place was packed. They love holidays (like all children) and they came to school for that festivity. They put on a program for me, a traditional Bulgarian Koleda, complete with costumes and the table and pitka and banitsa etc. They even broke the bread and placed a piece under an icon of Mary and Jesus.

And some of the boys dressed up as Koledari (traditional singers and dancers who come to homes on Christmas eve), with their black fur caps decorated with strands of popcorn and their staffs with bagels stuck on them.

They gave long recitations (as is customary over here) saying the words traditionally spoken at Christmas in Bulgarian homes -- and they did really good jobs doing the whole thing.

What's important to realize is this: for most of these children, Bulgarian is not their primary tongue. At home, they speak either Roma or Turkish. So to learn long recitations in Bulgarian was a major chore. Yet they did so, and did it well. Another thing to remember is that many of these children are not Christian. Islam is more common among the Roma -- so to learn the traditions of a Christian people must also be rather alien to them.

The program is actually part of the national program of "cultural integration," to try to get the Roma to blend in more with the Bulgarian population. You can see this two ways -- one as an attempt to destroy a people's culture and the other as a way of lifting a population out of poverty caused by their culture. I'm not here to judge these people and I can see both sides of the issue. The Roma do live in abject poverty, caused as much by their cultural need to live by their wits rather than work in a "standard" employment, as by any other cause.

Oh well. The children, however, are like children everywhere. Mischievous, light-hearted, playful. I hope my project to get a new playground for the school is successful.

After the party, the teachers at the Roma school had their own party, complete with banitsas and pitkas and popcorn and homemade wine.

This was my third full breakfast of the morning.

A Koledari contest. I didn't eat any lunch that day, needless to say. In the evening, Edith and I were invited to go over to the nearby village of Zimnitsa for a Koledari Festival. Edith was coming down with a mild flu so she decided not to go. Wise decision!

For more than three weeks, the temperature outside has not risen above zero Celsius. That means, of course, that it's been below freezing -- day and night -- for nearly a month. Friday night, the temperature fell to 12 below zero Celsius (about 10 above F.?)

Anyway, I went down to the Municipality around 5 p.m. to catch a car to Zimnitsa. The director of the Department of Cultural Affairs for the Municipality (Gefka) arranged for the ride, and met me at city hall.

We drove over to Zimnitsa -- a village of about 2,000 -- and to the Chitalishte, or culture center. The institution of chitalishte (literally "reading place") was developed in the early 1800s during the cultural revival of Bulgaria, and they helped bring about the revolution that freed the Bulgarians (with Russian help) from the Turkish yoke. Chitalishtes are large buildings, with auditoriums and meeting places.

The chitalishte in Zimnitsa is 75 years old (this year is the jubilee year for it) and is a large Victorian building -- high ceilings, a sunken orchestra pit, etc. There is a large furnace in the building, but (as the mayor of Zimnitsa told me) there simply isn't enough money for basic maintenance, and certainly no money for fuel. The building was as cold inside as the temperature outside!

Although it was a Christmas program, run by the Municipality, the music playing before the program began was extremely loud rock music -- American style. The program was late getting started, so I waited up in the front row, seated between the mayor and Gefka, the woman from the Cultural Department. Finally, the program began.

First, there was a program of "talent" from the village of Zimnitsa -- a group of girls doing a dance routine to rock music, a little girl singing a folk song in Bulgarian, and a couple of kids who played the flute. Then the Municipality program began. First, they announced the three special guests of the evening -- the mayor of Zimnitsa, the Cultural Department representative, and "gospodeen" Rel Davis of the Peace Corps!

Then, the secretary of the Chitalishte was given a plaque in honor of the jubilee year, and she (the secretary) proceeded to give a 20-page speech on the history of the chitalishte. And I'm getting colder and colder! The mayor spoke and mercifully his talk was brief. And then the major program began. A competition for best Koledari group in the Municipality.

Koledari are groups of young men who come around to each home on Christmas Eve. Their costumes vary by region, and even by village, but always they wear black (or sometimes brown) hats decorated with strings of popcorn. Usually they wear decorated vests. Sometimes with sheepskin wrapped around the shins. Some carry long staves. The staves might have bagels on them, or might be decorated with greenery or even a red flower.

Always, one member of the Koledari carries a decorated flask of wine or rakiya, to share with the families they visit.

Most of the programs involved a skit, with a "family" setting up a table on stage ("tables" are low to the floor, by the way, not like our tables), and then going through the entire process of "Budni vecher" or Christmas Eve. This involved, of course, lighting of incense, breaking the bread, giving a blessing, etc. Then the Koledari came in. They sang a traditional song (almost always the same words and always the same monotonous tune). Then, they sang another song that sounded just like the first (same tune) but with slightly different words. Then they traded their flask for a large cup of wine from the family and everyone drank. Then, they sang another song that sounded exactly like the first two. At the end of that song, one of the Koledari came up and gave a blessing to the family, almost always the same, but sometimes very, very long and filled with tongue-twisting phrases. Then, they usually sang another song.

Each song went for 20 or 30 stanzas at least, and lasted forever. There were more than 20 different groups from villages all over the Municipality, or from the town of Straldja itself. The last group ended its performance at around 10 p.m. That means that I was sitting in the auditorium for about four and a half hours as the temperature gradually dropped to minus 12 degrees Celsius. My feet were completely frozen when we finished.

After that I waited outside in the cold for the car to come to take us back to Straldja. I got home around 11 p.m., drank a cup of hot chocolate (my only "meal" since breakfast) and went to bed. My toes were numb with cold all night, and circulation didn't begin to flow comfortably until well into Saturday morning.

I'm glad I went, of course. Because I got to see all the different Koledari groups from around the area. And one group featured two kids from my orphanage class. Another group was from the Pensioners' Club in town. Since I've been back, several people from different performing groups have come up and talked about the show and how they were happy I'd seen them do their thing.

But I don't think I'm going to do it again next year -- unless I'm sure the building will have some form of heating.

And talking of heating. Edith got word last week that Christmas vacation for schools will be extended an extra week, to save on heating costs, so she'll get three weeks vacation. If the local mayor decides so (that they can't afford heating fuel), they can also get a fourth week off.

I'm off work now until Thursday. Christmas officially lasts three days over here.

Enough for now. More later.

Love, Rel

Report No. 33 from Bulgaria

It's Christmas morning in Bulgaria, and it's snowing outside. Straldja is really a beautiful place when it's covered with snow. It began snowing yesterday morning, Christmas Eve, and it hasn't stopped since. There are drifts up to four feet outside, but the average seems to be slightly over two feet. I went out to take out the garbage a while ago and had to blaze a new trail through the snow. There was snow on my jeans about up to my knees when I got back.

The town is quiet. A few people are out, cleaning snow off cars. There is one car piled into a small hillet of snow out by the street. Someone tried to stop too quickly, I guess. There is ice everywhere because of the slight thaw yesterday, but it's on top of a couple of inches of old snow.

We are snug in our little apartment. The heater is working again (so far). The repairman has to go over to Yambol sometime and try to buy a new motor for the blower. The old one is on its last legs. He took the motor apart and greased it well, so maybe it will last a couple more weeks. It probably will take longer than that (if past experience holds true) for him to get a new motor. I had to work on it again last night to get it going, even with the grease job.

I'd like to go for a walk, but Edith has a sore throat this morning. She's been down with the flu for several days. I'll probably go out by myself this afternoon if she doesn't feel up to it.

I got up this morning and made some chocolate chip cookies (thanks to the Cumminses of Cocoa Beach!) Dinner is in the oven now. For Christmas dinner, we are having roasted chicken breast. I found a frozen pack the other day and bought it for the occasion. For spices, I used some that we received for Christmas from America. Smells wonderful!

There isn't a lot of entertainment in Straldja, I'm afraid. No cinema. Only two restaurants. The library is tiny and has only Bulgarian works. And I'm running short of reading material. When we get to Sofia in a couple of weeks, I'll look for some more books in the lending library there.

Of course, there's always TV. We have cable, you know. But cable over here isn't quite what you might have at home. There are about 500 subscribers in town. We pay 8 leva ($4) a month. And the selection is always changing. What we get is what the cab le owner can download from the satellites -- and read. That is, if it is not encrypted, we can get it. Or if the encryption can be broken using typical Bulgarian ingenuity, it might be on our network.

We get about 20 stations, right now. It ranges up to 30 stations. Only one (CNN) is in English. We get the Cartoon Network and most of the cartoons are in English, but everything else (titles, commercials, etc.) is in French. We also get MTV -- in German.

In addition, we get a number of Bulgarian stations, a couple more in German, one in Turkish, two or three in Italian, two or three in French, and one in Russian. Most of the movies shown are American ones, but most have dubbed voice-over dialogue. Every once in a while, we'll get one with Bulgarian (or German) sub-titles and then we can hear the English just fine.

The major problem is that the favorite movies over here tend to be violent "action" flicks, and that gets old very quickly. The music programs (outside of MTV, which seems to be mainly rap these days) are largely of two varieties -- "chalga" and Bulgarian folk. Bulgarian folk music is very oriental, highly stylized and was really interesting the first couple of times I saw it. But it, too, gets old very fast.

"Chalga" is the modern Bulgarian medium for "folk" singers. It combines the worst of Bulgarian folk and western pop. Almost without exception, Chalga features a scantily clad young woman with terrible make-up making "sensuous" movements while singing out of key. (It probably isn't really out of key, but the music sounds like it to me -- when you imitate pop or rock with eastern European rhythms, it certainly sounds out of key!)

Another feature of Bulgarian pop music is the "malki peseli" or "little singers." These are children, from 6 to 12 or so, dressed provocatively (like adult chalga singers) and singing pop music while making "sensuous" movements. They are REALLY out of key as a rule.

There are also Italian music programs once in awhile. And sometimes, the Bulgarian stations will show old American music videos (either in the public domain or bootleg).

On most days, however, the only things on are CNN and the Cartoon Channel. At least I now know who "Johnny Bravo" is!

And the trouble with CNN is that there is very little news about America on it. Lots on Afghanistan, etc. but not much on the States. One thing I'll enjoy when I get home is a Sunday newspaper with real news, and real comics, in it!

Ah well. We are hoping to get over to Bourgas on the Black Sea tomorrow (Wednesday). It's my day off (third day of Christmas holiday). We don't know what it'll be like over there. Probably very cold and very snowy.

We might be going out to a "na gosti" tonight with Ditchko and his wife Tanya. We'll know later. Things are always a little tentative over here!

More later,

Love, Rel

Report No. 34 from Bulgaria

It’s Thursday morning, December 27, my first day at work since the Christmas holidays. The entire town is covered with snow and every tree is an ice sculpture, some coated entirely with ice, some covered with foot-thick patches of snow and some with icicles and a mix of snow and ice.

It’s really a winter wonderland!

Footpaths through the two-foot snow are laced across the town. The streets are either plowed (not many, however) or have their ways cleared by automobile or wagon traffic. Most of my way to work was over hard-packed snow covered with a fine coating of ice. Slippery business. Luckily, I have my “Lands End” hiking boots so the going isn’t too rough. In most places, if you did fall, you could always aim for a thick blanket of snow to fall into.

I stopped by the Post Office on the way to work to mail some envelopes. The office was open but no one was behind the counters. A guard came by and explained that everyone was out for coffee. Typically Bulgarian! Come to work after five days off for holiday - and go out for coffee.

The wood-burning stove was lit when I got to work this morning, but the window next to my desk was open a crack, so the room was quite cold. I closed the window, but it’s taking a while for the room to warm up.

I took advantage of the holidays to put up a new website on crafts - with crafts for sale by a couple of local people. It’s at: <>. We took photos yesterday of the new snow and I’ll try to get some of them up on the web tonight.

For your convenience, here are our current websites:

Our Peace Corps site (with newsletter archives): <>

The Straldja site: <>

Edith’s school site: <>

Our apartment pix: <>

Crafts site: <>

Other pix: <>

We had a quiet Yule this year. On Christmas morning I made Swedish pancakes and stuffed them with cirene (cheese, like feta). We’d found some frozen chicken breast so I roasted that along with potatoes, carrots and onions. That and a Shopska salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and more cirene) was our Yule dinner.

Edith was still feeling a bit under the weather so I went “na gosti” (as a guest) by myself on Christmas evening at the apartment of Ditchko and Tanya. They live in the blok next door to ours. Their other guests were old friends of theirs, Ivan, Plumen and Petya. They are all in their 20s and are rather symbolic of the hope of Bulgaria. Young, well-educated and working to make something of their lives.

Ditchko, you know, is team leader and IST specialist for the local JOBS office (sponsored by the U.N. Development Agency). His wife, Tanya, is a senior accountant for the Municipality. Ivan is an engineer and works at the natural gas pumping station up in the foothills north of town. Plumen runs an internet club in town and his girlfriend Petya is a judge in the regional courts in Yambol. (That’s right, a judge! She’s less than 30 years old but has a law degree with a strong academic record. And she passed the strenuous tests for the court system.)

Ditchko and Tanya’s little daughter, Maya (about 20 months old) was also there and for the first time, she didn’t cry when she saw me! They think it’s the fact that I speak a strange language that always seemed to upset her. Edith and I bought a teddy bear for her for Yule, and I also took over a bunch of chocolate Santas, so she was quite happy with her new playthings (and probably was willing to accept my language as a result.)

I was at their place until close to 11 p.m. Four of the five smoked, so I had a bit of a cough the next day, and my clothes reeked of cigarettes. Most Bulgarian adults smoke, it seems. Cigarettes are really cheap (about 35 cents a pack) and it’s one vice most of them can afford. It’s a shame to see so many young people doing it.

It has begun to snow again. Well, alternating among snow, sleet and rain. It seems to be below freezing outside, so we’ll probably have an even thicker coating of ice on the ground before the day is out - unless it turns to pure snow.

The last time it snowed this much, by the way, was in 1968, so none of the young people (including people Ditchko’s age) have ever seen it like this. There is, therefore, a lot of excitement in town about the snow. The streets were crowded this morning with people walking around looking at the “fat” snow (deep snow is called “fat snow” in Bulgaria!)

You know how in America, kids like to fall on their backs in the snow, wave their arms back and forth and make “snow angels”? They do the same in Bulgaria, but here, they are called “snow photographs” (“sneshen snimki”).

The day after Yule, Edith was feeling a bit better so we took a long walk in the snow. We didn’t make it to Bourgas, because of Edith’s flu, but hope to go next Saturday. Of course, they are calling for more snow tomorrow, so that trip might have to be postponed as well.

Next week (January 4 and 5) we are going in to Sofia for more medical work. We both have to get some shots (hepatitis A and B plus flu shot) and Edith has to have some tests done. We’ll pick up what packages are there and bring them back with us.

I have to tell you that the things so many of you sent us have made life much, MUCH easier here in Bulgaria! Red Rose teabags, real chocolate chips, some wonderful spices, and mixes for soup, gravy, cornbread, brownies, etc., certainly have made it seem more like home. I’ve probably already made a half dozen batches of Toll House cookies, and have a number of Bulgarians hooked on them!

I’ve stayed away from snow for a good many years, thanks to the time I spent many years ago in northeast Montana. I decided then that I didn’t like cold weather and would stay away from it at any cost.

Then the Peace Corps sent us here to Bulgaria and I’m in the middle of deep snow and VERY cold temperatures.

And you know what? I’ve decided I really like snow. That is, if you have a warm place to go to and lots of hot chocolate afterward, snow can be a really nice thing. (And if the wind isn’t blowing!)

So, our first white Christmas in many, many years was a really nice experience, even if we were half way round the world from home.

I will, however, be really happy to be back in South Florida again in a year and a half or so.

More later,

Love, Rel

Report No. 35 from Bulgaria

Well, we made our trip to Sofia this week -- and what a trip it was! For the ride over, we had to stand up on the train for 4 and a half hours. Finally, in the town of Septemvri, a bunch of kids got off and we got to sit down for the last couple of hours or so. We hadn't planned on it being the end of the holidays. The train was packed.

Unlike in America, all tickets are sold on the day of travel. You can't buy advance tickets for the train. Also, they keep selling tickets as long as they can. No consideration of the number of seats. Also, from our little town of Straldja, we aren't able to buy first class or reserved seats. So we were in second class and the aisles were packed with people standing up.

The trains have a compartment on one side of the car, with an aisle down the right side. People go out in the aisle, open a large window and smoke there. The aisles were packed shoulder to shoulder, and when people came out to smoke, it could get quite cold, standing there.

Not a comfortable trip at all! The trip back was better. We got first-class, reserved, non-smoking seats. The train was also not nearly as crowded (well, at least not in first class!) The difference between first and second class is simple. Compartments in first class have six seats (three on each side, facing each other), while second class compartments have eight seats -- four on each side. The difference in price is not great, maybe a lev or two, so it's really worth getting first class -- if you can. Next trip, we'll try to get on a first-class car and pay the conductor for first-class up-grade -- It costs a bit more (5 lev each) but would be worth it.

On the trip to Sofia, I asked the conductor about moving to first class, but even there the aisles were packed with people.

Sofia was covered with snow, of course, and very cold. It was 15 below (Celsius) on our last night there. We stayed at our usual hotel (the cheapest recommended by Peace Corps) in Sofia. It's called the "Mariot-M" and definitely isn't in the Marriott chain. It's a small place occupying part of a three-story building. They have rooms on the first two floors and another "hotel" (the Elite) occupies the top floor. Costs 20 lev each (about $10) so for Sofia it's highly affordable.

The room was warm, at least. They'd put in one of the portable radiators you can buy over here. ("Warm" is relative, of course. In the States, it would have been considered chilly!)

There are two points about hotels over here I'd like to explain -- towels and sheets.

First, towels. You'd think there was a serious terry-cloth shortage over here -- judged by the size of towels. Most hotels put out a bath towel about the size of a small hand towel in America. Some are smaller, more like a dish towel. Even when you try to buy one, you can only find small towels. We did find some real bath towels in a store (the "TSUM" - or Central Universal Magazine) in Panagyuishte, but even these were smaller than American bath towels -- and cost a relative fortune (20 lev or $10). We got two anyway.

In the classic series, "Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy," the author said the only thing you needed in order to get around the universe was a copy of the Hitchhikers' Guide and a "large, friendly towel." Now, I understand what he meant!

By the way, the word "magazine" in Bulgaria means "store." And every town of any size (NOT Straldja, of course) has a TSUM. Like the "GUM" in Moscow, these were the central sources under communism for buying goods. Today, they are usually more like marketing centers, with individual booths run by private merchants.

Back to hotels! The second point is the sheets. Usually, you have a sheet filled with a blanket for covering. The sheets over here are simple. You take two sheets exactly the size of the top of the bed (no overlap at all) and you sew them together all around all four sides. In the top sheet, you cut out an oblong hole about a foot in length. Then you stuff a blanket into the hole, spread it around and -- voila! -- you have a bed covering.

By the way, we don't use these anymore. For one thing, they don't cover the entire bed, and for another they get quite warm in the summertime (you have no choice whether you want a blanket or not -- you get one.)

The hotel room in Sofia came with three beds, with two blankets on each bed. We slept with three blankets, however, borrowing the blankets off the third bed.

Oh yes, another thing about hotels. Other than the "luxury" ones, they are equipped, like most Bulgarian homes, with separate bathrooms and toilets. The Mariot-M in Sofia has its toilet and bathroom down in the basement. No heating at all. At least there was hot water.

Anyway, the facilities in Sofia were -- by Bulgarian standards -- quite comfortable.

We went to Sofia for medical reasons. Both Edith and I got our final hepatitis shots and a flu shot. In addition, Edith had her cholesterol checked and had an appointment with the eye-doctor about the possibility of "macular drusen."

The doctor confirmed the "possibility" of macular degeneration, but said it is in the very early stages, of the dry (or age related) variety, and has caused no changes in vision. She wants to use another technique (using a dye and highly sophisticated viewing equipment) to check further. If there are more damaged vesicles, she can use laser surgery to remove them, and slow down any further degeneration "significantly."

But such surgery would require Peace Corps approval from Washington. The Peace Corps doctor in Sofia (Boyko -- he's a Bulgarian physician) is faxing Washington for permission. We'll see. We might have to go back to Sofia in a week or two for the surgery. If Peace Corps doesn't approve it, we'll probably opt for the surgery as soon as we get back to the States. If it can stop much of the degeneration, it would be worth it.

I had my blood pressure checked as well (it was high this past summer) and it is well within normal range. So that, coupled with the weight I've lost, means I'm in pretty good shape physically. Edith too. She hasn't lost nearly as much weight as I but she's also down considerably.

While in Sofia, we also picked up some packages that had been waiting there. We got boxes from Nilsa Lobdell, Dori Pregoditch, and from Edith's cousin, Carolyn. We also got envelopes from Garnet Niece (who used to own the home in Buckhead Ridge that John Davis bought) and from Edith's sister, Elaine.

It was like Christmas all over again! Edith got a lot of materials for quilt-making. We got a cookie sheet, a muffin tin and some pie tins, plus peanuts and pecans, and some food mixes of various sorts, and a lot of games and toys for the kids here. And some towels and pan-holders and … well the list goes on and on.

We put the boxes on a portable cart we took with us and brought everything home safe and sound.

The weather here is, of course, cold. Averaging highs around 5 below (Celsius) and lows around 10 or 11 below. It snowed a bit while we were gone. There's a powder of new snow all over everything. When you walk across the virgin snow now, there's also a thick crust of ice on it -- thanks to the little thaw just before we left for Sofia.

Our only real problem now is that we've lost CNN! I'd been complaining a lot about CNN lately -- same old news all the time, but when we lost it, we really missed it. That was our only source of news in English. Don't know what happened. Maybe the cable people can't break the current encoding. Oh well. We put in a request at the cable office.

We try to listen to BBC on short wave when we can, but the reception is terrible and the static drives me nuts sometimes.

Now, the only thing on cable that's in English -- other than the occasional movie with Bulgarian sub-titles - is the Cartoon Network. Well, at least I now know who "Johnny Bravo" is! All the credits and advertisements on the Cartoon Network are in French, by the way. The "Powderpuff Girls" are billed as the "Supers Infants."

I think I mentioned earlier that MTV is in German. Most of the songs are in English, of course, but all they play anymore is Rap, and I can't take the sexist, violent lyrics at all.

On New Year's Day, before we left for Sofia, we had "suverkari" over. These are young girls who go around on New Year's with decorated wands. They touch you on the back and say a traditional spell for a good year. Martina, the daughter of Rosie (Edith's counterpart), came over with her cousin and they performed the spell for us. They also sang "Feliz Navidad" for us. The cousin is one of Edith's students at school. The wands are called "survachki" and a girl going out is a "suverkara."

Also, before we left for Sofia, we were given New Year's gifts by the Municipality -- bound, calendar books with the city seal, etc., and embossed pens. On New Year's Day, everyone greets you with some greeting, usually "chesita nova godina," "happy new year." It could be "vesela nova godina" ("merry new year.") Or even a wish for the future.

At the Municipality, I greeted the deputy mayor and municipal secretary (like city administrator over in the States) with "zhelaya vee shtastieh ee zdrave" ("I wish you happiness and health") and they were highly impressed.

One tradition in Bulgaria is that everyone must shake hands on New Year's Day. The touch is really important. Outside in the cold, people take off their gloves when they shake hands. We had people coming up and shaking our hands that we'd never seen before.

Everyone in town knows us, however. Last night, when our train arrived from Sofia around 5:30, it was dark and we had to find a taxi to take us to our apartment. One cab was left and we told him we needed to go to our blok. I told him the street address (55 Hemus) and he said, "Oh! Toncho's place!" I said yes and he drove us right home. Toncho was the former owner, who died in the apartment just before Christmas last year. I knew who Toncho was because his picture is up all over town. On necrologs.

When someone dies in Bulgaria, they print up a sheet of paper with the person's picture on it, and post it around town and at his home. Then, 40 days later, they do the same thing. In fact, the 40 day celebration (they also have a wake at home and at the cemetery) is the most important one of all. This, according to their ancient (pagan) tradition, is when the soul left for the other world.

These sheets of paper, necrologs, are also printed up 6 months later, and one year later and two years later and ten years later, etc. for up to 40 years. I think Toncho worked at the Municipality, for his necrologs are always posted there, as well as at the apartment here.

Report No. 36 From Bulgaria

Monday morning, Jan. 7:

Just a reminder. Please send any packages (other than books) to the Sofia address:

Rel Davis/Edith Sloan
Peace Corps
P.O. Box 259
Sofia 1000

For some reason, if packages go through Sofia, we get them with no problem. If they come to us locally, they get held up in Yambol (the regional capital) and Customs there always seems to want money before they’ll release them. One recent package has simply disappeared (and we’re trying to locate it.) It might have been “confiscated” by some Customs clerk.

Bulgarian Customs has a reputation for corruption. Something the government is trying to rectify. Oh well, if it was taken, we can only assume the person who took it needed what was in the package more than we did.

The only exception seems to be letters and books. They don’t seem to want books and they can’t collect duty on them.

I think the big old heater in the apartment finally gave up the ghost. It stopped completely, so I took it apart a bit and greased it up. Now it’s running fairly well (only stopped and had to be restarted once in the last 12 hours), but the motor is shot and needs to be replaced.

Problem is: the heater is Russian-made. It isn’t being made any more and the part we need (the motor for the fan) hasn’t been available for more than 3 years. For a heater the size of a large chest-of-drawers, the motor is about the size of my fist. The fan is about the size of a small roll of paper towels, with a spiral of tiny vanes where the paper would be. Really strange set-up, but so is everything else electrical over here. I don’t know if it’s the 240-volt system, or just “soviet technology” (the usual Bulgarian term for non-western electrical systems.)

These heaters are called “accumulators.” Like radiators, they take a long time to heat up, and then retain the heat for long period of time.

And it’s still rather cold outside. Even though it’s warmer than it’s been for awhile, the temperature might get up to 0 today, with a low around -5. (That’s all Celsius, of course. In Fahrenheit, that’s a high of 32 and a low of 23.) So I’ve asked the Municipality to get us another heater, and they say they will. I suppose the only question is “when?”, as usual. Remember, people over here are a bit casual about time.

Speaking of which. When the mayor said he was going to visit America, I assumed it would be for a couple of weeks. Now I find that he will be in the States for the next three months!

I’ll probably be going to Stara Zagora for a quick trip next week, just to keep Edith company. She will be leading a workshop on teaching English to the environmental volunteers who are having their IST (In-Service Training) next week. My IST - for community economic development volunteers -- will also be in Stara Zagora, the first week in February.

The JOBS people are pushing to get my office transferred over to their new offices. Which would be great for me. They both speak English (of sorts) and no one in the Municipality speaks even a word of English. Also, it’s warmer over there. The room in the Municipality building is freezing most of the time. The old wood/coal stove gets pretty hot but it can’t keep up with the outside temperatures. My desk is right by the window, too, so it stays really frigid there.

I’m certainly not accustomed to these working conditions!

Our electric bill went up again this month! It was 160 leva in December. It was around 120 in November, up from around 20-30 in the fall. Luckily, the Peace Corps is paying our utilities (except for phone).

Tuesday, Jan. 8:

Well, we have a hot spell outside! It’ supposed to warm up to 2 above zero Celsius - around 35 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s overcast and still pretty dreary out, but it definitely FEELS warmer than it has been.

Later in the morning, it began snowing, very lightly. It gradually got more active and now (in the afternoon) it’s snowing pretty good outside.

I went to Yambol this morning to try to find the missing package. Went over with a group of Municipality employees. They wait until they get enough people to fill the car and then everyone goes over. Driver was the smaller Ivan (the mayor’s driver). With me was Donka, the Secretary of the Obshtinata (the city manager in the States). No one, of course, could speak a word of English so I had to use Bulgarian to communicate.

The roads were still covered with snow and ice - they only plow off the top part of the snow! - so it took a while to get over and to get back. A lot of skidding, but we didn’t hit anything (though there were a couple of close calls.)

At the Post Office, they couldn’t locate the package without a number, and I had given the original notice to the mayor’s secretary - who apparently lost it. We waited around all morning for the postal people to try to find the package and finally had to give it up and come back. Donka said she’ll talk with Jordanka (the secretary) and try to locate the form.

While I was in Yambol, I had to wait a bit for everyone else to be ready to come back, so I went to the little vegetable market (“pazar”) there. Found some prunes (they’re called “blue plums” for some reason - “seenee sleevee”) and some dried “matachina.” Matachina is an herb used for medicine over here. When Edith was sick, I made her matachina tea I had gotten from the apteka (pharmacy), and it seemed to do her a lot of good. So I found a bag of loose matachina from someone’s garden and bought it. In English, matachina is called “common balm” (Melissa oficianalis, in Latin.)

We are going over to Yambol on Saturday with Dobrinka (from the JOBS office) to see some crafts by a woman over there who works for the museum. She has made crafts (needlepoint and lace, apparently) based on the various styles in Bulgaria, and copying historical forms from different regions of the country. That should be interesting! I’ll take along the digital camera. Anyway, while we’re there I’ll try to get back to the pazar. They had a lot of interesting herbs, in addition to fruit (which is hard to come by in Straldja!)

After I got back to work in the afternoon, I got a call that they had a replacement heater for us. It’s an old one, but of a different type than the one we have. If that doesn’t work, they promise to buy us a new one!

The other city driver and another man from the Municipality drove the heater over to the apartment and we hooked it up. Works fine. There isn’t a good place for it, but it will do to help keep the place warm. The old heater is still in the apartment (it’s wired directly into the wall) so we can still use it if we have to - and if I can get the fan working.

Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2002

Last night Edith and I splurged and went to the hotel restaurant (one of the town’s two restaurants) for dinner. I had “cirene pane” (fried cirene) and French fries, and Edith got her usual, “pileshki shishche” (chicken shishkebab) and a Shopska salad. That, with bread, soda and hot chocolate, set us back about 6 leva ($3). We couldn’t eat it all - Bulgarians believe in large servings.

Today is supposed to be my day off, but of course I’m at work. For one thing, I have to prepare my class for tonight. I’m teaching business English at the JOBS office (every Wednesday and Friday evening). The class at the orphanage won’t be held today, however, because it’s still a school holiday.

There’s a possibility that the school holiday might be extended another week, until after next week. Freezing temperatures and snow on the ground make it difficult for communities to keep school buildings warm and to get students to school. So Edith might not have to go back to work until a week from Monday!

Thursday, Jan. 10, 2002

Last night I had my Business English class at the JOBS center. About 10 showed up. Before that, the regional JOBS director was in town for a meeting and they asked me to sit in and talk about the crafts project. The director seemed quite impressed with the project and they might tie in other offices around the country with the one here in Straldja.

I have a meeting this morning with Edith and Rosie (her counterpart) on the small projects proposal for their school - to set up a resource center at the school.

I just got word this morning that another of my proposals was turned down - the project for repairing the swimming pool at the school. Depressing. Seems like I’m “batting zero”! With so much of the world’s charitable funds being directed to Afghanistan, there isn’t a lot left for places like Bulgaria. I guess it’s the “squeaky wheel” principle - a “modern” country that is peaceful and filled with people who are trying to work at making ends meet just doesn’t have the appeal of a distant land of warlords and a culture of tribalism.