Report Number 10 From Bulgaria

Well, we are now in our new apartment in the town of Straldja. And we are now full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers.

It’s been a rough week. I came down with a terrible cold on Monday (the day of my Language Proficiency Exam, so I have no idea how well I did.) Edith had to go into Sophia on Tuesday for a routine medical check-up, and on that day our counterparts arrived in Panagyurishte for two days of conferences.

Edith’s counterpart, Rosie, showed up, but mine turned out to be the vice mayor, Yordan Yordanof, instead of Dobrina, the young woman from the JOBS office. Much better for me, of course, because now my counterpart is actually part of the administration. I met them both and that evening (after Edith returned from Sophia) we took them out to dinner at the Phoenix (Fayneeks) restaurant.

Both of them are quite young. Yordan is only 30. They both have young children: Yordan’s daughter is 1-1/2 and Rosie’s daughter is 11. Both are also neighbors of us, in the same row of bloks (apartment buildings.) Rosie, of course, teaches English at the local school and Yordan was a high school (gymnasium) teacher of geography before going into politics.

Since the swearing-in ceremony was on Thursday, we took our host family – and our counterparts – out to dinner on Wednesday night, our last night in Panagyurishte. We went to the Starata Kushta (old house) restaurant.

When we packed, we discovered that we had accumulated an awful lot of stuff in the 10 weeks here: 2 Peace Corps medical kits, a water distiller, a lamp, a stand-up fan, a huge box filled with books and paperwork from Peace Corps, quite a few jars of preserved food, a pot with endrishe growing in it (a great herb for preserving fruit), etc.

And our counterparts came in a small Lada (the one-time luxury car in communist times). Another couple in the program will be in the town of Aytos, about 30 km from Straldja. Their counterparts had brought a trailer so we made arrangements for them to take our three largest bags.

On Thursday morning we finished packing and got dressed for the noon ceremony. I wore my suit with vest, and put on a tie for the first time in 35 years. (You know I take this Peace Corps business seriously!)

The Ambassador didn’t show up. His wife came instead. Some sort of emergency. (We learned after we got to Straldja that there had been some kind of bomb threat at the embassy in Sophia. Still haven’t learned what actually happened.)

Petya and the two girls made it to the swearing-in ceremony. Georgi had to work but he got off work in time for the reception. Our counterparts also made it there. After we were sworn in (the ceremony took two hours and all the Bulgarian press was there,) we were all given roses. I gave mine to Petya afterward and she broke into tears.

We all walked to the reception, which was in the courtyard of the history museum. They’d brought in a chamber quartet from Pazardzhik to entertain. Huge crowd, again. Milenna had promised to show us the home of Raina Knyaginya, the "Betsy Ross" of Bulgaria. She’d sewn the flag used in the 1876 uprising from Turkey, with the words: "Freedom or Death" written on it. So Milenna took us over to see it.

We went back to the blok to get changed and finish packing, and Georgi and Yordan drove around to try to get our luggage shipped. The three large bags went in the trailer with the people from Aytos, but a lot of stuff still wouldn’t fit in that little Lada. So we arranged to leave it with Georgi and he’ll try to get it to Sophia in a couple of weeks and then someone from Straldja will be up to Sophia on business and will try to get it back to us. We left all our canned goods and our distiller and all our music CDs. Oh well.

When it came time to leave, we said goodbye to the Seferinkinis. Petya had been crying all day and she broke down in tears again. Both girls were sobbing as well. It’s amazing how attached people can become after only a few short weeks. They really look on us as members of their family! A lot of the trainees figured the host families were being paid to take care of them so they just took it all for granted. Edith and I couldn’t do that. We got little gifts for the girls whenever we went out of town. And we insisted on taking them out for dinner once in a while to give Petya a break.

For their parts, the Seferinkini bent over backwards for us. Whenever we went on a trip, Petya would pack up a lunch of fruit and pastry for us to take along. And, she found out we liked oatmeal and went out of her way to find some Muesli (it isn’t easy to find in Bulgaria) and served that to us every breakfast afterward.

I was half sick on the trip up here, though the trip took barely four hours. (More than eight hours by bus and train!) The folks from Aytos had dropped our luggage off at a restaurant out on the highway north of Straldja (which happens to be owned by Rosie’s husband) so we stopped there for dinner (chicken shishkebab and Tyoopoolo -- a Turkish garnish made from eggplant).

The apartment is in much better shape than when we were last here. The toilet is working (most of the time) and the place had been cleaned recently. There was a clothes washing machine here – of sorts. It’s a tiny little bucket with an attached electric motor. You pour in water. Put in soap and clothes. And turn it on. It churns around a bit, gets hot and then stops. That’s about it for one day. So far we’ve done a couple of loads. Rinsing is by hand, of course. Out on the balcony are four lines for drying. We aren’t complaining. It’s far more than most Bulgarians have.

Friday morning we drove over to Yambol (the regional capital) with our counterparts and spent most of a morning at the regional police station getting paperwork done for our "lichna cartas." These are identity cards that all citizens, and all aliens other than tourists, are required to carry. We had 48 hours to apply for the cards or face fines of thousands of dollars. We should get our cards next week, and then we won’t have to carry our passports around with us.

We don’t have to go to work until Monday morning, so we’ve been busy shopping for things we’ll need (kitchen supplies like salt and chubritsa and juice and cleaning supplies), and then cleaning up the apartment. Most of the dishes we’ll need are already here, so I’ve washed up everything.

Internet is still a problem. I don’t know the code for calling Yambol, where the nearest provider is located. I’ll find out Monday morning (if I don’t run into someone tomorrow around town) and then I’ll try to get this in the mail. We also aren’t certain of our current phone number (from America, that is.) Most likely it’s: 011 – 359 4761 – 2446. (Note: This IS the correct number for us in Straldja.)

More later.





This week I want to talk about all the things that are different about Bulgaria. Now that I’m living here, it’s sometimes hard to remember exactly how different things are here than in America. There are a few of them after my usual news items.

Our new home. We are getting settled in this week. Today (Thursday) is a national holiday (Unification Day, when Bulgaria was reunited with Rumelia, the short-lived nation that covered that part of Bulgaria south of the Balkan Mountains.) So, of course, we had the day off (and tomorrow as well.) We went to Yambol (the regional capital) this morning to buy a TV. Quite a trip.

We met Ditchko, a young man who works in the JOBS office here (JOBS is a business incubation program financed by the U.N.), downtown by the bus stop at 8 a.m. The bus, of course, never showed up. Holiday, you know. After awhile we realized the bus wasn’t going to come. Ditchko got on his cellphone and called a friend of his, who pedaled over on his bicycle. For 12 leva, he’d take us to Yambol and bring us back. For six bucks we jumped at the chance.

He got his car and we drove to Yambol, about 30 km away. There we found a small, inexpensive TV (about 280 leva). There were cheaper ones, made in Turkey, but only a few leva cheaper so we bought the better quality (an Aiwa.) We did some more shopping before coming back. On the way back, the young man (Valentin) spent the entire 12 leva to buy gas for his car.

When we got back, Ditchko called around and got the cable people to come over. They came in and hooked us up (dropping a cable down to the apartment from up on the roof.) At least now we have CNN – in addition to about 32 other stations, mainly Bulgarian but with a French and German station thrown in for good measure. (MTV is German here.) Hookup will cost us 20 leva (less than $10) and monthly cable service will cost 9 leva (about $4.)

Community Needs. Yesterday, Yordan (the assistant mayor) took me around the community for a tour. We drove to a couple of small villages to see some of the municipality’s industries. There is a ceramic factory (bricks and tiles), a pipe factory (for irrigation), a small canning plant (they don’t have enough of a market to maintain it at full capacity), and lots of agriculture – grapes, wheat, truck farming, tobacco, and even a water-buffalo farm. There are also a lot of empty factory buildings around the area. A large arms manufacturing plant collapsed soon after communism fell (it was making arms for the Soviet bloc) and put a great many people out of work. Many of them are still out of work.

We drove through the Roma "ghetto" to the north of town. The Roma population is growing rapidly while the Bulgarian population is getting smaller. What were fields a few years ago are now filled with houses built by the Roma (squatting on public land, of course.) No utilities. No electricity. No sewage. The municipality’s resources are already stretched to the limit and there are no funds for putting in such amenities. There are legal problems, as well, of course. Illegal residents who don’t pay taxes are a sore point under the law.

I drafted an English language proposal for a JOBS project yesterday, one calling for a large herb farm to be built in the municipality, to provide jobs primarily for Roma workers. It will require grant money and I hope we can find such money somewhere. If anyone knows of a foundation that might be able to help -- the project involves ecology, minority support and small business development—please let me know.

Also yesterday, I talked for a while with the mayor of the municipality. He talked about a serious problem they are having with education. In the municipality are 22 small villages, ranging from 300 to 3000 in population. Young people are moving away and most of the villages today are almost half retirees (and a retiree over here makes around 50 leva -- $25 – a month.) The big problem is that the few children left are often insufficient for keeping a school operating. In one village, first through fifth grade children are all being taught in a single room.

Why not consolidate? They’d like to but they simply don’t have any way to get the children into the city or into a larger village. With a severely strained budget, they can’t afford to buy school buses. What they need right now are two used school buses. Again, if you have any ideas about where we could find donors for used school buses, please let me know.

The problems here are enormous. My task – trying to find some way to help – is looking more and more difficult!

Okay. Here are some ways that Bulgaria is different from America:

Doors: No knobs. Just handles. Every door. It’s really convenient when you have an armful of groceries and have to open the door. Just nudge the handle with your elbow.

Toilets: Most public toilets are Turkish ones. "Turkish toilet" is a euphemism for a hole in the ground. Period. What distinguishes a Turkish toilet from a latrine is that the Turkish toilet usually has two raised footprints strategically placed. Schools. Businesses. Restaurants. Yep. All Turkish. In fact, many volunteers choose their restaurant from among the few with real toilets in them. Many homes (including our apartment) are equipped, however, with western-style toilets. Note the words carefully. Not western toilets. Western STYLE. They look superficially like western toilets. They even flush – in a manner of speaking – thanks to a tiny water tank suspended up around the ceiling and a string hanging down from it. But they are highly inefficient instruments. For one thing, they can’t handle toilet paper. So, in every home, you find a small wastebasket next to the toilet. This is for your used toilet paper. If you make a mistake of trying to flush some paper down the toilet, you will have a plugged toilet, and you can imagine what happens next. In Turkish toilets, it’s usually a bucket for the paper. They are also inefficient.

Bathrooms: Bathrooms in Bulgaria are exactly that, places where you take a bath. In the better homes, the bath and toilet are two separate rooms. (Like the Seferinkini apartment we lived in in Panagyurishte.) But in other homes (like our apartment here in Straldja) the two must share a single room. In Bulgaria, a "bath" is usually a shower. Kind of like in the States. Difference is, no shower curtain. Everything can get wet if you aren’t careful – toilet, toilet paper, etc. You get used to it.

Cheese: No cheese. They have two products we would call cheese, of course. One is sirene, which is like Greek feta cheese. The other is kashkaval, which is a yellow cheese kind of like Monterey Jack. Both are delicious, but that’s all the choice you get. Now in the big cities (like Sophia) you can get other kinds of cheese, I hear, but in most of Bulgaria, it’s sirene and kashkaval.

Coffee: It’s really strong here. In cafes, you get espresso coffee. Strong espresso. If you want something like American coffee, you ask for "dulgo café," or "long coffee." This is the same as espresso but with twice the water. It’s still strong by American standards. At home, Bulgarians don’t drink espresso. They drink Turkish coffee. Five or six large scoops of coffee in a little more than a cup of water – boiled and perked at the same time. Even stronger!

Tea: To Bulgarians, tea is something you drink when you are sick. There IS regular black tea around (called cheren chai) but most tea is herbal (called bilkov chai). All kinds of herbs. Several varieties are wonderful curatives, but when you ask for tea they think you must be sick or something.

Oatmeal: Oatmeal is not consumed by adults in Bulgaria. Only by infants. For this reason, you can buy it at your local pharmacy or, if you happen to have a supermarket in town (Straldja doesn’t), you can get it from the baby food department there. In supermarkets, Muisli is beginning to be sold nowadays.

Calendars: Calendars here start with Monday. The last two days of the week, Saturday and Sunday (subota and nedelya) are on the right and usually colored red for the weekend.

Water heaters: Although they look much like ours, they tend to be quite different. For one thing, they don’t come with thermostats, only emergency escape valves. So you need to turn them on about an hour before you need hot water. And turn them off after about an hour so you don’t get steam all over the place. I think the newer ones are more efficient, but we’ve only used the older ones.

Refrigerators: Refrigerators in Bulgaria are called "hladilniks." Literally, "coolers." For good reason. They don’t keep things cold. They keep them cool. They are also tiny. Which is just as well. If they were bigger, you’d put more stuff in them and it would all eventually go to waste. Three days ago, I put an ice tray of water in the tiny freezer compartment (about the size of one ice tray.) After 2 days we had a bit of ice in the back of the tray. As of now, there is still water in the front of the tray.

Odds and ends. Fruit juices and fruits sometimes have very strange names. Some are oriental and some are Briticisms. We were looking for jam the other day and saw something promising on the shelf. "Shipka" marmalade. We bought it. On the label, in English, was "Hip Jam." And that’s what it is: rose-hip jam. The British word for it is hip jam. ("Ship" is a thorn in Bulgarian and "shipka" is the word for briar.") I saw some orange juice (portocala sok in Bulgarian) and bought it. Turns out it was a mixture of orange juice and something else. It even had the name in English on the label: "Orange Maracuya Juice." Never heard the word before. The label has a picture that looks like a passionfruit on it. And the juice tastes like passionfruit. I’m assuming that’s what "maracuya" is. Does anyone know?

That’s all for this week.