Rel's Newsletters from Bulgaria
Numbers 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19
Municipality/orphanage etc. http://straldja.freeservers.com
Edith's School http://drsloan.freeservers.com
Photos from apartment: http://straldjahome.freeservers.com
Well, I'm feeling a bit more comfortable with my job now. Having a desk and computer helps. Now when I get a key for the room, and maybe an internet connection, I'll be all set!
I've been scouring references and the web for funding sources. It's really discouraging, but I'll keep doing it. In order to get on the web at work, I have to go in and use the deputy mayor's computer, which can be a bit difficult at times. He's on vacation this week so I can get into use it a bit more often than usual.
We didn't go out of town over the weekend. Too tired. This next weekend, however, we intend to go to the "big city" of Sliven, about 30 km. away. It isn't really a very big town, I understand, but it does have something that most places in Bulgaria don't have - a supermarket. Yes, they have a "Billa," which is a chain of supermarkets from Switzerland. We were in one in Pazardzhik during the summer, and they had things like muesli and cheddar cheese and even (gasp!) peanut butter.
So next Saturday we'll see whether this one has all those things as well.
It's probably just the lasting shock of the terrorist attacks on September 11, and the feeling of helplessness of being half way around the world when it happened, but I've been feeling homesick this week for certain foods. Never thought I would, either.
Foods like peanut butter or chocolate chip cookies or Campbell's soup (any flavor.) Or Red Rose tea or rocky road frozen yogurt or - but you get the idea!
We went out over the weekend and bought several packs of oatmeal. When you can get oatmeal, it comes in these little envelopes that hold maybe a cup of it. Anyway, I decided to make some oatmeal cookies. I lacked a number of the ingredients, but I didn't let it bother me. I used cinnamon powder instead of vanilla extract. Substituted a little olive oil and some plain yogurt for the melted butter. And used clay cooking pots instead of a cookie sheet (something that is unheard of over here.)
The cookies tasted just like they did back home. At least I thought so. We tried them out on some Bulgarians and several people wanted the recipe (which I've written out in Bulgarian for them!)
By the way, I did have some butter, but it was frozen and I didn't want to wait for it to thaw. Butter is kept in the freezer over here, and eggs are stored in the open, no refrigeration.
We found another treasure over the weekend in one local store. Bouillon cubes! That's right, chicken bouillon cubes. In the refrigerator compartment. It's nice to have another flavor besides "chubritsa" (also called "savory"), which is the ubiquitous Bulgarian spice.
Anyway, I've been working on my food cravings, and definitely plan to get out Saturday and get some more "home style" food products.
We'll let you know how it works out!
The weather has been nice lately, averaging around 27 in the daytime (that's 81 degrees Fahrenheit, if I did my math right). Fall, however, is right around the corner. On most balconies these days, on homes around town, you can see lots of winter blankets and quilts draped out in the sun to air out. Eventually, we'll probably have to get over the regional capitol, Yambol, and pick up a portable heater to augment the one in the apartment.
They called from Sofia yesterday (Peace Corps, that is) to say that our bike helmets are in. If someone is coming our way they'll send them along. Otherwise we'll have to pick them up in October when Edith and I go in to Sofia for our flu shots, etc. We'd like to have the helmets so we can go out and buy bicycles. We can't ride bikes without helmets, of course. That's the Peace Corps way!
I've been running the water distiller every night since we got the new one. About a gallon a day. I figure we use about a gallon a day in cooking and drinking. It's probably costing a bit in electricity (which Peace Corps pays for!) but it's saving us a lot because we don't have to buy bottled water anymore.
Report Number 15 From Bulgaria
It's Monday morning, the first of October, and I have finished my first full month in Straldja. It's been a memorable month. And the past weekend was memorable as well!
On Friday, after work, the mayor came by for Edith and myself, in a city car and with a city driver. Mayors don't make a lot of money in Bulgaria and he doesn't have a car. The city, however, provides a car and driver when needed. We drove over to Sliven, where the mayor lives with his wife and two daughters.
Sliven is about 30 kilometers away, right at the foot of the Stara Planina (Balkan mountains). They live in a blok (apartment building), a lot like the one we live in, but bigger. Their apartment is on the ground floor but it isn't particularly large. They have wood parquet floors which were laid on top of concrete, so they have begun to buckle - huge waves of humps across most of the floors. Up to six inches high in places.
Being a mayor isn't all that rewarding. The mayor, Andon Vassilev, was a surgeon before he became a mayor, and his salary didn't change much when he made the change. Physicians are poorly paid in Bulgaria.
They were extremely gracious and wonderful hosts. They took us out to dinner. We went to one historical inn for salad and rakiya and to another one for dinner. One of the mayor's daughters (who's entering college today) speaks English - somewhat -- but no one else in the family. The other daughter is in high school.
The mayor had to leave for a long conference in Sofia on Saturday morning, so it fell to his wife and daughters to escort us around town. By taxi and bus, of course. Edith found a textbook she needed for school in a bookstore in downtown, and then we went to the supermarket, the Billa. Just like a supermarket back home.
We bought some muesli, some raisins and peanuts, bulgur wheat, vanilla and curry powder and other grocery items not available in either Straldja or Yambol. We came back around noon. The mayor's driver picked us up and drove us home.
The rest of the weekend was quiet, until Sunday afternoon. Edith and I decided to take a walk and went down a street in the southwest part of town, one we'd never been on before. We'd gotten almost to the railroad tracks when we heard a voice calling to us. It was a little old lady who came up, grabbed Edith by the arm and invited us to her house for a "na gosti," a visit. We followed her back and went into the living room and met her husband.
Her name is Kuna and she's about a year older than Edith. He is "Kaska" and he's exactly my age. They look, however, much older. She called her granddaughter to come over (her granddaughter is a college student and speaks English), but we talked a lot before she got there.
They are both retired (he was a railroad worker) and they basically survive on their garden and on the animals they raise. They served us home-made rakiya and a fall salad called "Tursha," (made with cabbage, onions, peppers and carrots in a vinegar sauce), and homemade peach "compot" (preserved peaches with lots of peach juice.)
Edith went with Kuna when she fed the animals, a pig, a goat, a donkey and a lot of chickens. She came back with bags of stuff: a huge cabbage, sweet peppers and (for me) "lyuti chushki" - hot peppers, freshly gathered eggs, and jars of pickles and peach compot - all home-canned.
They were extremely friendly and want us back for more "na gosti"s. Next time, I'll take them some home-made oatmeal cookies, of course.
Anyway, we got home late last night, loaded down with gifts. Like most of the people we've met here, they don't have a lot of material things, but they are still extremely generous and giving.
A couple of things. We seem to have a problem with getting stuff throught customs down here. Anything you send in the future probably should go through Sofia:
Rel Davis/ Edith Sloan
P.O. Box 250
They have an arrangement where they can pick up our packages for us at customs. Mail coming here must be picked up in person, in Yambol (about 30 km away.)
A couple of requests:
1. Does anyone have a listing of e-mail addresses for newsrooms of American newspapers? That would save me a lot of time on the internet (which is expensive and time-consuming over here.)
2. Does anyone have access to a listing of pharmaceutical firms (preferably e-mail) I could contact about getting donations of medicines for the orphanage here? If anyone has the time and could send the message from over there, I'll attach a copy of a sample e-mail message to this report.
3. Does anyone know whom I could contact in America about getting shipments of clothing and shoes for the orphanage? With winter coming along, things are looking pretty bleak for the children over there.
Any help, of course, would be immensely appreciated! (And not only by me.)
(sample e-mail to pharmaceutical company)
REPORT NO. 17 FROM BULGARIA
Well, I've had my first real "medical" problem since I got to Bulgaria. Got up yesterday morning with my back completely out. Probably because we moved furniture around on Saturday. Pulled a muscle or something in my lower back. Can't stand up straight or bend over, and have lots of pain.
Back home, I'd be putting an icepack on it, and using arnica gel. But, no ice in Straldja and I have no idea where one might get homeopathic remedies here, or if they are even available. This is Monday morning and I didn't go to work this morning. I'm going to try to get in this afternoon so we can make out a "pulnomoshtno" form (power of attorney) so the city driver can pick up our packages in Yambol (and save us a trip in every time a package comes.)
I had a similar back problem right after we moved into Okeechobee a couple of years ago. Edith and I went to the Lake and spent a day helping clean up the beaches around it. That time, I thought my back was completely gone. It's the same this time, so I have hopes that it will be better in about a week (about how long it took before.)
Edith thinks I need to slow down and not try to do so much. But with so much to be done, it's hard to slow down. Oh well, I'll have to slow down a bit this week anyway.
Things are pretty slow right now (understandably). The news on CNN is all about the attack on Afghanistan. I hope it doesn't widen the war or the scope of terrorist activity. Please be careful back there in the States.
We are probably in the safest place possible, here in Bulgaria. Unless the Moslem minority here becomes radicalized. Peace Corps volunteers in three countries were evacuated back to the States this past week. All from "stans" from the former Soviet Union (Turkmenistan, etc.) These are Moslem countries and threats were voiced against Americans there. More than 300 PCV's were involved.
We have a similar evacuation procedure here in Bulgaria, of course. If it becomes necessary, we could all be out of the country in 24 hours. I hope it doesn't happen. We would be able to take only one small suitcase each and not be allowed to tell our friends here that we're leaving (for security reasons). That would be pretty difficult.
The PC office in Sofia keeps in regular contact with us. So far, no threats against Americans in Bulgaria. We ARE being asked to keep low profiles and not to gather together in groups.
Some people have asked about how to send money here. The best bet would be to send a check to our daughter Lori in Okeechobee. She can deposit it into our American bank account and we can withdraw in local currency from an ATM machine in Yambol. It's complicated, but banks here are different than back home, and some don't deal in anything but local currency. I don't think they'd know what to do with an American check or money order! Lori's address:
27 Hunter Rd., BHR
Okeechobee, FL 34974
By the way, we now have a couple more websites.
The original Bulgaria website is at: http://reldavis.freeservers.com
Edith now has her own site, primarily for her photos and school things: http://drsloan.freeservers.com
And I have a new "business" site, for Straldja municipality and the orphanage, etc.: http://straldja.freeservers.com.
The modern situation - suicidal terrorists from radical Islamic extremists - is strongly reminiscent of the situation in the Middle East during the latter part of the Crusades. One extremist leader (I forget his name but he was called "The Old Man of the Mountain") trained a group of fanatics to commit assassinations in suicide attacks. They were called "Assassins" and that's where we get our modern word from. (One possible derivation of the word is from "Hashashim" - pot-smokers, because he was supposed to have used marijuana in the indoctrination or brainwashing process. But see below.)
The Assassins became so powerful - as a result of the fear of assassination - that everyone in the Middle East was paying large bribes to the "Old Man" to buy off his assassins. Crusaders and Saracens alike were targets and everyone was paying bribes. (Saracens weren't considered true followers of Islam.) The Templars also paid bribes and their contacts with the Old Man became part of the later "evidence" that would used to destroy them.
(One story calls the Old Man of the Mountain, al-Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah, who was a leader of the Ismailian school of Islam in the 11th century, and operated from the castle of Alamut. This was a fanatical cult of the Shiite branch of Islam. The term Assassin might originally have been "Hassanist" or a corruption of "Ismailist.")
Any of this sound familiar to you?
Report No. 19 from Bulgaria
Well, it's been a quiet week in Straldja. I've been busy trying to get some proposals together -- to get some PCs for the Municipality, to get the swimming pool fixed at the school, and to get a TV for the orphanage. Wish me luck! So this week, let me give you some random images from Bulgaria:
Ancient traditions and ancient religions are just under the surface.
Zimnitsa. The largest village in Straldja municipality is the 3,000-population town of Zimnitsa, about 7 kilometers west of the town of Straldja. "Zimnitsa" is an archaic word for wheat (modern word: "pshenitsa") and the village is a center for wheat-growing.
If you drive to Yambol from here, you pass through Zimnitsa. On the other side of the village, beside the main road, is a tall statue of a woman holding a sheaf of wheat and a small scythe. This is "Zimnitsa," the personification of wheat. Though the style of sculpture is definitely "socialist realist," the image is virtually identical to many Greek statues of "Ceres," the ancient Goddess of grains.
Wine and bread. When a person passes away in Bulgaria, the family and friends gather afterwards in the home for a "wake." A loaf of bread is passed around and every person must tear off a piece to eat. Then a bottle of wine is passed around and every person must take a drink. This is done to honor the dead person.
Forty days after the death, close friends and family gather at the grave of the deceased. Again, a loaf of bread is passed and each person tears off a piece. Part they eat and part they place on the grave. Wine is passed. Each person takes a drink and then each person pours a bit of the wine out on the ground as a gift to the earth.
Welcoming rituals. When someone arrives at a new place, it is traditional to give them a flower. In addition, a loaf of bread is offered. You tear off a piece, dip it in salt, and eat it. Sometimes, the local spice, "chubritsa" or savory, is used instead of salt. When we first arrived in Bulgaria, we were greeted at the door of the school by people in local costume offering us bread and chubritsa, and giving us all a flower.
When children start school for the first time, water is sprinkled on the floor over which they walk to enter the school. This is to make their way easier in the months ahead. Bread and salt may also be offered.
Healing rituals. Herbs play a major role in Bulgarian healing. The drugstores are well-stocked with herbs of all descriptions. For my back, I was given mint tea and common balm tea to drink, the mint for relaxation and the balm to relax the muscles. They have many different herbs for many different illnesses. Valerian, for example, is used for heart remedies, as is sometimes catnip (which they also call valerian.)
For back problems, you must have a mother of twins walk on your back, while she repeats an ancient spell. One local woman we met is a healer. She uses an egg to rub over the area in pain, in addition to herbs.
Bulgarians and singing. The town of Straldja is located in an area known as the Thracian lowlands. It's in what was to the ancient world, the land of Thrace. Thrace was, to the Greeks, the birthplace of Orpheus, the god of music, and it was in Thrace that music was invented. Music is really important to Bulgarians, who take these ancient traditions seriously.
Edith and I were in Yambol last weekend, attending a folk music festival attended by representatives of pensioners' clubs from all over this region of Bulgaria. The theme for the presentation was the following:
"Live, people, in peace, love and goodness, and let everyone sing. Live in singing!"
Bulgarian music, as a rule, sounds strange to the western ear. It combines Asian elements with Turkish and Greek ones, and what must be the remnants of ancient Thracian music.
The festival went on - without stopping - all day long, with group after group performing.
The Straldja performance, by the way, was by far the best. An 80-year-old performed the solo and the group did the same dance they had done for us last week.
Flowers. The giving of flowers in Bulgaria is highly ritualized. The main point is that the number of flowers given is important. Even numbers of flowers mean completion, so they are only given at time of death, or at funerals. So only odd numbers are usually appropriate. One, three, five, etc. But never a "dozen roses."
Flowers are often given to your hostess when you go somewhere as a guest. They are given to teachers and directors (principals) upon graduation. They are given to guests at special occasions.
Just don't give someone two flowers. Bad form.
Streets. In the States, cobble stoned streets are considered rather quaint. Here, they are common. They are considered a nuisance by some ? they?tm)re hard on automobiles and impossible to walk on wearing high heels (or so I?tm)m told!) Typical streets here are "paved" with small (4"x4" approx.) stones laid out in a fan-shaped pattern.
In the center of most cities, and larger towns like Straldja, some of the streets are blocked off for pedestrian traffic only. Usually, bazaars and small shops line these pedestrian malls. Straldja?tm)s mall is rather small, reflecting the size of the town. The weekly market is not in this area, but is held at the end of the main street (called "Hemus", which was the ancient name for the Balkan Mountains) on the street that runs parallel to the railroad tracks. Every Tuesday morning, merchants from around the area put up booths along the street for about two city blocks.
One problem with streets over here is the large quantity of animal droppings that cover many of them. With lots of wagons pulled by horses and donkeys on the streets, and herds of sheep, goats, cattle and turkeys wandering the streets at all hours, you can imagine the mess they create.
Most people keep only a few sheep or goats at home. During the day, most homeowners send their animals out to pasture in large herds. Usually, Roma (Gypsy) people are hired to lead the animals out of town in the morning and back into town at night, and to watch over the herd during the day.
Some people keep their animals in town and lead them to pasture in vacant lots. Every morning, I pass one gentleman who runs a half dozen sheep and a couple of goats in a vacant lot between work and the apartment. Another man runs a flock of maybe a dozen turkeys over the same lot.
The presence of so many animal droppings is probably the main reason people leave their shoes at the door when entering someone?tm)s home.
Every home, and apartment, has a foyer where shoes may be left. Some people keep knitted slippers available for guests to wear. We went "na gosti" on last Tuesday evening at the home of Ditchko (the "team leader" for the local JOBS office, where my office is located) and his wife, Tanya. They provided slippers to Edith for the evening that had been knitted by Ditchko?tm)s baba (grandmother). At the end of the evening, they gave them to Edith as a gift.
Security. On Wednesday morning, the Municipality?tm)s security officer came by to see me. It seems that a "practical joker" in Sofia had sent a package in the mail labeled "anthrax." When it was tested, it was found to contain soap powder. There are Bulgarians, he said, who have a "black" sense of humor.
He just wanted to assure me that all precautions were being taken for our safety, since Edith and I were the only two people in the Municipality who were from a nation now at war. And he gave us phone numbers to call in case we receive a suspicious package or envelope.
People in Straldja, he said, are not likely to engage in such practical jokes. And he probably is right.
Edith has begun counting the number of days until we go back home! Today, it's 682 days.
We do miss everyone back in the States. But we also know we came here to do a job and we intend to do it.