Saturday, October 22, 2005

Rumor and history.

As I understand more Bulgarian, I am able to talk to townspeople more casually and learn more about Bulgaria. Some of what I learn is only rumor, but everything I hear tells me something about people, history, politics and the country. The history is fascinating, especially the freshness of recent Bulgarian history in townspeoples' memory. I spoke to shop owners and the post office clerks in town and learned about what was common under communism. Generally, people acknowledge that there were good and bad characteristics of the culture. Plenty of food was available, though variety was limited and different foods were commonly rashioned. Everyone had a job to do, but movement between careers was frowned upon and often prohibited. Now, unemployment is widespread and is a large problem in Bulgaria and the culture is unused to job competition. The fact that they cannot earn their keep infuriates some Bulgarians. Many people believe that education was better under communism, but the truth of that may vary by region.

Fear of the government and personal mistrust of politicians is still common. While that may seem universal throughout the world, the emotional flavor of political dissention is different in Bulgaria than in the US. I was told about people who disappeared from the city during communism, some of whom were sent to work elsewhere with no notice, some of whom have not since been heard from. Former communitst officials have been pointed out to me. When talking about these people, there is sometimes a plapable hatred in the discussion. These subjects seems to creep into the conversation when talking about government and politicians. Though this does not happen anymore, of course, but the fact that it comes up unsolicited says something. The novelty of voting seems to have worn off as well, and the idea that to vote is a citizen's duty is not commonly taught.

On another note, my cousin was just married in Sacromento. It really hurts to know that I was not there. Some things about home shock me in a way, just because I don't truly realize that I'm missing them or really what I'm missing. When I hear about them it's like I'm slowly regarding a tapestry whose images dance together into a pattern in my head. Details unite and gel into an idea of framiliar people and things like family, friends, places, buildings, smells and views. Perhaps because I miss home (everything that means), the experience is more vivid than usual.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Seven Lakes

This last weekend, many in my small community of volunteers chose to hike together to the seven lakes in the Rila Mountains. We hired an old guide who was supposed to know the area well. Our hike took us from a base altitude of perhaps 4,300 feet up to a hija (lodge or mountain hut) at 6,000 feet. From there, we hiked to the lakes which sit near surrounding peaks up to perhaps 7,500 feet.

Snow began to fall while the group rested in a hija half-way up the climb. As the light blizzard thickened, our guide announced that he was lost. Visibility was perhaps 50 feet and some of those in our party began to worry. They didn't think that my snow-angels were very funny as the guide searched ahead for a trail. I, myself, was just annoyed that the guide didn't bring a topo map and was drinking the whole way up. Shortly thereafter we began to hike through the white-out, mostly because people were getting pretty cold. Thermometers on the hand-held GPSs registered a bit below freezing. Suddenly, the outline of the hija broke throught the wind. No problem.

This is Andy and April having a fabulous time hiking in the snow before it really started coming down. --->

Inside the hija, the group played games (chess, cards, etc) and drank tea. A couple of us went outside again for a short-lived snowball fight. It was actually pretty darn hot in the hija. The next morning, the guide took us up to the lakes. We couldn't really see them at first (it was foggy again) but it soon cleared a bit and we had a nice view of the lower lakes. The guide got lost again for about 10 minutes, and some of us were pretty annoyed because he was obviously a bit drunk or hung-over. After a while, we were underway again and made it back to the hija without further incident. The seven lakes area was beautiful, and I look forward to visiting again when the weather is better.

Last night I went to dinner at my host-aunt's house in Vetren, a city close to Septemvri. I'll soon move into my own place in Stara Zagora and begin work there. I'll miss the family here. They have been supportive, patient, understanding, and most importantly, my closest friends here. They gave me a hand-knit, 100% wool sweater (the wool is from the family sheep) last night. I'll treasure the many types of warmth it will give me. I can look around my room and get that warmth when I see an art piece from a 2-yr old, a plastic pint-glass with friendly wishes written all over, a paper with terrific and inspiring quotes, an antler, pictures, my diary, and other gifts from friends and family. Thank you everyone for such generous support.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Slowly changing....

I notice myself slowly changing. Some of the aspects of Bulgarian life that seemed odd or foreign when I arrived in Bulgaria are now normal. My sensitivities have changed. I fall asleep to growling, fighting dogs without rushing to the window to see the fight. I step between cowpies in the street with disinterested dexterity and without revulsion. Places that seemed dirty and decrepid do not seem so anymore. I know now that inside the plain, concrete blok apartment buildings are decorative and pleasant homes where dwell warm, caring people.

My Bulgarian is coming along. I had thought that the most difficult part of the language would be learning the alphabet and pronunciation. With the simple phoenetics of the language, however, it has turned out to be quite easy. I am dogged by word gender and irregular conjugations, however, and as always with me, vocabulary. I sometimes unconsciously substitute german or latin words for their Bulgarian counterparts. I am speaking in complete sentances, though, and I understand more than I try to say.

I have seen things here that do not widely occur or would not happen in my native land. I have seen men hitting women and children openly in the street without rebuke or shame and people drinking out of muddy rivers with factories upstream. People burn their garbage in the street in front of their house and include plastics and bottles. Stray dogs, cats and other animals are widespread, especially in small towns and are truly wild. While I have enjoyed a certain anonymity in my university and city life, everywhere I go I am watched. Eyes are always on my back because I am visibly different. I know this and I am aware of this. Sometimes, I come home to my host mother and she knows exactly where I've been and what I had to eat or drink not 10 minutes before.

Life is still adjustment and adaptation. I am wary of milk and I miss the vast quantities of it I used to drink. And, of course, I miss the availability of Old Spice High Endurance Deodorant, Original Scent. I can't find it over here and my supply is almost out. I shall have to do with what the indigenous peoples use. Such is my sacrafice. Ciao!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Food and In the Mountains...

I spent the last week practicing Bulgarian, traveling and learning about grants and programming in Bulgaria. I was in Pazardjik and then visited volunteers in Smolyan and Madan smack dab in the southern range of the Rodolpi Mountains. The scenery was fantastic, with craggy peaks poking above forested valleys of pine and fir. The trip was a three and 1/2-hour bus ride from Plovdiv. The small group I traveled with visited an orphanage and spent time with the children housed there, visited a Kino (Cinema) run by children in Madan, and learned about the Chitalishte (Youth/Rec Centers) in each city. The intelligence and spirit of the children was striking - they have great potential.

While in Madan, I was treated to a Rodolpi Family Dinner - a special southern type of Nagosti (informal dinner party). The dinner included Banitza which is a wrapped pastry filled with Cirene (like a feta cheese), Potato and onion cassarole, rice stuffed peppers, spice cake, fruit compote to drink, and of course Rakia (traditional grape brandy). The family who hosted this great feast for six guests lived in a 2-room blok apartment. The hospitality of this country and culture is nothing short of amazing. For people who have so little to give to someone who has so much already, and do so to a stranger with no expectation of recompense is utterly selfless. This practice is common to the culture and makes it rich.

Food in Bulgaria is far better than I expected. Fruit and Vegetables are nearly always fresh, picked within days of consumption. There are no preservatives in most food, so it spoils easily. Cosequently, everything must be fresh. The food tastes generally healthier than what I was used to from supermarkets and even restaurants in the United States, especially the vegetables. My host family has a garden from which they have picked tomatoes for my favorite dishes here Domati Salad or Shopska Salad (tomatoes, onions, peppers, salt, garlic and white cheese). It is true they use too much salt for most American tastes and they eat bread like there's no tomorrow, but the simple dishes are simply "good," and they make you feel clean.