Thursday, December 29, 2005

Between the Holidays

For Christmas, I went back to my host family's place in Septemvri. They were generous and hospitable, and I felt at home. Indeed, I already forgot some of the niceties of smaller town life: seeing framiliar people everywhere, the gentle friendliness of people at the cafe, the small-town excitement of the weekly bazaar. On Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights we had or went to Nagosti - an informal dinner visit. It was too much for me, and I had far too much food. Remember, in Bulgaria, they eat all night. Nagosti might start at 6:00 PM and last until midnight or later, eating little bits the whole time. Normally it might be fine, but everybody loves to feed 'the American' it seems, and it feels insulting to refuse.

But I complain too much. The food was terrific and the company doubly so. I was able to speak more Bulgarian, which delighted some of the extended host Family. I recognized that accents in Septemvri are different than the accents in Stara Zagora. Or, maybe that is just an excuse for my lack of understanding. On that note, I am renewing my efforts at studying the language. The Bulgarians say I have a good accent (which means I am learning to mumble well) but I need a larger vocabulary. I've made cards and have perhaps 1,000 to study; the nuber grows daily. Deep down, I just wish speaking would simply come to me.

The snow covers the ground in Septemvri. When I came back to Stara Zagora, I found it had melted here in my absence. The temperature has climbed back to tennis-shoe levels, and the sores on my feet from the new boots are healing. Work is on hold until the New Year because the kids are out of school, the parliament is closed, and my other boss is in Sofia until then. So, I'm off to explore the city parks now and enjoy the evening before I cook dinner. Ciao, everyone.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Conferences and Fun in Sofia

Last week I attended a conference in Sofia focusing on the development of social enterprise in Bulgaria. The idea of community oriented business is rather new to Bulgarians. Bularians generally seem to be a bit confused about why business should part with any profit, but this conference showed that the business community in Bulgaria is open-minded and has a social conscience. Sponsers were Counterpart International, USAID and Partners-Bulgaria. The programming was very well run, the materials were clearly and effectively presented and the attending enterprises were impressive in scope and product quality. I met representatives of a honey cooperative that sells honey from communities throughout the country and is based in Stara Zagora. There were craft and foodstuff, cloth and cobbler enterprises, even a nursery (for plants). The networking that the conference encouraged established some strong new relationships. I may return to Sofia periodically to visit some of the new contacts I made there.

On a social note, I visited Sofia last weekend to meet a friend's family who came to visit. I explored the city really for the first time. It is a great city for Bulgarians, really. Tourists are there, but they have not yet changed the rhythm or face of the city. It is not a beautiful city like Stockholm or Prague, and it is not wildly historic like London or Paris, but it is honestly itself. Cafes are found on almost every block and the restaurants are generally good and cheap. The cathedrals are orthadox-style, and the Alexander Nevsky cathedral outside the center is impressive. A russian bazaar outside the cathedral has antiques from the eastern-block, Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany. I got the number off of a U-boat cigarette case and will research the boat (I didn't buy it, but may get one later if it looks genuine). I went to an interesting bar with friends the last night there. There are no signs to this place, and you have to go down an alley to get there. You need to go into a toolshed-like enclosure and knock on a locked door to get in. After maybe two minutes, they let you in to a barn-like room with lofted seating. The whole place is lit only with candles. The only way, really, to get to this place is to be taken there by someone who knows it. Apparently it is where the communist party started in Bulgaria.

It has begun to snow in Bulgaria. It started while I was in Sofia, and by the time I left a couple of feet blanketed the city. Ctara Zagora has a temperate climate for Bulgaria, but it has snowed for the last week, and the nice, light powder has turned to ice. I bought snowboots just in time. Although it is below freezing, the real use of the boots is to keep me from slipping (which I've only done once). It was perhaps -6 deg. Celsius last night, which is really cold for me. I'm getting used to it. I have warm-enough clothes but I will buy a new, waterproof jacket for myself for christmas. For Christmas, I'll go back to Septemvri and visit my host family. On that note, Merry Christmas everyone. I already miss my friends and Family and I will be thinking about all of you with great fondness during the Holidays.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Weeks of Work

My time has been full. I've been involved in various projects and a tapestry of activity. I have met with local community groups and leaders and have laid the foundation of what I hope will be a harmonious experience in Stara Zagora. The mayor remains rather aloof, but he dashes here and there to so many events and meetings, his time might just be too full to pay too much attention to the American. The waste management of the city could use some work, and I'm trying to use my resources to get modern programs started here.

Last week at the Russian Language School, I gave a lecture on the spread of HIV/AIDS and the importance of prevention to an assembly of about 75 teens. The lecture was given in English and broken Bulgarian. Luckily, my Translator showed up and and I could give a more comprehensive presentation. It went very well and I was asked to come back to lecture on prostitution and human trafficking. I'm preparing the lecture now and will prent it next week. The children were attentive and interested at the last lecture, and they ask relevant, important questions. I hope that will be the case next week as well. My English classes continue, and I am now including English Christmas songs in the curriculum. They say the music is a little bit strange, but when they translate the words, they enjoy the songs.

Last thursday I accompanied local officials and inspectors on a tour of orphanages in the Balkan Mountains. Some are well kept and well managed. The children are generally confident, lively and friendly at these places. The visit felt like coming to a home, and the children would welcome the visitors. Bear in mind the children are raised in these orphanages, often for many years; it should feel 'lived in' and comfortable.

We visited a home for metally disturbed children without families, however, and it was shockingly bad. It was raining and there was water on every floor, rivulets of water ran down the stairwell. It was cold inside, and the odor that lingered throughout the building was heavy with mold and mildew. I didn't go in the bathrooms because there was water on the floor 2 inches deep. When we went into the director's office and sat on his couch, one of the women I was with pulled out a 2 1/2 foot stick from beneath the cushions. I suspected (and was later told) that it was used to whip the problem boys.

One boy was ushered into the office and interviewed. He did not look anybody directly in the eye and he hung his head, choking back shivers throughout the interview. When asked, he said he liked it there and didn't need anything. He said he liked to play outside and throw rocks. The lawyer who was with us led the director out of the room after which we repeated the questions. The boy gave the same answers anyway. When the director came back in, we gave the boy a bag of presents to share with the rest of the children, but the director took the bag from the boy (who didn't resist at all) and said that the goodies would be shared at dinner. I have a picture of the boy's terrified face.

When we visited the dormitory room, there were no switches, the windows did not open, there were no light bulbs and the linoleum was so old that there were pieces of it broken off and friable mastic everywhere. We looked in the closets and the kids had nothing. An extra sweater or jacket, two extra pairs of socks and underwear and maybe an item or two, like a toy car or army man. That's it. When we left, the boy who had been interviewed said, "I want to come with you now." He was willing to come along, away with us (strangers) with nothing but the clothes on his back and no place to go. It was one of the most achingly pathetic things I have ever seen. I later found out that he had come from Stara Zagora.