Saturday, October 13, 2007
Here's another picture to share from around Svishtov. Yesterday my sitemate Mike and I went for a walk up the hill behind Svishtov. The town is perched on a little shelf of land, hemmed between the Danube to the north and this large and steep hill to the south. This picture is looking through the brush across the red-roofed houses of Svishtov, to the river and Romania.
It's been a quiet week in Svishtov and Bulgaria, with the only news worth reporting is the oppressive heat and lack of rain. It's been above 90 for a few days now (32 or so Celsius), and the forecast is for more of the same all this coming week. I don't remember the last time it rained, maybe two months or more. Anyway, enough complaining about the weather. I thought I'd share a few photos I've taken around town lately.
This one I shot off my front balcony a few days ago. The huge thunderclouds gathered right at sunset, resulting in a blaze of pinks and oranges. I cropped it a bit to edit out the huge concrete block apartment building across the way that was in the original picture. The clouds were threatening rain, but it never came in Svishtov. Maybe Romania got the precipitation.
This is one of my favorite pictures from Rome, the old man leaning out the window of the red-orange building, watching the street scene below. I took this in the old city, near the Pantheon.
I like the concept of Rome much more than I like the real city itself. The idea of Rome is so romantic – ancient art, classical architecture, leisurely meals with plenty of wine, frothy cappuccinos, cold gelato, and beautiful Italians zipping around on bright red Vespa motor-scooters.
The reality is that Rome, despite being the national capital and having a metropolitan area population of more than five million, is essentially “European-Disney.” The symbol of the city should be the tour guide holding aloft a flag to signify to their group “come along, then.” After being crushed by the tourists in Rome, I can understand why people now take vacations to extreme destinations at the remote corners of the world – Antarctica, Patagonia, Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, or the central Amazon – it’s to get away from the Polish tour groups. And the German tour groups, and the Japanese, and the American, Russian, Spanish, Brazilian, Australian, British, Irish, and even Italian from other parts of Italy.
Last week I spent a few days in Rome, and if our flight hadn’t left on that final day I would have found another flight that did. It is an overwhelmingly crowded city. Yes, the architecture is beautiful and the art is some of the best ever created by humankind, but I didn’t really appreciate any of it – I was too busy yelling at the pushy Russians “STOP BUMPING INTO ME. STOP POKING ME WITH YOUR UMBRELLA.”
The food was grand, and the wine was top-notch, no complaints there. The Sistine Chapel is captivating (after a two hour wait in the pouring rain to get in), and the ancient Colosseum is memorable. But the city is frighteningly expensive. It’s dirty, trash litters the streets and graffiti covers the walls. For my money, it’s not worth the hassle. Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad I went, the trip was still enjoyable, mostly because I traveled with good friends from the Peace Corps. But check Rome off the list of places to go, and I’ll not be returning anytime soon. Of my recent western European destinations, I would return to Amsterdam and Hamburg ten times over before going back to Rome.
The last 10 days have been quite busy, as I’ve been on the road almost continuously. First, last weekend, I went to visit friends in the Black Sea city of Varna. Varna is either the second or third biggest city in Bulgaria, depending on who’s counting, and it is the jumping-off point for the beach towns and major resorts along the northern Black Sea coast. Varna is also the unofficial “summer capital” of the country. That is, come the end of the school year in June, just about everyone who can afford it flees the stifling heat of the Bulgarian interior and moves out to the Black Sea coast. The economy takes off in the summer, with young Bulgarians coming to work the seasonal tourist jobs in the restaurants, hotels, and bars. Varna also has a small yet growing airport, bringing tourists directly to the beach from north Europe and Russia. Varna and the adjacent beach resorts in the summer are probably the only place in Bulgaria you can realistically say gets “overrun” with tourists, foreign as well as Bulgarian.
But two weekends ago, the last weekend of April, was a wonderful time to be on the coast. Warm weather and sunny skies, a nice offshore breeze. Not quite hot enough to lie on the sand, which meant the tacky sea-front bars and discos had not yet opened for business – a good thing. Perfect for strolling along the sand, out on the piers to watch the fishermen, and in the grand park that sits on a cliff overlooking the Black Sea. As soon as the weather is hot enough (which could be any day now), Varna and the Black Sea beaches will be trampled with Russians, Germans, British, and Bulgarians staking out a spot in the sun. But in April, before the crowds, life was relaxing and serene. And to think, there are two PCVs actually living and working in Varna. Peace Corps beach resort, a pretty good way to spend PC service.
I went out birdwatching with a group of kids on Sunday, and wanted to share some of the better pictures I took of the excursion. This first one is of a student, on the right, and the class teacher. The beautiful yellow field is blooming rapeseed, which is blanketing northern Bulgaria right now. Quite scenic.
Truly one of my favorite parts of life in Svishtov, and one of the few things I’ll genuinely miss about this place when I leave is my gym. Run by a great man, the wonderfully named Yordan Yordanov, the gym is a place of serious weightlifters and good friends. It has served as my sanctuary from life with the birdmen, a place that is entirely separate and distinct from my working life as a PCV. Through the cold and dark winter months, it helped me battle off minor bouts of seasonal depression. Now in the springtime, the windows and doors are flung open, and neighborhood kids pop in and out to watch and laugh as the men lift weights. Yordan’s gym is a community center as much as a fitness center, with friend’s of the owner frequently stopping by just to chat, not even to work out.
Yordan, though in his mid-50s (we discovered he’s exactly twice as old as me), has become a good friend of mine. He has become my window into life in Bulgaria. Yordan willing shares stories about the horrors and oppression of life under communism, not something all Bulgarians will do. We laugh and talk about the absurdities of modern life – sometimes serious subjects, like the recent Virginia shootings, or the thuggishness of Bulgarian members of national parliament (some of whom were recently arrested for assault and drunk driving). Yordan is a great listener, and people enjoy being in his company. I can talk to him in my broken Bulgarian about missing home, and the difficulties of living in Bulgaria, and he always has a sympathetic ear and genuine concern.
Yordan also leads a pretty good life. During the summer months, he is a full time lifeguard at a Black Sea resort (starting May 1, which unfortunately means I might not see him again unless I go to his beach). In the fall, he typically spends one or two months in Austria as a skilled welder, working on new buildings and large construction projects. He is able to make so much money during the time in Austria, that in the winter and spring he spends all his time running the gym and working on his house in Svishtov (of which there always seems to be something that needs to be done). The gym is in his garage, his house above. His 20-year-old son is also a lifeguard with him, and in the gym he is surrounded by friends. Yordan Yordanov, an optimistic, friendly, caring and genuinely good man, living a good life. I'll miss him, and his gym, when it comes time for me to leave Svishtov.
And amazingly, every piece of equipment in the gym was actually handmade by Yordan himself in his workshop. He’s a welder by trade, and with some Bulgarian ingenuity and scrap metal, he has fashioned very high quality equipment. In the picture above, everything you see – the bench we’re sitting on, the incline and decline bench presses behind us, and the free weights at our feet, were all made by Yordan.
After spending time at Yordan’s gym, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to face the impersonal disco/club atmosphere of a modern American gym.
Lost in the mourning over the tragic events at Virginia Tech University, was this terrible news from the Philippines. This is hitting all of us PCVs hard, even though we’re a world away. We all know that as the saying goes, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
As PCVs, we tend to think we have some sort of intimate knowledge of our host country, we think that our language skills and cultural awareness makes us different from the average tourist – and perhaps in some way, gives us more courage to take risks, to go further into the bush, to see things and walk in places no American has perhaps ever been. And dangerously, we sometimes see ourselves as above the horrors that can befall even the savviest of explorer, let alone a typical hapless backpacker.
I’ve personally experienced this myself, I’ll admit. I feel very safe in Bulgaria – I speak decent Bulgarian, I’m generally aware of my surroundings, I’m a tall male, and Bulgarians are not very aggressive people. But we all take risks, risks we may not take in other circumstances. We go into neighborhoods or mountains or jungles we wouldn’t go into if we were not Peace Corps volunteers, and expect that our “exceptionalism” as PCVs will not only deliver fantastic adventures, but will get us safely out of any jam.
There are 7,000 PCVs around the world – and in all reality, this could have been any one of us. It’s the risk I accept, that all PCVs accept, in exchange for living our dreams.
This article is copied from the New York Times.
Manila Says Peace Corps Worker Is Dead
MANILA, Philippines, Wednesday, April 18 (AP) — Philippine authorities found the body of a missing American Peace Corps volunteer on Wednesday in a northern mountain town where she disappeared during a hike more than a week ago, an army general said.
Maj. Gen. Rodrigo Maclang said the body of Julia Campbell, 40, from Fairfax, Va., was found buried with one foot protruding from the ground near the village of Batad.
She disappeared April 8 in the area about 160 miles north of Manila. The police had said earlier that she may have fallen off a cliff.
The provincial police chief, Senior Superintendent Pedro Ganir, said by telephone that Ms. Campbell, wearing denim jeans, a black shirt and a shawl, was last seen buying soda from a local store.
She had only sandals as footwear and had bought a bus ticket to return to Manila by April 9, indicating she did not plan to extend her stay or make a hike to view the area’s famed mountainside rice terraces, he said.She was one of 137 Peace Corps volunteers in the Philippines and taught English at the Divine Word College in the city of Legazpi in Albay Province, southeast of Manila, since October 2006. In the 1990s she worked as a journalist in New York, where she was at times a freelance reporter for The New York Times.
On sunny days, when there's not much going on, and it's still too early to respectfully leave the office, and Whitney Houston (yes, Whitney Houston) is singing I Will Always Love You on the radio for the 3rd time today, and Emil is wholeheartedly singing along...these days never seem to end. It's like being in a poorly written sitcom, like The Office but not as funny.
When I look back on my experiences in Bulgaria, I'm sure I'll say that the time just flew by. But not today. I will never love you, Whitney Houston.
Nest boxes, of course, being the technical ornithological term for "birdhouses." As part of an ongoing project we are running to protect an endangered falcon species (the Red-footed Falcon), last Saturday myself and the birdboys went out into the country to hang next boxes in hopes of assisting the falcon. It was a beautiful spring day, great to be outside in the sun and fresh air.
The Red-footed Falcon is small for a falcon, hardly bigger than a crow, and the male is a blue-gray color with the ubiquitous red legs and feet. Sounds like a pretty bird, but I've never seen one in the wild, because they are practically extinct in Bulgaria. Hanging the nest boxes is an admitted long shot at protecting the species, because we're not even sure if there are any left in the region to protect. Still, if there are, and they can find the boxes, they will help. The Red-footed Falcon is a "nest parasitic" bird, meaning it doesn't make it's own nests - it reuses old ones, mainly from rooks. However, rooks are a pest species to farmers, and in an attempt to eradicate the rooks (a common and unprotected bird), farmers have unwittingly driven the Falcons to the brink of extinction in Bulgaria.
In the picture above, Emil is in the tree hanging the box, while Tisho steadies the ladder. We hoisted the box up to the man in the tree with a rope and pulley system, and the boxes were then secured to the trees with screws and nails. The trees are a planted break between agricultural fields. They are fast-growing poplars, just about the only thing that's not yet blooming in the Bulgarian spring.
I asked Emil if he had contacted the landowner prior to the installation - "Um, no," was his answer "but maybe I'll call him next week." Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, as the saying goes.
Hamburg is home to the second largest port facility in Europe, and in the top ten in the world. It has been a major source of international commerce for centuries, and trade has brought prosperity and an international flair and diversity to the city. In this picture I'm standing in front of the old warehouse district; ships would dock directly to the warehouses and were then able to unload their goods and have them immediately ready for transportation. This area is in the process of being redeveloped into a live/work environment, with trendy restaurants and cafes popping up, along with some continued usage of the warehouses. It would be fantastic to have a loft apartment overlooking these canals, I think.
The wedding itself was also an international affair - Andy and Anne have friends from all over the world. In addition to Germany and the US, I counted nationals of France, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, and England...and of course, the odd Bulgarian.
For the last week, I’ve been enjoying the good life in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, Germany, where I was attending the wedding and celebration of good friend Andy Sallee and his German wife, Anne. Andy was a baseball coach of mine in college, and has lived in Europe since 2001. He is also somewhat of a “life mentor” of mine, a man I look up to and greatly respect. It was an honor to be invited to his wedding. Andy’s new wife Anne is a great person, kind, elegant, and beautiful – Andy did well for himself.
The week began last weekend in Hanover, where Andy currently lives and works (Hanover is a two hour train ride south of Hamburg on the slow train). There, I met up with Andy’s new friends and some old buddies I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was a “man” weekend, full of beer and sports – watching and playing. Indoor floor hockey was dominated by Andy’s buddy and Canadian ex-pat Kent, while Andy certainly ruled in the basketball. We all had a good time watching the local soccer match from our prime seats in the beer garden.
On Monday we traveled to Hamburg, hometown of Anne. There, all the out-of-town guests were housed with friends’ of the bride. The week was full of sightseeing during the day, and dinners and parties at night. On Tuesday we had the traditional German plate-smashing ceremony called “Poltem.” This was variously described as a way to “scare away the evil spirits,” and also to “ensure that nothing every gets broken in the marriage,” by I guess breaking all the plates beforehand. Either way, it was a lot of fun, and the best part that everyone agreed upon was that Andy had to personally clean up the mess – as a way of proving his devotion and worth to Anne. He cut his finger a bit, but bravely carried on. The sidewalk was cleaner than before the plate smashing.
The wedding ceremony itself was on Thursday, in a Lutheran church. It was similar to a traditional American ceremony, except there were not official “groomsmen” or “bridesmaids” standing up in front with the couple, and Andy and Anne got to sit in chairs at the alter. Throughout the ceremony various guests gave little speeches or prayers they had prepared, and the deacon had a long, but quite thoughtful and touching speech. It was mostly in German, with English translations provided.
The reception was held at a beautiful hall on a large lake in the middle of the city, the clubhouse of the local rowing squad. The reception carried on into the early hours of Friday morning. We spent Friday day collecting our wits, and packing our bags. I returned to grungy Bulgaria on Saturday, while the newlyweds are currently on their honeymoon in the Caribbean.Hamburg is a wonderful city; it sits on the banks of the Elbe River, and also encircles a large lake in the city center. The people were as friendly as could be, everyone spoke fluent English, and all our hosts showed us such a great time. And, I must say, the people are stunningly good looking. It was not easy to get back on the plane to return to my “real” life in the Bulgaria, the land dental hygiene forgot.
I've yet to write up a good blog about the wedding trip to Hamburg, but here's a photo of me at the touristy German franchised beer hall "Hofbrauhaus." It is apparently a Munich October-fest institution, but they've since built them across the country, including this one in Hamburg. The only locals at the place were with our group, and none of them had ever been there before.
The beer is good, though I couldn't even finish my first liter. A liter of beer is a bad idea. The dregs at the bottom of the glass are warm, flat, and pretty gross. Best to have two half-liters. But what fun is it to hoist up a half-liter stein and give a hearty German "prost?" Not nearly as much fun as with a heavy full liter mug.
Just back from a trip to Hamburg, Germany, where I attended a good friend's wedding. Updates and pictures to come this week, but first, here's a gem I pulled from an English-language ex-pat magazine here in Bulgaria, called Vagabond. This quote comes from their article on the history of Bulgaria, it is in reference to a tribal people who lived in southern Bulgaria 2000 years ago:
"When a child is born all its kindred sit round in a circle and weep for the woes it will have to undergo now that it is come into the world, making mention of every ill that befalls mankind; when, on the other hand, a man dies, they bury him with laughter and rejoicing, and say that now he is free from a host of suffering, and enjoys complete happiness."
Insert your Bulgaria joke here.
The kid right next to me was the one who wore the "Whittier" sweatshirt last year, but this year he's supporting the NBA. The middle kid, Mustafa, played goalie for us for a bit.
These kids are of Roma origin (commonly known as Gypsies). The Roma make up about 5-7% of the population in Bulgaria, and are considerably poorer than the rest of the country (which is to say, just about as poor as anyone anywhere in the world). They are severely discriminated against by the ethnic Bulgarians - in many ways de facto Jim Crow laws govern this country. Roma do not go to ethnic Bulgarian cafes, stores, or restaurants. They generally live in segregated ghettos, often without running water or electricity. It is no exaggeration to say many of these ghettos are equivalent to the poorest of African shanty towns.
But for one day, these kids got to run around on the green grass, and play with the Americans in that great world equalizer - soccer.
This past weekend I traveled south, to the town of Chirpan, to play in the second annual PCV-Bulgaria soccer tournament. It was at this event last year, if you remember, that I found a kid wearing a "Whittier" sweatshirt, my hometown. The kids and the town came out to watch again, and like last year, Team Ivanov (my team) came away with the PCV-bracket championship. We lost in the final match against the Bulgarian-bracket champ, not surprisingly. The weather was perfect, sunny and warm, and it was a great time. Well worth the 4+ hours I had to spend on a bus to get down there.
How slow has it been around Svishtov lately? Not just slow at the BSPB, as I learned yesterday.
My little bird team went down to give a presentation to a group of about 25 6th and 7th graders. Bird guy Stoiyan was giving the talk, I was just along for tech and moral support (by tech support, I mean plugging in the projector). Somehow, the word leaked out about our impending presentation, and the news teams from BOTH Svishtov cable TV channels showed up to cover our "event." Yes, we had two news crews reporting on a talk about birds to a handful of middle school kids. So call your local cable company, and demand Svishtov Videosat TV and Aleko TV, and you can watch the hard-breaking news stories of the BSPB bird team and our band of 7th graders.
As I said, slow times in Svishtov.
It's been a slow couple of weeks in Svishtov, so here's a blog about eggs. When you buy eggs in Bulgaria, they come in a little plastic bag that is almost guaranteed to lead to one or two breaking during your walk home from the store. The eggs are straight from the chicken. How to tell? As you can see in this picture, because the eggs still have chicken poop and bits of hay stuck on them. Why can't Bulgarians wash the eggs before they sell them? I'd gladly pay an extra stotinka (Bulgarian coins) to buy an egg free of chicken poop.
Even when you live in a city, you're never far from the farm in Bulgaria. And always remember, wash your hands thoroughly every other minute.
There are lots of minor annoyances about life in Bulgaria. That’s to be expected, I suppose, it is a Peace Corps country after all. We don’t go to Switzerland or Norway. One of the recurring annoyances that all foreigners living here universally laugh at (or sometimes, cry) is the total lack of change at seemingly every store and business. Combined with this being a completely cash economy, it can really be frustrating. I have used my credit card exactly one time in the 20 months I’ve been here, at a major store in Sofia. Every other payment is cash in hand. I find it funny now, because it’s just part of Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian leva, the currency here, is available in denominations of 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100. If you ever get a 50 or a 100, go immediately to a bank and get smaller bills. You might as well try and use Japanese Yen as a 50 or 100 leva bill, because you won’t be able to buy anything. A 20 is only useful if you are buying something that costs more than 10, and even then it can be difficult.
Yesterday I had to pay a 3 leva “top up” fee for my internet service (story for another blog, but I have a limit to how much I can download with my current plan. I’ll be going with the “unlimited downloading” option next month). I tried to pay with a 10, and of course they had no change. With a scowl and a dirty look, as if to say, “how dare you try and not pay with exact change,” I was told to go somewhere else and get change. The scowl and dirty look are pretty much standard from Bulgarians working in any facility where they have to interact with the public and customers. I went across the street and bought a couple of bananas, and was fortunate that the surprisingly nice girl had change.
Often, I am offered alternatives in lieu of change. I have been given gum, candy bars, an onion, a banana, more eggs (which I was buying), and a Bulgarian “bagel” (a bread product called a gevrek). Sometimes, you’ll be told to stand off to the side while other customers come through and hopefully use small bills. That’s when I drop whatever I was attempting to purchase and just leave.In some regards, the 1 lev coin is more valuable than the 100 leva bill – you can’t actually use the 100, but the coin is like gold.
It is well known that coal smoke is a carcinogen. The belching factories of England and American during the Industrial Revolution created a haze of smoke that blotted out the sun, and caused thousands, and probably millions, of early deaths. There is a current crisis of air pollution from coal smoke in China, where a new coal-fired electricity plant comes online every week. The “black lung” still kills coal miners today (and made for a great scene in the movie Zoolander, but that’s besides the point).
Here in Svishtov, we have no coal-powered factories or electricity plants. But we do have the accumulated smoke from thousands of houses using raw chunks of coal for heat (in plastic bags – seriously, they often get the coal in plastic bags and then throw the whole damn thing in the fire, burning off the plastic and the coal. Burning plastic is a carcinogen, too). The coal smoke here is really bad, as bad as any town I’ve been to in Bulgaria, and I’m not sure why – maybe the way the land is situation, maybe the atmospheric conditions. Whatever the cause, the smoke in the wintertime is truly unbearable. I know no American reader can relate to what coal smoke does to you – but it burns your eyes, it burns your nose, it burns your throat, and I hate to know what it’s doing to my lungs.
In my unbelievably poorly constructed communist apartment, my windows and balcony doors do not shut completely…meaning that in the evening, when there is no wind, the coal smoke from the houses directly below me drifts up to the 6th floor and into my living room. I have to shut the doors, put a towel at the bottom of the door jam, and stay out of the living room when this happens. I also use my summer fan to try and dissipate the smoke. So here it is, temperatures still in the 30s at night, and I’ve got my oscillating fan going full blast. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, away from the smoke.
Sometimes I feel as if Bulgarians think, well, life here is so miserable, and we’re all going to die early deaths, let’s just make it as unpleasant as possible for everyone else.
I took this picture from my balcony. That house isn’t on fire, it’s just the coal smoke from their chimney drifting up towards me.
The Svishtov Sunday market, where if you're lucky, and you know where to look, you can find a PIG FACE. Only 12 leva, about $8, for the entire face of a pig. There it is, right next to the onions.
I have but one question: WHAT DO YOU DO WITH A PIG FACE, BULGARIA?
I hardly think the unrefrigerated pig face in a plastic bag at the Svishtov open-air Sunday farmer's market/flea market meets the rigorous health and hygiene standards of the European Union.
Pig face, the other other white meat. Pig face, it's what's for dinner. Oh, the jokes just write themselves.
The Sunday morning farmer's market/flea market is certainly one of the highlights of life in Svishtov. Everyone over the age of 60 comes out to do their weekly shopping, which is apparently a lot of people in Svishtov. I'm generally the youngest one at the market. They don't really sell anything I regularly buy that I can't get any other day of the week in town, but I like to go just for the experience and the humanity-watching.
The Svishtov Sunday market, where rotund mustachioed men sell potatoes, oranges, and cucumbers.
This unfortunate slice of urban wasteland is a block or so down my street, and I pass it every day going to and from work. Since I’ve lived here, this site has been strewn with trash and concrete, but in the past week it’s gotten considerably worse – but maybe, just maybe, it will be redeveloped soon. There used to be two or three more of the garages (those concrete outbuildings in the left of the photo), but a cadre of men wielding sledgehammers have recently taken to their destruction. Nobody has bothered to pick up the rubble, at least not yet. Knocking down a poured-concrete garage cannot be an easy task, and I have sympathy for the men doing this labor. The Bulgarian minimum wage is about 5 leva a day ($3 or so), and I doubt if these men get paid much more than that. Can you imagine breaking concrete for 10 hours a day, for $3? It’s only my speculation, but if they are doing some work on the site, maybe one day it will be rebuilt. At the pace of Bulgarian construction, I’d estimate that would take a good five years.
Places like this are unfortunately very common across Bulgaria – building sites with half-finished construction, or half-finished deconstruction as the case may be, litter the cities. I picked this picture, but could have used a picture of half a dozen other places I frequently pass by in Svishtov. The local street dogs have taken to sleeping in piles of old insulation at the location, quite possibly asbestos (though that’s little more than a guess on my part). It’s in the middle of a neighborhood, between large block apartments, and perhaps 1,000 people live within the immediate vicinity. And there’s not so much as a fence or even that yellow construction/police scene tape warning kids to stay out of the piles of rubble. Ugh, Bulgaria.
As friend Steve pointed out, it’s an indicator of a slow week when I start blogging about fruits and vegetables. I moderately refute this statement – fruit and vegetables tend to occupy a good chunk of my mental energy, as a vegetarian in a land of meat. But he does have a point.
It’s been quiet at the BSPB, but not in Bulgaria. Over the last eight days, the country has celebrated three major holidays. Bulgarians like a celebration. First, as I blogged about before, was Baba Marta, where we all give and wear little red and white bracelets and tassels.
March 3rd, last Saturday, was Bulgarian Independence day, one of the most important national holidays. But it fell on a Saturday, so no day off work, and I spent the day traveling from Sofia back up to Svishtov, a half-day expedition. Bulgarian Independence day is actually a bit sad, and indicative of the general history of Bulgaria. The day celebrates the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano, which ended the war between the Russians (and the Bulgarians) and the Ottoman Empire, and created an independent Bulgarian state after 500 years of Ottoman domination. Unfortunately for the Bulgarians, only three months later, the European powers-that-be carved up the nascent state to about a quarter of its previous territorial size (and half its current size). The Austro-Hungarians, the British, and the Prussians didn’t want the Russians (at that time, the Bulgarians were essentially a Russian client-state) to have such a sizable hold on the strategic southern Balkans and its ports to the Black, Aegean, Adriatic seas and potentially the Bosphorus at Istanbul/Constantinople. This decision still has ramifications today, at least in the minds of some Bulgarians who want all that territory back – of course, in this part of the world, every country wants the land they had at the maximum extent of their historical apex, a truly impossible proposition and one that has caused no less than six wars and probably close to or more than a million deaths in the past 120 years.
Moving on to a much more pleasant topic…
The final holiday of the week was on March 8th, Bulgarian Women’s Day. This is like Mother’s Day-plus, so you have to buy flowers and small gifts for every woman in your life. Every store in Svishtov turns into a florist to capitalize on the holiday, and they all do a brisk business. The holiday is a holdover from communist times, and because of this some women refuse to celebrate, instead holding symbolic protests against the inequality of women in Bulgarian society. However, I personally saw little evidence of this. The flower stores were quite busy here.
So, while it has been a bit slow at the BSPB-Svishtov, Bulgaria has had a busy week.
Friday, October 12, 2007
It’s about time for another fruit and vegetable update from the land where produce tastes like it’s supposed to, Bulgaria. The price of my bellwether indicator, tomatoes, has dropped considerably in the last few weeks. The price today on the streets of Svishtov was 2.70 leva ($1.80) per kilogram, down from a winter high of 3.50 leva. In mid-summer, a kilogram of the best tasting tomatoes in the world will cost about 0.50 leva (here’s the math for the Americans: that’s about $0.15 a pound).
Also in season now is lettuce, which sells for around 0.70 leva a head for the good stuff, 0.40 leva if it’s wilted and brown. I am also finding green onions and radishes, though I don’t particularly like radishes – they add very little value to my salad.
In the fruit section (I know, technically a tomato is a fruit), we’re seeing a good variety of Greek and Turkish citrus coming up into Bulgaria – oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, mandarins, and lemons. Though, admittedly, I don’t know the difference between a tangerine and a mandarin. These all go for less than 1 lev a kilo, which is as low as they will get – this is the citrus high season. Kiwi’s are also available, but I never buy them, so I don’t know exactly how much they cost. Too much work, the kiwi, for too little payoff. Apples have about hit their quality nadir, it’s hard to find one that’s not mushy, mealy, or squishy.
And of course, as always, we have a ready supply of cabbage and potatoes. But what fun are those?
Unfortunately, cucumbers are still prohibitively expensive on my Peace Corps budget, so it’ll be another few months yet until I can enjoy the shopska salad, Bulgaria’s gift to the culinary world.
My sister took the picture of cabbage last summer. See, you can always get cabbage.
This commentary recently appeared in a daily English-language news bulletin that I receive about Bulgaria (Sofia Morning News, as it's called). It was published well before the recent report about Bulgarians unhappiness and misery, which I blogged about a few days ago, thus proving that you don’t need official statistics, surveys, and reports to understand how depressing these people are. It was written by a Bulgarian.
Bulgaria (Be Negative) by Lora Petrova
Some days ago I had to spend a few hours in a pensioners' club just to pay a social call to an old couple of relatives. Sitting there, feeling my cheeks numb from all the squeezes from the old ladies, I listened to their conversations.
Not surprisingly they all spoke about how insufficient their pensions are, how miserable they feel, how the state has pushed them to oblivion even though they worked so hard for Bulgaria's well being all those years. A very sad story. Instead of being joyful of being free of any jobs and obligations all the time, they were all so negative about life itself, it made me sick.
Then to cheer up myself I went to a nice cafe downtown to just sit by myself and please my palate with a cup of coffee and of course listen to occasional conversations.
The place was full of young, prosperous people, who were dressed with expensive clothes, wore the latest fashion shoes (really ugly ones), drove cars that cost a bomb and all of them seemed to live very well. But surprise, surprise! They grumbled even more about how bad the situation in Bulgaria is than the old ladies in the club.
Of all heard on both places I thought maybe we should ask the government to put in brackets behind the name of Bulgaria something like Be Negative and then to ask them to enter the building of the parliament and to set it on fire.
I cannot in now way understand why all young people in Bulgaria always see everything on the negative side and complain 24/7 that the country is absolutely and undoubtedly falling apart. I can understand the pensioners' complaints as they are already helpless to work for the country's well-being. But what is wrong with the young and potent ones?
So I came up with another suggestion. We should ask the government to allot funds to buy antidepressants for people aged 18 to 60 and Bulgaria will be prosperous again. Maybe this will heal the chronic negativism of the nation's next generation.
Last night when I wrote the previous blog, I was full of pride, trying to defend Bulgaria's honor. Then a new report is issued by the European Union that fully contradicts my observations, and reminds me about who the Bulgarians really are. What are the overriding national characteristics that came out of the report? Misery, pessimism, and selfishness, according to the report.
Here’s a direct quote I pulled from the report:
"The survey shows that the two countries that joined the Union on 1 January 2007 are quite different from each other. While the social realities of Romanians in many ways are similar to those of people living in the other Member States, life in Bulgaria appears to be decisively different. People in Bulgaria rate most aspects of life considerably less positive and only 39% of Bulgarians claim to be happy compared to 87% of EU citizens.”
Yes that’s right, 39% of Bulgarians are happy, compared to 87% of all EU citizens, and whopping 97% of Danes. Money and standard of living does not appear to be a factor: the Romanians, who are as poor as the Bulgarians, have a 60% happiness rate. 86% of Poles, hardly better off than either Romanians or Bulgarians, are happy. Turns out, misery and unhappiness is just a national trait of the Bulgarians. What a lovely place to live.
Other telling stats from the report:
- Helping others is important in life: only 63% of Bulgarians say yes, lowest in the EU. The EU average is 79%, and the highest was those helpful Cypriots, at 89%. (Forget what I just wrote in the previous blog about helping neighbors, apparently).
- Volunteering: only 10% of Bulgarians volunteer, lowest in the EU. 34% is the EU average, 60% the highest in Austria.
- Life got worse in the past 5 years: 60% of Bulgarians agree, 2nd lowest in EU (65% of Hungarians say it got worse).
- And perhaps saddest and most telling of all, fully 50% of Bulgarians believe that life will actually get worse in the next year.
Bulgaria has just joined the largest group of free and prosperous nations in the world. Every country that has joined the EU has gotten rapidly and remarkably more prosperous. Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Greece, all were 3rd world countries less than a generation ago, and yet today are fully developed and rich nations. Democracy is cemented, freedom is unassailable, and wealth is all but guaranteed to come to Bulgaria in due time. Yet these miserable negative people can only see a future full of failure and poverty.
It’s sometime really hard to care about a country when the citizens themselves don’t care one whit.
The other regions of Bulgaria (the country is divided into 6) were also in the bottom 10, except for the Sofia region which did a bit better. Financially speaking, north-central BG has a per capita GDP that is 26% of the EU average. By comparison, central London, the richest region, has a GDP per capita that is 300 % of the EU average. Central London is also one of the richest places on earth, while on the European continent, by some statistical measures, only Albania and Moldova are poorer than Bulgaria (neither of which are in the EU).
Sounds like the first sentence in a cheap mystery novel. The reality is much more disgusting, and unfortunately true. The trail of blood did in fact lead up the stairs (or maybe down)... the stairs in my office building. Either that, or someone dribbled a steady stream of red soda or ketchup in the stairwell. There wasn't a lot of blood, mind you, just enough to totally freak me out, but apparently not enough to inspire the building owner or the FULL TIME CLEANING LADY to get out a mop and take care of the mess. What really concerns me, though, is that somewhere in Svishtov there is a person with a bleeding wound, dripping blood all over town.
There was also a big piece of human crap in the pan of the building's Turkish toilet (see one of my first blog postings about the toilet situation).
Sorry for the gross blog posting, but this day was truly forgettable. So I had to share it. Bulgarians continually astonish me with their lack of even the most basic and rudimentary of sanitation and hygiene measures. My general rule - DON'T TOUCH ANYTHING. Whoever left the big poop in the toilet, or bled all over the stairs, certainly didn't wash their hands. Because there is no soap in the building.
I'm going to go douse my hands in bleach now to clean the germs off.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
This has been the warmest winter ever recorded in Bulgaria. Most days in January set high-temperature records across the country, including up here in Svishtov, reputed to be the coldest part of the country. The warm and dry streak has finally ended, as last night we received a good dusting of snow. I took this picture off my south-facing balcony this morning, though as I write this in the afternoon, the snow is quickly melting. This was the first trace of snow we've recorded since before Christmas. I miss the snow, the cold white winters are part of Bulgaria's charm. The urban areas of this country aren't pretty, but with a layer of snow they achieve a sort of story-book, fantasy-land enchantment. The trash and the dirt gets buried, and if you can ignore the communist concrete block apartments, the red tile roofed houses and the little brick smokestacks are straight out of a fable.
Originally posted February 1, 2007 on my other blog, http://360.yahoo.com/maxwell_woods
I think I have one of the best, and certainly most unusual, jobs of all the PCVs in Bulgaria. But there is one guy who might have me beat, and it’s an interesting story. Last week, after the IST event (see previous posting), I traveled to the city of Stara Zagora to meet with friends and visit the Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, where fellow PCV Shane works. While I get to go out in the field and watch birds, Shane actually gets to work with birds, handling them and feeding them. The Bird Rehab Center is one of only two in Bulgaria, and birds from throughout Bulgaria are sent there for care and treatment. The center is affiliated with a veterinary college, and has three full-time vets on staff. Birds that can be fixed and rehabilitated are generally released back into the wild. Ones that can’t are kept in the facility. Rare and endangered species get priority, and I was able to see up-close all the species I’ve been watching with binoculars for the last year and a half.
After visiting the center, I would like to take some of my bird kids down there on a field trip. They would get a blast out of feeding them, and it may inspire them to pursue careers in veterinary science or ornithology. All it’s going to take is some money…
In the picture above, Sashka, Shane's counterpart, checks out a pelican with one wing.
One of the best things about life in the Peace Corps is that I frequently get to travel around Bulgaria on “official” business. I’ve been on the road for the past week, which is why I haven’t blogged in a while.
The beginning of last week I was in the south-central town of Kazanluk. I was a “resource volunteer,” assisting at the newest group of PCV’s In-Service Training (IST). Mostly I had to attend the seminars and sessions, sharing my experiences, and giving my input where relevant. I was also encouraged by my program director to just hang out with the volunteers, which I took to mean to eat lunch, drink coffee, and have a few beers with them. Not a bad job, I get to drink coffee and beer, chat with friends, and call it work.
The picture above is from my hotel balcony in Kazanluk. Nice sunset.
Originally posted January 29, 2007 on my other blog, http://360.yahoo.com/maxwell_woods
This forgotten bust sits in the dustbin of Bulgaria's turbulent history, a monument to the audacious dreams of a centrally planned socialist paradise. Eh, that's too poetic for me. I came across this statue in the southern Bulgarian city of Stara Zagora (literal translation: "Old Zagora"), near an injured bird rehabilitation center that I was visiting. Half the statue is dark from recent rains.
Hulking concrete monuments littering the landscape are a common symptom of communist regimes and dictatorships in general, I believe. In an attempt to constantly remind the people of the omnipresence of the state, and of the supposed benevolence and righteousness of the communist regime/dictatorship, these countries have erected monstrosities of astonishing size. They have also used an astonishing quantity of concrete. I don’t know who this head is (or was), he may have actually been a true hero of Bulgarian history – but judging by his placement in the mud outside a garage near a bird center, probably not. When communism fell, the statues and monuments of moderate size fell too. But some of them are of such great size and mass that it would take dynamite and bulldozers to finish the job, which of course costs a lot of money.
One creative way to solve the problem – sell the statues to the “ironic” bobo hipsters in Seattle’s Fremont district. If you’ve ever been there, you will be familiar with the giant concrete Lenin statue, which I believe was bought from Slovakia (or maybe Slovenia) after the fall of communism.