A letter from . . .

Bulgaria

    Edith Sloan (Bulgaria 2001–  ) teaches English in a secondary school in Straldiak, Bulgaria. Having been a teacher and school principal in Indiana and Florida, she retired to South Central Florida before she joined the Peace Corps with her husband Rel.

    August 16, 2002

    I’ve got fleabites all over my body — on my back, sides, around the waist, legs and feet. With our traveling to Panagyurishte this week and then on to Sofia, I accumulated a few bites just through the normal activity of being out and about, something to which I’m more susceptible than Rel. But by the time we had arrived home last night, I had them everywhere. After analyzing it, it seemed that they could have only come from sitting in an old overstuffed chair for about a half-hour yesterday morning — in the hallway of a hospital in Sofia.
         I had made previous arrangements with our medical office to have my six-month eye check-up and Boyko, our doctor, took me to the office of the well-respected eye specialist (she had also checked my eyes last winter before our return to the States). The only place to wait for my appointment was in the hallway chairs (like when our own hospitals become overcrowded and patients have to wait in beds out in the hallways). Next time, however, I think I’ll stand.
         When Rel had to return to Panagyurishte to help with training, I decided to accompany him. He had volunteered also for the Orphanage Committee, which raises funds for orphanages around the country (their only funding comes from the government, which is very lax in their contributions). This was the week for the auction, one of the fund-raisers. Items sold at the auction come from Volunteers returning to the States from their two years’ service and range from things like clothing to kitchenware. The new trainees have the opportunity to buy items they didn’t bring but may need (a small bottle of chili powder went for at least 3.50 lev) and the proceeds go to the orphanages. After two days’ work, we collected between 700 and 800 lev.
         Visiting Panagyurishte for the first time since our training last summer was an eye-opener. Without the stress, tension and pressure of training, I found myself appreciating much more the beauty of the town. Located in the mountains and surrounded by them gives it a natural beauty that other towns located in the plains lack. But there was more to it this time. Much improvement has taken place since our arrival over a year ago (Peace Corps usually trains two consecutive years in the same town). I wasn’t sure if the improvements were real or imagined, since this time I was coming from Straldja rather than from America. But the bus station now has new concrete walkways to buses and a new roof overhead. Windows in the banya that houses the pool (new pool this year) are no longer all broken; they have been replaced by whole windows or white coverings. The streets are cleaner and gardens along the sidewalk are better maintained with less trash. The park now has newly painted benches and a new children’s playground for which the latest PCV found funding. I was also told that the Mayor in the first meeting this summer confirmed that they were able to make many improvements due to Peace Corps’ training there.
         It’s amazing how much a place can change when there’s money available to fund improvements. Already the grant that Rel got for the Roma school’s playground here in Straldja has made an impact, just from the repairs done to the wall surrounding the school and playground (it LOOKS so much better).
         The Roma school not only created their own NGO (non-government organization) but also approached the ceramic tile factory in town to donate tons of clay for the surface of the playground. So it seems that the attitude of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” may be starting to work here.
         Even though I submitted my SPA grant for our English Resource Room in June, it won’t be reviewed until Oct. Then, if we get it, the funds won’t be available until December. So sometimes it takes a while, but maybe our patience will be rewarded. Rel also has several more grants entering their last stages of possible approval. (Rosie told us today that the Yambol radio station mentioned Rel’s Roma school grant “on the air” and gave his name.)
         I’ve been considering writing a “partnership” grant for the women’s quilting group. However, I feel I’m already in partnership with at least three U.S. sources that have been providing materials. I just received a package of fabric pieces from the Tantie Quilters in Okeechobee, a box of quilting books and magazines collected by Nilsa in North Carolina, and a box of more fabric from my cousin, Carolyn, in Seattle. Now the next challenge is to put it all to work with the group here in October. START YOUR ENGINES! With the sewing and creative skills that these women have, I’m hoping they’ll just be able to take off on their own. (Transferring inches and feet to millimeters and centimeters as well as English to Bulgarian are the biggest challenges!)
         I’m thinking that some students at school may be interested in putting together a “tied” quilt during the school year. The project would require, again, both their English and math skills, to say nothing of their creativity skills.
         Just before we left for Panagyurishte, we had dinner at the hotel with Rosie, her husband, and Martina, her daughter. Rosie explained that August 2 was a name day called “Ilinden,” the feast day for St. Ilia (Elijah), so that women with that name celebrated. It seems that St. Ilia was believed to send thunderstorms and lightning. “Elijah, in Bulgarian Orthodox tradition, is a transmuted version of Perun, a pagan god of lightning and stormy heavens.” (Balkan Ghosts)
         In talking about names, Rosie also explained that, under Communism, there was a list from which parents could choose names for their children. Any name, like John, that sounded too American was not part of the list. Traditionally here, girls are named for their grandmothers and boys for their grandfathers. However, if, during Communism, that name wasn’t on the list, it couldn’t be used.
         There is a legend here, Rosie said, about a dish called “Amambaildah.” While Bulgaria was still under the Turkish yoke, a Turk came into a home and demanded food. He was fed a dish of sweet and sour eggplant that included garlic, onions, sweet peppers, sugar, vinegar and salt. After so much of it, he began to yell, “Stop, stop, I’ve had enough.” And that’s how the dish got its name. Amambaildah is a Turkish word meaning, “Stop, stop, I’ve had enough.”
         A well-traveled and knowledgeable person told us the other day that those countries under Soviet rule who retained their own identities despite difficulties have had a much easier time of it since the Soviet downfall than those that didn’t. For example, Bulgaria, despite 40+ years of Communism, didn’t really adopt the Soviet identity, but instead remained true to its own history and traditions. However, other countries that were actually member states of the USSR, like Moldova (which never had their own country anyway), and Uzbekistan are having more problems making the transition back to their own country identity. With the Soviets, it was “total governmental control and no local say, resulting in a pessimistic ‘can’t do’ attitude so why try” and that’s difficult to overcome. There is some of that here in Bulgaria, but not to the extent, we’re told, that it is in these other countries.
         Rel tells me that the Mayor of Straldja, while visiting a Maryland city in the States for three months last winter, attended city council meetings and came away very impressed with the way local citizens spoke out in the meetings and actually participated in the decision-making process. Here, there is no such thing: no sunshine law, no ombudsman (representative of the people in government), and citizens are not told of upcoming meetings, let alone be invited to them. So the Mayor is now creating a booklet describing the relationship between the administration and local citizens. Whether or not that will result in more openness and citizen participation in government here remains to be seen.
         A Straldja story: Michael, a member of the local Bulgarian Orthodox Church, explained today why the wall paintings in the church (icons) are so badly faded and in need of repair. It seems that the paint was supposed to have had eggs in it to help retain longevity. However, the painter, instead of adding the eggs to the paint, ate them! Although he also painted churches in the nearby villages of Atolovo and Zimnitza, the paintings have evidently not faded as quickly — because the parishioners watched to make sure the painter didn’t eat the eggs! He also liked to drink and one day, while he lay painting horizontally near the ceiling, he rolled off the scaffolding and died.
         Michael, with a partner, is now planning a weeklong “grape festival” in late September. They hope to attract investors for the grapevine “farms.” We are told that this is a very fertile area for grapes and, indeed, much of the land is given over for that purpose. In addition, there is a brewery in town that makes wine and rakiya that is well known throughout Bulgaria. Two years ago, Michael had such a festival in mind but could not find enough interest among others. Now there seems to be more interest and people that are willing to help. As I say, just a little investment of money (like Rel’s grant) seems to create a “heads-up,” people notice, and maybe, just maybe, a sense of “can-do” and prosperity is beginning.

More later.
Edith