Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tits Galore (and a whole lot more)!

In the eight months I’ve been in Bulgaria, I’ve seen a lot of tits. I can honestly say that most of the tits have been Great Tits. I’ve seen Great Tits in the park, at school, while walking down the street, in the garden, outside church, in the woods. Bouncing around here and there and drawing attention to themselves, Great Tits are impossible to miss. I’ve also seen a fair number of Blue Tits. And the colder it has gotten, the more Blue Tits I’ve come across. I’ve also seen a few Marsh Tits, but none of the other six species of tits (Long-tailed, Coal, Crested, Sombre, Willow, and Penduline) which call Bulgaria home.

For a nature and bird lover like me, Bulgaria is a pretty good place to call home. One of the better countries in Europe for birding, Bulgaria boasts just over 400 species on its official list. In the hopes of seeing as many of these species as possible, I made a friendly wager with my brother: who can see more species of birds in 2010 – me in Bulgaria or him in Colorado? He has several advantages: Colorado has recorded seventy-six more species than Bulgaria, he knows all the birds in Colorado, he knows where to go to see birds in Colorado, he has a car, he is unemployed and has plenty of free time, and he’s a serious bird dork. My only saving grace might be that, when I'm not teaching, I’ll be working with some outstanding birders who are affiliated with Bulgaria’s premiere conservation-based organization. Anyway, as January comes to a close, I’m getting my ass kicked. My brother has built an impressive 100+ species lead on me. Of course, I’ve yet to pull out my binoculars. That will change in the near future, and the gap will be tightened. And even if I lose, I’ll be able to make my brother jealous by posting photos of birds he’s never seen.

A Blue Tit precariously feeding.

A Chaffinch enjoying, or at least oblivious to, the snow.

A group of Crested Larks, including this one, can be seen almost daily hanging out around the school.

This winter, our town has been invaded by Hawfinches. Anything but “very wary and shy and difficult to observe,” as Hawfinches are often described, these beasts (which can generate over 50 kg of force with their massive beaks) have been present in large numbers since early December.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Surva International Festival of Masquerade Games

Pulsating rhythms. Dancing in the streets. People wearing masks. Men dressed in drag. Mardi Gras? Not quite. No one was throwing beads, there weren’t any flashers or obnoxious drunks, and it didn’t reek of piss and stale beer. Carnival? Wrong again. There weren’t any stunning samba dancers shaking it in g-strings and high-heels, nor was there any all-night partying or promiscuous sex. What then?

Yeah, I gave it away already. Every year the town of Pernik hosts the Surva International Festival of Masquerade Games. Today, ten of us joined the masses and spent the better part of a day at the festival. The festival is considered one of the most "important" cultural events in Bulgaria (I question to whom the festival is important because just one of the nine Bulgarians in our group had actually been to the festival before today). The games attract more than 5,000 masked participants who parade through town in elaborate costumes, eventually dancing on a main stage in a juried competition. Traditionally, the masks and those wearing them are called Kukeri or Survakari - from which the festival draws its name. The tradition dates back to ancient pagan times, when it was believed the masks and costumes had the power to protect their wearers against evil (hence the more frightening the getup the better). It’s a fun time, and it’s worth going not only for the festival itself but also for the piping hot donuts which are served. Mmmmmm ... scrumptious.


Several years ago, my brother and I roughed it on a camping trip in southeastern Arizona. By roughing it I mean we camped only at relatively primitive campsites which lacked basic facilities such as showers. By day, we hiked in the mountains and in the desert, where temperatures regularly climbed over 100º F. At night, we slept in sleeping bags in a tent with temperatures usually plunging below freezing. After a week or so of this routine, and without a river or lake or pool to rinse off in, we were both caked with a filthy combination of sweat and dirt. We had long since passed the point of being able to tolerate each other’s smell, but it wasn’t until we finally got to the point of being unable to stand our own stench that we gave in and sprung for a hotel room. What followed was the best shower I’ve ever had in my life.

For almost a week, I have been without water (it's funny how that happens when pipes freeze). This hasn't particularly bothered me, but it hasn't pleased me either. Being a spoiled American, I enjoy a daily shower. And no water obviously equals no shower. Several people, including one of my female students who went so far as to invite me to shower with her, kindly offered to let me shower at their homes. Not wanting to inconvenience anyone, I politely declined. And this morning, I was awakened at 3:28 by a truly wonderful sound – water pouring onto my bathroom floor. I was so pleased that stepping in the icy cold water to turn off the faucets didn’t even phase me. I went back to bed and slept better than I have in some time, knowing that a nice hot shower was in my future. A few hours later, I took my first shower in nearly a week. It didn’t top the Arizona shower, but it certainly makes the short list of best showers I’ve ever had ... mainly because it means I have water again.

Here’s a shot of my greasy mop just before this morning’s shower.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Баба Йорданка

Баба Йорданка (Iordanka) was the fourth баба I interviewed this January (ok, there was one дядо and three баби).

I really had no idea what to expect when I got myself into this project, but it’s been far more interesting and enjoyable than I imagined. Bulgaria is a small country – about the size of Tennessee – and the four folks I’ve interviewed all have been born and raised and have lived in the same general area during the same general time period. Not surprisingly, there are remarkable similarities in their stories and attitudes, but there are also striking differences. I can only hope that the next forty-eight or so stories are equally unique and interesting.

Anyway, here is a bit of Йорданка’s story:

• She was born in 1934. She was born and raised and has spent most of her life living in the town I now call home.

• Her father was a widower. After losing his first wife, with whom he had two children, he married Йорданка’s mother. He had lied to her, telling her he was single and without children. They eventually had three more children, the first of whom was Йорданка.

• There was no time for games growing up, only work. Йорданка’s duties included looking after her younger siblings and caring for the family cows. Her family was very poor. Her father had moved here from Трън, a small town on the Serbian border. With little money and no connections, he bought the cheapest land he could find. The land he bought was infertile and full of rocks. Thus, the family worked hard and produced little.

• During World War II, she remembers many people from Sofia moving into town. Every time the siren sounded indicating incoming bombers, she would flee with her mother and siblings to the forest. Her father was protecting the town water supply because there were concerns of poisoning. As a result, her mother was the sole provider for the family, while Йорданка was essentially a baby-sitter for her younger siblings.

• At the time the communists took over Bulgaria her mother was sick and away from the family. Her father was taken to a small room and told to sign over all of the family possessions to the party. He was told that, if he didn’t, he would be taken in a car and driven away and he would never see his family again. Knowing the threat was real, he signed the papers. When Йорданка’s mother returned and discovered what he had done she was furious. Despite this, Йорданка says that their life improved considerably under communism. Her mother no longer had to work and her health returned. There were jobs for all those who wanted to work, and the prices were very low. Accordingly, even though her family had very little, they could afford all they wanted (or most of what they wanted).

• Йорданка wanted to be a nurse, and following 9th grade she was accepted into a specialized medical school. Her mother disapproved of her becoming a nurse or otherwise continuing her education because she didn’t want Йорданка to become more knowledgeable than her. Moreover, her parents could not afford to pay for her to attend the nursing school, so she remained at the local high school.

• She got married after finishing 10th grade, went back and finished high school, and then had two kids: the first at nineteen and the second at twenty-one.

• Her biggest regret is not following through on her education. After raising her kids, she did go back and attend a specialized school in economics, but she wishes she had done more. It was very important to her that her kids get nothing less than a master’s degree, and she was willing to make whatever financial sacrifices were necessary to make that a reality. They both did, and they are her greatest source of pride.

• She prefers communism over democracy and capitalism, claiming that life was better under communism. Among other things, the cost of living was lower and jobs were more plentiful.

• She’s been to Serbia numerous times, always to go shopping at the market. She’s never been anywhere else outside Bulgaria, but, thanks to television, she’s been around the world and back many times. She even knows what life is like in America.

• She is very pessimistic concerning the future. There is too much crime, there are too many people on drugs, and there are too few positive role models for our youth. She thinks the world is in a very bad state and only getting worse.

Йорданка’s daughter is a friend of mine. She is in her mid-fifties and married to her second husband. They act like a pair of teenagers in love, and she refers to him as, “First love, second husband.” The story goes that Йорданка didn’t approve of him as a suitor for her daughter. She didn’t like the fact that he’s a musician (he’s classically trained and has played the piano around the world). She worried that while he was traveling and playing music, her daughter would be stuck at home caring for their kids. Listening to her mom, my friend broke things off and married another guy before divorcing him and reuniting with her one true love. When I asked Йорданка what she thought about this love story, she said it was her daughter’s fault for listening to her instead of her heart. And she’s happy that destiny has subsequently intervened and set things right.

Йорданка now.

Йорданка then.

Йорданка's first husband.

Йорданка, her first husband, and their two kids.

Йорданка's children.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

WTF are you doing?

Last night, I got the chills. The kind of chill you might get after watching a high school football game in November, or spending a day in a deer stand, or going ice-fishing. But there was no roaring fire or cozy bar to warm me up. No warm body by my side. So there I lay cocooned under a pair of wool blankets in my long underwear and insulated socks shivering like an aspen in the wind. When I finally emerged from my cocoon, the chill intensified. And as I hastily piled on extra clothes, all I could do was think to myself, “WTF are you doing?”

Almost six years ago, I asked myself the same question. Unable to find a satisfactory answer, I broke off an engagement and walked away from a promising legal career. After a couple years of backpacking around the world, I asked myself the question again. As had previously been the case, there was no satisfactory answer, and I applied to join the Peace Corps.

And now here I am, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria, once again asking myself, “WTF are you doing?” This morning isn’t the first time in Bulgaria I’ve asked myself this question. In fact, it’s a question I ask myself fairly regularly.

It’s a question I asked myself after missing the hole of a Turkish toilet.

It’s a question I asked myself after the undersides of my legs were splattered with all kinds of human filth after one of the kids I dropped off at the pool (Turkish variety) did a cannonball.

It’s a question I asked myself after waking to a new batch of flea bites every morning my first few months here.

It’s a question I asked myself when I heard of a fifteen-year-old student being dumped by her twenty-something boyfriend for a twelve-year-old because the twelve-year-old puts out.

It’s a question I ask myself every time people stare at me like I’m a circus freak.

It’s a question I ask myself every time I’m forced to scramble to avoid being hit by a Mercedes or BMW driving more than 100 miles per hour down a busy city street.

It’s a question I ask myself every time I’m confronted and threatened by steroid-infused meathead for merely talking to a girl at a bar.

It’s a question I ask myself every time I plop my half-frozen ass down on my completely frozen toilet seat.

It’s a question I ask myself every time I try to break through to apathetic, disinterested, and underachieving students.

It’s a question I ask myself a lot: WTF are you doing?

The answer is in the absurd situations giving rise to the question. It's in seeing progress from at least some of the students. It's in lessons learned from the баби who have welcomed me into their homes. And it's in the smiles, laughter, and tears shared with new friends.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Winter in Bulgaria

After some unseasonably warm weather, winter (зима) finally hit Bulgaria. And it’s cold. Not Wisconsin cold. But cold. Record-setting cold. This past week the temperature in Sofia has ranged from a low of -15 °C (5 ºF) to a high of -2 ºC (28.4 ºF). I know, that’s golfing weather in Wisconsin. But things are different here. Most of the windows in my house are covered with frost. Those that aren’t are covered with ice. The door to my house has been frozen shut more than once. I can’t breathe in my house without seeing my breath. Steam rises from the toilet when I dare to venture into and use my icebox of a bathroom. The temperature in my kitchen is lower than the temperature in my fridge. I haven’t showered in three days, and I probably won't any time soon. Not because I don’t want to. I can’t. The pipes are frozen. In America, this would be a problem. Frozen pipes eventually thaw and then burst, resulting in water damage. I’m told there are no such issues with Bulgarian pipes. Bulgarian pipes are designed to survive Soviet winters (meaning sub-zero temperatures and intermittent gas supplies). Unfortunately, Bulgarian heaters and Peace Corps volunteers are not.

At least the frost is pretty.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Дядо Илия

I was supposed to interview a woman named Лилия (Lilia), but Лилия got cold feet at the last minute and cancelled. Thankfully, while she was slaving away in her kitchen preparing food for our visit, including crème caramel and a chocolate and coconut tort, we sat down and talked with her husband of nearly fifty years, Илия (Ilia). Given how enjoyable it was spending time with him and how interesting a person he is, I felt I had no choice but to share Илия's story even though he is a дядо (grandfather).

• Илия was born in 1937. He was born and raised and has spent his entire life living in the town I now call home.

• He is one of six siblings, but only he and his sister lived to adulthood.

• He and his wife had two daughters, but one of them passed away a few years ago. They have two granddaughters.

• He has been to Serbia many times and once visited Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad).

• During World War II, relatives of his abandoned Sofia and moved in with his family. Every time war planes were heard approaching, his father gathered the family in a horse-cart and they hid under a nearby bridge. One night a pilot (perhaps mistakenly) dropped several bombs on the town, setting much of the town on fire.

• His father died in 1946, and he was raised by his grandparents. Prior to his father’s death, his family was fairly wealthy and his childhood was “colorful.” Following his father’s death, his family was very poor and he lived in “black and white.”

• He was a very mischievous child. Илия’s grandfather used to let Илия sit on his shoulders. While on his grandfather’s shoulders, Илия would tell his grandfather he loved him like honey, and his grandfather would let him reach into the top drawer of his bureau and take money. That all changed one day when Илия tried the old chair pull prank on his disabled grandpa. After pulling the chair out from under his grandpa, Илия didn’t see another стотинки. He remembers his grandpa chasing him around the house and poking him under the bed with a cane screaming the equivalent of “I’ll kill him.” Obviously, he survived.

• The year of Илия’s birth is significant because King Simeon II of Bulgaria was born the same year. All students who graduated from high school the same year as King Simeon II received one grade better than they earned in all their classes. For example, a student who earned a three in a particular class was given a four. Students who earned sixes were given sevens, even though there is no such grade in Bulgaria (Bulgarian grades range from 2 to 6, with 2 being the equivalent of an F and 6 being the equivalent of an A). Graduation rates were low back then, and Илия is very proud to have graduated from high school.

• As a young man, Илия recalls working nearly all day and all night. He was a shepherd, and he routinely walked from our town to Sofia. The walk took eight hours, with the sheep getting two hours to feed along the way. Upon arrival in Sofia, the sheep were taken to a slaughter house, where he helped cut them up. So, after walking the better part of the day, he slaughtered sheep most of the night.

• He had nothing good to say about communism. Despite repeated requests and invitations to join the party, he always refused. He considered the communists liars and thieves who were full of themselves and empty promises. Had he joined, he would have been swimming with the current and against his principles. He is very proud to have swum against the current while maintaining his integrity, even though it meant he worked much harder for much less than he could have had. Despite being regularly bypassed for promotions by less qualified, incompetent party members, he was able to “build his own house,” both literally and figuratively.

• Илия provided two anecdotes to illustrate his contempt for communism. First, at one point he ordered a car. After making a down payment of 1500 BGN and waiting more than fifteen years for the car, he gave up and asked for his money back. The communists gave him 15 BGN. Second, one time he had gone to Serbia. While there, he had visited a bank where he was given American dollars. He went to Sofia to buy some jeans with the money and was turned away by the store clerks at the party store. They thought he had stolen the money and wanted proof from the bank in Serbia that he had not stolen it. After that, he never returned to the party store. Instead, he gave money to traveling friends who brought back whatever items he requested.

• According to Илия, during communism life was all about connections. Under democracy, there is a greater emphasis on ability and merit. The families who stole during communism still have many advantages, but those without communist bloodlines who study hard and work hard are rewarded. He is very hopeful of Bulgaria’s future in this regard.

• He loves watching television and considers the television and the washing machine the world’s two greatest inventions. Unlike Роза and Ристена, he has always lived with electricity.

• During communism, he typically had Friday off. On Friday, Russian movies were aired on Bulgarian television. Despite loving to watch television, he never watched on Fridays because he considered Russian movies nothing but глупости.

• He described four great joys he has experienced: graduating from high school, getting married, the birth of his children, and the birth of his granddaughters. The birth of his granddaughters in particular made him very, very happy, and he considers them the most important thing in his life today.

• He has just two regrets. First, there was a time in his life where he drank too much. He wishes he could go back and relive that time sober. Second, he once dated a very wealthy girl from Sofia who lived in a large, three-story home. The girl wanted to marry him. He asked her whether she could cook, and she couldn’t. He asked her whether she could sew clothes for him, and she couldn’t. So he asked her, “Then how can we live?” Her response was that they could sell her house, move in with her aunt, and hire servants to do all the womanly work she was incapable of doing. He then asked her, “And when we run out of money?” She answered that they could then sell her aunt’s house, move to his village, and hire more servants. Unconvinced as to the merits of her plan, they eventually broke up. Now, he wishes he would have married the girl, realizing that they could have lived at least fifty years off the money they would have made selling her house. And the house is still standing in Sofia, a painful reminder to him of his lack of foresight and vision.

• And here are my three favorite Илияisms:

In explaining why he hasn’t offered his granddaughters advice for dealing with boys, Илия said something along the lines of, “When the door is creaking, you don’t put your finger in it or you might get hurt.”

On the difference between life in Bulgaria under democracy and under communism: “At the gates of hell, every country has guards to make sure the people from their country who deserve to be in hell stay there. Bulgaria has no guards because Bulgaria is a self-regulating society. If a Bulgarian tries to escape from hell, the other Bulgarians will pull him right back in.”

One day Илия saw a very attractive young woman in Sofia. The woman was wearing an extremely short skirt. He stared at her as she went to board a bus, wondering how she would be able to climb the stairs wearing such a short skirt. As he was staring at her, he walked headfirst into a light pole. He said that taught him a lesson he never forgot: “Don’t pay attention to or get involved with pretty girls who wear revealing clothes. You’ll just end up getting hurt.”


Илия with a hunting group.

Илия with schoolmates.

Илия and his wife, Лилия, at a friend's wedding.

Лилия back in the day (looking very much like Pocahontas).

Лилия and her classmates.

Some more photos of Лилия growing up.

Илия's parents on a trip to Sofia.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Баба Роза

The second баба brave enough to sit down and share her story is Баба Роза (Rosa). I spent a couple hours with Роза the other afternoon, and here is some of what I learned:

• Роза was born in 1933 in Село Пищане, a small village between where we now live and Serbia.

• She has never been out of Bulgaria, but she once went to the Black Sea by airplane.

• She had four children, two of whom have since passed away, and she has two grandchildren. The greatest joy she has experienced in life was the birth of her granddaughter.

• Her childhood was miserable. She was the eldest of four siblings, and her family was very poor. She spent her childhood working, and there was no time for fun. She had few clothes and often went barefoot, even while shepherding the family’s sheep.

• She walked seven kilometers each way to and from school before dropping out after the fifth grade after failing a class and getting tonsillitis.

• When she was twelve she nearly drowned. She and a friend were on opposite sides of a river. They both jumped at the same time, collided, and were swept away by the current. Neither of them could swim, and they were at the mercy of the river. Her brother jumped in to save them, but he couldn’t swim either and was likewise swept away by the current. All three were taken down river and slammed into the exposed rocks. Luckily, they all managed to stay afloat long enough to reach an eddy and drag their bruised and battered bodies to shore.

• When she was fifteen, she and a group of ten friends loaded into a horse-cart to attend a celebration at a nearby village. The driver of the horse-cart lost control of the horses, and the horse-cart flipped. She landed on her head, and several of her friends landed on top of her. She was concussed and remembers few details of the accident, but she recalls everyone being injured except one boy. She remembers that, instead of helping the others, all of whom were suffering, the boy got up, pulled a mirror out of his pocket, and checked to make sure he was still looking good for the party.

• A short time after the horse-cart accident, she met her future husband. She was still sixteen, and he was twenty-five. He was her first, last, and only boyfriend. They were together for two years or so before they got married. According to Роза, he felt sorry for her and wanted to save her from a life of continued misery. After almost sixty years, they are still married today.

• She recalls people from Sofia fleeing to Село Пищане as the fighting in World War II intensified and the bombing of Sofia escalated. Dogfighting in the skies over Село Пищане was not uncommon, and she remembers taking cover from bullet casings which, at times, fell from the sky like rain.

• For Роза, life under communism and democracy was and is much the same. She worked and works very hard for very little. The only difference is that she could get more for her money during communism.

• She lived without electricity until 1957 and considers it the one technological innovation that most affected her life.

• She enjoys life now more than at any other point in her life. Without any children or grandchildren to care for or worry about, she is basically free to do what she wants. Much like Ристена, she enjoys tending to her garden, caring for a few animals, and watching Turkish soap operas.

Somewhere in the woods on the outskirts of Село Пищане there is a big, old oak tree with a stone cross nearby. This is Роза's “family tree.” It’s a place where her grandfather, and later her father, slaughtered a lamb as part of a ritual marking important holidays and celebrations. The tradition ceased during Bulgaria’s communist period but has since been revived. When I get the chance, I plan on visiting the tree and perhaps even witnessing the silencing of a lamb.

Баба Роза

Роза and her husband with their two grandchildren (1987).

Two photos of family gatherings just before Роза's son joined the army (1973).

Роза and her husband (~1956).

Роза and her husband exiting the hospital with their newborn son (1955).

Two photos of Роза and her husband on their wedding day (1954).

Several shots from the early 1950s depicting village life in Село Пищане.

Роза, her mother, and two of her siblings in the early 1940s.

Роза's husband (~1960). I included this photo for two reasons. First, I like it. Second, there is a good story behind it. Роза's husband worked as a forest ranger. He patrolled his area on horseback. One day/night while on patrol, he got really, really drunk and lost his way. Despite being completely obliterated, he found his way home thanks entirely to the horse shown in the photo.