Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dear B26s,

It’s presumptuous of me to assume that any of you might actually read this, but, on the off chance that some of you do, I'm going to be even more presumptuous (some might say pretentious) and offer a bit of advice. Although I’m tempted to delve into more substantive issues, I’ll stick to the subject of packing since that seems to be a source of great consternation among many of you.

By now, you’ve undoubtedly received the Peace Corps’ suggested packing list and you’ve probably gotten suggestions from currently serving volunteers. Those lists are fine, but none of the lists I’ve seen mention the things you’ll need the most. As you’ll soon discover, Bulgaria is not a third world country. Apart from high-end electronics and certain name-brands (which tend to be unavailable or ridiculously expensive), much of what you think you need to bring is available here, and oftentimes it’s far cheaper than back home. And most of the things you can’t find here won’t fit in your suitcase or clear customs (e.g., your friends, your family, decent Mexican food). Enjoy them while you can. But there are some things which you can bring which will make your time here more rewarding and enjoyable.

Flexibility and Adaptability. You should be prepared to go wherever you are needed, and you shouldn’t assume that you will have much say in your job assignment and placement. The staff will do their best to place you at a site where you can be a successful volunteer. Regardless of where you're placed, once at site, you’ll need to remain flexible and adaptable to be successful and happy.

Curiosity and an Open Mind. You will be learning a new language, a new culture, and new customs. You’ll quickly discover that there is more than one way to do everything, and your way isn’t necessarily the right way. A desire and willingness to learn is essential.

Enthusiasm and Energy. Even the laziest among you will probably impress your Bulgarian colleagues with your drive and work ethic. Don’t despair if things don’t happen as quickly as you’d like or if those around you don’t possess the same sense of urgency.

Optimism. It’s easy to become cynical and pessimistic. Leave your cynicism and pessimism behind. Leave behind those rose-colored glasses as well. Blind optimism will do you more harm than good. You aren’t going to change the world. But you can make a difference - in a positive way. If you don't believe that, you might as well stay home.

Patience. The Peace Corps application process may have tested your patience. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Confidence. You will fail far more often than you succeed. Your ideas will be discounted and ignored. You will be gawked at and leered at. You will feel isolated and ostracized. And, at times, it will take considerable strength and self-assurance to persevere.

Creativity. As your confidence wanes and your patience thins, you’ll need to rely on your creativity.

A Sense of Humor. You’ll almost certainly be bitten by fleas and awakened by crowing roosters, barking dogs, prying grandmas, and braying donkeys. And that’s just for starters. You better learn to laugh at these things, and yourself, or it will be a long twenty seven months.

Empathy and Compassion. You aren’t coming to work with the Lakers. The Lakers don’t need or want you. You’ll be working with the Clippers. The Clippers might not want you either, but, even though they probably won't admit it, they need you. The sooner you accept this and come to terms with it the better.

You might find these suggestions cliché and patronizing. I hope not. They're the things I wish I'd brought more of, and the volunteers who seem to be making the biggest difference and getting the most out of this experience have them in spades.

One last thing … Спокойно! Y’all were selected for a reason, and you’ll do just fine.

До скоро.

Monday, April 26, 2010

27 Months

In the grand scheme of things, twenty seven months isn’t that long. But within the context of one’s life, it is or can be a long time. And lots can and does happen during twenty seven months of Peace Corps service. There are deaths, births, marriages, family get-togethers, and many other major life events which don’t wait for our return. Life goes on without us, and we can never get back the time we lose. And for those of us who come from healthy families and relationships, missing out on these things is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Peace Corps service. So, when I learned my nephews would be in Belgium visiting their grandparents, I had to go see them. It was a great two days, but I miss them already.

This is the main reason I flew to Belgium for the weekend. The little guy was born last July, and this was the first time I had seen him. His big brother turns three in August. I hadn’t seen him since December of 2008.

When I last saw Alexander, he looked something like this.

He looks a lot different now. Not surprisingly, he didn't recognize me at first. Hiding behind his grandma, he reluctantly peeked around her leg to check me out. About ten seconds later, after deciding I was okay, he was all over me. Head butting me. Jumping on me. Pulling at my eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. Chasing me. Running from me. Looking for me. Hiding from me. He didn't let up the entire time I was there. Thinking about him makes me happy. And sad.

Alexander plays golf just like his dad. He swings and misses far more often than he makes contact, and, when he does connect, the ball usually ends up in the woods. He also putts like his old man, typically blasting the ball past the hole.

He's not much of a green thumb either.

Alexander and his grandpa.

Sebastian ... or the baby, as Alexander calls him. I have a feeling he's going to be a little brother only in terms of age.

Beef is hard to come by in Bulgaria, and I'd been craving it for some time. More than anything, I'd been craving a real burger. Lucky me, after a lunch that included two cheeseburgers, there was even more beef for dinner. Steak, medium-rare, plus homemade fries, and a mixed green salad. All washed down with several glasses of wine.

No trip to Belgium would be complete without a Brussels' waffle. Belgians tend to eat them with nothing more than butter and powdered sugar. I had a few the Belgian way, and several more with strawberries, bananas, chocolate sauce and whipped cream as well. Yes, I love to eat.

Nectar of the gods - a glass of Hoegaarden - just one of several different Belgian brews I enjoyed during my weekend visit. Why can't every country have at least a couple beers that taste like Belgian beer?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Бачковски манастир (Bachkovo Monastery)

Bulgaria’s second largest monastery, Бачковски манастир (Bachkovo Monastery), is just a short bus ride from Plovdiv. Despite possibly being a future UNESCO World Heritage Site, I didn’t find the monastery itself particularly interesting. Most of the monastery is closed to visitors (or least it was on our visit) and photography is not permitted within the monastery itself. But the monastery is still well worth visiting. Located at the foot of the forested slopes of the beginning of the Rhodopes, the setting is both serene and inspiring.

Bachkovo Monastery.

This is the Ossuary. The monastery was founded in the 11th century, and it's the lone building from the original monastery which survives. It is not open to the public because it's frescoes are too delicate to allow visitors.

Heading out from the monastery, it doesn't take long to begin enjoying the Rhodope Mountains.

Trails starting from the monastery head into the woods, along a stream, and past several waterfalls. By visiting during the week, we were able to enjoy our walk in near solitude.

The trails also make their way to three small chapels collectively referred to as Ayazmoto. The chapels are hidden in the woods and tucked away in the nearby hills.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Маджарово (Madzharovo)

Located in southern Bulgaria on the edge of the eastern Rhodopes, Маджарово (Madzharovo) is a former mining town with the look and feel of the American southwest … sort of, anyway. During the peak of mining activity more than 6,000 people called Madzharovo home. Now that number is around 500, almost all of whom are the type of characters to catch a novelist’s eye. Men far outnumber women and many drink, smoke, and play cards day and night in the town’s taverns. The town disco, which is open one night per week, draws folks from all the surrounding villages and is locally renowned for its knock-down-drag-out brawls. Think Zane Grey meets Dostoyevsky and you can begin to picture Madzharovo.

As unexpectedly interesting as all that was, I was in Madzharovo for another reason. The area is home to a Nature Conservation Center run by the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds. The center’s mission is to protect the nature of the eastern Rhodopes, with a particular emphasis on Griffon and Egyptian Vultures and other birds of prey. The cliffs along the Arda River provide nesting sites for the vultures and several other threatened species, including Black Storks. I visited in the hopes of learning more about the work being done and getting some photos of the area wildlife and landscape. Unfortunately, periodic rain combined with constant cold, windy conditions made it a less than ideal time to visit. The center was also very busy and short-staffed. And while resident species were active and about, only the earliest arriving summer breeders were present. Despite all these negatives, it was a thoroughly enjoyable couple days and I plan on returning this summer to learn and see more.

Despite the wind, rain, and cold, I spent most of my two days on foot hiking. This is some of what I saw.

The same trees which produce abundant fruit in the late summer and fall blossom in the spring. If you think the cherry blossoms in D.C. are special, you'd love Bulgaria in spring. Saying it's beautiful is an understatement.

One of many Griffon Vultures seen soaring along and above the cliffs.

My tit obsession continues. This is a Blue Tit.

And this is a Great Tit.

And this a Long-tailed Tit.

European Goldfinches are common throughout Bulgaria.

I saw a few frogs, but the cold snap probably kept all the reptiles and other amphibians tucked away.

There were also a few butterflies.

And some of the wildflowers were in bloom.

It's no secret that I detest the communist-era block apartments that are so ubiquitous in central and eastern Europe. Granted, some of them are really nice inside. Still, in my opinion, they are cold, soulless, depressing places that are representative of the failures of Soviet communism. But check out this place. Sure, it’s tacky, gaudy and all that. But whoever owns it has given it some soul and made it their own.