Skittles and Fish

Some things stay the same. I believe I’ve mentioned this before. Even though time does the only thing it can, never stopping, always marching on, some things stay the same. In March, I wrote about refugees having become such a hot issue in the furious clamor of our presidential campaign. We have since gone from a fractious and divisive campaign to… well, to… to now. Little has changed.

“… closing the borders, sending people back to where they came from, for example. Can anyone have a civil conversation on that subject? I wonder. I know people who are working with refugee resettlement agencies, helping war refugees — refugees from bombing and fires and knives and threats and killings, who have lived in refugee camps for years and years, in tents or temporary shelters with freezing winter huddle-around-a-fire misery or desert scorching hot blazing-sun misery, relieved to be out of mortal danger but living in uncertainty and frustrated with slow-molasses bureaucracy and hopeful, ever hopeful of a life where they can work and raise their children in peace. “

In Bulgaria, near the Turkish border on the ragged fringe of the desperate struggle toward Europe, refugee camps are anything but peaceful or hopeful. “Police in Bulgaria have fired tear gas and water cannon at refugees protesting about restrictions on their movement after authorities barred them from leaving the area where they stay pending medical checks.” 1 The article goes on to say that “some 13,000 refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, are currently trapped in the European Union’s poorest country.” Increasingly, Bulgarians are feeling threatened by the presence of refugees in their country. After the riots at the camp, the UN has urged Bulgaria to “improve living conditions… and establish a constructive dialogue with asylum-seekers.” 2

In Germany and other Western European countries, after so famously accepting anyone and everyone for refuge, pressure and tensions are mounting, and accusations escalate. And here in America, even after the US picks out the best bets by screening refugees while they live in refugee camps for years, some Somali refugee student, no, psychopath, no, radical terrorist, no, I don’t know, (damn, without a label how do I know what to believe about him?) swerves into a crowd and starts attacking people with a knife. The President-elect had an immediate answer, via Twitter, that the guy “should not have been in this country.”

GhotiA poisoned Skittle, that’s the argument. You’ve heard that one, I’m sure. An interesting Forbes article makes the case that, given a sufficiently large bowl, poisoned Skittles are safer than seafood. “The real issue here clearly is food safety, and acceptable levels of risk.” (Go ahead and read that article. I’ll wait… Oh, all right, here’s the recap. 16.8 billion seafood meals a year, making 589,310 people sick: each meal presents a 0.0035% chance of getting sick.) If you like seafood, you accept the risk. Same concept for traveling: the benefits, for most people, so far outweigh the risk that they travel without dwelling on all the things that could go wrong and result in the worst outcome, which is usually something involving a smoldering tangle of metal and billowing plumes of thick black smoke. I like to travel. Every conceivable action that offers a benefit carries a risk. What to do? We deal with it.

Deal with it. We deal with risk every day, for the good that comes from our decisions.

In Colorado alone, we accept 2,000 refugees a year. That’s more than the per-state average, since the U.S. has taken in about 70,000 a year since 2013 (more before then, with a peak of twice that in 1993). 3 If you don’t want to go to the article, there’s a recap down below in the footnotes. 4 I bring up Colorado because that’s where I live, and because I have a personal interest in the quality of life here. Remember now, these are people who are fleeing from war — real war — and it is with the spirit of the Statue of Liberty that we want to help them. That is the benefit: to be human, to live in consonance with high ideals and a spirit of charity and love (sometimes gratuitously called “Christian” or “Judeo-Christian” ideals, charity and love). It’s the same reason we have charities and nonprofits, churches, veterans’ groups and government social services: to help those who need it. For a better quality of life for all.

I do a little work with refugees and asylum seekers in Denver. I have met people from Somalia, Rwanda, Burma, Nepal, Cuba, Congo-Kinshasa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and yes, Syria. These are people who fled with or without their families from terrorism, war, torture, bombs, gunfire, rocket attacks. Some were threatened with death, or had relatives killed, for cooperating with the U.S. Most have been stuck in refugee camps for two years or more, some as long as 18 years. In my mind I have run two scenarios for how they are treated and how it affects the way they will integrate into our society and contribute positively to it. One is to isolate them and keep them apart from the rest of us, in hopes that they will not be a danger to our schools and communities. Scowl at them in the grocery store, spray-paint messages on their doors, throw rocks. What the heck, tear gas and water cannons. The second way (you might guess) is to see that they learn our language and get job training so they can start working their way to a useful and rewarding life. I’ve thought about which way will make them better neighbors.

It’s kind of like being careful what fish you eat, and how they’re prepared. If I’m going to eat seafood, after all, I want it to be good.

Posted in About the area, Politics, Refugees, Volunteering | 7 Comments

Back to Bulgaria

Some things stay the same. Generous hospitality, smiles, open hearts of friends. Sitting and talking for hours over a little twenty-cent cup of espresso. Seeing the bright yellow autumn leaves skittering around in little eddies of air while the sidewalk cafés are still open before winter sets in.

We started in Sofia, after marveling at the new modern airport terminal and the no-hassle customs entry from our flight coming in from France. Our stay in the city was hosted by our friend Joe, a former Peace Corps volunteer who returned to Bulgaria and works as a math teacher. He has a luxurious apartment in a perfect location overlooking Journalist Square, a pretty park filled with trees and paths and shops all around. He coached us on getting around by tram, for our few days in the city, and got us off to a good start on the week. After the previous week with our old college friends in France, though, we were at a little disadvantage in trying to pry open the memory banks that held what was left of our Bulgarian language. That was unfortunate especially since the first person we met with was Fani, who had been my Bulgarian language tutor when we lived there. I was a little embarrassed at my groping for words that should have been there but were either missing or wounded beyond recognition. (I should have scheduled meeting her for later in the week.) She was kind and understanding though, as always, and we had a pleasant visit with her and Deni on her lunch hour in Sofia. She is teaching there in the big city — that’s a big change — and Deni has progressed up his career ladder to a position managing the entire national electric grid.

We also had a coffee with their son Hristo, who now has Masters degrees in electrical engineering and French, receiving highest honors in both, and works for an international firm supplying electronic control and monitoring equipment. Hristo, the cheerful and inquisitive little (then) guy who was so knowledgeable about airplanes and everything-science. Still cheerful, and still interested in everything. Looks just like his dad, and like I said about his mom and dad back then, they all “looked at life with enthusiasm, and… worked hard at everything.”

That same evening we had dinner with four of my former students. They’re in their thirties now! How can these few years have made such a change? Elena, the English teacher — oh what a treat it would be to be in her class, such a bright and positive personality! She quoted a line from Shakespeare, from a moment in my English Lit classroom, and recalled the details of that long-ago discussion. And Jana studying for the Bar, and Mitko the journalist and publisher, and Stoyan whose love of physics and hard science is spent these days designing new medical equipment. My kids! They were all so happy to see us, and we them, so heart-warming. As we walked through the dark streets after dinner, walking in the street as always because the cars were on the sidewalks, Stoyan voiced a “who would have thought it,” with both of us appreciating how unlikely and how precious was the strength of friendships formed over so many years and so many miles.

From Sofia we went to Panagyurishte, to see our old host family from training days, Pavlin and Krassimira. Approaching the town we were bowled over by the sight of a giant new regional hospital, where there had just been empty fields before. We knew our friend Dr. Ivan Gerov worked there, so we stopped. He was one of the heroes of our story, a life saver.

New Hospital in Panagyurishte

New Hospital in Panagyurishte

He was in surgery, but if we’d wait he could see us. While we were waiting, with a coffee in the little waiting room café of course, a guy spoke up and asked where we were from. He switched easily from Bulgarian to an unaccented British English, and was eager to talk. He had just gotten some discouraging news about the condition he had come to the hospital to find out about, and striking up a conversation with strangers was not only good; it was necessary. We visited at the little table and learned he was a world-class chess Grandmaster, and that he never did like chess very much. His name was Evgeni Ermenkov. He told us of his childhood and of his world travels, and that he had written a book of short stories based on his life and experiences. He detailed his beliefs about gods and devils, afterlife and mortality, family love and fidelity. After confirming that we could read Bulgarian, he gave us a copy of his book. I realized only now that I should have gotten him to autograph it. Though I read slowly, I have read enough already to see that it’s a fascinating set of stories.

Seeing Dr. Ivan was wonderful. He had been on duty the night of our accident, and was on the spot to make the key decisions about getting the right kind of care. We knew he had worked in Sofia, then in London, then Sofia again in his specialty as an orthopedic trauma surgeon. Big-city doctor, high profile work. I wondered, silently, what it was about this hospital that drew him down to little Panagyurishte. He sensed my question, I think. He told us that it was “the spirit of the Peace Corps” that pulled him there. That took my breath away. To do good for its own sake; to impart something like a volunteer spirit to his fellow doctors; to expand the work of the hospital out beyond its walls: if the Peace Corps left nothing behind but this in Bulgaria, it would be enough.

In Panagyurishte we found bittersweet mixtures of sadness and new joys. The town has changed for the better in some ways, and the lives of some we knew there have been burdened beyond bearing. We had dinner out at a restaurant with Krassi and Pavlin and our old friend Rosen, and we walked the Saturday Market like in old times with Krassi. There is a big new fountain in the expanded city park, that plays music along with a light show and dancing waters. Like many other civic improvements and facilities we saw in the cities, it was paid for with some kind of grant or program arising from Bulgaria’s membership, since 2007, in the European Union. The citizens have enjoyed new hospitals, parks, playgrounds, improved roads and new pavement in public areas. In the villages though, the biggest change we heard about as a result of EU membership was an increase in the rate young people fleeing abroad for work. But in Pazardjik they have potted palm trees in the Center! (What? Yes! Palms! Like in Hollywood!) And a new zoo! With tigers!

Ah yes, Pazardjik, the city where we lived and worked. First thing, we stopped at our old apartment blok. The door to our entrance was always broken, and never had a lock. New door now, locked. No doorbells or buzzers. We wanted to see Grandpa Petko and his family, who had all three apartments on the fourth floor. His son Ilcho (Iuko) was our best friend in the blok, with his wife Raina. We also knew the other son, Vassil, and his wife Sonia, though not as well. While we were puzzling over how to get in, we saw a poster on the wall by the door. It was a necrolog, a memorial notice put up to announce a gathering of friends and family after a death. Raina. Raina! Just then someone came out and she gave us an accusing look as we reached for the door to get in on her exit. A few words of explanation, then OK, go on in. On the mailboxes in the lobby (new, replacing the broken-down open cubbyholes from before), Raina’s name was still there, by itself, not as a couple with both names. Ilcho! Had he died even before her? On the fourth floor we knocked at one of the doors and Sonia, Vassil’s wife, came out. After a moment of consternation there were shrieks and hugs like we would come to find over and over during the week.

“You must go and see Mama!” She led us across the hall and opened the door to Petko and Gencha’s apartment, and Gencha came to the door looking as she always did, maybe just a little slower but smiling broadly as always. A granddaughter was there with her baby, a happy and busy little guy they called Dani, for Yordan. We all sat together for tea and cake as the baby played. In those moments it was as if no years had passed.

Our friend Ilcho had died four years ago, in his early forties, and Raina in January of this year. She was 46. Petko had died too. (You may recall he had been ill with heart problems, and had lost a leg. When we last saw him though, in May 2004, he had seemed robust and was tooling around proudly on crutches in his apartment.) He died a week after that visit.  Baba Gencha told us that having her grandchildren nearby, with Baby Dani coming to visit and play, makes life worthwhile.

While we were in Pazardjik we were hosted by Vessi and Miladin, “The Doctor.” They were such generous hosts, making sure we had everything we could need. After her stint as Stormy’s teaching counterpart when we were there, Vessi got a job with the Peace Corps teaching the new volunteers Bulgarian, and after the Peace Corps she ran for a city government position which gained her a fair amount of fame in town. Now she manages, along with its founder, an NGO that provides services to old people, including running two nursing homes. They have an office in the Center of town, four workers and a few occasional volunteers in a bright and roomy storefront where people drop in to make arrangements and do paperwork for all kinds of senior services. We went to the nearby village of Mokrishte to see one of their nursing homes where we visited with the staff (four new job positions for the village!) and talked (a little one-way, for some) with the nine residents of the home. One spoke in English, and the staff were amazed since he hardly spoke at all, with his stroke, let alone in perfect English. We also chatted with patrons of the Pensioners’ Club which was set up in connection with the home, in a large room on the ground floor.

At my old school, Bertolt Brecht, we walked up to the front door at the same time as my teaching counterpart of those twelve years ago, Vania. I called out her name and of course it was a shock for her to see us. Inside the building we met another English teacher, Lazarinka, who was just as surprised, and the building administrator Pepa who had been so helpful in arranging for our apartment and furnishings while I worked there. In the teachers’ room there were others who remembered us: hugs all around. After a quick flash of greetings, and admiring some modernizing changes and sprucing-up, we left for Stormy’s school. In both schools, the Principal (Direktor) whom we knew had retired. At Stormy’s school the new Direktor, Mr. Stoyanov, was in his office with Stoian, who had been Stormy’s counterpart and mentor for a time. Everywhere we went, there was a bow wave of surprise and recognition. The new Direktor at Stormy’s school phoned the previous one, Mr. Dimitrov, and Mr. Dimitrov suggested meeting for lunch. Sunday noon was agreed.

Best Day Ever

Store window: optimism on a shirt front

In Pazardjik we attended a birthday party for Miladin, went to the zoo, admired the new fountains and refurbished central plaza, and enjoyed walking around the busy Center with lots of people out and about, in and out of the shops and sitting in cafés. Some of the shops were familiar, unchanged from before, and many were new. We visited with Stormy’s old friend Ivan the Kseroks man, who was moved to tears at the joy of seeing Stormy again. He proudly told us that his new copy shop was his own, not just a rented space. He was the sobstvenik, owner. We were glad for his success, and he for our success in coming back in good health.

We asked Miladin about going out to the orphanage where Stormy and I had participated in activities with the children, and taught some English lessons. No go. Orphanage is closed. No more orphanages. As part of being part of the modern world, in particular being part of Europe, orphanages are no more. Children without parents are now entered into foster homes instead. Miladin, since he had been so close to the kids and had served as baptismal godfather to so many of them, says lots of them still stop by to see him and say hi, but the ones he knew back then are aging out of the system and starting independent lives. Not children, he says, but friends.

We took a day trip to Lucky, a village in the Rhodope Mountains. It has been three years since I wrote about our friend Elena, who grew up there, and how Connections Run Deep in that part of the world. Her parents live there, and they run a little store. We had gotten to know her mom, Sofi, while Elena had been hospitalized here in Denver. I texted Elena to ask her the address of the store; she said it doesn’t have an address but just ask anyone and they’ll tell you. “They all know each other.” So off we went. It was an hour and a half through beautiful mountain scenery, the last part on narrow winding roads with colorful vistas of yellow, gold and bronze splashed across narrow canyons and broad valleys. Entering the village, we stopped at a little shop and asked the sobstvenik if he could tell us how to find the Adamovi shop. “Of course! How do you know them?” When we said we knew their daughter he responded using her nickname, “Elenche? In America? I was her teacher! How is she?” Yes, small world. He gave us directions, straight ahead up the hill on the main road, can’t miss it.

We drove up the hill, all the way to the end of the town, turned around, and drove it again looking at every garage and house to see if it was a shop. At the top of the hill on the second try we asked another guy, and he pointed us across the valley, “you have to cross the bridge at the bottom of the hill, and it’s over there.” Back down, across the bridge, stopped at a different store to ask again. This time the directions were the same as from the first guy: back to the original side of the bridge and “straight ahead up the hill on the main road, can’t miss it.” We said we did that, several times, and didn’t see the place. A bystander, hearing this, said to follow him. He got in his car and started off, straight up the hill. This time, though, we saw our mistake as he led us past the edge of town and continued a half mile or so beyond the last house, to where there were more houses and — finally — a little shop by the side of the road!

Adamovi Shop

Simon Adamov in front of his shop

We pulled up behind Sofi as she was washing the windows of the dining room to the left of the main store. Her reaction, complete with astonished squeals and big hugs, told the guy who had led us up there that we were indeed friends, and not bill collectors. I thanked him profusely as he drove off, and we spent the next hour visiting with Sofi and her husband Simon, and Elena’s brother Mladen. As we were getting ready to go, Sofi was shocked that we couldn’t stay longer — stay for another coffee — stay for a meal — stay overnight — stay the week! She said a few words to Mladen and he left. Then each time we got up to go she said no, no, wait, Mladen will come back and he wants to say goodbye. She knew we had to go meet other people, but just not yet. Mladen came back with a meal, prepared to-go, from a restaurant. It was in a good-sized box, a sturdy fruit packing crate. There was enough food for ten people. “A little something so you won’t be hungry.” As we got in the car laden with her smiling generosity, she said she forgot something and went back into the store for bread. A big loaf of bread. You need bread! Eyeing the giant loaf, I said no, really, there’s plenty here and we don’t need bread. Later, Elena told us her mother texted her (about a hundred times!) telling her the whole story. She said Sofi was worried we didn’t have the bread.

In the beautiful city of Plovdiv we visited Rosen and his wife Tanya, in the new house that Rosen had built with his own hands. Beautiful home, on the outskirts of the city with convenient access to the city amenities. They have a new baby, Stella, and Rosen’s daughter Vessi was a delight to meet anew. She was only about five when we knew her, now such a fine young lady! We shared a wonderful meal with them, enough food for ten people, the generous hospitality sincerely appreciated. Separately, that afternoon, we had a visit with Pepa, meeting her husband and their delightful little daughters.

Mary and the PrincipalsOur last day was Sunday, the day Mr. Dimitrov had suggested meeting for lunch. He and Mr. Stoyanov came together to pick us up, and we went not to a restaurant but to Stoyanov’s apartment. There we met not only Mr. Dimitrov’s wife but also Gencha, the school secretary, and her husband. Gencha, from our story, had been very active in doing projects for the orphanage and had shared her love of that place with us. Stoyanov had prepared a full dinner, served in the traditional classic way with appetizers, salad courses, entrees, and dessert, with drinks to accompany each course.

Sunday Evening Folk DancingThat evening we met another former student of mine, Ralitsa, who is on the verge of suspending her busy international career in the tech world to undertake motherhood. She had suggested going to the Center for what has become a regular weekly event in Pazardjik: folk music and dancing. Hundreds of people were there, young and old, sharing and expanding the Bulgarian folk culture. Every dance, it seemed to me, was a different style. The rich variety was more than I could imagine keeping track of, though I’m sure that to the experienced the dances fit into categories with regular patterns. Rali got me to join in on a few of the easy ones and, like Miladin says, “Nobody died.”

Generous hospitality, smiles, open hearts of friends. These things last. We are so fortunate to have them in our lives.

Posted in About the area, About the People, Peace Corps, Travelog | 8 Comments

Going Back

We’re going back! Toward the end of October. It’s just for a week, but it will be the first time Stormy and I will have returned to Bulgaria since we went back to celebrate at The Ball in 2004. Memories rush back as we think of what it was like when we were there, and we’re looking forward to seeing some of the people we knew. There is a little trepidation as well. We’re twelve years older now for one thing, maybe a bit slower, and the resilience we relied on as volunteers may have ossified a little. Bulgaria will have changed too; we hope we’ll still be able to get around with what remains of our old familiarity. The language we learned has been packed away like an old souvenir up on a high shelf in the spare bedroom closet. There are Bulgarian phrases and random words that rattle around in my head from time to time, but they’re not much more than in a tourist phrasebook. Still, it’s exciting to be traveling to that place that means so much to us.

As a side benefit, it will be a respite from the yammering back-and-forth cynicism and hateful diatribes of our current political process (though don’t get me wrong our democracy is perfect and a model for the world and we should export it everywhere even if by force oops no I mean be a shining example of how a country should be governed). I hope the subject won’t come up. I do recall, though, how I was mercilessly held to account for U.S. foreign policy in 2003 by my eleventh-graders and by strangers on the street, about the events broadcast on BTV and CNN, red and white and orange flashes in the dark sky and American soldiers pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein while Iraqi fighters shed their uniforms on the run and melted into the night. It was the first-ever American preemptive strike, setting the “America will never” bedrock military principle afire and leaving it to smolder in the ruins of another country. They thought we were doing it for oil. Our country, in the eyes of the old-line European countries with so many more centuries behind them, was looked upon as a two-year-old having a tantrum. A two-year-old with bombs.

Lady Liberty Crying

From friend Chasen’s Facebook page. I don’t know where he found it.

One might have thought we would have grown up as a country since then, having been through such perilous times and so many challenges. I wrote last month about the severe divisions we Americans are feeling these days as our elections approach; drawing closer to November the acrimony has only intensified. Looking at the picture of Lady Liberty, I know that many of my friends will have different ideas about why she’s crying. I hope to put it aside for a while, or if I can’t do that I might find a new perspective.

As in our own beautiful country, Bulgaria has lots of beautiful places that we enjoyed while we were working there, with mountains and seashore, forests and fascinating cities, towns and villages. As it is with life wherever we find ourselves, it was the people — the real human contact — that made it so great to be there. We’re looking forward to seeing our Bulgarian family, school colleagues, former students and neighbors, who made such a difference in our lives with their open and generous spirit.

We won’t get to see everyone, of course. My former students are scattered all over now, in their professional and family lives all over the world. People move on, and some will never cross our paths again. I remember so fondly the brash young guy in my classroom, who later apologized on behalf of himself and his classmates for giving me such a hard time (he said they called it climbing on my head). He was the one who set our goal of coming back for the Graduation Ball. Warm memories, forever locked in time. His name was Georgi. Our hearts were touched, time and time again, right up to the day we left.

A little after midnight, we said our goodbyes. One of my students, Maria, gave me a little slip of paper from her family’s Easter bread, with Kusmet, Good Luck, written on it. She wrote her name on the back, with her class number and “I won’t forget you.”
     — Breeze, p. 337

I still have that little slip of paper in my wallet.

Posted in About the area, About the People, Democracy, Life After Peace Corps, Politics | 6 Comments