Peace in Our Time

In glorious times past, Macedon was the ancient kingdom of Alexander the Great. Now, it is a picturesque and  controversial little country. In Bulgaria, people tend to think of Macedonia as an erstwhile part of the Greater Bulgarian Empire, from back when their own vast kingdom reached “the three seas” — the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean. In more recent years it was part of what was known as Yugoslavia, the collection of mostly Slavic states cobbled together in the messy aftermath of WWI. Then when that was torn apart starting in the 1990s and running into this century, the bits and pieces included at least one part they couldn’t even label. That was, of course, Macedonia. The country’s official name is F.Y.R.O.M., at least as far as the EU and NATO are concerned. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Really! That’s because neighboring Greece lays claim to the word Macedonia, since it is the name they call a region of theirs near the border. Like having trademark rights on “Greek Yogurt” (because, as any Bulgarian will tell you, yogurt originated in Bulgaria and the best comes from there. Even our FDA says it isn’t yogurt unless it contains lactobacillus bulgaricus. But I digress.)

FYROM

Image from facebook.com/MacoMemes/

I mentioned Macedonia only in passing in A Breeze in Bulgaria, in connection with telling about the history behind September “Unification Day” holiday (p. 52). Still, every time it came up it was an uncomfortable topic, one that people would say that’s too hard to go into now, beyond half-jokingly saying that the Macedonians are really Bulgarian but they just don’t know it. The languages are very similar, the food and certainly the rakiya are the same, the Orthodox Christian religion is separated only by political jurisdictions, and many cultural traditions are so similar as to be identical to the casual observer. I’m quite casual enough to qualify, and I expect many readers here will be as well. With so much similarity (for those of us unaware of nuances and old injuries), the underlying and persistent antagonism between the two countries is hard to comprehend.

With that background, I was surprised to read today of a breakthrough in international relations, one related to Macedonia. The headline caught my eye immediately:

Macedonia, Bulgaria Set to Sign Historic Friendship Treaty

I think it’s about time we had some news involving peace and friendship, don’t you? The story was reported in the Balkan Insight news service, and if I may quote,

    Leaders of Macedonia and Bulgaria on Tuesday are to sign a historic friendship treaty that aims to turn their long ambiguous relationship into a close, EU-oriented friendship.
   The occasion, deemed historic by observers in both countries, will be accompanied by much symbolism as well.
   In Skopje, Borissov and Zaev will lay flowers at the tomb of the Ottoman-era revolutionary Goce Delcev, a historic figure that both countries revere as a national hero. [More…]

That is great news, isn’t it? I hope it gives you a lift. It does me. I needed one. I’ve been drawn into a few rabbit holes lately, on Facebook and by watching the news.

Peace in our time. Think about it.

Legacy

My old school, the U.S. Air Force Academy, established a “Legacy Class” program a few years ago. For each graduating class, for example this year’s 2017 crop, the class that graduated 50 years earlier is invited to participate in some of their special milestone events. My graduation was in 1967. You can do the math. During the past four years, some of my classmates took part in leadership seminars with the class of 2017, and led discussions on subjects such as honor and ethics in a changing society. A number of us attended a Veterans Day ceremony at the Academy Cemetery, seated in chairs set up for generals and department heads and us “Legacy” old-timers as the cadets stood in formation after marching the two miles from the main campus. Shivering in the November chill, we all listened to speeches about dedication and service and “the long blue line,” teared up as the bugler played “Taps,” and flinched at each volley of the rifle salute. 1

In connection with the Legacy program we attended a few key events marking some of the significant transition points in their junior and senior years. There were dinners with champagne glasses and formal toasts, litanies of “To the Chief!” and “Hear, hear!” Anthems and salutes, speeches and stories. Dinner conversations that ran like interviews: what did you do, where did you serve and what will you do, where will you serve. Careful table manners and courtesies, use the outside forks first, after you please sir. The MC called for us from 1967 to stand and be recognized, and with all the white-haired grads popping up across the grid of tables it looked like handfuls of golf balls scattered on a putting green. One difference from the old days, there was no “smoking lamp” in the dining hall to indicate when it would be OK to “smoke ’em if you got ’em.”

There was the “Ring Dance” when 2017 got their class rings in a tradition-guided ceremony, reminding us of how young we were back then, how serious, how eager to face uncertain futures. Some of the traditions have gotten more intricate and involved than back in our day, but there are threads that connect us across the years. The thinnest and least recognizable of these is the word “formal” in the term “formal dance.” Mrs. McComas never covered such moves in our mandatory ballroom dance classes as the ones we watched from the sidelines (pictured here in blinding nightclub red, reminding me how the unrelenting bass beat continued to ring in my ears for an hour after).

At the DanceThis week marked the graduation of the Class of 2017, and by now they’re off to all the places their careers will take them. Off to be pilots, engineers, planners, intel officers, managers, controllers, doctors, grad students, who-knows-whats. Some will be astronauts, generals, maybe later members of congress, diplomats, city council leaders. They are will-be’s. What does that make me? Don’t say it. The cadets now are more diverse, more involved, preparing for a more complex world than the one we faced. Statistics say they are more physically fit, stronger, healthier, and more active with the wider community than we ever were. And looking into the future at their role as an instrument of national policy, well… we had it so easy in comparison.

On the day before graduation we watched a parade on what used to be known simply as the Parade Field, now with the same grass, muddy spots and grandstands but called Stillman Field, named for the first Commandant of the Academy. The officers marching with swords like in the days of the American Revolution, the band playing familiar martial music in the crisp morning air. Ruffles and flourishes for the General, an artillery cannon to make everyone jump, a change of command ceremony with the rising seniors taking over. The graduates formed up and marched out across the field in echelon, to turn and be honored along the “pass in review” line as the rest of the Cadet Wing did the parade drill. It seems to never get old, for the spectators.

Later in the day came the high point of our “Legacy Class” standing, with the commissioning ceremonies. These were held in different locations all around the campus for each of the 40 cadet squadrons. Each of us was assigned to a squadron and gave a short speech to set the tone for the ceremony. Then, after the cadets were individually sworn in, we presented each one with a set of Second Lieutenant bars. Butterbars, everyone calls them. Our class had taken up a collection to buy the rank insignia over a year ago. The bars were engraved with 1967 – 2017 on one and USAFA on the other. They were in a little box with a slip of paper with some words of encouragement and advice. Old people always like to give encouragement and advice.

Then, on Wednesday, the graduation, hats in the air, the Thunderbirds roaring overhead. Such a cliché, right? Yeah, I know. It never gets old.

Nice Guy

Bulgaria is full of surprises. I met a Nice guy the other day. That’s the kind of Nice that sounds like niece, not the kind that rhymes with ice. Not that he isn’t nice. He’s from Nice, France. Nice, huh? Rollando, a Frenchman in Bulgaria. If you want to be formal, for example to address an envelope with an engraved invitation to the Ball, you would call him Adrien Rolland Palomba. He also goes by rollandev.com. We met in the lobby of his business, well, virtually of course since his business operates in the online world, and had a nice talk over a virtual cup of espresso.

He is starting to learn Bulgarian, or as he told me, започвам да говоря, “I’m beginning to speak.” He and I communicate in English, mainly because if we had to depend on my one semester of French we could only agree that la plume de ma tante est sur la table. That, and maybe directions to the train station. He speaks a little Dutch too, so if you’re counting don’t forget that one.

Rollando is an IT guy. They’re lucky, those guys, since they can work anywhere. It may be a bit of Gallic understatement when he says he likes to travel. He’s been all over. So he moves to Bulgaria. Bulgaria! Now you may be asking yourself, “Why Bulgaria?” The question has been asked before, eh? (Bulgaria? Why Bulgaria?)

Saint Sofia, representing Divine Wisdom, overlooks the city.

After earning his computer engineering degree, Rollando got started in the business of managing IT (Not it! IT!) and as he says “climbed the steps.” He found himself as the owner and boss of a service that engaged in developing management tools for property developers. After a few years he decided to take a new step and have something of his own. So now that question, why Bulgaria? Let Rollando tell it. “Running a thriving company in France has become a miracle the last decade, unless you have a huge capital and wind at your back. Of course I love France, but I wanted to maximize my chances of success. I found that Bulgaria had a fast growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. Sofia, where I live now, has an efficient airport with cheap flights to most EU destination. Low taxes and low cost of living were a non-negligible bonus.”

A mountain valley, summer. For the winter view, just imagine it all white.

“There were several factors that mattered most in making my choice”, he explained. “First of all, it’s an EU country, even though they’re not using the Euro. It’s just a couple of hours for me to visit France whenever I want to, so being in Europe has that advantage too. And nature, wow! Beautiful! I love the mountains. I happen to like winter too, and temperatures are well below freezing during that time of year. As crazy as it might sound, I like it; I’ve always thought that cold builds spirit and vigor, and helps you feel alive. The seemingly brusque manner of the people is something to get used to, but after all that’s the way of the world.”

That’s how Rollando found himself moving to Bulgaria almost a year ago. He registered his company to sell IT services: developing business process, paperless office, extranet and reporting. Then, as he met partners and developers that he could trust, he decided to start selling websites and mobile apps too which happened to work well. Most of his clients were French or expats living in Sofia at first. “When running a company in Bulgaria, you’d better have a solid network and a big mouth to balance stereotypes that come to mind of potential clients when you let them know where you’re located.” New partnerships recently opened new opportunities in Europe, and Rollando has big clients in the USA in his sights as the next big move. “What I intend to do is show the other side of the Atlantic that Eastern Europe can deliver quality, quickly and at a competitive rate, and that distance or time zones don’t matter if you work with the right persons.”

The Language High School where I taught, named after the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. Students learned German, English, French, and Spanish.

Rollando said that many of the young people learn English, “The language of business,” in school. That was a fairly new development when Stormy and I taught English there as part of our Peace Corps assignment, and I felt a pinch of pride for having been a part of it. The Bulgarian system of “language high schools” is an important outreach to world commerce and culture. He noted that there are even very good French schools. Some of the young Bulgarians he has met have excellent accents, he marveled, “and you wouldn’t tell they’re not French.”

The hardest things, he said, have been ordinary daily activities such as grocery shopping or buying bus tickets. Rollando is on his own, and I can hardly imagine tackling all that without the training we got at the outset of our Peace Corps service. An added problem in daily life, besides the fact that the older people running the shops and driving the buses don’t speak English or French, is that Bulgarian has its own way of saying yes or no with your head. The way you nod to say yes means no, and vice versa. “That once brought me to the exact opposite of where I wanted to go as I asked if the bus would go toward the City Center.” (Boy, could I relate to that!) What looks like “Sure it does!” really means “No it doesn’t!” and you’re happily off to the wrong place. “Still,” he related, “it was a nice bus tour, and I found a supermarket that day which I didn’t know existed here.”

His tales of dealing with the paperwork of setting up a business recalled our travails at City Hall and the Police Department over work permits and visa extensions. He found, as we did, some helpful people to ease the process. That’s the way of Bulgaria. People are used to helping each other.

As for Rollando, he says that having been there for almost a year has confirmed his hunch that it’s a good place to build a business. Though he still likes traveling, for now Sofia is his home base. I’ve read articles from time to time about the advantages of locating businesses in Bulgaria, and how the strong and deep technological strengths of the younger generation are potentially a resource for the world. As Rollando described it, it’s a fast growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. Now it has a Nice guy too!

Good things are happening in Bulgaria.