– About the Book

A Breeze in Bulgaria, book cover

A fresh breeze blowing through a classroom window on a sweltering summer day.

“Bulgaria? Uh, yeah, sure. I met a girl from Bulgaria once. Or was it Bolivia? Nice girl…”

Eastern Europe. Bulgaria. Can you find it on a map? Easy, right there above Greece. But what’s it like there? That’s more complex. Beautiful mountains, fertile fields and old Soviet-era apartment bloks. Ancient ruins, tired cities, intricate music and folk dances. Scattered remnants of the old industry struggle for survival, glimmers of hope among rusty abandoned factories.

“Grim, huh?”

No, that’s not it! More like awakening. Exciting. Big changes going on. Stirring, sweeping changes. New ways of thinking, new opportunities. School hallways ring with the laughter of bright-eyed, eager children, and young people go to discos and wear fashionable clothes, drinking coffee in sidewalk cafés for hours, exploring ideas. Baba selling corn from street cart in Pazardjik, BulgariaAll around them, politically and economically there is tumult and change. Everywhere there are entrepreneurs in a newly free society with apples and cabbages for sale from a cart or a table by the sidewalk. Democracy too, with whatever that will bring. Determination and hard work define what is needed in everyday life.

“So, what’s in the book?”

This Peace Corps memoir is about people. Strange customs, unfamiliar assumptions and ways of thinking, austerity and living close to the earth, sure, but really about people. Friends and neighbors who loved their country and its proud heritage, and were sometimes a little sensitive about its place in the world. Warm-hearted, generous, curious, practical people.

Bulgarian revolutionary hero Hristo BotevHardy and resilient, the Bulgarians traced their history back to the fair Thracians, then through the Roman and Byzantine empires, and the powerful Slavs. Then the Ottoman Empire, “five hundred years under the Turkish yoke,” finally ended by Heroes of the Revolution, reverently remembered.

And it’s a love story. The volunteers’ own story had a dramatic turn of events, one that took determination and hard work to overcome. The heroes of this story are many, and courage is proved in adversity.

A Breeze in Bulgaria is available as an eBook. The print edition is sold out but is sometimes available from resellers (see Print Edition).

Historical location Assenova, Bulgaria Horse-drawn carts are still a common sight in Bulgaria. This one is in Panagyurishte. View of Panagurishte, Bulgaria from soviet-era monument on hilltop View of sunflower fields from train to Straldja, Bulgaria 020710 Panagurishte (11).jpg Soviet-era monument to Bulgarian revolutionary heroes in 1876 Uprising, Panagyurishte, Bulgaria Bulgaria, winter: stork's nest waiting for spring Bulgaria, Roman amphitheater in Plovdiv. Plovdiv was known as Philippopolis in the Byzantine era.

About the Author:

Bruce McDonald was an Air Force pilot, then an international subcontract negotiator for an aircraft manufacturer. After his years in industry he asked the question, “What next?” The answer, for him and his wife together, was the Peace Corps. As it always does, the Peace Corps enriched their lives beyond measure.

Recent Posts

Spring and Miracles

Spring is a time of miracles. Plants and flowers are coming back to life, birds are returning to their summer homelands. Newborns in the wild are rustling and chirping, bleating, squealing, and yelping all around. I am reminded of the wonder of the miracle that I am here, and living, and doing what I want to do. How many things had to happen, just so, for all that to manifest itself into being? What are the chances? I live in awe at how unlikely it all is. Miracles at every step.

When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now.

       Holy Now by Peter Mayer 1

This particular springtime has been sprinkled with some pretty special events for Stormy and me. Last Sunday was Easter, significant enough on its own as a miracle commemoration but more so this year with our grandson’s religious confirmation — the grandson who was born while we were working in Bulgaria. He has grown into a young man: tall, athletic, smart, friendly and generous of spirit, and with a ready smile for everyone. There were some very moving church services marking the Resurrection story and its meaning in our lives, and a delightful gathering of family and friends. Kids hunted Easter eggs and counted their treasures, and none of them brought up that thing about the connection between bunnies and eggs.

In Bulgaria, Easter will be this coming Sunday, this year a week later than ours in the west. Orthodox Easter usually hits on a different Sunday from our western version, since the two main branches of Christianity follow different calendars.2 The rule for placement of Easter in both is that it’s the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. (You knew that already, right?) That’s the “ecclesiastical” vernal equinox, though, not the real solar one, and I suppose that’s why, if you have different calendars specifying the baseline events, “your results may vary.” The story about what happened, though, and the significance of it to Christians of all kinds, is the same. A miracle.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons, 640px-Foster_Bible_Pictures_0062-1_The_Angel_of_Death_and_the_First_PassoverThen there’s Passover, another holy seasonal observance commemorating a miracle. That one follows yet another ancient calendar, the dates of celebration drifting independently and with serene indifference to our customary sun-only calendars. This year it came in neatly between the two Christian Easter weekends. Passover brings fastidious preparation and painstakingly detailed family and community rituals, and keeps alive a rich historical tradition and remembrance of miraculous preservation from death and destruction.

This past week, during Passover between the two Easters, we went up to the mountains and watched our newly-Christian-confirmed grandson showcase his skills in “the nationals” of the US Snowboarding Association, competing in the halfpipe. We joined a lively contingent of family and friends on a sunny deck facing the brilliant white mountainside of Copper Mountain Resort. We watched all the competitors, noting the names of standouts (we’ll see them in the next winter Olympics) and absorbing a little about the little-understood (to most of us) sport. The best word for it is “spectacular.”

Whenever our star was doing his runs we sat on the edges of our seats, holding our breaths at least figuratively. Whoa! Looka that! He got good air! Hey! Was that a 360 or a 540? With a twist! Great going! Woo-hoo, he’s still alive! After each run he boarded the rest of the way down the hill and came up to the deck to greet his adoring fans, grinning and feeling good about doing his best — one of his runs was a personal record — and even on a run that didn’t score high, he was happy about keeping it smooth and flowing.

I recalled when he was born and I was showing off his newborn picture to my kids at Bertolt Brecht Language High School.

“After classes a little contingent of my eleventh grade girls… came up to the teachers’ room and serenaded me with ‘Happy Grandson to you, Happy Grandson to you, Happy Grandson dear Mister, Happy Grandson to you.’ … The girls just about exploded with excitement about how cute little Jason was, and how fortunate we were. How fortunate indeed.”

Miracles abound in our lives, and it’s rare that we pause to recognize and appreciate them. A sense of reverence helps, and some of the rituals of our seasons can get us going in that direction. One of the most moving examples of that, in my memory at least, was the Easter we were together with our Bulgarian family in Panagyurishte. The night was cold and dark, and we were bundled against the chill, walking with arms folded. There were glimmers of winter starlight as we walked with slowly increasing numbers, neighbors joining on the way converging on the church near the town center. Murmured greetings, quiet night.

“The church was freshly painted and everything in the surrounding garden was trimmed and renewed. A large crowd stood reverently all around the church, many times more than could fit in the church building. At midnight, the priests came out of the church carrying candles. People in the crowd lit their own candles from those, and the lights spread through the crowd until everyone was holding a lighted taper, shielding with hands against movement of the cold night air. The priests sang the Resurrection story from Matthew. At the end of the service it was a striking sight to see people spreading out from the churchyard and out into the dark streets, still carrying candles, ‘bringing the light home.’”

Photo from Wikimadia Commons, cropped: File:29th annual Candlelight Vigil (34534663942).jpgIt was a sign of good luck to make it all the way home with your candle still burning. We all did. Krassi had prepared a post-midnight meal of lamb, hardboiled and dyed eggs, and an Easter bread rich with egg and butter. The bread, called kozunak, was baked with little slips of paper in it, bearing words like Luck, Health, Happiness, and Success. Pavlin taught us the proper Easter greeting that everyone used, Hristos voskrese, meaning “Christ is risen.” The response was Voistina voskrese, “Truly risen.” Over the three days of Easter, we heard those words over and over, not just between friends and family but also with co-workers, merchants, and even in grim, gray government offices such as the one that sold train tickets.

I wonder sometimes what we’ve lost in our country. Not just that we don’t maintain the comforting customs made convenient by the dominance of one cultural heritage (when the children were required to stand and recite The Lord’s Prayer in public schools. That was within my lifetime!), but bigger than that: our overall quality of community and caring sometimes seems to be in need of redemption. Civil discourse seems to be a casualty of our escalating political divisions. Will it take miracles to bring us back together? Will it take economic security, or a common enemy so we can live again under the threat of war, or must we all convert to one religion? Will sending troops to our border fix it, or will a trade war make us whole? (“They’re easy to win.”) Do we need to MAGA, or is A already G and we have only to realize it in our individual lives, families, and communities as we work toward the common good? (The common good, of course, being defined as the good of our neighbor as well as ourselves, to borrow a phrase from the second greatest commandment.)

But is all that greatness really lost? When I look for miracles I see them. There are people feeding the homeless in shelters and in storefront churches; people giving lifesaving care in hospitals and at disaster sites; people healing wounds and caring for the traumatized; people working (still!) to settle refugees escaping war and chaos into a new land, new communities, new lives. There are medical advances that cure wicked diseases that have plagued us since the dawn of time; we carry little machines in our pockets that connect us with all the world’s knowledge and with each other: machines that our grandparents could only have seen as magic — no, not just magic, miracles! There are angels among us who will donate their organs to heal the lives of others; everywhere life is brimming with heroism, wholesome striving for ideals, generosity, love, and caring. As Peter Mayer wrote in that song that I quoted before,

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, Everything
Everything’s a miracle.

We have only to see it.

_________________________

  1. Holy Now by Peter Mayer, Published by Unity Worldwide Ministries, © 2016 emPower Music & Arts, LLC All rights reserved. Sample and other works are on the artist’s site here, and the full song on YouTube here.
  2. The Roman Church and its relatives use the Gregorian calendar (Thanks, Pope Gregory) and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church follows the Revised Julian Calendar.
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