The Call

Stormy and I have met several people who were in on it at the beginning. They heard “The Peace Corps Speech” in person.

Peace Corps Logo

Cool logo, huh? Stars turning into doves representing peace. Click the bird to learn about that speech

It was at the University of Michigan in 1960, when then-presidential candidate Senator John F. Kennedy laid down a challenge to young people, to serve their country and promote the cause of peace by working in developing countries around the world. That, and vote for him. It would be good for the young people, good for people in other countries, and good for America’s image abroad.

Our friend Randall, whom we met since moving to Denver, was one of them. He joined up right out of U-M, working in one of the first groups to go to Nigeria. Another friend, Bertina, who was then a grad student and young mother, had her hands full at the time but filed the thought away for later use: “Some day I’m going to do that.” After her children had grown up and had their own families, and she could consider a break from a busy work life, she put her grandma-ing on hold and joined up in 2002. She was, as we were, part of a growing number of older people choosing the Peace Corps as a challenge in later years, a change of pace, or just as a fun and hopefully worthwhile thing to do.

It wasn’t in the University of Michigan speech but rather in his inaugural address that Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” That challenge has been merged, over these many years, with the idea of Peace Corps service and has shaped and colored many lives. People working together for the good of the country and the world.

For Stormy and me, chancing upon a Peace Corps recruiting event as we were starting to consider retirement, the possibilities jumped up unexpected. Wow! What’s that? Could we? The old idea met us where we were and dared us — dared us! — to shake off inertia and dull contented comfort.

“The Peace Corps! So they’re still around — who knew? It always seemed like an exciting thing that young people could do, back in the sixties when we all first heard about it. Peace, man. Have a flower.” — Breeze, p. 5

pc mottoBuncha hippie kids. Well, in retrospect, not really. The young people in our group, mostly just out of college, were as serious and committed as anyone could be, and had a good time meeting the challenges involved. The older ones of us, the Elders I should say, sometimes had a hard time keeping up in language learning and maybe in some of the physical challenges, but we had other advantages that balanced things out. Dealing with bureaucracy, for example, came easier for those of us with a few years on us than for the “kids” who hadn’t spent a lifetime doing taxes, filing for permits, working for (or against) big companies, or just being out on our own. The respect naturally accorded elders in many foreign cultures was another advantage. Besides, as we learn when we gain in years, bruises, and wisdom, “We may be slow, but we’re wily.”

Of course, it wasn’t really “the toughest job.” I like that cute slogan though. I have a T-shirt, from the association of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, that shows someone stretched out in a hammock under a palm tree and the slogan amended to “Still the toughest job I ever loved.” Funny. We had it pretty easy, teaching English to kids who mostly wanted to learn it, forming lasting friendships and learning new ways of thinking, and doing the occasional bit with youth clubs and an orphanage. But still, it was a life-changing experience. I do recommend it, for people both young and old.

The Call

“The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love”
And stars reshaping into doves
The Peace Corps! (Are they still around?)
I simmered with the thought I’d found.

At my age, no! Don’t be absurd.
No way a star can be a bird.
But still the challenge beckoned me
With more years gone than yet to be.

I’ve done it all, I smugly thought.
I’ve bought and sold and learned and taught.
I’ve sailed and flown and danced and run
And lain for hours in the sun.

Been shot at, cussed at, spit at and bit,
Jumped from a plane. The thrill of it
Seems shallow now that I have grown
But these are memories all my own.

But years go by and so does life
Mortgage, carpool, love my wife
Could we? Might we? Dare we go?
It’s so unlike us! Never!
                  Yes!

Now time speeds up, and days grow cold
I face the music, growing old.
Goals achieved, mistakes I’ve made
What will last and what will fade?

“Ask not…” the charge that bid me go
To work the fields and plant and sow
The seeds of hope in distant lands
With grateful smiles and willing hands.

That’s what will last, the sweat and smiles,
A welcomed hand across the miles
To meet the goals, to heed the call.
I loved the toughest job of all.

The Deal

Greece. Western civilization’s wise old uncle. Ancient seat of science, philosophy and wisdom. Jolly and fun, too, with ouzo and feasts and dancing in circles wearing skirts and white puffy shirts. Lately though, broke, mooching off relatives: a sorry case even with an intervention underway (a deal reached since I last wrote), with the imposed-upon family members rolling their eyes at every new excuse hinting at more problems. Stormy and I visited Greece once, the city of Thessaloniki. On the way back home to Pazardjik we stopped in the Bulgarian town of Sandanski. The two are closely tied together in history and commerce, and yet exemplified some interesting contrasts.

Sandanski

Sunny times in Sandanski, Bulgaria

When we visited both places all I saw were the happy hallmarks of a lively and active tourist trade. Bulgarians sat and chatted in Greek sidewalk cafés just like at home, and Greeks sunned themselves in Bulgarian cafés looking very much at ease there too. Greeks came north for the famous Sandanski hot springs and rakiya and to visit the wine region of Melnik, the Napa Valley of Bulgaria, nearby. Bulgarians, the ones who could afford it, headed south for the fine Greek beaches and ouzo. In both cities, throngs of shoppers nudged along the broad avenues, and shops buzzed with steady commerce.

“Sandanski had a big pedestrian mall, as did most towns, with lots of shops and cafés. It was unusual, though, in that it wasn’t strictly pedestrian and cars were allowed. Even there though, the crowds of pedestrians predominated, moving around the cars in the street like water around rocks in a stream. The overhanging trees were so dense that the bright sunlight was only lightly dappled on the street, making it feel like a cool forest glade.” — Breeze, p. 175

The White Tower, Tourist Spot in Thessaloniki

The White Tower, tourist spot in Thessaloniki

There were signs of economic stress, if one were to look carefully. The cross-border indications of economic hardship, though, were not apparent on the Greek side. The Greeks were in fine shape. In Thessaloniki, I met a Bulgarian woman in the train station, commuting back to her home after a month’s work over the border. As I wrote in Breeze, her situation was typical of many in the tough Bulgarian economy of the time.

“She lived in Assenovgrad and she was a doctor, a neurologist. No work in Bulgaria. She had worked as a teacher, but that was not enough. She worked in a factory in Thessaloniki and visited home monthly…” — p. 173

Now, with Greece’s debt being extended and new waves of “austerity” being promised once more, things look different. I read an article a few weeks ago about how the decrepit Greek economy is hurting Greece’s even-poorer neighbors in the region. The headline sums it up: Across Bulgaria border, fear and gloating over Greek crisis. In a nutshell, “Countries like Bulgaria, Romania and Macedonia are particularly exposed to the fallout of the crisis as several of their banks are Greek-owned and economic ties are close.” As we have discussed before, a few might feel sorry for the Greeks but others feel that their neighbors — who are still much better off than they are — really need to start living within their means. A Bulgarian worker was quoted saying that his parents’ pension was 200 leva ($114) a month, while the Greek average pension is 833 euro, which is $925.

So Greece has a deal. Big news. To Bulgarians who work for less when they can get work at all, talk of Greek “austerity” rings hollow, more like “Yeah, big deal.” As my friend Dimitar the Economist said, “Everybody’s poor anyway, so what does it matter?” In all the former Communist countries people have “tightened their belts” for the last twenty or more years. Greece’s troubles just make it worse. According to one report (Bulgarian Border Towns Suffer Alongside Greeks), Sandanski had 150 bus loads of Greek tourists every weekend last year; now it’s two or three.

usg nuke

Peaceful demonstration of nuclear power (US Government photo)

And that’s not the only big deal going down. Now there’s a nuclear deal with Iran, except some of my friends don’t like it. I don’t think they plan to approve it. They say the administration should do something else instead. What, exactly, isn’t clear. I thought this was a pretty good wrap-up of the case for it, in video form: The Iran Deal. I’m open to suggestions from anyone who has a better take on it, so I can advise my congressional representatives accordingly.

The video linked above is pretty slick — after all, we love getting our policy guidance from celebrities. It was picked up by Upworthy.com, which has a tendency toward rainbows and unicorns. This part, though, in an article linked from Slate, got my attention since it addresses the objection heard most often, the possibility that Iran could cheat and create a new secret location. After outlining detailed and specific inspection and monitoring criteria the writer summarizes…

“Iran might want to set up a covert enrichment plant, but where would it get the uranium? Or the centrifuges? Or the scientists? If 100 scientists suddenly don’t show up for work at Natanz, it will be noticed. If the uranium in the gas doesn’t equal the uranium mined, it will be noticed. If the parts made for centrifuges don’t end up in new centrifuges, it will be noticed. Iran might be able to evade one level of monitoring but the chance that it could evade all the overlapping levels will be remote.”

Well, whatever you think of the Iran deal, if you’re American you can call your member of Congress at (877) 630-4032. Apparently they need to be told what to do; I submit as evidence the fact that they haven’t done a damn thing for a long time. If you’re Israeli, you know who to call about the Iran deal. If you’re in a place where the thing to do is to solve it at a café over an espresso or a rakiya (you know who you are), go for it. In any case, you can leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

 

Big Promises

Efforts of the United States to foster democracy have been seen in the wider world as anything from heroically successful (for example, Japan’s postwar constitution) to arrogant and misguided (just about anything since then). In 1989 and the early 1990s Americans felt pretty smug about the collapse of the former Soviet Union. We celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, sharing in the exuberance felt all over Western Europe. We cheered the Chinese demonstrators in Tienanmen Square. We overwhelmed Kuwait to keep it from Sadaam Hussein, and got in the middle of the Serbs and Bosnians.

With so much going on all around the world in that tumultuous period, it didn’t take long for us to get up our Democracy-Missionary spirit. We rushed into the chaos in Central and Eastern Europe, to tutor the disenfranchised and disoriented citizenry about democracy and free-market capitalism. The United States Peace Corps sent over a mix of starry-eyed young people, retirees off their rockers, and a few mid-career Enron and financial-crash refugees. What did the host countries need? Sure, we’ll deliver; we’re America. Teach you how to run businesses and community services in a decentralized economy? Check! Teach you English, to do business in the West? You bet! And for good measure, we’ll throw in all you need to know about environmental protection, to clean up the mess made by those dirty old Soviet-affiliated factories. Sure, got ya covered!

Democracy and freedom in Bulgaria had some unexpected twists in their early and unaccustomed form. For pupils in schools, it meant not having to follow the old disciplines and military-style decorum. For teachers, it meant that routine decisions would be made by voting in meetings; the Principal would call for a vote and everybody said “Da” to approve whatever it was. “There’s already a policy,” I asked once, “so shouldn’t the principal just decide that case?” A shrug. “That’s Democracy.” The Principal would not be a dictator. Meanwhile, in elections from the national down to the local level, most people I knew — neighbors, students, shopkeepers (like the shoe store man), and my friend Dimitar the Economist — assumed that politicians were crooked, elections were rigged, and achieving economic success was impossible except for those with shady connections.

It was 2002 and 2003 when I was there. Thirteen years had passed since the fall of the old regime, and the people had been struggling to figure out how to make it work. The Peace Corps had been in on it for eleven of those years. “Facing toward the West” and joining the European Union was going to make it all better.

What got me to thinking about all this was a photo essay I found recently called Broken Dreams: The Aftermath of 25 Years of Democracy in Bulgaria. The photos are sad, compelling, and recent. The article speaks of disillusionment with the promised changes and the persistence — even growth — of corruption. The photographer, Yana Paskova, was quoted as saying “it pained me to note a weariness, hopelessness and ennui, so standard in the Bulgarian passerby that it becomes routine… almost every single person I talked to communicated to me a lack of hope in political leadership and democracy.”

Another article on the mood of the country, Who put the monument in Pravets – the revival of the cult of Zhivkov  (published in e-vestnik.bg, in Bulgarian) describes the golden glow of old memories, with a “cult” growing back up around the deposed dictator Todor Zhivkov.

Monument. I took this photo while visiting fellow volunteer Janet B. in Pravets. I was surprised to find it in the e-vestnik article on Zhivkov.

Like in Ukraine, but without coming to violence over it, Bulgarians are divided on how much they loved or hated the Soviet-connected old days. There is a “powerful nostalgia for the times when life was certain, and electricity and heating were cheap.” The writer goes on to say that “people have forgotten how they used to derisively joke about the 20-year wait for housing and 15 for a car, they couldn’t travel abroad, there were abuses in all spheres of public life, and political persecution was rampant.”

As that nostalgia grows, and the ideals of democracy and freedom stutter and flail, the failure of our cherished ideals to flourish is troubling. Of course it took our own country a long time to develop these products of the American Revolution, and they’re still under continuous and very contentious development.

I wrote about a parent-teacher meeting in Breeze, where resignation and disillusionment prompted some dark musings on the state of the country.

People always said the pessimistic, passive outlook that was so pervasive was because of the 500 years “under the Turkish yoke” or the 50 years under Communism, or the struggles and failures in the transition to a free market economy, krisiata, “The Crisis.” Under Communism everybody worked. Then came krisiata and the sweeping changes after the fall of the former Soviet system. State-run factories closed, people lost their jobs, and the whole structure of how-everything-works was set adrift… But to believe the promises of the future? Better be careful. Don’t be hasty. We’ve heard big promises before… 

Nobody said it would be easy, did they?