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 as 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 Stormy’s school colleague Vessi and her husband 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, 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 bed-ridden man greeted us 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.

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, a bum, mooching off relatives: a sorry case even with an intervention underway (an economic bailout deal reached with the EU 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.