Things I Learned in 2017

Whoo, what a year! Not just politics, everything. The news is unrelenting, one big deal after another. Even the Christmas letters we’ve received from friends have been filled with national news and commentary as well as the expected family doings.

Still, I love Christmas letters. We’ve been receiving cards and letters from people near and far. In many cases they’re from friends whose paths have shifted away from ours, but whose stories and concerns keep dear relationships alive. Most are printed like news bulletins but crafted with loving effort to tell of family events and travels, accomplishments of children and grands, job changes, sad passings, joyful births. A lot of care and reflection goes into these. It’s a generous thing to do, and I love being on the receiving end when I get them. I haven’t reciprocated in mailing out my own Christmas letters. I have, though, taken up a “Peace on Earth” theme about this time of year in this blog, turning my monthly article for December into a Christmas letter of sorts. 1 Peace does seem like a Christmassy topic, since we too seldom acknowledge peace as a concept at other times. Way too seldom. This is my Christmas letter for 2017.

The year got kick-started with a presidential inauguration, the largest celebration in history according to one account, and I learned that many of my friends were glad about that and many were not. In connection with that event and all that has followed from it, I learned that whether one agrees with a friend or not, a friend is a friend.

It was a big year for fifties in our household. There was the 50-year reunion of Stormy’s college class in the summer, and mine in the fall. We learned that friendships forged in youth are strong. Actually I think we already knew that, but being together with good old friends after years and years of being apart served to underscore the point. The same point was driven home again in another reunion, not quite 50 yet for my Pilot Training class but as we’ve observed before, “The older we get the better we were!” Trouble with an old pilots’ reunion is your arms get tired.

2017 marked the 50-year point for our wedding anniversary too. Family and friends were generous with congratulations, as if achieving that mark had required a mighty effort. Sure, there were times… after all, if no difficulties had ever been faced and overcome it would be a shallow celebration. Speaking as the luckiest man I know, however, I can say it’s not the years that make a marriage. It’s the days.

Continuing the 50s theme, the suburban neighborhood where we live put on a 50-year celebration marking that number of years since the first lots were platted and construction began. I went around to some of the original homeowners and interviewed them about what it was like to establish a home out in fields and farmland. I got a kick out of talking with the old folks. They had stories, and some had photos. I learned that if I had been here then, I would not have chosen this neighborhood. I like trees. Before there were any here, I would have said no thanks, something’s not right. Probably from having to move every few years in my young adulthood, I don’t have the patience to wait for a tree to grow.

I learned that there is a link across time and distance that is stronger than one might imagine. One such link took Stormy and me to the far-off land of Australia, where we were met as family and experienced warmth and a sense of belonging that made new memories to treasure for a lifetime.1 We have quite a collection of memories such as these.

In June we took a trip east for Stormy’s AAUW convention, where I had lots of free time to be a tourist while she got convened. The monuments in Washington, DC are still inspiring and instructive to visit, even for one who has done that many times. At the Vietnam Wall my fingers traced the cold letters naming old friends and classmates. I went to the DAR museum and library and looked up names of long-dead ancestors in dry, yellowing books. At the Holocaust Memorial Museum I was shocked that they did not acknowledge the heroism of Bulgarians who saved Jews in their country from deportation. (They said that the King of Denmark stood up for Jews in his country, and was the only leader to do so.) My father’s spirit cracked a grin, watching over my shoulder, as I heard myself say, “I’m gonna write ’em a letta!”

Korean War Memorial, faces on the wall

I stood in awe at the ghostly sculptures that make up the Korean War Memorial, and the images of soldiers’ faces etched onto black marble. My reflection startled me as I saw myself standing among them, in honorable company. An old man stared back at me as I stood among soldiers suspended in long-ago youth, never to grow old.

I saw the White House. It looks like a fortified embassy compound in a vaguely hostile country. Damn shame, not that it is that way, but that it has to be.

I learned some new songs, at least the tenor part, with a group of people I like being around. It’s a point to be made, I think, that if I were to sing my tenor part as a fiercely independent and proud individual you might not even recognize the tune. It takes other voice parts to make a choral arrangement. If one voice tried to dominate, “knowing” that only that particular part is right, and then another would feel obliged to do so, and so on, until the whole effort devolves into a screaming match. We’ve seen that happen, haven’t we? Not in my choir, for sure, but you know where. The world. Everywhere, almost.

This year we learned that not everyone agrees with our personal views, the things that we know in our hearts are right, no question, no argument. Views on old bronze statues, on football game ceremonies, on healthcare, guns, taxes. There’s more, but after all it’s a symphony isn’t it? All the parts are needed lest the song ring hollow.

At this time of year the songs we hear are mostly familiar ones, and overwhelmingly about peace. That’s a good thing to focus on.

Mind if we sing our way out? It’s one of my favorites, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. 2

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men

And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

Then ringing singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And the bells they’re ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
And with our hearts we’ll hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Do you hear the bells they’re ringing? (peace on earth)
The life the angels singing (peace on earth)
Open up your heart and hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Peace on earth, peace on earth
Peace on earth, Good will to men.

Bulgaria to Australia

It’s been a long time. Thirteen years since Stormy and I left Bulgaria. The way time is speeding up for me as I get older, though (I try not to think of it as circling the drain), it doesn’t seem very long ago at all.

For a while, back then, I was a teacher of the English language. I loved that work. My love of language and teaching was enriched not just by being in a distant and unfamiliar place, but also by being part of the sweeping economic and social changes in early 2000s Eastern Europe. It was a shifting frame of reference applied to an unknown starting point while taking on a new vocational challenge.

In that off-balance and constantly surprising situation, I was fortunate to have two sources of support that were inextricably tied to the environment. At school, I could draw from the energy and eagerness of my high school students. On the home front, I learned from friends and neighbors that “everything begins with friends.”

A few years  ago, when I wrote the first in this series of blog articles, a young woman who had been in one of my English literature classes wrote a comment expressing her appreciation for my part in her education. Melted my heart. We stayed in touch. A former student became a special friend.

That girl, now all grown of course, now lives in Australia. That, for her, was the fulfillment of a longtime dream. Far away in the Land Down Under, she is up to her ears in young-family things like Baby’s first accomplishments in each category, children’s birthday parties, juggling work and childcare schedules while both adults work full time, and walking the dog. Busy, involved, doing the things that people want to do. It was totally unexpected, then, that she should reach out to me as a friend and offer to host us for a visit. Australia! Could we really go there? Would Australia have pizza?

Well, yes to all! Our flight, featuring the lowest fare I could find, went through Beijing. A little long but hey, China! We planned for a “layover tour” in Beijing since we were to have a few hours there. Just before boarding in LA we got a call saying the tour operator had advised we call it off. Big convention in town, they said. Streets would be jammed, with blockages in unpredictable patterns. Once we were aboard, reading an English-language copy of the China Daily, we learned what it was: a big deal, the National Congress of the Communist Party of China. “China Will Erase Poverty by 2020 Goal, CPC Says” and “Political Reforms Have Been Historic, Spokesman Says.” Sounds great, too bad we weren’t invited. Move China higher up on the bucket list. Next time.

On to Australia! There is a lot to see, and the most impressive is simply the vastness. Flying in on a clear spring day as we made landfall southbound from Darwin, I thought at first it looked like the arid plains of West Texas, but soon I realized one big difference: where the American West is latticed with section lines, highways, and cultivation of all kinds, in the Outback of Australia for vast stretches there are none. No mark of man. We cruised over a huge desert area with miles-long red and grayish streaks running north and south, then another stretch with long narrow alkaline lakebeds in the same orientation. Cattle or wildlife trails, following terrain and ending nowhere. Then after crossing a river that formed a clear boundary as if drawn on a map there was wind erosion, blowing sand patterns, a bone-dry bleached desert. Roads and paths went from none to scarce, then some dry riverbeds, then creeks and rivers with water. An hour north of Melbourne, a house, then some more, and then soon after I could start to make out huge, faint rectangular patterns of cultivated fields. From there on in the signs of human life and work grew more and more apparent and it became the city of Melbourne, an airport, Customs, and a friend waiting for us.

We had read up on the whole country before coming, a book by Bill Bryson called In a Sunburned Country. He enumerated at length the sheer number of things that would kill you – virtually all of the many kinds of spiders and snakes, lizard-like crawlies, toothed and fanged creatures including of course crocodiles. Our visit was not deadly. We did see the largest crocodile ever, in the Melbourne Aquarium, but he seemed to be napping.

Kangaroos! We saw them out in open fields, in shady gum tree groves, and in the zoo. These in the picture were in someone’s back yard enclosed by a wire fence, and they bounded right over the fence and away when they judged we were close enough.

Melbourne is about the easiest large city in the world to get around. Free trams, friendly people, lots of museums and parks, and I think we did it all. Walking along a rocky breakwater near the port, we saw penguins. Penguins, I tell ya, preening and grooming each other and making their wheezy cooing and clucking sounds to beat the band. Penguins! There were more in the zoo, the larger ice-loving kind, but right there in the rocks at the beach we saw penguins!

We came out ahead, as travelers often do, by taking some wrong turns. Each one resulted in an unexpected benefit: we saw a wallaby on one wrong-way hike, saw a rare kind of deer up in the hills from a dirt road that was not on our planned route, and when we ran off another road into its boggy shoulder, leaving the car hubcap-deep just off the paved surface, we met the nicest most cheerful people who hooked up and pulled us out. G’day mate!


The best part of the visit, though, was the family joy we were made to feel a part of. Slavka and her family treated us like bonus grandparents. To have that kind of welcome so far away from home in a part of the world we never thought we would get to go, well, it’s something to write home about isn’t it?

As I write this, poking at the tiny keys on my phone, we’re on our way back home. It’s been a fair dinkum fortnight. (I don’t know if they say fortnight. Two weeks anyway.) We feel like we did up Melbourne pretty well for beginners. The rest of this awesome country will just have to wait for the next trip. Always great to visit family, no matter where.

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.