Pavlin

A Friend in BulgariaPavlin died.

He and Krassimira were our “host parents” during our Peace Corps training. We lived in their home, ate their food, learned their language, appreciated their practicality and humor, and became a part of their family more deeply than we ever could have hoped.

He was ten years younger than we were, and now he will never grow older. In my fondest memories he will always be 46, and it always gave us both a smile when I called him Dad. Another Bulgarian friend, meeting Pavlin over a weekend Peace Corps training session, remarked that he liked him. “He is a gentle man.”

Bulgaria

In the hills above Koprivshtitza. Pavlin sang us a few bars of the Bulgarian National Anthem.

I had not been able to get in touch with Pavlin by phone or message for a long time. He had drifted away from Facebook and other kinds of artificial social contact. Thinking of him one recent day, I texted his daughter, asking how he was. She told me he was no longer among the living. He had died a few days before. We shared text-message tears.

Stormy and I had learned that he was ill, dealing with chemo and the other grimly hopeful realities of cancer, when we last visited Bulgaria. When I wrote about that trip I didn’t intrude on his privacy by telling about his illness, saying only that amidst lots of good changes since we left, the lives of some we knew there had been “burdened beyond bearing.” He had moved back to the village where he grew up, to be cared for by his aging mother, not far from where we knew him and Krassimira.

Back when we were there with them, in addition to our daily schedule of classes and training activities, our family activities were regulated by his work schedule: 

Pavlin worked for the Bulgarian National Electric Company, twelve-hour shifts. His schedule was a four-day cycle: 7:00 AM start for a day shift, then the next day starting at 7:00 PM to work the night, two days off, and repeat. He commuted by motorcycle to a distribution substation a few kilometers outside of town. He was usually there by himself, unless a repair or emergency required another technician or engineer to come in. Rosen drove us there once for a visit when Pavlin was on a night shift. The isolation of the outpost was striking. It was a concrete building the size of a small barn, at the end of a long dark path. A single small bulb by the door welcomed us. The control room, in contrast, was brightly lit. Big pale-green consoles held buttons and levers and meters. A status board indicated the condition of different parts of the system with red and green lights. A green and white sign posted over the desk gave the reminder, “Work here.”

He gave us that sign, as a parting gift when we finished our training and were leaving the comfort and security of his home to go out and begin our work. The little souvenir carried a wistful message that brought a tear to his eye with our leaving, that he wished we could stay there with them rather than going off to Pazardjik. “Stay. Work here.”

Bulgarians at Bulgari

Our favorite Bulgari (Bulgarians) in front of the BVLGARI shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. They visited us in California in 2005.

I think of Pavlin sometimes when an adversity needs to be best met with a smile and a shrug. And more, then, to start on the solution without complaining. That was like my father in America, which might have been why his down-to-earth ways resonated with me.

I think of him when I taste rakiya, — Bulgaria’s national moonshine — the  strong drink that he taught us to enjoy and appreciate. I remember the warm starry night in the village where we joined him with his friend distilling it in a large copper and brass still, his friend stoking the wood fire as the constant rushing sound of cooling system water filled the room cascading into an open reservoir in the loop, and valves hissed, and we all visited and laughed together over sausages and cheeses until time seemed to collapse and it was very late, all done, time to go. Pavlin’s friend gave me a bottle of his own supply of matured rakiya that night, to give to my father in America on our upcoming visit.

I think of him at Easter. He taught us the Easter greeting that everyone uses for those three holy days, in homes and on the street, in shops and banks and drab gray government offices: Hristos voskrese, Christ is risen! And the response, Voistina voskrese, Truly risen! For the solemn seasons anticipating both Easter and Christmas, he did the Post, the fast, avoiding “all animal products except honey” as a sacred discipline. I think those sacrifices, and his kind and generous nature, must have earned him some blessed relief in entering his heavenly home.

I hope so.


Pictures of my friend Pavlin


 

Visiting America

Today I thought I’d wade into the burning topic of our times. It held the attention of the nation for days and days, alienating friends and reportedly breaking up some families. I’m referring, of course, to the standoff between a smirking, obnoxious white boy wearing a MAGA cap and a Native American who was praying for calm. Or it was a confrontational old man banging a drum inches from the face of a boy who was trying to remain calm. I don’t agree with either of them. So, that’s that.

In matters closer to home, we had friends visit us from Bulgaria!

Miladin at the orphanage

Undisciplined kids rioting. Or is it love?

You might remember Miladin and Vessi if you’ve read A Breeze in Bulgaria. Vessi was Stormy’s counterpart and mentor in teaching, and Miladin was “… the veterinarian everyone called “The Doctor.” The Doctor was a big gregarious man of many interests and a generous nature. We had spent hours visiting in his veterinary clinic, with snacks and rakiya in between his appointments with pets and the occasional farm animal.” They introduced us to the orphanage in Bratsigovo where we became happily involved with the kids’ English lessons and homework. They took us to participate in the rowdy rituals of spring where the evil spirits of winter were chased away by dancers in feathers and furs. We visited lovely Velingrad with them, talking and drinking late into the night with family and enjoying bright fall days in the picturesque town. Finally, after an incident that had left us rattled and hurt, they took me to the old baba with healing powers where my fears were “cast out” in an ancient ritual involving fire, water, and molten metal. We formed a strong friendship in the short time we lived in their country.

This month, after stepping through the labyrinth that is U.S immigration policy to get their visas, they came to America! To Colorado! To see us! We had a ball.

Stock Show ParadeThe Rodeo was the highest priority event for the trip. Miladin said it was his childhood dream. A few days before we were scheduled to go, we watched a sampling of the performers as the National Western Stock Show Parade went from Union Station along 17th Street for a mile, with cowboys driving longhorn cattle down the street followed by horses and riders, rodeo stars, mules, wagons, and stagecoaches. The rodeo itself, on a chilly Saturday with the previous day’s snow politely melting away, was in the spacious Denver Coliseum. We arrived hours early, and were held in rapt fascination by each and every one of the vendors and displays (for our purposes, Amerikanski souvenir shops) around the central arena. As soon as we were seated for the event, it started with a bang. Literally, an explosion of fireworks! The high-energy music was like at a rock concert and the booming voice of an announcer paced the events. We saw bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, bull riding, and barrel racing. There was also mutton busting, with little kids trying to ride a rambunctious sheep, girls in sparkly pastel outfits doing fancy trick riding, a stagecoach, Clydesdales pulling a beer wagon, a rodeo clown and a rodeo queen. Everybody cheered the winners and the losers alike. It was all (pardon the expression) awesome.

Garden of the GodsWe toured the Denver Mint, the Air Force Academy, Garden of the Gods, and Red Rocks Amphitheater Park. We had dinner with our son Joel and his family, introduced them to Stormy’s mom and to a brother, some sisters and a niece, went to Royal Gorge, and Miladin even had a day skiing. We visited the Denver Aquarium, the Nature & Science Museum, went to a book club meeting, and attended a lecture about U.S. foreign policy. We had dinner at The Fort. We took Miladin to a veterinary clinic for a visit, and on the recommendation of a friend it turned out to be a pretty cool place: Dr. Henderson’s crew is currently featured on Animal Planet in a show called Hanging With the Hendersons, that premiered days before our visit. Then we took Vessi to three different facilities that care for the elderly, since that is her avocation now as the founder of the Hope for Today and Tomorrow Foundation in Pazardjik. Amerikanski BarbekiuThe last night they were in town we went to a musical show with Broadway show tunes, directed by a friend and featuring several people we know. Whew! Like I said, we had a ball, but I’m worn out now thinking about it all.Loveland Ski Area

We hope they had a good time touring our part of America. We sure did! Air Force Academy

Sunny Day

Greece Again

Fifteen years ago Stormy and I visited Greece, taking the night train from Sofia to Thessaloniki with friends over a long weekend. It’s in the book, of course…

We walked around the city and marveled at the markets, the shops, the architecture, and the international feeling of the place… busy with souvenir and snack stands, children playing… students on excursion…. We looked at a place where Roman ruins were being excavated, and an amphitheater. There were ornate churches, ancient and modern, some in ruins. Part of a fortified section of the old city had been turned into a park.
      — Breeze, p. 172

Three and a half years ago I wrote about The Deal (July 30, 2015) that the EU made to bail Greece out of its economic crisis. Things had been looking pretty grim for the Cradle of Western Civilization, with high unemployment, a failing economy, low productivity, and a failure of government to take the severe economic measures that were seen (at least in the other EU countries) to be necessary for recovery. This was while tourists were crowding the usual spots making it all seem busy and happy.

Then last week Stormy and I went to Athens. You could say it was an economic research project. The economics of it were that we found a really screamin’ deal on a flight through justgetoutoftown.com (JGOOT.com for short). Thanks to the economies of that arrangement, I am pleased to provide an update on the Greek situation.

Tourists are still crowding the usual spots, even as deep into the off-season as we were. The Acropolis and Parthenon, the old town area of Athens and the Roman Agora, the Temple of Hephaestus, the hallowed ruins at Delphi, the museums and the coffee shops have customers, on sunny and cloudy days alike. The ferries and the sleek fast catamarans still run to the Greek islands, and on the island of Agina the archaeological museum and adjacent Temple of Apollo are drawing visitors, not crowds but not deserted. Same for the innumerable cafés and ice cream and pistachio kiosks along the island shore, though some button up in the intervals between arriving and departing ferry boatloads.

The Greeks we met are still grousing about “The Crisis” and life goes on. The B&B proprietor we stayed with (in one bedroom of her two-bedroom apartment) blames the economic malaise on the government, and she is optimistic that a groundswell of discontent will rise up at the next election and throw the criminals out. It starts at the top, she explains patiently, with greed and corruption. How else could it be?

A restaurant owner said he’s doing fine, despite The Crisis, because he is near the tourist attractions and they provide most of his traffic. Most Greeks, he says, are in a depressed economic state because when the EU banks came in they flooded the market with cheap credit and everybody got in over their heads. Easy credit, new cars, iPhones (everybody’s got one!) even mortgaging their houses to buy consumer goods. The people were so naïve, he says. What did they know of banks and credit? Historically, they never had to buy a house; it was just in the family, the same for generations. Now that’s all lost, crashed. It starts at the bottom, he avers, with materialism and the desire for “something for nothing” taking hold among people not used to a transnational economy.

I mentioned our flight was really cheap. How cheap? It was so cheap that it had crazy long (oh so inconvenient) layovers. Who wants to travel that way? Ha. Us! Bonus! On the way over we stopped at London Gatwick with a 7-hour layover. We took the train to London Waterloo Station and headed toward the London Eye. You may recall it from the book:

…the huge Ferris wheel that took a half hour to go around once. It had egg-shaped glass cabins that held about 20 people, big enough to walk around inside to look in any direction and high enough to see for miles.
      — Breeze, p. 339

On the way there this time, though, it became clear that it wasn’t clear, at least not clear enough to see much of anything. Visibility in London on that November day was like London on a November day. We poked around a bit instead, got some breakfast, and headed back to the airport. On the way back our layovers were in Milan and Copenhagen. In Milan we took an express bus to the central station, strolled around the plaza and a few blocks of shops near there, and had a real pizza. In Copenhagen, with the luxury of a 10-hour layover, we slept in a nice little seaside hotel and got back to the airport for the early morning flight back home.

So, really, how cheap was that flight? It was so cheap that if you wanted to check a bag, on one of the three airlines involved it would cost $260. On another, a normal carry-on size bag was not allowed to be carried on but had to be checked to the next destination (and then retrieved and re-checked!) but a smaller backpack-sized one, about the size of some purses, could be carried on. On the third airline, they allowed a normal carry-on size, but no “additional personal item” like a purse: one item only. Combining all three sets of rules was a challenge, but we did it.

Athens is a wonderful city for a visit. If you lived there though, you would probably get tired of the incessant strikes by transit workers, garbage workers, street workers and everybody else. One of those facts of life caught us, early on the morning of our departure. Dark. Train station: closed. Strike. No trains today. OK, the bus. The first run would be delayed until 9:00, two hours after our flight. OK, a cab (You can use Uber, but the app calls a cab.) Bingo! The cab driver was an interesting guy, and he offered his opinion on transit strikes: they do it too often. For taxis, the train strike is good for the first few hours, until the streets get all choked up and then nobody gets anywhere. I asked him if the cab drivers ever had strikes. Once, he said, about four years ago. Bad move: people learned to use the bus. Now they take the buses but (as we had observed) no one pays. In the 6 or 8 bus rides we had taken from place to place around town, we did not see one person tap their fare card to pay. It’s obvious enough, to the driver and everyone around, since there is a loud chime that announces when a fare is paid. It was silent except when we dumb tourists got on. No one pays, no one cares. Something for nothing, good deal.

Bus fares. I think that’s what’s wrong with the Greek economy. Bus fares.