It’s more than a little sad. So many lives have been changed, most for the better, and yet there’s a sadness in leaving.
After 22 years, the U.S. Peace Corps mission in Bulgaria ended today. When Stormy and I worked there, it was eleven years after the fall of the Communist government. The country had been through economic devastation and ravaging inflation, shortages of food and consumer goods, loss of stability and industrial capacity, and social and political changes. These plagues had been endured without violence or bloodshed, with an attitude of “We’ve got to get through this, and we will.” The goal of the Peace Corps was to help Bulgaria gain accession to the European Union. Western economic systems and business methods seemed like the right solution, and democracy was struggling to find its feet. English, the language of business in the West, had replaced Russian in the schools despite historical economic and official ties with Russia as benefactor and sometimes oppressor. The scene was exciting and confusing and full of challenges.
Now, ten years later, we read about mostly-peaceful protests in Sofia and other Bulgarian cities. We read about them if we search for the stories, that is; our news reports are full of accounts of more-riotous and more-deadly protests elsewhere in the world. A government is being pressured to resign in Bulgaria, with thousands of people taking to the streets daily for a month and a half, and we have to google it. People are fed up with corruption and nepotism in government, and agitating with increasing desperation to change it, and we have to google it.
So the Peace Corps is finished in Bulgaria. The country has “graduated” and is no longer deemed to need the support, training and assistance offered by the Peace Corps. The timing seems ironic. Since Bulgaria joined the EU six years ago (and that was the end game as far as we knew back then) one wonders why we stayed so long after. And now, with the country in turmoil, though nonviolent turmoil, and so much of the peoples’ attention aimed at the very Peace-Corps-like goal of attaining a fully functioning modern society, we’re saying, “OK, ’bye. You guys got this. Good luck.”
Of course I’m mindful of the fact that the Peace Corps is not political, and for volunteers to take part in the demonstrations would be out of the question, absolutely prohibited. But to leave at such a time of change and energy seems, well, a little sad.
Sad, yes. I had a big dose of sad the other day. It walloped me and rocked me back on my heels. Georgi died. My student from my teaching days in Bulgaria, the one I told you about in the book, who invited us to the Graduation Ball. That Georgi. We wrote over the years, and kept in touch through his falling in love and out and in again, his college education, starting his professional career, and as emails gave way to Facebook, tracking pictures of his seemingly obsessive body-building and weight training accomplishments. He was a sensitive soul, a deep thinker, using a quick wit and sharp tongue as cover. I wrote a happy birthday wish on his Facebook wall, following a few others already there. A few minutes later a classmate of his broke the news to me. He had died a few days earlier, with a heart failure. His heart! I never knew him to be anything but strong as an ox, and good-hearted to boot. How could such a heart fail? I held my chest when I heard, feeling it go. Georgi… strong, young, smart Georgi. Gone.
My most indelible memory of Georgi was while Stormy was in the hospital after a terrible accident, and I was back in Pazardjik to pack out and say our goodbyes…
I went over to the school early and said goodbye to all my kids, ninth and tenth grades in the morning, eleventh and twelfth in the afternoon. The ninth and tenth graders were teary. Though the older kids were less demonstrative, they were moved as well. I told them, seeking to reassure them, that [she] would learn to walk again.
One of the boys in twelfth class, Georgi Nikolaev who always sat in the front row closest to the door, responded, “If she can walk, she can dance. You must come to our Graduation Ball in May.” That sounded pretty far-fetched. Kids and their ideas. Still, I smiled and said, “We’ll see.”
I won’t tell the whole story here (and of course it’s in the book) but Georgi’s challenge was met. Now, I know he will rest free from the strife and sorrow of our earthly life, and the physical perfection he worked for so constantly will finally be his in another way. It’s more than a little sad. His outgoing and helpful personality changed lives, some profoundly, and there’s a sadness in his leaving.