Tuesday, December 20, 2005

the politics of coffee, and don vito’s vital role

Before I came to bulgaria, I couldn’t really stomach coffee. As much as I enjoyed the smell of coffee, a little too much, and I was assured not only fitful sleep, but probably borderline hallucinations! And so now, while not an avid coffee drinker, I’ve been doing my part to stunt my fragmented hopes of growing any taller. But more on that in a moment.

Another thing I did (or rather, something I did do, veruses something I couldn’t do)- I made several claims that anyone who sent me a letter would be entitled to bulgarian candy. Well, that’s a lie. As it turns out, there really isn’t that much candy here! You can buy bars of chocolate, or boxes of chocolates, or haibro gummy bears (yummm!!! But, as an imported product from germany, I can’t really afford them! I mean, daily. Drat!) but if you ever coming to bulgaria hoping to find a candy aisle, you’ll be a bit disappointed! Same goes for the cookies and cakes. Somewhere along the way, bulgaria missed the memo to put vanilla in their cakes and sugar in their cookies- haha. Okay, so its not quite that bad, but each trip to the grocery store, I make a trip down the cookie aisle- and its an evil game of trial and error, where each trial always results in my error of judgement! Sometimes the cookies on the box look SOOO good, and I think to myself “finally! A tasty cookie!” but usually, I’m wrong. The picture on the box promising me ooey-goey caramel in my cookie turns out to be simply caramel flavoring- this is definitely a tragedy in my life!

But you know what these cookies are really great for- coffee time! That’s right, coffee. Since the cookies aren’t particularly sweet or frilly, the wind up being the perfect companions to a nice fresh cup of coffee! While I can usually only bring myself to eat 1 or 2 cookies (out of pure necessity, I assure you), if I’ve got a nice cup of coffee in front of me, well, let’s just say that the cookies don’t stand much of a chance! J

Bulgarians take their coffee seriuosly. I mean, really really seriously. There are tons of coffee magazines (stores) littering the sidewalks in my town- each with barrels full of coffee beans, just waiting to be freshly ground for you! People will walk about of their way to visit a new coffee magazine or to a particular magazine where they can find their favorite bean. I know there are plenty of americans like this too, but it gets better!

If you truly want to accomplish something in Bulgaria, you can forget the board room. Everything from the personal to the professional goes down in the local cafes- establishments that typically serve only hot beverages, juices, and the occassional sandwich. For example, about 2 weeks ago, I sat through a meeting that took the entire morning. The people at the meeting were an array of people working in obshtinite around our oblastna (the municiple governments in our “region” or “county”) who had come together to discuss the status of minorities in each of their towns. So you would think that everything had been taken care of, but it hadn’t. As soon as the meeting let out, little clusters of people began foruming around the room. The atmosphere was a bit like choosing teams for middle-school kick-ball, where the ultimate winners would be the team that assembled all the right players with all the right assets. Each person was scouted, being scouted, or perhaps even both. The idea was to choose your dream team before someone else can get to them first. Then, your newly assembled team heads to the local café, where you begin pitching ideas to eachother, and start deciding your networks have connections in all the right places. So when someone asks you to go to coffee in Bulgaria, you’d best be advised NOT to skip out, for café-ing is not just a social activity- it’s the beginning of a new bussiness deal.

Oh, and as far as Don Vito goes, Jessica, I thought you should know and would appreciate that there is a “Don Vito” pizza in Sofia. ‘nuff said.

Monday, December 19, 2005

last weekend!

There's SNOW in bulgaria! I mean, real snow! really large amounts of snow! On saturday night, the first "sticking" snow fell countrywide- totally nearly 1 ft (in my best estimation)! so that's exciting, and it means that my "fridge" (ledge outside my window) is function at extremely high capacity!!

this past weekend, I was in Shumen, visiting the formerly referrenced "Ben and Jen of Shumen!" It was a good time, though I must admitt I'm not sure I can make the trip very often. First off, it cost almost 1/8 of my living allowance just to travel there, and secondly, it was a 6 hour trip AFTER my 1 1/2 trip to the central bus station in sofia!!!! so yes, there were many good times, but from now on, I'm making them come visit me!! just kidding. mostly, we just ate a lot- cooked breakfast burritos (yummy!) and went to a chinese restaurant. But jenn also introduced me to a movie called "the original family band" or something like that- which is none other than an old disney film set in 1880s dakota territory. there's song and dance. check it out!

okay, so that's not a real update, but i really wanted to post some pictures of our little posse! Also, i can't explain why they posted that way. sorry!!!!


Friday, December 09, 2005

Excerpts from my written journal

Since I don't have stead access to a computer, I often use "low-traffic" work times to jot down notes, sentiments, or just plain ol' feelings in my trusty little notebook (which goes EVERYWHERE with me). here are a few excerpts taken from different days, varying from days of a "can do" attitude, to days when I wish I were back in the states.

"...I've starting to envision my role now. Basically, requested an "upstart" organization, and now I"m trying to find my way and define who I am, what I can do, and how we can work together. Some days I find myself so frustrated because I have nothing- no computer, no financier/sponsor, no youth group, no real place- but I also see all the opportunity and resources that COULD BE. I see what my organization could achieve, and its these moments that get me through the periods of over-whelming helplessness and nothingness. Then, other days, I realize that no matter how empowered I feel, my language is a limiting factor. Some days I believe that fluency in the language would make my job too easy. Of course, this is nothing more than a 'grass is greener' type dream- they're are still people to convince and there is trust to gain. Even if I know how, sometimes I am met by completely disbelief of possibility- people believe that if it hasn't happened before, they shouldn't try it. I see my role as developing into a cheerleader and personal coach of development and know-how. People here can do it, someone just needs to convince them that they can. I don't have all the answers, and I refuse to pretend that I do, but if I believe that with a little trust, a little facilitation, and a dash of cheerleading, my time in bulgaria will be a success."

"...Right now, people assume I"m here to help- and will help- because I can speak english and I"m American. Don't underestimate the power of persuation I exude (in their minds) with the simple aura of my American-ness. Sometimes I think people believe that my mere presence will solve everything- that I have fail-proof ideas, and guaranteed sponsors. Sooner of later (def. sooner), I will fail them as their American hero. And I'll become just like them- another powerless "chobek" (person)- unable to help them escape from the trap of discrimination and crippling illiteracy. SO this is why I must earn their trust- because someday, we will all wake up and my celebrity status will fade. Without their trust, what will I become? Just another chovek. But with their trust- this fateful day will come and pass. and the next day, we'll start again, not as the heroic American and her marginally functioning NGO- but a a team- dedicated to the same goal, and unafraid of failure."

I mentioned before that I see my language barrier as the real hindrance of my work here. However, this is a deceptive and, thankfully fleeting, belief. It is foolish to believe that speaking their language is synonymous with the acquisition of the ability to communicate.


I'm SO conflicted in my mind about- well- Communism

People were happy. They had food, jobs, vacations. Buildings had heat, electricity. Kids had clubs and activities and avenues through which to shape interests into abilities. But they couldn't speak.

Welcome to free enterprise. You might get fired, but even if you aren't, you still can't feed your family. You have to buy your son a 2nd hand, women's coat for the impending winter. You hope that you can stay warm in the house, but you're not sure if you'll be able to pay for the electricity. And your kids. There's nothing for them to do- except to go to cafes and watch the WWF on TV. Vacation is a dream for you. But you can speak.

Which is a better life to lead-
*One under silence, but within a system that guarantees survival
* One where you can talk and talk, but at the end of the day, your stomach is grumbling.

Do we choose hunger and freedom? Oppression and plenty? The question becomes- which is more important to the human existence. Piece of mind, or a piece of the pie?

And then ask yourself- what if they old system did something good. What if the old system did something good, but with subversive intentions? What if the outcome was only consequential to the goal? What if they educated you, not for your own good, but so that you would become assimilated? What if you were raised in place where assimilation was the end result, and your entire culture was stolen away from you? What if today's regime refuses to help those in desperate poverty? At what point does idealism faulter? At what poin do you remember the rosy, and never the rough?

most of the Roma remember the times under communism as good times. People could be educated, but this was because the state wanted Roma to abandon their culture and "become bulgarian." somehow, racism seemed like less of a problem then. now it appears to be escalted, people poorer, and with less education. less than 1/2 percent of Roma in Bulgaria have a college education. Can you imagine??????

lots of people have fond rememberances of communism.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

adress in ENGLISH! for you!

So some of you were feeling a little hampered by the bulgarian address I provided. not that any of you told me that, but i'm assuming that the lack of mail I've recieved from you can be partially attributed to the address with crazy letters. So here it is, in english, so that you can send me packages and letters to your heart's delight-

2300 GR. Pernik
Oblastna Administratsia
Ploshtad " Sv. Ivan Rilski" 1 b
Valentina Sandeva
/za Toni Schneider/

rock on

from terrible to much better

These last few days have definately varied drastically.

Tuesdays are days I have come to dread. This is the day when people (Roma) can come to my boss' office with their questions and concerns. Questions are typically based around where a form needs to go, who they need to talk to, etc- Valia functions are an information center. But lately, people have been coming in with a recurring problem- their electricity bills. At first, it would be one person, a bit upset, hoping that Valia could help. Then, in the last couple of weeks, this number has increased dramatically, to the point that this tuesday, and entire community came into the office. Of course I can't understand all of what went on, but it seemed that people were getting mad at Valia. Since she's Roma, they were basically saying that she should be doing more to help them, and the help most of them wanted was not to pay their electricity bill at all. ever. THEN they demanded a meeting with the mayor and the municiple council, who consequencly enough, were all in sofia for a meeting. So it was this big, fat hairy day of lots and lots of yelling and some crying. And to make matters worse, Isai - Valia's husband- came up to the crowd of people and began saying that the Roma HAVE the money, they just don't want to PAY. Where he came up with this idea, I don't know...but it definately got people fired up.

I think the thing that makes me dread these days is seeing the hardships, and admitting that they are there. When I get my weekly dose of the reality of poverty facing the Roma, it sometimes makes me think that what I'm supposed to accomplish is either impossible, or useless. Will creating activities for youth to participate in REALLY help them pay their bills? help them achieve satisfactory levels of education? be treated like equals in their community? its so hard to know what I will accomplish in the next two years, and so easy to believe that it will be nothing.

and then there was wednesday. work was the same old, same old, but we wound up leaving a bit later than usual to head for the bus. As we walked across the town square, our night was brightened by the newly hung lights and decorations for christmas!!! further down the street, we heard music (traditional bulgarian music) and when we got there, there was a youth dance group performing! We had arrived just in time to see a little ceremony for the town christmas tree- also new today- that included dance and music. It was the first time in a long while that i'd heard bulgarian music and seen kids dancing- quite a breath of fresh air. It was that little bit of "something" that I think I needed to get myself through the week. The first signs of christmas.