Just Another Day
When I thought about what my idyllic Peace Corps experience would be, I never envisioned many of the things that became my reality—that became our reality—on a daily basis. The first time I met with a recruiter, I was a college sophomore. I was 19 years old, single, and without a clue about what I wanted my life to look like. But I knew I wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer. The recruiter I met had recently returned from her two years of service in Mali. She enthusiastically shared her experience, and reconfirmed my desire to serve. Needless to say, her Western Africa wasn't anything like my Eastern Europe, but Peace Corps is Peace Corps.
Never did I think that my Peace Corps experience would be synonymous with cell phones and high speed Internet, but it was during my service in Bulgaria that I acquired both my first cell phone and my first high speed Internet connection at home. Even more surprising to me was the fact that had we not acquired these tools of the modern age, we would have set ourselves apart from our peers, our co-workers and friends. And, seven years after that first meeting with the recruiter in Colorado, I would meet her again, me as a volunteer, and she was the Associate Country Director of Peace Corps Bulgaria.
Those weren't the only ways that our Peace Corps experience differed from that classic mud hut in Africa sojourn I envisioned after that first meeting with a recruiter. My service was spent in Bulgaria's second largest city, sharing our site with four other volunteers, working on the fifth floor of an old government office building. My leather work gloves were shelved, and my time in the field was spent visiting farmers and documenting their work with my digital camera, instead of sweating along side them. And my experience was spent together with my wife, and so instead of being alone and toughing it out individually, we quickly fell into our new routines, not boredom or monotony, but routine. So, this was my routine the first November of my service.
Our day started between 7:00 am and 8:00 am depending on what time we went to bed the night before and whether or not I needed to try to pay the monthly bills at the post office or water company before heading out for a day of work. As we fully adjusted to life Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and as our work schedules became more demanding, that time occasionally got earlier. Showering was no longer part of our morning routine as almost everyone in Bulgaria showers at night. There are lots of reasons for that, but that comes later, at the end of the day. We wasted no time getting dressed in the morning because we hadn’t turned the one electric radiator on yet, and the cool morning air motivated us to move quickly. Breakfast was a leisurely affair between hanging laundry up on the little drying rack we had on our balcony and distributing our freshly distilled drinking water into various storage containers. We usually had Bulgaria’s famous yogurt with some fruit we bought at the market or maybe some nuts or muesli with our morning coffee for breakfast. Kate had to leave about 8:30, as her walk to work is a little longer than mine, and I left about 9:00 once I had cleaned up a little.
My walk to work took me past the Happy Bar and Grill, the local landmark that was founded Christmas Day 1994. I walked around the new bright orange apartment building that is going up. I watched the progress as window frames were installed, and the glass added later, and then headed down the street in front of the “fancy French hotel,” as our landlord referred to it. The Novotel was also under construction, a good sign for the economy here, though it meant a lot more noise in our neighborhood. In those first few blocks from home, I walked past two other upscale hotels before I made my way out to Tsar Boris III Obedinitel Boulevard and crossed through the underground walkway.
The same Roma man offered to shine my shoes every day for two years, regardless of what shoes I wore, by tapping his wooden handled brush on his little shoeshine stand as he sat waiting for a customer. His sign boasted that he also did umbrella repair, an unlikely pair of business skills, and was busy turning a pair of brown shoes white with some thick dye the last time I passed. On the other side of the pedestrian underpass, right in front of the International Fair, sat a couple other Roma men waiting for customers. One sold a small variety, but a big selection, of brown and black shoelaces. It is amazing to think about trying to make a living selling two colors of shoelaces on the street. The other one had an assortment of fresh roasted sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and almonds, available for sale in little clear plastic bags or a larger made-to-order newspaper cones.
Little did I know that the plight of the Roma (Gypsies) would become my sole focus at work, and would come to differentiate me from the other volunteers at training events; not to mention them being the focus of a “decade of inclusion” in Bulgaria's anticipation for entering the European Union, and adhering to their policies, at least loosely.
I really only had to cross traffic at four intersections between our apartment and my office, but each time, I felt I was tempting fate. Two of them had largely one-way traffic, not because that was the law, but just because that is the way everyone was going, so they were fairly easy to cross. The two closest to my work were another story. They both had clearly marked crosswalks, though I don’t know why. No one, neither pedestrians nor drivers, used these as guidance, when navigating the intersection. Drivers sometimes slow down, but not for pedestrians; they usually saved that act of yielding until they were within a few inches of one of the many archaic electric trolley busses or an oncoming semi. Taxi drivers were an exception to this rule. They seemed to use the brake pedal only when doing power slides around a corner, but made up for it through use of the horn. It is an exhilarating way to start my day, as it feels like I have been thrown into a game of Frogger, trying to slip between cars, and between lanes of traffic, to get to the Foundation’s office in one piece.
Over the bridge that spans the Maritza River, past a couple old stone statues that mark the edges of the bridge, up a slippery marble ramp, I finally made it to the front door of the Vodna Palata (water court). It wasn't really a water court, or at least not anymore. The tired old building housed the regional agriculture, irrigation, and forestry offices for the government, some land surveyors, a few consultants, and us. At first glance, one might confuse the Vodna Palata with a boarded up and abandoned building, with its cracking facade and boards covering some of the windows. But, to the trained eye, it is still obviously full of life. You can still see lights on inside at night, and the pillars around the front door are always covered with black and white photo copied pictures of people who had died.
This is a Bulgarian tradition for honoring the dead, as these are a type of obituary that are hung out of respect, at various intervals after someone’s death. Family members, friends, and co-workers post these memorials at all of the deceased person's favorite places. So, all these faces of people I would never meet greeted me, and made me wonder who they were, what they did, and what connection they had to this edifice. As I walked through the flimsy old front door that has been boarded up after the glass was broken out, I always greeted the watchman with a nod. He always returned my gesture with a disapproving look as if he had never seen me before, and there was no reason for me to be looking in his direction or making eye contact. I thought to myself that someday I would talk to him, either when I saw him in the morning, when I got the mail mid-afternoon, or when I left in the evening. I just had to polish my third grade level Bulgarian language skills a little more. And he was probably wondering to himself, who the obvious foreigner was, why I never spoke, and why I walked up the stairs each day when he knew I knew the elevator works.
Ah, yes, one more chance to risk my life. The elevator. A contraption that Kate refused to ride on alone when she came to visit me, in case she got trapped in it, though if I were trapped in it, I would probably rather be alone, considering its size. There were actually two elevators, standing like quiet (when they weren't running) sentinels, looking out into the half-lit lobby. But one was obviously out of service, not because it had a sign stating that, but because there were always two cardboard boxes full of trash sitting in front of its doors in the lobby. A small light leaking its way out through a blurry plastic number board above the door indicated the functioning elevator’s activities. This was actually a nice elevator, by comparison, as you didn’t have to manually open a door to enter or exit, it almost always stopped level with the floor where you got on or get off, and it had a sensor that prevented the doors from crushing you because they started to close about two seconds after they opened.
Looking over my other shoulder on the way up the stairs, I saw the small café, always full of smoke from Bulgaria's favorite Victory cigarettes, with a few people enjoying a coffee or a beer (at 9:30 in the morning). In the corner closest to the front entrance was the Xerox “shop.” I have to put “shop” in quotations here because it was just a copy machine, and a desk with a computer off in the corner to escape the suffocating air and cluttered walls of the little cafe. After hours, both the copy machine and the computer were hidden under a Pepsi tablecloth, which means the Xerox “shop” was closed. This little business employed one person, full time. She carefully examined anything you needed copied, asked you about whatever it is, wondered out loud to herself whether or not you should be copying this, and then proceeded. They didn’t post any guarantees, or any information at all, but it seemed to be same-day service, though double sided copies, collating and binding were out of the question, unless you brought your own stapler. And her work pace was never dictated by whether or not she had customers waiting.
The café was always tended by the same waitress; she was the barista preparing the coffee, the bartender serving the beer, and the cook making open-faced cheese sandwiches and French fries. Even if you waited at the counter for her to fill your order so you could take it somewhere else, thinking that you might get out of there in a relatively short amount of time, you still had to formally ask her for the bill. Who knows, you might have wanted to just stand there for a while, looking around behind the counter, drinking in all that stale second-hand smoke. After all there was always plenty to look at. The refrigerator that housed all the food was directly behind the cash register and was adorned with a poster of a naked woman, not an uncommon sight here, with the slogan, “Brazilian Pride” at the bottom. Everything else sold in the café was behind the counter, so the customer had to ask for things, instead of getting to touch anything before buying. That was fun, considering my level of Bulgarian the first few months.
Our conversations often went something like this, even though I ordered the same thing every time:
“A regular coffee, please.”
“Would you like cream with that?”
“What, oh, cream, right, yes, no thank you.” They charge extra for the cream.
Trying to figure out if I meant yes or no, because I said both, she asked, “Anything else?”
“Yes, could I have one of red the thing other, wafli?”
She looked at me as if I didn’t just speak in Bulgarian, though I knew I did, and tried, though not very hard, to guess what I was trying to describe. As she reached for something that is obviously not, “one of red the thing other, wafli” and I tried to think of the word for left, or right, or up or down, or next to it in Bulgarian. I remembered the words for left and right, but I didn’t remember how to say up or down. I knew north and south. Maybe that would have worked.
So, I tried again:
“There, next to blue this thing (as I have my primary colors down), left, no wait, right.”
“Other, next, horse, red, right.” At this point in the conversation, we were both pointing at different things.
She looked at me like I was crazy, as I realized that I shouldn’t have said “horse,” because she and I both knew there weren’t any horses in this café. And I remembered that regardless of the fact that I could say “left” and “right” in Bulgarian, I almost always confuse them even in English, so I decided that whatever her hand landed on next I would smile and say, “Exactly!” though she probably knew otherwise. I just wanted to be on my way. I wanted to have this little kindergarten Bulgarian language exchange to be complete for another day. Sometimes I ended up with what I wanted, sometimes I end up with something I really didn’t want; more than once, I came away with something that was on a completely different shelf. Either way, it was always an adventure, and it was time to get to work.
By the time I made it to the top of the sixth flight of stairs, (Bulgarians don’t count the ground floor as one, so my address says I technically work on the fifth floor), I was usually a little sweaty, slightly out of breath, and ready to say hello in my best Bulgarian to my two officemates. I worked with Ivo and Mariana, and we all shared an office space about the size of my college dorm room for six or seven hours a day. After a quick “Dobro Utro” (good morning,) I tended to cut to the chase, a completely unnecessary quality for the Bulgarian work environment. The first thing I always wanted to know if we had Internet access that day.
Honestly, the Internet service provider had quite a business going on there. They supposedly offer continual, high speed, Internet access. And on the two or three days a week that we would have the access, sometimes it was faster than a dial-up modem. I introduced the notion that we should keep track of the days that we had service, along with the days that we don’t have service, and remind the ISP of that difference when we went to pay the bill the next time. That was one of the joys of having to go pay your bills in person, if you were getting crappy service, you could let them know about it, in person. Not that anybody did. For me, having Internet access meant that I could do the work that I had been tasked with, a literature review of micro-credit programs that operated in Eastern Europe. But, my gung-ho American style would have to mellow out a bit.
As my co-worker Ivo said, “If there is Internet access, great. And if there isn’t, maybe there will be tomorrow, or the day after.”
Maybe trying to appease my detectable frustration, they went so far as to say that maybe, just maybe, they would change ISPs next year (two months later) if they realized there were fewer days with a connection than without one.
This same “urgency” was applied to the acquisition of my desk. The Peace Corps staff had supposedly made it abundantly clear that I was supposed to have a “workspace” on my first day of work. That didn't happen. Instead, I heard from the chairman of the foundation on the first week that I was in Plovdiv that I should take the week off, since, “they weren't quite ready for me yet.” After all, they had only had two months to prepare. The second week I went in to the office, I was informed that if I didn’t have a desk to work at that week, I would probably get one the next week. And, to give them the benefit of the doubt, the reason it was taking a little extra time was that the desk had to be custom made to fit the space in the office. They weren't accustomed to making desks that small. Ivo and Marianna had both already gotten smaller desks just so there would be enough space in the room for a third desk. So, it was just a matter of getting it made, delivered, and up those six flights of stairs to its final resting place. Luckily it was small enough that Ivo and I were able to get it in the elevator, along with both of us, at the beginning of my third week of work, to bring it up to the office.
Speaking of job tasks, it became clear early on that there was less pressure to produce work here than I had been used to back in the States. The first deadline that I was given (on November 1st) was for January, three months away, and that wasn't fixed in stone. There were lots of things that could come in between November and January, like consultations, web site editing and translation, Christmas and New Year's celebrations, and the chance to just talk to my new colleagues and meet other people. Of course, that January deadline was given under the assumption that we would have Internet access on a regular basis, (probably more than one or two days a week.) It was also based on the assumption that I would be able to find the necessary articles for a scholarly literature review, though I didn’t have access to any of the academic journals those articles were published in. So, with a desk, and a task, and Internet access, it was time to get to work.
Almost all exterior doors in Bulgaria are steel security doors, with a hollow-core interior door right behind it. The sign on our office's interior door (the one inside of the steel security door) stated that the office opened at 9:30, so, to make a good impression, I wanted to be right on time my first official day. I left the apartment early, lived through crossing all four intersections, skipped the coffee and snack dialog at the cafe downstairs, and made it to the top of the stairs at 9:25 thinking that would make a good impression. I then proceeded to wait 20 minutes for someone else to come and unlock the doors, so I could go in. Needless to say, the pace of work was quite pleasant, never rushing into anything, the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook, and the foundation's email got checked once or twice a week. What a change from my last job in the States.
People stopped by to pay their yearly loan installment, to ask a question, to show off a new jacket, or to pick up some different seeds for next year. Once in a while they would bring a small gift or some treats to celebrate a new child in the family, or to show their appreciation for the opportunity owning land had given them. Nobody scheduled appointments. If the office were closed, they would just come back later.
It didn't take long for me to notice that people didn’t seem to bring their lunch to work in Bulgaria like I was used to doing in the States. They don't even have a word in the Bulgarian language for “left-overs.” Lunch is a chance to meet and talk to friends, to leave the office, or to have an informal meeting with someone. There aren’t any refrigerators in the offices, nor are there ways to re-heat your food brought from home. The café downstairs had lots of quick food alternatives—besides second hand smoke—like open faced cheese sandwiches, French fries covered in grated feta cheese, pretzel sticks, chips, and a myriad of drinks. And, while the sign on the door dictated that our lunch break was between 12:30 and 1:00 pm, no one paid too close attention to when it started, when it ended, or how long it lasted. As long as you had a chance to eat, what you wanted, where you wanted, when you wanted, with whom you wanted, everyone was happy.
There was always more work after lunch, but at a slower pace. People stopped by, sometimes completely changing the day’s plan, or creating plans for later in the week or month. Monday’s work always included constructing the schedule for the rest of the week, which got typed, printed, reviewed, changed, printed again, and then hung on the wall for everyone to see. Why this was done wasn’t completely clear to me, as every week I was there, as soon as that schedule was posted on the wall, something happened that changed it significantly. But it never got updated after Monday. Sometimes I realized that at the time it happened, sometime that realization came much later, after I asked why something else didn’t happen as I was expecting. After lunch was also when the trips to various villages in the areas usually happened, to visit families, offer a consultation on next year’s crop, or check to be sure everything was in order with some newly acquired land.
The phone, as in every office, was an indispensable office tool, from getting a phone number to alerting others that plans had changed (once again), to checking in with a family or the office in Sofia, or the chairman’s other office at the agricultural university across town. The foundation's cell phone was often used for an elaborate game of “tag” where someone would call and hang up. If you knew who it was, you would return their call on the landline. If not, you would forget about it or wait for them to call again. Cell phone minutes were like gold, everyone used them very sparingly. If you called someone and hung up so they could return your call, “arrowing” in Bulgaria, you didn't get charged for the call. But, if you initiated a call that went through, you were unnecessarily spending your money.
Though I would have liked to believe that I was really with it, and understood what was happening each day, I ended up spending a lot of time guessing what was going on. This wasn't because my colleagues weren’t willing to tell me, or didn’t want to involve me, but because they didn’t always know what was going to happen next either. It wasn’t always the language barrier, or a communication difference; it was often just a cultural difference. When Ivan, the chairman, came by our tiny office, he always seemed to bring a whirlwind of activity with him. Calling, taking over one of the computers, scanning something, faxing something, meeting with someone. He was always busy, and not just during the day, but in the evenings and on the weekends too. I just sat back, tried to stay out of the way and would occasionally try to guess to myself what might happen next.
Work, for me, came to a close between 5:00 and 6:00 pm, depending on the day, the impending deadlines for whatever was happening in the next few days or weeks, and who was in the office. It was time to clean up the office, lock the doors, and head home, each in our separate directions. Sometimes, Ivo and Ivan were there well after the time I left, as I had to make it home in time for my language tutoring session, or some other appointment. It took a while at work before my schedule had any impact on anyone else’s, because most of my time, initially, was spent learning the language, observing the culture, and understanding the differences that sometimes felt so wrong, or foreign, or counterintuitive to me.
My walk home was just as quick as my walk to work, just pausing long enough to safely cross the two busy intersections on either side of the Maritza Bridge. It often included a detour through the open-air “Chetvertuk” (Thursday) Market to pick up some fresh fruit or vegetables. I could find anything from brussel sprouts to bananas, pomegranates, avocados, mangoes, honey, dry beans, eggs, kitchen utensils or socks. The supply largely driven by what was in season, it also included things that had been shipped in (bananas), and things that could be stored for long periods of time (socks). The name was a little deceiving as it was operational every day of the week, not just on Thursday, which was unlike the smaller towns that just have a market day once a week. The market also consistently had all the local fruits and vegetables, fresh the same day from the field, and an incredible selection of nuts and dry spices.
The market was closer to the center of town than my office, on the other side of “Saedinenie” (Unification) Square, so it afforded me the option to cross the river on a different bridge on my walk home. By January of the following year, we were looking forward to crossing the river on a pedestrian bridge that has just been remodeled and was soon to reopen. It would deliver us right back to the Happy Bar and Grill, and would reducing our walking time to and from the center of Plovdiv by more than 15 minutes.
One more note about walking around Plovdiv. It would seem that cars might only go one direction on the streets, or down just one side of a street, but that isn’t necessarily true. After all, there is no reason to just drive on one side when you could be driving down the middle, or on the other side, if it means missing a pothole. Or, it might just be a ceremonial exercise of freedom because there were no traffic police there to sanction someone for driving on the wrong side of the road, or not stopping for pedestrians, or parking on the sidewalks. It might seem that cars wouldn’t park on sidewalks, but here it appeared as if that was what the sidewalks were for: so many cars park on the sidewalks that people had to walk on the street because you couldn’t get around the cars parked on the sidewalks.
All car dodging aside, the evenings back at the apartment were usually pretty relaxed. Kate usually cooked dinner, and I would clean up afterward. We had our language lessons in the evenings during the week with different teachers, so during the first part of our service, that meant four evening meetings a week to speak Bulgarian. I regularly met my tutor at our apartment, while Kate met with her tutor at a café near the center of the city. We would each focus on work-specific vocabulary, so at times it felt like we were learning two different languages. My Bulgarian words could be used to describe agriculture and micro-credit loans. Kate's Bulgarian let her speak of domestic violence, drug addictions, and elementary school activities. Our social vocabularies were largely the same—though hers was always way ahead of mine—but our work vocabularies were always so different they were never really comparable.
Since we had cable TV to go with our high speed Internet and cell phones (this is Peace Corps, after all), we spent some time watching CNN International, or browsing through the other channels in the evenings. The cable was already hooked up and paid for when we moved in. A TV was a mandatory part of any pre-furnished apartment. CNN was the only channel without subtitles. There was the French fishing and hunting show, a German station, a cooking show, the Hallmark Channel, a very dramatic Spanish news and soap opera station, and three or four Bulgarian music video stations. The Russian station had the most eclectic programming. And besides CNN and Hallmark, Viasat Explorer and Viasat History also usually had programming in English. Even if it was just to have some background noise in English to counteract our days full of Bulgarian, our TV gave our brains some rest, and ended up being on more than we had planned.
Bedtime was always after10:00 pm. We had to turn our boiler on so we would have hot water for a shower, and to wash dishes. If we waited until after 10:00 pm, we got the nighttime electricity rate, which was close to half of the daytime rate. Showering happened at night here because Bulgarians know that it is not healthy to go outside, especially in the winter, with a wet head. And during the day, regardless of the season, it was hard not to get sweaty from all the walking all over town, and dirty from all the busses and cars kicking up dust and exhaust. So, we showered at night like the Bulgarians.
We would also have to re-fill and turn on our Peace Corps issued water distiller so it could spend its four hours making us another gallon of distilled water for our drinking and cooking. Peace Corps decided it was easier to issue every volunteer a water distiller than have to treat some volunteers for kidney stones, and it was better environmentally than requiring everyone to buy bottled water for two years, since the tap water was loaded with heavy metals and minerals. That little countertop appliance also served as a secondary source of heat, sometimes much more effective than our one mobile electric radiator.
To ensure that we were getting that cheaper electricity rate, our washing machine also only got turned on after 10:00 pm. Between then and 6:00 am, electricity cost half of what it did during the day, so that was the only time we ran the appliances that used the most electricity. With Internet access in our apartment, we usually checked our email in the evening before bed, too. With a little time for reading, some time to write, and some cleaning up, our day was all but over. We crawled into our little bed that was just 120 centimeters wide, slipped under the “sheep” blanket, that much more closely resembled a sheep than a blanket, both in feel and in smell, and were off to sleep.
Once we lay down and relaxed for the night, our minds were flooded with the differences we were experiencing on a daily basis. Though it did not come naturally, and took a long time to adjust to, it was refreshing to measure our self worth not solely on what we were accomplishing at work each day, but on who we were meeting, what we were learning, and the personal connections we were making. Unlike in the US, “What do you do?” wasn't the first question you asked when you met someone new. In fact, where someone worked, what he or she did, what kind of car they had (if they were part of the select few who could afford a car), and where they lived were not as important in measuring success. People were much better at making do with what they had, and not only making do, but also being happy with what they had. From our short-term outside perspective, there was never as much emphasis on acquiring things, or pressure from advertisers to buy more, bigger, faster, newer, better things.
Before falling asleep, I often thought back through the day. What did I learn? New Bulgarian words or phrases, a better understanding of something vague at work, some little cultural insight that made me less frustrated with some difference I had perceived. But, none of those revelations came easily. It often felt like we were living in that Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog's Day,” where he was forced to live through the exact same day, over and over and over again. Early in our training and service, living in Bulgaria often felt like that until we could figure out what it was that would get us out of that perpetual loop. Maybe it was some specific vocabulary, or some historical insight to why Bulgarians might think or act in a specific way, or finding something different to do at work that helped us escape Groundhog's Day. Eventually we did, and are very glad we stuck it out.
About the Author
Brian M Fassett
Location: Stationed in Bulgeria
Story: Just Another Day
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