Despite rapid changes and flourishing economic development in Bulgaria, the American Peace Corps are here to stay
They arrived in Bulgaria in 1991, at the beginning of the country's transition to democracy. During the 17 years of their mission in Bulgaria, the Peace Corps have grown from 26 to 141 volunteers working in 132 towns within English language primary and secondary education, community and organisational development and youth development programmes. The path to acceptance in Bulgaria hasn't always run smoothly, but gradually Americans won the respect and love of Bulgarians by being consistently friendly and trying to help with whatever they can. Here are three stories of Peace Corps volunteers serving within different programmes in Bulgaria.
CASEY AND LINDSEY FOLTZ
“I was training for a marathon last year, when I ran past this elderly Bulgarian woman on a street corner,” Casey says. “She yelled at me: ‘Hey, what are you doing?' I replied: ‘I'm running.'” The woman then asked Casey to stop and invited him into her house for a snack. Casey says he was astounded by this hospitality. “That kind of thing just wouldn't happen in the United States,” he says. Casey arrived in Bulgaria in August 2006 with his wife Lindsey. Before coming to Bulgaria, the couple lived in Oregon.
“We decided that we wanted to broaden our life experiences. We wanted to combine this with the skills we had learnt in university to help people,” Casey says. Since both Lindsey and Casey had business experience – Lindsey ran a successful tea exporting business back in Oregon, while Casey majored in business administration and marketing – the couple requested a business development programme. The Peace Corps in Eastern Europe offer such programmes, so Lindsey and Casey were soon assigned to Bulgaria.
As with many of the Westerners that arrive in the country, Casey and Lindsey didn't know much about Bulgaria. “I knew it was in Eastern Europe, but I had to look it up on the map to see which countries it bordered as I wasn't sure,” Casey says.
At present, Lindsey and Casey work in Gabrovo municipality within a community and organisational development programme. One of Lindsey's latest projects involves creating a bilingual audio walking tour together with the local House of Humour and Satire. “It will soon be available on the Gabrovo municipality website.” Lindsey says. “We are also distributing it to the hotels and hostels in Gabrovo and Veliko Tarnovo, hoping to encourage more independent travellers to stop in Gabrovo and maybe spend an afternoon.”
Casey works both within the municipality and the Red Cross in the area. He recently completed a survey project among the Gabrovo population, targeting people who live far away from the centre. “We asked these citizens how they would like to improve the connection with the municipality, whether they would prefer on-site meetings in their villages or whether they would prefer an ombudsman or city council member to specifically represent their neighbourhood,” he says. As a result of this project the municipality has begun the process of hiring UN certified ombudsmen.
Of course, not everything goes to plan when it comes to foreigners adjusting to work – Bulgarian style. Casey says: “We were working with the Technical University in Gabrovo. We had the idea of doing a business class for some of the graduating students, in order to give them practical experience with the things that they had learned in theory.” The idea was to have a learning course where students would try to help clients from the community who had real problems. Unfortunately, most of the clients thought that Lindsey and Casey were giving money simply because they were Americans.
Although Casey and Lindsey find it hard to be far away from their families, to deal with rising prices on food and riding buses in Bulgaria, they think that Bulgaria is “a diamond in a rough”. Their favourite place is the village of Bozhentsi, just outside Gabrovo. “It's an architectural reserve, so all the buildings are Revival Period houses. And it's very, very beautiful,” Lindsey says.
After their service in Bulgaria is over, Lindsey and Casey are planning to go back to Oregon, where she wants to become a university professor and teach social entrepreneurship and he will go back into the business field, finance, or real estate.
To help keep their Bulgarian memories fresh, the couple will take pottery from Veliko Tarnovo, wood-working supplies from Etara and, of course, a bottle of Bulgarian red.
“The only thing that I want is for Bulgaria to be closer to the United States so I could see my family,” Patrick says. “My father passed away after a long fight from cancer and I think being here, away from him, was the hardest part of my service. But it doesn't make me regret my choice to volunteer. During the last conversation that we had on the telephone, he told me he was so proud of the things I'm doing here.” Unlike many other volunteers, Patrick was somewhat familiar with the region and the country: “My great grandparents immigrated from Slovakia at the turn of the last century, so I was familiar with Eastern Europe and its history. I knew that Bulgaria included ancient Thrace and was famous for wines. I also had a co worker who was Bulgarian and didn't speak a lot of English. She actually taught me my first Bulgarian word barzai, or hurry up,” he says.
One of the things that struck Patrick as odd, when he first arrived, was the abundance of horse-drawn carriages. “I live in a very agrarian state, but I can't remember the last time I saw a horse-drawn cart where I live unless it was the Amish.”
Patrick works within the youth and development programme in Vidin. One of his major projects involves working with a youth centre in a Roma neighbourhood where he organises avant-garde teaching activities, Latin dance classes and a theatre club. He also works with high school students on service projects.
Patrick is convinced that the true heart and soul of Bulgaria lies in small towns and villages. “It has been my experience when I meet Americans in Sofia that they “don't have time” to leave the city centre on their way to Greece or Turkey, which is sad because it's hard to get a true taste of Bulgaria without actually visiting some Bulgarian people,” he says. “Once you have dinner with a family in their house, meet their grandmother and have a conversation with them – then you'll understand why all the historical sites in the capital are so important.”
Patrick is one of the very few volunteers who has learned through his service that he wants to move to Bulgaria. “I want to go to the United States and indulge in sinful American television while eating burritos. But after that, I'm considering moving back here to work and live.”
Originally from Georgia, Alison came to Bulgaria in April 2007. Before that she studied international relations and Chinese in Boston, campaigned for a senator and went to China on an exchange programme.
Bulgaria was Alison's third placement, after turning down her placements in Kyrgyzstan and Cambodia. The only thing that she knew about Eastern Europe was that much of it had been under Communism. “I thought it was going to be really interesting coming here post-Communism and seeing the effects it had on the country. And obviously Bulgaria is in a very interesting period right now,” Alison says.
Alison currently teaches English in Pavlikeni. In addition to regular classes, Alison's students send letters to American students and celebrate American holidays. Alison also leads a Roma youth club. “They are younger students, so I don't teach them, but I have contact with them through this club. We just learn about Roma and Bulgarian culture. We work together with the school psychologists on that,” she says.
One of Alison's favourite Bulgarian pastimes is dancing the horo. “I've grown up as a dancer. Every time I go out to a mehana with my friends or go to a school function, we always do the horo. I've always enjoyed that and I am going to miss it whenever I go to a restaurant in the United States,” she says.
After her volunteer service is over, Alison is planning to go back to the United States and apply what she's learned here to her work in America. At least for now. “But you never know,” she says. “Some of my friends are already starting to count down, saying: “Oh, no, no, you only have another year left.”
All the work that these young people do is voluntary. The volunteers receive a stipend from Peace Corps Bulgaria that covers their living expenses only. There are no material benefits. The biggest benefit of volunteering is the opportunity to acquire first hand experience and knowledge of life in a foreign country, its culture, history and traditions and gain friendships for life. Despite the everchanging political situation in Bulgaria and the steady economic growth, the Corps are here to stay to apply their skills and energy into grassroots development in Bulgaria.