How has Bulgaria changed since 2000? Why have you decided to write about the Peace Corps now?
Well, the Peace Corps ceremony with the new U.S Ambassador this Monday in Sofia inspired me to write about all the changes Bulgaria experience since I first arrived one broiling hot day in June 2000 when I decided to be a Peace Corps volunteer. The Peace Corps was easily the toughest job I ever loved. It wasn't because of the job itself, learning a new culture, working on projects with wonderful people, or promoting Peace Corps ideals. Yeah, that was sort of tough, but very rewarding to learn about Bulgaria, get to know some incredible people, and show 12,000 people in Balchik there was a crazy American who was really cared to know about them and attempted to explain almost anything he could on American culture and politics. The toughest part of the job for me? The Peace Corps was a three year gut check where I really got to know myself, know my personality weaknesses and strengths, and really discover there was a strong person who could would be able to handle any difficult situation if he really needed to deal with it. Those excruciatingly long bus rides between Sofia and Balchik for VAC meetings which lasted 17-18 hours round trip gave me oodles of time to reflect upon what really made me tick. These bus and train rides helped me figure out I could make a difference in the world and in people's lives, get control of my own, and gain so much from people in the process.
About six months ago, the Peace Corps office in Sofia sent out a request to RPCVs asking for photos and videos from their time in service for a final farewell as the Peace Corps will be leaving Bulgaria in summer 2013.Sending photos and videos from that time posed a huge problem. 2012 me has a digital camera, smartphone with video and camera, Faceplace albums with lots of photos for people to see, Ipod touch, and a laptop which has tons of photos. 2000-2003 me had a cheap Kodak camera that used regular film, no computer until Fred gave me a 1995 IBM laptop in 2002(which still works believe or not), and Balchik internet cafes with a very spotty connection depending on the winds, moon, and stars aligning themselves into the right position in Balchik. Every picture I have from this time are in photo albums with the negatives stored on the farm or in my cousin's house in Buffalo.
I do have a few photos to share from this time, but this is thanks to Teresa Stanley and Laura Rios. Laura documented everything and I am thankful she posted some of her photos on Facebook. Teresa visited me towards the end of my Peace Corps service in June 2003 and gave me copies of some of the photos she took when she spent time in Sofia, Plovdiv, and Balchik.
So while more recent RPCVs can give you great videos and things to share from the digital age, I give you a personal reflection on all the changes that have happened in Bulgaria since I have been here from 2000-2003, and from summer 2008 to the present day. While there have been slow changes to the places I grew up in as a kid, Bulgaria has seen rapid changes since I first came here in 2000. Some are good, and I wonder about the others because I miss out on how things used to be done, but there has been progress. Enjoy the stroll down memory lane.
Sofia Airport and flying to Bulgaria:
2000/2001: It was a not so nice terminal that was grungy, small, intimidating, only had one real gate that you took a bus to the plane, and had cows who grazed on the runway. My mother's first impression of Bulgaria was seeing cows grazing on early summer grass as the Swiss Airlines plane landed in Sofia. She still tells this story to anyone who hasn't heard it, and maybe has repeated a few too many times. To validate her claim, I remember the cows being next to the runway when I arrived in June 2000, but not exactly on the runway.
There were only a few flights a week. When my mom visited in 2001, it took eight hours in Balchik to confirm that she would be on the Thursday flight from Sofia to Zurich. After finding the number with a terrible internet connection, we called the Swiss Air office in Sofia, who immediately hung up on me when I asked to help confirm my mother's flight. Ahh, this was typical customer service back then. We had to find the number for Swiss Air in Switzerland, then go to the post office to make an international call because I had no phone in my apartment. There was a long waiting list to have a home phone, so I decided it wasn't worth it and didn't get a cell phone until after September 11, 2001.
2012: Sofia has two terminals: one is modern and voted to be one of the world's ugliest, while terminal one has had a small facelift and looks a lot less intimidating than it did twelve years ago. There are no cows trimming the grasses around the runway, although this is probably a good thing for the safety of the cows. Pilots should not be trusted.
There are lots of flights leaving Sofia to destinations all around the world and it is a lot cheaper to get a flight to Sofia than it used to be. They are building a metro line to the airport which will open in 2014. Thanks to being an European Union member, one can call any country in Europe with an international roaming plan and it is much cheaper and easier to call places. I can even use my phone to call the States if I need to talk with my family.
As for the customer service, I must say there has been an improvement, but you can still find the surly person to help you out sometime. Most waitresses are pretty good, but we had a terrible one this week who just plain lied, and insulted us by being so rude and incompetent. It reminded me of the good old days, despite the fact I was highly annoyed by her.
Sofia Bus Station2000-2003: Below was the bus station where I had to grab a bus to Balchik when I went to VAC(Volunteer Action Committee) from 2000-2003. As you can see, it wasn't the best place to be on wet, rainy, or cold days. No waiting room, no really paved area. It was a dirt lot across from the Sofia central train station.
|Sofia Bus Station June 2003. Credit to Teresa Stanley|
2004: I came back to visit good friends in Balchik and Sofia, and there was a brand new central bus station with a waiting area, ATM, and completely paved lot next to the central train station. I was completely grateful that I didn't have to walk across that muddy lot again. I do not have a picture of the new bus station, because I think you get the idea of what having a real bus station is compared to what I had to go through for three years.
Teaching Conditions at Antim I school in Balchik:
|My seventh class students in my classroom in June 2003.|
|Toilet in Antim I school June 2003. Thankfully they've been replaced.|
As a result, my classroom had a broken window that wasn't fixed in the three years I was there. I wrote a Peace Corps SPA grant from USAID for an English library classroom with a great computer and monitor, but alas I couldn't get money to fix a window. While the window was the most important thing, I couldn't find a way to justify new classroom windows for only one classroom. So, my students and I wore winter jackets in the winter because they heated the school only until about 10:30, yet classes went until 1pm or 5pm the days I had computer classes. I only wrote on the board when absolutely necessary because I didn't want to put my hand in the icy water to erase the board.
There were only Turkish toilets in the school, and I only went to the bathroom once in my three years there. If I really had to go, then I walked home 10-15 minutes to my apartment and did my business there.
2012: My Bulgarian host mother, who is in her last year of teaching geography at the school, took me around for a tour of the school last month. Every classroom has a computer with dry erase boards. There are new windows and a few rooms have projectors. There are lockers for the kids to put their belonging during the day, and I hear they heat the building properly in the winter. And thank the gods, they replaced the Turkish toilets with real toilets. Hallelujah!!!!
Traveling to Greece:
2001: This was a major deal to travel across the border to Greece. There were only a few buses a day that went to Greece, and they were unhappy to be traveling to Bulgaria. On the trip from Sofia to the Greek border crossing in June 2001, we were forced to stop at a restaurant where the women chose to go to the bathroom outside squatting in the grass rather than enter the foul smelling bathroom last cleaned when Georgi Dimitrov died in 1949. At the border, it took three hours to process everyone's papers on the bus to make sure every Bulgarian had the correct paperwork, stamps, and documentation to enter the country. My mom and I breezed through the line and had to wait in the lobby for the other forty people to get the proper papers and stamps. Going to Greece was walking into a different world.
2012: Bulgaria is now in the EU, and the border crossing is a mere formality, with guards checking to see if people have an ID card. Tons of people travel by car to go to Greek beaches on the northern coast, and many people have bought property there. The border guards are now irritated when they have to process an American passport because we hold up the line of cars waiting to get through. There isn't such a big difference in what you can get in Greece, versus what you can get in Bulgaria now.
Grocery Shopping in Balchik:
2000-2003: Balchik had no supermarkets, and only had mini-markets which was the store. There were fruit and vegetable stands that had a decent variety of veggies and fruits for about nine months of the year. During the winter, the choices were carrots, potatoes, onions, cabbage, expensive oranges, and anything you conserved. Lettuce, spinach, and green onions made a brief appearance in January/February. In 2002 or so, tomatoes and cucumbers started to appear, but they were really expensive and were things I could not afford on the Peace Corps salary. So every year, I conserved tomatoes, peppers, pickles, raspberries, strawberries, peaches, and apricots during the winter so that I would have a variety of foods. And every winter, I was so thankful I conserved the 50+ jars of stuff I had for the winter.
Fruits and vegetables were fresh and organic. Yogurt was cheap and tasted amazing. Bread was only available in loaves and only white bread was available. This meant I was eating much better food, and not the processed stuff you might find in the supermarkets in the U.S. The only meat besides pork that could be found was chicken, and it was always frozen. I learned to eat more vegetarian because the pork looked very unappetizing. One of my favorite summer meals was white bread, fresh tomatoes, and sirene or kashkaval. Eat that with some fruit and it was one of the best meals one could eat.
|Varna Bazar 2003. The bazar where on bought fruits and veggies. This is still popular, but there are also supermarkets which carry everything in the winter. Credit Teresa Stanley.|
For foods I missed, Varna was the best option to find those things, but I ate them in moderation because they were expensive. Peanut butter, cheddar, and other cheeses could be found in Varna, which was a 45km trip away. I also found a way to get whatever that was reasonable through one small shop owner who was willing to get whatever I needed to cook with in
2012: Balchik now has five supermarkets including a Penny Market, all within walking distance of my old apartment block. There are a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the year, if you can afford it. Cheddar, peanut butter, and other cheeses can be easily found in Balchik. There are more meat options available, but you may need to go to Varna for something like a turkey or an unusual type of cheese. While there is a small difference, there is not a huge difference as when I lived there.
The one major difference is that there are tons of foods brought in from all over the E.U, which means there is less organic fresh food as there used to be. You have to pay attention to see where the tomatoes are from, and there is more fast food and processed food available. Organic food was really inexpensive, and now it costs double or triple to get organic fruits and vegetables.
My Apartment in Balchik, getting new family members, and my apartment in Sofia:
|Balchik port 2003|
|Balchik boardwalk June 2003|
|July 2003: with Dimitrina and Mimi|
|Views from Balchik|
|The weather is so much better than Buffalo!|
2000-2003: Balchik was and still is an incredibly beautiful small town. I got so lucky when I got selected to serve the Peace Corps here at site selection. Starting life in Balchik meant living in a new apartment far away from home. Arriving in Balchik for the first time in August 2000, I discovered I would have an attic studio apartment in a new apartment block that was maybe 25 square meters in total size on a good day. This apartment became known as the smallest apartment a Peace Corps volunteer had during my service.
While the bathroom was brand new, I had a hole in the ceiling thanks to someone's chimney going through it. In the winter, I didn't dare take a shower in there on the super cold days because it was way too cold to take a shower with a hole in the ceiling. There was no room for a sofa, so I had a two beds lying next to each other, a wardrobe to store clothes, and sometimes had a TV depending on the whether the school director wanted to watch TV during the day at school. My kitchen consisted of an old Soviet stove with four burners that was highly unpredictable in the temperatures, and a small fridge which was a little bit bigger than the fridge I had in my freshman dorm room. I had a fantastic woman named Dimitrina as was my landlady. She became more like my mother than my actual mother. She helped me through some tough times, and was of my biggest reasons on how I was able to integrate with my school. Her family became like my family. Dimitrina, Mimi, and Christian have become extremely close to me throughout the years. We have helped each other out in all sorts of situations from cancer and cyst surgery, divorce, me coming out, and we are always able to discuss all our problems with ease.
|My apartment block 2003. Credit to Teresa Stanley|
Back to the apartment in Balchik. The size of the apartment didn't really bother me. The only problem with the apartment was the lack of a heater. There was a big debate on what I should do about a heater for the winter. My landlady tried to get a heater from the school, but they wouldn't buy one because they thought the Peace Corps office was responsible for this. The Peace Corps office wouldn't buy me one because they expected my school to buy a heater for me. I was lucky the first autumn/winter was mild, and it really didn't get super cold until the second week of December. On those nights it got cold, I turned the stove on at night to help heat the apartment.
The second week of December reality set in. Either I needed a heater, someone had to do it, or I was going to leave Balchik and head back to the U.S. because I was not going to freeze to death. Leaving early from the Peace Corps because of no heater was out of the question, but I knew the prices of heaters needed for the apartment, and it was going to be expensive if I chose to buy one without getting reimbursed. But, I wasn't going to quit Balchik, even though I was extremely frustrated over the unnecessary debate and go around between my director and the Peace Corps TEFL staff. The Soviet stove just wasn't going to work during the winter. So, I bought a large oil based portable heater for about 150 leva in December, which was half of my monthly allowance. My thinking was that it would be better to starve and lose some weight, rather than freeze during the winter nights when it got to -12 to -15C without a heater. It meant no traveling, but I was fine with this in order to have a heater. When I bought the heater, I instantly felt better and much warmer, but I also wrote my mother telling her what I did, and explaining to her how frustrated I was. After reading this, my mother wrote the Peace Corps office in DC to complain because she was very upset that I didn't have a heater with the current temperatures. Because of my mom, I got reimbursed for my heater, which I am thankful for because it helped me eat that winter.
|Fridge and freezer|
|Freezer #2 and Dishwasher|
2008-2012: I have a great apartment in Sofia which is about 6-7 times bigger than my apartment in Balchik. When I arrived in Sofia, I was in complete shock because I was expecting an apartment similar to the larger apartments my former PCVs had in Sofia or other towns, but this was so much better. My friend Iliya, who helped choose the location by going by the neighborhoods, mentioned to me that I should ask for a smaller apartment because this was way too big for one person.
The kitchen was amazing and had two freezers and lots of room to store things, and had black marble counter tops. This blew my mind away, as I never had a kitchen this nice in my entire life. The biggest benefit was two freezers, which allows me to freeze salsa and spaghetti sauce for the winter. It was the perfect kitchen for a cook like me, except that I wish I had four burners for Thanksgiving.
|Bathroom in Sofia apartment|
Much to my surprise, my bathroom had a bathtub, which I never would have expected to have in a Bulgarian apartment. There is no hole in the ceiling and there is a heater that which makes it super toasty in the winter. Plus, there is a marble counter which I could put all my stuff on. This meant all the stuff I was to use to hang toiletries and towels instantly became redundant.
In addition, this apartment had two bedrooms, a living room with an awesome sofa I picked out a year later to replace the broken sofa I started to use. There is an older T.V. which never gets taken out of the apartment because the director wants to watch replays of the soccer matches from the previous night in his office. In fact, my landlady offered to buy me a new T.V. last year, and I refused to get one, which made George really upset. I have two great terraces, one of which is enclosed. What does this mean? I can hang my laundry out in the winter and not have it turn into frozen weapons of mass destruction.
There have been no heating issues with the apartment, except when the Russians turned off the heat in 2009. I can't blame anyone except Vladimir Putin for that one, and I would still give him a piece of my mind for turning off the heat for so many in Europe that winter. There is wireless internet throughout my apartment and digital cable TV with 15 porno channels I needed to get, so that I could watch hockey and football on ESPN America.
Clearly, this is a big difference in comparison to my apartment in Balchik. I also have an amazing landlady, Nadia, who is simply incredible. She has taken on bureaucracy and has won more than once. What impressed me most is that she had the cable, phone, and internet people come within an hour of each other one summer day my first week in Sofia. Pretty much, you can't get that done in Bulgaria, the U.S, or anyone else in the world. I was in awe at the woman who could get something done like that, and it was helpful to have Nadia when they overcharged me for hot water and heat my second winter.
Eating out and shopping for other items:
|Donkey cart in Balchik. Not the frest fish lady sadly.|
2000-2003: Buying clothes here wasn't really an option for me except for t-shirts and shirts. With a Peace Corps salary, I could afford to buy some cheddar or peanut butter every now and then, but buying western clothes was simply out of the question. I could not find jeans that matched my height, and I did not know of any seamstress in Balchik who could do this for me. You could buy furniture, but it was expensive and not exactly the best quality. So, I made my clothes last with what I brought in my suitcase, and supplemented t-shirts, underwear, and socks as needed during my time.
In Balchik, one could hear a woman in a donkey cart going through the town yelling at the top of her lungs selling fresh fish. I can still hear the "PRIASNA RIBA!!!!!!" chant going through my heads some mornings. There were clothes for sale, but they were often ripoff brands from popular name brands, and they didn't last that long. So, I bought a few t-shirts and shirts as needed, and had my winter collection of sweater #1, sweater #2, and sweater #3 that I took out for special occasions.
As for restaurants, there were a lot of good restaurants in Bulgaria, but the only real option available was usually Bulgarian food. In late 2000/early 2001, there was a Chinese food revolution and Chinese restaurants sprouted up everywhere in Bulgaria with a town over 40,000. As for other foods, there was McDonald's and KFC in Varna, and a great Indian restaurant in Varna. In Sofia, there was an Italian restaurant or two, an Irish pub, lots of good Bulgarian places, and a nasty Mexican restaurant no one really liked. One could eat out, but there weren't lots of options available and some of these restaurants were usually out of my price range due to my Peace Corps salary.
|Sofia IKEA opening weekend September 2011.|
2008-2012: With my Anglo-American School salary, this makes a huge difference in what I can buy. To be fair, I don't know if I can really compare what I could do now with what I could do then. There are now malls in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Bourgas. There are Metro stores(similar to Cotsco or Sam's Club) in any city over 80,000 where you can find great Belgian chocolate chips, tortillas, and great deals on other cool foods. Carrefour has opened stores in Sofia, and Subway and Domino's pizza are slowly gaining ground on the market by providing great food. There is also HIT, which is a hypermarket where I can find lots of great things I never thought I would be able to find in Bulgaria. With my current buying power as a member of the affluent middle class in Bulgaria, I can buy pretty much anything I need for the apartment, clothes, or food for myself.
There is even a GAP and Levis store now, but I still prefer to buy jeans in the States, which George thinks is absolutely crazy. There is the German DM and Lilly stores from Serbia which have revolutionized drug stores. An IKEA opened up last year in Sofia, which accounted for about 10% of all furniture sales in Bulgaria last year. George and I have easily spent 1,500-2,000 leva the past year at IKEA to buy a new kitchen table, chair, dressers, shelves, and stuff for the kitchen and bedroom.
As for eating out, there are lots of options for eating out in Balchik/Varna and Sofia. Sofia has had a food revolution in the past five years, and there are lots of different varieties of restaurants. Middle eastern, Thai, Chinese, sushi, steak, Italian, Indian, Spanish tapas, and a really good burger joint have opened up. There is McDonald's, Subway, Burger King, and KFC, but there are also some cool fresh fast food shops that make fresh sandwiches, soups, and salads for a reasonable price. There are traditional Bulgarian restaurants, but there are also chefs who are willing to take some risks and do some creative things with food. The biggest problem is that there are so many good restaurants to eat at an affordable price. If I was a Peace Corps volunteer now in Bulgaria, I would be very challenged to be able to stay within budget like I did twelve years ago.
In Balchik, the biggest change is that I am not allowed to eat at the seaside with my host family because it is too expensive. There is a local restaurant on top of the hill which has good food for half the price, while the restaurants we used to go to now cater to tourists and have marked up their prices. Note to readers: the prices in Balchik are about Sofia prices, but this is much more expensive for people in Balchik.
Washing my clothes:
2000-2003: I washed my clothes in a bucket, because the apartment didn't have room for a washing machine. I learned how to hand wash everything, and tried to wear only what absolutely needed to be worn, especially in the winter. I hung my clothes out to dry except in the winter when they would freeze. I had to hang clothes inside during this time.
2008: I have a real washing machine in my apartment, which works great now that it was repaired in May. Dimitrina also was able to buy a brand new washing machine which makes laundry super easy compared to how we used to do it 10-12 years ago. Neither of us miss washing clothes by hand. She also has been able to buy a new fridge redo her kitchen, get a new T.V., and get new windows for her apartment.
Highways, Trains, Legitimate Businessmen and Automobiles:
|Dupintsa 2000. Credit Laura Rios|
2000: There were only highways between Sofia and Plovdiv, and about 140 km of highway had been completed between Sofia and Varna in two sections. Most cars were either an older Lada, Moscvich, Trabant, or Skoda from the communists times. A 10 year old Opel was considered a new car in Balchik. The Peace Corps Toyota Landcruisers were known throughout Balchik as the tank. My colleagues thought they were mafia the first time they came until I explained to them I was in the tank. Another time one of the 'tanks' got lost while trying to find my apartment, and the locals knew the Peace Corps were looking for me and gave them directions to my apartment.
Dupnitsa has been unofficially known as the headquarters of the Bulgarian Mafia. During my time in Peace Corps training, my host family lived next to the Mafia cafe which had two Harleys and the only hot white chocolate in Bulgaria at that time. During my time in Bulgaria in the Peace Corps, these businessmen were killed off and replaced by other businessmen. Their cafe got turned into an unfinished apartment block. I don't know how exactly the Peace Corps had the volunteer training there in 2000, but it wasn't held there again for awhile after the heat of 2000.
|Dupnitsa model school: Credit Laura Rios|
Trains were frequented quite often and was one of the few ways to travel across the country cheaply. I was a nighttime rider of the sleeper cars between Dobrich and Sofia, and I took the train usually from Varna to Cherven Briag to see George.
The only real auto dealerships were in Sofia. I usually had the opinion if there was a Mercedes or BMW, you immediately knew this person was a businessman with a thick neck. Boyko Borisov, who is now the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, famously said "If you see a businessman with a thick neck walk into the cafe, it would be best to pay your bill and leave."
2012: This is an area where there has been gigantic changes. There is now a highway that goes from Sofia to Bourgas, except for the final 40km which will be completed by February. You can get to Bourgas in about 3 1/2 - 4 hours now depending on the time of day you are traveling. There are now two metro lines in Sofia instead of just seven stops, and a third line will be completed by 2013. The Sofia/Varna highway will start being completed next year, with a completion date of 2019. They are currently building a highway to Greece. As of today, about 40 km of the highway has been completed between Sofia and Dupnitsa, and construction crews are currently building the remaining section between Sofia and Dupnitsa, and the section between the Greek border and Sandanski. The remaining part of the highway between Dupnitsa and Sandanski will be completed by 2020 due to the difficulties building a highway there through the gorge. There is also a highway that should be completed next year between Plovdiv and Istanbul.
For automobiles, there are very few Moskviches, Ladas, and Trabants roaming around the highways. Except for villages, these cars have been replaced by Toyotas, Chevys, Opels, Skodas, Puegots, Seats, Volkswagens, BMWs, and Mercedes. Not only the businessmen drive nice vehicles, but they have upgraded to fancier stuff such as Bentleys, Porshes, and Jaguars. It is difficult to tell the legitimate businessmen from real businessmen.
As for the trains, there are some newer trains taking short routes, but the train management has seen a lot of difficulty and almost went bankrupt this summer due to mismanagement. More people drive places now that they have cars, and less people ride trains. There is talk of renovating the train lines, but we will see what the future holds.
There is more employment, but it has meant that more people have left their towns for either Sofia or somewhere else in the European Union. Small towns and villages are dying out, and you can zoom by lots of dark villages at night if you travel between Sofia and Varna.
As for the legitimate businessmen, there have been a lot less shootings and only one has been shot in the past four years. In Dupnitsa, the Galevi brothers, who effectively controlled the Mafia and Dupnitsa like a fiefdom, escaped via Greece in May with about 40 million Euros and are somewhere in hiding. While they are gone, it means someone else who we don't know has replaced them who is keeping a much lower profile than these two. These thick necked businessmen have tried to become clean in Bulgaria, which is actually pretty easy thing to do here and they still influence Bulgaria today. There are lots of shops with the same stock, some restaurants which have been open for years with no clientele, and there a significant increase in the amount of nice houses and cars one can find throughout Bulgaria owned by someone who only makes about 1,000 leva a month or less. This is about 700 USD per month, which even the basic mathematician in fourth grade can realize isn't possible, yet somehow works here. My favorite people are the businessmen who put these expensive houses in a family member's name who makes about 200-300 leva a month. Yeah right, I could easily have afforded a villa, in ground swimming pool, and a Porshe on my salary of 305 leva a month twelve years ago.
I am happy to be here for the ride and see what happens next:
The past twelve years have brought a lot of changes to Bulgaria. When the current PCVs tell me their tales of woe and what they're going through, it doesn't quite compare to 2000 when I got here. Sometimes, it is hard to relate to the experience they are having in 2012 when so much has changed, but there are a few things which have not changed with the experience. This is not meant to be a slight on them, because there is simply no comparison to Bulgaria 2000 and Bulgaria 2012. It is simply impossible to compare our experiences and expect them to be the same. What has impressed me with this final group of volunteers is the volunteers I have met share the same love and passion for Bulgaria that I had when I was a PCV here from 2000-2003. These final group of volunteers leaving in 2013 will have their experiences and memories that will help shape their lives, as much as my group had our experiences and memories which have shaped our lives and made us into what we are today.
I have been happy to have been a Bulgarian Peace Corps volunteer, as it shaped my life into who I am today. As for the changes I have seen here, some have been good, while some not so great. I miss the fresher food, but welcome the availability of products that one can buy almost anywhere. Some things have stagnated, like pensions for the elderly and salaries for teachers, policemen, nurses, and doctors. I am terrified when Dimitrina retires next year, because it means she will be getting a lot less money per month. The population shifts in the past ten years has simply been hard to imagine. Villages full of life in 2000 are now dying in 2012. While these changes have happened in the U.S, it took a lot more time than 12 years to have this happen. It is like Bulgaria is in warp speed on some things.
We will see what the future holds, but I am cautiously optimistic about the future of Bulgaria. In spite of the politicians, there has been progress. I have been lucky enough to get a job in Sofia where I can enjoy a lot of things I normally wouldn't be able to enjoy without a credit card racking up bills. In the past twelve years, I am blessed to have the experiences I have had in the Peace Corps, Arlington and D.C, and now back in Sofia working. I have great friends, new family, and great experiences. I also happen to live in a very friggin pretty place in the world, and I would not exchange these things for anything in the world.
Sofia Echo articles:
Here are some Sofia Echo articles I wrote on cooking during a brief spell between 2001-2002 before I got fired because they couldn't afford the 15 leva per article they were paying me. This had a loyal following that I only found out about after I stopped writing the article, when people would stop me on the street in Sofia when I came for Peace Corps VAC meetings to tell me how much they loved reading my article. Click on the link to enjoy each article.