Dobre doshli! Welcome to Peace Corps Week!
This week is Peace Corps week which means the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) everywhere are being asked to educate everyone about the Peace Corps – what it is, what it does, who it helps and why it’s important.
As an RPCV who served in Bulgaria from 2000-2002, I’m only too happy to participate!
About the Peace Corps
Here are a few basics about the United States Peace Corps.
- It was founded in 1961, established by President John F. Kennedy
- The first volunteers served in Chile, Colombia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, St. Lucia, Tanzania, and Pakistan. Within a couple of years, volunteers were serving in 28 countries.
- 215,000 volunteers are serving or have served in the US Peace Corps.
- The Peace Corps is its own entity of the US Government, but is both non-political and non-religious.
- Volunteers live on $100-400 per month living allowances. In Bulgaria, I started with $135 and but ended with about $150/month. That covers food, bus tickets, living expenses, repair costs when needed – since we couldn’t just call on a family member to fix it for us (though we fared better in the second year after getting to know more people!) trips to internet cafes to write home to our friends and families, etc.
- Though it’s not usually required up front, most Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) learn a new language as part of their initial training. The idea is that we integrate ourselves into the communities in which we will be working.
- PCVs have served in about 139 countries – including Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, Kazakhstan, Morocco, South Africa, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, South Korea, Armenia, Hungary, Tonga, Iran, Malawi, Suriname and my personal favorite: Bulgaria.
- Most jobs require a college degree, but if you don’t have one and have been farming your entire life, that will NOT prevent you from serving!
- We had a 78-year old volunteer in our group in B-10 Bulgaria. She was not the oldest volunteer to have served. In my group, the average age of volunteers was 26. In the group after mine, the average age was 48. Pretty cool! We also had 70 trainees fly into staging in Chicago, 69 got on the plane and 55 finished.
I hope you’ll take a moment to look up any countries whose locations you can’t currently picture!
What are we getting ourselves into?
Peace Corps volunteers sign up for approximately 27 months of service in a developing country somewhere around the world. Our first 10-12 weeks of our time in country is for training: language, culture, health, job training, etc. We lived with host families – mine didn’t speak a word of English! who housed us, fed us (my host mom was a great cook!) and took care of us while we learned about their country. Once at site, we lived in apartments which pretty much had heat, water and electricity on demand. My site was more reliable than most as the only time my water went out was when they worked on the plumbing and for that we had advanced notice. One friend in northern Bulgaria was on a water regime and had water every other day.
My descriptions above are for Bulgaria. Every country is different. Every experience is different. I have friends who had to literally haul up water from a river in Africa whereas I lived about 12 KM from a ski resort. I lived in the mountains – a far cry from the flat cornfields I saw growing up in Indiana! I’m happy to say I can see the beauty in both!
Peace Corps volunteers have three goals
- To teach a sustainable skill (I taught middle/high school English)
- To teach the host nationals about American culture, traditions and well – about Americans! (e.g. how do we celebrate birthdays? Or holidays? Or what are our schools like? What’s the cost of living back in America? You name it – we were asked about it! You mean – you get free refills on sodas? LOL!)
- To teach Americans about our host nations (i.e. what I’m doing right now!)
I served in Bulgaria, a country about the size of either Ohio or Tennessee. It’s located in southeastern Europe, in a region called the Balkans. It’s surrounded by Romania to the north, Serbia to the northwest, Macedonia to the west, Greece to the south, Turkey to the southeast and the Black Sea to the east.
It’s absolutely beautiful and has a little bit of everything: Plains, River (the Danube River is the natural border between Bulgaria and Romania), the Black sea and beaches, about 4 or so mountain ranges: Pirin, Rila, Balkans, Rhodopes. It has great hiking and camping, lots of ski resorts (I was near Pamporovo, but there are also Bansko and Borovets, among others).
Bulgaria dates back to 681 AD when Khan Asparux settled there. I lived on Khan Asparux Street in Smolyan, a nice-sized city in the Rhodope Mountains – about 12 KM from the border with Greece and 100 KM as the crow flies from Thessaloniki (or Salonica). Bulgaria has a lot of history and every Bulgarian is very proud of it.
Fun facts about Bulgaria
- Capital: Sofia (Pronounced SO-fee-uh, stress on the first syllable) 🙂
- Population: approximately 7.4 million (2011), down from closer to 9 million when I arrived in 2000, but it’s off the visa blacklist and is now (with Romania) a part of the European Union
- Peace Corps closed out its service there, the summer of 2013
- Language: Bulgarian – similar to Russian
- Sveti Kiril, or Saint Cyril, after whom the cyrillic alphabet is named, was a Bulgarian. The Russians later adopted it.
- Bulgaria was under the Ottoman yoke for nearly 500 years. The Russians came in and at the Battle of Pleven in 1878, helped the Bulgarians start to push the Ottomans back. Bulgaria truly received its independence in 1922.
- During the Ottoman Yoke, it is said that credit for the preservation of Bulgaria’s early history is owed to the monks living in the many monasteries throughout the country.
- It was a Bulgarian who originally invented the computer.
- Bulgarians have amazing recipes that incorporate their yogurt into the meal: Salata Snezhanka, Bulgarian moussaka, Tarator soup, etc. Yum!
- “Na Gosti” is when you go to visit a Bulgarian in their home. You know it’s been a good na gosti, if your coffee goes cold because you’ve been talking for hours and hours. Some of my best memories of Bulgaria are from na gostis where I just sat and talked with my friends. Bulgarian hospitality – there’s nothing like it!
- Bulgarians will claim that they had the bagpipes before the Scots or Irish. It’s called a Gaida.
- The next Happy Hour concert with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by a Bulgarian, Maestro Rossen Milanov. (Non-subtle hint: CSO – I’d love to meet him and speak some Bulgarian!)
Here’s a cool video that is being touted as being the first symphonic flash mob in Bulgaria – under the direction of Maestro Grigor Palikarov who is from Plovdiv – a very cool city! This is the Classic FM Orchestra out of Sofia. Watch this – it’s awesome!
I know this is probably a lot of random information that doesn’t even mention any of the great literature that comes out of Bulgaria (there’s a lot, trust me!) – such as the writings of Ivan Vazov, after whom the school at which I taught was named, or Xristo Botev or… and don’t forget books about Bulgaria written by other authors such as Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan (I HIGHLY recommend that book.).
Or, if you’d like to try a simpler route, check out Rick Steve’s travel series. Here’s one sample of that:
Rakiya doesn’t only go with Shopska Salata! Shopska salad is excellent, by the way and SUPER healthy. Let me know if you’d like a recipe – I’m happy to share. (Along with Bulgarian Moussaka and Tarator!) Maybe then you can have your own na gosti!
Here’s a picture of me in my apartment in Smolyan trying on a traditional Bulgarian costume a few weeks before I left for Blagoevgrad. It’s a costume from the southern Rhodope (pronounced row-DOUGH-pee) mountains region. I bought it off a lady who was kind enough to sell it for the equivalent of approximately 2-3 months’ salary, or $175. It’s absolutely beautiful. I love all the stitching detail – isn’t it gorgeous? And this picture doesn’t even show it all off! (I wasn’t wearing the jacket because this costume was nothing but thick, heavy wool and I took this in June. It was very warm!)
This dress was actually a wedding dress of the grandmother of the lady who sold it to me. It’s in amazing condition considering her grandmother was married in 1921 (She showed me a picture). Wow. I’m so lucky.
Thank you for reading this! I hope you’ll watch a few other videos about Bulgaria or read a little bit about it. It’s a beautiful country with a wonderful history and rich culture that is worth knowing better!