Monday, October 11, 2010


Sarajevo is a place that deserves not only attention, but reflection.

We plled into the station at about 7am and a thin layer of fog and frost had settled over everything. I saw the lights of the city come and go while it was still dark, and we pulled into a secondary bus station in some nondescript village outside the city some time after. Bosnian is another Slavic language, but my Bulgarian only got me about halfway in the battle of understanding. After a bout of pointing and sign language and communication that turned into some new form of Slavic - an awkward middle ground between strangers - I boarded a tram on the advice of the info desk and hoped for the best.

It worked, ans in a moment I was in downtown Sarajevo, the very center of one of the great tragedies of our time. In 1992, the Serbs had completely surrounded the city with artillery and were laying siege to the place almost 24/7. The first glances around the city revealed a mix of new construction, renovation, and the last remnants of the war, still not completely patched up. Walking along the river to my hostel, I passed row after row of old buildings, all pock-marked with the spray of bullets from 15 years ago - the scars of suffering but not defeat - all wordlessly telling a story that ached to be told.

The story, of course, was told, mostly by reporters and camera crews holed up in the now iconic Holiday Inn, right across from the Parliament building and edging a formerly treacherous main drag ominously nicknamed "Snipers' Alley." Nearby is one of several Olympic halls, one of the site of the indoor events of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. This particular arena is now a department store.

I walked along the river as the city showed its first stirrings of life. I walked until I reached the Old Town section of town, marked along the river by the so-called Latin Bridge. It's a small little stone span, but became the focus of the world's attention when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated there, setting into motion the First World War.

With such a deadly history, one should think the roads would be painted red. In some cases they actually are. Former holes in the pavement etched out by mortar fire were symbolically filled in with red cement, forming the so-called "Sarajevo Roses." Along with the filled in mortar scars in the surrounding buildings, memories of the war are to be found all over.

I checked into the hostel and quickly turned to the streets of Bascarcija, the Old Town, as the city roared to life. The recovery has been total, and one gets a great feeling walking along the cobbled and winding alleyways of the old market streets. Once a major marketplace on the outer edges of the Ottoman Empire, the city was an important link in the trade route between East and West. Today, the mixture of cultures lives on, reminding me strangely of both Vienna and Istanbul at the same time. People of all kinds live harmoniously in this small space. In one city block I counted two mosques, an Orthodox church, a Catholic church, and a synagogue. And who says people can't get along?

I walked and walked my first day, admiring the truly unique culture of Bosnia. And at the same time, my mind wouldn't get settled. This city won't let people ever forget what has happened throughout history. They are proud and full of solidarity. The National History Museum, located in between two gleaming, reconstructed glass towers, squats and crumbles. It has been intentionally left in a state of disrepair - the same condition in which is was left when the war ended - riddled with bullet holes, chunks torn from its facade. Indeed, nobody will ever forget what happened here.

Yet, once inside, the museum is indicative of any modern and well kept structure. This pattern holds true for many places in this city. The people here survived in the small and hidden places, away from the artillery fire constantly falling from the surrounding hilltops and protected against the prying eyes of the ever present snipers. Here, in these tiny nooks, the city's culture lived on and flourished. Today, because of this, Sarajevo is a place teeming with life both inside and out.

My second day, I wrapped up my wandering of the city with a visit to the old Olympic Stadium and Arena. During the war, the surrounding fields and gardens were used as a makeshift burial ground for the thousands of casualties suffered during the 4 year long siege. On this day, however, the stadium was being used for a big regional health conference.

Much like the "Miracle on Ice" that occurred in the 1980 Olympics 4 years previously, in which the underdog American National Hockey Team defeated their Russian arch-rivals, the Bosnians have defeated the seemingly unbeatable rivals of hopelessness and fear. The Bosnians continue to be proud of the fact that their city was an Olympic host. They choose to dwell on the positive aspects of their history, while maintaining a reverence to the tragic ones.

Sarajevo has indeed led a comeback of epic proportions, and in a short time too. The energy and love of life here is an inspiration to me. That this vitality has arisen in the face of such extreme adversity (and while continuing to honor that struggle) is even more so.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Conclusion (for now)

I am sitting in the Volunteer Lounge at the Peace Corps office in Sofia, preparing my final arrangements and closing my service, working through a rather large checklist. It has been a relatively uneventful few days, as a cold rain has settled in over most of the country. This also blocked out most of the amazing views that I was looking forward to on the drive back to Sofia - a drive that I've taken so many times. In a way it was rather appropriate - looking out the window and seeing absolutely nothing in the fog... the view was left completely up to my imagination and my memory. This gave me a chance to start thinking of how to put into words what my experience here has been like - something proving to be a very difficult task. I have been preparing for my return for the States, thinking about what my response will be to the inevitable questions of, "What was Bulgaria like?" and "So what did you do in Bulgaria?"

All I can think of at the moment is an incoherent jumble of words and sentences in no particular order:

Bulgaria is... strange, beautiful, cold, ugly, misunderstood, enchanting, unbelieveable. It is filled with people who are incredibly nice and helpful and friendly, yet sometimes closed off and closed minded. Bulgaria is small, yet somehow vast. It's the size of a state in America, but takes longer to travel across than it does to fly back to the States. That travel time is some of the best. You can really see what Bulgaria is made of. It is made of mountains and lakes and sunflowers. It is made of tiny villages filled with massive gardens. It is at times covered in garbage. It is relatively poor money-wise but has one of the richest histories of any country I know of. It is very developed in the cities, and very rural elsewhere. The food is very oily and salty, yet everything is fresh. The tomatoes are the best anywhere.

I worked in an orphanage and a preschool. Kids jumped on my back and yelled my name and gave me hugs every day. They threw walnuts at me. I felt like a hero at times, and a villain at others. I was called a father. I was called a son. I was treated like a member of several different families. I survived winters without heat in sub zero weather. I learned the Bulgarian language and the Cyrillic alphabet. I feel like I did a lot but I have few tangible things to show for it. I did a lot of walking. I did a lot of waiting. I built a fitness room. I taught kids how to read. I couldn't reach all the kids, but I did my best. I did a lot of reflection. I did a lot of growing. I saw more of Bulgaria than most Bulgarians. I swam. I climbed. Mostly I walked.

I could go on for a while, but the main thing seems to be that Bulgaria is a land of opposites. That's really what has struck me the whole time I have been here. It is sometimes one thing or the other, and many times both at the same time. It is for this reason I think that is why it is so hard to sum up my time here, but I hope some day to be able to do so.

For now, I will be heading off on a month of travel to help clear my head and take advantage of my being in Europe. My itinerary is as follows: Sofia, Bulgaria - Nis, Serbia - Sarajevo, Bosnia - Dubrovnik, Croatia - Split, Croatia - Ljubljana, Slovenia - Prague, Czech Republic - Brussels, Belgium - Ypres, Belgium - Bruges, Belgium - Amsterdam, Holland - Reykjavik, Iceland - America. Along the way I hope to give some small updates on what places are like and how it's going.

It is hard to believe I am leaving Bulgaria, the place that I have called home for the past 2 years, tomorrow. Many people here have asked me if I will be coming back, and I say of course I will. But in a way I know that part of me will always be in Bulgaria, and part of Bulgaria will always be in me.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Last Week...

In exactly a week I will be headed back to Sofia for my final close of service activities - mostly signing off on documents. However, this is also a time for reflection. I filled out my final Volunteer Report Form and my Description of Service recently, and this has put into numerical terms (no easy task) the things I have done here. It is exceptionally hard to number what I have done here. The Peace Corps has told us since day 1 that, as youth development volunteers, we will most likely not see most of the fruits of our labor.

That is especially true with my work at the Detski Yasli (Preschool) here in Preslav. My last day at the Yasli was today, and it was representative of my entire experience there. The children there can call me by name (Bati Greg - "Brother Greg"), and are excited when I play with them and spend time teaching them basic skills. However, when I leave it is as though I am a non-person. The children do not need me there, and yet I still have had some sort of impact on their development.

Youth development, by nature, is a very vague and immaterial assignment. We YD volunteers often joke about "developing the youth," as if that were a concrete and specific task to achieve. In reality, we just do what we think is best for the children. In this country, there is a severe lack of motivation among child care workers. Many times people are employed at child care institutions because it is available and "easy" work, rather than out of a sincere desire to work with the children. For these workers, "developing the youth" is often the last thing on their mind, which makes our work all the more frustrating.

At the Yasli, this was especially evident. With a background in child development I was eager to teach the children there some basic reading skills and some other things. The employees all but laughed at me the first time I brought the subject up, telling me that since they are so little they can not achieve or learn anything. In fact, it is at this stage of development at which the foundations of development are formed, making this time one of the most vital stages in a child's life. I have had some success in teaching basic skills to the children there - namely teaching the children how to count and in some social skills. It was when I started doing this that the staff perhaps realized that spending the time to teach the youngest children (rather than simply watch them) might have a positive impact.

In my opinion this is what youth development is really all about. Not only are we assigned to help the youth, but also to help develop the capacity of the people who work at these institutions. A large part of my work here is uncountable, since it is mainly in just having conversations with people about the abilities and strengths of the children I work with. Even a chance encounter with a neighbor is a "youth development activity," as the subject of the children I work with is inevitably a topic of discussion. People are often surprised when I tell them about how a preschooler I work with can count to ten and sing the alphabet. They are similarly surprised when I tell them that not all the kids I work with at the orphanage are criminals, and are in fact very nice children who perform well in school.

Much of my last week here at the orphanage will be spent in the same way I have been spending my time throughout the past 2 years. I will still be convincing the community members and staff that the children are capable of achieving wonderful things. This is evident in that I was able to teach several illiterate children (some as old as 5th grade) how to read and write, or how to do basic math - something that was never a focus before. Now, some of the orphanage workers have started working with the children one on one to catch them up. It is this achievement that I am most proud of, but the one that is hardest to describe in words and numbers. How do you put in numbers the fact that because of your work, some people might have a more positive view of at risk children and may be more willing to work with them?

I will post my Description of Service here later in order to try to show what I have done here to you all, but really they are just words. I cannot put into words the feelings I have had here and the things I have learned. How do you express in words the feeling when a child says, "You are like a father to me." This coming from a 10 year old child who hasn't seen his father in 5 years, and to a guy who has never had any parenting experience outside of a class in college. I can't tell you the emotions I went through when he told me that. The same day, another boy spit on me and threw walnuts at my face. It is because of this that I have such a hard time talking about my time here.

Perhaps someday I will be able to sort it all out, but for now all I have is the memories. I am forever a changed man for having experienced what I did here. I can only hope that I have been a positive force in the kids' lives.

Sorry that this has been a somewhat jumbled and disjointed post. As you can tell there has been a lot on my mind as I wrap up my service. I hope to write a more cohesive post soon.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


It's been both a long and a short summer here in Preslav. The second archaeology camp (based on last year's success) came and went without a partner orphanage, but we were able to do a lot of fun activities with the kids, including a hike to the ruins in town (unintentionally held on the hottest day of the year), a lot of fun art projects that the kids had never seen before, an egg hunt for prizes, and parachute games. The whole 5 day "camp" culminated with an excursion for several of the kids to Pliska, the first capital of Bulgaria, and to Madara, home of the UNESCO preserved Madara Horseman, and one of my favorite places in the country.

I also attended my Close of Service conference in Tryavna, a 3 day affair that begins our transition back into life in the States, and to wrap up the last 2 years we've spent in this country we've come to call home. By the end of the conference, there wasn't one dry eye in the house, including mine, as our work here has become such a defining factor in how we view ourselves. Some of us will stay on for another year, and some will remain on this side of the pond for other reasons (like marriage). Most of us will be coming home to a place we haven't stepped foot upon for over 2 years, but all of us will be moving forward in some way.

When I arrived back to what has become my own home here in Preslav, I was greeted with a brand new refrigerator. The older one, a small space not much better than an icebox, failed in the oppressive summer heat. The new one is much nicer, pretty much the quality of a standard fridge in the States, holds more, chills more effectively, and has a separate freezer.

After moving this new machine into the apartment, I marveled for a moment at how far things have progressed since I've been here, and yet couldn't help but feel a bit bitter that this stuff wasn't around when I arrived. Around town, a brand new store has opened just down the street with goodies like Oreos and other things I haven't been able to find for 2 years.

In Varna, about an hour away, A huge new Carrefour store opened just next to the bus station, offering many more imports from home. The place dominates the surrounding area and acts largely as the European version of Wal-Mart. In the same complex, a sports store opened that sells, among other things, baseball equipment. I had been hoping for such a place for the majority of my time here, and now that it has arrived, at the tail end of my service with just a couple months left to go, I can't help but wonder at how much easier things could have been if it had come just a short time before.

In 2 months I will be coming back "home" to a country in which all of these things are just a given - services that are considered basic to even the smallest communities in America and many other places in the world. It would be an understatement that I have gained a new appreciation for these basic things that we as Americans usually take for granted. This was an expected result of my time here.

What wasn't expected was the realization that many of these things that we consider basic aren't really needed at all. They are luxuries that much of the world cannot even fathom. Why do you need one big store that sells everything when there are several small stores that sell all of the same things independently within a distance shorter than a standard aisle in a place like Target? Why would I want to buy peppers at a store that has no connection to the people that raised them when I can walk out my front door to find people roasting peppers on a fire, just feet away from their own gardens? We see in the States a trend to return to buying local or organic, and we pay a hefty price for what we consider a luxury item (farm fresh produce, personalized service, etc.). We then look down on the people who consider this to be the norm. Who then has progressed more?

Bulgaria may need much more time to progress to where we are in the States and catch up to the rest of the civilized world, but we also perhaps may need to slow down and view progress differently. Having a nice big fridge is a great luxury, and the Carrefour is short trip away, but I don't feel like I need any of it.

Will Rogers once said sarcastically that "We had begun to believe that the height of civilization is an automobile, a radio, and a bathtub. 'Course we're smarter now." He was talking about his own period, but it seems we haven't become much smarter today. We've begun to believe that the height of civilization is a hybrid car, an iPhone (or now an iPad), and a nice big house with many bathtubs. But if my time in Bulgaria has taught me anything it's that progress is measured not in the things you own, but in the things you learn. It's measured not by the things you do, but in how you do them. Progress isn't measured by the things you gain in life, but in the way you live it.

And today, I consider myself one of the richest people in the world.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

2 Years

"We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time."
-T. S. Eliot

Two years ago today I stepped off the plane into my Bulgarian Peace Corps experience. After a couple of days getting to know the other members of my group, I boarded a plane to a place half a world away into an experience I could never have expected and could never forget. I can remember vividly those first few confusing, desperate hours... Landing in Sofia and immediately being shepherded into a bus, lured by strange Bulgarian chocolate bars (later to become an addiction known as "vafla" haha) in a half-aware state not quite awake, but unable to sleep. We stopped in a small town along the way and I made my first purchase in Bulgarian leva - Spinach and Cheese flavored Bake Rolls (later to become another staple in my life). After nodding off a couple of times, we rolled into the mountain village of Panichishte, greeted with bread and honey by traditionally-clothed locals.

The rest of that first week has become somewhat of a blur, but I can vividly remember saying to a camera "This is life right now," and really believing it, until the camera turned off and I realized that it was an incredibly pretentious thing to say. Moments later we were whisked off to our training site, Krainitsi, and life would never be the same.

Over these two years I've forged some really deep friendships with my fellow volunteers - people I couldn't dream of forgetting. I traveled to 9 different countries. I've done some incredible things with the kids here, including coordinating 2 camps, creating a fitness room, teaching children how to read and encouraging them to make positive life decisions. I have not only gotten to know many incredible Bulgarian people, but have also been accepted as part of their families (thank you Baba!). I've become fluent in a language that most people never even knew existed. I've seen all the ups and downs of this beautiful yet enigmatic country - climbed its mountains, swam in its Black Sea waters, and admired its traditions amidst its beautifully blooming countrysides.

Next week I will go to my Close of Service Conference, during which I will start the process of wrapping up my experience here and moving on the the next phase of my life. This will be the last goodbye to some of the people in my group - a group that lost over a third of its members since meeting for the first time in that conference room in Washington DC. I am among the survivors, and incredibly proud that I have come this far. It's something that can accurately be called a journey - full of joy and turmoil, confidence and confusion, intense and unbearable heat and bone-chilling uninsulated and unheated cold.

In less than 3 months we will leave this country and assume our "normal" lives. But what does that mean if life in this place has become so seemingly normal? I can't wait to find out.

Until next time.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


The next stop on our Macedonian journey was Ohrid (pronounced okh-REED), the lakeside resort town located in the southwesternmost part of the country. The bus drive there was a story in itself - a heartstoppingly beautiful drive through the mountainous countryside of a country itself completely covered in mountains. Small mosques and picturesque little churches were visible everywhere in each of the small villages we passed, standing side by side. The villages themselves seemed, to passers by, very well developed and well kept, and I would very much like to come back and explore more of this beautiful region.

After about 3 hours we arrived at Ohrid's bus station, and a few minutes later, we were greeted by the sunny shores of the town's namesake, Lake Ohrid. A small port lies at the center of town, providing a great view of the old part of town. Built on the cliffs lining the northern part of the lake.

Shortly after checking in to our hostel (which, like most places in town, provided a great view of the lake), we headed out to explore the town. Legend has it that 365 churches were built around Lake Ohrid, one for every day of the year. I believe it. Small churches turn up in the most unexpected of places - a back alley, by a remote little dock, in the side of a cliff - they are everywhere here, giving the town a very unique feel, as if the town really hadn't experienced some of the most brutal of regimes, first the Ottomans, then the communists.

One of the most impressive of these is the Cathedral of St. Kliment Ohridski. Kliment was perhaps Ohrid's most famous citizen, and statues of him adorn many cities around the area, including my own site, Preslav. He was a follower of Kiril and Metodi (the inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet), and was largely responsible for its spread throughout the region and its legitimacy as a real form of language for the Slavic people. Interestingly enough, Kliment later moved to the region in which I now live, setting up shop in Pliska, the first Bulgarian capital, about 30 minutes from Preslav.

Today, the cathedral has been restored to its former glory atop the ruins of the old one, overlooking the lake at one of its most beautiful points. His remains are interred inside the walls of the newly restored building, and Slavic-speaking people from all over come to pay their respects to the man who helped give them a voice. As such, the old monastery is considered one of the most sacred places to the Bulgarian people, and indeed all speakers of languages derived from the old Slavonic language.

Also of note to Bulgarian history, the Monastery of Saint Naum is located just a short distance from town. Saint Naum, later known as Saint Naum of Preslav, was a founder and major contributor to the Preslav Literary School, also known for helping to develop and popularize the Cyrillic alphabet. Some of the ruins of this important academy are located not 10 minutes from my house. This was a very special connection for me, and gave me a very personal appreciation of the history of Ohrid.

Like Skopje, Ohrid is dominated by a large fortress atop the tallest hill within the city limits. The fortress provides visitors with the best views in town, and from within its walls one can see all of Ohrid, and all the way across the huge lake into Albania.

On the edge of town, around the cliffs and accessible only by a small boardwalk or boat is the beautiful Church of St. John at Kaneo, built directly on the side of the mountain and looking down into the depths of the lake. Dating back to the 14th century, this small but picturesque church rewards the faithful (or adventurous) with a very unique experience. Removed just a small distance from the noise of the city, the spot seems worlds away, a place where one can experience the same beauty and isolation as monks of old must have sought.

Ohrid has moved into one of the top spots to visit in the region, providing so much history and beauty that it could not accurately be summed up in one small blog post. I could have spent an indefinite time in this amazing city by the lake. Though it is a relatively large city, the scale is diminished when contrasted to the landscape and the history surrounding it. After 3 days I was not prepared to leave, but we had to, and I can only hope that I can make it back to this amazing place.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Macedonia Question

Macedonia is a region that lies roughly west of Bulgaria, north of Greece, east of Albania, and south of Serbia. In 1991, the place declared it's own statehood, and the topic has been subject to endless debate since. The problem arises from the fact that all of these places call the people known as "Macedonians" as members of their own ethnicity:

-Serbia declares Macedonians as Serbs, since Macedonia was one of the parts of the former Yugoslavia during the times of communism. Even today the constitution of Macedonia says that any future reunion of Yugoslavia must include Macedonia.
-Greeks declare that Macedonia is an integral part of the Greek land, having owned it for much of the region's history. They refuse to acknowledge the country as "Macedonia" as this opens the door to Macedonians declaring rights on the Greek portion of Macedonia, which shares the same name but is Greek-speaking. They only recognize the state as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," and will block any attempts by the Macedonian government to join the EU until the name situation is resolved.
-Albanians declare rights to several areas of Macedonia. For example, the capital of Macedonia, Skopje, was once an Albanian city. Albanians make up one of the largest minorities in the country.
-Finally, Bulgarians officially declare Macedonian people as "ethno-politically disoriented Bulgarians," since the language is so close to Bulgarian, and the 2 nations share much of the same culture and history. Bulgarian nationalists declare that there are "over 2 million Bulgarians trapped abroad," in reference to the population of Macedonia.

All of the nations raise questions as to whether or not Macedonia is a "real country." This has presented a major problem for this country in the middle of a geopolitical crossroads, and is the foundation of the debate known as "the Macedonia Question."

Yet somehow, the Macedonians have clung to the idea that they are a distinct people, and are fiercely proud of their country and the things they have contributed to the world throughout history. Some important figures who hailed from the region are Alexander of Macedon (aka Alexander the Great), Kiril and Metodi (inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet), and more recently Mother Teresa (born in Skopje). Whether or not these people are "Macedonians" is really beside the point. Macedonia declared itself an independent country in 1991, declared Macedonian it's official language, and immediately began the long process of trying to prove its statehood to the world.

I spent my last bit of vacation here in Peace Corps on a quick trip down to the source of all this confusion, and quickly found out that Macedonia is, in fact, a real country. It contains real people and has a real culture, that after mixing together aspects of all the different surrounding nations, becomes something all its own.

We started our trip in the capital city of Skopje, just 5 hours away from Sofia by bus. The city was very walkable and for a capital city, very small and manageable. The main attraction here is the Kale Fortress (which is somewhat redundant, "Kale" is Macedonian for "fortress"), which towers over the Vardar River in the middle of the city. The fortress walls have been restored, and the huge Macedonian flags adorning it's parapets are visible all over town. The view from the fortress is unparalleled, giving the visitor a view of the whole city below it.

The center of town boasts the recently constructed Memorial House of Mother Teresa, built in the style of a traditional home, and then decorated with fanciful murals depicting symbols of peace. Atop this structure stands the Memorial Chapel, a very modern structure devoted to the ideals of Mother Teresa and her quest for world peace. Light streams in everywhere, giving the building a very special feel. The building also houses a museum with relics such as her Bible, various notes, and displays chronicling the life of one of the most famous citizens of Skopje.

Near the center, and across the river lies the Old Town. The way the streets wind around little mosques here reminded me of my visit to Turkey, and indeed the whole place has a more Eastern vibe to it, a very nice change of pace from the largely Eastern European feel of the town. Shopkeepers can be seen outside plying their wares and haggling with customers just as they would in a place like Istanbul. Duner Kebabs and Turkish tea are found readily and abundantly...

The Turkish influence can be felt all over this side of town. Again, Macedonia was once part of another nation - the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which once controlled the majority of the Balkans. However, unlike Bulgaria which seems to have repressed much of its Turkish influence, Macedonia seems to have embraced it (at least a bit), and mosques can be seen all over, dotting the countryside and peeking out in the middle of cities. The cuisine is a bit more Turkish influenced as well.

In the middle of town lies the Old Stone Bridge, one of the oldest structures in town, and still basically in tact after about 500 years. This bridge has seen many owners - the Turks, the Albanians, the Serbs, etc. - and seems to be a symbol of Macedonia itself. The bridge connects the new center to the Old Town and the fortress, and in this way connects all aspects of its history right in the most central part of the city. As the waters of time pass under the bridge, the structure stands, unchanged from empire to empire as a testament to not only the perseverance but also the very identity of the Macedonian people, a people who have taken aspects of each previous culture and have pieced them together to create something all their own.