Monday, September 29, 2008

On Rakia

It’s that time of year again folks… and not the one you’re thinking of. I’m not raking up leaves, I’m not watching football, I’m not gearing up to carve pumpkins and eat turkey, and while I am eating copious amounts of food, I do that here pretty much every day anyway. No, my friends… It’s rakia-making time!

Some of you from the States might not have heard of or experienced rakia. I’ll try to explain it. Here in Bulgaria they try to say that rakia is a type of brandy, but I tend to disagree. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s very tasty stuff, but it’s powerful. Think of the most potent drink you’ve ever had, and then combine it with jet fuel, and you might come close to getting the same results.

Regardless, it’s a very important part of Bulgarian culture, and is found at most dinner tables on most nights, sipped straight up with Shopska Salat as the chaser. My host family explained that the drink is regarded as the national drink of Bulgaria, and that if possible every Bulgarian family brews their own rakia. I’m pretty sure that not every household brews their own, but I’ve seen for myself that it is indeed very prevalent, and is a source of pride for many Bulgarian families, each recipe being unique to each family. A lot of the rakia here in BG is made from grapes, but my host family’s is brewed from a mixture of apples and plums. I’ve also heard of rakia made from peaches, raspberries, and a variety of other fruits.

The process started long ago, when I walked through the gates of my house to find my host family smashing fruit with a hammer and pouring it into large plastic vats.

A few days later the fermentation process was well underway, and the vats were locked away in a shed for about a month.

This weekend the vats were dragged out of the shed again, and an apparatus was built to “cook” the rakia. Here one doesn’t distill alcohol, but “cooks” it.
We got a fire going, and the end result traveled up out of the vat, through the “serpent” for cooling, and out into a bucket, from which it was transferred into containers for storage.
After testing the ABV, which clocked in at around 50%, the new rakia was locked away, not to be touched again for a year (though my host father snuck a few sips to check if “everything had gone alright”).

This means that we also finally got to crack open last year’s batch, which everyone around apparently simultaneously agreed is much better than the previous year’s. I didn’t detect much of a difference. I did however have an awesome time watching this whole process happen, and I’m pretty sure everyone is excited to have rakia for another year. Since the winter is creeping up on us, there was also talk of a related drink called gran rakia, which is heated and blended with sugar. Sounds magical.

Until next time… cheers and na’zdrave!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Elate da Izrisuvame!

“Come and paint with us!”

Peace Corps Bulgaria wanted something sustainable, and we gave it to them… What could be more sustainable than a giant picture on a once-blank wall that shows how patriotic your town is? About 20-ish kids showed up, as well as 10 adults, to clean up their town and create a lasting expression of peace. At least that’s what I like to think of it as… Really, we had a fun day in the town center, did some painting, and gave away a soccer ball for picking up trash around the town center. It all just seemed to work together well.

Before: During:
After Day 1:

We had a bit of scare while we were touching up a few parts of the mural the day after. It started to rain overnight, and when we got to Bulgarian class everyone had the same look on their faces – a look that obviously said, “Are we sure the paint is waterproof?” Luckily the mural made it through the night, but we’re going to cover it with waterproof sealant just in case.

By the way, I was also on Bulgarian television for the first time, since the regional news came out to cover our project for whatever reason. I did an interview… in Bulgarian. The constant onslaught of language lessons every day is paying off I guess!

The mural reads “Welcome to Kraynitsi” (Dobre Doshli b Kraynitisi) and is written against an outline of Bulgaria filled in with the colors of the Bulgarian flag – white, green, and red. On the side is one of the symbols of Bulgaria, pink roses, and at the bottom is displayed the emblem of the European Union, of which Bulgaria is now a part. Just under the lettering, and contained within the borders of Bulgaria (and in its correct region, I must add) is displayed the coat of arms of Kraynitsi, in which is a traditionally dressed figure holding an apple and a flower. I'll add the picture of the emblem later.

Other volunteers from our area came out and gave their help and support as well. Thanks guys!

Now begins the final stages of our training for service here in Bulgaria. Swearing-in is just under 3 weeks away. Somewhere in between now and then we’ll make another trip to Sofia to check out some of the sites, as well as the Peace Corps office and US Embassy. After that, we only have another week until we are officially sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers. Then it’s on to Preslav… and into the bitter Bulgarian winter, which seems to have already begun, coming out of nowhere. Seriously, I think the average temperature in my bedroom during this past week has been somewhere in the 40s… Great!

Until next time…

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Thoughts Fom the Top of the World

Every day I feel more and more like a Peace Corps advertisement: “Life is calling… How far will you go?” Last weekend I hiked into the mountains up to about 10,000 feet to see the Seven Rila Lakes, which I can say with confidence is hands down one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. It takes a good 3 hours to get up to the lakes, and once there, another 2-3 hours to get to them all, including an hour hike almost straight up from the 5th lake to the top of the mountain where the last 2 are hidden, but it’s definitely worth it. Any questions as to why I’ve come this far were wiped away as I looked down at Bulgaria… Then a hailstorm came and we pretty much slid the rest of the way down the mountain in huge piles of mud.

Am I living my life? I like to think so.

From that point, at which I’m pretty sure was the highest elevation I’ve ever stood, I couldn’t help but feeling small. I also couldn’t believe how far I’ve already come in such a short time. It’s hard to believe that just 2 months ago I stepped off the plane into this crazy adventure, where now so many weird things seem completely normal to me. I’m trying to imagine what kind of warped reality I will be living in after 2 years, or how many things I’ll be missing in the States. But I can’t quite wrap my mind around that yet… Maybe I will have finally integrated into this Bulgarian life. Maybe the lack of oxygen was just getting to me…

One thing I’m not missing is the ridiculous amount of politicking that is going on this election year. Pretty much my only lifeline to American news is internet sources, and right now they’re jammed with worthless personal crap about the candidates. It’s everywhere, including places where I thought were safe havens (like my email inbox). I know that election years are usually crazy, but this year seems to be on a different level. I don’t know if it’s that the stakes are so high or if the media is just more prevalent than ever. Whatever it is, I’m glad I’m not in the thick of it right now…

Thankfully I can escape the constant bombardment by simply focusing on my work here. I taught my first class ever this week – an hour long English lesson about parts of the body, concluding with a pseudo dance party (Do a dance move using your… arms!). This weekend marks the beginning of the most important events of our pre-service training. We will be painting our mural on the town’s chitalishte on Sunday, and then we’ll be presenting our cultural topic on Friday (our group will be talking about Bulgarian superstitions).

Until next time.

PS: I’ve posted more pictures from the hike on my facebook page. I hope I can get more up on here, but in the meantime, if you have a facebook account (which I think everyone should have haha), you can check them out there…

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Into the Mix

It’s a long 7 hours to and from Veliki Preslav.

Driving along the little highways in Bulgaria gave me a lot of time to think (especially since I didn’t bring anything to read. Good move, me!)… I think mostly about the little things in the now, but every once in a while I get some good ideas about future plans. This was one of those times. I guess the need to fill in the awkward silences in between my 3-year-old-level Bulgarian and my counterpart’s lack of English provides a good medium for plan-making. I have so many things floating around in my head right now it’s ridiculous…

My primary assignment will be to work in the local orphanage (Dom za Detsa – literally “home for children”), coordinating activities for the kids and teaching life skills for integration into the community. As secondary assignments, I’ll be working in a kindergarten and also holding English classes for adults in the town. This is perfect for me, not only because it means I’ll have a pretty stable workload over my two years here, but also because my primary interest and experience is with at-risk children. And believe me, these children are definitely at-risk. Hopefully I can get some of the local fathers in town involved as well in my second assignment, as that assignment not only involves the small kids but also their families.

I’m walking into a bit of a delicate situation here, as I’m replacing another volunteer whose service has ended. Luckily I was able to talk to said volunteer and discuss some things she’s done over the past couple of years. Admittedly, I have a different approach to working with children from her. This isn’t a bad thing, and I think that the ideas I’m mulling over right now can actually work out and can provide a big payoff for the kids in the area of life skills. I guess we’ll see in time…

As for my site itself, I couldn’t be happier. Preslav is a small city (a “gradche” as the residents there affectionately… or diminutively… refer to it) and was at one time the capital of Bulgaria. It once rivaled Constantinople as the most powerful city in the known world. Now it is a small, underserved, and all but forgotten town near the regional center of Shumen, having only ruins and a museum near the town to remind the world of its former status. That aside, the town itself is beautiful, with several cafes and restaurants, a weekly farmer’s market, a huge park, a nice central courtyard area with a gigantic statue of the former king of Bulgaria, and some nice old churches. There is another volunteer – a COD from the previous group - located in my town who is awesome and with whom I think I’ll get along really well. There are also a lot of other volunteers in my area (including 4 from my group – the B24s), so it will be nice to have all of them around in case things get hairy.

But for now I’m trying to concentrate on the near future… more specifically my group’s current project. We’re doing a mural painting on the wall of the local chitalishte (community center), which will involve the help of kids and community members. We’re also going to be coordinating some activities to happen while people are waiting to paint the mural, and might also hold a trash pickup in the town center. By the end of this week I will have also taught my first class ever – an hour long English lesson to Bulgarian children -and will have developed a 3 month action plan to implement when I get to my site. It will definitely be hard to stay focused on the present as all these ideas swim in my head, and as I plan for projects to come.

It’s hard to believe that as I’m having the time of my life here I’ll be missing football season (“real football” haha) for the first time. Luckily we have in the BG are keeping the spirit alive with a fantasy football league. It’s not quite the same but it’s better than nothing. I expect all of you with access to a TV on Saturdays and Sundays to keep me updated. Hopefully I’ll find a place that is sympathetic to the needs of American football fans. In the meantime, Bulgarian soccer will have to hold me over. More on that whole situation later…

Until next time… Go Noles, Go Bucs…

Monday, September 1, 2008

Moment of Truth

Man... September is here already?

Today I found out where I'm spending the next two years of my life and what exactly I'll be doing in this crazy country. I'm headed to the town of VELIKI PRESLAV, where I will be working at both an orphanage and a preschool. Look out BG...

I'll send more info once I get it. This week will be spent scoping out my future site and getting to know more about what I'll be doing.

Wish me luck!