Sunday, April 26, 2009

Volleyball Death Match

This weekend I went out to Turgovishte, a town pretty close to me, to go help a volunteer from another group with a fundraising project she has going. The idea was to have a Volunteer vs. Bulgarians volleyball match. Sounded fun, and in the end it actually was a lot of fun. However (just as many seemingly normal things here in BG turn out) the whole deal was an adventure.

I got into town at about 2pm and met the other players from the volunteer team. We were going to get together to play a bit and practice before the match. After buying possibly the greatest prize of all time (a plastic sword) to give to the winners of the match, we eventually made our way to the school where the game was going to go down.

As we waited for the doors to become unlocked, we watched a boys vs. girls dodgeball game going on outside the school. The girls were vicious, and the boys resorted to cheating (i.e. not leaving when they got hit, bringing in 2 people when they caught the balls). I have to say, between that game, and the little boy climbing nearby buildings, the time before the game was pretty entertaining.

Finally we get inside and start hitting the ball around, and get a quick practice game together. Only one person on the team had ever played on a volleyball team before, and the rest of us hadn’t played in a while, if at all. However, for not having any experience, we came together to field some sort of semi-respectable, rag tag team as the opposing team of Bulgarians walked into the gym.

After giving our strongest “USA!” cheer in a huddle we yielded the court so that they could get some practice in. This is when it became apparent that we were going to die. Previously unbeknownst to us, the team has recently won the regional championship. As we sat there watching as the other team practiced serving some of the hardest, most Olympic worthy serves I had ever seen, I got visions of the most mismatched events in sports history It was like the 1992 Basketball Dream Team against the scrubs of the rest of the world. The 0-14 1976 Buccaneers vs. the Steel Curtain…

A good crowd showed up, and the game got underway. We got our butts handed to us, unsurprisingly, but we actually got some good volleys in, and didn’t go scoreless which was nice. I sparked up a conversation with one of the Bulgarian players in between games, and he said, "So, I thought Americans were really good at volleyball,” referring to the dominating performance of the US team at this year’s Olympics. As I laughed to myself, I told him it depended on the region, and that beach volleyball is usually the version played (in Florida at least). Volleyball is serious business here in Bulgaria, and is very much a “man’s game.” Whereas in schools in America, girls usually play volleyball while the boys play basketball, it is interestingly exactly the opposite here.

Anyway, after a couple of games in which we Americans lost by huge lopsided margins, we mixed up the teams and played some mixed games, which yielded the most fun times of the tournament, and made up in part for the loss of confidence I had in my athletic skills. All in all it was an awesome time, and a huge success. The event brought in more money than was expected, and everyone had fun, despite the stinging red marks on our forearms…

Until next time…

Sunday, April 19, 2009


After painting eggs, I was reminded by my coworkers to go to the center for the big Velikden (Easter - literally "Great Day") midnight mass, and that this was something I shouldn’t miss. Not wanting to pass up a good look at another tradition, I said I’d be there. At about 11pm my sitemate and I headed down to the center where the big church in town is. People were slowly congregating in and around the church, and others were just hanging out at the café nearby. Seemed just like a normal night, maybe with just a few more people.

At 11:30, the church bells started ringing as a call that the service was about to start. Everyone filed into the little church, and the priest started singing his prayers. Incense was lit while the curtain hiding the altar was moved away. At that moment, a small path was made through the middle of the church. In Bulgarian churches there are often no chairs, and so there were a ton of people in there. The priest then made his way down this makeshift aisle with a giant bundle of candles. I recognized this tradition as being similar to the tradition of the Paschal candle in Western liturgy. This orthodox one was a bit different: 3 candles bundled together, creating one large flame at the top - a powerful symbol for sure. The deacon also carried a large single red candle as he led the procession.

As the priest made his way down the aisle, people from all around started reaching over to light their own candles from the paschal candle. Since I was on the aisle I reached out and lit a candle as the priest sang something in Old Bulgarian. As the priest reached the door, the aisle that had formed quickly collapsed and people made their way outside. There, it seemed as though the entire town had gathered around the church, and everyone had a candle and was lighting it from the original. After about 10 minutes, the entire center was glowing with candlelight.

The priest carried on his liturgy, as old babas responded by singing “Gospodin pomilo” and “Amin” (I think “Lord merciful” and “amen” respectively). Then the singing stopped and the priest shouted to the crowd “Isus Vozkresus” (Jesus is risen) to the clanging of the church bells. I don’t know if it was the hundreds of candles around or what, but there was something very magical in that moment. For a couple of minutes at least, it seemed that everyone in town was content. Even the stern, usually unsmiling babas had a look of joy. It was one of those moments during my service here in BG that I will never forget.

The priests wrapping up the service outside:

Ring the bells - it's officially Velikden:

But this wasn’t the end, as it would have been after a service back in the States. In Bulgaria it seems as though there’s always something during each holiday that will grant you health and luck for the year and absolve you of your sins. In this case, the gathered crowd had to make 3 laps around the outside of the church while keeping their candles lit. If successful, you will be washed of your sins and have a healthy year. Some people even had strategies to prevent their candle from going out in the night breeze. I saw a lot of yogurt containers being made into makeshift shields to block out the wind. This was serious business.

As for me, I took my regular little candle and just made the laps bez extra protection. When a breeze picked up I moved my hand over the flame and that seemed to work just fine. I made my way around the church three times along with the rest of the crowd (it seemed as though most people were successful). Everyone then placed what was left of their candles in the gardens around the church to burn out.

I think a pretty large group went to the discotek right after - a fitting activity to do with one's newly renewed sanctity. As for myself, I returned home and fell asleep pretty quickly. The next day I woke up and ate my first taste of Kozunak. This is pretty much a giant muffin filled with jelly that is traditional to eat on Easter, along with the eggs. I got three of them - one from the awesome Yasli staff, one from my landlord, and another from my baba next door. Needless to say, it was delicious and prepared me for a week full of more Easter festivities.

Until next time...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Boyadisvane na Yaitsa

The Easter season is here, and the people around town have been reminding me that it might be the biggest holiday in Bulgaria. I don’t deny that – there is a ton of stuff going on around Preslav, and will continue for a while after this. Today we kicked off the festivities by painting Easter eggs at the orphanage.

Painting eggs is pretty popular in the States. Here in Bulgaria the tradition of using eggs as an Easter symbol is taken to a whole new level. Starting on Easter and continuing for a week after, I am told that there will be “egg wars” in which two boiled and painted eggs are knocked together, and the winner is the egg that doesn’t break. I love this country.


So there's a tradition here in Bulgaria during the egg painting. After the first red egg is done, someone takes it and draws a cross on everyone's forehead with the red paint. I can now check "Have a hot egg dragged across my forehead" off the list of things I have to do in my life.

The kids were pretty into it. (Also, note the shirt that says "Police American Football" on it... It's the little things here that I love the most).

One of my awesome coworkers getting into the mix:

Out to dry...

So now I am officially ready for egg wars... Tonight there is a sort of midnight mass at the Church in town , and a big traditional celebration there. Tomorrow I’ll let you know how that goes…

Monday, April 6, 2009

New Camera, Spring Break, and 50th Post Extravaganza

Well faithful readers, we’ve hit a big milestone. This is my 50th post here on Greg in Bulgaria. There’s been some interesting moments and a lot of good times, but it’s not nearly over yet. The updates will keep on coming until there’s nothing left to say. Luckily, there’s a whole lot left, so stay tuned!

This weekend I headed out to the nearby city of Shumen on a mission. I needed a new camera. As you may know, my old one broke during the Kukeri trip and so it has been in the shop for the rest of March. Well, I got it back, and they were able to fix some of the things. However, most of the buttons remained out of service (including the zoom in/out button, review button and menu button). They informed me that to make over the whole camera back to fully working condition would cost more than a new camera. So I went to the TechnoMarket in Shumen (the BG version of Best Buy) and picked up a good little Samsung. I’m able to share photos again, and just in time for some interesting things around town too… Lucky you!

The kids are all out for Spring Break here in Bulgaria, which is awesome for them, but means more work for me… yay! Actually, it’s a lot of fun hanging out with the kids on break. Plus, we have fewer children in the orphanage during vacations. Here in Bulgaria, some families can send their children to live at an orphanage if they cannot afford them, with the option of taking them back during vacation times. This leaves the children who actually don’t have parents at the orphanage during these times. A little over half of the children stay, which lets me spend more time with them, and also relieves some of the stress of working with 80 children at a time.

Spring Break seemed to come at the absolute perfect time. Trees and flowers are in bloom. The Sunday market lasts longer. Cafes have started putting tables outside. People are actually walking around and act like they’re happy to be outside. Lovely. It’s consistently warm here now, allowing us to start some sports and outdoor activities at the nearby basketball court and the local stadium. Every day, it’s been above 60 degrees – ideal for running around with the kids.

I’ve been running by myself, too. The Athens Marathon is slated for November 8th, and I’m planning on being there. Now that the weather has warmed up I have started training, and have fallen into a pretty good routine, upping the distance every once and a while. There’s some shorter distance races near me in the coming months, so that will help out as well.

Even though I won’t be getting a good chance at a long break for a while (probably not until summer), I’m really looking forward to the coming weeks and months, and am feeling very motivated. I have plenty of interesting activities to hold me over, and a lot of plans I’m getting ready to start following through on. Even so, I really can’t wait to get out and explore the areas around Bulgaria. A few other volunteers have already taken excursions into Turkey, Greece, and Romania. There’s plenty of time left to see it all though… definitely enough to carry a good 50 more posts!

Until next time…