11 February 1997
Well as you are aware, or I presume you are, Bulgaria had it's first demonstrations in Sofia on the 10th of January. I received most of my initial information by watching CNN International. However, when the first day's violence was not repeated CNN dropped coverage for more "news worthy" events i.e. violence in Korea, Albania, Serbia and Algeria. Now I watch the 2 Bulgarian channels and there are continuing demonstrations in Sofia and most of the larger towns. There has also been some blocking of the major roads through Bulgaria that is disrupting delivery of goods to Europe from Greece and Turkey and vice versa. Here in Zlatograd there have been supporting meetings and marches since the 16th or 17th. The Peace Corps has directed all Volunteers to avoid being in the areas that have any demonstrations. This is for our safety but more important it is to make sure that the parties cannot claim that the Peace Corps is supporting one side or the other. Therefore I have not actually witnessed what is going on in Zlatograd; just know that there are meetings and small marches. I believe that the Socialist Party (former communist) will drag their feet as much as possible believing that the demonstrations will go away. However after writing this; they agreed on the 4th of February to have new elections for Parliament late in April. Because of the economic conditions here, you can expect to see Bulgaria in the news a lot more this year. The elections for a new Parliament are not going to correct that (the President said that very thing the night of the 4th to the demonstrators). It is an economic disaster that will only get worse before it gets better. The average working Bulgarian is now at about $20 per month with inflation in 1996 at 311%. The Leva to dollar rate has gone from 450/1 on 24 December to 770/1 on 23 January - or a 71% decline in the first month of 1997. It was at 2750/1 yesterday or an additional 257% in 2 weeks. The South American countries were able to function in the early '80s with that kind of inflation and currency devaluation's but the Bulgarians don't have a clue. The next big news will be the governments default on one of the foreign debt payments that are coming up this year. I think it is now only a matter of time before they default because of the slowness of their privatization effort, the value of what they are selling, and the lack of tax revenue.
The rest of this letter is going to be just random thoughts or observations that you may find interesting. Maybe you won't?
The winter dress for Bulgarian women would cause apoplexy in the Save The Animal Rights Groups. There are fur coats present on the streets like you haven't seen since the 1950's. And the little foxes curled around well dressed throats; (you remember them yes?) where the fox is biting his tail to stay in place. The other styles of dress that you need to picture are in four groups. First, there is the traditional peasant look with a smattering of regional folk dress thrown in; this is for both men and women. Next is the cosmopolitan European look which the middle aged to older women pull off reasonably well. This is set off with a hat; in all seasons, but particularly in the winter. The same age group of men do not fair quite as well; most of them look like every well dressed Communist stereotype that you have ever seen in the movies. Then there are the young. The girls tend to wear high heel platform boots and short-short to mini skirts the year around (in as striking a neon color as possible). The guys have taken their clue from James Dean and early Brando. Fortunately the baseball catcher look was not popular during that period and it hasn't really caught on yet. Lastly, there is the Bulgarian "gansta" look which is to wear an athletic warm up suit with as many gold chains as possible around what was a neck. The "muscle" here in Bulgaria are called "the wrestlers" or are referred to as "the guys with no necks". This uniform is also very popular with many others; cutting across age divisions and sex. My best guess is that it is the Bulgarian conspicuous consumption item of the times and may have the same panache here as designer jeans in the rest of the world.
The architectural styles also give you the feeling that the country made that "first great leap forward" in their first five year plan after 1945. From then on all construction followed that pattern and you see government buildings that have that 1930's to '50's look even when they were built in the late '80's. Monuments and statutes built during the communist period tend to be huge, with lot of angles, or depicting some armed struggle. (A bridge in Kustendil has a massive naked woman on each corner; 3 are armed with swords somewhat in the style of our Miss Liberty, the 4th is gripping a machine gun.) The private homes are generally not different today from what was built 100 years ago. Almost no change at all in design and very little in construction technique. There are 26 pine tree logs in the roof of all homes that are built; therefore the exterior dimensions are always the same. The interior may be divided up into different room configurations but the dimensions of the box is always the same. Here in Zlatograd there is an interesting tradition concerning the finishing of the roof. Once the log rafters have been placed and before the tile roofing is put in place a pine log cross is affixed to the chimney. The home owner then puts a collection of plants (each type of plant bringing some kind of good fortune) on the very top of the cross as a bouquet. Friends are invited over for a party; they bring with them lengths of cloth, towels, shirts, undergarments etc. which are placed on the cross member of the cross. These fabric gifts will be given to the workers that are building the roof but the colors bring particular good fortunes to the home owner and his family. This decorated cross will remain in place until the tiles have been installed.
A few words about hospitality and the rude character of the Bulgarian people. The Bulgarian host will force food and drink upon you with as much intensity as any American grandma that I have ever met. However, there seems to be a difference that I couldn't quite identify until recently. That difference revolves around a theory that I have been developing to explain much of Bulgarian behavior. My theory is that the basic Bulgarian character is based upon pretending. They have lived for so long in a society that required that you pretend that it has become a basic part of their character. This goes back before Communism in their history but I think it explains why they were the solidest supporters of Communism and the Soviet Union. Therefore, you can go to a Bulgarian home and be treated with the utmost in hospitality but the next day be treated rudely in a post office line by that same host. This is not a civil society! We in America may murder each other at a rather high rate compared to the rest of the world and Bulgaria. But, our relationships with each other on a day to day basis is far more civil than here. If a Bulgarian knows that I am an American they treat me with the utmost politeness and respect but if they think I am just some other Bulgarian I get the normal treatment - that is I am treated rudely. There is no concept of standing in line to wait for a bus or for any other service. To look at the group of people outside a bread store, or waiting for a bus, you would think they have come together as a lynch mob. There is pushing and shoving and the most illogical of all is the desire to crowd onto the bus before those getting off have finished doing so. You have seen pictures of the "pushers" that are employed by the Japanese subway system to cram people onto the subways there? Well here it is much the same with buses and trolleys but absent the "pushers". Bulgarians would find the very concept of a movie line stretching around the block to be ludicrous; they would all pack themselves into a mass pressing against the entrance and then spill into the theater upon the doors opening. To press in front of someone at the post office window or a shop counter is done as a matter of course.
A brief note on the butchering of a hog by my neighbor during the Holiday Season. Some day between Christmas and New Years (I forget the date) an upstairs neighbor and one downstairs went it together and bought a pig. I saw the butchering process from my balcony; watching it off and on for the 2-3 hours that it took. First the pig was brought to the back area of my apartment block and placed on the ground on what looked like an old door. The upstairs neighbor then took a blow torch (the kind that you see in the cartoons with the big nozzle for the flame) and singed the hair of the pig and scrapped it off with a butcher knife. After the hair was all removed he gutted the animal and the downstairs co-butcher washed the intestines for sausage casings and all the other organs with a garden hose and pails of water. They then halved the hog, divided up the internal organs as agreed upon and carried it to their respective apartments. I was able to have some of it with my upstairs neighbor on Saturday the 25th of January; it was quite good! However, the adage is "Any one interested in laws or sausages should never watch either being made."
Again I'm in a country facing a domino theory. The first time I helped in an election that put a dictator into power for over 30 years - the Dominican Republic. Then I was involved in the first military defeat of the US since we became an independent country - and all of Viet Nam became a Communist nation. Now I am helping (?) Bulgaria, a former Communist country, become a democratic capitalistic country - what might their chances be?