The Kindness of Strangers
Living here I get told a lot of cautionary tales about being robbed or pick-pocketed typical things to look out for in any foreign country when the awe of novel experience overloads our senses and we lapse on basic security habits.
Far from being a hostile place however, my experience here in Bulgaria, has been beyond outstanding.
(A nice day in Smolyan on the way home)
(On the walk home from the road)
(visiting the family I lived with during training before x-mas)
I visited a friend in the capital and when I went to leave there was an issue with my bags. They got lost: computer+ just about every other thing of worth that I brought to BG. They had been left in the trunk of the taxi by friends of friends in a somewhat complicated story. That all said, Peace Corps and the in-house inspector at the taxi company did the best they could and the next day the cab driver returned with the goods, intact and untouched. This guy I never met and could never thank made sure to bring everything back the next day and while the items were insured the amount of trouble he saved me is beyond thanks. All this in a post-soviet (whatever that means) city of near 2 million people, where minimum wage is roughly equivalent to $150 per month.
Other than that the trip was great:
As for my life here in the village and how impressive the hospitality is, well let’s say that when I moved into the neighborhood I got more than a fruit-basket from the guy and gal next door. People stop me in the street, ask me if I’m eating and sleeping alright and then hand me a sack of potatoes, a 2-liter of yogurt or some jars of preserved fruits or veggies (homegrown, of course). Some ladies even knit some of these thick wool socks (called, “choo-rah-pee”) meant to be worn over regular socks so my toes wouldn’t get cold. This isn’t even particularly special treatment because I’m an outsider or something.
Concern for the well-being of neighbors is generally the highest priority. It’s a significant change from the far more dispersed social groups I was used to back home, where friends lived 10’s of miles apart from each other, even if in the same town or city.
Being here, more than anything, is a tremendous exercise in perspective. Everything that I had, in my community back home, is here as well. The difference however is that it’s all mixed up and differently ordered, and because of that, it makes you see it rather than take it for granted, because for at least a moment you have to look for it.
Example: being so isolated I come to realize how important human connection is because I’m not overloaded with it as would be the norm back home. Another example would be how important tradition can be because it offers us a chance to step outside cynicism and questioning the purpose of things and just “do and be happy doing” whatever our shared ritual is. Happiness, I’m coming to realize in a lot of otherwise neutral moments, is an issue of making the choice to enjoy one’s self at that moment.
(Christmas celebration in the church)
I cannot thank enough the people who have taken me in here. Who have befriended me in an open, honest and immediate fashion. They are categorically patient, caring and excellent cooks as well. And you know what they say about the fastest way to a man’s heart – it doesn’t just apply to romance, friendship is built over meals as well.
(Me and some of the guys at the pre-NYE party)
The question of why I’m here comes up every time I have a serious enough conversation with someone for the first time and they are always extremely pleased to hear that I’m here to work with their mayor to help develop tourism, business and the community (how it works together and self-organizes) in general. It’s almost a joke because the fact of the matter is that for them I am an extra one person making a small change in scenery for the 400 who live here. At the same time, for me they are 400 people who make up the entirety of the social life of one person in this village – me. To them I am something small and perhaps shiny, to me, they are everything there is in my day-to-day.
It’s a common conclusion of long conversations among PC volunteers and Staff that the volunteer gets more out of their experience than their community or their counterparts. We’re supposed to build “friendships rather than monuments,” which are often things that look nice at first but go un-used for various reasons. We’re here to change people by giving of ourselves, pushing whatever gifts we can manage through the language and cultural barriers between us.
Concretely this means teaching and training things like English, computer skills, organizational skills and habits as well as business concepts or even just questioning accepted pessimisms and helping to break them down and replace them with some of that American Can-Do-ism.
When it gets down to it, there is no amount of training, writing of grants or changing of attitudes that can be made as compensation for unconditional friendship and hospitality given from one stranger to another, at the drop of a hat. Some things simply cannot be repaid.