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The kids

Packed up this morning and loaded onto our coach. Our driver is Kyril, but I don't think he speaks English at all. The bus isn't as good as a Heidebloem, but it's a similar set-up (really, how much difference could there be between bus configurations?).

After a bathroom stop (where I bought a Moora bar (hazelnut wafers in chocolate)), we went to a school in Dupnitsa about an hour and a half outside of Sofia. It's a 1st through 8th grade school, and we were entertained by a small group of 3rd and 4th graders. They sang Bulgarian folk songs and did little dances and looked adorable doing it. The girls wore little red skirts and white shirts, while the boys wore white shirts and whatever color of track pants they could dig up. Each of them had a turn or two at the microphone, either reciting a poem or giving us a history lesson. Then Stefan would translate everything. He also sang and danced along with a few of the songs; he was out of breath afterward!

We were then asked to sing to the children, and for God knows what reason we chose "Old MacDonald." I never realized just how tuneless that song is. The children listened with solemn faces and clapped along. I don't know if they thought we were ridiculous or not. Afterward, Stefan had gifts for "us" to give the children: new workbooks, pens, coloring pencils and crayons, tablets, etc. Also, juices and Cokes and other assorted goodies. In turn, the children gave us little gifts too: a vial of rose oil in a little painted wooden bottle, and a most welcome bottle of (actually cold!) water.

We had learned enough Bulgarian on the bus to ask the children their names. I met Raya and another girl whose name escapes me but it was something like Salome or Selina (only in Bulgarian). I told them they were super, which if you make it sound like "soo-pair" turns out to be a universal word. One of the little boys marched up with his hand outstretched and said, "My name is Bobby!" He and Salome/Selina were front and center during the performance, and they were both serious little performers. They were the only two who knew all the dance moves and really worked it. Anyway, we're all pretty sure little Bobby will end up in Parliament.

We visited one of the classrooms to see what they're like. The school is being renovated, so this classroom will eventually get some new paint, a good thing because it looked a little shabby. But it had a nice whiteboard and some new desks, and also brand new windows. Stefan took us through a poster of the Cyrillic alphabet (it was a first-grade classroom), and also showed us the kids' workbooks and talked a little about education in Bulgaria. He said kids don't start first grade till the age of seven, and there are only between 18 and 26 children in a class by law. The kids also go to school in shifts, so one group goes in the morning till noon and the other group goes from noon through the afternoon. Teachers are paid by the local community, but extras and school upkeep are paid for with money from the national government and the EU.

The children who performed for us were all Roma, and after the performance we drove five minutes to a Roma neighborhood. It was an interesting arrival because the paved road stopped where the Roma community began. We walked around a bit; it was more or less as depressing as you'd expect: dirt and stone roads, haphazard houses, dogs and children all over the place. But some of the houses were well built and nicely kept, and the children were all dressed and clean … well, as clean as children generally are. We were also quite the attraction, as a few little groups of kids followed us around.

We had lunch in the home of Tsetska, a leading figure in the Roma community. She has a daughter and a granddaughter, and her husband has a small construction company. She worked for many years as a "medical mediator," making sure that the Roma girls and women had regular checkups and went to the doctor when necessary. She sat us out on a lovely deck and served us homemade chicken noodle soup (delicious), salami, cheese, and fruit. We asked her a lot of questions and she answered while Stefan translated.

She said that a Roma man who has a good job is less respected than a Roma man with a flock and horses because the latter job (farmer, basically) is seen as more traditionally Roma. Many Roma parents don't let their kids go to school (too suspicious) so they aren't educated enough to get good jobs; they end up working construction or going into crime. Thus, there is still the stigma that Roma equals criminal.

Stefan told us more about the Roma. They originated in India, and at some point a large group of them settled in Egypt. They didn't really settle though, because they eventually turned up in what became Syria and Iran, as well as Turkey. Because they came from Egypt, they were called gypsies. The Roma began settling in the Balkans during the 4th and 5th centuries, and today there are approximately 300-500,000 Roma in Bulgaria. The ones who live in the east are mostly Muslim, and the ones in the west are mostly Christian. They are different from the "travelers" of western Europe in that they do, in fact, settle in one place and, despite choosing to live in their own ghettos, do make attempts to integrate.

Stefan stressed how important it is for him to support the Roma. As a way to encourage the kids to stay in school and study hard so that they can get good jobs, his business partner Lyuba and he sponsor 20 Roma kids every year for a day in Sofia. They're chosen for this based on their grades. They go to a children's opera, McDonald's (a dream for most of the kids) and to a movie. They also get to talk with the vice-president. During one of these talks, a boy whom Stefan knew to be a shy, nervous kid got up suddenly and began to sing "Nessun Dorma." And he apparently sang it tremendously well for his age. Lyuba and Stefan made sure this kid, Thomas, received proper vocal instruction, and he eventually went on Bulgaria's Got Talent … and won.

After going up and up and up a mountain, we arrived at the Rila Monastery in the late afternoon. Pilgrims come here, as it's the holiest place in Bulgaria, and they can stay in dormitories. We, however, have the luxury rooms. And by "luxury" I mean "Spartan." There are ten Orthodox monks who live here, including an archbishop, and there is a volunteer staff of around 40 who help with the landscaping and other such stuff. The place is beautiful and right now, as I'm typing this, all I can really hear is the river flowing beneath my window.

We had a brief tour of the frescoes on the outside of the church, and then went outside the gates to a restaurant for dinner. We had shopska salad (that's three in three days), chicken noodle soup (this afternoon's soup was better), and very good bread that we could dip in oil and curry powder (surprisingly tasty). We'd had a choice for the main course, and I picked chicken stew. It was very much "meh," but the people who had plumped for trout really enjoyed that. For dessert there was sheep's-milk yogurt into which we could mix blueberry jam or honey or both. With just the jam it was still a bit too sour, but one teeny-weeny spoon of honey made it really sweet and tasty.

After dinner we did buddy introductions, some of which were quite funny and/or interesting, but most of which were a dull timeline of people's lives. We made it back to the gates of the monastery before they closed at 8:30.

We're only here for the one night, and I'm fine with that because I'm not so sure about this bed. Suspect I'll wake up sore!

The children in Dupnitsa

The children in Dupnitsa


Cyrillic alphabet

Cyrillic alphabet


View from Tsetska's deck

View from Tsetska's deck


Picnic at Tsetska's house

Picnic at Tsetska's house


My cell

My cell


Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery


Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery


Stefan talks about the frescos

Stefan talks about the frescos


Tiny Jesus introduces Abraham, Isaac and Jacob

Tiny Jesus introduces Abraham, Isaac and Jacob


Monk

Monk


Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery


The church at the Rila Monastery

The church at the Rila Monastery


Devils test the wandering soul

Devils test the wandering soul

Posted by londonpenguin 17:00 Archived in Bulgaria

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