Notes for My Father on Bulgaria

Sofia       I was looking for something, and the big box store we passed as we left the National History Museum was unhelpful.  Next door, we saw a store named JUMBO.  What the heck?  We walked in and were assaulted by pastels of pink, yellow, and blue.  Rows and rows.  Aisle after aisle.  Asking for our item we were sent to the basement down a long, overly bright green hallway to the hella experience of even more.  What’s worse, it was the same items on constant replay it seemed.  Credit where credit was due, I found the item, miraculously, and then almost ran from the store!

JUMBO turns out to be a Greek chain that began as a toys and games store and has now branched out into assorted junk and seasonal specials, while retaining its commitment to color attacks.  They expanded to Bulgaria around 2005 and have a fair number of stores there now, so I really can’t blame Bulgaria for this, but if you visit, this is a warning.

Everywhere on the central plaza running from the park around the National Gallery to the lions guarding the Hall of Justice, there are little pieces of red and white woolen things, mainly small dolls or wrist ties.  This is a big, big thing in Bulgaria which is also shared by Macedonia and a few other parts of the Balkans, perhaps dating back to the Greeks and Thracians.  It was explained to me that one gave these to friends and loved ones on March 1st in order to wish them health.

Wikipedia added more information on Martenitsa, including why people tie the red and white dolls to trees.

In Bulgarian folklore the name Baba Marta (баба Марта, Grandma March) evokes a grumpy old lady whose mood swings very rapidly. The common belief is that by wearing the red and white colors of the Martenitsa, people ask Baba Marta for mercy. They hope that it will make winter pass faster and bring spring. The first returning stork or swallow is taken as a harbinger of spring and as evidence that Baba Marta is in a good mood and is about to retire.

Hey, how could it hurt?

I wasn’t able to completely track this down, but I’m on the trail of unorganized informal workers, especially the Roma city cleaners that are subcontracted to several companies, reimbursed by the municipality, but allegedly paid less than the minimum wage.  Managed to see several of them in the central city.

Of course, in Bulgaria, like Albania, people are regularly paid on two contracts, one shared with the authorities where they pay taxes on the legal minimum wage, and the other that describes their pay as a bonus or gratuity or whatever they think might both transfer money to them and at the same time all them to escape paying taxes.  This is all complicated when it comes to things like full maternity and paternity benefits.  Prospective parents with meticulous plans begin paying one to two years in advance of a birth to be able to get the entire year of full and partial benefits, rather than the bare, legal minimum which is of course about what an American would get, expect worse, since in the US it would be unpaid.

The weather was very good this year compared to last, but snow and ice over the last days revealed another advantage of cobblestones.  There is pedestrian right-of-way in Bulgaria, but it’s the cobblestones that give you more traction.

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The Challenge of the Roma Church over Civil Rights and its Role

Samodov and Razlog, Bulgaria       Although Samodov is only a bit more than 40 miles from Sofia, driving in the new sudden snowfall in and around the mountains Rila and Vitosha took us several hours.  That wasn’t the only surprise of the day.  What started as a casual meeting and tour of Hub-A, a municipally supported youth center in Samodov, instead quickly became a full-on immersion in the political and civil rights challenges facing the growing movement to coalesce and consolidate the embattled and maligned minority Roma communities, especially utilizing the framework of the evangelical Christian Roma churches in Bulgaria.

We were swept along through the snow to a large, newly constructed church in Samodov, hardly minutes from the small youth center, where we found ourselves on-lookers to a youth meeting at the church of 100 young Roma men and women.  After spirited singing and praying, our delegation spoke in aspirational terms to the teens, more in the way of uplift than struggle.  As they broke for pizza, we met with the pastor and his associates at the conference table in his office upstairs.  He was a positive audience.  He liked the message of building an issue-based Roma movement that was political and willing to fight, but nonpartisan at the same time.  The survival challenges of his new church were plainly revealed by a story he told.  The mayor of Samodov had come to the ground-breaking ceremony of the church and a competitor pastor had taken a cellphone picture of the mayor, shovel in hand, and posted it on Facebook, causing some trouble for his church among his congregants and the community, because of the indirect inference that the church was taking a political position.

Later in Razlog, meeting with a pastor at the head of the 800-member Roma evangelical church federation in a long discussion and debate over the emerging movement’s planning, strategy, and tactics, he posed a difficult question to the organizers.  How would they handle the need of one of his pastors to work with the Communist mayor of the town where his church was located versus another pastor who had to get along with the Democratic mayor of his town?  This was a large church federation that knew what it meant to survive and thrive locally in difficult and changing political circumstances secularly, even as they united members of the Roma community theologically.  The heart of the question that went unspoken was the difficult challenges of transforming the conditions and rights of the discriminated Roma minority who were their congregants, even as they practiced transactional relationships with power every day.

 

The first question the minister had posed over dinner, was how the movement would negotiate differently from a position of 10 to 15% of the population.  A lot of words were thrown at the question, but stated another way it was an enraged voice of someone too often forced to “negotiate” in a transactional way with limited strength and leverage, no matter how much he dreamed of change.  Without saying so plainly, in different ways he was asking the movement leaders whether they could guarantee that they could win this time against the usual odds, and therefore was it worth his taking the risk.

This was also the struggle in the American civil rights movement in the black churches of the South, which some answered and many failed.  Younger pastors without the same experience and scars of constant compromise, found a way to help lead, as did others with rare courage and independence, and did so by using their base and partnership with organizing efforts to finally mobilize and shame the American majority into allowing change, even if half-heartedly and still incomplete today.  The Roma church is also independent and, listening to these pastors, desperately wants change.  Answering a similar challenge with not only will but a credible organizing plan and the commitment to action and courage it requires will soon lie before them, as well as proving that they can actually win.

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