Tag Archives: Sofia

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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Working with the Rainbow Hub on Next Steps

Sofia       The Rainbow Hub in Sofia, Bulgaria, is a nonprofit founded several years ago by three small organizations that came together to combine their work and rent space for offices and activities, making it the center of support and advocacy for the LGBT community in the city.  After the earlier showing of “The Organizer” there, they had arranged a session on campaign training for a half-dozen of their staff and key activists.

Last November they had been a key organizer of a march on human rights for women in the face of the failure of the Parliament to approve the Istanbul Convention of the European Union.  The convention or agreement between the member countries was a straightforward condemnation of violence and domestic abuse targeting women and girls, hardly controversial it would seem, but in fact the convention has become a lightning rod in the Bulgarian culture wars.  The Bulgarian Prime Minister Minister had been diddling over the convention until his term as EU president had ended.  The Bulgarian Constitutional Court had ruled the convention unconstitutional in the country teaming Bulgaria with Slovakia as dissenters to the convention which they saw as a stalking horse for same-sex marriage and recognition of alternative genders.

The march and rally had turned out 400 and now nine organizations had come together with hopes of putting more than 1000 on the street in early March.  Though my scope was working with the team on the follow-up campaigns after the march, it was impossible to avoid discussions of the march preparation as well.  Details matter, so we ended up discussing the critical importance of lists to organizing, the need to get commitments on turnout from each partner organization, the call and outreach plan whether via phoning or contact work or social media, and more.  It became quickly evident that much of the planning was not so much deep organizing as reliance on Facebook and similar tools, which also led us to a productive dive into the importance of organizing and expanding a reliable and identifiable base for the Hub and others, rather than an amorphous advocacy program.

Embracing our base, we were then able to have fascinating strategic and tactical discussions about campaigns ranging from equal pay for women to status and pay issues for feminized professions to finding organizing handles for emergency shelters, day care, and kindergarten programs.  Some of it was slower going as they educated me on the legal regime in the country, the bureaucratic morass and impotence of regulatory and investigative commissions, and traditional cultural barriers raised frequently against all aspects of their work with women and the LGBT community.

As always, the dialogue led us down interesting paths from targeting oppositional neighborhoods with direct contact and doorknocking programs to increasing the visibility of Rainbow Hub activities.  By the end everyone seemed ready to embrace the importance of organizing and a continual program of direct and collective action, but we’ll eagerly await future reports before measuring the progress of a fascinating several hours.

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