6 January 1997
Thank you so much for your Christmas letter; received it the 30th of December. During the Holiday season here everything becomes even slower than normal. Your comments about the frustrations of e-mail are well understood by me. Since 20 December I have not been able to receive or send anything. Don't know what the problems are but, now knowing Bulgaria, I expect that I will be down for some time before it is resolved. I am convinced it is a server problem because there are messages that make it to the server but I can't retrieve them and it won't send my messages.
Was very good news that you had concerning your health! Not as good as being told that you can get off the chemo but still good. I received a card and letter from Al & Kay that had bad and good news about Al. He was diagnosed with colon cancer and has had surgery; now continuing with chemo and radiation. They are optimistic that they have removed the cancer and that he will be fine. Other family members also had cancerous problems during the year but all have been judged to be free of it and going to be OK. A tough year for the Henry's!
Well as promised I will try to give you some idea what the Holiday's are like in Zlatograd. I say "in Zlatograd" because I think that there is a bigger difference in how the Holiday's are celebrated within Bulgaria than how celebrated within the States. The first thing that is common throughout the country is the official days off for the Holidays. For Christmas almost all businesses and government offices were closed on Monday 23 December through Thursday 26 December. We then worked Friday 27 December through Monday 30 December then closed again on Tuesday 31 December through Thrusday 2 January for New Years. Back to work again on Friday and Saturday the 3rd & 4th; took Sunday the 5th off - confusing even to the Bulgarians! Finally back to a normal week starting the 6th of January. From a practical standpoint nothing get done in the country from 21 December to the 6th of January. (This may account for my e-mail problems also?)
In Zlatograd I saw almost no Christmas decorations in the public areas of the town and very few in the businesses. Within our office and any of the other offices in the Municipal building there was no evidence of decorations except for a small tree in the employee's canteen. The Municipality did put up a very nice tree in the square in front of the Municipal Center. It was quite well shaped for a Christmas tree and some 40 feet tall. It was set up on Monday or Tuesday the 16th or 17th and a single string of lights were added on Thursday. That Thursday they also set up a small tree, maybe 3 feet tall, on the first floor portico roof that leads into the auditorium/concert hall to the west of the square. In addition to the small tree they also affixed three Bulgarian letters, spelled out with lights, to the auditorium wall behind the tree. The three letters are an understood abbreviation for Happy New Year in Bulgarian. The single string of lights on the large tree and those used for the Happy New Year message appeared to be about 20 watt bulbs and there were 6-8 in the string on the tree. On Friday I noticed that the string on the tree were all at the top and I asked Milka when they were going to finish putting lights on it She said that they were through; that was all they would be putting on. I then asked "Why". The logical Bulgarian answer was "If they put more on the tree at a lower level the people will steal them." My trip to Sofia on 28-29 December left me with the idea that there is more commercial decorating done in the large cities but there was no evidence that the Municipality does anything additional. We in America pride ourselves on the separation of church and state and our freedom of religion. In recent years there has been animated discussions on these subjects. But if those in the US that strongly support a completely secular government want to see what it would look like they should come and visit Bulgaria next Christmas.
There is more to this than just decorations! Christmas in Zlatograd was a very quiet time. You see fewer people on the streets, many of the shops close early, and you don't see the lunches/dinners at the restaurants that we are use to. My inquiry about all this indicates that this has become the customary way of celebrating Christmas since Communism. The only thing that has really changed is the days off. Under Communism they worked on Christmas as if it was any other day. Now, as a demonstration of their freedom (?) they take all the time off; then work weekend days to make up some of the time lost. There is one similarity here with Christmas in the US. It is the time of year that the dispersed family comes back to Zlatograd if that is were Mom & Dad still live, I saw more out of town cars during this period than normal. Only when there is a wedding in town do you usually see so many out of town cars.
The New Years is more of the celebration time of the Holidays. You see more activity on the streets on the 30th-31st. You need reservations at any restaurant New Years Eve; however they open at 1930-2000 and may not close until after sun up. There are fireworks set off at midnight, people gather around the Christmas tree in the square and dance, break liqueur bottles on the square (kind of like throwing your glass into the fireplace). So generally speaking they celebrate New Years as the rest of the world would. However, I noticed that leading up to Christmas there were few wishes for a Merry Christmas but immediately after there are many wishes for a Happy New Year. This continues into the year; the first time you see someone in the New Year you will wish them Happy New Year. Again is seems to be a hold over from the Communist period when the New Year celebration took the place of Christmas. Even Santa Claus was changed to be a New Years Eve figure, with a different name, and gifts are usually exchanged at New Years not at Christmas.
My current circle of friends in Zlatograd are work mates or work related so my Christmas was also very quiet because they were out of town. I must add that it was not any more lonely than my "normal" Christmas in the US. There in the years since 1990 my "family gatherings" have been at your Christmas Lunch and at John & Janis for their Christmas Dinner; both events happening before Christmas. I did go out the night of 30 December and got pleasantly drunk, danced, "talked" to the locals, had fun, and made a general fool of myself at a local bar with Bulgarian folk singing. Stayed up for the New Year but didn't mix with the drunk locals on there night to howl; watched TV, the local fireworks, and to bed!
You spoke of a nice 4 day soaking rain in your letter. I saw on CNN International that it turned into more that that with 25 counties declared disaster areas. Pictures of people sandbagging downtown Reno with the newscaster saying that casinos were closed for the first time in their history. You may know that most casinos don't have locks on their front doors, sort of tradition! If they have to lock up they must chain the doors shut. I suspect from what I saw on TV that Harrah's was flooded; at least parts of it would have been. It looked like any of the casinos that were south of the tracks probably were flooded in their basements if not the casino floors. With Harrah's main casino below street level they had to be more at risk than others. I have lived in Phoenix, Sacramento, Reno, and Zlatograd, Bulgaria; all having had disaster level floods while I was there or soon after my leaving. Is there something I don't know about going on here?
Don't have much going on at work now. Devoted about a week to working with some USAID people trying to find a way to provide some flood relief money to the people in Zlatograd. Worked up a rough draft grant proposal that they then modified somewhat and maybe we will get about $25,000 for a city clean up project. Worked on the translation to English of another grant request that my Director has completed concerning the areas economic development. This one will be submitted to the EU (European Union) sometime this week and focuses on the citizens attitudes on the subject. I hope we get this one for sure; it will be very interesting to see what the survey may find.
Well I think that is my update for now. Wishing you the best for 1997 - all down hill with tail winds!!!