Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Petition for Bulgarian teachers

This is for Bulgarian readers only.
An online petition has been started on http://www.bgpetition.com/teachers/index.html to support the demands of striking Bulgarian teachers.
I can only hope that somebody from our dear government will look at the petition at the end!
Update: The problems in Bulgarian school are well covered by Marfa and this blogger (update - also by Nadya, Inat and Tisho).

How to help the institutionalized disabled children of Bulgaria

Below, I am reposting a comment by Elizabeth Stubbins to my Sept. 17 post Bulgaria's Abandoned Children, with admiration to her work.

I'm so glad that Bulgarian bloggers are covering this issue. In 2006, I conducted a human rights monitoring mission to the social care homes at Dzhurkovo, Petrovo and the Sofia Home for Children With Mental Disabilities, and posted my findings at: http://warehousesofneglect.civiblog.org/blog
I still remember spending the first evening with my team (a translator, a Bulgarian lawyer, and a guy from Sofia who was helping coordinate the mission). The only man in the mission sat and cried after we visited Dzhurkovo - he was Bulgarian and had never seen an institution, not wanting to believe that conditions were as bad as they are.
I have posted ideas as to how people can help, and I would be very grateful if you could include my site in your blogroll, and re-post the five points below:
1. The Bulgarian charity Karin Dom (www.karindom.com) is the first Bulgarian organisation to work specifically for the rehabilitation and social integration of children with disabilities. They accept both donations and volunteers. If you are unable to give money yourself, then sponsored activities or local events might raise sufficient funds for a donation.
2. Other non-governmental organizations work to end mass institutionalization of people with mental disabilities throughout Eastern Europe and the CIS, and worldwide. Donating money to these organizations, and spreading awareness of their work may be helpful in the long-term. Three such organizations are: the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (www.mdac.info), the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (www.bghelsinki.org) and Mental Disability Rights International (www.mdri.org). MDRI has not engaged recently in advocacy or research concerning Bulgaria.
3. Spreading awareness and writing letters to your MEP may be a good way to help. The European Parliament Disability Intergroup is the EU forum to discuss issues relating to the treatment of people with disabilities. A Google search revealed that the Lib Dem MEP Liz Lynne is strongly involved with the Intergroup, and she may well be interested in receiving a letter from you, even if she is not your MEP. Liz Lynne MEP's website is at: http://www.lizlynne.org.uk/pages/disability.html
4. Donating clothing, shoes etc. to the social care homes may not result in the change that is urgently needed. When I visited Dzhurkovo in June 2006, I saw bags and bags of donated clothing lying unsorted and undistributed in a downstairs storeroom, while the young adult residents of the home wore dirty clothing and mismatched socks (no shoes). The only soft toys I saw at Dzhurkovo (also donated by people in Western Europe) were in the Director's reception room, out of reach of the teenage residents. There are allegations by some Bulgarian NGOs that donated goods are "distributed" by the workers at social care homes into the villages, taken perhaps as "perks" of their jobs, rather than reaching the institutionalised children for whom the donations are intended. I did not see any direct evidence of this while in Bulgaria, but Bulgarian-based experts have assured me that corruption is a real danger.
5. My first priority for activism and reform in Bulgaria is skills-based, not political. I would love to see a team of European and US/Commonwealth experts in paediatrics, child development, child psychiatry and psychology, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and special education travel to Bulgaria to each of the country's many social care homes, and to train workers in best practices for child welfare.
If this were to happen, the visits by experts must be accompanied by policy change and an honest and thorough approach to deinstitutionalization - dismantling the institutions and implementing community-based care alternatives that respect the right to health, the right to education, and the right of all disabled persons to live lives of dignity, self-reliance and community integration.
It would be helpful if volunteers could coordinate such a network of experts - by raising awareness in your workplace, among your friends and family, and in any community groups of which you are part. Online recruiting would be very helpful.
Thank you,
Elizabeth Stubbins

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Reptiles behind the computer

As a Bulgarian blogger writing in English, I have the duty to make important Bulgarian-born ideas known to the world, rather than languishing in the confined public space of my small country. Recently, I mentioned that many Bulgarian bloggers ironically call themselves "reptiles". It turned out to come from an article in the July 4 issue of 24 chasa newspaper, Vlechugi zad computera (Reptiles behind the computer), by Borislav Zyumbyulev. Bulgarian readers can find the text of the article e.g. at http://www.pressboard.info/Preview.aspx?articleid=88783. At http://marfieta.files.wordpress.com/2007/07/447498_orig.jpg, Marfa has uploaded a scanned image of the original publication. You can see that it occupies an entire A3 newspaper page and is illustrated by a photo of a cobra.
24 chasa (24 hours) is the second most popular daily newspaper in Bulgaria after Trud and has the same publisher, featured in my July 9, 2006 post. There is some division of labour between the two papers, Trud pretending to be more "intellectual" and 24 chasa more "popular". As commenter Hassi wrote on Grancharov's blog, a fairly typical reader of 24 chasa is an old gentleman "who cannot use a computer and hasn't the slightest idea of this technology, but knows that his 25-year-old granddaughter regularly writes in Internet".
The article author Zyumbyulev isn't an ordinary journalist but a Deputy Editor-in-chief. It is not quite clear why he dislikes Internet so much. Some bloggers speculate that he may have entered a Web forum anonymously and other participants have scorned him. Others think that the reason is the abundant criticism in the Web to his newspaper (see e.g. an article titled 24 chasa or the misery of journalism at http://e-vestnik.bg/1429).
I cannot quite understand why Zyumbyulev called Web forum participants "black". With the exception of an occasional student or soccer player, there are no black people in Bulgaria. The only subpopulation with darker skin (though far from being black) are the Gypsies, and whatever other sins they may have, they don't use Internet. So I come to the explanation that Zyumbyulev, similarly to some fairy tales, uses black as a symbol of evil.
I am aware that translating and posting almost the entire text of an article without informed consent by the author and the publisher is a violation of copyright. However, I hope that the utmost importance of the text in question allows my post to arguably qualify for the "fair use" label. After all, if a Bulgarian scientist discovers that some food component used by billions of people is very harmful, isn't it a duty of every decent person with the required linguistic skills to rush, translate and publish the findings? And what's the difference if the discovery is about Internet, which is indeed used by billions? The world must be informed about its dangers. So read, learn and enjoy!

Title: Reptiles behind the computer
Subtitle on red background: Short, black and village-born is the anonymous creep from the Internet forums. Anonymity in the Web devastates the personality and will be the main psychological problem during the following 30 years
Author: Borislav Zyumbyulev
Malice in Internet is so mighty that if somebody manages to convert it into megawatts, its energy will be enough for all light bulbs in Bulgaria to illuminate for at least 77 years. Most writings in Web forums are negative, directed against other participants or against some phenomenon in our life... When the text is about people, they are State Security agents, thugs, good-for-nothing and fools. There isn't a single decent person in this country. This is especially true about people who are popular. Everybody who is widely known or popular in fact is just a boar who deserves his blood to be sucked in a very painful way.
Let's not discuss popular politicians like Boyko Borisov or Georgi Parvanov and take as an example (popular TV show host) Slavi Trifonov. Slavi's concerts over a single summer have been attended by 200,000 people. However, in Web forums you cannot find a single well-intentioned word about him - only malice. It is evident that those who gloat over Slavi becoming blind have in fact bought tickets for his concerts. But they fall into some bizarre Internet schizophrenia.
In their normal lives, when these people haven't accepted nicknames, they almost look normal and don't call fool everybody they meet. But at the moment when they enter the little square, their faces distort as in a second-quality Hollywood movie and they turn into terrible zombies, plain scoundrels and reptiles.
What is the cause of this mass personality split? "Writers in forums are people with complexes, unsatisfied by their lives," explains behavioural psychologist Ray Cavallino from Boston University (not sure about the name spelling; I failed to find Dr. Cavallino in the Boston University Web site - M.M.). "Anonymity gives them courage which they lack in real life. It allows them to feel important, even if for a short time. To feel like people whose opinion matters. Unfortunately, nobody reads their opinions and Internet is a giant psychoanalytical monologue. Chatter of creeps," as Cavallino has called his study on the anonymous swear-words in Internet.
"Even the most innocent subject discussed, such as growing radish or breast-feeding, quickly turns into malicious, libelous and full of personal attacks against some participant in the forum...," writes psycholinguist Lance Winslow. According to Winslow, Internet communication resembles swear-words at an elementary school lunch: if a teacher doesn't interfere, things inevitably escalate to fighting...
"The anonymous author in forums resembles the anonymous murderer. He deprives himself of his personality... in order to carry out his criminal intent," says Boyko Ganchevski, an expert in criminal psychology. Ganchevski points out that not every forum user is a future murderer or has strong criminal motivation, he rather vents his complexes... But the personality split mechanism is the same as in murderers: evil is done with impunity and without burdening the conscience by taking another personality, under cover.
According to Winslow, anonymity and the weeds of malice and baseness in Internet corrode the tissue of human civilization. Because "even most oppressive regimes don't allow arbitrary insults between individuals... We don't know what will the situation be in 30 years, what will happen to mankind, after everyone is allowed to insult everyone else with impunity and to pour whatever libel he likes," wonders Winslow. He finds it the most important field of psychological research in the near future.
Will Internet anonymity change human personality? Will there be an epidemic of schizophrenia in the streets, after this is already the norm in the Web?...
Who is writing in the forums? Bulgarian Internet service providers say that the number of these people is limited - not more than 1500-2000, according to an analysis of their IP addresses... The opinion that Internet is the media of the young is wrong. Young people go to sites for dating, music, movies and other teenagers' entertainment activities. In the "serious" forums people are middle-aged and older. They have accumulated much frustration.
There are several types of know-alls. The first can be called Reptile - short, black and village-born subjects. They have survived a number of misfortunes and are the first in their families to do the village-to-town civilizational transition. Because of this feat, they live with the feeling that the world is their debtor. This leads to painful careerism combined with a lack of realistic personal self-estimate and typical village laziness... We call them reptiles because their writings are most venomous, the evil is most evident. In fact, these people need specialized medical help because of their sociopathy which often has dramatic consequences. They abandon their families, become alcoholics, commit domestic violence.
The other type is the Sad Gay. This group includes many women. Here, the frustration is a consequence of ambiguous sexuality, several failed attempts to lose weight, miserable personal life, acne, oily hair. Especially aggressive are the homosexual guys who have a double life - they photograph themselves in the company of naked female models but dream of butts of young boys. Neurosis is sure and soon comes bipolar personality disorder.
The third main type is the Professional Informer. The former State Security is believed to have had about 300 000 professional and volunteer agents in the early 1980s. Not all of them are now in the business elite... It may be just a coincidence but most of the newly created Bulgarian news sites and blogs have some connection to the former State Security Committee...
Hidden in the Web, the anonymous creep can be found out only with special skills and a lot of efforts. Therefore, he gets away (with whatever he is writing). This perhaps gives him joy but it ruins his psyche.
The anonymous scoundrel is in fact a seriously ill person who deserves pity. "This aggression has been accumulated for millenia, since human race began to socialize. Barriers have been erected to spontaneity. These barriers fall in the darkness of Internet... The aggression typical for Internet is generalized, claiming that everyone is stupid. It is pathological, a symptom of neurotic behaviour similarly to sadism and masochism. It needs help," says psycho-analyst Madlen Algafari.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Double standard

This post, to some surprise of readers who know me, will criticize the USA.

Look at the two photos above. Are they familiar to you? My guess: the first one is, the second one isn't.

The first one is among the numerous photos taken at Abu Ghraib and documenting abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US guards. The prisoner, named Jabar, was "hooded, positioned on a box, had wires attached to both hands and his penis and was told that he would be electrocuted if he fell off. The army claims, however, that the wires were not live and that the prisoner at no time faced actual electrocution, only the threat thereof. This was later contradicted by Jabar, who stated in an interview that the wires were electrified and had been used to give shocks. There is no way to substantiate the claims of either party" (Wikipedia).

The second photo is from an Aug. 20 article in Mother Jones magazine titled School of Shock, by Jennifer Gonnerman. It is about "the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, located in Canton, Massachusetts, 20 miles outside Boston. The facility, which calls itself a "special needs school," takes in all kinds of troubled kids—severely autistic, mentally retarded, schizophrenic, bipolar, emotionally disturbed—and attempts to change their behavior with a complex system of rewards and punishments, including painful electric shocks to the torso and limbs. Of the 234 current residents, about half are wired to receive shocks, including some as young as nine or ten... Employees carry students' shock activators inside plastic cases, which they hook onto their belt loops. These cases are known as "sleds," and each sled has a photo on it to ensure employees don't zap the wrong kid."
These two examples of abuse of defenseless people received quite different media coverage. Abu Ghraib immediately was blown up to national and then international proportions. Judge Rotenberg Center didn't make its way into any of the major media. I read about it in some disability-related Web sites. I shan't be surprised if a US reader learns of it from this very post. And of course it continues to function. Disabled children are being shocked now as I am writing and most likely will still be shocked as you are reading.
While both cases of abuse are unacceptable from moral point of view, my opinion is that Judge Rotenberg Center is worse. Because it is worse to abuse children than adults and it is worse to abuse disabled people, because of their vulnerability, than non-disabled people. Especially if their disability is the reason for the abuse. Well, this is just my opinion. If you don't agree, let's say that the two cases are equally bad. Then, why did the US media, authorities and public apply such double standard? If the reaction was driven by mere moral indignation, we would expect the outcry in response to Judge Rothenberg Center to be at least as strong as that to Abu Ghraib. This isn't the case. So let's see what factor, besides moral indignation, drew additional sympathy to Abu Ghraib prisoners.
It is good to keep watch over what your government and your army are doing. In fact, it is a duty of the good citizen. It is good to stick to your moral principles when dealing with an enemy and to regard detained suspected enemy supporters as innocent until proven guilty. But when there is too much of these good things, they cease to be good. Moreover, they play directly at the hands of the enemy.
One of the most devastating events of the 20th century was the Vietnam War. It lasted for decades and ended with US defeat, mainly due to lack of decisiveness and popular support. The antiwar opposition was heterogeneous, including non-specific pacifists, communists, people not understanding the communist threat and people simply not wanting US lives and resources to be lost on some presumed long-term US interests abroad and/or helping unimportant small yellow people. It is noteworthy that, while mainstream antiwar protesters were speaking of the Vietnamese civilian victims only, a significand minority carried the logic to its end and marched under the banner of Viet Cong. Perhaps it was psychologically more acceptable for a US citizen to think that his army retreated from the battlefield for moral reasons than to preceive it as a military defeat. So the US troops became the bad guys while, correspondingly, Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army became the good guys.
The grim legacy of the Vietnam War is that what used to be regarded as treachery became mainstream behaviour in the USA. People are extremely suspicious to the justifications their government uses to take part in a war, and the war tactics. In particular, it is largely thought that wars could and should be carried out without losing soldiers, without killing and maiming civilians and without violating any human right of enemy combatants. When the US army falls short of these very high moral and technical demands, US public withdraws its support and gives it to the enemy instead. Let's face it: although it is not justified to abuse even the doer of the most despiceable action, the abuse at Abu Ghraib is regarded as so horrible because the victims are thought to be innocent. Not innocent for technical reasons or in the sense of "until/unless proven guilty", but precisely because they are thought to have taken part in the resistance. At the moment when the war in Iraq turned out not to be so quick, easy and popular as it was hoped to be, the US public started to doubt its moral grounds. Soon it looked forward for every piece of news supporting the idea that US army is "occupier" and Iraqi Islamist terrorists (plus all foreign jihadis who sneaked into Iraq to kill Americans) are patriots and freedom fighters.
The media of course contributed much to this unfortunate turn, as they had to the defeat in the Vietnam War. They happily broadcasted each (proven or unproven) report of misconduct by US troops or their allies, even when it was clear that it would harm the US cause. The publicity given to reports and photos of the abuse at Abu Ghraib resulted, among other things, in the kidnapping and beheading of innocent US businessman and humanitarian Nicholas Berg. I hoped in vain that Berg's death would lead to some soul-searching by US journalists and other opinion makers. I talked about it with my brother who lives in the USA. He said, "I couldn't name a single newspaper or TV channel which would decline to publish hot news because of care about vital US interests."
In this situation, prospects for the future don't look very bright. As a Turkish general once said, "the main problem with having the Americans as allies is that you never know when they are going to stab themselves in the back."

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bulgaria's abandoned children

A documentary of this title, by Kate Blewett, was aired by BBC4 Channel on Sept. 13. It featured one of our numerous infamous institutions for disabled children. Bulgaria has more institutionalised mentally and physically disabled children than anywhere else in Europe (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/bulgarias-children.shtml). They are either abandoned because of their disabilities or become disabled as a result of institutionalization. I wanted to write a serious post about this, but I simply cannot, so I put together citations of strong words said by concerned people.
Gererd O'Donovan wrote in Telegraph, "Kate Blewett’s Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children (BBC4) contained another 90 minutes of undiluted horror. Anyone familiar with the Romanian orphanage scandals of the early Nineties will have stared in shocked disbelief that nearly 20 years on precisely the same pattern of appalling cruelty and neglect is being repeated in another former Communist state. The chief difference is that Bulgaria is already a member of the European Union... It is no exaggeration to say that most domestic animals are treated better than these unfortunate boys and girls, who get little treatment and no education or stimulation, and are condemned to rock silently and slowly waste away in body and mind. At times it was impossible to believe the cynicism of the staff. At others, it was impossible not to turn away from the pain and suffering on display. Nothing on television this year has brought me closer to tears" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2007/09/14/nosplit/bvtv14last.xml).
The "social care home" shown is located in the small village of Mogilino. Our authorities prefer to hide such institutions in far-away corners, so that to be as invisible as possible and also, as sometimes is openly said, to provide jobs for local people (!). The BBC team mentioned that the home is "the main employer" in the village. As an autistic American commented, "The jobs for local people is a big issue to politicians when the institution is in a small community, and, thus, a major employer in the area... The employment of people who don't live in institutions ranks higher than the human rights and dignity of those inside them, at least in many politician's minds."
Personally shocked by what she saw, Kate Blewett sent a letter to the Bulgarian ambassador. You can read it at http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/bulgaria-prod-letter.shtml. It says, "...We observed severe physical neglect. In one case a child's leg was broken, and carers seemed oblivious to the great distress they were causing the child by manhandling it with a broken leg. In other cases children became visibly thinner and weaker over the months of filming. Three children died during the period of filming (i.e. 3 children out of 75 died over a 9-month period - M.M.). The Director of the Institute said she chose the children's diets and that they were adequate. Yet the nurse said the children were suffering from malnutrition as a result of inadequate diets... As well as observing the physical abuse of children by workers, we were also made aware of allegations of sexual abuse...".
Ambassador Matev in his reply (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/bulgaria-embassy-letter.shtml) paints such a rosy picture as if he is describing a different planet. The end of his letter will tell you all you need to know about the arrogance of Bulgaria's ruling oligarchy: "Not a single Institution has received a bad or unsatisfactory assessment for the health services they provide... It is my sincere hope that the position of the Bulgarian government will be reflected in your documentary."
I haven't seen the film but here are random quotes from people who have, commenting the same Telegraph article:
"Unbelievable! Is Europe still in the dark ages. How dare a member state be guilty of such grotesque abuse! The unremitting physical pain some of these children were obviously in was unimaginable, the circumstances of their environment would not be permitted in the worst prisons in the world, some international outcry would have limited such atrocities. I would hope this documentary is broadcast again and again, and Again!! gut wrenching as it is, so that the public becomes aware of the disgraceful attitudes and ignorance of a country that has been allowed to join the EU."
"There are a lot of places with similar conditions all over Bulgaria. I hope EU will do something - because our goverment is blind for this problem. In every home for physically and mentally disabled persons in Bulgaria you can see the same situation. Posted by Man from Bg." (Note that he hasn't written his name. There is a growing tendency for Bulgarians who criticize to remain anonymous - M.M.)
"That director needs to be jailed! how can people get away with such atrocity? Lame excuses such as 'its just their disease,' and 'i've done everything i'm supposed to do' just doesn't cut, it's absolute evil and self-interest. Some of those images were as terrible as those we've seen at concentration camps. Those poor babies, something must be done! What can we do?"
"Since watching Bulgaria's unwanted children last night my heart has ached, the worst thing was that the people running the home think that they are doing a fantastic job! I saw how they force fed them so fast these poor children barely had time to swallow, then how the big boy (Milan) was beaten by the male care worker, the poor boy worked so hard to please and you could see his terror trying to get his chores done perfectly."
"I'm sure there was a lot more abuse physical and sexual. God, blokes were showering young vunerable women, and children were being battered and starved to death. God knows to what extent things were really bad, because they were putting on a good show for the cameras."
"I saw the prgramme two days ago. I couldn't believe my eyes. It just looked like Auschwitz. They were naked, emaciated and led to the showers. Moreover, the fact that the 'carers' were fat made me sick. The people running these 'care homes' must be brought befiore a tribunal for crimes against humanity."
"I have visited several of these orphanages over the last decade, and know that the story at Mogilino is common elsewhere. The responsibility for perpetuation of the problem lies with the central and local governments, and the orphanage directors, many of whom don't know how to change the situation, and some of whom don't want to."
"People who are thinking about going on holiday to Bulgaria should cancel holidays in protest and write to the government and explain that the apalling conditions in this care home along with the whole social care system must be addressed with extreme urgency. As Bulgaria has a thriving tourist economy and enjoy profits, the Bulgarian Government must realise that people will not enjoy their holiday if they know that children with special needs are left in cruel concentration camps."
"Take Action Now! why don't we all "BOYCOTT BULGARIA"? Just refuse to holiday, or buy property there, and then you will see Bulgaria 's Goverment get themselves together and spring to action. At the moment they DON'T CARE."
"Stop Saying "If only there was something I can do ...". There is! WRITE TO YOU Mep TODAY AND DEMAND THAT THIS IS ADDRESSED IMMEDIATELY .. I have already done so via e-mail ... it costs nothing and if enough people do it they could act ... they are definitely the people who can make a change ... if you do have money DONATE IT TO THE CHARITIES LINKED ABOVE." (There are links to charities both at the Telegraph page and at the BBC page - M.M.)
"Please Please Help these People, the young and the old who are being abused and tortured. We all need to send out a strong message to Bulgaria whose Goverment does not care,and is rotten and corrupt. 1.Do Not Holiday there, 2.Do not buy Property there 3.Write a letter (a short one will do) if possible to the Bulgarian Goverment. Tell them you, and all your mates are Boycotting them unless all the instituitions for the vunerable are greatly improved and monitored by the E.U . including money, food and clothes from charities, because that too is stolen, from the vunerable."
"Shame - and indeed guilt - on us if we do nothing."
UPDATE: The film is available online. A commenter kindly sent me the link: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-9176914173325307126. I don't know whether the copy is legal, but even if it isn't, I think this case is worth some copyright violation. Go and watch the video, if your nerves are strong enough to endure.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The perpetuum mobile of Bulgarian education

This post was inspired by a heated discussion on Marfa's blog (http://marfieta.wordpress.com/2007/09/11/negro-alabama/). Her post was a rant against Bulgarian government and the minority of riches who claim there is nothing wrong with the miserable wages of the majority of Bulgarians, including doctors and teachers. Some commenters said that Bulgarians had only themselves to blame for their low incomes because they were bad workers. I commented, "Unfortunately, the few Bulgarians earning decent (for Bulgaria) wages always ascribe their success to their professionalism only. And, doing so, they forget the wretched teachers with worn-out coats who have helped them become professionals."
Commenter Skoklyo replied, "I have never seen a teacher with a worn-out coat, so let's not write Proletarian prose in the style of newspapers from the Communist era."
I wanted to reply and in order not to bring the discussion off topic, I'm doing it here.
As a university assistant, I qualify to be called "teacher". And my winter coat surely qualifies to be called "worn-out". It has qualified for years. And this year, the year when Bulgaria joined EU, I had to give up yellow cheese for an indefinite period.
Let me instantly state that am writing this just to bring a relevant fact. I am not whining and don't need anybody's advice or pity. I will fiercely deny any suggestion that I am "poor". I am actually quite well off. I earn above the average for Bulgaria, my husband even more so. None of us is chronically ill. We aren't paying rent or mortgage. And we haven't done any of the follies people do to bring themselves to poverty, such as buying expensive things we cannot really afford or having numerous children (though many Bulgarians will say that two children ARE numerous). And this is the problem - that a well-to-do family cannot afford such elementary luxuries.
To write the above sentences, I had to collect myself, as non-courageous people do when they have to make a courageous step. Like confessing to a sort of poverty, writing under their real name in public space. In present-day Bulgaria, poverty is shameful, often regarded as a result of stupidity, incompetence or laziness. And so it should be, this is attitude required to "make poverty history". Unfortunately, the change of attitude still awaits the corresponding change in reality.
As a university teacher, I am better paid than a school teacher. The salaries at our Medical Faculty, though much lower than they should and could be, are considerably above the minimum established by law. I have had two promotions and my salary is correspondingly higher than it was when I began work. Besides the "basic" salary, I receive additional money for my specialty, for my PhD degree and for teaching in English. So I am among the best paid teachers in Bulgaria. What about the others?
Skoklyo may not have mentioned his teachers' worn-out clothes because he is a guy and guys are known for their habit to overlook details. However, there are alternative explanations. For many teachers, to be well dressed is required for dignity and they will deprive themselves of food to save for clothes. And government periodically pays teachers in public secondary schools special money for clothes. The teacher, after using them, has to supply invoices to prove that the money was indeed used for clothes and shoes! Otherwise, as you guess, some irresponsible teachers could spend it on meat instead.
I find the money for clothes to be a disgrace. It shows that government requires from teachers to be decently dressed at their workplace but doesn't intend ever to pay them decent salaries. And, besides, this money is not sufficient. I have accompanied my teacher friend to shops where she bought not only second-hand clothes but also second-hand shoes. (While second-hand clothes can be properly disinfected and washed, second-hand shoes cannot and carry the risk of fungal infection.)
When we come to this world, our minds are tabula rasa. Biologically, present-day newborns have the same brains as babies who gave their first cry in caves 20000 years ago. Our cultural environment, most notably family and education, brings children to the 21st century. It is wonderful that every individual in some 20 years catches up wigh the millenial human progress. At the same time, it's scary. Just let the system collapse and civilization may degrade to barbarism within a generation or two.
Our educational system receives as little support from government and society as if it's dealing with stray kittens, not with our children. As another teacher friend of mine said, the decline of school begins at home when the young child hears his parent disparagingly say of somebody, "You ask what she is working? Nothing special, she's a teacher." Although our educational system is in decline and people are right to criticize it, it still works amazingly well, taking into account how little resources and attention it receives from society. It is a working perpetuum mobile. How long will it endure?
When I began my work as assistant in 1994, I had to compete with five people. Now, when we have vacant positions, the candidates coming are usually as many as the positions. Sometimes the interview fails because the candidate doesn't show the qualification required by law for the position of university assistant. It is a sure sign that a job is underpaid when the only people willing to do it are not really qualified for it.
Today, Sept. 15, is a special date. The academic year at secondary schools begins. Proud parents bring their little ones in formal clothes and teachers end up with more flowers than they can carry. Oh, this year there is a peculiarity. Schools begin the ceremony an hour later - this is a "warning strike" with demands for better pay. Minister of education Daniel Valchev has threatened that headmasters of schools not beginning the academic year in time will be punished (http://news.netinfo.bg/?tid=40&oid=1097133).
Outside secondary schools, the academic year can begin at other dates. My colleagues at the Medical University have met their students on Monday, and last week my elder son returned to his kindergarten where great people teach him for no money.
Bulgarian students and teachers have a song that is a sort of hymn. It says, "Forward, knowledge is a sun shining upon the souls!" I am happy to say that for me, the sun shines as brightly now as it did 13 years ago when I first started my job, and as it did almost 30 years ago when I first entered school.
Happy Sept. 15 to all learners and good luck up the path of knowledge!
Happy Sept. 15 to all teachers! I hope you all, like me, are proud of your mission and don't regret your decision to remain in Bulgaria, awaiting and working for a better future.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Texas blogger remembers Sept. 11

I have written many times about disasters brought to the world by religions, including Christianity. At the same time, however, I have to admit that belief gives nice people strength and nobility that no atheist, however virtuous, can achieve.
A Christian from Texas blogs under the pen name of Big White Hat because, as his blog motto says, good guys wear white hats and never run out of bullets. I am copying below his yesterday post (http://bigwhitehat.com/?p=348).

Lord, I kneel and bow my head and ask for Your help.
I can’t forget that day. I can’t forget the fear. I can’t forget the anger.
This world is under attack by men that do evil in the name of righteousness. They despise and seek to kill all that do not promote their tyranny. They even kill those with whom they worship.
So now we are at war.
Lord, bless our nations in this time of trouble. Protect us from those that do evil in the name of righteousness. Give us mettle so that we will not quit.
God Almighty, bless the soldiers who protect us. Make their backs strong, their feet swift, their aim true and their hearts pure. Deliver Your enemies into their hands.
In all things may Your Will be done.
Bless Your little servant in the Big White Hat.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Drawing faces

Non-parents are often amused or annoyed by the habit of parents to issue long speeches about the most banal activities and achievements of their children. But I assure you it is difficult to resist it all the time. So parents will appreciate this post. Non-parents are advised to skip it, they won't understand it anyway.
My elder son, who has just turned 4, has learned to draw recognizable faces during the last several months. Some of the drawings were spontaneous, some prompted. Unfortunately, he couldn't describe the details of his drawings himself.

Son and dad? Or two friends? (May 18)

A spiky-haired boy? (June 25)

A humanized baloon? (June 29)

The artist sitting in my lap (May 24).

Sunday, September 02, 2007

No more Lurpak butter in Bulgaria

It may seem curious that, although Bulgaria has strong dairy industry, many Bulgarians prefer imported butter. This is a reaction to the habit of Bulgarian producers to "enrich" butter with plant oils and water. They are of course motivated by altruism - to keep consumer's cholesterol low and prevent dehydration. However, many people (including me) don't want to buy some water-saturated margarine under the label "butter" and at the price of butter. Every child can see that it doesn't look, smell, taste or melt like butter. So we buy German butter or the French President.
About a year ago, as I was shopping at a supermarket, I saw Danish Lurpak butter. I spotted it instantly, because I already had its image in my mind, created by Big Pharaoh's Feb. 19, 2006 post (http://www.bigpharaoh.com/2006/02/page/5/). You remember, after a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting prophet Mohamed, enraged and carefully manipulated Arab Muslims imposed a boycott on Danish goods, mainly dairy products. Unwanted by its regular Arab buyers, some Lurpak butter had found its way to Bulgaria.
At that time, the appeal "Buy Danish" was read and heard all over the democratic world. I became a regular Lurpak buyer. It was similar in price and quality to the other imported butters. Then, in late January 2007, it became cheaper.
A decreased price must be a red flag to the consumer. It usually indicates that something is wrong with the product. Most often, it is approaching or even has passed its expiry date. However, I bought a package and didn't devote any thought to the situation. My attitude towards expiry dates is inconsistent. I know how important they are for consumers' health. I know that those consumers who check the date and protest and complain about expired products are good citizens and their actions benefit the whole society. However, I don't check the expiry dates even of baby foods. I also don't get along very well with people who pay attention to expiry dates. I simply refuse to occupy my mind with such boring things. I am a person of quite ordinary cognitive abilities. If I waste them to check what I'm buying, I'll remain without thinking capacity for more important things. You must be a genius to occupy your brain with everything and still to function. Though, frankly, it is difficult for me to imagine Darwin or Einstein checking expiry dates on products.
My mother in-law, on the contrary, has much respect to expiry dates and always checks them. After seeing my cheap Lurpak, she asked:
"Haven't you any other butter?"
"No." (The previous package had been eaten away.)
"Because this one is approaching its expiry date."
I looked at the butter's label. It was produced at Feb. 20, 2006, best before Feb. 19, 2007.
"Well, what's the problem?" I asked. "It's still January."
"Anyway, it's too near. I don't want to use this butter for the child's breakfast."
I told my husband I was going shopping.
"But you have just returned from shopping."
"Yes, but..." I explained the problem.
"Is that butter Bulgarian?"
"No, it isn't."
"This is what is important. The butter is good. I'll talk to my mother."
He went to her and had a heated and quite pointless argument, while I bought some stupid Bulgarian quasi-butter (but with an expiry date in the distant future).
Soon after these events, the Lurpak butter disappeared from our supermarkets. I still check for it when I'm shopping, but it's gone and unlikely to return.
You understand what had happened, don't you? Lurpak butter is too expensive for Bulgarian consumers. Normally it has nothing to do at our market. But when its usual Arab consumers boycotted it, the merchants found themselves overwhelmed by masses of unwanted butter. Then the boycott ended and newly produced butter found its way to the Arab world again. But the merchants wouldn't try to sell the stockpiled old butter to the Arabs. This would be regarded as disrespect and could lead to a new boycott, because there may be millions of Arab housewives checking expiry dates like my mother in-law does. So the old butter was sold to Bulgarians (and probably other poor people) at a knockdown price. Still better than discarding.
A short description of a possible better future: Bulgarians can afford Danish butter, so Danes don't need to sell it to Arabs who have different values and may decide to boycott it any minute.
A short description of a possible even better future: Bulgarians principally can afford Danish butter but prefer to buy Bulgarian butter which has, finally, become butter. Danes sell their butter mainly to Arabs who, finally, have the same values, ask each other "Did you ever hear the one about the Prophet's beard?" (http://www.signandsight.com/features/597.html) and wouldn't boycott.