Wednesday, November 02, 2011

I am a National Enlightener

Yesterday, Nov. 1, was the Day of the National Enlighteners (Den na narodnite buditeli) in Bulgaria. National Enlighterners are, above all, the people who led the Bulgarian National Revival during the 19th century which culminated in the April Uprising of 1876 and the restoration of the Bulgarian independence after the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78. However, Enlighteners in a broader sense are considered all who have contributed to the cultural advancement of the Bulgarian nation, including all conscientous teachers and scientists. For that reason, schools and universities have a day off on Nov. 1. I am proud to say that I qualify to be called a National Enlightener not only owing to my occupation but also by the merit of my own deeds.

Of course this pompous statement is tongue in cheek, but it is based on a real recent achievement. Not that I have written a good educational text popularizing science or that some research manuscript of mine has been accepted for publication by a peer-reviewed journal with impact factor (or be it even a journal without impact factor). Nope. Keep in mind, however, that all this intellectual activity associated with "enlightenment" is, as Marxians would call it, a superstructure. To be possible at all, it requires a base - a set of material preconditions. If a person isn't fed, dressed and comfortably positioned, he is totally unable to engage in any intellectual activity. Our students, thankfully, come to us fed and generally well dressed. However, when we come to the comfortable position, we have problems.

The microscopic observation in our teaching labs requires lab chairs with variable height. For many years, it has been impossible for our Department to buy such chairs. The Bulgarian law requires all equipment for government institutions to be bought by a complicated procedure, so our demands must be sent "above", to the Rector's office. The aim of this procedure is to prevent corruption, but the actual result is what you can expect if you let clerks disconnected from teaching and not too interested in its success to buy all items needed for teaching. The most urgently needed things somehow get cancelled from the list, the rest are supplied with great delay (up to a year) and usually in a form unsuitable for the purpose. In the case of lab chairs, some were indeed bought with variable height as required, but the maximum height was about 35 cm. We cannot even figure out how could such close-to-mother-Earth chairs be produced in the first place. Our only reasonable guess is that they have been meant for kindergartens.

So I have for years used some of my time at work to try and repair our available old lab chairs that become fewer and more valuable with each passing semester. Some of them still have their labels indicating that they were produced in the 1950s. I receive little acknowledgement for these efforts. Most colleagues mock me, and the students never think that someone may be doing hard work so that they have something to sit on. However, I know I am doing the right thing. My maternal grandfather, who was a carpenter, would be proud of me if he could know. Unfortunately, sooner or later every chair has its metal part broken, and at that point I give up, because I haven't the equipment and skills needed for welding.

This semester, we have another problem. Our building has been in renovation for more than a year already, with no end in sight. While this process is taking place, normal teaching and research is all but impossible, and if you at least save your things needed for work you are lucky. We have already lost reagents for many thousands euro because of incompetence of some electricians who disconnected the power supply to a freezer full of antibodies. Now, the workmen have come to the task of renovating the central heating. It is a rule in Bulgaria to renovate and repair the heating systems in the autumn-winter season when heating is actually needed. In our building, this was done last in the cold and hungry winter of 1996-97. At that time, apart from writing about cell cycle and protesting against government, I was busy to manage some heating at my workplace. Happily, the room where I spend most of my time had a glassware dryer suitable also as a heater. The same was true for one of our four teaching labs. But what about the other three?

I found two electric heaters which were dispensable at home and brought them to work. One of them was initially not working. I had recently re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig, which claims that everybody has the mental skills necessary to repair moderately complex technology such as motorcycles. I was young, trusting and stupid, so I thought that electric heaters are even simpler than motorcycles and tried to repair it myself. After the attempt, when I plugged the heater into the socket, there was a "puff" and some sparkles, then everything went dark. So I strongly advise readers not to follow Pirsig's theory with any electric device (or anything significantly more complex than a chair).

Close to my workplace, there was a garage turned into a shop. It was conveniently selling and repairing simple electric equipment. I brought there my blackened heater. The electrician said that a short circiut had destroyed all parts of the heater except for its corpus. He added, however, that due to the ongoing hyperinflation, it was still more advantageous to buy and install all these parts than to buy a new heater. So my poor old heater got a new life. Indeed, it had lost its legs long ago, but we are putting it on a metal test tube stand and it is OK.

This autumn, as weather turned cold, I placed the two heaters in two of the teaching labs. But what about the fourth lab? I don't remember how we managed it in 1996-97, but now I am in charge of the practical teaching and feeling responsible for it. My mother had mentioned that a heater had stopped working and she had bought an electric radiator. She immediately agreed to give me this heater for my workplace, as she had given me the two older ones.

Unfortunately, my friends at the garage-shop were no longer in business. The garage was not their but municipal property. The Mayor's office had raised the rent to some ridiculous level (about EUR 350 per month, they said). They could not afford it and moved out. Nobody rented the garage-shop after then. It is locked and slowly deteriorating, illustrating how government attempts to manage business invariably turn to slaughtering the egg-laying hen. I don't know whether the electricians have found a new place, but the fact is that our giant Medical University campus is deprived of their services. Who would repair my heater now?

To cut the long story short - finally, my husband did it. He is a man of technology, not some inspired Pirsig reader. So on Monday I gladly informed my colleages that we already have a heater in every teaching lab. I only asked them (and I keep praying) that nobody forgets to unplug the heater when leaving the room. Otherwise, a fire could easily ensue, we could share the fate of the Department of Pathophysiology, and to cap it all, I would be held responsible for bringing the heaters in the first place.

But let's not think of disasters likely to happen. At least, now we can let Grannie Winter come with all her merry white granddaughters (as a Bulgarian nursery rhyme says) without worrying that we have to teach at Celsium 5. And I have all right to call myself a National Enlightener, haven't I? Just try to say I haven't, to see your comment moderated :-).