In the late '90s, I went to Bulgaria to set up a conflict resolution center for Partners for Democratic Change. Here are some highlights of the junket:
-- Led Zeppelin was on tour in Eastern Europe, and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were staying in the same hotel as me. I spent an awkward hour sitting with them in the lobby. The hotel was surrounded by fans, and security wouldn't let anyone in or out. Sadly, no rockstar shenanigans ensued, and I didn't fulfill my boyhood fantasy of throwing a TV out of a hotel window. I've since blocked out my embarrassing attempts to come off as cool to the rock icons. Let's just say we're no longer in contact.
-- The streets were lousy with wild dogs, who stalked or chased me back to the hotel every night. One hellhound even chased my plane down the runway. (The feral dog problem was even worse In Romania, and screen legend Brigitte Bardot shelled out big bucks to have thousands of street dogs sterilized.)
-- Many Bulgarians nod their heads for no and shake their heads for yes. My non-verbal communication aficionado Jeff Thompson would be in hog heaven there, but I was so very confused.
--On the street, I bought an accordion from a man who purported to be a former conductor of the Bulgarian National Symphony, to whom the free market had not been kind. Unable to find work, he resorted to selling his collection of instruments. Right after, accordion strapped to my back, I ran into Robert Plant on the street. Any hopes of redeeming my rocker cred was dashed by, well, having an accordion strapped to my back.
--Everyone told me I had to hire wrestlers for the Center. This was not a euphemism or a mistranslation. They meant actual greco-roman grapplers. Turns out, a group of retired Olympic rasslers set up a protection racket in Sofia. So, one was expected to pay off large men in track suits, thick gold chains and thicker necks to prevent bricks from being thrown through one's window. (We didn't hire them, and there were no repercussions.)
--A classic and tasty Bulgarian dish is mishmash. This is fitting, as Bulgaria is a fascinating mix of east and west and of different cultures and traditions. It is a wonderful and hospitable country. (And they have the famed Museum of Comedy in Gabrovo, a city allegedly inhabited by the funniest people on earth.)
--My schedule was packed with meetings with funders, NGOs, government officials, and interviews with potential directors. I was accompanied by a fabulous interpreter named Daniela. I met some interesting people in the interviews, but couldn't find the right person to direct the Center. I was terribly nervous that I'd leave empty handed, and have to put our plans on hold.
At the very end of my trip, I found out that Daniela had been trained as a mediator, had an entrepreneurial zeal, a PhD, and a commitment to community building and healthy intergroup relations. Inspired (and perplexed as to why these things didn't come up earlier), I hired her on the spot, and she's been promoting peaceful conflict resolution in Bulgaria and beyond ever since. Read about my colleague and friend Daniela Kolarova here.