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On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall, Part 1 of 5

May 05, 2017

Author’s Note:  This post is dedicated with heartfelt thanks and gratitude to each person on Team Bulgaria, Habitat for Humanity, and First National Bank who made my participation in the trip possible.

Thank you to those who shared your wisdom with me along the journey, invested time and resources in me as a (hopefully now better) person, and encouraged me through your actions to follow my heart.  I will carry a piece of you with me into the future with every intention that someone, somewhere might be the ultimate beneficiary of all you have given me.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I am especially indebted to teammate, Victor Dzirasa, for the morning benediction he called “Thoughts at the Wall.”  After sharing his insights and experience at The Wall, he encouraged each of us to be mindful of what The Wall had to teach us individually.

This is my story.

I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria as a Habitat for Humanity Global Village volunteer with one pair of work gloves and one seemingly innocent question, “What is mine to do?”  

The literal answer came quickly as I began helping two of my teammates install insulation in the home’s attic.  After that we were assigned the tasks of painting a waterproof primer on the home’s foundation, and eventually we became one of many who sanded the privacy wall on the south side of the property.

The metaphysical, however, was not so immediate.

Building the Wall

“The Wall” was constructed almost entirely of cement reaching seven or eight feet high, and ran the full length between two neighboring houses.  When dried to concrete, it separated the nearly grassless yards of two properties with its’ coarsely sanded, patio-gray finish.  In my opinion it looked too industrial for residential purposes compared to the wooden privacy fences that customarily run the perimeter of the midwestern backyards in my hometown.

There were three major stages of production at The Wall.  First, came the mixing of the cement, of which Victor was the Chief Mixer along with Pavlin who seemed always at the ready to shovel and fill the wheelbarrow with moist, dense product for use by other teammates who used it to construct the wall.  This second stage of The Wall’s team consisted of Shane, Zuhair, Patty, Colorado-Ashley and First-National-Carrie.

The Wall Constructors had organized themselves into a well-orchestrated process of throwing, spreading, and smoothing the cement mixture onto the wall’s frame.  Many of their gestures reminded me of how I used to spoon, spread, and smooth buttercream over cakes as a pastry chef.  In both cases, the goal was to work quickly yet precisely within a limited timeframe for maximum spreadability and smoothness.

Once each preceding day’s section of the wall had sufficiently dried and hardened, stage three involved sanding the concrete with plastic-handled rubbing bricks that were first dipped in buckets of water so they would simultaneously moisten the areas that needed re-smoothing.  This had the effect of creating a slag lifted from the dry concrete that could then be reworked back over the surface to a more even finish, ostensibly rubbing out the imperfections left behind during the original filling process.  Without benefit of any electrical sanding devices, the sanding procedure involved hours of circular strokes beginning overhead, moving downward to eye level, proceeding to the waist, lowering still further to knee height, until the process finally ended at ground level (surprisingly the most excruciating plane due to the bending it required). I doubt any of us would care to calculate how many hours were spent rubbing in this circular motion, section…by section…by section.

Although primitive, this method of hand sanding wasn’t entirely miserable.  At least not in my opinion. Carrie had a killer playlist that supplied endless hours of musical inspiration via her iPhone, Shane’s speakers, and my battery charger.  Her tastes include everything from Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee, to “Money Maker” by Ludacris, to Matchbox Twenty’s  “How Far We’ve Come.”  Meanwhile, an aqua blue, cloudless, sunny sky warmed us from overhead and the occasional draught of cooling breeze prevented us from becoming too overheated.  Getting into the groove while working at The Wall had more than a few moments of being  –  well, pretty groovy.

This concludes part 1 of a 5 part series of On Bulgaria: Life Beyond The Wall.  Read what happens next in part 2: Fear and Wondering at The Wall.

Thanks for reading!