So we've had three full days in Bulgaria now and wow, it's amazing to be here.
We got off to a not-so-awesome start thanks to our flight from Paris to Sofia, Bulgaria being cancelled. We got on the plane, taxied to the runway, then went back to the gate so they could fix what they thought was a small mechanical problem. After sitting on the plane for almost 2 hours, they had us get off while they kept working on the problem. They gave us some sandwiches and Orangina. We waited and waited. The kids slept - felt good to stretch out on the floor after trying to sleep sitting up on the previous flight from Detroit to Paris. Our flight was supposed to leave at 10:20am and at 4:30 pm they said they'd sent a different plane from Sofia and it would be here to pick us up at 11pm. Then they sent us to a hotel to freshen up, hang out, and have some dinner. We got out of the airport at 5:00pm or so and thought we'd try to go into Paris and check out a few sites but we had to be back at the airport at 9pm and were advised that traffic would be bad so we'd likely only have a few minutes in Paris and it would cost us $200 round trip in a taxi to enjoy those few minutes. So we just slept a bit at the hotel and enjoyed a very surprisingly delicious and very French dinner at the hotel, courtesy of the airline.
At 11pm we finally boarded the new plane and took off for Bulgaria, arriving at 3:30am. A kind missionary who served with me in Bulgaria 20 years ago and who now runs a business in Bulgaria sent one of his employees out to meet us at the airport at that inconvenient hour to escort us to the apartment we'd be staying at (courtesy of this same very kind fellow missionary). It was so nice to have someone smooth our way after our frustrating travel troubles!
We slept a few hours at the apartment (a really cool turn-of-the century place in downtown Sofia), then blearily headed over to our first orphanage visit - the very orphanage where I'd spent tons of time during my mission. It was amazing to be back there and to spend time with the beautiful little babies and children there. We got to meet all the children briefly and had some good play time with the 2 and 3-4 year olds. It was heartbreaking to see that so many of the children are quite delayed developmentally - without a mom or dad or someone else to read to them and teach them all the little things that children in families are taught every single day, they just can't progress that well. The ladies who take care of them at the orphanage were generally kind and the children were clean and seemed to be in generally good health. But some of them seemed to desperately need hugs (they clung to us and made us want to take them home!) while others didn't really want to be touched (seemed like they were so un-used to touch that it was uncomfortable for them).
After our time with the orphans, I was able to spend some time discussing and training with some of the One Heart employees who go in regularly to work with the orphans. We discussed how important touch is and how important reading is and today we'll be going in to that same orphanage to bring some children's books and model one-on-one reading with the hope that the orphanage staff will be able to catch a glimpse of the importance and benefits of reading with the children regularly. And we've got some special books that the One Heart staff will bring with them each time they visit the orphange (we found out that if we just give books to the orphanage, the staff often put them away and don't really use them so it'll be great to have the One Heart ladies bring books with them each time and actively use them with the children, offering an ongoing example of how important it is to read with these children.)
We spend the afternoon and evening exploring Sofia - the 12th century church of St Peter and the ruins of the Roman city Serdica over which Sofia was built, the amazingly in-tact 10th centurty church of St George, the gorgeous Sveta Nadelia church and Alexander Dnevski Cathedral, the main government buildings, the yellow brick roads, the broken up sidewalks, the overgrown but lovely parks. The main thing that seems different from 20 years ago is the cars - used to be that pretty much all the cars were these beat-up old Russian-made Ladas, but now there are all sorts of cars that look mostly like cars you'd see in the US. Oh, and it used to be that there were only a couple restaruants in all of Sofia that were worth visiting. That has sure changed. We've had some really excellent food - Italian, Indian, Bulgarian - and prices are super cheap.
The kids loved checking out the grocery stores (which are amazingly nice and have so many choices compared to 20 years ago!) and trying some Bulgarian stuff. I had them all try boza - a very popular and common Bulgarian drink made with grain. They were impressed - but how awful it was! We've been eating lots of good Bulgarian bread and tomatoes and delcious Bulgarian cheeses (kushkaval and syrane) and everyone's in love with Bulgarian yogurt (keeslo mlyako).
Saturday we had to go back to the airport to pick up the rental car we were supposed to pick up when we arrived (they weren't open at 4am!) then we drove up into the beautiful green hills to visit two orphanages. The first was for children with pretty severe disabilities - Pravets Home. The director there worked for many years at an orphanage for disabled children that had 90 children and was really enjoying now working at this brand new orphanage for just 14 children. The facility was truly beautiful - bright, clean, lovely building with nice bedrooms for just 2 children (the older homes had 10-20 in a room). The director and therapists and caregivers seemed excellent and were so kind and loving with the children. It was SO great to see these kids in such a great place after visiting a large home for disabled children when I was last in Bulgaria 10 years ago, doing orphange visits. In the past, these kids were essentially "warehoused" and the homes were dirty, smelly and overcrowded with children basically just receiving food and a place to sleep. The director told us that in order to join the EU, Bulgaria has to conform to certain standards of care for children in homes and they've started with disabled children. Almost all large orphanages for disabled children are in the process of being closed down now and the children are being placed in small new homes like the one we saw. My heart was so happy to see and hear about this change! After all disabled orphanages are taken care of, they will move on to shutting down the rest of the orphanges (some are already in process) and they'll eventually place all children in smaller more family-like homes. This will be so great for the children. But it'll be quite a long and difficult process!
Our kids had such a great experience playing with and getting to know the really sweet kids at Pravetz orphanage. Their spirits were so large and so loving and so beautiful! We got to experience seeing one boy with severe disabilities walk across this little bridge thing that our kids and some of the more able orphans were walking across - he watched and watched and then got this really determined look on his face, struggled to get up out of his wheelchair, then shakily grabbed the handles and slowly but surely worked his way across the bridge with us and his orphanage friends cheering him on.
I'll write about the great time we had at the next orphanage - Razliv, when I get a chance.
OK, got to run. It's been nice to enjoy our first relaxing, non-hurried morning here at the apartment thanks to some rain and a boot on our car (they are SERIOUS about parking rules around here, I guess - a huge change from my mission - we left our car in a legal overnight place and meant to move it to a lot at 8am as that's when you have to start paying for street parking around here - but we overslept and at 8:40, they'd put a boot on the car! I guess they don't bother with parking tickets, they go straight to a boot. So we had to wait for the people to come remove the boot and we paid the fine (only $20) and all is well). But now it's time to get out and see some more sites and buy some books for this afternoon's orphanage visit - in the rain.
Lots of photos posted on Instagram - no time to post them here as well so please visit Instagram here to get some visuals on our trip: https://instagram.com/sarenloosli/