September 29, 2003 - Bennington Banner: Ken and June Nicholson return from Peace Corps service in Bulgaria

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Bulgaria: Peace Corps Bulgaria: The Peace Corps in Bulgaria: September 29, 2003 - Bennington Banner: Ken and June Nicholson return from Peace Corps service in Bulgaria

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Ken and June Nicholson return from Peace Corps service in Bulgaria

Ken and June Nicholson return from Peace Corps service in Bulgaria

Couple returns from 2nd tour of duty with the Peace Corps
Staff Writer

Caption: Now back from two years of service in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria, Ken and June Nicholson of Arlington have set up a display of artifacts and souvenirs they brought back with them. It was a great experience, but it's nice to be home, they said.

ARLINGTON, VERMONT -- For most Americans, Bulgaria is one of those mysterious gray areas on the map. We know it's somewhere in Europe, but it's not quite as easy to find as England or Italy.

When Ken and June Nicholson retired from teaching in Arlington in 2001 and decided to do a second tour of duty in the Peace Corps, they were offered Bulgaria as a destination.

"The first thing we did was run to the map to find out where it was," Ken Nicholson, 63, said.

However, the land about which they knew little held an appeal as a former Soviet-bloc country that had been on the other side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War era, he said.

"I wanted to find out what my contemporaries were thinking about during that time," he said. "Another one of our goals was to show them what the average American was like."

Perceptions of the United States are heavily influenced by television and Hollywood movies, he said.

"They all think we're rich and live in New York City," he said.

Now back home after their second two-year stint in the Peace Corps - the first one being in 1971-73 - they marveled at how little had changed about the corps over the space of more than 30 years.

"It's amazingly the same - the same ambiance and idealistic spirit as 30 years ago," he said. "The things we liked about it then are still the same today."

Founded in the early 1960s and one of the enduring legacies of the presidency of John F. Kennedy, the corps today has about 8,000 volunteers spread around the world. The process of getting from Arlington to Shuman, a city of about 80,000 people in northeastern Bulgaria that became their home for nearly two years, took about six months, June Nicholson said.

After background checks are completed a volunteer spends 10 weeks of intensive training in the country where they'll be assigned, which includes a heavy dose of instruction in the local language, Mrs. Nicholson, 64, said.

"We learned to speak Bulgarian functionally, but not fluently," she said. "We made some friends, but couldn't really have an in-depth conversation."

Life in the Peace Corps means living at nearly the same level as the ordinary population, so the two found themselves in a large, colorless Soviet-style apartment building, with paint peeling from the walls and hard to heat in the winter. They were paid $24 a month, which allowed them to get by and travel around the country by public transportation, Ken Nicholson said.

The pair were assigned as teachers in local schools, with June as an English teacher and Ken the coordinator of an ecology club. Both were the first Americans their students had ever met, they said.

June taught six grades in a public school with about 26 students in each class, while Ken had students who had to pass a competitive exam to get into a select high school, he said.

The education system had been quite regimented, but clearly the Soviets had made big effort to upgrade the quality of schooling, Ken Nicholson said.

"All the facilities were in a state of disrepair, but you could see the vision was there," he said. "They made a good start but then it all collapsed. Their schools used to have in-house dentists, doctors and nurses."

But the students had little concept of cheating, and thought nothing of making test-taking into a group effort, June said.

Bulgaria, an economically depressed country of about eight million people with a rich history and culture going back thousands of years into antiquity, is still struggling with a transition from the repressed Soviet era to the wide-open, anything-goes way of today's world.

"The advertising you'd see had sexual references that had been suppressed in the Soviet era, and that has all come off now," June said. "They have the freedom to say and do anything, and that was a pretty jarring experience for a couple of straight arrow Vermonters."

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Story Source: Bennington Banner

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Bulgaria; Older Volunteers



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