Fifty-four years ago today, on March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order to establish the United States Peace Corps. A few months later, on August 28, he swore in the very first group of Peace Corps Volunteers, headed for Ghana, West Africa. To date, nearly 220,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps Volunteers in 140 countries. M. and I both had the opportunity to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in Bulgaria. The experience was, for both of us, life-changing.
It just so happens that March 1st is an important day in Bulgarian culture as well. It is the day of Baba Marta, or Grandmother March, a pagan holiday on which Bulgarians exchange red and white bracelets or brooches called martenitsi and wish one another good health, luck, and fertility to usher the coming of spring. Typically, the martinitsi are woven from yarn or string, and can be homemade or purchased in just about every shop around at this time of year. Everyone in the country participates. When Bulgarians see the first stork of the spring, they remove their martenitsa and tie it to a blooming tree to bring good health and a bountiful harvest to the tree.
Three years ago, I was living in Des Moines, Iowa, and M. was in Washington, DC, just starting his career in the Foreign Service. We were old friends, having met eight years earlier as Peace Corps Volunteers when M. was assigned to serve in the same town in which I was finishing up my service. I sent him a martenitsa in the mail, knowing that he and I shared a fondness for Baba Marta as our favorite Bulgarian tradition. In the accompanying card, I mentioned that he was welcome to visit if he ever found himself in Iowa. Most people think of Iowa as a fly-over state. But not M. To my surprise, he visited me in Des Moines just four weeks after I sent him the martenitsa. On that same weekend a year later, we got married. For us, March 1st will always be special. Happy birthday, Peace Corps, and Chestita Baba Marta, Bulgaria!
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