30 December 2005
We stayed at the Mellow Mood Central Hostel; not sure how it is more mellow than any other hostel, but certainly the central location was much appreciated as we wandered the streets by foot everyday. Our room had six beds, which—for various reasons—were never simultaneously occupied. I’m actually becoming a fan of hostels; you don’t get the amenities and privacy of a hotel, but it’s just more fun than the isolation inherent in living in a hotel room even with a few people. Julia’s assessment of staying with us was not as positive: she compared it to “a sophomore dorm” followed—under her breath—by an almost subliminal: “never again.”
In marked contrast to Bulgaria, Hungary seems to have little qualms about facing its recent communist past. In addition to exhibits about the earliest history of the people and the (at times very large) territory of Hungary, the National Museum features exhibitions about life in the communist era, complete with propaganda posters. On Friday we visited the House of Terror which specifically explores Nazi and communist repression in a building that had actually been used to house (and execute) political prisoner. I just don’t see something like this happening anytime soon in Sofia; they still seem to be in love with the Russians who liberated them from the Ottomans exactly 128 years ago today (4 January 2006)!
Friday night after dinner, Ryan, Bill, and I were walking back to the hostel when two rather attractive girls stopped us and invited us to join them at a nearby restaurant/bar, which happened to be directly across the street from our hostel. They said they were from Slovakia and were in Budapest for a cosmetics convention. Red flags immediately went off, because I’ve heard Dave’s (my IMBA classmate) story about how he got stuck with an exorbitant tab after the girls that invited him order three of the most expensive drinks each and insisted he pay for them. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I followed along into the Galaxia Restaurant. One of them immediately ordered a round of drinks without looking at the menu (which I later noticed was laying on the table under one of their arms.) Bill was having a good time talking up one of the girls, but I started to notice discrepancies in their stories and becoming more concerned. The same girl ordered another round of drinks and a tomato and mozzarella platter, which she encouraged us to share with her. Eventually I suggested we go somewhere else; when the bill came, my worst fears were confirmed—it was 102,400 Forints (approximately $500!) Actually they had written it as 10,2400; I suspect some guys not clear on the exchange rate anyhow, just pay with a credit card never notice it until they get their statement. However, I jumped up and started to cause a big scene until the manager and two of his goons showed up. Long story short, we were able to get the girls to pay for their portion (which, of course they will get back,) and after Bill got more money from the ATM, we were released. There was really nothing we could do; their exorbitant prices were clearly listed in the menu. It was an expensive way to learn a lesson and embarrassing to publish here, but I do it as a public service to anyone coming to Budapest (and, I suspect, many other cities in the world)—always look at the menu first, and be more suspicious when attractive women stop you on the street (I know, it sounds obvious now!) Afterwards I felt violated and vulnerable, but more than anything: stupid; how could I let this happen to my friends when I knew better? However, unlike Dave, I am not going to let this sour me on Budapest—it is just too beautiful a city; I will just be smarter.
Then came the rain
On Saturday, Mike finally joined us from his world-wind holiday travels (Chicago, Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest, and probably some points between) in time to have lunch with us. I had contacted Justin Scott, a fellow USC IMBA who had graduated a year ahead me and I had met in June 2004 on a trip to Budapest from Vienna. Inexplicably, the café he had chosen for us to meet at was closed despite the fact there were people inside smugly enjoying their meals/coffee. After we found an alternate venue we were finally able to do the MBA networking that I had intended. Justin had done his MBA internship in Budapest, and after graduating in May of 2004, he returned and has been there ever since; we were blown away by his mastery the notoriously difficult Hungarian language; this has given me some serious motivation to learn Bulgarian now. When Julia finally arrived that afternoon, this was the only accomplishment we could point to for the whole day.
Despite a reasonable amount of research out New Year’s evening began something like this: Ryan, map in hand and navigating, “let’s try this one place, OK they’re not open, but let’s check out this other place just around the corner” and so on. We probably ended up walking 5 km of cold, rainy street before deciding on the one place where we actually rang in the New Year. I will not go into more details, but the new year found us taking care of a vomiting girl whom we had befriended thanks to Bill. (left to right: cute girl [who Bill was hitting on], vomit girl [my target, since I was playing "wing man" for Bill], Ryan, Bill, and myself in the back)
Sunday morning was a race to be up, dressed, and packed before the 10:00 checkout time. After breakfast we could only wander the cold, wet streets of Budapest—everything but the church was closed (being that it was New Years day) so eventually we settled in a café and nursed our tea/coffee/hot chocolate for several hours, then headed to a Mexican restaurant for dinner and to burn our remaining hours in Budapest (as well as to keep warm and dry—this felt a lot like my February 2004 trip to Venice.) This theme of killing time did not end there; at the airport, we learned our flight had been delayed 3 hours, and we were stuck in departure lounge beyond passport exit control (which—being a non-smoking area—was particularly hard on Bill and other nicotine addicts, but a sweet relief for the few non-smokers.) This meant we didn’t get home until the wee hours of the morning—what a long day!
28 December 2005
26 December 2005
BTW, this was the first time I drove a car in 5 months. I surprised myself that, even with minimal directions, I found my way to and from Düsseldorf without getting lost.
24 December 2005
22 December 2005
Skipping around a bit/hitting the highlights: The Serdon Christmas party was enjoyable last night; after a failed attempt to leave, I snuck out at midnight to pack and try to get 4 hours of sleep. As expected—but still jarring—my alarm clock awakened me from my slumber at 4:00. I got up, took a shower, dressed, closed my bags, and by 4:30 I was out on the deserted streets of Sofia looking for a taxi. I arrived at the airport only to learn the flight had been delay 1¼ hours; that extra hour of sleep would have been sweet!
I arrived at Ferihegy Terminal 1, where I saw no mention of Air Berlin. I confirmed—as suspected—that Air Berlin leave from Terminal 2, and that I would have to pay 500 Forints to catch a shuttle bus to the other terminal. Of course that meant I had to get some Hungarian Forints first; the ATM machine presented 6 options: 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, 15000, and 20000; which one would you choose if you hadn’t research the exchange rates in advance (as I should have done?)
Just wondering: Why, in America—for airport security screening—do we have to put up with the indignity of taking off our shoes and the inconvenience of removing our laptop from our bags, when—in the rest of the civilized world—this is not necessary? In my mind, there seems to be only three possibilities: 1) the rest of the world has a cavalier attitude toward the safety of the flying public—doubtful, 2) the TSA is significantly less competent at screening, thus requiring this extra help—hopefully not, or 3) America has such a paranoia about hijackings since 9/11, that no cost/benefit analysis is considered when implementing these extraordinary procedures.
On a lighter note: If you go to “preferences” in Google, you will notice that you can change the “interface language” to any one of a few dozen languages including “Elmer Fudd,” which basically just throws in strategically placed W’s. Well, apparently the departure board here in Budapest is set on this as well; check out how Tel Aviv is rendered (below Warsaw.)
Since I’m in another country, let me wish you a Merry Christmas in yet another language: Kellemes Karacsonyi unnepeket
21 December 2005
This morning we exchanged the gifts. I gave Gergana my present—a ceramic Christmas bell. She loved it and gleefully rang it so everyone could hear it as well as see it. Unfortunately, within 5 seconds of receiving the gift, it slipped from here hand and shattered on the floor. I was—of course—shocked and saddened, and even wanted to give here another one that I was going to take with me to Germany, but she reassured me that breaking glass or ceramics in Bulgaria is considered good luck! Later in the day one of my coworkers accidentally knocked a glass of wine to the floor not one meter away from the first incident; to which I immediately said: “Oh great, more good luck!”
Well, tonight is the Serdon office Christmas party, and tomorrow I have to be at airport at some unholy hour of the morning to catch my 6:00 am flight to Budapest. The flight arrives in Hungary at the same time (they’re one hour behind us,) and in the afternoon I fly another two legs to Düsseldorf, where Oncle Werner will pick me up—it’s going to be a long day.
As this is my last post from Bulgaria for the year, let me wish you a “Vesela Koleda” (Весела Коледа) [that’s right, in Bulgarian, Vesela’s name means “merry.”]
Oh, by the way, it’s snowing...again! (intoned like Forest Gump)
18 December 2005
After some last-minute preparations Friday evening, I waited for my guests to arrive. My first guest, Jennifer the Peace Corp Volunteer, arrived around 7:30 after searching a good part of my neighborhood. We talked about the environmental NGO she wants to start (and that I’m assisting her with) until the next batch of people arrived: three of Julia’s coworkers from Job Tiger (pictured to the right.) Julia showed up a little later with much needed and delicious snacks. Monica, as a Bulgarian, also explored all of Gurgulyat Street before finding my door, but everyone else seemed to have found my place with little problem.
Apparently it is traditional to bring a bottle of wine with you to a party; at one point there were at least 8 bottles of merlot on my counter; however, by the end all but one were empty. I also scored a nice sweater from Niltay, a Cyrillic keyboard from Paris, a business card holder pre-populated with Job Tiger cards, a wall calendar from Doriana (VEGA), and a candle. Thank you all! (BTW, the picture to the right is the Serdon contingent: Gergana, myself, and Vlado.)
I had my computer plugged into the stereo system, and Delcho became our DJ, playing from my library as well as downloading songs from the net. Everyone was commenting on the yellow color scheme of my place, so at one point he downloaded the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, to which we heartily sang along.
According to the timestamps on my pictures the party lasted until 1:00 am. A final count—to the best of my recollection—would include 9 Bulgarians, 2 Turks, and 6 Americans for a grand total of 17 people in my little apartment! Everyone seemed to have good time and make some new friends (I’m especially pleased that Jennifer was able to network with some Sofia residents for her NGO) In general, I would have to say it was a smashing success in that nothing got smashed or otherwise broken! ;-)
The aftermath: I spent a good part of Saturday morning cleaning my apartment. Even now, I need to make a second pass over all the floors to get my place back to pre-party conditions. Note all the glasses I had to wash (right.)
When I peeked out of the window Saturday, there was a nice, fresh blanket of snow on the ground, and it was still furiously snowing—throughout the rest of the weekend, in fact. That afternoon, I joined the Hash House Harriers for a walk in the park. Since there was little wind and big, fluffy flakes, the trees were laden with snow—very beautiful. Walking under low hanging branches it was, of course, tempting to give the branch a little tug as I walked by and watch the person behind me (usually Monica) get their own personal snow shower. Later, I figured out that I could give small trees (about 6 inches in diameter) a sharp kick, and after about 5 seconds an avalanche of snow from all branches would douse the 2nd or 3rd person behind me. Eventually this devolved into a snowball fight, especially with the kids. In any case, it was all great wintertime fun ending with Dutch gluwein for the “down downs.”
Sunday morning, the accumulations were now at least one foot, but everything was still running despite a not seeing a single snowplow on the roads all weekend (unlike South Carolina, which shuts down for a trace of snow.) I caught a tram to church and had a nice lunch at Divaka afterward just like any other Sunday. The only hardship is negotiating un-shoveled sidewalks as a pedestrian (especially at the curb were slush and standing water due to snow-clogged drains are guaranteed to get your boots soaked.)
Even now, under a bright sunny but cold sky, it is a veritable winter wonderland out there; and I—as a southern boy—am still loving it! Again, I am posting my outdoor/weather-related photos to Wunderground.com; check 'em out.
14 December 2005
Then on Friday, I am hosting a party in my apartment. I’m expecting about 20 friends and colleagues. So now, I have to spruce up the place (I’ve already bought a Christmas tree) and stock up on snacks and libations. Should be fun; hopefully it won’t spin out of control (Paris spent the weekend cleaning his apartment after his Halloween party.)
BTW, I left “My birthday” (in the title) in Latin letters instead of Cyrillic because I copy & pasted it from an invitation I got from my landlord—he is home for Christmas (from grad school in the US) and celebrating his birthday this week as well. This 'Latinization' of Bulgarian is common in SMS and where Cyrillic characters are not available. 'I' substitutes for the backward N, 'r' for 'p', and so on. Young people are quite comfortable with this, but it causes great concern among language preservationists. Unlike Serbian, Romanian, Azeri, etc. (which were forced to use Cyrillic during communism, and have since reverted to a modified Latin alphabet) Bulgarian is at the center of this alphabet; Cyril and Methodius invented it right here.
10 December 2005
However, this was my only accomplishment for Saturday. I slept til 11:00 and spent most of the day indoors; it's cold, gray, and now—snowing again. Oh, except this afternoon I went to see the new Jody Foster movie Flightplan with two Bulgarian girls. I don't want to give it away, but there is a not-so-unexpected twist near the end.
29 November 2005
Update: Check it out, I got a comment from everyone's favourite bartender—Johnny Johnny! If you don't know what I'm talking about, you have got to download and watch an episode of Tiki Bar TV (I recommend episode 8 or 9.) I'm telling you, this is the coolest thing on the web!
25 November 2005
Right after work Julia, Ryan, Kat, Brian, and I met at the Radisson for their Thanksgiving buffet. For 29 leva we got all-you-can eat Turkey (but no dressing) and the normal Thursday night Tex/Mex buffet, plus all you can drink margaritas—actually a pretty good deal for $18. Of course, it was a Bulgarian interpretation of Mexican food, but we were never the less grateful. After margarita number 5 or 6…we realized that they contained practically no tequila; so we settled on gluttony in lieu of drunkenness. Eventually more of Brian’s friends arrived (Bulgarians & Peace Corp Volunteers) and finally Paris & Kamelia showed up; we had grown to 12 people (although only the original 5 had the buffet.) And, since it was Brian’s birthday, we didn’t miss the opportunity to sing “Happy Birthday” loudly while making him stand on several times occasions. As this was an expat hangout, they showed the traditional Thanksgiving (American) football games on the big screens. So, in conclusion, I guess I had a conventional Thanksgiving, just 6 hours later than usual in the day.
23 November 2005
Let me take this opportunity to wish you an early Happy Thanksgiving!
21 November 2005
In any case, it was a very American evening. We watched Ohio State beat Michigan (to Ryan’s chagrin,) snacked chip & salsa (which Kat buys at the commissary in the Embassy,) ate Pizza Hut pizzas and potato skins that Julia so expertly prepared. However, Ryan kept getting calls from his co-workers who where having a house party on the other side of town. So, around midnight, we piled into two taxis and headed across town. We were dropped off in front of some dark, soviet-style high-rise, but we were confident we were at the right place because the address was spray-painted on the corner of the building. After riding the elevator to the 14th floor, we fumbled around looking for the apartment until I noticed a faint numbers penciled on the wall next to doors. We were soon ensconced in simple warmth of Bulgarian hospitality. In their small living room, there were half a dozen people sitting on couches along with some snacks, beer, and wine. One guy was playing a guitar, and another added some percussion with a half a jar of peanut—or at least that’s what we thought it was; turns out that was his instrument—some kind of shaker. After playing a couple of songs in Bulgarian, the guitar would be passed to Ryan for few American songs. We had a good time all around; however the dichotomy in living standards would easily be the most memorable part of the evening.
18 November 2005
It snowed all night and most of Saturday morning. There is an accummulation of 2"-3" on everything but the bare ground or pavement.
07 November 2005
That being said, I did have an encouraging experience on Sunday. Instead of going to the same ex-pat church I’ve been attending, I went to a charismatic Bulgarian church. It was founded in 1989 by a young, energetic Bulgarian guy who studied in the US, and has grown to several hundred mainly young, Bulgarian members who meet every week in a movie theatre. As expected, much of the service consisted of singing ‘praise’ songs which were projected on a screen in Bulgarian along with the original* English lyrics. Between this and the few words that I already knew, I was able to figure out the meaning of words in the songs, and due to the repetition I was actually able to confidently sing along in a couple of choruses.
There is something about singing that makes language easier; for the most part you don’t have to worry about emphasis and inflection—it’s determined by the music. For example, opera singers regularly sing flawlessly in multiple languages. This brings me to my new business idea: language lessons presented through music. You could effortlessly acquire vocabulary and pronunciation without the usual tripping over long words. What do you think?
* I think I’m safe in saying that most contemporary Christian music come from the US.
01 November 2005
Daylight savings time ended on Sunday. That means when I leave work at 6:00pm now, it is already dark :-( On the way home today, I stopped by a tiny hardware store to buy a duplex outlet to replace the single outlet in the living room that the AC/heatpump is plugged into. Since I now have a wireless router, I like to use my computer in the living room or kitchen and this is the only power outlet close enough. So, rather than unplugging the AC or using a power strip, I decide to make an electrical project with little more than a leatherman tool. Again, long-time readers will remember this is not my first electrical project in Europe; last year I installed a ceiling light in our apartment in Vienna. There is just something so satisfying about home-improvement projects—I continue to admire my new duplex outlet. Oh, and it required a little research as well—to determine that the blue wire is the neutral (what's up with that?!)
BTW, how do you like my ghetto animated GIF above? I really needed a tripod or something to keep the camera in the same position for each exposure and a couple of more of the intermediate steps, but you get the idea.
30 October 2005
I know I’ve not been posting much (at least its more than Ryan—he has only 2 posts for the entire month of October), but I have been spreading the love (writing & pictures) around to different audiences: MBAEC Yahoo group, MySpace, and even WeatherUnderground. Check out my photo series of Sofia Autumn Colors.
I just had to share the following; probably the single funniest comic strip I've ever read:
Satch: Hey, Bucky! Why did the chicken cross the road?
Bucky: That's an interesting question. I've done some thinking on the subject and I've come up with a theory./ You see, a chicken's perception of the definition of "space" is very different from yours or mine./ Whereas we understand the linear definition of the boundaries of the pavement and can make judgments on the future direction of the moving objects--vehicles, if you will--/the chicken may only see an unconnected patchwork of shapes and movements./ It is my contention therefore, that the chicken doesn't even know he's crossing what we would call a "road."
Satch: My juice cap says "To get to the other side."
Bucky: Well, sure, sometimes the other side is just cooler.
-Get Fuzzy 30 Oct. 2005 © Darby Conely
24 October 2005
How rich are you? >>
I'm the 661,164,295 richest person on earth!
I challenge you to try this (click on link above) and then complain about your job! Some of my stats may be a little off, and certainly the cost of living is lower in developing countries, but it is still sobering to realize just how blessed we are.
23 October 2005
While there, I was able to take to the picture below from the top floor of NDK. My apartment is behind the red circle. Alexander Nevski cathedral is predominant on the horizon. (Click on picture to enlarge.)
18 October 2005
16 October 2005
"The more interesting your life becomes, the less you post... and vice versa." -Jorn Barger*
Actually, I've just been lazy; a good post does end up taking at least one hour to research, write, and photo edit. Even when I think that I'll just fire off a quick post, it often spins out of control. I even will go back and make corrections/additions hours or days after original post (as I am doing now.)
*Incidentally, Jorn Barger is an interesting fellow; he was an Internet pioneer turned homeless guy. He was supposedly seen panhandling with a cardboard sign reading: “Coined the term ‘weblog,’ never made a dime”
09 October 2005
Exhibit 1 is a tramvie. Exhibit 2 is a trollay. Exhibit 3 is an autovbus. Excuse me for any nonstandard Cyrillic to Latin conversion, but I've yet to find a standard; I have seen my street name spelled several way in Latin characters, and the same is true going the other way: my name is spelled differently in Cyrillic on different documents.
Anyway, how would you describe to someone what a Trollay is? Obviously, most of us would just say it is an electric bus, or more precisely, an autovbus that happens to run on electricity supplied by overhead lines. Not Bulgarians though, they describe it as “like a Tramvie, but with rubber wheels.” Now, I understand (and—as a train and electrical geek—appreciate) the infrastructure similarities, namely that you have to provide electrical current along the entire route, and therefore it takes a great deal of effort to change or enlarge the route, and they both have electric motors attached to their drive axel instead of a diesel engine somewhere. However, from the consumer point of view, there is no difference between a trollay and (city transit) autovbus! Although an autovbus could go anywhere, they always follow a set route and come by every x minutes. Therefore, I must assume that at some point in history the trollay must have looked more like a tramvie than a bus. However, I get the same result when I ask young people; this goes to show language imbeds deeper meaning than one would expect.
By the way, I've ridden every form of public transportation now, and they can all be characterized as crowded, smelly, and in need of repair; but hey, it's all part of the adventure!
06 October 2005
02 October 2005
Above: I had to get a picture of this; isn’t that the cutest little trackhoe you've ever seen? Below is Lada’s version of an SUV; love that Russian styling! ;-)
Later we traveled to Kalofer, a village in the “Valley of the Roses,” where we sampled Rakia and jam made from locally produced rose oil. It feels strange eating or drinking something that smells like perfume. The owner of the guesthouse where we ate and slept had participated in a tourism development program that took her to the US for some educational programs and a study tour of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This US-funded initiative has been very successful for the town; it is own of the nicest I’ve seen so far despite recent flood damage, and it has managed to replace many of the jobs lost when the primary employer (a state-owned munitions plant) closed after ‘the changes’ with tourism-related jobs. BTW, in this town we also saw another instance of still-functioning hydro power (although not electric); I’ve sent pictures to Simon.
Well, Monday is our first day of work; tell you all about it later.
29 September 2005
The fair has come to town! Well, a crappy little affair consisting of a few well-worn rides set up at NDK. Best part was seeing a seemingly unattended ferris wheel with 3 people on it; after a while one guy [obviously the operator] steps off—while it was in motion—and brings it two a stop within half a revolution to let the other two people off, and all in the most nonchalant manner.
Everything in Bulgaria seems to be hand-me-downs—especially vehicles; there are a lot of 90’s model Beamers, Mercedes, and tour buses that you can tell served their owners well in Western Europe until they could no longer pass strict emission controls there.
Among the many street vendors in the center of Sofia, I noticed several selling fur hats with the Soviet hammer and sickle insignias. I was overcome by the irony; here I was in a formerly communist country, far enough removed from those “bad old days” that they were now selling Soviet-themed items (I’ve also seen “CCCP” track suits around town) to tourists as kitsch. Best of all, these are most certainly made in China—a strange amalgamation of communism and capitalism!
The MBA Enterprise Corp newsletter is available here. There is a group picture and a little about my colleagues and me in it; check it out.
22 September 2005
After an excellent (free) lunch at the Hilton and obligatory jokes about Paris (poor guy, after living down that name throughout childhood, this silly hotel heiress had to go and ruin the name), we still had to go to language class that was postponed from for us.
Andrew and Maury had invited us to go with them to the opera that evening, and one by one, we had decided to join them. You know I’m not a big fan, but for 10 leva ($6.20) I couldn’t say no—besides I was already dressed up, and what else would I do: watch TV & surf the Internet.
The opera house is relatively small and quite dusty, but I fully enjoyed the experience. The opera was Puccini’s Tosca. I should have found a quick summary about it first on the Internet, but between the Bulgarian translation and Andrew & Maury’s quick explanation I was able to follow the story.
Foretaste of Winter
Yesterday, and even more today, the weather has turned noticeably colder—not freezing, but certainly a hint of what is to come. Leaves are already turning colors on some trees. It is unmistakable where this is all heading…brrr!
Below: Ryan snapped this picture in Assenovgrad on Saturday. How confident would you be taking a taxi service called Titanic?!
18 September 2005
Saturday’s highlight was having a three-hour, four-course lunch at Doriana’s parents’ apartment. The food was incredible and her parents were a lot of fun to talk to despite the language barrier. Afterward, to work of the excesses of the afternoon, we strolled (several km, uphill) to the remnants of the fort and church set on a precipice over the valley leading to Greece—excellent location: you could probably just roll boulders down the hill onto enemy troops coming through the valley.
Sunday morning we took a short train ride to Plovdiv. (I snapped picture above with my head out of the window, then quickly ducked back inside so as not to get smacked in the face by the overgrown bushes/trees—what this country need more than anything is lawnmowers, weed eaters, bush-hogs, and such!) [Insert Top Secret line/joke here.] Oh, by the way, Assenovgrad is the wedding dress capital of Bulgaria; they have tons of bridal shops here. I couldn’t resist getting a picture with my ‘Bulgarian bride’—enjoy.
In Plovdiv (3rd largest city and former capital of Bulgaria) we climbed to the top of a hill to see a hazy overview of the city and the Alyosha monument—a statue of a Russian soldier that survived the ‘changes’ of 1989. However the highlight was a black lab that would chase a tennis ball down 100+ stairs and then come bounding back up to his owner only to have to do it all over again—good boy! Later we saw parts of the old town and parts of two Roman amphitheaters. I really liked Plovdiv; I actually think it is nicer than Sofia in a lot of ways. We had lunch at about 1:30pm and then boarded the sauna on wheels for our ride back home at 3:00pm.
13 September 2005
Saturday morning we were all supposed to meet in front of a certain building at exactly 8:15 in order to catch a tram to the bus station to catch a certain once-a-day bus. However, at the prescribed time only Ryan and I were there. Our guide—Svetla—was late, Paris was in the wrong place, and we never heard from Julia. We missed the bus we intended to take, but found alternate routing (that was better anyway) and by 10:00 we were on our way, but sans Julia. She was having problems with here phone, and despite various efforts to contact her and have her come via alternate means, she was not able to join us in Rila. Lesson learned: make sure you know where the meeting place is and that your phone works. Actually it could have been me; first of all I didn’t set my alarm clock but woke up at 7:00 anyway (al la Kramer), and my phone was locked because I turned it off at the embassy and didn’t know the PIN.
Just now, I went by NDK (National Palace of Culture—just across the street from my place) to witness a fire fighters/emergency rescue demonstration. That's the great thing about this location—there is always something going on. BTW, note that the new Heineken billboard (see August 11 post) already has graffiti on it.
11 September 2005
Besides the monastery, there are other chapels and shrines throughout this area linked by trails that would have to be characterized as pilgrimage paths rather than hiking trails, since—to this day—Bulgarians still go visit these sites despite, for the most part, not being very religious. We visited a cave where John of Rila supposedly lived some 1100 years ago. It’s a real tight squeeze; as the tradition goes, supposedly, either you must be pure of spirit to pass or you are absolved of all your sins if you do make it. Architecturally/mechanically it does filter out the gluttons, which—as I have probably mentioned before—is not a big problem for most Bulgarians. At another shrine (pictured) people write their prayers/wishes on a scrap of paper and stuff in the cracks of the rock—al la Wailing Wall. It makes for a strange juxtaposition: ancient cultural/religious sites set in the middle of the natural beautify of the Rila Mountains—imagine a string of actively-used churches in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Svetla, our ‘cross cultural’ guide, is trying to expose us to as many different experiences as she can think of (and we are convinced, trying to shock us,) so this time we travel strictly by public transportation. Granted the buses were old, gritty, hot, and slow; but we remained unfazed. One interesting thing I noticed at the front of the bus above the windshield were football (soccer) stickers, pin-up girls, and iconography of Jesus and Mary all side by side!
Fortress of Solitude
Friday all four of us went the monthly Marine party at the American Embassy; this time it was a BBQ—lots of food for 10 leva. Met some interesting and high-ranking diplomats/embassy staff, but the most interesting observation would have to be about the massive new, ultra-secure compound that is the American Embassy as of two years ago. Its so far removed from its surrounding you could easily imagine you were back in the states. The guards let us in only after Ryan friend Catherine vouched for us and then we had to leave our phones and cameras at the entrance. The floors are covered in 12" x 12" tiles, the plumbing and electrical fixtures were American (they used US-standard 220 outlets throughout, which of course don’t fit either European or American appliance, meaning an electrician has to retrofit every power cord.) I wondered if they even used any Bulgarian cement!
07 September 2005
Sozopol is a quaint fishing village turned resort. It is well preserved/restored and not too touristy (at least the old town—the portion situated on the rocky point jutting out into the Black Sea where we stayed. Thanks to Delcho for clueing us into this location—we would have gone to Varna (think: Myrtle Beach) otherwise. I assumed we would see and hear a lot of (British) English and German since they are represent the highest precentage of visitors to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, but apparently Sozopol has not been discovered by foreign tourists yet.
The first picture showcases the rocky coast—which is actually relatively young since seawater found its way through the Bosporus Straight flooding the Black Sea only several thousand years ago. This picture is taken from across the bay—a new part of Sozopol. On the opposite side of the peninsula there is a spot where you can cliff dive from 12.8 meters; Delcho’s friend Stefan demonstrated, and I wanted to go back and do it later, but never could find anyone to ‘spot’ me. The next picture is of the guesthouse where we stayed for 4 nights (or days in Paris' case.) This is the typical—and famous—style of old builings in Sozopol. Below that is our host tending to his fishing nets. They spoke Bulgarian, and only a smattering of English, German, & Spanish. However, between that and the little Bulgarian we knew, we actually got along very well—we talked about music, travel, etc. Best of all, our rooms were only 10 leva per night—I don’t how they can continue to exist with those prices. The final picture of that of the beach; if you blow it up and look real carefully you might even see some top1essness!
I didn’t really do much but sit in the sun (water & wind was a little to cool for me) and read. I finished Balkan Ghosts by Robert D. Kaplan. It is an excellent primer on the history of this region from Hungary to Greece. It recounts continuous cycle of wars, recriminations, atrocities, dictatorships, and mutual hatred that is ubiquitous in Balkan history. The author explores the ethnic, political, and religious influences of the last 600+ years beginning with the Byzantine Empire’s rule that segued into Turkish oppression, all the way up to Milosevic and a prediction of the events of the late 1990’s. Really explains a lot!
Monday night we went to a Jazz concert that was part of the greater Apolonia Festival taking place in Sozopol this week with Delcho and friends. You know I'm not a big fan, but it was interesting—jazz with an eastern influenced, and the ticket was only 6 leva.
Tuesday evening we took a bus to Burgas in order to catch the overnight train back to Sofia. Actually got some sleep in the bunks before arriving at 5:30. Slept another good 2 hours in my own bed and then got up for language class at 9:30.
This weekend we are off on another excursion—the Rila Monastery. I know it sounds like I’m having too much fun with too little work. Now you know why I chose to do this.
Your paper work is in order
Oh, I nearly forgot; Friday before we left, we went to the police station for the last time (this year at least) to pick up our “lichna karta.” I am now officially a (temporary) Bulgarian, entitled to all the prevailing discounts!
31 August 2005
29 August 2005
Friday morning we had to come to “class” packed and ready to go because right after lunch we boarded a 30-passenger bus for the ride to Govedartzi for the VEGA-BTD weekend retreat. Near our destination we came across the film crew for “The Contract” again. Apparently they were shooting a police chase scene; Ryan saw two American (Ford LTD) police cars—no celebrity sightings though. We arrived at “Djambazki Family” guesthouse where everyone immediately took a nap (we stayed out a little too late Thursday night despite having a test on Friday morning.)
That evening we received some Bulgarian cooking instruction; most notably how to make the Bulgarian national salad: shopska. Julia and Ryan cut up tomatoes and cucumbers while our host demonstrated how to roast peppers on a metal sheet over an open fire. Afterward we had to peel the peppers which Paris and Dimi then cut into the salad. I cut onions until my eyes watered, and our host performed the final and most important step: grating a mountain of sirine cheese over each portion. Technically, Shopska salad is just tomatoes and cucumbers covered in sirine (without the peppers and onions.)
Saturday morning we had a breakfast of palichinkas with homemade blueberry and wild strawberry jam. (Incidentally I discovered a palichinka stand 4 blocks from my apartment; I suspect I will be having flinzen for breakfast quite often now.) After breakfast we set off for our hike in the Rila National Park. For the first few km we shared the trail with people participating in an orienteering race; they were running around looking puzzled with their maps, compasses, and flags. The actual Botanical trail we had come for started about a mile later. We had our very own botanist, Dimi, to point out the objects of interest; which was necessary because—despite being paid for by USAID—the signs were in Bulgarian only. At the top of our climb we had a bag lunch overlooking the beautiful glacial valley below (note how it is U-shaped.)
Our hike ended at the “chalet” Вада—it is actually more accurately described as a hut—where our bus was parked. While waiting for the rest of the group to arrive I discovered that this way station had its own little hydroelectric plant. At first I thought this little a-frame barely 6 feet high was a pump house, but upon noticing a 6" penstock going in one end and tailwater flowing out of the front, I immediately realized what was going on. For Arno & Simon Froese’s sake—but you're going to have to click on the links to see the picures—I stuck my camera through a gap in the door to get an interior shot showing the turbine, some pulleys and belts, but unfortunately not the generator. I followed the penstock up the hill to find a simple but effective diversion, control structure and dam. Offhand, I would say they have almost a 100 feet head.
House Djambazki is apparently renowned for its food in the area and I can see why base on Saturday evening’s dinner. After the obligatory shopska salad and Rakia, I had probably the best soup I have ever tasted and—as the entrée—an exceptionally delicious fish—and I’m not a big fan of whole fish. These particular fish come from the high (2000+ meter) lakes in the park; Paris commented that living at that altitude these fish are more bird than fish! All evening we were regaled with Bulgarian folk music from the surrounding residents in the village; although this was organized (and paid) for our benefit, we could tell these folks were having a great time getting together, drinking Rakia, and making music—a kind of jam session.
Sunday morning we again head to the park and hiked up another trail this time ending at another “hut” situated at the base of two majestic peaks. Unlike the previous day, there were tons of people here including some old folks who had managed to pick their way up the rock-strewn path and, while eating their lunch, busted out in traditional songs—specifically about Rila and the Maliovistza peak which would alternately hide and reveal itself behind a curtain of clouds—actually quite stunning.
After returning to House Djambazki to pick up Aideen (VEGA-BTD director), her 2-month old boy, and our bags, we headed back to Sofia with a stop at an artsy craft store in Samakov, which—as imagined—we guys found boring, but the women loved. We were probably all a little sore from all the hiking, but it resulted in a good nights rest.
Again, Ryan has an excellent account of last week's activities on his blog; click here to read about these events and more from his perspective (and see another picture of me!)