30 July 2005

Mt. Vitosha

Vitosha Mountians from NPC
This morning I did my first Bulgarian ride (solo.) Headed south toward Vitosha Mountains that loom over the Sofia skyline. Arrived within 5-8 miles and began gradual climb up through narrow, sometimes cobblestone two-lane roads. This was just a shakeout ride, but climbing felt good so I continued probably to 75%-90% of the way up (the road just ended.) Noticeably cooler and cleaner air; looking back at Sofia, I could see just how smoggy the air is. Lot's of people were hiking trails that crisscrossed the slope. Apparently, we will be doing this next Saturday as part of our cross-cultural training. In fact it looks like they have an excellent series of “field trips” planned for us!

In case you're interested, Ryan has a blog too (much of the same events; different perspective.) TravelWithRyan.BlogSpot.com

28 July 2005

Ah, Buh, Vuh, Duh . . .

Yesterday we began the process for getting our ‘lichna karta’—an ID card proving residency, which Maury’s husband said—practically—is just a Bulgarian hotel discount card; hotels, ski resorts, and much of the hospitality industry still have a two-tier pricing structure where foreign visitors pay 100% - 500% more for same service.

For lunch, we met an American guy who came to Bulgaria 12 years ago with the MBAEC and never left. He is now a managing partner of Balkans Accession Fund CV. A thoughtful and reserved man, we listen carefully to what he had to say about living and working in Bulgaria. He said that he had put off learning the language thinking he would only be here for ‘one more year’ on several occasions until 6 years ago!

Also on Wednesday, Maury (2004 Corp) and her husband Andrew had us over at their apartment for dinner. They have a nice, large apartment (although not as fancy as the ones VEGA found for us) that they had found on their own for 70% of the MBAEC housing allowance. However, they said they are not saving money during their assignment due to extensive travel throughout Balkans/Eastern Europe. They regaled us with all the wonderful experiences they have had over the last 12 months (they still 2 months to go.) Lots of valuable information.

Today we started language training with our tutor. Learned the alphabet and some simple words and phrases. We felt like kindergartners ‘learning our letters.’ Actually tomorrow our tutor is going to bring in some lined paper normally used by 1st graders; over half of the letters in the Cyrillic alphabet are new to us; just try writing a backward N and R—those are the easy ones! My name is written Джоел (literally d-zshu-o-el since they don’t have a ‘j’, but depending of pronunciation, there may need to be a ‘y’ in there as well) pop’s name is more straightforward: Арно (that’s right the P sounds like ‘r’ and the H like ‘n’ among other ‘false friends’—letters that look like ours but sound totally different.) Furthermore there are some difference between cases and print/script, for example the Д in upper-case script looks like our cursive D, but the lower case looks like g!

I spent this afternoon waiting for several hours in my apartment waiting for the cable guy to hook me up with Internet…but he never came. :-(

I don't know if I like this blog template; the one column layout seems to waste space. Makes it easier to read but you have to scroll around more. Let me know you thoughts; click on the pencil below to leave comments & discuss amongst yourselves.

26 July 2005

“Pimp my crib!”

After a sleepless night in the air over the Atlantic, a few hours in the Frankfurt airport (now branded “Fraport”), and a two-hour Lufthansa flight to Bulgaria, we (and all our luggage) arrived without incident at the Sofia airport. It is a surprisingly small airport for a national capital, and upon passing customs (roll through the ‘green’ lane), we were met by Doriana and Delcho from VEGA-BTD. They had arranged for two vans to take us and our pile of luggage to the city, where the first order of business would be to sign contracts for our new apartments. This took probably an hour, but felt much longer because I was fighting to keep my eyes open due to sleep deprivation. I had been told that in Bulgaria most apartment buildings look dilapidated from the outside while many units are well appointed. This was certainly true in my case; the entrance, stairwell, and elevator were quite shabby, but I was very pleased with my apartment: bright colors, hardwood floors, modern furniture & fixtures—including a big TV, stereo, and air condition. Turns out my fellow Bulgaria-based Corp members were similarly impressed with their apartments; Ryan characterized his with the phrase “pimp my crib.”

I didn’t have much time to unpack or do anything else except go to the ATM and get some Lev. This is a story in itself: I inserted my card, punched in the PIN, and selected the maximum withdrawal of 400 lev. The machine whirred on and on, stopped for a while, and continued several times. I began to worry that I would never see my (only) ATM card again when the door finally opened and a wad of 40 bills were delivered (I have no idea why this machine dispense only 10 lev notes.) As I said, I didn’t have much time because at 6:30pm we were to meet Doriana and Delcho for dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant in order to meet the 2004 Corp—specifically Rich, Maury, and her husband, Andrew (Karen—whose project I will take over in October when she leaves—was unable to attend.) We had some good food and conversation (since they had been through everything we had already done and will do over the next year.) As I had mentioned, I was dead tired and as soon as my head hit the pillow at 9:30pm, I fell asleep.

Tuesday morning I awoke at 9:45 and rushed to take a shower and get dressed because we were supposed to be at the VEGA office by 10:00am. We went through some administrative issues, were issued our cell phones (see schedule & contact page), and went to police station to register our stay—as is common in Europe. That afternoon Doriana led us on a shopping expedition for essentials at the Austria supermarket, Billa. Afterward I fixed myself a little dinner culminating in desert consisting of a Nutella (knockoff) sandwich—I don’t know why I deprive myself of this sweet ambrosia in the states—it is available even in little old Columbia, South Cackelacky. I finally unpacked my suitcase, and now I am catching up on the blog for you!
my crib: kitchen
my crib: living room, bedroom

24 July 2005

Acronyms Galore

The MBA Enterprise Corp training and orientation week

I arrived at my hotel Monday night and received the info packet from MBAEC detailing our agenda for the week—a packed schedule. I had dinner and the opportunity to meet some other Corp members: Ryan and Julia who were going to Bulgaria with me, and John who is going to Angola (and turned out to be our ‘class clown’—he looks and acts a lot like Conan O’Brien.)

Tuesday morning the training began a few blocks from the hotel in a classroom at George Washington University—very nice facilities by the way. I met the two lovely young ladies with whom I had been corresponding (MBAEC staff): Phyllis and Jill, as well as the rest of the 2005 Corp: Paris (no, he’s a dude) who is also going to Bulgaria, Tom Moore who is headed to Angola with John, and is a fellow USC IMBA graduate (however, previous to this, I had only seen once—at our graduation—since he did an exchange last fall, and I was gone this spring.) Going to Romania are Amit, an Indian national from UNC, and Mike from U of Minn. Our Thunderbird graduates (generally considered the #1 international program—ahead of USC) are Norm who is going to Azerbaijan and Manish, another Indian national, who is going to Kazakhstan—or southern Siberia as he like to call it. There were other staff members from MBAEC and associated organization, most notably—for those of us going to Bulgaria—Doriana and Kamelia from VEGA-BTD in Sofia.
2005 Corp
As expected, this is a group of sharp, highly motivated, and well-traveled young people who are either unprovoked or burned-out by high paying jobs their education and experience assure them. However—thankfully—I am not the only one who is a little ambivalent about my future, and is using this experience (granted a very valuable one) to delay an inevitable ‘real’ career.

The Acronyms

The first lesson was understanding the organizations involved. The MBA Enterprise Corp (or MBAEC) merged with the Citizens Development Corp, which—interestingly enough—was created as a result of George H. W. Bush’s commencement speech at USC in 1990 (so I guess I am now officially one of his “thousand points of light”—make sure to simultaneously do the ‘air quotes’ and say in an exaggerated nasally voice as SNL’s Dana Carvey would do.) The CDC is funded by USAID—the government agency charged with distributing foreign aid money. However the CDC has found it necessary to align itself with other economic development organizations under the umbrella VEGA (Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance.) My project will be with the Serdon Foundation—a Bulgarian business support organization (BSO)—they, in turn, are there to help out local small-to-medium size enterprises (SME.)

After a full day of meetings on Tuesday, the entire Corp and staff was invited for an evening of dining and entertainment at Marrakesh, a Moroccan restaurant characterized by low couches & tables, food you eat with your fingers, and—to top it all off—a belly dancer! A very interesting experience. This is apparently a famous DC establishment; the walls were filled with photos of various politicians and other celebrities with the owner (including, separately, Shimon Peres and Yassar Arafat.)

Wednesday was another full day culminating in the MBAEC Alumni Panel consisting of about 7 people who had served a term in the Corp and therefore were very helpful in letting us know what to expect. In particular there was a couple that went to Bulgaria in 1999 and were USC alums as well, not only that, but they had done the Vienna track too; they met in Austria, and are now engaged. Most of this group was now working for governmental and non-governmental agencies in DC.

WWII memorial
When we were finally free that evening, I made a point to do a little sightseeing. I walk past the World Bank and IMF to the National Mall. There I saw the new World War II memorial that had just been opened last year, and then walked back in through a beautiful summer night past the White House.

Thursday we headed to the Mount Vernon campus of GWU for the “ropes course.” It was mildly amusing, but I was disappointed that there was no high wires, zip lines, etc. that one would expect from a ropes course.

Friday’s activities wrapped up around lunch at which Ben Posil joined us (as Tom and my classmate.) Ben drove me around town for some windshield sightseeing, after which I walked down to the mall again and briefly visited the following Smithsonian museums: American History, Natural History, and the National Gallery of Art. The Boy Scout’s National Jamboree was in town, so all the sights were overrun by teenage boys in brown uniforms.

Unlike previous visits, I really fell in love with Washington DC this time. It’s a city of neo-Greek/Roman to 19th century architecture unmarred by towering glass and steel of most modern city—very much like Vienna in that respect as Ben pointed out. It is a lively, cosmopolitan city with plenty to do and an abundance of restaurants representing every imaginable cuisine. There is a palpable energy from the transient population of bright people with interesting occupations: government leaders, foreign diplomats, those working in the national headquarters of numerous organizations, lowly interns, and students. I could see myself living and working here after the Corp.

That evening we put on our suits for a reception and dinner given for the CDC and MBAEC’s 15th anniversary. There were over 100 people in attendance, mainly from other economic development agencies in town. It was a really nice event, but it droned on a little to long; it was after 9:00 when the keynote speaker was finally done.
Manish (ski mask), Mike, John
Saturday morning’s “working breakfast” ended at noon with admonition/pep talk from Dr. Jack Behrman—founder of the MBAEC. After this, as a group, we walked down to a liquor store in the Watergate complex to prepare for our farewell party in Mike’s palatial suite (we are still wondering how he got that) after the official farewell dinner that evening. Below is Manish trying out his new ski mask with Mike and John. We joked that with the ski mask, his dark complexion, and foreign accent he would certainly be detained at the airport as a terrorism suspect. ;-)

On Sunday some of us had a final American meal at TGIF and at 2:00pm said our goodbyes as we set off in a van to a very crowded Dulles airport. There we said goodbye to Mike and Manish (who were on different flights), and with Norm, boarded our flight to Frankfurt.

16 July 2005

New website design

So how do you like it? I don’t profess to be an artist or designer, but I think this looks a lot better than what I had before. Granted the site as a whole is still a mish-mash of designs (or lack thereof.) What I should really do is learn CSS, create a master style sheet, and update all my old pages to reference the CSS (and while I’m at it, fix spelling, grammatical, and factual errors.) But that would be too much work, and would invalidate the archival nature of this site. ;-)

You can now read my blog my simply going to joel.froese.com. If you don’t want the frame view (left sidebar,) just go to persistentitch.blogspot.com. Hosting my blog and pictures—which I intend to post more of—at Blogspot makes it a little quicker and easier for me (but not necessarily for you) so I will be more inclined to create a quick little post more often.

BTW, you can now leave comments for me (or to discuss among yourselves) by clicking on the “comments” link below. However, if you want to write me directly, please email—see “Schedule and Contact page.”

04 July 2005

Fourth of July

Simon tending to the pig
We celebrated Independence Day the same way our family has done for at least five years now—with good old southern barbeque (pulled pork.) Last year it was a bit more delectable than usual as my parents and I savored a “Hintere Schweinstelze” at the Schweizerhaus in Vienna.

Pool Party
This year was more traditional for me. I left early in the morning to participate in the Fabulous 4th Metric Century in the mountains of North Carolina (full report here.) By the time I returned in the early afternoon Simon’s “Pig Picking Pool Party” was in full swing although, due to technical difficulties, the pig was not ready until later in the afternoon. Never the less, everyone had a good time from the youngest to the oldest.