31 August 2005

Bachelor refrigerator

fridge: olives, mustard, Coke, pickled veggiesI ate dinner out tonight—meat, potato, soup, bread, and a soft drink—all for 2.55 leva ($1.55.) Granted, it was nothing fancy, but even at a fairly nice restaurant it’s nearly impossible to break $10 including drinks. Needless to say, I am not cooking for myself as witnessed by my stereotypical bachelor refrigerator. Inventory: olives, mustard, remnants of a 2 liter Coke, and some pickled vegetables—which, amazingly, are actually pretty good, but useful only as a side dish. I just can’t see dropping 20-30 leva to stock up the fridge and pantry when a) I’m not much of a cook, and b) eating out is so cheap. I’ve even given up my morning Nutella sandwich in favor of a 1-lev flinzen.

29 August 2005


roasting peppers
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.)

Doriana, Ryan, and Joel peeling peppers
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.)
final step: sirine cheese
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.)lunch break

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.
delicious fish
old folks jam session
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.
Maliovistza peak (rounded one)
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!)

24 August 2005

Bandwidth quota

I just received an email from Netidentity (host for froese.com) saying that I am about to go over my monthly bandwidth limit of 1000MB. I have no idea how I blew through 1 Gb since my hit counter is only 276! Maybe someone linked to one of my cycling pages and sent me a whole bunch of traffic.

[UPDATE] Issue resolved. Someone was hotlinking (read: stealing my bandwidth) to a picture of the book Elegant Universe that I had scanned or sized for review I had written. The advice below is still a good idea.

In any case, please bookmark and use the following address: http://persistentitch.blogspot.com to read my blog instead of http://joel.froese.com (blogspot.com is free.)

Thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Below is a picture of the typical cable/internet infrastructure here in Sofia. I think I mentioned this before, but notice how no cable is ever removed, the new operator just zip-ties his cable to the exiting ones until you get a rat's nest as demonstrated below. This is actually on my block, so one of those cable may be leading directly to my computer.
typical Sofia facade

22 August 2005

Your paper work is in order

Didn’t do anything worth reporting this weekend. I should have gone hiking with Rich and Maury; they had two good days of hiking in the Pirin Mountains without any rain (which is what I was concerned about since I don’t have my raincoat/windbreaker yet.) However, here in Sofia, the weather changed from hour to hour. Every time I went out on Saturday it began raining; I would go back to my apartment, and within an hour the sun would be shining! I’ve gotten soaked on several occasions now, so I always (well almost always) take my umbrella with me whenever I go outside now—you really can never tell when it might rain.

This morning we had our second Bulgarian test, which was a surprise to me; for some reason I thought it was supposed to be on Tuesday. Needless to say I didn’t do well, although it wasn’t that bad either—I generally don’t study much for tests anyhow. Plus it’s hard to get motivated when the grade doesn't really count for anything. Actually, despite the fact it is an obscure language, I would like to gain as much proficiency in Bulgarian as I can since I will be here for over a year.

Right after lunch we headed to the police station again (this makes it 5 times now) to submit our application for our “lichna karta” (residency permit/identification card.) There are over a dozen windows here, but each agent has a specific function. So you can wait in line for over a half an hour at one window while the agent at another window is filing her nails, only to find out you’re in the wrong line and now have to stand in line in front of another window. Thankfully there were no long lines today and Delcho was there to help us, but upon presenting our passports, we were told it would take a half an hour to stamp them. So we head down the street to a slatcarnitsa (literally sweet shop) just to kill some time. They had all kinds of delectable cakes and pastries, but I just had a piece of baklava and a Coke. We returned and signed the application in all the right places, so now (hopefully) we only need to go back once more to pick up our lichna cards.

17 August 2005

Back to School!

This experience has always felt like a continuation of my education (in fact, that is one of the reasons I’m doing this.) We catch ourselves say things like “on the way to school…” or “what are you doing for lunch after class?” instead of “on the way to the office…” and “after language training.” Even in DC, we sometimes called ourselves “the class of 2005” instead of “the 2005 Corp.” Well, today’s events reinforce that feeling; we had our first Bulgarian language test, and now we have to research a Bulgarian holiday in order to give a 10-minute presentation tomorrow for our cross cultural training “class.”

15 August 2005

Zillertal in Bulgaria

This weekend we had our first taste of what lies outside of Sofia. Everyone has been telling us that Sofia and the rest of Bulgaria are two different worlds. So, Saturday morning we headed out on an excursion arranged by VEGA. They utilized the services of a company called EcoLogic; the founder, Sletlana, her husband Vladimir, and colleague Dimitrina were our guides to the Bulgarian hinterland. (In picture left to right: Joel, Sletla [ELC], Tony [guesthouse], Julia, Lucy [guesthouse], Ryan, Valdi [ELC]; Paris and Dimi [ELC] kneeling.)

The first stop was for lunch in the suburban town of Bistrica. The first course was a tomato and sirine (feta cheese) salad and bread; it is said in this area that all you need to sustain yourself in the summer is sirine, tomatoes, and bread. The entrée was chicken on a skewer, the Bulgarian equivalent of chili rellenos, and some kind of potato pancakes. After such a heavy lunch, a little exercise was in order, so we hiked up the hill to a monastery—no monks, just a little church and a caretaker family.

farm [koop]erativeabandonded buildings at cooperativeOver the course of afternoon, we visited a succession of small villages between Sofia and the Rila National Park. The point was well made, despite their proximity to Sofia, these villages might as well be on the dark side of the moon. They were totally devoid of any young people (except those visiting their grandparents), and nearly lifeless save a few farm animals. These two pictures are of a seemingly abandoned cooperative “Koop. Melnitsa [est.] 1946.” However, we actually met some guys who worked there and said they expected to enlarge their herd of cows from 40 to 200 over the next year—I wish them all the best, these towns certainly can use any kind of growth they can get.

As we drew near to our destination of Bela Iskar at the foot of the Rila Mountains, I was reminded of a trip to the Zillertal in Süd Tirol (Austria) with my parents over a decade ago. This town was not as clean and did not have the same tourist infrastructure (restaurants and such), but it definitely has potential. We stayed at the guesthouse “Vila Orlovi Skali” (Eagle’s Rock); our hosts were Tony and his energetic wife Lucy (don’t know their Bulgarian names.) We had a wonderful dinner followed by plenty of Tony’s homemade Rakia; needless to say we slept well in the quite, cool mountain air (despite a deafening thunderstorm during the wee hours of the morning.)

Bulgarian crepesFor breakfast we had flinzen! Theses crepes were about 75% the size of mom’s and filled with jam and/or sirine cheese; they call them “palachinki.” Next we visited the home of a typical rural pensioner; this couple probably works harder since they’ve retired tending to a cow, a pig, sheep, chickens, and a vegetable plot. Being self-sustaining, their meager pension is really only needed for utilities and animal feed, putting them in a much better position than pensioners living in the city. It is obviously a hard life, but they enjoy it and pride themselves in supporting their children and grandchildren with gifts of food even if they don’t need it. Before we left, they prepared us a lunch of sheep’s milk yogurt and banitsa, a dish consisting of wafer-thin layers of filo dough enclosing a filling of spinach and cheese.

Bela Iskar RiverWe finally began our hike up the newly constructed eco-trail in the Rila National Park (established in 1992.) Despite lingering rain and foggy conditions, we thoroughly enjoyed the rugged beauty of Bela Iskar River and the tremendous gorge it has carved through the center of the park. We were not alone: along the park road we saw half a dozen movie production vehicles; apparently the park is being used as the backdrop to a film call “The Contract” starring Morgan Freeman and John Cusack (we saw neither, but Julia is still hoping to run into Cusack—I don’t get it ladies, what is it about him?!)

tree down on road back to SofiaOn way back to Sofia we drove along the Iskar River. We noticed evidence that we were passing through an area that had just been hit by a tremendous thunderstorm. At one point there were still accumulations of hail on the ground, a downed tree over the road, and 18 inches of standing water on a bridge that, despite being over 10 feet above the lake below, presented a 50 meter-long gauntlet of floorboard-deep water to less adventurous driver (we made it through without a problem.)

Ryan has already posted his version of the weekend’s events; make sure to check it out as well.

11 August 2005

Football and Beer

Wednesday night the four of us plus Doriana as well as Rich (Corp 2004) met at the National Stadium just across the street from the VEGA office. This time it was for world-class football (soccer.) CSKA (a local team) was playing Liverpool. The crowds started building in the vicinity of the stadium hours ahead of time; a heavy police presence all day signaled the significance of this event. Although Liverpool has the money to buy some of the best players in the world (Ryan says that some of them make upwards of $7 million a year), CSKA fans were hopeful, remembering their upset victory back in 1984?!

Rich and Joel in a sea of CSKA fans
Our seats were in the Ultra-fan section at one end zone. Everyone was wearing red, carrying Bulgarian and/or CSKA flags or scarves, which they used during the entire game in their endless chants and songs. Their enthusiasm was not even dampened by the 3-1 defeat; they continued to cheer as their team came around the perimeter of the field to bask in the love. I can’t imagine what they would have done if they actually won the game; in any case the police was ready for any eventuality—they formed a shoulder-to-shoulder line in front of our section by the end of the game, but I didn’t see any incidents.

It was after midnight by the time we were clear of the stadium. I had a big lunch, but I was a little hungry by this time so I stopped off for a falafel at Mimas—Ben and Denitsa would know the place. It’s amazing how fast the guys behind the counter can whip up a doner or falafel. They got a certain rhythm to their movement—rocking and slapping their hands on the counter to pick up the pita or wrapping paper; it’s almost a little show in itself. (Lately I’ve been eating something rolled up in a pita almost once a day.)

Heineken: Served in 170 countries and one billboard
Thursday night I was in my apartment and heard the thump of loud techno outside, so I head out and across the street to the park in front of the “National Palace of Culture.” A laser light show was lighting up the sky, and as I arrived a firework show started. Amazingly it was coming from a little area that was roped off, but you could walk right up to. Successively bigger, higher, and louder shells were launched culminating in an impressive finale—with ash falling of crowd directly below. The reason for the festivities was a Heineken publicity event. A billboard was fastened to the side of the National Palace of Culture exhorting the virtues of Heineken accompanied by aforementioned techno music with conspicuous ‘subliminal’ message: “Heineken” spoken over and over again. There was actually a little bar in the billboard—tagline: “Enjoyed in 170 countries and one billboard.” The whole shebang was apparently a traveling marketing show that had just set up in Sofia today. Made me strangely thirsty, so I went home and had some Fanta. ;-)

07 August 2005

Hot dog skins

Cold rainy weekend; didn’t do much Saturday except go Billa for some grocery. Along the way, I stopped in some random take-out place hoping for a doner or hamburger. Instead they had cold cuts and indistinguishable salads and sauces. Feeling adventurous I decided to go for it. I choose chicken, which the girl behind the counter put in a bun and then put in a warmer and pressed flat. Then I had her add what looked like coleslaw (at one point there were four Bulgarian trying to figure out what it is called in English) and some red sauce. To top it off she added a bunch of fries and ketchup on top. What started out as a flat sandwich ended up being a giant cone of food, and all for less than 2 leva! It was actually kinda good; with 4 types of meat and 6-8 salads/sauces I guess I could try a different combination everyday for weeks.

Anyhow, the title comes from the fact that I bought some different hot dogs at Billa Saturday because the ones that Doriana recommended during our shopping trip on day 2 had such tough skin that I actually had to peel them after I cooked them! So today as I cooked my lunch I looked in the pot and noticed that one of these new hot dogs had entirely shed it transparent skin; cool, a naked hotdog!

I purchased a nice headset (9 leva) and downloaded Skype. I’ve heard about this for a while and it turns out to be a really cool application. For 47 minutes this afternoon I talked to Micah for free! The sound quality is better than telephone and doesn’t have any noticeable delay. Find a headset or microphone that you can plug into your computer, download the program from here, install it, and add me to your contact list; my “Skype name” is: joelfroese

I will do a “random observations” post soon…stay tuned. I increased the width of my blog to 750 pixels; When displayed in the joel.froese.com frame, this should fill up your 1024 x 768 screen more fully. If you're at a lower resolution click on “Current (w/o frame).” As always, let me know what you think; click on the pencil below to leave a comment.

04 August 2005

The weather catches up with us

Since we arrived, everyday has been warm to hot and bright & sunny—if a little smog filtered. We were aware that this was not normal, yet a little surprised how cool, dark, and gloomy it has been today; during language class this morning, we had to turn on the lights for the first time. Drippings from the doner I had for lunch soiled my shirt, so when I changed, I decided for a long-sleeve shirt just to keep from having to take a jacket. (It just a matter of principle; August is summertime!) Later in the evening we even had a hail storm for a couple of minutes.
Bulgarian National History Museum
The cultural event for today was a visit to the National History Museum. It is situated at the foot of Mt. Vitosha, a 20-30 minute bus ride from the center of Sofia. Our guide was a cute 18-year old docent with passable English. At first we joined a group already in progress; they were Israeli retirees, and would translate her explanations into Hebrew to other in their group. She ended the tour at 1901 because “they were tired” and then returned to the beginning—5th millennium BC to the Thracian period. The highlight of the museum is some recently uncovered, well-preserved golden jewelry and armor from the 4th century BC. (BBC story)
Corp 2005 with museum guide
Paris, Ryan, Elizabeth, Joel, Julia
We then moved on to some more contemporary stuff finishing with the wedding gown of a Bulgarian princess from a few years ago. Our little group had a ball; Paris asked a couple of silly questions and our laughter echoed throughout the nearly empty museum. I thinks Elizabeth, our guide, enjoyed our company as much as we did hers. Since the museum was closing at 17:30, she joined us on the bus ride back to the city as Paris tried out all of his Bulgarian on her, so the merriment continued all the way back home.

Tomorrow we have to go back to the police station to submit our ‘lichna karta’ application…no actually we will apply for permission to submit an application—talk about Byzantine bureaucracy, and each step takes two weeks! We would have done this Wednesday, but all four of us had forgotten to take our passports with us; Doriana assumed we would know enough to bring them with us by the fact she had informed us that we are going to the police station—I felt like a dumb American.

02 August 2005

“It's all here—fast-kicking, low scoring, and ties? You bet!”

Sunday afternoon the boys (Ryan, Paris, and I) went to a football [soccer] game. The two local archrivals were playing—Levski and CSKA. Randomly we choose our tickets on the Levski side of the stadium, so we are now Levski fans—now we just need to go out an buy some blue Levski shirts, scarves, etc.

The ticket price was only 5 leva [$3.12], and a bottle of water was only 70 stotinka [$0.44]—that would cost five bucks at Williams Brice. Being a local event we learned that not everyone in Sofia speaks English, not the ticket sellers, or many of the police. Never the less we had a good time and learned some Levski cheers—although we don’t know what they mean. At the end of the second half the score was tied 1:1, so the game went into an extra period. With the score still tied, penalty kicks finally resolved the stalemate resulting in a Levski victory—and the crowd went wild!

The quote in the title comes from The Simpsons episode 5F01, where an exhibition soccer game results in “mob rule” and Homer gets a handgun. Well, we did see some boisterous behavior at the game—in the “Ultra” fan section. A scuffle broke out and police in riot gear (who where stationed everywhere in and around the stadium) pushed into the crowd as water bottles and road flares were tossed down at them. We didn’t experience any of this in our section, but upon trying to leave noticed they had locked the exits giving the fans of the opposing team time to leave unmolested.

Monday morning it was back to language training again. Afterward, I finally met Vessela for lunch; we caught up with what we had been doing as well as mutual friends/classmates in the intervening couple of months since graduation. Its great to see a familiar face in a strange new place.

That afternoon the cable guys finally came; however, they were not from the cable TV company but a small, wired Internet provider. They have actually strung Ethernet cable all over town (quite sloppy, if you ask me—you'll see bundles of Cat5, coax, and telephone cables zip-tied together and strung along and between buildings all around the city.) I get about 250 kbps (which should be adequate for Skype,) and it cost only 25 leva per month!

It has been unusually hot (for Sofia) since we arrived, so once again Doriana put off the day’s cultural training/survival skills until 5:00pm. We toured the shopping district and street market that Ben and I had discovered on our own last year, and then had ice cream. Likewise, Tuesday afternoon we met around five, had ice cream, and explored more Sofia streets. The ice cream here is the excellent Italian-style gelato, like I had in Vienna—great stuff!

Tonight—Thanks to Rich (MBAEC 2004)—I met a bunch of Habitat for Humanity volunteers here on a short term project, and then some Peace Corp people stationed around Bulgaria who were celebrating the completion of one member's two year stint here.

Well, since I didn’t publish this before, I am now. It looks exactly the same as last year. This is “Women’s Market” featuring mainly produce and clothing. In the background is the ever-present Vitosha mountains.

Women's Market