29 September 2005


palachinki c shokolad u banan...mmmThis is my favorite breakfast: palachinki c shokolad u banan. It is formed by spreading a generous dollop of Nutella on a flinzen, adding a whole banana—sliced lengthwise, and rolling all up. Notice the chocolaty goodness (click on picture for closeup) oozing through the pore of the flinzen—good stuff!

ferris wheel at NDKThe 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.

fur hatsAmong 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

Dress-up Tuesday

Tuesday morning we went to a conference at the Hilton—which by the way is very nice, and like the American Embassy, can make you forget you are in Bulgaria (except that most of the event was in Bulgarian—we listened to the [barely tolerable] simultaneous translation on cordless receivers [IR, not RF!] The occasion was the launch of CEED, an organization conceived to educate Bulgarian executives/business owners, but that’s not really important; I was told that basically the same people show of to all these type conferences regardless of the topic.

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?!
Titanic Taxi

18 September 2005

Sauna on wheels

For the umpteenth weekend, we headed out of Sofia. This time it was an ‘optional’ excursion with Doriana to here hometown of Assenovgrad and Plovdiv. We had to wake up at an ungodly hour of the morning to catch an 8:00 bus (I know that’s not early, but we’ve been spoiled that way lately.) The bus was a humongous, double-decker job that you wouldn’t think would be able to navigate the narrow street of Bulgaria. The bus company’s response to higher fuel cost seemed to be to turn off the A/C and to go slower; I don’t think the driver ever broke 100 km/h. Never the less the Saturday morning ride to Assenovgrad was not too bad; although not comfortable enough to catch up on our sleep deficit of the past few days (out past midnight Thursday [Adam the Peace Corp guy’s last day in Bulgaria] and Friday [Tom Higgin’s {MBAEC alum} ‘end of summer’ party.] The title of this post refers to this afternoon’s ride back to Sofia. We decided sit on the right side of the bus to avoid the sun while traveling west; problem was I sat directly inline with a sunroof. I was the only one in the bus who had to wear sunglasses, but there was no one on the bus who would have allowed me to close this, the only source of fresh air for the second level, nor would I have wanted to experience any worse stifling, BO-laden air. First thing each of us did upon getting home this evening was to take a shower.

Assenovgrad FortressSaturday’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.

Ass-Plovdiv train rideSunday 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.

Joel's Bulgarian BrideIn 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


fortress of solitudeThe weekend’s events did not come off without a hitch as my previous post might have suggested. First of all, on Friday, I lost my camera. It was my old camera, so I wasn’t too worried; I just wish I had the picture of the “fortress of solitude” (embassy) that I had surreptitiously made. The good news is that today Ryan emailed me to tell me that someone in our party picked up; here is the picture.

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.

fire fighter rescue demonstrationJust 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

Rila Revisited

Rila MonasteryFor the third time now, we visited the Rila Mountains. This time, however, we went west to the “nature park” which is owned mostly by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and is surrounded on three sides by Rila National Park proper. The main attraction is the famous Rila Monastery, which was originally built in the 1300’s before the Ottoman invasion of Bulgaria. As such, it played an invaluable role in preserving Bulgarian culture and identity throughout 500 years of Ottoman occupation (or “the yoke” as they call here in the Balkans.)

shrine with notes stuffed in crevicesBesides 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


Last week we found out that we have a long weekend; September 6th is “Unification Day” in Bulgaria. So to take advantage of the 4-day weekend, we left Friday afternoon by bus across Bulgaria. Half of the trip was on a nice, modern 4-lane expressway, but after Plovdiv it’s two-lane until Burgas (a port city.) En route we were delayed at least an hour due to an accident; it looked like a empty car carrier had tried to overtake some traffic around a corner and had no other choice but to ditch his truck into the trees to avoid a head on collision. After clearing this our bus also began passing long lines of cars (as well as being passed) it is a wonder there are not more wrecks along this stretch. We arrive at our destination a little before midnight.
Sozopol from across bay
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. net maintenanceThey 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!