30 December 2005

Buda, Pest

Joel, Mike, Ryan, and Julia celebrate New Years in BudapestFor the first couple of days in Budapest, it was just Ryan, his friend Bill from Boston, and me. They had arrived several hours earlier on the Thursday morning, and thus had taken in an extra site—the Great Synagogue. This lead to ongoing discussions for the rest of our trip, which eventually brought about the concept: Santa Yarmulke. Since men must cover their heads when entering a synagogue, and must remove any hat before entering a Catholic church (both ostensibly for the same reason), we wondered who would be more offend by the wearing of a Santa yarmulke. I thought this was so incredibly unique and bizarre that I even checked to see if I could buy the domain santayarmulke.com, only to find someone has already done so a year ago. It’s amazing how hard it is to come up with an original expression; I challenge you to google your personal catch-phrase and see how many people have already used it!

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)!

The Scam

Galaxia a.k.a rip-off centerFriday 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.

Ringing in the new year with localsDespite 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

QUT reunion in Köln

QUT alumnsOn Tuesday afternoon Sven, Andreas, and Joel met in front of the world-famous Kölner Dom. Sven was the perfect tour guide, showing us all the important sights of the altstad; at nearly every square he said: “…and there was another big Christmas market here last week.” More importantly, we visited more than one brauhaus where we sampled tiny glasses (0.2 liter) the local specialty: kölsch. Sven dared me to order a Diebl Alt, but we decided it would be wiser not to start a barroom brawl. Eventually, (the other) Meike found us and we had a nice Indian meal at the inexplicably name “Buy Buy” restaurant. After a couple more glasses of Kolsch, we had to sprint to the bahnhof so I could catch my 0:25 train back to Grevenbroich. All in all, we had a great time reminiscing about time at Queensland University of Technology and other parts of Australia. (Left to right in the picture: Joel, Andreas, Meike, and Sven)

26 December 2005

White Christmas

White Christmas in DüsseldorfToday I met Meike in Düsseldorf this afternoon. As a lifetime resident of Ddorf (as she spells it,) she gave me the full tour of the altstadt—which, by the way, is really nice. It was cold but clear and sunny when we started our little walk, but the within 20 minutes the weather took a drastic turn. We ordered waffles from street vendor, and while I had my back turned for a few minutes, it began to rain and then snow. Never the less, we marshaled on into the blizzard. The reason for the title above is that, in Germany, the 26th (zweiten feiertag) is as equally considered Christmas day as the 25th, so indeed I did experience a white Christmas.

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

Froehliche Weihnachten

Denise, Jonas, & WernerJust had a nice family Christmas Eve with Oma and the Bulirsch's (Oncle Werner, Tante Eva, cousins: Tatyana, Esther [with her two boys Maurice & Jonas,] and Denise with b/f.) BTW, Oma just celebrated her 96th birthday on the 18th, and—despite currently being under the weather—is still going strong. Earlier this evening we went to church where Maurice played a donkey in the nativity play. Afterward Tante Eva prepared a wonderful meal for everyone and the we all exchanged presents.

22 December 2005


Ferihegy Terminal 2aI’m bored. I arrived at Budapest’s Ferihegy Airport this morning before 8:00 and now I have to wait until 17:55 for my flight to Germany. I guess I could have went into town, but it’s a 12 Euro round trip, the weather is not the best, and I’ll be back here for a few days next week; so I’m cooling my heels here at the airport. Thankfully, they have free wireless Internet—the only reason I’m writing this post.

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.

departure board at Ferihegy terminal 2bOn 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

Vesela Koleda!

Yesterday I went on a Christmas gift buying spree for the Bulirsch family and my grandmother, with whom I’ll be spending Christmas; as well as my boss, Gergana whose name I drew in our office “secret Santa” present exchange (not to be confused with the Gergana pictured below; it seems to be a very common name here.) Just a few weeks ago, I went to the grand opening of a store called “Ten Senses – Fair Trading Company.” They specialize in handicrafts made by disadvantaged Bulgarians, and their prices are quite reasonable. (BTW, for any of you in or coming to Sofia it’s located 1.5 blocks west of Vitosha Blvd. on William Gladstone St.) So I stocked up on all kinds of little authentic Bulgarian trinkets that can be easily transported in a backpack.

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

Yellow Submarine

Birthday party establishing shot
The Lady TigersAfter 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.

little Geri, Joel, and VladoApparently 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 friendsAftermath-the counter (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.)Aftermath-washed glasses

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

Mi rojden den

That’s right, tomorrow is my birthday, so I need to make some preparations. For work, I need to buy a box chocolates or two; it is customary to treat your co-workers with chocolate and/or wine on your birthday and your name day (the day your namesake saint was born on—in my case July 13.)

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

Just cut my hair

Today I finally got a long-overdue hair cut. As I walked in to the place, I immediately suspected the middle-aged ladies cutting hair would speak no English (as opposed to anyone in the service industry under 30—especially girls—who, without exception speak a passable English.) When it was my turn, I got into the chair and she started rattling away in Bulgarian. All I could say was “не разбирам вългарски” (ne razbiram bulgarski,) I didn’t even know how to say “short.” Of course, the first question always is “how do want your hair cut” which—even back home—I never know how to answer. My feeling has always been: you’re the hair professional, you figure it out. And don’t make me remember clipper guard numbers—just cut my hair so I don’t have to go through this again for another 2 months.

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.