30 December 2006

Happy New Year!

Mall of Sofia“Christmas” shopping

As a formerly communist country, New Years is still a bigger holiday in Bulgaria than Christmas day—nearly everyone is guaranteed a 4-day holiday: December 30, 31, January 1, and 2. Since presents are exchanged on this holiday, the shops and malls were packed Friday and Saturday, so I got to experience two last-minute Christmas shopping rushes this month!

Movies

Yesterday, I watched two movies. With the exception of a few French and Russian flicks, cinemas in Bulgaria show the same Hollywood blockbuster as nearly everywhere in the world, and—many times—premiering on the same weekend as in the US, since all they have to do is add subtitles. The cineplexes in Sofia are all fairly new, with stadium seating like we have back home, but the ticket prices are significantly cheaper: 4 to 6 leva ($2.70-$4.04.)

First, I watch the new (re-make) James Bond film, Casino Royal. I found it to be a clumsy effort, and—as expected with any new actor playing Bond—I didn’t like Daniel Craig in this role; he seems too rough-edged for this role—Bond is supposed to be effortlessly suave. The parkour stunts were cool, but many of the traditional elements were missing, most notably the array of cool gadgets and the nude, female silhouettes in the opening title sequence. Like I’ve always said, the Bond franchise is just not the same since the end of the cold war, a sentiment seconded by Judy Dench’s “M” character in this film–which of course was poignant for me, watching this behind to old iron curtain.

Later that evening, Mirena and I went to see Robert Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion. The star-studded cast (Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, and Tommy Lee Jones) brought in at least a half a dozen Bulgarians who were so bored/disappointed, they left before the end—even Mirena fell asleep. This is to be expected, since it was a sentimental film made for PHC fans (like me.) I wonder who thought it would be a good idea to subtitle and distribute it here.

27 December 2006

Back in BG

Christmas Eve at Micah & DebyWell, who’d have thought that I would be back in Bulgaria after only a month back home, but Mirena insisted and since I had nothing better to do—no job yet, and no new year’s eve plans—I ha to come over for two weeks. Plus, Bulgaria will join the EU on January 1, so that should make for a big party!

I left for the airport on Christmas day, just as my mother was preparing her big dinner for the whole family; too bad I missed that, but we were all together on Christmas Eve for the magnificent banquet that Debora, my sister-in-law has made a tradition lately.

Brussels Christmas treeI had an 11-hour layover in Brussels, so despite being dead-tired from the overnight flight, I had to get out and explore the city. The weather was less than ideal (cold and cloudy,) but I was impressed—Brussels is a magnificent city. BTW, I have an overnight layover on the way back, so I’ll get to see more of it on January 9/10th.

That’s all for now…

13 December 2006

Back home

Sorry for not posting anything lately. I’m not quite sure what to write about anymore, and I’m afraid I’ve already lost most of my audience. Never the less, I do intend to keep blogging indefinitely regardless of where I am, so do come back every once in while, or—better yet—subscribe to the RSS feed. By the way, make sure you are coming to http://persistentitch.blogspot.com and not joel.froese.com, because I am turning that into a more professional site since I am now looking for a job.

So, for some highlights from the past 3 weeks: After arriving back home from being abroad for 16 months, my homecoming was overshadowed by an announcement from my brother and sister-in-law—they are going to have a baby! Obviously, we are all very happy for them (especially my parents.) But, hey, Joel just returned—you stole my thunder! ;-) Not to be outdone, my other brother and sister-in-law, made an announcement 2 weeks later…that’s right, they are going to have a baby too (in fact they are even farther alone!) So, yes, it is kinda hard being the only single person left in my family, but I’m used to it.

On the day before Thanksgiving, I met with some current IMBA students that I had met in Vienna back in March (they are doing the exact same program I did 2 years ago.) We met at the Carolina Coliseum to see our local, minor-league hockey team get beat by a team from Florida. This was first time I’ve ever been to a hockey game; thankfully Daniel (IMBA 2007) was able to explain the finer points of the game to me and his classmate, Antonio (who is from Puerto Rico, and had also never been to a hockey game.) What an incongruous sight, to see two teams from the Deep South playing a game that would, under natural circumstances, be impossible here.

Thanksgiving was great; I fully enjoyed the traditional feast and seeing family that I had not seen for over a year. Our last guest was my cousin from Germany, who is an au-pair here in South Carolina, unfortunately no one told her that Thanksgiving dinner takes place in the early afternoon; she arrived at 19:00—oh well, I know that feeling (lack of knowledge of local customs.)

The next day, I braved the crowds on the biggest shopping day of the year to browse the newest electronics at Best Buy and Circuit City. That evening I met two of my former classmates that still live in Columbia, one from Bulgaria and one from Romania. It was good to exchange notes on living/visiting each other’s countries.

The next week, I finally put my bike together and went out for a ride again. The weather was unseasonably warm—24C (75F); now I remembered what I liked about South Carolina! However, I have really gotten out of shape, because after my usual 53km (33 mi.) loop, I was exhausted. I promised myself to get back into shape, but the weather has turned colder, and I’ve only been out on one other occasion.

Hydro project

Ever since we moved down from Ohio and my father purchased the house where I grew up most of my life, he has wanted to harness the water that flows out of the small lake that his property is situated on. However, through the years, this childish idea has been forgotten until my youngest brother expressed interest in it 2 years ago. powerhouseEver since then they have been gung-ho about it, plowing right into the excavation and building of the power plant (pictured) without researching whether it is even economically and practically feasible. They have had no electrical, mechanical, or any other kind of engineering assistance or even any kind of drawings other than the proverbial “sketch on the back of an envelope.” Despite this lack of professionalism, it looks like they will soon have a turbine spinning in the power plant very soon. A week ago Saturday, we all piled into my brother’s pickup truck and drove to the outskirts of Atlanta to pick up the rebuilt turbine and associated hardware that they had ordered from an equally unprofessional, micro-hydro expert. This was loaded into the pickup and a trailer (pictured), and with a minimum of verbal instruction on how to put it all together we headed back home. My other brother and I—who have been warning them against this foolhardy scheme—are impressed that they have gotten this far, but we’re still doubtful that they will ever produce any substantial revenue from selling power back to the local electrical co-op. We see it as a source of amusement, watching them from the sidelines as they muddle through. Despite collective our electrical and mechanical expertise, we have vowed not to help them in this foolish endevour. Never the less, we do hope they are successful, and now that looks increasingly likely.

Reverse culture shock

For the last 3 calendar years, I have spent a total of 26 months abroad. After each homecoming, I wait for the phenomena called “reverse culture shock.” However, even after not touching American soil for 16 months (expect for the embassy), I still have not experienced it. In fact I am amazed at how natural it feels to be back home; it’s almost as if I haven’t been gone. Granted I am restless, and I am looking forward to the next adventure.

The one characteristic that is unmistakably evident is that everything in America is big! Food and beverage portions are big, hence Americans are big, and therefore they drive big SUV’s (it seems no one drives a regular car anymore.) I am alarmed at how much weight I’ve gained in the past 3 weeks; I now consciously watch out for overly processed, high fat food (that, granted, tastes soooo good!)

Seriously, what I have found downright sickening—especially around the holidays— is this run-away consumer culture. Why do we feel compelled to listen to marketers and buy junk for ourselves and our family & friends that we don't need? Then we rent storage space, buy/build sheds, and finally, get a bigger home just to store all this junk. Granted, Americans aren't alone in this compultion; but since Americans and (mostly young) Europeans are used to financing their lifestyle with credit cards, it is more evident here. I expect this disease to spread to other parts of the world with the expansion of consumer credit. I am thankful that my parents drilled it into us that “if you don't have the money, you don't need it!”

30 November 2006

Current Events

Joel eating wasabiMmm, Polonium wasabi. Muy caliente! (много лютив)

Seriously, I wonder: does radioactive hot taste caliente, picante, or neither. Related story

21 November 2006

Back in the US of A

After staggered farewells, and a hectic last two days in Bulgaria, I boarded a plane on Monday morning in Sofia and arrive in Columbia, SC the same evening—a total of 24 hours in transit thanks to a 5-hour layover in Dallas-Fort Worth. In the short term, I am looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, and in the long term, excited and a little anxious about the next phase of my life—the next adventure, wherever that may take me!

16 November 2006

TPS report

As MBAEC volunteers, we were required to write quarterly reports about our assignments including evaluations of our organizations, quarterly goals, “personal developments,” etc. The final report was expanded to include some final thought, so—since I have spent considerable time on these reports, and only 2 people for sure have ever read them—I will now publish the following experts.

Knowledge gained

Professionally, the most obvious thing I have learned is how international development is done. I had only a vague, academic perspective of this sector before I came to orientation and training in July [2005.] While I still do not understand a lot, I have certainly gained a lot of knowledge in this area over the past 15 months. From little things, like the acronyms that are ubiquitous in this field, to how the grant writing process works (including practical experience in evaluating grant proposals.) I have learned how projects are proposed, designed, and implemented through a hierarchy starting at USAID, through various contractors (individuals, NGOs, and for-profit enterprises,) all the way down to the mix of volunteers, locals, an others who actually implement these programs. Much of this has not been learned by direct experience, but because I am now in contact with people who are involved in this sector such as my own MBAEC colleagues, Peace Corps volunteers, and contractors on other projects.

Living in Bulgaria for over a year, means I have also learned a lot about the Bulgarian language, culture, cuisine, history, etc. Not only Bulgaria, but now I also have a much greater understanding of the Balkans and Eastern Europe; I have read books and Internet articles about this part of the world, visited museums, and talked with locals. One of the most important lessons learned is that ethnicity, rather than citizenship, is more important to national identity here, and therefore political borders are a matter of so much contention. Every country in this region has had an empire that extended well past its current borders at some point in history. To a greater or lesser extent, the people of the nations represented by these countries (I say this rather than “citizen” or “inhabitants,” since they all have sizable ethnic minorities) would like to see these “lost territories” back under their control—obviously impossible as most land is under the claim of multiple nations. Previously I had thought that European integration would solve this thorny issue, but now I understand why that will not be as easy as I had thought due to this deeply ingrained nationalism.

Personal Impact

Being born to immigrant parents and having traveled internationally on numerous occasions since childhood, (including a total of 10 months during business school) I thought I had a very international perspective (at least compared to other Americans.) However, this experience—living alone a foreign country for 16 months, traveling to other countries from there, and making friends and acquaintances from all kinds of backgrounds—has certainly made me more cosmopolitan; I am now more aware of the greater international issues and of diverse viewpoints.

Above all, I have become aware of just how lucky I am to be born in a highly developed (economically) country. I will be eternally grateful for the opportunities granted me by this happenstance. Even among my colleagues in the 2005 Corps, I have recognized how fortunate I am to possess an American passport; I was able to travel easily to wherever I wanted—which was not the case with my Indian friends, for example. Also, I am grateful that my native language is the language of interchange when two parties don’t know each other’s language; I have witnessed individuals trying to converse in bad English both professionally and in my travels. However, this blessing is also a curse in that there is little incentive for native English speakers like me to learn another language,and—in fact—makes it difficult to find others with the patience listen to our mangled attempt to speak their language when their English is almost always much better.

This being said, I am not more proud of America or being American; in fact, I have become less nationalistic as I have made friends with people from all over the world and sometimes lamented with them about the policies and regulations of our governments that artificially divide us; when on a personal level, we have a much closer kinship.

In regards to international development, in some ways I am more sympathetic to our efforts (and those of other countries and organizations,) but I have also become more cynical when I see how resources are often wasted and the outcome of so many projects seem to be ineffectual. Partially due to these insights, I have decided that economic development, as a career, is not for me.

Environmental Factors

In a final, and broader assessment of the business, economic, and cultural environment of Bulgaria, I would say the greatest challenge is the low expectations of Bulgarians for themselves and others. For example, most Bulgarians own their apartments or houses (many young people have inherited the residence of a deceased grandparent); this is great, but since most don’t have a car payment either, and services & food are extremely inexpensive, much of their modest salary can be applied to discretionary spending. This means they are happy with salaries that are nearly one tenth of what similarly educated and experienced workers in the US and western Europe make. Similarly, there is a low expectation of government and civic leaders, so corruption continues to be a problem. I don’t what the solution is, as it requires a conscious change by a majority (or at least, as significant portion) of the population; I just find it frustrating to try to help a bright and capable people who are just held back by their collective fatalism.

14 November 2006

Not gonna tell

I am not going to tell you about last weekends trip to Bansko and Melnik although it was rather pleasant and interesting. Lately, this blog is sounding too much like a “what I did on summer vacation” report. Travel has to be experienced directly; there is no way that words, pictures, or even video can convey the serene yet surreal feeling of standing on a hill top near the Rozhen Monastery on a cold evening and looking out over the sandstone pyramids1 and—in the distance—the snow-capped peaks of the Pirin range bathed in faint light just after sunset. You would just have to be there; so get out there and travel!

1 The “sand pyramids” are a natural formation that the Melnik area is famous for.

07 November 2006

Potato Man

potato manThis weekend I rented a car again, and on Saturday, we made a day trip out to some small towns east of Plovdiv. We came across a vegetable bazaar, and upon learning that potatoes were only 38 stotinki a kilo, Mirena bought a 20 kg bag—which I am carrying back to the car in this pic.2

After returning to Sofia that evening, we went to the first of three of Barbara’s farewell dinners (the final farewell is tonight.) Barbara is Italian and works for an Italian child-welfare NGO; she was asked to move from the Bulgarian office to Ukraine—we will all miss her, especially Mirena.

The same evening, we went to the Marine Ball, because Ryan had two extra tickets from people that couldn’t come. I found it rather boring, but if I get a nice picture of us all dolled up, I will post it here for you. That’s what I’m reduced to now that I don’t have a working camera—begging others to email me their pictures.

And then there were two

On Friday, I arranged for all current and former MBAEC volunteers living in Sofia to have dinner together before Ryan and I leave this month. Most were able to attend (including Tom, who was a volunteer here in 1993, and never left.) As Americans, we are always craving spicy food here, so we met at Taj Mahal—an Indian restaurant. Sunday afternoon, our smaller group of 2005 and 2006 Corps met at the Radisson for Sunday brunch as a send off for Ryan, who is leaving today.

Life of Joel

Many of you have been wondering what my life is like now that my assignment is over. Well, many times it involves sleeping til a noonish hour, getting up and having a cup of tea or coffee3, checking my email & surfing the WWW, and then thinking about lunch. I usually bum off for the rest of the afternoon—usually reading—until Mirena gets off work. We eat out just about every day, sometimes with friends or at some kind of party or other gathering, and that’s a day!

Notes

1 Homer Simpson uses the expression “potato man” to gain entrance to the U2 concert in episode 5F09.

2 Photo credit: Mirena.

3 After years of experimenting with the gateway drugs of cola (34mg of caffeine) and tea (60mg), and resisting the entireties of family and friends to try the hard stuff—coffee (100+ mg)—I have started to drink Nescafé “3 in 1.” This is an easy to prepare, single serving package of a precision mixture of instant coffee, powdered milk, and sugar that I now use to get my caffeine kick and/or treat headaches, since I don’t have any ibuprofen anymore.

02 November 2006

Ridin

Opel CorsaSo, after not having driven a car for over a year (with the exception of a short trip in Germany last December) I finally rented a car on Saturday—a Opel Corsa like the one pictured, except it was kinda greenish with no wheel covers, and the antenna was snapped off; but what can you expect for 20 Euro a day.

Fall colorsOn Sunday, Mirena and I were in Dolna Banya—a small town about an hour away where a Peace Corps volunteer lives and had organized that weekend’s Hash. We rewarded for the effort by perfect weather, brilliant fall colors, and—afterwards—a delicious, 5-course Bulgarian meal of salad, chicken nettle soup, rice-stuffed peppers, tender pork fillets with mashed potatoes, and—for desert—pumkin banitsa. All very tasty and surprisingly inexpensive. At first, I thought this was a picture from Mirena’s new camera phone, but since you can see her clutching it, it obviously isn’t; and it can’t be Barbara’s either—as you can she is framing up a picture on her camera. Photo credit: Niltay (I think.) I love recursion!

On Monday morning, I drove Mirena to work—to this old, Dickensonian steel mill that has probably never seen better days under state control, and now looks even worse since being bought by an Indian concern that is obviously squeezing the last bit of profit out of it before it will undoubtedly have to be shut down for not even coming close to meeting any European environmental standards. Then I drove up to Svoge to visit another Peace Corps volunteer—Jennifer. We continued up (north, but actually downhill along the Iskar River)—an area with particularly interesting geography. Our goal was the “Seven Thrones Monastery,” which was disappointing—it was just a chapel with 7 rooms—but the scenery along the way made it worthwhile.

The rest of time before turning in the car on Tuesday afternoon, I used it to make preparations for my party that evening. It’s interesting how natural it felt to be back behind the wheel, cruising out to the mall and to big-box retailer at the edge of town (I went to Praktiker—the German answer to Lowes/Home Depot to buy a new fluorescent light for my bathroom.) However, I was glad to return it—traffic around Sofia is terrible most of the day, and—although I became a shameless sidewalk parker—it’s nearly impossible to find parking space anywhere downtown.

Mike's costumeThe party itself was fairly low-key, which is to be expected for a “school night.” Mike definitely walked away with the best costume prize—he came as a blog; specifically as The Persistent Itch! He stapled favorite posts from this blog to the front of his t-shirt and pages from Ryan’s blog, Blog-aria, to his back. He said that he thought of splattering the paper with fake blood, thus being a “blog stalker,” but decided that would be in poor taste. Photo credit: Mirena

Incidentally, as I write this on Thursday evening, it has begun to snow!

Also, you may notice the list of “friends’ blogs” to the right has become significantly shorter; I've eliminated anyone who hasn't written anything in the latest 2 months—which is being generous; no use sending you there if they haven't written anything new. Hopefully this may goad some them into writing again. ;-)

27 October 2006

Budapest revisited

On September 4th, I booked tickets to Budapest1 on Wizz airlines because the ticket was so cheap—just taxes and fees (37 Euro.) I picked the dates of October 13-16 randomly; in retrospect, I should have gone the next weekend (20-23) as this was the 50th anniversary of the 1956 uprising. I would have been able to experience all the associated events, demonstrations, and rioting that you have probably seen on TV.

This time I was on my own—no traveling companions—which was nice; I could do and see what I wanted and at my own pace—lots of walking. The weather cooperated beautifully; it was sunny and unseasonably warm all weekend—much more pleasant than December’s visist.2

Day 1 – Friday, October 13th

Thankfully, Wizz had changed their Sofia flight schedules from crack-of-dawn and late night flights to the late afternoon meaning I could leisurely mosey over to the airport—that is, if I had noticed the time and had everything packed up. The flight was uneventful, and due to the time zone difference, I arrived in Budapest at the same time I left Sofia. This time I found the bus that goes between the airport and the metro station, thus avoiding the 4400 Forint ($22) minibus service. Alighting from the metro at Deak Ter. (the central metro station) I made my way up to the street, but didn’t recognize any landmarks (I had no map, no reservations, and only a vague recollection of where the hostel was that we had stayed at last time.) However, after walking just one block, I got my bearings and found the hostel with no problem.

Day 2 – Saturday, October 14th

The goal for this day was to visit the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, which I did. I soaked in hot water of various temperatures for nearly 3 hours. In fact, I think I may have overdone it a little. Ignoring the “recommended time” signs—those are for wimps—I stayed in a steam bath and then sauna for over 20 minutes and then plunged into the icy cool-down pool. I got somewhat woozy, and my heart began racing—and continued to race for the rest of the day; guess I should have taken it easier.

After my soak, I saw Hero’s Square, and a new monument that would be unveiled the next week in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the short-lived uprising against the Soviets in 1956. At some point in the day, I also saw Hungary’s magnificent parliament building, and a remnant of the previous month’s demonstration: a tent city of protesters right in front of the parliament.

Day 3 – Sunday, October 15th

I had noticed in a tourist magazine that the Budapest Hash House Harriers was having a run this morning, so I showed up at the appointed place, and met another group of friendly expats. This particular morning, the Budapest Marathon was also taking place, so we watched some of the top runners pass us along the Danube River at about the 28 km mark before heading out for our own exercise. They aren’t quite as organized as the Sofia Hash; the first couple of minutes were spent determining where we would hash and who would be the hare—something that is determined weeks in advance in Sofia. Anyhow, we had a nice run/walk on a steep hill at the western border of old Buda. Afterward we tried a Hungarian delicacy: Lángos, which is just like “elephant ears” you would find at the state fair, except instead of powered sugar, it is covered with sour cream, cheese, and garlic sauce—it’s actually quite good.

That evening, I finally met this blog’s number one reader, Emese,3 for drinks and some real Hungarian goulash.

Day 4 – Monday, October 16th

On my last morning, I had a breakfast of palachinki again, and then set out for Gellért Hill. This is a park situated on the steep slopes over the banks of the Danube on the Buda side. It is criss-crossed walking trails that visit several important sites, most visibly, the citadel and statue of “Liberty and Freedom” at the top. After that, it was time to head to the airport for my 15:00 flight back to Sofia.

Notes

1 Despite my expanded linguistic portfolio, I was not able to figure out much Hungarian, as it is a Finno-Ugric (non Indo-European) language. All I know for sure is that an “s” doesn’t make the “s” sound unless it is followed by a “z”; so Budapest is pronounced Budapesht, Emese is pronounced Emeshey, and bus is spelled “busz.”

2 Accounts of my previous trips to Budapest can be found here:3 Emese is this blog’s number one fan based on number of comments submitted, although Simon/Bubba is rising through the ranks.

03 October 2006

Not Constantinople

Since our assignments are all done, several of my MBAEC colleagues and I decided to meet and celebrate in Istanbul (not Constantinople.)1 Norm left Azerbaijan on Friday, as did Ryan and Mike (from Sofia—via a night train.) As I had a wedding to attend on Saturday, (an American coworker at Serdon) I took a bus on Sunday morning, and Paris—after some complications—met us on Monday, as he was there on business.

Day 1 – Sunday, October 1, 2006

The bus ride was a pleasant enough, but long—10 hours! I opted to travel during the day, so I could see the Bulgarian and Turkish countryside pass by my window (plus I don’t sleep well in a sitting position.) It was reasonably enjoyable; I got to see a lot of Bulgaria that I’d never seen before including a major city, Haskovo, which I had previously never even heard of.

After being spoiled with the privileged of being (with) a diplomat the previous week, the experience at the border was tiresome. Mind you, not the inspection itself, which was cursory, but waiting as the buses and the luggage of passengers on those buses in front of us was thoroughly inspected. Apparently the customs officials scrutinize the cheap bus lines more often used by smugglers (of whatever) than the comparatively ritzy 40 leva “Metro Plus” bus line I was using.2

The scenery changed considerably as soon as we entered Turkey. The arid hills were dotted with a different style of houses, and the skyline was punctuated with the minarets of mosques. However, more importantly—the road went from a pothole strewn 2-lane to a 6-lane expressway.

We rolled into the outskirts of Istanbul3 around dusk and were dropped off in a maze-like, multi-story bus station. I tried to find my way out—to public transportation—but eventually gave up and paid a taxi 20 Euros (the same amount as the bus ticket from Bulgaria) to take me to the hostel in Sultanahmet, where we were staying. I looked for Ryan, Mike, and Norm, but didn’t see them; so headed out for a bite to eat, since I was famished from the bus ride. As it was after sundown during Ramadan, (or Ramazan as they call it in Turkish) there was a festive atmosphere as people were eating their first meal since breakfast.

Eventually I found my friends, and we went out to eat again—which was an adventure in and of itself! The first restaurant we tried didn’t sell beer because it was next to a mosque—which was a deal breaker for Mike—but it also didn’t have everything on the menu because the post-sundown rush of Ramadan had already cleaned them out. We settled on another one where the waiter assured us they had everything on the menu including “lavash” flat bread. When our food arrived there was no lavash, and they had substituted noodles for rice. Mike pointed this out to the waiter and even showed him on the menu that we were supposed to get rice (because the waiter said rice was extra.) After multiple trips back and forth, he admitted that these items were “finished.” Then—and this has now become our catchphrase for the journey—he said: “Yes, my friend, you are correct, but I am correct as well.”—classic!

Day 2 – Monday, October 2, 2006

Norm, Mike, Joel, and Ryan on the BosporusMonday morning we were up bright and early for our Bosporus cruise. A minibus picked us up in front of our hotel and took us to a consolidation point—on the side of a busy highway—where we waited around and eventually got on another private bus that would take us to the boat, but first a side trip to the spice market (which we could have found on our own.) The boat trip was pricier and a bit nicer than the one Ben and I took 2 years ago4, but it was basically the same thing: mainly showing the multi-million dollar houses on the Asian side. We noticed that nearly each hilltop (perhaps representing a neighborhood or wealthy individual) featured a soaring flagpole and an enormous Turkish flag—the size you would only see at an American car dealership.

The explanation was given in English, German, and Spanish; and each a little different because we’d be 5 minutes further along the shore when the language would change. I couldn’t be sure, but the woman who was doing the explanations in Spanish seemed to be talking about totally different things; too bad Bulgarian has pushed out the last remaining Spanish language skillz out of my head.

After the cruise, we got off our bus at Taksim Square in order to explore the modern part of Istanbul rather than being shuttled back to Sultanahmet. As we strolled down the famous pedestrian street, İstiklal Avenue, we stopped for a quick lunch at cheap but tasty Turkish cafeteria. At the end of İstiklal, we went down a street much like the “satellite TV street” that Ben and I walked up 2 years ago,Galata Tower; photo courtesy of Norm but—as Ryan noted—this was definitely “music street”; there were 100 times more stores selling musical instruments of all kinds plus sound reinforcement equipment than in all of Bulgaria—one would think there is a lot of live music in Istanbul, but we never found any. Halfway down the hill, we stopped to go up the Galata Tower for the panoramic view and the obligatory pictures.

That afternoon a Turkish girl, which Mike had met on a previous trip here, took us to a few leather goods stores because Mike wanted to buy a leather jacket. After visiting a few stores, trying on innumerable jackets, and—of course—haggling, the jacket was bought. As usual, I was bored, but started looking at jackets for myself, and found a really nice one I liked for 400 Lira, unfortunately I did not buy it—as you know, I am not an impulsive shopper. The stores were spacious, modern edifices, but soul-less; I imagine their predecessor was a chaotic, crowded marketplace like the Grand Bazaar or spice market—an unfortunate change.

Day 3 – Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Tuesday, the occupancy of our hostel room decreased by 75% as Mike—the only one of us with a job—had to head out early to catch a flight back to Sofia and get back behind his desk that morning. The rest of us had our breakfast of one hard-boiled egg, one slice of tomato and cucumber, one olive, a piece of white cheese, and some bread. Thus fortified, we set out for another day of touristing. Ryan and Norm went to check out the Topkapı Palace, and I—because I had seen the palace on my previous trip—went to see Hagia Sofia (the vast Byzantine-era church turned mosque, then—in the last century—into a museum.) For comparison, I also checked out the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) next door; it is smaller, but notable for being the only mosque in Turkey with 6 minarets. After wandering around the old town for a while, I met up with Norm and Ryan again and had lunch. Then we hit the spice market for souvenirs—especially Turkish delight (of which Norm eventually bought 10 kilos for his friends and coworkers in Azerbaijan—they are a big fan of anything from Turkey.)

Norm, Paris, Joel, & Ryan at seafood restaurantThat evening we finally met up with Paris, who was staying near Taksim Square. For the second night in a row, we ate a seafood restaurant. Here I saw something I’ve never seen before: a large fish, encrusted in a thick layer of salt, baked in an oven. The waiter brings it to the table, chisels it out of the salt, de-bones it, and then servers everyone at the table (usually four.) It looks good; I’ll have to try that sometime.

Since Paris had a business meeting on the other side of town the next morning, and Ryan & I had to catch the bus back to Sofia at 9:00, we made a short night of it. It was great that we were able to reunite at the end of our assignment; we were five of the eleven 2005 Corps—a pretty good turn out, considering that three had finished early and were already back home.

Notes

1 Berlin, Irving; Kennedy, Jimmy. “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” 1929. (most recently covered by They Might Be Giants.)

2 From what I experienced, the main benefit of using “Metro Plus” is its modern buses with toilets—which, however are used as storage space—and an iridescent-silver and blue haired “stewardess” who served us tea and snacks.

3 Spelled İstanbul in Turkish—yeah, even a capital “i” has to have a dot over it.

4 See http://joel.froese.com/sb04.htm for the account of my previous trip to Istanbul.

All photographs in this post are courtesy of Norm.

23 September 2006

Serbia

Road Trip
September 22 is Independence Day in Bulgaria, so we have a 3-day weekend. Ryan, Kat, Ian, and I decided what better way to celebrate this than a road trip to another country. So, Friday morning we all packed into her car and headed for the border. The road trip itself was rather uneventful as the highways in Serbia are generally nicer than in Bulgaria; at times, we could imagine we were driving on a rural interstate in middle America. On the way back we discussed whether it looked more like western Ohio (my choice), Iowa, or Kentucky—you get the idea. Furthermore, we were 4 Americans riding in an SUV listening to American music from our iPods; the only thing that hinted to our location was the occasional sign listing the towns and villages we were passing in Cyrillic and Latin.

Beograd
We only had a map of downtown Beograd (I can’t figure out why we call it Belgrade,) but amazingly had little problem finding our hotel in the old town. Arriving in the late afternoon, we again had a hard time finding lunch (as Ben & I did 2 years ago; click here and scroll down to day 7), but we eventually satiated our hunger and thirst. Over the next two days we explored area churches and museums centering around Knez Mihailova Street—a beautiful pedestrian area in the heart of the old town, again something sorely missing in Sofia. Saturday afternoon we took a one and a half hour boat tour up and down the Sava River, which was nice except for the industrial areas on the Sava; they should have shown us more of the Danube instead. Sunday, before we left, we head west to the town Zemun, which used to mark the eastern extent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and retains much of the architectural elements of this civilization. This is one of the nice benefits of having a car; we would not have made the effort by bus or taxi.

Serbo-Croatian
The Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian languages are actually dialects of each other (but, since each hates each the other’s guts, they insist that they each have a unique language.) Like Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian is a Slavic language, and aside from Macedonian (which, in reality is a dialect of Bulgarian) is most closely related to Bulgarian—much like German and Dutch, I suppose. As such, we were able to make out most signs and understand a good bit of what people said (OK, not me, but Kat—she studied Bulgarian for 5 months versus our 2 months.) However, none of us felt comfortable trying to speak it for fear of being doubly wrong; at least in Bulgaria people can tell we are trying to speak their language. Serbs could probably understand a Bulgarian, but not necessarily an American’s mangled Bulgarian. One interesting difference is that this language has a direct, official, and unambiguous mapping to a (modified) Latin alphabet (e.g. the “sh” sound made by the Cyrillic ш is represented in Latin as š.) Practically, this means the more universal Latin alphabet is increasingly used in Serbia (and already exclusively in Croatia.) Bulgaria, on the other hand, will never abandon the Cyrillic alphabet, as they take pride in the fact that Cyril and Methodius invented it here.

Diplomatic Immunity!1
At the border, there was a line of truck on both sides waiting to clear customs at least 2 or 3 miles long; we estimate that many of them would be there for at least 12 hours. Passenger vehicles, on the other hand, could carefully pass trucks along the winding 2-lane road leading to the border. We had even another advantage when we reached the border complex (exit control, disinfection, immigration, customs, and road tax booths); since Kat was a foreign service officer, and her vehicle had diplomatic tags, we were whisked in front of everyone into the corps diplomatique express line. I couldn’t help but chuckle “ha, suckers!” at the mere mortals who had to wait an additional half hour.

Contest
Since three of us are bloggers, there is now an unofficial contest going. I obviously win the “quickest to blog” award since I posted part of this from an Internet café on Saturday. Ryan and Ian are now vying for the most interesting and most humorous awards.

1Lethal Weapon 2. 1989. [IMDB]

11 September 2006

Scavengers

Friday afternoon was a moving day of sorts at Serdon. Namely, we were moving stuff that had been accumulating over the years from the attic storage room to the new apartment (which will be renovated into new offices) and—more often—to the dumpsters on the street. It was a dusty, dirty, and strenuous affair; the attic is five floors up and there is no elevator in this building. After the first trip down to the street, I wondered how long it would take before gypsies…er, trashRoma would show up to scavenge recyclable metal from the junk we were brining down. Well, I quickly found out, because on the second trip, they were already there picking through the old furniture and office equipment, prying and hacking off any piece of metal for which they could get a few stotinki. Later that afternoon, I took this picture; note, the only thing left is wood and plastic—impressive.

Farewell Julia

On Sunday, we had an (inexplicably German) brunch at Flannagans (Raddison Hotel) for Julia, and then another get-together that evening in advance of her returning to the USA—in fact, tonight she will already be back in her native Chicago, where she will likely be able to continue to practice her Bulgarian with cab drivers. (inside joke: Julia has a lot of colorful taxi stories from Sofia, and Chicago does indeed have a large Bulgarian population.)

Below are the men of the MBA Enterprise Corps, inconsiderate as always, standing in front of the guest of honor, Julia—the only female of the 2005 Corps—on her last day in Sofia. Thanks for putting up with us for 13 months! Left to right: Mike (formerly MBAEC in Romania), Ryan, myself, Julia, Paris, Ian (2006 Corps.) The Bulgarian national parliment is behind us.
MBAEC

31 August 2006

Fall is here

This week has been characterized by a distinct turn toward autumn. Starting with last Saturday’s hike in the mountains near Sliven, I have begun to notice that the leaves in certain trees are already turning colors and even falling. And, for the first time, I had to dig out my sweaters and jackets; the past few days have been particularly nasty: blustery, cool, and rainy. If you click on the weather bug to the right, you’ll see just how chilly it is—and it’s still August! Of course, this is a temporary cold spell, and it will get warmer again, but the trend to cooler weather is unmistakable now as I head into my second Bulgarian winter.

27 August 2006

Sliven

Friday morning Paris picked me up in front of my apartment, and we headed out on our 4-hour road trip to Sliven (Сливен.) This was to be our 3rd and final "Internet Marketing" seminar, and despite the promise of a big crowd by Greg, the Peace Corps volunteer (PCV) who organized it, we were disappointed to find an audience of only 5. Lesson learned: when there is no cost involved, people don't value it (it was a free seminar that had been well-publicized in the business community in and around Sliven.)

On Saturday we set out for a hike in the mountains just north of town. Rather me retelling the entire story, I'll just have you click here for Jamie's (another PCV) account of the weekend's events.

24 August 2006

The Islands

Again, rather than a long narrative, I’m just going to give you some vital statistics and pictures.

Islands visited:
  • Barbados
  • St. Vincent & The Grenadines
    • Bequia
    • Mustique
    • Canouan
    • Mayreau
    • Tobago Cays
    • Union Island
    • Petit Saint Vincent
    • Palm Island
    • other small, uninhabited islands
  • Great Britain


Equipment:
  • British Airways 737 to London
  • Virgin Atlantic 747 to Barbados
  • Grenadines Airlines DHC-6-300 (20-seater) to Canouan
  • Moorings 4300 catamaran sailing yacht
  • DHC-6-300 back to Barbados (with a quick stop on Union Island)
  • Virgin Atlantic 747 back to London
  • British Airways 737 back to Sofia (arriving 4:30am!)


Currency in my wallet:
  • Barbados Dollar
  • East Caribbean Dollar
  • US Dollar
  • English Pound
  • Bulgarian Leva


The Spindrift crew
Our crew (minus Micah & Debby, who were taking the picture): Simon, Sarah, Pop, Mom, Joel, Mirena.

Froese family relaxing on beachThe Froeses chilling on Mayreau Island.

Captain Simon at the helmCaptain Simon at the helm, Sarah supervising, and yours truly trimming the jib.

hauling up the mainsailBrothers Micah & Joel hauling up the mainsail (as ordered by Capt. Simon) as mother watches.

15 August 2006

Argh Pirates

...of the Caribbean! We are sailing the Grenadines, having a great time. Simon is the captain of our home on the sea—a 43 foot catermaran. Every island, beach, and reef is more beutiful than the one before. Everyone is sunburned, but we can't help but getting more so. We never know what time or day it is—it's Caribbean time, mon! (BTW, the latest installment of Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed here.)

10 August 2006

Preparations

OK, below are pictures to go along with the previous post.

This week has been somewhat hectic since I am getting prepared to got to the Caribbean for the big Froese family sailing trip, but it will all be good once I’m on the plane to London tomorrow morning.

D’oh! Terrorist plot in UK…I guess I had better prepare for interminable delays and additional inspections. And there goes my plan to just throw a couple of shorts and t-shirts into my backpack in order to avoid the hassle of checking luggage. Well, at least it’s now the safest time to travel; Seriously, what terrorist is going to do something now? They are going to wait until later, “when you least expect it.”

[UPDATE] I've been informed that I need to be at the Sofia airport 2 hours ahead of the scheduled 5:15 departure of the first leg to London-Gatwick; this means I have to be in the taxi at 2:30, which means I’ll set my alarm for 2:00. Argh!

the Cosmo quiz
Mirena, Megan (new MBAEC volunteer), and Julia thoughtfully consider a Cosmo quiz.


Joel in Vratsa
Yours truly on one of the charming pedestrian street of Vratsa.


152 days to EU accessionIn Vratsa, they are counting down the days until EU accession; I guess today it says 148. At this point every assumes that 1/1/2007 is a firm date—I agree; short of going to war with someone, the EU will accept Bulgaria and Romania next year regardless of how well (or—more likely—poorly) they do on their required reforms.

09 August 2006

Life of Joel

There is a certain young lady my own age who is apparently living vicariously through my blog when she’s not chasing one of her 3 screaming kids around the house; she recently chided me for not writing more about my exciting life in Sofia, Bulgaria—so here goes.

Saturday morning I awoke to the sound of rain on my windowsill. That obviously scratched my plan to get out on my bike, and threatened to ruin plans to go to the pool at noon as well (one of my friends suggested this, and I had rounded up a group of about 6-7 to go to cool off, as it had been quite hot in Sofia recently.) Well, noon came and went as a thunderstorm pelted rain against my windows as I goofed off in my living room. Finally, at about 2 o’clock the clouds parted to reveal an unusually clear blue sky (sans the perpetual layer of smog hanging over Sofia.) It was refreshingly cooler, so no one was interested in swimming, but by 3 o’clock it was dry enough and perfect for cycling; so after 3 weeks of collecting dust in the corner of my apartment, I took my bike out for a 2+ hour spin in the gritty northwest quadrant beyond the ring road—it didn’t look half bad, thanks to the beautiful weather.

That evening, I met Mirena and the two new MBAEC volunteers at Julia’s place for appetizers before we headed out for dinner. Alas, the most exciting part of the evening was flipping through an old copy of Cosmopolitan after our meal—it was actually interesting get a mixed perspective from one each of a male and female newcomer and veteran American expats, as well as a Bulgarian.

Sunday afternoon I joined Mirena for a trip to Vratsa, an industrial town north of Sofia. She had to inspect some real estate for a British client, and I thought I’d tag along just to see another part of Bulgaria. The two hour bus ride up there was pleasant enough despite the fact that the bus was so old (and apparently underpowered) it slowed to 30 km/h while going up-hill in the mountains at some points. The town itself looked as gritty as I expected, but after walking through the center, I found it had an extensive network of pleasant pedestrian streets set among delightful cafes and shops. This is something Sofia really lacks; even though Vitosha Boulevard is now closed to traffic in the heart of the shopping district, trams still rumble through every 5-10 minutes as well as occasional police cars, garbage trucks, and such—meaning you can’t really stroll leisurely down the center of the street.

05 August 2006

Neither here nor there

I had an especially poignant experience this week. On Wednesday, I received an email from Washington with a travel request form and instructions stating to return it by August 24th. The MBAEC will buy my ticket back home for any day between October 1st and December 30th, but I have to make the decision by the 24th of this month. I can’t believe this adventure is so close to ending!

However, on Friday, it was back to the “Immigration Police” station to renew my Lichna Karta (ID card and, more practically, my visa.) My current one expires on the 18th, so I have to renew it for at least another 6 months (thankfully at no additional cost to me.)

I don’t know whether I am coming or going!

At the same time, two new MBAEC volunteers—Ian and Megan—are now in town, and I am reminded of how I felt when I just arrived last year and the previous group—Rich, Maury, and Karen—were giving us the lowdown on living and working in Bulgaria. Now the roles are reversed: I am the grizzled veteran, and they are the idealistic rookies.

26 July 2006

Romanian Epilogue

I have to say, I really liked Romania. I came with low expectations, because my Bulgarian friends and colleagues tend to bad-mouth their neighbor to the north, but found their warnings to be unwarranted. Transylvania is especially pleasant, but even Bucharest is worth seeing. Its broad streets and boulevards are crowded with cars, but at least you can negotiate the sidewalk—which you can’t always do in Sofia. There are ostentatious projects like Ceausescu’s People’s Palace and beautifully maintained parks, but I mainly enjoyed the hustle and bustle of big city—again, something Sofia is not.

That being said, I didn’t find Romania to be very tourist friendly. It seems like all people want to do is pry lei (or Euros) from foreigners. Taxi cab drivers are always hesitant to tell you what the price of a trip is going to be, but when pressed they give a price 3 times higher than it’s supposed to be, after which you bargain down to half of that (or, if you’re good like Mike, back to the correct price.) Compounding this problem, there are currently two currencies in circulation the old leu (ROL) and new leu (RON); the new leu is worth 10,000 old lei (about $2.84.) Prices are officially listed in new leu, but everyone still refers to old leu prices, so if something is 10 lei, they will say it costs 100,000 or just 100. Adding to the confusion, after a couple of purchases, you will always be paying with mixed currency—you have to remember 10,000=1, 500,000=50, and so on. I am convinced they are trying to keep the old currency around as long as possible in order to confuse people (and rip them off.)

Below are some pictures from my extended weekend in Romania. These are courtesy of Mike’s camera, since none of my cameras work anymore.

Piata MareThis is a time-exposure I took of the fountain on Piaţa Mare in Sibiu. Mike says this piazza was a muddy mess last winter, but—as you can see—they did it up right!

Mike & I at Lac BaleaThese are Mike’s Romanian friends (you know I’m bad at remembering names), Mike, and myself at Lac Balea. Yes, that is snow in the background!

Glacial Valley at Lac BaleaCheck out this winding, switch-backed road set in this beautiful glacial valley—looks like a car commercial, doesn’t it. Good for cycling too; we saw numerous cyclists climbing and descending.

Mike, landlord, and his TrabantsMike and his landlord, Joseph, with his two East German Trabants. The blue one is a 1979 model and the (newly painted) orange one is a 1990! See any difference? Of course not! Only a capitalist would make changes to a perfectly good car from year to year just to befuddle the poor consumers and make them pick up the additional cost of re-tooling the factory. ;-)  Joseph is retired and spends his days tinkering around with these and other projects. He is of Hungarian descent, and speaks a little bit of German.

23 July 2006

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Mike, my MBAEC colleague in Romania—and who I went sailing with last month—is finishing his assignment in Sibiu, Romania, so this weekend was the last possible opportunity for me to visit him—and therefore Romania. So Thursday morning I boarded a plane to Bucharest, and then took at train north to Transylvania (cue the spooky music.) No, actually, Transylvania is one of the cleaner, more bucolic and well-preserved parts of Eastern Europe—I am really impressed. Sibiu, the city that Mike lives in (until Monday,) is undergoing a revitalization that is turning it into a picture-postcard of what you think an old European town should look like. BTW, Sibiu is also called Hermannstadt, because of the large ethic German population that lived in this area until recently—in fact it is still common to hear German spoken here.

Saturday we drove to the mountains for a little relief from the sweltering heat. Mike’s friend/colleague has a car so we drove up to Lac Belea, a pond nestled near the crest of the Carpathian Mountains. Climbing above the tree line, we entered a broad, glacial valley where remnants of last winter’s snow packs were still melting in to rivulets that joined into a mighty stream that threw itself into the valley below in a magnificent waterfall—all quite breathtaking. Despite the rugged surrounding, the road up (with its numerous switchbacks) is in a very good shape, which is one thing I can say for Romania in general—they have invested a lot more in infrastructure than Bulgaria since the end of communism.

Tomorrow, we go to Sighisoara where Mike finishes his last project, before we head to Bucharest. I return to Sofia on Tuesday and Mike leaves Romania on Wednesday. It was good to have an American friend here to show me around, talk about sailing, and to share our gripes about the development industry in general.

As you can tell, I’ve returned to the original purpose of this blog—namely a travelogue—after briefly flirting with being a technology pundit in the previous post. I’ve got to admit, I was feeling pretty heady on Thursday when this article rose to #3 for a while on Reddit.com and hit Digg.com. I conservatively estimate (based on up-votes and comments) that between 1000 and 2000 people read it over the last 72 hours—I think I really hit a chord with Internet users—but now my proverbial “15 minutes of fame” are over.

19 July 2006

Email is broken

I have recently come to the conclusion that the current Internet email infrastructure is broken, and can never be fixed.

Like you, I am beleaguered by junk email (spam) flooding all of my email accounts. My primary email comes through the Mozilla Thunderbird client, which has a powerful Bayesian filter that I’ve trained by marking spam as “junk.” It then compares the words (and other elements) of incoming email with the ones I marked as junk, and the good ones (not marked as “junk”.) Eventually it becomes very good at discriminating against spam, which automatically goes to the junk mail folder. I occasionally check this “junk” folder for false positives (legitimate emails incorrectly determined to be spam—something that rarely happens) and click on the “not junk” button, training it that these are OK.

I recently received the following strange spam email. It wasn’t trying to sell anything, it didn’t even contain a link; it just contained the following excerpts from a story:
sopping wet from head to toe. I locked myself in a stall, got my flask,
faster. He was flying now straight down, at two hundred fourteen miles per
something like a vessel, like a glass jar with blue syrup. We looked at it
The next night from the Flock came Kirk Maynard Gull, wobbling across

I’ve seen a paragraph or two of generic text like this at the bottom of emails selling Viagra, debt refinancing, etc. It’s an attempt to make the email look more “normal” to Bayesian filters, and therefore not get automatically marked as spam. But this one didn’t make any sense; why would anyone send out millions of useless messages like these?

Well, I think I’ve figured it out: this is likely a concerted effort by spammers to cause our Bayesian filters system to mark more false positives, which will then make us either abandon it, or spend a lot of time sifting through our junk folder (hopefully pausing on one of their subsequent spam mail.) Therefore, if you receive an email like this, DO NOT mark it as spam, just delete it; otherwise, you will start to get false positives (i.e. emails from acquaintances may get marked as spam.)

BTW, the way these spammers operate is to propagate a virus or Trojan horse that compromises thousands of machines around the world to become unwitting “spam-bots” churning out spam at their command (remotely.) The distributed nature of this system makes it nearly impossible to strike back in any meaningful way. These creeps are then contracted to send out millions of emails by shady business people selling questionable product. These “businesses” purposely create websites in the guise of shell identities with incorrect or missing contact information to avoid the onslaught of negative emails, phone calls, faxes, and personal visits they would otherwise receive from millions of irate email users—point being: don’t waste any time and effort to complain.

My real problem is not so much with these ingenious people, but with the few idiots who actually respond to these offers. Coming from the direct mail sector, I know that you generally have to get a 1% response rate to make a mailing profitable (covering printing, postage, and list rental cost.) However, since emails have $0 printing cost, $0 delivery cost, and a $0-$3 per million list cost; you can still be quite profitable with less than a 1 in 10,000 response rate. Therefore, to the idiots out there who think that male enhancement products really work, or that you can get safe Viagra without going to your doctor please, PLEASE, do us all a favor and don’t respond to these emails, just Google these products and find a less-slimy vendor to do business with!

[UPDATE] I’ve posted this to my favorite social book-marking site, reddit.com, where it has started an interesting discussion. My detractors think that these messages are just dumb mistakes by the spammers; I would agree, but I’ve seen 3 separate instances of this now. Obviously, if these emails sounded more like your standard friendly email, it would be more effective at subverting Bayesian filters (even though these get quite specific—tailored to the way your friends write.) But I suspect each one is unique (to prevent filtering at the ISP level,) and coming up with millions of real email conversations is practically impossible. Therefore, I propose they just take excerpts from literature found online—so as not to sound like ad copy. The other issue is that most spam originates from this part of the world (Eastern Europe & Russia) bereft of native English speakers.

In any case, it looks like the spammers are not satisfied with just reaching a dim-witted audience, they want to make sure that tech-savy Internet users will have to eye-ball their (clients') offerings as well—which makes no sense.

13 July 2006

Name Day

Today is my name day (Имен Ден.) This is the day that your name sake saint was born, and is celebrate like another birthday. Practically, this means I will take chocolates to work this morning (черпия), and—because this may be the only chance I have to celebrate it in a place where people understand the significance—I will have a small party at my place this evening.

Actually, it is not a Bulgarian name day, since Joel is not used in this part of the world; but this practice is known to a lesser extent throughout Europe. I found out about my name day from this site. Check it out, you may have another day to celebrate too!

07 July 2006

Jet Crash

I submit the following for your amusement—another gem of Bulgarian journalism.

Irish Teen Killed in Jet Crash in Bulgaria
Top news: 7 July 2006, Friday.

A 17-year-old Irish boy died in crash between two jets in the sea near Bulgaria's northern resort "Golden Sands".

Varna police reported that the accident took place on Friday around 2 pm some 100-150meters away from the coast. Two Irish brothers aged 15 and 17 rented the jet.

According to preliminary reports after the crash the teenager was smashed by the other jet. The most probable reason for the crash was speeding.

The two boys and their parents were on holiday in Bulgaria.

Sofia News Agency. 7 July 2006.

As you may know, my brother has had his pilot’s license since he was 17, so I flew around with him when we were still teen-agers. Therefore, my first thought was “you can rent jet airplanes in Bulgaria? Cool!” Then l realized they were talking about jet skis or wave runners. My favorite part of the story is “…probable reason for the crash was speeding.” No, I’m pretty sure the cause was that they crossed paths!

Of course, I don’t want to make light of the terrible tragedy that has befallen this family; just the reporting.

04 July 2006

Happy 4th!

I hope you all are enjoying your 4th of July. Here in Bulgaria, we call it Tuesday1—it’s a normal workday. However tonight, all eyes will be focused on the World Cup semi-final game: Germany vs. Italy. Obviously I will be rooting for Germany, and trying to get my Italian friend, Barbara, to face the TV and watch—she is convinced that she can jinx her own team by watching.

It’s funny how we Americans actually think that the Super Bowl is a big deal, and that we actually put any credence into the claim that there are 3 billion potential viewers of this event. Let’s face it, there are only 300 million Americans from which to draw an audience for this obscure sport most of the world calls “NFL.” Football (or soccer, as we call it), on the other hand, is played by and followed by nearly every male on this planet regardless of nationality, background, or wealth. Even the most dilapitated hovels in the poorest ghettos around world will glow blue tonight as a significant percentage of the world’s population sits on the edge of their seats and cheers for their favorite team (or at least the one they hate the least.)

That being said, you all know I’m not much of a sports fan, and quite frankly find this a bit tedious at times—well, at least it's only 90 minutes long. Now, if the field was half as big, and goals occurred at least every 15-20 minutes I might get more excited.

1 Stallone, Sylvester. Rocky. 1976. Adrian: “But it's Thanksgiving.” Rocky: “Yeah to you, but to me it's Thursday.”

26 June 2006

It’s all Greek to me

ThassosI went to the Greece for the weekend with the Sofia Hash House Harriers. That’s one of the great things about living here; Greece, Turkey, etc. are just a “road trip” away—in fact, I didn’t know I was going until Wednesday! Anyhow, I was great: clear skies, clear water, incredible scenery, and charming villages. At some points, however, it all runs together: Turkey 2 weeks ago, Australia last year, Bahamas the year before…I am spoiled. Which is why I am so glad I invited my Bulgarian friend, Mirena, to come along. She had never been to Greece, and greeted everything with wide-eyed amazement and appreciation.

For a more detailed account of our trip, see Ryan's blog.

Paradise BeachAs far as the title goes, I don’t know a word of Greek, and the babble between locals sounded almost like Italian to me. However, thanks to learning the Cyrillic alphabet (which is loosely based on the Greek), I now can figure out a lot of Greek signs and sound out words that had been previously undecipherable. A lot of letters are the same (or at least similar): the Cyrillic 'F' Ф is nearly indistinguishable from the Greek Phi Φ in any font, and it is easy to see that the Cyrillic 'D'Д comes from the Greek delta Δ. Others I've picked up over the years from math and such: Θθ (theta), Σσ (sigma) for example; so Thassos is spelled θασος. Most poignant was a sign on the way back, pointing home: ΣοΦία.

23 June 2006

Send lawyers, guns and money!

Yesterday, all American expats in Bulgaria received the following email from the embassy.
Subject: Information Needed for the Embassy's Emergency Preparedness

Dear American Citizen,

As part of Embassy's efforts to be prepared to provide assistance to the private American community in the country in case of an emergency, we need to know what resources within this community we may rely on. This is why we would appreciate it if you would tell us whether you have skills, such as languages other than English and Bulgarian, special expertise (for example, Engineer, medical doctor), as well as handy possessions (radios, helicopters, etc.) If possible, we would be grateful if we would receive your reply by June 27. Best regards,

Anna Radivilova
Vice Consul
U.S. Embassy Sofia

Ok, so I understand they would like to know of any doctors or medical professionals in the community which they could rely on in case of a disaster, but an engineer?! I can see it now: “Quick, we need someone to design a McGyveresque device to help us escape these villainous Bulgarians!”

And “…handy possessions”?! Again, I understand the value of a ham radio operator in case of wide-spread calamity, but a) what American expat has a private helicopter in Bulgaria, and b) would be willing to use it to—in fall-of-Saigon style—pick people off the roof of the embassy?

I’m sorry, but this email is just begging for ridicule, and—we in the expat community—are happy to oblige. Ryan wrote a humorous reply that he will hopefully has posted on his blog: TravelWithRyan.blogspot.com “He is a very shy and gentle man, but perhaps we could persuade him…Shall we ask him?”2

1 Zevon, Warren. Excitable Boy. “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.” 1978.
2 Abrams, Zucker, Zucker. Top Secret. 1984

19 June 2006

Doosie pothole

Absolute SofiaWith few exceptions, the roads in Bulgaria are in a serious state of disrepair. This is just something that everyone here gets used to and even jokes about—this is why the picture here (circulated by email—originator unkown) is so funny to us. Lately, the new mayor of Sofia has made an effort to address this; but most street remain pothole-strewn.

I chuckle when I think of the great lengths we go to barricade and demarkate construction sites in America. Here, there is a greater assumption of responsiblity by the general public—namely, watch out!

Pothole "Swallows" Jeep in Sofia
Politics: 15 June 2006, Thursday.

An entire Land Cruiser jeep fell into an enormous pothole in Sofia's Slatina neighbourhood, media reported. Local Nova TV reported that the accident took place at the "Ivan Shterev" street. Workers dug the whole the previous day, but left no signals for the threat. The driver was taken to Pirogov emergency institute. He suffered a broken arm and some other light injuries.


To read more unintentionally humorous stories like this, check out Sofia News Agency novinite.com I do this every morning for my daily chuckle. This is actually quite representative of Bulgarian journalism; more fluff than hard-hitting, investigative reporting. In fact, many times I find they even forget the basics: who, what, where, when, and how—seriously, I'll often finish reading a story and ask my self, "Wait, when or where did this happen?"

16 June 2006

Comments

Pearls Before Swine, 16 June 2006
Today's Pearls Before Swine is especially poignant. My response is that I've always assumed my readers to commenters ratio must be close to 100:1. However, I refuse to put a counter on my blog (or use Google Analytics) because I feel it’s better not to know this—in the same way you’re not supposed to know what your own IQ is. If knew I had hundreds of readers, I would get a big head; and if it was just a handful, I'd be discouraged. Ignorance is bliss.

14 June 2006

Turkey Observations

Rather than a “what I did over summer vacation” post, I’ll just list some random observations from my trip.
  • The Turkish people we met are genuinely friendly and helpful; everywhere we went we were greeted by “Yes, please” (well, OK, they were always trying to sell us something.) Mike remarked that in Greece everyone seems to run away when you need to berth your boat, but in Turkey, they run to help you. Not just marina staff either—we had restaurant staff, ice cream vendors, and even a nearby gullet crew help us tie up our boat.
  • Technology is ubiquitous. Even in seemingly remote areas, we always had cell phone coverage; and in the marinas, I always managed to find WiFi access.
  • This part of Turkey is full of big, expensive boats; marinas were packed and every little cove seemed to have a boat or two anchored.
  • Tourists to Turkey’s southern coastal towns & resorts are almost entirely composed of Germans and Brits. American never seem to come here—everyone guessed us to be either British, Australian, or even South African.
  • Sailing is a wonderful way to spend your vacation—and a good value for a group of 5-10 people. It’s not luxurious, but it’s so much fun, and you get to see places you couldn’t otherwise (even on an organized boat trip.)
  • Sailing is actually easy; of the myriad of lines, winches, and cleats on a boats deck, you really only use 3 while underway: the main sheet, and the 2 jib sheets. Blinky (that’s what we called the autopilot) will do the steering for you, and navigation is a cinch thanks to GPS chart plotters.
  • I really don’t like SCUBA. Yes, it’s cool to explore a world under the waves, but I do it just to keep current (ironically, so I can keep diving!)

09 June 2006

Pictures

Just a few more pictures for now—for those back home, be prepared to be overwhelmed by hundreds of pictures and videos that Simon & Sarah are bringing back.

Karacaoren
Karacaoren—the bay where we anchored Wednesday night (and had dinner.)
Our boat—the Ali II—is the one on the right (foreground.)
Joel at the helm
Joel at the helm of the Ali II

06 June 2006

sailing

That's my boat!

Can’t write now, so I’m just going to post a picture...because we all know a picture is worth a thousand words. I took this from the dingy that we tow behind the boat. (BTW, the boat is registered in Bergen, Norway—hence the flag.) Mike is at the helm (which we all got a turn to do,) Jeff is in front of him (mostly obscured), Simon is getting his toes wet, and Sarah is apparently below deck. We’re all having a great time and learning a lot about sailing too.

03 June 2006

Göcek

Arrived at the port of Göcek this morning, where I met Simon and Sarah. After a bite of breakfast, we headed to pier H to see our yacht; all we could say—sweet! Now we’ve got to stock up on provisions and wait for Mike & Jeff. Just wanted to post this pictures to “make your eyes hurt” (inside joke.)

Joel, Sarah & Simon on the Ali II

02 June 2006

Limbo

Today—as the rest of my colleague at Serdon were heading to a company retreat in Bansko—I slept late, then packed my backpack, and took care of a few last minute errands with the help of Mirena before heading to the airport for my late afternoon flight to Istanbul. Right now, I am now writing and posting this from the Attaturk Airport thanks the free (but slow) wireless Internet service. Tomorrow morning at 7:00 it’s on to Dalaman to meet Simon, Sarah, Mike, and his friend Jeff where we take possession of home and transportation for the next 7 days—a 41 foot sail boat. So, for tonight, I’ll just be hanging around the airport, as it doesn’t make sense to try to do anything in the intervening 8 hours. In any case, I look forward to our adventure starting tomorrow!

29 May 2006

Blogging blahs

I was going to write about our nice little mid-week holiday last Wednesday (Cyril & Methodious Day) and about my first bike ride on Saturday, but I just don’t feel like it—sorry. My mind is already drifting to vacation; this time next week I will be sailing off the coast of Turkey with Mike (MBAEC volunteer in Romania,) his friend, and Simon & Sarah. Should be a good time—I’m really looking forward to it, and promise to write all about it afterward.

22 May 2006

Seniors Rule!

There was a giddy sense of excitement throughout Sofia over the weekend. High school kids around Bulgaria graduate on or about this date, and they are not reticent in letting everybody know of this achievement. Beginning on Wednesday night, I heard groups of high school senior yelling, “edno, dve, tree…” (1,2,3…up to 12 in Bulgarian) followed by a big yay, and then—within 30 seconds—starting over again. Then on Friday and Saturday evening, they were driving or being driven around town: car horns honking, hanging out of windows and sunroofs; and, of course, continuously hollering. Apparently, part of the graduation festivities is a formal dance—much like a high school prom in the US, but only for seniors.

16 May 2006

Report Card Day

Today, the long-awaited EU progress report for Bulgaria (and Romania) was released. Speculation has been rampant on whether BG & RO would accede to the European Union on the original date of January 2007 or be “held back” for another year. Well, the news is good, but not certain. The European Commission said, “Romania and Bulgaria were on track to join…but they must speed up reforms in several areas.” Most notably, the EU is—understandably— concerned by inaction on the anti-corruption front. The final decision will not be made until early October; so, like a procrastinating student, Bulgaria has dodged the bullet and gotten another extension. Never the less, this evening we shall raise our glasses of Rakia and toast to EU ascension.

15 May 2006

The Post-Mall Era

Friday marks an important day in the millennia of the history of the Bulgars. Before 12 May 2006, there was no purpose-built edifice dedicated to consumerism that we all know and love as “the mall” (мол in Bulgarian.) I know this sounds bombastic, but it’s actually quite significant* and especially poignant for me, an American. I am no mall rat, but as I wandered through “City Center Sofia” on the first full day of shopping on Saturday, I felt the palpable warmth, familiarity, and comfort of this temple of capitalism, even when looking out of the 4th floor windows on the distinctively Bulgarian scenes on Cherni Vrah Blvd. Later this month, another high-rise, downtown mall is scheduled to open in Sofia—no doubt the beginning of a new era of shopping in Bulgaria. Understand, I am not disparaging nor exulting this—just making an observation. I'm glad they have this new choice, while at the same time lamenting some of the inevitable changes it will bring.

*Well, actually there is a multi-story shopping center with all kinds of high-end boutiques smack in the middle of town called ЦУМ (TzUM.) However, since this is the old (communist) “Central Universal Store”, Bulgarians don’t consider this a real mall. Other Eastern European countries (especially Poland) have taken to malls like fish to water, and the trend extends to all kinds of rising economies around the world according to a Newsweek International article I read a couple of months ago.

08 May 2006

Cinco de Mayo

My Синко дей Майо party was a great success. At one point, there were over 30 people in my little apartment. On numerous occasions, we had to explain why we Americans celebrate a Mexican holiday, as it was about half and half Americans vs. Bulgarians (with a Turkish couple and a Macedonian guy thrown in for good measure.) If you measure a party by its clean-up, this one was even better than my birthday party; I took out over 10 bags of trash, and had mop the floors 3 times to get it clean.
Joel frying up some ground beef
the American guys

02 May 2006

May Day

Chestit Praznik! (which, I found out from banners flying today, means "happy [any] holiday") This makes the second Monday off in a row—it's going to be hard to get used to 5-day work days again! The first of May has historically been labor day or "worker's day" around the world (except US, Canada, etc. because of the communist flavor of the holiday.) Thankfully someone told me about this on Friday, or I would have showed up to an empty (and locked) office on Monday morning; unfortunately it was not enough time to plan a trip. Anyhow, on Monday I walked around town looking for the May Day festivities, and I found it—sponsored by the Bulgarian Socialist Party— in Borissova Garden: three or four stages (music), food vendors, balloons, mimes, throngs of senior citizens, and even an old hammer and sickle flag or two.

28 April 2006

Hanging with Condi

group pic /w Condi
Thanks to Kat, today we got to meet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. This involved sending in our passport number earlier this week to be put on the guest list, then getting to the embassy by 9:00 this morning for the reception at 11:00. About 15 minutes before the scheduled start of the event, she arrived, the ambassador made a short introduction, Condi made her short speech, and then she greeted the audience who were mainly embassy staff, Peace Corps volunteers, and we 4 MBAECs. I was able to shake her hand, mumble something about “it’s an honor to meet you,” and then we posed for group picture by the official photographer. By the official 11:00 start time, she had already left the building.

Condoleezza Rice speaks

25 April 2006

Great Day

Well, this past weekend was the Easter weekend for everyone east of Croatia and Hungary. In Bulgarian, Easter is called either Празник (Praznik) Вести (Vesti) or Великден—literally “Great Day.” Apparently, the reason the Orthodox celebration is on a different day is that they still follow the Julian calendar instead of the more modern Gregorian calendar. I don’t understand these confusing Ecclesiastical calendars; it seems to me that the most historically accurate date would follow the Jewish calendar—Easter immediately follows Passover. So, yesterday was Easter Monday—a holiday, and I wasted it: did absolutely nothing.

A NATO conference is being held later this week across the street from me in the NDK building, and—since Condi Rice is coming—security is very tight. Today they have already closed all streets around the building and the park directly across from me—probably inconveniencing many people, but I’m loving it; no punks winding out their pimped out Skoda on Frityof Nansen Street. If only the maintenance and emergency vehicles were also quieted.

a peaceful Frityof Nansen Street

20 April 2006

Seminar

Today, Paris and I are giving a seminar on Internet marketing to a group of 10 members of the Bulgarian Association of Apparel and Textile Producers and Exporters. Although it feels a lot like the presentations that I've had to give in business school, this is a first for me in at least two respects. For one, this is the first time I've spoken in front of a group for over an hour; thankfully, it was somewhat less daunting than expected since I was interpreted (the second first.) I actually like this arrangement of consecutive interpretation; while the interpreter is speaking, I have the time to collect my thoughts and formulate the next sentence—which is good, since I often tend to get ahead of myself.

I have to say, despite the low turnout, the event was a success; the participants seem to have found it useful and informative, and Paris and I found it fulfilling. BTW, I initially create this post during my presentation just to demonstrate how quick, easy it is to update a blog.

Joel presenting w/ interpreter

17 April 2006

Couples only

I had a weekend full of activity, but I feel lonelier than ever. I asked a Bulgarian girl I had recently met out for two events: to help Ryan spend a 50 leva gift certificate that was about to expire at an Italian restaurant on Thursday, and then to Kristen’s (American diplomat I went skiing with) going away party on Friday. Unfortunately, by the end of the night she made it clear that she “only wanted to be friends.” On Saturday, I went with Paris and Kamelia (his girlfriend) to Chelopech—a town about an hour outside of Sofia—to celebrate her “name day” with a bunch of her friends in the house she grew up in. It was one of the nicest villages I’ve seen in Bulgaria, and we all had a good time, but it was painfully obvious that I was the 3rd, 5th or 7th wheel—everyone else there was part of a couple. Upon returning home Sunday afternoon, the new girl started an IM conversation with me via Skype to explain herself more clearly...only exacerbating the pain—needless to say I was glad the weekend was over and it was time to go back to work!

On the bright side, trees have burst out leaves over the weekend, creating a canopy of green around town. Right now, I am finishing up my quarterly MBAEC report as strains of some traditional Bulgarian (I guess) songs are wafting through the open window from a hippy girl in the courtyard of the hostel next door.

09 April 2006

Delivery Boy

me, just after being christened 'Delivery Boy'Today was again a beautiful, sunny day and like two weeks ago, a great day for a little run—meaning many fair weather hashers came out. Moreover, it was the last time Wim and Fenneke would host a hash at their palatial estate near Mladost. Anyhow, after the run—as is the tradition—new comers were welcomed and wrong doers were punished by down downs. Finally, I and two others (including an infant) were christened with our "hash names." I explained what I'm doing in Bulgaria (probably using too much pretentious biz-jargon,) and it was determined the most appropriate name would be "Delivery Boy." I could have done worse; Hashers tend to be quite irreverent and sometimes even downright crude.

01 April 2006

Wien

Thursday afternoon I squeezed 3 days worth of clothes and toiletries into my daypack—you know how I like to travel light—and took a taxi to the Летище (airport.) The flight to the Bratislava Letishko was uneventful. I learned—as you can see (well, if you know your Cyrillic alphabet)—that Slovak is quite similar to Bulgarian; it is also a Slavic language, but written with a Latin script. Incidentally, I noticed some signs on trams in Vienna now have Slovak translations as well.

On the bus ride to Vienna, I was made to feel like a real second class citizen; the Austrian border guard came through the bus glancing at everyone’s passport, but he had to take my passport—as the only non-EU citizen—off the bus to his office or wherever to put a stamp in it. Even the Bulgarians didn’t get a second look, and their not officially part of the EU yet!

I arrived in Vienna and—like a native—navigated the U-bahn without a map. I made my way toward WU-Wien, passing right by the classroom where we spent 6 months of our lives 2 years ago; Bernd and Sylvia live only a few blocks from school. They have a very nice apartment; I suspect if they were living there back then, it would have become party central instead of Jason’s apartment—they have a two-level deck/balcony that could have comfortably accommodated our whole class and then some! That night, we went to Centimeter and I had a plate-size turkey schnitzel & pommes with unlimited ketchup—good stuff.

Friday morning, after my gracious hosts had headed off to work, I rose from my slumber on the air mattress in their living room and went out to re-explore the lovely city of Vienna—it’s pretty much the way I left it. I even went back to Neustiftgasse 72 to see the old apartment; a “familie Hansreich” lives there now. After having a huenerschnitzelsemmel from Huehnerparadies (“Chick-fil-a”,) I went up to Mu-Chyun’s office to say hi. We chatted, and then he instructed me to come back at 13:00 and meet the new IMBA Vienna class (all 9 of them) for lunch—he had reserved a table at Selbstverständlich. It was great to meet these guys and gals, and I have to say I was a little envious of their position (they, on the other hand, are all still a little scared.) My advice to them was to have fun and travel—taking advantage of the central location and cheap transport options.

Saturday was a bright, sunny day; and that morning Bernd and I cycled to his friends house where the three of us went for what turned out to be a strenuous 3 hours of mountain biking im Wienerwald. Afterwards Bernd uncovered his grill and inaugurated his first outdoor “barbie” of the year (remember, he did the exchange in Brisbane last year as well.) Then, to add some authentic culture, we went to a tiny theatre to see a kabarett that evening. It was a funny, two-man show; and I actually understood most of it despite the Austrian accent (at one point I though a character was saying “O.S.”; through context I was able figure out he was saying “alles.”)

The sun peaked out again on Sunday morning as I was exploring the Steiermark fair at the Rathaus—featuring, of course, the products of Styria (a region in Austria which, incidentally, is where Bernd is from.)

In spite of the Vienna’s splendor, and Bernd and Sylvia’s gracious hospitality, I was ready to get back home—to Sofia. I’ve gotten this out of my system now; I realize that—in large part—Vienna is special in my mind due to the friends I made there and the general camaraderie among the 20 people from all around the world who where thrown together for 6 months in a boot camp of business training.
Vienna LunchIMBA-V class of 2007 at SV
Belarussian girl, moi, Mu-Chyun (new "Gundi"), South Carolina guy, Dr. Robinson (from USC)