26 January 2006

A new personal record

Today marks my 179th contiguous day abroad, breaking my previous record of 178 days in 2004 while I was studying in Austria. I still remember the trepidation I felt 2 years ago as I packed up my most important personal effect into two suitcases with the knowledge I would be gone for 6 months. Then, a little over a year ago, I repeated the process again when I set off to Australia for 4 month; by now it felt like old hat—there was none of the previous angst. However, last summer my departure had a new seriousness to it (with some of the same anxiety.) I was leaving for over a year, and planned to move on afterward, only returning to Columbia to visit (which is still my plan.) So how do I feel now? At this point, I guess I feel somewhere between ambivalent and comfortable; I’m accustomed to living in Sofia, and October feels too far away to worry about what I’m going to do next. What I’ve noticed among several Peace Corps Volunteers (who are here for 2 years) is that they are excited for the first 6 months, hate the next year, and then get nostalgic (and anxious about the next phase of their life—although most seem to start graduate school) in the last 6 months. If I had it to do all over again, would still give up 15 months of my life to work oversees? Umh, yeah; I still think that—personally—the gains outweigh the opportunity cost. Whoa, this is a little bit weird—therapy by blogging.

On a lighter note, I still have my Christmas tree up. I feel justified in doing so because:
  1. I paid 28 leva for it and I will be leaving it behind for the next tenant.
  2. Public Christmas displays are still up around town.
  3. I live by myself; there is nobody to tell I need to pack it up.
Oh, and in case you didn't notice the weather bug up there, IT'S FLIPPIN COLD HERE! Temps have been in the teens or single digit for several days and nights now; this morning I noticed the coldest temperature I have ever remembered experiencing: ZERO—that's Fahrenheit! (-18 C) I'm just glad I'm not in Kazakhstan like Manish, where its -40!

23 January 2006

Ghetto Skiing

Dragaleski gondola lift; Cherni Vrah peak in distanceOn Saturday, Ryan and I finally got a taste of skiing in Bulgaria. Kat drove us out to the Simeonovo-Aleko gondola lift in her SUV, which was nice; if we really wanted to be ghetto, we could have used the city bus service that runs out there for all of 0.40 lev. With our new (used) ski equipment in hand, we stood in a 45-minute-long line, not for the lift itself—they were letting every other gondola go up empty—but just to buy the ticket. [Sarcasm alert] Due to our keen insight and extensive education in business processes, we noted that they could easily double the utilization of this expensive high-speed gondola lift by simply employing a second cashier. The day was filled with similar observation, but as this company is not our client, we made no recommendations.

The gondolas took us over fields and meadows, up and down hills (mostly up, of course), through two mid-stations (which I’ve never seen on a high-speed lift), and eventually to the base of the ski resort on Cherni Vrah. Here we found a jumble of (mostly broken down) lifts. No chair lifts were running; only a few Poma lifts, and T-bars. lift stationFor the ones that were running, there were lines snaking down 20-30 minutes. I say “down” because the line actually crept uphill to the lift. On the t-bar that takes you up to (nearly) the top of the mountain, we would notice 2 or even 3 positions go by because the actual t-bar was missing. On the remaining “good” ones, the rope that the t-bar is attached to was noticeably frayed; it seems like when the rope breaks on one of these, they just continue with the remaining positions—no maintenance! Again, we determined the problem is they don’t charge enough (14 leva/day.) They can’t charge more because it is a crummy, run-down resort—hence the vicious cycle. Never the less, we got a couple of good runs in, and—despite what I just said—it is a beautiful mountain that towers above the grimy city below (the smog is very noticeable from above.)

Ryan at top of Cherni VrahWhat we saw on the slopes was the funniest though. One guy brought his German Shepard with him. This was a big, healthy, strong dog that was obviously enjoying the experience; he would run up behind his owner when he was being pulled up the hill, and the run back down as he skied back down. Waiting in line at the lift, the dog would romp around and root in the snow; I couldn’t believe how fit this dog was! We also saw kids on sleds, people without skis walking around, and even some mountain bikers riding down the slopes!

One refreshing thing to see was a lack of pretentiousness that you find on US slopes where everyone has to have the newest/coolest equipment, clothes, and accessories regardless of their abilities. I have never seen so much outdated ski equipment. If you wonder where all the old skis went when the “shaped ski” revolution took over in the early 90’s, I think I found your answer: Eastern Europe.

Ryan went skiing in Borovets on Sunday (about 40 miles away.) he said it was a much nicer resort; I’ll have to check it out next.

[UPDATE] I take back all the “ghetto” references; my experience was state-of-the-art compared to my fellow Corps member, Lorenz Wild. I just read his blog about his first time skiing in Kyrgyzstan (click here and scroll down to January 23rd; the part about skiing is about a third of the way into the post—Lorenz can be a little long-winded.) It’s amazing how relative our experiences are when compared across the globe! If nothing else, I am learning just how blessed I really am.

14 January 2006


my skisIt’s cold! This week temperatures have been in the teens (-5~-9 C) in the morning for my—thankfully—short commute to work. Never the less, I’ve learned to dress in layers: thermal undershirt, long-sleeve shirt, sweater, and coat. Moreover, I wear my Timberland boots everyday. Even so, I find the icy sidewalks treacherous; I don’t understand how women in fancy shoes negotiate the streets of Sofia without falling. Everyone says I need to get a scarf too, but I’ve never owned one, and wouldn’t know what to do with one. ;-) BTW, you can see the forecast for Sofia by clicking on the current conditions in the upper right hand corner of this page.

For the first time in my life, I own skis. Earlier this week, I bought these Rossis from Ryan for the equivalent of $72 (he bought two pair from his boss as a package deal.) Today I’m going shopping for ski boots and a ski bib, then I’ll be ready to go. I intended to ski a lot (like every weekend); there are slopes on Vitosha that can be reached by city bus service, and nicer resorts farther away.

08 January 2006

Sofia is Gotham

SIGNAL BATMANI’ve just figured it out! The mythical metropolis of Gotham from the Batman franchise is our very own Sofia, Bulgaria. I submit the following evidence for your consideration: the button pictured here is found in every tram in the city. As you can see, it clearly says СИГНАЛ БАТМАН (SIGNAL BATMAN.) Apparently, in case of an emergency, (such as a run-away trains or a fare-skipping scofflaw) one simply pushes this button. A brilliant beam of light then emanates from the top of the tram, projecting the familiar Batman logo on a layer of smog over Sofia. Seeing this, Bruce Wayne (Брус Уиейн as he is known here) dons his costume, hops into the Batmobile, and leaves his palatial estate in Boyana. Traffic permitting, the caped crusader is on the scene within minutes to save the day and/or punish wrongdoers.

05 January 2006


I am convinced that I caught my cough from Tante Eva or Oma in Germany; it had been getting progressively worse throughout the trip, and the second-hand smoke that is ubiquitous to Eastern Europe was not helping. After getting back home Monday morning I slept a solid 9 hours, then in went to bed again at seven in the evening for another 14+ hours! I guess my body was telling me to rest. Thankfully, Julia gave meds she had left over that fixed me right up.

Vesela, Joel, and Denitsa in front of BaalbeckWednesday morning I woke to the ringing of my landline phone; no one ever calls me on that line except my landlady. When I answered, I was greeted by a cheery “Happy New Year” from Denitsa. She was back home for the holidays. We decided to meet for lunch with Vesela at—you guessed it—Baalbeck, which is what we did today.

Over the last two weeks, I have met a total of 7 former graduate school classmates (Andreas, Meike K., & Sven from QUT; Meike F., Justin, Vesela, and Denitsa from USC)

For the last couple of months, there has been talk of upcoming ремонт (remont)An ode to Sarajevo of the office—basically just busting out a wall to give the place a more open feel, and then repainting everything. I assumed this would be done in our absence during the Christmas holiday. However, when I returned to work on Tuesday, I found furniture and equipment piled up in the corners, plastic draped over everything, and the beginnings of demolition (pictured.) My Belgium coworker, Chris, says it looks artistic and calls it an ode to Sarajevo. Problem is, nothing has happened since; everyone continues to work—sharing computers and desk space, creating paths between piled up furniture, etc. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion this is going to take longer than the promised one day—in that Bulgaria is a lot like South Carolina.