28 February 2006

Week(s) in review

Well, I’ve been chastised for not posting anything for nearly two weeks. All I can say is: blogging can be a chore. If you look at my friends' blogs, you will notice that (with the exception of Ryan) they all post considerably less often than me, so get off my back, gosh! ;-) (BTW, congratulations are in order for two couples on the birth of their third child: Mike & Susanna and Daniel & Edmary—hats off to you!)

So, the previous weekend (Feb. 17) started with a party on Friday for Brian (former Peace Corps volunteer) and Maria (Bulgarian law student), who got married on the following Monday. They have been quite serious since I’ve known them, and to avoid getting his visa renewed every month, he decided to go ahead and tie the knot now. His family came from the US and everything! I assume most of my readers will find it hard to believe that an American would actually get married to stay in Bulgaria, but this is not the first person I know of that has done so. (Don’t read anything into that; I’ll be happy to leave in October!)

Despite the warmer weather, I went to Vitosha that Saturday to continue my streak of skiing 5 weeks in a row. Unfortunately I left disappointed. No lifts were running to the top of the mountain, and the lower parts were melting and icy. Never the less, I got one run in, and with this last weekend’s excursion, I am now at 6 weekends in a row!

Then, on Sunday I met 3 Hash House Harriers for another, more extended snow shoeing expedition. We drove west, nearly to the Serbian border, where we hiked all day up and down a mountain call “Руй” (see picture at Weatherunderground.) This turned out to be a very remote area; any Bulgarian I’ve told about our trips says that they haven’t even been out in that direction. Our guide was an Australian miner whose is looking for “gold in them there hills.” Actually he’s the CEO of a mineral exploration company that employs scores of geologist in an effort to determine the feasibility of mining in this historically gold rich area. The most amazing thing he showed us was the still visible evidence of Thracian gold mining activities from over 2,000 years ago! At the end of the day, we were thoroughly exhausted—I think we bit off a little more than we could chew. In related new, I’ve noticed that I have been losing weight in the last few weeks despite being off the bike for over 7 months now; skiing and snowshoeing can certainly be good aerobic exercise.

Last Friday we (except for Paris—who was in Istanbul) met at the fortress of solitude (American Embassy) for a party at the Marine house. Again, there was a distinct aura of being in a little slice of America. However, I didn’t stay up too late because I knew I had to be up and ready to go at 7:30 the next morning to meet Ryan and Shelly for our trip to Borovets. We skied all day, again to the point of exhaustion. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel as strong or confident on skis as two weeks ago. I guess it is like anything else; sometimes you just have an off week.

15 February 2006

Old school

Every time I go to skiing at Vitosha, I end up meeting a German-speaking person. I’ve now begun to ask “govoria Angliski ili Nemski?” after my ubiquitous “Ne razbiram Bulgarski.” It turns out that quite a few (mainly older) Bulgarians do speak Nemski (informal for Germanski,) and this last weekend I actually met a young person who does. Thanks to his Bulgarian father and German mother, this kid (9th grader) speaks fluent Bulgarian and German, an acceptable English, and now is going to a Spanish high school (plus, he says he is studying Portuguese on the side.) As a dual German/Bulgarian citizen, he plans on going to college in Germany. This is one thing that I’ve noticed about Bulgarians; they are quick to add languages to their portfolio. Of course, nearly all nations are better at this than Americans, but there seems to be more of an urgency about this here; in an environment of flux, adding another language to your portfolio seems to be a prudent investment.

Yesterday there were several USAID contractors in the office; one of them was on the phone (Skype actually) with his colleague and was speaking Spanish. Overhearing him ask “Que pasa?” my brain immediately came up with “dobre!”—oops, wrong language. That’s what happens when you only know a little bit of two languages—they sometimes get mixed up. Actually, there are some similarities between Bulgarian and Spanish; for example the word “and” is “и” in Bulgarian and “y” in Spanish—pronounced exactly the same: “ee”

The halls of the Department of Language LearningFor the fifth Tuesday now, Ryan and I met right after work to catch a taxi to Sofia University’s Department of Language Learning for our weekly Bulgarian class. Now this place is truly “old school.” The peeling paint and ancient equipment makes it easy to image what this place used to be like 20 years ago when fresh-face Bulgarian college kids would have been studying Russian, and other exotic languages of the Soviet Empire in these very same hallowed halls. From the test result sheets publicly posted in the halls, it looks like 50% of the students are studying English, 30% German, 20% French, 10% Italian, 10% Spanish, and a smattering of Greek & Dutch (I know that’s more than 100%; I suspect that some students take more than one language simultaneously—that’s gotta be tough!)

13 February 2006

Traffic jam

Saturdays are not longer for sleeping in, cleaning/shopping, or goofing off. I actually like my new routine: dress warmly, grab my ski equipment, and head for the slopes. Despite the fact that Vitosha is a shabby resort, I had a great time; the weather was perfect—clear and sunny—and I felt significant improvement in my skill-level. I am now comfortable with narrow, mogul-strewn runs and steep, deep, powder.

traffic jam on the snowshoe hashSunday afternoon, I headed back up the same mountain, but this time to go snowshoeing with the Hash House Harriers. The weather was not as nice, but conditions turned out to be ideal for snowshoeing—something I had never done before, but really enjoyed. It was a veritable winter wonderland up there: deep, untouched snow and beautiful scenery. I posted some pictures to WeatherUnderground, one even made “approvers choice.” The picture to the right is of a traffic jam created by one of the youngest hashers, James (probably 5 y/o) and myself. He was having trouble climbing up this particularly steep section, so I grabbed his hand to help him up only to find myself holding a glove. His mum (they are Brits) had to come and put it back on; hence the traffic jam.

10 February 2006

Heat Wave

The snow that fell on Sunday was starting to get brown and slushy around the edges, so I was happy to see yesterday’s flurries cover the unsightly older snow. It looked like powdered sugar sprinkled over dark gingerbread—seriously.

Between the installation of the air conditioners and the new front door, it has been quite cold in the office for the last two days. So, today I came prepared; full thermals and a sweater. However, when I arrived this morning, all the holes were plugged and the air conditioners were actually running in heat-pump mode; the sweater immediately came off. Not only that, but today turned out to be quite balmy; I saw temperatures as high as 2 degrees (36 F.) I’ve learned you can never rely on the forecast around here—highly unreliable. Bulgarians don’t seem to mind this; when you ask somebody what the temps will be tomorrow or how much accumulations are expect, you get a blank stare! Granted, our weather forecasters back home often tend to miss the mark, but at least thet will tell us to expect accumulations of 3.5 inches and highs in the mid-30s. You’ve got to admit that’s reassuring even if it turns our wrong.

08 February 2006

Isn't it ironic

Today is Sofia’s coldest day thus far this winter; it was -23 (-9F) this morning. Today is also the day that the air conditioner installers finally decided to finish installing three little split-unit systems as part of our remont (they had drilled the holes for the freon pipes and electrical cables nearly 4 weeks ago—leaving gaping, 3-inch holes that have been spilling cold air into our office in the intervening time.) I’m sure we will appreciate this come July, but “Isn’t it ironic…don’t you think?”

07 February 2006

Ski every mountain

Shelly, Joel, Kristen...at Bansko ski resortLast weekend I skied at Borovets, a resort about an hour and half from Sofia that is considerably nicer and somewhat more expensive than Vitosha. This weekend we (Shelly, Kristen, Kat [the diplomats] Ryan, and I [the Corps]) drove to the next biggest resort: Bansko. The town is a lot like any other little town in Bulgaria except the main drag, which is wall-to-wall ski shops and mehanas (traditional Bulgarian restaurants.) The resort though, is as nice as any east coast resort in the US, complete with plenty of high-speed lifts and copious groomed trails. The only downside is that there is only one black diamond-esque run. I eventually tired of the same old runs, so I decided to go off-piste—mainly under the lifts—where I found some more challenging stuff: moguls, narrow trails, and some very steep section.

I had been warned that it would be considerably more expensive to ski here, but it turned out to be only 62 leva ($39) for a 2-day pass with the locals discount (for which you have to present your lichna karta and/or say “Аз съм пастанин клиент.”) Plus, upon returning the amazingly sophisticated RFID lift pass, we received 5 leva back.

Thanks to the fact that I had skied the previous two weekends, I wasn’t hurting after skiing all day Saturday. However, by noon on Sunday, I was getting noticeably winded—at times, I had to stop every 100m to catch my breath. Additionally, the weather had turned from the beautiful sunny day you see above to snow showers—reducing visibility and stinging my face. By the time we met for lunch on Sunday, we all agreed (well, actually we had to twist Shelly’s arm—she want to ski until they shut down the lifts) that it was time to head back home. We knew the trip home would take longer due to the inclement weather, but never imagined how long. At about the half way point, we ran into a line of traffic that did not budge for over three and a half hours! We later found out that there was a truck accident 30km ahead on our 2-lane highway. If there was an alternate route, we assumed the locals would have found it, but everyone just patiently sat there. The highlight of the traffic jam was when the Finlandia girls came out of their van to pass out free shots to their fellow stranded motorists. Below is a good picture I got for Ryan as they were making their way back to their van.

Ryan and the Finlandia girls

01 February 2006

Yes, we have no bananas

Bulgaria is one of the few places on earth where shaking your head means yes, and nodding means no. Even after being here for over 6 months now, and learning some of the language, this is the hardest thing to get used to. I am convinced this non-verbal communication is hard-wired into our brain at a very early age. Furthermore, I believe our way is more natural—what does a baby do when you bring a spoonful of strained peas to his mouth? That’s right, he shakes his head side to side to get away from that nasty food.

What’s really interesting is that, if I try, I can do the “hey, wassup” nod to tell people handing out flyers on the street to indicate that I don’t want one, and shake (kind of like a bobble head doll) to signal agreement when I’m listening to a Bulgarian. However, whenever I see someone shaking their head, I immediately, subconsciously interpret it as disappointment; I have to rationally remind myself this “disappointment” is actually a good thing.

This weekend I went to a newsstand to buy tram tickets. I asked if the attendant if she had tickets. (“Имате ли билети за трамваи?” for those of you playing along at home.) She shook her head, but due to the fact it was early in the morning (well, 10:00 actually) and she didn’t verbalize a “Да” I naturally assumed she didn’t have any, so I asked here where I could get some (actually just “Къде?” [where?],) to which she answered “тук” [here.] Duh!