29 March 2006

Total Eclipse of the Sun

…well not really, but looking at the crude tracing from my primitive desktop observatory (piece of paper with pinhole taped to my office window) it looks like nearly 80% of the sun was blotted out this afternoon. The sky was nearly cloudless, so it looked particularly eerie—the sky was notably darkened as if you were wearing sunglasses. Out of the now 16 active MBAEC volunteers scattered across this side of the globe, only Manish was able to witness a full eclipse in Kazakhstan; I look forward to reading his account (see blog links to right.)

eclipse tracings

27 March 2006

Weekend Update

Friday’s planned “drinks after work” with the new guy brought together only 3 people, but we made the best of it—staying out until midnight. In these 6 hours, the new guy, an American, convinced us to check out the Tango exhibition and lessons that take place on Sunday afternoons in the restaurant we were eating at, and to form an English-language theatre group.

I groggily awoke around 10:00 to a phone call from Shelly the diplomat; she asked if I wanted to go skiing—in a half an hour. An hour later, I was standing by the street dressed in my fashionable skiwear and holding my skis and boot, waiting for her to pick me up. After the last person she invited (out of 6) cancelled on her, we were on our way to Borovets. Arriving around 12:30, I bought a lift ticket for only 10 leva from a guy leaving for the day, making this the cheapest ski trip ever—six dollars for a half day of skiing (Shelly wouldn’t accept any gas money—oh, but I bought a Pepsi and 2 candy bars, so adds a couple of leva.Forrest Gump reference) The weather has been warmer of late, and the conditions were not the best (heavy, crusty, grabby snow.) Never the less, it was a worthwhile ski trip. I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself on Saturdays now that ski season is practically over; I guess I’ll have to get back on my bike (actually, I saw two cyclists on the way to Borovets.)

Saturday night was Doriana’s “Spring Party.” She lives in a spacious apartment in one of the ubiquitous old-school high-rises of Sofia—I was envious when I heard what she pays in rent. Doriana fixed quite a spread; unfortunately, I had made myself some dinner after skiing, so I didn’t get to try her pasta or tomato, cucumber, & avocado salads. Everybody showed up except Ryan, who was in Boston attending a friend’s wedding—also making him the loser of our unofficial “who can stay on this side of the big pond the longest” contest.

Sunday I woke robbed of one hour of sleep since Europe begins daylight savings time one week earlier than back home. Since I was running late, I went to the International Baptist Church, where I hadn’t shown my face for a few months now. Interestingly, I met an American guy who is in a PhD program here in Sofia, and whom I had previously met at the MBA fair a week and a half ago—another one of those mutual “why did you come to Bulgaria” conversations, as most of the other Americans here either work at the embassy or are making good money to be here.

Sunday was really a warm, sun-filled day, so I happily met the Hash House Harriers for a run around Lake Pancharevo. Thanks to the great weather, we had a sizable turnout—11 runners, and plenty more walkers. This also brought out tons of Sofians, who were enjoying the lake and surroundings despite the fact this area—as many heavily visited areas in Bulgaria—is strewn with trash. It really bothered me while running; I don’t understand how one can relax in the sun or even picnic when surrounded by garbage. It was better when we headed up the mountain to a higher trail, but this revealed another ugly truth: I am out of shape! Today I am still sore—from a 5 km run.

23 March 2006

It's Bulgaria out there

As strange as it seems for someone living here for 8 months now, I often think to myself “It’s Bulgaria out here!” whenever I leave an expat gathering or my own apartment (where I am enveloped in English language music, TV programming, Internet content, and periodicals.) It is actually easy forget you’re in a foreign country until you step outside and are confronted by a still unfamiliar land filled with a distinctive and relatively homogeneous population that speak this strange language—Bulgarian. Actually, I understand a little more each day; at this point I’m really comfortable reading signs, ordering at restaurants, asking for stuff in stores, and explaining where I want to go to taxi drivers. Never the less, I am resigned to the fact that I will never be able to carry on a real conversation; even Rich, who was the star Bulgarian student from in last year’s Corps, told us his conversational skills were limited to “what’s you favorite color” type of exchanges.

I will probably have to take this back, but it looks like spring has arrived in Sofia! We’ve had a week of relatively balmy days (50+ F), I've discarded my Martenitsa, and city workers have been doing spring cleaning in the park across the street from my apartment (which is a very welcome sight!) I expect the trees will begin to bud any time now.

Spring Home Show
The "Строико" home show I wrote about in the fall has returned to NDK. On my way home from work today, I spent an hour walking through it and came away with one overriding impression—Bulgarian are rich! There was all kinds of high-end building material, furniture, and fixtures displayed; I even saw a shower with a built-in TV. These vendors would be wasting their time and money if people weren't buying this stuff, and I can't believe that only mobsters and crooked politicians are buying; the people wandering the aisles looked to be average Bulgarian couples—they just like to invest in their house, where it's safe I guess.

BTW, next week this time I will be on my way to Vienna! I'm really looking forward to that.

19 March 2006

St. Patty in BG

Well, let’s see what happened this week. Tuesday was my next-to-the-last Bulgarian lesson. Then on Wednesday evening, I met Vesela and Stanimir, a Bulgaria guy who did the EMBA in Vienna, at the first annual MBA fair in Sofia. We were there to help Mu-Chyun (the new “Gundi”) represent WU-Wien. It was a good thing we were there, as about 1,200 prospective student flooded into the exhibition space (there were about 20 business schools represented) at 18:00. For at least the next 2 hours the four of us were talking non-stop with people (Mu-Chyun and I in English, Vesela and Stanimir in Bulgarian) answering questions about the program—mostly the requirements, cost, and scholarships. We quickly ran out of brochures, and were exhausted but satisfied when it ended at 21:00. Afterwards, we had a nice dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant, which Mu-Chyun (a Chinese-born Viennese man) greatly enjoyed.

On Thursday night, Julia had a nice (early) St. Patrick’s Day party—always classy compared to “parties” we bachelors tend to throw. And on Friday—St. Patrick’s Day proper—the festivities continued: Ryan, Kat, and I met some embassy people at Flannagan’s (mildly Irish, I guess) and then on to The Irish Harp. The night ended much too late in Studentskigrad (the 5 Points of Sofia,) and I spent most of Saturday recovering instead of skiing—thanks Bryan and Lincoln! ;-)

Saturday night was probably my last date with the Bulgarian girl that I’ve been seeing, as she leaves for Germany next week to go to university. How do I always manage to pick girls that are moving away? Is it subconscious, or am I driving them away?

Today, I went to Divaka for lunch again. They were totally full, so the waitress seated me at a table with two older men. I quickly explain “ne razbiram bulgarski,” but one of them immediately asked “sprechen sie Deutsch?” Several hours of conversation ensued relating to Bulgaria, the EU, and all the troubles of the world over successive glasses of vodka, until—seriously—his German became incomprehensible. His friend, who only spoke French (and Bulgarian) tried to chime in as well; it’s amazing how much you can understand with just a few common words. Before he ordered another vodka (and started getting too anti-Semitic,) I managed to bid adieu—only after promising to meet them again next week. Actually, it was quite interesting to get the perspective of older Bulgarians—albeit unusually cosmopolitan ones.

BTW, I just discovered the blogs of 3 new MBAEC volunteers: Alexandra, Kirk, Jim, and his wife Grace (see links under “friends' blogs.”) In case you're wondering, SD stands for Sudan (not South Dakota) and AZ stands for Azerbaijan (not Arizona!)

[UPDATE] Thank you Simon for the comment—the first ever from a family member! And, of course, many thanks to the lovely Hungarian who I never actually met, Emese, for her many comments.

13 March 2006

Internet DTs

Six months ago, I prepaid for 6 months of Internet service. Just last week I was thinking, “I wonder when that will run out.” I think I just found out. The thing is, even though I’m going through Internet DTs, I’m in no rush to get reconnected because I know I will be so much more productive now. Since I don’t (hardly) watch TV anymore, without Internet I should have no problem focusing on my Bulgarian homework tonight. We’ll see how it goes.

[UPDATE] Whew, dodged the bullet; it still works! but I do expect them to cut me off anytime now. Also, BG homework will suffer tonight.

To my vast audience, if any of you are using Orkut (Google new personal networking tool,) please send me an invitation (froese at gmail dot com.) I've got enough profiles to maintain on various services, but I want in on this Orkut thing; it's so exclusive—you have to be invited. ;-)

10 March 2006

PC Police

Regardless of what others may say, I believe the US has the best internal race relations in the world. Obviously there are still a lot of crusty old racists around, but you have to admit that in many cases Americans stand arm in arm—descendants of Africans, Asians, Europeans, and Latin Americas—all “proud to be an American, where at least [they] know [they’re] free.” Granted, this quasi-nationalism and superiority complex creates a poor image of America around the world, but it really isn’t really nationalism—America is not one nation, in fact we are almost to the point were no one race (an even broader grouping of people) is the majority anymore. In America, citizenship is more important than nationality—in fact, I suspect some of my audience doesn’t even understand the distinction as they read this. Meanwhile, within 100 miles of me, there are Bulgarians, Romanians, Serbs, Macedonians, Albanians, Greeks, and Turks who probably all believe their nationality is superior, and over the centuries these groups have slaughtered each other over slivers of real estate. Seriously, even today, many point to the maximum extent of their historical borders (which, of course overlap) and say, “actually this belongs to us too.” Even in the more “advanced” west, Chris told me that in Belgium there is still a simmering animosity between the Dutch-speaking Flemish people and the French-speaking Walloons.

On the gender front, American men may not be perfect gentlemen, but they simply aren’t allowed to express a lot of the macho b.s. that is common elsewhere. I understand the anti-harassment and political correctness hysteria in the US goes overboard, but I think that if I were raising a daughter, I would prefer a more supportive environment (then again, girls here learn to stand up for themselves.) I say this after hearing some expats yesterday talking about how they’re glad they don’t live in the US and don’t have to self-censor their speech. I bristle at the label “feminist,” but again, I ask myself how would I feel if I had a daughter.

I certainly welcome any discussion—drop me a comment if you think I’m niave, a complete idiot, or if you agree with me.

I say all that to introduce the picture below. This is a package of cookies I saw at the grocery store yesterday; the name roughly translates to “Little Negro.” Now—come on—could you sell this product anywhere in the US anymore with this name & artwork on the box?

Negurche cookies

I'll let you know if the "assorted biscuits" were tasty as they look; come on, you knew I had to buy them—they're just so deliciously politically incorrect!

[UPDATE] Wow, I hit on a hot topic; check out the comments I got! To the anonymous Arab commenter: yeah, you're right; much of this brotherly, multi-cultural America stand united...against the Arab & Muslim world. The new kid on the block always has it hard; in WWII it was the Japanese. But is it much different in Europe? Look at France.

08 March 2006

Intl Womens Day

Today is International Women’s Day; I read the Wikipedia entry about it, but didn’t think much more of it; I assumed it was just an old communist holiday honoring female comrades. Actually, it turns out to be bigger than Valentines day here, and—according to my friends elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Central Asia—throughout the former USSR. Friends, relatives, and especially employers present every female acquaintance with a flower. As with other holidays, it is easy find these gifts, as nearly every little, old Baba hawks the holiday’s essential gift from a street corner near you.

So, to vast female readership, ;-) happy International Women’s Day!

07 March 2006

The Simpsons

OK, I don't normally post anything except my original creations, but this is just too cool not to share with everyone I know. These Brits did an incredible job of recreating the Simpsons (Семейство Симпсън, as they are called here) opening. I'm especially impressed with that little kid, who plays Bart; he's got mad skateboarding skillz—a real Tony Hawk!

06 March 2006

Snow, Again!

March snow showerI haven't talked about the weather lately, so humor me. This morning, walking to work, it was down right balmy; storm clouds were gathering, and I actually expected we would get a thundershower. However, by late afternoon, it had gotten noticeably cooler. While making myself dinner tonight (spaghetti—about the extent of my repertoire,) I heard ice pelting my window—it was sleeting furiously outside. I didn't think much of it afterwards as I was quietly studying for Bulgarian class tomorrow until just now; I looked out the window to see a blizzard in progress. A few inches have already accumulated. (The previous snows had all melted over the last few days due to the relatively warm weather we've had since at least Thursday.) The weather is even more fickle here than back home! BTW, I'm not complaining—I think its pretty cool; I'm still a kid at heart when it comes to the white stuff.

No skiing, snowshoeing, or any trips outside of Sofia over the three day weekend; I just laid low, but I did go out every night.

03 March 2006

Chestit Den na Osvobozhdeieto

Today is a major holiday in Bulgaria. In 1878, the Russians liberated this country from Ottoman rule—the “Turkish Yoke” as they like to say here. And on March 3rd of that year, the Treaty of San Stefano was signed creating “Greater Bulgaria” including Macedonia, and a large part of northern Greece—which was later cut down to size by the great (European) powers of the time.

Liberation Day rallySince I have the day off, I decided to wander into the center looking for Liberation Day festivities. The only thing I came across was an ATAKA parade. Garnering about nine percent in the latest parliamentary election, ATAKA is a coalition of nationalistic parties with racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic tendencies. The marchers themselves seemed to fit into two demographics: the 50+ crowd—disaffected by the recent changes—and a smattering of young, skinhead types. The march ended in front of the famous Alexander Nevski Cathedral; ATAKA wants to make the Bulgarian Orthodox Church the official religion of Bulgarian and have its doctrine taught in public schools. Despite my limited Bulgarian, I could make out some of their signs & placards: lots of “Bulgaria for Bulgarians” and anti-Turkish/anti-Roma (Gypsy) vitriol. Otherwise, official placards and poster feature the stern face of their leader, Volen Siderov, whose rhetoric is troublingly reminiscent of Hitler.

I expected a more celebratory holiday like our 4th of July; unfortunately, this fringe has apparently taken ownership of “3ти Март.”

BTW, I now have an ICQ number: 304846964 (for whatever reason, ICQ seems to be the only IM service Bulgarians use.)

[UPDATE] There were other events in the evening, including fireworks, which I missed except for the last few moments.

01 March 2006

Chestita Baba Marta!

MartenitsaIn Bulgaria, on the first of March it is customary to exchange small red and white bracelets or talismans called martenitsi (which can be purchased for next to nothing on any street corner) and greet everyone with “Честита Баба Марта!” (literally translated: "Happy Grandmother March!") So far, I've received 3 and given away 5—it’s just like Valentine's Day in elementary school. You are then supposed to wear at least one bracelet until the first day of spring, or until you see the first stork, at which time you then tie the bracelet to a tree branch.