Friday, January 1, 2016

Chalga: Love it, but I need concerts at 8:30 or 10:00pm, not 1:30 or 2:00 am.

Chalga:  2015 is a lot different than 2000-2003, or even 2008

Happy New Year Everyone!!!   May 2016 bring you lots of joy and happiness.

Chalga can be a dirty word here in Bulgaria, and it is difficult for most foreigners to understand why.  By writing this blog, I am sure to tick off some Bulgarians who despise chalga, but oh well. Cry me a river.  Chalga is here, been here, and here to stay.  Deal with it.  I deal with crazy maniacs in fancy cars and 20 year cars trying to kill me on the road(some of them I am sure are my students' drivers) and Kanye West, so the cultured Bulgarians can deal with chalga music.

When one mentions they like chalga music, it creates such a commotion, especially when a foreigner says it.  Some Bulgarians are not as cultured if you like chalga, and somehow that is a bad thing.  I totally disagree.  Chalga was a democratic form of music the people wanted after communism.  There is a talk show host, Slavi Triffinov, who has a regular following, sings duets with chalga singers, and had a concert with over 70,000 people in September in the pouring rain, where every song sounded exactly the same.

This blog attempts to give people a window into what chalga actually is, and see how it has changed with time, if it has at all.   

What is Chalga?  Is Chalga part of the culture in Bulgaria?

According to the Wikipedias, chalga music is pop music with some sexually or inappropriate lyrics.  The songs usually originate somewhere in the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, or Serbia, and are then copied by different artists into that language.  In Sofia, one can escape chalga music scene, whereas in small towns the only type of music played is chalga.  It's chalga or nothing.  So when I was a volunteer in Balchik, I adapted to my environment, and embraced chalga for what it was.  This was music the people wanted, so one had to pay attention to it to understand the culture better. 

Chalga was not fully part of the Bulgarian music scene much until after the fall of Communism in 1989, as Todor Zhivkov strongly felt the music was inferior to the Bulgarian traditional folk music (See anti-chalga peeps, I bet you didn't realize you had something you agreed with Todor Zhivkov on).  Some people reject chalga because they do not want to be reminded there is a Roma or Turkish/Middle Eastern influence in this country.  They're proud Bulgarians who talk about '500 years of Turkish Slavery'(which I could write a entire blog about how many times I heard this as a Peace Corps volunteer).  

Despite what some people think, chalga is part of the culture here in Bulgaria, whether one likes it or not.  There is a devoted following to the singers, and they can easily fill concert halls with their concerts.  Yeah, some people are like Todor Zhivkov, and refuse to be there when chalga is played. Some are indifferent to it, while some love and embrace chalga.

I fall into the last category, and embrace chalga.  Why?  Because I was taught to appreciate all music genres at Eastman when I played trumpet.  You just can't live in a bubble and like one genre of music is the advice my trumpet teachers told me.  Before then, I was just a fan of country and some rock music.  I learned there is great music in every genre, and that those people who limit themselves to a few genres are missing out on some wonderful musicians.  As a result, I'm the person up for any type of concert, Nutcracker with the Moscow ballet, J-Lo, ACDC, Kamelia, Elton John, Madonna, Garbage, Placebo, the Cranberries, 10,000 Maniacs, Simple Minds, Macy Gray, Tori Amos, and more.

George, who isn't really Bulgarian, appreciates chalga.  For his students, he made them study chalga and pop videos to see which singer had the most chalga elements.  The students studied all the videos and found that Britney Spears actually scored the highest points for her 'Work Bitch' video for the pop star who had the most chalga like elements.  For those people who detest chalga, I find it hysterical when they all jump up and dance to Byala Rosa.  This is a chalga song by Slavka Kachkeva, who is a one hit wonder on the chalga scene.  It has become a staple for Bulgarian folk songs, but it's truly a chalga songs.  Expat work peeps, you have heard this song danced to by lots of Bulgarians at our Christmas parties.  


What are the stereotypes of chalga musicians?

Well, there are a lot of stereotypes about chalga singers.  Some could be true for some of them, but these are stereotypes.  In writing this blog, I will use the word alleged numerous times.  Allegedly is enough for me to write this issue of the blog, so here are some of the alleged stereotypes of chalga singers:
  1. All of them have had some type of 'dental work' (plastic surgery) done, usually in the upper chest area.  Usually, the husband has paid for the 'dental work'.
  2. A lot of the chalga singers have 'businessmen' husbands who are either much older than them, or much larger in size than them.
  3. They can't really sing or dance, but are just pretty faces.
  4. They are vampires because all their concerts start at 1:30 or 2:00 am.  
  5. Some have husbands who are 'legitimate businessmen' with ties to the mafia and/or organized crime.  At the time, these men were the only people rich enough to afford such concerts, so it became a natural connection for these two groups of people to hook up. 
  6. You need to have a rich 'friend' to have you produce and promote the videos.
  7.  Their songs are all about sex, and provocative.
  8. The skimpier the outfit, the better.  
  9. If you're a male chalga singer, you're probably gay or 'bisexual', unless you're over 40, fat, and bald.
  10. You need a lot of expensive things in your videos to show how much wealth you have.  The bigger the better.  This fits the Bulgarian cultural mantra right now, in that some Bulgarians try to show off how much wealth they have.  

What is Chalga Like in 2015 compared to 2000?

There is a big difference between videos from 2000, 2003, 2008, or even 2012 compared to 2015.  Pop stars like J-Lo and Britney may be wearing a cool dress in their video, but sometimes the Bulgarian chalga stars wore the dress first.  It is as if chalga musicians told themselves, let's get a bit classier.  

A few of the well established singers now are part of the juries on shows such as Bulgarian Music Idol(American Idol), or The Voice or X Factor(cannot remember the name).  Below is a sampling of what the chalga videos by singers now and then, with commentary by me.  There are some that I missed, like Emanuela, Ivana, and Gloria, but there are so many to chose from, that one could write numerous blogs on chalga singers.  You're going to need some time to watch all of these videos, so take your time on this blog, as this one is a labor of love.  


Malina is one of my favorites, and I love her more than Gloria, so I will start with her.  Hard to believe this, but Malina is 47!!!!!  She's aged well, and probably has had a little bit of 'dental work' (aka plastic surgery).  She joined the chalga scene at a later age, which is highly unusual and they start out young.  Originally a dancer, she started to sing chalga in her 30s.  Just because she is older, this does not stop her from being provocative.   

Kaji mi da ili ne/Tell Me Yes or No:  

From what Matt calls the 'Golden Age of Chalga', Malina is all about America in this video, and even DJ Jerry is sporting a Dallas Cowboys jersey.  The setting for this video is low cost, but high cost at the time in 2001.  There weren't many private pools around, so this was a big deal.  DJ Jerry's attempt to create the perfect woman is Malina, who pretty much tells him no.  And wouldn't you?  The blue hair is appalling.  


The title of the video says it all, as this song is obviously about passion.  For those who don't know Bulgarian, you can figure out the rest.  This was made before 2007, and I would say around 2006.  In that time, it looks like Malina has had some 'enhancements' done to her upper chest area, and given an increase in the wardrobe budget.  However, Malina kept her 'dental work' classy and doesn't get breasts too big, but big enough.

Showing off the body is a prerequisite to any video or concert during this time, and will make ISIS fighters get rid of their goats if they watch this video.  With this video, has Malina doing a live concert, which was shown on BTV.  From the video at the 1:50 mark, you can see Malina gives Shakira a run for her money from the drum and hip shaking solo.  From the reaction from the crowd, it's obvious this song is popular, too.  

Pri Teb Mi E Sartseto/My Heart is with You:

This video is from 2015, and the budget for the video is a lot more.  Designer clothes, shot in Portugal, this video is the standard of chalga in 2015.  Classier and elegant, the songs still talk about love, but she's has more clothes on now, and not as provocative at 2006.  Malina no longer needs to do any Shakira impressions. The all white outfit shows off her figure, but there is a lot less skin shown.  This video being shot in Portugal is a nice new trend of Bulgarians travelling about the world, and it's not uncommon for chalga video stations to play a song with places people can visit throughout Europe.   


No one pushes the envelope more than Aziz.  Aziz is a pop icon, and truly a unique person who has indirectly and directly helped moved Bulgarians out of the conservative cultural shell from communism.  He is a gay Roma chalga singer who likes to cross dress, wear lots of make up, dye his hair different colors, but keep the beard while wearing the women's clothing.  Conchita Wurst  has nothing on Aziz, who could out sing that diva anytime, anyplace.  At first, Aziz was shunned as a joke, but he voice, money, and music made him a force in chalga music.  Any singer after 2003 did a duet with Aziz to give them a legit status.  Always controversial and pushing the boundaries, Aziz is a personal favorite of mine for what he did just to get people talking.

Napipai Go/Touch it

One of Aziz's first videos, there is a small glimpse of what the man could accomplish.  He pushes the envelope to be ambiguous gay, dying his hair blond, but keeping the beard black.  He has ladies dancing around him, but the rest of the video is low budget, and the fake flames are just awesome looking at them 14 years later.  There were questions on whether Aziz was really gay during this time.  Some people believed it and didn't think it was a big deal, some people giggled about it, and some people were shocked to hear there might be a gay chalga singer.  


There are lots of videos of Aziz pushing the envelope with gay themed videos, but Hop in 2011 takes the cake.  As you can see, he gives the Russians who hate gays a fantastic response to his previous videos.  Why, it's a Russian gay sauna theme that goes overboard, but has over 11 million hits on Youtube.  The communist hammer and sickle are prominent, the is the 'Red Hair' phase of Aziz, much like Pablo Picasso.  Just in case you didn't know Bulgarian, Aziz throws in the words lover and fucker to make sure you know what this video is about.

St. Tropez:

Done in 2012, this is also part of the Aziz 'Red Hair phase', but the text of the song is very mild.  Aziz is only singing about going to St. Tropez and the beach.   Instead, his voice and outfits are the highlights of this video, which has over 13 million hits on Youtube.  The red wig with the British flag shirt, and the studded ear muffs are probably my favorites of this video.


In this video from 2015, Aziz has sold out and gone mainstream.  Gone are all the dresses, dyed hair, and provocative statements.  Now, you see Aziz just being Aziz wearing regular clothes, but this video this has 12 million hits, proving going mainstream didn't hurt Mr. Aziz.  Allegedly, Aziz deposed of all the controversies and clothes because he has a child now, and doesn't want his child see him dressed up like that.  I give you that Aziz, but how are you going to explain Hop and so many other videos to the kid?


Fiki is the son of Toni Staroro, and don't let the beard fool you for what his age actually is.  Fiki is about 20 years old on a good day, and he's probably one of the few straight chalga singers under 25 on the scene.  Most straight chalga singers need to be over 30, and not that great looking, but not Fiki.  Because he's straight, young, and good looking, Fiki is a hot commodity on the chalga scene.  His videos are much different than what a lot of male singers put out though.  

The two videos for your viewing are Gore Dolo and Dzale.  For the Gore Dolo song, it is classy with Fiki in a tuxedo and features Preslava, a pop icon, but it is hysterical at the same time.  Pretty much, he's telling the woman she's beautiful and scandolous, but he asks the woman can she cook half way decent and is she can clean.  If so, then she can have him.  

The Dzhale video has Fiki pretty much taking over the Paradise Mall during the middle of the night, and looks nothing like a chalga video.  It's a catchy song to make the young girls fall in love with him. He's had about 5-6 songs come out the past 18 months, and there's no slowing down for this one.  As the only truly straight, cute, good looking guy under 30, Fiki is going to have a lot of business in the years to come.  

Fiki featuring Preslava:  Gore/Dolo

Fiki:  Dzhale


She started out innocent, but probably one of the most provocative female singers out there.  Kamelia sticks out for many reasons, mostly because she is one of the few female singers who didn't marry a 'businessman' who was 20-30 years older than she was.  In fact, she does the opposite and is more of a cougar by dating a younger man.  She has appeared in the Bulgarian version of Playboy at least three times, and isn't afraid to use her body and voice to push sexual boundaries in her video.  In a country where it's not uncommon for 55-60 year old successful men to have 20-25 year old girlfriend and wives, I applaud her for doing the unconventional.  

Ogun Momiche:  

One of her first big hits, ogun momiche means the Fire Girl.  In this video, Kamelia is much younger, has no dental work done, and only has one outfit.  The video is low budget and done is some night club, or possibly on some set.  As you can see, the budget allows for some smoke a one male dancer who can't quite dance in sync with Kamelia.  Standard fare for the 1999/2000 era.


You don't need to know Bulgarian to know what this song is all about.  The song is pretty much talking about having sex, and is extremely provocative, which is what Kamelia is known for.  From about 2008/2009, this video won Music Video of the Year.  Now, you have to realize she's got a disadvantage because Kamelia does not have a rich benefactor sponsoring her videos, which most of the female stars have.  There are a lot of differences since 1999/2000.  There are been a lot of dental work done, as the pasties are probably the size of her original breasts.  Instead of one outfit, there are multiple provocative outfits, most of which I'm certain women would say are highly functional.  No way.  In fact, there is a lot If anyone can figure out why the first few seconds has a Holy Bible, I'm all ears.



Made in 2015, Kamelia keeps it real and bucks the trend with the video.  She is provocative as ever with the wardrobe choices, whips, and other SM things going on in the apartment with the male model in this video.  Definitely unique.  While other singers have gone mainstream, Kamelia is keeping it 100.  This video is also equal opportunity, as there is a hot guy in the video too.  Kamelia is all about having cute men in her videos.  

Preslava Novata ti:

This video has been around since about 2008/2009.  Preslava is one of the new chalga icons, and is a judge on one of the music talent shows.  For Peace Corps peeps, she entered the chalga scene well after we left in 2003.

True fact, I walked by Preslava without knowing who she was in Plovdiv and George yelled at me for not know her.  Oh, the song.  Novata ti is a very catchy song about her ex-boyfriend wishing she had her instead of his current girlfriend.  And pretty much, she tells him to 'suck it' and wishes to kill the new girlfriend.  No, she's not jealous one bit in this song. 

Kati:  Na Yrok/The Lesson

In 2000, there was room for a chalga singer like Kati, someone who couldn't sing.  Kati filled this niche in chalga.  Could she sing?  No.  Could she dance?  Sort of.  What was her allure to have people watch her?  I don't quite know.  Were her videos big budget?  No way.  On the contrary, there is one video of her in a park on a bicycle.  

Na Yrok is probably one of the best of the Kati era, and she didn't last much after she sang her ballad and people found out she indeed had a terrible voice.  She has 1-2 hits, and disappeared completely from the music scene.  We saw her once a few years back at the Mall of Sofia, and Owen got her autograph.  She had not changed much, so here's hoping she got her sugar daddy to take care of her.  

Milko Kalaydzhiev:

Kude Si Batko

If you're a feminist, you're probably not going to like Milko.  Milko is 64 now, and a legend in chalga.  He's made a career and raised three kids off of making this music.  This song isn't exactly empowering the female identity.  This is a time travel video, where Milko is a caveman, living in the 16th century, and then present day.  In each case, there are five women around him who need a home, and he's saying it's not easy to be a man with all the beautiful women all around him.  So, he just takes all of them so they're not homeless.  At one point in the video, he has five girls locked in a cage singing to him "Kude si Batko?  Kude si batko?  Da te peem sladko, sladko"  (Where are you big brother? 2x  So we can sing sweetly to you).  

In terms of the cost of this video, it's a bigger budget for Bulgaria in 2001.  There's a caveman scene, traditional outfits, a large birdcage, and a disco scene.  There's a lot of costume changes, the girls can dance somewhat, and much different than Kamelia's disco song.  

Vechno S Men Budi:

This video is from 2015, and Milko really hasn't changed his tune on women.  He's older, but can still get videos made.  This video is low budget though, and cost little.  The mehana he is using has no one in it except for the band, his girl he's trying to woo, plus a few extras at times.  The wine might have been put back in the bottle after shooting.  The video is shot in the autumn, obviously no one is at the pool and there are tons of leaves in it, which doesn't stop Milko and the band from using it as a background scene.  The gross part is one of the pools has brown water in it, and Milko's standing in front of it as if it's no big deal.  The band might be in the video for free publicity to know they exist for future gigs.  The girl's outfit doesn't cost much, she is at least 30 years younger than Milko, and all he's allowed to do is give her a hug.  He's still coming out with a video every now and then(not so easy for an older man in chalga) and had a New Year's concert in Zlatograd, so you got to give him credit for trying to keep it 100 at 64 and making a living.

Maria Koldea E:  

This is the singer who has a child at our school, and recently did this video with her daughter.  It's cute, and they both look really sweet wearing Dior, Versace, or whatever the latest fashion designers are, except for H & M.  Gary Foster, I think you should play background for them in their next video with your guitar.  

Desi Slava:  

Normally, Desislava is one word, but I have separated the name on purpose.  During one interview, the reporter asked Desi Slava why there was break in her name, and she replied that one breast was named Desi, and the other was Slava.  Therefore, it's Desi Slava people. 

Desi Slava is probably one of the chalga singers with the best voices.  She can actually sing, and sang tranditional folk music with her town before becoming a chalga singer. Desi Slava is also a very complicated figure in chalga, for the following reasons:

1.  She can really sing folk music.
2.  She had a not so great relationship with a Bulgarian living in the U.S., who allegedly was part of the Bulgarian restaurant in Chicago.  They were on and off, had a kid, married for a year, and allegedly he wasn't the nicest person.  
3.  There is a period where Desi Slava rejects chalga music and considers herself a pop singer from about 2007-2013/2014.  She refuses to acknowledge her chalga background, and experiments with lots of music styles.  It seems to be a weird period of time, as none of the pop stars acknowledge she's a pop star, and there's no real money in Bulgarian pop or rock music.  She creates her own T.V. station to promote new artists, but sells it to be more invested in music.  You wonder where she got the money for the T.V. station, and so do I.  
4.  Unfortunately, none of those music styles pay off, so Desi Slava goes back to being a chalga singer in about 2013/2014 very quietly to make money.  Why?  Becuase there's money in chalga music, not in being a Bulgarian pop singer.  The chalga public embrace her, but there's an asterik now to her name in anything after 2013 in chalga after she rejected chalga.
5.  Allegedly, Kamelia and Desi Slava cannot stand each other, due to alleged time they spent together in Scandanavia.  Let's just say they know too much about each other from their time in the 90s in Scandanavia.  

Beli Noshti/White Nights:  

A chalga song that is more a mainstream pop hit now, and it talks about waiting for love, without being provocative.  This is a great song, and definitely highlights the fact she can sing.  In her videos, Desi Slava doesn't wear crazy provocative outfits showing her moneymakers, but instead keeps it classly.  There is no dental work, and her hair is her natural color.  This is probably one of my favorite songs to listen to from any genre of music.   

Za Vinagi/Forever:

This song is from Desi Slava's time in the U.S., and showcases her relationship with her fiance/husband, which obviously did not last forever, unlike what the song states.  This video is more what you could do if you spliced a whole bunch of home videos into a music video with a woman wearing a cat inspired leopard print.  Obviously, someone thought this would be a great idea for a video, which I am sure Desi Slava isn't really enjoying years later.  Great song, not so great home video reminders for her.  Someone is research and development probably should have counseled her team to do a different version of this video. 

Desi Slava Folk Singer:

In 2008, this is the official break where she decides to delve into other music genres to see how popular she can be.  There is an unofficial Spanish album, which doesn't do so well.  There are lots of appearances to prove she is not a chalga singer, such as this one on NOVA TV.  Yes, the girl can really sing and proves she's no Madonna or Kati, but will anyone want to see her do anything but chalga?  Answer, no.  

2015 Smeni Paralata si/Change Your Password: Chalga with a Twist

Now, Desi has returned to chalga, and all is forgiven.  She is on the big stage at the Payner anniversary concert, and making money again thanks to the chalga concerts.  This video has all the things a chalga video needs:  expensive car, dancers, cool outfits.  In this song, she keeps it classy, but throws in a few non-chalga elements into the song.  She may have to be a chalga singer to make money, but it doesn't mean that she won't add a few elements from other genres of music in her music. 

2012 Eurovision Scandal of Desi Slava vs. Sofi Marinova Debunked:

In 2012, Desi Slava attempted to participate in the 2012 Eurovision Contest in Azerbaijan, which leads to real controversy.  In the semi-final, her song is given first place by the jury and the audience.  However, in the final, Desi Slava is destroyed by Sofi Marinova, a gypsy chalga singer who can really sing too, possibly has a better voice, and has a loyal Roma following who voted for her to win the contest.  This ticked off the semi-final jury, because they couldn't believe Sofi Marinova beat Desi Slava, who they thought would easily cruise to victory in the final.  They claimed the vote was rigged, but NOT SO FAST.    

My opinion:  I think Desi's background dancers cost her the chance to go to Azerbaijan, and there's no loyal Roma following.  Both Sofi and Desi Slava are great singers, but could you honestly say the background dancers are going to vault Desi Slava to Eurovision greatness?  No way.  Was there probably some prejudice because Sofi was Roma?  Some, but who knows how much, because Desi is singing in English, while Sofi is singing mostly in Bulgarian.  It also helped Sofi has a devoted Roma following who voted for her in the final, saving their money.  

Which brings me to those dancers.  They're just wrong for the song, look completely comical on stage, don't fit the song, who knows what the hell they're doing there on stage wearing those red onesies, and is what cost Desi Slava the chance at the final and the chance to sing at Eurovision. The public spoke loud and clear, and Sofi Marinova was the person who they sent to the Eurovision finals.   

Sofi Marinova:  

I am glad she got to the final.  Totally deserved it, and robbed of a place in the Eurovision finals.  In Bulgaria, the people chose this song and she beat Desi Slava by over 3,000 votes in the final.  She is a great singer in her own right, but gets  a mark against her in chalga because she is Roma.  

Edin Jivot Ne Stigna/ One Life is Not Enough 2003:

Sofi was one of Aziz's singing with his music label, who could actually sing.  She gets held back sadly sometimes because she is Roma.  In this video, I think Aziz has more makeup on than her at the club they were singing in.  She is a staple of the Sunny music label.  Who knows what will happen to Sunny when she leaves.  

Eurovision Final 2012 Love Unlimited:  The Song which rightfully beat Desi Slava

Pretty much, it helped Sofi didn't have those dancers on stage, and she had a devoted following.  Too bad they couldn't vote for her in the Eurovision contest.  Bulgaria gets stabbed in the back by all its neighbors in the Eurovision voting.  Plus, it doesn't help that Bulgaria actually sends accomplished singers, and instead you need to send a cute 16-19 year old to sing a song in English to win the contest or place in the top 10.  

Conclusion with Tsvetelina Yaneva:

For straight men, they totally loved this blog, as all you need to do is turn off the sound and watch the video to see some beautiful women strut their stuff.  Who knows where chalga is headed in 2016 and beyond.  But one thing is true.  Chalga is here to stay, and is changing with the times.  Videos are getting made by the new generation of stars who should thank their elders for paving the way for them.  The last video is is from Tsvetalina Yaneva, whose fiance just happens to be Delyan Peevski.  

Who is Delyan Peevski? probably one of the most controversial MPs in parliament, who caused all the protests in 2013 when it was reported he was going to be in charge of the equivalent of the U.S. CIA and FBI.  His family has lots of shady business dealings, and it is rumored his family brought down a bank last year and caused a banking crisis.  

By watching the video, you would never know her fiance is about 100 kg more than her, and has ties to tons of shady business dealings around the country.  This article tells you a little bit about his actions in Bulgaria which have made him infamous.

Some things will never change in chalga, but  that's what makes it so entertaining.  My only wish is that they would have earlier concerts than 1:30 or 2:00 on a Wednesday night.   I would love to see them live singing, but the concert start times just aren't good for me working with my students.  

Monday, December 28, 2015

Thanksgiving Done Bulgarian Style

With all the lovely weather outside, it's hard to get in the mood for Christmas, but it's high time I started writing about the holiday season.  Cooking for Thanksgiving has been a tradition I've done in for quite a long time.  It is a tradition I take very seriously, and try to make my grandmother proud when I cook and honor her tradition of cooking for many people every year.

There are many legends involved with Thanksgiving, but Sarah and Owen feel this is the best Thanksgiving dinner they've had.  Owen will go so far to say his mom can't beat my cooking, while my mom will tell you the food is better than sex.  Sarah's mom told me she doesn't ever worry about Sarah, because she knows she is eating here with me.  So, read and find out all about the great food made, and how I got to be the Thanksgiving expert.

Background on How I Became the Expert Thanksgiving Cook:

Long, long ago, in a farmland far away, my grandmother made me her kitchen slave (aka assistant) to help her make Thanksgiving dinner when I was about 12 or 13.  Back in the day, Thanksgiving dinner consisted of grandma making her homemade stuffing, mincemeat pies(which no one really ate), mashed potatoes, a 10-11 kilo turkey(22 pounds minimum), and squash.  There were also pumpkin pies with canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, and the famous turkey giblet gravy, which I never really ate.  

My grandmother was very precise on how things should be done, and demanded perfection when we made something.  Therefore, I learned quickly to be a good cook, and gained some colorful language while cooking, as it never turned out well unless there was cursing involved.  Over the years as my grandmother got older, I ended up being the person to take control over Thanksgiving and large dinners for cooking.  This usually meant there were lots of arguments, swearing, and lies.  The most famous was the fights over the squash, as my grandmother insisted there be a stick of butter to be used with the squash.  People really didn't want a stick of butter in there during the 90s when there was more healthy eating on the rise, so the arguments went something like this:

My Grandmother in the dining room:  Did you put a stick of butter in the squash?

Me in the kitchen:  I put two tablespoons in.  There's no way the squash needs a whole stick of butter.

My Grandmother in the dining room:  Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you better put a stick of butter in there, you god damn no good garage bastard!  

Me in the kitchen:  Fine, god damn it! Have it your way!  I'll put the damn stick of butter in the squash! (I then proceeded to get the stick of butter out of the fridge and pretend to put it on top of the squash, but never actually did).  

Hours later when eating Thanksgiving dinner and talking about the squash:

My Grandmother:  Hmm, that squash is delicious.  See, I told you it needed a stick of butter.

Me: Yeah, you were right.

There were many conversations like this,and I miss them a lot.  The Thanksgiving after my grandmother died, I cried hysterically because I had no one to fight with over how the food was going to be made.  And over 15 years later, I still don't for Thanksgiving.  She made me the creative cook that I am, and for that I am super thankful. 

Thanksgiving During the Peace Corps

In Bulgaria during the Peace Corps, it was hard to find a turkey in a small town in the Peace Corps, so you usually had to convince a local farmer to kill and dress one of their turkeys for you.  The first Thanksgiving in 2000 was probably the coolest one.  I cooked Thanksgiving dinner as a potluck for my colleagues in Balchik.  They somehow got a turkey, I made pies and stuffing, and had about 30 people at my school eating and drinking at a potluck Thanksgiving, Bulgarian style.  

Then, it got even more legendary that weekend in Dryanovo with Jimmy and Seth, when they invited all their colleagues, and then went drinking in the bar and playing internet war games at an internet cafe.  They invited all these people, and the local cooking staff asked me and Catie Banks what to do, because they were afraid there was going to be no food for about 50+ people.  Jimmy and Seth had no idea how to cook, and gave these poor ladies no directions on what to do.  

So instead of playing video games and hanging out at the kruchma, Catie and I just helped out, along with a few other PCV friends who had knowledge of cooking.    We told them about turkeys with stuffing, and a few turkeys had stuffing and a few got stuffed with saurerkraut. Dinner was served with the guests not really having a clue, and the four ladies got paid 10 leva each by Jimmy and Seth for cooking and working all day on Saturday.  At the end, I was so tired from cooking, I just slept on the kitchen floor of what I think was Jimmy's apartment in my sleeping bag, and then slept the four hours from Dryanovo to Varna on the train.  

Thanksgiving Now in Bulgaria:

Since arriving here in 2008, I have held some form of Thanksgiving dinner held every year.  Most years, there are a minimum of 15-20 people there.  Normally, I am a food snob, and refuse to have anyone bring anything, and do all the cooking myself.  This year, I decided to open up the cooking to sides and a turkey, but NO ONE was willing to cook a turkey.  There are too many horror stories and films where cooking the Thanksgiving turkey become a disaster, so my mom stepped up to the plate and made the second one.

2015's edition had about 25-30 people, and food was divided up into the following:

What I made:
Two pans of macaroni and cheese
Cheddar Cheese Biscuits
Three Pumpkin Pies
Two peanut butter pies
Cranberry Sauce
Gravy (which no one ate, lol)

What Other People Made:
Chicken (which no one ate, lol)
Turkey by my mom (which no one ate, lol)
Meaty and Cheesy Bites
Apple Pie
Mashed potatoes
Biscuit Cake
Fish dish
German salad
Lots of wine
A bottle of Jack Daniels (which I told someone not to bring, because we have 4-5 bottles of whisky at the apartment).
Plus, a few vegetarian sides I forgot because I was really sick and heavily medicated.  The best part was everyone cooked something, and NOTHING was bought pre-made at the store.  Bravo, peeps.  Bravo!!

The first pan of macaroni and cheese.  

The turkey which vegetarians avoid for some reason.  

The second pan of macaroni and cheese, as Owen tries to eat a pan just by himself.  I have no idea where he fits it all.  

Getting to see former students is cool, too!

Amelie being, well, Amelie.  I swear this cat is really a dog in disguise.

Amelie loves company, and is not afraid to say hello to people. 

Can You Find Everything You Need For Thanksgiving Dinner in Bulgaria?

Yes, if you pay attention and know where to find things.  You may think that you could not cook Thanksgiving dinner in Bulgaria properly, but actually this is completely false.  There are some things you will have to make homemade rather from a can, but these aren't that hard, and actually better for you.  

Some American Embassy staff will tell you will not be able to find anything in Bulgaria, which is completely and utterly false.  Some expats may tell you they cannot find chocolate chips or maple syrup, and my response is: Get outside your bubble.   Sorry people, but I laugh when people tell me they cannot find chocolate chips, peanut butter, cranberries, and such.  You can get everything you want to make a Thanksgiving dinner here, as long as you're willing to search for these items.

Here is what you can find and where to get it:

chocolate chips:  METRO.  Belgian chocolate in white, milk, and dark varieties.  I refuse to use American chocolate chips now and have become a snob.

maple syrup:  literally any DM, HIT, METRO, Picadilly, bio stores and some pharmacies and BILLAs

cheese for macaroni and cheese:  So many stores have cheddar, you would have to be a noodle head not to find it.  For the pepper jack cheese, a few stores have it, like HIT, Picadilly.

pumpkin:  widely available fresh, and you just bake it for an hour, then puree it when it cools.  100 times better than canned pumpkin.  My pumpkin pie is world famous now. I sometimes make the apple, but this year I gave in and let Sarah make the apple pie, which turned out to be fine.

Pumpkin and Apple Pie:  Hmm, hmm, good if made from fresh pumpkin and cream cheese.

cranberries:  Usually found at METRO or HIT sometime in December or January.  I then put them in the freezer and make fresh cranberry sauce, which is 100 times better than the canned stuff.
Real Cranberry Sauce that is super easy to make

turkey:  Usually frozen from Brazil of all places, they are widely available.  You can order a fresh turkey in Sofia, but it takes some connections.  With my crowd of vegetarians, I find it's all about the sides, and not the meat, so I can get away with one turkey now.

peanut butter for peanut butter pie:  widely available at the big grocery stores, bio stores, and BILLA has a decent version of non-bio peanut butter for baking.

Peanut Butter Pie:  A crowd favorite
Reese's:  can now be found at the Grand Foods Italian Shop (Paradise Mall and by the Sheraton Hotel), most Relay kiosks, and Muy Mucho home stores (Serdika Mall and Paradise Mall)

cheddar cheese biscuits:  Homemade, but the ingredients are widely available at any store.

Carrefour:  Sadly being run down by the Greeks who own the license, and you cannot find ANYTHING there.  It's become a communist store in Bulgaria in 2015.  You cannot even find candy or soda in there.

Now that I've given away all my secrets, you're now ready to make your own Thanksgiving dinner in Sofia.  Be ready, and enjoy.  Write if you have questions on recipes.  :)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

American Shopping and Coffee Ordering: George Style

Ordering Coffee and Shopping in America

For those wanting Tanzania photos, too bad!  I am writing a much overdue blog about George in America.  If shopping were an Olympic sport, George would easily medal with at least a silver.  As for coffee, it is more on the hysterical side, as there are really many coffee places, but very few who actually know how to make an espresso.  Americans living there, you may think you are drinking espresso in your fancy coffee shops, but you are so, so, so wrong it just hurts.

Enjoy this edition of the blog, and there will be at least one more on George in America.


"Why do they use Italian names for the sizes at Starbuck's when they don't have Italian coffee ☕?"

That's right Starbucks.  Why?  Why do you pretend to have Italian coffee when it is your own blend?  There are no Italians there, and they have no idea how to make an espresso at Starbucks.  For this 'Italian' coffee, Italians would throw into their garbage rather than use it as fertilizer for their gardens.  As for drinking it, forget about it.  George says it sucks, and does not understand the obsession Americans have with Starbucks (sorry Marsha and other Starbucks fanatics).  Even the allure of free wifii did not make George want to go there. As a non-coffee person, I think Starbucks are geniuses for making people pay outrageous amounts of money for a cup of coffee which they could make at home.  

"It's fucking cheap."   Niagara Outlet Mall

On a rainy day, Niagara Falls was nice, but the Outlet Mall there was even better.  Luckily, we drove separately from Anne and my aunt Camille, otherwise they might have never been allowed to leave the Outlet Mall.  George loved it, and together we had a great shopping day.  At the Body Shop, George purchased so much stuff he got a liter bottle of strawberry bottle wash, which we gave to my aunt because it was too big to fit in the luggage.  

For clothing, George hit the jackpot in Buffalo because he's an extra-small or small for a shirt size, and those sizes are always left on the racks for clearance.  At the Outlet Mall, George became a trained assassin buyer, saving hundreds of dollars.  He got a shirt at Calvin Klein for $15 USD, and a shirt at Tommy Hilfiger for $12.  His motivation for coming back to Buffalo is to shop at the Outlet Mall for 2-3 days.  Heather and others who like shopping, I can do a day, but you'll need to be his shopping assistants.  
With the deals we got, this stuff was really cheap from the Body Shop, and Bath and Body Works.  Next year, I might need a third suitcase to get George his stuff.  

At Sak's Off 5th Avenue, George and I saved 75% off four shirts.  We paid an average of $25-30 dollars on shirts that cost $100-125 USD.

"I can deal with and shop at Walmart."

Walmart sort of disappointed for the people of Walmart.  In Lockport, there were 1-2 crazy gay diva employees, but none of the fun people you see on the Internet sites.  The Clarence, NY Walmart is the classy Walmart, and truly disappointed with its classiness.  Contrary to popular opinion, I will shop at Walmart, as they have a few things you cannot find anywhere else, such as large bags of bacon bits.  For the bacon bits, these are 100% healthy and from farm raised, non hormonal pigs (or whatever people want to hear when eating food in the U.S. to make themselves feel better).
This incredible fashion ensemble was seen outside Wright's Corners, NY on a warm, humid day.  While not at Walmart, it counts once I explain the situation.  This outfit was made to be riding on the back of a motorcycle on a Sunday drive with her man.  For those wondering, there is underwear involved on the bottom, but I believe the 'girls' are loose and free on the top.  The best part is this woman needed water to cool herself down, but she fanned her shirt to give her breasts some air after being in close quarters on the motorcycle ride.  Luckily for her, she was wearing a helmet, and the cowboy boots definitely highlight the rest of the outfit.

"Finally, an Italian lady who wasn't surprised by me ordering an espresso." - at cafe Paradisio in the North End of Boston

Boston was a great city to visit people, but George's opinion of Boston went down considerably after visiting.  He actually preferred Buffalo over Boston, except for getting espresso at Cafe Paradisio.  At the cafe, there was an elderly Italian lady who scoffed at the other ladies in line for not know what espresso was.  And for the first and probably only time in America, George got proper espresso from maybe the woman who was the matriarch who runs the place, or the mom of the matriarch who runs the place.  So unline Safwan and Petia's adventure of not getting espresso anywhere last year, George was successful at least once in Boston.

"That idiot snob with the man bun had to use a scale to measure coffee for the espresso." - at an 'unnamed snooty upscale coffee shop in Arlington, MA

In Boston, Todd was being a great host and took George to this great place which had special coffees and could give him a proper espresso coffee.  George was game to try it, after having success with the Italian ladies in Boston.  Todd and I stayed in the car with Joyce, while George went in to grab the elusive espresso that eluded him everywhere except at Cafe Paradisio in Boston.  The look on his face as he entered the car said it all, as his scowl explained the entire situation.  First, the guy in the store acted as if he knew what an espresso was, and did it all the time.  However, the snooty manbun hipster used a scale to measure the amount of coffee used for an espresso that tasted like sewage.  Good try Todd, but at least you had success with Cafe Paradisio. 

What the hell is neckware??

Yes, neckware is an awesome term for ties, and George wondered why stores just use the word ties instead of neckware.  Neckware departments were seen quite a few times, and quite a popular word to use.  

"How can I help you?"

 "Leave me the fuck alone."  - To me 20 seconds later at an undisclosed Macy's in Buffalo. 

While George loved shopping at Macy's, especially when we bought the two suitcases, he did not like all the people asking him if he wanted help.  When checking out, the woman asked us whether we wanted to open a Macy's account to save an extra 15%.  When we told her we were just visiting family, she assumed we lived in Canada, and we had to tell her the suitcases were meant to complete out empire of traveling options between Bulgaria and the U.S.(and other places).  It threw her for a loop, but she let us get an extra 20% on the suitcases using the Macy coupons.  

Macy's also has free wifii, which is good to know for someone who loves his internet.  

Ordering coffee at Tim Horton's takes George saying espresso cappuccino 3-4 times to actually get what he wants.

This was an truly entertaining thing, which had me in hysterics every time we went to Tim Horton's, the only acceptable place besides Spot to grab an espresso.  Tim Horton's is a Canadian and Buffalo place to be for coffee and donuts, and the timbits are like crack.  They should go back to making more donuts though, instead of the croissants and other stuff they try to have in the bakery.  As for the espresso ordering, it was always entertaining event to see George order an espresso for which all they had to do was press the button on the machine.  In one instance, George came out flustered with an iced cappuccino, which had me laughing so hard I almost peed my pants.  In other instances, I would watch quietly smirking, while the poor Tim Horton's employee asked George 3-4 times to clarify his order.  After finally realizing George wanted a single shot espresso, the poor flustered employee would press the button giving George something that would pass as acceptable coffee.  In the one Tim Horton's closest to the farm, I think George broke the espresso machine, as we went in there one day and they had to tell him there was no espresso because the machine was broken.  

"Your people dressed weird even back then."   At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

We went into the colonial era of America, and George couldn't help but say how horribly we dressed 150-200 years ago as a country.  In our defense, there were no malls in the 1800s, and wearing Italian fashion wasn't practical in pioneer environments.  So there George.  So to make up for a lack of a picture of poor American colonial fashion (because we cruised through this section in about two minutes), here is a picture of Chinese couture at the Met instead.  

God bless Donald Trump and all his hair and crazy fashion choices.  His hair qualifies for bad fashion of Americans.  Hoping for a Trump vs. Sanders presidential vote in 2016. 

Spill coffee on your t-shirt on the way to visiting Linda in Rochester?  Never fear, as Kohl's is a great option to get a cheap, fashionable t-shirt.     

See this t-shirt George is wearing in Times Square?  It only costs $4.81 at Kohl's in Batavia, NY.  It was an unplanned purchase, as George spilled his Tim Horton's espresso all over himself in Akron on Clarence Center Road.  So rather than go back to the farm, I knew Kohl's would be the best place to get a replacement t-shirt.  And sure enough, Kohl's delivered with this t-shirt George actually wanted to buy, and it cost less than $5.  George was really happy.

"We got four suitcases for free and 200 lbs (about 92 kilos) of luggage for free"  


All right, this is me speaking at the end, but you must admit it is quite the feat to get four suitcases to Bulgaria for free.  At the Buffalo International Airport (which really doesn't have an international destination, but lots of Canadians and Asian tourist), the Delta gay diva working there first said that we were not on the flight.  We both emphatically told him we were definitely on the flight with the 40 Chinese tourists going home.  And sure enough, we were.  And then something crazy happened, in that I got all four suitcases on the plane for FREE to Bulgaria.  I used my credit card which allowed me two bags, but I thought for sure I would be paying for one of George's bags, which was really my suitcase full of books and stuff.  For once, Delta actually did something right, instead of making my flights hellish.   

Monday, September 21, 2015

Food in America: George style

Hey everyone,

It's been a busy summer, full of fun, slothfulness, and visiting lots of people.  For those wondering, George and I had a great time visiting the United States.  In addition to seeing family and friends, I got to introduce George to America, the home of the brave and free.

For those who know George, he is just a 'little bit' judgmental.  Alright, he is so judgmental that two people who know him spit out food laughing hysterically when George mentioned he isn't that judgmental.  Pretty much, George is the Donald Trump of the liberals for Bulgaria, except he had a hard time voting for a lesbian organic mussel farmer near Pleven a few years back.  He wanted to vote for her, but knew she had absolutely no chance of winning.

For the 'George in America' blogs, I have decided to try and organize these into a few issues, because there is a lot of material.  This one is the food and restaurant guide.  This is a first, but I maintained weight in the U.S. and didn't become more fat and fabulous this summer, thanks to George giving glaring stares at anything that didn't look like real food.

This are actually quotes from George, with commentary from me to try to explain the situation.  There are hits and misses, so enjoy what George had to say about American food.  Yes, he loved America, and what until you find out what he had to say about Buffalo.

"They try to be all fancy with salad forks and give us water in a plastic cup. "- at The Cheesecake Factory

George's fish tacos with his vegetables were not a big hit.  The fact there was a waiting list, suburban women trying to act fancy wearing 'clothes found out of a dumpster', and the fact there were plastic cups and knives didn't make the Cheesecake factory a favorite.  

To be honest, my chicken salad sandwich wasn't that great either.  They buttered the bread too much, so I just ate the chicken salad with a fork.  Adding insult to injury, the Cheesecake Factory's cheesecake wasn't good, and they're adding something to the cheesecake which distorts the true taste of cheesecake (from a cheesecake baking expert).  There is too much sugar, or even possibly corn syrup added to it, which takes away from a true cheesecake taste. 

"You know what would be funny? Me being a restaurant critic and giving the fancy restaurants one star" - at the Cheesecake Factory 

That would be really funny, and brutal as well.  George as an American restaurant critic would be an internet sensation.  At the Cheesecake factory, the one star rating wasn't helped by the fact we had a disinterested waitress who was training a new gay guy, who was about 30, was nervous, terrible at the remembering things, and had a total crush on George.  Adding insult to injury, it didn't help that the training waiter forgot George's cheesecake for home.  After this experience and eating the food, I must admit I will probably never set foot in a Cheesecake Factory ever again.  

"Are we going to get industrial sized milk?" - on the way to the grocery store for my aunt

The sizes of the milk is indeed pretty overwhelming for Europeans, whose largest container of milk is a liter, and doesn't get used much.  

"Wegman's is awesome!" - to anyone he can talk to, including Richard and Ivo.

"A Wegman's needs to come to Sofia." - me

Yes, Wegman's, a grocery store founded in Rochester, NY, was a gigantic hit, which I knew it would be.  When I showed him Alec's Baldwin talking about how his mother didn't want to leave Wegman's and move to LA in the spring, George thought I was crazy, but he got converted.  

Why?  There is no other supermarket like Wegman's anywhere in the U.S. or the world for that matter.  There is a reason why people in NYC were ecstatic when Wegman's decided to build in Brooklyn and open in 2017.  Wegman's is a unique grocery store, with a large prepared food section best seen in the video below.  They have a produce section the size of a regular grocery store, and a turnover of 2-3 days.  Not only that, but they usually are the cheapest prices for regular groceries and pay their staff a decent wage, which makes the staff actually want to work there.  In Virginia, they have a huge wine shop with aisles of wine from all over the world. 

For those in the U.S. who don't know about Wegman's, here is why you should go there sometime.  It's totally worth it, and makes any other grocery store seem lame by comparison.  We ate a few times from the prepared food section, and George wasn't disappointed once.  George appreciated real food, and any artificial food was pounced upon with an

"I don't get the free refills thing but I find it fascinating."- at Anchor Bar

Anchor Bar was a big hit, and George loved the chicken wings, and he just LOVED me taking photos of him and the food.  For those people not from Buffalo, I would get disowned from the city if I dared called them Buffalo wings, as no person from the area would dare call them that.  We got two types, and it also helped we had a great server in Carm, who made sure we got lots of free refills.  

"How is everything?" - Hipster waiter in Boston ( or any server who asked us this countless times)

George - Silent (but his eyes say "Leave me the fuck alone")

Me - "Good, thanks" (but not daring to tell the waiter that George hates the super thick French toast that he thinks is bad because the syrup will not go through the bread) - at some fancy breakfast place in Boston

My good friend Todd recommended this place in Cambridge, and it was one of his few misses in food.  The servers are overly friendly in the U.S, and sometimes we'd rather be left alone, as this is what we're used to all throughout Europe.  While the decor was good of this diner rated at the fourth best breakfast in the United States, the food pretty much sucked.  I have to admit I tried a piece of the french toast, and it felt like eating a rubber tire.  My omelet wasn't much better, as it had too much stuff, especially pecans), and no egg.  Luckily, Todd's other food choice recommendations were great, including a Brazilian diner.
The Thai restaurant was indeed a great choice in Boston.  Thanks Todd!

"How in hell is this a panini?"   - at Panera Bread 

While it didn't quite match the definition of a panini, this became our 'safe' place to go to when traveling on the road.  First, the food was acceptable, although these were more like sandwiches and not panini.  More importantly, it was one of the few places we knew for sure had free wifii when traveling to update maps when meeting people.  

Pizza was not a big hit for George, who prefers the Italian style pizza better.  We went to Mazia's in Clarence, which used to be the best place in Buffalo to get pizza and wings.  I took Rossi a few years back and had some great stuff.  This time was a disaster, and I should have known we were in trouble when they said the olives on the Around the World Pizza came from Ireland.  Yes, Ireland, a great climate to grow olives.  Well, maybe it was the Irish olives, but the two specialty pizzas were pretty just overdone with too much toppings, and created a pretty bad pizza.  Luckily, the kids ate the supreme pizza, but the white pizza was pretty hard to give away.

Orazio's in Clarence is the 'fancy restaurant', an is a nice place for Italian.  It was also a safety place, since no one eats Thai or Mexican food.  We must say the food was great, but the portion sizes were of gargantuan proportions.  Jimmy's mozzarella sticks were like they used half a kilo of cheese to make them, while our garlic bread with cheese was an entire loaf of bread.  

Below, George's Chicken Parmesan had me burst out laughing, and I had to take this picture as proof.  The chicken is at least two chicken's worth of breast meat, and came with a side of pasta.  The look on his face is priceless, as he's trying to figure out how 1.5 kilos worth of food is a portion side for one person.  While the chicken parm and lasagna were fantastic, we obviously took these portions home to be for future meals.  

"Everything was good and fresh except for the cheese.  I liked it."  - at Five Guys

Five Guys was a huge hit, which was nice because Mighty Taco's food tasted like plastic to him.  George loved everything about his burger, except for the American cheese.  American cheese was not a favorite for George, who pretty much said this type of cheese sucks.  To be honest, I only like it on a burger, and even prefer Swiss or cheddar in my grilled cheese.  With the leftover french fries, we gave them to the chickens at the farm, who devoured them.  
George's dinner of loaded fries with pulled pork and barbeque sauce in Corfu, NY.  This was dinner at 5pm, which is cray cray to do in Bulgaria.  As a result, he later got hungry at 10pm.  

George did not quite get the fascination Americans have with bacon, but he participated and enjoyed taste testing bacon chocolate.  

"This is actually a pretty good breakfast." - at Silver Diner in Arlington, VA

It was an awesome breakfast to be honest.  Breakfast is a type of food Americans do well, but also explains while most of us are a little 'husky'.  Richard took us here for breakfast, and it delivered like Domino's.  It has lots of free range, organic, you insert whatever the buzz word is for food right now in America.  Great food all around, as George has caramel french toast which was fantastic, while I had a simple bacon and cheddar omelet which was perfectly made.  Hmm, hmm, good.  

Our last night at Denny's traveling back to Buffalo

The crazy part of our trip, where we drove 7.5 hours from D.C. to Buffalo to save $600 USD in car rental, plus somehow have flying from Buffalo to Sofia be cheaper than D.C. to Sofia.  This Denny's in Horseheads, NY was pretty tame, and had a few divas serving us who were kind, but nothing that was too 'over the top' like you could find at Denny's.  George had a Grand Slam breakfast for dinner, and he found the food acceptable.  Plus, it helped there was free wifii there.  Denny's rating could also be helped by the fact we were both exhausted from traveling around the U.S. for a month, and we were totally ready to come home to our own place.  Applebee's also got a free pass, which was meant George had acclimated to what American food was like.  Bravo America!  You converted George into liking some of your restaurants!