Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lost and Found

I am thrilled everyone liked the first issue and thank you for all the comments and praise. To answer a few questions, I am now up to 11 leva in the peanut butter addiction collection. Sirene is a bulgarian white cheese similar to feta, but a little saltier and tastier. There is a Turkish store on Columbia Pike near Walter Reed where you can get the real Bulgarian sirene. Whole Foods has it as well, but it is not as good as the stuff at the Turkish store.

This edition has a lost and found theme, and banana pancakes. Enjoy!

What has teaching 15 first grade boys done to me?
Any given school day, you will hear me inevitably saying to one of my 15 first grade boys (out of 20) to find something he has lost or forgotten. These items include socks, gloves, shoes, bags, books, shirts, sweaters, pants, toys, brains, water bottle, homework, library books, and/or all of the above. They never lose lunch though, which doesn't surprise me because never go between a boy and his stomach, EVER.

Rather than fixing their forgetful behavior this school year, they have rubbed off on me and I have become like them. Since Christmas, I have lost many things, and I and give you the status of them:

  1. Sunglasses: Left them in the Arena Mladost movie theater after watching Narnia. I blame the 3D glasses that WERE NEVER needed for this film, and it was a total ploy by Hollywood to make more money and lose my sunglasses! Well, it did take me two days to figure out where I last had my sunglasses, because one simlpy doesn't wear sunglasses all the time in December in Sofia. Did I find them? No Way!!!! The Arena Mladost ticket seller acted as if I were rabid raccoon when I asked about my sunglasses two days later. After a month, I bought a pair half price at The Mall for $39 Euro/78 Bulgarian leva.

  2. Two winter hats: I left both hats in my classroom in December. One would think my classroom would be a safe haven for my hats, but I have learned that I can leave $1,500 Euro/$3,000 leva in my classroom for four days and no one touches anything, but winter hats disappear immediately. Did I find them? NOPE! For this one, I am convinced one of the first grade boys have done something with my winter hats. Either they thought the hat was theirs and wore it home to a bewildered mom(70% chance), or they took them on purpose and hid the hats on me because I tell them every day to take care of their things(30% chance). After a few days, it was cold and I had to buy another hat to keep my head warm this winter. Naturally, I keep this hat far away from the first grade boys. They laughed when they saw my new winter hat.
  3. Snowpants: When school started again in January, I had recess duty and was ready to put on my snowpants, when I discovered I had lost them. I was butt ass cold all morning, and it made me go on a frenzied search to find them, mostly because snowpants cost almost nothing in the states, but are super expensive in Bulgaria. Did I find them? YES!! I cannot blame the first grade boys for this one. They were in a large IKEA bag I took home all my Christmas loot in, and I forgot they were in there until I took out the last of the loot about two weeks ago.
  4. Shirt: I lost/left the shirt I was wearing after going to ID one Saturday night. This was the only thing I lost while I was 'happy' and can be blamed by alcohol. It took me until Monday afternoon to realize I lost it and I had an "Oh Yahhh" moment. What is an "Oh Yahh" moment????? It is what my brother and I exclaimed sarcasticly after either of us or someone else did a completely ridiculous and/or stupid thing and this person finally realized this. Sidenote: When I taught fourth grade in Arlington, I used the "Oh yahhhh" moments often with my fourth graders, who did not fully understand the consequences of this when saying "Oh Yahh" to their parents. Two students got grounded for a week for calling out their parents on something and using the "Oh Yahhh". After these groundings and complaining to me, they had another "Oh Yahh" moment as I explained to them that they are 10 and can't use the "Oh Yahhh" on parents until they're in college, or possibly until after they graduate college if mom and dad are paying the tuition. Did I find it? Oh Yahh, but only because my friend Rado found the shirt at the table and took it home for me.

One can only wonder what I will lose after posting this, and what other effects the 15 first grade boys will have on me. I will keep you updated.

How did I use so much heat/hot water?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Two weeks ago, the nice admin lady who deals with our paychecks informed me that my heating/hot water bill was quite high and was $300 Euro. Since I pay half, this meant the real cost of the bill was $600 Euro/$780 USD/ $1,200 leva. After an initial moment of panic, I relaxed, and then freaked out completely thinking WTF?!?!?!?!?!?!?!? about 100 times and wondering what exactly I did to have such a high heating bills from May until October. How could my bill be so high when I was gone pretty much two months this summer, and I don't use heat in the summer, except in October when the heat was turned back on. How could I use so much heat? I called Nadia, my super landlady, to find out the answer. She is amazing because she only has one apartment, actually cares to take care of things, wants the best quality when she buys things, and completely told off my upstairs neighbors last year who were doing illegal construction last year.

Your choices on why Nadia said my heating/hot water bill was so expensive are:

A. I am heating three apartments, not just my own.

B. The Sofia hot water/heating company has no f@$%ing clue how to deal with their bills, and just charge people whatever they feel like.

C. Owen and Alex turned on the hot water while watering plants this summer, having a 24/7 wasteful energy extravaganza.

D. Teresa's shower usage was responsible for 1/3 of the bill for the few days she stayed in the apartment this summer.

E. Prices for heat and hot water prices have gone up.

E or A could have been correct, while C and D are just too obvious. But if you know anything about Bulgaria, the correct answer is B because this is a former Bulgarian state run company. What were you thinking if you didn't choose B??? These companies don't have to explain to anyone. They told my landlady this was just how it was going to be, and told thousands of other people the same thing. I recently asked my cell phone provider why I had not received a paper bill in over two months, and the woman acted as if I was asking for an informercial religious miracle for the cell phone company to do its actual job and be responsible. Why would the heating/hot water company be any different???

Nadia is a saint, and explained to me while my heating bills were for six months, the Sofia hot water/heating company are run by complete idiots who don't know their heads from their asses. They charged me over 300 leva to fix the crappy radiators I have in my apartment that runs their heat. Since Sofia heating actually own the radiators, and not my landlady as you may think. How does the utility own my radiators? Because this is Bulgaria, and I must pay for the repairs because why should they be bothered with covering the cost of upkeep of their radiators that haven't been replaced since 1960. That is my expense for the gift using their heat, except when the Russians are pissed at the Ukranians and turn off the heat to Buglaria, like they did in 2009.

To add insult to injury, they charged me about another 300 leva for what they thought I would use for the November and December heating in what they called auto-correcting, and charging me for the heat they think I'm going to use based on my bills from the previous two years, so my bill might be smaller. But, Nadia told me my December bill was only 204 leva, and was less than last year because December was warm this year. Alas, auto-correcting for future bills totally failed.

So, HALF of my 1,200 bill is for fixing their radiators, and for heat I didn't use. Nadia filed a complaint, or MOLBA, to the company for her bill and my bill, pretty much telling them how ridiculous and stupid they are for billing this way. One might think the Sofia heat/hot water snap out of their idiocracy and actually bill correctly, but they charged Nadia 1,300 leva and she has a smaller apartment than I do!!!!!!!!

Needless to say, I think Nadia is going to be harassing them for a long time, which is their mistake. This is the same woman who got the cable, phone, and internet companies to come to my apartment within an hour when I first arrived here in August 2008, and I don't know of anyone who has gotten this to happen, not even the mafia guys. I have faith Nadia will somehow get money back from her MOLBA complaint, mostly because Sofia Hot Water/Heating will get exhausted dealing with her because she is persistent, knows her facts, and attacks like a bulldog when someone wrongs her.

Banana Pancakes(optional with chocolate chips)

Whenever I'm feeling blue, nothing cheers me up better than banana pancakes, or banana chocolate chip pancakes. Friends have been very pleased with this creation, and people who say the smell from making them permeates my kitchen with a delectable goodness every time I make them. The key to this recipe is adding the banana first to the batter, mixing it, and then adding enough milk to turn the batter into proper American pancake batter. If you want a tastier version or this, add chocolate chips and treat yourself to complete bliss.

The first time I tried this recipe was at a brunch at my apartment in September 2009 and was a huge favorite devoured by many people. There was only one person ever unhappy with this recipe, and that's because she assumed I was making crepes when I said I was making pancakes. Note to everyone: When an American says he/she is making pancakes, they will NEVER make crepes. Don't even dare to think this will ever happen and get your hopes up.

If you try this at home, a lot of my recipes are variations of a recipe, where some of the measurements are exact, and some are estimates based on sight. This one is easier than some, but my goal is to start writing these recipes down again. Good luck trying this one at home, and enjoy a bit of bliss.

Banana Pancakes

2 cups flour

1 1/2 - 2 bananas, pureed(depends on how much banana flavor you want)

1 1/4 cups milk

4 teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon cinammon, nutmeg, and salt

1 egg

Optional: 1/2 cup chocolate chips

Directions: Mix flour, sugar, cinammon, nutmget, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl. Add banana and vanilla, and mix into batter. Add half the milk, stir, and add rest of milk as needed to desire to create best pancake batter. If you are using chocolate chips, add them at the end.

Heat over lightly greased frying pan or griddle at medium/medium high heat, depending on how your stovetop cooks. Pour into large spoonfuls into pan, and make sure you brown on both sides. Take out of pan, eat, and enjoy. Goes well with maple syrup, honey, or peanut butter. Or, a combination of those.

Serve hot and enjoy!

Winter Blues

Hello everyone! Sorry for the delay in the blog, but I had a slight concussion last week, and it made writing and editing difficult. Of course, I could say I'm suffering from a mild concussion everytime I write this, so as to have an excellent excuse for my editing mistakes. It also gives me a perfect excuse for losing and forgetting things.

The peanut butter penalty jar stands at 16 leva, 8 Euro, or about 12 USD. It is slowly building up. This installment has a variety of topics, so enjoy.

Who gives the best fashion advice?
Some may say women, some may say gay men, but I say first grade boys are even better. I honestly test out shirts with them to see what they will say. Why? They are brutally honest because they don't know it's impolite to say something mean about whatever someone is wearing. One prime example is when I bought this great grey shirt that I thought looked fabulous. My first day wearing this shirt to school, many people complimented me, and even my director commented on how great I looked in it with all the weight loss. Well, it didn't take long to hear the official reaction from the boys. Here was their reaction the end of one school day:
Boy 1: You have a big belly with that shirt!
Boy 2: Yeah, look at his belly!
Boys 3-15 in not so much unison, but almost in unison as first graders can do to show excitement: Wow, you DO have a belly with that shirt.

Needless to say, I have not worn that shirt to school since this fateful day a few months ago, but I plan to wear it again next month to see if their opinions have changed.

How to survive driving in Sofia lessons 1 and 2:
In Sofia, I drive more like a Bulgarian, with American sensibility added into my driving skills. In Buffalo, I terrified my family sometimes, until they came to DC and called me an excellent driver and fully understood my driving skills. Sofia is pretty similar to driving in DC or New York, except there is a 25% increase in stupidity and unpredictable behavior. The key to survival is to be prepared for anything to happen, go with the flow, avoid potholes, and have a little bit of lady luck on your side.

To help you get an idea on what driving is like in Sofia, I have decided to give you some helpful hints on how to survive driving in a big city, but spread out over a few issues, so as to slowly understand.

Lesson 1: Be prepared for the noveau rich and Mafia to do anything. Why? Because they believe driving rules don't apply to them, because they feel they are entitled to do these things because they have money, and you do not. On any given day, these people will do amazingly idiotic things just to get a few cars ahead of everyone else. One day this past June, there were 26 major accidents in Sofia, and over 75% of them were caused by people driving expensive Audis, Mercedes, or Porshe SUVs.

In the past year, I have had five instances where one of these idiots almost caused an accident in front of me. It is by pure reflexive skill that I did not run into them. Afterwards, I honk like crazy after them, so they understand what they did almost caused a serious accident. Yet, you know none of them actually care, because I should have anticipated one of them driving down the road recklessly attempting to cause harm to others so they can get to their dinner date faster.

The picture above shows what happened in my hood by one of these drivers next to the Azerbajani embassy one sunny afternoon in September 2009 (I live next to the embassy). In order to do this, the mafia guy had to be traveling at least 80-90 kmph( about 45-50 mph) on a small street and did this in less than 100 meters. On this street, I have never gone over 40kmph(25mph) because it is a small, narrow side street full of lots of people walking. The mutri guy flipped the car into the entrance of the embassy, which obviously really pissed off the Azerbajanis. Usually, these mutri guys will pay off people with money, as they did with Sarah and Owen after a noveau rich driver ran into them. But this time, throwing 300-500 leva at the Azerbaijani embassy wasn't going to work, especially when you flipped a car that blocked their entrance.

Lesson 2: Side streets in my neighborhood heading slightly downhill turn into an icy bobsled course: Driving home from my English lesson last year, I was almost home and as I made the right turn by the Russian Embassy, I knew I had to be careful because the side streets are never plowed, and there would be some ice on the road. So, I was only driving 25 kmph(15mph) in anticipation of having to slow down. Little did I know I was in my own episode of Ice Road Truckers. The entire street had turned into a sheet of ice, the street headed downhill slightly, making it impossible for me to stop on the street.

Luckily, there were no other cars on the street, or I would have been in serious trouble. In a state of total panic, I slid past my street and my anti-lock brakes simply were not working on the sheet of ice and were not getting any traction. As I slid past my street, I was hopeful to slow down enough to make the 90 degree right turn that was two blocks away. After passing the Sushi restaurant, I saw a very old man walking in the middle of the street, and he was expecting me to stop for him because he was walking on an icy street. I had to honked excessively to let this old man know I wasn't going to be able to stop, and this guy was not moving. If I hit the guy, I knew I was going to jail and I envisioned the Bulgarian news headline as "Reckless American ruthlessly slaughters defenseless Diado(Grandpa) with his car". The thoughts flashed through my head of being in jail for a long time, and becoming girlfriend to a toothless, tattooed prisoner in a Bulgarian prison outside Pazardjik for 10-20 years.

While I never would have intended to hit the man, the Bulgarian press would have had a field day with me, because they're bitter the US will not give them travel visas like the other EU members.

Fortunately, the old man got out of the way just in time, and I managed to slide into the turn going 10 miles an hour and come to a stop on the flat cross-street. Somehow, I avoided prison, infamy, and becoming a girlfriend to a toothless, tatooed prisoner. My fate is to continue to live here and now write this blog. This night taught me two important lessons:

1. Never go down these side streets when they turn into a sheet of ice, and take an alternate route home.

2. Honking excessively at old people does no good, because they're just too old to care.

You might be a Mutri if (Mafia guy or Mafia Wife):

If you wear or own anything with a leopard print, you just might be Mutri.

If your wife is 20, you are 50, and you bought breast implants for her, you just might be Mutri.

If your nine year old child has a birthday party that cost the equivalent of the Lesotho yearly budget, you might be Mutri.

If you are a 20 year old woman driving a Porshe, you just might be a Mutri wife. Or Matt Ziems is right: There are A LOT of 20-25 year old young successful businesswomen driving around Lozentz in Porshes, Audis, and Mercedes. American women need to get their act together to compete with these entreprenurial geniuses.

If you like this clip, you might be Mutri, gay, a villager, or all of the above.

I wonder what Lady Gaga would do if she knew this clip existed........

Explaining the above clips:

Kamelia's Orgasm: I think Kamelia is using the Bible to hope to have her love come and be with her and have orgasms for the end of eternity. It also has an interesting interpretation of the leopard print outfit, for which she is thanking Baby Jesus for by holding the bible. In addition, she is thanking god for giving her the breast implants. Anyone else have an idea why the bible is in this song?

Sashka Vaseva's Lady Gaga Song: Yes, that is indeed the title. I think this clip represents Bulgaria well because it shows the entire of a Mutri home, the gays who love chalga singers, and the fashion you must wear to catch a mutri guy, or one of their sons.

That's all for now. In the next issue, I will give you the full details of teaching Bulgarian to Bulgarians. And, it will be out by the end of the February.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A new start

The Beginning of a New Era
After a ten year break, I have decided to renew my efforts to write a weekly column. Probably biweekly. You should be proud of me. I am finally ending the slothfulness at home, have become motivated, and will really commit to this project. My inspiration this time comes from two sources: my friend Owen and the movie Julie and Julia. If they can do it, so can I. The topics here will include:

1. Joe's dating life, or lack of dating life? You decide, just be fair and balanced about it.
2. Cooking and recipes
3. Life in Sofia
4. Audi and Mercedes mafia drivers with big necks. Oops, I mean the 'legitimate businessmen' who believe the law is above them and drive like idiots and cause 90% of the accidents in Sofia.
5. Anything that pops into my mind at the time.
6. I will have at least one glaring error somewhere in this, because I am my own worst editor.

I hope to fare better than the current state of Bulgarian football, or soccer for the Americans. Enjoy the first post, leave comments, and I hope you enjoy.

New Zara Jacket and my secret to getting back to Oprah thin:
Yes, I know this jacket looks fabulous on me. Last month, I decided to check out the sales in The Mall. Doesn't the mall have a name? Yes, it's called The Mall.

Before the Mall, there was no such thing as a real sale in Sofia. Sure, the high end stores would have sales, but then they would raise their prices, and you could never really know if it was a real sale or not. NOT ANYMORE!!! 2010 brought the opening of real malls with more store chains, and finally a real sale on clothes.

In 2009, I would have never fit my fat butt into this jacket, as I was pretty husky in my Oprah fat phase. Plus, there were no real sales. 2010 made me lose about 14 kilos, two new malls opened, Zara is now here in Sofia, and it is a different story. Last month after Christmas, I walked into Zara not looking for a jacket, but the jacket found me, I tried it on, and I had to have it. It was my reward for working hard and losing 14 kilos.

How great do I look in it? Even my boss said I looked great in the jacket this morning.

When I bought the jacket, I also made a commitment not to gain weight, because the jacket is fitted and it will not fit if I gain any weight back. Zara here makes their clothes form fitting, and the sizes are more Italian than American. Large is the US medium, and medium is the US small. Small is the way too small in the US. I fit into the medium jacket, but it would have been tight driving, so I bought the large. I was impressed I actually fit into the medium in Zara, which I couldn't do until last month. This means I can fit into small sizes. Woo hoo!

In the months ahead, it would probably be helpful to lose the last 4-5 kilos hanging around the stomach, so that I can achieve Oprah thin status, look great in small sizes, and get great deals at the stores in Buffalo this summer. Small is always available on the sales racks along with XXXL in Buffalo, and I plan to take full advantage of this. But unlike Oprah, I am actually eating. Today, I ate my homemade macaroni and cheese, which is full of carbs and cheese. But, I ate a lot of vegetables and fruits and didn't just gorge on macaroni and cheese, which I would have done previously.

In 2010-2011, I work out a lot again now, just as much as the swimming days in DC. It helps to have a decent gym at school, and an Itouch. I have a goal to work out 211 times this year, and I am at a 70% workout rate for 2011. Every workout this school year, I make sure I do at least 500 various stomach exercises of some sort, and/or get my ass kicked by pilates by the amazing Bulgarian woman who takes pilates to the extreme. I love Pilates and my abs scream in pain afterwards, but I am starting to see some resemblance of what you would need to have a firm stomach. So, onward pilates, and more rowing machine, cardio, and weights. Now, I just need to find a decent pool that isn't freezing, and/or doesn't cost 17-20 leva per use (about 12-13 USD). The gym at school is much cheaper(free), has great stuff, and I am the only person who actually uses the rowing machine.

My peanut butter addiction:

I am a peanut butter addict. It is a food I have eaten since I was two, and I just love eating mass quantities of peanut butter. The end of 2010 has made me realize peanut butter is something my stomach really cannot handle anymore. Being a peanut butter addict, this is has taken me about a year to admit, and sometimes I still eat it, despite knowing there's a 70% chance that I will become sick.

Why would someone eat a food that makes you sick 70% of the time? Umm, it's called addiction. My family has a reputation for having some great addictions, but not much will power in dealing with them. Hopefully, I will have better success quitting my addiction compared to them.

Since there is no Peanut Butter Anonymous in Sofia, here is my own step plan to quit peanut butter:
  1. Admit that I have a problem. Check(Woo hoo, did it!, that was easy)

  2. Talk to people about my addiction. Check. Colleauges and this blog counts.

  3. Find a medicine that will allow me to eat peanut butter.

  4. Cooking with peanut butter for others: Peanut butter pie, peanut butter brownies, peanut butter cookies, and more.

  5. Put in 1 BGN leva penalty (about 75 cents) for each time I eat peanut butter for 2011. I'm up to four leva as of January 10. Hey, I told you my family was terrible at dealing with addictions!

I have decided to use the penalty money to buy presents for family and friends at home, or to buy myself something nice. Yup, I know this may encourage me to eat more peanut butter, or have you encourage me to eat more peanut butter. But I'm an addict, and I am in the middle of quitting. I think I deserve some leeway after having a hard day at work sometimes.

Seeing the Nutcracker in Sofia:

This holiday season, one highlight was going to the Nutcracker at the Sofia Opera House with a few friends, Nevena, Owen, Sarah, Andrew, and Hrissi. The opera house is easily one of my favorite buildings, and looks nothing like the rest of Sofia. Here were the highlights of the ballet:

1. Owen thinking there was some crazy guy waving his hands around in front of the stage during the entire performance. Yes, this was the conductor.

2. One guy who was obviously checking me out that three of my friends saw him checking me out before I saw it. This guy had a rather large man purse, so he's out.

3. Seeing about 5-6 women playing the roles of men. It must be because must men are too busy chain smoking to handle ballet dancing.

4. 40 BGN, or about $27 USD, for the best seats. In DC, I would have been lucky to sit in the cheap seats for this price.

Cooking at my host mom's in Balchik this year:

A miracle happened this year. I was allowed to cook and bring things to Christmas dinner in Balchik. It has only taken three years, but I was allowed to bring homemade cranberry sauce, my fabulous pumpkin pie, and was shocked when my host mom actually asked me to cook the turkey. In all the time I have known them, I have NEVER, EVER been allowed to cook for her except for my birthdays in Balchik back in the good old Peace Corps days. Even then, she took control of a lot of it and did a lot of the cooking.

What changed? Mimi, my Bulgarian host sister, and her son, Christian came to Thanksgiving this year. After eating all the food I made them and the leftovers for three days, I guess they decided I needed to add to the table this year. Luckily for them, I made the pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. The cranberry sauce was great with the turkey, and amazing when you put it in a palachinka, aka crepe.

For my extraordinary cooking efforts, I was given over a kilo of homemade sirene, which I have almost eaten and may become my new addiction after I get rid of peanut butter. Homemade sirene is simply delectable and puts any other sirene to shame. The only problem is I need to find a great source of homemade sirene in Sofia.

That's all for now, but expect real writing this year! Have a great week!