Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Rediscovering Bucharest

Bucharest, Romania, which I visited last month, was a nice discovery and quite a different place than the city I visited in 2001. To be bluntly honest, Bucharest's Center looked like an unfinished maze of communist architecture which badly needed to be blown up.  There were lots of buildings left unfinished since the 1989 revolution that overthrew and executed Nicolae Ceausescu and the his Mao like cult on Christmas Day 1989.  Even better, Ceausescu was replaced by what some called second rate communists(or first rate job-creators) who renamed themselves the Social Democratic Party.  While Ion Iliescu might have stabilized the politics after 1989, the governments of Romania have been plagued by corruption and scandals from these former comrades renamed socialists who have controlled Romanian politics for the majority of the past twenty years.  (History and Political Nerd Note:  this is the only former Warsaw Pact member who has had former socialists control government for such a long period of time.)

Protests to salary and pension cuts:  
I like the blurred vision of this picture, as it shows
people protesting the 25% cut to salaries and pensions.
To me, it represents what politicians have done to the country.
While Bulgaria has not seen tremendous growth,
it has not had to decrease monthly salaries or borrow
billions of dollars, as Romania, Greece, and Serbia have had to do.  
Walking around the center of Bucharest truly made me feel terrible.  The hangover from Ceausecu was evident, with the center unfinished in his grand plan to have a paradise like promenade, the only side effect was most of the old town was destroyed in order to have what the people, mostly Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, wanted. Despite this, the rest of Romania was amazingly beautiful in 2001.  One of my favorite places to visit is Brasov, and there are many other cute towns about Romania.  

Bucharest 2012 was a much better version than 2001.  The only sad part of Bucharest 2012 is that in 2001, Romania was a few steps ahead of Bulgaria it seemed, and salaries were higher.  There seemed to be hope that at least they were not like Bulgaria, and they could move forward.  Now, while there have been some improvements, Romanian public salaries were recently cut 25% because of the economic crisis, while Bulgaria is allegedly going to slowly increase public salaries after no increases in the past 4-5 years.

It looks like Romania is trying to overtake Bulgaria as the EU's poorest member.  This is like Mississippi trying to reclaim the worst public schools in the U.S. title.   Just watch out Romania.  Bulgaria may fight to maintain the title once they realize Romania is trying to overtake them.   Bulgaria could vote the socialists into power in 2013 to overtake Bate Boyko's GERB, to be the next Messiah to save the country from ruin.  (Political Nerd Note:  One thing I am certain of is that Stanishev and the socialists will ruin whatever progress Bulgaria has made in the past four years if they win in 2013. While I am not a big GERB fan except for the mayor of Sofia, there sadly seems to be no other alternative at this moment.  That's right Bulgaria, you're going to get your Romney vs. Obama election next year to vote for the lesser of the two evils.  Or maybe Bulgaria has always had these types of elections.)

Bucharest can be cool and beautiful as their women who look like supermodels.  This woman depicts what Bucharest can be.  Really interesting, really cool, really sexy, but doing this in spite of the imbeciles running the government. 
My optimistic future hypothesis for Bucharest will be something like Sofia:   This means being a pretty cool city that is trying to develop itself, despite the best intentions of the Romanian politicians to be corrupt and inept.  Enjoy the photographic journey of my trip to Bucharest, a city trying to overcome politicians and build itself into something cool.  

The old style communist apartment block I stayed in the center of Bucharest.  This apartment block is right next to the Radisson and Hilton hotels.  Great location, IKEA remodeled apartment, could get a private parking spot, and a quirky elevator that sometimes did not cooperate.  Yes, you can notice how cars will park anywhere on the sidewalks of Bucharest.  You learn quickly that pedestrians are secondary to cars on Bucharest's sidewalks.
Divalicious:  A diva trying to look fabulous on the only sidewalk free of cars.  While he tries valiantly, he simply cannot match the ultra-cool vixen above. I will refrain from commenting on how he is strutting on the catwalk, but you can insert  comment here:  

The view from my 8th floor apartment.
Yeah, I wasn't at the Radisson, but I also paid A LOT LESS for a comfortable bed.

Cross in memory of those who died protesting Nicolae Ceausescu. 
Cross in memory of the 1989 revolution.  
A statue of the stray dog
 issue in Bulgaria and Romania???

Another statue signaling the blood spilled.  
The People's Palace, which is now the location of Parliament.  I still could not go into this monstrosity, as it reminds me of what could have been done instead of building this palace. There was no need for me to see the room Michael Jackson visited once for thirty minutes.  

Bike paths: It took Sofia awhile to get some proper ones made, and I remember the creative ways to make a bike path.  Bucharest has not learned this lesson yet, but they are more creative than their Bulgarian counterparts.  This is the 'bike path'that goes around the People's Palace.  For those less observant, please notice the following two things:
1.  People and bikes must share this path.
2.  The path itself is about wide enough for one bike to get by, or two people walking by.
3.  There is what one might call a minor hazard by having a large tree growing in the middle of the bike path.
4.  There is no such thing as a passing lane. 

The other side of the People's Palace not many tourists see I guess.  It might appear there are cranes building something, hopefully divalicious, but probably not.  As a casual tourist, I did not inquire as to what might be being built.  

The palace walls crumbling.  What would Nicolae say????

Incomplete in 2001, and now complete today.
 Makes for a nice change.

Yup, Bucharest has street dogs too: This is a great picture of a large, fat street dog sunning himself on a warm October afternoon.  Like Sofia, there are plenty of them, and it is an issue that plagues both cities.  

Old town Bucharest and great eats and drinks:  This is one of the many places one might find in Old Town, the only remaining section not destroyed by war or Nicolae.  During communism, I guess it was not acceptable to live here, so it was run down completely and now has been taken over by all these cool places to eat and drink.  This place has gyros and while they were good, it was no where near as great as Duner Iztok with the Syrian guys who make an amazing falafel and garlic sauce.  

Bulgarian Mineral Water:
I found Devin in a mini-market in the center.
I could not resist, and bought three liters.  
I (heart) Devin.

Mountain Dew in Bucharest:  To whoever runs Pepsi in Bulgaria, you are complete idiots for not having Mountain Dew available.  Do you know how cool you would be to skaters, rappers, and kids with your skating, Xgames, and other commercials depicting coolness.  Mountain Dew could easily take over Fanta in the Bulgarian cola wars.
Covrigi: YUMMY!!!!  These are the Romanian version of a pretzel, but it looks more like a bagel sometimes.  They can have poppy seeds, be plain, have yellow cheese(kashkaval), or be filled inside with cherry jam or chocolate.  They are super cheap incredible to eat.  I would go back to Romania just for this.  Mmm, mmm, mmm, sooooooo good.  

Ultimate Freedom for Cars:  While I thought Sofia
 had some terrible driving and parking habits, I now
 believe they are tame compared to Romanians.
Pretty much, Romanians drive and park like maniacs.
And just like in Sofia, there is no such things as
 parking garages.  This car is one of a series of six
 cars parked on or near the bike path.  

A driver from Ruse proving she could join the crowd
by parking on the sidewalk and avoid
paying for parking in the center.  Bravo!
Even more blockage:  This van blocked the entrance to the garage my car was parked in for over 30 minutes.   This driver assumed all cars entering and exiting the garage were less than one meter wide.  I should point out this was Sunday and there were plenty of spaces withing 50 meters of this garage, but I guess this spot was desirable and the driver could not be bothered to walk the extra fifty meters.  

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bulgaria 2000 versus 2012: A RPCV from Bulgaria reflects upon all the changes here

How has Bulgaria changed since 2000?  Why have you decided to write about the Peace Corps now?  

Well, the Peace Corps ceremony with the new U.S Ambassador this Monday in Sofia inspired me to write about all the changes Bulgaria experience since I first arrived one broiling hot day in June 2000 when I decided to be a Peace Corps volunteer.  The Peace Corps was easily the toughest job I ever loved.  It wasn't because of the job itself, learning a new culture, working on projects with wonderful people, or promoting Peace Corps ideals.  Yeah, that was sort of tough, but very rewarding to learn about Bulgaria, get to know some incredible people, and show 12,000 people in Balchik there was a crazy American who was really cared to know about them and attempted to explain almost anything he could on American culture and politics.  The toughest part of the job for me?   The Peace Corps was a three year gut check where I really got to know myself, know my personality weaknesses and strengths, and really discover there was a strong person who could would be able to handle any difficult situation if he really needed to deal with it.  Those excruciatingly long bus rides between Sofia and Balchik for VAC meetings which lasted 17-18 hours round trip gave me oodles of time to reflect upon what really made me tick.  These bus and train rides helped me figure out I could make a difference in the world and in people's lives, get control of my own, and gain so much from people in the process. 

 About six months ago, the Peace Corps office in Sofia sent out a request to RPCVs asking for photos and videos from their time in service for a final farewell as the Peace Corps will be leaving Bulgaria in summer 2013.Sending photos and videos from that time posed a huge problem.   2012 me has a digital camera, smartphone with video and camera, Faceplace albums with lots of photos for people to see, Ipod touch, and a laptop which has tons of photos.  2000-2003 me had a cheap Kodak camera that used regular film, no computer until Fred gave me a 1995 IBM laptop in 2002(which still works believe or not), and Balchik internet cafes with a very spotty connection depending on the winds, moon, and stars aligning themselves into the right position in Balchik.  Every picture I have from this time are in photo albums with the negatives stored on the farm or in my cousin's house in Buffalo.    

I do have a few photos to share from this time, but this is thanks to Teresa Stanley and Laura Rios.  Laura documented everything and I am thankful she posted some of her photos on Facebook.  Teresa visited me towards the end of my Peace Corps service in June 2003 and gave me copies of some of the photos she took when she spent time in Sofia, Plovdiv, and Balchik.

So while more recent RPCVs can give you great videos and things to share from the digital age, I give you a personal reflection on all the changes that have happened in Bulgaria since I have been here from 2000-2003, and from summer 2008 to the present day.  While there have been slow changes to the places I grew up in as a kid, Bulgaria has seen rapid changes since I first came here in 2000.  Some are good, and I wonder about the others because I miss out on how things used to be done, but there has been progress.  Enjoy the stroll down memory lane. 

Sofia Airport and flying to Bulgaria: 

2000/2001:  It was a not so nice terminal that was grungy, small, intimidating, only had one real gate that you took a bus to the plane, and had cows who grazed on the runway.  My mother's first impression of Bulgaria was seeing cows grazing on early summer grass as the Swiss Airlines plane landed in Sofia.  She still tells this story to anyone who hasn't heard it, and maybe has repeated a few too many times.  To validate her claim, I remember the cows being next to the runway when I arrived in June 2000, but not exactly on the runway. 

There were only a few flights a week.  When my mom visited in 2001, it took eight hours in Balchik to confirm that she would be on the Thursday flight from Sofia to Zurich.  After finding the number with a terrible internet connection, we called the Swiss Air office in Sofia, who immediately hung up on me when I asked to help confirm my mother's flight.  Ahh, this was typical customer service back then.  We had to find the number for Swiss Air in Switzerland, then go to the post office to make an international call because I had no phone in my apartment.  There was a long waiting list to have a home phone, so I decided it wasn't worth it and didn't get a cell phone until after September 11, 2001. 

2012:  Sofia has two terminals:  one is modern and voted to be one of the world's ugliest, while terminal one has had a small facelift and looks a lot less intimidating than it did twelve years ago.  There are no cows trimming the grasses around the runway, although this is probably a good thing for the safety of the cows.  Pilots should not be trusted. 

There are lots of flights leaving Sofia to destinations all around the world and it is a lot cheaper to get a flight to Sofia than it used to be.  They are building a metro line to the airport which will open in 2014.  Thanks to being an European Union member, one can call any country in Europe with an international roaming plan and it is much cheaper and easier to call places.  I can even use my phone to call the States if I need to talk with my family.  

As for the customer service, I must say there has been an improvement, but you can still find the surly person to help you out sometime.  Most waitresses are pretty good, but we had a terrible one this week who just plain lied, and insulted us by being so rude and incompetent.  It reminded me of the good old days, despite the fact I was highly annoyed by her.  

Sofia Bus Station 

2000-2003:  Below was the bus station where I had to grab a bus to Balchik when I went to VAC(Volunteer Action Committee) from 2000-2003.  As you can see, it wasn't the best place to be on wet, rainy, or cold days.  No waiting room, no really paved area.  It was a dirt lot across from the Sofia central train station. 
Sofia Bus Station June 2003.  Credit to Teresa Stanley

2004:  I came back to visit good friends in Balchik and Sofia, and there was a brand new central bus station with a waiting area, ATM, and completely paved lot next to the central train station.  I was completely grateful that I didn't have to walk across that muddy lot again. I do not have a picture of the new bus station, because I think you get the idea of what having a real bus station is compared to what I had to go through for three years. 

Teaching Conditions at Antim I school in Balchik:

My seventh class students in my classroom in June 2003. 

Toilet in Antim I school June 2003.  Thankfully they've been replaced.
2000-2003:  Antim I school in Balchik was lucky because construction was completed in 1988/89 just before Todor Jivkov and the Bulgarian Communist Party ended their reign of power.  Then, there were ten years in which there wasn't much being built, there was a severe economic crisis in 1997, and Bulgaria was just starting to get back on its feet in 2000.

As a result, my classroom had a broken window that wasn't fixed in the three years I was there.  I wrote a Peace Corps SPA grant from USAID for an English library classroom with a great computer and monitor, but alas I couldn't get money to fix a window.  While the window was the most important thing, I couldn't find a way to justify new classroom windows for only one classroom.  So, my students and I wore winter jackets in the winter because they heated the school only until about 10:30,  yet classes went until 1pm or 5pm the days I had computer classes.  I only wrote on the board when absolutely necessary because I didn't want to put my hand in the icy water to erase the board.

There were only Turkish toilets in the school, and I only went to the bathroom once in my three years there.  If I really had to go, then I walked home 10-15 minutes to my apartment and did my business there.  

I also fondly remember the extra two weeks schools were closed in January 2002 due to the lack of money to heat the schools combined with a flu vacation.  Flu vacations happened on a yearly basis, but this was a long two week break because both the flu vacation and lack of heat vacation happened at the same time.  So with little to do, I went on a trip to Prague, Budapest, Brasov, and Bucharest to make sure I wouldn't freeze in my apartment and be bored to tears.  No one wanted to invite me to a na gosti because everyone in Balchik besides Dimitrina was too cold to do anything, and I could not take watching "The Bold and the Beautiful" episodes everyday. 

2012:  My Bulgarian host mother, who is in her last year of teaching geography at the school, took me around for a tour of the school last month.  Every classroom has a computer with dry erase boards.  There are new windows and a few rooms have projectors.  There are lockers for the kids to put their belonging during the day, and I hear they heat the building properly in the winter.  And thank the gods, they replaced the Turkish toilets with real toilets. Hallelujah!!!!

Traveling to Greece: 

2001:  This was a major deal to travel across the border to Greece.  There were only a few buses a day that went to Greece, and they were unhappy to be traveling to Bulgaria.  On the trip from Sofia to the Greek border crossing in June 2001, we were forced to stop at a restaurant where the women chose to go to the bathroom outside squatting in the grass rather than enter the foul smelling bathroom last cleaned when Georgi Dimitrov died in 1949.  At the border, it took three hours to process everyone's papers on the bus to make sure every Bulgarian had the correct paperwork, stamps, and documentation to enter the country.  My mom and I breezed through the line and had to wait in the lobby for the other forty people to get the proper papers and stamps.  Going to Greece was walking into a different world. 

2012:  Bulgaria is now in the EU, and the border crossing is a mere formality, with guards checking to see if people have an ID card.  Tons of people travel by car to go to Greek beaches on the northern coast, and many people have bought property there.  The border guards are now irritated when they have to process an American passport because we hold up the line of cars waiting to get through.  There isn't such a big difference in what you can get in Greece, versus what you can get in Bulgaria now.

Grocery Shopping in Balchik:

2000-2003:  Balchik had no supermarkets, and only had mini-markets which was the store.   There were fruit and vegetable stands that had a decent variety of veggies and fruits for about nine months of the year.  During the winter, the choices were carrots, potatoes, onions, cabbage, expensive oranges, and anything you conserved.  Lettuce, spinach, and green onions made a brief appearance in January/February.   In 2002 or so, tomatoes and cucumbers started to appear, but they were really expensive and were things I could not afford on the Peace Corps salary.  So every year, I conserved tomatoes, peppers, pickles, raspberries, strawberries, peaches, and apricots during the winter so that I would have a variety of foods.  And every winter, I was so thankful I conserved the 50+ jars of stuff I had for the winter.  

Fruits and vegetables were fresh and organic.   Yogurt was cheap and tasted amazing.  Bread was only available in loaves and only white bread was available.  This meant I was eating much better food, and not the processed stuff you might find in the supermarkets in the U.S.  The only meat besides pork that could be found was chicken, and it was always frozen.  I learned to eat more vegetarian because the pork looked very unappetizing.  One of my favorite summer meals was white bread, fresh tomatoes, and sirene or kashkaval.  Eat that with some fruit and it was one of the best meals one could eat. 
Varna Bazar 2003.    The bazar where on bought fruits and veggies.  This is still popular, but there are also supermarkets which carry everything in the winter.  Credit Teresa Stanley.
 For foods I missed, Varna was the best option to find those things, but I ate them in moderation because they were expensive.  Peanut butter, cheddar, and other cheeses could be found in Varna, which was a 45km trip away.  I also found a way to get whatever that was reasonable through one small shop owner who was willing to get whatever I needed to cook with in

2012:  Balchik now has five supermarkets including a Penny Market, all within walking distance of my old apartment block.  There are a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the year, if you can afford it.  Cheddar, peanut butter, and other cheeses can be easily found in Balchik.  There are more meat options available, but you may need to go to Varna for something like a turkey or an unusual type of cheese.  While there is a small difference, there is not a huge difference as when I lived there.   

The one major difference is that there are tons of foods brought in from all over the E.U, which means there is less organic fresh food as there used to be.  You have to pay attention to see where the tomatoes are from, and there is more fast food and processed food available. Organic food was really inexpensive, and now it costs double or triple to get organic fruits and vegetables. 

My Apartment in Balchik, getting new family members, and my apartment in Sofia:

Balchik port 2003

Balchik boardwalk June 2003

July 2003:  with Dimitrina and Mimi

Views from Balchik

 The weather is so much better than Buffalo!

2000-2003: Balchik was and still is an incredibly beautiful small town.  I got so lucky when I got selected to serve the Peace Corps here at site selection.  Starting life in Balchik meant living in a new apartment far away from home.  Arriving in Balchik for the first time in August 2000, I discovered I would have an attic studio apartment in a new apartment block that was maybe 25 square meters in total size on a good day.  This apartment became known as the smallest apartment a Peace Corps volunteer had during my service.  

Balchik Bathroom
While the bathroom was brand new, I had a hole in the ceiling thanks to someone's chimney going through it.  In the winter, I didn't dare take a shower in there on the super cold days because it was way too cold to take a shower with a hole in the ceiling.  There was no room for a sofa, so I had a two beds lying next to each other, a wardrobe to store clothes, and sometimes had a TV depending on the whether the school director wanted to watch TV during the day at school.  My kitchen consisted of an old Soviet stove with four burners that was highly unpredictable in the temperatures, and a small fridge which was a little bit bigger than the fridge I had in my freshman dorm room.   I had a fantastic woman named Dimitrina as was my landlady.  She became more like my mother than my actual mother.  She helped me through some tough times, and was of my biggest reasons on how I was able to integrate with my school.  Her family became like my family. Dimitrina, Mimi, and Christian have become extremely close to me throughout the years.  We have helped each other out in all sorts of situations from cancer and cyst surgery, divorce, me coming out, and we are always able to discuss all our problems with ease. 

My apartment block 2003.  Credit to Teresa Stanley
Back to the apartment in Balchik.  The size of the apartment didn't really bother me.  The only problem with the apartment was the lack of a heater.   There was a big debate on what I should do about a heater for the winter.  My landlady tried to get a heater from the school, but they wouldn't buy one because they thought the Peace Corps office was responsible for this.  The Peace Corps office wouldn't buy me one because they expected my school to buy a heater for me.  I was lucky the first autumn/winter was mild, and it really didn't get super cold until the second week of December.  On those nights it got cold, I turned the stove on at night to help heat the apartment.

The second week of December reality set in.  Either I needed a heater, someone had to do it, or I was going to leave Balchik and head back to the U.S. because I was not going to freeze to death.  Leaving early from the Peace Corps because of no heater was out of the question, but I knew the prices of heaters needed for the apartment, and it was going to be expensive if I chose to buy one without getting reimbursed.  But, I wasn't going to quit Balchik, even though I was extremely frustrated over the unnecessary debate and go around between my director and the Peace Corps TEFL staff.   The Soviet stove just wasn't going to work during the winter.  So, I bought a large oil based portable heater for about 150 leva in December, which was half of my monthly allowance.  My thinking was that it would be better to starve and lose some weight, rather than freeze during the winter nights when it got to -12 to -15C without a heater.  It meant no traveling, but I was fine with this in order to have a heater.  When I bought the heater, I instantly felt better and much warmer, but I also wrote my mother telling her what I did, and explaining to her how frustrated I was.  After reading this, my mother wrote the Peace Corps office in DC to complain because she was very upset that I didn't have a heater with the current temperatures.  Because of my mom, I got reimbursed for my heater, which I am thankful for because it helped me eat that winter. 

Fridge and freezer
Freezer #2 and Dishwasher
2008-2012:  I have a great apartment in Sofia which is about 6-7 times bigger than my apartment in Balchik.  When I arrived in Sofia, I was in complete shock because I was expecting an apartment similar to the larger apartments my former PCVs had in Sofia or other towns, but this was so much better.  My friend Iliya, who helped choose the location by going by the neighborhoods, mentioned to me that I should ask for a smaller apartment because this was way too big for one person.  

The kitchen was amazing and had two freezers and lots of room to store things, and had black marble counter tops.  This blew my mind away, as I never had a kitchen this nice in my entire life.  The biggest benefit was two freezers, which allows me to freeze salsa and spaghetti sauce for the winter.  It was the perfect kitchen for a cook like me, except that I wish I had four burners for Thanksgiving. 

Bathroom in Sofia apartment
Much to my surprise, my bathroom had a bathtub, which I never would have expected to have in a Bulgarian apartment.  There is no hole in the ceiling and there is a heater that which makes it super toasty in the winter.  Plus, there is a marble counter which I could put all my stuff on.  This meant all the stuff I was to use to hang toiletries and towels instantly became redundant. 

In addition, this apartment had two bedrooms, a living room with an awesome sofa I picked out a year later to replace the broken sofa I started to use.   There is an older T.V. which never gets taken out of the apartment because the director wants to watch replays of the soccer matches from the previous night in his office.  In fact, my landlady offered to buy me a new T.V. last year, and I refused to get one, which made George really upset.  I have two great terraces, one of which is enclosed.  What does this mean?  I can hang my laundry out in the winter and not have it turn into frozen weapons of mass destruction. 

There have been no heating issues with the apartment, except when the Russians turned off the heat in 2009.  I can't blame anyone except Vladimir Putin for that one, and I would still give him a piece of my mind for turning off the heat for so many in Europe that winter. There is wireless internet throughout my apartment and digital cable TV with 15 porno channels I needed to get, so that I could watch hockey and football on ESPN America. 

Clearly, this is a big difference in comparison to my apartment in Balchik.  I also have an amazing landlady, Nadia, who is simply incredible.  She has taken on bureaucracy and has won more than once.  What impressed me most is that she had the cable, phone, and internet people come within an hour of each other one summer day my first week in Sofia.  Pretty much, you can't get that done in Bulgaria, the U.S, or anyone else in the world.  I was in awe at the woman who could get something done like that, and it was helpful to have Nadia when they overcharged me for hot water and heat my second winter. 

Eating out and shopping for other items:

Donkey cart in Balchik.  Not the frest fish lady sadly.   
2000-2003:  Buying clothes here wasn't really an option for me except for t-shirts and shirts.  With a Peace Corps salary, I could afford to buy some cheddar or peanut butter every now and then, but buying western clothes was simply out of the question.  I could not find jeans that matched my height, and I did not know of any seamstress in Balchik who could do this for me.   You could buy furniture, but it was expensive and not exactly the best quality.  So, I made my clothes last with what I brought in my suitcase, and supplemented t-shirts, underwear, and socks as needed during my time. 

In Balchik, one could hear a woman in a donkey cart going through the town yelling at the top of her lungs selling fresh fish.  I can still hear the "PRIASNA RIBA!!!!!!" chant going through my heads some mornings.  There were clothes for sale, but they were often ripoff brands from popular name brands, and they didn't last that long.  So, I bought a few t-shirts and shirts as needed, and had my winter collection of sweater #1, sweater #2, and sweater #3 that I took out for special occasions.  

As for restaurants, there were a lot of good restaurants in Bulgaria, but the only real option available was usually Bulgarian food.  In late 2000/early 2001, there was a Chinese food revolution and Chinese restaurants sprouted up everywhere in Bulgaria with a town over 40,000.  As for other foods, there was McDonald's and KFC in Varna, and a great Indian restaurant in Varna.  In Sofia, there was an Italian restaurant or two, an Irish pub,  lots of good Bulgarian places, and a nasty Mexican restaurant no one really liked.  One could eat out, but there weren't lots of options available and some of these restaurants were usually out of my price range due to my Peace Corps salary. 

Sofia IKEA opening weekend September 2011. 
2008-2012:  With my Anglo-American School salary, this makes a huge difference in what I can buy.  To be fair, I don't know if I can really compare what I could do now with what I could do then.  There are now malls in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Bourgas.  There are Metro stores(similar to Cotsco or Sam's Club) in any city over 80,000 where you can find great Belgian chocolate chips, tortillas, and great deals on other cool foods.  Carrefour has opened stores in Sofia, and Subway and Domino's pizza are slowly gaining ground on the market by providing great food. There is also HIT, which is a hypermarket where I can find lots of great things I never thought I would be able to find in Bulgaria. With my current buying power as a member of the affluent middle class in Bulgaria, I can buy pretty much anything I need for the apartment, clothes, or food for myself.  

There is even a GAP and Levis store now, but I still prefer to buy jeans in the States, which George thinks is absolutely crazy.  There is the German DM and Lilly stores from Serbia which have revolutionized drug stores.  An IKEA opened up last year in Sofia, which accounted for about 10% of all furniture sales in Bulgaria last year.  George and I have easily spent 1,500-2,000 leva the past year at IKEA to buy a new kitchen table, chair, dressers, shelves, and stuff for the kitchen and bedroom. 

As for eating out, there are lots of options for eating out in Balchik/Varna and Sofia.  Sofia has had a food revolution in the past five years, and there are lots of different varieties of restaurants.  Middle eastern, Thai, Chinese, sushi, steak, Italian, Indian, Spanish tapas, and a really good burger joint have opened up.  There is McDonald's, Subway, Burger King, and KFC, but there are also some cool fresh fast food shops that make fresh sandwiches, soups, and salads for a reasonable price. There are traditional Bulgarian restaurants, but there are also chefs who are willing to take some risks and do some creative things with food.  The biggest problem is that there are so many good restaurants to eat at an affordable price.  If I was a Peace Corps volunteer now in Bulgaria, I would be very challenged to be able to stay within budget like I did twelve years ago. 

In Balchik, the biggest change is that I am not allowed to eat at the seaside with my host family because it is too expensive.  There is a local restaurant on top of the hill which has good food for half the price, while the restaurants we used to go to now cater to tourists and have marked up their prices.  Note to readers:  the prices in Balchik are about Sofia prices, but this is much more expensive for people in Balchik.

Washing my clothes:

2000-2003:  I washed my clothes in a bucket, because the apartment didn't have room for a washing machine.  I learned how to hand wash everything, and tried to wear only what absolutely needed to be worn, especially in the winter.  I hung my clothes out to dry except in the winter when they would freeze.  I had to hang clothes inside during this time. 

2008:  I have a real washing machine in my apartment, which works great now that it was repaired in May.  Dimitrina also was able to buy a brand new washing machine which makes laundry super easy compared to how we used to do it 10-12 years ago.  Neither of us miss washing clothes by hand.  She also has been able to buy a new fridge redo her kitchen, get a new T.V., and get new windows for her apartment.

Highways, Trains, Legitimate Businessmen and Automobiles:  

Dupintsa 2000.  Credit Laura Rios
2000:  There were only highways between Sofia and Plovdiv, and about 140 km of highway had been completed between Sofia and Varna in two sections.  Most cars were either an older Lada, Moscvich, Trabant, or Skoda from the communists times.  A 10 year old Opel was considered a new car in Balchik.  The Peace Corps Toyota Landcruisers were known throughout Balchik as the tank.  My colleagues thought they were mafia the first time they came until I explained to them I was in the tank.  Another time one of the 'tanks' got lost while trying to find my apartment, and the locals knew the Peace Corps were looking for me and gave them directions to my apartment.

Dupnitsa has been unofficially known as the headquarters of the Bulgarian Mafia.  During my time in Peace Corps training, my host family lived next to the Mafia cafe which had two Harleys and the only hot white chocolate in Bulgaria at that time.  During my time in Bulgaria in the Peace Corps, these businessmen were killed off and replaced by other businessmen. Their cafe got turned into an unfinished apartment block.  I don't know how exactly the Peace Corps had the volunteer training there in 2000, but it wasn't held there again for awhile after the heat of 2000.

Dupnitsa model school:  Credit Laura Rios
Trains were frequented quite often and was one of the few ways to travel across the country cheaply.  I was a nighttime rider of the sleeper cars between Dobrich and Sofia, and I took the train usually from Varna to Cherven Briag to see George.  

The only real auto dealerships were in Sofia.  I usually had the opinion if there was a Mercedes or BMW, you immediately knew this person was a businessman with a thick neck.  Boyko Borisov, who is now the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, famously said "If you see a businessman with a thick neck walk into the cafe, it would be best to pay your bill and leave."

2012:  This is an area where there has been gigantic changes.  There is now a highway that goes from Sofia to Bourgas, except for the final 40km which will be completed by February.  You can get to Bourgas in about 3 1/2 - 4 hours now depending on the time of day you are traveling.  There are now two metro lines in Sofia instead of just seven stops, and a third line will be completed by 2013.  The Sofia/Varna highway will start being completed next year, with a completion date of 2019.  They are currently building a highway to Greece.  As of today, about 40 km of the highway has been completed between Sofia and Dupnitsa, and construction crews are currently building the remaining section between Sofia and Dupnitsa, and the section between the Greek border and Sandanski.  The remaining part of the highway between Dupnitsa and Sandanski will be completed by 2020 due to the difficulties building a highway there through the gorge.  There is also a highway that should be completed next year between Plovdiv and Istanbul. 

For automobiles, there are very few Moskviches, Ladas, and Trabants roaming around the highways.  Except for villages, these cars have been replaced by Toyotas, Chevys, Opels, Skodas, Puegots, Seats, Volkswagens, BMWs, and Mercedes.  Not only the businessmen drive nice vehicles, but they have upgraded to fancier stuff such as Bentleys, Porshes, and Jaguars.  It is difficult to tell the legitimate businessmen from real businessmen.

As for the trains, there are some newer trains taking short routes, but the train management has seen a lot of difficulty and almost went bankrupt this summer due to mismanagement.   More people drive places now that they have cars, and less people ride trains.  There is talk of renovating the train lines, but we will see what the future holds.

There is more employment, but it has meant that more people have left their towns for either Sofia or somewhere else in the European Union.  Small towns and villages are dying out, and you can zoom by lots of dark villages at night if you travel between Sofia and Varna. 

As for the legitimate businessmen, there have been a lot less shootings and only one has been shot in the past four years.  In Dupnitsa, the Galevi brothers, who effectively controlled the Mafia and Dupnitsa like a fiefdom, escaped via Greece in May with about 40 million Euros and are somewhere in hiding.  While they are gone, it means someone else who we don't know has replaced them who is keeping a much lower profile than these two.  These thick necked businessmen have tried to become clean in Bulgaria, which is actually pretty easy thing to do here and they still influence Bulgaria today.  There are lots of shops with the same stock, some restaurants which have been open for years with no clientele, and there a significant increase in the amount of nice houses and cars one can find throughout Bulgaria owned by someone who only makes about 1,000 leva a month or less.  This is about 700 USD per month, which even the basic mathematician in fourth grade can realize isn't possible, yet somehow works here.  My favorite people are the businessmen who put these expensive houses in a family member's name who makes about 200-300 leva a month.  Yeah right, I could easily have afforded a villa, in ground swimming pool, and a Porshe on my salary of 305 leva a month twelve years ago.  

I am happy to be here for the ride and see what happens next:

The past twelve years have brought a lot of changes to Bulgaria.  When the current PCVs tell me their tales of woe and what they're going through, it doesn't quite compare to 2000 when I got here.  Sometimes, it is hard to relate to the experience they are having in 2012 when so much has changed, but there are a few things which have not changed with the experience.  This is not meant to be a slight on them, because there is simply no comparison to Bulgaria 2000 and Bulgaria 2012.   It is simply impossible to compare our experiences and expect them to be the same.  What has impressed me with this final group of volunteers is the volunteers I have met share the same love and passion for Bulgaria that I had when I was a PCV here from 2000-2003.  These final group of volunteers leaving in 2013 will have their experiences and memories that will help shape their lives, as much as my group had our experiences and memories which have shaped our lives and made us into what we are today. 

I have been happy to have been a Bulgarian Peace Corps volunteer, as it shaped my life into who I am today.  As for the changes I have seen here, some have been good, while some not so great.  I miss the fresher food, but welcome the availability of products that one can buy almost anywhere.  Some things have stagnated, like pensions for the elderly and salaries for teachers, policemen, nurses, and doctors.  I am terrified when Dimitrina retires next year, because it means she will be getting a lot less money per month.  The population shifts in the past ten years has simply been hard to imagine.  Villages full of life in 2000 are now dying in 2012.  While these changes have happened in the U.S, it took a lot more time than 12 years to have this happen.  It is like Bulgaria is in warp speed on some things.

We will see what the future holds, but I am cautiously optimistic about the future of Bulgaria.  In spite of the politicians, there has been progress.  I have been lucky enough to get a job in Sofia where I can enjoy a lot of things I normally wouldn't be able to enjoy without a credit card racking up bills.   In the past twelve years, I am blessed to have the experiences I have had in the Peace Corps, Arlington and D.C, and now back in Sofia working.  I have great friends, new family, and great experiences.  I also happen to live in a very friggin pretty place in the world, and I would not exchange these things for anything in the world.

Sofia Echo articles:

Here are some Sofia Echo articles I wrote on cooking during a brief spell between 2001-2002 before I got fired because they couldn't afford the 15 leva per article they were paying me.  This had a loyal following that I only found out about after I stopped writing the article, when people would stop me on the street in Sofia when I came for Peace Corps VAC meetings to tell me how much they loved reading my article.   Click on the link to enjoy each article. 

Changing the Economy in Balchik

Finding Sour Cream

Burning Dumpster Cookies

Homemade Banitsa 

Learning how to cook rice 

Chocolate Peanut Butter Balls 

Zuchinni Bread 

Kiss Me Cake 

Food 101 with Mr. Joseph 

Pancakes and the drugs I am on

Lasanga without ricotta when there was no ricotta 

Tortillas for Easter 

Fajitas and Salsa 



Alfredo Sauce and the GLOW girls 

Last Article and Adair's Hospitality War

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Finally Writing About Thailand! Part 1: Sofia to Ko Samui

At the big Buddha Statue in Ko Samui.  He makes me look so thin. 
Thailand has been about four months in the making, but I need to start writing more because Owen says I only write one blog a year now, which has stimulated my fat, fabulous self to get into gear writing.  I am introducing to you the second issue of the blog, and a third issue will be out sometime by the end of September for the second season.  

What Sofia looked like most of the winter this year, and bitter cold temperatures.  Luckily, I have an underground garage. 
In February, it was bitterly cold and snowy in Sofia, and the temperatures were dropping to -25C to -30C with a balmy -10C as the high temperature.  Sofia became a winter wonderland, but it was treacherous to walk on sidewalks, especially if you're me and are extremely clumsy on the ice.  Snow was building up in the streets, and people fail to shovel the sidewalks and side streets because this is a 'communist' ideal.  There is a law stating one must clean the sidewalk outside your apartment or house, but doing something for the common good of others and yourself is seen as communism, or acting like Washingtonians when there is snow and making up names like Snowpocalypse.   

There was definitely one day we probably should have cancelled school, or at least delayed the opening of school.  The roads were treacherous, Tsargradsko Shosse was barely plowed, and Sport barely made it out of the neighborhood that morning.  The windshield wipers kept freezing despite the defrost on full blast, so it made driving quite an adventure.  My passenger and librarian extraordinaire Kelly I am certain was wondering how was I able to drive and thinking how could we possibly have school. Speaking of the subject: why did we have school that day? Because my school follows the Clarence, New York schools cancellation policy.  This means:  We will NEVER shut down unless there is a national emergency, such as an ice storm knocking out power for a week.   There are some schools who must be strict to balance out the schools who cancel on any threat of snow(sorry DC area, but you know this is true).

How does Thailand ever enter into this story?   It was what I thought about EVERY DAY when I was at work, outside duty when it was -20 or -25C, or when I was at the gym to work on my fat, fabulous body to no avail with the gay divas every night.  George was driven crazy I'm certain because he despises beaches since there is too much sand there, yet supported me in my goal to escape to a beach far away from -25C weather (This is just one of the 236 reasons on why he isn't Bulgarian which he has demanded me to write in a blog to prove that Owen and I actually have 236 reasons).   Bali, Thailand, and the Maldives all entered my mind as the top three after hearing all the great stories from friends and co-workers of these places.  With some help from Kamy's great travel agent, Violetta got me a great package for Thailand for 10 days.

Thailand was my first real excursion to Asia, as crossing the Bosphorus Strait to have tea with Matt and Adair in April 2001 for about two hours doesn't really qualify me to say that I had visited Asia.  This seemed like a fantastic place for me to discover Asia because there as so many options to go with, and hearing about the beaches from Kelly every morning in the car and loving Thai food made me decide Thailand was necessary to visit.

Bungalow bed I crashed on after traveling 24 hours from Sofia to Ko Samui
The first part of the trip was in Ko Samui, a small island about 90 minutes flying time from Bangkok.  Traveling from Sofia to Ko Samui took about 24 hours, and included stops in Bucharest, Doha, and Bangkok with a long layover followed by an additional 90 minute delay and an Auntie Anne's pretzel.  I fought this initially, but I was such an idiot to fight Violetta and the gang from Hermes tours.  One of the best parts of the trip was easily flying Qatar Airways and Bangkok Airways, which will be part of a future blog episode on airline ratings around the world. Be ready for most American airlines to be thoroughly pillaged for the rubbish they are compared to most European carriers.

After a ninety minute flight with an amazing dinner in Bangkok Airways, I arrived in a 'Fantasy Island' like airport in Ko Samui.  Arriving in Ko Samuui at about 11pm local time seemed like a daze, and my one real goal was to find the person taking me to the hotel, and find a bed to sleep in.  Arriving at 11pm Thai time and only sleeping two hours in the past day, this was the moment I was extremely THANKFUL I booked a tour with Violeta and Hermes Tours because there was a guy ready to take me to the hotel, instead of trying to negotiate a 25-30 Euro taxi ride to the hotel like some people had to do.  While it took me a few minutes to find my bus, I was extremely grateful to hop in the minivan and drive past all the 7-11s to my hotel for a hassle free check-in. Yes, you can get lots of Slurpees and bearclaws in Thailand, Denmark, or Sweden, but Sofia only has OMV as a weak substitute to 7-11.

Lovely pool at hotel
In addition to 7-11s, Ko Samui is a small island that has two main beaches, Chaweng(the gay preferred place full of luxury hotels, nightlife, and backpackers) and Lamai (nice, but not luxurious).  When looking at the hotel options, I fell in love with this one hotel in Lamai, and I am very happy I made the choice.  I needed a week to just relax, sit by a pool or beach, and truly relax.  This hotel did that for me.  It was quiet and away from all the nightlife, but yet only a 10-15 minute walk to the center.  Breakfast was eaten with a great view of Gulf of Thailand as I quietly read my Kindle while slowly enjoying breakfast and having the realization that I had nothing to do, nothing to accomplish, no one to see, and my only goals were to relax, read, get some sun, and enjoy Thai food.

coconut shell on Lamai beach
In a moment of honesty, I must first confess I didn't really leave Lamai Beach the entire week I was there, except for the day tour around the island.  Sure, Chaweng was 'the place to be' in Ko Samui and had a bigger beach, but I was simply too lazy and lethargic most days in Ko Samui.  My main goals of peace, quiet, relaxation, and amazing Thai food were achieved quite well in Lamai, and I thought the beach was fabulous compared to the small beaches I am used to on the northern Black Sea coast.  The best food was actually at a Jamaican bar run by a German/Austrian guy and his Thai wife and mother, who were the best cooks.  The chicken and basil there was indescribable in how amazing awesome it tasted when you took one bite.

The Golden Arches in Lamai in Ko Samui. 
In addition to all of these wonderful things, Lamai Beach had a McDonald's, a Subway, an Australian Bondi Bar with a great bacon cheeseburger, and plenty of the most beautiful women who were not women in Lamai for me to heckled by every evening. Every evening, I got the cat calls while walking past all the lovely 'women' asking me to 'play billiards' with them and share some fluids.  While that may have been a nice offer, I was more tempted by Jif crunchy peanut butter, lovely white wine at the store, and massages.  I am still upset Jif is in Ko Samui, but not Sofia (someone at Hit Hypermarket or someone working at the U.S. embassy:  if you're reading this all I really want is Jif or Peanut Butter Co. peanut butter.  I would be your kitchen slave for two weeks in addition to giving a really good economics supply and demand lesson to my fourth graders).  While some may ask why I didn't leave Lamai, my question back to you would be why would you ever leave there??????

My two rainy day companions
There were two days where it pretty much rained the entire morning and part of the afternoon.  On those days, I chilled on my terrace of the bungalow with two cats of the complex who kept me company.  The Varinda had a few dogs and cats who were super friendly, including a golden retriever who hung out at the reception, and there two black cats who spent most of the rainy morning on my terrace once they realized I was kitty friendly.  I spent those morning thoroughly enjoying The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.

A second confession to make.  I saw no ping pong balls flying in bars at night.  While I had a lovely dinner out, I spent most evenings after 10:30 pm skyping George and/or having some wine bought from the store while reading from the Kindle or watching FOX or MSNBC news and being shocked at all the bullsh#$ they presented as news while drinking more wine and getting angrier at the TV for seeing such nonsense being presented as factual news. Amazingly, I found Al Jazeera in English presented more factual evidence than either FOX of MSNBC and it became my new news station which I now occasionally drive Joro crazy with as he calls me a news junkie when I get home.  I only hope Al Jazeera can get Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity to move to the Middle East and spout their views upon a larger audience so I can laugh hysterically at their hyperbole into stupidity. 

One scenic spots of Ko Samui

Main Gate in Ko Samui's Fantasy Island airport.

The lobby in the Ko Samui airport.  So nice and comfortable.
After almost a week, I knew it was time to leave the solitude I created for myself and head towards Bangkok.  I got picked up at about 7:00 am to be taken to the 'Fantasy Island' airport in Ko Samui.  Since I was flying on one of the first flights, I got to take some great pictures which I hope will do justice.  Since I couldn't eat breakfast, it was wonderful Bangkok Airways provided free internet, mini sandwiches, popcorn, and cookies which I really enjoyed for FREE.  Could you ever imagine an American airline ever providing such things to economy passengers?  

Ko Samui was such a wonderful experience, and I am so blessed and thankful I got the chance to go visit one of the most beautiful places in the world.  While Phuket would have been nice, I enjoyed the peace and solitude I created for myself in my artificial world in Lamai. 

As always, thank you for reading the blog, and I hope you got a picture of what my experience in Ko Samui was like.  It might not have been your typical experience for the party crowd, but I had such a lovely time that I would really love to go back some day.  My next issue will deal with Bangkok, which makes Sofia look like a village.