Sunday, December 28, 2014

Airline Ratings: The Viewpoints of a Somewhat Frequent Flier

Hey Everyone!

Yes, it's been an extremely long time since I wrote a blog, and there are many reasons why I have not written, which include:

1.  Teaching wild fourth grade squirrels.
2.  Being enslaved every Sunday night to the NFL game package and playing fantasy football.  I'm still bitter I lost in the semi-finals because of what I call 'Buffalo sports' syndrome, where you find a way to lose even though you're supposed to win.
3.  Introducing George to American culture specialties such as Oprah, Hoarders, and Beyond Scared Straight.
4.  Watching too much stuff on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
5.  Finding other masterful ways to waste time as only a true slacker could.

Since I have over TWO WEEKS off for the Christmas and New Year's holidays and I have a staycation here in Sofia, there is no excuse not to write a blog or two this week to end 2014, and to start 2015.  In fact, there may be 2-3 blogs, if I'm brave enough to publish the U.S. Consulate and how to improve the American Citizen Services here in Sofia.

Having traveled a decent amount each year, I have used a lot of airlines, so why not rate them during my long breaks.  As one friend puts it, we're all cattle when flying in economy, so I look for certain things when flying cattle class on airlines.  When I travel, I look for how much hassle there is flying the airlines, quality of food, entertainment on long flights, and if flights get cancelled or diverted.  American carriers (Delta, American, United) are not rated very highly.  In fact, I now avoid American carriers like the plague when I fly back to the U.S. every summer.  Every spring, I search religiously to find flights to the United States not run by Delta, United, or American, because I find the companies themselves rather scummy towards how they treat their staff and clients.  I fly them in the United States because I must.

Turkish Airlines(8 out of 10):  

Love them, despite all the cheesy Kobe Bryant and Lionel Messi commercials.  They have great flights with great service.  Flew them to Uzbekistan this past summer, and to Jordan.  The pluses of Turkish Air is that they pretty much fly anywhere in the world, give you decent food on flights, and provide good entertainment on longer flights.  Their airport is big, but it's not too troublesome to transfer through most of the time.  For Americans, you do not need a visa if you're transferring in the airport.  There is also a hotel where you can sleep off hours, but the only downside is taking flights during the middle of the night to reach places where you arrive at 3 A.M.

Bulgaria Air (9 out of 10):  

What????  Bulgaria Air has a 9 out of 10 score?  I'm not trying to be biased, but they're a really great airline in terms of reliability and getting you places, without charging you too much money.  Bulgaria Air provides decent direct flights throughout Europe, and for reasonable prices.  I love how I am allowed to carry 30 kilograms of luggage.  Last year, I found decent last minute tickets which allowed George and I to see Paul in Vienna, without paying tons of money.  They're not the fancy airline, but they never proclaim themselves to be fancy.  You receive a simple sandwich, water, and beverage of your choice on any of their flights.  The planes are new, and you can find a cheap flight comparable to Wizz Air if you know where you're going ahead of time.  Sometimes, it's cheaper to do Bulgaria Air than Wizz Air or Easy Jet.  This summer, we got upgraded to business class from Malaga to Sofia, where I had unlimited wine on the three hour flight.  It's too bad they don't fly direct to New York or Chicago, because I would brave JFK just to fly them direct to the United States.

Austrian Airlines(7.5 out of 10):  
Like the airline a lot, but dislike transferring in Vienna when there is a short connection time and you're at C/D and have to go to F or G.  On a cross-continental flight, there is great food and an awesome entertainment center for you to use.  However, the Vienna airport is a huge pain to make a transfer.  Why?  They have a lot of unnecessary security checks and sometimes you need to go through a security check twice to get to your flight, which is really stupid when you've been flying and already been screened.  Once, I get, but twice is ridiculous.  It's almost as if they think they're passengers take bomb making classes in the airport kiosks.

There is also a really long path to transfer from C/D to G areas in the Vienna airport, and you feel like cattle if you're going to Eastern Europe.  And the C gate area is pretty much the worst to get stuck in during a long layover.  There isn't much there, and thank god there's free wi fii.  This August, there were 30 flights leaving for the C gate within a two hour period, and we had to wait in the security checkpoint for over an hour.  This was the second security checkpoint for me, as Vienna's airport isn't setup well if you transfer to a non-schengen zone destination.  Then, the only area that seems friendly is the F and duty free area, and you might not necessarily get to those areas if you have a layover there.  The F and G areas have nice areas with free wi-fii though, which is nice for a layover.  The C area of the airport is just dreadful, and there's literally nothing there if you've got 3-4 hours to kill.  If it were not for the free wi-fii, one might have found

Lufthansa:  (7 out of 10):  
Really like the airline, and the airports in Munich and Frankfurt are much more sensible than Vienna.  Lufthansa has decent food and great entertainment on cross-continental flights.  Plus, the seats are usually comfortable for a short guy.  Overall, a pretty solid airline, but no free wifii at the airports brings down the score a bit, as well as the time it takes in Frankfurt to get through the airport.

Qatar Airways (9 out of 10)

I love Qatar Airways.  I have only flown them once going to Thailand, but economy felt more like business class on the flight from Doha to Bangkok.  There was more room in the seats, and the entertainment selection was incredible.  The food was a proper meal, and they had a pretty efficient way of handling transfers.  Even on the short hop from Sofia to Bucharest, we got a sandwich.  Granted, they can do this because they have free jet fuel supported by the government, but they treat you with style.  So want to try and fly to DC for business class with them.   I almost wanted to rate them a 10, but I've only flown them once, but right now the cheapest flight from Sofia to Washington for George and I is via Doha, so we might be coming to D.C. via Doha next summer.  :)

Air France (6 out of 10):  
Air France isn't that bad, even though the French go on strike twice a month.  Flying into Paris is a nightmare for a connecting flight, which totally knocks down their score.  When they're not on strike, they seem incapable of transferring passengers efficiently on trans-continental flights.  Airports I avoid at all costs are London Heathrow, Paris, and JFK.

One time I flew into Paris with a very long layover, and there were major delays on transfers causing the place where I was transferring to be congested and be standing room only.  They failed to stop the escalator, or get buses running.  The best part is that they only had buses transferring to Terminal 1, not Terminal 2, and half the people didn't understand the petite woman speaking Terminal One in French.  The poor petite woman stood no chance at the foreigner's ability to completely ignore French, and actually caused more chaos as she kept shouting Terminal Un.  Naturally, this led to a lot of church giggling from me as some people missed flights simply because they didn't know the number one in French.

British Airways (6 out of 10):  
I have not flown British Air in almost 10 years, but they're decent.  The only problem is flying into Heathrow, which I did once when they were doing a luggage strike.  It's pretty much a nightmare and there's nothing nice about it, and they're never prepared for winter and acted shocked when they get any amount of snowfall, even though they tell you they're prepared.  Heathrow is worse than dealing with Southern states, because at least you know they're not prepared for snow, whereas Heathrow will show you all the equipment they've got, and then don't seem to know how to use it.

United Airlines (3.5  out of 10):  
To me, United is like the best of the worst in America, but it's rather a toss up.  I am sucker for the Gershwin music they played on all their commercials.  None of the American carriers really are that good, except for Southwest or Airtran.  I fly United because I have to get to Buffalo in the summer, and they're a tad better than flying Delta.  They're not the most organized, and I've had to wait in Buffalo an extra day two out of the past four years for dubious reasons.  However, they're easier to deal when re-booking a flight than Delta.

Delta Airlines (1 out of 10):
 Pretty much, I would only fly Delta if I absolutely have to, and they remind of of Carol from Little Britain.  The computer says no, the late flight attendants say no, the food says no, and the reasons for delayed flights say no.  Their flights across the pond or to South America have been absolutely terrible, and the customer service is just plain awful.  The food on transcontinental flights is unappetizing and the fake plastic food might be a better choice.  I feel like Delta and American Airlines have a competition to see which airline could be worse, although I haven't flown on American in ages.

Uzbekistan Airways (5 out of 10):
 I only flew them once from Bukhara to Tashkent, and they were nice to me even though I was an idiot and lost my boarding pass in the airport.  Sure, the seat moved around, but I had a nice nap on the short flight I took with them.  They served you drinks, were nice to you, and it was easy to get baggage.  This easily catapults them above Delta, American, and United Airlines

Southwest Airlines (7 out of 10):  
I flew Southwest a lot traveling between BWI and Buffalo, and a few other flights.  It may be a low cost airline, but it is nothing like a Ryan Air or Wizz Air.  You know what you are getting with Southwest, and the rules are the rules.  Southwest staff have always been great, and try to instill humor, especially when there is bad weather.  I remember Southwest as being who work there have always been great.

Wizz Air (4.5 out of 10):  

Wizz Air is the low-cost airline which serves most of Eastern Europe with cheaper flights throughout Europe.  As long as you follow their rules, you're fine.  Wizz is not as cruel as Ryan Air, but you need to follow the rules.  At times, you can get a cheaper flight to places, but sometimes you can't so you really need to pay attention to baggage fees, seating fees, and whatever fee you want.  For recent history, I've had cheaper flights on Bulgaria Air than on Wizz Air for the destinations I've gone to, but that's not always the case.  There is an optional fee for more legroom and priority boarding, which is nice for a longer flight, because they do cram people in there and seats are cramped.

The score becomes a 4.5 as there is no A, B, or C boarding like you have on Southwest.  And when you're on a flight to Bulgaria, this brings out the worst in people, as the boarding of a Wizz Air plane becomes a Mad Max movie.  There are times I wonder if Wizz overbooks the flights and only the strongest or smartest get to board the plane to Sofia, while the others are left to wait for a goat cart to take them home.  No Bulgarian dares to buy any food on the plane(those who buy are glared at with contempt), and sometimes toilet paper is a privilege, not a guarantee.  Normally polite people become ruthless to scramble for the one spot on the plane where they think is best.  On a flight to Barcelona to Sofia, I somehow got there early and had a lot of time to kill, so I squatted my place in line to be one of the first five people.  When boarding, I got glared at by every unsympathetic person as I let a mother and her 2 year old child into line.  I growled back at the line to stop being heartless, and they begrudgingly allowed the woman to get on the plane.   Humanity was restored for a brief moment, before descending into apocolyptic hysteria to board the plane once I entered the line.

Iberia Air  (4 out of 10):  
I have only flown them once, and it seemed like the most disorganized airline ever.  Boarding was a disaster in Madrid, and staff were scrambling around trying to get the plane.  They let everyone on board at once, because the woman at the gate spoke so rapidly no one understood her in English or Spanish.  While we got there in one piece, the thing that stunk is that EVERYTHING cost money on the flight, even a glass of water.  Good thing we brought water onto the plane and it was only a short flight, as we weren't expecting Ryan Air of Wizz Air food policies.  To me, Iberia stays in business simply because it's in Spain, and they're the only game in town flying between cities in Spain.

Lot Airlines:  (6 out of 10):  

If you're going to Warsaw, LOT has pretty decent service.   Easy airport to transfer into, and probably the smallest airport to have flights to the U.S. and Canada.  While LOT has a menu of food in which you must pay, they do offer you water and a wafer on short flights, and the food prices are reasonable and not inflated.

Thanks for those who really wanted to geek out on airline ratings.  Hopefully, this will get me tons of press and business class upgrades for Qatar and Bulgaria Air, but all it will probably get is grief from the American airlines I rated poorly.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Uzbekistan Part 1:

Hey everyone,

Thanks for all the responses from the last blog.  We're at 100 USD and counting, which means I need 159 more incidents by February 2015 for someone to tell George he is not Bulgarian, give him an English menu, or speak to him in English.  Please note that it must be people that he does not know, so that means you can recruit friends of friends to find George anywhere he happens to be and mention to him that he is not Bulgarian.  Eye rolling does count when you ask him to do Bulgarian things, such as go hiking in the Rhodopis or trying to make him wear a martenitza.

This blog starts my trip to Uzbekistan, a fascinating place I visited last summer to visit my best friend since I have known since the Peace Corps, Diplo-Matt.  Some may ask, why didn't you write this blog last summer????  Yeah, I know I'm lazy about writing about these things, and I should have written this long ago.  This blog covers the first three days of the trip from June 27-July 7, 2013.  Hopefully, it will give you a small idea of what Uzbekistan is like.

Background of Uzbekistan for the uninformed Americans and Europeans reading this blog:

I think it's totally worth the trip and hassle to go to Uzbekistan.  While it isn't a country well known in the Western world, there are great mountains to go hiking, amazing Silk road sights, and great people.  It has Samarkand, which is the was the heart of the Tamurlane during the 14th and 15th centuries, and has one of the first planetarium observatories.  It has the ancient city of Bukhara, a silk road city of trade, culture, and learning for many centuries.  There is Khiva and Itchan Kala, which has been preserved and an excellent site of Islamic architecture.  It was the last Silk Road city traders came to before crossing the immense deserts to Iran.  There are amazing silk rugs and tapestries which take years to make.  Depending on how authentic they are and the size, they can costs thousands of dollars to buy retail in Europe.

Like any trip, Amelie wanted to come to Uzbekistan with me.
Luckily, she didn't drink the rakiya.  
Just so you know, Uzbekistan is not the easiest place to get a visa to as a traveler, but it can be done.  You can if you're part of a tour group, or have a sponsor organization, usually a tour group or an embassy.  It is also not the nicest government to live under.  Uzbekibeki is the 6th most corrupt country in the world, run by an autocratic, dying president who has a fascinating daughter, who seems to be failing in an effort to succeed him as president, even though she graduated from Harvard.  Not only is she Harvard educated, she is a pop singer who even has a song with Gerald Depardieu.  How many Harvard graduates can say they're successful business people and a pop singer?   Gulnara Karimova can, that's who.

That being said, it is a country worth visiting, to see and to understand what it's like.  I am a news junkie, and the news and what a country is like are completely different.  You need to see Uzbekistan for yourself to understand and get a picture of what it's like.  I loved visiting Uzbekistan, had a great tour guide who took great care of me.  I would encourage people, especially any Tea Party people, to come and visit Uzbekibeki for the amazing sites, but also to appreciate every ounce of freedom you have.

Thursday: Istanbul Airport flight to Tashkent and surviving the carry-on luggage check:  

Turkish Airlines is one of the few airlines to fly to Tashkent.  Turkey will do business with Uzbekistan to make money, but three Turkish guys who got their visa at the Uzbek consulate the same day I did described doing business there as 'fucking crazy', and they said the madness of getting a visa was the easy part compared to actually doing business there.  Turkish airlines sometimes 'loses' luggage on the flight to Tashkent as it's more valuable to the ground control to transport other goods besides luggage sometimes, so I was told to pack clothes for 1-2 days just in case my luggage decided not to come with me.

Rather than going on Aeroflot or Uzbek airlines, I opted for Turkish Airlines and decent food, even though I would have to leave Tashkent at 3:00am the day of my return flight.  So after a 12 hour layover in the Istanbul airport, which included three hours of snoring away in three seats to scare people from taking my valuables, the real trip to Uzbekistan began with an additional security and baggage check by Turkish Airlines officials.  So why exactly was there an additional security check to Tashkent?  Pretty much, they created a special line to check the carry-on luggage of all Uzbeks flying to Tashkent, as well as the 'token' foreigners such as myself.  They rummaged through every single passenger's luggage to fine us if we were bringing extra alcohol, clothes, purses, cigarettes, or whatever else Uzbeks were bringing on the flight to Tashkent.

Being like the fourth person to be checked, Turkish airline officials thoroughly scoured over my backpack and manpurse, looking for something fishy that they could charge me 20-100 USD for as a fine.  To be honest, this scene reminded me of any Wizz Air flight, or some U.S. airlines baggage policies.  They would have done the same thing to shake down more money from Uzbek citizens, all in the interest of following company policy.One guy tried to say my backpack weighed too much because of the change of clothes, but I played the total American diva by telling him I made it on one flight from Sofia to Istanbul with the exact same stuff, and no one said anything.  Then, I gave them a silent smile Southerners use to pretty much silently say, "Suck it dude, I'm falling for your trick one bit."

With these spoken and unspoken words, I managed to pass through the unofficial security/baggage checkpoint, and then I was able to get a prime seat to watch the Turkish Airlines officials do their best work.  Sadly, some Uzbeks weren't quite as fortunate as I was getting past.  One poor Uzbek baba got shook down for about 50 USD for having about 3-4 extra carry-on bags beyond the one bag plus one personal item.  My guess is that her four bags of purses didn't exactly qualify as a personal item.  After lots of shouting and screaming in Turkish and Uzbek, she paid her fine.  Another group of four guys got stuck paying 30 USD for trying to take 12 bottles of alcohol between them instead of 8, but I guess they were better negotiators than the Uzbek baba in bright clothing.  After this happened to 4-5 other people, and finally they herded us onto the buses and boarded the flight to Tashkent.  There was a really nice Uzbek kid about 19 or 20 who was really excited I was going to be visiting his country.

Friday:  Arrival in Tashkent, Seeing Puke Green Uniforms Everywhere, First Uzbek Dinner, and Russian and Uzbeks abound

Arriving at the Tashkent airport is an interesting experience.  You are met at the gate immediately by Uzbek border guards, who make sure you get to the passport control.  Before going, I was warned by many blogs and people about the Uzbek airport experience.  Actually, the Tashkent airport experience was very tame compared to the Istanbul airport, which was the total opposite of what I was expecting.  After five minutes, I got through customs with no problems, and then filled out forms in English(as of June 2013) declaring what goods and the amount of cash I was carrying.

Tashkent is the capital city of Uzbekistan, with a population of 2.3 million.    Much like a, it is very sprawled out after a 1966 Earthquake destroyed much of the city.  To help encourage the sprawl, Uzbeks much prefer to live in a house rather than an apartment.  In addition, there are wide 6-8 lane roads that were built throughout the city as a result after the 1966 Earthquake, and almost nothing really remains of the old part of Tashkent, which is really sad because it has a really history as being one of the cities on the Silk Road.
Monument at the epicenter 1966 Earthquake, which destroyed most of what was left of the Old Town.  

The weirdest thing about Tashkent that morning going to Matt's house was there were policemen about 50-150 meters apart from each other on every major road, especially the ones President Karimov took his daily drive on.   Their outfits are a gay diva's worst nightmare, as they wear the uniforms are the most hideous shade of green possible.  Not green grass green, not forest green, but more what green peeps would look like if you puked them up.

After sleeping for about 4-5 hours, Matt had to do this thing called work, while I stayed home and enjoyed his awesome sound system and watched Boardwalk Empire.  There wasn't much else I could do, since I needed to officially register and wasn't allowed to leave Tashkent until I was registered.  Since this was Friday, it meant that I couldn't get the passport back until Monday, and essentially meant I was not to travel anywhere within the country.   Visitors must stay in hotels, but I escaped this law by staying with Matt, who is in his first post in the foreign service after somehow failing the oral portion of the foreign service exam 6,789 consecutive times.  To be honest, I don't know why they failed him that many times, because he's really good at his job.  I would have only failed him 3,456 times, but maybe the U.S. government knows something I don't about my best friend.

Friday evening was spent going to a great Uzbek restaurant I guess all foreigners are taken to for experiencing Uzbek food.  Uzbekistan is a predominantly Muslim country, the Islam Karimov preaches Uzbek family values with religious secularism.  So, alcohol is widely found at all restaurants, as this is something they learned and kept from the Russians when they were part of the Soviet Union.  Some of the salads were similar to ones you could find in the Balkans, but the meats and stews had influences from all over the place.  I Thanks to Reina and Bati Matthew, I ate extremely well, and managed to sustain my buddha belly that night.  Reina is a friend of one of our friend's wife, and was a really cool to hang out with.  She says she didn't understand English and only spoke Russian, but I swear she understood most of what we were talking about in English most of the time.the most sufficient manner possible.

Evenings in Tashkent were spent doing what would seem to be a theme of the trip.  With a daily high temperature between 40-45C, one of the nice things is to chill are night outside, when the temperatures get cooler.   So, a typical Tashkent evening was to chill with a bottle of wine, chat with Matt, his 'lady friend' Reina, or some other peeps who worked with Matt on the tapchan at his house.  Unfortunately, Uzbekistan is not know for it's wine, so all wine was imported from other places.  Wine prices shocked me completely, as my $3-6 Euro bottle of wine in Bulgaria cost triple or quadruple in Uzbekistan.

Saturday:  Going through a large Uzbek bazaar and buying serving pans to help out the U.S. Embassy, and why we should get invited to future Fourth of July parties in Sofia 

On Saturday, I got to go to one of the largest Uzbek markets, where you can pretty much find anything.  Pretty much, you name it, and this market it had it in terms of stuff for sale.  It reminded me a little bit of Springville auction in terms of what you could find, but 15-20 times larger.  There were every type of item available for purchase by people trying to make a living and make some extra money.  If I lived in Tashkent, I probably would have purchased 4-5 things that day, but since I had to fit them into a suitcase, I had to restrain my buying power and live through Matt buying things.  

However, my American dollars were came in very handy, and possibly saved the day for the U.S. Embassy official party.  Matt was also officially on a work trip to find some serving dishes for the upcoming Fourth of July party at the Embassy on Monday, but he did not have enough dollar to purchase said serving pans, it was Saturday, and no official bank was working.  So, I graciously gave Matt a $600 USD loan from my dollars so he could purchase said serving pans, as it seems to be the thing to do when you're in Uzbekistan, which you'll find out later.  Part of the reason is the only ATM is located in the U.S. Embassy.  President Karimov controls the economy and monetary policies, and the highest note for a bill is 1,000 Som.  However, there are 2,240 to one USD, so you have stacks of money to deal with when exchanging money(The black market rate is about 2,600-2,700 Som to a dollar).  What do you do when you need to pay in Som and the highest bill note is 1,000, and you the highest one should really be 20 or 50 thousand?  You carry a butt-load of money around with you at all times.  Part of the Uzbek experience is constantly counting out Som and you need to have a manpurse or a bag to keep your money in, as a wallet cannot fit 100,000 Som.  So, we went back, got my dollars, and I gave Matt over 1,000,000 Som in order for the U.S. Embassy to serve chili for the official Fourth of July party to buy serving tray at the store in the bazaar.  My reward was a BBQ, some good drinks, and an awesome pool to chill and after a hot day in Tashkent.  

Especially for the U.S. Embassy of Sofia staff:  If anyone from the Embassy in Sofia is reading this blog, helping your fellow embassy is totally why I should get invited to future official Fourth of July parties at the U.S. Embassy in Sofia.  Elana Resnick has left, and you need someone to be scandalous since she's left to live in the land of the free again.  And who better to do that than George and I.  George is great at ticking off diplomats, and I can be somewhat entertaining and smooth things over if he says something too outrageous.  You can also blame us for any embarrassing incidents, so the ambassador and your staff don't have to take the heat.  So whoever runs the guest invite for the 1,500-2,500 people you invite to the Sofia extravaganza, include George and I this year and I promise we'll not disappoint and make Elana proud. 

Sunday:  Chimgon while being fat and fabulous, great sights, and a horrible toilet
On Sunday morning, we got up at 5:30 AM to go hiking with this old Russian guy named Boris.  
Every Sunday, he takes people out for hikes in the Chimgon area, which is about 45-50 km from Tashkent.  This is a very narrow 10-15 km wide area of Uzbekistan, which borders Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.  Boris is about 60, and his hiking style can best be described as a mountain goat.  There are no such things are trails in Chimgon.  One just chooses a path, and starts hiking.  This is what Boris does, as there was definitely no trail.  Your landmarks you use are the big lake, and the mountains surrounding you.  One just had to trust Boris knew where he was going, and hoped that he was going to take you on a path that was not too tough.     

This hike was not the toughest one I've done, but it definitely was tougher being fat and fabulous.  Yes, I looked like a old donkey trudging up a hill, but I made it up the mountain and really enjoyed the views.  
I was reminded a few times of how much weight my body has,
but also happy I had lost some of the weight.  Going uphill was tough, but I managed to beat the Russian mother and father who had taken their child hiking for the first time.  I considered that an accomplishment, but vowed to get myself back in shape once I got back from traveling that summer(Something I finally started doing in January when I could only barely fit into two pair of pants).  

Hiking around Chimgon was a great way to escape the city for a day, and get some fresh air in a beautiful place.  The views were amazing, so I'll let the pictures do the talking on this one.  This concludes part one of Uzbekistan, and I hope this inspires a few people to visit one place in the world we don't know much about.  

See those mountains?  That's Kyrgyzstan.  

 And see those mountains?  That's Kazakhstan.

  A cow chilling and wondering what we're doing hiking with no trail.
 View of the lake below, where people hang out for the today to escape the heat.  Closest thing to a beach you'll find in Uzbekistan, so if you want to cool off from 40-45 C temperatures, you come here.  The Aral Sea is hundreds of kilometers away, and isn't exactly beach material being an environmental disaster.

Colt chilling with the horses in the shade, wondering why we're hiking.  
The 'beach toilet' near the lake where we chilled for a bit before heading back to Tashkent.  Easily one of the worst toilets I have ever had to take a dump in.  I tried to hold it as long as I could and somehow hoped to find a bathroom somewhere.  However, I sucked it up and took a dump there like all the Uzbeks did.  I just held my breathed, squatted, did my business, and only had to breathe foul air once.  In hindsight, the digestive medicine George made me take would have come in really handy here, but I was stubborn and decided not to take it until January as part of a new me in 2014.  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

236 Reasons Why George is not Bulgarian

Hey everyone,

This edition of the blog is a long time in coming.  Here is the background.  There is a running joke between Owen, Sarah, and I that George is not really Bulgarian.  When we're together out somewhere, most people assume George is not Bulgarian.  Some Bulgarians who don't know George are in total disbelief when they find out he is Bulgarian.

To be objective, George is guilty by association by hanging out with me and speaking English.  They just assume he is not Bulgarian when we speak in English all the time.  Other times, I just laugh hysterically at what happens.  George has been waiting for over almost two years for me to prove there were 236 reasons why he is not Bulgarian.  While some may be exaggerated slightly, he is ready for me to publish this blog issue.  In his words, he said "Why not" when I asked if he really wanted me to post this.

Not to back down from a challenge, here we go :

236 Reasons Why George is not Bulgarian

  1. He doesn't like drinking rakiya.  
    One look, and most people believe this mild mannered man is not Bulgarian.  Editor's note:  Yes, I am delibarately trying to hide my fat and fabulous phase in December 2013.  
  2. I don't believe he has ever drunk domashna rakiya.
  3. He thinks homemade wine is blah, blah, blah.
  4. He gets handed English menus in restaurants by Bulgarian waitresses.
  5. A few of my Bulgarian colleagues have questioned whether he is Bulgarian to me after meeting him at work functions.
  6. The saleslady in Zara spoke English to him in trying to help him find the best shirt to buy.
  7. He eats Nutella with pretzels.  While Bulgarians love Nutella, there is no such thing as chocolate covered pretzels.  The Serbians have peanut butter pretzels, which sadly have never made it to Bulgaria, even though they're neighbors.  
  8. He is very optimistic.  He has so much optimism for a Bulgarian it's hard to believe he's like the rest of Bulgarians.  Bulgarians miserable, but not George.  He knows the reasons why, but lives to prove the system wrong.  
  9. He does not have a village house.
  10. He despises going to any village and doing village things.
  11. He has no village roots.  You have to go back generations to find his family in a village.
  12. He hates eating roasted peppers.
  13. He is not a fan of tikvenik and dislikes all things made with pumpkin.
  14. He has requested that I roast peppers with a chuskopek when he is not here.  
  15. When a few of my Bulgarian friends first met him, they thought he was from Germany.  
  16. Unlike so many Bulgarians who flock to the Black Sea and Greece, he despises the seaside and was forced to go with me to Ahtopol and Sozopol.  He now finds Sozopol passable, so I guess I'm working on him.  
  17. He dislikes going to the beach because it is too sandy.
  18. He is a total city boy, born in Pleven, and living in Plovdiv and Sofia.  He is unlike many of the recently 1,000,000 transplanted residents of Sofia within the past ten years, who have brought the village to Sofia.    
  19. His grandmother was a policewoman.  Years ago in the communist days, she beat up a man who tried to assault her with her purse in Pleven, and still attended the event she needed to get to in Sofia.  In heels, she thought of it was nothing really out of the ordinary.  Talk about a dedicated woman.
  20. He has a mother who is the Bulgarian version of Judge Judy in the courtroom.  
  21. He got a Kindle for Christmas last year, loved it, and actively uses it.
  22. He actively reads for pleasure.
  23. He purchases more than two books a year, and is actively designing his study.  The average Bulgarian buys less than two books per year.
  24. George took 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami in English as his metro read.  Yes, he took an almost 1,000 page book on the metro for months as his daily read.  What Bulgarian man does that?
  25. He somehow thinks every Bulgarian has these fascinating discussions on literary books.
  26. His name is George, and he has NEVER celebrated his name day.  
  27. He does not like his name, while most Georgi's here celebrate their name with pride. 
  28. To make it even worse, he hates eating lamb, which is the traditional food of St. George's Day on May 6th.
  29. When I tried to get him to celebrate his name day two years ago, George somehow had a horrible allergic reaction to something he ate and was sick for a week.  There were hives the size of winter potholes on Bulgarian roads which burst like erupting volcanoes, sometimes without even touching them.  He slept for 40 out of 48 hours that Georgiev den weekend, while I took care of him and watched hockey playoffs.  I had to cancel all festivities, and I don't dare try to celebrate his name day again.  
  30. To make it even worse, he despises eating lutenitza, which is one of my favorite foods.  This probably makes me more Bulgarian than him just for this alone.
  31. He doesn't like homemade lutenitsa.
  32. He doesn't want me to make homemade lutenitsa.
  33. He refuses to let me roast peppers for the winter.
  34. He refuses to let me buy a pepper roaster for the balcony.  He thinks we're going to be villagers by having the roasted pepper smell come out from our apartment.   
  35. His signature sandwiches have cream cheese instead of butter, which is a staple of all Bulgarian sandwiches(I am so grateful for this one because George can make some incredible sandwiches.)
  36. At the Greek/Bulgarian border, he was reprimanded by the border guard in 2011, while I had absolutely no problems as the American.
  37. He does not have a driver's license.
  38. He really prefers to take public transportation instead of driving a car.  Whereas, most Bulgarians prefer to have the most expensive Audi, Mercedes, or BMW and have an umbilical cord attached between them and their cars.  I have some friends who would drive somewhere that is a 3-5 minute walk.  
  39. He does not like Sushi, which has become a popular craze throughout Bulgaria.  
  40. He despises taking walks in the mountains. 
  41. He has no practical hiking shoes, and he caught me last year trying to secretly buy him a pair of hiking shoes.  After 10 minutes, he realized I never actually needed these shoes, and it was all a planned ploy to secretly get him hiking.  He has steadfastly stated never to go hiking no matter what.  
  42. He hates skiing and snowboarding, and would never be caught on skis.  Sarah begged him to go skiing this year to take some beginning lessons with her, and George considered the proposal for five seconds before politely declining.  
  43. When asked by one of my colleagues on whether he'd be going skiing, George told her in no uncertain terms:  "No fucking way am I going there."  
  44. He does not like Bulgarian folk music.
  45. He despises traditional Bulgarian folk costumes.
  46. When I turn on any of the traditional folk music channels on cable TV, one hears a howl of pain coming from George.  This sound one might here from George is similar to werewolves getting hit by a silver bullet, or vampires seeing the sun.  The excruciatingly painful howls continue until the 'offensive song' being played is changed to something more suitable, like chalga or VH1.  Whereas Americans have been fascinated by this music for years, George had a scowl on his face but tolerated me playing this video from the Johnny Carson show.  
  47. He loves doing laundry.
  48. He loves to iron clothes.  Actually, I love this one because I hate ironing and one of my favorite things is when he irons my shirts.  
  49. He gives me explicit instructions on how to change and wash the sheets because I was doing it all wrong according to him.  What Bulgarian man does these type of things???
  50. He is a big fan of Swedish cinema and television.  Do you know any Bulgarians who are fans of independent Swedish films????  No way.   
  51. He does not smoke, nor ever wants to smoke.  
  52. He hates wearing martenitsas.  Last year, he managed to wear his martenitsa for a day, while Amelie wore her martenitsa with pride.  
    Amelie loves martenitsas more than George
  53. He does not celebrate any Bulgarian holidays willingly, but sort of accepts New Year's Eve now.
  54. He is enthusiastic about anything happening, even when I bring something small home like chocolate.  
  55. A Brazilian friend of Sarah's was convinced George was not from Bulgaria when she met him at Cabra in December 2013.  This woman has been in Bulgaria for years, and was convinced George was not Bulgarian.  
  56. He can actually clean an apartment well, which 99.9999999% of Bulgarian men don't clean.  He gets the special bleach cleaner to piss off the cat, who then spends all week trying to reclaim the apartment.
  57. He knows which laundry soaps to buy and loves DM, where the clerks mistook him for a foreigner once and spoke in English.  
  58. He is terrified of going to Cyprus for two weeks in June 2014, because he doesn't know if he can survive without the DM store, since there are none in Cyprus.  He may stock up on his hair products for June and stuff them into his suitcase.  You may ask what does this have to do with George not being Bulgarian.  My answer is:  What Bulgarian man would worry about this when going to Cyprus for two weeks as his main concern? 
  59. The Greeks at the semiotics conference in Thessaloniki last year asked him to speak slower in English because he speaks to quickly in English for them to understand what he was saying.  They assumed he was from the States, and were shocked to find out he was from Pleven, Bulgaria.  For this one, my mom and I are especially proud of this.  
  60. In Sozopol, he stared down and debated a Harvard University professor who was visiting the semiotics conference sponsored by New Bulgarian University.  
  61. In 2012 in Sozopol, some of the conference attendees were shocked that the only Bulgarian the guest professor from Canada would talk to is George, along with Elana.  George, naturally, reveled in the fact they were too terrified to speak to him.  
  62. When asked whether he wanted a cleaning lady, George has refused many times.  He sees this as an insult to his cleaning abilities, and really doesn't want a baba to come in and invade his space.  
  63. He is excited to order sheets online, and makes sure we have matching sheets. 
  64. When we hosted a Bulgarian themed night, he actually cooked two really great dishes, but neither were traditional Bulgarian dishes.  I was the one who pulled through by making the chicken kavarma, where as he made potato pancakes(latki) and bean balls.   
  65. His mother got him pink sheets this year for Christmas, and he found them beautiful.  Amelie sort of likes them, so I am forced to suffer and now have pink sheets in my apartment.  
    The pink sheets George and Amelie adore on the spare bed.  
Reasons 66-236:  He has been mistaken for a foreigner at least 171 times since we have been together by Bulgarian strangers.  It is always hysterical to see his reaction when people speak English to him at restaurants, stores, parties, and official functions.   George may say this is only one reason, but if I had 10 USD for every time someone thought he was a foreigner here, I would have at least $6000 USD by now.

Here is what I must do to prove George wrong for the next year:  

My future savings plan is to put $10 USD into my saving account every time someone thinks George is not Bulgarian.  On February 9, 2015, I will let all of you know how much money I have accumulated into the account.  My hope is that my tens of readers do not let in on the secret.  Here is what will count towards the 10 USD:

1.  10 USD for every time someone tells me George is not Bulgarian.
2.  10 USD for every time someone mistakes him for being a foreigner in Bulgarian.  They can be a foreigner or a Bulgarian.
3.  10 USD for every time a Bulgarian speaks English to George

Let the games begin, and may I have at least another $1,710 in savings by February 2015.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Celebrating New Year's in Bulgaria and Fantastic Lasagna Recipe

Happy New Year Everyone!

Yes, it's been an extremely long time since I wrote a blog, and there are many reasons why I have not written, which include:

1.  Teaching wild fourth grade squirrels
2.  Being enslaved every Sunday night to the NFL game package and playing fantasy football
3.  Introducing George to American culture specialties such as Oprah and TLC.  He is in love with a show called Long Island Medium.  I have totally corrupted him, since two weeks ago he said he didn't want to have cable after the contract expires in June 2014.
4.  Watching Judge Judy and Howard Stern episodes on the Youtubes.
5.  Finding other masterful ways to waste time as only a true slacker could.

Since I have over TWO WEEKS off for the Christmas and New Year's holidays and I have a staycation here in Sofia, there is no excuse not to write a blog or two this week to end 2013, and to start 2014.  There are 3-4 blogs in the works, but this one is the first.

New Year's in Bulgaria is one of my favorite holidays of the year, and even a stay at-home party can still be a great experience.  During the communist times, celebrating Christmas was frowned upon, so people saved up their festive celebrations for New Year's Eve.  While Christmas is now celebrated since the fall of communism, New Year's still holds its place as a memorable celebration here.  The tradition is to gather close friends and family to celebrate the new year with a lavish spread of food.  There are fireworks everywhere, and you can simply go off your balcony and light off fireworks at any point in time during the evening.  Unlike the States, you can buy fireworks anywhere.  You can even buy fireworks in the grocery store now, as I saw two displays in Picadilly where you can buy all the fireworks you need for New Year's.  

The first year we met, George refused to go out and do anything for New Year's at all, except for celebrating with one of his friends, who we affectionately call Beaker.  Yes, he acts just like Beaker from the Muppets, which is why he has the nickname. Amelie realized George's friend Beaker was afraid of him, and a three month old kitten managed to dominate and terrorize Beaker the entire evening.  Yes, a three month old kitten dominated a 36 year old man.  So while we stayed at home, Amelie managed to make New Year's 2011 highly memorable.  

For New Year's Eve 2012, I know I had to convince George to try something, and I'm glad he loved going to Andy Kelly's party and seeing all the fireworks from a 7th story rooftop in the Center of Sofia.  Otherwise, I would have been in the doghouse for a long time.  It might not have been the best idea as fireworks were going off right off someone's balcony, but the view was simply incredible.  

To give you an idea on how we celebrated New Year's 2013, I am using Eli's photos she took this year to give you an idea of what it's like to celebrate New Year's in Sofia.  Elitza is a great photographer, and I am sharing some of the lovely photos she put on the Facebooks.  

May you enjoy these photos and the great lasagna recipe that goes along with it!  Lots of health, love, and happiness to everyone in 2014!

Amelie playing after being kicked out of the table while eating dinner.  Credit Elitza Marinkova-Germanova
New Year's 2013 was a lavish dinner of lasanga(meat and meatless), delectable carrot cake made by Eli, and cheesecake made by me.  In the photo, I am being fat and fabulous laughing uncontrollably during dinner after something funny was said.  Dinner may not have been lavish with Bulgarian food, but homemade lasagna and cheesecake is a family tradition that comes from my grandmother that I continue to do, even in Sofia.   Credit Elitza Marinkova-Germanova

Posing for a picture with Eli, who made an incredible carrot cake.   Credit Elitza Marinkova-Germanova

Eli and Sash are what I call metro virgins, being that they never actually use the metro.  There were about 30 crazy photos taken using the metro between our apartment and Christian's apartment.  At one point, I though we were going to spend New Year's taking pictures at the Vassil Levski metro station.  :)  Credit Elitza Marinkova-Germanova

Getting the necessary champagne ready for midnight and the beginning of 2014.  Luckily, our friend Christian has a great apartment with a balcony that gives you a 360 degree view of all the fireworks.  He graciously hosted a party in which about 40 people gathered to see the fireworks.  Credit Elitza Marinkova-Germanova

View from Christian's balcony on New Year's Eve.  He has a great view of Alexander Nevski Church as you can see.  Credit Elitza Marinkova-Germanova

At the stroke of midnight, or when people think it is midnight, the Sofia sky is filled with fireworks throughout the city for a solid 10-15 minutes.  There is a boring speech just before midnight given by the Bulgarian president, but it's much better to skip such boring theater in order to see this dazzling display of colors in the next two pictures.  Credit Elitza Marinkova-Germanova

Credit Elitza Marinkova-Germanova

As you can see in the next two photos, there are fireworks throughout the Sofia skyline.  Credit Elitza Marinkova-Germanova

 Credit Elitza Marinkova-Germanova

Amelie trying to get a little bite of cheesecake the day after.  Silly Amelie, cheesecake is for people, not kitties.  It's not only her, everyone loves this cheesecake.  This is my photo.  :)
 Two Layer Lasagna 

1 - 1.5 liters of spaghetti sauce (I make my own sauce which I added onions, garlic, mushrooms, and fresh basil which makes for a great base sauce)
600 grams sausage, chopped into bite size pieces (optional)
50g fresh or frozen spinach, washed and chopped (optional)
450g ricotta cheese600 grams mozzeralla cheese, sliced into chunks
250 to 300g parmesan cheese
1 egg
2 spoonfuls of olive oil
1 small spoonful basil

6 to 18 lasagna noodles (I use the Barilla noodles which you don't need to cook)

 Preheat oven to 175 C.  
First, mix the egg and ricotta cheese in a small bowl. 

Lightly grease bottom of 9 by 13 inch pan, or 22.5 by 32.5cm, with oil. Add a little tomato sauce at the bottom, then place 5-6 lasagn
a noodles in pan, or until the pan bottom is fully covered in noodles. For the first layer, add more tomato sauce, then add ricotta cheese and cover evenly with spoon. Spread mozzerella and parmesan, and then sprinkle spinach, and sausage over the cheese. Finally add a little more tomato sauce on top and cover with lasagna noodles. 

For second layer, repeat the process, making sure to save some tomato sauce, mozzerella, and parmesan for the very top. For the very top, add last of tomato sauce over the last layer of noodles, then spread over the tomato sauce. Cover with aluminum foil, and bake for about an hour. Let cool for about 10-20 minutes, then eat and enjoy!