Sunday, June 23, 2013

Protests in Sofia, which have been overshadowed by Turkey and Brazil, began after the ruling coalition, a motley crew of Socialists, Ethnic Turks, and the Far Right, nominated and approved an unqualified and widely-believed-to-be-corrupt business man, Delyan Peevski, to head the country's FBI. His appointment was almost immediately rescinded, but this has done nothing to quell the protests. The feeling is that this appointment simply revealed the deep criminality inherent in all four of the parties represented in Parliament. This deep dissatisfaction (the ruling coalition currently has an approval rating of 23%) is manifested by nightly protest marches throughout the center of the city. On the 22nd, I went downtown with my friend Garth to see what would be the ninth consecutive night of marching.

At around Six-thirty pm, people began to congregate around the Cabinet building.
Within an hour, the square was over-flowing with thousands of people. Остаква! was the most popular cheer, meaning simply resignation.
The March proceeded though and around the center of the city for more than three hours.

I love you Bulgaria! They cannot take me away from you! 

The sign above includes the ascription ИНТЕРНЕТ ЛУМПЕН, an expression that a politician used to dismiss the protesters as, "Internet Ragamuffins", but which has been reappropriated by the protesters.

Many families march; both strollers and canes are attending. 

From the daily newspaper Труд
Initially the protesters were dismissed as having been bought by the opposition party, the center-right GERB. In response, this protester's sign reads, "And I am not paid! I hate you for free!" Another popular sign reads simply, "Enough" and then has each of the four parties on parliament crossed out. The protesters chant, "Red Trash" to the socialists, "Mafia" at the ethnic Turkish party office , and to avoid giving it media coverage, ignore the far right ATAKA's offices completely.

The parade route goes by all of the major centers of the city. I think that it would take about an hour for the whole march to pass any single location. 

But what now? Of course, the marches may fizzle out. But if they continue? Towards the end of the march, I began to feel that the situation was clearly untenable. If the protests continue at this level, effectively shutting down the city each evening, even without a general strike, I think the government would be forced to resign in the coming weeks. But as for what comes after the resignation that the protesters cry out for, no one seems to be able to say.  New elections, of course, but there is no new party with the apparatus to take advantage. Certainly it would seem likely that GERB, who ran the government until the Prime Minister resigned in the face of much smaller protests a few months ago, would benefit. Despite receiving the plurality of votes in the recent elections, they couldn't muster a majority in the face of the antipathy of the other three parties. GERB too is mired in corruption scandals and incompetence, and almost no one views them as the messiah that the crowds seem to seek.

Astute watchers should have seen this coming. Because of the 4% threshold that is required for a party to enter Parliament, more than a quarter of Bulgarians who voted for smaller parties in the last election are entirely unrepresented. Without any viable alternative, without figures untainted by the moral compromises that have been required for power over the last twenty years, "Throw the bums out!" threatens to simply allow a revolving door of differently constituted coalitions of the same old parties. At the end of the route, marching through the dark, I saw power enough to topple a government but not yet nearly enough to rebuild it.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


It's been a while since the last post. I don't intend to try to capture the last 5 months in one update; rather, I want to share the latest excitement in my home with all of you: the arrival of Felix the Lucky Dog.

Felix was abandoned on our School's campus last week; or maybe he was separated form a litter of dogs that live somewhere in the surrounding neighborhood. Either way, he spent several days scamping around, finding intermittent relief from his lonely, itinerant existence in the arms of cooing high school girls. Finally, last Tuesday, some colleagues scooped him up and created an ambush: Felix in arms, they waited until I was finished teaching my yoga class for faculty, and then set upon those of us straggling out into the waning daylight. It was all over.

I took him home and waited for Phil to arrive. When he came in and saw the pup on our kitchen floor, already snuggled into his new blanket, I explained that "we're just watching him for a while until someone adopts him." He was impressive in his nonchalance at this prospect and gave Felix the requisite reassuring pats and, most importantly, his name, which means "lucky" in Latin.
Exploring campus.
It's been almost a week, and no one has jumped at the chance to take him off our hands. Perhaps this has something to do with my half-hearted campaign to find someone to do so. While I have been advertising actively and doing research to find alternatives to adoption by colleagues or School community members, I have also been hoping, probably not so subtly, that my efforts fail. After all, if nothing works out, we're not going to toss him out of the house. Right?!?

You can see from the photos that Felix is an easy guy to love. We found him dehydrated, starving, flea-ridden, and possibly wormy. He has, in the space of a few days, had a full revival: he's a happy, healthy, and normal pup. He trots alongside me when we walk around campus, without a leash, and he loves playing with chew toys and chasing tennis balls (which are still way too big for him to hold in his mouth for long). He does the cute thing where he moves his legs in his sleep, as if running after a squirrel, which is mostly funny because he's not much bigger than one himself.

And they get along so well!
But the more frontal-lobe oriented members of our household argue, with good reason, that he is also a complicating factor at a time when life is about to get way more complicated; he magnifies all the limitations and challenges that adding a baby to the family will imply, not only because he, too, is a baby, but because he cannot be brought along on trips, nor is he suited for every environment in which we might find ourselves when we leave our current jobs. Touche.

But... he's so freakin' cute. And such a good boy. So, what could be so bad?

My new executive assistant. 
I guess I am putting this out there half hoping that people will tell me how great it is to have a dog, despite the certain nuisances that come along with caring for one over time, and half hoping that someone will see his cute little punnum and decide to adopt him. The latter resolution needs to be quick, as the longer he stays in our house, the less my emotional stability can be counted upon...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Reflections on Revolution and Independence

Saturday, 22 September, was Bulgarian Independence Day, a day that celebrates Bulgaria's final separation from the Ottoman Empire in 1908. To commemorate the occasion, a parade was held downtown in Sofia, as well as in other cities, such as the ancient capital, Veliko Tarnovo.

Closer to home, the senior editor of Horizont, a program on Bulgarian National Radio, interviewed one Philip Altman, or Филип Олтман, as he's known locally, about the American Revolution in the context of Bulgarian Independence. Phil waxes poetic about the aspirations of our founding fathers, the difference between saying "the revolutionary war" and "the war for independence," and how understanding a complicated man like Thomas Jefferson can help us to understand better the human condition. 

Without further ado, here to pluck at your patriotic heartstrings, is Филип... 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

хайде България!

Sweet view from Margaret's apt in Brooklyn
Yet another long hiatus from the blogging finds us back in Sofia, BG, after an action-packed spring and summer, complete with a road trip to Istanbul and Greece with Margaret and Bryan in April; a holiday on the Dalmatian coast with Elias; and an awesome summer with family and friends in New York, Vermont, Maine, and Minnesota. We feel pretty lucky to have had such a full itinerary in our first year in Sofia, and we look forward to more exciting excursions in Year Two and, most importantly, to welcoming more special guests to Sofia and surroundings.

Trying an anti-jet lag strategy. Didn't work.
Despite a battle with some epic jet lag, we've had a pretty smooth return. Who can complain when you return to work after a 2-month vacation and have a 4-day weekend after your first few days back? Good ol' Unification Day. We talked about traveling somewhere to take advantage of the extra time, but with loads of preparation before the start of the school year (17 September!), and with fond and very fresh memories of our summer adventures, we didn’t feel compelled to leave town, after all. So we’ve been kicking around here, enjoying Sofia’s spectacular late-summer weather and, for me, some great yoga classes at a local studio hosting guest teacher Nanci Traynor. She is incredible, and, fortunately, she’s moving to Sofia in a few weeks! Phil, too, has been active, beefing up at the gym and playing tennis or squash every day.

Hard to see, but the score is 1-0 BG.
But we’re sports fans as well as practitioners, so, after a tip-off from Dan Heijman, we turned up at Levski stadium Friday night to see Bulgaria play Italy in a World Cup qualifying match. Bulgaria kept possession through much of the game and scored an early opening goal, though the match ended in a tie. The game was as much an anthropological experience as an enjoyable sporting event, as we learned about the language and behaviors exhibited by the male-dominated (seriously, like 99%) fan base. One funny thing is that they are great with the cheers; they especially like to call out one section of the stadium for call-and-response-style cheering. For example, Sector E will shout, “Sector B! Sector B! Sector B!” until they’re sure they have Sector B’s attention, and then they’ll scream “българи!” (Bulgarians!), and Sector B has to shout back “юнаци!” (Heroes!). This is accompanied by a slightly fascistic arm-pumping motion. Add this to the homogeneity of the crowd and its preferred aesthetic (over-developed upper body, shaved head), and the mood felt a little oppressive at times, most literally when a few hooligans in the crowd chose to throw flares into the empty seats in their own “sector,” effectively smoking out their fellow fans (flares were also thrown down onto the track at the riot police ringing the perimeter).

Today, Phil gets back to the real deal when he returns to Frisbee practice. The team is gearing up for a tourney during the weekend of 6 October, which happens to be the same day as parent conferences at school. Phil can only make a cameo for the finals, on Sunday.  Listen folks, these are the compromises one makes by being a “national team athlete” as well as a consummate professional.

On the horizon: a potential visit from Verity Chegar in a couple of weeks and a rendez vous in Brussels with Margaret in mid-October. Until the next round-up, най-добри пожелания!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Power of Proofreading (or Not)

So, it was brought to my attention in recent weeks that there is an error in the naming of the web address for this site. Those of you who have had to search for it and had no luck may already know what I'm talking about. That's how Phil found the error.

I don't know how it happened. "P" and "A" are not even close to each other on the keyboard, nor is "Pahilip" a cute nickname that I use for Phil and got used to typing. But you can imagine that I haven't lived it down since it was discovered. Overheard in our house:

Me: Didn't you get my email?
Phil: I don't know; maybe you sent it to Pahilip.


Me: Phil, are you listening to me?
Phil: Oh, sorry, I thought you were talking to Pahilip.

This is a cautionary tale. What goes on the internet, stays on the internet, and the internet means "world wide web." Take it from me, proofread your work carefully.


Chestita Baba Marta!

Bulgarians celebrate a very unique tradition of welcoming in "Granny March," or Baba Marta, on March 1st with the presentation of martenitsa to each other. These little red and white bracelets, or sometimes figurines, are meant to symbolize purity (white) and vitality (red), but also herald in the spring, which is said to begin in March. Baba Marta is known to be a grouchy old lady with mood swings, which is, apparently, analogous to the weather at this time of year in Bulgaria. While I don't appreciate the association, I have to say the bit about the weather is right on, so far; we've had temps in the 50's followed by another 2 inches of snow in the last week. Things are looking up, though.

Back to the symbolism for a minute though, which seems to be open to interpretation. Some of my students tell me that the martenitsa also represent the legend of a famous Bulgarian, Khan Asparuh, who sent a message tied to the leg of a pigeon (or a falcon) to his wife, to signal that he was ok; the string was tied too tight, and the red blood on the white string symbolizes this moment in national lore. It may also symbolize the rosy cheek of a maiden against the backdrop of late-winter snow. Or it may be that it was the blood of Khan Asparuh's pigeon/falcon, but because someone shot it. (That student may have gotten some details mixed up.)

Here are some of the martneitsa I received from my students:

Regardless of the symbolism, the end result is that students and adults alike arrive at school laden with bundles of these martenitsa, and they bestow them upon each other and their teachers while reciting a list of deeply-felt wishes for health, long life, every-dream-coming-true, many days of sunshine, etc. It's an unequivocally happy day with no real burdens attached: the bracelets are either homemade or can be bought at little cost, and everyone seems moved by the spirit of generosity and well-wishing. It's also cool to think that, anywhere I go in the world, I might see one of these martenitsi and know that it's probably a Bulgarian--or maybe a Macedonian or other neighbor--as the tradition is unique to this part of the world.

So, Happy Baba Marta, wherever you are, and may she bring us all a dose of spring as soon as possible!

Turkish Delight

View from our window
Not a great title, but I was out of ideas. The truth is, Istanbul is a sensory overload.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a little jaunt to Istanbul over a long weekend. We barely scratched the surface of all there is to see, do, and understand about the city and its layer upon layer of history, but the little taste we got was delightful. We're glad that it's only an hour's flight from Sofia.

We were lucky to have enjoyed a stay in the Empress Zoe Hotel, thanks to a gracious gift from some of Phil's family; what an awesome little place. It's tucked right in the heart of Sultanahmet, which is great, especially if you only have a short time and want to be very central to many of the main sights. We spent our first evening out on the town with a friend of a friend who took us to hear some great music and to see some of the night life along Istiklal street.

On our first day, we did what any first time visitor would do: we visited Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. The Hagia Sofia is incredible; no longer serving as a church or a mosque, it is a museum dedicated to its own history as both of those. A pretty great metaphor for the city itself. We also saw this sulky seraphim on the ceiling and found him hilarious.

 Item #2 on the must-hit list, of course, were the bazaars. I found Grand Bazaar to be uninteresting; it's chaotic in an overcrowded-mall kind of way, and the goods seemed like they were made in China, but the Spice Market was good fun.  We stocked up on lots of great things we haven't found as easily here in Sofia: hot curry, whole spices like cardamom and coriander, garam masala, and some great dried fruit.

Aside from that, we took some super-walks through various neighborhoods, some of which we
Inside Hagia Sophia
planned to visit and others of which we stumbled upon. The walk from Sultanahmet through the neighborhood of Topkapi Palace, across Galata bridge and over to Galata Tower, arriving in Beyoglu, was a lesson in itself. Coming from a city full of right angles, I found myself forever turned around in Istanbul, but there is a lot of fun in taking the wrong street there.

I think I speak for both of us when I say that, at least for people who haven't woken up next door to a mosque all our lives, the call to prayer is very haunting, and while walking around the city, you can hear it spreading from mosque to mosque, as if in a round. The city's secular life is very vibrant, and so hundreds of people carry on without paying any attention to the call, but there were a couple of places where a waiter told us, "Sorry for the slow service!! I'm here alone--everyone went to pray!!"

 One of the most amazing things about the city was how everyone we encountered seemed to have the gift of gab. Even when it was abundantly clear that we were not, under any circumstances, buying a carpet, not in that store, not in any store we passed, regardless of how authentic the woman in the window doing the weaving looked, people continued to draw out the conversation, finding other ways to engage us such that, many minutes after we had stated our firm resolve and cast our inscrutable New Yorker glance, we found ourselves still there chatting with the person--with whom, at this point, we were on a first-name basis. In the square off of Hagia Sophia (the Hippodrome), we spent at least 15 minutes with Erol, who plied his magic on us with such memorable lines as, "Where are you from? Must be Texas; your eyes look like Texas eyes..." He told us about a favorite teacher from when he was young and how he had searched for her on the internet to say hello, but to no avail. He seemed genuinely sad about this. We didn't buy a carpet, but we did seriously consider swinging by his shop.
Overlooking the plaza around the Spice Market

We didn't make it to the Asian side this time, nor did we get to any of the other towns along the coast. Anyone who has some good Istanbul tips for our next visit, send us a suggestion; the list keeps growing.