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.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Snow Bunnies Take Bulgaria

Gondola to Yesberets Mt.

Deciding to take advantage of the abundance of fluffy precipitation blanketing Bulgaria, we headed to Borovets, a local ski town, to check out the slopes, as they say. Or to shred some fresh powder, as Phil took to saying. This being his first time on skis and my first time in over 15 years, we're delighted to report that powder was the only thing we shredded this weekend. Apart from one epic fall that I took, resulting in a feeling not unlike how I've heard whiplash described, we acquitted ourselves pretty well and are looking forward to the next adventure on the mountain.

Skiing here is incredibly cheap and simple. It took less than two hours to drive to Borovets with some friends, and about $30 later we were on the mountain, complete with gear and lift ticket. The conditions, while incredible in terms of the amount of snow they've gotten this season, may have been a little icier and less groomed than some Colorado or Wyoming skiiers would like, but it worked out great for us.

Here are some photos from the weekend.

Phil, outfitted like a pro, thanks to our neighbor and school president!

Falling like a pro, mid-slope

Phil, ready to take the lift back up for another run

A long, easy run called Musala Pathway, which leads through the forest. Check out the snowy trees!

Taking a break on Musala Pathway

Borovets's quaint-cum-trashy town center

Sunday, January 29, 2012


View from the bridge into the main square
Today we drove to Pernik, a town about an hour away, with some friends. The occasion was not casual tourism, as Pernik has been reported to us as the town that ranks near the top of several "worst" lists: Most Polluted European City (dropped to #3, apparently); ugliest in Bulgaria (this one may not be official but rather a widely-held opinion). Instead, we went for the Interational Festival of Masquerade Games "Surva", a festival designed to celebrate new year's traditions from around Bulgaria, the region, and, apparently, the world. (I didn't see any non-Balkan groups, but we heard about a Chinese dragon costume from a couple of years ago.)

Surva is an old word relating to 'new year', but one of the traditions that forms part of the surva is the kukeri, men who dress up like monsters, basically, to ward off the evil spirits in the new year. The festival dates back to pagan times.
These guys need helpers to make sure their hats don't get caught in the tress

This year, we saw groups from all around Bulgaria, representing different regional costumes, dialects, and dances; my Bulgarian is not nearly good enough to make out all the details of what they represent or even how to distinguish all of them, but the photos here give a small sample of the range. There were also groups from Slovenia and around the Balkans. Maybe we'll get a group together next year and see how we fare in the competition.

The bells they wear scare off the demons

A friend from school told us that the costumes that these men wear can cost up to 1,000 leva; one has to procure the skins of 4-5 goats or sheep, which are expensive to begin with, and then make the outfit. So I imagine that once you're in the kukeri club, you're a lifer.

It seems like the only way for these people in the costumes to have the stamina to make it all day in sub-freezing temps is to drink lots of rakia. The sun came out for a while, but we also had some snow while we were there. With more than 2 feet on the ground already, it was a chilly walk around town. This week, we're preparing for temps as low as -20C at night! Check out the icicle we've been cultivating off the roof of our place...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Travels and Adventures, Winter 2011

It turns out that I'm not nearly as good at keeping this up during the school weeks as I had hoped I would be. So here's an attempt to fill in some of the gaps since the last post...
Me and some colleagues in the school caf

The wind-up to the winter vacation was pretty hectic, starting the week before Thanksgiving, in fact, when the international faculty hosted a huge Thanksgiving dinner for the Bulgarian faculty, staff, and their families (about 250 people!) in the school cafeteria. It was a wonderful event. Phil somehow managed to sign up for Turkey Detail, meaning that he led the cleaning, brining, stuffing and roasting of 24 turkeys. All told, a successful project. 

Prague Castle and statue, from Charles bridge
Phil on Charles Bridge
We then spent the Thansksgiving break relaxing and catching up with good friends in Prague, a city I had never visited. Cold, damp, and foggy, it was a perfect early-winter atmosphere, conducive to frequent beer stops and lots of heavy Czech food (even though I didn't partake in the porky parts).

It was an awesome trip, and one that definitely made us realize how ready we were for a longer break. The next three weeks were equally busy at school, with lots of holiday activities added in with the usual frenzy of academic work before the two-week hiatus.
Phil "Santa" Altman. Notice the pillow-shaped belly he as sporting.
Highlights from the extracurricular activities included Phil's stint as Santa Claus at the Staff Christmas Party and my first Balkan Dance experience onstage at the Christmas Concert. Pretty fun.

Braiding the students' hair before our performance
There we are dancing.

Manhattan Bridge, with BK Bridge in the background
Despite another snowstorm that began early Thursday morning (22 Dec) and continued late into that night, we made it out of Sofia with no problem and back to NYC on Friday, 23 Dec. We had a fabulous week and a half with our families and friends. Being back in NYC was a reminder of how nice it is to live close to your peeps; there's just no replacement for being able to sleep on your parents' couch and get up and walk to to the Met to see the Islamic Art wing the next day, for example. Or taking over your sister's living room for a week, having a great New Year's party with your favorite people, and then playing in a stellar pick-up game of ultimate frisbee in McCarren Park the next day, as another example. Or having nearly your whole family close enough to gather for Christmas Day and a post-New Year's party. Only in New York!
Margaret and me on the beach, New Years

Cousins Reunion Dinner, NYC

That being said, we are glad to be back in Sofia and ready to start Round 2, Year One of the Bulgarian Adventure. It was a special treat to be able to spend the holiday with family and friends, and now we're hoping that some of them might feel inspired to head east for a little taste of life on this side...

To all the friends we missed on this short excursion home, we look forward to catching up in the summer!

MamaDog, the unofficial campus pet, at left, says, "Честита нова година на всички!" Happy New Year to all!

Winter Wonderland, 2012

честитa Нова година!! Chestita Noba Godina! Happy New Year!

A snowman crafted by our neighbors' children

Having just returned from NYC to Sofia, we were greeted with a huge snowstorm, beginning Friday morning and continuing through the weekend. The campus looks incredible in these conditions, as it doesn't have to contend with the heavy auto and pedestrian traffic that makes the rest of the city turn into a gray and slushy disaster within hours of the snowfall. Check it out...

Phil on the trail that runs behind our house
Unfortunately, our current school does not have the track record of snow days that our last one did, or else we could count on an extra day of vacation on Monday. Alas, we'll most certainly be returning to the routine this week. Hopefully we'll have kicked our jet lag by then, or else the awakening will be doubly-rude.

That's our sporty Ford Focus station wagon on the right
  More soon!