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!