Sunday, December 27, 2009

Весела Коледа

Religious connotations aside, Christmas to me is all about family. Even more than Thanksgiving, Christmas is a time to gather as a family, give thanks, show gratitude, and celebrate health and prosperity.

Only once before this year have I spent Christmas apart from my family, and it was brutal. I was in New Zealand. We were traveling by bus from Abel Tasman National Park to Franz Josef. The transmission gave out half way between Abel Tasman and the nearest town, along a stretch of narrow, winding mountain passes. With nowhere to pull over and stop, our driver somehow managed to get us up and down the trecherous passes before the bus broke down completely. Shaken but not stirred, she rolled the bus slowly into the town of Westport where we spent the night. The tradional Christmas dinner waiting for us in Franz Josef went uneaten. To make things worse, I got eaten alive by bed bugs and had a bad allergic reaction to the bites. It was a Christmas I’ll never forget, but for all the wrong reasons.

My first Christmas in Bulgaria, which I spent with my host family in Бойчиновци, was much less eventful and far more enjoyable. To better understand how Bulgarians celebrate Christmas (Коледа), it helps to know a little of Bulgaria’s history.

Between 1944 and 1989, Bulgaria was under communist rule. During that time, Bulgarians were not allowed to celebrate Christmas, at least not publicly. As a result, Christian Bulgarians would gather as families and quietly celebrate Christmas together. While communism was unable to prevent such gatherings, it was successful in limiting the adherence to certain traditions associated with Christmas. Since the fall of communism, however, many of the old traditions have been revived. Practices vary from home to home and region to region, but many of these same traditions are still observed today.

The period from November 15th through Christmas Eve is known as Коледни пости. Traditionally, this is a period of fasting during which time all meals are vegan. The consumption of any type of animal based products – meat, eggs, cheese, etc. – is prohibited. Most Bulgarians, including my host family in Бойчиновци, have modified this tradition and fast only on Christmas Eve (Бъдни Вечер). Bulgarians believe that the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus on Christmas Eve but waited until the following day to announce the birth (Bulgarian tradition follows this belief – with mothers announcing the birth of a newborn to the world the day following birth). In any event, the Christmas Eve meal is one of several very important traditions followed by many Bulgarians.

Our Christmas Eve meal began with питка, a traditional Bulgarian bread. Baked into each section of the питка was either a wish or, in one case, a coin. Tradition holds that the person who finds the coin will have good luck and fortune in the coming year. Alas, I didn’t find the coin, just two wishes: С нова хубава кола ще се возиш из града (You will ride around town in a new, good-looking car); and Хубаво преброй звездите в коледната нощ защото толкова ще са мечтите ти сбъднати с разкош (Count well the stars in the Christmas night sky, for that's how many of your dreams will come to life).

In addition to питка, we had several traditional Bulgarian vegan dishes, including roasted peppers stuffed with beans, тиквеник (pumpkin banitsa), and сарма (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice). There also were plates of salad, peanuts, and dried fruit. To ensure prosperity and good fortune in the coming year, there were an odd number of dishes served and an odd number of guests in attendance. I can’t say for sure, but I’m fairly certain the dishes were not cleared until morning. According to tradition, this is again to ensure a prosperous year and to leave some food for the deceased.

With cleansed minds and spirits, we awoke Christmas Day and soon feasted on meat, meat, and more meat. We ate ham, sausage, rabbit, pork, and кюфтета. There wasn’t an obscene display of materialism, but a few gifts were exchanged. I felt guilty for bringing so little, yet I was admonished for bringing too much.

All in all, it was a pleasant weekend, and it was interesting experiencing a traditional Bulgarian Christmas. Perhaps what was most interesting is that it didn’t feel at all like Christmas to me, which was a very a good thing. Had it felt more like Christmas, homesickness would have crept in, and I would have grown sentimental and depressed. Without any of those feelings, I was able to enjoy the weekend and now look forward to partying like a Bulgarian on New Year’s.

A few Christmasesque scenes from around town before I headed to Бойчиновци.

Before heading to Бойчиновци, I also attended a holiday party with my colleagues from work. Needless to say, they don’t adhere to the strict fasting traditions either.

Bulgarians traditionally slaughtered a pig on Christmas. Fortunately, the pig had already met his maker by the time Stoil started carving him up.

Rosi pounding out pork chops Stoil had cut.

Ivo preparing the appetizers.

Rosi making banitsa.

The only present under the tiny, table-top tree was a small bag with pretzels and sweets (a few other gifts were exchanged too).

The garden looks a lot different than it did a few months ago.

So does the fully-stocked cellar.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Безплатни Прегръдки

Several months ago, I went for a walk with a Bulgarian friend. While we were walking, I noticed passersby often stared at me. I asked her why people were staring. I couldn’t understand what they were seeing that made me appear so different; my physical features weren’t that different than theirs, and I was wearing clothes similar to theirs. I wondered how they all knew I wasn’t Bulgarian. She laughed and told me it was the way I carried myself. According to her, my body language and facial expressions reflected confidence, happiness, optimism, and hope, immediately giving me away as a foreigner and making me a curiosity.

In the time that’s passed since then, I’ve come to better appreciate her observations and assessment. A disturbing number of Bulgarians, perhaps the majority, perpetually look depressed, bitter, and even angry. This is especially true in Sofia. If you saw a close friend expressing the same body language, you’d probably ask your friend if everything was alright. Or you’d ask if your friend needed a hug. After noticing the same thing, a fellow Peace Corps’ volunteer decided that’s exactly what we should do – go to Sofia and offer безплатни прегръдки (free hugs). I’m not the type of person who particularly enjoys hugging strangers, and I would typically cross the street as quickly as possible to avoid anyone giving away free hugs. Nevertheless, I was very curious to see how Bulgarians would react to such a concept, so I agreed to participate.

So yesterday, five of us braved 21 degree temperatures (-6 °C) and walked around Sofia for more than two hours giving away free hugs. Besides being extremely fun, the psychology underlying our experiment was fascinating. Here are some of the things I learned:

• It was much more difficult getting hugs from people when walking alone than when walking with another hugger. It was easiest getting hugs when all five of us were together – along with three Brits and a Bulgarian who joined the cause. Apparently, being crazy in a group makes one seem far less dangerous than being a crazy individual or pair.

• Most Bulgarian men will not hug another man, at least not a stranger. Most Bulgarian men will hug any woman.

• I got far more hugs when I held my “безплатни прегръдки” sign over my head than when I held it in front of my chest. The more time people had to absorb the information, the more likely they were to want a hug.

• I was far more successful when commanding people to get a hug by giving an open-armed, “Хайде,” than I was when asking people if they wanted a hug by saying, “Искаш ли?”

• Most of my hugs came from attractive women in their 20s who either were alone or were with another woman of the same age. I also received a large number of hugs from women over the age of 50. I had a smaller number of hugs from women between the ages of 30 and 50 and a few hugs from men. I didn’t get any hugs from kids.

To say our experiment was successful would be a gross understatement. All the hugging took the chill out of an otherwise frigid day and left us all in great spirits. And the Bulgarians were far more receptive than we could have hoped. Sure, there was still a large number of people who walked past us with looks of bitterness and anger plastered on their faces. And plenty of people thought us to be foolish, crazy, or both. But the majority of people we encountered either laughed at us or smiled with us, and, in just two hours in the bitter cold, I saw more smiling Bulgarians than I had previously seen in seven months. Some of the people we hugged came back for seconds, and some didn’t want to let go. One of the most memorable hugs was one of the last ones. After we hugged, an attractive girl in her early 20s asked, “Why only hugs? You need to give free kisses.” Definitely something to consider for next time.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

There is nothing like a beautiful snowfall to mask the bleakness of one's winter surroundings. Here are some shots from an afternoon walk around town.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Winter Gardening

The resourcefulness of the Bulgarian people never ceases to amaze me. Due primarily to my own ignorance, I thought snow and freezing temperatures would bring an end to the gardening season. For many Bulgarians it has, but for many others it has not. Mini-greenhouses made of plastic have sprung up in gardens throughout town, housing hardy vegetables such as lettuce. Meanwhile, empty jars have been placed over roses and other flowers, again creating a greenhouse-type effect. For all I know, gardeners in the states do the same thing; I’ve just never seen it. Regardless, I can hardly wait until spring when I can get my hands dirty and learn more.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The School Holiday

In addition to closing for Christmas break, Easter break, and the usual assortment of national public holidays, Bulgarian schools close for individual school holidays. Our school recently had its school holiday, and I’m still not entirely sure why. All I can do is tell you what happened. On a recent Friday afternoon, all classes were cancelled and the students and teachers gathered at a café (there is no school auditorium or gymnasium or similar venue). The festivities commenced when the mayor arrived. After a pair of students talked about some Bulgarian history, the mayor proceeded to hand out awards to various students. The mayor then departed and a group of students presented a short play. After the play, there were a couple word-find and crossword puzzle type games. Then, a few students and teachers sang karoke and danced horo (traditional Bulgarian dances). I observed and took photos, at least until one of the kids, whose view I was blocking and who just a few months ago couldn’t speak any English, yelled at me, in English, “Sit down, Brian! Sit down!”

After the “show,” most of the teachers met at a nearby restaurant. Some drank rakia, others drank wine, and others drank beer, but we all drank something (or so it appeared). The actual school holiday – when the school was officially closed – was the following Monday, so we had a three-day weekend for which to be thankful. Here are some photos from the event.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bulgarian Beer

For some of you, this will probably be the most interesting and useful post I’ve put on this blog. Others of you will find it completely uninteresting and worthless. Why is that? Because it’s all about Bulgarian beer (пиво или бира).

It’s no mystery that I like beer. It’s also no mystery that I don’t have particularly high standards when it comes to beer. If it’s cold, I’ll drink it. All the better if it’s free. That said, when given a choice, I do have preferences. My first preference is to drink draft beer. The only time I prefer bottled beer is when I’m dancing, and that occurs just slightly more often than a solar eclipse. My second preference is to drink stuff produced locally. But if the local brew only tastes good when flowing from a keg at a frat party or when used for cooking (think mainstream American beers), I’ll drink something else. My third preference is to drink something smooth but with plenty of flavor. And finally, I prefer beer which is relatively hangover-friendly. I’d be more than happy to drink nothing but Guinness and Hoegaarden the rest of my life.

So, how is Bulgarian beer and what are the best ones? Of course, the answers to these questions are entirely subjective, but I’ve received enough questions regarding this topic that I feel it’s worth sharing my opinion. After great sacrifice and painstaking research, I’ve come to the conclusion that Bulgarian beer generally sucks. This runs contrary to the prevailing sentiment among Bulgarians, many of whom consider their favorite Bulgarian brew to be the "best of the best." My opinion is more in line with those Bulgarians I've met (and there aren't many of them) who describe Bulgaria as a “wasteland” when it comes to good beer. There is, however, at least one Bulgarian beer that is really good.

The best Bulgarian beer I’ve found is Stolichno Bock. Produced by the same company which makes Zagorka (which is part of the Heineken empire), it’s in a league of its own compared to other Bulgarian beers. It has a sweet flavor and pleasing aftertaste and, at 6.5% abv, packs some punch.

I've had mixed results with the Carlsberg-produced Шуменско Тъмно (Shumensko Tumno). I'm not sure why, but strange things happen with this beer depending on the batch. Sometimes they get it right, other times they don't. At its best, Шуменско Тъмно is a close second to Stolichno. At its worst, it's on a par with Kamenitza Tumno. Шуменско Тъмно is produced as a winter beer and is only available seasonally. At 5.5% abv, it’s not quite as strong as Stolichno. The good batches have a nice malty flavor with a slightly bitter coffee kicker. The bad batches are a rather flavorless red.

More consistent in its flavor than Шуменско Тъмно is another seasonal dark beer: Ариана Тъмно (Ariana Tumno). At 5.5% abv, it’s on a par in strength with Шуменско Тъмно. It also tastes a bit like the good version of Шуменско Тъмно, albeit slightly watered down. Like Stolichno, Ariana is a Heineken-owned beer.

One dark beer I wasn’t particularly impressed with is Kamenitza Тъмно. It’s more of a red beer than a bock, and it’s rather flavorless. Very disappointing.

Of the many pale lagers produced in Bulgaria, none is outstanding, but most are drinkable. My personal favorite among these decidedly average beers is Шуменско Premium (Shumensko).

Bulgaria’s most popular beer is probably Zagorka. As previously mentioned, the Zagorka brand is part of the Heineken empire. Perhaps that is why Zagorka, like Heineken, generally tastes like skunk piss when coming from a bottle but is a pretty good beer when served on tap.

The rest of Bulgaria’s beers are all rather forgetable. Among these are Ариана (Ariana), Almus, Пиринско (Pirinsko), Шуменско Светло (Shumensko Svetlo), MM, Ledenika, Astika, and Kamenitza. I drink all of them from time to time, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend one over any of the others unless you are golfing and trying to down a beer per hole, in which case Ариана is your best bet. Славена is borderline undrinkable. Of course, if your usual beer of choice is Miller Lite, any of these should suit you (and I’ll happily drink along with you). Наздраве!


This is far and away my most read post, and there have been some interesting developments – some good, some not so good – since I first blogged about Bulgarian beer almost two years ago. Here’s what’s new, starting with the not so good.

Back when I first started drinking, I wasn’t a huge fan of beer. It was OK, but, as much as it pains me to admit, I preferred another drink – wine coolers. The typical wine cooler featured white wine mixed with fruit juice (or artificial fruit flavoring), and they were all the rage in the mid to late 1990s. I swore off of them after a friend’s high school graduation party at which I downed two two-liter bottles of Sun Country strawberry wine cooler and proceeded to puke all over my bedroom, including my phone, short-circuiting all the other phones in the house in the process. It wasn’t my best moment, but it did convert me, and, by and large, I’ve been a beer drinker ever since.

This winter, a new beer from Zagorka hit the market - Zagorka Rezerva 2011. Without reading the fine print, I bought myself a bottle and gave it a try. It’s unquestionably the worst Bulgarian “beer” I’ve sampled. It promises to be a “full bodied winter brew with rich fruity flavor.” To me, it tastes like someone drank too many Sun Country wine coolers, vomited into the beer vat, and they mixed it up and marketed it as something special. A few sips were more than enough for me.

Until trying Zagorka Rezerva 2011, another new beer had slipped effortlessly into the spot reserved for the worst Bulgarian beer. Kamenitza Fresh Лимон (Lemon) is weak in every sense of the word. At just 2% abv, it is exactly what you’d expect to get when mixing beer with Sprite – something that tastes unlike and worse than either beer or Sprite and doesn’t even give you a buzz.

But, all is not lost, as Kamenitza has otherwise been doing some nice things. First, I’m not sure if they’ve tinkered with the formula or have merely perfected it, but Kamenitza Тъмно seems much improved to me. In terms of dark beers, I’d rank it far ahead of Шуменско Тъмно (Shumensko Tumno) and Ариана Тъмно (Ariana Tumno) and just slightly behind Stolichno. More importantly, Kamenitza Пшенично hit the market earlier this year. It’s a 6%, unfiltered, wheat beer that’s delicious and refreshing. A rotation of Kamenitza Пшенично, Stolichno, and the run-of-the-mill Bulgarian pilsners is more than enough to keep me happy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reflections on Six Months in Bulgaria

Six months ago my Bulgarian adventure began in earnest. It started with an awkward and uncomfortable introduction to a Bulgarian woman and her son, people who, along with their respective spouses, would act as my host family for two months of pre-service training. The awkward introduction was followed by an even more awkward first evening spent drinking rakia and understanding virtually nothing of what we attempted to communicate with each other. An eighty-two step walk from my bedroom to an outhouse blessed with a squat toilet in the shape of an iron made the evening complete.

This past weekend I returned, for the first time, to the Bulgarian family who adopted me as their own six months ago. I was unsure of both how I would feel seeing them again and how they would feel seeing me again. What I learned is that this crazy idea called the Peace Corps is actually working. I felt as if I was visiting relatives, and they treated me not as a guest but as a son and brother. There was none of the awkwardness between us that there had been six months earlier. It was obvious that the relationships and bonds we had developed were real, and the tears shed four months ago when we went our separate ways were genuine.

So, if you’re wondering what it’s like to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ll offer you this. Like any job, being a Peace Corps Volunteer has its pros and cons and ups and downs. But there are few other jobs which allow you to serve your country, see and experience a new culture, and help people in need. As mentioned at the very beginning of this blog, the primary goal of the Peace Corps is to promote world peace and friendship. Who doesn’t like making new friends and working toward making the world more peaceful? It’s a pretty special and rewarding gig.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Пловдив (Plovdiv)

Thanks to an in-service training conference, I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days exploring what many consider to be Bulgaria’s most compelling city – Пловдив (Plovdiv). One of Europe’s oldest cities, with a history dating back further than even Rome’s, Plovdiv is many things – historic, cultured, cosmopolitan, photogenic, and eminently walkable. There is plenty of information about Plovdiv on-line, and I won’t rehash it here. If you want to learn more about the city and what it’s like to live and work there, I encourage you to check out this blog written by a pair of fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who are currently serving in Plovdiv and who served as gracious hosts during our visit.

I'm neither insightful enough nor talented enough to capture the essence of Plovdiv and its many layers in words or photos, but if you scroll down you can take a walk with me through The City of the Seven Hills and see some of the reasons why I enjoyed my time in Plovdiv so much.

Plovdiv’s most iconic symbol is the Roman Amphitheater found in the heart of old town. Built in the 2nd century AD under the orders of Trajan and rediscovered in 1972 following a landslide, the amphitheater now hosts concerts and plays during the warmer months of the year.

Like Veliko Turnovo, Plovdiv has a rich collection of homes built during the Bulgarian National Revival, a period renowned for its characteristic architecture. Plovdiv’s old town is a showcase for these homes. This is the Georgiadi House. Built in 1848, the house is now home to a historical museum.

Constructed in 1829, the Lamartine House now is owned by the Union of Bulgarian Writers.

This is the Balabanov House. A bit of a phony, it was reconstructed in 1980 in accordance with the original blueprints after being completely destroyed.

This is the Kuyumdzhiev House. Built in 1847, the house is now an ethnographic museum.

Another of Plovdiv's iconic symbols, the Hissar Kapia (getting it's name from Turkish and meaning "The Gate of the Fortress") is one entry way into old town.

Exiting old town through the Hissar Kapia.

A couple street scenes from old town.

Old town also is home to a number of interesting churches. Built in 1844 on the site of a 9th-century shrine, the Church of Sveta Bogoroditsa marks another entrance into Plovdiv’s old town.

One of the largest churches in Plovdiv, St. Nedelya Church was built in 1578 and restored in 1830.

The Church of SS Konstantin & Elena is Plovdiv's oldest. Originally built over a Roman church, the current structure dates mostly to 1832. The church is known for its art, especially the richly colored frescoes that decorate both the entrance to the church and its interior.

Crowned by a monument commemorating the liberation of Bulgaria by the Russian army from the Nazis, Bunardzhika Tepe is one of Plovdiv's seven hills and provides 360 degree panoramic views of the city. Here are some views from the hill.

I wonder what this guy was thinking.

Found at the north end of old town, Nebet Tepe is another of Plovdiv's seven hills. Rubble from an ancient fotress crowns the hill, which provides outstanding views of the city below.

Plovdiv also is home to several interesting markets. Here are some photos from the largest such market.

Plovdiv is home to two working mosques. This is the minaret of Dzhumaya Mosque rising above the nearby buildings.

A classic Bulgarian scene along Plovdiv's pedestrian mall: Dzhumaya Mosque, which is believed to have been built in 1364, standing above the remains of part of a Roman stadium that is thought to have held 30,000 spectators.

This is Imaret Mosque, built in 1444.

Plovdiv's long pedestrian mall is a great place for people watching, drinking and dining (and probably shopping for those so inclined). Other than the signs in Bulgarian, this area has a very different feel to it than anywhere else I've been in Bulgaria. It seems more like Western Europe than the rest of Bulgaria and oozes with an optimism otherwise lacking in most places in Bulgaria.

Plovdiv's many parks offer sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of city life and were particularly pleasant on our visit.

A pleasant and unexpected surprise ... we went and saw the Harlem Gospel Choir perform while we were in Plovdiv. This is the choir, along with some new Bulgarian friends, performing "We are the World."