Jared in Bulgaria – Part Trois

Day Three:  My water supplies have run out, and I am lost in a Bulgarian desert with no food. Wait…is that some Feta cheese I see in the distance? Ohhhhh…..I am saved!

Reality:

Last night Vladimir (our friendly cabbie) returned to the scene for a little tour of the surrounding mountains. Sofia is quite dramatically set at the foot of a huge mountain called Vitusha. It’s one of those gigantic pointed-peak, snow-capped types that and is quite breathtaking. I can see it from the balcony of my room.

Vladdie trucked us up to the foot of Vitusha to this quaint little restaurant by a lake. We were served up the real Bulgaria goods this time. They have the best Feta cheese here, and for those of you who know me well, that should tell you I am a happy camper when it comes to food. This cheese is a staple in their diet, so it came on the salad, and in a fried form mixed in with corn meal (I never had anything like this before).

The main dish was chicken, with onions and peppers in a tomato base…it was okay, but it didn’t blow my mind. I couldn’t finish all the food that came, so I wanted to make sure it was not thrown away. In a country where many people cannot afford to eat, that would be a grave shame. I had my dad ask the waiter what he would do with the leftovers, and I was told not to worry that it would be eaten. When we were walking out of the restaurant, I peered around the corner and saw them dumping the food into dog dishes. Well, at least Fidofsky didn’t go hungry last night.

We hired Vladimir to drive us across country to the Black Sea coastal town of Varna, by way of Plovdiv, the second largest Bulgarian city, and supposedly its cultural capital. The next morning Vladdie showed up at 10:00am, and my bags were packed and ready to go.  As I was carrying them around the car to the trunk, he met me there to assist in lifting the bags (he’s a little overzealous). Immediately, I was met with the heaviest punch of body odor that I have yet to smell from European or Israeli people alike. Whoa…I almost fell backward as the pungent odor filled my nostrils and went straight to my brain’s “nasty sensors”.

I was not looking forward to riding two hours in a car with this beast-like smell.  As we got underway, I rolled the window all the way down and practically stuck my head out like a dog would, with my face to the wind. My dad screamed at me to close the window, because it was cold. Hell no. Next time hire a cabbie who bathes from time to time.

The Bulgarian countryside is full of rolling hills and mountain backdrops. It’s clear that the land is for the most part neglected, because it has an overall tinge of brown to it. You know, the color of dead plant life. There is also a strange haze that seems to hang over the whole country, as if to reflect the lack of clarity and direction that its people seem to have.  Along the way, I listened to music provided by my good friend Kevin Kline (it was the Zeppelin mix CD, Kev…). With the wind blowing in my face, I was able to survive the ride with Funky Vladdie.

Right now, I am sitting in an Internet center in Plovdiv.  Many of you may wonder where I am accessing the Internet from so often from. Well, there is a strange contrast of extremes here in Bulgaria. While you can find things like Internet access, and the standard trappings of western goods (I speak mainly of food), the situation is indeed as bleak as I have been painting it. Plovdiv, however, seems to be a lot nicer and better kept than Sofia.

First of all, our hotel is not a dump. It can actually be said that it’s “nice”. I wouldn’t go further than that though. There is definitely a more youthful and alive energy to Plovdiv.  Young faces roam the streets, in modern dress and style. The town center is not grungy, and there are many shops and street vendors selling religious icons and various handcrafted items. And, of course there’s the local McDonald’s. 🙂

So, that’s that. I am about to go and explore Plovdiv for a bit….maybe have a snack or something, and then meet up with dad and Vlad later for some dinner. I hope Vlad is smelling better by that point.

Stay tuned…

Jared

Jared in Bulgaria – Part Deux

Since we last spoke, I headed back to the hotel taking the long way around, so I could get a better feel of the city by foot. I was shocked and dismayed to see the following things (in no particular order):  Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and many more McDonald’s. It seems McDonald’s goal is to litter every part of the world with its fascist arches, gaining more control over the globe than Rome ever did in its most powerful and glorious times!  But I have to say, it’s good to know the cheeseburgers are there.

I decided to make my first attempt at Bulgaria cuisine. I read in my Lets Go Europe book that street venders were a good source of cheap food and stomach cramps. I gave it a go at the first one I saw. The dish was some sort of bratwurst looking thing (you know, those long thick sausages you can get at the standard NY street fair). Of course, I did not have a clue how to order, so I simply pointed at the thing and held up my index finger indicating I wanted one.

The perceptive Bulgarian went to work frying up my lunch, and in a matter of minutes I was handed a charred sausage in a toasted bun, drowned in sauerkraut and mustard. As I was wolfing, I began to ponder exactly what it was that I was eating and ruled it to be mystery meat (in fact, it is still a mystery, but I am inclined to say it came from a pig), but it tasted decent. Hours later, I am still tasting the nasty stuff that stubbornly will not digest.  Note to self: Stay away from strange mystery meats!

When I got back to the hotel, my father and I decided to hire a cab to take us around Sofia. We flagged down a guy named Vladimir who was more than willing to take our American money and show us around. He actually proved to be quite informative, and he even spoke some French so I could converse with him (yes, I speak French…surprised?).

We first went back to the house of my dad’s birth to give it a more thorough checking out.  I really wanted to go inside, but my dad didn’t. He said it would ruin his memory of days of yore. I said, “But isn’t coming here and seeing it in that condition doing just that?” Logical, right? Well, he wouldn’t agree to go in, but I wanted to anyway.

I had the cab driver ring the bell at the door of the house for me and propose to whoever answered that I am the son of the former owner of this house, and I would like to come inside to see it. No dice. Each one had a sob story, or suspiciously backed away from the window they were peering out of to see who was ringing their bell. One lady reluctantly agreed to let me in. We waited 10 minutes, and she never came back. I never got to go in. The contents of the house remain a mystery. Perhaps it is better that they do. People are not overly friendly here.

As we continued to drive around, my dad would get all excited every time he saw something he recognized, such as his former school, a bread bakery that was still in operation, and a street he once played ball on. He would start screaming at me in Bulgarian, as if I understood. I just kept nodding and encouraging him.

We ended up at a very old synagogue, the biggest Sephardim Jewish synagogue in Eastern Europe (Sephardim Jews are those who originate in Spain and left during the inquisition in 1492). It turns out my grandparents were married there, and my father had many memories of the place.

An old Jewish Bulgarian was kind enough to show us around, and my father spent about an hour talking to him. I obviously didn’t understand what they were talking about, but that’s okay. The big story behind this building is that the local Jewish population holds it to be the site of a miracle, because during World War II, a bomb fell right into the courtyard of the synagogue, but it did not explode, averting the destruction of the place. Thank God, right? 🙂

After we left Vladimir, we decided to have a nice dinner of authentic regional cuisine. We picked the most civilized looking restaurant and ordered a series of local treats. I enjoyed a cold soup concoction of yogurt, dill, garlic, and cucumbers called “Tarator”. We also had a very strong alcoholic drink (the name escapes me), which gave me a nice buzz in a matter of a few sips. There were some musicians playing local sounding tunes, which my father enjoyed. He tipped them 20 Leva (roughly $10) to play a little ditty, and that made their night. They dedicated the rest of the evening to their rich American guests (us). These people are very poor, and they have very little direction, so there is much desperation and poverty.  For us to spend a little extra, which is nothing to us, makes all the difference to these people whose lives were ravaged by communism.

After dinner, we concerned ourselves with nightlife. We were advised to stay off the streets and not wonder around, because apparently it is pretty dangerous at night. Even the police are frightened, so I am told, so we hit the Casino in our hotel. Let me see if I can draw a comparison for you that will give you an idea of what this was like. If anyone has seen the most recent James Bond flick, there is a Casino scene in the movie, which would give you a good idea of it. It seemed like a pretty shady mafia-run operation with underdressed waitresses coaxing you with their batting eyes to empty your pockets at the black jack table. Lots of screaming and yelling in Bulgarian. We had to pass through this bulletproof glass revolving door. My dad got happy and blew $100. Waste ‘O Cash. Well, I guess the casino business is the most profitable industry here.

That night, I was alone in my hotel room (we decided to get separate rooms after all, and thank God, because my father snores like a dying bear). It was really freaky, the realization that I was in some grungy hotel in the middle of a run down, formerly communist city in a forgotten country, once behind the iron curtain and now hopelessly set back by its 50 years of darkness, barely able to stay alive in the modern world. It was hard to sleep with the fear that I could wake up to some intruder who heard some Americans were in Bulgaria and decided to break in and do some looting. Of course, I was fine.

Next Day:
We set out to find the best “Banitza” in town. Banitza, or Boraekas, are a regional pastry made with filo dough (ever have spinach pie in a Greek restaurant?) and cheese. We got in a cab that took us to this little back alley place where we found what we were looking for.  Good stuff! I still can’t get over how cheap things are in this country. A bottle of cola goes for the equivalent of 40 cents in American money. Last night’s dinner with all it’s courses, came to less than $10. Unreal.

After breakfast, we hopped on one of the many public trams that run to and from the outskirts of the Sofia to the city center. It was a good way to get a real sense of what life is like here. Folks, let me tell you, we Americans are very lucky to have what we have. This city is so run down and neglected, yet evidently once quite glorious. It’s obvious that in its time, the architecture was quite beautiful, but now it’s mostly crumbling away. The streets are very dirty, and the roads are full of potholes. There are so many people just standing around with nothing to do and nowhere to go, and many beggars who plead with even more emotion than the ones on our very own NY subway.

One thing I realized is that the way we nod our heads to say, “Yes” and shake our heads to say, “No” is actually reversed here. Shaking is yes, and nodding is no. Quite confusing, and I kept forgetting. When I hailed a cab and motioned to the driver as if to say, “Are you free?” he shook his head (which to me, means no, but to him means yes) and then motioned for me to get in. I find it very odd, this reversal.

OK. Long enough, right?  Sorry…well, not really. Tonight we may go to a Bulgarian opera.  Tomorrow, we set out for Plovdiv, the next biggest city here, and then on to the coast of the Black Sea. From there, I leave to Istanbul, Turkey! Stay tuned…same Bat email…

Jared

P.S.:  I would love to hear from all of you!

Jared in Bulgaria

Bulgaria. Let’s all say that together…Bul-gar-i-a. I absolutely cannot believe that I am in Bulgaria, but I really am! It’s real folks!

Some questions you may be asking yourself are, “Bulgaria? Where the hell is that? And why the hell would anyone go to Bulgaria?”

First let me say this – Right now, where I am sitting, I am less than a few hundred miles east of Bosnia Herzegovina. Yep, I can smell the ethnic cleansing.

Bulgaria is a tiny country, roughly the size of Pennsylvania in the Balkans, with a population of 8.2 million. If you go to maps.com and check out a map of Europe, look for Greece and Turkey. Bulgaria is right above both countries, bordering the former Yugoslavia on the west, and the Black Sea on the east.

Now as for why I am here:  My dad was born here, in the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia (accent on the first syllable), and he has not been back here for 50 years. He has this crazy idea about retiring here, because it’s so damn cheap. This country has barely seen the light of capitalism and a free market economy, since it broke free from communist Russia about 10 years ago when that whole game fell apart. So, he wanted to come and check it out. When he invited me to come too, I thought, “Hell no”, but then I realized it would be a free ticket to Europe, and I’d get to check out all the places that he has been harping about for 20 years. Well, I am not sorry I came yet …

Here’s a little story ’bout how I got to Bulgaria, and my first impressions: 

My dad and I left the Kibbutz in Israel around 3:00am to head for the airport and catch a 5:30am flight. We passed the rigorous Israeli security inspection (they are completely obsessed with security, and rightfully so), and I managed to get by the customs people without getting hassled about why I am not an Israeli citizen and in the army. Whole other story.

We made our way to the Balkan Airlines check-in. Ever heard of Balkan Airlines? Me neither. When I found out this would be the airline, I immediately envisioned myself sitting next to a goat or a sheep, with chickens running around the isles of the plane. I dunno…  Maybe they were the official Bulgarian airline/poultry and livestock transportation method.  But the flight was civilized enough. The food was nasty though. What can you expect?

When we arrived at the airport in Sofia, I immediately got the impression that this country does not have its shit together. It was pretty dirty … locals sitting around smoking cigarettes, and the air was cloudy with smoke. We made our way through the crowds of people holding signs in what looked like Russian (Bulgarian is a Slavic language like Russian, and there are many similar words), and arranged for a taxi into the city.

Along the way, the first thing I saw looming in the distance was the Golden Arches of Mickey D’s. Yep, seeds of western ways are being planted already. I had to laugh. There are Coca Cola signs all over the place, indications of a society envious of the west, but not quite grasping it.

As we passed through the city, I noticed many fine European structures, Coptic looking Churches, and potentially magnificent houses. As we got closer, it became immediately evident that all these buildings, once the pride and glory of this city, had been left to the wind by 50 years of communism.

The city, by and large, looks like a run down remnant of a time long past. The people in the street don’t seem to have much to be happy about and there are many beggars. It appears that the standard of living here is quite low. Even our hotel room, which costs $85 a night (expensive by this country’s standards) is pretty grungy. But there is still an element of the old city there, as parts of it have been better kept than others. I have yet to really explore this place, so I will fill in the details later.

We already drove by the house where my dad was born, and it was very nice to be with him as he returned to it. Of course, when he would describe it to me when he was as a child, he made it out to be this glorious mansion with all kinds of decorative adornments. Now it’s just as run down as the rest of city. I imagine it was a disappointment for him, but just being here has already triggered many memories for him. I am happy for him.

Anyway, it seems I have just written a book. I am sorry if this is too long for many of you to read through completely. I do hope you enjoy reading though.

Bulgaria. I have to pinch myself. I am really in Eastern Europe. What shall become of me?  Stay tuned….

Jared