Hibernating in Sofia

Bloggers will give you all sorts of reasons why there hasn’t been a post lately. Ferret ate it. Got hit by a tram. Been renditioned to a foreign country. Probably you’ve heard ’em all.

But the simple truth is, it’s winter! And paid work presses. And even as I write this, I’m running a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius. (That’s 101 in Yankee.)

Suffice to say, Bulgaria has indeed been walloped by snow. Plowing has been hit or miss in Sofia, and apparently mostly miss in the countryside. Folks are stranded, dams are bursting. Even for die-hard Slavs, it’s been a hard season.

Anyway, please accept my apologies for hibernating this blog in January and, okay, a good part of February. More soon!

“Happy New Year! Good luck.”

We returned to Sofia on New Year’s Eve after a trip to visit family. The city was freshly painted in crisp, white snow.

At midnight the city erupted in fireworks. We raced from window to window in our apartment, trying to catch the best view. The neighborhood of Lozenets appeared to be under an artillery bombardment, so intense was their celebration.

The next day Sofia appeared to be nearly deserted, what with the family parties and feasting going on indoors, except for those hearty souls who emerged to walk their dogs on the icy streets.

It’s said one of the ways Bulgarians celebrate the New Year is by wearing new clothes. On the evidence, I’d have to say that’s true. We saw a Chihuahua wearing a red sweater and a Dachshund proudly sporting a green lizard suit. Every dog, it seemed, was wearing a new outfit. Continue reading

The lost synagogue of Vidin

I nearly missed it.

Walking through the riverfront park in Vidin, Bulgaria, the eye is naturally drawn toward the Danube or distant monuments. It would have been so easy to overlook the ruin in the trees just to the south.

I had heard mention of a synagogue here. What I hadn’t realized — could scarcely have conceived — was the sheer extent of its decaying presence.

We wandered around the perimeter fence and, spotting the Star of David, realized what we had stumbled upon. Nestled amid houses and apartment blocks, it appeared to be completely abandoned and forgotten.

And then we saw that the gate had been left ajar. With a gulp and a look over my shoulder, I plunged through the weeds and into the shell of this once grand building. Continue reading

My new favorite Bulgarian food (and beer!)

Bulgarian Mish-Mash, in all its glory. Or do you say миш маш ?

I am not a food critic. But I know what I like. And on my recent trip to Vidin I experienced a moment of pure culinary bliss. Two of them, actually.

It was midday and we were tired after lots of interviewing and walking, so my friend Boyko and I walked into the main Bulgarian-Italian restaurant on Ul. Dunavska. (I’ll add the name when I remember it, but it’s not so unique; every neighborhood in Sofia seems to have one of these places which serve nice pizza, pasta, salads and grilled meats. Nothing fancy.)

Anyway, on this particular day I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but then I saw it on the menu: миш маш. When I heard its translation — Mish-mash — I instantly knew this was the Bulgarian culinary moment I had been waiting for. Continue reading

Photo journal: Vidin and the Danube

We arrived in Vidin, Bulgaria, in time for the sunset, and we were not disappointed.

It’s a bit quiet at this time of the year. But it’s clear from the care taken in grooming a handsome park on the banks of the Danube that Vidin gets its share of vacationers in the summer months. We saw a handful of families out for a stroll, sight-hungry passengers hurrying back to their cruise ship, and pensioners lined up on the boardwalk as if waiting for their own boat to arrive.

Continue reading

Driving in Bulgaria, Part 3: Destination Vidin

Lacking my own car, it was my friend Boyko who did the driving today on a reporting trip up to Vidin, a city on the Danube River in northwest Bulgaria. This experience only reinforced my keen appreciation for the challenges and pleasures of operating a motor vehicle in the Balkans.

For one thing, he drives fast. Everyone does. Only horse carts — of which we saw more than a few — go slowly here. Speed adds a thrill to daily life and also gets you to your destination more quickly. Continue reading

Driving in Bulgaria, Part 2: The Test Drive

So we wandered the used-car lot off Tsarigradsko Shose in Sofia, looking for the Subaru of my dreams.

I had considered other brands. There were plenty of Hondas and Toyotas for sale, and a friend made a persuasive case for Skodas.

But I’ve always had a thing for Subarus, ever since my dad drove one up our driveway in Chicago back in the 1980s. Sure it was small, but it kept on going through snowdrifts even as white stuff piled up over the hood. Down in Florida I put nearly 200,000 miles on a green Forester with nary a backfire.

Still, I felt my confidence wavering as I wandered through that Bulgarian used car lot. The green Foresters here looked a bit sad. A gold Legacy started only reluctantly. And I saw a funky, overpriced blue Outback with upholstering that didn’t match the exterior and 98,000 kilometers on the odometer. (“Never pay attention to the odometer,” my mechanic had told me with a chuckle; all mileages are suspect.) Continue reading

Driving in Bulgaria, Part 1: Car Shopping

It was bound to happen sooner or later.

After months – yes, months – of relying on taxis and the goodwill of friends to get around in Sofia, I recently took the bold step of beginning to look for a car. It’s hard to overstate the layers of complication and premeditation that led me to this point.

Those not living in Bulgaria might find it difficult to understand why it took me until November to  begin this process in earnest. After all, we arrived on August 1.

But really, what’s the point  when it takes three months for the government to issue the all-important identity card? Without it, the best I could have managed was renting or leasing a car or, more perilous still, buying one and somehow arranging to keep the papers in another driver’s name until I could by the car outright.

And honestly, we haven’t been in a huge rush to drive here. Crowded Tsarigradsko Shose makes the devilishly chaotic Route 4 in northern New Jersey look like a cow path.  Please don’t take this the wrong way – no national insults are intended – but Bulgarian traffic operates according to a terrifying logic all its own. Tailgating has been refined to an art form, and slow driving is interpreted as a sign of mortal weakness. Horn honking seems reserved for expressions of fury. And the rotaries – I think here, particularly, of the infamous Circle of Death near the Carrefour – resemble nothing so much as a high-stakes game of Frogger. Continue reading

Winter comes early in Bulgaria, heat comes late

AFP via BBC

We had a surprise in Sofia yesterday: snow! And another surprise, at least for this American: no heat.

Communism may be over, but we’re told it’s a state-owned company that decides when the radiators can get hot. Something about three consecutive days of temperatures below some frigid threshold. Until then, our thermostats are little more than decorative wall hangings.

All of this reminds me of a month I spent living with a French family one January during college. They, too, kept things on the chilly side.

I was never clear on whether this came via government edict or the frugal principles of my Alsatian hosts. Perhaps the Kauffmans were simply made of sterner stuff than that tender freshman. In any case, they dined late each evening, and I can recall a few nights when I spent the hours between class and supper shivering under my blankets.

Here in Eastern Europe, where countries have been known to run short of natural gas due to budget shortfalls or squabbles with the gas man in Moscow, one imagines a conservationist rationale. It’s not my right to waste precious fuel, even if I’m willing to pay for the privilege.

Perhaps that’s true. But faced with the prospect of wearing long underwear in the middle of October, I find myself thinking selfish, Yankee thoughts. I may have found another Bulgarian industry ripe for privatizing and putting under the yoke of the Almighty Dollar. I’m not too proud to say it: I’ll pay. Big Brother, if you’re reading this, I beg you: turn the heat on!

UPDATE, 8 November: Yes, we have heat. At least at night. The radiator seems to operate on a nocturnal schedule — no gurgling during daylight hours. But I’m not complaining. At least we know warmth is possible.

Photo Journal: Leaving Fakulteta

Yesterday at the crack of dawn I got on a bus with a bunch of kids from Fakulteta and went to school.

If you’re from Bulgaria, there’s a lot of meaning packed into that sentence. Fakulteta is where the largest group of Roma in Sofia — otherwise known as Gypsies — live. It’s a place of desperate poverty and more than a little controversy. During recent demonstrations sparked by the death of a non-Roma boy, some nationalists proposed razing this neighborhood right to the ground.I’ll leave it for another day to tell the story of what happened once I arrived at the school, and how Roma education might just turn out to be a decisive question for all of Europe. Suffice to say that these kids were all Roma, and this particular school was located outside the confines of Fakulteta.

But really, they’re just kids. And on this particular day they had a visitor with a camera on the bus. Big excitement. Continue reading