My Bulgarian Spring Break

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It was snowing. We were driving through a blizzard on April Fool’s Day, aiming our Subaru in blind hope towards a beach on the Black Sea: our first spring break since moving from sunny Florida to Bulgaria. My crazy-meter, never designed for such rigors, had long since gone on strike.

The whole enterprise had required a leap of faith. My wife would help run the embassy school, where our nine-year-old daughter would attend the fourth grade. I would transplant my writing from the fertile soil of Tampa to the rocky Balkans.

But just now, our needs were far simpler. Watch out for the pothole, the unexpected horse cart on the highway, the mafia Mercedes speeding from behind with darkened windows.  Find our hotel on the cobbled, one-way streets of Nesebar, a history-laden peninsula on the Black Sea. Locate a restaurant that was open in the off-season.  If ancient Greek mariners could find this port town on the edge of the known world, surely we could track down a bowl of spaghetti. Continue reading

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Summer reading

It’s been a strange season to come and go from Sofia.

The night before we left on a trip overseas, a forest fire burned atop Mount Vitosha. The craggy horizon burned red as we packed our bags – a discomfiting omen, I thought.

While we were gone, terrorists set off a bomb and killed Israeli tourists in the port city of Burgas, which we had driven through in April. Summer floods soaked our basement garage with two feet of murky water, judging from the flood marks and squishy floor mats in our Subaru. And just weeks before, in May, an earthquake jolted us out of bed.

All that in the space of three months: fire, flood, war and earthquake.

“Is this normal?” I asked a Bulgarian friend.

“That’s life,” she said with a shrug and a grin. Continue reading

Photo journal: Sofia spring, moment by moment

It’s been a rainy spring here in Bulgaria. So when the clouds do part, even for a few moments, people hit the streets. They walk the parks and convene those outdoor meetings they craved all through a snowy winter.

Time slows down a bit, you pull out that skateboard or a pair of pink rollerskates, and just see where it takes you.

Earthquake Manners

I’ve always wondered about human behavior during emergencies. It seems trite to say it, but some people really do keep their heads and help their fellow man. Others seem to abandon whatever measure of civilization Mom and Mop gave them, shove aside the women and children and hog all the lifeboats for themselves. In 1994 a few troubled souls on a sinking ferry actually robbed their fellow passengers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about such things this week. Last Tuesday in Bulgaria, in the small hours of night, we had an earthquake. News reports would later call it 5.8 or 5.9 on the Richter scale. But there’s really no scale that describes the feeling of waking up in the middle of one. Continue reading

Five reasons why skiing in Bulgaria isn’t what you think

Sadly, ski season appears to be winding down here in Bulgaria. With each passing day the mountains above Sofia seem a bit less white.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out what an incredibly great season it has been, with plenty of snow and comfortable temperatures for the last month. Last weekend my daughter and I ventured up to Borovets in the Rila Mountains for what could be our final runs of 2012, though in truth we’re already scheming for a return in December.

In that spirit, I offer a few observations on how much better skiing in this corner of the Balkans has turned out to be than I ever expected. For a skier who was raised (okay, spoiled) on Rocky Mountain powder back in the day, it has been a revelation. Continue reading

Photo journal: Ode to Tram 18

I love Tram 18 in Sofia.

All through this frigid East European winter, when every instinct tells us to hide under the blankets, my family has journeyed downtown on this steel relic from Bulgaria’s past. It provides a perfect, nicely-heated portal for journeying through a city that was made for walking.

The trip starts at the southern terminus in Istok, directly opposite the Russian embassy. Passengers line up at trackside, pull up their scarves, and point their faces away from the wind like seagulls on a pier.

When the tram arrives, be prepared to wait a few minutes longer. First the southbound passengers disembark. Then the tram reverses and disappears into a cul-de-sac in the neighboring park. Wait for it. A few minutes later – time enough for the driver to switch tracks, move from back to front, and perhaps take a swig of coffee – the tram reappears for the northward journey. 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

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