Monday, June 29, 2009

Varna in June

Jodie writes: On Friday evening, we headed to the airport for a short flight (40 minutes) to Varna. Varna is located on the eastern side of Bulgaria on the shores of the Black Sea. We’d been following the weather report all week which was predicting showers but we had blue skies and warm weather the whole weekend! Just another reminder not to trust the forecasts.

We arrived at our hotel around 9:00 pm. The hotel itself, Modus Hotel, was one of the nicest hotels we’ve ever stayed in – modern, very aesthetically designed, and very comfortable. And the location was perfect – 5 minutes' walk to the sea, and right next to the beginning of the pedestrian mall.

As our weekend package included a main meal, and we still hadn’t eaten, we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant. Dinner was served on the small patio next to the dining room. What a meal! The waiters wore gloves when putting down our silverware, there were candles on the table, and everything was served to perfection. We shared a beautiful salad to start, and neither of us could resist ordering the lamb chops served with rice and spinach. The waitress brought out a small plate with a little white disc on it, and started to dribble water on it, and it grew – it was a wet cloth for wiping your hands! It was a delicious meal.

The next morning, we got up and walked to the beach through the park which was across the street from our hotel. We crossed the park and in 5 minutes we were at the beach. It was a nice, sandy beach. We rented chaise lounges and an umbrella and parked ourselves there for the day. The water was quite cold until you got used to it.

We were surprised to see the vendors selling corn on the cob on the beach. There were not too many customers.

We had lunch on the beach, and then went back to the hotel for a rest.

This is not an advertisement for Zagorka Beer.

In the Sea Gardens Park there were local women sitting at tables and selling hand-crocheted tablecloths of all different shapes and sizes and they were busy crocheting more while they sat there.

In the afternoon, we went for a walk on the pedestrian mall. There are a few long streets lined with shops, cafes and restaurants. Everyone was out strolling – families, teenagers, old women, and young women dressed as if for a wedding in their fancy short skirts and very high heels ( I don’t know where they’re going dressed like this. I think Bulgarian women just like to dress up – in most cases, the men they’re with are in jeans and T-shirts!)

As this is one week before the Bulgarian national elections, there were a lot of people handing out election propaganda. How nice not to be a part of this!

One of the most interesting things we saw on the pedestrian mall was a green stand with a long line of people who were waiting for popcorn. We didn't understand the interest in this particular stand, as there was another one 50 meters away without a single customer. Behind the more popular stand there was an old man who was making the popcorn, and people stood in line for at least 20 minutes until it was their turn. On Sunday, we were nearby when he opened his stand after his break, and decided that we had to see what was so special about this popcorn, so we bought a bag before the line started again. The popcorn was good, but I don’t understand why anyone would wait so long to buy it. When we walked back to our hotel the hotel workers recognized the bag, and were excited that we’d bought this man’s popcorn. They said he’s very well known all over, and everyone comes to buy his popcorn!

The Church of the Assumption = Varna's main landmark.

Sunday was another leisurely day. The park along the sea shore is huge. We took a long walk down tree-lined paths, with lots of flowers, statues and water fountains. There were bike riders, kids with roller blades, old people out for a walk. From there we walked down to the beach (the park runs parallel to the shore) and drank cocktails and read in a cafĂ© overlooking the sea. We also made a short visit to an art gallery, which wasn’t very impressive.

We went back to the pedestrian mall for a lunch of typical Bulgarian food – Shopska salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted pepper, onion and grated Feta cheese), crispy fried zucchini with yogurt, and the local favorite – a plate of fried sprat – small fish from the Black Sea – yummy!

We found Varna to be a very relaxing city, with families out together on the beach and the pedestrian walkway. We’ve heard that during the months of July-August, it becomes a different city when all the tourists arrive, but we enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and the sea. We’ll definitely go back!

We flew back to Sofia on Mon. morning, and came straight to work – grey skies, cool weather – I want to go back to the beach!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Never trust the weather report

Every morning when I (Ellis) wake up, I check the weather forecast for Sofia. If the forecast calls for rain, I know it will be a sunny day. If the weather forecast says the sun will shine, I know to bring my umbrella.

Today there was a 30% chance of rain in Sofia, and right now says there is thunder. Well, the thunder part was true about 30 minutes ago, but only a few drops of rain fell and most of the day was fair.

When we traveled to Koprishtitsa, we never expected to arrive in the middle of a snowstorm (no forecast of that was posted anywhere). And this weekend we're going to Varna on the Black Sea. The weather forecast says 40% chance of rain, so I know it will be hot and dry. No, wait, I'll bring an umbrella just in case.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Jodie is on the phone

Life is bearable in Bulgaria for Jodie because of our phone line. When we first came, we assumed that Skype would be sufficient in our daily connections with family and friends back in Israel. But Skype means that the other person has to be seated in front of his or her computer, and except for the ability to see the other side in a video image, it wasn't the most convenient way to stay in touch.

Just before Jodie came to Bulgaria in February, she arranged an Israeli phone line through the Internet. This line allows us to make calls to Israel, with a local Israeli phone number. People calling us are charged at local rates as well.

Jodie spends, literally, an hour or more a day talking to her friends and our family. We initially had a 500 minute a month package, but now we've raised it to 2,000 minutes a month. The price is cheap, and the service, keeping us in touch, is huge.

Jodie was going to write this article herself, but she was too busy talking on the phone.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lines in the Sky

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Yes, it is a plane! There are frequently jet planes flying high over our heads leaving white contrails (vapor trails) behind them. This is a picture taken at sunset from our balcony.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Walk to Health

I (Ellis) walk to work every day. No matter if it's rain or shine, hot or cold, I enjoy the exercise and the fresh air. When I first arrived in Sofia, I walked to work up Cherni Vrah, the main street running through the Lozenets neighborhood, alongside the trams and the traffic. Then I discovered that a quieter, nicer walk went up Kozyak Street, past the United States Embassy. But finally, after consulting a map, I found that the shortest distance between two points went straight up cobblestone streets behind our house, up a steep hill and past a hotel complex, and through the oldest part of Lozenets.

I can walk to work in 17 minutes, even taking into consideration having to cross over the busy Yaptsarov Boulevard near the office.

Walking to work has kept me in good health, and I've even lost some weight (an entire hole difference on my belt). Nothing can stop me, not even a bit of snowfall in the winter, or a drenching torrential rain just a few weeks ago.

I have convinced Jodie to join me, if not on the uphill walk in the morning, at least on the walk home at the end of the day. Then we walk at Jodie's pace, and take the streets that bypass the steep hills. Walking allows us to enjoy the sights of the neighborhood, and to observe the local residents of Sofia. And it's good for us.

Last weekend, residents of Sofia gathered in nearby Yuzhen Park for a "Live Actively" event day. They were encouraged to exercise and stay healthy. Walking to work keeps us in good health.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The difficulties of learning Bulgarian - part one

Jodie and I have a weekly lesson with a private teacher. After a few months of studying, we are familiar with some of the basics, but our knowledge of Bulgarian is still at the beginners' level. The fact that we work in English-speaking environments and never have real chances to practise our Bulgarian certainly doesn't help.

The first obstacle we had to overcome was learning a completely new alphabet. In the Cyrillic alphabet, C is S, P is R, 3 is Z, and there are some letters similar to Hebrew ones, and other ones that are completely unique. And we're only talking about the capital letters. It gets stranger still when you realize that M is M, but m is t. Does that even make sense?

Learning Bulgarian is a work in progress. When we figure out what the sign says, we'll let you know.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Driving in Bulgaria

Driving in Bulgaria seems to follow its own set of rules – but not necessarily according to the law. Here are some of the things that I’ve observed (Jodie):

1. Sidewalks are made for parking – passageway for pedestrians is of secondary importance.

2. Stop signs and Yield signs are followed only if there is really no other way for the driver to quickly cut across on-coming traffic.

3. If it is more convenient for the driver to reach his destination quickly by driving the wrong way on a one-way street, then this is perfectly acceptable.

4. Whenever possible, and in order to move quicker, open up a new lane and move forward ahead of all the cars sitting in traffic.

5. It’s perfectly acceptable to stop your car in the middle of a narrow street to let passengers on or off, or whatever you need to do. You can ignore the growing line of cars in both directions who are waiting for you to move so that they can continue on their way.

6. Right of way is determined by the size of the car. If two cars are coming from opposite directions in a narrow street and there is only room for one to pass, then the bigger car wins. This can often result in the need for one or more cars coming from the opposite direction to back up until there is room for the bigger car to pass.

7. Big, 4 wheel drive cars can do whatever they want – everyone else better just move out of the way – traffic laws do not apply to them!

8. If a policeman stops you for a traffic violation, remember – the police have very small salaries here (and you can reach your own conclusion as to what this means….)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Mom visits!

Mom was our first house guest, and joined us for the weekend. We took her to a flea market in the center of the city, attended Shabbat morning services at the Sofia synagogue, ate out at two of the restaurants near our home, and showed her what our lives are like in Bulgaria.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sirens in Sofia

It's not only in Israel that sirens sound and people stand to honor the memory of those fallen in the past. Today at noon, Bulgarians stood to honor one of the country's most beloved heroes and revolutionaries, poet and rebel Hristo Botev, who gave his life in the uprising against the Ottomans in 1876.

According to the Sofia Echo, "people stood still for a minute until the sirens stopped. Even traffic on Sofia's busy roads was halted for one minute." From my office window, however, I noted that a few cars kept driving on the road. Also, the siren lasted about two minutes.

Monday, June 1, 2009

We Fly To Rome

What we really like about living in Sofia is the ability to hop around Europe. For the three-day Shavuot Holiday weekend, we looked to see what flights were available, and then chose our destination. Rome! Jodie had visited the city at age 18, but I had never been. We flew to Rome on Thursday night, and enjoyed walking the streets of the Eternal City. And the spaghetti, Chianti and the Italian ice cream = we loved it!

You can see more of our pictures from the Rome vacation by clicking here.