Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How Cold Is It?

The last few days in Bulgaria have been quite warm = almost 8 degrees Celsius. The snow is a distant memory and so is the extreme cold wave we experienced. The coldest it got one night was -16 degrees Celsius. I didn't capture that on film, but below is a picture I did snap of the Kempinski Hotel's thermometer one night as I was walking home.

Sofia, December 21, 2009

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

For All Your Hummous Needs

Tsar Simeon Street, Sofia

Monday, December 28, 2009

Sorry-looking Santa

Pernik, December 27, 2009.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pernik

When Jodie told her coworkers where we had been on Sunday, they laughed. "There's nothing to do in the town of Pernik," they said. And they were quite right.

Pernik is a small town just south of Sofia. It was once a coal-mining industrial town, but now that industry has shut down and all the factories we saw were abandoned. Still, it was an opportunity for us to join our friends Sima and Shlomo for a short trip into unknown territory. We walked around the town center, made a few stops in the shops, and had a nice lunch.

Interesting government building.


Shlomo inspects a Vespa.

Town highlight, the Palace of Culture.

Sima and Jodie fight the drizzle.

Ellis gets comfortable.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

More on Taxis and Driving in Bulgaria

I take a lot of taxis, since this is the way that I travel back and forth to work (a very cheap mode of transportation here in Bulgaria, as compared to many other countries). Since my office provided me with vouchers which are deducted from my salary at the end of the month, I’ve also gotten proficient in ordering a taxi in Bulgarian. This works fine as long as I just have to tell them where I want to be picked up from and where I want to go to. The problem arises when they sometimes call me back after 10 minutes to tell me that there are no taxis available – then I have to switch to English, in order to understand what they’re saying. Unfortunately, this has been happening with some frequency as late, since the taxi drivers don’t like to come for short trips, especially when the weather is bad. So, I often have to wait a long time to get a taxi.

A disturbing thing that I’ve noticed in quite a number of taxis of late is the appearance of a small TV screen in the front near the driver. Somehow, I really don’t think that this is the safest thing to have on while driving. If they were only watching it while they’re parked and waiting for a fare, that might be ok. Then again, if they have so much free time while waiting for a call that they can watch TV, how come there are no taxis to be found when I try and order one?

And my last observation for the day – sometimes, when we reach a large intersection, and stop for a red light – and the traffic that is coming from the cross street is backed up, and can’t move, then many drivers feel that it is ok to make a right turn on a red light, since nothing is moving in the opposite direction anyway...

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas in Bulgaria

For the last month, we’ve seen signs that Christmas is coming. The stores are decorated with Christmas trees, Christmas balls, snowmen and Santas. The merchandise has a definite Christmas theme – candles with Christmas trees, Christmas napkins, cakes, packaging. Lights flicker in the store windows and on the streets, and fir trees are decorated along the roads. There are more Christmas songs on the radio, but not as much as what I remember in the States – and in any case, they don’t really play much music in the malls.

I’ve talked to quite a few of my co-workers to learn about the different Christmas traditions that are celebrated here. Although there is probably a difference between the smaller towns and villages and the big cities, and between old customs from grandparents’ time, there seem to be a few things that seem to be the tradition in most homes.

For those that follow a more religious tradition, no meat is eaten for 40 days before Christmas. Even if most Bulgarians aren’t this strict, the traditional meal for Christmas Eve is a vegetarian meal, without even cheese or eggs. There are an odd number of dishes served (although I have also heard reports of 12 dishes, to represent the coming 12 months of the New Year). Some of the dishes include stuffed peppers and vine leaves, grains, nuts, fruit and the traditional pumpkin banitsa, which is a layered pastry made with phyllo dough. Fortunes are written and wrapped in foil and baked in the banitsa beforehand, and hopefully everyone will receive a good fortune for the coming year. Along this same line is a traditional round bread that is baked with a coin inside – the eldest male of the household gives out pieces of bread to everyone and whoever finds the coin is promised a year of good luck. Walnuts also are eaten for this same reason – everyone is supposed to crack open a walnut, and if the walnut inside is a good one, then it is a promise of a good year ahead. But, if someone has a bad nut, then he will not have a good year.

Christmas is a time for family to be together. In the past, the Christmas Eve dinner was eaten on the floor, where straw was spread, to remind them of the Nativity. Nobody is allowed to leave during the meal. It is also common not to clean up from the meal until the following day, since it was believed that the souls of dead family members come back to visit on this night.

Most people travel to be with their families for Christmas – most of the people I work with left yesterday, and will be gone through New Years. Along with my 2 Israeli bosses, I was the only one at work on Christmas Eve. The plus side – I had no trouble getting a taxi back and forth, and the streets were empty – what a pleasure!

We wish all of our Bulgarian friends a Vesela Koleda!


Shop selling Christmas items in Nessebar.


Nativity scene at a church in Nessebar.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bulgarian Slush Fun

If a snowplow came down our street, and many of the other streets of Sofia, there would be no cobblestones left in the street. Maybe that's the reason why the streets are not plowed, and drivers are left to fend for themselves. Some cars haven't moved at all during the past week since the snowstorm hit last Thursday night. On other mornings, drivers have spent quite a bit of time scraping the ice off their windshields.

For some people it's not easy to walk on the snow and ice and caked slush. It's hardest where people have made efforts to clean their sidewalks. Apparently they don't know about spreading salt on the pavement. Cleared sidewalks are the most slippery places and the entrance to our building has a particularly shiny, slippery surface.

The thermometers dipped to a low of -16 degrees Celsius the other night, but ever since it's been getting warmer. The snow is no longer pretty, and the ground and streets are a mushy brown color. The first grip of winter is melting, melting here in Bulgaria. Let's hope the slush is gone quickly.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Concert = Ali Campbell in Sofia

The coldest night of the year (-16 degrees Celsius) couldn't stop Jodie and me from going out, but the ice-covered plaza in front of the NDK Concert Hall almost stopped us. Nonetheless, we took our seats in the very comfortable chairs in row 12 to see the performance of Ali Campbell, formerly the lead singer of UB40.

A word about Ali Campbell. Until a year or so ago, he was UB40. But apparently there was a management dispute, and Ali left the band (along with at least one other band member), and decided to go solo. He recorded albums on his own, set up his own band, and began to tour. And last night he came to Sofia. Actually, in Bulgaria his concerts were advertised as "Ali Campbell's UB40", but his new band is actually called the Dep Band.

We went to the concert because of the songs we knew from UB40. Ali and his band performed many songs from his recent album, "Flying High", including "Whatcha Gonna Do," "She's a Lady," and "Nothing Ever Changes."

But the songs we really liked, and which brought the Bulgarian audience to its feet, were the classics from Ali's UB40 days. "Only Fools Rush In," "Kingston Town" and the show-ending "Red, Red Wine."

The concert was short (just over an hour), and Ali had this habit of leaving the stage and turning his back to the audience. Overall we would have enjoyed it more if we had known more of the music.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jerusalem from the Air = at the Mall of Sofia

The temperature reached a high of -2 Celsius today, but we refused to be snowbound (although there was no new snow falling). This afternoon we took a taxi to the Mall of Sofia for some shopping and to see the photo exhibition, "Jerusalem from the Air".




As per the invitation from the Israeli Embassy in Sofia, which sponsored the exhibition:

The exhibition, consisting of 25 colour photographs, introduces Jerusalem from a "bird's eye" caught by the skilful lens of Duby Tal, who served as a helicopter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. Moni Haramati, also a pilot of the Israeli Air Force who specializes in aerial photography, piloted the Robinson helicopter from which these photographs were taken. The photos capture the multifaced Jerusalem - old and ancient, new and modern. Master photographs take us in an air tour of Jerusalem, peeking into different neighborhoods, streets and gardens along many historical landmarks. The city goes along with time and changes its appearance, but retains its authentic and ancient spirit, combining different architectural styles and historical periods.

The pictures were beautiful and we were able to identify the places as well as read the captions in Bulgarian. The only thing that disappointed us was that the exhibition was held on the floor above the Food Court, and very few Bulgarians bothered to go up to see the photos.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Snow!

I walked to work today in a snowstorm with some 3-5 inches of snow already on the ground. It is -3 with a high of -2 planned. Over the weekend it's supposed to get to -11.

The snow is very pretty! (Ok, so I like it). More snow to come.

Everything is normal around here, but a bit slower than usual. Children are walking to school, people are scraping the snow and ice off their cars, and some are cleaning their sidewalks as well.

Last night was my company's Christmas party, but I didn't stay too long (or drink too much).

Due to the snow and icy streets, Jodie stayed in the house today.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hannukah in Bulgarian

Довечера е пета нощ на празникът Ханука. Ханука е еврейски празник. Еврейте нямат Коледа. Всекя вечер имаме свещи за празника. Цяла седмица е празник.

В събота и неделя имахме парти вкъщи и много гости. Ядохме традиционна храна за празника. Много колеги от работата бяха на гости у нас. Палим свещи за празника.

В Израел, по време на празника ханука, хората работят, но учителите не работят. децата не ходят на училище през празника. Някои хора взимат отпуска за празника защото децата са вкъщи. В Израел през празника Ханука времето не е студено но понякога вали.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hanukkah Candles 4, 5, and 6

On Monday night we went to Sima and Shlomo's home after work and joined some 70-invited guests for Hanukkah candlelighting. There were many members of the local Jewish community and the Israeli Ambassador to Bulgaria in attendance. Dinner was served, and Shlomo had made not only hummus, but falafel as well.

On Tuesday night we had our weekly Bulgarian lesson. Our teacher, Jordan, watched appreciatively as we lit the Hanukkiah. We practiced sentences in Bulgarian about the holiday.

Paul Shotts was in Sofia for another of his business trips. He joined us on Wednesday night to light candles in our home before we went out to dinner at the Italian restaurant at the mall.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hanukkah 3rd Candle = Bulgarian Coworkers

Fortunately, we had a lot of salads left over from the previous day, so we didn’t have as much preparation to do on Sunday. Another batch of 40 latkes were fried, more donuts were picked up from the mall, and we were left with getting everything out before our guests started to arrive around 5:00.

As per Bulgarian custom, many of our guests started to remove their shoes when they came in, but after we told them that they can keep them on, some of them put them back on again!

We had about 25 adults and 2 small children this night. Once everyone arrived, Ellis gave an explanation of the history of the holiday and the different customs. I then told everyone about the traditional holiday and Israeli foods that we had prepared.

My boss, Yuval, came with his wife and 2 young daughters, and they also brought their own Menorahs. We lit them at the same time and sang the blessings together. Afterwards, everyone helped themselves to the food – I think they liked the different salads – this time, everything went!

We enjoyed being able to share our holiday with our new friends and acquaintances, and to be able to show something new to our Bulgarian friends – we’ve learned so much about their customs and holidays since we’ve been here, and were happy to reciprocate the experience.


Iva, Luca, Moshe, Tony, Damian, Ina, Marina, Nedyalko.


Kalin, Petar, Ivelina, Yana, Martin, Milen, Amit, with Noam in the foreground.


Jodie lights the candles with Stoyan, Aleks, Thomas, Ionatan, as Yuval and Amit light their own Hanukkiah with their daughters.


Noam enjoys the pita with her sister in the background.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hanukkah 2nd Candle = Party for Israeli Coworkers

On Friday, I prepared the hummus and tehina, and on Saturday, we got up and started cutting up salads, peeling, grating and frying up approximately 80 latkes. Ellis made trips to the restaurant to bring back the salads, and to the mall for the donuts. The furniture was moved around and the tables were set up with paper plates and silverware. Since we have a small fridge, there was a problem with where to store everything. Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry about the drinks – the temperature outside on our porch was probably colder than the fridge, and certainly sufficient to cool the drinks!

Our Israeli guests were invited for 5:30, so by 5:00, we had the food out and the table prepared. Ellis had decided to label all the food – with the Hebrew names, but written in Bulgarian! Everyone was very amused and impressed with his effort!

Not everyone could make it in the end, but we still were 20 adults and 1 small child - who kept us all amused with his jumping on and off the carpet. The food was a success and I think that everyone had a good time.

Ionatan, Sigal, Ely Beni and Jodie lighting the candles.


Shlomo, Sima, Michal, Yonatan and Ornit.


Victor and Vicky.


Arno, Evgeny and Julian.

Kristina, Elad, Ionatan and Yaniv.

Ornit, Liraz, Michal and Sigal.

Yonatan and Gadi.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hanukkah Preparations

A few weeks ago, Ellis and I came up with the idea of having a Hanukkah party at our house. We both felt that this was an opportunity to give back something to all the people that have been so nice to us since we’ve been here. And since it’s not a particularly religious holiday, and there are 8 nights to choose from, this seemed like a good idea.

As we started to make our plans, a few things started to become clear to us:

1. We could not have everyone here at the same time – so we decided to have two parties instead – one for the Israelis and our Jewish friends, and one for our Bulgarian co-workers who didn’t have any experience with the holiday and its customs.

2. If there was any way that I would make latkes (potato pancakes) for the holiday, we would have to invest in a food processor in order to grate up a whole sack of potatoes that we would need to feed everyone!

3. In addition to Hanukkah food, we wanted to serve Israeli style salads – so a trip was made to the Arab market in the center of town, to purchase dried chickpeas for hummus and sesame paste for tehina.

Invitations/emails were sent out, and we started planning the menu. Our friend Shlomo gave me a great recipe for home-made hummus, we decided that “sufganiyot” would be purchased from Dunkin’ Donuts, my co-worker Monica told me how to look for sour cream at the supermarket, and, of course, we had applesauce thanks to Sharon and Yossi who brought us a few cans from Israel last spring.

We also decided to order some salads from the Israeli restaurant that opened nearby – so that meant we had to go out to dinner there first to try them out! And at the last minute, Shlomo told us that we could get pitot here in Sofia, so he ordered some for us and kindly dropped them off at the house on Friday afternoon.

The menu was planned, a course of action was set, and we were ready to go. We had very good responses from everyone and the Bulgarians, especially, were excited at the opportunity to learn more about the holiday.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Saint Day for the Fishermen of Sozopol

Trumpets! Tubas! Horns! As we walked along the fishermen's wharf in Sozopol on a cold December afternoon, we heard music everywhere. We approached a restaurant and saw inside a woman dancing on the table, surrounded by men playing their musical instruments as if there was no tomorrow.


We kept walking, hearing more music along the wharf.




Another group of fishermen were standing on a distant boat, saluting each other with drinks (apparently whisky). Closer to us on the pier a family was having a picnic lunch. Next to their table were three musicians playing for them. A woman was grilling fresh fish on a barbecue. It sounded like everyone was having a lot of fun.


Only after coming back home to Sofia did we learn that Sunday was the Saint Day for St. Nicholas, who is the patron saint of the fisherman. That was the reason for the many celebrations, and the music and the bands, and the grilled fish, and even the larger crowds on the streets of Burgas that night.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Wooden Houses of Sozopol

Located 34 kilometers south of Burgas on a small peninsula, Sozopol is one of the oldest towns in Bulgaria. The town is known for its resorts and beaches, fishing boats and wooden houses dating back to the 18th Century. Visiting in December gave us a chance to wander alone on the winding alleys of the Old Town.


This one had stained glass windows:





Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Cold Black Sea Coast

On Sunday, we drove south from Burgas along the Black Sea Coast, heading towards the farthest we could go = the Turkish border. The sceney wasn't as picturesque as we had hoped, because most of the time we were away from the shore and driving along country roads. So, the first time we had a spot where we could actually see something, we stopped.


Getting out of the car, we found it to be freezing! But at least it wasn't raining.



In the town of Ahtopol, we spotted this colorful hotel:


We arrived at the village of Razebo, on the Turkish border. There was a sign saying "Border Zone, No Photography" so we turned around and headed north. Afterwards we learned that we should have continued into the village and taken a look at the river that separates Bulgaria from Turkey.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Restaurants in Burgas

On Friday evening in Burgas, we were still recuperating from an unfresh fish lunch, so we just wanted a quick meal. Unfortunately our choice of Pizza Palace on the pedestrian mall gave us little choices, so it was not a satisfactory dinner.

On Saturday night we walked a few blocks to the Luxor Hotel, which reportedly had a very nice Italian restaurant. We were lucky to get a table, because it filled up quickly. The decor was fancy and the menu was full of appetizing selections. The waitresses wore tight brown uniforms and smiled as we announced our choices, so we even were considering coming back to the restaurant a second time.

Unfortunately, this restaurant didn't live up to our expectations. When we began to drink our wine, Jodie noticed that there was soapy paste at the top of the glass. While she was eating her soup, her main course of chicken fillet and asparagus was served. This is typical of Bulgarian restaurants, but we had assumed the Luxor had a higher class of service.

I chose Stuffed Vegetable Marrows as my appetizer and a Spinach Tagliatelle as my main course, and I was served the pasta first. And then before I had finished, I received a plate of Stuffed Mushrooms. Not what I had ordered.

Sunday night was much more satisfactory, when we dined at the Boulevard, a Bar and Diner at the end of the pedestrian mall near the seashore. Jodie had a very good veal steak and I enjoyed roasted lamb.

We thought this sign on the window of a restaurant where we had stopped for coffee was quite amusing. "30% Off the Entire Menu," the sign announced.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Close Encounter with Bulgaria's Prime Minister

We weren't the only people visiting the seaside town of Sozopol on Sunday. Just as we began our explorations of this fishing town, with its old wooden houses, we ran into the party of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. I just managed to take his picture, but he never stopped to say hello.

Burgas on the Black Sea

When we weren't driving along the coast, we were strolling through the streets of Burgas, one of Bulgaria's larger cities. We found the city and its layout to be very similar to Varna. Along the public beaches there was a huge park, so from the shore you really couldn't see the city at all.

There were many casinos in the city. Our hotel was located very near the central pedestrian malls.


The city was all dressed up for Christmas.


We had read that the city museums were closed on Saturdays, but to our surprise the Ethnographic Museum was open. It was set up very nicely, with clothing worn by area residents a hundred years ago and stories of their wedding customs and how one village celebrated a yearly festival of walking on fire.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Birds of Nessebar

Walking around Nessebar, we felt at times we were on the set of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds". The sky was full of seagulls, and they landed on the ruins as if it was their given right.



Okay, so we got a little carried away taking pictures of birds on old houses, and birds on ancient churches.



For one local resident, the birds meant only one thing = dinner!

The World Heritage City of Nessebar on the Black Sea

On the night of my birthday, Jodie and I flew to Burgas on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast for a weekend of sightseeing and relaxation. We stayed at a very centrally located hotel in the city, where the only problem was squeezing our rented car into a very tight space in the parking lot late at night. The next morning we drove 30 kilometers north of Burgas to the World Heritage City of Nessebar, on a peninsula sticking into the Black Sea.


Nessebar is not only one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria, but also one of the oldest towns in Europe. Its brick churches date back to the Middle Ages and before, and its wooden homes are from Bulgaria's Revival period in the 1800s.




There are over 40 churches in Nessebar, but many of them are just ruins, although very picturesque ruins.


Visiting Nessebar in cold December, we found this popular tourist destination to be quite deserted. We were amused by this sign:


In the distance we could see Sunny Beach, the biggest resort area in Bulgaria. It wasn't exactly sunny today!



As Nessebar is also a fishing village, we sat down for lunch at a modern fish restaurant and ordered fresh fish. Well, this was the most unpleasant thing of the whole weekend, as apparently the fish was not all that fresh. For the rest of the day, we had severe stomach cramps.


At the end of the causeway leading to the old town of Nessebar there is a windmill. We never did figure out its part in Nessebar's history, but it is one of the landmarks of this unique place.