Friday, January 25, 2013

Why I Love Bulgaria

If I had a dollar for every time I had this conversation with a Bulgarian, I’d have more than enough money to replace the camera I ruined when I took an impromptu dip in the Grand Canal in Venice:

Bulgarian guy, “О, знаеш български (Oh, you know Bulgarian). Откъде знаеш български (How do you know Bulgarian)?”

Me, “Аз живея тук (I live here).”

Bulgarian guy, eyes rolling, “Сериозно (Seriously)? Защо (Why)?”

Me, “Защото аз съм доброволец от Корпус на мира и преподавам английски език тук (Because I am a Peace Corps volunteer, and I teach English here).”

Bulgarian guy, “О, браво (Oh, bravo). Обичаш ли България (Do you like Bulgaria)?”

Me, “Да, много (Yes, very much).”

Now, at this point, the conversation would usually take one of two turns. Half the time, the guy would extol the virtues of Bulgaria and try to get to me to acknowledge how much better Bulgaria is than the U.S.A. The rest of the time, the conversation would continue along these lines:

Bulgarian guy, “Как можеш да обичаш България (How can you love Bulgaria)?”

Me, “Как не (How not)?”

Bulgarian guy, “Как да (How yes)?”

No matter how I answered that question, my answer was always unsatisfactory.

I’ll try one last time. This, in addition to my many Bulgarian friends, is why I love Bulgaria:

Yeah. I get it. Bulgaria is far from perfect. But if it wasn't a country with some problems, we'd never have been there in the first place. And I gave up looking for utopia a long time ago. And, all things considered, it’s rather remarkable to think about everything I was able to see and experience in three years in Bulgaria, living on a little more than $300 per month, working full-time as a teacher, and relying almost exclusively on public transportation to get to and from places. And I'll ask again, “How can you not love Bulgaria?”

To everyone who made my three years in Bulgaria so special and memorable, thank you. I hope to see you again someday soon.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Top 50 Things to Do, See, and Experience in Bulgaria

What seems like a lifetime ago, I enrolled in a course in university titled “Introduction to Bulgarian Civilization.” The course was being taught by a visiting professor from the University of Sofia. It was the fall of 1990, and Bulgaria, like most of the other former Soviet Bloc countries, had just ushered out Communism and held its first free elections in decades. I was too immature and foolish to grasp the significance of this or to appreciate the opportunity to learn about it from someone who had lived through it. I enrolled in the class not because I wanted to learn but because it met a general education requirement I needed to fulfill in order to graduate and because some of my friends were in the class and said it was going to be easy.

Like many of my university classes, the class didn’t have an attendance requirement. As a result, I never went. That’s not entirely true. I did go one time just to see if what my friends had said was true and to grab a syllabus, once to find out what would be on the midterm, another time to find out what would be on the final, and, of course, I showed up for the actual midterm and final. But that was it. One of my friends was nice enough to share his notes from class with me, and that was all I needed. To prepare for the midterm, four of us hopped in one of the guy’s SUV, drove from Los Angeles to Tijuana, Mexico, studied all the way there, partied until after sunrise in Tijuana, hopped back in the car, drove back to L.A. studying along the way between naps, and arrived back on campus extremely hungover (maybe even still drunk) but just in time to take the test. I got an A on the test and an A in the class, but I didn’t learn much of anything. The only thing I really remembered about the class (besides the trip to Tijuana) was how nice the professor was, how proud she was of Bulgaria, and how optimistic she was regarding Bulgaria’s future.

I hadn’t given much thought to that class or to Bulgaria until I learned from a Peace Corps recruiter that I would be receiving an official invitation to serve in one of the countries in Eastern Europe. A little research quickly revealed that Bulgaria was on the short list of places I might go. And when my official invitation arrived, I couldn’t help but laugh upon learning that I had been invited to serve in Bulgaria. After more than three years of living in Bulgaria, I know a lot about the country, its people, its culture, and its history – much more than I ever could have learned in a classroom.

There are still things I want to see and places I want to go, but, in my experience, these are the top fifty things to do and see in Bulgaria.

50. Rusenski Lom Nature Park and the Ivanovo Rock Churches (Природен парк „Русенски Лом” и Ивановски скални църкви). There are more interesting rock monasteries in other countries, but these are worth visiting if you've never seen one.

49. Bachkovo Monastery (Бачковски манастир). Bulgaria's "second" monastery, Bachkovo is located in a serene and inspiring setting just a short drive from Plovdiv. The setting and close proximity to Plovdiv, along with some good prices on traditional Bulgarian handicrafts near the entrance, make it worth a quick stop.

48. Go Spelunking. There are are more impressive caves in many other places, but, for those who enjoy spelunking, Ledenika Cave (Леденика пещера), the Devil's Throat Cave (Пещера Дяволското гърло), and Yagodina Cave (Ягодинска пещера) are all worth visiting.

47. Sunflower Fields. In late summer, much of Bulgaria is carpeted in fields of gold. The sunflower fields run from the Serbian border to the Black Sea and are nothing if not stunningly beautiful.

46. Shop at a Local Market. Every town has its own market or markets. Some are only open once or twice per week while others are open every day. They're all fun to shop at and vary considerably depending on the season.

45. Vitosha (Витоша). It's not Bulgaria's most beautiful mountain, but Vitosha is the only one you can easily reach walking from Sofia. Second home to nature-loving Sofians, it's busy at all seasons yet does provide a quick escape from the nation's capital.

44. The First Day of School. The first day of the new school year is probably more interesting and enjoyable for teachers than for non-teachers, but it is an event that captures some of the cultural differences between Bulgaria and the U.S.A.

43. Graduation and the Senior Ball. Maybe it was because I taught these kids and was overjoyed to see them graduate, but the senior ball is actually a blast.

42. The "Gypsy Bride Market". Not at all what it's reported to be by the media, visiting this event feels like crashing someone's family reunion.

41. Wait for the Shepherds. In villages and small towns all across Bulgaria, grandmas and grandpas end their days sitting around and gossiping while waiting for shepherds and goat herders to return with their flocks of sheep and herds of goats. Joining them and witnessing this daily ritual transports you back in time and gives you an entirely new perspective about a lot of things.

40. Sit on a Bench. Seeing all the bench sitters took me back to my childhood and made me happy. Following suit and sitting on a bench with friends and chatting the afternoon away made me even happier.

39. Balchik (Балчик). Home to the former summer residence of Queen Marie of Romania and Bulgaria's best botanical gardens, Balchik is otherwise a fairly quaint, little fishing village.

38. The Marvelous Bridges (Чудните мостове). Arguably the most impressive of Bulgaria's unique rock formations after Belogradchik, the Marvelous Bridges would undoubtedly be more popular if they were easier to reach.

37. Learn to Weave a Carpet in Chiprovtsi (Чипровци). Just because I couldn't master a loom doesn't mean you can't.

36. The Rose Festival in Kazanlak (Празник на Розата в Казанлък). Bulgaria produces approximately 70% of the world's rose oil. The annual festival in Kazanlak, which is in the heart of Bulgarian rose country, celebrates all things related to roses.

35. National Folk Art Festival in Koprivshtitsa (Национален Събор на Народното Творчество в Копривщица). There are smaller, annual music festivals, but this festival, which occurs every fifth year, is the most famous and highly respected.

34. Varna (Варна). See what I wrote about Bourgas.

33. Nessebar (Несебър). Steeped in history, Nessebar is a cool place to see ... outside the tourist season when it is heaving with people and ridiculously overpriced.

32. Sofia (София). I like Sofia, but it's a strange city that takes some time to get used to and get to know. There are other cities in Bulgaria that are more enjoyable to visit, but Sofia has plenty of interesting attractions in its own right.

 31. Easter (Великден). Easter celebrations in Bulgaria are the same as they are elsewhere, only they're different.

30. Christmas (Коледа). I don't think I've ever eaten as much meat in one day as I did on Christmas Day my first year in Bulgaria.

29. A Bulgarian Wedding. Bulgarians know how to party, and the biggest and best parties of all are often weddings.

28. Rila Monastery (Рилски манастир). Bulgaria's most overrated tourist destination is still a very cool place.

27. St. Theodore's Day (Тодоровден). Amateur horse races. Enough said.

26. Bourgas (Бургас). The rivalry in Texas between Dallas and Houston reminded me of the rivalry between Varna and Bourgas. Like Dallas, Varna is a bit flashier and more pretentious. Bourgas, like Houston, is a bit grittier, more blue collar, and more real. I like Houston more than Dallas, and I like Bourgas more than Varna.

25. Go Skiing. World class skiing at a fraction of the price you'd pay elsewhere. Bansko (Банско), Pamporovo (Пампорово), Borovets (Боровец), and Vitosha (Витоша) are the most popular destinations.

24. Veliko Turnovo (Велико Търново). Despite a wicked case of food poisoning on my first visit, I always enjoyed my time in Veliko Turnovo.

23. Bayram. Perhaps I found Bayram so interesting because I'd been rather ignorant of its importance to Muslims before living in Bulgaria. Regardless, it's a very cool holiday.

22. Sozopol (Созопол). A bit like Nessebar, only cooler, and with a fraction of the tourists.

21. The Balkan Mountains (Стара планина). Probably deserves to be higher, but I honestly didn't get to explore as much of this mountain range as I would have liked. Some day I'd love to hike all the way across Bulgaria from the Serbian border to the Black Sea on the Kom-Emine Track.

20. Drink a Two Liter Beer in the Park. Warm spring days in Bulgaria are made for people watching in the park with friends and two liter bottles of beer.

19. Melnik and Rozhen Monastery (Мелник и Роженски манастир). The trek from Rozhen Monastery to Melnik is quite possibly the best two hour walk in the country, in part because of the scenery and in part because at the end of the walk is a pleasant, little town with delicious food and more homemade wine than you can possibly drink.

18. Plovdiv (Пловдив). Of all of Bulgaria's large cities, Plovdiv is easily my favorite. Roman ruins, national revival architecture, a modern pedestrian walkway loaded with heaps of stores and good restaurants, and plenty of other attractions make Plovdiv a great place to visit.

17. Belogradchik (Белоградчик). It's just an old fortress and some even older rocks, but it's really, really cool.

16. Pirin Mountains (Пирин). Inclement weather ruined plans to climb Vihren and hike across Koncheto, but what little I did see of the Pirin Mountains was impressive. It's a mountain range I'd love to explore more.

15. Go Birding. With more than 400 species either residing in Bulgaria or passing through in migration, the country is unquestionably one of the best places in Europe to watch birds.

14. Enjoy the Fresh Food. A Bulgarian friend of mine relayed the story of another friend who had visited the U.S.A. When asked, "How was the food?," the friend who had visited the U.S.A. responded, "It was O.K., but everything tasted like watermelon. I ate an apple, and it tasted like watermelon. I ate tomatoes, and they tasted like watermelon. I ate a cucumber, and it tasted like watermelon. I ate strawberries, and they tasted like watermelon. Everything I ate tasted like watermelon. I think if I ever go back, I'll just eat watermelon." It's not that bad, but the fresh fruit and veggies in Bulgaria do taste better. On my parent's first night in Bulgaria, we were served a salad with homegrown veggies. Afterward, my dad asked the hostess, "What was that pink fruit in the salad? Was it a melon of some sort? It was absolutely delicious." She responded with a smile and said, "No. That was tomato."

13. Take a Train Ride. They are often old and slow, but trains are the preferred means of transportation for many Bulgarians and a great way to see the country. Two of Bulgaria's best train rides are  the one that covers the stretch between Sofia and Mezdra through the Iskar Gorge and the Septemvri — Dobrinishte Narrow Gauge Train Line.

12. Baba Marta Day (Ден на Баба Марта). My favorite Bulgarian holiday, and one of my favorite holidays period, is Baba Marta Day. It's a day that makes everyone happy. Any such day is a great day.

11. Learn to Prepare Bulgarian Dishes. Are they Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, Balkan? Does it matter? Your life will be better if you start incorporating dishes like banitsa (Баница)Shopska salad (Шопска салата)tarator (таратор), and French fries with cheese (пържени картофи със сирене) into your diet. Trust me.

10. Seven Rila Lakes (Седемте рилски езера). I'd be surprised if there aren't more beautiful hikes in the Rila Mountains, but the Seven Rila Lakes ease of access, renown, and natural beauty can't be beat.

9. Go "Na Gosti (на гости)". I'm not sure what part of speech the phrase "на гости" is, all I know is how much fun it is. When you step into a Bulgarian home as a guest, be prepared to stay a while. The concept of time goes out the window. Never seen it take several hours to eat a salad (and drown several bottles of rakia)? Then you've never gone на гости.

8. Jordan's Day or the Epiphany in Kalofer (Йордановден и Богоявление). Jordan's Day is one of several Bulgarian name days with very specific traditions, and the horo is a traditional and communal Bulgarian dance. One of the highlights of the annual Jordan's Day festivities in Kalofer is the men's horo, which combines Bulgarians' sense of community and pride with Bulgarian tradition as well as anything I witnessed.

7. Black Sea (Черно море). Everyone has their favorite stretch of sand along the Black Sea coast. My favorite place to lay down a towel is in far northern Bulgaria just south of the Romanian border. It's a relatively unspoiled and undeveloped area that I hope remains that way.

6. Rhodope Mountains (Родопи). Bulgaria is a mountainous nation, and my favorite of the Bulgarian mountain ranges is the Rhodope Mountains. Visit them. You won't be disappointed.

5. Experience Village Life. Bulgarians have a love/hate relationship with Bulgarian villages. I just love them. It's tough to pick favorites, but a few of mine are Yagodina (Ягодина)Srebarna (Сребърна), and Gorno Dryanovo (Горно Дряново).

4. Kukeri (Кукери). Dating back to ancient pagan times, when it was believed the masks and costumes had the power to protect their wearers against evil (hence the more frightening the getup the better), kukeri festivals are popular throughout Bulgaria. The largest and arguably most impressive of the kukeri festivals is the one that takes place in Pernik called the Surva International Festival of Masquerade Games.

3. Buzludzha (Бузлуджа). There are few places on earth where politics, history, art, and emotion are on display in a more visible way than at Buzludzha. It's a surreal and amazing place and, while it's still standing and accessible, should be at the top of any visitor's list of places to see.

2. Learn to Make Rakia. Rakia is hardly unique to Bulgaria, but it is so central to Bulgarian life that nothing is more Bulgarian than making your own rakia and sharing it with your friends.

1. Learn Bulgarian. I'm not fluent in Bulgarian, but I can understand and speak enough of the language to get by reasonably well. Being able to communicate, at least on some level, with all Bulgarians makes the country much more interesting and enjoyable. And the joy of sitting in a small cabin on a three hour train ride with five Bulgarians and just listening to everything they say only to chime in in perfect Bulgarian as the train pulls into its final stop cannot be overstated. Even if you can't read Cyrillic or understand or speak Bulgarian, I can't recommend the place enough. Just go and enjoy!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Final Thoughts on Peace Corps Service

A little more than two months after my Peace Corps service ended, I returned to Bulgaria for a few days to pack up my belongings and to see my former colleagues and students and some of my friends. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I saw and experienced made me feel pretty good.

First, the little old school at which I had taught for three years was in the middle of a major facelift. It was pretty cool seeing a school that just a few years earlier was on the verge of being closed for good being brought back to life.

Second, with the exception of a few teenagers pretending to be cool, every single person I encountered who I had met during my three years at site met me with a huge, genuine smile and friendly handshake. In a country where smiles are few and far between, those shared smiles really meant a lot.

Finally, saying goodbye to those who were closest to me during my three years was as difficult for them as it was for me. On my first day back, Baba Ristena brought me a large bag full of peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Her pain was obvious when I told her I couldn’t accept them because I had given away my knives and cutting board and would be leaving early the next morning and wouldn’t have time to eat them. When that next morning came, saying goodbye to her was gut-wrenching. Almost seventy years earlier, she had been forced to take shelter from American bombing raids over Bulgaria. Fed a strict diet of anti-American propaganda during the Cold War, she had every reason to dislike me when I moved into her guesthouse. But for three years, she cared for me, nurtured me, and fed me like one of her own. And as the tears rolled down her face, and she held me tight while trembling in my arms, and all she could say was, “Oh, Brian,” it was both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

Peace Corps service is about many things, nothing more important than those shared smiles and tears.