Friday, December 17, 2010

"... and the saddest place in the world, relative to its income per person, is Bulgaria."

If you've followed this blog at all, you know I enjoy living in Bulgaria and that I feel forever indebted to the people here who have made my life in Bulgaria so interesting and enjoyable. One thing, however, which I've yet to come to terms with are all the long faces I encounter day in and day out. I wrote about these sad faces almost a year ago to the day, and most of what I wrote then is still true today. I do see more smiles now but most of them come from my students, many of whom I'm quite certain are smiling only because they think I'm crazy.

To the untrained eye, far too many Bulgarians appear to be in a perpetual state of misery. And as someone who enjoys living here, I just don't understand all the gloom and doom. There are far "worse" places to live. Indeed, not too long ago, after a brief trip to Germany for Oktoberfest, I wrote about some of the differences between Bulgaria and Germany. My blog entry generated a response with a question I’ve been mulling and losing sleep over ever since I read it. Broken down to its simplest form, the question is rather straightforward: how could you possibly prefer life in Bulgaria over life in Germany?

At some point I’ll try to answer that question. In the meantime, I’d like an answer to this question: Why is Bulgaria, relative to its income per person, the saddest place in the world?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Чипровци (Chiprovtsi)

Someone wrote a long time ago that we travel to do things we take for granted and never do at home. There is some truth in this statement, but when I travel I generally do the same things or types of things I do back home. I know how I like to spend my time, and I prefer to spend my time doing things I enjoy rather than wasting it doing things I don’t.

This past weekend, however, I did something I had never done and probably would never do back home. I attended a carpet weaving demonstration.

Nestled in a small valley a little more than a stone’s throw from Serbia, Чипровци (Chiprovtsi) is world famous, at least among collectors, for its carpets. Since learning of these carpets and the local weavers who still make them, I’d been curious about both the process and the final product.

The carpets are nothing short of amazing, and the process is quite interesting. Unfortunately, as I should have known from failed experiences with latch hook as a kid, my lack of skill and patience precludes me from ever becoming a carpet weaver. Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile foray and I’m glad I experienced it.

The town. The ridge on top of the mountains in the background is the Serbian border.

Chiprovtsi carpets.

Getting a demonstration.

Time to weave.

We woke up to a dusting of snow the next day.

And then the goats took over the town.

ФК "Сливнишки герой"

In the States, fall weekends mean football. In Bulgaria, it's much the same. Here, however, the football they play and watch is what we call soccer.

Having grown up playing soccer, it's very much a sport I enjoy. But I also love football. And I've always found the often antagonistic relationship back home between football players and its fans and soccer players and its fans rather entertaining. As far as I’m concerned, they are both great sports. So here, with no football to watch, I’ve turned to watching soccer. The price is right - it's free - and, other than school, it's the best place to hear creative uses of Bulgarian curse words.

The Bulgarian soccer leagues are set up like most other European leagues. The best teams with the most money are in the "first division." The team that finishes with the best record in the first division is considered the national champion.

The next best teams are in the "second division." The clubs in the first and second divisions are fully independent and move between the divisions depending on their records. At the end of each season, the teams which finish at the bottom of the first division are relegated to the second division. They are replaced by the top clubs in the second division.

Below the second division are various regional divisions which operate in the same way. Thus, the teams finishing at the bottom of the standings in the second division are relegated to the regional divisions and replaced by the top clubs from the regional divisions.

The leagues all run on a strictly balanced schedule, with each club playing every other club in their division at home and away the same number of times.

Whenever the weather is nice and my schedule allows it, I try to catch the local team – ФК "Сливнишки герой" – in action. Right now, they are leading their division. If the club can maintain its position in the standings and secure sufficient financial backing and sponsorship, it will move up to the second division next season.

Here are a few photos from a game I attended earlier this fall.

As you can see, the stadium has seen better days. The cows grazing in the background aren’t mascots.

The home team dominated the action with cross after cross entering the box.

For some reason the opposing goalie preferred watching the action instead of making a play on the ball.

Despite this, he actually made a few saves.

In the end, however, he proved to be a sieve and gave up six goals.

The goalie for ФК "Сливнишки герой", on the other hand, saw minimal action and pitched a shutout.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Старцево (Startsevo)

I recently made a long overdue visit to a friend who lives in Старцево (Startsevo). Startsevo is a small village located in the Rhodopes just a few miles from the Greek border.

The trip was the epitome of bittersweet. On the one hand, it was a glorious fall weekend. The best of all Bulgarian smells, the smell of smoke from wood-burning stoves, filled the air and left a haze over the distant mountains. Skies of blue hung over fields and forests of green, brown, yellow, orange, and red caught in transition from summer to winter. Traces of the season’s first snow lingered in small patches, barely noticeable against the patchwork of colors covering the surrounding hills. And incredibly hospitable locals made sure we felt entirely at home. Everything about the weekend was glorious. Everything except that part of my mind that kept telling me, even while I soaked it all in and savored it, that the end is near.

Barring an unexpected turn of events, this will be my last fall in Bulgaria. And I couldn’t help but feel a profound sense of loss as I took in deep breaths of the smoke-filled air and marveled at the surrounding countryside.