Monday, February 28, 2011

Road Tripping

The car and the road are more a part of American life than anywhere else I’ve ever been. And the road trip is probably the quintessential American experience.

I miss being able to hop into the car and drive – or ride – for hours. Peace Corps rules prevent us from driving. Peace Corps realities limit our chances for long distance road trips as passengers. And as much as I enjoy traveling by train, there are times I just want to get behind the wheel, crank the music, and drive. Somewhere in particular. Nowhere special. Anywhere. Just drive.

This weekend, we road tripped from Sofia to a small village in the Стара планина (Stara Planina). I didn’t get to drive, but it was close enough. The drive alone made the trip more than worthwhile. But a renovated old house, a huge fireplace, a roaring fire, a few beers, and Tolstoy made it close to perfect.

A dusting of snow on the upper elevations of the Stara Planina made for some pretty spectacular scenery.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Recipe #13: Качамак със сирене (Kachamak with Cheese)

Качамак (Kachamak) is a popular Balkan dish similar to Italian polenta. There are probably as many different ways to make it as there are families in Bulgaria, and this is just one of them.


6 cups cornmeal
3.5 sticks butter
2 cups crumbled cirene (feta cheese)
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 gallon water


Pour water in pot, add salt, and bring to a boil. Remove pot from heat and add cornmeal to it, taking handfuls and forming a heaping mound. Return pot to the burner and, using the handle end of a wooden spoon, form a hole in the center of the mound of cornmeal to allow steam to escape. Bring to a boil and cook for 30 minutes. Mix and mash cornmeal and water thoroughly. Melt butter in a saucepan and then stir into cornmeal mixture. Stir thoroughly until cornmeal mixture becomes a dense mass. Transfer cornmeal to a shallow dish and top with crumbled cirene. Serve with yogurt.

Качамак със сирене

Recipe #12: Бързи питки със сирене (Cheese Biscuits)

Translated literally, "бързи питки със сирене" means "quick bread with cheese." These are quick and easy, but they are really more like cheddar cheese biscuits than anything else. I first had them in Chiprovtsi and I adapted the recipe from here. The recipe yields 20-24 biscuits.


1 cup grated cirene (feta cheese)
1 egg
1 cup yogurt
2/3 cup sunflower oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon garlic powder
approximately 3 cups flour
1/4 pound (100 grams) of grated kashkaval (cheddar cheese)
1 fresh hot pepper, seeded and finely diced (optional)


Mix two cups flour, cirene, egg, oil, garlic powder, and salt (and hot pepper) in a bowl. Dissolve baking soda into yogurt and add to the other products. Knead dough until soft, gradually adding remaining cup flour. Let dough stand in the refrigerator for about ten minutes. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Form the dough in balls the size of a walnut. Place on a baking sheet at a distance from each other (size will double while baking). Sprinkle the shredded cheddar cheese on top of each ball. Bake until golden. Serve warm.

Бързи питки със сирене

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Крем супа от тиква

Това е рецепта за крем супа от тиква.

1400 мл зеленчуков бульон
10 грама сол
1000 грама тиква пюре
1 гр нарязан пресен магданоз
160 грама нарязан лук
0.5 грама нарязан прясна мащерка
1 скилидка чесън, нарязан
1 гр млян джинджифил
1 гр мляно индийско орехче
1 гр мляна канела
120 мл сметана за готвене
5 цели зърна черен пипер


1. Загрейте бульона, солта, тиквата, лука, мащерката, чесъна, джинджифила, индийското орехче, канелата и пипера. Оставете да заври, намалете котлона и оставете да къкри за 30 минути без капак.

2. Пюрирайте с помощта на кухненски робот или пасатор.

3. Върнете отново супата на котлона и оставете да кипне. Намалете котлона и оставете да къкри още 30 мин без капак. Разбъркайте с течната сметана. Изсипете супата в съд и гарнирайте с пресен магданоз.

Служи 8-10.

Крем супа от тиква.

Another recipe requested by some Bulgarian friends.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Believe it or not ...

A big part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is simply making friends. Bulgarian friends. And when it's 57 degrees and sunny on February 8th that means sucking it up and playing outdoor basketball with some of those friends. Yeah. It's a tough gig. I'm not sure how any of us do it.

I suppose if I was in Wisconsin I could play outdoor basketball there too, but it just wouldn't the same now would it?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Final Thoughts on Bulgarian Unhappiness

About six weeks ago, I asked a simple question on this blog: Why is Bulgaria, relative to its income per person, the saddest place in the world? Since that time, I’ve had the chance to ask numerous Bulgarians this same question. Not surprisingly, many Bulgarians disputed the premise. But many others did not. Other opinions on this topic can be found here and here, but these are some of the more thoughtful and interesting explanations I was given.

Bulgarians Know too Much

According to the Bible, "with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief." Put another way, "where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise."

As a whole, Bulgarians are very well educated. They know what life is like in places like Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia. It is these places with which Bulgarians compare themselves, and, when doing so, they tend to look upon Bulgaria unfavorably. They understand concepts such as democracy, capitalism, and meritocracy both as theoretical ideals and as practical systems of societal governance. And they are aware of the widespread corruption within Bulgaria which has kept such ideals from being realized. So, while most are appreciative of the political freedoms the past twenty years have brought to Bulgaria, many are resentful that corresponding economic freedoms have, in large part, been limited to a select group of politically connected elites.

Unhappiness is Part of the Bulgarian National Psyche

Bulgaria was under the Turkish yoke for nearly five centuries. In other words, Bulgarians were slaves to the Turks for almost five hundred years. When you are a slave and someone asks you, “How are you?” what do you think the answer will be? When has anyone been happy to be someone else’s slave? According to some Bulgarians, because of this history and the many years under communism, the concept of happiness has seeped out of Bulgaria’s national psyche.

Personally, I think this may be changing. There are some Bulgarians who, no matter what, answer the question, “Как си? (How are you?)” by saying, “Горе-долу (So-so).” But these folks tend to be older. When I ask my students the same question, most answer by saying, “Добре (Good),” “Супер (Super),” or “Екстра (Extra).” On those occasions when one does answer, “Горе-долу,” he or she is typically having a bad day or is sick.

Bulgarians are Very Superstitious

Many Bulgarians are extremely superstitious. The Bulgarian paranoia with “течение (drafts)” has been the bane of my existence since I got here, and it’s just one of many Bulgarian superstitions. The longer I’m here, the more I learn.

For example, last year, a friend who attends my adult English classes was having a birthday the day after one of our classes. I informed the class of this fact and wished her a happy birthday in front of everyone. I was surprised when no one else followed suit. After class, I walked with my friend toward our respective homes. When we went our separate ways I again wished her a happy birthday. This made her very upset and she scolded me for wishing her a happy birthday before it was actually her birthday. This, she told me, was sure to bring her bad luck.

I wasn’t surprised then when several Bulgarians said that, even if happy, some Bulgarians won’t admit to it for fear it will jinx them and bring them bad luck.

Bulgarians are Immoral

More than one philosopher has opined that to attain true happiness one must make morality his ultimate concern. Several of the Bulgarians I spoke to believe that Bulgarian unhappiness is corollary to the country’s immorality.

Bulgarians are Honest

This hypothesis seems contrary to several of the others, but more than one Bulgarian suggested it as a possibility. Ask a Bulgarian a question, and you’ll generally get a straightforward, honest answer. It might not be the answer you wanted to hear and you might have to listen to an earful, but what you’ll hear will most likely be the truth.

Bulgaria is Doomed by the Stars

Mundane astrology is a line of astrology that holds that countries, like people, have horoscopes. Some Bulgarians believe Bulgaria’s current condition is a result of the country’s horoscope.

Some of these explanations make more sense to me than others, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide what you believe the answer to my question is.