Thursday, May 31, 2007

American politics, Cindy's bday

I keep forgetting to update!

Last weekend I spent a lovely, lovely time in Veles, Macedonia!!! (or, the MAK, as we like to call it) My friend Cindy from Vanderbilt was celebrating her 23rd birthday, and rumors of a ridiculously good time and a welcoming balcony beckoned…

Actually, Cindy’s birthday is something of an International holiday. May 24th marks the creation of the Cyrillic Alphabet by the brothers Kiril and Methodi, so many of the Cyrillic-using countries celebrate the occasion. The added bonus was of course…free holiday days!!! Whew! I took the opportunity to head to the MAK and see some of my favorite Balkanized Americans!

The first night I arrived, Cindy was throwing a party for all her friends and coworkers in Veles. She has two wonderful, amazing sitemates – Simonche and Stefi- who helped cook, clean, bake and plan the party. It was a full house (balcony) and after dinner the party turned into a Macedonian song-fest! Her landlords came over to help celebrate (actually, they live below her) and it turns out the guy is pretty talented and knows like, every Macedonian song written- EVER. A typical Bulgarian “Na gosti” doesn’t typically include three guitars and 20 people singing, so I was pretty impressed! Finally around 2am, the guests left and we got to sleep!

The rest of the trip was filled with group runs, sing-a-longs (in English), eating “pita,” getting awesome highlights (for $15…), and another party with MAK PCVs. A party at which I was crowned beer pong champion of Macedonia!!!!! Okay, so I crowned myself, but Simon and I did win! I miss the Veles crew a ton, and I’m pretty convinced that they are 3 of the coolest PCVs I’ve come to know.

I JUST read that the Bush administration, in preparation for upcoming G8 talks, has changed its stance on global warming! They now think its important to focus on the environment and the cut down on the emission of all sorts of harmful stuff (well, maybe not all sorts…)!!! I am shocked and pleased.

In other US political news, a few weeks ago a handful of Congressmen and Congresswomen undertook a challenge to live life like an average person who receives food stamps. For one week, they had $3 a day to nourish themselves. One of the things they all seemed to say was that you could buy more junk food calories per dollar than you could healthy calories. If you had a tiny bit of money and a whole family to feed, how are you supposed to stay full AND get nutrients? You know, assuming that Doritos and little Debbie snack cakes don’t fit so well into the food pyramid… These legislators were criticized by many because, in fact, they didn’t accurately recreate the budget of a food stamp recipient. Food stamps are meant to supplement a citizen’s budget, not make up the entirety of it. I agree that it wasn’t a “real” situation, but I truly admire these politicians for finding an issue that is important to them, and finding a new and creative way to reach people’s minds. I would guess that most people are unaware of the amount of aid a welfare recipient receives, so hopefully this demonstration paints a clearer and more accurate picture. I wish these guys were my representatives!!!

Work is going tediously slow, but that means I’ve had a chance to read a few books! I recently read Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” Judy Bloom’s “Summer Sisters,” and am nearly finished with Hemmingway’s “The Sun also Rises.” I’m taking book requests!!!

My parents just called me from the Minneapolis Airport, and they were getting ready to board! I will see them in 13 hours in Sofia!!!!!! I’m pretty excited!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Plamen Putov

For those of you obsessed with American Idol, you might be interested to know that Bulgaria also has its own version called "Music Idol." The first season is currently airing. Unfortunately I don't have a TV, so I've been missing the show. BUT BUT thanks to, Bulgaria's answer to youtube, I've been able to catch highlights from the show!

Plamen Putov...this boy mostly sings English songs and is AMAZING!!! like, if he wasn' 17, I would probably be in love with him... not sure what this song is called, but you'll know it! performing "Stand By Me"

so, let's mention again that he's 17!! I don't think he studies voice or anything, but he is amazing!!! I don't think I've heard him sing a wrong note yet!!

of course, the sad news is that he got kicked off the show :( The remaining boys aren't nearly as good (Theodor, for example, frequently misses pitch) and the girls are okay. One of the girls, Nevina (I think...) is 15 and is also pretty good!


Sunday, May 13, 2007

50 Godishninata na Dvorets na Kulturata!!

Happy Anniversary to my workplace, the Palace of Culture!! On May 11th, 1957 Bulgaria welcomed the first Palace of Culture (or as I like to call it, the POC) right here in Pernik. To help celebrate our holiday, we had a huge party! Before the party we held a concert that included all the musical and artistic groups which are part of the complex. Here they are!

In front of the building, the current folk dancers perform one of many, many dances. Later on, "alumni" of the dancing group join the stage so that there are as many as 120 dancers!

One of the biggest crowd pleasers was the "sport dancing" group. Dancing to "Grease Lightning" from the famed movie "Grease," these dancers showed a great deal of professionalism.

Kiril (playing the accordian) is one of the nicest guys in our building. He is always so thankful for the smallest things. He's also an amazing singer, but tonight gave the priviledges to a former soloist from the POC's professional folk orchestra, "Graovska Mladost" (

The less famous but equally entertaining wind orchestra played "The song for the Palace" and another piece which the director wrote himself. Off to the side, girls dressed in the style of cheerleaders are dancing with hand-made pom-poms. The conductor of this orchestra is 75 years old, and can quote 100s of recipies from memory, can tell you about the origin of the sandwich, and also claims to be my grandfather...

Its me with my coworkers! So while we aren't exactly part of "musical or artistic" acts, we did put together the whole night!! And by "we," I mean "they!!" All I did was take pictures. :)

Here we are inside at the party! On the left I am with my counterpart, Desi, and are often crazy coworker Sasho. Seriously, sometimes he calls me a rabbit and asks if i want a carrot! On the right is Ventzi who leads the folk orchestra. He has a bazillion friends all over the Balkans and in North America. He keeps promising me that he'll take me on one of their tours!

The End!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Vienna, vruski, etc

Let’s start out with an apology for the length of this update!!! I’ll try to keep the ridiculously boring details to a minimum and the action (action!) to a maximum. See, didn’t that parenthetical aside liven things up? I thought so too.

Today’s theme is: “When you start making friends, its amazing how much smaller the world becomes.” Michael Pepa, Sofia train station

I’ll never forget Randy’s story about “vruski” during our pre-service training. We’d barely been in Bulgaria a week when Randy took a trip with his host family to the local bazaar to replace some broken shoe strings, or, “vruski.” Ever adept at learning Bulgarian, he filed the word away for future use. Future use turned out to be the next day in language class. The language trainer told the Volunteers that “vruski” might possibly be the most important word we volunteers would learn. “Shoelaces?” thought Randy, “what’s so important about those? And more importantly, what sort of society places THIS MUCH value on shoe strings?!?” As it turns out, this word also means connections.

All across the Balkans, locals chalk up success, failure, and opportunities to these imminent vruski. Did your rival land an awesome job? Vruski. Is your cousin’s wife really working at [insert prestigious institution here]?! Can she hook me up? Vruski. Want to pass your university exam? Vruski. Vruski. Vruski. You get the idea here. A conversation with nearly any local, young or old, often touches on this topic. Most definitely, they believe, this is what’s ruining the country. No one’s got a chance at success with out the Vru... okay, okay, you got the point.

But when I stop to think about it, is American drastically different? Perhaps so, although it could be that I’m horribly underestimating the affect of the “connections market” here in Bulgaria. However, just a few days ago Lincoln and I received a visit from a Peace Corps DC-aucrat, and it reaffirmed my belief that the US job market is full of its fair share of vruski. When I jokingly mentioned that, in order to prepare for grad school in ’08 while still making a little cash, my future plans included a gig at Subway (oh man, what I would do for a turkey on honey oat with some peppers, black olives, tomatoes….ahhh), DC dude was quick to offer an alternate plan of action. “Why not shoot an email out to the Returned PCV network? I’m sure someone there could help you find a short term job.” Or, how many times do we hear about people be hired for jobs before the position is even advertised. Aren’t “connections” just a really low-brow way of saying “networking”?

Okay, this was NOT the point of the blog.

I just got back from Vienna!!!!!! Though my original plans entailed running 13.1 miles in-between a few days of sightseeing, laziness during the month of February fated my trip into one of touristy pleasure. We’d researched hostels and the like, but in an effort to be both super thrifty and travel in a new way, Emily and I signed up for and began roaming the site for Viennese hosts. Emily found a fun girl named Sue who seemed willing to host us, so mission number one after landing in Vienna was to find her street! This was done easier than expected, but with no thanks to the 1-hr German lesson I’d received months earlier. Thankfully, Austrians are very friendly! Sue provided us with more information that we could possibly read in a week, let alone use! She helped us determine our route to the marathon registration hall and the pancake feed which followed. Walking into that registration hall was…fantastic. Booths, sponsors, runners, kids, anticipation and excitement filled the walkways and the air. Since there were 26,000 runners signed up for the marathon and the halfsie, the runner’s high filled the expo like a pre-euphoria for all those who’d put in hard months of training to get to this day. And for someone like me who’d passed the chance by, it was a reminder that doing is much, much better than just watching. To make myself feel a little better, I grabbed a few fliers for fall marathons in Europe.

The pancake feed was in the city’s municipal building, which was flat out gorgeous. Even though we were sitting on rolled up carpet and stuffing pancakes in our faces, there was no dodging the lavish light fixtures or the roof which soared on and on. It’s one of those places where you can start to imagine, more realistically than before, what it must have been like to be part of Viennese high life in the 18th-19th centuries. After listening to opening remarks in German, we high-tailed it to check out a few more sights before the sun went down. Across from the municipality is the Burgass theatre, which again, is stunning. We stared at it for at least an hour while wondering what it could possibly be! I think it was two days later when we realized the front cover of one of Sue’s travel books was none other than this very theatre. We’re so astute.

Sunday meant race day!! We took the metro to the start, and I hung out with Emily until the gun went off. The plan was for us to meet up at some statue between two buildings we’d never seen, and I hoped really hard that I’d see this girl again within the next three hours! I took the metro back to the center, and with two hours on my hands started walking around. I soon happened upon the finishing area, and the jumbo-tron screen featuring the race’s leaders soon drew me in. I scored a spot on the fence 50 meters from the finish line, and waiting nearly 90 minutes to see the winners of the full and the half, and then Emily! We met up, drank some powerade, and then had tasty tasty falafel. Since Emily wasn’t tired and there was plenty of daylight (it was about noon), we went to see the Shournburn Palace. For me, the highlight of the palace was the labyrinth. We were unable to find our way out, but thanks to some kids, we saved ourselves from complete and utter embarrassment.

The next few days consisted of; starbucks, sushi, modern music concerts, delicious, delicious Austrian beer, hanging out, and an Irish pub run by Asians who played Country music. On our last day, we took a bike tour of the city, which in my mind was peeeerfect. It wasn’t much of a workout, but it was fun to see the city and all the buildings we’d missed. I was blown away by the city’s infrastructure and how bike-friendly the entire place seemed to be! Bikers have their own lanes and their own green lights at crosswalks!! I would recommend couchsurfing to everyone…we had so much more fun hanging out that I barely even felt like a tourist!

A week before I went to Vienna, I had a chance to brush up on my English with some fellow North Americans! Two very talented musicians, Lynn Kuo ( and Rachel Mercer ( arrived in Pernik to begin rehearsing with our Chamber Orchestra “Orpheus.” Their stop in Bulgaria was the kick-off to a month-long tour of Europe where they would be showcasing modern Canadian composers. I was lucky enough to catch them not only in Bulgaria, but in Vienna as well! The ladies were later joined by composer Michael Pepa (Canadian) and Beverly Grigsby (American). For about 5 days, I played the role of; schedule holder, airport fetcher, translator, dining companion, direction giver, and reservation maker. Most of our guests were from Toronto, and I hope someday to visit them too! Lynn and Rachel are not only fabulous musicians, but have fantastic personalities. Our time together flew by more as if we were old friends rather than people haphazardly thrown together by way of a common language. As we said goodbye to our guests as they boarded the overnight train for Belgrad, I was truly sorry to see them go.