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.


At 12:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wonder why vruski are still so important? Simple! In the communist time if you wanted to deal with issues using formal means you had to deal with government bureaucracy. And we know how efficient that is. No, wait, in a communist dictatorship it's considerably worse as there is no way to complain about bad service.

So what do you do? You give the person an incentive to help you. However an outright bribe is dangerous and illegal and the levs are not worth anything anyway. So you pay by a promise to help in turn. Thus a vruska is formed!

The fact that the system worked for 45 years without mass starvation is due to the fact that certain amount of private iniative was tolerated. And vruski were essential in running this parallel economy.


At 5:15 PM, Blogger Lynn said...

Toni! We love you dearly! You were the best host in Bulgaria and I sincerely hope you come visit Toronto.

(I came across your blog by random stumbling!) I hope you're well!



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