Thursday, July 26, 2007

Italy and Spain

I went to Italy and Spain!!!

I think that my dreams to go to Italy started sometime around the age of 14, which means it only took 10 years for them to become reality! Then, the idea of traveling to Spain emerged this spring, and, well...whaddya know I went there too! With a track record like that, I think I should start focusing my dreams on even bigger targets, say, the return of Tab soda, Gore '08 or self-charging iPods (imagine!!)... Or wait! What if the Spice Girls got back togOH! yeah. sorry about that one guys...

I’m going to try and do this blog in a style unlike that of one I’ve done before. I religiously kept a travel journal in Italy (though in Spain I was a bit more like a Christmas-and-Easter-Catholic), and I intend to use this to describe most of my experiences in these countries. Before I start that however, I’ll throw in a few more details;
*I’ve now seen the Mediterranean from both sides! (Swam in one, tanned on both!)
*I bought tickets to Rome on a whim (even more so for Spain) and had less than 2 weeks to plan both trips
*I took my first ever solo vacation
*Gelato in Italy should not only be enjoyed daily, it should be EXPERIENCED
*Couch Surfing is the 2nd most important website in the world (following
*Hiking and biking should be included in absolutely every vacation between Mar-Oct
*I pledged to drink only wine in Italy when given a choice- good thing too, because a coke was 4-5 euro!
*These entries sometimes begin and trail off unexpectedly…it usually means food was coming!

2:06pm- finally, lunch! After seeing Michelangelo’s Basilica in honor of Mary and the angels, Trevi Fountain, and various things whose names I’ll never know, I’m ready to taste my first “Italian” meal! Cannelloni, caprese and red wine sound about right! So far, no one would really notice that I’m faring this trip alone; the city is over-run with tourists, many of them American (damn Americans…)! Typical of any major tourist-attracting city, the streets are lined with fake Gucci, Louis Vuintton, Prada, etc – and typical of myself, I want them all! Aahhh… my first sip of real Italian wine in perhaps two years – yet somehow, I still feel we can re-kindle this friendship. I’m willing to turn the other cheek and start afresh…
Being Sunday, the Vatican was closed. Through dumb luck however, I stumbled across Michelangelo’s Basilica, which was actually his last major work. He completed it when he was 86! Mass had just begun in Italian….

July 2nd - St. Peter’s Basilica
My amazement with houses of worship continues- to think that someone was so supremely moved by their love and devotion to a religion that they built such a marvelous structure. Perhaps this is why I continue to be enthralled; I’m hoping that one day upon entering that I too can become so passionately penitent.

More stumbling-upons. Another church discovered by accident. By no means are they unknown to the public, but as an ill-prepared traveler I am in a constant state of surprise and astonishment. I guess the saying that bliss is enjoyed only by the dimwitted and the ignorant is true in yet one more instance.
A tablecloth, all by its little self, may have enough power to determine your dining decision. No table-cloth? Affordability, no-fuss, simple fare. But the opposite could indicate class, attract foodies from afar, or cause you to turn away in disappointment; your last few euros jingling faintly in your pocket.
Rome is lacking cats. I do hope other Italian cities can compensate for this great travesty. Life is more authentic with cats in it.
2nd class, non-smoking. Maybe in Bulgaria this is my social status. It Italy, its my travel preference. 5 hours on a train, here we go!
Long train rides are not enjoyable unless you are expected at the end.

Lying on cascading tiers of rock at first seemed unthinkable, but I soon remembered that I was staying in a village and all-in-all, rock sun-bathing was an especially exotic prospect. Before other newly arrived tourists came to my point of mind, however, from afar they heralded me as a native, snapping photos of my assimilated self.
A little too much cliff tanning, I find, can lead not only to extreme thirst but also sunburn. The former is more easily remedied, especially by knowing shop-keepers who take it upon themselves to replace your selection of sparkling water with still. How did they know I grabbed the wrong bottle on accident? So maybe after all there is a label I live up to- Mineral Water Drinker. It could be worse.
Riomaggiore- July 3rd, excerpts from Daemon, Riomaggiore local
“Remember…you are the hero of yourself.”
“no body wins unless everybody wins”
“A cat has 7 lives”
“Every cloud has a silver lining, every dog has its day”
“Code of the Trail”
Between the 5 sea-side villages of Cinque Terre are a set of trails which wrap around each cove and connects each village to its nearest adjoining neighbor. To end in Riomaggiore, my village, I took a train to Monterosso and hiked back. The entire journey was an uninterrupted expression by nature- such beauty to exist in one small place is nothing short of marvelous. Each view was increasingly more beautiful and awe-inspiring than the last. I started out early so as to avoid most of the crowd. I was rewarded with unrestricted use of the first length of my trip which lasted nearly 2 hours. Early on, the people I passed shared a greeting with me- good morning or “Buongiorno” and it held parallel with something I learned in Bulgaria; there is some hiker’s code- apparently international- that says “Thou shall acknowledge fellow lovers of nature and make the neighbor feel as a friend.” This is a lesson the tourist-hiker must learn- the lack of it is telling.
Is it actually possible that each glass of wine I order becomes progressively more accomplished in its flavor? Is it dumb luck, or do things just happen this way in Italy- increase and increase? Of course anything like a Sangiovese blend, like the glass I enjoyed midway through the hike, will be excellent- it’s the following, refrigerated red table wine that truly illustrates my curiosity. And dare I say that said Sangiovese blend was dramatically enhanced by a pairing with anchovies on local bread- I do, I dare!
Today alone was quite a positive experience. Tackling the hike, wine-bar hopping, order-in pesto pasta, watching waves crash into the marina… Although its scary to admit, more than several times today I found myself thinking or carrying out imaginary conversations in Bulgarian. I also spoke to a shop-keeper in Bulgarian. Maybe it’s been too much time alone!
Okay so traditional traveling, or at least my interpretation of it, is not something I’m interested in. Or maybe its just not for me as an “alone” thing. I can handle about 80% of the silence, but sometimes you crave a companion. Maybe it’s that I don’t have a true appreciation for the things I’m seeing and experiencing. They should be the point and the driving force behind the travels. Instead I find myself wanting more. Today is day 5 of 7… maybe there is a barrier to entry, maybe I’m just on a plateau. Then again, maybe it’s not so hard to just put yourself out there and meet people… its getting colder and I’m tired, while the Irish pub across the street is hiring…
I have found a wonderful spot in Florence – Piazza Spirito. It’s a huge, plain church with a wide open square and cafes that encircle a fountain. I like it immensely.
Other things I enjoy- a glass of house wine is less than a coke…then again, the glass costs more than an entire bottle of Bulgarian wine…
The Uffizi in and of itself was quite a work of art. Al Frescos adorning the passageways. This is the oldest art gallery in the world and it houses some pretty spectacular paintings. I was unfamiliar with the most famous one, “The Birth of Venus,” but it was lovely and I bought a postcard to prove it! I waited 2 ½ hours to get in and spent about 1 ½ hours in the exhibit. My only regret is having not studied art before coming, as such greatness was a bit wasted on me.

this is the end of Italy! I couchsurfed, took a bike tour of Tuscany, and met wondeful people and will go back to Italy any chance I get! I'll update Spain some other time...I'm too tired now!

more photos-

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bulgarian Medics are FREE!!

In case you aren't watching bTV or CNN, I'm just passing out the update that, after 8 years, the Bulgarian medics are free! They had been sentenced to death, then a retrial emerged with the same results. THEN they were gratned life in prison, and finally were sent to Bulgaria to serve out their imprisonment. Upon their arrival, President Georgi Purvanov immediately pardoned them.

At this time, it is unclear who the financial benefactors were, as both the EU and France claim to have not contributed financially to the cause. I'm including a few links in case you'd like to read more about it!,21985,22129328-663,00.html,1,7938158.story

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Back in the BG!

After 18 days away from my city in Pernik, I’ve got quite a lot of things to write about! First and foremost, I love trains!

I realize that I haven’t talked much about the “work” I’ve been doing here in Pernik, so here is a round-up of info on that topic.

One of the main priorities of the PC Bulgaria post is to educate communities on the realities and dangers of human trafficking. Human trafficking can range from forced sex-slavery, the trade of human organs, forced-labor, baby smuggling, etc. Eastern Europeans are particularly susceptible to becoming victims, as many of them are looking immigrate to another country for work or education. A common method by which victims are trafficked is by responding to a fake job advertisement for employment in Western Europe. Often without checking into the validity of the sending company, a young person signs up, hands over their documents, and quickly find himself a victim once they arrive in the Promised Land. As a North American, this topic is something you most likely have not heard of, unless you keep up with current world events and trends. I know I had never heard of this until I joined Peace Corps! With some local partners, a group of committed PCVs organized a traveling film festival which showed two Bulgarian films on the topic, and a film produced by MTV’s “Exit” campaign. Pernik was the first stop on the tour, so I convinced my coworkers that we should host the event. We organized the space, advertised, invited locally relevant NGOs and the city youth council, and prepared a set of discussion questions. Turn out was pretty low, but I think the people who attended found the festival entertaining and informational. Despite the low turn out, I had a reason to personally feel successful. One of the ideas of Peace Corps is that volunteers bring their previous knowledge and know-how to their organization, and transfer the skills they acquired in their normal lives to their Peace Corps lives. Well, with only 100 days left of service, I felt like I finally used one of my “skills” in order to make this event a success. When turn-out seemed bleak, Alden (a fellow PCV) and I hit the streets of Pernik armed with pamphlets on anti-trafficking and began canvassing ever youngster between the ages of 12 and 20. Thanks to my days as a canvasser in the streets of Manhattan, I immediately fell into a comfort zone, and all the tactics I had mastered back then came flooding back…it was really rewarding to see nearly 80% of the people I canvassed at the film!

If you’d like to learn more about trafficking, please check out these sites for an introduction. Bulgarian NGO that works with victims of trafficking mtv exit campaign

While I was on vacation, another great thing happened. An opportunity to use the mutli-media equipment we won through a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) presented itself, and my coworkers set things up all by themselves! This may seem like something small, but its nice to know that they were paying attention when I showed them how to use the equipment, and its even nicer to know that they will continue to use it even after the project is complete! Aahh, success!

Sometimes communities in Bulgaria need only very small amounts of money coupled with truly grassroots ideas to see significant improvements. The PC “At-Risk Youth Fund” acknowledges exactly that idea, and funds projects up to 500 BGN (roughly $360). These projects have ranged from improving outdoor basketball courts, supplies for youth camps, shoes for youth, trafficking seminars, etc. Peace Corps Washington does not supply funding for this committee, so it’s up to PCVs to fundraise for the fund. Myself and Boudreaux, a volunteer in Sofia, decided that we would organize a charity 5km run/walk in Sofia exactly for this cause. We are currently in the process of securing the space, measuring the course, securing donors (Runners World has already provided some support), advertising the event, and recruiting runners! The event is scheduled for the 10th of September, so if you somehow find yourself in Bulgaria in early September, please come run! Its only 10 BGN to enter, and you get to help orphans and other kids! Stayed tuned to this blog for more information. J

And finally…the big job hunt has begun! I spent nearly the entire afternoon scouring for jobs in several worthy metro areas. So far I’ve marked about 20 positions that seem interesting, ranging from event planning for Carnegie Hall to tutoring kids in Harlem. Time to update that resume and pump out some cover letters!