Monday, June 14, 2010

Little Corruptions

The Czechs had a phrase during communism times: "If you're not stealing, you're stealing from your family."  Since the government back then felt oppressive, and wealth created through industry often felt like it was shipped off to the Soviet state, and no one was really "the owner" of property, this felt like a victimless crime to an entire society.

This attitude is slowly dying out, but I learned to always make sure when buying something that the price was clearly displayed ahead of time because if I had to ask, as a foreigner, I was going to be charged a higher price.

I had been told by Bulgarians that "wealth by any means, no matter how you get it" was a continuing problem in Bulgarian society.  This attitude, far from dying out, is continually glamorized in Bulgarian pop culture, and infecting the young.  It reminded me of of the gangsta culture of a lot of American hip-hop music.  To me, it seemed in both places, Bulgaria and America's urban projects, that new freedoms brought a confusion of how to use them and a slow build-up to wealth through hard work and investment didn't have much attraction. Where's the drama in that?

You have to constantly watch and make sure that you are not getting ripped off in formerly Eastern Europe.  For example, when I left the Czech Republic, the luggage storage attendant told me that my cost was going to be twice what I had expected.  The sign said the stated price was for 24-hour storage. "But you brought it in one day, and left the next." said the attendant. Hmmmm, I guess I should have confirmed beforehand the price was for 24 hours in a row.

"How much is it for extra bags on the bus?" My Czech bus ticket attendant told me 200 kc extra for each bag.  I decided to wait to pay this because I wasn't sure what my final bag count would be. When it came time to get on the bus, no one made me pay for extra bags.  The question was viewed as a money-making opportunity according for the staff.

Leaving Bulgaria, I rolled my suitcase onto the tram and an inspector insisted I pay her 10 lev on the spot for not buying a ticket for my suitcase.  I knew if I was supposed to buy a ticket for my suitcase the Bulgarians who first helped me when I rode the tram would have told me I needed to do so.

"Nope, sorry, not paying it."  I started to write down her badge number and name.

She got more and more insistent.  I just kept writing.  "I'm calling the police because you're writing down my name and number." 

"Okay, go ahead. Call them." This stance had the potential to make me miss my bus to Istanbul and possibly have to repurchase a $50 ticket, but I wasn't going to be bullied into this shakedown. Surely, writing down an inspector's name and number could not be a crime in Sofia.  Indeed, she probably had to wear the badge for precisely this occasion.  After lots of shouting in Bulgarian, she finally let me off the bus when I put another one lev into the tram box for my suitcase.  All talk of the 10-lev "fine" was forgotten.

Upon arriving at the bus stop, the lady in the bus office wanted to charge me 2 lev on the spot as the official cost for having my luggage stored for five minutes in the office while I ran back to the luggage storage spot to get my additional bags.

"Could I have your name please, I would like to confirm this policy with your management." I asked politely about seven times.  She slowly slid the two lev back over the counter to me with a glare.

The shakedowns in Bulgaria are so obvious they were hard to miss.  Giving in would mean I had helped contribute to dysfunctional culture rather than help healing dysfunctional culture.

These examples made me think of a famous book called "Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity" by Frances Fukuyama where the author compares two cultures on two aspects: their trust in each other and their relative wealth. Societies with high wealth have enormous degrees of trust in each other.  The author used the example of Jewish diamond merchants who did million dollar deals on a handshake.  Their word is their bond and should they ever break it, they would be finished as a diamond dealer.  He then compared young men living in an urban culture with no trust in each other.  No wealth either.  Bulgaria's poverty is profound, it felt cruel to photograph it, so I didn't.

There are other examples out in the word though for all of us to see. The Scandinavian countries are known for both their wealth and their lack of corruption.  African nations are getting bled by leaders who are using their countries for their own wealth creation through bribery rather than working on behalf of the people.

The United States has gone through a period of constant erosion of public trust.  Is the wealth of the United States increasing or decreasing? The evidence provides more proof of Fukuyama's theory.

I wish the author of "Trust" would create a pop version of the title for regular people. The book is recommended more for academic circles and frankly, at 480 pages, it's too damn long. But the central premise of his title needs to move out of the academy and into the living rooms of the world! Wouldn't it make a great "One Book, We All Read It" selection because it's all about changing public culture for greater prosperity?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Eating My Way Through Sofia

Some friends of mine in Iowa, the Hamiltons, had told me years ago about how much they had enjoyed Bulgarian food when they had visited. I wanted to make sure that in my short two days in Sofia, I too made a point of experiencing great Bulgarian food.

A local hotel recommended a wonderful restaurant with authentic Bulgarian cuisine. It was but a short walk away (everything in Sofia seems very easy to find and get to on foot).  I loved the family story on the menu which I've linked to here. It kind of let me know "you're not in Kansas, anymore!" figuratively speaking.

Here's the restaurant name in
our alphabet.

And then again in Cyrillic.
The inside of the restaurant
had a wonderful rustic feel.
Very comfortable.
Bulgarian gypsies
  played for each table.
They could instantly come up
with a song
for any nationality
dining there
no matter where people were from.

I would love to load my video
of their music
but I'm writing this from Turkey
where YouTube is censored.

As a feminist, I have no problem
dining alone anywhere in the world.
I like my company!

But I struggle when tipping the musicians.
I do it, but it just seems like it's 
"a man's job."
Hopelessly out-of-date thinking, isn't that?

I noticed that I tipped, but the
table of six businessmen
from various nations
next to me didn't.
They sure made a point
of complaining loudly about gypsies
after the musicians had left the room.

 Yet, these artists were doing a lot
to enhance the cultural reputation of
Bulgaria while earning an honest living to boot.
They deserve to be honored for it,
don't you think?

This gorgeous plate of food
is called Chicken Shashlik.
It's a marinated grilled chicken kebab
with grilled lemons.
It would bring out the inner carnivore in anyone!
I paired it with Bulgarian wine
called Logodoj.

For desert, I had this
extraordinary concotion
Grandmother's Cream
with Carmalized Pineapple.
To die for!

My waiter Konstantin
was very funny.
When I told him
I was from America
he said,
"America, that's a small country
close to Canada, right?"
He teases his British customers
the same way:
"England, that's a small island
near Ireland, right?"

I finished my evening at
Pri Yafata
with Black Sea Gold,
a regionally-produced cognac.
What a great time and
what a great meal!
Shopska salad on the left (fabulous),
A stuffed pepper and stuffed cabbage roll
on the middle plate, and
does anyone know what that
mystery salad is on the right?

I also wanted to make sure I tried a stuffed green pepper while I was in Bulgaria.  I had made stuffed green peppers as a young cook, but I had given them up, because they always seemed a bit bland to me.  I wondered if Bulgarian stuffed peppers would be any spicer?  They weren't.  I was glad to know it wasn't me.  They're good, just without a kick. This represented my first taste of a stuffed cabbage roll too because I would never have had the guts to try wilted green leaves as a kid.  My thought back then would have been "eeew."  Cabbage rolls were also tasty, but standing tall rather than kicking hard.  The chef threw in the salad on the right.  I don't know what it is, I only know it had some sort of Balkan cheese in it.  Anybody out there know? This meal was from the Bulgarian Kitchen Cafe, inside one of the local mall food courts.

My last great meal in Sophia
was at a restaurant called 43,
named after the street it was on.

At my sidewalk table,
I enjoyed a Bulgarian brew
called Zagorka.

This delicious stew of chicken meat and other good stuff
was called pileshka kavarma.
Wow, was it tasty comfort food.

I especially enjoyed the chance to savor it
in this traditional Bulgarian pottery.
After this meal,
it was time to catch my night bus
to Turkey.
I loved doing that on a full, satisfied stomach.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My First Day in Sofia, Bulgaria

Arriving at the Central Bus Station
I almost felt as if I was at the Denver, Colorado airport
with these white-capped "mountain" roofs

My couchsurfing host Kamilla had given me excellent directions in advance for finding my way from the bus station to her place.  Bulgarians on the tram showed me how to pay and made sure I didn't miss my stop.  When I got to Kamilla's place though, no one answered the bell.  While I had stored most of my luggage, I brought one suitcase into town with enough stuff to get through a couple of days. Hmmm, if she wasn't home, I would need to take my suitcase with me sightseeing that day.  No problem. I could do that. I'm not one to let that slow me down.

A couple of Bulgarian ladies noticed me standing there and asked me what I needed.  When I told them the situation, and that I was ready to go sightseeing, they insisted on walking me the one kilometer or so to what they felt was most important for me to see. I couldn't believe the time they gave me! And I found that friendly attitude all day long.  Bulgarians made me feel incredibly welcome. My sidewalk hostesses said I needed to start with a couple churches.

This giant egg was opposite
the Russian church.
The sign says,
"This is the egg of happiness.
Touch the egg and make a wish."

Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle Maker,
a Russian Orthodox Church,
built on the site of a mosque.

It was started in 1907 to pacify a Russian diplomat
who refused to attend Bulgarian Orthodox services.
I would have just reposted the diplomat somewhere else,
but then, Sofia wouldn't have this gorgeous church today.

The outside has been lovingly restored
by a Russian government
no longer threatened by religion.
The inside,
full of candles
and the damage candle smoke can do,
is much darker and mystical.

 Upon entering the church,
I returned to an intuition I often have
when I encounter Russian culture:
a sense that an American
can never completely understand
"strange Russian soul."

A beautiful side view.
This church was just down the street
from the most visited church in Sofia.

I was glad I had taught myself
how to read and pronounce
the Cyrillic alphabet about 20 years ago.
I could get a sense of what this sign said:
something like Moscow House in Sofia.
The Russian Embassy?

This is the most visited church
in Sofia, Bulgaria:
built to honor the Russian soldiers who liberated Bulgaria
from the Ottoman Empire.
Gee, no wonder Bulgaria and Russia
have always been so tight.

Beautiful iron scroll work outside the church.

A mosaic of Jesus just outside the front door.
And on the other side of the front door,
a mosaic of St. Sophia and her three daughters:
Faith, Hope, and Charity.

I tagged along with a tour group to listen to a description of the church.  It was very beautiful and I could have enjoyed the church even more if someone had turned the lights on.  The tour guide said that her company had asked the Bulgarians many, many times to light the inside of the church (it has sublime chandeliers waiting to do just that) but the Bulgarians had never been willing to turn on the lights due to the costs.  She said, "tourists would be willing to pay, no problem, just to see it.  That didn't sway the authorities. They weren't going to charge people even one lev to enter a church."

I agree with the tour guide.  It would be as if a Bulgarian had traveled halfway across the world to see the Jefferson and Lincoln monuments and Americans didn't bother to honor their interest by lighting them at night.  I suggest putting the utility costs in the Bulgarian national budget if Bulgaria doesn't want to charge tourists.  Many people only have one day to get a sense of the country - why not make the opportunity to tell the Bulgarian story count?

It was at this church that I learned the single most impressive fact about Bulgarians: during centuries of Ottoman rule, a majority of them resisted conversion and remained Orthodox Christians.  That attests to a level of stubbornness and will that is truly uncommon.  People who can do that, can do anything.

This lion statue
is a part of a memorial
to unknown soldiers
who have fought on behalf of Bulgaria
through the years.
It's fairly recent,
having been put here in the early 1980s.

Next to the cathedral
was the second most ancient church
in Bulgaria: the Hagia Sophia
(in English, St. Sophia's Church)
During Ottoman times,
it had been turned into a mosque
and minarets were added.

I went into St. Sophia's church, and it just so happened a service was in progress.  I slipped into a back seat and listened.  It was magical.  The parishioners were so devout they were standing and carrying flowers.  There were unseen someones, (monks? a choir?) chanting an unbelievably beautiful liturgy.  I could not believe my luck to get to see and hear this. I sat down, not being quite as devout as all those standing, and also worshiping outside of my own Christian tradition so I could beg off as not knowing when to stand, and also being a tourist rolling a suitcase all over Sofia in need of a little rest. Wow, that chant was magnificent!

All of a sudden, the service seemed to be over and the standing parishioners parted.  Many people up front seemed to be crying.  Could they have been that moved by the service? I marveled to myself about Eastern mysticism that I could never quite completely understand.

Then I saw what the parishioners had been standing around with their flowers.  A casket! And a photo of the departed! OMG, I've CRASHED somebody's funeral. I wheeled my suitcase, as quietly as one can wheel a suitcase over cobblestones, back out the front door.

It's one thing to see a church, but this time, in my own boorish fashion, I saw an ancient church in use.  Even with my unexpected need to skedaddle, I felt deeply grateful to have heard and seen what I did. Later a Bulgarian told me that only very important people would get to have their funeral in that church. I licked my wounds in a nearby park before grabbing my suitcase and "rolling on."

My goal was the Happy Bar and Grill, closer to the center, which I remembered from my Prague chaplain's blog as a place he had eaten. As I was heading there, I heard someone behind me call my name. I didn't know a soul in Bulgaria.  I turned around and there was Kamilla, fresh from the doctor's office and the tourist office where she had stopped to get some literature about Bulgaria to share with me. She had recognized me on the street!

Kamilla was an incredibly thoughtful hostess
to have provided all of this literature.
We enjoyed really delicious roasted vegetables
at our outdoor cafe.

When I had made a comment earlier
to a Bulgarian saying I had heard
about the miniskirts at Happy Bar & Grill,
the lady said, 
"Hey, it's a free country!"
Why, yes, yes it is.
  Kind of gave me shivers when she said it.

I loved the contrast of the
Happy Bar & Grill
miniskirts with a
a priest in ancient garb
waiting to cross the street.

After lunch, we went back to Kamilla's apartment and I opened my suitcase to discover I had grabbed the wrong one.  This one was filled with books.  So I had spent my day wheeling a suitcase full of books all over Sofia. Sigh.

I went back to the bus station and traded suitcases.  When the luggage attendant discovered that I could say "thank you" in Russian, she immediately dropped her demand that I pay for the privilege of changing out my suitcases. Man, these Bulgarians and Russians are tight.

I'll continue with my first evening in Bulgaria in my next post.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Drivers and Passengers without Borders

As an American, one of the things that impresses me about Europe is the amount of political risk-taking the average European is willing to step up and try as a citizen of the EU.  To tinker with elements of government as basic as currency, and border controls, and levels of local vs. continental control requires a level of shared vision that I find extraordinary in such a compressed space of time. These people are really taking thoughtful yet exciting risks with their governance.

I look at the resistance to change in reforming an outrageously dysfunctional element of American society,  health care, and then compare that to European real and actual political risk-taking and marvel at what they get done.  I celebrate one of the EU reforms that I believe Europeans cherish:  the right to cross country borders within the EU without inspection or stopping. It completely serves the people's interest.

Our travel itinerary to Sofia
included crossing the borders of
Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

The ability to just drive through the border
stopped when we reached Serbia.
Serbia is not a member of the EU.

 When you are here in Europe,
not being a member of the EU
seems like you and your fellow citizens
have lower class status.

Everyone piles out of the bus
while we go through Serbian border controls.

It was definitely a pain to stop
when everywhere else
the people's representatives
have negotiated speed.

That's how it feels and looks to an American.  I'm interested if it appears the same to Europeans.  Do Europeans without membership in the EU get treated as second-class citizens? Do they feel like second-class citizens? Do those of you who are Europeans cherish this right to cross borders as much as I think you do? What other reforms do you cherish?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bulgarian Beauties

 My beautiful
young couchsurfing hostess

Somewhere between Prague and Sophia, the look of the people changed.  I don't know where that line was because we probably crossed it in the dark in the middle of the night.  The Bulgarians have a slavic alphabet, but the people no longer look Slavic. While there are exceptions, it's a beauty with a darker coloring.  Here are some of the beauties I saw in Sophia.

Two young women at the movies

A young woman
at the Central Bus Station

My server for dinner one night,

A beautiful Bulgarian shopkeeper.
If you've ever worked in retail,
did you do it in heels like these?
Not me! I admired her polish.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sex and the City 2 in Sofia

Divas in the Desert

On a cold, rainy, and gray day in a cold and rainy capital city, I slipped into a glittering new shopping mall to taste a specific Bulgarian dish I had wanted to try before leaving Sofia.  The plan for the day had been to take a day trip to the Rila Monastery, a spot so mystical that many Bulgarians consider it the spiritual home of all Bulgarian people.  Too rainy, too wet.

As I walked by the movie theatre, I realized "Sex and the City 2" was out! A big girl's night out for Prague expats was planned by the Internations social media site and I was going to miss it.  My daughters and I had dressed up to the nines for the premiere of "The Devil Wears Prada."  It would have been fun to join "the ladies" and dress up for SATC2 premiere night in Prague.

I love being spontaneous and seeing a movie at the last minute.  Seriously, as a single parent, being spontaneous was so out-of-the question, I no longer thought of myself as spontaneous. If you're in the last years of raising children, comfort yourself with the thought that even if they leave, you will soon be free to do whatever the heck you want.  It feels great. 

I was never more proud to be an American woman than when I sat in that matinee with five other Bulgarian ladies waiting out the rain.  Besides being enormous fun, the film is so moving, I found myself tearing up at several spots during the movie.  It was all I could do to restrain myself from a raised fist of joy and solidarity!  That just wouldn't do though, would it? The SATC gals would be more likely to support each other with air-kisses.

"Sex and the City 2" is a love letter from American women to all of the females on the planet. I'm so proud of my culture for sending out this glorious message of empowerment and pleasure in being a woman. What's exciting is that someday the women of the world will all be writing us back!  What an exciting time to be alive and watch the changes that happen as half the people on the planet wake up and realize their possibilities.
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