Showing posts with label Bulgaria. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bulgaria. Show all posts

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Birthday Hike in the Belgrad Forest

 The entrance to the
Belgrad Forest
Back in Istanbul, after a week in France, I was excited to see that a Turkish friend was organizing a hike in the Belgrad Forest.  It was scheduled to be on my birthday.  As nature can often seem far, far away in Istanbul, I loved the idea of spending my birthday meeting new people by going on a hike.

Aren't you grateful for friends that take the time to organize things? They always deserve a little extra appreciation, don't they? Yasemin, my Turkish friend who put this together, hadn't hiked here before, but she did all the work of finding out what bus to take, where it leaves from, how often it leaves, etc. When someone has done all of that work, it makes it so easy for the rest of us to go out and discover new places and opportunities, doesn't it? If you're one of those people who are always connecting others by organizing events, thank you!

To give you an idea of what a commitment it is to get to an event in Istanbul, I took a bus to Taksim Square (50 minutes), and then got on the 42T bus to go to the Belgrad Forest (another 50 minutes).  That second bus has a route all along the Bosporus, so it often seems like I'm getting a sightseeing tour at a municipal bus price! The scenery was fantastic, and since another hiker from France and I guessed we were each going to the same hike and started talking, so was the company.  The 50 minutes flew by. We got to the end of the line of the 42T and there was the forest!  After paying a 2.25 TL entrance fee ($1.27) we were in.
 It's not every forest
that has a cafe
with checkered tablecloths
 Or horses and bicycles to rent
Paths were wide enough
for all kinds of traffic:
foot, hoof, or wheeled
 Yasemin, our organizer,
is the tall woman in green
in the middle.
Fun folks I met:
Jackie, a fashion designer from Ireland
and Ibrahim, an importer/exporter from Turkey
Beautiful, isn't it?
We were surprised the park was so deserted.
It was the middle of Ramadan though.
Anyone fasting couldn't even
take so much as a drop of water.
Not good conditions for locals to go hiking.
Another view of the beautiful lake
in the middle of the park.
The forest paths were so beautifully maintained
it was as if we were the first people to use them.
It turns out we were.
We came across a maintenance crew laying down
rubber backing (like under carpet)
and then covering it with this natural material.
If you are a runner,
this would be a very healthy place to run.
The path was springy and easy on the joints. 
 The majority of our group
headed back to Istanbul.
I finished our hike around the lake
with Misty and Kristin,
two fun American women
I was meeting
for the first time.
A last calming view of natural beauty.
What a terrific resource this forest
is for the urban dwellers of Istanbul!
The view as the municipal bus starts back to Istanbul.
 This is an Ottoman-era grove of trees. 
In France and in Turkey, I kept coming across these
magnificent tree groves planted under
authoritarianism forms of government.
I kept wondering if democracies
could create such gorgeous groves
for future generations.
  Are there any where you live?
Planting groves like this
requires a long-term view,
doesn't it?
 In my country,
people often don't seem to want to invest tax money
for those living alongside them,
let alone those who aren't even born yet.
On the bus back,
Kirstin and Misty talked up Mehmet's,
their favorite kebabci in the
Istanbul neighborhood of Ortaköy
with such gastronomic fervor
I had to try it for myself, no?
We ate fabulous Turkish comfort food
(mine was chicken shish kebab).
They introduced me to "ezme,"
which they described as a Turkish version of salsa.
On the hike,
these two hip, happening, can-do women
mentioned that they were organizing
a trip to Bulgaria...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hanging out the with Expat Harem at the Istanbul Simulcast of the TEDGlobal 2011 Conference

 Me with fellow expats
Catherine Bayar and Anastasia Ashman

This week I attended the Istanbul simulcast of the TEDGlobal conference live from Edinburgh, Scotland. If you're not familiar with TED, I can't recommend it enough. The original organizational idea behind TED was to bring together innovative thinkers to share ideas worth spreading from three worlds: technology, entertainment, and design. There is a yearly TEDGlobal conference, offshoots like TED Women, and local versions organized by locals held globally called TEDx. Every year, one exceptional individual is chosen and awarded $100,000 to make happen "one wish to change the world."

Our simulcast was held in a beautiful facility, complete with a gigantic screen, provided by Turkcel, a local Turkish telecom. The day's events were a wonderful opportunity to meet up with American expats living in Istanbul whose work I have long admired: Anastasia Ashman, internationally bestselling author of The Expat Harem, and Catherine Bayar, a former product line designer for Nike and Adidas, who is currently deeply involved in Turkish handicrafts, especially those made by Turkish women.

Anastasia was profiled just this week in the Istanbul Daily Newspaper, Today's Zaman. She always has some project going.  During our short break for lunch, we headed down the street to the Istanbul Culinary Institute where the students of the Institute test out their cooking creations on the public. While dining over grilled octopus, she told us about the current book she's writing, a forensic memoir.  Sounds intriguing. You can watch her blog for details.

I was especially interested in comparing notes with Catherine about her old blog, Tales from Turkey, on the Google blogspot domain.  I say, old blog, because like mine, her blog was censored by the Republic of Turkey. Since the censorship went on for what seemed like months, Catherine moved her blog to Wordpress, named it Bazaar Bayar, and she is presenting some of the most exquisite photography of Turkish handwork on her site for you to enjoy. The work featured really is breathtaking and it helps local women.

I could tell you all about the talks I heard and how intellectually stimulating it was but I can't do that better than another fabulous blogger whose work I love: Bulgarian Maria Popova. Maria has built a mammoth following with her Brainpickings Blog, and here is her rundown of Day #2 of TED Global, the day of talks I heard through the simulcast.

If I had one criticism of the conference, each presenter could have enhanced their talk by deciding what it is they wanted us to do with the information. What is their "call to action" for the listener? Even if a scientist is sharing her exciting news that she has been able to double the life of an organism, why not tell us who the funding body is and ask us to support continued scientific research? I bet people would be able to see the value of increasing taxes if they knew it helped support research that could double the length of life of living organisms!

You can access all of these talks through the TEDGlobal website as they are loaded. I thought the presenter who did the best job of sharing an idea (and frankly, scaring the heck out of me) was a young scientist from Tasmania named Elizabeth Murchison who is working to prevent the Tasmanian Devil from being the first species on the planet to become extinct through contagious cancer.

The moment that touched me the deepest was Cambodian anti-torture activist Karen Tse, who broke down why torture happens in over 90 countries.  It's not just what we all assume (the presence of evil), and when you hear her talk, torture all of a sudden seems very solvable.

The moment that made me most proud was when the Chinese founder of the "China Lab" and the "India Lab" at MIT, Yasheng Huang, was explaining why China was the Michael Jordan of economic development and India, as a nation, was not quite to superstar quality like China and Michael Jordan.  India, as a nation, was still amazing in terms of economic development, though, because they were still able to "make the NBA" (metaphorically speaking).

"It comes down to literacy. Literacy in China is defined as being able to read 1500 Chinese characters.  Literacy in India is defined as being able to write your own name in whatever language you speak." If you compare the literacy rates of China and India (mid 60s% vs mid 30s%), especially of Chinese women compared to Indian women, it makes the difference."

Literacy rates helped bring about twenty years of double digit growth for a billion people. I am so, so, SO proud of being a librarian. Here then, is my call to action.  Wherever you may live, I'd like to ask you  if your nation is helping school and public librarians help citizens achieve literacy and economic growth? Please support the work of your local libraries and librarians with enthusiasm.

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.

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.
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