Thursday, August 30, 2007

VT to Sofia

I just got back from a three hour bus drive, west from Veliko Tarnovo to Sofia, in a half asleep state. It seems weird to leave Veliko Tarnovo, where I have met all these people and taken all these classes in Bulgarian. I’m going to miss Bulgaria, especially, the Bulgarian language. I don’t know if I am going to miss the people; although they tended to be nice, often the language barrier really made it too difficult to understand each other, and I would get in arguments that really had no point, especially with my friend Borislav. I want to learn the language more completely so I can have discussions and not have too leave out main points that are too difficult to explain to a non-English speaker. It is really frustrating when you cannot express yourself fully...
I’ve been surprised with how much my language ability has improved within the last few days. Throughout the seminar, I only saw small improvements. I would remember a few vocab words, but I would always be with my friends from the States, or other program members who would revert to English before Bulgarian. But without the kids from BC, or my friend Marjan, I have more and more opportunities to practice Bulgarian. I realized that I can easily get tickets to go from one part of Bulgaria to the other, and I am able to answer the receptionist in Bulgarian. Of course, there are still innumerable faults in my language skill, but I think that if I lived here for another 3 months, I would have excellent Bulgarian.
In this aspect, I strike a great contrast with other English speakers in Veliko Tarnovo. For example, there is an English speaking bar owned by a man from the UK, and all the patrons know very few words in Bulgarian. I’ve been here for just a couple of weeks, and I could speak better than them. Some of them have lived here for some 5 years. It shocked me, but they have created these communities of English speakers. There are even some towns in Bulgaria that have more English speakers than Bulgarians (many English people have bought summer homes in Bulgaria). I understand why these communities are needed to create a sense of solidarity within foreigners, but they also cut themselves off from learning about the culture and the language. It seems rather pig-headed, and rather American, for these ex-Pats to not pick up enough of the language to have a conversation with another Bulgarian. I’m guilty as well; I spent last night playing scrabble, in English, with an American, two Brits and three Bulgarians. Surprisingly, one of the Bulgarians tended to win. They can beat us at our own language, and we are struggling to understand snippets of theirs. It especially upsets me because as English speakers, we tend to come from richer countries, and have the ability and the resources to take classes in a foreign language and try to assimilate to this aspect of their culture. If they want to be accepted as legitimate members of the Veliko Tarnovo community, I think it is nigh time they pick up a grammar supplement.
Sofia seems like an exciting, albeit somewhat depressingly Communistic, capital. The buildings don’t offer a good impression, but there is a lot to do and to see. Tomorrow morning, I have to wake up early to catch a bus back to Prague, but before then I hope that I can see some of the biggest Bulgarian city.

Monday, August 27, 2007

From Plovdiv to Veliko Turnovo

Plovdiv is a really neat city in Bulgaria. Maybe neat isn’t the right word, it sounds a little 60's cliche, but I enjoyed my stay. There are a lot of remnants from the time of the Roman emperor in the city, and it was beautiful to see these remains next to the modern buildings. Plovdiv is the second biggest city in Bulgaria, and it is another city I could see myself living in; it is big, but not too overwhelming; cosmopolitan, yet ancient. All in all, an exciting city. It is also a college town, so there are a lot of young people in the city. I also like that there are less people that know English. I was able to practice my Bulgarian with the Plovdivians, and at one point, had a two hour period in which I did not use any English whatsoever.
Of course, at the hostel, English is once again the language of choice. There were people from all over the world, but once again the default was English. Our receptionist had an amazing grasp on the language, and working at a hostel must be great for language acquisition. I really like hostels, and am considering working at one in Prague. I’m not sure if I could balance school with the long hours, but it is a great way to meet people from all around the world.
I’m beginning to realize that Bulgarians are not very serious about their education. My friend Marjan said that when she went abroad, she enrolled in some classes but didn’t attend. Regardless, she was able to get a 5.5 out of 6 and pass the class. I’ve talked to Bulgarians who don’t take their education as seriously as it is taken in the US or Western Europe. For example, the hostel manager said that she skipped all of her classes that she wasn’t interested in, but it didn’t matter and she was still able to pass the classes. The style is quite different and a lot less effective. However, it is possible that they learn more about the subjects they enjoy... I’m not sure.
Yesterday, I took a bus, with my new Australian friends who are traveling Eastern Europe, from Plovdiv back to Veliko Tarnovo. The ride was gorgeous; we passed through the Balkan Mountains and the ride was very calming, though a bit bumpy. It took 6 hours, but when we finally arrived in VT, it felt like I was returning home. The town is still kind of weird since the departure of all the students at the seminar, but it is nice to be in a familiar location.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Stubbed Kids

Stubbing my toe on the cobbled street, I realized that I want to have kids one day. I shouldn’t have been wearing flip-flops, but as I climbed up a hill, I nicked the skin off of my big toe. It wasn’t that painful, but I didn’t want to have to deal with it. Obviously, I can clean a stubbed toe, but I wanted my mom to be there because she would do a much better job. Parents are so much more loving and caring, and my mom’s selfless love would have insured that my toe would not get infected. Right after these pangs of desire to see my mother, I realized that one day, I want to have such love for my own children. It came out of nowhere. I’ve always wanted to have kids, I think I’d make a decent father, but the feeling was so strong. I could imagine myself cleaning the toe of my small child, and it seemed like such a wonderful feeling. My friend Liza once told me a similar story. She was sitting on an airplane, and a boy was kicking the back of her seat when suddenly she realized that she wanted children. It seemed odd that such an annoying thing would make her want children, but now I think I understand. Everything about raising children is fascinating, and to be there and reprimand your child and clean his wounds and above all a kind of love that transcends all forms ... I’m curious if there were moments in your life where you realized that you wanted to have a child. Let me know, and don’t worry; I’m not going to have a child anytime soon.

Friday, August 24, 2007

After 5 Minutes in Turkey...

My last full day in Turkey was a day of walking. After breakfast, I had to buy a bus ticket to return to Bulgaria, and the walk was an hour to get to the metro, and from the metro, 15 kilometers to the bus station. This part of the city is not even at the end of the line, but only half way out on the metro. I can only imagine how gigantic this city; and we only stayed in one section (Sultanhamet).
After buying the bus tickets, which were pretty cheap, only about 25 US Dollars, it was a long metro/walk back to the old center. However, I saw more of the city, and one of the most fascinating parts of Istanbul, and any big city, is just watching everyone else walk by. I could spend a whole day just people watching, but unfortunately, when you have such little time, you have to spend it touring the city itself. Marjan and I decided we wanted to see the Asian part of the city, and we took a boat across the Bosphorous strait, but by the time we arrived, we were so drained that we decided to take another boat to the third ‘section’ of town that was closer to our section. I can say that I have been in Asia, but it lasted for only about 5 minutes. Regardless, the distinction between Europe and Asia, as we have discussed so often in political science classes and history classes, is random anyways in its geographic limits, so I’ll just say that I have been traveling through Eurasia.
When we got back to the European side, we wanted to walk up a hill to look at an impressive tower. After the climb, we saw more of our hostelites, which was a surprise, given the size of the city, and we all headed to what is known as either the Spice Market or the Egyptian Market. It was an enormous, underground market filled with, you guessed it, spices from all over the world. It smelled delicious, and I wanted to buy everything, but I knew it would be silly to lug it around Eurasia. Instead, I was content to buy a Turkish coffee maker for the great price of 4 dollars, and I am excited to add this device to my kitchen.
The shopkeepers in Istanbul are unique. In other cities, I am only approached by vendors when I show interest in a good or a restaurant. It has been completely different here. Everywhere you go, people try to persuade you to come to their café or look at their goods. At first, it was amusing, but near the end, it just got annoying. When I am not hungry, I don’t want to hear about how good your kebabs are, and when I’m poor, I don’t want to buy a Turkish rug. They are hospitable, though, and we were invited to sip Turkish tea while perusing Turkish scarves and chatting with the vendors.
Turkish tea is ridiculous. They make it sound like it is something special, but it is just Lipton tea. I am not kidding; they don’t even try to hide the fact. They just hand you your hot water with a Lipton tea bag and call it Turkish tea. I didn’t think that Lipton sounded very Turkish, so I wikipediaed it and sure enough, Lipton was created by a Scottish man. Post offices are also really hard to find in Istanbul. I bought some postcards, but didn’t send out a single one, because I couldn’t find a place to drop them off or buy stamps. I’ll probably just end up delivering the cards by hand. By the way, if you ever want to receive a post card, send me your address and maybe you will get one!
Last night was a night of packing and saying goodbye to the other people at our hostel. I met some interesting people, mostly Australians, and it is weird to think I probably won’t ever see these people again. I will probably stay in contact with one of the Aussies, and maybe can visit her in Australia, but the others will just be small memories of my travels. One of my favorites was a woman from the Basque region in Spain who had been traveling for seven years. She gave me a lesson in using vosotros and conjugating commands in this form because we don’t study Spain Spanish in highschool or university. We also chatted some in Spanish and I was surprised to discover I can hold a conversation in Spanish.
This morning was a rush as we finished packing and took public transportation to the bus station. We made it on time, however, and our bus was brilliant. It was like a plane, but roomier. They even served food. The time flew as I continued to read Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera”, which has been a great, but somewhat disturbing, read. The only annoying part was going across the border, which took an hour and a half, but now I have two more interesting passport stamps, so I won’t complain. Marjan and I split up in Plovdiv; I am now staying in the Traveler’s Hostel and she is at a friends. It’s kind of nice to be alone, but my stomach is growling and I’m not sure if I want to go out to eat by myself. Regardless, I should head out, and get something done!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

In the Land of Hookah and Belly Dancers

The past two days have been a whirlwind of sights. After visiting the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar, I went out to a bar to smoke some hookah with Marjan. There is an entirely separate hookah culture here in Turkey. We had a variety of flavors to choose from, but decided on mint. I think that most flavors have kind of a similar taste, but the mint left our mouths feeling somewhat clean. I enjoy hookah, but only in small doses. It makes me feel light-headed, which I think is more because of lack of oxygen than the nicotine. It creates an interesting atmosphere, however, when everyone is outside smoking a different hookah. We met some Australians at the table right next to us, and they invited us over. We all shared our hookahs and I was able to taste some more flavors.
All this walking had made me very tired, and I went to bed very early on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, we woke up early to head to the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. The Blue Mosque was fascinating, and calming. The outside is fantastic, and the inside is quite humbling. Marjan had to wear a long skirt and a shawl, I had to wear pants, in the horrible heat, and we had to take off our shoes, but these conditions added to the atmosphere. The interior is decorated with various patterns, and there are not any icons. It is an interesting difference between Christianity and Islam and it creates a different effect in the mosque. I wish that people were not talking, and I would like to return when there is a prayer and silence in the mosque.
After the quick visit, we went to the Topkapi Palace. The entire palace is gigantic, and we were able to see various jewels, armories, chambers, etc from the time of the Ottoman Empire. The amount of wealth was shocking. The jewels and gifts that the empire had received were gorgeous and one can imagine the empire in its glory. The visit lasted for about three hours and I was just one of thousands of tourists. This city in August is definitely a city of tourists. I walk around and see more tourists than Turks. It is fascinating to try to guess where people are from by observing the way they behave and the way the dress, and then try to place their language. The number of Australians in Turkey really shocked me; it seems that every other tourist comes from down under.
All this walking made us hungry, and we went for a quick lunch. A common meal here is the chicken doner, which is similar to Greek gyros, but with a different type of bread, and different spices and vegetables. Of course, this city has many different cuisines, but I have been trying to try Turkish food, but it is hard to do when I am watching my wallet.
After a good four hour siesta, I went for a walk with Marjan next to the sea. Once again, most men would stare at Marjan because of the way she dresses. However, we have become more used to it, and we normally can stare down rude glances. The sea is gorgeous, and I wish I had enough time to go to the sea and go swimming, which would give me the possibility of escaping from the oppressive heat. However, it was getting dark quickly, and we wanted to return to our hostel.
Last night, our hostel had arranged a night of Turkish belly dancing. I thought there was going to be an entire show, but it ended up being one woman. It was interesting to see this part of the entertainment culture, but we were disappointed. The woman wasn’t the greatest dancer, and instead of creating her own show, she asked members of the audience to come up and join her in the dancing. It turned out I was the first member she asked, and I went up and shook my booty and I felt like I did a decent job.

It was much more interesting to watch people to try to copy her moves than watch her dance.
It seems like a contradiction within the culture that they have this form of entertainment. The woman tend to wear a lot of garments on the street because of their religion, some even wear full burqas, but they have these very sexualized dances with very exposed bodies. These contradictions seem to riddle the culture here in Turkey. For example, our hostel owners are Muslims, but they are often drinking alcoholic beverages which is forbidden in Islam. Of course, it is easy to see these contradictions from outside the religion, but I am sure that I contradict my Christian beliefs often with my everyday actions.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Further East

The train to Istanbul was fantastic. Although it was quite small, and it seemed like the there were a lot of shady people waiting for the train, our compartment was nice, and we shared it with a couple from Paris. Whenever I am on a train, I think of the Polar Express, which reminds me of my childhood and Christmas. It makes me want to sip some hot chocolate, but the worst part of the train was that it was too hot, and that probably would not have helped.
I left the station at exactly 20:01, the train stopped for about 1 minute and we had to all scramble on, so the sun was setting soon into our trip. It was fantastic to watch the sun set behind the Bulgarian mountains, and the lull of the train, which I love, soon put us into a deep sleep.
At 2 o’clock, I woke up to a sharp rapping on my door. It was the passport control, which I expected, so I gave the lady my passport. After about a half an hour she gave me my passport back and we passed the Bulgarian border. However, passport control was not over. After another half an hour train ride, we arrived at the Turkey border. Everyone had to leave the train, and we had to get in lines to get visas depending on what country we were from. For some reason, the French and the Germans did not have to pay for a visa, but I had to pay 15 Euros for a visa, and my Belgian friend had to pay 10. The numbers seemed sporadic, but I think they charged the most to those who could pay the most. I found out later that the Canadians had to pay 40 Euros. So I guess I shouldn’t complain. The process seemed really disorganized, and we didn’t leave the border until 5 AM. That’s right, border control took 3 hours. I went back to sleep afterward, and when I woke up, the scenery had changed.
Although it wasn’t completely different, Turkey looked dryer and flatter. At first, the country was not exciting, but as we got closer and closer to the city, the landscape became quite interesting. There were a lot of suburban developments, but they were colorful and gorgeous. It took quite some time to get into the center of Istanbul, but I was shocked by how beautiful the city was. I never knew how big Istanbul was, but I’ve heard that it is quite wide and the population is gigantic. It was quite a trek to go from the train station to the hostel, but the sights were fantastic. Our hostel is really near to both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, and our street is full of other hostels. It is like a smaller international world, and it is quite fascinating.
My hostel is a good price, about 13 dollars a night, and I have some interesting roommates. There is an Australian, a Korean, a Romanian, and some Canadians. The hostel isn’t the cleanest, but it is a nice place to sleep. If it wasn’t for the heat, it would be quite comfortable, but the heat is getting quite oppressive.
After Marjan and I settled in, we went for a quick lunch. The food is similar to Bulgarian, but I’m sure there are differences that I will notice later. I had a delicious salad, the best I’ve had in Europe, for only about 3 US Dollars. After lunch we headed to our first national monument: the Hagia Sophia. Although it has been a church and a mosque in its long history, it is now a very beautiful museum. I learned about the history of the site, and then toured the building. It is massive, and I couldn’t get over how it was built in only six years. It creates a beautiful sky-line, especially since it is right across from the Blue Mosque.

Afterwards, Marjan and I walked to the Grand Bazaar, which is the biggest covered market I have ever seen. Everything is gorgeous and brilliant colors, and it was unlike anything I have seen in my life. I could spend hours buying many souvenirs and presents, but I had no money. If I ever go to Istanbul again as my sole destination, I am sure to buy a lot of textiles, clothing, and jewelry.
The behavior of the shop-keepers also surprised me. I had expected them to be rude, and not like the number of foreigners. However, they were all very helpful, and didn’t mind that I was just looking or that I wasn’t interested in their goods. They just wanted to show us their wares, and didn’t push them on us. It was refreshing, and a pleasant surprise. In fact, the entire city surprised me. It is a lot more Western than I thought it would be, and it feels like it would be a more appropriate member of the European Union than Bulgaria or Romania. The city is quite cosmopolitan, clean and it feels very safe. The architecture is beautiful, and it is great to hear the call to prayers throughout the day. Even though it is a predominately Muslim state, they respect the way I dress and I feel like I am safe as a Christian. It seems like it would be a great place to study abroad.
The one thing that bothers me, however, is the way they treat my travel friend Marjan. She was dressed as a typical European, and every man would check her out. Often, they would also have a lewd comment, and it was quite annoying. Sometimes, I pretended I was her boyfriend to try to make it stop, but that didn’t seem to help either. I think the difference in culture comes from the fact that hardly any women are out on the streets. Mostly men are working at the shops, and the few Turkish women we see tend to be wearing hjabs, and when men see women that are less covered, they get excited. Buy covering up Turkish women, it is almost a self-fulfilled prophecy; women that aren’t covered up bring out the worst in men.
Regardless of its faults, the city is fascinating, enormous, and I won’t be able to see everything that I want to in three short days; that being said, I should probably get off my computer.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Packing Again

It seems strange to be packing again. It feels like I just got to Bulgaria, but the seminar is now over and tomorrow I will be heading to Istanbul with Marjan, who I met here in Bulgaria. We are spending one last night in Veliko Tarnovo, but the atmosphere here is totally different. There are no longer people strolling the halls, doing homework in the common room, or even trying to have conversations in broken English. Regardless, I keep imagining that I will see people in the hallway who I know have gone; I think that it will be good to leave Tarnovo. Although I had a brilliant time, this chapter seems to have ended.
One of the most interesting aspects of this seminar, for me, were the differences in culture. Most people were from Europe, but there were also people from China, Korea, India and the United States. Most people were very educated, and this led to some interesting conversations. I often had discussions with people about the culture in the United States. People would usually say that there is no culture in the United States, that we are too young of a nation. But I think that this statement is pretty ignorant. Our culture is a huge mix of various historical traditions and this mixture creates a unique culture that can be found nowhere else in the world. For the night of the nations, where every state did something cultural, we were trying to decide what we could do to portray US culture. Everything we thought of seemed to have derived from another culture. (Except for singing songs from Pocahontas, but we didn’t think that that would be appropriate) Similarly, at the international music festival two weeks ago, the representatives from the US did traditional Irish dancing. But this hodge-podge of cultural doesn’t negate our cultural being. Instead, it gives us a unique cultural perspective. We can embrace a variety of food, dance, and traditions. I know that when I go back to Boston College, I am going to go to Bulgarian Folk dance nights in Cambridge, and I think that mom will be able to drag me to her international dance class. I can enjoy sushi or Mexican food any day of the week. I can put clogs under our Christmas tree even though we aren’t Dutch. It is a fantastic place.
People in Eastern Europe have also been more racist than people in the United States. I know we still have a lot of problems with racial issues, but we live in a society that has integrated many races. I was talking to a Serbian the other day and he was saying how bad it would be if African Americans became the majority of the population. I was shocked; he thought that they were a lower caste, and that if the population distribution changed, the US would fail. It was as if he thought that only a state run by ex-Europeans could continue as a functioning state. People also look at the Roma (or Gypsy) people as an almost blight on society. I understand that there is a huge historical tradition of marginalizing these people, but Europeans continue to say that the Roma refuse to integrate into society, while it looks like the Europeans haven’t made this integration easy.
I find it fascinating, and scary, to talk to people from countries farther to the East, like Serbia and Armenia. Some of these countries have such nationalistic beliefs, that it helps me understand the Balkan Wars and Armenia’s continued dislike of Turkey. By talking to other people, I can, albeit subjectively, learn history from a more personal aspect.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I’ve noticed a huge difference in the way people react to hearing their mother tongue spoken with an accent. The connection makes sense, but it is quite interesting regardless. While we hear people speaking in English with an accent quite often, I think other nations are not used to the butchering of their language. I don’t think I ever correct foreign people’s pronunciation of words in English. I am just quite happy that they are trying and can normally understand what they are saying. In Prague, I was rarely corrected, but most of the time, they understood what I was trying to say without correct pronunciation. They are so used to foreigners, that I think they are just surprised to hear Czech coming out of our mouths. In the countryside of the Czech Republic, I am corrected and they don’t really understand if I mispronounce words. This feature seems to grow stronger the farther east I travel. In Hungary, citizens would not understand unless the word was correctly pronounced. I did not even try to speak Hungarian. In Bulgaria, everyone in the program corrects poorly pronounced Bulgarian. I know that it is a learning environment, but they seem to guard what would be the purity of their oral language quite often. When we are chatting in English, everyone mispronounces words, but the students from BC don’t really notice and don’t really care. It is really highlighted in names. Lots of people have very difficult names to pronounce in English, and are often angry when they are mispronounced. I never correct the way my name is pronounced, even though they don’t really do the English swallowed “r”.
I am so lucky that I speak English. It is the default language here (if Bulgarian fails). Other than a group of Russians, the second language tends to be English. Bulgarian classes are swell, and I really feel like I could learn a lot of I stayed here for a whole semester. However, I am quite excited to return to Prague, and continue my studies at Charles University. I am going to miss the Slavic alphabet, but I can’t wait to get back to ř.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Lectures, Food, and Dance

I have been attending a lecture, in English, about the history of Bulgaria, but I don’t think I can go again. The lessons have been very subjective, and focus on the positive aspects of Bulgarian history, and skip over the negative. I think it was best demonstrated in the lecture yesterday; our professor talked about the Ottoman rule and the oppressive Sultan regime. However, she did not explain how under the Bulgarian Tsarist regime, the peasants lived in almost the exact same way. It wasn’t until I asked that she told the class that life was identical except for a tax that non-Muslims have to pay. The way she instructed the class put Islam in a negative light, while she didn’t even discuss Bulgaria’s role in the crusades. I need objective history, and I don’t think I can learn Bulgarian history objectively in Bulgaria.
However, I am having a blast learning Bulgaria here. Three hours a day, starting at 9, we have a Bulgarian language lesson. At 12, we switch to specialized one hour classes. I have not been attending these classes as much as I should, but I have gone to a couple of phonetic classes and I think my pronunciation is improving. The Bulgarian language is fascinating, and, although difficult at times, living in Bulgaria greatly increases my capacity to learn the language. Of course, I probably will be confused again when I return to Prague, but perhaps I can continue taking Bulgarian at Charles University. After our language classes, we have free time and some optional lectures in the evening. It has been great to take off these evenings and enjoy the summer. I have realized that I have been in school for about 12 straight months now, but it is nice to have the month to act as a kind of break.
Last night was quite spectacular. Although I knew it was going to be a night of traditional Bulgarian food and dance, I had no idea that I was going to love this aspect of Bulgarian culture. I thought that the folk dances would be too difficult, and we would only watch professionals and that the food would be typical fare we eat in restaurants; I expected I would get some food and leave. However, I was pleasantly surprised.
The food was delicious. There were many Bulgarian dishes that I had not yet tried. I tried banitza, homemade yogurt, typical Bulgarian spices, and an interesting bean dish. They also had homemade wine and rakia (a Bulgarian aperitif made out of plums). Everything was delicious. In restaurants, the food is sub-par, although the prices are terrific, and I assumed that Bulgarian cuisine was not particularly interesting. However, from this meal and from what I have heard, good Bulgarian cuisine can be found in people’s homes. Restaurant food is completely different. I need to meet a Bulgarian family that will invite me to join them for meals...
The dancing was also wonderful. First, professionals came and showed off a very complicated Bulgarian dance. Eventually, they switched to a simpler dance, and students were allowed to join. I have been missing the Bulgarian dance lessons, but the dance did not look too difficult so I joined in. I think I am in love with Bulgarian dancing. It is done in a line formation, and a single pattern of steps is repeated throughout the song. If you google it, you could probably see an example. It was quite tiring, but I had a great night’s sleep after some great dancing.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Living Like An Ex-Communist

The architecture near the University is quite unique. Compared to the rest of the city, the dorms are built in a style that focuses on efficiency. My room is a single, with just a bed and a sink. Eight of us share two showers and two toilets. It is livable, but definitely a unique experience. Remnants of the Communist period seem to appear briefly in various degrees throughout the ex-Soviet Bloc.
A lot of things are quite different in Bulgaria. I am in Eastern Europe, and my surroundings make it quite obvious. Animals roam the city quite frequently. Packs of feral dogs are quite common, and yesterday, two horses and a foal were eating garbage, away from their owners, outside of our dorm. It would be interesting to see my sister’s reaction; Anna would like seeing the horses, but I am sure she would be upset that they were digging through the trash to find food.
I think that the students from the United States are the most surprised by things like this. Although we would probably never see such things in the US, they may happen in smaller cities in European countries. I could probably find something like that in a smaller city in the Czech Republic, but regardless, the culture here is quite distinct.
One of the greatest parts of the program is the huge variety in the participants. I am not sure what I expected, but there are representatives from around the world. I am not sure how so many people decided they wanted to study Bulgarian, but it makes quite an interesting group. I also expected the default language to be English, typical American thinking, but the tours are all given in Bulgarian. Nevertheless, when chatting with other people, the most common cross cultural language is English. It is amazing that these students have to talk to each other in their second or third language. With such language barriers, obviously things are lost in translation, but that makes this trip more exciting.
It also has given me the chance to brush up on my other languages. The first group of people I met were Czech, so I was kind of stuck in a bubble where I would speak Czech rather than Bulgarian. When the other BC students arrived, I obviously spoke more English, but I still have been speaking French, poorly, and Spanish. It is definitely an experience that I will treasure.
I just taught a fellow student how baseball and American football work. I never knew they were such complicated sports. It took about twenty minutes to explain baseball. The sport really is too complicated for its own good. But it was fun to spread a little bit of my culture to those who are teaching me some of theirs.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Eight Easy Steps

In Prague, I could blend. People would address me in Czech and it was only when I responded in a thick accent would they start talking to me in English. In Bulgaria, it is completely different. I'm addressed in English, people hardly give me the chance to try Bulgarian, and I have been even asked for directions in English. I've been trying to figure out how they know so quickly that my native tongue is English, and I think I have figured it out. There are both physical traits, and mannerisms which set me apart.
1) Blonde hair. It is ridiculous how little people have blonde hair in Bulgaria. I've gotten a lot of stares, and I've realized it is because of my hair. The only blondes here are bottled blondes.
2) My face. Most Bulgarians have very round faces. I have too many angles to try and be a Bulgarian.
3) Height. I'm a little too tall to be in this country. And I'm not really that tall.
4) Blue eyes and white skin. Not really noticeable at first, but I haven't met any Bulgarians with blue eyes. Not surprising. I'm also the whitest kid here. My skin is like porcelain, but not in a good way.
5) Polos. No one here wears polos. It was more common in Prague, but polo style shirts are not Bulgarian at all. However, polos are my favorite, so I continue to stick out. I tried to wear a tank top to try and blend in, but the only thing that happened is I burned my shoulders and my neck...
6) My back-pack. I can't lie, I wear my little red back-pack out and about a lot. I need to carry my water bottle and some small books in case I need to look up a Bulgarian word. You can't imagine how silly I look...
7) My iPod. It is a reflection of the wealthy country that I was lucky enough to be born in. Although it is just a shuffle, I have it a lot when I go on walks, and it sets me apart. Same goes for my camera or my computer.
8) Finally, my flip-flops are also a dead give away that I'm not a Bulgarian. Europeans don't really wear "Yapansky" as they are called, but I find they are the most comfortable shoes to wear.
Now, these traits could be considered an isolating force. However, I have used the "steps" to identify other English speakers. For example, on a tour of Tsaravets, I saw a girl with a back-pack, flip-flops, and a mini-skirt. The way she held herself and her nice digital camera, which had a full digital display of the pictures she took, pointed to the Western World. I guessed that she was from the States, and I was quite close. She was actually from Canada, so I need to do some tweaking of the steps, but they can definitely be useful...
Tsaravets is a huge hill in the middle of Veliko Turnivo. It is actually the ruins of an old fortress that was the seat of the Bulgarian kingdom, and it was quite interesting. My favorite part was the church at the top, which had modern recreations of earlier frescoes. I was worried that they would have been poor replicas, but they were very nice. They had recreated the frescoes in a modern art style that made them seem more accessible to people of today. Tsaravets also had a great view of the city, and it was great to see the city from such heights.
Sunday night, we went to a Slavi concert. If you don't know who Slavi is, I reccommend Youtubing him, because it is quite hard to explain. He was a great example of the differences in culture. The show was more than just a concert, it seemed to be a variety show. In the beggining, there was a slide-show of famous Bulgarian places, Slavi is quite the nationalist, and later there were comedians between songs. It was nice to have these breaks between songs and artists. The contestants in Bulgarian Idol were also at the concert, and it was great to see there idea of an idol. If anyone is trying to broaden their musical tastes, I would recommend Slavi.
It is raining a lot in Bulgaria right now. It is a great contrast with last week, which was bright and sunny everyday. But variety is good, and hopefully the rain will stop by tomorrow.

Friday, August 3, 2007

An End to Frustration

When I first arrived in Veliko Turnovo, I was very frustrated. I had just taken a 27 hour bus ride, only to face a test in Bulgarian, having forgotten all of my vocabulary since I started studying Czech, which I failed miserably. The other students at Boston College were leaving for the Black Sea, but they left before I had settled in, and I couldn’t leave with them. So here I was, stranded at the student dorms, while most of the students were staying at Motel Sveta Gora. I also was in a single room, so I had no roommate to rely on. I was completely alone. I wanted to return home to Prague, but I knew I couldn’t. Luckily, this mood didn’t last very long.
As soon as I had taken a shower and eaten some food, I headed out to the city. The walk was somewhat long to get into the centrum, but I immediately felt better. I think my negative attitude had sprung from the fact that I hadn’t slept very well on the bus, I hadn’t exercised in that entire time at all, and I had not eaten any protein since Wednesday. Luckily, these were physical problems that were fixed quite easily. After a 12 hour nap, and meeting some of the other members of the program, I am now able to recreate a family in Bulgaria.

Made It!

I finally made it to Bulgaria, but it has been a long trip, and if it wasn’t for a couple of people I wouldn’t have made it at all. I kind of set out later than expected, and when I was almost to the bus stop, I realized that I had forgotten my passport in the luggage I was leaving in storage. Luckily, Kevin had given me all of his change. If he would not have, I would not have been able to afford calling Jerome House and getting through to Stephanie. Stephanie was able to relay my message to Liza, and Liza and Max ran to the bus station with my passport. I was five minutes away from being left behind, which would have been horrible. Thanks to these people, I made it to Bulgaria. The bus ride, though 27 hours, was somewhat pleasant, and I had a great discussion with my neighbor about Czech politics, in English, which helped the time fly by. Of course, I had horrible cramps from trying to sleep while sitting up, but it was worth the money.
One thing that bugged me about the bus ride was the movies played. Although they were entertaining, all four films were gruesome and it seems plausible that Czechs would look at these films and believe it reflected the culture of the United States. Petr, the man sitting next to me, said that in Islamic states, films from the US are the only form of our culture that they see. It seems a poor way to represent what we believe.
After I was dropped off in Sofia, I had to find a train to Veliko Turnivo. During this time, I though I had lost my luggage, but it was luckily not lost and I made it to this small Bulgarian city with all my limbs. It is weird being out of Prague. I’m not used to the life here, and people already have made friends since the program started on Tuesday. I’m sure I will find people, but right now I feel quite alone. I thought I would have friends from BC, but they have left for the coast for the weekend. I might try to meet them there, but it could be difficult…

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Heading to Bulgaria

I had to buy a bus ticket for Bulgaria the other day, and if you are ever in a similar situation, I warn you that it is quite a process. The various bus companies are all over the station, and you have to match where you want to go with what bus company you need to go through. However, there is no master list that displays which buses go where. No, you have to go from company to company to try and find the appropriate bus station. Furthermore, the station is not in the best part of town and is surrounded by vendors selling luggage and t-shirts who will not say no for an answer. (I ended up buying a small carry-on luggage, because the lady was so nice, I really did need it, and it was only 16 dollars) I finally did find my bus, but it was a hectic experience.
I’m going to head out for Bulgaria tomorrow morning, a 24 hour trip, so hopefully there are no letters getting sent my way to Prague. I’m excited, but I am going to miss my new friends and my new home in Prague. Although I didn’t know anyone coming in, I feel like we have created a strong community and I will want to see them in the States again. Nevertheless, I cannot wait to see Bulgaria. It seems like I will be heading further into Eastern Europe and Slavic culture and am extremely excited to see cultural differences not only between Bulgaria and the US, but also between Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. It should be a notable experience.

Modern Art: Prague

On Saturday, I went to the Museum of Modern Art Museum on Kampa Island. Kampa is a small island next to Charles Bridge that has museums, a park, restaurants, and the Lennon memorial. I heard it described once as the “Venice” of Prague though I am not sure why. Although it is an island, I have never seen a gondola or anything that reminded me of Italy. Regardless, the island is very interesting and has a culture of its own.
The museum surprised me. Although it had some examples of the modern art outside, the actual art differed greatly from what I expected. There were three exhibitions at the time: a permanent collection of Stálá Sbírka, a temporary exhibit of Kupka Mondrian and a temporary exhibit of Andy Warhol. I went for the Warhol, but left feeling dizzy.
I decided to do Andy Warhol first. The theme was Disaster Relics and it was quite sad. There were portraits of Jackie Kennedy, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe as well as car accidents and prints inspired by racial unrest. I am not sure what I expected, but all the quotes on the walls were very depressing and set the mood for the rest of the museum.
After the Warhol exhibit, or výstava as it is known in Czech, I went upstairs to the permanent Stálá Sbírka collection. These black and white photographs were the best part of the entire museum and a lot more comprehensible. There were some photographs that I would love to have in my apartment, but I am sure they would be very expensive.
The final section focused on Kupka and Mondrian. Kupka is a Czech artist, and his work is somewhat hard to understand. They were very modern, and quite beyond me. However, some of his works in black and white would have looked very nice as tiling in a bathroom; I’m not sure if that is what he intended. Mondrian was a bit more impressionist than Kupka and at first I liked his art. However, as he progressed through life, it became more complex and abstract.
All of this modern art was making me a little queasy and I was glad that there was one section in the museum that was located on top of the smaller building in the open air. Visitors are allowed to walk out and look at the weather resistant art. My favorite piece was on the roof; it was a bunch of tainted windows attached to a larger metallic structure, but when two windows were at the right angle, it would create a mirror effect. This led to some brilliant pictures, which were quite fun to produce. Although I didn’t understand most of the art, this final piece was both entertaining and beautiful (in a very strange way).