Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Making Our Way to Minnesota

BH and I had a rough time getting to Minnesota. Our first flight was delayed for three hours. Our second flight was then delayed four hours. Luckily, this second delay meant we made our second flight. However, we were not so lucky with our third leg of the journey (Detroit to Minneapolis). Upon arriving in Detroit, we spent a good hour in the customs line only to discover our luggage was still in Paris.C'est dommage. We missed our last flight, but Delta gave us a night at the Best Western. I would guesstimate that about 70 passengers missed their Delta flight and were put up in this hotel. The line for the shuttle bus was ridiculous, and everybody was flying from Paris, therefore tired and on their last nerve. We did get a little bit of shut-eye at the hotel, but before long it was back on the shuttle and back to the airport. Right now, I'm using the internet provided by Google for the holiday seasons on Delta flights. Thank you! This is the first time I've used the web at 30,000 feet.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Смърт за курвите

I was unfortunate enough to walk by this graffiti the other day.
I would translate this as "Death to Whores". Wow, the creativity. I hope it is sarcastic. But I doubt that it is.
Incidentally, I saw some prostitutes down the road from this sign. At first I thought they were just waiting for a friend, but their skirts were way too short for -10 degrees Celsius, and the way they were pacing back and forth...

Friday, December 17, 2010

Final Days in Macedonia

Originally, we had planned to go to Kosovo on Sunday, but there weren't any tickets for Prizren, and there were elections so we didn't want to go to the capital in case there was any sort of political unrest. It worked out well in the end, because BH's friends, Radmila and Zoran, gave us a great tour of the city and informed us of the history of Skopje.
We started out by seeing an art museum near the head of the main street. Apparently, there was an earthquake in Macedonia that destroyed a bunch of buildings in the area. A clock on the museum was not destroyed, and it continues to show the time of the earthquake in 1963.
As we continued our tour, we were a little chilled. So we stopped for a coffee, and made a cute little video. It starts out in Korean Sign Language, then ISL, then Macedonian Sign, English, and finally my bad combination of English and sign. You can see it here:
http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=735628682077&saved
Pretty fun stuff. Afterward, we went on to see a church built in honor of Mother Theresa. Although she is ethnically Albanian, she was born in what is now modern-day Skopje. The whole time, I was thinking of Alice from Korea, and her beef with Mother Theresa. She supposedly wasn't the complete saint that society paints her as. Then again, she probably did do a lot of good as well.
BH with MT
As we continued along the main drag, we noticed a lot of statues that we hadn't seen before. Skopje really has a nice collection of art downtown. (This is something Sofia is lacking) I liked this one with the two ladies shopping.
Radmila and I
Alongside the river there is a bunch of construction. I asked Radmila about it, and it seems like they are building some sort of Greek-style colosseum. Greece probably isn't happy about that. One of the barriers for Macedonians entry into the EU is their name. Greek does not like that they are using the name, since there is also a Greek Macedonia. That's why it was known as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia when becoming a member of the UN. Anyways, their was a decent amount of construction in the city, and it should be interesting to see the developments in the coming years.
Crossing the 15th century old stone bridge, we came to a Turkish hamam (bath house) that had been converted into a modern art gallery. The art was so-so, and in the cold weather it would have been much grander to take a nice steamy bath. I miss Korean bathhouses.
Kristin and BH outside the hamam
Continuing on, we came to the Grand Market, which is the biggest in the Balkans. We saw some churches, and after a bit realized we were starving. We wanted to have traditional Macedonian food, but had some communication problems and ended up at an Italian restaurant. This restaurant, however, was amazing. And cheap. The pizza was great, the pasta was fresh, the seafood was nice, and the bread. Yum. If you end up in Skopje, you need to try out this restaurant. It is called Gusto.
Fresh Italian at Gusto
 At this point, Kristin was a little tuckered out. However, the rest of the group kept on, and visited the Kale Fortress at night. Although it was a little boring to walk around the whole fortress, it had some nice views.
View of the city
By this time, I was also tuckered out and headed home. We had a second dinner a the mall, Turkish pizza, yum, and then I headed to dreamland. The next morning was a day of Christmas shopping, kebabs, and then the bus back to Bulgaria. Although the entire trip was less than a week, it was phenom.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ohrid to Skopje

Saturday morning, we woke up early to follow a Lonely Planet walking tour of Ohrid that I copied down at the hostel in Skopje. After a quick breakfast of toast and pancakes, we took a taxi to the gorna porta to start our tour.
 
Gorna Porta or Upper Gate
The tour continued with a church near the Upper Gate called St. Bogorodica Perivlepta. This church was built and painted in 1295 and was dedicated to Mary. When we entered, we were given an excellent tour, in English, of all the paintings by a woman who had done her PhD on the church. She explained all of the images in the church, as well as what aspects made it similar to other churches in the Balkans and those aspects that made it unique. There was a story circling the interior of the church about the life and death of Mary. This is part of the Apocrypha, so it was a new story for me. There was also an image of God having two heads and breasts. Pretty radical. She finished the tour explaining her own worldview, which was basically loving the world and its creatures fully. Following the true message of loving your neighbor as yourself. How have so many churches throughout history distorted this message so radically? Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures of the interior.
Sv. Bogdorica Perivlepta
The tour continued up to the main fortress, pass an amphitheater, and then started to wind back down the hill toward Lake Ohrid. Halfway down the hill, we came to another church: St. Pentelejmon. This is a re-construction of the original church erected by St. Kliment, who is now interred in the church. St. Kliment was a pupil of Saints Cyril and Methodius, and the inventor of the modern day Cyrillic alphabet. After paying our respects to Kliment, we split off, with the girls heading back down to the city, and BH and I finishing the tour. The tour brought us to a cliff over the lake with fantastic views of St. John Kaneo church. The church itself wasn't amazing, but look at this view.
The tour finished with some views of the old town along the lake, and we ended up back at the restaurant we ate at the first day. BH and I had some cake, did some Christmas shopping, and before we knew it, it was time to go back to Skopje.
5 hours later, and we pulled in to the bus station and met up with two of BH's friends: Radmila and Zoran. They were sister and brother, and both Deaf. Somehow, they ended up at the same hostel as us, so we went back to our rooms, unpacked, and then went out for dinner at a decent restaurant downtown (Trend). Tapas was followed by a visit to the Deaf club. We had a great time meeting some of the Deaf Macedonians, and all four of us felt very welcome.
BH, Zoran, and Diane
We spent some two hours just trying to chat, using a mixture of ASL, Bulgarian/Macedonian, and charades. Since it was Saturday, we wanted to go clubbing, so we went on a search. We found this club called Papaya, and Radmila wanted a discount for the Deaf. Since we were foreigners, we eventually all got in without a cover. The club was a little boring, however, so we continued on to 69 Club. Once again, by being adamant about a Deaf discount, we got in for free, and entered the loudest club I have ever been to. You could feel the music in your entire body. It must have been great for BH, Radmila, and Zoran, but my ears were hurting. Couple of drinks and a couple of hours later, we went back to sleep at our hostel in Skopje.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ohrid, Macedonia

 Friday morning we took a bus (very cheap) from Skopje to Ohrid. The ride lasted about three hours. Even though it is a small country, we had to drive through the mountains. Although this made the trip longer, it was nice to travel through this winter wonderland.

Snowy mountains ... mmm
We arrived in Ohrid around noon and took a quick taxi to our hostel/apartment. It was a really nice set-up for only ten dollars a day. All these bus rides make me hungry, so we walked down to the lake for a meal. The trout looked delicious, but it is, apparently, endangered so instead I ordered a salad and BH got a snail risotto.
Unfortunately, disgusting
 After lunch, we explored the lake shore. There were swans paddling by, and the lake was amazingly clear. I wanted to go swimming, but nobody else wanted to be a polar bear. Ah well. It was freezing out, but the view over the lake was ridiculously beautiful. Kristin maybe spent twenty minutes taking pictures. I also took a bunch.
After the sun set, the cold set in as while. We did some more shopping and sight-seeing, went back to the hotel and watched TV. Apparently, all of the TV channels in Macedonia are in English. BH and I watched the Discovery Channel for a while until we were hungry again. We went to some restaurant that maybe catered to bikers. The goulash was good and cheap. And the menus were amusing.
Kristin did not find this funny. I did

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Scoping out Skopje

Macedonia is incredibly close to Bulgaria. Both culturally and physically. So we decided to go there for a long weekend. It was a fantastic country.
BH and I left on Thursday morning and met up with our friend Diane at the bus station. It was a little cold in Sofia, and we hoped the weather would hold up. Buses leave five times a day from Sofia, and we jumped on the 9:30 bus. We crossed the border a little past noon, and the scenery was beautiful. After two more hours of the bus, we arrived in Skopje. We checked in at the Art Hostel and set out to explore the city.
Living in Sofia, it is hard not to compare new countries with what we are used to. The main stretch in Skopje is quite nice. It is wide and pedestrian only; it also has a bunch of statues ranging from the thought provoking to the bizarre.
The fish itself was cool, but why the weird legs?
Of course, our priority at the time was lunch. We had just spent five hours on a bus. We needed to eat! I thought there would be plenty of Macedonian restaurants to choose from in the center, but all we could find was Italian cafes and Irish pubs. We asked a couple of young Macedonians, and they directed us outside of the city. A short, and cheap, taxi drive later and we were enjoying a delicious Macedonian meal. I had some sort of meat BBQ with cheese grilled inside, while Diane had an amazing stew. The only downer was the beer; only order златен лав if you love watery brews. Regardless, if you go to Skopje, I definitely recommend the Pivnica Krigla. I would guess that most taxis know where it is as well. They finished off the meal with a free pancake stuffed with nutella. When I asked why it was free, they said they don't get foreigners much and want to show us a good time. It was delicious. 
 Dinner was followed by a walk next to the Kale Fortress. We were just wandering back to our hostel when we ran into the grand bazaar. Apparently, it is the largest in the Balkans. The market was great. Easy to walk through, well lit, and plenty of things to choose from. 
Since this was our first night, we decided to head back to the hostel and not spend all our money on the first night. The walk back to the hostel included seeing the old stone bridge (15th century) as well as a bunch of new things under construction. From what I have seen, this is an up-and-coming city. 
After a brief rest at the hostel, we met Kristin at the bus station. Like us, she was hungry. We went back to the city center for dinner. The first unpleasant thing, however, happened. A taxi cab called us over and, after a little haggling, told us he would use the meter. He did use the meter, and was very talkative and kind. When we got to the center, it was maybe 100 denar. However, when I turned to pay him, he tripled the price. I was going to leave him a good tip, but seriously? I hate getting ripped off just because we are foreigners ergo easy targets.
Taxi cabs aside, we finished out the night with a great dinner at a Mexican restaurant. I don't know why we ate Mexican in Macedonia, but it was the best Mexican I have had in a long time. BH and I enjoyed some gazpacho (actually Spanish) and quesadillas. As we were eating, it began to rain. We were a little dismayed, but at least we had good food and good company. The prospects of the next morning and moving on to Ohrid were bright as well.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bulgarian Post

Four hours for a package. Seriously?
We finally got a slip for the package that BH's friend sent a month ago. Excited, we rush to the post office. Only to find out the package is in another post office. We set off, still in high hopes. When we give the post lady our slip, she has BH sign a bunch of things and then gives him a receipt. Saying the package is not there. Instead, we have to trek to the other side of the city, 40 minutes by taxi, to get to customs. When we finally get there, we head to the desk written on the slip. But its the wrong desk. After being corrected, we go to the correct window. The woman working there is awful. Doesn't say hi, doesn't help us a bit. When I ask her what we need to fill out on the form, she says, "I don't know. I don't know Chinese." Of course, BH is Korean, but I don't correct her. After struggling through the form (written in Bulgarian and the lady wouldn't help a bit) we finish it and hand it to her. After forking over four leva, she says go up. So we go up to the third floor. Only to be sent back down. Wandering around lost, finally a person helps us. I show her my slip, and she leads me to another window. We give the worker our card, and he says "my, this came a while ago". He searches through the boxes, asks for five more leva, and then finally hands over the package. They asked no custom type questions. Why they couldn't have just delivered it at the door, I have no idea. This is the first time I've been actually angry with Bulgaria. Seriously, that much bureaucracy for a box with underwear and electric cords?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Giving Thanks in Sofia

Thanksgiving is one of the few times a year I want to be cuddled up safely at home. It just is such a family-oriented holiday, it seems a shame not to celebrate with your loved ones. A like-minded Fulbrighter in Sofia felt the same way, and organized an orphan's Thanksgiving on Saturday.
I said I'd bring a pie and the cranberry sauce. That meant, of course, that I needed to make a practice pie. BH and I enjoyed said pie throughout the week. Friday morning, I went to the grocery store to buy some cranberries, but, alas, they were sold out! In a last minute decision I bought this bag of dried cranberries mixed with nuts and some dried figs, thinking I could figure out something.
Laura came up Friday night, and we went to the Deaf club, and afterward out for beer. Laura wanted some Starbucks, and when she came back she brought cranberries! Apparently, the street markets sell them. What a life-saver. We spent a long time at the restaurant, just chatting and learning some Bulgarian sign language.
After our beers, we hit the town. Milk Bar and Club ID. At one point, we realized that we were just bobbing our heads to the music and not really paying attention to what was going on. That meant we needed to get home. So we did!
Saturday morning (well, early afternoon) I baked an apple pie, Laura made apple cider, BH made Korean pancakes, and I prepared the cranberry sauce. We finished our cooking and headed over to Katie and Keith's place. A bunch of Fulbright fellows were there, and the meal was fantastic. All sorts of dishes, and all well prepared. I forgot my cranberry sauce, but c'est la vie.
 
BH and Sophia grabbing their food

After dinner, we played a huge round of rock, paper, scissors, went to a hookah bar (without hookah) and then headed to Milk Club again. It was a very successful Thanksgiving.
The next morning, Sunday, BH and I went to Starbucks and met up with Connor and Sophia. We invited them over for dinner, and BH made one of my favorite dishes: tuna mixed rice. One of the eggs he cracked open was a twin. Does that mean good luck?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Deaf Club Vienna

Friday was a little more low-key. We met up with BH’s friend, David, and he led us on a tour of the city, supplying similar details that Rick Steve’s gave me, but in a way that both BH and I could understand. He explained more about Stephansdom, which is truly a remarkable cathedral. It was originally built in the 12th century, and, with a couple of restoration projects here and there, survives to this day. Germany spared the building during World War II, but the roof did catch fire when neighboring houses were set aflame by the Nazis. However, as is evident in the picture, the reconstruction of the roof is quite impressive.
The tour continued with views of the parliament building, the main university, and other churches in the city. David also taught me the words for Roman, Baroque, and Gothic architecture, which will come in useful throughout our travels in Europe.
Friday night and we were at the Deaf club for University students in Vienna. The system here seems better than Eastern Europe. For one, they have a lot of translators for students. I don’t think that happens in Bulgaria… After a somewhat boring election of new members to the board, we chatted and celebrated a random girl’s birthday. BH’s friends were great, and we spent our last night with them, drinking vodka and telling stories.
I must say Vienna was a tad boring. It was beautiful and opulent, but it didn’t seem like much was going on. When I told this to my friend, NI, she told me that I needed to come back and experience it with her. I might just have to do that.
On our bus back to Prague, we watched the Sound of Music. Driving through the Viennese countryside and listening to the Von Tropps. Wonderful. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Saying Hi to the Hapsburgs


Our expensive train from Krakow brought us to Vienna early in the morning. After wandering around for a bit, BH had the bright idea to get a map to get our bearings. After walking a half an hour in the wrong direction, we figured it out, and headed to our hostel. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to check in till around 10:30, so we had to go to Starbucks to wait. Oh, such a shame.
After our typical iced Americanos, we went back to the hostel, checked in, and started our tour of Austria. Rick Steve’s led us on this tour again, and we started out at the opera house and followed his walking tour. He brought us to the Hotel Sacher, Stephansplatz cathedral, and, my favorite, the Holy Trinity plague column, which depicts the end of the 1670 bubonic epidemic. The plague hag is being thrown out by an adorable cupid and the king himself. Nice.

A quick lunch at Nordsee was followed by a tour of the Hofburg palace. While buying our tickets, I asked if there was a discount for Deaf individuals. She gave Byeong-Hun a student discount, and then I received a free ticket for translating. Now, that is a first! Hofburg palace was really interesting, especially the Sisi museum. I actually did not know anything about this apparently famous queen, but the museum was well laid out and very informative. If anyone has seen any movies about Empress Elisabeth, I’d like some recommendations. We also took a tour of the royalty’s dinnerware. They had a remarkable amount of ornate flatware that any housewife would love to decorate with (heaven forbid to eat off of!).
(BH is asking if this china is from China)
The tours were followed by a little trek through Vienna’s Christmas markets. I thought the ones in Prague were nice, but a Viennese Christmas is adorable! Since Austria is on the Euro, I refused to buy anything, but the window shopping was fun nevertheless.
Our last stop of the day was the Kunsthistorisches Museum. What a mouthful. The museum had such a huge collection of European masterpieces, that it almost got boring. Those Italian painters and their religious symbols… However, half of the main floor was Northern Renaissance art. Wonderful. It also made me hungry. Look at these fish.
Since we were trying to make our Euros stretch, we had some street meat, and finished the night watching the Pianist. One great thing about travelling around Europe is being able to visit a country and then see a movie that takes place in said country. Since we had just left Poland, the Pianist was even more moving and fascinating.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Seriously, Go to Krakow

After Auschwitz, we got back to Krakow and I tried to find my iPod. Alas, some lucky Pole has a new gadget. At least it was free when I bought my computer...
We got back home and met up with the Fulbrighters to celebrate Rachel's birthday. They ended up going to a Mexican restaurant, but since we had eaten just a little bit of Polish food so far, BH and I ended up going to another milk bar. For their price, these little restaurants are wonderful!
Following dinner, we met up with the group and went to another Mexican restaurant for margaritas. There were some weird group dynamics going on at the table, but I hope Rachel had a blast.
After dinner, BH and I went with some of the Slovakia ETAs to a club. We weren't really excited about the first place, but Katrina, BH and I split off to go to Kitsch Club. This was a mixed club, and a very young crowd. I wasn't in a huge dancing mood, but I had a blast watching all the kids dancing and after an hour or two, joined in. The bar's interior lived up to its name:

The next morning, we woke up early to tour the Jewish quarter. As I mentioned earlier, Kazimierz was once the Jewish ghetto, but recently has become kind of a modern and fun area. However, there are still a number of synagogues, and a delicious bagel restaurant (BH's first!). After walking around for a bit, we ran into the old cemetery. I was a little creeped out. Especially after seeing the remnants of Auschwitz, this vandalism at the cemetery was awful.
We continued our walk through Kazimierz to the new cemetery. After donning a kippah, we walked through the cemetery. What a difference a natural cemetery is. Instead of the horror and disgust I felt at Auschwitz, I was filled with peace and reverence.

We then moved on to the Deaf center on Saint Jana street. We didn't have any sort of plan, but just wanted to check it out. We met the director, and learned that the Deaf community here has an especially large art community. We were given a tour, which involved three levels of interpretation. First, the Polish Deaf would use sign language which was then translated to Polish. The director would speak Polish to an art student, who then translated to English. Afterward, I would translate to ASL. With all these different translations, I'm sure some things were lost. However, we were able to communicate. 
More Christmas shopping, hot chocolate, dinner, and then it was back on the train. A word of warning: do not take the sleeper from Krakow to Vienna. It is ridiculously expensive. Besides this one annoying aspect, Krakow was amazing. If you haven't been yet, go.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Auschwitz

After a wonderful day in beautiful Krakow, Auschwitz was, unsurprisingly, very depressing. However, I felt that it was a very important trip, and I'm glad BH and I made it.
The first thing that happened on this day trip was ridiculous of me: I left my iPod on the van. There are a number of vans that leave regularly from Krakow to Auschwitz and it must have fallen out of my pocket as I dozed on the van. Either way, it was gone when I left the bus. However, I couldn't really mope about an iPod when on hallowed ground, so I decided to forget about it and try to learn what I could in the death camp turned museum. We were immediately surprised by the fact that people still lived around this area. I guess you are born where you are born, but I don't know if I could stand to live next to such a grief-stricken land. Ben said that people continue to live next to the site of the World Trade Center, but that is different. At least you are in Manhattan. Auschwitz didn't really have anything going for it.
I'll just let some pictures do the talking, both of Auschwitz and Birkenau. I was sick to my stomach by all the horror that had taken place.






Monday, November 15, 2010

Krakow is ... Wow

Rick Steve's said Krakow was the next Prague. Although Rick isn't my favorite travel writer in the world, I do have to agree. We rolled into the city on a night train around 6:30, and even in the dim mist, freezing our butts off, BH and I could see how that this city was going to be beautiful and charming. Just look at this main square. Deserted and gorgeous.

We spent the next three hours searching for our hostel. I couldn't figure out the map, and we just kept walking around in these huge circles. During this time, we also walked past a ton of beautiful buildings, including the castle, that we would visit later on the trip. When we finally made it to Atlantis Hostel, not the best, but cheap, we both immediately crashed and woke up at about moon to start our city tour.
Although Rick isn't my favorite travel writer in the world, he does write good walking tours. We started off in the northern part of the city at the old city gates and walked through the entire old town. Old Town Square is gorgeous, with tons of people and shops and beautiful buildings. Saint Maria Basilica is one of the most prominent churches on the square. After debating whether or not to go inside, BH and I marveled at the gorgeous interior, with a beautiful carved altar. It was finished it 1489, and when open you can see the Dormition (death) of Mary.
The ceiling was also gorgeous: a deep blue covered with golden stars. The square was also home to a building called the Cloth Hall. Once a trading place for, you guessed it, cloth, it later burned down and was rebuilt in an Italian Renaissance style in the 16th century. After some quick Christmas shopping, we moved on to the old Town Hall tower. Next to the tower there was a gigantic head. Some random piece of modern art that was, somehow, quite cool. It also made a great meeting place.
We continued on our walk past a bunch of churches (apparently there are more churches per square mile in Krakow than any other city besides Rome) and stopped at St. Francis' Basilica. Before Pope John Paul II was a pope, this was his church. BH bought a coin stamped with JP's face, and I sat down in the pew where he once prayed. Even though I'm not Catholic, it was a pleasant experience. The stained glass windows in the church were beautiful. Built in the Art Nouveau (or Young Poland) style, these windows were colorful, vibrant and fantastical.
After paying respect to JP II, we continued on our walk to Wawel Castle. Perched on a top of a hill in the southern part of the old town, the castle grounds are impressive and a major attraction of Krakow. The church was this hodgepodge of architectural styles from various renovations, which added to the compelling beauty of the area. Rick Steve's pointed out that Chakra adherents especially loved one corner of the castle. Apparently, it is one of the seven biggest Chakra energy points in the world. We even saw some random lady soaking up the energy. Needless to say, we felt pretty happy ourselves after leaving the castle.
After our long walk, we headed into the city and ate at a milk bar. These are cheap Polish fast food restaurants, but the quality is definitely better than the average McDonalds. BH had a list of items he wanted to try, and of course, we ate pierogis. Delicious.
The other Fulbrighters were in town for an ETA conference, so we tried to meet up with them. After waiting an hour or two, we met up with a bunch of the Bulgarian ETAs and went for a long walk around the city and saw Krak the dragon.
Ages ago, before Krakow was even a true city, there was a dragon terrorizing the town. Everyday, they had to feed the dragon their livestock. However, the citizens were starving themselves. Luckily, a man came up with a solution; he sliced open a sheep and filled the carcass with sulfur. The dragon greedily ate up the sulfur, and then became very thirsty. He ran to the nearest river and drank until he burst. Krakow was saved.
After our walk, the Fulbright group went out together for an amazing Georgian meal. It was a little expensive for Eastern Europe, but the meal was spectacular. Cheesy bread, nicely spiced meat, and a rich tomato soup.
Dinner was followed by a walk over to the Jewish district for a little bit of partying. Even though it was Monday night, we were only in Krakow for a couple of days and wanted to experience as much of the city as we could. Plus, this was my first opportunity to actually meet the Fulbright scholars that weren't living in Sofia. The Jewish district, or Kazimierz, was once a ghetto, but has been transformed to the student and nightlife district. After running into Rachel, we ended up at a comfy, chill bar. One of the other Fulbrighters happened to know sign language, which was awesome. After a couple of drinks, it was back to bed. We needed a lot of sleep to prepare ourselves for the next day: Auschwitz.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ahoj

BH and I recently took a trip around central Europe. Our first stop was Prague. Prague is one of my most favorite cities in the world. It is the first place I traveled abroad, and where I chose to study abroad in college. The city is like a fairytale, with looming spires, gorgeous streets, and fantastic churches. The only drawback is the food.
 One or two bites and you can already feel yourself gaining weight. This has a cream sauce with dumplings, pork, and whipped cream. When I was a kid, I loved dumplings. As an adult, I just feel like they are undercooked bread. At least the beer is delicious.
We spent the first weekend looking at all the sights in Prague. I won't blog about these now, because I have already written about them. Czech the side bar under the Czech Republic (get it? Check?)
I'm really lame.

Deaf School Bulgaria

BH and I had a chance to visit the Deaf school in Sofia, Bulgaria where, hopefully, BH will be able to volunteer every once in a while. Our friend, Mitko, gave us a tour of the school and I had a chance to chat with the director to see if BH can help out. The school was not in great shape. Like other places in the world, Deaf students are choosing to go to speaking schools and relying on hearing aids and cochlear implants for their education. As the number of students drops in the Deaf residence schools, I assume government aid drops as well. The school was in worse shape than the school we saw in the Philippines. Students were going in and out of class, and it looked like nobody was following any schedule. The teachers didn't seem to mind that our friend wasn't in class, and just let him do what he wanted. The younger kids seemed to actually be sitting in class and not wandering around, but the high school students appeared to not have any restrictions.
The worst part was that there weren't any Deaf teachers. Only the gym teacher was Deaf. I do not understand this. I can understand wanting to integrate students into the speaking world, but not using sign in the classrooms seems like such a huge challenge for the students, and takes away from their instruction. I would think a better system would have maybe 70% of the faculty using solely sign language in the classroom, and another 30% of the time devoted to speech training and lip reading. Then again, I'm being influenced by a recent movie I saw: Children of a Lesser God. This story is about a residence school for the Deaf in New England, and for the most part paints a nice picture. The teachers combine both an oral approach as well teach in ASL. Then again, the Deaf community is very strong in the states...
What is the solution? If the student body continues to shrink, there is no way the school can get the necessary funding to be a viable option for Deaf students. The whole system needs to be re-thought out. Deaf students should be able to receive the same education that speaking students get in schools across the country. Of course, there own special needs should be catered to. Only if the school can attract more students will it have a chance to revitalize; however, the culturally Deaf world is shrinking, so how can this ever occur?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Istanbul!

After our huge road trip, we made it back to Istanbul in one piece. The next morning, Sunday, was relaxing ... until we tried to get Jen back to the airport. There must have been a parade or something, because we could not get back to Europe! We spent about an hour searching for a way over, and finally arrived in Ortakoy. This was a new area of Istanbul for me, and with kumpir in our bellies, it was great to just soak in the sun. What is a kumpir you ask? Well, it is a huge baked potato loaded with goodies. Mine had olives, ham, cheese, peppers and some random things in it. Delicious.
Being a junkie, I wanted coffee after Jen headed off to the airport, but had to make do with a makeshift iced americano. While drinking our coffee, Katy and Andie made some good progress on their sign language. Byeong-Hun later laughed, telling me that Andie is great at fingerspelling while Katy's fingerspelling is kind of crazy. But Katy's signs are easy to understand, while Andie is a little cute and awkward.
Katy and Andie left to drop off the rented car, and BH and I went for a long walk up to Taksim. This is a night-life area in Istanbul that I had not yet seen and thought it could be fun. The walk was long, but enjoyable, and some helpful Turks eventually led us to the square. Earlier that day, there had been a terrorist attack in Taksim. Luckily, nobody died save the terrorist, but it felt weird to be so close to what could have been a crisis.
I'm not entirely certain about the political situation in Turkey, but I think the attack had something to do with the Kurdish separatists. Although there had been a ceasefire, it had ended earlier that week. Anyways, it was very odd for Turkey, which does not have much religious violence or extremism. Again, thank God that nobody else was wounded.
BH and I ended up at a pink cafe called Cafe Morkedi, which is a nice place for finding more information on the scene in Istanbul. After some more coffee, we left to meet Katy and Andie near Sultanahmet. We were quite early, and were able to make it to a mosque and the spice bazaar before meeting up. I had not yet seen this mosque (on the Sultanahmet side of Galata bridge), and was surprised to see some tiling better than those found in the Blue Mosque. Istanbul has way too many things to see.


After bumming about for a while, we finally met up with Katy and Andie. We met up with some of their friends for some meze, which is kind of like a Turkish version of tapas, and raki. Raki is this crazy strong alcohol, kind of tastes like licorice, and turns white when added to water. Fun. At one point, some musicians came into the restaurant and started to play some music.

video

In this video, Byeong-Hun is saying that we are enjoying our meal and that there is music, but he doesn't really care because he's Deaf. Haha. After they played, there was an awkward silence so I applauded. They then came over to our table to ask for money. Apparently, it was not the restaurant's musicians, but a group that came in for individuals to pay. Awkward. The meal was followed by the last ferry home, going back to Katy and Andie's place, playing some cards, and sleeping on a nice warm futon.
The next morning, Monday, was my last day in Turkey. Katy, BH, and I went to Sutlanahmet to see one of Katy's favorite sites: the Basilica Cistern. I'm glad I went. This was one of the most amazing things I've seen in my life. This ancient, underground watering hole is just beautiful, and was, apparently, uncovered accidentally. I think the first two times I came to Istanbul I was too cheap to visit the Basilica, but I'm glad I made it this time.

Two coals of shisha and then a good dinner later, I was back in the train to Sofia. BH stayed behind for a couple of days to see some of the other attractions, while I hit the books. There is still a lot more I want to see in Istanbul, and I can easily imagine myself returning this year.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Ayvalik and Pergamon


I landed back in Sofia at around 3 pm on Thursday, got back to the apartment around 5, and left the house again with BH to go to Turkey for the weekend. It was quite a rush, but the sleeper car was great, and it was definitely worth the chaos to come back to Turkey.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to visit Istanbul before during my language seminars in Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria. This time, however, Andie, Katy and Jenn, three friends from Korea, had other plans. When we arrived, we met them on the Asian side of Istanbul and immediately started a roadtrip. This means I went from car to plane to bus to train to boat to car again. It felt like that John Candy movie.
We started out at around noon, and started driving south toward a city called Ayvalik, which is on the Aegean coast. The road trip itself was an experience, with Katy deftly dodging cars and doing a great job with navigation. Katy’s teachers had told her of a great place for toast, so we stopped halfway for a snack. I got lamb pizza. 

As we continued to drive, we, of course, started to wear down. All of us were a little crabby when we finally got to Ayvalik, and had some difficulty finding our hostel. Once we finally arrived, however, we had time to look around and enjoy a good dinner. After a few beers, we all crashed and woke up the next morning to enjoy this fantastic spread:


I really do enjoy Turkish breakfasts. A nice combination of vegetables and proteins, and the olives are amazing. If anyone reading this plans to go to Ayvalik, I recommend the Mavi hostel. They were really kind, and even though we had booked for two days and changed it to one at the last minute, we were able to work it out.
Ayvalik really is beautiful. Although it isn’t that large, it is right next to the Aegean, and you can see one of the islands of Lesbos out in the distance. The red Turkish flag also looks great with the sea in the background, even if it is a little too nationalistic for my taste. The weather was pretty nice, and we just enjoyed exploring the city. 

I had expected a Greek population, but apparently that moved out long ago. Now it is an entirely Turkish city. After looking around and eating another fantastic snack of toast, we went back into the car and drove off to Pergamon.
The car ride from Ayvalik to Pergamon was fantastic. Rolling hills with olive trees which then turned into evergreen forests. I kept thinking about the time I was in the Czech Republic with my family and I was reading in the backseat, and my mom continuously yelled at me to look out the window. It took me a couple of years, but I can now appreciate scenery. 
 Pergamon was an ancient Greek city, that is now in modern Turkey. The ruins that we saw were magnificent, and I now feel compelled to visit Greece before I leave Europe. 
 The above pictured amphitheater could hold 10,000 people! I ran down to the bottom and, unfortunately, sang "I Like Big Butts" up to Katy, Andie, and Jenn who could hear me easily. Crazy. The tour of Pergamon was followed by a nice dinner of kebab. We were going to then drive back to another city to crash, but I fell asleep in the car and woke to a change of plans. Back to Istanbul! All this travel in the weekend, I was excited to get to Andie and Katy's house and just crash. 

Stillwater and Darts


The last couple of days in Minnesota were great. Sunday night, a bunch of us went out downtown, and even met Linnea at a club! Ben and I stayed at David’s for the night, and we met mom for breakfast at Shela’s place after a huge trek around the suburbs, trying to get Ben’s glasses fixed. When we finally got to Shela’s, we were just in time for omelets with french toast for dessert. Fantastic. After dropping off Sarah’s gifts at her place, we went back to Lindstrom and played a number of games of Bananagrams.
On Tuesday, Ben and I took a day trip to Stillwater. It is such a cute little town, and I’m glad Ben got to see it before he went home. We got a nice lunch at a bar on the waterfront, and had some nice coffee. There were really high winds that day, so it wasn’t that pleasant outside, but it was a memorable little day trip.
When we got back home, Ben and I cooked a pork stir-fry in orange sauce with an Asian coleslaw on the side. I love being home. With so many ingredients on hand, it is impossible to not have a nice meal. The power went out, which meant no Tuesday night Glee. However, mom was game for going to the Muni in Lindstrom for 75 cent tap beers. We even met up with Joe Rand! Who beat us all at darts. :-D