Monday, February 21, 2011

Exploring Amsterdam

The next morning, well early afternoon, we got up and set off to explore the city. I wanted to see some museums, but BH isn't the biggest fan of art museums, so instead we walked around the canals, saw the red light district, and the homomonument. My favorite area was the Asia Town. So much delicious looking food! Plus, there was an Irish gay bar. In Chinatown. Fantastic.
 We ended up at a cafe with the best espresso I've had in a long while (MJ might have influenced me). Chilling out in a cafe, wandering around canals, and eating delicious food. Amsterdam is a hard city not to like. 
The homomonument was intersting. Built in 1987 (my birth year!) it commemorates gay men and women who have been subject to discrimination and persecution. The three corners of the triangle point to the Anne Frank house, the National War Memorial, and the oldest continuous gay rights group in the world. 
One corner of the homomonument
Before I knew it, it was time to get back to Brussels for the EU conference. 24 hours in Amsterdam. I guess it was better than a layover.



Sunday, February 20, 2011

Arriving in Amsterday

The last time I was in Amsterdam was during a four hour layover on a trip to Armenia. It was exciting to be back for a somewhat longer trip. I arrived at around 10:30 in the evening, and met BH and R at their hotel. Hostels were ridiculous expensive for the weekend, but we got a cheap hotel right in the center at Rembrandt Square.

I was greeted by a giggly BH who immediately handed me a brownie. What a crazy city. We went down to the coffee shop below our hotel and had a beer before wandering around the canals of Amsterdam. We were all way to giggly to continue, so we got some noodles and headed back to the hotel. Although the location of the hotel was nice, it was REALLY loud. Understandable for a Saturday night.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

In Bruges

Saturday was our least busy day of the week. We started it out with a visit to the College of Europe in Bruges. This would be a fascinating college for an up and coming Eurocrat, especially their master's in diplomacy, but, as the name applies, it solely focuses on Europe. I need Asia in my life.
We were given a great presentation on the monetary policy of the EU. My roommate was actually doing his project on the central bank in Frankfurt, so I was excited to learn more about how the institution worked. The most important thing I learned is that I do not understand economics. I need to work on that. My roommate was very kind, and explained some of the things I didn't understand in a very helpful way.
The talk was followed by lunch and then a guided tour of Bruges. This was our only touristy day, so it was great to see the city. Quite beautiful, very romantic.
A bunch of the grantees
Bruges is known as the Venice of the north. It is a canal-based city, with wonderful medieval architecture throughout the city. We also saw a cloth that supposedly had a bit of Christ's blood on it. Relics are creepy. Four hours was not enough in this city, and hopefully, way in the future, I can come back and spend a weekend.

Moises in front of the clock tower


Horses make me think of Anna
Bus back to Belgium, back to the hotel, quick packing, walk to the train station, and then train to Amsterdam! Woop!

Friday, February 18, 2011

European Commission

On Friday, we visited the European Commission. I didn't really know much about the institutions of the EU, but the presentations helped clear it all up for me. Since the Lisbon Treaty, it is kind of similar to the system in the states, which, for me, makes it easier to understand.
The European Commission is the executive.
The European Council is the senate.
The European Parliament is the house.
The talks at the Commission were perhaps the most interesting of the week. Not only were we given a crash course in the basics of the institutions of the EU, we then had more detailed discussions on the EU's policy on neighboring states, its trade policy, EU-US relations, and economic governance in the EU. Lunch was a lot of seafood, and then afterward we walked back to the hotel and actually saw a bit of the city. I really enjoy Brussels.




Chocolate Mannequin Pis

I love cheese
Sight-seeing was followed by dinner as a group at a Thai restaurant. Really funny conversations about how we thought women became pregnant when we were kids. I thought the guy took a leak inside of the gal. Ha.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Luxembourg

I had the opportunity to travel to Luxembourg and Brussels for a conference on the EU and NATO as part of the Fulbright program. A week paid pseudo-vacation for a conference on a subject that fascinates me? Wonderful.
Upon arrival in the Brussels airport, I had six hours to kill before the Fulbright commission arrived. I wandered around a bit, looking for other possible grantees, but had no luck till around 11. I saw some young smart looking people and asked what they were doing in Brussels. When they responded with the Fulbright, I sat down and got to know some of the participants. The group was definitely intelligent, and all of the participants had such interesting projects around Europe. Meeting these other grantees was the best part of the program. If I had more money, I'd try to visit all of them around Europe.
The first night was spent in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. This was a country I thought I'd never see, and, truthfully, I didn't really have a chance to see it. After a visit to the residence of the Ambassador, and copious amounts of champagne, we had dinner, and I set out to 'downtown' Luxembourg to meet Byeong Hun and Rachel. The city was beautiful, but I unfortunately only had two hours to see it before grabbing the last bus back to the hotel. It is perched above two rivers, and looked picturesque at night. Too bad my camera is not very good at taking pictures at night.
The next morning, we headed out early for a visit to the European Court. The current case was about some tax that should not have been paid, and a second buyer wanting to be reimbursed for the tax that was paid. Boring.
The speakers after the session, on the other hand, were far from boring. They explained exactly how the court's jurisdiction works, and how it enforces its decisions. 
The court was followed by lunch, and then a visit to the Court of Auditors. What sounded like a boring presentation, was actually quite interesting. Not that I'm thinking of becoming an auditor.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Fun with iPhoto

When Katy visited, we created some silly videos on iPhoto. Synced with a crappy Bulgarian pop song, it actually is kind of fun.
video

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Promo for the FB

The Fulbright asked us to make movies to show to Bulgarians who are interested in the program. I thought I'd do it in Bulgarian. The commission was very happy.
My reading and writing in Bulgarian is decent, but speaking and listening are still a huge struggle. Well, have a look:

I talk about how the Fulbright program has been enriching both professionally and personally. Really not that interesting, but good practice.
This week in general has been very busy. I visited parliament, finalized my primary research, and attended a press conference given by the US Ambassador on the youth section of the MRF. Finally getting somewhere with my research!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Back to Rila

My second time to Rila Monastery was more rewarding. With a group of people, I noticed things I would have not noticed before. The first time, I just noted the nice colors of the murals, and didn't really inspect them with any sort of close scrutiny. Connor pointed out the graphic details of the murals, and the huge amount of devils and imps. How could I have been so blind the first time?
Killing this older man, and holding a baby man in his hand

Tendrils coming out of this dudes mouth

A hand coming out of the cows mouth?

All the little people

This devil is having a bowel movement into this guys meal


Angels shooting water onto the earth and a dragon spitting out frogs

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Boyana

Whenever a friend comes to Sofia, we give the obligatory tour of the sites of Sofia. Which is not very time-consuming. So, when our friend from Korea visited this past week for four days, we couldn't just stay downtown the whole time.
Our original plan was to go to Veliko Tarnovo for a day trip. BH and I are horrible at getting up early, however, so this morphed into a shorter day trip to the Boyana church out by the Vitosha mountains. Close enough that you can take a cheap taxi, but away from the pollution of the center. Perfect.
Normally, a ticket would cost ten leva, but BH and Myoae were given the free ticket for deaf individuals, and I got the cheap two leva student rate.
The church is from the 10th century. Really old. The outside is not that impressive, but I'll post a picture regardless:
The church is home to frescoes painted in the 13th century, and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Because of their age, we were not allowed to take pictures, or even stay in the church longer than ten minutes. A Bulgarian scholar gave us a tour, and explained the meanings of the frescoes and naming all of the saints depicted. I was surprised that this wasn't an orthodox church, because it was built before the schism. Of course, those who attended the church after the schism probably belonged to the Bulgarian orthodox church, but I think this is the first pre-schism church I've seen.
The frescoes were beautifully painted, and the best example of Easter Renaissance art. So close to my apartment, and such a perfect day trip. However, the end of the tour gave me a slightly sour taste in my mouth. The guide asked us our religions, and I said I grew up Lutheran, BH Buddhist, and our friend said she was atheist. The guide said that this was ridiculous. That there is no such thing. She went off on this lecture about the importance of religion, and I had to translate to my friends. How is this any of her business?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Pernik Kukeri Festival

Over the weekend, I had a surprise birthday party for BH, and he was definitely surprised. We had originally planned to have just the two of us go out for dinner, but I wanted to throw something fun. A lot of the Fulbrighters came, and a bunch of our Bulgarian friends. It was a blast. The Bulgarians taught us a bunch of parlor games, and, mixed with various American style drinking games, it was quite a fiesta.
The following day, Saturday, we went to Pernik, which is 20 kilometers to the east of Sofia. The city was hosting their annual Kukeri Festival, which is something you need to see if you are in Bulgaria the last month of January.
Kukeri is a Bulgarian ritual where men and women dress up in scary costumes to frighten evil spirits. Apparently, however, you can just dress up however you want. This means a lot of cross dressing, Halloween masks, and amazing costumes.