Sunday, August 31, 2008

We temporary expats love pie

The oven awaits

Close up of the unique lattice design

The Finished Product

You know that phrase "As American as Apple Pie?" It's always struck me as a little odd. I mean, Germans were making Apfeltorte long before we were making pie, and it looks pretty darn similar. However, I've decided to stay in touch with my home culture by baking pie while abroad. I think it will be a good item to perfect, based on my many pleasant pie-eating experiences at The Rustic Inn and Perkins, my enjoyment of the film Waitress, and the lure the smell of baking pie seems to hold for my neighbors and my husband (not to mention for me). These pictures come from round two in my pie baking independent study, a major improvement over round one, in which the sheer magnitude of my Bulgarian pie pan and the dinkiness of my Bulgarian rolling pin caught me off guard. This time the pastry is FLAKY. I know. I just had a piece. 

I'm feeling proud. I had to measure the butter by eye. And it worked! 

Scenes from south Bulgaria

This man was carrying straw through the village.
One of the jars of tomato sauce that I bought.  She spent the whole night mixing the sauce in this cauldron, and then canned it in the morning, and sterilized it to be sold.
A not-so-ancient method for grilling peppers:  the blow torch
Tobacco drying
Ubiquitous grapes growing on a trellis
Note the front rim, missing a tire

A mysterious minaret that seems to have migrated from Turkey

On our way back from Greece, the new faculty stopped near Bansko, in an old village with thermal baths.  Because I'm not a big fan of dipping myself in hot water on a hot summer day, I wandered into the village in search of people doing whatever it is that people do in Bulgarian villages these days.  It turns out that southern Bulgaria is still pretty traditional in their way of life; though Sofia is modernizing rapidly, this little pocket of the country was agricultural, and on a very small scale.  Even within people's modest yards, they managed to cultivate products ranging from grapes to peppers, tobacco to tomatoes.  I was even able to buy a jar of tomato sauce fresh from the cauldron in which it was being sterilized (though I was told to wait until winter before eating it).  Men and women relaxed in the village square, chattering away, and were actually honored to have their picture taken.  Kids raced by on a bike with no front tire, clattering down the street, and loved seeing their images on my camera screen after I took the picture.  It was an altogether refreshing morning, and a nice reminder of how life was before McDonalds ruled the world.  

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Rila Monastery

The Rila (pronounced "reel - lah") Monastery is Bulgaria's oldest and holiest religious site. Nestled in its namesake mountain range, it lures visitors from all over the world, but especially from Bulgaria. Tom, the head of our new school, told us it is now the home of just nine monks, but it has been a religious institution for more than ten centuries. Strangely, one of visitors' favorite things about it is the special donut ("banitzi") stand in the plaza outside. Tanya, the registrar at ACS, spent about half an hour in line to get everyone the fried flat dough circles sprinkled with powdered sugar and they were popular indeed. 


A Statue of Aristotle

Early Morning 

Dawn at the Boardwalk

The Fruit Stands in Greece are just as nice as in Bulgaria

A Marketplace Alley Warming up for the Day

Our Group getting ready for Dinner

The most arresting feature of Thesolaniki upon arrival was the Starbucks and the easy internet access in the hotel. It seemed to be a metropolis like any other, and I waited eagerly for my first Greek moment as we took to the streets. A walk around the hotel block produced baclava-ish pastries in a shop window and several appliance stores, but I wanted more. 

We met for dinner at eight and headed for the harbor, and that is where I found Greece. A huge courtyard leading down to the Aegean harbor, surrounded by narrow alleys flooded with people, food, and live music played on the bouzouki (a Greek 6 stringed guitar); this was more like it. A dinner including grilled squid, chicken skewers, eggplant dip, Greek salad, rosemary rolls, custard, grapes, and lots of wine presided over by at least three friendly waiters and two guitarists (one of which spent some time chatting on his cell phone while he played); that's what I'm talking about! I felt firmly and happily in a new place by the end of the night, and the pleasant Greek feeling only intensified the next morning.

I took an early walk from the hotel down toward the harbor, not knowing that virtually the entire new faculty were taking off on runs in the same direction in the same ten minute span. We were like a secret service team securing the area. However, I only saw one of them flash by in yellow shorts, and I happen to be married to him. After that I was on my own, awash in Greek sounds, smells, and sights. I wandered along the harbor, noticing the slightly rank smell of seaweed as a shell vendor piled her starfish in a basket and a little rowboat just barely bobbed in the just barely breeze. The sky was pearly pink at the edge of the sea. It was quiet on the path, with just a few people strolling along and talking. Eventually I turned back up into the city, in search of more action. 

I found it in a market neighborhood, as dozens of stall vendors set out olives, gourd flowers, jams, hunks of steak, cookies, honey, tomatoes, and everything in between. I was the only one in the area not busily engaged in the early morning work of merchant life - piling, arranging, sliding, sawing, dumping, and scootching various items into place - and I attracted substantial attention. Walking down each little street and receiving the smiles and greetings of the vendors was like getting a big Greek hug. As I motioned to my camera I was invariably met with a please do gesture as I snapped photos of the awakening of the neighborhood. When I took a general shot including one older man who I hadn't thought to ask in advance, I received his hearty English "Thank you" and smile as I looked up from the screen. Apparently he was feeling comfortably photogenic at 7:45 am. 

Heading back to the hotel, I felt like I knew a little of Greece, enough to hold me over until next time. I would remember the guitar man on his cell phone, the taste of sliced custard, the little rowboat set against the pink sky, the butcher cutting through his steaks in the market and laying them lovingly down on beds of ice, the friendliness of the vendors to a complete stranger. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Tribute to Robert Frost

The Cracked Concrete Path Not Taken
(Written by both of us on walking home one day from Kaufland grocery store)

Two cracked concrete paths diverged in a dilapidated parking lot,
And sorry we could not travel both
We stood sweating for it was just so hot
And looked down one with nary a thought
It was littered with trash and no green growth

Then took the other, equally strewn,
With plastic and coke cans and small shards of glass.
Because it was ugly we sang a little tune;
It’s dirty it’s broken it’s unevenly hewn
Treading so lightly o’er this path do we pass!

That summer afternoon presented a choice
‘Tween two back alley Communist ways
Though falling apart did we rejoice
That Sofia looks to the West for her voice
No longer to Stalin’s socialist days

And when we return from our European travel
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Nostalgia will lower its foggy gavel
And declare that we – we let presumption unravel
And that has made all the difference.

Click clack spin

Scanning through my e-mail collection this morning, I was interrupted by a strange clip clopping with a mechanical spin noise accent. It seemed someone was tap dancing in slow motion down our street with some sort of percussion instrument in hand. Or else a horse-drawn cart was headed through Mladost 1 in the general direction of the Billa supermarket. Either way, a camera seemed in order. I snatched mine and leaned out my fourth floor window; sure enough, cars and cart were sharing our road with ease. This kind of juxtaposition seems to happen often in Bulgaria. 

A McDonald's shines brightly on one side of Alexander Malinov, the boulevard which takes us to school. Behind it, a neighborhood rebuilds from within, communist-era apartment buildings crumbling around new construction.

Watermelon stands grace the corners of a street which ends in a giant modern store. Folks can buy their melon from corporate Bulgaria or from the teenage girl sitting in the shade, not bothering to wave the bees away. 

More modern busses alternate on their routes with busses that appear to have been shipped in from France in the 50s or 60s. 

The cook in the cafeteria at the American College of Sofia used to be the head chef for the Bulgarian secret police, back when the KGB operated out of the school. Now he serves up traditional Bulgarian favorites to a student population in search of modernity. 

People out with much-adored pets pass kittens and mongrels trying to make a go of it independently.

Brand new BMWs speed by baby backyard vineyards in small towns. Folks still make their own Rakia, a heavily concentrated alcohol (over 60 %) from plums or grapes from the backyard; it was even served last night at our new faculty welcome dinner. 

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Scruffy Supercops

Once upon a time, in the year 2008, there were two young dogs, William and William (their Mom couldn't think of another name, but she really liked William). They were born behind the watermelon stand in Mladost, Sofia, and the world presented many possibilities to them. They learned the ways of the neighborhood from the older dogs, but they couldn't seem to settle on a career path. They tried their paws at hole digging, tram chasing, endurance napping, and garbage can tipping. They spent a day as mascots for the watermelon stand, luring customers in with their friendly tail wags and liquid brown eyes. They even tried to hire themselves out as taste testers to the butcher, but he didn't want that kind of help, and nothing else felt right. 

Then one day their mother happened to be passing by a new apartment building. It was tall with bright orange and red walls and cute little balconies scooting off the corners. There were no dogs in sight. Immediately, she thought of William and William. This new apartment building would need some guard dogs to keep away the other dogs, once people began to move in. 

William and William were thrilled to apply for the post, it was just the right job for them. The interview was long and difficult, and some of the test scenarios tried their wits to the utmost. They generally fell back upon "Bark" as a solid answer to the situations, and that seemed to work. They came to terms with the owner and put their prints to the contract; they would guard the building all night long, keeping away the other dogs in exchange for a daily ration of delicious dog chow. 

Now Mladost residents can hear William and William every morning from 3-5 am, faithfully keeping the other dogs away with their strong clear barks. They keep the orange and red building safe from intruders by night, and sleep away the hot hours of the day under whatever shade they can find. They're scruffy supercops, slightly in need of a bath. 

Though some personal details such as names have been altered to protect the privacy of the individuals, this essential story line is true. Our building really does have two dogs that are fed to protect it from other dogs. Bet you don't have any guard against the dogs dog guards in your hometown! And don't worry, William is friendly to people. And so is William.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Guide to a Bosphorus Cruise

The first step is to select a boat. To do this, simply stroll along the edge of the river and wait for the approach. Soon a man will appear by your side, showing you a boat, mentioning a price, describing the features of your upcoming trip with a winning smile. You may accept, or disdaining the price, move on to the next offer.

Once aboard the upper deck of your chosen ferry, you will cruise slowly through the Golden Horn, where river and sea connect, around small junk boats, individual fisherman, giant ferries, and cruise ships alike. Dozens of jellyfish float alongside your boat, and colorful apartment buildings pile upon each other on the hills to one side. Soon you will be sporting "that windblown look", despite your efforts to marshal your hair into place against the gale.

Beyond the Golden Horn you breeze along the European side of the Bosphorus, admiring Mosques and Palaces set at the water's edge, and watching a seagull join a nearby fisherman in his boat. You cross under a vast extension bridge, the first to connect Europe and Asia, and alongside a castle once built in an effort to shut down trade to Istanbul and conquer it. Eventually you put put across the river to the Asian side for the return journey.

The Asian side of Istanbul is residential, showing off beautiful waterfront homes with well-manicured hedges and glassy swimming pools. Occasionally a friendly neighborhood breaks the monotony of wealth and you see boys and men swimming off the asphalt edge of the land. A girl in a black burka wades in one private little river inlet.

Crossing back through the Golden Horn you take in the Old City on the hill far above you, the spires of the Blue Mosque crowning a series of domes and towers. New Mosque welcomes you back to port as you cross under the fisherman standing on the Galata Bridge and dock.

Watch out for your first few steps on land, they may be a bit wobbly after two hours in the swells of the Bosphorus.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Turkish Kittens, What a Delight (a post especially for Nick)

It's impossible to get to know Istanbul without getting to know Istanbul's cats. Stalking chicken bits in a restaurant, lapping up milk provided by a soft-hearted waiter, creeping along the rooftop of a four floor hotel, cavorting in the gardens of the Hagia Sophia, napping on a pile of rugs... the feline population seems almost to rival the human one. We saw miniature crowds of kittens, solo flyers, scaredy cats, and bold explorers. We saw some people coo with delight over these inhabitants and other people "shoo"ing in Turkish. We met a restaurant cat named Salami who turned up its nose at flatbread but loved kebap. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed this detail of the city. It added a touch of the touchable in all the grandness of Istanbul.