Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

This is what Brett wore to school today.

This is a traditional Bulgarian Shopska Salad.

You make the connection.


Thursday, October 30, 2008


I never thought I'd be headed to Vienna for less than the price of a new pair of pants at Express. We've had a love-hate relationship with the Sky Europe website these last weeks, getting excited about advertised sales from Sofia only to watch the site crash or the page where we actually buy the tickets fail to load. But this week Brett's persistence paid off and we are headed to Vienna in January for a long weekend of Austrian culture and food and a lot of admiring the Alps. 

On a related note: Betsy Ray, famous fictional redhead from the "Betsy, Tacy, Tib" series, spends the first two months of her European year in Vienna in the classic novel "Betsy and the Great World." She loves it, which seems to bode well.  I'm not so sure there is a children's book called "Brett and the Great World" but I have a feeling he'll love it too... 

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More Art in the World

After reading about a mayor who revolutionized his city in Albania by hiring painters to upgrade the cement walls of the city's block buildings, I was excited to see the trend continuing in Iraq.

Military forces built blast walls all over Baghdad to protect citizens and separate violence from peace, but these walls are both ugly and troublesome for Baghdad's citizens. The LA Times has a piece today on an effort by the Fine Arts Community in Baghdad to improve the situation:,0,3095275.story

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Go into Madura cave with us at:

Tales from Zoltor

When Betsy and I arrived in Belogradchik, we felt transported to another world -- hazy monsters marauding around us (or maybe that was just mists obscuring the rocks), time playing tricks with us (or maybe that was just Daylight Savings), and a ghost town (or maybe just the end of tourist season).
Little did we know that we were about to actually be transported to another place and time. When Betsy slipped through this portal, I followed her to an alien world.

The first creature we saw was the bearded sparkling serpent, rising eerily from the earth (errr, planet).
After that, we ran into an amphibious jellyfish that was pulsing toward us.
We faked left, and then darted right, but were no match for this humano-brain, which seemed to anticipate our every move.

Luckily we were able to outrace it, probably because it grew tired. We saw another beasty later and realized that they had to recharge occasionally. You can see it here plugged into its power source on the ceiling.

We then found a whole nest, which Betsy was brave enough to pose with. We were beginning to think that perhaps these creatures weren't so awful after all.

I mean, some of them even resembled Jabba the Hut, who, while clearly disgusting, ended up being rather harmless. This one even had veins connecting it to the ceiling, so they really couldn't roam that far, right?

Then we found this royal throne, which meant that they must obey some sort of authority.

We finally became convinced that these were playful creatures when we saw this immense ice cream cone. They even let us take a lick.

Which made Betsy so happy that she temporarily transcended the rules of gravity.

By this point, though, even that wasn't surprising to us. This was, after all, a world where normal rules did not apply.

A Fortress in the Fog

This is what the fortress is SUPPOSED to look like. When the town isn't doing its impression of a steam room.

Unaccountably, lilac buds were blooming outside Madura cave. In late October.

We arrived in Belogradchik in northwestern Bulgaria to find a mist quilt spread across the town. Our explorations revealed various wonders, emerging through the fog to delight us when we were almost directly upon them. We climbed to the top of the city and viewed the many parts of the famous fortress and limestone crags from a few feet away, but could only knit together the pieces in our minds by looking at the brochures and signs we found along the route.

Back in town ghostly kittens, turkeys, roosters, and goats appeared through the clouds, but few people. Gardens were raked clean for winter, yellowing grape vines roofed every backyard, and the smell of smoke hovered all over the village. In search of dinner, we visited a blacked out hotel, apparently closed for the season, and then wandered deserted streets until we found a restaurant and became its only patrons. I can only describe the experience as surreal, as if we had stepped out of Sofia space and time and emerged on some far off white world still living in the 19th century.

After a good night's sleep in our thirty five dollar Bed and Breakfast (well, actually, there was no breakfast, so I guess it was just a Bed), we walked back up the hill hoping for a clear view of red roofed homes and ancient fortress walls, but the mist still prevailed. So much for the weather forecast I had read back at home, calling for a partly sunny weekend in Belogradchik. We enjoyed some more fog hiking, marveling as rock formations leapt out of nowhere and noticing the strange combinations of quartz pieces set in the bulky red limestone crags. Then we headed down to our trusty vehicle and set of for the Madura Cave.

Madura is linked inextricably with Belogradchik. Visit the fortress, visit the cave. Brett drove us through farm country on a road lined with tall yellow trees. Flocks of sheep grazed in wintry brown fields and the occasional horse and cart passed on the opposite side of the road. We weren't too sorry when we were pulled over by the police, as it gave us a chance to ask directions. We took the right path at the crossroads, as the lollicops suggested, and soon we arrived at Madura.

Sadly, it was 8:45 and we discovered the cave operator didn't open its gate and flip on the lights until 10. We hung out in town for a bit, eating yoghurt and pretzels (the breakfast of champions) and waiting. We returned just before opening time and had the cave to ourselves for about an hour. A smooth wet path linked cavern after cavern, and we wandered through, clutching the rough railings and admiring the otherworldly rock formations and sparkling minerals, ducking away from the occasional whoosh of bats. When we finally came out on the other side, we stepped onto a small cliff to see a huge and untouched lake, with nary a house, cabin, or boat to mar its solitude, tiny ripples coating its surface from end to end.

As we headed back towards Sofia through fall colored mountain ranges, we felt we were slowly coming back into the real world, after a weekend somewhere much farther away than the border of Serbia...

Friday Night Cards Presents: Chocolate Covered Orange Peel

It's something between eating an orange gum drop and chewing on something not meant to be eaten: candied orange peel. 

When I set out to try this recipe from Baking Bites Blog ( )
for Friday night cards, I thought it would be straightforward and exotic at the same time, an easy recipe that would yield delighted smiles from my hungry friends. But after waking up at 6 a.m. on Friday before school to begin the boiling and reboiling process, my doubts began to build. Could these well-boiled orange slats turn into something tasty? 

My doubts built up to the height of the Eiffel tower when I fed Brett one of the dried candied rinds after school and he spit it out with a loveable "don't hate me because your orange peel is gross" laugh. Nevertheless, I decided to follow through the final step and melt dark chocolate to dip the candied ickiness into. After all, almost everything tastes good with a thick coating of chocolate applied - even Miracle Max's miracle pill to cheat death in The Princess Bride

The guests arrived, the plate came out, the first bite went into the first mouth, and....
two people asked for the recipe! Compliments were literally pouring forth! Who would ever have thought it possible, based on the early stages and the first taste tester's reaction. It just goes to show, good things come from orange rind, tons of boiling water, and dark chocolate. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Next stop: Belogradchik

This weekend we will rally our intrepid Volkswagen Golf for a journey north to Belogradchik, known for its wild rock formations and the fortress built into the rocks outside the village. Did I mention there are cave paintings thousands of years old in the nearby Madura Cave? We are excited to begin exploring, and we're also excited that accommodation in the area seems to hover around the twenty dollar mark.

We'll report back with lots of photos in a few short days. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Fountain

The ACS Fountain

I've just jumped on board with a half-Bulgarian half-English literary journal at ACS. We have one month to come up with an eighty page conglomeration of photos, poetry, and short stories in two languages. The journal is called "The Fountain" after a lovely pastoral spot on campus, where students and faculty get together for formal events or just to say hi.

Did I mention we haven't had our first meeting yet? And that we only have half the funding required to publish the journal? And that the journal has never merged English and Bulgarian before? And that the administration wants the content to be high quality literature? Whew!

The Bulgarian adviser is experienced, and I will rely on her expertise. Hopefully, by the end of the chaos I will know some of my students better, and know a bit about editing a magazine. It seems like a handy thing to know...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Boyana Waterfall

If a mountain can be in your back yard, Vitosha is. We set off again Saturday, this time to visit Boyana Waterfall, to which we'll definitely return this winter. After surviving a traffic backup and trail directions we only half understood (we need a map!), Betsy and I finally arrived at the waterfall, but were fortunate that the entire hike was a refreshing stroll (occasionally slug) over leaf-strewn paths and under canopies of just-faded color. While we intended this to be an out and back sort of thing, our inexperience led us on a slightly longer loop, all the better because we got to pass a lake that we would have otherwise missed.
Just past the lake, we found an abandoned dwelling that Betsy decided would be a fun playground.
We then started the steep part of the climb, switching back and forth (and only getting lost occasionally) until we heard the rumble of water below (Below? Below! You mean we just climbed all that way and then we have to go DOWN to the waterfall! @#$%^!). But we put on a happy face for the camera.
This shot of Betsy shows the scale of the waterfall, of which you can only see the base here. Betsy didn't know that she was taking the identical shot (of me) when she did it later. She did a much better job of capturing the whole scene -- take a look at her entry below.

Looking down from the waterfall, we were greeted by an autumnal scene.
We basically followed the stream all the way back down to the town of Boyana.

After we finished, we headed into town and treated ourselves to a dinner at Olives, a nice restaurant in center city. A rewarding day.

Boyana Waterfall Hike Photos