Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sleeping over in Slovenia

Views from our Farmhouse Balcony

Lying under the low wooden eaves of our third floor apartment, I can hear children’s footsteps running two floors down and see one shining light in the Julian Alps out the window. Somewhere below in the yard sleep four chickens, one donkey, and whatever kinds of animals help produce the breakfast we’ll be eating in the morning. We are spending our Christmas break on a farm in Slovenia, high in the hills above Lake Bled. We’ll sleep tonight to the radical sound of silence, and wake up to homemade cinnamon plum jam and bread, pastry made from local walnuts, muesli plumped by warm milk and farm eggs and sausage smoked in the ping pong house/smoking shack.

On mornings when the lure of bed was not enough to overcome the hundreds of chimes of the town bells, Brett and I would head out for runs. Running on a Zgornje Gorje morning means three things: a warm scarf for the first few icy inhalations, sunlit or cloud-swirled alps to look at, and cats springing up in unexpected places. While Brett set off for the highest reaches of the local roads, I explored the neighborhood, inhaling wood smoke from all the wood-burning furnaces and mistaking extra well-fed cats for beavers. The clouds drifted overhead in that soft wintry brightness, and the local people I passed by greeted me with “hello” instead of “Dober Dan.” Obviously, anyone running in this village was from the United States and would not be doing farm work of any kind that day. From my ridge, I could see a sparkle from Lake Bled below, whitened Alps stretching protectively across the valley, and frozen fields turned over for winter. And just when I started to get tired, I turned back into my own farmyard, knowing Valentina was scooping some of her jam into a bowl and boiling eggs for tiny china egg cups as I ran up the stairs to a warm waiting shower. How much better could a day start?

The Bled region is full of things to do after breakfast. Though it’s clear we are visiting during the least tourist-friendly time of year - not enough snow yet for serious winter sports, not enough sunshine to leave long underwear at home - we nevertheless find Slovenia a gorgeous winter playground. Lake Bohinj beckons one valley over, with a sparkling green sheet of water to hike around and a ski-resort stocked temporarily with man-made snow. Lake Bled is as much a fairytale as the postcards report, though between taking photos of the towering Alps behind the island church and rowing over for a visit, it’s easy to hop on the internet or stop in to Pizza Rustica for the most delicious “vegi” pizza this side of Italy. Bled manages to blend modernity with the same charms that made it a resort town long before our parent’s parents were born. Everyone seems to speak English, right down to current slang, and everyone seems happy to see us.

As we circle Lake Bled on our first day, we see several small paintings nestled in the inland rock. An older man with long white eyebrows wearing a beret and at least two fuzzy sweaters – maybe four - sits on the wall holding a brush, well-used paint boxes scattered around him. “Four Euros,” he tells us. Four Euros for a hand painted island scene? We’re in. He quickly flips over the painting we choose and starts dabbling in a dark paint. Suddenly we are looking at our own painted silhouettes – the painter on the wall, Brett standing tall with his backpack, my winter cap angled rakishly to one side as I look down at the painting I am now in. When asked, our friend shares his political philosophies, explaining his opinions on Slovenia’s transition out of communism, the pressure of lobbyists all modern leaders are under, the new global culture being created and the loss of national identity. I find myself mainly agreeing with him.

As a matter of fact, I just agree with this mountain bit of Slovenia. I didn’t know what we’d find as we drove up from Venice, but what we did find: wood smoke, cats, pizza, painting, smooth waters and snowy mountains, added up to peace.

Hidden Venice

Venice at Christmas holds the extra appeal of being less touristy, allowing freer range to the network of narrow alleys that web the city. There are tourist maps, but we quickly realized that these were virtually useless, as streets aren't labeled, and the urban planners who designed Venice didn't exactly use a grid to lay them out. One inevitably gets lost, turns down another alley, finds oneself facing a canal at the end of it, then turns around, finds a bridge (was this the same bridge we crossed before?), crosses the canal, walks down another narrow get the picture. That, of course, is the fun of Venice. While there are certain tourist stops (San Marco, etc.), the draw of Venice is its capacity to swallow you in its old-world aura. Your job is simply to be guided only by instinct and the smell of focaccia. Below you'll see a variety of shots untouted in the guidebooks, but charming in their own way, all stumbled upon while searching for...well, exactly this.

Though the colors drew us to this cluster, it was the chimneys that ended up charming us.

Venice is sinking, or at least the left side of this door is.

This woman caught my eye from across the piazza.

So I zoomed in. And then she closed her shutters, with what I imagined (I hope I only imagined it) to be a cynical eye toward my prying eye.

This is in Murano, an island across the lagoon from Venice known for its glasswork.

Again, the colors drew me. But the four men add the warmth.

Venice for Christmas

Unlike many European cities, Venice does not have a notable reputation for Christmas spirit. And though we were disappointed by the mysterious disappearance of the Christmas market that was supposed to be in St. Stefan Square, not to mention the lack of Christmas concerts we were anticipating, we definitely knew it was the wintery season. First, because our initial flight to Venice was canceled due to weather, forcing us to fly into Milan a day later, and then take a train to Venice, also canceled (Did you know that trains can be delayed by snow? Neither did I. The Italian public transit system continues to amaze.). When we finally arrived in Venice late on the night of Dec. 21, we were greeted by record low temperatures, lower than anyone remembered in their lifetime, well below freezing. Oh well, we were missing Duluth anyway.

Nonetheless, Venice slowly managed to reveal its wiles to us, especially when the temperature warmed up a couple days later and we were treated to some sun. Before that, however, we got to see the colder side of Venice. The side with gondoliers bundled up in winter coats rather than their black striped shirts. Snow on the piazzas and lingering on rooftops. Early morning fog, and yes, even Christmas decorations.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Balkan Dancing Where?!

After the final classes, the school assembled in the Auditorium for a repeat performance of the Christmas Concert. A polished group of students and teachers gave a fantastic show, highlighted by an encore routine in the...well...see below. Video coming soon, if my technologically adept wife has the time.

The students whirl faster than my camera can catch them.

Presenting flowers to Stoyan, far left, the Balkan Dance instructor. International teachers are in yellow on the right.

And then, as if the steps weren't complicated enough, they decided to move onto the icy sidewalk in subfreezing temperatures.


As the sun sets on the 2009 school year, the campus seems to revel in its new clothes.

I'm Dreaming...

It's looking good for Irving Berlin in Sofia this year. A steady snowfall through the night brought the promise of the holidays to campus on the last day of school. As the sun fell this afternoon, I just walked around in my wet shoes marveling at the light streaking through the trees all over campus.

The wood shed behind our house

Waiting for warmer days...

George making the most of his New England roots

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Balkan Dance Debut

The Parent Teacher Balkan Dance Group

Shannon and I in our matching costumes

Some of my students - the students are such wonderful dancers!

The ACS Fountain

Happy Holidays!

Christmas Abroad

Last night I relaxed with the other international faculty playing "Christmas Jeopardy" and drinking German mulled wine while people opened the Secret Santa presents purchased for them in far-off places like Hungary and Turkey. We answered game show questions about the intricacies of Charlie Brown Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life and ate snickerdoodles, chocolates, and quesadillas. There may even have been a cheese ball, slightly squashed for that tasty rustic look.

Our friends will soon split off for the holidays - to Venice, Austria, Istanbul, London and the Ukraine. Many will go all the way home to the U.S. But all of us have somehow expanded our definition of Christmas traditions by spending advent abroad.

A sampling of the international traditions I've learned about lately:

La Befana
In Italy, children get their presents on January 5th. Tradition holds that an elderly woman called La Befana, who was once invited to go with the wise men to see the Baby Jesus and refused, now searches the world for the child. She leaves presents wherever she goes in hopes that one will reach the baby she missed.

Santa's Helpers?
In Holland, in what is perhaps a vestige of Colonial days, either 1 or 6-8 black men (depending on whose story you read) accompany Santa when he arrives in Holland from Spain. Rick Steves and David Sedaris both point out the strange nature of this tradition in their holiday writings. Strangest of all, children who don't behave just might get kidnapped by Santa's helpers, and carried off in burlap bags. Read more here.

German Food
It's hard to beat the German Christmas market for new ideas for the Christmas kitchen. Candied nuts, gluwein, fruitcake, frosted gingerbread, doughnuts - it's hard to get through a city square in December without some delightful snack or other. Two perennial favorites are lebkuchen and stollen. Click for the recipes.

Bulgarian Banitsa - with Luck
I would almost say Banitsa is the national dish of Bulgaria, though it's probably got competition from the shopska salad. Banitsa are pastries formed with sheets of dough and every filling imaginable (pumpkin, apple, cheese, turkish delight), though the most traditional hold a combination of cheese and egg. At Christmas, many families put fortunes or tiny coins in the banitsa for the table. One student told me her grandmother puts coins in three that only she can recognize, and then makes sure her grandchildren get them every year. Read more and see an unbelievable bad video of banitsa preparation here.

Venice Boat Parade
In Venice each year a group of boat-owners decorate their craft with Christmas lights and take to the canals. I was pretty excited to see this when we go to Italy in a week, but it turns out the joke is on me. It's Venice Beach, California. Click to see pictures.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Alternate Thanksgiving

Because we weren't able to celebrate a proper Thanksgiving in Bulgaria (yes, there is such a thing as a proper Thanksgiving in Bulgaria), we decided to have an alternate feast with Sam and Lesley, who also missed the holiday. Together with friends from both sides, we traveled up the mountain on Sunday to their house, where we took part in what Sam excitedly called a "day of gluttony." Betsy's sweet potato crunch, Sam's homemade bread, Lesley's turkey, and all the other side dishes (I contributed the pomegranate seeds to the salad -- I don't like to rob Betsy of the joy of cooking) made for some loosening of belts. But not so much that we didn't do a little Balkan dancing after dinner. Just like the pilgrims did long ago...

Monday, December 14, 2009

ACS Christmas Cookie Exchange

This year I am advising the ACS "Cooking Collective." Every week a few students cook and the whole club samples and learns on Mondays at lunch. Brilliant.

My first big contribution as adviser was to suggest a Christmas Cookie Exchange - every member of the club would bake different cookies and bring in copies of the recipe, and we would invite faculty as well.

Fun: Check
Festivity: Check
Good Food: Check

Highlights included "English Pie", "Dried Grape Cookies" and "Christmas Cookies with Honey." There was even a lovely Bulgarian version of the powdered sugar walnut cookie known variously as Swedish Teacakes, Russian Teacakes, and Mexican Wedding Cakes.

Now I just have to get through our Balkan dance performance at the Christmas concert and the Wednesday caroling through the halls and my festive teacherly roles will all be successfully completed....

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bet you don't know what "girini" means

I was reading a book review today at The Australian on a book called Why Italians Love to Talk About Food. The headline drew me because I've been experimenting with Italian cooking ever since we got back from Cinque Terre.

I was especially interested by this passage:

"Yet even the culinary passion is a union based on a wealth of diversity, as the variety of pasta types reveals, all of which, of course, should be matched with particular sauces. Take the following selection, whose names come from the realm of zoology: farfalle (butterflies), conchiglie (shells), lumache (snails), creste di gallo (cock's comb), code di rondine (swallowtails), occhi di bove (ox eyes), occhi di elefanti (elephants eyes), occhi di lupo rigati (ribbed wolf eyes), occhi di passero (sparrow eyes), girini (tadpoles), vermicelli (worms), linguine (little tongues), and orecchiette (little ears)."

Crazy, eh? But cool.

Read the whole review for this book written about Italian food by a Russian ex-pat here. So just to be clear, that makes me an American ex-pat in Bulgaria writing on an Australian paper about a Russian ex-pat in Italy. I love it.

Both Images borrowed from Google Images.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hiking in Lakatnik

The ACS Hiking Club took its first trip today, having been delayed by the flu vacation a month ago. We went to Lakatnik, a simple, traditional hike on the limestone cliffs of the Iskur Gorge. Though other areas in the country are more stunning, this was a nice introduction to the year, and a great chance to get out into what our students call "the nature." (Many languages, we've noticed, attach an article to the word "nature," a hard habit to break when translating into English.) We had a stalwart, happy group of fifteen students, who dallied along, glorying in the chance to be outside of Sofia. We took many breaks, especially at the Communist monument atop the cliffs.

At the beginning of the hike, we crossed (read: bounced over) a bridge spanning the Iskur River.

A climbing shack. The Iskur Gorge is the most popular climbing location in Bulgaria.

Jess and Jeff, the two teachers who accompanied me, and Georgi, the president of the Hiking Club, "conquering" a small outcropping.

Ivan and Simeon

The Communist monument on top, and lunch time
Yulia and Lora. The monument is in the background.

Stefan is actually catching a spider here. I have NO idea where it rappelled from.

On the way down