Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Welcome to the Blog, Potential ACS Faculty!

Since we don't have a blogroll...

For all you non-bloggers, here is a bit of blog vocabulary for you.

a list of blogs enjoyed by bloggers, posted at the side of a blog to invite exploration.

I do NOT have a blogroll, however I do enjoy perusing the blogosphere now and again, so here are a few I have recently enjoyed. Hope you do too!

Baking Bites:
For expats living abroad bereft of their cookbooks, or for anyone in search of a fun new recipe, Baking Bites takes the cake!

Glory Ho:
The author of this blog is a former Peace Corp in Bulgaria worker. I like her writing style and Brett likes that she recently posted a music video of "Rock Me, Mama, Like a Wagon Wheel" for all to enjoy.

Globespotters is the International Herald Tribune's travel blog, featuring writers from major cities all over the world. It is a pretty fascinating mix of information about places like Bangkok, Moscow, Madrid, and Istanbul.

Our friend Tanya lives on a beautiful farm in Ohio (where our cats Oscar and Felix currently reside) and blogs about all kinds of things. Most recently she posted a lyrical story about a snowy morning walk with a posse of frolicking animals. You are sure to love the photo of an adorable white cat peeking up at you from a snowbank.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Prisoner introduces Hungary to Frodo and Sam, Becomes President

The first post-communist president of Hungary spent his communist-era prison time translating Lord of the Rings from English into Hungarian. Pretty cool.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Masks and Mayhem in the Suburbs

Bulgaria sunset
Pernik Mask Festival
Pernik Mask Festival

Pernik Mask Festival

Pernik is just over a half hour from Sofia, but if you arrive during the Annual Masquerade Festival, you might think you've come by space flight instead of Volkswagen Golf.

Dance troupes from around Bulgaria descend upon Pernik for a weekend each January to ring out the old (literally, with cowbells in every shape and size), scare away the bad (literally - did I mention the cowbells?), and welcome the new. Each multi-generational group parade-dances through town to the jangle of their own costumes to perform a short show in a roped-off central arena for the festival judges.

Meanwhile, spectators munch cotton candy and crinkled sausages, sporting glow-in-the-dark horns or streaky spiky fluorescent wigs. The crowds fill every pore of the town plaza, balancing on piles of snow-ice, climbing giant rocks, and melting together along the edges of the street. Just when you think you are as close to your neighbor as two complete strangers can be, a child somehow manages to slip through all the "empty" space between you for a better view. But it's OK, because everyone is enjoying the festival. I've seen the same phenomenon in the lines at Disneyland - inconveniences that would normally make everyone mad just don't have an affect.

Whether viewed from the precarious top of a pile of snow-ice or the edge of a melted-together crowd over a child's fluffy pink winter hat, the festival is quite a spectacle for the senses. It's like a combination of a Halloween carnival, a fraternity party, a circus, and a bell choir concert. Can you get that image in your mind? Start with a little child in costume, then add five clinking cowbells. Now picture a small crowd of cheerful eating drinking spectators, add white and blue Christmas lights floating against a stormy sky, and finally half a dozen furry feathery masks as big as family-size tents. Now multiply by forty. Stay with it. It's a great picture once you get there.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the festival was how easy it was to park. Until you were almost nose to nose with a giant ringing dancing masquerader, you could hardly tell there was anything going on in Pernik. What a secret to discover!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Introducing: Mud

It's a shiny brown gloss on the surface of the street. It's a heavier than usual splash as you drive through a puddle. It's a subtle slide as your heel hits the pavement. It's a hop-hop-skip-leap as you walk down the drive. It's a chortle in the throats of the men cleaning off the sidewalk as they look at the back of your pant legs. It's mud. Bulgarian mud. 

Spring is on the way, and the transition team is wearing brown. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Budapest Teaser

We hear Budapest is as delightful as Prague. In fact more delightful, because in Budapest you can still walk through the streets in a straight line instead of doing the avoid-the-other-tourists-tango. Check out some of its most popular attractions on this "Destination Unknown" video, and see if you can count the number of times the host pumps his fists into the air in triumph over the adrenaline of travel. Ha ha. Travel is pretty fun, but this guy takes enthusiasm to a new level. 

Pernik Pending

If you've followed the blog since its inception, you know that I have been curious about "Mummery" and the International Masquerade Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria, since long before I ever tasted my first shopska salad, set foot on Mount Vitosha, or made friends with a neighborhood dog. I discovered this festival in the news one year ago, and now at last the time has come.

This weekend, final exam craziness permitting, we will make our way to the smallish town of Pernik, just a short jaunt to the west of Sofia, to witness the spectacle for ourselves. More to come (final exam craziness permitting)...

Check out the Festival Website at:

Monday, January 19, 2009

Looking for a good book?

Then check out my 10th graders' new blog!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Restaurant Review: O'Nice Scores Big

There were quite a lot of foods I didn't expect to see again when I traded Los Angeles for Sofia. Smoothies were high on the list. Double the thrill, then, when I took my first sip of the creamy "Bonanza" smoothie yesterday at the new bagel shop in downtown Sofia: "O'Nice." Run by an Irish ex-pat, Chris, who cheerfully greets each customer and even dispenses advice about how to buy the cheapest weekend tickets for Dublin, the small green and orange cafe is a bright spot downtown. 

Chris imports a variety of bagels, frozen, from other shores. He rounds out his menu with smoothies, gourmet desserts from Caramel (the French bakery I reviewed yesterday), and the O'Nice brands of coffee and tea. He says he is trying to lure the Bulgarian clientele in with great coffee, since most of them have never heard of bagels. The place is an ex-pat hub, but Chris says the numbers are evening out, and now he has about 40% Ex-Pat customers and 60% Bulgarians. The menu is available in both languages, and it's easy to check out the bagel sandwich ingredients since they are displayed in a huge class showcase (think Subway, but without that weird Subway smell). 

Brett ordered a Thai Chicken sandwich on a Jalapeno-Cheddar bagel, and I had a toasted multigrain with three kinds of jam in little dishes on the side. Add a Bonanza smoothie with two straws and we had a fabulous lunch. On our way out we ran into our next door neighbors - Kate and Mike - who also work at ACS. I did say it was an ex-pat hub...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bakery Review: Caramel

An exceptionally shiny exterior on a dirty back alley of Sofia - what else could it be but the latest international cafe to come to Bulgaria, Caramel's French Bakery? We visited today on the first sunny morning we've seen since returning from Christmas vacation. 

We bought long and crunchy miniature baguettes, a sugared loaf with cracked exterior, a chocolate twist croissant, and two plain croissants Brett claims are "SO GOOD." I even picked out a little tri-colored chocolate cream tart currently waiting for after dinner in its own fancy box in the fridge. 

Once past its shiny exterior, Caramel isn't much to look at. It has one dingy table covered by one dingy tablecloth, and a few plates and baskets stocked with for-sale-food. Yet a team of pastry chefs is working in the back. It turns out they are preparing catering orders. Amusingly enough, we saw some of their work in the dessert case at the next place we visited - O'Nice - a bagel shop. I'd say the bakery is devoting 3 % of its resources to walk-in customers, but that is enough to give us a delicious taste of France... without a lengthy plane ride. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Video from All That Jazz

The scene outside the theater * rehearsal before the show * first act number * final number.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

All that Jazz with Boris

Driving by Parliament Square, newly calm scene of yesterday's protests

Boris and Roxanne outside the National Theater

One of the National Theater Cats (the other one looks exactly the same)

Testing the lights before the show

Actors run through a number 

View of the main stage curtain from the balcony

Roxanne and I in our killer seats

"And all that jazz!"

Bow to a Standing Ovation

Amidst the current chaos of Bulgaria - protests against organized crime and corruption turning violent, armored police vehicles driving by, a magically appearing overnight ice sheet causing accidents and school vacations, closed factories and cold homes in the second week of the Russia/Ukraine impasse - tonight I found good reason for hope in Sofia. 

One of the directors at the National Theater, Boris Pankin, invited Roxanne and I on a backstage tour of the theater followed by front center seats to the show he translated and adapted to stage for the world premiere a few years back - All that Jazz. Boris is currently directing the musical at ACS - Hair - and Roxanne is helping him work with the kids on pronunciation. He couldn't have been kinder to us, even picking us up from school and driving us down along the "Sofia Broadway", telling us about all the theaters we were passing. You might be interested to know that one of them, the so-called "Military Theater", was once staffed entirely by acting/directing/lighting military men. Incidentally, we also passed the parliament square where all the protests took place yesterday, but all that was left was a group of about 10 folks hanging out by the main statue, looking highly peaceful.

From the friendly wave of the set designer as we came in to the friendly wave of the parking lot guard as we drove out, we truly received V.I.P. treatment in Boris's hospitable care. He took us backstage before the show and at intermission, introducing us to the sound and lighting designers, the stage manager, the actors (the most popular t.v. stars in Bulgaria as well as an EXTREMELY flexible dance company), the men in charge of props, even the theater cats. 

We learned that in Bulgaria you say "Have a nice trip" instead of "Break a Leg", and that whistling on stage is bad luck. If you whistle from the stage, you are simply inviting the audience to whistle back at you later on. We had a chance to admire chandeliers large and small, rolling red carpet and tiny cupids along the balcony with golden trumpets and, go figure, golden penises. It's true. 

Before the show, we watched rehearsals as we sat and drank mint tea on a big white chair backstage - it later turned out to be a hospital bed in the second act. During the show, we sat in the fifth row in the middle (definitely the best seats in the house, since the fifth row has a big gap in which even Yao Ming would have plenty of leg room). We even had special permission from Boris to take videos and photos of the show, much to the disgruntlement of my nearest neighbor, despite my extreme efforts not to be disruptive.

Needless to say, I enjoyed myself completely, and felt inspired by the crew of hard-working performers, doing their thing while their country rolls with the punches. Though the dialogue was in Bulgarian, it was pretty easy to follow what was going on from the scenery and gestures. I did need Boris's help in the middle to understand that the beautiful lady in yellow who kept appearing to Joe Giddeon - the main character - was actually the angel of death, slowly leading him away from the world of Broadway. The musical numbers blew me away. It was incredible to see the combination: talented dancing singing actors. It will perhaps be the last year of All That Jazz at The National Theater, since the new management is far more conservative than the outgoing one, so I feel particularly lucky to have visited tonight. 

Check out this article about All That Jazz and Boris. He contacted the movie studio and persuaded them to grant him free rights to translate the film to stage and do a world premiere in Bulgarian/English! Talk about a creative inspiration, with the follow through to share it with the world. Plus, he's one of the nicest people I've ever met.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

This I Believe

Class A2 program

On the Foyer stage, Lubo reads Emo's Essay "One Soul, One Team, One Life"

Brett reads portfolios with boys from the early morning class

Ina enjoys the products of the Food Committee's work

8th graders reading Senior Portfolios

Deniz kicks off the first show, reading Viktor's essay "I Believe in the Secret of Life"

Today my two 12th grade classes presented showcases of their "This I Believe" essays. Committees played music, decorated, laid out food, and invited special guests. A good time was had by all....

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Big Book Festival

That's right, today was the 2009 Outside Reading Book Festival in my 10th grade class. Or at least the first one - the other 10th graders will have theirs on Thursday. The kids ordered pizza, brought in balloons, put up tons of posters, made fabulous programs, and invited guests. There projects ranged from a miniature set of the rabbit warren in Watership Down to a t-shirt designed to represent The Little Prince. It was wonderful! 

Friday, January 9, 2009

Boyana Icefall

Yesterday a former student of mine, Will Stecher, traveled to Sofia for a visit during his winter break.  Two years ago, he and I headed to Mt. Baldy in California for our first ever mountaineering experience.  Today, we continued that tradition as we hiked up to Boyana Waterfall, which you may remember from an earlier post on the blog.  If not, scroll down the sidebar to the "Labels" section and click on "Boyana."  It looked quite different today:

When we arrived in Boyana, we asked for directions to the trailhead and received some skeptical looks, followed by dissuasion.  One person placed his hand on his chest, indicating that the snow was that high and we shouldn't try.  I reassured him we had the necessary gear, and he pointed us on.  When we got there, we were relieved to see a set of tracks leading the way, and snow that was only a couple feet deep.

After about two hours of hiking, we arrived at the waterfall, where there were a group of people preparing for some ice climbing.

Will and I were content with staying at the bottom (well, at least I was).

Will inside a little cavern behind the waterfall, where the following picture was also taken.

The wall behind Will in the picture above is basically the other side of where this climber is attached.

As we were leaving, Will and I wondered where we'd use our crampons again.  Not sure yet, but I hope it will be just as spectacular.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

From Russia, without Love

Bulgaria is hunkering down for a day or two with no heat. As you've probably heard, Russia is flexing its muscles and cutting off gas to much of Eastern Europe. Basically, anywhere that is served via Ukraine pipelines is losing their supply. Due to the dispute between the two countries (, our school is actually shutting down Thursday and Friday. I'm thinking of heading up the mountain. If it's going to be cold inside, why not go outside?

While many countries can get their gas from other sources, Bulgaria relies almost entirely on Russian gas. The country is currently trying to convert to diesel, which apparently exists in greater quantities. Current estimates are that the conversion will be complete within the next day or two. In the meantime, Betsy and I will be taking out our winter sleeping bags.

Initial reports indicated that Bulgaria had about a month's worth of reserves, but the latest news is that the reserves were "somehow" squandered (read: sold by corrupt political forces). But don't worry about us. The weather is relatively nice today and we have plenty of layers (as well as an electric stove -- woo-hoo!). More to come. In the mean time, the picture below of icicles on my face grows ever more relevant.

As we often say, "That's Bulgaria!" Our theory is that the more dire circumstances get, the more street cred we earn. We should be rich after this one!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Christmas and New Year's Travels

The New Year's Eve Bonfire at Tanya's Farm in Ohio

Felix, snoozing in his favored basket during the New Year's Party

Dad and Betsy, cross-country skiing at Korkki in Minnesota

Betsy at Korkki

Brett skiing in Vale. Ha ha, just kidding. He's also at Korkki.

Ah, America. It has issues like every other place, but I happen to love it. Three inches of fresh powder on a pine bough, ping pong that raises sweat on my forehead, shreds of cheese melting into lime rice and tomatoes in a thick burrito, late night games of password and movie showings, a slivered moon hanging over the Ohio River, Christmas stockings stuffed and poised for after breakfast, a stretching white sheet of light where I knew Lake Superior should be, kids singing in a puppet show about Jesus' birth in a packed church and a candlelit version of Silent Night, taking a walk with a goat and two dogs, taking a walk with three cats and two dogs, taking a walk by myself... I tried to stop and soak in moments like these as we drifted across the Midwest to visit our wonderful families. Thank you, our families, for welcoming us home.