Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hopefully Coming soon to The Duluth Budgeteer...

From Another Angle: Mid-Winter Buoys

Any native Duluthian knows about the mid-winter blues. When the grays of the sky layer against the grays of the earth and stepping into a pile of muddy slush in new shoes seems routine, the winter blues have arrived.

The winter blues combined with homesickness for me this January, and I found myself wondering what exactly I was doing here in Sofia, Bulgaria. Why was I struggling with a toddler’s vocabulary, searching desperately for a friendly-looking hunk of cheese at the store, and living far from lakes, rollerblading trails, family, and friends? 

The answer is as simple as true answers usually are.

I find meaning here in experiences that buoy me in a sea of the blues. Against the backdrop of this Sofia winter – stray dogs curled up for warmth, sunrays streaming off snowy Mount Vitosha, a gas crisis affecting heat and power, protestors downtown – these experiences remind me that though the winter blues extend beyond American borders, so does their remedy. 

Picture yourself in a darkened theater, in the center of the fifth row. A huge phoenix on the rising red velvet curtain appears to be flying upwards, revealing the first ever stage production of All That Jazz. A few feet away you know your new friend Boris, the director, is sitting in a secret booth, taking notes. This is his baby, a show he adapted for theater, translated into Bulgarian, and then created from scratch in a country yet to embrace musical theater. He has shown you around, introduced you to every actor and actress, plied you with mint tea and snacks, and let you wander backstage taking video and pictures. Why has he done all this for you? That’s the question I asked myself a few weeks ago as I joined the audience in giving Boris Pankin’s All That Jazz a standing ovation. The answer? I was the friend of a friend, a young American interested in theater, and he wanted to share his world with me. While protestors milled about in the square a few blocks away, I took in this great gift of hospitality, given freely to me in Bulgaria, with no expectation of return. 

A few weeks later, Brett and I drove to Pernik for the annual Masquerade. We didn’t know where the festival was, what it would be like, or whether we were going at the right time. Somehow we managed to arrive during the main costume competition, in which troupes from all over Bulgaria danced in massive masked headdresses. Cotton-candy-eating and wig-wearing kids squeezed through the crowd for the best view, and adults just smiled as they were bumped and jostled sideways; that benevolent mood, in which everyone is so happy they just want everyone else to be happy, prevailed throughout the town. My worries about exams, my angst over mud puddles and slow mail seemed to melt away with the sound of the cowbells the dancers were ringing, scaring away the bad spirits of the old year to welcome in the new.

At the end of January we stole quietly away to Budapest, toasting the successful end of our first semester over cherry chocolate torte at Gerbaud’s and incredible “Paradiso” pizza at my new favorite Italian place in the world (yes, it’s in Hungary, not Italy). Strangely, this realization was another buoy, the dinner out another experience that brought me a moment of clarity. The best pizza I’ve ever eaten was in Budapest, the best French apple tart in Prague. I know the sounds of a lapping Aegean sea and the afternoon bells of St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. I can compare the charms of Paris and London, recommend the best view in Inverness. I may miss home, I may have to convince myself of my own strength now and then when the gray gets overwhelming, but I have buoys to cling to. I know that what I am doing will mean something to me someday, long after my homesickness has faded because I am, once again, at home. 

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Surf Maroc

Come April, after strolling through the souks of Marrakech for three days with Brett, my friend Tom and I will be boarding a "Supratours" (no, not Supertours) bus across the Atlas Mountains for the small Moroccan fishing village of Taghazout, where we will spend three nights in the "Villa Mandala" learning to surf with  Surf Maroc - a beach hotel / surf camp run by two partners from the U.K. We'll wake up to the sound of waves crashing on the point, dodge camels as we walk across the beach, eat Moroccan tagines and cous cous with the other guests at night and visit Agadir if we need a break from the rolling surf. The Surf Maroc staff will set us up with wetsuits, boards, instruction, and whatever level break we are ready for - there is a huge variety of waves in the area. Whoo hoo!

Check out their website and many more photos at:

Then, if you're interested in surfing, check out this great website of surf tips from "Kahuna Bob," who recommends that when you catch your first wave you shout "HOOYA" all the way into shore: I definitely plan to take his advice, and convince Tom to do the same if at all possible. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tonight I'm dreaming of...

Oia, Santorini

because the Bulgarian government has decided to give the whole country May 1-6 off. I'm feeling much happier with the Bulgarian government now that it is enabling me to go to Oia for four days than I felt when it was preventing the heat from going on in our apartment last November. 

Sunday, February 22, 2009

From this to this, while the cats did this

Our table isn't what you could reasonably call sturdy, and it sailed back and forth as if in turbulent winds as I kneaded bread dough this afternoon. Yet Emma and Ingrid slept cozily in their secret under-the-table world throughout the storm.

Remember how we set up another blog so the kittens wouldn't take over ours? We are having trouble holding them off. From Another Angle is under siege. 

I have now used up all three packages of yeast I brought from the states. You know what this means, it's time to find out how the Bulgarian bakers add spring to their loaves. Next stop: Billa supermarket. 

Lazy Sunday

Friday, February 20, 2009

Discovering Cumin, the Essence of Chipotle

Last night Roxanne came over for "Cooking with Roxanne" round two, and we made chili. Last week she taught me to roast chicken and make chicken cous cous salad, spurring me to use rosemary and thyme for the first time. Then last night I had the great delight of cutting open my first tiny spice bag of cumin. It smells like Chipotle (the restaurant, not the pepper). 

I had no idea. What sweet bliss!  

I can now produce a tiny portal to my favorite SoCal Mexican food restaurant in my own kitchen. I just need to figure out how to make lime salt for the chips... 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Where Reality and Socialist-Realist Art Meet

In Prague, all artistic traces of communism are gone. 
Statues like these on the Charles Bridge tend to be religious or political.

In Budapest, more than twenty huge Socialist-Realist statues have been consolidated into an underfunded statue park on the fringe of the city. A tour bus arrives at the grounds outside Buda each winter day at 11:30, and takes a load of freezing tourists back to the comfort of Pest at 1:00.

In Sofia, many of the statues towering over downtown parks have been towering for over two decades, still representing the false glory of a bygone political era.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Riding the Roller Coaster

Ex-pat Life

I remember contemplating the wooden table in front of me at our first new faculty orientation meeting. Above and around me flowed a steady stream of words, explaining the stages of adaptation to a new country: Exaltation and excitement, culture shock and frustration, adaptation, and finally enthusiasm. Brett mentioned it took him about a year to adjust to Japan. Everyone was agreeing that we were sure to suffer serious homesickness at some point in the next few months, though opinions varied on when the hump would be - December? February? Rrgh. Nothing quite so comforting as being told about your upcoming struggles. 

These days I know I am over my initial culture shock, which, incidentally, was my first stage, not my second. The other day as I went for a walk, I found that a shattered plate glass window by the sidewalk and a stray dog or two were not enough to spoil my enjoyment of kids piled on a slow-moving merry-go-round and new facades sporting fresh bright paint. The blocky buildings kind of fade together now, like the background in my own personal video game when what I'm really focused on are collecting the prizes and beating the level. I exchange smiles with the man selling me fruit - 10 points. Brett and I become friends with two Bulgarian kittens - 20 points. We plan a trip to Marrakech - 50 points. My seniors show a distinct interest in my lesson plan - 1000 points. 

I find this whole four stages of adjustment idea helpful in a vague way, but unrealistic. The truth is, we are all riding a roller coaster out here. Frustration, excitement, fear, bliss, culture shock, enthusiasm, frustration, more frustration, enthusiasm. The ride never takes us home, but it takes us up to enjoy the view, and down with a rush to scare us half to death. One minute I find Chicken Bouillon cubes at the store and you'd think I'd just won the Pulitzer. Later, I offend the lady at the gym without knowing how, then spend the next half hour fantasizing about rollerblading Venice beach in L.A. After a while, up and down start to blur. There are so many of each in every day, but a baseline through the middle prevents deep plunges. 

I have my own concept of the ex-pat adaptation cycle, the ride. There is no linear pattern, but rather a rotation around the center - your new home. At first, you spin fast - good, bad, up, down, light, dark. Your ride is out of control, though you try harder than you ever have in your life to control it. Later, you gradually begin to spend more time on the good side of the center. Your loops take you for longer and longer rides through the light as you travel, master basic phrases, get the hang of the local geography, meet friends, and find our a few city secrets. You rewire your aesthetic sense to include your new surroundings. You pet your new kittens. You eat Indian food magically delivered to your door. But does the dark side ever disappear? Do you really eventually float free of the ride and into a magical stage of pure "enthusiasm"?

Stay tuned. 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Barcelona, 11 Days and Counting

Barcelona, city of Gaudi, beach sunsets, Horchata, Tapas, people-watching, bird and flower market perusing. It's a city of movement and suprise; one of the most popular escapes in Europe and also the most popular market for pickpockets. Soon we'll be wandering among the colors of Gaudi and the sea with our hands on our wallets and we can't wait.

Read more about the city in the New York Times feature "36 Hours in Barcelona":

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Meet Ingrid and Emma

One wonderful agency in Sofia is trying to help lost or abandoned dogs and cats. The "Bulgarian Society for Animal Protection and Preservation" (BSAPP for short) regularly saves animals from the streets and matches them with loving foster or adoptive families. We are happy to be the new foster parents of Emma and Ingrid, 3 month old kittens who are currently experimenting with the idea of sitting on a lap (a little scary), learning how to chase a ball (so strange), and falling in love with the warm spot behind the futon by the heater (ahhhhhh).

Find out more about BSAPP at:

Get all the latest Emma and Ingrid photos (we had to give them their own blog so they didn't take over ours) at:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Choosing Bulgaria: An Essay

Sofia, Goddess of Wisdom

After dark, moon or no moon, the view from my fourth floor window in Mladost 1-A transforms. Where once I saw scattered concrete buildings with peeling paint, I see floating grids of bright windows. As if I had tuned into thousands of television stations broadcasting reality shows, individual lives and family dramas play in and out across these rectangles as I watch. The details of my own existence, backlit by my desk lamp, join me to my new community.

I live in Sofia, Bulgaria, a swirl of modern restaurants, scraggly dogs, cell phones, graffiti, and fruit stands, ruled over by crime families and a corrupt government. It is called “The City of Wisdom”, but right now it is also a city of struggle. Everyone must find their own way through the transition from communism to democracy, and my students are faced, at eighteen, with a vital question: should I stay or should I go? I am their teacher, but I have no idea how they should answer this question.

If they go, what do they leave behind? If they stay, what options do they sacrifice?

Walking along my street, I pass fashionable girls, leather heels tapping confidently over rutted sidewalks. I wave to the local parking attendant and his pack of strays – two dogs and a kitten, descendants of animals released by families who could no longer afford them. I’ve named the dogs William and little William, but they don’t know it.

I wander through rows of tiny stands, pinching my nose against the smell of fried fish, selecting cartons of fresh strawberries, and window shopping for Valentine’s Day napkins at the whatever store (there is just no way to classify its contents). I bump into a little girl, happy in pink tights and a new backpack, heading home from school. I watch two older women – one selling the rights to use the tiny bathroom in the market, another hawking milk in mismatched bottles.

On the way home I stop one last time for a farm-fresh watermelon, chatting in my rudimentary Bulgarian with the teenage vendor, flashing my usual I don’t understand everything you say but honestly I’m nice smile, as a black BMW with tinted windows eases by. Where is it going? Who is inside? Every day, every walk, I see the two sides of Bulgaria – the wisdom, the struggle.

My students who choose to leave Bulgaria will miss many things – Banitsa pastries, famous for their ability to swallow any imaginable filling (pumpkin, cheese, apple, Turkish Delight), time spent with their relatives in the mountain villages dotting the country, conversations and literature in their native language, perfect summers spent floating in the warm waters of the Black Sea coast or hiking the 7 Rila Lakes.

They will not miss their corrupt politicians, the mafia presence hanging like a cloud over the city, the downcast expressions of the people walking on the street, sitting on the packed buses, or waiting in line at the store. They will go to new opportunities, clean streets and parks, strangers who smile at them in passing. They will not have to watch as the pristine coastline and mountain ranges of their country are sacrificed to tourism.

My students at The American College of Sofia are brilliant and motivated: they have traveled and read widely, volunteered at orphanages, attended international math and architecture camps, competed in mock trial and model United Nations and lacrosse, studied German and French, taken curriculum in English and Bulgarian, formed addictions to coffee and pizza, and embraced goals for their future. For my husband and I, they provided a reason to move to Bulgaria. We are here for them. We enjoy Sofia as much as we can – croissants at its new French bakery, hiking trails on nearby Mount Vitosha, friendships with other expats and with our Bulgarian colleagues – but in the end, we are here to guide them on their way.

Whatever they choose, whether to become part of the wisdom of this city or to escape its struggle, we want to help. For now, I choose Bulgaria.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Our Outdoor Tenants

Now and then I have company as I sit at my computer and write. Company in the form of 1, 2, 3, or 4 pigeons, cooing as they survey the neighborhood from my windowsill, about one foot away from my desk. Apparently aware they are safe behind glass, my movements scare them not a jot. 

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Friday, February 6, 2009

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Celebrate the times, come on!

Earlier today From Another Angle received its 5,000th visitor. Whoo hoo!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Eating in Budapest

Enough said. Or shown. Or whatever. Yum.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Budapest Badges

Let's imagine that the Boy/Girl Scouts decided to create a Budapest line of badges. This is your guide to earning the complete set (The Budapest Triumvirate):

Badge #1: Culinary
To earn this Budapest badge, you should first begin with an empty stomach. Begin at any restaurant on Vaci Utca, the tourist drag. Order Goulash. Do not expect the thick stew of non-Hungarian Goulash. Here in Hungary it is a light broth flavored with paprika, a few chunks of meat and vegetables swimming inside. Next, proceed to the upper floor of the Grand Central Market, to a stand labeled "Langos." Order one of the flat circular griddle cakes with your choice of toppings: garlic, cheese, or something even more daring. Enjoy this crisp savory doughnut for as long as you can, but feel free to throw away one half or less, as it is incredibly large. Finally, proceed to the adorable dining mecca of Radday Utca. Choose any restaurant you wish, though if you want the best pizza you've ever eaten,  try Trattoria or Mojito. You will escape tourist central here in the friendly environs of Radday, enjoy listening to the Hungarian being spoken around you.

Badge #2: Outdoor
To earn this Budapest badge, begin at the edge of the Chain Bridge. This bridge was completely destroyed by bombing in the 20th century, but rapidly re-built into the delightful statue-covered walkway you now see before you. Walk it. Admire the view of the multi-spired parliament building across the way and watch the ducks diving into the Danube. When you reach the other side, avoid the Funicular. Instead take the switchbacks up castle hill. When you reach the top, snap a photo for proof and then gaze across the urban wilderness of Pest from the Buda hills. Marvel at just how big Budapest really is, and be glad you're not in charge of writing a new guidebook for the city.

Badge #3: Cultural
To earn this Budapest Badge, begin at the bus stop for the Communist Statue Park. Ha ha. Just kidding. We would never put you through a visit to this underfunded and frigid museum. Instead, begin with a stroll down Andrassy Avenue, enjoying views of St. Stephen's Basilica and the National Opera House. Watch the young skateboarders doing tricks on benches and the wealthiest tourists strolling through Gucci. Take at least one silly photo with a statue - this is mandatory. 

Can you guess?

We're back from Budapest with a puzzle all ready to go. Can you guess the full subject of the picture above? It is from somewhere famous in Budapest. Please leave your guess as a comment. The answer will be published soon!

You can see her wondering: will they figure it out?