Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Balkan Dance Concert at ACS Receives 5 Stars!

The costumes, the incredible dancing, the cute acting in between the dances, the stage that created their theme of "At the Bazaar"... this reviewer cannot see her way to give last night's ACS Balkan dance concert anything but 5 stars!

The Word


Brett showed me an ad a while back that defined many cities throughout Eastern Europe with a simple phrase. Sofia's was "untapped potential." Should that be Bulgaria's word? "Potential?" Or perhaps a word relating to the incredible natural beauty of the countryside like "rugged" or "Edenic"? Should the word somehow describe the political situation and history of the nation, perhaps "fraught" or "contested" or even, finally (maybe?) "free"? 

And what of Sofia? "Accept" comes to mind, because people have to accept a lot of things outside their control and go on about the business of life. "Family" would aptly describe the significance of tradition and home gatherings that the yearly calendar rotates around. "Vitosha" would characterize much of the city, because the mountain towers over everything from the edges, and everyone seems to want to escape the city to get there and hike in summer or ski in winter. 

I don't know. It's quite complicated trying to characterize a city and a country that you are living in, because you know how many dimensions there are to the place. I can quickly think of words for cities we've spent just a few days in, as all I have to sum up is my brief touristic impression, and not the history and dreams of its people. I'd give Istanbul "swirl", Belgrade "pleasure", London "money", Prague "zany", Vienna "staid" and Barcelona "color." There, I made that list in about 60 seconds. Why can't I think of Sofia's word?

Please, leave a comment with the word you would give your city, if you're in the mood...

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Good Read

National Geographic Traveler has a lovely website, which is key, since they don't have much of an English distribution network in Sofia...

I was browsing through their recent stories today and came upon an article highlighting 50 extraordinary places to see in a lifetime. As I scrolled over the stars on the map of Europe, I was pleased to see that Brett and I had visited almost all the featured destinations in this part of the world: Vienna, London, Paris, Budapest, Istanbul, Dublin, Barcelona, and Prague. Silly NGT, not including Sofia. Perhaps someday...

I've visited 16 of the overall 50. Kind of makes me feel like I get my girl scout badge in Travel now.

Check out fun pictures and stories about 50 beautiful cities at:

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Friday, April 24, 2009

Easter Tradition

Monday was Orthodox Easter, a continuation of the Holy Week Celebrations here in Bulgaria. We had another day of school off (we have almost no normal work weeks this spring, there are just so many holidays), huge loaves of sugary fruity bread appeared in the bakeries, and folks gathered in their homes for family time and another big meal. 

It also gave me a reminder and an excuse to post these photos from Easter Sunday. We celebrated the holiday over brunch with our new friends Lesley and Sam and their kids. She heads the Peace Corp in Bulgaria and he works for the embassy and runs, bakes bread, and does lots of yoga, so we all seem to have lots to talk about!

Before brunch, a troupe of girls in traditional dress singing in multi-leveled harmony appeared in the street, singing and dancing from driveway to driveway in a distant cousin to the Christmas caroling tradition We were thrilled to share in their tour, and piled outside onto the balconies and down to the street to listen and watch and share Easter candy. 

The Medersa

Hidden deep in Marrakech's alleys, so deep that you have to tip a few people just to find it, is the Ali ben Youssef Medersa, a sixteenth century school for Koranic studies.  We spent a couple hours wandering its halls, peeking into students' rooms, and gaping at the immense courtyard, bordered by intricately carved cedar and stucco walls.

This is a recreation of a student's room -- they were small and reminded me of monks' cells.

On the far side of the courtyard is the prayer room.
A closeup of the intricate carving

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fueling up in Milan

A sampling of gelato at "Chocolat" - one of which, ironically, is "Hot Chocolate" flavor

A Street in Milan

The Duomo

Alright, so we can't exactly claim to have played tourist in Milan. What we mainly did in this least touristy of Italian cities was eat. Italian food fueled our way to Morocco and then our way back home. We took the train from the airport, zig-zagged to the street with the most famous pizzerias, ate pizza and risotto and salad and foccacia, zag-zigged to some one of the best loved gelaterias, Chocolat, ate gelato, and then took the train back to our hotel and sweet sweet sleep. After all, our plane was leaving before dawn. Both times. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday to my Scrabble-playing, ocean-surfing, gourmet-food-cooking, Oscar-and-Felix-loving, pinochle-dominating, yoga-stretching, mojito-drinking, lovely, lovely, lovely wife!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Stars in Vienna

This week I have been taking lots of walks in Sofia, mainly as an excuse to check the progress of the lilac buds in a nearby park and to listen to "Eat, Pray, Love" - an audiobook about a journey across the world - on my ipod. You see, spring is coming to Eastern Europe, and I am determined to experience its every soft breath and gentle ray of sunshine. As I waited for spring to come, in the stark and continuous chill of March, I promised myself that this year I would not welcome spring with a moment of exaltation and then forget all about winter and start complaining of the heat. It was a serious promise. I wrote it down. This year I would embrace spring the way Calvin embraces trouble, love it like Oscar and Felix love chase-wrestle, enjoy it the way Brett enjoys pepperoni pizza - in every shape and color, with every kind of topping. So, most nights I have been heading out after dinner to take in the neighborhood with Liz Gilbert telling her story into my ears.

One line of her tale struck me particularly just before we left for Vienna. She was describing a visit to the tallest tower of an Indian Ashram. As the stars sparked into existence, one by one, ten by ten, hundreds all at once, she felt space opening in her heart. She felt the stars come out inside her too. Friday after school, I felt disconnected with myself, missing my old school and my family, frustrated by some work problems I wasn't sure I could find the answers to. I found myself wishing for some stars and space myself, and hoping Vienna would provide me with my own spiritual NASA. 

On our very first walk down the main street of Vienna, who should I come across but my first ever lilies-of-the-valley-bunches-seller? He was standing to one side as a crush of people made their way down the Graben, offering bundles of fragrant green and white, the tiny flower bells bobbing with any motion of his basket. Star #1. I love these flowers, which I have only ever seen grow wild in my own hometown, carpeting the forest only one block away from my house every single spring. I pushed one tiny sprig from those woods into my perfectly tailored wedding bouquet just ten months ago, and here I was, revisiting all my happy lily valley memories in the middle of urban Austria, at the bargain price of two and a half euros. I spent the next forty eight hours - off and on - smelling my happy memories, sitting in their mug by the bed. 

Star #2. Later, I took another walk while Brett and Larry headed off to pick up their race packets for the marathon. I entered a small park bordered in blooming lilacs, and made it my mission to smell each bush. As I popped out the far gate, a bit dizzy but happy, I saw an elderly man convincing his wife to participate in a lilac photo shoot. She stood in front of a huge bush, obviously feeling that rather pleasant sensation of pleased-awkward-flattered-shy. He stood a few feet away, enjoying the connection to his partner through a long camera lens. I couldn't see it from my perch on the parallel sidewalk, but I have a feeling the lens hid a big smile. 

The next morning I joined a huge crowd cheering for the runners. It seemed all Vienna wanted to show its support - people clapped huge balloon hands, twisted noisemakers, and shouted every possible language variation of "whoo hoo," waving flags to match. Cheerleaders stepped in supportive rhythm, classical music blared from speakers, camera shutters clicked everywhere. Everyone was searching for someone they loved in the horde of runners. Stars #3 and #4 came close together. As Brett ran by in his bright yellow shorts I shouted my own American version of "Whoo hoo" (it sounds a lot like "whoo hoo!"). He turned and immediately tried to come and kiss me. Unfortunately he was in the middle of a river of thousands of runners. The woman behind him instantly slammed into him when he stopped. Reeling slightly, he apologized to the woman disappearing behind him and reached out to me. In the middle of those thousands of people, we came together. 

Thirty minutes later I was again searching for him, this time from a new post at the halfway mark. All the support around me was becoming somewhat overwhelming, and the crowd wasn't producing the guy I wanted to see. Looking up, I saw star #4. It came in the shape of a tiny white balloon. Some clapping hand must have released it, and now it drifted right by the hands of ancient Viennese statues crowning the highest nearby building. Amidst the fervor of the race, all I had to do was look up to find a bit of peace. If I hadn't taken that small break from searching the crowds, I never would have seen the balloon. Probably 99% of the crowd never did, but there it floated. 

Four moments, four stars, a bit of space. Now here I am, back in Sofia, wondering if I am somehow more prepared to confront the problems I left behind for this weekend away. I'm not sure. But I'm always glad for a bit of shine. 

He Did It!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Marrakech: Majorelle Gardens

The High Atlas

In central Morocco, about an hour's drive from Marrakech, lie the High Atlas, a chain of mountains reaching just over 14,000 feet.  When Betsy was getting sunburned at the ocean, I was getting frostbitten (almost) in the mountains.  My hike started with a climb to a refuge, and then an early morning rise to get to the peak of Toubkal.  Once on the ridge, fierce winds changed my plans a bit, freezing my nose and fingers, and sending me down to the friendly confines of Imlil, a Berber village connected by pony paths and cultivated terraces to other mountain villages. 
The glacier we climbed to get above the refuge.  You can see a person in the middle of the picture.
From near the peak, at sunrise
Children from one of the villages en route

A village in the hills, with mosque and minnaret in front

My final view of the Atlas, from a poppy field

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My Wife in Marrakech

There was something about Betsy that seemed to work with Marrakech.  Of course, she's always photogenic, but I really liked a few of these shots: