Wednesday, December 12, 2007

At last! Electricity! And Free Wifi!

I don't know why, but I've had a heck of a time finding a place with a nice, unsecured, and properly wired network. Sure, there are plenty of internet and gaming cafes - most of them called "DooM" - but I don't want to 1) pay for Wifi access when the Western world is starting to create free Wifi hotspots and 2) sit in a place with a bunch of grown men playing video games all day long.

It was actually the Irish guys I met the other day who directed me towards a place, which led me to no fewer than six four or five bar signals in the area. I'm not more than 200 meters from the Black Sea right now. The very first thing I did when the bus arrived from Veliko Turnovo on Sunday evening was go to the sea. I had to walk through Christmasland, which was great, but I booked it through there and enjoyed it more on the way back. At night, the Black Sea is, of course, black. The thrill of the sea air and the call of the gulls even at night sent me to a level of contentment I hadn't felt since I was, well, standing on the Bosporus in Istanbul eating a fresh mackerel sandwich while watching the fisherman catch more mackerel. I couldn't see much - a lighthouse, the lights from a ship in the distance - but the sound of the waves and the smell of the air was quite satisfying. I went down to the beach the next day. The Black Sea was green.

The Christmas display here is nice. When I got here Sunday night, after I rushed to the sea, I strolled down the street and took some photos of the lights. I was out for a bit, then went to a restaurant to get some dinner. Apparently it rained while I was eating, because the sidewalks were all wet, which lent a surface for reflection that had been absent in my photos before I ate.

It is quite nice to see Christmas decorations. Usually by this time of year I am sick of them from the Christmas overkill we suffer in the US. Before I left Washington, I had to go to Target and was appalled by the huge Christmas section next to the Halloween section. In September. Being in a country that isn't drowning in excessive decoration at the beginning of November has really made me appreciate this Christmas season. You could even say I am feeling sort of in the Christmasy spirit, which I can't remember really enjoying for the past several years. Sure, there are some tacky Santa Claus decorations in the storefront windows, but for the most part, everything is pretty tasteful. Except for the bizarre window display with the Buddha next to the snowman next to the Santa next to the giant stuffed black spider. That was a bit weird.

Speaking of "Santa Claus," you know he was Turkish, right? Good old St. Nick? He was an impressive figure, imprisoned for his religious beliefs by the Byzantine emperor. And yeah, he'd be appalled by the materialism and commercialization of Christmas.

But about Varna - I can't say there is much interesting here beyond the sea. Varna is a city for clubbers, mostly from Eastern Europe and Germany. The incessant house music is irritating. As I am not into that whole club scene, there isn't much for me here that is beyond the realm of my imagination. Varna is one of Europe's oldest cities. Back in the old days - about 570 BC - the city of Odessos was established by the Thracian people, a people related to the ancient Greeks. What I find particularly thrilling is that the city is named for Odessius, a.k.a. Ulysses in Latin, my favorite book. (Look at my screen name to know the extent to which I like the book. And Greek mythology, too.)

There is definitely a bit of a Soviet presence here, much more so than Turnovo. It is the third largest city in Bulgaria, after all. More importantly, the city was called Stalin from 1949 to 1956 at the "request" of Varna citizens. Apparently there are manhole covers that still say City of Stalin. I'll have to keep an eye out for those. This statue is the typical ex-commie state memorial that has been left standing because it honors soldiers or some other group not-directly related to communism, although there is no disguising the communist themes, namely labor and military. See the photo below of the hammer and the sickle. Oh, and for those Americans who have those "country stars" on their houses, those are COMMUNIST stars. I've seen plenty of them here in Varna. I have to photoshop them because the photos I've taken are from the ground and the stars are rather high up, but I'll try to post them later.

This cathedral is absolutely beautiful inside. These Bulgarian churches are all quite amazing. I learned today about the icon paintings when I went to the archaeological museum here. They even had a stage by stage display of how icons are painted. I so wanted to take photos, but it was not allowed, and given that I think I was the only one in the entire museum on account of it being winter and this being called the "Summer Capital" of Bulgaria, the museum babysitters had their eye on me the entire time. I guess my backpack was an indication that I was going to steal something; I don't know, but it was a bit annoying. Anyway, the cathedral is incredibly beautiful and I wish I could show it to the world, but they didn't even have postcards to purchase. I was particularly amazed by the painting of Christ on the main dome, and I'm sorry I don't know the names of Bulgarian Orthodox church parts.

On doing a tiny bit of research about the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, I've come to learn that one of the two dioceses in America are in New York and Akron, Ohio, of all places. Turns out there are a lot of Bulgarians in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. Kind of funny to me given that you know, Ohio and all? There are a lot of Bulgarians in California as well, but there are a lot of everyone in California.

Now they've turned the Wifi off in the place because I've been here too long. I'll continue to write this and save it in a Word document just to spite them. What are they going to do, kick me out? If you're going to have Wifi, you might want to expect people to actually USE it. But it's trendy here. Even the most ridiculous places have it - like strip clubs and dance clubs, places where no one would EVER use it. It's just like the fancy televisions in the restaurants and bars. That have the sound down. Yes. They play music videos with the sound down and then play the same songs on the radio or a CD player. They just have the televisions to have them, to prove that they're "cool." Same with the Wifi. They don't actually want you to use it. As I have web pages that were still open at the time of the turn off, I am pretending to not be affected by it, and I can tell that it is making them mad because this is a small place and...despite the fact that I was only there for an hour, they made me move to the bar, and they still didn't turn the internet back on. And I still gave the waitress a tip. But I've gone to another place.

I guess the post is getting rather lengthy, so I'll explain the Irish stuff and sign off. Yeah, Irish. After being sufficiently frustrated with the Bulgarian-owned Chinese place which advertised Wifi but didn't know how to set it up, I sought the only place I knew where there were sure to be English speakers thoroughly aware of the ways of the modern world, an Irish pub - not the faux Bulgarian-owned kind you find all over the country, but a real Irish-owned one. Yes, I had a real draft Guinness. And yes, I had real Indian food, from what I think is the only Indian restaurant in the country. It was fun. Cricket was on the television, and there were only five guys there - regulars - so it meant I had to talk to them and they had to talk to me. They informed me of many things about Varna, including this Wifi cafe, and we ordered Indian delivery, which was excellent, especially since I am so bored of Bulgarian food.

More photos:

Monday, December 10, 2007

Varna online

It certainly is much warmer here in Varna! The Black Sea, which was green today except when it was pink at sunset, is providing a milding effect on December, and I love it. Even got a little pink on the face from being outside all day. So nice to have color in December - maybe I won't even get all pale white in the winter...fat chance. Winters wrath always wreaks havoc on the skin! (Maybe next year I should go to South America or Australia where it's summer in January! Ha, ha.)

Lots and lots of stuff to report, but not much time to do it on account of my computer's crappy battery, which was overused because I had problems connecting to the internet in yes, this Chinese restaurant (spelled "restourant" in English). No, it is not owned by Chinese people, just as the Irish pubs - except for a place called O'Neill's in town (no, I haven't been there. Why pay 5 leva for a Guinness when you can pay 1 for a Zagorka?) - are not Irish owned in Bulgaria. Looks like I have about twenty minutes to blab. It's my own fault - I forgot the adapter for my plug.

Oh, about the connection problems - I don't know what the heck was wrong, but a guy with a laptop, who apparently is a student of computer something, and his professor are here - not together, mind you. But the student got his professor to come and help. I really think it was a matter of the computer finally just deciding to work, because the professor didn't do anything that I didn't do. I pretended like I was the computer illiterate girl, of course, just because I felt bad the professor got up from his Chinese dinner.

And why am I in a Chinese restaurant? Because the heavy metal bar that I went to before - it was the only wifi place around! It was horrible! - had a password to access the internet that the bartender didn't know. I mean, why are you going to say you have Wifi, secure it, and not tell your bartenders the password? Maybe she is just, um, what a professor of mine used to say - not quite bright.

Fifteen minutes left. Funny, because five minutes hasn't passed since it said twenty minutes. This battery is shot. I need another. I'd hate to spend dollars on one when this computer is nearly shot. I mean, how do you think I felt when I had people helping me with it and IT'S PROPPED UP ON A CD ON THE FRONT LEFT CORNER BECAUSE THAT'S THE ONLY WAY IT WORKS! But it works, and it was free, and aside from the many times it hasn't functioned for me, it functions. I shouldn't complain. I mean, here in Bulgaria, it is trendy for bars and cafes to provide wifi, but most Bulgarians don't have laptops to use it.

Except the mafia, of course.

Which is big, by the way.

We're talking 20-30% of the nation's currency being dirty money according to some anti-corruption non-profits.

But yeah, one of the first things I noticed in the cafes was that I was the only one typing away on a laptop. When I first arrived in Turnovo, the "typing" was pretty much me starting, restarting, and restarting the computer again. That was before I realized that the memory was full. Once I saved my photos to CD and deleted them from the hard drive, I've had no problems (except when I try to move it and the screen turns into old school messed up Nintendo.) Until today. And now, my low battery warning has come up and I need to post this before it dies.


I didn't have my camera cord to post photos anyway. It's with my plug adapter.

Friday, December 7, 2007

13 days

It just occurred to me that I only have 13 days left of this trip. I can't believe it. It's been interesting, and though I've been unable to update this blog as frequently as I had planned, I've filled two notebooks full of observations and thoughts. Perhaps when I get back I'll post some more.

With those 13 days on my mind, I'm going to head out to Varna. I really want to see the Black Sea, even if it is cold. The hostel owners have some friends who own a hostel there, so that's where I'm heading. Then I'll probably head up to Ruse to spend a couple of days before heading back to Budapest to catch my flight. Ruse is on the Balkan Express line that I'll be taking.

I'm not done with Bulgaria. I'll be back, and hopefully sooner rather than later.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tourism is strange

Thought it was time to post some more photos. It was nice at the beginning of the week so I spent some time walking around outside and snapping photos of parts of the city I don't think I have captured yet. It was quite warm even after the sun went down, and I was very happy, but that warmth was shortlived, for a fog rolled in and brought real November weather back to us.

Can't say much has happened in the last week. I did get to sing Irish pub songs with some English guy along to a Bulgarian singer in a place called the Melon Bar. I was sort of tempted to go back to Spain with the guy and his buddy, as they are movers and drove here to transport furniture for someone who is moving here. It would have been fun to drive across Europe. But I stayed here, of course, here in Mother Bulgaria.

Every time I think of "Mother Bulgaria" (seen here in the photo), the words "Mother Bulgaria jumped the gun" come into my head from The Beatles' Happiness is a Warm Gun. I can't help it; it just happens.

Anyway, you can see the fortress in the distance. The fortress is actually fake, though it is the city's biggest tourist attraction. In the 70s the Soviets decided to build some walls on top of the old fortress site, not bothering to consult historians or research how the old fortress actually was. There are a few things that are genuine, but they're all in ruins. The church that sits atop the hill was reconstructed in 1981 and painted in 1985. I am one of the few people who likes the paintings, I think. The same scenes you will find in any old Bulgarian church (St. George slaying the dragon, St. Dimitrius slaying the villian, St. Lazarus rising from the dead) have been painted on the walls but in a modern style. I took some photos awhile ago but they're on my other memory card

Here's a "tourist attraction," but I can't figure out why. They say it is a good example of architecture from the post-Ottoman renaissance period but really I think they're just amused by the fact it has a statue of a monkey on it. Indeed, they call it "The House with the Monkey." But the city is weird like that. All tourism is weird like that, really. I mean, the city has built this whole fake renaissance street, complete with copper makers and other nineteenth century artisans. It's like a Turnovo Disneyland or something, you know, It's a Small World, blah blah blah. Thousands of tiny trinkets and junk no one needs is there for tourist dollars, euros, pounds, and leva. There is a tourist restaurant up there I've been tempted to go into for some fish and chips, but I imagine they charge tourist prices, too. We have these kinds of things all over the U.S. - pioneer towns and colonial towns and the like, so it's not like this is a unique thing, and it does get to show you what things were like back in the day.

Anyway, here are some photos of the tourist village. The monkey's in there, too.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Du du du du

Du du du du. Du du du du. Du du du du. The sound of the train echoes through the tunnel as it appears from beneath the stacks of buildings and passes over the Yantra River. It is distant enough not to be loud, but loud enough to put a smile on my face. I love that sound. It is the music of travel, a symphony of comings and goings, a mystery. Where are the people heading to? Are they in search of new adventures, or are they going home after a long journey? Are they going to visit friends of family, or are they lonely travelers desperate for companionship? Are they on business? Going to a wedding? A funeral? The birth of a new life? Du du du du. Du du du du. Du du du du. The rumbling has a sort of mechanical beauty to it, manufactured but not false.

There's nothing like a train. I wish America would fall in love with railroads. As it is now, they are ridiculously priced, take twice as long as by car, and don't stop many places. When I came back from Turkey, I had to change trains in a town called Stara Zagora. I bought a ticket for a trip through the Shipka Pass over the Stara Planina (Central Balkan Mountains) - a three hour journey back to Veliko Turnovo.

It cost $2.50

I love trains. Du du du du. Du du du du. Du du du du.

Monday, November 26, 2007

On Neighbors

There are some things about Veliko Turnovo I'll never forget - the kind of "have to be there to appreciate" moments. Next to the hostel lives an older couple - perhaps in their late fifties or early sixties - and their friend, Donia, who lives on the second floor (first floor if you're European). They don't much like living next to a hostel with all the different people coming and going, and we have our suspicions that they sometimes bang on metal pans just to make noise.

I've never actually seen any of them, or if I have, I don't recognize them, but I have certainly heard them. The noise always begins around 6am when the man leaves the house for the day. Sometimes I hear them talking outside the window, but if I don't, I always have the car to wake up to.

The car is an ancient white piece of junk that somehow still runs, though not very well, and is a typical Eastern European car left over from the commie days when there were waiting lists for the crappiest cars ever manufactured in the whole history of the universe. You literally had to put your name on a list and hope you got your car within a couple of years. Of course, Communist Party members always got their cars first, and the common folk often got nothing, you know, because in a communist society everyone is "equal." Some are just more equal than others.

The fact that many people in Bulgaria - especially in somewhat prosperous Veliko Turnovo - still drive these ancient pieces of junk puzzles me. How do they still run? I often see them broken down, and I've even seen people use sledgehammers to start them! In a town where pretty much everything is in walking distance if you're not lazy or elderly, why go through the trouble of these cars? Was it the triumph of getting these cars that makes one keep it? Or is it because car ownership is so valued? And how did they get these cars in the first place? Were they members of the Communist Party? (Oh, I remember the days of broken down cars and would rather not have a car than constantly repair it!)

I'm not sure of the answers, and maybe I wouldn't notice so much if I didn't have to put up with one on a regular basis. I can tell you the emissions pouring out of these cars can make your lungs feel black. The urban air of Bulgaria is filthy - I'm sure half the cars would fail U.S. emissions tests. Imagine, though, waking up to the stench of burning gasoline at 6am from an engine that revs for a solid five minutes - more if it is cold. That's what happens when the neighbor is able to park his car in front of his house instead of down the hill. It isn't just that - the car is so loud (heard of mufflers?) that half the street doesn't need an alarm clock!

The neighborly experience doesn't stop there. Apparently the stairs in the house are too much for the woman, because rather than going up to knock on Donia's door, the woman comes outside and cries, "Donia! Donia!" several times a day, regardless of the hour and often right when we're falling back to sleep after the car.

Someone said he thought the woman had been calling a troublesome dog or a bratty child for awhile. I thought she was just crazy. Now we laugh every time we hear it - even at 6am! (Well, sometimes, anyway.)

Stuff that is kind of funny - I won't forget it!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

I didn't get to go to the monastery I wanted to go to yesterday, so I'm still in Veliko Turnovo trying to figure out a new plan. Seems some of the monasteries don't have accomodation in winter and some were damaged in the massive flooding the country has experienced in the last week, so what to do now...