Monday, March 10, 2008

My new favorite thing

Hey all,
Here is my new favorite band/song. I know, I know, they can't really be considered new when they're from the '70s and '80s. But you know what? They're new to me. Here is their video which I miraculously found on YouTube, which proves once and for all, that YouTube has everything. A little note first about this song: it is incredible and strikes a particularly personal note in my life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria. You can obviously see this by mere virtue of the fact that it is making it onto my blog. I keep this blog to share only my most deeply profound thoughts.

Lyrics - Bulgarian (Cyrillic) / English

За мен отдавна хората говорят / People have long said about me
че вечно съм без пукната пара / that I'm always dirt broke
но аз с всеки съм готов да споря / but with them all I'm ready to argue
дали това е най-важно на света / whether this is the most important thing in the world

живея на последния етаж / I live on the top floor
в една мансарда, точно под звездите / in an attick, right under the stars
прозорецът е моята врата / the window is my door
и аз вървя към тях и ги разпитвам / and i go to them and inquire

дали след време тука под звездите / whether after some time here under the stars
прозорецът ще има светлина / the window will have light
дали тогава пак ще слушат "Бийтълс" / whether then again they'll listen to The Beatles
и вечните поети ще четат/ and the eternal poets they will read

дали хазяйката ще идва рано / wether the landlady will come early
с виенска кифла, с каничка кафе / with Viennese rolls, with a pot of coffee
и вместо да попита тя за наема / and instead of asking for the rent
ще усмихне - спахте ли добре / she'll smile - "did you sleep well?"

и пак ли ще звучи невероятно / and again will this sound unbelievable?
за някой, ако някой пак твърди / to someone, if someone again contends,
че имам най-голямото богатство / that I have the the most riches,
един прозорец и безброй звезди. / one window and countless stars.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Ham In Turkey

If my titles are becoming too much for you guys to handle, let me know and i'll tone it down.
Also, this post is a product of not being able to sleep, so it is written back to back with the one below it. So I suggest reading that first and coming back in order to fully appreciate the quality of what I'm saying here.

I want to write a little bit about my New Years experience in Istanbul before I put it off indefinitely or find something else to write about entirely. I will start with day 1, but I will flow freely from there without adhering to linear time as we know it.

As I have been making progress building the 'Mall of Gabrovo/shopping center/golden monument where human evolution will take a new turn', I had let my outwardly appearance become more rugged. I was sporting scraggly hair and a beard. As the new year approached, I took time off from construction and went to Istanbul, where I had figured it was time for a change - to clean myself up. I went with some peace corps friends (shane, mike, and his brother steve who was visiting from the states). On our first walk around some tourist spots, I saw the man below-right wave to me from the big glass window of his barber shop. I figured it was as good a place as any to get cleaned up, right? And I had never had a straight-razor shave before. Now, I release the photos below in true politician style. To explain my story before other copies (of which there are plenty) leak to the public out of context.

After my shave (which turned into a shave and haircut), the barber kept going. By the end I got a haircut, a shave, a facemask treatment, a neck massage, and a free cup of tea for posterity. I did not ask for these things, but they happened... one by one in rapid succession by a man with a straight razor at my throat. But, as the picture on the right shows, we bonded over the inability to speak each other's language. Meet my friend, the overpriced barber in istanbul. It sure wasn't the $2 haircut i'm used to in Bulgaria, but I must admit I look equally more hot.

After that there's not much more to tell. The 5 remaining days in Istanbul (originally 3 but extended by a lack of trains back until Jan. 3rd) consisted of walking, sightseeing, sitting at cafes, and watching live music.

Here's some travel advice though. If you are in the nightlife area of Istanbul, near Taksim Square, watch out for people who start walking and talking with you. It will be twix the hours of 7pm and 2am, and some man speaking turkish will coolly ask you for directions, or for a light for his cigarette. They will be surprised you speak english (even though they targeted you for that reason alone). They will strike up conversation and talk about where you're from, like they want to be your new best friend, or they want to practice their english, etc. They'll walk with you and then suggest you all go to an awesome bar they know about. ***This is a trap. They are taking you to some place that is probably not legitimate, or otherwise they wouldn't have these people out on the street trolling for customers.

Here are some tricks to get them to leave. 1. Speak some obscure language (Bulgarian works) 2. tell them you're meeting friends at a certain bar you know of, and beg them to come with you 3. as they are chatting up with you, slip in that you are a volunteer teacher and make no money (they start walking faster immediately to try to lose you in the crowd) *yelling after them "hey, why are you walking so fast, I thought we were friends!" is optional. 4. make up lots of personal information about yourself, and then tell them you're going to catch a train, but you hope they have a good night.

The option you decide rests solely on whether you want them to leave as quickly as possible or you want to waste as much of their time as you can. Another fun game is waiting around on that street for a bit until you see them double back, probably to the place they first 'ran into you'... as they are likely going back to snag someone else less suspecting.

Remember, you can't teach street smarts in school.
Straight street, I'm out.

The Price of Brie-dom

Since it has been almost 5 months since my last update, there is alot I first want to brag about. Deep breath, Go. In the past 5 months I've visited Poland, Athens, Istanbul (twice), and several places inside Bulgaria such as Sapareva Banya (to see the host fam), Bourgas (for thanksgiving), Veliko Turnovo (for halloween), Apriltsi, and of course, Plovdiv.

But what I really want to talk about is this:

and, of course, this:

The former being the new Mall of Gabrovo, and the latter being, well, brie. I don't want to specifically talk about brie, but I fear if I was just talking about cheese you wouldn't take me seriously. So seriously, let's discuss.

For you detectives out there, you may already have figured out that Gabrovo is my peace corps site, the town in which I live and work here in Bulgaria. It's a sizable town that stretches several kilometers. Well, about 7 months ago an old movie theater near the center of town was demolished to make way for, you guessed it, a brand new mall. What you see in the picture above is post-demolition/hole-making for a foundation/pre-construction of this new mall. There are pictures up around the construction site about what the new mall will look like, and I will try to post a picture of that picture soon. As luck would have it, the construction is, let's say, 'close' to my apartment.

Your first concern would be for my health and safety. "Is Joe getting enough sleep with all this noise? Is he breathing alright when bits of rubble from the demolition phase spontaneously combust sending fire and smoke in the air?". Honestly, none of that matters now. Because of the famed 'proximity rule' (mostly used in college dormitories to quickly determine who will answer the door or take out the trash), I have decided I am able to take full credit for what will be called the grandest peace corps development project ever, a f*ing mall. All this simply by living near it. This bastion of american consumerism is the least I can do for my town.
What kind of compensation do I get for my work/illegitimate credit taking? Well, it certainly isn't monetary... which brings me to brie.

As a peace corps volunteer, I'm certainly not rolling in the Aleko's. Sigh - a joke I must explain. Aleko Konstantinov is a Bulgarian writer who is on the 100 leva bill. Absorb. Laugh.

To seemlessly throw out a possibly innaccurate figure by couching my statement in vague language: the price of some food staples in or around Bulgaria have gone up between 15-20% in 2007 alone. Cheese did not escape this fate. Cheese might not come to mind as a 'staple', unless you are a lover of Bulgarian 'bahnitsa' or devoted to shopska salad. I am these things.
What was different about 2007 you ask? Would you like to explain it by mere virtue of Bulgaria joining the EU on jan. 1st 2007? Plausible. It's not for me to decide. I couldn't tell you how much the price of brie has gone up, since I don't remember buying it even though I'm tempted each time I pass it in the store. I spend the extra money I pocket away on the rarer beast - cottage cheese, which finds its way to our stores only on occassion.

But enough about my personal life. What am I working on? Kind of a ballsy question to ask since I already told you I am personally building a mall/shopping center/kingdom *where people will fly for the first time ever*, piece by piece from scratch with my own two hands. But yes, I have other work going on too. My park and I just got a project grant through USAID and Peace Corps to train park staff and a group of high school students in monitoring species of birds of prey in our park and elsewhere around our town... so, we got that going for us. And here is where I will abruptly end.

I hope to not wait another 5 months to make my next entry.
*credit to Mike Clark for unknowingly contributing to my joke*

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Ring of Fire

and it burns burns burns... though a little less so than the previous few days. It was my office's turn to go monitor a wildfire in the park and make sure it didn't spread into the Boatin Reserve (we have several nature reserves inside the national park where much stricter laws protect its pristine state). Any-hoo, this wasn't some Towering Inferno, and I was no Steve McQueen (if you know this, I love you).

The wildfire was on the face in the treeless zone of one of the mountains on the Northwestern border of the National Park, and after burning for several days, it was already reduced to pockmark flare-ups left over from heat trapped beneath the surface of dry dense grass and shrubs. Armed with sleeping bags, camping food, shovels and rubber fire swatters, the plan was to camp around the burnt area, watch for flare-ups and quickly stamp them out, until the next day when the next shift of people arrived, or the storm front arrived, whichever came first.

Assuming to count as an extinguished fire, the flame must be at least 2 sq. ft. and put out by one person, I thusly put out 0.34 fires that day. Sadly, I do not have any photos of the event, but you may have seen the wildfire problems in Bulgaria and elsewhere on the Balkans in the news recently. Well, here is an artist depiction of the entirety of my contribution to this tragedy:

Call me what you will - a hero, a leader, a perfect example of pure courage... I'll leave it to history to decide.

All in all, it was a great outdoor excursion with some of the people from my office, a great chance to chat, drink rakia, eat spam (c'mon, we were camping), and camp out on the side of a mountain in only a sleeping bag, watching not the night stars, but the far off lightning storm roll its way to you from several mountains and valleys away. At 11pm came the lightning and some rain. At 2am came the hail, and with that, the mass exodus off the mountain and back to the cars (where several of us were already waiting since the 11pm fiasco).

Since then, I've still been trying to get my normal sleep schedule back... without luck. They say experiencing wildfires first-hand can traumatize you... but it also forges an everlasting bond between you and your comrades. I may have come out of this with both.

God I'm deep.

Happy 1 Year Anniversary in Bulgaria B-20's!

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Well, I did it. I went to Sofia, Bulgaria to meet 'the leader of the free world'. We discussed topical issues such as 'what is up', and 'how beautiful is bulgaria, huh?'. I wasn't the only person he met with, but I was probably the only person he high-fived, so that is saying something. Though this event wasn't covered by the popular media, I did happen to get this picture taken by fellow PCV and sitemate Casey (thanks Casey).

For those of you who claim that I am not actually high-fiving him, or it could be anyone high-fiving the president, I took the liberty of pointing out details of the picture. 1a. he is looking directly f**ing at me; 1b. I am not possibly growing extra thumbs/fingers, that's his hand; 1c. the sun was behind him and to the right, only his arm could make that shadow on this lady's head; 2a. If you can't tell those are my transition lenses, you don't know me and thus I do not care if you don't believe me; 2b. my red wrist-band which I've been wearing since my trip to El Salvador (spring 2005).

You might wonder: if you added so much to this picture, how do we know you didn't just photo-shop the whole thing?
Answer: I am not that good. This is proven by the poor quality of the things I did add.

The picture is only surpassed in awesomeness by the exchange of words I had with President Bush. The conversation went something like this -
Me: Hey! How are you doin'?!
Bush: I'm well, thank you. How are you?
Me: I'm great, thanks!
Bush: {generic we are thankful for the work you volunteers do comment} and Bulgaria is really beautiful, isn't it?
Me: Oh, Ridiculous! (meant to be 'yes, ridiculously beautiful', but i didn't get that far)

Well, if there was anything about that last comment that was misunderstood, I can just clarify next time I meet him.
Another volunteer had a funnier exchange with him, but I do not feel like telling that story at this time.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Gymnastika and the Kids Who Loved Her

Yesterday evening was finally an interesting one here in Hometown, Bg. Since moving here to my new community there's been alot of grocery shopping, household supply shopping, frantically speed walking through rainstorm after rainstorm, and ALOT of trying to use as many compound words as possible while riding the railroads, motorways, streetcars, and buslines to and fro'. That got old fast.

So any-hoo. Last night was the first time in two weeks here I've been out and about after 7pm on a weekday. I should take it easy - you proclaim? Too ambitious - you decry? I will wear myself out before my two year mission has been fulfilled - you speculate? Ha! I say in your face. Peace Corps Volunteers live to be ambitious!

At around 6:15 I met up with the other two volunteers in my new town, a young married couple - and super people, outside of the gymnastic center. After weeks of straightening everything out, they were able to get the gymnastics instructors to give a reduced-rate gymnastics class to about 15 kids from our town's orphanage... and last night was the exciting beginning! Class #1! Did I tumble - you ask? Did I jump - you inquire? Did I prance - you query? No... but the kids did, and they loved every minute of it... especially the trampoline which they had pined after for weeks already.
Unrelated photograph:

I have to admit that I had my predisposition about orphans - namely an unruly lot where one can only sit by and follow their endless stream of thoughts and actions to physical and mental exhaustion. And, po princip (generally), kids exhaust me anyway... and these kids probably could have, given ample opportunity. But during the lesson, I was just a spectator, and my only real role was to walk them safely home afterward. So what I'm basically saying is I can in no way claim to know anything about who these kids are... however I can report what I saw. I saw 15 kids who would snap up straight at the word of the instructors. I saw these kids warm-up, take turns, follow the rules, and have lots and lots of fun. So much fun they tried to move next week's lesson up to tomorrow (to no avail). This is the first structured anything that some of these kids have ever had, and they took to it like sphagnum to a bog (you learn a little every day - yesterday about orphans, today about sphagnum).

A note on the walk to the orphanage: The other volunteers had not mentioned exactly where we were leading these children, except that it was 'to the orphanage'. Being naive in my new town, I assumed I had seen it all, and had various ideas about where we might be walking. But, being in a city of acute, protruding hills, there seems to be something new around every bend, or up every staircase.

For a town that claims not to have a 'mahala' (ghetto), we were certainly headed in the right direction to find one. Around the bend of one hill, off to a northern upshoot from town that I had not previously visited, we came to the orphanage. The average townee would never have the need to pass by, saunter past, or drive through this part of town. Anywhere you needed to go was accessible through other corridors. And the hills make it almost an invisible part of town. Just another great example of people using geography, geography, geography to their advantage to keep things out of sight - out of mind. I could only recollect the old detention center-turned-halfway house on Long Island in Boston Harbor. From land, it just appears an island... from sea, you can get up a little closer and see an institutional-looking red brick building peeking through the tree-line on the shore... what goes on over there??? oh nothing...

Tuesday, June 5, 2007


Whichever you choose to call it, Heinz makes the best. If someone came up and said to you, "The ketchup here in Bulgaria is fantastic!", they are lying. Sure, there are tomatoes in it. Sure, it is red. Sure, it is saucy. But those things do not a good ketchup make. Enough said. Although I do give Bulgaria +25 points for availability of garlic sauce. The U.S. is really behind the curve on that one.

Heinz: Kicking the tomatoe paste out of their competitors since 1876