Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bulgarian Teenagers Go Wild

Walking in one of Sofia's parks on Saturday with friends, we heard lots of cars honking nearby. This is part of an ancient Bulgarian tradition related to the end of May. The school year has ended, and for high school seniors, it is time to celebrate! This is done by speeding up and down the streets of the city with your friends, making sure your horn is in good working order.

But there's more. Even though they struggle with their low wages, Bulgarian families are quick to fork out hundreds, if not thousands of Leva to buy a prom dress for their graduate daughters. Walking home from work one day, Jodie and I passed a parking lot full of teenagers and their parents. Some of the girls were dressed to kill, in fancy, glittery gowns. The party was in full swing.

A recent article I read indicated that the financial crisis has struck here as well, and some girls are, can you believe it, buying used dresses for their graduation. Assumingly they will wear them once, and then resell them to next year's graduates.

Friday, May 22, 2009

It's a Small World, and Applesauce

About two weeks ago I was talking with my boss Yuval about a number of different things, and one thing lead to another and I said something about having been in a garin (a group in the Israeli army who do their army service together and part of their service is on a border kibbutz). He asked me which garin I had been on, and I told him that we were on Kibbutz Yahel. He looked at me and said – “Then you must know my cousins – Yossi and Sharon Gotlieb”! Of course I knew them – they were actually in the garin with Ellis’ sister Debby, but we were all on Kibbutz together.

To make the coincidence even funnier, it turned out that Yossi and Sharon were planning on coming to Sofia the following week to visit, and in honor of Yossi’s 50th birthday! Yuval immediately called Sharon and told her that there was someone who wanted to talk to her – what a surprise! She already knew that we were here since she’s been following our blog and Facebook, and was planning to get in touch with us.

The following week, after they arrived, Yuval dropped them off at our apartment and guess what they brought us? APPLESAUCE! They had read on our blog how we couldn’t find applesauce here in Bulgaria, so they brought us 6 cans! I can’t believe they brought so much – it was very heavy! But now I’ll be able to make my favorite chocolate cake.

We took them out to dinner at a restaurant around the corner from us, that we’ve tried before and liked. We all had a good time – it was fun to catch up with old friends (and no, Yossi, I don’t mean “old” in the sense that now you are 50! – we’ve all passed that landmark awhile ago….!), and the food was good, and we all had an enjoyable evening!

So, Happy Birthday Yossi! And thanks for the applesauce!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Take care, even when dealing with expats

The other day we bought some products from a stand at the fair held in the parking lot of the United States Embassy. We thought it was a treat to have pancake mix and maple syrup. We bought the products from a food importer called Andy's Foods, run by "ex-pats", Brits living in Sofia. We never thought they would try to trick us.

The day after the fair, we learned from a coworker of Jodie's, that the Taco Mix he had bought at the fair was past its expiration date, and that the food company had made problems when he asked to exchange it. When we got home we decided to check what we had bought.

The Ranch Dressing we bought had a January expiration date, and the McDougalls Batter Mix's "best use before" date was February 2009.

I called Andys Food to complain and was shocked that the owner didn't see anything wrong in selling expired goods. "I posted a notice that this was old stock," he said. I shouted at him on the phone, stating that he had endangered peoples' health in the sale, but he argued that I should have realized these were old products because the price had been so low.

We never expected ex-pats to try to pull the wool over other foreigners living in Bulgaria, foreigners who know that expiration dates are put on products to protect consumers' health.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Almost missed this = Ellis and Jodie in the news!

Back in March, we joined other ex-pats at a dinner at Chalet Suisse. We told the story: here.

Pictures were taken at that meal, and were posted on the website of the Sofia Echo, Bulgaria's English weekly newsletter. You can see us enjoying ourselves: here.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Don't put your purse on the floor!

Bulgarians believe that it is bad luck to put your purse on the floor. It means that all your wealth could run out and disappear. So, instead, you will see women in restaurants sitting uncomfortably with their purse on their chair behind them, or on their lap, while they eat.

Yesterday, I went to get my nails and toenails done at a manicurist/pedicurist in our neighborhood. When I got home, I noticed that one of the bright red toenails was smudged. Today, I went back to the shop, and showed the toe to the young girl who had done the job.

"Oh, no," the girl said, and immediately set to repair the damage.

I sat down and put my purse on the shop floor.

"Oh, no!" the girl exclaimed, and quickly picked up the purse and put it on a chair next to me.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Arts and Crafts Fair at the American Embassy

Today we went to the annual Arts and Crafts Fair at the parking lot of the American Embassy. The fair is organized by the Community Liaison Office of the American Embassy in Bulgaria. The Embassy isn’t far from where we live – a 15 min walk - uphill. We could tell we were in the right place when we saw the striped tent tops and heard a lot of English being spoken.

Inside, there were two areas set up with goods – the first, where we came in, was more of the “garage sale” variety – used clothes, children’s toys etc. Proceeds were going to a charity for children. There wasn’t anything here that actually interested us.

On the other side, there were tables of arts and crafts of local Bulgarian artists. There were tables showing local pottery- both traditional and modern. Another table sold embroidered cloths, while still another table showed off beautiful lacquered boxes and “Babushka” dolls. There were a couple of artists showing their paintings and photography. There was also a table with scented natural soaps and candles – I bought a bar of sandalwood peeling soap.

In addition, there was a table for donations to the local Bulgarian Society for Animal Protection. Ellis has been saying that he wants to “rent” a dog for the day during the weekend, so that he could take the dog for a walk in the park like all the locals, but give it back at the end of the day – we’re in no position to actually get a dog here. SO – after talking to the people at this table, he found out that he can sign up as a volunteer, and, when he’s available, come take out a dog from the pound for a walk, as they need human contact!

But, being “Ex-pats” here in Bulgaria, the table that ended up getting some of our money, was the one with the imported foods that you can’t get here in Bulgaria. Although a lot of the food offered (and in their shop, which we checked out on their website) caters to the British in Sofia, we were still happy to indulge in real Maple syrup, some pancake mix (too lazy to prepare from scratch!), Paul Newman’s Ranch salad dressing and some cheddar cheese.

After wandering around and making our purchases, we decided to partake of the American style BBQ that was being prepared by the Marines – hamburgers, hotdogs, potato salad, brownies for dessert and, of course, beer! The price was right, the food was good, and it was fun.

We saw a few people that we know, and sat at a table with a nice young family –she’s British, he’s Italian, they have 3 kids and have also lived in the States. They’ve been here for almost four years and are going back to the States soon. There are people here from all over, and you never know who you’re going to meet. They gave us a couple tips on where we might be able to meet more people, and learn more about Sofia, which is another advantage to talking to new people –you never know where it will lead to!

So, we’ve been to the Israeli Embassy for a piece of Israel here in Sofia, and today, we took advantage of our American roots to enjoy a bit of “Americana” in Bulgaria. All in all, an enjoyable time!

Friday, May 15, 2009

When taking a taxi...

When taking a taxi in Bulgaria, make sure to check the price list in the back window before getting in the car.

Most of the cabs on the streets of Sofia (and Plovdiv for that matter) start off at about 0.59 BGN a kilometer, and that's just fine. For Jodie, taking a taxi to work should cost about 3 Leva. Prices of taxis are quite cheap, actually. When we took one to the airport (30 minutes' drive), admittedly at an hour when there was no traffic, the bill came to about 12 Leva.

What you have to be careful of, is not getting into a private taxi, where the rate is more than 2 Leva a kilometer. You have no choice but to pay the higher bill, because the price of 2.50 Leva/kilometer was posted in the back window. It happens to everyone. Just the other night, I was in a hurry to catch a taxi into the center of the city and didn't check the window. For a short drive, I paid 16 Leva.

Even if you get into one of the cheaper taxis, you could be taken for a ride. When we were in Plovdiv, we had a very nice driver. Although he didn't speak a word of English, he kept going on about how Israel was a good country. Apparently he was trying to divert our attention from his "fixed" meter. It started out at 0.59, but was jumping up at an amazing rate. We ended up paying 13 Leva for a ride which should have cost us only 3 Leva.

And finally, you're not supposed to tip taxi drivers. Just pay them the amount registered on the meter. But, don't expect them to have, or make change. If the price is 3.70 Leva, and you give them 4, they'll pocket the difference.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Weekend in Plovdiv

After work on Friday we took a taxi to the Central Bus Station, where we caught the 4 o'clock bus to Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second biggest city. The ride was quite beautiful. We could see snow-capped mountains to the south and everything was very green.

When we arrived in Plovdiv we made our first, and only mistake with a Bulgarian taxi ride. We took the first taxi we saw, and although the driver chatted with us about how good Israel was, his meter was screwed up and the price climbed quickly, although we only drove a short distance. Next time we'll be more careful selecting a taxi.

We stayed at the Imperial Hotel, which was about 10 minutes outside the city center. The hotel was just fine, with a comfortable room and good buffet breakfasts, but water leaked from the bath tub every time we took a shower.

On Friday night we walked to a restaurant not far from the hotel, where we were just able to make our request for chicken dinners understood by the waitress.

On Saturday morning we took a quick taxi ride to Ploshtad Dzhumaya, next to Plovdiv's big mosque. From there we began our exploration of the Old Town. The Old Town has many homes from the 1880s which have been carefully restored, and many of them now serve as museums and art galleries.

We walked up the cobblestone streets, going into one house after the other. There were many souvenir shops as well.

At the top of the hill we ate grilled trout for lunch. The Nebe Tebet citadel is nothing more than a bunch of rocks, but there was a beautiful view over the city of Plovdiv.

Some of the more remarkable houses we visited included the Balabanov House and the Zlatyo Boyadzhiev Museum. The most beautiful house in the Old Town has now become the Ethnographic Museum.

After we made our way down from the Old Town, we strolled along the pedestrian mall of modern Plovdiv and had some very good ice cream. We went back to the hotel to rest.

Afterwards we were reading in the hotel gardens when a wedding party arrived. We didn't understand why all the guests came bearing bouquets of flowers. The bride and groom came along, and the photographers set to work capturing their images in the park. We couldn't help but notice that the bride must have been in her 6th or 7th month of pregnancy.

On Saturday night we returned to modern Plovdiv for a very good dinner. The restaurant we selected by chance was called Hemingway, and we just managed to get a table, as it seemed quite popular among the locals. I had a spinach soup followed by lamp chops over two types of rice, while Jodie started with grilled vegetables and then had salmon with beets and asparagus. It was an excellent meal!

On Sunday morning we visited the major site of Plovdiv's ancient past - the Roman ampitheater. The setting was beautiful, and it was surprising that there were hardly any other tourists at such a remarkable site.

Our visit to Plovdiv came to an end, and we headed to the bus station for the journey home.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The 6-day Bulgarian Weekend

Everyone is on holiday, out of the city, away from work. Everyone but us, it seems. When we walk to work (Ellis) or ride in a taxi to work (Jodie) we can't help but notice how quiet the streets of Sofia are. It's all because of the 6-day Bulgarian Weekend.

This is not a usual occurrence. But when May 1 (Labor Day) falls on a Friday, and Saint George's Day falls on a Wednesday, the government decides that Bulgarians are entitled to bridge the two holidays for a long vacation period.

It would seem ideal, but 6 days away from work is too much for this economy to handle. So to make it up, Bulgarians will be required to work on two Saturdays later in the month of May.

We can only assume that the missing Sofia residents are visiting their families in the country, or possibly taking in the sights of Greece or Turkey. In the meantime, we'll enjoy the quiet.