Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Passover in Bulgaria

For various reasons, Ellis and I decided to stay in Bulgaria this year for Passover. This would be the first time in our lives that we didn’t celebrate the holiday with family, and we had to make a decision as to where we wanted to be for the Seder.

After much thought, we decided to go to the communal Seder at the Jewish Community Center, and share a table with friends. As a result, I also found myself without any preparations to make for the holiday. We can’t get special food here, and I don’t have a separate set of dishes (in any case, there’s absolutely no room for such a thing in my small kitchen), so we decided to make the best with what we have. I went to the Synagogue last week to buy matzo, which turned out to be very different than what we are used to – narrower and rectangular in shape, instead of square. I also had friends bring me matzo meal and matzo ball mix from Israel – this way I could make our traditional popovers, and of course, matzo ball soup.

With no preparations and cooking to do, I actually went and had a manicure on Monday afternoon before Seder – now this is really what I call freedom from slavery!

We arrived at the Community Center at around 8:00 PM, and the Seder started at 8:30. We figured that there were around 150 people present, mostly from the local Jewish community. Most of the participants were elderly, but there was also a nice turn-out from young people – it seemed that the middle generation (our age!) and the very young were not well represented.

The Rabbi from the synagogue led the Seder – this was his first time leading a Seder in Sofia. The Haggadah was printed in Hebrew, with a translation into Bulgarian, and also a transliteration of the Hebrew in Bulgarian script. The Rabbi led the Seder in Hebrew, but when he wanted to give explanations of the text, he spoke in English, and someone translated for him.

We all had small, individual Seder plates, with a hard-boiled egg, celery root for dipping in salt-water, “charoset”, lettuce for the bitter herbs (I missed my horseradish!) and 2 small matzo patties. The matzo was imported from France, and the kosher wine was from Austria. Our friend, Sima, also brought some of her own, home-made charoset, which we all enjoyed.

While we were waiting for the main course to be served, Shlomo, (our friend and Sima’s husband) passed out sheets with songs on them. Most of the locals didn’t know the songs, but there was a table with a large family from Israel who were visiting, and between their table and ours, we had a lot of fun singing.

Dinner was not your usual, big huge meal – we each got a plate with a piece of chicken (cold), potato salad and a sliced tomato. Dessert was apples and bananas. I guess this was one Jewish holiday that we didn’t come away from the table feeling like we all overate!

The second half of the Seder was finished quicker than the first half – at this point, most of the older people had left in any case. The community had bought small gifts for all the children present (for the Afikomen), which was a very nice touch.

We understood from Shlomo that the community had actually sent a portion of their congregants to smaller towns with small Jewish populations, to help them make a Seder together.

I was sorry that the local community weren’t more active during the Seder, and I was hoping to hear some different melodies than the ones that we’re used to, but, I don’t know how many of them had ever had a chance to actively have their own Seders, or if they always participated in community Seders, which were led according to the style of the present Rabbi. We did enjoy hearing Shlomo sing a different version of “Chad Gadya” – to a Syrian melody, which was very different than our traditional one.

We missed sharing the holiday with family, and our own traditions, but were glad that we still had a chance to be with friends, and also to add one more unusual experience to our growing list of experiences that we’ve had over the past 14 months.

Happy Passover everyone, and in the words of the Haggadah – NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cherny Vrah

Cherny Vrah is the name of one of Sofia's main streets in our area of the city. Jodie travels to work on it, and I cross it every day as well. The street used to be very colorful, with trams clanging their bells as they passed in both directions, and people crowding the many small flower stores, fresh fish shops, and vegetable stands on both sides. And it was usually quite congested with traffic. Here is a picture of how we first saw Cherny Vrah.

And this is what the street looks like now:

The street is undergoing major repair work as part of the expansion of Sofia's Metro system. Every day there are new obstacles and obstructions on the street. Many of the small shops have been demolished in preparations for a Metro station, and the trams no longer pass by. The sidewalks have disappeared, and in some places you can't even see the narrow street due to tall barriers in front of the huge construction sites.

If there is any good news from this endless project it seems to be that there is less traffic, as the local drivers are wise to avoid the work taking place on Cherny Vrah.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Wild Dogs of Tokuda

We have mentioned the problem of Sofia's stray dogs before. This is the band of dogs that camp out in the woods near Tokuda Hospital.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mt. Vitosha

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The “Pogacha”

Pogacha is a traditional, round bread which is used in many Bulgarian ceremonies and celebrations. This was also the name for the celebration that we were invited to by one of my colleagues, Luca, and his wife Iva, in honor of the birth of their son, Nicola.

Although the customs surrounding the birth of a baby had their origins many centuries ago, and most of them have not survived, there are still some customs which have made it to modern times and are generally followed by all women after giving birth.

When a baby is born, the baby is not taken out of the house for a period of 40 days. During this time, only close family members are allowed to visit and to see the baby. In ancient times, this was due to the fact that a woman was considered “unclean” and as a result, she and her baby were at great risk from evil spirits. Today, it is more of a feeling of protecting the baby from germs and keeping him safe. At the end of the 40 days, there is a celebration, which only the women family members and friends are invited to. Traditionally, the men were supposed to leave the home – today, they just go and sit in a separate room.

The main focus of the celebration is around the Pogacha. The Pogacha is prepared by a woman relative or friend – the only condition being, that both her parents are alive. After we all drank a drink of wine or whiskey, and wished everyone “Nazdrave” – to health – the Pogacha was covered with a cloth. The women then placed money or traditional coins onto the cloth, and the corners of the cloth were gathered and tied into a tight knot – this was to insure that the baby would not grow up to be a spendthrift. The knotted cloth was then placed out of reach on the top of a cabinet.

At this point, Iva was led to a chair while holding Nicola – a clean cloth was held over her head to catch the crumbs, and 2 women lifted the Pogacha over her head. Again, the parents of these women had to be alive, for them to be part of this ceremony. The bread is then broken on the mother’s head, and pieces are then distributed to the other guests, who offer a blessing to the baby upon receiving the bread.

Along with the Pogacha (which, by the way, was very good!), there were other refreshments served – the usual meats and cheeses, and pastries. The best was the sweet Banitsa with pumpkin and walnuts, which was made by Iva’s 87 year old grandmother. Nicola is her 5th great-grandchild!

We were very excited to be a part of this ceremony, and wish Luca, Iva and baby Nicola, much health and happiness – NAZDRAVE!

Friday, March 19, 2010

News: Archaeological Finds in Central Sofia Stop Metro Construction

It sounds like something we're familiar with from Israel. A major construction project in central Sofia has ground to a halt because of an unexpected archaeological discovery.

Workers digging the city's second metro line came across remains of a church with preserved murals dating back to the 12th century, and remains of early medieval buildings dating to the 5th-6th century. Several medieval graves have been discovered near the church.

The Culture Minister wants to preserve the finds, which may necessitate their being moved to a museum, or the rerouting of the metro line to an even deeper tunnel.

According to news agency Novinite.com ,"Downtown Sofia is filled with archaeological sites from the Antiquity and the Middle Ages; Sofia Architect Petar Dikov has revealed a plan to restore the Roman streets and structures of Sofia, known in Roman times as Serdika, in order to create an open-air tourist attraction."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Palestinian Taxi Driver in Sofia

Today on her ride home from work, Jodie was talking on the phone in English. After she hung up, the taxi driver asked her where she was from, and Jodie replied, "Israel."

"Oh, I'm Palestinian," he said. "From Jordan."

"I've been to Jordan," Jodie said. "I really liked visiting Petra."

The Palestinian driver told Jodie that he had come to Bulgaria to study 30 years ago. He had studied chemical engineering and ended up staying, and today he drove a taxi.

Jodie and the taxi driver agreed on something right away. Politics gets in the way of everything.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Magnets of Our Travels

We just returned from Turkey, and the magnetic memories of our trip have found their places on our crowded refrigerator.

All the trips of our Bulgarian experience are now included on the refrigerator. The problem is that it's not a big refrigerator, and with what's planned for the coming year, it is soon going to be covered from top to bottom.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bulgarian Meat Ball Soup

Oh, this is good!

Bulgarian Meatball Soup

Ingredients (8 servings)
1 lb Ground beef
6 tb Rice
1 ts Paprika
1 ts Dried savory
Salt, pepper
6 c Water
2 Beef bouillon cubes
1/2 Bunch green onions; sliced
1 Green bell pepper; chopped
2 Carrots;peeled,sliced thin
3 Tomatoes; peeled & chopped
1 Sm. yellow chiles, split *
1/2 Bunch parsley; minced
1 Egg
1 Lemon (Juice only)

*Note: Remove most of the seeds from the chiles. Combine beef, rice, paprika and savory. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix lightly but thoroughly. Form into 1-inch balls, then roll in flour. Combine water, bouillon cubes, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, green onions, green pepper, carrots and tomatoes in large kettle. Cover, bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.
Add meatballs, cover and bring to boil again. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes. Add chiles and simmer, covered, 40 minutes or until rice is cooked. Add parsley during last 5 minutes of cooking time. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if needed. Just before serving, beat egg with lemon juice. Stir 1 to 2 tablespoons hot soup into egg mixture, then stir egg mixture into soup. Heat and stir until soup is thickened slightly, but do not allow to boil.

Created by: St. George's Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church, Los Angeles (C) 1992 The Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Turkish Shoeshine Man

On one of our walks at night through the streets of Istanbul, not far from our hotel, we passed a shoeshine man, carrying the tools of his trade as he headed home at the end of the day. As he turned the corner, a brush fell off his kit and landed on the sidewalk pavement. I picked it up and called out to the man, and he came back to claim his brush.

The man was so thankful and quickly set down his kit on the sidewalk and insisted on giving me a shoeshine in expression of his gratitude for my returning his brush. As it was raining, there was no point in getting a shoeshine, so I turned my back and pulled Jodie along as we headed up the street.

Jodie said that I had caused the man to lose face, as I hadn't returned the favor, and for quite some time that night I felt bad about leaving the shoeshine man in the rain, calling out after me.

But awhile later, when we were nearing our hotel, we passed another shoeshine man heading home for the night. As he turned the corner, a brush fell off his kit onto the pavement right ahead of us. This time we didn't bother to pick up the brush and fall for the trick.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Memories from Istanbul

We will have very fond memories of our visit to Istanbul, and we plan to come back some day and see the rest of the city. Here are some varied pictures of the sights we saw.

The tram was very modern and comfortable.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bellydancing and Folklore

On our final night in Istanbul we went out to a folklore dinner. A car picked us up at the hotel and brought us to a huge hall, where at least 600 people gathered for dinner and the show. We had a table by ourselves, right next to the stage.

The food itself wasn't anything spectacular, and most of the other diners were tourists. And then the show began.

Bring on the bellydancers!

When the performances ended, many of the guests started dancing on the stage to the beat of the Turkish music. It seemed like a party of an Israeli teachers' association, so we decided to call it a night.

Istanbul = Taksim

After visiting the old palaces of Istanbul, we headed for the more modern sections of the city. We took the funikular, an underground train similar to the Carmelit in Haifa, up under the hillside to Taksim for a walk along crowded Istiklal Caddesi Street.

There were very modern shops along the street, and at least four Starbucks coffeeshops along its length. A special streetcar clanged its bell as it made its way between the many people.

We tried to find Istanbul's biggest synagogue, located at the far end of the street, but by that point we were very tired from all our walking, so instead we headed down a second funikular train and caught the tram back to our hotel.

Istanbul = Dolmabahce Palace

We took the tram to Kabatas Station and walked from there along the pier to Dolmabahce Palace, home of the last Turkish sultans.

Domabahce Palace was built between the years 1834-1856 by the 31st sultan, Sultan Abdulmecid. As compared to Topkapi Palace, this one was very European, with elements of Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classic traditions combined with Ottoman traditional art and culture.

The palace was huge, and we took two guided tours inside through some of the 285 rooms, 44 halls and 6 hamams. Photography was not allowed inside.

The harem of this palace was a disappointment, because it was not nearly as splendid as the official rooms and halls used by the sultan for entertaining official guests and holding state ceremonies.

The Palace was home to the last six sultans until the abolishment of the Caliphate in 1924. In that year, ownership of the palace was transferred to the new republic of Turkey. It became the summer presidential home of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who enacted some of his most important works in the building until his death in 1938.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Istanbul = Galata Bridge

The famous Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn, linking two parts of Istanbul, the old and the modern. It is very near the bustling Spice Bazaar.

All along the length of the bridge there were people fishing. We crossed the bridge by tram the day after our visit by foot.

The lower level of the bridge is full of fish restaurants, and like the over-friendly salesmen in the markets, the waiters tried to fish you in as their customers. We could easily have had a fish sandwich for 4 Turkish Lire, but ended up in a very nice restaurant for a good fish lunch.

This is very appropriate = drinking Turkish coffee in Turkey.

We enjoyed the meal, looking out at the busy port, filled with ferries, fishing boats and ocean going ships.

This is the crowded passageway under the street we went through on our way back to the hotel.

Istanbul = Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar

For tourists, Istanbul's main attractions are its markets, and on Saturday we visited both the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar). Everything was walking distance, but we're talking about quite a bit of walking.

Pictured below are Jodie and a Kurdish carpet salesman. A word about the salesmen = the Turks are very, very agressive, and over-friendly. They can start an innocent conversation with you, only with the intention of getting you to buy something. If we had wanted to buy a carpet, no doubt this Kurdish man would have been the one to sell us something, as he went out of his way to introduce us to his entire family in a short 10 minutes. The best thing to do is just ignore those who try to accost you.

Another thing about the salesmen and street hawkers, even though Jodie and I don't look at all Israeli, we were frequently approached in Hebrew, and this amused us. Istanbul has seen many Israeli tourists in the past, so perhaps all tourists are approached in Hebrew. The Grand Bazaar was huge, and the Old City of Jerusalem could have fit inside many times over.

In the Grand Bazaar, you must negotiate your price. If you can get 50% off the starting price, you're doing good. We weren't too good in our efforts, and only managed to reduce the price of some small souvenirs by 30-40%.

Jodie enjoyed the many shops near our hotel, and those in the Grand Bazaar, that were selling Turkish ceramic plates. In the end we bought some tiles which we will frame and hang on our walls.

From the Grand Bazaar we went off in search of the Suleymaniye Mosque, only to discover that it was closed and undergoing repairs. We had tea (chay) in a hole-in-the-ground cafe, and then walked down and down towards the Spice Bazaar alongside the pier. Outside this market, a lady offered us corn to feed the pigeons.

At the entrance of the Spice Bazaar we enjoyed fresh glasses of pomegranate and orange juice = highly recommended!

Yes, the Spice Bazaar had spices on display:

But the passageways in this market were, very, very crowded with both locals and tourists, and it was difficult to walk and impossible to enjoy the visit. Some of the local women were highly fashionable, as you can see: