30 June 2012

The Year in Review, Part 3: The Things

Part 3 in a 3-part retrospective of the year I've spent in Bulgaria.

This morning, I ate the last banitsa of the year I have spent in my latest home. Maybe it was the sentimentality of the event, but I would venture to declare that it was the most delicious banitsa I've had this entire year. Hot, greasy, and rife with melting butter and sirene, it was just about the most wonderful culinary way I can think of to say one last, delicious goodbye to this land of domashna xrana and topli zakuski.

If not quite as much as it has been the people and the places that have made this past year so great, the things I have experienced here have done their own small part to replace those that I left behind in the States. Me being a fat kid at heart, food has been a major focal point of my attention in this place. And, let me say, there are a few things I'm really going to miss about the food in Bulgaria. 

Ayryan. Shopska salata (although this, easily made, will be coming back with me to the US, and will continue to meet its end in my stomach, perhaps joined by a splash of rakia). The beer here--cheap and delicious--will be sorely missed. I will not welcome with open arms the chance to pay $8 for a beer again, vastly preferring to pay 80 cents, instead. Shumensko, Zagorka, and Pirinsko will join Yuengling on the list of cheap, really good beers that I will not be able to drink on a regular basis. 

Open-bottle laws will likewise be something I will not be pleased to go back to. Not that drinking in public is something I find integral to the enjoyment of my life, but it's nice to sit in the park and share a beer with people. Such bench parties are, in fact, mainstays of Bulgarian cultural life at this time of year when the weather is warm and the air heavy in the creeping darkness, and they are consistently fun and pleasant. I will miss these open-air gatherings almost as much as the price and quality of the beer.

One item of food I will not miss is the Bulgarian idea of pizza. I found myself missing a few things from the US in the last few weeks--most of them food-related--one of which was the hot slice of mozzarella perched atop a veritable ocean of tomato sauce that you can get at any reputable pizza establishment Stateside. While I appreciate the effort made on the part of Bulgarian entrepreneurs to introduce this monument of culinary excellence to the Balkans, their adaptation of same simply does not cut it. Kashkaval is not mozzarella, and ketchup is not tomato sauce. It's as simple as that, and these things add up.

But with so much good food and beer (and wine, as well) in this place, sitting down for long dinners amongst good company is a way of life, and it's something else I'm really going to miss. We have the wrong idea of eating in the States - it's typically a rushed affair, for justifiable reasons or not. Eating out, you can expect to get the check as soon your food is eaten, and you certainly never have to ask for it. But here, as long as the conversation, which can stretch on and on ad infinitum, and the drinks, which can stretch on even longer, are flowing, dinnertime abides, defying clock and circadian rhythm. I'm convinced, after spending several evenings this way, that this is healthier, more enjoyable, and a better use of time than any I can think of. 

Living in LA, I've gotten used to a complete and utter lack of public transportation to ferry people between points A and B. Sofia's public transportation, though, while universally delayed, is extensive, and there is usually a way to get between two points in the city on a tramcar, trolleybus, or good old autobus. The infrastructure leaves something to be desired, and the pace of these modes of transportation is usually equivalent to speeds not exceeding those of a sprinting human, but if it should come down to the choice between sprinting for several kilometers and riding a noisy, slightly pungent tramcar for the same distance, I'll gladly pay my lev and save myself the trauma.

Of course, if one wants to pay slightly more, one has at one's disposal what is perhaps the best institution in the city - the cabs. Taxis in every city are highly idiosyncratic beasts, but when it comes down to it, Sofia's may be the best in the entire world. First of all, they are criminally cheap. Getting from one extreme side of the Center to the other will cost you 5 leva - about $3.50. Second of all, the range of personalities one may encounter in such cars is award-winning. This year alone, I have gotten in both a shouting match with a truly despicable character who tried to take advantage of the fact that I was a foreigner, not knowing that I knew enough of the language to make rather repugnant insinuations about his mother, and an extremely good-natured conversation about the Eurocup and who should win it based on the quality of the women in each participating country (the resolution we came to, of course, being that Bulgaria should win going away). Joe Jackson was right - in this city, at least, you never know quite what you'll find, stepping out into the night.

It seems to be that, on any given weekend night, most of these cabs are headed in the direction of any one of a number of chalga clubs. Chalga is, more or less, folk music thrown in a blender with electronica, the results of which are simply stunning, and not entirely in a good way. The lyrics are vacuous, the beats are unimaginative, and the genre gave rise to this guy. But there is a goofy, intriguing subculture surrounding this music. Starting around 1 AM, clubs start filling up, week after week, with big guys--huge chests and massive biceps unabashedly on display--and their miniscule, crimped-hair, barely-dressed girlfriends. It is a thing of beauty, and something amongst which I actually wish I had spent more time.

Closely related to this institution of gaudy popular culture, for the younger folk, is the Bulgarian version of prom, which coincides with their graduations. Imagine, if you will, that for two weeks in June, the city is filled with cars honking at every opportunity--and sometimes, at the most inopportune of times--balloons and streamers trailing from their roofs, hoods (a safety hazard if ever I saw one), antennae, and anywhere else such things could conceivably be attached to an automobile, the drivers' sobriety in question, the passengers waving and calling to friends and random passersby alike. They gather in public places to display their finery, the boys, as in the States, in tuxedos, the girls in dresses that would scandalize Lady Gaga. Welcome to the Balkans. 

One of the vestiges of the country's 45 years of Communist government is a considerable amount of infrastructure remaining from these years of the People's Republic. In every city, you can see two things that will remind you that this was, in every way, an Eastern Bloc nation not so long ago: Faceless, unattractively nondescript highrises and monuments to either the glory of Socialism, the friendship of the Russians, or the heroes who died for the cause of the Revolution. Many of the highrises, originally uniform and equally nondescript on the inside, have since been gutted and remodeled into attractive units, retaining their cinderblock-and-prefabricated-concrete façades. 

The monuments, though they possess differing degrees of visibility depending on where you are, are nevertheless ubiquitous in city and village alike. Less than 10 minutes from my old apartment, in fact, is Orlov Most ("Eagle Bridge") park, at the center of which stands a sculpture, perched atop a 25-meter-tall obelisk-shaped pedestal, of a Russian soldier with his arm upraised, AK-47 held aloft, flanked on his right by a Bulgarian woman and on his left by a Bulgarian man, symbolizing the liberation of Bulgaria by the Red Army in 1944 and the eternal debt of gratitude owed to the Russians by the Bulgarian people. It is a fascinating cultural insight that monuments like this exist here, and in such prominent and frequent numbers. Imagine the attempted construction of something similar in the US. Would it ever get off the ground? Unlikely.

One of the things I think I will miss the most about living here is hearing the lilt of the Bulgarian language every day and the game of trying to make out enough words to discern the meaning of a sentence. It has been a challenge for me this year, one that I have undertaken mostly gladly, to learn as much Bulgarian as I can. Language holds the key to culture and personality, and the more of a people's language you know, the better, I think, you are able to understand them. As this was part of my goal this year, it was something I really wanted to do.

For someone who spoke no words of any Slavic language prior to learning this one, it was a impossible, at first, to make any sense of the underlying components of the way this language operated. But as I learned more and more, the mechanisms it uses to convey information became more and more clear to me. Now I'm at the point, though I still don't possess a very big vocabulary, where its structure and organization make sense. In the vast scheme of the world's languages, it is probably one of the simpler ones, despite its idiosyncrasies. It conveys information in straightforward ways, with much nuance and shades in meaning conveyed implicitly. It is a textbook example of a low-information language, contrasting sharply with English, which posseses many different ways of saying the same thing. It is also a lyrical language, with a lot of good consonants to hang onto, something I similarly like about German. I would dearly like to keep speaking it, though the opportunities I'll have to do so in the immediate future look fairly scant. 

Bulgaria has a lot of interesting, cool, pleasant, delicious, or otherwise positive institutions that have made it a really wonderful place to spend the year. All of these things I will miss, along with this land and its people. Home is not everywhere, but this year, I've discovered it many, many kilometers from the land of my birth.


  1. Thank you very much for this essay. It is a very good description of my town and country, simultaneously true and kind.

  2. You are doing great,at least better than me in The USA.