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The highlight of my college career! I swear, it was by chance that they gave me ribbons in the colors of the Bulgarian flag! It's fate!

I just went through the highlight of my college career! Nothing can surpass the excitement and feeling of pride with myself after finishing my first swimming competition – not even the first day of classes, possibly not even graduation!

This swimming competition was probably one of the few competition sporting events I have ever participated in. But this is not the best part! The best part is that two semesters ago, I couldn’t swim!

Allow me to start from the beginning! During my sophomore year, I wanted to sign up for a sailing course here at Boston University. They told me that I needed to pass a swimming test. OK, I said to myself, thinking that I knew how to swim.

As it turned out, I knew how to move in the water from shallow point A to shallow point B using a stroke that resembles breaststroke only with my head above the water like a submarine’s periscope. No one at Sunny Beach had ever told me that this is not the right way to swim!

So needless to say, I got flunked. Not only that, but I also discovered that I am utterly terrified of the deep water (BU has an Olympic size pool) and can hardly hold my breath for more than 5 seconds (so much for hookah pipe). In other words, I almost got a heart attack and a panic attack simultaneously in that pool. I was that close to accepting that I will simply never learn how to properly swim (big deal, right..)

As a Bulgarian would say “Yes, but no!”  That night, I had a nightmare about drowning and woke up drenched in sweat and determined to learn how to swim!

Since then, I completed a beginning swim class, passed the swim test, completed beginning sailing and intermediate sailing, completed intermediate swimming, tried jet skiing, catamaran, wind surfing, and kayaking, went coasteering (jumping off 10 meter rocks in freezing 3-degree C water wearing full wetsuit, boots, and a helmet, off the coast of Wales) and now, successfully completed a swimming competition!

I don’t know if you can imagine how scared I was as I was about to do each of these things, and then how proud I felt with myself for not giving up and persevering. If there is one thing I learned in college, it is that I can do anything!

I participated in five events today – three individual and two relays in a team of four. I earned  ribbons for my individual events! And isn’t it just precious that the three of them – Second Place 100m backstroke, Third Place 50m breaststroke, and Fifth Place 100m freestyle, are in “White, Green, and Red”. Karma: I’m Swim Team Bulgaria! 

Me, windsurfing in calm waters near Sozopol, Bulgaria

Totally uncoordinated, but very very happy! Near Sozopol, Bulgaria

Kayaking in full gear near Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK

Coasteering with Preseli Venture

Coasteering - climbing up rocks and then jumping off! Wales, UK

And sailing on the Charles in Boston!

Read more about the Bulgarian beach here:

Armin Van Buuren at Cacao Beach

Nesebar and Sand Sculpture Fest in Burgas

And about rowing on the Charles here:

 Joking with the Turkish Rowers, Head of the Charles 2010

The best picture of the Head of the Charles 2011 ever!


I bought liutenitza and kyopolo at Trader Joe's in Boston

To all devotees of Bulgarian cuisine: Trader Joe’s sells the two gems of Bulgarian culinary genius: liutenitza and kyopolou!

Liutenitsa (liutenitza) is a heavenly spread made of, tomatoes, red peppers, carrots, onion, eggplant and herbs that could be a little bit spicy or not. We spread it on bread or use it as a side to grilled meat… and actually anything else. My personal favorite is a slice of bread with liutenitza (the layer should be as thick as the bread) and Bulgarian white feta cheese! Yum-yum!

Kyopolou (kiopolo) is made of roasted eggplant, garlic, parsley, olive oil, and sometimes peppers or tomatoes. It is served cold as an appetizer or spread on bread. See recipe  for both spreads (we call them salads) from BG Taste.

Several countries on the Balkans have similar products. You might have previously tried Turkish kopoglu or Serbian ajvar.

So if you are craving an authentic taste of Bulgaria – run to Trader Joe’s! They call the two products “Red Pepper Spread” and “Eggplant Garlic Spread”, but the labels clearly indicate that this is a “Product of Bulgaria” and a “Traditional Bulgarian Recipe”. Enjoy!

Find the nearest Trader Joe’s here.

 

If you want to try out more Bulgarian recipes yourselves, you can take a look at the Bulgarian cookbook I received last year or read my blog post on preparing a Bulgarian Christmas Eve’s dinner.


It’s not easy to be an international student in the States on Thanksgiving. They kick you out of the dorm for 5 days, all of your friends scatter to their respective places of origin, and you have to be very creative in finding what to do.

Bulgarian-German Thanksgiving at the Grosses, 2008

My strategy has been to try to be as traditional American as possible in order to experience the culture. Funny how that turned out!

 

Thanksgiving 2008: Three-and-two-halves Bulgarians and one turkey

The Grosse family was so kind to invite me and two other Bulgarians to their home in New Jersey over the Thanksgiving break. The Grosses used to live in Bulgaria and their daughters, the two half-Bulgarians as I like to call them, went to my high school in Sofia. So in 2008, they got together me and two other girls from that school who currently go to college on the East Coast. For dinner, we had all the ingredients of an American Thanksgiving Feast, but prepared the German way – potato dumplings, sauerkraut (German red cabbage), turkey breast (without stuffing), mama Grosse’s secret saus, all sorts of delicious German pastry (with strudels instead of pies), and of course, Bulgarian Red Wine Tcherga.  My cultural experience was further enriched with Black Friday shopping in the Short Hills Mall.

 

Thanksgiving 2009: Disney World, Orlando

Another not-so -typical holiday, I guess. Timmy and I went to Orlando, FL, where we spent the day riding on roller coasters, trying to get out of haunted houses, and spinning on all sorts of carousels. We saw a mini-city made up entirely of Christmas Lights, but didn’t really experience anything particularly Thanksgiving-ly other than the roasted turkey leg on the bone that Timmy and I devoured.

 

Thanksgiving 2010: Plymouth, It Can’t Get More American Than That

Now this was the epitome of Thanksgiving! We were in Plymouth, MA, where the Mayflower dropped anchor. We saw the Plymouth rock, which marks the symbolical spot where the pilgrims landed and the “Plimoth Plantation”, which is a living history museum. At the Plantation, we visited a 17th century English village that recreates the way the pilgrims lived. There are costumed  actors who have adopted the roles of actual historical figures and pretend that it is still 1627. So when I told them that I am from Bulgaria, they asked me how things were in the Ottoman Empire! Their historical knowledge was impressive! The other part of the Plantation is the Wampanoag Homesite where you can meet real Native People and talk to them about their culture and history from a modern perspective. Finally, I had a very American, very lovely Thanksgiving lunch with Timmy’s family : with a house full of bubbly relatives, mountains of food, and football! Exactly as Thanksgivign should be!

Read more about my meeting with Timmy’s family here.

 

Thanksgiving at the Arabs, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011: The Middle Eastern Version

My roommates and I organized a pretty interesting semi-traditional feast for our friends. (Actually, Emma, who started preparing the turkey three days earlier and woke up at 7am to start cooking that day, should get all the credit. I simply decorated the living room with real fallen leaves, but then it ended up in vain because our oven exploded the night before and we eventually had to move the party to a different apartment, the so-called “Arabs’ place”.)   So, Emma ended up cooking for 30 people, most of whom were… Arabs! She invited all of us to hold hands and say what each of us is grateful for. Then we all sat down on the floor, Americans, Pakistani, Saudi, Bulgarian, German, and Chinese (in front of the American and Saudi Arabian flag?!), and had the most international Thanksgiving dinner so far!

So I am pretty sure that I now fully grasp the meaning of Thanksgiving! This holiday is about bringing people together and allowing them to share a beautiful experience like one big family! Cheers!

 


Dry cranberry harvest at Flax Pond Farm, Carver, MA

I did the quintessential autumn activity in Massachusetts  – I went apple picking and cranberry collecting! Our day trip was organized by Boston University’s  Sustainability@BU.

The cranberry is an evergreen shrub that gives small red fruit similar to tart blackberries. It is delicious dried like raisins or made into juice and is an integral part of the Thanksgiving dinner in the form of the sweet cranberry sauce that goes with your turkey. There are five major cranberries producing states: Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin, as well as some provinces in Canada.

Sorting dry-picked cranberries

The grower-owned and operated cranberry bog we went to is called Flax Pond in Carver, Massachusetts. The farmer, Jack Angley gave us a compelling overview of the lifecycle of this most typical Massachusetts fruit.

There are two ways to harvest cranberries – wet and dry – and we were lucky enough to see both!

The dry way is far more laborious because it involves a lot of handpicking in addition to using comb-like machines that “comb out” the berries from the thick shrub. Dry harvest produces higher quality cranberries that can be sold fresh and eaten straight away (although they taste way too bitter to me in this way).

The wet harvest, however, looks much more impressive and is what most people associate with cranberry production. The plants are grown on the bottom of a dry bed and once they ripen, the bed is flooded and becomes a bog! Because the berries are hollow inside, they rise up to the surface of what now looks like the Red Sea! Then all you need to do is collect the cranberries with a pump! Because of the water and the bacteria that live in it, the cranberries should be immediately frozen of processed.

Wet cranberry harvest

Up to the knees in cranberries, that's life!

Next, we went  apple picking at Highland Farm in Holliston, MA. Apple picking is also a New England favorite because of the many orchards in the region. We tried Fuji, Gala, Honeycrisp, Mutsu, Golden Delicious, and many more whose scrumptious taste was much more memorable than the name.

Apple picking with Anna!


Dilma Rousseff and Georgi Parvanov

On October 5th, the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, returned to her father’s birthplace – Gabrovo, Bulgaria. Read more about Dilma’s Bulgarian roots in my previous post.

The Bulgarian president Georgi Parvanov held his welcoming speech for Dilma Rousseff in front of the symbol of Gabrovo, the April High-School, where Dilma’s father, Petar (Pedro) Rousseff had studied as a child. While walking around the school earlier, the two presidents had spontaneously decided to set up a Portuguese class there, as well as to encourage the study of Bulgarian in Brazil. Dilma’s visit, according to Parvanov, was one step further towards bringing our nations closer.

Dilma Rousseff's Family Tree at the Gabrovo museum

Mrs. Rousseff’s speech in front of the April School startled the citizens of Gabrovo with its warmth and wholeheartedness: she shared that this day was one of the most emotional in her life, comparing it to the birth of her child and grandchild and her election as president, because she was fulfilling her father’s dream of one day returning to Bulgaria. She said, “Part of Bulgaria lives in Brazil in the face of her President.” Rousseff also spoke of creating a new world of tolerance where differences in religion, culture, and ethnicity do not matter.

In Gabrovo, Dilma personally met with the relatives of her father, Petar Rousseff. She visited a museum exhibition called “The Bulgarian Roots of Dilma Rousseff” where she shed tears at the sight of her Bulgarian family tree, which dates back to 1730. She was also very impressed by the portrait of her aunt whom Dilma is named after.

Dilma Rousseff's note in the visitor's book at the Gabrovo museum

The presidential visit was indeed as emotional for Dilma as it was for the people of Gabrovo, who were completely won over by the Brazilian head’s sincerity and humanity.

I  am very impressed that one of the world’s most influential leaders took the time to pay respect to her father’s roots and to honor his people. I find it fascinating that the relationship between Petar Rousseff and Bulgaria was so strong (even after he had to flee the country) that it transferred to Dilma. To me this is a striking example of the powerful link between the emigrant and his motherland and of the burning nostalgia for home that can transcend even generations.  


An article in The Economist from October 8th spoke of “a week of racially charged rioting” in Bulgaria. I want to use this post as an opportunity to refute this article.

The problem as I see it is that last week, a crime occurred in Bulgaria, which raised a debate about a social issue. The Economist inaccurately interpreted it as a racial issue.

The palace of the gypsy mobster Tsar Kiro

These are the facts: for the last three years, there had been a feud between two families in the Bulgarian village of Katunitza, near the city of Plovidv. The feud culminated on September 23rd with the murder of a 19-year-old member of one of the rival families. So far, the issue seems completely criminal.

The matter became more complicated when the entire village, enraged by the brutality of the murder, rose to a violent protest against the family of the killer: the villagers threw stones and bricks at the mansions of the assassin’s kin, set one of the houses on fire, and completely destroyed a few of their luxury cars. The two families, the villagers, and the police got involved in the turbulence, and several people were severely hurt.

Angry village sets Tsar Kiro's house on fire

Let me explain why an entire village would rise against a single family. This particular family clan is that of Kiril Rashkov, or as he calls himself, Tsar Kiro. Tsar Kiro is a well-known criminal who built an empire producing and selling fake alcohol. He is filthy rich (thus his mansion and luxury cars in a village near Plovidv), and is obviously involved with corruption since he has not been put in jail yet. He has been arrested for owning fake alcohol distilleries several times and has numerous charges for illegally acquiring property. Tsar Kiro is, therefore, one of those filthy rich gangsters who think that they stand above the law and can do anything without worrying about the consequences. Unfortunately, this is a very typical phenomenon for Bulgaria and the Balkans in general.

The riots in Katunitza occurred because Tsar Kiro and his mobster clan had been terrorizing the village unpunished for many years – it so happened that the recent brutal, insolent murder broke the camel’s back.  Therefore, the reasons behind the riot were social: it was a reaction to an impudent reign of crime.

Peaceful protests against the police's tendency to close eyes before crime

And now, let’s get to the racial aspect of the issue. Tsar Kiro and his family are gypsies – or Roma, call it as you wish. He calls himself a “king” but in fact he has never helped “his people”. He is as far from the poor, deprived gypsies as any rich Bulgarian criminal would be – he lives in palaces while they live in the slums, and he does not give a dime about them. The 19-year-old victim of the feud was indeed a Bulgarian boy, but he wasn’t killed because of his race but because he threatened to bring a case against Tsar Kiro to court. Thus, the tension in Katunitza was of social, not racial nature.

It is ironic that during the unrest, the police was protecting Tsar Kiro’s property instead of defending the taxpayers, but this is a different matter.

The news about the events in Katunitza of course evoked various reactions. Many people from different cities around the country went out peacefully demonstrating in the streets as a sign of support for the villagers. In several places, these demonstrations were headed by an extremist Neo-Nazi group called Ataka: they raised anti-Roma slogans and tried to create calamities in Roma neighborhoods, but were quickly stopped by the police. The latter short-lived anti-Roma demonstrations expressed the views of one single group of people and by no means the views of the general population or of the entire Bulgaria.

Therefore, dear Economist, we are talking about a crime and a social issue, but not about ethnic tension in Bulgaria. 


To all my friends who thought that I have the accent of a Soviet spy: yes, I have finally infiltrated you, and now nothing can stop me to roam unnoticed among you: I officially have a Massachusetts ID. I’m behind enemy lines.

Always a patriot, even with a Mass ID!

I’m not sure how I feel about that though. Can I still act snobbish and international when I show my Bulgarian passpo.. I mean, my Mass ID, or should I be humbled by the fact that I’ve blended in with the American crowd?

I think I might compensate with a thicker Eastern European accent. After all, I look down upon this piece of foreign-to-me legislature, which I have obtained only so that I don’t lose my beloved Bulgarian Passport when partying in the clubs. I haven’t betrayed my country, OK!?!


I just arrived in Miami (a little detour before my senior year starts at Boston University). To my greatest surprise, the first words I heard were in Spanish… and so were the second and the third.

The staff at the airport greeted me in Spanish and so did the lady at the road toll, every street sign is translated both in English and Spanish, and apparently there are only Spanish radio channels in the car. Everyone just assumes that you speak Spanish! Luckily, I do, but how strange must it feel like to the Americans who don’t?

It sounds funny, but it seems that English is like a second language here.


The Bulgarian-Polish wedding from my previous post reminded me of an essential cultural idiosyncrasy that I must clarify in the name of the friendship between our two peoples – the difference between getting drunk in Poland and in Bulgaria.

As you probably have heard, Eastern European nations have notorious drinking habits. In other words, the drunkenness of Russians, Serbs, Polish, and Bulgarians has passed into a proverb. But as a proud Bulgarian, I feel obliged to draw an important difference between the ways the Polish and the Bulgarian drink.

The difference is not in the quantity, because both the Polish and the Bulgarian would drink legendary quantities on any particular occasion. It is not in the results either because anyone hardly ever remembers the results. The key differences, as a matter of fact, are three: the type of alcohol, the speed, and the mezze.

The Type of Alcohol: This is very straightforward: The Polish drink vodka. The Bulgarian drink rakia, mastika, beer, and wine in no particular order. This difference is determined by geography – the Bulgarian climate is favorable towards a greater agricultural variety, so we can produce more types of alcohol.

The Speed: The Polish take shots. The Bulgarians savor the drink. Therefore, a Polish gets drunk much quicker and immediately starts dancing, while a Bulgarian will drink, talk, sing, and dance (in this order) throughout the entire night.

The Mezze: The Polish just take shots. The Bulgarian take their time eating, drinking, and socializing around the table. As long as the Bulgarian munch on thinly sliced lukanka or sour pickles, their full stomachs slow down the effects of the alcohol.

In conclusion, although the Polish seem as the more mighty drinkers during a wedding, the Bulgarians will eventually catch up and will probably keep on drinking long after the Polish are under the table.


This weekend, I went to my friends’ wedding. It was probably the wedding I have enjoyed most so far! The bride and the groom were very young and so were their guests, so for once I didn’t have to explain myself as a kid to someone’s parents or grandparents. Also, the music was perfect – the best hits from the 90s, which I’ve grown up with, and only very few evergreens like ABBA, Beatles, Elvis, and the such, which usually the older crowd enjoys. There was even plenty of Beyonce and Lady Gaga. Anyways, this youthful wedding was terrific!

And then it occurred to me that the newlyweds weren’t that young at all. Actually, they were at the age at which people normally marry, 25-27. So it wasn’t that they were so young, it’s just me who is getting older and leveling with the age of marriage!

A few years ago, I thought that only old people get married, and now finally it’s people my age that do! It gives me the chills to think that in another 15-20 years, the bride and groom will seem like youngsters to me and I won’t be able to recognize any of their music! Sometimes we need such events that are anchored to a certain period in life to realize how time passes by.

So much for my eye-opening experience. Congratulations and cheers!


Today we went to the Preobrazhen monastery near Veliko Turnovo. It is a secluded male Orthodox monastery situated on one side of a deep gorge; on the other side of the abyss, we could see a convent.  Years ago, an earthquake had broken off three huge rocks from the cliffs just above the monastery, but miraculously none of them had damaged the bell tower or the church itself.

The brightly colored paintings on the façade of the cloister represent floral ornaments together with scenes from the Bible. The most famous mural, however, is that of the great Bulgarian icon painter Zahari Zograf, the Wheel of Life.

Wheel of Life, a mural by Zahari Zograf at Preobrazhen Monastery

The composition portrays the months, the seasons, and the cycles of life with its many meanings and symbolical layers. The outer layer shows the material possessions one aims for: the man on top of the wheel is holding a scepter and a bag of golden coins, but drops them as he moves closer to death. The inner layer represents the true virtues that one should aim for in life: to educate oneself and to work hard, so that in the end, one can gladly sit down and enjoy the old age. What do you think the woman in the middle represents? What about the two figures on both sides of the wheels?

The significance of monasteries, I explained to Oriana, is more than religious. During the liberation movement against the Ottoman Empire, these were safety havens where monk-revolutionaries hid the rebels and pointed them to secret passages leading to the mountains. The monks also preserved the Bulgarian literary and cultural heritage and helped spread it during the time when the Ottomans were suppressing it. Lastly, monasteries are holy places with special energy to which even earthquakes bow down.

The Preobrazhen Monastery was built by the great Bulgarian architect Kolio Ficheto

 

The monastery was spared by an earthquake, which caused three huge rocks to fall in the garden, just meters away from this building


The bagpipe contest in Gela

My mom, her friend Lidia, Oriana, and I left Sofia early in the morning to go to the Bagpipe Festival in Gela.

The drive is about 3.5 – 4 hours on narrow meandering roads through the Rhodope Mountain, which gave me just enough time to teach Oriana how to read in Bulgarian. I wrote down the Bulgarian alphabet (the Cyrillic alphabet that we share with the other Slavic peoples) and its transliteration in English. Oriana picked it up very quickly because unlike in English, in Bulgarian you pronounce exactly what you read. Her only difficulty were the differences between lowercase and uppercase and the variety of misguiding fonts. Soon, she could read all street signs!

Dancing horo to the music of the bagpipes on a meadow above Gela village

The festival in the village of Gela was in fact on a wide clearing among the hills above Gela. Hundreds of people had set up camping tents for the two-day festival and thousands more had come on foot for the day. As at any village fair, there were open grills with kiyfteta and kebapcheta, stands with souvenirs, jewelry, and toys, and machines for cotton candy and caramelized apples.

We left my mom and Lidia in the line in front of a gigantic barbecue with seven lambs roasting on skewers. Later, we saw the two of them had taken out a Maid of the Mist* raincoat to protect themselves from the pieces of roasted lamb that were flying from under the butcher’s axe. (*My mom still keeps the raincoats from our visit to Niagara Falls ten years ago).

You can't have a festival without the roasted lambs!

Meanwhile, Oriana and I sat down on the ground in front of the main stage of the bagpipe contest, in Bulgarian gaidarsko nadsvirvane. We saw men and women bagpipers, young boys and girls bagpipers, a duet, and even a bagpiper trio, and all contestants were dressed in colorful national garments.

Each time the bagpipers switched to a more upbeat rhythm, the crowd broke out dancing! Oriana didn’t resist and quickly joined the horo! Watch the video and see how fast she picked up the rhythm!

 

We saw a bagpipe maker who explained to us that Scottish bagpipes and Bulgarian gaida are very different: the Scottish instrument has three pipes and produces a solemn sound that makes it suitable for military marches and memorials; the gaida has one long pipe and a more melodious sound that often accompanies folklore singing. The most famous type of Bulgarian bagpipe is the kaba gaida.

With Oriana in Shiroka Laka

After a day of horo dancing, folk songs, and roast lamb misadventures, we went to the nearby Shiroka Laka village for the night. Shiroka Laka, with its  quaint little cobblestone streets and two-storey houses with white stone ground floors and wooden second floors with balconies full of flowerpots, completely charmed Oriana. I think she said she could live there. In Shiroka Laka, we also saw the famous school of Bulgarian folklore music, which most probably is where many of the bagpipe contestants study.

Until late at night we could see happy tipsy people coming back from the festival in Gela. One such happy and tipsy Nordic-looking boy was playing his own kaba gaida and walking down the street. He told us, in broken Bulgarian, that his mother was Norwegian and his father – Bulgarian, and that he had found himself a gaida in Norway and for the past six months had been teaching himself how to play by simply listening to folk music!

The Norwegian-Bulgarian who taught himself how to play the gaida

We stayed at the house of one of my father’s friends who is a famous journalist. The rooms were full of interesting souvenirs from all over the world, and the garden was inhabited by at least four cats. When we continued our journey in the morning, we left several bottles of our family winery Villa Melnik as a sign of gratitude to our host.

Today was a great cultural experience for Oriana. I think she appreciated the legendary Bulgarian folklore and ethnography.


King Simeon's Saragyol Palace in Rila Mountain, a wooden royal residence used as a hunting lodge.

Borovets is the biggest mountain resort in Bulgaria. Located at the foot of Musala peak in Rila, less than an hour away from the capital, the resort is a magnet both for the fans of extreme winter sports and those who seek the coolness of the mountain in the summer.  In addition to the excellent ski-slopes, the resort offers horse-back riding, mountain biking, golf, hiking trails, and some interesting opportunities for sightseeing. To me, the “palaces” of Borovets are a telltale of the Bulgarian entrepreneurial thinking and practices.

The King’s Hunting Lodge

Borovets is the oldest mountain resort in Bulgaria. It used to be the haven of relaxation for the noble and the rich. In 1914, the Bulgarian king Ferdinand I built his summer hunting lodge here.  In 1946, the monarchy became a republic after a referendum conducted under Soviet pressure. The royal family was banished and the lodge was nationalized.

In 2001, the former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was only nine years old at the time of the flight, returned to Bulgaria, won the parliamentary elections to become the prime-minister, and regained his rights over the property his family owned before 1946. This restitution was very controversial because it wasn’t completely clear what belonged to Ferdinand’s heirs, what belonged to the state, and what belonged to the institution that mediated between the two. The public debate continued when it became clear that absurdly, the Bulgarian government had by mistake (!) returned to Simeon more property than what he had originally claimed. The value of this property is somewhere about 160 million euro and includes 2100 hectares of forests around Borovets and parts of Rila’s highest peak.

The 5-Star Palaces

This five-star hotel in Borovets was notorious fame

Today, there are several “palaces” in Borovets. The resort, as too many other Bulgarian resorts, has been overbuilt with huge hotels that might be completely full during the winter season, but remain empty during most of the year. Such hotels are the projects of megalomaniacs with a distorted vision for the development of the resort.

The problem is that Borovets is full of 5 and 4-star hotels, yet its infrastructure is horrible: roads are bad, the sidewalks and sweeps of grass are untidy, weeds grow in the fountains, there is not enough street lights or maps with directions. Some of the closed-down restaurants (seasonally or permanently) look scary and run-down, and one simply doesn’t feel secure walking by them. Apparently our businessmen invest in luxurious hotels forgetting that tourists will have to leave their premises at some point and will encounter surroundings that do not live up to their expectations.

The financial crisis is probably partially responsible for the many abandoned hotel construction sites and empty apartment buildings that lack tenants and buyers. On the other hand, such unfinished projects invariably suggest shady affairs. One such popular case is a palace-like hotel built by one notorious mafia boss who was later shot dead abroad. While the police was investigating the origin of the mobster’s fortune, his wife sold the hotel and thus legalized the profit from the sale.

This problems and controversies around the resort are a pity because the nature surrounding Borovets is truly awe-inspiring.

Only one of the many lifts in Borovets

Borovets, Rila Mountain

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Did you see my photos from the Seven Rila Lakes?


On Sunday, I went to a fabulous Bulgarian-English wedding at the St. Nedelya church in Sofia. I want to tell you more about the mother of the bride because she is an exceptional woman!

She is married to an Englishman, and they have lived in London forever, yet their two children (the bride and her brother) were baptized as Orthodox Christians instead of Anglicans like the father.

This Bulgarian woman has taught her children such love and respect for their roots that the bride decided to marry in Sofia, in an Orthodox church, despite the fact that her groom and his family (and her own family on the English side) are Anglican! Thus, the groom, his parents, and all of their British guests, including some guests from Brunei, had come to our St. Nedelya church for the ceremony! To make everything perfect, they baptized their little baby boy as an Orthodox Christian too!

The wedding ceremony in the beautifully painted church was lead by two priests: one to perform the ritual, and one to sing accompanied by the choir. Then, all the guests, mostly British and a few Bulgarians, went out of the church and reentered a few minutes later for the second ceremony, the baby’s baptism. The baby started to laugh as its feet touched the water basin!

Next, we all headed for the Sheraton, Sofia’s oldest and most renowned hotel. The menu was only typical Bulgarian cuisine presented in a gourmet way. The entertainment was splendid too: four dancers in national garments and a folklore singer and bagpiper kept both the foreign and local guests in good spirits all night long. The Brits picked up our rhythms surprisingly fast!

Wearing the crowns during the wedding ceremony in St. Nedelya church in Sofia

This was a wonderful transnational interreligious wedding, and it was all made possible thanks to the vigor of that incredible Bulgarian mother of the bride who not only preserved her national sprit in the foreign land, but also continued it through her children and grandchildren.

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Read more about traditional Bulgarian wedding rituals 

or about a rather upsetting baptism ceremony in an Orthodox monastery.

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Gourmet Bulgarian appetizers: lukanka, shopska salad, snezhanka salad, kashkaval, kyopulu, grape leaf sarmi

Traditional breaking of the bread: whoever breaks the bigger part off the bread will be the leader in the home. These are two couples: the newlyweds and the bride's recently married brother and sister-in-law.

I uploaded these videos from the party at the Sheraton Hotel. I think it’s obvious who are the Brits and who the Bulgarians! Enjoy!


Last weekend, we took a day-trip to the Trigrad gorge, but in addition to nature’s beauty, we encountered man’s small-mindedness.

Trigrad gorge in the Rhodope mountain, Bulgaria

The majestic gorge is situated on the southern side of the  Rhodope mountain, near the town of Trigrad, about 3.5 hours away from Sofia. For 7km, Trigradska River meanders through the canyon-like gorge. The sheer rocks on both sides of it reach a height of 300-350m. The distance between these rock walls is at first 300m, but then reduces to mere 50-60m. It feels like you are standing beween the Symplegades, the Clashing Rocks from the myth about Jason and the Argonauts.

From the Trigrad gorge, the river vanishes into Dyavolsko Gurlo, or the Devil’s Throat cave. This cave is like an abyss, in which the river enters and falls from a 42-meter height.  This is the highest underground waterfall in Bulgaria, and it forms an enormous underground hall called Buchashta zala, or the Rumbling Hall: 110m long, 40m wide, and 35m high. You can easily fit the capital’s Alexander Nevski cathedral in there. Legend says that the Thracian hero Orpheus entered the Underworld to retrieve his beloved Eurydice from the dead precisely through the Dyavolsko Gurlo cave.

Here, the cliffs on the two sides of the Trigrad gorge are 300m high and less than 100m apart.

The place is frequented by Bulgarian and foreign tourists and, of course, is full of merchants. In this remote part of Bulgaria, the merchants are mostly old people from the nearby mountain villages who are selling hand-picked herbs and home-made jams and honey from forest fruits and trees. Every baba (grandmother, old lady) has piled her table with jars and is smiling at you and beckoning you to buy hers. There is a baba or a dyado (grandfather, old man) every 10m from the exit of the cave to the parking lot.

We buy a jar from the first baba and some herbs from the next one a few steps over. But then we don’t need anything else (plus, the goodies on every table are about the same), so we politely refuse to the next old man saying that we’ve already got enough.  And then he begins to supplicate and even begs us to buy from him too: “It’s not fair,” he says, “tourists always buy from those two because they are closer to the cave’s exit, and there are no clients left for me.” Eventually, we take pity on this dyado, and buy some more herbs from him.

A little bit further down the road, there are more ladies. This time a little bit more cheerfully, one invites us to buy from her jams. “No thank you, we already bought some from someone else.”  “Oh, you bought from those women? They add sugar to their jam! Mine is better!”

It saddens me to see that these people, who share a similar fate and have decided to earn a living in a similar way, don’t hesitate to do the dirty on each other. This seems to be typical behavior for many Bulgarians. We always look at each other’s riches and success and either try to screw each other up or defame and depreciate each other.  We have a word that signifies that our chests and hearts have shrunk under the pressures of a rough life. Unfortunately this state of being has become a national feature and has turned many of us into narrow-minded, petty people.

Looking up the Dyavolsko Gurlo cave

Looking down the Dyavolsko Gurlo



This used to be customary practice in hotels a few years back, and it was funny to see it again: In Bulgaria, many hotels give you the remote control for the TV and the AC at check-in. You have to return them at check-out. I guess it’s a clever means of precaution against guests who steal the shampoos and the towels.

I took the photo last weekend at a hotel in Melnik.


My International Marketing class was all about how differences in culture affect the way business is done in different countries, but this week I had my own mini business-cultural shock!

In the States, the term “team building” is associated with some sort of leadership skills exercises, brainstorming sessions, team discussions, and most of all, fun activities that require group work,  team communication, and the development of interpersonal connections.

Sozopol at Black Sea, Bulgaria

So when I was invited to attend a team building weekend in Sozopol, a beautiful Bulgarian Black Sea resort, I expected to join some organized team activities… eh, American business school brainwashing…

It turns out that in Bulgaria, “team building” means going for a weekend of heavy eating and drinking at the expense of the firm!

What details would you like me to give? Starting on Friday afternoon with a five to six-hour long dinner that starts around 8 and ends with breakfast for the survivors. Many liters of ouzo, wine, and beer. All the festive meals you can find on Easter and Christmas combined. “Brainstorming” is another word for telling jokes and sharing embarrassing real stories. On Saturday:  a yacht trip along the coast, grilled fish and cocktails onboard, and jumping off the deck in the water, then an afternoon nap, and again the “team building” dinner session all over again.

In the States, time is money. But in the nations of south-east Europe, we have all the time in the world. That’s why Bulgarians (and Greeks, Serbs, etc) take their sweet time to get to know each other in the way they consider most personal – at the table, with good wine and good food, laughing together, and making real relationships. To an American-trained business student like me, the Bulgarian “adaptation” of team-building at first seemed like a waste of time. But then I realized that it is perfectly suited to our culture and very, very effective for us! As my international marketing professor said, in order to make business in a foreign country, you first have to understand its culture.

ACTUALLY, I’m not sure that what I said above is right. In Europe, Bulgaria is second to last in terms of productivity per worker per hour. We are at $17.8 per worker per hour compared to $57.5 for Luxembourg at the first position and $34.2 for Spain, which is in the mid-positions. Only Romania is behind us with $10.0 per hour per worker. Enough said. 


Previously, I wrote about my dad’s 30-year-old fridge from Socialist times.

Now I’ll talk about British ovens.

This is an AGA cooker. According to Wikipedia, it is a “stored-heat stove and cooker invented in 1929 by the Nobel Prize-winning  Swedish physicist Gustaf Dalen.. chief engineer of the Swedish AGA company”. Dalen actually invented it while he was blind.

But mind you, the Aga cooker is more than a stove. For the British, it is a sign of prestige and dignity.

The Aga is extremely energy inefficient (425kWh per week compared to 580kWH per year for a normal gas oven), extremely impractical (with its four ovens and as much steel as a small Korean car), practically indestructible with its at least 50 years lifespan, and godlessly expensive, ranging from $13,000 to $30,000.

But Aga is something of a cult for the Brits from the middle and upper class. With its olden-days-looking exterior and robust interior, the Aga personifies the British taste for tradition and style (or traditional style). That’s why it is usually the centerpiece of the house. A housewife will always show off her Aga to her guests.  In fact, out of the entire home, the British invest the most money and effort in their kitchens, which is quite paradoxical since they are known for their mediocre cuisine (which I don’t really agree with).

And if you look at the official Aga website, you will see that the Aga culture is very similar to the Harley Davidson Rider’s Club – Brits simply become one with their Aga.


Don’t you just love a summer cocktail at the beach!

Here are my four suggestions from four of my favorite countries:

Pimm’s: My latest discovery! A delicious English 25% alcohol similar to gin and served with “lemonade” (or the generic name the English use for Sprite, 7up and ginger ale) and chopped cucumber, orange, strawberry, and mint. Order it at any pub! Refreshing and citrusy! I might have gotten a bottle for myself from London 😉 What’s the time? It’s Pimm’s o’clock!

Sangria : Typical for Spain and Portugal, but also for Boston’s Newbury street, with red wine, rum, apples, oranges, lemon, strawberries or also with white wine, melon, and pineapple.

Mastika/Ouzo: These are respectively the Bulgarian and Greek version of a 40% liquor made of mastic, a Mediterranean tree. These drinks are served as a digestif and have a very distinctive liquorice sweet smell and taste. The best part is that they turn milky white when you mix them with ice or water because they “crystallize”.  In Bulgaria, we love Mastika mixed with Menta, a mint liquor (this cocktail is called Cloud) as well as taken with watermelon (or together with girls with watermelon bras)!  In Greece, they have Ouzo with mezze such as octopus, zucchini, and calamari. I’m sure that men can tell you the difference between the two, but I’m not that good!


I just came back from London (that’s twice in a month’s time) and I’m still in a Royal Wedding mood! But instead of talking to you about the abundance of Will and Kate merchandise there, I will naturally tell you more about the Bulgarian traditional wedding.

By an old custom, the Bulgarian bride's veil is red

The wedding is probably the most lavish of our rituals and carries a lot of symbolism bequeathed to us by our ancestors, the pagan Slavs. There are several stages:

Matchmaking: Firstly, members of the boy’s family, or at least the father and uncle, pay a secretive visit to the girl’s house in order to “make an assessment of it” and to meet her parents. This happens in the evening or at night so that the boy’s family can walk away without a public embarrassed if they are rejected. If the two sides achieve and agreement, they will celebrate the engagement and drink rakia for the good health of their youth.

Later, the boy’s extended family can pay an official engagement visit and bring presents for the future bride and her family.  This is when the couple exchanges rings – an iron one for the strong, mighty groom, and a golden one for the pure, noble bride.  Only after this engagement, the boy and the girl are allowed to meet in public and to dance next to each other at the horo. The wedding itself might take place as long as 2-3 years later.

Braiding the hair of the bride-to-be meant the end of her carefree girlhood.

Pre-wedding rituals: The young bride’s girl friends gather at her house and prepare ritual breads with magic significance: they knead the boy’s ring and girl’s bracelet into the dough and decorate the bread with dough birds as a symbol of marriage. The young girls also decorate a branch of a special tree, which will be later given to the best man for ransom. They also make a red-and-white wedding  flag and decorate it with an apple and a bunch of basil.

The bride has to wear “something old” to remind her of her family and her past, “something new” that will bring her luck in her new life, “something borrowed” to signify that her friends and family will always help her, and “something blue” to symbolize fidelity.

The moment when the young girls braid the long hair of the bride-to-be is very important because it signifies that she is leaving the careless childhood and becoming a married woman. For the ancient Slavs loose hair means a free person. This is a very sad moment at the house of the girl, and all her friends and female relatives try to persuade her to remain a child and stay at home.

In some parts of the country, the bride's face is beautifully painted. The hair is decorated with flowers and golden coins.

In contrast, the mood at the groom’s house is festive because the family is not losing but adding a new member. His friends shave his beard, which symbolizes the end of bachelorhood.

Taking the Bride: With loud singing and merrymaking in the streets, the groom’s party goes to the girl’s house, but finds the door locked. In order to receive the bride, the groom and his best man have to go through some challenges that include paying ransom by stuffing the bride’s shoe with money, having to pay for the best man’s decorated branch and flag, and even fighting with the bride’s brother!

As the young bride finally leaves her father’s house, she is wearing a red veil to protect her from the evil eye, and her girl friends are singing bittersweet songs. Traditionally, the Slav bride wore a red dress, but this changed to white during Roman times.  Oats, millet, and walnuts are thrown in the air above the couple to symbolize fertility.

The entire wedding party goes to the church where the two are wed. After that, there is dancing, singing, eating, drinking, and feasting for “three days and three nights”.

At the New House:  The girl is taken to the house of the boy where the two of them will live from now on. The first night for the newlyweds is very important. The groom’s sisters-in-law prepare their bed with the special linen that the bride has been sawing and embroidering since she was a child. At some point during that night, the groom will shoot his pistol in the air and take the bride’s shirt outside – so that everyone can see that she was pure (all Bulgarian girls are pure, naturally!).

A traditional wedding continues for several days and the entire village celebrates together with the two family kins.

***

There you go! Now did somebody say that the Royal Wedding was too flamboyant? 🙂

For more beautiful pictures from old weddings in Sofia, check out: http://stara-sofia.com/obichai.html

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