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My Skydiving Tandem at The Parachude Center, Lodi, California in May 2012

In California, I discovered a new passion for extreme sports: skydiving. Too bad we don’t get to watch more extreme sports at the London 2012 Olympic Games*, but at least we got a taste of the extreme with James Bond and Queen Elizabeth’s heroic jump with a parachute from a helicopter over the Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony.

Mike and I in freefall from 13,000 feet over Lodi, CA

With its all-year-round perfect weather and scenic views, California is a paradise for both first time skydivers and licensed skydiving enthusiasts. The Golden State has the largest skydiving community in the States and one of the highest number of drop zones worldwide.

I jumped for the first time in a tandem at the Parachute Center, Lodi, CA. To tell you the truth, parking the car in front of the drop zone was the most terrifying moment of the whole experience! My pulse had almost stopped and there was not even a drop of blood in my face. My legs felt like melting cheese as I was putting on the jumpsuit, and my mouth had frozen in a crooked horrified smile as people around me were cheering for me and saying that I’ll do great. My instructor was going to be Mike, a white-haired man with over 10,000jumps.

As I was walking to the airplane, I was silently cursing Ethan who persuaded me to do it. I had already accepted my doomed fate as I was watching the airport below us become smaller and smaller. At 13,000feet (4,000 meters), my instructor tightened the straps that secured my back to him and gave me a signal to go up to the door. I remember thinking: “Whatever. Just do it!” … And we jumped.

These were the most amazing 60 seconds of my life!

Pure adrenaline rush!

Pure bliss!

If you’ve never been in freefall, you don’t know what you’re missing! The speed and sound of the air rushing past you in the first moment and the sight of the airplane flying away somewhere above you. Then the sensation of floating or even being lifted up due to the air friction and the view of the blue sky, the thin horizon, and the fields and mountains below you. Time stretches, and for those 60 seconds, you are very aware of everything you see and feel. Just take it all in!

When Mike opened the parachute and we went under canopy, my first thought was “WOW, this was awesome!” From there, I just enjoyed the relaxing flight over Lodi and then a perfectly soft landing.

My Solo Jump at Skydive Sofia, Bulgaria

Most people say that they would like to jump at least once in their lifetime. A small portion of them really do, and they love it! An even smaller portion of those love it so much that they want to do it over and over and over again!

About a month after my first tandem jump, I had already completed AFF, the Accelerated Freefall Program, at the Parachute Center, which enables me to solo jump. The program consists of seven jumps with an instructor who at first only holds you stable during the freefall, and later only watches you from a distance while you maintain a stable position and perform basic maneuvers in the air. My AFF instructor was Zak Tessier, check out his skydiving, wingsuit flying, and BASE jumping with Team Go 4 It!

Take a look at Ethan’s TheExtremeEJDe video blog on YouTube as well for more from the world of skydiving, scuba diving, and motorcycling.

When I came back to Bulgaria after my California trip, I immediately went to jump at Skydive Sofia. As the skydivers in Sofia say, “Don’t worry about the fear.  Worry about the addiction.”

And although there isn’t a skydiving competition in the London 2012 Olympic Games, we all saw who arrived at the Opening Ceremony with a parachute – James Bond and Queen Elizabeth! They have already done it, and so should you!

Blue skies!

 

*Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing skydiving, water ski, scuba diving, power boating, auto racing, or motorcycle racing in the Olympics any time soon because the International Olympic Body deems sports with an element of motorization to be ineligible for the Games.

By the way, the closest I’ve gotten to an Olympic gold medal is when I won three ribbons at the intramural swimming competition at Boston University. Read about it in the link. 


Seals are such beautiful creatures. They are big and mighty when they argue, nudge and shove each other, but then become gentle and peaceful when napping cuddled together. They are very clumsy on the shore, but fast and graceful in the water.

During my trip, I saw elephant seals, sea lions, and common harbor seals everywhere from the beaches of Big Sur and Carmel to the harbors of Santa Cruz and San Francisco. These are some of the pictures I took.

Pier 39, San Francisco

Elephant Seals by San Simeon

Seals by Santa Cruz

Seal kiss by the Santa Cruz harbor

I also went to the San Diego Zoo, which is one of the biggest zoos in the world. It’s marvelous how they have recreated the natural habitats of various animals with unique plants and environments: the pandas are in a bamboo forest, the alligators are in a swamp, the kangaroos are in an outback-like desert, the exotic birds are in a jungle. They also have many animal-themed shows and performances such as the Chinese Theatre we saw near the Asian section of the zoo. Thus, the San Diego zoo combines an animal park, a botanical garden, and an entertainment center where children and parents can observe, learn about, and interact with nature.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best aquariums in the world.

Monterey Bay in California holds an abundance of interesting, unique ocean animals and plants, which make the region a paradise for scuba divers and ocean explorers. At the Aquarium, I saw a bunch of interactive exhibits where biologists were feeding the otters, the deep sea fish (imagine a school of thousands of herring moving in giant tank along with hammerheads and sharks), and the inhabitants of a kelp forest. I also saw a sea horses exhibit, a jellyfish exhibit, and a playground where you could touch various creatures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the San Diego Zoo, I encountered several California species that I had never seen in the wild before: blue jays, a humming bird in Mount Diablo, seals, otters, two scary snakes, a herd of very friendly elk by Grand Canyon, redwoods and giant sequoias in Yosemite, and of course, the yellow California poppy. So my number one advice to travelers is: always combine sightseeing in the cities with exploring the local nature and wild life!

A dead Giant Sequoia at Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite

A herd of elk came just a few feet from our campsite near Grand Canyon

The golden poppy, the state’s flower, welcomes us to California


I’ve always dreamt of doing a road trip around the States! So after my Graduation, I spent  a month and a half trekking and touring the West Coast.

For the trekking portion of the trip, my Bulgarian friend Irinka, who also just graduated from a university in the UK, and I booked a professional service, TrekAmerica. We joined a group of fourteen internationals from Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and Ireland for a two week adventure. We traveled by van and camped all over California, Nevada, and Arizona.

I’ve created this map in Google where you can follow my trip as I upload more posts and pictures. I’ve also included some side trips that were not part of the organized tour as well as posts about things that made an impression on me in California.

So buckle up and off we go! First stop: LA!


Boston’s Marathon Monday was a blast as always! Last marathon Monday, I was impressed by the motivation, perseverance, and all-embracing sports spirit of the event both in the face of the  professional athletes and the jogging enthusiasts (read my previous article). This year, I had an even more active role in the Marathon celebrations as part of a group of wild Boston University fans.

Marathoners running up Beacon towards Kenmore Square under the scorching sun and a storm of cheers from the crowd

Let’s face the truth: the Boston Marathon would not be the same if it weren’t for the crowds of fans cheering, shouting, applauding, whistling, singing, ringing bells, drumming drums, high-five-ing, and blowing kisses at the runners.

The task of a Boston Marathon true fan is, therefore, a major responsibility. It begins a few days before the big day with drawing posters with silly slogans such as, and I only quote things that I’ve seen with my own eyes “You’re Almost There! That’s What She Said”, “The Guy In Front of You Farted, Run Faster!” and “You Got Stamina. Call Me: 7138596113.” On the weekend before Marathon Monday, the devoted fan has to also stock up on alcohol and snacks and find a place to party (be sure to make these arrangements in advance because someone told me that Blanchards, the big alcohol store near BU, was completely depleted and had to close early on Sunday).

On Marathon Monday, the true marathon junkie wakes up very early, around 7 or 8am, puts on brightly-colored running gear, and goes to a “kegs and eggs,” which, as I learned today, means to have breakfast while getting drunk or vice versa. Our breakfast of champions consisted of casserole, muffins, potato chips, sangria, bloody marry, Corona, Sam Adams, whiskey sour, and ouzo (a nice Eastern European touch on my side,  I thought).

The best locations for Marathon parties are of course along the race’s route – Beacon Street, Kenmore, Commonwealth Ave. It’s OK if you don’t have an apartment with a balcony overlooking the street like we did (hehe) because many people just bring their barbeque and boombox outside and party on the sidewalk all day. 

Some of the common sights throughout the day are: college kids dressed as Teletubbies, frat boys waving pirate flags, BU Resident Assistants chasing students off the roofs of campus housing, the BU police sniffing the content of every “water bottle” being carried around.  The best part of watching the race is chanting  “You can do it, 6472!” or “USA! USA!”  as the runners start arriving.

Let me just mention that this year’s marathoners had to deal with record high temperatures (about 30C), so the event was especially emotional – total exhaustion plus dehydration for some, and drunkenness plus sunstroke for others.  Around 2 o’clock, just at the peak heat, the most faithful marathon groupies could not resist and jumped the enclosures to join the runners for their final two miles. One of my friends even crossed the finish line in her flip flops with a red solo cup in hand. Thinking that she was a real runner, a very committed medical volunteer hurled her into a wheelchair and tried to treat her. Later, my friend told me that in the jam of wheelchairs around the medical tent near Copley, all she could see was a sea of sunburned and flushed, but very, very happy faces!

Fans dressed like for a jog - but only to show support, absolutely no intention to run for real!

Stairs and balconies offer the best vantage points, plus they are conveniently located next to the grill and the cooling bag.

This important artifact during the Boston Marathon celebrations, the Red Solo Cup, is also a staple in the American college culture.


Back home, only security forces and criminals have guns. In Texas, shooting is a family activity! And presumably the Balkans are the scary place!

My vacation in Corpus Christi, TX included an afternoon at The Sharp Shooter, one of this seaside resort’s many shooting ranges.

At the Sharp Shooter, anyone above the age of 21 can buy, sell, and trade their handguns and rifles. Anyone without restrictions can simply come and shoot for fun! There is no legal age for shooting, which is why the Sharp Shooter offers a great promotion, I quote:

 Family Day on Sundays: Children (16 and under) shoot for free **With paying adult.** Bring the whole family and save.

I guess shooting has a family bonding role in Texas, just like playing monopoly or riding bikes in the park. It is also a completely gender-neutral activity, check this out:

 Ladies Day – Tuesdays: Women shoot for ½ price. They also enjoy free targets, eye and ear protection, gun rentals, and classes from our expert instructors.

These instructors, by the way, were very kind Texan men who gladly showed me their entire line of guns: Taurus, Remingtons, Weatherbys, Smith & Wessons, Brownings, Springfields, etc, including the “cute” pink mini pistols, which are “ideal for a lady like you”.

In Texas, you do not need a permit or license to buy a gun or rifle; you don’t even have to register as an owner. You, however, need a permit to carry a concealed (out-of-sigh) handgun, which you can easily obtain at the gun store in exchange for an application, two color passport photos, fingerprints, and proof of residency and age, and $125. Once you’ve got that document, you can tuck your gun in your belt, put your shirt over it, and carry it whenever and wherever you’d like. Still, some establishments such as bars, schools, hospitals, and amusement parks put up a sign at the door saying that you should leave your gun in the car.

You are permitted to carry your gun out in the open if you are on your property (which explains the movie scenes where an old lady pulls out a rifle from underneath her skirt and points it at the intruder in her backyard). You can also openly carry your gun while you are hunting, attending a weapons exhibition, practicing at a shooting range, or all similar “sports” activities, which would probably be illegal in most countries.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, I said to myself, and shot a few times at the target with my friend’s rifle and guns. But still, I had a hard time understanding why my guy friends, who had just moved to Texas, had suddenly all bought a gun (or more than one, or even a whole collection of them). Even the greatest pacifist among them said he wanted to buy a taser (the thing that shoots up a metal rod in your skin and shocks you with electricity!).

“Everyone here has a gun,” the boys said, “so it’s a question of safety to have one as well.” I can’t say that I felt very safe having a burger in Hooters on a table with six guys, at least two of whom were carrying a concealed gun at that time. Kill me, I don’t get the logic (pun intended)!

What do you think? Is it ok to make guns so widely available and widely acceptable (to both children and adults)? What does this say of the American society, which has become so used to the presence of guns and violence that they don’t find it disturbing anymore? 

You might also enjoy:

Adventures in the Lone Star State: Selena and the Tejano Culture

Adventures in the Lone Star State: Texas Pride


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!

 


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!?!


As religion and revolution have intertwined in Bulgarian monasteries (read my previous post), so have religion and politics fueled one of the biggest social issues of the day in the States.

Oriana, a high school teacher near Boston, told me that one of the gravest issues she encounters in her work is teenage pregnancy (no wonder why Oriana couldn’t stop watching European music TV channels – the American MTV has replaced music clips for reality shows called 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom). She said that every year, there are pregnant girls going to classes or pregnant girls who drop out of school. I was very surprised because at my high-school there has never, as far as I know, been such a case. So don’t your students use any protection, I asked? No, said Oriana, they don’t use any protection and some of them don’t even know how to use condoms. That’s when I found out that Americans don’t have sex education!

In all Bulgarian high-schools, teenagers have a few sex education classes where they teach you the basics of the reproductive system, sex, STDs, etc (if you draw the short straw you might even get to put a condom on a banana in front of your giggling classmates). The classes are usually given either by a teacher or by the school psychologist.

Apparently, on the other hand, the States not only forbid sex ed, but in fact forbid teachers from even talking about sex or “even worse” – about abortion! (Which again confirms my belief that in America, sex is a taboo and violence is acceptable while in Europe, sex is art, and violence is hidden).

Why, I asked, is sex ed forbidden if teenage pregnancy is such a big problem? The explanation according to Oriana, lies somewhere in the relationship between the American voters, the Church, and lawmakers.

The anti-sex ed laws together with the anti-abortion laws, were established by the Republican party, whose electorate is to a great extent comprised of strongly religious people (of whom America has many) who belong to the middle or lower strata of society. These extremely religious voters do not necessarily agree with or benefit from everything the Republicans stand for (especially in terms of the fiscal policy), but they still vote Republican because of their coinciding belief in the doctrines of the Bible: that there should be no sex before marriage and absolutely no “killing of the innocent unborn child”.

Therefore, Oriana concluded, having sex education at school and explaining how to use condoms would be as if approving sex before marriage or sex with a non-reproductive aim.  Thus, everybody who is against abortion votes Republican and gets sex-talk-free schools. This system, however, proves to be corrupt because even though some might be pious, many teenagers in schools like Oriana’s are obviously not abstainers.

So it’s not enough that American parents stand against sex ed; to top it all, teenagers have very strong opinions on abortion (dictated by their parents and their churches, of course). Once they get pregnant, the vast majority of Oriana’s students keep their babies. Actually, there is even peer pressure to keep the baby! I could hardly imagine this: it’s not enough that you are teenage and pregnant, that your parents’ Republican representatives frown upon abortion on TV, that you hear about pro-life choices during Sunday mass, but on top of everything, your schoolmates discuss another classmate who made the right decision and became a mother.. for the second time!

An unfortunate vicious cycle, right?  Your religion forbids you to have sex before marriage, your country forbids you to learn about pregnancy prevention in school, your socio-religio-political convictions prevent you from getting an abortion, and in the end you find yourself pushing a baby cart to prom.


It is not easy to celebrate America’s Independence Day in Bulgaria, but I tried to be mentally as close as possible to my overseas friends. This is a list of the “American” things I did:

1. Spent the weekend evenings at the open-air jazz festival, A to JazZ, which presented the history of jazz: from its birth in Mississippi in the beginning of the 19th century, past the influence of swing and bebop, and until the music of the iconic Frank Sinatra and his interpretation of the American Dream. The event was organized by America For Bulgaria Foundation and took place in Doktorska Gradinka (Doctors’ Garden).

2. Went shopping in an American-style mall, where I tried on a pair of Levi’s and checked out which Hollywood movies were playing in the cinema.

3. Walked past McDonalds, Starbucks and Subway… but did not enter in any of them. Instead, bought some imported US beef jerky for my brother from the supermarket.

4. Tweeted and Facebooked my Fourth of July greetings through my smartphone.

Yep, no all-American cookouts in the back yard, bonfires at the beach, or fireworks over the Charles River this year. The fourth of July was just a normal summer Monday here in Sofia, without any sign of stars or stripes.  It’s such a pest that I’m always in the “other” country during big holidays!

Happy Fourth of July!

Read about my 4th July 2010 in Boston

 


On the first day of my class IR405: European Institutions and Enterprises, someone said: “I don’t get how the EU functions: it has a common currency, but it is comprised of different countries. I don’t think it will last.”

It was Churchill himself who proposed that there should be “something like the United States of Europe.” Well, my dear American friends, the European Union is nothing like your United States.

The EU is a common market, which means that there is free movement of goods, services and money among its twenty-seven member states, and what’s probably more interesting for you and me, citizens of the EU can travel freely, work, and live in any of the EU countries. Thus, you can find an Easy Jet flight from London to Milano for only €33. With its federal character, the EU is similar to the US, but its political structure is invariably more complicated and its population is more diverse. That is, the EU is comprised of very distinctive societies.

Take the euro coins for example. They all portray the map of Europe on one side, but have different national designs on the other. These are seventeen special designs that feature the national symbols of the seventeen countries that have adopted the euro, and thus belong to the European economic and monetary union.  The euro design testifies that although we are economically and politically linked, Europeans are still to a great extent nationalists. This is why you wouldn’t hear a foreigner in the States say “I’m European,” but rather “I’m French” or “I’m Polish”. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that many Americans in London introduce themselves with “I’m from LA” or “I’m from Jersey,” which means that you too have greater allegiance towards the smaller political and economic unit that defines you.

Despite EU’s efforts to become more like “united states,” there is one giant obstacle: language. There currently are twenty-three official languages in the EU and many more unofficial ones. There is no common language policy, although every country encourages learning multiple languages (in Bulgaria, learning a foreign language is obligatory since elementary school , and most students take on a second foreign language in high-school). Open a euro banknote and you will notice two alphabets: the Latin and the Greek; when Bulgaria adopts the euro on Jan 1, 2013 (if we survive 2012, that is), a third alphabet will be added: the Cyrillic alphabet.

Another reason why Churchill’s idea might fail is the EU’s cultural and social diversity. Of course the USA is not at all less diverse than Europe (Fancy me and imagine a stereotypical Texan with leather cowboy boots and a bolo tie sitting next to a preppy Boston lawyer in a Starbucks).  Still, in the States, different cultural groups have developed across vast territories due to great differences in climate, geography and lifestyle. In Europe, you can find very diverse populations in a very small area.

Naturally, major cities both in Europe and the States are affected by globalization, which allows cultures to permeate each other: only in South Kensington, there are so many Italian pizza restaurants, French patisseries, and Japanese sushi places. But the diversity of Europe is even more evident as we move away from the urban centers. The way people live in South France is very dissimilar to the way they do in Bavaria and is worlds apart from the way they do in Romania. There are different traditions, different professions, different levels of economic development, different worldviews. It is nothing like in the States where people speak the same language, watch the same TV, talk about the same politicians, and eat the same brand of ketchup.

You’ve already seen the proper and poised English; I encourage you to visit the hot-tempered Spanish, the practical Germans, the romantic French, and why not the hospitable Greek too. You might enjoy the different cuisines, fashion, stores, and entertainment, but don’t forget to make a note of these differences because they might be the key to why the European Union might never become “The United States of Europe.”


Customer Service at Restaurants in Eastern Europe

  1. Choose the table you want (in the smokers section or the non-smokers section) and sit down. If there’s not enough chairs, pull some over from a nearby table.Grumpy waiter
  2. Try to make eye contact with the waiters passing by. If no one notices you, wave your hand to the idle waiter goofing off across the room. If still nothing happens, call the waiter out loud
  3. Take your time looking through the menu. Read the appetizing description of every dish.
  4. Ask your waiter about a particular dish. The restaurant may not currently have most of what’s on the menu, but you might get recommendations about the what they actually have. Just don’t ask too many questions or you might piss off the waiter.
  5. Order salads, mezze, and aperitif (rakia or ouzo).
  6. These come relatively quickly. Take your time picking on them. Your main task now is to converse with your friends.
  7. When you start to get hungry, call the waiter again (if you see him around). Order the main course with wine or beer. Order a lot of everything.
  8. The food takes some time. No worries, you can keep ordering aperitif and carry on the merrymaking.
  9. evil waiterFinally, an hour after you’ve arrived at the restaurant, the main meal arrives, and the party is at its peak. Maybe you won’t get exactly what you ordered, so you can get in a little argument with the waiter; but do it just for the sport because you know that you’re not going to change anything, right?
  10. It’s ok to try from everyone’s plate with your fork. It’s ok to be loud and to propose a toast to people from other tables. It’s perfectly fine to sing.
  11. In another hour or two, when everyone starts to get a little bit sleepy, order dessert and coffee (or digestive).
  12. Ask for the bill. For once, the waiter will respond quickly.
  13. Only one person receives the bill: the one who invited the rest, the oldest one, or simply the friend whose turn it is this time; if you are students, you can also split the bill equally. Round the bill to the nearest 5 or 10: that’s the waiter’s tip (2-3 Euro, maybe 7-8 if the bill was high).

Customer Service at Restaurants in the States

  1. You are greeted by a smiling hostess who asks you about the number of people in your party and seats you at a suitable table.
  2. A grinning waitress immediately comes and introduces herself. She does some small talk. She pours you ice and water and hands you the menus.fish waiter
  3. Look at the pictures in the menu and choose one.
  4. You put on your jacket because the AC is be blasting.
  5. In 5-10 minutes, the waitress with the 24-carat smile brings you your dish. She refills your ice and water.
  6. In 5 minutes, she comes back to ask you how everything is and to refill your water again. She makes some small talk and looks like the friendliest person in the world.
  7. If there has been some mistake with your order (you wanted Diet Coke but they brought you Coke Zero), or you think it’s not cooked well (stake is way too bloody) you can always return it to the kitchen for reworking.
  8. The moment you put down your knife and fork, she takes away your plate so that it’s not in your way. She asks if you’d like dessert.
  9. She brings the check without you asking for it and leaves it on the table with the words “No pressure guys, take your time.” Customer Service
  10. Some of your friends pull out their calculators. Some pull out cash and some, credit cards. You start calculating how much everyone’s dish cost and how much everyone owes for tax and tip. You give 15-20% tip.
  11. You are in and out of the restaurant in 40 minutes.

***

So, what say you?

Should we identify any pros and cons and try to change our ways, or should we just shrug shoulders and accept the “cultural differences”?

Which approach to customer service do you prefer and why?


Whenever I hear Bulgarian speech in the street, I stop to meet the person.  This is how I met a Bulgarian hotel receptionist in the Bahamas, an illegal immigrant pizza deliveryman in Boston, and a manager at CityCo, whose accent I recognized on the phone, while calling about a product in his store.

Everyone has their own way of preserving their cultural identity in the foreign country.

My German friend Lena once asked me why I always introduce myself to Bulgarian strangers.  She heard German speech in Boston all the time, but she never stopped to say hello to her fellow countrymen.

I responded that Bulgarians in Boston are not strangers to me. My country is so small and I’m so far away, that I consider it good luck to meet another Bulgarian. I don’t want to walk past my luck, so I say hi. I feel that simply being in the same place, an ocean away from home, is already something in common and is a great reason to strike up a conversation.

That’s why I buy everything labeled “Made in Bulgaria”: yogurt with Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, Bulgarian red wine Tcherga (ordered online by Lena’s wonderful mother), Lalo Jewelry made by an Israeli artist living near Sofia. If I can’t find genuine Bulgarian products, I replace them with our neighbor’s equivalents like Greek feta cheese instead of our white cheese and Serbian Ajvar instead of our Lutenitza.

My culture is so small compared to the American and international surroundings that I feel the need to acknowledge my nationality whenever I encounter a piece of Bulgaria in Boston. I think this is my way of preserving my identity in the foreign environment.


I’m really happy that I finally have an apartment with a kitchen! Down with dining hall food! I feel cleaner, lighter, and more satisfied and independent than ever! So much for kitchen poetry…

At 15 in Bulgaria, I usually chose between 3-4 types of cereal. My peers in the States chose between 30-40 brands.

I was walking in Shaw’s Supermarket the other day, and remembered the first time I came to the States. It was around 2003, and I was about 14-15. My whole family came to the East Coast for a vacation. We started with Disney World in Orlando, then Washington DC, NYC, State College in Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, Boston, and Niagara falls. We visited friends, went to museums, saw shows, sights, etc. We wanted to go shopping just for the fun of it. Honestly, we didn’t think we’d find something completely different from what was available back home or from what we had already seen in Western Europe. But I remember that one thing really struck us.

The supermarkets. We went to a supermarket in State College, PA that was as big as the biggest mall in Sofia at that time (TZUM).   It had an incredible assortment of food that we had never seen before. It had piles of shiny big fruit that were so beautiful they almost looked artificial (today, I know that they indeed taste artificial). It had Italian bread, Turkish delight, Arabic dates, Spanish gazpacho, Russian borsch, Greek olives. Finally, one thing completely blew our minds.

The good old muesli with yogurt will always be my top choice. With fruit and honey, its better than the whole cereal aisle!

The aisle with cereal. I bet this was the longest aisle in the store, and it was packed with boxes of cereal: crisp choco crunch frost flake bran berry buzz blast apple maple raisin banana cinnamon pecan almond wheat rice oat corn honey mini multi squares puffs pebbles clusters bunches Kellog Quaker Newman Mills Kashi Ralston Nestle… Who ate all these things?! How was it possible to have so many combinations? How was it possible to choose from such a variety? At that time in Bulgaria, we had a total of maybe three companies producing breakfast cereal: Nestle’s regular cornflakes, Bulgarian cornflakes, and muesli. We ate cereal with milk and sugar or muesli with yoghurt and honey. I think we were perfectly content with the choices we had.

Now, of course, we have giant malls and giant supermarkets like Americans do. This must be a sign that our standard of living is rising. We have a much larger assortment of Bulgarian and foreign breakfast cereal.

Yet even today, after I’ve been to Shaw’s and Whole Foods in Boston so many times, I still fail to understand why Americans need so many different types of cereal?!

***

You might also find interesting the rest of my Observations on the American Culture and Behavior, compared to those in my native Bulgaria:

Bureaucracy in America: Iron Policy of No Compromise

Sex and Watermelons in Bulgarian Pop Culture

It Doesn’t Get More Organic Than This


Yane Sandanski was born in 1872 in Vlahi, near Melnik, Bulgaria

 

What the world today calls the “Miss Stone Affair” is an exceptional story of national duty, revolutionary ideologies, bandit means, international crisis, great manhood, and sturdy womanhood.   

Miss Ellen Maria Stone was an American Protestant missionary from Roxbury, Massachusetts who arrived in Bulgaria in 1878. This was in the time immediately after the Russo-Turkish wars when Bulgarian gained back its independence from the Ottoman Empire after five hundred years of yoke. Still, the Treaty of Berlin of July 1878, did not grant full independence to all regions of Bulgaria, which gives rise to a new movement for the autonomy of the Bulgarian regions Macedonia and Odrin from the Turkish rule.   

In 1901, the revolutionary organization IMORO (Internal Macedonia-Odrin Revolutionary Organization) was suffering from utter lack of money, so its leaders resorted to kidnappings for ransom of rich persons as a means to earn money for the cause.   

On August 21st, after a three day ambush, Bulgarian revolutionary leader voivoda Yane Sandanski, together with Hristo Chernopeev and Krustio Asenov and their cheta (revolutionary group) kidnapped Ms. Stone on the way from Bansko to Gorna Djumaya, Blagoevgrad region. The men took Katerina Stefanova, Tsilka, as a maid for the 55-year old American missionary, and later found out that she was pregnant in the fifth month. The abductors demanded 25,000 golden Turkish lira (about 110,000 USD) and held the women for six months until they received the ransom.   

His troops come in support of the Bulgarian army officers

 

Now don’t be scared. Both women were in good hands. Yane Sandanski was not only a fervent patriot and a fierce opponent of his repressive ottoman enemies, but he was a man of his word and a charismatic, noble leader. Born in Vlahi, a village near Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, Yane Sandanski believed that the Bulgarians in the region of Macedonia should riot against the Empire and should found an autonomous state in a greater Balkan Federation. Today, he is a common hero for both Bulgarians from Bulgaria and Macedonians from the Republic of Macedonia. One of the most beautiful cities in Southern Bulgaria is named after him.   

Yane Sandanski ‘s cheta took great care of the two women (Ms. Stone spoke Bulgarian) and kept them safe in Vlahi. According to memoirs, Sandanski did not let “a hair fall from their head” and even organized a feast for Ms. Stone for one of her American holidays, Thanksgiving.  Some sources say that Ms. Stone developed a Stockholm syndrome: she fell in love with her abductors and their noble cause.   

Meanwhile, the affair became an international crisis situation. The States were reluctant to negotiate with the outlaw organization or with the Bulgarian diplomacy. The protestant lobbyists were pressing the US Senate. The American public had to raise the ransom money from donations, and the press became very interested in the incident with the American and her pregnant maid. The world’s attention fell on the strained Macedonian-Turkish relations and the unhappy fate of the Balkan peoples after the Treaty of Berlin.   

In February 1902, the ransom was finally paid and the women (with the baby, which was successfully delivered) were set free. Upon her return in Massachusetts, Ms. Stone held numerous lectures on the Macedonian issue and called the public to action in aid of the revolutionary movement. In her memoirs, she calls Yane Sandanski “the good man.” Both I and Ms. Stone consider him by no means a bandit, but a hero, because we understand his righteous motives.   

He was killed in 1915. His famous thought were engraved on his tomb: "To live means to struggle: the slave for freedom, and the free man for perfection"

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