Exercises in humility

I’ve had an interesting experience for the last few weeks.

To understand this, you need to know a little about how our finances typically work here. When we get paid, we direct a certain percentage of our paychecks deposited as leva into our Bulgarian bank accounts, and the rest gets deposited automatically as dollars into our American bank account. Normally, we get paid at the end of the month, but we can also opt for salary advances in the middle of the month, and the rest paid out at the end of the month. Typically, I use my Bulgarian bank account to withdraw cash to use here (obviously), but I also use it to withdraw euros and local currency when I travel. I generally use credit cards linked to my U.S. bank account to purchase airline tickets, book accommodations online, etc. I almost never use my American debit card at European ATMs, unless my Bulgarian bank card has been rejected for some reason (it happens sometimes). 

Last year, I never came close to using up the money in my Bulgarian bank account, so I decided this year to decrease the percentage that was deposited locally so that I would be, in theory, saving more in my American account and being less wasteful with my Bulgarian account. Given that I still had a surplus from last year, I had again never come close to using it all up, even with the decreased deposit amount…until this past month. 

Turns out that 10 days in Italy and Malta for Christmas/New Year’s gets pretty expensive. Also, because I was traveling with 2 other people and because of the way that we had divided booking/reservation responsibilities, I ended up owing my traveling companions for some airfare and hotel costs; these expenses, which I normally would’ve booked by card if I’d been traveling alone, I paid back in cash, which contributed even more to the depletion of my Bulgarian bank account.

All this basically amounts to the fact that I had not a lot of money left in my Bulgarian bank account by the time I got back to Sofia at the beginning of this month and settled all my travel debts. I had something like 30 leva left in the bank, but then with the help of my mid-month salary advance, I was able to go on one last big shopping spree for groceries for my Chinese New Year dinner (tofu, for example, is really expensive and hard to find here). After that, though, I  found myself with much less spending money at hand than I normally have. Since Chinese New Year last Monday, I think I spent 10 leva (about $6.70) all week – most of it in the first 2 days – until today, when I finally withdrew the last 20 leva from my Bulgarian bank account to cover the expenses for our trip to Pernik today for the Kukeri festivities (separate entry on that later). And I managed to stay under budget: 7.50 leva on lunch and a beer (an extravagance, but it was so cold I really needed to be inside for a while, not just eating food on a stick outside, which would’ve been much cheaper), 7 leva for my share of gas money, then 4.50 leva for a liter of milk, 6 eggs, and a loaf of bread at the grocery store on the way home – the first new groceries I’d purchased all week.

I now have nothing but change rattling around in my wallet (and not even good change, it’s all like 5- and 2-stotinki coins), and exactly 74 stotinki left in the bank, which basically amounts to 0 because you can’t withdraw 74 stotinki from an ATM.  Continue reading

Ringing in (another) new year

It’s that time of the semester when you’re up early enough on a weekend morning to catch the sunrise:

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Of course this is a lot easier to do when you’re on the very western edge of your time zone. Much like Michigan, Bulgaria gets light late in the winter, stays light late (sometimes disorientatingly so) in the summer. 

The sun rose today not only on the blokove of Mladost, but also on New Year’s Eve, Lunar Edition. Like last year, I had another get-together with some friends to mark the occasion. It’s funny, Chinese New Year was never really a big thing for me at home: we would always have a family dinner, and we got hong bao when we were younger, but it wasn’t something I actively thought about or planned anything for. I think technically you could actually take it off from work in a public school system, because it is a significant cultural holiday, but I never idd (my students always asked me why I hadn’t just stayed home!).

Being far away from home, though, and far away not only from a cohort of people who look like you, but even from a reasonable cohort of people who have ever spoken to someone who looks like you (other than you), makes you want to cling a little harder to these traditions and commemorate them somehow. It just becomes a little more important. 

So, like last year, I made dinner, the centerpiece of which was homemade jiao zi:

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Unlike last year, though, I had the foresight to make the jiao zi at the tail end of my Christmas vacation and then freeze them in anticipation of this weekend, so that I could just pull them out and cook them. This turned out to be a very smart move indeed, since I might otherwise have had a nervous breakdown this weekend trying to make dumplings and read and grade 30 senior projects at the same time. Which is just not something you ever want to be stuck doing, and would probably require you getting up a lot earlier than sunrise both weekend mornings.  

Feeling a little ethnic

I spent my Christmas/New Year’s holiday in central/southern Italy (Florence, Siena, Sorrento) and Malta. Other than one cold, damp, rainy day in Malta, it was a great trip. However, it also reminded me of one thing that I dislike about living in Europe because I think it comes up more frequently here than it does in the U.S. (or at least the parts of the U.S. I mostly move around in): People are much likely to make certain comments or act on certain assumptions because I’m Asian.

Maybe this is because loads of Asian tour groups descend on Europe in a way that they don’t quite do in the U.S. Or maybe they’re just more spaced out in the U.S. – I don’t know. I will say that it doesn’t seem to happen as much in the UK, Germany (offensive posters at Cannstatter aside), or France, where perhaps there are more Asian immigrants living integrated with the more indigenous population. I’ve already written about the open stares I get in Bulgaria, but on this last trip, I had a creepy church guard at St. John’s in Valletta stalk me around the cathedral and harass me with, “Zhong guo ren, zhong guo ren! Ni hao ma? Konichiwa!” repeatedly while listening to music on his cell phone/iPod and trying to angle it in a way so that I could see his spiffy touch screen (he was basically the worst church employee ever), and then in our hotel breakfast room, a pensioner from the UK touched my arm to warn me about a supposedly nonfunctional toaster, but when I turned around she was clearly flummoxed by my appearance and didn’t think I would understand her language, so instead she pointed at the offending toaster and shook her head very slowly at me.

But it was still a good trip.

PS. Re: creepy church guard – who actually uses that as a pickup line? [It translates into: “Chinese person, Chinese person! How are you?” in Mandarin and then “Hello!” in Japanese] What am I supposed to respond to that?