Random Balkan notes

Bosnia has Cinnamon Toast Crunch (WHY HAVE I BEEN LIVING IN BULGARIA FOR 3 YEARS AND NOT BOSNIA?!).

There was a children’s puppet show at sundown in Old Town Kotor, Montenegro, and it had an environmental theme:

So far as we could tell from our limited comprehension of Serbian/Montenegrin (based on our limited knowledge of Bulgarian), the main characters were that trash collector with his dancing dumpster and recycle bin pals, two conscientious neighborhood women, and one punk who wears his ballcap backwards (which clearly makes him EVIL), throws trash out into The Nature, and uproots flowers just for the sadistic pleasure of it.

In a quest to eat something other than Balkan food (given that it’s basically all the same as Bulgarian food which we’ve been eating for three years), we have started trying to get international cuisine when we can. In the last few days, we’ve had Montenegrin Chinese food, Bosnian Mexican food, and Bosnian sushi. The Bosnian sushi was by far the best. Montenegrin Chinese food is better than Bulgarian Chinese food but is still not really Chinese food. Bosnian Mexican food was not great, maybe around the same level as Egyptian Mexican, worse than German Mexican and well behind Macedonian Mexican, which is still the best we’ve found anywhere outside the U.S.

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Life maintenance

So far this year, with my new position, I haven’t had much work I’ve had to take home. When I leave my office for the day, I’m basically done. This is a pretty novel concept to a teacher, and is perhaps the most concrete signal that I really am in a different line of work now.

It means, though, that I’ve been able to do more Normal People Things in the evenings. Like exercise. Or go grocery shopping. Or watch TV. Or cook and try new recipes. Or write blog posts.

Tonight I cooked quinoa for the first time:

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I’ve eaten quinoa before, but never made it. I have a feeling it might fall into the same category for me as lentils–that is, the “This is so easy to cook, why didn’t I discover it sooner?!” category. Despite some recent increased domesticity, I find my preferred method of cooking still entails a lot of leaving stuff to simmer and then coming back to find that a meal has magically expanded in the skillet while I was watching the latest Colbert episode online. Lentils and quinoa are both really good foods for this lazy culinary style.

This recipe is adapted from one I found on Allrecipes. The only differences are that I added some chopped red pepper, as a few users suggested, and I also stirred in some leftover white rice that I haven’t been able to finish off. I also didn’t actually measure the corn and beans, just spooned it in until the balance looked right.

While still being pretty delightfully easy to throw together, this dish is a litle bit more difficult to make in Bulgaria than it would be in the States, for the following reasons:

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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.  

C is for cookie…

The same day that I had a discussion in my senior Conversation class about how American hamburgers are and how the rest of the world just doesn’t get it, I decided to embark on a baking project to create something else you don’t find much outside the U.S., or at least not in Bulgaria: chocolate chip cookies.

Bulgaria has cookies, of course – very tasty ones, too. But they’re not like American cookies. They’re often sort of doughy or shortbread-y, with a dollop of chocolate or fruit preserve on top or inside. Often there’s honey involved, somewhere. And they’re small. You don’t get big, thick, moist, chewy American-style cookies here; grocery stores don’t sell chocolate chips, or even really baking chocolate of any kind. But they do sell chocolate for consumption – LOTS of it. So yesterday I decided to try out these two recipes, substituting broken-up dark chocolate bars for chocolate chips in both, and mint dark chocolate squares instead of thin mints in the second. 

I should also say that I had plenty to do instead of baking last night. I’d just felt terrible the entire day – sick and exhausted and possibly on the verge of throwing up, and I’d only slept 5 hours each night the previous two nights and had been getting up at 5 am to finish work for the day before school, and I’d failed utterly at taking a nap after school, but somehow I really felt like baking. I even went out to Billa to get the chocolate bars. I had energy for nothing else except this.

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Random notes on a lazy Sunday

So wonderful to see a former student of mine traveling, writing, and thriving even after not graduating on time (or in a conventional sense) from high school. She’s getting an education the old-fashioned way – living it – and recently came home after witnessing first-hand the protests in Egypt:

I chose to explain my experience in Egypt during the protests this way because, since I have gotten back to Boston, many people have been talking about what is going on as if it is a joke. So what better way for me to explain it than to put you in my shoes? Hopefully you can learn the lessons I have.

One: Things are never as passive as you perceive them to be at first glance!

Two: We take too many things for granted!

Three: It is one thing to stand up for yourself, but it is another thing to stand up for a stranger you later will call your brother!

Then there was this in yesterday’s NY Times, which was an interesting connection and taught me a little more about some Bulgarian history – always good to know.

Also inspirational: Finding decent Mexican food in Sofia! We finally tried Taqueria last night before heading to BSD and found it completely satisfactory (smoke-free is a nice touch). Overall a very pleasant night out, which has led to a slow start today, but that’s what Sundays are for, no?

Miscellany

It is snowing lightly here in Sofia, and my kitten is transfixed watching the fat flakes drift past the window.

Now that I am officially on flu-cation and have all next week to finish my grading at work with no students, I am enjoying a lazy morning at home, although I barely know what to do with myself. I probably will end up grading at some point just out of sheer force of habit and momentum – I’ve already apparently trained my body this week to wake up after 6 hours of sleep and start grading essays, because it insists on continuing to want to do this. I have 76 more to go, although I don’t have 31 of those yet and won’t have them for a while because of the flu-cation and delayed exams. Between the end of my holiday break and the end of this semester (originally a span of 3 weeks), I will have read and graded 201 essays.

I think I will also take this week to catch up on some writing and reflecting. Every so often I jot down an idea for a blog post or a longer piece of writing, but then I don’t have time to go back and actually compose it. So, in the interest of housekeeping, here is the random-association / cliff notes version of some blog topics…  Continue reading