Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bulgaria & Germany

I really ought to let everyone know that I am alive and well over here in London. Photos have been uploaded and start here:

To be honest, I've hardly been in London (it seems) since finishing exams. I had a week of sort of puttering around and doing some of the things that had been put on hold by exams (one of which was reuniting with a friend from high school who has moved to London for the summer to play with her rock band before heading to grad school in the fall. We sat next to each other at graduation and that might be the last time we were in the same place...after soooo many years in Spanish classes together).

It has also been World Cup season, something which lost a fair amount of it's shininess after England broke the country's hearts in a penalty kick loss to Portugal. Actually, I was back in the game as soon as Portugal was kicked out by France, but I'll admit that I had the most fun during the opening group matches when it was less serious and you got to see the fans from countries that didn't have a prayer all dancing, cheering and hoping for a miracle. Still, I had fun being an England fan...especially for the match against Ecuador when some Earlham friends and I paraded with a flag through the streets of Burgas, Bulgaria after the win. Oh, if you were wondering, Come on England! I wasn't much for supporting the US team, even if the Bulgarian Peace Corp volunteers declared that I was a traitor. Contrary to their request, I did not relinquish my passport, but took advantage of an embassy connection to insert extra pages in it.

Which leads me to my first post-exam adventure: Bulgaria. I only went because two of my friends from Earlham Model UN were there for the summer. Dan's dad works for the State Department there and our mutual friend Laura decided to tag along. Both of them are interning at an NGO and Dan's also interning at the US embassy in Sofia. It was a bit of an adventure getting there, but I am so glad that I did, in the end. After visiting other countries on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain, I'd been expecting a bit of grey, a bit of shabby, a bit of dreary, but I absolutely could not have been more surprised. I don't think it was all the weather's doing, but Bulgaria turned out to be more Balkan than post-Soviet. It was sunny, clean, littered with red tile roofs, Byzantine, well restored or maintained, beautiful...I'm not entirely sure how to describe my time there in ways that don't come off as completely hokey. Take my word for it; when I think of Bulgaria, I get a warm, fuzzy feeling. Best of all, hardly any tourists! As Dan's fond of quoting (me): "Bulgaria! Who knew?"

Dan and I spent an afternoon and evening wandering around Sofia, including stops at the amazing and huge Aleksandur Nevski church. On the edge of it's gigantic plaza, there was a lace market, where I found some amazing pieces for my grandma's upcoming birthday and for presents. That evening, we met up with Laura & Dan's dad for a concert and dinner afterwards. That night, as at other times while in Bulgaria, I had the whole "so, this is what it's like not to be able to read! feeling." The Bulgarians use the Cyrillic alphabet, so there's a alphabet and language barrier for extra fun, although the only time that it really, really mattered was on menus. We were on the verge of choosing things at random when the owner just asked us what we'd like instead; the result was the most wonderful platter of mixed veggies and meats all sauteed or stirfried or something. I was excited and intrigued that normal Bulgarian cooking seems to involve a whole lot more veggies than other Central/Eastern European food. Another food highlight were the Shopka salads: sometimes lettace, always loads of cucumber, sweet peppers, and that tangy goat cheese.

The next morning, the three of us caught a bus to Burgas, the smaller and more southern of Bulgaria's two population centers on the Black Sea Coast. We had a weekend of football watching, exploring and beaching, which was absolutely relaxing and the perfect way to finally forget finals and have a great time with friends. In addition to wandering around Burgas, it's beaches, huge prominades, and packed nighttime cafes in the park, we also took a bus to a different coastal
spot each day. The first day we went to Nesebur, a tiny chunk of land that's just barely attached to the mainland and is (yay!) a World Heritage City. Although most of the shops have been converted to tourist things, the old town has maintained the feeling of a tiny fishing center, with narrow streets, old homes, and a sprinkling of ruins of Byzantine churches (and one that's still in use and is newly painted with the most amazing frescos). We had a great time exploring, taking photos and scrambling around the churches, and the fact that the sky was bright blue was a massive bonus. The next day, we went south to Sozopol, this time spending a lot more of our time on the beach than the day before. The Black Sea isn't the Indian Ocean, but it was still beautiful and wonderful for swimming (and ranks above both the Atlantic and Lake Michigan in my book). The beach also fulfilled all of my stereotypes of European beaches: lots of scary speedos and toplessness and I think the only people wearing one-piece suits were the Westerners. We stayed late in Burgas to watch the England game (I wore my England jersey and Dan insisted on wearing the St. George's flag like a cape through the streets afterwards, to Laura's horror) and caught the sleeper train back to Sofia that night (buying tickets required the time honored trick of copying seemingly random symbols out of the Rough Guide and flashing them at the clerk). It was fine, except that you couldn't turn out the lights. Next time: eye mask!

I took the next day to read in the flat (finished Eichmann in Jerusalem on the trip) and Dan's dad took us to dinner. And on my last morning, I got downtown all by myself and managed to find the old baths that are being restored and converted into a new city museum (I can't wait to see them finished, because the in-process building is already amazing), the not-very-interesting central market and the Sofia synagogue. It has elements of both the one in Vienna and Budapest, although hasn't seen the same effort put into its restoration. But, I still got the shivers when I walked in. Then, off to the airport, dinner with Ian and watching more football before going to bed in order to get grandma bright and early the next morning!

I had been telling Ian that every time I went to Gatwick, people's flights had gotten in so early that they had beaten me there. Well, no more. Grandma didn't come out of the tunnel until nearly three hours after the scheduled arrival; apparently their plane had been delayed in Philly for quite some time. We dropped her bags off at the hotel and went to have lunch because the rooms weren't ready. After which, we went to my flat for a few minutes and my 89-year-old grandmother decided that she'd rather climb the five flights of stairs than pay for the hotel. If you know her, this makes perfect sense, but I'm still amazed. Who knows what her cardiologist is going to say at her appointment this week. *crosses fingers and hopes for lots of good genes*

We had quite a whirlwind adventure. For her birthday we went to Kensington Palace and had tea at the Orangerie. Oh, lovely cucumber sandwiches! It was perfect, as was the weather. You have to remember that this also required a walk all the way across Hyde Park, in two legs. Then, it was off to the National Gallery for an hour or so, Chinatown for dinner, and a concert at St. Martin's in the Field. And it just kept on like this. We spent a day going on the boat from Westminster to Greenwich and climbed up to the Royal Observatory in order to take photos at the Prime Meridian, then went to LSE to watch the (heartbreaking) England-Portugal match. The day before we went to Borough Market to get picnic supplies and had a wonderful birthday lunch with the daughter of Grandma's neighbor at her retirement community. And on Sunday we went to St. Paul's for services (orchestral mass!) and she was both amazed and a bit grossed out at the number of people to whom they gave communion. Apparently, at her church they have little plastic cups, rather than having everyone drinking out of the same goblets. I think the smart people were the ones who dunked their wafer. And after that, we went to a Boot sale in Battersea, which I discovered are great places to buy books for really cheap prices!

Monday morning, we left at stupid-o'clock (ok, 3:45 am) to get to the airport for our flight to Salzburg, where my cousin Kelly met us. Kelly is my grandfather's brother's granddaughter, so I'm not entirely sure what relation that makes us, but cousin works for me. She's a civilian who's been working for the army in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany for 15 years. We flew into Salzburg because it was only days before the semi-final match in Munich and flights were expensive and I had a feeling that things could have been a bit crazy. It was wonderful to see Salzburg again, this time as a sunny, mountain town. You could see more mountains than in December and everything was so cheery and friendly. I loved the mystery of winter, but summer's pretty nice, too. We spent the night and had plenty of time to sort of wander around and feed grandma ice cream. I had cake. What? It's Austria! Of course I had cake!

Then we drove to Garmisch (although Kelly actually lives in Partenkirchen, I'm not typing the whole name every's too long!) with a stop to take a boat to the island where one of crazy Kind Ludwig II's palaces lies. Schloss Herrenchiemsee was never finished and only occupied for about a week, but the "public" rooms, exterior, and gardens were created as a replica/representation of Versailles (the one in Paris, not Indiana) and a memorial to absolute monarchy. Let me tell you, it was weird to not need a coat, hat, mittens, and a scarf to visit Versailles, but I could find the spot where we build Pierre Escargot the snowman last November. For me, the highlight was the Hall of Mirrors, always the thing that's been the biggest disappointment at Versailles itself because of the renovation works. But, it gave me the shivers, that's how amazing it looked. They might not have actually signed the Treaty of Versailles at Herrenchiemsee, but I'm glad that I finally know what it looked like when they did.

Garmisch itself is a charming place. It's in a valley, surrounded by mountains and has all those really cute Bavarian homes, many of which are painted and actually flats. From Kelly's garden/porch thing you can see mountains, which is soooo cool. I took one afternoon to explore and do a bit of climbing. I visited one church which was built up the side of a hill and where the covered walkways were lined with handcarved wooden plaques, most of them with photos and flowers, put up by the families of soldiers who died during World War II. Obviously, they were fighting for the Third Reich, but they were also my age, just like the Americans and the British and everyone else. It gave me pause and I took some moments of silence to think. I climbed up to about 1000m (there was a lot of EEEEEEE! I'm hiking in the Alps! going on), but the impeding thunderstorms worried me enough to come down, went shoe shopping, ambled home amongst the haymeadows in the middle of town and worried grandma by being back later than I'd thought. (One side effect of leaving my phone in London is that I didn't have a clock.)

The next day, Grandma and I spent the morning going up the Wank (yes, that's funny and pronounced Vaaahnk) in the lift. There were amazing views of the town and the mountains that surround it. I went to Munich in the afternoon/evening to see the art museum (which wasn't open as late as Rough Guide had told me...booo), which was excellent, and to do a bit of wandering/shopping/Joyce time. Bought a few World Cup postcards, but not much else. We went to the base commissary the next morning and I spent $55 on macaroni & cheese (Kraft!), Jiffy mix, Bush's baked beans, lemonade mix, Stovetop stuffing, BBQ sauce, face wash and MY VERY OWN COPIES OF US AND PEOPLE MAGAZINE. *sniff* It's been so long. Seriously, I think I bought 8 boxes of both mac & cheese and Jiffy mix. I would also note that American grocery stores smell different. After a spot of second hand shopping, we drove back to Salzburg, had dinner, flew home, and finally got a cab that got us home around 2am. Sheesh. Grandma flew home to Philly on Sunday and now it's time for Joyce to buckle down on the dissertation.

Germany was fantastic. I could really see myself spending more time there, which I always meant to do anyway, since my favorite German expert has already written the Joyce Guide to Berlin, following on the heels of the uber-successful Joyce Guide to Vienna. My 10 weeks of German were enough to do the occasional thing (like ask for size 39 shoes), which is all I could ask. But, then again, everyone under a certain age speaks English. I've probably picked up some new words and by the end of the week, I was a bit better at distinguishing words in spoken sentences. I'm looking forward to more lessons in the fall, but I'm going to have to sort out some Spanish for this summer, otherwise spending time with Ana and her family in Spain could be awkward!