Viva Espana!!

Well…here we are, in Spain.  But before I tell you about Spain, I must first tell you about our ironic last day in Bulgaria.  I had all these photos loaded up and ready to post here on the blog as a sort of visual montage to the year, and, of course….the internet went caput!  Also, our water was out for part of the day.  Doesn´t that just go with the whole year? Hahahaha!  So, when I can get internet on my own computer, I will upload my photo montage for you all.  Until then….Espana!

 

So we arrived here on Friday afternoon and promptly rented a car.  I should say here that I am not so into the car-rental-in-a-foreign-country thing.  But we did it.  The actual renting part was easy.  It was also easy to find the fantastic townhouse where we are staying (which belongs to friends of Marks parents and feels like a mansion compared to the flat where we have lived for the past year…we thought about just getting jobs here and moving in, changing the name from Villa ***** to Villa Drake), and everything was going really perfectly.  Too perfectly in fact.  So we continued on our merry way, setting things up, showering, etc.  Then around 10:00 pm, we headed out to dinner–they eat really late here.  And that is when the perfection ended…

 

Turns out, we dont know how to use reverse on the car.  We had parked in a dirt lot and walked around a bit and decided we would go further down to eat, but alas, we could not get out of the dirt lot.  Mark must have tried 80 times to figure out the reverse.  He was sweating and doing the nervous laugh.  Then he was getting a little grumpy.  I just kept saying, “There must be a trick to this”, which I am sure just totally helped the situation.  Clearly Mark knew there was a trick.  He perhaps did not appreciate me telling him this little fact 15 times.

 

Finally he got out and….imagine this!…pushed the car backwards while I turned the steering wheel.  Yeah.  And thats how we got out. It was a classy move.  This meant that we had to now limit our parking to only places that we did not have to back out of.  Go ahead–try that sometime.  Find a place to park where you never use reverse.  Now try it in a crowded beach community.  Good times.

 

So, needless to say, our perfect day did not end so perfectly.

 

On day 2, Mark figured out reverse first thing.  And yes, there was a trick.  We wont go into it here.  The we headed out to explore.  On both Saturday and Sunday, we pretty much strolled around little towns here on the beach and laid around in the sun and swam in the sea.  Oh, and ate delicious food…sangrias, paella, fresh fish, shrimp.  All delicious, and not a cucumber anywhere to be seen.  We live the life of kings here!

 

Today we are in Barcelona.  We drove all day to get here and we arrived in enough time to do some walking around.  This is a beautiful city!  And the weather is perfect, warm but not scorching. You dont actually need to see anything here, you can just cruise around and look at the buildings all day.  They are amazing!  But tomorrow we will indeed tour around and see the Picasso Museum, the Sagrada Familia, some Gaudi work, and of course, the Olympic Village from the 1992 Olympics (you know what an Olympic freak I am!)

 

There are many more stories to tell, but I have to do it bit by bit.  We cant get our computers to recognize the internet where we are staying (and frankly we dont want to waste our whole vacation trying) so we are bound to internet cafes…and you know how those go.  So, this is all for now.  More later!

 p.s.  I know there are apostrophes missing which is SO unacceptable for a teacher.  But the keyboard switched modes while I was sitting here (it did it all by itself I am sure…I touched nothing, NOTHING, I say), and now I cant figure out the apostrophes.  I will edit later–forgive the mistakes for now.

 

The Daily Walk

I’ve been meaning to photo-journal my daily walk to and from Mark’s office–my main source of daily exercise. But it was raining or I kept forgetting my camera or, or, or….you get the idea. Well, I finally did it. So here it is:

From our flat, I go out to the corner and turn left. Here is what I see:

walk-4.jpg

Notice how the cars are parked all willy-nilly, on the streets and on the sidewalks, wherever there is space. This gets a little irritating when you are walking, especially if someone is walking on the same patch of sidewalk, but coming towards you. Then it is this weird dance/wait, you-go, no-I-go thing. This is one reason why you should always walk with headphones on, so you can just act oblivious that someone is walking right at you. You just walk right at them back!

Then I pass the British Ambassador’s house and the Hungarian Ambassador’s house, neither of which are photographed here. Ever since the time (years ago, on his first visit here) that Mark nearly got arrested for photographing government buildings and had to relinquish his camera, we opt NOT to photograph government facilities. Just imagine a nice house with a UK flag, and then another one next door with a Hungarian flag. There you have it.

Next, I go over the little river, which is actually some kind of run-off ditch that is always flowing:

walk-5.jpg

Next I pass a playground, but it so happens that it is near an area frequented by, ummm….how to say……corrupt individuals who happen to drive Mercedes and wear all black…you get the idea. So I chose not to photograph the playground. But I have shown you playgrounds before–same idea, different locale.

Then it is up the hill I go:

walk-1.jpg

This is my favorite part of the walk. There are lots of trees and it is almost a little jungly. To the right of this photo is yet another government residence. It used to be one of the homes of the dictator, years ago, and now it is another government residence, but no one seems to know whose or why or anything. Very odd…. And this, too, is not photographed (see reasons above).

Once I climb the hill, I find the little coffee shop on the corner and turn left. Here is what I see:

walk-3.jpg

More willy-nilly parking, narrow streets which cause many arguments among drivers who are in a constant state of road rage. At the end of this street, a right turn, a short walk, and then I’m there. Voila!

That is pretty much my life there, and it should give you a good idea of what things generally look like here. Mark’s office is in a nice area of town, so you probably noticed it is not so dirty or graffiti’d. There is some trash and graffiti (definitely more than you would ever find in San Diego), but not as much as in the center of the city where we live, which is why I enjoy walking up there. Altogether it is like three and a half miles or so round trip.

Tomorrow is our last day here. This was my last walk to the office…kind of sad…but only until we visit again!

T Minus 2 1/2

Time to start packing and cleaning baby.  I’m off to start.  The landlords are coming to inspect the place Thursday morning, so all must be done by then.  And it will, beeeeeelieeeeeeve me.

So I’m off.  Out!

Like the Weather

So…you’ll remember all the times I bored you with the stories of how freakin’ hot it is here? Well, apparently the Winter Gods heard me because now we are heading into Day 4 of solid rain. And not just little dribbles of rain like we get in San Diego. R.A.I.N. people. Pouring, endless rain complete with thunder and lightning. I am currently wearing a long-sleeved shirt, sweats, furry socks and slippers. Here’s a look:

furry-feet.jpg

‘Nuff said.
And that about sums up our year here. Like the weather—super hot and then freezing cold. There have been amazing experiences and then days of dread. An emotional roller coaster, I tell you. And it’s hard to categorize what was great and what was horrible. For example, one of the things we love about this place is the simplicity of life. There is not this whole status thing here–you are either a rich member of the mafia society or you are not. And most people are not. And if you are not (like us), then you have a simple existence…work, housework, shopping, maybe a meal or drinks with friends. That’s it. It’s nice not to have all the pressure–though we pretty much ignore all that nonsense at home anyways. That said, this life can be booooooooooooooooooring at times. Like right now. I am not interested in having another tomato and cucumber (shopska) salad with a barbecued piece of mincemeat (kebapche/kyufte). Frankly, I am not even in the mood to eat at another restaurant. Ever. And I have eaten the same meal of chicken in some form, tomatoes and squash for the past two weeks. So I have learned something….

Simple=Boring (at times)
I need a little more stimulation. Really, I learned that I need outdoor activities. I have watched more movies, read more books, and solved more sudoku puzzles in this past year than I will in the rest of my life. Even on days that it is sunny, I find myself feeling trapped in the apartment, because really, what are my outdoor options? I can walk to the park to the left of the flat or the one to the right, both of which are packed with people and full of graffiti and dog pee (and now that I am dog-less, I have no desire to admire other people’s dogs). I can eat somewhere. I can shop. Blech to all of those options. And so I read. And re-watch movies. And to mix it up, download old songs from my youth.

Another hot/cold example: Food. I love, love, LOVE the whole fresh fruit and vegetables thing. They are delicious and good for you. But here is the problem. They last for maybe 2-3 days. So let’s just say….that maybe……it rains for 4 solid days. Or worse. SNOWS! Well, you still have to go out almost everyday to get food. With no car. Just two little feet to trounce through the city. And odds are, they won’t have what you are looking for at the market nearby, so you end up walking across town to find it. Which we just had to do on Sunday. Grrrrr!!!

And finally….the biggest hot/cold: No family, no friends. Hey, let’s all just be honest here. Sometimes, you get a little tired of your peeps. Or they annoy you. Or you are in a bad mood so really you are annoying them when you think they are annoying you. You know what I’m talking about. It’s nice to be away for such a long time that you really, truly miss your peeps. The downside? Man, it’s lonely here. I’m not that introspective of a person that I actually like to be by myself for long stretches of time. In fact, I think the longest I’ve been alone is when I sleep.

Until this year.

Turns out, I’m alone for days on end, especially with Mark’s wacky work schedule. I even get excited to see him. (Pathetic, I know….ok, ok, just kidding!) But in all seriousness, I prefer to live near my peeps. I like to actually SEE people, not just read their emails…

In sum? I suppose it’s been a bipolar year. And as it so happens, I am a San Diego girl—I like my weather to be the exact same temperature every day of my life. Enough of this “season” nonsense. I’m ready for a little stability! And in just a few days, I’ll have it….and that makes no one happier than Mark me!

My Year In Numbers

6 The number of days we have left here.

14 The number of mosquito bites I got in ONE night–last night.

2 The number of bags I have to pack.

3  The current number of seconds between the time the lightning strikes and the thunder crashes.  We have had a couple of nasty thunderstorms lately.
6  The probable number of loads of laundry I will do in the next few days.  That means I will only have to hang laundry six more times! Woooohoooo!

1,200  My estimate of the number of cucumbers I have eaten this year alone.

1,800  My estimate of the number of tomatoes I have eaten this year alone.

3  The number of times I plan to beat Mark in our backgammon tournament tonight.  Yeah, I know.  We are raging partiers here!

4  The number of times I have watched the following movies this year: Bridget Jones’ Diary, Notting Hill, Blood Diamond.  All other movies have been viewed at least twice.

50  The estimate of the number of books I have read this year.

526  About how many sudoku puzzles I have successfully completed this year.

812  The number of songs I have on my iPod, and I have certainly listened to each one many times.

The number of days I have left here.  Oh, did I already mention that???  SIX MORE DAYS!!!!!!

A Little Cleopatra

Tonight we were invited to a tasting at a new Egyptian restaurant in town. Of course, this invitation stems from the diplomat friend I made way back at the beginning of our stay here. I have never eaten Egyptian food, but it was…..AWESOME!! EXCELLENT!! I cannot say enough about it!

I am not sure what all I ate, but I do know that I HATE EGGPLANT in real life, but for some reason, the Egyptians have a magical way about them that cooks it just right. They had all kinds of spices and seasonings, meat, rice, bread things, grape leaves, sauces, and a whole bunch more. Every single thing was delicious. Even the desserts (and you should note that I am not much of a dessert person–that is not my favorite part of a meal…weird I know….). Oh, and they also had special juices, one that was made from cane juice and one that was a form of coconut milk, both super yummy!
There was a whole room full of diplomats from all kinds of countries–Austria, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Croatia….and then there were Mark and me. We were among two other non-embassy people. But everyone was nice and friendly and by the end of the night we had business cards and email addresses, and a feeling of regret that we had not met all these people before.

We really needed a fun night out like tonight. We are a little down on BG right now. We are tired of the same old food, the same old routine, the same grouchy storekeepers, etc. To have a meal that was so so so different in a room full of English-speaking professionals really was a treat. When we come back here–and you know we will since the business is here and bigger than ever–I plan on going to this place for sure. I will even make sure the newspaper does a good write up on the gig.

I am sorry I didn’t make more of an effort to hang out with my Egyptian friend more often. The year was just so crazy and we were here and then gone and then here and then gone again. But I know we will see him again when Mark has to come back for a week or two here to check on things. And we both vowed to make more of an effort to hang out with him, along with other people we met tonight.

And to top the evening off, we even got a cheesy little Cleopatra pen, which, oddly enough, we desperately needed. No one seemed to have a pen on them and we needed to exchange email addies with people. Leave it to Cleopatra to help out some Americans in trouble. hahahahaha!

Anyways, if you ever have the opportunity to eat Egyptian food or just hang out with Egyptian people, you should definitely do it!  Believe me, you won’t regret it! 🙂

Noisy/Nosey Neighbors

You would think that a concrete building would sufficiently insulate for heat and noise.  Well, I think we have proven that we have virtually NO heat insulation (see all the winter blog entries), and we now realize we also have NO noise insulation.

As I mentioned before, we moved our mattress out to the living room and that is where we sleep.  It is approximately 4 paces from the tip of my head to the door of the apartment.  This means I can hear every single thing my neighbors are doing out there.  EVERY.SINGLE.THING.  They jiggle their keys all loud late at night and they gather in the area in front of the elevator at about 7:00 in the morning.  They talk and laugh and talk and laugh and it sounds LIKE THEY ARE YELLING.  Maybe they are yelling or maybe they are not, but is sure sounds like it.

While I get slightly irritated at all this noise, noise, noise, noise, I do realize this is just part of city living and being in close quarters.  I was disturbed, however, when I realized that if I can hear them, then they must be able to hear us!  That means they can hear the ape sounds emanating from the constant drone of Animal Planet on our T.V., they can hear us arguing discussing things, they can hear us rocking out, and most disturbing of all….they can hear us going to the bathroom!  Due to the bizarre layout of our flat, it turns out that our toilet room (here, the bath and the toilet are in separate rooms) is right next to the front door. Ewwwwwwwwwwwww! GROSS! I am hoping that closing the door extra tight and running water alleviates this issue.  Also, I carefully plan my toilet trips around the times I hear the neighbor party out in the hall.

All this does not bode well when you are the only foreigners in a building full of old timers who have known each other since….well….deep in the Communist times.  Already we figured out that they must talk about us because after about a month here, people kept trying to speak to us in English and smile all gratuitously.  Or they would mention the word “America” in conversation.  Which was nice….until I realized they can hear us. And now I just can’t stop thinking if while they are standing out in the hall chit-chatting, if one of them is whispering “Pssssst.  Are those Amerikanskis in the bathroom AGAIN???”

Best of Times/Worst of Times: London

london-guards-8.jpg

Hey, wasn’t Charles Dickens BORN in England? How apropos that I would use his theme here…

Best of Times–and oooooohhhh, there are many!

*Traveling alone. This may seem odd, but I really liked being here by myself. I could have my own, selfish agenda and walk or rest as much as I wanted to. It would have been nice to have Mark around to spoof on the accents and ceremonial-ness of everything, but if he couldn’t be there, being alone wasn’t such a bad option. And I’ve never traveled alone, so I thought I would be more nervous, but I wasn’t!

*Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Oh man, this was hilarious and fun and so much better than I thought it would be. The dudes in red with giant hair helmets just look so…..ridiculous, and yet they are so serious about it all. And, I suppose it is a serious business to protect the royal family, but really, what’s with the outfits? I had a great spot for the whole spectacle and maybe, if you are really lucky, I will re-enact for you how these guys walk and shuffle. HILARIOUS!

*Breakfast. I mean, this is the home of the English breakfast, so I just had to partake. It was oh so good, especially coming from Bulgaria, where breakfast is hardly eaten at all. Oh, and you should know that if you order a cup of tea, it is gigantic. And black tea is black, but if you want milk in it (like I do) then you order it “white”.

*Tower of London. This was surprising. I almost did not pay the entrance fee. But I did want to see the crown jewels, and there are so many historical tales from here that I just decided to do it anyways. When I entered, it just so happened that there was a free tour with a yeoman starting right then. I figured what the heck? So I went along. This guy was so funny. He kept getting all the kids up front and then when he would talk about execution, he would say it all dramatic, like “execuuuuuuuuuuuuution”. They ate it up. Oh, and my other favorite line of his: “If you Americans had just paid your taxes, all this could be yours!” My sides hurt by the end of the tour, which I really needed because this was the day after I heard that a friend of mine had died. So…if you visit London, go to the Tower of London and take the tour!

*Parks/Gardens. Beautiful, really. I can’t say it enough. The flowers were huge and colorful and everything was so neatly arranged. I had lots of peaceful walks through the gardens and often stopped just to inspect the flowers.

*Churches. Both of the churches I visited–Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s superseded my expectations. I am Epsicopalian (the American version of the Church of England…also called Catholic Lite), so I really enjoyed visiting my mecca. I checked out all the little nooks and crannies, lit candles for my mom and my friend’s mom who recently passed away, and even saw a wedding! St. Paul’s is SO huge that there is room for a wedding AND tourists! Next time I visit I will go to Mass. I didn’t have decent clothes this time. And you know how those Brits are….

*Thai Food. Believe it or not, I had the tastiest Thai dinner of my life in London–thanks to the recommendation of my brother which was confirmed by my bible, Lonely Planet. If you ever visit, go to Busaba Eathai in SoHo. It’s worth it!

*Double Decker Bus. I had great weather and a live guide, so this was fun, and the best deal in town–you can get on and off as much as you want in 24 hours and it included a short boat ride on the River Thames.

*The Underground. Besides its incredible efficiency, I love all the little sayings, like “Mind the Gap”. I used it a lot, so I grew to really love the thing. And I could imagine the terror of when it got bombed. In many places, there is literally only inches between the tracks and the tunnel wall, and it is dark and hot, and people had to crawl out of that…

Worst of Times (if I must say anything bad about this place…)

*Bad News. I found out my friend from church died suddenly and unexpectedly while I was in London. This came just days after hearing that my best friend’s mom had finally lost her battle with cancer after way too much suffering. So it was hard to “be on vacation” here. I had to make a conscious choice to enjoy the last few days despite such sadness. Chances are I will never get to London again and I was really strongly feeling like life is just too short and you have to live it while you can. The bad side to all that is that as soon as I got home, I was indescribably woe.

*Early flight out. My flight out was very early and since it was out of Stansted Airport which is way out of the city, I had to catch the coach bus at 3:30 am, which also meant I had to take a taxi to the bus station and it cost more than both the bus rides to and from the airport. Grrrrr!

*Accents. This will sound odd, but I was looking forward to getting to London and FINALLY understanding a language 100%. Well, that’s not quite the way it went. I had the hardest time adjusting to the accent. And several times I had people tell me I had the accent. One dude even told me that he can tell Americans because we talk through our noses. Whatever. Like I have a tongue in my nose. Darn Brits!

*Not enough time. You need a good week here. Really, you do.

There are MILLIONS of photos of London in the gallery—go check them out, but get a snack first, it will probably take you a little bit to get through them all.

This concludes my Amazing Race/European Adventure.  Tomorrow–back to our regularly scheduled programming of life in Bulgaria and us preparing to begin our trek back to the States (woooohoooooo!) with a few stops on the way—Spain and Canada!

Best of Times/Worst of Times: Vienna

Today’s feature: Vienna

Best of Times:

* The opera, baby! I tease that I was all cultured and stuff, but really, it was fun to see an opera in Vienna. This is the opera we saw and we paid 4 euro, or about $6 to stand the whole time and watch it. But it was so worth it.

* The Schonbrunn Palace. This was the Hapsburgs summer home. I laugh at the word “home”. HA! This place is huge. Ginormous, even. You could spend a day just in the gardens….and we did. We actually ran out of time to see the inside, but the gardens were totally worth a whole day.

* Cafes. The whole culture here is the cafe thing. You can just sit there and sip coffee for hours, maybe even days. There is a cafe where Trotsky used to hang out and plot his overtaking of the world here.

* Pastries. Helllllooooooo—this is one of the homes of the apple strudel, and I was not one to deny their specialty. Yummmmmmmm!

* Western Europe. This was our first crossover into Western Europe, and it is strange, but you can immediately feel the difference. Having been raised in the western world, I relate well to the Western Europe scene. Places are clearly signed and marked, restaurants and shops have fairly good customer service skills, and there are social programs to keep the streets clean and free of all graffiti (although,in all fairness, Croatia also had many of these attributes).

Worst of Times

* Rain. I did NOT want the rain here, so we ended up spending more time indoors than we had planned. We had planned to walk to a museum, but in the end, we just didn’t feel like it in the rain.

* Being accosted by a strange Nigerian man. He was selling magazines and when he realized we were Americans, he actually asked us to sponsor him for a visa to the U.S. I was torn: Should I feel sorry for the guy, being so desperate as to believe this will happen? Or should I be leery of his true intentions? I chose somewhere in the middle, explaining his plan just wouldn’t work and there is no way to help him…sorry, but time to move on.

I was glad I had the time to make it to Vienna since I had already been to Innsbruck and Salzburg. This rounded out my touring of Austria nicely. The next time I get there, though, I fully intend on finding Trotsky’s cafe and planning my own world takeover. Mwahahahahahaha!

**Vienna pictures now showing in the gallery.

**Tomorrow is our last stop on the European tour.  Look for men in shiny black hair helmets and funny royal stories…..

Best of Times/Worst of Times: Prague

Today’s Dickens feature is: Prague

Best of Times

* THE FOOD!  We had one of the best meals of the whole trip here.  I had a goulash with knedli, which are like giant dumplings, and my friends had duck.  It was cold and rainy outside and we had walked quite a ways in the wetness, so the thick, warm meal was especially delicious.  We also had mulled wine which is like a steamed wine with cloves in it.  It tasted like a cider.  DELICIOUS, I tell you!

* The atmosphere.  I’m not a person who enjoys rain and cloudy skies, but if there is ever a city to visit in such conditions, it is Prague.  The weather just fit with the architecture.

* The Mucha stained glass window in St. Vitus.  This was the most amazing stained glass window I have ever seen.  The color and the shapes are totally different from traditional stained glass windows.  I really liked it! (Plus, remember…I am cultured now, so I appreciate this stuff, ok??)

* The Charles Bridge. Even though it was super crowded here, the views of the river and the town beyond are second to none.  It is a really peaceful walk (if you block out all the other people around), and there are odd stories, like places on the bridge where people were, um, executed.

* St. Vitus.  This church is definitely worth a visit. It is so so so gothic, plus it has the tomb of St. Wenceslaus, so how can you beat that??

* Funny sayings on souvenir T-shirts, like “Czech me out” and “Czech Mate”.  Get it?  Get it?  hahahahahahaha!

Worst of Times

* For sure, the train ride.  You know, the one where somebody snuck into our compartment and stole from Kanye???  Yeah, that!  Not to mention the whole idea of sitting on a train for 24 hours and dealing with other passengers so so so close for that time.  Might I suggest you fly into Prague?  Just an idea…

* Finding the hostel.  We got lost.  And we were tired from the train.  And we were carrying bags, walking the dark, desolate,spooky streets of Prague.  Not fun.

* The hostel.  Note to self–check if hostel is actually a university dorm.  Because, turns out, I am TOO OLD to be staying up partying until 5am every night.  And I wasn’t even invited to the party.  I just got to listen to it from afar.  And, in my humble opinion, it ceased being fun at like 1am.

* Internet Cafes.  This was also the land of outdated computers and the internet cafe employees who couldn’t correctly operate a calculator, let alone figure out if their computer has the capacity to download a chat program.

And so, that is Prague in a nutshell.  Go check out the photos.  They are way more fun to look at than my boring writing here.  Wait, my writing is NEVER boring.  But still the photos are more fun….remember they are found in the gallery, which is the picture of the yellow church on the right hand side of the blog.  Enjoy!