Friday, November 02, 2007

Big Trip to Sanity

So, I recently returned from a trip to Slovakia, Austria, Poland, and the Netherlands. Greg, a friend of mine from Peace Corps, closed out his service and then we met up at the Sofia airport. I had a great time. It was nice to get away and visit some different places in Europe. I'd been especially wanting to go to Poland and The Netherlands for a while, so I was happy about that.
Greg and I started our trip in the charming capitol of Slovakia. Bratislava has a great "feel." Both Greg and I commented on it, and we had fun walking around the old part of town and visiting the castle - even in the rain. We then went to Vienna - where we went and saw a concert, visited the graves of musical geniuses, and indulged in Starbucks. I had classical music, mostly the waltz "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" by Strauss, stuck in my head the whole time. I've been to Vienna before, but this time was better than I remembered for some reason.
In Vienna, Greg's friend Brandon came over from the states to join us on our trip. As the only girl, I got picked on quite a bit. Sarcasm was the major form of communication for us from then-on.
We then moved onto Krakow - which I loved. We went to Auschwitz/Birkenau - the most famous of all Nazi Death Camps. I wish I could say that I wanted to go for some other reason than pure, morbid fascination, but that's probably not true. I could preach to you about the things I saw and how they should affect you... how you should imagine yourself in the situation. But I did these things and was affected little. It's shameful, but I felt so far removed from it all. The only response I had was reverant observation and a few pangs when I tried to imagine what it would be like to have my family ripped away from me and sent to the "showers."
Afterwards, we went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. That was a really awesome place several hundred meters underground. Describing it wouldn't quite do it justice. I'll try and post pictures soon, but it won't be until I get back to the states (eighteen more days!) at the earliest.
We also visited a "dragon's lair" at a nearby castle. Krakow has all these cool legends, and they've taken a synonymous link with dragons. I loved that place. One night, we even met up with the cousin of a former foreign-exchange student that used to live with Greg many years ago. He took us out for dinner and billiards, and he refused to let us pay for anything.
We flew to Amsterdam to meet the former foreign-exchange student, Magda, and her family. They were very sweet, and they had the cutest little blonde, curly-haired son who used to scream in the night right next to the bedroom I slept in. He also gave me mischevous looks and kisses. What are you going to do? They were awesome hosts, and they took us everywhere.
As you may or may not know, much of the Netherlands is below sea level, so we learned about how some of the dikes, dams, and giant "sea doors" have been built to keep the water out. Just about everyone has canals, and they had a lovely one in their backyard. We walked around in Amsterdam, and I was surprised by all the canals and bicycles. Bicycles are pretty much the main form of transportation. There were hundreds "littering" the sidewalks. We went to the Van Gogh Museum 'cause I was dying to go there, and we also walked around the Red Light District of Amsterdam. I felt odd having girls peer at me from windows. I wanted to play the voyeur and have them ignore me. We also spent time in an area known as the Hague - which is famous for its prision and "killing" Slobodan Milosevic.
So anyway, we had a great time. We saw a lot of museums, churches, castles, parks, and I enjoyed the respite from Bulgaria. It was nice to come back though. Although, I had a monster headache and felt nauseated after the plane ride. Coming back into Sofia was an awful snap into reality. I tried not to focus on the fact that I'm one of three B-18s currently left in the country. Meh.
I couldn't get a taxi with the company I wanted, and I had to settle for a different one. They eagerly waved me over, and the driver started talking to me about how I don't speak Bulgarian very well, where am I coming from, where am I from, etc. I noticed that he hadn't turned the meter on, and we were already halfway down the street leading from the airport. I asked him why he hadn't turned it on, and we got into an argument about how much it was going to cost and why he hadn't turned it on. He claimed he "forgot," and he wasn't willing to start it now that we were already on our way. He finally turned it on, but the rest of the cab ride was silent. In the end, I paid him what I thought was fair, and he apologized for having "forgotten" to turn it on. "Forgive me if I'm incredulous," I thought. "It's just that you drive a cab all day long, and the *first* thing you do when someone gets in is start the meter. I think you saw me as 'foreigner' and 'big sucker with lots of money' and decided to try and take advantage. What would have happened had I not said anything? What would the price have been based on. I have a right to see the meter and make sure it's following the rate adverised at the airport." I only told him that last part: when he balked at turning it on, I told him it was my right to see that the meter follows the advertised rate.
I immediately looked at the meter when he started suggesting he drive me all the way to Velingrad. I'm so tired of hearing that suggestion. It's ludicrous. "Yes, let me pay you thirteen times the amount of a bus trip so I can get there half an hour earlier." I don't get it. Obviously I speak Bulgarian, so I must live there, so I must have an idea about how the system works. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but there's no way I can be the dullest either. I don't understand why they even bother. It irritates me. Isn't it obvious since I've practically dedicated more space in my post to this than I have to my trip? Anyway... I'm just glad I spoke up. And he got me to the bus station just in time to catch my bus. Point for assertive Apryl who hides too much in the shadows as it is.
"Apryl," you say, "We're tired of hearing your diatribes about Bulgaria! Tell us about Europe!" Haha. Well, Bulgaria is what I know, and I feel like I can describe it better than my trip. My trip was great, and it needs pictures to adequately explain. What's interesting there? It's like good news: it doesn't sell. Hehe... not like rambling thoughts on Bulgaria do, either.
So, my "lichna karta" (official ID) expired on the day I returned. I think I shared in a previous post my preoccupation with that, and I've been bugging the lady in Pazardjik to put a stamp in my passport to make it "okay" for me to come back. I saw her again the day before my trip, and she was trying to explain to me that my paperwork was already being processed and migration could look it up if they wanted. I wouldn't have any problems. I called Peace Corps and got the same answer, so I was satisfied. Coming through migration yesterday was interesting, however. She looked at my passport and then asked for my "lichna karta." She looked at then and then asked me if I spoke Bulgarian.
Apryl: "I know that it expires today."
Migration Lady: "So, what are you doing about it?"
Apryl: "I have a 'molba' (official request for a new card)."
Lady: "You have a 'molba?'"
I gave her a piece of paper with a number on it, and she waved me through. That's the longest and most "trying" conversation I've had with an immigration officer. (What's the correct term? Migration/Immigration - I use them interchangably in this case.) All the other officers were men, and they just flirted with me.
Speaking of men and flirtations, I think I mentioned that Krum is back - after ignoring me for almost a year. I don't know what his deal is, but he came to my house yesterday with a couple dollar bills... actual dollar bills. He was trying to pay me back for the money I lent him a few weeks ago, but I gave him a hard time. "Krum, what am I going to do with that?" He started on some rambling diatribe about men needing to care for women, and I spaced out. Anyway, he dropped by again later with "presents" - chips, facial tissues, and gum. Ah, Krum. You make me laugh.
I'm moving this weekend - finally! My landlords don't know yet though, and today is Friday. That's bad. Peace Corps was here while I was gone, and they checked out my new apartment. They gave the green light, and I've got to get everything done before I go back to the states (eighteen more days!). I just got back on Wednesday, and I felt awful. I went straight to bed. I was going to tell them last night, but their grandson was having a birthday party, and it wasn't the appropriate time. Tonight will be the night. It's funny. Before I left on my trip, I went downstairs to tell them that I was going to be gone for two weeks. I was in the middle of packing, so I came down in a whirlwind. They invited me in and just looked at me with that look of anticipation. I could tell they were worried that I was going to announce my departure from their home. As soon as I told them I was going on a trip, they loosened up and started asking me questions about my planned excursion.
So, the teacher's strike is *still* on. Can you believe it? They've been striking for over six weeks now! I've been trying to figure out what's going on with the Ministry of Education, but I hear different answers:
1. They offered raises, but it wasn't enough for the teachers.
2. They haven't offered anything, and they're ignoring the issue.
3. They suggested firing half the teaching staff and increasing the salaries for the remaining.
Anyway, most of the schools in Rakitovo are back in session. Only one, the school Brandy used to work at, is still holding out. Rumor is that they will start up next week. Apparently, they may have to hold classes until the end of July. I don't know what the point of all this was. I'm not sure if the teachers made any significant gains.
The topic on everyone's tongues at this point are the local elections. Yanko wasn't elected as a municipal council member. Others, who sponsored "sausage roasts and juice" up in the Roma Quarter (I usually refer to it as the "mahala") were elected. The candidates for mayor have been narrowed to two. I think they're both holding meetings up in the "mahala" this evening. One of them already sponsored a "sausage roast and juice" session. As I really can't comment here what I think about the issue, (I can't even vote!) I'll let you form your own opinions. Honestly, I know nothing about the candidates and what they stand for, so it doesn't really matter what I think. I just like to think about all the pretty, changing leaves I saw in places that were to expensive for my budget.
Good gravy, Europe is expensive! Well, Bulgaria is technically part of Europe. It's in the European Union and everything, but I'm used to dealing in leva and having everything be inexpensive. I balked at €2.50 (about $3.60) for juice! I think I'm going to have a heart attack when I go back to the states. A sandwich, some chips, and a soda should not cost ten dollars. But then, we were eating at museums and airports and tourist traps and such. I shouldn't complain. People treated me well, and we took turns paying for each other. I probably came out ahead in the deal. I think I gained weight on this trip as well. That's a good thing, right?
Ooh! Another thing about Europe that is ah-mazing. Everyone I spoke to spoke English. Seriously. Every.single.person. Not once did I get a confused, what-are-you-saying-to-me look. Now, I try not to be imperialistic and all that, but how awesome is it to go to foreign lands and everyone can communicate with you in your native language? Of course, we were in big cities that receive floods of tourists, but it's not just native English-speaking tourists that come. It's pretty amazing, and it gives me another excuse to be lazy. I don't have to learn your language. You already speak mine.
Listening to Slovakian was pretty cool. We were addressed in Slovakian a couple times, and we had to give apologetic looks. I had this feeling, however, that I understood what people were saying - I just couldn't reply to them. It was weird. Slovakian seems to be quite similar to Bulgarian. Poland was a little harder. I'd catch words in a sentence, but not enough to tell what was going on. And Dutch. Oh my, Dutch... with its double vowels all over the place. Unless they said a word that was similar to English, or it was similar to the five words I know in German, I had no clue what was going on.
Okay, so I'm going to share with you the best picture I took on my trip, and it's a picture of... drumroll please... a duck!

Yes, this duck was floating around in a fountain at a Viennese palace, and I think this picture is pretty awesome. I've already received compliments on it.

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