Bulgaria Diaries: Part IV

Wednesay, 17th June 2009

Today, sunburnt, we all slept in, especially Dani! Breakfast was the oh-so-healthy (I’m not complaining) halva melted with butter and spread on toast.  Halva is a nutty-nougat thing made from tahini or cashews (it varies) and other ingredients, probably mostly sugar. Ani and Maria are at the eye doctor to arrange Maria’s cataract surgery for the autumn. Various horse-hooves and car alarms sound outside.

One of the many versions of bop (beans). I love them all.
One of the many versions of bop (beans). I love them all.

I’m thinking of some amazing anecdotes I’ve heard over the past few days. When Ilia was five, he and his family took a camping trip up one of Bulgaria’s mountains. He was too little to carry a proper pack, so they fashioned one for him from a messenger bag and filled it with apples. He was proud to carry the pack, and it conveniently got lighter as they made their way up the mountain, eating apples along the way. Once at camp, the boys were instructed to mind the fire and the pot of beans boiling on it. Because higher altitudes lower the boiling point of water, the water is cooler (though boiling, because the air pressure is lower,) so to cook anything takes longer. It took all day to cook the beans.

Another story, incredible but tragic—Tanya, the mother of Ivan and Ilia, our cousins, suffered a terrible accident when the boys were 5 & 3. Driving to a house on the coast on a foggy night, traffic was stopped due to an accident up ahead. Visibility was awful because of the fog, which was probably the cause of the accident. Tanya was driving with her sons. She got out of her car to see what was happening with the traffic, and a truck driver, who didn’t see her, ran into her and actually dragged her along the road under the truck for some distance. Broken everywhere, it is incredible she survived. She was even, somehow, able to tell her little boys how to phone their father. She’s had hundreds of operations—and amazingly, if you didn’t know that story, you would think she was absolutely fine. The only thing I noticed (before I heard the story from Ani,) was that she winced when she got up from the table.

Our excellent cousins.
Our excellent cousins.

Tanya also smokes like it’s going out of style. She enthusiastically ordered nearly every appetizer, and, later, nearly every dessert for us, but didn’t each much of anything herself. Ivan and Ilia were really nice to talk to once we all relaxed a bit. At first it seemed like Ivan and I would do all the talking, but dinner really was four or five hours long, and fortunately everyone warmed up a bit. Ivan has been to Cambridge and loves it, so there was plenty to talk about there! He studies at an American university in Germany, whose ‘parent’ Uni is Rice, in Texas. His English is perfect and he’s a bit more gregarious than his older brother.

Ilia is fluent but not quite as comfortable speaking English. He is studying chemistry and has an exam in these next few days for which he had to learn something like 600 chemical formulae for different drugs, including molecular structure, side effects, etc. No wonder he wasn’t as chatty! Holy crow.

Bulgaria Diaries: Part III

Tuesday: I’m really hot and dusty and dirty because we spent the day hiking Vitosha Mountain, Bulgaria’s 3rd-highest peak, and it is hot. Parts of the hike were pleasantly cool and breezy or briefly shaded by pines, but mostly it was hot and we all got a lot of sun (and had a lot of sunscreen on, too).

Chance for a scramble at the top.
Chance for a scramble at the top.

The landscape is beautiful and you look out over the Balkans and across the valley Sofia sits in, pumping out her heat and dust. We met a very friendly hill-walker, of about 60 years of age, who used to be a guide, and he pretty much led us up the paths and told us a lot of what we were looking at (in Bulgarian). He was friendly and liked our company, and it was fun to hear what he had to say. At the top there are some small rocky cliffs, so Dani and I scrambled a little too, but a lot of it is grassy and people were picnicking. We got soup at the little hut at the top. The whole area is ski slopes, and loads of snow blankets everything in the colder months. There were a few patches of snow left, but they were melting rapidly into cold, clear water. The drive up to the mountain and back was hot and dusty, with a lot of traffic. Pavel lent us a car, so we cancelled the rental, but our borrowed car doesn’t have AC. I don’t think it will matter much for most of our trip, but it is hot! A nice change from the UK…

Bop, my favourite!
Bop, my favourite!

After our mountain trip, before dinner, Ani & I went to pick up my new glasses—ready in one day and perfect! We had mojitos afterwards to celebrate, in a hip little bar down near all the shops. While we were enjoying our minty fresh drinks, Maria and Dani were driving with Ilia to Maria’s little cottage to water her tomatoes and scythe (yes, scythe,) her little lawn. We had dinner once we all returned home.

We had a nice dinner at Maria’s flat (where we’re staying while we’re in Sofia,) of roasted eggplant, peppers & tomatoes, which Maria made, and tarrator which Dani & I made, which is a cold soup with garlic, cucumber, dill and yoghurt. We also had fresh bread, cheese, and thinly sliced ham. Then, sunburnt and once again stuffed, we all fell asleep very early.

Bulgaria Diaries: Part II

14-15 June 2009 (writing on the 16th)

Sunday night, our second night in Sofia, we had a similar dinner to our first night. This time we met with Ilia’s cousin, Plamen, his wife, Tanya, and their two sons, Ivan and Ilia (about our age). ‘The kids’ sat at one end of the table and we all talked and ate and I learned that I need to practice eating much more slowly to handle this sort of dining! It was very fun as well as overwhelming. Ani and I were again greeted with roses, and we were also given gifts (a box made of railway ties from antique wood, varnished and lovely, and a wooden wine bottle holder,) and basically lavished with generosity and affection.

Traditional band at 'Under The Linden Trees' restaurant.
Traditional band at 'Under The Linden Trees' restaurant.

Plamen offered to arrange a hike for us up the second-highest peak in Bulgaria, and yesterday I learned that he has arranged the whole trip for us! Bulgarian hospitality walks an often nonexistent line with sheer force and insistence. So it seems like we’ll be going up another mountain…(Thank goodness Dani and I love this sort of thing!)

Yesterday (Monday) we all slept in a bit and then Ani & I went window shopping and found me a new pair of glasses frames. I’ve been wanting some (I need a change every 2 years or so) and it is a bit cheaper here. The men-folk happily stayed home and read, slept, etc. Ani & I had coffee and gelato-style berry ice cream, which was amazing, and I tried on a silk Cavalli dress which I mistakenly thought was about £100, but was in fact £1000, but it was fun anyway.

Oops! Cavalli.
Oops! Cavalli.

 

We all met Ani’s cousin, Adriana, and Adriana’s father Avraam (Maria’s brother-in-law) who is moving to the US to live with Adriana, who lives on Long Island. Avraam was an actorand film director, and he is a short, bright-faced, bearded man, who is always talking and cracking jokes. Adriana is tall and elegant with a hoarse smoker’s voice and a big, toothy smile. (She reminds me a lot of my mom’s friend Jean Davey.) After we all spent hours over coffee and baklava, Maria headed home and the rest of us walked around the city.

Avraam insisted on giving us a bit of a tour, so we all walked very slowly with this little man with his walking cane as he waved it dangerously towards the tops of old buildings and spouted architectural (and other) history (in Bulgarian) and ignored all the glossy, high-heeled, pouting shoppers dashing around us on ground level, passing Gucci, MaxMara, Converse, and other shops. (Ani and I had decided earlier that day that we love Italian design and we don’t see enough of it in the UK.)

Avraam’s mind and enthusiasm for live are clearly undiminished with age, though his hearing and balance are worse for the wear, and he reminded me of my own grandfather as he told Dani all about ‘back in my day…’ Gramps and Avraam are from the same era, though from different ends of the world, and, at one time, different sides of a war.

After Avraam and Adriana said their good-byes, we took a faster-paced walking tour around Sofia’s downtown, led by Ilia & Ani. We saw buildings where they used to work and where Ani wnet to University; we saw many beautiful old churches and cathedrals and other places of worship; we saw the various government buildings (former and current) and many other sites of historic interest.

One of Sofia's many places of worship.
One of Sofia's many places of worship.

The downtown of Sofia is paved with smooth orangey-yellow Austrian bricks, and many beautiful old baroque buildings still stand, all among fragrant, white-bloomed linden trees, from which  the berries and leaves are taken and dried to make a light, fresh tea. Scrawny cats and dogs lounge around in the dust, and old Russian cars mix and honk against BMWs. Fountains dot the downtown, sometimes big and decorative, sometimes only a golden-mouthed spout where young and old lean in for a cool, clear drink. The roar of motors clashes with the clop of horses’ hooves. The car alarms are inventive, varied, and numerous. Cigarette smoke competes with car exhaust and cooking lamb, pizzas, and bean stew. Everything in Bulgaria is thick—the air, the food, the fruit juice, the cigarette smoke, the knock-off designer perfume, the linden trees. We eat, walk, eat some more, and all of it, together with the heat, which follows us into the night, makes me want to go horizontal. A wonderful Baltic exhaustion.

After the walking tour of downtown Sofia, the four of us went to a restaurant whose name translates as ‘The Savage,’ and ate outside under awnings, happily not drenched in cigarettes (as much, even though everyone pretty much smokes everywhere). Another massive meal, but not quite so long as the big ‘friend/family’ affairs.

Bulgaria Diaries: Part I

13 June 2009

Flight to Sofia yesterday! ‘Sofia’ is, I’m told, the name of the ancient goddess of wisdom. We’ve been eating pretty much since we arrived. Is there wisdom in that? And I’m still eating—amazing, fresh cherries from Maria’s garden.

Fresh cherries grow all over Bulgaria.
Fresh cherries grow all over Bulgaria.

Lubo, Ilia’s brother, met us at the airport and gave roses to Ani and me, and Ani got all teary, so I got al teary, and I thought of how very little I know about Bulgaria. But I hope I’m rapidly learning.

We had an interesting taxi ride to Maria’s (Ani’s mum’s) flat. We had to split up into 2 groups because there were five people—me, Dani, Ani, Ilia, and Lubo, and lots of luggage. I went with Dani and Ani in one cab, which turned out to be some ‘premium service’ with a much higher price, and we didn’t have enough money to pay the driver! We were going to wait for Ilia, but he and Lubo were taking awhile, so Ani was able to get some money from Maria. It was interesting for me because I don’t speak Bulgarian, so I thought the cabbie was trying to overcharge us or something like that.

So, we arrived at Maria’s apartment, and said our hello’s and hugs, and immediately the incredibly animated, seriously chain-smoking Lubo asked if we wanted to go see part of a traditional Bulgarian wedding, so we rushed off down the road, where his son Ivo, who got married 2 years ago, was best man at his friend’s wedding. This, in Bulgaria, is a huge responsibility. The best man hosts the groom in a morning party with music, drink, and dancing, which carries on throughout the day.

The wedding party grows as the best man, his wife, and pretty much everyone else remotely related, the groom, and the groom’s party, travel—with the band playing the whole way—to the bride and her entourage, until everyone is at the Town Hall for the legal wedding, and then the church for the spiritual wedding, and then the reception and on into the night…

We seemed in danger of being swept along into all of it, but just saw the first bit, since we had plans for later. So, one hour since my feet touched Bulgarian soil, I found myself in a smoky room surrounded by smiling, very dressed up strangers & relatives, being announced as ‘the American wife,’ or something to that effect, and then a four-man band began blasting traditional music on sheep’s-stomach bagpipe-equivalents and everyone was singing and dancing—Wow! It was an unsurpassable introduction.

Back at Maria’s flat we had a bit of down-time, and she showed us some wonderful black-and-white photos of Ani as a baby, and Maria & Ani’s dad (Maria’s late husband,) when they were all younger. We went for a walk and saw some of downtown Sofia, which, like anywhere, has its shabbier parts and shinier parts. I saw the little playground where Dani and Rali used to play, and I saw the flat they used to live in, including the third-floor balcony where Dani almost pitched himself to his death as an infant—Ani caught him just in time. So, he’s always been a climber…

We had coffee and amazing baklava –more wet and cinnamon-drenched than I’ve ever had. Delicious! Baklava is always good. After that, we walked across the city to meet a couple of very long-time friends of Ani and Ilia’s and their daughter and her husband, who are maybe in their early 30s.

Sofia is a bit like Prague, a bit like Athens, in terms of the climate, architecture, and fashion—tough looks, stiletto heels, painted-on trousers and skirts, jet black or bleach blonde hair. And stray animals, all of which I want to feed, scrub up, de-flea, worm, neuter and cuddle, pretty much in that order. Though if I’m a little objective, though the stray cats and dogs look dusty, they seem otherwise ok. Not like on Mauritius where they were quite obviously, ribs-through-fur, starving.

Raggedy yet regal.
Raggedy yet regal.

We had dinner at a restaurant called ‘The Ruins,’ pretty new but decked out so bits looked like old ruins. Half the menu was Italian-style pizza & pasta dishes, and half was pretty authentic Bulgarian food. The menus here, so far, run to at least 6 pages! There are whole pages for, individually, chicken, veal, lamb, fish…and yes, I am eating meat, but there are plenty of amazing vegetarian choices, too. We all started the (hours-long European-style ) meal with raikia, which is like ouzo, but plum or grape instead of licorice—a hard liquor served straight up and icy cold in a little aperitif glass. Whew! Then we all had salads, which are big enough to get full on alone, and then, eventually, main dishes, and wine…and eventually, coffee and dessert, except, remarkably, no one could manage to fit in coffee. But we fit in dessert.

Dani and I shared an excellent and interesting salad of big lettuce leaves with a cesar-like dressing, topped with amazing, fresh calamari and boiled quail’s eggs. I’ve never eaten quail’s eggs before; they have a very distinct, cool-forest-floor, cedar-and-butter taste. The salad also had anchovies and fat shavings of sharp parmesan. I probably could have just eaten that and been all set, but it was only the beginning! The American ‘parmesan’ that comes in that green shaker can that I grew up with is horrible. Praise real parmesan cheese!

'Cholesterol!'
'Cholesterol!'

 For main dishes, almost everyone had peppered pork steaks—translated here as ‘pork neck’— and French fries. They happily, semi-jokingly cried ‘cholesterol!’ and dug in, the parents frosting their steak with layers of even more salt. I had a (probably not any healthier) baked dish of potatoes with pickles, bits of ham, and cream, topped with cheese. Serious stuff. I also had eggs Benedict with spinach on brioche, and it was, oddly, stone cold, and I don’t think it was supposed to be—it would also have been excellent if it was hot, but I didn’t want to fuss. Those two dishes were meant to be ‘sides,’ but I’m quickly learning that the idea of small portions here is laughable.

I couldn’t bring myself to order dessert, but Dani had tiramisu and shared, and it was really good—I don’t usually like it, but it had more cake and less alcohol-flavour, which was nice, with a lot of powdered chocolate on top. I have no idea how long dinner took—hours—and I have no idea what time we got back. We walked, but it wasn’t nearly enough exercise! Better than nothing, though. We’d been exposed to so much cigarette smoke from first Lubo and then the restaurant that I had to throw myself in the shower before bed. I reeked, and it reminded me of days back at Uni, in Lynchburg, and the Cav, or any other Virginian establishment, really, where everyone smoked.

Our dinner guests were Pavel and his wife Anna, a little older than Ani & Ilia, but youthful and healthy-looking, exuberant and young at heart—this same ‘savoir faire’ ‘joie de vivre’ carefree attitude I get from Ani & Ilia themselves. Their daughter, also called Ani, and her husband Bobby, joind us—Ani & Bobby live in Philadelphia! So we had a good mix of Bulgarian and English conversations. Pavel was fluent in English and Anna could obviously understand me. I love listening to the Bulgarian and I can often get what is going on based on context and body language. My problem is (as ever,) my memory—I learn a phrase and promptly forget it. I know, I need to try harder and use it more.

Ilia & Pavel
Ilia & Pavel

Pavel was especially generous and enthusiastic—at a mention that he plays tennis, I was silly enough to add (I blame the raikia,) that I used to play (for like one year in high school and I now suck and would also be unable to recall the rules,) and he offered to arrange for me to play tennis while we’re here. I think that offer got safely lost in conversation. He also invited us to his mountain villa near the famous ski resort Borovitz, and offered to arrange ‘the best ski instructors’ for us and that we could all ski and eat and drink a lot. I like this guy! His wife, Anna, was equally jovial and I think she simply didn’t speak as much English, because much of the time Pavel and Ilia were catching up, as were Ani and Anna. They just seem to truly love life. I wonder if part of that is because they do know just how good they’ve got it—because they all know how bad things can be…

An autumn of science and literature

Mel & Kel in the Victorian Parlour
Mel & Kel in the Victorian Parlour

Mark your diaries! We have some excellent events coming up at The Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge.

I am so pleased to say that I will be resident at the Museum for the week of 19th October.

The Museum opening hours are 12:30-4:30 and I will be the Poet in the Parlour— the Victorian Parlour upstairs in the Museum, from 19-22 October.

I’ll be working on my next book, and I’ll be happy to chat with anyone who drops by about science and literature, poetry, and other related topics. You can leaf through the selection of science-inspired books I’ll bring along, and we can talk about creative writing. I may even be in costume, but I’m not making any promises.

The Whipple will also host two sci-lit events in conjunction with the Cambridge Fesival of Ideas.

Our first event will welcome Dr. John Holmes, who will read from his book, Darwin’s Bards: Poetry in the Age of Evolution. The reading and discussion will be 6-7:30pm– all are welcome; events are free, and I can highly recommend John’s readings and talks, as he is a delight to listen to.

Darwin's bards coverOver the hundred and fifty years since Darwin discovered Natural Selection, poets have explored the implications of his ideas for what it means to be a human being. Poetry not only makes us think about Darwinism in new ways, it enables us to feel more acutely and to understand more completely our own Darwinian condition.

In this talk, John Holmes, author of Darwin’s Bards, will explore some of the ways in which modern and contemporary poets have responded to Darwinism in their poems. With readings from Ted Hughes, Edwin Morgan, Amy Clampitt and others, he will make the case for poetry’s crucial role at a time when we need more urgently than ever to come to terms with Darwin’s legacy.

John Holmes is lecturer in English at the University of Reading and Director of the Modern Studies Centre for Research in 19th, 20th, and 21st Century Literature. He is the author of Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (Edinburgh University Press, 2009), Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence: Sexuality, Belief and the Self (Ashgate, 2005) and numerous articles on Victorian, modern and Renaissance literature.

Calling all writers: Our second sci-lit event is a Creative Writing Workshop: Object Stories. The workshop will be led by Dr. Katy Price and myself. There are a limited number of places available, so please contact jf411@cam.ac.uk to pre-book a free space!

The workshop will be Thursday 29th October, 6-8pm. After some discussion of examples and technique, will use museum objects as inspiration, and provide time for each participant to create a new short piece of creative writing. This will be a unique opportunity to explore the Whipple Museum after hours and experience a new way of looking at the fascinating scientific objects the museum holds…

Darwin 200 Fest

Shock/Horror! I didn’t blog about the Darwin200 Festival in Cambridge! Perhaps because I was so enthusiastic leading up to it…So I’ll be brief.

It was excellent. It was amusing. It was overwhelmingly intellectual and embracing-ly interdisciplinary. It was academia in all its most brilliant–and shadiest– guises. It was dinner with cognoscenti; it was champagne on the lawn of King’s. It was buzzing with books and plump with plays.

It was a highlight of my year, and I’m still processing/recovering.

Me, John Van Wyhe, and Rebecca Stott.
Lovely people-- John Van Wyhe and Rebecca Stott.
Dan Dennett's beard is swallowing me, halp!!
Dan Dennett's beard is swallowing me, halp!!