Saturday, January 21, 2006

More Sofia travel tips...

Best restaurant by far is the freakishly kitsch Beyond the Alley, Behind the Cupboard. And a good place for traditional Bulgarian food is the imaginatively named Bulgary, where I ate lunch today.

The good bars and clubs are actually too many to name, but two recent discoveries are Black Label, a.k.a. the Whiskey Bar, which is close to the Radisson, next to the club Chervilo, in the fancy old building that also houses the Military Club; and Biblioteka, which is, unsurprisingly, located close to the National Library.

At the latter, I snapped a few pictures of the dance floor last night. Just for fun. A man approached me.

“I was in the picture you just took!” said the man. It was loud. He was big.

“Yes, but I’ll delete it if you really want,” I said. I flipped the camera to “play” mode and showed him the picture I’d just taken. He pointed at a tiny figure in the frame that he apparently recognized as himself. I selected “Erase” and deleted the picture. It wasn't worth keeping, anyway. "See, it's gone," I said, and turned the camera off.

“Let me see the others!”

I turned the camera back on and showed him the most recent non-deleted photo.

"Show me the one before!" he said. I pressed “Back.”

“Go back again!”

I pressed “Back.”

“Back again!”

By this time we were all the way back to pictures taken in December of me picking oranges in Calabria. It reminds me, actually, of the time my girlfriend took the picture of the Nile riverbank and made the mistake of including a bridge in the frame. Bridges, see, are photographic no-gos in Egypt because they’re so blow-up-able. So the Egyptian cops stopped us and demanded we show them the camera and delete the picture. After a minute of flipping through the pictures, it became obvious they were more interested in the camera than the any potential terrorist threat.

Anyway, back to our friend in Bulgaria.

“I’m in the Marines!” the guy yelled at me. “I’m just out having fun, see? You didn’t see me here!”

It was too loud for me to place his accent. “You’re American?” I said. “The American Marines?”

“I’m British! I’m in the Marines! I wasn’t here tonight!”

Okaaay... Whatever you say, Mr. Bond. You know come to think of it, I didn’t even know the British had something called the Marines, but what do I know. I'm sure somebody will correct me in that regard. In any case I can see why you’d want to keep the super-secret Bulgarian spy mission under wraps.

Also, should there be any lingering doubt as to whether Bulgarians really qualify as Slavs (the original Bulgars were no more Slavic than Magyars, Avars and Huns) last night at Biblioteka I discovered irrefutable proof: An otherwise normal-looking Bulgarian girl (which is to say, well, lithe and winsome) got so caught up in the dancing that she ripped her shirt off and performed a writhing erotic spectacle for what appeared to be the sole purpose of engaging the attention of her (also Bulgarian) boyfriend, who – what a shock – was really not very attractive, portly, very poorly dressed and looking abnormally bored with the whole scene.

Plus... just in case you thought Eastern Europe was maybe no longer all that Eastern Europe-y, here's a reminder of how Prague looks to visitors these days: "They drive you down the street and point out the Gypsy hookers," Paul Giamatti told Conan O'Brien. (I guess the proper reaction is, "And...?")

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The company I’m working left me the company rental car for the weekend, so I decided to take a little drive into the Bulgarian countryside.

I’d have liked to go visit some Pomak villages. The Pomaks are non-Turkish Bulgarian Muslim, so called because they were the “helpers” of the Ottomans, pomoc or something similar being the pan-Slavik word for “help”. The Pomaks are concentrated mainly down south in the Rodopi Mountains. A bit far for a one-day drive, so I checked out Rila Monastary in the Rila Mountains instead.

So I’m driving down the highway behind one of the big old lumbering buses, a staple of Eastern European road life. You know the ones, and if you don’t, you can imagine: they look like they’re about to fall apart.

So the bus is going super slow, and I’m angling to pass it, but as I’m doing so, something unexpected happened: It actually starts to fall apart.

A pumpkin-sized metal bus part, a gear or something, falls out of the underside of the bus -- *clink* -- and rolls right in front of my little renta-car.

It’s big enough to do some damage, but I don’t have time to swerve to avoid it, so the best I can do is avoid hitting it with one of the wheels. It catches on the underside of the car and clinks around for a bit before flying off.

I really thought that was the end of the trip, but I got out and did a cursory inspection of the vehicle. Looked fine. Drove fine. Went on my merry Balkan way.

I’ll be returning to my apartment in Cairo on Sunday night.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Tim Jasek died, if the name means something to you, and even if it doesn't that doesn't make it any less important.

I can't say too much else. Tim was one of those long-term Prague expats that I saw around and with whom I always had friendly words to exchange. I didn't know him well and I hadn't run into him in years. Still, I can honestly say I remember him very fondly, and I'd say that about him even if he were two tables over. As far as I'm concerned, being remembered fondly is the absolute best than anybody can hope for -- even better than being remembered, which itself is a great thing.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Hey, Sofia is hot hot hot.

Some random and not-terribly-well-informed tips... Bars I recommend include Bilkovata (crowded, dark, scruffy and friendly), Apartament (it’s actually in an apartment, converted into a quiet art space where you can sit and play chess or read some of those big Taschen coffee table books), Blaze (swingin’, with lots of alcohols served, and that’s about all I remember) and submarine-shaped place nearby, also with lots of alcohol served (and dancing) but the name and whereabouts of the bar are distinctly fuzzy. (“Distinctly fuzzy” is a contradiction in terms, but so is recommending a bar I can’t even name.)

If you visit, a absolute must is a chalga club, the ultimate Bulgaria-uber-alles experience. Sheherezada is a friendly one right on Vitosha, the main boulevard. It’s the Bulgarian equivalent of the the hezky cesky discotheque-sky, if you’re familiar with that, only rather more interesting and, for lack of a better term, exotic. Chalga is the Bulgarian form of turbo-folk, that ubiquitous Balkan musical form that sounds suspiciously oriental and, well, a bit Turkish (just don’t say that to a local if you want your faculties to remain intact).

For whatever it’s worth, I also paid a visit to one of the mainstay nightclubs, Chervilo. There was an entry charge and it was late and I'd already been to three places, so I didn’t go in, but it looked like a perfectly legitimate nightclub from the outside. I mean “nightclub” in the regular sense, not the Eastern European sense in which it means “brothel.”

Restaurant tips include Mahaloto (Bulgarian-leaning) and Da Vidi (French-leaning). I’ve heard from someone who lives here that Dani’s, on the same street as Da Vidi, is also very good. The Radisson has free wireless internet and the Irish bar downstairs is not bad, not bad at all, for a hotel restaurant. I'm there now; American football's on.

The Hilton, on the other hand, has an outstanding breakfast buffet but they rip you off every chance they get: A 59-second local phone call from your hotel room costs one dollar -- no kidding, and that’s just to start -- and you can forget about using the web.

In case you’re wondering, I’m midway through a two-week stay here to do some chapters on a book introducing Bulgaria to emerging markets investors. I really don’t like to sound jaded, but the biggest problem I have with this place is its utter familiarity. I feel like I’ve already done every interview several times already, and it’s basically clear how the country will look in five to ten years (much the same, but with more hypermarkets and shopping malls, roads with fewer potholes, a proper metro system, and an infestation of British stag party weekenders).

Out on the town last night, I learned of a conference on counter-intelligence attended by Quebecois law enforcement officials taking place right here in the Hilton this week. Just so you know.
Sometimes when I write the letter C it looks like the letter L.

In December I covered the Cairo International Film Festival for Screen International. The artistic director, a funny little man called Youssef Cherif Rizkallah, arranged my accreditation. I knew he was a funny man after they printed up my accreditation card and misspelled my name as “Slott MacMillan.”

He said, “At least it doesn’t have a U.”


Some time ago this blog caused a minor stir by wondering aloud how much tunafish is too much tunafish to eat at one time.

In Bulgaria they sell tunafish with slices of garlic inside the can. I have never seen that before. Of course I usually buy the tunafish packed in water, not oil. This one had oil, because it was the only can I could find with a flip-top lid.

(Some people might wonder why I keep writing “tunafish” instead of simply calling the fish by its proper name, “tuna.” Tuna, you see, is the name of the fish itself, or the name of the slab of meat when it’s sitting on a plate, or when it’s wrapped in rice and seaweed. Tunafish is what it’s called when it comes from a can.)

A tunafish sandwich is one of the few decent meals that can be prepared in a hotel room, provided you either a) find a can with a flip-top lid, or b) carry a Swiss army knife with a can opener.

I do not carry a Swiss army knife with a can opener, but if you find this blog entertaining or useful and would like to become a benefactor, please send a Swiss army knife with a can opener to my address in Cairo.

Here’s how you do it. Here’s how you make a tunafish sandwich in your hotel room.

First, buy tunafish and a jar of mayonnaise (mayonnaise in a plastic squeeze container will also do). Also buy whatever greens you like in your sandwich; I was lucky enough to find a plastic box of pre-shredded carrots, cabbage and sprouts (not very green, but it provided the necessary roughage.) And a loaf of pre-sliced sandwich bread.

Now, above the minibar you will find a napkin, a spoon for the coffee, and a small preparation area. Spread the napkin out over the preparation area to avoid making too much of a mess. Using the coffee spoon, empty half the can of tuna into one of the cups from the bathroom. Mix with desired amount of mayonnaise. You can either add the roughage to the mixture at this point, or lay it out on one of the sides of bread. Stir tunafish mixture thoroughly and spread on bread. Since you won’t have a plate handy, it’s best to enjoy the sandwich above the napkin, right at the mini-bar, to avoid making more of a mess than in necessary.

When finished, you may find you are still hungry, and with a half an opened can of tunafish remaining. Since there will be room for stirring, you may now add the mayonnaise directly to the can. Apparently it is OK to finish the can.

Be sure to tip the maid generously.