HUNGARY AND BULGARIA - AUGUST 2000
In summer of 2000 I taught summer school in Istanbul, Turkey. My wife and son traveled with me, and my daughter joined us part of the summer. When summer school ended, we flew to Budapest, Hungary, for three days, then flew to Sofia, Bulgaria to meet our daughter and spend four days at a music festival in the mountains. We then flew back to Istanbul for our return flight to LA. This journal was written in a series of emails.
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 9 - BUDAPEST ON THE DANUBE
On Sunday we flew from Istanbul, Turkey to Budapest, Hungary. We tried calling hostels and guesthouses from the airport, but all were full. So we used a hotel service at the airport and found a hotel which was farther away than we wanted, but it was a place to stay. We took a shuttle bus there and checked in, then rode the subway downtown to Deak Ter. The subway was deep underground with long escalators, which reminded us of the Moscow subway system. Due to the steepness, it looked like people were leaning backwards!
We walked to the waterfront and took a cruise on the Danube, which our daughter had recommended. It was just turning dark and there were lights on all of the monuments, bridges, cathedrals, Parliament, and the castle palace. We saw all of the major sights from the water and became oriented to the city.
We found a walking street with outdoor cafes, and I immediately noticed some of the differences between Budapest and Istanbul. While I was in Istanbul I was struck by how European it was in comparison with my expectations. But Budapest is so very central European that Istanbul seemed less European in comparison. It was not only the minarets that were different, but also the street markets in Istanbul that were similar to those in Egypt and in China.
In addition, the people in Budapest were not as friendly as those in Istanbul. People would not even look at you, let alone return your smile. It was like being in New York city in that regard! But my daughter told me later that people were friendly in the small towns of Hungary.
Monday morning we went to the Yellow Submarine Hostel to see if they had any room. It turned out that they had rooms available at another location which was next door to a disco on a street with outdoor bars! After leaving our luggage there we took a bus to the Buda castle on a hill overlooking the Danube. We spent some time in the history museum there, learning that humans have inhabited the area from 50,000 years! Every army that swept across Europe had been there. There were negative comments about the Turkish occupation when Hungary was part of the Ottoman Empire for 150 years. Boys were taken to Istanbul to be trained as soldiers -- we had seen where they were trained in the Topkapi Palace.
We also explore the labyrinth of caves underneath the hill on which the castle was built. It had copies of the prehistoric cave paintings in France and other exhibits. Most amusing was the final section with had "fossils" from "homo consumus" which included a footprint of a tennis shoe and imprints from a cell phone, desktop computer, and laptop computer! We took a quick peek in St. Mathias church, the most famous cathedral in town. In front were several tour bus loads of tourists who were trying to crowd into the church. We escaped the crowds by taking the tram to Pest.
Budapest was originally three cities -- Buda and Obuda (old Buda) on the hilly west side of the Danube, and Pest on the flat east side. We ate dinner in a restaurant with Hungarian food, and the paprika flavoring reminded me of the Goulash soup that I had liked so much when I was in Germany years ago. I wanted to go to the disco next door to our lodging, but it was closed on Monday nights.
Tuesday we went to the Ethnographic museum which had an excellent exhibit on daily life in Hungary 150 years ago. Then we saw the exhibits in the Fine Arts museum. I have never seen so many paintings of Mary and baby Jesus in the exhibit of old masters. More interesting were the exhibit of 19th century paintings which included some French Impressionists, and the exhibit of Egyptian artifacts. After several hours in the museum we took the tram to Buda and climbed the hill up to the Citadel, where there was a spectacular view of the city.
That night the disco was finally open, but even at midnight there were only a dozen people there and only a few of them were dancing. So that was disappointing. But I had enjoyed the cruise on the Danube and seeing the sights and museums of Budapest.
MONDAY AUGUST 14 - MUSIC IN THE MOUNTAINS OF BULGARIA
Last Wednesday we flew from Budapest, Hungary to Sofia, Bulgaria. We were met at the airport by our daughter. She had found a family for us to stay with and our host picked us up at the airport. A friend of hers stayed with us too. She had met him at a youth hostel in Budapest two weeks ago and they had travelled together to a music festival in Hungary and a music camp in Romania. She had really enjoyed staying with families in small towns in those countries.
Thursday morning we took a slow train to Koprivshtitsa, a beautiful farm village in the mountains about 100 miles east of Sofia. We went there for the National Festival of Bulgarian Folk Arts, a music festival held every five years. The town has beautiful old buildings, with rock walls and barns with haylofts. The courtyard gates have tiled roofs over them, just like in Japan, except the tiles are red instead of blue.
We took a bus from the train station to the town square, where the tourist office called our hostess. We arrived late in the afternoon, and she had been waiting for us all day. She led us to her house which was on the other end of town, then up the hillside. I was glad that I only had to carry my big backpack up there once! She spoke only Bulgarian, so we had fun looking up words in the dictionary and using pantomimes to communicate!
She was very gracious and had a very nice house with light wood cabinets and Oriental carpets. But the town was having a drought, so all over town there was running water only for an hour each evening! So she filled up a large barrel with water each night, and we took bucketfuls of water from the barrel to wash with and to flush the toilet!
We walked to the town square to have dinner, and found a group of musicians playing and a hundred people with joined hands folk dancing in circles and serpentines. In the morning we were awakened to the sound of a rooster and cowbells! After breakfast we walked back to the townsquare, then up the mountain. The festival was held on 8 stages, which were cement platforms, spread along a trail along the top of the mountain overlooking the town.
Each stage was assigned to a different region of Bulgaria for half a day, so over three days there were performances by groups from two dozen regions. The exception was the center stage, which had TV cameras and showcased a different region every half hour. Each region had distinctive clothing. The men wore embroidered shirts and black pants. The women wore embroidered blouses, long skirts, and colorful aprons. There were performers of all ages, from young children to elderly grandparents. They sang, performed rituals (like skits), or danced.
Some of the singers sang alone, but most sang in groups. Some were in unison, while others harmonized in a discordant form of harmony that I had never heard before -- I liked it very much. The musicians played wooden flutes (similar to the ney in Turkey), bagpipes, string instruments, and drums. Occasionally there was an accordion too. I became very fond of the bagpipe music. And I loved the dance music regardless of the instruments played!
As I walked between stages at various times during the festival, I would hear groups rehearsing. In addition, musicians would start playing dance music, and a group of people nearby would start dancing spontaneously! I had brought my stereo cassette recorder, and recorded five hours of music that I liked.
There were about 14,000 people there for the festival. Most were Bulgarians from all over the country, but there were also some Americans, Japanese, French, and others too. The performers stayed in huge army tents set up at the other end of town, while other visitors stayed with families as we had done.
A professor in the ethnomusicology department at UCLA, and a couple of our daughter's fellow graduate students, were there. My wife and I had met him and his wife when we were graduate students at the University of Washington years ago. He had introduced the recorder (medieval flute) to my wife, and her playing the recorder had interested our daughter in music, and now our daughter was studying music with him! We ran into him several times during the festival, and so I was able to ask him questions about Bulgarian music, which is his specialty. I was curious why bagpipes were here and in Scotland. He explained that bagpipes were originally popular throughout Europe, but had died out in other places. They became a symbol of Scottish pride when the English banned the playing of bagpipes.
We also spent time with three members of another family. We had met the man and his son on the train from Sophia. The man, who was from England, decided to pursue graduate work in ethnomusicology after 20 years as a computer programmer. The son, who lived in Wales with his mother, was a college student. They were joined a day later by the man's new wife, who was from Istanbul. So we had much in common to talk about, as we ran into each other by the stages or arranged to meet for dinner.
Along the main road from one end of town to the other there had been roadside cafes and bars, ice cream vendors, small amusement park rides, and other stalls selling clothing, hardware, and everything else! But this morning, all of that was gone as we walked to catch the bus to the train station. The town was deserted except for a few men drinking coffee at the cafes, and two street sweepers cleaning up the trash left behind. I had been a relaxing four days in a beautiful setting with beautiful music which we enjoyed very much.
We took a train through farmlands to Karlovo, then another train to Plovdiv. We checked into a hotel, where we could all have the first hot shower in four days! We then took a taxi to the Internet Cafe where all of us could catch up on our email!
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 16 - SIGN LANGUAGE IN BULGARIA
Monday night we had dinner on the walking street (Stan. Knyas Aleksander) in the old part of Plovdiv. It has many outdoor bars and cafes. I ate two Bulgarian dishes that I had discovered at the music festival in the mountain village. One is shopsca salad -- diced cucumbers and tomatoes covered with shredded sheep cheese (similar to Feta goat cheese but with not as strong a flavor). The other is kavarma, pork or chicken baked in a small earthenware pot with onions, mushrooms, and seasonings (paprika I think). Both are delicious!
Let's Go Eastern Europe 2000 had mentioned that there were discos in Plovdiv, but didn't identify any of them. So I asked a clerk on the walking street about them, and he said that he didn't recommend that I go to them. Instead of explaining why, he said that he couldn't say anymore about it. Then I remembered that my guidebook had said that the nightlife in Bulgaria is controlled by the mafia. So I didn't pursue it further!
One of the interesting things about being in Bulgaria is trying to read the signs which are in cyrillic. The cyrillic alphabet was invented by two Greek monks in the 9th century in order to translate the Christian Bible into slavic. It contains Greek letters, Latin letters, backwards Latin letters, and a few other symbols. Some letters have a different pronunciation than they do in English. For example, the Latin letter P is used to represent the Greek letter rho, which is pronounced as a trilled r. The letter H is pronounced as N, and the backwards N is converted to I and pronounced as ee. The letter B is pronounced as V. So the word HOBO at the end of the names of many towns is pronounced as NOVO!
The alphabet used in Bulgaria is essentially the same as that used in Russia, except that some letters are pronounced differently. For example, the letter X is pronounced as H in Bulgaria but as KH in Russia. The small letter b is pronounced as uh in Bulgaria but is not pronounced in Russia. Seeing all the signs in cyrillic reminds me of when I was in Russia, which was especially true in Sophia which had many concrete apartment buildings like those in Russia.
If you convert signs from cyrillic to Latin letters, sometimes you can figure out what they mean. This includes words like cafe, restaurant, bar, hotel, photo, and sport! We are finding more waitresses who speak English in Plovdiv than was true in Koprivshtitsa. Until the fall of communism a decade ago, Russian was the second language in Bulgaria. In contrast, in Hungary the second language was German, so if people didn't understand English I could usually speak to them in German. Few people speak German here, although a few speak French.
We are used to using gestures to communicate, pointing at things we want, holding up fingers to count, and nodding our heads for yes or no. But in Bulgaria, the head nods for yes and no are the reverse of what they are in the US, so it can be confusing! So we've learned to say DA for yes and NE for no while trying to hold our heads still!
Since the fall of communism, many of the street names have been changed in Plovdiv. For example, Boulevard Moscow is now Boulevard Bulgaria. Some maps have the old names and some have the new, and some are in cyrillic while others use Latin letters. Most streets do not have any street names on them, so it is very difficult to find your way around the city. But taxis are cheap, about $1 or $2 to travel across town, so if you can communicate where you want to go to the driver (e.g., by pointing to the name in a guidebook), you can get there quickly without having to worry about the routes!
Tuesday morning we slept in and then took a taxi to the Roman amphitheater on a hill in the old part of town. It is now used for concerts. We walked down the hill and stopped at the Church of the Virgin, an Eastern Orthodox church with beautiful icon paintings. It was a special day to honor the Virgin Mary (the day of the Anunciation, when the angel told her she was pregnant with Jesus). So people bought flowers and candles outside, lit the candles, and put them in candelabra inside the church.
We walked on down to the walking street and looked in a 15th century mosque with blue floral designs. It looked familiar to us, but was like a time warp in contrast to the Roman ruins and Orthodox churches in Plodiv. Next to the mosque was another Roman ruin, a small stadium one floor underground, with a plaza built around it. There was a mezzanine hanging over the stadium with a restaurant, where we ate lunch.
After lunch we walked back up the hill in the old part of town to the Ethnographic Museum. It had costumes from various regions of Bulgaria, which had older designs than those we saw at the music festival. It also had farm implements and household goods from a century ago. Some of the kitchen ware looked Turkish. Most interesting was a still for making the Bulgaria national liquor!
I wanted to see the Bulgarian history exhibits in the Revival Museum, but it appeared to be closed permanently. So we wandered around the neighborhood looking at beautiful old 18th and 19th century homes built on and around the old walls that had surrounded the city as early as the 4th century BC!
For dinner, we went to a restaurant that had been recommended to us for its live music. Unfortunately there was no music that night, but it was pleasant to eat on the patio sipping white wine. We were in the mood to watch a movie, having not seen one in two months, but the one theater we found was closed.
This morning we took a bus an hour south of Plovdiv to see the Bachkovo Monastery. It is the second largest monastery in Bulgaria. It was built in 1083, destroyed by the Turks in the 14th century, and rebuilt a century later. It was an oasis of Bulgarian culture, history, and literature during the 500 years of Turkish rule. There are 12 monks living there, plus several elderly women who cook and clean for them. We saw women plucking chickens in the courtyard! Inside the church we saw icon paintings and candelabra.
After walking back down the hill to the main road, we had lunch in a restaurant by a waterfall. While waiting for the bus, we met a young Bulgarian woman who is in graduate school in the US. I asked her about Bulgarian attitudes toward Turks, and she said that there is much prejudice against both the Turks and the Gypsies.
Back at the hotel, my daughter and her friend took showers and packed their backpacks. They were in a hurry and were craving hamburgers, so we ate at McDonalds for the first time this summer! Then we sent them off in a taxi to the bus station. They are taking a night bus to Istanbul. They'll stay in a youth hostel one night, then meet us on campus Friday afternoon after we fly there from Sophia.
They decided to take a bus instead of the train, since buses are faster than trains in Turkey and there are many reports of robberies on night trains in southern and eastern Europe. When I was a graduate student in 1967, I took many night trains all over Europe, but when we were in Europe in 1971, students we knew told us they were robbed on night trains in Italy. The guidebooks now warn about trains elsewhere as well. It is safer if you ride first class so you can latch your sleeping compartment, but sometimes gas is sprayed into compartments to knock people out so they can be robbed. So when my daughter and her friend had to take a night train from Budapest to Sophia, they bought some copper wire so they could tie the latch on their compartment!
As we strolled down the walking street again, it felt like home after three days here in Plovdiv and a week in Bulgaria!
SATURDAY AUGUST 19, 2000 - FROM SOFIA TO ISTANBUL
Thursday morning we got up early and took an 8 AM train to Sofia. Along the way we passed through farmlands with hay, wheat, corn, and sunflowers. I saw several herds of goats and small herds of cattle being herded by men, and a few herds of geese being herded by women. There also were several horsedrawn carts.
We checked into a hotel near the National Palace of Culture (which now houses restaurants and movie theatres) in a park with several outdoor cafes. We walked up Vitoshi Blvd., the main shopping street, to the National History Museum. When we arrived, workmen were hauling out pieces of marble and loading them onto a truck! The cashier told us that the museum had moved out to a new location up on the mountainside overlooking the city.
We took a tram and two buses to get out there. It was in a huge beautiful building that was the former residence of the head of the communist party! There were exquisite artifacts from Thracian civilization prior to the invasion of Alexander the Great, and from Greek, Roman, medieval, and Ottoman periods. Many items were made of gold, and we marveled that they had been preserved over the centuries instead of being melted down.
When we left the museum there was a minivan in front, which took us directly downtown. We looked at the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a huge church erected in memory of the Russians who died in the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War in which the Ottomans were driven out of Bulgaria. We saw the onion domes of St. Nicholas church, and the Roman bricks used to build St. Sofia's church in the 6th century. Most interesting was the small chapel called St. George's Rotunda, built on the ruins of Roman baths!
We walked back to the original site of the History Museum, where I had arranged by email to meet with a former student. He had attended Whittier for two years. We now have about two dozen students from Bulgaria studying at Whittier College! He and his girlfriend took us to a restaurant up on the mountainside for a great Bulgarian dinner. Then we walked around downtown Sofia, seeing the place where the students hang out by a statue of a priest called El Popa. We also looked at some book stalls where we found a small Bulgaian cookbook, and learned that Savarma is made wth paprika!
Friday morning we walked to the Ethnographic museum. Unfortunately, the main exhibit was closed, but we did we see a special exhibit on the Armenian minority in Bulgaria. It was very positive toward the Armenians, saying that they shared the Christian religion. In Turkey there is conflict with Armenia, each side accusing the other of genocide during World War II.
We stopped in a park across from the museum to have a soda. There were several pairs of older men playing chess next to a fountain, and two boys swimming in the fountain. Nearby a group of musicians were playing - two accordions, a clarinet, a lute, a drum, and a character making bird whistles!
My wife and son were tired of museums, but I wanted to see the Archeology museum as well. It had interesting gravestones and jewelry from the Roman era. After lunch we stopped at an Internet cafe to send our daughter a message, then took a bus out to the airport.
Earlier in the day I had converted the remainder of my Hungarian money into Bulgarian currency. Hungarian florint are worth 42 cents per 100, or a little over $4 for a 1000 Florint bill. And things are expensive in Budapest, so we went through those 1000 Florint bills quickly. In Bulgaria, the Leva is worth the same as the German Mark, which is about 50 cents. But things are cheap in Bulgaria, so a 1 leva bill can buy a pint of beer!
There was no place to change money in the Sofia airport, which was still under construction. So I tried to change my remaining Bulgarian Leva to Turkish Lira at the Istanbul airport. I had saved some in case we needed to take a taxi or buy food. But the bank wouldn't exchange it. They said they accept 18 currencies, but not Bulgarian or Israeli. I'll see if I can change it at the Los Angeles airport; if not, I'll give it to my students from Bulgaria.
Arriving back in Istanbul was like coming home again. We had to give the taxi driver directions to the campus - the route was more familiar to us than to him! We stayed at the faculty center last night, which has spectacular views of the Bosphorus from the third floor guestrooms with sloping eaves.
Today we will repack our luggage so that none of the bags is over 32 kilograms (about 70 pounds). There is a $130 fee for each one that is! So we are borrowing a bathroom scale from a colleague to make sure.
This afternoon I plan to go to the Egyptian bazaar to buy another large suitcase, then go to Taksim in the evening to hear some live music. Our daughter's plane leaves at 6 AM for Philadelphia; she'll spend a week visiting friends their before returning to LA. Our plane leaves at 1:35 PM, a more civilized hour! So we'll be back in LA Sunday night.
I wonder what kind of Reverse Culture Shock I'll experience then. People expect culture shock when they go to another country. The food, language, and customs are often different. But they usually don't expect culture shock when they return home. However, there is a period of adjustment back. The places and people are familiar, but the traveler has changed. You view yourself and your own culture differently after having seen a different way of life. You are aware of alternative ways of doing things, and you question the way things are done. Often you feel marginal. Others expect you to be the same, and usually don't understand what you have experienced. However, others who have travelled abroad know what you are going through since they have experienced a similar reverse culture shock, even if they went to a very different culture.
Each time I have travelled abroad, I have incorporated more cultures and identities. After Denmark I became a little Danish (certainly in regard to the Danish attitude that you should Play Hard as well as Work Hard). After Japan I became a little Japanese, especially in regard to artistic sensitivities. And the same was true for Egypt and China. So I expect to be a little Turkish now too. I think of myself as a citizen of the world, and a member of the Human race, with much in common with all people in spite of our cultural differences which I find extremely interesting.
MONDAY AUGUST 21 - LAST REPORT BACK IN LA
Sunday morning it took two taxis to take the three of us, our three carry-on bags, and six suitcases to the airport. Our daughter had gone to the airport earlier since she was flying to Philadelphia to visit friends.
My back became stiff on the 3-hour flight from Istanbul to Frankfurt, so I put a pillow behind my back for the 11-hour flight to LA. My back then felt okay, but I needed another pillow to sit on! Fortunately I had an exit row seat, so I was able to stretch out my legs. I was sitting next to and chatted with a student who was born in Vietnam. When he was two his family escaped on a boat and were picked up by a Norwegian ship, so he grew up in Norway. He is now attending college in LA, and juggling three ethnic identities!
A friend picked us up at the aitport with a large sport utility vehicle so we had room for all of our luggage. I couldn't find my keys, but the Bulgarian student housesitting for us was there and let us in. I had to call another friend who had emergency keys to our house to unlock the door to the back bedroom, where we had stored personal things. The keys must have been in the suitcase that our daughter took for us since we had one bag too many to check in on our flight.
Our bedroom was piled to the ceiling with things from our daughter's apartment. She had moved them there after the rest of us had left. I had to move 8 boxes to the living room so we could get access to the shower!
I went to bed at midnight, but woke up at 4 AM this morning due to jetlag. I have been sleepy all day, but have forced myself to stay awake until midnight tonight. We managed to upack all of our luggage, wash a mound of dirty clothes, and buy some groceries. While we were in Turkey we really enjoyed drinking visne nektari (dark cherry juice), but I couldn't find any in our local Ralph's supermarket. I'll see if they have it at Trader Joe's.
I also bought some computer disks at an office supply store to backup our files from Turkey, and the clerk there recognized me from a dance club! But then I expect that in Whittier!