Saturday, August 30, 2008

An Innocent, a Broad...

Important things to remember to forget to pack, in order to make your international voyage more challenging (and thus enjoyable): a towel, for use after showers in hostels; an iPod charger (assuming you bring an iPod on your trip, which I did); a Nalgene bottle, or some other container intended for the transport of refreshing, crucial drinking water. I like to think that only wimps "come prepared."

I flew into Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, a couple days ago. I was aided in my planning process by a friend and fellow retired Peace Corps volunteer, who offered me the following invaluable advice to make my overseas excursion more enjoyable: order kosher. It turns out that on some international flights, when reserving your ticket, you may select a "type" of in-flight meal, an attempt by the airline to defer to passengers' dietary preferences. Examples of such specialized meal options include vegetarian, low-calorie, low-cholesterol, gluten-free, halal, and, yes, kosher. My friend, on his flight back to the United States, sat next to a gentleman who ordered the kosher meal, and observed that not only did the man receive his tray before everyone else, but the food was of higher quality and quantity than my friend's own ordinary, gentile dish. And so I was counseled to benefit from my comrade's experience and request the kosher plate, which I did... not because I especially cared about what I would eat on the plane, but because the airline was German, and I am an ass.

According to various guidebooks, Sofia is one of the least attractive capitals in Eastern Europe; if this is true, then I cannot wait to see the others! I was warned to expect an urban sprawl of gloomy Soviety boxes, but plenty of older architecture abounds, mixed creatively with edgy, newer buildings. The side streets, in some areas, bring to mind fun, quirky parts of Brooklyn or New York's East Village. The signs on the streets, however, are going to take some getting used to, as not only do Bulgarians speak a different language, they use an entirely different alphabet! The Cyrillic alphabet, used in Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine, and Mongolia (among other nations), was invented here in Bulgaria, and is a point of national pride. It is thus both amusing and depressing to witness the West's (i.e., America's) corroding influence on Bulgarian culture, as many of the flashier advertisements around the city use English slogans, or a bizarre mix of English and Cyrillic. Out of morbid curiosity, I wandered into a McDonald's in downtown Sofia to observe the menu, and noticed that a good number of their items were labeled "Mak-[gibberish]" or "[gibberish] Mak-[gibberish]." I was reasonably certain, though, that I knew what the "[gibberish]-Mak" was.

When the street signs aren't making my head turn, the Bulgarian women are. Don't get me wrong, I am not ogling (really!), it's just that I cannot get over this simple fact: all women here look cool—at least, the young ones do. The older ones all look tired... probably from the effort of looking cool for years at a time. To my eyes, Bulgarian men look like any regular guys I'd see on a street in America, but the women seem somehow... European? Does that work? It's the only adjective I can come up with to describe their collective appearance. In any case, they all look like either models or punk rockers, nothing in between.

Other initial observations... unlike Americans, Bulgarians do not throw coins in fountains, just their cigarette butts. Byzantine church artwork is amazing, dazzling and ostentatious in a manner that truly inspires awe. The Lady's Market, a large outdoor bazaar, is populated almost exclusively by older people; the only young people in evidence there are cops and kids being dragged by the hand (the kids, not the cops). I have yet to figure out where the younger generation buys their food. Oh, and I ran into a familiar problem, often experienced in Burkina... that of "Sorry, no small change," followed by a waiter's satisfied smirk. My solution? "Sorry, smaller tip." I'm not handing anyone 30% gratuities, especially just because they refuse to give me small bills.

Finally, I will leave you with one more story. As jet lag was causing me to nod off by 7pm the day I arrived, I did not end up going out my first night in Sofia. However, for those of you curious about the Bulgarian nightlife, here is a breakdown of my second evening in town, during which I tagged along with a multinational hodgepodge of other hostel guests: beer at an Irish bar, two dollars; dancing at a Bulgarian birthday party you crashed, three dollars; getting propositioned by a persistent hooker when you leave the party, who won't take "no" for an answer and won't let go of your crotch... priceless.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Definition of "Typecast."

Just because I am currently backpacking through Eastern Europe does not mean I do not pay attention to the news. And by news, I mean the truly important events that are taking place throughout the world, affecting our lives, and those of our children, for years and decades to come. No, I'm not talking about Senator Barack Obama's nomination at the Democratic National Convention; that's not news, everyone already knew it was going to happen. I'm talking about Hollywood scandal! The actor David Duchovny, best known for his portrayal of the disturbed but brilliant FBI agent Fox Mulder on the cult show The X Files, has gone into rehab for sex addiction. Now why do I take the time from my Bulgarian sightseeing to point this out? It just so happens that Mr. Duchovny's latest role, for which he won a Golden Globe, is on the Showetime television series Californication... in which he just so happens to play a sex addict. And I think that's funny. Unfortunate and cosmically poetic, but definitely funny.

Talk about your method acting...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

American Alien.

It is hard to believe that over 2 years have passed since I last posted an entry here (the "under construction" notice notwithstanding). I had hoped life would go back to some semblance of normal when my plane touched down on American soil a few weeks ago. But no, a strong sense of expatriatism still lingers in my veins along with the pixie dust, and I have apparently forgotten what "normal" means: I cannot adequately express here my shock when I landed in Washington, DC, to discover that African airlines work better than American ones! We are the most powerful, influential country in the world—(this is still true, right? What else have I missed in 2 years?)—and I speak from some experience now when I say that many other nations aspire to develop in our image... yet the Air Burkina
airplane I flew on (which I only half-joked with other Peace Corps volunteers would be my last bush taxi ride in Burkina) operated better, on all levels, than any American airline I have flown in years! This place, Burkina Faso, is consistently a strong contender in the "Top 3 Poorest Countries in the World" Game, but please note that its national airline can still offer me a decent meal on a timely flight. After a layover in Dakar, Senegal, I continued in similarly luxurious style, this time with a South African service. It was not until I boarded an American-run airplane for the last leg of my return home that my itinerary—and subsequent treatment by customer "service"—went all to hell. (Honestly, Dear Readers: what have you been doing with the country in my absence?)

I have been running on sheer adrenaline since my plane finally landed, driving all over New England to visit people, averaging between four and five hours of sleep a night. That's probably not good if you started out such a marathon already jet-lagged. Then, a couple weeks after my return to the United States, I drove down to New York City, the place I missed most during my self-imposed exile, to visit friends and again bask in the grimy beauty that is the Big Apple. A mere couple days after my arrival, I found myself sitting in [daughter of famous person]'s giant loft apartment, drinking champagne with her and [other famous person]. I'm not telling you this to brag (well, much), but to emphasize just how surreal my life has gotten since I left Burkina Faso. Understand what I am saying here: my life seemed more normal in Africa than in the US! Even I think that's messed up!

I came back to America woefully behind in the times (I've heard rumors of some device called an "iPhone"), with little in the way of employment prospects. Everyone my age has grown up while I was gone, getting married, babies, or houses. While I appreciate seeing my friends and family, eating the wonderful food, and watching The Dark Knight in IMAX™ (the way God intended), I just don't know where I fit in right now in America, or even if I do. Solution? Leave again, as soon as possible. And so I shall—tomorrow, in fact—for Bulgaria, then a few other countries in Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic), trying to clear my head and come up with some kind of game plan, all the while blowing through the meager readjustment stipend Peace Corps allotted to me when I closed my service.

Why Eastern Europe, you ask? Well, those of you who read the very first entry on this very blog, way back when, may remember how I was originally supposed to go to Eastern Europe with Peace Corps, and how I threw something of a temper tantrum when I ended up being assigned to Georgia. So Peace Corps sent me instead to West Africa for 2 years of service (and the tone the guy responsible for re-assigning me used when he informed me made it clear he considered this a punishment). Oh, and I'd just like take a moment here to say to all those people who gave me all that grief for turning down Georgia, based on certain international events of the last few weeks: I told you so. But my consuming desire to see the wild mountains of Romania never diminished... and now I have the time, and the means, to make my dream come true, if only for a month.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not down on America. This is a very exciting time to be American, for all the obvious reasons that need not be re-hashed here. It's just that I haven't quite figured out how to, well, become "American" again, and I need a chance to readjust, and to reassess what exactly I am going to do, now that I am no longer being directed. Rest assured, Dear Readers, I will come back to the US again, this next time for good, perhaps. But until then: the adventure continues! Come along, why don't you?

Friday, August 01, 2008

Under Construction.

Thank you all for visiting this, the very first incarnation of A Dabbler's Diary. At this time we are still en route between Burkina Faso and the United States, having closed The Burkina Files, and unable to soil the pages of the internet with our sordid prose. Please visit us again later, after we have blown the dust off our Diary and posted something wry and amusing for your reading pleasure.