Gabrovo - November-December 2002

Friday evening – Nov 22nd 2002

Well it’s really getting closer now. Tomorrow morning I leave for Gabrovo, Bulgaria. First, however, my last Vietnamese meal and my last Belgian beers for the next three weeks. I’m meeting up with Sofie, Sania, Andrew and Laura for some nouilles, marmites, soup, scampis vermicelles, … All the time Andrew keeps insisting that Bulgarian women probably have moustaches. I promised him I’d check it out thoroughly.

After the Lotus Bleu we make our way to ‘t Stookerijke where Guy and co are waiting for us. Stef, who went to Bulgaria in August, also dropped by. I planned to get back home around midnight but, as usual, I enjoyed myself too much and things went from late, to later, to too late, to ‘I’m gonna regret this’. I guess you hear me coming … in the end we just continued until the morning and I decided to leave for Zaventem without sleeping.

Saturday – Nov 23rd 2002

At the airport I met up with Mieke and her husband. Luckily she was decently awake so I just had to stay close to her and I wouldn’t get lost.

After a short change of planes in Prague, we arrived in Sofia around 14.30. There Michu and our driver were waiting for us. The drive to Gabrovo was about 2 hours and 30 minutes.

The ride was uneventful but this can be attributed entirely to luck. People have the weirdest habits on the road. But at least they are consistent. They always take the inside band when the road twists (day or night, good or bad visibility, … it doesn’t matter). If there’s a car in the other lane, that’s a problem they will solve if and when it happens.

They also consistently drive with the white lines in between the left and right wheels. I’m beginning to wonder why the lines are there… nobody seems to be bothered by them.

When we arrive at the hotel I’m pleasantly surprised. Compared to some of the places that we passed by during the ride to Gabrovo, the hotel is nice, clean and well run. The rooms are also reasonably big and the bathroom is okay.

But the most remarkable thing is that everyone is very friendly and enormously helpful. Even though they don’t always fully understand what you’re saying. I’m beginning to realize that we will surely need our translators during the courses.

Around 19.30 we’re expected downstairs because then Mariana is coming to pick us up for dinner. Stef warned me about Mariana, saying that she’s super-nice but that she also tries to arrange everything as good as possible. Sometimes a little bit too much. However, the first meeting is definitely positive. She’s a woman with so much energy and organizational talent… amazing. I’m wondering how Gabrovo survives while she’s visiting Belgium

We tried to keep the visit to the restaurant short but to no avail. I soon realize that Bulgaria and food by definition means either ‘a few dishes and big portions’ or ‘a lot of dishes of reasonable proportion’. No way I’ll be able to do a diet here.

Sunday – Nov 24th 2002

After a nice long rest I feel a lot more awake. Luckily, because today Mariana has arranged a visit to a local ethnological museum called ‘Etura’. It’s a nice evocation of the buildings and trades of Bulgarian history. Most of the old crafts are still practiced here by ‘masters’. These are people that have managed to pass the practical and theoretical exams associated with their craft. Here you have a silver smith making gorgeous silver jewelry based on old Bulgarian originals, someone who’s weaving carpets etc from goats hair, a potter, …

After this visit it’s back to the hotel to prepare our courses for Monday.

But not too long because around 19.30 Marianna’s back there to take us to the restaurant.

Monday – Nov 25th 2002

Since we start the day with 2 hours off, Galena (my translator) and me decide to go and have coffee first. I must say that her English is very, very good. The hot chocolate we ordered is quite tasty and I notice an Internet café is the corner. Unfortunately this café is also my first encounter with the French-style toilets, which still seem to be very popular here.

For lunch we go to the Glineni Garneta, one of the nice restaurants in Gabrovo. The waitresses are very friendly and helpful, the food is good, there’s plenty of choice, the cakes are delicious and … there are normal toilets.

This first day of courses is finished. It’s kind of strange teaching in English, followed by a translation in Bulgarian. But Galena is an excellent translator and I’m sure we’ll manage to cooperate quite well.

The students are a bit quiet, but that’s probably only because it’s only the first day. Furthermore, I was told that people aren’t really used to discussions.

After short stop at the hotel to freshen up, we go to a reception organized by a new NGO that works around Breast-cancer prevention. We were invited there by one of the students, a young girl that works for the NGO.

Later that evening we have to go a pizza restaurant where Yvan is waiting for us. The pizza’s are okay and the wine is very good but we decide not to stay too long. We all still have some preparation to do.

Tuesday – Nov 26th 2002

The 2nd day of courses. Slowly the students are getting more involved, giving examples and starting discussions. I’m getting more and more optimistic about the courses.

Wednesday – Nov 27th 2002

This evening we have arranged an outing with some of the students. I decided to go a little bit earlier (around 20.30) and have bite to eat before everyone would arrive but I was surprised to see Mihaela (Nicolai’s translator) and Tihomir (one of the students) walk in early.

I wasn’t sure which other students were going to show up but I was pleasantly surprised. In the end about 8 people joined us.

We staid in the Glineni Garneta until around 23.00, then we went to the Fashion, a music bar in the center. Finally, they took me to the Trol, a discotheque.

Although it was a very interesting and fun evening, I decided to be wise and go home around 3.30. Not bad for a first night in the town.

Ps. Did I already mention that Mihaela is not only very cute but also nice and too smart for a girl?

Thursday – Nov 28th 2002

Thursday morning and I survived yesterday’s partying. I did expect that some of the students would not make it out of bed for the courses but it seems they’re all used to staying up late, drinking decent quantities and getting up in the morning. I was also told that Michu (Mariana’s 17-year old son) and 2 of the students staid until around 6 in the morning.

For the rest no special news, just another day of courses and an early night.

Friday – Nov 29th 2002

After another day of teaching we decide that this evening it’s party time. First however, Mariana has arranged as diner in the Bar Nazdrovne. This is a nice restaurant with live music. The music is great and authentic, the singer is good-looking and the food is very nice.

Around 10 I have to leave Mariana and Mieke to go to the Glineni Garneta to meet the students. There’s quite a few of us so it’s a bit difficult to decide where to go to. Finally the group splits up and 6 of us decide to go first to the Tequila bar. I instantly fall in love with the place. It’s kind of dark, with a nice interior and great music and definitely packed with party-loving people.

I enjoy myself very much with Pepa, Plamen, Radoslava, Tania and Dani. I also get a demonstration of the efficiency of the local security guard. Dani looks quite young and she’s being asked to show some identification showing that she’s over 18.

Around 12.30 we decide to meet up with the other people in the discotheque under the theatre. Mihaela, Tihomir, Polya, Nadia and Max are still there. There are not too many other people in the disco so we almost have the whole place to ourselves.

Slowly some people are leaving us because it is getting quite late. The die-hards (Radoslava, Nadia, Max, Polya and me) decide to go to the Black Hole. I already heard a few things about this bar but didn’t really know what to expect. Let me just say that the Black Hole is exactly what it’s name claims … it’s a dark hole.

The first few minutes after entering the bar it’s absolutely impossible to see anything. After a little while, we get accustomed to the darkness and I see that it’s a small cafe with a big bar in the middle. All the people are sitting and standing around the bar looking at the bar tender. The music in this bar is remarkable open-minded, it ranges from Las Ketchup to Metallica and some Bulgarian rock.

After some drinks in the Black Hole, we go to the Risk which is a café just on the other side of the road. The best features of this place: it’s still open at 5 in the morning, they have 2 pool tables and they sell chocolate croissants! We play a few games of pool and I’m proud to say that I won all of them.

Finally, around 6 in the morning, we’re all very tired and we all go home.

Ah, another event of today: Mariana took Nicolai to the hairdresser and Nicolai came to show of his new hairdo. It’s a mixture of a quite traditional cut, with some Bulgarian influences, held together by about half a tube of gel. Very impressive!

Saturday – Nov 30th 2002

After just 6 hours of sleep I wake because of the wake up call. I really need to get up because Valentin, one our students, invited me to take part in the a discussion about youth policy and the problems of the youth organizations in Gabrovo.

After a short taxi ride, I arrive at the Hotel Balkan. I’m just in time for the start of the meeting. The whole discussion was in Bulgarian but I have to say that my translator (a 16-year old girl) did a terrific job.

The discussion was very interesting and clearly showed the people still have to get used to a debating culture.

Some of the problems that were talked about:

One of the participants clearly did not quite understand the meaning of democracy and debating. He was always commenting and ridiculing other peoples ideas, mentioning big problems like health issues and unemployment (which were clearly outside the scope of the discussion) and he completely failed to offer or suggest solutions. Later somebody told me he was a young representative of the local socialist party.

Luckily the other people were really motivated, enthusiastic and interesting people and they really managed to give me a very good feeling about the future of Bulgaria. Let’s just hope that the young women from the government agency, who attended the meeting, manage to create an inspiring and motivating framework for the future youth policy and representation.

After the meeting we walked to the Risk café to have a coffee and talk a little bit more about the meeting.

Later that day, Valentin and Dobri (the leader of the student union) accompanied me to the center of Gabrovo and we went for a drink and some food in the French café. I can wholeheartedly recommend the milkshake and cappuccino.
After a while Mihaela took the place of Valentin and Dobri who had to go somewhere.

I’m glad Mihaela and me managed to spend some time talking. So far it has always been very busy with many people around so it’s refreshing to be able to just have a good conversation with someone. And yes … the fact that she’s a charming young woman doesn’t hurt either.

We meet up with Mieke and Mariana in the restaurant for the evening diner. Mihaela and Mariana show off their dancing skills and around midnight we decide to call it a day.

Sunday – Dec 1st 2002

After a quiet Sunday, I enjoyed a nice diner at the Rest with Radoslava and Polya. Some of the topics included relationships, marriage, tourism, … very interesting. Around 12 we went home to get some rest before starting week 2 of the courses.

Monday – Dec 2nd 2002

Week 2 of the courses has started. Currently I’m nicely on schedule.

Tuesday – Dec 3th 2002

After the courses we decided to go straight to hotel because Mariana wanted us to finish the exam preparations a quickly as possible. At the hotel, we installed ourselves in the bar with all the papers and equipment and we ordered pizzas. The effort paid off, I even ended the evening with too many questions. Also I feel like the selection I made was is a little bit too difficult. I’ll go over the questions with Galena, maybe she can give some feedback to tweak the selection.

Wednesday – Dec 4th 2002

After the courses, I followed Nadia to the kindergarten to go and pick up her daughter Hristina. The kindergarten is quite nice and Hristina is absolutely gorgeous. Of course she’s a little shy at first, I guess that when you’re 4 years old and you gent introduced to a strange guy speaking a weird language doesn’t help. Especially if your mother also starts speaking differently.

After the kindergarten we walk to Nadia’s stationery shop where I meet Max, her husband. Max invited me to go and do a delivery at STS, the biggest company in Gabrovo and the 6th largest company in Bulgaria.

At STS I get a preview of their future website. This way I learn that they things such as toothpaste, shampoo, hair colorant, laminate tubes, … Their weirdest product must be the banana shampoo, which apparently is quite successful in Russia.
Then Max and Nadia invite me to go to their apartment and try Max’s homemade rachia. How can I say no to an offer like that. On the way over, we pass by a shop to buy some salad. In this shop there’s a stationery stand and Max is proud to point out that this is theirs. Seems like they’re a very industrious couple: 2 shops and a few stationery stands in other shops.

The Rachia is excellent, the company good and Hristina is getting a lot less shy. Unfortunately I am hard-pressed for time. Mieke, Nicolai and Mariana are waiting for me at the Rest. Luckily they have some company because I arrive about 45 minutes late.

After the diner we went back to the hotel. Mieke and Nicolai staid at the hotel but I had to go back to the center. Nadia and Max are waiting for me to go to a birthday party. The party is in a music bar under the House of Humor, a ‘chalga’ or pop-folk place. The birthday girl, Zedeslava, was already there together with, surprise, one of the girls from the reception at the hotel. There was another girl, Guergana or Geri. Geri is, to say the least, very charming, a good dancer and clearly full of ‘joie de vivre’. This is where I get my first chalga dancing lessons.

A few hours later we decide to move to the Cherna Dubka. Finally I only manage to tear myself away from the good music and Guergana around 4 in the morning. I guess it’s gonna be difficult again tomorrow morning.

Thursday – Dec 5th 2002

Looks like I’m not the only one who’s a tad bit tired. Nadia doesn’t show up in the morning and when she does arrive, she promptly falls asleep again.

The courses went very good, only the breaks and lunch were a little bit difficult. It’s always much more difficult to stay awake when doing nothing.

We finished they day of with a quiet evening diner with the general manager of STS and his wife.

Friday – Dec 6th 2002

Out with Polya, Ivajlo, Nadia and Max. As usual we started at the Glineni Garneta where we had some food and a lot of drinks.

Later that evening we visit the Karuzata. One of the waitresses at the Garneta, Daisy, has told me about it and she said it’s really good. Well, when we visit it, it’s certainly … different. The Karuzata is a pop-folk restaurant and the people in there are really having a good time.

We end the evening at the Cherna Dubka where we stay until around 6 in the morning.

Saturday – Dec 7th 2002

Just a quiet day shopping, …

Sunday – Dec 8th 2002

Today we’re visiting Hosana, a 1800 meter high mountain. It has been snowing quite a bit so the ride up the mountain is adventurous. Thankfully Julian is a very good driver.

Up on the mountain we all dress up as warm as possible to go walking in the snow. Well all… not really. Nicolai has managed to leave without a scarf and with nice low-cut city shoes. As soon as he steps outside the car his shoes disappear in the 30 cm deep snow. Guess he didn’t really select then best gear for the task at hand.

After about 10 minutes we pass by a youth hostel and we leave Nicolai and Julian behind. Mieke, Mariana and me continue across some open fields completely covered in a thick layer of snow and into the woods.

Around 15.00 we return to the ‘Three Bears’ restaurant where we initially started off and after a good lunch we head down the mountain, back to the hotel.

Monday – Dec 9h 2002

Nothing special to report.

Tuesday – Dec 10h 2002

This evening Mihaela and I agreed to meet at the Glineni Garneta for an evening diner. We had a very nice meal, talked a lot about life, love, being good and being bad, and lots more.

Later on that evening Nadia and Max showed up, joining us for some red wine and Kamenitza. I can’t help but notice some stress between the two of them. Maybe I should talk to Nadia tomorrow, try to figure out what’s going on.

Ah, Nadia also told me that some of the students from group 2 went to the Chinese restaurant to study. Seems like they’re really taking the courses pretty serious.

Wednesday – Dec 11h 2002

Today it’s the moment of truth for many students… it’s exam time.

We start the day with 1 hour of repetition with each group. I decided to give them the choice between a quick overview of the highlights and time to study. All groups choose the quick overview so I end up speeding though the course material at a record pace. I think this is the most tiring session ever for Galina. I really need to keep talking non-stop otherwise I can never finish the overview, so she has to continuously listen and translate.

Then we take a well-deserved lunch break at the Glineni Garneta.

Since there will be enough people to watch over the groups while they do their exams, I decide to quickly take a taxi to Ethera to go and buy the slippers for my grandmother. I prefer to do this now since the last few days Ethera was closed due to the cold weather. I manage to find slippers in the right size (a 38 as I was told by my parents) and I also buy some toys for Hristina (remember? Nadia and Max’s daughter).

When I get back to the center, the students have 10 minutes left for their exam of bookkeeping. I see a lot of worrying faces.
After bookkeeping they also finish the exams of Economics and Management and then all of them return home to prepare for the oral exam on Thursday.

Mieke, Nicolai and I decided to eat at the hotel so that we could correct the exam papers in time and still be awake for the marathon of oral exams the next day.

That evening Willy and Jozef arrive and Mariana takes us all out to lunch at the Old Restaurant.

Thursday – Dec 12h 2002

We started around 9 in the morning. The original planning was group 2 from 9 to 11. Then 30 minutes break, group 1 from 11.30 until 13.30 and again 30 minutes break. And finally group 3 from 14.00 until 16.00.

In the end however we only managed to finish around 18.00 because some people from group 2 only showed up in the afternoon, Valentin (whom had not been able to take the written exam) had a much longer oral exam and the people from group 3 needed more time than anticipated.

Between 18.00 and 19.30 we compared and results and we finished the deliberation. We only had a few problematic cases (which we solved quite easily) and some hopeless cases (which also didn’t take much time to handle).

After a quick stop at the hotel I meet up with Nadia, Max, Polya, Ivajlo, Mihaela and Tihomir at the rest for diner. As usual the night gets out of hand and we end up in the discotheque under the theatre, the Cherna Dubka and again under the theatre. Around 4.30 I take my taxi to the hotel.

Friday – Dec 13th 2002

This morning Max came to pick me up for some shopping in Villeco-Turno. He has to go over there for his shop and last night at the discotheque I foolishly mentioned that I’d drive along to do some shopping.

While driving there Max doesn’t really benefit from me being there… I just sleep. In Villeco-Turno we first go to one of Max’s suppliers and then we head for the center of the town. We have coffee and I decide to do some walking and shopping while Max goes to visit his other suppliers.

The shopping is ok and somehow I manage to stay awake. Around 14.00 we meet at the car park and drive back to Gabrovo.

Back in the hotel I take a little bit of rest because around 17.00 I’m supposed to be at the House of Humor. Galina is going to give me an exclusive tour before the reception and the ceremony for the diplomas.

The House of Humor museum is interesting, Galina’s stories are entertaining, the cartoons and paintings are funny and the museum halls are freezing.

Around 18.00 the ceremony starts with the usual, partly amusing, partly boring, but always way too long speeches. After the official part we have a good time with some wine, salami and chocolate cake at the reception.

Then Dr. Yanko, Ivajlo and me get into a taxi. We drive by the hotel because I need to go and pickup a spare battery for my camera and also because I want to get rid of the bottles of wine and rachia that we received. Always travel light, that’s my motto and it’s especially true when you have a party to go to.

The evening party is good even though I don’t have time enough to enjoy my food. There are too many people around that I will not see again so there’s a lot of saying goodbye, hugging and exchanging addresses to be done.

After the diner I go to the Lidera, a chalga disco under the House of Humor, with some of the students. I also promised to go to the Trol but largely due to communication hiccups I don’t manage to get there anymore. I do manage to get to the Cherna Dubka to meet with Max and Nadia for a last drink.

Saturday – Dec 14th 2002

This morning, well around 11.30 anyway, I went to Ethera to do some Christmas shopping and to buy a present for An & An because they arranged some company for me so that I wouldn’t feel alone in Bulgaria.

After some speed-shopping I took the taxi back to the center of Gabrovo to buy a phone card and to meet Polya, Polya, Nadia and Hristina in Pizza Tempo. Lunch is excellent as usual (even though Hristina seems to have ordered more than she can handle). After a while Polya and Polya go shopping for clothes and Max shows up at the restaurant. We spend some more time enjoying dark beers and pancakes with chocolate and then we’re off.

I go to Glineni Garneta to read a little bit and have a nice cappuccino. The cappuccino is no problem, however I soon notice that I won’t be doing much reading. I’m just sitting down when some girls call me over to their table. One of them, Zornica, was working at the reception yesterday. We end up talking about all sorts of things end time flies by.

Later that evening Ivajlo and Nadia show up at the Glineni Garneta and we have some more food and drinks.

Sunday – Dec 15th 2002

I decide not to go to Hosanna today. I’m sorry to disappoint Nadia but it’s safer not to venture onto the mountain today, there’s gonna be too much snow and tomorrow I really need to catch my plane.

Instead I’m meeting Mihaela for lunch. We have lunch at a pizzeria that I haven’t been too yet. I’m glad to have the opportunity to spend some time saying goodbye to Mihaela, I’ve come to like her very much and I definitely didn’t want to leave for Belgium with just a short ‘see you later’. I will never forget our pleasant conversations and I’m looking forward to continuing them both in email and in person during the summer.

After I last hug goodbye I seek refuge in the Glineni Garneta where I’m meeting with Dessi and Plamen. This is the first time that I have the chance to talk to them while they are not working. Dessi is one of my favorite waitresses at the Glineni Garneta. We order a few bottles of red wine and some small things to eat. Dessi is definitely a great girl and she and Plamen make a cute couple. We make plans to meet up at the Black Sea this summer.

After a while Valentin joins us. He’s just back from a few days training on the mountain.

Later on Nadia, Max and Ivajlo also show up.

Around 20.00 most of us head over to the Old restaurant to meet with Mariana, Willy and Jozef for a last diner. The diner is ok, but I have to admit that all the red wine has blurred my judgment.

We end the evening at the Cherna Dubka (where else). My goodbye drink is a vodka orange in a baby bottle and the barman offers me a tequila glass as a goodbye present.

I’ll miss the place!

Monday – Dec 16th 2002

The taxi is here to take me to Sofia but first we need to make a short stop at the Nadia and Max’s stationery shop. They had asked me to drop by because they wanted to give me some homemade rachia to take home with me.

Saying goodbye to Nadia is tough, we’ve spent a lot of time together these last three weeks and I must admit that I enjoyed it. I am definitely going to accept her invitation to stay at their place near the Black Sea this summer.

Epilogue

I would like to thank everyone who has made my stay in Gabrovo such a fantastic and unforgettable event! I love you all and I promise to come back!