Gabrovo - November-December 2004

Saturday Nov 27 2004

Terrible time to get up: 5.30.

Especially after staying up way too late, washing & drying against a midnight deadline, packing and not being able to sleep worrying that that one - all-important - cable would be left behind rendering my electronics useless.
Yeah, traveling has become a nightmarish endeavor for the modern man.

3 wake-up calls, 2 alarms and Beonce scheduled on the laptop, that's what it took to get me out of bed. I made it to Andrew & Laura only 10 minutes late. Not bad.

I got a bit worried during the drive to the airport. Seems Andrew is used to driving some kind of magic Volvo that, even though it's not an automatic, can still handle all speeds with minimal changing of gears. From 120 to 30 all in using a single gear, that's something my poor car's definitely not used to.

Traveling can be boring: waiting, check-in, waiting, boarding, flying, waiting, boarding, ... And when we land I still have a 2 hour drive ahead. Will try to use of the time to get some work done, still need to make some meeting summaries (SOX, Itai's visit) and prepare a work plan for Marie. Still, I promised myself not to exaggerate since the last few weeks or even months have been quite tiring.

I had Daisy on the phone for a few minutes. The good news is that she'll be in Gabrovo. The bad news is that she seems to be back for good. Last time we talked she enjoyed Varna very much and planned to stay there. So something happened to make her change her mind and I hope it's not too bad. More news later...

I haven't been in touch with Nadia yet. I tried but I seem to have an old phone number in my mobile. I'll ask the taxi driver to pass by the shop when we arrive in Gabrovo. Then we can go arrange something for the evening, Gleni Garneta would be nice.

Halfway the drive to Gabrovo (pictures) and I'm already reminded of some things my sub consciousness apparently happily erased from memory:

After check-in in the "Hotel Gabrovo", I asked a taxi to go to one of my favorite places in Gabrovo: Gleni Garneta.

Micho, Marianna's son joined me there, asking if I felt like joining him and some friends & students for a few drinks and clubbing. Despite getting up so early and against better knowledge I accepted the invitation. I should have known better...

First we went to a place called "Café Elit". A bar on the 5th floor of a building near the "House of Humour". It's a nice place with excellent music (rap, r&b, ...), a great, young crowd and nice strong vodka/orange. By the way, you need the alcohol if only to forget the fact that most clubs & bars are traps with only 1 (main) exit and not a sign of other evacuation routes.

I got talking to Polly, a 19 year old literature student, about Shakespeare, Belgium, music and many more totally unrelated topics.

About 5 v&o's later, we decide to make a move to the "Speed". This is a discotheque underneath a theatre. When we arrive it's quit empty but once we started dancing, it seemed like everyone in Gabrovo wanted to get in. Not sure if one had anything to do with the other.

Around 1 I was knockout and I took a taxi back to the hotel.

Sunday Nov 28 2004

At 1 o'clock I had a date with Daisy at Gleni Garneta. I've always had a soft spot for her but now I'm really blown away. She's become a beautiful young woman! And judging from the looks she gets when we walk around, you get see clearly I'm not the only one who thinks like that. But even more important... she's by far on of the nicest people in Gabrovo.

We went to have a drink at "French café" and spent a few hours talking about life, love, good times, disappointments, etc... The usual things you discuss with good friends.

A little later her ex-boyfriend, Plamen, tried to take her to the cinema but she decided to stay with me and show me "Bojenci", a really old village with restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. We walked around a bit and tried to visit Daisy's grandmother but she wasn't home.

We ended up in a old little bar with a open fireplace. The owner threw on a few extra blocks on and soon we were enjoying the warmth and sounds of the fire.

The owner was very talkative (strictly Bulgarian of course) and offered us some home-made "Rakia", the Bulgarian national drink. I scored a lot of points just for not being American (whom he obviously disliked very much).

Daisy and I talked for the whole evening but around 21:00 we had to drag ourselves away from the fireplace because we were being expected at the home of Nadia, Max and Hristina (pictures).

It's amazing how much Hristina has grown, she's 6 now and a very lively kid. As usual we had salad, home-made rakia, wine and a kind of oven stew (sausage, potatoes, cheese, olives) of which I forgot to ask the name.

Unfortunately Daisy had to leave early but Hristina showed me her puzzles, elephant, octopod and all other toys she had so before we noticed it was past midnight. Amazing that Hristina stayed awake that long. But not amazing that Nadia and Max had a hard time getting her out of bed the next morning.

Monday Nov 29 2004

I got up around 10 this morning and caught up on some meeting summaries and emails that I had not finished before leaving.

At 13:00 I left for Gleni Garneta for a first lunch meeting with Marianna and the teachers. They all seem like very capable people and they all talk about the courses (both the one they followed in Sofia and the one they are giving now) in a very positive and optimistic way. They believe that most of the students are serious enough and that they'll be able to process the pile of information and still produce a decent business plan in time for the exams.

After lunch I met with Daisy who's trying to find a job in Gabrovo because she misses home and Varna is too expensive. I really hope she finds a good job (I'll keep my fingers crossed for "Rest", a small really nice restaurant in the center. We went shopping and she showed my a place I had never been to before, a bar decorated like a Flintstone cave with waitress dressed up like Wilma.

Around 17:30 it was time for my first 'inspection'. I followed courses in the three groups and took signatures from everyone for the presence statistics. I will have to change my 'signature gathering strategy' a little bit because it seems students are the same everywhere. If they can bend the rules, they will. In one of the groups I find myself with a paper with 16 signatures and only 15 people. I have another 1 hour to clear up the mystery... maybe watching all those "Hercule Poirot" & "Murder she wrote" episodes will come in handy after all.

After the courses we went to a bar under "Hotel Balkan" for coffee. As usual Micho entertained everyone just by being himself.

It is now also becoming obvious that having the courses between 18:00 and 21:00 will mean that we'll have a very special biorhythm. Eating either very early or very late. Today we definitely went for the 'very late' option.

We decided to go and eat at "Almanac", the restaurant of Julian. So that you know, Julian is single-handedly responsible for about half of my 'bad' Bulgarian language knowledge. He's the source of phrases such as:

And many more.

Mariana's husband decided to join us and to top it all off, we ended up next to a local artist specializing in bronze erotic statues (pictures) and a bunch of local police offices celebrating the divorce of one of them.

The food was excellent, the wine good and the atmosphere great. Julian was very quiet but that was more than compensated by the policemen who insisted on telling jokes and giving me course in local drinking traditions. I learned that drinking a beer ad-fundum is easier than doing the same with a big glass of wine... let alone doing it 3 times in a row.

A lot of the jokes were about GP's (general practitioners). Apparently Bulgaria has a shortage of these so each GP has about 3000 people to take care of. This has given them a reputation of being the fastest GP's in the world and of course this leads to jokes such as:

Patient arrives at the practice and says "Good day doctor".
Doctor answers: "So what are you doing here... Next!"

Patient says: "Doctor, I think I'm pregnant"
Doctor: "Congratulations. Next!"

In the end, it's around 2 in the morning when we leave.

Tuesday Nov 30 2004

Unfortunately my internet is not working, so some of the emails I prepared will not be sent, before at the earliest this evening. Some changes to the Expense system will need to wait until I'm back online. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

I decide to take taxi to the "House of Humour" (pictures) where Galina Boneva works. Galina was my translator in one of the previous projects.

Unfortunately my timing is somewhat wrong so I arrive around lunch time. I'm greeted by 2 women in a small ticket booth. None of them speaks English so when I say "Galina?" (with some universal sign language thrown in) the only result is that a third women arrives, still nobody speaks English and the best answer I get is "Ne". With much effort I find out she's out for lunch and she might be back later, or not because I'm not really convinced that we managed to break the language barrrier successfully. I decide to go to Gleni Garneta for something to eat and come back later.

At 14:15 I'm more successful. Galina is there and she has some time for me. We talk about work, life, the project, Bulgaria and it's future, moving to Bulgaria and starting a consultancy business, etc... We also exchange phone numbers and agree to to and have lunch one of the next few days.

I spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying a cappuccino and "Afrikanska Princesa" with Daisy until it's time for my duties at the university.

The first course I follow is "Bulgarian and European law". This subject clearly generates less discussions and feedback than some other subjects I followed yesterday. But then again, I remember the law courses at Ehsal when I was a student, and they never were my favorites either. I guess in law the question "Why?" is less relevant... The law is the law! However the teacher, Galina Mihneva, says that first you have to know the law and then find ways to bend it.

My next stop is "Practical lessons" given by Lilyana Radeva. The students have gotten some assignments (SWOT analysis of a chocolate company) and are presenting and discussing their work. The discussions are lively but civilized, at least as far as my Bulgarian knowledge allows me to assess.

After the courses we head for "Fashion", a discotheque in the Hotel Balkan". I enjoyed talking to the students. Maybe because most of the ones at my side the table were female, single and good-looking. ;-)

One of the teachers, Nicolai, also joined in. I was a bit surprised when he told me likes the "Black hole" or "Cherna dupka". He didn't seem to me the heavy metal / rock kind of person but hey, once again it shows that appearances can be deceptive. We agree to go for drinks one evening.

I think we'll need to organize a teacher-student outing because there seems to be some distance between them. That's what I notice and what some of the students tell me. Maybe when we were (Belgian teachers) here, we saw it more as an opportunity and adventure. The Bulgarian teachers se it more like work and don't mix it with private life.

Wednesday Dec 1 2004

Today is a day off and I plan to be the tourist today. Arbanassi and the Tsarevits in Villeco Turnovo are on my list.

First assignment: convince Daisy to join me. luckily I manage to do so because if you don't have a Bulgarian guide things tend to be more complicated and expensive. Complicated because so far I didn't find anyone in a ticket booth that speaks English. Expensive because they charge up to 4 times more for non-Bulgarians.

Our taxi driver first brings us to the Tsarevits in Villeco Turnovo This is a very old castle once used by the Tsars of Bulgaria. It's a really nice place and we walk around a bit. This is definitely a place to visit when Sharon will be here. By the way I'm getting more and more impressed with Daisy's skills: she's walking in high heels on some of the worst cobble stones I've ever seen without even blinking an eye.

After that we drive to Arbanassi which is a collection of old houses, art shops and "Mechanata", restaurants with music. To be honest it's a little bit of a disappointment.

The taxi driver leaves us and Daisy and me go for a walk around town. We visit an old house from the beginning of the 17th century and some art shops. Especially the house is very interesting even though Daisy can get in for 1 leva and I need to pay 4 leva.

After the (short) walk we go to a restaurant for some food and a dark beer (edna bira tumna). We spend the rest of the afternoon talking, listening to music and trying to get phone (Sony Ericson) to talk to my iPaq (HP). The sounds easier that is actually is but in the end we manage to get some of her pictures onto the pda.

Around 18:30 the taxi driver is there to take us back to Gabrovo because I have a diner appointment with Max, Nadia and Hristina at Rest.

Too much food, as usual. That's the end result of today. I tried not to order too much but on the pictures in the menu everything looked much smaller. We had Rakia & salad (of course), breaded cheese, white Bulgarian wine, noodles with chicken and luckily I escaped desert (everyone who knows me, can tell confirm that's usually not one of my habits).

By the end of the evening Max and I devised a business plan which boiled down to large scale tax evasion. Not sure if the teachers would let me pass the exam with that one.

Thursday Dec 2 2004

Again the sun was shining in my room as early as 8:30. I tried to sleep some more but wasn't very successful. Luckily the internet in my room was working ok so I managed to synch my emails. Nothing super-urgent but some small issues. I would really be lost without decent access to communications.

In the mean time I'm also trying out Skype-out (a pre-paid VOIP service allowing calls to non-Skype subscribers). So far only on the laptop because I didn't find a wireless access point yet to gibe the iPaq client a go.

As expected call quality is affected both by the quality of the internet connection and the other stuff going on (Outlook synch, Pcanywhere sessions, ...).

Sound quality is excellent when Skype has connection all to itself. It's managing admirably when I add Outlook synchronization (something known to eat bandwidth). However, adding remote control clearly reduces call quality (as Marie will acknowledge).

However, one has to consider also the cost and I noticed that a 20 minute cal to Eric cost me about 0.80 Euro cent. Not bad at all.

Today I had lunch with Oliver Rohrbach. He's the "Head of Marketing Trade Department". He's from Germany and was dispatched for 2.5 years to Gabrovo. He was very interested in the project for which I'm here and we discussed Bulgaria, Gabrovo and the progress (or lack thereof) in economy, government, daily living, etc... I'm sure one of the next few days we'll meet again to continue the discussion and who knows, maybe even talk about potential new projects.

I decided to make it a quiet afternoon at Gleni Garneta to finish my admin and to catch up on some reading (pictures).

After a quick chat with Micho I went to the hotel do finish some emails and freshen up for the courses this evening (pictures).

After the lessons we went to Pizza Gusto, Micho, 3 students and me (pictures). We talked about starting a relationship agency for lonely men of course with good quality checks performed by management ;-). A school for teaching women how to defend themselves against Micho's chat-up lines was also an option but that was vetoed by Micho. I guess he was afraid that it would make his future quite boring.

A pizza and 2 vodka orange's later we decided to call it a day.

Friday Dec 3 2004

The internet connection in the hotel has been working really well and especially Skype-out has been very useful. I've spent about 1 hr 15 min on the phone and my credit has gone from 10 Euro to 8.5 Euro.

I've gone for walk in Gabrovo to have a look around and take some pictures. There are still many old buildings and near ruins. Here and there some new buildings are being constructed but somehow I feel they are building to other standards around here (pictures).

I meet up with Daisy at Gleni Garneta and we get ready for some more tourism. This time we decide to visit the zoo of Gabrovo and Gradishte, a small mountain with a tv station at the top.

There's only 1 word to describe the zoo of Gabrovo: SAD! The bear is sad, the monkey is sad, the 2 lions (!) are sad... Really depressing. I'm not allowed to take any pictures and since I'm a law abiding citizen, here they are. You can judge for yourself (pictures).

Gradishte is much nicer, very quiet, clean mountain air, great view on Gabrovo, ...

We spend some time enjoying the view and later walk down to a small mechana for a drink and a little bit of food.

Around 17:30 the taxi brings us back to Gabrovo university, just in time for the courses (pictures).

The first hour I spend with Mariana, talking about how the course has been going, reading through the report I prepared and discussing feedback we received from students and teachers. It seems there are no big problems or complaints so far.

After the courses I head for "Club Emotion" where I've been invited to the presentation of a book by local writer. When I arrive the presentation is finished and the after-party is in full force.

I'm welcomed by one of the students who introduces me to the writer. The writer, a woman in her forties, speaks very good French and we have a long conversation while she drags me onto the dance floor for a slow. She must have been pleased with my performance because afterwards she offers me a copy of her book titled "Law of a good liar". It's a small book with poetry.

A little later Daisy and Plamen arrive but by that time I've had a few too many gin-tonic's on an empty stomach and this, helped with some enthusiastic dancing, has the expected result. Therefore I decide to make a move to Almanac where I know Mariana and Yvan are.

The walk, parlenca's and pileshki hapki (chicken bites) do me some good but the positive effect is completely canceled out by more gin-tonic and wine. It's going to be difficult tomorrow.

Saturday Dec 4 2004

As predicted, getting up was not easy. Luckily Marianna let me know that (except for the usual room switching) everything was ok at the university so before going there I managed to get some work done and some emails sent. The internet connection in my room has been a real life-saver.

Today we're taking all the students to "Pizza Gusto" for a group lunch. It was nice too have everyone together and it certainly helps to build some team spirit.

I've discussed the exam arrangement with Marianna and we've agreed to fix a work lunch with the teachers on Monday to work out all the details (pictures).

The help me through the Bulgarian law courses Polly has brought me her picture album. I must say that camera really loves that girl. Maybe I'll manage to post some pictures later.

After the courses I go to the hotel to freshen up a bit because at 19:00 I have to be at Gleni Garneta to meet Michaela, one of the translators in the previous courses. I'll ask her to join me for the dinner at Almanac with the students.

Michaela is looking great as always despite working way too hard and having to miss her boyfriend 6 months / year (he's a sailor).

We bring each other up to speed about what happened and changed since we last saw each other (which for the both of us can be summarized as many things happened, nothing much changed).

At Almanac we meet up with about 8 students for some Bulgarian wine, rakia, parlenka and the obligatory salad. A few hours and many confessions later we're ready to party.

Our destination: Speed, the discotheque under the theatre. The music is very good this evening (first techno and dance, later in evening more R&B and soul). We're dancing the night away and before we know it, the light go on and the club closes. Not ready to hit the sack yet we decide to have a look at "Cherna Dubka". We're disappointed that the music is not the usual hard rock and metal but folk. Besides it's way too crowded so we go to a bar just around the corner with a pool table.

Man, what humiliation, I loose 3 to 1 and the one game I win is because she pots the black by accident. Hmmm, guess I'll have to get some practice to get my revenge.

Around 5:45 in the morning we hail a taxi and go to sleep. It's been a very long but satisfying and fun day. Tomorrows will as Go intended it to be: a day of rest!

Sunday Dec 5 2004

Today I spent most of my time in bed, recuperating from yesterday's partying.

Normally I was supposed to go and have a coffee with Genoveva but these plans are experiencing a boycott by some Samsung vs Motorola incompatibilities.

In the afternoon I go to Gleni Garneta for some mint tea and "Afrikanska Princesa" and I spend the evening reading and answering my emails and doing some work for Orbotech.

Monday Dec 6 2004

Until about 14:00 I was busy with emails and phone calls for work. Especially Marie is doing a good job keeping me occupied.

Over lunch we had a very good and constructive teachers meeting (pictures). The main subjects:

The exam point will be as follows:

Students are asked to submit their business plans by Tuesday 18:00.

All business plans will be kept in a reading room in the Economic faculty. All teachers will have access to this room to do their part of the reading. Most teachers will read half of the business plans (assigned to their committee). Galina Michneva will read all plans to give a quotation on the general business idea.

No points will be given before, during or after the oral exam. This will be kept for the proclamation.

Marianna will need to know who failed so she can inform them in advance on Friday.

Marianna also copied the sample, empty business plan for the teachers to read and comment. The current version is much too detailed and 'scary', especially considering the short time frame available to the students to prepare. By Thursday we want to have a workable, simplified version.

The rest of the afternoon I spend together with Daisy in Rest. She's been reading this diary and I've been checking out a tourist book about Gabrovo and surroundings.

At 18:00 I need to head to the university for the courses (pictures). Everything is going smooth as usual and before we realize it, it's 21:30 again. Time really flies (sometimes).

After a few vodka & oranges in Hotel Balkan we go to Almanac for the Nicolai name party. A friend of Marianna & Julian is having a dinner party and is offering us traditional Bulgarian fish and wine made by his wife's father. It's all going down very well but we don't make it too late because tomorrow we're off for an official work lunch in Sofia.

Tuesday Dec 7 2004

Around 9 in the morning Marianna, Julian and the president of the "Friends of Belgium" club are waiting for me in front of the hotel. Ready to drive to Sofia for the lunch at the Hilton.

The security measures around the hotel are impressive: a lot of police, many roads blocked, checkpoints, ... But this is a big contrast to the check inside the hotel. I need to leave anything which could be dangerous on a little table and then step through a metal detector. I expected some problems about the stuff in my bag but nothing. They looked at it from a distance and that was it. No questions about the digital camera, pda, spare batteries. They didn't even ask to switch them on to verify if they were real.

I noticed that there was a wireless access point so I decided to do a test with my iPaq and Skype-Out. I bought a 1 hour voucher, connected and started the Skype client for PocketPC. A few minutes later I was on the phone with Eric. I wanted to do 1 more test using my Bluetooth headset but didn't manage because I forgot to bring the 4-digit pin-code. My iPaq found the headset but I couldn't pair them without the code. Definitely something I need to try out at home because with the headset sound quality should be better and, more importantly, it's possible to work on the pda while making phone calls.

At the reception before the dinner I talked to Marc Dillen, a guy working for "Van Asbrouck Recruitment" in Eastern Europe. We exchanged business cards and I need to remember to pass on his coordinates to Anne & Erez, just in case we need someone in the region.

The dinner was organized to celebrate the 125 years of official relationships between Belgium and Bulgaria. There were a lot of people present:

After the dinner I talk to Paul De Brabander from Braem Gebroeders, a company that manufactures truck parts in Bulgaria. We might arrange something for Friday because then Inbev is opening a Belgian bar in Plovdiv. I'll need to give him a call later.

We manage to get back to Gabrovo around 19:30 and go to check on the final courses for the day. No big problems, just a few changes in the room arrangements, that's it.

After the courses I've got a date with Genoveva for dinner. We decide on Chinese even though I'm a bit suspicious about the whole concept about Chinese people in Bulgaria. The food is ok although the timing is definitely screwed up (they bring my soup almost simultaneously with my main dish).

After the Chinese restaurant we go to the Fashion club for a last drink and to continue our interesting but sometimes too open hearted talk (strange how Bulgarian wine takes away inhibitions).

Later than expected Genoveva brings me back to the hotel. When she leaves I can hear her last words: "See you tomorrow at 9:30". Right, I got myself involved in a shopping expedition to Star Zagora tomorrow.

Wednesday Dec 8 2004

Around 10:00 Genoveva and her colleagues show up and we're on our way to Star Zagora where we do exactly as planned: walk around, shop, eat and shop some more (pictures). Not that I bought so much, just 1 DVD with Cypress Hill videos and live performances for myself and 1 compilation CD of very recent hits (Bulgarian style official compilation) as a gift for Micho's birthday. The compilation CD contains a mysterious hit single by Destiny's Child: "Loose my bread".

We're having lunch in a place called Grill something. and what a lunch, my chicken brochette is huge. By the way, if you're ever in Star Zagora, check this place out. The waitresses are gorgeous, at least if don't mind 20-year old girls with malki gus and hubavi tzitzi walking around in mini skirts.

On the way back to Gabrovo we stop at a big shop called Metro. Once inside it looks suspiciously like our Makro. I'm sure they're part of the same group. Even though I didn't need anything I walk out with salami, chocolates, orange juice and a bottle of Absolut vodka.

We get back to the hotel around 20:30 so I have a little bit of time to read my emails and get ready for this evening's student party.

About 18 students have rented a house in the middle of nowhere to engage in numerous hours of drinking, eating, dancing and indecent behavior and most important: I'm invited. Not that it's really necessary but they have many reasons to party: it's

The party is very amusing and it makes me forget completely that I'm actually extremely tired. I even engage in some chalga dancing and I have (again) quite a few v&o's more than I anticipated.

Around 3 the taxi driver is there to take back to the hotel. Just in time, otherwise my Thursday would have been completely lost.

Thursday Dec 9 2004

I slept very well last night. The whole day of shopping and the student party wore me out completely so I needed it.

In the early afternoon I managed to get online and get some emails done. Adir also called to discuss the PCB Event CD-Rom. Not sure if I’ll be able to help him out be we’ll try.

With all the phone calls and work to be done I barely make it to the university in time for the lessons.

One thing is for sure. I'm not going out tonight.

Friday Dec 10 2004

Nothing special today: emails & admin, Gleneni Garneta, courses.

In the evening I decide not to go to Plovdiv where Interbrew is opening a Belgian bar. It’s very tempting but I’m still a bit tired and tomorrow we’re having a student party so I prefer to recharge my batteries for that occasion.

Saturday Dec 11 2004

A tough day ahead of us, starting with 8 hours of courses. This is the last day of courses so we will be ending the day with the a 2 hour summary lecture to communicate all the last arrangements for the exams.

As usual there are a lot of students present for the lessons. I’ve been really amazed by how serious everyone takes these courses, both students and trainers.

After 4 hours the lunch at Pizza Gusto is a welcome change. A lot of the students have joined us and the atmosphere is upbeat although some of the trainees are clearly getting a little bit nervous.

After the last hours of courses ( pictures part 1 - part 2 ), around 18:00, everyone heads home to refresh and change into some party gear for the evening.

We’re expected at the restaurant of the Economic Faculty for the evening dinner and dance party. About 45 people actually show up. The food’s good, the company great (I end up next to Genoveva again) and It takes a few vodka-cola’s but after a while we’re dancing the night away.

(pictures part 1 - part 2 - part 3 - part 4 )

Around 1 in the morning Sharon arrives at the party. I was a little bit worried about throwing her in the deep end this way but she’s handled it very well. We even managed to convince her to join us to the disco.

At Speed, Sharon reaches a preliminary conclusion: Bulgarians are short and very young.

More vodka-cola and good music… we don’t need much more to keep the party going and before we realize it’s 4 again and the place closes up.

Sunday Dec 12 2004