Saturday, September 29, 2012


Thursday night was my first night in our new apartment and, somewhat to my surprise, I slept well.  Friday, was orientation at the Bulgarian-American Fulbright Commission in central Sofia.  Since most of the others were able to attend the Commission’s summer institute, the agenda was fairly light.  We heard from embassy staff about security and consular issues (two main safety/security issues are ATM skimming and earthquakes) and from several program administrators.

 Much more importantly, the orientation allowed me to meet the other Americans here with the Fulbright program.  There is only one other Fulbright Scholar lecturing in Bulgaria this semester.  She is a journalist and journalism teacher from Seattle, and she is teaching in the mass communications department at the American University in Bulgaria located in Blagoevgrad.  There are four Fulbright graduate student researchers here right now, and about twenty-five English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) who have just completed their undergraduate degrees.  It seems like a nice group.  Of the entire group, only four or five of us are here in Sofia.  Most of the ETAs are in other cities around the country.  So, I will not likely have regular contact with this group, but it was still nice to make the connections for the few occasions like this when we are all gathered.

Talking with the director, it sounds like there will be several opportunities to give lectures and participate in programs that the Commission is involved with.  I was glad to hear this, as it will provide a chance to connect with people beyond my university and to contribute more to the Fulbright mission. 

We had lunch at a nearby restaurant and then took a bus to the National Museum of History.  Our tour provided a nice overview of the cultural and political history of Bulgaria.  I learned, among other things, that the first gold to be worked by humans was discovered in Bulgaria, and is estimated to be 7,000 years old.  The building itself was interesting as it was a former communist party residence and sits on a hill overlooking the city with mountains rising behind. 

In the evening the Commission hosted a welcome reception at the Crystal Palace Hotel near the university.  In addition to visiting more with the other Fulbrighters, I met the head of my department at Sofia University and a geology professor who, quite immediately, associated Iowa with loess.  After the reception we went to the National Palace of Culture for a documentary and jazz concert hosted by the embassy.  I only stayed for a bit, though, in anticipation of our Saturday trip to Plovdiv.  After finding out that the cabs on the street were “private taxis” that wanted to charge 15 Lev for the trip to the city center (about 5x the usual) my journalism colleague and I opted to try out Sofia’s Metro system.  It is cheap (1 Lev), new (one line is a couple of years old and the other just opened this year), and fast.  I’m glad to have had a reason to try it out.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

22 Asen Zlatarov: The Center of Sofia's Iowa Community

I spent Wednesday morning editing an article while waiting to hear back about one of the apartments I'd viewed.  Except for a brief walk to get lunch, most of the day was spent around my hotel so I would have Internet access.  Finally, in the late afternoon I received word that we had reached an agreement, and could meet the next morning to take care of formalities.

I enjoyed dinner al fresca at a nearby restaurant and tried to get to sleep at a decent hour; unfortunately I kept thinking of questions to ask or things to check related to the apartment.  I woke up this morning (Thursday) and after breakfast packed my bags and conditionally checked out on the possibility that the apartment would work out and that I'd be able to move in immediately.  About 90 minutes later I had the keys to our new apartment in my hand!    It's located on Asen Zlatarov St. in the Doctor's Garden neighborhood.  The neighborhood is very nice - quiet cobblestone streets, shops and restaurants, a Catholic church a few doors down, several embassies around the corner, and some nice parks within blocks.  The apartment itself is a two-bedroom flat in a newer building, with a small kitchen, entryway, fairly spacious living/dining room, and a small balcony. 

After running to the market to get a few things I took the bus back to the hotel to collect my bags.  I took a taxi back so I could go straight to the apartment with my bags.  The fare for the 15 minute, 4 mile trip?  3.50 Lev, or a little over $2.00.  I tipped generously.

This afternoon I've been straightening things up, unpacking a bit, and exploring the neighborhood.  I do not yet have Internet in the apartment, so I am now sitting in the courtyard of Sofia University, about an eight minute walk.  Hopefully I'll be connected early next week. 

Tomorrow and Saturday is Fulbright orientation.  I'm excited to meet the other Fulbright Scholars and some our hosts.
Six of my new chairs.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


I thought a map of Sofia with some reference points might provide some additional context.

Exploring and Apartment Hunting

Tuesday was my first full day in Sofia.  As I mentioned in my last post, I slept on and off the night before, but felt fairly good after coffee and breakfast at the hotel.  I spent some time catching up on things and then decided to venture out and explore my neighborhood a bit more.  It was another warm, sunny day, and a lot of people were out, which made me happy.  I think the nice weather is really a bonus for me as I make this transition, both in how it makes me feel and in how much livelier the city feels.

I had originally planned to go back to the hotel for a bit, but once I was out I figured I may as well head to the city center to do some exploring before an afternoon meeting to look at some apartments.  I made my way to the ticket kiosk and managed to communicate that I wanted to buy two bus tickets, but had no luck asking which bus would take me to the university.  So, I approached a couple of younger people and unleashed one of my handful of Bulgarian phrases to ask if they spoke English.  The answer was yes, which was great, but they knew very little about Sofia's bus system.   Fortunately, a young woman overheard the conversation and told me to go to the second stop on the 306. 

Onboard the bus, not knowing how to validate my ticket in the little ticket-validating gizmo, I managed to enlist the help of an older man (who I suspect might have known less English than I know Bulgarian) by asking "please, where?" in Bulgarian while waving my ticket.  Turns out I was inserting the ticket in the right gizmo, but unlike gizmos elsewhere that stamp your ticket with the time, you lift a lever on a Sofia gizmo to manually punch four holes in your ticket.  So, lesson learned and crisis averted. 

The 306 dropped me right outside Sofia University, where I will start lecturing next week.  I spent the next two hours or so wandering from the university toward the heart of the city center.  It was quite enjoyable.  Central Sofia has some impressive churches, grand buildings, ancient ruins, and nice parks.  It doesn't feel as manicured or tourist-oriented as some other European capitals, but it is pleasant and seems to have potential.  One of the more interesting aspects is the ruins, some of which date back to Roman times.  These are mostly below street level, and some are incorporated into the many under-street walkways (which are also full of shops).

I had a nice lunch at a restaurant in the courtyard of one of the government buildings, and then walked back to the university to meet our property agent, Iana, to begin our apartment search.  The four options I looked at were all in an area known as Doktor's Garden, north and east of the university.  This area was recommended to us by several contacts since it would be walking distance to the univeristy, parks, and the city center.  I'm hopeful that one of these will work out.

On the bus ride back to the hotel I was able to see one of Sofia's huge parks that sits on the south side of the boulevard.  The streets of Sofia don't seem very conducive to jogging, but this park might be a prime spot. 

By the time I got back to my room, caught up with the world back home, and got cleaned up, it was quite late and I was quite hungry.  For dinner I had grilled Balkan trout, which was very tasty, and a strangely sweet lemon beer that would make Leinie's Summer Shandy look like a dark beer.  Dinner was, of course, followed by the obligatory rakia.

It was a good day.  I'm feeling good about the apartment search, and about Sofia in general.  It's always a challange to be in a new place, especially one where you don't speak the language or even understand the alphabet, but also good to keep it in perspective - lots of people face that every day and without the resources I have to cope with it.  It's also always reassuring to me to get out in a new place and realize that people all around the world are pretty much interested in the same things - making a living, enjoying the little things, spending time with friends and family...  There's something reassuring about that. 

Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Sofia University


I arrived in Sofia on Monday around 6:30 p.m. after a long, but relatively smooth trip that took me from Cedar Rapids to Detroit (Delta) to Paris (Air France) to Sofia (Bulgaria Air).  My connecting times were quite short - about an hour each in Detroit and Paris - so I was relieved that I (and my bag) made both connections.  This also minimized my frustration with a two-hour delay on the ground in Paris after boarding the Sofia flight.  I don't usually sleep much on transatlantic flights, so the three or four spotty hours of sleep that I managed were quite appreciated.

The line for passport control was short, and I they processed me quickly.  After claiming my checked bag I met my contact from the Bulgarian Fulbright Comission, Iliana, and we headed into the city by taxi.  The Sofia airport is fairly small and close to the city.  I was told it was rush hour, but for a city of over a million people traffic seemed to keep moving.  Our ride took us by some industrial areas but we were soon on a main six-lane boulevard that leads all the way to the city center and seemed to be primarily commercial and residential. 

We arrived at my hotel, the Rotasar, which is about three miles from the city center just off of Blvd. Tsarigradsko shose.  It is a small hotel that I think is quite charming and reminds me of some of the nicer budget hotels we've stayed at in the past.  The neighborhood around the hotel is, well, neighborhoody.  There are a few other small hotels, some restaurants and shops, and apartment buildings.  It's moderately busy and pleasant in a non-touristy, here's-where-real-people-live-and-work way.  After a much needed shower, I had a nice dinner of shopska salad (a Bulgarian dish - cucumbers, tomatoes, white cheese), pizza margharita, and a Czech beer, followed by a chocolate crepe and a glass of rakia, the local brandy.  The hotel has wireless Internet, so I had an opportunity to check e-mail and Skype before bed.  Predictably, I was wide awake during the middle of the night, but I cobbled together six hours before and after which in my experience isn't bad for a first night after arriving in Europe.

Some quick impressions from my first hours: the outer areas of Sofia appear a bit run-down on the surface, but seem pleasant.  There are gray Soviet-era concrete buildings and busy main roads, but there are also quiet tree-lined side streets.  Although it is a bit overgrown, there is a surprising amount of green space, even out here. (I read in a magazine on the flight that Sofia was named greenest city in Europe in the early '90s).  People have been friendly and seem to appreciate my attempts to use some Bulgarian.  The Bulgarian phrases I've learned, limited as they may be, have provoked smiles or comments from the flight attendant, passport officer, cab driver, waiter, and others.  (The instructor I listen to says "you'll be surprised how far a little Bulgarian will go" in every Podcast, and I'd say this is true.)  Sofia is surrounded by mountains, and you can see them almost anywhere you go.  The downside is that this apparently increases air pollution, and there it is a bit hazy here.  It's warm - mid '80s and the skies are blue.  Nice weather for arriving in a new place.



Looking across the boulevard and down a side street to the mountains.