26 April 2008

A Saturday Morning in Spring

It is 7 a.m., and reportedly it's 7 degrees already. There's no frost on the ground. The sun is already way above the treetops. It is higher than my fifth floor apartment, and it has forced its way into my living room, spilled across the corridor, and dribbled into my kitchen. The sky is so clear I can see up into space. I'm going out onto my balcony in my thick robe with The Master and Margarita and a cup of Sumatra Extra Bold. Such will be the weekend routine for the next four months.

13 April 2008

When I Am Laid to Rest

I want life to flurish all around me, as many months of the year as possible.

Kebabs, Romans, and Chili Peppers

12 April 2008

Dracula's Castle

The book is better.

Spring Break 2008: Romania

Spring Break 2008: Bulgaria

Every year, Elmu, my boss, organizes a trip for spring break. He picks a package from Embach Tours, with input from a handful of teachers at Tapa Gümnaasium, and then recruits 35-40 people from across the country to come along. He has been doing this for 10 years or so, and there is a group of "regulars," mostly professionals in the field of education and their spouses, who join him every year regardless of the destination.

In March 2007, the group went to Italy. I declined invitations to join them, because the eight- or nine-day itinerary included just a day or two in Rome and Naples and then an excursion by bus all the way to Sicily. I successfully quelled a couple of my colleagues who insisted that I come with them by explaining that, given a week in Italy, I would spend all of my time in Rome and Naples. Who really wants to be dropped off at the Piazza del Plebiscito with instructions to be back in an hour for an eight-hour bus ride to Palermo? What was most distressing to me was the fact that nobody had said anything about a "pizzeria crawl," hanging out with the locals in Naples all day and eating pizza napoletana.

But such is the stuff Estonian tours are made of: 1) see more of what's along the highways in the countryside than what's on the sidewalks in the cities - this gives the guide ample time to read guidebooks to you over the bus's PA system, interfering with your own leisure reading; 2) avoid capital cities, world-class museums, and major shopping districts as much as possible - the only reason to go into a local supermarket is to load up again on alcohol for the next four- or five-hour leg of the bus trip; and 3) at all times stay within a 50m radius of the bus, the hotel, a souvenir shop, or a group of at least three of your fellow travelers.

This year, in order to get me to come along on his spring break trip, Elmu asked me if I'd rather go to Portugal or to Bulgaria and Romania. Frankly, I couldn't think of any reason to spend a week in Portugal, or, more precisely, a week in a bus in Portugal. Besides, if Lisbon ever got on my list of cities to see, I could get there fairly easily from the States.

On the other hand, I didn't see myself flying from Chicago to Sofia and then onto Bucharest on a week-long vacation. Although the time on a 777 or an A330 with a good book and those personal entertainment screens goes by fairly quickly nowadays, I just have to get up and walk a couple of blocks every few hours. From Tallinn, though, Sofia was just two, 90-minute flights away. OK, I told my colleagues last December, I'll think about it.

Elmu labeled a trip through Bulgaria and Romania as "shock tourism", and he took a bit of pleasure in the opportunities he foresaw to scoff at the lack of progress and development in these two countries. After all, both Bulgaria and Romania had just been just admitted to the European Union, while Estonia had been admitted way back in 2004. OK, I confessed to myself, Bulgaria and Romania had a certain raw appeal to me, too.

I looked at Embach's itinerary to see how much time were we on the bus and how much time were we in Sofia and Bucharest? Well, the distance between Sofia and Bucharest didn't look as great as the distance between Naples and Palermo or Tallinn and Prague. The eight-day itinerary started with a tour of the center of Sofia, and near the end there was scheduled free time in Bucharest. In between there was a visit to Dracula's birthplace as well as a tour of Dracula's Castle. Now when would I ever have the chance again to be in the Dracula's Castle? OK, I told Elmu, I would go.

Day 1. Well, our motel in Sofia was no where near the city's center (commonly called the centrum across most of Eastern Europe). So as soon as we got off the bus and checked in, we got back on to go downtown. Much to my excitement, we parked alongside a herd of other tour buses at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (the second picture above) and hit the pavement!
Inside the cathedral I bought and lit a candle for Grandma Spears, who had died just a couple of days before in Springfield. I hoped that prayers originating from an Eastern Orthodox Church in Bulgaria could be translated by some heavenly intermediary into the English of the Catholic Church in America and passed on to my grandmother. If not, I figured that upon receiving a message in Cyrillic, my grandmother would eventually deduce that it was from me.

Our two-hour walk around Sofia, which included a peek inside a mosque and a bite of salty goat cheese, unleashed the adventuresome globetrotter in me. Early the next morning, I walked a few square blocks from the motel and even went into a corner grocery store (which was, literally, on the corner). For the most part, I could have been in a neighborhood store in Estonia. The name brands on the shelves and even the packaging were very familiar. In the wall, next to the meat counter, however, there were shelves of not just fresh loaves of bread but fresh loaves of white bread -the kind you tear off a big chunk of and eat, which I did as I walked back to the bus.

Day 2. From Sofia, we drove up into the Rila Mountains to the Rila Monastery. The church (the third picture above) is covered with frescoes, inside and out (fourth and fifth pictures). The monastery itself is surrounded by the mountains. Rushing waters were always within earshot. It was sunny and warm enough that day that we ate lunch outside. I sat across from Sirje, an Estonian language teacher and Maija, a Russian language teacher, and next to Ursula, a chemistry teacher, and Helve, a music teacher, who went on to snap more than 500 pictures of just about everything that crossed her (and the bus's) path, including the delicious onion, tomato, and cucumber salad, topped with that salty goat cheese, that we ate there with the mountains on both sides of us.

At the end of the day we were in Veliko Turnovo, a city of about 65,000. We got suckered into paying too much for a Disneyesque laser, sound, and light show that 10 or 15 years ago might have been entertaining. I remember the sound and light show at the Old State Capitol in Springfield - something about walking in Lincoln's footsteps. That was 20 years ago.

Day 3. Much of Veliko Turnovo seems to be built on a mountainside at a bend in the Yantra River. It's like an enourmous amphitheatre with the windows of houses and apartment buildings (the picture to the left) looking out across the river onto an island where there's a monument to.

On an unguided walk around the city we discovered a series of cement staircases and passages that went from the top of the city to the bottom, squeezing in between houses.

On Grandmas

My grandmother died in Springfield on my birthday. I still think about my grandparents - both my mother's and my father's parents. My dad's mom always said "peeza" and "niggas". My mom's mom made Texas cake. More to come.

Forty-seven Years Old

My fellow teachers gave me candy and flowers. My students gave me hard liquor. Two classes sang to me; one of them composed their own song. More about my birthday coming soon.

To the tune of YMCA:
Now you work here
Where your students are dear
When you speak it is easy to hear you

You teach English real well
Your Estonian's swell
You let us out before every bell

But you still look rich
You've got no reason to bitch
You drink so much damn coffee
You're twitching

March 12 - April 12

It is not yet 8 o'clock. The sun is shining; there's not a cloud in the sky. I ground some Starbuck's (extra bold) Sumatra beans. As the coffee pot gurgled, I hung my wool blankets out over the balcony in the blinding sunshine and crisp morning air. Glancing between two houses, I saw a couple walking swiftly no doubt to Tapa's outdoor market. Let me catch you up on what's been going on over the last month.

Yesterday afternoon on Estonian television, Dr. Kate Rowan - from the British television show Heartbeat - died of leukemia, just a few days after giving birth to her first baby. Kate had originally died on ITV in 1995, but the series is still running in the UK.

I couldn't stay and watch the funeral, because Tiit and Egert picked me up, and then we went and picked up Aigi at pre-school. Of course, Egert and I had to check out the center's new red swings, blue spring rabbit, and yellow sliding board. At Tiit's house I played hopscotch (keks in Estonian) with Aigi, cars and trucks with Egert, and badminton with Tiit and his wife Lairi. The we watched "Dr. House", simultaneously eating, drinking, tickling, climbing, laughing, cautioning, conjecturing - like a regular family. It was the episode where House feigned having brain cancer.

Then I walked from Tiit's house to the last disco of the school year in the auditorium at school, where our resident DJs unveiled new laser lights and an accompanying fog machine. Back at home at about 11 p.m., I watched an episode of Friends where Monica and Phoebe take care of a cute guy in a coma. Had I looked at the tv guide, I could have gone to Kate's funeral during the re-broadcasting of the show at midnight.