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2015 Grateful 20

Many years ago, while dancing with some chap in the Dinn Rí nightclub in Carlow, he turned and paid me what I can only suppose was his idea of a compliment: ‘I can see by ya’, says he, ‘that ya like a bit of chocolate.’ When I finally found the positive in this, the song was over, the dance was over, and we were over, having never even started.

But he was right. I like my chocolate. I like my food. Eating is a joy. One of the simplest pleasures in life. And for those who don’t share my love of all things culinary, I feel for you.

Food7Bulgarian cuisine was  like one massive fish’n’meat menu with variations on the same theme. There were definite staples shared by most restaurants, with some doing them better than others. There were fish I’d never heard of – and didn’t fancy trying. And there were Food6versions of things I orderd that didn’t come close to what I had in my head. A roasted pepper, tomato, garlic, and olive dish that I expected to be a salad turned up as a pureé. A spinach, mushroom and cheese dish showed up as mush, and I was never Food3Food5curious enough to order the popular dish ‘Mish Mash’.

As in most cities, TripAdvisor has taken over. There’s a restaurant here in Budapest – Zeller Bistro – that is booked up days in advance because it’s rated  in the top 3 in the city. And
yes, it’s good. But there are plenty better that don’t get a look in. We ate in Vodenisata twice before we noticed it listed by Lonely Planet. And it was good. Good Eastern European cooking. And it’s not rated by Trip Advisor at all. But then, it was mainly Food 2locals. Which is always a plus.

One night, we stayed in the ‘hood and wandered through the maze of back streets overlooked by towering apartment blocks. About a mile away, on the edge of a park, beside a kids’ Food1playground, sits Teniova Kashta – a family-run institution that has been serving massive helpings to the local populace for what seems like centuries. It’s all over the place. Inside takes about 150. Outside, on all levels, takes another 120. The size of the tables and food8the size of the portions speak to the tradition in Bulgaria of big groups eating out. You could get a whole stuffed roasted lamb for €150. A piglet for €135. A rabbit for €25. And then there’s the offal – livers, gizzards, tongue, tripe, even pigs ears. There are over 300 items on the menu – more choice that I usually like to have – but it made for fascinating reading. I was particularly taken with them calling a Baked Alaska dessert an omlette 🙂

I found myself imagining winning the lottery and bringing 12 of my nearest and dearest meat-eating friends to the table. What a night that would be. And isn’t that what meals were made for? None of this eating in front of the TV, or from your  lap on the sofa. If you’re in company, a meal is an occasion. And indeed, even if dining alone, they can still be occasions. Think Trond Sander, in Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. Or my visit to Croatia a while back when I dined each night with Jack Reacher. [I was quite delighted today to see that Lidl has some one-glass cans of prosecco on offer. Nothing like a few bubbles to spruce up a dinner table.]

This week though, as I land again in Budapest and read of the countless thousands flooding in to the country, thousands who have had little in the way of fine dining (or any sort of dining) for quite a while, eating has taken on a whole new perspective. And, if anything, is o be even more appreciated. This blessing came to mind:

In a world where so many are hungry,
may we eat this food with humble hearts;
in a world where so many are lonely,
May we share this friendship with joyful hearts.

Yep, this week, I grateful that I can find such pleasure in the simple act of eating.

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The sea is greener on the other side

Jack Reacher, star of the Lee Child novels, has rules for living, like if in doubt, turn left and when in doubt, drink coffee. Gibbs, from the TV series, NCIS, has a list of rules, too, rules by which he lives his life. I like No. 8 – never take anything for granted. I have rules, too. One of them is to go local when on holiday and if possible, avoid the tourists (having made my peace with the fact that I am one of them, too).

In an effort to see a little more of Bulgaria than the beach at Bourgas, and having had such a lovely time up north in Nessebar, we took a bus in the opposite direction, and went south to Sozopol. Another 40-minute bus ride for the even cheaper price of 4.50 BGN (€2.50). A 15-minute taxi to the bus station set us back 4 BGN (€2) – with tip. And the gas prices are the same as Ireland and Hungary. What gives?

IMG_0275 (800x600)IMG_0268 (800x600)Sozopol is built on an early Bronze Age settlement and the current town dates back to the 7th century. The stone/timber houses are typical of the Black Sea region and streets of them divided as they are by strips of cobblestone and paving give it a little other worldly feel. I know I’ve used that term before, when talking about Bulgaria, but it just about sums it up. There’s a life-size version of an Alamana, a wooden fishing boat that was used for fishing off the Black Sea Coast from the 18th to 20th centuries. Usually 12 m long by 2 m wide, it was home to a Captain, a Coxswain and eight rowers. A beautiful piece of work. Some workplace.

 

IMG_0271 (800x600)IMG_0277 (800x600)Unlike Nessebar, the churches here are fully functioning Orthodox and equally stunning. I’ve been to a few Orthodox services and the lack of an obvious pattern upsets my Catholic soul. I’m so used to sitting, kneeling and standing pretty much on command that the random walking around and queuing and going in and out is confusing. But I’m quite partial to the icons and the candles and when I add the candles to my wishes, it doesn’t get much better.

IMG_0280 (600x800)There are all sorts of shops and stalls and stands most of which are selling upmarket tat and some real stuff, too, a lot of which is made in Bulgaria. Always a plus in my book.  The streets wander around the port, opening out onto large squares – ideal open air concert venues. In August there’s jazz and in September there’s the Apollonia art and film festival and all summer there is plenty going on down by the beach – one of two main beaches in town. There’s one on the way in, a smaller one by the marina which doesn’t rate as a beach, beach IMG_0301 (800x600)apparently, and then the ‘pleasure’ beach, with its row boats, its paddle boats, its parasailing. And in August, an additional feature – the carpet of green algae that floats in on the tide. It looks a little suspicious but the locals didn’t seem in any way put
out by it and once you get IMG_0291 (800x600)used to the feel – a little like embroidery thread – it’s grand.

As beaches go, it was hot. Very hot. Very, very hot. And the most expensive so far in terms of umbrella and bed rental, but it did comes with mattresses, which was just as well as three days of lounging around on plastic beds were taking their toll. Still though, a fiver a day for the pleasure of lolling around on pleasure beach, with the occasional dip in the Black Sea, is cheap at twice the price. And Bulgarian gin ain’t bad either.

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Movin’ on up

It’s official. I now have irrefutable proof that I’m in danger of becoming a crotchety old cow. Two days on a relatively crowded beach in Bourgas and I’m happy as a clam. Even though I’m not one for crowds, I don’t understand a thing anyone else is saying so I’m in heaven. I might as well be on my own. Today, on a smaller beach with only a handful of people in Nessebar and I’m fit to kill. Why? Of that handful, two fingers spoke English – and spoke it loudly.

We’d decided to explore. To move on up the coast. So we took the first bus that came along and went to Nessebar. The old town is a Unesco World Heritage site and came recommended. The bus (€3) took about 40 minutes to get from our hotel to the town and it was quite the trip. We passed through the lakes of Bourgas, through a large expanse of bog, and turned into the town of Pomorie. It was like driving through a desert and ending up in the Bulgarian equivalent of Las Vegas – without the casinos, but with all the fancy hotels. Just imagine roadside farms and allotments, rolling hills and bogs, and then turning a corner and hey – we’re in Southfork. Dilapidated homes, remnants of times past, crouched in the shadows of new age monstrosities, knowing that their time was limited. They, too, will succumb to the whims of the developers and morph into another resort block.

I’ve heard tell that lots of Irish lost money in Bulgaria. At the height of the Celtic Tiger, when the country was buying up acres of apartments in Eastern Europe, Bulgaria was a place of choice. I’m not sure if anyone in full possession of their marbles would believe that a flat for €5000 was something that could happen in the 21st century. But hey – someone did.

Perhaps they bought in Ravda, with its Hawaii Cocktail Bar and its Café Europe and its myriad bars selling Sommersby cider. Or in Aheloi, home to the famous Battle of Achelous in 917. For me the most remarkable thing about both these towns was the number of middle-aged men wandering around in speedos at 10.30 am – and not a grain of sand in sight.

As we drove towards Nessebar, I found a whole new appreciation for Bourgas and the complete lack of tourists there. It is still local. These towns are morphing into something they know they never wanted to be. Stall after souvenir stall on one side of the road. Market gardens and allotments on the other. Two sides of the same town. Shells of hotels on the up. Foundations laid and walls built for new apartment blocks. Houses sitting on valuable land wondering how long they’d last. And all because someone, somewhere, wants a cheap two weeks in the sun. Makes ya wonder about responsible tourism.

IMG_0255IMG_0195And then there’s Nessebar. And there’s the Old Town, with its seven churches that date back as far as the 2nd century – or bits of them at least. They’re stunning. Truly stunning. I’m averse to paying into churches, but I made an exception for two. St John the Baptist – because it was the first one I came across – and I wanted the three wishes you get when you visit a church for the first time.  The faded paintings on the walls were quite something. And the church itself, in all its simplicity, reminded me of how places of sanctuary should be.

IMG_0220IMG_0240And then there was St Stefano’s. At twice the entrance fee, it definitely had more to offer in terms of wow. And it, too, came with three wishes. And some stunning murals. The town’s elders have made the most of what was left behind back in the day. Those churches IMG_0228in ruins now provide natural stages for opera and theatre. [Interesting(?) stats: there are 3000 churches in the country, 120 monasteries, 1500 mosques. 80% of the population are Eastern Orthodox, 12% Islam, 0.5% Roman Catholic and 0.8% Protestant.) The medieval walls and the fortress and the churches that are still standing provide a stylish backdrop to the rather upmarket tourist tat that’s only to be expected. And as I’m still boycotting anything made in China that isn’t computer related, I was thrilled skinny to find a boutique (Indigo) selling clothes that are ‘a perfect complement to every woman’s figure’ and designed and made in Bulgaria. I haven’t been that pleased to go shopping since I found  that Greek label JOINclothes on the island of Aegina. And yes, I bought. The guide-book had warned that everything and anything sold within the walls of Nessebar’s Old Town was at least twice the price it would be outside. And yes, the beach umbrella and the beds were more expensive (not quite twice as much but nearly) but other than that, we didn’t notice any major difference.

IMG_0247IMG_0188So we wandered around. Poked around. And generally had a good nose. I did my limited holiday shop – the fridge magnet and the Christmas tree ornament – and added a bottle of rose-water. And then we hit the beach. And watched the boats go by. And marvelled IMG_0187 (800x600)at how the other half live. And then tried to decide where to eat and decided that the effort was too much. And isn’t that what holidays are for? Doing what you want, when you want… I’m getting rather attached to Bulgaria. And can see myself coming back.

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Fit cops and coffee machines

Bulgarian cops are built. Or rather, the cops I’ve seen in Bourgas are built. Seriously built. I’ve been known to cast an appreciative eye over a set of pecs in my day, or salivate at that broad-shouldered narrow-waisted form that water-polo players sport. But I wouldn’t say that ogling the male body takes up a lot of my time on any given day. Engaged as I often am in flights of fancy that have little bearing on the real world, I seldom notice so when I do, it’s worth noticing.

At breakfast yesterday, a little drama played out in front of our hotel that had me intrigued.

An older man, on a crutch (just the one) walked in to the courtyard and began speaking very loudly to a couple breakfasting beside us. They all spoke Bulgarian ( which sounds remarkably like Serbian which sort of makes sense as it’s all Balkans – I just read that somewhere) so I haven’t a clue what was being said. One of the staff intervened and walked the ould lad outside. The conversation continued. And then the cops arrived: two fine young lads who would put Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox (CHiPs? Ponch and Jon?) out of business. I was fascinated.

In Belgrade a number of years ago with riot police on the streets I remember feeling remarkably safe. This was in stark contrast to being in Budapest with riot police on the streets and feeling very afraid. I’ve often wondered what makes us trust or distrust our cops, who are supposedly there to protect and serve. Why do some instill that sense of security, and others instill a sense of fear? I drove like the clappers through the Florida panhandle years ago chased by visions of being locked up on a small-town jail and never seeing the light of day again. I hadn’t done anything wrong – it was just an impression I had.

These two lads seemed quite respectful. The old man sat down on the kerb and pulled out his ID. When he stopped shouting (more in a bid to be heard than to be aggressive I think) he started whimpering. I had no idea what was going on but it seemed like he was lost and didn’t know where he was. Or had fallen and needed a hospital (he didn’t seem too impressed with his crutch). The boys were patient. Ran their checks. And then called a taxi to take him to wherever it was he needed to go. No raised voices, no aggravation, no weight thrown around. Two (gorgeous?)  young lads, in uniform, protecting and serving. Did the heart good, I tell you.

Confident now that I’d receive similar treatment were I to get lost, I was all for getting a bike and touring the city. Yes – me – on a  bike. And yes, those were pigs you saw flying.

IMG_0158 (600x800)IMG_0120 (600x800)IMG_0119 (800x600)20150808_153242_resizedBourgas is the fourth-largest city in Bulgaria. A haven for commercial fishing, it is also home to the largest oil refinery in the Balkans. There’s a curious mix of old panel buildings (think tower blocks in Ballymun) and modern architecture, as if it really doesn’t know what it is, was, or might be. Surrounded by four lakes, it’s a natural for naturalists and bird watchers. Atanasovo Lake (the one we’re on) is one of  two salt-water lakes in the Black Sea area  and home to raptors, storks, pelicans and cranes and sees its fair share of migrating falcons, too. Maritime Park (our walk to the beach) stretches for miles and is populated with random statues and sculptures that even on second or third viewing remain a mystery. More still seem to be of naked people doing things like surfing or reading.

Wandering the streets, the only foreign tourists we’ve happened on were French. Most peculiar. But then all was revealed. Up the road, about 35 km, is Sunny Beach. Here, 800 hotels serve package holiday tours to the outside world. How smart is that. Corral the tourists – give them their own space and let them be. Keep the rest for your people. Not a bad plan. And it explains that sense of novelty I can’t help but feel, as if I’m some sort of exotic species on which those who can are delighted to practice their English. We might venture up, just to have a look-see and marvel at how lucky we were to have booked where we did. So far the local beach has done us fine.

Customer service swings between can’t do enough to who the hell are you and why are you in my restaurant. Menus may or may not be in English and requests for mayonnaise so far have resulted in a wine menu, a napkin, and some sort of yoghurt drink. It could well have something to do with how I’m pronouncing it.

fish4fish3fish

 

IMG_0160 (600x800)The food is excellent though – and cheap and fresh, although the stuffed squid I had yesterday has come back to haunt me. I did think it was taking a little long to prepare. It’ll be a few hours yet before I’m ready to brave the outside world. Oddly, there’s an abundance of coffee vending machines. It’s as if they’re terrified of running out of coffee. And so many people smoke. Noticeable numbers. It’s all a little other worldly – as if I’ve stepped on to a movie set and have still to figure out that the plot is or even what era I’m in. But I’m enjoying it. And am glad I came.

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The sands of time

One of the joys of being old(er) is that the memory bank has much more to offer in terms of lives lived, experiences enjoyed, and moments remembered. One of the joys of making new friends or reconnecting with old ones lies in revisiting times past, recounting stories of when I was and what I was and where I was. The connections I make between past and present, while dubious to many, seem obvious to me.

In Bourgas, visiting the 8th International Sand  Sculpture Festival – this year entitled ‘Safari with a camera’ – I mentally revisited two earlier stages in my life – Africa and Alaska.

IMG_0152 (800x600)
IMG_0141 (800x600)Back in 2010, I had the opportunity to visit South Africa with a South African friend. I got to play with the elephants. I got to see animals in the wild instead of behind bars in a zoo. I got to experience the wonder that is the South African sky. I met many incredible people, two of whom have since passed away. I learned a few life lessons that continue to serve me well. Those couple of weeks – sans laptop, sans phone, sans watch – gave me a renewed sense of self, of purpose, of what’s important. My perceptions, my conditioned beliefs, my Western ideals all took a battering and I was humbled by how little I really knew of a way of life I could never hope to understand.

IMG_0139 (800x600)Standing in a field near the sea in Bourgas, Bulgaria, in front of this year’s sand sculptures, I was back in Africa, five years ago. I could remember the excitement of seeing my first zebra close up, the thrill of not knowing what was around the next corner, the heightened sense of awareness that came with being afraid to blink in case I’d miss something.

And then I was in Anchorage, Alaska.  It was winter, 1995. Twenty years ago. It was a holiday – midweek. And I was with my mate LM. We’d gone to see the ice sculptures. Amazing feats of tenacity that at the time reminded me of what Michelangelo supposedly said when someone asked what he was doing while chipping away at what would become David: there’s an angel inside the marble – I want to let him out. Or words to that effect. We froze our asses off and then went to thaw out over hot toddies (for him) and hot ports (for me) [I’ve not been able to smell red wine since.] We were a strange pair, with so much and so little in common. I’ve not seen or heard from him in years and occasionally wonder where he’s at and what he’s up to. I was quite smitten back then but we were from different worlds in more ways than one – something he (the realist) stood firm on; something I (the romantic) denied vehemently. Standing in front of those sand sculptures in Bourgas, I was reminded yet again that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.

But back to Bourgas. I’ve yet to see a foreign tourist. Everyone seems to be from Bulgaria. The beach goes on for miles. The waves are massive. The red flags are up. And the lifeguards whistle those braving the water into orderly submission. The Black Sea apparently is known for its dangerous tides and currents. An umbrella and a bed will set you back about 6 Lev (€3) for the day. And dinner (for two) of veal tongue, pork skewers, lamb cutlets, ribs, sausage, and three types of salads about 40 (€20). Hard not to like it.

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2015 Grateful 21

Something tells me that my life is going to change pretty radically in the next few months. All the signs are there. Perhaps this is the big life lesson – the one I need to learn – the one that involves the C word – compromise.

I’m away to Bulgaria for a weeks, says I.
Whereabouts, they asked.
Bourgas, I replied.
And they made a funny face. All of them. Every person who showed any interest in where I was off to. None of them had ever been themselves, mind you, but the word was out. Apparently Bourgas ranks down there on the list of places to visit in Bulgaria. But it’s a straight flight from Dublin and  a straight flight from Budapest. It has sand. It has sea. And it has sun. And that was pretty much what life was perscribing.

I arrived first. Welcome to Bourgas where the local time is 8am. I could have sworn there was a time difference. And sure enough, by the time I got to the hotel, I’d lost an hour. Our family room with balcony and sea view has neither. But it’s big and airy and has air con. I asked to see the one with the balcony and the sea view and while it had both, the balcony looked out over a busy road and the sea was actually a lake. So the first of many compromises was chalked up. There was little point in kicking up. She’d already charged my credit card and the fight just wasn’t in me. She did tell me later that the manager is going to change the room description on Booking.com to reflect the omissions.

So, five minutes from the sea, says I, looking forward to an afternoon swim. Yes, says she. By car. Another omission. And another choice. Yes, there’s a fine 20 minute walk to the beach but the walk is through a park. You give, you get. Not quite what I’d envisaged. So much for sipping my preprandial cocktail while contemplating the calm of the Black Sea from the balcony. Or walking through the French doors out on to the golden sand. Or coming in from the sea and popping straight into a cold shower. So much for expectations.

But then, in fairness, I hadn’t done my homework. I’d booked a hotel that had decent ratings and didn’t cost the earth. I believed the descriptions as I’d no reason not to, but I never went to Google Earth. I didn’t check the local neighbourhood. I didn’t figure out times and distances. I left it to chance. And chance is what I’m dealing with. And within that chance, there’s an element of blind discovery.

IMG_0125 (2) (800x600)IMG_0135 (2) (800x600)On my way through the park yesterday afternoon, I came across a show jumping competition. The lads, rigged out in their finery, popping over fences to a decent-sized crowd. Not quite the classy event I’d have expected of the Bourgas everyone but me seemed to be familiar with. And then I stumbled on a sand-sculpture exhibition by artists from Holland, Australia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Russia – all of Africa and its animals. Amazing.

The next week should be interesting. About compromise. My cousin, an ardent Kilkenny fan, wants to watch the match today. Me? I wouldn’t lose any sleep if I missed it. But compromise – that’s what I need to learn. And I’m grateful that I’m being broken in gently. And I’m grateful that life, in all its wonder, continues to afford me opportunities to grow.