Monday, January 17, 2011

Nova Godina- New Year Recap

Since my last post I have done a little bit of traveling, celebrated my first Christmas overseas and saw my very first kukeri festival in Bulgaria!
Snowy Pleven
Christmas in Bulgaria is a very traditional affair and people spend the holiday with their families. Under socialism people weren't allowed to celebrate Christmas, but I've been told that the old traditions were preserved for cultural more than religious reasons. One interesting fact is that Christmas Eve dinner must consist of an odd number of dishes (usually 7, 9 or more) and after the meal the leftover food is to be left on the table overnight. Traditionally this meal is meat-free but many people disregard this particular custom.
Conor and me
In the weeks leading up to Christmas I got to talk to my students about some American holiday traditions (I am especially proud to have introduced them to "The Hanukkah Song" by Adam Sandler). I also learned about which Christmas movies are most popular here. The all-time favorite is, surprisingly enough, Home Alone! Apparently it gets shown over and over again on TV here every year. We watched a few clips from It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, which are my favorite classics.
Picturesque Medieval gate in Brasov
After spending Christmas with Conor here in Pleven I went to Ruse, the largest Bulgarian town on the Danube river, and then to Bucharest and Brasov in Romania. I noticed quite a few similarities between here and Romania, mostly the food and some of the more typical socialist-era structures, but many differences as well. The biggest one, of course, is the language! Romanian sounds a little like Italian but with some Slavic sounds mixed in. And Transylvania is home to a sizable Hungarian minority so there was evidence of that influence, too (I was very excited that they had kolacs, a delicious sweet bread cooked on an open hearth).
Brasov is a gorgeous town and the hotel we stayed in was the highlight of the trip. Upon arrival we were welcome to have a drink and dinner at the owner's home, and even got an invitation to jump in the outdoor pool after warming up in their sauna. We ended up walking around the Old Town and hanging out at a jazz bar instead but that definitely would have been an exhilarating experience.

Bucharest was surprisingly cool and has a much more well-developed public transportation system than Sofia (especially the metro!). The trendiest neighborhood is called Lipscani and it is also one of the oldest. There were some beautiful churches and at least one mosque there. We went to a pretty touristy restaurant with some amusingly translated dishes. We also visited a beer hall with impressively decorated ceilings and delicious house-made brews. Like Sofia, Bucharest lacks many prewar buildings that add a lot of charm in other European cities. Most of the old center was destroyed in the construction of Ceaucescu's monstrosity, the People's Palace. It's the world's second largest building. We took an hour and a half tour of the inside and at the end of it were told that we had only seen 2% of the rooms!
The Palace of Parliament, Bucharest
My favorite part of the trip was Peles Castle. No, we didn't visit "Dracula's Castle" (aka Bran) but this one is much prettier. Inside there are marble walls, wood-carved ceilings, intricate carpets, an impressive armory, exciting themed rooms (the Turkish room has an antique hookah) and a library that looks like it came out of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. When we visited the People's Palace our guide said that Ceaucescu wanted to buy the castle and turn it into his own private residence- fearing his reconstruction plans the people in charge of the grounds lied and told him that there were termites in the walls and it wasn't safe to live there. Lucky for us they did that!
Peles Castle
So we returned from Romania just in time for New Year's Eve here in Pleven. People sure do love their fireworks. It seemed like all of my neighbors were shooting them off from their balconies that night (and into the next morning). You could say that 2011 really started off with a bang here...

Kukeri costumes- these men are dressed as grandmothers
One week after the New Year and I was in Blagoevgrad, where there was a kukeri festival taking place. Kukeri, also known as mummers, are people who dress in elaborate costumes in the winter months to chase away evil spirits. The tradition goes back to pagan days- it's sort of a carnival meets Halloween kind of thing. I saw a similar event in 2009 in southern Hungary (there it's called busojoras) but the costumes here were much more inventive and diverse. I later found out that Blagoevgrad's festival is a competition for most creative costumes and different neighborhoods compete for prizes. So that's why there were so many crazy costumes on display.
Kukeri are a part of Bulgarian folkloric traditions, and you can find their masks and sheepskin costumes in ethnographic museums across the country. On the last weekend in January there is a big kukeri festival called the "Surva Games" in Pernik. A big group of Fulbrighters is planning to go so hopefully I will make it and post more pictures of surva/kukeri really soon!

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