29 June 2012


Pristina is often bypassed for Prizren or western Kosovo, places that come better recommended or seem better prepared to welcome weary and wary travelers to this land.  Pristina is hot and messy.  Our first impression, at the bus station, was of dead weeds in dried up planters and taxi drivers lying down in the shade.  It is a place of ideas not yet realized and the late stages of reconstruction.  It was a city of bombed buildings not long ago.
But Pristina is actually a wonderful, friendly, safe, lively city with modern restaurants, lots of fun cafes and bars and smiling people.  Given a chance, it's endearing and deserves many more tourists than it gets.
The first impression made by the city is one of tangled wires and half-paved streets, of traffic snarls and sidewalks crowded by parked cars and cigarette sellers. We stayed near the bazaar, where the streets become especially convoluted.  People seem to get caught here, like leaves swept into an eddie in the stream.  They sit or crouch on the pavement, talking over empty coffee cups and bundles of spring onions.  This is the part of town where the call to prayer is loudest and there are the most minarets poking up through the uneven rooftops.  If this was the whole of Pristina, it would be an intriguing, bracing place - but there were lots more impressions to be made.  For a city of just two hundred thousand, it packs a real punch.
The funny thing about Pristina is that it isn't parceled into sections of more or less energy.  In many cities, there are pockets of bright lights and expanses of quiet and emptiness - or there is energy in the outskirts while the manufactured "center" feels desolate.
Pristina certainly has a more wealthy and showy center strip, where university students parade and wealthy women tap at iPhones.  It also has lots of makeshift barber shops and kebab shops, haphazard tenements and dormant construction sites.  But it all blends together with a universal energy and general contentment.
It's also a place where people have become accustomed to internationals - there is a large community of foreign workers here, people who aren't tourists but are still only settled temporarily.  The first wave of outsiders were peacekeeping forces and UN officials - they brought new cuisines and a thirst for foreign beer and raki.  Now, aid groups and NGOs employ a lot of Brits, Americans and Western Europeans; there has also been rampant privitization of the country's assets, which has brought in foreign businesspeople and curious opportunists.  A man arrived at breakfast in our hotel with heavily greased hair and a thick binder labeled "Investing in Kosovo."
The effect has been interesting - in some ways, Prisitina feels more outward looking than most Balkan cities, even more so than places like Belgrade or Sofia.  In those places, there is a national identity to be upheld and mulled over, an urban self-examination.  Pristina is more open to the gusts and currents of the outer world, shaped as it has been by the whims of other nations and the newness of its independence.  There are bookstores that sell magazines in English and restaurants that serve what might - in another place and time - have been called "new American cuisine."  There are English pubs with actual Englishmen inside and coffee shops with actual Italians sitting outside.  
Amid all the ruckus there are plans for two huge new squares, carved out of old communist blocks and bomb-damaged buildings.  The city says that these public places are to become the focal point of downtown Pristina, and work has already begun.  Unfortunately, there isn't enough funding and some are worried that the construction sites will remain torn-up for years.  Meanwhile, other parts of town need drastic work and rampant development has also threatened the city's charm - building codes are often ignored and real-estate deals tend to get awarded only to well connected people and, it is said, criminals.
A taxi driver told us - half in German, the foreign language older people tend to speak - about a new highway project to link Pristina with Albania and Tirana.  He talked about an American firm and some september deadline as we drove through the outskirts of town.  It's true that the roads in and out of Pristina are excellent and new.  It's easy to see the appeal of more construction projects, a shiny center, but it also seems a little unnecessary.  The heart of the city is already going at full pace, old streets and all.
Fueled not by vodka and redbull, but by macchiatos and cigarette smoke, the "bars" and cafes of the capital are surprisingly lively. There are few cities in the region that can match Pristina's nighttime energy, in fact.  Even on weekday nights, there are sections of town where it is difficult to find a free barstool or table after nine o'clock.
And, in a wonderful twist, this nightlife is propelled by real locals, not by loud tourists.  In places as busy and cheap as Pristina is, it's nice to find that the stag parties and club-enthusiasts haven't yet arrived.  In the warmth of late June, there are greetings shouted from table to table, kisses exchanged, a sense of community.  Mother Theresa boulevard, the main pedestrian street, is a loud, pleasant mix of old couples and excited toddlers, high heels and scuffed sneakers.  The strolling continues until late - later than we were prepared to stay up.
Pristina is a city with purpose.  Our guidebook, published only two years ago, speaks of bomb damage and the lasting effects of war.  Now, in 2012, those scars are hard to find and the city is, more than anything, moving forward.  It's not as if the cobweb electric lines and broken paving stones can be fixed overnight, but it won't take long.  In fact, within a few years, it's easy to think that this little capital could be a prime destination, something like Skopje is today - a place that people are no longer afraid of.  Already, the recent past seems very distant.

27 June 2012

The Ideas Partnership

"It would be a shame for you not to meet the children!" Elizabeth Gowing had said enthusiastically via email. Twenty-four hours later, we were in the village of Janjevo, surrounded by its youngest citizens. Elizabeth and fellow workers and volunteers of The Ideas Partnership were setting up shop in a rental house in town, which wasn't exactly ready for their arrival. The children began to help carry bedding, dishes, personal affects out of the dining room to turn it the dining room into their summer classroom. The Ideas Partnership was there to get them prepared for and enrolled in school for the very first time this September.  Everything about it excited the kids - the attention, the newness, the promises of games and classes, the foreigners. A group of older residents, all in their 20s plus a confident 15 year old, were there to sign up volunteering. The energy was high, filled with enthusiasm, nerves, expectations, trepidation. Just like the first day of school. This is the world of non-profit organizations, NGOs and Kosovo.
Google search after google search kept leading us to Elizabeth Gowing - known simply as "Elizabeth" throughout Kosovo if our countless interactions with people are any indication. Her articles for Balkan Insight came up while we were looking for homestay options, transportation advice, even for the name of a good gourmet store in Pristina. An English woman who has lived in Kosovo for six years, she's already mastered the art of Kosovar hospitality, putting herself out there so completely as to offer her personal email address in a number of published pieces. Of course, we used it, asking a long string of questions in the hopes that maybe one or two would get answered. What we wound up with was an immediate, lengthy response, a wealth of information and a glimpse of Kosovo that we never, ever would have gotten otherwise. Elizabeth is not just a published memoirist and poet, a journalist and advocate. She's a beekeeper - and upon meeting her, I couldn't refrain from making a lame joke about her being as busy as one.
She is one of three founding members of The Ideas Partnership, an NGO that focuses on helping Kosovans protect their cultural heritage and environment and educate their youngest citizens. There are somewhere around 4,000 non-government organizations (NGOs) registered in Kosovo, but only around 10% are actually active. Still, there are loads of internationals here to work and volunteer and to visit with one of these organizations felt like a truly Kosovar experience. Since The Ideas Partnership is particularly active, there were a lot of options for our involvement - but so little time. Maybe the Sunday Roma language class or the Tuesday evening team-building session? Elizabeth knew that the perfect use of our limited time was to go to Janjevo with them on their maiden voyage. She knew that the children would make the biggest impression on us and that our presence would make the biggest impression on them.
The education program is most likely dearest to her heart, and most demanding of her time. It began in Fushë Kosovë, just 5 kilometers outside of Pristina but a world away. Most big city residents have never visited the town, which shows a level of poverty hard to imagine over foamy machiatos. She said that when photos of the area and the children were shown to some acquaintances in Pristina, they had responded in disbelief, "That's not Kosovo."  The organization's mission, sparked by one little girl's story, was to enroll the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children of the town into the local school. This involved working with the kids, their parents and the school system that had not made it all that easy for them. 'Step-up' classes prepared them to be students for the first time, lots of passionate diplomacy worked to change the system to allow entry and extra-help after-school sessions keep the children successfully enrolled. It was - and is - a success, swarming with local and international volunteers. Now, they are copying the model in a brand new town - Janjevo. And we were there on the very first day - on 'ground-breaking,' so to speak. Step-up classes begin this Monday.
Janjevo is historically Croation, so Serbo-Croat speaking volunteer Katarina (from Belgrade) has been laying the groundwork for weeks. She's visited almost every family, trying to get a truthful number of non-school-going children and gauge the reasons. She has met with the town's different leaders - the figureheads of the Albanian, Roma, Muslim and Orthodox communities. In a joint meeting between the Roma leader and the three women we accompanied to Janjevo, he spoke German with Elizabeth, French with Aurelie (an executive director originally from France) and Serbo-Croatian with Katarina. I would have loved to have been a fly on that wall. Something like the conversation at the urinal of the United Nations. Of course, most importantly, Katarina had gotten to know the children themselves. When our van pulled up, they swarmed so closely and banged on the sides so loudly that I felt like a Beatle (or a Bieber or whoever the kids are listening to these days). Katarina! Katarina! they shouted. The Ideas Partnership had officially arrived.
The children were fascinated by us, mostly because we were hanging around idly as the others talked logistics and made introductions.  The boy in the red collar, Cuka, was a charismatic ringleader who used every English word in his arsenal on us.  Photo! Photo! We clicked and showed him. Deleta! Deleta! if his eyes were closed.  Facebook! he said and then wrote down his email for us (and his password, which I assured him I didn't need).  At the end of it all, after saying I had nice eyes and hair, he patted Merlin on the back and said he had a good nose and good teeth.  With a firm handshake, he said the nicest thing of all: You are a good man.  So are you, dude.  So are you.
The children aren't the only ones with potential in Janjevo, the town itself is just waiting to be appreciated.  It used to be a wealthy mining town, but is now mostly abandoned.  They say that only one third of the houses are occupied.  The historic house of Stefan Gjecovi Kryeziu, ethnologist, historian, national hero, has been renovated and is supposedly going to be turned into a museum at some point.  Other houses are simply falling into disrepair as each day passes.  They retain signs of their former luster and the surrounding mountains and lack of modern architecture make the place feel even more magical.  Elizabeth and partners talked about the draw this setting could have for volunteers, how wonderful it would be if they could offer teachers a place to stay in a fixed up traditional house.  The potential for tourism is high and the leaders of the town mentioned their desire for it to Elizabeth, who reported that our presence (as two Americans with cameras) put big smiles on their faces.
While tourism could help the town's economy, we were far from the most important foreigners arriving in Janjevo that day.  Elizabeth, Katarina and Aurelie are doing such important, impressive work.  Economic stimulation is great, but intellectual and creative stimulation of the town's forgotten young people is even better.  We left wishing we had more time to give, more help to offer.  But we are really thankful to have at least been welcomed to tag along for the day - to see The Ideas Partnership at work and all of these wonderful children at play.

25 June 2012

Welcome to Kosovo

Merlin shook me awake to point at the speed limit sign ahead of us. Out our bus window, I made out the numbers and shapes, which gave the following guidelines. Trucks: 50. Tanks: 30. Welcome to Kosovo. This was our second first impression of the small country. We passed through briefly during our time in Albania on a bus that used a quick jump over the border to get us back to Tirana. At the time, we were scared that a stamp in our passport would prohibit us from visiting Serbia. That very well may have been the case, but they (generously) did not stamp us in or out, in transit as we were. In that quick foray, we got our first glimpses of a country that had been a big question mark in our imaginations. One of those question marks that are sandwiched between two exclamation points. You could say that we were a little scared. But crossing over for that half an hour or so had eased our worry. It looked absolutely... normal. Maybe even a little nicer than the area of Albania we'd just come from. If that first impression calmed our nerves, this second speed sign one reminded us how those nerves had been founded.
My earliest awareness of 'Kosovo' was as the name of a conflict, a war, a 'zone.' Not a country. The word went along with graphic images in TIME folded into our mailbox and on the evening news playing over dinner. 1999 was just 13 years ago and photos of missing persons still hang on a fence in Pristina's center. Some pictures have been whitewashed by the bright sun over time, almost completely erased. Passing by them in this vibrant, lively city, one gets the sense that the youth hope the memories of that year will fade in the same way, nearly vanish from the brightness of their future. As one young man put it, "It's not like that here anymore." It felt almost strange that he felt the need to say it. Walking around, it is obvious that this is a not a bandaged and bruised city - far from a hemorrhaging wound. But it's a hard reputation to shake and a complicated legacy to emerge from. That bloody year was Kosovo's big debut on the national stage.
Kosovo was basically placed under the protection and governance of the United Nations for 9 years after '99. 9 years, a sort of pregnancy during which it could prepare to really enter the world. In 2008, it declared its independence and this bright, yellow NEWBORN was erected outside the youth center. It is much more fitting than 'reborn' would have been - a statement of their emergence as an individual still in need of nurturing and guidance. Celebratory graffiti has steadily covered these yellow letters since, taking a little luster off of it, putting a few wrinkles in. Kosovo is self-governing, but UN and NATO programs and forces still have a hand in civil and foreign affairs. You see signs of them everywhere. To ignore UNMIK, EULEX and KFOR's presence would be like paying no attention to that man behind the curtain. Kosovo is no longer a newborn, but it is still the youngest European country. Well, if you ask one of the 91 UN member states that recognize it as such.
There are still a large number of countries that do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state, including 14 countries we've visited on this trip. The chances of them ever being admitted into the United Nations is slim to none, as Russia, one of the 5 countries with veto power, firmly believes that the Kosovar declaration of independence from Serbia is not only not worthy of recognition, but illegal. That's part of what made arriving here an almost surreal experience. Sure, we've received emails about changing the name by which we refer to a country (Macedonia). We've visited breakaway and occupied territories within Moldova and Cyprus (Transnistria and Northern Cyprus, respectively). There has been some dispute about whether or not certain countries should be considered 'European,' but Kosovo brings up a different debate all together. To call its inclusion on our list 'polarizing' would be putting it lightly.
But here we are, in the 4 year old Republic of Kosovo. More specifically, in its capital, which is undergoing some major construction right now. Squares are being constructed to give the Communist-style urban planning a more European feel. The kicked up dust and gravel give a sense of upheaval and ruin, but that's really just connected to everything else we know. The same amount of construction was going on in Sofia and Guimarães, Portugal and I don't think I ever had any images of shelling and rolling tanks. In what will be called Ibrahim Rugova Square, a historic building has been bought by United Colors of Benetton. The Skanderberg statue which used to mark this spot has been moved to the side during construction. He sits on his horse next to part cars, his head covered with a protective garbage bag which gives him an unfortunate resemblance to a Klan member. The square, one of a few under construction, will give the maze-like city more focal points. I personally think that the arrival of a Benetton in sort of like a mini-christening in and of itself in Europe. A McDonald's and an H&M would complete the trifecta.
Sure, there is grit. There's a little bit of a chaotic feel that reminds us of Tirana, Albania. Young women sit outside on cinder blocks for tea. Children come to your table with a single pack of gum to sell, along with their cuteness. It is also a city where an atmospheric cafe is easy to find and a terrific machiato is the norm. We have made no effort to search out a special dining establishment and have had three excellent meals so far. The people are incredibly friendly, helpful and full of smiles - another reminder of Tirana and Albania as a whole. The crime rate is one of the lowest in Europe and even with crippling unemployment and a high level of poverty, people are optimistic and focused on the future. At least, that's how it feels.
I know that I'm making a lot of assumptions here, but sometimes you just find yourself in places that defy your expectations. The capital has an easy confidence, a tasteful maturity, international influence that feels natural instead of a show put on for foreigners or an invasion of name brands. People walk slowly down the tree-lined pedestrian avenues, linger over coffee and soft drinks, root loudly for one team or another in soccer on tv. We not only feel comfortable here, but happy. It's as easy a place as any - surely as easy as it can be in such a complicated place.
I wonder how Pristina will look in another four years. If this trip has taught us anything, it's that the world is changing at a mind-bogglingly rapid pace. It's always the case with newborns - they grow up in the blink of an eye. We never thought we'd be in Kosovo, but we are happy to be here right now, at this stage of its young life. And we're curious to see what it looks like in 5, 10, 20 years. For now, though, we're just looking forward to the next 11 days. Welcome to Kosovo, indeed.    

Beerfest in Kosovo

It sounds like the beginning of a fight or a bad joke.  What happens when you ply a thousand young Kosovars - mostly between 16 and 25 years old - with lots of cheap beer?  When you do this outside on a weekend night, in front of a huge screen showing an important soccer match?  When there are no police around, almost no security?
The answer: all those young Kosovars get mildly tipsy, have a pleasantly calm evening and eventually begin dancing.  This is the Kosovo Beerfest, but really this is Kosovo - safe, quiet, friendly and ready to have a good time.
With the blocky Pristina skyline behind us, we marveled at what we were experiencing.  The beer was so cheap (three bottles for one euro!) and so plentiful (twenty different kinds!) that it bordered on dangerous.  In America or Germany, people would have gotten drunk without thinking about it.  There would certainly be fights or vomiting.  Here, young men and women talked and laughed in groups, cheered on the soccer players and smiled at the foreigners in their midst.  It felt less combustable than convivial.
Kosovars are ninety-five percent muslim, which partly explains the restraint these youngsters were showing.  Even though it's a very secular society, drinking isn't a big part of public life.  Pristina is a cafe city, with hundreds of outdoor tables and a leisurely pace.  And while those tables are usually full of people, the drinks of choice are coffee and fruit juice.  While drinking's not frowned upon, being drunk is.  At last year's Beer Fest, there were over 18,000 tickets sold, but only 14,000 liters of beer consumed.  In some places, a liter of beer is the prelude to an evening, not its entirety.
It's not as though the beer companies weren't trying - they basically begged us to buy more.  No one was ID'ed (this is still Kosovo, only a few steps away from lawlessness).  There were lots of beer-pong tables set up, leggy waitresses tried to lure in more drinkers to the makeshift bar stands.  A hulking Peja sign loomed over the whole evening, advertising the Kosovo beer powerhouse.
The event was put on by "Kosovo - the Young Europeans," which is an offshoot of the "Kosovo Nation Branding Campaign."  The venue was the IRC Youth center, an UNESCO and UNICEF funded counseling, recreation and teaching center in downtown Pristina.   Beerfest was held on the low roof, up a long flight of stairs, with heating ducts and air conditioning units poking up into the space.  Flags hung above us on dozens of poles - France, Turkey, Switzerland, pride of place going to Albania and the United states, the Kosovar flag waving in proud blue.  The giant television lit up the night with images of Ukraine and Poland, the Euro Championship hosts.
When we walked among the groups of people, from one pool of light to another, there were lots of quizzical smiles and stares, but we never felt threatened or excluded.  Often, people wanted to pose for pictures.  Near the end of the match, a DJ began playing music and people stood up to stretch their legs and dance chastely.
This is only the second Kosovo Beer Fest, and the second in eight months.  Perhaps, because the country is so young, Kosovo is trying to catch up.  The young people here were happy for the most part.  They wanted no part of rowdiness or debauchery - being outside on a beautiful night was enough.  Freedom, to some extent, is a novelty.  Getting drunk wasn't the point.  Getting to hang out as a community was exactly what they needed.

23 June 2012

Bulgarian Food

This seems like a fine place to start a conversation about Bulgarian food.  Meat triumphantly front and center, but vibrant green salad looming brilliantly in the background.  Like in the rest of Southeastern Europe, grilled and roasted meats are a staple and a signature of Bulgaria's national cuisine.  Pork reigns supreme, but there are plenty of other options.  Since our visit coincided with the last days of spring, lamb was widely available and recommended.  Bulgaria exports lamb throughout the EU, so there is often less available for local consumption outside of the spring season.  This is what we like to call perfect timing.
Bulgarian salads are not content with just playing second fiddle, though, and often demand entire pages of a menu.  You can break almost all of the choices down to a few key ingredients: yogurt, tomato, pepper, egg, eggplant, cabbage, carrot, corn, mushroom and ham.  But the combinations are endless and the herbs, oils and chopping methods employed are always thoughtfully based on the salad at hand.  What you can almost always count on is some crushed walnut on top and a single black olive buttoning it all up.
I'd half convinced myself that Bulgaria was an easy place for a non-meat-eater.  So many vegetables! Meatless guyveche!  But just two nights ago, we met up for an evening of sight-seeing/talking/eating/drinking with our new friend Carolyn.  She has a really great blog called Karolinka In & Around Bulgaria (and if you think she seems funny and charming on that, she's even more so in person).  Anyway, Carolyn came to Bulgaria 4 years ago as a Fulbright Scholar... and a vegetarian.  That is to say, she is no longer one. 
Her reasoning made me realize something about Bulgarian cuisine and the people that eat it. Dining outside the home is treated as a social event, rather than just public nourishment.  I thought back to all of our dinners.  Dishes would often come one at a time in no particular order.  Portions were large.  Service was friendly but slow.  These were hours-long affairs with just the two of us.  I can't even imagine what dinner with friends must be like.  And when said friends have all ordered a lot of meat, to not share would be anti-social and culturally awkward.  It'd be like going to a pub in the UK and saying you don't drink beer. Anyway, this is how one becomes an in-house vegetarian and a social carnivore.  It also helps that Bulgarians happen to know how to cook meat very, very well.
And don't even try to say you're on a gluten-free diet at holiday time!  Bulgarian breadmaking is an artform.  At this house museum in Veliko Tarnovo, breads were displayed with their corresponding celebration or occasion.  There is a special design for the godmother or godfather, the bride or the groom, each individual saint's feast day.  We were never served bread as festive or beautiful as this, but in a restaurant at which homemade bread was available, it was recommended with pride and passion.  I have a feeling that in Bulgaria, a kitchen only becomes a true kitchen once it is filled with the smell of baking bread.
Then, there is tarator (which we've already covered).  I can't go without mentioning it again here. Above we have its thicker relative, snezhanka (Snow White).  This is essentially tarator which has not been watered down - yogurt, cucumber, garlic, dill and walnut.  There are an array of these sorts of salads in Bulgarian cuisine.  Just as the word 'salad' can apply to tuna, egg, crab meat, potato or anything else mixed with mayonnaise in America - yoghurt-based mixtures are made from all of the above and more in Bulgaria.  Ice cream scooped onto plates to start the meal, they are refreshing, simple and delicious. 
To begin the meal, smother the meal and end the meal, there is always cheese.  Another excellent point Carolyn made about the non-sustainability of a completely vegetarian Bulgarian diet (I promise we talked about more than just food) is the abundance of cheese one would have to consume.  There is always mish-mash (a sort of scrambled egg version of a Spanish omelet), but otherwise it will be fried cheese or cheesy gyuveche dishes day and night.  Above is a surprise from a waiter in Arbanassi.  We'd ordered house white wine, which came with slices of apple in the pitcher and he brought us this to go along with it.  Your eyes are not deceiving you - that is a block of cheese fried and then charred on a grill with honey, crushed walnut and golden raisins on top.  It was as good as you'd imagine.

Gypsy Kitchens: Bulgarian Tarator

Tarator (таратор in cyrillic) is the soup version of a gin and tonic: refreshingly cold, simple, herbal and perfect for a summer evening.  A cynic might call this cucumber and yogurt soup, but it's more than that.  Tarator's a curative.  As we endure a Balkan heat wave, this is the kind of food we crave.
Tarator is served in countries from Albania to Turkey (with varieties popping up, we've heard, as far away as Iran and Armenia), but it feels particularly Bulgarian to us.  Why?  Because this is the heartland of yogurt.  Bulgaria even claims to have invented the stuff (though others doubt this) and traces its "culture" of culturing to ancient Thrace, some 2,000 years ago.  In 1908, a bright young Bulgarian named Stamen Grigorov identified the bacterium that causes natural yogurt to occur and later named it after his homeland - Lactobacillus bulgaricus.  Bulgarian yogurt really is tasty, with a wonderfully clean sourness that is more refreshing than other types.  The strong tang is perfect for mixing with the other soup ingredients.
We started with cucumbers and fresh dill bought from this old woman on Graf Ignatiev street in Sofia. She was wearing an adorable little paper hat.
We picked up some walnuts from another stand, and some garlic.  We didn't have time to go to the big market, so the yogurt came from a bodega near our rental apartment.  Olive oil, mustard and salt - the only other ingredients - were already in the kitchen.  This is partly what makes tarator so great: it's incredibly simple to make.
Start by julienning two sizable cucumbers into less-than-bite-sized pieces.  Grating the cucumber will make it mushy and slimy, it's better to put in the extra knife work.  Add to this about a third of a cup of finely chopped walnut, two crushed and minced cloves of garlic and a good dose of fresh dill.  Then, add two cups of plain, unsweetened yogurt and between two tablespoons and one third cup olive oil.  Salt generously.  Add two tablespoons coarse mustard - horseradish also might be good, or wasabi.  The mustard isn't a traditional ingredient, but we liked how it supplied a deep, complex note to the soup.
Stir everything together thoroughly.  At this point, the mixture is essentially what is known as Snezhanka salad (Салата Снежанка), or "snow white" salad, which is a relative of tzatziki.  It could be served as is, with soft bread or pita.
If you're still set on soup (you should be), slowly mix in cold water until it's a good, soupy consistency.  Put in the fridge for at least two hours before serving.  That's it.  It's delicious.  Serve sprinkled with a little more dill and crushed walnut and maybe a drizzle of olive oil.
The sourness of the yogurt is a perfect foil for the sweet crispness of the cucumber and the grassiness of the dill.  The walnuts add earthiness, the mustard provides spice.  It's a refreshing, bright mix.
It takes about twenty minutes, most of which is spent chopping, to do the "work" part of the recipe.  The rest is waiting - you could have a gin and tonic in the meantime.

Bulgarian Tarator
2 large cucumbers, julienned into short pieces
2 cups unsweetened, plain yogurt
1/3 cup crushed or chopped walnut (plus a little more to garnish with)
2 crushed and finely minced cloves garlic
1/3 cup fine quality olive oil
2 tbsp coarse mustard
2-4 tbsp fresh dill, de-stemmed and given a cursory chopping
Cold water and salt

- Combine cucumber, yogurt, oil, walnut, garlic, mustard and dill in a large bowl.  Mix and salt well.
- Pour in cold water and mix until thoroughly combined, adding more water if not yet a "soupy" consistency.
- Refrigerate at least two hours before serving.
This, by the way, was the first bowl of tarator we encountered in Bulgaria, at our very first meal in the country.  This was on a hot day in Balchik, sitting by the placid Black Sea.  It was delicious.  We were hooked.  It made up for a particularly bad bowl served to us later, in Vidin - that one tasted as though the restaurant had just poured milk over grated cucumber.

Check out all of our recipes.

22 June 2012

Things Bulgarian People Like

Re-Posted Death Notices.  We first noticed posted death announcements in Albania.  In each country since, we have stopped and looked at the simple, mostly black and white flyers with the departed person's photo, age and a brief word about them, hung at/near their residence.  In Bulgaria, we would see the same person's face on multiple notices, called "necrologs" here.  One young woman's face appeared on so many that we thought maybe it was actually a notice about her being missing. 'Have you seen this girl?'  As it turns out, Bulgarian tradition calls for a reposting of the necrolog on a number of anniversaries - 40 days, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 18 months, and then every year until there is no one left around to remember them.  Even with newspaper obits a regularity, most people still prefer this style of commemoration and continued celebration - to see one, two, five sets of grandma's eyes greeting you at your front door.
The Black Sea Coast.  It is pretty simple to see why Bulgarians would adore their coastline so much.  What country doesn't love their beach?  It's been funny, though, how adamant everyone has been about us getting back to the coast.  In other countries, we are asked where we have been and where we are going.  In Bulgaria, the question is always simply, "Have you been to the coast?!" When we answer that, yes, we spent three nights in Balchik, loads of suggested itineraries and recommendations are thrown our way for further travel down the coast.  It doesn't matter that it would now take us about 7 hours by bus to get there.  The thought is, why would we be anywhere else? 
Cautionary Cars.  The number of road fatalities in Bulgaria is about double the EU average and it was placed in the top five in car accident deaths in a large scale study of European countries, conducted in 2007.  It's so interesting that the ones who get the unfortunate crown are all countries with a low car ownership percentage and less traffic density. (Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria).  Since then, the rate has dropped.  In fact, in 2011, the number of people killed in car crashes was the lowest it had been in 44 years.  We saw these totaled vehicles displayed throughout our many hours on the road.  Who knows how much they factor in to the positive change - and how much more of it has to do with road rehabilitation and the huge amount of traffic cops we also saw along our drives.  But there they are. Graphic proof of the risk.
A Side of Ice.  I've gotten a cup or small bucketful of ice with water, lemonade, wine, just about everything but beer.  There's always that joke that Americans have to come to terms with the fact that they won't often be served ice in Europe.  Some go so far as to say ice is 'an American thing.'  Well, I assure you, it is also a Bulgarian thing.  And it is wonderful.  Speaking of icy drinks...
Not Your Average Lemonade.  Well, not my average lemonade at least.  Beginning in Serbia, through Romania and now in Bulgaria, I have been on a lemonade kick.  Like fresh orange juice in many other locales, squeezed-to-order lemonade is a popular mainstay in the Balkans.  In Bulgaria, I was happy to see my summertime companion was just as readily available.  But I never knew exactly what I was going to get.  It could be lemon juice with sprite, with club soda or with water.  More than once, it was lemon juice with nothing else at all.  Merlin took the first sip of that one and the contortion of his face was priceless.  (and on that note)
Shopska Salad.  The Shopi people after which this ubiquitous salad is named are historically from the area surrounding Sofia.  So, even though it was absolutely everywhere in Macedonia, it is considered a Bulgarian thing.  Menus here almost always have a very long list of salads - which we'll go into with greater detail in a Bulgarian Food post to come.  But Shopska almost always wins out.  Here, a dozen or so tables are pre-set for a big party in Balchik.  All of the Balkan essentials are there, shopska salad, Coca Cola and Fanta.  The weddings that would inevitably be taking place wherever we stayed on a Friday or Saturday, would have the same place setting.  But, of course, with wine.  Tomato, cucumber, shredded sirene and a black olive on top.  It's as simple as that.
Front Yard Vineyards.  Bulgarian wine is great and they produce a lot of it.  Some statistics place it close to the tippy top of wine exporting countries in Europe.  Around 80% of Bulgarian wine winds up in the UK, the US and Russia (depending on how well they're getting along at the moment).  This is probably because it's a) way cheaper than any of their Western European competition and b) Bulgarians aren't crowding the wine aisle in the grocery store themselves.  They're simply making their own!  Especially in Southern Bulgaria, we saw grape arbors stretching door to door down small town streets. 
These Roadside Patrolling Stations or whatever they are.  Anyone know?  We just saw a manned one today in Sofia. I have to assume it is for policing purposes, but the design is just too unique not to mention.

Honorable Mention

Confusing Head Gestures.  Obviously, they are not confusing to other Bulgarians, but the fact that people shake their head for "yes" and nod it for "no" was very difficult to get used to.  It is something to know and keep top of mind if you plan on traveling to Bulgaria.  You sort of don't realize how much communication is done with nods (especially when their is a language barrier) until you find yourself in this situation.  You order something, they shake their head.  So, you order something else.  Now, they're confused. Your confused. Everyone's confused.  All because of a simple head shake.  Luckily, Bulgarians happen to be extremely nice and willing to work with bumbling reverse-nodders like us.