Update on Gregory

We just got his latest email.  He’s in Bulgaria, he’s had nothing to do with Serbia, and isn’t going there.  Were he home when this had happened, he’d have a lot of work to do right now, but since he wasn’t, he got to try to climb a mountain outside Sofia.  So he is safe and Belgrade is in the capable hands of one of his State Department colleagues.

I’m going to share with you part of his email – reprinted completely without any permission from the author whatsoever (because frankly I’d rather beg forgiveness than ask permission).  Tell me this guy shouldn’t be writing his own blog!

Yesterday I decided I was going to do something outdoorsy, which is actually pretty easy here in Sofia.  The city is hugged to the south by a rather large range of snow-topped mountains, all about 6-7000 feet tall, collectively called Mount Vitosha.  Most of the area is included in Vitosha National Park, which has all of the regular national park amenities, like pretty views, good hiking, skiing, etc.  Well, I’m not a skier, so I figured I’d fixate on those other two.  I took off pretty early in the morning (after my wonderful Hilton breakfast, of course) and headed for the closest part of the park.  An hour later I’d given up on walking, and had taken a taxi the rest of the way.  (Mountains look very close, but they never seem to move as you walk towards them.)  It really wasn’t that far– about a three-dollar taxi ride– but I figured I’d save my legs for hiking.  It was a beautiful day out in Sofia: temperatures around 60 degrees, sunny, generally a great Saturday for February.  The taxi dropped me off at an historic church at the foot of the mountain that is listed among UNESCO’s world heritage sites, and as soon as the car was out of sight, I realized I had left my gloves in the back seat.  No worries– they were $5 cheapo stretch gloves and it was getting warmer by the minute.  I explored the church for about 15 minutes, and decided that, the spoiled person I am, I am going to take a hiatus from painted churches of antiquity.

I know some of you will start making whining noises right now, or playing world’s smallest violins, but I really have had enough of painted churches of antiquity.  They have all started to look the same, and I just feel that once that happens I should lay off on the whole genre so as not to spoil ones I may not have seen yet, but that are deserving of my attention and admiration.  This church was built in the 11th century, then expanded and renovated in the year 1259.  The paintings were interesting enough– they mostly depicted the life of Saint Nikolai– but they were historically important because they used real human facial expressions, which is something that European painters elsewhere didn’t do for at least another hundred years (or so I am told) in renaissance Italy.  Also important was the mixing of the portraits of saints with those of real people; in this case, the benefactor, his wife, and their cousins, the King and Queen of Bulgaria.  (Although someone at the embassy said that every portrait is basically the same face, superimposed on a different set of clothes; I tend to agree, but saying so would be unappreciative of art and history and the like, no?)  My experience in the church truly shows how universal the English language is (and also how lucky I am to be a native speaker thereof).  The Bulgarian-speaking tour guide and the Japanese-speaking visitors were discussing the paintings in English, while I listened along.  Amazingly, these Japanese people, who seemed very professionally dressed and were probably diplomats or successful businessmen (touring the national park area in suits…) just could not fathom the idea that the same Saint Nikolai, who we saw painted and dressed in black and white robes with giant crosses, was the same person who became Santa Claus.  The tour guide attempted unsuccessfully to explain to the people that, in fact, Saint Nikolai was known for being good with children; over time, this turned into a myth that he gave gifts to children and then, somewhere along the line, he apparently took up venison farming, moved up north and started his own sweat shop.  The Japanese were stunned.

Making my way out of the church, I decided upon my new law of not visiting any more painted churches of antiquity, and headed up the hill towards the forest line.  Along the way I stopped to ask a nice old lady on the street where the trail began.  She began (nicely, I think) to explain to me where the trail head was (I think).  There was a lot of waving and pointing and slurring and headscratching.  Her hat came off, to reveal a lovely head of patchy hair, of the faded Eastern European magenta variety; her mouth opened to reveal a chasm possibly matching my son’s in terms of the number of teeth present, except in all of the opposite locations (I’d guess she was only a fan of brushing her molars…).  I backed away, smiling, and headed in the general direction she had pointed.  Luckily, I had asked the tour guide at the church what the word for “waterfall” was in Bulgarian (there was a waterfall along the trail, according to the guide book) and found a sign with the word on it, and an arrow.  (The word is “VODAPAD,” in case you are interested; looks more like “BOAA|7AA” if you ask me, but you didn’t.)  I began to head up the hill, the bottom of which had just a tiny little patch of ice, melting in the warm late morning sun; how cute.

About an hour and a half later, I gave up when I decided I didn’t want to be “that guy” that people in the embassy are talking about for the next few months’ worth of happy hours.  You know “that guy;” he’s the one that stupidly walked up a mountain in February, got stuck on a freakin’ glacier, and had to be airlifted out of the national park, causing all sorts of official Americans to have to go in to work on a Saturday and generally making the US look pretty stupid on the Bulgarian evening news; you don’t want to be “that guy.”  Maybe an hour into my lovely hike the air began to get decidedly colder, and patches of snow showed up, here and there, beside the trail.  Within ten minutes or so, the patches turned into snow cover, and then to snow on top of ice; this finally gave way to about four inches of solid ice lining the trail, both sides of the trail, and any tree limbs that happened to be within reach of anyone who happened to be attempting to walk on the trail.  That’s about the point where I looked around, took some pictures, and turned around, dejected.  I had made it so close to that damn VODAPAD, with no luck!  I think I saw the base of it, which was probably the cause of all that ice; however, the guidebook said it was 15 meters tall, which is more than 45 feet, and I don’t think what I saw was that tall.  Oh well.  Of course the way down was way trickier than the way up– I hate climbing down mountains; for some reason, climbing up is always way easier for me, even in places like the long Metro escalators.  I’m a freak, I guess, but I tend to think that falling up, on your face, is better than falling backwards, on your butt, or off the mountain.  I passed several people while I was going down, all of whom were attempting to take the same circuitous route I had just given up on; I wished them all luck, and I think with each group of hikers my measurement of the thickness of the ice at the end grew exponentially (as in, “it’s a freakin’ glacier”).  I got my hiking and view in, though, which made the trip a partial success.

(Greg, seriously though, let me know if me including this here is in any way offensive or uncomfortable for you and I will remove it completely.) 

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