From Utrecht to Sofia

Posted by in Dispatches

Creepy BunnyGoodbye to Utrecht’s creepy bunny statue (left) – we’ll miss you! It’s been three days since the last entry, normally we’re more on top of the blogging, but due to our travel from Utrecht to Sofia, we couldn’t send a dispatch. And now that we are indeed in Sofia, Bulgaria, the dispatches may become a little more infrequent (as in, not daily) – as we have some pretty wonderful plans for Jazz Festivals in the mountains, treks to Byzantine and Roman ruins, and visits to the beautiful beaches of the Black Sea. But more on all that later, it’s time for an update on our last two days in Holland…

On Sunday, Leon (my old roommate) and his wife and two kids came over for a “Canadian-style” brunch at Bram and Ilke’s. I made us up a bunch of fried potatoes, some bacon straight from the farmer at the Utrecht market, and a whole bunch of scrambled eggs with some famous and delicious Dutch cheese melted in for good measure. Due to the nature of the initial brunch invitation – I had invited Leon while a tad under the influence at Cafe Haart the evening before – we didn’t have our times exactly synchronized, but they showed up in time to eat all the same and it was a very nice late brekky. After a while snapping photos and playing with Luka in the hammock, we said bye to the new family and headed out for a beautiful sunny Utrecht day.

Leon and FamilyLeon and family having brunch with us at Bram and Ilke’s on Sunday – pictured right.

Sunday was part of some cultural celebration and the Utrecht canals were full of boats drifting by beer and coffee sipping spectators watching so many aqua-friendly bands play music as part of the “boatenparade.” There was a tribute band that was playing Beatles songs – the tunes instantly recognizable but there was definitely something strange about the lyrics…I’m pretty sure John and Paul weren’t fluent in Dutch. After wandering around (Svetla and Ilke still on the eternal quest for a dress, Bram and I on a similar urgent mission, but for a beer) for a couple of hours we met Jiike and had some great Wok food to go. We brought our little Chinese takeaway cartons and some mojito ingredients (dangerously mixing cultures) down to the main canal where the featured performance of Zuco 103 would be that night. Utrecht concert with Zuco 103We sat down (picture at left) on one of the two big barges that the organizers had moored in the wide bend in the canal, which were tethered to the floating main stage, and began to eat and drink as the space slowly filled up with more and more people. The area was soon packed shoulder to shoulder and the band began to play. Zuco was amazing – their sound is so full of life, and so infectious it is very hard not to dance at least a little. I went to get beer at one moment and was gone so long, I never would have found the group had it not been for Jiike towering over the lesser-beings around her like a blonde Dutch statue (ah, so nice to be around other circus freaks).

About 40 minutes into an amazing set with Zuco, the lead singer suddenly looked off to the right and seemed a bit shocked. I saw her say the words “no, no!” away from the mic, and a few of us turned to see what she was looking at. It took us a few minutes to realize that the old wooden stair case we had walked down earlier to get from street level to canal level (about 3 meters difference) was gone – although it seems most of the anglo-European media is reporting it as a bridge collapsing, yet another example of mainstream “accuracy” in reportage. We could see the break in the railing where it once was, and a lot of people looking down to where it had collapsed. In what I would say was typical Dutch behaviour, no one seemed to be freaking out, and some were even taking pictures. One woman on the news later said she was standing beside it when it collapsed with around 50 people on it and under it, and she didn’t even hear a single scream. In Canada, if something like this happened, I’m pretty sure there would be at least a little screaming, maybe even some running around frantically (and in the USA, there’d be lawyers handing out business cards). At any rate, the concert ended prematurely, and we all were asked to leave the area slowly in an orderly fashion (again, this was very easily achieved by the always-calm and level-headed Dutchies). It turns out that seven people were badly injured, some in critical condition. The event was all over the Dutch media the following day, leading me to think that there probably aren’t that many “catastrophes” in Holland. The weird thing is, I had been talking to Jiike about how unsafe it seemed to cram so many bodies into such a small space on floating things in a canal with only three small exits (two after the stairs fell). We kind of laughed when we were having this foreshadowy conversation because for sure, North Americans are more paranoid and worried about every possibility of things going wrong…that is when compared to the Dutch who say: “global warming?, ah, we’ll build more dykes.” In the end, I hope the people hurt are OK, because otherwise, it was a really nice concert (and free too).

Utrecht SquattersYes! We found signs of political activism in Holland! Pictured to the left is a giant sign erected by squatters that reads: “A building that sits empty is a crime.” The cool thing is that in Canada, it would get taken down, here even on one of Utrecht’s busiest shopping streets, it stays up.

On Monday we said bye to Bram and Ilke before they went to work (8:30 and 7:30 AM, respectively) and decided to rest up instead of rushing into Amsterdam to see the Rembrandt exhibition. We do both regret not seeing it, as they had over 400 of his works featured, but time went so fast and we had such a good time hanging out in Utrecht with friends that it was hard to do the speedy tourist thing all the time (although there is nothing I would describe as “speedy” about any of our travel, unless of course we’re late for a train, bus or plane). So we hauled our stuff to the Utrecht train station, I extracted another 100 Euros from the magic money provider (to pay for ticket changes, thanks to my not going to Brazil now) and we headed to Schipol airport. A quick flight to London, a two hour bus ride from Heathrow Airport to Lutton Airport – we have now completed our tour of London airports, thank god – and voila, we waited to go to Sofia. While in the airport, Svetla managed to find a beautiful and cheap dress, which was a big relief for both of us, believe me. On the three hour flight to Sofia I managed to learn some Bulgarian from Svetla’s notes and because I practiced with an adorable eight year-old girl next to me named Alexandrina (her favourite colour is pink for the record). We arrived in Sofia at 1:30 AM pooped and frazzled, but alive, and Svetla’s parents picked us up.

I had my first taste of Bulgarian Hospitality when we got to Svetla’s family’s apartment (mom, dad, sister and grandma live here) with a massive spread of food and drinks, and at about 2 AM no doubt! There was stuffed vine leaves, chicken, melon, yoghurt, feta, filo pastry with sour cherries, white wine and whiskey (that we bought at the duty-free shop). We sat with mom, dad, and baba (grandma) and visited and ate until 4 AM. It was crazy – me speaking in my terrible french with Svetla’s grandma, everyone but me speaking in Bulgarian, Svetla’s dad speaking some English with me, and Svetla translating everything like an exhausted translater at the end of a four day UN summit. It was a wonderful introduction to the Turnin family and home, and now we are rested, post-jet lagged and ready for Bulgaria!! (I just need to send that damn Brazilian presentation to my prof for them to read in lieu of me not being there…)