Category Archives: homemade is best

In Praise of Email

Nearly a year ago, my wife and I moved from California to the Balkans. I knew that this would involve some sacrifices, especially as far as communication with my friends and family, and that seeing loved ones would go from being an everyday event to a rare joy. It was obvious that keeping in touch would be a lot more important for maintaining relationships, but it didn’t seem like it would be a lot more work. The small country to which we were moving has some of the fastest Internet in the world, so there are no technical obstacles keeping us from being in touch with friends in America. There’s a bigger problem putting a serious damper on my correspondence, which I wasn’t even aware of  before moving to a different hemisphere. At some point in the recent past, email has become nearly as archaic for most people as physical correspondence. Receiving an email and being expected to reply to it has taken on the baneful weight of an imposition. A long personal email has become something the recipient has to grudgingly deal with, like a homework assignment or being left in charge of an ex’s dogs after a breakup.

There’s a decent amount of research online charting email’s path to the status of an anachronism. More and more each year, email is something that’s used solely for work. Among the next generation of Internet users, teens, email is as popular as learning cursive and opposition to same-sex marriage. The tech press reliably releases headlines declaring email doomed, if not dead already. I didn’t learn how unpopular personal emails are from Wired, though, or from marketers wringing their hands over the inaccessibility of tweens’ wallets. Once I was no longer accessible to my fellow American by phone, it became clear that email has been dragged to the desktop recycle bin in our hearts.

It’s a shame, because if you want to communicate long-distance, email is an excellent medium. It’s not perfect—written online communication cuts out the nuances of tone present in spoken conversation, but it has no space constraints and is transmitted instantaneously. Given the popular affection for minimalism embodied in the simple design of Apple, it’s a little surprising that email hasn’t become unexpectedly fashionable: what could be more flat and clean than a big, white box ready to be filled with black sans-serif type? As soon as you find yourself alone in a strange new permanence, you have a lot to tell the folks back home. Email is perfect for laying out your ideas, comfortably rolling out a story in rich detail to the only sympathetic eyes you may have.

However, I quickly noticed that most of my friends weren’t interested in continuing an email chain beyond more than a few exchanges. Emails started getting responded to with terse, sentence-long prose, or simply going unanswered. I expected this from my friends who were teachers, working 60-hour weeks, but it happened just as often with friends who are fellow partially employed freelance writers. One non-responder could be found on Tumblr some weekends soliciting questions from strangers, in hopes of curing his single man’s Saturday-night boredom.

At the same time that emails were going unanswered, many of the recipients were telling me about the latest must-have apps that would bridge the gap between our physical locations. One friend enthusiastically boosts Instagram so he can send me pictures, one hypes Snapchat so we can chat in short bursts. Both of these functionalities are currently available to us through email, to which all can avail themselves if they so choose.

Embedded in these pitches is a certain brand of cyber-utopianism. If only we had the newest app, the reasoning goes, we’d finally have the right platform for keeping in touch. It sells users based on the idea of a glaring deficit in existing online communications technology, to be rectified with a soon-to-be-released solution. WhatsApp, for instance, bills itself as the “easiest and cheapest” way to chat with friends—finally, a way to send online messages for free! Email seems like a perfectly functional way to accomplish the tasks of sending text and pictures, so it’s hard to grasp the appeal of platforms whose only innovation over email is built-in word limitations. To those less invested in the cyber-utopian narrative, it looks less like a communications revolution than a shift in consumer tastes driven by hype. Continue reading

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Knitting in Bulgaria

sweater sighting at Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria

sweater sighting at Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria

While Lorenzo’s busy learning Bulgarian at breakneck speed, and sharing his keen insights into our charmed lives here in Bulgaria, I’m knitting.

Living here provides endless inspiration, and a welcome new perspective on my hobby/obsession. Recently I posted a piece on my blog, entitled, Knitting is a Right, Not a Privilege, about how learning from Bulgarian knitters has completely changed my outlook. I wrote the piece for other knitters, but anyone who’s ever worn slippers made by their baba will probably relate:

Here, handknits are widely available, and consequently, not treated gently. When I knit in public, no one suggests I should sell my work. Instead, people remark that their grandma makes new socks for them every winter, or that they buy all their slippers from a prolific neighbor. At the market, I like to compliment anyone I see wearing a handknit sweater, or a garment that’s been visibly mended. Usually, the wearer will beam and tell me who made or mended it for them, or if they did it themselves.

You can find the full article here. Enjoy!

Surviving Na Gosti

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Bulgaria is one of those countries with a hospitality culture that guidebooks and Sunday newspaper sections rave about.

This means that you will be cared for in a way that can be both warm and oppressively overbearing, welcoming and kind of weird. Spend any time here and make friends with any locals, and you will end up invited На Гости (Na Gosti). The literal translation of na gosti is “as guest,” which makes gosti the rare Bulgarian word that sounds remotely like its English counterpart. Na Gosti isn’t just going over for dinner—it’s more like participating in a local folk dance, where everyone knows the steps except you. Here’s the choreography for surviving Na Gosti:

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First, there are 3 things you need to know:

  1. You need to eat and drink slower than you ever thought possible, because
  2. It is your host’s duty to force-feed you, and
  3. You will be there for at least 5 hours.

Na gosti is a battle between host and guest: the host must make you eat, and you must avoid excruciating gut pain. Continue reading

Favorite Things, Inside Out

Here’s me in my brand-new vest, knit from Quince & Co Sparrow and one of the lovely designs from Knitbot Linen. This photo is also a contribution to Fashion Revolution Day, which I learned about from the amazing Abigail Doan.

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I thought this would be a great day to link to something I wrote for A Verb For Keeping Warm, almost a year ago. It’s a reflection on a maker’s place in the fashion food chain. Follow this link to read “Favorite Things” on the Verb blog.

Thank you, Abigail, for turning me on to Fashion Revolution Day! And thank you to the Verb team and every clothes-making bad-ass I know. Turn it #insideout y’all. -H/Х 

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Making Easter Eggs in Bulgaria

Did you know that Bulgarians traditionally dye eggs for Easter?

Yeah, I know. Americans do, too. But Bulgarians are really into Easter eggs, though!


dyeing 5,000 eggs in a Bulgarian monastery

Peace Corps volunteers are told that the presence of a sickeningly optimistic, naive newcomer can inspire locals to see their home country with new eyes. Likewise, conning my man into moving to Bulgaria with me has refreshed my curiosity about my former Peace Corps site.

Lorenzo, being naturally more inquisitive and observant than I am, has lots of questions. To my shame, I usually can’t answer them. I know more about Bulgaria than the average American, but not half as much as I should, considering I’m fluent in Bulgarian, lived here for two years, and have heard the country’s history, recited in Homeric monologues by at least four old men I met on trains, beginning with the words, “Thirteen-hundred years ago…”

A typical trip through town with Lorenzo is like this:

“Who’s that?” he asks.

“Uhh, Saint Sofia?” It was a good guess, considering it’s a giant statue of a beautiful saintly woman with a crown on her head, a huge bird and a wreath of laurels, and it’s smack in the middle of the city, which is called Sofia.

“Neat, what’d she do?”

“Uhhhh,”

Or, as we’re riding down General Totleben Boulevard, he’ll ask, “Who was General Totleben?”

“I guess he was probably a general,” At this point we’ve reached Macedonia Square.

“Why is it called Macedonia Square?”

“I don’t know, because Macedonia is next to Bulgaria?” At least I know that.

Good Friday and whatever-the-Monday-after-Easter-Sunday-is-called (Lorenzo’s the Catholic, not me) are both national holidays, which makes Easter a four-day weekend. I guess Christ rose so that for two extra days I don’t have to, at least before noon. Just as Americans ask their coworkers what their plans are for a long weekend, for the last few days our friends have casually asked us, “Are you going to dye eggs?”

“Why do people keep asking if we’re going to dye eggs?” said my beloved this morning, “I’m a grown-ass adult. I haven’t dyed eggs since I was nine.”

Do grown-ups not ask each other that question in the US? I don’t know anymore.

“Bulgarians dye eggs for Easter,” I answered, “And then everyone hits each others’ eggs against theirs, and the last person with a un-cracked egg is the winner, and they save their egg, and they’ll have good luck all year.” Or, as my friend Vonka says, they’re the loser, because they have to keep a hard-boiled egg for a year.

velikden

this is the kind of thing you might find on your Facebook wall for Easter

Traditionally, Bulgarian Easter eggs were all dyed red. The first egg to go in the dye pot was supposedly sacred, and was saved until the following Easter (yes, that’s another egg you’re supposed to keep for a year). Those who have introduced heathen colors like blue and orange into their egg-dyeing rituals are still supposed to dye this first one red. According to this post, red eggs are indispensable around the homestead. You can rub them on your boils, bury them in your crops to prevent hail, or just glue the shells to your walls and ceiling for a witchy-chic look.

Once he saw egg-dyeing as another pagan, old-world custom that Bulgaria un-self-consciously carries on, Lorenzo was excited about it. We eschewed the somber bottles of red dye for red onions, like my grandma uses.

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The internet told me that leaves, rice grains and other detritus could make resist-dye patterns on the eggs, so I gathered what was in the house: parsley, dill, oatmeal, beans, sugar, yarn, and a granny square.

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We used fifteen eggs, seven red onions, and one extra-large pair of pantyhose. Next time, I’ll use three times as many onions and twice as many pantyhose for the same number of eggs.

We peeled the onions and washed the eggs. Each egg we wetted, wrapped with onion skins and stuffed tightly into a knotted pantyhose segment. If we wanted a resist pattern, we’d wrap the egg with a parsley or dill sprig, or a length of yarn, before putting on the onion skin. We messed around with the sugar, oats and beans, but got better results with the herbs and the yarn.

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Once an egg was wrapped in onion and tied snugly in nylon, it went into a big pot of water with a tablespoon or so of vinegar. For good measure I also threw in whatever onion scraps were left over from the peeling process. Then we boiled the eggs for twenty minutes, or at least until the electricity to the stove shorted out.

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Our trusty stove, whose name rhymes with ‘badger’ in Bulgarian

We waited until the water was completely cooled before unwrapping the eggs, a feat of patience that deepened my understanding of what Jesus must’ve gone through.

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The result were mottled, rusty red eggs, just like at my Grandma’s house. Here’s my favorite:

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Happy Easter everybody! Христос возкресе! I’m sure these blood-colored eggs are just what He wanted, and have nothing to do with a pagan celebration of rebirth and fertility. -H/Х