Sarah in Bulgaria

Здравейте, Благоевград!

There and Back Again December 22, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — sarahinbulgaria @ 6:38 pm

Hello, everyone! Sorry it’s taken me so long to post. There’s really no good reason for it, except I haven’t been on the computer much–just enough to check that my AUBGers all made it home safely. All of my flights went smoothly and I’ve been at home for a week.

It took almost a week to adjust to this time zone. I was bound and determined to sleep in last Saturday and Sunday morning–after all, if there’s one time in my life I’m allowed to sleep ages and no one can say anything, it’s when I’m jetlagged!–but found that I really couldn’t sleep past 7 in the morning. I was surprised because when I came back from the UK this summer, I bounced back immediately. But I guess that that was only five hours instead of seven, and one month instead of four. I’ve finally adjusted, but I’m still trying to wake up pretty early because I forgot how much I like mornings. Not just in Bulgaria, but after two and a half years of college in general.

Coming back into the United States was weird. Really weird. I knew it would be, but because I’d never done this sort of thing before (haha) there was no way to predict why it would feel that way. Dollars still feel strange in my hands after 4 months of the shorter (and prettier) leva bills–like they’re play money. It’s funny because that’s exactly how I felt with leva at first. Okay, and I also got sticker shock when I bought the much-anticipated Five Guys burger, fries, and soft drink (FOUNTAIN DRINK! WITH FREE REFILLS!) for ten dollars and realized how much money I’d just spent after four months in a country where the cost of living was lower. After a moment of silence for the lack of a good exchange rate, I enjoyed my first meal back in Amurrica and called my parents. It was my mom’s birthday and we chatted while I waited on my last flight home.

I got the weirdest sense of deja vu on the plane from D.C. to Charleston. I felt like I was still on the plane leaving in August, where the semester abroad was stretching ahead of me in an unfamiliar place, full of adventure. But I was going towards home, not away from it, and I honestly felt for a few moments like the last four months weren’t even real. As excited as I was to see my parents, that’s the one time I was pretty sad. I kept seeing people’s faces in the D.C. airport or hearing voices (thankfully in English, though I was already missing Bulgarian) and thinking it was someone from AUBG. While–just to emphasize–I was still so excited to be home, I had to accept that I’d had my four months of adventure. The language, the classes, the traveling, the people; they were all gone, and it is a time in my life I will never be able to go back to. That book is closed. I can and will see some of my friends again, but not all of them and not all together. I hopefully will go back to Bulgaria, but probably not to living there. It’s hard. And as I said a few times in this blog, I liked who this experience was making me and I didn’t want to lose that. I was afraid I would. If I’m being honest, I’m still a little afraid of that. I learned a lot about confidence, spontaneity, patience, enjoying life, and love in Bulgaria. I want to keep this experience with me even more than my mosaic lamp from Istanbul or glass mask from Rome.

But when we touched down on the Charleston runway and I got to the waiting area and saw my parents, I forgot all of that. They had flowers, Spring Hill Bakery cookies (!) and one of those “Welcome Home” balloons. And lots of hugs and smiles. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive or loving family. We spent the weekend together; I got to see lots of my other family members as well, and hey, I watched some football! 🙂 This week I’ve been a bit of a couch potato. It’s been nice. Home is good.

I have had some minor things that you could consider culture shock, I suppose. When I walked out of the airport, I was struck by how shiny all the cars were. (Haha.) Driving again was seriously odd for a little while. And the pace of life here is a lot more rushed than it is in Bulgaria. When my parents were taking me out to a welcome-home dinner at Southridge (for those non-Charlestonians out there, it’s a bustling shopping area), I actually felt claustrophobic and panicky with all the cars (I forgot how crazy it is to try and go to Southridge anytime between Dec. 1-25). Then we ended up needing to choose another restaurant because there was a 2-hour wait at the one I originally picked. I had to make a quick decision because we were still in the car and moving, and I completely froze. There were so many to choose from. It’s taken me a little while to adjust from the Bulgarian “it’ll happen when it happens” to the American “it’s happening now and you’d better get on board.” But my parents have been right here all along.

It’s been a good week. I spent the night with one of my best friends, Jenna; we’ve been best friends since we were 4, and we had lots to catch up on, talking for 5 hours. My sister came home from Marshall and it’s great to be able to annoy her in person again. 😉 I got my room assignment at Marshall next semester and it’s, almost creepily, the exact room I would’ve chosen if I could have. So that’s perfect. It’s almost Christmastime, when I can give everyone the souvenirs I bought them during my adventures, eat good food, watch football, and be with people I love.

And yesterday, I went to see The Hobbit again with Katie. It had no Bulgarian subtitles (I miss speaking and listening to and reading and writing Bulgarian…) and it was much more expensive. But I loved watching it with her, and coming home to have dinner with my family. It’s just appropriate, I think, that the second part of The Hobbit’s title–the part you don’t hear said as much, but it’s there–is There and Back Again.

I’ve been there, and I’m back again with plenty of tales, souvenirs, pictures, and overall amazing memories. This is my last blog post, and I want to thank everybody who’s kept up with me over the last four months. I have almost 750 views, and that’s far more than I had expected when I began writing in August.

Being home is bittersweet, though more on the sweet side. I’m glad of that, because it shows the last four months meant something. Just like I’m always sad to turn the last page of a good book, I’m sad to turn this one in my life. But I’m excited to see where the next year and a half of college take me, and the adventures I can have and memories I can make here.

Весела Коледа (Merry Christmas!),


Goodbyes and Getting Older December 12, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — sarahinbulgaria @ 5:56 pm

Dobur den! (Although it’s almost time for dobur vecher.) I just finished my last final for my semester in Bulgaria!! (If you need to know what a ballad stanza or heroic quatrain is, or trochaic tetrameter, or–the question of questions–the difference between a symbol and a metaphor, and how they relate to myth and allegory, hurry and ask me in the next 5 minutes before I forget. Just kidding. Hopefully I’ll remember most of it for my British Romantic poets class next semester. Long side note over!) It’s a very good feeling, as always, to have the classes finished–although this semester flew much more quickly than most, academically. I learned valuable things in Bulgarian, fiction, and poetry. It was strange, walking back from the AUBG main building, to think it might be the last time I walk there. I have spent so much time in that building. On its couches, in its computer labs and classrooms, in the canteen (why do all of these start with C? Never noticed that before). And now I’m getting nostalgic. Oops. But I (and you, sorry) might as well accept it, because hey, this is my last blog in Bulgaria. I’m gonna be nostalgic.

Over the weekend I started the goodbyes. Thursday night I went to dinner with the wonderful, friendly writing tutors. I’ll miss that group. Friday night I went to a cozy Bulgarian mehana with my language class; Saturday, I went to a pizza/movie night with my church group and walked around and took lots of pictures of Blago with its Christmas lights, tree, and other decorations. Elizabeth and I ate some happy donuts at the really neat Christmas market that’s sprung up near the main square; if you remember, we had some of those at the Rila Monastery our first weekend here. It was her idea to have some on our last weekend in Blago as well. (Luckily, there were no bees fighting us for the donuts this time.) I seem to be obsessed with things going in full circle… It’s just funny how they really do, when you look hard; big things, small things. I’m a mixture of happy/sad, as always with this experience. I’m going to miss my fiction class a lot. I know it’s weird to say so, but I’ve learned so much in there and I’ve had fun doing it! It’s made me taking writing a lot more seriously. I’m going to miss my friends here and learning the Bulgarian language (along with becoming much better at non-verbal communication). I’ll miss Bulgarians, who are almost always kind and patient. I’ll miss Milka chocolate, banitsa, cirene (Bulgarian white cheese. So delicious), the espresso vending machines, and Bruno (the AUBG dog). I’ll miss every day being an adventure. I’ll miss traveling and seeing old things. I’ll miss having free time–may it rest in peace next semester, because I won’t be.

All right, to be fair and honest, there are things I won’t miss so much. I won’t miss living in Skaptopara 1; it’s a nice, comfortable residence hall and my roommates/suitemates are wonderful too, but it’s the freshman dorm and never sleeps, while I like sleep. Lots. So… adios, Skapto. I have mixed feelings about being able to drive again when I go home; it will be awesome, but I also hope I keep walking more because I’ve enjoyed that this semester. I won’t miss the apparently European hang-up about giving change and separate checks. (Shopkeepers, waitresses, etc. strongly prefer if you have exact change, or at least close change. You get the stink eye sometimes if you don’t.) I won’t miss going through a tangle of four converters and chargers to plug something in, or mentally converting between different currencies before I buy something (although granted, I’ll miss the dollar-to-lev exchange rate. Gotta be honest).

I can’t wait to see my family, have free drink refills, and watch holiday football with my dad and Gran. I can’t wait to be home and pretend my cat loves it when I hug him. I can’t wait for Christmas and New Year’s and seeing everyone at Marshall next semester.

So overall, there are so many things I’ll miss; dramatically fewer that I won’t; and a giant number of things I’m really excited about with going home and returning to Marshall. This has been a hiatus from… I was about to say real life, but my fourth-seminar professors would get on my case for saying that anything we live isn’t real life. (That was the philosophy seminar.) And it’s true, you know. The last few months have been very different from my life at home, and they’ve changed me, I think. Hopefully in positive ways. They’ve been every bit as real as any more “normal” timespan. It’s been a chance to grow up and have amazing opportunities to travel, meet people, and learn.

Today is my 21st birthday. (12/12/12! I’m more excited about the repetitive date than my actual birthday.) Good thing, since I’m bringing a bottle of Bulgarian wine home with me 🙂 thank you to my family at home (and the friends on facebook) for all of the happy-birthdays. Really, it’s been a lovely few days. Yesterday it snowed so much that everyone was outside making snow angels and having snowball fights. Everything is white and Christmas-y. You didn’t know this (haha) but at one point in writing this blog I paused because the girls I’m living with surprised me with a birthday cake. It was delicious, but more than anything else it was nice. I was afraid being away from home on my birthday would be a little lonely, but it’s not. I’m going out to dinner with some friends tonight, and tomorrow I have lunch and dinner plans with great people and a 1 a.m. showing of The Hobbit part one. (I know, it’s kind of stupid to go since it’s 3 hours long and I’m leaving at 7:30 that morning. But I have to. I can’t explain it, I just have to.)

Lots of goodbyes, and not a little sadness. But overpoweringly this semester has just filled me with joy. There are many beautiful places and beautiful people in the world. I know this to be true on a wider scale than I did before I started traveling in June. I’m going back home on Friday with heavier suitcases, but I feel like my heart is lighter, freer. And let me tell you, I can’t wait to get to Yeager airport and see my family waiting. I can’t even imagine what that will feel like.



Winding Down December 5, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — sarahinbulgaria @ 5:38 pm

Dobur den! Like the title of my post says, the semester is winding down. I’m currently in my last week of classes and I am finished with everything except for two exams and a creative writing revision. Today I managed to get all of the smaller potatoes done and my last paper for poetry. (I’ve been so productive. I keep looking at my to-do list and thinking “I actually did everything on it? Surely there must be some mistake!”) It’s strange to look at my weekly homework/assignment list and realize it’s growing very, very short. All I have left to do is begin the rounds of goodbyes and get (lots of) papers signed for transferring my credits home. Ah, the exchange student paperwork. How I hadn’t missed it.

Last weekend, among other things, I went to an AUBG student concert and souvenir shopping with my friend Elizabeth. We wandered into an antique shop and the poor shopkeeper was trying to tell us about her items in Bulgarian, and we were just like “Sorry, we have no idea what you’re saying, but apparently this is old because it’s 150 leva?” I’m proud of the amount of Bulgarian I’ve learned, since I can generally communicate, but not that much… 😦 I think I’d need at least a few years before I’d understand a lot of what’s going on around me.

So, something I’ve realized about myself: I love souvenirs. (I mean, I knew this before, but I’m only now realizing that it’s a problem.) I’m not talking about classy souvenirs, like nice scarves or clothes or even a T-shirt with “Bulgaria” printed on it; I’m talking about coffee mugs in lurid colors, magnets, bookmarks, playing cards, ornaments, the works. The cheesier the better. Usually I don’t even want it for myself; I’m just like “Oh how cute! I’m sure there is someone I can give this to!” and then I look at my pile of souvenirs and realize there was no point (or wisdom) in buying it. NO MORE, I tell you… maybe… unless I realize there’s five inches of space in my suitcase. (Just kidding, Mom, I swear. Really I’m done.)

I have one more day of classes (tomorrow) and then just my two finals next week. It’s a bit sad to be ending all the routines I’ve formed this semester; the ways I’ve found to fill time during long breaks, walking with my friends to and from class, paper-writing sessions and lots of procrastination. It’s different somehow from a semester ending at Marshall. Although maybe, now that I’m more aware of how each semester is its own routine and memories, I’ll realize next semester that it’s something that happens with every little phase of life.

All right, I guess that’s really about it for this week. No travel adventures, just Blagoevgrad ones like hunting for yummy banitsa, trying to figure out the appropriate way to wear a scarf (I’ve never really worn them before, but I’ve started because a) they’re warm and b) everyone here wears them and they’re so pretty) and watching all three extended editions of Lord of the Rings with Kevin and Jenny. (12 hours total.) We had our first snow on Monday night! The weather here is crazy. Up, down, up, down. The mountains that surround Blago are white now, though, which is really beautiful.

This weekend I have lots of goodbye-events; a dinner with the fabulous group of AUBG writing tutors, an evening at a mehana (traditional Bulgarian pub) with my Bulgarian language class, and maybe something fun with my church group as well. We’ll see. I’m lucky to have encountered so many incredible people this semester and to have had the experiences I’ve had.

I have very mixed feelings about going home next Friday. I’m so excited!!!! I miss my family so much. But I’m also a little sad; the first part of the semester I counted down the time left, and ever since I got back from fall break I’ve tried to ignore time passing more. The part that makes me feel better about it is that I will get to see some of these people again, and I can always come back to Bulgaria. Who knows what will happen? 🙂 I’m planning on writing two more blogs after this one; one next week when I’m finished with finals and in the process of packing, and one when I get home. Completing the circle, of sorts, since I wrote a blog at home before I left.




Philippi and Kavala November 28, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — sarahinbulgaria @ 3:43 pm

Dobur den! Almost forgot that it’s blog day; from Monday morning to Thursday evening, my days are passing in a bit of a blur. Do assignments, do fun things, then more assignments. But after this week I’ll be all but finished with my classes (except for a few minor things and the final exams), so I’ll have more time to just wander around. I’m definitely going to miss only having four classes. I designated this a no-stress semester in August, and it has been that. The classes I have, I’ve put effort into and learned from; but overall this has been a semester to relax, have new experiences, and enjoy life. It’s been a great week.

When I last left off, it was the day before Thanksgiving. On Thursday, I had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner in the AUBG canteen. For some reason this event was national news, so I and another American exchange student were interviewed by a TV station about Thanksgiving traditions and our experiences in Bulgaria. It was very strange to have an interpreter listen to me and relay my words in another language! At the end, they asked me to introduce myself, and I was able to do it in Bulgarian—very simply, with just my name, nationality, and age. I loved that moment. Not necessarily for the pleased surprise on the journalist’s face, but because I believed before I came (and still believe) that attempting to learn Bulgarian is a way for me to show respect for Bulgaria’s culture and history. And I really do like the language, even though it’s harder to learn than Spanish. While celebrating my own country’s heritage with Thanksgiving, I was reminded that I’ve been given this chance to learn about another culture as well.

The food was lovely. Pumpkin soup; turkey with amazing, fresh cranberry sauce; grilled vegetables; mashed potatoes with gravy; bread; blueberry stuffing; and sweet potato pie with whipped cream. I liked the dishes like pumpkin soup that I ordinarily wouldn’t have had on Thanksgiving, and the turkey, mashed potatoes and pie were very similar to home. I sat with three Americans, three Bulgarians, and two Moldovans and we had a great time. It’s a small thing, maybe, but I will definitely remember this Thanksgiving with fondness. Friday was entirely spent writing papers, which had a curious sort of satisfaction in itself. I’m literally not used to having major assignments finished a week before they’re due. I have so much due tomorrow, and while I have things to tweak and finish up, I’m not running around campus frantically and panicking; what a nice change!

Saturday, after a productive morning, I took the evening off to go to a play produced by AUBG students and then out to dinner. The play was funny and the food and company were great. Sunday morning I woke up early for a road trip to Philippi, Greece with several people from my church group here. (One, an AUBG professor, is originally from Pennsylvania; another American exchange student; and a Moldovan student.) I strongly prefer car trips to bus trips, but that’s not a surprise haha. I love flipping through pages on my passport and trying to remember which trip each stamp is from—I’m accumulating quite a few. We drove into Greece under an overcast sky. Orange trees are beginning to bear fruit and the cotton has been harvested; you can see it along the side of the road, where pieces have blown off trucks hauling it. It was strange going back to Greece in late November, when the other two times I traveled there were in late summer (Nea Peramos and Thessaloniki). We went to a different border than the other trips I’ve been on, and as we entered Greece territory we saw anti-tank defensive equipment on the hills. Bill, the American professor, said it’s something left over from the years of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Not sure what it was about but it was a bit jarring.

Not quite as jarring as the next thing we saw; apparently it is hunting season for something in northern Greece, because we were driving along the road and kept seeing men in hunting jackets with shotguns over their shoulders, just staring at us. There were at least six within a couple of miles of each other, and right on the road. I was hoping it wasn’t open American season… We arrived in Philippi after about a 3.5-hour drive from Blagoevgrad. (Not bad at all! Crazy, isn’t it; I can be at the Greek border in the same distance as driving from Charleston to Huntington, or at Kavala in almost the same time as Charleston to Columbus.) We were even able to get into the archaeological dig site for free when Bill told the ticket man that we were EU students and a professor. The man said, and I quote, “We are in an economic crisis, but who cares? Enjoy,” and handed over our free tickets. (I have had nothing but positive experiences with Greek people. They’re simply lovely.)

Philippi was incredible. No other word for it. We walked around the various fields and dig sites for a couple of hours and we had the place to ourselves! It was remarkable that we could just clamber over signs and pillars from this old, old town. There were few signs—it wasn’t exactly tourist-friendly—but I liked it in a way. Left more room for the imagination. Where did this door lead? What do the words on this sign mean, and where did it stand? We joked about it some—“Oh, here’s the McDonalds—“ but it was beyond words. There was a sign marking the Via Egnatia, the ancient major road leading from Rome through Greece. Then, of course, there was the history—why we’d come. It was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. On the way, we read aloud the chapter from Acts that describes Paul’s trip to Philippi and subsequent imprisonment. We were standing on the same ground (more or less) that Paul stood on; the same place where he was dragged by the officials. We saw a jail cell that is speculated to be where he was held, although biblical scholars question this; at any rate, it’s similar.

After Philippi, we went briefly to Lydia—the site of the first Christian baptism in Europe, and where they have both an indoor and outdoor baptistery now—and then on to the seaside town of Kavala, about ten miles further south. There we wandered around the streets, climbing up to a “castle” with a great view of the city and the Aegean. I ate a very delicious gyro and more baklava (I love Greek food!) before we headed back to Blago. The trip completed a circle for me, in a way; Greece was my first weekend trip when I came to Bulgaria, and it’s also my last. It was a great weekend and so far this has been a good week. Even while I’m close to jumping up and down to go home and see my family, I get progressively more astonished by time racing by. This weekend and the next I’ll be here in Blagoevgrad; the one after that, I’ll be home. 🙂




Swan Lake and Vampires November 21, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — sarahinbulgaria @ 11:00 am

Zdraveyte! It’s been a productive week in terms of homework. I’m working hard on a lot of my end-of-semester projects; a lot of them are due next week, actually, and the remainder the week after. Because believe it or not (I certainly can’t get this to sink in), I only have two more weeks left of class and then finals week. So. Weird.

Hmm… what’s happened? Last Friday, I went to Sofia with a bunch of other AUBG students to see Swan Lake at the Sofia Opera House. It was a fun trip. We had the nosebleed seats to end all nosebleed seats and for some reason the show took three intermissions, one after every act (that seemed very Bulgarian to me. Fluid, fluid sense of time), but nevertheless I got to meet some new AUBG students, hang out with friends, and see a really gorgeous show. I’d never been to a professional ballet before (unless you count the elementary-school trip to see The Nutcracker, but I don’t because I was little and fidgety) and it was beautiful. Also very convenient that ballet is a wordless performance–no language barrier! I really loved the scenes at the lake, between Odette and the prince. I realized while traveling back to Blago that that might be my last bus trip of my year abroad, and it was bittersweet to think about. It’s been incredible how many places I’ve gotten to see and how many experiences I’ve gotten to have. But I have to admit… I was a little happy about no-more-long-bus-trips. 🙂

It’s not my last trip, though! Either this weekend or the next (this weekend, probably), I am going to Philippi, Greece with my church group for a day trip. Luckily the leaders of our group have a car so that’s much more convenient than using bus schedules. But that’s likely to be the only place I go in the next few weeks due to academic and financial considerations. I’m okay with that. There are a lot of places I’d love to go–Macedonia, Croatia, southern Greece, and more places around Bulgaria–but I only have a few weekends left and I mostly want to spend them here in Blagoevgrad. I want to see my friends, study hard and write my papers, and all that good stuff.

I also saw the last Twilight movie over the weekend 🙂 and it was better than the other ones, in my opinion. It was amusing to be in the movie theater with about six thousand Bulgarian high-schoolers. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but there were lots of young folks coming out of the woodwork. Made me feel like a granny. Was I ever that young and giggly? Yes… I was.) My friend Elizabeth and I did some souvenir shopping and got lunch out. There’s a neat Christmas market coming into existence in the center of Blago. There are Christmas lights up, though they’re not turned on yet. Then I conquered procrastination and did lots and lots of work. Hooray! I’ve figured out if I do all the fun things on my agenda when I first get up, there is a much better chance I’ll grumblingly do work later. Don’t know why. But when I leave all the fun stuff for the evening, I do aaaabsolutely nothing all day long and then I feel guilty about doing fun stuff. (But not that guilty, clearly.)

Tonight I’m presenting a poster at a Bulgarian culture evening. I have to talk about what Bulgarian language is to me. Luckily, I’m allowed to do it in English! 🙂 Life’s going just fine, and time is moving very very quickly… tomorrow night I am going to THANKSGIVING DINNER! I can’t remember if I wrote about this in my last post, and I’m too lazy to look it up (haha), so just to recap or tell you for the first time: AUBG’s dining services chieftain/chef is putting on a Thanksgiving spread tomorrow night. Pumpkin soup, turkey and cranberry sauce, and a sweet potato tart. A lot of my friends are going–and not only the American ones–so while it won’t be the same as being with my family, it will be a great evening, and a great memory of that one time I had Thanksgiving in Bulgaria. There’s also a major possibility that I’ll get to Skype with my family while they’re all together for Thanksgiving, which sounds simultaneously chaotic and fun!




Life as Normal November 14, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — sarahinbulgaria @ 8:32 pm

Dobur vecher! When I posted last week–amid all the excitement of writing about fall break–I neglected to write about something pretty monumental: watching the election in Bulgaria. It’s not the same thing as traveling to Rome and Bucharest, but it was also a new and eye-opening experience. Not because of the results necessarily but because I received so much information about how the rest of the world views American politics.

All right, so it’s actually been a bit disheartening how much the election has been covered here. I didn’t study abroad this semester for this reason, of course, but I have to admit that I was thrilled to be gone during all the hoopla that surrounds major elections–and it doesn’t get much more major than the election for president. But it was perfectly normal to see Mitt Romney and Barack Obama’s names spelled out in Cyrillic on the television when I passed by. And as the election drew nearer and nearer, more and more people started asking me how I felt about it, from fellow students (generally pro-Obama, though not always) to the cab driver who, when he discovered I was American, said “Mitt Romney! Barack Obama. Da, Mitt Romney.” It still wasn’t as 24/7 as it would’ve been at home, of course, but it was also impossible to forget. As I posted earlier, I cast my absentee ballot before I left for break and then let it drop from my mind until Election Day.

I don’t want to talk about my political views on this blog because that’s not its purpose and it’s not that important anyway. But the day of and after the election, I lost track of how many people–from all over the world–conversed with me about it. Most people here are pro-Obama, so the mood was pretty happy. It was interesting; when people asked me who I voted for, I told them and then I asked who they would have voted for. Nothing life-changing to watch the election from here, but especially because it’s the first one I was old enough to vote in, it will definitely be memorable.

The last week has been nice, but not very exciting. (It’d be hard to match fall break anyway.) I did lots and lots of homework over the weekend because end-of-semester projects are looming. That’s a strange feeling in and of itself, to turn my gaze to the last weeks of class at AUBG. When I first arrived here, I felt like time was moving so slowly and there was so much of it. Now, life here just feels normal and the weeks pass like they’re minutes, hours. Coincidentally, exactly one month from today–December 14–I go home.  I saw Cloud Atlas (very interesting. Very confusing. I’d like to read the book), wrote a story for my fiction class, hung out with my friends. On Sunday night I went to AUBG’s Long Night Against Procrastination. The library stayed open from 8 pm to 8 am (it normally isn’t open during the night) and students were invited to come work on projects. I worked as a writing tutor for several hours and then stayed up doing my own assignments. I’m not much of a night person but it was fun in a strange way, mostly because I was there with friends.

Other than that, I haven’t done much over the past few days. This Friday I’m going to Sofia to see a ballet, Swan Lake! The International Students Office arranged this trip, like many of the others I’ve participated in. They do such an amazing job. The rest of the weekend will be devoted to homework once again.

Like I said at the beginning, not that exciting. But ordinary life really isn’t, and that’s what life here feels like now. It’s not “life in Bulgaria” as separated from “regular life.” It’s just familiar living, day to day, seeing friends and going to class. Periodically I still get this realization that I’m living in a foreign country, using rudimentary Bulgarian every day, but it doesn’t hit me as often as it used to. Might sound cheesy, but this is just life–a very good one.

I love that “da,” “ne,” and “dobur den” are beginning to feel as natural on my tongue as yes, no, and hello. Although I still haven’t mastered the Bulgarian head shake/nod thing. Don’t think I ever will…

Dovizhdane 🙂



Planes, Buses, and Trains–Oh My! November 7, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — sarahinbulgaria @ 10:22 pm

Hey, everybody. Good news. Despite everything that could’ve gone wrong over break, considering how many elements were involved in the travel planning, I’m alive, well, and had an amazing time. In fact, it was so awesome I don’t even fully know where to begin to talk about it. But I guess it makes sense to start at the beginning, right? So let’s do that.

Break started when my last class ended on Thursday evening (two weeks ago). I was so excited about fall break that my mind had been nothing else the entire week, so it was good that I had nothing major due. I got back to Skaptopara, packed–not an inconsiderable feat, since I (a notorious overpacker, if you remember my very first blog post) had to fit everything for a week of traveling into my backpack. This includes my purse, as the discount airline we flew with to Rome and back allowed one bag, period. I am proud of this accomplishment. I have pictures as proof.

That night, my friend Elizabeth and I were trying to stay up late because (this is going to sound really convoluted probably. And the side note isn’t helping so oops) our flight left from Sofia airport at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, meaning we had to be there around 3-4 a.m., and we wanted to be tired enough by Friday evening to get a decent amount of sleep so we wanted to stay awake Thursday night/Friday morning. Elizabeth suggested paper-writing until the wee hours. But, yeah, we were on break and didn’t have that much urgent work to do anyway, so instead we went to see the premiere of James Bond: Skyfall. (Hooray for procrastination.) It was really good, actually. Although I think part of the appeal was seeing Istanbul and London in the movie scenes and saying obnoxiously to Elizabeth, “We’ve been there!”

Anyway. We had a late night, napped, and got up early to take a bus to Sofia. We intended to spend the day sightseeing in Sofia, but for reasons I will explain, that didn’t happen. I hadn’t been to Sofia yet (crazy, huh?) so I was excited. Unfortunately, my first experiences with Sofia were pretty bad. Even though we’d been warned by everyone and their brother to be careful with cab drivers in the capital–they’re notorious for overcharging foreigners–we still ended up with a corrupt taxi driver. He had rates posted (though in retrospect they were a little higher than normal) and a meter that started where it should’ve. But magically, after we’d been driving for around 2 minutes, the meter said we owed 30 leva–and we’d barely left the bus station.

Just for reference, taking a cab anywhere in Sofia is supposed to cost no more than 15 leva; that’s from one end to the other. His excuse was “Traffic, there’s traffic. No more than 50 leva to the mall.” We asked him to stop and found a more reputable taxi. From then on we kept an eagle eye on that darn meter. The second cab driver was very nice. We shopped for a while at The Mall (Sofia has a bazillion giant shopping malls apparently), which was fun because it felt very familiar. I found a Lush cosmetics store (yay! I fell in love with their products in England this summer) and ate lunch at Subway, with fountain soda. So much joy.

With food in our bellies and retail therapy, we went out with a newly enthusiastic outlook to find another cab for the trip to our hostel. The third cab didn’t overcharge us; he simply didn’t know where our street was, pretended he figured it out, and dropped us off at one that sounded sort-of similar, driving off very quickly before we realized. We had no clue where we were or how to get to our hostel. After a couple of hours of wandering around, asking very nice Sofians where to go (including two teenage boys who looked it up on Google Maps for us), we finally reached the hostel. Maybe it won’t surprise you that we didn’t feel like exploring after all of that. We ate at a restaurant close by and crashed for a few hours before taking another cab (that our hostel hostess arranged) to the airport at 3 a.m. Unfortunately, we read our boarding passes wrong and asked to be dropped off at the wrong terminal. In a lot of airports that wouldn’t be a problem, since there will be transportation between terminals, right? Not at Sofia airport at 3:30 a.m. We started walking (man that was a cold morning, too) and halfway there, a taxi pulled up beside us to offer a ride. The driver originally said 5 euros to the terminal (10 leva!), and we laughed at him so he changed it to 5 leva. We took it, even though it was still blatant overcharging, because… well… it was cold.

Oh, and how funny! I pointed at his meter and he said “broken.” -_- I was thinking, “Sir, we are on to your tricks, we just don’t care.”

Moral of this very long story: I didn’t originally like Sofia, though that changed when I returned from Rome. And never ever ever take a taxi in Sofia if you don’t speak fluent, unaccented Bulgarian. If you do need one… CONSTANT VIGILANCE. (It’s really a shame because there are so many nice and honest cab drivers out there.)

Enough about Sofia; I promise I’ll have a ton of good things to say about it after Rome, to balance out the negative. If I told you everything I did, and everything that I thought and felt, while I was in Rome it would literally take about ten blog posts. But essentially, I fell in love with that city. I’ve been to Paris, London, and Istanbul (gosh it’s been a good year), and I liked them all and wanted to spend more time there. But Rome… I actually expected to be disappointed, in a way, because for as long as I can remember it’s been the number-one place I’ve wanted to visit. It was such an ideal in my brain that I thought there was no way the reality could hold up. But it did.

Our plane arrived early on Saturday. We waited a little while for Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Nathan, to arrive from the States and then took a bus into the city. We were all sleepy (the stay-up-late plan on Friday didn’t really work), but man, there was no way I could sleep. Jenny and I just kept looking at each other like “WE’RE IN ITALY.” I was traveling with Jenny from Ireland and Elizabeth, Kathleen, and Nathan from the US. When we got into Rome, we walked for a while and then–like something out of a dream, as cheesy as that sounds–we found the Coliseum. We turned a corner and it was there. I texted my parents, even though it was the middle of the night their time, because I just had to share my excitement.

We spent some time hanging around the Coliseum because hey, it’s AWESOME and we couldn’t check into our bed and breakfast until noon. Then we went to our B&B, which was pretty close to the metro but in a more residential part of Rome. Very comfortable and clean; they had two cats (awww! I miss my cat, so that was fun) and when we walked in, bedraggled, the hostess invited us to sit down and have something to drink. We had a great stay there. We were allowed to use the kitchen, and the B&B was close to a supermarket, so we made meals a couple of times. It saved money, and it was also just a nice time. We made pasta, bought fresh bread and mixed some olive oil with cheese and pepper to dip it in, and had a little wine. Breakfast was great too. If anyone happens to travel to Rome, let me know and I will shamelessly plug that place to you.

Now for Rome itself. Saturday we saw the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. The Spanish Steps were okay–just steps, really, but very nice ones I suppose–but the Trevi Fountain was absolutely incredible. Even though I’ve seen it in movies and whatnot, I guess I still expected a little fountain in the middle of a square somewhere, just burbling along. Nope. It’s an elaborately carved, ginormous monument that’s attached to the back of a fancy building and the water is so powerful, the air is cool and misty. (Not that important in late October, but if you go in summertime, I’d advise just chilling at the Trevi and people-watching for a while.)

We found gelato (!!) and even though it was frigid, I ate it very happily. Mmmm. We had an early night and went to the Vatican the next morning. If you happen to be in Rome on the last Sunday of the month, entrance to the Vatican is free, and we took advantage of it even though it meant the masses (no pun intended) came at the same time. At first the line was insanely long (there’s security to pass through, even though it was free) so we saw St. Peter’s Square and just wandered around Vatican City. It was pretty, and I was a little ashamed that I knew a few of the famous sights only from watching the Angels and Demons movie…

Then we returned to the Vatican line, which was shorter, and ate paninis from a nearby stand while waiting. We got inside, saw lots more pretty things (which is a ridiculously brief summary for seeing ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and the Raphael Rooms, among other galleries, but I can just tell you they were pretty) and then we saw the Sistine Chapel. That sounds nonchalant; it totally wasn’t. I loved that place, despite the irony of automated loudspeakers telling visitors to be quiet in the chapel. Jenny and I just sat for a while on one side and stared up, looking at all of Michelangelo’s paintings, and some other artists’ as well. Just indescribably beautiful.

We spent a lot of the day looking up. At the gorgeous painted ceilings as we walked through the Vatican; the Sistine Chapel; then in St. Peter’s Basilica, which is the last stop on the Vatican tour. It’s appropriate, I think, that I had a little stiffness in my neck at the end of the day from being so fixated on what was above me. I’m not Catholic, but the Vatican is a center of Christianity, a place of faith. In the midst of my awe I felt it was right that even a superficial tour of the Vatican directs visitors to look up and marvel.

After the Vatican, Jenny, Kathleen and I tried to go inside the Coliseum but it was closed when we got there. So we just sat on some stones outside the Coliseum and had nice (even somewhat philosophical) conversations for a while, until it got too cold. (We ended up seeing the Coliseum every single day we were in Rome.) We weren’t ready to call it a night yet, so we walked down to Piazza Venezia–the government building, I think–and saw the Coliseum lit up at night when we came back to the metro stop there.

Monday was our last full day in Rome. We went to the Coliseum again and paid to go inside this time. That was really really cool, even though it was a rainy day. One nice part about being in Rome on the offseason–in addition to the cooler weather and probably cheaper prices on some things–is that the touristy things are still busy, but you can move without bumping into somebody. Yay. After the Coliseum we went to the Piazza del Popolo, saw some Caravaggio paintings in a lovely church, ate a delicious lunch (with TIRAMISU! I had tiramisu in Italy and it was yummy!), and walked down to the Pantheon and the Fountain of Four Rivers (by Bernini). It poured for a while, then we walked a little farther to Trastevere Square across the Tiber River. A great place to see. Then back up, walking all the way to the Trevi Fountain to eat a melt-in-your-mouth farewell dinner and see the Trevi glowing at night.

Jenny discovered an authentic Irish pub within walking distance of the Coliseum, and we hung out there for a while so she could have a taste of home before we left Italy. I was thrilled because they were showing American football! I’ve missed it so much :’) at one point I realized I was watching American football in an Irish pub in Italy, on my way back to Bulgaria to travel on to Romania. That was one of those moments that just humbles you. How incredible this experience has been, that I can do things like that and not even really realize it most of the time–how lucky I am. Not least because I was traveling with some really fun, kind people.

The next morning, leaving Rome, was a bit more stressful than I would’ve liked… for some reason when we got to the main Rome bus station, none of the buses for the airport were leaving. I think there was a wreck or something. The buses were there, but none of them left for ages. On the half-hour ride to the airport, I was practically hyperventilating (because when I get worried I do it majorly. Don’t I, Jenny?) and didn’t even thoroughly enjoy our last sight of the Coliseum as the bus took us around it. We made it, though; and God was with us, or traveler’s luck or something, because we made it through security and passport control at the airport in literally 30 seconds, and got to our gate with about 10 minutes to spare. Craaazy morning.

Kathleen flew to Switzerland from Rome to stay with a friend, and Elizabeth and Nathan were going straight back to Blagoevgrad from Sofia. Jenny and I met up with one of my suitemates, Temenuzhka (Titi for short. She’s the RA who was so nice to me when I first got here in August). She’s from Sofia, and she showed us around! My opinion of the city–pretty ugly from my experiences on Friday–changed completely. Sofia is beautiful, despite its sometimes-mean cabbies. We ate warm banitsa, walking through the park on a cold autumn day, and saw the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the President’s House–among lots of other cool things. Seeing it with Titi made navigating easier, of course, but I also enjoyed spending time with her. She took Jenny and me home with her for dinner! One of my roommates, Desi, is Titi’s sister and was there for dinner as well. Their mother made us delicious, traditional Bulgarian foods (kyufte, banitsa, and other yummy things) and it was truly one of the best evenings I’ve had while traveling. It was lovely to be in a warm place with kind and generous people. My second day in Sofia was amazing, which more than made up for the first day.

This blog post is really long. Oops. Ah, well; feel free to go get a snack and come back, or just stop wherever. :p On to Romania! Jenny and I met up with Kevin (who’s a fellow exchange student from West Virginia! Woot!) at the Sofia bus station (impressive because he had to take, like, 4 buses over an entire day from Croatia) to get on the only daily bus to Bucharest. It left a little after midnight and we were able to 1) get student tickets and 2) pre-arrange seats on the bus back on Saturday, which I’d been a little worried about, so that was awesome. I sat beside a friendly Russian man named Leste (I think) who spoke Russian and some German, while I told him I spoke English, some Spanish, and a little Bulgarian. Though we didn’t have any languages in common, we still managed to communicate.

We arrived in Bucharest early Wednesday morning (Halloween!) and reached the first/only real hiccup in the entire trip: we didn’t know which bus station we were at, because Bucharest has a bunch, didn’t know how to get to the train station, and didn’t have any Romanian currency to take a taxi. There were also no ATMs anywhere in sight. So basically we just started walking through residential neighborhoods and almost ran smack into the palatial Parliament Building, one of the main tourist sights in Bucharest. From there we were able to find an ATM, get on a metro, and buy train tickets to Brasov (picking up some delicious McDonald’s for breakfast along the way!). Crisis averted.

That was such a beautiful train trip. I hadn’t really done trains before I went to England this summer, and I still haven’t been on many; train travel is the way to go in Romania, so it was really nice. The train was pretty new and comfortable, and the Romanian countryside kept getting more and more gorgeous as we got higher into the mountains towards Transylvania. The autumn colors were vivid, reminding me of West Virginia in a happy way; Kevin and I agreed that something we really missed this year was seeing the trees turn in WV. We arrived in Brasov around noon, found our hostel, dropped our bags off, and with barely a pause for directions from our hostess set out for Bran Castle.

It was a bit complicated to get there, especially since it closes very early in the fall/winter–4 p.m.–and my guidebook was outdated so we weren’t expecting it to be that early. But as luck would have it, every time we needed a bus there was one. We made it to Bran with time to spare and had a great evening wandering around the castle, through a secret passageway and up and down the terraces. Bran wasn’t a castle-y castle, if that makes sense; it was no Versailles, and it isn’t even really that connected to the Dracula/Vlad Tepes legend. But it was pretty in its own right and worth seeing. Especially on Halloween, just for sentiment’s sake.

The next day, Thursday, we took a day trip up to Sighisoara. It was further north in Transylvania, smack in the middle of Romania as a whole. Sighisoara is a tiny medieval citadel town, and despite the again-rainy weather the day we were there (and the round-trip 6 hour train), we had a great time. It had lots of narrow cobblestone streets, pastel buildings (almost all of which were marked as a historic monument), and the major feature of the city: its citadel. We entered through the looming clock tower, its multicolored roof glistening with rain, and saw lots of old beautiful towers. The house where Vlad Tepes/Vlad Dracul was born is there as well. So worth the trip. However, when we booked our train ticket back to Brasov, we wondered why the return price was dramatically cheaper than the to-price…. it was because it was not a nice train like the others. Imagine shrill brakes, the smell of wet sheep (that’s what Kevin compared it to, I have no idea what wet sheep smell like. Not nice apparently), and it’s also dark outside so we can’t see where we are. Which made it interesting when we were trying to figure out when to get off the train. We ended up saying “Okay, looks sort of like we’re in a city now” and getting off–and it all turned out fine because we were right… 🙂

Moral of this story: if there’s a suspiciously low-priced train, there is a reason.

Nonetheless, we made it back to Brasov perfectly fine. The next morning, Friday morning, we had originally intended to travel to Sinaia on our way back to Bucharest. Sinaia has the beautiful Peles Castle, among other things; but the castle is closed for restoration every November (boo) and we hadn’t gotten much time to just look around Brasov, so we decided to spend a day doing that instead. We took a cable car up to the top of the mountain above the city and sort-of hiked over to a panorama. Then we went back down (my weak knees, due to fear of heights, were very grateful–even though the cable car was my idea and it was cool) and walked around Brasov’s main square and saw a gorgeous, Gothic-looking Protestant cathedral called the Biserica Neagra, or Black Church.

By this point I was still enjoying myself mightily–Jenny and Kevin were fun to travel with, and we were seeing some incredible, off-the-beaten-track places–but at the same time I was getting very ready to go back to Blagoevgrad. We took a late train to Bucharest, struggled our way towards our hostel (which was nicer than any hotel. It was called The Cozyness, if that gives you any indication, and it lived up to the name), and walked around Bucharest’s Old City for a while before settling in another Irish pub to relax. I actually met some people from Bucharest and made friends with one girl in particular, named Roxana. It was a wonderful last evening in Romania, getting to see part of the city life and not just be tourists.

We didn’t see as much of Bucharest as we should’ve; there just wasn’t enough time to do everything we wanted, and Bucharest is easier to get back to than Brasov, Sighisoara, Bran, etc. so we cut out some time there. But on Saturday we saw the Arch of Triumph (basically a copy of Paris’ monument, because Romania had this one crazy ruler come back sometime after traveling around Europe and declare that Bucharest should look like a Western European capital), Herastrau Park and the Village Museum, and saw the Parliament Building again. It’s the second-largest building in the world, fyi, and pretty darn impressive. We made our way (with map in hand this time) to the bus station and came back to Sofia.

Some closing thoughts on this Atlas-Shrugged-length blog post: I’ve grown up in at least one or two ways that are very visible since I started traveling on my own. When my parents left to go home in London, and I went on by myself to Paddington Station to travel to Oxford, I was nervous and unsure of myself. I felt in some ways like I couldn’t handle figuring out train schedules, tickets, directions, cabs myself. Now it feels old hat, just wandering around Bucharest with map in hand and knowing which metro stop or bus line we should go to. My sense of direction is developing, though it’s by no means innate. In those simple ways, I’ve grown up and become more independent. I’m proud of that. I have confidence that I can travel by myself if necessary–though I don’t have plans to–and I can take care of myself.

Another note to make is that it’s odd how familiar Bulgaria felt when I returned from traveling for a week. It’s like my entire brain breathed a sigh of relief to return to the basic Bulgarian phrases I know, to my dorm room in Blago, to the lev and the now-normal paths and actions I take in everyday life. If this is what it feels like to come to my temporary home after a week away, I’m honestly unsure what it will be like to go back to my home-home after four months. It’s going to be good… but strange. Only 5 weeks left. If the last three months are anything to go by, I’ll be packing before I know it, and the longer I spend here the more my excitement about home joins the realization that I will miss Bulgaria. It doesn’t dilute my love for home or my excitement for going back in December, but it does make me consider every day here as important.

All right. Believe it or not, I’m going to do homework now before bed. Leka nosht!