Boris Borishevkov and the Fortress of Assen

So I’ve been back in the US now for a few days, and I’ve been going out o my way to avoid eating chicken and potatoes and cheese. A nice falafel sandwich was my welcome back to the US–real falafel, not the weird fried breaded Bulgarian stuff. I think the food is what I missed the most. Bulgarian fare was really bland after two weeks of it, and eventually a few of us gave in and went to Toasty’s, the European version of Subway, just to get an actual sandwich. I’m convinced the meat was fake, but the combination of lettuce and tomato with turkey and ham on an Italian hoagie bun was not something we came across at all while traveling through Bulgaria. Everything was just so heavy. I asked Delcho if it was possible to be on a diet while living in the country, and he said the ones he knew who tried, failed miserably. No surprise there.

So I’ve had a couple of days to reflect on my time in Eastern Europe, and I think the results are a mix of irritation, satisfaction, and confusion. Irritation, because the longer we stayed in Bulgaria, the wider range of anti-American attitudes we experienced. Our last day in Sofia we were rudely addressed by a group of teenagers as the “asshole Americans” that were taking up the sidewalk. Uh..thanks? I’m not really sure why these attitudes exist, especially because I don’t think there are many Americans in Bulgaria to begin with…its still an untapped market for globalization from what I can tell.

Satisfaction because I’ve always wanted to visit Eastern Europe, and now I have the ability to compare life all over the continent. In comparison with Western Europe (Italy, France, Germany),  Eastern Europe truly does have a lot of catching up to do. I also appreciated the fact that Bulgaria was not completely inundated with tourists like a lot of other European countries I’ve been to. Tourism is not their main industry, so it has a little more of a realistic quality to it, although the souvenirs are still all the same everywhere you go. The Thracian tombs though…definitely fake, definitely not worth the trip. You can see the mounds from afar and still get a feeling for what a Thracian tomb is like. Visiting Bulgaria made me want to see more of Eastern Europe.

And finally, confusion, because even after spending two weeks in the country, I still can’t figure out what direction its heading in, or where exactly it wants to be in the near future. But what’s clear is that they cannot do whatever it is that they plan for without EU funds, so that is obviously their first priority. From what I can see though, getting the 13 billion they were offered seems to be the only priority they have.


The Academic Side of Bulgaria09

Following all of the lectures I was left with a lot of information to process.  9 lectures in 2 days has a way of flooding your brain.  There were a few in particular that I thought were fascinating. History has always been something I am interested in.  We learned how Bulgaria has transitioned from one ruling power to another and how they are trying to rebuild now that they are back on their own.  There has been a large amount of turbulence in their history that has held them back from advancing and becoming a stable country.  It’s interesting to imagine the kind of country Bulgaria would be if they had been left on their own during the half century of Ottoman rule and the 45 years of Socialism.  As a result of these difficult times Bulgaria is now in the process of creating their own laws and societal structure.

We had a lecture on the economics of Bulgaria.  They informed us of Bulgaria’s past and current financial crisis.  Reasons and solutions were presented which was very interesting.  We learned about the EU and what that meant for Bulgaria’s financial situation.  Bulgaria has a very large sum of money waiting for them once they meet all of the requirements.  This money is crucial for Bulgaria’s economy.  It will enable the country to continue its growth and advancement.  One aspect holding them back is the current inflation rate.  Countries must have a certain inflation rate to obtain the money from the EU and Bulgaria’s is currently too high.  I posed the question of how they plan on resolving this issue.  They responded saying that Bulgaria was currently going to economic trouble and recession.  Quite often during a recession inflation rates drop as result of loss in capital and jobs.  Bulgaria is hoping that from this current struggle may come the benefit of the remaining EU funds.  This is a very optimistic view during a rough time in their history.  If they succeed in obtaining those funds it seems that their economy and in turn their country will benefit greatly and be able to rebound quickly.

Bulgarian media is not very different from our own, at least not now.  During socialist rule there were very few outlets for media.  Everything was controlled by the government, so the information being given to the people was very biased and possibly even skewed.  It was said that during this time people in the west could use radios to try and pick up outside news from neighboring countries.  This was both illegal and dangerous.  Ever since Bulgaria was able to gain back its independence and adopt a democratic model for its country media has slowly become more like ours.  There are many outlets for people to obtain the information they want.  They spoke about how politics was handled.  Just like in the US presidential candidates receive equal air time.  One major difference is the way reporters are assisted in obtaining news.  Here in the US if a reporter must travel somewhere dangerous to get the facts they can receive protection and assistance from the government.  In Bulgaria, they receive no such help.  The reporters are on their own.  A question was asked regarding corruption.  No countries media is perfect.  There will always be some form of corruption.  They only question is to what extent is it affecting the media that reaches the people.

I Will/Won’t Miss…

Upon  the last hours of our stay in Bulgaria, I starting to think about all the things I’ll miss…and all the things I won’t miss.

I’ll miss…

  • Shopska salads- Although it didn’t quite agree with me at times, it is oh-so tasty.
  • Nectar served at restaurants- which is much better than the fountain drinks (which implies artificially flavoring, not actual juice) served in the States.
  • The clubs!- There aren’t many in Philly that I’ve seen with the same atmosphere and vibe.  The music also started to grow on me.
  • The beautiful scenery- In the city I’m often awed by man-made structures; there’s not much opportunity to view the  awesomeness of mother nature.
  • The villa in Gabrovo-  simple because I was able to thoroughly relish in the beauty of nature that surrounded us.
  • The cheap….everything compared to the States-  I could get a quality three-course meal for about 10,00 – 12,00 leva (or 6.70 – 8.00 USD)!

I won’t miss…

  • Second-hand smoke- EVERYONE smokes and smoking is allowed EVERYWHERE as well- and there usually isn’t a designated smoking section in restaurants. 
  • Lack of variety in foods- call me a city girl, but I’m used to having Jamaican food for breakfast, Italian food for lunch, Thai food for dinner.  Having the same type of foods started to get monotonous.  Plus, it didn’t help that I don’t eat red meat or pork which is pretty big over here.  I think this lack of diversity in food restaurants might stem from the fact that there are many immigrants in Bulgaria to begin with to open up their own restaurant business with their own ethnic foods.
  • Unfriendly high-heel terrain- Some of the sidewalks are crumbling and just unleveled.  I don’t know how the Bulgarian women do it, but they could probably run a marathon in high-heels in the States. 

That said, farewell Bulgaria!  I’ll always keep you in my thoughts.  Hopefully we’ll meet again.

Finally Better

I am finally better after about 36 hours of being sick from something I ate. Turns out it was a shared experience among some of the others in the group. It really scared me because I have a pretty strong stomach. I’m suspicious of the food at Leipzig.

My sickness left me bedridden for the most part. It prevented me from going to the 2nd largest monastery in Bulgaria and go-karting in Plovdiv, but I managed to muster the strength to enjoy a game of bowling. I haven’t bowled in years and it was so much fun.

We really covered a lot of ground during our 12-day stay in Bulgaria. We’ve been to many of the historic sites and traveled to several cities. Although I was there for only a few hours, I really enjoyed the Veliko Tarnovo. The ruins of the castle are amazing, not to mention the view from the higher points. The city itself still maintained its old, historical architecture.

I was excited about seeing the Thracian tombs the most but was a bit disappointed. I expected to see ornate tombs, treasures, and other archeologist findings. I will admit that I didn’t go into the tomb that seemed to be the most interesting since it had an expensive entrance fee. The imitation tomb was good, but I’m sure the original would have been amazing.

Plovdiv Adventures and Bowlgaria!

Plovdiv is really nice.  While it is still a big city, it is not as busy as Sofia — and still has a lot of green space.

I’ve been doing a lot of walking and adventuring on my own on this trip, and in Plovdiv I climbed up one of the 6 hills (used to be 7, but one is being turned into a mall) to see a BEAUTIFUL view of the entire city.  Very nice!

We traveled to a monastary outside of Plovdiv, which was pretty much like every other monastary, but they are important to the culture.  A few of us ended up walking on a nature trail and reached a church hidden in the woods and some caves.  It was very nice to be out in a forest and in nature when you’re usually stuck in Philly all the time.  Ahhh.

We then went to visit “Assen’s fortress” which was really cool.  We climbed up a mountain (with stairs) and as usual, had a great view.

We ended our adventures bowling and go carting at a place called Excaliber.  I ended up talking to some guys who were actually from Turkey in medical school here in Bulgaria.  I asked  them how they felt about being in Bulgaria being Turkish (you know, the YEARS of occupation), but they said they felt as if there was no problem anymore and since they personally did not occupy Bulgaria, they have no worries.  Well, that’s good!

All in all, after seeing Bulgaria and Plovdiv, I like their “big cities” more than Philadelphia.  There is still green space and they are still not as populated.  Cafes are really nice to have all over, too.  Europe is so different than America . . . in so many ways.

Travel from Sofia . . .

Quite a few days ago, we left Sofia and made our way to Gabrovo.  On the way there, we stopped at caves and a craftsman town preserved from old times.  The caves were the biggest that I have ever been in, even though we were told that they were one of the smallest in Bulgaria.  The craftsman town was interesting, and it was nice to see how items such as jewelry, pottery, and fabrics were made in old times.

We stayed at a beautiful guest house in Gabrovo, with a wonderful view of the mountains.  We got treated to a homemade dinner, which was nice to experience, culturally.

We stayed in Gabrovo for two nights and then made our way to Plovdiv.  We stopped at the Museum of Humor and Satire, which was amazing.  Who would have thought that “the saddest country” would have such a thing!

On our way to Plovdiv we stopped at the Shipka pass, which was . . . beautiful.  We were up high in the mountains, so the climate changed drastically.  The view was priceless.  Afterwards we checked out a Thracian tomb.

And then, we were in Plovdiv at Hotel Leipzig!  I will save the Plovdiv details for another entry.

Until then . . .

Home in two days!

So our trip to Bulgaria is winding down, and as we get ready this morning to head back to Sofia where we started out, I figured it would be time to finally update on some of my favorite sights around Bulgaria.

1) Veliko Turnovo and Tsarevets- Former capital of the 2nd Bulgarian kingdom, the replica of the medieval ruins are amazing. I could have spent all day walking around this place, the views of the surrounding hills are lovely, and there are all sorts of buildings to explore, including one where a Byzantine emperor was thrown off the hill from and subsequently fell to his death. (Scary, but only if you are trying to conquer Bulgaria I guess.)

2) Rila Monastery – The motifs here (archways, geometric patterns, and frescoes) are gorgeous. You have to wear sleeves and long pants to avoid getting hassled when you enter the church, but its also located in some beautiful hills, you can do a short hike up to the cave of Saint John of Rila (wear sneakers!), and the museum has some great pieces of religious artwork. Whatever your religious affiliation, anyone who is a fan of art history ought to go check it out if you get the chance, definitely a lot to see here. 

3) Plovdiv – Not only is it a really nice area to walk around with little hills, winding roads, and lots of shopping, but there are ruins from Roman settlement as well that are thousands of years old. The amphitheatre is open to explore, and they also show performances here today. I spent a lot of time just walking around the city, and I think that is the best way to spend time here getting to see everything.

4) Monument at Shipka Pass – Basically any high point in the midst of the mountains is going to be a spot worth seeing in Bulgaria. This spot is particularly interesting as it is a monument to the victory of the Russian Empire against the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish war of the late 1800s. It is cold at the top of the 500 steps though, so bring a sweater. 

For being roughly the size of Ohio, there is a lot to see in Bulgaria, from caves that are millions of years old to the more modern areas such as Nevsky Square in Sofia. It’s been a really beautiful country to see, and the idea of going back to the flatness of Philadelphia has me a little bummed. But the idea of going back home and finding a food that is not chicken on a skewer, fried potatoes, or white cheese has me pretty excited too.

Why does everything have cheese?

SO the trip reached its peak in the past few days.  The rest of the stay at the Villa was amazing.  We went to Veliko Turnavo and saw this amazing castle.  It was beautiful and again just impressive that they could build something like that without modern technology.  The 2nd night at the Villa the owner cooked us dinner, which was delicious! Then it was followed by wine and karaoke which was SO fun.  Everyone was singing and dancing. At some ridiculously late hour we migrated upstairs and past out of exhaustion.  The next day, before leaving Gabrovo we went to the museum of satire.  I’m not sure why we were only there for a bit, I could have spent hours there.  It was extremely funny and interesting and I was actually very mad that we had spent 1000000 hours in churches and monasteries and no time in this fabu museum.  Although, I sill don’t know why Gabrovo is supposed to be so funny.  A+ for the museum.  Then we drove to the Freedom Monument in the Shipka Pass.  We walked up a million stairs to the huge monument.  Some of us walked right past the monument out to the mountain with a beautiful view.  it was incredible.  we climbed around for a bit, just loving the feeling of freedom and being in such an amazing place.  We eventually went back to the monument and went up to the top.  It was truly beautiful there as well.  So far, this was the best day! Great museum, great outdoors, great monument.  then we drove to the Thracian tombs…LAME.  In order to preserve the tomb they charge a whole lot of money to go in, but for cheaper you can go into a replica…wtf would I travel all the way there to see the fake version?? but we did…and we were not happy.  I would have MUCH preferred to cut that out completely and spent more time at the first two stops.  Then we drove to Plovdiv, Delcho’s hometown.  We relaxed for a bit and then some of us went to this folk festival which is an annual event.  It was a concert, a fair, and a flea market all combined.  It was really cool because it wasn’t a tourist event, it was a real cultural experience.  We returned and went to bed exhausted, around 1.  Yesterday was a relaxed day.  We walked around Old Plovdiv and saw all the old sites and buildings.  We went to a roman theater which was huge and beautiful and amazing.  It started as good as the morning before.  We saw some more beautiful sites and buildings and views.  then things started going down hill when people got hungry.  hungry people = grumpy people.  so we stopped in the first restaurant we passed.  There wasnt a table big enough for everyone so we split up.  our table waited forever for menus, then drinks 20 min later and finally food what seemed like weeks later.  BUT they didnt have anything we wanted anyway…as in NO VEGETABLES in the whole restaurant…is that a joke? we were SO frustrated.  Then we went shopping and the group split.  Everyone got ice cream (well those who eat it) and cheered up.  We shopped for hours!  Finally we met back up for dinner.  We went to a restaurant which seemed really great…except it sucked.  I ordered cucumber and avocado sushi.  It came out after everyone’s cooked meals had already come and been devoured.  then it had nasty mayo sauce all over it…I was grumpy.  I ended up going to McDonalds (EW I never eat fast food) and getting a salad and fries.  Inevitably, we got to the hotel to find it had cheese on it.  I took off the top layer and ate the rest.  I ran a bath to relax and breathe a bit.  we all hung out talking for hours and then ended up going out for a bit.  we came back pretty early and hung out more, we just weren’t in a going out mood as a group.  somehow ended up staying up late anyway, and woke up this morning sick, undoubtably from the nasty fast food.  The up side is I didn’t have to go to the Monastery, the downside being sick and stuck in the hotel 😦 So lets take out the last 24 hours, and the trip is still perfect.  Plovdiv is a really nice little city though, and everything is extremely conveniently close together.  I am so grateful for this trip and I’ve made such good friends and learned so much and had SO much fun…but I just want to know…why does everything have cheese?

I Don’t Know Where All the Levs are Going

We’ve been here for over a week now, and I have to say that I am still jetlagged, still sleep deprived, and craving Nature Valley bars. I really don’t know why my sleep schedule is so off, but I did finally get some semblance of a good night’s rest last night at the Villa. Let me tell you, the Honors College really knows how to book accommodations. This place is quite amazing. The lectures they arranged though, were not as amazing. The second day, due to one hour of sleep the night before, I pulled the old “Bangs in front of the eyes” trick and really rudely (but uncontrollably) nodded off for the first two…three…four lectures of the day? Whoops. The first day was really interesting–we had a lecture where a woman described her firsthand experience solving the Bulgarian Financial Crisis of 1996/97, and for me I thought this was the best one. Although all of her economics terminology went right over my head, she provided a perspective that people rarely get to here. Solving a country’s financial problems is apparently really complicated (pay attention America…). 

What else have we done…hmmm. Wednesday we experienced shopping in Sofia, and I’m happy to say that my addiction to metallic sneakers has been satisfied for now. I just can’t ever resist. But it was rainy and miserable which kind of dampened the mood. Prices vary from store to store, and quality never seemed to have anything to do with the price. We also went to this authentic Bulgarian restaurant that was super fancy, and I guess the food was good. The cab ride there was the best part because we got into a cab without a Bulgarian or adult with us, and didn’t realize that this restaurant was miles out of the city on a mountain top. It was dark, stormy, and we were going down dirt back roads with no clear idea of our end destination. I definitely was convinced I was about to be human trafficked. Not going to lie, the thought crossed my mind more then once. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the restaurant appeared. We also went to a piano bar where we learned to not mess with the table furnishings, or big scary Eastern European men will threaten to kick you out. The music was really good though, and I’m proud to say that Bulgaria is home to many classy, yet ridiculous, old couples that like to get their groove on. 

Today we went to an old medieval castle ruin where we all realized how out of shape we are as we trudged up these really impossible stone steps. I think it’s pretty awesome that when kids go on field trips here, they can go to castle ruins, while in America we’re stuck with science centers and history museums. This place has so much interesting history, and unlike in many other parts of Europe, their national treasures are not overrun with tourists and crowds. Although, at most of the places we’ve been to there has also been a ubiquitous group of German tourists, who take so many pictures everywhere they go. But we also skipped lunch today, so now I’m starving. Signing off and chowing down. Til next time, MCD (there ya go Mama).

The last 4 days were just as busy as the first. 2 full days of lectures, shopping and meet-and-greets with other Bulgarian students, tour of the American Research Center, more shopping, and finally we left Sofia for Gabrovo today. The lectures were informative and added to our knowledge of Bulgarian history. They touch on different topics including education, economics, media, and politics before and after Bulgaria’s transition. There was a lot of discussion on the importance of being a part of the European Union in order to strengthen, stabilize, and reintegrate Bulgaria.

We also stopped at a cave. I’ve never been to a cave before and I must say I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie. It was pretty cool.  Some of the amazing rock formations date back to about 3 million years ago. We walked up steep and slippery stairs to the highest point in the cave. I even saw a few bats, which scared me. 

The night life in Sofia has been exciting. I experienced some of the social night life by going to a piano bar and a disco (dance club). Both were a lot of fun. There was a lot of smoke too. In fact, I found myself airing out my clothes for at least a full 24 hours before I put them with the rest of my clothes because the odor.

It’s been wonderful so far staying in Gabrovo. It’s beautiful! The city is not crowded yet is still vibrant. The villa that we are staying in is AWESOME! The view, the architecture, the space, the amenities, the décor, everything! We are actually one of the first sets of people to stay here since it was recently finished earlier this year.  Ethnographic museum was a great showcase of the craftsmanship of the Bulgarians. Some of the things made there included knives, pottery, icons, and, my personal favorite, jewelry. Of course, my jewelry addictions lead me to buy my third pair of earrings at the museum. But what can I say…the jewelry is beautiful, and not to mention attractively priced.  It’s hard  to pass up on deals considering the amount of appreciation I have for their work. 

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