Falling in love with Fall – Bulgaria 2021

While the motto “work hard play hard” isn’t sustainable long-term, it feels like we have been living it this past September and October. When we aren’t working our tails off in school to provide engaging instruction and thoughtful feedback for our students, we are traveling, running, cycling, rock climbing, hiking, and spending time with friends. Usually, multiple of the aforementioned fun times are happening at the same exact time; after all, friends that share your hobbies are the best, right?

Early September brought an athletic event that Alison was super keen to do since last year – Bulgaria’s OWN Triathlon. Known as Lion Heart, this Ultra triathlon combines the toughest elements possible into one event in the town of Primorsko on the Black Sea. The three disciplines are sea swim, mountain biking and trail run. Each element is challenging in its own way. Alison doesn’t mountain bike (…yet) so she needed to find someone to do that “leg” of the triathlon. Luckily, last May on a bike trip, she found someone who would join the 2-person team. We named the team BulgariAmerica because Oleg is from Pernik, Bulgaria. Alison did the 3k sea swim (while dodging piles of jellyfish everywhere and sea currents) and handed off the ankle chip to Oleg for the 116k mountain bike. When Oleg returned covered in dust and mud, Alison was changed and all ready for the 21k trail run. The bike and trail runs were no joke – with tremendous elevation and rough conditions. It’s not called Lion Heart for nothing 🙂

Lion Heart happened on a three-day weekend so we took the next two days as leisure in the close by sea town of Sozopol. This was an unexpected gem. Our friends had recommended it last year, and we caught the tail-end of the tourist season with few crowds and people. We honestly don’t know how more people (and cars) can physically be in the town with the tiny one-way streets. We devoured the local cuisine and watched the serene waves outside our hotel window. We were fortunate for this last “piece of summer” before school got into full swing.

Also in September, we were grateful for a visit from Inga and Tom. You may remember them from before; we originally met them on a liveaboard in Thailand and they became great friends. We stayed with them when we visited Berlin, Germany in the summer of 2019. In Sofia, we dined out at the Quartal Food Trucks and Annette Moroccan food. We went to The Red Flat (which has actually changed quite a bit from a year ago when we first went), Alexander-Nevsky Cathedral, and a couple other local spots downtown. On Sunday, we went rock climbing/hiking at Grant’s favorite Vitosha spot, the Chimneys. It is always great to see them and catch up with these two outgoing mates!

Before we knew it, school was fully back in session with all students. Last year, school began in mid-September on a rotational basis so that less students were on campus on any given day. This year, everyone started together on campus. We were hopeful it could last through the end of the fall; however, on October 21st, the entire school transitioned to distance learning. 

At the end of October, Grant fulfilled a lifelong dream, and Alison was more than happy to join along for the fun times. We took advantage of a 3-day weekend at the end of October to visit Romania; more specifically, Transylvania. Shrouded in myth and folklore, Transylvania was home to Vlad the Impaler; a cruel 15th century ruler who made it a common practice of impaling his enemies on large spikes and displaying them at the borders of his lands. His bloodlust earned him his well-deserved title and a nasty reputation. This reputation carried itself to Bram Stoker, who used him as the inspiration for the title character in his famous book, Dracula. The Romanian people don’t really celebrate Halloween, but they lean into it for the tourist dollars it brings to the country’s most famous tourist attraction, Bran Castle. The description for Dracula’s home in the book fits best with Bran Castle, found in Bran, Romania. Naturally, around Halloween, Romania (Bucharest) and Bran light up for this occasion. 

We flew from Sofia to Bucharest on Friday evening after school, and hit the hay after a long week and evening traveling. Early on Saturday morning, we met our tour guide, Bogi. We are not usually travelers who book guided tours, but with the time constraints, we knew this was the best option to see Bran in one day (and learn some interesting information about the culture and history). We hit it off instantly with Bogi; when Grant said we are from Vermont, Bogi immediately replied, “No way! I used to work in Stowe!” We were in a tour group with some fellas from Italy and one priest from Kenya, but we were in the front of the van so we chatted the most with Bogi. After 13 hours in a car with Bogi, no topic was left uncovered. We had interesting and candid chats about both the history of Romania and where Bogi sees the country going in the next few years.

Highlights of the tour included Peles Castle, Bran Castle (Dracula’s Castle) and the town of Brasov (a gem, reminiscent of our times walking the streets of Tallinn in August). Of the three, of course Bran was our favorite. Not simply because it’s Dracula’s Castle 🙂 but because it was the most homey. Peles Castle was elaborate, and clearly created for royalty. However, at Bran Castle, it felt like you could sit down with a book by the fireplace. It was “no fuss no frills”; just beautiful old winding staircases and a humble courtyard in the center of the stone pillars. All we are saying is if the castle goes up for sale… we would put in a bid. 

Fall fun at Bran Castle
Arriving at Bran Castle – Grant’s dream since…forever

We arrived back to Bucharest Saturday evening exhausted but also with so much energy after what we had seen and our engaging chats with Bogi. We grabbed a doner from a local joint where the cooks intentionally mess with people (it’s tough to explain, but it was freaking funny). With full bellies, we hit the hay. On Sunday morning, I woke up early for a long run. To my great surprise, I stepped outside of our Airbnb building, and literally the Bucharest Marathon was happening in front of me. Talk about some motivation for your Sunday morning 🙂 I did my 15k on the sidewalk next to the runners. After a nice brunch, we walked to a local cemetery that Bogi had recommended the day before. When it’s Halloween, where better to go but a cemetery? We enjoyed each other’s company as we walked through Bucharest.

Back at the Airbnb on Sunday afternoon, we donned our Halloween makeup and headed out. Grant had booked us a table for Halloween Trivia at a local British pub. It’s always fun to dress up as blood-thirty zombies and walk down the streets of a metropolis; the looks from people are second to none.

Colored contacts, liquid latex, fake blood, and paint

Before & After: Grant’s Special Effects Makeup

In case you all have missed the past three years of blog posts, we are HUGE Halloween fans; Grant being the biggest Halloween fan in all the land. It is no surprise that, of the 25 teams (ranging from 2-6 people) in the British pub, we were strong competitors. We were a small team with a large amount of Halloween knowledge. At one point, I was holding the iPad to answer a question, and the announcer said, “Put these Stephen King books in order of publication date.” Within a millisecond, I handed Grant the iPad and our team pushed into second place due to Grant’s impeccable Stephen King knowledge.

We fell from 2nd place glory to last place when we (and the three other top 3 teams) all answered this question incorrectly: Is a pumpkin a fruit or a vegetable? We didn’t know that pumpkin pie is defined as a fruit pie, but now we do. We agree; that rule to drop us to last place wasn’t fair, but we didn’t stay down for very long. We ended in fourth place. To finish the night, we were donned the “scariest costume” champions. I think I saw a blood-stained zombie teardrop trickle down Grant’s face; for Halloween fanatics, being awarded as the scariest is an honor. 

The next morning, we had a gorgeous brunch and headed to the airport. Romania, it is the little things that make you sweet. Like people wearing masks while walking outside in order to keep everyone super safe. Or the gorgeous cobblestone streets. Or the pavement that lacks potholes.

Other highlights from the fall include rock climbing and running adventures. I have been training for the Athens Marathon (November), so preparation included long weekend runs with my friend, Tess, and running events (in order to get into the competitive environment). Such events included Kyustendil 21k, Bulgarian Independence Day 5k for both of us, and Wizz Air Sofia 21k. Notable rock climbing this fall for Grant and the boys has been at Vitosha and Lakatnik. This fall, Grant started attending Krav Maga classes at a local martial arts studio. He is very excited about building these skills again, but we have put a pin in it for now due to current Covid numbers in Bulgaria.

Sending you loads of love and falling leaves as the winter draws near. Love, Ali & Grant

August 2021 – A gr(eat)ful end to the Summer

The fact that I am writing this blog post during a couple days off of school for Thanksgiving Break is a clear indication of the organized chaos that has been this fall. However, Thanksgiving provides each person with the much-needed time to reflect on what we are grateful for. When I think back to the end of this past summer, deep gratitude is what I feel. 

When we left you with our last post, we had been in Greece for (nearly all) July; living the Corfu beach life but also training daily for Ironman. We came back to Bulgaria for a much-needed one week transition (physically and mentally) to Estonia. 

The main reason to travel to Tallinn, Estonia was Ironman (August 7, 2021), but we ended up having quite a time in this charming and historic city. My mom and sister came over from VT, USA. One of our best friends that we met when teaching together in China, Sam Gray, came over from the UK for the race. You might recall Sam was the main reason Alison got into triathlon in China. It is safe to say that we can blame him for all the Ironman shenanigans that have, and continue to, ensue. Sam’s daughter, Olivia, and friend, Tabea, flew out from Holland. Our Airbnb home consisted of a GREAT group of people. 

Ironman Tallinn (August 7th, 2021) was an unforgettable and immensely tough experience; a day I will remember as long as I live. Now, nearly four months after the event, it is still challenging for me to completely process what happened and how it all unraveled. I am not being dramatic or kidding in the slightest when I write that I almost did not finish the race that I had prepared and dedicated 8 months of my life to. Sam and I crossed the finish line together at 21:36; for me, this was 14:30 hours from the start. Some day, I will record everything that happened from the moment my feet touched the water until the finish line was behind us. However, that day is not today. Everyone has their own unique Ironman story, and I am no different.

On the RUN FINISH part, you can see the best cheering section EVER on the right 🙂

What I do know about Ironman is that Sam and I are the LUCKIEST people in the entire world because we had the most amazing cheerleaders! My mom, Sarah, Olivia, Tabea, and Grant cheered the entire day for us (15+ hours); until their voices were lost from screaming, their legs tired from standing, and their arms fatigued from ringing the cow bells and holding the signs. They are the real heroes because they pushed us to keep going; even when we lost faith in ourselves. To all our fans, both online following us through the Ironman Tracker and in Tallinn, I am eternally grateful.

The best fans in the world!

After Ironman, we enjoyed ourselves in Tallinn. We found ourselves walking (a couple days after Ironman…when Sam and I could walk again) along the old Tallinn cobblestone streets, and under the city for the historic bunker tour. We also went to some old antique shops; very interesting artifacts from the USSR days. We got educated at the Tallinn Maritime Museum. We highly recommend this museum; it was informative yet highly interactive about the importance of Tallinn as a port city throughout the history of Estonia. 

With a heavy heart, Grant, Sarah, my mom, and I said goodbye to Sam, Olivia, and Tabea. They headed back west, and the four of us headed south to Bulgaria. One of the toughest things about being an international teacher is that your strongest friendships are from a distance. However, if Sam thinks he can get rid of us easily because he lives in the UK now, he is definitely wrong. Sam will always be stuck with me and Grant; we are lifelong besties. 

Alison and Sam the day before Ironman Tallinn 2021 🙂

Sarah was able to visit Bulgaria for only a couple of days, but this didn’t stop us from making the most of this time. In one day, Sarah, mom, and I visited the historic/beautiful town of Koprivshtitsa and then stayed at the Starosel wine spa. Starosel is a MUST-SEE in Bulgaria; it is basically a combination of the best things in the world. Good food. Great wine. The multi-building spa is complete with a workout room, sauna, pools galore (indoor, outdoor, kid pool, you name it they got it), and hot tubs. Laying in the sun underneath the vineyards was second to none. My highlight was playing pool (billiards) with Sarah late at night. When the three of us got back home to Sofia the next day, homemade pizza awaited us, courtesy of Grant.

Thankfully, mom was able to stay longer in Bulgaria, and we passed each hot August day with a grateful heart. We had an epic road trip to Varna; accompanied by Michelle Obama’s soothing voice in the car. We ate polenta in Veliko Tarnovo, and wandered into a church that could only be inspired by Dali. We got lost looking for the God’s Eye Cave (“What? You didn’t see that small piece of cardboard that signified the entrance to the cave?… It was obvious…”). We made Shopska salad on a daily basis. We saw the oldest lighthouse in Bulgaria. We drove down the sketchiest road you have ever seen; only because someone told us good mussels where found down there. And guess what? … They were right. We ate mussels until we were stuffed to the brim. We “rang the bells” at the Children’s Park in Sofia. We walked along the sandy coast in Varna, and swam in the Black Sea (actually less salty than you think a sea would be). We ate vegan food at Sun Moon in downtown Sofia. We got rained on in Balchik gardens while inspecting the local cacti. Mom made us prize-winning eggplant lasagna. Grant, mom and I walked around Pancharevo lake, and then went to our favorite local coffee shop. I begged them, and Grant and mom humored me with an Old Time Bulgarian photo shoot. For a solid twenty minutes, mom and I watched jellyfish the size of hubcaps swim in the Black Sea. We treated my mom to a Plovdivian birthday dinner. We surprised my mom with a birthday firework in her Czech dessert in Plovdiv. We reflected in Alexander-Nevsky’s Cathedral in Sofia. Mom and I threw Grant a chicken wings “hot ones” birthday party complete with Cally’s carrot cake. 

It is safe to say that August was… amazing. Unreal. Unprecedented. Challenging. Delicious. Adventurous. New. Inspirational. When we look for it, and accept it, gratitude comes every day and every moment of our lives. I am grateful for every moment in August. 

Sarah, Grant, Sam & Alison in Tallinn, Estonia