Until next time, sweet Bulgaria!

The last few months in Bulgaria went by in a flash. The weekend following our return from visiting Sam in the UK, Grant, Josh and I went to Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul is TOO COOL! We weren’t ready for the culture shock that hit us. Istanbul is not like a light breeze flowing by. If given a personality, the city of Istanbul would be a slap in the face! Istanbul (and its people) are social, fun, and sometimes a bit too boisterous. We realized within moments walking from the airport shuttle to our Airbnb that we needed to have our wits about us. It was fun how vibrant the people were; loud and full of life. For example, when we went out to get a shawarma recommended by our Airbnb host, there were five competing shawarma joints all next to each other. In front of each joint, young men were *hustling* to get you into their spot to place an order. Once you had made your selection at a certain spot, the others left you alone. However, while choosing, a strong poker face was required.    

We would like to say that we ate and drank our way through the city; the diverse flavors and unique dishes did not disappoint! Our Airbnb was right off of Taksim Square so we were close to a main street that offered an assortment of cuisines. Not far from Taksim was Galata Tower, where we went one morning. Istanbul is a cool city in the sense that it covers two continents; Europe on the west and Asia on the east. We had heard from a couple friends who traveled there years prior that it was possible to walk from the Europe side (where we were staying) to the Asia side. That was a hot and long walk as we trekked northwards along the sea that separates the two sides. We headed towards the bridge to walk over to the Asia side, but realized when we were directly under the bridge (literally) that it wasn’t possible to walk across. Not dismayed, we found a port nearby and took a ferry across to Asia. Other highlights of our weekend in Istanbul included Hagia Sofia and the hip neighborhood called Karaköy. 

The rest of May kept us continually busy. In the evenings and on the weekends, we found ourselves surrounded by friends; either in downtown Sofia or while participating in athletics together. On a special day out of Sofia, Grant and I drove ~2 hours to Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanasi. We enjoyed each other’s company as we walked around the castles and ruins under a bluebird sky. On the drive back to Sofia, we stopped at Prohodna Cave and saw the moon shining through the two “eyes” overhead. On another occasion in May, Grant and some friends went rock climbing at the Chimneys of Vitosha Mountain. 

At the end of May, I did the overnight trip again to Koprivshtitsa. This was my second time participating in this group bike ride and was, again, a huge source of enjoyment. Last year, I wasn’t able to complete the two-day road biking tour because the powerful winds and rain had frozen me to the bone. This year, I was determined to complete the full two days. It was indescribable. The landscape and mountains of Bulgaria are not to be trifled with on a road bike, but the view is always worth it at the top. The town of Koprivshtitsa has remarkable charm, and I was happy to spend time at dinner with some friends that I routinely cycle with.

We made it to Koprivshtitsa 🙂

We had anticipated that the end of May would bring us some relief from intense school work because our seniors graduated at this time. However, despite our best hopes, the work didn’t decrease. The school year completed for all other grades 8-11 at the end of June, so there were still loose-ends to tie and items to complete before we could call it a break.

The last weekend in May brought another unique road cycling event called the Northwest Bike Tour. This event was initially started as a tour to show and share the beauty of this unique region in Bulgaria called Montana (no, not the state in the US). The event was organized by the running group that I am a member of, Begach. While it began as a tour, it had since turned into a competition. I am proud of my performance on the largest track (138km and mucho elevation in 5:12); I took women’s second place. It was not easy, particularly as the heat built under the bright sun; but I pushed on until the end and continued through the cramps in my thighs. At the end, I knew that I had pushed all that was possible for me! The next morning, in honor of the tour, I went to the Belogradchik Fortress (a place Grant and I had traveled to together the Christmas vacation prior). During the tour, there wasn’t time to “stop and smell the roses”, if you will, so I was happy to take this extra individualized tour at the iconic rocks I adore so much!

Before we knew it, it was June, and Cindy/mom was here! My mom had just walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and came to visit for a couple of weeks before heading back to Vermont. It was great to have her in Bulgaria for the best time of the year! Late May and early June in Bulgaria is hands-down picturesque and full of life; the sunflowers, roses and lavender start to bloom concurrently and every farming village passed along the road gives a beautiful scent of the flowers, herbs, and other crops. Upon mom arriving in Bulgaria, we went to Kazanlak for the famous annual Rose festival and parade. During our first year in Bulgaria, we had missed both the Begach Northwest Bike Tour (see paragraph above) and iconic, very Bulgarian, rose festival.

The weekend in Kazanlak did not disappoint. Our friend from school, Kenzie, joined us. A friend of mine from a Sofia biking group invited us to pick roses with him and his two daughters on Saturday morning and we couldn’t pass up this experience to properly see how the rose oil is made from beginning to end. Rose oil is one of Bulgaria’s most prized exports; while lavender oil is also famous in Bulgaria, rose oil has a much higher value per ml. The four of us went with my friend to visit the refinery and see the large vats where rose petals are placed for oil extraction. When we were there seeing the vats, the first round of rose petals arrived from the morning’s harvest. It takes SO many kilos of petals to just make 1 liter of oil! We drove out in a couple of cars to the fields and picked all Saturday morning. We weren’t anticipating it to be a unique cultural experience, but it turned out to be one. My friend and his children and us four were the only non-Roma people picking the roses. The heat soon hit us and there was sweat and fatigue combined with the cuts and scrapes on our hands. As Grant said afterwards, “It looks like I put my hand into a basket full of kittens.” It was a cool experience that led us to discuss privilege, business, culture, and why more people don’t come to pick the petals.  

After picking roses, we continued up the road to see two iconic Bulgarian structures; Shipka Monument and Buzludja. Shipka Monument is a symbol of Bulgarian freedom following the 1877-1878 war between the Turks and Russians (allied with Bulgarians). A couple rolling hills away from Shipka, Buzludja is a monument honoring the communist party. It is bizarre and amazing at the same time. Grant and I had traveled to these two monuments the previous April when we spent time in Stara Zagora; it was nice to enjoy them again with Kenzie and my mom. On Sunday, we went to the Rose parade in downtown Kazanlak. My favorite aspect of the parade were the traditional dresses and dances performed by the proud members of Kazanlak. At one point, different groups walking along the road wore the traditional dress as it evolved over time. This was interesting to see the evolution of authentic attire. 

The next weekend, my Mom, Mary and I traveled to Sandanski for a girls’ spa weekend. This resort was beautiful, calming and rejuvenating. Although I’m not able to relax/sit in the same spot for extended periods of time, I tried my best. While driving back to Sofia on Sunday, we went to Rila Monastery. This UNESCO World Heritage Site surpassed all my expectations. Nestled in the mountains, this was a large church and bell tower INSIDE a castle-type fortress. What added to the beauty and mystery of this place was the climate when we visited. It was a rainy/foggy day, and the monastery is so high that it touches the clouds. The clouds drifted by, enveloping the monastery in a beautiful mist. We grabbed some fried dough (a local speciality) before completing the road trip back.

With a heavy heart, we brought Mom back to the airport to travel back to Vermont in mid-June. The next/third weekend in June was an athletically-heavy one. Grant was the number 1 supporter and fan while I completed the Vitosha 100km Duathlon. This was a 100km/60mi mountain bike ride starting at 8am on Saturday followed by the same distance on foot (same route) starting at midnight on Saturday/Sunday. This event is iconic for Sofia and huge among the athletic community. Many people do it without any training at all because they want to join in this interesting experience. Interesting is putting it lightly. It was unbelievable, hard, exhausting, painful, exhilarating, and everything in between. It was, in my opinion, on par with Ironman from the previous August in terms of mental toughness and pain. My friend, Vicky, from my Sofia triathlon team, lent me her mountain bike to train and use for the event. I had never ridden a mountain bike before when I signed up for the event, but the learning curve was steep. Another cycling friend, Oleg, helped me by doing some practices on the actual route so that I could see what it was like and build my confidence. Thank goodness for that! On the uphills, I could pass most people on the mountain bike, but the downhill is definitely still a growth area. People would fly by me on the bike; at times, it felt very unsafe. At one point, I fell over on the bike as I went through a mud puddle and drenched the entire right side of the body. When I got to the finish line, I joked with Grant, “Hey! Do you think I fell in some mud?” I finished successfully on the bike. I wasn’t willing to take any risks or go for a time, so I was proud of finishing safely. 

As soon as I finished with the bike, Grant brought me home, ordered us some food, and then I slept from 4:30pm-10:30pm. Grant stayed awake and woke me at 10:30pm so I could prepare for the run. The run was unreal. There is nothing like running at midnight along the dark and eerie trails; it was magical to see all the headlamps jumping in the distance from people ahead of me. I stayed with a good pack for a while so that we would have more light, and eventually had to continue on my own. I think back to those 14 hours now and wonder how I was able to do it; I just kept telling myself to take one step at a time. I listened to Harry Potter on the pavement (there were two sections of asphalt along the 60 mile route) between 40-50km and focusing on the story was helpful. Grant was waiting for me at the 60km mark and this was huge to motivate me and keep my spirits up because I knew that I would see him. 80-100km was by far the most challenging as the bottoms of my feet started to break down in pain and my toes felt like someone was jamming something in between the nails and the skin. It took me over 3 hours to complete these last 20km, but I was so proud at the end to have completed it. Overall, I took 4th place for women in the Duathlon competition.   

The Vitosha Duathlon after-effects stayed with me for the next ten days or so. The bottoms of my feet, as I had anticipated around 80km, were all blisters. Within two days, per Grant’s advice and support, I popped them because I wasn’t able to walk at work. The jamming I felt in between my toenail and skin on my foot? Very real. By four days after, my left big toe was completely infected. I tried all sorts of homeopathic remedies, but eventually had to start a round of antibiotics because the pain and appearance were continuing to worsen. However, despite the pain and troubles during and following the event, I wouldn’t take it back for anything. No time in the week following Vitosha did I regret it. I would do it again in a heartbeat. Just to see the headlamps travel across the dark forest like floating roman candles…

The rest of June was a blur. We had final exams at school and tied up more loose-ends than we thought were possible. At one point, Grant said to me, “Can we stop adulting now?”. Unfortunately, with such a large move/transition on the horizon, it wasn’t possible to slow down. Grant and I enjoyed our last few days in Sofia surrounded by dear friends and colleagues from school. Similar to the end of our time in China, I surprised Grant one day after school with a fun scavenger hunt around Sofia. When we started the scavenger hunt, I gave Grant a small bag with some items in it; some to be used and some not in order to solve the clues. In the bag was a handheld mirror, map of Sofia, compass, cryptex, and pen. The scavenger hunt brought us to a craft beer spot, Alexander-Nevsky cathedral, an escape room themed Al Capone speak-easy, and dinner with friends. Along the hunt, I tried out some new tricks and clues and some will be repeaters in the future for sure! 

At the end of June, we said goodbye to people we had built an amazing life with for two years; dear friends such as Mary, Svetla, Douwe, Yana, Stan, Tanya, Katie, Jared, and Ventsi. It felt like my heart was breaking each time we had to…finally… say goodbye. However, we have high hopes for the future. The world is funny and time has a way of sorting itself out. When we visited Sam in the UK this past spring, we went out to dinner with some of our former students from China. You just never know; so it is never goodbye. We never know when our paths will cross again in the future… but they will… and until then friends…. we will miss you dearly and think of you often. 

Photo order: Svetla and Alison; With Ivo and Business Office women; Tanya Pavo and Alison; With Tobias, Yana and Douwe; Douwe goofing around during a bike ride

At the going-away gathering that the school held for departing teachers, I read out a poem that I wrote about what life was like for us in Bulgaria these two years. Here is the poem that I wrote; a poem about identity, perspective, and our specific experiences from living in Bulgaria. Until next time, sweet Bulgaria!

I am from Malinova dolina (means raspberry fields in Bulgarian, this is the neighborhood where we lived)

I see clouds slide along Vitosha, my student raise his hand during an Ecology lesson, and the rooftops of Melnik as I stand on the sand pillars above

I am from Didi’s thoughtful advice, stray cats who know my voice when I say ‘kittens’, and Begach

I hear dogs barking as I cycle by in Dragoman, Tanya at the passport office, Grant yelling “You’ve got this!” at the Stara Zagora half marathon, and my student saying, “Miss, if I may, Darwin’s logic here is flawed”

I smell Dalboka mussels cooked in butter and garlic, fragrant oil on my fingers after picking roses all morning with Kenzie, and whiteboard markers as my students draw a punnett square

I am from kind smiles of the Business office women, cafe smlako, and the hardest-working seniors I have ever met

I feel Tess’ high five at the Wizz Air Sofia Marathon, pride when my student makes the connection between DNA and chromosome, and pain as I run across the finish line at Vitosha 100

I am from shopska salata, a flat tire in Arbanasi, reply-all emails, and Belogradchik rocks

I am from Malinova dolina

As sum ot malinova dolina