A December to Remember!

For us, December was an absolute whirlwind of emotions. One day, we’re on cruise control and going through the motions of our normal lives. Next, we’re drinking more coffee than is advisable by medical science because we’re out of gas and spent the last few days running on fumes. Early in the month, our job hunting process had reached full speed which involved staying up late or waking up early to do interviews with various schools in differing time zones. Coupled with the background research needed for each interview and the actual application process for each school, it turns out casual job hunting is a part-time job. Adding to this emotional rollercoaster ride were our actual jobs, which continued to challenge us by mixing both in-person and online learning; often in the same day! 

We stayed strong and braved the storm as best we could by cooking up some wonderful food at home and spending time with our friends. Our weekly date-night ritual also helped us to recenter and stay focused. As we mentioned in a previous post, our job-hunting season officially ended when we very excitedly accepted positions at a small community school in Bali, Indonesia. This huge, challenging, often daunting task was now behind us! We spent the rest of December working hard with our current students as exams are right around the corner! But we also had a bit more time for the fun stuff! We did some cool running events and hit the rock climbing gym together. We visited one of Sofia’s outdoor Christmas markets where we sampled the delicious mulled wine, sausages, and other goodies for sale. One of the vendors was selling Bulgarian-made hot sauces; naturally we bought a few to try and spent the next week eating spicy wings and having friends over to try the new sauces we found! 

For our holiday break this winter, we traveled to Jordan for a fun mixture of diving and desert exploring. After weeks of hybrid school learning we were itching to head out and explore some new places. We had three decent snow falls here in Sofia and were eager to pack up our diving gear, grab our hiking boots, and head out. 

We decided to spend the first week diving around the city of Aqaba. It was very convenient since our flights were direct to Aqaba from Sofia. We purposely left the second week unplanned. We had a rough idea of what we wanted to do, but thought we’d talk to some people once we established ourselves and got a feel for things on the ground.

Diving the upper Red Sea/Gulf of Aqaba was remarkable! We spent most of that first week underwater exploring various dive sites that are all just a few meters from the shore. We dove some amazing wrecks including a passenger ship and even a sunken C-130 airplane! One of the highlights for us was a dive site called the Military Museum. In an attempt to encourage reef growth and an overall healthier ecosystem, the king of Jordan (who we learned is also an avid diver), had various jeeps, tanks, helicopters, and other military machines sunken just off the South Beach shore. Within a few short years the reef is starting to grow and various fish and other marine life are now calling this place home. It was quite a sight! We both remarked on how interesting it was to see these former tools of war and violence used for such a life-giving purpose. All I could think of was the timeless Jeff Goldblum quote from Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”

We became friends with a young couple who owns one of the dive shops we dove with. As it turns out, his mother is Taiwanese, and both her and her Jordanian husband had been running a traditional Taiwanese restaurant in Aqaba for many years. Since leaving China, Alison and I have both been craving authentic Chinese food and were seriously not disappointed! OMG, the ginger beef! The spring rolls! We almost ordered two of everything and had to roll ourselves back to our hotel room; smiling the whole way.

After talking with some locals and other tour guides, we made a plan for our second week. Half we’d spend in the Wadi Rum desert and the other half in the famous ancient city of Petra. We hopped on a bus and made our way to our first stop, Wadi Rum.

So here’s how Wadi Rum basically works. The Bedouin people run all of the tours in and out of this protected area. For a nightly fee, you stay in tents or camps run by the Bedouin community. They offer different types of tours that involve riding in the back of a Jeep/pickup truck to various sites and excursions. One such excursion is camel rides; but we did not partake in this. The tour guide drives the Jeep from place to place along the “highways” in the sand of this ever-expanding desert. The Bedouin tour guide cooks traditional meals and shares their stories and experiences from living in this unique landscape. Pita was served with every meal and sometimes the bands of roaming camels get spoiled by the leftovers. Some of the highlights included seeing 3,000 year old carvings, seeing the night sky without a hint of light pollution, scrambling up vast rock structures,  and walking through gorgeous sandstone canyons that offered breathtaking views and wonderful photo opportunities. One of our guides, Yusif, taught us a very fun traditional Bedouin strategy game that uses nothing but sand, sticks, and stones. The silence of the desert was at first haunting, but then addictive. The sound of wind blowing along the sand dunes was most calming and restoring.

Our next stop was THE most visited tourist attraction in Jordan, the ancient city of Petra. Made famous by National Geographic and the third (and possibly the best) Indiana Jones film, the city Petra was constructed around 2,000 years ago. There was much to see and explore along this ~8 kilometer trail from the visitors center to the end of the gorge, where a beautiful carving called “The Monastery” awaits all who make it there. The ancient city has many beautiful carved walls, tombs, and various structures. We knew that there was more to offer than just the single “Treasury” carving (the one from Indiana Jones) but we were shocked at how many other unique and equally beautiful sights this location had to offer. Some of our highlights from Petra include the Monastery at the end of the trail, the night walk where the trail from the visitor center to The Treasury is lit only by candles, mouth-watering traditional Jordanian food, and some much needed canine snuggles from our B & B host’s dog, Bessie.

We returned to Aqaba briefly to get a COVID test before our flight, walked around the downtown area, and also indulged in yet another delicious Chinese meal! We had an absolute blast touring and exploring just a few of the many places that Jordan has to offer. We also had the opportunity to meet many nice and lovely people, fellow tourists and locals alike. It may not surprise anyone reading this, but Alison and I don’t look Jordanian. Needless to say, we stick out a bit. But during some of our walks around, many people stopped us and simply asked where we were from and wanted to welcome us to Jordan. It was just the recharge we needed!

Remember Remember November…

This month was…unforgettable. Amidst online teaching, I headed down to Athens for the Authentic (original) Marathon from Marathon, Greece to Athens, Greece. This was the most “proper” training I had done for a marathon, even including the Ironman. When we arrived back at school in September, my friend, Tess, and I sat down and worked out our marathon training plan including some long weekend runs (30k, 35k) aside from routine running during the weekdays. This marathon also happened to be the same weekend of online Parent-Teacher Conferences; a huge schedule conflict that influenced Grant to skip the trip. Here was the schedule: Thursday evening fly down, all day Friday and Saturday online parent teacher conferences, dash out to get our bib numbers after saying ta-ta to the last parent, and then marathon on Sunday. I stayed a few extra days (well worth it). I taught online, and wandered around when I wasn’t due for class.

The day of the marathon was one for the books. As “the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn” (if you can’t quote the Odyssey in Greece, then when can you?) arrived, the four of us from ACS boarded a bus from Athens proper to the town of Marathon. We were in Marathon town by 07:00 solid, and didn’t start running until 09:45. This staggered start was a COVID precaution; another precaution was that every single runner of 9,800 was fully vaccinated. Let’s say that we were very warmed up and STRETCHED by the time 09:45 rolled around. 

The actual event was good … then ugly … then good again. Let’s just call it a roller coaster. The original and authentic roller coaster marathon. The Athens Marathon is considered one of the most challenging road race marathons due to its elevation change. Here are some fun stats: Total climb: 352 m (1155 ft) – Total descent: 299 m (981 ft) You might be thinking, “Whoa! So much downhill! That is easy!” You couldn’t be more wrong. After climbing the “hill” for 14 km, there is no pain like downhill pain. I was one of MANY people who pulled over to the side of the road (or heck just in the middle of the dang road) to stretch calves, hamstrings, abs… anything that can be stretched was stretched. To make matters worse, I couldn’t get any food down after 25k so 25-42k was pure pain. It felt like someone was weighing down my legs and it took all of me to keep forcing one foot in front of the other.

Athens Marathon Elevation Map

Kilometers 37 and after were rough and tough; my pace decreased, but I took the advice from someone earlier in the race. He told us to “just keep following the blue line” – a line painted on the road to mark the entire route from Marathon to Athens. At one point, it became a mantra – follow the blue line… follow the blue line. Just like Dorothy. Despite all the pain and cramps, the fans along the route were second to none. Each mile had people cheering us on. Children towards Marathon handed out olive branches. A nice woman in Athens gave me an American flag. Adidas Cheerleaders danced with pom-poms near the city center. When I arrived at the end in the picturesque Olympic stadium, I knew it had all been worth it.

…And then I found a corner and sat down. And then I willed myself to get up, and take ten steps. And then ten more. And then twenty more. All I could think about was sleep. Sleep. Must sleep. Ten more steps. Where are my friends? I don’t even know I am dying. Sleep. Take emergency blanket out of my pack. Sit down. Ten more steps. Is this what it feels like to die? Drink water. No, don’t drink water that hurts. Ten more steps. Until I was back at my apartment. Sleeping. Sleeping. Grant (on the phone), wake me up in two hours. …. 

It hurt. But I don’t regret it…. And I would do it again.

When not teaching online, I explored Athens. Never in my lifetime did I think I would stand on top of the Acropolis and gaze at the timeless construction (and current reconstruction). The Parthenon was made to pay homage to the Gods. How am I so fortunate to see this epic monument? How lucky am I. My only regret is that Grant didn’t see the Parthenon. And that he didn’t see me get yelled at by the security guard – apparently you can’t put your marathon medal on an ancient rock for a photo? Whoops. Where were my manners honestly?… Still high from my Olympic feat of running 26.2 miles apparently.

Back in Sofia, Grant and I stepped into mid-November with rock climbing, and, shocker, more running. Grant joined the likes of the mountain goats when they stumbled upon him and his climbing buddies at the Lakatnik crag, just a few minutes away from a series of tiny Bulgarian villages nestled in the mountains 90-minutes north of Sofia. 

Grant chilling with the goats on the mountain
The bells ringing from the goats 🙂

A week after Athens, I found myself at a trail run in the “Bones Meadow” (literal translation) with my friend, Ventsi. The third place girl for my distance was just in front of me on the uphills, but darn those Bulgarians and their irresponsible speeds down hills. She slipped away for the third place win. Don’t worry, I’ll get her next time…

When your knees are in 4th place, but your heart is in 1st.

For Thanksgiving break, we made our way to the dreamy town of Kovachevitsa in Southern Bulgaria. With road construction, a 3.5 hour trip south became 5.5 hours. Let’s just say we kissed the ground when we arrived in Kovachevitsa… or I should say that we kissed the cobblestones. This quaint and picturesque town is made up entirely of slate. Houses, roads, roofs, you name it; it is made of slate. And it is beautiful. Grant and I went up to the Brother’s Tavern after our arrival for some divine homemade food and wine/rakia. 

Making friends with the “locals” at the Brother’s Tavern

The next morning, we lazily walked about in the fairy tale that is Kovachevitsa. We made our way up to the mountaintop where there is a sweet church and overlook of the town, then all the way down to the river that runs through it. For dinner that evening (Thanksgiving to be precise), our bed and breakfast hosts made an exquisite four-course meal fit and true to a feast.

Thanksgiving feast

The location in general was phenomenal and a must if anyone travels to this sweet village. We were told the actual population of the village is 36.

When Grant and I were wandering around, we saw many properties and old bed and breakfasts for sale. It’s tough to know if the village is simply getting smaller over time, or if Covid has hit hard in this part of the country. The hours slipped past as we got lost in a day dream fantasizing about buying a fixer-upper and running an eco B&B.

We headed back to Sofia on a different route and arrived back in the expected three hours. After teaching online for over a month, we received an email to return to in-person learning on November 29th. A Begach Tech Run later with friends (Geri and Douwe) and we reached the end of an unforgettable November.

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

Our Big Fat Greek Summer

Chapter 1: Melnik, Bulgaria

Our last day of school for the 20-21 school year was June 30 (Alison’s birthday!) and we didn’t waste any time getting our summer plans underway. An hour after our last faculty meeting on June 30 we had the car packed up and were on the road. We two bags of scuba gear, a 12kg kettlebell, various running shoes, rash guards, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored camp equipment, water bladders, beach blankets, and clothing… and also a Greek phrasebook, plenty of sunscreen, and a high-end Giant road bike. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious outdoor gear collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

Weeks before we had learned of a fun Bulgarian tradition known as July Morning. The idea is for people stay up all night eating, drinking, and socializing with friends and family on June 30th, then have a bonfire and welcome the first sunrise of the summer on July 1st. After hearing about concept Alison knew what she wanted to do for her birthday this year (June 30th). She had heard from a friend about a winery that hosts a July Morning campout event on their property with food, live music, and space to pitch a tent. So first stop on our summer adventure was the tiny Bulgarian village of Melnik in the south of the country. About halfway there I realized that I had remembered to grab all the various pieces of camping gear except for the god damn tent. Sitting right behind the door at home was the last thing I meant to throw into the car before we took off, and I forgot it. ‘Well what have we here folks? Well yes, I believe it’s the “First Major Decision of the Trip!” Do we drive back to pickup the tent or press on? After some debate and web-browsing we decided to push ahead, consequences be damned with our new-found ‘devil may care’ attitudes. Our smooth summer vibes were not going to be tainted by this minor inconvenience; “We’ll just cowboy camp. It’s just one night” I remembered sounding positive about it. There was no rain in our future; I had checked before we left. It’d be alright. 

I was wrong. So wrong. Not alright. Were as a normal person’s blood may be the equivalent of a turkey sandwich or slice of pizza to most mosquitoes, mine must come from a far finer vintage; the little bastards can’t get enough of me. My blood to a mosquito is like that cocaine-laced water they use in those experiments with rats and mice. They would drink me dry if they could.

How it started…
…How it ended.

Aside from that, we had a wonderful time watching the sun go down and looking at the stars. We awoke to a wonderful sunrise coming over the nearby hills, a little mobile coffeeshop converted from an old 70s VW, and a lovely little bonfire. We welcomed the first sun of the summer with a nice warm coffee and a crackling fire. It was a nice way to kick off the summer and celebrate Alison’s Birthday, though I’m fairly sure my good mood had more to do with being a pint low on blood. 

Not being able to check in to our night’s AirBnB until about 3pm, we had to some time to kill. We decided to get some hiking miles in while the sun wasn’t yet too hot. The temps around midday the past few weeks had been merciless. It’s worth mentioning here that Bulgarians, in general, are not early risers. You often find the roads a bit more quiet if you happen to be driving around in the early hours of the morning. Most businesses here open around 10am. But before heading out to our hike, we needed to eat and fuel up. Melnik, as I mentioned before, is a small village. Not very many options at 7:30am for two hungry sleep-deprived travelers. 2 is the number of options we ended up with; one of which was this Jack-of-all-trades-type gentlemen who owned a cafe/corner store/tourist knick-knack and information stand/plus this hostel-like thing on the side. It had a lot of layers to it. He was friendly enough and our limited Bulgarian and his limited English got us two coffees and two huge helpings of a traditional Bulgarian cheese-filled puff pastry. It’s crispy crunchy greasy cheesy goodness. Coupled with some tart Bulgarian yogurt, it was a heavy way to start the day; especially with this cafe’s portion size! 

Loaded up and ready to go, we found a trailhead and started walking. We were amazed at the different formations and geography of the landscape. It was very unique. Along this particular ridge hike there were multiple viewing points that offered stunning vistas. We also came across the remains of various monasteries, some still crumbing away as nature took them back, others only ancient foundations. All of them collected in this one little expansion of mountain top. We also came across a handful of wild tortoises rummaging in the undergrowth at various spots along the trail; a very cool find. 

Our “last evening in Bulgaria for a while” was celebrated by visiting the local Melnik Wine Museum for a tasting. Most of the cute, tiny museum was written in Bulgarian but the host walked us around for a moment and answered our questions. But let’s get to the heart of it, we were there for a tasting. In this very rustic little cave dwelling at the basement of one of the main buildings in the village in the middle of nowhere Bulgaria, we had some of the best wine of our lives. The wine was poured straight from huge barrels, adding to the atmosphere of the event. When we liked one enough to buy a bottle, it was poured right from barrel again and corked right there. It was a really nice experience and the host was super lovely. 

We had our last Bulgarian feast for dinner at this local tavern-y place, off one of the side streets in Melnik. You can only really find local Bulgarian food in places like this throughout the country and driving down here, the conversation came up about our favorite Bulgaria dishes. Alison, being a salad-fiend, loves the shopska salata, a basic mix of cucumber, peppers, and tomatoes topped with serene cheese (all locally produced). Splash some olive oil and balsamic vinegar on that and damn, it’s good. I still hadn’t found my go-to Bulgarian meal. It’s not that I don’t like it, I find it quite agreeable most of the time. I didn’t have “my thing” until this place. On this unique wooden menu I saw chicken and vegetable sach, and I knew this would be my go-to. A sach is meat and vegetables mixed together with oil and spices and baked in a clay pot/plate with a lid. It comes to the table ripping hot, spewing greasy goodness like an active volcano. It’s so hot that you have to keep stirring it while it’s sitting at your table or it’ll start burning on the bottom. There’s a real element of danger to it when done correctly and you have to have your wits about you when you order it. I suppose that’s why I like it. Regardless, it’s very good.

Chapter 2: Litochoro, Greece

The border crossing into Greece wasn’t seamless, but took under an hour. After hearing from friends that it took up to 6 hours to cross, we were very content with the hour wait. Our first stop in Greece was the small town of Litochoro, located on the base of Olympus Mountains (highest peak Mytikas, 2,918 m./9,570 ft.). It’s also just a few kilometers from the sea; making it a perfect stop for us. Our aim was to do some hiking in the Olympus Mountains. After some research we decided on a valley hike to the base of the main peak. It was a slightly less traveled trail than others in the area, but offered some solid up and downs while traversing wooden bridges that criss-crossed this valley river all the way to the base of the peak. It was wonderful. Along the trail, we saw signs from the recent Olympus Marathon (a trail run up and down the mountain) that had occurred two weeks prior to our hike.

Chapter 3: Meteora, Greece

Our next stop was Meteora and the nearby town of Kalambaka. Meteora is the rock formations home to these gigantic pillars of sandstone with various monasteries built on top of them. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1989 and is truly something to see. None of these photos do any of it justice. We found the best way to take this area in was to simply walk it. We started out one morning with the intention of a small hike and it turned into this really nice day just walking from pillar to pillar and lookout point to lookout point. Absolutely amazing place. Not only that, but we had our first real introduction to Greek food. So many good restaurants with incredible food. Meteora is a MUST-SEE in Greece – we absolutely adored the small village and breathtaking formations.

Chapter 4: Corfu, Greece

Our final (and intended) stop of the trip was the island of Corfu on Greece’s northwestern edge. We wanted to get out and get some place where Alison could complete some heavy training sessions in preparation for her upcoming Ironman Race in August and I could do my Rescue Diver course towards my Scuba certifications. We got a place for 3 weeks on the western side of the island (Palaiokastritsa is the name where we stayed) nearest to the dive center I’d be doing my course with. After some settling in, and the purchase of a new bug-net that was in need of some McGyver-ing before it could be used, we found our routine and groove. 

Corfu Highlights:

One of our favorite things to do is just wander around. Getting lost in new places is a great way to see them. We had some lovely days wandering around some of the smaller villages of Corfu. Lakones, Sokraki, and Lefkimmi were some of our favorites.

Snorkeling and swimming was a 10-minute walk away. Let’s say we were spoiled and we miss the salty sea already! The waters of Palaiokastritsa (and the west side of the island in general) were cold, which meant we drove 40 minutes to the east side for a couple long beach days. The water on the east side was bath water, while the west side temperatures were around 65 degrees F. Those cold waters reminded us of Maine summer vacations! 

For years, we’ve wanted a nice wooden salad bowl. We found some beautiful ones years past while traveling around Costa Rica, but we couldn’t ensure the sustainability of the wood. Finding one that was sustainably sourced, made my a local artisan, and within our price range has proven to be a challenge over the years. We found what we were looking for in an olive wood shop in the small village of Sokraki. 

The food alone is a highlight. Gyros platter and sandwiches were a daily staple. On a budget, we also made some baller meals at the Airbnb including tacos, chicken bowls, burgers, and salads with the freshest of ingredients. 

One of the coolest things we did was a tour of Governor’s Olive Oil. We learned a great deal about the process of making olive oil, what makes it extra virgin, and even a tasting with the different kinds of oil they make. It was a cool experience and the olive oil was delicious. We walked away with 5 liters to take home!

We took a tour of coastal Corfu town on a pirate-themed ship! It was a nice way to see the various historical buildings and elements of the coastline. Plus I got to drink rum on a pirate ship under the Mediterranean sun. So I got that going for me, which is nice.

We did one small tour and wine tasting at the small-scale Theotoky Estate; which also included a small olive oil tasting. The cellar where bottle after bottle sit for two years to ferment was impressive. After the Governor’s Olive Oil tastings, we were better equipped to know a good oil from a cheap one – the Estate’s was very good. 

One morning, we visited the Corfu Donkey Rescue. A very friendly teenager led us along the tour around the camp; which currently houses rescued donkeys, dogs, cats, and 1 horse. We brushed a couple of the donkeys – one named Maria was Alison’s favorite. When hearing the explanation about the horse during the tour, Maria walked right up to us and nuzzled Alison in the butt. She was looking for cuddles!

Another very cool experience was our beach day at the beach town of Sadari. One of the things to do in Sadari is swimming in the Canal d’Amour. The old tale is that couples who swim through the canal together will be married soon… we will have to see about that one! We opted to swim into the canal from the neighboring bay, and the snorkeling was cool. It was a bit touristy, but pretty special. 

We each had our own personal successes on this trip as well. Alison managed to get in so many miles and miles of swimming, biking, and running in preparation for her upcoming event (she did the full swim and bike distances on two separate days). She didn’t let the heat or hills get in her way! I’m looking forward to cheering her on in August! I was able to complete my Rescue Diver course as well as brush up on my Emergency First Aid. It was challenging overall, but I’m walking away with more understanding and preparation to keep our diving fun and safe.

Chapter 5: Returning Home to Leave Again/IronPeople Estonia

Taking turns at the wheel while listening to “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” on audiobook made the 7-8ish hours of driving go by quickly. Alison had never read the story the famous movie is based on and we had some great discussions about the film vs. story. Our next journey? To Tallinn, Estonia where we will be reunited with Alison’s mom and sister, our best friend, Sam Gray, and his daughter, Olivia. The purpose of the reunion: Ironman for Sam and Alison. We have our cowbells and t-shirts ready to be the best cheering section Ironman has ever seen 🙂 Go Sam! Go Alison!

Spring 2021 – Bulgaria Style

A common thing we found ourselves saying this January, February and March is “Last year, we were doing this on this day.” How much the world changed between BC (Before Covid) and AC (After Covid).

In late January and all of February last year, we enjoyed the sunshine and hospitality of the best hosts in New Zealand. On leap day a year ago, we returned to a very different China from the one we left. On March 14 last year, we left our apartments after a 2-week tight quarantine. At this point technically, we have made it through 1 AC (1 year after Covid began). While Spring 2021 – Bulgaria Style isn’t what teachers in past years living here have experienced, we have been grateful for what we have been able to do and for the “wins” both big and small.

“Wins” for us this Spring have been:

> Moderna vaccine on February 20 and March 20 – Alison’s first dose was worse than Grant’s with an epic “Covid arm”. Grant’s second dose was worse than Alison’s with flu-like symptoms and shakes for two days. We are SO grateful that Bulgaria offered the vaccine to teachers directly after healthcare workers – we know this is not the norm around the world and we have been fortunate to be in a country that puts educators near the top of the list. We have been able to breath easier at indoor locations, and feel like a weight of stress has been lifted during routine times such as grocery shopping, grabbing some food out, etc.

> Rock climbing Grant & the crew – Most of this spring has been rainy and snowy (similar to Vermont weather for a spring), but anomaly warm days have existed. Bulgaria is Mecca for rock climbing and Grant has been able to go out several times this spring to different sites in Bulgaria. Grant and our friend Josh concreted their friendship by purchasing a new rope together, and, to Alison’s relief, all the crew purchased helmets. Having the vaccine meant the crew could also use the indoor Walltopia Rock climbing gym (world-renowned); rainy days = Walltopia now 🙂

Here is a video that Grant made from a recent climbing day in Lakatnik:

> Alison has kept busy this spring with Ironman training (August 7th is 18 weeks away eek). Swimming at a local pool that is right next to school has been convenient, and a crew of fellow teachers have been joining. Biking has mostly been on the indoor trainer, but a couple of warm days have enabled outdoors as well. Running has been a struggle with past knee injuries (from running of course) flaring up, but she is keeping them at bay for now with massage therapy and TLC.

Not necessarily a win per-say, but something that was interesting for us to experience this past spring was Baba Marta Day celebrated on March 1st. On this day, we were lucky enough to be in school. This is how the tradition goes:

  1. On March 1st, people hand out wool/cotton red and white bracelets to their family and friends. If someone comes up to you, says “Честита Баба Марта”, then puts a bracelet on your wrist, you are expected to do the same in return. It reminded me of Valentine’s at school – when your friend gives you one, you give one in return. By the end of the day, teachers and students alike left with the school with arms full of bracelets.
  2. The second part of the tradition is to take off the bracelets. One student told me that you take off a bracelet and put it on a tree if you see a sparrow in the tree (a sign of spring). Most students told me that when you see a bud on a tree, you take off a bracelet and put it on the branch with the bud. The tradition is to celebrate the coming of spring and passage and winter. Naturally, Grant and I went for a hike that following weekend to pass out our bracelets to the trees.

Overall, we thought it was a sweet tradition. More information about Baba Marta Day can be found here.

In other news, we have been online teaching our students for these times: Halloween – February & beginning of March – now. When we were in-person at school this spring, we were on a rotation schedule. For example, 9th and 12th graders in school one week while all others were still online. While it was AMAZING to see our hardworking and curious students, opening up schools in the country came with a price. Cases started rising and haven’t leveled off since. To exacerbate matters, malls and restaurants were reopened; but then needed to be closed again within a month due to the spike in numbers. We are on our April holiday this week (5-11) and will wait to hear about returning to school on the 12th or continuing online.

Other Spring Fun: time with friends, getting packages from Christmas, and taking a local dog for walks

What a season it’s been, time for greetings

First snowfall of the season

I never fully appreciated the art of reflection until I reached my thirties. Younger me tended to shrug off reflection like the way you drop your bag after coming home and the closing the door on a long day. Becoming a teacher also helped me developed a bond and kinship with reflection. Because being a teacher means sometimes you just bomb; you bomb a lesson in front of your class, or you bomb a conference or a specific interaction with a student. Afterwards you needs those moments of introspection to help you get better…and also help you not look like an ass at what you’re doing.

This time of year always seems like the time when Alison and I start having those conversations like, “Where were we this time last year?” or “What were we doing a year ago?”. So it seems as good a time as any to kick our feet up and look back at all the shenanigans this past rotation of the sun has brought us. And boy, this year certainly didn’t disappoint when it came to shenanigans.

Sofia from one of our favorite hiking trails on Mt. Vitosha

Upon this reflection we realized it’s been too long since our last post and we’ve made a new year’s resolution (unofficially) to work at it. So if you’re reading this I can only assume you’ve come to find out what has been going on with us the last few months since our arrival and introduction to our new lives here in Bulgaria.

“When we last met our intrepid explorers, they had finished with the guided tours of the city and nearby areas, successfully made it through new teacher orientation, set up their cozy new apartment, and were ready to start in-person teaching with their students who would be arriving the following week.”

Now that everyone is all caught up… 😉

Prohodna (Проходна) also known as the gods eyes cave

Our school year started off like one of those rides at Disney where you’re all buckled in, ready to go with an anticipatory grin across your face from ear to ear to because you think you’re ready. A little nervous perhaps, but ready. You’re almost certain. You’ve prepared physically, mentally, and even emotionally. You’ve dotted and crossed all things you needed to. Now all that’s left to do set things in motion and enjoy the ride. Right? Instead, you’re instantaneously shot forward at a ludicrous speed, slamming the back of your head into your seatback while you swallow one of your loosened fillings. Haha…jokes!

But to be fair, we did hit the ground running pretty fast this school year. In one moment we’re hauling our suitcases upstairs to our new home. A momentary blink later we’re on campus learning about our new grading software. Another blink and you’re in class, students are here, and the “real work” is underway. Another blink and almost 2 months have gone by and now we’re switching gears into online learning. Another blink, another jump. Maybe the Disney ride analogy isn’t that far off 😉

In all seriousness, we’ve greatly enjoyed our time in Bulgaria so far. We are fortunate enough to work on a beautiful, historic campus. It’s nice to be able to take a scenic walk around the grounds and step away from it all for a moment. The students are wonderful. Very diligent workers who delight in asking great questions, working on cool projects, and collaborating with each other. They have been a joy to work with.

Walking through campus on the the way to class
Sculpture on campus

When work isn’t keeping us busy, we’re doing a pretty good job of doing that ourselves! Alison has been running up a literal storm completing a 5k, a half marathon, a half marathon trail run, and a full marathon in just a few short months! Absolute beast. The roads around Sofia (and to be honest in Bulgaria in general) are not good. Nor are certain roads very safe, particularly for biking. And while Alison has found a cool little biking crew, it’s not quite the same. I’m very proud of how she’s found ways to overcome these challenges as she continues to train and look for more opportunities to do these events. Keep kickin’ ass, love!

Half marathon in Kyustendil
5k Fun Run in Sofia
Sofia Marathon October 2020

Not to be outdone, I’ve also been up to some stuff…literally. I’ve started rock climbing again and it’s been fantastic! This time around, we brought more of our outdoor and camping gear (a lesson learned from our previous posting in China) and I ended up bringing my rock climbing kit as a motivator to get back into it. I found a new friend from work who is super into climbing and we’ve been out and about climbing around Sofia. I feels great to great back into it and I can’t wait for next season!

Climbing the “chimneys” on Mt. Vitosha
Boyana Waterfall, a great hike and awesome climbing

Alison and I have tried to take advantage of the great outdoor adventuring there is to do around Bulgaria. Since COVID is keeping us local these days, we figured it’s best to use the time to explore and see what kind of nature Bulgaria has to offer. We have a lovely mountain right in our backyard called Mount Vitosha. One weekend in October we a nice little 20-ish kilometer loop. We left our apartment on foot and walked toward the mountain, cutting around the IKEA and Ring Road Mall. We heard there was a cablecar that you can pay a little money to take you up the mountain to the starting point of many hikes. We found the cablecar, paid our dues, and soon were on our way up the mountain being embraced by the mountain vista and wonderful view of Sofia. After departing from the cablecar, we hiked to the top of Mount Vitosha and found another stunning view. After walking back down and taking the cablecar, we found our hungry selves walking past the Ring Road Mall. Naturally, we stopped for pizza and refreshments at one of our favorite joints. After dinner, it was a short walk home to complete the day. One for the books!

What a lovely snack spot
Always smilin’
Photo doesn’t do the vista justice

We also spent a 3-day weekend hiking with some friends from work. We found a lovely little AirBnB with a wood-fire stove. It was close to the trailhead of Rila Mountains. It was great to get out of the city and spend some time in the woods. Playing games, hanging out, and cooking on a wood stove were some other highlights besides the views we earned after putting the kilometers in. I also found something very zen about waking up before everyone else to get the wood fire going.

Hiking in the Rila Mountains
This was a 10 minute walk from our AirBnB

About a month ago, we were told by our school that we would be transitioning to online learning. At first it was only for two weeks. At the end of that two weeks, we were told two more. At the end of that, the Ministry of Health closed all schools (as well as bars/restaurants/malls/etc.) until Dec. 21, which puts us right into Christmas break. Since we’ll be home for the foreseeable future, we make some homey updates as well as designated spaces for work and leisure. We went to IKEA and a few other shops the day before everything was intended to close to buy various frames, lights, furniture, etc. We also went to an art store we heard about from a friend to stock up on hobbying materials and art supplies. Needless to say, we are ready to hunker down!

While we were hoping to be scuba diving somewhere for the holidays, that’s not an option right now. We’ve taken the time to give our apartment a little makeover, stocked up on fun things to do, and continue to work on projects for both school and home.

Cool sunset spot just outside Sofia
Date Night challenge accepted…Stay silly folks!

To inspire positivity, Alison has created a Holiday Advent Calendar for physical and mental health. She’s doing various sessions for workouts, yoga, mediations, and even art therapy. All are free to join in via Google Meet for any or all of these sessions! More info can be found here!

Sometimes you accidentally dress like each other

We all know 2020 wasn’t what we were hoping for. But hey, at least Trump is gone, amiright?! Seriously, wherever you are or whatever your situation is this holiday season we hope this greeting finds you healthy, happy, and near people you love. We miss you.

Nothing but love and good vibes,

Grant & Alison