Home for the summer, then gone, then back home again, then leave again!

I think I can safely say we’ve never had a summer quite like this past one. Wow…What a ride! Our school year ended on 30 June in Bulgaria and we knew that we needed to be in Bali by 27 July. We also knew that we needed to go home to visit family. While there, we also wanted to consolidate some of our important possessions from various family members’ attics and basements into one central place. It was also time for doctors appointments and check-ups. On top of that, my dear friend Franky was getting married in Mexico and we wanted to make sure we could be there to support him and his (now) wife Kris in this next chapter of their lives. Quite a tall order for only having about 3 weeks off! Here’s how we broke it down…

After many heartfelt “see you later’s” we left Sofia the day after school ended. Two quick, un-interrupted flights found us landing in Boston to be picked up by Laura and Glenn. Those of you following along might remember that Alison and Laura met in college and are BFFs to this day. The older I get, the more I realize the only constant thing in life is change. Things change, people change, and the times change. (God, I miss the 90s). As our lives are changing in a very big way by moving to Indonesia, so are the lives of our friends and families. Laura and Glenn are expecting to have a baby in August and while we were home this summer it was important to pay them a visit before their lives get VERY busy. Gracious hosts as always, it was great to hang out and catch up with them for a couple of days before we made our way to Vermont. They took us to Start Line Brewery in Hopkinton, MA for some drinks and great food. Hopkinton is the official starting place for the Boston Marathon so naturally we had to stop and see the actual ‘starting line’. It was too short a visit but we had wonderful walks and chats with them during our few days there. We miss them greatly but wish them the absolute best in the coming weeks as they prepare for the arrival of their little one.

Our next stop was spending a few days with Alison’s dad Dave and his partner Robyn. Their home became the staging area for our big move to Bali. So we emptied all our suitcases and started playing the game of “what’s coming with and what’s being left behind.” One of our traditions with Dave is to do some kind of fishing excursion. We never know what we’re in for but we always find the fish and eat well afterwards; those are Dave’s guarantees! We had a great day walking up a secluded stream in the middle of the Vermont wilderness in search of native brook trout. There’s something zen about alone in the wilds, hearing nothing but the babble of the brook, and feeling a soft wind blowing through the trees. Afterwards, we had quite a fest!

The next few days we had scheduled all our appointments for general doctors check-ups, routine blood work, and a visit to the eye doctor for me. (I’m sure Alison would like me to take a moment to remind all of our readers that she has perfect vision.) After all that fun stuff we had a lovely get together with Alison’s mom’s side of the family just over the border in New Hampshire. One of the hardest parts of living abroad is not seeing everyone you want to and needing to rely on technology. Sitting on a porch in the New England sun, sharing stories and laughs is something you can’t easily replicate over a computer. It was lovely to see everyone and catch up after such a long time!

Before we left to teach internationally both Alison and I had put some of our important items and possessions in various places; at my parents’ place in Georgia, Alison’s mom’s in Montpelier, her dad’s in Williamstown, or at my brother and sister’s place in Grand Isle. Over the next few days, we began and completed our big consolidation project; moving all of these items into one central place in my sister’s basement in Grand Isle. It required a lot of running around, picking up and dropping off, and having little visits with people in between. It can be rather difficult to decide what things you’d like to keep and what things you’ve been hauling around that you really don’t need to carry anymore. It took a bit of time and a few tears along the way, but we managed to complete our goal and consolidate our lives into one place. Honestly, it feels really good to have that finished so we can start this next chapter fresh.

During all this running around, we were also dropping off our dive gear to get cleaned and checked, getting new batteries put into our aging laptops, and picking up a few odds and ends that we knew we would be needing down the road. We stopped and had lunch with our dear friends Zach and Christiana, both former colleagues from our U-32 days. They’re wonderful humans and great friends! We also had a nice little BBQ at my parents’ house in Georgia, joined by Zach, Megan, and neighbors. It was nice to spend some quality time with them after so long apart.

On Saturday (we’d been back in the USA for 7 days at this point) we flew to Mexico for Franky and Kris’ wedding in Tulum. It was awesome to be able to hang out with Franky and Kris again after so long. Both their families are wonderful and funny; we had a nice time with all of them. Our lodgings, as well as the actual wedding, were at a resort in Tulum. Alison and I used this homebase to plan a few excursions of our own. We knew that this area of the world is home to thousands of cenotes which are incredible for diving. We went out for one day with a Tulum-based dive shop. A cenote is a hardened sinkhole, complete with stalactites and stalagmites, which over time fills with fresh water. These are incredibly unique formations and they make for magical diving experiences. Both our dives were unique and as close to cave diving as either of us have experienced. The second dive involved a line (literally a small yellow string attached to the floor) that we followed through an underground passageway of tunnels and underground caverns. At one point on this dive, the guide instructed us all to turn off our flashlights. It was completely black. The darkness was consuming, but also comforting at the same time; like a heavy blanket. Both dives were amazing, but we both agreed that we wouldn’t want to do more cave diving than this! 

The next day we organized a day trip to one of the seven wonders of the world, Chichen Itza. When people think of this wonder in their minds, they think of the large temple in Mexico. However, the wonder is actually an entire ancient city! Chichen Itza is a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya people around 600 AD. We had such a great time learning the history and unique features of this ancient city as we walked around and examined the many structures and carvings that tell the story of this incredible place. We learned much about the Maya religion and calendar, the game of Ulama, and the purpose of human sacrifice while our guide answered all of our many questions. If you’re in the Yucatan, it’s a must see!

As part of the Chichen Itza tour, we also swam in the Hubiku cenote run by local Maya people, and walked around the colonial city of Valladolid. It was a long day after we arrived back at the resort, but well worth it! 

In the following days, we celebrated Franky and Kris’ wedding. It was nice to be part of such a special event and we couldn’t be happier for those two. Franky has been a dear friend of mine for a long time and to see him so happy in a place that he loves makes my heart feel full. It’s wild to think back now at how much we crammed into this past summer but I’m so thankful we were able to make the Mexico trip work within our schedule. 

Upon our return to Vermont, we stayed a couple of days with my mom and dad at their place in Georgia. They bought the place about 10 years ago and looking at it now, you wouldn’t believe the difference! Their backyard has gone from an overgrown, unkempt plot, to now looking like something out of Better Homes and Gardens. It’s a paradise of greenery, birds, and the most entertaining set of dogs you could imagine. It’s always lovely to hang out there and spend time with them. We were also able to get a tour of my father’s newly built veterinary clinic in St. Albans. It’s a remarkable change from the clinic he had while I was growing up there. Freshly built with all the modern bells and whistles you can think of, it’s really nice and we’re very happy for him. 

The following days saw me recovering from a minor (planned) surgery. In an effort to de-stigmatize the issue, I’ll tell you all now; I got a vasectomy. It’s a personal choice that Alison and I have talked about at great length. Anyone who wants to know what that’s like can reach out as I’m happy to share my experience regarding the process. While in recovery, we spent a few days at my brother and sister’s place in Grand Isle. I never get to see them enough and it was really nice to share any time I could with them. We ate well and had a bunch of laughs but ultimately it ended far too quickly. They’ll just have to come to Bali, I suppose. 

Alison’s mom, Cindy, wanted to throw us a little “Welcome Home/Goodbye Again” party at her place in Montpelier. A bunch of our Vermont people like Yasser, Emmanuel, Brooke (and boyfriend Jordyn), and my parents came out to see us as well as friends/former colleagues from U-32 like Geoff, Janine, Randy, and Brian (and lovely wife Claire). Great food, good vibes, and beautiful people. Thanks Cindy for throwing us a great shindig! We’ll see you all again soon! 

Our last few hours in Vermont saw us back at Alison’s dad’s place for a final packing session before we left for the airport. Sarah, Brooke, and Jordyn came over for Dave’s famous venison phillies. It’s always so nice to catch up with our former students (turned friend in this case) and see them living their *best lives*. Not long after, we were packing up the truck and heading to Boston to catch our flight. 

It’s always nice to see our loved ones in Vermont. Unfortunately, this was a very quick trip home. A little too quick. But we’re thankful for the days we did get and people who made it so special. We love you all and wish you nothing but the best in the days to come. “Long days and pleasant nights” as one of my favorite authors writes. We’ll be seeing you.

Peace & Love,

Grant & Alison

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

The Americans Are Coming!

One of the best things about international teaching is the people. You tend to meet a whole lot of interesting people with interesting stories from many different places. Sam has been a great friend of ours since we met him teaching in China.  Good heart. Solid dude. Great friend. Always down to meet up. He came and visited us in Feb when he had a break from school; we recently just happened to have a nice long weekend and decided to pop over for a visit. We can’t thank Sam enough for giving us a proper English tour; we hit some killer spots in a few short days. We gave him a few ideas of things that could be cool to do together but he really put together an awesome itinerary! 

Sam said, “Since you’ve only got a few days, I said to myself ‘What are a few things everyone should do when they visit England?’ Well, you’ve got to visit a pub, eat fish and chips, and see a castle, at least!” (Great dude, like I said.)

Within an hour after landing we found ourselves walking through the beautiful Epping Forest. We were staying under the wonderful hospitality of Bill and Gina (Sam’s dad and his partner) and they live just across the road from this lovely forest that many people cycle and/or walk their dogs through. Beautiful forest paths and a couple of dogs who happen to need a walk were a welcome sight for us!

A short while later we were heading to one of the most magical places on Earth; The Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour! Those of you reading this who don’t know me as well should know that I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd. Much of the Potter movies were filmed outside London and the studio space that was used during the filming was turned into a “making of” tour after the final movie completed production. Many of the sets, props, and costumes are on display while friendly (and just as nerdy) staff chat you up about your favorite films, give out some trade secrets and tell you stuff to watch out for during your next HP movie marathon. Walking down Diagon Alley was absolute magic! So was standing in Dumbledore’s office, walking through the Forbidden Forest, and seeing many of the special f/x and animatronics were just some of the many highlights. As the day turned into night, I remember standing by the Knight Bus, looking at No. 4 Privet Drive, sipping a butterbeer thinking, “This is so fucking cool.”

We could stay in Diagon Alley all day!
Three tickets to Hogwarts, please.

The next day following a wonderful English breakfast made by Bill and Gina, we hopped on the short train ride to downtown London. London is a really cool city; it has a flow and energy all of its own. It’s big, busy, and a touch mad at times, but along the way you hear so many different languages and see people of all sorts taking in the wonders of this place. Our first stop was the amazing Natural History Museum. Not only was it an impressive building, but it housed so many incredible artifacts like a first edition copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species and not one but two archaeopteryx fossils (only twelve have ever been found). Like almost every Natural History Museum we’ve ever been to, you simply can’t see it all in one day. A return trip is needed;)

After a few pints at a proper English pub, we found ourselves near the Camden Market for lunch. The market is this huge series of outdoor alleys and corridors full of food stalls and little indie shops. It’s a great place for a meal since it has a huge variety of cuisine and everyone in your group can get whatever they want! We ended up meeting friends of Alison and her family from back home in Vermont. Always great to catch-up with some fine folks from the 802. 

Feeling the need to walk off our big lunch and earn some hunger points towards our upcoming dinner, we walked from Camden Market to Buckingham Palace. This was an awesome 3 (ish) mile walk that us through both Regent’s Park and Green Park. We also were able to see the upscale Mayfair district in all its bougie glory! Buckingham Palace was quite a sight; a must see while you’re in the city!

Alison had been in contact with some of our former Chinese students who are now in various universities around the UK. Many of them were eager to meet up and have a meal with us and they knew just the place! They picked out an amazing Chinese food restaurant which transported us all back to our time together in Qingdao. As a teacher it’s always nice to see your former students growing up, living their lives, and doing their thing. (We’d like to take a moment to wish all our former students the best in their future endeavors! Love you guys!!) 

The next day we hopped back in the car and made our way to Wales. Just over the border is Chepstow Castle, the oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification in Britain. The castle stretches out along a limestone cliff above the Wye river in a beautiful location. Not only does the remains of the castle give visitors a good understanding of castle design and purpose, it was also really quaint, charming, and peaceful. Definitely worth a stop!

Later that afternoon we found ourselves in the  lovely little village of Cheddar, England (yes, that Cheddar!) We sampled some cheese before walking up the famous Cheddar Gorge. Beautiful cliffs tower over both sides of the road as cyclists, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts take in the remarkable and bucolic landscape. The top of our hike offered beautiful views of rolling country hills, charming little farms and villages, as well as the English seaside.

For our last evening in England, Sam brought us to the OG fish and chips shop of Weston-super Mare, Papa’s. Outstanding fish and chips! We also got it to-go so we could sit on the beach and watch the sunset over the water; what an amazing bonus! 

The next morning we were flying back to Sofia but not until Sam showed us his last surprise of our weekend trip; Stonehenge! This was always something both Alison and I really wanted to see! Learning the history and significance of this prehistoric monument was so incredible! These stones are absolutely massive! The whole site and exhibit was really well done! I remembered learning about the henge on some Discovery Channel show when I was a kid and it was incredible to be to be seeing for myself!

We can’t thank Sam enough for organizing such a steller trip! (And for driving us around!) So good to see him again and share some really cool experiences! The UK has so much to offer. We’ll definitely need to take another pass through sometime in the near future. For now, Sam’s off to teach in the Bahamas, we’re off to do the same in Bali. Until next time, dear friend!

Peace & Love,

Grant & Alison

Goth & Griff Go Greece! (April 2022)

Some ships are sail ships, some ships are steam ships, but the best ships are friendships. The true friendships. The pick-up-where-you-left-off kind. The travel-three-hours-in-one-direction-because-someone-said-there-is-a-thermal-spring kind. The ask-a-stranger-in-a-foreign-language-if-you-can-pet-the-baby-goat kind. The awkward-sunburn kind. The hike-with-an-unhired-tour-guide-german-sheperd kind. This is the Goth & Griff kind of friendship. Hilary Alison Doulos (maiden name Griffin = Griff) aka Sugar Muffin aka Salmon Muffin aka Gyros Muffin, came to visit me, Alison Heidi Gauthier (Gauthier = Goth) aka Sugar Muffin aka Coffee Muffin aka Mussels Muffin, during April school break. Like all great friendships often yield, shenanigans ensued. Don’t worry to our dear sweethearts at home, we stayed safe and paid for accommodations… the majority of the time.

Hilary arrived at the Sofia Airport in the middle of a tornado gray sky. This apocalyptic overhanging had been in Sofia for two days when Hil flew in, and we weren’t sure what would happen. Thunderous rain, monstrous snow, or tornadoes; all options were on the table. We dropped off Grant at home for his staycation and hit the open road south towards Greece for the girls’ road trip. An hour south of Sofia and the skies opened up with thumbnail-sized hail. Zeus was truly calling us down to Greece. Traffic came to a standstill along the highways as I yelled out, “Dupnitsa! Of all the places; Dupnitsa for the hail storm!” I had some prior interesting interactions in this town on a bike ride. 

We made it to the border around 10:00, and crossed near 10:30pm. Not bad considering the past record for me and Grant crossing the Bulgarian-Greek border was 45 minutes. At the Greek half of the border crossing, the tired and jaded control man asked me where we were staying. I pleasantly told him, “Litochoro.” He looked at me, confused at first, but then annoyed at my sheer presence on Planet Earth. “LitoHHHHoro, you mean?” The H sound came from the depths of his soul and was a solid two seconds too long. “Yes,” I nodded politely. He slammed the stamps down on our passports and shooed us along. After the border, we looked up a couple of places to stay for the evening in LitoHoro, and called up a Greek woman on the phone. Words were exchanged, but neither party knew their meanings. We considered this as a positive sign and typed in her hotel to Google Maps. Near 1am, we arrived at the woman’s hotel. All lights were off and the place was locked up for the evening. We called the number again and, praise Jesus, we heard the phone ringing inside. She came down to let us in and show us to the room. The place looked pretty deserted when we woke up in the morning; she was thankful for the business after all.

Off the bat, we drove to one of the starting points of Mt. Olympus National Park for a morning hike. Prior to Hil’s arrival, I had done a supermarket run to pick up the essentials – carrots, peanut butter, organic Nutella, raspberry jelly, wheat bread, bananas, apples, and, of course, Cheetos. During the hike, we walked and chatted along while eating a banana and sandwich. Once, many April breaks ago, Hil and I drove from Elmira, NY to the Floridian panhandle in one shift (20+ hours straight) to go camping for a week. We drained Hil’s campus meal card in order to buy the non-perishable essentials for the week. One of my favorite memories of that trip was sitting on the beach reading trashy novels while making PB&J sandwiches. They truly became “sand”wiches when the winds picked up at the exact moment to land sand in the bread-making process. A crunchy condiment, we agreed.

After the picturesque Mt. Olympus hike, Hil and I drove into the village center of Litohoro for a delicious spanakopita. On our way out of the town, we found a side road to take us directly to the sea. Litohoro is an awe-inspiring place in the sense that it truly has the sea to mountain views. We dipped our toes in the freezing water (“You didn’t want to go for a dip, Muffin?”), and looked for unique pebbles along the coast. I allowed myself to take only two tiny pebbles; I am trying to cut back. We continued driving southbound to the Pelion Peninsula. 

Let’s jump in for a dip 🙂

On one of our epic past road trips, Hillary and I found ourselves in Yellowstone driving, hiking, and geysering along. We had arrived very late at night (wait, this seems to be a theme) to our campsite and set up the tent in the dark via flashlight-in-mouth maneuvers. In the morning, we drove through the National Park in search of elk, bison, and bears (oh my!). At one point, the miles of RV and car traffic was at a standstill due to a large bison herd passing. The forest rangers were directing the traffic along. Apparently, we stopped a few seconds too long to get a video, because, all of a sudden, the ranger’s voice came on the megaphone, “SOUTHBOUND TRAFFIC CONTINUE!” We thought this was a bit rude; don’t shout at everyone due to only our tardiness. This story came to mind as we traveled, southbound again, through Greece.

For the Pelion Peninsula, I had never been here, but knew some friends from Sofia had moved down the previous school year. They remarked on its beauty, and I couldn’t agree more. Set against countless olive trees, jagged mountains, and blue seas, Pelion Peninsula is a Greek oasis. We arrived at a campground we found on Google Maps during the drive. With olive tree branches strewn each way and construction at some of the tent sites, the place didn’t look open. And the reality was… it wasn’t. We arrived on April 1st, but its opening day was April 20th. We talked to two people whose family owns the place and begged them to let us stay. They said, “The bathrooms are filthy. They might not even be working.” We looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Doesn’t bother us. Not a problem.” When they saw the desperation in our eyes, they agreed to one campsite that we pointed towards. They raked the tree branches a bit, and must have thought us absurd for setting up camp on this dirty plot. “Thank you; we will write you an outstanding review on TripAdvisor”, we told them. 

We drove the car to the other side of the Peninsula (the Aegean side) for a cool hike along the coast. Here, we were greeted by countless more olive trees, flowers, and beautiful scenery as the waves crashed against the rocks below the trail. We came up to a cute town and ordered a couple strong coffees at a local very-Greek restaurant. Hmm, how can I describe a proper very-Greek restaurant? Here are the criteria:

  1. Very loud traditional music playing (We needed to yell to order a couple cafes)
  2. Large photo of grandfather restaurant in corner with judging eyes
  3. Shells collected from the sea… and glued to the fireplace… all along the fireplace
  4. Strong smell of fish… and oregano
Greek Restaurant for Great Coffee!

With coffees in hand, we walked to the village pier because we saw some people were fishing. I should actually say, they had been fishing. Now, they were sitting around a grill, laughing and chatting while passing around some hooch in a clear glass bottle. Hilary walked up to them and asked, “Did you guys catch anything?” Again, words that don’t mean anything, so we hastily mimed a fishing pole and excitement. They said something to us, then took the lid off a pot to show us some fried anchovies inside. They ushered the pot towards us, and we each grabbed one morsel. We thanked them and headed back along the pier. 

At the car, we drove back over the mountain to our campsite. We parked and walked downtown to meet Wendy and Jonathan Thompson (friends who lived in Sofia last year) for dinner at a local spot. Per the great counsel of Wendy and Jonathan, we ordered the house specials featuring local vegetables and seafood. It was indeed a treat. The Thompsons gave us some recommendations for hiking the next day as well. We slept soundly that evening with bellies full of calamari, fava beans, and red wine.

The next morning, we did a wee jog by the coast on the gulf side. Then we took down the tent and gave the kind girl 10 euros for the site. She said it was too much honestly for what we used, but we insisted. We continued south to Trikeri and parked at the head of a great seaside hike. We hiked in the heat while chatting and observing the wildlife in the area.

Pelion vibes 🙂

Again, many olive trees lined this trail all around. In one small bay by the sea, we saw countless translucent items. At first, I was ashamed of the humans of the world because I thought they were plastic bags. Upon closer inspection, we saw them slightly pulsing. There were thousands of jellyfish, of all various sizes, stuck in this small bay. We didn’t know if it was a good (mating, taking a rest) or bad (dying, stuck here) sign to find them here. 

Another aspect of hiking in the peninsula were the goat and sheep herds. We were in awe of the playful yet obedient dogs bringing their herds for grazing. The sound of a herd is like nothing else – the farmers attach bells to the necks of each animal. The chimes of a herd moving along is a chaotic yet charming cacophony. Muffin and I got back in the car following the hike and drove to a local farm stand that the Thompsons had also recommended for local honey, etc.. Sadly, no one was home when we passed by. However, we stopped for a coffee (first for the day) in a mountainous town before heading back north. Hil and I debated which we couldn’t live without; coffee or beer. She chose beer and, I, coffee. 

Goat herd on Pelion Peninsula

We drove back North and inward into the heart of Greece to arrive at Meteora that evening. Meteora was a favorite for Grant and me from this past summer. Hil was also in awe of these unique rock formations. We found a spot that had open tent sites, and grabbed some Greek dinner at a local restaurant up the road. However, with bellies full of chicken, tzatziki and olives, we did not sleep well this evening. The Meteora dogs were out in droves. All night long, there was a cacophony of barking and… rooster crowing. Stray dogs and pets alike; the noise continued all night. We woke up a bit worse for wear… and headed right for a cafe with strong espresso in mind.

In the morning and early afternoon, we walked along the “loop” of Meteora up a hiking path and then along all the monasteries. When Grant and I had visited this iconic location back in July, it was almost too hot to handle. Due to the heat, we couldn’t bring ourselves to be inside at all, so we hadn’t seen any of the monasteries. With Hilary, the weather was ideal, and we toured inside Holy Trinity and Varlaam Monasteries. We made it back to our campsite, took everything down, and drove through downtown Meteora in search of a proper Gyro. We found a good spot, devoured a chicken Gyro, and headed to the Meteora Mushroom Museum. Hil is a huge fan of mushrooms and knew many of the common fungi at hand, but it was all new information to me. It was a very unique and thought-provoking museum. 

While ending the Meteora walkabout and getting a Gyro, Hil and I had been debating about where to go next. We both had some ideas, but none seemed to stick. For example, we thought about driving through Macedonia on the way back to Bulgaria, but I wasn’t confident that the car was allowed to go through that non-EU country. So, at the Mushroom Museum, we asked the gift shop manager about any cool places around, and he told us about Pozar. To Pozar we went!

Pozar Thermal Springs are in Northern Greece; almost to the Macedonian border. We arrived there around 8:30 at night, figured out how to buy the tickets, and then soaked in the mineral hot baths. The town is situated along the hot springs river. They have a few pools to soak in and we enjoyed the small (authentic) one as well as the large (pool) spring. We looked at Google Maps and saw that the area had some cool hiking, so we decided to stay there for the night. However, we didn’t have a campsite for that evening and it was after 10pm. Soooooo, we did what any normal Goth & Griff girls would do; we drove the car out behind one of the municipal buildings, brushed our teeth, pulled the sleeping bags from the trunk, fed a stray dog some leftover fava beans and bread, and reclined the front car two seats. We set the alarm for 8am to get in a good hike before crossing back over the border in the morning. 

However… we awoke at 2:30am to a HONK HONK! A man had driven a motorcycle up beside the car window and was honking at us. Hilary rolled down the window, and again, HONK HONK “something something Taxi!”. We didn’t know what he said but the message was clearly received. We drove out of the Pozar hot springs area and back towards the nearest town. Clearly, the area shuts down between 2:30am and morning. We got to the nearest town, weighed our options, and realized we wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again any time soon. “The worst part, Al, is that I was having such good sleep” said Hil. “So good”, I replied, “…so good.” After the dogs of Meteora symphony the evening before, the sleep had been much needed and was actually warm/comfortable.

In conclusion, we decided to head for the border. We drove northeast and arrived at the Bulgarian-Greek border at 5:30am. We crossed in a record time of 8 minutes. Beyond epic silver lining!

Once in Bulgaria, we set Google Maps to Melnik. I told Hilary the timing might be perfect. We might get to Melnik just in time for a sunrise hike. We arrived in the quiet and sleepy Melnik around 7am, grabbed some peanut butter, bread, and water from the backseat, and headed for a hike up the side of the sand pillars. As soon as we exited the car, this giant of a German Shepherd came bounding over to us. He had a chain collar on and was dragging about 3 feet of additional chain behind him wherever he went. Clearly he had just escaped and had energy to spare! We headed for the trail head, and he ran up ahead of us. This particular trail is steep at first with stairs going up to a plateau and then leveling off from there. He followed us the whole way up, ran ahead of us, ran behind us, and then ran in circles around us. The sound was awful with the chain dragging behind him and kicking up mud and sand everywhere. I managed to grab him and unhook the chain. Untethered, he was faster than ever and stayed right with us. We thought at any moment he would go on his merry way, but he stayed with us the entire hike. Even when we wanted to lose him (at one point we played hide and go seek), we couldn’t. We paid him for his (unasked) tour guide services with peanut butter on bread; he was a huge fan!

When you were hoping for a calm hike…

Unfortunately, the fog clouded out the sunrise. However, the hike was beautiful and the views looking down onto sleepy Melnik were . We came back to the car and drove towards downtown. The dog followed along beside the car and waited outside our breakfast spot. We filled up on omelet, coffee, fried bread, and cheese before searching around for a wine shop that was open. I bought some wine to bring back to friends in Sofia and we headed north again towards Sofia. Our plan was to stay at Rila for a night, but we greatly underestimated how much snow was still present in the National Park. The winter this year had been unusually long; this was apparent as the car climbed up the switchbacks. We turned the car around when there was too much snow to continue. We found a waterfall hike in a town at the bottom of the hill that ended up being an unexpected gem. We drove back home to Sofia via Relyovo so Hil could meet Katie. 

Back in Sofia, Grant made us a delicious dinner. The next morning, we went for Hil’s antigen test to fly (negative thank goodness) then went for a trail run at Pancharevo. I showed Hil our favorite cafe near the lake and, naturally, we got some Banitsa. At the Childrens’ Bells Park, Muffin rang the USA bell (“It’s not too flashy, I like it!”), and then we headed downtown.

USA Bell in Children’s Bells Park, Sofia, Bulgaria

For lunch, we met up with another Elmira College Alumnae, Tanya. She is from Sofia and was a Resident Assistant on Hilary’s floor during her first year at EC. It was great to catch up and remember old times from EC and its sweet traditions. It’s a small world, isn’t it? 

Hil and I walked around downtown; of course careful to dodge the pro-Russian protests on the way to the famous Sofian landmarks. Protest, anyone? Protests? We met up with Grant by Alexander-Nevsky Cathedral (he had just gotten a tattoo) and headed for the Museum of Illusions.

We met up with Svetla at the Museum of Illusions. Grant had seen the advertisements for this Museum since we arrived, but we had never been. It was really interactive, interesting and thought-provoking. I still don’t know how a couple of the illusions work! Then we met up with Mary and all went out to dinner together at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. The Mavrud red wine, shopska, and sach was a great way to celebrate Hil’s last evening in Bulgaria. 

We sent Hil off on her early morning flight with a heavy heart. To the next time, Anchovy Muffin! Let’s make it a Vietnam moped road trip?

Melnik “Tour Guide” doesn’t realize the tour is over…

New Year, New Adventures!

When was the last time you made a snowman?

Seeing the year “2022” was a little surreal. Honesty time; I still think the 90’s was like 10 years ago. I know right, “But don’t you teach history?!” Yes, I do, but feeling time and reading it in a textbook are two very different things. When someone mentions that the 90s was 30ish years ago, in my heart, it feels closer. It’s funny how time is more of an emotion than a tangible thing.

I’ve always found the New Year serves as a good benchmark for reflection. What went well in the past year, what didn’t, and what you’re working on in the new one. For us, we wanted to reclaim a bit of what COVID had removed in the past year. With travel restrictions loosening, exploring a bit further and potentially visiting with some friends was back on the table.

Unlike last year’s rather mild winter, this January was long, dark, and snowy, but we filled it with household projects, puzzles, and cooking up some great food. There was much paperwork and planning in preparation for our upcoming move to Bali. At the same time, I needed to submit all my paperwork and materials to renew my teaching license back in Vermont. Needless to say, loads of “adulting” needed to happen; far too much in my opinion. There are always challenges and difficulties doing things in a foreign country that you wouldn’t think twice about back at home. Like mailing documents or getting fingerprinted for a background check. Many thanks to our Bulgarian friends who helped us navigate the red tape.

February saw our dear friend Sam visiting us from the UK. We like playing the roles of hosts and tour guides. Being able to show Sam some of our favorite spots was a fun time! We walked around downtown Sofia to take in some of the sights and food, walked at Pancharevo for some fresh air and great views, and stayed over one night in the nearby city of Plovdiv (the cultural capital of Bulgaria). Sam also saw our high school firsthand when he came for a visit one day when both Alison and I were working. 

Sam tries rakia for the first time! At Raketa Rakia in Sofia along with good buddy Josh aka JC.
Our favorite spot in Plovdiv hired a street cat greeter who will gladly jump on the lap of whoever in your party likes cats the least and ask for snuggles. And sour cream.

The first of March signifies the quaint Bulgarian tradition of Baba Marta. On the 1st, people hand out little red ‘n white bracelets to their friends and family. When someone gives you one, you give them one in return. By the end of the day, teachers and students leave school with their arms full of the colorful bracelets. You’re supposed to wear the bracelets until you see some sign of spring such as tree buds or storks returning from the south. At that point, you take your bracelets off and put them on a nearby tree branch. This is such a cool tradition that we love! However, we weren’t able to take our bracelets off so quickly this year because winter continued to drag on with snowstorms continuing in this month. 

Naturally, there were a few sporting events/trail runs that we attended this spring as well. There is a great sporting community here that puts on many local running events, one of the organizations is called trailseriesbg. Alison and our friend, Douwe, have taken part in some of their weekend runs and I’ve tagged along to a couple of them. Alison’s not one to brag about her accomplishments, so I’ll do it for her! During the Baba Marta 6k run, Alison beat out the other female competitors to take first place! Trailseriesbg gives out one-of-a-kind homemade clay medals for the top three men and women in each distance. A few weeks later came the 7 Hills 18k race. This trail run was in a beautiful little village outside Sofia which contained, yep, 7 different hills for competitors to run up and down. Again, Alison *rose* to the challenge (literally up through the clouds and back down again) to take first place! So proud of this little race fiend! 

Winter hikes with our good friends Douwe, Yana, Tobias, and Tonks are shown here. Hikes happened on Vitosha Chimneys, Bistritsa, and Bankya.

Sometimes you gotta hit pause on your hit because a flock of sheep are crossing the trial.

We’d heard about the skiing in Bulgaria and knew it was a destination for skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts all over Europe. Just head to the airport during the winter and you’ll see bus loads of people shuffling off planes from various places all wanting to hit the slopes. We didn’t manage to go last winter, but this year we were determined to get out there and give it a try! Alison grew up skiing and myself snowboarding, but neither of us had really done much in the past 10-15 years. It was truly like riding a bike. We handled ourselves very well and had the most excellent day at Borovets skiing village. We were saying it’s almost too bad we’re not staying somewhere cold for our next teaching gig so we could make this more of a routine hobby! Maybe someday 😉

Still got it. Shred it!

During one of our weekend getaways, Ali’s friend, Ventsi, from a local biking group invited us to travel to a village in the southern part of the country to do some cycling around and sightseeing. The main attraction for cycling was the town of Suhovo in the Rhodope Mountains. In this area, there is a river that winds through the mountains; forming a horseshoe at one unique spot. It was a great chance to visit a part of the country we hadn’t seen before and explore other unique sights of Bulgaria like the Arda River and the Devil’s Bridge. 

The Devil’s Bridge wasn’t easy to find. It got a little wild!

With only a short time left here in Bulgaria, we’re attempting to capitalize on these next few weeks and try to check-out some other places and activities we’ve always wanted to. We’ve got some ideas but who knows what will happen! Check back soon!

Peace & Love,

Grant & Alison

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