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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

2018 Recap

OK – I know this blog is turning into a recap blog, which is suboptimal and probably breaking some blog rule but done is better than perfect and this is one way I have been able to get my blogging done lately, so I will go with that for now. Doing it this way makes me go through a year worth of pictures and memories which is time-consuming but I kinda like doing that at the end of the year anyway because it makes me appreciate the things we have done and the trips we have taken. 

January

The new year finds us on a theme-park pilgrimage in Florida during the coldest US winter I can remember but we try to make the best of it. We go to Disney’s Animal Kingdom on New Year’s Day and Epcot the day after and have a blast despite the cold. We pose with mouse ears without buying them, ‘cause those things make absolutely no sense outside Disney. Come to think of it, they don’t make much sense there either but that doesn’t stop the countless people of all ages who wear them religiously.

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…we eat overpriced food and ride silly rides because that’s what going to Disney is all about.

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We also go to Universal because Harry Potter. That’s a new theme park for us and some of us (me) are not into Harry Potter but we (ahem, I) deal. We wait for like ever 80 minutes (!!!) to buy a mug of butterbeer and find that it’s insanely sweet but at least we pay too much for it. It comes with a souvenir mug though, which we use twice (maybe), so it makes it all worth it. We far from alone in the insanity – there are thousands of other crazy people doing the same thing, undeterred by the arctic cold. The lines for every ride are crazy long but whatareyagonnado?!!!

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Some of us fend off fire-breathing dragons…

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…while others hang out with Bumblebee and Optimus Prime from the Transformers.

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By the end of the trip we are a little theme-parked out but that’s to be expected after a week of rides and attractions. We have gotten the theme park vacation out of our systems and checked off our bucket list.

We get back home to Sofia and settle into our school/work routines. At the end of the month we go to Pernik for Surva – a colorful winter celebration. Pernik is an old industrial town and there isn’t that much to see there but Surva is worth it for hundreds of performers called koukeri from all over Europe come to Pernik to show off their crazy costumes and dances thereby warding off evil spirits. They all wear elaborate and sometimes scary animal-skin costumes with masks and lots of bells, so it’s very noisy. I had seen koukeri on TV as it’s celebrated in several parts of Bulgaria but had never experienced it live as it is not a thing where I am from, so it was pretty neat to see it in person and share the experience with Paul and the kids. It looks like this:

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February

There’s a lot going on in February. We go to see my parents and celebrate my Dad’s birthday. Being posted here makes it possible to visit them more often which is priceless.

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We go skiing in Borovets, a Bulgarian mountain resort about an hour from Sofia. We get a package deal at the Rila hotel which includes a room on one of the top floors overlooking the slopes and half board (breakfast and dinner – good food and a lot of it). The weather is amazing - a few degrees above freezing and sunny. The snow is perfect.

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Nia’s pretty good on the slopes and even goes off skiing with her friends a couple of times, relishing the freedom of doing something without us. Max is a little tentative at first and does some crazy skiing with me or Paul but gets his confidence eventually and starts skiing on his own and having a blast. By the end of our vacation, he is so fast we have a hard time keeping up with him.

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We celebrate our wedding anniversary (one of them anyhow) in Borovets. Max turns seven and begs to do a paint project at the hotel pottery painting studio.

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We go home and throw a birthday party for him at Muzeiko, the American Children’s Museum in Sofia, complete with an exploration expedition, cake, fun games and rad dancing!

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March

Spring is trying to come. We see signs of it in our yard…

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…and downtown (these are called Martenitsi – a Bulgarian symbol of spring)…

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…but we get another couple of snow storms before it’s finally here. We go on a day trip to Tsari Mali Grad at the very end of the month and we finally see storks, another Bulgarian symbol of spring, as they migrate from Africa and set up their nests in villages around the country in early spring. Bulgarians love their storks and look forward to their arrival, mating and having babies with a lot of excitement every year.

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April

I start seedlings and put them in a little greenhouse in the yard with the hope of growing a vegetable garden…

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…only to see them die of exposure when the strong winds blow away the plastic sheet of my greenhouse and the temps fall overnight. I have to start new seedlings and I do but my initial failure dampens my enthusiasm.

We celebrate American Easter with a traditional Bulgarian egg fight.

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For Bulgarian (Eastern Orthodox) Easter we go to Rome. We stay at a cute little rental in the Jewish Quarter. The rental is close to the major sights but there’s so much to see and do that we take advantage of a Hop-on, Hop-off bus offer which includes skip the line tickets to a couple of attractions. We cover a lot of ground in five days and see the Roman Forum…

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the Colosseum…

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the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps…

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the Vatican (no good pictures, unfortunately), Piazza Navona, which is apparently the best place to run around and play with giant bubbles…

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…and the Vittoriano (aka the House of the Motherland), the tallest building in the city, from where we enjoy a birds-eye view of Rome.

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We eat yummy Italian food like it’s going out of style and of course, industrial quantities of gelato and come home nice and fat.

We come home and I leave for the Czech Republic for a conference on Roma minority issues. I spend a couple of days in Brno, where there is a large Roma community. I get to visit a recording studio for Roma music…

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…a community center in the Roma neighborhood, where we saw some Roma dances…

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… and a museum of Roma history and culture. The museum is incredible – it traces the origins of the Roma back to India and shows the linguistic connection between Romani and Hindi, then displays beautifully their colorful traditions and way of life on the fringe of mainstream societies around Europe, the crafts, the music, the heartbreaking discrimination. It also covers the horrors of the Holocaust and the atrocities committed against the Roma. It ends with their life under communism, the way they are (mis)treated by mainstream media and some of the Roma motifs in mainstream culture (such as Carmen). It is so well done that it makes me cry because I realize how needed things like this museum are for Roma communities, how important it is for Roma children to grow up feeling proud of who they areare but how badly that is lacking in most countries with Roma population. Me and my colleagues participate in a Roma Holocaust remembrance event downtown Brno, which is very moving.

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I do get to see a little bit of Brno, which is a vibrant university town…IMG_3415

… and I try some of the local food and beer.

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I end up with the better part of a day in Prague before my departure and decide to play tourist. I take a long walk and hit main sites: Prague Castle and Charles Bridge…

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…Old Town and the Town Square with the Astronomical Clock and the Jewish Quarter with its Synagogues.

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I think Prague is incredibly charming and apparently so do many Indian, Chinese, and Russian tourists. I mean it’s packed! I hear it’s also a favorite destination for stag parties from Germany and the Scandinavian countries because it’s relatively inexpensive and marijuana is legal. Marijuana’s not my thing but it’s everywhere and in pretty much everything:

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I am, however, seriously impressed by this treat:

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It’s called trdelník in Czech and chimney in English though it’s not traditionally Czech. It actually comes from Transylvania (Northern Romania) and is made from dough rolled around a metal stick and then roasted over fire. Once roasted, it’s usually topped with syrup and dunked in sugar or chopped nuts. It’s known under different names in several countries in the region and I have tried different versions but in Prague, I stumble on this store that has chimneys on steroids with the most amazing toppings.

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It’s impossible to choose. The struggle is real but choose I must, so I pick the raspberry which is rolled in freeze dried raspberries and filled with raspberry ice cream (though I am really intrigued by the black devil chimney which comes with red horns) and it is out of this world! I have had other chimneys with other toppings in Prague and elsewhere before and after this but they got nothin’ on this one. So when in Prague, don’t waste your time with other chimneys, go run straight to the Good Food Bakery and Café in Old Town and get yourself one of those little pieces of heaven. You can thank me later. My mouth is watering just thinking about those beauties.

After I come back from Prague, we visit my parents again. My parents raise rabbits and it’s baby bunny season aka cuteness overload season.

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May

There is a three-day weekend in early may and I go to Varna for a long-overdue get together with my college besties, Nassia and Radostina. We hang out, do yoga, take walks by the water (Varna is on the Black Sea), go out at night and it’s like old times – no big expectations, no pretending, just being our silly old selves. Nassia and I take a bike ride to the botanical gardens near her house just in time to see the beautiful blooming tulips.

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There’s another three day weekend at the end of May and after much hesitation and weighing of options, we decide to go to Belgrade. I had gone there for work a few months earlier and it was quite nice. I thought Paul and the kids would enjoy it. It’s only about 5 hours by car, so we drive. The road is mostly highway and it’s a pretty drive. We rent an airbnb apartment downtown Belgrade. The rental is a communist era apartment, a little cramped and not fantastic but Paul and the kids get a taste of communist living (not really but we pretend – they are not loving it even though it’s much nicer than what most people had during communism). The location is great and we end up walking everywhere. We we go to Kalemegdan fort (an impressive citadel overlooking the area where the Sava and Danube rivers meet) and the Tesla museum (no decent picture),

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we hang out at restaurants and cafes at Knez Mihailova (the main drag) and the impossibly charming Skadarlija (the bohemian quarter of Belgrade),

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We indulge in too much delicious food and desserts which look too good to eat.

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We decide Belgrade is very nice and livable - we wouldn’t mind being posted there.

June

I travel to Moldova for a conference on trafficking in persons (one of the things I cover in Bulgaria). The conference is very useful. One evening, I go out with colleagues to a traditional Moldovan restaurant and we try the local food and drink and enjoy Moldovan music and a craft display. The following night we have an event at one of Moldova’s best wineries, Mimi Winery, and get to try some excellent Moldovan wines.

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Moldova has its issues but I like it. I conclude I would serve there too but then again there are few places where I wouldn’t serve. I’m flexible that way.

I get back home in time to attend Sofia Pride. It’s part of my job – I represent the U.S. Embassy but it’s a great event and I get to hang out with a lot of my LGBTI, human/women’s rights contacts and some colleagues from the embassy.

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The school year ends and we take the kids to spend a couple of weeks with my parents for some much needed spoiling, which they get in abundance.

I am a note taker for some meetings between a visiting U.S. Congressional Delegation and EU parliamentarians and get to go to the Bulgarian National Assembly (Parliament) for the first time. I look dreadful in the picture but it’s my first time there and the only picture I got, so it will have to do for now.

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July

It’s our wedding anniversary and Paul’s Birthday and I decide to surprise him by arranging to climb Moussala (the tallest mountain in Bulgaria and on the Balkan Penninsula – 2925 m/9596 ft), except there is a snow storm on the mountain that day and we have to cancel. We decide to take a trip around Pirin (another mountain in southern Bulgaria instead). First, we go to Melnik. I have never been to Melnik but is a small town in southern Bulgaria very close to the border with Greece famous for its red wines and old-time charm. We visit the Kordopoulov house, which is an impressive Ottoman-era home of an affluent wine maker and merchant.

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It’s a museum now but they still make wine and store it in the tunnels under the house.

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We get to taste the wine and it’s pretty good, so we buy some. We hike in the hills above Melnik, and enjoy the magnificent views from there.

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Then go down to the town for lunch and see more beauty along the way.

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We see some raspberry wine as we get ready to leave, and we buy some of that too. We spend the night in Sandanski, a mineral-water resort in Pirin.

Note: This post is work in progress and I will be adding to it in the next few days – come back soon to see the rest.

 
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