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Sunday, January 6, 2019

Men’s Icy Horo

Bulgarians celebrate Epiphany today. It’s one of the biggest religious holidays in the country. It’s also St. Jordan’s day, so anyone with the name Jordan (Йордан in Bulgarian) or a derivative name celebrates their name day.

According to Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, the priest in each village or town throws a cross in the river, lake, sea (or whatever body of water is nearby) and the men of the community dive in the water to retrieve the cross. The man who retrieves the cross will be blessed with good fortune and health throughout the rest of the year. The only thing is, January 6 is usually one of the coldest days of the year. Today was no exception. The temps were well below freezing but the brave men around the country dove in the icy waters, undeterred by the ice and having to break it before going in. Some of them even retrieved the cross and got bragging rights for the rest of the year. 

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Crazy as it is, however, this tradition is just not enough for the men of Kalofer (a town just south of the Balkan range). Oh, no! Because Kalofer is the birthplace of Hristo Botev (a revered Bulgarian poet and revolutionary who fought for the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule) and is considered a town of heroes. So the men of Kalofer don’t just dive for the cross. They dance a mean men’s horo (a traditional Bulgarian dance) in the Tundzha river, which runs through the town. The men get a head start the night before when there’s a lot of singing and dancing around town. There’s also a lot of alcohol but they have to be careful because they are not allowed to participate in the men’s horo the next morning, if they are too drunk. Yes, it is insanely cold. And yes, they continue to do it every winter to demonstrate their manliness and good spirit. As a matter of fact the tradition is gaining in popularity and more and more people from far and wide (including Bulgarians living outside the country and foreigners) come to participate or just to watch each year.

The men participating in the horo are encouraged to wear traditional Bulgarian outfits and Bulgarian flags are welcome. No political symbols are allowed. And though women aren’t allowed either, the theme song of the tradition is about a woman in love - “Vasilka fell in love” (“Залюбила е Василка” in Bulgarian). I mean, what else would a bunch of men dancing with their, ahem, bums freezing in icy water be singing about, right???!!!

This year was special because there was a team from UNESCO observing the Kalofer men’s horo as the town has applied for including the ritual in the organization’s world cultural heritage list.

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There were reports of the cross being thrown and retrieved from icy waters around the country with Kalofer’s men’s horo featuring prominently on every channel all day today, so I thought I’d share the crazy, cool (if not downright freezing) tradition with you. I wanted to go see it in person but didn’t get to do it this year. Perhaps next year.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

‘Tis The Season!

This is just quick note to say Happy Holidays and wish you all the best. The holidays are a time for reflection and hope, so I am thankful and hopeful despite the occasional set-backs. I am thankful for what we have (which is a lot!) and hopeful for more love, more peace, more humanity and more meaningful connections between people, because that’s what makes life worth living, right?

As for us, we decided to check out Vienna for the holidays this year and we are enjoying ourselves for the most part, when we are not freezing our butts off, that is. This is the second year in a row that we’ve been cold for the holidays. Perhaps we should consider a warmer locale for next year.

We got the Vienna Pass (including a hop-on, hop-off bus) for two days here too, so we got to see Schonbrunn, the Giant Ferris Wheel at the Prater, the Danube Tower, the Rathaus, the Votive Church and the St. Stephen Cathedral (we were there for Christmas Mass today, actually). We also enjoyed the Christmas markets that are all over town this time of year and all the punsch (spiked for the parents!) and not enough sausage, if you ask Paul. Now we have about a dozen mugs from the various markets – they sell the drinks in them. You can return the cup and get your deposit back but some of us (surprisingly, not me) had a hard time parting with the cups.  I personally would have loved to see Mozart House (huge Mozart fan here) as well as some art, like maybe The Kiss by Klimt, which we almost did yesterday but when we got to Belvedere Palace, where The Kiss “lives,” it was closed because Christmas Eve – major bummer! A boat tour on the Danube would have been lovely too. We’ll have to come back, perhaps when the weather is nicer, to enjoy the sights we missed this time.

The weather is cold but not really terrible. The temps are just above freezing, so no white Christmas for us this year. It’s been raining on and off, which would not have been the end of the world, had we not had some outfit “misses.” Max apparently forgot his snow boots at school, despite Mom’s repeated nagging reminders, so he is wearing sneakers and it’s hard to keep his feet dry and warm. Nia (who is too old for help allegedly) packs her own stuff, so she decided she didn’t need to bring her warm jacket or her waterproof boots, or any sweaters or gloves, or anything warm really. In the middle of winter! In Vienna! Mom doesn’t know what she’d talking about, so why listen to her, ever??!! So there’s whining… (And Mom needs wine-ing!) But such is life and we try to roll with it…

Nobody wants to be in Mom’s pictures anymore either, so most of my pictures are of people’s backs but I don’t give up easily, so here are a couple I managed to snap. I may have twisted some arms to get these but a mom’s gotta do what a mom’s gotta do.

May your holidays be happy, healthy and bright!

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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

2018 Recap

OK – I realize 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, so I’ll go with that for now. Doing it this way makes me go through thousands of pictures and memories which is time-consuming but I guess I am a sucker for punishment. Why blog every day/week/month, when you can do a year’s worth of blogging in two weeks? Joking aside though, I kinda like the year-in-the-rearview-mirror exercise, painful as it is, 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 are not 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 incredibly 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 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 but never live as it is not a thing where I am from, so it’s 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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We also see this ad for iPhone 7 and can’t help but take a picture with it. It says, “He is 7.” Indeed, he is.

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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 the 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 return 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 I see some Roma dances…

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… and a museum of Roma history and culture. The museum is amazing – 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 are 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. Many people speak to me in Russian which I find annoying not for any other reason but because I am not. Oh well! But the city is packed. Apparently it’s also a favorite stag-party destination for Germans and Scandinavians because legal marijuana and relatively inexpensive everything else – go figure! Marijuana’s not my thing but it’s everywhere and in a whole bunch of stuff:

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I am, however, seriously impressed by this treat:

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It’s called trdelník in Czech (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, ha!) and it is out of this world! I have had other chimneys with other toppings in Prague and elsewhere 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. They raise rabbits and it’s baby bunny season aka cuteness overload time.

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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 Nikola Tesla museum (no decent picture),

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we hang out at restaurants and cafes on 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 conclude 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 other 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 wine, both of which are quite nice, and enjoy Moldovan music and a craft display. The following night we have an event at one of Moldova’s best wineries, Mimi, and get to try more excellent Moldovan food and wines.

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Moldova has its issues but I like it. 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 legislative 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.

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July

It’s our wedding anniversary and Paul’s birthday, so I decide to surprise him by arranging to climb Musala (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 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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On our way out of Melnik, we see raspberry wine for sale. I love raspberry wine, so we buy some of that too because why not? We spend the night in Sandanski, a mineral-water resort in Pirin.

The next day we continue our circle around Pirin heading up to Gotze Delchev. We drive through the mountains and see a sign for a village named Pirin. Hmm, a village named Pirin in the Pirin mountains?!! We decide we have to check it out. It’s a small place with dilapidated old houses and barns. I wouldn’t want to live in something like that but I love looking at and taking pictures of dilapidated structures. I think they look better in gray scale. It makes the pictures look ancient, even though they are not.

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July

July is here, July is here! July is vacation month and I am thrilled. We have been planning this dream vacation for months – one week each in the UK, France and Spain. We’ve traveled far and wide but we’ve never really seen these three countries and are finally at a point where the kids are old enough to understand and remember, so the trip’s not wasted on them.

I love road trips, so naturally, I want us to drive but Paul’s not on board:

  • P: It’s a lot of driving. Me: True that, but so what, we’ll see awesome stuff along the way. I’ll do half of the driving. Plus, we can stop and take breaks. It’ll be fun.
  • P: The kids will be bored out of their minds having to spend hours in the car. Me: Boring people get bored – they’ll deal.
  • P: What if the car breaks down? Me: Ahem, we’re in Europe, they have repair shops here.

Try as I might to convince him, he doesn’t budge. In the end, we fly to London, take a train from London to Paris and from Paris to Barcelona and fly back from Barcelona. We end up having an awesome vacation (but it would have been awesomer had we driven).

I spend countless hours researching what to do in each place and come up with these mega lists for each. Visitacity.com is a great resource. They have a variety of activities depending on length of stay and interests. I’ve used their itineraries several times and have not been disappointed. Paul thinks I have a serious case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). He is right, of course, but how can he fault me for that?!! We may never get another chance to visit those places with the kids, so it’s a now-or-never situation and it’s our duty to stuff them full of expose them to as much culture as they can stomach (a tad more actually ‘cause go big or go home, right?). I discover the best way to do just that – the London Pass, the Paris Pass and the Barcelona Pass. You buy your passes for however many days you want (we did 3 to 5 days) and you get free admission to many attractions and skip-the-line tickets to some. The passes are not exactly cheap and don’t cover absolutely all attractions but they are a better deal than buying individual tickets, especially if you hit 80% of the attractions and they do include most of the things you’d want to see (probably more than you can comfortably see but comfort is for sissies!). They also include hop-on-hop-off bus use for one or two days, which is a great way to get your bearings in unfamiliar cities and come up with a plan on how you want to hit the major sites. You can also add public transportation passes, which help you get from your hotel/rental to the nearest hop-on-hop-off stop or reach some things that are not on the hop-on-hop-off bus route. Quite nifty, no? Of course, that means mom and dad have to figure out the metro/bus systems in three huge cities, best routes, times, etc., but no pain, no gain, right? Anyway, here’s briefly what we see with some pictures:

In the UK we see spend most of our time in London but also go to Windsor, Stonehenge, and Bath. In London we go on a Thames river cruise, the Tower of London, the London Eye (a huge Ferris wheel), the Shard (the tallest skyscraper in the city), Westminster Abbey, Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, HMS Belfast (a military ship, which both kids surprisingly love), Tate Modern (huge modern art museum), Hyde Park (where we see Christo’s Mastaba), The British Museum, and we have afternoon tea, of course.

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We are in London during the Soccer World Cup quarter-finals and semi-finals and see the the Brits celebrate their win against Sweden, and drown their sorrow in industrial quantities of beer after they lose against Croatia.

Regrets: not going to Buckingham Palace (Paul’s not a royalty fan), the Churchill War Rooms, Madam Tussaud’s, not buying the Christmas ornament of Henry the VIII and his wives from the Tower of London and just generally not shopping enough. Oh well, I guess we’ll have to go back. Next stop: Paris. We head there by bullet train, which is probably the best way to go. It’s only a couple of hours and quite comfortable.

In France, we spend most of our time in Paris but do take a day trip to Versailles (which is absolutely over the top). In Paris, we stay in Montmartre, which was where artists lived and still has that ambiance. The day we arrive, we walk up to the Sacre Ceur Cathedral, which sits on top of a hill and enjoy the view of Paris from there. The next day is Bastille Day, so we take the metro and walk around downtown Paris. Parisians are getting ready for their national day. We walk up the stylish Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe and go up on top of it for another great view. We go to the Louvre, which is amazing but there is so much there that we are overwhelmed. We see the Mona Lisa and a bunch of other famous pieces but have to give up at some point because the kids have had enough. Seeing everything in the Louvre in one day is impossible, even hitting the highlights is a challenge. We take a boat trip down the Seine, go to Musee D’Orsay and Centre Pompidu, for more amazing art – I may have overdone it with the art in Paris. (Don’t the kids look a bit arted-out in the picture below. At some point they are like, “Mom, no more art!”), Montparnasse Tower, and Notre Dame Cathedral. We are in Paris for Bastille day and the Soccer World Cup final - France vs. Croatia. France wins and it’s a huge crazy party, bigger than Bastille Day – everyone is outside, drinking and dancing until they pass out. It’s pretty amazing to share this moment with the French. It actually gets a little destructive – the next day we see a lot of broken windows and scorched cars and broken bottles all over town.

You know what else is amazing? French food, that’s what - especially the boulangeries (bakeries). Omg, I just wanted to live in one of those because the breads and sweets are incredible. This is where it hits me that serving in Paris would be really bad for me. I would be like a gazillion pounds! I’d do it though – I’d sacrifice. I am generous that way.

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Regrets: not going up the Eifel Tower, we try but because they close it for Bastille Day and the World Cup victory (to set up the fireworks) the lines are just monstrous and we can’t get skip-the line tickets. We, of course, see it from many different angles but we are a little bummed we don’t get to go up it. It’s a reason to go back though, so not so bad. Our time in France is up and we head to Spain, once again by train. This train is not a bullet train (and the distance is longer), so it takes us over 6 hours to get to Barcelona. The ride is very scenic and we get to see some of the French and Spanish countryside, which is nice.

In Spain, we spend most of our time in Barcelona though we do take a day trip to the Cordoniu cava (sparkling wine) winery and the Monastery of Monserrat, both of which are lovely but Barcelona, oh Barcelona – you had me at Hola! with your delicious ham and seafood (Paella anyone?), which pair perfectly with your awesome wines (sparkling or otherwise)…

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…your Flamenco, your whimsical architecture and design, the bright colors (and if you know me, you know how much I love color, which totally explains my love affair with India), your beaches (which people told me were meh but how can one not love a coastal city with beaches?), your wide awesome boulevards with running/biking trails everywhere, your laid back culture, and last but not least siesta (just for the record, I am all for mandatory siestas!). I am so smitten with Barcelona that I keep asking myself “Why is Barcelona not the capital of Spain? What could Madrid have that’s better?” I have never been to Madrid, so this needs investigation but the more I see of Barcelona, the more in love I am. By the end of our time there, I am totally under Barcelona’s spell and am already scheming of moving there. Our consulate is tiny (only a couple of Americans), so being posted there is virtually impossible but a girl can dream. And it’s not that I don’t love London and Paris - I do, but there is something about Barcelona, there is a vibe to it, a feeling, that I find totally irresistible.

What do we see? We start by rambling down La Rambla (the main walking street), we go to La Boqueria (a big market where the food porn is on steroids!), we go down to the waterfront and enjoy some yummy paella. We go on a walking tour of Gothic Barcelona, go to the aquarium, and the science museum. We take a boat tour and enjoy the beach for a few hours. We go to Poble Espanyol (an Epcot-like theme park representing different parts of Spain) and delight in some tapas and a Flamenco show. We hike Montjuic (a hill above the city) and enjoy the awesome views from there. We go gaga over the architectural genius of Gaudi – we see Casa Batllo, La Pedrera (the Quarry) and Sagrada Familia (the most amazing church I have ever seen – it’s impossible to describe, you have to see it to believe it, and it’s not even finished yet!)

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Regrets: Not going to Andorra (could have been a cool day-trip), Girona (another missed day-trip opportunity, there are apparently Game of Thrones tours there because it was a set for some of the show. Paul: “We haven’t even seen any Game of Thrones,” Me: “So? We can watch it when we’re back.” He doesn’t go for it but spoiler alert: I binge-watch the entire show as soon as we return), not seeing Park Guell and Gaudi’s crypt, and the Jamon (Spanish Ham) Experience. Also, not seeing more of Spain, which I am pretty sure I would love. Now I have to go see Madrid, Valencia and Grenada. I just have to. But the regrets are just reasons to go back, so more to look forward to, really.

The trip is truly epic but so jam-packed that by the end, we are really spent – we have seen so much that we are overwhelmed by the sensory overload. Everyone wants to go home and just chill for a while. Also, (and I am not proud of this one), when we get back, I weigh myself ever so gingerly and whaddayaknow, I am the heaviest I have ever been without a baby in my belly. Oy! I mean I enjoyed every morsel but still… Europe is terrible for my waistline.

August

We take the kids to stay with my parents for about 10 days before the school year starts. While there, we go to Preobrazhenski (Transformation) Monastery, built in 1360, which is a few minutes from my parents house and is known for it’s Wheel of Life mural, painted by the famous Bulgarian muralist Zahari Zograf between 1849 and 1851.

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On the way back from dropping off the kids, Paul and I stop at Buzludzha, a communist era conference center shaped like a flying saucer, which now sits gutted, abandoned and covered with graffiti, a sort of a ghost of the past.

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Buzludzha is located on a peak in the Balkan mountain range (90% of which is in Bulgaria, contrary to popular belief), in a beautiful area in the middle of the country. The Balkan range splits the Bulgaria in two – Northern and Southern, with the Danubian plain to the North and the Thracian lowlands to the South. On a clear day the views from Buzludzha are breathtaking. I want to go there in the winter – I bet it would look gorgeous in the snow.

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The following weekend, Paul and I take advantage of the kids being with my parents and decide to try climbing Musala (the tallest mountain in Bulgaria and on the Balkan Penninsula – 2925 m/9596 ft), ) again. While we were in the UK, France and Spain, we had wonderful weather, warm and sunny every day, but in Bulgaria the weather had been unusually cold and rainy. This is the first nice weekend of the whole summer and it seems like everybody and their cousin, and their dog has decided to climb Musala that day. The most popular route to Musala starts in Borovets (a mountain resort) in the Rila range, about an hour drive from Sofia. You take the Yastrebets gondola lift for about 20 minutes from Borovets to the beginning of the hiking trail.

We get there before 9 am but there’s a huge line and it takes us an hour just to get to the beginning of the trail. The climb takes about 6 hours, about 3 hours up and a little less down. 2/3 of the trail is pretty flat and easy but the last third is downright brutal, steep and very rocky with bottomless abysses on both sides. Slipping could easily be fatal. We take it slow and careful and summit. We spend about 15 minutes at the summit, where there is a small hut. It’s very crowded, hundreds of people are already there picnicking and hundreds more are coming. We are surprised to see families with little children (2-3 year olds) along the trail and even one with a baby, who looks no older than 6 months (mom and dad were carrying him). There’s also a dude carrying a mountain bike on his back, up the mountain– not sure what he was doing. Mountain biking seemed suicidal in that terrain but what do I know?

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Getting back down takes forever. By the time we get all the way to the bottom, we are dead tired and quite sore, so we decide to stay at a hotel (Rila) in Borovets overnight. We get massages, have dinner and painkillers and pass out. We are sore for a few days but not too bad. Musala is a good hike, challenging and very scenic – highly recommend it. If you could do it in the middle of the week to avoid the crowds, even better.

September

September is quiet – no trips, not a lot of excitement. We take our time adjusting to the new school year and fall back into our school/work routines. Paul is bidding on his next job. We are still off by a year, so I don’t bid until next fall. It is not looking good. At one point there was a new now (to be filled immediately) position in Sofia and he tries for it but Washington says no because Bulgaria is a low differential post (nice place) and staying at a post like that longer than three years is frowned upon strongly discouraged. He explores other options. Our main constraint is Nia’s education. She is in 10th grade now. Our initial plan to have her graduate in Sofia doesn’t seem possible anymore and we are all bummed out. We consider consecutive unaccompanied tours – first Paul going to a place like Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iraq for a year, then I, while the family stays in Sofia but it means Paul has to take a year of Leave Without Pay while I do my hardship tour and that doesn’t work with his retirement calculus, so we are back to the drawing board. It looks like we will have to separate again. This time we will have to separate the children too because Nia needs to be in the same school for the last two years of high school but there’s no reason to move Max, when I have one more year here. The painful realization that bidding as a mid-level tandem with two school age kids is not “the world-is-your-oyster” exercise hits hard. Again.

October

The first weekend in October Paul goes on a Bulgarian language trip to the area around Kurdjali. The kids and I decide to join him because we have never been there. Kurdjali is a town in the South of Bulgaria, close to the border with Greece. We go to Perperikon, an huge archeological site developed after I left Bulgaria. They’ve discovered evidence of human activity there dating back to 5,000 B.C., which is astounding, if you ask me. The place has been Thracian, Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Bulgarian at various points in time and archeologists have found a lot of ceramics, tools and jewelry, idols, temples, forts, etc. They haven’t found much in the way of written remains, unfortunately, and it’s not fully excavated but it’s pretty impressive nonetheless.

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We also go to the Mushrooms, rock formations nearby, known for the interesting minerals found in the area.

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We stay at a bed and breakfast in Govedartzi, a picturesque village on the Kurdjali reservoir. The weather is surprisingly warm for October. We take a boat trip on the lake and enjoy a relaxing dinner at a restaurant on the water. The next day we spend some time with a couple of local artists and visit the local museum, which has an extensive collection of archeological finds, mineral and ethnographic exhibits.

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The kids’ fall break is in the second half of the month, so we take a road trip (yes!) to Transylvania, Romania, also known Our Dracula Trip in late October (cue in sinister Halloween music)! Paul and I have wanted to take this trip for more than 20 years but somehow things always got in the way, until now, so we are excited to be making our long-postponed dream a reality and even more so because the weather is perfect. The leaves are changing but it’s sunny and warm and all kinds of wonderful. Brasov and the area exceed my expectations. We stay at a rental apartment in the old town on a tiny street, walking distance from the Black Church and the charming downtown. Brasov and the area were conquered by Saxon knights in the Middle Ages and the German influence is everywhere – the street names, the buildings, the food, the castles. The town itself was called Kronstadt and is located at the foot of the Carpathian mountains which are beautiful and the city itself, quite lovely, with its colorful buildings sprouting neat little stores, restaurants and cafes all over town.

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We savor the local yums (note: even though they originated here, Transylvanian chimneys are not as good as Czech chimneys) and have fun with some of the Dracula stuff.

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There is a mountain, called Tampa, overlooking the city. You can hike it or you can take a funicular to the top. We are not feeling very ambitious (perhaps weighed down by the copious amounts of food we’ve been consuming), so we take the funicular but do a little hiking to the huge Brasov sign on the mountain and enjoy the view of the whole area from there.

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We drive to Bran castle, one of several in Romania associated with Vlad Tzepes (a.k.a. Dracula). I had talked to friends who had been to Bran – they were not impressed, said it wasn’t much, so we have very low expectations but end up loving it. It’s not huge or pretentious or sinister or anything like that but is still pretty darn awesome, if you ask me. It has a lot of information about vampires and how to ward them off and is decorated with spider webs and other Helloween paraphernalia but it isn’t scary. It’s set in a scenic area with hills, valleys and a river running through it and with the leaves changing it looked gorgeous to me. I would totally live there and be a damsel in distress waiting for a vampire to come and save me from a knight in shining armor or whatever…I has all these neat alcoves, nooks and crannies and I can’t help but imagine what it must have been like to be a child growing up there and look out of the windows on the world below – it’s just quaint like that…

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On the way back we stop at Sinaia, a mountain resort in the Carpathians and tour Peles, a much larger, more imposing but somehow less charming in my view, castle.

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Paul gets his onward assignment in October as well. It’s an economic position in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We are very well aware of the recent events surrounding Saudi Arabia but we decide that we will make the best of the situation. The school in Riyadh is very good and we’ll be living on a large diplomatic compound, so perhaps there will be more social opportunities for the kids. Also, Saudi is a hardship post for us and it will likely be easier for me to find a job there next year (I have done my research and have confirmed that there will be at least one opening in my specialty next fall). Lastly, because Saudi is a hard-to-fill post for us, Paul can extend, which means we may be able to finally align end dates and bid together going forward, something that has eluded us before. So we are cautiously optimistic about Riyadh, our future home. Neither of our jobs require learning Arabic but we want to learn it anyway because it will make our lives and jobs easier, so if you have good tips on how to do that, please leave them in comments.

November

I go to Brussels for a NATO conference. I learn a lot and I get to visit the new NATO headquarters, which is pretty cool. I get a couple hours to look around on the day of my departure. The last time I visited Brussels was when I was in college and it seems different. Or maybe it’s just me…

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I am successful in locating the symbol of Brussels, Manneken Pis, this time. I couldn’t find it last time but then again that was before Google Maps. I also locate startling amounts of Belgian chocolate and waffles. I try to stay away from them but fail miserably. I am only human.

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The Marine ball is in November too. Our initial plan was to skip it this year because Paul was supposed to be out of town for work and I didn’t want to go date-less. But his work trip gets cancelled and he finds tickets at the very last moment, which puts us in a difficult predicament. There is no time to buy new outfits, so we have to recycle stuff we already own. We decide to go in Indian attire. I wear one of my favorite sarees and Paul wears the Sherwani (a men’s Indian outfit) I had made for him when we lived in India. Our outfits result in a few raised eyebrows but so what?

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Nia turns 15. Fifteen! Unbelievable, right? She doesn’t want a party, again, so we celebrate with a dinner at Edo sushi. She does ask for a carrot cake and I oblige. I find a recipe for the Ultimate “24 Carrot” Cake and decide why not. It turns out great. The birthday girl enjoys the cake, being in my pictures, not so much!

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We celebrate Thanksgiving quietly with friends at home (sorry, no decent pictures).

Work keeps me busy – my religious contacts are concerned about a law that would curb their rights, LGBTI contacts start a community center for LGBTI youth, women’s groups and LGBTI groups protest against gender based violence and violence against women and children, I arrange for the Ambassador to visit a crisis center for children victims of trafficking and violence. Complicated issues but the work is meaningful.

December

I hope for a quiet December but get the opposite – we have two major visits early in the month - the Deputy Secretary of State and the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia. I am a note taker for a meeting with the Foreign Minister for the first and a control officer for the second, so there’s a lot of running around and organizing before the visits and follow up work after them.

I help the Embassy’s Marine Detachment and Community Liaison Office with Toys for Tots, a program that delivers toys to needy children each year. We identify a school with children of the poorest, most marginalized Roma communities in Kyustendil District in Western Bulgaria. We organize a donation drive for new toys as well as gently used clothes, shoes and toys at the Embassy and the Anglo American School of Sofia and our colleagues and kids amaze us with their generosity. The week before Christmas we deliver a truck full of gifts for the kids, their school and their dorm. First, we watch a wonderful program they have put together. Then, we distribute brand new toys and goody bags to each child. You guys should have seen the anticipation on their faces as they wait for their turn and then when they get their gifts. Some of the bags are bigger than the kids themselves. The director of the school tells us that they try to give the kids gifts for the holidays but that they have never gotten anything this big, so they are just bursting with excitement and can’t wait to open their gifts. They are just starting to study English and they know my colleagues don’t speak Bulgarian, so they try their best to say something in English, either Merry Christmas or just Thank you, but some are so nervous they just freeze. Then they come to show us the cool toys they have received. The experience just makes my day, if not my year and I cry my heart out because we make about 60 little people beyond thrilled.

But get this, I had gone to the school with the Ambassador a year and a half earlier to open the school year and our visit got the attention of the media and the local administration. The school director tells us that as a result of our visit in September 2017, they got the local administration to install a new heating system in the kids’ dorm. They had wood stoves in each room before that, which posed a fire hazard, if left on overnight but if you put them out, the kids had to sleep in the cold. Not. Any. More! Central heat – a game changer! It was the best news! We had helped make a difference in these kids’ lives and it felt wonderful.

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We go to Vienna for Christmas, which I briefly described here and spend New Year’s home in Bulgaria.

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Happy New Year everyone – may 2019 be your and our best year yet!

 
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