Get back to where you once belonged.

Well, guys, I did it. I somehow managed to survive my Bulgarian adventure: 10 countries, 4 months, and an infinite amount of memories. I’ve been back in the states now for a little over a week, and that week has been nothing short of a whirlwind filled with head colds, Christmas, and everything in between. And now with New Year’s Eve looming in the near future, I can’t help but wonder just how many more people are going to ask me, “So how was your trip?”.

I want to say that this was so much more than a mere trip…this was an entire chapter in my life that has now come to a close. Honestly, I’m not even sure that I fully comprehend that I’m not going back to Blagoevgrad next semester, that instead I’m going to drive back down to Roanoke and go back to reality.

It’s been difficult readjusting to being in the states again, for sure. The amount of times I have had to catch myself as I’m about to say thank you in Bulgarian to people here is a daily struggle for me, and the fact that I can drive to a Target or Walmart and quite literally buy anything I could possibly need is still a bit mind blowing.

And just like that, tomorrow is already New Year’s Eve. I’m not exactly the resolution-making type of person, but this year I do have a resolution I would like to make. And that resolution is to live life exactly how I’ve been living it these past four months.

Now, I don’t want to be tacky or cliché, but I fear there’s no way around it right now. Studying abroad has not only changed me, but it has also changed how I view the world. I’ve learned a lot while I was out of the states, not only from the places I have been, but also from the people I have met. I’ve highlighted a few of my favorite things I’ve learned below.

1. Different can sometimes be scary, but different can also be good. I guess this one is pretty self explanatory. When my plane landed in Sofia, I didn’t know much about the country, I didn’t know how to say anything in the language, and I didn’t know anybody. I was alone. And even though four months later, I sat alone in the very same airport I had arrived in, I was far from being as alone as I felt upon my arrival. I knew much more about the country of Bulgaria, and I knew how to say some basics in the language (the quality is not important here, it’s all in the effort, trust me). And I definitely managed to meet a lot of interesting people and make loads of new friends.

2. It’s easy to take things for granted. Don’t. It’s super easy to take this planet we call home for granted, and to never really take the time to appreciate our surroundings. There is so much natural beauty around us, everywhere. I’ve come to realize that whether I am in Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or a mountainside in Southwest Bulgaria, the beauty is there, if I can only take a moment to see it.

3. Not everyone in the world is an assassin hired to kill you. It’s okay to talk to strangers and ask for help. This, this was a big one. At home, if someone asks you for help, you usually lock your car doors and pretend you can’t hear him. But there is no way I would have survived this semester if it weren’t for the occasional help from a stranger. Whether that person was simply writing down a street name and pointing us in the right direction, or helping us find the right desk to buy a bus ticket at, it is safe to say that many days were ultimately saved by people we didn’t even know.

4. Put. The. Phone. Away. I didn’t have an international plan while I was abroad, and I am so glad I didn’t. My phone only worked when I had internet access, which means (gasp!!) sometimes I actually had to look around at my surroundings and (double gasp!!) actually converse with people. I’ve come to realize that I am not a slave to technology, and that I am entirely capable of making friends on my own. And I don’t even need a phone to stare at when I’m bored or alone. There’s plenty more to life than constantly checking Facebook to see what Suzy had for dinner.

5. School is not the most important thing in life. Don’t get me wrong, doing homework and getting good grades will always be on the top of my priority list, but I’ve come to realize that there are other things up on the top of that priority list as well. Sometimes you need to take a break, laugh with friends, forget that you have research papers to write, and go to Brussels for a long weekend the week before finals begin. Okay, maybe that was a bad call. But do I regret all of those sleepless nights that ensued because of that long weekend trip? Absolutely not.

6. It’s okay (even encouraged) to not completely plan things out. Some of the best days are the ones that aren’t set in stone. One of my favorite trips I took this semester was the weekend trip to the city of Plovdiv in Bulgaria. I didn’t know anything about the city and didn’t have anything planned past taking the free walking tour. Not everything needs a schedule or a game plan. Sometimes you can just wing it.

Obviously there are other things I have learned, but these are a few of the bigs ones that have really impacted me. I was talking to a close friend of mine last night, expressing my fears that I was going to go back to school in two weeks, get bogged down with work, and go back to the way I was before this experience. But I don’t want this to happen, so my resolution for this coming year is to keep living my life with the same sense of enthusiasm and wonder as I have had these past few months. While my life undoubtedly won’t be quite as exciting (no weekend trips to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam…), there is absolutely no reason why I can’t put my phone away and appreciate the beauty of the Roanoke Valley of Virginia. Or take a road trip to see Eleanor in Tennessee. Or…you get the picture.

So, to my friends and family, thank you so much for your words of encouragement as I set out on this adventure. Thanks for looking at my pictures, reading my blog, and keeping in touch with me while I was gone. I’ve been fighting the urge to start every sentence of every conversation I’ve had over the past week with the phrase, “Well, this one time in Bulgaria…”, so if anyone reading this wants to get together for some coffee and trade traveling stories (or just listen to me talk…), I’m a thousand percent down with that. Just let me know!

I will wrap up this blog post with possibly the best piece of advice I have received post arrival in the states: “Let traveling change you. Don’t ignore what you have experienced and let things go back to normal just because that’s the easier thing to do.” And in this coming year, I am going to do just that.

And a bonus family picture! Because there truly is no place like home for the holidays (:

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays!

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The final trip: Brussels.

What seems like eons and eons ago (but was really just September), I sat in the student center with my friends looking at budget flights, and we came across cheap flights to Brussels in December. Becky had found out that a Christmas festival/market that was going on in the city, and who says no to a Christmas festival in Brussels? That’s right, no one. So we bought tickets for a trip that we would all take at the end of the semester together; a trip that seemed as if it were in the indeterminate future.

Yet that trip did come…and last weekend we all went on it together. Our last trip ; my feelings about this could constitute a blog post alone, but I won’t put you through that train wreck. You’ll get that next week, when I’m home (!!!)…so tune back in for that.  The next time I travel to the Sofia airport, it will be my last adventure of studying abroad: the adventure to JFK. Hard to believe, really, but it’s true; in just five days I’ll be making that final trip to Sofia.

Like most of our trips this semester, this one started out early (or rather, late). Our flight left at 6am from the Sofia airport, which meant that we were to take a taxi from the school at 1am. I had my choir concert that night, and Eleanor had her play performance…so needless to say it was a long night. After reaching the airport, taking a nap in terminal 2 (which has wifi), walking the 20 minutes to terminal 1 (which did not have wifi), going through security, and boarding the plane…I was exhausted.

We landed in the Charleroi airport of Brussels at 8:30 the next morning, and after not sleeping (save an airport nap on a bench…), we boarded the shuttle that would take us the rest of the way into the center of town (which was a little less than an hour away). Needless to say, I passed out on that bus.

We found our hostel, which was literally right smack dab in the middle of the city center, which no one was complaining about. It was undoubtedly the best hostel location so far this trip. We were starving, cold, tired, and overall ‘hangry’ (a combination of hungry and angry…the anger is caused by the hunger), and just about to give up on everything when we saw a beacon of hope in the distance: Chi Chi’s. Yes, the Tex-Mex restaurant. Guys, I’m not even ashamed that my first meal in Brussels was an overly processed quesadilla. It’s been too many months without Mexican food. The quesadillas were probably truly horrendous attempts at Mexican food, but honestly, I thought they were the best thing since sliced bread.

It was still too early to check into our actual room at the hostel (we had to wait until 4pm), so we all just wandered around the area, which included the Grand Place and various smaller sections of the Christmas market.

So many people! I could tell we weren't in Blagoevgrad anymore!

So many people! I could tell we weren’t in Blagoevgrad anymore!

I wasn't complaining, this place is beautiful!

I wasn’t complaining, this place is beautiful!

After scarfing down some delicious food from the market (lots of cheese and potatoes, just how I like it), we called it an early night for obvious reasons.

The next morning a few of us headed off to the Musical Instruments Museum. It was no. 4 on the trip advisor list of things to do and see in Brussels, AND it only cost 2 euros to get in. With those 2 euros, we had access to an amazing collection of instruments, along with an audio guide that would know where you were in the museum and play examples of what the instruments sounded like. Easily the best 2 euro I’ve spent ever. I’m also a huge music nerd, so this was basically the perfect museum for me.

This is a traditional Moldovan "instrument". You go inside it and clap the jaws of the animal together to make sound.

This is a traditional Moldovan “instrument”. You go inside it and clap the jaws of the animal together to make sound.

I wish they still made keyboard instruments like this! So space efficient!

I wish they still made keyboard instruments like this! So space efficient!

How do you not love this?

How do you not love this?

Crack is whack, kids. That is one crazy string instrument.

Crack is whack, kids. That is one crazy string instrument.

We even managed to see a few traditional Bulgarian instruments I've been studying this semester! This is a duduk!

We even managed to see a few traditional Bulgarian instruments I’ve been studying this semester! This is a duduk!

Friends & a pretty view from where all of the museums are!

Friends & a pretty view from where all of the museums are!

The view without friends in the way!

The view without friends in the way!

For museum no. 2 of the day, we ventured to the Magritte Museum to see a collection of Magritte’s famous surrealist paintings. You know the type:

That's right.

That’s right.

It was pretty neat to see, and (once again) only 2 euros for entry! Afterwards, I had met my 2 museum quota/limit for the day, so Sydney, Amy, and I went on an adventure, and walked around more of Brussels. We rather inadvertently found the tomb of the unknown soldier, which was really impressive.

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Later on, after reconvening at the hostel and taking a short break, we ventured out into the cold and went to Delirium, which is known for having a ridiculously large amount of beers (over 2,000 to choose from). For someone who pretty much abhors beer (that’s me, in case you didn’t know), this seemed a tad bit superfluous, but we have friends who are all about those hops and barleys, so the non-beer drinkers took one for the team and actually kind of enjoyed it. We found a “beer” that was really more like drinking fruit juice…it was called “Pink Killer” and yes, it was pink. So while the others feasted on their dark beers that I described as how a “burnt sienna orange crayon would taste”, Sydney and I feasted on our Pink Killers.

We also walked around the big Christmas market that night which was super cute! More market food, which I definitely wasn’t complaining about, a ferris wheel, and tons of cute stands selling jewelry, crafts, and art galore! We rode the ferris wheel, and Sydney and Amy forced me to go down the “ice slide”, which was really just a giant slide. I didn’t realize that I was so afraid of this slide until I was at the top, looking down…but my retaliations were met with them grabbing my feet and pulling me down with them. I screamed the entire way down and was definitely judged by everyone for being a scaredy cat. But we ate churros afterwards, so I guess the humiliation was worth it.

The (blurry) view from the top of the ferris wheel!

The (blurry) view from the top of the ferris wheel!

The next morning, we took the walking tour of Brussels. Our tour guide quite possibly had an eidetic memory, because he knew approximately, well, everything about Brussels.

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Look guys, it’s the peeing boy statue. Seriously, this is basically the mascot of Brussels. And the best part, you ask? No one really knows why. And if our tour guide didn’t know why he was so famous, then it really means that no one knows. There are a few tales that spin a reason for his importance, one of which includes him peeing on enemy troops, causing the enemies to retreat. But still, I think it’s quite a silly thing for tourist to gather around and take pictures of. (Says the girl who stood there and took pictures of the peeing boy). 1476626_10152465602039392_810043338_n

This thing was cool. It made sounds as you walked through it…this section played sounds from a sound clip of an ice berg melting to raise awareness of the problem of global warming. Pretty neat.

St. Michael's Cathedral!

St. Michael’s Cathedral!

Inside the cathedral, there was a collection of nativity scenes from around the world, which was super cool to see. Especially with the whole kerfuffle going on down with whether Santa Claus should be white or black, or if baby Jesus should be caucasian, yadda yadda yadda, it was nice to see such a display of Christianity without people bickering about how everything was portrayed.

Belgian fries!

Belgian fries!

The fries here are ON POINT. Notice, however, that they are not French fries. No, that’s blasphemy. Apparently the notion of frying potatoes and calling them fries was not a French thing, but rather a Belgian thing. But American soldiers messed it all up when they returned to the states, thinking that because the people who gave them the fries were speaking French, they were from France. Think again, because you’re wrong. Although ‘French fries’ does have a much better ring to it than ‘Belgian fries’.

Later on, Allie, Eleanor, and I stumbled upon a CHRISTMAS PARADE! It was perfect and so cute and I’ll just attach pictures because they are worth 1,000 words (or more, if you let them).

Santa's glasses moved!

Santa’s glasses moved!

Ridiculously photogenic news crew.

Ridiculously photogenic news crew.

And reindeer!

And reindeer!

And a Christmas train!

And a Christmas train!

And polar bears!

And polar bears!

But the guy operating Santa's sleigh was not having any of it. He needed some Christmas cheer.

But the guy operating Santa’s sleigh was not having any of it. He needed some Christmas cheer.

After walking around and buying miscellaneous presents for people at home (and maybe myself…whoops), it was an early night yet again…because we had a 5am shuttle to catch to the airport. Yay, budget airlines. You get me. And my sleeping tendencies. Not.

So, all in all, a wonderful trip with wonderful people to celebrate a wonderful semester. I love my friends here, and I am so lucky to have them in my life. I’m not one for being sentimental and mushy, but honestly the people I’ve met here are some of the best people I know. Period. We’ve traveled together, we’ve gone spelunking together, we’ve cried together, and Lord knows we’ve laughed together, and even as we prepare to go into our last week in Bulgaria, I know that the friendships I formed here will not end as the semester comes to a close.

Leaving home to come here was easier in a sense, I think. The act of coming to Bulgaria was not easy, that’s for sure, but saying goodbye was. Mostly because it wasn’t a goodbye; it was a “hey, I’ll see you at Christmastime”. But the goodbyes I’m going to be giving people on Friday morning are not really that kind of goodbye. Especially for all of my friends who aren’t from the states. This goodbye is more of a “hey, I’ll see you at some indeterminate point in the future” kind of goodbye. And I don’t think I’m a huge fan of those goodbyes. Sorry, that was kind of depressing.

But for those of us who are counting down, I leave for the Sofia airport in 5 days. 5 days. It’s unbelievable, but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing my parents, my sister, my extended family, my friends, Pennsylvania, the Wyoming Valley, and all that good stuff that I’ve missed while being in Bulgaria! I didn’t know the end of the semester would be as bittersweet as it is. But I can’t become too sentimental, because I must conquer finals week before I can get on that JFK-bound plane on Friday. Speaking of finals, I should probably go study…

Adventures in Plovdiv.

Last Friday, my friend Kevin and I spent a while deliberating over what exactly we would do with our weekend. After attempting to figure out bus schedules (which is a lot harder than it seems), we decided on Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city and a rather popular tourist destination within the country. For some reason, the bus that left at 6:20am arrived in Plovdiv at noon, while the 6:50am bus arrived there at 11…I’m not sure what the logistics of that are, but I wasn’t complaining because I didn’t have to get up quite as early.

The bus ride there was rough. I mean, I thought roads in Pennsylvania were bad (which, rest assured, they still are pretty horrendous) but these roads bring on a whole new level of horrible. The bumps we went over literally made us fly up into the air, only to come crashing down back to the seat. Over. And over again. Somehow, the man sitting next to me managed to sleep through all of it (quite gracefully, too, I might add). I’m not exactly sure how…but I’m not entirely convinced that we were on actual roads for the majority of the time.

We arrived in Plovdiv with close to no idea of what we wanted to see and accomplish; we only knew that there was a free walking tour that we wanted to take…and we had roughly two hours before that took off. Our first order of business was to find somewhere to sleep at night, which was surprisingly easy. It was one of the cleanest places I’ve ever stayed in, so that was a welcome change.

We then set out to explore the town. Now, appease me and say that we were to play one of those word recognition games where I say one word and you say the first word that pops into your mind. If I were to say ‘Bulgaria’, what would be your reply? Sure it wouldn’t have been ‘ancient ruins.’ I don’t blame you, because I didn’t know that they were a thing in this country either. But after all, we do share a border with Greece, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised when this was one of the first things that greeted us upon our arrival in the old town.

The ancient stadium of Philippopolis.

The ancient stadium of Philippopolis.

Just casually chilling in the middle of the pedestrian street.

Just casually chilling in the middle of the pedestrian street.

Turns out they inadvertently built their city on top of ancient ruins…which I guess isn’t too surprising, since Plovdiv is older than both Athens and Rome. Crazy right?! In fact, Plovdiv is the oldest continually inhabited city in Europe. Anyways, they are working on excavating this stadium now. Their initial plan was to build a glass walkway on top of the stadium, so that people can walk above it on street level; however, this is not exactly financially feasible, so now they are just working on uncovering as much as possible. Plovdiv is actually a candidate for the European Capital of Culture 2019 because of these many gems that are dispersed throughout the city.

At this point, we had approximately an hour before the walking tour left, so we decided to go on a bit of an adventure. We ended up wandering through winding cobblestone streets, and eventually made it to the clock tower of the city, which still functions today.IMG_2948

And we found a not so bad view as well (:

And we found a not so bad view as well (:

From there, we could see the location of a monument to the Russian soldiers, which was on another hill (the city of Plovdiv was built on seven hills–kind of like Rome, if my memory of ancient civilizations class serves me right). At this point we had around 40 minutes until the start of the tour, so we decided to go for it and try to make it to the statue.

Keep in mind that I was wearing my Toms, because I wasn’t exactly planning on climbing any of the ancient hills of Plovdiv. However, that’s exactly what I ended up doing. I’m about 99.999999% sure that there was an easier way to get to the top, but Kevin insisted that we take the old stone “steps” up to the top (those scare quotes are completely necessary!). But eventually, in record time I’d like to think, we made it to the top. And we were not disappointed.

This monument was massive. Seriously. I felt so small next to it.

This monument was massive. Seriously. I felt so small next to it.

A little cloudy, but an amazing view nonetheless.

A little cloudy, but an amazing view nonetheless.

You can kind of see the "steps" we took up in this picture. "Steps".

You can kind of see the “steps” we took up in this picture. “Steps”.

We somehow miraculously made it back to the main street just in time for the walking tour to begin, which was possibly one of the most educational walking tours I’ve taken.

The first monument we saw was the Faithful Soldier Monument, which is right across from the Central Post Office. The post office, which is from communist times, is huge. I mean, really, no post office needs to be that large. Our tour guide mentioned this, and told us that something like 80% of the building is completely vacant…the whole concept of a large building was ‘big regime, small people.’

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The seal of the city of Plovdiv. On top are two lions, the national symbol of Bulgaria, on the bottom, the seven hills of Plovdiv. One of the hills was destroyed in order to create pavement for the city, so now there are only six hills.

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Next we have the statue of Miljo the Crazy, who was basically a well-loved mentally unstable man who always made everyone laugh and “remember what it was like to be alive” (in the words of our tour guide). Although it seems that Plovdiv gets a lot of judgement from other cities for having a monument to a crazy person in their city, he has become a representation of Plovdiv’s hope for a better future. He’s sitting there everyday now, always waiting ready to hear your wishes and hopes for the future. So, all in all, kind of weird, and kind of cute, if you ask me.

Miljo the Crazy

Miljo the Crazy

One of my personal favorite parts of the tour was the next statue: Sasho the Sweetheart. He was a famous violinist who played in a popular upscale restaurant. He loved to tell jokes to people, and everyone loved him, hence the name ‘sweetheart’. However, it was his jokes that ended up getting him into trouble. One evening, the head of the Socialist party was dining at his restaurant, and he was asking the musicians when they were going to being leaving. Sasho replied, “We will be gone in a minute, but the real question is when will you be gone?”

If you ask me, if there is one this you would ask the head of the Socialist party…this isn’t it. After this, no one is quite sure what became of Sasho. He was sentenced to go to a labor camp, saying that the jazz music he was playing was ‘dangerous.’ There was no trial or any of that, because things didn’t work like that then. Hard to believe. Anyway, some people believe that he died of torture in the labor camp. Others say that he escaped and was recruited as a spy in western Europe. Regardless, he has become a symbol and token of appreciation for all of the talented people who lost their lives during this time because they weren’t quiet.

Sasho the Sweetheart.

Sasho the Sweetheart

Right behind Sasho is the Roman theatre, which you could actually go in and explore (for free!).

SO COOL!

SO COOL!

This was one of the coolest parts of the trip, hands down.

This was one of the coolest parts of the trip, hands down.

Right next to the theatre is this very interesting looking house. It was built by a famous architect who lived in Plovdiv. Everyone in town thought that he was incredibly foolish to build a house on the rocks, above the rest of the city. At one point there was an earthquake in the city, and instead of worrying about things in the main part of the city, everyone rushed to see if the house they thought was so foolishly built was still standing. Turns out it was.

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The old town in Plovdiv is so cute and very charismatic. The ancient cobblestone streets hurt your feet, but are so neat to walk on. Who knows how many people before you walked on the very same streets.

 

One of my favorite places in Bulgaria so far.

One of my favorite places in Bulgaria so far.

This was one of the best tour groups I have been in so far (there were only about nine people on the tour, maybe less) and so we all decided to get some food together after the tour.

Such a typical meal, haha.

Such a typical meal, haha.

After eating, we made our way back to the guest rooms we were staying in and basically passed out for a few hours. We were planning on sleeping on the bus ride on our way to Plovdiv; however, given the road situation, we didn’t sleep at all. And after climbing the hill that was more like a mountain and going on a two hour walking tour…we were rather exhausted. We met up with one of the girls from our tour group, who is studying abroad in Istanbul. She wanted to experience a typical Bulgarian night out on the town…and judging by the amount of random 90’s and early 2000’s music we heard that night, I’d say we succeeded.

The next morning, we wandered around the old town and went back to the theater to spend more time inside it (because let’s be real- exploring ancient ruins is pretty awesome). Then we grabbed the bus back to Blagoevgrad, which was a much smoother ride, but was also a few hours longer than the bumpy road route. I guess you win some and lose some. Oh, well. Unfortunately, Kevin is hoarding all of the pictures with me in them on his computer, and he is gone caving today…but they’ll be here soon as well (:

In other news, I have officially celebrated Thanksgiving in Bulgaria. Our school put together a rather delectable meal (although mom’s stuffing and cranberry sauce will never be beat). I haven’t really experienced ‘homesickness’ in the way I was told I would…but not being home for Thanksgiving was definitely really hard. I Facetimed home, but with the horrible wifi at school, it was more of us saying “Can you hear me?” and “I can’t understand a word you’re saying.” But I will say that I am so blessed to have made such wonderful friends here that was I able to celebrate with here. And it wasn’t the worst thing to eat a meal without feta cheese in it for once.

Tomorrow marks December 1st, which means I will only have 20 more days in this wonderful country. I honestly cannot believe that this time has flown by so quickly. It will be interesting to reacclimatize to Americanisms that I’m sure  I’ve forgotten exist. While it’ll be sad to leave the wonderful place that is Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria (I know how weird that must sound, but I’ve truly come to love it here), I am so very excited to see my family again at JFK in 20 days AND eat Mexican food with them (hello ethnic food!).

Честит Ден на благодарността! (I am relatively certain that that says 'Happy Thanksgiving' in Bulgarian. But don't go around quoting me on that or anything...

Честит Ден на благодарността! (I am relatively certain that that says ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ in Bulgarian. But don’t go around quoting me on that or anything…

Anyways, that is what has been happening in my life recently. As for now, I am off to homework land for the rest of the weekend in preparation for my departure to Brussels this Friday! Keep your eyes peeled for a blog post on that exciting last trip with my friends before our departure for home!

 

 

Amsterdam & (a bit of) Berlin.

Sorry this blog post is (more than) a little late, but hey…better late than never, right?!

After traveling through Poland and Hungary for a week, I was off to meet up with my friends in Berlin, to head off to Amsterdam by means of a 7am flight (which was really quite painful). 7am flights mean you wake up at 3am, which is hard for someone whose earliest class this semester is at 12:30pm. But alas, I persevered, which was a good thing, since Amsterdam is officially my new favorite city.

There are few worse feelings than being up since 3am, dealing with “airport grime”, navigating your way to the hostel, feeling really super accomplished, grimy, and tired…only to find out that you can’t check into the hostel until 3pm. Sightseeing is pretty dismal when all you want to do is shower…but hey, I was still living out of the same carry on suitcase I was living out of all last week, so I guess this didn’t phase me as much as it would have normally. Maybe I’m getting better at this whole traveling thing (and not being super high maintenance…).

After dropping all of our belongings off at the hostel (I have never been more thankful to get rid of that blasted carry on suitcase), we headed off to our free walking tour of Amsterdam. A three hour tour. Kind of like Gilligan’s island, I suppose…without the being shipwrecked thing. The tour, although exhausting on top of the early morning traveling, was so so worth it. Free walking tours are the way to go, friends. Seriously. You learn and see so much.

Do you see why this is now one of my favorite cities ever?

Do you see why this is now one of my favorite cities ever?

From the squatter's section of Amsterdam.

From the squatter’s section of Amsterdam.

The symbol of Amsterdam...some people say it stands for the 3 ancient dangers of the city: fire, floods, and the Black Death.

The symbol of Amsterdam…some people say it stands for the 3 ancient dangers of the city: fire, floods, and the Black Death.

House boats! So precious. I want one. That's all.

House boats! So precious. I want one. That’s all.

After our three hour tour that, thankfully, didn’t leave us stranded like my man Gilligan, we finally were able to check into our hostel. We grabbed some food, CHINESE FOOD (!), which confirmed the fact that I never wanted to leave Amsterdam. With that, Eleanor, Becky, and I were off to see one of my very favorite bands, Local Natives, play at a local music venue. The venue was called Paradiso, an old church that was squatted by hippies in the 1960s and was converted into an entertainment club. The building obviously has a lot of history, which makes it that much cooler.

Outside shot of the Paradiso.

Outside shot of the Paradiso.

Local Natives. I'm not really into clichés...but this was life-changing.

Local Natives. I’m not really into clichés…but this was life-changing.

After being up for approximately a solid 20+ hours…we all collapsed into bed after the concert. The next day, I slept in for a bit. Feeling somewhat refreshed, Eleanor, Edgar, and I set off to try to get tickets to the van Gogh museum. Unfortunately, they were all sold out for the rest of that day, so we jumped on the opportunity to get tickets for the next day at 9am (opening time). We took some touristy pictures with the “I AMSTERDAM” thing that everyone takes pictures with:

Such good tourists. We're underneath the 'm'...

Such good tourists. We’re underneath the ‘m’…

…and with that Edgar left us to rent a bike (which in Amsterdam is basically a death wish, I have determined), and Eleanor and I went off to explore. We came across a rather intriguing building that was right across from the van Gogh museum.

Tell me that doesn't look intriguing.

Tell me that doesn’t look intriguing.

We walked underneath that little walkway to see what it was all about; turns out it was an art museum. Not just any art museum…the Rijksmuseum. Which was home to some of the most incredible art I have seen yet in my life. Nothing can quite compare to seeing something up close and in real life that you have studied in school. I was constantly having flashbacks to my AP art history class in high school throughout the museum.

Casual Rembrandt...

Casual Rembrandt…

That's right...I saw the Nightwatch in person. This this is massive. The textbooks don't convey the enormity of this piece...at all.

That’s right…I saw the Nightwatch in person. This this is massive. The textbooks don’t convey the enormity of this piece…at all.

Later on we all met up (except for Edgar…who was lost on a bike in Amsterdam–see, I told you it was a death wish) and went on an evening canal cruise. Also, it just so happened to be Halloween, so with a quick last minute trip to H&M, we put together some (pathetic, yet existent) Halloween costumes and made our way to a party at the Paradiso (which is possibly one of my new favorite places ever.

The next morning Eleanor, Edgar, and I groggily made our way to the van Gogh museum to get in line to enter when it opened at 9am. Yes, Edgar has miraculously survived his biking escapade, but at a cost. He was lost for the majority of the time, and also fell twice (at least that is how many times he admitted to). I’ve never seen anything quite like bikers in Amsterdam. There are something like 300,000 bikes in the city (that is not an exaggeration) and I am convinced that their sole objective in life is to terrorize tourists.

Anyway, getting to the van Gogh museum for when it opened was one of the best decisions of the trip. We were among the first people to go inside, so it wasn’t crowded and we didn’t have to crowd surf to get up close to the masterpieces that awaited us. If you are ever in Amsterdam, GO TO THIS MUSEUM. The layout is superb and educational…I actually felt as if I left the museum with knowledge I didn’t have before.

One of the last pieces van Gogh was working on before he died. Still unfinished.

One of the last pieces van Gogh was working on before he died. Still unfinished.

After the museum, Eleanor and I went on a quest to see some landmarks that were on our Amsterdam bucket lists, which meant that we walked a whole lot. We saw the West Church, which is right down the street from where Anne Frank and her family were in hiding. In her diary, she writes about the sound of the bells from this church.

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Inside is also consequently where Rembrandt is buried, since he died a pauper and couldn’t afford a proper grave, but was still kind of a big deal. (I’m not sure exactly how historically accurate that statement is, but it went down something like that).

The border is taken from the aforementioned masterpiece, the Nightwatch.

The border is taken from the aforementioned masterpiece, the Nightwatch.

We also walked a really long time and eventually came upon The Basilica of Saint Nicholas. It was gorgeously breathtaking, and as we walked in, it still smelled of incense from the last mass they had held.

Perfection.

Perfection.

We then set off to find a museum that we wanted to go to, but it turns out that (since it is free) it’s only open two days a week. So, we found a 15 euro wine and cheese tasting that was mentioned on our walking tour…so we decided, ‘why not?’.

That's right...it was classy and intense.

That’s right…it was classy and intense.

I doubt the accuracy in saying that I'm not an expert..but hey, I'll take it!

I doubt the accuracy in saying that I’m not an expert..but hey, I’ll take it!

We met a fellow American at the cheese tasting who was just as uncultured as we are when it comes to gourmet cheeses (I mean, I didn’t know it was a sacrilege to serve cheddar at a dinner party). Also apparently gouda is a type of cheese determined by its shape, not its taste. Weird stuff. Anyways, it’s always nice to randomly meet fellow Americans and bond with them; you’d be surprised the things you learn and the stories you hear.

At this point, Eleanor and I had successfully spent all of our Euros on gourmet cheese, so we survived the rest of the night on snacks we had picked up from the supermarket. Yum.

The next morning we had YET ANOTHER 6am flight back to Berlin, to catch our flight back to Sofia the next morning. We arrived in Berlin and I was naturally very excited to see some of the city and to meet up with a dear friend of mine. Connie was an exchange student at my high school, and she goes to college now only a few hours from Berlin, so she took a train to meet up with me. Of course, this came with its fair share of difficulties, because I was in charge of meeting up with her. Before attempting to find the train station, and, more importantly, Connie, we all went off to see the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was incredibly poignant.

It's really abstract, but being there is so touching.

It’s really abstract, but being there is so touching.

We stayed there for what was probably too long, and then Eleanor and I set off in search of Connie. This turned into a bit of a wild goose chase with the public transportation…and somehow we ended up in this weird (but cute, don’t get me wrong) Christmas village that had snow tubing and music and stereotypical German things going on…but this wasn’t the train station, so that was a problem.

Two hours later (that might be an exaggeration, but I feel like it isn’t), we located the train station and started blindly running around towards where Connie could have potentially been (honestly, I had no idea where to look for her). By a stroke of what some would call fate, as we were running down a random flight of stairs, she was going up the escalator next to the stairs! Which was lucky for us…because without a functioning cell phone and limited WiFi access, I’m not sure how I would have ever found her.

We went back to the hostel for the first time that day and checked in, and grabbed some dinner before doing some very compact sightseeing. We made it to the Brandenburg Gates, which are really quite nice when lit up at night.

Look at us, all reunited and cute (:

Look at us, all reunited and cute (:

We also got to see the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall, which is the really iconic section that has been covered with original artwork. Coming from someone who can barely draw a stick figure…I was blown away. Really, though, it was amazing to see in person.

Look at that!

Look at that!

One of my favorite sections. I hope you appreciate this...I stood in the middle of the road to get this shot..haha.

One of my favorite sections. I hope you appreciate this…I stood in the middle of the road to get this shot..haha.

After this we hung out at the hostel for a bit, and I said my goodbyes to Connie, since we were leaving once again at some ungodly hour of the morning for Sofia the next day. And just like that, we were off to Blagoevgrad once again to start classes.

And that is the truly impressive story of how Danielle lived for two weeks out of a carry on suitcase with toiletries that were 100ml and less. If you know me, you know just how impressive this is. It may have been an even larger struggle than caving for me, honestly.

More to come soon!

Singing our way through Poland & Hungary.

23 hours. That’s how long it takes for a bus to drive from Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria to Krakow, Poland. Personally, I would suggest flying instead, because there’s something about 23 hour bus rides that really don’t seem to make me jump for joy. But, regardless…the bus ultimately got us to where we needed to be, so I guess I can’t complain.

I spent the week of October 21st traveling across Poland and Hungary with the lovely and wonderful people of AUBG’s choir. The week after that I was meeting up with other friends in Berlin to travel to Amsterdam with them. So, just two days after the caving excursion (see last blog post for that coolness), I packed up enough clothes for the next two weeks in my little carry on suitcase, gathered some snacks, and set out to grab a seat on the bus. The bus I would be on for the next 23 hours. Did I mention that already? Just let that soak in.

I’ve managed to determine what possibly was the worst part of the 23 hour bus trip. You see, in Europe it’s quite common to pay to use the restroom, which is a fact of life that I have just come to accept. But what really is the worst is when you are driving through Serbia and stop to use the restroom, only to realize that you don’t have any Serbian dinar to pay to get into the bathroom. It’s that moment of realization when you just have to come to terms with the fact that your wallet full of Bulgarian change isn’t going to get you very far. But regardless, we made it (after 23 hours, did I mention that?) to our first destination: Krakow.

The city has such a great personality, I love it.

The city has such a great personality, I love it.

The day after we got there was basically a free day, so I opted to take a free walking tour of the city. It was one of the best free walking tours I have ever taken, which was a pleasant surprise since this was one of those impulsive decisions made on a whim.

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We stopped by the University in Krakow, where Copernicus once studied. As the stories go, whenever students were unpleased with something the school was instituting, they would steal a cannon and fire it off until they got their way. Turns out this was a rather effective way of getting your way!

The cannon that helped students voice their displeasure.

The cannon that helped students voice their displeasure.

We also got to see the window that Pope John Paul II would stand from after his papal coronation. This was pretty neat to see. Next to this was a church that I kind of just wandered into. Inside was a choir rehearsing for their concert that would be going on that evening. It struck me that it had been quite a while since I had been inside a Christian church, hearing traditional Christian music. It was nice to feel a little closer to home, even if it was purely by accident and in the middle of Poland.

The Pope Window!

The Pope Window!

Even though it was raining and wasn’t really the nicest day, there were still tons and tons of people out doing the tourist thing we all do from time to time. These little guys were probably my favorite group I saw throughout the day; I loved their neon yellow tops!

A little rain never hurt anybody!

A little rain never hurt anybody!

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The dragon the emblem of Krakow! He even breathes fire, which is super cool.

The dragon the emblem of Krakow! He even breathes fire, which is super cool.

That evening the choir made our way towards a “rehearsal hall” to have one more rehearsal before setting out to Warsaw, where the competition was that we would be taking place in. The “rehearsal hall” actually turned out to be more of a seedy recording studio, but I suppose it worked for what we needed it for. On the way back, for some unknown reason our director thought it would be a good idea to put all of us on the public transportation without tickets…which was destined to end badly. We were (of course) questioned by the ticket police people, who threatened to call the real police, which was kind of scary…but our director somehow managed to convince them not to with the infallible argument of “Please, please we are normal people…just like you!” I know I could never argue with that logic.

That time we were all almost arrested in Poland, thanks to our fearless director.

That time we were all almost arrested in Poland, thanks to our fearless director…

The next day we were back in the bus again (I still shudder at the thought), but this time only for a brief six hour bus ride to Warsaw. Here we were to participate in a competition, which was super exciting for me. Being able to sing in this competition with the AUBG choir was just another one of the many pleasant surprises and opportunities that have been afforded to me this semester. I also stayed in my very first 1-star hotel in Warsaw…I kid thee not. I didn’t even know these exist. Probably because they shouldn’t exist.

I love everything about this picture.

I love everything about this picture.

We got to do a good amount of sightseeing, which of course was really nice…but the best part was that we were able to focus our sightseeing around things that really interested us. Now, I’m not sure how this really happened, but the majority of the things I saw while I was in Warsaw had to do with Chopin. (Funny how that happens, isn’t it?)

I got to see where Chopin's heart is!

I got to see where Chopin’s heart is!

One of Chopin's pianos--way cool!

One of Chopin’s pianos–way cool!

The Chopin Museum was a bit melodramatic at times, especially when Chopin died.

The Chopin Museum was a bit melodramatic at times, especially when Chopin died. I guess it’s understandable.

A lock of Chopin's hair...1/2 creepy, 1/2 cool.

A lock of Chopin’s hair…1/2 creepy, 1/2 cool.

And then there was the main reason for us being in Warsaw: the competition. We took part in the 9th International Warsaw Choir Festival as a mixed choir. We performed and competed alongside choirs from Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Hungary, Ukraine, the list goes on…

Competition time...

Competition time…

We miraculously managed to finish with 3rd place in the mixed choir category! We were happy enough with that, but we also won the ‘special prize’ for having the best performance of a piece by a Polish contemporary composer. This was an extremely humbling award to receive, for the piece we performed was composed by Romulad Twardowski, who was also one of the judges. Needless to say, I am so proud of the AUBG choir for doing so well!!

We look so legit (:

We look so legit (:

After we came, saw, and conquered Warsaw, we were off to Budapest for our last leg of the journey. Once again, I put on my tourist hat and after a roughly 14 hour bus ride, set off to see the city!

I was not disappointed by the beauty of this city.

I was not disappointed by the beauty of this city.

The first night in Budapest, I got to meet up with a dear family friend, Dori. She studied at my high school ten years ago as an exchange student, and my family got to know her through her host family, who were close family friends of ours. Obviously many things have changed since I saw Dori last ten years ago (the biggest difference being that Dori is now married), but it was so lovely to meet up. We had an absolutely delicious dinner and they were kind enough to show me around Budapest at night, which I would liken to being on a Hollywood movie set.

Old & new friends (:

Old & new friends (:

In front of St. Stephen's Basilica.

In front of St. Stephen’s Basilica.

The next day, I did some speed sightseeing around the castle district and parliament building in Budapest, before I made my way off to the airport to meet up with my other lovely study abroad friends in Berlin, to make our way towards Amsterdam. But that is a story for another blog, which will be coming your way soon!

This choir trip was nothing short of magical…I am so honored to be able to be a part of such a wonderful and inspiring group while abroad. With so many people brand new to choir singing, I am so proud of everyone and our performance in the competition.

One final note for the blog…in Budapest there is a gelato store that shapes the gelato into the shape of a rose:

How precious is that?!

How precious is that?!

While I was eating this amazing combination of vanilla and pumpkin gelato (hello, autumn!) I saw a woman sitting on a bench, talking on the phone. And would you know, not but five minutes later, her husband appeared holding a gelato rose just for her.

So cute! I can't even handle it!

So cute! I can’t even handle it!

Naturally, I had to creepily take a picture of them because my heart was about to explode from the sheer cuteness of the moment. Next blog post will cover week two of fall break: taking Amsterdam and Berlin by storm! Keep your eyes peeled!

That one time I went caving in Bulgaria…

Okay. I apologize for my tardiness in posting this, but my life has been a wonderful whirlwind of traveling for the past three weeks. After surviving the first week of classes after returning from fall break, I have decided that it is finally time to sit down and hammer out these blog posts documenting some of my experiences.

Three weekends ago, I did this completely crazy and impulsive thing called “Danielle let her friend Becky convince her that going caving would be a good idea.” That’s right, folks…I said caving. See, Becky is a very “crunchy granola” outdoorsy type, and I am, well…I’m not. But this was an activity that Becky had her sights set on since before she even got to Bulgaria, and the program she was going through had room for four of us to come along with her. So I put on my big girl pants and thought, “well…this is what studying abroad is all about, right?” 

We had our itinerary in hand and backpacks packed with all of the suggested items the organization told us to pack (it turned out that we did approximately 2% of the things on the itinerary and they laughed at us when they saw that we actually packed the heavy duty gloves that were suggested to bring…).

We were under the impression that Day 1 would be a low-key day, where we would go through some training and just chill out. After all, we had been traveling since 5:30 that morning, and we were all a little tired. Turns out we were way wrong in that assumption (after all, you know what they about people who assume…). We ended up at this plateau place where we were promised a trip to a waterfall (which I thought would be totally cool), but things went south pretty fast as our fearless leaders led us up a steep path…towards a cave. At the top of said path was a group of people waiting for us with wet suits. And life jackets. And helmets. And headlamps. At this point I started saying my prayers and instantaneously regretted not having Wi-Fi to start saying my final goodbyes. I mean, after all, I was about to put on a full fledged wet suit.

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This is one of the men I let lead me into a cave…that’s right.

Even in wet suits, I'd say we're a pretty good looking crew (:

Even in wet suits, I’d say we’re a pretty good looking crew (:

So basically, we were lied to about Day 1 being a training day. I took a deep breath as they explained to us that we would be putting on life jackets and we would then be swimming inside the cave. This was definitely not what I signed up for. But hey…studying abroad…trying new things, right? And this was definitely something new.

I also learned something very important this weekend: these people take eating chocolate very seriously. I think the only reason I found this so funny was because back home, chocolate is basically a junk food, but to these guys…chocolate is the food that gives them the energy to face all of their extreme sport outings. The one guide kept repeatedly telling us to make sure that we bring chocolate with us, because we’ll need it for energy. Every time he would say this I would innately react with a slight snicker…because really, chocolate? But I was corrected by my foolish ways when he looked at me as if I was insane and said, “No really, you bring chocolate. You’ll need it.” And let me tell you guys, when we were an hour inside that cave and we took that chocolate break…it was exactly what I needed.

For the first 10 minutes, I was in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of caving, I’d say. I thought everything was super cool, after all…I was inside a cave. After the first 30 minutes, I’d say that the cave and I had our first fight as a couple. I kept finding it hard to justify having my knees crash into jagged rocks because I literally could not see where I was going…I mean, honestly, what is the point of exploring a place that you can’t even see?! And guys, when I say it was cold inside this cave, that is the understatement of the century.

But after a while, I began to see the value in doing such a seemingly insane thing (but that could have been the hypothermia talking). Here I was, inside a cave. It wasn’t easy to get where I was (there was a lot of stumbling, falling, climbing, and swimming involved). There was a point where we all stood in a circle on top of a rock and just let the silence of the cave surround us. We weren’t near civilization at all, and the only sound we could hear was the rushing sound of water that was everywhere. That was a really great moment that I won’t soon forget.

But after this magical moment…it was time to get out of that cave. I was freezing (well, everyone was) and really tired of being in darkness. After making our way back towards the entrance of the cave for a little over an hour, we could finally spot the entrance. Never before in my life had I felt that I truly understood the feeling of seeing the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. Being back in daylight was a really weird feeling.

But hey! Remember that waterfall they had originally lured us in with promises of? We went there after getting out of the cave, and it was really gorgeous.

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Yay group photos!

After drying off and (more importantly) warming up, we made our way to where we were staying overnight. Once again, we had no idea what to expect (I as usual was prepping for the worst and thought that maybe we would just be sleeping out in nature). But we were pleasantly surprised to find that we would be staying overnight in a cabin. We proceeded to shower (another unexpected, yet fully welcome addition to our evening) and then preparations for dinner began. Not after long, the entire adventure team was outside passing plates of salad and meat and everything was mouth-wateringly delicious. As is the tradition in Bulgaria, with every social gathering with food, also comes glasses of rakia, Bulgaria’s national drink. Even if you don’t want any rakia, it is seen as impolite to not have a glass in front of you, and it’s even worse if that glass is less than half full at any given time. 

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Seeing that we were at a dinner party with literal mountain dwellers, the party was, well…lively.

The next day we set out to explore some dry caves. Which was probably for the best, because after Day 1…I was not getting back into another wet suit. These caves were most definitely off the beaten path (some of them weren’t even on an unbeaten path). Seeing that our mode of transportation was a lovely ’92 Honda, it should not come as a surprise that we had to get out of the car and walk most of the way. ’92 Hondas are great cars, but their off-roading abilities are not bragging points.

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Ole faithful served us well during our Day 2 adventures.

The caves we went to were absolutely breath taking and much more tame than the Day 1 wet suit fiasco of 2013.

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Garvanitsa cave.

 

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Stalbitsa cave. One of my favorites!

Up there is a picture from one of my favorite caves of the day, Stalbitsa (which translates to Staircase). Appropriately enough, there was a large staircase that we had to descend to get into the main hall of the cave. As you can see in the picture, the sun that shines through the opening casts light on the green growths. This cave was really quite gorgeous.

The last cave we went to was the Devetaki cave, which was the cave that was used in the filming of The Expendables 2. As if that wasn’t enough, this cave was also used by the Bulgarian Army in the 1980s, so everywhere there were these giant rings where the fuel barrels used to stand. 

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So so so so beautiful.

There really isn’t much more to say about this weekend, for after this we were back on the bus and train to Blagoevgrad. Three weeks later, I am still amazed that I actually went on this trip and survived it. I’d like to thank Becky of course for somehow convincing me that this would be a good idea, and for everyone for making it a great experience. 

Opera Singers & Wilderness Adventures…

A lot has been happening since my last blog post…sorry that this post will cover a lot of seemingly random topics that don’t quite fit together, but hopefully you will enjoy the stories I have for you!

Last week, we received a school-wide email about a Bulgarian opera singer, Kaludi Kaludov, who would be performing a collection of opera pieces here in Blagoevgrad. My friend and I decided to go, because: a) his name has some awesome alliteration going on, and b) you gotta love some opera every now and then! So my Eleanor and I embarked on a journey to find tickets to this event…which was much harder than it would seem. Sometimes I tend to forget that I’m in Bulgaria and speak very, very, very limited Bulgarian (trust me, all of the very’s were necessary there)…with this in mind, the fact that it only took us 45 minutes to locate and purchase tickets was a huge victory for us. We first went to a box office near our school, where we thought that we could get them, but when we were stared at like aliens, we quickly realized that we were wrong. The ladies there attempted to give us directions to the “real” opera house, which we eventually found. But THEN we somehow ended up in an artist’s studio; turns out the box office is actually in the back of the building. We worked our way around to the back of the building, found a woman outside smoking a cigarette and tentatively asked her about the concert. She looked at us and asked, “Kaludi Kaludov?” and pointed down the alley back towards the square. We affirmed that we were looking for tickets to see him sing, rather confused as to why she was pointing back towards where we had come from. We turned our heads and there was the opera singer, in the flesh, walking down the street, away from the box office! So that was pretty cool. And successful: 45 minutes later, we had two ten leva tickets to see him sing on Friday night.

On the day of the concert, as anyone would probably do, Eleanor and I made our way back to the box office where we purchased our tickets to see the concert. But after wandering around inside, we realized that besides the box office, the rest of the building was rather dilapidated and…well, abandoned. We went back around towards the front of the building (where the aforementioned artist’s studio was) and was fortunate enough to run into my choir director, who then walked with us to where the concert was! That’s one of the pros to living in a small city–if you are ever lost, chances are you will find someone you know who can show you where to go (even if you’re in Bulgaria!).

The concert was really quite good (perhaps even better than I was expecting). And, if nothing else, after spending an hour or so attempting to read the program (which was in Bulgarian), I can now recognize Puccini, Bernini, Verdi, and (most importantly) “Madam Butterfly”) in cyrillic letters.

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Say what..?!

On Sunday my friends and I decided to go for a hike…but other than that we didn’t really have much of a game plan. Our initial intentions were to hike to the large cross that overlooks the city of Blagoevgrad, but we didn’t know how to get there (other than the obvious of walking towards the general vicinity of the cross). After a lot of walking in the general vicinity of the cross, my friend Amy and I decided rather to walk towards a park in Blago, so the group split up.

After walking a bit more on the outskirts of town, we finally made it to the park, and it was so nice there!

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Fall has finally reached Blago (even if it’s still pretty warm outside).

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There were ponies there 😀

Just beyond this precious creature there was a trail, and so we decided to follow it. It turned into a really intense trail really quickly…and we were practically scaling the mountain while hanging onto trees for dear life. But it was nice for a while and we were enjoying ourselves…until we found this hanging from a tree:

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Don’t look at this too long…but let the horror settle in before moving on.

I really wish I was kidding about this guys…but we might have been cursed by the creepy voodoo barbie doll. As you can probably guess, we hightailed it out of there (we were only five minutes from where the ponies were)…but we were creeped out and everything seemed like it was straight out of Stephen King novel.

First of all, the ponies were gone. Second of all, we could hear creepy accordion music. But there was no source of the creepy accordion music. And lastly, there was no one around. Except for a little girl riding one of those rides they have outside of grocery stores sometimes. Usually children look like they are having fun on these rides…but she did not. She just sat there, rocking back and forth, staring at us. Okay, perhaps I’m being a bit melodramatic…but trust me guys, it was pretty scary.

We worked our way out of Stephen King land…because I was really in no mood for stumbling across any “pet semataries”, as King would put it. We were just going on with our business, hoping that we would meander enough that we would return back to campus. But then we saw two school-aged boys take their bikes up onto a path, and decided to go up this path and see where it took us. It was an actual hiking path, that had marked trees and everything, so that was promising. After a while of hiking up the mountain, we were rewarded with this view:

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Not bad…

We kept walking towards (what we presumed would eventually be) the top of the mountain. After another ten minutes or so of walking, we heard a bunch of dogs barking, which we thought was pretty weird since we weren’t near the ground at all. And then, just like that, there was a pack of 8 or 9 wild dogs all blocking the path down the mountain, growling at us. Amy and I quickly hid in the trees off the path, and tried to come up with a plan to get rid of the dogs, and ultimately, back to civilization. We thought that maybe we could wait them out, but after 15 minutes of “waiting them out”, four of them were still there, dozing and blocking our escape route…so that clearly wasn’t going to work. We made a list of all of the animals we had evasive tactics for: bears, alligators…but not dogs. I kept thinking back to the creepy voodoo barbie: what if our life was really turning into a King novel?

We eventually devised a plan to collect rocks (for ammunition, of course), and proceed to run towards the dogs, screaming and yelling various sounds. Hopefully they would get scared (or just think that we’ve gone insane) and run away. (Mom, I know you’re reading this…rest assured that I am probably being melodramatic here). Amy bravely stood up, turned to me and said what very well could have been her last words: “Danielle, I’m going to try something…and I don’t know if it’s going to work…but you should wish me luck”. Luckily it worked…and in 15 minutes flat we were off that mountain, quickly making our way back to civilization and the comfort (and safety!) of our rooms.

On the way back from our outdoor excursion, we stumbled across a wedding taking place in town. It was right at the part of the day where the bride leaves her family to join the grooms family, and in the streets there was a small ensemble playing a traditional Bulgarian folk piece, which I actually was able to recognize from my Bulgarian folk music class. It was certainly the perfect way to end the day!

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Look at them go!

This past weekend, some friends and I made our way to the Seven Rila Lakes, which is only about an hour and a half away from school. Getting there was (as usual) half the struggle, but luckily we have had friends go there before us, so we followed their model and was able to find our way there. The journey to the ski lift that would take us up the mountain consisted of first a train ride from Blagoevgrad to the nearby town of Dupnitsa. Then from Dupnitsa, we took a “bus” to another town…but this bus really wasn’t a bus. It was a 12 passenger van with holographic posters of cats taped on the walls next to the air fresheners. I’m not kidding guys. It was bad enough with 12 people in this van, so imagine our dismay when we made a stop at a bus stop and let on an additional five people, with standing room only.

Once we got off the scary holographic cat van, we then had to find another bus-taxi type thing (welcome to Bulgarian public transportation…). We located this, and after a (very rough) ride up the side of a mountain, we were at the lift that would take us to the Rila Lakes.

Words cannot express how amazing this place was. There was something about it that just made me feel small. And to me there is really nothing more gratifying than feeling small and being reminded of how enormous the world really is. One of my favorite sayings is, “Don’t climb mountains so the world can see you, but rather so you can see the world.” And in this day, I feel as if I had seen something that was truly worth seeing.  Before I came to Bulgaria, I really didn’t know what to expect, but it really is a beautiful place, as I discovered by exploring this national park. Have a look:

On the chairlift...I kissed my fear of heights goodbye...

On the chairlift…I kissed my fear of heights goodbye…

On our way up the mountain...it was much more of a hike than we were expecting.

On our way up the mountain…it was much more of a hike than we were expecting.

But it was so worth it...look at that view!

But it was so worth it…look at that view!

One of the Seven Rila Lakes (:

One of the Seven Rila Lakes (:

LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL THAT IS!

LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL THAT IS!

One of our few successful group shots...

One of our few successful group shots…

So all-in-all, a truly successful adventure. Hope you enjoyed the pictures! More to come soon (: