First Day Jitters

It’s been about 5 years since my last first day of school. As I lay in bed the night before my first day as a teacher, I was reminded of the excitement and anxiety I typically feel at the onset of a new school year. This first day, and entire year for that matter, would be markedly different than any other I’ve experienced:

  • It would be my first time as a teacher instead of a student. How would I earn the respect of my students when I’m ~20 years younger than all of my colleagues, and have significantly less experience?
  • I’ve never felt this unprepared for a first day of school. That’s kind of a scary thought considering I’m a teacher, and not a student. I have no idea what the English proficiency level of my students will be, nor do I even know what classes I will be teaching. Lesson planning was out of the question, as I hadn’t seen any sort of curriculum yet.
  • I would stick out like a sore thumb. I’ve never been one to call much attention to myself, especially in a classroom setting. This year, I’ve been warned that as the only American in my school (and likely, city), I’ll be somewhat of a mini celebrity. In other words, I’ll be the outsider. Fitting in might be difficult, and I’m not sure how I’ll feel about all the attention.

My dad keeps a note tucked into the corner of a picture frame on his desk at home that simply says: “Get out of your comfort zone.” I’ve always respected that subtle reminder he leaves for himself to try new things, and never get too comfortable. Dad, I think this qualifies as getting out of my comfort zone. That being said, while there are certainly many things about this new job that will make me uncomfortable, I can’t help but think they will stretch me, and ultimately help me learn and grow.

On the first day of school, I woke up extra early and made myself breakfast (both things that are uncharacteristic of me). I wanted to make sure I gave myself plenty of time to walk to school, as I had gotten lost en route just two days before. Once I arrived, I made my way to the teachers’ lounge and greeted my colleagues: “Dubro Utro. Zdrasti. Hello.” They seemed to appreciate my attempts to speak Bulgarian.

I’m surprised by how hectic things are. Teachers are scrambling to get things in order for their first week of classes. It’s funny to think that my teachers back in the States likely went through the same last minute fire drills. Being on this side of things is going to be interesting.

In Bulgaria, the first day of school consists of a big opening ceremony in the schoolyard. My mentor explained to me that several people would be speaking in front of the student body: “The principal, the mayor, the new English teacher…”

“Wait…excuse me?!”

That’s right. It turns out that as part of the ceremony, I would be interviewed in front of the entire student body! “Oh, and since you’re trying to learn the language,” he said, “it’d be great if you could answer one of the questions in Bulgarian!”

I spent the next hour before the ceremony started frantically trying to learn one simple sentence:

“Желая ви чудесна утевна година с много Англиски!”

“I wish you a wonderful school year, with lots of English!”

The student body lined up by grade level behind the school. The ceremony started when a handful of students raised the flag before leading the group in the Bulgarian national anthem. Afterwards, the 8th graders who had previously been standing off to the side, processed through a tunnel leading to the rest of the student body. As the school’s new students, this gesture was symbolic of their new affiliation with the school. I was surprised when the older students gave the 8th graders carrots. I later learned the 8th graders are considered rabbits, because as the new students, they are shy and timid.

After a couple of musical performances by very talented student singers, the speeches began. I listened very carefully to every word, unsure of when I would be announced and what was expected of me. Everything was in Bulgarian, but I hoped I’d hear my name, or perhaps the Bulgarian words for “English Teacher.” Neither the principal nor the mayor mentioned my name…maybe it wouldn’t happen after all. Finally, a couple of students took the microphones, and called the new German teacher to the front. I knew that I would be next, so I nervously mouthed the Bulgarian phrase to myself a few final times.

The next thing I knew, I was being called to the microphone. A student asked me about why I had chosen to come to Bulgaria, what I liked about it, and what my zodiac sign was (I’m learning that many Bulgarians are big fans of astrology). Finally, she said she heard I liked challenges, and she dared me to say something to the student body in Bulgarian. I repeated my well-rehearsed line much to the amusement of the students. I’m sure my pronunciation was terrible, but I made the students laugh and applaud, so mission accomplished! I would later ask my mentor what grade he would give me for my Bulgarian. “B+,” he said. I’ll take it!

After the ceremony, we had an abbreviated schedule with 15 minute classes. I had a brief opportunity to introduce myself in each class, but the majority of the time was spent taking attendance and completing paper work. More on some of my first teaching experiences next time!

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Journey to Silistra!

Journey to Silistra!

11 hours!?! I was shocked when my mentor Valentin told me how long it had taken him to reach Sofia. Bulgaria is a small country (roughly the size of Tennessee), so I hadn’t expected such a long journey to reach my new town. Now I was starting to understand why the Fulbright Commissioners had expressed some concern about placing an ETA all the way out in Silistra.

Anticipating the long trip, Valentin and I got an early start on the last day of orientation. We made our way to Sofia’s central train station, purchased our tickets, and stocked up on snacks for the day. As I lugged my huge duffel bags around, I realized once again how terrible a job I did packing…luggage with wheels would have been smart. I was surprised by how little information was available at bus and train stations. Valentin had to run from place to place to figure out when our train departed, which cart we were supposed to sit in, and what track we’d be on. I’ve noticed this several times in Bulgaria. Schedules are out of date or simply unavailable, and changes/cancellations happen frequently with little to no communication. It’s no wonder Bulgarians have such a “go with the flow” mentality!

The train was pretty slow moving. Most of the rail tracks are in poor condition, which prevents the old Soviet trains from moving at their top speeds (not that their top speed would be anything to write home about). Though the train ride was long, I was glad we did it. After having spent the last month in a nice resort or downtown hotels, I felt like I was seeing the real Bulgaria for the first time.

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Train ride to Silistra

Following a couple of train changes, we arrived in the small town where Valentin’s wife and daughter would be picking us up. The final 2 hours of our journey by car were pleasant, as I got to know Valentin and his family better.

After almost 12 straight hours of travel, we arrived at my apartment. It was dark out, but I could tell the building was newer than some of the communist-style block apartments across the street. We carried my luggage up the 4 flights of steps to my apartment. I was exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to collapse in my new bed. Valentin pulled out my apartment key, and unlocked the top of two bolt locks. He moved down to the second, but the key wouldn’t fit. He tried the other two keys on my key ring. No luck. He passed the keys to me to try. No luck. His wife and daughter tried. No luck. It appeared we were missing one of the keys to get into my apartment. A couple of phone calls later, and we realized that the key we needed was with my landlord’s brother in a town almost an hour away!

Fortunately, we all found the situation pretty humorous, and decided to grab pizza at a nearby restaurant to pass the time until my key arrived. An hour and a half later, I was finally in my apartment (pictures to come in a later post), and asleep within minutes. I couldn’t wait to start exploring my new home town the next morning!

ETA Orientation

Loyal followers (read: Mom),

I’m long overdue for a post! The last couple weeks have been incredibly busy, and my internet access has been sporadic at best. I want to use this post to give an update about my 10 days of teaching orientation in Sofia, and hope to follow it up soon with some details about my first week of school (spoiler alert: I love it so far).

On September 1st, I finally had the chance to meet the other 30 or so English teachers in my program. While we all have our own unique backgrounds, we bonded over a shared passion for culture, education, and of course, rakia (Bulgarian brandy). The majority of ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) just finished college, making me one of the older members of the group. My roommate Jason happened to be from Charlotte, NC and had just graduated from NC State. Reminiscing about home was fun, but tantalizing; thoughts of Bojangles, the ACC, and Cheerwine came rushing back. A handful of ETAs are returning from last year’s program, while several others have a few years of teaching experience under their belts (Peace Corps, etc.). Orientation was held at Hotel Vitosha in an area of Sofia known as Studentski grad, or “Student city.”

Most of our time was spent in the classroom. We covered everything from lesson planning to cultural adjustment to teaching resources to classroom discipline. Hearing the perspectives of returning ETAs who had taught English last year was especially helpful. I also had another week of Bulgarian class to build upon what I learned during FISI.

A few highlights from outside the classroom:

  • GO-KARTS! Driving in Bulgaria is a little crazy. People drive very quickly despite poor road conditions. I had been warned before coming here that as a pedestrian, you have to be really careful to avoid getting run over. The one good thing about the dangerous driving is that it translates directly to the Go-Kart track. My Go-Karting experiences in the States have been pretty tame. “NO BUMPING” signs line the tracks and top speeds are unimpressive. Things were a little different when I went with friends in Sofia. Karts whip around corners at 40 kph, they are capable of insane drift, and there don’t seem to be any rules about bumping (I have the bruises to prove it).
  • Fire Walking. One night, the entire group went to a restaurant in Sofia. The restaurant staff put on a performance that included traditional music, dancing, and Нестинарство (aka Fire Walking). The participants carried religious icons associated with Orthodox Christianity while walking effortlessly across a bed of hot coals. Though this particular performance was for the benefit of tourists, Нестинарство is still practiced in several smaller towns in southern Bulgaria.
  • Day trip to Plovdiv. We had the opportunity to visit Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, and one of Europe’s oldest. Situated on and around the seven hills, it has been civilized for over 6,000 years! With such a long and interesting history, Plovdiv is not surprisingly a hub for culture. In fact, it was just recently selected as the European City of Culture for the year 2019. I’d encourage you to take a few minutes to learn a bit more from this video!

The last part of orientation was exciting because we met our mentor teachers for the first time. I feel fortunate that my mentor Valentin and I seemed to hit it off right away. He has a great sense of humor and seems to really care about his students. I’m excited to work with him this year!

Here are some photos I took in Plovdiv. I’ve shared photos of the city, Thracian ruins, two major cultural centers (Atanas Krastev House and Symmetrical House), ancient Roman amphitheater, and some of the coolest graffiti I’ve ever seen. All of these things (and so much more) combine to make Plovdiv city that just gushes culture.

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Thracian ruins overlooking the hills of Plovdiv

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View from one of the hills in Plovdiv

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2014-2015 ETAs in Plovdiv

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More Thracian ruins overlooking Plovdiv

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Photos inside the Atanas Krastev House in Plovdiv. Krastev is one of the biggest public supporters of preserving Plovdiv culture, history, and architecture.

Door frame and more art in the Krastev House

Door frame and more art in the Krastev House

Krastev House artwork

Krastev House artwork

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Ornate ceiling in the Krastev House

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The Symmetrical House of Plovdiv

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Ornate ceiling inside the Symmetrical House

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Symmetrical House

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Symmetrical House

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Symmetrical House

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Symmetrical House

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Symmetrical House

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Group shot at the Symmetrical House

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Ancient Roman amphiteater

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Main street in Plovdiv (with McDonald’s, of course)

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Plovdiv Graffiti wall

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Plovdiv Graffiti wall

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Plovdiv Graffiti wall

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Plovdiv Graffiti wall

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Plovdiv Graffiti wall

Adventures in Macedonia

As much as I love Sofia, I have to remind myself that it’s also important to get out and visit Bulgaria’s neighbors. That’s why I jumped on the opportunity to tag along with my friend and roommate from FISI, Dan, on his trip to Macedonia. He is doing some fascinating research about meter in Bulgarian folk music (sorry for the grossly oversimplified explanation, Dan), and was heading to Macedonia to meet with some musicians. Intrigued by the idea of an adventure, I packed a small bag, and met Dan at the bus station last Wednesday morning.

Learning a new language is accompanied by many triumphs and shortfalls. I experienced both extremes at the bus stop that morning. Eager to practice my Bulgarian whenever I could, I approached the ticket counter, carefully thinking through the next few moments. The simple conversation went something like this:

Me: Може ли един пилет за благоeвглад, моля? (May I have one ticket to Blagoevgrad, please?)

Ticket Saleswoman: Да. Осем лева, моля. (Yes, eight leva, please). Note: Bulgarian currency is the lev. The current exchange rate is roughly 1.5 leva to 1 U.S dollar.

Me: Благодаря! (Thank you!)

While this was clearly a very, very basic exchange, I was elated! I had independently purchased a bus ticket…maybe this language thing wouldn’t be so hard after all. Brimming with a newfound confidence, I decided to take things one step further…why not order some breakfast? Heck, I’ll even go with a traditional Bulgarian breakfast–баница (a flaky, cheese-filled pastry, pronounced banitsa). I strolled up to the counter, found the banitsa I wanted, and whispered to myself “Може ли една баница с сирене, моля” (May I have a banitsa with cheese, please?). “Сирене” (cheese) was a relatively new word for me, so I repeated softly several times. All of a sudden, the young cashier waved me over to the far register, where I could no longer read the label in front of the banitsa I wanted. I managed to squeak out the first few words of the sentence, before realizing that in my moment of panic, I had forgotten the word for cheese! I tried to recover by directing the cashier over to the display, where I frantically pointed to the banitsa I wanted. She nodded, but then asked me a question that I couldn’t understand. I switched to English for clarification, but this particular cashier did not speak English. She repeated the question several times, clearly getting frustrated (they were rather busy), and I continued to stumble. Her co-worker came to the rescue, and said something that I have to imagine was along the lines of, “Just give him anything; he won’t know the difference anyway.” A little embarrassed, I paid, and high-tailed it out of there as quickly as I could. As I think back on the exchange, I remember hearing the word колко (how much?), and realize that she was asking how much she should cut for me (I think). I’ll be ready for that one next time! My point here is that when you’re learning a new language, you need to celebrate the successes, and avoid getting discouraged by your mistakes. Instead, learn from them, and keep trying even if things don’t always go your way.

The ride to Blagoevgrad was uneventful. Still tired from hanging out with friends the night before, I nodded in and out of consciousness, soaking in the beautiful Bulgarian countryside whenever my eyelids would let me. Upon arrival, Dan and I headed for the city center, where we had a light lunch, and plotted out our next moves. We were close to the border with Macedonia, and decided to see if we could take a taxi across. The driver we hailed explained that he could take us to the border, but not across, as it required additional cab identification that he didn’t have. We thought that sounded like a reasonable option, and made our way to the border. After making a fool of myself once again (I told the driver that “I big little Bulgarian” instead of “I speak little Bulgarian”), Dan and I paid for the ride, and proceeded to cross the border on foot. Other than a bag search and some trouble with our passports not scanning at first, passing through customs and border control was relatively easy. However, as we crossed into Macedonia, we realized that there was virtually nothing on the other side. We had thought we’d be able to grab a cab, but it was immediately apparent that this wouldn’t be an option. Dan and I considered our options:

  1. Attempt to walk to Delchevo, the nearest Macedonian town. I wasn’t very excited about this option. Something about big trucks flying past me around corners seemed dangerous…not to mention, we didn’t know how far away the town was, and I was running low on sunscreen (yes, Mom, I did bring sunscreen…).
  2. Ask the man asleep in his run down yellow car if he could give us a lift. This didn’t seem very promising either. The car must have been from the 70s, and looked like it was destined to break down any minute.
  3. Hitch-hike. This seemed like our only viable option. While hitch-hiking has a negative stigma in the states, it is quite common in this part of the world where most people don’t own cars.

Hitch-hiking it is! I had talked to some friends who hitch-hiked on multiple occasions without incident, so I put my concerns aside and stuck out my thumb (note: it seems Bulgarians make more of a waving gesture with their hand when trying to catch a ride). The first car that followed us through the border flew by, but the second one rolled to a stop. We joined three guys (I believe they were Macedonian), and had a very pleasant, albeit cramped, conversation during the 20 minute ride to Delchevo.

After thanking our new friends, we made our way to the local bus station. Dan planned to continue on to Berovo for his research, while I decided to make my way to Skopje, the capital city of Macedonia. After some brief confusion about the bus schedule (we had forgotten that Macedonia is one hour ahead of Bulgaria), I was on my way to Skopje!

I caught a cab from the bus station to Urban Hostel, which was close to the city center, and recommended by my guidebook. I ventured out in search of a specific restaurant that someone on the bus had suggested I try. It was owned by his cousin, and he assured me the food was fantastic and well-priced. After a delicious plate of baby goat and a local Zlaten Dab beer, I headed back to the hotel, hoping to get an early start the next morning.

I woke up early, and had arrived in the center of Skopje by 9:00. It was eerily quiet, and I was surprised that there wasn’t more activity downtown in the middle of the work week. Later, I would overhear that it was some sort of non-work holiday, so many places were closed or opened late.

My first stop was Kale Fortress, a 6th century AD Byzantine castle (later occupied by Ottomans). There didn’t seem to be a front entrance, so I made my way around to the back, passing several locked gates along the way. The entire time, I’m wondering why one of Skopje’s main tourist attractions seems completely empty. The back gate was ajar, but two men seemed to be nonchalantly “guarding” it while drinking their morning coffee. Rather than give up, I approached the men, and struck up a conversation. Upon learning I was American, one of the guards exclaimed, “Just for you, I’ll let you in! I’m Albanian, and I love Americans!” I spent the next 20 minutes exploring the fort ruins completely alone; it was pretty surreal. Not wanting to push my luck, I hurriedly made my way back out past the guards, and shouted an enthusiastic “Lek den!” (“Good day!”) as I continued on my way.

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Kale Fortress

Next, I explored the numerous monuments in Skopje. My Bulgarian friends jokingly refer to Skopje as “Disneyland.” I didn’t understand why at first, but once I arrived in the city center, it was immediately clear. Everywhere I looked, there was a towering statue of some famous historical figure. From what I can gather, most of these statues were erected just within the past couple of years. I also attempted to visit the Museum of the City of Skopje. While it was closed, it was interesting to learn that the clock atop the museum has been stuck at 5:17 a.m. since July 27, 1963. On this date, a huge earthquake did considerable damage to the city, including this particular clock.

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Museum of Skopje with broken clock

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“Warrior on a Horse”

Macedonia Gate

Macedonia Gate

Across the Vardar River from the city center is Carsija, the largest Turkish bazaar in the Balkans after Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I wandered through the endless shops, and when the Islamic call to prayer rang out from several surrounding mosques, I was reminded of my time in Istanbul four years ago.

Bags for sale in Carsija

Обувки (Shoes)

Обувки (Shoes)

After a relaxing outdoor dinner, I decided to make one more lap of the monuments to see them illuminated at night. The views were spectacular, and I felt incredibly touristy as I snapped picture after picture. Feeling tired, I started heading back to bed, but decided to stop for a quick beer at an outdoor bar near my hostel. After just a few minutes sitting outside, a big Macedonian family sat next to me. Seeing they were short a few chairs, I offered them the extra ones at my table. Noticing that I was alone, they invited me to join them. Having been alone for the better part of two days, I was craving social stimulation and eagerly accepted their offer. We had a great conversation about Macedonia, Canada (two were visiting from there), and America. The interaction was refreshing, and I was reminded how much I prefer company to traveling alone.

Bridge over the Vardar River at night

Bridge over the Vardar River at night

My bus left at 8:30 the next morning, and I was back in Sofia by dinner time. I don’t know that I’ll make it back to Skopje this trip, but I do hope to return to Macedonia. I’ve heard Lake Ohrid in southwestern Macedonia is well worth the trip!

Enjoy these other photos from Skopje:

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Archeological Museum of Macedonia

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Macedonia Gate at night

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Kameni Most (Stone Bridge), Kale Fortress in background

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Kale Fortress

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Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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“Warrior on a Horse”

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Monument to the Fallen Heroes of Macedonia

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Gate of Macedonia

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Skopje apartments

Sofia–Bulgaria’s beautiful capital

After the nonstop stimulation of FISI, I headed back to Sofia where I looked forward to a week of rest and relaxation before my official Fulbright orientation started. However, for those of you who know me best, you know that “taking it easy” has never really been my style. Not surprisingly, my week of relaxation turned into a power nap, and then I was right back at it, soaking in everything Bulgaria’s capital has to offer. Sofia has such a rich and interesting history that this post can hardly do it justice, but I’ll try to hit some of the highlights. Any Bulgarian readers, feel free to correct or interject in the comments section!

DSCN0277Bulgarian Court of Justice

A big part of why I came to Bulgaria is because of its location. Situated on Turkey’s northwestern border, Bulgaria is essentially a crossroads of Eastern and Western civilizations. You feel this right away in Sofia as domed churches contrast Ottoman-era mosques. What started centuries ago as a Thracian civilization has since been conquered by the Roman empire, ruled by Byzantium, subjugated by the Ottoman Empire, and absorbed by the Eastern Bloc. What remains is a fascinating history and a complex mix of people, religion, architecture, and cuisine.

DSCN0281Statue of Sveta Sofia (city is named after her)

I wanted to share a few observations and things I’ve learned about Sofia from taking a couple tours, exploring the city with friends, and doing some hiking.

  • Sofia (formally known as Serdica) is one of the oldest cities in Europe. While I’m having trouble finding an exact date, I’m seeing several sources that document inhabitants more than 7,000 years ago. Remnants of older civilizations can be found underneath existing buildings and streets, resulting in a layered feel to the city.

DSCN0290Remnants of the Roman Empire underneath the streets of Sofia

  • There seems to be a great deal of religious tolerance here. Standing in the center of Sofia’s main square, you can see a mosque, a synagogue, an Orthodox church, and a Catholic cathedral, all coexisting peacefully. To further substantiate this observation, Bulgaria was the only WWII Axis country that refused to send its Jewish population to the concentration camps during the Holocaust. People here still seem proud of that, and should be!

DSCN0286Banya Bashi Mosque

  • One of the most impressive buildings in town is certainly the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Saint Alexander Nevsky was a Russian Prince). It was built to commemorate the Russian soldiers who died liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule during the Ruso-Turkish War in the 1870s.

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

  • You can still feel the Soviet influence in the city’s architecture. Large, communist-style buildings still line some of the main streets, though the Bulgarian flag now flies overhead.

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Former Bulgarian Communist Party Headquarters

  • One of Bulgaria’s key historical figures was Boris III, a former Tsar of Bulgaria from 1918-1943. An anarchist group attempted to assassinate Boris by killing a Bulgarian general, and detonating explosives at that general’s funeral (Boris was expected to attend). While almost 200 people were killed, Boris escaped unscathed. But how…? He was late. Bulgarians are sometimes notorious for being a bit late, and point to this as a good indication to why that’s not always a bad thing!
  • One of Sofia’s prettiest outdoor areas is the City Garden, located in central Sofia. Ivan Vazov National Theatre, named after one of Bulgaria’s most famous poets, writers, and playwrights, overlooks the park.

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Ivan Vazov National Theatre

  • At ~2,300 meters, Mount Vitosha overlooks Sofia. I had the opportunity to hike it earlier this week with my friends Valentin and Marta. We took a bus partway up the mountain, and then hiked to the summit. At the top, we celebrated with a beer and some leshta (леща), a traditional Bulgarian soup.
  • At the base of Mount Vitosha is Vitosha Boulevard. It’s one of the more touristy parts of the city, and there always seems to be a lot of activity. Outdoor restaurants, bars, and shops line the street on both sides.

Note: I am extremely thankful to my friends Valentin and Alex for being phenomenal tour guides and hosts all week.

Here are some additional pictures of Sofia to enjoy:

DSCN0279Lion in front of Court of Justice

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Guards in front of President’s Palace

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Shop owners often live above Bulgarian “Basement Shops”

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Beautification project aims to decorate Sofia’s electrical boxes

Feel free to leave any questions you have about Sofia in the comments box!

My official Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship training started today. It’s been great meeting the other people in my group, and I’m especially looking forward to some more Bulgarian lessons. I spent a couple of days last week in Macedonia, so my goal is to share that experience with you soon!