Bulgaria: A Year in Summary

So it’s been about two months since I arrived back in the United States, which means I’ve had plenty of time to reflect back on my year in Bulgaria. The idea of summing up the most transformational year of my life in a single blog post seems absurd, but I’m going to give it my best shot. I tried to boil down my thoughts into a few key takeaways, which proved to be pretty challenging.

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Coffee mug from my 8A and 9A classes…fitting for my year in conclusion post

Diversity produces the best learning experiences.

My time in Bulgaria kicked off with the Fulbright International Summer Institute (FISI). This two-week set of intensive courses covered a variety of topics including but not limited to politics, international relations, business, economics, law, education, science, and culture. The expense of this conference was not covered by my grant, so I had to think long and hard about whether it was worth going on my own dime. Ultimately, I decided that the allure of what sounded like an invigorating learning experience outweighed the cost, which turned out to be the right decision.

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FISI friends take a break from class for a hike

While the content itself was interesting, what really made the experience worthwhile was the diversity of my classmates. Despite having attended an undergraduate university that boasts diversity, this learning experience was unlike any I had previously encountered: PhD students from Bulgaria sat next to members of disaster response teams from Pakistan; Businessmen from India debated with business students from the University of Michigan; Linguists from the U.S. not surprisingly viewed conflicts differently than Russian graduate students. The result was passionate, dynamic, and sometimes even a little heated discussion about topics like Ethnic Tensions in the European Union and International Conflict Resolution.

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Last day of week 1 classes

Too often we view conflict as a bad thing. We’re taught to believe that conflict breeds animosity, and so it should be avoided at all costs. Especially after this experience, I tend to believe that quite the opposite is true. Conflict and diversity of thought can lead to a more thorough analysis of a complex situation, and if involved parties can remain focused and level-headed, it can be quite constructive. There were times when I felt compelled to step in and defend the United States and others when I found myself questioning previously held beliefs. Ultimately, these were two of the most eye-opening weeks of my life, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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FISI farewell party

Friendship comes in unexpected places.

For a whole year, my social life revolved almost entirely around my eccentric 60-year old neighbor whose English vocabulary was limited to “Deep Purple” and “Let it Be.” And I loved it. From the moment Krassy walked into my life (in his underwear, interestingly enough), he has treated me like family. Many of my fondest memories from Bulgaria involve Krassy: making rakia together, learning how to cook banitsa, road tripping to Serbia, and so many more. But I think the thing I’ll miss most is just daily life with Krassy. Whether we were eating dinner, practicing Bulgarian, watching a soccer game, or just aimlessly putzing around town, there was never a dull moment.

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Simply put, my relationship with Krassy and Nadia was a big part of what made life in Silistra so enjoyable. Their generosity and friendship played a huge role in shaping my view of Bulgarian hospitality. What frightens me about that is that I was close to not pursuing this friendship at all. Early on, I was concerned about letting my social life revolve around someone that seemed different in every way possible. In fact, I even remember ignoring the doorbell a couple of times to avoid joining Krassy for dinner. People are wired to seek out people who are similar. While that can be easy and comfortable, it can also be incredibly limiting. I learned that friendship comes in many forms, and that sometimes the most rewarding friendships can come in the least expected places.

My second family

Challenge the status quo.

Many of you followed along or even participated in my 10A class’s fundraising campaign to build a school in Ghana with Pencils of Promise. Fortunately, the project was wildly successful, and my students significantly surpassed our $25,000 goal. Getting there wasn’t easy though. Had my class not been willing to challenge their preconceived notions about what is and isn’t possible in Bulgaria, this never would have happened. I applaud my students’ willingness to take a chance on accomplishing something big in an environment where there isn’t a culture of volunteerism and there’s a lingering “communist hangover” effect that sometimes thwarts progress.

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10A – The class that built a school

For those who have been following our story, check out my latest update on the school build. We’re almost finished!

Get out of your comfort zone.

I’ve told many of you about the note my dad has on his desk reminding him to get out of his comfort zone. That’s something I have tried to incorporate into my own life as well, and it was a big motivator as I considered moving to Bulgaria. Over the past year, the best example I have of this came back in March. As someone who doesn’t love public speaking, I experienced a mixture of excitement and dread when an e-mail hit my inbox asking if I’d be willing to present at the annual Berlin Fulbright Seminar. My knee-jerk reaction was to reject the offer; it was just an e-mail after all, and saying “no” would be easy.

But I decided to sleep on it, and when I woke up the next morning, my attitude had changed. I knew that the discomfort I experienced when I pictured myself in front of 250 people wasn’t a good reason to avoid the situation entirely. In fact, that was exactly the reason I should be seeking it out.

Was I nervous leading up to the seminar? Absolutely.

Did I spend way too much time preparing and rehearsing? No doubt about it.

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Presenting at annual Berlin Fulbright Seminar

But the presentation went well, and the enjoyment I had presenting and participating in the panel discussion following it far outweighed the slight anxiousness. I am a firm believer that the best way to grow and learn is by doing the things that make you uncomfortable.

Think from others’ perspectives.

Growing up in the United States, it’s easy to view America as the greatest force for good in the world. We see ourselves as global peacekeepers, promoters of freedom, and good samaritans. But what we often don’t realize is that much of the rest of the world doesn’t see us that way. In fact, there were times during my year abroad when even I started thinking that maybe America’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

I remember going to a concert in Silistra one of my first nights there, and meeting a couple of Bulgarians my age. “Friends!,” I had thought as I tried to use my Bulgarian (quite limited at the time) to strike up a conversation. After a few minutes, they wanted to introduce me to another friend of theirs who happened to be Russian. That sounded great, so I introduced myself to their third friend. However, as soon as he found out I was American, things changed quickly. He got aggressive and started shouting at me for reasons I didn’t understand. His friends and I tried to talk him down, but it was clear that he had some ingrained distaste for Americans, and my insistence that I was a decent human being wasn’t going to change that; I went home baffled, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.

Perhaps I had been a bit naive, but this was an eye-opener for me–not everyone loves Americans. And in fact, many people have quite a strong distaste for us. I recently stumbled along the below map, which shows the most common responses by country to the question: “which country do you see as the greatest threat to world peace?”

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Greatest threat to world peace

Prior to living abroad, I think I would have found this map surprising. That’s why I think the Fulbright mission to “enhance mutual understanding” is so vital, especially in the world today. It’s our responsibility to advocate for America to do the right thing, and be the global force for peace that we claim to be. When we see things like the current Syrian refugee crisis, we ought to be vocal about making sure America does its part. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be stepping up in a big way to help the millions of families being displaced by war and devastation. Not doing so will only further tarnish a reputation that’s already damaged in many parts of the world.

Laugh at yourself.

As a bit of a perfectionist, I hate making mistakes. Usually, I think that’s a good thing because it causes me to be intentional and thorough, but I had to take a different approach in Bulgaria. While trying to learn a new language and culture, you’re bound to make mistakes; I made many. Perhaps my favorite mistake came during one of my many cross-country journeys from Silistra to Sofia. With 20 minutes left of our bus’s coffee break in Ruse, I decided to strike up conversation with a shopkeeper. Things went well as I explained my background, profession, and reason for moving to Bulgaria (he was shocked by the last one). But when I told him that I knew two other Americans living and teaching in his hometown (what’s up Nora and Anthony!), he burst out laughing.

“Аз знам две други учители че живеят в Русе. Момичето има руса коса и се казва Нора и момчето се казва Антони. Той има картофи коса,” I repeated emphatically, trying to improve my pronunciation that I assumed he was laughing at. Here’s what I thought I said: “I know two other teachers who live here in Ruse. The girl has blonde hair and is named Nora, and the boy is named Anthony. He has brown hair.” Unfortunately, instead of saying кафява (kafyava), the word for brown, I used картофи (kartofi), the word for potatoes. “He has potato hair,” I had said. I wish this had been the sole mistake I made, but instead, it was one of dozens I made in that day alone. I learned early on that getting comfortable with making mistakes is essential for language acquisition, and learning in general. Fear of messing up and looking silly can cause one to avoid taking chances, which stifles learning. As I start business school, I’m trying to more fully embrace this mindset, as I expect there are many more mistakes to come as I grapple with new information.

The potential of (Bulgarian) youth.

When I first arrived in Bulgaria, I expected the English level of my students to be quite low. I thought I’d be up in front of the classroom teaching very basic vocabulary, pronunciation, and sentence structure. What I found instead was a group of highly intelligent, capable, and passionate students whose English abilities far surpassed my expectations. I remember introducing myself during the first week of school, and explaining that I had previously been working for Target, a big retailer in the U.S. A bright-eyed senior sitting in the front row shot his hand up in the air, and before waiting for me to call on him belted out in perfect English: “What were the annual revenues of Target last year?”

Just like that, my previous lesson plans were out the window. My students were capable of having very mature, intellectual discussions about topics that really matter. Some of my favorite lesson topics that my students seemed to enjoy too were: crowdsourcing, literacy rates, and the Nobel Peace Prize.

The creativity of my students was further demonstrated in our Speech & Debate club. Debating complex topics like how to thwart the spread of ISIS, how to reduce the gender pay gap, and how to decrease social inequality is hard enough in your first language…my students were doing it in their second or sometimes third! These kids are impressive!

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Kaloyan from my Speech & Debate team hard at work!

My takeaway is that despite the many problems that exist in Bulgarian education, young people can and will thrive when given the chance. I have trouble imagining that this isn’t the case in other parts of the world too. Education can unlock potential, and I’m frustrated by the fact that so many people don’t have access to the basic resources needed to learn. I’m thrilled that my 10A class was able to help tackle a small part of that problem in Ghana, but the fact remains that 250 Million children lack basic reading, writing, and math skills. Improved education is one of several avenues I will be exploring in business school as I seek to play a role in helping alleviate global poverty.


The above takeaways are just a few of the thoughts that flooded my mind as I drove away from Silistra for the last time (on this trip at least). Looking for any excuse to further delay my departure, I pulled to the side of the road to soak in the beauty of Bulgaria one more time. While enjoying the vibrant yellow of Bulgarian sunflowers, I reflected on what had really made my experience so worthwhile: the people. And with that, I want to take a minute to say Thank You to the many people who made this past year possible and awesome.

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First and foremost, thank you to my family, friends, and Lindsey for encouraging me to take advantage of this opportunity. Your support meant the world to me, and helped me get the most out of my time in Bulgaria.

Secondly, I want to thank Valentin and Alex, my friends from FISI who entertained my nonstop questions about all things Bulgaria. Your patience and willingness to share taught me so much about politics, history, sports (Само Левски!), and culture. I value our friendship, and look forward to future meetings!

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Alex, me, Valentin

Thank you Iliana, Rada, and the rest of the Bulgarian Fulbright team for being there for me and my peers throughout the year. I greatly appreciate your commitment to making our time in Bulgaria as comfortable and productive as possible.

Next, I want to thank the Peyo Yavorov Foreign Languages High School Community. I felt at home at Peyo on day one, and really appreciate you welcoming me with open arms. An extra special thanks to Principal Atanasova and English teaching partners Kremena, Ani, Margarita, and Valentin. Working with each of you was an absolute pleasure, and I learned so much about how to be a better teacher. Valentin, thank you for your mentorship that extended beyond the classroom. I would have been lost in Silistra without your guidance.

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Peyo Yavorov English Department

Students of Peyo Yavorov–you are what made my time in Bulgaria so special. While I didn’t advertise this blog at school, I know several of you tracked it down, and have been following along. Your engagement both inside and outside the classroom motivated me to be a better teacher. You have such bright futures, and I can’t wait to hear about the many great things you go on to accomplish. Please continue reaching out to me from time to time to let me know how things are going!

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Some of my 8th and 9th graders on the last day of school!

Thank you to the many generous donors who helped my 10A class learn what it means to accomplish something monumental. Your commitment to the project (either financially or by helping spread the word) instilled a new sense of what’s possible in the minds of young people, which can be very powerful. I think my students say it better than I can.

A big shout out to the other Bulgarian Fulbrighters! It was a pleasure getting to know each of you over the past year. Our weekend getaways kept me sane, and I wish you the greatest of success in the future–keep in touch!

Bulgaria ETA friends

And last but not least, thank you, the readers, for your interest in and engagement with this blog. I appreciated your comments, e-mails, calls, and conversations. My goal for this blog was to help fulfill the Fulbright mission to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” My hope is that with nearly 10,000 views from 69 different countries, this blog has generated at least some interest and discussion about Bulgaria.


For those of you interested in continuing to learn about Bulgaria, I highly recommend following my successor McKinley’s blog. He is living in my same apartment teaching many of the same students, and seems to be off to a great start! Most importantly, he’s already met Krassy, which guarantees another year of entertainment!

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Tough Goodbyes

After an emotionally taxing day, packing up my apartment was not easy. I made some progress, but it didn’t take long for exhaustion to overwhelm me. Despite all I had to do, I allowed myself to fall asleep early, knowing that the next day would also be hectic.

Eight hours of sleep felt great. I woke up with more energy than I’d had in weeks, and finished up the majority of my packing quickly. At 11:30, I started the walk to school for the last time. Valentin, my mentor and friend, had told me that I had a final meeting with the principal at noon, and I didn’t want to be late. When I arrived, Valentin was waiting for me on the steps of the school with a big smile on his face. “I hope I’m not too casual,” I said as I walked up to him. I had packed most of my work clothes, and was donning my Silistra t-shirt from the day before.

“You’ll be fine,” he said. “Wait out here. Let me make sure the principal is ready.”

No more than 30 seconds later, Valentin bounced back down the front steps of the school, and ushered me inside. I expected we’d be going into the principal’s office, but instead he led me to the teachers’ lounge–“strange,” I thought.

When the door to the teacher’s lounge swung open, I immediately realized that there would be no official send-off meeting with the principal, as I had expected. Instead, the “meeting” was a guise for my going away celebration. As I walked in, I noticed that the large teachers’ table, usually overflowing with textbooks and grade books, was covered with a vast spread of Bulgarian dishes. Valentin called for the group’s attention, and shared some words about my role as a teacher at Peyo Yavorov Foreign Language High School.

Now I have to take a minute to talk about Valentin. He has popped up in my blog from time to time, but until this point, I think I’ve failed to communicate just how instrumental he was during my time in Bulgaria. Without Valentin, my life in Silistra would have been tough. In addition to showing me around town, Valentin taught me how to pay bills, lesson plan effectively, and navigate a foreign culture. He has been a great friend outside the classroom, and a great co-teacher and partner inside the classroom. An exceptional teacher, he not only teaches students English, but also instills important values, and does it all with a great sense of humor and a big smile on his face.

After Valentin spoke, the school principal said a few words, and presented me with a gift: a hand-carved wooden sculpture of two owls. At first, I was a bit perplexed, but as she started explaining, I began to understand. The owl is our school mascot, and the big owl with outstretched wings symbolized me, the teacher, watching over the baby owl, which represented my students. I felt honored to receive such a gift, and will treasure it for a long time.

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School principal and me

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Peyo Yavorov faculty and staff

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English Department! (Margarita, Kremena, me, Aneta, Valentin)

A couple hours after the school celebration, it was time for another tough goodbye. Nadia had taken a day off of work to be in Silistra (she typically worked in Varna during the week), and she and Krassy had prepared a fantastic goodbye dinner. They invited Valentin as well, and it was fun for me to have them all together. I savored every bite of my shopska salad, knowing it might be my last one for some time, and even treated myself to an extra glass of rakia, fully aware that the plastic two-liter bottle from Krassy filled with the stuff wouldn’t fit into my already overflowing luggage.

Towards the end of dinner, after Valentin had left, I tried to articulate to Krassy and Nadia just how much their friendship meant to me. And to be honest, calling our relationship a “friendship” just doesn’t quite do it justice, because in reality, they treated me like family. I started off trying to express these feelings in Bulgarian, but quickly realized I didn’t have all the words I needed to fully express myself. Frustrated, I switched to English. I knew Krassy wouldn’t understand the words, but I made sure our watery eyes connected, and knew that he understood exactly what I was saying, despite the language barrier. All the time we spent together enhanced my Bulgaria experience, and it would not have been as meaningful or as enriching of a year without these friendships.

Fortunately, Krassy, Nadia, and I have been in touch over Skype! I got Krassy set up before I left, and have had lots of fun reconnecting with them. We’re still working on keeping our faces aligned with the camera, but are making progress! Of course, Krassy always wears his USA shirt for the call!

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Skype call with Krassy and Nadia

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Skype

Last Day of School

**This post immediately follows The Balkan Sprint post from July 28th. I recommend reading that post first for the full context of this one.**

After driving through the night in the “Balkan Sprint,” I arrived at my apartment utterly exhausted. Having just picked up my apartment keys from my mentor Valentin, I was excited to get a couple hours of sleep before heading into school a short while later. However, less than a minute after my head hit the pillow, my doorbell broke the silence with two quick bursts–“Krassy,” I thought to myself as I hopped up to get the door; he must have heard me come in.

“How are you my friend?,” Krassy inquired in his usual, fatherly tone. His damp hair and perky attitude signaled he’d just gotten out of the shower, and already had at least one morning coffee.

“I’m tired, Krassy. I want to sleep,” I replied in Bulgarian.

“Yea, Valentin called me and said that you drove here last night. You’re crazy,” he said with a smirk. Then immediately back to business: “Do you want to come over for dinner tonight?”

I couldn’t help but laugh a little at his invitation. I was so tired, I could hardly keep my eyes open, much less make dinner plans. “We’ll talk later, Krassy, but tomorrow night might be better for me.”

“Okay. Nadia and I just need to know, so we know when to buy the lamb.”

“Let’s plan on tomorrow then,” I said as I started closing the door.

A “sleep well,” slipped through the crack of the door just before the latch clicked.

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I awoke to my alarm after what felt like two minutes. A quick glance at my watch confirmed that it had actually been closer to two hours. I rolled out of bed and willed myself into the shower. As I thought about the last day of school, my energy started to return; pure adrenaline would get me through the day.

Running on fumes, I decided to treat myself to a taxi. Before long, I’d be back in the U.S. where a 5 minute taxi ride would cost me $20 instead of 3 leva (less than $2)…might as well take advantage.

As I stepped into the taxi, my phone started ringing. “Where are you?” my mentor Valentin asked.

“I’m on my way!,” I replied. “I thought you said 10:00.”

“I did, but some students are here waiting for you.”

“I’ll be there shortly.”

“I’m going to miss him,” I thought to myself as I hung up the phone. “Always looking out for me.”

After hurriedly paying my cab driver, I rushed up the front stairs. Before I could even collect myself, I was ushered into a first-floor classroom where I found my entire 8A and 9A class waiting for me. Standing in a semi-circle with me in the middle, they started singing “Happy” by Pharell Williams. It was an obvious reference to one of my favorite lessons where we discussed what it meant to be truly happy (along with many synonyms and antonyms of the word). Eva, one of my stellar 9th grade students and an excellent singer was leading the group with a big smile on her face.

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Eva leading the class in song

After the second chorus, the music suddenly stopped. Dayana, one of the best English speakers in my class was standing at the tip of the semi-circle, and addressed me on behalf of the class. She thanked me for being not just a teacher, but also a friend and an inspiration. Before the last word had escaped her lips, Nikolai, standing on the left side of the semi-circle spoke about one of our favorite lessons together, and how it had moved him. Then Ellie, off on the right side, thanked me for coaching her on our debate team, and giving her a newfound confidence. Everything after that was a blur as I felt my eyes start to well up. My eyes darted around the semi-circle from student to student as each shared a memory, triumph, or lesson learned during our time together. Somehow, they did it in a manner that seemed both random and well-orchestrated at the same time.

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8A and 9A – Love these kids

Even as I type this, my eyes start to water up as I think back on the moment. That’s how much these kids mean to me. I like to think that it was the lack of sleep that made me more emotional than usual, but if I’m being honest, there was probably more to it than that.

Once the last student had shared, I was presented with several gifts: A t-shirt, calendar, and magnet from Silistra, and a Bulgaria coffee mug. I’ve worn the t-shirt proudly several times since then, and I can’t think of a way I’d rather start my morning than by drinking coffee from a Bulgaria mug and reflecting on this very moment. 9A also gave me a big thank you card on poster board with messages from each student and 8A wrote me a nice post card expressing their gratitude.

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Poster board from 9A

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Poster board from 9A

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Post card from 8A

As I scanned the classroom, my watery eyes met several dozen other pairs of watery eyes as I thanked the students from 8A and 9A for an amazing year and a transformative experience. I thought the best way to express how much they meant to me was to tell them the story of my past 24 hours. I told them about my overwhelming sadness when I was all but certain I would miss the last day of school, and hoped that the story of my overnight “sprint” to make it back in time would adequately communicate how much they meant to me.

After our time together, we went out to the front of the school where we took the below picture. You can see my brand new Silistra shirt front and center!

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8A and 9A and co-teachers Valentin, Kremena,Margarita, and Ani

After a number of individual goodbyes with students, I went back inside and collapsed on the bean bag in our school lobby, not sure exactly how I should be feeling. At right about the same time, I noticed the students of 10A all starting to trickle into nearby Room 103. “What were they up to?,” I wondered.

Shortly thereafter, the door to the room swung open, and I heard Frozen’s “Let it Go” blasting from the classroom speakers. It was at this point I determined that perhaps sleep deprivation had gotten the best of me, and that I was really losing it. But sure enough, the unmistakable sound of Elsa’s voice emanated from the classroom mixed with the voices of twenty-six 10th graders. Several students came over and shepherded me into the classroom where all of 10A was waiting. The song selection was of course the result of my less-than-stellar rendition of “Let it Go” at our fundraising talent show a couple of months prior. Despite my tendency to butcher that song, I couldn’t help but sing along.

With Elsa’s final words still reverberating in our ears, Miriyana and Mariella stepped forward and presented me with a beautiful flower. While the flower was a heartfelt gesture, what they presented me with next was 1,000 times more meaningful, and will be the souvenir I go back to again and again. It was a notebook with a personal entry from every student in the class reflecting on our time together. Not surprisingly, most of the entries focused on our fundraising project that successfully raised $28,500 to build a school in Ghana–I don’t think anyone who was involved will ever forget it! I included a picture of the message from Meli. She is very artistic and creative, and always has an interesting way of expressing herself–calling me an “alien” was no exception!

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Flower from 10A

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“To Michael from 10A”

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Message from Meli

I told 10A how proud I was of them for raising such an impressive amount of money for the greater good, and promised to keep sending along updates about the progress of our school. Those kids are destined for greatness, and I can’t wait to hear about all the amazing things they will undoubtedly accomplish in the upcoming years.

After our group goodbye, I had a number of individual conversations with students who came up for a final (for now) few words or to take a picture. Conversations with Christian and Dorotea, two of my B.E.S.T. competitors, stand out in particular. They each made a special effort to get me one-on-one to share what they learned and express thanks. Ask any teacher–that means a lot. Christian is the one who wrote and performed a rap song as part of our school build campaign; I am so proud of how much he has grown and matured this year. Dorotea was one of the top students in my class, and really impressed me both inside the classroom and as part of my speech & debate team.

After an emotionally exhausting day, I walked home and fell fast asleep for several hours. When I woke up that evening, I continued the long packing process. Despite the long nap, I went to bed early that night, still drained from the previous 36 hours. I had a final meeting with my school principal the next day, as well as another round of emotional goodbyes with Krassy, Nadia, and Valentin. More on that next time!

The Balkan Sprint

Have you ever experienced that sinking feeling in your stomach when you realized a mistake? Perhaps you slept through a crucial meeting or forgot to turn in an important assignment for school. Like most people, I’ve had this feeling a handful of times in my life, but perhaps none was as upsetting as the one I experienced a few weeks ago.

After a wonderful week in Croatia, I hopped off the bus in Kotor, Montenegro. Even though I had to shorten and change around the dates of my trip to fit my school’s exam schedule, I was having a great time. While strolling through sunny Kotor, halfheartedly looking for my hostel, but more just trying to soak in the city, my mind started to wander:  I couldn’t believe that my time in the Balkans was coming to an end. The previous 10 months had flown by, and I felt so fortunate to have learned so much.

I then started thinking ahead to the next couple of days. I’d go back to Silistra for the last day of school, have a goodbye dinner with my amazing neighbors Krassy and Nadia, and then head to Sofia for goodbyes with my friend Valentin and the Fulbright staff. Oh, and of course I had plans to get coffee with Diana, who had put me in touch with the school in Alfatar I had volunteered with a few months before. When was that meeting again? I glanced at my watch: June 29th. Wait a minute…June 29th?

That’s when it hit me. That gut-wrenching feeling when you know you’re right, but begging to be wrong. If today is the 29th, that means tomorrow is June 30th–the last day of school. If my watch is right, then my flight that was meant to get me back to Bulgaria in time had left a few hours ago. A quick glance at my phone confirmed my suspicion, and the full weight of my mistake starting to sink in:  I was going to miss the last day of school. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing my final opportunity to say goodbye to the students who had made my year so transformational and enjoyable. How could this have happened? I rushed to the nearest cafe to regroup.

“I’ll take a Coke, please,” I told the waiter, knowing it was the cheapest way to the WiFi password. My laptop calendar was the final nail in the coffin, as I confirmed for the third time that it was indeed June 29th. I realized that I had been working off an older version of my itinerary that I had put together before adjusting my travel schedule. It was a silly mistake, but it was also a big one. Before my Coke arrived, I had already scoped out numerous flight options, realizing that my predicament was pretty bleak.

It was about 2:30 p.m. and I needed to be in Silistra, Bulgaria by 8:00 a.m. the next morning. It didn’t take me long to realize that this wouldn’t be easy. Because Silistra is so remote, there were literally zero flight options that would get me to Bucharest, Romania (the closest airport to my hometown) early enough for school. Once I had exhausted my flight options, I started thinking outside the box. Maybe I could drive…Google Maps showed a 14.5 hour trip, but the route would take me through Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia all before crossing Bulgaria in its entirety. I entertained the option for a few minutes before realizing that was probably not wise. I would have no cell service for navigating, and had no idea what sort of visa requirements (if any) might be necessary to pass through places like Kosovo.

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Drive from Kotor, Montenegro to Silistra, Bulgaria

If driving from Montenegro wasn’t an option, maybe I could fly somewhere closer, and drive from there…Aha! Belgrade! I had just been on a road trip from Silistra to Belgrade with Krassy, so I knew the route decently well. A quick glance at Google maps suggested it’d take me roughly 9.5 hours to make the drive. That meant if I could get to Belgrade by 10:00 p.m. and drive through the night, I could probably make it! I quickly pulled up Kayak, and found a direct flight to Belgrade leaving in just a few hours–I had a plan! I slammed my laptop shut, left a few Euro for my Coke, and flagged down a cab as quickly as I could.

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Drive from Belgrade, Serbia to Silistra, Bulgaria

I arrived at the Tivat (Montenegro’s capital) airport stressed, but happy to have at least some semblance of a plan. After purchasing a surprisingly cheap ticket, the waiting game began. I used my 30 minutes of free airport WiFi to start researching rental car options, but held off on booking anything in hopes that I could find a better deal at the airport. I sat patiently for the short, 50 minute flight, trying to plan out my next few moves.

Upon arrival, I headed straight to the rental car kiosks in search of something very specific: an automatic transmission, GPS, and the proper tags to get me across the border. I also needed the flexibility to be able to pick the car up in Belgrade, but return it in Bulgaria. I learned right away that it wasn’t going to be cheap. Most rental car companies charge exorbitant “drop fees” to drop off a car in another country.

I started to get worried after striking out at Budget, Dollar, and Thrifty rental car services. Finally, I caught a break at Enterprise, where they told me they had an automatic car that met my needs…but it wouldn’t be cheap. I stopped at a few more desks before the agent at Sixt took an interest in my problem, and bent over backwards to help find me a solution. Unfortunately, he came up empty handed, so I returned to Enterprise and told them I wanted the car. One agent smiled and opened the drawer to get my keys and the appropriate paperwork. All of a sudden she froze, and looked sheepishly up at the other agent, whispering something in Serbian. My stomach sank again. She looked at me apologetically and said, “I’m really sorry, but we just realized the cars we have available don’t have the right tags to get you across the border.”

Defeated, I grabbed a seat back in the waiting area, grasping for any possible solution. Every minute that passed put me one minute closer to missing out on my last day of school. If the Belgrade airport doesn’t have any solutions for me, perhaps I could rent a car from somewhere else….maybe even Sofia. At about the same time this thought occurred to me, the Sixt agent came over and sat beside me. “What if I have one of my guys drive you to Sofia?”

“That would be helpful,” I said, “but I actually need to get all the way across the country, which is another 6 or 7 hours Northeast of Sofia. “Would the Sixt branch at the Sofia airport have a car I could rent, and pick-up late tonight when I’d be arriving?”

We walked back over to his desk, and found a car that met my specifications at the airport in Sofia. I called the agent there, and he agreed to wait around until 12:30 a.m. for me to pick up the car. Things were starting to fall into place! The price he quoted me was the same price it would have cost me to rent the car in Belgrade, and drop it off in Bulgaria–expensive, but worth it to me to get back for the last day of school.

I started to get a bit suspicious, however, when I began to understand how their driver planned to get me to Sofia. Rather than using a car from Sixt, we headed over to another rental kiosk (the cheapest, I presume), and proceeded to rent a car under my name. It dawned on me that these guys would make a killer profit off of me by essentially charging me the drop fee, but then not having to pay it since the driver would bring the car back to Serbia once he returned. Realizing that the helpful agent was more likely trying to play me, I headed out to the taxi stand to do a little price comparison. Through chatting with a couple of the drivers, I realized that a taxi to Sofia would be about 2/3 the price.

After a short bidding war between a taxi driver and the guys from Sixt (I was essentially running back and forth between the two), it became apparent that taking a taxi was my best bet. I think the three guys from Sixt and the other rental agency were a bit frustrated, but they were unwilling to match the taxi driver’s price…I guess splitting the fare three ways wouldn’t go very far. The guy who won my business was more excited than a kid in a candy shop. I like to think it was my good company he was looking forward to, but in all likelihood it was his good fortune to score such a long ride.

I glanced at my watch as we hopped in the car, and calculated that we’d be in Sofia shortly after midnight. We made a quick stop at a gas station for some snacks and drinks. As we walked into the gas station, the driver turned to me and whispered in broken English, “If you want…you can get some BEER for the road”…typical Balkans. Despite my refusal to buy beer, my driver insisted on buying me snacks and a water for the road. “Thanks for the snacks,” I said as I took my seat in the car.

“Thanks for Sofia,” he responded. It was clear that this trip was a big deal for him, as he spent the first 15 minutes of the ride chatting excitedly with his wife about it. Once he finished up on the phone, he began showing me all sorts of pictures and videos of his wife. While I wanted nothing more than to get some sleep in preparation for my nighttime drive, I didn’t have the heart to quell my driver’s enthusiasm. However, after the 5th or 6th video and several dozen pictures, I politely told him that I needed a nap. Sleep didn’t come easily, but I spent the majority of the 4.5 hour trip trying to get some rest.

We pulled up to the Sofia airport at around 12:45 a.m. After paying my driver and wishing him well, I rushed into the airport, where the rental car agent was waiting for me. As he pulled up my paperwork, I took advantage of the WiFi to fire off a couple of important e-mails. Most pressing was to let my mentor Valentin know my plans, as I would need to retrieve my apartment key from him upon arrival. I had left the key with him so he and the school accountant could inspect my apartment and decide whether or not another Fulbright grantee would live there next year.

Ten minutes later, and I was on the road to Silistra. By the time I left, it was about 1 a.m., which would put me home around 7 in the morning…just in time for a quick nap and shower before school! I spent the majority of the ride chugging coffee and blasting Bulgarian music with the windows rolled down. While I was upset with myself for an incredibly stupid travel mistake, I was pleased to have mitigated the damage. The last day of school would prove to be memorable, and made the expense and inconvenience of my “Balkan Sprint” worthwhile. More on my last day at school coming soon!

Road Trip with Krassy

If you Google “Sexiest Tourist Destinations of 2015,” I can almost guarantee you that Belgrade won’t populate your results. But that didn’t deter me from eagerly accepting Krassy and Nadiya’s invitation to join them and 11 of their closest Bulgarian friends on a road trip to Serbia’s capital. Lindsey flew in to join us, and we all had a fantastic weekend celebrating Nadiya’s birthday with delicious food, live Serbian music, and of course a little rakia.

While Belgrade was fun, perhaps the most entertaining part of the weekend was the 10 hour car ride from Silistra. As you might remember from previous posts, Krassy is quite a character, but the excitement of a road trip gave him an extra boyish energy that was hysterical.

Our journey started early. The two quick doorbell bursts that typically signal Krassy’s arrival came at 4:30 a.m. instead of the more normal 6:30 p.m. Krassy, Nadiya, and I lugged our bags down four flights of stairs, and met up with Stefka and Yavko–friends and our travel buddies for the day. Once we’d loaded the luggage, Yavko and Stefka sat up front, while Krassy was squished between Nadiya and me in the backseat. Time to leave!

Groggy from the early start, I was looking forward to shutting my eyes, and hopefully grabbing a couple more hours of sleep. I quickly realized that wouldn’t be an option.

4:35 a.m.  Krassy enthusiastically shows me all the bells and whistles on Yavko’s car. The cameras, the warning beeps when you’re in danger of hitting something in reverse, the air conditioning, the seat belt–nothing was too mundane to overlook mentioning.

4:47 a.m. – Krassy sees I have my Bulgarian words notebook, and suggests that in order to learn more Bulgarian, I ought to write down new words, cut them into small strips, dissolve those strips in wine, and drink them. There’s nothing I won’t try…it was about this time I decided I should also document all of Krassy’s shenanigans for retelling.

5:35 a.m. – A song comes on that everybody loves, but can’t identify. I proceed to BLOW THEIR MINDS with Shazam, the app used to identify songs after listening to just a few seconds. Krassy inspected the app carefully, fascinated by the technology.

6:12 a.m. – We discuss the mental health system in Bulgaria, and Krassy begins acting out what ADHD is to help me understand. Priceless.

7:45 a.m. – Krassy begins explaining the entire history of the Russo-Turkish War.

Somewhere around 8:00 a.m. – I drift off to sleep (have you ever tried listening to the history of the Russo-Turkish War at 7:45 AM?)

8:57 a.m. – Krassy wakes me up and says in Bulgarian, “You can’t make memories if you’re sleeping, Michael.” I guess he has a point. I can only imagine he had finished telling the history of the Russo-Turkish War just before waking me up.

9:14 a.m. – Nadiya receives her 6th happy birthday phone call of the day. Based on the number of phone calls she received that day, I could swear she is a borderline celebrity, and the picture with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov hanging in their living room corroborates that observation.

9:35 a.m. – Krassy makes the exact same joke he made at 4:47, only this time he suggests using beer instead of wine. I consider trying it for the second time in 5 hours.

9:57 a.m. – We make our first stop of the day to fill up the gas tank. I’m standing outside with Krassy, who is frantically trying to fit in a couple of cigarettes before getting back in the car. As we’re making small talk, a big bird flies towards us, looking to pass just above our heads. Suddenly, Krassy snaps up his hand and connects with the bird’s tail as it passes. “Michael!,” he exclaims as a boyish grin forms from ear to ear. Krassy beamed with pride over his successful “tag” as we made our way back to the car.

10:10 a.m. – Arriving in Serbia was probably the easiest border crossing I’ve ever experienced. Our car rolled up to the border and Yavko handed our passports over, and said we were heading to Belgrade for a birthday celebration. Never one to be left out, Krassy yelled from the backseat “Обичаме Сербска скара” or “We love Serbian Grill!”

10:52 a.m. – Out of nowhere: “Michael, what instrument does Bulgarian sound like?”

10:53 a.m. – Once he was satisfied with my answer (I think I said a trumpet for no reason whatsoever), he moved on to his next question. “Michael…In Spain, they speak Spanish. In France, they speak French. In Bulgaria, they speak Bulgarian. In England, they speak English. Why don’t they speak American in America?” I gave what I felt was a thoughtful answer about colonization and said it was a similar reason to why Brazilians speak Portuguese and Peruvians speak Spanish. Krassy wasn’t so convinced, and told me to ask Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton once I returned to the States. I’ll get right on that.

10:57 a.m. – Still tired from the early start, I briefly doze off, only to be immediately awakened by Krassy. Determined not to give anyone a moment to rest, he wakes Nadiya up right after me. To prevent us from falling asleep again, he goes on a streak of basically just telling us to look at things. For example…

11:10 a.m. – “Michael, look at this big tunnel.”

11:11 a.m. – “Michael, look at those rocks.”

11:13 a.m. – “Michael, look at this second tunnel. There are eleven in total that we will pass through.”

11:16 a.m. – “Michael, who do you think made these mountains? Was it Nostradamus? Julius Caesar? Aliens? Do you think it was the same people who made the pyramids?”

11:18 a.m. – “Michael, what is влак (pronounced vlak) in English?” (It’s train, if you’re interested).

12:17 p.m. – Krassy requests we listen to Serbian music, and we do for the rest of the trip.

12:40 p.m. – As we approach Belgrade, a motorcycle blows by us, and Krassy turns to me and says, “I hope he’s an organ donor.”

The rest of the trip was a blast, and being part of a birthday celebration with a big group of Bulgarians (there were 13 of us in total) is one of the coolest cultural experiences I’ve ever had. I feel incredibly lucky to have been included in the weekend, and am especially pleased that I got to witness Krassy’s antics on the ride. Here are some pictures from the rest of the trip!

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The U.S. bombed Serbia in the late 90’s during the breakup of Yugoslavia. I was surprised to still see such noticeable evidence of that.

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Nadiya, Lindsey, Me, Krassy before dinner

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Action shot from Dinner!

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Just a little dancing

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Brief stop at a winery

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Ladies in our group

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Krassy made a new BFF

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Day trip to Novi Sad, Serbia

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Lindsey and me in Novi Sad

Not your average birthday

What did you do for your last birthday? Dinner with family or friends? A small family celebration with more cake and ice cream than you knew what to do with? A night out on the town? Those are the sorts of birthdays I’ve enjoyed for twenty-six years. My 27th, however, would prove to be quite different.

I don’t typically like calling attention to my birthdays. It’s certainly nice when people remember and reach out to me, but I’ll never be the one to broadcast that it’s my special day. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been like that. As such, I hadn’t really told many of my Bulgarian friends that my birthday was this past Saturday. Outside of expected calls from Lindsey, my family, and some close friends, it was a pretty quiet day. I spent the majority of it reading and indulging in a mini-marathon of The Office.

Thanks to Facebook though, a steady stream of messages also kept me entertained. In addition to hearing from a number of friends and family members back in the states (THANK YOU!), many of my students reached out to me too. I don’t know what it is, but Bulgarians take their birthday wishes very seriously, and it’s actually really nice. I keep a separate Facebook account for my students, and it was pinging me all day.

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I don’t care what you say, but that’s going to make your birthday more than all the cake and ice cream in the world (except for maybe ice cream cake…YUM).

Otherwise though, my birthday was pretty quiet. At around 7:00 in the evening, I knocked at Krassy’s door and offered him a chocolate for my birthday. Now I know I said I don’t like calling attention to my birthdays, but in Bulgaria it’s customary to give chocolate to friends, family, and neighbors on your birthday. Ask any of my fellow ETA friends, and they’ll tell you that it’s rare to go even a week without a student offering you chocolate for their birthday or name day. My Grandpa Thomas would have loved this tradition; he never missed an opportunity to “pass the chocolates.”

After scolding me thoroughly for not telling him about my birthday in advance, Krassy insisted I speak with his wife Nadia on the phone as well. After a brief chat, Krassy, Peshoo, and I moved on to the main event of the night: watching “A Time to Kill” in Bulgarian. Initially, I felt pretty good about how much I was able to understand, but Krassy kept pushing wine on me, so the second half was a bit more confusing than the first. Fortunately, the fact that I was easily distracted allowed me to capture a sneak shot of Krassy in his normal spot on the couch.

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I’ve grown quite accustomed to the flannel pajamas and vest, which are certainly the norm. However, he usually reserves “The Thinker” pose for programs he finds particularly interesting–namely shows about UFO conspiracy theories, interesting animals, and occasionally Като Две Капки Вода, a hilariously bizarre reality TV show in which Bulgarians artists aim to mimc famous music videos. I guess Krassy felt Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kevin Spacey did a nice job.

My only plan for the next day was an afternoon picnic with 10A, the class who successfully raised $28,000 to build a school in Ghana. I presumed they had planned the picnic to celebrate this great success (and rightly so), but started to get slightly suspicious that they were up to something when three different students reached out to confirm my attendance. I set out for the picnic and was enjoying a part of town I usually don’t walk through when a cab pulled up behind me. Two of my students (twins Denitsa and Raya) popped their head out the window and offered me a ride the rest of the way. Denitsa and Raya on time for something? Another red flag!

My suspicions were confirmed when the cab pulled up ten minutes before the agreed upon meeting time and the entire class was already there. If only I could get them to class with that sense of urgency!

10A surprised me with a shirt imprinted with our campaign logo, a pencil stamped with “Pencils of Promise,” and even a birthday banitsa! It was such a great surprise, and made my birthday weekend really special. We then spent all afternoon relaxing, playing games, and enjoying delicious food. My students took literally hundreds of pictures, but I pulled out some of my favorites to share!

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Surprise!

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Build them a school, Build them a future

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Starting hike up to Ottoman Fort (highest point in Silistra)

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Before the hike

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Зеле!

break from hike

Quick rest!

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Shhh…

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Ivana was one of several who made delicious snacks

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Meli unpacking

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Not a bad spread

snacks!!!!!

Veronica found the snacks

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Not a bad spot to spend the afternoon

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Relaxing

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Group shot

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Celebrating salsa

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Passing the birthday chocolates

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Borderline sadistic game where you slam the ball on the person sitting in the circle

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Caught in the middle

Group shot fun

Another group shot

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Ladies from 10A

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Ladies from 10A v2

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So many pictures

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The sun was really bothering Kremena

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Front of shirt

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Back of shirt

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Selfie

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Badmitton…sort of

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Another selfie

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Preslava and Mariella

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Soccer with Hristian

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Action shot

Group shot

Sing-a-longs

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Such a character! 🙂

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Miriyana, Mariella, Daniela, and Me

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So many talented musicians in this class; Preslava also sings and plays the piano

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Group starting to dwindle

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Goofy shot

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Heading home

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End of a great day! This is my favorite spot in Silistra.

Shooting with Krassy

Hanging out with Krassy is never a disappointment. I especially enjoy it when he invites me to do something besides our normal ‘eat dinner, watch tv, prank call his wife Nadia, and listen to Serbian music’ routine. Don’t get me wrong…that’s always a blast too, but some of my best memories with Krassy have been when we do something a little different like cook banitsa, make rakia, or even just go to the post office (more on that hilarious story later). But knowing how entertaining an afternoon with Krassy can be, I was jazzed when he asked if I wanted to head out to a random field one afternoon to shoot guns. Now I’m not usually a huge fan of guns, but when Krassy told me his eccentric friend Atanas would be joining us as well, I knew there was no way I could miss out.

So one Sunday morning, we packed up Krassy’s old Volkswagen, and drove several miles outside of town. After about 20 minutes, we pulled into a small field. Krassy told me to wait in the car as he stepped outside to survey the terrain. I could tell from his scrunched up nose and head bobble that he saw something he didn’t like, and we quickly resumed the drive. A few minutes later, we turned down a muddy road and Krassy stepped out of the car again. After scanning the horizon like a ship captain, Krassy was once again visibly displeased, and we continued on our journey. This happened another 5 or 6 times before we finally settled on a suitable spot that looked remarkably similar to the half-dozen we had just visited. Fortunately, I’m easily entertained.

We unloaded the gun (I’d describe it as a glorified BB gun), and began stringing up a variety of bottles in all shapes and sizes. The smallest was a travel size shampoo bottle that I was immediately determined to hit.

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Atanas showing off a two liter

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Supplies

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The hardest target

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Hanging bottles

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Krassy took the first few shots, but then insisted that I take over. I soon found that neither he nor Atanas seemed to have any interest in shooting at all. Krassy was completely content yelling words of encouragement between cigarette puffs and Atanas spent the entire time in the car complaining about how cold he was. While I had fun shooting, my interest started to wane once I hit the swinging shampoo bottle. All of a sudden, warming up my freezing hands sounded a lot more appealing than putting another hole through a bottle. Fortunately for me, a car pulled up just as I was starting to lose feeling in my fingers.

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Krassy loading his first shot

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Steady….steady….

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Scoping out the targets

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Krassy striking his favorite pose

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Krassy taking aim

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“Aim small, miss small”

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Krassy gloating about a shot

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Nailed the shampoo bottle after several attempts!

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Will never hold shampoo again

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Not a bad distance

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Krassy has friends all over town, and we seem to run into them everywhere we go. Today was no exception as Krassy explained that the approaching car belonged to his good friend Iliyan (this was Krassy’s second friend who happened to be driving by this field in the middle of nowhere). Iliyan was chatty, and seemed excited to meet “the American,” so he invited us to swing by his ranch for some homemade wine…off we went! Like Krassy (and many Bulgarians), Iliyan also makes his own rakia, and grows many of his own fruits and vegetables.

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Home grown veggies

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Wine barrel

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Preparing a 2L bottle of rakia for me to take home

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Iliyan gave us a tour of his ranch home, eagerly explaining the process he uses to make wine and rakia. His cellar was overflowing with onions, apples, pears, and garlic, amongst other things. When I walked outside with my freshly poured glass of wine, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Iliyan’s neighbor blasting Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio from his car stereo. I laughed at the irony and had another one of those “where the heck am I” moments…they never fail to bring a smile to my face.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better…I NOTICE THAT ILIYAN HAD A CANNON!!! Okay, so it was a small cannon, but still a cannon. Iliyan must have noticed my fascination, because the next thing I knew he was lighting the fuse and excitedly motioning me to step back. Based on the canon’s size, I wasn’t expecting much, but that thing was LOUD! If only we had had some cannonballs…

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Delicious wine

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Cannon in action

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We sat around for about 30 minutes and watched Atanas dance to the neighbor’s music and shout things like “AMERICA BABY” in broken English. Iliyan sent me home with two liters of rakia and a variety of fruits, vegetables, and roots, including some sort of squash that’s bigger than my arm. You can see in the picture immediately below that it’s bigger than a 2 liter bottle! And here I was thinking I’d left GMOs back in the United States. I had no idea what to do with the squash, but it is still sitting in my kitchen as a proud symbol of Bulgarian hospitality.

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Atanas being Atanas

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Showing off his moves