My Bulgarian Spring Break

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It was snowing. We were driving through a blizzard on April Fool’s Day, aiming our Subaru in blind hope towards a beach on the Black Sea: our first spring break since moving from sunny Florida to Bulgaria. My crazy-meter, never designed for such rigors, had long since gone on strike.

The whole enterprise had required a leap of faith. My wife would help run the embassy school, where our nine-year-old daughter would attend the fourth grade. I would transplant my writing from the fertile soil of Tampa to the rocky Balkans.

But just now, our needs were far simpler. Watch out for the pothole, the unexpected horse cart on the highway, the mafia Mercedes speeding from behind with darkened windows.  Find our hotel on the cobbled, one-way streets of Nesebar, a history-laden peninsula on the Black Sea. Locate a restaurant that was open in the off-season.  If ancient Greek mariners could find this port town on the edge of the known world, surely we could track down a bowl of spaghetti. Continue reading

Photo journal: Our Long March Through Bulgaria

You never take the trip you planned. And it’s only afterwards that the really important moments stand out.

That’s my takeaway from a recent family road trip around Bulgaria. We left on Thursday from Sofia and hit Belogradchik (famous rocks,) Vidin (famous river,) Ruse (gorgeous city on famous river,) Veliko Tarnovo (favorite town in mountains) and back to Sofia by Sunday. Google Maps calls it 873 kilometers, but I think we can safely push that up to 1,000 or so. There were a few wrong turns up there by the Danube.

Belogradchik stood out for its elderly people, in a good way. First we saw this charming trio out for a morning stroll in the town square. I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to chat with them; I suspect they’ve seen quite a lot of history pass through their mountain town. Continue reading

Photo journal: Sofia spring, moment by moment

It’s been a rainy spring here in Bulgaria. So when the clouds do part, even for a few moments, people hit the streets. They walk the parks and convene those outdoor meetings they craved all through a snowy winter.

Time slows down a bit, you pull out that skateboard or a pair of pink rollerskates, and just see where it takes you.

Photo journal: Quiet season on the Black Sea

People say the spring is not the time to visit the Black Sea. Too quiet. Too cold. Not enough action.

I say they’re crazy.

On a recent trip to Bulgaria’s coast, I was blown away by the natural beauty. The beaches are pristine, the towns placid and laid back.

We found workers still painting signs and fishermen readying their boats for the busy season. They seemed surprised to see tourists on their streets.

Too soon, their posture said, come back in a month or two! Continue reading

Photo journal: Ode to Tram 18

I love Tram 18 in Sofia.

All through this frigid East European winter, when every instinct tells us to hide under the blankets, my family has journeyed downtown on this steel relic from Bulgaria’s past. It provides a perfect, nicely-heated portal for journeying through a city that was made for walking.

The trip starts at the southern terminus in Istok, directly opposite the Russian embassy. Passengers line up at trackside, pull up their scarves, and point their faces away from the wind like seagulls on a pier.

When the tram arrives, be prepared to wait a few minutes longer. First the southbound passengers disembark. Then the tram reverses and disappears into a cul-de-sac in the neighboring park. Wait for it. A few minutes later – time enough for the driver to switch tracks, move from back to front, and perhaps take a swig of coffee – the tram reappears for the northward journey. Continue reading

Socialist art museum opens, quietly

I didn’t know quite what do with myself this morning at Bulgaria’s new Museum of Socialist Art.

I arrived around 12:30 – about an hour after Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had been scheduled to cut the ribbon. By the time I got there, the media scrum had mostly departed. A few stragglers gulped down a bit of wine and cheese under tents that had been set up near the bust of Che Guevara.

Out in the sculpture garden, too, things were largely quiet amid the statuary of this country’s 40 years under communist rule. An elderly couple were in the midst of a heated discussion in Bulgarian. A television reporter finished a report seated  – I’m not making this up – in Vladimir Lenin’s lap. Continue reading

Photo journal: Throwing stones

This afternoon I was headed to a meeting in downtown Sofia when I saw a group of teenagers at the base of the Monument to the Soviet Army. They were standing amid a rubble of rocks and dead flowers. I wasn’t sure what they were up to, so I hung around for a moment to watch.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, many governments have torn down these tributes to the Red Army forces that pushed the Nazis back to Berlin and brought Eastern Europe under Soviet rule. But in Bulgaria they’re still here, transformed into skate parks and youth hangouts.

I snapped my shutter just as one boy heaved a rock, catching him in the same liberator’s pose as the long-forgotten soldier above him.

Later someone told me about those flowers.They had been arranged on a stone pedestal beneath the statue for last week’s anniversary of the communist takeover in 1944. Then someone came and destroyed the pedestal. And then these kids threw a few pieces down the steps. Stone by stone, it seems, the tribute will come down.