Moving blues

I’m in a very strange position of having both 1 week only and 1 month left in Bulgaria.

Next Tuesday is the last day of school for teachers and next Wednesday, two colleagues/friends and I are embarking on a crazy 19-day Balkan road trip. This means that for all intents and purposes, I need to be packed up and done in 1 week.

However, I’m returning from the road trip around July 21, and not flying out until July 27. So in my brain I keep thinking of July 27 as the real D-Day, even though I won’t be in the apartment for the most of the time between now and then.

Most of me is SO READY TO BE DONE. All teachers out there will relate to how just plain worn out you are at the end of each school year. It’s an exhausting slog and at the end of it you sort of just want to roll over and die for a little bit. As bad as the kids get, the adults are ten times worse. The international colleagues have practically been drooling through their daydreams about the things they’re looking forward to about returning home (iced coffee being a big one in the midst of the crippling heat last week and weekend). I have been eagerly counting down the days along with the rest of them as a kind of mystical chant to Just Get Through. I posted a makeshift senior countdown calendar of sorts in my office from a wad of sticky notes – each note has a decreasing number on it, so that at the end of the day you can rip off the top one and celebrate the fact that you have only 6 days of work left.

Except that I’ve failed to rip off the top sheet at the end of the day every single day since I made the calendar last week. I just forget. I’ll even look at it somewhere around 3:30 and I think about ripping it off but then think, “No, I have to wait till it’s actually the end of work hours,” and then by the time I’m actually walking off campus I’ve forgotten to do it. I do it at the beginning of the next day, which is arguably just as satisfying, if not more. But it’s like some small part of me doesn’t actually want the day to be gone, doesn’t want to leave.

Needless to say, this schizophrenic approach does not work well when you have to be packing up your apartment and selling off/giving away your stuff before everyone scatters to the four winds after school ends. I have bouts of productivity where I’m just like, THROW AWAY ALL THE THINGS!!! and then I go to pee and come back to the room and just can’t be bothered anymore.

I know it will all get done because it has to. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter if I completely strip and purge my apartment of all my belongings, because new teachers will move in and will either use or throw out (or leave behind themselves) anything they don’t want. But as is usually the case, moving is not just about the logistics, the physical act of moving. And this makes the process itself as hard as the associated emotions to pin down, box up, seal in, label, and set aside.

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Vacation…ur doing it rong

As usual, I am way behind on posts, and even worse, I am running out of time for said posts to be relevant given that I am finishing my job in 8 working days (but who’s counting) and then will be out of Bulgaria for good on July 27. BUT, don’t worry too much, as I think I will be bringing my laptop on my crazy 19-day Balkan road trip in July, so there should be some good adventures before all is said and done.

Another item that recently got crossed off the bucket list was my family visiting me in Bulgaria and me being able to take them around as if I actually knew what I was doing and as if Bulgaria was, like, an actual functional place to visit and all. And I have to say, I think it went really well. My family might be reading this and thinking something completely different, but at least from my perspective I think the 4-day stay in Bulgaria went about as well as I could have hoped. I only got lost once in the car (missed the turn for the ring road on the way back from Boyana, and then got on the ring road in the wrong direction for a while because I got confused and somehow thought Boyana was southEAST of Mladost), and by the time we got to Zhenski Pazar on Sunday it was closing up (and thunderstorming) which seemed to bring out the sketchy characters in full force, but otherwise it went off basically without a hitch, surprisingly.

Also unexpected about my family’s visit was my perspective on Sofia and Bulgaria itself. Before my family arrived, I was convinced I was going to be self-conscious about Sofia the way you suddenly notice all the dust and dirt spots you’ve missed cleaning when you have guests over. I thought all of Sofia’s flaws would become even more apparent when I was attempting to guide my totally innocent family through the maze of Bulgaria-ness. But actually the opposite was true: it was as if I had arrived along with my family and was suddenly seeing Bulgaria through new eyes, yet with the perspective to be appreciative of the hidden loveliness of this country. Vitosha loomed bright and green on the walk to school, the buildings downtown glowed a warm yellow, even the dogs seemed to go into hiding—or were quieter, at least. Maybe it was the fact that my family was here or maybe it was what my family represented—the fact that I will be leaving soon—but for those four days, and a lingering effect afterward, I loved this place, potholes and all.

The title of this post, however, refers to the fact that my family simply cannot take pictures at all. Everyone looks pissed 95% of the time, even if they really aren’t. The exception is me: I actually smile (my brother sometimes grimaces in a way that approximates an attempt to smile). This creates the odd effect that somehow I am gleefully torturing my family on vacation, so I wanted to preface the pictures by explaining that the Bulgaria visit, contrary to appearances, was actually fine.

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Bucket listing

Living abroad anywhere will inevitably lead to many unique experiences – that’s part of the fun of it, after all. Over the last three years in Bulgaria, I’ve experienced a number of firsts – my first (short, little) earthquake ever, my first holy-crap-this-is-an-earthquake-WTF-do-I-do-and-am-I-going-to-die earthquake, my first fire at work, my first fire in the building I live in, etc. but I feel like I’ve given myself a number of strange experiences in this past year from a king of bucket list mentality. In my first year, everything was a new experience; even shopping for food, buying appliances, or paying your cell phone bill was an adventure that I, for the most part, embraced. In my second year, I was totally over adventure-seeking; I just wanted to be able to buy goddamn contact solution without having to walk into an optika and ask for it, or send my own mail, for crying out loud. Now that I know my third year will be my last, I feel like I’ve taken on an attitude of, “Well, why the hell not?” when it comes to doing things that seem intimidating.

There was, of course, the trip to Tanzania this winter that yielded a lot of bucket list experiences, such as being injected in an airport in a foreign country. Then a few months ago I purchased glasses in Bulgaria. I never got around to writing about it, but this ended up being a far more involved procedure than originally intended, since the frame I picked out the first time ended up being too big for my astronomical lens prescription, which leads to 1) really thick lenses and 2) extreme distortion at the lens edges (a fact that I knew from opticians in the States, but had forgotten). They technically worked, but I decided to man up and ask the optician to cut down the same lenses (to avoid being charged twice) to put in a different, smaller frame. This required a lot of very crappy Bulgarian explanation on my part and not always fully understanding what Vyara, the optician, was saying to me, but I stuck it out and I did it, and now I have a pair of Bulgarian glasses that I like wearing.

I gave myself another bucket list-worthy adventure this past week. I’m returning to the States in the fall to get my doctorate, and the university requires a negative TB test within the past year prior to enrollment if you have ever lived in/visited for over 1 month basically any country that is not in North America or Western Europe. The medical forms are due in mid-June, and I don’t finish with work in Bulgaria until July. Originally I was just going to get the TB test done after I returned home sometime in July, before my medical insurance ran out; I even got permission from university health services to send that one form after the deadline. But then I thought: Well, why the hell not? Let’s go get a TB test in Bulgaria!

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Flower porn

I finally sorted through my Amsterdam photos to share on facebook, but I realized that a full 50% of them are pictures of flowers from the Keukenhof Gardens. Now, I flew into Amsterdam on April 12, which normally would not be a bad time for tulip viewing, but apparently the Netherlands was in the grip of the Worst Spring Evahhhh! this year and so there was a lot of wailing and moaning online about how the Keukenhof wasn’t actually ready yet and what horrible people they were for opening up the garden at full price without being ready. I sorted through the Tripadvisor comments (I’ve gotten really good at reading between the lines and filtering) and decided that all the reasonable people felt it was still worth the trip even if the tulips hadn’t peaked, and it totally was. I purchased a combo ticket online in advance and took the bus directly from the airport pretty much immediately upon landing. It was all very easy, and once I got there I really enjoyed myself, despite not being much of a botanist. Since I couldn’t very well post 80 photos of flowers on facebook and expect people to sift through them, here they are in slideshow format so that you can just look at a couple of randomized pretty ones whenever you visit the site and scroll past this post. No bonus points for sitting through the whole slideshow because that’s just crazy.

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I’m *literary* in Russia!

I have to say, people’s confusion between “literally” and “literary” drives me crazy. If you even just stop for one second to think about what the words mean, you wouldn’t confuse the two because it makes no sense. Not to mention the misuse of the word “literally,” but that’s another story.

Theme #4 (the last one): Russian literature. I geeked out hard in Russia. I read my first Pushkin (Boris Godunov) on the train to Sergiev Posad, and I re-read Crime and Punishment (my third or fourth time reading it), which I loved in high school and loved even more in St Petersburg. I probably just worked myself up into a state of psychosomatic/borderline religious ecstasy (very Dostoevskyan of me), but I felt like it really made a difference being there, visualizing the characters and feeling the general atmosphere.

So here is my tribute to all the literary and literally nerdy things I did in Russia (mostly Dostoevsky, some Tolstoy at the end).

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I see dead people

Theme #3: Cemeteries. It sounds weird and morbid, but I kind of like visiting cemeteries. I think this started for me in 2006 with the Vysehrad cemetery in Prague where Dvorak is buried, and since then if I have the opportunity, I like to visit the big cemeteries in different countries. They’re very peaceful, and somehow it makes me feel more in touch with the country itself, looking at the tombs of its famous dead people.

And Russia has a lot of dead people. That was the really earthshattering conclusion that I arrived at after tons of time in museums, cathedrals, monasteries, and of course cemeteries. But really, I just couldn’t get over how many dead Russians were littered throughout history. 26 million dead in World War II (excuse me, the Great Patriotic War) alone. I mean, it boggles the mind.

Visiting two of the big cemeteries in Russia was also quite an ordeal of endurance in some respects. Temperatures hovering right around freezing meant a constant give-and-take between new snow and thaw, coupled with unpaved and/or unshoveled paths, which meant my not-so-waterproof shoes called it quits about ten minutes into both cemetery visits and made enjoyment of the grounds a bit of a challenge

Here are some of the tomb pilgrimages I made:

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Arting it up

Theme #2: Art. I visited a lot of art museums in Russia, not least because it was so cold and wet and my shoes so insufficiently waterproof that I just needed to be inside for a couple of hours sometimes. I took a lot of pictures, too, because I couldn’t quite make up my mind about the photo fee policy in Russia. In most of the museums I visited, the photo permit was as much or more than the actual ticket price itself, but then many of the museums didn’t actually seem to enforce the permit rule: you were supposed to wear a little sticker with a camera on it to indicate that you had paid for the photo permit, but I saw plenty of people wandering around the State Tretyakov in Moscow taking photos with no such sticker, and especially at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, which is probably so packed that nobody can actually enforce the sticker policy.

The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

So I ended up actually purchasing photo permits at probably about 50% of the museums I visited, then just took photos at the rest of them and waited for someone to yell at me. The New Tretyakov guards seemed to be kind of on to me but never quite caught me in the act. I figured my exorbitant photo fees at 50% of the museums covered my photo fees at the other 50%.

But now I have all these photos of art, and I feel like I should do something with them, so here’s the photo dump. (NB: I’m not sure whether posting photos of art on my blog violates the non-commercial aspect of the amateur photography permit, but it’s not like I’m making money off of this blog. And thumbnails of most of these are available on the gallery websites anyway. I guess I will get a bloody horse head in my bed from the Russian art mafia or something if I’m really in trouble.)

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