Passing between the raindrops – part 2

So there I was at the Sofia airport with two enormous suitcases, a carry-on backpack mostly filled with cat-related things, my cat, her EU pet passport, and definitely no additional documentation. Here is what happened throughout the rest of the day.

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Passing between the raindrops – part 1

I’m definitely not done documenting the Balkan road trip, so I will get back to that at some point, but we just were always on the go and got increasingly tired at night as the trip wore on (almost never staying in the same place for two nights in a row will do that to you), and then I got back to Sofia and was just crazy busy with packing and leaving, so it’s fallen by the wayside. But I do mean to get back to it at some point.

However, right now I am actually back in Boston, having left Bulgaria for good, and so today what I want to do is document my experience taking my Bulgarian cat home with me. Prior to making my arrangements and flying, I did a lot of research on traveling with pets and often what was most helpful were people’s personal stories (both random people from the internet and people I know), so I’m hoping that maybe this post will be helpful to someone in my position, trying to parse the crazy bureaucracy and inconsistency of international pet travel.

The bottom line of my experience is that there are the official requirements, some of which contradict each other, and then there’s the actual practical experience, which are usually dramatically different (as in, way more lenient). Nobody from my school (this now includes me) has actually completed ALL of the dictated steps to transport their cat home, and nobody has had any issues with it. It’s like the yellow fever vaccination entry “requirement” for Tanzania. Likewise, I think if I were to have the option to do it over again, I would just go ahead and do all the official steps, because the anxiety just wasn’t worth it. If you’re a less anxious person than I am, though (which you probably are), the practical reality could help you avoid having to do a lot of pointless extra work, particularly in Bulgaria.

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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.

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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By any other name

For various reasons, there are a lot of international teachers leaving my school this year, and those of us returning to the U.S. frequently muse about what we are returning to. In the aftermath of the past week in my hometown, that has become especially true for me, but not entirely for the reasons one might suspect.

Yes, it was unsettling to have the Marathon bombed; that act has rattled the city to its core, will result in changes that will be felt from now on, and leaves us with a heightened awareness of our own vulnerability. But the even more pervasive feeling of unease for me comes from the deep sense of embarrassment I felt from watching/reading some of the coverage. I feel embarrassed over American ignorance and provincialism, and quite frankly I fear our ongoing stupidity more than I fear any new terrorist attack; our limited worldview is much more of a threat because of the way it fosters hatred and bigotry among us and negative international attitudes toward us. It is part of the cause, whereas the actual attacks are just the effect.

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The meaning of home

Usually I write here about exciting travels or the often exasperating experience of being an ex-pat in one of the least welcoming countries in the world. But this week all I can think about is home.

I’m still behind on sorting through my Russia photos and I haven’t even touched my Amsterdam photos from last weekend because every time I even think about looking at them, it feels wrong. Instead I keep seeing the flags of those countries, along with so many others, scattered on Boylston Street as people frantically dismantle barricades to try to reach the victims.

There has been some really bad news this year. The Newtown shootings made me sick and hit close to home since I’m a teacher myself. But Monday’s bombing hit my actual home. And the aftermath has made me reflect on a new definition of home: how you feel when something like this happens there.

1. You freak out because you can’t even think of all of the people you need to contact to make sure they are ok. It feels like it’s the entire city.

2. You almost start crying at random moments in your office when you think about it. You then look at the street map of the city taped to the wall of your office and you really do start crying.

3. You start to miss it with a tangible ache and want to be there. In a sense it’s better not to be there, because then you’re not surrounded by it 24/7, but it’s like the instinct to hug a crying child, or run toward an explosion to help anyone who’s hurt.

4. You do unprecedented things like keep the Globe’s Twitter feed open in a tab all the time on both your work and your home computer, because even repetitive, sometimes sensationalist/manipulative 140-character updates help make you feel just a little bit more connected. When the feed slows down in your morning because the time difference means it’s the middle of the night there, you feel abandoned and adrift.

5. You’re kind of upset that other people don’t seem as upset as you do, even though that makes total sense when you live 5,000 miles away on a different continent. It’s not their home.

Prior to this week, I never would have said that the Marathon or Patriots’ Day activities meant anything particularly significant to me. I’m not much of a runner myself, and when I was a kid I used to watch the section of the race that went through my hometown, or turn the TV coverage on in the background of whatever I was doing at home, but I was never an ardent fan. These events happened every year; they were the status quo; they were totally normal and taken for granted; and as a teacher they also coincided with spring break, when I was usually hoping to be somewhere else. This year, I’m going crazy because I can’t be there, because I’m not at home. Sometimes it’s being far away that makes you realize where your home really is, and why it is.

It’s the normal, status quo, taken-for-granted activities that give us our identity. Home is home because it is. And all the adventures in the world can’t replace it.


Show me the money

I knew something was up with the American coins when I mentioned them a few days ago as part of the process of re-adjusting to being in the U.S. again. Don’t laugh at me for taking so long to realize this, but I only just recently took the time to look more closely at the coins to try to figure out why it was so difficult for me to identify them.


What gives, U.S. Mint? I move out of the country in 2010 and you have to release a new reverse design for the penny so that I’m utterly confused when I get back? What happened to the Lincoln Memorial?? And did they change the composition of the coins again? Pennies seem so shiny now – maybe because they’re new (duh), but maybe also because not as much grime is getting caught in between the carvings of the Lincoln Memorial. It makes it hard for me to recognize them in a change purse, though.  Continue reading