Welcome to Sarajevo

…is a movie I want to see (to excuse the likely copyright infringement of this post title).

Sarajevo was one of my most eagerly anticipated stops on this trip, though I couldn’t even tell you exactly why in concrete terms. I think it was just the various references I’d heard: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (I was really into my Great War elective in 7th grade), the Olympics, the vague snippets of the Bosnian War and the siege that I knew/remembered. Colleagues from Bulgaria who had visited listed it among their favorites. I had no idea what it looked like or what the vibe was like, but I was excited.

Sarajevo has not disappointed. We are leaving later this morning for Mostar, but I would happily stay here longer and just wander, endlessly. It is the city and the country that we have researched the most in depth out of curiosity and fascination (granted, this may be partly because we had more time here to spend reading Wikipedia entries in our airbnb place), and it is one of the European cities I have been most intrigued by. I want to try to relay a little bit of the impression the city has made on me in just two days, though pictures and words don’t compare to the living, breathing experience.

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Matryoshka

Things that did not survive my trip to Russia: my boots, my Kindle, the functionality of all 3 pens I brought with me. Now I know how Napoleon felt.

When I went to Egypt last year, I found that a good way of remembering some of the smaller moments from the trip (and also delaying until I could finish getting photos sorted out) was to focus on some of the people I met. While I don’t feel like I had the kind of lengthy encounters in Russia that I had in Egypt, here’s what a matryoshka of some of the more interesting characters might look like, blending the nice exchanges with sketchy/weird ones, because what trip would be complete without its crazies?

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Adrift in Addis

Normally I would’ve done much more research on my own to prepare for navigating a new city on my own, but there were so many variables at play this time—I wasn’t sure I could even get the yellow fever vaccine which would make me more comfortable about leaving the airport; it was a stopover of only a few hours anyway; I didn’t know in what hotel or area of the city the airline would place me, etc—that I admittedly hadn’t done enough homework. Addis is a place where you really need to do your homework and brace yourself, especially if you are traveling alone, foreign, not Black, or female. I was all four. Continue reading

Бала

It feels pointless to even make any “I’m alive!” jokes, as this is just my 5th post of 2012. So in a nutshell, yes I’m still alive, yes I’m still in Bulgaria, yes it’s still weird sometimes, yes the paradoxical trend of my seeming to get busier and busier the more teaching experience I have continues. I have still been keeping a list of things I want to write about eventually, but it is now a list of seemingly free-associative topics that make very little sense anymore, so I don’t know that I will ever get to them.

But one topic I’ve had on that list since last year is “prom,” and since the class of 2012 just had their prom last night, plus I happened to witness some prom arrivals in Kazanlak this past weekend from my hotel balcony (there’s another post that needs to be written), this seemed like as good a time as any to finally write the post (one year late better than never).

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Exercises in humility

I’ve had an interesting experience for the last few weeks.

To understand this, you need to know a little about how our finances typically work here. When we get paid, we direct a certain percentage of our paychecks deposited as leva into our Bulgarian bank accounts, and the rest gets deposited automatically as dollars into our American bank account. Normally, we get paid at the end of the month, but we can also opt for salary advances in the middle of the month, and the rest paid out at the end of the month. Typically, I use my Bulgarian bank account to withdraw cash to use here (obviously), but I also use it to withdraw euros and local currency when I travel. I generally use credit cards linked to my U.S. bank account to purchase airline tickets, book accommodations online, etc. I almost never use my American debit card at European ATMs, unless my Bulgarian bank card has been rejected for some reason (it happens sometimes). 

Last year, I never came close to using up the money in my Bulgarian bank account, so I decided this year to decrease the percentage that was deposited locally so that I would be, in theory, saving more in my American account and being less wasteful with my Bulgarian account. Given that I still had a surplus from last year, I had again never come close to using it all up, even with the decreased deposit amount…until this past month. 

Turns out that 10 days in Italy and Malta for Christmas/New Year’s gets pretty expensive. Also, because I was traveling with 2 other people and because of the way that we had divided booking/reservation responsibilities, I ended up owing my traveling companions for some airfare and hotel costs; these expenses, which I normally would’ve booked by card if I’d been traveling alone, I paid back in cash, which contributed even more to the depletion of my Bulgarian bank account.

All this basically amounts to the fact that I had not a lot of money left in my Bulgarian bank account by the time I got back to Sofia at the beginning of this month and settled all my travel debts. I had something like 30 leva left in the bank, but then with the help of my mid-month salary advance, I was able to go on one last big shopping spree for groceries for my Chinese New Year dinner (tofu, for example, is really expensive and hard to find here). After that, though, I  found myself with much less spending money at hand than I normally have. Since Chinese New Year last Monday, I think I spent 10 leva (about $6.70) all week – most of it in the first 2 days – until today, when I finally withdrew the last 20 leva from my Bulgarian bank account to cover the expenses for our trip to Pernik today for the Kukeri festivities (separate entry on that later). And I managed to stay under budget: 7.50 leva on lunch and a beer (an extravagance, but it was so cold I really needed to be inside for a while, not just eating food on a stick outside, which would’ve been much cheaper), 7 leva for my share of gas money, then 4.50 leva for a liter of milk, 6 eggs, and a loaf of bread at the grocery store on the way home – the first new groceries I’d purchased all week.

I now have nothing but change rattling around in my wallet (and not even good change, it’s all like 5- and 2-stotinki coins), and exactly 74 stotinki left in the bank, which basically amounts to 0 because you can’t withdraw 74 stotinki from an ATM.  Continue reading

Ringing in (another) new year

It’s that time of the semester when you’re up early enough on a weekend morning to catch the sunrise:

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Of course this is a lot easier to do when you’re on the very western edge of your time zone. Much like Michigan, Bulgaria gets light late in the winter, stays light late (sometimes disorientatingly so) in the summer. 

The sun rose today not only on the blokove of Mladost, but also on New Year’s Eve, Lunar Edition. Like last year, I had another get-together with some friends to mark the occasion. It’s funny, Chinese New Year was never really a big thing for me at home: we would always have a family dinner, and we got hong bao when we were younger, but it wasn’t something I actively thought about or planned anything for. I think technically you could actually take it off from work in a public school system, because it is a significant cultural holiday, but I never idd (my students always asked me why I hadn’t just stayed home!).

Being far away from home, though, and far away not only from a cohort of people who look like you, but even from a reasonable cohort of people who have ever spoken to someone who looks like you (other than you), makes you want to cling a little harder to these traditions and commemorate them somehow. It just becomes a little more important. 

So, like last year, I made dinner, the centerpiece of which was homemade jiao zi:

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Unlike last year, though, I had the foresight to make the jiao zi at the tail end of my Christmas vacation and then freeze them in anticipation of this weekend, so that I could just pull them out and cook them. This turned out to be a very smart move indeed, since I might otherwise have had a nervous breakdown this weekend trying to make dumplings and read and grade 30 senior projects at the same time. Which is just not something you ever want to be stuck doing, and would probably require you getting up a lot earlier than sunrise both weekend mornings.