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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Guess which country?

I’m currently on Day 4 of my Balkan road trip, and we’ve all sort of nonverbally agreed to a siesta in the hotel in Shkoder before venturing out. Since I already briefly siesta’d in the car (today was my turn in the back seat), I thought this downtime would be a good opportunity to sort through my photos so far and post a few.

The theme of the trip so far is mountains, and since we really have been driving around and faux-moaning, “Oh God, please stop torturing me with these gorgeous mountain vistas,” I thought I’d post a few and let you guess the country. Your choices are: Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo (no pictures of Albanian mountains yet, other than maybe the ones that they share with Kosovo).

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Onward and upward

Today was my last day of work in Bulgaria. Saying goodbye to people for the past two days has been really difficult. I spent a lot of today wobbling on the verge of tears, and maybe a couple spilled out. Just a couple.

So since that’s too sad to dwell on, let me instead post the projected itinerary for the road trip I will be embarking on with two friends, H and J, in a mere 10 hours’ time:

July 3 – Sofia to Kopaonik, Serbia
July 4 – Kopaonik to Podgorica, Montenegro
July 5 – Podgorica to Peja, Kosovo
July 6 – Peja to Shkodra, Albania
July 7 – Shkodra back to Podgorica and then on to Sveti Stefan, Montenegro
July 8 – Sveti Stefan to Kotor, Montenegro
July 9-11 – Kotor to Sarajevo (I AM SO EXCITED) for 3 nights
July 12 – Sarajevo to Mostar
July 13 – Mostar to Dubrovnik
July 14-15 – Dubrovnik to Korcula for 2 nights
July 16 – Korcula to Sibenik
July 17 – Sibenik to Plitvice
July 18-19 – Somewhere in Slovenia (we’re leaving this flexible for now; will make plans from the road)
July 20 – Slovenia to Novi Sad, Serbia
July 21 – Novi Sad back to Sofia

With the distinct possibility of an extra day in Slovenia because I’m guessing it will be hard to leave. I also don’t know how we’ll drag ourselves out of Korcula, but we’ll deal with that when we come to it. Since we’re driving and I don’t have to worry so much about packing, I’m also bringing my laptop so hopefully there will be some pictures and posts from the road, instead of waiting till it’s all over and then rehashing.

Then it’s back to Sofia for a few days and then flying out for good (well, for now anyway) on July 27!

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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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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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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(It’s a pun, get it? Well, maybe after you actually read the post…)

One of the nice things about living overseas is that it’s easier to give yourself permission to feel really special and accomplished for completing basic tasks like almost signing up for a cell phone plan or buying a DVD player. Today I gave myself a huge pat on the back for successfully submitting my paperwork for a tourist visa at the Russian consulate in Sofia.

Like the Tanzanian visa/vaccination situation, this was one of those pleasant times when an interaction actually turned out to be easier than what you were anticipating. Living in a place where you don’t really speak the native language, you just get accustomed to expecting things to go wrong and mass confusion to reign supreme. And for me this is stressful because I don’t like being wrong and I don’t like being embarrassed (I think I’ve gotten a lot better at it while living here, but it’s still not something I’m very comfortable with). Plus, regarding the visa there was once again conflicting information on what I might need to bring (the lists of documents was anywhere from 4 to 10 items long), and I know from experience that anytime you get into paperwork with Bulgarians you know it’s going to be nonsensical and arbitrary, so I wasn’t expecting Russians to be much different. Continue reading