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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Balkan discoveries

Some random observations and photos from the first few days.

1) Montenegro sort of has a Zakim Bridge like Boston:


The Millennium Bridge, Podgorica, Montenegro

2) Kosovo has an Old Man in the Mountain like New Hampshire (only theirs is still there):


Rugova Canyon, Kosovo

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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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How Tanzania is kind of Bulgarian

Or: How one bad experience with Ethiopian Air, Bole International, and Addis Ababa turns you into a paranoid maniac after just one day. And no sleep.

Since I used frequent flyer miles to purchase my flights to and from Tanzania, I was a little limited in options. The reason why my bag was only checked through to Dar es Salaam was because that was the best option I had when booking my itinerary with miles. I did a little searching and found that I could fly from Dar to Kilimanjaro for about $100 using Fly540, a budget airline. I was a little nervous about this, given the problems we had getting to Istanbul for our Cairo flight two years ago, but there was an 8-hour gap between my arrival in and departure from Dar, so I’d figured that would be enough time to cover delays and sort out any issues.

This was before my experiences with Ethiopian Air, naturally. After that, I was prepared for the worst.
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Not in Bulgaria – Part 2

The second recent example of rules just not existing in the same way in Bulgaria as they do in the States relates to a major construction project going on behind Billa. They appear to be building a road that would intersect with the major street, Alexander Malinov Boulevard, and lead to the new Mladost 3 metro station that opened last year. It also seems like they may be laying some pipes and other groundwork that’s necessary for current and future construction projects and developments in the area—they’re clearly trying to build up the zone around the metro station. All of this make sense.

What also makes sense: When you have a major construction project going on, you block off the area from vehicular and pedestrian traffic, because there are huge machines moving stuff around, enormous trenches are being carved into the ground, the workers in the area are all wearing hard hats, etc.


By now you know the answer is: Not in Bulgaria.
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Not in Bulgaria – Part 1

There are many things you can do in Bulgaria that you can’t in the U.S. I’m not just talking about cultural events that obviously are not shared between the two countries, but also experiences that you can have because Bulgaria, like much of Europe, is a much less litigious society than the U.S., and so there are many situations in which the “Don’t be an idiot” common sense rule applies, such as in Belogradchik:


Notice the utter lack of any kind of railing, anywhere. Clearly, the only rule in operation here is, “Don’t be stupid and fall off the gigantic rocks.” And this isn’t just because it’s some obscure getaway that nobody knows about and therefore can’t be bothered with security measures – the Belogradchik rocks are quite well known and frequently visited. It’s because they expect—one might even say, they trust—you to be a reasonable and responsible person. Families climb up here with small children all the time, and nobody freaks out about it. The rule just becomes, “Don’t be stupid and let your kid fall off the gigantic rocks.”

In Belogradchik, I see this as a good thing; it allows you to climb freely and enjoy an unobstructed view of the magnificent rocks and the surrounding landscape. However, the title of this post is “Not in Bulgaria” because this laissez-faire attitude toward regulation is not always such a good thing. Things that are rules elsewhere for a reason simply aren’t rules in Bulgaria. This can lead to Foreigner #1 frequently spluttering, “But isn’t it supposed to—” and Foreigner #2/Wise Ex-pat replying, “Not in Bulgaria!”

I’ve experienced two recent examples of this. Continue reading

The beautiful game

Last Friday, I attended my first professional football match in Bulgaria (and my first in general since I was in middle school) — a UEFA European Championship 2012 qualifying match between England and Bulgaria at Vassil Levski Stadium downtown. Going into the match, England was in first place in Group G with a record of 3-2-0. Bulgaria was fourth in the group with a record of 1-2-2 (the other members of the qualifying group are Montenegro, Switzerland, and Wales).

It was cool to be inside Levski for the first time, and national anthems are always fun:

(The first time I watched the playback of this video, I could swear they were singing “Tessie” at first, probably due to the drunk Germans behind us who were belting tunelessly along)

Nice moment with the BG anthem and the patriotic crowd:

Long story short, Bulgaria was pretty overmatched. It was 3-0 England at the half, and you could tell they weren’t even really trying in the second half, just kind of kicking the ball around to each other and Bulgaria still couldn’t do much. Bulgaria only had a few shots on goal and a couple of corner kicks all night. Final score stayed 3-0, England.

However, here are the more important questions that emerged for me from this experience… Continue reading