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S'mores by Yosemite

Making s’mores over the campfire by Yosemite National Park, CA

I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long! I’ve wanted to try s’mores ever since I heard about them as a freshman!
The setting is perfect: the camp fire just outside Yosemite Valley, the tents, the group of friends.
This recipe is probably engraved in every American kid’s memory, but it was a whole new world to me:
You put a marshmallow on a stick and roast it on the fire until it becomes anywhere between slightly golden to, in my case, burnt black (oops). Then you put the marshmallow on a big piece of plain milk Hershey bar and sandwich it with two half pieces of a graham cracker. Squish the s’more slightly and watch the chocolate melt over the marshmallow. Now devour.
Absolutely gourmet cuisine! The finest campfire dining experience I’ve ever had! Thank you American girl scouts!

*Plain milk chocolate, marshmallows, graham crackers, and wooden skewers are sold as package in stores. That’s genius marketing thinking!

S'mores by Yosemite

You can judge my appearance, but I taste amazing!

 

This is a map of my hikes in Yosemite National Park, CA.


My Skydiving Tandem at The Parachude Center, Lodi, California in May 2012

In California, I discovered a new passion for extreme sports: skydiving. Too bad we don’t get to watch more extreme sports at the London 2012 Olympic Games*, but at least we got a taste of the extreme with James Bond and Queen Elizabeth’s heroic jump with a parachute from a helicopter over the Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony.

Mike and I in freefall from 13,000 feet over Lodi, CA

With its all-year-round perfect weather and scenic views, California is a paradise for both first time skydivers and licensed skydiving enthusiasts. The Golden State has the largest skydiving community in the States and one of the highest number of drop zones worldwide.

I jumped for the first time in a tandem at the Parachute Center, Lodi, CA. To tell you the truth, parking the car in front of the drop zone was the most terrifying moment of the whole experience! My pulse had almost stopped and there was not even a drop of blood in my face. My legs felt like melting cheese as I was putting on the jumpsuit, and my mouth had frozen in a crooked horrified smile as people around me were cheering for me and saying that I’ll do great. My instructor was going to be Mike, a white-haired man with over 10,000jumps.

As I was walking to the airplane, I was silently cursing Ethan who persuaded me to do it. I had already accepted my doomed fate as I was watching the airport below us become smaller and smaller. At 13,000feet (4,000 meters), my instructor tightened the straps that secured my back to him and gave me a signal to go up to the door. I remember thinking: “Whatever. Just do it!” … And we jumped.

These were the most amazing 60 seconds of my life!

Pure adrenaline rush!

Pure bliss!

If you’ve never been in freefall, you don’t know what you’re missing! The speed and sound of the air rushing past you in the first moment and the sight of the airplane flying away somewhere above you. Then the sensation of floating or even being lifted up due to the air friction and the view of the blue sky, the thin horizon, and the fields and mountains below you. Time stretches, and for those 60 seconds, you are very aware of everything you see and feel. Just take it all in!

When Mike opened the parachute and we went under canopy, my first thought was “WOW, this was awesome!” From there, I just enjoyed the relaxing flight over Lodi and then a perfectly soft landing.

My Solo Jump at Skydive Sofia, Bulgaria

Most people say that they would like to jump at least once in their lifetime. A small portion of them really do, and they love it! An even smaller portion of those love it so much that they want to do it over and over and over again!

About a month after my first tandem jump, I had already completed AFF, the Accelerated Freefall Program, at the Parachute Center, which enables me to solo jump. The program consists of seven jumps with an instructor who at first only holds you stable during the freefall, and later only watches you from a distance while you maintain a stable position and perform basic maneuvers in the air. My AFF instructor was Zak Tessier, check out his skydiving, wingsuit flying, and BASE jumping with Team Go 4 It!

Take a look at Ethan’s TheExtremeEJDe video blog on YouTube as well for more from the world of skydiving, scuba diving, and motorcycling.

When I came back to Bulgaria after my California trip, I immediately went to jump at Skydive Sofia. As the skydivers in Sofia say, “Don’t worry about the fear.  Worry about the addiction.”

And although there isn’t a skydiving competition in the London 2012 Olympic Games, we all saw who arrived at the Opening Ceremony with a parachute – James Bond and Queen Elizabeth! They have already done it, and so should you!

Blue skies!

 

*Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing skydiving, water ski, scuba diving, power boating, auto racing, or motorcycle racing in the Olympics any time soon because the International Olympic Body deems sports with an element of motorization to be ineligible for the Games.

By the way, the closest I’ve gotten to an Olympic gold medal is when I won three ribbons at the intramural swimming competition at Boston University. Read about it in the link. 


Seals are such beautiful creatures. They are big and mighty when they argue, nudge and shove each other, but then become gentle and peaceful when napping cuddled together. They are very clumsy on the shore, but fast and graceful in the water.

During my trip, I saw elephant seals, sea lions, and common harbor seals everywhere from the beaches of Big Sur and Carmel to the harbors of Santa Cruz and San Francisco. These are some of the pictures I took.

Pier 39, San Francisco

Elephant Seals by San Simeon

Seals by Santa Cruz

Seal kiss by the Santa Cruz harbor

I also went to the San Diego Zoo, which is one of the biggest zoos in the world. It’s marvelous how they have recreated the natural habitats of various animals with unique plants and environments: the pandas are in a bamboo forest, the alligators are in a swamp, the kangaroos are in an outback-like desert, the exotic birds are in a jungle. They also have many animal-themed shows and performances such as the Chinese Theatre we saw near the Asian section of the zoo. Thus, the San Diego zoo combines an animal park, a botanical garden, and an entertainment center where children and parents can observe, learn about, and interact with nature.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best aquariums in the world.

Monterey Bay in California holds an abundance of interesting, unique ocean animals and plants, which make the region a paradise for scuba divers and ocean explorers. At the Aquarium, I saw a bunch of interactive exhibits where biologists were feeding the otters, the deep sea fish (imagine a school of thousands of herring moving in giant tank along with hammerheads and sharks), and the inhabitants of a kelp forest. I also saw a sea horses exhibit, a jellyfish exhibit, and a playground where you could touch various creatures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the San Diego Zoo, I encountered several California species that I had never seen in the wild before: blue jays, a humming bird in Mount Diablo, seals, otters, two scary snakes, a herd of very friendly elk by Grand Canyon, redwoods and giant sequoias in Yosemite, and of course, the yellow California poppy. So my number one advice to travelers is: always combine sightseeing in the cities with exploring the local nature and wild life!

A dead Giant Sequoia at Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite

A herd of elk came just a few feet from our campsite near Grand Canyon

The golden poppy, the state’s flower, welcomes us to California


Roman pool, Hearst Castle

 

As Shakespeare said, “Two houses both alike in dignity…” and eccentricity. 

While traveling on Highway 1 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, I visited two almost equally peculiar “homes”, Hearst Castle and Madonna Inn.

Hearst Castle is the mansion of the notorious American media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Built between 1919 and 1947 near San Simeon by architect Julia Morgan, “La Cuesta Encantada”(the Enchanted Hill), as it is also known, today is a national historic landmark . It is a huge castle build on a hill with a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by open fields that used to be orchards and a private zoo for exotic animals.

Indoors mosaics pool, Hearst Castle

Yes, exotic animals. Hearst was a millionaire and a very eccentric person. Together with Julia Morgan, he designed an eclectic, flamboyant castle that combines many architectural styles and epochs in one. Inspired by the wonderful cathedrals, castles, palaces, fortresses, chateaus, and villas he had seen while traveling through Europe with his mother as a child, Hearst incorporated everything in his mansion. “The Ranch”, as Hearst himself called it, has an ancient Roman mosaics pool, Medieval tapestry, Gothic hallways, a collection of antique furniture and Mediterranean art, a modern movie theatre, church-like bell towers, painted and wood carved ceilings, marvelous gardens and patios, and much more.  It is architectural madness and genius at the same time. It used to be frequented by the political elite and the highlife of Hearst’s time like Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Dining room, Madonna Inn

Hearst Castle is magnificent, no doubt about that, and it does feel like something out of a dream about the Mediterranean. Still, I would recommend to anyone, if possible, to visit the European palaces and learn about the Mediterranean cultures that inspired Hearst to build his dream ranch.

Ladies’ Bathrooms, Madonna Inn

The second peculiar mansion I visited in California was the Madonna Inn. It is a hostel on US Route 101 near San Luis Obispo  built by construction magnate Alex Madonna. The Madonna Inn is famous because each of its 110 guest rooms is uniquely themed: heaven, whisky factory, desert sands, caveman room, rock bottom, safari, love nest, old mill, Bridal Falls, jungle, flowers, cloud Nine, amusement park, etc.  The outside of the Inn looks like a palace-chalet from a Swiss alps fairytale – adorned with decorative rocks, a giant fireplace made up of boulders, stained glass depicting the owner’s businesses with construction, cattle, and limber, hand-carved stairs, a dining room that looks like a hot pink flower cave, and bathrooms resembling an underwater cove.

This time, I only went in for a few minutes, but I bet that staying in this landmark resort hotel is an experience in and of itself.

Hearst Castle and Madonna Inn reminded me a lot of the palace in Cintra, Portugal. Take a look here

 


I was considering posting this as a thumbs down review on Yelp, but instead, I decided to turn it into a “funny”misadventure story on my blog.

Irinka and I had chosen what we thought was the perfect youth hostel in LA: Hollywood International Youth Hostel – centrally located in front of the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard and dirt cheap (that already should have set the alarm bells ringing).

So we moved in our four-girls bedroom around 9pm and went out for dinner and a drink. The day had been action-packed with travel and sightseeing, so all we really wanted to do as we headed back to the hostel around 11:30pm was go to sleep.

As we entered the lobby, a gray wall of thick smoke hit our faces. “Since when is it allowed to smoke indoors in America?!” was the first thought that crossed my mind. My second thought was, “Oh, shit!” There was blasting music and disco lights in the lobby! There were teenagers all over the place (it’s a youth hostel!) dancing around the couches, smoking around the computer desks, playing pool near the kitchenette, and drinking on the dining table. The common room was turned into a night club!

We were offered free beer – on the hostel! Yes, the hostel provided free cans of Budweiser to the “youths”! The walls were shaking under the sound of Lady Gaga and Usher (later someone bragged to me that this was the owner’s new sound system: “Isn’t it sweet!”).

Katy Perry dressed as popcorn and movie film rolls performing in front of the Kodak Theatre, Hollywood

Did I mention that our room was exactly next to this common room and that it didn’t make any difference whether we would leave the door open or closed – we could hear the loud music equally well.Irinka and I immediately googled other hostels nearby  and tried to check-out only to find out that our hostel won’t return our money, which we had to pay in advance for the entire four-day stay.

With her performance on June 26, the singer promoted her new movie, “Katy Perry: Part of Me”

She and I tried picking up a conversation, repacking our suitcases, and taking a looong time to brush teeth, take a shower and get ready for bed, hoping that the party nextdoor will end by 2am. Nope! I guess this hostel had transformed into one of the few clubs in America where the party goes on all night long. Eventually, I just ended up sticking my head under the pillow and passing out from exhaustion.

The only thing I didn’t understand is why on earth would you want to be at a party in the common room of a hostel on Sunday night when there are plenty of other real clubs everywhere around you in Hollywood. Wasn’t a hostel a place for tired travelers to sleep?

Thousands gather in Hollywood Boulevard for Katy Perry’s performance. We ended up hiding somewhere between the bushes on the right

On the following day, Irinka and I had assumed that this little incident was something of the past… Yeah, right! The same thing happened every single night while we stayed there! FML!

As I told you, I was going to post this on Yelp, but you know what, the Hollywood International Youth Hostel eventually atoned itself. There was a free Katy Perry concert right outside of it in front of the Kodak Theatre. Irinka and I managed to find the perfect vantage point (after some squabble with the security guards) and watched the show hidden inside a decorative bush very close to the stage.  Well, there is a trade off to choosing the most central hostel in Hollywood.


The famous Venice Beach Marijuana Doctors

My impulse for self-preservation was triggered in Venice Beach: “Get me out of this madhouse!”

Venic Beach is a strange mixture of something very commercialized and touristy and something absolutely alternative and controversial. Why did those people dress like that? Why did they behave in such a way? Are they so eccentric? Are they simply crazy?  Do they have some unhealthy urge to express themselves in the weirdest ways? Or is this just the pot fumes of Venice Beach? You tell me! This is what I saw; the good, the bad, and the ugly:

  • A guy playing the guitar while rollerblading on Oceanfront, Venice Beach

    The Marijuana Doctor: booths that sell Medical Marijuana Licenses. You pay to see the doctor, tell him that you have chronic migraine/dislocated shoulder/high stress levels/ stage fright/toothache, etc and he grants you a license that allows you to buy medical marijuana.

  • A Real Freakshow: I saw double-headed turtles and the famous wolf-man from the Guinness World Records. Find more pictures of the show on Yelp (not for weak stomachs!). 
  • Muscle Beach: the home of bodybuilding, where very athletic people perform gymnastics and acrobatics on special installations
  • You can take a pic with the sand octopus for a tip

    A skinny guy who had the skin color of the Tanning Mom in rollerblades wearing a thong and a helmet with the American flag

  • A guy playing a piano on the street
  • Completely stoned hobos lying by the side of the street
  • Very creative beggars by Santa Monica Pier had made cardboard  “targets”  where you have to throw throw coins through tiny slits. It’s a fun way to give money to the homeless!
  • Artworks of Marilyn Monroe as a Lakers player
  • Paintings drawn on old skateboards, sculptures made out of spare car parts, lots of graffiti, homeless people making sand sculptures, tattoo and piercing parlors, henna tattoos, bong shops
  • Street art or just creative begging under the Santa Monica Pier? Ask a question – throw a coin to get an answer!

    Sexy girls in bikini riding bicycles and rollerblades; lots of silicone

  • Gangster boys on longboards
  • Lifeguards who look like they came out of the TV show Baywatch
  • Lots and lots of surfers and street performers

Venice Beach reminded me a lot of Camden Market in London. Where else have you ever seen such eccentric street dwellers?

Muscle Beach athletes


I’ve always dreamt of doing a road trip around the States! So after my Graduation, I spent  a month and a half trekking and touring the West Coast.

For the trekking portion of the trip, my Bulgarian friend Irinka, who also just graduated from a university in the UK, and I booked a professional service, TrekAmerica. We joined a group of fourteen internationals from Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and Ireland for a two week adventure. We traveled by van and camped all over California, Nevada, and Arizona.

I’ve created this map in Google where you can follow my trip as I upload more posts and pictures. I’ve also included some side trips that were not part of the organized tour as well as posts about things that made an impression on me in California.

So buckle up and off we go! First stop: LA!


Three years ago when I started this blog as a sophomore at Boston University, I couldn’t even imagine how soon I would be writing this:

I graduated from college!

As I reflect back on my experience as a Bulgarian coming to the States for university, I feel that I have accomplished some very significant achievements. I immersed myself in the American culture, conquered a few personal goals, and even managed to learn a thing or two about Marketing and Management.

This is my list of the greatest things I did while studying in America:

Soak In the American Culture

1. Attended two 4th of July fireworks, 3 Boston Marathons, 4 Thanksgiving celebrations (a very German one, one at Disneyworld, a very American one, and a very Arab one)

2. Went to two Red Sox games, a Celtics game, a Giants game, and a BU vs BC hockey game

3. Watched the Superbowl twice

4. Went whale watching near Cape Cod

5. Saw the Blue Angels in Florida

6. Went to several Broadway musicals in New York, The Blue Man Group and the Boston Pops Orchestra in Boston, drag queen shows in Provincetown

7. Played the slot machines in Las Vegas, Foxwoods, CT and Mohegan Sun, CT

8. Witnessed Obama’s election, learned a lot about American politics, and was there when the global financial system crashed (this is not necessarily my achievement)

9. Interacted with the US military and learned a lot about the philosophy of the enlisted, ROTC, and those who support them

10. Learned about ADHD and how common the misuse of Adderall is at universities

11. Did a pull up at Muscle Beach, LA

12. Partied all night long in Miami

13. Ate like an American: tried Twinkies, s’mores, New England clam chowder, Main lobster, Cajun cuisine and jambalayas, Tex-Mex fajitas, lots of bagels with cream cheese, San Francisco crab bisque in a sourdough bowl, (ate and shucked) oysters, hotdog at the ballpark, salt water taffy, Reese’s peanut butter cups, cranberries (even visited a cranberry bog), a ton of salad dressings, avocado on everything

14. NEVER TRIED A PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICH (I just realized that! Must fix that!)

15. Went to some of America’s most beloved chain restaurants: Hooters, Jamba Juice, In-N-Out, Bubba Gump, Hard Rock Café, Krispy Kreme, The Cheesecake Factory

16. Bought something from Abercrombie and Fitch, American Eagle, American Apparel, and Urban Outfitters

Enhance My College Career

17. Met interesting people from all over the world

18. Tailored my education to the area of business and the industry I’m interested in and landed my dream job

19. Had an internship every semester and summer

20. Picked up a third foreign language, Russian

21. Became good friends with some of my professors

22. Visited some of the world’s top universities: Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford, Brown, Berkeley, and Columbia U

23. Joined several student groups

24. Went to frat parties and witnessed a lot of MIT frat hazing

25. Attended a house party that got busted by the police

26. Played beer pong, cups, and gunshotting during 21st birthday celebrations

27. Used a fake international ID to get into clubs before I was 21 (very offended because I had been clubbing in Bulgaria since 16)

28. Spent spring break in Cancun with the entire US college population

29. Got my university to pay me for tutoring Writing 100 and Writing 150 students

30. Was in the top 7% of the class.. who would have thought?

Travel As Much As Possible

31. Travelled all over the East and West Coast: Niagara Falls, Walden Pond, Salem, Boston, Plymouth, Cape Cod, Provincetown, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Providence, New Haven, Pittsburgh, State College, New York, New Jersey, Miami, Orlando, Pensacola, New Orleans, Jackson MI, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Cancun, The Bahamas, Sierra Nevada, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Lake Havasu, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Big Sur, Monterey, Berkeley, San Francisco, Palo Alto, San Ramon, Lodi, Napa and Sonoma Valley, Point Reyes.

32. Had a road trip on Route 66 as well as on Highway 1 (in both directions)

33. Soaked my feet both in the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean

34. Took advantage of Boston University’s study abroad programs for a semester in London and in Madrid, where I even lived with a Spanish family.

35. Brought four American friends to Bulgaria, was their tour guide, and left them with wonderful impressions of the Bulgarian people, culture, and nature

Get In Some Thrill:

36. Overcame my fear of the deep, learned how to swim (freestyle, breaststroke, back and butterfly), and won recognitions for second and third place at a swimming competition.

37. Learned to sail a flying junior and had an amazing time sailing on the Charles every spring and fall

38. Constantly challenged myself with something new: Tried fencing, kickboxing, African dancing, belly dancing, pole dancing, snowboarding (I’m yet to perfect that!), jet ski, catamaran, windsurf, sea kayak, coasteering (jumping off rocks into the freezing sea with a wetsuit), flying a Navy flight simulator and a Cessna

39. Completed an AFF skydiving course and am currently on my 11th jump

Become Americanized:

40. Got a Massachusetts ID

41. Received a social security number

42. Filed my taxes (only twice though, should have been four times, oops)

43. Got called for Jury Duty

44. Visited the Sam Adams Brewery

45. Went to a Wal-Mart


When I first went to Disneyland Paris more than ten years ago, I thought I had woken up in a fairytale.  A few years later, when I visited Disney World Orlando, I once again felt like I was being transferred into the land of magic.  I recently visited Orlando twice more as an adult (more or less), and I still felt completely entranced by the place. Disney World truly is an enchanted factory for happiness. I wish more cities could learn from the amusement park’s practices and implement them to make our living environment a little bit more pleasant.

Parents and kids burst out singing and dancing together with the actors on Main Street

What makes Disney World so magically perfect is the attention to detail. Every lamp post has a tiny little ornament, every bench leg has some sort of embellishment, every fence or grating has a little twirl or swirl that makes it look intricate and beautiful. Buildings under reconstruction are covered with panes that display what the façade will look like and pipes or technical equipment are hidden under beautiful covers that resemble bushes or rocks. Such details can make the most mundane or unattractive objects look delightful to the eye.

I wonder if the actors smile for pictures behind the masks?

I remember from ten years ago my mother’s astonishment at the perfect Disney pavement. There is not a single pothole, not a single chipped paving-stone in any of the kilometric alleys. The drainage system is constructed perfectly, so rain water seemingly washes away without forming puddles by the sidewalk. In Sofia, they pave and repave the streets every single summer, but they just don’t do it properly, so cobblestones get pulled out or asphalt cracks up and forms potholes. In Disney you do something once, but you do it at the highest quality and then maintain it.

A sea of strollers inside the theme park

What impressed me even more that some of the attractions is the order put into action in the park. Hundreds of people wait in queues at any single moment, but there is never pushing or cutting in line or any tension. Unobtrusive enclosures form very long and narrow lines that meander in front of the attraction’s entrance, so people slowly move forward in a row of one or two. A clock shows you the estimated time of waiting, which again tells you what to expect and alleviates any negative emotions associated with the wait. Moreover, waiting in these lines is enjoyable because there is music and themed sculptures or interactive screens around you. There is also a system for avoiding the wait – get a “fastpass” now from a machine by the entrance and come back in a few hours at the indicated time, and you will get through the fast lane. I hate to remember how I have to wait for hours when I need to get some administrative job done in Bulgaria in a line that is more like a crowd of aggravated people trying to cut in front of you to reach the single window/desk/counter where the bored bureaucrat sits.

Perfect decorum while waiting in line

The service in Disney, naturally, is impeccable. My friends and I were wondering how is it possible for someone to smile so much. Surely, the dancers, performers, waiters, attractions assistants, actors dresses up as characters, and tour guides, cannot possibly be always in a good mood, but they know that the visitors want to see only happiness during their vacation, so they make sure they play their part accordingly. I was also wondering, do the actors who wear big fluffy costumes with masks smile during photos? My answer is, I am sure they do! Because although the actors are just doing their job at that moment, the joyous smiles on the faces of the kids (and the grown-up kids) surely evoke reciprocal feelings in the actors.

No wonder why everyone lives their dreams in Disney World

And speaking of kids and families, it is funny how much Disney caters to parents in addition to children. With all the crying babies, whimpering toddlers, and sniveling teenagers, a vacation at Disney could soon turn into a nightmare for the parents! So there are huge parking spaces for strollers inside the park for parents’ convenience, a special menu for “little princesses and princes” consisting of macaroni & cheese, peanut butter & jelly, and chicken nuggets (apparently these are American children’s favorite foods?!) at every restaurant, and even a lot of “cooling stations” where you can enjoy tiny water droplets being sprayed on you when the Florida heat becomes unbearable.

Finally, Disney’s fireworks are more magnificent than my capital’s on our national holiday! Disney World has mesmerizing fireworks shows in two of its parks (Epcot and Magic Kingdom) every single night all year round. This makes it the second largest purchaser of explosives in the United States. Unquestionably, Disney knows how to make magic come to life!

 

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You Might Also Enjoy:

Bureaucracy in America: Iron Policy of No Compromise

My New Adventure with American Institutions: Social Security

 


The Texas and American flags by the Riverwalk, San Antonio, TX

After visiting Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana, the next top destination on my list was Texas. I must say, I love the Sudurn (that’s how you pronounce Southern, right?) culture! People are relaxed and negligee. They stroll instead of rush, look at you in the eye when you pass each other in the street, and are keen on starting and carrying on a conversation with strangers.

Cowboy cookbooks at a souvenir shop in San Antonio, TX

What made the strongest impression on me in San Antonio is the abundance of the Texas flag. I have been to many American states but have never before seen such evident display of state pride. Actually, I don’t think I even know what the rest of the state flags look like, other than the Massachusetts one (Massachusetts is probably the only other place where I’ve noticed similar state-patriotism).

The decorations on the Christmas tree in San Antonio, TX include: stars, cacti, cowboy boots, the outlines of the state, horse, longhorn, etc.

You can sense the Texas pride not only from the profusion of lone-star merchandise in the souvenir shops or the ambiance in touristy restaurants; it’s also in the decoration in public places, the flags on many of the private houses, and the way people dress. Yes, everything about the cowboy hats, big buckle belts and the string-like bolo ties is true. It’s as if Texas has its own culture, which is of course influenced by the American and the Mexican culture, but also has its unique features (read my post about the Tejano culture). That’s why the cuisine is predominantly Mexican and you can freely communicate with almost anyone in Spanish (this reminded me of my vacation in Miami).

I was even a little bit surprised at how many times I saw the Texan flag next to the American flag or even the former taking precedence over the latter.  It didn’t exactly become clear to me whether they two were like the two sides of one coin or if they were juxtaposed.

In Texas, I also became aware that each state has its own nickname, license plate, motto, animal, plant, etc.  For example, Texas is the Lone Star State, Massachusetts is the Bay State, Florida – The Sunshine State,  California – the Golden State, New York – the Empire State, etc.

Regional Pride in Bulgaria

The Seven Folklore Regions of Bulgaria

We do have regional pride in Bulgaria, but our regions are cultural rather than administrative, and are in no way semi-autonomous like the American states. There are no such things are regional flags, mottos, or license plates. However, regions are defined by their folklore. Basically our mountains shape the Seven Folklore Regions of Bulgaria.

Counterclockwise from West to East, they are: the Shopski region (around Sofia), the Pirin region (around Blagoevgrad and Melnik), the Rhodope region (around Shiroka Luka and Smolyan), the Thracia region (around Plovidv, Kazanluk and the Rose Valley), Strandjanski region (around Burgas), Dobrudjanski region (around Dobrudja and Varna), and the northern Severnyashki region (around Veliko Turnovo and the Danube river).

National costumes, musical rhythm and dances have some major differences in each of these parts of the country. Other than that, we have some unspoken opinions about the characters of people in each region. My mother is from the Shopski region and my father is from the Pirinski (also known as the Macedonian region), and people say that this is a dangerous combination!

Equipped with my cowboy hat and leather jacket, ready to ride the bull in Corpus Christi, TX

A postcard from the Riverwalk in San Antonio.Can you spot the lone stars?

The Alamo in San Antonio was the site of a battle between the Mexicans and the Texian Army


Nesebar is as overcrowded with tourists as Sunny Beach, but at least the beautiful ancient architecture of the city makes it feel quaint and charming. Since the Antiquity, this port town has been ruled by the Thracians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, and the Bulgarians, and there is plenty of ruins and old buildings that remind tourists of Nesebar’s long history. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t go there on the best beach day.

 

 

 

 

 

On the way back to Sofia, we stopped at Burgas, Bulgaria’s biggest port city, to see the Festival of Sand Sculptures. Every July, artists from various countries (I spotted names from Australia Portugal, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, and Bulgaria) take part in the annual festival in the Sea Garden in Burgas. The sand sculptures are built with 3300 tons of special river sand mixed with C200 glue, so that they can hold strong at least until the end of September.

This year, the theme was Cinema.  Indeed, the sand sculptures can take you on a journey through the greatest Hollywood movies with their incredible scale and detail – the fine lines on Professor Dumbledore’s face from Harry Potter, the elvish writing from Lord of the Rings, the beads in Jack Sparrow’s hair from Pirates of the Caribbean, the sleeping girl by King Kong’s side. Which sculpture is your favorite?


11 August 2011 – Armin Van Buuren, DJ Number One in the World, played at Cacao Beach in Sunny Beach until 7am on the next morning!

The show was the finale grande of Solar Summer Fest 2011- an annual festival organized by Yalta Club – voted #19 in DJ Magazine Top 100 Clubs, and sponsored by Tuborg.

The concert was absolutely mind-blowing! There is something incredibly inspirational about dancing on the beach all night long under the refreshing summer rain together with thousands of young people!

As the night was progressing, Oriana and I kept moving closer and closer to the stage until we spent the last hour or two on the frontline! When the sun rose, Armin came down from the main stage and reached out to his fans! He touched both mine and Oriana’s hand and signed his name on every hat and flag that his fans threw towards him. Finally, he took a big Bulgarian flag and wrapped it around himself to show how much he loves the Bulgarian audience – and thus completely and utterly won each one of us forever!


As religion and revolution have intertwined in Bulgarian monasteries (read my previous post), so have religion and politics fueled one of the biggest social issues of the day in the States.

Oriana, a high school teacher near Boston, told me that one of the gravest issues she encounters in her work is teenage pregnancy (no wonder why Oriana couldn’t stop watching European music TV channels – the American MTV has replaced music clips for reality shows called 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom). She said that every year, there are pregnant girls going to classes or pregnant girls who drop out of school. I was very surprised because at my high-school there has never, as far as I know, been such a case. So don’t your students use any protection, I asked? No, said Oriana, they don’t use any protection and some of them don’t even know how to use condoms. That’s when I found out that Americans don’t have sex education!

In all Bulgarian high-schools, teenagers have a few sex education classes where they teach you the basics of the reproductive system, sex, STDs, etc (if you draw the short straw you might even get to put a condom on a banana in front of your giggling classmates). The classes are usually given either by a teacher or by the school psychologist.

Apparently, on the other hand, the States not only forbid sex ed, but in fact forbid teachers from even talking about sex or “even worse” – about abortion! (Which again confirms my belief that in America, sex is a taboo and violence is acceptable while in Europe, sex is art, and violence is hidden).

Why, I asked, is sex ed forbidden if teenage pregnancy is such a big problem? The explanation according to Oriana, lies somewhere in the relationship between the American voters, the Church, and lawmakers.

The anti-sex ed laws together with the anti-abortion laws, were established by the Republican party, whose electorate is to a great extent comprised of strongly religious people (of whom America has many) who belong to the middle or lower strata of society. These extremely religious voters do not necessarily agree with or benefit from everything the Republicans stand for (especially in terms of the fiscal policy), but they still vote Republican because of their coinciding belief in the doctrines of the Bible: that there should be no sex before marriage and absolutely no “killing of the innocent unborn child”.

Therefore, Oriana concluded, having sex education at school and explaining how to use condoms would be as if approving sex before marriage or sex with a non-reproductive aim.  Thus, everybody who is against abortion votes Republican and gets sex-talk-free schools. This system, however, proves to be corrupt because even though some might be pious, many teenagers in schools like Oriana’s are obviously not abstainers.

So it’s not enough that American parents stand against sex ed; to top it all, teenagers have very strong opinions on abortion (dictated by their parents and their churches, of course). Once they get pregnant, the vast majority of Oriana’s students keep their babies. Actually, there is even peer pressure to keep the baby! I could hardly imagine this: it’s not enough that you are teenage and pregnant, that your parents’ Republican representatives frown upon abortion on TV, that you hear about pro-life choices during Sunday mass, but on top of everything, your schoolmates discuss another classmate who made the right decision and became a mother.. for the second time!

An unfortunate vicious cycle, right?  Your religion forbids you to have sex before marriage, your country forbids you to learn about pregnancy prevention in school, your socio-religio-political convictions prevent you from getting an abortion, and in the end you find yourself pushing a baby cart to prom.


Today we went to the Preobrazhen monastery near Veliko Turnovo. It is a secluded male Orthodox monastery situated on one side of a deep gorge; on the other side of the abyss, we could see a convent.  Years ago, an earthquake had broken off three huge rocks from the cliffs just above the monastery, but miraculously none of them had damaged the bell tower or the church itself.

The brightly colored paintings on the façade of the cloister represent floral ornaments together with scenes from the Bible. The most famous mural, however, is that of the great Bulgarian icon painter Zahari Zograf, the Wheel of Life.

Wheel of Life, a mural by Zahari Zograf at Preobrazhen Monastery

The composition portrays the months, the seasons, and the cycles of life with its many meanings and symbolical layers. The outer layer shows the material possessions one aims for: the man on top of the wheel is holding a scepter and a bag of golden coins, but drops them as he moves closer to death. The inner layer represents the true virtues that one should aim for in life: to educate oneself and to work hard, so that in the end, one can gladly sit down and enjoy the old age. What do you think the woman in the middle represents? What about the two figures on both sides of the wheels?

The significance of monasteries, I explained to Oriana, is more than religious. During the liberation movement against the Ottoman Empire, these were safety havens where monk-revolutionaries hid the rebels and pointed them to secret passages leading to the mountains. The monks also preserved the Bulgarian literary and cultural heritage and helped spread it during the time when the Ottomans were suppressing it. Lastly, monasteries are holy places with special energy to which even earthquakes bow down.

The Preobrazhen Monastery was built by the great Bulgarian architect Kolio Ficheto

 

The monastery was spared by an earthquake, which caused three huge rocks to fall in the garden, just meters away from this building


On our first night in Veliko Turnovo, Oriana gave me an important lesson. It was the night of the 9th to the 10th, or the night before my birthday, when we decided to go for a cocktail at a local bar. As we were sitting down at one table, the three boys who had entered the bar just after us asked if they could join us. As Oriana later said, I had knitted my brows to form a big and shocked “go away!” Thankfully, Oriana’s ever-ready smile had outshined the clouds on my face, and the three boys sat down next to us.

They were three Italians vacationing in Bulgaria. They were coming from Sofia and were headed to Golden Sands resort at the Black Sea. Two of them were from Milano and went to Bocconi, where I have many friends, and the third one – from Florence.

We talked about Oriana’s trip around the world and what a shame it was that she would visit Germany, France, and Bulgaria (“Heeey!..,” I objected) but not Italy, about the difference between south and north Italy (which is almost like that between Barcelona and New York), about thin-crust pizza in Venice and risotto in Milano, about what they had seen so far from Bulgaria and how much they liked our cuisine.  We exchanged blogs links and travel tips.

When the clock hit twelve, they all started singing Happy Birthday to me in different languages! Among the five of us, these were seven languages – English, Italian, Bulgarian, Spanish, German, Turkish and Chinese! So this is how thanks to Oriana’s open-heartedness and friendliness, I received an unforgettable multi-lingual birthday party!

As we were walking back to our place, having said goodbye to our new friends, Oriana shared with me her father’s words of wisdom:

Always say yes. If a boy comes up to you and invites you to a dance, just say yes. You don’t know how much courage it took this boy to ask you, and you don’t know how wonderful of an experience it might turn out to be, so just say yes. At least give him one dance only, but just say yes. It makes life so much more interesting!


After having shown Oriana Bulgaria’s nature and ethnography, I had to give her a lesson in history too.

Russian church at Shipka

From Plovdiv, we headed north towards the Balkan mountain range and the Shipka Pass. We stopped at the town of Shipka in the foothills of the mountain to pay a visit to church dedicated to the Bulgarian-Russian military friendship during the war against the Ottoman Empire.

I explained to Oriana that for about 500 years, from the 14th to the 19th century, Bulgaria and the entire Balkans were part of the Ottoman Empire. Under their yoke, our culture, language and religion were heavily suppressed; nevertheless, we did not lose our identity as a distinct people. After a series of riots and with the great help of our “Slavic brothers”, the Russians, we eventually won the liberation war, which lead to the intervention of the Great European Powers and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Shipka Memorial

Today, the memorial on Shipka peak reminds us of great battles. In 1877-78, the Russo-Turkish War, this was the main pass through the Balkan Mountain Range: the north of Bulgaria was the stronghold for the advancing Russian army, while the south was still occupied by Ottomans. Thus, it was up to the Bulgarian volunteer troops to guard the Shipka pass from the Turkish hordes until the arrival of the Russians. The poet Ivan Vazov eulogized the key battle: when the ammunition ended, the brave Bulgarian soldiers started throwing every empty gun, knife, and stone at the Turks at the foot of the peak, and when even those weapons ended, the Bulgarians lifted up the dead bodies of their fellows and threw them at the enemy.

On the way to Veliko Turnovo, we stopped to take pictures by a sunflower field. We visited Etar, an ethnographic and cultural town-museum, and Bozhentzi, a village with historical significance, which in recent years has become a place of escape for many public figures.

Sunflower fields near Shipka

Oriana was interested to know more about communism, so I told her what I tell all Americans who ask me about it: it’s nothing like what you studied in school.

Back in those days, people felt more secure: my grandmother says she always had enough food for the family, a secure job, enough time for vacation and opportunity to send her children to summer camps and trips. Yes, they didn’t listen to Western music and didn’t wear jeans, but that’s not as important, is it?

Veliko Turnovo over Yantra river

My mother and her friend started recalling stories from their teenager years, like the time when they had to hide from their parents and sneak into the basement at night to listen to the forbidden radio stations from Western Europe. Lidia remembered when as a schoolgirl, her headmaster penalized her because she was wearing long socks and had teased her hair: an indecent, Western manner.  Years later, my mom had to save money for several months to be able to buy a Beatles vinyl record.

We arrived at Veliko Turnovo in the afternoon. Veliko Turnovo is the old capital of Kingdom Bulgaria and bears the signature of the Asenevtzi dynasty, who liberated the country from Byzantine influence in the 12thcentury. One of their greatest feat of arms is that they stopped the advancement of the Fourth Crusade, which was presumably sent by the Church to protect Constantinople, but in fact looted our lands and conquered the Byzantine throne in Constantinople. The Bulgarian tzar Kaloyan captured the crusader and new emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin, and locked him up in a tower near the Tzarevetz fortress in Veliko Turnovo.

The Asenevtzi Dynasty

Oriana was particularly impressed by the unique museum-church surrounded by fortress walls at the top of the Tzarevetz hill. We were also hoping to watch the audio-visual night show at Tzarevetz, but alas, they didn’t have it that day. Oh well, Oriana needs a reason to come back, right!


Today we drove through Buinovo gorge, a spectacular 10-kilometer canyon over the Buinovska river. The river has carved the vertical walls of the gorge, and they rise so close to each other that, according to the locals, wolves can jump from one side to the other. The region is rich in caves and other notable natural formations.

We explored the Yagodinska Peshtera (Strawbery Cave), arguably the most beautiful cave in the country. In addition to the more well-known cave formations such as stalactites, stalagmites and stalagtons (or pillars), we saw other less common shapes: cave pearls and leopard skin patterns on the walls.

These stalactite and stalagmite will "kiss" in 300 years.

I especially liked the biggest hall in the cave, the Christmas Hall (called after several rocks shaped like Santa and his elves). This is where many speleologists and cavers gather every year to celebrate New Year’s in a behooving manner – under the ground. This hall is in fact an operative ceremonial hall and many cavers have gotten married here. However, the Yagodinska Cave performs marriage ceremonies only. For divorces, the spouses have to go in the nearby Devil’s Throat Cave: where two go in but only one comes out!

And speaking of relationships, Oriana managed to stick her coin to the wall of fidelity, which means that she has no sins. The coins of those who have been unfaithful will fall on the ground.

Oriana managed to stick her 5 stotinki coin to the wall - she is not a sinner!

We spent the evening in Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. We walked around the old town, the modern shopping streets, and the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. We almost lost my mother to a big antique shop – after almost an hour of digging through aged thingamabobs, she finally bought a very old book of recipes. The pages looked like burnt and were falling apart and its language was old-fashioned and pretty funny. Still, as my mom said, the book contained timeless housewife wisdom.

The Plovdiv amphitheater

The old town in Plovdiv

By her third night in Bulgaria, Oriana had already discovered that almost every meal, be it drinks, soups, salads, or main dishes, had cheese and/or yogurt and/or tomatoes. On the last day of the trip, she actually confessed that before visiting me, she had hated tomatoes with passion but since trying her very first Shopska salad, she had been devouring our tomatoes with great appetite. Here, she also tried for the first time rabbit stew, grilled octopus, cow’s tongue in butter, and pork (the last one, by mistake, oops!)


The bagpipe contest in Gela

My mom, her friend Lidia, Oriana, and I left Sofia early in the morning to go to the Bagpipe Festival in Gela.

The drive is about 3.5 – 4 hours on narrow meandering roads through the Rhodope Mountain, which gave me just enough time to teach Oriana how to read in Bulgarian. I wrote down the Bulgarian alphabet (the Cyrillic alphabet that we share with the other Slavic peoples) and its transliteration in English. Oriana picked it up very quickly because unlike in English, in Bulgarian you pronounce exactly what you read. Her only difficulty were the differences between lowercase and uppercase and the variety of misguiding fonts. Soon, she could read all street signs!

Dancing horo to the music of the bagpipes on a meadow above Gela village

The festival in the village of Gela was in fact on a wide clearing among the hills above Gela. Hundreds of people had set up camping tents for the two-day festival and thousands more had come on foot for the day. As at any village fair, there were open grills with kiyfteta and kebapcheta, stands with souvenirs, jewelry, and toys, and machines for cotton candy and caramelized apples.

We left my mom and Lidia in the line in front of a gigantic barbecue with seven lambs roasting on skewers. Later, we saw the two of them had taken out a Maid of the Mist* raincoat to protect themselves from the pieces of roasted lamb that were flying from under the butcher’s axe. (*My mom still keeps the raincoats from our visit to Niagara Falls ten years ago).

You can't have a festival without the roasted lambs!

Meanwhile, Oriana and I sat down on the ground in front of the main stage of the bagpipe contest, in Bulgarian gaidarsko nadsvirvane. We saw men and women bagpipers, young boys and girls bagpipers, a duet, and even a bagpiper trio, and all contestants were dressed in colorful national garments.

Each time the bagpipers switched to a more upbeat rhythm, the crowd broke out dancing! Oriana didn’t resist and quickly joined the horo! Watch the video and see how fast she picked up the rhythm!

 

We saw a bagpipe maker who explained to us that Scottish bagpipes and Bulgarian gaida are very different: the Scottish instrument has three pipes and produces a solemn sound that makes it suitable for military marches and memorials; the gaida has one long pipe and a more melodious sound that often accompanies folklore singing. The most famous type of Bulgarian bagpipe is the kaba gaida.

With Oriana in Shiroka Laka

After a day of horo dancing, folk songs, and roast lamb misadventures, we went to the nearby Shiroka Laka village for the night. Shiroka Laka, with its  quaint little cobblestone streets and two-storey houses with white stone ground floors and wooden second floors with balconies full of flowerpots, completely charmed Oriana. I think she said she could live there. In Shiroka Laka, we also saw the famous school of Bulgarian folklore music, which most probably is where many of the bagpipe contestants study.

Until late at night we could see happy tipsy people coming back from the festival in Gela. One such happy and tipsy Nordic-looking boy was playing his own kaba gaida and walking down the street. He told us, in broken Bulgarian, that his mother was Norwegian and his father – Bulgarian, and that he had found himself a gaida in Norway and for the past six months had been teaching himself how to play by simply listening to folk music!

The Norwegian-Bulgarian who taught himself how to play the gaida

We stayed at the house of one of my father’s friends who is a famous journalist. The rooms were full of interesting souvenirs from all over the world, and the garden was inhabited by at least four cats. When we continued our journey in the morning, we left several bottles of our family winery Villa Melnik as a sign of gratitude to our host.

Today was a great cultural experience for Oriana. I think she appreciated the legendary Bulgarian folklore and ethnography.


My friend Oriana has been backpacking Europe for about a month now, read her blog here. Today, she is coming to Sofia, and I have prepared for her an epic 10-day trip in Bulgaria full of cultural, natural, historic, and party destinations. I’m uploading our itinerary here and hope that it will give you ideas for your own journey.  Check back for updates and photos from our adventure!


Thursday

Oriana arrives. Evening sightseeing in Sofia.

Friday

Seven Rila Lakes – day of hiking (read my previous post about this magical place and my post about the White Brotherhood that convenes there). Evening sightseeing in Sofia.

Saturday

International bagpipe festival in Gela Village, near Shiroka Luka, Smolyan. Night in Gela visitor’s house.

Sunday

May stay for the second day of the festival in the morning. Visiting nearby Trigrad Gorge, Yagodinska cave, Dyavolsko Gurlo Cave (Devil’s Throat) – read my previous post about it, and Chudnite Mostove rock formation. Night in Plovdiv.

Monday

Morning sightseeing inPlovdiv: Renaissance town and ancient Roman amphitheatre. Traditional arts and crafts at Etar village. Night in Veliko Turnovo in the most beautiful old house in town.

Tuesday

A day in Veliko Turnovo, the ancient Bulgarian capital: the castle, the river, the market. The Preobrazhen monastery. Maybe visit nearby Arbanasi and Bozhentsi, two villages of rich architectural heritage.

Wednesday

A day at Sunny Beach sea resort, the Ibiza of the Balkans! 😉

Thursday

Second day at Sunny Beach and the near-by town of Sozopol. At night, an Armin Van Bruuen concert at Cacao Beach– the gran finale of the Solar Summer Fest!

Friday

Morning in the port city of Burgas (unfortunately a day ahead of the Spirit of Burgas festival) – the sand figures exhibition. Night at Hisarya – visiting the mineral springs Roman Baths and the Roman ruins.

Saturday

Visiting Starosel near Hisarya in the morning – the Starosel Winery and the Thracian temple ruins. Back in Sofia.

Sunday

Sofia by day. Oriana doesn’t want to leave in the afternoon.


What is the most delicious fruit in the world?

Forest strawberries from Rila mountain that you have picked up yourself (or with your mom’s help)!

Have you been to the most beautiful place in the world, the Seven Rila Lakes?

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