7 Things to Do in Paris Тhat Will Make You Feel the Spirit of Halloween

Happy Halloweek, fellow readers (all 17 of you! hi Mom!). If you, like me, were raised on a steady diet of Happy Meals and American pop culture, chances are that at some point in your life, you felt the urge to put on a scary costume and go trick-or-treating, but were too afraid that your local babushka will call the cops on you or that a group of neo-nazis will denounce you for being “anti-patriotic”. Yup, the early 2000s were a wild ride in Eastern Europe. 

But anyway, you’re all grown up now and have moved away from the Halloween haters, only to find yourself in Paris, where the predominant attitude to the holiday of the undead is…inconsistent, at best. While a lot of small children and their millennial parents seem to have fully embraced it and would dress up, carve pumpkins and even organize trick-or-treating events in their schools or communities, the spectre of the All Saints seems to have passed right through us unfortunate twenty-something souls. 

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Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people still have Halloween parties, especially since November 1st is always a holiday in France, but for the majority of people, it seems like just another casual excuse to party (or, for bars and clubs, to charge you extra for the same services). A lot of people don’t even wear costumes, let alone fully immerse themselves in the spooky holiday atmosphere. 

But fear not, cause I’m here to right those wrongs and bring the undead back to Paris. Here is a list I have compiled of the top 7 activities you can do this week in Paris (or any week, for that matter – Halloween is not a date on the calendar, it’s a state of mind!) in order to feel the spirit of Halloween.

1. Explore the Mysterious and Dark History of Some of Your Favorite Parisian Landmarks With “Sous les Pavés”

Sous les Paves Notre Dame

Photo: Sous les Pavés, Facebook

Uncover the mysteries of the infamous Père Lachaise cemetery with the help of a vampirologist? Find out all about the centuries-old legends of witches and ghosts haunting the Montmartre? Go on a night walk in the Latin quarter to learn about medieval Paris’s history of occultism, worship of the Devil and the danse macabre? No, I didn’t make this up while tripping on acid – these are all recurrent guided walks and visits by the collective Sous les Pavés that you can sign up for online! 

Since these tours are often organized and led by struggling actors with some vague claims of historical background, the authenticity of the presented information may be a bit dubious, but who cares? If you’ve seriously never wanted to get a taste of the darkness that lies beneath the City of Lights (again, not talking about an acid trip at an underground techno club) and the ghost stories that haunt its Gothic cathedrals and dark street corners, you’re either lying or you’re just no fun. 

The Sous les Pavés tours do come at a price though – no, not your firstborn or the blood of a virgin – but a relatively modest price of around 15 to 25 euros. Most of their guided tours this week are already fully booked, but the good news is that they do them all year round, so you can keep the Halloween spirit alive at least until Christmas. Alternatively, you can go through their events for inspiration, then do some research online and go chase the fantoms of Paris on your own for free. Just try not to get sucked into a satanist cult, or worse, a French decadent poet society, while you’re at it.

2. Finally Find the Time to Visit the Catacombs

Paris Catacombs Skulls

Photo by Travis Grossen

Is there anything that screams “chilling Halloween vibes” more than an 18th century underground ossuary which holds the remains of more than six million people who were taken out of their graves or sometimes even murdered and then buried in a dark long tunnel to address the city’s cemetery overflow problem? And if that’s not enough for these damned souls, their skulls and bones are now very publicly displayed as part of a popular tourist distraction to the same people who were shaking hands with Mickey Mouse or taking engagement photos at the Eiffel Tower just an hour ago. 

I don’t know about you, but if I were one of these poor 18th century suckers, I’d be rising out of my common grave and haunting the shit out of the tourists. And even if this doesn’t happen and the Catacombs turn out to be just like any other museum full of dead people, only poorer, at least Halloween would be a good excuse to finally get around to visiting this landmark, which, if you’re anything like me, you’ve likely been putting off since you moved here two years ago. Why not even get a bit wild and go to Versailles or the Bois de Boulogne while you’re at it? Gotta crunch those #cultured insta stories. 

3. Go to the WHSmith Bookstore and Café for a Very Potterhead Halloween

I don’t know about you, but for me, there’s no better time to do the annual Harry Potter marathon and reconnect with your inner Potterhead than Halloween. Okay, fine, maybe winter break is even better for that, but still, I feel like the potential of J.K. Rowling’s franchise for summoning your Halloween spirits is frequently understated. For these lucky wizard kids that live among ghosts, mythical creatures and a constant sense of mortal danger in a cool Gothic castle, every day is like Halloween and every dinner in the common hall is the Halloween dinner party you wish you were invited to. 

You may not be a wizard or a rich kid in a private British boarding school, but you can relive some of that magic in WHSmith, the British bookstore and café in the heart of Paris. Not only do the old wooden staircase and the walls and windows decor remind you of a gothic library, but the careful selection of books, gifts and curious objects will make you feel like you’re on a day trip to Hogsmeade. Finally, for the O.G. Potterheads, WHSmith has one of the best selections of Harry Potter souvenirs and merchandise, so you can go ahead and really geek it out. 

4. Go to a Real Vintage Store

Thrift and vintage shopping are equally great ways to refresh your wardrobe without ruining your bank account, blowing up your carbon footprint or financially supporting child slave labor (#SayNoToFastFashion), but the line between second hand and actual vintage  can be quite blurry. Often times, stores would try to pass off late 2000s items for vintage just to jack up the prices, which is not to say that the late 2000s weren’t an iconic era of its own (leave Britney alone!!!), but it can be kinda frustrating. 

Photos: TheGreenFan, Facebook

So this Halloween, why not go to a real vintage shop? You know, the ones that sell flapper hats from the 1920s and peignoirs that you can only see on the set of Mad Men nowadays. Whether you’re bringing your A-game to the Halloween office party by dressing up as Joan Holloway, or you’re just looking for some retro inspiration for your personal style, with a touch of imagination, going to a nice vintage store in Paris can feel like travelling back in time. My favorite one is TheGreenFan on boulevard Diderot: it’s warm, cozy and has a mysterious aura, so if I were to place my bets which Parisian shop is owned by a secret time traveller, it would be this one.

5. Watch the Rocky Horror Picture Show at Studio Galande

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Here is a special secret for all the pop culture-obsessed camp lovers out there (or is that only me? okay). The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a musical comedy horror movie from the 70s. Although it received horrible reviews, the movie became a pop culture phenomenon when people in New York began showing up to midnight screenings dressed up as the characters, talking back to the screen, singing along etc. The tradition was replicated in movie theaters around the world and in a lot of places, actual theatrical troupes would come in and act as a “shadow cast”, reenacting and lip-syncing live as the movie was showing on the screen. 

If you live in Europe, you might know about Rocky Horror from that emo teen movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but chances are that you haven’t actually participated in a live show. If you live in Paris though, you’re in luck, because the movie theater Studio Galande is the only one in Europe that is currently doing regular screenings, and they have one on Halloween night! 

 

Photos: Studio Galande, Wikipedia

6. Get Some Chillz at a Haunted House..or a Haunted Wax Museum?

You may have noticed from my previous suggestions that I’m not that big on getting actually scared on Halloween. Yeah, horror movies and shows are cool and all, but I already have enough day to day adult anxieties, you know? Still, if you are the type of person who enjoys jump scares and cheap thrills, you may want to check out Le Manoir de Paris, the only “official” haunted house in the City of Lights. 

Or, in case paying 35 euros to get tackled by failed camp counsellors and hearing French children scream isn’t your cup of tea (because honestly, same), you could check out the Musée Grevin, a wax museum that apparently has a special show for the Toussaint where the dead wax figures come to life or some shit. Personally, ever since I saw the 2005 slasher film with Paris Hilton, I’d much rather if wax figures didn’t come to life and pretend to have acting skills, but who am I to judge?

7. Go to an Esoteric Shop and Connect to Your Inner Mysticist

This last one may not be as traditionally spooky and halloweenish as the rest of the lot, and I understand you might have some reservations about going to a shop where a wacky lady who’s not Gwyneth Paltrow will try to sell you egg crystals, but hear me out on this, okay? The key to having a magical Halloween is all about the temporary suspension of disbelief. Sure, most of us don’t actually believe in witches and ghosts, but it doesn’t mean we can’t at least for a night entertain the idea of some form of mysterious forces interfering, if only briefly, with our otherwise boring and mundane lives? 

I personally nurture this, hmm, let’s call it supernatural optimism, by religiously reading my horoscopes and analysing my friends’ birth charts, but if you’re not surfing on that high plane, you might be ripe for a short visit to the good ol’ esoteric shop, my friend. And if by any chance you find yourself drawn to its mystical energy and are in the market for something more, know that I do free tarot card readings over coffee or Skype, just sayin’.

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That’s all, folks! Let me know what you thought of my ideas, as well as how you plan to stick it to the heretics haters and have a very Parisian Halloween. And one last thing: Halloween is all about not being afraid to show who you are, whether this is a 150 year old ghost of a Parisian suffragette or a shameless Slutty Pumpkin. You’re doing amazing, sweety! 

 

London: Stuck in an Eternal Struggle Between Shabby and Chic

This is the first part of a series called “Summer in the City” in which I’ll be casually pretending to be Carrie Bradshaw and writing about my summer spent between three of the major cosmopolitan centers in the world: London, Paris and New York. Yes, you may call me Mrs. Worldwide now. 

In my last article (which was a lifetime ago, I knooow, I’m sorry!!), I wrote about my impostor syndrome and feeling like a sell-out because I had recently gotten a fancy content marketing internship instead of directly pursuing my journalistic ambitions. If anyone had told me back then that in this new job, not only would I get to work with amazing people and feel intellectually and creatively stimulated, but also go on actual work trips to exciting new destinations, I would’ve immediately swallowed the blue pill and tattooed “capitalism rules” on my forehead. Okay, maybe not, but you get my point. 

So what has an accomplished business woman a summer intern got to do in London, you’d ask? The short answer to this question is pretty simple: do a social media live coverage of EGG, the annual conference on human-centered AI that my company organizes across different cities. The long answer is the rest of this article. 

Crossing the Channel to Escape a Heatwave and Accidentally Bringing the Sun to London

Despite having multiple friends there and living only a two-hour train ride away, I had somehow managed to get through my 22 years on this planet without having set foot in London. Okay, this is technically a lie, since I did pass by it once on my way to Oxford. But trust me when I tell you, I actually thought the Tube was a Brit rock band until about a month ago, and my only perception of London Bridge was through the hit 2006 Fergie song. 

I guess the British capital had never really been on my bucket list until now. I mostly associated the city with 325 days of rain per year, rising knife crime and a bunch of depressed Love Actually character look-alikes talking about the weather and shagging. However, after a week of suffering in my tiny air-conditionless apartment in Paris during one of the worst canicules in French history, I was ready to take my chances with the knife attacks for some cool rainy weather. 

Little did I know that the heat would follow me all the way across the Channel. You know that silly dad joke that goes “I love summer in England. Last year it was on a Wednesday”? Well, this year it was a wet hot English summer in London (and by “wet hot”, I mean a solid 25°C with a light breeze) for the entire week I was there. Thanks, climate change!

Ah, I See You’re a City of Culture as Well

While even just getting out of Paris and staying at a nice air-conditioned hotel room for a couple of days would’ve been a good deal at this point, I was actually able to combine business with pleasure and arrive in London the weekend before my work event. I stayed at a friend’s place, at a charming red-brick terraced house in Archway, in the north of London. While he was quite busy hustling lab practice and a late-night job at a downtown ramen place (like only a true Londoner can), I set out to explore the city by myself, in the hopes of getting some good instagrammable #solotravel content. 

I was in luck, since I had arrived just in time for the Friday Lates: the last Friday of each month, most of the biggest museums around the city stay open until late in the evening and host numerous free special exhibitions and events. So I put on my The Smiths Spotify playlist, hopped on a double-decker bus for the first time in my life and crossed the Thames, ready to immerse myself in high culture. 

What followed was a surprisingly calm walk along the South Bank, an impromptu tasting at a food market and a brief flirtation with the Tate Modern, where the free exhibit options were so many and all sounded so fascinating, that I couldn’t make up my mind and commit to any one of them. I finally gave up and settled for the V&A, short for Victoria and Albert, one of the world’s leading art and design museums.  

Who’d Know that Chatting With Strangers is not Frowned Upon in Some Places?

While the edgy-sounding “FOOD: Bigger Than the Plate” exhibit I chose was highly instagrammable yet overall underwhelming, my night at the V&A turned out to be so much more than I’d hoped for. I was sitting by the fountain in the museum courtyard and swiping through insta filters, when it suddenly hit me: what was I doing? This isn’t what solo travel is supposed to be like! What’s the point of being in one of the world’s most famous cultural hubs, if you don’t actually talk to the people and experience culture first-hand?

Living in Paris, I had gotten used to the most acceptable form of talking to strangers being saying “bonjour” in the elevator and then proceeding to awkwardly avoid eye contact for the rest of the ride. But this was London, things had to be different here. And so, I gathered all my courage and actually did it – I struck a conversation with a couple of random strangers! 

My victims of choice turned out to be two really cool Northern Irish guys. We ended up getting drinks from the V&A bar (yes, apparently they have bars in London museums!) and spending the whole evening talking about topics ranging from the history of haute couture to the Babe dot com fallout. We exchanged contacts and even though I don’t know if realistically we’d ever hang out again, I was happy to have overcome my social anxiety and to have met people I could have a real conversation with (to be honest, I was getting kinda tired of the Parisian crowd and the ça-va-ça-va-let’s-talk-about-obscure-French-cinema-and-nothing-else drill). 

What’s the point of being in one of the world’s most famous cultural hubs, if you don’t actually talk to the people and experience culture first-hand?

All in all, my first night of cultural exploration in London was a resounding success. And the best part? The guys gave me a long list of local insider tips and ideas of interesting places to visit, and more importantly, good food. 

Is This What a Melting Pot Tastes Like? Cause I’m Into It

Over the course of the next few days, I got a taste of real London. By this, I mean I got to taste a lot of cool inexpensive ethnic food. The degree of authenticity may have varied, but in any case London cuisine was much more diverse than anything I could get in Paris, where even *real* Asian restaurants usually don’t serve spicy food to cater to white Frenchies. 

The rest of my trip was characterized by a constant struggle between shabby and chic.

One of my favorite experiences was the Brick Lane market, where I had Chinese bao buns, Turkish-Indian fusion, and a smoothie, for a total of under 12 quid. The whole Brick Lane neighborhood, with its funky crafts shops and hidden vintage bookstores was a hipster paradise. The surroundings screamed “gentrification”, but I suppressed my white privilege guilt by marvelling at the city’s vivid celebration of Pride month and by accidentally taking part in a Bengali New Year festival. 

The rest of my trip was characterized by a constant struggle between shabby and chic. One minute I was drinking bad wine from the bottle and considering moving to a boat by the canal at Angel Station, the next I was sipping equally bad but 10 times more expensive wine and watching Fiddler on the Roof at the Playhouse Theatre. At one point I was scouting for the best street food options for under 5 pounds, next thing I know, I’m ordering a four-course meal on my company’s expense at a fancy Turkish restaurant (if you’ve read our blog before, you’d remember my obsession with Turkish food). 

Even the neighborhood where I was staying for my work conference seemed to exude this curious shabby-chic dichotomy. Squeezed between the corporate glitz of the City and the supposedly “dodgy” Whitechapel, I wasn’t sure what I should be more worried about: getting stabbed to death on my way home, or having to endure a conversation about stock bonds with another guest of the hotel. 

Luckily, neither of those things happened. Instead, it was right in this strange area that I stumbled upon one of the most exciting places in London – the Barbican, a contemporary performance art center, where I got to see a fascinating exhibit on AI and futurism (and later earned street cred by referencing it in multiple conversations at my own company’s AI conference). The center itself and the buildings surrounding it were remarkable sights on their own, combining brutalist architecture with a softening touch of flora that could make Kew Gardens turn green with jealousy (pun absolutely intended). 

At the end of the day, the chic element prevailed, as I ended my journey with champagne at a corporate after-party on a rooftop overlooking the Shard, the Gherkin, among other famous skyscrapers with bizarro names. Yet, if you asked me to go to Brick Lane again for those 1-quid bao buns, I’d be jumping on a Eurostar train back to London faster than you can spell “gentrification”.

Stay tuned for part 2 of the “Summer in the City” series, in which I’m crossing the Atlantic to continue my shameless participation in gentrification, this time in NYC

The Art of Selling Yourself, Or My Career Dilemma

Hello potential and future employers, nothing to see here. Please direct yourselves to the nearest exit.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to fill out a survey for my upcoming “Brands as Disruptors in Creative Industries” class. Wow, those are a lot of buzzwords in one title. But I guess it makes sense, since, as I would come to find out, the one and only educational framework of this class was “how to use fancy buzzwords and stylish logos to fabricate a fake brand identity”. But more on that later.

The survey our teachers sent us was essentially asking us to list our favorite brands (everyone loves Netflix these days, surprisingly to no one) and our least favorite ones (what do you know, people aren’t big fans of Facebook and the Zucc stealing their data). But the last question really struck a chord: “Do you think a person can be a brand? If yes, give examples.”

Obviously, if they’re asking for examples, then the answer must be yes, my college-educated, eager-to-please conformist self thought to herself. So, the academic research genius that I was, I listed the three first names that pop up when you type “can people be brands” on Google: Oprah, Steve Jobs, Kim Kardashian. It was only about a month later, when I was starting to apply for internships and work/study contracts (the infamous “alternance”) that I realized I had forgotten to put one obvious name in the list of person-brands: me.

Wait, was I supposed to have an identity?

It all started with a meeting I had with my academic advisor, during which she was supposed to give me guidance and advice on how to find internships. She asked me what I wanted to do and what my “dream job” was. “Marketing director for a progressive digital media company”, I answered without hesitation, even though this was less of a dream job and more of a “dream compromise”, a way to reconcile my passion for journalism and media with my equally strong passion for getting paid a living wage.

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Anyway, the quick “dreaming for cynicists” sesh was followed by an admittedly useful CV boosting workshop and then, the question I had feared all along: “So, what are your hobbies outside of school? What are the things that define your identity and that would make your profile stand out to employers amidst an ocean of aspiring digital marketers?”

Boom! Just like that, the Pandora box of years’ worth of insecurities and illegitimacy fears was opened. What was my identity outside of school? Did I really have one? Does blogging count as a distinctive hobby if everyone else is doing it these days? Do feminism or environmentalism count as real convictions if you don’t have a Twitter account entirely dedicated to that? What good is swing dancing if you’re only doing it for fun and haven’t won any awards?

When-People-Ask-You-What-Kind-Hobbies-You-Have

Those are just some of the implicit questions that my academic advisor raised in what was, I hope, a well-meaning effort to help me valorize my strengths and render my CV more unique. But rather than making me question the utility of all my life choices and time spent in the last four and more years, I think she had another objective in mind: to help me craft my own personal brand.

“You have a lot of interests and that’s good”, my advisor told me. “Now you need to streamline them and caricaturize your online identity”.

Fake it till you fake it

After all, it didn’t really matter to potential employers what I thought about climate change or what kind of books I read, if it wasn’t somehow incorporated into the oversimplified crash-course image of myself that I’m giving them in the form of an A4 piece of paper and a bunch of hyperlinks to my social media profiles. “You have a lot of interests and that’s good”, my advisor told me. “Now you need to streamline them and caricaturize your online identity”.

High-passion

And that, I did. I changed my Twitter cover photo to a Michelle Obama quote about female empowerment. I picked up my zero waste Instagram again. I color-coordinated all my accounts. I put more storytelling and design efforts into my work portfolio than I’ve ever put into any of my actual work.

I just slightly adapted the image of myself that I was going to present to the requirements of the job. Isn’t this precisely what marketing is, anyway?

But I didn’t just stop there. Enter the shapeshifting: I started changing up certain parts of my CV and portfolio according to the job and company I was applying for. If it was an offer for a marketing analytics position in a more tech-oriented company, I’d focus on how “data-driven” I was and reference my (quite disputable) programming skills. If it was content marketing or a position at a media company, I’d highlight my writing skills and my experience working in the industry.

It wasn’t the cherry-picking of “relevant qualities” in itself that bothered me that much. It was how well it seemed to be working. Less than a month later, I had already landed an exciting marketing internship at a leading data software startup. I felt proud and accomplished. After all, why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I actually lied on my CV or on my interview (and don’t we all lie just a little bit?). I just slightly adapted the image of myself that I was going to present to the requirements of the job. Isn’t this precisely what marketing is, anyway?

Okay Google, can I be a marketing person with true convictions, oh, and also make money?

Ironically, my apparent mastering of the tools of my aspired professional field and my subsequent success led to my realization of its hollowness. Yes, crafting and successfully selling a curated brand image of myself was a useful exercise that my “Brands as Disruptors…” professors would be proud of. Certainly, it required resourcefulness and creativity and most of all, I had fun doing it.

But in the end, what was its purpose? Retweeting more articles about gender discrimination or posting more photos of my reusable coffee cup didn’t get me more involved in any of those movements. It sure made me want to get more involved, but I was too busy picking the right insta filters. Marketing may be a fun and creative way to communicate powerful messages (or powerful cat food ads, depending on your industry and your way of looking at it), but ultimately it doesn’t have any other proper value than the one you’re creating for the shareholders.

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This professional nihilism may seem strange coming from someone who just got a great job offer from a great company that is hailed all over the internet for its quality products and services, good values and healthy corporate culture. And the fact is, I am very excited and looking forward to working there. Almost as excited as I am about getting paid and *almost*being able to afford living in Paris!

For the time being, my decision to work in marketing seems a strategically good one considering my living situation, my skills set and my aspirations. In the long term though, I’m not sure if I want my lasting “brand” to be that of the eccentric corporate exec who talks about class struggle and CO2 emissions while driving her Tesla and sipping on her 7-euro soy latte in her reusable coffee cup. Or do I?

As always, thanks for listening to my TED talk.

Featured photo by Kalina Yankova

2018: A Year of Almost Adventures (Part 1)

Another year has gone by and has given way to cold and gloomy January – a month generally characterized by painful readjustment to boring life at school or in the office, as well as some desperate attempts at damage control after shamelessly overeating at grandma’s seventeen times in a row. Instead of giving in to despair, we have decided to battle post-holiday depression with happy memories of simpler times. 

In all fairness, 2018 was an awesome year for the Kolevi sisters: we started our blog, got to travel to all these fascinating new places and meet lovely new people, landed cool internships, jobs and freelance gigs in various media…quite frankly, 2018 kicked ass. Here is our recap of our best and most memorable almost adventures of last year. 

In this first part, Nancy takes you on a metaphorical Orient express (not rich enough for the real one, sry) through her most exciting travels and memories of 2018.

1. The Russia Experience

At first, I wanted to do a separate entry for each of the places I visited during my study abroad year in Russia – after all, they were all so different! In the end, I realized it was actually the cumulated experience of each and every one of them, from the giant megapolises to the tiny (for Russian standards) coastal or industrial periphery towns, that made up the ultimate almost adventure, the one that inspired me to write about traveling in the first place. 

Whether it was swimming in the Black Sea in early October while our friends were freezing back in Moscow, enjoying our first snow fight and the best crepes I’ve ever had in the sleepy town of Vladimir, walking on frozen sea water in Saint Petersburg or lip syncing to Central Asian pop folk bangers in a cab ride somewhere in Crimea, Russia was a rollercoaster ride from start to finish. Or more accurately, an old Soviet night train ride, but I can assure you the adrenaline levels are just the same. 

However, when I look back now, it’s not the faraway destinations or the crazy nights of drinking vodka with strangers that I will remember my exchange year by. My fondest memories of Russia are actually the ordinary, boring by most standards, nights in Moscow: walking down the hip Myasnitskaya street after school, cheap good wine and delicious hachapuriin the eponymous Georgian restaurant (I cry every time I look at price lists in Paris) or simply chilling at the dorm kitchen with my floormates, despite the angry looks of the babushkas. While for the most part, Russia felt like a really long school trip abroad, it was moments like this that ultimately made me feel like I had found a temporary home. 

 

2. Istanbul 

While Russia was by far my most exciting and memorable experience of 2019, by the time I had to pack my stuff and return to Sofia, it had left me physically and emotionally drained and longing for a change of scenery. By contrast, my trip to Istanbul was a weekend-long summer fling that only gave me a small taste of one of the most beautiful cities in the world and left me longing for so much more. 

In the frustratingly short three days I spent there, I nevertheless got to explore both the dazzling European side with all its historical monuments and the more modern upbeat Asian side where the hip and stylish locals were the real sight to be seen. But most of all, I fell in love with the unique body of water separating these two equally astonishing places, or rather, bringing them together: the ever-mesmerizing Bosphorus. 

 

3. Mainland Greece

If traveling to Istanbul was a longtime dream of mine, my road trip to mainland Greece was a last-minute spontaneous addition to an already promising Balkan summer. With the international premiere of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again having just hit the screens and the mainstream craze for everything Greek or 70s, I was looking forward to rocking all those fabulous retro jumpsuits I had bought for a song in Istanbul.

Our main destination, however, was quite different from the fictional Kalokairi island in Southern Greece where young Donna found love (and an accidental pregnancy) with three different men. For better or for worse, neither me nor my friends found anything of the sort in Litochoro, a tiny village at the heart of Macedonia (the region in Greece, not our problematic ex-Yugoslavian neighbor). 

What we did find, however, was a mysterious place laying at the foot of the legendary Mount Olympus, but just a minute away from kilometers and kilometers of long beautiful sand beaches. We also found extremely warm and hospitable people and delicious tavernas where we shamelessly overate every night. By the end of the week, I couldn’t even fit into my 70s jumpsuits anymore, but it was totally worth it.  

 

4. P(love)div

Now that I think about it, summer 2018 in the Balkans really was poppin’. After Istanbul and Greek Macedonia, I had one final weekend trip to the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv. Known throughout most of its history under its ancient Greek name Philippopolis, in recent years it had acquired an alternative tourist spot status and local hipsters had nicknamed it “P(love)div”. While it certainly looked good on crafty souvenirs and T-shirts, the name struck me as particularly appropriate for my own trip, as it was a romantic weekend getaway with a summer fling.

Flash forward five months and the summer fling is long gone, but my love for the charming city of Plovdiv has remained the same, so much that I’ve decided to spend New Year’s Eve there. A girls-only weekend this time (ain’t those the best?), I was excited to return to the hip Kapana district, with its cobblestone streets and local craft shops, above them the traditional triangle garlands I remembered from the summer replaced with shiny Christmas decorations. 

While Plovdiv is most known for its Greek heritage, I was equally fascinated with the Turkish cultural influence of the city, which has a 20% of ethnic Turkish population. With its artsy Kapana neighborhood which reminded me of the Asian side’s Kadikoy, mesmerizing views of the “Tepe” hills (tepe means “hill” in Turkish) and the pretty Djumaia mosque, as well as the Turkish tea house next to it with the best baklava I’ve ever had outside of Turkey, Plovdiv actually gave off a certain Istanbul vibe. Don’t @ me on this though, the average Bulgarian is not ready to embrace this part of our cultural heritage just yet (their loss on the baklava tbh).

 

5. Paris

 

After a long Russian winter and a short but eventful Balkan summer, I finally settled in my final (at least for now) destination: my new home in Paris, where I’m set to spend at least the next two years until I graduate. While my free time and purchasing power have significantly diminished, and along with it my traveling opportunities, after a mere four months I am happy to have finally found a place I can imagine myself settling down in. I don’t have time to even begin to get into how amazing it is, but I can promise you this: in 2019, there will be no lack of Parisian almost adventures. 

Check out part 2 of our recap, where Krisi takes you on a journey of discovery (#DiscoverEU) with her most memorable travels and experiences of 2018. 

Is my yogurt obsession killing our planet? My environmental dilemma

I was supposed to write about my trip to Greece this week. As summer seems to be finally coming to an end in Paris, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit that hot week in August on the Greek mainland, with its long sandy beaches, the mystical aura of Mount Olympus, the shameless overeating at mezze restaurants, the Greek yogurt in the mornings…

Ah, yogurt. The jewel in the crown of dairy products, my Balkan pride, my everyday necessity. Not to brag, but in my many various encounters with the magical white creamy texture that has come to be easily my favorite flavor in the world, I have distinguished myself as a sort of “yogurt connoisseur”. I can tell you for a fact that mainstream French yogurt sucks (come get me, Danone, I’m not afraid) and your only chance of finding anything remotely eatable is if you go for that bougie four-euro yaourt fermier. Similarly, Russian yogurt is not to be trusted: if it looks like yogurt, spells “yogurt” and is in the yogurt section in the supermarket, it’s probably still sour cream, because Russians don’t seem to understand how flavor and seasoning work. Or truth, for that matter, but that’s a topic for another post.

Surprisingly, Greek yogurt is also not my favorite one, and not just because they monopolized the global market demand for “authenticity”. While it may be the most popular healthy snack that every American lifestyle vlogger would swear upon as the best thing for your diet, Greek yogurt actually has a lot more fat and calories than the traditional Bulgarian one. When it comes to my favorite type of food, I remain a nationalist to the core (although, after my trip to Istanbul, I had to reluctantly give Turkish yogurt the honorable second place).

 

 

The road to environmental hell is paved with good intentions

After this lengthy exposition of my dairy snobbishness, I can finally talk about the real topic and raison d’être of this whole article: sustainability. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about sustainable development, primarily in the context of environmental issues, but what does sustainable really mean? If we have to really simplify it, a sustainable society is one that can produce everything it needs in the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

If sustainable development was a subject in school, humanity would be that one kid who doesn’t even try to pretend to give a damn, because his daddy is the main sponsor of the school. Except, he doesn’t know or doesn’t care to know that daddy’s resources are running out, and so is the principle’s patience with his BS. In other words, our consumerist society is not living or even trying to live within the environmental limits of our planet and this is all now coming back to bite us in the form of climate change and pollution.

All of this is not to say that I am not part of this consumerist society, of that spoiled kid who is not willing to give up the privileges that he grew up with and that he has today for the sake of tomorrow. Growing up in Bulgaria, being an environmentalist was not even a thing. We mocked vegans, because we thought their only reasoning was that “animals are our friends” and that eating kebabcheta is evil. No one ever talked about the environmental implications of animal agriculture and I never thought to Google it.

 

 

I did have a slight eco-friendly phase towards the end of high school, when recycling containers started to appear on every street corner in Sofia. By that time, I had already started to embrace “progressive ideas” and thought that recycling would fit my ideological image well. I tried to convince my parents to recycle our trash, without success. They didn’t want to have three separate trash cans in the house, it was annoying and too much work. Later on, I tried to convince them to bring their own bags, instead of getting new plastic ones every time they go grocery shopping. Again, it was annoying and too much work. I contented myself with an “oh, well, at least I tried”, even though I didn’t try to recycle myself or offer to do the shopping, and I kept buying coffee in single-use plastic cups from the school cafeteria every single day.

 

My carbon footprint in a nutshell yogurt jar

But what does this all have to do with yogurt? Well, for starters, yogurt usually comes in a plastic packaging. Even after I moved to France and started recycling, occasionally bought food from local organic farming (only occasionally though, since I am on a student budget) and even became what I call a “forced quasi-vegetarian” (again, student budget), I never really considered the environmental impact of my beloved breakfast.

Oh, how I wish it was only the plastic packaging. I already made a promise to myself to go back to buying the expensive the yaourt fermier from “La Ruche Qui Dit Oui”, which comes in glass jars that you can return to the farmers for reuse when you pick up your next order. But the big elephant in the room that I have been ignoring is that yogurt, much like the meat that I pride myself on reducing to twice a month, comes from animal agriculture. Or, in other words, my everyday breakfast, afternoon and evening snack comes directly from the industry responsible for more than half of the greenhouse gases and one third of our fresh water withdrawal.

 

 

Yogurtspiracy, or why we can’t have nice things

It’s weird that even after I started becoming aware of the livestock production’s environmental impact, I ignored how my daily hyperconsumption of yogurt was a part of that. I felt guilty for eating meat, so I tried to limit myself to eating it only occasionally, and mostly chicken, since its carbon footprint is significantly lower than that of beef or pork. I could even imagine giving up on meat altogether one day, if I become more directly involved in the environmentalist cause and need to set an example (or if things really go to shit and we’re faced with impending environmental disaster, but like, we’ll all have to give up way more than that in this scenario). I already avoid other dairy products like milk and cheese, not so much for ecological reasons, but simply because cheese is a mortal sin if you’re trying not to gain weight in France. But giving up on my yogurt???

 

 

This was my personal ethical dilemma while watching “Cowspiracy” the other night instead of studying for my midterms. I still don’t have an answer. Will I eventually give up meat and all other dairy products and cut my carbon emissions in every other possible way, so that I can have yogurt as my one guilty pleasure? Will I try to gradually switch to vegan yogurt, even though I know it will never be the same? Or maybe goat milk-based yogurt, since goats are a more sustainable livestock? Will I just accept that my individual environmental impact is insignificant and if I’m not willing to give up on one treat, I probably won’t become a powerful advocate for environmentalist action either, so I should just go back to writing my feminist articles?

The truth is, I don’t know. For now, I’ll try to switch to an 80% plant-based diet with a little dairy and meat (essentially my diet now, but with one third of my current yogurt consumption), try to shop all-organic, adopt a zero waste mindset and most of all, go back to studying for my midterms, cause if I want to make a change in this world, apparently I need to know how to draw a cash flow chart first. Thanks for listening to my TED talk.

Istanbul: History and Hipsters in the City of the World’s Desire

Constantinople. The Second Rome. The City of the World’s Desire. And more recently, the city of my desire that I have been tirelessly trying to convince my parents to let me go to for the past three summers, alas, without success. But in the wake of the moon eclipse on the last weekend of July, an astrological event so rare and unique that even I knew about it through my obscure astrology meme pages, the stars finally seemed perfectly aligned for my contemporary crusade to Istanbul.

 

Much like my knowledge of astrology, my history background is way too superficial and rusty for me to be able to imagine what an actual medieval crusade was like, but for all I know, it seems like a good word to describe my journey. First, there was the necessary obtaining of the Pope’s blessing, or in my case, convincing my parents that Istanbul is relatively safe and that I wouldn’t get raped, murdered or worse, married to a Turk. Ah, it’s amazing what five centuries of Ottoman domination or, as we like to call it, “Turkish enslavement”, and a little nationalist bias in history books can do to even the most progressive Bulgarian minds.

 

After the patriarch(al parent body) was taken on board, it was time to mobilize the troops. Only, in my case, my army consisted of only one soldier: my Serbian friend Boris, or the token white Christian strong male, armed with the crucial task of keeping me safe from those suspicious bearded men and all the other dangers that can befall innocent young girls traveling alone (but not guys, cause nothing bad can ever happen to the patriarchy’s favorites).

 

 

Finally, there came the time for the prophetic journey. In the era of modern technology and transportation, passing on the somewhat pricy one hour Turkish Airlines flight deal for the much more authentic experience of a nine hour bus drive seemed like an actual crusade. 600 kilometers, one border, two passport checks, three to four hours of poor sleep and about five bathroom breaks later, we had finally done it: we had arrived at the gates of Constantinople. Or, to be more exact, we got off at a noisy otogar in Bayrampaşa, at the far end of the European side of Istanbul.

 

Branding, Borek and the Bosphorus

As someone who does marketing for a living, the first thing that struck me was how much Turkish people relied on direct advertising: as we were wandering around the bus station, trying to find a bathroom or the metro entrance, I was overwhelmed by the number of local salesmen repeatedly shouting the name of the product or service that they were offering. “Bursa, Bursa, Bursa! Izmiiiiiir, hayde, Izmir!”, the voice of an apparent traveling agent echoed in the parking lot. “Soğuk su”, shouted a man carrying a mini refrigerator, which, as I later found out, meant “cold water” and was your best shot at surviving the smoldering summer heat. Seriously, the equivalent of thanking the bus driver in Istanbul should be thanking the man selling that sweet one lira (less than 20 euro cents) icy cold water on every corner.

 

 

The trip to our Airbnb, strategically located in Kadiköy, one of the Asian side’s up and coming neighborhoods near the Bosphorus, was less troublesome than expected. One metro change and a quick ride on the Marmaray, a line passing directly under the Bosphorus, took us to our designated home for the next couple of days. We dropped off our luggage and proceeded to our first and most important destination: the börek shop. For my non-Balkan readers, börek is a type of pastry made out of thin layers of dough and filled with cheese, spinach, eggplant, meat or various combinations of all the above. It’s crispy and buttery and it tastes sweeter than the dream of lasting peace and prosperity on the Balkan peninsula.

Of course, having grown up in Bulgaria, nothing about this breakfast delight was new to me, except the name (we call it banitsa because we’re real Slavs). However, this particular börek shop was a whole new gastronomic experience. We were greeted by the chef (The master? The Börek King?), who, without being able to say even a word in English, made us feel like we were the most important guests he’s ever had. He insisted that he serve us a piece of each different flavor directly in our mouths (I know it sounds weird, but trust me, at the moment it felt very gourmet-like), after which we were seated on a traditional knee-high table with even tinier chairs and each of us was served a carefully selected börek mix. The meal was accompanied by an ayran which, even for my snobby Bulgarian standards, was delicious, as well as the typical tall glass of çay, the classic strong Turkish black tea that wakes you up faster than a shot of Italian espresso.

 

From Magnificent Century to Kadiköy Hipsterism Real Quick

This impromptu börek tasting was one of the first of my many delightful encounters with the traditional Turkish cuisine, the accumulation of which made my return to Sofia and the nine hours of sitting without being able to lie down to relieve the bloating almost unbearable, all the while completely worth it. But more on the food later. Barely arrived on the Asian side, we had to hop on the Marmaray again to get to the historical center. It was our first day and we were tired, so we only had a glimpse of the Ottoman Empire’s “Magnificent Century” glory, but I’ll tell you this much: décor-wise, the eponymous soap opera is not as over-the-top as you might think.

 Mosque Majestic is my new favorite aesthetic

Speaking of over-the-top, the historical center was also the place with the most contrast in female dress code that I have ever seen. On one end of the spectrums, you have the Western tourists in shorts and crop tops, on the other – the Saudi multiple wives’ squads, covered in black veil from head to toe with only their eyes and their Gucci bags left uncovered. While women in burqas are a common sight in touristy places, it is not at all a common practice among Turkish women and is even frowned upon and ridiculed by the more progressive Turks, which call the integrally veiled ladies “the penguins”. As for the local women, obviously some of them cover their hair with surprisingly stylish headscarves, but even among the secular majority I immediately noticed a specific Istanbul street fashion. 70’s overalls, wide high-waist pajama pants and heavy but flawless makeup even in the sweating heat are among the trends that I will be desperately trying to recreate for the rest of the summer. And no wonder Turkish women are so stylish, since they have a huge variety of local and international clothes brands and some of the best shopping deals!

 

The Veil Spectrum is almost as long as the waiting lines for the Dolmabahçe Palace

 

But back to the more vital stuff: dinner. In the evening, we met with our somewhat local friends who had been working in Istanbul for the summer and they took us to a meyhane – a traditional Turkish mezze restaurant with a view of the Marmara Sea. The principle is essentially the same as the mezze restaurants that I had tried in Greece: you all share at least six or seven small appetizers, which consist of different variations of veggies, salads or seafood. The main courses are typically fish or meat. It all sounds very nice and healthy, if it wasn’t for the waiters constantly walking around with these giant plateaus and tempting you with more and more food. Like I said, direct marketing is big here. The same approach is applied to the drinks: we ordered a bottle of raki – a traditional Turkish/Greek digestive which kinda tastes like cough medicine, but after the waiter came for a third refill, I started thinking about it as more of a life medicine. It all felt very spiritual as we were sipping our raki and watching the moon turn red over the sea. Some of the people in the restaurant even applauded the eclipse, which was the most extra thing I had seen since the Russians clapping when a plane lands and when the engine turns off.

 

After dinner, we walked around and sat for drinks in the heart of Kadiköy, the cool progressive neighborhood where intense gentrification has made it look and feel a lot more like a Greek or Italian town center, rather than the Asian part of Turkey. People were young and hip, drinking foreign alcohol and discussing Turkish politics. The average age of our surrounding crowd was not more than 25, everyone looked like they were taken out of an American Apparel commercial and you could not see a single headscarf.

 

Blue is the Warmest Color?

Over the next two days, I discovered other parts of Istanbul, but my heart remained in Kadiköy. I thought I would spend a lot more time sightseeing, but the endless waiting lines and the burning heat forced me to seek refuge in less mainstream places. Still, seeing Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque gave me the sense of grandeur that everyone describes when talking about Istanbul, but I couldn’t really apprehend it until I stood in the middle of a square with those majestic buildings on both my sides. However, my favorite historical site was the Topkapi Palace with its beautiful gardens and breathtaking view of the Bosphorus.

Ah, the Bosphorus. In three days, I crossed it four times, contemplating its blue waters from the docks of ferry boats, sitting in coastal cafés or walking on the shore past local fishermen. It’s fascinating how integrated this unique body of water is in the ordinary life of the city. On my last day and my last crossing of the Bosphorus, I discovered what I call “the Riviera of Istanbul”: a picturesque upper middle class neighborhood on the European coast, filled with Italian-style cafés and gelato shops and people roaming around the tiny streets on tiny Vespa motorcycles.

 

First Row on the Istanbul Riviera

 

Istanbul or Florence?

 

Finally, I’d like to finish this love letter to the Second Rome with a special mention to its one and true conqueror: the cats. More than any king or sultan that has ruled over this holy city, the cats of Istanbul are the only ones that asserted a lasting dominance and eternal devotion. You can see them on every corner, being fed börek by the local shopkeepers or hiding from the sun in their specifically designed cat shelters. And my personal favorite? The liberal hipster black cat of Kadiköy, of course.

 

 You can never be as cool as him.

Is Giving Flowers on Women’s Day Sexist?

March 8, afternoon. I am sitting in a Dablby café (hopefully a deliberate misspelling of “Double B”), enjoying my overpriced strawberry tea and the manicure I just got, because it’s Women’s Day and I am a woman, so I deserve to treat myself. As you are reading this, nine out of ten French feminists are throwing their laptops at the wall, getting ready to destroy me in the comments for compromising the real meaning of the holiday. Meanwhile, the Russian girl next to me is freaking out over the phone, because her boyfriend got her the wrong type of flowers. I’m starting to sense a bit of a cultural difference here. Let’s investigate.

Wait, so…Women’s Day is not just about the flowers?

Growing up in Bulgaria, I never reflected much on the origin or the significance of International Women’s Day. In fact, I didn’t even know it was international. The 8th of March for me was merely the second relatively important spring holiday, exactly one week after “Baba Marta”. And if the latter consisted in giving each other martenitsa (red-and-white bracelets and charms meant to bring good health and celebrate the beginning of spring), then Women’s Day was all about giving flowers and gifts to close female relatives, girlfriends and teachers. While in Bulgarian discourse, there was no specific association of the holiday with feminism or women’s rights, it did implicate a profound gesture of love and respect for women and womanhood as a whole, and a special consideration for the role of the mother. I can’t say for sure to which extent my young self was aware of these meanings, but she certainly liked this once-in-a-year opportunity to receive flowers for no other reason than being a woman.

This last notion is exactly what got me in trouble a year ago, when the 8th of March came around while I was studying in France. We were having casual drinks at a friend’s house, cause what else would a Sciences Po student do on a weeknight before midterms? As it often was the case, I was the only non-French person in the group and when someone distractedly mentioned that Women’s Day was coming soon, it instantly drew my attention. “Oh, you guys celebrate it too? With flowers and all?” Big mistake.

My seemingly innocent question was a mix of genuine curiosity and surprise, since I hadn’t seen more flowers and flower shops than usual on the streets, and those would have been hard to miss in a town the size of Dijon. As it turned out, no, they didn’t celebrate the 8th of March “with flowers and all”. International Women’s Day, as my French friends were eager to lecture me, was not some macho holiday whose only purpose is for men to once again objectify and reduce women to movie clichés by giving them flowers. No, the correct name was actually International Women’s Rights’ Day, a holiday of communist and feminist origins, and if it was to persist today, then it is for us to celebrate and promote women’s rights and speak out against gender inequality and stereotypes. So much for the flowers, then.

You and your roses can’t sit with us 

Just to make things clear, I was not at all against this newly introduced to me interpretation of Women’s Day. As a feminist, I do identify with and support women’s rights causes such as fighting for gender equality and against discrimination. I even felt a bit ashamed that I had never heard of International Women’s Day in the context of feminism and that this was not at all a thing in Bulgaria. After all, we could really use a Women’s Rights Day in our current political and social climate (*cough cough* the Istanbul Convention). It was simply not what I had grown up with.

This, I assume, was also the case for about half of our campus population, who come primarily from Eastern and Central Europe. This is why for the 8th of March, I had successfully convinced the Student Union to offer a flower to every girl on campus, in respect with the Eastern European tradition. It was a moderate success: many girls refused the flowers, even when it was me, a girl, giving it to them, citing feminist convictions as the reason. On the bright side, some of the guys accepted them, so that was one point for equality. That, or my cleavage game was on point that day. On the opposite side of the lounge, one of our feminist associations was taking pictures of people with printed out slogans such as “Je suis féministe”. Having just gotten a yellow rose each from the Student Union, my best friend and I wanted to support the other initiative too by taking a picture…with our roses. Naturally, we were not allowed to do so. Apparently, flowers did not go too well with the feminist brand.

This came as a disappointment to me, because while I was ready to embrace what for me was a completely new, feminist dimension of the holiday, I could not accept stripping it down from the inherent cultural context in which I had come to know and celebrate it, and flowers were part of it.

We take our petunias seriously in Eastern Europe

The tradition of offering flowers to women as a gift for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and especially Women’s Day is deeply rooted into Bulgarian and other Eastern European countries’ culture. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a man giving the flower to the woman, it can be another woman or even child as well. Depending on the country and region, different sorts of flowers have different meanings and are used for different occasions, and sometimes there are additional rules and superstitions. In Bulgaria, for instance, giving a bouquet of six roses would be a major faux pas – even numbers are for funerals only, celebrations require an odd number of flowers.

Eastern European Tradition Giving Flowers for Celebrations

My great-aunt giving me a flower for my high school graduation

The custom of giving flowers is even more present in Russia, where it has been given a quasi-cult status. One of my neighbors at the dorm, an Austrian, complained to me once over dinner that a girl he had met on Tinder was mad at him, because he hadn’t greeted her with a bouquet on their first date. I was not even remotely surprised. Being extra and traditionalist is a discipline the Russians could easily win without any doping whatsoever.

But back to my feminist dilemma. I could see how to someone who hasn’t grown up with this cultural heritage would see the gesture of giving a flower to a woman as an outdated patriarchic tradition, a display of macho male dominance even. It’s what the slick alpha male lead would do in old movies to win the heart of the gentle leading lady/damsel in distress with no personality. Or, in a much more despicable to me French perspective, it’s what people “de droite” do (literally “of the right”, people who are thought to have right-wing or conservative political views). In the end, isn’t Women’s Day just another capitalist invention, much like Valentine’s Day, only created in order to sell flowers and greeting cards under the pretext of respecting and celebrating women?

Okay, that last statement was purely satirical (even though I have heard people seriously entertain the idea). But for all the cases against giving flowers on Women’s Day, I could not be convinced. To me, the tradition remains an important aspect of the holiday, and a beautiful gesture in the context of any other personal celebration. Apart from their cultural significance, what I like about flowers is that they are a universal gift, regardless of the social situation and income of the giver or that of the taker. A flower is always appropriate and well-received, be it a pot of petunias for your family friends’ new apartment, a last-minute rose with an attached envelope containing a banknote for your distant cousin or a bouquet of tulips stolen from your neighbor’s garden for your best friend’s name day you almost forgot about.

Flowers vs. feminism: Why not both?

But what about women’s rights? Here, I admit, Eastern Europe has a bit of catching up to do. Indeed, the 8th of March shouldn’t be limited to buying bouquets for your mom and girlfriend. We should use this day to draw attention to feminist issues and causes around the world, from demanding equal pay to fighting against slutshaming, verbal, physical and sexual abuse and all forms of discrimination. I believe that in Bulgaria and even in Russia some baby steps are already being taken in the right direction. Last year, for the first time I stumbled upon a Facebook event for a standup comedy/debate on feminism in Sofia for the 8th of March. This year, Bulgarian celebrity women along with the Bulgarian Women’s Fund made a video campaign destined to empower young teenage girls, touching on topics ranging from reproductive health to career opportunities. Even in Russia there is some activism. The Moscow Museum of Modern Art for example is having an exhibition of feminist art from the 2000s.

This year I am spending the 8th of March in Moscow. I woke up to champagne and flowers, bought by our Uzbek neighbor as a Women’s Day gift for all the girls on our floor. Then I got my nails done, so it wasn’t exactly a day full of feminist action for me. But two days ago, I took part in a video made by a group of international students which aims to promote women’s rights around the world, so I guess that counts for something.

My personal take on International Women’s Day? You can fight for rights and have the flowers. And while we’re at it, keep the champagne, too.