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

Hipster cafés and Democracy Talk in Prague

Maintaining a steady blog content while also applying for university is something I am objectively bad at and I hereby apologise for the long absence and unfulfilled new year’s promises. But for those of you who are still with me, I’m going to share one of my most memorable travels so far in one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever been to – Prague.

Why was I in the magnificent capital of the Czech Republic? Well, you all know that, being Bulgarian, it is my second nature to exploit European money and naturally, most of my experiences outside the motherland are financed by the EU – this one is no exception. 

pay me bitch better have my money GIF

Jokes aide, I became part of an international campaign, which aims to raise the turnout of young people at the upcoming European Parliamentary elections (May, 2019) and contribute to lessening the political apathy all over Europe. So one can imagine that my trip was filled with political debates, democracy praise, long discussions of voting habits, corruption and, weirdly enough, Maltese politics. However, all of that is probably a topic of another post – now let’s talk Prague. 

Prague

Photo by @alemarmur –

 

A capital city often compared to Vienna and Budapest, I found Prague even more stunning than the last two. Okay, I might have already mentioned how easily impressed I can sometimes be by cute, well-preserved Western architecture, like I was in Utrecht, but damn Prague is on a whole new level. It doesn’t take you that much time to notice that the city is a one of a kind museum of architecture – you can see Romanesque buildings as well as Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and literally every architectural style you can google. That said, Prague’s charm is undeniable, inexplicable and absolutely everywhere. From the beautiful cobblestone streets, historical buildings and cathedrals all the way to the hipster cafés, co-working spaces and I guess bars (I was on a ‘work trip’ so there were no pub crawls for me, but you get the idea).

A clock, a wall and a bridge 

I mainly got to explore the city either in the super early mornings or in the evenings. While that’s the main reason why you won’t be reading about any museums (they all close at 6 pm), the schedule allowed me to see Prague without the huge flow of tourists. My newly-found partners in crime and I, led by an EU-obessed Czech activist, walked around the old town numerous times each one finding something new to admire. 

The famous astronomical clock was an original and eye-pleasing thing to see, but more interesting was to find out its history/legend – apparently in the 1400s the Czechs were seeking attention and wanted something cool that only they could have and so they ordered the clock, but then after it was done they overreacted by blinding the clockmaster so that he could never repeat his work. And I though Bulgarians are extra, am I right?

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@s.c.brancaleone

Another place worth to be mentioned is definitely the John Lennon Wall in Mala Strana. It represents the ‘cool’ yet still touristy side of Prague and further, my experience there was accompanied by a street singer who in my view couldn’t sing that well, but was awkward enough to be hipster and his chill repertoire actually matched the atmosphere.

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After all, Charles Bridge convincingly won in my personal ranking of tourist attractions. I know, I know – that’s the most famous one and I’m basic, but I have an affinity for bridges that should never be underestimated and in my honest opinion of a ‘highly educated bridge connoisseur’, Charles Bridge might just be the prettiest one in Europe. 

Sightseeing vs hipsterseeing 

In the time when I wasn’t out admiring Prague’s architecture or in – discussing how to reinvent young people’s faith in democracy and rule of law, you could have found me in one particular hipster not-so-overpriced café – EMA espresso bar. I can say that for those 5 days spent in Prague EMA became me and my multiculti friends’ second home. We went there to grab coffee in the morning then drank tea instead of having lunch and after 6 pm…well, I think we sometimes had another coffee. Just like us, ЕМА was also multiculti, which means the baristas actually spoke English ! Plus, it was less overpriced than expected and as I said, the EU paid for us to go to Prague so we could afford to treat ourselves and spend an extra euro on that heavenly mint tea.

As far as the hipster culture is concerned, Café Jedna, which was right next to our hotel deserves an honorable mention. We went there on our last day and I found it was aesthetically pleasing and definitely fitted in the hipster category with its atmosphere being somehow super cosy even though the place was spacious. And something that’s always a plus – it had some  pretty delicious vegetarian and vegan options.

All in all, Prague won my heart with its history, charm and EMA. An analogy – if my home town of Sofia was a guy it would heave been kind of the fuckboy who incorporates architectural styles that should never be mixed and who obtains its charm mainly from the contemporary youth culture, but Prague would most likely have been that good guy who has style, is well-mannered, cultural, classy and knows stuff about history, but ultimately you know he’s most probably gay. Which is my way of saying that as a proven fag hag I found my perfect match. I think I could never get enough of just aimlessly walking around its old town streets, admire its architecture or just drink a cup of mint tea in a hipster café. So please, Prague, be my gay best friend.

 

 

P.s. I can’t portray an accurate image of my Czech experience if I don’t give a special shout out to all of the amazing people who were also funded by the EU to drink tea* – love you, guys

 

*to save the European project of peace

2018: A Year of Almost Adventures (Part 2)

In case you’re still in the mood for reflecting on 2018 (as I will probably be till June), then you might want to get a short break from your to-do-listing, goal-setting and new dieting in order to enjoy my briefed 2018 adventures around the world. Even though I always want to travel and explore more, as I look back I realise that I did, in fact, visit more cities in that year than I have in any other year of my life… So, I’ll share with you the ones I was too busy/lazy to write about at the time being – enjoy. 

Check out Nancy’s part one of the 2018 recap here

St. Petersburg, Russia

Our first stop finds itself in mother Russia. It might sound familiar as at the time I managed to put my stay in Moscow into written form, but St. Petersburg is another story. ‘Piter’, as many young people are used to calling it, was absolutely beautiful, deserving of all of the hipster praise, noticeably more European-like than Moscow and surprisingly English-speaking. Visiting the Peterhof Palace, I got to indulge in my Romanovs obsession that I’ve been suppressing since early childhood. But by drinking coffee on rooftops and overeating at a Georgian restaurant called Kazan Mangal, I believe I truly vibed with the city despite not being stylish enough to meet its standards. Thank you, next.

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yes, I do resemble Russian royalty, thanks for noticing 

Athens, Greece

The summer of 2018 started with a short trip to Athens, which was meant to mark my 18th birthday. My friends and I decided to celebrate that, but also the end of the school year by doing something refreshing and as traveling with friends is always a good idea, we chose the cheapest and nearest destination available, #squadgoals. Being one of these rare Bulgarians that do not vacation on the Greek seaside, I actually surprised everybody by stating that it was my first visit in Greece ever. However, I found Athens to be exactly what I needed – pretty, ancient and hot. What I’ll remember most is probably how I hiked to the Acropolis on platforms and the magnificent view from there – truly one of a kind. Long story short, my friends and I, we wandered around the ancient town then went to a shisha bar and ate gyros. Would repeat. 

Perpignan, France

After my trip to Athens, I worked all summer in order to complete my #DiscoverEU journey  in September with a high school friend – Alex. For those of you who don’t know that’s a EU-funded initiative that gives many 18 years olds a free Interrail Pass, allowing them to travel for free by European trains. That said, we started from Paris and then traveled to a small French city near the Spanish border named Perpignan. Although it was, in my view, more Spanish than French and definitely the most random of all our destinations, it turned out to be super colourful and with an undeniable southern charm. Plus, despite being dirty af, the city was generally picturesque and the locals were welcoming, especially the two Bulgarian gypsies that gave us directions! So, if you’re passing by Perpignan I definitely recommend going there, but like, not for more than a day – it has a limited sightseeing potential. 

Barcelona, Spain 

Speaking of sightseeing potential, the one in our next stop – Barcelona was unbounded. Alex and I spend there about 4 days and as effective as we tried to be, one can never get enough. The first day was rainy, so I learned Barcelona’s charm does not hide only in the sunny weather. On the second day, we rented bikes and, as basic as we were, listened to Ed Sheeran’s Barcelona while exploring the city. After that, I lost the chronology, but we went to a chill local beach outside the capital of Catalonia, drank lots of sangria, met another Bulgarian gypsy and I personally became Gaudi’s biggest fan. Before we know it, we found ourselves on the next train station heading to Valencia. 

Valencia

Valencia quickly became my favourite. Our Airbnb was amazing and as central as it gets. The city itself was the perfect combination of typical seaside town and stunning architecture. Ah, the palms and the Gothic buildings… but mainly the palms. I am an exotic persona now, just so you know. Moreover, if I’m not getting it wrong, we drank a thing called horchata, which was a Valencian healthy non-alcoholic drink that you must try if you visit the city. Overall, it was the most vacation-like destination that was perfect both for the ‘I worked all summer, I deserve this” mentality and for providing me with strength and a positive attitude to face the new school year (my last one).

Madrid, Spain

Last but not least, we finished off by spending a day and a half in Madrid. Obviously, it was not nearly enough to explore it to its fullest potential, but still, I was charmed. For the Bulgarians reading this, I can put it that way: if Barcelona was the Spanish Varna, Valencia – Sozopol, then Madrid was Sofia. It was objectively a cool and fun place to be especially thanks to its big city vibe. Alex and I spent the last night of our Spanish crusade by going to… a 50’s-themed American diner, showcasing globalisation at its finest. Don’t judge us, we ate enough paellas and drank enough sangrias to feel authentic. 

 

I hope you’re as happy with your traveling experiences from 2018 as I am with mine! If not, hey, heads up, you’ve got 2019 ahead.

Read Part 1 here

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. 

A Weekend in Reims: the University Town for Royals Only

Ah, Reims – the French capital of Champagne and 900 years-worth of royal coronations is what today most people would see as just a fancy champagne-tasting destination. While others, namely students, would sometimes prefer no other term than “shithole”. However, I don’t necessarily want to argue with the local Rémois, but I do have to say that nothing I saw there made me want to use the aforementioned noun.

Reims might not be the city of lights, nor the city of the world’s desire, but in fact, it turned out to be the city of my… academic ambitions. Oh well, Nancy and I didn’t go there to taste champagne (like we’d have money for that) nor to check out where some king named Louis, Charles or François was crowned. Actually, we decided to spend a weekend in Reims to explore the Sciences Po University campus and get the overall vibe of the city, like, see if it’s livable.

We stayed at a friend of Nancy’s – Patrick, who is indeed a student at Sciences Po and in fact was the one who shamelessly called this cutie of a city “a total shithole”. It was quite fun to witness both sides though – ours as a blinded by Reims’ charm and affordable prices tourists and his as an American “trapped between two real cities” (Paris and Strasbourg) in a petite and rather calm historical one.

A royal’s first impression

Getting off at the train station I remember that I was already carefully examining my surroundings, calculating my chances of being admitted at Sciences Po and imagining what would it really be like to live there. Of course, that was me being overly dramatic as it was just a train station like any other. But the excitement stayed with me long after.

So, after leaving our luggage, our first job was to visit the only major touristic attraction and maybe the most important cathedral in France – Notre-Dame de Reims. I believe the only word that can describe its high gothic exterior is DAMN.

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And when you think about how every French king from 1027 to 1825 was crowned right there (according to Wikipedia), I have to say it is hard not to be genuinely impressed. Okay, Reims, you’re ancient and cool – I give you that. But can you serve the honorable purpose of being the home of a real 21st century royal aka moi? We’ll see.

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Getting to business

Next on the list was, of course, Sciences Po. Why did we even wait so long, right? Well, it was because the cathedral was actually on our way between Patrick and his roommate Liam’s apartment… but otherwise the university was definitely our priority.

So, if I thought that I wanted to get in before, I think after seeing the campus I reached a new level of motivation. Although I’m coming from an actually decent looking and freshly renovated school, Sciences Po looked noticeably better than every administrative building I’ve seen in Bulgaria, especially educational. I guess I can’t exactly put that in my letter of motivation, but I see you ScPo, I see you.

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took that from their site oops

The following evening we went to a party, where I even got to meet a lot of people from the university and practice my French so I got that going for me. Not that I am obsessed or anything, but I can’t imagine that Sciences Po could have a more informed candidate at this point.

Even queens have budgets

On the next day Nancy and I had breakfast at a place called Lion de Belfort. And I mean a real French breakfast – not the budget version we were mostly restricting ourselves to in Paris. We’re talking pancakes, croissants, bread with confiture, orange juice AND coffee!! We payed 8 euros each so I think for the same amount you might be able to get a cappuccino and a bottle of water in Paris. Key word: might.

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Then, about 2 hours before it became time for us to sprint out way to the train station, we found an authentic vintage bazar that was basically made for us. So, we might have spent a little bit more than we had planned for a weekend outside of one of the most expensive cities in Europe, which was already shamelessly absorbing our finances, but we had an awesome time. Plus after that in Paris we just ate cheap supermarket food for a few days in order to compensate – if that’s not a responsible adulting I don’t know what is.

I would like to devote my last paragraph to the actual jewel of Reims – Patrick and Liam’s apartment. Two and a half bedrooms, huge living space with a lot of light located right next to Place Drouet d’Erlon, where there are many cafes and restaurants. Their student lifestyle is insane, just saying. And the best part? They’re paying the same amount of money my sister does for her 10 square meters shoebox in the city of lights…

A Parisian for Two Weeks: Living Like a Local in the City of Lights

Together in Paris.

 

If you watched the animated movie “Anastasia” as a child, then you might make an association with the necklace that Anastasia’s grandma gave to her at the beginning of the film, with those words engraved on it. Weirdly enough, I have been binge watching this cartoon literally ever since I can remember. At some point, my sister and I started using together in Paris as a cute inside joke/ display of affection. But this summer, it actually happened: we were finally together in Paris!

 

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To be absolutely honest, we also went to Disneyland together with our grandparents when I was 9, but that doesn’t count, okay?! This September I got to visit my favorite person on Earth in, what is now, my favorite city on Earth.

Ever since I came back to Sofia, whenever somebody dares to make a casual comment about how Paris “isn’t anything special”, I become as eager to start a debate as when Bulgarians use the word “gender” as an insult.

 

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Not what most people imagine when they hear Paris, but still Paris.

 

Apart from Paris’s undeniable charm, another reason why I got to love it so much is probably because I stayed there for 2 weeks, which I realized is the longest I have ever stayed in one city outside Bulgaria. I became quite attached.

Besides, I feel confident that I got the most out of my time there – we visited sights, went to bars, restaurants and parks all while actually living in the city and being the normal non-vacation us.

My (future) Parisian lifestyle

The initial reason for my trip was not just to visit Nancy or to casually run into Kylian Mbappe. I did see a huge graffiti of him the moment I entered Paris though, which I considered to be a sign from the universe, but whatever. In fact, I came to participate as a journalist at the Paris Model European Union. Another contribution to my “local consciousness” – every day of my first week I felt as if I’m just another Parisian with a 9 to 5 job. Or more like a fancy-ass version of that, since the simulation was in the actual Assemblée Nationale, in one of the most beautiful (and expensive) neighborhoods in Paris…

There’s nothing that motivates me to study and work my ass off more than the memory of me having cheap lunch (a 3 euro mini salad from the supermarket) with a view of Invalides and the Eiffel Tower.

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One castle, two Bay Ganyos

Speaking of lifestyle goals… let’s talk Versailles. I honestly can’t remember another time when I’ve been that impressed by something. It’s one of these places that even the enormous crowds of tourists simply cannot ruin. Neither is it the type of famous sight that is objectively overrated. Na-ah. The castle and especially the gardens were the definition of grandeur. Totally worth the waiting on huge lines, guys. And no, we weren’t Bay Ganyos and we did not skip the line. Definitely not.

 

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Best unexpected moment in Versailles? There is a small restaurant in the gardens where we ate cheap pizza. Cheap for Paris standards, of course, for Bulgarians nothing in Western Europe is actually cheap.

 

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Paris can be everything you need

One sunny day we walked around the Gardens of Luxembourg with our friend Tony – another Bulgarian girl who studies in the Sorbonne. I can’t tell if it was the unusually hot weather or the gardens themselves with all the palm trees, but I remember feeling more as if I’m in Barcelona. But, hey, who said that Paris can’t be exotic?

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Found my American family in France

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For the first two days of my second week Nancy had lectures pretty much all day and that’s why her best friend Rachel and her parents, Steven and Karen, de facto adopted me. They also took all of their “European children” (aka Rachel’s friends and exchange students they have hosted) out on lunch, where we got to experience 2 things. One overwhelmingly French and the other not so much: we were served by a stereotypically rude Parisian waiter and attacked by bees. Like, really?! Paris is supposed to be too gloomy for that, but I guess global warming knows better.

On the next day, we went shopping and just aimlessly walked around the 4th arrondissement, which is charming and quite hipster. At the end of their stay, they proclaimed me as their Bulgarian daughter number 1! (Nancy is number 2 so that’s a big win)

A sweet escape (almost) in Paris

After nearly 10 days in Paris, my sister and I decided we needed a break from the big city and so we made ourselves a picnic for two in Montsouris – a super peaceful and green park almost on the outskirts of Paris. Both of us brought our new books from “Shakespeare and Company” and chilled there for the afternoon. Ayran bought from the nearest kebab shop, “A short history of WW1” and the company of the best human/sister ever… what more could you ask for?

In the end, I simply loved everything about Paris (except the 18th arrondissement – do not go there). Well, yes, Parisian waiters can be intentionally rude, if you want to drink a cappuccino you need to sell you kidney first and as it turns out, you don’t run into Kylian Mbappe or Antoine Griezmann every day… But overall Paris is vibrant and fun, aesthetically pleasing, multicultural while somehow remaining super French and if I had to use one word to describe it, it would be “spellbinding”.

P.S. One thing I learned from my stay in Paris: not knowing how to conjugate verbs shouldn’t stop you from trying to communicate in French. Amen.

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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.