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…

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.

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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A-MAZING

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.

Two Broke Girls in Russia: Hunting for Oligarchs in Moscow

For those of you who haven’t been following our blog from the beginning, you may need to know that my sister Nancy is completing her final year of Bachelor’s by doing an exchange in Moscow. Ever since we officially found out she was admitted, or at least ever since I learned, a trip was instantly put into my imaginary calendar and despite our parents’ strong efforts to convince me it was too expensive, I started doing my research. Turns out that a girl with no less than 7 different cheap flight apps and her only sister abroad can do more than any travel agent.

Fast forward to spring break, when I finally got to visit Nancy, explore Moscow and St. Petersburg, pretend to know Russian and even communicate with local babushkas way more than I had ever imagined…

Russia – the land where people don’t speak English even at the airport

I arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport with The Master and Margarita in my hands, which I was reading during my flight in order to convince myself that a) “oh, I’m so cultured!”, and b) this would somehow prepare me for the Russian vibe, but trust me on this one – nobody and nothing can prepare you for Russian bureaucracy. My first encounter with it was precisely at the international airport, when I still hadn’t even googled how to say “Thanks” (Спасибо), so you could probably imagine the intensity of the situation: a Russian woman trying to mimic the necessary administrative steps for when one has lost a suitcase and a foreigner desperately wishing for an emergency anger management session… Thankfully, my luggage found its way back to me, before I had killed half of the staff.

Play-Doh & Rosé

Right after we got to our hostel, we decided that no time is to be wasted and went out almost immediately to meet with Yani, another Bulgarian expat. We had dinner in, hands down, the most curious and eye-catching restaurant I’ve ever been to.

Didu’s design is something you can’t see everywhere – people sitting in hanging wicker chairs by the windows, every piece of furniture being aesthetically pleasing in some bizarre way and on top of that, you get walls covered with small Plasticine sculptures. How cool is that?! Also, visitors are the ones who leave the Play-Doh models. So, if you’re feeling at least half as childish as I was, you’ll definitely enjoy making them (while drinking fancy af wine, of course).

Being a tourist is low-key the best workout

On the next day we did check “taking basic bitch photos in front of St. Basil’s cathedral” off our list, and we also tried traditional Russian cuisine in a Soviet-themed café – Varenichnaya No.1, all while discussing Russian politics. While we were going from one sight to another, I believe I broke my record for steps per day, as my pedometer was literally going crazy. Well, that’s what you get in a city with bigger population than that of my home country.

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Saint Basil’s Cathedral on an unusually sunny day

The time when I fell in love with a bridge

The highlight of the day was undoubtedly Zaryadye Park, and in particular the new bridge that was build there called “The Floating bridge” (Парящий мост). The project was carried out by American architects and what’s interesting about the bridge is that it doesn’t have a single support. It’s simply astounding. Weird as it may seem to have such a modern building near the historical centre of Moscow, but it somehow fit in its own unique way. What’s more, from its long cantilevered section you could perhaps get the best view of the Kremlin, the Krymsky Bridge and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

I don’t dress for men… I dress for Bolshoi.

Next on our schedule was the “Bolshoi Theatre”. It is still so surreal for me to be able to say that not only did I see Bolshoi, but I actually saw a Russian ballet there! Now, I’m not saying we bought cheap student tickets an hour before the play and we used that time to pick up a new outfit for my sister, but I am. Gotta live the life you strive for, right? Needless to say how breathtaking was the performance and out of all the productions I’ve ever watched, La Sylphidewas undoubtedly the best one.

Comin’ thro’ the rain for oligarchs and sweets.

On the following night Nancy decided to show me Moscow City – a new urban area with skyscrapers, which was located in the middle of nowhere and for some reason the buildings reminded me of the Doofenshmirtz Evil Incorporated. The weather was cold, windy and it was starting to rain, which was the perfect driving force for me to speed up and summon Turbo Krisi – that’s me on high-speed mode and also my super hero secret identity (shhh…). Another thing that kept me going was that we were heading towards a fancy restaurant on the sixtieth floor of a skyscraper and we needed to get there before dinner time in order for it to be socially acceptable not to order anything but dessert (the only thing we could afford). Did I mention something about living the life you strive for? Yeah, so that was pretty much our motto.

Fortunately, we got to the expensive restaurant Sixty around 5 pm and thus got the perfect lightning for another round of basic bitch photos! Yasss! Even if you think we were sort of lame, oh well, we enjoyed our extravagant desserts and embraced the full Bay Ganyo mentality, because, hey, who knows when we’re coming back again… I’ll just give them a gigantic tip when I’m rich (pinky swear). So, if I had to guess where Russian girls go to hunt their oligarchs, I would have to go with Sixty, and if someone asked me where you could one eat the most extra desserts – my answer would be the same. До свидания, Sixty!

When I come back it will be in my private helicopter.

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After all, I fell in love with that city.

Although the life in Moscow must be generally hard and stressful, hardly would anyone argue that its history, culture and charm are absolutely everywhere. There is a feeling of majestic communism, which mingles with the new modern and alternative vibe… and the combination is awe-inspiring.

 

Contemporary Art and Late-Night Kebabs: A Solo Trip to Rainy Holland

First of all, this is a throwback. I went to visit a friend of mine – Dany, who is a first year student in the University College of Utrecht, during my February vacation. Not only did I get to see a close friend and do some catching up, but also got the chance to explore Utrecht – a small, but charming and lively Dutch town, as well as Amsterdam – the dream of both tourists and hipsters. So, here’s how my “almost adventure” went.

An almost poetic start

Upon my arrival at Utrecht, I felt like I was sort of pathetic, but in a cute way. I was slightly unprepared for the weather in the Netherlands – with my uncovered ankles, thin summer coat and lack of umbrella, I had to carry my miniature luggage (to be expected from the low-cost flight) and my dictionary-huge book that didn’t fit anywhere, all through the rain. What the hell was I thinking?! Oh wait, I know – in Bulgarian it would be “от студ умри, гъзар бъди”, which roughly translates to “freeze to death, but always be stylish”, and I find this beautiful. I was already being showered in Dutch culture – quite literally. Thank God, there is always a Starbucks to save you in such situations… Here I was, just a lone basic bitch drinking an over-priced cappuccino. Wouldn’t Carrie Bradshaw call that poetic?

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Partying alone. Who said it wasn’t cool?

The day of my arrival happened to be a Thursday, which was lucky for me, because like I was told then, “Thursday is the new Friday”, and y’all know what that means. Of course, there was a huge party on campus and notwithstanding my brief encounter with Dany’s awesome roommates (a special shout out), I didn’t know anyone else. Even my host didn’t quite count, as he was busy taking a shift at the campus bar and thus getting blackout drunk to the point of unavailability for the whole night. That got me wandering around all night between the most random people and by random, I mean that at some point they weren’t even in Dany’s social circle – they were just there.

Here’s to the friends life forces you to have! P.S. Another shout out to this guy who at some point was my new BFF and at another forgot who I was…

A weekend in Amsterdam

On the next day, taking advantage of my friend’s guilt for leaving me with complete strangers and without a key to his room the first night, I forced him to take me to Amsterdam. Poor boy, right? Anyhow, in the Dutch capital I also got to see Deni – one of my sister’s best friends, and Nia – Dany’s friend, who accepted the role of my personal tour guide and the closest to an Amsterdam Mom that one could get. In other words, two of the coolest locals you could meet.

First, we started by just walking around aimlessly in Amsterdam without the realistic idea of visiting any museums whatsoever, which was awesome and yet somehow against my nature as a true tourist. What I came to realize, though, was that the city itself is so enchanting and fascinating to observe, that it could just as well have been an art exhibit by itself. As I have lived all my life in Sofia – a city which architecture mingles the Vienna Secession and the Communist-era as sources of “inspiration”- it is always outlandish to explore places where all of the buildings are actually… in harmony? Complementing each other? But seriously, even if I hadn’t been from Sofia, I believe that objectively there is something special and nonetheless peaceful about buildings that are inextricably linked, united in terms of style (or at least in terms of the vibes they give) and yet all of them having so much spellbinding details of their own.

We started the night in a bar called Waterkant and ended like only true slavs know how…in a kebab shop. While drinking beers in the hip-looking club and dancing to some commercial music mixed with reggaeton, surrounded by funky young people, I remember thinking “Okay. That’s what I came here for”, and while eating the kebab later – “Oh, no. This is what I came here for”.

Stedelijk is my new bae

Stedelijk Museum

If I have to be honest, probably the most memorable of all the activities in Amsterdam and in Utrecht was my visit to the Stedelijk, where Nia took me on the next day. In case you don’t know, it is a contemporary art museum and hands down, the coolest place I’ve ever been to. Honestly, before I got in, I thought “oh well, most of the artefacts would probably be objectively ugly, but with a deep hidden meaning that I wouldn’t be able to grasp”, and although this was perhaps true for some of the pieces (the part where I don’t get the actual connotation), for the vast majority it wasn’t the case at all. The paintings, photographs and all other forms of art which I encountered were like nothing I had ever seen before and despite my original bias, I found them wonderful. Another thing I liked was that the idea behind them was roughly explained in a few paragraphs, so my primary fear of “not getting it” turned out to be unjustified.

To sum up, during my stay in Utrecht I got to experience the Dutch culture at its finest – a.k.a. I rode a bike and didn’t know how to stop and it rained a lot. Amsterdam, on the other hand, made me admire Holland in every way possible. It was there I realized that I actually do like contemporary art (and it’s not just something a 5-year-old could do) and that I could never get enough of just walking around, staring at the buildings and the canals. Neither would I get tired of being a tourist and absorbing the eclectic culture through the Dutch capital’s countless museums. And the best part? Since I am under 18, I could enter everywhere for free! This, kids, is the moral of the story: if you don’t want to pay 17 euros for a museum ticket, you’ve got to travel to the Netherlands while you’re young!

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Shoutout to our good friend Deni Yoncheva for the amazing photos! Follow her on Instagram at @deniyoncheva