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 Pamporovo, Bulgaria: Confessions of an Amateur Off-Piste Skier

Although our blog is called “Almost Adventures”, my weekend of skiing in the Pamporovo forests might as well classify as a real one. I mean, ski slopes are cool, but woods, teeming with knee-deep snow are on a whole new level. Having been taught to ski by my father when I was 4 years old, I have always been rather confident that I won’t, like, die or something. Yet, since I went from slopes to powder, I have had my doubts on that statement.

A Weekend in Pamporovo Bulgaria Confessions of an Amateur Off-Piste Skier

Safety? What safety?

First of all, a little something about off-piste skiing in Bulgaria: it’s not like many Western countries, where you could hire a qualified teacher, just like for the slopes, in order to guide you through the rudiments of skiing in unmarked terrain and teach you how to keep yourself safe. Here, when you go off the beaten track (quite literally), you just do it at your own risk. There are no freeride ski schools, nor instructors you could hire – it is basically “illegal”. As much as something could be truly illegal in Bulgaria, of course. In other words, no one follows this rule, and no one expects it to be followed.

However, Bulgarians do have a strong off-piste skiing culture (one which builds up about 50% of my national pride) and precisely because of its lack of commercialization, it is just what it’s supposed to be – you get to put your signature on the snow with your tracks and experience the purest form of skiing, without the restrictions and preparation of the groomed slopes.

Another thing that marks our off-piste culture is the tendency to deny any other form of skiing once you have tried the forests. Well, frustrating though it could be, there is certain amount of tension between racers and freeriders. Are you even a real off-piste skier if you don’t make fun of those losers on the slopes every time you’re hovering above them on the ski lift? Personally, developing kind of allergy to ski slopes is a bit too extra for me. And yet, once I went off the tracks, I found this new path to be undeniably cooler and more exciting.

Without further ado, here is how things went down for me last week in the Bulgarian ski resort Pamporovo.

 

Falling in love with skiing…but for the most part, just falling

“No, no – I’m fine. You don’t need to wait for me!” is what I’m yelling to my friends, while trying to dig myself out of the powder in the middle of f*cking nowhere with one of my skis staring at me unabashedly from three meters away. Clearly, I was not fine. However, by that time I still hadn’t come to one crucial realization – there is no shame in falling.

As I said before, I’ve been skiing since early childhood and at that point, I thought the days of falling and losing my skis were long over, but na-a-h. In the forests everybody falls and the quicker you learn this and leave your ego behind, the better.

So here I am, after my I-don’t-want-to-say-the-number-th fall for the first two hours, shamelessly continuing to ride, fall, get up, lose equipment, find it and so on. My friends and I were constantly losing each other or waiting for one another (not so fun, but worth it). I learned not to care so much and that, hey, there is a certain amount of charm in falling on your derriere, being stuck in an offbeat terrain or in just hanging around, waiting to make sure your squad survived.

 

Getting a bit too close to nature

A thing I love about skiing freeride is that the forest may have 10 000 trees, but once you have hit one in particular – it becomes special. It becomes your tree. The places where you fell, the ones that have bruised not only your body and skis, but also your self-esteem – these ones you remember. At the end of the day you find yourself knowing the woods to perfection and your “landmarks” have become sort of insider memes that would frequently come up in conversations. Take for instance – “Where are you?! I just passed Kali’s pine.” or “Be careful, Svilen’s cliff is on your left!”

For the time being, a significant amount of my craziest memories are not only of me being drunk, but also of me skiing off-piste, so despite the fact that my back still hurts like hell and I got a cold, it was so freaking cool. We were a bunch of awesome people, blessed with a miraculous powder combined with a flawless blue sky, just having fun and forgetting about everything else. So now, with one of my friends’ skis irretrievably lost, another one’s severely scratched, but everybody none the less hyped, we are all telling stories and waiting for the next time we get the chance to ski off-piste… Our trees and bumps will be waiting for us, too.

From Saint Petersburg with Apathy and Indifference

“From Petersburg with apathy and indifference” („Из Петербурга с апатией и безразличием“) is what many hip-looking postcards in the famous House of Books (Дом Книги) read. Yet, while I was seeking temporary shelter from the freezingly humid February wind inside the antique bookstore, getting lost amidst rows of shelves with books old and new, foreign and Russian, surrounded by the mingling crowds of tourists and locals, I felt neither apathy, nor indifference.

It feels a bit like treason to start off my blog with a love letter to Saint Petersburg, when my home for the past six months has been Moscow, and you don’t need to live in Russia to know that the rivalry between these two cities goes back centuries. And yet, when I think of “travel blog”, the first thing that comes to mind is not my journey of getting to know and learning to love this cold, strange, magnificent city that is the Russian capital – rather, it’s my latest opportunity to get away from it.

 

Off to a rough start

My four-day trip to the Venice of the North was hardly love at first sight. To be precise, it was love at second sight, my first visit to the city having been only four months ago. Our first encounter had been a sloppy one-night stand, too quick, too brisk, too much alcohol involved for it to be truly enjoyable. In the three days I spent in Saint Petersburg back in October, along with a huge group of Erasmus students, most of it consisted in rushing from one guided tour to another, complaining about the non-stop rain and hopping from shitty touristy bar to shitty touristy bar all the way to an aborted attempt at a boat party (hint: there was no party; it was just a boat).

There were, of course, a few positive highlights, such as the Hermitage, which is always stunning and luckily big enough to escape from your tour group, as well as a few artsy cafés, revealed to us by our friends who live there. But overall, my first trip to Saint Petersburg had been a disappointment, not with the city itself, but with the way I spent my time there, and I was looking forward to correcting that.

 

It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey…or is it?

Come my second trip, I had learned from my mistakes. This time, I was to travel with only a small group of trusted people – my best friend Rachel and three other girls from our university, all of us internationals. In other words, a solid girl squad hopping on the night train and heading towards a long weekend full of crazy adventures. You can already imagine how it all began – sipping vodka, sharing embarrassing stories, Britney Spears blasting in the platzkart…AS IF. Nope folks, don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise, the night train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg is basically a nine-hour sleeping contest with obstacles such as fitting in a sleeping cot half your size, ignoring the snores of the fat Russian dude above you, as well as the smell of the toilets next to you, cause you just had to save those 800 rubles, didn’t you?

And so we arrive at Moskovskiy Vokzal (they named the train stations in Russia after their main destination, isn’t that cool?), tired and in intense need of a shower, but happy to have gotten here in one piece. But what to do now, where to go, the opportunities are endless! So how did we spend the rest of the day? You’re damn right, we stayed in and chilled at Boris’s house, who was hosting three of us in his nice urban apartment, far away from the center.

Now, I see how it might seem regrettable to spend the whole first day in a new city closed inside a boring apartment, but you have to take into account our living situation back in Moscow. Rachel and I share a 12-square-meters double room in a typical ugly Soviet dorm, our window facing another typical ugly Soviet dorm. Therefore, being able to sit and sip tea with our friend in a real kitchen, looking at the snow fall down on an equally Soviet-looking, but somehow noticeably livelier and cozier street below, was a much-needed sense of home that we couldn’t get in our own living space.

 

Food, fashion and biopolitical art

Another thing that was harder to find in Moscow and that we were eager to try out here was good restaurants. Russians aren’t exactly famous for their amazing food culture (which can be essentially summarized with the words “mayo and whipped cream on everything yay!”) and Saint Petersburg is no particular exception, but due to its geographical and cultural proximity to continental Europe, it had become more cosmopolitan and was now competing with some European capitals in number and diversity of restaurants specializing in international cuisine.

Our choice for the night was “Meat Bar”, a minimalist stylish place serving an overpriced, but nevertheless exquisite variety of finely cooked meat and equally fine French wine. Even more than the food, I fell in love with the interior and overall aesthetic, which I’m already planning to steal for my Paris studio next year.

Wining and dining at Meat Bar

Above all, Saint Petersburg is a stylish city. You can see it in the people walking down Nevsky Prospekt, from the teen fashionistas with their faux fur and bathrobe coats, to the techno hipsters, sporting statement fanny packs (yes, you read that right) with black Adidas sportswear from head to toe. We too tried to be fancy. We risked hypothermia while doing a coatless photo shoot on top of the Saint Isaac Cathedral. We strolled down a small street rounding up a dozen designer stores, fell tragically in love with a Gucci bag and finally found our way back to Nevsky, where we came upon a four-story 17th-century shopping center with floor-to-rooftop display windows called “Дом Мартенса” (the House of Martens).

It was not the first time we spotted a very French-looking and French-sounding place in Saint Petersburg (I guess we have to thank Peter the Great and the entire two centuries after him for that). This is probably the only city I’ve seen so far that has actually beautiful malls. And that one was just a small shopping center, wait till you see the Galeria Mall! Built in 2010 in classical Greek style, a true contemporary pantheon of consumerism, it would have been incredibly tacky, if it wasn’t stunningly beautiful.

Not everything in the city was beautiful, of course, but even the occasional ugliness seemed to serve its specific purpose. Once, while crossing a bridge above the fully frozen Neva river, we stumbled upon a curious piece of urban art. Just next to the bridge, in the few inches of snow that had fallen on the frozen river, there was the name of the Russian president, spelled in capital letters, each one roughly the size of a car. Just below it, a large male reproductive organ. It was unlikely that the drawing had been the creation of an innocent, perhaps bored, group of teenagers on a casual day after school. Rather, we decided, it must have been that Petersburg-based oppositionist street art group that we talked about in one of our classes just a week ago. Anyway, this version seemed way more exciting and we were happy to have been at the right place in the right time to see the controversial political statement before it was covered by the snow.

Biopolitical Street Art in Saint Petersburg

Street art with a politically dangerous message

 

Peterhof is where the world ends

Having mentioned the frozen river, we now get to the part of the trip that left the biggest mark in my memory. It involves another frozen natural water source, but before that, a castle. More precisely, the famous Peterhof Palace, often referred to as the “Russian Versailles”. Now, I’ve never been to Versailles, but from the front entrance, Peterhof looked very much like the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, only with more snow. It was behind the palace, in the royal gardens, that the real fun began.

First of all, I don’t think I had ever seen that many golden statues in one place. The contrast with the shining white of the snow cover made the non-functioning fountains look kind of surreal, like something out of an Andy Warhol painting. Most of all, it gave me the creeps, because it made me think of the weeping angels from Doctor Who.

Peterhof Palace Garden Statues

The Weeping Angels: Royal Edition

However, we were still about to experience the most surreal part of it all. As we were walking around the palace gardens, we suddenly reached the end of the world. And no, I did not do drugs the previous night. Not knowing that the Peterhof was built right at the shore, we had reached the Baltic Sea without even realizing that it was there. The best part? It too, it was frozen! Covered by a thick layer of snow, the surface of the sea had blended in with the white sky and I swear, for a few mesmerizing seconds, it really felt like we had reached the end of the universe. It wasn’t until we walked a couple hundred meters in on the frozen salt water, that we became fully aware of where we were and what we were doing.

It was in that moment, while we were walking on the sea into the white nothingness, that I thought to myself, during this whole trip I had felt everything else but apathy and indifference.

Where the universe comes to an end

Walking on frozen water