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. 

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.