When I first met my boyfriend Martin in February 2012, the first thing I was struck by was his accent. Distinctly Eastern European, I couldn’t place its exact origin, but like many others who first meet him, I presumed it to be Russian. When he told me he was from Bulgaria, I have to admit I didn’t have a clue where it was located (answer: sandwiched between Romania, Macedonia, Turkey, and Greece), and I definitely didn’t imagine I would ever find myself there. But fast forward three and a half years, and I found myself halfway around in world in the extremely diverse Balkan nation of Bulgaria.
Since this trip took up 3 weeks of September, it seems only appropriate that this month’s recap post be dedicated mostly to travels within Bulgaria, with some side notes on how location independent work came into play. Here are the stats for the month, with some comparisons to August.
Photo Shoots to Refer
Photo shoots completed
*12 less than August
Hours worked for the month
*35 less than August
*51.97 less than August
Looking at my chart above, it should be pretty obvious where my travel dates were, but notice that spike of work hours towards the end of the month? As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, one of the major pitfalls of being self employed is that there’s really no such thing as taking time off. There’s no one to do my work or fill in for me, so I’m committed to performing my routine work tasks, or scheduling them out ahead of time to take a few days off. This chart reflects that pretty well, as there’s never a day in the month where some work time wasn’t recorded. The spike at the beginning of the month is due to cramming in the 5 photo shoots I did manage to complete this month, as well as scrambling to do as much work ahead of time before traveling. And the spike at the end of the month is catch up work for the week I took it easy in the middle of the month.
September Photo Shoots
- Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival 2015
- Spinasse Restaurant
- Artusi Restaurant
- Blind Pig Bistro
- Four Season Hotel / Goldfinch Tavern
Also, that stat about “10 photo shoots to refer”? Those are the photography jobs I had to reject in September due to travel. So much for thinking September wasn’t going to be a busy month, but on the plus side, I referred as many of those jobs as possible to my talented photographer friends in Seattle.
What I’m really stoked about for September was seeing an influx in freelance web design work that, due to its remote work nature, allowed me to fully practice the location independent digital nomad lifestyle. I’ve done this several times before, most notably in Thailand, but this was the longest stretch of time dedicated to the task, and it brought up some pretty big pain points such as spotty WiFi connections (which, amazingly, were not ever an issue in Thailand), and terrible back aches due to working on beds and sofas instead of my home office’s stand up desk. How digital nomads get around these two hurdles is something I’m still researching. Any tips would be appreciated!
Previous Eastern Europe Travels
Now that we’ve talked work, let’s talk about the fun stuff: TRAVEL!
The first time I did my epic backpacking trip around Europe in Spring/Summer 2007, I actually did wander a bit into Eastern Europe by tagging along with some college friends. We hit up Slovenia and Croatia before traveling south to Greece. I have to admit that compared to the prior months of travel I’d done in Western Europe, that initial trip to the east was not terribly memorable, other than vowing to never return to mainland Greece ever again. In fact, the main memory I do have of the trip was our stay with a Couchsurfer in Ljubljana, Slovenia–we arrived at his apartment just as he was rushing out for an emergency trip, but he was kind enough to leave us the key to his flat, with permission to “do whatever we wanted.”
A New Foray into Eastern Europe
Despite my so-so first trip to the east, my second trip was completely different. This was due partially to the mass of changes that happened between 2007 to now (ie. growing up), and staying with Martin’s family the entire time and not being able to say more than a few basic words. Even though I’d done several home stays abroad before, they were all with Spanish-speaking hosts and I was generally able to carry on conversations thanks to my 6 month study abroad immersion. Prior to my trip to Bulgaria, I did make an attempt to learn some basic Bulgarian via Bulgarian Pod 101. In fact, studying the language a bit made it seem much simpler than it first appeared, but naturally the bigger challenge comes with actually speaking and comprehending the language in practice, which I found pretty much impossible. The only other time I recall feeling so flustered by my lack of communication abilities was in Korea, trying and failing to converse with my blood family in their native tongues. There’s something about mixing family and foreign languages that never results in my favor. I suppose the wisdom of Benny Lewis of Fluent in Three Months has never felt more true.
“Learning a language is a social challenge, not an intellectual one.” – Benny Lewis
Food and Drink
While I didn’t score any points with my less than toddler-level Bulgarian vocabulary, the cuisine was on par, likely thanks to the fact that I’ve been living with a Bulgarian for a couple years. Bulgarian food is very Mediterranean and not too different from Greek food, with lots of olives, olive oil, fresh tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, and yogurt in the mix. We were privileged to eat many freshly prepared meals sourced locally to the point that many fruits and veggies came straight from the family garden. Protein-wise, the food consisted mainly of sausages and preserved meats, grilled pork, and, during our week-long trip to Greece, freshly caught fish. In terms of drinks, the main ones we imbibed in were ayran (a chilled yogurt drink), freshly sourced mineral water, and rakia (a fruit brandy). Nearly 3 weeks of exclusively homemade foods probably marks the longest time of my life I’ve gone without constantly eating out at restaurants, plus the MOST TOMATOES I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. Speaking as a general tomato-hater, believe me when I say that homegrown Bulgarian tomatoes are something else.
First Stop: Veliko Tarnovo
As expected, the trip from Seattle to Bulgaria was pretty grueling: 9 hours flying from Seattle to Frankfurt, Germany, 2 more hours of flying to Sofia, Bulgaria, and then a 2.5 hour car ride from Sofia to Martin’s hometown of Veliko Tarnovo. Located in north central Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo is also known as the “City of the Tsars” as it was the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and is considered one of the country’s oldest towns with a history of more than five millennia. Thanks to its history and unique placement on hills, the town’s buildings have unique architecture, making great photography subjects during long strolls. In the center of town is the view of Tsarevets Fortress, a medieval stronghold that puts on a stellar audiovisual laser show in the evenings.
Veliko Tarnovo was our home base throughout the trip and I quickly fell in love with its steep hills and sweeping, rewarding views from the top.
Second Stop: The Black Sea
During our second weekend in Bulgaria, we took a quick trip to the closest ocean to Veliko Tarnovo: the Black Sea. Several hours’ drive away, the Lozenets area is a resort beach town located along the Black Sea coast. We wandered through this cozy town after taking in a seafood lunch before heading to a private vacation home where we spent a relaxing weekend with Kindles, friends, and lots of rakia.
Third Stop: Greece – Halkidiki and Thessaloniki
While we knew Bulgaria would be our home base, we had high hopes of spending at least part of our trip in another close by country. Our top pick was Istanbul, since the Turkish border was located just miles away from Lozenets, but the recent refugee crisis caused a change in our plans. Instead, we decided to head to another country bordering Bulgaria: Greece. Just hours after returning back to Veliko Tarnovo from the Black Sea, we piled into a car with Martin’s parents and took off for a week-long trip to the beaches of Greece.
A popular summer tourist destination for Greeks, Bulgarians, and Russians, the Chalkidiki area consists of the large peninsula surrounding the “fingers” of Greece. We rented out a 3-bedroom vacation house right on the beach (thanks Airbnb!), and enjoyed nightly dinners of grilled freshly caught fish on the gazebo out front. The only downside to our vacation as the realization that low season in this area of Greece also means no season. The few activities we did try to arrange, such as kayaking and boat rentals, were largely unsuccessful as no employees were present and many businesses were shut down until next season. Luckily, we did find a lone kayak rentals vendor who was still working and managed to cross “kayaking to Greek islands” off of our bucket list.
Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, was about an hour’s drive away from Chalkidiki, so of course we spent part of a day here. While it is a hub for international trade and culture, Thessaloniki, like Athens, didn’t leave much of an impression on me. There aren’t many reasons I would ever return here for leisure.
In the end
Three weeks in Eastern Europe went by at odd paces; while we made sure to go sightseeing, we also spent quite a bit of time just lounging and relaxing. I can’t remember the last time I laid on the beach for hours rather than doing something active in the water, or read 3 books in 3 weeks (one of them being Andy Weir’sThe Martian, which I highly recommend). In fact, this is the very first trip out of 10 that Martin and I have taken together and not run ourselves ragged.
Thank you to Martin’s entire family for being incredible hosts. This definitely won’t be our last trip to Bulgaria!
Click here to see all photos from the trip here.