The art of aging gracefully | Paris, France

I arrived in Paris on my mom’s birthday – a pretty fitting coincidence, considering she was the reason for my first visit to the city (and my first time traveling abroad) 27 years ago, when I was four and she was roughly the same age as I am now. To this day, in spite of having traveled and lived all over the place, my mom considers Paris to be the most beautiful, exciting and, well, simply the best city in the world. She knows it like the back of her hand.* I have my own mixed emotions about it, but I can’t deny that Paris seems to have mastered the art of aging gracefully (as have its women, according to this article).

So has my mom, but that’s beside the point. The point is that to me, she continues to be an endless source of inspiration, knowledge and talent, a provider of unconditional love and unwavering support, and the kind of person I hope to become as I grow older.

So, with this post, I want to wish my wonderful, graceful and inspiring mother a happy birthday. And I’ll say it again: I am lucky to have her.

*While I was in Paris, I complained to my mom over the phone that I needed to get some place, but it was too cold to walk and I didn’t feel like going down into the crowded, smelly and confusing metro. She asked where I was staying and, off the top of her head, told me exactly what bus would take me from there directly to the place I was trying to reach.

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Happy Christmas!

Another year, another Christmas spent in un-Christmassy weather and surroundings… But, like last year, snow and pines and cozy fireplaces and sparkly garlands come only second to the joy brought by spending the holiday with people I love, eating good food and feeling all festive (and mushy) on the inside.

Hope you are doing the same. Merry Christmas!

Finding my feet | Montpellier, France

When I stumbled upon these yellow cobblestones in the center of Montpellier, I was instantly – and predictably, reminded of their larger, brighter and more full-of-history distant cousins, which grace the center of Sofia.

I may not be brilliant at a lot of things, but this is one thing I know I am pretty good at (that, and being humble!): I can travel to and live in different places freely, light-heartedly, without being bogged down by homesickness, nostalgia and the longing for home, without the cumbersome impulse to find and latch on to familiar things, to seek out fellow compatriots or to regularly consume luytenitsa or lukanka. Don’t get me wrong, of course I miss friends and family and places that I love, but that’s a constant that happens all the time and everywhere, regardless of whether I am “at home” or traveling or living abroad.

And still, this time, the spontaneous association with Sofia’s cobblestones snuck up on me in an instant, before I could rationalize and wave it away as some sort of unwarranted signal of a sentimental attachment to my hometown.

I am pretty sure that a term must have been coined for this syndrome – the tendency among travelers and ex-pats to spot and latch onto familiar things when they find themselves in a foreign environment with no recognizable points of reference. When searching for what it might be called, among all the coping-with-life-abroad websites aimed at helping people who face culture shock when living and traveling outside of their home country, strangely, one of the search results was a link to a dictionary definition of the idiom ‘to find one’s feet’. Apparently, it means ‘to become familiar with a new place, situation or experience’.

A crazily fitting coincidence, no?

And, as for the term that describes the tendency to look for the familiar when placed in an unfamiliar environment, I wasn’t able to find it. Any ideas?

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree | Moscow, Russia

My father, whom I suspect I’ve inherited much of my wanderlust from, took this photo for me during his last visit to Moscow. This is the Russian equivalent of the Kilometer Zero mark in Madrid, which I wrote about here, and – as such, serves the same purpose: to mark the starting point from which distances in the country are measured.

The bronze plaque, located in a short passage connecting the Red Square with the Manege Square, reads: “Zero Kilometer of the Highways of the Russian Federation.”

These zero-kilometre markings, which I hadn’t even heard about until about two months ago and had even seen, apparently, without knowing what they were (in what is perhaps another case of the Baader-Meinhof syndrome?), seem to be relatively common, and stand as the center point from which to measure distances in quite a few countries’ capitals around the world: from Cuba and Argentina through Switzerland, Romania and Slovakia (although I was unaware of it when I hovered over it in Bratislava), and all the way to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Japan.

One of the oldest surviving markers of this kind is the Milliarium Aureum, which was erected in the central Forum of Ancient Rome in the 20th century BC and from which all roads in the Roman Empire were considered to begin and all distances were measured. It apparently gave the literal origin of the expression “all roads lead to Rome,” to which I unwittingly (thought rather predictably) referred in my post about the Zero Kilometer marking in Madrid.

All about my mother | Kuwait, Kuwait

I am very lucky and blessed to have my mother as a mother. This is something that I am reminded of almost every single day.

But I am confused about this Mother’s Day thing, both as a concept and as a celebration. Since my mother is not the kind to stand on ceremony, we have never really celebrated it in my family. Whenever I remember to tell her “Happy Mother’s Day” she just rolls her eyes and says, “Whatever.” In Bulgaria, the holiday is kind of a leftover from the Communist era – it is marked on International Women’s Day (March 8). I know my mom generally dislikes the hysterical celebrations of lofty concepts (such as “motherhood” and “womanhood,” in this case), which was kind of a specialty of the Communist regime, so I suspect this may be one of the reasons she’s not a big fan of the holiday.

I have to admit that I, too, am a little skeptical about the rationale behind celebrating one’s mother on just one particular day. Seriously, what about the other 364 days of the year? My confusion about the holiday isn’t really helped by the fact that, depending on where you are in the world, Mother’s Day could be celebrated anytime between February (Norway) and December (Panama and Indonesia). Several, but not all of the formerly communist states and ex-Soviet republics, such as Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and the Ukraine, join Bulgaria in marking the day on March 8. Russia, weirdly, does it on the second Sunday of November. Most of the Arab world celebrates it on March 21, after a journalist introduced the idea in Egypt from where it then spread. But the biggest group of countries overall – including the land of Hallmark, commemorate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May, which happens to actually be…. today. And I happen to be visiting my mom.

Just now I went over to tell her Happy Mother’s Day and she looked at me incredulously and asked how I come up with this stuff. Like I said, I am very lucky to have my mom.

A Not-So-White Christmas | Salmiya, Kuwait

Though it seems a little strange to be celebrating Christmas in 20°C-weather among palm trees, I’m still essentially rocking the holiday spirit, which for me is being with family (and, in this case, dog), as well as (cheesiness alert!) feeling all warm and fuzzy on the inside, regardless of whether there is a snow storm or a sand storm outside the window.

So…. Marry Christmas, wherever it finds you!

Before the end of the year, I’d like to catch up on the backlog of photos and stories that have accumulated in the past month or so, with the aim of starting the New Year with a fresh slate. They include (links will be activated as I post them):

• two guest posts: one with photos from my Brazilian friend Tiago, with his endless enthusiasm for and marvel at Bulgaria; and another from one of the 2Melinas, for our Cross Balkan Blogging project;

• the remaining posts from my trip around some of Central Europe’s capitals: in addition to Bratislava and Budapest, which are already up, I have photos and stories from Vienna and Berlin;

a surprise post!;

and a post on the first snow in Sofia.

Let’s see how much I manage to get done in the next five days, in between all the other things that keep me oh-so-busy, like eating, reading books, taking naps and hanging out with my parents, the dog and some high school friends, interspersed with plenty of coffee and tea breaks.

In the meantime, wishing you a similar type of productiveness. Enjoy the holidays!

My dad, the ballroom dancer | Sofia Bulgaria

This was taken at the terrace of Sofia’s Military Club, during the cocktail party following this year’s Askeer Theater Awards. It has become a sort of tradition for us, my dad and me, to go to these awards every year. We dress up, attend the usually uninspired, yet cringe-inspiring, awards ceremony at the Bulgarian Army Theater and then head over to the cocktail party across the street, where we drink cheap white wine and observe the vanity fair.

The Military Club that hosts the party has somewhat of a cult status in Sofia. It is one of the handful of buildings that give the city a more Central European air. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style, it was completed at the turn of the 20th century. Its three floors and numerous halls house all kinds of events – from balls, parties and concerts to art exhibits and even chess tournaments.

Setting foot inside the Military Club never fails to make me feel more sophisticated, somehow. I’m most impressed by its central ballroom – sliding across its shiny waxed wooden floor almost makes me forget that I am just bopping up and down in a pair of jeans and makes me hallucinate graceful movements and the rustling sound of taffeta ball gowns.

My dad tells me that the German Language high school he and my mom attended used to hold their Fasching balls in that hall. According to my mom, my dad – who is still an impressive dancer, was quite the beau of the ball, and even became the Faschingsprinz (which, I imagine, is kind of the equivalent of a prom king) one year. He had the tendency of leaving his dance partners, she tells me, mid-song in the middle of the dance floor, as he went off and chatted with somebody else. And no, they were not doing ballroom dancing. They were just dancing in the ballroom.

Nowadays, one of my favorite things about attending formal functions with my parents is the chance to dance with my dad.* Thankfully, he doesn’t leave me alone in the middle of the dance floor. As he twirls me around, not skipping a beat, I am always reminded of a term in Bulgarian – “паркетен лъв” (literally meaning ‘lion of the parquet/wooden floor’), and although I am unsure of what it means exactly, when I hear it I always imagine my 17-year-old father-to-be smoothly sliding around the waxed wooden floor of the Military Club’s ballroom.

* I don’t know much about raising children, but one thing I know, and always tell friends who have young kids, is the importance of dancing with them. I remember being very young and dancing around with my parents in our kitchen, which I believe single-handedly made attending parties as an adolescent and even now much less awkward than it could have been.