Falling in love, through the eyes of others | Sofia, Bulgaria

In the last couple of months, I have been falling in love with Sofia all over again. My turbulent love affair with the city has been fairly well documented here – both its shining moments of glory and the rough times, but lately I feel like my crush on it is reaching new heights. There have been a few times in the last weeks, when I haven’t been thoroughly annoyed with it, that I’ve felt like my heart was going to explode with affection.

It’s a combination of things, really, that leads to this renewed enamorment. I was gone for a few months, so being here still has a fresh new feeling to it – I get to hang around my house, see old friends and family, walk my favorite streets and pop into my usual cafés and bars. A bit like falling back into the arms of an old and comfortable lover, after being away and forgetting the reasons you left in the first place.

Another reason for my renewed affection is that spring is finally here, everybody is coming out of their winter-induced comas, the sun is shining, the days are getting warmer and longer, the air is filled with the smell of blossoming plants and there is plenty to do and see. Spring and the beginning of summer is arguably the time of year when Sofia is at its most charming – it becomes that bright-eyed boy with the disarming smile whom you simply cannot resist.

But perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the company of people who were visiting Sofia from abroad – and there is nothing like seeing the city through their eyes to make me discover it anew and fall in love with it all over again.

I first had this feeling last spring, when much of April, May and June were spent hanging out with old and new friends visiting from abroad (the fun-fun-filled visit of my favorite twins is documented here and here), randomly encountering travelers and the regular hunting down of foreigners I had to find and interview for the weekly column “The Road to Sofia” that I was writing for the One Week in Sofia magazine at the time.* This year, it started again when I worked for the Sofia Film Fest and spent two weeks running around the city in the company of filmmakers from all over the world and more recently, when I hung out with my dear friends Mark, Melody and their daughter Jenna, and read some of my favorite blogs by ex-pats in Bulgaria, Karolinka and Whitney.

I love hosting, hanging out and showing around Sofia to visitors from abroad, as well as hearing their stories for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest, and not entirely altruistic one is that – although I often take them to my usual haunts and do things I would normally do, being with them makes me experience the city through their eyes, rediscover it and fall in love with it all over again.

Simply as a resident of Sofia, I’m more likely to notice and be consumed by the usual downfalls of living in this city, from the petty annoyances to the pretty serious and horrific symptoms of an inefficient city: the broken sidewalks, the packs of sometimes aggressive homeless dogs, the shameless rip-off taxi drivers, the persistent lack of universally good customer service, the mostly inefficient public transportation (although I hear the metro is quite good, if it fits into one’s daily route), the relative homogeneity and blatant xenophobia, racism and homophobia, the lack of infrastructure to make biking around the city safe and accessible, the questionable new architecture and the tragic fate of much of the old. It’s a very long list.

And it’s not that I ever forget about these things. I think about them all the time (also in the general context of the difficult decision to stay and live in Bulgaria). It’s just that it becomes easier to overlook them in favor of all the great things about Sofia (and, by proxy, many of the things I love about living in Bulgaria) when I am with people who can’t stop marveling at them: the lush parks, the delicious (and cheap) food, the cool bars, the old Socialist monuments (especially when they become a platform for contemporary art discussions), the view from my flat, the super affordable taxis (when they don’t cheat), the charming cobbled streets, the proximity of the mountain, the coziness of being in a city of two+ million and always running into friends on the street. Kind of like that boyfriend whose issues you’re all hung up about but who becomes irresistibly appealing when your friends gush over how great he is, having visitors who notice all the great things about Sofia makes me stop taking them for granted and appreciate them, and – in big and small ways, fall in love with Sofia again and again.

I don’t say all of this lightly. My fraught relationship with the city started about eight years ago, when I came back to live here after spending half of my life up to that point abroad. I came back tentatively and without plans to stay permanently. Although I continued to travel extensively, in that almost-decade I made Sofia my home.

I am still very much torn, on an almost daily basis, over the dilemma of whether to stay and live in Sofia or to go elsewhere (or, to put it in other words, on top of the proverbial dash). Luckily, the times we live in make the dilemma bearable, if not entirely avoidable – the national, political, economic and even technical impediments to living not in a single place, but rather between different places are becoming fewer and fewer.

Because I strongly believe that home is where the heart is, Sofia will always be a home, as a part of my heart will always be here. I will always think of it and sometimes even miss it when I am away and my heart will grow more enamored with the city with every visitor and at every return from traveling.

But before my inconstant lover of a city and I get sick of each other (again), I’m already making plans for my next trip, only so that I can come back with a renewed affection.

*The perfectly illustrative photo above was taken last spring by – and with – one lovely visitor to Sofia, who even submitted to be interviewed by me. Thanks, B.!

Berlin Wall | Sofia, Bulgaria

During the visit of the fine2meline to Sofia, on one of our many extensive and exhausting walks around the city (I’m not complaining!), we happened upon a fragment of the Berlin Wall. A gift from the municipality of Berlin to the citizens of Sofia, it stands, somewhat awkwardly, in the park of the National Palace of Culture, next to the memorial to the victims of totalitarianism. I was surprised to see it here, but apparently there are dozens of large wall fragments now on public display around the world. (Here is a map.)

It’s strange to think of these fragments, now scattered around the globe, but actually so closely connected and forever tied to a single place. On the other hand though, the wall obviously meant something enormous, something that deeply affected even those corners of the world faraway from it and, today, still stands for something that split not just Berlin but the entire globe in two and which is now, thankfully, in the past. So, in a way, it seems that these remnants do belong to the world and not just to Berlin.

This year marks 40 years since the start of the wall’s constructions and 22 years since its fall. We are a part of the last generation that was born and started growing up behind the Iron Curtain.

***On a lighter, but connected note and just so we keep up with the culinary flavor of the twins’ visit, go read my guest post about Berliner doughnuts on fine2meline.***

Eat Pray Love | Sofia, Bulgaria

My two favorite twins fine2meline finally made it to Sofia for a week-long visit of fun fun fun. Thinking back on it, it seems that much of our activities were centered around eating. When we weren’t actually eating, we were either talking about it, planning our upcoming feasts, commenting on past meals, making restaurant reservations, shopping for groceries, cooking (in which case, by ‘we’ I mean ‘they’), setting the table, clearing the dishes or trying to digest the copious amounts of ingested food.

So, as you can imagine, we didn’t have much time for pictures.* It is, in fact, a small wonder that we were able to do anything else at all. Even when we did, eating managed to make its way into whatever else we were doing. Take a stroll around Sofia? Only after we fortify ourselves with some delicious soup and then take a few beer breaks along the way. Have a look at the Women’s market? Why not use the chance to stop by for some mekitsi (fried dough) and a meal at a Turkish restaurant (where we were the only female customers)? Go to the Rila Monastery? Sure, and we might as well have some delicious sourdough bread (and mekitsi again!) in between all the sightseeing, the hiking, the writing of prayers (on small peaces of paper, which then get folded and places between rocks) and the making our way through cave holes (made precarious by our growing girths). Hang out with friends? Would love to, provided it all happens over a dinner table. Join the evening crowds at the Night of the Museums and Galleries? But of course, assuming they let us into the museums with two loafs of said sourdough bread in our bags. Go out on the town? Not without a heavy dinner to start with and a classic sobering-up visit to Divaka in the middle of the night. Staying in? Sounds good, considering we could have some of my grandmother’s sarmi or cook dinner ourselves.

I was a little heart-broken after Tina and Nina went back to Slovenia. Thankfully, there was the homemade cheesecake they left behind, which kept my spirits up for a few days (Thank you! Hvala! Merci! – and not just for the cheesecake. “Still hungry!”).

*Incidentally (or not), both of the pictures in this post were taken immediately after eating – the first one is on Shishman Street, just a few steps away from our favorite souperie Supa Star, and the second is the entryway of the Street Bistro on Tsar Asen Street, which boasts some of the tastiest meatballs and the most outrageously entertaining waiter in the city. Protruding bellies were diligently cropped out.

Yellow Brick Road | Sofia, Bulgaria

This was taken in the spring, when my friend Agnes came to visit me in Sofia from Budapest. It was the end of April, but spring hadn’t fully blossomed yet and it rained quite frequently, so this is one of the few moments we actually spent walking around outside in the drizzle.

The yellow cobblestones – here right in front of the Bulgarian Parliament, are a kind of proverbial symbol of central Sofia, as they only pave several connected streets in the very center of the city. “True” Sofianites (as opposed to newcomers from other towns and villages, I suppose) are said to “have been born on the yellow cobblestones.”

Although aware of their symbolic and historic importance, I always get confused about their exact story and how it is they ended up in Sofia. So, every time I run around the center in an ad-hoc tour of the city with friends visiting from abroad, my spiel is usually limited to the scarce information in the above paragraph.

Now, Wikipedia tells me the cobblestones were a gift from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Tsar Ferdinand I on the occasion of his wedding. They were cast in Budapest and installed in Sofia at the beginning of the 20th century. This gives a whole new meaning to the picture – of Agnes from Budapest, where the cobblestones came from, and me, from Sofia, where they ended up. I wish I knew it when we stood there. But, as Agnes says, our stories always find some serendipitous way to eventually become coherent.

What I knew then, however, was how slippery the ceramic blocks get when it rains or snows, making them a scene for many pedestrian incidents and skidding cars. They are, apparently, also not very durable, having sustained continuous damage in recent years by Sofia’s increasing traffic. As they get replaced by the more traditional, gray cobblestones and the area they cover gets smaller and smaller, I wonder if it’ll eventually disappear entirely, or if somebody will have the sense to keep at least a symbolic spot with them.