107 Days · 98 Moments · March 2019

The Balkans Spring 2019


Yesterday

These shoes from the Adidas outlet look ridiculous but are extremely cushioned and breathe well to keep feet cooler. I walked so many miles in my old sneakers the soles are worn smooth. I will leave them by the dumpster and they will be gone quickly.
Varna sunrise, doing yoga on the beach. The rest of Europe is sweltering under record high temps. It’s pleasant here. Nice sea breeze.

2 days ago

Varna Philharmonic Orchestra concert last night featuring Benjamin Schmid - violin soloist. He was exceptional!! Program included music I wasn’t familiar with: Pancho Vladigerov – "Vardar" Rhapsody Prokofiev - Concerto for violin and orchestra No.1 Hindemith - Nobilissima Visione

5 days ago

Perfect weather for the botanic gardens today. Nifty outdoor barbecue area. The cactus garden made me feel at home. Ha
Very enlightening conversation with an Israeli tourist. He says Israel desperately needs Iran “destroyed” before it destroys Israel. I think Donald’s antagonism of Iran right now is on behalf of Israel. Everyone please send visions and vibrations of peace to Iranian and American leaders. Another war in the Middle East is not beneficial to the US. ...And on a personal note, I have a trip booked to Cairo in November and if the region is (more) unstable I won’t be able to go. 😥 I want very much to see the pyramids 🔼
Bulgarians crack me up. First of all, toddlers who can barely walk are given miniature soccer balls and scooters. The tiny scooters have two wheels in front—brilliant. Somehow the toddlers manage to balance and ride them while the parents push them along. Kind of like a stroller but the child is actually getting stronger instead of sitting. Second, people will start conversations with me in Bulgarian. And when I respond “ne govorya Bulgarski” they laugh and continue speaking in Bulgarian. So I nod and smile and say “da” (yes) even though I haven’t a clue what they’re saying. It’s all wonderful.

6 days ago

I love sitting in this spot in the evenings, listening to musicians on the park stage nearby
Boys ride their bikes down a hill and then these stairs, and there are no signs anywhere telling people they can’t do things like ride bikes or skateboards. It’s kind of great. Other than graffiti, there is no vandalism. Near this spot are ping pong tables and no one takes the paddles or balls. Better to let them be jackasses on bikes than break stuff.
Norwegian smoked salmon with sheep cheese, dill from my balcony and local lettuce on fresh-baked bread. For the past month, I have been doing a lectin-free diet from Dr. Gundry (author of “The Plant Paradox”) and my digestion has greatly improved. I’ve been able to stop taking IBS meds and enzymes! It’s a very limited diet, but I’m able to do it thanks to the excellent fresh produce here in Bulgaria. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to enjoy food and not be afraid that it is going to cause me pain!
Varna is paradise. In the morning, I go to the beach. Then I go to the produce market and get delicious food from nice people, like these incredible cherries. I read and nap in the afternoon, then I go for a walk in the sea garden and maybe the hot springs. It’s a simple, fabulous life and I am so grateful to all of you who helped me get here and supported my crazy dream. Love you all.

7 days ago

My new favorite t-shirt, from a Varna thrift store.
I walk this sea garden every day and can’t get enough of it. Especially following an afternoon rain shower.

10 days ago

Inspired by my niece, I dyed the top of my head dark and left the ends light.

15 June 2019

Strange incident in the hot springs. A group of young boys were being rowdy and one decided to climb on top of the changing room in order to jump in. I saw what was he was going to do and I stood where he was planning to jump and yelled “nay” and wagged my finger at him. He wouldn’t back down until several other adults yelled at him. So then he made it his mission to glare at me and splash me. I asked him to stop, as did another woman, but he persisted until two large men really yelled at him in Bulgarian. So he got out, went to his things, lit a cigarette, and got back in the water. He was maybe eight years old.

11 June 2019

From an article in the Guardian: “People spending two hours or more per week in nature are significantly more likely to report good health”

8 June 2019

Exploring the forest. My Schengren visa renews today (which means I could go to any country in the EU) but I’m enjoying Bulgaria so much I’m going to stay here most of the summer.

7 June 2019

Tomb of famous warrior from 1444 battle against the Ottomans. While I was in here, a torrential downpour started so I sat near the entrance, listening to Byzantine chant from the speakers mixed with the sound of the rain and thunder outside.

5 June 2019

Such a nice moment yesterday at the market buying mushrooms. I was counting my coins to give to the vendor, and she smiled and added an extra mushroom to my bag. She could overcharge the foreigner but instead she was generous. The olives came from a different vendor and they are incredible! So meaty, tender, and not very salty. The mushrooms with sheep cheese and herbs are wonderful. I wish everyone could eat this well. I just read that more Americans buy more groceries at pharmacies than at natural food markets.

2 June 2019

Played one of my favorite games I call “mystery destination,” where I get on the first bus that comes along and see where it takes me. Then I walk for a couple of hours and try to find another bus to take me back. Found this lovely little cove as a result today.

30 May 2019

I can see now why Bulgarian rose oil is famous! So many flowers on one bush and the petals are really thick.

29 May 2019

Humongous concrete monument to “Bulgarian-Soviet friendship”.

25 May 2019

Varna sea garden. This park stretches ten miles on a cliff above the beach and sea. So you have trees, flowers and songbirds, then you can look down on the water. On weekends and evenings it is filled with children riding scooters. Such a happy place!
Folk dancers in the park

24 May 2019

Bulgarian rose oil is world-famous. My host provided a bottle of rose room spray, and I purchased the rose water, which feels really nice on my face. It’s slightly moisturizing. The rose oil dark chocolate is actually really good. The rose balances the bitterness.

23 May 2019

Varna opera house

22 May 2019

Monastery carved into a cliff, much like the cliff dwellings in NM and AZ. Unique, though, in that visitors are allowed to explore at night with just a few lights for guidance.

21 May 2019

Heard a sweet story today about a Bulgarian man now mid-40’s who once got a banana for Christmas as a child. He was so happy! Imagine being thrilled about a banana—it was exotic back then. This is my haul from the Varna produce market. Haven’t tried the pear yet but it weighs over a pound!

18 May 2019

Reading “the Shadow Land” by Elizabeth Kostova, a novel about a classical violinist under Bulgarian communism. He was imprisoned in a work camp for years for simply being accused of something. And once you were a “criminal,” you were likely to disappear again. No trial, no notification of family where you are or if you are alive. Conditions were deplorable and many died. I talked with a man here whose grandfather was imprisoned similarly. I can’t imagine what that does to a family or a society.

17 May 2019

St George slaying a dragon. This is very popular iconography in Bulgaria

15 May 2019

The Black Sea!!! Varna, Bulgaria

13 May 2019

Glorious forest in Sofia. It’s officially one of my favorite cities.
Water Lillies and some fascinating sculpture on a communist monument.
Wheelchair ramp looks suspiciously like the agility training park for dogs
Produce stand and snack bar on the street, selling dried fruit and nuts. The produce in Bulgaria has so much flavor. And they are produced without Roundup and Monsanto chemicals(banned). Genetically modified foods are also banned in Bulgaria. The rest of the world should be trying to get a hold of Bulgarian seeds.

12 May 2019

Attended Sofia Ballet performance of Don Quixote starring a Bolshoi-trained prima-ballerina. She was perfection. I had a great seat in a small theater for $25. A similar ticket in Paris would cost $150. I could get used to this. Beautiful trees and parks and even songbirds here.

11 May 2019

Beautiful, fun day in Sofia

9 May 2019

Bulgaria! My 33rd country! Today I read that shaking your head means yes in Bulgaria. That explains why when a man at the bus station indicated for me to watch his luggage and I shook my head, he walked away anyway. Lol! My neighborhood in Sofia, which has been a city for 7 Thousand years.

8 May 2019

As the bus entered Macedonia, I saw a family having a picnic in the park with their lamb on a leash!

7 May 2019

Used shoe store. Prishtina, Kosovo

6 May 2019

Listening to bossa nova and drinking Turkish coffee at my favorite Kosovo cafe. Being served on this antique copper set is so cool. Sat here for hours reading the novel “The Alice Network,” a riveting fictionalized account of real women spies in France in World War One. Those women were so courageous and clever! It makes me wonder about all the stories in this country. I wish there was a way to hear more of them.

4 May 2019

Kosovo. Went to dinner with my host and some of her friends. “We love Americans!” they told me. “You liberated us from genocide.” Wow.
My host says during Serbian oppression, she attended high school in a “house school” funded by American donors. It was a large house turned into classrooms and some teachers thrown together. She said it wasn’t a great education but it was good to have a routine and feel safe at school when everything else was so chaotic and dangerous.
Sculpture celebrating “newborn” nation And a crazy gown. I wonder why it is that the poorest countries have so many fancy dress shops.

3 May 2019

Pickled beets! My stomach loves them.
Kosovo street art, filling a mile-long wall. And my awesome new “Balkan Blue” pants. (I just made that up)

2 May 2019

Walked through an area near the university. One coffee shop was filled with young people and loud music. Across the street was a cafe full of older men quietly playing chess.
My host is teaching me much about Kosovo and what happened here. Apparently it was part of Serbia but a lot of the population is ethnic Albanian and for some reason the Serbs persecuted and slaughtered the Albanians. Europe looked the other way until the US got involved. Then NATO defended Kosovo and helped it become independent (Serbia still doesn’t recognize independence). So it’s only been a nation for twenty years!

30 April 2019

Kosovo snacks. These dessert balls are delicious. I don’t know what they are. They’re really dense. The nuts are hazelnuts and peanuts with weird orange crunchy coating. I was so happy to get broccoli and good lettuce today. The produce in Albania was not great.
Pristina, Kosovo. It’s kind of a Bermuda Triangle. When I crossed the border, my phone said “Welcome to Slovenia” (I’m far away from Slovenia). My phone won’t make calls, I can’t text anyone with a Kosovo phone number, and my weather app doesn’t recognize my location. Apple maps shows Kosovo as mostly blank, so I had to download Google maps. And when I leave here next week to go to Bulgaria, I must go south to Macedonia first because Bulgaria doesn’t honor Kosovo visas. What??!!
Ukraine elected a comedian with no political experience as President. The joke is, of course, they were just following America’s lead because Donald is a comedian also.

29 April 2019

This stuff is a miracle with menstrual cramps! Totally gone in minutes! 30 years of cramps and I find a cure in Kosovo?!!! From the caffetin website: a uniquely effective combination, consisting of 4 ingredients: paracetamol, propyphenazone, caffeine and codeine, ideally balanced to achieve analgesic synergy.
Bus ride through northern Albania was beautiful. Really nice young people on the bus patiently explained Albanian politics to me. Their perspective is that the opposition leader is not really offering solutions, just the promise of jobs, which is why his following is almost all men. One told me his theory that Albania and Kosovo should unite, a topic that Balkan leaders are discussing at a meeting this week. That would make sense since they are both small countries and speak Albanian. Serbia, though, will not recognize Kosovo’s independence from them. Such a fascinating region!

28 April 2019

A kite printed with a hawk just flew by my window. I like all the blues in this photo

26 April 2019

This morning I turned on the tv and found a male singer making the most beautiful sounds. It didn’t sound like words, more like long vowels, similar to chanting but with a lot of inflection. I immediately sat and meditated under the spell. After a while, he finished the “song” and the camera pulled back to reveal him in a church with a male choir behind him. They all sang, kind of like the Latin liturgy I experienced in Paris but different. I went into a deep, serene trance. Later, I wondered why I hadn’t seen this program before and discovered this was a special program done in Othodox Christian churches in the Balkans on Good Friday. Well, that’s very specific! So thankful I was able to hear it—Some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.

25 April 2019

“Il mio Amato” means “my love.” Amato means “beloved” in Italian (which is why I kept the name). Funny I’ve been all over Europe and this is the first cafe I’ve seen with my name—not even in Italy!

20 April 2019

I’m so tan! Hahaha

17 April 2019

The Albanian word for God is “zot”. That makes me laugh for some reason. It sounds more like a video game alien.

16 April 2019

Stadium supposedly used for gladiator fights
Roman Amphitheater in Durrës

13 April 2019

The real name of Albania is Shqipëria !!
Someone suggested I include myself in more pics. So here ya go.
On my walk this morning I ran into the father of my Airbnb host. He doesn’t speak English but gestured for me to join him for coffee. We drank delicious espresso and typed words into a translation app and pantomimed and basically played Charades. It was fun. The beach is so peaceful right now. I can’t imagine in a few weeks this giant hotel is going to be full and there will be a thousand people in the lawn chairs out front.
These grassy disks and balls on the beach are fascinating. And they’re kind of soft.

7 April 2019

There are several toy vendors on the beach here. They are out every day even though it’s off season and not many people here. I admire their tenacity.
One has to be very alert walking in Albania. There are open pits and trenches all over.

5 April 2019

Went to the small market and bought a few items but the owner didn’t have change for a 5000 leke bill. I tried to explain I would be back, and started to leave without my bag, expecting I would get it upon my return. But she handed it to me and said “it’s ok.” So I went to lunch, got change, and came back. She didn’t seem surprised to see me as I handed her what I owed.

4 April 2019

The new official tourist slogan is “Get taken by Albania.” This is apparently an intentional reference to a movie in which young women get kidnapped by Albanian gangsters. Hmmmm. I get that’s supposed to be a joke but I have to admit as a woman traveling alone this makes me a little uneasy. Especially since an American woman was abducted this week in Uganda for 500k ransom.

2 April 2019

The downside to living in Airbnb’s is sometimes the mattresses are not good. So I searched for a Hammam (Turkish spa) and found one at a very fancy “wedding destination” hotel. They let me use the steam and dry saunas, huge jacuzzi, and “emotional showers” (shower with colored lights and some kind of fragrance) for a very reasonable fee. The trick to saunas is to go in for a few minutes, then take a cool shower, rest, and go in again. After two hours of that I feel refreshed, detoxed, and my back feels great!
Walked through a rural area and stopped in a small market to get a bottle of water. The woman asked in Albanian where I was from and when I answered America she gasped! and held her hands to her heart! I’m guessing not many Americans wander down this road. Then she said something else and reached under the counter for a bowl of candy and offered me a chocolate. We said goodby profusely, not understanding each other but smiling.
This is unfortunately very common in canals and ditches in Albania I have been contacting local groups to try to interest them in a 3d printer that would make things out of the plastic, but so far no takers. One government recycling office told me they focus instead on reducing consumption. Hahahahaha. Unmmm...that’s kinda not working.

31 March 2019

Wonderful moments on the beach this week: I picked up a plastic seahorse mold I found near the water, and was carrying it, not sure what to do with it but not wanting it to be washed away in the waves. Later, I saw two girls playing with a mold in the wet sand, so I offered it to them and they were happy. I was glad to see the mold they had was a crab, so now they had two different creatures. You never know when someone might need your rescued seahorse mold. This morning, I witnessed a young boy learning to ride his bike on the beach. His father ran along side him and his little brother ran behind, shouting joyously. The mother walked behind, grinning. The boy started to wobble, and the father grabbed the bike And slowed him to a stop. The boy jumped off and whooped and cheered as his brother caught up with him and they both jumped around. So wonderful to experience others’ personal triumphs!

26 March 2019

“Where we go matters less than what we notice.”

24 March 2019

My Airbnb in Shkallnur is Right on the beach. So happy to breathe sea air! I’m a happy happy girl
I’m hooked on Albanian pop videos. Good belly dance music!

22 March 2019

So this happened when I went out on the balcony to watch the sunset. I turned on English version of local news and there is no mention of it. Can’t find anything online either. My bro suggested it was a marshmallow roasting festival that got out of hand. Haha. Update: no longer burning but thick smoke on top of city smog. Difficult to breathe today. Glad I’m leaving Tirana tomorrow to go to seaside village for a while. The air should be clear there.

21 March 2019

Ethnographic museum shows homes and clothes from the past. From the videos I watched, they had (have?) excellent traditional dancing. I especially liked the one where men leaped around and danced like eagles!
Krujë Castle and village high on the mountain

20 March 2019

Met a man in the elevator who was very excited that I’m from the US and wanted to talk to me about America. So we went to the café downstairs for a beer. He told me he really wants to live in the US and has been trying to meet women online but they ask him for money. He boldly told me that I’m too old for him to marry, but perhaps I could hire him to take care of me when I get older. He could live in my house, do chores, while he looks for a wife. The shocking thing is he claims to be a pharmacist and is well off by Albanian standards but he wants to raise children in the US so “they’ll have a better future.” I tried to explain to him that most immigrants to the US really struggle, but he’s set on it. He actually thought all I had to do to hire him was fill out some paperwork and he could come live with me! When I explained the complications, he suggested “marry me for my papers and then divorce when I find a girl to marry.” 🙃🤪

19 March 2019

Hanging laundry off a tenth floor balcony requires intense mindfulness. One slip of the hand and my undies fall 10 stories into the dirt.
I wish I could've gotten a pic of a fence where someone spray painted "dentist" and then an arrow pointing down a really dirty alley. I laughed so hard at the thought of back alley dentistry that the woman next to me on the bus got up and moved away from me. Lol!
Dajti National Park
Needed to print and sign a document, so I went to an Internet shop. There are quite a few around because I’m guessing computers and printers are expensive here. The woman printed my page, and I reached for my money. She shook her head and smiled as I held out my coins. I picked a 100 leke, which is less than a dollar, and offered it to her. She reached out, closed my hand, and pushed it back toward me with a smile. Why not charge the American 300-400 leke? I would have paid it. Albanian generosity is baffling to me.

16 March 2019

National History Museum. The entire history seems to be 2000 years defending from invasions. That’s some wicked weapons and there was a replica sword that was four feet long. The history of Illyria and kingdoms reads like a video game premise.
Found myself part of a procession leading to a huge protest “to demand fresh elections and call for the departure of Prime Minister Edi Rama because of corruption.” The crowd is about 80% male. Some recent protests here, like the ones in France, have become violent clashes with police. Don’t worry—I didn’t stick around. I went to a museum instead.

15 March 2019

Reading a fascinating book from my host’s bookshelf called “The mystery of Capital” looking at why capitalism is not flourishing in most of the world. The author explains that in America, entrepreneurs often take out mortgages on their homes to start businesses. But in places like the Balkans, “ownership of assets is difficult to trace and validate.” A home is passed on through relatives, but will be difficult to sell because there is no deed or title. Mortgages are not readily available, and business loans are unheard of. Which means businesses start and stay small. The book says people have savings, but it’s not in banks. So they don’t have credit. Which means banks have even less money to loan. Interesting circle.

14 March 2019

Tried two of these sweets. (the top two on the right). The inside is like ice cream, but it’s small layers of cake and whipped cream. Actually really good, even though I’m not a fan of cake. And a buck each. The clerk and I couldn’t understand each other at all so the purchase entailed a lot of gesturing and laughing.
Tirana graffiti
Found a restaurant where I can read the menu and even has something “Santa fe!” I passed on the boiled entrails. Instead, I had a “Che Guevara salad.” For real. It had boiled eggplant, squash, and carrots on top, with tortilla chips. 3 bucks. It’s cheaper to eat out than to buy food at the market. Add a small glass of draft beer for 50 cents.
“First day of Spring” celebration in Grand Park. The whole country seems to be here walking today. I’ve never seen so many beautiful, fit people. I passed a small group of teenage boys and one waved and said “hello, how are you?” I stopped and we had a short conversation. I asked him how he knew I spoke English. “I just see you,” he answered. I guess that’s a nice way to say “you stick out like a sore thumb.” Hahaha
From an article in the Atlantic magazine: “all Albania's recorded past has been one of almost uninterrupted tumult and violence, a history of conquests and tyrannies, oppressions and insurrection, occupations and liberations, bitter exploitation and recurrent revolution.”

13 March 2019

Had a personal walking tour with a historian today. Albania was ruled for a while by a dictator. His house is pictured on the left. The other pic is a pyramid built to be his tomb but he’s not buried there.
Freedom bell, made from melted bullet casings after the civil war in 1997. That was not long ago! My tour guide says it is now illegal to own a gun and the minimum sentence for possessing one is 12 years. He says there is very little violent crime in the country.
Mother Theresa’s parents are Albanian, though she was born in Macedonia. Many things here are named for her. The mosaic is made from sea shells.
Mosque. My tour guide says most Albanians aren’t religious, thanks to their communist years, and that all the religious and ethnic groups get along. That is remarkable, considering the genocide that happened just north of here in Bosnia. The info I read about Albania says it’s a Muslim country, but my guide says Islam was forced on the region by the Ottomans, and few people now go to any kind of religious services. “It’s really more of an Atheist country,” he explained. He says this mosque is a “gift” from Turkey and is regarded with suspicion because Turkey seems to be trying to destabilize the region.

11 March 2019

Views from my balconies. Already had a strange experience on my first venture out. Went to a bakery this morning and was charged 250 Leke for two pieces of bread, which seemed too high, but then a young man appeared and told me in perfect English that he would pay for me. I declined, suspecting he would follow me and ask for a favor. But he insisted, smiled and wished me a good day and I have not seen him again on my walk. Tirana is sadly run down. There is trash everywhere. I passed playgrounds with rusty unusable slides, and a lonely sculpture of a giant paper airplane. I didn’t take pictures because it seems rude.

10 March 2019

So.....there’s a thing called the Schengren Agreement, which means Americans can only visit countries in the Schengren region (most of Europe) for a TOTAL of 90 days. Not 90 days in each country, as I originally thought. My 90 days are up and I had to leave Greece, even though I was having a blast in Naxos. The only European countries NOT in the Schengren area are the Balkans. That means I have to spend 90 days in the Balkans before I can go back to Schengren countries for 90 days and it keeps alternating. Some bloggers call it “Schengren exile.” That explains why I’m suddenly in Tirana, Albania. The Albanian currency is the Leke. The 5000 Leke bill is worth 40 bucks. My Airbnb host kindly stocked some yogurt, fruit, bread, cheese, olive oil, and bottles of wine and Raki. Funny, Albania is the poorest country I’ve visited and my host has been the most generous.