Day 1-5: Sofia and Velingrad, Bulgaria

14th Ramadan

Now that I’m no longer sad/frustrated/anxious about my work sitch, I’m finally in the mood to put up some pics of my happy times in Europe! But before I do, I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned my rationale for going to Bulgaria, have I? I’ve come to realise that there needs to be a rationale for going to Bulgaria. Every time I mentioned it, people were puzzled. I don’t blame them. Who goes to Bulgaria, right?

Well, my reason for going to Bulgaria was…I have a Bulgarian friend. How do you have a Bulgarian friend?! Couchsurfing, duh. She used to work for an airline. She first wrote me when she was going to have a long stopover here. She said my profile is really clever and that I seemed like a cool person. (It is and I am.) We met up, got along really well, and every time she came here we’d meet up. So there.

She’s planning to work in Singapore in the next couple of years, so when she heard about me coming to Europe again and not really knowing where else to go besides Italy and Greece (hashtag firstworldproblems, I know), she invited me to visit her in Bulgaria. Might as well go while I know somebody there, right? And that is why I went to Bulgaria!

Velingrad

Upon reaching Sofia, I was whisked away to ER’s place to unpack and repack my stuff for a 3-day stay at her parents’ place in Velingrad, a 2-hour bus journey. First impression of Bulgaria? Oh, oh, my. Looks like Singapore in the 70s. Not that I was alive yet in the 70s. But I’ve seen pictures. I didn’t look out the window much throughout the bus journey though because we were talking non-stop, much to the chagrin of the lady in the next aisle who kept giving us dirty looks. Ha!

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Potted plants in her parents’ garden.

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Popped my head into the market. Nothing special here. This was no Parisian market.

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After dinner one night ER and I took a walk in the park nearby. Despite the lights it was actually really dark in there. There was a guy wearing a hoodie walking behind us for a while and ER and I panicked. I thought to myself, either this is my rape, my murder, or a simple mugging. I couldn’t stand to lose my phone again, but getting mugged is a hundred times more desirable than rape and/or murder. We quickened our pace, the whole time looking over our shoulder. After what seemed like forever, he changed paths. I don’t know what that was about. We were properly freaked out.

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We took a road trip to a town whose name I forget. But there were hills and tall trees and yellow flowers and dandelions in the grass and a lake and wide open spaces I don’t normally see.

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A little outside Sofia

Paragliding day! We took the 5:30am bus back to Sofia so I could meet my instructors at 9:30am. The mountain we were going to (not Vitosha, they had decided earlier, because the weather wasn’t right for it, or something) was over an hour away from Sofia, hence the early start.

ER didn’t come with me. She just dropped me off at the station to meet my instructors. I was feeling all fine and dandy…until it dawned on me that I was alone in a car on a rather deserted road with three random big, strong guys I just met five minutes ago. AND WE WERE GOING TO A MOUNTAIN. A MOUNTAIN WITH NO PEOPLE AROUND. AND QUITE POSSIBLY NO PHONE SIGNAL. What if the paragliding company was just a ruse to get unsuspecting girls out to the mountains? They could easily rape me and murder me then leave my body out on the mountain where I wouldn’t be found for days/weeks/months. I promise you I’m not usually suspicious of people. But I was genuinely frightened at this pointAnd I really couldn’t explain why. I could only pray I was wrong.

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Seeing this didn’t help assuage my worries, either. It looked like a scene in a horror movie where girls who think they’re going paragliding instead get raped and killed out on the mountain. What? I’m sure that movie exists! The guys explained to me that these were condensation vapours. It happens when the humid air meets the cold ground. It was fascinating. But creepy.

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The mountain – at last! Oh, wait. I wasn’t supposed to be happy. I was getting close to my rape and death now. Still, I nearly wept with happiness thinking these were wild horses. But the guys told me that they belonged to somebody and that they were being let out to graze/chill.

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Two of the three instructors walking towards higher ground with their heavy-ass gliders on their backs. They wouldn’t carry those things if they just wanted to rape and kill me, I thought. I would actually get to fly down this mountain. In one, un-raped piece. I began to relax.

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I was so stoked. I had never seen so much snow in my life. Walking in it was a pain, however. I kept slipping and sliding and sinking! My calf muscles got a real beat-down, I tell ya.

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I sat alone up here while the guys inspected the ground and examined the wind quality a little further away. In the end it was decided that the wind was way too strong to fly in. Dammit. The walk back to the car all the way down there was as excruciating as it was going up. Verdict: Snow is pretty but completely horrible to walk in. Don’t do it.

We headed to another mountain that wasn’t snowy. The wind would probably be better there, they said.

On the way to this other mountain I really needed to pee. Of course there were no toilets around so if I wanted, I would just have to squat behind a tree. I had never answered nature’s call in nature before and was shy as hell. But the guys, being guys, were unfazed. “When you gotta go, you gotta go. So just do it,” they coaxed. They let me out of the car and they drove a little further ahead to give me some privacy. Luckily I’m from Southeast Asia and have had some experience squatting to pee. I laughed the entire time but I didn’t get even get my boots wet. Heh. I’m not exactly dying to do it again anytime soon but if I ever find myself in the same situation, I wouldn’t think twice about it.

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Green grass! And other people! Chances I would get raped and killed were looking slim to none. Huzzah!

We hiked up and waited for the wind.
And waited.
And waited.
And waited.
The irritating part about paragliding is the wait, they told me. But it’s all worth it when you’re up there.

I know. I went paragliding in Malaysia last year. I know that feeling.

After waiting an hour, the wind was finally perfect. I was strapped up and eager to fly, as was my instructor. Steady…steady…walk quickly…run! Run towards the wind! And off we went! We were in the air! I was flying! Yay!

Hang on, we’re swirling. Hey, we’re swirling. Hey, I can feel the wind dying. Hey, are we…

The ground looked closer and closer. And suddenly we found ourselves seated. FML. Thirty seconds, that flight lasted. All that hiking and waiting and it was over in thirty seconds.

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Not me. Some other guy. The wind was conducive for solo paragliding but not tandem. Tandem was too heavy for that wind.

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We waited a little bit more for the wind to pick up but it never did. So we conceded defeat and headed back into the city. Because my flight was so short, it didn’t count as a flight and I wasn’t charged. That’s something at least.

After I got in the car, these two guys were standing outside smoking. We lamented the lack of good quality wind and made small talk. Then, one of them asked me, “Do you smoke weed?” No, I said. Is that weed you’re smoking? “Yes. You ever tried?” No, I said. “You want to?” I hesitated. I kind of did. I came close to being able to give it a try in Barcelona, two years ago, with my host AX, but things got in the way. I had another chance now. Do I do it?

“Yeah,” I said. I stepped out of the car and put the fag to my lips. No turning back now. I took a drag. And I immediately coughed. “You’re doing it wrong. You’re not inhaling properly. Inhale. But slowly.” Okay, let’s try again. A longer, deeper drag this time. Nope. Coughed again. And not even the slightest bit of buzz. The guys informed me that you never get high on your first try. I’d just have to do it again next time. Umm, alrighty then! They finished, got in the car, and we drove off. And the whole way back I worried about a guy who’d just been smoking weed driving the car I was in.

Sofia

After a crazy morning running around trying to find a tailor to replace the broken zip on my coat (don’t ask), I finally got to pay the city of Sofia a visit.

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I had never been to a European capital city with streets that weren’t bustled with people, especially tourist-type people. It was 12:30pm on a Tuesday and I seemed to be the only non-local in the city centre. Or at least I didn’t see anyone else toting a camera. I know Sofia is no grand metropolis but it was weird!

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The Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church was converted from an abandoned Ottoman mosque. Also – weeping willows! I like weeping willows.

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These are sculptures of two Bulgarian writers, Petko and Pencho Slaveykov – a father and son. The square this bench is located, the Slaveykov Square, is named after them.

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The Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria was built in 1981 to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the First Bulgarian Empire. They started to dismantle it a few years ago but as with everything in Bulgaria – so says ER – they couldn’t decide who would pay for it, and also they kind of got lazy and so…they stopped. Apparently there hasn’t been any work done on it for over a year!

So Bulgaria has a long way to go before she is on par with the rest of Europe. But for now the east-meets-west feel is pretty charming!

Can’t nothing bring me down, my level’s too high

5th Ramadan

1. Today I signed the contract for my new job at a New Zealand-owned tech company.

2. I’ve reached a plateau here and needed a change…is the short answer.

3. The long answer is long and I have spent too much time thinking and talking about it and I choose not to anymore. What I will say though is that by leaving, I followed the footsteps of two people before me and two more will come after me. Five leavers this year says something about how this once-fantastic place is no longer fantastic, does it not?

4. The job scope is not too far off from OldJob but with a lot more responsibility and ample room to learn and grow and develop – something that is very much missing here.

5. The salary is AMAZING. The benefits package is AMAZING.

6. I will start in late August.

7. Sometime before that, I will go to Tana Toraja, Indonesia, for a short vacation. It has been my dream destination for so long and I’m thrilled to finally be able to cross it off my bucket list.

8. I’m happy.

Just a little air…and she’ll jump on ya!

Today I randomly opened my Shazam app and looked through the songs I tagged. Oftentimes I tag songs then forget to look it up again. This song was tagged on 27 April in Athens and promptly forgotten.

I’ve been listening to it non-stop since. It’s catchy as hell. I’ve been having solo dance parties to it all day.

Mozzies have been eating me alive the last few days. Yesterday’s total number of bites came up to more than ten. Today, when I got five bites in something like 15 minutes, I finally properly freaked out and went to the shops to get one of them mosquito coils. Cases of dengue fever are on the rise here in Singapore. I don’t know why I waited so long to take action. I got my coil going and sat in my room with no clothes on (TMI?) for half an hour to see if it would work. And I got zero bites. So yes, those things work.

Ramadan commences tomorrow. (Actually it starts tonight, but for the sake of simplicity, I say tomorrow.) Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar where adherents abstain from all food and drink from dawn to dusk. Abstaining from food and drink is the easy part. Abstaining from vices? Now that’s a different story…

What I ate in Bulgaria, Greece and Italy

Attempting to start this ‘documenting my life’ thing again after having had NO MOTIVATION WHATSOEVER for the last one and a half months. A lot of it has got to do with the aforementioned shitstorm, which I don’t even want to think about, let alone discuss in any form. And what better way to forget reality than to recall all the food I ate in Europe, amirite?

Off we go!

1. Frankfurt Airport

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After a 12-hour flight that was even more gruelling than usual no thanks to my smelly, obese, loud snorer of a seatmate, I was counting on this pretzel to cheer me up. And it did not disappoint. I don’t know what kind of cheese that was but it was so salty and crazy delicious and I was very, very happy.

P.S. I have it on good authority that the other pretzel I was eyeing, the chive butter ones, were amazing too. Maybe have both if you ever go? I know I would. In fact, I might deliberately have a stopover at Frankfurt Airport on my next Euro trip, just for these pretzels. They’re that good.

2. Velingrad, Bulgaria

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My first meal in Bulgaria – roasted tomatoes with potatoes and bell peppers. I know it doesn’t look like much, but it really hit the spot. And bonus points for not having to spend a cent or an ounce of energy on it (my friend ER’s mum made us dinner). Oh, by the way, that slab of butter? I don’t know why, because it was not grass-fed or anything fancy, but it was soooooooooo good. I destroyed that slab of butter for reals, cutting off thick slices of it for my bread like it was cheese. No regrets.

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Dessert was a traditional Bulgarian sweet bread especially made during Easter, called kozunak. I’ll be honest – I didn’t particularly care for it. It’s too dense and too sweet for my liking. But you can’t say no to a sweet 80-something lady (ER’s granny). So I ended up eating loads of it. Hmph.

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Watching ER’s mum and granny bake more kozunak the next morning was fun though.

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Bulgarian banitsa breakfast. Alliteration, yo! Banitsa is filo pastry with feta cheese stuffed in it. What could go wrong? Nothing! Yum!

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Scrambled egg with roasted bell peppers and feta cheese. Why do roasted bell peppers taste so good?!

The wine-less glass was mine, natch. ER’s dad, when I told him I don’t drink, looked at me quizzically. “If you don’t drink, how do you propose a toast?” Umm. We…don’t? Haha.

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Pretty, but a pain in the arse to make. And my egg white tasted funny with all the colouring up in it too. Not a fan.

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Mushroom risotto with the Bulgarian version of Greek salad in the background. We had it at every meal and I was getting quite tired of it at this point.

3. Sofia, Bulgaria

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ER took me to a hippie vegetarian restaurant where I ordered a salad with goat cheese. The goat cheese was scrumptious. I was sad when I finished it.

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Was already carrying a food baby but there’s always space for dessert! No-bake oat-y/carrot-y/coconutty cake.

4. Athens, Greece

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First meal in Greece, as cooked by my host…and it was Italian. Figures, huh? It was my first time eating this type of long tubular pasta. No matter how much I cut it to make it more manageable, it kept jumping all over the place and on to my jeans. I was pissed.

Also, Greek salad. Real Greek salad. I barely touched it. I couldn’t stomach any more of it.

Not pictured: Non-alcoholic beer. My host knew I don’t drink but wanted me to try something beer-y anyhow. My God, it was awful. I had maybe two sips before I confessed to him that I found it utterly revolting. He said that’s what real beer tastes like. If that’s what real beer tastes like, then I don’t understand the world’s fascination with it.

5. Santorini, Greece

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After one night in Athens I flew out to Santorini, where I was promptly greeted by this gorgeous baby. Calamari stuffed with rice with I-don’t-know-what sauce. The original sauce contained white wine; I managed to convince the server to tell the kitchen to omit it. It. Was. Mindblowing.

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My lunch companions ate swordfish and chicken. I don’t like swordfish but it looked damn good. Oh, and the story of how I met these two people (actually I met one first and then was intro-ed to the other) is nothing short of mental. I’m really proud of that story.

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Iced coffee, wholemeal wrap with bell peppers and mushrooms and the best sliced roasted potatoes ever. And in that little bowl was chilli sauce. CHILLI SAUCE! I had been without chilli for one week at this stage and left not a lick of it.

Oia

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Iced coffee and mille feuille with the famous sight. The joy I felt was the kind I only get through travel.

6. Athens, Greece

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Salad with grilled halloumi cheese. It was my first time eating halloumi cheese. As per usu, I was sad when I finished it. Halloumi cheese is so yummy! Oh, and you can’t see but the Acropolis was to my right. Eating while looking at awesome stuff is awesome.

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With memories of the fabulous calamari from Santorini fresh on my mind, when I saw calamari on the menu of this taverna in Athens, I just had to order it. The ends of the tentacles were slightly charred but the rest of it was grilled to absolute perfection. The sauce consisted solely of olive oil and lemon juice.

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Greek dinner, tapas style, with a random French guy I adopted / who adopted me at the Acropolis, and his friend and her boyfriend. Trust me to always end up having meals with strangers!

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I couldn’t stop thinking about the dang calamari so I went for it again the next day, this time with spaghetti. Heh. When I showed up, the owner/head chef, who is the grandmother of the waiter who took my order, asked him something, to which he answered, “Calamari.” Presumably it was, “What did she have yesterday?” Haha.

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Last breakfast in Greece – toasted feta-tomato sandwich and yoghurt (Greek, of course) with honey and walnuts. Yeah, I was famished. I’ve since made the yoghurt-honey-nuts combo for breakfast at home so many times. Genius.

7. Milan, Italy

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When in Italy, eat all the pizza. These were both mine. Hehe. And I always had a “take it or leave it” attitude towards eggplant, right. But that pizza totally brought eggplant up a few notches for me. Grilled eggplant. Seriously. I’ll take it and I’ll take it all! And “melanzane” was one of the first few Italian vegetable names I memorised too and I really like the word for some reason.

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PO my Milan host and I sauntered into Parco Sempione to find a place to sit and chat…only to find – much to PO’s delight – a Swiss food festival going on. PO lived in Switzerland for a few years and had developed a fondness for raclette, a melted cheese dish. Thus he wasted no time in queuing up for some and was even faster at shoving it into his mouth. A man after my own heart.

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5pm is aperitivo time! We both went for a second helping (like I said, PO is a man after my own heart), and when we got back to our table, our half-drunk drinks were gone! The waiter thought we had left. Nuh-uh! He was highly apologetic and gave us another drink for free. SCORE!

8. Bergamo, Italy

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MM was being annoying and urged me to “forget religion” and order some meat. Prosciutto, even. I damn near clocked him with my phone. Eventually we reached consensus with the omelette thing, the yellow strip-y thing was some sort of veg, I forget what. But there was goat cheese in it, mm-mmm. And polenta with anchovy, which was out of this world. Seriously, how can something so simple taste so good?

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I told him to take a photo of just the food; he included me as well. More polenta with mozzarella and goat cheese, which burned our mouths right till the last bite. Man, did that thing retain heat! And orecchiette with zucchini.

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And to conclude this epic gastronomic journey – ghiaccioli. Mine was arancia; his was raspberry. I’m not usually a fan of orange-flavoured stuff, but for some reason I kept craving for orange stuff on this trip! I bought Fanta Orange whenever I could and when choosing flavours of our popsicles, the minute I saw they had orange I stopped looking. Haha.

By the way, I didn’t have any gelato on this trip. Can you believe it? Before I left I thought I would eat one every day I was there. But when I got there and was faced with an array of choices every corner I turned…I didn’t want any! Go figure!

Now, to dream about all this food…

All the things we should’ve done but we never did

Ten years ago I was a nursing student on a hospital placement, and I was supposed to work the afternoon shift on my mother’s birthday. But she persuaded me to swap shifts with someone, so that I would be home earlier to celebrate her birthday. There wasn’t much of a celebration because she had developed a fever (what we didn’t know was a sign of things to come) but the fact is she insisted on having everyone present. Of course none of us were suspicious, but only after she passed away did we realise how adamant she was about celebrating her birthday. It was like she knew it would be her last.

My mum would’ve turned 58 years old today. My heart aches at the thought of what might have been.

Apparently I’m going nowhere

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This was me, two Fridays ago. I was in Bergamo, Italy, with MM. The weather was decidedly not perfect – it was cold and rainy and utterly miserable. But I remember feeling supremely happy. My belly was full from the delicious banquet we had for lunch, and wandering the narrow streets led to this spectacular view. Life was so, so good.

And then I got off the plane in Singapore on Monday and was greeted by a shitstorm. Both at home and subsequently, at work. The storm has abated a little but the air is still thick with it. There are solutions; if only they would work. For the moment my heart continues to hurt.

Also, it’s Mother’s Day. The ninth one without mine. (Yes, that does mean that the tenth anniversary of her death is approaching, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.) Her birthday is next Sunday. This is the month she got ill, too. The month of May is filled with landmines. Today I found myself screaming, “I hate not having a mother! Please change this! Change this right now!” And then I felt sorry for myself and screamed even louder.

My mind keeps going back to that day in Bergamo when I was surrounded by this magnificent landscape and not a care in the world. But that day is just a memory now. MM is not even in Italy anymore.

Like I said, my heart continues to hurt…