Audra and I left the United States on July 4th. It's now 4 and a half months later and we're headed back to the US before we embark on the second part of our trip. Time has both flown and crawled. We were talking the other night, "Wow Budapest was so long ago! Wait, wasn't that just a month an a half ago?" ... "Yeah, but if you think about it, we've lived in 12 different places since then."
Along with the amazing memories, there have been more than a few hiccups along the way. Each new challenge was a growing experience though, and we're compiling a short list to share with you (and our future selves) about what we learned in the first leg of our journey. We'll share it with you in our next post - The Nomad Life: Lessons Learned.
But first, let's wrap up Europe with our last two countries: Serbia and Bulgaria.
Belgrade was the first city we've been to in a while that felt modern. There is a bustling energy there. People are out and about 24 hours a day in the city famous for its bars and clubs. We extended our stay multiple times and only left because the AirBnB had new guests.
Geographically, Serbia is right in the center of the Balkans. Historically, Belgrade was the capital of former Yugoslavia. They were what many consider to be the aggressors of the Yugoslav wars (the Bosnian war was the worst one.) But that's really not a topic of conversation here. We did find out a little information about Kosovo though. Kosovo is a region of southern Serbia which is inhabited almost entirely by ethnic Albanians. In 1989, miners in Kosovo went on hunger strike to try to free Kosovo from Yugoslavia. They were the FIRST country to try to split. They are the LAST country to do so, and technically, it isn't truly recognized legally (note the dotted lines around Kosovo on Google Maps). They officially announced independence from Serbia in 2008, but not everyone agrees, especially not Serbia. See, Kosovo is historically important for Serbia. It was the center of the Serbian Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries. This is the confusing part: what makes a nation? It's people, or it's geographical history?
Enough about history. If you go to Belgrade, go to the zoo! Audra and I spent hours running around like little kids following people with buckets throwing lettuce to hippos, goats, ostriches, etc. and mice to jungle cats, lynx, and servals. The best part about the zoo: you can get SOO close to the animals. We were feet from lions, leopards, wolves, cheetahs, you name it.
As always, it's really awesome when you meet up with people on your travels, and Belgrade was no exception. We went out to lunch with two of Audra's co workers who live in Belgrade: Didi and Bibi. Our last night there, Bibi took us out to a few bars for some drinks, food, and convo. Apart from learning about Kosovo, Bibi taught us about an interesting Serbian tradition: Slava. There are many saints in the Orthodox church, and families each have a patron saint (passed down via males). There are about 7 or 8 main patron saints in Serbia. On your saints feast day, your family has a huge party and invites everyone for traditional food and celebrations. This basically adds a few unofficial holidays to the Serbian calendar.
Serbian food is similar to most other foods from former Yugoslavia. However, it seems they've taken more modern approaches to the cuisine.
Bulgarian food is DELICIOUS!
Bulgaria is bordered by Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey, so they take influences from everywhere. Their yogurt and soft cheese is famous for being unique to Bulgaria (and non pasteurized). Stuff that cheese between many layers of thin dough and you've got Banitsa, a breakfast pastry. Grate the soft cheese to make a Shopska salad: the best way to start a meal. Meats are more "exotic" (goat, veal, tongue, tripe). They flavor heavily with ground spices.
What's with the red bracelets hanging from trees?
Yes means no
Yeah, this one was confusing... In Bulgaria if you shake you're head from side to side, you actually mean yes. Shaking up and down means no. Try saying no and nodding yes. Hard to do without thinking about it. Luckily, they understand that it's different for foreigners, but you still think twice about being understood correctly. We got haircuts from a lady who didn't speak English. "Ok?" she asks as she proudly shows me the final product. "Perfect", I say as I shake my head up and down....
Bulgaria = България
Bulgaria (and Serbia) use the Cyrillic Alphabet. This is the alphabet used by the region which was part of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. So while Rome was spreading the Latin Alphabet all through the rest of Europe, Brothers (and later saints) Cyril and Methodius were developing a new alphabet for the slavs. If you ever joined a fraternity, you had to learn the Greek alphabet which is very similar to Cyrillic. Here's two signs we saw that I was able to translate just using what I remember from the Greek Alphabet (and some deductive problem solving). See if you can do it (answer below the picture).
Bulgaria was definitely part of the Eastern Bloc
Former Yugoslavia was very different from everything else "behind the Iron Curtain" because they weren't controlled by the Soviet Union. Bulgaria reminds us more of Poland: Both architecturally and concerning mindset about communism. HUGE communist buildings with wide sidewalks and streets were designed to make the people feel small. We heard a story hear about how little communist leadership cared about the people here: There were always guards outside any government buildings. But days after the Chernobyl disaster, the guards stayed inside during a rainstorm. Unfortunately, no one notified the general public and people were outside doing their daily routines, with no idea about the radiation which could have been affecting them.
Their Cathedral is BEAUTIFUL!
Bulgaria was occupied by the Ottoman Turks for 400 + years just like most of the Balkans. However, unlike former Yugoslavia, the Balkans needed help to get rid of the Turks. Russia defeated the Turks and liberated Bulgaria in 1878. As a gift of thanks, the city of Sofia built the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the second largest cathedral in the Balkans. It was completed in the early 1900's and several of the domes are covered with real (shiny) gold leaf.
Thanks for reading!