Sorry for not updating much lately.  I’ve been reading for classes and spending time with friends so it’s been difficult to find time to try to get online but I’m going to try harder now.  Things here are going well, I’m really enjoying my classes.  The subject material is fascinating and some of the professors are fantastic.  I’m especially excited about my Bulgarian History course as the professor for the course has the same outlook on history as I do and I’m curious to see what her insights on Bulgarian history will be.

My only problem has been trying to cut down food costs.  It’s still cheap compared to the states but of course I didn’t come in with a lot of cash.  I’ve gotten food down to between 10 and 14 Leva a day (about 7-10 dollars) but I’m still trying to cut it down.  I’ve figured out how to use the kitchen (although for a building with almost 500 residents there is a single kitchen the size of a large closet… I don’t understand this at all as so many of the other facilities are quite nice).  Yesterday I made enough Rigatoni with Salami and Mushrooms to feed an army.  Doing that gave me 3-4 meals for only 8 Leva (6 or so dollars) I’m enjoying this though, figuring out how to get by with very little.  I’ve decided to forgo the expensive washing machines and hand-wash all my clothes instead.  I’ve also begun what I hope will be a routine of running every morning to get my strength and stamina up for the kind of hiking I want to do while I’m here.  Though the health benefits may be negated by my newfound addiction to Dohner Kebab…

On another note, I have been practicing my guitar every day here and a lot of people seem really fascinated by the old American folk music that I play.  I’ve become known in many circles as the “guitar playing guy” and people often come up to listen while I practice.  It feels good to be a cultural ambassador.  The teacher always seems to come out in me here as I tell them the stories of the songs I am singing, or tell them about the musicians themselves.  The result being there are now far more Macedonians, Montenegrins, Mongolians and the like who know about Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, The Dust Bowl, the struggles of migratory farm workers trying to enter California in the 1930s, or something like that.

I’ve also posted the first pictures, if you’d like to see them I’ll have to point you towards my facebook.  But if enough people don’t have it and want to see them I’ll try working with Flikr.

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In Blagoevgrad

I’m not going to lie here, traveling from Sofia to Blagoevgrad was nerve-racking.  Nobody spoke English at the bus station so I wandered around taking cues from people pointing when I said “Blagoevgrad”.  But I finally found the bus and met a German named Mathias.  He and I talked the whole bus ride while we enjoyed the scenery.  As we pulled into Blagoevgrad the bus (which had been playing music) started playing “eye of the tiger” it was kind of weird… I mean really… Mathias and I stood in a painfully slow line at the main building, were told we needed health documents, etc etc… lots of running around the city.  But we finally settled in eventually.

So far I love Blagoevgrad!  It has wide pedestrian avenues, large central squares, beautiful fountains, lots of outdoor cafes, a good nightlife, and a string of mountains around it.  I am also really enjoying our dorms.  I live in a two room suite, each room being for three students (but actually having enough room for them).  All the buildings seem very modern and well designed with large courtyards, balconies and windows.  Although, I still haven’t found the kitchen (apparently it’s on the 4th floor) so I’ll reserve judgement on that important detail.  So far I have met lots of really great people!  There are students from everywhere here!  Germans, Latvians, Russians, Bulgarians, Belorussians, Kosovars, Albanians, Macedonians, Kazakhs, Turkmens, Serbians, Montenegrins, Irish, and Americans, just to name a few.  It’s been wonderful meeting all of them!  Even the Dean is awesome, she’s a big folk music fan and we are going to exchange CDs.

The other day I got great news though, I recieved a $1000 a semester ($2000 total) scholarship!  They just told me out of the blue…  It also looks like I will be able to get a work study here to do speech tutoring just like at the Speaking Center back at UMW.  I also got a kickass schedule…  Looks like I’ll be taking: Bulgarian History, History of the Modern Balkans, Introductory Bulgarian 1, European Diplomacy and the Ottoman Question, and The Origins, Uses and Abuses of Nationalism.  To top it all off I along with a lot of other international students have Fridays off so we are all going to plan some trips.

Sorry for not being on Skype though, there is a long process for getting your computer permission to access the network and I’m still going through it.  So I am doing all of this on an AUBG computer.  But I’m hopefully going to finish that today.  Well I must be off to get that done, so goodbye from Bulgaria!

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Sofia, Sofia and, more Sofia

So after hanging out with Felix the first night he had to leave the next day.  But around the same time a guy from Sao Paolo, Brazil named Andre came to stay with Martin.  During the day Raya and I hung out again, she’s been very helpful and is always sweet.  That night Andre and out went out with some friends of a friend of his.  After watching a Sofia club lose in a football match to a Hungarian team in an Irish Pub we went out clubbing.  It was a long, fun night.  The Bulgarians I met were all extremely nice.

The next day I slept in (shocking right?) before spending a more quiet day to myself.  I went grocery shopping, but, being unable to understand what any of the meats or cheeses were I ended up pointing to what looked good and going home to make a mystery meat/mystery cheese sandwich.  I later found out I bought Schnitzel and plain Bulgarian white cheese (a little like Feta but still different).  And of course always a good cheap Bulgarian beer.  It costs as much as water here… crazy

Today I had to stay in later because Martin was making home-made yogurt and I had to put it in the fridge after a certain time.  After this I met a really cool Israeli couple and we walked around downtown for a while.  Now we are planning a trip to Vitosha, a mountain and park South of Sofia with Martin tomorrow.  As I write this the Israelis are off buying food to make a Shopska salad, a traditional Bulgarian salad with vegetables and cheese.  Combine that with the yogurt, and the Pirinski beer they bought me (that is the brand from Blagoevgrad) and it should be a great traditional Bulgarian dinner!

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Finally Here

Ok, so it’s been a while…

The summer was insane.  Lots of working at Panera, lot’s of traveling and seeing people, lot’s of paperwork and bureaucracy.  At one point I thought my visa might not be done until the second week of classes!  But it all worked out in the end.  I left my hour on Monday at 2:30, went to Dulles, was given a ticket with some other guy’s name on it, fixed that, and had an otherwise good flight.  Dulles to Vienna from 5:45 at night to 1:15 in the morning.  While waiting for that flight I met some cool people.

This guy Mark is from Stafford, went to Radford, and is currently teaching English in Bratislava.  He and I talked to a family of US Embassy workers going back to Vienna (who incidentally know the family of a childhood friend of mine who worked at that Embassy… small world).  But Mark and I talked a lot about traveling and especially about Europeans.  After the flight he bought me a beer in the Vienna airport and we parted ways.  I’ve actually still got to look him up on facebook but things have been busy.

In the Vienna airport I met a guy who (I swear) looks exactly like Muammar al-Gaddafi… only I would notice something like that.  But I got to Sofia alright, found my luggage, found Raya and we were off!  Raya and I spend most of the day walking around the city, buying some delicious traditional Bulgarian pastries, getting me a cell phone (finally) and catching up.

Sofia is fascinating.  The contrasts can be stark, the rusting Soviet apartment buildings mixed with the beautiful but often decrepit old style Balkan homes, and sparkling new office buildings and shops.  People park wherever they want here… I mean wherever they want.  It has it’s own special charm for me.  I’ve already seen many beautiful mosques, churches and cathedrals.  St. Alexander Nevsky is everything I thought it would be… honestly the sight of it moved me like nothing I have ever seen.  I walked the mile and a half or so from where I am staying to see it… twice… on the first day!

After hanging out with Raya I went back to Martin (the guy I’m couchsurfing with, very nice, and he speaks 6 languages!  Showoff…) and met Felix, a Berliner who is staying with Martin as well.  Felix has been hitchhiking Ukraine, Moldavia, Rumania, Bulgaria and Turkey for the past several weeks.  He and I decided to go out while Martin studied.  First we hit up a small cafe nearby and I got a large glass of beer and a slice of pizza (I never had dinner).  This all cost me maybe $2 is USD and it was delicious.  Beer was strong too, I’ve never felt the effects of the stuff after a single glass before.  Then we continued wandering towards the city’s center.  Eventually we met a French couple who were traveling through and we all walked to St. Alexander Nevsky to see it at night.  I spoke glowingly about the symbolism and meaning of the architecture as only I would…  Then we all went to a restaurant to get some wine, rakia and more beer.  We walked back at maybe 1:30.  It was a great first night in Sofia.

I’m slowly getting everything done though, I have a cell phone, today I will get a guitar.  I’m so excited to see what else is in store for me.  I unpacked my camera so now I will start taking some pictures!  I’ll be keeping you guys all posted.

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This summer has been B-U-S-Y!  Seeing as I will be needing money in Bulgaria I’m working 8 or sometimes 12 to 14 hour days at Panera Bread, a cafe near where I live.  But at the same time, the visa process is sucking the money out of me.  I just spent $100 to mail the documents to Bulgaria only to find out I completely missed the Apostille and so will probably have to pay that… again.  I also discovered the Bulgarian I.D. card I am required to get costs $380!  It’s enough to make your head spin, but the folks at AUBG have been helpful throughout.

I did finally get a plane ticket, I depart at 5:45 on August 17th for Vienna, then Sofia.  I’m now less than two months from that date so the excitement is really building.  But in between then and now I’m also heading off on a grand road-trip across the country.  All in all the next two months promise to be filled to the brink with activity… just the way I like it.

My old camera also broke beyond repair so I decided to get a new one.  Found a brand new digital SLR which was released in 04 but was still very good on clearance.  Got the thing for about a 4th of what it was worth so I certainly can’t complain.  What that means is I have a good camera for Bulgaria and will be sure to show everybody (I might get a flikr for that).

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I’ve finally found acceptance in the world… no really I’m too odd for that, I’ve actually finally just gotten my acceptance letter from AUBG.  So late you say?  Well I sent in my information about 6 months ago but a series of unfortunate accidents and misunderstandings later, it took this long… this long.  Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted but life has been very busy and really there hasn’t been a lot of news from Bulgaria for me.  Now begins the Visa process so we’ll have to see how that goes.  More importantly though I can finally stop being paranoid that somehow I won’t be accepted and such.

Also, I just remembered that I didn’t get the scholarship I was shooting for (it was a 1 in 6 or 7 chance anyways) so the year isn’t paid for.  Fortunately, though, its still around $4,000 cheaper than staying at my university in the US for the year, so who am I to complain?  More than anything I’m incredibly excited.  I just bought a new camera (a Pentax *ist D for those of you who are interested, its old but I got a great deal on it) and I’m dying to experience Bulgaria and the Balkans and to document my travels.  But before then there’s a lot of work to be done this summer and a lot of money to be saved.  Thanks for all the good wishes from everybody and I hope to have more posts up soon!

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The city I will be living in is called Blagoevgrad.  It was called Gorna Dzumaya before the communist era but was renamed in 1950 after the founder of the Bulgarian Communist Party Dimitar Blagoev.  The irony that THE American University in Bulgaria lies in this city is great in and of itself, but in fact gets even better.  The better part is that evidently the main building of the university used to be a Communist Party building.  The concept that this building now houses such a university is hysterical.  The city is considered the main economic and cultural hub of South-Western Bulgaria with a population of about 76,000.

Blagoevgrad at the foot of the Rila Mountains

As you can see, the city lies at the foot of the Rila Mountains, the highest mountain range in the Balkans.  It is also very close to the Pirin Mountain range.  It lies in a region known as Pirin macedonia, which traditionally has been considered part of the geographic territory of Macedonia (distinguished from any political territory of Macedonia) but has been a part of Bulgaria since the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century.  I’m going to go into more detail on that in a later post.  It lies in the Struma River Valley.  The Struma begins in the Northern Rila Mountains and runs all the way to the Aegean.

The Old Section of Blagoevgrad

The history of the city goes way back.  There was an ancient Thracian settlement here called Scaptopara around 300 B.C.  The Romans later took this city over and documents exist showing petitions made from the city to the Emperors.  After the Ottoman conquests it became a heavily Muslim town until it once again became part of Bulgaria.  Today is it mostly Bulgarian Orthodox.

Things to do there include hiking in the mountains surrounding the city, visiting the famous local hot springs, and traveling.  The location is great, only (my guess) 20 minutes from Macedonia, an hour from Greece, an hour from Serbia, an hour from the Capital of Sofia and maybe 9 or so hours from Istanbul.  The city sounds great (at least far more exciting than Herndon Virginia).

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Veliko Tarnovo: “City of the Tsars


Veliko Tarnovo

Veliko Tarnovo



Situation on three hills (Tsarevets, Trapezitsa and Sveta Gora) around the meandering river Yantra.  It was the capitol of the Second Bulgarian Empire.  With each section surrounded by thick walls it was a protected culture and commerce center of the Medieval Bulgarian world.  Settlements here date back 5 million years, over that time the city has carved itself a unique position in history.  During the decline of the Byzantine Empire it claimed itself to be the “Third Rome”.


Morning View of Tsarevets

Morning View of Tsarevets


Until 1393 the city has been flourishing for centuries.  However, in this year the Ottoman Empire took the city after a 3 month siege.  The city once the seat of an empire refused to sit quietly under the Ottoman yoke and let two failed uprisings against the Empire (in 1598 and again in 1686).  Finally, the third uprising led by the city coincided with the Russo-Turkish war in 1877-1878 which led to a nominally independent Bulgaria still technically under Ottoman control but without Ottoman troops occupying the country.  Veliko Tarnovo became the capitol of Bulgaria once again, however within a year the Parliament decided to move the capitol to Sofia, where it remains today.  While in the past the city had been known as either Tarnovgrad in the middle ages of simply Tarnovo later, in 1965 it was designated Veliko Tarnovo, or great Tarnovo.

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The Valley of the Roses

Shielded by the RIla and Pirin mountain ranges about which I’ve already discussed from extreme weather the Valley of the Roses has been producing roses and rose oil for thousands of years.  For centuries, Bulgarian rose oil was coveted and remains an important export.


The Valley of the Roses

The Valley of the Roses

The descriptions are of a valley of roses stretching as far as the eye can see.  One description put it thusly: “if a painter tried to depict it he would be accused of exaggeration.”  Every year there is a Rose festival celebrating the role the flowers have played in the culture and economy of the region in which they are grown.  All-in-all this seems to be a place difficult to capture in words or sentences.  Clearly the smells and the sense of scale are what distinguishes it.  Being unable to experience such a place I will at least show one of the more intimate moments of the culture and process of this region and its roses.

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The Rila Monastery

The Rila Monastery

The Rila Monastery

One more for my list of places to visit.  The Rila Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Founded in the 10th Century in the Rila Mountains.  Although it was destroyed once by the Ottomans and then again by fire so its current buildings were constructed during the Bulgarian Revival of the mid 19th century.  None-the-less they are stunning.  Nestled between the mountains it seems like an oasis in a boundless forest.  From within the compound both the outer walls of the Monastery and the mountains themselves seem to rise up and surround you.

View From Inside the Rila Monastery

View From Inside the Rila Monastery

Filled with frescos and considered a repository of Bulgarian language and culture this is also right up at the top of my places to visit list.

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