More from Veliko Tarnovo

So I’d stubbed my toe, made a mess, got back to the hostel, didn’t cry.

Feeling kind of cranky, I took a nap. I went out to the lounge to ask for dinner ideas, and one of the guests (who had earlier been cooking toast and insisted on giving me one of his two hot pieces before putting new ones in the toaster, so I didn’t have to wait) told me about the restaurant he’d gone to the night before. When I asked for directions, he described them, but then said it’s about fifteen minutes away, why don’t I just walk you there.

Which he did. But the funniest, nicest thing, rather than one of those awkward hostel dates you never intended to be on, but get caught on sometimes, he walked me to the restaurant, said I hope you enjoy your dinner, I’ll see you at the hostel, and went off to find the post office to buy stamps. Nice guy.

I sat at dinner for an hour, felt like such a tool for ordering the “Mexican Salad” in Bulgaria, but I can’t describe how amazing this salad was. Lettuce, cucumber, baby corn, onions, chicken, ham, chili sauce, an egg, bread…

Just as I was waiting to pay, a couple I’d spent time talking to at the hostel arrived at the restaurant for their dinner and invited me to sit with them, as well as Alex, another hostel guest. Bill and Barb have been married for over 30 years, traveled everywhere, from Australia.

Barb, dental assistant in Sydney, Australia, once did dental work on the woman who was the voice of Barb the dental assistant in Sydney in Finding Nemo.

I ended up being at at the restaurant for three hours total, talking to Bill about volunteering, charitable efforts, the mindset of American youth versus Australian youth, and adults as well, with regard to philanthropy. The topics went from Teach For America to No Child Left Behind to the poor planning of many cities in Australia and the United States that make them so unfit for tourism and pedestrians.

It was a very smawt sounding conversation. Hours later, Bill would circle back after goodbyes to tell me I have a bright future ahead of me and to call them if I ever need a place for me and even friends in Sydney. Anyone?

The next day, rather than taking the day train to Bucharest as I planned, I spent the day walking the town looking for the secondhand English bookstore. Hours walking. I didn’t even like walking to class a year ago. Oh, and in an adult clothing store, I walked out with a pair of XXL shorts…because that is what fit. Europe, you crush me sometimes.

Later, as we drank iced coffees (the ones that come with ice cream!) Tristan, originally a Sofia friend, would say “Don’t feel bad, maybe it stands for extra extra little.”



Catching up

Do you want to hear about the fortress light show? Or me busting up my toe alone at the top of a citadel? Or the night spent bribing Bulgarian train conductors…

Here we go.

The Veliko Tarnovo hostel was fantastic. Super homey, close to the fortress, a short walk from the old city center, the terrace in the back had these amazing gliders to sit and read or write in, chat and have a few beers in, and watch the hostel’s messenger doves walk around. Weird, pretty birds. Apparently only messenger by title though… Don’t be expecting any live postcards.

The hostel is fantastic at getting people to meet each other. This one served a full breakfast and dinner each night, pouring glasses of beers for the guests, going around the bedrooms to encourage people to join.

As seen in the posted pictures, Veliko Tarnovo has an incredible fortress. The city used to be the ancient capital. Most nights of the week during the summer, there is a massive light show on the walls, and I just caught it the first night I arrived. Walking up to the fortress with three guys from the hostel, I sat on the wall of the main entrance bridge and watched a show better than any light show I’d seen before. Again, like Disney, but real. Take a peek (skip around).

In bed at midnight, I was the first one in the dorm asleep. I’ve been fighting a cold (I have a slight cough and raspy voice right now), and have felt foggy – one of the reasons I’ve been slow to blog. No focus.

The following day, up the fortress I went. I love the line “I’m a student” – so handy when you look like you could still be a high school student, I don’t ever have to show proof.

I passed the warning sign three times. “Make sure you have water.” I wasn’t worried about my hydration, I’d drank plenty that morning and was only making a quick trip to the top and down, no walking along the walls. Also, regardless of the sign, there was nowhere readily available to buy water.

And I climb, climb, climb, it’s becoming a theme of this trip. And even when there are steps, it still feels like slippery, die at any moment climbing. And I reach the top, feel fantastic, take the MySpace- style photo of myself to prove I’m not just downloading these photos from Google. Up here alone. Feeling invincible.

Second step on the way down, I slip. Stub my toe. Nail is broken. Blood. Lots.

I’m at the top of a freaking fort, and I don’t even have water.

My favorite line from a hostel friend later: “Didn’t you cry????”

No, because then I’d be the crying bloody mess at the top of the fort, and no one needs that.

I survived. It was a long climb down.

On to a new post…

A Plovdiv Photo Day

Less writing, more showing in this post.

Carolin is from Germany. She works in Bulgaria temporarily and gets to travel on weekends. In high school, she was an exchange student in Minnesota. She has road-tripped through more of the United States than I probably ever will. Last night, when asked her favorite part, she told CA boy and I “Minnesota is the place to be.” We cracked up, but it was so sincere.

She had asked me if I wanted to go to the Bachovo Monastery 30km outside Plovdiv. Apparently it’s the second largest monastery in Bulgaria. We grabbed bus tickets, water and bananas and were on the road by 11a.m. The bus ride was full of great conversation. She taught me quirks of the syrillic alphabet. She told me her travel plans, about her boyfriend of two years and how she hasn’t seen him since February. “It will be nice when I see him next summer.”

No kidding.

The monastery was gorgeous. There was one room everyone entered to light candles, and candles were everywhere. Overhead, two massive beams of light, bright as movie projectors at the theater, came through the roof. The trip was worth it.

Monastery photo I wasn’t supposed to take #1…


Unreal (but real) grapes…


We saw an open gate and a trail, so we went on a hike…


Twenty minutes later, we were here…


Walked further down the path, found this beautiful little church…



Ate this crepe for lunch… It cost 3 lev…


We took the bus halfway back to Plovdiv, requesting a stop at Assen’s Fortress. We were dropped off in Assenovgrad, the town it’s located in. Pretty easy to find a fortress in a town, right? Wrong. No one knew the word “fortress” and “castle” didn’t do the trick. We ask everyone – this is the only thing this town is known for… Please.

We get directions, finally. It’s 2km away. Just in case we wanted to hike after our hike, which we do. And about one kilometer later, we find a sign for “Assen’s Fortress” pointing up hill. 2km away.

So up we go Coffee Road.


Except Coffee Road is going to kill me, being 2km of incline on very, very overused legs, pathetic as 5km max of walking happens to be. We flag down a car going uphill. The woman happens the speak Dutch, and Carolin chats the whole way up. The driver apologizes to me with “My English is not very good.” As though I know a single word of Dutch! All I know is suddenly a young man’s voice is coming through the speakers… The driver had called her son to tell him to take us out tonight. We got his number, though we never did end up meeting.

The fortress… Add it to the list of awesome things I’ve climbed this trip.






I had no idea Plovdiv would be as incredible as it is. Carolin and I went to the Night of Museums and Art tonight, with thousands of Bulgarians and people from all over the world. Essentially, every museum, gallery and church was open tonight to the public for free. Plovdiv is known as the cultural center of Bulgaria, and there were well over sixty places to be tonight. We probably saw a quarter of them before realizing just how exhausting the day had been.

Such a fantastic day.


“I Can’t Stop”

One of the phrases I learned to say in Bulgarian last night.

It was 9p.m. and I had finally decided on plans for the following day (Saturday). I’d get up for the 8:30a.m. bus to Veliko Tarnovo and stay there for two nights before moving on to Romania (who’s going to Transylvania? THIS GIRL!). I booked the hostel there and debated whether the clothes I was already wearing would be good enough to sleep in.

The sweet, fun hostel staff member who had just booked the next hostel for me came into the room. “You’re coming out with us, right?”

And we’re off. Girl with an accent, girl with an accent, hostel staff member, boy… Without an accent. And he notices, too.

“Okay, where are you from. You don’t sound different.”

California (thought so. Where) Orange County (where)…

“No kidding. I’m from Hollywood! So you’re just bumming around Europe for four months? THAT IS SO COOL.”

Well, you’re here too, aren’t you? What are you up to?

“Peace Corps.”


We’re led to a local bar, open for the first night of the season – it’s closed during the summer – and we all grab a booth. The ordering is strictly in Bulgarian and I just say “same” when I hear “vodka and coca-cola.” I haven’t ordered that, ever.

We talk about home, travel, differences. CA boy and I will talk all night long but he and gorgeous accent girl share a twin hostel bed (her booked one would actually rescue me from snores in my room later). They are the cutest pair, teasing when one improperly speaks the other’s language, or misinterprets humor. She leaves us for awhile, comes back with a pack of mini cigars. “I don’t smoke, I just wanted us all to share something.” For not being smokers, she makes a far sexier smoker than I.

The talk is fantastic. Cute accent girl w/ CA boy is actually Bulgarian. They teach me hello, goodbye, thank you, beer. I learn funny Bulgarian quirks (try nodding your head to say no… That’s just the start). They say I can’t leave tomorrow, not before Plovdiv’s massive one night only art and museum festival.

I’m staying in Plovdiv. I’ll sleep later than the bus and hope there’s a spot available for me. If not, I’ll sneak in late and sleep on the vacant bed of this cute (adorable) couple. The table cheers at this decision.

Girl from Germany (I know names, I just don’t blog names) and I start looking at the crowd, debating whether this place is a place appropriate for dancing. CA looks at me.

“Checkin out the Bulgarian men, Janae? Need a wingman?” (makes wings gesture)

Hahaha. No, I’m good.

“Come on, get a cute Bulgarian dude to join us. Live it up!”

(Im in a gray tank and my black long skirt) Do I look like I’m dressed to land Bulgarian men? I didn’t even bring makeup to Europe.

“You know they sell it here, right? You can totally pick some up to pick a Bulgarian dude up.”

Hah! I don’t need makeup to pick a Bulgarian dude up.

The words barely were out of my mouth and I was laughing at the absurdity of that statement. I said it like I was accepting a challenge.

Which I absolutely wasn’t.

What conceit. What confidence. What am I talking about and where did that come from?

Just laughed loudly in my bunk bed. Can’t properly blog the “supposed to channel this confidence for climbing mountains, not men” joke that just popped in my head.

That said, saw this sign today. Watch out for men with massive erections.


On our way back from the bar, we grabbed sandwiches, and when two Americans came against two European girls insistent on sitting and eating versus our walking, I taught the Bulgarian girl a new word.

And cracked up as she repeatedly smiled and called him a “tacky American” the rest of the night.

Making cents and sense… Making change.

Took these stairs today. Didn’t know where they led, logic just told me somewhere.


At home, I’d never think twice about using a $5 bill to pay for a candy bar, drive-thru snack or water bottle. But time and time again here, I get the dirtiest looks for not having low enough change. 1.80 for a slice of pizza – because the 2 bill exists over here, I’m frequently a jerk for handing over a 5, never mind the “you don’t have .80?” I was jealous of Andrea’s weird ability to have small change everywhere we went, especially in Serbia where $13 was 1000 dinar, ATMs dispensed 1000 bills, and breakfast only cost 60.

Moving on.

I’m getting the notion that to “find yourself,” you should get yourself lost first.

Barf, that was cliché.

I tried to get lost today, leaving my map in my purse just in case of emergency. I wandered the streets of Old Town (really old) and New Town (still old) Plovdiv. For every street I went up, another went down to match it, back and forth through neighborhoods and parks. I wandered onto a campus as children were getting out of school. Realized how much I loved the old cobblestone streets, winding off of any grid. Cozy. Homey. Real. How often do you cuddle up to something linear?

And I’m thinking about these streets and how they wind, and taking pictures, and I pass by a restaurant. I haven’t heard music in hours, but the radio blasts here.

And wouldn’t you know it’s Sheryl Crow.

Everyday is a winding road…

Well, I like signs. Ask Andrea, I read every regular sign I pass. But fate signs? Coincidence?

And I wander and wonder, as I will everyday for the next three months, thinking about what brings me to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Europe. Hoping there is in fact a purpose, as I’m 5,000-8,000 miles away from everything that feels like home, depending on what state I’m telling people on any given day. I try to give what I’m doing a title – I’ve settled on “learning.” What I’m making – “memories.” I struggle to call it, this, art. I tell it like I see it, I feel I don’t often create.

In my writing and thinking, I keep returning to the same themes: frames, cubicles, borders. Four walls and hourly phone calls. My lack of deadlines and obligation. Breaking out of a daily mold and routine, though I’m running from absolutely nothing.

And I wander down a little side street, a downward alley slope to match an uphill I’d just completed, and like a monument to prove what I’m doing is okay, I find this guy. Turns out I’m not the only one going down this path.


Everyday is a winding road
I get a little bit closer
Everyday is a faded sign…

I get a little bit closer to feeling fine.

Mind gets blown.

Forgotten little anecdote.

Remember Adam, our Cappadocian tour guide? After taking us out to dinner, he’d gone out with friends to a party. Andrea and I hadn’t come along, and the next morning found him sleeping in “our spot” we’d frequented by the pool. A few hours later, he’d laugh as we go to “mail” Steve the baglama. Many hours later, he’d tell us how exhausted (hungover, out until four) he was and how lame his tour had been that day (no climbing mountains like with us). Later that night, as Andrea and I sit by the pool, Adam (really Ahdem, but I just found that out yesterday, I’ve committed to Adam), introduces us to one of the people on his tour that day – describes what essentially is a blog, but then says “he takes pictures and writes like you do, except HE’S a professional.” The look on the guy’s face cracked me up- no more “professional” than me… But I found the description hysterical, a “yeah, really, even Adam knows I don’t know what I’m doing” moment.



I’m leaving Sofia for Plovdiv. I know (KNOW) every Eurail website ever says the first time you use your pass, you must go to official travel agent/counter and activate the pass, for an official start date. Not doing so, you’re subject to full fare, fines, and as far as I know, prison. After activating, no ticket windows ever. Just get on the train you want.

International ticket counter, “Eurail pass & information” sticker on the door.

“Plovdiv is not international. Cannot help you. Go to booth next to McDonald’s.”

Yeah, but I know that booth doesn’t speak English. I just want to activate.

“I cannot help you.”

Steve the Saaz, backpack and I shuffle past McDonalds.

“Hi, I need to activate this? First day, going to Plovdiv?” Let it not be lost that I don’t know how to pronounce “Plovdiv.”

“Plovdiv. This is ticket.”

Yes, I know the pass is THE ticket, thus the importance of never losing it, ever (look for that blog post soon). But I need to activate it. First day. STAMP.

“This is ticket. Plovdiv” (points to sign, handwrites 13:45 on scrap paper and slides it over to me).


Back to international counter. I know I know Plovdiv is still in Bulgaria, but my pass isn’t activated yet.

Scoff, window slammed in my face. Well, shiiiitttt.

Shuffle, with backpack and Steve, to Turkish Airlines window. Plovdiv? “Paris?” no, Plovdiv (different pronunciation guess). I know you can’t really help me, but you can read this English paragraph on my iPad about punishments of not activating pass, and then understand my frustration when Bulgarian speaking woman next door won’t help me…

And suddenly four women are crowded around my pass. And minutes later, it’s established maybe I should handwrite in the start and end dates, as well as my own passport number. And then go to ticket booth to buy reservation (essentially just the assigned seat) for train.

Great, except the bold print on website three that says “Do not write on your Eurail pass.” And that ticket booth had already said “this IS ticket” so me buying my seat reservation won’t be happening.

But fine. I get on the train.

Fast-forward. Stomach churning, nervous, not even sure the moving train I’m on is going to Plovdiv because this language is in shapes not letters. The official comes by, I sweat bullets.

All okay. My handwritten on pass gets me out of Sofia, no questions asked. And when we arrive at a stop with no English sign, no big monument, just a lot of people standing up, I hop off train, find “smiling girl,” point to ground. “Pla-div?” She giggles, nods.

I’ve arrived.

(Want an epic unbloggable story? Facebook me or comment, with email address, NOW… Some things I just… can’t… post)

Eating dinner at the hostel with other guests, I hit it off with a couple. I bond with a girl, now with boyfriend, who had been traveling solo and I chat and trade awful hostel host lines. “Fabio” vs. “Dragon.” And wow, we really go back and forth, one after the other, cracking up. And wow, I can’t return to Korcula, Croatia, again unless I want to sleep with Dragon.

I end up going out with these two. An absolute third wheel, he’s been traveling since January, her a couple months solo. They met up again just recently. They say it’s absolutely normal for Australians to do this year of travel- almost a right of passage. They’ve known each other a year and a half, “officially dated 5-6 months,” all of which he’s been traveling. I ask how they met and we all talk about our lives and home, which leads to the greatest line of the night: “Didn’t ever have to stalk you, did I?”

They had been in Cappadocia recently. A week ago? I say me too, two weeks ago, maybe. I’ve really lost track of time.

Emre’s Cave Hostel, both of us, imagine that. But of course, it’s the number one rated hostel in Goreme. How cute is the pregnant lady. Too fun.

We talk about our travels, our careers (again, career ideas for those without the careers) – she worked for a year, saved up to travel a year. Start again, repeat somewhere else. I wonder if this is to become of my life, as well. Weird. Fascinating. We talk Nepal, Amsterdam, NYC. We’ve talked for hours now.

She asks if I did the Emre Cave Hostel Tour. “With Adam?” I ask. Best day of your life? Did you climb mountains?

No, he was a bit quiet. A lot of history lessons, but he said he was hungover, something about being out until four a.m.

No way. No… way.


“We met at the pool, didn’t we. Side of the pool. You’ve got the blog, too.”

Small friggin’ world.


He overheard us talking about California weather, and joined us at the table. An older man (than us), he asks us where we’re from. He’s from Canada, but he knows Orange County, and he has lived in New York. Asks us what we do, and immediately we’re friends.

He just wrote a book, and it is Kindle approved, ready for download. He tells me it’s not an easy process. He used to be a stunt man, among a life of many other stories. I won’t go into them, but his book is being looked at and adapted as a movie. Check this website out, then come back with a better picture of who I’m speaking to, before I write too at length to describe well enough.

He asks me what I do – “You’re from California and New York, you must be some sort of artist.” He tells me I’d be perfect to help sell product placement in the United States for his movie, he needs someone smart (though I doubt my qualifications for that). He asks about my work, I share recent photos and “Painted Faces.”

“Your use of words, that is a treasure to read. You’re really going to go somewhere someday. And those pictures, you know I wouldn’t even see some of those things you capture.”

Aw, man, thanks!

“No really. You know, I wish I had your help with the book. See, I’m not a trained writer, not like you. But every major publisher that saw it kept saying the same thing. ‘Words are words. But when you can read and hear them words like they are coming out of your mouth, then you’ve created yourself a masterpiece.’ Anyone ever tell you that?”

(give me a quick sec while I grab my journal and jot that down)

He describes the opening scene to his movie in full detail, the background music included. And then asks my (my!) opinion on his two options for lead actor. Keep in mind, he’s actually talking to their agents. One, THE A-list actor, both first and last names four letters long. The other, oh you know, The Notebook heartthrob. And not which do I think is cuter, but which is the better business decision. Is one famous enough, have the box office draw, is the other worth his expense. Up and coming versus already up there. This analysis lasts a few minutes. My opinion. You’ve got to be kidding me.

I tell him to let me know when it’s shooting, if he needs someone to make the actors coffee. He laughs and tells me I’m far too qualified. I tell him I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.

Believe it.

He talks about product placement again, about selling movie rights, about four million dollar offers. “If they offer you four million, just think how much your idea is really worth.” I tell him I’d like to make forty dollars. He says there’s no doubt if i keep doing what I’m doing, I’ll make millions more. “You’ve got the magic.”

Hah. Well, we’ll see about that. But something tells me this little journey I’m on doesn’t end in three months.

On a train to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The hostel in Sofia offered to make me reservations at a hostel in Plovdiv.

“Do I need to do anything?”

“Nope, just show up and smile.”


We’d been roommates for over a day now, myself and a mother-daughter duo. I wasn’t positive our relationship would get further than the initial “hola,” but then the daughter asked me where I was from, and over the next two hours and our plates of spaghetti, we talked. They, mother who speaks Spanish and little English, and daughter, 24, from Guadalajara. We best the language barrier, all of us working in the other’s first language (mom tells me to practice my Spanish with them), using hand movements to emphasize.

I’m asked if most Americans hate Mexicans, and we talk about being poor neighbors, the lack of travel and understanding on most people’s parts, and how relying on television news for global understanding causes problems. She talks with excitement about how the youth uses Internet to break down borders. She talks with frustration about the time she spent four hours filling out a tourist visa application for the United States (“I’m not trying to work in your country, I just want to see”), went to the bathroom and down the hall for twenty minutes, and came back to a timed-out application. Start again. Or travel Europe, that’s easier. She’s from Mexico, but she’ll meet the girl from Southern California in Bulgaria instead. She says I should visit her country next – she’s sorry she can’t visit mine. I am, too.

We talk about what we like to do. She designs, draws, works with sculpture. Wants to go back to school. I tell her I like to write and play with photography. I guess I “kinda” went to school for that. I share the hot air balloon photos with her mom. Mention childrens books as a current idea. “Ah, that is very important. Someone has to reach kids, it can be cartoon network, or it can be you.” She talks about getting antsy in one place too long, bouncing in her spot on the carpet to emphasize. “You like to write, travel is good. You sit at paper and stare (look of boredom), nothing will come. But you walk down the street, later shower, and… Lightbulb!”

This morning, as I lay in bed reading my email, she said good morning. “Do you like marionettes?” She pulls out two real, fantastically ornate puppets hung from wood crosses. She brings them with her everywhere. “I have more at home, I perform. These are just for play. I like to think, with people who don’t speak English, they are ice breaker.”

I’m in awe as I watch one walk across the hostel floor. I teach her the word “tangled.” Tell her I wish I had an ice breaker like that.

“You play that instrument?”

Oh that’s right, I’ve got my own strings. And now being stuck with Steve the Saaz is getting explained, in elementary English version. Let me note, the irony of this no-strings-attached, obligation free three months, with a string instrument I can’t get rid of on my back is not lost on me. He’s taken out, strings retightened, played for a moment. “Good thing it is light. I hope whoever learns to play that plays for you someday. It is beautiful.”

We talk more over breakfast and our journals. Mine, more and more a bulging travel scrapbook of ticket stubs and ATM receipts from when I took out 10,000 of the local currency (thank you, Serbia), short on actual journal writing. Hers, a page of Spanish-English vocabulary. A handwritten currency conversion chart from zero to one hundred euros. And page after page of drawings. Snakes, cars, water.

And oh my goodness, maps. She takes index card-size maps, grids them, and by hand expands entire countries in her journal, perfectly. Who am I to ask if I can take a picture of someone’s journal… But I had to. I’d never seen anything like it. She said it was okay, equally excited by my (very different) journal. She asks me about a train to Istanbul (but I’d flown) and by the end of that conversation, I’d assured her I’d be taking no more planes and miss no more landscapes. “Good.”


But I wasn’t done meeting people in Sofia…

Tomatoes & Toast


Phase One: Spain with Dad.
Barcelona -> Madrid -> Barcelona.
Phase Two: Eastern Europe with Andrea.
Istanbul -> Cappadocia -> Ankara -> Sofia -> Belgrade -> Sofia.

Tomatoes & Toast

A simple breakfast for a nervous stomach
Day one of traveling solo
The lounge is silent but for sounds of butter knives scraping bread
“Easy” plays notably louder than the previous song
Don’t you know “I want to be free to know the things I do are right”
But I’ve no shortage of freedom
No one talks
Two can bond over coffee but it helps to be awake
We’ll bond over a different drink tonight
We’ll toast to new friendships

It took until two but I ventured out
Ten minutes one way, ten minutes back
Turn slightly, repeat
A do-si-do about Bulgaria
No one there to jaywalk first, throw a protective arm in front of me
So I cross at green signs only
I wonder if I look lost
Probably not
Just like I’ve never seen a thrift store before
Or a dozen sex shops at once
I watch him buy some flowers
I wonder the special occasion of this Wednesday afternoon
Is it just a special someone
I pass one yarn store, another, one crowded one more
I remember I forgot I know how to knit
So pot holders for Christmas for everyone

I found a coffee shop across from the hostel
We’d missed it last week right in front of our eyes
Too busy looking for one to see
Funny how that happens
I wandered away from it too far
Forgot where I’d left it just for a moment
But now I sit drinking what I think is a mug of espresso
It cost eighty cents
I’ll go back to the hostel and find the book exchange book written in English
Then walk some more, definitely talk some more
As Creeley said
“Now I’ve got time and space like a broken watch”

It’s day one of ninety-two
Here we go!

(to be continued)