The doors slide open and I roll my suitcases forward, my stomach in knots. I briefly scan the crowd of people waiting in the cavernous hall full of kiosks for rental car agencies and banners welcoming travelers to Bulgaria before my eyes settle on a homemade sign that reads, “Welcome Yes Abroad Generation 2017/2018”. This is quickly followed by loud shouts of “There they are!” and squeals of glee. I see Nadya, my host mom, standing near the front holding a pink rose and, after a brief moment of awkwardness while we both mentally check that we have indeed found the right person, I go to hug her. Her smile stretches across the whole of her face. I see there are tears in her eyes, and my heart nearly floats out the top of my head with gratitude. I can already tell: We’re a good pair.
This was my first interaction with my new country and my new family. Moments later I met my host brother, Simeon, the American Councils Bulgaria staff, Jelena and Rumi, and all of the other host families, each one incredibly welcoming and warm. They had brought us banitsa, a traditional Bulgarian dish reminiscent of Greece’s spanakopita, and a type of bread which you dip into spices, apparently part of a traditional Bulgarian welcome.
As all of this was happening, I noticed a young, blond woman who didn’t appear to be a host family member and a man with an intense video camera who was filming our meetings. They would turn out to be a reporter and cameraman from a national TV station who is doing a story on YES Abroad in Bulgaria! At different points throughout the year, they will interview us, follow us around for the day, etc. Of the host families mine was the most enthusiastic about the opportunity, so they started with us! Instead of going straight home from the airport, the reporter drove us around for a while asking questions about my life at home, why I chose to apply for this program, what I know about Bulgaria, and more. She must have read my YES Abroad bio because she also knew that I sing and asked me to sing something! Exhausted and with a very dry throat from many hours of airplane air, I scrambled to come up with something that wouldn’t sound horrendous and settled on Our Song by Taylor Swift. This means I have now sung Taylor Swift on Bulgarian national television, which is admittedly a very me thing to do.
The TV crew also filmed my arrival at my new house, my introduction to my host grandparents (who speak no English but are so very sweet), and my first look at my new room. It was very overwhelming for me, but the accompanying excitement of all the new experiences made it bearable.
Once the TV crew had left and I was all unpacked, my host mom and I went to get a set of house keys made for me and then drove partway up a mountain on the edge of the city so I could have a view of the whole place. Sofia is HUGE! It looks like it sprawls across the entire valley. It was very surreal to stand there, looking out at a city I don’t know at all and trying process that it’s my new home. That realization definitely conjured the mixture of anxiety and adrenaline which I have come to know well.
When we got home we had dinner and then I sprinted to bed with Olympic speed. Thanks to jet-lag I would wake up four hours later, and again an hour after that, and then again two hours after that at which point I was awake for good. It was 5:30 am. Luckily, I had the morning all to myself to shower, make breakfast (successfully! In an unfamiliar kitchen! This is a big deal for me), enjoy some time outside in our beautiful yard, and then attempt to take a nap. Had I not made myself two cups of tea to go with my eggs and toast I think I could have successfully napped, but instead I lay in bed and cuddled with our dog, Choki, so it was all good.
My host mom came home around 2 and we drove around Sofia to see some of the government buildings — all of which are beautiful and impressive — before going to the American Councils office where I met up with the other girls. We had a few hours of orientation, reviewing rules, culture shock, etc., and then our host families came back for a welcome party. It was lovely to spend time all together, but by about 7:30 pm I was ready for bed. We didn’t end up leaving until around 9, by which point I was so close to sleep I would have appreciated someone forcibly holding my eyes open. I dove into bed as soon as I could…only to wake up at 4:30 am unable to return to the sweet bliss of rest.
Despite my body’s decision to deny itself that which it most desired (a good night’s sleep) I managed to greatly enjoy my Saturday. It started early, around 8:15, when Nadya and I set off on a long journey to the family’s beekeeping place in a tiny village about two hours from Sofia. Along the way we picked up Simeon, my host brother, and met up with the TV crew who was spending the day with us. The drive to the bees was beautiful. We passed through village after village, each with its own charm and all surrounded by lush, green countryside. The similarities between Oregon and Bulgarian scenery are plentiful, a fact that makes my heart very happy.
Beekeeping was an extremely new experience for me. I don’t have any allergies or serious phobia of bees, so it wasn’t scary or nerve-wracking, but it was definitely interesting. Perhaps what fascinates me even more than the practice itself is that this hobby is shared by my entire host family. I really like the idea of a family activity, and this is such a unique one! It’s certainly not something I would ever have tried on my own. I suppose that’s the whole point of exchange, isn’t it?
After we had checked on the bees and fed them with sugar water, we spent another hour or so on the property doing interviews and filming a few other things for the TV crew and having a light lunch. Then it was time to haul ourselves the two hours back to Sofia. After dropping Simeon off at his apartment and running a quick errand, we finally made it home around 4:30 pm.
And then we celebrated my host grandpa’s birthday!
It was a wonderful evening with delicious food, prepared by my host grandma, and lots of translating from Simeon so that my host grandparents and I could talk. My host grandpa very much wants to teach me the family history and though he began to cover it last night I think we’ll go more in-depth once I can understand some Bulgarian. He did show me this little room we have in the basement that’s full of family memorabilia — it’s amazing to know that there’s a Bible from the 1800s just sitting in my house right now!
Eventually I desperately needed to go to sleep so, after a few rounds of Happy Birthday and giving everyone the gifts I brought from Oregon, I headed to bed.
Today I was able to sleep all the way until 7 am! What an accomplishment! The first thing on the agenda, after a shower and breakfast, was watching the first news report on TV. I was a little bit nervous as I am not someone who enjoys seeing pictures or videos of herself, but it was surprisingly painless! Not being able to understand the narration or hear myself through the Bulgarian dubbing probably helped, but still! I actually enjoyed it and am excited to see the pieces they do on the other girls.
Nadya and I spent the day in Sofia with the rest of American girls and their families. It was raining outside so we went to a mall for some lunch and then went to a different mall to watch American Made, a new Tom Cruise movie that comes out in the U.S. on September 29th. It was surprisingly really good! I recommend seeing it if you want to simultaneously laugh and cringe at how the American government operated in the 1980s (not that we’re doing much better now…).
After the movie we walked around Sofia to Vitosha which is a pedestrian-only shopping street named after the mountain which looms over it at one end. It was my first time walking around the city at all and I loved it. I cannot wait to spend the next 10 months getting to know this incredible place.
I’m now back home, have had dinner, and am about to FaceTime with my mom for the first time! To prevent exacerbating any homesickness I might experience and to make sure I spend this year fully in my exchange I only plan to FaceTime or call my parents once a month. But we might count this as August’s call rather than September’s :)
Tomorrow we start Bulgarian lessons, which I am unbelievably excited for. Once we’ve started and begin settling into a routine, I probably won’t do any more full-day recaps (unless it’s some sort of special or particularly interesting day) since this one is almost 2000 words. If I had to guess, my posts from here on out will either be more general or about a very specific aspect of Bulgarian life and my experiences here. Believe me, I already have a hundred stories I want to share, but writing all of them down would be hellish for all of us. Plus I need to have some left to annoy you all with when I get home ;)
I continue to be deeply touched by how many of you are sharing your love and support for me in this adventure — it makes writing these entries for you a lot more fun! Until next time, Довиждане!