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Sweeping Sofia

[Sofia, Bulgaria]

My mom’s nickname for me is “The Broom”. She started calling me this in high school because in my free time, I was always all over town meeting with friends. When I left for the US, it was even worse when I’d come back home. I’d stagger dates with friends for a full day and when I’d come home, my mom would ask “Did you sweep up the town?”

Over the weekend, I swept up pretty good! My friends have jobs and families now, and everyone is busy during the week, so Saturday and Sunday presented the perfect opportunity to get a head start on catching up with everyone. On Saturday, I got my first taste of Sofia when I went out with my mom to run a few quick errands. We went to the ATM, bought the daily newspaper, stopped by a pharmacy and a couple of grocery stores… all within 45 minutes. In LA, it would take me 45 minutes just to get anywhere! Everything is so much more compact here, and I didn’t really appreciate it until I moved to California.

We walked everywhere and I got my first look at what has changed in the capital is since my last visit. Later on in the day, I met up with my oldest friends here – two gals I’d gone to middle school with. Ina stayed in Sofia after high school; Kremena finished college in France and worked there for a while, then moved to London. Kremena and I tend to meet up all over the globe except in Bulgaria. On my trip to Asia 3 years ago, we bumped into each other in Singapore after not having seen each other for at least 7 years or so, and in May this year she came through Manhattan Beach with her British hubs while on vacation. It was nice to finally get the 3 of us together in one place – I can’t remember last time that happened. It was really, really nice.

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Me, Ina (middle) and Kremena (right)

After that, I went to my friend Slaveya’s house. She is one of my closest friends here in Sofia, and I see her family as an extension of my own. Her mom and dad were both home when I got there, as well as her 3-year-old twins, and we had a wonderful time chatting over home made food.

To my relief, the rain was gone on Sunday. I woke up to wonderful mostly sunny morning, with a few clouds lingering above the mountain.

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View of Sofia from my parent’s balcony

That day, I got my cat fix. My parents and I went to see very close friends of theirs, who live in a house in Boyana, a suburb of Sofia in the foothills of the nearby Vitosha mountain. Their house was perched up on a hill, and we could see Sofia down below from the outdoor patio, where we spent a wonderful couple of hours chatting. They have 7 indoor-outdoor cats, and a feline was always around one of us. One of the three orange tabbies was especially affectionate – so much so, that he even got my dad, not the biggest cat fan, to pet him. I took a liking to the black-and-white one, which I am convinced is my cat Jeffrey’s Bulgarian cousin.

We were so close to Vitosha mountain that, when we left, I asked if we could go to “Kopitoto”. Kopitoto is the name of a TV tower in the area, which itself is named after the rock it stands on. The TV tower can been from anywhere in Sofia and is a landmark everyone knows. The tower itself is fenced off, but there is a hotel a stone’s throw away with a huge terrace overlooking the city. This is probably the best vista point in Sofia you can get to by car. Last time I was here was in the winter of 2005 – it was bitterly cold then, and the views were great but dominated by white and grey. The hotel and its ground-level cafe were closed for renovations, but the proprietors still allowed visitors to enjoy the terrace for a fee of 5 Bulgarian Lev (~3 USD) per person. It was a nice warm day in the city but it was cooler and quite windy up here, so we stayed just long enough to snap some photos. My dad and I reminisced about a hiking trip in the mountain back in the day, probably 20 years ago or so, when we got stuck at Kopitoto waiting for a city bus to come by. I remember the bus being super late for some reason, and we got home way after dark. This was before cell phones were the norm, so my mom had gotten pretty worried.

Once we got back into the city, I met up with Veselina, a close friend of mine from high school who is also my godmother. We met up in front of the National Theater, which is one of the most beautiful buildings of Sofia.

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It’s a 7-minute walk from my house, and on the way I marveled at how different Sofia looks in the summer. An outdoor cafe pops up in every spare nook and cranny, and they are all full! It’s a sight for sore eyes! Veselina and I sat at one of those right in-between the National Theater. We caught up, then took some photos around the national theater where there’s a small park and a fountain.

We’d met up here last year during my winter visit, and it was so desolate! Today though, it was full of people, and even a few bridal parties swept through to take photos. I have yet to get used to taking photos in the city I spent the first 18 years of my life in. I feel like such a tourist when I do that!

After spending two days in the city, I can already see some new things. One of those took me by complete surprise – the number of people getting around the city by bicycle. This is a dangerous proposition even in the most orderly of towns, and here, where car drivers are known to take street signs and traffic lights as a suggestion only, it’s even more of a risk. There are bike lines being added throughout the city though, and there is even a bike coalition in town.

The other thing that struck me was the number of what seem to be mentally ill people in the street. The are dressed just like anyone else – indicating there is family looking after them, which is somewhat comforting – but when they suddenly start talking to themselves out loud while you pass by, it’s quite startling. It’s something I haven’t noticed on prior visits, and it made me sad.

I capped off my Sunday by watching the volleyball world cup with dad. Our team took on the Olympic champ Russia and we started off taking a surprising 2-set lead, but ended up losing the other 3. The cup is being held in Poland, and they rooted against the Russians. Politics seem to permeate everything in Eastern Europe.

I’ve had a great few days sweeping up the city, but I am not nearly done! 🙂

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