By Haylee Sovell, YES Abroad PY2018-2019, Macedonia
I recently returned from a trip to Veliko Tarnovo and Sofia, Bulgaria. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to see this beautiful country and experience other places in Eastern Europe, this helps me understand the region as a whole, past and present. I walked away from the trip with so many amazing memories and lots of newly gained knowledge.
Bulgaria is right next to Macedonia. The drive from my city, Skopje, to Veliko Tarnovo is about 8 hours plus time at border control. Fun fact, unlike the US borders there is little to no checks. They stamp your passport and you go on with your business. Bulgaria is apart of the EU and Macedonia is not. I am treading lightly as this is a VERY sensitive subject. I speak objectively. Honestly, I have not lived here long enough to have an opinion on the name change and the EU drama around Macedonia. The fact is that you can tell the difference between Macedonia to Bulgaria. As soon as we crossed the border I could see a change. Going through both Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo I could see a difference. I am not saying it is night and day, but the differences are there. Read between the lines because I can’t say much more. The countries share a border, a similar language, a similar currency, and a very similar culture. If you speak Macedonian you can understand Bulgarian and most of the languages of the countries surrounding Macedonia. Macedonia uses the Denar and Bulgaria uses the Lev. Fun fact, even though the countries are directly next to each other you can not exchange a Denar in Bulgaria or a Lev in Macedonia. You must exchange your money to US dollars or a Euros and then exchange to your desired currency, due to political tension. Bulgaria is very proud to be apart of the EU. There were EU flags EVERYWHERE. You can see the figurative red tape in the country, some would consider this a negative and some a positive. It was obvious that there were more regulations in Bulgaria.
My favorite thing we saw was the Tsarevets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo. I have always had a fascination with old buildings so this was a dream come true. Who gets to climb around a Castel on a Tuesday? In the middle of the Fortress sits a church. The churches here are so ornate and breathtaking. I think all churches are beautiful in there own way. The churches here are just a different breed then they are from most of the churches in the US. I have been to a handful of churches here. I am patiently waiting for a holiday to attend a service. Another difference from the US to the Balkans is that church services are not as frequent. At one point in my childhood, I was in my church up to 3 times a week for gatherings and services. In the Balkans, church are mostly for special occasions. Most attend church a couple of times a year and don’t incorporate it into their daily lives. Religion is more of a tradition not a way of life. Not saying it right or wrong, just different. I would also like to attend a Mosque, but you can’t just waltz in. I need to attend with someone from the faith and wear proper clothes and follow customs I don’t understand. Anyone who is reading this that is of the Muslim faith please please please take me to a service.
The city of Veliko Tarnovo is built on a hill which creates beautiful outlooks. During the four nights we spent in the city, we took two trips as a group to the McDonalds. Skopje used to have a McDonalds but there was some political drama and the company pulled the location. Skopje has a Burger King and a KFC that opened during the trip to Bulgaria. It was a big deal. Government officials and staff from the US embassy were there for the grand opening. They have had signs up for the KFC all around the city for months. People here go crazy for American fast food. Although I was equally excited to have a McFlurry and some fries. I will write a whole blog post about American fast food chains overseas. Even though it is not earth-shattering food it reminds me of home. I find myself cherishing things that I did not care about back home, just because they remind me of the US. Even though I am doing a pretty good job fully emerging into the country sometimes in really comforting to talk with another native speaker, watch a classic American movie, or eat a bag of an American snack food. I can’t find here Cheeze It’s, Dr. Peper, and those little pumpkins you eat around fall (like candy corn).
I try not to cling to American things. I am not here to recreate America. I do compare the Balkans to the US a lot in the blogs for the purpose of writing and getting across to readers from the US. In my day to day life, I have tried to let go of “in the US”. I am not in the US, I am in Macedonia. Unless it is related to the conversation I try not compare. Comparing is the theft of all joy.
Sorry I got off on a tangent. It was really fun to bond with the other girls from the US and other students on the trip from our school (a group of 20). There were lots of smiles and laughs. I got to cross something off my bucket list while visiting one of the museums. I have always wanted to see a Terracotta Warrior. That made the trip for me. We visited a cave outside of the city where people hide during the uprising for independence. Even though it was specific to Bulgaria the Balkan countries histories are very closely related which cause a lot of issues in present day. There are multiple monuments dedicated to the countries fight and victory to become an independent country. Bulgaria’s uprising is similar to Macedonia’s. It was very interesting to see as the uprisings are connected to today’s current issues in the Balkans.