Monday, August 6, 2012

Being Bulgarian in Durham. Definitions.

tripped, trip·ping.
1. a journey or voyage: to win a trip to Durham, UK.
2. a journey, voyage, or run made by a boat, train, bus, or the like, between two points: It's a short trip from Sofia to Durham.
3. round trip. revolving.
4. a single journey or course of travel taken as part of one's duty, work, etc.: his daily trip to lectures.
5. a stumble; misstep.

Let me tell you about Durham. About the skies. About the people.  

Being Bulgarian in Durham. Definitions.

Discovering Durham. Discovering me.

After three years at university, and two modules in social psychology, I can tell you that people label, or stereotype, in order to bring order and provide an organisational framework into the massive and chaotic flows of information. Or something like that. I didn’t do all that well in social psychology, after all.

Among the flows of people I had never met before in this place I had never been before, there were two definitions, labels, identities that I would hold on to – student, Bulgarian. Two definitions that were unquestionably true. Two definitions that were an easy pick, for a start, in the quest for redefining. Two definitions that would revolve around the familiar and the salient.

Students quickly became familiar – there were many of those. In fact so many, it was easy for any other human or other population of the city to go unnoticed.

Bulgarians were salient from the general student population, in the sense that they represented an escape island of familiarity from the rest of this new and unknown world.
They were both new. One in the sense you could proudly put ‘university’ where ‘highschool’ used to stand – in front of student. And university is a bigger, bubblier, ballsier world. It is also a choice. The other was in the sense that it never needed to de spelled out before. Until this moment in time, and most importantly in place, it was always present, but never necessary to be actively used in shaping and making sense of experiences.

Language was a factor. Bulgarians were familiar as you have the same cultural coding, you are going through the same thing, and rather importantly – you speak the same language. A language that you master, that you feel deeply comfortable in, and that, in those first days and months of not understanding very well other people’s English, you long for. Being a student was equally important in this sense, as the English of the textbooks, the one the lecturers spoke was the one I could understand. They did not contain the specificity of accents and general background noise.

Being a student is easy. You put a gown, you shake a principle’s hand, you sign your name. And this is it. You are a student now.

What’s your name? What do you study? Where are you from? You will answer and ask those questions so many times, they become a reflex. It is the established, easy path of communication, but also of remembering people. Carefully ordering them in your memory, into places, subjects, looks. It becomes a necessary database of points of reference. Where it goes from there is up to your own imagination and social skills. Oops.

And yet, it was easy being a student. There was a sense of camaraderie I felt. Discussing lectures, schedules, assignments. After a day of struggling with an assignment, I would go to dinner, sit amongst others, and overdramatize my pains. Someone would just smile and say: “Then you are just like the rest of us.” That rather simple moment has been my comfort in many of the academic struggling and long nights before the deadlines that were to follow.

Yes, being a student was easy.

Being a Bulgarian, it was different.

In a way, I needed to be Bulgarian. It was an escape, plan B identity I could always turn to when plan A (communication with all other nations) was failing, or, was proving too complicated. It was easy because you did not need to connect in a specific way that contact necessitates so much. Your default settings with the other Bulgarians are the same. It does not make contact necessarily less superficial, but it does make it easier to pass the superficial barrier, and thus makes it emotionally more satisfying.

The experience of being Bulgarian provided the glue that was needed for people to stick around. Contact in first year, especially at the very beginning, can be annoyingly fleeting. Even with the people you really like in a particular moment, you tend to lose them in the masses of other people, other contacts, other moments. You don’t bond. Bulgarians, in contrast, will always be linked to you by the simple fact they are Bulgarians. Some of the most unique individuals I’ve met there are Bulgarians. Not a small part of the people I’ve felt closest to, are Bulgarians. And it all comes from the simple fact if you like someone, you are bound by this common nationality of yours, a Bulgarian fellowship, that does not allow for moments to simply fleet. The start can be as simple as “Do you happen to be a Bulgarian who likes rock music? So cool. Hi, M. Should we hang out (all the time)?”. Oh, what a comfort this can be. Oh, what an advantage this can be to all those who do not have such a back-up identity.

The difficult bits are all the other manually adjusted settings. The difficult bit is when you use plan B as plan A. When the emergency exit becomes the only one you’re using. When you search the contact not for the joy and comfort of it, but simply out of fear and insecurity of any other. When you become too absorbed in the very limited world you’ve assigned yourself to, you fail to see any sort of bigger picture. 

Those are the identities I was falling in and out of for the past 3 years. Those were the ones that were pre-given, but then had to be established over and over again. There were times when I was not happy with them. There were times when I did not want to acknowledge I was a student anymore. There were times when it was just too hard being a Bulgarian.
And yet, sometimes... sometimes being an owner of either or both identities felt just too damn good.

As a footnote in content, though not in form, I feel I should add another identity - a very specifically Durham identity – the college identity. College is the nice building or cluster of buildings you live and eat in. There are 16 colleges in Durham University. Each consists of common rooms, a library, a bar, and student bedrooms. Students from different departments are in the same college, and it is your basic and most immediate contact with university life, as most people would stick to their collegial social groups rather than people of their course. Same college plus same subject is a double bonus. I was a part of St John’s college – the second smallest, located in the city centre, between 5 and 15 minutes from everywhere you will ever need to go to in Durham.

It is a footnote identity, as it did not possess the omnipresent reach that being a student (more generally) or being Bulgarian did. It is an identity, as in the concrete experience of situations and acquaintances, it mattered and defined. It did matter this was my college, as I would always say it with certain pride. As it did provide the comfort and security of a very specific place I belonged to. It did matter for all the memories that it was the active context of. It did matter for the amazingness and uniqueness of the people I’ve met and grown close to just for the sheer luck of finding ourselves in the same college. For the amazing senior tutor, who knew each and everyone of us. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Belogradchik Rocks or The Magnificent Background of a Travel Romance

Do you ever go back to experiences past and wish things would have gone differently? Being the overanalysing, neurotic introvert that I am, I do that quite often. And yet, as I go back to that trip, I wouldn’t change a single thing.
Белоградчишките скали

Day 1 – Belogradchik Rocks
Andy has just arrived a few hours before after spending around 17 hours on a bus from Czech Republic. She slept for few brief hours, we had breakfast, and then it was time to hit the road again. No time for travel should ever be wasted for anything non-travel. Biological needs, such as sleep, should try and be more understanding of existential needs.
It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, making colours more vivid. A gentle wind playfully caressed my skin. It smelled of corn, as was someone selling it just at the entrance. There are very few things I like more than corn. There are few places I like more than this one.
In a world of mystic creatures

This is how it started
I went ahead to buy tickets. I was overflowing with enthusiasm. We were on the road. Do you know what that means? Do you? I was eagerly looking around only to see a someone quite tall, quite skinny, quite blond, and quite tanned (in a very adorable “I’m-outdoorsy” kind of way), running towards me, then stop not more than a meter away. I remember him looking at me. And I remember looking back. Turns out he was a guide. Oh, metaphors, metaphors.

And then the rest of the story
Do not get me wrong, it was not love of first sight. It was not even strong physical attraction of first sight. It was something of first sight that made me briefly look after him as he went away to his group of tourists, smile to myself, and feel like my ego was gently purring with pleasure, as a hairy cat that has been scratched on the belly. It doesn’t have to be hairy, but it might as well be.
We bought tickets, and since I hadn’t done any specific research (I assumed the view would be enough in itself, but somehow when we arrived that stopped being a convincing argument), and I had a sudden urge to know more about the place, we decided to hire a guide. It was quite cheap, plus we had saved some money since my sister had passed with a student ticket (she was around the age of 30 at the time, good genes are a financial blessing among other things). (However, I would largely discourage you to do it on moral grounds. And I will claim so in court). Anyways, as fate, or coincidence, will have it, the other tour guide was not found, so we were to either wait for him to show up, or join the group that had just left. Guess which one we chose.

The Terry Pratchett connotations and dangerous levels of metaphorical content
“Do you recognise where we are?” – he asked the group.
“Way too high” – was my answer, as I was looking slightly worried over the edge.
“We are on top of the elephant.” – he said smiling.
The elephant is the most easily recognisable (recognisable as an elephant that is) of them all. As you walk into the fortress and closer to the rocks, it is the first thing you see. 
Now, you can’t really think of an elephant, and especially not a rock one, and not think of Terry Pratchett. There is something about the idea of four elephants on top of a giant turtle caring the world through space. It makes you, or me anyway, want to sit on top of it, and be carried through space. Through time. Through your memories. Through your dreams. Through this world and a parallel one. Through this moment and the next one.
Do you see? What do you see?

You can be carried anywhere. Anywhere your imagination could possibly take you. Be ware though. Beware for the metaphors. If you get lost in metaphors finding your way back can be very very difficult. 

 It is as real as beauty gets
From what I have told you so far you might get the impression of a dreamy-like place of fantasies and romance. And it certainly is. But there is also a sense of something profoundly real in Belogradchik. What I feel there is not a fictional fantasy plot with made up characters. When I am there, the quasi made-up-never-ending movie that goes on in my mind is on Pause. I don’t need any form of escapism to reach the state of pleasure I am after. In itself, the place is profoundly beautiful. It is also profoundly real.  

The distracting factors
 “We are on a date.” He informed me at some point. It was probably less than an hour later, but it felt much longer. “Ok.” I said.
There is something particularly exciting about travel romances. Everything is different. Everything is more. For one thing, you are your most exciting self. Or I am the one self I am least annoyed with anyway. And that other person, the one opposite you, is so much more appealing for being part of that road. Everything you feel, everything you see, everything you experience is heightened. It’s inevitably brief, so you have to be in the moment.
“Do you want to see the secret places?” – he asked. I did. You’d be surprised how many of those there are. 
“Be careful, would you?! I don’t want to return you to your parents in a bag.”
“Thanks, that helps a lot.” Yes, I wasn’t neither witty, nor very sarcastic, though I was aiming for both. But, in my defence, talking about the perspective of my detached body parts is not very motivating when someone is trying to make you go through what seemed as quite dangerous paths. And fine, he didn’t make me, I was volunteering, but that is hardly the point.

It’s not that I am afraid of heights. 
 I am not. It’s more that I am slightly inadequate when it comes to coordinating the above mentioned body parts in general, even when they are properly attached together. So, with the increase of height, comes the increase in dangers.
“Oh, come on, it’s not that hard, just jump.”
“But you just said… ok, never mind, how does one just do that?”
“It’s easy… Come on, I’ll catch you.”
That conversation is slightly censured and a bit patched up from what I remember, which I have to admit, is not a lot anymore. But you get the picture. The heights. The sun. The slippery road down. The danger and temptation of free falling. Ivan and the devil from the Brothers Karamazov. The  veneration of sleazy rock bands. The green horizons. The metaphorical mirror reflections of the self. The secret passages. The secrets. The egocentrism of this travel post. The range and novelty of sensations. The questions and the quite comforting lack of those. The answer. The magnificence of the place, uncomparable to any other. The mystic creatures. The metaphors.
The horizons

 “I’ll write to you on skype. You better answer.” – he said instead of goodbye. I smiled. I had every intention to.

"You better come back to this place!" - said a voice in my head. I smiled. I had every intention to.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Being a Student in Durham or Eclectic Memories of the Last Three Years

University is a mad mad world. Are you mad enough? Am I?

The poetry on the wall.
 The memory of music. The feeling of being content.

Accept the comforting embrace of sarcasm. Don't be a sheep. Have the decency to use your own brain.

See the world in black and white. It's retro. 

The creativity class. Take any colour you like, take them all if you'd like, and make a mess. Create.

July Morning and dreaming of friendships, hippies, and acoustic guitars. The twister on the ground that we were sitting on. The hedgehog. The randomness of it all. Of our lives. The end of first year was the new beginning.
Dance in the middle of the dancefloor when there is noone else.

 Walk the streets. Discover the secrets.

 Walk through the fields. See Monet.

Remind me to live in this world. 

The times you couldn't stop laughing at something someone said. The times when you couldn't stop laughing for no reason at all. The harder times. The edge of reason. The sleepless nights. The exhaustion. The parties. The pearls of student wisdom.
We need a different approach to gravity. For one last time  - we need no gravity at all.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

First Blog Award

My first blog award - how exciting is that!!!

The post July Morning won 2d price at the Moments in Time - Beach competition, orgazised by an awesome blog I've recently discovered - Trippando. The price - one week in Hotel Acacie, Elba island. One word - yabadabadooo!

Thank you very much!

Hope this is the first of many more! (though I will be glad for just 'more' as well :))


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A bit of pre-history

Every travel story starts with a travel partner. Scratch that. Some travel stories start with a travel partner. That is not very insightful though. Ok, this travel story starts with the travel partner.

I have experimented with travel and people, in different types, periods of time, and formats. What I have proven for myself as an unquestionable axiom is that no matter how good and close friends/relatives you are with someone, travelling is a different matter. And no matter how much you can love and appreciate someone in everyday life, the minute you hit the road, you can be overwhelmed by an insurmountable urge to kill them and feed the street dogs. Not that I would, of course.  Sure, solo travel is an option, and a very tempting one indeed, but it wasn’t really considered seriously by my 18-years old self, which is where this story begins.
We met in Rize, Turkey, October 2008. I like to think that we singled each other out among everyone else around quite quickly. It may not be correct, though. Anyways, it was a conference about European Union and stuff (as far as I remember), and there was a small group from Bulgaria, one from Czech Republic, and a rather large one from Turkey, obviously. We spent one day together, travelling through the stunning mountain area around Rize with our tutors. It was organised by university students (and their professors), but it felt very much like a school trip, and in many aspects, it was. Anyways, I don’t remember much of what we’ve talked about, except we both declared ourselves as “rather crazy” and respectively admired each other for it. Don’t roll your eyes, we were still teenagers.
What happened next is not much really. As we had exchanged coordinates, we briefly chatted on skype not more than one or two times. As the months were passing by, I felt like that winter of my last year of high school would never end. I was already accepted at university, so didn’t really have to put much effort into anything school-related. I was exceedingly bored. It was also the time I was beginning to realise that travelling with people you’ve known for a long time, just because you know them well, is really not a good idea. I was highly frustrated. So I decided to be a bit what I believed to be “crazy” and write to this Czech girl I had briefly met, who claimed to hugely enjoy travelling, and ask her if she would like to come to a trip around Europe with me. We were to hitch-hike and sleep in tents in order to save money and be unusual. She said she would love to.
Months passed by. As the end of the school year was approaching, there was prom, state exams, and a bunch of other things that needed to be done. I had neither heard from, nor tried to contact my Czech friend, and the idea looked positively lost. That is, until, in early summer I received a message of the sort “Hey, you still want to do the trip?” (which has since become the beginning of a few other trips…). We decided a week in Bulgaria, and one in Czech Rep is probably better than whole Europe for our first time anyway, and tents were exchanged for hostels, hitch-hiking for cheap trains. What can I say, we had grown up meanwhile. If that’s a good or a bad thing, I still haven’t decided. Oh, and the week in Czech Rep was postponed for the unknown future for me, since I was out of money. Anyways, less than a month later, and not more than a few skype chats later, a short girl, with enormous green eyes, and dark red hair, usually responding to the name of Andrea, or Andy, was waiting for me to pick her up at the bus station in Sofia.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Moments In Time - Beach

July Morning

The sea level has the exquisite privilege to be the point of reference to which altitudes are measured.
Further, it is to mark a metaphorical beginning.
Though I have no recollection of the occasion, I am often told that when I first saw the Black sea at the tender age of I-don’t-remember-but-I-must-have-been-young, I was looking perplexed, struggling to understand what seemed completely unnatural and foreign to the world I had known up to that point – the possibility of infinity. “It does not end. It has no end.” – I was repeating.
Today, as I have grown in size, and, as I tend to claim at job interviews, in knowledge, I know the sea is not infinite. Not in terms of geography, anyway.
As I have grown in size, and, as I tend to claim in the company of adults, in understanding of the world, one thing has not changed – the sea with its splendour, the beach as its earthly receiver, for me, still mark a beginning. A beginning to any altitude my life could achieve, a beginning of a perception of the infinite, and an escape into that perception.
Have you ever heard of July Morning? Do you remember the hippies? Do you dream?
In 1971, Uriah Heep came up with a song called July Morning.  Forty years later, in a small country in the East of Europe, called Bulgaria, every year, on the first of July, people gather at the beaches of Black sea to wait for the sunrise.

June 30th, 2009 was my graduation day. High school graduation. Seems like ages ago now. It really wasn’t. I showed up in jeans, t-shirt, and a travel bag. I do not know what I should have felt, though I always assumed it wasn’t what I did feel – impatient. High school was over, graduation day did not mean much to me, I wanted it to be over faster. It was time for the new beginning. Only a few hours later, me, my bag, my diploma, and a good friend of mine, her bag, brother and diploma were on our way to the seaside. We were headed to July Morning.
There is something very rebellious in the idea of a hippie Holiday to a county, who was experiencing full-time communism when the original hippies were around. This is how the movement started, in Bulgaria in the 1980s.
There is something very liberating in the idea of the hippies to someone, like me, who hasn’t been around to experience it firsthand. And, at the age of 18, the idea of Alexander-Supertramp-kind-of-way-of-looking-at-the-world, the quest for some sort of ultimate freedom, was what made my heart race with excitement. It still does.
So on the day of our graduation, on the eve of July 1st, we were on an 8-hour-long train journey to the seaside. John Lawton from Uriah Heep was playing the song with the sunrise in Kamen Briag, but we couldn’t make it on time. So we settled for Varna. We were to arrive at 5ish in the morning, and as the train was approaching, but not quite there yet, the outside was getting lighter and lighter. Did we miss it? Is it happening now? Why haven’t we arrived yet? Will we miss the sunrise?? Will we miss July Morning?!
We stepped out of the train station, fearfully looking for a sun in the sky. It wasn’t there yet, good sign. We rushed to the beach. I still remember the feel of the sand, the smell of the sea. It didn’t feel like any other time. It was more. It took us a few minutes to find a place to settle among the large groups of enthusiasts. And then the sun rised. Perfect timing. 

Someone started singing the song:
There I was on a July Morning…
Everyone else followed:
Looking for love.
With the strength of a new day dawning, and the beautiful sun...
I wish I could tell you what that feeling was. The calm, the peace. The liberating belief in the world. The pure joy. The overwhelming sense of relief. The impatient expectation of what was to follow. The end and the beginning. The hope. The dream of heights. The dream. I wish I could tell you how it felt.
With the day came the resolution
I’ll be looking for you.

We fell asleep, right there on the beach soon after. When we woke up a few hours later, the sun was high in the sky, the july morning people had left, their place was taken by tourists lying around in swimsuits, getting tanned. Life had gone back to its normal occurrences.
At the sound of the first bird singing I was leaving for home.
With the storm and the night behind me and a road of my own.

This post is my contribution to the competition Moments in Time - Beach, organised by Trippando in collaboration with Hotel Acacie.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Here’s the thing about travel

You know that feeling you get when your heart starts beating faster, your senses are heightened, you experience the world in more pixels… you can clearly feel endorphins having a party in your brain, and neurons are not being stingy when it comes to fireworks (or action potentials. I do psychology. kill me). That is what I feel when I am travelling. And also, when I don’t have to do psychology, but that’s a whole other topic.
First, there is the hype of the “leaving behind”. There is something very liberating about it. This is the closest I get to a clear sense of freedom. I would not wish to imply my ordinary life is in any way a state of imprisonment, or lack of freedom. I am simply saying I have a tendency to live according to metaphors, and obsessively seek their fulfilment (metaphorical OCD?). Leaving behind is my metaphor of achieving freedom, and it is the closest I get to having an actual experience of the concept.
Then there is “the road”. I am sitting somewhere, relatively motionless, contemplating the outside. (That is, of course, assuming a way of transportation that involves an engine, alternatives will be discussed later on.) An outside changing before my eyes. An ever-changing horizon. The metaphor of the road, for me, comes with the physical experience of the notion of being at peace. At that moment in time, nothing else matters. What is behind is behind, what is ahead, is uncertain. That is my home.
Then when travelling goes on for a while, when peace is replaced by impatience, when old yellow pages can no longer keep my attention for long, and I may also need to use a toilet the mean of transportation does not provide, when I recall Siddhartha’s eagerness to experience knowledge, then it is time to arrive. And then there is the metaphor of the new. In that moment when you step out of that thing with engine on wheels, breathe the air, and take that first look around – that is the moment of overwhelming pleasure. That is not to say the air is to smell good; nor is it that the fist view has to possess something particularly special about it. But it is new. That’s all it needs to be.