The Balkans: Belgrade, Bulgaria, and Bucharest – Summer Trip Part II

So after waking up super early to head to the bus station, and we boarded our bus to go to Belgrade. The ride was pretty nice, actually – we passed through Republika Srpska, which was definitely a different feel from the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina. For one, it was rainforests – in the Balkans. That tripped me up. The buildings were more dilapidated, and it felt almost like we were in southeast Asia in terms of scenery and building style. Pretty interesting though. The border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia was, of course, pretty strict, but we got through it without any issues. On the bus ride, a couple of Chinese tourists offered me some of their snacks – some spicy chips from the area that my brother studied in, in Szechuan! They were quite delicious, and the tourists kept offering me and the Serbian girl next to me the chips. The tourists and the Serbian girl were all very friendly, and the Serbian and I talked and joked around for awhile, before we both passed out.

Both of us woke up around Belgrade, and Emma and I took off towards our hostel, which was a ways away. I had my big 70L bag and an extra bag in front, which really hurt, and my ankle was still recovering from when I pulled my Achilles’ tendon. It was quite a tough walk – around a half an hour, and we were both starving, but we ended up making it to our hostel. On the way, a nice Serbian couple saw us walking and offered to help us take our stuff to wherever we were going – they didn’t care that we were far away, or that the bags were really heavy; they offered anyways. Just another example of Balkans kindness.

On the first day, Emma and I checked into our hostel and passed out. We woke up quite awhile later, and decided we would go get late lunch. We found a local ćevapi place – basically little sausages with TONS of flavor, wrapped up in a fluffy pita bread-type thing, then lathered with garlic, melted butter and sour cream. So, so, so good, and a traditional Balkans dish that I would HIGHLY recommend to anyone.

Ćevapi – delicious! Excuse the finger in the top left.

From there, Emma and I headed out into the rain to check out the main square, which was right nearby. There was a big #Београд sign (Belgrade in Serbian Cyrillic) which we wanted to get pictures of.

From there, we headed to an Orthodox Church – the Church of St. Sava, or the Hram Svetog Save, or Храм светог Саве – which is one of the largest churches in the world. Unfortunately, it’s not finished being built (after 84 years of building – it was started in 1935!).

After this, Emma and I headed to get dinner. We wound up at a hotel restaurant thing, which wasn’t very pricey but the food also wasn’t fantastic – I ended up getting a chicken soup, which wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. But the beer was. It clicked to me that I’d had a beer in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now Serbia – so I made it my goal to try a local beer from each of the countries I visit. I feel like it’s a pretty worthy cause, especially considering they’re SUPER cheap.

Anyways, after dinner, Emma and I headed to the grocery store to pick up some snacks and food and whatnot (and water!) but it ended up being closed, despite it saying it was a 24/7 grocery. Unfortunately it happened to be a holiday, so we found another store that was open and bought some snacks. With that, we headed back to the hostel and tried to sleep.

And by tried to sleep, I mean there were some REALLY loud Chinese tourists right outside our room that were yelling and throwing things and slamming tables with no regard for anyone else. Even after people asked them to stop, they wouldn’t – it was somewhat a problem with the hostel, as it was just basically an apartment-style thing that a bunch of college students had transformed into a 4-room hostel – and they were in the living room/lobby, which was right in the center of all of the rooms. It was incredibly rude for them to not even quiet down, and I was pretty frustrated.

Eventually, at 4:00 am, I went out and gave them a really dirty glare and waited until they stopped talking to look at me, as did one of my roommates, and they shut up with that.

Needless to say, I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night.

About three hours of rough sleep later, I woke up and Emma and I got some breakfast. We had bought bread and peach marmalade, but the toaster didn’t work and the pans were being used so I couldn’t use that to grill some bread, so we ended up just lathering peach jam on some bread. Not as bad as it could have been, I guess. We ended up meeting a couple of Germans from Berlin – they were probably 25 or 26, and they just decided that they would go traveling across Europe and down to the Middle East. They’d hit all of the countries in Europe and some of the Middle East in the 6 months they’d been traveling, and they were heading back up north to continue their travels, where they planned to be traveling for another 5 months. They were couchsurfing, using tents, and staying in hostels – it sounded pretty fun, to be honest.

After breakfast, Emma and I went out to St. Mark’s Cathedral. Remember how I said in the last post that ethnic tensions are still high?

Well, we found that out pretty clearly here. We noticed a lot of TV camera crews filming some people holding a banner. Turns out, there was a protest – er, not a protest, as a cameraman that I asked made sure to correct me on – about alleged Bosnian war crimes and the “over 10,000 dead Serbs at the hands of Bosniak Muslims.” It was a “memorial” for the patriotic Serbs who had died at the hands of the Bosniaks. Just a bit of information that I think is necessary here – the worldwide consensus, minus Russia and Serbia, says these numbers are wildly exaggerated, and that the war crimes were mostly committed by Serbs. That being said, war crimes were committed on all sides of the conflict – and these statistics don’t say anything about the average Bosniak, Serb, or Croat; everyone we met was incredibly open, friendly, and generous, and that is what I loved the most about this region – despite the relative recency of the conflict, people are very willing to open up to others. From what I’ve seen and read, many people in this region want to move past the stage of conflict, and while there are still outliers, the same can be said for any population – the US included. But I loved my time in Serbia, and this little memorial service didn’t change that fact.

Anyways.

We also found this, against Albanians.

After this, Emma and I figured we should head to the train station to figure out what was going on with our train to Sofia the next day, as it was a holiday and we didn’t know whether or not/how long the train station would be open. Unfortunately, Siri gave us wacky directions, so we ended up having to wander around for quite a while, but it was quite interesting – we ended up seeing some very Soviet style apartment blocks.

Eventually, we found our way to the train station, where a very nice lady who was working told us all of the information we’d need.

From there, we headed to the Museum of Yugoslav History.

This was quite a cool museum – we got to see tons of memorabilia from the Yugoslav era, as well as lots of gifts that Tito was gifted from around the world – it seems like, pretty universally (minus Russia) he was regarded as a highly respectable leader. He was even given a key to the city of Los Angeles and a piece of the moon from President Nixon!

In the museum also lies the mausoleum of Josip Tito and his wife, which we visited as well. Both Emma and I are history/politics nerds, so it was, at least for me, a bucket-list type of thing to see.

What was also interesting is my father was in Yugoslavia while Tito was in power, and now I was in former Yugoslavia visiting his mausoleum!

And suffice it to say, but the mausoleum was gorgeous. So peaceful and not too flashy, but very elegant and graceful. It was quite beautiful.

From the Mausoleum, Emma and I headed downtown to the “main square” of Belgrade. As we were on the bus, I ended up hearing a really loud honking behind us, then turned around to see a white car waving a Serbian flag, just blaring its horn as it drove through traffic. It was pretty funny, albeit a bit obnoxious. Oh well.

Once we got to the main square, it was POURING rain. Like really, really hard. Unfortunately for us, there was also construction going on, so we couldn’t see much of the square as it was; we ended up just heading to a little pasta restaurant called “Pasta Way” instead. On the way to Pasta Way, we also ended up buying a little Balkans pastry, called “burek” – it’s a flaky, doughy pastry filled with cheeses – such as fetta or cottage cheese – and it’s incredibly delicious when warm. It’s also SUPER cheap – ours was the equivalent of like $0.25 for almost a pizza-sized slice, which is INCREDIBLE, also considering how delicious it was.

After Pasta Way, we headed to an art district called Скадарлија, which is a quaint little paved streets with small restaurants and a weirdly Portland-y vibe. It was a really cool little area of the street – very vintage – but unfortunately, it started pouring rain again, so I couldn’t get too many photos.

From Скадарлија, we headed up to the Belgrade Fortress, or the Београдска тврђава. It was really a cool fortress – one of the oldest standing fortresses in Europe, and it has a view over much of the city and the rivers that pass through it – the Danube and the Sava. As we went up, there were little stands that were selling items – Emma ended up getting Spongebob-themed popcorn, or rather, “Sunđer Bob” themed popcorn, which we ended up only referring to as “Sunđerbob.” I ended up finding a postcard as well, which I bought because I found it interesting – it had to do with the conflict in Kosovo, which Serbia claims is its territory due to ethnic Serbs living there. I don’t agree with the postcard – I support Kosovo’s independence, but I bought it anyways; I thought it was interesting. There was a huge war in the late 1990s and Serbia ended up being bombed heavily by NATO for another campaign of ethnic cleansing against Albanians/Kosovar. But again, this doesn’t reflect on the average Serb or Kosovar; as aforementioned, I loved the people I met and they were some of the most generous, open-hearted people I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering.

An interesting point – we happened to be in Serbia as there were talks going on about the future of Kosovo and, more specifically, peace talks; we were also in Bosnia-Herzegovina as there was a push to move the Republika Srpska to Serbia, which could potentially cause another bloody war. We happened to be lucky and get to be there during both!

Emma and I, exhausted from the day, ended up heading back to the hostel and falling asleep without having any dinner – also because we had to wake up SUPER early to head to the train station in the morning.

That next morning, we woke up at 5 am to head to the train station – we took a taxi, which our hostel so nicely called for us – and I unfortunately ended up dropping my entire two-ish days’ worth of food in a muddy, cigarette-filled puddle. I was pretty upset but oh well. We ended up seeing quite a beautiful sunrise over the city, and we had a decent view of the church – Храм светог Саве – which was a pretty good way to top off our trip to Belgrade.

From Belgrade, we stopped in Niš, which was heavily cluster-bombed by the Dutch in 1999 for the Serbian “encroaching” upon Kosovo. We passed by Kosovo but didn’t go in – for fairly obvious reasons, although apparently it’s safe for Americans (as we recognize their independence) – and mostly as long as you’re not Russian or Serbian, you should be fine. Apparently though it’s definitely like a third-world-country, but I think it’d be really interesting and quite fascinating to visit regardless. Also, Kosovo has a really adorable website dedicated to thanking the “people of the countries for their friendship, support and acceptance,” which you can find at https://www.kosovothanksyou.com/ It’s a pretty sweet website, and it thanks each country individually for recognizing them as independent. (There are lots of heart emojis from Kosovo’s side!).

That being said, as I have mentioned a few times before, my stance on the issue doesn’t change the way I feel about Serbia or the Serbs I had the pleasure of interacting with – Belgrade was a wonderful time and I met some incredible people (like Dzhravko!) that are from Serbia. Any Serbs reading this – I love you guys and I hope my stance on the issue changes your view of Americans 🙂

Anyways, our train was a bit delayed – almost 20 minutes or so, and the train ticket checker came and asked if we were stopping in Niš or going elsewhere, and we explained that we were going to Sofia. In broken English, he offered to call the conductor of the Sofia train and halt it, just for Emma and me, so we could get on in time despite our delay. Due to the language barrier, we didn’t really understand what he said, so we were still stressed out and confused for most of the trip (as we thought we were still going to miss our train), until we saw him on the phone and he gave us a thumbs up, and we pulled into the station and he said “Have a wonderful trip!” Only then did it really click that he halted the other train for us, and we thanked him profusely for us. It was such a genuinely good act on his part, and I really wish I could have thanked him further. It was probably one of the nicest, most down-to-earth and genuine things someone’s ever done for me – to go through the effort of calling another conductor and to halt a whole train for over 20 minutes just so two American kids could make it on their train in time? It was quite heartwarming and it definitely made my day, if not my week. Even writing this, I’m getting chills at the sheer goodness of humanity that was shown in such an act of kindness. I’m telling you, people from the Balkans are the nicest people around.

On the first train to Sofia, we ended up meeting a nice Danish man who was a political scientist – he saw us using Eurail Passes, and he was using Interrail (the European version). As Emma and I are both poli-sci majors, we ended up ranting for a LONG while about Donald Trump and his policies. He also told us that Bulgaria is the most corrupt country in the EU and one of the most corrupt in Europe – the mayor of Sofia went against corruption, and within a month, she was jailed on corruption charges (that weren’t true) and the old, real-corrupt people were back in power. Woah.

We ended up having to board a different train to get to Sofia – a transfer – and on this second train, there were only about 10 of us, most of us foreigners – there were two Germans, the Danish guy, Emma and myself, 2 Swedes, and a few Serbs/Bulgarians (I’m not sure which). This train was only two cars – so everyone could see everyone – and unfortunately for us, SOMEONE decided it would be a good idea to try to smuggle goods underneath a chair. As Serbia isn’t in the EU and Bulgaria is, it was smuggling goods into the EU, so the border control really went hard on us. They asked Emma and I what we were doing, checked our bags for goods, checked in trash cans, vents, under chairs, etc. – basically anywhere goods could be stored – and took pictures of everything. We got stuck at border control for quite awhile (not as long as Ukraine to Poland! But that’s for a later post.), but we ended up making it to Sofia alright. We were warned by our hostel not to take taxis in front of the train station, but rather in front of the bus station, so we did, but I assume the taxi drivers from the train station caught on, because we were TOTALLY scammed out of around 15 Euros (the charge should have only been around 1 or 2 Euros TOTAL). Anyways, we checked into our hostel – a really, really cool hostel that gave us free dinner, free beer, and free breakfast in the morning, and Emma and I had a two-person apartment-style room down the street. It was really cheap and the people working there were incredibly friendly. It’s really cheap, really fun, and they have free food! I definitely recommend Hostel Mostel. 10/10. After eating our dinner – I had lentils and rice, as well as some bread; nothing special – Emma and I promptly fell asleep in our room.

The hostel lobby/dining room.

In the morning, we woke up early to take a little “walking tour” of sites the hostel recommended. They gave us a map of almost 50 different places to visit and the route that gets it done the most efficiently, so Emma and I set out on our trek.

We started out at the Lady’s Market – an old farmer’s market that’s not super frequented by tourists, so we got the “traditional” Bulgarian market feel – the yelling, the bartering, the old ladies selling produce – it was quite fun to watch. From there, we headed to the Lion’s Bridge, and then to a synagogue, or what we thought was a synagogue (I’m not even sure what we ended up seeing). We ended up finding the actual synagogue, then went to a little indoor train-station market thing. From there, we headed to some ancient Roman ruins – and the ruins of Roman baths – and we saw the statue of St. Sofia, as well as a REALLY old church that had traditional Byzantine art from the 15th Century. It was really cool but I didn’t manage to take any pictures from the inside – it was far too dark. From there, we headed to the Headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party – it was really cool and quite monumental. It looked absolutely stunning, and it was quite a “punch in the gut” because it was our first “actual” experience with communist architecture. We went to some Orthodox churches as well, which were (of course) stunning.

From there, we went to a local park to do a free walking tour of traditional Bulgarian food – also organized by our hostel. Fun fact, Emma and I didn’t have to pay for almost a single meal! We tipped our guide, of course, but I wouldn’t consider that paying for the meal – we only ended up eating dinner that night, at one of the restaurants we went to on the walking tour.

Our group was 13 people, and it started off on a really good note – we met a really nice man named Sal (or at least, that’s what I thought I heard) – he grew up in Berkeley and lives in San Diego – he knows Senators Kehoe and Atkins, and he ended up doing grad work at UC Berkeley in German and environmental politics! We talked with Sal for a long time – he was just traveling through the region (for a little longer than we were) and he was such a sweet man – very pleasant to talk to. Our tour guide was a Bulgarian actor – his name is Rado, or something like that (that’s just how it sounded), and he’s lived in Sofia all his life. Funny part though, Sal had just seen him in a production of Mamma Mia! in Bulgarian the night before, and didn’t recognize him without his stage makeup.

So to start off the tour, our tour guide explained the history of Bulgarian food pretty briefly. The part I found most interesting was in regards to the communist-era of food. Before the communists were in power, each region had a separate name for the same food. So if I wanted to have a meal (i.e. a burger or something), it would have one name in one region, but another name for a different region, so people would travel to the regions without knowing how to order what they wanted. When the communists came into power, there was an influx of tourists, and they wanted tourists to visit these smaller towns where the food ORIGINATED from. So if there was a food that was from a town, Yfood that originated in XTown, the food was labeled – nationally as XTown Yfood. Therefore, people who liked these dishes would be more inclined to visit the towns the dishes originated from.

Anyways, our food tour started out with some traditional Bulgarian yoghurt drink thing. It’s a lot like Greek tzatziki, but more liquidy, and ice-cold. Our tour guide told us that the yoghurt’s really sour because of a special type of bacteria that is only able to be harvested in that region – the Sofia region specifically – and people from all over the Balkans travel there to buy the bacteria so they can make the yoghurt themselves (they sell the bacteria in bulk, so you can just add it in to make the yoghurt). Rado told us that the yoghurt was really good for your health – and I’m not sure if it was a placebo or what, but my stomach was feeling MISERABLE prior to this – like, throwing-up-sick, but the yoghurt immediately helped and I was pretty much back to normal after it. Anyways, it was filled with cucumber, parsley, and some other vegetables, and it was incredibly sour, but quite refreshing and delicious. I’d definitely recommend it – it’s called tarator, and it’s almost like a soup, or a drink – it’s served in a cup or a bowl, ice-cold, and it’s quite a refreshing summer drink/meal.

Photo credits to Emma!

After that, we went to a little wine shop. We ended up having one of the most famous Prime Minister’s favorite wines – he ordered it in HUGE bulk and would give it to family and friends at any social gatherings as a gift. It was quite delicious and really dry, but my favorite part was that it looked like water. I don’t know why I liked that fact so much, but I found it pretty cool.

Photo credits to Emma pt. 2!

From the wine shop, we headed to a little underground market – literally underground – but Rado reassured us it was safe, and that this lady that worked there had the best burek in town. I’ve found that the sketchier the street food, oftentimes the better it is – and this was no exception. The burek was fantastic, and Rado told us about a drink called “боза”, or “boza.” It’s made of wheat millet and it’s fermented. According to our tour guide, 50% of people love it and 50% of people absolutely hate it to the point of not wanting to look at it. It’s been compared to “breadmaker’s slop” in taste, and as a Vice News writer writes:

The drink was at once slimy, smooth, and grainy, and it reminded me of a milkshake made from flat beer. As it went down my throat, I was hit with a jolt of sour flavor that felt like it should’ve been coming up instead of going down.

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/jpagkp/my-introduction-to-boza-the-breast-enhancing-proto-beer-of-bulgaria – “My Introduction to Boza, the Breast-Enhancing Proto-Beer of Bulgaria,” by Barbara Woolsey

I found it not bad, actually. The vast majority of people in our group found it disgusting, but Emma and I didn’t mind it, nor did around 2 or 3 other people in our group. Someone threw it up into a napkin, but Emma and I kept our bottle that we bought and kept drinking it. Oddly enough, it tastes kind of like refried beans, but a little sweeter, and it has the consistency of a thin milkshake – not watery, like milk, but not as thick as, say, an In-n-Out shake. But again, it wasn’t bad! I’d recommend trying it at least once, if nothing else, with other people, so you can see their reactions.

Photo credits to Emma pt. 3!

From there, we headed to a little burger place – this was the non-traditional place we went to, but the burger restaurant was started by Bulgarians and American students, so it’s taking an American food but putting a Bulgarian spin on it in the way that they cook the meat – and the meat was delicious. The burgers had onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and some sort of sauce, and it was absolutely delicious. I wish the meat was cooked like that at home – I’m not sure what they did differently, but it was incredible.

Photo credits to Emma pt. 4!

We then went to a little restaurant, that Emma and I ultimately had dinner at – the point of the tour was to show local Bulgarian restaurants, and have a taste of their food, so you would come back if you liked it. For our food-tour-food, we had little pieces of bread with two different types of “sauce” or salsa – one was with corn, peppers, garlic, tomatoes, onions, and it tasted incredibly familiar, but I’m not sure why. It was really, really good, and I wish I had the recipe for it, because I feel like it’d be a really good party snack or a really good food to have while just lying around at home and in need of something small to eat. Apparently it’s a thing for parents and grandparents to send their kids LITERS of that stuff while they’re at university, because it’s such a staple in every household that students eat it pretty much nonstop when they’re away (plus it’s super easy!). Our tour guide said he’s received upwards of 10 Liters from his grandma at once, and it lasts for a long while, but he ends up just sharing it with his friends.

The second “salsa” had eggplant, cucumber, onions, strawberries, tomatoes, spices, and a dressing(?) but it was also incredibly good. Much less popular than the first one, but still delicious.

The first one is on the bottom – the second one is on the top. Thanks to Emma for this picture!

From here, we went to our second-to-last restaurant, which was a VERY traditional Bulgarian restaurant. It was underground and the walls were lined with wine barrels. The food we had here was a sort of cream-cheese, pasty spread served on soft bread, that was served with some really salty-tasting spices, and it contained various vegetables and walnuts. We were also given some dessert wine, which I’d never had, but it was really good. I can’t imagine having more than a small cup, because it was SO sweet, but it was pretty good regardless. My favorite part of this restaurant was that there were chains hanging from the ceiling – people assumed they were for meat (myself included), but apparently, when families order food, they traditionally order a TON, so the chains end up expanding to hold up a second table, at eye-level, so you can pick food off of two platforms (one hanging from the ceiling and one from your table), any time you like! It was pretty cool to see because I’ve never seen (or heard of) anything like it.

And with that, we headed to our last stop: a little cake dessert shop! We had a really good cake with rose petals and plum, chocolate, and vanilla. It was really dense but quite delicious, and we also had lemonade. It was funny because lemonade in Bulgaria has 0 sugar, so it’s just lemon juice, so everyone was wincing with the taste, but the tour guide said “You think this is sour? This is sweet lemonade, they’re not even in season!” and it definitely made me finish the lemonade faster. It wasn’t too bad – definitely bitter though. We talked with the other people in the tour and Rado, and we ended up getting recommended a bar, which was called the “most secret bar in Sofia.” As we were told, you can’t stumble upon it – you actually have to search it out, and there’s no electricity; everything is lit by candlelight, and it’s in the back of a pitch-black alleyway, inside a shed (sounds sketchy, I know).

So Emma and I headed to dinner – as I mentioned, to the restaurant that we had the salsa-like bread stuff, and I had a really delicious pesto pasta and a delicious Bulgarian beer (which I didn’t catch the name for).

From there, we found a little outdoors bar/café type thing, where we sat and talked for a long while. It was a really good, genuine conversation, and it was a pretty good way to start the night. We talked about our entire year in Salzburg and memories from the year, among other things, and I got some time to practice my manual settings on my camera. I only got one picture, of Emma, and it didn’t turn out right – most of the ones that I got that I liked were videos. Oh well!

From there, Emma and I headed to the secret bar. It was really, really dark, and it took a long while to find it, even knowing exactly where it was.

We ended up being two of only four people there, but we ended up meeting a really cool Canadian girl who was traveling around, named Shelby. We talked about our travels and whatnot, but only briefly, because Emma and I had to catch a night bus to Bucharest!

We rushed back to the hostel, then hopped in a (cheap, non-scammy) taxi to the bus station!

We ended up arriving in Bucharest in the morning (6.10 to be exact), and tried to find somewhere to use the restroom or a shower, but couldn’t. So we ended up wandering around for a long while, then threw our stuff in our hostel, and lounged in the lobby for a little while. The hostel lobby was pretty cool – it was in an enclosed courtyard, or more like a courtyard with a glass roof, so it had plenty of natural light. It had a TV and a couch and a guitar, as well as a little dining table, and it felt like the perfect lounge/living room type of thing. It was lit up in the evening with hanging Christmas lights, and I almost wanted to make something like that in my house in Portland, but I know that’s not exactly possible.

Anyways.

Emma and I were pretty hungry, so we ended up going to a Scandinavian restaurant, which was inCREDIBLY cheap and absolutely delicious. I got a ham, brie, rucola, and pumpkin-spread sandwich, and it was absolutely incredible, as well as a granola-chocolate smoothie thing. In total, it came out to 4 Euros – and it was a pretty big meal. Quite delicious and a really good way to start off the morning. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if it was the vegetables (you’re not supposed to eat the vegetables if you’re not a local or haven’t been fully vaccinated against all of the things in the water, because the vegetables are washed in contaminated water), but I got pretty sick. I’m not sure if it was the food specifically, but I felt pretty miserable afterwards. But the food was delicious nonetheless!

We ended up taking a bus to a HUGE park, and I found it really interesting, because everyone on the buses made the sign of the cross every single time they passed a church. I’m not sure if it’s an orthodox thing, but it was pretty cool to see because you could see the church coming up in the distance, and then everyone in the bus (minus Emma and myself, or a few other non-Orthodox people) made the sign of the cross in one huge wave. Anyways.

As my ankle was still hurting from the pulled Achilles’ Tendon and my stomach now felt absolutely horrible, I went to buy some water to hopefully make my stomach feel better. (It didn’t.)

We ended up at the big park and found a huge pond, with lots of animals – frogs, turtles, and whatnot (and the frogs were horrifyingly loud). If you watch the video, you can hear chirping in the background. It sounds pretty quiet in the video, but in person, they were incredibly loud.

That’s the frogs.

Emma and I ended up napping in the park, and we stumbled upon (or rather, they stumbled upon us) a group of teenagers – maybe seniors in high school – who were doing a sort of scavenger hunt, in which they needed pictures with strangers for extra points. It reminded me of PPP for Camp Kids (Pizza, Pepsi, Polaroid), and they were a little hesitant to speak in English with us, but their English was quite good! We got selfies with them (I would include them, but they were on their phones and I have no way of having them).

From the park, we headed to the second-largest building in the world – the Palace of Parliament. It was built under Nicolae Ceaușescu (the old communist dictator who was deposed and executed along with his wife). Thousands of people died working on it, and it was a HUGE megalomaniacal project to fulfill his desires for shows of power. It was a really weird building to see in person – you could walk for a minute or two and when you look at the building as a reference point, it looks like you haven’t moved at all. It is MASSIVE. The pictures don’t do it justice, but it didn’t fit in my camera’s field. It doesn’t look as colossal in the photo as it does in person, but trust me – it’s enormous.

From the Palace, we went to the metro to explore a different part of the city. We ended up meeting a really nice Polish woman from Warsaw, probably mid-20s, who’s studying international relations but ended up taking a break to work in Bucharest for an HR company. She gave me suggestions of things to see in Warsaw (which I ended up seeing when I went there), and she gave us words of encouragement for our studies and for my travel. She was incredibly friendly, and we caught her name but I forgot to write it down, so we just nicknamed her “Trudi” because she left at a stop that sounds like the last name of one of our classmates, Trudi.

Emma and I wandered around the city for awhile afterwards – for a few hours, and we ended up stumbling upon the same scavenger hunt people that we had seen earlier! I said hello and they thanked us for being in their selfies again, and we wished them good luck on the rest of their hunt.

We ended up stumbling upon an Orthodox church that was in the middle of mass, and they were projecting the prayers outside the church. I got a video of it, and it was also really cool because the scaffolding on their reconstruction was done entirely in wood, in what I’d imagine is the “old way” of doing it, without the fancy metal scaffolding that they use nowadays.

Emma and I wandered around the old town of Bucharest for a long while – we ended up getting dinner at a quaint little restaurant in the middle of old town, and we ordered a huge cheese platter, which was absolutely delicious, and I ordered more ćevap for dinner. For my Romanian beer, I had a Silva Dark Lager – it’s really good, and kinda fruity too, but with a strong taste. I liked it a lot, especially with the ćevap.

From here, Emma and I wandered around town more – those are from the second half/blue-hour pictures in the set above. We ended up stopping in at a little dessert place, where Emma got some gelato and I had a little cookie/frozen-whipped-cream pastry thing. Probably one of the best desserts I’ve ever had, if we’re being honest. And it wasn’t expensive! I wish I could eat them forever. Or at least find them elsewhere.

From here, Emma and I went to another part of town, where we witnessed a HUGE water show at the massive fountains (also a Ceaușescu project) in the middle of the city. It reminded me of the fountains in Disneyland, or in Las Vegas, where they do the water show around the music. It was a lot of fun to watch, but incredibly crowded.

Then we decided to walk up the hill to the Patriarchal Church of Bucharest. It was pretty cool, but we didn’t stay for long, because my ankle was hurting again.

From there, Emma and I headed back to Old Town and she got one last drink in Europe, a Carlsberg, and we ended up walking home.

When we got to the hostel, we had a new roommate – a 40-something year old Australian dude, who was only in boxers and was playing music VERY LOUDLY from a speaker, and it was almost 1 am. The guy was pretty rude and just overall a pretty shitty roommate (and person); he complained about so much and spewed conspiracy theories and various other tidbits of bigotry and ignorance. Emma ended up writing down a list of quotes from the guy, and Emma and I were frantically texting each other from our beds on how to get the guy to shut up – he would NOT stop talking, and he was saying some pretty outrageous things.

For example – some of these are pretty racist and problematic, but I’m including them to show just how much of an idiot/jackass/dumbass this guy is. These are coming from a grown man, keep in mind. I do not agree with literally anything this guy said – he also spewed conspiracy theories about Jews and lizard politicians, etc. Crazy guy. Thanks to Emma for documenting all of these!:

“What are the Balkans? Is it cold there?” – Romania is in the Balkans. We were in the Balkans.

“Oh, you major in political science? You believe in politics? I think it’s a scam.”

“Jesus Christ is a con.”

“Oh, you must be so young… I just turned 40…. I’m 40… yeah, I’m 40…” trying to get us to understand how “inexperienced in life” we are.

“Who was sided with who in WWI? The US wasn’t in that were they? When was that?”

“Mexico and Asia are dangerous for Americans aren’t they? Cambodians are just angry little Asians who want nothing more than to kill Americans and foreigners and eat them.”

“If you take out the Holocaust, the Germans were right.”

“You Americans in America are fighting for overindulgence and misbehaving.”

“You are the Illuminati and you want to be more obvious. The Nazis were a little more low-key.”

“The Rothschilds took over the media and brainwashed you all.”

Anyways, we would try arguing with him over literally every point he mentioned – but he would essentially yell over us to stop us from talking. A real asshat, and not a fun roommate in the slightest. It was so unfortunate because we met so many fantastic people on this trip – so many wonderful souls – and the LAST roommate we had was the one that ruined the streak.

Eventually, Emma managed to convince him to go to bed, and we all fell asleep.

In the morning, we woke up for breakfast, packed up, and ended up heading to the kitchen to eat. We met a couple from Latvia (from Riga), and I told them I had done a presentation on Latvia and was planning on visiting it. They were pretty surprised, and in their own words, “Why would anyone choose to do a project on Latvia?” (Regardless, I would later end up visiting Riga and totally enjoying it.)

From the hostel, Emma and I headed to the Arc de Triumph – or rather, the Arcula du Triumf – of Bucharest. We climbed up to the top, which was a lot to climb with a HUGE, heavy backpack, but we did it! I didn’t have much time to spend there, because I had to catch a bus to get to the train station and get to my train for the night, and Emma had to catch her own bus to get to the airport so she could fly home.

So after we climbed down, we said our good-byes and wished each other good luck and farewells. I was really sad to see this chapter go – it was a ton of fun traveling with Emma, and I’m sad that I didn’t travel more with her during the school year. It was a great week-and-a-half of getting to know her better and being able to see the more “unseen” parts of Europe with! Overall, despite some stressful situations and the busyness of it all, it was a TON of fun and a trip I’ll never forget. And I can’t wait to get back to the Balkans at some point!

Anyways, I headed to the train station, bought a reservation for my train – turns out, it was for the wrong train – and had to buy a second reservation because they wouldn’t refund it. I ended up making it onto my train with only a minute to spare, and saddled up for around 28 hours of trains.

On my train, there ended up being a sweet little old Romanian lady who spoke no English at all – I ended up helping her out with her bags, or moving her chair/extending it, or opening the door, or turning up/down the A/C, but only through her motions with her cane or with her hands. There was a point where she was asking to turn up the heat, but the heat was already as high as it could go – I had to explain that if you keep turning it up, it cycles back to the “cold” side of the dial – but she kept motioning for me to turn it up. I tried giving her a thumbs-up and demonstrating through hand-motions that it wasn’t going to get hotter, only colder, and she didn’t understand, and kept wanting me to turn it up. So after a little while, I gave it a shot and asked “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” (“Do you speak German?”) and she said “Ein bisschen,” or “a little.” So I explained it all in German, and she settled with that. From then on, every time she needed my help, she would try in German – her German wasn’t very advanced, like I spoke a lot more German than she did, and I’ve only been studying it for two years, so it was still a little bit hard, but oh well.

Eventually, there was a nice Romanian man who got on the train and translated for me to her. Turns out, he works in Graz (Austria) as a construction worker to pay his son’s autism therapy. I asked him if he likes it, and he hates it – he only does it because his son’s therapy bills are 1000 Euros a month. As he says, that’s a “fortune,” and that even the wealthy people barely make more than that, and one would be extremely lucky to even make 400 Euros a month. It was quite shocking to hear – Emma and I had been talking about housing prices and wages throughout the trip because everything was SO cheap, but 400 Euros a month is pretty much nothing.

Anyways, the overnight train got delayed by about ten minutes, which meant that when I got into Budapest, I missed my morning train to get to Krakow. To make matters worse, I couldn’t buy a metro ticket to the station I needed – I couldn’t find any cash, and the ticket machine wouldn’t take card. Eventually, I found a large enough bill in the depths of my money pouch – I happened to be lucky and have kept one bill from Hungary – and I used it to buy my ticket, as there were no ATMs around. I made it to the next train station, then got stuck because I also still didn’t have cash, or food, or water, so I couldn’t buy food because they all required cash, and I couldn’t use the restroom. So eventually, I wandered out early in the morning, to pouring rain, in search of anywhere that was open. I searched for awhile and finally came across a Starbucks that opened at 7, which is right when I reached it. And with that, I bought a drink and used the bathroom/got ready, and headed to Krakow!

Well, that’s all for my Balkans trip. It was a fantastic experience and I can’t recommend visiting that region enough – hopefully next time, I’ll be able to visit Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo. But for now, 5 countries was pretty good. This whole Balkans trip was such an exciting time and it was filled with wonderful memories and vibrant cultures, history, and lovely-hearted people.

I’ll include a video when I’m done with it, but I don’t have much time to work on it currently. So it’ll be a while.

As of right now, I’m in Brussels, and I’ve only got about 9 days left here. I’m sad to see it go but I’m sure I’ll be back! And in terms of posts, next up is Krakow and Auschwitz.

С љубављу из Београда/С любов от София,/
Cu dragoste din București/Mit Liebe aus Belgrad, Sofia, und Bukarest,

Cal

I’m not going to include any phrases because I have NO idea how to say them. Whoops.

SONG:

“Visiting” by Pinegrove. I think this is the song I’ll use for my Balkans video, but I’m not entirely sure.

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