Moving to the Balkans

Sofia, Bulgaria


On Friday, August 5, I boarded a one-way Lufthansa flight to Sofia, Bulgaria via München, Deutschland. The familiarity of being told what to do in deutsch assuaged any anxiety I had. So did the rotwein.

Six years ago, when I first embarked on my international opportunity, the feelings were different. I had flown to my first job in Rome from Australia because my cousin in Melbourne got married, and it was as if my holidays were simply going to continue.

And, really, my two years in Rome felt that way. I spent more mental energy deciding on gelato flavors and the next city I was to explore over standards and curriculum.

This time, the butterflies in my stomach flapped gingerly. Perhaps it was the recondite Cyrillic which I struggle to understand. Perhaps it was the confused responses upon sharing the news of this job in stark contrast to other locations. Perhaps it was the skills I’ve developed in finding home within myself and not necessarily a location.

On the individual screen from my aisle seat, I watched The Time Traveler’s Wife, empathizing not with the intended wife, but with the time traveler himself: the false sense of control, the naked vulnerability in each travel, and the excitement that comes with such profound experiences.

The Arrival

After going through Bulgarian immigration with my visa in my passport and collecting all of my luggage, Elena Deneva and my head of school, Jim Urquhart, were on the other side of the customs gates with the logo of the Anglo-American School in hand, waiting with smiles.

They drove along Boulevard Tsarigradsko Shose towards the city center (this same boulevard stretches to Istanbul in the opposite direction) identifying key buildings and monuments, like the statue of Vassil Levski who liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the early 1800s.

The carpark directly in front of my building was empty and barricaded with police tape. A police car that seemed to have been made in the ’70s was parked directly in front of the poorly lit, graffitied entranceway. I half-smiled and held my luggage tightly as we walked up the stairs.

After four turns, the lock unclicked and the door to my apartment opened to a waiting room. Directly to the left is a hallway with a small half-bath that leads to the kitchen. To the right a separate dining room, which then opens to a large and spacious living room. Behind the living room are two large bedrooms and a full bath. The living room opens to a balcony.

Elena and Jim walked me through the basics of the apartment — heating, cooling, cable television, appliance uses and the like. They showed me all the things the school bought and stocked my apartment with: groceries, dishes, silverware, pots and pans, blankets, pillows, towels, cleaning supplies. They gave me enough Leva to last me a month. And I even received a SIM card, which worked immediately. What a welcome! I was, indeed, grateful that my new community put so much time and energy in my arrival.

By then it was almost midnight since I arrived on a late flight, and they left. Just as I sat down on my couch, I could hear my name being called from the balcony. “Josefino, we just saw a sign, this police car is part of a movie set. They’ll be filming here tomorrow morning,” yelled Jim. I laughed. It all did feel like some surreal movie.

The next morning, I woke up to cameras and purposeful car crashes. I attempted to sneak in the background of one of the shots, but they caught me.

I walked around the corner and behind the trees, I saw this: The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

Saint Alexander Nevsky was a Russian prince. The cathedral was created in honor of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878, as a result of which Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule. Now it serves as my backyard.

I explored my new city a bit. Found my local Starbucks (11 min walk from my apartment and open at 7:00 weekdays and 8:00 weekends, in case you were wondering) and my local gym, Pulse Fitness. I’m still on the hunt for a barber. I returned to finish unpacking.

In the evening, I met up with new friends — Joseph, George, Katie, and Leah — for dinner and gelato. Joe came to Bulgaria 11 years ago through the Peace Corps and stayed on after meeting his partner George, who is a professor of writing at a local university. Katie is from Pennsylvania but most recently came from teaching in Mexico. Leah is from central New York, but most recently came from Dubai.

It’s amazing how welcoming teachers are in international circles. In some ways we have to be: we’re forced colleagues, but by choice become friends and even family. I already get that feeling from this crew.

Click here for another post about my first day at my new school, The Anglo-American School of Sofia.

Josefino Rivera, Jr.

Written by

International Educator: 🇺🇸🇮🇹🇩🇪🇦🇷🇧🇬🇭🇰🏳️‍🌈 • TED-Ed Advisor & TEDx Organizer • Cellist • Photographer • MA Education, Stanford • BA English, UCSB

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