Back That Month Up | Sofia

Don’t sleep on Bulgaria

July was a month of milestones for Kaizen. Our 100th day of Remote Year was in the first week, it was our final month in Europe, and the conclusion of the month meant that we were already a third (!!) of the way through the year.

We (for the most part) spent July in Sofia, Bulgaria — a place that I knew nothing about before applying to Remote Year. While I knew that it was going to be a pleasant surprise for a lot of people based on the research I had done during my Premote days (i.e. cyber stalking people’s blogs), I still had no idea what to expect.

Although we were technically in Bulgaria for July, lots of people were traveling for a good portion of the month — more so than in prior months. This made for interesting dynamics that made month 4 one of the most unique months yet.

The People

Kaizen

This month felt different than previous months in terms of group dynamics. Not bad different. Just different. Lots of people went on multiple side trips (myself included) and accommodations were the most spread out that they have been. There were plenty of people I only saw once or twice the entire month simply due to conflicting travel schedules. One of the great things that comes out of situations like this is how you end up spending more time with people that you typically don’t see a lot.

Case in point, I got to strategically assemble a bungee jump excursion with an awesome group of people that collectively probably hasn’t hung out often outside of Kaizen-wide events. The “randomness” of the group made the experience so much more fun and it is one of my fondest memories of the month.

Hostel Friends

When you’re traveling alone, staying in hostels is the way to go because of how easy it is to make friends. I find that when looking back on your experiences, it’s the friends you make at the hostels that become some of your best memories from the trip.

While staying at a hostel in Granada, I made an great new friend from Australia, Mathieus, who was in Europe solo traveling for over a month because that’s just what Australians do. Similar to me, he was traveling through Spain at the time and was planning on going to the same places I was. We decided to join forces and traveled together for the next six days.

RY Nation

One of my favorite things is meeting Remotes from other programs and RY Team members. I had the chance to meet a ton of other Remotes at the Nation House event I attended — which is essentially a weekend-long personal growth workshop lead by the Remotes in attendance — and we also had some more RY staff join us in Sofia (shoutout to BJ Baggins!).

The Places

Spain

My time in Europe was running out and I knew that I needed to brush up on mi español before South America. I decided to do what any logical person would do and go on a 10-day solo trip through Spain. By the end of the trip, mi español was en fuego.

SEVILLE

I started in Seville, where I booked a nice, clean, air conditioned Airbnb all to myself for two days. Well, it started as two days, but I added a third within 5 minutes of waking through the apartment. I forgot how much I loved living alone and I was not ready to give it up yet.

I had one goal for Seville and one goal only: do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted with whoever I wanted (just myself, obv). And that’s what I did. In fact, one of my fondest memories is not something that I did, but rather something that I didn’t do. I did not go into the famous cathedral that allegedly houses Christopher Columbus’ remains because, quite frankly, I didn’t give a heck. It felt really good to have all the power back in deciding what I wanted to spend my time doing, which is not always the case when you’re traveling with 50 other people.

how it feels to travel alone and do whatever you want at all times

GRANADA

I almost nixed Granada, but one thing I’ve learned during the last couple of months is that if Valentina tells you to go somewhere, you do it.

I said goodbye to the bougie Airbnb life for my first solo hostel stay in just about a year. It reminded me that I have been living in my little RY cocoon for a while because I felt super awkward at first. That was until I met Andre, a long-term solo traveler who invited me out to dinner, which made me feel more comfortable and got me back in the swing of things. He also introduced me to Mathieus, who ended up being my travel compadre for the remainder of the trip.

Oh, I also saw La Alhambra, which is the whole reason why Valentina told me I needed to go. To no one’s surprise, she was right.

MÁLAGA

Fun facts: Pablo Picasso, who looked alarmingly similar to Bruce Willis according to his statue, was born here and Antonio Banderas is from (or lives?) here. That’s right. The dad from Spy Kids himself.

MADRID

By this point in the trip, I was pretty much doing whatever I could to make locals talk to me in Spanish. I am now a pro at asking how much the large water costs and whether or not adding an appetizer would be too much food (A: it never is).

It was really fun to see places that I read about in Spanish classes growing up like La Plaza Mayor, El Museo del Prado, and Parque Retiro.

The trip, up to this point, had been very tame because I was working during the week. Madrid, however, fell on a weekend. I decided to get super hostel-y and go on the hostel bar crawl with some new British friends, who I mistakenly tried to keep up with in the beer drinking department. Mistake. I somehow ended up convincing the overwhelming majority of the bar crawlers to do the Kaizen Kall while chanting my name as I video taped it (y am i like this?).

The next day, we finally went to see Flamenco with our new friends, Laurie and Kelly, and stayed out until I had to leave for my flight at 3 am, which was a questionable move at best.

Bulgaria

SOFIA

Me pre-RY: *lists off itinerary*
Literally everyone: “Bulgaria? That’s…interesting”

I’m going to let you in on a little secret, people: Bulgaria is the shit! I only ended up spending two weeks in Sofia (pronounced Sófia, for you Spanish speakers) due to other side trips, but the amount of time I spent in Sofia is not a reflection of how I felt about the city at all. I actually wish this was one of our five week cities.

Everything about Sofia surprised me. Its architecture is a mix of golden, domey churches and gigantic light gray concrete buildings that give off serious communist vibes. It’s also way more modern than I anticipated, the nature throughout and surrounding the city is stunning, it’s incredibly affordable, it has my favorite workspace, and, in my opinion, it’s the most livable city that we’ve been to. I got there 10 days late and felt at home by my second day there.

Highlights:

  • Having the inaugural Kaizen Bros night (before girls ever had a girls night, for the record) that consisted of beers, wings, whiskey, pool, cheesy bro jokes, and, of course, a bunch of awesome bros. BROS BROS BROS BROS!
  • We had our first overnight track event that consisted of camping just outside the city with about half of the group. We grilled over the bonfire, played way too much thunderstruck (jk that’s impossible), and listened to Despacito for an inappropriate amount of time (oops…my b).
  • Had more solid bro bonding time at a traditional nude Bulgarian bath house for a track event. Just a bunch of naked Kaizen bros chilling in small pools (or perhaps they’re big baths?) and with a bunch of old, naked Bulgarian dudes. I think we were only mildly offensive, which, given the circumstances, was probably the best outcome we could have hoped for.
  • Some poor bastard, presumably on his bachelor party, was dressed up like a penis and was singing old pop songs in the middle of one of Sofia’s busiest areas without any music. We were sitting at a bar nearby and Alex ran out with his speaker to play the songs that the guy was singing to help him out. It evolved into Alex and the penis guy singing and dancing (alarmingly in sync, I might add) to My Humps and Mambo № 5 while everyone who walked by took out their phones and recorded it.
  • Being responsible and saying NO to one of the things that was on my Sofia bucket list — the 7 Rila Lakes hike. Despite how badly I wanted to go, it would have meant that I would have had to take off work during a very busy time and I was very proud of myself for staying strong. Saying no on RY is hard, but sometimes you have to.
  • Celebrating 100 days (!!) of being on Remote Year and getting allllll the feels during our superlatives activity.
  • Getting haircuts in foreign countries always seems to have a moment or two where I’m like “holy shit what are they doing”. In Sofia, I asked the guy to do a quick trim of my eyebrows, and he took that to mean that I wanted them threaded, which is a term that I learned after the fact. I had never had this done before and was terrified that when I opened my eyes, I was going to look like Cecilia from Weeds when she goes full on chola. Thankfully that did not happen and am now threading’s newest fan.
  • Assembling a small, random krew in two days to go BUNGEE JUMPING! It was such a cool experience seeing people conquer their fears and go through with the 65 m jump(s). I also learned a bit about myself. I am more adventurous and badass in these kinds of situations than I give myself credit for.
  • Farewell party in the most random and barren pool party house that literally only exists to be partied in. We also had a really great moment at the end when we celebrated one of my favorite Kaizens, Sean, who is sadly leaving us after this month. Also, fk you, Sia and Charlie Puth. *wipes away tears*
  • Oh, and most importantly, Steven surprised me by muling me back four Topo Chicos from his trip back to Houston — so unexpected and so thoughtful.

Italy

ROME

Flying to Rome from Sofia was obscenely cheap, so I decided to meet up with Milena, who was already in Italy, in Rome for two nights before I headed to Pisa for the Remote Year Nation House.

In true Mama Lani fashion, she already had the greatest itinerary planned for us. We somehow managed to see all of the big spots in Rome and make it home in time to work. We ended both of our work nights on the Airbnb terrace overlooking the city with delicious Italian charcuterie boards and prosecco.

Also, Rome is home to the best Aperol Spritz, pasta, pizza, and gelato I’ve had in my life.

PISA

RY occasionally hosts an event called Nation House, where Remotes from different groups get together in a random city and share presentations around various topics that are tied back to a general theme of the weekend.

Back in Lisbon, I applied to one that was being held outside of Pisa with a theme of “Be The Change”. I didn’t expect to be picked, but I somehow slipped through the cracks and was able to present with Valentina on habit change. It ended up being one of my favorite weekends of the year so far.

Outside of the Nation House activities, we got to spend an afternoon at Cinque Terre, enjoyed copious amounts of Aperol (#goopsies), and got to take some Leaning Tower of Pisa pictures. I may have also come up with a genius idea for a new IG account that is just pictures of people pretending to hold up the tower.

The Things

Independence

July is known for Independence Day, but for me, July was Independence Month. I went on a 10 day solo trip, I had my first month without any roommates, I was able to say no to tempting trips when I needed to knuckle down and work, and I watched more TV than I did the first three months combined (which is a good thing). Having this much alone time felt very much like normal life and less like RY life.

im a strong, independent guy who dont need no one to take a pic of himself

100 Days

This month we celebrated our 100th day on Remote Year, which feels like a pretty big milestone. We celebrated by eating cake and doing a group activity where we put pieces of paper on our backs and had people write superlatives that described us or just something about us that they appreciated. We then went around and shared one of our favorite things that someone said about us with the group. Needless to say, it was both hysterical and feels inducing.

Neature

Who knew Bulgaria was so damn pretty? Sofia is filled with beautiful parks and is surrounded by picturesque mountains. There were so many outdoorsy track events and activities planned — way more than any other city since Split.

This month, Robert and I won the prize for “furthest walk from apartment to workspace”. While most people acted shocked or sorry for me when I would tell them that I had a 25 minute commute, I laughed on the inside because I felt lucky. My walk to and from work will be one of my favorite memories I take away from Sofia because of how pretty it was.

The wrap up…

While I do feel semi guilty for only spending two weeks in Sofia, I somehow feel like I spent way more time there than that. I think that is a product of how laid back and slow life felt. For the two weeks I was there, anyway. I could not have imagined a better city to spend our final month in Europe in before we head to the culture shock that awaits us in Asia.

I can’t say that I’ll be back to Bulgaria anytime soon, but if you find yourself there, make sure to go to Sofia and send me some banitsa por favor.

*googles how to say cheers in Bulgarian because he was only there two weeks*

*is not shocked to see it’s the same as in Czech*

Nazdrave, Sofia!


Photo credit for the pretty pictures to Sean Marier (@839photo)

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