We’ve learned to live in the moment and to be prepared for anything to happen while on the road. A chance meeting in Chumphon, Thailand with Jeff & Neda led us to Bulgaria….. a hidden gem we would have never known.
It is now more than 100 years since Bulgaria declared its independence from Ottoman rule. And, 20 years since the fall of Communism. The average standard of living suffered a catastrophic decline in the early 1990’s in many former Communist states. Many began to rise with Capitalistic policies toward the end of the 21st century. Some countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Serbia are poorer today than they were in 1989. Others like Bulgaria & Romania have managed to bounce back considerably. The IMF ranks Bulgaria 67th in the world by per capita GDP (PPP). Romania is slightly behind in the 73rd position. Both are 15-20% above the world average. A list of European countries by monthly net average wage reveals both countries around $400. To put this in perspective, Turkey is at $634, the US around $2,197, and the UK at $2,556.
It would seem that Bulgaria has faired well compared to some former Communist countries. In talking with the local people, we learned there is a strict cap on an individual’s growth potential. Like in Communist times, most people make about the same average wage. In the 1990’s, Neda’s family moved to the United States to create a better life. One could argue that their 5X wage increase (Bulgaria to the US) is about the same. I mean when considering the ridiculous amount of consumption in the United States, one is left with the same amount of disposable income (if any). I suppose the difference is the US helped two younger people (the kids) achieve a better education and much higher future wages. Now that her parents are back in Bulgaria, why do they want to move again to the States? For one, both children will end up staying there and this is of utmost importance. But, I sense a deeper common purpose when speaking with friends from newly-Capitalist countries. The United States breathes the ideologies of constant progress and Nationalism. For better or worse, Americans are comfortable consuming at or above their means. There is a warm and fuzzy feeling attached to the idea of collecting the American Dream at whatever cost. I’ve come to realize Americans are Nationalistic vs. Patriotic. Bulgaria offers so many beautiful places and experiences. Their food was the best we’ve had all year. Their people took such pride in their cooking and showing off the land. We saw more country flags waving around than in the States. The difference could be that their government is not preaching and facilitating so they believe they are better.
My grandmother’s side of the family is originally from Izmir, Turkey. Expectations were high after hearing so many great things about the country. Our time investigating my father’s ancestry in Cekiske, Lithuania was unworldly and inspiring. We hoped Izmir and Turkey would live up to the standard set by Lithuania. My great grandparents spoke “Ladino”, or Judeo-Spanish. It is the spoken and written Hispanic language of Jews of Spanish origin. Ladino did not become a specifically Jewish language until after the Jews were expelled (by Ferdinand & Isabella) from Spain & Portugal in 1492. My ancestors found refuge in the Middle East (Syria) and Turkey. The family settled in Izmir along with thousands of Sephardic Jews. After some research talking with relatives, we found no remaining person to meet during our visit. Everyone had immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century.
Turkey is fascinating for several reasons. It lies at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Most of our time was spent in the European side. The Asian side is quite a trek, so it made sense to save it for a separate trip. Places like Mt. Nemrut, Harran, Van, Erzurum and Trabzon are on the list. Muslim culture faded a bit with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1926. The new Turkiye decided to align itself with the West and embrace a more open culture. Istanbul today has a diverse mix of Turkish people and cosmopolitan feel. We spent three weeks around Western Turkey and didn’t even get to see the best preserved classical city of the Eastern Mediterranean, Ephesus.
We first stayed with our friend Dave whom we met with Lauren during the Pearl Jam tour in Prague and Berlin. We spent some time in the new city and was surprised how cosmopolitan it is. Istanbul is the land of cats in my eyes. We must have seen thousands in a just a few days. Dave told us how its taboo to throw away food after dinner. Turkish people leave the food outside their window for the street cats to feast. During Ramadan, many people were eating and out during the evenings. We witnessed religious families praying during in the Old Town at the Hagia Sophia & Blue Mosque. Istiklal street, the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Markets are mobbed with tourists and shopping opportunities. The popular Mavi Jeans (aka “blue jeans”) store did provide a few classic Istanbul tees. It wasn’t until we stumbled upon a small boutique shopping area that we found inspiration for a special Turkish art piece. Needless to say, Turkey is known for its textile and crafts industries.
From Istanbul, we flew down to Fethiye to board our Mediterranean Blue cruise. Flights are super cheap within Turkey making it a logical transportation choice. Our friends Lauren & Kevin had previously done the same cruise with their International School teaching friends. They made all of the arrangements, which made the trip super relaxing. From the Mediterranean, we decided to head straight for Cappadocia. Although super touristy and lacking “real” culture, Cappadocia goes down as one of our most memorable destinations for its stunning natural beauty and underground cities. We wondered if its aggressive tourism was out of greed or necessity? We struggled to discover authentic arts/crafts…… and, unfortunately found only mass-produced products from China.
After Cappadocia, the plan was now wide open. Although we have no relatives in Izmir, I badly wanted to see the city. We thought about the Greek Island “Rhodes” near Antalya, but eventually opted for Chios, Greece. Chios (spelled Xios, pronounced Key-os) is located a short 45-minute ferry ride from the popular Turkish beach town called Cesme. The idea was to fly directly to Izmir, ferry to Chios and then visit Izmir on the way back to Istanbul. Cesme is an old town and popular local holiday resort with tons of tourist shops and restaurants along the main pier. We found Turkish wine of high quality called “Bogazkere” while relaxing in the town.
We stayed on Chios in a small town called Karfas. It was super relaxing and felt like a hidden Greek Island gem. No multinational resorts and no tourist cruise ships docked in front of our hotel. Most families were Greek and Turkish enjoying their summer holiday. We rented a car and drove down to the “Mavra Volia” black stone beach. A controversial forest fire had recently scorched much of the island. We were amazed at how much damage was done. The “Biblia Chora” local red wine varietal was quite nice and we wanted to visit the wine region. After several hours perusing down south, we drove north and stopped at a town called Vilissos. This is the place where Homer is thought to have been born.
Izmir felt extremely comfortable. We spent a full day walking along the water from Kordonboyu to the Alsancak shopping district. We wondered where we could find a special art piece to remember Turkey. The outdoor Kemeralti Market is endless and felt like half the city. We had read about an old Synagogue that still existed on “Havra Sokagi”. My aunt said that her father grew up very close by, but the area since was in poor condition. The bizarre stalls were very difficult to navigate and few vendors spoke any English. Unfortunately, we quit our Synagogue Street and pottery search after a few long hours. We did follow the smell of “Boyoz”, but they were old and soggy by the time we found them at days’ end (pouty face).
After Izmir, we flew back to Istanbul in preparation for Montenegro. Our new friend Kevin offered for us to stay with him the final few days in Istanbul. We finally found our artwork inside the “Passage” corridor off Istiklal street. The shop is called “nicaeastone” and the artist is Yildiz Ibram. The ceramic art piece resembles a small black shirt. The design was inspired by Yildiz’ visit to a museum in Konya. The designs include a Dervish with ancient Arabic letters and symbols. The Dervish was a 12th century Muslim religious man who took vows of poverty and austerity.
Lauren invited us over to her house for our last night in Istanbul. It was sad in a way because we felt like longtime friends parting ways. Almost the entire Blue Cruise crew was there in addition to Dave, Molly & Katie. We ordered dinner in and talked with Lauren’s boyfriend Ayhan…. Might have to try some country music theme parties in the States!
Leave it to Charlene to be the only person to meet us during our travels. Christie planned a mix of beach fun and relaxation around Montenegro, Croatia and Barcelona. We first met Charlene at the Podgorica airport before taxiing to the Bay of Kotor. The drive was through the humongous Mount Orjen. The old town “Stari Grad” at Kotor includes well preserved walls and buildings from the 5th century BC. Unfortunately, cruise ships with thousands of tourists were parked during the day…. blocking views of the gorgeous bay. We rented kayaks the first day and trekked a few hours to lunch along the water. The backdrop and morning fog reminded us of Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.