Whenever I had sleepovers as a kid, I would always wake up around 3 or 4 AM with no idea where I was. I always thought I was in my bed, only to roll over to see my friend Corinne or Katie next to me. Right, I’m at a sleepover.
Have you ever had this feeling?
This happened in college, too. I would wake up after crashing on a friend’s couch having no idea where I was, until I recognized a poster on the wall or my backpack on the floor, and then remembered: Right, I’m at my friend’s.
Last night I woke up at 4:43 AM having no idea where I was. I rolled over, saw the orange carpet, yellow walls, and window adjacent to my feet. Right, I’m in Bulgaria.
I realized I was sweating in my toaster-oven room, slid off the blanket covering my legs, and looked out the window. I saw a sliver of the Danube River in the distance, the trees of Romania right beyond it and remembered: Right, you live in Bulgaria, Erica.
This is your life.
A little over two weeks ago I boarded my second flight abroad (ever) to move to Bulgaria for the next year. Because I am vowing to be honest about the glamorous and less-glamorous parts of this adventure online, I’ll start with this:
The first European thing I ever saw when I looked out my window as the plane landed in Warsaw, Poland was a Courtyard Marriott . . . not even a European one. Dismal start, to say the least. Let me catch you up, though.
This was my goodbye tour. The friends took me to the vineyard, then the parents took me to the airport (after my last meal in America was Chick-Fil-A, of course).
Lauren, Alex, Emily, and Corinne on the left. Scott and Andy on the right — forever the MVPs.
My flight landed in Sofia for 12 days of orientation with the rest of Fulbright Bulgaria, ETAs and Researchers. Now known simultaneously as my second-family and some of the most inspiring, kind, and world-shattering humans I’ve ever met.
My luggage landed a couple days later. Now known simultaneously as my rebel child and reason to make some girlfriends real fast to borrow clothes.
My other reason to make friends? Bowel movement issues. Bulgaria has a lot of cheese. Erica wasn’t used to that. Get the idea? (See, I told you guys I’m committed to the less sexy parts, too). Great, moving on.
Orientation was both fast and furious. Picture intense language lessons, Erica’s childhood lisp occasionally emerging, culture chats, self defense training, conversing that this extrovert couldn’t even keep up with, and jet lag wearing off slowly. Also picture laughing harder than you ever have, warm Bulgarian families, hugs with two-day old friends, traditional dancing, tours, terraces, and birthday celebrations. So, not too shabby — много добре actually. (Pronounced: mnogo dobre. Means: very good. I have also committed to trying to teach you all a little Bulgarian as I learn. Welcome aboard.)
My first view of Sofia, Bulgaria from the airplane!
All things Sofia, orientation, sight-seeing, and Fulbright.
From Sofia, we all said overly heartfelt goodbyes for friendship being two weeks old, then went to our respective cities. Usually it is just a train ride away, but my mentor teacher and her boyfriend, Dessy and Emil, made something that could be mundane into the most fun adventure. We left Sofia early in the morning, stopped at a cave where I — in the most Erica way possible — almost wiped out walking down the slippery steps to enter. I let out my most girly and American “AAHHH” as I clutched the banister with my fingers.
This was my first taste of the language barrier. The whole tour was in, well, Bulgarian. Dessy hung in the back with me and whisper-translated while I tried to catch any vocab words possible, but truly my language extent consisted of good, very good, hello, my-name-is-Erica, I-teach-English, and America at the time: also known as, no cave lingo.
Dessy, Emil and I on our cave adventure! The first of many Bulgarian caves.
We jumped back into the car and headed to our next stop along the way: Veliko Tarnovo. It’s an amazing city in north central Bulgaria, complete with picturesque homes, refreshing food, great shopping and Microsoft-quality views. Dessy also treated me to a Bulgarian lollipop which was an incredible little sugar rooster on a stick. I was overly excited, overly sweaty, and chowed my way to a potential cavity (sorry, Mom). A couple hours there proved to me that it quickly could be a favorite city of mine.
Veliko Tarnovo and a very excited woman with a Bulgarian lollipop.
We headed into a village right outside of Silistra, where Dessy’s father had a surprise for me at their home. We pulled up to a house and I turned my head to see a huge American flag hanging from the roof’s post. If you know me, you know I immediately pushed back tears. It was such a sweet gesture of being welcomed into the unknown — the new and uncertain space. While it may have been a small and easy switch of flags, it said so much to me.
This is your life now.
I am safe and sound in Silistra — home sweet home — and tomorrow marks our first day!
The Danube River, trees of Romania in the distance and the best hour: golden hour.
An overwhelming amount of knowledge and questions have been bouncing in my mind, in an extremely short period of time. I’ve also felt like someone has been sitting on my chest in moments, my air barely able to escape as I breathe and get my bearings back. Super high-highs, and tangible low-lows, but the first lesson was an important one: turn things that may be mundane into an adventure.
Even if you cannot understand it, even if you do not know where you are going, there is time to stop along the way. You are never too hurried to skip exploring a cave or eating lunch on a balcony. Life isn’t too rushed to ditch a coffee date or ignore your brother’s phone call. You aren’t important enough to not hold open a door or offer a smile.
This is your life. You get one on earth, so here it is.
This is your life.
Push past the culture shock, push into the people who love you. Push past the nerves of what-if-they-say-no, what-if-i-get-rejected, push into grace, love, and mercy. Push past the less-than-warm feelings and into the places that feel like home.
I have experienced anxiety I never knew possible, waking up paralyzingly scared in the middle of the night, but I have also embraced joy and freedom in ways I never knew existed, staring out the window at Bulgarian mountain peaks, nestled into one another longingly.
Your life may not be perfect and that’s okay, since I don’t know anyone who has a perfect one, but this is it. This is your one, buckle-up, what-the-heck-am-I-doing, terrified-but-it-is-happening life. And I trust that it is held in two stable hands, since mine are none of the sort.
*This site, E (ericaboden.wordpress.com), is not an official Fulbright Program site. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of its author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.