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Handshakes, Smiles, and a Reminder

Handshaking in Ghana is special. So are the smiles you receive at every turn. I had a lot of both during my short stay in Accra. 72 spectacular hours filled with so many, so diverse, so moving experiences felt like a month or a year of happiness. A walk to a beach that uncovered hundreds of human stories and ended up being different than expected. Remarks and conversations that seemed random, and were at the same time heart-warming and relevant. Sharing time and experiences with an open heart has rarely felt so easy and gratifying.

Accra, thank you for a lesson in humanness and a reminder to cherish the moment. Now let me try to spread it as much as I can.

By Livinba (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0

By Livinba (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0

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5 Things I Had Forgotten About Bulgaria

Drinking a cup of tea at the breakfast table today, I couldn’t help but overhear a young woman talking to her 2-year old daughter in Bulgarian, my mother tongue. The diminutive, gentle words she used caught my attention. Having been away from the Bulgarian language for some time, I had forgotten about this way of speaking to small children that feels somewhat cheesy, but also touching. This and much more had escaped my mind in all these years of absence. Here are some of the other aspects of living in Bulgaria which I have been reminded of during my visit*:

– How markedly tasty fruits and vegetables here are

This is not exaggerated. Go and taste for yourself (especially the tomatoes, melons, and cherries). And don’t forget to check out a local market, it’s an experience in its own right.

Market in Sofia - vegetables

– How important coffee drinking can be

Meeting over coffee can mean anything here. It can happen at any time of the day, usually lasts longer than expected and is often just an excuse to see someone for whatever reason (gossip, romance, catching up, even arguing or ranting).

– How elegant women can be/aspire to be

I don’t mean to make universal statements or reinforce stereotypes, but it’s obvious that Bulgarian women try their best to be as elegant as they can be… it seems to me that they try more conscientiously than female residents of some other countries. The result… many look gorgeous following this ideal of beauty, and some probably deserve the funny looks they get (at least from me).

– How unfriendly public officials and service providers can be

Admittedly, I have experienced a few exceptions in the last days which made me think that there has been a positive change in the service attitude which was almost non-existent years ago. But still… grumpy officials and unfriendly service providers of any type tend to be the norm in many cases.

– How narrow-minded and stubborn taxi drivers can be

Some say that taxi drivers are fun to talk with since they keep their fingers on the pulse of a city and always have an interesting story to tell. While the former might be true, I have rarely (if ever) come across a friendly storyteller as taxi driver. The taxi that I took after landing in Sofia was no exception. In the 20-minute ride I uttered no more than 3 short, friendly answers to simple questions, the rest was the taxi driver ranting against people living abroad and praising what he thought was the only ‘right’ way of living. I wanted to conclude by saying that everyone is entitled to make their own choices which was the worst offense he could imagine… Not such a fun experience for both of us, I guess.

These are only a few examples of how I re-discover everyday life here, very well-known and slightly forgotten at the same time. It’s funny how the place we live in can almost displace previous experiences and perceptions, some worth re-discovering, others probably not.

*Please note that I don’t mean to generalize or judge in any way. These are simple observations.

Streets, smells, and language

A conversation with a German flat mate of mine during my student years in Germany made me aware of the different cultural and personal perceptions of where we grew up. We talked about being abroad and what, if anything (apart from family and friends), we missed from our respective home country. Stefan took a minute to think about it and came up with one significant item that he missed which was the German bread. I needed not more that a second and started pointing out the following: the streets, the smell of blossoming chestnut and linden trees, the language (especially when it came to literature and theater). This didn’t mean that 1. I was particularly home-sick (all of these were simply ingrained in my life for as long as I remembered) and 2. either of us was ‘right’, we just had different ways of seeing it. I have to admit that I envied Stefan a bit for his pragmatic approach which made it much easier for him to handle being away from ‘home’.

This story kept on coming to my mind in the two days I spent in Sofia after a long absence.

Sofia

The streets are still there – some refurbished, others waiting for an overhaul, but all of them wiser than before from so many years of change. The linden trees are there too, blossoming and filling the air with their fragrance. So are the other smells and noises of a bustling city with busy residents. The written and spoken language is also all over the place (to my delight in many more book stores than before and full theaters).

National theater Ivan Vazov, Sofia

But I wasn’t there for way too long, both physically and emotionally… Today all of these feel known AND distant at the same time. I enjoyed the theater performances I saw (‘Airport’ was definitely worth seeing), started reading a good book by a young Bulgarian writer, walked on the streets and marveled at the views and blossoming trees, but they all remained more part of a past experience than a present cultural identity. Or better said, they are my way of building a new bridge to what I haven’t been missing anymore.

Heading home?

I have thought about the concept of home a lot, especially in the last years. It seems to me that we all need it in one form or another – if not necessarily the physical place, then definitely the feeling of being home.

I am heading to Sofia today, the city I was born and lived in for more than 20 years. Today, after more than 11 years of absence and almost 8 years* of not having visited it at all, I am feeling a little nervous about the re-encounter.

By TodorBozhinov; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

By TodorBozhinov; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I left sad and disappointed after years of political, economic, and personal turmoil. Nevertheless, I was still very attached to what I felt was my beloved home and it never occurred to me that I could possibly be away from it for such a long time. The disappointment prevailed over the years and the annual visits became increasingly difficult. It took me many years to overcome the animosity I held against a place I once adored.

It’s with mixed feelings that I am sitting at the airport today – looking forward to re-discovering Sofia, on the one hand, and apprehensive to confront ‘old’ patterns and emotional memories, on the other. I will do my best to embrace the experience and will have the chance to share impressions in the next weeks.

*except a short 48-hour trip 5 years ago

Tbilisi Loves You… and You Will Love it Too.

No, it’s not exaggerated. Tbilisi loves its visitors. Or at least cordially invites them to wonder and to succumb to their curiosity with all their senses. A good prerequisite for experiencing such a fascinating place in its many facets, isn’t it?

I just came back from a conference in the capital of Georgia. Looking back at two eventful and wonderful days there I can’t cease to be amazed by the gentle and creative sides of this city and its colors and contradictions. I truly felt ‘home‘. Not only because of the warm-hearted people, the great food and wine, and some other similarities to my home city, but also thanks to the subtle way it lets you embrace its rich history, traditions, creativity, contradictions, aspirations. It lets you be part of it, just as much as you want to be. Here is what I loved most about Tbilisi:

Warmheartedness

From the Georgian lady at the passport control welcoming me by saying thank you in my language to Salomea, Mariam, and all other people who made my experience in Tbilisi richer and more profound by sharing information and showing bits and pieces of the city and the Georgian culture. It’s rare and delightful to be embraced in such a way and I am thankful and humbled.

Food and wine

The intense color and taste of the fruits and vegetables all over the city, the smell of fresh bread, the wine shops… All inviting to unforgettable culinary delights. I love Khachapuri in all its variations!

Greengrocery in TbilisiA wine shop in Tbilisi

Creativity

What amazed me while walking around the old city of Tbilisi is the variety of places, each of them unique in their own way. The small creative details making each of them interesting and worth visiting – the extraordinary buildings, unexpected change of architecture, the noticeably different ways of presenting goods and services. Even the old ladies selling sunflower seeds and peanuts had their own, sophisticated way of arranging their products. What more inviting and delightful could there be when it comes to discovering a city?

TbilisiA café in TbilisiBuilding in Tbilisi

Eagerness to learn

Speaking at the Marketing Kingdom conference in Tbilisi was a very special experience thanks to the audience which was one of the most proactive and inquisitive ones I have come across. The questions kept coming and discussions evolved into insights and new ideas. It seemed to me that the desire to learn and develop inherent in every human being is a driving force here.

Before my visit to Georgia the 15-hour trip seemed daunting, now I can say: it’s ONLY 15 hours that separate me from Tbilisi 🙂
Thank you, Tbilisi. I love you too and hope to be back soon!

Baku (or how I saw it in 48 hours)*

It is such a pity I had only two days in Baku! Nevertheless, my visit there clearly showed that even 48 hours can leave very clear and lasting impressions. Two facts to begin with: an amazing conference I had the chance to speak at and incredibly warm-hearted and hospitable people. Here is how I experienced Baku in this short time:

Meticulously clean.

By far the cleanest city center I have experienced. This level of cleanliness almost felt unreal and I started looking for at least a small trace of trash, but to no avail.

Warm-hearted and hospitable.

The nicest (and the only female) taxi driver in Baku, the friendly beekeeper attending the conference and all other incredibly warm-hearted people I came across during my 2 days in Baku proved how little it takes to make someone feel at home far away from home. Thank you!

Ancient and modern.

Admittedly, I expected that. But the expectation doesn´t make this mixture of tradition and modernity, the amalgam of architectural styles throughout the central part of the city less impressive.

Baku: ancient and modern

Baku: ancient and modern


Holding hands (on a bench).

How cute was to see all these young couples sitting around on benches and silently holding hands for what looked like ages to me! It seemed like the ultimate sign of intimate togetherness. Maybe it really is?

Culture, culture, culture.

I was delighted by the wide range of cultural activities and venues – art galleries, museums, theaters… This definitely makes Baku a preferred city for an avid theater-lover like me 🙂

Puppet theater Baku

Puppet theater Baku


Beauty on high heels.

Looks seem to really matter and beauty is a top priority. By far the highest heels I have ever seen. And beautiful, brave women wearing them.

“What are you staring at?!?”

I really felt like saying that a couple of times… Being persistently stared at is definitely unpleasant. Combined with loud comments and whistling sounds, it can become even disturbing. I guess I am no longer used to that after so many years in Germany.

The habit of (slow) walking.

People seem to love walking in Baku which is wonderful. I had about an hour for a walk on a Friday morning and wanted to see as much as possible. My fast pace was in clear contrast with the calm and easy-going residents of Baku. They clearly seemed to enjoy every step of their walk.

Walkers in Baku

Walkers in Baku


Hungry for knowledge.

It was wonderful to meet so many people eager to learn – from the beekeeper in his fifties who wanted to find out about the newest marketing trends to the many young, educated people around speaking a number of languages and interested in acquiring additional knowledge and experience.

*I spent all the time in the central part of Baku, so please keep that in mind when reading the post. My overall impressions would most probably have been different, had I visited other parts of the city and/or Azerbaijan.

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