Two Weeks in Sofia

The train moved me from Pernik to Sofia on a Monday. It was a complete and utter relief to be moving on from my booking error. It was, in fact, a new lease on my Bulgarian existence. It was my second chance at the country, seeing as I wasn’t going to be leaving anytime soon.

I stayed at a swanky (yet affordable) apartment on the outskirts of the city. This location set me up nicely to be able to wander outside of the city limits and experience the downtown area at the same time. Given that I had ample time on my hands, I made my way throughout my time in Sofia everywhere strictly on foot.


I like that each city I visited had these large signs in pedestrian areas that declare where you are.

I’d say the whole experience of being wrapped up in Sofia for two weeks simply expanded my opportunity to digest my previous experience in weeks. It was odd, in that I don’t think I’ve experienced something like this before. I was still on an adventure, visiting someplace new, and yet I was using that time to digest a previous travel experience. Despite the awkwardness of it, I was happy to be in a place where I didn’t feel overly inspired. Had I found myself in a more compelling place, I may have felt rushed to figure out my feelings and begin enjoying where I was on the planet again. This would have delayed my chance to process my Leros experience. Instead, I got all of that out of the way.

Despite my emotional processing, I explored Sofia. Some days I did more than others, but I did my research and I milled about the city as I pleased. On the days I wasn’t interested in doing much, I found myself doing a lot more daydreaming than anything else. I kept up my messages and voice calls with the people I loved so dearly on Leros, but there was a lot of time I would prepare a meal and then just stare into the abyss off of the balcony of the apartment. This sounds a little sad to write, but honestly, it was necessary.

Being that I was on the outskirts of the city, my first day in Sofia, I wanted to head to the mountains. Like in Pernik, the city seemed to be surrounded on all sides by mountains. The mountain closest to where I was staying was still snow-covered, so I had something to gawk at out of my window for my two weeks there. I made my way toward the mountain for a while, getting out of the city and into a surrounding neighborhood, but I realized quickly that getting into the mountains was going to be more of a feat than I was able to handle. Nevertheless, having just come from a warm island, I was fascinated by the snow, even if it was at a distance.


Snow-covered mountain outside of Sofia, Bulgaria.




Alexander Nevski Cathedral





Unique flower patterns lined the sidewalk next to the highway.


Tourists and locals enjoying the spring flowers and fountains.


*I am backdating this post. It’s October 28, 2018 as I’m writing this and the events that occurred in the above writing are from the end of March 2018 when I was still in Sofia, Bulgaria. I planned all summer to finish up this post, but never got around to it and now find myself preparing to jet off again for another adventure. Instead of leaving this post forever in the draft folder, I thought I’d publish what I’d written, just for kicks.

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My Biggest Travel Mistake (So Far)

When it comes to travel, there are so many different ways to mess up. I’ve made a couple of unintelligent moves while traveling in my travel years, but this one deserves its own blog entry for certain.


Dismal industrial urban sprawl.

Upon having to leave the Schengen Zone (read more about my abrupt exit from the EU here), I had to make a quick decision. My visa extension was denied, leaving me with just two days to leave the Zone. With Leros being located an overnight ferry ride away from Athens, and with ferries not leaving on a daily basis, I had to quickly get together a plan for what I would be doing in the next few days.

At this point in time, I had a flight booked out of Scotland for the 16th of April, but no other travel plans, not even a plan for how I would be getting to the UK. With 48 hours to leave before overstaying my visa, and having to catch the 9-hour overnight ferry to Athens to fly out of the nearest international airport, I scrambled to figure out where I would be going in the next two days.

Under the pressure of the time crunch, I made quick decisions about what I would do. I checked flights out of Athens, and saw that the most affordable flight was to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. I next checked for accommodations and saw that it was a very affordable country to stay in. I checked to make sure the country uses the Euro, as I had a significant amount of euros left in my pocket. I also checked to make sure there were no travel advisories and that the United States isn’t an indirect enemy of the nation. Everything seemed kosher. So, with no time to spare, I booked my ferry, flight, and a place to stay in Bulgaria for one week.

And therein lied my problem. Both the ferry ride and the flight out of Greece were difficult emotionally, but landing in Bulgaria and tracking down the place I would be staying proved to be the real issue. When searching for a place to stay online, I knew that I wanted to stay in Sofia. It was the capital city, the largest city in the country, and it was where I was flying into. It just made sense. This is why it was a complete bummer to come to the realization that my place of accommodation was, in fact, booked in the city of Pernik, not Sofia.

I didn’t realize this until I was on the ground in Bulgaria, taking taxis and hoofing it around in the middle of the night with my backpack dragging me down every step of the way. I was in the wrong city, and I realized this at about 10pm. At that point, I climbed into another taxi and drove the 30 kilometers out of the capital and over to the neighboring “suburb”–or something. It was in this neighborhood that I had booked a six-night stay, thinking this would be an adequate amount of time to figure out my next step.

As my cabbie shuttled me out of Sofia and through a winding mountain road, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. I really didn’t mean to book myself a spot so far away from the main city of the country. When the cab actually arrived in Pernik, it was the middle of the night, but I wasn’t impressed with what I was seeing. And then, finally, after making my way to my accommodations, I slept and then awoke to my new home for the week.

Perfect Pernik


The perfect city of Pernik.

The town of Pernik was described in a guidebook I had in my room as “dismal industrial urban sprawl.”


Four of my least favorite words, all strung together.

And, indeed, the town presented itself in just such a manner. When I woke up and began to wander around my new surroundings, I quickly realized I was not in a picturesque location. I was stuck in a place with nothing to see and nothing to do. I didn’t know the language. There was no one to speak to. And so, with my reservation already locked in for the week, I began to meander around this strange little city, resting uneasily on the outskirts of the capital.

The single major positive piece of the place I was staying was that it was located just down the street from a small grocery store. I made daily trips to this place, to give myself a bit of a routine, but also to be around other people who were doing the same things that I was. I think it helped to center me.

On my first day, I meandered north, walking alongside a major road until the cracking sidewalk turned into a dirt path. The path ran alongside an abandoned factory and a couple of lifeless looking trees that were likely still dormant in the final winter weeks. Eventually the path ran out and there was nowhere else to go, so I turned back. I recall a man walking his dog happily down the path, but I couldn’t fathom where they would have been heading.


Abandoned buildings by the river.


A closed down factory, representing the dismal industrial piece of the city.

On my second day, I checked out my immediate surroundings a bit more closely and then headed east, traveling on a pedestrian and bike path alongside a river. Par for the course, the river ran brown, somewhat resembling chocolate milk, with debris and expelled garbage on the banks. On the other side of the path was a row of apartment buildings. They looked run down, which was inline with every other building in the city, but it was obvious people occupied the buildings by the laundry hanging from the clotheslines that were tethered to the windows and the children playing on the scraps of playground equipment in the courtyards. There wasn’t much to look at in the way of scenery, but the protective pedestrian path was enticing, so I went a ways before eventually turning back. Despite roaming around at midnight my first evening in Pernik, I opted to make it back to my apartment before dark fell completely. I figured I didn’t need to continue to push my luck in a country I knew so little about.


A bridge that connected two parts of the city otherwise divided by highway.


While the train tracks are not sightly, they were my means of getting out of Pernik once my first week in Bulgaria was over. 

On my third day in Pernik, I went south. I discovered the city center, which was actually a step up from what I had been seeing the previous days. There were some shops and stores, lined with stone paths and benches, and there seemed to be a large number of people gathered in this area whenever I walked through. I wondered if it was because it was the only nice place that the population had to congregate. Each time I went through this specific area, I wasn’t sure if I blended in or not. Could the people recognize that I didn’t belong? It was amusing to think about.

Further along, I followed the river in the other direction as it flowed through the center of town. Eventually, the town became more residential and then, further along, it petered out into a wooded park area. It wasn’t nice, but I preferred the dead trees and overgrowth on the sidewalks to the industrial sprawl.


A path cutting through a park just outside of Pernik.

With plenty of time on my hands, I continued my journey through the park as it ascended up a hill that overlooked the city. At the top of the hill, the trees parted and I discovered the single gem of the area of Bulgaria that I was in, an ancient fort.


Krakra Fortress

I spent the next three days treating this fort as my refuge from the dismal sprawl of Pernik. I would wander through the city and park, up the hill and onto the grounds in an attempt to make sense of my life which felt nothing like it ever had before. These days in Pernik were, perhaps, the closest I’ve ever felt to being an alien. I just really didn’t belong. I think that’s why climbing out of town and into an open space brought me so much comfort. The fort was simple, just your average ancient rows of rocks and a couple of artifacts, but I loved it. The surrounding still-snow-covered mountaintops that enveloped the area were well visible, and the sun seemed to illuminate the greenery a little bit more than in the sprawl. There were a couple of benches, too, which gave me the opportunity to journal and think and stare up at the clouds and wonder what the point of existence is.


The view of Pernik from the Krakra Fortress, with snow-covered mountains surrounding the area. I particularly enjoyed the matching red rooftops, which were not visible from the ground.



The city was accented by beautiful snow-covered mountain peaks.


A typical high-rise apartment building in Pernik. In some cases, this type of building looked very much abandoned; however, they were indeed lived-in.


Another shot of the polluted river running through the city center. 

After six nights, my run in Pernik was over. With still two weeks more until my flight out of Scotland, I booked myself a new place to stay in the capital city of Sofia. On my final morning in Pernik, I packed up my few possessions and walked to the local train station where I boarded a two car train, covered in graffiti, that would carry me the thirty minute ride to Sofia. The journey cost about $0.60.

And that was that. My time in Pernik ended and my time in Sofia began, ultimately beginning yet another chapter and yet another adventure of my European excursion.

What came of my time in Pernik? I learned a couple of things:

  1. Be more careful when making reservations, even if they need to be done last minute. Forgo sleep if necessary to avoid falling into intense, drawn out situations where I could be…screwed.
  2. Take advantage of crazy situations where I feel isolated to catch up with people far and wide who need to be touched base with. I had numerous surprising and moving conversations via the internet while sitting on the windowsill, staring curiously out into the city.
  3. Just like anywhere else, Pernik is a place in the world. Despite not having overly enjoyed myself, I’m grateful to have been where I was. It’s now added to a list of experiences I have had in my life and I believe that piece is just as significant as any of the others.
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I arrive alone in the middle of the night. I’ve never been to this country before and I don’t know anything about how it works. I’ve barely even had a chance to do a search about it on the internet. What I thought I knew was wrong. I thought I would be able to use the currency in my pocket, from the country I just left. But I can’t. I must have read some outdated information.

I take a cab from the airport because I don’t understand the language that is written all over the signs. Even if I found my way onto a bus, I wouldn’t know where it was taking me. So, I get into a cab with a driver who hardly understands me and he drives me into the city and leaves me at the wrong address. He drives away. I meander the street, checking the paper in my hand against the street numbers, but they are few and far between. I carry my heavy pack from one end of the long street to the other, hoping something will make sense. I even ask a shop owner or two as they try to close up their stores for the evening. They don’t speak my language, they don’t understand what I want from them.

I wander for an hour and a half. I’m not used to the temperature so I begin to feel cold. It’s March and there’s snow on the ground. I haven’t seen snow in ages. I’ve grown incredibly thirsty, but the shop I walk into to purchase water doesn’t accept the kind of money I have. I keep walking until eventually I pick up a wifi signal that allows me to check the address of the place I’m headed for the night. I realize I’m in the wrong neighborhood. It takes time, but I find my way to another cab. The driver acts as though he’s doing me a favor by driving me around. He takes me far away from the neighborhood I’ve just been getting used to for the last two hours. He doesn’t know much of my language, but what he does say doesn’t offer any amount of encouragement for where I’m headed. “This town oogly. So OOGly.”

And then I arrive to the street I’m supposedly staying on, but the building I’m looking for doesn’t seem to exist. The cabbie is mad that I don’t have exact change, but I refuse to let him take more than his fair share. He drives away, leaving me on yet another strange street corner, unaware of where I am or if I’ll eventually find my way into a safe place for the night. It’s midnight now and the March air is biting at my improperly dressed body. All of my possessions are hanging off of my back, almost as if they’re trying to pull me down to the earth.

I’m lost. It’s cold. The charge on my phone is running out–not that I have signal in this country. My thoughts are running wild from the 48 hours that are now behind me. I moved abruptly, traveled far and through crowded cities, all while thinking of the people I love so much that I was leaving behind me. I feel a bit hopeless, but pressing forward is all I can do. The street is dark and the trees are as lifeless as the city appears to be. I wander to one end, and then turn right, finding two police officers standing outside of a kiosk, sipping coffee. My understanding is that they speak one  specific language, but that was again incorrect information that I read.

I’m not used to this culture, so as I approach them, they seem bothered by me. One of them ignores me, the other understands a few of my words. He looks at my paper that I’ve gestured to. He laughs at me, but then pulls out his cellphone and dials the number of my host. His partner speaks to him quickly in their language (although I think it’s a different language the time). I know what he’s saying though, despite not knowing a lick of the language. He’s telling him not to call the number, saying that it’s an out of country number and it’ll cost him money to make the call. But the man doesn’t listen to his partner–my first stroke of luck.

The police officer speaks to the person on the other end of the phone, my host, but then he hangs up and walks away without saying anything to me. He and his partner get into their car and drive away. I’m confused, but for some reason I feel better. I’m alone again in the dark in the middle of the night in the strangest country I’ve ever been to. I approach the kiosk and ask the worker if they take my money. They say “no.” I walk a few meters down the street and stand on the corner of the street I think I’m suppose to be sleeping at for the evening. A little time goes by. I think about where I’ve come from and what on earth I’m doing in the place where I stand. How did I go from so much love and so much connection to…this?

Five minutes pass by. Another police car rolls up to the kiosk and two officers get out. They approach the window and make some purchases, eyeing me slyly as they do so. I try to act casual, my giant backpack a complete giveaway that I don’t belong. When they’ve got their items in their hands, they head back to their car, but then abruptly begin to approach me. Just as they’re narrowing in on me, a car pulls up in front of me and two people gesture for me to get in. I do so, having nothing but blind faith that this is what I’m suppose to be doing. Two more seconds on the street corner and I would have been having to explain myself to two local cops who didn’t look like they were just going to be checking in with me. (I would come to find out upon reading more about the country, that police often do sporadic identification checks. Getting caught without an i.d. apparently doesn’t bode well).

The drive takes ten seconds, the driver and his passenger literally take me down the street that I’ve been standing on. They guide me to a dark building across the street from where I thought I was going to be staying. They let me in, show me a plain, somewhat depressing room, say a couple of things incorrectly in the language I understand, and then vanish again. And there I am, standing in a room, alone, in the most foreign place I’ve ever been to.


This was my experience arriving in Bulgaria at 9:00 one evening. It felt, perhaps, like it was an experience that ran parallel with the refugee experience. But, only by about a one thousandth.

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19 Days in Bulgaria

I’m sitting comfortably on top of a pillow-top mattress on a queen size bed in my AirBnb on the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria. I’ve been in this country for nearly three weeks now. In a few hours, finally, I have a flight to the UK, where I will see some old pals for the weekend before heading back to the United States for the first time in more than three months. I’ve effectively spent almost the entire six months between seasons of my job traveling. Athens, the southwestern U.S., Leros, and now Bulgaria.


As I have my final evening upon me, I’m taking a moment to reflect on how strange it has been to be in this country for so long. I’ve had ample time to think, to process, to really let my mind wander. I’m here on my own and I don’t speak Bulgarian or Russian, so communicating has been nearly impossible. At the same time though, whatever, it’s okay. Talking is overrated. It’s incredible how easy it is to get by on just a few words or gestures.

It’s been particularly interesting to wander the streets of Sofia, the capital city, and watch other people go by, living their lives around me. I have very much felt like I’m caught in some sort of a holding pattern, unable to communicate, banished from Greece, waiting for my chance to return home. At the same time, I can’t tell if I blend in here or not. My “look” certainly doesn’t stand out, but I can’t tell if people are giving me a second glance because of the way I’m dressed or not. Perhaps it’s in my head, as I wonder if I could be on some covert mission, living “in plain sight” or if the citizens of Sofia would figure me out.

I just don’t know. Tomorrow, when I exit Bulgaria, I’ll be flying over the Schengen Zone. Hungary, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands. Then, I’ll land in Scotland and will have effectively stayed in the EU, but dodged the issue that would exist on my visa. This whole ordeal has been a fascinating study on visas and how they work. Bulgaria is not yet allowed into the Schengen Zone and the UK has an opt out. So, they’re in the EU but not in the Zone. Intriguing.


As I close out this bizarre experience of Bulgaria, I’ve realized that I’ve spent more time in this country than almost all of the other countries I have visited. If my calculations are correct, I have now taken more breaths and spent more heartbeats in Bulgaria than every other country in the world with the exceptions of the U.S., Guyana, Greece, and Kenya. This was a weird conclusion to come to. I guess I better get traveling again.

Farewell, Bulgaria! I can’t say I’ll be back anytime soon.

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Visa Issues: The Worst

Perhaps one of the most interesting pieces of long-term travel is VISAS. Yes, the dreaded visas.

The United States grants its citizens one of the 10 most “powerful” passports in the world, effectively giving us the ability to travel to more than 170 nations without having to obtain a visa. This is something I am most grateful for. Some countries, like many of the nations the people I worked with on Leros comes from, have “weak” passports, only granting their citizens the ability to access 29 or 30 countries free of charge and without hassle. As I mentioned in my most recent post, my passport is privilege in the form of a little book.

When I lived in Guyana in 2014 and 2015, I entered the country with a standard 90 day tourist visa, which is pretty typical of most nations welcoming someone from the United States. A few weeks into my time there, I started the atrocious process of trying to get a visa extension. The plan of attack was always to arrive on the ground and then start the process of being able to legally stay in the country for a year. This proved to me most difficult and especially irritating. The entire process took months. It worked out in the end, but not before a deportation scare and an incessant amount of trying.

I was racking my brain earlier today about other countries that I’ve stayed long-term in. Other than Guyana, I’ve never had to deal much with visas. I spent two months in Kenya and entered and exited the country twice during that time, but my tourist visa (which, come to think of it, I had to pay $50 for), granted me the right to do that. When I passed through New Zealand on my way to Antarctica, I was given a one-year visa for the country, just so there would be no issues when I passed back through four months later. But other than that, I’ve never had to deal with visas, until now.

When you enter just about any major country on mainland Europe, you enter something called the Schengen Zone. This is a really beautiful thing if you’re a citizen of one of the 26 countries that are in this agreement. It makes it easy for you to travel from country to country. If my understanding is correct, it’s  basically the same as traveling from state to state in the U.S.A. If you happen to be from a non-Schengen country, then this “zone” is a little more annoying. Basically, the rule is, from the moment you set foot in ANY Schengen Zone country, you can only spend 90 of the next 180 days in those 26 countries. This means you can stay for 90 days and then leave, but you’ll have to wait 90 days before re-entering again. Or, you can come and go as you please over the course of 180 days, so long as you don’t exceed 90 days total.

I entered Athens in November and stayed in Greece for 13 days. I then returned to the U.S. for the holiday season. In January, I re-entered the Schengen Zone (again via Athens), and had 77 days left on my visa. I never thought upon entry that I would need so many days. But when you fall into a beautiful routine and a beautiful life, all of a sudden the days seem to run out rather quickly. In March, I started exploring the idea of trying to get a visa extension, even if just for a couple weeks. My thinking was that, this would grant me the opportunity to teach my students for a few more classes, assist me in transitioning out of my island life, and bridge the time between my wonderful existence in Greece and returning to the U.S. for my cousin’s wedding and, ultimately, work.

Long story short: I didn’t get the extension; although I was filled with such optimism by the people around me about my chances of getting one, that I really believed I would, and so, I was banking on getting the stamp of approval and being able to stay put through April. Four days before my visa was due to expire, my request was rejected. Despite getting passport photos taken and prepping papers and contacting my bank and paying for documents and making dozens of phone calls, I. Was. Denied. This left me in a tough spot because in order to get off of Leros you have to take an overnight ferry for nearly 9 hours. These ferries don’t run every night. Basically, I had to scramble to get my butt off of Leros and out of the Schengen Zone so not to overstay my 90-day visa.


The ferry from Leros to Athens takes about 8.5 hours and sails through the night.

This is not the way I wanted my time on the magical island of Leros to end. I had finished teaching my English classes for the week on Thursday and was set to resume teaching on Monday, but with my rejection of Friday, I would have to leave on the ferry on Sunday. I wasn’t going to get the chance to say goodbye to my students. I felt as though some of the friendships I was cultivating were going to get cut off at the knees, and, being a student of transition at this point in my life, I was certain that two days was not going to be enough to wrap up my Greek experience with a pretty little bow.

But alas, I had to make do. And I did. I drew from numerous other concluding experiences in my lifetime, and I made the whole thing make sense in my head. And here I sit. Off island. Out of the Schengen Zone. The Leros experience is behind me.

What’s the point of this blog entry? I guess it has something to do with the visa process. But, ultimately, it has to do with humanity. Both of my experiences with visas in Greece and Guyana were frustrating. I would go as far as to say that they were humiliating at times. You really begin to just feel like a number. Or maybe not even a number, but just a blip in the system. There are very few eyeballs that actually look at you. It’s just computer screens and phones that don’t get answered. And then when there is some human on the other end of the line or standing in front of you, they aren’t treating you like you’re a person trying to extend their lifetime in this certain country for a wholesome reason. They treat you like you’re interrupting their day. It’s…disheartening.

“I do hope world politics will change one day and we can all travel freely without stupid visa restrictions.” -A frustrated Schengen friend

When all is said and done, I still choose to believe that human beings are inherently good. This is why the visa process is so disheartening and why I take so much issue with it. There’s a disconnect that exists between those working in the visa system and those going through it. I don’t know what it’s like on the other side–so I won’t make this a statement about that–but I’m just saying, it still stinks…

More to come…

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Choking on Privilege

A thought from mid-March:

I had no say in where I was born. I just got lucky, I suppose.

The same can be said for every other soul on the planet. Not one of them got a say about where they were to be born. Some were born in places that others may deem “difficult”. Some people were born in Syria. Some in Somalia. Sudan. North Korea. Others were born in France and New Zealand, Canada and Chile. Me? I was born in the wealthiest country on the planet.

When it comes to privilege, I know a thing or two about it. Honestly, the most difficult thing about my privilege is trying not to drown in it. 

Having worked with refugees for two months now, I’ve come to realize the importance of…my passport.

My passport. The tiny little book that sits buried at the bottom of my backpack, it dictates everything.

My place of birth, has granted me opportunities other people are unaware they could even be dreaming of. I have a “good” passport, one that says “go”, not “stay”.

As I spend more time on Leros, my relationships with fellow volunteers, staff members, locals, and the refugees continue to change. For the most part, these relationships are evolving in a pattern that one may identify as “growth”. With time comes comfort, however. Which isn’t necessarily something I enjoy falling into.

There’s something else going on here, I’m just not entirely sure how to convey it in a blog entry. And here I am, reminded again, that even being able to keep a blog publicly is, in fact, a privilege.


Friends of mine from different countries who aren’t camera shy. Both men have expressed interest in learning more about the U.S.A.

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The Simplicity of Driving

Many days, after I’ve finished teaching English, I become a driver. I just kind of morph into something new. I like this. As volunteers, we do a variety of different things. But my favorite combination of tasks is teaching English in the morning and then driving in the afternoon.

After being in the classroom, even just for an hour, my brain is more than ready to do something a little less intense. The process of driving one of our two vans isn’t a cakewalk since they are so large and the streets of Leros are so narrow and windy; however, it’s just the right amount of activity to keep myself entertained. When driving, we have to monitor who is getting in and out of the vans. This is easier in theory than in reality. Many of the residents like to take advantage of the fact that we have two vehicles regularly making the trip from the Hotspot to town where the Hub is. I don’t blame them, I would to. However, we have to emphasize time and time again that we are not a taxi service. We exist to shuttle students to their classes, not as a bus to get people to the local markets and stores. This consistently feels harsh, as we’re checking individual I.D.s each time someone we don’t recognize tries to hitch a ride, but it’s the only way to make sure that seats are available for those who are actually going to class and not abusing the system.

So, as I’m turning the wheel of the van and down shifting around bends in the road that line the side of a yellow flower-covered hill on the left and the crashing Aegean sea three meters down on the right, my brain isn’t exactly off. At the same time though, there are moments when I can appreciate the way the sun illuminates the hillside. When I even crack a smile as I realize that driving this darn van matters, and that I’m dodging the New York winter. It’s not so bad. It’s simple. It’s driving.


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