Day 1 – Tuesday 1st October 2019

In the early hours of the 1st October, I left home with my suitcase and backpack and began my 12-hour journey to Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. In the 5 weeks since I found out I was going, I’d experienced a wide range of emotions covering excitement, fear, sadness, stress, pride and joy – but in that moment, I’d settled on exhaustion. The days leading up to my departure had been so exceptionally busy that I hadn’t even had time to think about it, and then suddenly there I was, in a taxi, then on a bus, then a plane, then I was in Sofia. It was HOT in Sofia, and I worried that I’d packed the completely wrong wardrobe. I proudly managed to find my own way via the Metro onto the correct bus which was (almost) the final leg of my journey. I’ve got this, I thought. I then promptly fell asleep and was awoken by the bus driver prodding my arm at the other end. I had a message on my phone from someone called Sasha, she was waiting for me. This was it, the nerves had kicked back in.

Sasha was holding a sign reading “Welcome Daisy”, I nervously hugged her and another volunteer Lucy – they’d both been in Blagoevgrad for a few months now on a longer-term programme. They helped me get my suitcase into a taxi and we took a short ride to my apartment, which I’d be sharing with 3 other volunteers on the same programme as me. They were arriving later. My first impression of the apartment was very good; it looked cute and comfortable and homely, with a decent bathroom, a combination kitchen-living room, and a terrace on the other side of the bedrooms. A homemade poster reading “Welcome ABS Team” stuck on the wall and a welcome note from the previous group of volunteers living here helped me settle in nicely, and I quickly unpacked my case and made my bed before jumping in the shower. 

My flatmates – Manon, Hermeland and Alexandre – arrived soon after, and we just had time for a quick introduction. Each of my flatmates is French, which I was honestly quite worried about at the start because I didn’t want to feel excluded. However, it didn’t take long for these fears to settle, and I very quickly and naturally felt at ease with them. Each of us is so different that I think we complement each other well and have a lot to learn from each other. I’m excited to use this opportunity to hopefully be able to brush up on my limited French skills. 

The 4 of us headed down the road 10 minutes to the city centre informally named Macedonia Square, where we met Sasha and Lucy, as well as other ABS volunteer Nik, and Valentin who volunteers with another organisation and lives in the apartment opposite ours. Kiril, the Volunteer Coordinator for ABS, later joined us for dinner at a pretty restaurant in the square, where I had my first taste of Bulgarian food, a Shopska salad. After dinner my flatmates and I brought some beers back to our flat and continued to get to know each other.

Day 2 – Wednesday 2nd October 2019

We awoke on Wednesday morning, still very tired and jetlagged, made breakfast and walked to the office which is based in the Mall of Blagoevgrad just 15 minutes from our apartment – but not before getting lost and ending up in the wrong mall. When we’d finally found the office we met Kiril for our induction, during which we discussed Expectations, Contributions, and Fears. We then went downstairs to the bank and started the lengthy process of opening our bank accounts, which unfortunately took up more time than we’d have liked. After that, we were tasked with a scavenger hunt, which detailed a list of places to do and things to see in our little city. After trying out a local delicacy boza, our first stop was the Virgin Mary church, located in the old district of Varosha. After getting lost we eventually found it and it was worth the wait, but unfortunately, this meant that we were falling very behind on our scavenger hunt, it was approaching 4 pm and we still hadn’t eaten lunch, which didn’t help with the fatigue from the jetlag. We decided to go to the nearest restaurant that was open, and by the time we’d finished there, it was time to head back to the office, ticking off a couple of nearby from our list on the way.

At the end of the day, we went to the supermarket to buy some groceries and headed back to the apartment to cook dinner. We decided against going out and instead stayed home and started discussing activities we’d like to run, things we’d like to see and nearby places we’d like to travel to over the next couple of months.

Day 3 – Thursday 3rd October 2019

Again we met for an induction at the office with Kiril, who explained more about the Youthpass, and we set ourselves objectives for the project and actions on how we are to achieve them. Mine included building on event planning and delivery experience, as well as learning more about design and management of Erasmus+ and ESC projects. After this, we returned to the bank to continue the opening our bank accounts, and then we were set another challenge. This time, we were to go to the nearby American University of Bulgaria (stopping off first for lunch at a restaurant in the Largo Mall), each armed with 8 stickers and the task of handing them out to the students, explaining more about ABS and the opportunities they could get involved with. This was challenging for two reasons – firstly, that we were new to ABS ourselves so were still learning about how to best promote it, and secondly finding the confidence to approach students in a new language and culture. We strategized to split into 2 teams, dividing our English skills as best as we could, and found that the more we did it, the easier it became.

On Thursdays, ABS volunteers run Chat Club – an initiative created by a previous volunteer a couple of years ago in which we invite young people to Memo Bar on Thursday evenings to present, discuss or debate an interesting topic or social issue. This week, it was volunteer Sasha’s event themed around her home country, Ukraine. For myself and my flatmates, our first Chat Club was a great opportunity to get to meet other active young people and volunteers in Blagoevgrad, and get a feel for the type of events that we will soon be responsible for planning and running.

Day 4 – Friday 4th October 2019

Friday was our first day working independently in the office, and we decided to have a creative brainstorming session to come up with ideas for projects and events we’d like to run. We were introduced by Sasha to the organisation’s approach to designing promotional materials and managing time, and I’m excited to learn more about these and how I can implement them into future projects. We were asked to plan our first event – an activity for the following “Happy Monday”, and due to the short notice and bad weather, we decided on a movie night and following discussion, based on a film that Alexendre and I had previously learned was a shared favourite of ours. On Friday evening, Hermeland, Manon and I decided to head out to a local bar – although shortly returned to the apartment when we discovered that they were all shut. Still, it was fun to explore the streets in the peace o the night time. One thing I’ve learned about Blagoevgrad is that you cannot go anywhere without being followed by a street dog. But don’t be alarmed, they’re all very tame and friendly.

Day 6 – Sunday 6th October 2019 

Sunday was planned for further nature and adventure. We’d decided to head to the nearby town of Rila, famous for its National Park, 7 Lakes and Monastery. However, the morning came around and we were running late (as usual) and still hadn’t come up with a solid plan of getting there and back. Eventually we made it onto a bus to Rila town, realising that we wouldn’t have time to visit everything we wanted to, so chose the Monastery (for now). We’d hoped to take a taxi but after trying for over an hour to flag or otherwise hunt one down, it became apparent that taxis don’t really run on Sundays in Rila. Manon and Hermeland decided they were keen to give hitchhiking a try, while Alexandre and I decided to head back to the bus station hoping to find a bus heading there. Thankfully, both the hitchhike and the bus were successful, and the 4 of us were able to reunite at the beautiful Monastery and spend an hour there before catching the bus back to Blago. After a tricky morning where it felt like we weren’t getting anywhere, I felt really accomplished that we’d managed to tick something off of the ever-growing list of things to do and see. Already in this short week I’ve positively put myself in so many situations and environments that I struggled to imagine just a year or so ago, and I’m feeling proud of my progress.

Day 5 – Saturday 5th October 2019

By the time Saturday came around, we all felt completely exhausted and decided that a lazy morning was necessary, so we used it as a chance to catch up on sleep, do a bit of laundry and clean the apartment a bit. After a couple of recommendations, we’d decided that we wanted to spend Saturday afternoon hiking up to Blagoevgrad Cross, from which you can see the entire city. The round journey took us a few hours, and was my favourite part of the week because hiking is a favourite hobby of mine even though (or perhaps because) I have to really push myself, and the feeling at the end, along with the views along the way, are always worth it. Looking down upon the city with my flatmates was when I really started to feel like I could call it home.