World Travel with a Twist of Zen - Fields of Indulgence  
 
What I remember most from my childhood in Bulgaria is the summers, when we were off school and roamed the neighborhood all day long. One of the people that always accompanied me was my friend Tania, from our apartment building. We spent our days sewing clothes for our dolls, planning elaborate picnics in the nearby fields, even attempting to smoke her mom’s cigarettes. Tania and I were inseparable for many of these years, until my parents immigrated to the United States in 1997. The internet was just becoming more common but nobody in my country had a computer or email, so our only way of connecting was through the phone or through mail. This left most of my friendships on hold until I reconnected with some of them, including Tania, through email addresses I acquired nearly 10 years later on my first trip back to visit Bulgaria.

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Tania and I at the wedding
We had the chance to spend some time with Tania and her husband Georgos last winter, when they were back for a visit in Bulgaria.  This was the first time we saw each other in 15 
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Star Beach on Crete
years! We found out more about her moving to Crete and meeting the father of her adorable little daughter Marilena. At that dinner a year ago, they invited us to their wedding, and we vowed to attend despite any logistical hiccups that might arise getting to a fairly remote island like Crete. For me it was important to not let our ties wither again as they had when I departed for America all those years ago. Also, their wedding on the island was a great way to start the next leg of our adventure.

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Delicious Greek food in Thessaloniki
The best route down to Crete first involved a 9 hour bus trip to Thessaloniki followed by a domestic flight from there to Crete. It was impossible to do in a day, so we made a stopover in Thessalonki to explore the second largest city in Greece. We found a rich history from its 3,000 year existence as part of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. We visited the beautiful White Tower on the coast, the ancient mausoleum turned church in the Rotunda, and the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum. We came upon a cute tavern, the only bustling restaurant along the seafront promenade. Most people eating here were Greek, so we decided to give it a try, were in for a wonderful surprise. Platters of pureed fava beans, roasted eggplants and vegetables covered with tomatoes and herbs, chickpeas with traditional sausages, veal chunks surrounded by a mote of creamy eggplant puree, and delicate feta cheeses crowded our table along with dry red wine and tsipouro (a drink similar to Bulgarian rakia). The assortment of tapas style dishes left us stuffed to the brim and thankful for one of the best meals on our travels thus far!

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Fiery sunset over this statue in Heraklion, Crete
The next day, we flew to Crete to meet the bride and groom! We spent the days before the wedding hanging out with their family (where Jeff could practice his Bulgarian) and enjoying home cooked meals from Tania’s mom! She spoiled us with Greek and Bulgarian dishes every day and made us enormous salads covered in homemade olives from Georgios’ mom here in Crete (which were by far the best olives I have ever tasted!). We played with Marilena, their beautiful 2 year old daughter, and marveled at how she could transition from Bulgarian when speaking to Tania, to Greek when speaking with Georgios. We took a day trip to Heraklios, the capital city of the island, and visited the old Knossos ruins of the Royal Palace of the Minoans (the place where King Minos is said to have lived, where the Minotaur was spawned and later killed by Theseus, and where Daedalus and Icarus took forth on an ill-fated flight from the confines of the nearby labyrinth). The ruins were different than many we have visited because the site was partially restored by an archeologist named Arthur Evans in the early 1900s. He interpreted the spaces he found and built over them as he thought their function was intended, which was quite controversial in hindsight since many of his assumptions were probably wrong. The site left us disappointed on one hand as it was difficult to differentiate true 4,000 year old ruins from reconstructions, but also thankful for some of the replica drawings he posted all around and the reconstruction’s vision of what life in the palace may have been like.  
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Bull painting and reconstruction at Knossos
The culmination of the trip was the Cretan wedding. Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek isles and was once the center of the aforementioned Minoan civilization, which is   
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Pentozali dancers
the oldest recorded civilization in Europe. The wedding was a traditional Greek Orthodox wedding combined with the baptism of Marilena. After a short ceremony in the church for the wedding and then the baptism, the guests were showered with delicious food and Cretan wine. The Cretan sheep cheese was exceptional and we enjoyed all the different meats and accompanied side dishes, like the creamy Cretan rice pilaf served with baked mutton. Perhaps most interesting was the live traditional Cretan band playing the Cretan lyra and the laouto. The music was accompanied by a traditional dance, the Pentozali, performed by the guests. The dance would start like a Bulgarian horo, in a circle, with everyone following the same steps. Somewhere along the line, the first person in the horo, usually a man, breaks off into a solo dance performing a series of jumps while smacking the bottom of his shoes. Some women also performed solo dances in the middle of the circle involving dips and turns. 

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Marilena, all prettied up for her baptism
It was fascinating to watch these ancient dances and customs being passed down from generation to generation and preserving the bond these people share with their past. It was also warming to be part of the wedding of one of my best friends from my past and to renew the bond we have shared for all these years. Like the Cretans, who take pride in their past and celebrate the history that makes them who they are, I felt a deep gratitude for the ties of my own past and my ability to celebrate them with an old friend on a special day in her life. As Marilena just learned to say this weekend, “Zhivi i Zdravi!” (To Life and Health!)

Click here for our pics from Thessaloniki and Crete.






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