The week before Easter, I was in Bulgaria
My grandparents lived there in 1949, so I walked around taking pictures of their favorite landmarks and gin-rummy dens
Sofia is surprisingly charming
Aside from the obtrusive Orthodoxity, most of it could pass for Berlin or Vienna
My Bulgarian friend Vlado says things have changed a lot for the better since Communism
You don't bribe the cops anymore, for example.
But they still ask for 'gifts' to make tickets go away.
He said lots of Bulgarians keep bottles of wine and other trinkets in their cars in case they get pulled over.
Bulgaria's history is really fascinating, actually.
They were an empire, then taken over by the Byzantines, then an empire again, then taken over by the Ottomans.
They sided with the Germans in both world wars, and paid pretty dearly.
My grandma says people in the 1940s used to talk about Stalin as a giraffe, reaching his long neck into Bulgaria to munch on their resources and take them away.
Even after communism, Bulgaria occupies a little-noticed pocket of Europe. We don't think about them that much.
It still seems unforgivably foreign from far away.
But up close, it's utterly charming, and I'm planning on going back.
Now that the giraffe's gone, the leaves are coming back.