Inevitably, when you’re country-hopping for months at a time and catching up on a country’s history (recent to antiquity) on the airplane ride to said country, you may not understand the place or its people entirely when you get out of customs.  You may even find yourself saying things like:

[Sofia, Bulgaria:] Oh, look- another statue of Stalin!  They must have really loved communism here.

[Jerusalem:] Damascus Gate: Photo op!

[Haifa:] No border crossings into Lebanon?  I don’t understand…

[Dead Sea:] What do you mean I can’t put my head into the Dead Sea?  I brought my goggles.

What may be completely obvious to a local may not be relatable to a foreigner whatsoever… until it is.

The fun part about traveling is learning and absorbing the story of places and their people.  Reading about the names in history books when you have nothing to relate it to is nearly impossible to absorb.  Tessaloniki?  It took me 2 days of looking at my plane ticket and 10 hours of being in the city itself to remember that word.  Now I’ll never forget it- I now notice Greece’s 2nd largest city now popping up everywhere I look.

Of course, no one wants to be the stupid American.  But making fun of yourself with an inside joke now and again?  Now there’s some power in that.  Bringing up your mistakes long after you’ve discovered the truth brings levity to any journey.

The Dead Sea was so incredibly salty, a one-time splash in your eye and you were blinded and in pain for minutes.  One wrong move with a bare foot and you were sliced open by a sharp chunk of salt- once again, in severe pain (bring booties).  How could I not have known this?  Why on earth would I have brought my goggles?

Checking a country’s holiday and public transport closings (and general hostility towards its countries)?  Probably something I’ll look into from now on…

And the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem?  There had been recent stabbings right where we were standing (our local friend told us later after he laughed at our Facebook post, shaking his head)… but again, not something we would have known easily as we happily snapped away pictures in beach-ready gear.

It’s become a mission of mine to learn the name of every mustached male statue in Sofia, as well as understand the history of communism, it’s start with Marx and Lenin… Stalin’s brutal climb to power, ultimately his help defeating Hitler, and of course the backlash of totalitarian communism.

By the way, none of those statues in Sofia are of Stalin.  (That mustached man?  He’s a Bulgarian volunteer, not Stalin.  That eagle?  It’s an eagle- again, not Stalin.)  Lenin was the last statue giving nod to the leaders of Communism- and he was ripped down from Communist Headquarters Square in 2000, replaced by Saint Sofia (no relation to this city’s name, ironically).  Most Communist-era leaders are safely in Sofia’s Museum of Socialist Art:  which, upon it’s unveiling, Finance Minister Simeon Djankov said: “We are closing one page of the Bulgarian history and communism is going where it belongs – in the museum.”

But quietly, they’ll always be Stalin to me.