Bulgaria has made me a spoiled fool. Three long weeks has replaced stamina with surrender, obscurity with family. Any firmness of mind or body that I’ve built up over the last month and half of traveling solo has been rounded out by profuse amounts of Bulgarian generosity and food.
If, instead of Israel, the promised land had been located in Bulgaria, Moses would have not have described it as flowing with milk and honey, but with yogurt and feta. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter what kind of edible surface you present to a Bulgarian; slap some feta on it and give them a glass of liquid yogurt to polish it off, and they will be happy as a peach. But speaking of honey, I’ve never been the biggest fan. Inasmuch as I have a rather dictatorial sweet tooth, I can appreciate it, but the flavor is somewhat off-putting. The local honey found in glass jars at stands on the side of the road in Bulgaria, however, is gold by the spoonful. I also think it would be a safe bet to say that I ate a salad comprised mainly of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta and oil (shopska salata) at two out of three meals, every single day. In fact, it wouldn’t be unusual to order this salad at a restaurant and receive it with the slices of tomatoes still warm from the sun, since most homes and businesses alike use their given property for flourishing gardens. It’s very fortunate that I’m not a vegetarian, else I forfeit a huge element of cultural cuisine (and I daresay, turn pink from tomato consumption). I was lucky enough to eat a couple excellent home cooked meals with rabbit and lamb, and on several occasions what I would liken to our version of hamburgers and hot dogs, except pre-cooked, highly seasoned and not necessarily warm. Funnily enough, Bulgarians aren’t too big on beef, because they claim it is too dry. Bread accompanies every single meal, but, bewilderingly, it’s generally just a sleeve of very plain sliced sandwich bread. You will often see a Bulgarian with an ear of corn in hand, or sunflower seeds between the teeth. They are exceedingly proud of their watermelons, and rightfully so. My favorite meals were navy bean soup made from scratch by Snejana’s hunched, hobbly, and firecrackery grandmother (from the navy beans just picked out of their huge garden in their tiny village), and the Bulgarian version of stuffed peppers. The simultaneously doughy and flaky breakfast pastry log filled with feta ain’t bad either.
My mom once told me a story that went something along these lines: as a tiny thing, I was very excited for the first day of first grade. I had been looking forward to it with the undiluted fervor of a seven year old, and got on the bus that September day with cheeks brimming over with smiles. So you can imagine my mother’s dismay when I came home to her later, wracked with tears. “What happened?” she cried. And I stammered out between sobs, “I thought they were going to teach me how to read!” Right then and there, she sat me down for my first lesson, and the rest is written history.
Snejana taught me the Slavic alphabet during my first few days, which allowed for three weeks of entertainment and satisfaction on my part. As someone who feels the most at home with her nose in a book, it’s a really interesting sensation to look at text and have to study it, to have to sound out each letter again, one at a time. No longer is looking at a word insta-comprehension. I spent my days having staring contests with menus and billboards, willing them to give up their secret sounds. I’m happy to say that I almost always won.
Maybe around half of their alphabet uses the same symbols as we do, but they stand for different sounds. These, as my lovely linguist host happily informed me, are called “false friends.” The trickiest part is not memorizing crazy new symbols that look like hieroglyphs, but remembering that the x is an h sound, that a B is a v sound, that c is an s, and so on. It’s an amazing thing to see a word that, at first glance, looks devastating in its unfamiliarity, but after a few seconds of studying reveals itself into “bistro” or “garage” or “vodka” (бистро, гараж, водка, respectively). I love the bluntness of Bulgarian spelling; there are no special exceptions or magical transformations. What you see is what you get, so if you can sound it out, you can say it. My delight at putting together the sounds “oo-ee-skee” (found in the world уиски) and realizing I was reading “whiskey” was boundless. Of course, more often than not, the words I managed to decipher weren’t anything resembling an English word, but this had no effect on the pleasure of my pastime. As it turns out, learning to read at twenty-five is just as awesome as it was at seven.
- It’s interesting to me that I didn’t realize until this trip quite how much I love being in the mountains, any mountains, be them Irish, Czech, or Bulgarian. So it’s not terribly surprising that my first favorite thing happened in the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria, when we visited one of the famous monasteries, ancient and solid, sleeping quietly between the shoulders of the hills. Almost the minute that we pulled up and put the car in park, the rain started. Scampering over the gorgeous stone ground and under the vivid berry trees, we found cover in one of the outdoor corridors that rings the church in the center. I stood under an archway and watched in awe as mist tumbled across the peaks, as huge bolts of lightning snapped and the thunder sounded like ripping sky. The rain transformed everything into its darker, wilder and more bewitching self: the surrounding forests, the striped towers of the church, the very stones of the earth. We waited for two hours for the rain to let up—slightly—and ducked into the church where we were greeted by smiling, bearded monks. We marveled at the artistry, pointed and spoke in whispers, craned our necks to see the painted ceilings. The walls are almost black, not because of some ancient fire, as we found out, but because of the millions of candles that have been burning smoke like patient prayers for years and years. I desperately wanted to walk around every corner of that beautiful stone place in the dark green hills, but it had already been three hours, the rain wasn’t stopping, and the courtyard was flooding. It was one of those rare experiences where everything is just as incredible as it sounds, where life in reality actually matches the dreams you’ve dreamt.
- Snejana’s father-in-law grew up tucked away in the some of these hills, along a river called Arda. He knows a place on this river that you can go, if you know about it, to sit along the quiet banks and take dips and relax in a very old-timey, simple, this-is-out-of-a-book kind of way. If you’re so inclined, you can bring picnic food, or beer, or a grill for barbecuing. Pitch a tent and stay the night, if you want. The water moves languidly slow, and it will be that perfect temperature that will never make you cold enough to want to get out, but is nonetheless perfectly refreshing. It’s clear enough to see straight to the bottom, flowing from a pristine mineral spring in the mountain, untouched by human hands the whole way down. The sand you sit on will be soft and warm from the sun, and the rocks you find here and there will be every color imaginable: blood red, caramel brown, robin’s egg blue, tiger stripes. You will probably spend the day floating on your back down the river and then doing breaststrokes back up. You will swim longer than you normally do, because it feels so good. When you do get out, you will lay on your stomach and let the sun dry you, listening to the sand crunch under your towel like you did when you were a kid. This makes you miss your family, but you think about how beautiful this is, how unexpectedly perfect, how lucky you are.
- Two days before I was scheduled to take a bus from Haskovo to Croatia, Snejana’s sister-in-law and her boyfriend invited me to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, since it was in the direction I would be heading anyway, and they were driving back that night. I could simply take the bus from Sofia in two days, stay with them in the meantime, and explore the capital. Sure, why not? Mariana and Kiro, like the rest of my adopted Bulgarian family, are lovely souls. My third favorite Bulgarian moment was spending the first evening in Sofia with them, walking around the beautifully lit up city as they pointed out everything they could think of to tell me about the buildings and the history, in either good or charmingly broken English. We got a 2-liter of beer (yes, they have those) from a walk-up window and sat in the park and drank it, because, Kiro said, I couldn’t drink in parks in the States. We were just another young group of friends among the many that sat around in the nightly gathering place, talking and laughing. We chewed and spit sunflower seeds, we discovered the hilarity of the word “cucumber,” we talked about all the things we would do if (when, says Kiro) I come back to Bulgaria. I suppose I don’t need to elaborate much why something so simple felt so damn good.
I am immeasurably lucky to have experienced the past three weeks as I did. I think I got a more varied, well-rounded Bulgarian cultural experience than most Bulgarians do in six months. Authenticity couldn’t have been more prevalent if it sat in my lap. Who else could have spent a leisurely ten days laying on the Black Sea, eating fish and ice cream, taking walks around town? What tourist gets to stay in a small city out of the way of every tourist destination, where hardly a soul speaks English, in a comfortable and cozy home chock full of family? Or who travels to one of the tiny, almost identical villages where the kids used to grow up before they all moved to the cities, where grandmothers still raise chickens and grow their own food and wear thirteen colors at once? And who, might I ask, can do all this and still have time to explore the capital of the country, completing a tour-de-force from sea to mountain to river, to suburb to village to city?
I got much more than I bargained for when I timidly asked Snejana in the height of my loneliness if I could come visit her while she stayed in her home country for the summer. I was folded into a family life unlike any I’ve seen on this Earth yet, and learned a bit about what it really means to take care of your family, no questions asked (and no blood needed, apparently). I became familiar with the black and white stripes that paint every pole and every sidewalk across the country. I learned about Bulgarian history, real estate, prices of cars, gypsies, social habits. You still might not believe me, but I swear I got a tan. I learned that Bulgaria is comprised almost exclusively of brick and concrete. I continued my European trend of being stuffed full to exploding. I relaxed, I slept well, I finished four books. I swam a ton, I went dancing. I nodded and smiled while the throaty sounds of Bulgarian floated around my head. I watched the village storks make their enormous nests on the highest point in town, and swoop after tractors in search of mice. I conquered another step in the mastery of photography. I sat under the shady ceilings of grape vines that climb every single establishment, public and private. I hardly spent a dime. I have completely and immeasurably indebted myself to a family that is generous as a rule, and would hardly comprehend repayment.
Off to Croatia to travel with my good college friend Sean for a while, who has been volunteer farming in Norway for the last two months. Feel free to check out his adventures over at beardlessfarmer.com, if you’re so inclined. And, I’ll be taking a brief jaunt to Venice to hang out with my mom, go figure. Where once I was alone, I am now inundated with companionship, and I couldn’t be happier.
I think we could call it all a success, yeah?