Sunday, June 19, 2016
The plane ride from Washington, DC to Sofia, Bulgaria isn’t as long as that to Russia or India or Australia. But it’s long enough and uncomfortable enough that, barring emergency travel, you want to make your stay long enough to recover and enjoy before it’s time to get back in the saddle of an airline seat that makes you feel every minute and every mile with exquisite discomfort. We arrived this afternoon. The family apartment is in the Druzhba complex so it’s just a few minutes drive from the airport. The next door neighbor picked us up in his taxi, a used Ford that he bought in Slovenia on his way back from a vacation and drove to Bulgaria. My husband asked why he hadn’t bought a used Ford in Sofia. Itzu said it’s more expensive in Bulgaria. “Because we’re a rich country,” he smiled wryly. In western media, I have noticed, the name “Bulgaria” almost never stands alone when first introduced in an article, or on a radio program, or in the television news. It’s usually accompanied by an appendage—“the poorest country in the EU, Bulgaria.”
Druzhba has for years looked the same despite, somehow, the enormous changes that have occurred in and around it since 1989. In point of fact, it looks the same as pretty much all the other concrete panel apartment complexes built in a militant utilitarianism that eschewed any aesthetic appeal as bourgeois. It is forever drab, forever ugly, forever full of families that formed the basis of the middle class in this long-held—at least in the 1944-1989 period—to be classless society. The playgrounds are mostly appalling, but children laugh and play and grandmothers encourage the younger ones on the swings and ceaselessly warn the older ones that they’ll fall off whatever they might be perched upon. “Did you hear what I said? Do you understand Bulgarian?”
We opened the apartment door to discover the electricity had been shut off. My husband had arranged for automatic monthly payments, but something has gone awry. At 5:00 pm on a Sunday, there’s nothing to be done about it except to pull the candles and matches out of the cupboard. Tomorrow we will go to the баничария (pastry shop) to get the breakfast we’ve been waiting for. Кифла с мармалад (a large fluffy crescent of brioche-like pastry filled with marmalade) for me, баница с айран (the classic phyllo dough with feta accompanied by a yogurt drink) for my husband, large enough portions so that our son can have some of each. And then, thus fully prepared, we will solve the electric problem.
However much Druzhba leaves to be desired in appearance, upkeep, and cachet, it must be said—as my mother-in-law often did—that within its boundaries it has just about everything one needs on a daily basis. It has a year-round open air fruit and vegetable market, cosmetic stores, appliance sales and appliance repairs, pawn shops, shoe stores, vendors selling freshly roasted meats, baby products stores, банчария, second-hand stores, mobile phone sellers (new and refurbished), clothes vendors, seasonal vendors, бира-скара (beer and grill) places, and more than one sit-down restaurant.
Our son hadn’t been interested in the snack Air France served on the second leg, so shortly after our arrival he declared he wanted dinner. My husband led us to a place in Druzhba Itzu had introduced him to two years ago. It’s called Механа Тибаетъ. Like all Bulgarian restaurants I’ve ever been to, the menu is awe-inspiringly long. We got шопска салата (the Bulgarian tomato, cucumber, and feta salad), a tomato salad, a homemade питка (small flat loaf) that arrived hot and so large we three shared it. My son’s roasted pork came with side dishes of лютеница (red pepper and eggplant spread/dip), white beans, and cabbage salad. My husband’s кюфтета (seasoned pork-beef patties) came with a large green salad and potatoes. The waiter was friendly, efficient, made ракия (brandy) recommendations for my husband who happily ordered 100 grams rather than his usual 50.
We also ordered mineral water. The waiter brought a large bottle of Горня Баня (Gornya Banya), a popular brand. This he opened and poured into our three glasses each marked prominently with the name and logo of Банкя (Bankya), a rival brand. “Is it possible to drink Горня Баня from a Банкя glass?” I asked him. “Yes,” he answered. “In foreign countries it isn’t, but here in Bulgaria it’s possible.”
While we waited for our food, two women and a man sat down at the table in front of ours. They ordered drinks, but no food. The woman and one of the men had their backs to me. Both seemed to be listening rather intently to the man facing me. They all spoke but none very much. The man who seemed to be the leader was tall, slim, with a flat face and large ears. One of his ears was rounded while the other seemed to end in a point like a leprechaun. The man with his back to me was plump and chainsmoked. When he turned at one point, he showed a face that was as stereotypically all-American as an Iowa farm boy, with just the tips of the hair framing that face an incongruous gray. The woman periodically did something with her phone, asked a question, seemed as though she might be taking notes. I imagined that they could well appear in some mafia-themed movie where the characters make their plans in the restaurant they frequent almost daily. Probably though they are just Druzhba residents or business owners or co-workers living much of their lives in and among these concrete panel apartment blocks and the commerce that sprang up to serve the neighborhood.
The roasted pork was delicious. The шопска салата and tomato salad with сирене as well. My husband enjoyed the chef’s variation on the traditional кюфтета seasonings. The питка was the perfect way to mop up the various juices cold and hot. Ketchup has nothing on Bulgaria’s traditional лютеница. The salad and entrée portions were large. The prices were modest. The waiter and the kitchen staff he represented were professionals who knew what they were doing. I think about a restaurant like Механа Тибаетъ, a restaurant tourists will never go to in a neighborhood they will never see. Sofia has some lovely neighborhoods, some very modern restaurants. But I think that the dinner we had today and the breakfast we will have tomorrow in a Druzhba that no one would ever choose to create in the same way again made us feel that we were making a very good start to our month in Bulgaria. Often Bulgarians will disparage something of low quality or poor service or workmanship as Българска работа (Bulgarian work). Often, though, Българска работа is quite satisfying, and all three of us were very glad to begin experiencing it once again.