Bulgaria, When Not In Bulgaria

We returned from our Bulgarian vacation 2½ weeks ago. As is always the case, all too soon one is subsumed in the everyday and the local. The vacation, the sense of place where one was seems immediately substituted for the tasks at hand in the place one is now. And yet, as if one is wearing an unmistakable identifying scent, Bulgarian encounters have a way of happening even outside Bulgaria.

My son and I were at a farmer’s market near where we live in DC. We were choosing from a variety of luscious-looking tomatoes—not yet ready to give up the wonderful taste of garden tomatoes in Bulgaria—and talking, in Bulgarian, about our choices. And then we heard agreement about those choices, in Bulgarian. I whirled around and was greeted by a smiling face. “Здравейте (Hello)!” We did not know this woman, this Bulgarian who told us she had emigrated to DC over two decades ago, but we had a lovely conversation between the crates of tomatoes and the crates of eggplant. After we progressed to the cashier, her American companion told us how happy we’d made her friend by connecting her in this unanticipated way to her language and country.


We were at the pool, having it nearly all to ourselves on a weekday early afternoon. The lifeguard had a familiar accent. Then he heard us talking. He was not Bulgarian, but Serbian, and recognized familiar words. We began to talk about life there, life here. He asked would we want to live in Bulgaria again. Eastern Europeans generally, in my personal experience, often wish to hear the experience of here and there compared and contrasted—assuming that one will confirm the belief that life here is better, easier, richer. I said yes, yes, we did think that someday we would live in Bulgaria again. And as I spoke about the things we valued—the easier, more fluid and informal social life, the balance between work and leisure, the more human pace, less expectation that one must continually strive for more—he found himself nodding in assent. And when I mentioned that the children are dual citizens of the US and the EU, I inadvertently held up Bulgaria as a country to be envied by a Serbia without that advantage.

The other day we attended a funeral for a relative who died after a years-long debilitating illness. At the service, we heard of the love story he and his wife had, people from two sides of the Atlantic meeting in a third country. We heard of how they took a lengthy trip through Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and on through Western Europe to marry in her English hometown. I had known about this 1967 travel in Bulgaria, but had forgotten it. Later that day Kathy asked me if I’d been to Петрич (Petrich). I haven’t. Then she recounted a terrible summer rainstorm outside of Sofia. “It rains, of course, a lot in England, but not that kind of hard rain. I was very scared.” And I said I had rarely experienced a true rainstorm in Bulgaria, one with thunder and lightening, but we had to stop on the road up to Витоша (Vitosha) Mountain this summer because the rain and the hail made for such dangerous going. “It was probably the same place,” she said. Same Bulgarian experience, nearly five decades later.

Rarely does Bulgaria appear in American media, and I do search regularly on websites of major media outlets. Yet twice last month The New York Times covered Bulgaria, once highlighting a small village, “Bulgarians Hope Che Guevara and Brigitte Bardot Can Save Their Village” and once the Black Sea, “By Bulgaria’s Beautiful Black Sea.” Lucas Peterson, author of the latter article, wondered why he “hadn’t made it to this part of the world earlier.” My mother, who has been to Bulgaria twice and who hasn’t read Mr. Peterson’s article, often wonders why people haven’t made it to this part of the world. She and my father find it as beautiful as my husband and I do.

shaking hands

In a little over a month, Bulgaria when not in Bulgaria will show itself most strongly in our Saturday afternoon Bulgarian school. Българският Образователен и Културен Център “Свети Климент Охридски” (St. Kliment Ohridski Bulgarian Education and Cultural Center) will hold classes in Bulgarian language, literature, social studies, history, and the natural world. There will be classes in theater, national dance, and art. And all will be taught in Bulgarian by native speakers and educators. For a few hours, within the boundaries of the United States capital, children from pre-school through 12th grade will feel they are in Bulgaria. They may or may not ever live there, but something of the country will live in them.

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