The first time my husband left Bulgaria it was with his family for a New Year’s vacation in Bucharest, Romania. It was also the first time anyone of them had been on a plane and Rumen remembers his father muttering with closed eyes, hands gripping the armrests, that it would be the last time he would venture that again. They stayed with friends. Rumen’s father had met Emil Balunescu, a wrestling coach, by chance in a Sofia restaurant. My father-in-law Vladimir was known as a bon vivant, a joker, a hale fellow well met who liked to have a shot of the classic Bulgarian brandy rakiya (ракия, 50 grams, perhaps even 100 on occasion) together with a few slices of the classic Bulgarian hard salami lukanka (луканка).
Being from Kozlodui, my father-in-law spoke fluent Romanian. The villages in Bulgaria just along the southern shores of the Danube have long spoken what they refer to as Vlashki (Влашки). “Vlashki”—the word, not the language—may be derived from the southern region of Romania that used to be known as Wallachia and which ended at the natural border of the Danube’s northern shore. When Rumen was young, many older residents of Kozlodui had never learned Bulgarian, though those days have long passed. This was the case with my husband’s grandmother and so consequently my mother-in-law learned Romanian as a young bride and Rumen as a young child so that he could speak to his grandmother.
It was therefore easy for my father-in-law to strike up a conversion with Emil Balunescu, to feel—in the casual, uncomplicated connection that effortlessly becomes a real friendship in that part of the world—that they had a bond that would extend beyond the rakiya and lukanka. Perhaps they met in my father-in-law’s favorite restaurant, Grozd, on what used to be called Boulevard Russki before the fall of the Communist regime. Unbelievably enough, despite all the changes in Bulgaria over the intervening decades, Grozd is still there (Ресторант Грозд), but with a menu and ambiance my father-in-law likely wouldn’t recognize had he lived to see it. It’s certain he would be perplexed by the Spaghetti Bolognese for 12.90 leva and the cheesecake for 7.00 leva, both simply transliterated on the menu with the assumption that if you have to ask you shouldn’t be ordering it.
In Grozd or elsewhere, Emil Balunescu clearly was just as delighted by the chance meeting. He warmly invited his new friend to come for the New Year’s holiday to his home in Bucharest and wrote down the address. My father-in-law went home and the planning began. They made their first airplane reservations for the flight to Bucharest.
It was the winter 1970. Excited by this first international trip, they arrived in what Rumen remembers as a really nice airport in Bucharest. They undoubtedly did not have the reception given a Soviet delegation in the summer that year. They took a cab to the Balunecus and knocked on the apartment door. The neighbors peered out to assess the visitors: Rumen, his father, and his eight-months pregnant mother. The Balunescus, the neighbors reported, were not at home. They had left for their New Year’s holiday in Pitești, about 75 miles northwest of Bucharest.
The Balunescus had no telephone in Bucharest. My in-laws had no telephone in Sofia. Almost no one they knew had a telephone. When I first went to meet my future in-laws in 1987, they still were waiting for a telephone. So no one had been able to call and confirm details of the inaugural flight, to confirm plans and discuss details. My in-laws had the address and to that address they went. Rumen remembers that no one seemed perturbed by any of the proceedings. Instead the neighbors invited them over. A hotel was out of the question. No one would have suggested it and no one would have had the resources for it. Over four decades later, Rumen remembers that first night in Romania with great pleasure. The neighbors gave him the best bed he had ever slept in, with beautiful, clean white sheets and the softest pillow.
The next day, the neighbors supplied them with the address in Pitești. Whether they were driven or took a bus isn’t clear all these many years later, but the Balunescus apparently showed no surprise at their guests’ appearance and welcomed them. They stayed with Emil’s father, the Balunescu patriarch and a Romanian Orthodox priest, who was dressed in black robes and welcomed them to his large home, perhaps the rectory. The Balunescu’s son was Rumen’s age and they quickly befriended each other. Rumen still remembers the long table at which meals were served and the many women in black who bustled around. After a few days, both families returned to Bucharest, a good time had by all.
The second time my husband left Bulgaria, albeit with some difficulty in obtaining official permission to do so, it was 1978. He was 17 and traveling alone. He went first to Budapest and then to Lake Balaton. In the Budapest train station, there was a service to match travellers with rooms in private homes; we used the same service when together we found ourselves in Budapest from Bulgaria en route to DC in 1991. In Budapest, Star Wars was showing in the theaters. Rumen understood none of the English spoken, could read none of the Hungarian subtitles, but garnered enough of the plot to have bragging rights back in Sofia where the movie was a forbidden Western treat and not showing anywhere. Then he made his way to Siófok on the far eastern part of Lake Balaton, sleeping in the train station with other backpackers and encountering only token resistance from the police.
Eva Hoffman, in her excellent Exit into History: A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe, writes about the way in which a group of people—friends, relatives, multiple families—are able to share living quarters without undue fuss or discomfort. She writes specifically about a vacation house on Hungary’s famous Lake Balaton. It is clear from the beaches and resort towns clustered around the nearly 100-mile long freshwater lake that the Hungarians “take their vacations seriously and do them with zest.” I think about Hoffman’s description when I think about the Romanian vacation. Her observation below is equally true of how we lived for a year in my mother-in-law’s one-bedroom apartment for a year after my father-in-law passed away—with my mother-in-law sleeping in the kitchen, we in the living room, and my brother-in-law in the bedroom:
“The house where I stay with friends is shared by several families, and during the day the garden is occupied by people engaged in their different activities: a grandmother knitting, a father playing ball with his son, people eating picnic lunches, and my three friends working on their various manuscripts in the sun. Somehow, no one disturbs anyone else, and the mornings pass in companionable quiteness. In “civilized” circles, the culture of coexistence seems highly developed here, and people seem to have learned the trick of being neither unduly reserved nor getting in each other’s way: the better lessons of living in close proximity.”
The third time my husband left Bulgaria, it was 1985. He defected, obtained political asylum in the United Stations, and had no notion that he would ever be able to return to Bulgaria. Many years have passed. We have lived in small apartments, a large maisonette, and a substantial house. We have lived in Sofia twice for two-year periods and many years in DC. At this moment, we are again living in a small space. Our young son is unperturbed. Our teenage daughter wants her own room. Sometimes I think of Virginia Woolf’s classic A Room of One’s Own and long for that for myself.
But I also find Hoffman’s observation admirable and well worth pursuing not just for oneself but for ones’ children. Perhaps mine will look back on this period in their lives and find that long before college dorms, they had learned “the better lessons of living in close proximity.” If we can, we’ll throw into the mix a vacation at Lake Balaton though we’ll be sure to find better accommodations than the train station.