By Ellis Shuman
I remember meeting Milena the day I rode on one of Sofia’s rusty orange trams for the first time. I remember boarding, searching for somewhere to validate my ticket. The ticket was a thin piece of paper, I recall, no bigger than the wrapper of a stick of gum. I turned it over, searching in vain for a barcode. Should I show it to the driver at the front of the carriage? Maybe it had been enough to purchase the ticket at the stand? Perhaps, but that didn’t make sense.
“There,” someone called out.
A middle-aged, slightly frumpy woman sitting near the door pointed to a small box on a metal pole. Confused, I approached the pole.
“You must to punch it,” she instructed me, making me grin at her broken English. “There to put!”
I inserted the ticket in a narrow slit, and applied pressure on the handle, looking at the woman for her approval. When I removed the ticket, I saw it was marked by a barely discernible indentation.
“Good,” the woman said.
How did she know to speak to me in English? Was it so obvious that I was a foreigner who didn’t speak her language? Was it my clothes? During those years I rarely changed out of faded jeans and a Spartans T-shirt. Was this the clue that gave me away?
That summer I was an exchange student at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, taking a 9-week course offered in English. It was less an academic choice than a break from my mundane existence at Michigan State University, where I was failing academically. I needed the summer school credits to complete my degree. A few of my classmates had similarly opted for a semester abroad, but they had chosen to study in more familiar places like the UK and France. Two had registered at the University of Barcelona; both of them spoke Spanish fluently. I had chosen Bulgaria, an eastern European country hardly anyone had heard of. Why Bulgaria and why such an esoteric subject like Modern Bulgarian History? My parents kept asking that question and at the time, I couldn’t provide a satisfying answer.
“I need to get away,” I told them.
“Bulgaria? Seriously?” was their reply. “And what exactly are you getting away from?”
When I arrived in Sofia that summer, shortly before the start of the course, my mind was still reeling from a serious breakup. I had never told my parents about Cynthia, my girlfriend since my first days in East Lansing, because during those years, I kept them at arm’s length from my private life. I didn’t want them prying into my social affairs; I could do without their nosiness and their incessant nitpicking. After my breakup, the only thing I wanted to do was leave Michigan as soon as possible and travel as far away as possible. Away from them, as much as away from Cynthia.
Signing up for the summer semester in Sofia would shed light on my future, I hoped, but when I first stepped foot in the city, I didn’t have a clue where to go. I was outside my element, completely on my own. In short, I was lost.
“You to sit,” the woman said, clutching an old-fashioned mobile phone in one hand while the other patted the empty place at her side.
I thanked her and sat down. I gazed out the window at the busy street. Pedestrians on their way to work. Shoppers hurrying ahead without lifting their eyes. Dark-skinned gypsies walking alongside fashionably dressed women expertly balanced on high heels. Young teenagers in shorts, making the most of the summer weather. All of these people looked, for lack of a better word, Slavic in appearance.
Sofia was a city of contrasts, I saw. Modern, glass-covered high rises and luxury-brand shopping malls, but also decrepit wooden houses seemingly on the verge of collapse. Narrow cobblestoned streets and sidewalks with more cracks than pavement. Expansive parks canopied in lush greenery. Unappealing Soviet-style architecture and graffiti-covered passageways. Life-size statues of local heroes and larger-than-life-size sculptures of lions. While I knew an ultra-modern metro system ran deep beneath the streets, the abrupt jerks of the old-fashioned tram car reminded me that I was in Europe, in surroundings quite different from the Detroit suburbs where I grew up.
Someone was shouting in my ear. I turned to face a grim-looking uniformed man. He repeated his words, none of which I understood. I had studied basic Bulgarian in preparation for my trip—an online course—but nothing that prepared me for an actual conversation. I had been reassured that not only would I be studying in English, but that younger Bulgarians spoke my language well. This was clearly not the case with tram employees.
I shrugged my shoulders, hoping the man would go away.
“He wants to see ticket,” the woman seated next to me explained.
I slipped the paper ticket out of my pocket and handed it to the man. “This is my first time on a tram,” I offered as an excuse. He muttered something under his breath, took a quick look at the ticket, and then turned to the passengers on the other side of the aisle. A metallic clanging noise startled me, and the tram jolted forward.
“I just arrived in Sofia.”
“Tourist?” the woman asked.
“No, I’m a student.”
“Student?” My answer was apparently not what she was expecting.
I took a serious look at her for the first time. Graying hair suggested that she was slightly older than my mother. As she talked, I noticed that two of her teeth were capped in gold. Her skin was light, her eyes as dark as the rumpled skirt and blouse she was wearing. Seeing her cheerful disposition and friendly smile, I didn’t hesitate to reply.
“Yes, at the university. I am here for the summer.”
“My daughter is student. Where you study?”
I told her the name of my school, struggling to say Ohridski with its guttural ‘h’.
“Yes, good school,” she said. “Many students, my daughter, too.”
I glanced out the window, suddenly fearful I had missed my stop. I consulted my map and stood up.
“This is where I get off,” I apologized.
“I wish you good studies,” she said. “Have pleasant stay in Bulgaria.” As I moved toward the door, she added, “My name is Milena. If you need something.”
* * *
The hallways at the university were dark and narrow, the ceilings claustrophobically low. It took me several minutes until I found the classroom and a place in the third row of wooden desks. I regarded my classmates; whispered voices suggested they were European. There was also a handful of Bulgarian students, their nationality recognizable by their ease in getting settled. It seemed I was the only American in the room.
The professor—a tall, thin man with white hair, a goatee of the same color, and a heavy accent when speaking in English—introduced himself and the syllabus. There would be extensive reading involved, he informed us. He delivered his lecture at a high level; it was clear he assumed we had prior knowledge of the subject matter. Some of my classmates typed frantically on their laptops while I scribbled in my notebook, notes that would later prove nearly impossible to decipher.
“The Ottomans ruled the Balkans for over five hundred years,” the professor stated. “Under the yoke of their oppressive rule, the Bulgarian people were slaves. Like other Balkan nations, Bulgarians had no choice but to be subservient to the Ottomans. It was either obey the restrictions they imposed or face the risk of disappearing from the map. Which was obviously the intention of the sultans in Constantinople.”
The Ottomans. I knew they had ruled much of the Middle East until they were eventually defeated in the First World War, but I hadn’t known that their empire stretched all the way to Bulgaria. That their rule was considered oppressive was also new to me. The professor used the word ‘yoke’ repeatedly. It was a word I associated with oxen, not people. And his declaration that the Bulgarians were slaves during the Ottoman era shocked me.
Slavery. As the professor continued with the lecture, my mind drifted to the American Civil War and slaves picking cotton. Southern plantations. Gone with the Wind. I had seen that film once, long ago, at the insistence of my parents, but it didn’t make much of an impression at the time. I sat up straight to focus on the lesson.
And then, the class was dismissed, and my fellow students were streaming into the hallway.
“Did you understand the lecture?”
I looked up to find an attractive woman standing next to my desk, dressed in a colorful blouse and stonewashed jeans. She wore her long, black hair in a high ponytail; a flowery tattoo on her wrist suggested more were up her sleeve. Her eyes were large and deep-set, with a sparkle that made it nearly impossible to look away.
“Not really,” I responded honestly. “How did you do?”
“Most of this material is second nature to me. Our country’s liberation from the Ottomans—we learn about it in school; we celebrate it on our national day,” she said, and I realized she was Bulgarian. “The story is the main theme of our history, and it also forms the backbone of our culture and traditions. I took this course because, well for me, the challenge is studying in English. My name is Emiliya, by the way.”
I stood up and introduced myself. “I’m from the States.”
“I gathered as much. Would you like to get coffee and discuss the subject?”
An unexpected invitation, definitely a pleasing one. To be approached by a beautiful woman on my first day of classes—this would drive Cynthia mad with jealousy! Coming to Sofia was really a fresh start, I thought. In Bulgaria, who knows what could happen?
Emiliya’s English was actually quite good and when I complimented her, she laughed.
“I have a lot to learn!” she insisted when we sat down at a table in the university’s coffee shop. “Tell me, why did you choose to study Modern Bulgarian History, of all subjects? That doesn’t sound like the typical thing foreigners would choose. Did you learn about our history in America?”
“Oh, no, nothing of the sort. In American schools all they teach is American history.”
“So why Bulgarian history? Why choose Bulgaria?”
There it was, the exact same question my parents had asked me, what my university classmates had asked. The question Milena asked me on the tram. Before I had a chance to respond, not sure what I would say when I did, she expanded on her reasons for taking the course.
“History of my country has always fascinated me,” she said, putting down her cappuccino. “They say that history repeats itself. I don’t know if that’s true, but the events we’re studying—Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule—led to an outbreak of hostilities that resulted in World War 1 which in turn led to the Second World War a short while later. And the Balkan conflicts of the past have occurred again, as witnessed in Bosnia’s war during the 1990s. It is important to understand history. I believe that if you don’t know where you’re coming from, you won’t be able to see where you’re going.”
“I understand,” I said, uncomfortable with the fact that for me, the study of history was just a requirement on the way to my degree.
“I see you took notes,” she said, regarding my pad of paper. “Tell me what you didn’t understand. Maybe I can help.”
* * *
I met Emiliya’s friends at a popular nightclub on Friday night. The music pulsed so intensely that I could barely distinguish their names. Looking back after all these years, I think one of them may have been Bogdan. There might have been a Desi, but I can’t remember.
“Smoke?” Emiliya asked, offering me a cigarette.
I leaned forward to tell her that I didn’t smoke, but she had already turned her head to one of the other women sitting at our faux leather booth. I looked around the packed room. Everyone appeared to be about our age, perhaps younger. Smartly dressed people congregated around the bar, but the dance floor in the center was deserted. Someone offered me a drink, and I hesitated. Emiliya was still in conversation with one of her friends, so I thought ‘Why not?’ and accepted the small glass. I downed the shot and then, not wanting to fall behind my newfound acquaintances, I drank another. Drinking was something American students apparently had in common with their Bulgarian counterparts. Too much drinking was one of the main reasons I had fallen behind in my studies.
Atop a raised platform, the DJ bobbed up and down, half hidden behind a cloud of smoke. My eyes started to water, and my head felt light. I thought Emiliya and her friends would get up to dance, but they didn’t budge from our table. How did they manage to talk to each other with such a racket? No one seemed to mind the deafening, throbbing music. No one but me.
I observed Emiliya as she interacted so freely, so openly, so naturally with her friends. When she laughed, I laughed. When she smiled, I smiled with her. Tall, slender, and beautiful, Emiliya flaunted her good looks, and I couldn’t stop staring. When she had invited me to join her at the club, I was optimistic that we would be able to get together afterwards. Just the two of us. It was unlike me to carry condoms in my pocket, but I hoped to get lucky. Now, as one loud musical track segued into the next, I realized my chances of hooking up with Emiliya were fading by the minute.
Some time later, at a point when I could no longer remember how many shots I had to drink, and when I could no longer bear my splitting headache, I tapped Emiliya’s shoulder to let her know I was leaving. She pouted for a second, but her disappointment seemed artificial. She turned back to her friends as if I had never been there.
When I pushed past the club’s burly bouncer and headed outside, Emiliya was all that I could think about. She was, in my inebriated mind, the essence of Bulgarian beauty. How shocked my parents would be if I ended up with a Bulgarian girlfriend! How it would shock me, especially after my breakup! Our friendly chatter in the coffee shop suggested that her invitation was more than a polite gesture to a foreign student, but it was clear I had been mistaken. I wandered aimlessly on the dark streets for several minutes, my head spinning, and then searched for a late-night taxi.
* * *
It was Saturday, my first in Bulgaria, and a heatwave had descended on Sofia. It was a day to spend indoors, in my air-conditioned, furnished apartment, secured for me by an agent I contacted on the internet. The apartment my parents were paying for with hopes that I would get my act together. My spirits were low after the night out with Emiliya. I shook my head, trying to escape the relentless hangover that threatened to ruin the entire weekend.
After taking a few bites of a stale cheese sandwich, I braved a short venture outside to dispose of garbage—cardboard boxes of unfinished pizza, empty beer bottles bound for the recycling bin, and other signs of solitary life—and then hurried back to the cool shadows of the building’s entrance.
I remember finding her sweeping the first-floor landing. I had seen her before, putting down small bowls of milk for a family of street cats. An elderly, slightly stooped woman, she lived in the flat below mine. I regarded her wizened face; her thin gray hair; and her long-sleeved checkered blue dress. Just the way I had pictured all the women of Bulgaria before coming to Sofia, until I discovered that many of the younger ones were actually very attractive. Emiliya, for example.
The woman spoke to me, her words a rapid burst of Bulgarian. I attempted a polite response of “Dobre den,” a good morning greeting quite inappropriate at this afternoon hour. She laughed and more incomprehensible words blew over my head.
The woman put down her broom and gestured for me to follow her to her door. I stepped back. I was in no condition for a social visit. She insisted, but I shook my head from side to side. When I saw her good-natured, wrinkled smile, I understood what I had done. In Bulgaria, things were different. When you nod your head, it indicates a negative response. When you shake your head, left to right, it means you’re replying with a ‘yes’.
I had just accepted her offer.
The woman led me down the hallway to her living room. She pointed at a lumpy armchair, and I sat down, trying to make myself comfortable despite the pounding in my head. Feeling little relief from the ceiling fan buzzing overhead, I took out a tissue to wipe the sweat forming on my forehead. The apartment, it appeared, was the same size and layout as mine, a floor above, but more sparsely furnished. A low sofa was at one side of the room, across from a small television on a wooden stand. My eyes were attracted to an old-fashioned sideboard topped with framed photographs of different sizes.
In a black-and-white photograph, a younger version of the woman was dressed in a long, formal gown, standing next to a beaming man wearing a suit and tie. Her husband, obviously. Another sepia portrait of the two of them, this one on their wedding day. She had once been a gorgeous bride! There were other family photos. One of her husband wearing a uniform, rows of medals decorating his breast. A color image of three young children eating ears of corn at a picnic table. A scene at the seashore. The offspring pictured in their high school years. Their beaming parents. I lacked the words to ask the woman about her family.
A moment later she returned to the room with a frosty glass of lemonade. I thanked her in one of the longer words I had mastered in her language. “Blagodariya.” She giggled and then offered me a bowl of cherries. Cherries! The size of golf balls! Pulpy, delicious, and incredibly sweet. Cherries unlike anything I had ever seen in American supermarkets.
The woman’s kind invitation into her home emboldened me to attempt a longer sentence in Bulgarian. “Az sum student,” I informed her. “Ot America.” A student from America.
She responded with words that sounded both warm and welcoming, but the only thing I understood was her name, which she said while pointing proudly at her chest.
I responded with my own name and then searched my brain for the words to say “Nice to meet you.” But that was beyond my capabilities. I stood up, still wobbly on my feet. She frowned and pointed to the armchair. She wanted me to stay longer, but I needed to go.
“Blagodariya,” I repeated, this time with more confidence. I closed her door behind me and struggled up the stairs to my air-conditioned apartment.
* * *
Growing up I had never imagined that I would one day travel to Bulgaria, but as strange as the destination was for me, it was even more confusing for my parents. My choice of this particular course raised eyebrows, of course, but eventually they came to terms with my decision to fill in missing credits by studying abroad. I assured them my stay in Sofia would be brief, just a semester, and this seemed to dispel their concerns. As long as I came back safely, college credits in hand, they would be satisfied, I hoped.
“Can you see me?” It was my mother’s voice, her image distorted in our Skype call. “Can you hear me?”
“If we can see him, he can see us.” It was my father, his face partially hidden from view.
Finally, the connection stabilized, and we could talk to each other uninterrupted, but it was mostly a one-sided conversation.
“You need to concentrate on your studies,” my father insisted, but my mother asked, “What’s Bulgaria like?”
“He doesn’t have time for sightseeing,” my father argued. My mother moved away from the camera and my father’s face filled the screen. “When you get your degree, you’ll have all the time you want for sightseeing. Tell me about your lectures. And, what’s your final paper going to be about? How many credits are you getting this summer, anyway?”
It went on like this for several minutes. My father was judging me for my scholastic achievements, while my mother was encouraging me to make the most of my overseas experiences.
What really bothered my parents, I thought, was their belief that I was incapable of managing on my own. For them, my low grades were proof that I lacked the skills necessary to maneuver through life as an adult. That I was far from mature.
In East Lansing, I had felt them breathing down my neck. By coming to Bulgaria, I was escaping their constant interference in my life. What I needed from my parents was to be left alone. At least until the following week’s Skype call.
* * *
When I boarded the tram on Monday morning, I was surprised to see someone familiar waving at me. It was Milena, and she invited me to sit next to her, not far from the door.
“So, you study in Bulgaria?” she asked.
Her question was a continuation of our previous conversation. While I would have been perfectly content to stare out the window at the unfamiliar sights, the polite thing to do was talk with this friendly woman.
“Yes, I am on my way to classes,” I told her. Informing her that I was enrolled in a Modern Bulgarian History course might be difficult to explain, I thought, so instead I spoke of my first impressions of her city. “Sofia is very nice,” I said, sticking to vocabulary that I was sure she would understand.
“Yes, very nice. But, now summer. Very hot. You should go mountains. Many people go mountains in summer. Not so hot.”
“I’ve seen that big mountain overlooking the city,” I said, pointing out the window.
“Vitosha!” she replied, a dimple appearing next to her broadening smile. “Yes, Sofia mountain. Hike on mountain, ski too. In summer, many go Vitosha. Bulgaria has many mountains. Rila Mountains. Pirin Mountains. You see mountains?”
“No, I haven’t yet gone out of the city.”
“Sofia, no beautiful,” she said with a sigh. “All Bulgaria beautiful. You should go mountains, see Bulgaria. Beautiful.”
She appeared eager to tell me about all the places the tram was passing as it forged its way up the narrow streets. Even if she lacked the grammar and appropriate words, her heartfelt desire to guide me through the city was very apparent.
And then we reached my stop. I stood up and made my way to the door. Before going down the steps, I turned to face her again. “Priyaten den,” I said, recalling a greeting from my Bulgarian phrasebook.
“You, good day, too!”
* * *
“Don’t you see? The Ottomans were trying to destroy us, trying to get rid of everything Bulgarian,” Emiliya told me in the coffee shop after class. “They wanted to banish our language, our culture, our history, and our traditions. They hoped we would simply fade away, be absorbed into their empire as if we had never existed. That is why we were so desperate to free ourselves, to regain our nationality.”
I was clueless as to what had happened in the Balkans during the past few centuries. Empires had come and gone, conflicts had pitted nation against nation, and it was all difficult to absorb. This was unfamiliar territory for me. We were discussing political leaders I had never heard of and situations that were a world away from American shores.
“Let me explain,” Emiliya said patiently. She launched into a lecture of her own, but hers was much clearer than the one delivered by the professor. Facts, numbers, dates, and political alliances—they all settled into place in my understanding of the period. Bulgaria’s story began to register at last. Without Emiliya’s explanations, I would certainly fail the course.
Then she was silent for several minutes, as if the flow of her words had exhausted her. She lazily fingered one of her earrings before finally turning to me. “What saved us, through all those years, was our monasteries.”
“What monasteries?” This statement caught me off guard, as the professor had mentioned nothing about monasteries. Or maybe he had, and I hadn’t been paying attention.
“Listen, there is somewhere I want to take you,” Emiliya said, pulling back her hair into the ponytail I found so beguiling. “Are you free on Saturday?”
* * *
The winding road climbed steadily into the thickly forested mountains. Emiliya took the turns like a pro, although she insisted she wasn’t a seasoned driver. She had borrowed the car from her brother, she informed me when she picked me up at the tram stop, and had only recently received her license.
“I don’t drive that often and anyway, the traffic in Sofia is horrible. But, whenever I can get outside the city, well, that is where you can see nature, the true beauty of my homeland.”
We had been traveling south from Sofia for an hour or so and I had been glued to the window the entire time, captivated by the richness of the Bulgarian countryside. In addition to the magnificent views, we passed through several shabby-looking towns, one of them bordered by endless lots of used cars. I had hoped that during the trip, Emiliya would speak about herself, but instead she concentrated on the road.
We took the last of the steep mountain curves and parked parallel to a blue tour bus. Elderly, heavy-set women disembarked, one by one. They formed a circle on the pavement, surrounding a tall, black-frocked priest. He gestured expressively, and the women turned their gazes toward an arched gateway, their eyes wide with wonderment and awe. The trees alongside the lot swayed in a light breeze coming down from distant, craggy peaks. The air was surprisingly cool, a welcome relief from Sofia’s heat. Except for the priest’s whispered voice, all was quiet, peaceful.
“Pilgrims,” Emiliya informed me, somewhat impatiently. “Let’s go inside.”
I didn’t have a clue what to expect when we walked through the gate. We emerged from a shaded passageway, and I stopped in my tracks. Before me was a wide flagstone courtyard, a quadrangle bordered by two-storied buildings with wooden guardrails. The main attraction was in the center of the yard. It was a church, so stunning that I held my breath for several seconds.
The squarish structure sat on a foundation of black-and-white striped arches; five golden domes above sparkled in the sunlight. The church’s remarkable architectural style, ornamental in nature, seemed to date not only to another century, but to another mindset as well. I stood in silent reverence, as awestruck as the devout pilgrims. Serenity. Tranquility. Holiness. I wasn’t a religious person, but here I felt something very spiritual.
We crossed the plaza and approached the entrance. Technicolor murals of saints and sinners covered the church’s exterior walls. Biblical scenes and portrayals of the devil. Compared to the brilliance outside, the interior was dark and gloomy, the air heavy with incense and the humming of whispered prayers. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, and thin yellow candles guided me through the nave, toward the bearded monk standing guard at the altar. On the walls were dark paintings of solemn saints, the golden tint of their features lost centuries before. Their brooding eyes followed me as I wandered around the church for several minutes. I found it increasingly difficult to breathe.
Back in the fresh air, Emiliya touched my shoulder unexpectedly. “Do you know why I brought you here?”
“To visit Bulgaria’s most important tourist site? I read about the Rila Monastery online.”
“No, that’s not it. It’s about what Rila stands for, its role in our history.” Realizing her words had confused me, she clarified her explanation. “As you may know, in Bulgaria, our religion is Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The monastery is what kept the Bulgarian spirit alive through the centuries of Ottoman rule. During our oppression, the monks safeguarded our language, our culture, our history, even our alphabet. We may not be a religious country today, but Bulgarians regard the Rila Monastery as our most sacred site.”
This wasn’t entirely new to me, as Emiliya had previously spoken of the role monasteries played in Bulgarian history. But visiting the iconic Rila Monastery now, and seeing how important it was to the pilgrims streaming out of the church, drove the lesson home. This was the heart of Bulgaria, the spirit of the Bulgarian people.
Driving back down the mountain, we veered off the road to a small restaurant perched on the banks of a bubbling stream. The waiter took our order—grilled trout and fries—and Emiliya lit a cigarette.
“Our final papers are due soon,” she said, reminding me that our connection had been made in the classroom. “How’s that going for you?”
“I’ve been working on the outline but I haven’t made much progress,” I admitted. “Maybe you can help me organize my thoughts?” I said, hopeful for her guidance.
“What subject did you choose?”
I told her, and she responded with a laugh. “’Bulgaria’s Liberation from the Ottomans’ is basically the subject of our course!”
“It may be second nature to you, but this course has opened my eyes. I had not known about the impact of Ottoman rule in the Middle East, how it affected Bulgaria. I know more now.”
“And what do you now know?”
“I know that this is the best damn grilled fish I’ve ever eaten in my life!”
“Wait until you taste the sheep’s yogurt and honey we’re going to have for dessert!”
If I had any hope that our outing to Rila would lead to spending the rest of the day with Emiliya, those hopes were dashed when she dropped me off at the tram stop.
“Thank you for the trip, for helping me with the coursework,” I said.
“No problem. I enjoy introducing foreigners to Bulgaria.”
“Do you want to come over to my apartment?”
“No, sorry. I have to return the car to my brother, and then I have other plans.”
I waited for her to say more, but I had the feeling she didn’t have other plans at all. Had my invitation somewhat offended her? Although willing to help me understand history, she was not interested in anything more than taking me to the monastery. Something was holding her back. Did she have a boyfriend? Was she hooked up with one of the guys I met at the club?
A barrier stood between us and I wasn’t sure if it was a clash between east and west, between a third-world mentality and red-white-and-blue American patriotism. Or perhaps it was because my stay in Bulgaria was temporary, with no chance of a long-term relationship. But who was asking for anything permanent?
Maybe I was reading more into it than I should. Maybe we just didn’t click. I should concentrate on my studies, I knew. That was why I had come here, after all. Still, my attraction to Emiliya was hard to dismiss from my mind.
I waved goodbye as she drove off and riffled through my wallet for the tram ticket that would transport me back to my apartment.
* * *
Lyudmila’s apartment was unbearably warm the next day, and her ceiling fan did little to combat the sweltering afternoon heat, but her freshly squeezed lemonade quenched my thirst and cooled me off.
“Banitsa,” she said, placing a plate of flaky pastries on the table.
The light-brown spirals of baked filo dough, some of them filled with salty cheese and others stuffed with sweet pumpkin filling, brought smiles to my face. I was developing a taste for Bulgarian food.
She spoke to me and I raised my hands to remind her that I didn’t understand a word of what she was saying. Then something in her speech changed, and I realized she was no longer speaking to me in Bulgarian. I ventured a guess.
“Da, da! Ruski.”
Lyudmila’s knowledge of Russian didn’t help us at all in our attempts to communicate. She was clearly an educated woman, fluent in at least two languages. I only spoke English, and my command of my native tongue was hardly more than high school level. The French that had been force-fed to me as a required second language had long been forgotten.
Suddenly, a calico-colored cat darted across the room near my feet. Lyudmila laughed when she saw how startled I was and pointed at the animal, which had stopped to glare at me from a safe distance. “Kotka,” she said.
“Kotka,” I repeated, assuming this was her pet’s name. But when another cat came slinking into the room, and Lyudmila pointed and again said “kotka,” I understood this as the word for cat.
Lyudmila opened the refrigerator in search of treats for her pets, and I went to the wide window overlooking our narrow, one-way street. Cars were parked haphazardly on either side, atop the broken sidewalks. Pedestrians walked in the center of the street, unconcerned by potential traffic. Women with young children in tow. An elderly man hobbling along with his cane. A hand-holding couple keeping pace with their husky German Shepherd. The same view I had from my apartment. The view of a residential neighborhood, so foreign to anything I had ever known in my youth, but so much my home today. Even if my time in Sofia was but a temporary stay.
“Sure,” I replied, shaking my head the Bulgarian way. I graciously accepted another portion of the tasty pastry and finished my lemonade.
Lyudmila was pleased I had come again. A foreigner, enjoying her company and her refreshments. She didn’t speak a word of English, but words were hardly necessary. Our conversations were rich. Gestures and friendliness can say a lot, even when meaningful oral communication is impossible. We said so much to each other, without saying anything at all. I had honored Lyudmila with my visit, and I vowed to stop by each weekend.
* * *
Milena zealously guarded an empty seat on the tram each morning so that we could resume our daily conversations, as if they were never interrupted by weekends and university classes. Her eyes lit up when I joined her. In our brief chats, I had a chance to practice my pidgin Bulgarian, and to learn about her country.
“Communists built,” she said, pointing to a drab tenement building. It was a long, box-like structure, some eight-stories tall, with thin slats for windows and balconies partially obscured by laundry drying in the summer heat. “Many buildings,” she added.
Her mention of the Communists sparked my interest. This era of Bulgaria’s history was on the curriculum of my course and here I was, sitting next to a native who had lived through those years.
“What was it like to live under Communism?” I asked.
“Communists? Good and bad,” she said.
“It was good?”
I sensed her reluctance to elaborate when she changed the subject. “There, theater!” she said, and I turned my head to look out the window. “Bulgarian theater good! You see theater?”
I laughed, wondering if she wanted to know if I had seen a play here in Sofia, or if I was someone who regularly attended Broadway shows.
Milena continued to point out the sights of the city, speaking of their significance to the best of her linguistic abilities. Her lack of a full vocabulary in English didn’t interfere in our conversation, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying our talk.
“You go church?” she asked, suddenly serious.
“Church? No, not really.”
“Bulgaria, many church! Alexander Nevsky. Big church. Most famous church.”
“Yes, I saw it. Very impressive! I learned it was built in gratitude to the Russians for their help in your war of independence When Bulgaria was liberated from the Ottomans.”
“Yes, yes! Beautiful church. Many to see!”
I started to tell Milena of my visit to the Rila Monastery, but she interrupted me with an additional question.
“You like Bulgaria?”
“Yes,” I replied, my immediate affirmative response somewhat surprising me while it seemed to satisfy Milena. I didn’t think I could explain to her what exactly it was about her country that I liked. Maybe it was Bulgaria’s foreignness, or possibly its distance from my parents and Cynthia. I had only seen a bit of the country’s natural beauty, but the forests and mountains left me with a desire for more. Bulgaria was definitely starting to grow on me.
As Milena turned to gaze out the window, I considered asking about her family. Did they live in Sofia? Was Milena on her way to work? Is that where she went every morning? Would she feel comfortable telling me these things? I feared this type of question would be intrusive, a prying into one’s personal life that might not be acceptable in Milena’s culture. So, all I did was smile at my traveling companion.
“Oh, I forget,” she said, patting my arm affectionately. She rummaged through her bag and extracted a small package wrapped in aluminum foil.
“For you,” she said, holding it out to me.
“What is it?”
“Kebapche. You know kebapche? Meat, good meat.”
“Why are you giving this to me?”
“You eat at home.”
“Thanks, but no. I have plenty to eat, don’t worry about that.”
“What you eat?”
“Pasta, omelets.” That was the extent of my cooking abilities. There were also the lunches in the university cafeteria, so it wasn’t like I was starving.
“No, no! You take kebapche. Eat! Tomorrow, I bring chicken and cabbage. Good food!”
She pushed the package into my hands, and in order not to offend her, I took it. “I will eat this tonight, I promise. Blagodariya.”
She touched my arm maternally again as I rose to get off the tram.
* * *
It rained, a strong summer rain. And then, one hour after their unexpected afternoon appearance, the clouds miraculously disappeared. The rains drove away the oppressive heat, and suddenly Sofia was much more bearable.
That evening, I took a taxi to the city center. Throngs of Sofians strolled up and down the pedestrian-only Vitosha Boulevard, casting quick glances at stores showcasing the latest international fashions. Someone waved at me and I joined my classmates at an outdoor taverna. I had enjoyed interacting with these friendly Europeans, all of them more well-educated than me. When the short-skirted waitress arrived at our table, we ordered shopska salata—the local variety of a Greek salad—and large mugs of Bulgarian beer. We shared impressions of our goateed professor—not entirely favorable—and of our brief stay in Bulgaria. Some of my classmates bemoaned their imminent return home. A few had hooked up with local boyfriends and girlfriends. Those connections, it seemed to me, would be the most memorable part of their studies in Sofia. Certainly not their enhanced knowledge of the Ottomans’ legacy.
“Hey, isn’t that Emiliya?” someone remarked. I turned my head.
It was her! Emiliya ambled along the boulevard, hand in hand with a slim blonde woman. The two were laughing, their heads held close together. At one point, Emiliya kissed the other woman’s cheek, and then she noticed us sitting at the table.
“Hey everyone!” she said. “This is my friend, Katya.”
“Hello Katya,” we replied in unison.
“So, you are the foreigners studying our history!” Katya said. “Emiliya has told me all about you. You’re all crazy!”
“What do you mean we’re crazy?” one of my classmates called out.
“She’s joking!” Emiliya said.
“No, I’m serious!” Katya said in response. “Anyone who would come to Bulgaria of their own free will, has to be a little crazy.”
“I’ve enjoyed it here,” I said, surprising myself more than the others. I was going to describe some of my experiences, but my companions were already discussing the recent release of an American film. I took a long swig of beer, trying to catch Emiliya’s eye. A moment later she was gone, holding hands with Katya as before.
I watched them stroll off together and fade into the crowds. “More beer,” someone called out to the waitress. I raised my glass for a refill.
* * *
It was Sunday, my last Sunday in Bulgaria. I would fly home on Tuesday, leaving me one final day of studies. I was extremely anxious about handing in my paper to the professor, but it was the last requirement of the summer course. As long as I got a passing grade, it would be just fine.
Lyudmila was outside, sweeping. This was her weekend ritual, although the steps looked perfectly clean to me.
She invited me in and brought out a pitcher of her homemade lemonade. I thanked her when she poured me a glass and took a long, refreshing sip. I nodded at her, confident she would understand how appreciative I was of her hospitality.
There was a knock at the door. Lyudmila stepped around her cats and went down the hallway. A moment later, my eyes opened wide when I recognized the person walking into the room.
“Milena!” I exclaimed.
“You meet my mother!” she said, sitting down on the sofa next to me. “And meet my mother’s cats!”
“Kotka!” I replied excitedly.
This was the first time I had ever seen Milena off the tram. I had hesitated to ask her about her family, and now I learned she was Lyudmila’s daughter. I looked to the framed photographs and realized why Milena had always seemed familiar. But, meeting her here, how crazy was that! We talked for several minutes, chatting as if we had been friends for the longest time.
Another knock at the door. Another visitor. And another shock.
She was as shocked as I was. “I see you have met my mother and my grandmother. How did you manage that?”
“I live in the apartment one floor above Lyudmila. Your grandmother.”
“And my mother?”
“The tram!” Milena and I replied at the same time, and we all burst into laughter.
I had met three local women in Sofia, and they just happened to be related to each other. Was this the most incredible coincidence, or was it meant to be? Here in Bulgaria, I had learned, anything was possible.
As Emiliya gave her grandmother a tray of what appeared to be honey-sweet baklava and a bouquet of bright summer flowers, I could see a family resemblance that I hadn’t previously noticed. The three women shared the same light skin; Emiliya’s was radiant and glowing, and despite Lyudmila’s wrinkles, there were signs that she, too, had been stunning as a young woman. Emiliya’s mannerisms and good posture were like those of her mother; even their voices sounded similar.
When Lyudmila returned to the kitchen in search of a knife, Emiliya plopped down in the armchair and grinned. “So, there you have it,” she said whimsically.
“The culmination of your studies.” She pulled out a pack of cigarettes from her purse, although she didn’t immediately start smoking. “Grandmother, mother, and daughter. Three generations. That’s why you came to Bulgaria, isn’t it? To see what it’s like living here. To understand us, and how we fit into the world. Modern Bulgaria in all of its glory. History from our past, and history in the making. This is Bulgaria in a nutshell, so to speak.”
It was the most unexpected statement I had ever heard, and yet it was absolutely true. I had never been able to explain what I expected to learn during my overseas studies, but now I had a better understanding. Emiliya was right. Having met her, Milena, and Lyudmila, I had answers to my questions and they were right there in front of me.
All this I remember well, from my short stay in Sofia. Modern Bulgarian History? It didn’t really matter what I had studied that summer, because the real lessons I learned had nothing to do with what was taught in the classroom. I learned to respect others, especially those with different cultures and religions. I learned the importance of family ties, and as a result, I vowed to reassess my relationship with my parents. And more than anything else, I taught myself to manage on my own while navigating in a setting so foreign from anything I had previously known. That summer, I left the carefree days of adolescence behind and become a mature, independent adult. I had grown up.
* * *
Ten years have passed since then and now I’m returning to Bulgaria for the first time. I look out the window and spot the golden domes of the Alexander Nevsky Church far below as the plane continues its descent. I nudge my wife, who has fallen asleep on the flight, and urge her to look out at the city. I am eager to take her around Sofia, to spend time sightseeing, something I didn’t do enough of that summer. I have plans to rent a car and drive south to the Rila Monastery as well. I hope she’ll love this experience, even though we’re visiting a country that she constantly reminds me is ‘barely on the map.’
There is one thing I’m particularly looking forward to, and that is to meet up with Emiliya. We have been invited to join her at Milena’s home for dinner, and I expect this will be a great opportunity for my wife to taste Bulgarian cuisine and experience Bulgarian hospitality. I’m sorry I won’t be seeing Lyudmila again; Emiliya wrote to me when she passed away three years ago. This saddens me, for she was the matriarch of my Bulgarian family. I cherish the short time I spent with these three women during the weeks of my study abroad.
As the plane’s wheels touch down, one last memory pops into my mind. I remember that last visit to Lyudmila’s home, when I first learned that she was Milena’s mother and Emiliya’s grandmother. I remember Lyudmila bringing the baklava to the table and refreshing my glass of lemonade. I remember Emiliya pulling back her hair into a ponytail and Milena touching my leg affectionately. As Emiliya translated, Lyudmila told me her life story. Milena interrupted frequently, adding short words of commentary. And I sat there entranced, devouring the deliciously sweet red cherries.
# # #
Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Oslo Times, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair. Ellis lives with his wife, children, and grandchildren on Moshav Neve Ilan, outside Jerusalem.