When I ask Petya if I can bring her anything that’s difficult to get in Bulgaria, she answers, ‘Books on feminism; it’s not a very Eastern European thing.’
In a few days I’ll be on a plane to Sofia, Bulgaria, to visit Petya, a woman I have corresponded with for quite some time but have never met. Petya emailed me about my blog; I replied and started reading her site. A year and a half later, I’ll be standing outside international arrivals, lost in a sea of taxis and Cyrillic and looking for a face I know only in JPEG.
I fear I have made a bad first impression when I accidentally lock myself in the airport bathroom. But by the time we’re on the bus for central Sofia, Petya has me at ease. She’s a fast, excited talker with green, thick-rimmed glasses and dangly earrings. Born and raised in Sofia, she moved to the U.S. when she was 18 to attend college at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. Since graduating she has returned to Bulgaria and now works at a non-profit organization, but this August she’ll be back in the U.S. to begin graduate school at Penn State.
When we pass a little girl playing in a dumpster, Petya turns to me and says, ‘You’re gonna see some weird shit here. Expensive cars parked in front of total dumps. Stuff like that,’ she laughs, ‘It’s Bulgaria.’ She’s right, too: I do see some weird shit. A teenage boy riding his bike with one hand, swigging a beer with the other. A woman with a fake tan in a zebra-striped bodysuit and high heels stepping out of an Alfa Romeo and into a McDonald’s. Even Petya has evidence of the oddities that exist in Sofia. She has a huge, green bruise covering the length of her thigh—a stray dog, one of the city’s tens of thousands, bit her on the doorstep of her apartment.
Petya teaches an English class for Gypsies at Sofia University. This week I am there as a guest, and her students are going to teach me some survival Bulgarian. The students, much older than I expected, are all graduates of Sofia University, and are now taking English to improve their chances in the job market. They get right to work on my Bulgarian, teaching me how to order coffee and also suggesting I stop saying ‘cool’ all the time because it means ‘shit’ in Gypsy tongue.
This isn’t the only expression I have to keep in check during my stay. In Bulgaria to gesture ‘yes,’ you shake your head side to side; when you mean ‘no,’ you nod your head up and down. This difference doesn’t prevent me from getting around Sofia, but it does make for small, confused pauses in everyday interactions.
When class is over, Petya looks pleased. ‘That went well,’ she says, ‘You were good about rephrasing your questions. Plus, Maya was nice to you, which unfortunately means more than anything.’
According to Petya, Gypsy society is very hierarchical and even in her small class of adults there is a ringleader—Maya. Petya calls her the ‘informal ruler’ and struggles to get participation when Maya feels moody or dismissive. ‘Some days it’s great,’ she explains, ‘and her influence is helpful. But other days…no. I get so angry at all the un-elected power she holds.’
I am surprised to learn this about Maya, a slim graduate of philosophy, who during class confided to me that ‘devotion’ is her favorite English word.
‘Wow. I didn’t catch any of this.’
Petya lifts her eyebrows. ‘That’s because it’s unspoken.’
I can’t read the Cyrillic alphabet, so for the week I am visiting, I am effectively illiterate. My city map is in Latinate, but luckily my English guidebook has a Cyrillic alphabet in the glossary. Ordering food and walking around town require some time for transliteration but I’ve got nowhere to be—so long as I’m not lost or on a bus, the challenge is fun. It’s strangely terrifying not being able to read a single headline at the newsstand you pass or know what it is the billboard is trying to get you to buy. I really don’t enjoy it, but I like how it makes me more attentive to other things, like colors and textures—features of the city—I otherwise might not notice.
And aside from ordering coffee, I don’t know any Bulgarian. When Petya and I go out with her friends, there’s not much I can say, so I listen to the intonation in their words and observe the motions of their bodies. A seven-day crash course in Bulgarian body language is an opportunity I’m not going to miss. Lulls in conversation, verbal and physical, are rare between Petya and her friends—but during a short break Petya whispers, ‘I’m sorry. Are you bored?’
Across the bar, two men are singing ‘Macho Man’ in heavy accents. A loud tram crosses in front of the windows, setting off spidery sparks of violent blue on the overhead wires.
I nod. ‘Not at all.’
There are some fantastic hangout spots in central Sofia. Between the National Theater and the National Archeological Museum lies Gradska gradina, or the City Garden, a crumbling, grassless park where old men play chess. The benches are full of people on their lunch break, and in the empty fountain a few guys play soccer with a tennis ball.
Among Boulevard Vitosha’s shops, mosques, and churches are plenty of cafés where you can catch Bulgarians enjoying their usual breakfast of cigarettes and the world’s vilest coffee. While a quick turn off Vitosha lands you in Slaveikov Place, an open-air book market, remaining on it will lead you to Yuzhen Park, a vast field of concrete and park benches, where on warm evenings the whole of Sofia gathers.
Yuzhen Park isn’t your average park. Stray dogs sleep in the empty fountains, and weeds conquer the flowerbeds. At one end of the park looms the Natsionalen Dvorets na Kulturata, or the National Palace of Culture, a large and hideous complex that houses several venues for performances and films. On the opposite end stands the modernist and downright monstrous Thirteen Hundred Years Monument. Despite these, I’m fond of the place because of all that goes on between the two structures. This afternoon it feels like the entire city is here to wander, skateboard, or hit up the food vendors for snacks. The park isn’t much to look at, but with the sun out it’s absolutely full of life.
From the airplane window I watch Bulgaria’s hundreds of drab, Soviet-style tenements shrink into grids of computer chips. In a few hours it’s nighttime and the plane passes over the Firth of Forth, descending into Edinburgh. Spangles of gold lights loop across the city like a necklace, and it is absolutely beautiful.