To “The Crook State” and Back: Bulgarian Adventures

Posted on April 17th, 2013 by

 

In order to describe the following events, I have to back up a few months to this past summer. I worked at a resort called Madden’s in Brainerd as a server in the Lodge, one of Madden’s five restaurants. Since Brainerd is not a very diverse place, international workers were recruited from all over the world to bring a little culture and differing perspectives to the upscale resort. I worked with individuals from Peru, Jamaica, China, Macedonia, and most importantly, Bulgaria. I knew very little information about this Eastern European country, aside from the fact that Viktor Krum from Harry Potter plays for the Bulgarian Quidditch team. I had only a fuzzy idea where this country was at the beginning of the season in May,but as the summer went on, I became very good friends with two Bulgarians—Georgi and Pancho. I also hung out with two other Bulgarians, Georgi (the aforementioned Georgi’s roommate, henceforth to be known as Georgi 2) and Iliyan, who worked at the Inn, another restaurant at Madden’s. And as these relationships developed, I learned more about Bulgaria, and listened to their seemingly unintelligible language almost daily when they were speaking to each other. I was told that the food was wonderful, that every other male was named Georgi, but there wasn’t much else to see since it was such a poor country. When I found out that I had the opportunity to go anywhere I wanted to for spring break on my semester abroad, I decided to experience Bulgaria firsthand and catch up with my Eastern European friends.

Cami with her Georgis at Madden’s, summer 2012 (Georgi 2 on left, Georgi 1 on right)

Naturally my parents were a bit leery with the idea of me traveling by myself to a country formerly under Russian rule by myself, but I found flying solo quite easy. In fact, it was very liberating to be away from my comfortable group of 10 students and venture on my own to do what I pleased. I left Stockholm on Good Friday and arrived at around 11 pm in Sofia, Bulgaria. Georgi met me at the airport and he drove me to his university, and on the way there dodged numerous potholes on the highway. I had been warned about how awful the roads were in Bulgaria, but the sheer number and size of them took me aback—some of them took up the entire road. But the drivers become quite agile and have great skill dodging them. We arrived at my hostel that was within walking distance of Georgi’s dorm, and I got settled in, after speaking with the worker that spoke very little English (Georgi being the translator of course). The last thing that Georgi said before he left was “lock your door”. Welcome to Eastern Europe, Cami.

We got up early the next day to make the journey to Pleven, Georgi’s hometown for the weekend. It was about a 3-hour train ride, and Ina (Georgi’s girlfriend), and another friend Mihail joined us on our journey. The train was a far cry from the ones I have been on in Sweden and other parts of Europe, but we got to Pleven in one piece. Georgi’s family greeted me very warmly—his 18-year-old brother Hristo met us at the station and I met his mother Nadia at their apartment. Although she spoke very little English, Nadia proved to be an extremely gracious host and marvelous cook. Nadia made some delicious lunch, including a special tort just for me. It was so gorgeous that I didn’t want to eat it, but it proved to be just as delicious as it looked—Bulgarian cuisine was a welcome change from the usual fish and potatoes of Sweden.

Georgi’s brother Hristo and mother Nadia with the fruit tort made for the occasion

Some traditional Bulgarian food–yum!

I was asked at least five times that day if I was cold, because I was walking around in my light jacket. Since it was about 50 degrees, I assured them that this was positively balmy to what I was used to in Sweden. Aside from the warm weather, there was one thing about Bulgaria that struck me when we were walking around a nearby park—there were stray dogs everywhere. They were quite harmless, and I just came to see them as part of the landscape after awhile. That evening we prepared for Peter’s birthday party, which began at his house and ended at the disco. We arrived to several large table covered with food and drinks for everyone, and a cake with an American flag on it, since Peter will be going to Wyoming for the summer to work. I experienced the strange phenomenon of hearing my name slipped into Bulgarian conversation, because everyone was aware of the American in their midst. But I was accepted all the same, and had a wonderful time talking to Georgi’s friends and witnessing some traditional Bulgarian dance. One thing you should know about Bulgaria is that although they are a poor country, everyone loves to have a good time and get together for a celebration. Nazdrave (cheers!) was said countless times that evening, and a wonderful time was had by all.

The next day was Easter, but many Bulgarians do not celebrate this holiday until about a month after we do. I attempted to explain Lutheranism to them, but I think it was somewhat lost on them; Protestant was about as close as I could get. We journeyed about an hour to some ancient ruins for the day, accompanied by several of Georgi’s friends from the night before. The view from the top was quite breathtaking, what with the green everywhere bordering the mountains, and the city below. We had fun taking pictures, including spelling out “Pleven” using everyone in the group. I was confused at first because I was looking for the “P” and then realized that it was in Cyrillic. Duh.

The group spelling out Pleven (Плевен)
photo cred: Georgi Stefenov

We then took a walk in downtown Pleven to get some food, including my new favorite—kebab. This consisted of lamb, chicken, or pork with cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers topped off with French fries and white sauce and ketchup, all wrapped in a tortilla. Hands down one of the best things I have eaten in Europe. The only problem was, Nadia had dinner planned for that evening, and so I had two dinners that night. I ate my food contentedly and petted their cat Blackie all through dinner—I was in heaven. Georgi’s father Boris joined us that night, and since he is currently taking an English course, I talked to him a little bit so that he could practice. I showed them my pictures from Sweden and had Georgi translate many of the things I was saying. Hristo helped a bit, and he provided some great comedic relief, since he is an aspiring actor and quite the goofball. Georgi had to leave for a while, so I stayed in the kitchen with Boris and continued to show him some pictures of my family and Madden’s. I practiced my own English speaking skills by explaining in the simplest terms possible what was going on in each photo—gesturing helped a lot, and I think I got my point across for the most part. I then Skyped my family for the first time since being abroad, and had the Andersens meet the Stafanovs, which was fun. I talked to them for several hours and told them all about Bulgaria and Sweden, it was quite the pleasant Easter.

Hanging out with my new best friend, Blackie!

The next day we said our goodbyes and left Pleven by car, and I saw the absolutely breathtaking mountains on the way back to Sofia. We met Gergana, one of Georgi and Ina’s friends at a café and had some wonderful Bulgarian pizza. Gergana, who spent last summer in the States as well, was helping Georgi and Ina prepare for their Visa interview the following day. Both of them plan on going to Rhode Island to work this summer as tour guides. Tuesday arrived and I went with the couple to the American Embassy for their interview. I sat outside and saw the huge queue to get inside. It was crazy how many Bulgarians want to go to the US to work, since wages are so low in their home country, and I suddenly felt very privileged to be an American. Both Ina and Georgi passed their interview, and Ina, who has never been to the US before, had a huge smile on her face all day long. I was extremely happy for them both. That evening we went to one of the many malls in Sofia and saw GI Joe in 3D. The movie was in English with Bulgarian subtitles, and I had a slushy in hand, so I was a happy Cami.

I spent most of Wednesday and Thursday in my room during the day aside from one outing to the restaurant across the street. Georgi had class, so I braved the Bulgarian restaurant by myself. The waitress spoke very little English aside from “juice,” “mineral water,” and “bread” so I knew I had a challenge on my hands. The menu had no pictures and was about ten pages long, so I took my best guess at Bulgarian and just pointed to something in the medium price range. What I got was a dish with creamy tomato sauce with a LOT of mushrooms in it. For those of you that know my food preferences, mushrooms are not very high on my list. But I ate it and discovered a nice meat surprise at the bottom, so it could have been a lot worse.

The unintelligible menu I ordered off of

My evenings were spent in the company of Iliyan, another Bulgarian that worked at a different restaurant at Madden’s. We got some food and walked around downtown Sofia, where I was given a nighttime tour of the government buildings and such. We then went to a Turkish café for some tea, and discovered that there were some 60-odd Turks watching a very intense soccer game. The game was streaming from a computer, and whenever it would cut out, there were many angry Turks to answer to. The next evening we went out to dinner and met up with one of Iliyan’s friends, Evgeni. He is a good friend of Pancho’s, who I worked with this summer as well. Unfortunately, Pancho is currently studying abroad in Spain, so I was unable to see him when I was in Bulgaria. We went back to Evgeni’s dorm and played some darts and I even taught them to play Blackjack. I also introduced them to some American hipster music and they played some chalga (gypsy) music for me. Cultural swaps all around, it was beautiful.

After my nighttime tour with Iliyan

Friday was spent shopping at yet another huge mall, this time at the largest in Sofia. If any of you have been to the mall in Brainerd, you will understand my sheer joy at a shopping center containing more than ten stores and a Dairy Queen. Sweden doesn’t have much affinity for this concept either, and the only real mall I’ve been to in months was underground in Stockholm. I got the usual souvenirs for family and friends, and then we headed back. I was sick of being cooped up in my room, so I decided to take a walk around the nearby park, enjoy the beautiful weather and take some pictures. There was a soccer field right next to my hostel, so I went and watched a game that was going on for an hour or so. One thing America is lacking is great soccer players—I was blown away by the quickness and foot skills of these Bulgarian players, even though many of them were clear into their 30s or 40s. We ended the evening with watching a movie in Georgi’s room and having some good old-fashioned junk food. This consisted of chocolate with strawberry yogurt inside (my personal favorite), some smoked ham potato chips and some popcorn with cheese. The food, if you can’t tell already, was my favorite part of visiting Bulgaria.

Some gorgeous Bulgarian mountains

Saturday was spent in the glorious sunshine 70 degree sunshine, walking around downtown Sofia with Georgi and Mihail. I was just in a t-shirt and having the time of my life. I visited many of the same places where Iliyan and I went, but this time in the daylight. I had some delicious berry ice cream and took lots of pictures. We went inside the church of Sofia and I snapped a few photos before I was told it wasn’t allowed. Oops. After my tour around the capital, I went back to my room for a short nap in preparation for the second birthday party I was to attend in Bulgaria. I bought a new dress for the occasion, which, when you’re living out of a suitcase is quite the special occasion. We arrived at the restaurant and I was greeted warmly by the birthday boy. We ate at a sushi place, which was an altogether new experience for me, but I found I enjoyed it quite a lot. I met even more Bulgarians, and found out that everyone at the table was from Pleven. I had some nice conversations with those around me, just soaking in my last night in Bulgaria. Georgi turned to me with a very serious look on his face and asked me a question, “Cami what are you going to do when you graduate from school?” I had been asked this many times, with only a vague answer at best. But after spending a week with my foreign friends, I began to entertain the idea that I would like to work with internationals, possibly in a Human Resources position, similar to one that is at Madden’s. I thought this would be very rewarding, and incorporate one of my new favorite things—travel. This made sense to Georgi, and he though I would be good at it—I may have planned the rest of my life in that moment, who knows. All I know is that I had a wonderful time in Bulgaria and learned a lot about people that are very different from myself, and very different from Swedes as well. It was truly an education on a part of the world I never thought I would visit, but I am immensely glad that I did.

Sushi birthday dinner with Georgi

After a very short night (one and a half hours to be exact), we headed off to the airport. We traveled by taxi and Georgi accompanied me. When it came time to say goodbye, we were both at somewhat a loss for words. Both of us realized that we may never see each other again, which was a very sad thought. But I told Georgi that if he and Ina get married, I would love to come to their wedding. I hope that I will be able to come back and visit my friends, but in the meantime I thank everyone that I met in the beautiful country of Bulgaria for everything they showed and taught me. It is an experience I will take with me for the rest of my life. Благодаря ви и довиждане.

 


4 Comments

  1. Roland says:

    What an adventure you have had! I have never been to Bulgaria, but my wife has (as a group leader) and she liked it a lot (as a country that still has a lot of old Europe). I assume you have met Julia Paraskova now (in Uppsala) and know that she has lived in Bulgaria for many years.

  2. Christa Andersen says:

    This was so informative and fun to read! You truly are gaining a travel lust and desire for adventure! Thank you for the details well written.
    Mom

  3. Richard P. Janke says:

    Thank you, Cami. A very fun read. Glad your trip is safe.

  4. debra janke says:

    thanks for the peek into your experiences ….tip of the iceberg I am sure. You are special Cami. Enjoy the time you have left!!