There are fifteen minutes or so between when the bus gets to the village and my English lesson starts. I use this time to say hi to the pensioners Nacho and Elka, and round up kids and badger them into attending. Today’s fifteen minutes would have to be utilized especially effectively. English classes were moving from the school to the community center. Several students had a firm, inexplicable allegiance to the school, and refused to enter the community center.
“Miss, when are we having class?”
I step off the bus and this is the first question I always hear. I guess our English classes have been rather sporadic lately.
“Now!” is always my answer. Even if the real answer is, “in twenty minutes,” because I figure it’ll take everyone twenty minutes to get their act together anyway. Not Pamela, though. Pamela offers to walk me to Nacho and Elka’s place and wait while I talk to them. She’s holding a bouquet of pale purple and cream lilacs, pink and yellow tulips, and flopping white irises.
Pamela is fifteen and finishing eighth grade. Pamela knits long, fat, brioche stitch scarves and picks flowers often enough that when she sees me, she gives me the bouquet and says she picked it especially for me. In fact, she probably just picked it, saw me, and figured she’d pick more for herself later.
“Thank you so much Pamela! I love lilacs, they smell so good.”
“I do, too,” she replies, “I love the white ones because they smell better. You should smell the irises, too. They have a really nice scent!” The fragrance of lilacs overpowers the bouquet from a foot away, but I lean in and discover the irises have a light, sugary scent. My grandma used to have dark irises around her ‘water feature,’ a little barrel that dribbled into a rocky puddle installed by my dad. Still, I’ve never actually smelled one before.
“Miss, did you hear about the mayor?” I did hear about the mayor. A month ago, he got sick with “the yellows,” liver failure associated with Hepatitis A, and last week, he died.
“It’s sad because he was a good person and I don’t know if we’re going to find another mayor like him.”
Pamela yells, “UNCLE NACHO!” as we approach his house/storefront. At Nacho’s, he tells me dirty jokes while his wife chases a fly around the room. “I’m sorry,” she explains, “but when a fly comes into the room I won’t rest until it’s dead. I go all around the house, sometimes, with the vacuum cleaner tube.” We’re talking about our lives, and the common theme of the conversation is that it’s really hard to make things happen in Bulgaria.
“Let me tell you a joke,” says Nacho, “Now tell me, what year did your country walk on the moon?”
“1969,” It takes me about thirty seconds to say this, and any year, in Bulgarian.
“Well, they asked Neil Armstrong, ‘is your nation the first to make it to the moon?’ and he said, ‘Not exactly. One day many many years ago a great ship landed on the moon. They stayed there for ten days and then left, because they were too scared to open the door. And that ship was from Bulgaria.’” The joke is that Bulgarians are paralyzingly risk-averse, and prone to starting projects they don’t finish.
Later, when Nacho walked me to his friend Zaketo’s place, he stopped to chat with a construction crew. In a village that now holds one thousand of the five thousand people who used to live there, a new house was being built, stickers on the windows.
“Who’s house is that?”
“That house was bought by a Russian. The Russian wants a sauna and a shower, and they started building it, but they don’t know where the water will drain,” Nacho explained as he tested a patch of wet cement with his foot.
“Russian work,” I replied, referring to someone buying cheap property in a destitute little village in a satellite republic with a milder clime, and building a lavish house with a sauna on it.
“No,” Nacho stopped in his tracks, “Bulgarian work.” Bulgarian work is the sauna that doesn’t drain, the crowded van to the village that’s replacing the big bus that broke down, the handle of my washing machine that’s made out of a coat hanger, the mayor dead at 54 of a preventable disease.
Pamela waits on the bench outside the pensioner’s little store, and then we walk together to the community center. Uncle Nacho reprimands her for calling me “Gospozha,” which is how married women are supposed to be addressed. All my students call me “Gospozha.” I let it slide because I realize that I seem ancient to them, and I’d prefer they think of me as someone old and crusty. It’s not exactly respect, but it’s getting there.
“This young lady is not married yet, Pamela! You will address her as ‘Gospozhitsa!’” She apologizes to me and I tell her it’s okay, I know the word “Gospozhitsa” is really long.
“That’s not why, Gospozhitsa,” She says, “Kids only call you ‘Gospozha’ because all of our teachers are married. My cousin, she’s married. She got married when she was thirteen and now she’s sixteen and has two children.” She says, to support her point.
“Crazy, and not normal. Well, normal, but not right.”
“You’re not going to get married soon, are you, Pamela?” I ask, half-joking.
“No way! I’m not getting married for a long time.”
A car slows next to us. A neck-less man with sunglasses perched high on his bald head asks Pamela where Gabriela is. He doesn’t greet her, or me, but his tone is pleading and jovial.
“I don’t know,” She says, “over there somewhere.” After he drives away, she says, “That’s Gabriela’s father.”
“But, isn’t Gabriela your sister?”
One time a few days before Christmas I shared a dark, frozen bathroom with several older ladies and Pamela. Pamela went first and ran back to the Christmas banquet to keep dancing her famous, inimitable kyuchek. The woman in the stall next to me whispered as we squatted,
“That girl is so good. Her whole family is good, and big. Five children. And their father lives in another village and has nothing to do with them. He has another family and takes care of them instead.” The woman named off all five children, and I recognized all the common features of five of my students. The tiny, muscular woman lacquering a floor in the mayoralty, who begged me to let her youngest grandson, Mario, into my class even though he was at least a grade below everyone, was also the grandmother of Pamela, Gabriela, Mariyan, and Denis. According to my bathroom buddy, she looked after all the kids while their mom worked. The grandmother was a very strong and hardworking individual, she said, which I already knew after witnessing her tolerance for heat and toxic lacquer fumes.
“Yes, the Gabriela that’s my sister, she is,” Pamela finally answered with no commitment.
“So, isn’t that guy your father, too?”
“Well, not anymore. I told him I’m no longer his daughter, that we don’t know each other and we have nothing to do with each other. He’s started to come around regularly, Gabriela still talks to him, that’s okay I guess.”
“Is it uncomfortable for you that he comes here more often?”
“It doesn’t affect me. He’s not my father, I told you. He lives elsewhere, he looks after kids that aren’t his.”
By now we were in front of the community center. It was a warm, sunny, breezy day, but the girls balked at my idea to hold class on the shady benches in the center. They, rightly, argued that public outdoor English lessons would attract all sorts of the wrong people. Several other semi-regular English students scampered around the town center. They didn’t want to have class in the community center, but they all heard I was in town and wanted to see me and talk to me, possibly to persuade me to hold class in the school, or to be persuaded to come to class in the community center. I couldn’t spend much time talking to them because my core group was begging me to “Come and start class already! Моля ви!” so I told them they were welcome any time, climbed up the stairs with Pamela, Georgana, Marchella, Diyana, Deeyana, and Temenushka, and left the undecided kids inside the spaceship, looking out at the moon.