My favorite place to eat is on the south edge of town, in a quiet, leafy strip of block apartments and service garages. When I sat down there this morning a groggy voice called my name. It was Petko, inviting me to join him and his pale friend at their table. Petko is a small guy in his 20’s who wears the nicest high-tops in town. He runs a dim, windowless ‘internet café’ in the town center, which is periodically shut down by the police. Gaunt, antsy people are often asking after his whereabouts.
My plan was to write some letters as I ate, but I try to never pass up an opportunity to interact на български, so I picked up my purse and moved to their table, shaking hands with Petko’s friend as I sat down. His eyes looked bruised and watery. Petko roused himself to greet me and then went back to resting his head on the table, cradled between his elbows, one hand on his beer. An older woman came by, and I ordered the house speciality: шкембе чорба (shkembey chorba). Originally from Turkey, it’s bits of tripe in a tangy, spicy broth. It’s salty and nourishing and cheap; a bowl of шкембе чорба, a hunk of bread and a beer is the Bulgarian equivalent to scrambled eggs, hashbrowns and a Bloody Mary. It was Saturday morning. Every table was full. The place was nearly silent, and the server and I were the only women there.
“Do you have a hangover too?” asked Petko.
The conversation took a familiar turn, to where I’m from and how long I’ve studied Bulgarian. Petko complimented me on my command of gendered nouns and adjectives, and I confirmed that English nouns and adjectives do not have genders. “It’s the same in Turkish,” said his friend, who can understand Turkish but not speak it, he said. Once I oriented them to where Oregon is (“до Калифорния е”), they asked me where Nelly was from. “Nelly?” I asked, wondering if there was an American living in town I didn’t know, named Nelly. No, they were talking about Nelly, the rapper. Turns out he’s from St. Louis, but at the time I had no idea. “Do you like hip-hop?” they asked. Of course I like hip-hop.
The guys were also impressed with my taste for tripe. “Lots of people don’t eat шкембе чорба. They see the word шкембе and they run,” said Petko. I told them we have something similar in the States, a Mexican soup called menudo. Many United Statesians won’t try it because it has tripe.
“That’s just like here!” said Petko’s friend, “The шкембе чорба in Bulgaria is actually from Turkey, and in America it’s from Mexico.”
“Uh, more or less,” I shake my head yes.