Georgi and Stoyanka

An entire page of our language training textbook is devoted to train safety. Trains are the cheapest, slowest, and most reliable way to travel here. Students and pensioners travel for even less and comprise a large portion of the passengers. The old cars are divided into compartments, each with space for eight people. Foreigners have been robbed and harassed on trains, so I’ve heard, and Peace Corps has taken care that we are all alert and informed.
When I get on a train, I avoid compartments full of young men (I would probably do the same in the States). I look for families or pensioners. Women are better and older women the very best to travel with. The trains are rarely full. Last Saturday morning, on the train to Varna, I sat in a compartment with an older single woman beside me and a pensioner couple opposite me. The three were chatting away and I still wasn’t warmed up in Bulgarian, so I put on my headphones and dozed. After a couple stops the single woman left, and the pensioners turned to me for conversation. They looked tall and broad, and sat up very straight. The woman’s white hair was cropped very short, and the man wore a tweed cap that looks as if it’s sold in a catalogue called “Uniforms for Old European Men.” The man had a cane and they both wore hand-knit sweater vests under their jackets. They asked if I was traveling all the way to Varna, and if I was visiting someone here in Bulgaria. If they hadn’t realized immediately that I was a foreigner, they figured it out pretty quickly.
Actually, I live in Bulgaria, I told them. I’ll be here for two years, teaching English.
“Do you like living in Bulgaria better than living over there?” The man asked. I gave him the diplomatic, not inaccurate answer I’ve learned from answering this question many times,
“Bulgaria is a beautiful country. Life here is more relaxed and the people are very nice. I like living here very much.”
“Do you have parents over there?” Yes, of course.
“Do you have brothers and sisters?” No, аз съм самичка.
“Ohh! The only one! Your mother must cry for you every day!” said the man, smiling, giving the head of his cane a little shake for emphasis. The couple were on their way to visit their daughter in Varna. She’s a teacher like me, of history, and she has a son and a daughter. The couple were laden with grocery bags of produce from their garden, since the food in Varna is not nearly as good as what they grow in their village.
“Is there any difference between the food over there and the food here?” The man looked straight at me with twinkling, cloudy eyes. Again, I had a truthful and diplomatic answered prepared: seasonal produce is much better in Bulgaria, fresher and cheaper, but sometimes I miss such distinctly American delicacies as vegan Thai burritos. I explained, sheepishly, that I was going to Varna that day to meet with other Americans. Together we would go to a massive chain grocery store to buy soy milk and Tabasco sauce.
They questioned me with great interest until the industrial outskirts of Varna crept up around us, and each answer the wife repeated to her husband in the third person. I couldn’t tell if he was hard of hearing, if she thought he couldn’t understand my accent, or if she was just so pleased with everything I said that she felt the need to repeat it. Finally, towards the end of our train ride, she turned to her husband and said,
“Oh! Listen, Gosha, I like this American girl so much! I think we should get acquainted with her and invite her to visit us.” Both her husband and I agreed that was a great idea. There is a train station where they live, just a few stops west of my town. If I get off the train, walk through the parking lot, turn right and cross the street, I’ll be at their door. It’s very easy to find, the man explained, while his wife wrote a phone number and address in my notebook.
“And you must meet our nephew! He lives in your town. He runs the bakery between downtown and the stadium, just below the overpass.”
We shook hands as we stood up and indeed they were both much taller than me. The man stepped off the train first and reached out to help his wife with the grocery bags, his cane dangling from one hand. On the platform they introduced me to their son-in-law, a stalky, bald man in a track jacket. He seemed rushed, and unimpressed that his in-laws had made a new friend on the train.
We parted at the platform, Stoya and Gosha shaking my hand and urging me to visit, any time. They live right next to the station, they repeated. Just cross the parking lot, turn right, and cross the street.
When traveling by train, Peace Corps echoed in my head, try to sit with women, families or pensioners. Good advice.



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9 responses to “Georgi and Stoyanka

  1. john

    Great story Hue, thanks for sharing!

  2. aiza

    this makes me want to read.

  3. Julie

    i love this.
    the part where stoya commented that your mother must cry every day makes me think of a few nights ago when aiza asked if i ever saw my dad cry, and i told her how he used to get teary eyed after they dropped me off at college. then i realized how deeply we miss people we love when we can’t see them, and i questioned the life choices i’ve made that have led me so far away from my loved ones. yet, i always meet people while away that make it worth it. and i’m glad i have friends who have done/are doing the same thing.
    the couple sounds so sweet, i can’t wait for what happens next.

    • I get regular reminders that my mom cries every day because I’m gone. At first it felt like a guilt trip, but now it’s really touching. Bulgarian families are used to sticking together, yet in recent years, so many have gone abroad for work (a combination of opportunity and obligation, since Bulgaria was isolated for so long, but now, going abroad is nearly the only way to make money), that it seems like every family feels someone’s absence. So, when people remind me of my tearful parents, it’s like they’re saying, “I know how it feels to miss someone too.”

  4. gramps

    That was a wonderful story. Iwas struck with the fact that, in spite of your comments to the contrary, you seem to have a sufficient grasp of the language to carry on such a conversation. Great!

  5. Martyn Dunn

    Sorry for the late reply. Great story, glad you are safe in your travels.

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