The volunteer who lived here before me is named Cassie. Before she left, she gave me her card which enables her to buy train tickets at half price. “Maybe there’s no rule against using someone else’s card,” I told myself, but in my heart of hearts it seemed unlikely that they were transferable. Still, I’ve been cheating the Bulgarian train system trouble-free for the last three months, skulking on and off of trains for half price. I show the card at the counter when I buy a ticket, and again on the train when the conductor stamps the ticket. No one ever bothered to check my face against the one on the card, or ask me any questions about it, until yesterday.
The conductor was a robust woman with Chrissie Hynde’s haircut and sparkling green eyes. “What’s your name?” she asked, then answered her own question as she read from the card, “Ah, Cassandra.” She pronounced the name again, all the “A’s” short and identical.
“Ами…everyone calls me Elly,” I dodged, and was momentarily thankful that people here know me by an alias anyway.
“Elly? How can that be?” No, that wouldn’t do at all, “I prefer Cassandra,” she declared and left the compartment, to finish checking everyone’s tickets. Crap, I thought, either I’m Cassandra, or I’m screwed.
Twenty minutes went by before she strode back to my compartment.
“So Cassandra, where exactly are you from?”
If you’re reading this, you probably know me well enough to know what a bad liar I am. I can sometimes pull off passive-aggressive scams like using someone else’s train card, but only without questioning. Ask me something, directly to my face, and I’m done for. At least I’ve had enough experience to know I shouldn’t even try.
“I’m not Cassandra. I’m sorry. Cassandra went back to the States, and I didn’t think it would be a problem if I used her train card.”
“Not Cassandra? How can that be?” She asked again. I couldn’t tell if there was anger in her voice, or just a constant boisterousness.
“Cassandra left. She moved back to the States. Now I live here.” There was a tense moment when she asked for my ID, which only led to more confusion when she couldn’t find the name “Elly” anywhere on the card.
“No, that’s my second name,” I pointed to each name on the card, “This is my surname. That’s my first name, and that’s my second name, but people here call me ‘Elly’ because my first name is hard to pronounce.” I sure as shit wasn’t Cassandra, though, that much was clear. This is it, I thought. I would be thrown out of the train by the seat of my pants at the next stop, and very possibly banned from Bulgarian trains for the rest of my life.
“Well, Elly, you have to be careful because this isn’t your card! You’re not supposed to be using this!”
“I know! I’m sorry! I promise I’ll never use it again and I’ll buy my own card!”
“I just don’t want you to get in trouble! Some conductors aren’t like me. Some conductors are mean and they’ll throw you off the train!” She didn’t smile, and her voice was still too loud, but there was a conspiratorial glint in her eye that told me not to worry. I would not be thrown off today, and I was still in good standing with Bulgarian State Railways.
All of this was beside the point anyway, because she still wanted to know where exactly I was from. She wanted to know what building I live in, where I teach, and where Cassie taught before she left. And, since it was mentioned, she remembered Cassie. She was pretty sure, anyway. She knows lots of us, everywhere, she said.
The conductor lives in the nearby town of Д____, where my friend Tyler lives.
“Do you know Tyler?”
“How could I not know Tyler?” she retorted. She knew Tyler, and a few other people whose names I didn’t recognize. She had questioned me not out of suspicion, but because she collects Peace Corps acquaintances, and Peace Corps gossip.
“I know a boy in the town of С____, and the girl in Г____. They’re dating,” she declared.
“Really? What are their names?”
“I don’t remember their names. But they’re together. He visited her. He took the train.”
Somewhere, a dobrovoletz was dating a dobrovolka. Or else he just visited her. In any case, she’d given me something to ponder and investigate, and clearly I would have to return the favor. That’s how gossip works. I pulled out my stock piece of gossip, which everyone here loves and which is luckily common knowledge anyway.
“Well, you know Cassie got married, right? She married a Bulgarian.”
“Which Bulgarian? From П____?”
“Another English teacher. From around П____.”
“You have to find yourself a Bulgarian,” she admonished, and since her kindness was delivering me to my destination at half price, I shook my head and said, “Yes, that’s exactly it.”
“You need to find yourself a Bulgarian because Bulgarian men are хубави.” Pronounced “hubavi,” the word has 19 translations according to Google, all some variation of “nice” and “beautiful.”
“They are very хубави, Bulgarian men. Very. And there are a lot of them,” she continued, as I shook my head in hearty agreement. By now we were pulling into the station, and she stood up to walk me to the platform and say goodbye.
“But you need to find a serious person. Do you know what I mean? Someone hardworking.” In fact I knew exactly what she meant, and I was surprised and gratified that she thought me worthy of such a partner after my petty train-card ruse.
“Yes, hardworking. I will. And thank you again for letting me stay on the train.”
“It’s nothing! You just have to find a Bulgarian, find a Bulgarian and marry him and stay here. And get your own train card because some conductors are mean!” The future she prescribed for me was gloriously simple. All I had to do in order to mend my shifty train-card-mooching ways was marry a serious, attractive Bulgarian. I sincerely promised to do my very best on both counts, and she hung her big shoulders out of the train and wished me everything хубаво as I walked away.
Cassie and Kiril, this entry is dedicated to you. We all miss you over here.