By the time the train stopped, I’d been standing in front of the door for six minutes. It was the Sunday fast train to Varna, after a long weekend, and the seven-hour ride had been hot and crowded. At last I was a fifteen-minute walk from my hungry kitties and my frigid apartment, and I reached for the door while the brakes were still screaming against the tracks. I yanked up on the handle, yanked up again even harder, yanked down when yanking up wouldn’t work, and went back to yanking up. I yanked and yanked, no one else got on or off the train, and ninety seconds went by.
“Help! Wait! I need to get off the train! Help! The door! I can’t! WAIT!” The quality of my Bulgarian has an inverse relationship with the urgency of what I want to say. Couple that with the fact that I had lost my voice that weekend, and I sounded like Marge Simpson’s long-lost third sister, the Bulgarian one with severe learning disabilities, who smokes even more than Patty and Selma.
Two young women heard me and tried to help in that unhurried way of Bulgarians. One had elaborate blond highlights, the other wore pointy ankle boots with bows. They gave a couple yanks but the train was already rolling.
“It’s leaving,” the blond girl stated blandly.
I looked at them, then back at the door, then out the window at my home receding into the darkness.
“But…I want to go home. I have cats, the neighbors think I’m coming back, and…” I trailed off into a phlegmy whimper. I felt my face turn red and my eyes well up.
“Life in Bulgaria is hard for you, isn’t it?” the blond pronounced with maddening self-possession, and I saw myself in her eyes: my ratty old stocking cap, the dark circles under my eyes, the clunky boots, the broken Bulgarian rasp. They thought I was ridiculous and I had to defend myself.
“No no! I love Bulgaria! I live here, and I like it, and I speak Bulgarian, and I know where my train stop is, and I know how to open the door on the train! I’ve opened lots of doors on trains! Just, that door I couldn’t! And I usually don’t talk like this! I just lost my voice. But really, I’m okay!”
The blond put her hand on my shoulder and smiled.
“You’re worried about your cats? Don’t worry. Is there something you can do? Please, don’t worry! And come in here where it’s warm,” she led me back to the narrow aisle. These girls weren’t judging me at all, they wanted to help and most of all they really wanted me to stop crying. I did my best to oblige them, not only not to cry but not to worry, and lo, I really could think more clearly when I didn’t. The next stop was close to my friend, Sara. I could crash at Sara’s and take the train back in the morning. And since my neighbors are home all the time, they’d see that I hadn’t come back and feed my cats. I didn’t have their phone number, and I knew they would probably wring their hands over me until I got home, but it couldn’t be helped. And now the sweet young women were wringing their hands over me too.
“Are you sure you can stay with your friend?” the blond one asked, “Come to Varna with us! It’ll be really cool. We’ll have some drinks and go out.” She smiled wider and revealed a short lifetime of smoking and shoddy dental work. She introduced herself as Rositza and her quiet friend as Daniela. They told me they’re both 25 like I am.
“You know, I went to the States,” Rositza said, “the state of Hawaii.” She worked at a Burger King on Oahu. It was beautiful there, but she felt lonely, “Everyone is always on vacation there.” She knew how hard it was to be alone, she assured me, despite my insistence that it isn’t hard at all.
“And now I will travel to England,” her smile turned down plaintively, “in ten days.”
“Why are you going? Do you want to go?”
“I am…a traveler,” she said with resignation, “I’m homeless. I don’t want to leave my friends but…I have to try it.” Her head gave a sad little waggle, “Listen, can you find someone to help you at the station? Do you want my number in case you need help?”
“I’ll find someone, don’t worry,”
“No, take my number. It’s hard to be alone so far away from home.”
At the station there were no buses or taxis. The owner of the cafe explained that by that time of night, the town’s cab driver was in no condition to drive. So the cafe owner, Tony, offered to drive me himself.
“Can I treat you to some wine and a bite?” Tony asked.
“No, I’m sick, I really shouldn’t.”
“A little wine, just a small glass. Домашно е.” He poured me a glass of wine from a plastic beer bottle and served it with a pork chop. I answered his questions about my job and where I live.
“Well, it’s good,” he sighed, “The children will have to know English, to leave and find work.”
Tony asked me the same thing Rositza had asked: “Is it hard for you living here alone?”
I was traveling back from Sofia. In Sofia I saw some friends I haven’t seen in several weeks. We read inspiring essays by gifted Bulgarian students. We ate exotic food, we drank imported vodka and we danced with the other patrons at a fancy Russian restaurant, taking unflattering pictures all the while. After closing up shop, Tony would drive me to Sara’s place, where Sara and I would curl up next to her new radiator and watch the callous, materialistic antics of Will and Grace on her laptop before falling asleep.
“No, it’s not hard,” I said truthfully, and he bobbed his head, “It must be hard.”
“Bulgaria is worst for the young people,” said Tony in the car, motioning toward his young employee, Anya, in the passenger seat, “What can they do here? There’s nothing. There’s no work, no money.” Tony’s regular customers are commuters who take the train to Varna every morning, or workers at the nearby port. But mostly they make coffee at home these days.
“Their pockets are empty.”
On the train the next morning was a bald man in a fine coat. He looked at me with wonder, and I knew putting on my headphones and dozing wasn’t an option. His name was Georgi.
“I came from my sister’s birthday in Yerevan,” he said. He had stopped in Varna to visit other relatives, but he was actually a professor in Moscow.
“Do you like Moscow?”
“Very much,” he shook his head like a Bulgarian, “but it’s hard there. We are Armenian. My wife is black like me. It’s not comfortable; people don’t want us there.” Bulgarians often describe Romi as “black,” and Russians use the word for people from the Caucasus.
“This is my wife,” Georgi took out a photo of a young, unsmiling woman, “And our daughter.” The little girl’s face was also serious, and favored her mother’s, with big black eyes and eyebrows black and shiny as a seal, softly fading together in the middle.
Stanislava, a round-faced little ninth grader who lives at the orphanage, stepped off the train with me. “Miss! Where are you traveling from?”
“I missed my stop last night because I couldn’t open the train door. So I stayed in Д______ with my friend.” My students love stories of my incompetence at living in Bulgaria.
Two boys were there to meet Stanislava. She snuggled against the taller one and the shorter one and I fell a few steps behind. His name is Nikolai. He lives in the mahala and studies at the technical high school. The school day was well underway and none of them seemed to have any intention of attending class.
“The USA is nicer than Bulgaria isn’t it?” asked Nikolai.
“Well, it’s different. I like living here very much.”
In English, Nikolai answered, “Bulgaria…no good country,” and returned to Bulgarian, “I want to go to Spain. That’s where my father is.”
My friend Nataliya knew I was going to be late to work, so I stopped at home to feed the cats. My neighbor was at my heels when I walked in the door.
“Oh, honey, we were so worried when you didn’t come back last night!”
“I’m so sorry!” I croaked, “I missed my stop and stayed with a friend. I had no way to call you. I’m very sorry you were worried.”
“For nothing! And now you’re sick! You have to rest. But, you know, we called your school to see if you were there. I hope I haven’t caused a problem for you.”
Then she handed me a plate of homemade banitza.
“I saw you had no food in your fridge. I thought, she’s coming home and she’ll be hungry! Oh, honey, it’s hard for you to live here all alone.”



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3 responses to “B.L.F.

  1. Uncle Johnny

    Would love to see the pictures from the “Studio 54” of Bulgaria!

  2. Martyn Dunn

    Sounds like the week end went really well until the train door didn’t work. We really love W & G reruns.

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