Gergyovden: The Day of Saint George

My son at the children’s carnival on Gergyovden, 2018

Spring came to Bulgaria with a stutter — unexpected heat followed by a final week of snowstorms and then consistent tank top weather. If it wasn’t for the pollen creating a fine mist throughout the city, plugging up my sinuses, I would have thought spring had been skipped completely.

I wouldn’t have minded if it had. My body longed for the dry, skin-cracking heat of the Arizona desert, and was slow acclimating to the post-communist chill of the Balkans. Each winter I walked the slush of snow on uneven streets and waited for the day when I could shed my constricting coat and take the baby out of her puffy pink cosmonaut suit. The myth of summer kept me from dipping back into depression when I ached with loneliness and longed for home. I imagined the streets filled with laughing, barefoot children, adults exchanging hellos and cheer as they tipped plastic one-liter bottles of grapefruit and elderflower radlers at one another.

Even though spring was as hot as summer, the picture of reality was quite different than the one I held in my heart. In the early morning sun, already sweltering, the street was empty. Two cars whizzed by the roundabout in front of our apartment, not bothering to slow down. The heat was oppressive instead of freeing. A thick moisture bowed my head and created a dull haze that rose from the cracks in the concrete.

The gray architecture of the small city, in bad need of paint faster than the European funded projects could supply, had looked appropriate during the cold months. It held the romance of past societies. But by Gergyovden, the spring festival celebrating new life in fields and farms, these buildings lost their archaic prestige and became what they truly were: signs of a crumbling city. Even the dirt in uneven paving stones seemed somehow less pure than my alkaline desert dirt. People should have been dancing horo on these broken streets, but instead everyone had fled to their cool, sheltered villages for the holiday.

My husband brought down the bicycles — two flights of stairs, an elevator, and another flight of stairs — and we loaded the kids in their seats and rode to the center for breakfast. It would have been pleasant except for the family next to us. The man, wearing a t-shirt with a print of traditional cross stitch patterns, spent the better part of his meal grumbling about me speaking English with my kids. He was talking to his wife, just loud enough for me to hear. My clogged sinuses muffled his mumbling, so I could only make out bits and pieces of his complaint. But the bitter tone was familiar. How dare I teach Bulgarian kids English? I could never tell if they mistook me for a Bulgarian, or if they simply begrudged me my mother tongue on their soil. I got similarly snarled remarks at least once a week. The old woman on the playground, the random mother in line for the community kitchen, and now this man — all complaining that I, an American, was killing the Bulgarian language by not speaking it to my two bicultural children.

Like every time this happened, I reminded myself it wasn’t as bad for me as it was for foreigners in the United States. At least English was valued by some Bulgarians. I wasn’t getting ridiculed for speaking my native language to my children every day, only occasionally. Still, the comments stung.

My mood dampened, as much from the man as the muggy air, we continued on to the puppet theater, the Museum of Humor, and a few games at the small children’s carnival set up by the Sport’s Hall. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being alone in the city. It was as if the rest of the people had vanished, and the few of us left behind spoke only in whispers. It was probably just a trick of my sinuses, though, amplifying the distance I always felt on Bulgarian holidays.

My husband took the kids and bikes back to the top of our curved apartment building while I ran across the street to get beer. The store was closing to switch cashiers, but I managed to get three cans of beer from the outside refrigerators and slip inside just before the plump old woman locked the door. The line moved slowly, and both cashiers gave me disapproving glares for being at the tail of customers they didn’t want to serve. I didn’t blame them. They probably wanted to be at their villas, enjoying slow-roasted lamb with their families. Part of me wished we had left the city and went to my husband’s village to join in the festivities, but both of us had forgotten about the holiday until it was too late to make plans.

After lunch we napped. It was one of those miracle days when both kids, tired from the morning adventures, went down at the same time. My husband and I lay in bed, snuggled silently together in the dim room. Through the open window the wind picked up and nearly whipped our dry laundry off the wires. A storm was coming, promising to bring a release from the strangely oppressive day.

Gergyovden. May sixth on any calendar year, celebrates all the men named Georgi, the women named Gergana. In other words, 239,062 people out of the seven million living in Bulgaria. Just over three percent.

The day is four days before the tenth, which is when I joined the Peace Corps and came to Bulgaria eight years ago. That May tenth had been Mother’s Day.

I had called my mother on my cell phone in the airport, then tossed the old flip-phone in the trash before boarding the plane. I wouldn’t need it for the next two years, and I rarely thought more than two years in advance those days. Eight years later, I couldn’t help thinking about the future, wondering if it would be another eight years before I could afford a visit home.

Six. Ten. Eight. I held these numbers in my head as I laid it on my husband’s chest. His breath came even. He was almost asleep, but awake enough for my touch to stir him with optimism. I let my fingers drum against his bare stomach and kept counting my life. One husband, fully Bulgarian and worth staying in a foreign country for. Two kids, half-Bulgarian, half-American and worth the whole world. Other numbers came in uninvited. The cost of four plane tickets. The number of hours my husband would have to take off work to visit my home. The amount of time I would be away from my children if I went alone.

I ached for the storm to start. Why wouldn’t it just rain? I counted compulsively, waiting for the first crack of thunder to release me. I had to keep counting, because if I didn’t, I would fall against the number eight, a number that too-often swallowed me in sadness. Eight years since I had set foot on American soil, seen my friends who I thought were my family, began a new life in Bulgaria.

They say Gergyovden is a day when evil spells can be broken. If I had gotten up early in the morning and walked barefoot in the dew-covered fields, would my melancholy have been lifted? Would I finally melt into the culture I lived every day in? Would I eat roasted lamb, bake hand-kneaded bread, and be accepted? It was too late to try.

The rain didn’t come. But a rustling in the next room captured my racing mind. I kissed my husband’s chest, felt his disappointment we weren’t about to make love, and went to my son’s room. My son was awake, opening his green box of wooden train rails.

I kissed the top of his head as I sank down next to him, pulling him onto my lap. Eight years, the number echoed through my body, and I longed for a home I couldn’t quite remember. But I pushed the number down. Today was not eight. It was May sixth, Gergyovden, and I had a half-Bulgarian child to mother.