Dark Alleys, Ducklings, and Dumb Questions

Making my first Bulgarian friend

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

“I’m getting hangry,” I warned as my friends messed around, trying to find a restaurant for dinner. “We have never eaten in Sofia before, so they are all new to us, what is the problem, just pick one!” After shopping for pirated CDs and books, Kathy and I had met up with some other Peace Corps friends for dinner to share our Sofia adventures.

Spekoino be (calm down)! We are looking for someplace with different food,” explained Kathy, as she and Roger scanned down another posted menu. Bulgarian food is incredible, very Mediterranean, with summer foods based in eggplants, cucumber, tomatoes, fresh dill, grilled meats, and yogurt. That said, our training town lacked culinary options, and except for the pizzeria, all had the same menu:

Zele — cabbage
Shopska — tomato cucumber salad with sirene (white cheese, similar to feta)
Snezhanka — Yogurt cucumber dill salad
Tikvchki — Grilled eggplant with yogurt sauce
Perzheni kartofi (sus sirene) — French fries (with sirene)
Sermi — stuffed grapes leaves

Kebabche and kufte — ground beef and pork, either in a sausage or meatball shape
Pileshko perzhola, na skara — grilled chicken
Meshana skara — all the above plus pork chops and other sausages
Kashkaval Pane — Fried Yellow cheese, similar to the Greek saganaki, but without the flames
Guyvech — Stew with an egg on top cooked in a traditional clay pot

Individually, each of these tasted terrific, but when those are the only choices for a month, it got tiresome. To make it worse, my host family tried to cook “American” dishes like hot dogs, spaghetti, or pizza, but all had a ketchup base, and I despise ketchup. The pizza place in town served the same ketchup sauce. Once, I convinced my host mom to let me cook spaghetti, and I made a delicious sauce, from scratch, boiled tomatoes, chopped onions, simmered the sauce, homemade garlic bread. The teenage daughter deemed it “runny” and promptly went to the kitchen to get ketchup to put on her noodles.

We hoped against hope that Sofia would provide more options on the menu. We had found different beer the night before, but with each restaurant we passed, the optimism waned.

“This is the same menu, too,” sighed Roger. “Except it’s way more expensive than what we pay in the ‘Dil — I definitely prefer village prices to city prices.”

“Just pick a place already,” Andy grumbled, as did his stomach, audibly.

“Well, if we are going to pay these prices, we at least need to find a restaurant with AC,” barked Roger.

“Yes, we know, you are sweaty,” the five of us responded in unison. Roger’s uncomfortableness with the heat had come up almost every day for the last month, as the temperature hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit and his host family lacked AC and fans.

Mulchi be,” responded Roger as the rest of us looked at him annoyed, because he was, yet again, showing off his language skills. “Shut up,” he translated and opened the door to the restaurant he settled on for the evening.

We drank, we shared stories from our day, we wondered aloud why the streets seemed empty on Saturday compared to Friday, and I checked my watch to make sure I didn’t miss my meeting with Tedi K — the friend I made on AOL before I left for the Peace Corps. We had IMed and spoken on the phone a couple times since I got to the country, but I was eager to meet him in person. We had set a rendezvous point at the McDonald’s. My mind raced with questions; Would I recognize him? Would his spoken English be as good as it was when he was IMing or on the phone? Would my Bulgarian be good enough if his English wasn’t? And most important — would he be cute?

For the second time that day, I heard my mother’s voice in my head. “Didn’t I teach you better than this?” as I went off alone to meet someone I met online. Ok, I’m lying, these thoughts didn’t cross my mind, but the mind of one of my friends, who insisted on coming with to make sure Tedi was not deranged. In 1997, the internet was still “safe,” so my friend’s heightened concern was ahead of her time, but I was worried about getting lost, so gladly accepted Cindy’s company.

At the time, we didn’t know it, but “Wait a second, we wouldn’t do this in our own country!” would become our rallying cry just before we were about to have a lot of fun….

We made our way through tiny alleys, crossed the brick streets, and arrived at the McDonald’s just as book vendors began to shut down their kiosks. McDonald’s appeared to be a popular meeting spot because numerous people waited around out front. We approached several Bulgarians outside the McDonald’s asking “Tedi?” until we finally found the right one. We dragged him back to the restaurant where our friends waited with more Kamentisa beer.

Several beers ahead of Tedi, my friends ranted about the beer’s slogan, muzhete znaet zashto (the men know why). This particular slogan was a bone of contention with the volunteers, Kathy took the lead, “The men know why… what? Why to drink beer? To drink this specific beer? Just everything in general?”

Stammering and unsure how to respond, Tedi proved as confused as our Bulgarian instructors why this was such a lousy slogan.

Cindy continued, “Woman generally do the shopping, why are they ignored by the advertisers?”

Tedi smiled and took a sip of his beer and looked at me imploringly to make it stop.

Stiga! (stop it) I told them and Tedi laughed, understandably, as it was the first time he heard an American speaking Bulgarian to another American. And the conversation moved on from what would be the first of many “Americans are from Mars, and Bulgarians are from Venus” moments I would have with Tedi over the years, but in reality, it helped cement our friendship.

Tedi proved to be a trooper — and put up with the slightly intoxicated Peace Corps volunteers as they asked him question after question.

“Why is Sofia a ghost town on the weekend?”

“Everyone goes back to their village.”

“So, why are you here?”

“I don’t have a village, I’m actually from Sofia. Plus, I have a business to run.”

“When you buy a washing machine in the market, how do you get it to the house?”

“Friends help.”

“But how do you get it up the stairs without an elevator?”

“Carefully and again, with friends.”

“How much should we really pay for a pirated CD? Why are there so many squatter stores? Where does the baba (grandma) selling those flowers get the flowers? Why would anyone pay to use a scale on the street?” For at least an hour, Tedi answered question after question, no matter how stupid. And then he suggested a change in venue — possibly to help us walk off some of the beer, who knows.

He led his “duckling Americans” down the street to new a pub and every time he suggested a place, we looked at the price for beer and nixed it — our village sensibilities did not permit us to pay “that much” for a Kamentisa.

“My turn to ask a question,” said Tedi. We drunkenly encouraged it. “Your Americans and I am Bulgarian, aren’t I the one who should be saying something is too expensive?” We acknowledged the irony, and Tedi continued to lead us, through alleys, down unlit streets, we walked for what seemed like miles.

For the third time that day, one of my friends pointed out that we might be getting into a dangerous situation, “Wait a second, we don’t really know this guy, and we are following him through dark alleys?” Andy whispered at the end of the duckling trail.

“He said there is more beer,” Roger whispered back, giggling.

At the time, we didn’t know it, but “Wait a second, we wouldn’t do this in our own country!” would become our rallying cry just before we were about to have a lot of fun….

In this case, we ended up at Tedi’s computer store, drinking his beer, and just chatting about music and movies. Totally normal Saturday night. This was the first of many times over the years that Tedi would end up being one of the few people in Bulgaria who made me feel “normal” and not like “the American in the crowd.” His friends became the place I went to for refuge — and they always knew where the best beer halls were, which never hurt.

Strategist & Storyteller. www.annisawanat.com

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