SOFIA, BULGARIA by Delaney Nolan

Delaney Nolan, American writer.

Delaney Nolan, American writer.

I knew Bistra as my Bulgarian roommate. With her dimpled smile and dark Balkan eyes, Bistra shared not just a room with me in Sozopol but also bottles of wine and walks to the cold beach at night. She and I were fellows at the Sozopol Fiction Seminar, where we joined four other Bulgarian and American writers in cross-cultural writing workshops on the Black Sea Coast. We were a funny mix—including a boxer, a priest, a criminal—though everyone was warm and gracious. During workshops, our stories were translated into wiry Cyrillic letters, and some of the Bulgarians spoke English learned from Mad Max movies.

On my last night in Bulgaria, Bistra picked me up from the central Sofia train station, with its three-story Communist statue out front, and drove me to her apartment for a family dinner and an overnight stay. On the way, we passed the old Monument to the Soviet Army, topped by a copper-cast giant of the proletariat with his rifle lifted above his head. Bistra told me that years before, a graffiti artist had spray-painted the figures along the base to look like superheroes—the Joker, the Hulk, Batman.

“Most people thought it was very funny,” she said, “but I think it made the city officials angry.”

As Bistra turned into an underground garage to a building so identical to others that I’d never again be able to find it, she explained that three generations of her family lived in her apartment. The garage was dark and dank even as a fluorescent light struggled on and then clicked off. I followed Bistra up the stairs toward the delicious smells of home-cooked food. In contrast to the blank, dirty hallway, the apartment Bistra shared with her mother and grandmother was cozy and neat, blooming with color, thanks to two balconies planted with Japanese rose trees, geraniums, and poinsettias. Inside, portraits, masks, and scraps of poetry hung on the walls.

Bistra introduced me to her grandmother, who smiled and looked me over with her one good eye, speaking in a mix of Bulgarian and French as she pressed her soft and wrinkled palms into mine. There was no common language. Although every line of conversation had to be filtered through Bistra, we were all eager to talk as we sat to eat—white Balkan cheese on toast, tarator soup in a glass bowl, cups of pear juice squeezed from fruit out of their own small garden.

I told Bistra’s mother and grandmother how much I loved Sozopol, looking them in the eye as I said what they couldn’t possibly understand even as they smiled and urged me to eat, eat, eat.

Bistra’s grandmother was born in 1929, when there was still a Bulgarian king, and I ventured to ask about her life under Communism.

“There were no beggars,” the grandmother told me. “We were poor, yes, but everybody was poor, so things were cheap. But we were never allowed to talk to foreigners, not at all—a dinner like this, back then, would get us all arrested.”

She spoke in small blocks, peeling the skin off a pepper as she waited for Bistra to finish translating.

“We wanted to see American movies, but we were allowed only Russian movies, and we thought they must be the best. Then capitalism came, and we got to see the American movies finally, and—ah! They were nothing much after all.”

Both mother and grandmother talked about illicit visits to church when religion was frowned on and faith was a risk they took. Later on, they learned that most of Sofia’s head priests were Communist informants.

“Did you ever think about emigrating? Ever try to leave?”

Bistra translated: “She received an offer to work in West Germany, but had she left, she would never have been allowed to return.” The grandmother watched as I absorbed the information and nodded that I understood. The next morning, I was up before dawn, ready to leave. In her nightgown, Bistra’s grandmother hugged me good-bye and said, “Bon voyage.” For good fortune, she tucked a leaf of geranium into my bag, the plant named здравец, zdravets, which also means good health.

“There is one more tradition,” Bistra said with a glass in her hand. “Before a trip, we throw some water before the traveler’s path. For good luck.”

She splashed water in the hallway as I thanked her, hefted my bags, and walked into the lifting dark. The morning birds were singing in the lindens and they, like the skaters in the park, the laundry on the panelki, the superheroes replacing the proletariat, like so much of this country after decades of oppression—they all seemed to be proof of freedom coming around every corner.

* The essay „Sofia, Bulgaria“ by Delaney Nolan, was published in Narrative Magazine, on 5 June, 2012, in the section Readers’ Narratives. It was also translated and published in Arabic in Alef Today Magazine.

Delaney Nolan’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Chattahoochee Review, Guernica, Grist, The Huffington Post, Narrative, Oxford American, PANK, The South Carolina Review and elsewhere. She’s been a Bread Loaf work-study scholar in Vermont; a Sozopol fiction fellow in Sozopol and Sofia, Bulgaria; and the artist-in-residence in Skriðuklaustur, Iceland. Her prose chapbook, Shotgun Style, is the winner of the 2012 Ropewalk Press Fiction Editor’s Chapbook Prize. Her debut prose book – a short story collection Shotgun Style: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans“, was the winner of the 2012 Ropewalk Press Fiction Editor’s Chapbook Prize.

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