March 6, 2018
I stayed up too late and woke up to a series of angry messages from someone I knew in college asking why we aren’t friends anymore, what did she do wrong, fuck you. I called my friend Amelia and then sent her screenshots. She was shocked, said that she couldn’t even believe the messages were real. We shared cathartic outrage about friends who try to neg you into loyalty.
I pulled on my sweaters and coat, adding the blue knitted hat I stole from the trunk of my mom’s car over Christmas, one of those family hats that gets passed around. The cold reminded me of Salt Lake City in the worst months: freezing air that chokes you, thick haze that traps you. Everyone on the street was either desperately smoking cigarettes or breathing hard, so the effect was the same either way: long clouds of white billows in all directions on Boulevard Patriarch Eftimi. Local news was advising against spending time outside because of a pollution warning, and the schools had a week off because of the dangerous flu outbreak that all of Europe was worried about. Some women wore surgical masks to cover their noses and mouths; some older women used their scarves. Everyone looked exhausted, squinting through their collars and hats on the way home. I lost one of my gloves and felt conflicted about buying more, because I just want winter to end.
I ate a heel of white bread and some hummus, and bought a bottle of Coke No Sugar from the little store on my corner. Already 10 minutes late for my meeting, I took the metro from the NDK station to the Serdika station, then dashed up the stairs and ran past the mosque on my way down to Maria Luiza Boulevard. Every time I go by this mosque (the architecture of which I am not and will not ever be qualified to comment on, except to say that its minaret looks Turkish-style to me, clay and smooth), I wonder if I’m allowed to go inside. I don’t think I am, but every time, I peek into the gates and down the stairs into the little patio area anyway, wondering. Men there take off and put on their shoes, kiss each other’s cheeks, gather their possessions in plastic shopping bags.
This neighborhood in downtown Sofia floods with tourists every weekend, from Russia, from Turkey, from Germany, from Ukraine. The big, ornate Orthodox churches are the de facto visitors centers, where slow-walking grandmas make an obligatory pilgrimage to buy a candle, walk in and out, and then to go Vitoshka Boulevard to shop for sweaters. I’ve gone inside Svyata Nedelya and a few others, as well as few older, smaller monuments, but I always want to go inside the mosque. It looks like it might be open for tourists, but I’m not sure, and the fear of intruding feels like too high of a cost. Another time, another time I’ll check, I thought.
Farhad buzzed me into the building, and we sat in one of the classrooms, which, predictably, felt colder than outside, in that way that poorly insulated buildings trap and nurture a chill and really give it the chance to make the most of itself. We went through the old game: who are you, why are you here, why Bulgaria, what do you want, where will you go. He is Iranian and in the midst of making his way through Europe, and I know these questions are more exhausting for him to be asked, over and over, like endless first-date small talk, if it were exclusively about whether or not you’ll be alive or in jail in six months.
We had a short Persian lesson standing at the whiteboard, him writing phrases in script while I copied and added Arabic short vowels. He smiled and said, “Those signs, they’re from Arabic—we don’t use them.” I laughed—so defensive, I’m so smart, I promise, I’m not like other Americans!—and told him I know, but I need them to know where the vowels are, how the word actually sounds. It fills me with dread to see a word written and know that I’ll be pronouncing it wrong, putting the emphasis in the wrong place. Hearing sounds pronounced wrong or notes that are slightly off pitch makes me miserable and jumpy, unbearable to be around, the way my dad gets when there’s bad Muzak playing in the background at a restaurant. We talked about his career, his journalism, how he wants to start publishing in English. He said he knows he could go back and have a career interpreting but that he wants to comment, to change things. I taught him the expression “I’m sick of it.”
I walked home after looking at two separate office supply stores for index cards, which appear not to exist here. Even describing them to the Bulgarian sales clerks felt embarrassing, like earnestly trying to tell someone about a dream you had. “It’s like a small piece of paper, and you use it for notes, but it’s a little bit more solid than normal paper?” In the end, I decided to get six or seven notebooks, ones that they sell for students here learning languages. The pages are divided into one or two columns, so that you can write the word on one side and its translation on the other. We did not take things so seriously when I was in seventh-grade Spanish, but why would we?
The goal is to make materials that the women in my Bulgarian class at the camp can use to memorize the Cyrillic alphabet, which is a slow and frustrating process when you have no books and have class only once or twice a week, and when most students don’t even want to bother with a language as obscure as Bulgarian to begin with. We teach Bulgarian because the government requires it, as a somewhat nationalist trade-off for letting the volunteers in the camps at all, and I, the American, teach Bulgarian because there’s no one else to do it.
I also bought two small pairs of scissors and five glue sticks, then an enormous head of cabbage at my produce stand.
When I went home I chopped vegetables and cleaned. I had my headphones on and didn’t register the alarm until it had been going for at least 10 minutes. I pulled off my headphones and listened, thinking that the alarm must have been from a car downstairs. As I packed to leave, I heard distant shouting, scuffling, doors slamming. When I got out to my doorstep, my neighbor, the one who once told me to stop leaving my trash outside, was on our stoop, busily sweeping up an enormous pile of dirt. The flower boxes she keeps on the stairs leading to the attic above us were gone. “We had a robber,” she told me in Bulgarian, still sweeping. “He tried to get in through the roof, and then Andrei got him, and they fought, and he ran off and knocked over my flower boxes.” I clucked and she made exasperated faces and we were sympathetic to each other, our first neighborly bonding experience since I moved here.
I had dinner with Meryum and Dina, two Syrian women living in assisted refugee housing, and their collective six children. They live on the top floor of the building, and the curtainless windows were open to the cold. They asked me if I wanted tea or Arabic coffee or Nescafé. I don’t really drink any of them, except when somebody offers them to me in their home. It feels like I should. So we drank tiny white cups of sticky Arabic coffee, and I tried to follow their conversation, sloppily trying to explain my work, how I’m doing. One of the girls started gently combing and braiding my hair while the other played cards with me, half in Arabic and half in Bulgarian.
The oldest son set up the hookah pipe and started passing it back and forth to me and the two women, occasionally pausing to tilt his head to the ceiling and blow rings of smoke. Dina told me she wanted to read my fortune and showed me how to tilt my drained coffee cup and flip it upside down. We waited for 10 minutes, and then Dina took the cup, peered solemnly into it, and read carefully from the dregs. She spoke in a quietly excited voice, the voice you would use to tell someone about a great investment opportunity, if you just buy in now. She said: There’s a tall man waiting for me. The third day of the third month will be really good. I have two women far away who care a lot about me. She said: Do you understand what I’m saying to you?