March 8, 2018
This has been a mild winter, everyone has told me. We barely got any snow, people were worried about their grandparents’ crops out in the villages, the prospects for rain, and we all talked with that vague and uncertain anxiety about climate change – is this supposed to happen? Is this normal? My apartment isn’t heated, so the wall unit is all I have. Keeping it on more than a few hours makes me feels decadent—I can feel each dollar as the minutes tick by.
But the cold this week truly felt impossible. It made extraneous activity feel impossible. Even basic tasks were rendered at least three times as difficult, the very act of moving was exhausting. Sofia doesn’t really shovel its sidewalks, so most streets stayed covered in a dry, sandy mush of old ice and snow, which people trudged through, grimacing. Everyone looked as if they were trying to walk on a beach volleyball court, but with coats.
But when I woke up today, everything was suddenly melting, dripping, and it was sunny outside. I breathed a sigh of relief, and went to go turn on my oven. My friend had Tanya invited me for brunch at her house, and I wanted to at least attempt to bring something. I turned on Rachel Maddow’s podcast as I do every morning, and groaned as I heard her announce a special report by Richard Engel, who always sounds like a parody of a parody of a News Man from a sketch comedy show. While listening to Richard earnestly hold forth about North Korea’s missile program (did you know that it’s…ADVANCED!??!), I thawed frozen bananas in boiling water, and used my large cooking pot as a mixing bowl, adding the ingredients for banana bread, except replacing the milk with Bulgarian yogurt, and dumping in the rest of a box of cocoa powder at the end out of nervousness. My oven in this tiny kitchen is a portable unit the size of a large microwave, and works about as well as an EZ Bake Oven. I’m never sure how anything will turn out, and even something pretty foolproof like banana bread, my staple treat, can get ruined pretty easily. I nervously cleaned the rest of the apartment while it baked, periodically stopping to glare at its lazily rising center.
I set off for Tanya’s apartment with the warm pan balanced on one arm, trying to shield it from the drips falling from melting icicles. The park by the old church has a tree already strung with hundreds of old red and white martenichki, which are woven bracelets that are part of Baba Marta, a Bulgarian holiday. On the first day of March, you exchange martenichki with your friends, accumulating an armload of bracelets or pins to help symbolize the healthy and lucky start of spring. As soon as you see a sign of spring (a stork, traditionally), you take it off and hang it on a nearby tree. Entire trees in Bulgaria are loaded with years’ worth of red and white bracelets, and park also had added a cardboard sign in old Bulgarian script wishing a VERY LUCKY AND HAPPY BABA MARTA TO ALL SOFIA-DWELLERS!
Tanya had made palanchinki, which are essentially crepes, with little dishes of cheeses and fruit and jam to add as topping. Luckily, the banana bread turned out okay, if a little tasteless and mealy. While we ate we talked about a conference we went to together two days before, a gathering of policymakers and field workers addressing issues related to poverty alleviation, which had been held at a luxury hotel downtown. The hotel felt burned into my brain; it was one I’ve walked past a hundred times and never really seen. Inside, the marble halls and red carpets and chandeliers upstairs were luxurious enough, but you could see cracks in the facade in the unheated and half-constructed bathrooms, the abandoned ‘spa’ downstairs and a grim, shuttered, barber shop. Weary men dressed in suits stood in corners, talking on the phone in Russian and Turkish. It was definitely a hotel in name only, designated for those kinds of meetings. We complained about how awful it had felt to talk about extreme poverty in a plush ballroom. We talked at length about how heavy it is to be a woman and have inherited the sense that you are born constructing a parachute with which to escape, either to give up your financial security and emotional resources to a person who may or may not prove trustworthy. Or you could choose from the beginning to never walk into this trap, to essentially walk into a relationship, if you decide to, knowing you could easily walk out, unscathed, safe, with your own money in the bank. We have not yet made the big life choices that trap a woman either way, and it seems very real, somehow, to actively prepare for potential disasters and entrapments of love, to hold drills.
Late again, as always, I headed to another meeting off of Patriarch Eftimy. Realizing I was going to be an unacceptable twenty minutes late, I flagged down a taxi. The driver was an older man, driving very slowly and braking carefully, and took a few minutes to get his bearings before making a U-turn and slowly, painstakingly, heading in the direction of my meeting. “Where are you from?” he asked me, genuinely curious. I said I was American. “American. And you know Bulgarian? Do you work here?” Yes, I told him. “Do you like it? What do you think of Bulgaria?” I told him: yes, it’s beautiful, and I love the language too. He was silent for the rest of the journey, looking puzzled and carefully waving pedestrians into the crosswalk. I squeezed my fists in frustration, anxious to get there.
That evening, I met Nadia and her two children down by the Jenski Pasar marketplace, near where she works, and we walked over to DM, the chain drugstore here that sells cosmetics, toiletries, and cleaning supplies. Nadia told me she wants to re-dye her hair, and anxiously showed me the gray under the bright blonde. She is Syrian, and here with refugee status. She said that wearing her hair out in public is new for her. She wore the hijab back home, but was scared of getting noticed or getting in trouble for wearing it here. We stood around comparing oranges and reds, and the son, who is 20, stood uncomfortably at the entrance, and taught me the Arabic word for “hair dye” when I asked him. We all got on bus number fourteen going to a neighborhood called Nadezhda, which means “hope.”
They proudly showed me the apartment they just moved into last week; the view from twelve floors up, the huge TV which has some glitch that causes it to pause and flick from image to image rather than playing in one stream, causing the edited Brad Pitt movie playing on the Bulgarian movie channel to take on a stop-motion quality. Nadia showed me the right amount of time to caramelize the onions for the majadara (lentils, rice, cumin, garnished with toasted onions and sometimes golden raisins, and plain yogurt). We ate a salad made of chopped green cabbage, tomatoes, lemon salt, and dried mint. After we were done eating, Nadia asked me to explain my religion. Who is God, to me? Who is God, to Christians? Who is Jesus? Is he a god or not? How do Christians pray? How do I pray, what things are forbidden to me? I ended up repeatedly covering my face with my hands as I tried to answer these questions in my broken Arabic. It would make no sense what I were saying even if it were in English, of course. How can I try to explain this to you. I cannot, that’s the simple answer. Who is god, to me? How can I even talk to myself about this? I told Nadia and her daughter Leila, who is fourteen and was listening carefully, that I once studied the surah in the Qur’an about the prophet Joseph. Who is Joseph, to you, they ask? Well, he lived with his brothers and his brothers didn’t like him and they were bad, and then he had to go to Egypt…
It was raining and dark by the time I left, and I ran down the muddy hill, past the packed curbside chunks of blackened old snow, toward the bus stop. I got on the number fourteen and sat next to what looked to be a mother and her daughter. Both were clutching bags and looked silent and anxious. The daughter, who was around ten or eleven and was holding a plastic bag containing what appeared to be a sandwich and a can of beer, timidly caught my eye and smiled. I smiled back. They got off at Opalchenska, and I continued on toward Lion’s Bridge.