Bulgaria, One Year

Getting to know a place takes time. It is a slow process of settling in over seasons and conversations, of riding buses, buying groceries, sitting in traffic, and learning which months the best fruits and vegetables bloom. We watch kids play in the park, plant flowers and water the lawn, and drop the boys off to swim at a local pool with a coach who swears a lot, mostly because he doesn’t seem to know he’s swearing. Language and flowers take time, too.

In summer, people grill meat and make homemade lutenitsa from backyard gardens full of eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. The markets sell melons, peaches, and corn, and piles of berries that are so sweet, even Gus can’t resist.

After a year, the details are seeping in, and there is time to stop and smell the roses. Literally. Bulgaria is the world’s largest producer of rose oil, and celebrates roses every June with festivals and girls covered in flowers. I walk by this fence in our neighborhood inhaling deep, and I try to look at each one of them so they know how beautiful they are.

A few other unexpected things we’ve learned about Bulgaria this year:

Striped Monasteries. Sofia has a real yellow brick road and designs its orthodox monasteries with stripes. It is called a city of “tolerance” where mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals mingle, and religion is openly embraced. Bulgarians in general don’t seem super religious, but maybe that’s why there is so much tolerance?

Bagpipes, called Gaida, made from horns and animal skins. Bulgaria holds the Guinness World Record for largest bagpipe ensemble, and generations of pipers get together every year for music and dancing up in the mountains.

Red, White, and Green. The colors of the Bulgarian flag make up the country’s ubiquitous salad, found on every restaurant menu, everywhere. It may be mixed or mashed in different ways, but there are always peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers with thick slices of feta cheese. Mike made this one look like the Bulgarian flag for a party.

Cafe Culture. For long afternoons and languid evenings, as long as you want to stay. Cappuccino, semi-freddo, macchiato, tea, you can sit for hours and nobody will bother you or ever expect you to leave.

Graffiti. Gregarious, ubiquitous, and adding color to the parts of town still waiting for a paint job.

Smoking. There is an art to hand-rolling a cigarette, and it’s hard not think it looks cool!

Wildflowers and Purple Mountain Majesties.

Public espresso machines. They seem tacky at first, until you go to Italy and see that people use them there, too. Mike and I get one for 50 cents every Sunday at the grocery store, and never pass up a chance to get coin-operated cappuccino when we’re out and about.

Lazy Weekends. Lazy enough to make gummy unicorns!

Grapes. Bulgaria grows a lot of grapes and makes a lot of wine, following ancient Thracian wine-making traditions that are some of the oldest in the world. They also make Rakia, a liquor that sometimes comes from grapes, but is equally likely to be made from whatever fruit happens to be lying around. Pears, cherries, apricots and plums all seem to find their way into the bottle….

Yogurt. Bulgaria claims the discovery of yogurt, which bears the name lactobacillus bulgaricus. Gus is really glad to be in Bulgaria because he really loves yogurt. Thanks to Bulgarian yogurt we have a lot of smoothies for breakfast, and on Mondays, Gus gets to have a bowl too.

Bulgaria has summer evenings which are surprisingly warm and late, perfect for sleepovers and barbecues, and pickle ball with the neighbors.

Another nice surprise is the pre-made cake layers at the grocery store. Inspired, we bought a pack of genoise, and the boys helped me knock Baked Alaska off the Baking Bucket List.

It’s been a year since we arrived. Families grow and change no matter where they are, and this time we’re getting to know ourselves as a family with teenagers that lives in Bulgaria. Between watching movies and searching for hot springs in the snow, during this long COVID winter we also became a family that makes wine.

Sometimes it seems weird that we live here, but you know, we all have to bloom where we’re planted.

We tell the boys this every day. We each have our own story to tell and we can’t always control the details, but happiness comes from the inside, and the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. And as the time passes and we settle in, the friends slowly return too. Not old friends but new friends, who maybe we weren’t looking for, but who have worked their way into our lives anyway. The grace we weren’t expecting.

One year in, we are letting the memories take hold. A chapter of the book that like all the others, is leading us through our story and teaching with every step.