Bulgarian Memories, Part I

It began with an early morning bus ride.

I was still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and eating banitsa -- a cheese filled pastry-- and waiting for the bus. At that hour, there were few people at the bus station. Of the dozen or so people in the station, most of them were old women with hunched backs. They all carried bags. Some bags were filled with food. Others with clothes. One woman with grey hair and green eyes had a bag full of sticks. Most of them eyed my companion and I with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.

We were dressed in the standard summer attire: short sleeve white shirts and ties. I hope it is not necessary to state that we stood out. I checked my watch then approached the ticket window to make sure I had understood the ticket lady correctly when I had purchased the tickets.

"Seven o'clock. That's when the bus comes, right?" I asked the middle aged lady behind the counter.

She was puffing on a cigarette and reading a celebrity magazine. A picture of Princess Diana graced the cover. "It will come when it comes," she said not looking up from her magazine.

"Is there a bus later this afternoon?"

The woman looked up from her magazine. "There is only one bus a day to your city," she said. "When it comes get on it." Then she returned her attention back to the magazine.

I thanked the lady and walked over to the magazine stand, and tried to decipher the newspaper headlines. By this time I had lived in Bulgaria 20 months. I spoke Bulgarian well but the newspapers were tricky to read. Their headlines used a lot of slang and tricky word conjugations that I found hard to understand. But today's headline I understood all to well. A car bomb had exploded in Sofia. The subhead line said police speculated it was part of the latest, ongoing mafia war.

The old man selling the newspapers asked if I wanted to buy a paper. I nodded my head indicating no. The nodding and the shaking had been one of the more difficult parts of Bulgarian culture to master because it's the opposite from the rest of the world. Nodding your head means no. Shaking it means yes. Bulgarians told us that this custom was from the time of the Turkish occupation. Not fond of Christians, the Turks would put the point of the sword under the chin of a Bulgarians and ask if they were Christians. To nod meant death so as the story went, Bulgarians began shaking their head to indicate yes. This helped them avoid the point of the sword while at the same time pacifying their Turkish occupiers.

"If you want to read it, then buy it," he man selling newspapers said. He pulled the stack of papers toward him.

I walked back to my companion.

"Anything in the news?" he said.

"No. Nothing."

A red bus spewing plumes of black diesel smoke pulled up. The old women in the station picked up their bags and hobbled on, pausing only to hand the driver their tickets. We waited until everyone else had boarded. We boarded the bus and handed the driver our tickets. Only the old ladies who were at the station were on the bus. There were plenty of empty seats. We were encouraged to sit next to people and talk to them but the looks of those in the bus still looked at us with suspicion. Wordlessly we found seats near the back, across the aisle from the old lady with a bag of sticks.

The doors of the bus closed and the bus left the station in a plume of black exhaust.

The journey to a Tsarovo, small village in the middle of the Rhodope mountains, was about to begin.