“Everywhere is white! This year the winter has come early.” Outside the windows of our bus it is a white blur; a Mercedes sedan is slipping in the breakdown lane, unable to cope with the icy conditions.
Just an hour ago in Plovdiv it had been clear, now it is a full-blown blizzard as I talk to the lady in the seat in front of me. She is Anna in Bulgaria but Ayten in Turkey, a victim of the forced assimilation policies of Bulgaria’s former communist government. She asks me where I study in Bulgaria. Then I tell her I don’t study (although I’m flattered that she thinks I look that young) and she asks me where in Bulgaria I am from—I guess I just don’t look that Turkish.
When I tell her I’m American she sees the parallels between me and her own son. He moved to Turkey after growing up in Bulgaria but couldn’t get used to Turkish culture—now he works for a Turkish company in Sofia. I tell her that yes, Turkish culture can be difficult for those used to Western culture. I think back to ten hours ago, on the Istanbul metro in Aksaray. A lone girl got on our car and immediately all the male eyes descended on her, dark desiring eyes devouring all her being with their gaze. She tried to avoid their stares by looking at the screen of her Samsung as if searching for something impossible to find and I even started to feel sorry for her. She is just a lone girl trying to get from point A to point B like all of us in life, but to them she is a lone girl on a metro car after dark, looking for something they think they can give her.
The lady just shakes her head as I recount the story. “In Bulgaria a girl can walk home from a night club alone at two or three in the morning and no one will bat an eye. Its bad for girls in Turkey”.
“And for boys,” I say laughing and she smiles. We know it’s the same, and that it all changes across one land border on the Thracian peninsula.
Its late afternoon, a grey day fades into an orange sunset as fall slowly fades into winter. I’m in front of the Alexsander Nevsky cathedral, standing in the cold air on the cobblestones and staring into a house of God. I turn as I hear the click-clack of feminine heels on the stones, disturbing the calm silence. She smiles as she walks past, one of those small moments of mutual understanding between the sexes, like lifeblood, that are so conspicuously absent in Turkey.
I think of my first trip to Sofia eight years ago, before the European Union, before I even knew myself, and the pictures I took in this same spot on a similarly cold late afternoon. Then, I had someone to take my picture. Now who knows where she is. I think back to another trip to Sofia, five years ago, when I thought I knew myself, and the pictures I took in this same spot on a summer afternoon. Then, I had someone to take my picture. Now who knows where she is. But you can never turn back the clock, so I turn my back on the cathedral and the memories and walk on.
“What brings you to Sofia?” He says it with the tone of a young, excited, and most of all homesick American. Its one of those things you just recognize.
“Just living the dream man, how about you? What brings you here?” I respond the only way I can—in the way Americans communicate when in strange lands miles and miles from home.
“This dream right here bro,” he says, nodding over his shoulder at the girl working at the bar. She smiles with a shyness that is endearing, befitting her as she dries a coffee mug.
For a moment I see myself in him. No cares for the future, just living in the moment and taking all that is for what it could be, not for what it is or is not.
He met her in New York when she came on a Work and Travel program. Then they fell in love and he followed her across the world. Simple, when you think about it. With almost seven billion people in the world the chances of finding two that understand one another are less than winning the local lottery so you need to take your chances when you get them. Sometimes in life you need to make your own luck—in this case to the tune of two in seven billion.
He invites us back to his apartment for some midnight vodka and I decide to trust him. I’m taken back in time to an apartment near the Pliska Hotel where I spent some of my best days in Sofia so many years ago. Soon I get yet another first hand experience in the benefits of travel. My friend never went to college and started working straight out of high school. But his time in Bulgaria has changed him.
He says that only now he realizes how narrow his world-view had been growing up in upstate New York. He says only now can he realize how good people have it in the United States. Only now can he realize that so many people complain about small things that other people around the world would give anything to have. He says that some people in the United States seem like spoiled children to him, with no idea of what people go through in other countries.
In Turkey they ask the question of who knows more: One who travels a lot or one who reads a lot. I think it’s a healthy mix of both that creates the optimum return, but I know that this young man is getting a learning experience through love that no school, however highly rated, could ever give. And that is worth celebrating.