A funny thing happened on the way to Koprivshtitsa.
Bulgaria is a nation beaming with heart-warming tradition and folklore. When I touched down in Sofia to begin my adventure, it was Baba Marta Day (Grandma March).
My friend Lucy and a few of her friends whom I had never met, gave me martenitsi; red and white bands of thread to be worn around your wrist or somewhere on your person. The white represents integrity and virginity; the color of Christ. The red is the woman and health; a sign of blood, conception, and birth. At the first signs of spring (emerging blooms or the early appearance of storks, swallows, and cranes), the martenitsi are removed and hung on the branches of the flowering trees. This gesture assures that you enjoy good health and much happiness throughout the coming year. It’s literally a beautiful picture, little strands of red and white hanging amongst the buds; given by one person to another person in hopes that they will be blessed with a happy, prosperous year. Even in a small village; hundreds of prays and hundreds of blossoms.
There’s another custom that has a morbid origin and often drives unknowing tourists a little bit crazy, but in an entertaining way. Bulgarians nod their heads opposite of you and I when answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Up and down signifies a negative response. A side to side motion is an affirmative response. According to folklore, this habit began way-back in the 15th century. Bulgaria was under the oppressive rule of the Ottoman Empire for 500 years, which suppressed the native people with evil, deadly measures. When asked by an Ottoman soldier, as a knife was held to their throat, if they were a Christian or to denounce their belief in God, a wise Bulgarian would nod their head up and down and answer in their native tongue…”NO”.
I knew of this custom before the beginning of my adventure in Bulgaria, having researched extensively before the onset of my journey. But the memory of that little helpful hint apparently didn’t last very long. Lucy’s birthday is in the latter days of February, but a true celebration was planned after my arrival. Not for my benefit, I was just lucky. So, a dozen friends and family rented a beautiful, enormous house in Koprivshtitsa for the weekend. (On your next trip to Bulgaria:), work this idea into your plans. It was SO wonderful). As everyone was settling into their bedrooms, I met Tanya, Lucy’s brother’s girlfriend. She was sitting alone in the large dining hall. Wanting to impress my new-found friends and show how friendly that I can be, I politely introduced myself to Tanya and asked if she spoke any English. With warm doe-eyes and without speaking a word, she calmly nodded her head up and down. Well, terrific! I unleashed into a ramble about how excited that I was to be in her country! How beautiful this village was! We’re going to have a blast this weekend! Where’s the beer! She just sat there and stared at me. Oh, that’s right, she had shaken her head ‘no’. She had no idea what I was saying. We never really ‘spoke’ again. I think maybe I scared her.
Or maybe I had been insulting. There are several things that you don’t do to avoid insulting a Bulgarian. Bulgarians are a warm, friendly bunch. If you’re offered a beverage while entering someone’s home, by all means, take and drink! I never had a problem abiding with that custom. I developed a running joke with Vasco, Lucy’s husband, as I never refused a drink from a host. “How do you always end up with a glass of wine, a shot of Rakia, and a bottle of beer…at the same time?”. And I’d answer “I’m on vacation!” As the days went by, Vasco would raise a glass and proclaim “I’m on vacation!”
As we drove to Koprivshtitsa during that first ‘excursion’, Vasco (whom I had only just met) nonchalantly turned from his attention to driving and offered me a drink from his 1-liter plastic bottle of water. “Why, yes, I will” and I took a big swig, thinking to myself what a friendly gesture that was by Vasco and, Thank Goodness I was not among germaphobes.
Lodging during one of our outings was reserved at a quint, little ten-guestroom hotel owned by a friend of Vasco and Lucy. As we sat at a table in the small dining room, hungry for dinner, our waitress alerted the owner by phone of our arrival. He walked in a short time later supplied with hugs, smiles and a 2-liter former soda bottle filled with his version of Rakia. He joined us at our table for cocktails and conversation. For the most part, not understanding a single word being spoken, I just smiled and nodded. But being an old restaurant guy myself, I couldn’t help but wonder what was behind the door leading back to the kitchen. I was double intrigued after dinner. The ladies had prepared a special dinner just for the three of us. Roast pork stuffed with rice and vegetables. Drinks were strong. Salad was good. The grilled bread was wonderful. And dinner was outstanding. There’s only one way to finish off a meal of that quality. Strong coffee and sinful sweets.
I simply could not restrain myself any longer. I asked Vasco to ask his friend if I could possibly ‘just peek’ through the kitchen door. I wanted to see where a dinner like that comes from. Vasco turned and presented my request to our host. The friend began excitedly answering Vasco, his arms flaring about, his head swinging left and right. “My God, I’ve caused an international incident!” The gentleman was being an extremely proud owner. “Of course, he can see the kitchen! We are very proud of our food! “My little ‘peek’ into the kitchen turned into a full-fledged tour. I felt welcomed while meeting with the kitchen staff. One lady gave me a demonstration on how the pita-like bread had been grilled in an old, stationary iron pan. Perhaps it was the Rakia’s fault, but once again, I had been completely confused and misled by a Bulgarian’s unique style of head nods.
For 99% of my time spent in Bulgaria, I carried a piece of paper with me, on which Lucy had written the addresses of her home and my rented apartment. The other 1% of the time was spent in the shower. Also, written on the slip of paper were the numbers 9 12 63. That looks like a birth date, but it was instead a group of numbers very near and dear to my heart; and to my survival. That was the number posted on all vehicles of a taxi cab company that Lucy had recommended as being consistently reliable and fair. Some less-reputable drivers had the tendency to take you on a wild goose chase and charge outrageous fees. Especially if you were an English-speaking, middle-aged American.
Lost in translation: ‘Dah’ means ‘yes’, ‘Ney’ means ‘no. You can convey your intended message by nodding your head in different directions, but the message sent depends on whether you’re a Bulgarian or live most anywhere else on the entire planet Earth.
So, I’m out in front of The Mall of Sofia, hopefully on my way to Lucy’s place for dinner. As usual, the cabbies are hanging out in front of the mall, devouring the never-ending buffet of shoppers making their way back home. On this evening however, I couldn’t find my ‘lucky’ 9 12 63 taxis anywhere. I waited and waited and soon grew impatient. Finally, I said ‘screw it’ and grabbed the next available taxi. What could possibly go wrong? I didn’t really understand the pricing chart posted on the cab’s rear seat window, so I made a short attempt to question the driver. Two things were instantly clear. He didn’t speak any English and, from the dark, leathery skin, appeared to be from one of the city’s scariest gangs—the dreaded Gypsy cabbies. Right from the get-go, I’m watching him with a leery eye. I sort of had a feel for the ride over to Lucy’s, having tracked back and forth numerous times. We hadn’t traveled four blocks when he turned onto an unfamiliar avenue. I didn’t say a word. Block after block, nothing was looking familiar. I can’t even read the signs, yet even they looked unfamiliar. The driver kept looking down at my ‘magic’ paper of vital addresses, pausing like he remembered something and then continued down road after unfamiliar road. My cab rides to Lucy’s place during this vacation had averaged between 3 or 4 Lev, one way. I glanced at the spinning meter on the dashboard and it had just crossed the 14 mark. So, then we started to have an argument which neither of us could really understand. As we passed a massive row of familiar looking apartment buildings, I start yelling “Dah! Dah! Dah!” while shaking my head up and down, indicating “No! No! No!”. He’s yelling “Ney! Ney! Ney! while also shaking his head up and down, indicating “No, you dumbass American tourist!” I finally ‘won’ and convinced him to let me out near the apartment complex. I got out of the cab and threw a 20 on the cab’s front seat. “Enjoy your @@@@@ money!” I stood for a moment on the sidewalk, allowing my blood pressure to return to its normal, hypertensive level. Then I became overcome with a terrible realization. That’s not Lucy’s building. “Where’s my Rakia, dammit!” So, there I stood, in a non-English speaking city of 1.5 million people, with street signs written in Cyrillic letters. Me and my little slip of paper with two addresses must have looked like a lost dog holding his ID tag. I approached a young woman heading my way down the sidewalk, praying for a miracle. Bulgarian youth are often at least bi-lingual, many speaking some English, which this young lady thankfully did. But the address was a mystery to her as well. As I started to panic, I noticed a taxi-cab parked alongside the curb a little way down the street. The off-duty female driver somehow got a message through my thick skull, “No Service”. But she took a glance at my address paper, pointed off in the distance, and with broken English, said “Only 1000 meters”. I flashed 20 Lev and said “No, you take me there”.
Finally, I arrived at Lucy’s home, which provided me comfort and safety. And Rakia. Will I ever travel again to this crazy, wonderful land called Bulgaria? I think that I’ve finally got this straight. With my head shaking side-to-side, that would be a resounding “Dah!”