On my return trip from Bulgaria, I successfully smuggled six items past the U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dulles International Airport. A fifth of unlabeled homemade liquor, a large zip-lock bag full of something very illegal looking, a quart jar of honey, and three match books of assorted tomato seeds.
The liquor, herbal tea-plant, and honey were gone within days of arriving back in Virginia. The bag of unknown herbs and the big jar of honey were divided and given to family as gifts. Not the liquor, I’m not that nice. The tomato seeds stay with me to this day.
This summer will be the seventh year of planting, harvesting, and saving seeds from those three varieties of heirloom tomatoes. The seeds had been given to me as a gift by my Bulgarian friend’s Grandmother, who herself had kept the line of tomatoes growing and improving for the past fifty years. That’s a lot of pressure.
I travel light. I had packed just one suitcase for a twenty-two-day adventure to an unfamiliar foreign land. Granted, that suitcase was crammed full of clothes when I first touched down in Sofia, being that it was the freezing, snowy month of March and I wanted to be prepared for the constant unknown that would become this adventure.
During the latter days of my trip to Bulgaria, my adopted family of Lucy, Vasco, Sasha, and myself traveled to the Trigrad Gorge in the Rhodope Mountains. Here is found the Devil’s Throat Cave where God sent some bad angels for eternal damnation and where I purchased the herbal tea leaves and flavored honey as last-minute souvenirs. The Trigrad River plummets hundreds of feet into the Cave then reappears a short distance later out the other side. Yet nothing carried into the Devil’s Mouth Cave by the river ever surfaces from it on the other side.
You could walk down hundreds of steps into the cave, escorted by a professional guide, but I had twisted my knee the day before and my swelling decided against the hike.
It was nap time for little Sash back in the car, so Vasco and I walked upstream of the cave for a view from a different angle. As we walked a path through the woods, we came across an older man and woman, locals with their folding table set-up right along the path amongst the trees, obviously open for business.
The old man explained to me the benefits of the leafy plant piled upon the table when brewed into a tea, as Vasco laughed and translated. It supposedly was good for incontinence, high blood pressure, clearer vision, erectile dysfunction, silky hair, sleep apnea, crow’s feet, and bouts of insanity. The tea would cure over fifteen different aliments and I’m not perfect. So, I bought a pound. And a jar of flavored honey.
Rakiya is a traditional fruit brandy which is popular throughout Eastern Europe, produced with different fruits and called by different names. The different small towns and villages in Bulgaria each have their own centuries-old recipes and each homemade variety is the best-ever made. They’re proud of their brew. Just like Page County, Virginia residents are proud of their moonshine.
The rakiya that I smuggled home was housed in a recycled, unlabeled vodka bottle. This rakiya was of the finest in quality. It must have been, because I have no memory of where I bought it.
On the day before the flight out of Sofia, my last day in Bulgaria (until the next), Lucy and Vasco and family and friends had a special going-away luncheon in my honor.
Some of them had been strangers just three weeks beforehand; yet here we all were, sharing toasts of rakiya, and tons of delicious homemade food, and laughter and smiles, and for me, a few tears. I felt so welcomed.
Lucy and I were once walking through a shopping mall here in the states, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It was wintertime. As we walked and talked, I complimented her on the coat that she was wearing. A dark wool coat, with specks of color throughout, looked so warm and comfortable. Fine European quality, no doubt.
Her Grandmother had made it. Not by using a Simplicity Sewing Pattern. She had raised the sheep and sheared the wool from which she made the yarn that was then dyed different colors and combined to make something so beautiful.
Her Grandmother lived far out in the countryside, away from the modern city where we dined that day, and could not join us for the luncheon. But she sent along the three small match boxes of tomato seeds, each secured with a tiny rubber band and labeled in English by someone else. Red Giant, Pink, and Buffalo Heart.
She had heard that I like to cook.