The doors to our apartments were inches apart in a shared hallway with room for two bikes. Yet weeks passed before I even heard my neighbors, let alone met them. I would see Kolya’s bike vanish and reappear and the tell-tale shoes on the mat. It wasn’t until one morning I woke at 5AM for a bathroom call that I heard the faint noise of a key in the neighboring lock. Occasionally, I would see him downstairs at the main entrance, returning from the country with his bike laden with produce. Still, there was no sign of his wife, Violeta, away visiting their daughter’s family in Sofia.
My 20-something Fulbright ETA predecessor had told me about an older “pensioner” couple (my contemporaries), who lived next door on the 7th floor of the standard Soviet high-rise “block” in Burgas. She said the wife spoke some English and occasionally brought her flowers. I so wanted to meet her. Then one day, hearing a child’s voice in the hallway, I sped out my door as if by chance. “I’m sorry, did we make too much noise?” asked Violeta, full of concern, her kind eyes crinkling. “No, no,” I said, asking to be introduced to her 6-year-old grandson. It was awkward, but I had established contact!
My next encounter came randomly as I returned from school and she was at her apartment door. It was the day before Nikulden, a national holiday celebrating St. Nicholas, a holiday special to Burgas in honoring seafarers and – curiously – bankers, and Kolya’s name day. She invited me for dinner to celebrate. I was over the moon!
The next evening, I tapped nervously at their door, carrying a bottle of wine and some homemade chocolate chip cookies. I entered the living room, where Violeta was serving a multi-course feast to Kolya, their son and daughter-in-law. I had misunderstood the time and they had already finished a fish soup and several salads. I sat awkwardly with my back against the TV as the family watched. The traditional ‘sharan,’ walnut-stuffed carp, formed the centerpiece of the meal. Then came a dessert of delightful, elegant profiteroles. My offerings sat on the table untouched; the daughter-in-law pronounced the wine “bad,” adding that they only drank – in some abundance – Kolya’s home-made vintage and rakia (fruit brandy). Violeta, with her bent back and age-swollen hands that reminded me of my mother, said nothing. Days later, she appeared at my door with a delicious sugar-crusted baked pumpkin and doughnuts, her grandson’s favorite. Diabetes and Parkinson’s disease prevented her from enjoying her baked masterpieces. But, she would teach me!
So, one winter afternoon, in her tiny kitchen, I watched as she made banitsa (cheese pastry), her hands moving by rote as she smoothed the pastry sheets and swooshed them with melted butter and sirene. We both knew I’d never replicate her art, but we pretended and shared about our families and life in halting monosyllables, laughed, cried and even danced.
Prudence Salasky – Fulbright to Bulgaria 2019