As I began my Fulbright in Bulgaria, I carried the weight of grief. My father had unexpectedly died only a month before and I arrived at the airport with no one to greet. I even went to the wrong hotel. I didn’t understand the Cyrillic alphabet, couldn’t read street signs or menus – and ate only shopska salad for a month because that was the only thing on the menu that I could identify. When I got to my university, I discovered that the provost, who selected me, had also died. At this point, no one else seemed to know what I was doing there but as I settled into my office, my new world began.
The blue Rila Mountains floated on the horizon. A Roma man with an accordion serenaded me with a two-note song below my office window. In the morning, in my Soviet-era apartment, I listened to domestic routines – the thwack-thwack-thwack of a neighbor beating the dust from her rug, cackling chickens and the clip-clop of hooves as Romans drove their carts past. In the evening came the thunder of my neighbors overhead drumming and dancing the horo. One day, I realized that I was in love with Bulgaria, every crazy and wonderful part of it. I loved the tradition of opening schools or new buildings with bread, salt and honey. A priest stood at the entrance giving out all three – bread as the mainstay of life, salt to help you through the bitter, and honey as a tribute to the sweet. It became my metaphor for living and a reminder of what a privilege it was to experience another culture and language, to be teaching press freedom to students from 11 different nations – many from former Soviet Bloc countries.
My classes in news writing and media law and ethics were critical classes for new democracies, but not without challenges. I set up what in the US would have been a routine press conference with Blagoevgrad’s mayor. My students were too terrified to ask the questions we had discussed in class: “Does the city have plans to incorporate Roma people living in slums at the fringe? What about the gaping manhole in the middle of the farmers’ market? The high cost of electricity?” In a country not used to being able to hold elected officials accountable, it was not easy to convince students that they had the right to ask challenging questions. In fact, with the numerous assaults and deaths of journalists, I feared that encouraging students to be courageous, might also get them killed.
Then while I was in Bulgaria on one of the coldest days of the year, my second “father” died. But it was the salt and honey of friendship and the bread I found in the beauty of nature, that carried me through to spring when the man returned with his accordion, the homeless campus dog, Bruno, began walking me to class and all would be right with this wonderful diverse world.
Nancy Bartley – Fulbright to Bulgaria 2012