Is Bulgaria at the end of the London bus route?

23/03/2020 12:32

Written by Jonathan Campion

Author Jonathan Campion describes the delight of experiencing a culture through a child's eyes, as his four-year-old son, Andrew, meets his partner’s family for the first time.

The world is very small when you’re four. When I told my son that we were going to Bulgaria, he thought that it was at the end of a London bus route. And while taking Andrew to a little town in the Thracian Valley to meet my partner’s family was a bigger step for us than journeys home on the 152, for him the experience of making friends in a new country turned out to feel just as comfortable. 

The trip was Andrew’s first without his mum. Not that he was anxious about going away. Pavlina and I were dreading waking him up before dawn for our flight. When morning came, he was waiting impatiently by the door with his rucksack before we had even brushed our teeth. Arriving in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia after a three-hour flight, Andrew hurried us through the airport and carried our bags to the taxi rank.

There were a couple of hours before our bus to Yambol; enough time for a bite at Zhenski Bazaar (the ‘Women’s Market’) on the way. It’s a true Balkan bazaar: old and open-air, loud and chaotic. Stalls are stacked with clothes and shoes, while tables are covered with baskets full of bulbous grapes, sweet peppers, ripe strawberries, glossy cherries, and lots more that the women working at the tables had plucked from their gardens that morning. Fresh food is an obsession in Bulgaria: even on a Thursday afternoon the place was packed.

airport Kidding Around by Tropical studio Shutterstock© Tropical studio, Shutterstock

At a café in the middle of the market, melting into scruffy leather sofas and eating rice pudding with cinnamon stirred in, we watched the world go by. Immersed in the new smells, caught up in the commotion, Andrew’s eyes lit up. While Pavlina and I sipped fiendish Balkan espressos in paper shot glasses, he vaulted off the sofa and scurried up a nearby tall metal staircase for a better view.

Watching Andrew exploring fearlessly, curious about it all, made me think of my own first day in Bulgaria the year before. Staying in Sofia for work, I had been so self-conscious about not speaking the language that I didn’t leave my hotel in the evenings. 

From the market, we took a taxi to the bus station. The bus was as chaotic as the bazaar: passengers jostling for seats, shoving bags into every spare inch, restless at the prospect of a five-hour, crosscountry slog. As we set off, old ladies bellowed into their phones to tell their families that they were on the way home. Then everyone opened snacks. It’s a long road to the Thracian Valley; bottles of Zagorka and Kamenitza beer were flipped open too.

As the grey outskirts of the capital faded into the rugged greens and browns of Bulgaria’s plains, another noise filled the bus: gentle snores coming from the head in my lap.

In Yambol that evening, Pavlina’s mother (Lilyana) and stepfather (Bob), brought us home to a Bulgarian welcome: the aroma from a coffee pot warmed the apartment, and the living-room table was covered with plates of food. We had come for a double-celebration weekend: Lilyana’s retirement party and her birthday. Gifts were exchanged. I gave Lilyana a scarf; she presented Andrew with a full set of new clothes and an autumn coat.

This part of Bulgaria once lay in a region known as Thrace, a land now shared with the northern parts of neighbouring Greece and  Turkey. Yambol is famous for its wine, made from delicious Mavrud grapes cultivated in Thracian vineyards – or often fermented at home. Lilyana toasted our arrival with both versions. Then it was Andrew’s bedtime. Once Bob and Pavlina’s father Dimitar had each fed me a tumbler of homemade rakia, Bulgaria’s overpowering grape spirit, my bed was calling too.

Aerial View Over Yambol Bulgaria by D.Uzunov, Shutterstock© D.Uzunov, Shutterstock

Andrew’s initiation the next morning was gentler. Over glasses of apple juice, Pavlina’s two nieces, Ivayla and Lili, practiced their English on him. Andrew learned some Bulgarian words – and with them took a crash course in the country’s culture. When you come home, you take off your shoes and put on some woolly slippers called shushonki. Before you take a first sip of drink, you say nazdrave (‘to your health’). Instead of goodbye, it’s dovizhdane (‘until I see you again’). By the afternoon Andrew was proudly saying haide (‘let’s go!’), with a Yambol accent to boot.

When the children ran out of words, they still found a common language. Bulgarian kids play the piano and dance around to music videos. Bulgaria has toy cupboards with costumes, parks with playgrounds, cafés with ice cream. Bulgarians give hugs and kisses. Andrew made himself at home.

Watching Andrew and the girls playing, racking their brains to find things they had in common, I thought of the friendships I had refused by fixating on differences. A few years previously when I was studying near Moscow, some Russian students invited me to play volleyball with them. I felt my weak hits didn’t fit in, so I slid away early, without saying goodbye. Too often we assume that other cultures are much different to ours. It takes children to notice what is familiar.

The next day Lilyana’s friends came to the flat, and her retirement party began with another feast. The only rule of Bulgarian gatherings is to be yourself: there are neither pressures nor expectations. And so, guests in party frocks caught up with friends in pyjamas. People came late after work and started on the salad when everyone else was already on dessert. Wine glasses clinked against mugs of tea. Friends who had known each other for decades switched to their second language, so that the little boy from England could feel part of the celebration. 

At the heart of this inclusiveness are children. They are sent to bed early on school nights, but always stay up late with their parents at weekends. When families get together – which, in Bulgaria, is every weekend – one child is appointed to look after the others. This child (kaka if a girl; batko for a boy) is usually the oldest, as they have to stay awake until the rest of the kids have crashed in the spare bedroom. An extra slice of cake is the reward for their night’s work. This evening Andrew’s kaka was Bella, the ten-year-old daughter of one of Lilyana’s friends.

Strangers’ hands appeared in front of Andrew’s face to place bites of food in his mouth: shopska salad, sugar-dusted bread, pickled cucumber, strained yoghurt and banitsa (a cheese-filled pastry). Andrew didn’t know what any of them were – yet devoured them trustingly. Seeing him embrace the new food without hesitation, I again thought back to my first time in Bulgaria. I had never heard of any of the dishes served in the cafés, so lived on cold pizza from street kiosks.

Shopska Salad Traditional Bulgarian Dish Bulgaria by NoirChocolate, Shutterstock© NoirChocolate, Shutterstock

The celebration was about to move to a restaurant in the town. But it was already Andrew’s bedtime. Just as our taxi arrived at Lilyana’s apartment, his mum video-called, wanting to wish him goodnight. If she found out our plan – for him to party with us until Bella could lay him down on a pile of coats – he would never be allowed to come to Yambol again. But Andrew had an idea. Grinning like a Cheshire cat, he jumped into bed, tucking the blankets up to his chin to hide his party clothes. After a minute he yawned dramatically and said goodnight to his mum… so we could whisk him down the stairs and into the car.  

It was 3 a.m. when Andrew really went to bed. After a second dinner, the restaurant’s tables were pushed back to transform the dining area into a disco. The children did cartwheels on the dancefloor and, long past midnight, Ivayla and Bella helped Andrew into a handstand. This time I joined them: my son had shown me that it was time I followed his example for a change.

The next day we had to say dovizhdane and return home – but not before we had hatched plans for Pavlina’s family to come to visit us as soon as they could. After our flight from Sofia landed, I took Andrew back to his mum on the 152 bus. I had never seen him so happy as with his unexpected new friends. Andrew had learned that Bulgaria isn’t at the end of a London bus route. But he knows it isn’t far.

To discover more intrepid tales of travelling with children, check out our anthology:

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