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My Last Days in Sofia

[Sofia, Bulgaria]

Once we returned from Kazanluk, my days in Sofia turned into a leisurely affair I could very easily get used to. My friends and family were all at work, so I’d sleep in, then have breakfast and coffee with mom and dad, then go run errands with mom – she’d always go out in the morning to pick up the newspaper and other odds and ends. I’d read the paper once we got home, then work on my blog or catch up on the phone with friends until the evening. That’s when everybody was free, so it became a little difficult to fit everything in.

On Monday, I had arranged a little reunion with those high school classmates of mine who were in Sofia. A large number of them live in Germany, so it’s virtually impossible to get everybody together, even at Christmas time. I’d always been the one to arrange our reunions when I’d come home from the States. This year though, another classmate came home in May and got everybody together. I thought I’d repeat the occasion, and so I set a date that was also, coincidentally, the first day of school here (Sept. 15 is when school starts, except when it falls on the weekend). We came to realize that we’d met exactly 20 years before, on Sept 15, 1994 (I felt so old!!!). Only 6 of us came but we were happy to be joined by one of our favorite teachers, Mrs. Djaleva. She taught Bulgarian literature in high school and although she was strict and hard, her sense of humor and her vivacious personality motivated us.

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Before my reunion though, I managed to squeeze in a quick visit with my sister-in-law Yulia, my niece Zariya and my nephew Samuil. I had a couple of hours between when Yulia got off work and when I had to meet up my classmates, so we put it to good use. I went with her to pick up the kids from day care, then we sat for a quick beer in a restaurant nearby. This was the first time I got to see them because they’d been out of town until now. The kiddos had grown so much!

Tuesday was shaping up to be another leisurely day until my friend Toni called. We met when I lived in Augusta, GA, and bonded immediately because she was one of only 2 Bulgarians in town. We’d traveled to Bulgaria together in 2009, and she came to CA to visit her son who lives in Palm Springs in 2010, but we hadn’t seen each other since. We had coffee at the Radisson hotel behind the tail of the horse. Yes, that’s a real location in Sofia! Right across the House of Parliament sits a monument of Alexander the II, the King of Russia who declared war on Turkey in 1877 and helped us gain independence from the Turks. Alexander II is depicted on horseback on the monument. There is a square behind the monument and a major city street starts there, and everything in that area is referred to as being behind the tail of the horse of Alexander II.

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With Toni behind the tail of the horse

I had wonderful time catching up with Toni, and we ended up walking together towards TSUM, a department store of sorts. She was planning on taking the metro from there, but I convinced her to go into TSUM with me, where I was meeting up with mom to see yet another exhibit. “Bulgaria In Miniature” was an exhibit of small-size models of all major historical and cultural buildings in Bulgaria. The exhibit had been traveling all over Europe for the past 10 years. Two of the models were of places we’d just seen on our trip! The models were beautifully crafted, and it was a wonderful way to see all these amazing places all over Bulgaria in the palm of your hand.

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Mini Tsarevets

Tuesday night, I spent some time with my nieces and nephew again, then dad and I watched a magnificent futbol match – the Bulgarian champion Ludogorets was only the second Bulgarian team to qualify for the Champions League finals, and their first match was away against the UK champ Liverpool.

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With my niece Ioana

Ludogorets already had lots of drama on their way here. They were playing their last qualifying match against Romanian team Steaua a few weeks ago. They needed a 1:0 win just to go into overtime, yet the score was 0:0 with seconds left in the game. Then a substitute got the ball from a deflection outside of the penalty box, and ever so effortlessly blasted it into the back of the Romanian net. Ludogorets survived with seconds to spare and took the game into overtime. 3 minutes left into that, with penalty shots looming, the Ludogorets goalie fouled a Romanian player who had outrun our defense. The foul took away an almost certain goal from the Romanians so the goalie was given a red card and sent off. Luckily, no penalty kick was given because the foul was outside of the penalty box, but losing our goalie just before penalty kicks was a disaster. Our other goalie was hurt, so one of the players put on the goalie jersey. His name – Cosmin Moti. His nationality – Romanian!!! In the following penalty shootout, he danced on the goal line like a ballerina, seemingly covering the distance between the goal posts in seconds. He saved two penalties and put Ludogorets into the Champion League finals! A Romanian sent home the Romanians! This fighting spirit of our team was evident against Liverpool, too. Completely unintimidated by the big guys, Ludogorets almost took the lead with a shot that hit the post in the second half. Liverpool only found the net with 8 minutes to go, but Ludogorets kept pressing. In the 90th minute, yet again, they scored a goal!!! It was 1-1!!! My dad and I screamed our hearts out when that happened. The ref added on 4 minutes of stoppage time. With seconds left, a crucial mistake by one of our defenders and our goalie resulted in a penalty kick against us. And so we lost 1-2. Crushing, just crushing defeat and completely undeserved… Argh! The Bulgarian fans though were an inspiration. You could hear their chants although they were outnumbered by Englishmen tenfold.

Wednesday was my nameday. Namedays are almost like birthdays. If you’re named after a saint in the Eastern Orthodox church, then you celebrate your nameday on the day of that saint’s feast. On Sept 17, people bearing the names Sophia, Nadeshda, Vyara and Ljubov celebrate their names. What was an otherwise another leisurely day for me was made special by all the calls and messages I received. In the evening, my parents and I went to the park with Yulia and my niece and nephew. There were at least 5 pubs sprinkled in the park, all of them serving food and with a full bar. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – at any moment you can decide to sit down for a beer or a drink or a shopska salad in the city, and you will be able to do so within a block or two. Even if you are in a park. Actually, especially if you are in a park.

Thursday was my dad’s 63rd birthday. This was the first time I’ve celebrated it with him since 1998. We went out for dinner at his favorite place in town.

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While at dinner, I asked my parents questions about how they grew up. Their answers were so surprising! My mom shared that when she came to Sofia for college, she had nowhere to wash her sheets so she’d send them home to her mom (she lived in another town over 100 miles away), who’d wash them in her washing machine and send them back. Mom’s building’s bathroom was in the basement, and it was an old-school squat toilet! She had no phone line either, so she’s get a note in the mail telling her to go to the post office on a certain day and time to receive a call from my grandmother, who would also have to go to the post office in her town to make the call. My dad shared how they used coal for heat back in the day, and they’d have to lug bucketfuls of it from the basement all the way to the 5th floor. Then they’d have to carry all the soot down too, and eventually my grandfather got tired of it and installed a reel on the balcony for that purpose. This is especially hard for me to imagine, because the apartment my father grew up in is the same my parents live in now, and I just can’t picture a coal oven in the kitchen. The building finally got central heat because a guy living on the 3rd floor was a minister during communist times. That was quite extraordinary, as most other buildings in the city center don’t have central heat even to this day.

These last few days in Sofia were wonderful, although I couldn’t help but start to feel sad about leaving as Friday drew near. I don’t think a day will ever come that I don’t feel that pinch in my heart…

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