This was probably the least prepared I’d ever been for a trip. I hadn’t read any books (and there aren’t many, regardless), had not put time into any interwebs searches, and didn’t know anyone who had ever visited Bulgaria before. Jess had arranged a hotel for the first night, and we had a rental car reserved. I knew the Black Sea lay to the east and that the food would be good (Bulgaria is at the crossroads of Turkish-Italian-Greek influence… I mean, come on!), but I was really showing up cold for this one in a way that was odd even for a guy who likes to travel without plans. So, over coffee at the Vienna airport, I finally cracked open the travel guidebook.
Now, 24 hours into our Bulgarian roadtrip, I’m trying to put into words why we’re here. Here’s where I find myself at the end of Day 1:
1. Riverfront Cafe Dining at Sunset. Now, granted, from where we were sitting, we could see neither river nor sunset, but I’m nearly certain the river was there (The Google never lies, right?) and the fact that it was getting darker meant the sun was setting somewhere, even if it wasn’t on the horizon in front of me. It was still a remarkable setting on a narrow cobblestone street underneath a network fruit-laden of grape vines. The price was right (4 appetizers, homemade bread, 2 entrees, 2 waters, beer and wine for $23), and the entertainment sparked clever conversation (watching old Roman traditions die hard as a 6 year old boy nearly impaled himself on a replica sword or proud cats fresh off the rat hunt, catch dangling from mouths). Oh, and the World Cup was on the tv inside. I could do this everyday.
2. She Picked It. Ever since Romania, Jess has been lobbying for Bulgaria. She tends to have good ideas, and she sticks to even the questionable ones (ie, marrying me). Best to keep her happy.
3. No Means No – Except When No Means Yes. Why not complicate the simplest form of non-verbal communication in the western world? Bulgarians use a side-to-side head bob to express “yes” and an up-and-down one to signify “no.” And, to make matters worse, some Bulgarians will switch it up with tourists so as not to confuse them. Only some. Not helpful (I’ll let you guess which way I’m shaking my head).
4. Valley of The Roses. In Central Bulgaria, there is a valley that produces more than two-thirds of the world’s rose oil. How do I know this? By chance, it was the first page I turned to when I opened the guidebook in the Vienna airport. In addition to it currently being bloom season for Bulgarian roses, they make much better and less addictive presents for the kids than gifts from some other of the world’s high-density bloom regions, like Afghanistan’s Valley of The Poppies.
5. Poison-tipped Umbrellas. While there are rumors of fire walkers and people who keep trick bears on chains in the Southern mountains near the Turkish border, it appears the greatest Bulgarian trick in recent memory was the 1978 assassination of dissident journalist Georgy Markov by poison umbrella. Markov had recently left Bulgaria for London and was set to work at the BBC when one morning he was poked in the back of the leg by a poisoned umbrella tip. Markov was dead three days later, and the operation is thought to have been the work of the Bulgarian secret service. Though Scotland Yard reopened the case in 2008, Bulgaria closed it in 2013 citing statute of limitations. I plan to keep us safe on the streets by giving umbrella-wielding men the stink eye and generally suspiciously glances, and everyone enjoys an added layer of mystery and thrill on vacation.
6. Yogurt. I taught a student whose family was from Bulgaria, and we joked for years about yogurt. It doesn’t sound that great, but witty yogurt jokes were a memorable part of those 2007 history classes. Bulgarians claim to have invented it. Proof may be in the pudding, er, yogurt: the bacteria lactobacillus bulgaricus is central to global yogurt production.
7. To Become A Better Father. Time to reflect and think – it’s needed to get better at pretty much anything, and fatherhood is no different. So, while spending Father’s Day away from my kids may seem counterintuitive, this time each year provides me with space to reflect, refocus, and re-energize. Beer helps too, even when the only ones available are Bulgarian.
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads, Bulgarian and others, out there. So happy to be one myself.