This is an unusual story of boy meets girl, in a land far, far away….
In the winter of 2002, I received an invitation from the United States Peace Corps to serve as a Volunteer in the Peace Corps’ Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) program. I had a general idea of where Bulgaria was, but admittedly, I pulled out a map just to make sure. This small Balkan country is about the size of Virginia and is often referred to by Bulgarians as the crossroads between Europe and Asia. I lived in a town of about 3,000 people in the northeast part of the country, about sixty miles south of the Romanian border. The two years I spent there changed my life: I learned a new language, I taught for the first time, I became part of a new community, I met my husband, and I learned more about myself than I ever imagined I would.
Bulgaria may not be at the top of most people’s vacation destination lists, but it is a country filled with rich beauty and culture. From its people and history to its food and natural landscapes, Bulgaria is a wonderland of adventure.
At the time I left for my Peace Corps service, digital cameras hadn’t yet become widespread, and I brought with me a refurbished 35mm manual Nikon. It took great photos (although photo development was hit or miss in different parts of the country), and I have hundreds of them tucked away in photo albums, never thinking that photo albums would so quickly become a thing of the past.
I spent my first three months in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps Trainee in Panagyurishte, a small town about two hours by bus from the capital city of Sofia. While there, I lived with the most wonderful host family. I spent my weekdays in Bulgarian language classes, professional development courses, and on field trips with other Trainees. On the weekends, I spent time with my host family either in town or in a nearby village, where my host father’s parents had a house.
Nine years after my first summer in Bulgaria, I had the good fortune of being able to visit again and spend some time with my host family in Panagyurishte.
My assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer was to teach English. Each of the years I was there, I had a total of about sixty students in the four or five classes I taught each day. The grade levels ranged from fifth through eighth during my first year. In my second year, I taught sixth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades. With limited language skills and few resources, the work was a challenge for me. At 22, I also had little life experience and missed my family and friends back home a lot.
The first winter was tough. The days were dark and often lonely. My apartment was cold and I wound up with frost nip on my toes, which still causes me problems today. I’d gained about 20 pounds. I went to Switzerland for Christmas that year to visit my great aunt. Her familiar face and warmth and her cozy home made me not want to return to Bulgaria. She convinced me that I had to, that if I didn’t, I would always question my ability to fulfill my commitments in the future. I returned and pushed myself through winter.
In March 2003, I changed apartments and had a nicer, warmer space. The weather eventually became warm and sunny again, and I made friends. My best girlfriends from back home came to visit me. I reached a turning point halfway through my service and things got better.
I made a point of seeing people more often and sometimes traveled to see other places in the country and visit other Peace Corps Volunteers.
M. arrived in Bulgaria in the spring of 2004. Following about six weeks of training, he received his assignment and made a site visit to the town, a place called Zavet, where he would be living for two years. It happened to be the same town where I was wrapping up my service. He came on the visit to meet his future co-workers, see where he would be living, and get a general sense of the town. That’s when we met.
M. stayed in Zavet for about four days. I introduced him to people and shared some of my experiences living there with him. When he left, I gave him my best wishes and bid him good luck. I did not expect to see him again.
I returned to the United States a couple of months after M.’s visit to Zavet. To my surprise, within a few weeks, I received an email from him with an update on how both he and Zavet were doing. It was a mass email; I was one of many recipients. Still, it meant a lot to me that he had included me.
A year later, I visited Bulgaria for a week. I had missed it and its people. I saw M. again when I went to Zavet. His service was going well, and he was enjoying the experience. It seemed he had more friends than I did, and was even dating a local woman. He also had a digital camera.
(Photo credits below: M. Click any photo to view as a slideshow.)
When I visited Bulgaria again in 2011, I went back to Zavet. I spent a good chunk of the summer there, trying to make a relationship work with an old friend from Zavet with whom I’d reconnected several months prior. Despite our best efforts, the relationship wasn’t meant to be and ended a few weeks after I returned home.
While some things about Zavet remained the same as the day I had arrived nine years earlier, I was surprised to see that much had changed. The population had decreased by a third. There were new, more modern buildings, and the school had been renovated. Most of my former students and many of my friends had gone to other cities or countries. Those who remained reminisced with me about the times we’d shared together many years before. This time, I had a digital camera in tow.
The first thing I saw when I arrived in town were the familiar sunflower fields that highlight the countryside all around Zavet.
Of course, I enjoyed several authentic Bulgarian salads during my visit.
I also visited the 16th century Alevi mausoleum of Demir Baba Teke, just a few miles away from Zavet. This was one of the first places my school colleagues had taken me on a field trip when I’d arrived in 2002.
I spent some quality time with my good friend who had been like a mother to be while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. She shared with me some of her honeycomb harvest.
A summer visit to Bulgaria wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Black Sea coast. I couldn’t believe how much real estate had developed over the years, compared with my visits to the sea while I was in the Peace Corps. With thousands of hotels and condos to rent, there is no shortage of lodging accommodations.
After my summer visit to Bulgaria in 2011, I moved to Iowa. Shortly after my move, I traveled to Washington, DC on business, where I had dinner with M. We hadn’t seen each other in six years, since my visit to Zavet in 2005 while he was still living there. We had gone our separate ways in that time, both professionally and personally, but we were both entering new phases of our lives: I in Des Moines, and he as a Foreign Service Officer. We stayed in better touch this time, and he visited me in Iowa several months later, at the end of March 2012. A year later, we got married… in the end, all thanks to beautiful Bulgaria.
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