My Best Friend in Silistra is a 60-year-old man

I’m an extrovert. I constantly seek out the company of others, and rarely prefer spending time alone. Looking back, I’ve more or less been completely surrounded by people since starting college. Duke was a nonstop social overload (that I loved) and with so many young people at Target and in Minneapolis, finding friends to socialize with was never a problem.

It’s been a different story so far in Silistra. Sure, I enjoy the daily interactions with my students and colleagues, but it’s just not the same as what I’m used to. Silistra (and much of rural Bulgaria, for that matter) lacks young adults. After graduating high school, many aspiring students decide to study and work abroad. At the very least, they opt to move to Sofia or Plovdiv where there are more opportunities for education and employment. That coupled with the language barrier has made making friends challenging.

Enter: Krasimir

I first met Krasimir (Krassy) a little over a month ago. My teacher mentor Valentin was over at my apartment helping me figure out how to get my apartment wired for the Internet. We were out in the hallway talking, and all of a sudden the door across the hall from me swung open. I looked up and was surprised to see an older man with a gray mustache and distinctive beer belly staring back at us…in nothing but his underwear. He was very inquisitive, and began asking Valentin about who I was and what problems we were having with the Internet. It was only after about 10 minutes that he finally excused himself to put on some pants. He returned quickly, however, and insisted we follow him into his apartment.

We sat around his living room table and discussed the problems we were having with the Internet setup. For whatever reason, Krassy made it his personal mission to help us, vowing that he had friends who worked for the cable company, and that he would call them right away…well, right after we joined him for a glass of whiskey. He told us a bit about his background: he has a window business, a daughter living in the UK, and a wife who works in Varna (a beautiful Bulgarian city on the Black Sea Coast). My favorite thing he said, however, was translated for me as, “I just can’t believe how many friends I have!” With his outgoing personality and affable nature, I believed him!

Now because the conversation was mostly in Bulgarian, I was pretty quiet. However, after only about an hour, I somehow made enough of an impression on Krassy that he said I was “like a son” to him, and he has treated me that way ever since.

Krassy, me, Krassy's wife Nadia

Krassy, me, Krassy’s wife Nadia

A couple times each week, Krassy rings my doorbell right around dinner time, and beckons me into his apartment. The three course meals he prepares are a welcome change to the pasta, sandwiches, and cereal I was “cooking.” At first, conversation was a little frustrating. My Bulgarian was still very limited, and Krassy doesn’t speak any English. Despite the language barrier, we actually understand each other quite well, but I have to imagine we would be quite a spectacle for any onlooker.

As a fly on the wall (and yes, there are plenty of actual flies on the wall), here are some things you would likely see:

  • Drawings. Lots of drawings. When neither of us can find the right words, we draw pictures. We just recently went through the last sheet of what started as a brand new notepad!
DSCN0682

Bats and a little geography lesson

DSCN0683

Krassy teaches me how to tell time and wear a funny hat??

DSCN0684

The sound effects Krassy makes to describe a pig are hilarious

  • An intense game of charades. Body language and gesturing are essential for communication when words alone are insufficient.
  • Me writing intensely. I always bring my own notebook, and leave with a new page of Bulgarian words and phrases. Krassy always points to random objects, and tells me the word in Bulgarian. My pocket Bulgarian-English dictionary is always nearby too.
  • Me telling Krassy that I’m full and can’t possibly eat anything else.
  • Krassy subsequently serving me more and insisting that I finish it.
  • Krassy repeatedly telling me that his pet rabbit “peshoo” is in the mafia (I find this especially funny).
SONY DSC

Peshoo leading a mafia meeting

  • Krassy chain smoking…it is the Bulgarian way, after all!
  • Krassy calling across the balcony to his neighbors who speak a bit of English when we need help translating.
  • Krassy giving me instructions on how to get over my cold: drinking one liter of tea with lemon and honey, soaking my feet in very hot salt water (still don’t understand this one), putting a heating pad on my face (“make sure you don’t go above the 1st setting!”). Oh, and a dash of rakia, of course.
DSCN0671

Krassy’s Cold Remedy

  • Krassy explaining what’s being said on TV. His favorite shows are Serbian music television, the news, and shows about aliens or Egyptians. Every once and awhile, he turns on CNN in English, and asks several times if I can understand it…I still can, Krassy.
  • Krassy telling me that I need to get flannel pajamas like his before winter arrives.
  • Krassy insisting I talk to people on the phone when they call. I’ve spoken with his wife, mother, and friends in a mixture of Bulgarian and English. This seems to be of particular amusement to Krassy, as he always laughs hysterically in the corner.
  • Friendship. I’ll be honest, I was a bit skeptical about Krassy at first. I didn’t want my social life to revolve around my 60-year-old neighbor, and I thought the communication barrier would be insurmountable. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I now look forward to spending time with Krassy, and feel fortunate to have a neighbor so invested in my well-being.
SONY DSC

Krassy being Krassy

I’m about to leave for Bucharest, where I will be picking up my parents and younger sisters. I can’t wait to show them around Bulgaria…and introduce them to my best friend in Silistra, of course!

Advertisements

My journey begins

Well folks, it’s finally here. Departure day. It’s been almost 4 months since I first received my grant confirmation in April. Since then, I’ve left my job with Target, run more errands than I can count, traveled for several fun vacations and wedding celebrations, and said numerous goodbyes to coworkers, friends, and family. With so much going on, those 4 months flew by, and it’s hard to imagine that today is actually here. The first leg of my journey is behind me, and I’m sitting in Chicago awaiting my flight across the pond. I fly from here to Warsaw, Poland where I’ll connect to Sofia, Bulgaria.

DSCN0182Before: Clothes laid out to pack

luggage

After: Fit ~60% of what was laid out in first picture

It’s hard to articulate how I feel right now. I’m excited, sad, eager, and anxious, all at the same time. I know the anxiety will subside once I arrive and am forced to be sharp as I navigate a new country. I’ll spend my first night at a hotel in Sofia very close to the airport. On Sunday, a shuttle will take me to Pravets where I will participate in the Fulbright International Summer Institute (unfortunately nicknamed FISI) for two weeks. I’ll share more specific information about my classes and the experience in a later post.

DSCN0207

Visa and Flight path: MSP –> ORD –> WAW –> SOF

As a parting thought, when I was at the airport in Minneapolis, I couldn’t help but get sucked into the news story on the TV at my gate: U.S. begins airstrikes in Iraq. For me, it was yet another reminder of why the Fulbright’s mission to enhance mutual understanding is so important. With unrest in Ukraine and rockets in Gaza, the need for reciprocal awareness and tolerance between nations, ethnicities, religions, and people is abundantly clear. Learning about your neighbors and seeking to understand their motivations can go a long way, and ultimately help prevent or resolve conflict. As a cultural ambassador, I’m excited to play a small part in fostering this way of thinking.

Thanks to everyone for your texts, calls, e-mails, facebook messages, and blog posts. Each one energizes me and instills more confidence that I can make a real impact on the world.