If the stories of how I learned Italian and Spanish were necessarily sunny, my story of how I learned Bulgarian is inevitably dark. A story of dissent, military drills, adultery and, as you might expect, evil ghosts trying to wrestle souls from the living.
You think I lie. But as a Cancerian, I’m astrologically incapable of doing so.
My relationship with the Bulgarian language – because it is in fact a relationship – began twenty years ago in Bethesda, Maryland. I was only nine and I was about to grasp the practical applications of mathematics. Because it was at nine that my soon-to-be best friend, who was mindbogglingly good at arithmetic and goodness knows what else, was sent up a grade into our fourth-grade class for math period.
She wore a purple T-shirt with a giraffe on it. She had black hair and Mediterranean skin that couldn’t hide the dark circles already shading her eyes with who knows what troubles. She had only just arrived from a planet named Bulgaria.
We became inseparable. We had sleepovers and swapped clothes and pretended she was married to Harry and me to Dick and that our kids were friends too. (Though I always wondered why I was the one who got stuck with Dick.) We rebelled against our suburban entrapment – with questionable success – by jumping off the high boards at the local pool shouting, “We hate blondes!”
Her father was a towering and eccentric dissident writer. Her unhappily married mother wore fine woollen suits that made her look like a Parisian screen goddess. Her brother was an Eastern European Houdini who filmed himself disentangling himself from a series of knots hanging upside down from the tallest tree in their backyard. They only spoke Bulgarian in the home. So I heard the language nearly every day from the age of nine to sixteen, so much so that I thought I spoke Bulgarian.
I didn’t. All I could say was “Blagordarja” (Thank you) and “Mahnetese ot tuka!” (Get out of here!)
But all those years of listening paid off later when, at university in Italy, I opted to study Bulgarian. On our first day of class, all the students sat nervously in a book-lined room waiting for our teacher to arrive. All two of us: Rosanna and me. Bulgarian clearly wasn’t considered a fundamental language outside Bethesda.
Rosanna and I both breathed a sigh of relief as our teacher walked in: petite and fine-featured, she smiled warmly and introduced herself as Iskra. But do not be fooled, as we initially were, by her façade: Iskra drove us like a lieutenant commander drives troops during times of war. Italian was not allowed at any time, for any reason. If we didn’t understand what she was saying, she would write it down and get us to check in the dictionary. We had homework from Day One and were required to write daily in a Bulgarian-only dairy. My first entry was pitiful but very soon, with Iskra’s military training unearthing my latent childhood knowledge, I was writing poetic (and not at all overdramatic) lines such as “Beauty follows behind me as I walk down the street; I can hear her footsteps on the cobblestones and feel her breath on my shoulder, but as soon as I turn around, she vanishes.”
And have I said, oh-so-humbly, that my pronunciation kicked butt?
Rosanna and I went on a month-long intensive language course in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. Afterwards, I visited my best friend’s remaining family in Sofia, a city I later returned to for three months. Now I know you all have been waiting for the juicy adultery chapter of my Bulgarian story. But my shame – and the need to protect others’ privacy – prevents me from going into too much detail. So instead I’ve put together a collage for you:
Twenty-two-year-old student on a three-month scholarship to Sofia. Long hair but not-so-long legs. She thinks she’s homely because she’s too young to know that a twenty-two-year-old is almost never homely. Bulgarian man in his late thirties, balding but with a distinct twinkle in his eyes. In the house, his mother and his miserable wife fight. At this, his eyes twinkle even more. He talks philosophy, poetry. Makes the girl understand there is nothing in life but the moment, the now! Twinkle, twinkle.
You get the point. Now the screen goes black and jumps to the next scene, primarily because – ahem – this is supposed to be the story of how I learned a language. In fact, to be more comprehensive, the collage should include shots of the young student who thought she was homely wandering Sofia marketplaces where there was little to buy. Taking notes and doodling during a lecture at the University of Sofia. Putting up her hair with a pen. Trying to look rather sombre because things in Eastern Europe were still quite serious in those days. Having her coffee grinds read in the Turko-Bulgarian tradition. Starting a life-long addiction to toast with honey and feta cheese. Rattling in a tram to Iskra’s home, the cold air seeping up through the gaps, up through her long black wool coat, which all her Bulgarian friends envied solely because it had hidden buttons. Go figure.
During that time, I was staying in a small attic apartment owned by my best friend’s father. In some places the slanting ceiling was so low you had to duck. There was room for very little: a toaster, a bărzovar – a smart but user-beware contraption to boil a cup of water which works like an electrical kettle but minus the kettle shell – a table, and a bed under the rafters.
I never did feel good in that apartment, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. My best friend’s aunts advised me not to spend too much time there, without giving a specific reason. Until one night when I figured it all out.
Let’s say, for simplicity’s sake, that I had a dream. The ‘dream’ lasted all night long and there was no actual plot; in fact, I’m not sure that I was ever truly asleep for any of it. In what I now understand was more of an out-of-body experience, several evil spirits descended from the ceiling. Though I couldn’t see their faces, I could feel their dark, powerful presence. All night long in the dark, they tried to wrench my soul from my physical body so as to take it for themselves, and all night long I fought against them in what was a painful mental and spiritual battle, my eyes opening and closing in and out of lucidity. In the morning, I woke up feeling battered and weak-kneed as if I’d just escaped death. I gathered my things and never slept there again.
Later, the aunts told me they’d thought the attic apartment was haunted. Years later, the Bulgarian Houdini, who also stayed there, told me he fled after experiencing something similar and learning that the previous tenant had hanged himself from the rafters.
It was the single most terrifying experience of my life, far worse indeed than finding myself in a rowboat out at sea with two Turkish fishermen, wearing only a bikini and a sarong.
But at least the ghosts had been speaking to me in Bulgarian.