Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Home from Turkey and Bulgaria

Jet lag is starting to fade, as my regular life resumes. On Saturday morning, my two traveling companions and I got up at 3:00, Istanbul time, so we could catch the shuttle to the airport for a 6:10 flight. Just 24 hours later on the same day, we were on the last leg of the journey (and in case you're wondering, we're still friends).

It was a great trip! Though I made inquiries at several English-speaking schools, I had no paid work on the journey. I told a few stories to friends, in both English and Bulgarian, just for the heck of it. This was an actual vacation, a rare occurrence.

We went first to Istanbul for a few days. We easily could have spent weeks exploring this enormous and fascinating city. Of course we went to the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, the Grand Bazaar, the Cisterns, Topkapi Gardens, and the Spice Bazaar. We also took a ferry to Asia for lunch (I love saying that!). Though it was not yet high season for tourists, we found ourselves constantly fending off offers to visit rug stores or eat in specific restaurants. We relaxed on the rooftop terrace of our guest house and watched dolphins in the Sea of Marmara from the breakfast room.

On Wednesday, we took a bus to Bulgaria. I had expected it to be awful: crowded, smoky, uncomfortable. It was the opposite. We each had our own pair of seats, there was a steward who brought us tea and a snack, there was no smoking on the bus (unlike the ride back, when the driver smoked).

First we went to Plovdiv. I hadn't been in Bulgaria since 1993, but I found that the language came back quickly. We visited the old city, where buildings are preserved or built in the style of the late 1800s. At the ethnographic museum my friend who is a blacksmith got to discuss her craft with a local artisanal blacksmith (many of those words weren't in my little dictionary). We drank espresso in plastic cups on the street, and tasted baklava, banitsa and gevretsi. Bulgaria is the land of street food.

From Plovdiv we took a bus to Sofia. In both towns, we stayed in comfortable apartments instead of hotels. The apartment in Sofia was not far from Sofia University, where I studied in 1983-84, and the National Library, where I did research in 1988. My neighborhood.

We toured around the city, but best of all, we visited my friends, who exhibited traditional Bulgarian hospitality. We enjoyed family dinners and were driven around the country to visit monasteries, museums, and other cultural monuments. If the weather forecast had been better, we would have gone hiking. We got to see real Thracian gold as well as archaelogical treasures from the 5th millennium BC. My American friends were as surprised to see the stunningly beautiful snow-capped mountains as they were to see the incredible busy-ness of Sofia (population has doubled to 2 million in the last 10 years). I was sad to see how poor the city looks, though I knew that behind the dilapidated external apartment walls, people take great pride in their homes.

I introduced my friends to my favorite Bulgarian foods: shopska salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, feta cheese), lukanka (a dried sausage), sheep yoghurt, kashkaval (a yellow cheese), sour cherry jam and so much more.

Normally when I travel, I look for collections of folktales. We didn't have enough time for me to browse at length in bookstores. Instead, I refreshed my own memories, so when I tell "Blood, guts, spies, and fat naked ladies" this July in the Kansas City Fringe Festival, my personal fiction will be fresher than it was last summer.

On the bus back to Istanbul, I thought about that story, about how it might be different from my telling last year at the National Storytelling Conference Lyceum. We'll see. I also thought about how I could get back to Bulgaria. I dream of going to the Festival of Humor and Satire, held only every few years in the town of Gabrovo. I'll let you know if I get there.