Arriving in what was to be our home away from home in rural Bulgaria, we knew not a soul. But by the time we left Kalofer, a village tucked away in Central Bulgaria, where the livestock population quite possibly outnumbers the number of humans living there, an impromptu farewell committee was wishing us adieu.
As we rolled our bags out of town, over Kalofer’s bumpy roads spotted with droppings from the village’s numerous goat, cow, and horse residents, locals whom we’d not yet met popped their heads out over their fences exclaiming the equivalent of Bon voyage in Bulgarian.
They waved goodbye, flashed wide smiles, and head bobbles that we’d determined to be customary in the region – gestures that are reminiscent of those we encountered in India.
Our time in Kalofer had not been planned. We’d discovered the town accidentally while looking for accommodations nearby in Bulgaria’s second-largest city of Plovdiv.
Kalofer seemed to be appreciated among Bulgarians because of its proximity to Bulgaria’s famed lavender androse-growing fields, its annual Lace Festival, its well-groomed eco-trails, its monastery and convent, and its status as the birthplace of several national heroes and revolutionaries. It was also regarded as a town awash with tradition – one that was even able to retain Bulgarian customs despite nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule.
Shawn and I had been seeking somewhere “authentic”, a quiet place in which we could catch up on projects. Rural Kalofer, in the shadows of the Stara Planina mountain range, seemed to fit the bill.
Little did we know then that its 3000 or so residents would serendipitously show us all the Bulgarian culture that we had been seeking. From making homemade yoghurt and watching the distilling of brandy, we learned much about Bulgarian cuisine. We also had the opportunity to soak up Bulgarian arts as women spun lace and young musicians played folk tunes on bagpipes.
Homemade booties, jam and brandy: The kindness of strangers
In Kalofer, we found ourselves touched by the generosity of strangers. Our guesthouse owners filled our arms with flowers and succulent, homegrown tomatoes. Market vendors tossed complimentary zucchini, mini peppers, and carrots into our bag after we’d made our weekly purchases. Several motorists even pulled their cars onto roadsides, to offer us rides when we were out for a walk.
Our first night in Kalofer, we took to the town’s sleepy residential streets, wanting to get a lay of the land and the town’s logistical offerings. We spotted a pair of cows wandering the streets solo, munching on goodies they’d unearthed in garbage cans.
Heading to a Magasin (mini market), we encountered a group of four grandmothers, known as babas in Bulgarian. They were seated outside a brick home, some with canes in hand. They were gossiping, watching the livestock go by, waiting for the summer sun to slumber. We remarked that they’d likely known each other since childhood.
“Dobar den,” Shawn and I said, pulling out a pair of words we’d amassed from our scant Bulgarian-language arsenal. “Good day.”
At this, the grandmothers could not contain themselves. They waved their hands enthusiastically, and tossed out sentences chock-full of unknown Slavonic words, as if we had native proficiency of Bulgarian. The granny whom we deemed to have the strongest personality waved her cane in the air to make her points, as her companions giggled. We privately nicknamed her the “Alpha Baba”.
As students of North American body language, we instinctively nodded our heads “yes” and shook our heads side to side to signify “no”, even while remembering that Bulgarians do precisely the opposite.
In Bulgaria, a side-to-side shake or head wobble signifies “yes”, while the up-down nod means “no”.’This made the conversation ever the more confusing and lighthearted, and all we could do was laugh. Even the Bulgarian grannies chuckled, causing the wooden bench on which they were sitting to shake.
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