Sofia's Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
I hung out the other day with a 50-something-year-old Bulgarian bus driver named Boris.
He'd taken one of my classes on a field trip, and I’d offered to buy him and the tour guide a drink at some point later that day. It was a gesture. I didn’t think they’d really take me up on the offer, but I'm glad they did.
The three of us sat at a table on the sidewalk in front of a small bar. Boris didn’t speak much English. His voice was deep and his accent was thick. But my Bulgarian vocabulary, about 25 words, was much worse. So the tour guide, Lukas, served as the translator most of the time.
Before our beers arrived, Boris pulled out a plastic water bottle with a gold-colored liquid inside. He smiled so widely that his eyes became narrow slits.
“You have my Rakia?” he asked and pointed to the bottle. “I make. Try.”
“Yes,” I said. It was still early in the afternoon, but I didn’t want to be impolite and reject an elder Bulgarian’s friendly offer of homemade rakia.
Boris poured a tall glass halfway full and rambled something off in Bulgarian.
“He says that rakia bought in stores is probably 30 to 40 proof power,” Lukas translated, “But this homemade stuff is close to 70 proof.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Nazdravey,” Boris said and held his glass out to mine. Lukas did the same.
We all took big sips. The rakia was strong.
I made a pained expression, and Boris chuckled like a mafioso as he leaned back in his chair. But the smile was soon wiped off of his face when two teenage boys ran by our table yelling at each other, almost bumping into us. Boris shook his head and grunted like an angry bear.
“This problem now,” he said, and trailed off in his native tongue.
“He says that there is no order in these days,” Lukas explained. “He misses this about the Soviet times. There was order then. No crime. No teenagers running around like that. No problems.”
“No problems?” I asked.
“Well, yes, there is always some problems,” Lukas admitted, “but comparatively it was a good time.” Lukas was speaking for himself now: “I don’t agree, but he is much older than me. He was in the Red Army too.”
“What else did Boris like about the Soviet Era?” I asked.
Lukas translated my question and Boris concentrated on him, then me. He paused before responding in Bulgarian. Lukas translated: “He says things were more equal in Communist times. Everybody could go to the mountains in the winter and to the beach in the summer… Nobody was poor and hungry. We didn’t have much, but there was no excess… Also, the leaders led and there were no questions. It was simple and direct.”
I took another drink of rakia and added another cube of ice. Even though I knew the basics of Soviet history, I asked Boris more questions because this man had lived it.
“What was worse about the Soviet times, compared to now?”
Lukas didn’t need to translate my question because Boris understood me.
Lukas listened to Boris’s response and then explained: “He says that if you wanted to buy a car back then, you had to save up for fifteen years. Then you could only buy Russian-made Lada… Now we have more choices, but only the rich can make whatever choices they want.”
“Is that the only thing that’s better?” I asked.
“He says that you couldn’t talk about the government in a bad way. If you did, they would find out and put you in a prison camp.”
I nodded my head indicating that I understood, but knew that I hadn’t absorbed it in any real sense. My only knowledge of political prison camps was what I’d seen in the movies.
“You like?” Boris asked me in English, pointing to his glass of rakia.
“Da,” I lied. “It’s good.” What else could I say? He’d made the drink himself and it was clear that he took great pride in it. “It’s strong.”
“Da,” Boris said and laughed, “Very strrrong.” He grabbed my glass and poured more rakia for me, with apparently no regard for our waiter or the bar’s policy on bringing your own liquor.
I drank that glass and the next one he poured me because I was being polite, which was a mistake. It turns out that mixing rakia and beer doesn’t work. But I loved the experience: sitting and drinking with a former Soviet soldier, hearing about his nostalgia and mixed feelings about past- and present-day Bulgaria.
And I caught myself self-actualizing again. I'm in Sofia, Bulgaria, unintentionally getting drunk at four in the afternoon off homemade rakia, a liquor I didn’t previously know existed. I had left San Diego almost two years ago with a sense of urgency. It was now or never, I had thought, and maybe I was right. I’d always wanted the challenge and adventure of travel and work abroad, but the timing never seemed right.
There were always commitments: Relationships. Family. Security. Steady salaries (but no savings).
There was also fear of the unknown:
That undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. Puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than to go to others we know not of.
That’s how I’d connected to Macbeth when I first read those lines. Shakespeare was talking about death, but I took it as symbolic death. It may sound overdramatic, but somewhere into my early thirties, I began to feel that life was too brief to wait for your dreams to be realized someday in the future.
So I left, and I'm glad I did.
Rakia might not be my favorite drink, but Sofia feels like the right place for now.