Photograph by Emanuela Stanoeva
It’s perfectly legal for an adult to walk around here with an open alcohol container. Why shouldn’t it be? Left to right: Dakata, Dominic, Jarod, and Matt
I’ve been living and working in Eastern Europe for the past eight years. Sofia, Bulgaria to be exact. Behind the former Iron Curtain. It’s far from the stark Communist days but still a little rough around the edges. Though full of Balkan character and charming quirks, it’s a place that sometimes feels as if it’s caught in a time warp. Regardless, Bulgaria has become my second home, and I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.
When people find out that I live in Bulgaria but I’m originally from San Diego, their eyebrows usually shoot up and they immediately ask one of these three questions: Why Bulgaria? Where’s Bulgaria? What’s it like there?
Photograph by Emanuela Stanoeva
The ‘why’ will become more apparent by the end of this article.
The ‘where’ is relatively easy: north of Greece and west of the Black Sea.
What it’s like is more complicated, so let’s start by dropping right in:
Music is universal
The underground basement bar is much bigger than one would assume from the entrance. Loud Bulgarian rock music is being played live in the main room, around the dark corner. But I’m hanging out in the crowded galley kitchen of the bar — or what used to be a kitchen. It’s clearly out of use, and could double as a bomb shelter or a hideout in a post-apocalyptic movie. Dusty, rusty appliances are scattered around the warped counters and shelves. Cigarette and marijuana smoke clouds the air. No way in hell this would be allowed in San Diego. Liability and code violations galore. But I feel fine. I’m sitting next to my friend Matt, an ex-pat from Ohio.
Takoteka is the only Mexican place in Sofia — perhaps in Bulgaria — that can seriously claim to be making actual Mexican food. Even with this glorious distinction on their side, when I go there, I don’t expect it to be very good.
Photograph by Emanuela Stanoeva
He’s a professional musician, and so is almost everyone else around us, backed into this long-abandoned kitchen which now serves as the de facto "backstage." Bulgarian is the lingua franca so I don’t know what the hell anyone is really talking about, which is kind of cool because then there’s no eavesdropping, no judgement. Across from me, I recognize a drummer, Dakata, and say “Zdrasti”(hello). He’s a friend of Matt’s and is actually famous in Bulgaria. There are other well-known musicians in the room who, upon meeting me and hearing my zdrasti — you get used to so many consonants together — can clearly tell that I don’t recognize their faces in the least. They seem refreshed by this, or at least indifferent.
One guy with an Angus Young hat and black Metallica T-shirt asks where I’m from. When I say San Diego, California, his eyes light up. California. The American Dream. “Wow. Very cool,” he says. He’s right, but he has no idea how much rent runs in San Diego, or that all the bars would be closed by now (2:30 am), even in non-pandemic times, or that the cigarette he’s smoking would make him persona non grata in almost any public outdoor space, and a law-breaker indoors.
Angus’s English is much better than my Bulgarian, per normal, so we forge ahead. Yeah, some conversations might be limited and somewhat primitive with the language barrier, but I like the fact that it often eliminates bullshit and pretense.
Jarod’s always brewed beer, and he’s brought his hobby to Bulgaria. I’m sure if he wanted to, he could start his own brewery and ride the street cred of being from San Diego (a craft beer Mecca) and simply having good brewing skills.
Photograph by Dominic Carrillo
When I first traveled decades ago, I was sometimes concerned about how I would be perceived as an American. Ignorant? Naive? Imperialist? Sometimes I worried about being judged, so I would speak sparingly and softly, careful to avoid the ugly American stereotype. Not anymore. Though I haven’t become completely obnoxious, I trust that most people I meet will judge me for who I am, as an individual, rather than as some representative of America. My stunted conversation with Angus turns to the opening band. “Did their last song sound like Rage Against the Machine, or was it just me?”
Whatever the indie music scene is in San Diego, I know it’s far from this one, which is still taking cues from the 1990s.
Matt turns to me with a non sequitur: “This is our lives, man. Pretty funny, huh?”
Not only because the music in the background is now a 1980s Bulgarian cover song that for some reason sounds familiar to me. Not only because, as I scan the packed, smoke-filled room, I wonder if there are no rules here, or if it’s just that people don’t ever follow them.
Funny, because it all makes peculiar sense to me.
Before leaving this foreign yet familiar basement bar (think Casbah if it were underground), I get a beer — birra in Bulgarian. The bartender asks if Staropramen is okay. Da, I say, as if I’m auditioning for the bad guy part in a Cold War-era James Bond movie. When she hands me the 22-ounce bottle, she says dva — two. She’s referring to the cost, which has now become the expectation. Two Bulgarian leva is approximately $1.13. I hand her three leva and she gives me an approving nod at the unexpected 57-cent tip.
The price of beer is a decent indicator of Sofia’s general cost of living. And this now factors into my reverse culture shock whenever I return to San Diego. Are the prices in bars and restaurants completely outrageous, or have I just become a cheap bastard? It’s nearing 3 am, so I begin my walk home along cobblestone streets, Staropramen in hand. It’s perfectly legal for an adult to walk around here with an open alcohol container.
Why shouldn’t it be?
Tacos you can’t compare
Before we drop into a Mexican restaurant on Tsar Shishman Street, a few things need to be made clear. This is the only Mexican place in Sofia — perhaps in Bulgaria — that can seriously claim to be making actual Mexican food. Even with this glorious distinction on its side, when I go there, I don’t expect it to be very good. This is partially because I’m half Mexican, but mostly because I’m from San Diego, which has some of the best Mexican food in the world. When I go to Takoteka, I expect only a few hints of the Mexican food that I dearly miss and crave — like decent guacamole, serviceable chips, salsa, and some seasoned ground meat in an imported corn tortilla. And I know what not to order, like the enchiladas that look more like mini Old El Paso burritos drowning in marinara sauce. Here’s some perspective: The first time I went to Takoteka, they served us tortilla chips in a stemless wine glass accompanied by a thimble full of salsa. I almost walked out, but have since learned what to order there and to lower my general expectations. I know, I know, it’s a stupid and masochistic experiment to try and find good Mexican food in Eastern Europe — and believe me, I have tried — but I can’t help it.
It’s not like I ignore Bulgarian food, which is great and rich in history. They’ve mastered the art of grilling vegetables, making phyllo dough-heavy banitsa, seasoning homegrown potatoes, and using pork in a variety of ways. In fact, the prevalence of pork has served as a symbolic middle finger to the nearly 500-year Ottoman Empire’s occupation of Bulgaria. Yes, swine was eaten to spite the Muslim occupiers. Yet Bulgaria has obviously adopted Eastern and Mediterranean influences in their cuisine, notably lentils and shopska salad (similar to Greek salad, but don’t tell a Bulgarian that). There’s also the meat-and-potatoes, borscht influence of Russia — which essentially controlled Bulgaria as a puppet state during the Cold War, but functioned as their liberators in 1878. The regional alcohol of choice is called rakia, a fruit-based brandy that many Bulgarians have been drinking for years in order to forget temporarily about the ills of Ottoman occupation, Communist repression, and now. the lingering institutional corruption.
Yeah, you can’t compare the tacos here (and most places) to San Diego’s. But the last time I went to Takoteka, a larger question hit me. Why was I seeking out not only Mexican food but anything familiar (i.e. dive bars with live music) here? Didn’t I move to Eastern Europe for a taste of something new, a foreign adventure, a different life? I did, but after a few years, I realized that I’d been seeking Mexican food (and other interests) out of habit, even though I was obviously in the wrong place to do so. Turns out that the food we eat is a huge part of our identity. And like it or not, though we move to new places to find something different, we often end up seeking the familiar. At least I have.
Jarod from San Diego
We’re in Jarod’s garage. It’s as narrow as a parking space at the mall, but has room for two kegerators and all the equipment he needs to brew beer. There are four taps mounted on the floor refrigerator and a chalkboard with the original names of his hoppy craft beers.
The why: teaching
Last year, Jarod uprooted his entire family — two kids, a wife, and a dog — to move to Sofia, Bulgaria to teach. Most assume that teaching abroad must center on teaching English to foreigners — some kind of ESL program. The truth is that we teach at an international school, one of thousands in the world. They began by providing education for the children of embassy and multinational employees, then grew with globalization and the demand for Western education (read: status).
I teach Social Studies. Jarod teaches Math.
And when I sit in his beach chair after pouring myself a glass of his delicious lemongrass saison, I ask him a question that I already know the answer to.
“Would you ever teach in an American public school again?”
“Nope,” he says without hesitation.
It’s obvious. If you could trade a classroom of 35 students, standardized testing, and scarce resources for 15 students per class, no standardized tests, and all the educational resources you could ask for, wouldn’t you? And what if your school paid for your travel expenses, a three-bedroom apartment in a European capital, and a salary that — adjusted for cost-of-living and US income tax exclusion — was more than you were paid in the US?
They call these questions no brainers, but we both admit that it was frightening to willingly jump into the unknown.
“We had no clue what life would be like here,” Jarod says, “But it’s turned out to be pretty awesome.”
I have to agree.
We talk about the little things we appreciate about living in Sofia, like walking to grocery stores, cafes, bars, and restaurants, which brings us back to a common theme.
“It’s so cheap to live here,” he says.
“Did you ever think you’d be able to take your wife out to a nice restaurant and see a check for 20 bucks?” I ask.
Jarod just laughs.
Bulgarians might not like to hear this repeated, because it’s all relative, and people doesn’t want their homeland to become synonymous with the word “cheap,” but it’s true. In the 1990s, friends told me that I needed to go to Prague and buy a beer in a bar for 20 cents. By the time I made it there in 2001, it was 40 cents. Those days are gone, but being behind the Iron Curtain for decades has set the region back economically. Though it won’t last forever, the deals are still everywhere in Bulgaria.
Jarod and I chat about craft beer in San Diego — how the market blew up and became saturated — but how there’s still nowhere else in the world with such a selection of excellent hoppy beers. In Bulgaria, there are a few craft brewers, but it’s hit and miss. Some are good. Others.... Jarod’s always brewed beer, and he’s brought his hobby here. I’m sure if he wanted to, he could start his own brewery and ride the street cred of being from San Diego (a craft beer mecca) and simply having good brewing skills.
We throw around references to San Diego landmarks that elicit smiles and don’t require the tedium of explanation. But Jarod and I find it difficult to reminisce about San Diego and not hit on the topic of Mexican food — carne asada burritos, rolled tacos, chilaquiles. The craving and longing are real. It’s the one thing that is incomparable and so horribly attempted in Europe. Unlike most residents, we’ve both been to multiple Mexican restaurants throughout Bulgaria on our travels, and we’re disappointed every time. So why do we keep searching?
It hits me that here we are, two San Diegans, speaking English, drinking essentially San Diegan craft beer, and talking about our quest for SoCal Mexican food in a Bulgarian garage.
I didn’t envision this life. I didn’t move to Eastern Europe to recreate San Diego in a 10x20 garage.
Emigrating to another country for a new challenge and experience is not for everyone. And when I made the leap in 2012, I did it with a curiosity and respect for other cultures. I continue to do so, but I recognize the importance of connecting with people who share my experience and background. In the search for the foreign, we often come back to the familiar, no matter how far away we get. Maybe that’s part of the beauty and the balance: doing both. We can seek the new and unique adventures, yet always carry our past and naturally search for the comfort of what we know already.