Tarnovo, Bulgaria: Independence Day

Veliko Tarnovo

Olivia and I wandered around Sofia for two days like we had been friends for years. Perhaps the reality that our minutes together were drastically numbered added comfort to an otherwise suspicious and skeptical dynamic. We met when we both found ourselves stranded at the base of the Saint Sofia statue, desperately searching for the best way to dart across the four lanes of traffic moving steadily at all sides. I knew she was not local because she was following me and I’m sure I appeared quite lost, and she said that my small backpack and Chacos gave me away as a foreigner. Our brief friendship emerged when we decided that drivers would be less likely to run over two of us crossing together, instead of one of us alone. She was in Sofia on an English teaching assignment, and was from London with some family connections in the US, and had only arrived that day. We both got to see some of the city for the first time together, once we figured out how to cross the street.

I felt relieved to arrive in Sofia after my personal struggle in Serbia. It was like a second wind, not only because people smoked a whole lot less, but also because I finally got the sense to reserve a private room for myself at the hostel and take a break from the 24-hour schedule of bunk dorm living. Hostel Mostel where I stayed offered a breakfast buffet and dinner as part of its program, and although I never made it out for dinner, I did deeply appreciate the breakfast. Every morning began with strong coffee, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, feta cheese, and toast with apricot jam. I met an Australian couple who had been traveling for nearly a year with nothing more than a small backpack each, and a prison guard from Norway. The Australian couple began their journey in Indonesia, and traveled over land across Asia into Turkey and then Bulgaria; and the Norwegian described himself more like a therapist than a guard. He quickly pointed out that Norway’s prisons are not like the ones in US.

The village kitten.

I stayed in Sofia for three nights. On my last day in the city, Olivia and I stopped at a juice bar called “The Aloha Bar” that had an English language sign on the sidewalk, and was playing Bob Marley on its speaker system. We felt relieved to have found something familiar, as she and I had both noticed that food in Sofia was difficult to find and identify. I had already bought a jar of lemon curd that turned out to be crystallized honey. So we entered the juice bar, prepared to speak comfortable English, to discover that the menu was in Bulgarian only, and it appeared that nobody inside knew a word of English. We ordered 500ml of ябълка and морков which turned out to be apple and carrot, and really, any fresh squeezed juice is good.

My original plan after Sofia was to continue along to Plovdiv and then onto the Black Sea coast before heading into Bucharest, but I re-negotiated my schedule and decided to travel to Veliko Tarnova instead and spend three nights there before crossing the border. Veliko Tarnova is a quaint village in the northern Bulgaria countryside, and I had no idea that I was arriving on a culturally significant weekend. On September 22, Bulgaria celebrates its Independence from the Ottoman Empire, and Veliko Tarnovo serves as the pilgrimage site for complicated socio-historical reasons that I did not quite grasp in my short time there. I arrived in Tarnova amidst bus and train loads of Bulgarians and Bulgarian-enthusiasts to participate in a weekend of ethnic traditions, cultural festivities, and fireworks at the Fortress.

City Center
Veliko Tarnovo’s City Center.

At the hostel in Tarnovo, I formed a friendship with another English woman named Lewis. Lewis is a long-distance walker who literally wrote the English-language guide to hiking the Camino del Norte trail of the Camino de Santiago across Spain. We decided to get out of the town and visit the nearby village of Arbanassi, a four kilometer walk along a scenic roadway. In Arbanassi, we visited a monastery, walked along narrow cobblestone streets, shared a peanut butter sandwich in the shade, and discussed relationships, travel, and writing. That night at dinner, an English guy named George, who always had kittens following him, showed us the images of his day on his phone. He had been recording the traditional Bulgarian ethnic dancing, thousands of people in tight, interconnected circles, with arms linked, moving in unison through and around each other, some wearing traditional clothes, and some wearing their jeans and cardigans. He said he didn’t understand why English people have no ethnic identity, and why they only danced in the street during the Royal Weddings. I have thought about that question a lot, and my answer is because the English lost their ethnic identity thousands of years ago during the Roman conquest. If any history is traced back long enough, the indigenous root is discovered, marked with its tribal self.

Lewis at abandoned building in Arbanassi
Lewis exploring an abandoned building in Arbannasi.

Americans love our independence and our rights. As an American, I do wonder at what point “right” is blurred with “entitlement.” It is our right to own firearms, but as the schools merge with the battlefields, when do we re-evaluate our cultural position? I believe that we all have the right to clean air and water, healthy food and shelter, but then nowhere are those “rights” protected. Therefore, since they are not granted in the constitution, am I to believe that as a society, those necessities are considered “privileges?” However, I can pursue liberty and happiness to fulfill all my heart’s desires. So here I am, in Bulgaria, observing their Independence Day, reflecting on liberty, and searching for happiness, two concepts that perhaps are only temporarily achievable.

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