My boyfriend and I were on Knez Alexandar, the main shopping drag in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, waiting for the tattooed palachinki vendor to finish his Rick James imitation and give me my crepe. He was a smug kid, bleached blond buzz cut and lip ring. But I’d been traveling for a few years now; I knew how tempting it was for locals to make the tourists wait, especially the young ones. They thought they understood how the world worked. I was young, too.
We were in Plovdiv for a week for two reasons: It was cheaper to fly into Sofia than it was to Athens, where my boyfriend would begin a month-long fellowship in Greece, and I had always wanted to visit Bulgaria.
Sofia was our base. Sofia’s a melancholy city, full of post-Soviet atmosphere, communist block housing, stray dogs. It was the kind of city I was born in, but did not remember well. It rained almost every day we were there, but we had also arrived during a joyous time when the schools had graduated their seniors. Just imagine a weekend-long prom vomiting onto the streets. Limousines and Porsches lined the roads in a city where the average monthly income was equal to three hundred American dollars. Students rode in their cars, honking their horns incessantly, hanging waist-high out of the windows. They screamed, counting down from twelve to one, the grades that they’d passed: tre, dve, edin! Drivers hollered and honked back, shouting their support or frustration at the young men and women dressed up as if going to a gala, costume ball, or strip club. They did not look eighteen. They made me embarrassed of my flip-flops and twenty-dollar dresses that I usually took great pride in.
But each day in Sofia was ultimately a day closer to Plovdiv. Plovdiv was, where I was told, my maternal grandfather was born.
My paternal grandfather was born by the Black Sea, in Varna. He died when I was three. I only know him through pictures and brief appearances on home videos, where he sits, thinning, fading, ghostlike on the couch. He had a face like Al Pacino, but Pacino in ten more years. We wanted to visit Varna, too, but it was out of our way. One day I will return to Bulgaria for him.
My boyfriend (now my fiancé) knows that the love of my life is my mother, and I have always known that the love of my mother’s life was her father. She was raised on his knee, his only daughter. He was my Karo papik, a tall, heavy man who cried when giving toasts, whose speeches always ended with, “May we not decrease, but multiply.” He would palm two dollar bills in my hands on my birthdays, fives, tens, as I grew older. His gifts were always separate from my grandmother’s, a secret. He trembled as he handed them to me. There was so much love in his body, and though he lost his shape, lost so much weight, near the end of his life, he still cried when he watched the Bulgarian Olympians march down the Athens stadium, cried when Bulgarian music came on the international radio. My mother was moved when I told her I’d be visiting Plovdiv. Tell me everything, she said. Don’t you dare forget anything.
So in Plovdiv, on our first day, we dropped off our bags at the Hotel Odeon, and began walking.
Waiting for my crepe, I noticed a woman in her mid-forties or fifties, standing with three other women, just a few feet ahead of us. She caught my eye, smiled widely, almost as if in recognition, and suddenly approached. She had dark hair, a Slavic face, round eyes, a sharp nose and jaw. She touched my arm and started to speak excitedly in Bulgarian. I smiled dumbly. I pointed at my chest and shook my head. “I’m sorry. I speak English.” She leaned back, a question now in her eyes as well as on her lips. I kept shaking my head. “Sorry, sorry,” I repeated. She smiled once more, briefly, hesitantly, her round eyes, just as big as mine, filled with a strange disappointment. She walked back to her group, and as they resumed their conversation, they turned to look at me every now and then.
How do describe that moment, but simply: I felt so stupid, like I had rejected a sign from the universe. I told my boyfriend: “I should’ve said something in Armenian. Maybe they were Armenian. Maybe they recognized me.”
He laughed, glancing at them. “Why would they recognize you? You’ve never been here.”
“My mother,” I said.
“Didn’t you say your mother only visited here once as a young girl? And wasn’t she like eight?”
“That’s not the point,” I said, folding my arms across my chest.
“Maybe that woman was the tourist, and thought you were the local. Maybe she wanted to know just how good this palachinki place is that we’ve been standing here for fifteen minutes.”
“Ha, ha.” But I wondered if that was even possible—could I pass for Bulgarian? In Sofia, as I walked through Maria Luisa Boulevard toward Vitosha, past churches, mosques, and synagogues, past ciganis singing for change in front of the Central Market Hall, I was surprised by just how difficult it was to identify the ethnic groups. Sofia is home to Turks, Armenians, Roma, and Jews beside ethnic Bulgarians. But it was the Roma I could most easily identify—they were darker than the rest, and they were the ones singing. But if a Bulgarian, a Turk, and an Armenian were walking down the street toward me, out of the joke of my dreams, I could not tell you who was who. This was a first for me. In LA, I can spot us a mile away. In Germany, I could show you a Turk or two. But here, for whatever reason, my judgment was clouded, I could not see as clearly. Perhaps, I figured, that was because there wasn’t as great of a difference as I thought. Maybe in Plovdiv, I could be confused for a Bulgarian.
And is this not the traveler’s dream? Why we seek out in our guidebooks the most local haunts, the holes-in-the-wall? So we can feel one with the group, as if we belong, to deceive ourselves into believing that tourism isn’t inherently an uncomfortable experience for everyone involved. I had a friend say once that you could “do” Prague in three days. Three. I was there for a month and it was not enough. I like to get familiar with a city, as intimately as possible so as to rid myself of the terrible suspicion that I’m only exploiting the city for a few pictures, anecdotes. For a story to tell my mother, and all of the world. To be confused for a local means having as clean a conscience as possible when traveling.
And to be confused for Bulgarian, especially! Land of my grandfathers’ births. The country that gave life to my mother’s greatest love. For a second I felt so aware of myself, my family, our collective history. It was a magical moment, one that all tourists want. That Eat, Pray, Love reaffirmation of the meaning of life. A silly tourist pipe-dream. Because a second later, I was back to where I started. Confused. Oddly hurt. What did this woman want to say to me? Why could I not understand it? Perhaps she knew my grandfather, perhaps she liked my shirt.
We finally got my crepe and walked on. On our trek towards the Old Town, I carried with me a new loss. I had failed. Failed what exactly, I didn’t know, but in less than thirty minutes, I’d fail again.
* * *
I was staring at a bulletin posted on the graffiti-ed exterior white wall of what I’d soon learn was an Armenian school. For now I was perplexed only by the poster. It was a notice of death. I had seen these before in Bosnia, where my boyfriend was born, and where we traveled together the previous summer. I thought it was a Slavic tradition. But the death notice I was now staring at in Plovdiv was in Armenian. There was a black and white photo of a young man in its center, and a brief obituary below, in our curious print. In appearance, Armenian script resembles that of Georgia, our geographic neighbor, and, oddly, after a few drinks, Ethiopian. I could read Armenian—spent a lifetime at my mother’s dining table on the weekends, being forced to read the books that we had brought with us from the Old Country. Still, the words looked so strange to me, the meaning not coming together, until I squinted, peering closer, the man’s face blurring.
My boyfriend tapped me on the shoulder. “Is that a church?”
I took two steps back and looked up, following his finger. He was pointing at the round dome of a church, barely visible behind the white wall.
“Vedran,” I said, taking a few more steps, “I think we’re right outside the Armenian Quarter.”
I had read that there was a sizable population of Armenians in Old Town Plovdiv, and, as in Jerusalem, there was even a designated “quarter.” It was on our agenda: we had hoped to find it at some point, to, I don’t know, take pictures? All I know is that I wanted to see it, and then see what happened once I got there.
We followed the white wall down the narrow cobbled lane, curving left and right until finally we arrived at the entrance of the walled compound that was marked with a poster out front. “The Armenian School,” it said in Bulgarian and English. It also professed that the school was the first secular one in the city, established in 1834.
And my first thought: Did Grandpa go here?
I stood there, at the bottom of the steps, staring at this poster. And then I heard it. Voices speaking in Armenian. My heart thudded. I turned around to see an elderly couple approaching, speaking to each other in an accented Armenian, their arms hooked. They took their time climbing the stairs, the women stepping on each stair with both feet, pausing, and then tackling the next, her husband beside her, vocal in his support. At the top stair, another man appeared—he must have come from the compound, I figured, which was, only moments before, gated. He was middle-aged, salt-and-pepper hair tied in a low ponytail, and wore a crème-colored suit. He shook both of their hands and thanked them for coming.
Armenians, I thought! Armenians! Armenians! Armenians!
I didn’t wonder why this was more wonderful and frightening than being surrounded by Armenians in LA, where I was raised. Then I was only thinking, Armenians, Armenians, Armenians!
Suddenly, it was as if the clock struck Armenian. They appeared outside of their pastel-colored houses, coming down the road, past the cherry trees and house-museums, climbing these stairs, and there I was, standing at the foot, mesmerized by it all.
Then, just as they had appeared, they were gone, vanished inside this compound. I watched it for a minute or two before Vedran said, “What are we doing? Let’s go inside.”
My legs were shaking.
The gate wasn’t closed, and we entered through it quickly, pretending we knew where we were going. We took an immediate right because to our left was a building, its doorway occupied by Armenians, the same pony-tailed figure we had seen minutes before now talking to two old men.
We stood maybe twenty feet from them, and when the man turned to look at us, I turned away. In front of me was the church. Surp Gevork was written across the archway. Below it, an image of Christ, the text around it, translating to: I am the door. But the literal door of the church was closed. If the Armenians weren’t going to church services, what were they all doing here at four in the afternoon?
“You could ask, you know,” my boyfriend said, nodding at the men casually glancing over at us in between smokes of cigarette.
“Let’s explore,” I told him instead.
Next to the church was a khatchkar, or Armenian cross-stone, engraved with a large cross surrounded by flowers, interlaces, and a curved peacock resting on top of a rosette. The khatchkar was mounted on a granite platform, which was inscribed in Bulgarian on the left and Armenian on the right, both saying the same thing: that 1.5 million innocent Armenians were killed during the twentieth century’s first genocide.
Nearby was the actual primary school mentioned on the poster outside. There was a basketball court in front of it, and it was this basketball court that did me in. I knew that even if my grandfather went here, that he never played basketball—was there such a thing in 1930s Bulgaria?—and this thought alone was devastating. Something was here now that wasn’t here before, when my grandfather was alive and young and lovely. I started crying. And I kept crying. I kept wandering from the basketball court, to the school, the memorial, the church, and back again. I couldn’t stop. My mascara was running, my nose was running, and I knew the men were still there by the unnamed little yellow building, watching me.
“Go talk to them. You know you want to talk to them.”
“What would I even say?” I bawled.
“How about, ‘Did anyone know Garbis Voskanyan?’”
I shook my head and wiped my arm across my nose. “You don’t understand. I can’t!”
“I don’t know!”
Vedran looked at me pityingly. “You know you’re going to regret it if you don’t.”
“Don’t you think I know that?”
“Then go do it.”
“I’m too emotional right now,” I said, trying to calm myself, put into words what I was feeling. But frankly, I was embarrassed to ask if anyone here knew my grandpa. Another Diaspora Armenian, they’d think, seeking connection. I knew how silly I was being, how unoriginal. It made me uncomfortable. It made me turn away from the powerful emotions building inside of me, doubt it all. I grew hard. Maybe they’d pity me and give me false information, I began to think. Maybe they’d try to get me to donate money I didn’t have.
“We’ll come back. We’ll come back once I call my mom and get more information.”
“More information about what?”
“I don’t know. We’ll come back. I have to call my mom.”
I wiped my face and took a big breath, started to walk towards the gate. But there was no need for composure. The men had already disappeared into the building. We were alone.
We went down the stairs silently and began trying to find our way back to our hotel. I picked a cherry off a low-hanging branch, and swirled it in my hand. My uncle—my mother’s brother—had told me to taste the fruit that hung in the Plovdiv trees, that it tasted like nothing else in the world, but I had no water with me to wash it. As I was setting it down in a raised flowerbed we passed, Vedran stopped me. He picked his own cherry, then put it in my hand. I took a picture of it, though I didn’t know why. Together, we placed them in the flowerbed, where only a few pebbles decorated the soil. The cherries were without stems, and they looked like a swollen heart resting on the dirt.
A few moments later, we saw three men waiting outside a house, as another was locking it up.
“Faster, old man. We’re already late,” the one in the blue vest said.
“You are older than me, bidza,” the houseowner replied. They were speaking in Armenian. As they walked past us, I scrambled to find my camera.
In the picture I took, the first one I showed my mother when I returned home to LA, there are four old men walking down a narrow cobbled street of Plovdiv. The branches of the cherry trees hang low above them, and the Armenian compound is visible in front. One man with shock-white hair, in a grey jacket, has his hands clasped behind him. Any one of them could’ve been my grandfather, but him especially. Those hands. When I showed it to my mother, she understood, and went to bathroom to cry in private.
* * *
“I don’t understand what you’re saying, Mom. Are you saying Grandpa wasn’t born in Plovdiv?”
We had gone back to the hotel and I was lying on my stomach, with the laptop in front of me, my mother’s face on the screen. The internet connection was bad; I kept restarting Skype every few minutes, but the message was clear and unchanging. It appeared that my grandfather was born in Nova Zagora, an hour’s drive from Plovdiv, a drive we weren’t planning to take, a city we didn’t even know existed.
I had called to tell her how surreal that experience was inside the Armenian Quarter, but now she was saying that she had spoken to her mother recently about my trip, and my grandmother had paused and then told her that she didn’t think he was born in Plovdiv after all.
“But she was the one who told us he was from Plovdiv, wasn’t she?” I asked, confused.
My mother nodded. She seemed both tired—I had woken her up—and excited. She was talking fast but kept rubbing her eyes, like she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. But I was the one who just had a deeply emotional experience that now was tainted.
“I thought it was Plovdiv, too. But she seemed so sure of it, that it’s not. She said the name of the real city just popped up in her head, and she knew, without a doubt, that that’s where your papik was born.”
“All this time,” I asked, my voice getting loud, “and she didn’t even know where her husband was from?”
She frowned and put up her hand. “Naira.”
I looked over the screen at my boyfriend, sitting on the armchair, watching me, mouthing, “What, what?” I threw my hands in the air in a helpless gesture.
“But Mom, you went to Plovdiv as a kid. You remember that?”
“Of course I know I went to Plovdiv, but your grandmother says that that’s where your grandpa’s aunt lived. We had all gone to visit her, apparently.”
“But you don’t remember her, right?”
She paused. “No, I don’t.”
“Mom, Grandma’s getting old. I’m sure she recalled the past more accurately twenty years ago than she does now.”
“Sweetheart, I don’t see how this changes anything. But if this really matters to you, then why don’t you just go ask the people you saw today if they heard of him? He used to work for a prominent blacksmith, I think.”
Yeah, I thought, and ended the call. I’ll get my answer.
* * *
I put off the visit to the Armenian Quarter until our last day in Plovdiv. We have time, I kept telling Vedran. Old Town Plovdiv is relatively small, and we’d walk past the same restaurants, the same museums maybe six to seven times a day. I found things to do. We visited the Art Gallery & Museum Philippopolis on three separate occasions: the first to view the art of the two-story Hadji Aleko House—the paintings inside as well as the stunning design and architecture of the house, with its big parlor and ellipsoidal ceiling; the second time to drink frappes at its outside café, beside the fallen magnificent trunk of a tree which seemed to split into four fingers, like an open palm that overlooked the entire town; and third, to talk with the gallery guide about the old Bulgarian movie “After the End of the World,” in which a Jewish boy and an Armenian girl fall in love in the poorest neighborhood of Plovdiv.
But then it was time. We found our way, navigating the cobbled streets, passing the stray cats that served as guards to the souvenir shops (and served to differentiate Plovdiv from Sofia). We walked past the little flowerbed where we had deposited our two cherries three days before. We stopped there, amazed, and incredibly moved. The cherries were no longer there, but now tiny basil-like leaves sprouted from the flowerbed, some of them already revealing their red petals. I kissed Vedran. We continued.
The Armenian compound was pretty vacant. There was no hint of the large group that was present a few days before, only five children now playing basketball in the courtyard, four boys and a tall girl, and a woman who sat on a bench, shouting in Bulgarian at one of them. I didn’t know what to do, so we watched them for a while, until someone who looked like a security guard exited the school door. I thought he was going to ask us to leave, but he only sat down next to the woman, didn’t even glance at us. I hesitated, thinking about what I was going to say. Vedran nudged me forward.
In Armenian, I asked the guard if we could go inside the church. He looked like he didn’t understand, so I repeated my question. He was old, wore glasses. He looked so kind, like someone I could know. He put up his hand, his five fingers outstretched, then returned inside the building.
Vedran and I took a seat on the bench and watched the children some more. The girl was blonde, the boys, dark. She played well. I felt pride rise to my throat. Five minutes, I thought. He was probably going to get the keys, someone to help us. I grabbed Vedran’s hand.
Then another man came out of the building, a little younger. He waved his hand in a follow-me motion, and we obliged. The church was small, very small, and smelled the way all Orthodox churches smell, like something damp. I examined the peeling walls, the murals of biblical scenes faded, colors quieted. I passed the baptismal font, and there, the man finally spoke up. I strained to hear him, to understand, but his Armenian was more than just different, not just accented like the elderly couple I had heard climbing the stairs—it was off, it was wrong, it wasn’t fluent or clear. What was happening, I thought. I must’ve looked confused, because finally he mimicked cradling a baby. I nodded and smiled to tell him I understood.
I asked him if I could light a candle, and I blew on my index finger to show him. He nodded and retrieved a cardboard box. I put whatever bills and coins I had on me inside the box and took one candle. I lit it, dug it in the sand, praying for the health of my living family, and for peace and rest for those deceased.
It would be so simple, I thought, staring at the flicker of the flame. Just say his name. Just ask. Just turn around and ask: Do you know a Garbis Voskanyan? He worked for a famous blacksmith. He left for Armenia in 1946 or 1947. He cried at everything.
But would he even understand me? And then, in my chest, in the pit of my stomach, I suddenly recognized the depth of my fear. That, yes, he’d understand, and he’d have an answer, and that answer would change everything. Thinking my grandfather was from here deepened my experience of Plovdiv. I felt closer to the city, to the people, and to my own family. I felt the most comfortable I had ever felt traveling. So often, we travel to abandon the old and discover the new, but it was the reminder of my past here, the remnants of the things and people I left behind, that transformed the cherries of Plovdiv into giant hearts, that changed the faces of strangers into familiar shapes, that made a country I was simply visiting a home.
I looked at Vedran and knew what he was thinking. I smiled, and shook my head. No, I would not regret this. I would not ask. I stepped out of the church, turning around one last time and crossing myself in the Orthodox tradition. I stared at the candle I had lit, then put one foot behind me.
Rumpus original art by Russell Christian.