I wake to the smell of butter sizzling in the griddle. Maya is tossing thin pancakes in the air in her parent’s kitchen. The apartment is part of the Communist block of Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Utilitarian, cement, boxed homes in tight quarters. Some face a green square, now fading with the summer’s heat and trodden with young feet pounding around the rusted swing set. I hear the children’s voices trailing from the open window for an early morning game of tag.
Barry, Maya’s regal Golden Retriever, makes her way from the cool tiles to the breakfast nook. Flowered cushions surrounded by plates and memorabilia floor to ceiling decorate each wall of the kitchen. Dark blue for Crete, an orange starburst for mountain peaks, “Welcome to Idaho!” from Maya’s time in the US. She spent months serving pizza slices to tourists on a work visa then took trains and busses across the country.
“My only wish, Julia, is I could have stopped in all the National Parks,” Maya sighs.
Maya loves the mountains like some love a child. She sings on the trails and cradles the sunsets that slip behind the peaks. She captures all of it behind the lens of her camera. Now, a well-renowned wilderness photographer of Bulgaria, Maya is one of those rare young individuals you meet with more fierceness and heart in her left pinky than some hold in their entire selves.
She takes a block of butter and smears it on the hot griddle. I pull handmade jams from the cupboard as my stomach starts to grumble. Maya does one more flip in the pan then takes a bowl of fresh summer apricots dripping with juice and a block of white cheese wrapped in baker’s paper from the fridge. The cheese crumbles as I spread it with the preserves and mashed apricots before rolling up the crepe and taking my first bite. Salty and sweet mixed with browned butter linger on my tongue. As I take a sip of strong coffee served “short” no sugar, no milk. I stare into Maya’s fluid green eyes.
“What shall we get in to today?” I inquire. The day’s heat is already rising and the breeze is too subtle to offer relief.
“Let’s head to the mountains,” she offers.
Barry helps clean up any last bits of breakfast we drop on the tile floor. We quickly pack in silence the many boxes and bags of gear for a night in the woods and leave the apartment complex, as the heat encroaches.
We drive North from Plovdiv to a smaller town. A horse and buggy try to keep up next to us on the road. A road that is getting busier with the flashy cars and dusty Mack trucks. These small towns during Communist rule were stacked together under the city, Plovdiv.
“So, you can see,” Maya says as she makes a careful right turn, “it’s not good for these towns. See the broken roads and old homes. They must pay similar taxes to those flashy car drivers in Plovdiv. Old meets new. Nearly six million in our country, and most jammed into the cities.”
The forgotten ones remain high in the mountain villages that will be abandoned once the last die out.
“It’s so sad,” Maya laments.
“Maybe their grandchildren will come once a month or a few times a year. Who will cut the old woman’s wood when the harsh winter arrives? Who will help her if she falls ill or worse, falls to loneliness? Where is the community that used to flourish here? So sufficient and strong and hardened from the harsh times? During Communism, the government pushed people to live in the cities. They build all of these houses. Some are good. Some offered cheap housing for the laborers. Some kept families together. But these enclosed spaces pale in comparison to the fresh air of the mountains.”
Maya turns onto a narrow dirt road. “I can only make the homemade yogurt in Bansko. It needs the clean air. I can’t make it here in Plovdiv.”
We are looking for a car part to be replaced before the drive into the mountains, and Maya wants to check with a man she heard was the best in this town. We tuck our heads into a garage. Two old men, overall clad, are working. The swarthy man with cracked hands holds the blow torch in one hand on high as he approaches. Not bothering to turn the flame off, he shakes his head up and down, “Ne.” No the man to fix the car is not here today. Too hot. Took his family to the sea. We return to the car and make our way down a paved road onward.
When we turn the corner, Maya spots two of her friends. Clad in thick boots, dusty hats, and stuffed packs, they’re hitchhiking back to Sofia after three days in the mountains. We stop to take them a little further up the road. Barry pants heavily between my knees in the passenger seat as I play Led Zeppelin and feel the breeze on my forehead from the open window.
After an exchange of goodbyes, we pull over for watermelon. Cold and heavy, perfect for tomorrow morning. We roll onward, slowly at first through sunflower fields and small villages.
“Now keep your eyes peeled,” Maya says. We are back to the village that sells cherries.
“Let’s be sure to pick the very best ones.” We will pass this village another three times on my trip. The peak of cherry season came early this year, so we pick two kilos and continue our climb.
We stop off at the fresh roadside spring to fill our bottles with mountain water. At the next village, Maya insists we buy veal. It’s her favorite meat to cook over an open fire. Maya turns on African beats then hands me a cold beer. With a snap of the top, the cold liquid runs down my throat, and the music picks up in tempo. I can see the temperature dropping as we continue to climb, and we start to sing with delight. We are back in the mountains.
Baked potatoes buried in the ground, veal blazing over the fire, cherries and apricots in my lap, homemade wine, and stories. We pass the time with so many stories. Close to four in the morning, I crawl into the tent. Barry sleeps between Maya and me keeping us warm. I wake to the early morning mist dancing on the still lake and emerge slowly with a new sense of spirit. We all gather around the charcoals and chew on the rest of the watermelon, starting a game of spitting seeds. Whose goes the furthest?
The lake’s edges are calm. A cool reflection that eases the subtle throb between my ears. I simply blame the homemade wine and late night. We rise from the earth, slowly picking up the pieces from the campsite and driving through the towering pines. I see Romans unloading a truck full of colossal porcinis, like large, moist knuckles. We stop roadside for some fresh bread and coffee. The loaves are still drying on the wooden racks and invite a yeasty aroma when we open the swinging door. I exchange two lev for a loaf and coffee – mine served long this time – no milk with a sprinkling of raw sugar. Maya tears a piece of the loaf with her teeth and snarls. We laugh at her endless playful spirit and repeat the gesture. The crust, perfectly crisp, melts into the warm middle. Divine between sips of hot coffee after a night sleeping outside.
“That man over there is buying mushrooms for seven lev and turns around to sell them for ten!” Maya exclaims.
“Ahh, capitalism!” I chuckle and return, “He has to earn a buck too.”
“Not from us,” Maya declares, “let’s go find our own.”
The boys decide their work in Plovdiv can wait. They much rather linger and continue the adventure with the girls – dogs in tow. The rain comes like fat drops on the windshield as we wind through the mountain roads. Faster and faster until each turn in the road is met with a cascade of downfall. We pull over, the windshield a blur now. Maya lets out a resounding sigh as a memory washes over here.
“I came here one summer,” she gestures to a small clearing in the forest.
“It’s a summer adventure camp. I fell in love that summer, so deeply.”
Her voice trails off, and I am left with the rhythm of wipers and wash. Slowly she turns to me.
“You know the older you get, the love, it’s not as innocent like it used to be. Before, I was discovering myself. Now, I’m grown and everyone gets more complicated, you know?”
“Yes, of course,” I concede, thinking back to my youth. Long days walking the school halls with my first love. So pure, I conceded nothing could hurt us. Before the older snares of life took over. Before the next relationship where my heart was so able and open from that childhood love. Only to face a slew of pain, lies, rejection. I feel there is no way I can return to that innocence. Caution and fear has crept in where fruitful love and curiosity used to live.
“You know,” Maya continues, “He was with someone else. We had to hide how we felt. Sneaking around in the mountains. But he lived in Sofia then, and I lived in the village. He wanted the city life. But, my home is here. My heart is with the Mountain.”
With these last words so strong, so vulnerable, the sky begins to lift, and the rain stops. We carry on, pulling off when we discover a field full of wildflowers. Hiking down through the field, I keep my eyes steady on the earth to uncover my first mushroom. There it is, a brown ripe knuckle. The sensation of plucking the porcini from the wet ground has an unexplainable feeling of satisfaction. I hear a hoot ahead as Maya discovers another mushroom, then another.
“Look under the blueberry patches, Julia!” she calls. “Once you find one, it’s easy to spot the rest.”
While I found the least of the group as we circled back from our adventure into the forest, I felt a great sense of victory upon this discovery. The bag full, now weighing heavily on Maya’s friend Kostadin’s shoulder is enough, and we head back to the cars.
Back in Plovdiv, we climb the hillside and watch the evening sky in the hot steam of the city summer night. Mosquitos dance about us as we cook the porcinis into a soup with butter and broth, sizzling, and we toast to cold beer. As Kostadin walks me home one hand on his bike, the winding paths take us near old Victorian houses, dark and stained with swastika graffiti. The sight feels new and startles me - such a harshness against the softening of flowers and cobblestones.
We talk of Bulgaria’s past and its evolving future. The culture, fascism, and the new era of coffee shops and expressive art. He hugs me, sweat and bug bites between our bodies, and I tell him I’ll see him again, by the sea. A promise I will end up not keeping. Promises I shouldn’t make in the first place when I’m on the road. With our last goodbye, I climb the stairwell to my room, collapsing upon the cool sheets.