THE PLANE SEEMED to slam down on the run-way. The cabin shook. The lump in my throat had already started to make it hard to breathe. I sunk deeper into my seat as we approached Sofia’s Vrazhdebna Airport. I’d never liked that name — the literal translation is “Hostile” Airport. The plane made a rough contact with the ground and shook us violently. This was it. I was about to step on home soil for the first time in a half decade. Since I’d left, if someone asked where I was from, I often claimed to be an, “empty canvas for cultural influences.” I was full of sh*t.

I was born in Bulgaria, a beautiful former Soviet Union country in a perpetual financial crisis. Growing up, I remember roaming the few streets of my hometown aimlessly, dreaming that I was on the red steps at Times Square or riding in a Venetian gondola. As a teenager, the “friends” that I socialized with the most were Hemingway, Lewis Carroll and the cast of The OC. My parents and teachers always praised me for straight A’s. School was pretty easy — especially when I was able to focus despite the cool kids in the back throwing wrinkled pieces of scrap paper at me.

Gatherings at my house resembled “My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding.” My parents liked to invite friends over for a big dinner, rakiya flowing freely and the TV booming with the latest pop folk hits. The, “So, do you have a boyfriend?” question would come up every time. That was my cue to retreat to my room — which I did a lot, since I had no interest in participating in our culture.

I remember asking my parents to drive me to the next town over every weekend. It wasn’t because there was anything to do there. I just liked seeing the “Now leaving Botevgrad” sign, and could taste freedom, even if just for a second. My desire to travel was the driving force behind everything I did. In high school, I managed to win a scholarship to the United States and I took it without thinking twice.

Now Leaving Botevgrad

The United States was a whole new universe. My classmates invited me to sleepovers and asked me about the differences between New Hampshire and Bulgaria. The school even put me, the kid who couldn’t lift a finger to make her own sandwich, in charge of a sports team. I applied to college and got in.

What was supposed to be a single year turned into eight. I went back to Bulgaria once after the first year, only to suffer from an enormous reverse culture shock. I had changed, but my town remained exactly the same as if it had been frozen in time. The pothole-riddled roads and the thick smoke from fires on which people cooked jam behind residential buildings seemed foreign. No one noticed that I could speak a new language, had learned elaborate cooking skills, and could run a 5K without gasping for air. When I talked with people, I was stunned at the conversations.

“So, do you have a boyfriend there?”

“Yes.”

“Good for you! Hurry up and marry him to get a green card!”

I returned to the States and kept studying and working for the next four years. I’d often hover over the “Bulgaria” menu on SkyScanner while I planned my next trip, but an image of the empty streets of Botevgrad would rush to mind and I’d choose Italy or Spain instead. I even went as far as Bali and Thailand. Southeast Asia made me feel utterly lost in the chaotic traffic and similar-looking streets, where my only path-marker was the scent of sandalwood incense burning in front of the studio I had rented. Many of the Balinese roads were riddled with potholes, but I just accepted those as a “cultural feature” and didn’t criticize the Indonesian government for not fixing them. I learned to accept Barcelona’s pickpocket culture and appreciate Finland’s sissu. I understood why Catalonia wanted to be its own country and discovered beauty in the quiet, seemingly uneventful countryside of England. So why couldn’t I do the same for Bulgaria?

Coming home

For five years, I traveled the world with a secret that was eating me up inside. I was an outsider to my culture and resented it. I did everything to stay away, until I received an offer to go back that I couldn’t refuse. Last month I got an invitation to speak at a TEDx event in Sofia. My heart rate increased as I typed a message to the organizers accepting the invite. Then it dawned on me that I’d have to face Bulgaria after all this time. When I panic, I write notes to myself. The one I wrote that day reads: “Be the cultural anthropologist. Pretend like you’re seeing Bulgaria for the first time.”

My mom picked me up in our 26-years-old Opel Vectra and we drove off to the countryside. Later, we went for a walk. All that had changed in my hometown in five years was the building of a new sports arena which looked as if someone had copied a sleek, downtown Frankfurt structure and pasted it in the middle of a run-down Soviet neighborhood. It looked out of place, but clearly demonstrated Bulgaria’s desire to model itself after a successful European country. The shops and cafes were still in the same places they were when I left. A part of me immediately felt a sense of ownership because I knew where everything was – like a master chef stepping into her own kitchen. The old cake shop even served the same vanilla and strawberry slices I’d ruined my teeth with as a child. Tasting one after all these years took me back to the times when I didn’t have a dozen phone calls, deadlines and student loans to deal with.

I saw a whole new world underneath the familiar facade of my old home. Had the formidable hills of the Balkan mountains around my town always been so green and luscious? I immediately made a mental note to go camping there. My aunt asked if I wanted to go on a road trip to the waterfalls in Lovech and I thought she was joking about Bulgaria having waterfalls. I, the perpetual travel guide, had now become the traveler and it felt surprisingly soothing to have someone take me around, relieving me from any responsibility. My family threw a dinner party and I had a quick exchange with a neighbor:

“So, are you going to marry the boy with the green card?”

“No, we broke up.”

“Ah, well. It’s for the best. He was a little too dark-skinned for you anyway. But hey, come pick up some kale from my garden tomorrow.”

The neighbor kissed me on both cheeks and left. I didn’t rush to wipe my face clean from her lipstick. I wanted physical traces of family and care to stay on my face for as long as possible. I didn’t make a big deal out of her comments. Her generation was confined in the territories of Bulgaria for most of her life, so she hadn’t had the exposure to foreign cultures and race that I have.

Soon, I boarded a plane to fly to Spain. The lump in my throat was returning. I suppressed the tears I felt coming and told my mom to tell grandma I’d be home in two months after I wrapped up my projects. I stepped into the plane, sunk into my seat and allowed myself to be taken away, not to escape Bulgaria, but counting down the days to my return.

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