By Prue Salasky
In 2019, I accepted a U.S. Fulbright grant “for recent graduates” as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Burgas, Bulgaria to teach English and promote cultural understanding.
My assignment was for the 2019/2020 academic year at an English specialty high school with a reputation for excellence. In addition to classroom teaching, I coached the English debate club with students who competed regionally, nationally and internationally.
I also started an English school newspaper in order to promote media literacy and introduce students to the importance of ethical journalism in a democratic society.
I was drawn to Bulgaria by its language, location and history. Claiming to be the oldest nation in Europe it comprises layers of civilization and diverse cultural influences.
Bounded to the north by the River Danube and the east by the Black Sea, the country is the size of Virginia and shares ever-shifting borders with Greece, Serbia, N. Macedonia, Turkey and Romania. Burgas, its fourth-largest city, is an ancient port on the Black Sea, equidistant from Sofia, the country’s capital; Bucharest, the capital of Romania; and Istanbul. It truly felt like ‘the crossroads of civilizations’!
For me it was an unparalleled opportunity to apply my newfound TESOL knowledge, immerse myself in another culture, expose myself to another language, travel extensively, and learn about a part of the world with which I was completely unfamiliar.
As a “way-past-midlife-crisis,” a last hurrah if you will, it allowed me to challenge myself by living solo for the first time in 45 years while bringing me closer to my UK family. The school provided me with a barebones 7th-floor apartment in a standard Soviet-built ‘bloc’ with a rusting iron balcony and a stunning view over the Black Sea.
After six months, in March 2020, my assignment was abruptly cut short by Covid-19. I wrote the following essay for the Fulbright Association magazine to honor my 7th-floor neighbor. Inches separated the doors to our apartments in a shared hallway with barely room for two bikes. Yet weeks passed before I even heard my neighbors, let alone met them. I would see Kolya’s bike vanish and re-appear and tell-tale shoes on the mat.
It wasn’t until one morning I woke at 5 a.m. for a bathroom call that I heard the faint noise of a key in the neighboring lock. Then, occasionally, I would see him downstairs at the main entrance, returning from their country plot with his bike laden with produce. Still, there was no sign of his wife, Violeta, away visiting their daughter’s family in Sofia.
My 20-something Fulbright ETA predecessor had told me about an older “pensioner” couple (my contemporaries), who lived next door on the 7th floor of the standard Soviet high-rise “block.”
She said the wife spoke some English and occasionally brought her flowers. I so wanted to meet her. Then one day, hearing a child’s voice in the hallway, I sped out my door as if by chance. “I’m sorry, did we make too much noise?” asked Violeta, full of concern, her kind eyes crinkling. “No, no,” I said, asking to be introduced to her 6-year-old grandson. It was awkward, but I had established contact!
Photograph: This building, a Soviet-style block in Burgas is where I lived on the 7th floor overlooking the Black Sea
My next encounter came as I returned from school and she was at her apartment door. It was the day before Nikulden, a national holiday celebrating St. Nicholas, a holiday special to Burgas in honoring seafarers and – curiously – bankers, and Kolya’s name day. Violeta invited me for dinner to celebrate. I was over the moon!
The next evening, I tapped nervously at their door, carrying a bottle of wine and some homemade chocolate chip cookies. I entered the living room, where Violeta was serving a multi-course feast to Kolya, their son and daughter-in-law. I had misunderstood the time and they had already finished a fish soup and several salads.
These are Bulgarian pumpkins (they look like butternut squash!) and some other decorative gourds.
I sat awkwardly with my back up against the TV as the family watched. The traditional ‘sharan,’ a labor-intensive dish of walnut-stuffed carp, formed the centerpiece of the meal. Then came a dessert of delightful, elegant profiteroles.
My offerings sat on the table untouched; unprompted, the daughter-in-law pronounced the wine “bad,” adding that they only drank - in some abundance - Kolya’s homemade vintage and rakia (fruit brandy).
Violeta, with her bent back and age-swollen hands that reminded me of my mother, said nothing. Days later, she appeared at my door with a delicious sugar-crusted baked pumpkin and doughnuts, her grandson’s favorite.
Diabetes and Parkinson’s disease prevented her from enjoying her baked masterpieces. But, she would teach me!
We both knew I’d likely never replicate her art passed down over generations, but together we shared about our families and life in halting monosyllables, alternating Bulgarian and English. We laughed and cried and even danced.
Banitsa is a traditional breakfast food, also eaten as a snack and at holiday meals. This traditional Bulgarian pastry is something you will find across the country at bakeries, coffee shops, canteens and bus stations. It’s buttery, cheesy and highly addictive.
This snack is prepared by stacking up layers of filo pastry dough, or fini kori as the Bulgarians call it, with butter and traditional Bulgarian cheese before it’s baked. If you’re on a diet, you will definitely overshoot your calorie limit with a couple of banitsa, but trust me – it’s worth it.”
Bulgarian foods and ingredients are available online at malincho.com.
16 sheets of Fini tocheni kori (Familia brand; or phyllo/filo dough)
2 cups of sirene (or feta) cheese
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt (optional)
1 cup plain yogurt
¾ cup butter, melted
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees; brush melted butter over the bottom and sides of a baking pan.
2) Mix the cheese, eggs, salt (optional) and yogurt in a bowl; combine and stir ingredients well.
3) Place two (2) sheets of Fini Kori/filo on a buttered pan and brush the top one with melted butter
4) Spread the egg and cheese mixture sparingly across the top sheet, about 2 tablespoons dotted around; then starting at one side, roll the dough into a cigar shape
5) Repeat the process until all sheets are used and you have 8 ‘cigars’; then brush all with remaining melted butter.
6) Bake for 25 to 35 minutes until golden.
7) Remove from oven and, to prevent hardening, cover with a damp towel or the pan lid until cool.
8) Cut into pieces to serve; can be eaten hot or cold.
and the food is actually Bulgarian pumpkins (they look like butternut squash!) and some other decorative gourds. Also, see the link for my blog.
I grew up on a farm in the south of England. It really shaped my relationship to food as my mother was a wonderful cook and we always ate only fresh, seasonal food.
My parents instilled in us a respect for nature and the environment and our responsibility for its care and stewardship.
My first job was making thick double Guernsey cream, a pint from a gallon of milk, and delivering it to customers dotted around the countryside.
After university in England, I came to the U.S. for a master’s degree in history at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.; then, one fateful day in the coffee bar I met a law student, now my husband of 44+ years.
We moved to his hometown of Norfolk, Va., and I taught history briefly before pursuing a career in journalism, which started on the newspaper’s food pages with a weekly column, restaurant reviews and features, for which my upbringing stood me in good stead.
I later moved on to the health beat and served as associate editor of the editorial pages. In anticipation of retirement, I completed a master’s in Applied Linguistics with the aim of teaching English overseas.
I achieved this goal when I received a Fulbright grant to teach in Bulgaria for 10 months, a wonderful experience that was cut short by the Covid epidemic.
Similar to my childhood experience, I observed the Bulgarians’ intense love for nature and their strong connection to the land and the source of their food. Every one I met either owned land in the country, courtesy of Soviet handouts of land considered ‘unusable’ —( after World War 2, Bulgaria was under Russian control until 1989; it’s now a member of NATO and the EU) — or they still had relatives in outlying villages where they would visit at weekends to collect fresh fruits and vegetables.
Having written about both food and health, it is quite obvious to me that the disconnect from the source of their food and the consumption of fast/processed foods by the vast majority of the U.S. population is at the root of the high rates of chronic disease, obesity, and more.
Bulgaria, a country the size of Virginia, is bordered by Serbia, N. Macedonia, Romania, Greece and Turkey. Burgas, an ancient port on the Black Sea, is its fourth largest city. Bulgarians take great pride in their history, their land, and their food.
Their specialties include yogurt (bacillus Bulgaricus) and a yogurt-based drink (ayran) and soup (tarator); sirene (similar to feta cheese); lyutenitsa, a tomato sauce; pastries such as banitsa (cheese, similar to the Greek tiropita) and tikvenik (pumpkin). They also use a colorful clay pot, gyuvetch, to make stews, etc.
(This story was published in the May 2021 edition of the Fulbright Association newsletter, part of the program’s 75th year celebration.)