One of the best opportunities afforded me by the Balkan Language Initiative, aside from studying Bulgarian language in-country, has been the chance to return to a place that is very near and dear to my heart. A few years back, I lived in Bulgaria and taught high school English language classes in the south-central region of the country. During a recent weekend trip, I traveled back to the familiar town of Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria, which I fondly remember as a second home of sorts. Enough time has passed since the years when I lived in Dimitrovgrad that very few of my old students still live in the city. So, during my visit I met with old colleagues and walked the city’s quiet, familiar streets, noting the small but obvious changes the town had underwent during my absence and enjoying the time to revisit such wonderful memories from my life.
During this trip, I began to reflect on the past few weeks of my language studies in Bulgaria. When I had lived in Dimitrovgrad, the sound of Bulgarian was at first unfamiliar, and the lilt of its many accents unintelligible to me. At that time, the south-central Thracian region’s cities were my stomping grounds, where Dimitrovgrad is situated. My local big city was Plovdiv, not Sofia, and I was more likely to see fields and livestock than speeding taxis and rushing business people on a daily basis. My day-to-day lifestyle was filled with leisurely walks, open park spaces, students, and coffees at the same small handful of cafes. I lived alone, and spent many reflective and quiet hours meandering through the town, looking at villa houses and grape vines growing over the garages lining the small streets. When I bought groceries, I shopped at the corner store near my apartment or the vegetable market near the center of the small city. For a change of pace, I would take a 15-minute bus to Haskovo, a slightly larger nearby city, or I’d ride the train for an hour and ten minutes to Plovdiv, gazing out at the villages, stork nests, and fields that filled the rolling plains between the Plovdiv and Dimitrovgrad.
Now, while living and studying Bulgarian in Sofia, my daily life is very different. For starters, I am the student now, striving to make progress each day and to communicate with my teachers and friends. I travel an hour each way to class, using a combination of metro, bus, and walking, rather than the fifteen minute walk to school in Dimitrovgrad. I pass scores of shops, theaters, cafes, restaurants, park spaces, statues, book markets, and strangers — only a teaspoon’s worth of which I have been able to explore. On weekends, I’ve mostly been traveling around Sofia and the western-most parts of Bulgaria, and am now accustomed to seeing mountains or towering buildings in my line of sight, rather than vast, open fields. I pick up quick snacks at corner markets on busy city streets for lunch, and eat dinner with friends or my host family every evening. The change of pace I look for now isn’t the bustle of a mid-sized city, but rather the shade of an urban park, or the quiet of my room in the Nadezhda neighborhood of Sofia. The Bulgarian language I hear spoken has harder vowel sounds here in Sofia, and is more distinct than the Thracian accent in Dimitrovgrad, which is characterized by softer vowels.
At first, I wasn’t able to clearly grasp the “Sofia accent” because so many of the city’s residents are originally from different parts of the country. In fact, the biggest link between these two ways of life for me is that, like many of Sofia’s residents, I have now experienced both big city and small town life in Bulgaria’s capital and biggest city, and a smaller town in another part of the country, even if in a microscopic, temporary way. I feel as though I have a fuller picture of the place, and a grasp of the language’s many facets that I could never appreciate before. What’s more, I feel attached to two lovely, yet different, parts of the same country.
When I step back to think more deeply about the “differences” between Sofia and Dimitrovgrad that I have perceived, I find that the thoughts and patterns the lifestyles draw from me are surprisingly similar – my daily pattern includes school, shopping every few days rather than weekly, spending ample time outdoors, and observing constantly. On my recent trip to Dimitrovgrad, I was able to speak in Bulgarian with old friends, and felt the same joy from them as I feel from my Sofia friends, seeing a foreigner trying to learn their lovely language. I suppose a closing thought is that differences of lifestyle are a matter of perspective, and I’m grateful to have a deeper understanding of the many lives lived in Bulgaria, thanks to my summer language studies.
By: Sarah Craycraft
Program: Balkan Language Initiative
Term: Summer 2017