Saturday, June 14, 2014


In America, it’s duct tape and Windex. In Thailand it’s Tiger Balm. In Korea it’s probably kimchi. In Bulgaria, the magical potion that can fix everything is rakiya, the national alcoholic drink. My friend asks me if I want some. She doesn’t take any herself, but her mother pours a full glass with a mischievous smile.

“It’s like whiskey?” my friend offers. “It’s very strong. You don’t have to have any, but my mother says this will make your cough go away.”

She goes on to tell me mothers have been known to soak gauze with rakiya to place on their children’s sore throats. A dab of rakiya in the nose un-stuffs it. Rubbing rakiya on a child’s arms helps reduce fever.

I’m game. They pour me a few sips, not even the width of a finger high in the glass. They teach me the proper Bulgarian way to drink to one another’s health: by giving one another a significant look when you say “cheers.” They demonstrate with exaggeration, neither one of them able to hold a straight face. I give it a shot and butcher the Bulgarian phrase and take the barest sip of the rakiya.

It’s good. It’s strong. I can see why it might clear out a person’s nasal passages. I can barely finish my portion over the entirety of dinner.

I was feeling pretty sick when I made it to my friend’s house in the middle of somewhat-rural Bulgaria. The bus trip was 3 hours long and I almost peed my pants before I convinced the driver to make a pit stop 15 minutes from the final destination. It was a near thing. I am 100% serious. Moreover, my throat was sore and my nose stuffed from insufficient sleep on trains and secondhand smoking while trying to ration my water intake to avoid what nearly happened on said bus.

A day and a half with my friend and her mother and the rakiya was enough to put me back on my feet. Though it might be easiest to give the credit to the magical Bulgarian alcohol, I would guess my health’s quick upturn is due more to my friend and her mother. I am addicted to the stress of travel, to the challenge of finding my way through foreign countries on my own steam. But visiting folks like my friend and her mother are the real treat—because from them I learn the futility of my achievements.

Every time I find the right bus on time or the cheapest train option, I feel a distinct stab of traveler’s pride. But the lesson of a mother doting on her daughter, of my friend wasting huge amounts of time finding out where my bus was stopping so she could pick me up, preparing food for me, explaining Bulgarian culture to me—that is filling and rejuvenating the way accomplishment isn’t. If it’s not too cheesy, it feels much more like hope, specifically hope that I will one day follow in their hospitable footsteps.

“My mother pampers me,” my friend explained to me. “And anyone I bring home with me.”

I can’t think of a higher calling. Cheers.
The ancient Bulgarian capitol.

A Bulgarian waterfall! We had to hunt for it, which only made it cooler.

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