Right up until Thanksgiving Day, I didn’t think about the impending holiday. Then Thursday arrived and it hit me; a lump in my throat; homesickness. I was relieved. I hope I always miss home on Thanksgiving. That evening I attended a team building event which ended at a neighborhood pub. Pat joined us, and we drank and shared stories and laughed – a nice break from our “just the two of us” life. I crawled into bed satisfied, if not quite happy.
Friday, we left for Bratislava. Igor warned us, “Do not miss the train. Be here at 4:30. I have plans.” Promptly at 4:30, we knocked on the door of Igor and Vlasta’s old town apartment. In 600 square feet they have managed to fit everything that matters: music, books and a large dining table to entertain friends. As soon as we settled in, Vlasta brought out the palinka – a pear brandy which doubles as paint solvent. “A toast, you must, welcome home.”
In the nearby town of Devin, we convened with friends for a traditional goose feast. Goose and the fixings – stewed red cabbage, potato pancakes stuffed with goose liver, potato dumplings – are served once each fall in celebration of the wine harvest. We drank the local black currant wine associated with Devin and ended the meal with a cheese and cherry strudel. Conversations tumbled on top of each other as everyone tried to catch up after months apart. It was Thanksgiving. We honored a bountiful harvest and good friends, a tradition which managed to transcend country boundaries.
The next night, we dined at the apartment of a Bulgarian couple, Anna and Andrey. Sitting next to Anna at the goose feast, we had planned the meal. Bulgarians favor vegetables, eschew meat for the 40 days leading up to Christmas and nearly worship pumpkin. Anna struggled to come up with a menu which would remain true to her traditions, yet be acceptable to non-Bulgarian guests. “Serve a typical dinner, no fuss.’ I implored, preferring a glimpse into real life over an evening staged for our benefit. “and I love pumpkin.”
Anna, I learned, is a fantastic cook – capable of producing a near vegetarian gourmet extravaganza. “Let’s sit. I need to squeeze in three courses before your train comes!” Pears stuffed with 3 types of cheese and nuts drizzled with a balsamic glaze; a green salad tossed in the lightest olive oil and lemon; rice stuffed peppers (which did have a tiny bit of pork to “keep the Slovaks from fainting”); and a pumpkin strudel for dessert. We sang “Happy Names Day” to Andrey and toasted our friendship, and all the Andreys of the world, with a Bulgarian red wine. I apologized to Anna as we ate seconds and thirds, consuming any hope of leftovers. She smiled, “Please, eat. This is the best compliment you can give a cook.” Conversation switched from Slovak to English to Bulgarian and back. Whenever someone became agitated, their native tongue took over. Igor periodically admonished the group, “Guys, English, please.”
During dinner, I mentioned our entire family would join us in Budapest for Christmas. Anna asked if our apartment could hold everyone. I laughed, “Not really.” “Don’t worry Julie, there is a Bulgarian saying,” she paused as she translated the phrase mentally to English. “If your house is too small, then your souls must be big.” The ability to get along, to be thoughtful and considerate, is a lesson learned in tiny homes where bedrooms barely hold a bed and the common area is a modest sized living room plus kitchen.
As we rode back to Budapest, we relived the past 48 hours: a new and satisfying life in Hungary; our love of Slovakia and our Bratislava friends; the surreal mixed cultural dinners which morph into a social studies class; our new found comfort to sit patiently as the conversation switches away from English knowing it will eventually return. Our family will thrive in our too small apartment over Christmas. But I can’t wrap my mind around living together in this very limited space for twenty years. Of course we would adapt. I have grown to love this simple life.
Categories: Insiders Bratislava