Jeremiah Chamberlin

History Leaves a Mark

~ Sofia, January 2017

I.

We stood in the snow on the steps of the university, holding bright signs and placards. Across the world my wife was landing in DC. In Sofia passersby passed, some staring others staring ahead. Reporters came with cameras to interview my American friend Laurel who’d organized the event. We stamped our feet against the cold.

After the march, at a bar called Roderic, we drank with new friends. The bar was on Shishman and the low-ceilinged upstairs had old sewing machines instead of tables. Not sewing machines. Sewing machine tables. The machines were gone, though the treadles and wrought iron legs remained.

My mother’s old Singer sat at the end of the hall in my childhood home. African violets lined the windowsill. Pincushions in the narrow drawers. The farmhouse my parents bought had been abandoned for years. They tore it down to the iron wood studs, the dry lathe, ressurected it in cherry wainscotting and cedar siding.

These memories: my brother and I camping in an orange tent in the backyard, my brother and I posing on banana seat Schwinns. He lives out west now. Wife and two daughters. House he built like our parents. Me, I keep crossing oceans, find myself singing American songs in bars with Bulgarians who know the words better than I do.

II.

By midnight it was just Laurel and me and three students we’d met at the protest. To be queer in Bulgaria is not an easy thing, they told me. Even now. Even in Sofia. Laurel showed me Facebook posts from her students at the American College who’d seen her on the news: “Nice work Ms. Z!” There were hearts, thumbs-up, bright-faced emoji.

The students with us were from this same school. “Students” isn’t the right word—they’d graduated. But they were twenty years younger than me. One analyzed software now, another made films. The third, I don’t know. Like Angela Davis in her black turtleneck, she had hair like a cloud.

New images from the protests streamed in on their phones. They shared video clips from the news, and I showed them my wife’s pictures from DC. What did I think,they wanted to know, about Bulgaria, about Sofia? It felt like something, that night, to be together there in that bar. That’s what I wanted to say.

But I didn’t know how to answer their questions, let alone describe what keeps bringing me back. How does a place tune us to its song? The narrow alleys, the narrower shops. The sound of tram wheels on rails. These old monuments never let you forget how history leaves a mark.

III.

An hour past midnight they will decide to go to the city’s one lesbian bar, unwilling to concede a day like this too soon. They will plead for Laurel to accompany them, and when she slams her whiskey they’ll cheer. We gather our coats and as they gather arms down the street ahead of us in joy I will feel for a moment what a parent must.

At the little church where the fruit vendors have their stands in summer, we depart. I watch them steer themselves across the snowy courtyard to the tram lines. Eight years ago, when I first came to Bulgaria, it was this church that greeted me. The dome shone hazy in the yellow light. Saints conferred over the entryway. Almost no one was out.


To return to Issue I, please follow this link.