Molly Bernhard

10 Months of Bulgaria

In May, I took a solo trip to Veliko Tarnovo. The city was somewhat of a mystery to me—everyone talked about it as though it had a magical essence, but no one was able to explain the essence itself. I was drawn to its ambiguous allure and wanted to experience the magic firsthand. On the bus ride, I reflected that Bulgaria in the spring is a country transformed. In the winter, I saw it in shades of grey, a captivating and poetic melancholy. But on the bus ride to Veliko Tarnovo, I gaped at the remarkable scenery, convinced Bulgaria was the most beautiful country on earth. I wished I had more time to explore its magnificence. The leaves shone a rich green, the vibrancy of the hills gave the appearance of a post-summer rain, a gleam of freshness, purity, and revival. The light radiated off the sides of the hills. I thought, I am exactly where I need to be.

If the drive to Veliko Tarnovo is paradise, then Veliko Tarnovo is Eden itself. The words stunning and majestic don’t do justice to this city’s beauty. What struck me the most about Veliko Tarnovo were its hills, undulating as though they were breathing the same air as me, our bellies rising and falling in sync. When gazing into the terrain, I was reminded of my drive through the Appalachian mountains in Tennessee during a cross-country journey nearly 5 years ago. I had just graduated from college and was only 20 years old. I had very little money, no job lined up, the housing situation I had found had just fallen through, and I knew no one in my destination city, Washington, D.C. Yet I felt compelled to continue forward with my move, giving up a stable, but unfulfilling life in search for greater purpose and meaning. Still, I was truly terrified and did not know what I was doing. But as I meandered through the grandeur of the Appalachian mountains, I felt an inexplicable sense of tranquility.

In his book The Physics of Sorrow, Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov writes “the labyrinth is someone’s fossilized hesitation. The most oppressive thing about the labyrinth is that you are constantly being forced to choose. It isn’t the lack of an exit, but the abundance of ‘exits’ that is so disorienting.” I am indelibly grateful that in an abundance of exits, in the midst of fossilized hesitation, I chose Bulgaria. This has gone from being an abstract place I had read about and studied, to a place that holds deep emotional meaning and connection for me. Five years following my college graduation, I still don’t know exactly what I am doing, but I feel that inexplicable sense of tranquility I encountered in the Appalachian mountains and later in Veliko Tarnovo. It is impossible to articulate all I want to say, but my experience in Bulgaria has truly been transformative. 

This year has been difficult in many ways. It was filled with ambiguity and I questioned myself and my direction often. I have felt a loneliness, which is at times a dull and others devastating. I have faced immense social anxiety. I have held myself to impossibly high, unrealistic standards. I have been misunderstood by others, and I have also misunderstood them. I have encountered failure on a regular basis. I have, at times, struggled to maintain my integrity, my foremost and guiding value. My mental health has wavered.

I am drawn to the nostalgia of endings, and the reflection of my experiences when endings arrive. This is certainly not my first ending, but it is a significant one. My optimism embraces the hardship of this year; it is shaped by it. Exponential growth and wonderful moments have accompanied the difficulties. I have learned so much from my students and have been consistently moved by their intellect and emotional insight, tenacity, and humor. I have watched the small, intimate moments of kindness from people of a culture different from my own. I have formed friendships grounded in mutual respect and unconditional acceptance. I have become more focused on how I view myself, rather than attempting to control the narrative of how others view me. My belief systems have been challenged, propelling me to reevaluate or redefine them. I have become more direct and have advocated for myself. I have worked on my boundary-setting and have started to let go of an ingrained desire to fix everything, especially as “fixing” is subjective to those impacted by the so-called fix. I have become more understanding of perspectives that differ from mine, extending patience, curiosity, and humanity, rather than judgment. I have listened, and I mean truly listened. I have taken risks I would have never considered a year ago. I have slowed down and am not as reactive as I used to be. I have learned to be more independent, while also asking for help when I need it. Before this year, I had never lived outside of the United States, and while I have gained a more nuanced understanding of aspects within Bulgarian culture, I am left with many more questions than answers. Most importantly, I have become more empathetic to myself and by extension, to those around me. 

Fulbright Bulgaria has carved a space for me to live in alignment with my intentions and values. To live a life grounded in my authenticity. My students ask me about the differences between Americans and Bulgarians, and I am often rendered silent by the question. We are much more similar than we are different, and I try to focus on those similarities. I see myself in my Bulgarian colleagues—artists who expose their soul on canvas in ways that are not only relatable, but are deeply moving; in the Bulgarian innovators I have met, working toward a better future for their country as I aim to do with my own; in my Bulgarian students who tell me stories of their lives and I find myself holding my breath, astounded at the similarities of our respective adolescences; in the Bulgarian woman gently grasping an elderly man’s arm on the bus, holding him steady, guiding him to sit next to her and rest. I am no longer the same person I was 10 months ago, but I will always be thankful to that person for making this decision for me. Bulgaria has become my home so it is with incredible sadness, but also incredible gratitude for my time here, that I must say goodbye. 

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