FRANCESCO BONGIORNI

As a visitor in Bulgaria, Garth Greenwell was accustomed to being a stranger in a strange land. Until a chance encounter on a park bench brought him momentarily back home.

April 30, 2016

She was very old, at least 80, and she walked slowly, dragging a little metal cart that held a canvas bag. When she gestured at the bench, I said zapovyadaite, a word that means welcome or help yourself, and her face lit up. You speak Bulgarian, she said as she sat down, chudesno, wonderful, and she widened her legs to pull her cart between them. She was a slight woman, with short, thinning hair that stuck out wildly in all directions, and she was dressed for a different climate, in layers and long sleeves. Her face was scored and rescored with creases, and it moved with extraordinary animation, opening and closing in on itself so dramatically that I thought of the little folded paper fortune-tellers I made as a child. She had lost all but three or four teeth, which she sucked like candy as we spoke.

When we introduced ourselves, I told her that I had lived once in her country and that I was back visiting, that I was a writer. Ah, she said, and what will you write about our Bulgaria? Many things, I said, I love it here, it’s very beautiful. Yes, she said quickly, making a little motion of dismissal with her hand, but haven’t you seen what they’ve done to our country? They’ve ruined it, she said, scowling, all our politicians are thieves, there’s no money for anyone else. Her pension was 200 leva a month, she said, 100 euros. How can I eat, how can I put bread in my mouth, tell me, please, what kind of country is this?

She peppered her speech with the occasional English word, pronounced in a way that made it clear she didn’t speak the language. From the Bible, she answered when I asked where she had learned the words. I’m a believer, she said, but not Orthodox, I’m an evangelical—she paused before pronouncing the next word in English—a Pentecostal. Ah, I said, a little worried about where the conversation was headed. I read the Bible every day, she went on, pressing her hands together and then opening them like a book. I have one with bulgarski on one side, she added. Her other hand lifted slightly. English on the other, she said, the King James, it’s very beautiful.

Vizh, she said suddenly, look, bending forward to dig in her cart, I almost forgot what I have. She pulled out a small, thin book in English, one of the cheap pamphlets people sometimes hand out in front of grocery stores in the States, the words revive us again across the cover. She flipped through it, pronouncing a few words, first in English and then in Bulgarian, testing her translation. But wait, she said, wait, and turned pages until she found a poem. Very slowly, sounding out every syllable, she read:

Holy Spirit, Light Divine,
Shine upon this heart of mine,
Chase the shades of night away,
Turn my darkness into day.

And suddenly, even as I heard the babble of water and children’s voices behind me, I was in the little white wooden box of a Methodist church across from my grandparents’ farm in Kentucky, where on Sundays I sat in my starched shirt, my siblings fidgeting on one side and my grandfather upright on the other, all of us singing these words as my mother, beautifully dressed, kneaded chords out of an ancient upright piano. It was one of her favorite hymns. The woman looked at me when she finished reading, smiling, expecting me to compliment her English. But I couldn’t speak, moved beyond words by a sense of homecoming in this place so far from home.

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