"Are all Bulgarians as touchy-feely as you?" The question had never occurred to me, until my friend Jenny asked me a few weeks after we met during our freshman year of college in Saint Paul, Minnesota. This was the first time I thought about personal space explicitly, even though I'd probably experienced it on a sensory level throughout my whole life. I was coming from a high school in Kuwait, which, although American in name, spirit, and language of instruction, was actually a hard-to-disentangle jumble of cultures, customs, greeting habits, and levels of touchiness.
Writers often find their true material through the subconscious mind. The obsession that has guided me to my truest writing always emerged more intuitively than consciously. A writer develops, over time, this ability to tap into a reservoir of knowledge, imagination, memory, and feeling that exists both at the individual level and the collective. You go into a dark, place full of buried treasure, where anything is possible, and begin your quest for your true story. You are fuelled, all along, by the particular energy of your subject.
The book is one of the latest publications by the Free Speech International Foundation.
Russia's former imperial capital captivates visitors with its history,
its culture, and the splendid riches of its palaces
The dark river flows and does not sleep,
it whispers quietly, tells tales to keep,
about tsars, tsaritsas, and their palaces,
about their past of glory and their countless odysseys.
The river knows, it's seen it all, through this enormous town it's always flown,
under many bridges it now runs, so that its loyal night guards they become.
Border, her memoir-cum-travelogue about Bulgaria's southeastern frontier from Communism to the present, was published in 2017 to international acclaim. The book explores the history, trauma and memories of a region that brings together three Balkans states: Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. According to the jury, Border won because it "contributed to global cultural understanding" and "illuminates the interconnections and divisions that shape cultural identity worldwide."
The sun doesn't set in the summer there so we played cards for hours in the ceaseless twilight; during the daytime, we hiked an old Viking trail. We carried our backpacks through the wilderness and set up camp each night by rivers and waterfalls. We found a fragment of whale bone on the seashore, curved and large as a giant's tooth. It was porous, but as heavy as the stones surrounding it.
The day I was admitted to the hospital, I just laid there and stared straight ahead—a piece of paper had been stuck to the closet, and the closet was blocking half of the window. Out its other half, I could see some thick black branches. The piece of paper said, "Inventory of Items in Room 7." I had the surgery the next day. I put on my regular pants because my cell phone, which I'd put on silent, could fit into pocket. As if I'd be able to inform anyone what was happening to me while I was under general anaesthesia… They did a biopsy and the express results came back in about 20 minutes.
I went out for a run one lightly rainy morning – on Halloween, actually. Movement kept at bay the dreadful sensation that the island hungered to swallow me up, annihilate my spirit. And so I laced up, pulled the hood of an old sweatshirt over my head, and ran along the road that served the beach house. Relief came only when the road fed into a park, and the park into trails that twisted through the woods. My sneakers splashed mud up onto my shins and calves.
I remember kindergarten as a gloomy and depressing place – now that I think about it, as the place where the groundwork was laid for out future participation in society.
A Hurricane of a Welcome
My gaze passes onto the other hill, Kalakoch, the kale and its mysterious banks and ditches. The place could have been a Thracian hillfort and some say it was later used as a refuge when the Goths and the Huns and the Avar tribes streamed across the Danube to raid the Byzantine Empire. After that it was a place of quarry for building stone and a tryst for young lovers. Out with the sheep they would pick around the stones and pots and tell stories.
I wake up with the increasingly sticky morning heat and the crushing smell of the traditional feijoada's black beans with pork that Suzanna is already stirring in the tiny kitchen. Suzanna is the live-in maid. All middle-class households have one here – just because they can. Ours is 22, with warm sparkly eyes and three kids, the youngest of whom she had at 16. Preta (Portuguese for black), she says, poking an index finger at her chest.
In many ways, you could say that Justine never really left Ghana, even with all the ships, even with all his time in Bahia. Calling himself Sankofa was just another thread stitching him back to home. In his kitchen in Salvador, when I visited, there was a plastic container sitting on a shelf next to jars of raw cane sugar and cacao nibs. He tilted it to show me what was inside. "I’m making banku," he explained, as water washed over the fermenting cornmeal dough. "It will be ready in a few days." He still speaks fluent Fante even though most of his days are spent in Portuguese.
In 2008 we published East of Constantinople/Travels in Unknown Turkey, a travelogue about some of the highlights of one of Europe's most amazing countries. From the Iranian border and what some still think is the remnants of Noah's Ark to places like Mount Nemrut, Şanlıurfa, Cappadocia and Trabzon, we transversed eastern Turkey several times over to be able to come up with a product that still captures the imagination of thousands of readers. In Bulgarian only.
A Palestinian in Sofia
Outside the Banya Bashi mosque in Sofia, we were taking off our shoes to have a peek inside, when a well-fed middle-aged man with Arabic features said in English: "It's lunchtime but I let you go in, just for you. Where you from?"
"I'm from here," I said, "and Michael is from New Zealand."
"Ah, you life here and your boyfriend visiting you," he interpreted.
"No, we live in England," I said.
Along the way she has criss-crossed the globe, feeding her passion for travel with journeys to widely different destinations, from Morocco and India to Argentina.