Thirty years ago this week, I hopped on an electric train with a bright-red engine, a nervous energy pulsing through my arms and legs straight to my fingers and toes, which fidgeted uncontrollably. My head was spinning.
I carried all I had in my arms — two gray suitcases of clothes, one violin in a worn brown case and one blue duffle bag with running shoes and toiletries. I was 24 and headed to the greatest adventure of my life, a two-year bicultural exchange that excited me, at times vexed me and forever changed me.
I served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Veliko Tarnovo, a 5,000-year-old city in central Bulgaria with a medieval fortress that was flanked by white stucco houses, squeezed onto the steep hills above the winding Yantra River.
In the first week of September 1991, I left the safe haven of the training site the Peace Corps set up in Bankya, a spa resort 11 miles outside Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, and headed to Tarnovo, as it’s commonly known. After two and a half months of preparations, I still had no idea what to expect. I loved every minute of the next two years.
I was part of the first group of 26 Peace Corps volunteers to enter Bulgaria after the fall of communism there a year earlier. As was the case in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania between 1989 and 1990, thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets to protest communist rule. Todor Zhivkov — the longest-serving Soviet Bloc dictator in the post-World War II era, who reigned from 1954 to 1989 — was deposed without bloodshed. In July 1990, then President Petar Mladenov, a former communist leader, quit over accusations that he had ordered tanks to roll against protesters in December 1989.
People rejoiced after Mladenov’s resignation, The New York Times reported on July 7, 1990. “Never again a communist president in Bulgaria!” 5,000 protesters chanted in unison in central Sofia.
To be there, in this place burning with democratic idealism after more than four decades of repressed speech and thought, was the thrill of a lifetime for an American who had freedom of speech and assembly ingrained in him. Bulgaria felt so alive. I felt so alive. People were suddenly free. As an outside observer who was quickly acculturated to Bulgarian beliefs and practices (I married a Bulgarian), I internalized their joy, their relief and, sometimes, their fear of a return to communism.
On June 20 this year, most of the original 26 Peace Corps volunteers, our Bulgarian manager, Emil Patev, and my wife, Katerina, who was one of our language and culture trainers, gathered on Zoom to reminisce. It was perhaps the strangest feeling I’ve ever experienced. Because of the intensity of the experiences that we shared, the names and faces of my fellow volunteers were indelibly etched in my mind. I pictured them as their younger selves, and then we appeared in little boxes on a computer screen, significantly older variations of ourselves, as if this were a “Dr. Who” episode. It was jarring at first.
Then we started to share what we took away from Bulgaria. Many spoke of the Bulgarian work ethic, the slower place of life, the neighborliness or the kindness they were shown by their colleagues at the schools where they taught — we were all English teachers.
Happy memories coursed through my mind — meeting my lovely wife for the first time, soaking in the sights and sounds that were so different than the United States, chatting with my students, who were 17 when I met them and 19 when they graduated from the Vasil Drumev High School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, as they attended a fifth year of high school for advanced studies.
That graduation, in June 1991, was among the most beautiful days of my life, aside from my wedding and the births of my children. It was a simple, short ceremony, full of music. The students poured flowers into their teachers’ hands, as is Bulgarian tradition. Katerina and I taught at the school together, and we came away with so many flowers that our tiny, rented apartment resembled a florist’s shop.
I’m occasionally asked to speak to young people about my Peace Corps experiences. They often ask about the challenges, or whether I had any regrets about signing up. I can sense their trepidation. Volunteering for the Peace Corps is a monumental, life-altering decision.
I used to speak of the pluses and minuses. There is, no doubt, a financial sacrifice, because you’re volunteering for two years of your life, I would say. Perhaps that was the reporter in me wanting to give both sides of the story.
If they have a strong interest in joining, I tell them now, they should embrace any fears they might harbor and let the river of life take them wherever it might flow. You needn’t know where it will end up. It could take you to magical lands you never imagined.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.