There Is Time
In the States, I was forever on the go. I never seemed to have enough time. So it was that I found myself in a country with all the time in the world. Since then, I have been confronted with the two phrases that continued to follow me throughout my Peace Corps service: “relax” and “there is time.” Cpokoino (relax) was the first word my host mother, Cici, spouted as I met her in the stomach churning craziness of “Meet-Your-Host-Family” day. As trainees and their Bulgarian host families jostled through lines to pick up luggage and medical kits and toss them into rickety, fume-belching Soviet-model cars, I frantically looked around, trying not to get lost in the confusion.
“Cpokoino,” she reassured me and deftly maneuvered through the crowd like a natural. I felt like a wimp as I watched her effortlessly hoist my huge army duffel bag out of the pile and carry it out to her nephew’s sputtering Russian hatchback. I felt even more like a wimp when I found out later that she was a diabetic with kidney problems and blind in one eye. As I ducked into the backseat, I almost felt sick with anxiety and excitement. It was Cici’s smile that soothed my nerves.
“Haide,” she said. (Let’s go.)
“Da,” I replied with a nervous smile as her nephew jerked the car to life.
Over rolling hills and past fields of poppies and sunflowers we trudged. Onward, past the edge of the Thracian plains and up into the Rhodope Mountains to the small mountain village of Bratsigovo. As we rounded the last foothill and looked across the small valley just before the climb to Bratsigovo with its cobblestone streets, red-tiled clay roofs and the single, golden-domed Orthodox church, it began to sink in. This was going to be my home for the next three months and the beginning of everything to follow. For a moment, my American “need for speed” disappeared. I wanted time to stop. I wanted to hold this moment like a child might hold a small, shiny bauble.
Cici’s house was nestled against the forest. She literally lived on the edge of town, having the last home on the mountainside road that led upwards to the next, even smaller village. Often, I’d look up from my studies to see her returning from a hike, toting bundles of herbs, berries, and flowers; some for herself, some for her neighbors, some for her rabbits, and always, some for me. Always she’d greet me with a smile as she closed the wooden gate leading to her tiny courtyard. Sitting down next to me at her broken, plastic porch table she’d begin offering me the fresh, ripe berries she’d hiked down the mountain with. Those berries were sweeter than anything I had ever tasted back home. Her smile seemed to say: It’s good, right? I knew you’d like it. She’d laugh like an imp as I butchered attempts to say, “thank you” and “I like it very much.” It was at one of these intimate moments that she told me that she wanted me to hike with her the next day. Like a normal, time-conscientious American, I responded with, in my broken Bulgarian, “Ako imam vreme.” (If I have time.)
“Of course, of course,” she assured me and without missing a beat she added, “Cpokoino, ima vreme.” (Relax, there is time.)
The next day, my fellow trainees and I were told that we had a small language quiz coming up, and it was very important that we pre-pare. In American-mode, I fervently began to practice my Bulgarian over and over again in Cici’s tiny, underground living room. I was so engrossed in my books and notes that I didn’t notice Cici standing next to me, grinning over my shoulder.
“Gotova li si?” (Are you ready?)
Due to my classes and studying, I had forgotten our plans and I asked her “for what?” in bewilderment. She patiently reminded me of the hike. I squirmed, feeling terrible. I didn’t have the time that day, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Ima vreme, vinagi,” she repeated over and over. (There is always time.)
I grudgingly slipped into my hiking boots as I thought about the up-coming language test and then headed up the mountain road behind her. I began to chide myself for not being more assertive. I tried to go over my lessons in my head, but as the gravel path got steeper and the foliage became thicker, my mind wandered from the thought of books and notes. On and on we trudged, skirting valleys that revealed all the colors of autumn, past babbling brooks, over the silent, stone remnants of Roman-era bridges, and along cobblestone roads with bygone eras etched in their deep, rocky ruts. I found myself standing in a virgin forest on a road that had once led to Rome. My mind reeled at the very idea of it.
It was a sun-ripened plum extended before my face that broke my meditative trance.
“Yash, yash,” she grinned and laughed a little. (Eat, eat). Mortified, I suddenly realized I’d been standing stalk-still in the middle of the stone path with my mouth agape. I took the offered plum as she motioned for me to sit under the shade of the trees that grew on the side of the road. As I munched, I watched her move sprightly from one tree or bush to another, gathering oodles of wild figs, plums, peaches, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, hazelnuts, and walnuts. When she returned, I asked if we should head home. Cici just smiled, resting her hand on my arm and said, “Ima vreme,” as usual. I sighed and smiled back in agreement as we partook of the small forest feast she had collected.
We continued upwards toward the higher mountain village of Rosovo as we filled our bellies with all of Cici’s gatherings. We passed small waterfalls, wild irises, and sunflowers the size of my head. I couldn’t believe that this whole other world was virtually in Cici’s backyard. On the way, she taught me the words for all the different trees, fruits, nuts, and berries. I was learning without trying. She would wink and smile with every new word I repeated as if to assure me that I had made a wise decision in coming and that she was much better than any textbook. Of course, she was completely right.
In those first three months, I learned more from her patient tutelage than from all my notes and grammar books. It took every ounce of reserve to steel myself for that final night with Cici and her son, Zaprey, who was leaving soon for college. She had made a grand feast of various Bulgarian delicacies as a surprise. She was excited for me that my site was in Varna, the “Big City,” but I was reluctant about the change.
In all my time there, I had never seen her upset, nor cry. Every villager who knew I was staying with her would tell me how strong she was, how happy she was all the time. A mountain woman. Yet, that night I saw her strong visage crack just a little. That night I saw her cry. I was another one of her children, she told me, and all her children seemed to be flying away like little birds, but I would always have a place in her heart and her home if I needed. My heart melted. I felt something stick in my throat and tried to suck back the tears creeping into my eyes as I hugged her tight.
“You will come and see me often,” she insisted, that mischievous smile creeping across her brown, sun-kissed face.
“If I have time,” I said, which caused us both to laugh.
“Ima vreme,” she said, finishing our little ritual, her eyes twinkling, “Vinagi.”
There is time…always.
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