#16 an Indian and a Bulgarian once walked into a bar…


An Indian and a Bulgarian once walked into a bar…

I’ve not heard a joke yet which opens with that line but if they did walk into a bar and sat down with a drink, they’d be astounded at the similarities!

I speak from experience.

A new Bulgarian boy in my son’s class lives not too far from us and takes the same bus to school. Over the last 6 months, he’s become good friends with both my kids and I’ve had the most amazing part-mimed, part-spoken conversation with his 82 year old Grandma who does the school run. We meet at the school gates, occasionally on the bus for no more than 10 minutes a day but I already know everything there is to know about her family.

It began, as all conversations do, with “me from Bulgaria. And you?” she enquired with a kind, toothy smile. Within days we had moved on to Sun Signs and family history, pastry-making and Madeleine Albright! I began to wait for her everyday and thus started an unlikely friendship.

On a glum, rainy afternoon, she confided in me that her husband had been a doctor, a heart surgeon. “in my family, 11 doctors….YES, ELEVEN doctors…my husband, my husband-sister, my husband-sister-husband, my sister, my sister-husband, all the children….ALL doctor, ALL of them” she glowed with pride! “My husband, 7 years ago…fall, bad knee, then paralysis, bed, doctor, medicine, operation, he die…6 years…I live in here 6 years…”

I felt a pang of sympathy and leaned in.

Downcast, she confessed, “I…2 sons…my older say to me – mamma, I no doctor…I ecologist…no economist ( shrugging of shoulder ) ok, my husband say, maybe younger doctor…economy good also, good, good”.…she trailed off.

I smiled. This obsession with doctors sounded familiar.

Younger say to me, mamma, no doctor, no student, no academy ( didn’t want to study, I’m guessing. Aaaaah, the rebel! ) he do only dicso ( Oh, dear dear me! How could he! ) and then, he do this, he do that…now, he Pastry Chef ( sweet revenge?!)

“He make verrrrry good pastry…for top restaurants…er, Harrods in Piccadilly ( ? ) purrrrfect, purrrfect but still, he no doctor but I say ok, ok…11 doctors in family…ELEVEN !” 

On a different occasion, “My OLDER son, he speak purrrrfecttt German and Russian and Cantonese…”

WOW!!! Really? Cantonese ??

“Yes, puuuurrrfect! write and read, and movie…watch….English too…oh, yes, yes.. ( all our conversations are beautifully animated for my benefit ) He go to Shanghai University, 2 years, then he go America….he meet Madeleine Albright ( you know her, Madeleine ? big, important lady ) he do BIG project for America…economics…then he come to London….he, 1 daughter, she is 16 …beautiful but she not come to me, no no no no Grandma, she want to be with friends…all the time, go out and friends, go out and friends…no Grandma! ( sigh, the ubiquitous teenager! )

‘My other son also, only ONE son ( SAD face ) I tell them, in Bulgaria, you have more children…at least 3,4,5….that is good….one child, no good, no good….where is ‘family’? no family ! ( severe disapproval )

Sometime before the Christmas holidays, she described to me her village in the outskirts of Sofia…their sprawling house in the city ( here….TIIIIIIIINY rooms, in Bulgaria…four floors, six rooms every floor…BIG BIG door and balcony…but yes, NOW in Bulgaria….very sad, very sad, no work…factory close…capitalism and socialism…fight fight so no work, all go away….see? come here! )

I understood that like me, she is a migrant who lives here but keeps running back to the past, bathed in a soft, golden glow. Like me, her heart is now divided.

Nostalgia is a cruel mistress.

The other day she pronounced a scathing verdict on English dentists….“here, so much money…oooof, so so much money ( very expensive ) for smaaaaaalll problem. In Bulgaria, I pay 3, no no 5 pounds and get purrrrrfect tooths…purrrrrfect ( her favourite word and I love it  ) I guess it’s true – dental care on the NHS basically offers a single line of treatment for virtually everything – extraction! Or you could go private, pay a ransom and get all sorts of fancy treatment for an aching tooth. Then get an extraction. I see her point…

But there is another thing about her – adorable and very Indian. It is the unreservedness with which she hugs not only her grandson but my son too ( Arrrrrrrrnie, you must come to our house! ) Parents here are very reserved, they rarely ever hug their own children in public after a certain age, certainly nobody else’s! I have to fight the urge to pat my kids’ friends on the back or ruffle their hair when they come home. And I can never forget the first time my son’s friend, barely coming up to my knee, politely said, “Shaaabnam, may I have another biscuit please!” ( Of course, “aunty” is out of the question! )

Which brings me to another trait – our attitude to FOOD!

Arnie returned from the “Bulgarian” home one evening, all hot and bothered. “She is just like Dadajee ( Grandad )!” he observed ( explaining that his friend’s grandma had spent the evening offering them one thing after another to eat, getting in the way of all their gizmo-time – juice, biscuit, fruit, cake, all in the space of a few hours and she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer ) I laughed and told him he that he should be grateful. Nothing to be cross about!

My heart melted when I found out WHY Arnie was really annoyed. He had planned a solo journey home ( he did have permission from us  ) but Bulgarian Grandma insisted on riding with him on the bus and dropped him to our doorstep, then promptly returned ( unknown to me )

I spent the next few days saying ‘thank you’ 🙂

PS : I’ve just reached the bits describing the Orient Express in Paul Theroux’s THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR. I wonder if my beautiful new friend could shed some light on his adventures through Sofia!

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