Opa is perhaps the single-most useful word I’ve come across while in Bulgaria.
Drop a dish? opa.
Run into someone? opa.
Mix up student names? opa.
Need to express that yes, you messed up but it doesn’t really matter that much? opa.
Opas come in many forms, and in these two stories, mine came in the form of long, drawn-out, accidental Bulgarian ceremonies. Enjoy my pain, readers.
* * *
It’s 5:30pm on a Wednesday, and I receive a call from my friend and fellow ETA, S, in the neighboring town. Now, S is a jazz aficionado and is lucky enough to have a sweet coffee shop, the Jazz Cafe, in his town. It’s a place I’ve visited a few times and enjoy immensely. So S calls me, says that the Jazz Cafe’s owner is playing tonight with his band at my town’s library. Cool! S doesn’t give me much more info, he just knows the music will be starting at six.
I arrive at the library about ten til six, find a few rows of chairs and some instruments set up in the courtyard, and settle in to enjoy the set, placing myself inconspicuously in the back row in case I decide to make an early escape. I’m the only person seated at the time, so I crack open my book and read a bit while the band warms up and runs sound checks.
The library courtyard
Some of my students walk by on their way to folk dance practice and tell me they are preparing for a show set to take place in two days, on Friday morning. I ask if it is the type of performance I can attend and they say that yes, it will be no problem for me to go. Excitement! I love watching folk dance. This becomes relevant later.
About fifteen minutes elapse and people start to drift in. As they drift, they greet one another. There is a palpable energy flowing, excitement in the air. This is all fine and dandy, but I notice that people are dressed up. DRESSED. UP. Like, dressed to kill (students, do you remember this phrase from class two weeks ago?).
This is my first sign that I should pack up and skedaddle. Do I? No, oh no.
I sit quietly and watch as a horde of Dimitrovgradians, all at least 20 years older than me, shake hands, kiss cheeks, set up more chairs, and pass around pamphlets. I try to sink into my chair and pretend like not present, as I’m clearly out of place. One man, dressed in a suit, ushers four very old, very fancy men to a table in the front, where they are given water and small cups of espresso. The men promptly light their cigarettes (of course) and lay some books on the table. The jazz band had not resumed their play yet.
Pretty soon, enough new rows of seating have been added so that my back row seat is now in a prime, front-of-the-pack locale. ALERT, SARAH, ALERT. RUN! But I stay seated and watch as the evening’s host pats backs and whispers important last-minute reminders and messages. He turns on the mic, taps it, and the gathered crowd begins to settle in, to wait expectantly. By this point, I am confused and feeling awkward and pretty certain that I am not sitting in an audience awaiting a jazz concert. I am also pretty certain I’m not supposed to be in attendance of this event.
The host begins, thanks everyone for attending, recognizes several important guests. He introduces the men seated round the table. His cigarette smolders in his free hand.
“Zdravete!” Ensuing speech.
Now, I should add in here that Bulgarians, in my experience, are LONG-WINDED and are always sure to thank every single person who could possibly be thanked. It’s exhausting but so gracious!
Resuming. So the host speaks about the old men, who are as cool and aloof as a pack of siamese cats. They each, in turn, speak. I catch the name “Ernest Hemingway” from one of the men, followed by a description of some author, along with much sassy fluttering of his free hand and murmuring from the crowd. Multiple camera men are filming the speakers, flashing cameras are going off. I’m getting cold and am messaging S, asking him what in the world he got me into!
The elderly gentlemen stand up, in turn, and each read from the books they’ve brought. Bulgarian poetry. I see “Penyo Penev” on the cover of one volume, and a light clicks. I’m at a celebration ceremony for Dimitrovgrad’s famous poet. Ahhhhh.
Feet scuffle as guests shift in their chairs, laughter dances across the courtyard at certain moments during the readings, and I sit. Cold and trapped. Near the front, teeth chattering, messaging back and forth with S. Laughing inwardly at the ridiculousness that is my life. Only in Bulgaria!
Many cigarettes are lit, much water is drank, and many poems are read. My teeth begin to chatter and my feet begin to go numb. I’ve been sitting for two hours and still haven’t gotten my groceries or lesson planned. Or heard jazz music. Only have heard Bulgarian. Opa.
As soon as the talking and reading and general broohaha breaks, I get up and hightail it out of the courtyard before I freeze to my chair. Escape! Sweet, sweet escape! As I am walking away from the library, I hear live jazz music start to play. Sigh. I call S and he tells me “oh yeah! It slipped my mind to tell you that the concert is part of a celebration for your famous poet! I figured the music would be at the beginning.” Face palm.
In the end, I got my groceries , kind of heard some live music, and saw some of Dimitrovgrad’s fancies so...success?
If only my opa’s for the week ended here.
So Friday morning arrives, the day of my students’ dance performance (remember? from the beginning of my story?). I have my coffee, watch a bit of The Neverending Story, and head out to Dimitrovgrad’s theater. I arrive and find a MASSIVE line of people, mostly children. I see my students, though, dressed in their folk costumes and smiling like a thousand suns as they greet guests. They usher me inside and tell me to take a seat, the show will start soon.
I head inside and marvel again at the theater. It’s beautiful and dated in a good way, I love it. I run into a colleague, the students’ physics and dance teacher, who tells me in broken English that this is a celebration day. Cool!
No, not cool, Sarah! RUN, YOU FOOL.
I take a seat and notice that all the guests are...children. Like, all of them. I feel weird but decide to “spokoino” and wait it out. The stage is decorated with flowers and balloons, and there’s a slideshow with pictures of the town’s middle school. Uh-oh.
Yep. I’d wandered into another two-hour celebration ceremony which I probably wasn’t supposed to be attending. Man, I really need to start pushing my sources for more details. I was sitting in a celebration ceremony for the 50th anniversary of one of our town’s schools. It also involved all the dance studios, performing groups, and talented people in the community.
Even though I found myself in a place I probably wouldn’t have placed myself had I known what I was getting into, I still enjoyed the ceremony immensely. I got to see my girls dance (I am their biggest fan), watched several INTENSE gymnastics routines, heard a traditional singer, and listened with delight to some folk music, played by my school’s music teacher!
Two of my talented 10th graders! Such goofy girls.
Lessons learned: Opa moments are awkward, but can often turn into wonderful experiences, and it sometimes takes enduring a little awkwardness on my part to learn more about my town and see my students in action. Wandering blindly into weird situations kind of comes with the territory of living abroad, you know?
Bulgaria’s like a pan of multi-variety banitsa...you never know what you’re gonna get!