I started to think something was wrong with us. Sure, we have been invited a few times since we got here last August to join a group of professors from our university for dinner and we have enjoyed those nights and like that group. On a few occasions we have been invited to the homes of local professors (once for a Christmas party and twice to watch a sports event). Those nights were precious few. Mark has gone out for a beer a couple of times with one of the locals. I thought I would make friends with the Zumba ladies at the gym, but none of them speak English. We have become friends with our lovely landlady and her husband (a cute couple about our age) and we enjoy their company when we get to see them. But for the most part, we have been on our own.
We have made a few awkward overtures to “friends” asking about having a “pot luck” dinner or joining us for “for a drink.” One time I was sure we were going to become friends with an interesting new couple but when I tried to make plans with them, the guy reminded me that “we smoke like chimneys” so we needed to “meet somewhere with lots of ashtrays.” With my aggravated asthma, those “friends” went down the tube.
I discussed all this with Mark the other night and we decided that some people who have worked at this university for a long time and make Blagoevgrad their home don’t even attempt friendship with some of the “newbies” like us. They don’t want invest time and energy in yet another person who will most likely be gone soon enough. They’ve seen people like us many times before, so what’s the point?
Or maybe they just take things slower around here (my theory). People are slow to warm up. They don’t easily trust people. They already have their friends and family. Who needs more? It reminds me of Minnesota when we first arrived there. It took years to penetrate that world.
To be honest, during this time I have secretly enjoyed spending so much time with Mark. After many years of going so many different directions with a variety of obligations, it’s been a bit like a second honeymoon. Every night we get together to have long dinners (and sometimes even lunch in the ancient school cafeteria) and we talk about our days. We share teaching stories and tips. We plan our future travels. We talk about his latest biking adventure or my frustration about getting my latest documentary edited while teaching. We talk about our past and our present. We hold hands and marvel at our good fortune that we are getting paid for this amazing adventure we are having.
Still, I miss my friends. People who know you already and love you already and anyway. People you don’t have to “date” to get to know them. So I started thinking: where do I feel the most normal? Where do I feel like I can meet anyone from anywhere and have an instant connection? Answer: film festivals!
So this year, during our spring break, I dragged Mark along with me to three film festivals. From Zagrebdox (Croatia) to Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival (Greece) and then to the Sofia International Film Festival (Bulgaria), we managed to connect easily with people every step of the way. It was a memorable mix of friends, documentaries, parties, long lunches (that sometimes turned into dinners and beyond), new friends, old friends, and oh, did I mention documentaries? So many small world connections to people I knew from the U.S. or other film fests! Our Macalester College “daughter” Kate from our “host family” days in Minnesota was working at the film festival in Sofia where I was screening NUMB. She knew our filmmaker friends from Croatia. Things like that. We also brought along a group of AUBG students to Thessaloniki and Sofia to expose them the world of film fests. It was fun getting to know them better. I would imagine that one day down the road, we will run into them at a film festival somewhere in the world and they will be our friends, too.
So, for about ten days, I felt completely normal. Now it’s back to the grind. Finishing up the last few weeks of the spring semester of school and then graduation and then everyone will go their separate ways in May. It’s one of the joys of the rhythm of university life: we know we will be back in U.S. visiting our family and friends this summer. Maybe the truth is that we’re not trying that hard to make new friends precisely because we know this. I’m not sure.
Outside our kitchen window there is a pot of tulips from bulbs I bought in Amsterdam in January. I had never planted tulips before and it’s been fun watching them grow inside our apartment. Yesterday I put the pot outside because it has finally warmed up and it looks like the stalks are almost ready to bloom. When they do, I will be reminded that friendship, like tulips, take a long time to grow. I’ll try to be patient.