I opened up a tub of Zottis Classic Yogurt this morning, and as I savored that first cold, creamy spoonful, a thought popped into my head: “I miss Bulgarian yogurt.”
And then, on the heels of that sentiment: “But I don’t even really remember what Bulgarian yogurt is like.”
It took five minutes and a couple more spoonfuls of reflection to recall the taste of the 400-gram yogurt tubs I used to eat during my exchange trip to Bulgaria last June. Strange, how something that used to be routine can feel so distant. I could nip down to the convenience store on the opposite end of the block and grab one of the many, many varied yogurt tubs in the dairy section in less than ten minutes — twenty, if we factor in the time it would take to browse the snacks and baked goods, and wonder if I should also buy some dried figs or mushroom-and-cheese banitsa.
Now it takes the same amount of time to recall the technicolor labels and stark fluorescent lighting that I supposedly miss.
Can we really miss something we don’t remember? I should be ashamed for not remembering more than I do right now, really. The trip to Bulgaria was outrageous, at least for a college student who would have to spend months in a country where she knew absolutely nobody, and it wasn’t the overwhelming, life-changing experience I expected it to be. I’ve avoided thinking about it because of that — because of the fear that, after all that time and trouble, maybe the trip wasn’t worth it.
Mostly I just walked around and took photos and wondered where the rush of wonder was hiding. There were small moments, quiet but sublime: the wind trying to push me off the cliffs of Kaliakra; the hush of the controlled environment built to house some Thracian ruins; the prickle of sun through the fabric of my shirt on the sands of Varna. But those aren’t the things you gush about to your relatives back home, are they? It should’ve been exclamation points all around: Scuba diving in the Black Sea! Bungee jumping off a busy metropolitan bridge! Spelunking the craggy headlands of the Balkans! Nobody is moved by a grainy video of seagulls whirling around a spotlit cathedral at midnight — at least, nobody who wasn’t actually there to see it in person, and even those who were might well be too ashamed to admit to anything.
The metrics of remembrance are strange. As I mulled over this morning’s yogurt — a tad creamier than the plain one we usually get — I remembered the fresh whipped cream that topped off the one sundae I let myself have in the self-proclaimed land of wonderful dairy. Maria, my host, told me that the Japanese like the specific qualities of Bulgarian yogurt so much, they take great pains to import Lactobacillus bulgaricus. The typical grocery-store yogurt here uses L. d. bulgaricus; Zottis doesn’t specify. In any case, Zottis — while creamier — doesn’t taste close to the yogurt that I sipped on the overnight trains to Sofia, to Plovdiv. Similar rickety trains brought us improvised games, the splattering of Oberyn Martell’s head in Game of Thrones’ eighth episode, and conversations with strangers from Plovdiv’s suburbs. As for the sundae, it was a tall glass of raspberry, and similar glasses gave me and my fellow interns something else to have in common.
Maybe that’s the takeaway, or one of the takeaways, at least: that the things you learn, the things you eventually hold onto, the things you take home, they’re not always the ones that you expected or planned. My fellow interns included beer-guzzling former track stars and shisha-seeking rich kids. Most of the time, I felt like the people who occupied the circles that exchange led me to occupy just weren’t my crowd. And maybe they weren’t, but that same beer-drinking track star bonded with me over Japanese music and anime and shared temperaments; the same people who invited me to try a hookah also talked to me about French literature and Game of Thrones and nerd culture; that is, the same people who weren’t my speed turned out to be, well, kind of my speed anyway.
That still isn’t something you write home about. Especially not the beer-guzzlers and the hookahs.
Neither is the sentiment — which it has taken me this long to even allow myself to articulate — that sometimes you’re really just chasing the feeling of no one here knows me. Yesterday, my parents and I watched That Thing Called Tadhana, the one movie this year that will probably be responsible for the sudden exodus of soul-searching twenty-somethings out to the mountains of Baguio and Sagada. “Ito na ang buhay mo ngayon,” Mace said at one point, and okay, maybe that was part of the Bulgaria trip’s value for me. For all our unexpected shared interests, none of the people I came to know there would ever be part of my regular, day-to-day life back home. That was freeing and depressing in equal measure. No one here knows me. In any case, it became my life for months, and it gave me the space to do my own thing.