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Mo-zhe lee da o-sta-nuh da spuh too-ka?

March 26, 2011

Abby Ryder-Huth ’13

It's become a coincidental sort of tradition that whenever I'm particularly unhappy, somehow I end up at Buckingham Palace. I never go very close, but stand back by St. James Park watching the tourists in front of the dark metal gates before crossing through the crowd over to Green Park, my favorite. I like to be there in late afternoon, when all the gilded icons of British royalism look even more golden, and the casually manicured ruggedness of the park asks you to forget the lower-class world you just walked out of with all its public scum. The class system in England is alive and glistening as the scrubbed Georgian manors, which can seem charming if you don't think too hard about it, but really disgusting if you do. It's something my friends and I here have been talking about a lot lately--it seems conversations between Oberlin students rarely don't at least touch on social justice.

All of this focus on aristocracy and British history and politics is part of the reason I decided on a whim a couple of weeks ago to buy a ticket to Bulgaria for spring break, hoping that post-Soviet Eastern Europe might remedy my frustration with London's flaunted wealth. I don't know what exactly I was expecting to see; my ideas of Eastern Europe were too quaint to seem possible, but Bulgaria managed to surpass them all. Sofia was a relief after the past weeks of Parliament's impossible lavishness and neo-gothic churches covered in gold and nationalism. It felt honest in a way that London sometimes doesn't, and as I travelled across the country to the Black Sea, unannounced beautiful things came constantly so that I never knew what to try harder to remember. Thinking about it now, mostly I see the mountains, and villages going quickly past bus windows, stone streets with stray cats and men who plow their fields by hand, the markets with huge blocks of acrid white cheese and heaps of steaming nuts, and dark city bars where people kept cigarettes in their mouths like second tongues. I relished in the confusion of Cyrillic letters and backwards head-nodding (up and down for no, side to side for yes), which led to almost missing every bus, and then forgetting how to say "thank you" so instead just saying the only word I remembered, which was "Bulgarian." Everyone was so kind and welcoming, I have no good way to thank them for being so wonderful.

I flew back to London yesterday with many photographs, an overstuffed carry-bag, and also painfully infected tonsils, which is how I eventually ended up facing Buckingham Palace, drinking tea with more honey than water, an amoxicillin prescription in my pocket, and feeling a sense of sad relief. Everything I'd felt so ready to leave a week earlier had turned weirdly comforting to come back to, even coming from a place I might have stayed in had I had the chance. Being back in London, the absence of Sofia's wild dogs and rusty streetcars had more ease to it than disappointment, which seems hard to reconcile with how comforting the dogs and streetcars had been when I got off the plane last Friday, and how I wish I'd see them passing through the streets of Soho right now. Sitting calmly in Green Park felt like a defeat after the Rila Mountains, unexciting without the worry of how I'd catch the right train home. But there's just something about being able to ask for antibiotics without being answered in a slew of speech that sounds like wind blowing cream over rocks.

Still, ease is worrisome. Someone I met the other night was learning English proverbs, and asked if I thought it was true that familiarity breeds contempt. I told him no, that I think it's more that the new and difficult are so alluring, the familiar looks contemptible next to them. It's funny that London is what's easy now, and already holds the position of the familiar. Really, it's so full of endless newness, with the waves of people you see and then never do again, that to focus on this feels impossible. You'd go crazy counting the little private worlds you witness for a second, in someone's conversation as they pass, or a look on someone's face on the train. Like any good eavesdropper, I'm grateful to be back understanding these conversations, but even still I miss how the rumble of Bulgarian would fill the room, and how quiet and transient I felt inside it.

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