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Chess and Chorba: Memories of My Host Family

Peri taking a mirror selfie with her host dad wearing white shirts and hats

By Peri B., YES Abroad 2021-2022, Bulgaria, from Amherst, NY

This story was originally published in the YES Abroad Alumni Association (YAAA) newsletter. 

A cool breeze swept across my host family’s balcony as the night sky slowly blanketed the pastel-painted horizon. I stared at the chess board that lay between me and my host mom. All that remained of my ivory army was the king, queen, a bishop, and three lonely pawns scattered across the board, too far from each other to lend any kind of protection. A moment later, my bishop joined the other POWs on the other side of enemy lines. Glancing across the board at my host mom’s formation I knew that no matter what I did, eventually I’d land in another one of her inextricable webs and be checkmated. Her face was schooled in the usual inscrutable countenance she wore during our games. I could never tell when I stumbled into one of her traps until it was all over. It was usually quiet during our matches. The loudest sound was the clack of the chess pieces as we moved them about the board. Neither of us wanted to lose, and a spirit of competition hung in the air. She made a move; I responded; she countered. We communicated without speaking, and in these moments I felt closer to her than ever.

From the kitchen would waft the enticing smell of my host dad’s cooking. Still dressed in his work clothes from the day, he would stand over the stove with a bottle of sunflower seed oil, a pile of cubed meat, and a carton of heavy cream at the ready. I would be there beside him, grabbing ingredients from the fridge as he needed and describing my day in broken Bulgarian. Even if I said something incomprehensible he would smile and shake his head (a motion that actually denotes agreement in Bulgaria). He showed me how to cook фантазия(fantasy)-my host family’s joke about throwing some of this, some of that, some of whatever was left in the fridge in a pot and somehow making it delicious. No plan or recipe required. My host dad was the joker of my host family and always made everyone laugh at the dinner table. 

One night by the time I returned to my neighborhood the sun had already set, and the stars were just starting to materialize through the last few moments of dusk. I dragged myself through the door of the apartment and into the orange hue of the entryway, placing my bag beside a nearby ottoman and slipping off my shoes. It had been a long day, and all I wanted to do was crash.  I had in my hand a parting gift from my third-grade ESL students- a green square scarf inlaid with silver and purple motifs. I looked around and saw the T.V. was on and casting its blue, flashing light against the abstract portraits that hung above the couch where my host dad was watching the evening news.  I told him about how it had been my last day teaching and showed him the gift. He asked me if I knew how to tie it. I wasn’t sure what he meant. He ended up showing me how to fold a headscarf like a Bulgarian grandmother while he himself donned an old-timey cap from the cupboard, and we posed in the mirror like two Bulgarians from the previous century. 

Months after my return from my year abroad I’m still looking back on all of these memories and reflecting on my relationship with my host family. I’ll miss the chess matches I could never win, and the way my host dad could make me laugh after days that put me down. Every time I remember something we did together, I grab my notebook and try my best to write it down. These snapshots always bring a smile to my face and are invaluable memories I hope to keep for the rest of my life.