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Tea with a Bulgarian Baba

A group of students smiling around a table filled with jams

By Maya K., YES Abroad 2022-2023, Bulgaria 

A few weeks ago, my friends and I sat down for tea with a Bulgarian Baba. It’s not the first time I’ve been welcomed into a Baba’s home, and I hope it’s not the last because these babas can host. This particular visit was spontaneous; we were invited into her kitchen (literally off the street) after visiting the church right next door. The kitchen itself was decorated with classic Bulgarian rugs, a wood-burning fireplace, an antique radio, good luck charms, etc. The star of the small room was the square wooden table in the center, placed strategically so that anyone entering the house would immediately be invited inside for tea or food. Putting this into practice, we were ushered inside by our host and immediately shown to seats around the table.   

Bulgarian hospitality: Jars and jars of home-collected honey and homegrown jams were set in front of us. Delicious teas were poured and subsequently chugged. Apples from the garden and sugar biscuits from the oven completed our small feast. All the while I couldn’t help but stare at our host. It was not her physical appearance that struck me, but rather her mannerisms and style of hosting. As she talked and talked in Bulgarian about her family, her life, and especially her granddaughter who she missed dearly, I felt the undeniable presence of my late grandma. From the way she touched my shoulder down to the purposeful way she set the plate of biscuits on the tablecloth, she embodied my grandmother, Mary Lou. She might as well have been serving up Cincinnati chili or Pillsbury cinnamon buns. Overwhelmed, I somehow managed to sip my tea and just soak it all in. Until I asked for her name. And the answer was Maria.  

A grandmother and a teen girl embracing

A Bulgarian name day (an “imen den”) celebrates the meaning of someone’s name. It used to be a much bigger holiday and now, though it’s much smaller, it’s still an excuse to celebrate someone. The significance of one’s name in Bulgaria can be understood from one old Bulgarian proverb, “The name makes the man.” Basically, in Bulgaria, a name is more than a label.   

When Maria answered my question, a tear that I didn’t even know existed immediately escaped from my eye. In broken Bulgarian I tried my best to communicate what I was feeling to Maria, whose arms immediately wrapped around me. Soon we were both a mesh of tears as she whispered “oбичам те” (I love you) in my ear. Maria, with the Bulgarian version of Mary for a name, truly was a little piece of Mary Lou. If the Bulgarian proverb rings true and the name really does make the man…then Mary certainly made two incredible women.  

I walked out of that home feeling so many things at once. More prevalent than my sadness at saying goodbye to Maria and my nostalgia for moments with my Grandma was this immense sentiment of being loved. So, so loved. In that small little corner of the world, in a cottage that I could’ve gone my life without seeing, sits a Bulgarian baba named Maria. And now, as I travel far away from that corner, I’m carrying the love of two Marias with me. There's no name for how lucky that makes me feel.