We’d been roommates for over a day now, myself and a mother-daughter duo. I wasn’t positive our relationship would get further than the initial “hola,” but then the daughter asked me where I was from, and over the next two hours and our plates of spaghetti, we talked. They, mother who speaks Spanish and little English, and daughter, 24, from Guadalajara. We best the language barrier, all of us working in the other’s first language (mom tells me to practice my Spanish with them), using hand movements to emphasize.
I’m asked if most Americans hate Mexicans, and we talk about being poor neighbors, the lack of travel and understanding on most people’s parts, and how relying on television news for global understanding causes problems. She talks with excitement about how the youth uses Internet to break down borders. She talks with frustration about the time she spent four hours filling out a tourist visa application for the United States (“I’m not trying to work in your country, I just want to see”), went to the bathroom and down the hall for twenty minutes, and came back to a timed-out application. Start again. Or travel Europe, that’s easier. She’s from Mexico, but she’ll meet the girl from Southern California in Bulgaria instead. She says I should visit her country next – she’s sorry she can’t visit mine. I am, too.
We talk about what we like to do. She designs, draws, works with sculpture. Wants to go back to school. I tell her I like to write and play with photography. I guess I “kinda” went to school for that. I share the hot air balloon photos with her mom. Mention childrens books as a current idea. “Ah, that is very important. Someone has to reach kids, it can be cartoon network, or it can be you.” She talks about getting antsy in one place too long, bouncing in her spot on the carpet to emphasize. “You like to write, travel is good. You sit at paper and stare (look of boredom), nothing will come. But you walk down the street, later shower, and… Lightbulb!”
This morning, as I lay in bed reading my email, she said good morning. “Do you like marionettes?” She pulls out two real, fantastically ornate puppets hung from wood crosses. She brings them with her everywhere. “I have more at home, I perform. These are just for play. I like to think, with people who don’t speak English, they are ice breaker.”
I’m in awe as I watch one walk across the hostel floor. I teach her the word “tangled.” Tell her I wish I had an ice breaker like that.
“You play that instrument?”
Oh that’s right, I’ve got my own strings. And now being stuck with Steve the Saaz is getting explained, in elementary English version. Let me note, the irony of this no-strings-attached, obligation free three months, with a string instrument I can’t get rid of on my back is not lost on me. He’s taken out, strings retightened, played for a moment. “Good thing it is light. I hope whoever learns to play that plays for you someday. It is beautiful.”
We talk more over breakfast and our journals. Mine, more and more a bulging travel scrapbook of ticket stubs and ATM receipts from when I took out 10,000 of the local currency (thank you, Serbia), short on actual journal writing. Hers, a page of Spanish-English vocabulary. A handwritten currency conversion chart from zero to one hundred euros. And page after page of drawings. Snakes, cars, water.
And oh my goodness, maps. She takes index card-size maps, grids them, and by hand expands entire countries in her journal, perfectly. Who am I to ask if I can take a picture of someone’s journal… But I had to. I’d never seen anything like it. She said it was okay, equally excited by my (very different) journal. She asks me about a train to Istanbul (but I’d flown) and by the end of that conversation, I’d assured her I’d be taking no more planes and miss no more landscapes. “Good.”
But I wasn’t done meeting people in Sofia…