By Storyteller Priscilla Howe
When Priscilla Howe traveled to Communist Bulgaria in the 1980s, she found herself in a difficult situation. She found help from a Bulgarian man who reminded her to look beyond appearances.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Arriving in Bulgaria-Overturning Assumptions in the Communist Era
- Can you think of a time when your assumptions about someone based on appearance were proved wrong?
- What do people assume about you based on what you look like? Are they right?
- Have you ever been helped by someone unexpected?
- Do you know the expression “pay it forward”? Have you ever done that?
- Education and Life Lessons
- Family and Childhood
- Living and Traveling Abroad
My name is Priscilla Howe. I was on a train pulling into Sofia, Bulgaria in 1983. I had been traveling from Belgium, all the way across Europe, to Bulgaria. It took three days and that was not just a journey of, of time but it was a journey of political systems. Because I was going to a communist country to study the language for a year.
One of the things I love about traveling is that it makes you challenge your assumptions about who people are by… based on what they look like. So that’s what happened on this trip. I was on this train. I had… when I bought my ticket, I didn’t realize that I was going to be coming into Sofia at 1:00 in the morning on a Saturday morning. I didn’t realize that.
And I was… the train was pulling into the station and this guy was talking to me. He had a gold tooth and rumpled clothes and he was old. I mean he was at least 35. And he was a little more curious about me than I was comfortable with. He was talking to me in German because I looked German, but I’m not. And I was talking to him in my best Bulgarian, which was not very much at all but I did understand him. His name was Roman. I understood that he said that his name was Roman. And I understood him when he said, “You have nowhere to go. Come home with me.”
And I was exhausted. I’d been on that train for so long. I stood up for eight hours going through Yugoslavia because there was no space to sit down. I was exhausted and so, I said, “Yes.”
I went with him. I had all of my belongings for a year in the cab. We put them in the trunk. All the way to his apartment, I was thinking, “Oh. Crap, crap, crap. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? What am I going to do? I can’t jump out. All my stuff for the year is in the back of this cab. I can’t jump out.”
We went to Lyulin, which is a housing development that has 10,000 people. And every building looked like every other building. There were huge cement block buildings. We got out of the cab. Roman took one of my bags and I took my other bags. And I walked next to him up to the apartments. We went inside. We went up the elevator. And I was trying to remember my 10th grade personal self-defense classes. I was trying to remember if I had anything that could possibly be a weapon if I needed it. We went up to the door of his apartment and rather than taking out his keys, he rang the doorbell. He rang the doorbell! Somebody else was there. His wife opened the door.
His two kids got out of bed. His father got out of bed. And we all sat up and ate stew and bread for quite a while after that. Oh, you need to know this was dangerous for them. In a communist country at that time, that they were not allowed to have Americans stay in their apartments without, without proper permission. I was supposed to be registered with the police every night I was in the country. If they’d been caught, Roman and his family, Roman could have been fined and maybe he would have gone to jail.
Well, it was a Saturday morning, early in the morning. They insisted that I stay until Monday morning. That was dangerous for them. But we hid my bags so that the neighbors wouldn’t rat us out. And on Monday morning, he helped me find out… find where I needed to go. He showed me how to use the, the bus and the tram, the trolley. Showed me where to change, change money. He helped me find out where I had to go. And he and his wife had invited me back to come visit any time.
So, my first impression of him, which was he was kind of questionable. I was wrong. Roman, Roman was the first person to welcome me to Bulgaria on that trip and such a kind man. Such a kind welcome I received. So, I love the way that travel can turn your assumptions about how people are based on how they look, can turn those assumptions upside down.