My Bulgarian Babas

For my whole life, I’ve referred to my dad’s mother not as “Grandma,” but as “Baba” — a term meaning “grandmother” (or “old woman”) in a handful of Slavic languages.

Most of my family is Slovak, so this isn’t really all that weird.

This summer in Bulgaria, though, I adopted a couple of new Babas.

It was early July, and my Intrepid Travel group had already been traveling together for more than two weeks through Eastern Europe. We’d gone wine tasting in Hungary, visited castles and fortresses in Romania, and gorged ourselves on traditional Eastern European food. Now we were in Bulgaria, discovering a beautiful country that I had never anticipated finding.

We were in the village of Gorno Draglishte, a tiny town near the base of both the Rila and Pirin mountain ranges. It’s one of those villages that you’re not quite sure even exists anymore before you get there — where nobody speaks English and agriculture is still the only way of life. It’s a place where a local will invite you into her home for tea and fresh sheep’s cheese even though she can’t communicate with you, and then expect nothing but smiles and handshakes in return.

It’s the type of village that you can’t help but love.

And our time in Gorno Draglishte was made even more memorable but two energetic old women who just told us to call them “Baba.”

We were staying at a local guesthouse (just one way that Intrepid encourages local interaction), and had just finished stuffing our bellies with home-cooked Bulgarian food and fresh-squeezed cherry juice. We were discussing a walk before sunset when the Babas came in, decked out in traditional dresses and headscarves.

They communicated to us that they would sing for us — and then we would dance.

At first, most people in the group were apprehensive about getting dressed up and prancing around the low-ceilinged dining room. But I convinced them that we were only here once. Why not?

We spent nearly an hour bouncing around the room, the women in white dresses and colorfully embroidered aprons (that the Babas had hand-made!), and the men in smart vests. We laughed, danced, and laughed some more. The Babas sang and talked with us through our guide, Marta, who was able to piece together their Bulgarian thanks to her knowledge of Polish and Russian.

But the exchange wasn’t simply one-way. We told them where we were from (“Very far” was their response), and they told us about all the people they had met from all around the world. They asked us to sing for them, too. The Australians sang their national anthem, and Marta sang an old Polish folk song. It was a cultural exchange in all senses of the phrase.

By the end of our evening, we were all red-faced and smiling. The Babas covered us in kisses as we left to go to bed, repeating the countries we came from in their heavy Bulgarian accents while they pinched our cheeks. “Austraaaaallllliaaaa,” “Amerrrricaaa,” “Polllllskaaa.”

It was impossible not to love them.

I can only hope that I’ll be as full of life and curiosity and hospitality when I’m old enough to be a Baba.

For now, though, it sure makes for a great travel memory.


Check out the video highlights from that night:


What kinds of unexpected cultural exchanges have YOU experienced abroad?


*Note: This was all part of a complimentary 18-day “Explore Eastern Europe” tour with Intrepid TravelBut all opinions, as always, are entirely my own, even when I am wearing a babushka.


  • Alison says:

    Your adoped grans seem so charming and adorable!

  • Gaelyn says:

    How marvelously Fun! Your adopted Babas harmonize well. Really like your outfits and if it weren’t for the shoes you’d all look like locals. Love the idea of staying with locals. Does Intrepid Travel cater mostly to younger folks?

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Haha, yes, our shoes kind of give us away, don’t they? It was such a fun night, though. I love that Intrepid tries to have you stay with locals as much as possible – it really makes for a different experience.

      And no, Intrepid caters to just about everyone! Though many tours end up with slightly more mature groups because of the price, the style of travel (slow and local) is definitely suitable for any adventurous person!

  • Andrea says:

    Awww – John and I really enjoyed this post. His family is Macedonian so you would probably be able to communicate in the native languages because Bulgarian is so similar. We have one Baba left and everyone danced ‘oro’ (not sure what you call it but it looks the same in photos) at our wedding =)

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Glad you liked it, Andrea! I personally couldn’t communicate with these babas since I don’t speak a Slavic language (though my dad’s mom does still speak some Slovak), but it was still a really fun night. Lucky our guide could kind of talk with them through a mix of Polish and Russian!

      How fun that you guys danced like this at your wedding!!

  • memographer says:

    Seems like you had some fun this summer :)
    Love the pics. The second from bottom is my fav. Video highlights are great too!
    You look gorgeous in Baba’s outfit 😉

  • Barbara says:

    Bulgaria!!! The most wonderful country in the world. I love how you captured village life. While Sofia is a beautiful city, the countryside of Bulgaria is even better. Thanks!

  • How fun! I had a “baba” when I was growing up too (relaton by marriage), so they must use the same word in Macedonia.

  • They are soooo cute! It’s a shame you couldn’t take them home with you haha.

  • This sounds so much like my trip through Maramures in Romania. I lvoe the idea of staying with a family and interacting with them in their culture, dancing, singing, eating, drinking and trying to learn the language. What a great trip you must of had.

    • DangerousBiz says:

      The trip was incredible. And how awesome is Maramures?? We stayed in a guesthouse there, too, and it was great.

  • Nadia Tan says:

    What a heart-warming story. I wish I can visit a village like that and stay there for a week to get to know the people. They seem all nice and really forthcoming.

    I like how traveling the world exposes us to different cultures. Makes us realize what being human is all about – to experience the world and get along with each other.

    • DangerousBiz says:

      It was a really great experience. And I agree – meeting people from different cultures and realizing that they aren’t all that different from you is one of the best parts about traveling.

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