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 Travel. But all opinions, as always, are entirely my own, even when I am wearing a babushka.