It was snowing. We were driving through a blizzard on April Fool’s Day, aiming our Subaru in blind hope towards a beach on the Black Sea: our first spring break since moving from sunny Florida to Bulgaria. My crazy-meter, never designed for such rigors, had long since gone on strike.
The whole enterprise had required a leap of faith. My wife would help run the embassy school, where our nine-year-old daughter would attend the fourth grade. I would transplant my writing from the fertile soil of Tampa to the rocky Balkans.
But just now, our needs were far simpler. Watch out for the pothole, the unexpected horse cart on the highway, the mafia Mercedes speeding from behind with darkened windows. Find our hotel on the cobbled, one-way streets of Nesebar, a history-laden peninsula on the Black Sea. Locate a restaurant that was open in the off-season. If ancient Greek mariners could find this port town on the edge of the known world, surely we could track down a bowl of spaghetti.
Eventually we located a rustic mehana filled with Bulgarian crafts and the promise of seafood. The fishy smell raised our daughter’s guard; she had yet to embrace the concept of eating things with scales and shells. Then, leafing through a colorfully translated English menu, she encountered a deal-breaker.
“Mom!” she cried, pointing at the offending item: Little pig’s tenderly neck. On the spot she declared herself a militant vegan.
By the next day, hunger and an expat tween’s yearning for American fast food prompted a compromise. Delicious skewers of chicken would be permitted. Also allowed — on the off-chance we stumbled into culinary heaven on the remote fringes of Southeastern Europe – were Five Guys’ hot dogs.
Our daughter had made friends quickly at her new school. By March her wrist was covered with Martenitsas, the red and white bracelets Bulgarians exchange to celebrate spring’s arrival. She and her multilingual posse happily draped them from tree branches like true locals when the first blossoms arrived.
Still, we missed the family holidays and those glorious, spontaneous trips to the Gulf Coast beaches. Perhaps this jaunt to the Black Sea could provide us with that miracle of travel: something new, something familiar, and a hint of things to come.
The next day our dining fortunes took a turn for the better. At a kitschy, dockside cafe our daughter found pasta and I tucked into a scary-looking filet of Turbot. The Black Sea sub-species featured rows of spikes. It was juicy, delicious and, our waiter promised, fresh off the boat.
I asked him if it was possible that my lunch had swum down the coast from Russia.
It was cold and windy, but at least the sky was blue. We watched groups of fishermen count — edno, dve, tree! — and haul their boats down to the water. We collected a bag full of sea glass.
Driving south we passed half-finished condos from the land boom that shuddered to a halt, here as in Florida, back in 2008. Near Burgas we ventured down a dirt road guarded by sleeping dogs and discovered a lonely, 2,300-year-old Thracian tomb. The rusty, Soviet-era ticket booth was likewise unattended. Everything belonged to another time.
Then, in Ahtopol, a miracle. Our hotel offered cliff-top views that seemed to reach all the way to Yalta. On the beach we collected rocks colored like Easter eggs, including a red-ringed, granite marvel that we named in honor of a Johnny Cash favorite: Ring of Fire.
Climbing over some boulders, I whispered silent thanks that no one had fallen. Finding a hospital out here with English-speaking doctors seemed unfathomable.
Nothing seemed broken, but we were all shaken. My ankle throbbed and I had lost a patch of skin on the palm of my right hand. The pharmacy, with large bandages and an elastic wrap, was closed for lunch.
Propped up in our hotel room with Advil and ice, I took stock. I was still wearing my own Martenitsa, frayed in red and white twine. It was supposed to bring good luck. Perhaps I had waited too long before hanging it, looking for the perfect branch. Maybe we were all tempting fate.
“You could have been killed,” my daughter said tentatively.
By morning my ankle had turned a vivid purple, but the elastic helped. At least I could hobble. And we had one last beach to visit. We couldn’t turn back now.
Rounding the last headland before Bulgaria turned into Turkey, we caught our first glimpse of Sinemorets. It was too good to be true.
Gentle waves lapped against the sand. Puffy clouds scudded toward us from the Republic of Georgia. The breeze, finally, was warm. And aside from one family, it was all ours.
Our daughter carefully rolled her jeans up past her knees and joyfully galloped toward the icy Black Sea. Before long she was soaked nearly to the waist, but it didn’t matter. It was spring break.
After a few minutes I found a small branch and propped it up above the waterline. It seemed we had found our luck after all. And my Martenitsa was home.