Thursday, May 29, 2014


The sun set in a pink and blue haze. The rest of the people heading into the stadium were dressed for action: bright green, red, and white, flags waving. We bought local Bulgarian beer in cans; lagers being the only option in this country. The police saw us drinking them as we presented our tickets and tried to find our seats. No one cared.

Our seats were in the last row at the top of the room. Music blasted and shook the court. A famous chalga dj ran the event. He was dressed in sports gear, but looked like the kind of man used to a slick layer of cologne and a silk dress shirt. His deep, gruff voice bellowed instructions for cheers. A lion with a beer belly ran around the side of the court, but it was the dj that ran the cheering. We all clapped and cheered and danced in our seats.


It’s hard to explain the amount of warmth and affection that came over me for those boys playing volleyball in the red, white, and blue. Most of them were very young, probably college. A few were clearly older but not many. And they looked so American. I don’t know how to explain how this could be, aside from their obvious uniform identification. The lankiness, the way of hitting the ball, diving through warm ups, stretching. The way their coaches leaned forward at the waist to talk into their ears, a bright eyed laugh, a hearty hand shake. It’s not that these things are absent in Bulgarian male culture, but they are different. Hard to explain.

What I am trying to say is that I immediately knew: those were my boys. I identified with them completely.

And the game started.


I had a choice. I could watch and occasionally clap and cheer when we did something right. Or my whole being could get into it, like I would at Penn State games, cheering and screaming till I lost my voice and myself in the action.

It suddenly mattered very much that I was American and that I was cheering for my team.
The Bulgarians are hearty fans. They yell and boo and whistle and blow horns and wave flags. It’s like being at a football game. They love their team and their country and are happy to show it. It mattered to them. They had cheers and chants. They knew the names of the players and chanted them in unison as their turn came to serve. Listen here. They were being as Bulgarian as possible. Kal was excited too. He had brought a whistle and was yelling away in the Bulgarian like the rest of them.

And the spirit infected me.

As I started yelling in the brief silences that followed any good action by the USA… I felt layers of cultural awareness and quiet respect slide off my back like a heavy winter coat. I felt lighter and happier. I felt giddy and silly, like I had had too much to drink but still had my wits about me. I realized that I was in a space where I had total permission and encouragement to be as American as possible.

Robbie and I embraced it. The Bulgarians thought we were insane.


15 minutes into the game, we moved to sit on the steps nearer the court. At every quick silence (before the booing started), Robbie and I screamed U-S-A as loud as we could. We clapped and cheered. I held up a hand shaped heart as my counter to the overwhelming sea of negative sound when the USA had their turn to serve.

Even better were the moments I yelled in Bulgarian. The USA team couldn’t hear me anyway but it mattered to me that the people around me knew I knew Bulgarian AND that I was American.

I screamed Choodesno! (Excellent!) Bravo! Super!

And my favorite: Shta-tee-tay! (The States)

They looked at us sideways. Some of the older ones chuckled. Only one got angry and tapped me on the shoulder to get me to stop. I whipped around, in high angry spirits.

Zashto?! Ima problem? Why? What’s your problem?!

Other Bulgarians stepped in and told him to back off. Kal was ready to leap from his seat and prevent a fight. Spokoino he told me. Chill out. But I wasn’t really angry. I was excited.

The USA lost the first two sets. They were in a fog.

They fought their way through the last three. Over 2hours of play time.

Robbie and I had croaking voices. But we grinned. Our team had conquered!

We politely made our way down to the floor and tried to get our pictures with the team. Some of them were gracious enough to come over and talk to us.

I think I scared some of them with my enthusiasm. You are from my country! I told them all that I was an English teacher here. They nodded, “Oh, that’s rad.” (They were mostly from California). We took a few pictures, which I find terribly awkward as a process.

Polish Heart USA
There was a group of Polish girls in flower wreaths who carried a sign for the USA. They studied in Varna and didn’t feel like supporting their new hometown either. That, and the Americans were kind of hot. I can see why they were interested.
Eventually, the players and coaches wandered off and we made our way into the night. I felt high as a kite, no voice, tired.

I was American. I am American.

It felt good to have this pride be an innocent and familiar pair of comfy sweatpants against my soul again.

The thing is this: I bought a Bulgarian flag the next day. If I ever get a chance to watch Bulgaria play the USA in my own country, I’ll be sporting green, red, and white and waving my new flag for my other country.

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