First, the little old school at which I had taught for three years was in the middle of a major facelift. It was pretty cool seeing a school that just a few years earlier was on the verge of being closed for good being brought back to life.
Second, with the exception of a few teenagers pretending to be cool, every single person I encountered who I had met during my three years at site met me with a huge, genuine smile and friendly handshake. In a country where smiles are few and far between, those shared smiles really meant a lot.
Finally, saying goodbye to those who were closest to me during my three years was as difficult for them as it was for me. On my first day back, Baba Ristena brought me a large bag full of peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Her pain was obvious when I told her I couldn’t accept them because I had given away my knives and cutting board and would be leaving early the next morning and wouldn’t have time to eat them. When that next morning came, saying goodbye to her was gut-wrenching. Almost seventy years earlier, she had been forced to take shelter from American bombing raids over Bulgaria. Fed a strict diet of anti-American propaganda during the Cold War, she had every reason to dislike me when I moved into her guesthouse. But for three years, she cared for me, nurtured me, and fed me like one of her own. And as the tears rolled down her face, and she held me tight while trembling in my arms, and all she could say was, “Oh, Brian,” it was both heartbreaking and heartwarming.