Our first assignment once we had settled into Bansko was to head out into town, find a cafe, order a drink, and sit for at least 2 hours. Andrew stressed the importance of this assignment: in the Balkans, afternoons are leisurely and time is understood relatively. Here, productivity was not measured in activities completed, but rather, in relationships maintained and bolstered by quality time. Elated, many of us were convinced that we had just been given the easiest assignment. We trotted down the cobble road in pursuit of a cafe, loudly and obnoxiously excited, breezing past the locals seated on benches along the road.
The challenge of our assignment became apparent 20 minutes after ordering our drinks, when quite caffeinated, we twiddled idle thumbs and tapped our feet, anxious to move once again. After all, the reality that we were finally in Bulgaria had just set in — and we were ready to go, to explore, to document. Somehow, we persevered, sitting through our allotted time, before dashing off on the next adventure.
Eventually, we were able to appreciate the leisure, but not before being sufficiently frustrated by it. To name a few testing moments: We have had dinners at 10:00 at night, had waitresses forget about us, and learned to sit in traffic. Slowly, but surely, our eyes began to register the beauty of the minutia events; people watching and journaling became favorite activities, and waiting lost its excruciating pinch.
I knew that our group had embraced Balkan time when one afternoon, I passed by Amber, seated with two babas on a bench. The babas had enveloped her in their arms, whispering to her. Amber was immersed in the interaction, smiling and squeezing the women’s hands, affirming their words, but doubtlessly not comprehending any of their Bulgarian wisdom. But no matter, she was creating relationship and engaging her present surroundings.
Nearly always, we are given the opportunity to soak in the sweetness and goodness of the present. All we are asked is to tune in and engage. This revelation transformed my experience, and I am confident that this narrative is shared amongst the group. Together, we have been actively seeking out the divine and the lovely, which we discover in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. God has revealed Godself to us as we are overwhelmed by natural wonders, but we also sense God in smaller moments. Conversations with waitresses, taxi drivers, and housekeepers have left us amazed. In broken Bulgarian – English, we have pieced together life stories, full of both joy and suffering.
Now, a month into our cross-cultural experience, the first few days in Bansko feels worlds away. But we carry with us our significant learning, and are eager to apply it to our new context: Plovdiv. The city dwarfs meager Bansko, offering endless activities and excitement. For the first few days, we scurried round the city, trying to do everything that the city offered, before realizing the impossibility of this effort.
We are asked now to be intentional about how we spend our time, where we engage, how much energy we put forward. In a city, with opportunity around every corner, we have to be intentional about taking time to appreciate each activity and interaction to the fullest extent. We are continually learning how to slow down, how to open our hearts to the present, how to listen for God. For now, we are encountering the divine in silly moments with host families, in the creativity of street art, and the energy of the bustling city.
We are milking each moment, loving it entirely.