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Letter From Bulgaria

Jennifer H. Fortin

Sounds Like...

Coinciding with my arrival in Bulgaria last April—I had decided to join the Peace Corps as a Primary Education Volunteer—the cicadas were emerging in the region around my home in Maryland. I had been looking forward to experiencing the strange precision of their journey through time and space, but mostly to their sound, one I had not heard since I was six. The memory was a thing I might have dreamt-imagined back then or maybe not, and I needed to hear it again—not so much for the sound itself, but to revisit that child-place of simultaneous dream-imagining and real world-happening, muted but amplified, co-existing sensibly in some radical opus. The joy of unfamiliarity and resonance, belief in it all because you can hear it as it sweeps you along on its wavelengths.

And so when I arrived here, my sensitivity to sound had been alerted. The salient ones got listed in my journal.

April. The sound of foreign language. It is everywhere, and sudden as the cicadas, after fantasizing for months about here. The swishing of slippers, crucial on cold floors in these mountains; prepubescent boys shrieking at computer games in the internet club while I wait for an available computer to write home; dogs, fighting in the streets, constantly wailing through the night.

May. Daily language classes and me-as-cicada; the remembrance of resonance; whooping, near-panicked cry of storks and their new chicks born in my town. Funeral processions—church bells ring & the entire town halts to watch the slowly-moving mourners.

June. Walking to the reservoir with my host mother's sister, whose name I don't even know. We stop in a tiny and clean-white-light chapel and her whispering of prayers and I hear my name repeated in-between the Bulgarian. Coda.

July. Moved from host family's to my own apartment. The first morning I wake up, an almost-inaudible opera. Search until I find its source, an ancient radio which won't turn completely off unless you disconnect the wires. Chomping noise in the core of a hot breezeless night wakes me. Again, search—the bed frame. I learn there are wood beetles living inside, but that they don't come out of the wood. Confusion of doorbell & telephone's ring—sometimes I pick up the phone when someone's at my door & my ear hears a dial tone (different from the one at home).

August. The rolling rhythm of the Black Sea. Sea sounds; inlets. In a way, I like the wood beetles.

September. Everything new for me at school, chaos. School bells. Teachers' room with the 120 of us hurrying in & out, quick dialogues, mostly about the 1300 students. Like nonstop recess, always plastic bags of snacks for rapidly-developing children—you can hear them grow. All kinds of languages, learning the words.

October. The cold provokes protest from the elevator door in my bloc building. The lament of open & shut can be heard all the way inside my flat. Maybe I knew this sound before, the hesitance of open & shut? University students in my conversation class tentatively translate poetry from Bulgarian to English & I hear that they want to do it. Measured excitement.

November. Wind winding through the small hole in my kitchen's door. Outside coming in. Should I talk more while outside to balance this, put some inside-out? The collective wishes in Bulgarian of my eighth-graders for a Happy First Snow when it does, on Thanksgiving Day.

December. Crunchy laundry, taking it off the line sounds like it's frost-winter-ground, & again, I take it inside. The yelp of my sixth-graders when they receive the letters from students at an American elementary school we wrote to.

January. Bulgarians sitting next to me on the bus at the station, me at the window. If they have someone to say goodbye to outside, they inevitably voice the words they're mouthing, just barely. This kind of unconscious creation of sound. Where does it go? I sit, but hear it.

This has been my soundtrack, these and all the other noises here in Bulgaria. Even the silence, which comes rarely, is written into this song and is deliberate. The past ten months have been composed of ups and downs of various kinds—emotional, physical, psychological—and they're like frequencies, heard sometimes, other times above or below a threshold. But mostly, because of the cicadas, I do hear the sounds, and you know I did manage to follow their wavelengths, to find that child-place again.

Adapting to a new culture and facing the puzzles of Peace Corps service forces you to dream-imagine while the real world echoes, because you're constantly listening to new reverberations, incorporating.


Does it sound like a place you almost remember?

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