A Tale of Two Cities

by Ayla Goktan (Ireland)

A leap into the unknown Bulgaria


I started imagining the worst as soon as the Bulgarian border control officers walked off the train with John’s and my American passports. “The train will start moving and we’ll lose them forever!” I exclaimed to John with mild hysteria. He, however, seemed unperturbed. That was one reason we had become such good friends after only a few weeks studying abroad in Istanbul. He calmed my neuroticism, and I energized him when we wanted to do crazy things. Our most recent wild plan? Trek 10 or so hours by bus and train overnight from Istanbul, Turkey, to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, spend the day there, and spend the night going back. As John predicted, our passports were quickly returned, and we were again on our way. We were journeying from one City of Seven Hills to another; from a predominantly Muslim country to a predominantly Eastern Orthodox one. Religion had been near the front of my mind lately, because while John and I complemented each other in many ways, our personal beliefs could not have clashed more. He was conservative and strictly Catholic, and I was liberal and irreligious. I was surprised that he had become my best friend in the program, almost as surprised as I was that we had chosen to travel to Bulgaria, of all places. I barely knew anything about the country, which rarely makes Americans’ aspirational travel lists. At the same time, I barely knew anything about building a friendship with someone so different from myself, especially amid America’s increasing political and cultural polarization. Both feelings were amplified as soon as we got off the train and walked into Plovdiv, where everything seemed unknown and unknowable: the Cyrillic alphabet on every sign, the cobblestones that redefined how uneven I thought roads could be, and, most of all, the way John crossed himself each time we entered a gilded, ornate Eastern Orthodox church. His religiosity felt as distant as a different world, but in some ways the trip was bringing us closer. John was sharing fascinating facts about himself – for example, he had learned Cyrillic in high school – and I was sharing about my life, too. Harder topics also came up, including LGBTQ rights. While we continued to disagree, we built respect for each other by explaining the reasoning underlying our belief systems. I should not have been surprised that the trip opened space for these discussions, because we had experienced a similar opening, albeit on smaller scale, on our day trips in Istanbul to places such as Chora Church and Süleymaniye Mosque. In the Romantic tradition, Western culture often praises travel for its potential to strengthen our relationships with ourselves (i.e., “finding ourselves”) and with foreigners (i.e., “building a global community”). However, my time with John taught me that travel can also strengthen our relationships with those who journey by our side. Near the end of our day in Plovdiv, John and I were tired of wandering through churches and cobblestone streets. We decided to climb Bunarjik Hill to reach Alyosha, a controversial monument to the Soviet Army’s “liberation” of Plovdiv during World War II. The statue was striking, as was the view of the city from the top of the hill. I was amazed to see not just the small gold domes of the Eastern Orthodox churches, but also the minaret of Dzhumaya Mosque. I flashed back to when John and I had walked around Istanbul’s Third Hill after visiting Süleymaniye Mosque, and the Asr prayer had begun. The imams from the many mosques dotting hill had started to chant simultaneously, and the phasing and dissonance of their voices had stopped me and John in our tracks. Traveling with John in Plovdiv and Istanbul taught me that the more I get to know a city, religion, or person, the more I understand that none is one-voiced or one-dimensional. Standing atop Bunarjik Hill, gazing over the layered cultural strands of Soviets and Bulgarians, Muslims and Christians, I finally realized why the wave of clashing prayers had arrested me and John that day in Istanbul: the beauty of their harmony may have been unintentional, but it was undoubtedly there.