Shopska Salad

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Jinevrah Aljin


The beach is strange after rain—sand shifted, stones swallowed, landmarks changed, buried, submerged. It becomes unfamiliar, even to eyes that know it well, once the familiar has vanished, washed away into the sea, which alone is unchanging. We, however, cannot know what has changed. We are strangers here, my mother and I. This beach, this sea, are completely alien to us. This sea lacks the Mediterranean’s cerulean hues, those hints of emerald and amethyst flecked with gold, but it is sea nonetheless, and hence welcoming, comforting—a new lover chosen not for his allure, but because he reminds us of another, whose memory we are loath to relinquish. This is the Black Sea, and although I am sure that, in the sunlight, it would be of a blue that belied its name, we have seen only myriad shades of grey, for it has rained every day since our arrival.

Today promises no change. Dawn comes veiled by haze, blanketed in cream, blindfolded by yellow-white clouds that seem too heavy to remain suspended. As I watch from our hotel room window, they sink toward the horizon. We had paid extra for a sea view when we made our reservations, only to find ourselves relegated to a back room overlooking a mosquito-laden estuary. My mother had not wanted to let the matter lie, not even when offered a discount. It wasn’t about money. It was for me. She has brought me here to the Black Sea coast because today is my thirtieth birthday, and she wants very much for me to be happy, for it to be perfect, for she knows that my life has been far from perfect, and because she loves me, she wants to make it right.

I have sworn I will not indulge in the predictable glumness that seems an inevitable part of turning thirty. I want to be happy today, as much for her as for myself. Nonetheless, treacherous thoughts crept into my mind as I slept, before I could prevent it, and I woke with a lump in my throat. Waiting in the hotel room is not helping.

My mother is in the shower. I knock on the bathroom door.

“Yes?”

“I’m going for coffee. I’ll meet you in the dining room, on the terrace.”

“Okay. I’ll hurry.”

“Take your time.”

Everything on the buffet is labeled in Bulgarian, and only some things in English. I’m glad I can read the Cyrillic letters—I can pronounce the words, although I can only guess at what they mean. I fill a cup with sad coffee from an automatic machine and claim a table on the terrace, facing the beach. No one else is outside. The plastic curtains are flecked with water. Still, despite the cold, the slate sky, the thin coffee, I am happy to be here by the sea, any sea. I am so thankful to my mother for this.

She comes, dressed too lightly. We packed our suitcases for a beach vacation, and neither of us are prepared for this chill. She puts down her cup of tea and sits. “Happy birthday,” she says, taking my hand, and without meaning to, without even suspecting it was about to happen, I start to cry. Her smile disappears as completely as the sun behind these never-ending clouds.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “This is so cliché. I feel stupid.”

“You’re not stupid!” she says, squeezing my fingers. “Tell me.”

“I just can’t help thinking of all the things I wanted to have done by the time I was thirty. I promised myself that I would have a book published by now, and I haven’t even finished my first novel. Most people my age have a house, a job, a—”

“But you never wanted that, did you?” My mother knows my heart well.

“No,” I say, “I didn’t. I don’t. It’s just—coming back to live at home makes me feel like a failure.”

“You’re not a failure,” she says, defending me as sharply as nature’s most well-fanged mother. “I’m glad you’ve come home,” she says. “We can help you, like we never could before. You’re writing! Not spending your time bartending, living in those terrible apartments.”

The reasons I left New York still stand. My mother is right. So here I am, in Bulgaria. Of all the places I envisioned spending my thirtieth birthday, this one had never entered the most obscure antechamber of my mind.

“Best of all,” my mother says, bringing me back to the terrace, the grey waves, “I get to have you with me. We know each other so much better now than we ever did before. You’re my good friend.”

I look up. Her face is so earnest, so dear to me. “And you’re mine,” I say. She smiles, but she has never been able to remain impassive when her children cry, no matter how old we become.

“There’s one more thing,” I say. The beach is blurry, an undulating mirage through the plastic curtains, buckling in the biting breeze. “This is the first time I’ve been at the sea since that summer.”

“With…” she says his name softly, as though someone might overhear. My mother knows the story.

“Here at the sea, I can’t help but think of… I know it’s silly. I thought I’d put it behind me. Do you know what I realized, after I had packed my suitcase to come home? I had brought my diary from that summer, the photos of him, but not a single photo of Matthew*.”

“But don’t you love Matthew?”

“I don’t know anymore.” I look out at the sea, as though the answer might be written there, outside of myself, but I know the truth already, difficult as it is to admit. Love is terrible, implacable, consuming. Love is often treacherous, but it leaves no room for doubt. “I keep thinking, ‘What if that summer is all I will ever have?’ Then I think, ‘If it is, that’s all right.’ I knew more of love that summer than some people will ever know, and maybe I can be content with that. Maybe it’s enough.” As I say the words, I find that they are true.

“That’s so sad,” says my mother.

“I suppose,” I say, “but it’s all right.”

There is a silence. She is waiting to see if there is anything more. “Come on,” I say, “let’s get some breakfast.”

“Try to be happy today,” she says, her hand on mine still as I stand.

“I will,” I reply. “I am.”

We fill our plates with slices of cucumber, tomato, and cheese made from sheep’s milk, white, dense and moist. Its flavor is salty, both delicate and pungent. We have eaten it every day since we arrived. We return to the terrace to find the sun has fought its way out from behind the clouds. They retreat swiftly, exposing a sky of pale, fresh blue. We eat hurriedly, run to put on our swimsuits, neglected in our suitcases until now.

The attendant at the private beach speaks little English. He carries our rented chaise longues to the shore. The sand is soft and cold after so much rain and shadow. It is whiter even than my pale ankles and feet. My toes sink into it. I wriggle them down deeper.

We sit for a few minutes, then walk to the water. In the newborn sunlight, the blue of this sea gives the lie to its gloomy name. I put my sandy toes in the path of an incoming wave and gasp. “It’s so cold,” I shiver. In an instant it raises gooseflesh on my legs and arms. I laugh at the grimace on my mother’s face when she tests it. We return to our chaise longues. An hour passes, then two. We read our books. When I look up from the pages, I am content to watch the waves.

A young man comes toward us over the sand, purposeful. We wait, wondering what he wants. “English?” he asks.

“Yes,” says my mother.

“We have now game! Lesson. Bocce-ball. You want play?”

He works for the hotel. I glance over to where he has managed to gather a meager handful of guests. I feel sorry for him. He is, after all, trying to do his job, but I have no desire to play bocce-ball. “No, thank you,” I say.

“I’ll play,” says my mother.

I look at her in surprise. “Good!” the young man nods enthusiastically. “Fifteen minutes, we start. Okay?”

“Okay!” says my mother.

The young man walks away. “Bocce-ball?” I say.

“It could be fun,” my mother says. “I’ve always wanted to learn.”

I grin as she goes back to reading her book. In ten minutes she gets up to go. The young man is beckoning excitedly.

“Bocce-ball? Really?”

“Yes!”

There is nothing worthwhile in this world that my mother does not want to learn, and for her there is much that is worthwhile. She was born with an eager mind, a curious soul, a generous heart. Her hair is white and she looks very small as she walks away from me, and I feel a sudden pang of fierce love for her as she goes. I watch as she throws the ball. It misses its mark. I can tell, from the way she raises her hand to her mouth, that she is laughing. After a while, I gather our things and go over to watch. Soon I no longer feel the sun on my skin. I look up and find that a new battalion of clouds has mustered in the west. Its steady advance toward the sea has already obscured the fragile blue.

We walk along the waterline, barefoot, in search of lunch. Each hotel has a private beach, and each attempts to charm its guests in a different way. Some have wooden chaise longues, others shiny chrome. Some umbrellas are brightly striped canvas, others uniform red or blue. Some are woven of wicker, bamboo, even palm fronds. Everywhere the sand is the same—soft, white and clean. The Bulgarians have taken great care to make this place beautiful, attractive even to tourists from the West—of whom there are many, as the signs in German, French, and English attest. All is as clean and well-tended as civic pride can make it, so much more gracious than we, unfairly, anticipated.

We find a glass-enclosed café on the beach. We order shopska salad—the same thing we had for breakfast, but in a bowl. “I think this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” says my mother.

“It’s perfect.” I agree.

We’re not even sure how to spell its name, as every restaurant has transcribed the Cyrillic letters for “shopska” into our alphabet phonetically, however seems best to them. We have asked every waiter the name of this cheese, only to get the same, slightly puzzled, reply. “White cheese,” they shrug, the answer self-evident.

We will try to recreate this salad at home, using sheep’s cheese bought in Greek, Turkish, and Romanian delicatessens, but it will never be quite the same. Years will pass, and we will still reminisce about shopska salad, about Bulgaria.

After lunch, the threat of rain becomes more immediate, the clouds more substantial, but we refuse to let the mere idea of rain dampen this day. We have planned, since the day before, to rent bicycles. We will not be daunted.

We walk to the center of town. We stop to buy sweaters. I see white and orange sneakers. I love the bright mandarin orange, so cheerful my steps become lighter as soon as I try them on. I wear them out of the store. We buy beach towels with smiling dolphins, so that we will take a memory of Bulgaria to whatever sea we next visit.

We rent sturdy bicycles and set out along the coast. Eventually, the paved road becomes to dirt. At the farthest end of the resort we find a simple wood-paneled restaurant with a sea view. The men who work there make us laugh, and we tell them we will return for dinner. By the time we finish our coffee, it has begun to rain—just a few drops that kick up tiny exclamation points of dust from the road. “Should we keep going,” says my mother.

“Of course!”

The narrow dirt track hugs the restless sea. Soon we have left the resort far behind. We come to a café, lonely and incongruous. The owner watches us obliquely as we pass. His dog runs after us, teeth bared, until its chain snaps it back. This far place is not so friendly, not meant for tourists, but we are thrilled by its ruggedness, eager to see what lies beyond the high scrub that blocks our view at each turn.

There are no more beaches here—only boulders heaped between the road and the water, dropped there carelessly by some giant hand, held by their mutual weight, by chance or by gravity. The air is humid, pregnant with unborn rain. I round a curve to see my mother waiting, her feet planted on the ground to balance her bicycle. Unbridged emptiness, too wide to cross, stretches before us, where the road has collapsed into the sea. Suddenly I become aware of the loose boulders on the slopes above. The large stones that we swerved to avoid on our way deliver their belated warning to my mind. Still, we remain there, looking out over the sea. To the east the sky is clear, a surprising sapphire rendered more vivid by masses of dark cloud that lie like a lead dish over the resort that seems so far to the south of us, stretching along the curve of the distant beach. “We should head back,” I say.

“It’s a shame,” says my mother.

“It is,” I reply. My mother and I have both been graced with explorers’ souls.

We turn back. The road feels longer, now that we are racing the menace of those creeping black clouds. I watch the slopes above with growing apprehension, searching for any movement from the precarious rocks each time the thunder rolls—each time rolling closer. Finally we come to that last—or first—outpost of civilization. The guard dog barks viciously, straining at its chain once more as we pass. We pedal furiously. The first drops of rain begin to fall, and in the time it takes to regain the asphalt, the sky opens. With a deafening peal of thunder, the storm falls upon us. We ride through the rain, past Bulgarians who watch us, amused, from beneath shelter they had taken long before. We consume what little extra breath we have in laughter. We arrive at our hotel, drenched, shivering, exultant.

The storm offers a respite as evening falls, though armies of clouds remain camped, obstinately, in the sky. Lightning flashes far out over the sea as we ride into town to return our bicycles. The night-carnival of disco-music, karaoke, and spinning carousels has begun. We walk past booths selling crafts and trinkets. My mother buys us each a pair of silver earrings with mother-of-pearl. “For your birthday,” she says. I put them on, put the ones I had been wearing in my pocket. We buy mugs with seashells glued on them, the name of the resort, Albena, painted black above. We laugh at ourselves for it, not knowing, when we buy them, that we will use them for years, but only when we can have our tea together.

We walk the length of the resort to the restaurant where the asphalt ends. The waiters are so happy we have returned as promised. We are their first customers and, on such an inclement night, we might be their only ones.

We start with shopska salad, of course. Halfway through our meal, the storm renews its assault. We hear the waves beating on the rocks below, see them illuminated in flashes of lightning through the picture window. We laugh, we talk about all we have done today, promise each other we will return with my father and sister.

The waiters bring our desserts, and mine has a candle. Adding their thick Bulgarian accents to my mother’s alto voice—I listened to its lullabies before I could speak—they sing “Happy Birthday.” One waiter is older, the other young. They seem to think it makes perfect sense to ask us out for karaoke later. We decline. Later we will laugh about this, and laugh harder when we tell my father the story and see the look on his face.

One drenching is enough in a day, so we take a taxi back to our hotel. We fall into our beds, laughing. We sing snatches of nonsense songs, making up the words as we go, words that fit our adventures. The storm rages over the Black Sea.

“What will we do tomorrow?” asks my mother.

“Eat shopska salad?” I suggest.

“Of course. And rent bicycles?”

“Play bocce-ball?” I grin.

“It was fun!”

“We could always sing karaoke with the waiters,” I say.

“Ha! Right!” she says, and I can hear her smirking in the dark.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you. It was a perfect birthday.”

“Really?” she says. “I’m so glad.”

“Sweet dreams,” she adds, after a moment.

“You too.”

Silence.

“Can you believe those waiters really asked us out?” my mother says.

“Why wouldn’t they?” I say.

She laughs. It is contagious.

“Good night,” she says, finally.

“Good night,” I reply, but it will not be the last time we say it that night. It will be tomorrow before we stop retelling our adventures, pulling each other back from the brink of sleep time and again. The clouds clash, black above the sea. Inside, the darkness is punctuated by our sudden bursts of laughter.

*Name has been changed.

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Jennifer Delare worked as a translator, manuscript reviewer and magazine writer before deciding to dedicate herself to fiction. For the past seven years she has worked on various projects, from short stories to full length novels, funding her true work with day-jobs ranging from bartending to retail management. The daughter of a diplomat, she grew up traveling throughout western and eastern Europe, but has resided alternately in Italy and New York since 1990. She currently lives in Rome. Jinevrah Aljín is her pen name. E-mail: jdelare[at]gmail.com

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