From Bulgaria to America and Back Again
February 22, 2020
This past week I was thinking a lot about the year 1990 when I met my first American friend, the pianist Steven Mayer who was giving concerts and master classes in Bulgaria in what was the poorest, most dreadful winter of my life. We had just survived the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989 and by 1990 the country was completely bankrupt. All the hope and thoughts of freedom and democracy were gone. I was determined to get out as soon as possible and as far away as possible.
There were huge food shortages and each family was allowed only a little bit of cheese and milk each week. There were regimes for electricity and hot water, the streets of Sofia were freezing cold, dark and miserable and if you didn’t line up for food by 5 a.m. in the morning you would most likely eat nothing. Still, somehow women walked around in fur coats and many of my teachers in the music school had dead animals (mostly foxes) hanging around their shoulders. Not just the fur, but the heads and tails and legs of the foxes as well … absolutely crazy fashions! Nobody followed any rules at all and the whole society was in complete collapse. There were packs of wild dogs running around in the center of Sofia, kids were sniffing glue from plastic bags, every single apartment was robbed at least once and the inflation was so high that there were never any prices written down on anything. Not that there was much to be sold to begin with …
If you think that I am making this up, take a look at this picture here. That’s a typical scene in Sofia from the early 90s. People lining up for bread and enviously looking at this young woman who must have had connections to get so much bread all at once.
So yes, that’s exactly what Steven experienced in Bulgaria. He couldn’t believe that everyone was so poor and yet somehow all the women around him could afford fur coats. Even if you wanted to and had money, you couldn’t buy much in the stores, so when he wanted to get a souvenir he ended up finding a Russian style fur hat. He also tried Bansko Kapama, the only thing that they would serve him in the restaurants in Sofia. Bansko Kapama is supposed to be a great dish, but in those days in Sofia it was just a bunch of leftovers put together in a clay pot and baked over again. I am happy to report that Steven survived from all the Kapama he ate.
He was fascinated with folk music and bought every album he could get his hands on. Later in New York he would play for me this ensemble or that singer, all people I had no idea existed. At that time I couldn’t care less about folk music, all I wanted was to start my life over.
Steven was told by the concert presenters to bring food with him, so he brought an entire suitcase of nonperishable foods like powdered soup, tins of sardines and tomato cans. He brought also potato chips and pretzels. All of these things were extremely attractive to me. The labels looked so cool, so colorful and fun. Like toys. I couldn’t believe that people would bother to decorate a can of soup so beautifully. I loved hearing about his life and in turn never missed an opportunity to tell him all about the “Turkish Yoke”. A few years later in New York he would joke with his friends before he would introduce me to them and say “I will introduce you to my friend Lora. She is Bulgarian. Within 10 minutes of meeting you she will ask for your zodiac sign and tell you all about the Turkish Yoke. Just wait and see.”
And he was right. I remember everybody’s sign. It is very important to know this information, it saves a lot of time getting to know people. Steven is a Taurus like Brahms and Tchaikovsky. And my teacher Lydia Kuteva. And pretty much everyone else that matters in my world. Tauruses are great people. The most musical and artistic people from all the zodiac signs. I used to be an expert at identifying the signs of people I met, but that is nothing unusual for a Bulgarian. Neither is the talk of the Turkish Yoke. I don’t even know if most people know what Yoke means. Google it.
When I heard Steven play and teach I knew that I wanted to go to America. I loved his “out of the box” thinking. He had his own personality and style, he was not afraid to play with the freedom of the old masters. There was so much flexibility and depth in his sound and at the same time he was a terrific virtuoso. He gave me his CD of a Liszt concerto he had discovered and recorded with the London Symphony. I loved it. He had another CD, a duel between Liszt and Thalberg, which arrived in the mail a few months later in a padded fancy American envelope. Together with the catalogues for Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music.
Steven helped me audition to Juilliard. I stayed in his apartment on the UWS for two weeks before the audition. Of course nobody told me in those days that you don’t visit people in New York for such a long time. A day or two. Maybe a weekend. But two weeks? If someone shows up at my place now and asks to stay for two weeks, I am not sure what I would do. Steven was the kindest, nicest man. For most of the time he was not even in the city. He went on tour, or maybe decided to stay with friends so that he doesn’t have to listen to me practice the Waldstein Sonata in different keys every morning at 8 a.m. sharp.
The first thing that happened when I arrived in New York was that I went to Toys R Us on 79th Street and Broadway and spent most of my money on a red bike. The second thing that happened was that the red bike got stolen. It did. In front of Juilliard. So all of my anxiety about how to get the bike on the plane to Bulgaria was instantly resolved. Great karma, right? No bike, no problem as Stalin once said.
After I arrived in his apartment, Steven put me up on his couch and took me out around the city. We went to restaurants and heard Ivo Pogorelic live in recital at Carnegie hall. This is back when Ivo was on top of the world. I went backstage and shook his hand. What a night!
I fell in love with the city immediately. Especially the UWS. Nobody cared or noticed that I was an Eastern European and “Off the Boat”. People were too busy, minding their own business. Most loved the Bulgarian Women’s Voices. I was fascinated by the fact that everybody knew about our folk music and every building had a laundry room. Also, everybody had a real Walkman and when you went to the Deli people said familiar things like “Opalla”. And when you asked for Bulgarian cheese in Zabars they would say: which one do you want — feta or kashakaval? So if you needed to, you could go and do your laundry in the middle of the night while eating feta cheese sandwich and listening to the Bulgarian Women’s Voices.
So I did exactly that. Steven left “on tour” and I went to his basement with his Walkman to do laundry. Only I locked myself out of Steven’s apartment. It was 3 a.m. I was jet lagged and now I had no place to sleep. All I had was my dirty laundry and a set of quarters. And the Walkman, of course.
I went to the doorman of his building and asked him if he had a spare key for Steven’s place. He didn’t. He had given that to me. But if I waited until 6 a.m. the handyman would open the door for me then. Okay, I thought, that’s three hours from now. I have time to go out to look for my Italian friends. These were three Italians I had met at Juilliard who were also auditioning. They were fancy and staying in a hotel with views of Central Park. So I decided to cross Central Park to look for them. Surely they could put me up for a few hours.
In those days NOBODY crossed Central Park after dark because of someone called the Central Park Jogger. But I did. I didn’t see anybody jogging. I walked through the park at 3 a.m. and was amazed how well lit every path was. In Sofia the parks were so dark at night, you couldn’t see anything at all. In Central Park you could see all the way across to where the MET museum stood. So I crossed and found a building that looked kind of like a hotel to me. The doorman there wore a long military coat with shiny buttons and a hat. Looked like a fancy policeman. He was horrified and couldn’t believe that I walked through the park in the middle of the night. He hailed me a cab, gave the driver 10 dollars and told me to go back to the building where I was staying and to wait for the handyman. So I did.
The handyman came at 6 and we both went up to Steven’s door. He was Polish and started swearing right away. I knew he was swearing not because I understood Polish, but because I know that a word like “kurva” can only mean one of two things and they are both not very nice.
Without giving it much thought, the handyman started knocking down Steven’s door with a hammer. As soon as he started to do so, someone yelled something from inside and startled us. I looked at the Polish guy and tried to say something to him in my terrible Russian. He was sweating or swearing I don’t remember which, but he didn’t understand a word I said. The door got unlocked from inside. It was Steven! He had returned in the middle of the night and had gone to bed only to be brutally awoken by his crazy Bulgarian friend speaking Russian to his Polish handyman who was holding a hammer. The apartment was a mess and all my things were spread out on his floor. His Walkman was missing. Remember, I was doing laundry …
After that story Steven and I became friends for life.
He will be featured at our festival in Kovachevitsa, this summer. I can’t wait to see him try Bansko kapama. The REAL thing this time!