I was 18 years old and living in Washington, DC when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. I distinctly remember reading the news, back from college and perched upon a stool in my parents’ kitchen. For me, it was more than just a story in the newspapers, it was the past coming together with a yet unrealised future, as I saw the impact for my family, 40 years after they were separated.
I grew up during the Cold War in America. A first generation American from Bulgarian origins, I realised early on that I was different from the majority of my classmates. At home we spoke Bulgarian and I ate Bulgarian food and learned Bulgarian customs but every morning I would board the iconic yellow school bus and set off to a place where English became my first language, I ate American food and I learned to observe American customs.
My paternal grandmother lived with us and over dinner table conversations at night, my brother and I would listen to the stories she, my father and my mother would tell of a distant country during a past era. While these stories often seemed far removed, I realised that they were ultimately what united us with so many other Americans and their own stories of long journeys, migrations and finding a new life in a new land.
As a child, I flipped through old photo albums and looked at the faces of a family I had never met. I began to ask questions and to listen intently to the letters sent to us from overseas- just having these letters arrive was a small miracle as so little post made it to its recipient intact or at all during the height of the Cold War.
When I first visited Bulgaria during the summer of 1982, this rift, both physically and in understanding, narrowed. Communism was in full swing and the empty grocery store shelves and grey buildings which my brother and I saw came as a stark realisation of the very different way life was lived between our country of heritage and our country of birth.
That summer my world view changed and what was only up until then a curious interest in my legacy and culture became an important personal pursuit towards understanding what happened after WWII and how my immediate family, such a small part of the rather large one I was visiting that summer, ended up so far away and living under such evidently different circumstances.