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Almost Intimately

August 24, 2012 by · 47 comments


by Irina Papancheva

Irina Papancheva
Photo: Umberto Fistarol

Part one


„…there are inevitable things in life or at least we consider them inevitable which is indeed the same thing…”

Christian Bobin, “La Folle Allure”

In the dust of the spacious garret words are blending into a buzz. Words are thronging and brimming from all sides; they are filling the space, they are dancing together, Bulgarian and English words are making pirouettes in the air. They are rising and falling, they are fading, only to fly again, with even more spirit.

She is catching some of them, while she is moving through the small groups of people, she is holding the word for a second in her consciousness and she is letting it go. The editor-in-chief of the first Sofia English newspaper is celebrating his 30th Birthday. Her presence there is accidental. She had written a number of articles for the newspaper, and the editor had happened to invite her. And now she is squeezing past the talkative journalists, she is crossing the periphery of their attention, going out to the balcony.

The buzz is also here, it is floating in the night. She is leaning on the balcony, passing her eyes over the roofs of the houses, resting her elbows, separated from the others by the invisible screen of her silence. Two big palms are hiding her horizon, right in front her eyes, but without touching her. She is turning slowly and she sees him. She had not noticed him until then, he must have just come in, otherwise she would certainly have noticed him. The man is hardly smiling, yet his eyes are smiling more, playfully, boyishly.

– Beautiful but lonely? – he is starting a conversation in English.
– Pardon?
– Why is such a pretty girl all alone? – too trivial a phrase for an introduction.
– I do not know anyone well .
– That makes two of us. I do not know anyone. I arrived in Sofia two days ago.
– On a trip?
– No, I am going to work here.
– Journalist?
– Gold-digger!

– You are kidding me. – her smile briefly flashes , before disappearing, leaving only a pale shine behind.
– No, not at all. And you are a journalist?
– A beginner. I am a student.
They are falling silent. Her look is going back to the dark roof tops, while his is on her face.
– For now I like Bulgaria.
– Bulgaria is a prison, which I want to escape from.
Her words sound cruel, but indeed they are uttered with a captivating sincerity and naivety, as her green eyes look straight at him. A slight wind is moving her red curls.
– You are an angel.

– No, I am not. And thank God since no-one loves angels.
– David, let me introduce you to the host and his wife – a young woman is approaching them.
– Please, excuse me. – David is saying and he is walking away, while she is staying alone again, resting her elbows in the balcony, as if the previous moment has never existed.

She is listening to the conversation of two young English-speaking men. They are talking about Prague. This is attracting her attention, of a Czech philology student before graduation, and she is joining them. That is how she finds out that one of them, an American, comes from Prague, where he had lived and worked, to join the newspaper team.

The other one, an Englishman, already works on it. She is starting a conversation with the first one. About Prague. Czechs were narrow-minded people, according to him, and Prague was not the best place to live. Bureaucracy, sulky saleswomen and waitresses, and things like this. She is recalling Prague the way she has seen it in her three visits which totaled 20 hours. Once in winter, numb with cold and twice in summer, but in each case romantic, artistic and crowded with tourists. David is interrupting her thoughts for a second time tonight. He is joining them and his smiling eyes continue to study her face.

– I have to go – she says.
– I will accompany you – David is suggesting.
They are traveling in his jeep to the Students’ town in silence. She lives there like most of the students from the country. When they reach her block, he asks her for her phone number. Having already bypassed the triviality of their introduction, she has nothing more left than to give it to him.

A figure is moving in the darkness of her room.
– What’s the time? – a sleepy male voice is asking her.
– Eleven thirty.
– How did you get home?
– By taxi.

She is slipping off her long red dress and she is snuggling into the warm bed.


“The perfect woman relates to literature as if it were a small sin – timidly, by the way, looking around to see whether someone has noticed her and that someone has noticed her…”
Friedrich Nietzsche “The Gods Sunset”

Even as a child I had the habit of thinking about myself in the third person singular. I have been doing it ever since. One part of me participates in the action, another one – ascertains, registers, analyzes, experiments, makes it more visual…I am the object and the subject, the one who lives through and the one who co-lives through. The main character in the performance of my life and my eternal and always present spectator. It is not me but her who is going in the streets, touching, painting, dancing, kissing.

I only modestly add adjectives, verbs, adverbs…She could do everything that I could not. Or she could not. And this is the moment when I should make a decision whether to continue this naturally flowing story, describing her or expressing myself. To follow the narration in a “pale imitation of Marguerite Duras” or to start analysing and iconifying the images of the characters, imitating Kundera, or just to start flirting with the reader (which I already do), influenced by Michal Viewegh, whose “Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia” I have recently read.

Or maybe I could go back to my old ambition to become the Bulgarian Erica Jong – feminist, bold, exhibitionist? It would be best, of course (is it of course?!) to be myself, constructing my own, unrepeatable and unique style, but how could I know whether “my own, unrepeatable and unique style” is not a mixture of the above-mentioned plus some others, since the contemporary literature has turned to a huge and powerful exchange in which topics, styles, images and quotations are merging absolutely naturally…

If I talk about “her” would “she” be less “me”? And If I move towards “I” would this “I” be an equivalent of “me” or a compilation of “I” and many other “shes”?

So now this is the almost impossible moment, when – with one gracious leap (as we have seen in different romantic comedies about the separation of the soul from the body and its temporary squeezing into another body) I am finding myself in her, my main character, so that we become one and I lend her my thoughts, feelings, words and gestures.


“And it was silent!
Silent it was!”
Hristo Photev, “Balade for Romeo and Juliette”

I did not sleep well that night. I was turning restlessly and the tall man from the party was passing through my dreams like from one room to another. David. However, when in the morning I opened my eyes with effort I saw by my side the sleeping and so painfully known face of Vintchentso. Vinchentso. My Romanian man who has shared with me his days, nights, bed and for almost two years, his room. It is as if he has felt my astonished look, Vintchentso also opened his eyes and stared in mine – coolly, like a stranger.

– How was the party?
– Very formal.
– Did the men come on to you? – the jealous touch in his voice shows that he is not joking.
– No more than usual.
This puts an end to our conversation. Lately our communication has been laconic and content-less. The verbal one. The non verbal one has been long lost no one knows where, it has hidden in some dusty corner of the hostel, perhaps. We do not touch each other, we do not make love, and our kiss is dry with short lip contact. When I am alone, I cry.

That day however I would not cry. I would go into my room and I would think about Dave (how I already call him in my mind), and the alarm ringing, a sign, that the person who is calling me at the hostel phone, would not disappoint me.
– Hey, where have you been? – his voice sounds fresh.
– Four floors above – I am laughing.
– Would you like to meet up?
Yes, I would like to. But at 3 p.m. The Balkan blood of Vintchentso is boiling and I am too unsure and burdened with а preliminary guilt to oppose him. Let’s keep the peace!


„I cannot be satisfied with being a little, expensive doll of a man, nor to be for him only a flesh for pleasure. I wanted complete intimacy but I did not find it.”

D. H. Lawrence, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”

So at three o’clock in the afternoon (a warm, but windy and dusty afternoon) I am waiting for David. He is a bit late, he has come out of his office to meet me! Yes, I am this interesting and enchanting lady of whom attractive, older men throw away their obligations! Dark glasses mysteriously cover my eyes, the wind is ruffling my red hair quite carelessly like in a Hollywood script and Dave and I are walking to an expensive restaurant. There he orders juice, I – beer. For now I am excitingly self confident and experienced. Or at least that’s what I think.

– You are beautiful – he says – I haven’t seen a woman whom red hair suits better.
I did not believe him but it’s the truth – he is a gold-digger! He had led an idle life for years – alcohol, heroin and sex with one-day partners (and more exactly one-night), till somehow with super humanity he had managed to leave the vicious circle, he had studied archeology in England, where he was from, and after he had graduated and had not found a job in his field. One morning he had left both London and England without saying good bye to anyone and he had fled to Chile. There he had spent the last eight years before finding himself in Sofia with the mission to seek Bulgarian gold. That is what I learnt about him at our first one-hour meeting.
At the end of the meeting he is inviting me to a party in the house rented by him, the property of a famous Sofia sculptor.

It is a typical delicate situation: a woman, who has a “serious relationship”, invited to go out in the evening by a man, who likes her and who definitely has intentions, way beyond an ordinary invitation for a party, and to whom she is not, not at all, indifferent…Ahhhh! What should I do? What do the real, femme fatale women do – the ones who inhabit men’s dreams, fantasies and thoughts? I will give him a long, misty look, tossing a loose lock from my face and I would say in low voice:
– OK, baby. See you there.

And what about Vintchentso? What would I tell him? Is it normal to declare to your partner: “I am going to a party, but you are not invited”? And what does “normal” mean? Isn’t it so that the only unchangeable and obligatory rule is to follow the call of our desires? The call of…erm …our heart? At the age of 22 I am not that liberated. In my consciousness the dogmas of the morality of my own parents are still weighing and are turning every opportunity for escape into an attractive chimera. To lie? No, I cannot do such thing. Not yet…
– May I take my boyfriend with me? – I am asking.


The following silence from David’s side is almost predictable. Men are not big fans of the idea of platonic friendship when their desires and intentions have been different. Especially when they are rejected because of someone else, even though he met and conquered her first. David did not call for the party. He did not call at all anymore. I did not have his phone number and though I could easily find it, I did not want it. His transparency offended me. And if we add my pride in being a Bulgarian poor girl, who whispers into my ear not to be just a beautiful flower which every rich western-European thinks that he could pick just like this with one careless gesture, it becomes clear that for the moment this story is going to an end.


„Beauty is a whore, she was repeating to herself sometimes. I prefer money.”
Michael Cunningham “The Hours”

Normally in childhood we are educated that money does not matter. The stronger this delusion and the longer it lasts, the bigger the disappointment when with age, experience and the pressure of reality , we find out that money not only matters but the survival of what is significant for us may happen to be dependent on its presence or lack. Relations struggle without it and thrive difficultly in deficiency. It does not have to be so, it is not a rule. Indeed, couples, who have been financially pressed and have together met the difficulties each day of making do with the family budget, could lose their intimacy and even fall apart at a sudden income increase and change of standard of life. I do not know how it would have been between Vintchentso and me. We were not meant to be among the survivors.

Vinchtentso was writing his thesis, he did not work and almost all his money went on necessities. He was receiving a poor scholarship as a foreign student, which was not sufficient at all. I was seen through university by my parents, but again from their limited means. We were young, in love and money-less. Seemingly as if less and less in love. The lack of money and the thought about lack of perspective was making Vintchentso dissatisfied and depressed.

He was carrying that self-image of him into his entire attitude towards life, including his relation towards me. It is difficult to give if you are eaten by pessimism. When I shared with him my idea to write an article for that same newspaper, he reacted distantly and expressed doubts that it would be published. Now I understand that his pessimism was not directed towards me but the world as a whole and it was born from his previous short but hard life experience.

His parents, living in a small Romanian village near to the border, were very poor, and the thing which has always accompanied him was scarcity. One cannot start suddenly believing that things are happening when destiny has not been very favourable. Then, however, I took his scepticism personally, as a denial of support, as a lack of faith in my abilities. And all of us – women and men – need support in our way. And despite this I wrote the article. I received moral support from Maria, a close buddy from my childhood in Burgas, who was now staying in the hostel, opposite to mine.

– You should write – she said – This is what you can do and I will not let you give in.
That is what I wanted to hear. The publishing of this and my following articles depressed Vintchentso even more. He accepted it with a converse sign: she is capable and succeeds, while I am not.
Do you know a man who accepts cordially and enthusiastically the success of his partner when he is convinced that he is stuck? I don’t.

I tried to calm him down and to inspire him with confidence but this made him madder. I was seized with helplessness. I was staying less and less in his room and when we were together, a hostile silence was lying down soon between the two of us.


„…the woman whom I loved,
because she was understanding the stars,
jazz and my sadness…”
Iva Petkova-Jauss „She Had Been Smiling”

Around that time, when I went to receive a fee from the newspaper I ran into the American from the party, Scot, who had lived in Prague, and he invited me to have a dinner at their place and to introduce me to his girlfriend – a Czech woman who had just arrived. Vintchentso refused to join me. I went by myself. The smile of Helena, it seemed to me, lit up the room, the flat, the whole building, and at the same time embraced, caressed, warmed. Our friendship started at this very moment before even exchanging a single Czech word.

Afterwards we were either meeting almost every day or speaking on the phone. She was telling me about her life in Prague and about her life before Prague, in Southern Czechia; she was showing me photos, she was helping me with the preparation for the annual Czech exam. From my side I started giving her Bulgarian lessons and introducing our literature to her. We walked and talked for hours. We never got fed up with it.


“Here is how love ends, if it is love – with a prosthesis.”

Samuel Beckett “Murfi”

Where is my relationship with Vintchentso? It’s gone. The realization comes suddenly like a cold shower. After the serial conflict, this time provoked by another petty cause, I am rushing into Maria’s room and I am breaking into tears. Tears are the best catalyst of all dramatic events.

On a Saturday evening I am coming home alone after a meeting with Helena and Scot. Vintchentso is waiting for me at a Romanian party. I am among these sympathetic but alien people whose speech I do not understand and whose mentality confuses me with its excessive expressiveness. Suddenly I have the desire to escape, to stay alone, to seek something, I do not know what, but something that I miss, in the safety of my room. Vintchentso is accompanying me in the corridor:

– Why are you pouting? – he is snapping – I will not go with you! I will not walk with you!
– Have I asked you for that?!
I am walking in the night, spring, overflowing with love and the hormones of a student’s town and I have no strength to wipe my tears.
This is the end.

How is a relationship in which one has invested for a long time energy, feelings, hopes, plans for the future, pain, joy, madness, craziness, tenderness, death, revival…death ending? The end is happening gradually and the relationship dies long before those complicit in its murder want to realize, to believe in and to accept it.


“Of course – the sky did not disappear!
The earth cover did not explode!
The moon looked at me from its top
with its renaissance smile!”
Hr. Photev “Balade for Romeo and Juliette”

Days are warmer and warmer, long, imbibed with the smell of the coming summer. Something sweet like honey, as it sticks to the lips, is there in the presentiment of summer, the anticipation, the foretasting. A hope for an excitement, the ghost of a new love, adventure, attraction is haunting in the air and is bewitching narcotically. Always. Again and again. And the sea starts calling me. The night sea…

After my last exam I am going out in the evening with Helena and Scot. We are strolling around in the centre of Sofia, leading a light conversation. It is mostly Helena and I who are speaking, Scot is silent and just from time to time joins us with some playful-ironic remark. Right in front of the jazz cafe we are meeting the editor of the newspaper, his American wife and David.

Two months or maybe three have passed from our last meeting. I will not exaggerate if I say that at every going downtown I have imagined this spontaneous meeting. My eyes have looked for him among the people, and during the evenings I have created it in my pre-sleepy consciousness- always more and more romantic. Our meeting is really very natural. We enter together the jazz cafe. It could not have happened better.

I feel a bit awkward, I feel a bit nervous and like always in such cases I become silent and do not participate a lot in the conversation. From time to time David and I are exchanging brief furtive glances. He is leaving before us and at parting he is giving his business card to Scot, Helena and me. Wow!!! I already have his number!!!

At the hostel entrance in the spreading dusk Vintchentso is waiting for me.
– I cannot stand it anymore. I love you. – he whispers.
– I love you too – I am embracing him strongly and I am leaving him behind me in the darkness. In the morning I am leaving for my home town Burgas. Vacation.


„O, yes! To become passionate like a maenad and to search for the brilliant phallus…”

D. H. Lawrence, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”

“The occasional…love affairs…always…Me too…”
Marguerite Duras “Hiroshima, My Love”

And here it is – summer. Summer like every other summer – sea, night, beer, salty. Well, not exactly like every other. I have found a job as a receptionist in a small hotel in Sunny Beach. I work 24 hours, then I rest for three days. Summer, sea, Sunny Beach…I will indulge in lewdness, I think. It is about time to become a little wanton. My adventures during that adventurous summer are finished with: night walks with two Dutch guys and one from Plovdiv (not at the same time), who hold my hand. Veeeeery sexy. There is also something harder. But about this – later.

During my days off I lie on the beach and bask under the sun. I relax, I absorb its rays into my skin and I pray for them to melt the tension from the last months. This way, lying on the hot sand, I cannot think, I cannot think about anything depressing. I feel like…a cat. I slacken in the heated water, I swim (ok, I call it swimming), I feel my muscles. I am alive. I read. I read a lot, primarily fiction. I dream. During the night, when I am not at work, I sit on the Burgas sand and drink beer with friends.

Or I dance under the sounds of the music, coming from the pubs on the beach. Vintchentso is past. David is future. I am in the middle. I set up my first email account, and every second day I run to the Internet café to read and write emails. Helena is the one who mainly writes to me. “Do you remember the Englishman, David?”, I read, “He visited us last night. He says hello”. David.

Yes, he is inhabiting my fantasies. I look in front of myself without seeing while I am sitting in the reception and I imagine him. I imagine his arms, I imagine how they touch me, his lips…I fall apart. Fantasy narcosis. 100 percent dependency. One day after the night shift I read again from Helena: “I am going to the Bachkovo monastery tomorrow with two Czech friends. Let’s meet in Plovdiv? Take a sleeping bag.” In the morning I travel to Plovdiv. The meeting with Helena is emotional.

Her friends are a couple, a boy and a girl. The boy has black eyes. We are rambling in the cobbles of the old town. Later a rickety Chavdar takes us to the monastery where I read its history from a tourist guide in English. I feel like a tourist, getting to know foreign motherlands. We are wondering where to pitch the tent. A monk directs us to a mountain chapel with a healing source inside.

If you take a bath in its water in midnight, you would be healthy during the whole year. We make a bivouac in the middle of a large glade and we set off to search for the chapel. It is nearby and it is as if taken from a work of folklore.. It is surrounded by a garden. The door to the garden is in a perfect line with the two arch doors of the church. Between the arches, in the middle, there is a trough, filled with water, whose source is in the upper wall. The healing source. It is dark in the small room the icons are buried in shadows, and the water is icy. We are splashing our faces silently.

Even if we had had some vague desire to bathe at midnight, with the fall of the night it vanishes. The air becomes colder, the darkness becomes thicker and thicker and the black trees radiate sinister inhospitality. We are lying on the grass and are counting the stars. We do not feel up to talking, the conversation is dying away. We are baking potatoes on the live coals and are burning our fingers. More than by the live coals, however, I am burnt by the coals in the eyes of the Czech guy.

Somehow we manage to gather in the small tent and we are falling asleep, everyone in his/her sleeping bag. I wake up at dawn, the others are still sleeping. I am pulling out from the tent and I am setting off for the chapel. I light candles and I take my clothes off till I am naked. I enter the freezing water of the trough and I start pouring water over me. The water reaches my knees. I am shivering a bit, I feel my skin prickling. The icons are turning shyly aside their eyes from my nakedness, I am turning my eyes aside from them too and I am meeting the black eyes of the Czech guy. He is standing in the yard door, his figure is filling it.

I am not trying to hide myself. Neither is he drawing back. We are looking at each other. Surely there would have been an invitation in my look, surely there would have been a call. He is approaching me, and he is folding me in his warm arms. His lips drink the spring drops from my face, we are kissing continuously. I am going out of the water and in order not to scandalize the icons any further, we are slinking through the other arch and we are slipping down to the grass. We are making love naturally and tenderly. I feel joy, jubilance, freedom filling me. The emotional orgasm is stronger than the physical one. While I am putting my clothes on and walking back to the glade I feel in harmony with myself and with my body. I feel a WOMAN.


“In a world, so hungry for love, no wonder that men and women are so dazzled by the brilliance, by the splendor of their own reflected ego.”
Henry Miller “Sexus”

The woman sculptures the man. That’s what they say. But the man makes the woman. If his look passes through her, if it does not stop and holds back, it could soullessly and silently delete her contours, turn her into an object, into a well known – and because of this uninteresting – part of the landscape. Without even realizing it, Vintchentso with his cold and repulsive behaviour deleted my contours.

Maybe I also have deleted his. In the eyes of the others we look for our own reflection, in the communication with them we look only and solely for ourselves, our one and only, unique and most of all ideal “I”. What is going on when the perfectness of the “I” is broken by our real, un-ideal image? The mirrors become distorting. And what we see in them stops fancying us. That is why we need new contacts, that is why in the beginning of a relationship we fly, but in its end we hardly creep.

Our life is passing in violently chasing our perfect image, which we would like to nail forever in our image for ourselves. When we approach reality and we hear criticism, reproaches, dissatisfaction, our fragile perfect image is breaking into thousands of pieces and we stop liking ourselves. From special, enchanting, charming we become boring, grumbling, irritating. I have left Vintchentso behind me but he has left that unattractive image which was spoiling the peacefulness in the room of my soul. The adventure with the Czech guy put things into their places. The frog has become a princess again. I could turn into myself with love again.


„Undressed full moon umbrellas
upon the sand that can no longer speak…”
Miroslava Kolarova “Loving”

– And Helena and her friend did not guess? – the eyes of Maria were shining.
– No, no one knew. When I went back to the meadow, they were waking up. He came after a while. And you know what is the strangest thing? I did not feel any guilt.
– Yes, because you have done nothing wrong. What has happened sounds almost inevitable, it would have been more wrong to oppose it than to experience it. It has been just a moment. And because of the uncommonness of the circumstances – as if it has not happened.

We were walking in the seaside alley in Burgas, two days later, on the day after my shift. It was about ten o’clock in the evening but the air was still motionless after the day’s heat, just a bit fresher. The surface of the sea was smooth as glass. Every memory of motion seemed doubtful. The reality that two days ago I had been in the heart of the Rodopi mountain seemed doubtful as well. I felt like bathing.

– I will bathe.

We took our shoes off and got down to the sand. Its warmth caressed our steps. Maria sat down, while I pulled off my dress and threw it by her. Remaining in my pants, I headed to the sea. The water embraced me, it caressed my body and drew me into its frightening hug. I don’t know why, but the night sea scares me. There is something chthonic and unclear in it. I have the feeling that some terrifying sea monster will swim from below and will pull me into its depths. I feel good and I feel scared. I feel scared and I feel good. A sort of contradictory state. I was swimming for the first time alone during the night. The fear was stronger than usual. But the pleasure was stronger too. I – a mermaid, having lost her tail. I – wild, flexible and free.

A definition of happiness: the joyful and tangible realizing in a certain moment and at certain circumstances that you are…alive.


„the feeling that something has passed
but actually continues.”
Antonia Apostolova „Green Apple”

The summer was slipping out of me again and I felt how I could not stop it. I could not stop the searing sun either so I was sitting in the reception, searching for a salvation in its coolness. The phone rang and I heard the voice of Vintchentso – for the first time since that warm night when we parted in front my hostel entrance.

– I am flying for the States tomorrow – was the first thing that he said.
– Tomorrow?! When?! – I was speaking like in a dream.
– In the afternoon.
– Wait for me, I will be there at lunch time. Don’t leave before I come, you hear me!

As if all the flights, choices, life courses were depending on my presence.

We had separated two months ago and they had passed to me like under the influence of a pill against pain. And now suddenly its effect is over. Somewhere there had been pain, paralyzed by the narcotic. I feel it. It is like after a surgery – while they are cutting your flesh, you do not feel anything, because you are being anaesthetized. In fact I have never had an operation.

It is one thing to separate with the man whom you have loved for a long time and it is something else – this same person to fly away to the end of the world and you to have to be faced with the perspective of not seeing him/her anymore. How dare he cause me this?!

I leave the door-keeper to guard the reception and I take the first bus to Sofia at 06:30. Let’s hope they will not fire me for this willfulness. Vintchentso is waiting for me at Pliska hotel bus stop. Our embrace is not like for a meeting but for a separation. There are two hours until his flight. We walk hand in hand and then we have lunch in a half-empty pub in Students’ town. We had made plans for hours how we will leave/depart from Bulgaria and will wander around the big world. He leaves. I am staying. I am sad and I am not hiding it. The minutes are elapsing too fast and a taxi takes us to the airport. My eyes are bleary.

– Baby, don’t. I will send you a ticket, you will come to me.
– Find a good woman – my voice is dying away.

We are kissing at the airport and then another taxi takes me to the Central station to take the following train to Burgas. I do not have anything left to do in Sofia.

My next return is a month later, at the end of September to start my last university year. I need time to stop looking at Vintchentso’s balcony with a sinking heart and with the inexplicable hope to see him.

Edited by Lauren Sophie Kearney

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