Excerpt from Chapter 2: Towards Europe, Part 1

The day came when the family had to see elder Nelson off at the airport. He was not alone. There was a whole group from the Missionary Training Center leaving for Bulgaria – 8 people in total – 6 elders and 2 sisters. The elders were dressed in the characteristic black suits, with white shirts and colorful ties, while the sisters were wearing long over-the-knee dark dresses. All of their families were here. Their mothers were discreetly wiping tears off their eyes. The fathers were standing up on their toes to see their children and were pretending to be firm and strong. They were waving with their hands and trying not to say something silly with all the excitement. Hugs, wishes, love, tears, words, vanity were left at the boarding gate at last. The group went on the plane and sat comfortably in their seats. Everyone was left with their own thoughts. The engines started running; you could hear the cracking sound of seatbelts being fastened. Through the airplane windows Salt Lake City was now just a silhouette of the spring-kissed city, with its tall skyscrapers just shaping a shade of the city’s glory. The statue of Moroni, at the top of the temple, was not visible, but the elders and sisters knew that at this very moment Moroni was blowing the horn powerfully just for them.

Mathew sat next to one Bulgarian, a man in his early fifties with graying hair, dressed in a neat, gray, single-breasted European suit, paired with a white shirt, but no tie. He looked like a Muslim priest after a Friday prayer – relaxed, pleased, and confident. It was inevitable for the two of them to introduce themselves to each other and start a conversation. They sat quietly for a while and then the man said:

“Nice to meet you: Angel Balkanski from Pazardjik, Bulgaria.” And he hurried to specify without being asked. “I am not a member of the Mormon Church at this point but I like it – I am an investigator.” Mr. Balkanski went on, with his characteristic Bulgarian curiosity, “Where are you going, boy? Are you a missionary?”

Elder Nelson answered in acceptable Bulgarian, “Yes, I am a missionary from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints! I am going to Sofia! I am going to serve for 2 years at the Bulgarian Sofia Mission.”Balkanski exclaimed, “Ah, I am going to Sofia as well – alas, we have a long way ahead of us! How do you know Bulgarian?”

“I studied it for 3 months at the missionary center, so I can talk with the people in Bulgaria and tell them about the message of Christ.”

“Well, the people in Bulgaria are Christians, what new is there to tell them?” asked Balkanski.

Elder Nelson’s eyes lit up, “I am bringing a special message to Bulgaria: That Christ is alive and he has a plan for every man, so he can change his life and be happy!”

“You are still young and green, my boy, it is too early for you to teach people about life! Listen to me and you will learn a lot! Here, I will tell you my philosophical lesson: Life is like a zebra – striped – white, black, white, black, white, black, and in the end – an ass!”, confidently replied Balkanski.

Elder Nelson quieted down with reservation and slight discomfort and started looking through the airplane window. Utah disappeared under the clouds. Sometimes a man has to open new doors and walk new paths, he thought. Even with such children of God, as the man sitting next to him.

Elder Nelson tried to casually change the subject, “Mr. Balkanski, did you like Salt Lake City? Did you visit any sites?”

“Oh yes, I liked it very much! I saw Temple Square, the Joseph Smith Memorial Center, the Family History Library, the Tabernacle, and the Hogle Zoo. I also went to the Gateway Mall, and, oh, your toys are very expensive, my boy! I wanted to buy a Barbie doll for a present and I saw one that cost $1500. Her name was Amanda. In Bulgaria, for $150, I can sell you an original Barbie doll, paired with a real, living 18-year-old girl. Come and visit me in Pazadjik.” Balkanski paused for a moment and continued: “Some friends also took me to the theatre in Salt Lake City to see ‘Hamlet’ by Shakespeare. Forgive me, but in the art scene, here in America, you are way back! Really, I saw this play in Sofia 20 years ago!”

Elder Nelson was wondering whether he should laugh or cry. He remained calm and tried to change the subject yet again, “Mr. Balkanski what do you do in Bulgaria?”

“I have changed several professions. Right now I am unemployed, but I am thinking of moving to Salt Lake City! There is a very good job for me here – singing in the Tabernacle choir. They are amazing! They are so many, you can sing, or you can just open your mouth – no one would know, right? And your salary keeps coming! Great!”

The flight attendants quietly started delivering the meal for the passengers on the plane. Balkanski smiled and said: “Oh, oh, wonderful! We’re hungry! About time! Let’s see what they are bringing us!”

It became very quiet with the sound of chewing for about 30 minutes. The food was good. Delta Airlines were excellent in this business.

“M-m-m. That was good! You cook well but you are very stupid, the Americans!” said the cheered up and well-fed Balkanski. They were quite far from the airport by now, which made him braver. “Using the trick with the fly last night I ate three espresso-crusted duck breasts in restaurant ‘Martine’ without paying, what do you think, eh?”

“What is the trick with the fly?” asked elder Nelson amazed.

Balkanski leaned and cheekily said, “I am carrying a matchbox with flies in my pocket. I order a meal, you know, I finish it and then I put a fly on the plate. I call for the waiter and complain: ‘You should be ashamed of yourself, there is a fly on my plate!’ The waiter, clueless, brings me a new portion, even accompanied with an apology! Great, ha-ha-ha!”

Elder Nelson wrote something in his notebook. He was taught in the Missionary Training Center that everything important he hears, he should write down in his little black notebook.