Excerpt from Chapter 3: First Steps

Elder Nelson was moved to Plovdiv. He had been on his mission in Bulgaria for six months now and he had become fluent in Bulgarian. He grew up and became a man; now his American handsomeness could be noticed on his cheekbones. Regular sports exercises and tourism during his day off, which was once a week, had shaped a firm and strong body, which was constantly attracting playful women’s looks. His assigned partner was Bulgarian – elder Peter Penev. Elder Penev, who was originally from Sofia, was a well-built, charming young man, recently converted in his faith, with a very strong personal testimony about the truthfulness of the Church. The new Plovdiv missionary pair had big potential of achieving great success in this part of The Lord’s vineyard.

The English courses that missionaries were teaching for free in the building of the Church were very famous in Plovdiv at the time. This was an opportunity for them to meet more people and teach the Gospel of the Church more successfully. For the visitors, this was a unique opportunity to learn English for free. For most Bulgarians, barely making ends meet in this disturbed historical time of poverty, it was impossible to be able to afford to pay for such services.

One Thursday evening, in the English class lead by elder Nelson, there was a new visitor – an 18-year-old girl. She was sitting at the back, but for some reason, she attracted his attention. She was exceptionally beautiful, like a goddess. Her blonde hair was flowing like a spring on the sides of her light and innocent face. Her eyes sparkled like a clear blue sea. The shape of her body under the cheap polyester knee-length dress was like the body of a forest fairy, walking in the morning dew. Elder Nelson was taken over by an unknown to him feeling. It wasn’t enough to say that he was just impressed by seeing an exceptionally beautiful Bulgarian girl. He had the strong feeling he had seen this girl before, that he knew her, in a past life perhaps.

“Good morning!” was the only thing he managed to say. “Oh, excuse me, good evening!” he corrected himself after the quiet laugh that passed through the room like a wave. The lesson went well. Elder Nelson had a lot of experience with these lessons from his mission in Sofia. He didn’t dare to ask the new girl anything. He was afraid he might break the vow he had taken before God – no romantic or personal relationships during his mission. It was normal practice to ask new people about their names but this time he just couldn’t. He barely managed to invite everyone for the lesson on Saturday morning and the stroll around the historic “old town” of Plovdiv at the end of the evening.

It is hard to explain how hard it was for elder Nelson to wait until Saturday. He said a hundred thousand prayers. He read the Book of Mormon and the Bible over and over. He did all his laundry and he ironed it. He vacuumed the entire missionary apartment three times a day. He went to throw out the trash five times. After all his efforts, he still couldn’t get the girl from the English class out of his mind and her magical smile. What if she doesn’t come? What if she didn’t like his lesson? What if she has a boyfriend? This was just a small portion of the questions that were racing through his young head. He held his breath when they were coming in the church building for the English lesson on Saturday. First door, entrance walkway, second door, corridor, third door and, oh, heavens, here she is! Praise you, God! Blessed be thy name, forever and ever! Amen!

This time they met! Her name was Maria! Elder Nelson heard her voice. It was quiet, melodic, magical, and again – very familiar. The English lesson flew by quickly like a butterfly before rain. A group of about 15 people went on to the promised stroll around the “old town” in Plovdiv. Maria was there. The missionaries too – keeping very close to her. They started talking. Elder Nelson and elder Penev told her a bit about their families shortly. They reached the “old town” and she started telling them about its history. She was glowing. Like a true, native girl from Plovdiv, she was proud of her hometown’s history. They saw the Roman amphitheatre, the house-museum, where the French poet Lamartine used to stay, the old Orthodox churches, and exhibitions by local painters. On the cobblestone streets they were seeing tourists and visitors of the city. Everyone was taking in the atmosphere of the magical combination of Bulgarian, Roman, and Turkish architecture from centuries past.

Suddenly in front of them appeared a large garden of tulips. Beautiful, gentle white flowers were shyly hiding in each other’s blossoms. What a celebration for the eyes! The well-maintained garden fit perfectly with the surrounding area.

“Incredible!” quietly said elder Nelson “But what are those tulips here? Isn’t their origin in Holland?”

Maria charmingly smiled to elder Penev and said: “It is time for the American guest to learn something new! The home of the tulips is our Bulgarian land – Thrace! In the 16th century during their stay in Constantinople the Austrian ambassadors saw a new, amazing, but unknown to him flower, so he sent a full box with those flowers to his Emperor in Vienna. Since then, tulips slowly made their way to Holland!”

Elder Nelson listened and memorized every sound that was coming out of her mouth. He was unknowingly falling in love with Maria. At first he didn’t recognize the feeling because he had never felt it before but in time his love was getting stronger. He hadn’t had a girlfriend because he had never met a girl that was so mesmerizing and breathtaking. He couldn’t admit it, not even give her a hint. Because of his mission elder Nelson wasn’t allowed to show his romantic feelings. For those two years he had promised to do only God’s work in Bulgaria and serve the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. No more, no less.

Of course, the evenings before going to sleep were the worst, almost like a nightmare. Elder Nelson was seeing only Maria’s face. If he wasn’t seeing it, he could hear her gentle voice. He was also not indifferent to her. He could feel it with all his heart. He felt like going on the balcony of his missionary apartment and start singing his favorite songs out loud, or recite his favorite poems. To scream even! To thank God for everything he felt. To thank God for the beautiful nature he created. He was stopped by the promise he had made to be a quiet and humble missionary. He would be humble, subdued, and would serve the full duration of his mission. And after his mission, oh, after his mission, all of Plovdiv would hear about a big, poetic, passionate, and eternal love. Only in some 18 months! He can take it! He has to!