| The Girl With The Stuffed Animal
The cold wind on my cheeks reminded me winter was approaching and I should end my trip soon. Though my first trip to Bulgaria, I was told winters can be harsh in Eastern Europe. About to board the train to Sofia, the conductor directed me to the second class car, where my seat was. An ancient train, it still had separate compartments with room for four people and the aisle was on one side of the car, with sliding doors into the seating.
Not wanting to disturb the other passengers, I sat down next to a man but the three people hardly looked up. Foreigners are not common so this didn't surprise me. His wife just stared straight ahead. Huddled against the woman, a girl looked at me as if I were some kind of oddity.
The train ride through the forests of Bulgaria was uneventful, but plodding along slowly, I found it pleasant to see the jagged cliffs and isolated forests. It was an old train. Some of the windows were clouded over with age, making it difficult to see sometimes, yet I loved old trains. There was something nostalgic about them, with the separate compartments, seating four people.
The girl, next to her mother, kept glancing over at me, with a smile on her face. She was holding a small stuffed animal which she held next to her face. It obviously was her prized possession. I couldn't but help notice she was quite beautiful even though she was just a school girl. The family was dressed neatly, though their clothes were old and worn. The mother, in a bright colored print dress, made me think they may be Romas, or as others say, gypsies. The father wore a large mustache which curled around his jowls, giving him a jovial look.
At the sound of a rolling wheels I slid the door open a food cart appeared. With a simple menu of assorted sandwiches, some kind of crackers and a variety of drinks I decided to eat something. After buying a sandwich and a drink, I could see the girl looking at my food. The family was noticeably poor in their old clothing and it occurred to me they may be hungry. I felt uncomfortable as I bit into my sandwich with the young girl watching. Finally, I said to the father, "Would it be okay if I bought you something to eat?"
The father said in broken English, "No, but thank you."
Noticing the girl was very thin, I said, "I insist. Your girl looks hungry."
With the food cart still nearby, I bought several sandwiches and three drinks. As I gave the food to the father, he said, "You shouldn't do this, but thank you so much."
The father eagerly ate the food, but the mother seemed to be almost afraid of eating her sandwich. The girl, choking down the food, looked over and gave me a nice little smile. Though quite thin and frail-looking, her eyes shown with a brightness that filled the small cabin. Trying not to stare, I could see she had a look of intelligence. About twelve, she had an inquisitive look, her dark eyes shining out from her lovely face. Her stuffed animal still clutched in her hand, I could see it was decorated with colorful beads, tied around its neck and the tail was bound in small ribbons.
After awhile, I asked them, "Are you going to Sofia?"
With a faint smile, the father said, "Yes. We are looking for work there."
"What kind of work do you do?" I said.
Hesitating, he said, "I repair shoes."
I thought; my heavens, who repairs their shoes these days?
With a brief shake of hands, we introduced ourselves. His name was Jacob.
I knew there was still some prejudice against gypsies so I said, "Is it hard for you to find work?"
"Yes" he said, "People are not so nice to us"
I didn't want to show too much sympathy, but I said, "I'm sure you can find something."
I then said, "Does your girl go to school?"
Glancing at his daughter, he said, "No. We aren't registered so she can't."
With a smile, I asked the girl, "What's your name young lady?"
Shyly speaking, she said quietly, "I'm Gina."
The thought of the girl not going to school made my heart sink. So beautiful and smart-looking, I couldn't imagine what would become of her. With no education and no money from her parents, there was little she could do as she grew up into a young woman. The very thought of her lost in the modern world with no money pained me. At times like this, I would give anything to be wealthy to help them. Ordinarily, I'm not one to hand out money to strangers, but I felt an overwhelming desire to help them.
As the train approached Sofia, I got up to get my luggage, saying, "Well, it's been nice to talk to you, Maybe we can meet again sometime."
Shaking my hand feebly, he said, "You are so kind. God bless you."
As I stepped off the train, looking back, I saw the girl, still clutching her stuffed animal. With a beguiling smile,it was clear she was thanking me for the food. It gave me a good feeling as she smiled with her clear bright eyes,
For the next few days, I hadn't thought of the family much. Busy looking at antique shops, I hoped to find a old chalice to add to my collection. I was told by a friend that they were sometimes found in older antique shops and they were not as expensive as those in the big countries. I found it enjoyable to rummage through the old shops with dusty old remnants of times gone by. Chalices were not so common, especially those made of silver. About to leave a shop with a large collection of bowls and drinking cups, I notice a cardboard box in back of some drinking schooners. Peeking out of the top, I could see something shiny. Carefully taking it out, it was a chalice. Covered in layers of dust, I brushed it off,almost choking. As I saw the gleaming figures on the cup, my heart pounded. It was a silver chalice and the intricate design was beautiful beyond words. With it in my hands, I went to the shopkeeper, asking, "How much do you want for this?"
Old and shaking with the chalice in his hand, he said, "It's silver and quite old, maybe from the 18th century. What would you give for it?"
Surprised he wanted me to give an offer, I said,"Well, I can give you American dollars. How about fifty dollars?"
With a look of disdain, he said, "The silver alone is worth that. This is probably from a royal family. I can't take less than two thousand dollars."
About to choke, I said, "Wow. that is expensive."
Tracing his fingers over the design, he said, "See here? That is from a famous craftsman of the era. You won't find many of these."
I didn't have enough money to pay for it but I was sure the chalice was worth a lot of money, besides, it would be a great addition to my collection. I said, "Here's a hundred dollars. I'll go to the bank and get the rest tomorrow."
The next day, going to the bank, I managed to get a draw on my Visa card. It was close to my limit but I just had to get that chalice. Paying the shopkeeper, I said, "It's a real beauty."
In a hurry to get back to my room with my prized possession I took a short cut through the nearby park. The temperature had fallen, giving me a chill. Near a grove of trees I noticed what looked like a small tent. Curious, I walked closer. There, huddled in their coats, were three people under a plastic tarp, hung between two trees. I could see a man with a large mustache and a woman. Next to her was a small form bundled up in a blanket. Looking in, I knew it was the family on the train.
Pulling the tarp back, I said, "My Heavens. What are you doing here?"
With a morose look the father said, "Don't worry about us. Just go away."
I could see the girl, Gina, was shivering and I said, "You can't sleep out here. You'll freeze to death."
With a pathetic look, he said, "We don't have any money."
It broke my heart to see them in the cold, especially Gina, so frail. I said, "I have a little money. I'll find a room at my hostel."
With a pat on his shoulder, I said, "I'll be right back, don't move."
At the hostel I reserved a room for three days, giving some time to figure out what to do with them. The father felt reluctant to take my offer but they quietly went with me. After settling them in, I said, "Tomorrow, I'll see what we can do about a job for you."
I was in a quandary not knowing the language, but I had to do something for them. We found an employment agency finally and the man told us, "There is a job opening at a shoe factory but he must have some identity papers first." We were told to go to the city hall and we would have to pay a fee and worse yet, some money under the table; a bribe. The authorities were aware he was a Roma so they were not too cooperative. According to them, the cost would be almost one thousand dollars. I couldn't possibly come up with that but I had to help them. The only way was to sell my chalice back. It was either that or the family and the young girl would be in a desperate situation.
I held the chalice in my hand that evening, my head churning with the decision. Picturing Gina, out in the cold and no schooling, I knew what I had to do.
At the antique shop I told him I had to sell it back, telling him, "I'm sorry but I have a serious problem. When I get back home I will send you the money. Just hold it for me.
"Okay." He said, "But you will have to give me one hundred dollars and you must send the rest within two weeks."
It was settled. Now I could help them.
With nineteen hundred dollars, I took Jacob to the city hall and after filling out some forms, I gave the envelope to the city clerk. He took it into another room and came out shortly, saying, "We can give him a permit. Take these forms to the factory manager."
At the sound of those words, Jacob gave a sigh of relief, saying to me, "Bless you. You helped me get a job."
At the hostel, the wife had tears in her eyes as Jacob told her about the job. Gina didn't say much but her eyes told me she was happy. We had a simple meal of goulash and bread, talking about how they could get Gina in school. About to go to my room, I said, "My plane is leaving tomorrow morning, quite early. I hate to say goodbye but I must go. I wish you the best of luck and take good care of Gina. I'll give you my address. If you want, you can send me a letter sometime. I want to hear how you are doing.
Jacob said, "I will try to repay you sometime."
"No." I said emphatically. "You don't need to. I'm not rich but consider this as a gift. Please don't worry about."
With a goodbye, shaking his hand and giving the mother a small hug, I turned to go. Gina, still with her stuffed animal in her arms, gave me a hug, saying goodbye. Then, I felt her shove something into my hand. Her most precious possession, the stuffed dragon, was her gift to me.
Waving to her as I went to my room, I felt tears in my eyes.