As second-generation Bulgarian Americans, my three kids grew up eating Bulgarian food and listening to my parents’ countless stories about the small Balkan country on the Black Sea. But it wasn’t until 2016 that they visited Bulgaria and met their relatives for the first time.
Visiting the country they’d heard bits and pieces about made our family history come alive for them in a deeper way. As a child, I had spent a few summers in Bulgaria and still carried memories of picking raspberries in my maternal grandparents’ backyard, watching my paternal grandfather manage his beekeeping and swimming in the Black Sea. But I hadn’t been back in years, and so was eager to reunite with relatives and share my heritage with my kids. For first-generation Americans like me, and those who immigrate here as children, bringing our kids on cultural trips back home breathes life into family history and creates lasting memories.
Meet the family
Traveling abroad is always exciting, but the best thing about a cultural family trip is spending time with relatives. My kids, who have a small extended family here in the U.S., were excited to meet three generations of their Bulgarian aunts, uncles and cousins.
We stayed with cousins on my dad’s side. They showed us around the capital city of Sofia and its recently excavated Roman ruins. We also visited one of my favorite places — the 10th century Rila Monastery in the Rila mountains. Visiting these historic sites with family made them all the more special.
Some families get an early start discovering their roots. For Tamie and Jean-Michel Cabrera’s daughters – Emilie, 23, and Audrey, 20 – France is practically their second home. Jean-Michel moved from Cannes to the U.S. in 1981, leaving behind his parents, siblings and extended family. He didn’t want them to be strangers to his daughters, so they have visited France nearly every year since the kids were tots.
“I felt it was important for my two daughters to know their French family and spend time with their cousins. They learned French by immersing themselves with my family,” says Cabrera, who met Tamie, a first-generation Vietnamese, in L.A. “It’s important to know that there is more to life than what we live here and experience. I took them to the cemetery to visit the family graves, another way to grow their roots a little deeper.”
Teaching kids the language of your home country is a good way for them to connect with distant relatives, says Rebecca Bernard, who enrolled her kids, now ages 10 and 12, in a dual-language school in L.A. when they were younger to become fluent in Spanish for their frequent trips to visit family in Costa Rica. “We practice at home, but mostly use the summer cultural heritage trips to solidify the language in an immersive way,” says Bernard, adding they recently returned to their home in L.A. after spending the last year and a half in Costa Rica.
Family stories come alive
My dad, a structural engineer, was a quiet man who occasionally shared stories about herding sheep with his cousin in the tiny village of Runya. When we visited his childhood home, an old farmhouse that looks the same as it did when I was a child, we walked through the orchards where my grandfather once tended buzzing honeycombs. Beekeeping is still a tradition throughout Bulgaria.
Time has stood still in Runya, where sheep have the right-of-way on cracked roads. On the day we visited, the family emergency was a cow that had fallen into a ditch. With a population of about 31 people, Runya felt like a ghost town.
In contrast, my mom’s hometown of Kableshkovo and the nearby port city of Burgas were lively.
In Kableshkovo, a small village with red-tile-roof homes, we walked with several relatives over cobblestone streets to my mom’s childhood home. Standing in her bedroom, we recalled my mom saying her friends would serenade her outside the window. She would flicker the light in response.
A peek into our ancestors’ past can evoke unexpected emotions. My daughter Megan got teary and hugged me, saying, “I can’t believe we’re standing in the house where Babi grew up.”
Walking down memory lane was also nostalgic for Bernard. On their visits to Costa Rica, she and her children enjoyed exploring their grandfather’s childhood neighborhood. They walked the streets of Limon, where he grew up, and stayed with friends in the Cahuita area where their grandparents were married and their grandmother spent her “cuarentena,” the 40 days when new moms are kept away from crowds. “My dad always tells stories of his childhood — climbing trees, knocking down fresh coconuts for water and all of their crazy adventures navigating adolescence with a father who was the head of school and had eyes all around town,” Bernard says.
Bonding over meals
Mealtimes provide another opportunity to immerse kids in family traditions. In Bulgaria, we feasted on homemade banitsa (filo dough stuffed with feta cheese), sarmi (meat-and-rice-filled grape leaves), kyufteta (seasoned meatballs) and shopska salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and feta cheese).
My kids were pleased to discover they had been raised on authentic Bulgarian cuisine. “I often wondered if Babi’s (Bulgarian) food tastes the same as the food in Bulgaria, and it does,” Christina says.
A trip highlight for us was a big family dinner in a Kableshkovo restaurant filled with good aromas and laughter. We sat at a long table sharing platters of kebabs, chicken, potatoes and shopska salad. My kids had their first sips of rakia, a fruit brandy that’s a staple in Bulgaria. Made from plums or grapes, rakia is so popular that many people make their own. Soon, we were all singing old Bulgarian folk songs that my kids had learned from my parents.
Family get-togethers such as these are what kids often treasure most. Emilie Cabrera says that no matter what activities her family enjoys in France, every Sunday is dedicated to family. “This has to be my favorite part of the trip. On Sunday, everyone goes to Aunt Lucette’s house and we spend the day together cooking family recipes. We all sit at the long table outside, all 20 or so of us, and we feast, talk about life and play games,” she says.
Jean-Michel Cabrera, who inherited his mom’s vast recipe collection, says family favorite dishes include fois gras, duck, escargots, pissaladiere (onion tart, a specialty of the south), socca (made with chickpea flour) and pastries such as tarte tropezienne.
Cultural trips are one of the easiest ways to support developing your child’s identity and reinforcing a strong sense of self, says Bernard, whose kids have a mixed heritage: German American and Afro-Latino-Costa Rican on her side, and African American and Afro-Cuban on their dad’s side. “If you don’t know where you come from or what anchors your values and belief systems, it becomes harder to find that internal compass and really understand the things that make up our characters,” she says.
For similar reasons, Charmaine Wash, a Filipina who moved to the U.S. at age 12, brings her two kids to the Philippines for the immersion experience. Their African American dad’s side of the family lives in the U.S., but Wash’s entire family is in the Philippines. When Wash and her children visit, they stay with her parents. Her kids have reacted differently to their cultural trips. “My daughter is very Americanized, but my son has adopted the Filipino culture,” says Wash, a media buyer in L.A.
As for my kids, they’re now able to relate better with my mom and share their own stories about Bulgaria. But for them, the journey into this side of their identity has just begun. They can’t wait to visit again.
Mimi Slawoff is a Valencia-based journalist and mother of three adult children. Follow her on Twitter @Mimitravelz and Instagram @Mimitravels.