How a Country Can Become a Character in a Book by Ellis Shuman

Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Huffington Post. His short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has appeared in Isele Magazine, Vagabond, The Write Launch, Esoterica, Jewish Literary Journal, San Antonio Review, and other literary publications. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, The Burgas Affair, and Rakiya – Stories of Bulgaria.


It was a cloudy, spring day and my wife and I were sitting on a bench in Vratsa, a small town in northwestern Bulgaria, 2-hours’ train journey north of Sofia. A statue of 19th century Bulgarian revolutionary Hristo Botev overlooked the pavement, the hero’s arm clenched across his chest as if he were about to launch a fervent call to rebel against the long-gone Ottoman oppressors. A dark-skinned boy approached us.

The boy mumbled something in Bulgarian, a language we had yet to master. The boy held out his hand.



My wife shook her head, indicating that we didn’t intend to hand over any money. We had heard about the Roma, and how they were discriminated against not only in Bulgaria, but elsewhere in Europe as well. We saw them picking through the garbage outside our modern apartment building. Their horse-drawn wagons battled to make their way up our cobblestone street. We knew to keep our distance.

The boy smiled. He stuck out his hand even more enthusiastically.

Suddenly, we realized what we had done. We had encouraged the boy, made him think that we were going to give him some coins. In Bulgaria, a nod of the head up and down means “no” while a horizontal shake, such as my wife had made, indicates “yes”. The boy thought we had agreed to give him some pittance for his efforts.

Bulgarian Ceramics

It wasn’t easy to get used to the Bulgarian way of nodding one’s head. This was just one of the many unexpected things we were learning about Bulgaria, a country which would be our home for two years.

My job in online marketing was relocated to Sofia in 2009 and we made an impulsive decision to make the move. It was a decision that would not only give us a better understanding of a different culture, but also serve as an impetus to fuel my writing career.

Sofia’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

During our stay in Bulgaria, my wife and I traveled extensively around the country, visiting its picturesque villages and driving into its forested mountains. We learned about its rich history and the many monasteries that unified Bulgarians during centuries under Ottoman rule. We tasted its unique cuisine and drank rakiya, its signature alcoholic drink. But alas, we failed to learn Bulgarian.

Rila Monastery

Fast forward to our return to Israel. I continued to work in online marketing yet I couldn’t stop thinking about my experiences in Bulgaria. We returned to the country to visit, and I spent a memorable week hiking in the Rila and Pirin Mountains, but that wasn’t enough for me.

Hiking in the Rila Mountains

I suddenly realized that I could return to Bulgaria every single day, through my writing. I began writing travel articles about Bulgaria, encouraging Westerners to visit the country. But, more than that, I began writing fiction about Bulgaria.

Bulgaria in My Books

My first novel, Valley of Thracians (2013), is the story of a Peace Corps volunteer who goes missing in Bulgaria, and of his grandfather, who is determined to find him. Although set in the present, the book refers to the Thracians, a militant tribal people who lived in the region four thousand years ago and whose tombs are all over Bulgaria.

My second novel, The Burgas Affair, is a fictional account of the very real terrorist attack at the airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, in which five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver were killed by a suicide bomber. In the book, a steadfast Bulgarian detective teams up with an inexperienced Israeli security agent to track down the killers. This novel was published first in Bulgarian (2015) and a year later in English.

Village of Gela

And now, in my new collection of short stories, I return to Bulgaria again. In Rakiya – Stories of Bulgaria, readers will hear the voices of native Bulgarians as well as see the country through the eyes of those visiting Bulgaria for the first time. Readers will experience Bulgaria’s unique rich history and traditions and explore the country’s picturesque villages and stunning nature. Additionally, readers will get a virtual taste of Bulgarian cuisine topped off with the country’s traditional alcoholic drink – rakiya.

Homemade Rakiya

In the twelve stories of Rakiya, readers will meet a mother pickpocketing tourists in order to support her daughter. An elderly war veteran ashamed of his actions during the Holocaust. Two brothers hunting a killer bear. A Syrian refugee working in a Sofia bakery. A femme fatale disappearing at an international writers’ conference. And two neighbors competing to see who makes the best rakiya.

In Bulgaria, when people drink rakiya they toast each other, “Nazdrave!” which means “To your health!” It is my hope that readers of Rakiya – Stories of Bulgaria will experience a little of what makes Bulgaria unique and special.

Rakiya – Stories of Bulgaria is published by GenZ Publishing (June 2024) and is available on Amazon.





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