Usually very private, it would take a few drinks for my Uncle Stefan to tell us stories about America. Around the dinner table one night, I remember him recounting his trip to visit an old college friend who’d defected. “In America,” he said as he leaned back in his chair and seemed to savor the words, “police can’t stop you on the street and ask for an ID.” This was mind-blowing to us, considering that such practice was commonplace in Bulgaria. America meant wide open spaces, abundance in every way you can imagine, and friendly people who weren’t burdened by oppression. I learned from him about degrees of freedom unheard of in our home country. My uncle worshipped America and now I did too. I dreamed of America daily after that.
It was the circumstances of my early years that laid the foundation for this yearning. Learning that America promised freedom of speech, financial opportunity, and space to breathe−exactly what we were lacking − fueled the intensity of my longing. Have-nots were the rule for most in Bulgaria, though my father made our situation worse. I both blamed and understood him for some of what we didn’t have. A university professor, he staunchly refused to join the Communist party, ensuring that he’d never get the financial and social benefits that other professors at the university received for their allegiance. His colleagues of similar rank were getting higher salaries, plus additional income-generating opportunities, such as lectures, publications, etc. Dad was shut out of everything. As a young boy who’d listened to my Uncle Stefan’s stories, the unfairness of it was even clearer to me. In America he wouldn’t be punished for his beliefs and opinions.