Travel and Healing—Bronze Winner: Roshan

by Catherine Watson

I have learned to believe in the mystical connection of people and places. At its strongest, that connection is what I think of as “home.” It has come to me, at times, on trips — come in inklings, in waves, in glimpses.

It always starts with a kind of recognition — not deja-vu exactly, but a deep, heart-felt relief. I have sensed it in only a few places. Roshan is the one that still surprises me. Roshan, a place I never heard of and knew even at the time I would never see again.

Roshan was a gift. It came at the end of a long journey through Eastern Europe, before the Iron Curtain fell. By that point, my body was tired, and my mind was refusing to be open, not even to the new experiences that usually cure it. Roshan changed that.

Roshan is a tiny monastery in the extreme south of Bulgaria, a place so small, in a country then so remote, that no one in my world had heard of it, or ever needed to.

I had climbed up there from Perlik, another small, barely known village, with a guide and the guide’s mother, a woman my own age. I have never known where I stood in such situations. To say the young guide could have been my son was true, but he was leading me, and I felt as beholden and helpless as his child.

His real mother was flitting around like some kind of gypsy, dancing through pastures full of daisies, bobbing like a human kite in the day’s hot breezes. She didn’t need (or wouldn’t take) much leading.

I remember the dry pastures of late summer; a donkey munching placidly under a tree; the backdrop of white chalk mountains, dusted with green. From the hilltops, you could see across the border into Greece.

The monastery, when we reached it at last, was a little doughnut-shaped fortress with white stuccoed walls.

In its round courtyard, Bulgarian school children scampered and chattered, and German tourists in short-shorts crowded into the darkness of the miniature chapel. My guide pulled me and his mother inside, too, and began pointing out dim paintings of saints on walls and ceiling.

I had seen them all — saints and tourists and school-kids — all before on this trip. And I suddenly felt that if I had to stay a second longer in that dark, crowded, officially holy place, I would panic. No more, I said, fighting back the urge to scream it.

I rushed out so fast that my startled guide could not catch up. I took the first staircase I came to, a narrow flight of wooden steps that ran to a balcony encircling the courtyard, just above the heads of the crowd.

Grapevines stretched across the courtyard, and their green leaves shielded the balcony: No one could see me from below. Still, I wanted more protection.

I ducked into the first room I came to and found it mercifully empty. It looked like an abandoned schoolroom, no people, no desks, nothing — just some signs in Cyrillic on the walls and a large and grainy photograph of a man with a musket posted on a board.

I had been seeing such pictures all day. From the man’s rough clothes and shaggy beard, and from the clear age of the photo, I knew that he was one of a string of Bulgarian revolutionaries from the 19th century.

My guide had been giving me a crash course in revolutionaries, and I had been dutifully trying to pay attention — memorizing the faces of these strange and distant men, getting the guide to translate the facts of their individual heroics, picking out the odd characters of their names, writing down dates.

But not this time. I took no notes, not even the man’s name. I left my camera in its case. I did not care who this revolutionary was or why he was connected with this place.

Then I heard someone coming and turned away from the photograph. Near a corner, there was a low doorway. I ducked my head and stepped through it — into a tiny room so closed and quiet that it felt like a secret.

There was no other door to the room, only a small window filtering dusty light over plain furnishings — a bed and a couch, a hearth, a ewer and basin, a pine table.

And peace. A sense of peace so deep, I gasped and almost wept.

I knew, as surely as if I had lived it, how it felt to fall asleep in that small safe bed, knew how the room would look flooded with light in the morning.

I knew how it would feel to wake up here, and how good the simplest tasks of life would be — washing my face in cool water, putting on clean coarse-woven clothes, tasting local bread and strong black coffee.

I knew without being told that the man in the photograph had taken refuge here, had come in need of help and had received it. He had left healed. I knew it because the healing was still in the room.

I imagined no love affair for him here — life, after all, is not a movie. But someone had cared for him in this room, and he had dropped his guard and let himself be cared for.

That made it a place of trust, a place of peace, and I realized that peace was part of the home I longed for and the few I’d found.

Peace in all its meanings — an absence of chaos, a moment in which to breathe, time to remember who you are, to regain yourself.

I learned later that my revolutionary went away from Roshan and was killed somewhere else. I wrote his name down then, but I cannot find that notebook, and I had not looked long enough at the old photo to remember his face.

But I knew him nonetheless. I knew him because I knew the place where he took refuge. I knew the place where he found home.

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