Maria Cook fell in love with airplanes when she was a little girl in Bulgaria. Her life has been wrapped up with aviation ever since.
She got her first taste for flight when traveling with her father, who was an airplane mechanic.
When she was a young woman she got a job as a flight attendant for Balkan Bulgarian Airlines and had the opportunity to start exploring the world.
“I have a passion for travel,” Cook said. “And in Bulgaria the only way I could travel was to be a flight attendant, because travel was so restricted.”
She landed a job in public affairs at Tampa International Airport 14 years ago, and she’s now public affairs coordinator. The job doesn’t include travel, but that’s okay.
“At least I’m around the planes,” she said.
It was 20 years ago, on one of her frequent trips to the United States, that she met her husband Kevin. He was a writer for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and she was immediately smitten.
“He told me he had interviewed the Bee Gees,” she said, “and I thought ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ ”
Kevin wasn’t much of a traveler, though.
“When I met my husband, I had seen more of this country than he had. His first trip abroad was to see me in Bulgaria,” she said.
It was in the days before the internet and affordable long-distance calling plans. So during the first two years of their relationship, they seldom spoke. They wrote long and frequent letters back and forth, and she visited him several times in Florida.
She moved to the United States to marry him 18 years ago. By that time, Kevin had left journalism and had taken a job in Valrico, where the Cooks still live with their 15-year-old son Patrick.
Maria took an office job for three years – the only time in her adult life that she was not involved in some way with flying – and came to TPA in September of 1997.
It was hard to adjust to America at first, she said. She was worldly enough that culture shock wasn’t a problem, but she very seldom got to speak to her family and her long-time friends. Skype has now made regular conversations practical.
She speaks Bulgarian, Russian, German and English fluently, so she’s often called upon to translate for TPA passengers.
“Usually it’s for Russian passengers, because most of the Germans speak English,” she said.
Her own English is perfect, but marked by a distinctive lilt and trill.
“I never want to lose my accent,” she said. “It’s a conversation-starter. People ask me where I’m from. Sometimes they have never met anyone from Bulgaria.”
Cook’s wanderlust was so strong that it proved contagious. Her husband and her son share her passion for travel, and the family now takes two trips a year, one in the United States and one abroad. She counts Istanbul and Vienna among her favorite cities, but one of the most memorable Cook family vacations was a recent trip to Machu Picchu, the Incan city in Peru.
As far as her career goes, though, she says she’s staying put.
“I’ve always worked around planes,” she said. “I worked at another job for three years. It was okay, but I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do the rest of my life. Not like working here.”