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Big Things Come in Small Packages

Large countries presume their power and importance. Small countries presume nothing. They might rely on bluster, ardently asserting their strategic location. They might point to a glorious history when once they led an empire, or two, and belligerently note that what was taken from them oh so many years ago could just as easily be taken back. They might itemize a list of firsts or bests, of inventions or goods or cuisine or landscape. They might have famous people whose very fame promises to throw at least an occasional spotlight on the country that birthed them. A lot of small countries do all of this and more. It’s hard to get airtime otherwise. China, Russia, the United States, they can suck all the air out of the room.

I was thinking about this when I read about a story about a recent archeological find in Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a small country spoiled for choice when it comes to archeologically important sites and finds dating back thousands of years and across many cultures and peoples. The discovery of what seems to be certainly Europe’s oldest worked gold, and possibly the oldest gold artifact in the world, is not diminished by the find’s tiny size, a bead measuring just 1/8 inch. It was discovered not far from Пловдив (Plovdiv), the oldest inhabited city in Europe.

Yavor Boyadzhiev of the Bulgarian Academy of Science said, “It is a tiny piece of gold but big enough to find its place in history.”

“Big enough to find its place in history” is a broad notion that all small countries can affirm.

My daughter spent her fourth and fifth grade years in a Bulgarian public school, the Georgi Sava Rakovski elementary school 120. Parents did not complain that there wasn’t enough Bulgarian-centered literature, social studies or natural history to fill class hours or textbooks. No, they complained that the Bulgarian curriculum was too full and too dense with material for the children to have time to absorb and truly learn. Clearly each country, no matter its size, is a big world unto itself.

This is not to say that that small countries can or should stand alone in the affairs of the world, but of course that is equally true for their larger fellows. National pride, national loyalty, national spirit are strengthening. But in the same way that we praise assertiveness and decry aggressiveness, patriotism loses its charm and benefit when it turns to chauvinism. That’s the story of the Balkan Wars between nations a little more than a century ago and the wars within the federated states of the former Yugoslavia that began 25 years ago.

Bulgaria on the rare occasions when it appears in the news is generally given the appellation “the poorest country in Europe.” It is correctly criticized for its endemic corruption. Its politics are nearly as unpleasant as those currently holding the United States simultaneously in the fifth and eighth circles of hell.

Bulgaria, however, never receives attention for its rigid determination to keep its chauvinism as a relic of the past. All of its governments since 1989—be they red, blue, pink, or purple—have maintained that Bulgaria’s power and importance lay in its healthy relationships with its neighbors and in its own contributions to world culture and history.

That’s why a tiny bead for me is so emblematic. Boyadzhiev’s comment that “It is a tiny piece of gold but big enough to find its place in history” is really not merely about the bead, but as well about small countries that are always big enough and always have a place—not merely in history but in our world today.

 

 

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Bulgaria, When Not In Bulgaria

We returned from our Bulgarian vacation 2½ weeks ago. As is always the case, all too soon one is subsumed in the everyday and the local. The vacation, the sense of place where one was seems immediately substituted for the tasks at hand in the place one is now. And yet, as if one is wearing an unmistakable identifying scent, Bulgarian encounters have a way of happening even outside Bulgaria.

My son and I were at a farmer’s market near where we live in DC. We were choosing from a variety of luscious-looking tomatoes—not yet ready to give up the wonderful taste of garden tomatoes in Bulgaria—and talking, in Bulgarian, about our choices. And then we heard agreement about those choices, in Bulgarian. I whirled around and was greeted by a smiling face. “Здравейте (Hello)!” We did not know this woman, this Bulgarian who told us she had emigrated to DC over two decades ago, but we had a lovely conversation between the crates of tomatoes and the crates of eggplant. After we progressed to the cashier, her American companion told us how happy we’d made her friend by connecting her in this unanticipated way to her language and country.

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We were at the pool, having it nearly all to ourselves on a weekday early afternoon. The lifeguard had a familiar accent. Then he heard us talking. He was not Bulgarian, but Serbian, and recognized familiar words. We began to talk about life there, life here. He asked would we want to live in Bulgaria again. Eastern Europeans generally, in my personal experience, often wish to hear the experience of here and there compared and contrasted—assuming that one will confirm the belief that life here is better, easier, richer. I said yes, yes, we did think that someday we would live in Bulgaria again. And as I spoke about the things we valued—the easier, more fluid and informal social life, the balance between work and leisure, the more human pace, less expectation that one must continually strive for more—he found himself nodding in assent. And when I mentioned that the children are dual citizens of the US and the EU, I inadvertently held up Bulgaria as a country to be envied by a Serbia without that advantage.

The other day we attended a funeral for a relative who died after a years-long debilitating illness. At the service, we heard of the love story he and his wife had, people from two sides of the Atlantic meeting in a third country. We heard of how they took a lengthy trip through Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and on through Western Europe to marry in her English hometown. I had known about this 1967 travel in Bulgaria, but had forgotten it. Later that day Kathy asked me if I’d been to Петрич (Petrich). I haven’t. Then she recounted a terrible summer rainstorm outside of Sofia. “It rains, of course, a lot in England, but not that kind of hard rain. I was very scared.” And I said I had rarely experienced a true rainstorm in Bulgaria, one with thunder and lightening, but we had to stop on the road up to Витоша (Vitosha) Mountain this summer because the rain and the hail made for such dangerous going. “It was probably the same place,” she said. Same Bulgarian experience, nearly five decades later.

Rarely does Bulgaria appear in American media, and I do search regularly on websites of major media outlets. Yet twice last month The New York Times covered Bulgaria, once highlighting a small village, “Bulgarians Hope Che Guevara and Brigitte Bardot Can Save Their Village” and once the Black Sea, “By Bulgaria’s Beautiful Black Sea.” Lucas Peterson, author of the latter article, wondered why he “hadn’t made it to this part of the world earlier.” My mother, who has been to Bulgaria twice and who hasn’t read Mr. Peterson’s article, often wonders why people haven’t made it to this part of the world. She and my father find it as beautiful as my husband and I do.

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In a little over a month, Bulgaria when not in Bulgaria will show itself most strongly in our Saturday afternoon Bulgarian school. Българският Образователен и Културен Център “Свети Климент Охридски” (St. Kliment Ohridski Bulgarian Education and Cultural Center) will hold classes in Bulgarian language, literature, social studies, history, and the natural world. There will be classes in theater, national dance, and art. And all will be taught in Bulgarian by native speakers and educators. For a few hours, within the boundaries of the United States capital, children from pre-school through 12th grade will feel they are in Bulgaria. They may or may not ever live there, but something of the country will live in them.

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Turkey, So Close So Far

In the winter of 2001-2002, friends suggested we take an excursion to Istanbul for the New Year’s holiday. We booked a four-day trip and set off by bus from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. It was a very long bus ride that took us southeast through Svilingrad to reach the Kapitan Andreevo village, the last stop on the Bulgarian side. Perhaps it is more pleasant now, but border crossings seem designed to be quite the opposite however modern the facilities may be. This one is said to be the busiest in Europe. However long and unpleasant the bus ride was, we enjoyed Istanbul tremendously and vowed to return for a longer stay there and exploration of other parts of Turkey. We haven’t yet made it back.

Last week, though, we went to Малко Търново (Malko Turnovo) for an afternoon. We had first gone to Царевец (Tzarevetz). Leaving Tzarevetz, we were uncertain about the best way to go and asked a man crossing the street. He asked “Do you want to take the good road or the bad road?” “The good road,” answered my husband, not quite suppressing his bemusement. The man explained that the bad road took you through the Strandja forest and a few, sporadically placed, tiny villages. This was the straighter road, but full of holes. The good road—“първа класа!” (first class!)— was reached by driving north to Приморско (Primorsko) and making a semi-circle to avoid part of the Strandja and all of the presumably third-class road. The explanation was detailed and various points were reinforced to ensure that we understood. My husband thanked the man very much for the copious information and then set out on the bad road. He found the drive through the formerly forbidden (during Communist rule) Strandja irresistible. The road was indeed bad, the potholes forcing very slow and careful driving, and we saw no other cars. But the reward was the Strandja Nature Park, beautiful, dense, and quiet. Periodically we passed large signs describing the plants, animals, and birds found in the vicinity as well as the camping, biking, and hiking possibilities and trails.

After perhaps an hour, we saw street signs pointing the way. Turn one direction to reach Malko Turnovo, turn the other to reach Istanbul. My son asked if we could go to Istanbul and we said but for leaving our passports in Sinemoretz we might easily go—and that we certainly would go with him one day. Border crossing delays aside, the drive would be less than four hours. No reason not to go, we thought.

But on this day, our destination was Malko Turnovo. As the name implies—“malko” meaning “small”—this is not a large town. Yet its Historical Museum and Petrov’s Field, the latter commemorating an unsuccessful Macedonian rebellion, are included in Bulgaria’s list of 100 national tourist sites. We arrived too late for the Historical Museum, but not too late to stroll around the central part of the town. Malko Turnovo is remote and can’t be said to be thriving, but the ladies at the tourist office were full of information and nicely printed brochures describing both the town and the region’s attractions. There was even a brochure listing guesthouses for overnight stays. We took the “good road” towards Primorsko on our way back to Villa Victoria, the small family hotel where we were staying in Синеморец (Sinemoretz).

En route, we passed field after field of vineyards. Logically, my husband thought, where there are grapes there is ракия (rakia, the classic Bulgarian grape—or any fruit really—brandy). Driving through Ново Паничарево (New Panicharevo), he stopped to ask a man where he could buy some real Strandja rakia. He gave a name, pointed a finger, mentioned a house a bit further on. A bit further on, my husband stopped and called to a man standing beside his house. The man looked hesitant at the request, remained impassive as my husband explained, took a look at my son and me in the back seat, went to discuss the issue with his family seated in the yard by the house. The authorities don’t approve of alcohol being sold privately.When he came back, still impassive, he nodded assent and asked how much rakia my husband wanted to buy. We waited. A woman came out with a liter and a half plastic bottle filled with rakia. Ten leva exchanged hands.

Now the man returned. In a friendly tone, he advised my husband not to put the bottle in the front seat and then asked if we liked fish. Yes, we said, yes we do. He began to tell us of an excellent place to eat fish, very fresh, just past the bridge leading out of Malko Turnovo on the road towards Turkey. “Oh,” we said, “we are just returning from Malko Turnovo. Perhaps next time.” He warmly waved us on.

On Wednesday, July 13, we decided to go to Резово (Rezovo), the most southeastern point of Europe. There the natural border of the Rezovo River forms the line that separates Bulgaria from Turkey. We snapped photos of the two flags, the river, the sea that laps at the edges of both countries. We saw two white vans pull up on the Turkish side and enough soldiers coming out of them that we could think only of circus clown cars disgorging more passengers than seems possible. “Why are there soldiers there?” my son asked. “Perhaps they are on a field trip,” I answered casually. I had no reason to believe anything else and perhaps they really were on a field trip of some kind. They seemed so informal as they walked around a bit and maybe they too simply wanted to see a spot with two flags and take a few photos.

We took a stroll through the town, ate a few джанки (janki, small wild plums), sighted storks, and made our way through flat, dry fields to the rocky cliffs that led to the sea. Rezovo was a quiet place, a calm, peaceful place. We waved at Turkey before making the short drive back to Sinemoretz.

Two days later, a military coup was attempted in Turkey. Bulgaria closed its borders and sent soldiers to the checkpoints.

Tzarevo city map

Tzarevo / Царево

It rained in the evening in Sinemoretz. It rained in the night. It was still raining in the morning, a persistent downfall that precluded any thought of going to the beach. So we went to Tzarevo.

We hadn’t been there before. We hadn’t, to be frank, even heard of this small Black Sea coast town only a 25-minute drive from Sinemoretz. But number 86 on the 100 places to visit on the Опознай България (Know Bulgaria) site is the Tzarevo Municipal Museum of History so we went to Tzarevo.

For more than 700 years, the town was known as Vasiliko or Vasilikos (βασιλιάς), Greek for king. In 1913, after the Balkan Wars, the town became Bulgarian. By the mid-1930s, it was renamed Царево (Tzarevo, “of the king”). That seemed a direct affront to the Communist regime after the war. As was their wont, Bulgarian Communist leaders changed the name to honor a Soviet hero. Tzarevo became Michurin. Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin had some genetic theories that were suspect even in his own time, but Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin were supporters and that was what counted.

Tzarevo Bulgaria EuropeNot surprisingly, the town took only two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall to change the name back to Tzarevo. To reinforce the message of its allegiance, the municipality wrote it in stone. At the end of the walkway in the city park leading to the sea, there is a large mosaic clearly detailing Tzarevo’s connection to Bulgaria and to Europe.

 

Some of the Black Sea towns have long been resorts, first for the Bulgarian nomenklatura and tourists from the Soviet Union and the East Bloc and then for the average Bulgarian and anyone else who cared to travel a bit farther east than Spain’s Costa del Sol. Златни Пясъци (Golden Sands) and Слънчев Бряг (Sunny Beach) are perhaps the most well-known, crowded with tourists searching for night life and cheap drinks. Other Black Sea towns have now developed into domestic and foreign tourist meccas, with the requisite lines of vendors selling Chinese-made Black Sea souvenirs and haunch-to-paunch sunbathers under rows of beach umbrellas. We have Bulgarian friends who now avoid their own beaches in favor of Greek package holiday deals in Halkadiki.

We chose Sinemoretz because there are no large hotels; lots of the семейни хотели (family hotels with very few rooms and personable hosts) we prefer; fabulous баничарници where the баници (banitza), кифли (kifla), софиянки (sofianka), and other delicious breakfast pastries are made on the premises and sold to you while still hot; and gorgeous landscapes of sea, river, beach, rock, meadow, forest, and cliff are all amazingly within steps of each other. We stayed nine days and enjoyed every one of them—the unexpected day trip to Tzarevo was a bonus.

Just before we reached our destination, the rain stopped and not long after the sun shone. The first thing we came upon was a sculpture with two figures visible from our vantage point. “Okay,” said my husband, “ here we have the usual partisan and worker. Where is the female collective farmer with her bountiful harvest?” Fortunately, the former Michurin government did not disappoint. The heroic female collective farmer joined her men on the third side of the sculpture. Nearby was a wall using sgraffito to display symbols of rural life, both in agriculture and in the wild. You can see sgraffito on walls in many towns and cities throughout Bulgaria.

Tzarevo has tourists, but not so many that they overwhelm the local residents. The municipality seems to have managed to have enough services to attract visitors without losing its soul. The city park is large, reached by a long pedestrian-only main street, and has two walkways that end in a view of the sea and steps that lead down to beautiful, white rocks that are flat enough to take an easy stroll up to the water. The park is full of people and includes the largest and most modern playground I’ve yet seen in Bulgaria. Appreciative children, parents, and grandparents were making the most of it as we passed.

When we tore ourselves away from strolling Tzarevo, we found the Municipal Museum of History. It is a three-floor building with the first floor devoted to regional archeological finds, particularly a Thracian treasure trove of coins dating back to 182 BCE and hundreds of extraordinary finely-wrought gold and silver jewelry ornaments found in an intact grave of a wealthy woman living in the late Hellenistic period. The third floor contained an exhibition of contemporary artists’ works on paper. The second was dark when we visited.

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It was rain that prompted our unplanned visit to Tzarevo, but the town deserves to be an intentional destination. It’s a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

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Mountains and Rivers / Планини и Реки

Река Искър (Iskur River) starts in the Rila Mountain range and runs a long path north, widening and deepening until it ends in the Danube. In the beginning, you can cross the Iskur easily by using the large granite rocks as stepping stones and those same stones make the Iskur gurgle and run white, spin and curl as the river winds through the mountain forests. We encountered the Iskur River as we moved on from the Rila Monastery and the Rila River. Bulgaria is full of mountains and waters of all kinds—glacial lakes, hot springs, fresh water rivers, the Black Sea. We first went to Сапарева Баня (Sapareva Banya). We wanted to try out the famous hot mineral waters—at 103 degrees Celsius at the source the hottest in Europe—and found the Аква Клуб Котвата where three pools (including one for small children) contain warm mineral water, one Jacuzzi contains hot mineral water, and one Jacuzzi contains extremely hot mineral water. For those feeling the need to shock the system, there is a small, deep cold water pool right next to the hot Jacuzzi. It is not easy to leave Aqua Club Kotvata and only the beginning of a rain shower ended our three hours of immersion. Children, of course, care only that they can play nearly endlessly without their lips turning blue. The facilities are excellent and there are ample lounge chairs. You can even pay a small fee, though we chose only to stare in wonder, to plunge your feet in a basin in which small fish “massage” them for ten minutes. These garra rufa, it turns out, are also known as “doctor fish” and are sold specifically for this purpose.

The mountain village of Овчарци (Ovchartzi) is a less than ten-minute drive from Saparevna Banya. There you find the Goritza Eco-Trail. It’s a short pleasant hike to one of Ovchartzi’s seven beautiful waterfalls. The rivers Горица (Goritza) and Фудиня (Fudinya) run along the two sides of the village. Aside from the natural beauty, the Goritza also serves as a traditional “laundry” specifically for washing wool carpets and kilims. With a bit of piping and fencing, a portion of the water’s stream is diverted to roil in a circular stone area that naturally cleans without soap. The clean carpets and kilims are then hung in a special drying shed just across the path. Handwritten on a small sign is the telephone number to call when you want access to either the “laundry” or the drying shed.

Just on the edge of a break in the mountain range is the village of Белчин (Belchin). In 2013, the remains of an ancient fortress, Цари Мали Град (Tsari Mali Grad) were opened to the public. Now an Eco-Trail leads to an entire historical and cultural complex made up of the preserved Byzantine remains, museum of artifacts, ample and detailed signage documenting the history in both Bulgarian and English, modern sculptures. The second you step out of your car, the man in charge of taking your nominal parking payment comes to you bursting with information, pride, and excitement about all the complex has to offer. The sun-dappled Eco-Trail through a beech forest. The length of time to walk the path depending on if you are elderly, middle-aged, or a small child. The eight-minute “funicular” lift should you not wish to walk. The playground for children. The wood and rope bridge. The beautiful views. He was effusive as he repeated the information for all comers; such enthusiasm here is so rare that we felt rewarded before we even set off on the trail.

Цари Мали Град3

Early on in the life of the Iskur River, there is a small branching where the river briefly becomes two, Бели Искър (White Iskur) and Черни Искър (Black Iskur). We decided to spend a couple of days in the village of Beli Iskur. We stayed at Eagle Rock, a condominium complex at the highest point in the village, though less than a five-minute walk to the small main street. The complex is immaculate, with a lovely lawn and garden area, fitness center, ping pong table, a library of English-language books, and an attentive staff. The view of the mountains is spectacular.

Бели Искър1The village of Beli Iskur is quiet, and in early summer mornings and late afternoons you can see the herders bringing their goat herds and their cows back down from the mountain pastures. There are infinite walks in theБели Искър2 meadows and mountains above the village. One afternoon, we followed a domineering rooster leading his handful of hens and, strangely, a larger group of turkeys into a meadow from where we made our own way up past wildflowers, then hazelnut trees with their nuts still green, and finally dense brush and trees as the path disappeared and the trek became steeper.

We had planned only to see Rila Monastery when we set out from Sofia. The rest we left to chance. I had vaguely heard of Sapareva Banya, once there we were directed to the Goritza Waterfall, my husband saw Tsari Mali Grad in a book given to him as a gift, we had a friend who recently bought a place in Beli Iskur. So much of satisfying travel is serendipity, allowing extra time for discoveries, planning for unplanned time. It was good to wander a bit in Rila’s mountains and rivers before embarking upon our planned time in Синеморец (Sinemoretz) on the Black Sea.

 

 

 

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Rila Monastery /Рилски Манастир

I visited the Rila Monastery the first time in September 1987. I was in Bulgaria to meet my future in-laws and they took me to what is certainly the most famous of monasteries in a country full of them and what is likely the most famous site in the entire country. We walked around within the monastery walls, admired the colors of the frescoes against the backdrop of the surrounding Rila Mountain. On a grassy spot just outside the monastery, we spread a blanket and lunched on the луканка (lukanka, hard salami), кашкавал (kashkaval, a cheddar-like cheese), tomatoes, and a hot loaf just baked in the monastery’s ovens.

Hotel ValdisThe second time I visited Rila Monastery was July 1, 2016. We stayed at the Valdis hotel and restaurant. It’s not so much a hotel as a collection of modern bungalows set in a garden on the Rila River. Each has a small terrace looking onto the river and the mountain. We had river trout, potatoes with dill, and salad for dinner, French toast and steamed milk for breakfast. Across the way from Valdis is a fountain with water that flows down the Rila Mountain; we filled our water bottles there before setting off for the monastery above.

 

Rila’s significance to Bulgaria and world culture, its church and iconography, its spiritual meaning for pilgrims, and the sheer physical beauty of its mountain location have all been amply described and photographed. But on this second visit, I noticed not the lushly painted icons, but the geometric almost Bauhaus style of decoration found everywhere outside the church itself. Reds and whites and blacks, geometric shapes, contrasts of metal, wood, stone, and brick.

All of this is beautifully contrasted with the pots of blooming flowers grown by the monks and the mountain forest rising all around their retreat.

I only wish the still-operating monastery ovens had been selling that delicious bread. That and the tiny post office remind you that however ancient the site, people still live and work here.

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Belogradchik / Белоградчик

We went to Belogradchik the other day. Actually we went to two Belogradchiks, one timeless and one frozen in time. It’s not the same thing at all.

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There is Belogradchik the ancient fortress and even more ancient rock formations. Then there is Belogradchik the town, which seems unaware that the world—and most of Bulgaria—has moved on since pre-1989 days.

 

fortressOur original plan had been to drive to Belogradchik from staying with relatives in Kozlodui and to stay overnight. We thought that the famous fortress and unique rocks formations, a natural environmental tourist attraction if ever there was one, would have inspired development in the small town on the order of quaint cafes, artisan shops, small family hotels with warm service and pleasant conversation. We thought wrong.

Instead we walked up and down the main street lined with communist-era bleak storefronts, many of them deserted. The “999 Products” store had long been emptied of however many products it actually had on its shelves and seems now to be full of empty cardboard boxes piled so high that one can’t see anything else through the windows. One store had the forlorn name of the product it sold, Българско бельо (Bulgarian underwear). What might have been an attractive atelier for the master craftsman making sheepskin coats and hats to order was an oversized former store with only a bench containing scraps of sheepskins, a калпак (traditional cone-shaped hat) or two, and no one to be found.

rocks1After roaming around for a bit for a place to each lunch, we found a small place serving buffet-style. Serving would be a misstatement. The choices were limited but sufficient. The food was not appealing in its presentation, but was made well. The employees were not in sight. After some time standing in front of the counter, an unsmiling woman appeared saying only, “I’m waiting for you to say what you want.” We ordered three bowls of soup, paid, and found a table. We were the only people in the place. Another woman, also expressionless, bellowed “Soup’s ready,” and we stood to retrieve the steaming hot bowls. The soup was good.

rocks2Had the entire scene been filmed, any audience watching outside Bulgaria would have thought it exaggerated in its drab appearance and militant bad service. So bad it’s good, frozen in time, any number of clichés would suffice. When we described the experience to friends back in Sofia, they only groaned in recognition of the universal pre-1989 experience they hoped never to experience again.

rocks3We decided to go see the fortress and rocks, after which we would drive straight back to Sofia rather than discover what would surely be pre-1989 Balkantourist style accommodations and personnel who resent any guests as an intrusion on their solitude and smoking breaks.

 

rocks5The little information on the few signs—and these translated into English in the manner of Google translate—did not take away from the stark beauty of the red rock formations. It was an overcast day, windy, and unusually cold for the end of June. The fortress remains are vast, encompassing some of the rock formations while overlooking others.

rocks6The 45 years of communism that cast such a pall over people’s natural inclinations and created structures that merely began to deteriorate immediately upon completion have had no effect on the immutable natural structures created by wind and water over two hundred million years ago. The red peaks, rocks, and precipices are garnished with the greens of trees, bushes, and grasses. Better, we thought, to be disappointed by the town and overwhelmed by the magnificence of the view. We went to Belogradchik the other day and we were glad we went.

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Borisova Gradina / Борисова Градина

June 22, 2016

It’s the first day of summer and we spent hours of it in Sofia’s oldest park, Борисова Градина (Borisova Gradina, Boris’s Garden). The park was actually begun in 1884, several years before Tzar Ferdinand became Bulgaria’s ruler, let alone married and had a son named Boris. Tzar Ferdinand was an accomplished botanist so it is likely he took an avid interest in the park’s development. The park is large and varied, old and new, planned and wild, for leisure and athletics, frequented by all ages.

Парк на СвободатаDuring the communist period, the park was renamed. As communists are known neither for their sense of humor nor their sense of irony, they renamed the park Парк на Свободата (Park na Svobodata, Freedom Park) and in 1956 stuck a large monument there called Братска Могила (Bratska Mogila, Brotherly Mound). Hence Freedom Park in Bulgaria’s capital memorializes Soviet “partisans” who died fighting fascism. Whether for or against communism generally or the USSR specifically, it was clear to all Bulgarians that they were in no way free of their Soviet “big brothers.” Someone has now painted a graffiti red star where the official red star used to be. It’s hard to know whether using a red star as graffiti is honoring the original intent or mocking it.

Borisova Gradina is bordered on the southwest by Dragan Tzankov Boulevard and on the northeast by Tzarigradsko Shossay. We began our walk at the top of the park at Орлов Мост (Orlov Most). There the manmade Lake Ariana hosts paddle boats and rowboats in the warm weather and a skating rink in the cold. The plaza is lined with cafes and with vendors selling ice-cream, popcorn, and freshly squeezed juices. The fragrance of linden trees gently accompanies you enter the long alleys into the park itself.

чистачThe park is maintained, but not to a stellar degree. There is someone mowing the grass around the playground and someone raking. The playground is large, but has not been painted in anyone’s memory. The fountain’s water is cold and fresh, but half of the spouts on the old fountain have stopped working. The benches are plentiful, but peeling and scattered. Nonetheless it is a living park. It is not an immaculate thing for promenades and for attention paid. The lamps remain as beautiful as when they were first installed.

bench fountain lamp

колаChildren can pedal a toy car, and at three leva for 15 minutes you can easily say yes to this treat every day. Or they can follow, frighten, and feed the pigeons who charge nothing for this entertainment. The pigeons seem to enjoy обикновени бисквити (ordinary biscuits). These are made by many companies. Nestle calls theirs житен дар (wheat gift) and the pigeons were happy to have their gift crumbled and thrown to them.

 

гълъб и момче

вестникYou can pull the benches wherever you have a mind to and read the paper. Or let your baby sleep in the fresh air.

 

 

 

 

You can walk to the lily pond and perhaps come across a policeman directing not traffic but horses to drink at a nearby fountain.

полицай и коне

 

Everywhere you turn, there is another path, reminding one of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Take one path and you see a perhaps forgotten partisan with his children, another and you see an outdoor concert stage.

партизан сцена

There are many busts of Bulgarian literary figures. I find myself often surprised when doing the almost inadvertent calculation and realizing how young so many of them died, how fierce and worn by life the sculpted faces appear.

глави

 

хамок

There are many small clearings, gazebos, small structures, where people can find themselves private spaces in the midst of the big city park. Or one can always lean a bike next to the appropriate trees and sling a hammock for an afternoon nap.

 

 

 

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In the midst of the most wild, most untouched parts of Borisova Gradina, there are very well kept clay tennis courts where a summer youth tennis camp is currently underway. Not far away the Republic swimming complex that was my husband’s favorite as a boy has been completely abandoned. We hope it gets a second life, but we’re not too hopeful this will actually happen.

 

 

 

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From time to time on the dirt footpaths with old growth trees towering overhead, you see a small wooden bench to surprise you with its contemplative possibilities.

 

 

 

Коколандия1Keep walking and eventually you come to Коколандия (Kokolandia), a children’s paradise. A brilliantly planned series of rope and wood courses differentiated by difficulty, it is a modern entertainment and sport that blends seamlessly in and with the surrounding forest. It is modestly priced, creatively structured, and requires of children of all ages ingenuity, strength, and resourcefulness.

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And as the sign says, “There is no WiFi…only secure ropes.”

 

 

 

Our son fell asleep on a nearby bench after his exertions. Earlier I had lain on the grass looking up at a nearly cloudless blue sky through the branches of the tree providing me with shade. Contentment is never a bore. Borisova Gradina never disappoints.

 

 

 

 

 

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Bulgarian work / Българска работа

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The plane ride from Washington, DC to Sofia, Bulgaria isn’t as long as that to Russia or India or Australia. But it’s long enough and uncomfortable enough that, barring emergency travel, you want to make your stay long enough to recover and enjoy before it’s time to get back in the saddle of an airline seat that makes you feel every minute and every mile with exquisite discomfort. We arrived this afternoon. The family apartment is in the Druzhba complex so it’s just a few minutes drive from the airport. The next door neighbor picked us up in his taxi, a used Ford that he bought in Slovenia on his way back from a vacation and drove to Bulgaria. My husband asked why he hadn’t bought a used Ford in Sofia. Itzu said it’s more expensive in Bulgaria. “Because we’re a rich country,” he smiled wryly. In western media, I have noticed, the name “Bulgaria” almost never stands alone when first introduced in an article, or on a radio program, or in the television news. It’s usually accompanied by an appendage—“the poorest country in the EU, Bulgaria.”

Druzhba has for years looked the same despite, somehow, the enormous changes that have occurred in and around it since 1989. In point of fact, it looks the same as pretty much all the other concrete panel apartment complexes built in a militant utilitarianism that eschewed any aesthetic appeal as bourgeois. It is forever drab, forever ugly, forever full of families that formed the basis of the middle class in this long-held—at least in the 1944-1989 period—to be classless society. The playgrounds are mostly appalling, but children laugh and play and grandmothers encourage the younger ones on the swings and ceaselessly warn the older ones that they’ll fall off whatever they might be perched upon. “Did you hear what I said? Do you understand Bulgarian?”

We opened the apartment door to discover the electricity had been shut off. My husband had arranged for automatic monthly payments, but something has gone awry. At 5:00 pm on a Sunday, there’s nothing to be done about it except to pull the candles and matches out of the cupboard. Tomorrow we will go to the баничария (pastry shop) to get the breakfast we’ve been waiting for. Кифла с мармалад (a large fluffy crescent of brioche-like pastry filled with marmalade) for me, баница с айран (the classic phyllo dough with feta accompanied by a yogurt drink) for my husband, large enough portions so that our son can have some of each. And then, thus fully prepared, we will solve the electric problem.

However much Druzhba leaves to be desired in appearance, upkeep, and cachet, it must be said—as my mother-in-law often did—that within its boundaries it has just about everything one needs on a daily basis. It has a year-round open air fruit and vegetable market, cosmetic stores, appliance sales and appliance repairs, pawn shops, shoe stores, vendors selling freshly roasted meats, baby products stores, банчария, second-hand stores, mobile phone sellers (new and refurbished), clothes vendors, seasonal vendors, бира-скара (beer and grill) places, and more than one sit-down restaurant.

Our son hadn’t been interested in the snack Air France served on the second leg, so shortly after our arrival he declared he wanted dinner. My husband led us to a place in Druzhba Itzu had introduced him to two years ago. It’s called Механа Тибаетъ. Like all Bulgarian restaurants I’ve ever been to, the menu is awe-inspiringly long. We got шопска салата (the Bulgarian tomato, cucumber, and feta salad), a tomato salad, a homemade питка (small flat loaf) that arrived hot and so large we three shared it. My son’s roasted pork came with side dishes of лютеница (red pepper and eggplant spread/dip), white beans, and cabbage salad. My husband’s кюфтета (seasoned pork-beef patties) came with a large green salad and potatoes. The waiter was friendly, efficient, made ракия (brandy) recommendations for my husband who happily ordered 100 grams rather than his usual 50.

We also ordered mineral water. The waiter brought a large bottle of Горня Баня (Gornya Banya), a popular brand. This he opened and poured into our three glasses each marked prominently with the name and logo of Банкя (Bankya), a rival brand. “Is it possible to drink Горня Баня from a Банкя glass?” I asked him. “Yes,” he answered. “In foreign countries it isn’t, but here in Bulgaria it’s possible.”

While we waited for our food, two women and a man sat down at the table in front of ours. They ordered drinks, but no food. The woman and one of the men had their backs to me. Both seemed to be listening rather intently to the man facing me. They all spoke but none very much. The man who seemed to be the leader was tall, slim, with a flat face and large ears. One of his ears was rounded while the other seemed to end in a point like a leprechaun. The man with his back to me was plump and chainsmoked. When he turned at one point, he showed a face that was as stereotypically all-American as an Iowa farm boy, with just the tips of the hair framing that face an incongruous gray. The woman periodically did something with her phone, asked a question, seemed as though she might be taking notes. I imagined that they could well appear in some mafia-themed movie where the characters make their plans in the restaurant they frequent almost daily. Probably though they are just Druzhba residents or business owners or co-workers living much of their lives in and among these concrete panel apartment blocks and the commerce that sprang up to serve the neighborhood.

The roasted pork was delicious. The шопска салата and tomato salad with сирене as well. My husband enjoyed the chef’s variation on the traditional кюфтета seasonings. The питка was the perfect way to mop up the various juices cold and hot. Ketchup has nothing on Bulgaria’s traditional лютеница. The salad and entrée portions were large. The prices were modest. The waiter and the kitchen staff he represented were professionals who knew what they were doing. I think about a restaurant like Механа Тибаетъ, a restaurant tourists will never go to in a neighborhood they will never see. Sofia has some lovely neighborhoods, some very modern restaurants. But I think that the dinner we had today and the breakfast we will have tomorrow in a Druzhba that no one would ever choose to create in the same way again made us feel that we were making a very good start to our month in Bulgaria. Often Bulgarians will disparage something of low quality or poor service or workmanship as Българска работа (Bulgarian work). Often, though, Българска работа is quite satisfying, and all three of us were very glad to begin experiencing it once again.

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Dr. Seuss, Insects, and Agatha Christie

Деца играят вънIt’s the classic Catch 22 scenario. I find it hard to read in Bulgarian because there are so many words I don’t know, and I can’t learn more words if I don’t read in Bulgarian. The book I ever tried to read in Bulgarian was Деца играят вън (Children Play Outside) by Георги Данаилов (Georgi Danailov). My friend Vessela loaned it to me, certain that I would be able to struggle through it and I did. But it took a long, long time. I made a rule, often broken, that I could not break out the dictionary every five seconds or I’d never finish.

I didn’t even know until very recently that the Yuli around which each of the three parts of the novel revolves are three different, albeit with the same name, characters. But I forgive Mr. Danailov’s creative license for fooling me; I imagine no Bulgarian reader suffered the slightest confusion. I vowed to keep reading in Bulgarian every night, certain that improvement would follow. I broke my vow within days. Improvement by osmosis naturally did not follow.

The Foot BookThen we had our daughter and I was determined she know Bulgarian from the start. I spoke to her only in Bulgarian and began reading to her immediately. We collected Bulgarian board books and fairy tales and naturally these presented no problem. When we ran out, it was easy enough to translate English books on the fly. Since she couldn’t read, she had no way of knowing that Dr. Seuss’s The Foot Book did not really begin ляв крак, ляв крак, дясен крак, дясен (left foot, left foot, right foot, right). Most of Dr. Seuss did not lend itself to such translation—really, what can you do with There’s a Wocket in My Pocket?—but other simple early books did.

When she was in preschool, we went to National Geographic’s enormous Warehouse Sale in the cavernous D.C. Armory. 90 percent off their original prices! Among other things, she just had to have a book about insects. Suffice it to say that I had not previously made насекоми (insects) a focus of my Bulgarian vocabulary enrichment. I knew пчела (bee), мравка (ant), комар (mosquito), паяк (spider—and yes I know, not technically an insect), муха (fly), and хлебарка (cockroach). I put in the time. I did my homework. I learned богомолка (praying mantis), бръмбар (beetle), and щурец (cricket). I learned антена (antenna) and челюст (jaw), and жило (stinger). I couldn’t conduct an adult converation about philosophy or politics, but could talk a good game about the anatomy of various буболечки (bugs).

Discovery KidsHaving conquered the crawling, often flying world, I was ready for the jungle and ocean. Egmont Bulgaria put out Bulgarian versions of Discovery Kids books so we bought Амазонската Джунгла (The Amazon Jungle, published as Rainforest Explorer in English) and Безкрайният Океан (The Infinite Ocean, published as Ocean Explorer in English). So I was able to learn that a тукан (toucan) has a клюн while a папгал (parrot) has a човка.

In English, we’re a bit simpler—all the birds eat with beaks no matter the bird size or the beak size.

I learned that quite a lot can be translated literally—words like clownfish and zebrafish and swordfish. Just switch the adjective and noun order, and translate—presto, chango, you’ve got риба клоун, риба зебра, and риба меч. But that doesn’t always work. Jellyfish is NOT риба слатко, it most definitely is a медуза and the pain from its touch might well make you wish you really would turn to stone.

By this time, we had our son. His interests necessitated learning an entirely new vocabulary. I found myself growing conversant with върколаци (werewolves) and вампири (vampires). I asked the Sofia seamstress making me a skirt to save the extra material so that I could make a наметало (cape) for my little супергерой (superhero). He fell in love with a book on пирати (pirates) so I added плячка (plunder) to the list of words useful with the preschool set at the playground, but fairly useless when going out with other adults.

Harry_Potter_Complete_SetClearly, I needed to find books I could truly read for myself—and vocabulary enrichment of an entirely different order. Having read the entire English-language Harry Potter series aloud to my daughter, I decided that I would embark on reading all seven books in Bulgarian. It took an embarrassingly long time to do it—two years!—but I felt triumphant. I put each successive book on my night table and made a rule that my bedtime reading could only be in Bulgarian. Of course, I do not need to use new words such as котел (cauldron) and мантия (cloak) very often, but I did find myself lost in the story for much of the time and much of the time—though not all—plunging on past the unfamiliar words.

Пет Малки ПрасенцаReading Bulgarian translations of English language books I was already familiar with was my key to getting over the Bulgarian language reading hump. Thus Agatha Christie. Easy to find in any Bulgarian bookstore and straightforward to read. Having read through Пет Малки Прасенца (Five Little Pigs), however, I did not find that I could solve mysteries like Hercule Poirot. It was not possible to know which child broke the plate or took the last cookie before dinner without being present at the scene of the crime.

In just a few days, we will leave for a month-long vacation in Bulgaria. I’ve read through all the Agatha Christie mysteries I had bought on my last trip. Perhaps now I’m ready to read a Bulgarian novel. Do you have any suggestions?