Monthly Archives: June 2015

Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum and Café, Part II

B6FTM5 Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgarian Communist leader, Prime Minister of Bulgaria (1946-1949), postage stamp Bulgaria, 1954

Georgi Dimitrov never defied Stalin’s wishes. On the contrary, he gilded Stalin’s lily of adulation. On November 7, 1937 he wrote, “…what extremely good fortune it is for the socialist revolution and for the international proletariat that following Lenin, Comrade Stalin has carried on his cause with such unswervingness and genius, through every sharp turning point, and has ensured the victory of our cause. There can be no speaking of Lenin without linking him with Stalin!” On perhaps only one point Dimitrov differed with Stalin, perhaps fatally so. Dimitrov hungered for Slavic and Balkan unity, developing a mutually friendly relationship with Josip Broz Tito and the Yugoslav communists. But Stalin needed regional dissension and infighting to effectively prevent any challenge to his reach and power. Upon learning of a treaty between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, Stalin ominously wrote to Comrade Dimitrov on August 12, 1947: “The opinion of the Soviet government is that [Yugoslavia and Bulgaria] have made a mistake…despite the warnings of the Soviet government.”

YUGOSLAVIA - CIRCA 1967: A stamp printed in Yugoslavia, is depicted Josip Broz Tito, circa 1967

But two years before, Dimitrov was flying high, literally, as he took a plane from the Soviet Union to the land of his birth. On November 4, 1945, Dimitrov wrote in his diary “Landed at Sofia airport…After twenty-two years I am again on Bulgarian soil.” By October 1946, ex-citizen Georgi Dimitrov became both head of Bulgaria’s Communist Party and Prime Minister, though he kept the Soviet citizenship granted him by Stalin just in case. He followed Stalin and the Soviet example, wasting no time in increasing internal repression in Bulgaria through arrests, show trials, and detention in a system of forced labor camps, and executions. The town of Dimitrovgrad was founded in his honor; countless schools, clubs, and streets were named after him as was the Order of Georgi Dimitrov for service to country and to socialism. His July 1949 death at 67 after three months in the Barvikha Sanitorium just 18 miles west of Moscow still rankles conspiracy theorists. They suspect Stalin had a hand in pushing the deterioration of Dimitrov’s health to the point of no return.

Орден Георги Димитров

The Soviet Union announced diabetes as the cause of death. DC’s Evening Star newspaper reported “The highest councils in Russia, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and the ministers of the U.S.S.R. made the announcement of death. They said it caused them profound grief.” Ivo Banac, historian and Yale professor emeritus, edited Dimitrov’s 1933-1949 diaries and believes that while Dimitrov suffered for decades from naturally-occuring “diabetes, chronic gastritis, a diseased gall bladder, and a variety of other health ailments,” the actual cause of his death was the unnatural Josef Vissarionovich Stalin who is not known to have ever grieved the death of anyone.

Georgi Dimitrov may have died in 1949, but he wasn’t buried until 1990. The Communist Party/Bulgarian Government immediately capitalized on Dimitrov’s death to mimic the Soviet Union’s successful preservation of Vladimir Lenin since his death a quarter century early. Whatever role Stalin played in Dimitrov’s demise, he was willing to share the secret Soviet mummification technique heretofore used only to preserve Lenin’s corpse. Seemingly moments after Dimitrov’s death was announced, the construction of his mausoleum in Sofia began. In the six days it took for Dimitrov’s body to return to Sofia from Barvikha, the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum was completed, made possible in part by a quick-setting cement from the Soviet Union. It’s said that it was designed to withstand a nuclear bomb. Dimitrov’s embalmed body was brought to his not quite final resting place in a funeral cortege fit for a king and in fact one of the lead architects of the Mausoleum, Georgi Ovcharov, was a good friend of Tzar Boris III and his family. Just over 40 years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the resulting end of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, the body was removed, cremated, and the remains buried in Sofia’s Central Cemetery. Then began the debate over the fate of the Mausoleum itself. The man, the body, and the cult were all gone, but what to do with the edifice that was its greatest physical manifestation?


There was graffiti from the start, at first hesitatingly and then irrepressibly. There was creativity. In 1997, the director of the Sofia National Opera and Ballet presented Verdi’s Aida in front of the Mausoleum, incorporating it into the set. I’m told that when the live action film 101 Dalmations was released in Bulgaria, the Mausoleum was decorated with black spots as a promotion. To Disney belong the spoils.

The Mausoleum debate was heated. The words “communist” and “fascist” were freely thrown around by all sides within the government and in the public at large, as were accusations of barbarism and vandalism. For good or for ill, imposed forcibly or no, the neo-Classical building had accrued great stature since its construction—despite the graffiti thickly accumulated since Dimitrov’s departure. The Mausoleum might have been converted to a museum or an art gallery to preserve the decades-long history of the building and its single denizen, or it might have been repurposed entirely. But the 1999 Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) government wished only to separate itself and the country from its all too recent past and, despite no public consensus, decided to take what UDF leaders insisted was the cathartic step of destroying it altogether.

It took about as long to destroy the Mausoleum as to build it. On Saturday, August 21, 1999, a crowd gathered. A powerful non-nuclear blast from over 1300 pounds of explosives was heard. Windows in nearby government buildings shattered, but the Mausoleum itself seemed impervious. Later that day, another blast. The Mausoleum stood firm. Some in the growing crowd were entertained, some jeered and the politicians present were frustrated and embarrassed. The demolition experts and workers planned a third attempt for the next evening—adding 660 pounds of additional explosives—and this time the Mausoleum listed a bit to one side. Clearly there would be no one decisive, dramatic blast. For days, the demolition team mulled over the ideal combination of small detonations and brute mechanical labor by workers and bulldozers. On Friday, August 27, 1999, the Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum was at last razed to the ground.

Today the site has been incorporated into a large park that stretches from what was the front of the marble structure to the plaza facing the National Theater. There is a new playground based on musical instruments, festivals held throughout the year, events and celebrations, and, throughout the spring and summer, an enormous moon bounce for children. You pay for 20 minutes and a very nice woman watches the children with an eagle eye to make sure no one misbehaves or tries any bouncing that appears overly risky.

детка площадка

There is also an outdoor restaurant located precisely on the mausoleum site. Menus identify it as the Mausoleum Café. When we lived in Bulgaria 2010-2012, Rumen enjoyed getting a table with friends while the kids were in the moon bounce or ran around, occasionally making appearances to eat French fries sprinkled with grated sirene white cheese. The stunningly beautiful neoclassic National Theater Ivan Vazov can be seen across the park and the National Gallery of Art housed in the former royal palace is just behind across the yellow brick road.

National Theater

“History is written by the victors,” said Winston Churchill, but for most Bulgarians Georgi Dimitrov has not been historically reassessed but erased entirely. The communists ruthlessly repressed the history that contradicted their narrative, but those that replaced them have not had to do much of anything to give life to an altogether new Bulgarian story. Dimitrov’s overwhelming presence and meaning have been entirely obliterated with something as utterly mundane as an outdoor café. The Mausoleum’s honor guard with braided and tasseled uniforms, rifles stiffly held, has been replaced by popcorn spilled out of colorful cardboard boxes on which are printed “American popcorn” and images of children’s characters Ben10, Spiderman and the Smurfs.

пуканки бен 10

Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum and Café, Part I

On November 10, 1877, Karl Marx interrupted his work on Das Kapital to write a letter to German journalist, historian, and politician Wilhelm Blos. Neither he nor Engels cared at all about popularity, he wrote. “Let me cite one proof of this: such was my aversion to the personality cult that at the time of the International, when plagued by numerous moves…to accord me public honor, I never allowed one of these to enter the domain of publicity, nor did I ever reply to them, save with an occasional snub.” At that time, little Volodya Lenin was vacationing with his family at their country manor and Joseph Stalin had yet to be born. They were not to have the same aversion.


We are at more than a century’s remove from the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the phrase “cult of personality” is familiar and often applied. Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un in North Korea have proven you can use multi-generational hagiography to exert absolute control. But no leader can be too sure of what will follow when he is no longer on watch.

Josef Stalin

On February 25 1956, Nikita Khrushchev in his famous “Secret Speech” quoted Marx’s letter to damn Stalin. “It is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior.” Five years later, Stalin’s embalmed remains were removed from the mausoleum, but Lenin’s stayed firmly put as did his cult. The Soviet Union might have been the first in the 20th century to utilize political canonization, but even the USSR’s arch nemesis, the United States, has not been immune to the draw of the political godhead (Exhibit A: Ronald Reagan). Political canonization deliberately creates an overwhelming presence in a society and invests enormous (albeit manufactured) meaning in everything and everyone attached to him (and to date it is always a “him”). That makes it extraordinarily difficult for citizens to have any perspective on the relative costs of cult maintenance, to say nothing of the impossibility of public debate. How long can a cult of personality be maintained by those benefitting from it? How does a citizenry form an image of society without it?

Georgi Dimitrov mausoleum

When my husband was a young boy in then People’s Republic of Bulgaria, he was taken to visit the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov. Very likely, he had his picture taken in front of it. Visitors to the capital Sofia often had their photograph taken there and foreign delegations made sure to put a wreath on the pristine white marble building. I must have passed it in 1987 on my first visit to Bulgaria, but I don’t remember. By the time I was in Bulgaria again, it was 1991, the communists no longer exercised absolute control, and the mausoleum had been gleefully defaced by graffiti. Georgi Dimitrov had left the building.


But Georgi Dimitrov had fit the bill of political godhead admirably. He had impeccable working class roots, was himself a worker, joined the Social Democratic Labor Party of Bulgaria at the age of 21, and was still active when that party affiliated itself with the Bolshevik cause and became the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP). For his revolutionary activities, Dimitrov was forced to flee Bulgaria and wound up in the Soviet Union. He was part of the international delegation that escorted Lenin’s coffin from Gorky to Moscow in January 1924. Five years later, Stalin sent him to Germany where in 1933 Comintern operative Dimitrov was accused of burning the Reichstag to the ground. His star burned all the brighter, and on an international stage, for the accusation.

Whatever the actual origins of the fire were, it served wonderfully to consolidate the for us or against us fundamental conflict and propaganda between facism and communism. The communists used facism (and until the end of World War II, the other way around) as the demon bogeyman forever lurking not only at the borders, but even in the hearts and minds of perhaps your next door neighbor. That dichotomy made it seem all the more unthinkable to question the system and the personality dominating it—it was all that kept the wolf from the door. But it is hard to discern much difference in these two cruel dictatorial systems in terms of the lives of citizens living under them.

Zhelyu Zhelev

Years before he became Bulgaria’s first democratically elected president, philosopher and dissident Zhelyu Zhelev published The Fascism, a book that disappeared from Bulgaria’s bookstores and libraries within three weeks of its publication. The communist authorities’ insistence on banning the book resulted in the scholarly, over 300-page work being widely read in underground samizdat versions in Bulgaria as well as translation into ten languages that garnered it international attention. The Fascism ostensibly analyzed five elements of fascist political systems (of which a single party state with a strong personality cult is one), but the likeness to communist political systems and states was strikingly clear to Zhelev’s readers.


The fascist Nazis exploited the Reichstag fire. They highlighted its purported role in a communist strategy to overthrow the German government and then decreed a state of emergency that effectively took away all rights and freedoms in Germany and established absolute Nazi control of the country. Adolf Hitler himself, of course, was a master in understanding the power of the personality cult; the universality of the Hitler salute being only one powerful example. Dimitrov was arrested and the Leipzig Trial that followed made him a communist hero and an even greater asset to Stalin when Dimitrov was allowed to leave Germany for the Soviet Union. Bulgaria’s response was to deprive Dimitrov of his citizenship.

Dimitrov and Stalin

Dimitrov kept a detailed diary. He documented his musings and declarations about various party factions, Comintern directives and outcomes, counterrevolutionary activities and related arrests, and who was being purged/imprisoned/killed for what. Even as he praised Stalin, Dimitrov illustrated Stalin’s absolute ruthlessness. Sometimes it seems as though Dimitrov is foretelling his own forthcoming fall from grace. “Called J.V. [Josef Vissarionovich Stalin]. Soon as he recognized my voice, he hung up!” But Stalin certainly recognized in Dimitrov a dutiful comrade and one who did not hesitate to demonstrate his own ruthlessness and his political expediency. {to be continued…}

Sedmochislenitzi, the Center of Sofia

Sedmochislenitzi (Seven Saints) is a park and playground located almost dead center in Sofia. It is named after the church of the same name standing in the park’s main square. We’ve been there countless times. A long market with many vendors borders one side on Graf Ignatiev Street. From fall into winter, there are not only seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, but also pumpkins split in half, baked and sprinkled with cinnamon and walnuts. In mid- to late summer, you can buy clear, plastic drinking cups filled with raspberries and eat them with a tiny plastic fork. Summers, my son likes to stop at the corn vendor who sets up her cart at the park’s entrance and get an ear of the steamed corn that is a popular snack. On the beach, vendors carry coolers, tongs, salt shakers and napkins, walking among the sunbathers calling “Tzarevitza molya” (“Corn please”).


The church’s site as a place of worship long predates its current incarnation. Before the Sedmochislenitzi church, there was the Koca Mehmed Paşa Mosque, built in 1528 and named after its patron and builder Sokollu Mehmed Paşa. Mehmed Paşa was originally from a small town in Bosnia, but he rose steadily and at age 59 reached the pinnacle of Grand Vizier, thus holding nearly absolute power and answerable only to the Sultan himself.

The Koca Mehmed Paşa Mosque began its evolution to the Sveti Sedmochislenitzi Church when on September 30, 1858, an earthquake struck just after noon prayers began. Although the epicenter was to the south, the magnitude seven earthquake caused severe damage in Sofia. The French Le Mémorial d’Aix reported that the earthquake “destroyed 35-40 stone houses, 20 minarets, a mosque, the barracks, and the local telegraph office.” More than three weeks after the earthquake, reported Le Mémorial d’Aix, the aftershocks had not stopped and “the entire population had taken refuge in the squares and in the gardens.” The minaret of the Koca Mehmed Paşa Mosque was one of those that collapsed. The mosque had to be abandoned.

Петко Каравелов

After Bulgaria’s 1878 liberation from the Ottoman Empire, the building was used as a military warehouse and prison. Bulgarian Prime Minister Petko Karavelov was imprisoned for three years in the mosque cum prison when his political opponents used various 1887 garrison uprisings as an excuse to get him out of the way. Back in power for the fourth and final time, he quite naturally led an effort to close the building and convert it to a church. The exterior maintains the three rows of thin dark red brick alternating with one thicker layer of stone, the original white mottled gray and brown with age, characteristic of medieval mosques and churches.

гроб на Каравелов

Less than a year after the church conversion was completed in 1902, Petko Karavelov died and was buried there. His grave and that of his wife abut the church building and are enclosed by wrought iron gates. There is no church cemetery. The asphalt plaza surrounding the church is full of young children racing past on bikes and scooters. Balls often bounce onto the grave and have to be retrieved.

Иван Михов Николов

My son was fascinated by the Orthodox priests we saw go in and out of Sedmochislenitzi Church. Bearded and often with long hair tied in a low ponytail, their black robes go down to their ankles. Orthodox priests may marry and we frequently saw a priest out walking with his wife and young children. Several times at my son’s request, we walked into the church. On one of these occasions, an elderly priest with a full head of white hair greeted us and saw his interest in the bouquets of flowers set in vases. Father Ivan Mihov Nikolov gently took his hand, guided us to a small side room, and gave him several flowers from a vase there.

woman selling flowers

You can easily buy flowers from a florist store or streetside stand, but people often buy from one of the many older women who sit on packing crates near busy corners and in front of store windows. They sit behind large vases of different flowers and a few already made bouquets set down on the pavement. Such women specialize in flowers and are buying them wholesale to resell. Other older women set themselves up on packing crates near busy corners with what they’ve brought from their home gardens in nearby villages. They set up their wares on a box or a cloth and they don’t need much room. Year-round, they come with what they have on hand. A big ball of celery root with its green shoots, two or three bags of dried legumes, and a few parsnips— pasternak in Bulgarian, just like the Nobel prize-winning author of Doctor Zhivago. A small bouquet or two of flowers, rose hip berries, bunches of parsley, preserves in re-used jars from long ago store-bought products, dried herbs collected from walks in village fields and mountains, liter bottles once filled with cola now with whole milk you must boil once you bring it home.

We enjoy Sedmochislenitzi as part of a large park with cafés at either end, gardens, playground, and enough car-free asphalt to allow city children to get full use of bicycles, skateboards and skates. The children play, we talk. Life at Sedmochislenitzi has an easy pace.

L&Y Sedmo Chislenitzi

One Saturday, we went to Sedmochislenitzi. When we arrived, as often happened, a wedding was in progress and the wedding party was being photographed. This does not deter children, including mine, from skateboarding, running, jumping, chasing pigeons, biking, while the big day is being celebrated. No one minds—no one even comments or seems to notice. Elderly people hobbling through the park with canes are not deterred from slowly passing through as the bride is posing against the church walls and I’m quite certain there are wedding albums that include my daughter, son or both. Friends of both children were either already there or showed up shortly, and all had a grand time running around the church and playground. Then the proverbial “circle of life” showed itself as the wedding party dispersed. The next event on the Sedmochislenitzi church schedule was a funeral.

The priest began a prayer. Completely oblivious to the proceedings, my son and a friend were practically touching the hearse as they played. The casket inside was clearly visible as the windows were not blackened, smoked or otherwise made opaque. In the open casket, the dead man’s head was raised up on a pillow, able to be seen clearly by not only me but by the children. The presiding priest stood looking at the casket and crossing himself. The children on the playground kept playing and the adults seemed entirely unperturbed by the proceedings. The day warmed up considerably from the morning’s chill, the sun shone and we stayed on at Sedmochislenitzi for several hours before returning home.

Concrete Jungle, Bulgarian Style

In 1987, I had my first glimpse of the ubiquitous concrete, pre-fab, no architecture required, block apartment complexes that the Communists propagated throughout the USSR and Eastern Europe in a mad drive to house as many people as possible. Driving from the airport in the small yellow Moskvich car that my husband’s family had waited ten years to purchase, I saw a mural nearly covering a side of one of the blocks far from the city center. Inexplicably in English—who could have possibly been the audience?—it read, “From Crude Oil, We Derive Confidence.”


As a visitor, I needed to register my whereabouts with the police. We went to an office near the National Assembly building, in a part of the city paved with yellow bricks. There was a very long line. It moved very slowly. Eventually, my future brother-in-law took me to buy postcards while his mother held our place. I was able to fill several postcards, address them, go to the central post office, buy stamps, and mail them. On our return, his mother had barely advanced in line. Finally, it was my turn and I immediately saw the problem. A lone woman sat at a manual typewriter laboriously hunting and pecking to complete the carbon forms. Clickety clack clickety clack clickety clack as the carriage moved across and then “ding” as she shifted the lever to begin again. I was fairly confident that Big Brother could not have been watching me altogether efficiently.

жълт паваж

The enormous pre-fabricated panel concrete block apartment complex where I had to report I was staying is called Druzhba (fellowship). The family apartment is still there and our base whenever we visit. All 199 “blocks” were quickly filled by people like Rumen’s parents fleeing the hard agricultural life of the villages for the capital city, so the government built the equally appealing Druzhba 2. In other parts of the city, there are similar complexes filled with rows and rows of concrete block apartment buildings, each with numerous entrances, each entrance with numerous apartments. Like Druzhba, they often have evocative names like Nadezhda (hope) and Mladost (youth) that belie their drab appearance. Nadezhda and Mladost each sprouted into five like named complexes. All of these complexes have been absorbed into Sofia proper for government purposes, but they function like an American city’s outlying suburbs, with a greater population than the city center and their own bustling markets, small stores, office buildings and small businesses. The blocks have stayed the same as when I first saw them in 1987, but now there is a good deal of development in and around them to serve the multiple generations of residents living in them. Instead of “From Crude Oil, We Derive Confidence” in English, now there is a nearby restaurant with a sign in Bulgarian reading “Pizza Sushi.”


Still, the drab gray blocks themselves are set up in rows, all right angles with none of the curves or organic feel of Sofia’s city center or of the villages— both of which show development that feels more human and more humane. The grid is hyper-organized and all the blocks are built with precisely the same materials and structure. Big Brother’s centralized planning did not extend to the spaces between the blocks; they are entirely undeveloped blocks of “no man’s land.” Druzhba, Nadezhda, Mladost, and countless others are quite literally the Soviet and Eastern European version of U.S. low-income, government-built “projects.” My husband used to say, “Now that they’ve made so many buildings in Sofia, it’s time to introduce architecture.” It’s too late to introduce architecture to complexes built over half a century ago and millions of people live there without the means to buy better elsewhere. And finances aside, it’s not easy to leave friends and extended family after so many decades.

Aesthetics or no, the blocks are home. My husband remembers their excitement at moving to Druzhba after years of living in one room and sharing a common kitchen, toilet and running water with their neighbors. Coming out onto the small balcony of their fifth floor apartment, he was fascinated seeing for the first time from so high a vantage point people on the street below. My in-laws were appreciative not only of the apartment itself, but of the view of Vitosha Mountain. Sofia is in a valley on Vitosha’s northeast foot and even the tallest, ugliest pre-fabricated concrete panel block cannot blot out the mountain’s beauty. In lighter winters, cottony white clouds lie below Vitosha’s snowline, which never fully melts even in summer. The manmade lake is reasonably maintained, with a walkway all around, a bridge, grassy areas, and now restaurants, a new playground, and a fitness center.


Once the 1989 changes happened, the government stopped asking for the nominal rent it had required and instead offered the possibility of ownership through a reasonable mortgage quickly paid off. From that point, the renovations within began as money and materials became available. A few years ago, my brother-in-law renovated the entire apartment down to the floorboards and it now has quite the Scandinavian aesthetic. You can renovate your apartment any way you wish without interference, but the public spaces—the elevator, the stairwells, the exterior walls—these require the cooperation of everyone who lives in your particular entrance.

When we returned to Bulgaria in 1993, it was summer. We frequently went out on the back balcony to water the many plants my mother-in-law tended there, especially the ever-blooming red mushkati (geraniums) that were her pride and which can be seen on block balconies throughout Bulgaria. One day we noticed that the adjacent old three-story, two-entrance block long predating Druzhba was being re-plastered and painted. As the weeks went on, it became clear that only one-half was receiving this treatment. Only the people living in one entrance had agreed to pay for the renovation. By the end of our stay, one-half remained with falling plaster and the other appeared brand new.


In June 1995, we moved to Sofia for a two-year stint. Hanging laundry on the back balcony one day, we saw that the other half of the old three-story block was being re-plastered and painted. Clearly the residents of this entrance now felt they had to maintain appearances with the other. But not all the residents in the entrance felt this way. There was a lone holdout and we knew this because the entire face of the entrance was re-plastered and painted except for a one-sixth square on the first floor. Two decades later, that one-sixth was still untouched. Perhaps the holdout was right since by January 2015 the rest of the building’s façade looked less than fresh, and the line between re-plastered and never touched was barely perceptible. The A4 size nekrolozi (death notices) may proliferate in the block entrances, the uninviting play equipment long consigned to decrepitude, but the blocks themselves solidly—perhaps eternally—continue. With so many people still dependent on them for housing, the only choice seems to be maintaining and improving them. Habitat for Humanity has a program to assist—take a look.

Do You Like Bulgarian Food?

Since my first visit to Bulgaria in 1987, I have been asked by everyone from in-laws to passing strangers if I like Bulgarian food. And for the first 20 years or so, I had difficulty figuring out just what was Bulgarian food. How could I discern what might be truly native and what had crossed the border from Greece or Turkey? Many of the foods in the Bulgarian kitchen are originally Turkish and just transliterated: meze, kaymak, kofte, gyvech, pasturma, sudjuk, tarator, and yufka, to name a few.

I could easily think of individual classic Bulgarian dishes—the ubiquitous and tasty salad of tomato, cucumber and white cheese, shopska salata—or a distinctive ingredient—sunflower oil. Somehow, though, I couldn’t get a sense what made up Bulgarian cuisine as a whole. In travel literature, it is often referred to as “Mediterranean” food notwithstanding the fact that Bulgaria’s borders have never reached that sea.


My husband still has memories of his mother making him drink olive oil to try and fatten him up, but she didn’t cook with it. Olive oil was too expensive to use for other than medicinal purposes. Now you can easily find that signature Mediterranean ingredient in high-end Bulgarian restaurants, but it has yet to cut significantly into the use of sunflower and vegetable oils; Bulgarians still prefer to cook with oil rather than butter. They also use copious amounts of seasonal vegetables be they raw, baked, roasted, sautéed, grilled, pureed or put up for the winter. Yogurt with its lactobacillus bulgaricus culture and cheese, both made from cow, sheep, goat and even buffalo milk, are eaten on their own and used as well as basic ingredients in everything from bread to soup to main dishes to desserts. Legumes in salads and soups are ever present. Bulgarians use chubritza (akin to savory, alone or combined with other spices in personalized mixtures), djodjan (spearmint, indispensable with any bean dish), cumin, flat leaf parsley and paprika as their main herbs and spices.


Many, perhaps most, Bulgarians have a real taste for spicy food. Small chili peppers are eaten fresh in the summer, dried for the winter, crumbled into dishes during preparation and as a garnish on the table. Glance up at any apartment balcony and you can see long skeins of dark red peppers drying. My mother-in-law loves hot, spicy food and for years my father has tried to challenge her with various concoctions to find her breaking point. Each time, she tastes whatever has been placed before her, pauses to take it in, and offers the same sincere but nevertheless deprecating response, “It’s pleasant.”


Bread on the Bulgarian table is a must. For many years that meant the same machine-made all-white uncut loaf supplied by government-run bakeries throughout the country. This is still the loaf of choice for most and even post-communism it remains subsidized through European Commission-approved (at least for now) government payments to grain producers, although the producers are now privatized. The price of this loaf is calculated by the kilogram and reportedly remains the cheapest bread in Europe. It is also utterly tasteless, whatever the quality of flour, water, yeast and salt that may have gone into it.


Fortunately in Sofia and in other large cities you can now easily buy a wide variety of breads, though these today include a number of tasteless, packaged, pre-sliced loaves of the kind found in grocery stores throughout the United States. But when we lived in Sofia a few years ago, Plamen and Tzveti, the proprietors of the little grocery on our street, received a delivery of hand-kneaded white and whole grain loaves every morning and if I timed things right a loaf was wrapped in butcher paper and put warm in my hand to carry upstairs. The Christmas Eve dinner table showcases glorious handmade round breads called pitka. No knife touches it, instead diners tear off rounds hoping to find kusmetee (fortunes) for the new year. The baker hides within the rising dough symbols for health, happiness, money, love, luck, abundance, and dreams fulfilled. The Easter bread kozunak is a slightly sweet yeast bread, much like a brioche or challah. My husband’s aunt regularly kneads white crumbly sirene (pronounced see-reh-nay) cheese into her bread dough after the first rise, placing small balls of dough into a large round pan. By the time the fragrant baked bread comes out of the oven, the balls have risen into each other to form a full round loaf easily torn off into individual rolls. In the villages, not only is the bread homemade but the sirene and yogurt as well.

коледна питка

Sirene is made from cow, sheep goat, or buffalo milk and is one of the two principal cheeses found in Bulgaria; the other is the firm yellow kashkaval, something like a cheddar. There is an overwhelming number of brands of yogurt, sirene and kashkaval, and oh so many people to proffer their recommendations and judgments. How does you choose among 10 or 15 or 20 brands? Not to mention that each brand of yogurt comes in 4.5%, 3.5%, 2% and 0.1% fat. But most Bulgarians are dismissive of skim milk and low-fat yogurt. They prefer whole milk not just for the taste, but their sense that full-fat dairy is just more wholesome altogether. Nearly all the yogurt on the shelf is the traditional plain version, the thicker the better. The long-established test of yogurt quality is to thrust a spoon or knife in the middle. If that spoon or knife stands straight up, it’s a quality yogurt.

Ketchup is available (Bulgaria even exported its ketchup to other East Bloc countries back in the day), but it runs a far distant second to the much more flavorful and healthful Bulgarian lyutenitza. I use my mother-in-law’s recipe to put up at least a dozen jars every fall. It’s really a kind of a relish you make in September, when red peppers are most plentiful and least expensive. Lyutenitza and sirene together make a fabulous sandwich. Alone it’s a great dip or it’s a garnish for kufteta, the savory grilled small burgers of minced pork and beef, onion, flat-leaf parsley, and cumin.

One November, a cousin in the village sent boxes back with her son who had been visiting from Sofia. There were chubritza and djodjan picked from her garden, jars of lyutenitza she had put up in the fall, bottles of fresh-pressed apple and pear juices, and a turkey plucked and gutted and ready for me to create our own American Thanksgiving in Sofia. She included all the makings for the traditionally vegetarian Bulgarian Christmas Eve meal—sour cabbage ready to be stuffed, dried red peppers also for stuffing, dried plums and other fruits for compote, walnuts the children had great fun shelling on the balcony, homemade red wine and rakiya (fruit brandy). She also sent three liters of milk, the cream thickly risen to the top. We drank nearly all of the milk in just two days. Store-bought milk couldn’t possibly compete.

When in September 1987 I was visiting Bulgaria for the first time, my husband instructed his mother to ensure we were not in Sofia for the then commemorated 1944 Socialist Revolution. My mother-in-law’s plan was that we visit family friends in Kuklen and then go to dinner in Plovdiv so that I could see the sights. Kuklen is a small town of only a few thousand people about nine miles due south of Plovdiv in central Bulgaria. Plovdiv dates back thousands of years and still retains an intact Roman theater built in the time of Emperor Trajan. Like Rome, Plovdiv is built on seven hills. Its old town remains full of high stone walls and winding stone-paved streets.


I was able to get a bit of the flavor of old town Plovdiv, but no restaurant had seats available on September 9, even far away from the capital’s holiday hoopla. So we ended up driving back to Kuklen, where of course our hostess had not anticipated feeding so many people. I wandered around the large yard led by our hostess’s three-year old grandson. He showed me the rabbits, the chickens and various other sights, pointing and chatting. He must have thought I was the most foolish adult he’d ever met, since my lack of Bulgarian at that time made me entirely unable to hold up my end of the conversation. It was dark when we were called to eat. Two wooden tables had been set up outside under the grape arbor. We ate bread, scrambled eggs from the chickens I had just seen, homemade sirene, and fruit nectar from our hostess’s apricot trees.

кисело мляко

One day, we were at a cousin’s house in the Danube town of Kozlodui. It was early afternoon, neither lunch nor dinnertime, but the table as always was laden with food for guests. My son was outside in “the yard” climbing up one of the cherry trees to see if any were yet ready. My daughter ate from a jar of homemade yogurt so thick it could be turned upside down without a drop falling, a thick layer of cream sitting on top. If you ask me what is Bulgarian food is like, I still won’t be able to answer with any precision. I can give you my favorite recipes. I can recommend some great dishes and traditional restaurants. I can tell you there are no better tomatoes grown anywhere. I can say that we like it. We do like Bulgarian food.

Complications and Others

Complications, Communism, Culture

The “culture shock” of the Bulgarian head nod for no and shake for yes is one thing. But it is bewildering to realize that Bulgarians have not set up systems with the goal of accomplishing something with the least waste of time and effort. The efficiency Americans are always striving for has not historically been a cultural value. After all, how many people could the communist state have employed that way? But it’s more than a leftover from communist rule.


Съдбата Ни

How to identify what may be at the core of many of the problems—both commonplace and crucial, surface and systemic—inherent in the functioning of Bulgarian society and state today? It’s easy to point the finger to the much discussed and certainly prevalent corruption, fraud, and organized crime. It’s easy too for the fatalism that flows in the blood of so many to cause the body politic to shrug its shoulders and insist everything is predetermined. “Съдбата ни” (“Sudbata ni”). “It’s our fate,” they say, and so accept that the current situation is the only one possible. My modest proposal is that behind much of the systemic inefficiency that allows criminality and cynicism to thrive is the tendency to overcomplicate…just about everything.

център за градска мобилност

1 Ticket, 1 Lev, Countless Iterations 

Overcomplicating everything means the public transportation fare system covers so many eventualities that the print needed to contain them is tiny and the signs on which they are printed are large. No passenger can possibly have the time, space or inclination to read or comprehend any of it on a crowded rush hour bus, to say nothing of the ineffectiveness of administering such a system. Prices of the Transport Documents for Trips on Public Transport on the Territory of the Municipality of Sofia has 75 items organized by four articles, many of which are further divided in up to nine sub-articles. It begins with the following:

1.1 Single-trip ticket 1.00 lev
1.2 Single-trip ticket sold by the driver 1.00 lev
1.3 Single-trip ticket issued by on-board ticket vending machine in trams and trolleybuses 1.00 lev
1.4 Single trip ticket issued by ticket vending machine at underground stations or by cashier at underground ticket desk of Metropolitan EAD 1.00 lev

It should go without saying, though apparently the Sofia Urban Mobility Center needs it said, that one could simply combine the four for a concise:

single-trip ticket 1.00 lev.

Everyone Is Unique on Public Transportation

The Sofia Urban Mobility Center has further constructed different payment schemes for public school students, university students, PhD students, children without parental care, Mountain Control and Rescue Service employees, disabled people whose fitness for work has a 50% to 70.99% rating and many other sorts of people considered to require their own societal—or at least transportational—categories. And many of these require further breakdown into varying pricing for one-, three-, or six-month cards for one, two or all lines of transport. As is often the case, the individuals responsible for such a system somehow still worry that a wayward permutation has still been left undeclared. Thus much signage, whether on a pack of herbal tea or on Prices of the Transport Documents for Trips on Public Transport on the Territory of the Municipality of Sofia, has an ending qualifier which sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively says “and others.” Article 24 now allows free three-month cards for all lines for “preferred-unnamed persons.”

So Many Signs, So Little Information

Once I saw pasted up behind the bus driver a sign entitled Ordinance On Passenger Transport and Terms of Travel in Sofia’s Public Transport. Even longer than Prices of the Transport Documents for Trips on Public Transport on the Territory of the Municipality of Sofia. And just in case you should doubt that it was birthed by the halls of officialdom, the Ordinance begins with the following:

Adopted by Resolution № 458 as per Minutes № 17 from 24.07.2008, enforced from 01.09.2008, amended by Resolution № 675 as per Minutes № 24 from 13.11. 2008; amended by Resolution № 176 as per Minutes № 36 from 26.03.2009; amended by Resolution № 433 as per Minutes № 43 from 25.06.2009; amended by Resolution № 767 as per Minutes № 54 from 17.12.2009, enforced from 01.01.2010

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that well-intentioned and honest Bulgarian civil servants wished to demonstrate the utter transparency of the Sofia Urban Mobility Center. Let’s assume that all of the seemingly endless items describing in excruciating detail the rules for transport documents, conditions of travel, categories of travelers entitled to various concessions, penal provisions and so on are there not only so that citizens have confidence in the workings of the Sofia Urban Mobility Center, but so that they are truly informed as to all their rights and responsibilities as passengers of the public transportation system in the capital. And they are modern, yes they are, at the Sofia Urban Mobility Center. No need for the digitally-connected passenger to read through such an extensive document on the bus, tram, trolley or subway car. The Sofia Urban Mobility Center’s website allows you to view every word in Bulgarian and English as well as to download the file on a mobile device. And yet, once I was on the bus from Druzhba and saw a small printed sign near the driver reading, “Here there is no information.”

Confusion Breeds Suspicion, Suspicion Breeds Cynicism

Does the average passenger feel confident in the information provided? Does s/he feel confident in the governmental body that created such ordinances and their publication? The opposite is true. All that impenetrable verbiage not only fails to inform, but is received as an assault on the system of the body politic and the individual. Rather than being perceived as system transparency, it’s seen as yet another example of too many words rendering any comprehension utterly impossible. The system remains opaque, and thus suspect, and thus all the more susceptible to at best a lack of trust and at worst fraud. And all of this costs the Bulgarian state enormous human, time, and financial resources it can little afford.

Steep Slope Up or Steep Slope Down?

Continuing in the transportation complication theme, because picking one theme for our tour of overcomplication somewhat simplifies the endeavor, we move to street signage. In group A of the “warning travel signs for danger,” there are 40 different signs, plus variations on two of them.

As with ticket prices on the Sofia public transportation system, conciseness is not a value. There is no Bulgarian equivalent for “short and sweet.” So there is one sign for “steep slope during ascent” and another sign for “steep slope during descent.” There is one sign for “uneven roadbed” and another for “artificial uneven roadbed.”

As we drove through central Bulgaria on a recent spring vacation, we wondered about a sign with an exclamation point in a red triangle. My husband didn’t remember what it meant and we couldn’t figure it out, though we saw it repeatedly.

знак А39

It turns out that this sign is the pictorial version of “and others,” conclusively demonstrating that the individuals responsible for the signage have considered absolutely positively all possibilities. “Road sign A39 is used to signal danger, for which there are no stipulated road signs…” The explanation goes on at some length to describe these possible dangers that have not been stipulated before and finishes with the words “and others.”


Bansko and Dedo Pene’s

Bankso is due south of Sofia, but with a car you must curve your way west of the Vitosha and Rila mountains. It’s best known for skiing, but we like it year round. Our favorite place to eat and hang out is the Dedo Pene kruchma and inn. Kruchma is perhaps best translated as an informal and homey cross between a tavern and a restaurant. Originally opened in 1820, the family was able to get the property restituted after 1989 and it reopened in January 1991. The current patriarch long ago discarded his real name for that of the kruchma’s founder. Today’s Dedo Pene is not a tall man or a fat man, but he exudes bigness. He has the large, strong hands of someone who has done manual labor, close-cropped white hair, and hearty appetites. When a doctor asked him if he drank, he declared, “Doctor, I drink wine like water.” But, he pointed out, it’s his own red wine and what harm could come from that.

Dedo Penevoto merlot

There are multiple ways to enter Dedo Pene’s: the kruchma front, the rear double wood doors that lead to the rooms, a small side door that leads to a large space with sheepskins drying overhead. Somewhere en route from the inn’s ground floor to the ground floor kruchma on the other side is Dedo Pene’s workroom. There he can create and repair on an old Singer sewing machine the upholstery and rugs made from the sheepskins. The entire interior at Dedo Pene’s is something of a maze and as many times as I’ve been there I am completely unable to discern the floor plan.

Dedo Pene

Large wooden signs with raised block lettering of the kind seen in American “Ye Olde Ice-Cream Shoppe” signboards announce the kruchma, menu, and garden seating. A small table and stools made out of tree trunks complete the “authentic” made-for-tourist look. But inside is a style that can only be described as authentic made-by-Dedo Pene, he himself. Passing through a wood door, you immediately step down a stone step to meet a set of swinging wood doors that mark the true entrance to the kruchma. The cash register and kitchen entrance are to the immediate right and three main seating areas at various levels are full of wooden tables covered with red and black-checked tablecloths. An enormous fireplace topped by a rifle and a rack of deer antlers commands the focus of the largest seating area. It’s a working fireplace, used to roast meats as ordered but also an integral part of the heating system.

The walls are covered with things that Dedo Pene took an interest in, collected, bought, received as gifts from customers and friends in Bulgaria and abroad. A listing of it all could fill a catalog. A sampling: an old accordion hangs next to antique tools and a black-and-white ancestral photo. On the window ledge made deep by walls over a foot thick, there is an antique home movie projector, a classic typewriter using the Latin alphabet, and a Russian samovar. From the ceiling hangs a line of more than 20 animal bells—from small ones for goats to large ones for cows—frequently struck from one end to the other in a cacophonous call for attention or to celebrate someone’s arrival. Dented tin pan produce scales dangle from above as well as a hook scale that Dedo Peno allowed the children to hang from to test their strength, making suitable impressed sorts of noises that allowed them to strut off with superhero pride.

Dedo Pene hand

Before we came back to DC, my husband presented Dedo Peno with a photograph he had taken of him. Black and white, with Dedo Pene’s large hand thrust forward toward the camera so that even the whorls on his fingertips are clearly visible, the photo was added to the great mix of items that make up the main indoor area of the kruchma. We can’t imagine staying anywhere else. The rooms couldn’t be more charming, with wonderful alcoves and balconies and amazing views of the Pirin Mountains. Dedo Pene and his family made us feel at home and the kids felt free to run around.

Hiking with friends in the Pirin Mountains south and west of Bansko, the children lingered behind collecting wild raspberries and throwing carefully selected rocks and pinecones. Eventually, we made it to the Baikusheva Mura, at more than 1300 years old one of the oldest trees in the world. The roots of this fir snake on top of and through the large flat rocks surrounding a trunk that would take nearly all of us hand-in-hand to reach around. We continued past the Vihren Hostel, which seems not to have received much attention or maintenance since its 1980s heyday.


The path grew rockier, the grass sparser, and the air cooler as we climbed. Less than an hour later, we reached our hiking goal. Okoto, The Eye, is a small, almost perfectly round lake. Part of the lake’s curve is bordered by a sheer, often bare rock face and part by densely growing trees. But perhaps half of Okoto’s curve is surrounded by a gentle slope covered with grass.

Bansko old town

Back in old town Bansko, we naturally wound up at Dedo Pene’s for dinner. Very often at Dedo Pene kruchma, a group of musicians comes in to play traditional folk music. These are excellent musicians and one really shouldn’t complain, but no conversation can be had while six or seven men are playing the accordion, clarinet, violin, etc. and singing at full volume precisely behind your chair. But on this evening, as Dedo Pene was sitting with us and encouraging us to eat while the food was hot, he saw a group of young families enter with six children between them. This together with our group’s five children pleased him enormously. “It’s a whole kindergarten!” he cried, and he called to the musicians to play a “children’s horo.” Taking them by the hand, he began dancing with them, instructing them on the steps. The musicians stayed to play in honor of various people at our table—a song titled with one woman’s name, another a favorite of Dedo Pene and in which he joined in singing with an admirably powerful voice. It was our last night of this little vacation and we regretfully left shortly just before midnight, as always a memorable evening in Bansko.