Monthly Archives: November 2015

Thanksgiving, Денят на Благодарността

I have twice prepared a traditional Thanksgiving meal in Bulgaria, inviting our closest Bulgarian friends to our Денят на Благодарността celebration. It took not a little bit of planning. The difficult items were turkey, sweet potatoes, and cranberries—and what would Thanksgiving be without them?

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Turkey was the first problem. If I couldn’t find turkey, I would have to give up the whole project. It’s not hard to find turkey in Bulgaria around Christmas, but virtually impossible one month prior. The first time, I found a tiny butcher on the corner of Graf Ignatiev and Malyovitza. This particular butcher shop had been closed much of the summer and I had never entered it before due to the smell emanating from it when it finally did open. The mother of one close friend avoided it and referred to the dour-faced middle-aged men inside as “the boys.” But the boys were able to supply me with enormous turkey legs imported from Italy (or so they said), frozen to an Artic degree. After considerable time defrosting them, they spent considerable time being brined. They were delicious with sage gravy and stuffing, but the following year Plamen of the tiny grocery next door to our building found fresh turkey legs from a more reputable and hygienic source.

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Potatoes have been cultivated throughout Europe for over four centuries, but sweet potatoes have not despite originating in precisely the same place the Spanish conquistadores found the many varieties of regular potatoes. The U.S. is now exporting sweet potatoes to Europe, but they remain hard to find. I finally located a small supply in Picadilly, gritting my teeth against the frighteningly high cost of what I had always considered an inexpensive staple.

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I roasted them with garlic and sage (what the Bulgarians refer to as градински чай). Bulgarians don’t cook with sage. Instead it is applied as a poultice, gargled, or drunk as an infusion to cure the usual confounding variety of ills assigned to every medicinal herb (e.g., festering wounds, rashes, angina, toothache, ulcers, diarrhea, and so on). The Bulgarians at the table dutifully tried the unusual potato and wondered at the resemblance to pumpkin. Perhaps the sweet potatoes weren’t worth the bother and expense in the end, but we enjoyed them all the same along with the more easily available green beans with lemon and pine nuts.

дренки

Cranberries were a real dilemma at first, but I realized that the easily available дренка (cornel cherry) would make a splendid substitute. And just across the street from “the boys” were village women who sat on empty crates and sold the cornel cherries they harvested on walks just outside their villages. With the market full of apples and pumpkins, the traditional pies were easy to make.

Франклин посреща гости

I was thankful then to have my family, to live in Bulgaria once again and this time with our children, to share the prototypical American holiday with our Bulgarian friends. I was even able to find in площад Славейков, the large outdoor book market in the heart of Sofia, a copy of the children’s book Франклин посреща гости, the Bulgarian version of Franklin’s Thanksgiving by Paulette Bourgeois. And I’m thankful now that Bulgaria, its people and culture, have become an inseparable part of my life. We celebrated a part of America there, we celebrate in the U.S. Bulgarian holidays like Baba Marta in March and Bulgarian Education and Culture, and Slavonic Literature Day in May. Happy Thanksgiving. Честит Ден на Благодарността.

Food’s the Cure

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Naturally what you put in your body is a big part of staying healthy and Bulgarians have much advice to give, even when unsolicited. Believers in herbal teas for all sorts of ailments, many Bulgarians keep on hand various herbs they have gathered and dried in order to make tisanes for various ailments. Enter a store with a sneeze or a sniffle or a cough, and the proprietor or another customer will almost certainly recommend the surest cure. I have been instructed to eat a raw onion each morning, to stuff garlic cloves in my nostrils, to drink heated rakiya, to drink rakiya heated with apples, and so on. I suppose Grandma Lil’s preparation of chicken soup to help a cold wasn’t much different, an elixir even the Mayo Clinic maintains relieves one’s symptoms.
NeliWhen my son regrettably had a stubborn case of scalp ringworm, food recommendations were again offered. My mother-in-law suggested an infusion of stinging nettles, both to rub on the spot and to drink. Nellie, the fruit and vegetable lady who used to be a x-ray technician before the hospital downsized and before that a furniture maker, told me that the sure cure was to rub garlic on it many times a day. The dermatologist around the corner gave us two nutrient immunity boosters—one with lactoferrin, echinacea and zinc and which supposedly tastes like candy, but which my son just spat out and my husband giving it a try almost did the same—and one with concentrated lactobacillus bulgaricus, and two medications to rub on, one of which was contained in lard. It all gives the phrase “oh, I could just eat you up” a whole new meaning. In any event, it was the wonderfully kind and attentive world-class dermatologist Dr. Razvigor Darlenski at Tokuda Hospital who solved the problem with modern pharmaceuticals.

aptekaThere are many pharmacies in Sofia, most quite small. Most often we walked just a couple of blocks to the small pharmacy at 64 Vassil Levski Boulevard, officially the Iliana Kalushkova pharmacy, but that can only be derived from a very small sign on the door and no one ever refers to a small pharmacy by name. A new chain pharmacy in Sofia with its name prominently displayed has the most perfunctory and unsmiling staff. But at 64 Vassil Levski, that was not at all the case. There I could order a prescription or over-the-counter product for the next morning, walk in, and see one of the pharmacists reach immediately for the order before I had yet to say a word—even if she was not the one who had waited on me the day before. I could go in with concerns over my daughter’s car-sickness torments and the pharmacist would be genuinely sympathetic and make knowledgeable recommendations with concern and care.

Once I had a sore throat and the pharmacist at 64 Levski recommended a particular lozenge saying she found it helpful herself. I hope she did, because she always spoke with a voice that makes actress Kathleen Turner’s seem a smooth soprano. Then she opened a package and sold me one of the two blister packs inside; many small pharmacies offer such services. “Try these and if they help you, you can come back to buy another blister pack.”

All sorts of things can be bought piecemeal in this way. While you can buy adhesive bandages by the box, you can also buy by the bandage, requesting six or ten or whatever is necessary for your children’s various playground scrapes and cuts. Coming to 64 Levski one day to restock on a calcium with vitamin D supplement, another pharmacist and I started chatting about calcium in one’s diet. She suggested that izvara (curd cheese somewhere between cottage and ricotta) and feta cheese have more calcium than milk and yogurt, though too much feta wasn’t recommended given the salt. That led to discussion of where to find izvara nowadays. “Oh,” she said, “the Russian stores have the best. Try it with fruit. The Russians have one with 15% [fat] and it’s wonderful,” she added, patting her stomach.

ruski magazin beriozkaBulgarians tremendously value dairy products with a high fat content and cannot understand my preference for skim milk and 2% or even, heaven forbid, non-fat yogurt. “It’s like water,” they frown with distaste. I had no idea where any Russian store might be so the pharmacist consulted with her colleagues. After some back and forth, it was decided that one of the staff would go to the Russian store and buy some izvara for me to try. I would then pay when I picked it up. And so the next day, I returned and two containers of 15% izvara were waiting for me despite a different pharmacist on shift from the one I had spoken to. Some time later when I had the occasion to go again to the pharmacy, I was asked how I had liked the izvara. I was happy to report that my daughter had consumed it all spread on toast—it was that thick. Later when we explored for ourselves Beryozka Russian Store, just over a mile away, we found all sorts of Russian foods, in addition to four kinds of “village” izvara ranging from 2% to 50% (!) fat.

The Palace of Sports

Пламен Атанасов

After ten months of whining that I wasn’t exercising after years of regular gym attendance, I finally walked into the Sportna Palata, the pool and fitness center attached to the Ministry of Physical Education and Sports building, and turned myself over to personal trainer Plamen. Other than a few weeks here and there, for the rest of our stay I went five days weekly to the basement gym. It was just a ten-minute walk away and I felt I was in the best shape of my life—largely due to the fact that I wasn’t left to my own devices and Plamen deftly contrived an ever-changing fitness program.

Спортна Палата

The fitness center at the Sportna Palata does not have the most luxurious surroundings or the latest equipment, but the staff is made up of knowledgeable and warm professionals and the atmosphere couldn’t have been friendlier. That is, in the fitness center itself.

The expansive locker room above the fitness center has banks of showers, a wonderful sauna, one squat toilet, one quiet cleaning woman/attendant who is fond of needlepoint, and one not so quiet cleaning woman/attendant who did not like the fact that I used the locker room to change into my fitness gear. Perhaps a week or two after I started, she came to me and asked if I was using the pool. I said no. She then questioned why I was changing in the “pool” changing room. I assured her that I had paid for the fitness center. “Oh no,” she asserted, “they have nothing to do with us. There is a changing room there.”

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Well, that’s true in a manner of speaking, but the basement changing room is simply a closet with a curtain, less than ten lockers, and not even one squat toilet. So I explained that I preferred changing in the larger room, using the one toilet in the entire building and then taking all of my belongings downstairs. She retreated. After somewhat nervously confirming with Plamen my right to use the upstairs locker room, I felt better. For sometime after, I was happy to see that the attendant ignored me when she saw me there during her shift.

Weeks passed and then, as if all was new, she approached me in the locker room and asked if I was using the pool. This time, I felt assertive and, looking deliberately around at the nearly empty room, asked if I was bothering anyone. “Oh no, of course not,” she was quick to answer. And didn’t I have the right to use the toilet?, I asked. “Of course, there’s only the one,” she reassured. I take all my belongings downstairs, I pointed out, and I change back into my street clothes there as well. Was I causing a problem?, I challenged. “No, no, of course not,” and she backed away.

At that point, she started a sweetness campaign that baffled me, greeting me the next time with “Hello little dear, how are you?” and using the familiar form of “you” that is used only between relatives, friends and colleagues. Over the coming days, the sweetness campaign progressed to greetings of “My little one, little golden one.” Upon Sportna Palata’s re-opening after a two-week summer closing, I entered to find her waiting with open arms as if to hug me and I instinctively stepped aside, though normally I strive to be as polite as possible.

My husband contends this approach is a form of manipulation, used particularly by those guardians of the gates (e.g., porters, security personnel, attendants) who feel they justify their presence in their positions by zealously exerting control. His cousin suggests that this is the way a person of relatively low status “feeds the soul.” The control and/or soul-feeding continued. The saccharine applied intensified as the week progressed. By the end of the first week back, she was positively a fan, “I’m filled with admiration for you, you come so regularly.” This continued, addressing me as “daughter” even as she assiduously searched for opportunities to admonish me—for washing my hands with the bar of soap left on the sink by the toilet, for letting my bare feet touch the floor while I changed, (Q: “How can I take off my pants otherwise? A: You put your ass on the bench.) and other sins.

There is no smoking allowed in the building, which is used particularly for the large pool and the swimming classes for all ages. And so what seemed like the entire Sportna Palata cleaning/attendant staff, men and women alike, smoked like fiends just outside the door of this building dedicated to healthful activity while children scrambled in and out. My son began going to swimming lessons shortly before he turned five and my daughter joined a class for older children some months later; the quality of the teaching staff was excellent and both children made great progress. To get to the fitness center in the basement, I had to walk along the length of the Olympic-size pool. It was always a treat to see a group of young girls training for their synchronized swimming team while their coach beat out a rhythm with a rod or eager pre-schoolers in the small rear pool dedicated to beginning swimming lessons.

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Having finished swimming—be it laps or lessons or synchronized training—it was apparently a requirement to blow dry one’s hair. There is something indescribably sweet seeing grandfathers and fathers assiduously blow drying their young children’s hair in the unshakable belief held by all Bulgarians I have ever met that no matter the season or temperature cold and flu viruses immediately target, in the manner of heat-seeking missiles, anyone with wet hair, and thereupon immediately strike without mercy.

1980 JulyOf course, not everyone has the time, resources or inclination to go swimming or to a fitness center. But Bulgarians believe strongly in the constitutional, the physical and mental benefits of a walk. Let’s take a walk, let’s walk there, no matter that we’re early or s/he is late—we’ll walk around. It’s an airing out, it’s getting the kinks out of your legs, it’s clearing your head, it’s time for food to digest, and it’s an opportunity to talk to friends. Everyone loves to walk. I have to go pick up my daughter at school—no problem, I’ll walk with you. You don’t know where that is?—we’ll take a walk and I’ll show you. National Geographic’s July 1980 article observed that “everywhere in the country—it is practically a national pastime—Bulgarians walk.”

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Nicely paired with the value of the walk is the cult of “clean air.” Many locations rise and fall in Bulgarian estimation depending on the assessment of the air’s cleanliness. In the late 19th century, beloved Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov founded the Bulgarian tourist movement with calls to “Sofia lovers of nature” to re-energize themselves physically and mentally by climbing Mount Vitosha. Mountain air is lauded for its clean air, critically important for physical and mental health. Mountain hiking is a strong part of the national ethos. But even in Sofia, even on the coldest winter days, windows in homes and offices will be repeatedly opened for “clean air.” Different neighborhoods will be valued according to their reputation for having more or less clean air. With no apparent irony, even passionate cigarette smokers (Konstantinov was among them) often use weekends to flee the cities for the mountains’ health-giving clean air and then light cigarettes as they sit peacefully at the summit.

Considering his plea to get out of the city for one’s health, Konstantinov might have been surprised to find that Sofia has been proclaimed the European Capital of Sport 2018. I hope the cleaning woman at Sportna Palata is prepared for the influx into her domain.

Спортна Палата вън