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.
When 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.
There 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.
Bulgarians 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.