Monthly Archives: December 2015

Dolno Ozirovo /Долно Озирово

My mother-in-law comes from a very small northwestern mountain village called Dolno Ozirovo (Lower Ozirovo). There is, naturally, another village very close by named Gorno Ozirovo (Upper Ozirovo), but I have never been there. My mother-in-law once told me that her father was adopted from Gorno Ozirovo. He was not an orphan, but his parents had too many children to support and another family living in Dolno Ozirovo had none. The pair of villages have remnants of Roman times, stones from an ancient observatory and coins that my husband’s cousin Ognian likes to collect on tramps around the hills and caves nearby. Less than six miles away is the nearest small town, Vurshetz.

Долно Озирово

My mother-in-law was the youngest of four children, the eldest Dimitar and three girls following him. When at 19, she married my father-in-law, she went to live with his family in Kozlodui, a far larger village on the Danubian plain. With determination and hard physical labor building the nation’s train tracks, they managed eventually to move to Sofia and obtain Sofia residency permits. Despite being the only one of her family to have left the village behind, she felt very strong ties. When my husband Rumen was born, she brought him there to be cared for by his grandmother for some time. How long is not clear. Rumen remembers calling his mother “Mama Ivanka” and his grandmother “Mama Kana” so it was long enough for him to sense a maternal relationship with his grandmother. At five, he was standing next to a motorcycle when the rider suddenly revved the engine. Rumen began to stutter and Mama Kana took him to a neighbor healer who mumbled incantations and cured him in a single visit.

млечницаRumen is a slow eater and in Dolno Ozirovo that slow eating once awoke a hitherto unknown aggressiveness. At that time, he was the youngest of seven first cousins. As a special treat, his Mama Kana made a large pan of mlechnitsa, a light dessert pudding made with milk, sugar, flour and eggs. So slow was five-year old Rumen to eat that his older cousins had polished it off before he could get his fair share. The result was that he grabbed a nearby ax and chased them around the yard. This forever imprinted on his mind that even the most mild-mannered can be roused to dangerous fury when sufficiently goaded.

кметствоLater he attended sixth grade in the village. It was felt that an application for the prestigious art high school in Sofia would have more of a chance arriving from a small peasant village than “bourgeois” Sofia. Sofia at that time nevertheless being filled in every increasing numbers by peasants from small villages all over the country. Rumen was accepted and the school changed his life in countless ways.

Rumen spent a good deal of his childhood in Dolno Ozirovo, even when living most of the school year in Sofia. One year, the movie The Godfather came to the village. Everyone gathered in the community center to see the much anticipated but not subtitled two-reeler. No one spoke English, so perhaps it is not surprising that whoever was chosen to operate the projector began with the second reel and then, after a short break, showed his audience the first reel. Rumen doesn’t remember anyone complaining or enjoying the movie any less.

Communism in many ways was good to Dolno Ozirovo. The village might have emptied, been nearly abandoned much sooner otherwise if not propped up by central planning and an infusion of resources. When Rumen was growing up, Dolno Ozirovo seemed to be thriving. Even then, though, it could provide education only through the primary grades. Anyone wishing to continue to secondary school had to go to Vurshetz.

овциNow with less then 500 people and many empty houses, even in 1993 Dolno Ozirovo was still a lively village. We were there for the annual village holiday on August 2. Every family slaughtered and roasted a sheep to celebrate. Kept awake all night by a sheep continually bawling, we disgruntedly hoped that it would be the one chosen. Rumen’s uncle had been the village baker until market forces entered the village and the bakery in the next village was the one that survived. So Voycho (Uncle) Ivan became the village slaughterer. Voycho Ivan was Khrushchev in appearance, thick-set, balding, with large, thick-fingered hands. He sat down with Rumen to drink a glass of the Bulgarian fruit brandy rakiya. “I’m going to hell,” he told him. Rumen asked him why. “Because I slaughter all the sheep.” Rumen tried to reassure him; after all, each village family paid him for the service and we were all quite willing to eat the resulting roasted meat. “But I’m the one who takes their souls,” Voycho Ivan sadly mourned. His daughter, Rumen’s first cousin, had died in childbirth years before; his wife Marishka, my mother-in-law’s sister, had passed away recently. A year or so later, Voycho Ivan had a heart attack, fell off his donkey cart, and died from the combined effects of coronary, hard fall, and harder life.

My mother-in-law’s brother Dimitar retained the family plot when his sisters left to live with their respective husbands. While working full-time as a miner, he built a beautiful two-story house catty-corner to the old three-room building he had grown up in with his three sisters and parents. He then ensconced his protesting parents in one of the rooms and demolished the old house. He built a clean cement outhouse with a light—and when you have visited enough village outhouses, you can clearly see that this is the most luxurious, most hygienic, least smelly outhouse of them all. A cement pathway led easily from the house to the outhouse set discreetly in the corner of the large yard, where a substantial and well-organized kitchen garden was laid out. In the far corner stood the barn. The outside of the house had a patio with overhanging grape leaves and the fruit ripened overhead as we sat to eat our lamb soup, roasted lamb, salad, and bread. Growing up, Rumen preferred always to stay with his Voycho Mito and his wife Verka because their house was so comfortable and clean, with no unfinished projects or piles of building materials laying around.

календарOne winter we visited Dolno Ozirovo and of course chose to stay with Voycho Mito, now a widower. Voycho Mito was a committed Communist. Born in 1926, he was old enough to know the extreme poverty and even hunger of the pre-revolution years and he remained an earnest and sincere believer until he died. But his only son defected to Austria and his nephew Rumen to the United States out of hatred of the Communist system, and that surely was a personal tragedy for him. He never said a word in protest to Rumen, never tried to convince him of his views. Yet sitting in his kitchen eating applesauce he had put up himself and drinking rosehip tea from rosehips he collected, he looked carefully at Rumen and pointed to a wall calendar published by the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP). “Who is that?” he tested Rumen. Rumen cocked his head at the photo of Joseph Stalin and composed his face carefully, “I don’t know,” he answered. For the BCP, time has stopped even for calendars.

When we went up to the second floor bedrooms by the outdoor stairwell that all Bulgarian village houses have, Voycho Mito stoked the wood furnace to heat the room. By morning, the room would be cold again and I would gasp from the shock of baring my skin to get dressed, but the fire warmed the room wonderfully and we felt very comfortable under the heavy wool blankets.

река ЧернаMy mother-in-law, her two sisters Marishka and Sedefka, and Voycho Mito have all passed away. Only Sedefka’s house, the one she built with her husband Lazar, is still inhabited. Rumen’s cousin Ognian lives there and his sisters visit regularly. A few years ago, we took our children there and our son splashed around in the river that Rumen had swam in countless times when growing up. A flock of geese was there as well. Something of Dolno Ozirovo is still there.


To Chicago and Back

Българска корицаIn 1894, Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov published a book describing his travels to the Chicago World’s Fair (officially known as The World’s Columbian Exposition). To Chicago and Back inspired many Bulgarians not only to travel internationally, but to travel and even emigrate to Chicago specifically. For years, the U.S. city with the highest number of Bulgarian immigrants was Chicago. Well over a century later, even Bulgarians who have never read the book know its title and author.


Despite the title, Aleko Konstantinov did not visit only Chicago on his 1893 travels. He opens by saying “If I began my travel notes from Sofia, I would be obliged, before anything else, to describe what it takes to obtain an international passport in Bulgaria, and that is such an unhappy story…” The more things change, the more they stay the same, the long unhappy process for my Bulgarian permanent residency card in mind.



pharmacyHe writes in a conversational style, describing what he sees and telling the reader his observations and reactions. In New York City, he complains about tasteless food and lack of dinner conversation while marveling at the tall buildings, wide boulevards and general American efficiency.


Daly's Drug StoreHe’s nonplussed by American pharmacies that don’t restrict themselves to pharmaceuticals, finding that they sell sodas, shoe brushes, postcards and the stamps to put on them.

Arriving at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Konstantinov echoes travelers from around the globe who found—and still find—the simple enormity of America nearly unfathomable. “Well, in the Palace of Manufacturing at the Chicago Exposition you could put not only our entire Plovdiv Bulgarian exposition, but also all of the inhabitants of the second Bulgarian capital, together with all of their possessions and their livestock on top of that.”


The Exposition’s Bulgarian pavilion of course exhibited rose oil and a map indicating the location of Kazanluk’s Valley of Roses. No doubt should there be a Bulgarian pavilion in an exposition today, it too would showcase rose oil. Konstantinov notes that rakiya, musical instruments such as the gaida and the kaval (wooden shepherd’s pipe), and samples of peasant clothing and crafts are all displayed against hanging colorful kilims.

In 1893, Konstantinov has the foresight upon exploring the California pavilion to note that “California wines are little by little pushing out the French ones…” Back east in DC, he visits famous sites such as the Capitol, White House and Washington Monument. He strolls down Pennsylvania Avenue and decides “The city of Washington, if not the prettiest, is at least one of the prettiest cities which I saw in Europe and America.” After jaunts to Philadelphia and Boston, Konstantinov boards the ship back to Europe and muses on America’s appeal. “Whatever the shortcomings there are in the American way of life, America still possesses a power of attraction. He who lives in America for a time does not easily separate himself from her.”

English coverAs Nikola Georgiev writes in his introduction to the English language edition of To Chicago and Back, “Travel notes inevitably describe foreign lands through the eyes of a different culture.” Aleko Konstantinov wrote of what he saw in America. I write what I see in Bulgaria. And I think I can conclude as Konstantinov did. Whatever the shortcomings there are in the Bulgarian way of life, Bulgaria still possesses a power of attraction. He who lives in Bulgaria for a time does not easily separate from her.


Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

turisticko-saobracajna-karta1930sRebecca West, brilliant British novelist, journalist, literary critic, essayist, and more, had a long and successful career, but Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia is universally considered her masterpiece. Given my interest in the former Yugoslavia’s neighbor Bulgaria, I have begun to read it. Thankfully, there is a detailed index and much of interest about Bulgaria itself as well as much to compare and contrast with Yugoslavia. The paperback version is 1150 pages.


I’m not sure I’ll finish it. Not true, I’m sure I will not.

Rebecca West.jpgBut the length of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, written in the late 1930s and published here in the United States in 1941, is not what I find difficult. I can complain about the stilted and pedantic dialogue, clearly making the people—real and composite—in this nonfiction narrative mere mouthpieces of the author. I can complain about the highly opinionated tilt of ostensibly objectively presented history. I can complain about the off-kilter and gratingly insistent sensibility about what constitutes maleness and femaleness, and the relative importance of these in the narrative. But what really gets to me is the balkanization of the Balkans.

Dame West does a disservice by her ready reception of Europe’s tendency to categorize the continent’s peoples. Western vs. Eastern, Catholic vs. Orthodox, Austro-German vs. Slav, Serb vs. Bulgar. Page after page, we hear about such things as “the authentic voice of the Slav” and other gross generalizations. And she further emphasizes what is Serb or Croat or Macedonian or Montenegrin or… All this division, all this compartmentalization, may or may not reflect what her travels were showing her. With Hitler on the rise, perhaps the people she met had a heightened awareness of what divided, rather than what united, them. The writer is not herself intolerant, but the insistent message of regional fragmentation plays into the intolerance of the time and adds fertilizer to the soil that Slobodan Milošević tilled so well five decades later.

blgfThat being said, there are wonderful observations and very cogent analysis throughout. There is, after all, reason why Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is considered a classic and still relevant. Here she says of Zagreb in the 1930s something I feel of Sofia today:

“It has, moreover, the endearing characteristic, noticeable in many French towns, of remaining a small town when it is in fact quite large. A hundred and fifty thousand people live in Zagreb, but from the way gossips stand in the street it is plain that everybody knows who is going to have a baby and when. This is a lovely spiritual victory over urbanization.”

Sofia 1930sD

Sofia 1930sB

In a more somber vein, West names the Achilles heel of the region:

“That is very true of all disputes between the Serbs and the Bulgars that are based on historical grounds. Both parties, and this applies not to old professors but to the man in the streets, start with the preposterous idea that when the Turks were driven out of the Balkans the frontiers recognized when they came in should be re-established, in spite of the lapse of five centuries, and then they are not loyal to it. The frontiers demanded by the extremists on both sides are those which their peoples touched only at moments of their greatest expansion, and they had to be withdrawn afterwards because they could not be properly defended. The ideal Bulgaria which the Bulgarians lust for, and nearly obtained through the Russian-drafted Treaty of San Stefano in 1878, actually existed only during the lifetimes of the Tsar Simeon, who died in the tenth century, and of the Tsar Samuel, who died about a hundred years later. The Serbs are as irritating when they regard their Tsar Dushan not only as an inspiration but as a map-maker, for his empire had fallen to pieces in the thirty-five years between his death and the defeat at Kossovo.”

This was written before World War II, before Communism triumphed, and before Communism fell. It is notable that the Yugoslavians continued to be “irritating” until the irritation grew to such lethal proportions that the country fell apart in the most bloody and horrific of ways and now lies in pieces in a European community those pieces cannot yet fully manage to join. Bulgaria somehow moved on, disputing no borders, making no additional territorial claims officially, its people clamoring for no changes nor hearkening back to empires of the past. Bulgarian textbooks do not teach children about “the Turkish yoke,” but of the Ottoman Empire. Bulgarian politicians of any impact—right, left, and center—generally support Bulgaria’s place in the European Union, looking forward and not back.

Rebecca West died in 1983, just three years after Yugoslavian President for life Josip Broz Tito. Had she lived another decade or two, she might have put on her journalist or essayist hat and revisited those Serbs and Bulgars. I would read that in its entirety with great interest.