Monthly Archives: April 2016

Various and Sundry

My in-laws were the first of their families to leave their respective villages. With great difficulty, they made their way to the dream destination of all dissatisfied, striving peasants—the big city. But moving to Sofia then was difficult. They had no residence permits. They began by working on laying railroad tracks, eventually making it to Sofia to a one-room “apartment” with a communal sink. Everyone referred to the neighborhood as “Atomic Center,” after the nuclear research reactor completed there in 1961, the year my husband was born. They built a life there, made friends, obtained the residence permit. My husband Rumen remembers that when, somehow, they managed to buy a television, children came from their single rooms to crowd around and watch. When Rumen was seven years old, they were assigned a coveted one-bedroom apartment in the then new Druzbha residential block complex. A younger brother was born. Not long after the move, they discovered that another family, also with two children, was assigned to share the same apartment. The village with so little opportunities had far more spacious living quarters.

Rumen spent much of his early years and each summer visiting Dolno Ozirivo (maternal relatives) and Kozlodui (paternal relatives). It was clear to him that there were two sorts of village residents. There was the house-proud resident of the spic-and-span variety. For him/her, everything had its place and nothing extraneous marred building, yard, garden, or animal pen.

Then there was the far more common house-proud resident for whom future building plans necessitated hoarding every possible (and even more impossible) item for potential future use. Chipped bricks in piles, twisted wire netting, wood with nails from previous uses still remaining and now rusted, washed out tins that formally contained sunflower oil or cheese, clay pots, drinking gourds. All leaning up against the side of the house or the barn or perched precariously by the outdoor sink or bench.

Rumen preferred the first kind. He had a favorite place to stay in each village, a spic-and-span relative for whom even the outhouse had to be first-rate rather than indistinguishable from the chicken coop adjacent.

Having worked so hard to obtain Sofia residence permit and apartment, my in-laws embarked upon recreating the village ambiance they had so recently managed to escape. Despite the ruling Communist theology and harsh rules and too many fines to count, they purchased a small plot high in the mountains above the Rebrovo train station. It was a 40-minute train ride from Sofia and a 40-minute walk up. Over many years, they built a small cottage and a large garden. The cottage started with one room, but grew steadily. The first floor had an ample bedroom, living area with another double bed, table, wardrobes, and family photos on the wall. The second floor envisioned two more bedrooms, with the Bulgarian tradition of a narrow outdoor stairway leading to them. The kitchen was equipped with a wood stove and all the necessary implements both for making meals and putting up the garden produce for the winter.

With others of the same bent and after many years of backbreaking work, that 40-minute walk ended in what can only be called a village, albeit made up only of Sofia weekenders. Having hauled up sand, cement, bricks, furniture, pots, pans, wood, perennial bulbs, recycled two-liter plastic bottles, canning jars, and other various and sundry materials, they were understandably reluctant to dispose of anything that might later prove useful. The cottage had a below-earth room for cold storage (and whatever else might be put there in a pinch) and a shed for tools (and whatever else might be put there in a pinch).

My father-in-law passed away in the cottage that he built with his hands and that was his favorite place. My mother-in-law continued to make weekend jaunts and garden there. When we lived in Sofia in the mid 1990s, we spent many weekends there in orgies of shelling peas for canning, taking naps in the sun on the wide porch, fetching water from the spring, taking walks to gather herbs for winter tisanes, digging out parsley roots for fall salads, filling watering cans from the catchments to save the strawberries in a drought year. One chilly late fall mountain night, my mother-in-law heated bricks in the wood stove, wrapped them in towels, and put them at the foot of our bed to keep our feet warm in the first hours of sleep. It was hard work and it was idyllic and we enjoyed it immensely. But we grew tired of constantly fighting the various and sundry that prevented easy access to the tools and materials we really did use. Asking whether this item or that could be thrown away or even moved to a new location always met with a certain hesitancy; my mother-in-law seemed truly pained at the idea. The village ethos had a clear hold.

Then one day she sent me below to get a few onions to start a soup. I had started to peel one when I suspected what I really had was a flower bulb. I was that close to making a truly poisonous soup. Finally, I had enough—enough irritation, enough Bulgarian, and enough courage to tell my mother-in-law I was cleaning it out.

We hauled out the broken ladder that would never be fixed, the single shoes missing their mates, the watering can with a hole at the bottom. She watched, first nervously, then—because she had the ability to laugh at herself—with amusement as the pile grew. After we tossed out the old and the odd, the unused and the unloved, my mother-in-law put a match to the pile and nursed the fire until all that could burn had become ash. What was left, we bagged and asked a neighbor to haul down in his truck. Fifteen years later, my mother-in-law having moved from the dream of Sofia to DC where her grandchildren were, we sold the Rebrovo cottage.

This summer, we will spend a month in Bulgaria. We will visit relatives in the village. We prefer to stay with the spic-and-span relatives rather than the various-and-sundry relatives, but we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. En route, we will pass through towns and villages with many of the latter sort of houses. Houses with the first floor built surrounded by all the building supplies needed for an eventual second floor, so eventual that the second floor likely awaits a second generation. Houses surrounded by the debris of what was demolished to make way for the current structure, because of what might be salvaged for yet another use. Houses that have accumulated various and sundry, because every purchase was a hard-won purchase and is memorable and just can’t be let go unless the owner has a ruthless American daughter-in-law bent on cleaning it out.

Time Is Not Money

Travel guides first print and now Internet often provide travelers, real and armchair, with information about the cultural differences they can expect to encounter. Undoubtedly the most common one noted for Bulgaria is the head nodding for no and shaking for yes. There are others and I remember feeling pretty well armed with Bulgarian cultural knowledge when we went to live there 1995-1997. I had visited in 1987 and then my future in-laws had visited us on two occasions. I intended to learn to speak Bulgarian, or at least to get a good start, during our two-year stay. My Bulgarian husband and I had jobs secured in a local advertising agency that was an affiliate of an international company. For reasons now obscure, I did not anticipate any cultural misunderstandings barring a smooth transition to life in what was now a former Communist country.

I should have had a bit more trepidation.

Setting up in my mother-in-law’s living room, shopping for food daily, learning the public transportation system, learning how to communicate in a foreign language—all these were relatively straightforward. We created or adapted advertising for local and international clients selling chocolate, beer, tires, and computers, among other things.

I remember being astounded at the stupidity of the American campaign for the computer company that the agency’s worldwide affiliates were expected to translate into the local languages. “Get the monkey off your back,” was the slogan and the image was of chimpanzees sitting in front of computer terminals looking confounded. The idea was to convince companies—remember this was the 1990s—to switch from room-sized mainframe computers to minicomputers. My Bulgarian colleagues were themselves confounded and I explained the English idiom. It took a lot of correspondence with the main office before we were allowed to use another campaign that more easily lent itself to non-American use.

Then came the campaign for an American oil company that was establishing its branded gas stations throughout Bulgaria. The gas stations were a bit more expensive than the longstanding local ones, but offered faster service and the mini-marts Americans take in stride. The oil company wanted us to emphasize that “time is money.” The faster service and convenient mini-marts saved time and so Bulgarians would find it worth it to pay the higher price.

Time is money. It was so basic, I thought, and perfectly reasonable. My Bulgarian colleagues told me it would never work. Now I was confounded.

“No,” they insisted, “time is not money. Only money is money.”


It’s worth it to spend the day hiking in the woods or in the mountains all day to pick mushrooms for free rather than walk ten minutes to the market to pay for them. “Мошеници (Mooshenitzi / Swindlers)!” It’s worth it to make your own pair of pants, despite the time and effort expended to find the cloth, the zipper, the thread, and the after work hours rather than buy the pants ready-made for more money than the cost of the supplies. It’s worth it to spend the hours under the hood of your long-suffering vehicle figuring out how to make the repairs yourself with only the conflicting guidance of all the neighboring men peering behind or leaning out of their balcony windows.

I had a hard time with this cultural divide. I had a hard time because it wasn’t about untranslatable idioms, differing body language, local food or table customs. It was instead about a core cultural value. And while it would be easy to ascribe “only money is money” to a country long experienced in poverty and how to subsist on the barely enough, this is not the whole story. There are plenty of people with enough means in Bulgaria, then and now, to choose goods and services based on the convenience they offer rather than solely on price. For them, there is some calculation of their time.

But I think the larger story is that the value of time is truly incalculable. There is no per diem in life, there is no hourly rate. And if you believe this, then you will not look at your watch at dinner with your friends. And you will not equate time finding your spiritual equilibrium in mountain hikes with the hourly rate you might have earned had you spent the same time at your job. And you will not eat lunch at your desk, you will take a walk and have a well-rounded meal out of the workplace. And you will use weekend afternoons for the all-important следобедна почивка (sledobedna pochivka / afternoon nap) during which time you are confident the telephone will not ring because everyone knows this is valuable time.

I now truly believe that only money is money and that the value of time is incalculable. I have managed to overcome my American cultural education and reorient myself, even in the U.S., to live by this Bulgarian cultural value that is, whatever its basis may be, admirable and entirely worthy of adoption.



Sheep / Овци

When I first went to Bulgaria to meet my future in-laws, I saw flocks of sheep. This was in 1987 in the capital Sofia as we drove from the airport to Druzhba, one of the many concrete panel block residential apartment complexes you see throughout Eastern Europe.

Sofia before independenceBuilding truly began in Sofia after independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and has not stopped so it was and is not in any sense of the word an agricultural center. And yet, between the main roads leading from the airport to Druzhba or from Druzhba to the city center, there were large grassy areas on which I could clearly see shepherds grazing their sheep. They came from the small villages surrounding Sofia that had not yet been absorbed in the city proper, but they don’t come anymore. Perhaps the shepherds and their sheep, together with their villages, have disappeared. The young people leave, the old pass one. Villages in Bulgaria, like the world over, are abandoned, emptied, ghost villages.


Долно ОзиривоMy husband was born and raised, mostly, in Sofia. His mother is from the mountain village of Dolno Ozirivo (Lower Ozirivo). Dolno Ozirivo was never large. Even in my mother-law’s childhood, there were not enough children to support a school beyond the primary grades, though this might have been due less to the sheer number of adolescents than to parents pulling them out of school to work on the village’s subsistence farms. Dolno Ozirivo might, in our lifetimes, become a ghost village. When I first went there in 1993, however, it was still soldiering on. The houses were virtually all inhabited. There were still children being raised there. There were chickens and goats and sheep.


Баба Кана и козлеWe were there for the annual village holiday. 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 Gorno Ozirivo (Upper Ozirivo) was the one that survived. So Voicho (Uncle) Vancho became the village slaughterer. Voicho Vancho 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,” Voicho Vancho sadly mourned.


Връбка и магареRumen spent his earliest years in Dolno Ozirivo and parts of many summers. He remembers his Voicho Lazar tenderly raising his lambs and emotional over each slaughter or sale. Once I saw Voicho Lazar setting out with his donkey cart to sell two sheepskins. I took a photo of the donkey with Rumen’s cousin. Voicho Lazar treasured it for years. Many people in the village had sheep and goats for both milk and meat, and in warm weather the men took turns gathering them together into one flock to drive into the mountain grazing areas for the day.


Whether you go to a small independent corner grocery or to one of the larger supermarkets that are now sprinkled throughout Sofia, you find a large range of dairy products. For each—milk, yogurt, sirene (white cheese)—there is a variant made with sheep’s milk. Feta cheese is made throughout the Balkans, but in 2005 the European Union high court decreed feta cheese a traditional Greek product whose name deserves legal protection. Bulgarians continue to produce their own sirene, which others then blithely translate as feta without concern for court decisions. Sheep’s milk sirene is a favorite.


My father-in-law is from the far larger village of Kozlodui set in the Danubian plain. Rumen’s Diado (Grandfather) Ivan spent much of his time with the village sheep. Like Dolno Ozirivo, he was the shepherd of a flock made up of his own sheep and those of other villagers. There were two or three such flocks, each with a pair of shepherds responsible for them. From April to perhaps September or October, he lived with a flock of around 300 in the common grazing land, working with another village shepherd and their dogs. Periodically, people would bring them additional food and supplies. They always had meat at hand, though, and the joke ran something like this: “Whose sheep is missing this week? Was it a fox/wolf/boar?” Diado Ivan and his fellow shepherd lived in a hut until winter weather brought them back to the village. In Kozlodui, the sheep were then dispersed to their owners to be housed in barns and yards, feeding on hay, corn, and bran until the grass grew again.


Not all the sheep were collected for summer grazing. Undoubtedly some ewes were kept by their owners for milking and tended along with the chickens, pigs, and female goats (also milked). Rumen’s Strinka (Aunt) Sanda kept goats for their milk. Once she sent us off back to Sofia with a two-liter bottle of goat milk. Rumen and his brother had polished it off before we even got on the bus. And once, my then four-year old son Yoan and I were helping out, carrying buckets of water to the pen while Strinka Sanda limped along with her cane. She laboriously sat down on a stool and milked the goat, who then with unerring judgment kicked the bucket over so that the milk ran in streams until disappearing altogether in the dry summer earth. Strinka Sanda heaved herself up, patted Yoan’s head, and told him there would be no glass of goat milk to drink today.


When my in-laws got married in Kozlodui, they received a valuable wedding present of matching sheepskin jackets, beautifully tailored and worn wool side in, skin side out. When I knew them, my father-in-law’s was long gone and my mother-in-law’s jacket was a sleeveless vest dyed a dark blood red. She wore it in the often chilly Druzhba apartment kitchen keeping her arms free and torso warm while she cooked.


By the time Rumen was visiting his paternal relatives in Kozlodui, his grandfather had stopped taking out the flocks. Instead he worked with Rumen’s Baba (Grandmother) Stana tending the garden, chickens, vineyard, corn, and general household chores. He often played the kaval, the wooden flute traditionally played by shepherds. Each time she heard it, Baba Stana was enraged at the work stoppage this clearly implied. She would stomp over, grab the kaval, and throw it in the fire. Rumen remembers Diado Ivan calmly beginning the search for an appropriate piece of wood and settling with his knife to carve a new kaval.


Diado Ivan still enjoyed tromping around the meadows and taking long walks away from the noise, houses, and fenced-in yards of the village. He would take Rumen with him carrying a string bag containing bread, homemade sirene, an onion, tomatoes, peppers, and a pear. They would find a place to sit, and Diado Ivan would take out his knife, this time not to carve a kaval, but to carefully peel and cut off bite-size chunks of pear for grandfather and grandson to share for their dessert.