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.
Building 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.
My 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.
We 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.
Rumen 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.