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.

8 thoughts on “Various and Sundry

  1. Hi, I love reading you blog as it gives a real insight to Bulgaria, past and present. I am sure that you have lots of traditional recipes, knowledge of Bulgarian customs and tips for preserving crops. If you could find time to pass on any information that I could add to my website I would be extremely grateful. Of course, all credit would be to you and your in laws.

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    1. Oh, you have far more confidence in me that I deserve. I do have a handful of traditional recipes (though most Bulgarians simply cook by eye and hand and taste), but the preserving techniques are really the same the world over. For compote, for example, you simply clean the fresh fruit, put in jars, add sugar to taste/judiciously, add water to the brim, cap, and boil the jars for ten minutes. I use the classic Mason jars. Unfortunately for me, in the move back to the U.S., I lost my precious лютеница (lytenitza) recipe and with my mother-in-law’s passing have no way to recreate it. Thanks so much for reading my blog – you give me a real boost of confidence.

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  2. Very nice piece! I like your dichotomy between hoarders and non-hoarders, and the wonderful but infuriating phenomenon of the ongoing process of collecting detritus for potential use in potential construction and expansions. On the negative side, I wince at your use of the phrase “communist theology.” What exactly do you mean? Also, despite what passed for “communism” in Bulgaria, I know many more people in Bulgaria who managed to purchase country cottages under “communism” that I do in the world in which I grew up in New York under “capitalism”, where a country cottage was but a unobtainable dream realized only in surrogate form during one- or two-week annual or bi-annual vacations in rented bungalows with shared kitchens in the Catskill mountains or along the urban beaches of New York City. Your wonderful stories would be richer, I think, if you dropped the cold-war rhetoric. That said, I look forward to reading more of your posts.

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    1. Thank you so much for giving the piece such a careful and critical read. I use the term “communist theology” as my own answer to Marx’s famous quote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” I believe he was right in this view, but Communist governments merely substituted a new theology. Perhaps their testimony and creed could be said to be “The only god is Marx and Lenin is his prophet.” However much one might be an advocate of socialist principles, citizens of countries in which Communism pervaded every aspect of their lives know that Communism in practice was an unacceptably cruel and inhumane system that forced each person into either punishing risk or morally compromising complicity.

      I hope that I am never found to be using rhetoric, much less of the cold war kind. My paternal grandfather left the famines in the Volga region that were caused by forced collectivization, and yet was a card-carrying Communist even in the United States, one whose FBI file of his rather low-level activities dated back to the 1940s. My maternal uncle has spent his life working for organized labor. The Democratic Party is as far right as my family on either side has ever voted. I am proud of their progressive principles and share them fully.

      But I don’t romanticize in any way the doctrine that guides every individual and institution in Communist countries, that punishes based on family history, class, profession, preferences, desire, and belief rather than merely flouting of the criminal code. Years before he became Bulgaria’s first democratically elected president, philosopher and dissident Zhelyu Zhelev published “The Fascism,” a book that disappeared from Bulgaria’s bookstores and libraries within three weeks of its publication. “The Fascism” ostensibly analyzed five elements of fascist political systems (of which a single party state with a strong personality cult is one), but the likeness to communist political systems and states was strikingly clear to Zhelev’s readers. Dictatorship, whatever ideology or theology its government professes, is intolerable and without merit.

      We cannot measure a system’s value by the ability (or not) to build a small cottage with no running water and an outhouse high up in a mountain—particularly when its owners are living multi-generationally in a tiny apartment down below. I am a critic of many aspects of American governance and society, but I measure America’s value by the fact that I can stand in the street and loudly declare those criticisms without fear of reprisal. That lack of fear, that freedom to speak is worth more to me than the hard-won weekend house.

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      1. No, don’t be sorry! I am not sorry at all and I meant what I said about the close and critical read. There could be no greater compliment than someone taking the time to read, consider, and have a response. I am truly appreciative.

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  3. No, don’t be sorry! I am not sorry at all and I meant what I said about the close and critical read. There could be no greater compliment than someone taking the time to read, consider, and have a response. I am truly appreciative.

    Like

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