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.