Monthly Archives: May 2016

Bulgaria Summer 2016

We’re going to Bulgaria this summer. We’re going for a month, all four of us, and we’re getting excited. A month sounds like a lot of time, but we know it will pass in a rush and we won’t get to see or do nearly all the things we would like. A good trip needs to balance just the right amounts of planning (so you’re not spoiled for choice) and serendipity (so you’re not so scheduled you miss unforeseen opportunities). Of course, each of us likely has in mind a different itinerary. I have a little Да Правим (To Do) list on my desktop that assures me all my decisions are the right ones—at least until the others in the family assert their opinion.

Cherni Vruh August 1894We’re planning to start off in Sofia. Assuming cooperative weather, at least one visit to Vitosha seems a must. I’d love to get our son and daughter to agree to a hike up to Черни Връх (Black Peak). In the late 19th century, beloved Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov founded the Bulgarian tourist movement with calls to “Sofia lovers of nature” to re-energize themselves physically and mentally by climbing Mount Vitosha.

Алеко Константинов2In the photo of Black Peak from 1894, Aleko—it seems no one ever refers to him as Konstantinov—is on the far right. Mountain air is lauded for its clean air, critically important for physical and mental health. Mountain hiking is a strong part of the national ethos. So that’s how I hope we’ll spend at least one day while in Sofia. If we walk down Vitosha Boulevard, we can meet Щастливеца (The Happy One, Aleko’s pseudonym) face-to-face, via the statue just placed there this month.

We’ll eat a lot I know. We’ll have кифли с шипков мармалад (something like brioche with rose hip jam). We’ll stop by the Turkish woman’s small bakery on Graf Ignatiev Street, opposite Sedmochislenitzi park, and have some baklava. We’ll wаnder through Борисова градина (Boris’s Garden) while munching on popcorn. And, it goes without saying, we’ll enjoy the best tomatoes in the world in our шопска салата (shopska salata).

Our daughter will want to take a horseback riding lesson or two in Борисова Градина (Boris’s Garden) at the entrance just south of the Vassil Levski metro on Dragan Tzankov Boulevard. Our son remembers feeling humiliated that he was too small to ride when we lived there. He had sit on a small pony and be led around in a circle so he’s anxious to prove himself on a horse just like his big sister. He’s still a bit smaller than she was then, though, so our fingers are crossed that he isn’t disappointed.

Where to after Sofia is the question.

My imagined southern route would take us to Rila—monastery and mountain, which the children have never seen and which neither of us adults have seen since the 1980s. But that is what is so wonderful about seeing something timeless, three decades is meaningless for an ageless mountain and a monastery founded over a millennium ago. From Rila to Blagoevgrad so that our daughter can see American University in Blagoevgrad, just in case, since she’s in high school and college is beginning to get a foothold in our thoughts. Then on to Bansko, one of our favorite spots so that we can spend hours eating, drinking, and talking at Dedo Pene’s. From Bansko in the Pirin Mountains, we might go to the town of Kovachevitza in the Rhodope Mountains. We’ve never been and who knows what we might fall in love with there.

From Sofia, we could well take an eastern route and stop off in Koprivshtitza to stay at Pri Bai Gencho, the very small семеен хотел (family hotel) and restaurant. Maybe we’ll get to stay in the same room as twice before, the one with the New York City souvenir key chain to open the door. Below is Bai Gencho flanked by his son Bai Toshko and daughter-in-law Ani.

Pri Bai Gencho

Hotel-Restaurant “Pri Bai Gencho”, City of Koprivshtitza, Behind the school

Home telephone 07-184-2068, Mobile 0878-889-264

IDevetashkan the morning we’ll have hot milk and мекици (something like the New Orleans fried dough specialty beignet) with homemade jam made from tiny wild strawberries. We’ll wander around the town’s cobblestone streets admiring the beautifully painted Bulgarian Renaissance (19th century) houses. When we’ve had our fill of Koprivshtitza, perhaps we’ll go on to see the remarkable Пещера Деветяшка (Devetashka Cave) and Крушунски Водопад (Krushunski Waterfall). In Bulgaria, there is an embarrassment of riches in terms of natural beauty.

My daughter wants to know exactly how long we’ll stay and where we’ll stay, but I can’t give her a satisfying answer. If we love it, we’ll stay longer. If we’re done, we’ll leave. If we get distracted by something unplanned, we’ll be sure to give in to the moment.

Natural beauty, archeology, history—we can do all of that with a trip north of Sofia. We can go to Пещера Леденика (Ledenika Cave) and then spend some time, a day really, at Белоградчик (Belogradchik) fortress and rocks.

From Belogradchik, we’ll go visit family in Kozlodui. There I want to see what I can find out about my father-in-law’s family history for a future blogpost I’m planning. I would like to poke around in the cemetary and see the names and dates on the headstones, perhaps go to the municipal office and see what can be found that seems lost to memory. Kozlodui is both a substantial town supported by the nuclear reactor there and a traditional village. Much has changed, but the steady employment from the reactor has in its own way financed the continued village life that remains. And village life means that we’ll be fed within an inch of our lives.

Of course, it just might happen that we do not want to be fed within an inch of our life and we just might not have any room left having just come from another relative’s before reaching the current one. We cannot with any ease say no because this is to insult our hosts. At a minimum, we will be encouraged not to be shy and we will insist to anyone listening that we are not being shy—we are simply not hungry. And being slim, we will of course be encouraged to eat all the more as it is obvious none of us are eating enough and more food could only be to our benefit.

PlovdivBut maybe we’ll mix it up and the idle plans above will be shifted around. Maybe we’ll go to Koprivshtitza on our way to Plovdiv. We’ve always loved Plovdiv and it’s apparently blooming more than ever now that it’s been declared the European Capital of Culture 2019. I’ve read more posts than I can count, seen more photos of reborn neighborhoods and cafes and artisan shops and street art—amazing street art—so we have to go to Plovdiv. From city life maybe we’ll plunge back into the natural wonder of the Rhodope Mountains and see the famed Дяволски Мост (Devil’s Bridge).

 

It’s the summer. There has to be ample beach time built in. So this summer we’re planning our first visit to Синеморец (Sinemoretz). This we have not left to serendipity, but have reserved a room.

Did I say we’re excited to go to Bulgaria this summer? We’re leaving in just four weeks. We all need bathing suits. We need a t-shirt or two. Passports both US and BG. Everything else is there. Because as Bulgarians are fond of saying—despite massive societal pessimism documented by countless international surveys and complaints galore (often valid) about their country’s problems—“България е райска градина” (Bulgaria is a Garden of Paradise).

 

 

The Baths / Баните

When my husband was growing up in the concrete panel block apartments of Druzhba, his family of four had to share their small apartment with another family of four. The families didn’t know or even like each other, but the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in its wisdom decided that this would be best. The People’s Republic of Bulgaria made such wise decisions regularly. As questioning authority was ill-advised and as no one on high particularly cared about the comfort of the much vaunted working class, eight people remained in a one-bedroom apartment for well over a decade until, at long last, the other family was moved to a different apartment. By then my husband was an adult and was essentially a squatter in a colder water studio with no bathroom or kitchen.

For all those years of unasked for communal living, my husband’s family of two parents and two children had the kitchen and the bedroom. The other family of two parents and two children had the living room and the bathroom. They shared the toilet.

Централна баня

So once a week my husband’s family trouped off to Sofia’s Central Mineral Bath. His mother went to bathe and socialize on the women’s side and he, his father, and younger brother went to the men’s side. The Central Mineral Bath was completed in 1913 and continues, at least on the outside, to be a building of true beauty.

 

Unfortunately, my first trip to Bulgaria in 1987 was a year too late in the Central Bath’s working life; it had been closed in 1986 due to its poor condition.

For centuries prior to this building, however, the natural thermal mineral waters were valued and the 16th century Banya Bashi Mosque next door was built in part so that Muslims could more easily make their required ablutions before prayers. And even more than a millennium before the Ottomans, the Romans extolled the waters of Sofia, then called Serdika. Reportedly, Serdika was such a favorite with Constantine the Great (reign 306-337) that he declared, “Serdika is my Rome.”

Many times my Grandma Lil recounted how her Old Country mother, born somewhere in the far eastern portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had difficulties with her legs. Wrapping them tightly with lengths of cloth did not offer enough relief. Something was swelling, something was aching, and the only correct and known to be sure cure would be found in the healing mineral baths of old Europe. So I have a respect for the power of mineral baths, even if I don’t necessarily believe they can cure all ills.

баня ПанчаревоFrom time to time, my in-laws also went to the baths at nearby Pancharevo. Bulgaria has been known since ancient times for its wealth of thermal mineral waters and Pancharevo is just one more of these. My husband and his family would make a day of it, first going to the Pancharevo Baths and then spending time picnicking and relaxing by the lake steps away.

I’ve been to the Pancharevo Baths several times and, despite the now decrepit building, bathing in this ancient way puts you in another space and time like nothing else. You cannot but relax and release tensions as you go through the time-worn rituals of cleansing and soaking.

Leah at 2риболов

Once we took my then two-year old daughter to Pancharevo. There was a drought that year and the lake, artificially made by damming, was virtually dry. Those that liked to fish after a bath or picnic were out of luck that year. When we lived in Bulgaria 2010-2012, we discovered that Pancharevo had transformed. Two wonderful outdoor pools had been constructed and filled with the thermal mineral water. One pool has a depth and slide that accommodates young children while the other a depth (and bar) that accommodates adults. It’s a thoroughly luxurious feeling to lie on a lounge chair in, say, October and warm yourself in the natural hot pool. It’s not cleansing like the baths, but it’s rather nice all the same. The original baths, looking quite forlorn though still operating, must be passed to reach the new pools so you in fact can combine old and new and do it all. There’s a spa as well with all the expected services, though we didn’t try it. You can lunch at the restaurant, picnic on the grass by the lake, or just pull sandwiches out of your bag to munch by the pool. Much time has passed since my in-laws went there, but you can still spend the day enjoying yourself at Pancharevo. And you can take the bus—I think it is bus line №1—straight from Sofia.

баня ДобринищеWe spent a few days one winter in the small town of Dobrinishte, about two and a half hours south of Sofia. One of the attractions for me was the mineral baths. Particularly in winter, the idea of soaking in a hot mineral bath has a powerful pull on the imagination and the body. The baths in Dobrinishte are in a large building fronted by extensive grounds and a circular garden surrounded by a stone path leading to a central entrance. Once inside, signs alert you to the water’s mineral composition, temperature, and the chronic diseases/complaints aided by bathing in the water (e.g., arthritis, sciatica, eczema) as well as those aided by drinking it (e.g., nephritis, hepatitis, colitis). My daughter and I left the males in our party to their side while we entered on the women’s. None of us admitted to any of the listed diseases.

Much ritual is involved at such a place. Yelena Akhtiorskaya in Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel
describes it recreated by Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach: “A full-blown conversation…was frowned upon. The process demanded respect. The banya experience was ritualistic, sacred. An air of immense gravity was brought about by the sense that one’s ancestors had been heating their bones in the same way for millennia.” Mineral baths are not reserved for the well-to-do or the occasional treat, but an ancient practice for all that has continued today uninterrupted.

My daughter and I undressed in the large anteroom and put our things into the lockers provided. Locker is perhaps a misnomer since there were no locks. We then entered the women’s bath with our soap, shampoo, sponge and towels, wearing nothing but our flip-flops. These are known as джапанки (japonki) in Bulgarian as they mimic traditional Japanese sandals. Wearing them is a necessity to prevent slipping on the wet tiled floor and to avoid the unsubtle censure of ever-present older women who frown on bare feet and who would not hesitate to call you out on any real or perceived departure from ritual. After washing ourselves at one of the taps continually feeding hot mineral water into the knee-high basins that lined two sides of the room, we carefully stepped out of our flip-flops and entered the bath.

We were among several mother-daughter pairs there on both occasions that we went. Bathers from small children to the elderly quietly washed and soaked, periodically chatted softly, and often closed their eyes in the bliss of absolute and total giving in to the warmth of water and the steam rising all around. At ten years old, my daughter found it impossible to quietly soak in what seemed to her the biggest bathtub in the world. It was hard to maintain a Zen state while counting how long she could hold her breath under water “one more time, Mama, one more time.” And still, it was a wonder to soak in a hot mineral bath while all around the bathhouse snow was piled six feet and higher.

 

 

 

 

The Former Neighbors

Years ago, a former neighbor picked us up from the Sofia airport to drive us to my husband’s family apartment in the Druzhba complex. This former neighbor and his wife use to live just above my in-laws. They had a telephone line for many years before my in-laws were granted one. They had spiffy new appliances and had considerably remodeled their one-bedroom apartment, precisely the same one my in-laws had one floor below. Misho worked the same construction jobs as my father-in-law, but they had never had to share their apartment with another family as my in-laws did, even though they had one child and my in-laws had two. Even their Moskvitch car had new floral seat covers. Not everyone lived the same in the egalitarian worker’s paradise. Several years after the changes of 1989, the neighbors bought an enormous new apartment in a brand new building in a nice neighborhood closer to downtown.

They were nice people, the neighbors. When my husband defected in 1985, Rumiana could hear my mother-in-law crying for him and came down to comfort her. For years, my in-laws relied on their telephone. My husband would call from DC and the neighbors would run downstairs to tell my in-laws to come up to talk. In 1991, we arrived for our second wedding, having had the first with my family in the U.S. My father-in-law had suffered a series of heart attacks. The elevator in their entrance was broken and he laboriously walked up the five flights. The bottom had dropped out of the Bulgarian economy, the stores were empty, the markets had only a few limp vegetables, and food ration coupons were used for the first time. Though it was mid-June, it was unusually chilly, gray, and rainy. Rumiana brought down a big pot of mushroom soup for us. Then Misho and Rumiana acted as our кумове (witnesses/sponsors) at the wedding, an important role that presumes they will stand as godparents of the children to come later.

When Misho picked us up from the airport in 1993, it was warm and sunny and just the way June in Bulgaria should be. Misho was clearly energized. He drove so fast I had to grip the door handle to keep upright. He continued to drive this way as he wove through the Druzhba market, thrusting his arm out of the window and gesturing to the vendors presiding over their full stands. “Peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers,” he cried joyfully. “We have everything now, everything!”

By then, Misho and Rumiana were ensconced in their new apartment. Rumiana showed us their large, white, heart-shaped bed in the master bedroom and the second bedroom for their grown son. They were sweethearts still, having been married since their late teens.

In 1995, we moved to Bulgaria for a two-year stint. I began learning Bulgarian. It was not smooth sailing. Misho and Rumiana had rented out their old apartment above my in-laws and I’m not sure we saw either of them more than once or twice. When in 1996, her younger sister was married, Rumiana took me aside during the restaurant reception and told me that while the other guests would eat from a pre-decided list of dishes, I was given the honor of order of ordering from the menu. “All these years and now we can talk to each other directly without an interpreter,” she smiled.

With my father-law now gone and Misho and Rumiana living more than a floor away, the contact dwindled. Though we visited Bulgaria for extended stays multiple times over the years, I don’t remember seeing them again. Our daughter was born in 2001. In our interfaith marriage, we decided against a christening and so Misho and Rumiana were not called to their traditionally-appointed task. My mother-in-law stayed in contact and so I knew that Rumiana was chronically ill from diabetes, from a lifetime of heavy smoking, from a cholesterol-heavy diet, from perhaps all or none of these. She was in and out of the hospital. She died at age 53.

We weren’t close. I didn’t see her often. She wasn’t a mentor to me or someone with whom I had a lot in common or someone who said or did memorable things. But when I have mushroom soup, I think of Rumiana every time. Every time.