Monthly Archives: June 2016

Borisova Gradina / Борисова Градина

June 22, 2016

It’s the first day of summer and we spent hours of it in Sofia’s oldest park, Борисова Градина (Borisova Gradina, Boris’s Garden). The park was actually begun in 1884, several years before Tzar Ferdinand became Bulgaria’s ruler, let alone married and had a son named Boris. Tzar Ferdinand was an accomplished botanist so it is likely he took an avid interest in the park’s development. The park is large and varied, old and new, planned and wild, for leisure and athletics, frequented by all ages.

Парк на СвободатаDuring the communist period, the park was renamed. As communists are known neither for their sense of humor nor their sense of irony, they renamed the park Парк на Свободата (Park na Svobodata, Freedom Park) and in 1956 stuck a large monument there called Братска Могила (Bratska Mogila, Brotherly Mound). Hence Freedom Park in Bulgaria’s capital memorializes Soviet “partisans” who died fighting fascism. Whether for or against communism generally or the USSR specifically, it was clear to all Bulgarians that they were in no way free of their Soviet “big brothers.” Someone has now painted a graffiti red star where the official red star used to be. It’s hard to know whether using a red star as graffiti is honoring the original intent or mocking it.

Borisova Gradina is bordered on the southwest by Dragan Tzankov Boulevard and on the northeast by Tzarigradsko Shossay. We began our walk at the top of the park at Орлов Мост (Orlov Most). There the manmade Lake Ariana hosts paddle boats and rowboats in the warm weather and a skating rink in the cold. The plaza is lined with cafes and with vendors selling ice-cream, popcorn, and freshly squeezed juices. The fragrance of linden trees gently accompanies you enter the long alleys into the park itself.

чистачThe park is maintained, but not to a stellar degree. There is someone mowing the grass around the playground and someone raking. The playground is large, but has not been painted in anyone’s memory. The fountain’s water is cold and fresh, but half of the spouts on the old fountain have stopped working. The benches are plentiful, but peeling and scattered. Nonetheless it is a living park. It is not an immaculate thing for promenades and for attention paid. The lamps remain as beautiful as when they were first installed.

bench fountain lamp

колаChildren can pedal a toy car, and at three leva for 15 minutes you can easily say yes to this treat every day. Or they can follow, frighten, and feed the pigeons who charge nothing for this entertainment. The pigeons seem to enjoy обикновени бисквити (ordinary biscuits). These are made by many companies. Nestle calls theirs житен дар (wheat gift) and the pigeons were happy to have their gift crumbled and thrown to them.


гълъб и момче

вестникYou can pull the benches wherever you have a mind to and read the paper. Or let your baby sleep in the fresh air.





You can walk to the lily pond and perhaps come across a policeman directing not traffic but horses to drink at a nearby fountain.

полицай и коне


Everywhere you turn, there is another path, reminding one of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Take one path and you see a perhaps forgotten partisan with his children, another and you see an outdoor concert stage.

партизан сцена

There are many busts of Bulgarian literary figures. I find myself often surprised when doing the almost inadvertent calculation and realizing how young so many of them died, how fierce and worn by life the sculpted faces appear.




There are many small clearings, gazebos, small structures, where people can find themselves private spaces in the midst of the big city park. Or one can always lean a bike next to the appropriate trees and sling a hammock for an afternoon nap.




тенис център3

In the midst of the most wild, most untouched parts of Borisova Gradina, there are very well kept clay tennis courts where a summer youth tennis camp is currently underway. Not far away the Republic swimming complex that was my husband’s favorite as a boy has been completely abandoned. We hope it gets a second life, but we’re not too hopeful this will actually happen.






From time to time on the dirt footpaths with old growth trees towering overhead, you see a small wooden bench to surprise you with its contemplative possibilities.




Коколандия1Keep walking and eventually you come to Коколандия (Kokolandia), a children’s paradise. A brilliantly planned series of rope and wood courses differentiated by difficulty, it is a modern entertainment and sport that blends seamlessly in and with the surrounding forest. It is modestly priced, creatively structured, and requires of children of all ages ingenuity, strength, and resourcefulness.


And as the sign says, “There is no WiFi…only secure ropes.”




Our son fell asleep on a nearby bench after his exertions. Earlier I had lain on the grass looking up at a nearly cloudless blue sky through the branches of the tree providing me with shade. Contentment is never a bore. Borisova Gradina never disappoints.






Bulgarian work / Българска работа

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The plane ride from Washington, DC to Sofia, Bulgaria isn’t as long as that to Russia or India or Australia. But it’s long enough and uncomfortable enough that, barring emergency travel, you want to make your stay long enough to recover and enjoy before it’s time to get back in the saddle of an airline seat that makes you feel every minute and every mile with exquisite discomfort. We arrived this afternoon. The family apartment is in the Druzhba complex so it’s just a few minutes drive from the airport. The next door neighbor picked us up in his taxi, a used Ford that he bought in Slovenia on his way back from a vacation and drove to Bulgaria. My husband asked why he hadn’t bought a used Ford in Sofia. Itzu said it’s more expensive in Bulgaria. “Because we’re a rich country,” he smiled wryly. In western media, I have noticed, the name “Bulgaria” almost never stands alone when first introduced in an article, or on a radio program, or in the television news. It’s usually accompanied by an appendage—“the poorest country in the EU, Bulgaria.”

Druzhba has for years looked the same despite, somehow, the enormous changes that have occurred in and around it since 1989. In point of fact, it looks the same as pretty much all the other concrete panel apartment complexes built in a militant utilitarianism that eschewed any aesthetic appeal as bourgeois. It is forever drab, forever ugly, forever full of families that formed the basis of the middle class in this long-held—at least in the 1944-1989 period—to be classless society. The playgrounds are mostly appalling, but children laugh and play and grandmothers encourage the younger ones on the swings and ceaselessly warn the older ones that they’ll fall off whatever they might be perched upon. “Did you hear what I said? Do you understand Bulgarian?”

We opened the apartment door to discover the electricity had been shut off. My husband had arranged for automatic monthly payments, but something has gone awry. At 5:00 pm on a Sunday, there’s nothing to be done about it except to pull the candles and matches out of the cupboard. Tomorrow we will go to the баничария (pastry shop) to get the breakfast we’ve been waiting for. Кифла с мармалад (a large fluffy crescent of brioche-like pastry filled with marmalade) for me, баница с айран (the classic phyllo dough with feta accompanied by a yogurt drink) for my husband, large enough portions so that our son can have some of each. And then, thus fully prepared, we will solve the electric problem.

However much Druzhba leaves to be desired in appearance, upkeep, and cachet, it must be said—as my mother-in-law often did—that within its boundaries it has just about everything one needs on a daily basis. It has a year-round open air fruit and vegetable market, cosmetic stores, appliance sales and appliance repairs, pawn shops, shoe stores, vendors selling freshly roasted meats, baby products stores, банчария, second-hand stores, mobile phone sellers (new and refurbished), clothes vendors, seasonal vendors, бира-скара (beer and grill) places, and more than one sit-down restaurant.

Our son hadn’t been interested in the snack Air France served on the second leg, so shortly after our arrival he declared he wanted dinner. My husband led us to a place in Druzhba Itzu had introduced him to two years ago. It’s called Механа Тибаетъ. Like all Bulgarian restaurants I’ve ever been to, the menu is awe-inspiringly long. We got шопска салата (the Bulgarian tomato, cucumber, and feta salad), a tomato salad, a homemade питка (small flat loaf) that arrived hot and so large we three shared it. My son’s roasted pork came with side dishes of лютеница (red pepper and eggplant spread/dip), white beans, and cabbage salad. My husband’s кюфтета (seasoned pork-beef patties) came with a large green salad and potatoes. The waiter was friendly, efficient, made ракия (brandy) recommendations for my husband who happily ordered 100 grams rather than his usual 50.

We also ordered mineral water. The waiter brought a large bottle of Горня Баня (Gornya Banya), a popular brand. This he opened and poured into our three glasses each marked prominently with the name and logo of Банкя (Bankya), a rival brand. “Is it possible to drink Горня Баня from a Банкя glass?” I asked him. “Yes,” he answered. “In foreign countries it isn’t, but here in Bulgaria it’s possible.”

While we waited for our food, two women and a man sat down at the table in front of ours. They ordered drinks, but no food. The woman and one of the men had their backs to me. Both seemed to be listening rather intently to the man facing me. They all spoke but none very much. The man who seemed to be the leader was tall, slim, with a flat face and large ears. One of his ears was rounded while the other seemed to end in a point like a leprechaun. The man with his back to me was plump and chainsmoked. When he turned at one point, he showed a face that was as stereotypically all-American as an Iowa farm boy, with just the tips of the hair framing that face an incongruous gray. The woman periodically did something with her phone, asked a question, seemed as though she might be taking notes. I imagined that they could well appear in some mafia-themed movie where the characters make their plans in the restaurant they frequent almost daily. Probably though they are just Druzhba residents or business owners or co-workers living much of their lives in and among these concrete panel apartment blocks and the commerce that sprang up to serve the neighborhood.

The roasted pork was delicious. The шопска салата and tomato salad with сирене as well. My husband enjoyed the chef’s variation on the traditional кюфтета seasonings. The питка was the perfect way to mop up the various juices cold and hot. Ketchup has nothing on Bulgaria’s traditional лютеница. The salad and entrée portions were large. The prices were modest. The waiter and the kitchen staff he represented were professionals who knew what they were doing. I think about a restaurant like Механа Тибаетъ, a restaurant tourists will never go to in a neighborhood they will never see. Sofia has some lovely neighborhoods, some very modern restaurants. But I think that the dinner we had today and the breakfast we will have tomorrow in a Druzhba that no one would ever choose to create in the same way again made us feel that we were making a very good start to our month in Bulgaria. Often Bulgarians will disparage something of low quality or poor service or workmanship as Българска работа (Bulgarian work). Often, though, Българска работа is quite satisfying, and all three of us were very glad to begin experiencing it once again.

Dr. Seuss, Insects, and Agatha Christie

Деца играят вънIt’s the classic Catch 22 scenario. I find it hard to read in Bulgarian because there are so many words I don’t know, and I can’t learn more words if I don’t read in Bulgarian. The book I ever tried to read in Bulgarian was Деца играят вън (Children Play Outside) by Георги Данаилов (Georgi Danailov). My friend Vessela loaned it to me, certain that I would be able to struggle through it and I did. But it took a long, long time. I made a rule, often broken, that I could not break out the dictionary every five seconds or I’d never finish.

I didn’t even know until very recently that the Yuli around which each of the three parts of the novel revolves are three different, albeit with the same name, characters. But I forgive Mr. Danailov’s creative license for fooling me; I imagine no Bulgarian reader suffered the slightest confusion. I vowed to keep reading in Bulgarian every night, certain that improvement would follow. I broke my vow within days. Improvement by osmosis naturally did not follow.

The Foot BookThen we had our daughter and I was determined she know Bulgarian from the start. I spoke to her only in Bulgarian and began reading to her immediately. We collected Bulgarian board books and fairy tales and naturally these presented no problem. When we ran out, it was easy enough to translate English books on the fly. Since she couldn’t read, she had no way of knowing that Dr. Seuss’s The Foot Book did not really begin ляв крак, ляв крак, дясен крак, дясен (left foot, left foot, right foot, right). Most of Dr. Seuss did not lend itself to such translation—really, what can you do with There’s a Wocket in My Pocket?—but other simple early books did.

When she was in preschool, we went to National Geographic’s enormous Warehouse Sale in the cavernous D.C. Armory. 90 percent off their original prices! Among other things, she just had to have a book about insects. Suffice it to say that I had not previously made насекоми (insects) a focus of my Bulgarian vocabulary enrichment. I knew пчела (bee), мравка (ant), комар (mosquito), паяк (spider—and yes I know, not technically an insect), муха (fly), and хлебарка (cockroach). I put in the time. I did my homework. I learned богомолка (praying mantis), бръмбар (beetle), and щурец (cricket). I learned антена (antenna) and челюст (jaw), and жило (stinger). I couldn’t conduct an adult converation about philosophy or politics, but could talk a good game about the anatomy of various буболечки (bugs).

Discovery KidsHaving conquered the crawling, often flying world, I was ready for the jungle and ocean. Egmont Bulgaria put out Bulgarian versions of Discovery Kids books so we bought Амазонската Джунгла (The Amazon Jungle, published as Rainforest Explorer in English) and Безкрайният Океан (The Infinite Ocean, published as Ocean Explorer in English). So I was able to learn that a тукан (toucan) has a клюн while a папгал (parrot) has a човка.

In English, we’re a bit simpler—all the birds eat with beaks no matter the bird size or the beak size.

I learned that quite a lot can be translated literally—words like clownfish and zebrafish and swordfish. Just switch the adjective and noun order, and translate—presto, chango, you’ve got риба клоун, риба зебра, and риба меч. But that doesn’t always work. Jellyfish is NOT риба слатко, it most definitely is a медуза and the pain from its touch might well make you wish you really would turn to stone.

By this time, we had our son. His interests necessitated learning an entirely new vocabulary. I found myself growing conversant with върколаци (werewolves) and вампири (vampires). I asked the Sofia seamstress making me a skirt to save the extra material so that I could make a наметало (cape) for my little супергерой (superhero). He fell in love with a book on пирати (pirates) so I added плячка (plunder) to the list of words useful with the preschool set at the playground, but fairly useless when going out with other adults.

Harry_Potter_Complete_SetClearly, I needed to find books I could truly read for myself—and vocabulary enrichment of an entirely different order. Having read the entire English-language Harry Potter series aloud to my daughter, I decided that I would embark on reading all seven books in Bulgarian. It took an embarrassingly long time to do it—two years!—but I felt triumphant. I put each successive book on my night table and made a rule that my bedtime reading could only be in Bulgarian. Of course, I do not need to use new words such as котел (cauldron) and мантия (cloak) very often, but I did find myself lost in the story for much of the time and much of the time—though not all—plunging on past the unfamiliar words.

Пет Малки ПрасенцаReading Bulgarian translations of English language books I was already familiar with was my key to getting over the Bulgarian language reading hump. Thus Agatha Christie. Easy to find in any Bulgarian bookstore and straightforward to read. Having read through Пет Малки Прасенца (Five Little Pigs), however, I did not find that I could solve mysteries like Hercule Poirot. It was not possible to know which child broke the plate or took the last cookie before dinner without being present at the scene of the crime.

In just a few days, we will leave for a month-long vacation in Bulgaria. I’ve read through all the Agatha Christie mysteries I had bought on my last trip. Perhaps now I’m ready to read a Bulgarian novel. Do you have any suggestions?




Where Are The Books?

ПепеляшкаWhy is there no modern children’s literature by Bulgarian authors? This is a question I have been asking for years and to which I have no answer. There is a good deal of classical children’s literature available in Bulgarian translation. You can find Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon, ou La petite Pantoufle de Verre (Cinderella or the Glass Slipper in English, The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford World’s Classics)).

Братя ГримYou can find all the fairy and folk tales of the Brothers Grimm (Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales), with ample versions of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood in everything from pop-up books to full, lavishly illustrated collections. Russian witch Baba Yaga (Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga (Illustrated)), with her house on chicken feet and her cannibalistic appetites, has her day in Bulgaria.

Remarkably, even Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, full of English wordplay, has a well-regarded Bulgarian translation. But Пепеляшка, Снежанка, Червена Шапчица, and Алиса в Страната на Чудесата are examples of neither modern children’s literature nor of Bulgarian authorship.

Франклин посреща гостиThere are translations of wonderful 20th century children’s authors, from Beatrix Potter to Astrid Lindgren to Beverly Cleary to Roald Dahl. You can find what seems to be the entire Franklin the Turtle series by Paulette Bourgeois. I read many of these to my son in Bulgarian, helping him with the issues and themes of the books and me with the language. But there is nothing recent. There is no Mo Willems or Kevin Henkes for pre- and early readers, no Kate DiCamillo for intermediate readers, no Rebecca Stead for middle schoolers.

Петльо ГерестThere are endless versions of Bulgarian national folktales in all manner of sizes and formats and quality. Some of these espouse values one doesn’t especially want to convey to young children, or in fact to anyone. These are the ones in which a certain nasty cleverness always wins, usually the sort of cleverness that results in the innocent character(s) losing and/or the ethically-compromised one winning. Cheating is not frowned upon overly much. There are many stock characters, often represented by animals, that have essentially one overriding personality trait.

Some of the folktales are simply great fun and we read them with pleasure. They impart culture and offer generations shared references just as all national folktales in all languages do.

National folktales, however, were not created specifically for children. They often use, at least in the Bulgarian ones, words and syntax so archaic that they do little if anything to develop vocabulary. They don’t often empathize with other people’s feelings or problems, and relate not at all to a child’s everyday life. There is little to expand imagination or address inner life, as folktales often rely on a few and repeated tropes.

It is easy to underestimate the complexity of good children’s literature. Victoria Ford Smith, assistant professor at University of Connecticut and a specialist in children’s literature says, “What mostly attracts me to children’s literature is how complex it is. We often have a misconception that children’s literature is literature for adults with simpler language, and happy endings.” I agree. A good book is a good book and children’s literature contains a perhaps surprising amount of existential and philosophical ideas. I enjoyed the Elephant and Piggie books just as much as my son. I happily agreed to read Because of Winn-Dixie and When You Reach Me (Yearling Newbery) and thought they were just as worthwhile as my daughter said they were.

Why is there no modern children’s literature by Bulgarian authors? How will Bulgarian children not simply learn to read but love to read without bookstores and libraries full of books written just for them, about their lives, by the people who know them best? Do authors feel children’s literature beneath them? Do publishers feel there is no market? Do bookstores not wish to stock them?

Do you know?