Category Archives: Eastern Europe

Turkey, So Close So Far

In the winter of 2001-2002, friends suggested we take an excursion to Istanbul for the New Year’s holiday. We booked a four-day trip and set off by bus from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. It was a very long bus ride that took us southeast through Svilingrad to reach the Kapitan Andreevo village, the last stop on the Bulgarian side. Perhaps it is more pleasant now, but border crossings seem designed to be quite the opposite however modern the facilities may be. This one is said to be the busiest in Europe. However long and unpleasant the bus ride was, we enjoyed Istanbul tremendously and vowed to return for a longer stay there and exploration of other parts of Turkey. We haven’t yet made it back.

Last week, though, we went to Малко Търново (Malko Turnovo) for an afternoon. We had first gone to Царевец (Tzarevetz). Leaving Tzarevetz, we were uncertain about the best way to go and asked a man crossing the street. He asked “Do you want to take the good road or the bad road?” “The good road,” answered my husband, not quite suppressing his bemusement. The man explained that the bad road took you through the Strandja forest and a few, sporadically placed, tiny villages. This was the straighter road, but full of holes. The good road—“първа класа!” (first class!)— was reached by driving north to Приморско (Primorsko) and making a semi-circle to avoid part of the Strandja and all of the presumably third-class road. The explanation was detailed and various points were reinforced to ensure that we understood. My husband thanked the man very much for the copious information and then set out on the bad road. He found the drive through the formerly forbidden (during Communist rule) Strandja irresistible. The road was indeed bad, the potholes forcing very slow and careful driving, and we saw no other cars. But the reward was the Strandja Nature Park, beautiful, dense, and quiet. Periodically we passed large signs describing the plants, animals, and birds found in the vicinity as well as the camping, biking, and hiking possibilities and trails.

After perhaps an hour, we saw street signs pointing the way. Turn one direction to reach Malko Turnovo, turn the other to reach Istanbul. My son asked if we could go to Istanbul and we said but for leaving our passports in Sinemoretz we might easily go—and that we certainly would go with him one day. Border crossing delays aside, the drive would be less than four hours. No reason not to go, we thought.

But on this day, our destination was Malko Turnovo. As the name implies—“malko” meaning “small”—this is not a large town. Yet its Historical Museum and Petrov’s Field, the latter commemorating an unsuccessful Macedonian rebellion, are included in Bulgaria’s list of 100 national tourist sites. We arrived too late for the Historical Museum, but not too late to stroll around the central part of the town. Malko Turnovo is remote and can’t be said to be thriving, but the ladies at the tourist office were full of information and nicely printed brochures describing both the town and the region’s attractions. There was even a brochure listing guesthouses for overnight stays. We took the “good road” towards Primorsko on our way back to Villa Victoria, the small family hotel where we were staying in Синеморец (Sinemoretz).

En route, we passed field after field of vineyards. Logically, my husband thought, where there are grapes there is ракия (rakia, the classic Bulgarian grape—or any fruit really—brandy). Driving through Ново Паничарево (New Panicharevo), he stopped to ask a man where he could buy some real Strandja rakia. He gave a name, pointed a finger, mentioned a house a bit further on. A bit further on, my husband stopped and called to a man standing beside his house. The man looked hesitant at the request, remained impassive as my husband explained, took a look at my son and me in the back seat, went to discuss the issue with his family seated in the yard by the house. The authorities don’t approve of alcohol being sold privately.When he came back, still impassive, he nodded assent and asked how much rakia my husband wanted to buy. We waited. A woman came out with a liter and a half plastic bottle filled with rakia. Ten leva exchanged hands.

Now the man returned. In a friendly tone, he advised my husband not to put the bottle in the front seat and then asked if we liked fish. Yes, we said, yes we do. He began to tell us of an excellent place to eat fish, very fresh, just past the bridge leading out of Malko Turnovo on the road towards Turkey. “Oh,” we said, “we are just returning from Malko Turnovo. Perhaps next time.” He warmly waved us on.

On Wednesday, July 13, we decided to go to Резово (Rezovo), the most southeastern point of Europe. There the natural border of the Rezovo River forms the line that separates Bulgaria from Turkey. We snapped photos of the two flags, the river, the sea that laps at the edges of both countries. We saw two white vans pull up on the Turkish side and enough soldiers coming out of them that we could think only of circus clown cars disgorging more passengers than seems possible. “Why are there soldiers there?” my son asked. “Perhaps they are on a field trip,” I answered casually. I had no reason to believe anything else and perhaps they really were on a field trip of some kind. They seemed so informal as they walked around a bit and maybe they too simply wanted to see a spot with two flags and take a few photos.

We took a stroll through the town, ate a few джанки (janki, small wild plums), sighted storks, and made our way through flat, dry fields to the rocky cliffs that led to the sea. Rezovo was a quiet place, a calm, peaceful place. We waved at Turkey before making the short drive back to Sinemoretz.

Two days later, a military coup was attempted in Turkey. Bulgaria closed its borders and sent soldiers to the checkpoints.

Tzarevo / Царево

It rained in the evening in Sinemoretz. It rained in the night. It was still raining in the morning, a persistent downfall that precluded any thought of going to the beach. So we went to Tzarevo.

We hadn’t been there before. We hadn’t, to be frank, even heard of this small Black Sea coast town only a 25-minute drive from Sinemoretz. But number 86 on the 100 places to visit on the Опознай България (Know Bulgaria) site is the Tzarevo Municipal Museum of History so we went to Tzarevo.

For more than 700 years, the town was known as Vasiliko or Vasilikos (βασιλιάς), Greek for king. In 1913, after the Balkan Wars, the town became Bulgarian. By the mid-1930s, it was renamed Царево (Tzarevo, “of the king”). That seemed a direct affront to the Communist regime after the war. As was their wont, Bulgarian Communist leaders changed the name to honor a Soviet hero. Tzarevo became Michurin. Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin had some genetic theories that were suspect even in his own time, but Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin were supporters and that was what counted.

Tzarevo Bulgaria EuropeNot surprisingly, the town took only two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall to change the name back to Tzarevo. To reinforce the message of its allegiance, the municipality wrote it in stone. At the end of the walkway in the city park leading to the sea, there is a large mosaic clearly detailing Tzarevo’s connection to Bulgaria and to Europe.

 

Some of the Black Sea towns have long been resorts, first for the Bulgarian nomenklatura and tourists from the Soviet Union and the East Bloc and then for the average Bulgarian and anyone else who cared to travel a bit farther east than Spain’s Costa del Sol. Златни Пясъци (Golden Sands) and Слънчев Бряг (Sunny Beach) are perhaps the most well-known, crowded with tourists searching for night life and cheap drinks. Other Black Sea towns have now developed into domestic and foreign tourist meccas, with the requisite lines of vendors selling Chinese-made Black Sea souvenirs and haunch-to-paunch sunbathers under rows of beach umbrellas. We have Bulgarian friends who now avoid their own beaches in favor of Greek package holiday deals in Halkadiki.

We chose Sinemoretz because there are no large hotels; lots of the семейни хотели (family hotels with very few rooms and personable hosts) we prefer; fabulous баничарници where the баници (banitza), кифли (kifla), софиянки (sofianka), and other delicious breakfast pastries are made on the premises and sold to you while still hot; and gorgeous landscapes of sea, river, beach, rock, meadow, forest, and cliff are all amazingly within steps of each other. We stayed nine days and enjoyed every one of them—the unexpected day trip to Tzarevo was a bonus.

Just before we reached our destination, the rain stopped and not long after the sun shone. The first thing we came upon was a sculpture with two figures visible from our vantage point. “Okay,” said my husband, “ here we have the usual partisan and worker. Where is the female collective farmer with her bountiful harvest?” Fortunately, the former Michurin government did not disappoint. The heroic female collective farmer joined her men on the third side of the sculpture. Nearby was a wall using sgraffito to display symbols of rural life, both in agriculture and in the wild. You can see sgraffito on walls in many towns and cities throughout Bulgaria.

Tzarevo has tourists, but not so many that they overwhelm the local residents. The municipality seems to have managed to have enough services to attract visitors without losing its soul. The city park is large, reached by a long pedestrian-only main street, and has two walkways that end in a view of the sea and steps that lead down to beautiful, white rocks that are flat enough to take an easy stroll up to the water. The park is full of people and includes the largest and most modern playground I’ve yet seen in Bulgaria. Appreciative children, parents, and grandparents were making the most of it as we passed.

When we tore ourselves away from strolling Tzarevo, we found the Municipal Museum of History. It is a three-floor building with the first floor devoted to regional archeological finds, particularly a Thracian treasure trove of coins dating back to 182 BCE and hundreds of extraordinary finely-wrought gold and silver jewelry ornaments found in an intact grave of a wealthy woman living in the late Hellenistic period. The third floor contained an exhibition of contemporary artists’ works on paper. The second was dark when we visited.

museum

It was rain that prompted our unplanned visit to Tzarevo, but the town deserves to be an intentional destination. It’s a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

Mountains and Rivers / Планини и Реки

Река Искър (Iskur River) starts in the Rila Mountain range and runs a long path north, widening and deepening until it ends in the Danube. In the beginning, you can cross the Iskur easily by using the large granite rocks as stepping stones and those same stones make the Iskur gurgle and run white, spin and curl as the river winds through the mountain forests. We encountered the Iskur River as we moved on from the Rila Monastery and the Rila River. Bulgaria is full of mountains and waters of all kinds—glacial lakes, hot springs, fresh water rivers, the Black Sea. We first went to Сапарева Баня (Sapareva Banya). We wanted to try out the famous hot mineral waters—at 103 degrees Celsius at the source the hottest in Europe—and found the Аква Клуб Котвата where three pools (including one for small children) contain warm mineral water, one Jacuzzi contains hot mineral water, and one Jacuzzi contains extremely hot mineral water. For those feeling the need to shock the system, there is a small, deep cold water pool right next to the hot Jacuzzi. It is not easy to leave Aqua Club Kotvata and only the beginning of a rain shower ended our three hours of immersion. Children, of course, care only that they can play nearly endlessly without their lips turning blue. The facilities are excellent and there are ample lounge chairs. You can even pay a small fee, though we chose only to stare in wonder, to plunge your feet in a basin in which small fish “massage” them for ten minutes. These garra rufa, it turns out, are also known as “doctor fish” and are sold specifically for this purpose.

The mountain village of Овчарци (Ovchartzi) is a less than ten-minute drive from Saparevna Banya. There you find the Goritza Eco-Trail. It’s a short pleasant hike to one of Ovchartzi’s seven beautiful waterfalls. The rivers Горица (Goritza) and Фудиня (Fudinya) run along the two sides of the village. Aside from the natural beauty, the Goritza also serves as a traditional “laundry” specifically for washing wool carpets and kilims. With a bit of piping and fencing, a portion of the water’s stream is diverted to roil in a circular stone area that naturally cleans without soap. The clean carpets and kilims are then hung in a special drying shed just across the path. Handwritten on a small sign is the telephone number to call when you want access to either the “laundry” or the drying shed.

Just on the edge of a break in the mountain range is the village of Белчин (Belchin). In 2013, the remains of an ancient fortress, Цари Мали Град (Tsari Mali Grad) were opened to the public. Now an Eco-Trail leads to an entire historical and cultural complex made up of the preserved Byzantine remains, museum of artifacts, ample and detailed signage documenting the history in both Bulgarian and English, modern sculptures. The second you step out of your car, the man in charge of taking your nominal parking payment comes to you bursting with information, pride, and excitement about all the complex has to offer. The sun-dappled Eco-Trail through a beech forest. The length of time to walk the path depending on if you are elderly, middle-aged, or a small child. The eight-minute “funicular” lift should you not wish to walk. The playground for children. The wood and rope bridge. The beautiful views. He was effusive as he repeated the information for all comers; such enthusiasm here is so rare that we felt rewarded before we even set off on the trail.

Цари Мали Град3

Early on in the life of the Iskur River, there is a small branching where the river briefly becomes two, Бели Искър (White Iskur) and Черни Искър (Black Iskur). We decided to spend a couple of days in the village of Beli Iskur. We stayed at Eagle Rock, a condominium complex at the highest point in the village, though less than a five-minute walk to the small main street. The complex is immaculate, with a lovely lawn and garden area, fitness center, ping pong table, a library of English-language books, and an attentive staff. The view of the mountains is spectacular.

Бели Искър1The village of Beli Iskur is quiet, and in early summer mornings and late afternoons you can see the herders bringing their goat herds and their cows back down from the mountain pastures. There are infinite walks in theБели Искър2 meadows and mountains above the village. One afternoon, we followed a domineering rooster leading his handful of hens and, strangely, a larger group of turkeys into a meadow from where we made our own way up past wildflowers, then hazelnut trees with their nuts still green, and finally dense brush and trees as the path disappeared and the trek became steeper.

We had planned only to see Rila Monastery when we set out from Sofia. The rest we left to chance. I had vaguely heard of Sapareva Banya, once there we were directed to the Goritza Waterfall, my husband saw Tsari Mali Grad in a book given to him as a gift, we had a friend who recently bought a place in Beli Iskur. So much of satisfying travel is serendipity, allowing extra time for discoveries, planning for unplanned time. It was good to wander a bit in Rila’s mountains and rivers before embarking upon our planned time in Синеморец (Sinemoretz) on the Black Sea.

 

 

 

Rila Monastery /Рилски Манастир

I visited the Rila Monastery the first time in September 1987. I was in Bulgaria to meet my future in-laws and they took me to what is certainly the most famous of monasteries in a country full of them and what is likely the most famous site in the entire country. We walked around within the monastery walls, admired the colors of the frescoes against the backdrop of the surrounding Rila Mountain. On a grassy spot just outside the monastery, we spread a blanket and lunched on the луканка (lukanka, hard salami), кашкавал (kashkaval, a cheddar-like cheese), tomatoes, and a hot loaf just baked in the monastery’s ovens.

Hotel ValdisThe second time I visited Rila Monastery was July 1, 2016. We stayed at the Valdis hotel and restaurant. It’s not so much a hotel as a collection of modern bungalows set in a garden on the Rila River. Each has a small terrace looking onto the river and the mountain. We had river trout, potatoes with dill, and salad for dinner, French toast and steamed milk for breakfast. Across the way from Valdis is a fountain with water that flows down the Rila Mountain; we filled our water bottles there before setting off for the monastery above.

 

Rila’s significance to Bulgaria and world culture, its church and iconography, its spiritual meaning for pilgrims, and the sheer physical beauty of its mountain location have all been amply described and photographed. But on this second visit, I noticed not the lushly painted icons, but the geometric almost Bauhaus style of decoration found everywhere outside the church itself. Reds and whites and blacks, geometric shapes, contrasts of metal, wood, stone, and brick.

All of this is beautifully contrasted with the pots of blooming flowers grown by the monks and the mountain forest rising all around their retreat.

I only wish the still-operating monastery ovens had been selling that delicious bread. That and the tiny post office remind you that however ancient the site, people still live and work here.

Belogradchik / Белоградчик

We went to Belogradchik the other day. Actually we went to two Belogradchiks, one timeless and one frozen in time. It’s not the same thing at all.

town

There is Belogradchik the ancient fortress and even more ancient rock formations. Then there is Belogradchik the town, which seems unaware that the world—and most of Bulgaria—has moved on since pre-1989 days.

 

fortressOur original plan had been to drive to Belogradchik from staying with relatives in Kozlodui and to stay overnight. We thought that the famous fortress and unique rocks formations, a natural environmental tourist attraction if ever there was one, would have inspired development in the small town on the order of quaint cafes, artisan shops, small family hotels with warm service and pleasant conversation. We thought wrong.

Instead we walked up and down the main street lined with communist-era bleak storefronts, many of them deserted. The “999 Products” store had long been emptied of however many products it actually had on its shelves and seems now to be full of empty cardboard boxes piled so high that one can’t see anything else through the windows. One store had the forlorn name of the product it sold, Българско бельо (Bulgarian underwear). What might have been an attractive atelier for the master craftsman making sheepskin coats and hats to order was an oversized former store with only a bench containing scraps of sheepskins, a калпак (traditional cone-shaped hat) or two, and no one to be found.

rocks1After roaming around for a bit for a place to each lunch, we found a small place serving buffet-style. Serving would be a misstatement. The choices were limited but sufficient. The food was not appealing in its presentation, but was made well. The employees were not in sight. After some time standing in front of the counter, an unsmiling woman appeared saying only, “I’m waiting for you to say what you want.” We ordered three bowls of soup, paid, and found a table. We were the only people in the place. Another woman, also expressionless, bellowed “Soup’s ready,” and we stood to retrieve the steaming hot bowls. The soup was good.

rocks2Had the entire scene been filmed, any audience watching outside Bulgaria would have thought it exaggerated in its drab appearance and militant bad service. So bad it’s good, frozen in time, any number of clichés would suffice. When we described the experience to friends back in Sofia, they only groaned in recognition of the universal pre-1989 experience they hoped never to experience again.

rocks3We decided to go see the fortress and rocks, after which we would drive straight back to Sofia rather than discover what would surely be pre-1989 Balkantourist style accommodations and personnel who resent any guests as an intrusion on their solitude and smoking breaks.

 

rocks5The little information on the few signs—and these translated into English in the manner of Google translate—did not take away from the stark beauty of the red rock formations. It was an overcast day, windy, and unusually cold for the end of June. The fortress remains are vast, encompassing some of the rock formations while overlooking others.

rocks6The 45 years of communism that cast such a pall over people’s natural inclinations and created structures that merely began to deteriorate immediately upon completion have had no effect on the immutable natural structures created by wind and water over two hundred million years ago. The red peaks, rocks, and precipices are garnished with the greens of trees, bushes, and grasses. Better, we thought, to be disappointed by the town and overwhelmed by the magnificence of the view. We went to Belogradchik the other day and we were glad we went.

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?

 

 

 

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.