Category Archives: expat

The (Bulgarian) School Year Begins

The Bulgarian school year always starts on September 15. The school year for Bulgarian weekend schools outside of Bulgaria starts on the closest Saturday to that date. That’s today. So my 15-year old daughter and 9½ -year son gave up the first of many Saturday afternoons until the end of May and trooped off to St. Kliment Ohridski Bulgarian Educational and Cultural Center. They complain from time to time, but they go. Each year, we ask them do they want to go the following year and they say yes. So it appears that having Bulgarian friends, hearing the Bulgarian language, celebrating Bulgarian holidays, and being surrounded by Bulgarian culture has value not merely to parents but to the children themselves.

The St. Kliment Ohridski school in Washington, DC was founded in 2002 and it is one of many such weekend Bulgarian schools and educational centers throughout the world. In 2007, our founding director Boian Koulov helped found the Sofia-based Association of Bulgarian Schools Abroad. The Association’s website lists over 80 members. The Bulgarian Ministry of Education supplies textbooks specifically written for Bulgarians abroad and provides financial support through its Native Language and Culture Abroad program.

Still, it’s not easy. The teachers are all native speakers, the books in Bulgarian, the cultural programming upholds tradition and custom. But as soon as the children go out for recess, they speak in English. They sneak Pokemon cards in the fourth grade or linger getting coffee in the ninth. But they do maintain a connection to the land of their birth, or their parents’ birth, and they see themselves as citizens of two countries. It’s not like the Diaspora of earlier immigrant groups wherein once the move was made, you stayed. Once the first generation assimilated, the language was lost. To go back and forth, to hold both countries, both languages, both cultures in your life and mind at the same time, it wasn’t done, wasn’t possible. You were there, or here. There was before, and after.

But not anymore. If you haven’t fled from war and/or oppression, or at least there isn’t still today war and/or oppression, you can in fact have it all. The world, as we so often are told, is small and technology makes it smaller. The old country isn’t a picture frozen in time at the moment of departure. It keeps developing and we are there. Bulgaria’s old Soviet-style concrete panel apartment blocks become the jumping off point—literally—for a cool youtube video that could only be made today.


Whole Foods has Bulgarian feta (though you can get it cheaper at the food mecca of the entire Bulgarian Diaspora in the U.S., Etsy sells Bardo Art Bags, handmade Bulgarian purses and totes. This year’s New York Independent Film Festival screened the Bulgarian film Losers. Rick Steves recently touted Bulgaria as a vacation destination in The Seattle Times. It’s not everywhere, it’s not often, but if you open your eyes wide enough, you can find Bulgaria’s presence without having to get on the plane. That’s important because when you and your children do get on that plane, and then the requisite second plane, and arrive in Bulgaria, you and they will find that the country doesn’t seem a foreign one. There’s no culture shock, just culture calm and familiarity. That makes school on Saturday afternoons well worthwhile. I think even the children might admit to that.


Nellie / Нели

old Sofia mapFor two years, we lived on Han Krum Street. Han Krum or Khan Krum is something like a founding father in Bulgaria. He led the First Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the ninth century and is probably best remembered for instituting the first written laws in his people’s history, mostly along the lines of no drinking, no stealing, and no lying. Like all good monarchs, Han Krum—aka Krum the Fearsome—vastly increased the territory over which he ruled. He defeated the Bulgarian arch nemesis the Byzantine Empire and made it as far north, east, and west as Hungary and Ukraine. He died before he could attempt taking Constantinople, though his preparations were apparently well underway. A map of Sofia marked “Plan of Sofia 1887-1912” shows the street with the name of “Tzar Krum,” but really the first Bulgarian leader with that title was Simeon the Great who won it after his own defeat of the Byzantines. It’s odd to see a map purporting to represent a city undergoing near constant change and development labeled as though frozen in time for 25 years.

Actually many maps use the name Tzar Krum Street well into the 1930s and so do the engraved words in the wall at William Gladstone Street, Tzar Krum Street’s north terminus. Perhaps the Communists changed the name not for historical accuracy but instead to remove monarchical presence of every kind. Having ousted the royal family, the change of a street name was likely a simple matter.

Sofia, like all cities, continues to change even as there are streets and buildings in the city center still recognizable from photographs a century old. Though car ownership has skyrocketed since the political changes of 1989, the garages that could be housing them have generally been converted to stores and offices and ateliers, perhaps nearly as many as those built specifically for those uses. All the garages of our small apartment block save one had been converted. One of these now serves as a плод и зеленчук (fruit and vegetable store). Tall and smiling black-haired Nellie presides.

In two years of daily shopping, I never saw anyone working there but Nellie. Her husband Sasho was sick, so much so that not only could he not help her but frequently could not even take care of their large, brown dog. The dog therefore is often in the tiny back room or curled up behind the desk that serves as Nellie’s office. Behind the desk, she watches movies, usually American children’s movies dubbed into Bulgarian, when business was slack. She has an identical twin who I never met. Nellie is not merely tall, but had a certain heft that one doesn’t associate with a purveyor of fruits and vegetables. Periodically she comments self-deprecatingly on her need to lose weight. “I used to be the thin one,” she said, “then my sister lost weight and I gained what she lost.”

We talked almost daily. I would wait until there was a break in customer traffic. The store was so tiny this necessitated a delicate dance with the one or two other customers who might be positioned between the crates, peering closely at apples imported from Greece or which bunches of green onions appeared the freshest. We talked about Clinton (she didn’t like him, didn’t find him sincere) and Obama (she felt enthusiastic). We talked about Bulgaria’s endemic bureaucracy and endemic corruption and how those might be entwined. We talked about her husband who she always referred to as “the boy” and “the poor thing.” When I visited a couple of years after we moved back to DC, she told me Sasho had passed away the year after we left.

white vanNellie has a round, childlike face and short-cropped hair only just beginning to show some flecks of white. She is younger than me, but she has a grandson just a few years younger than my son. Despite her daily, lonely grind, despite her sick husband, Nellie smiles a lot. Her eyes crinkle up, she laughs aloud, and she lets you know without actually saying it that the world was ever thus and ever will be so why complain. Her dog curls up on the floor. Her white van is parked out front, visible even in DC when I look the address up on GoogleMaps.

She knows her fruits and vegetables. She used to be an x-ray technician before the hospital downsized and before that a furniture maker, but now it’s the fruit and vegetable stand and she doesn’t look back. If you ask, she tells you what is Bulgarian-grown vs. a Greek import, which apples are the firmest, when the tiny sweet seedless oranges known as мандаринки (mandarinki), often with the stems and bright green leaves still attached, will be available. She advises you to buy the French-grown potatoes. Once I saw a neighbor point to some fresh apricots and ask Nellie, “Do they speak Bulgarian?”

Iranian datesNellie introduced me to large, fresh, soft, candy-sweet dates imported from Iran. The dates are a bit expensive for many and she doesn’t have a big demand for them, but she would make sure to have a box or two on hand whenever I asked. In the winter, she and many market stands and small stores have vats of pickled vegetables, but you have to plan in advance and bring your own empty jars to fill.


Sometimes I’d discover in the midst of cooking something that I was missing a key ingredient and was able to run downstairs, buy it, chat with Nellie, and return before the contents of the pot even started to simmer.

My daughter took riding lessons when we lived on Han Krum Street and often went herself, quite early before her lesson, so that she could go into the barn and feed the horses, avoiding the small white one whose stall sign warned he was a biter. She made sure that she had some coins, asking Nellie en route which apple or carrot was the best for horses. Nellie agreeably advised for even this request of her fruit and vegetable expertise, “Пиленце (Peelentze), little chick, the horse will eat any one you choose,” holding in her laughter until reporting to me later.


Triavna / Трявна

We were planning a trip through central Bulgaria when my husband’s cousin told us we couldn’t miss Triavna. “It’s lovely,” she said, “and you must have the coffee on sand.” That was irresistible and we duly included Triavna on the trip map we plotted.

часовникова кулаTriavna was well worth the stop. We loved the beautifully preserved National Revival architecture and the wide main square with the clock tower dating to 1814, but we also enjoyed just wandering the winding streets and crossing the bridges over the Trevenska River. We spent a good amount of time on the riverbank and in gathering many bouquets of wild flowers.

църква Св Михаил

The St. Archangel Michael Church, the oldest in Triavna, dates back to the 1196-1297 medieval rule of Bulgarian Tzar Kaloiyan. The small and peaceful churchyard is beautifully landscaped. In its tiny cemetery, presiding priests of the last two centuries or so are buried.


Triavna is known for its crafts, particularly woodcarving. This tradition gave rise in 1920 to a formal school for woodcarving. Over time, the school expanded from functional craft to applied arts and added other disciplines both to preserve and develop traditions. Today the National School of Applied Arts in Triavna is nationally famous and has three major courses of study: carving, interior design and icon-making. Many who come to the school stay in the region to live and work. Along the Triavna main square are a number of craft ateliers and as we peeked into one, one craftsman immediately beckoned us in, picked up my four-year old son, gave him a woodcarving tool, put his large hand on my son’s small one, and guided him into making a few lines. Another woodcarver gave my daughter an intricately carved wooden fish.


If you continue to walk along the main square, you find the entrance into a courtyard around which is built the restored Trevnensko School, constructed in 1836, one of the earliest secular schools in Bulgaria. There is a carefully preserved 19th-century classroom with its rows of seats and writing systems designed for all levels of learners. The first row’s long sandbox allowed the youngest children to practice drawing the letters with their fingers and then to “erase” them by pulling a thin, flat piece of wood over the sand to smooth it once again. The slates and chalk in the middle rows were used by children who had advanced to practicing words. The last rows were equipped with paper, quills and inkwells for the most advanced students. Exhibited also are the wooden signs with thin metal chains for children to wear around their necks, largely of the “dunce” variety, so as to publicly display their performance or conduct.

“Your Coffee on Sand” announces a wood-carved sign above a café on the main square—and yes, there is plenty more to Triavna than the main square. By coffee, Bulgarians do not mean the American version of eight ounces or so of black coffee, which they refer to by the pseudo-German шварц кафе (schwarzer Kaffee). Bulgarians generally drink expresso or Turkish coffee. And when they order Turkish coffee, they expect it to be made in a traditional джезве (jezve), the Turkish small copper coffeepot with the long wooden handle (Turkish Coffee Pot with Medal Handling Ideal for 2 Turkish Coffee Cup Size). With 500 years under the Ottoman Empire, Bulgarians developed a similar coffeehouse culture that still exists today.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the golden age of the Ottoman Empire occurred just as coffee had become an empire-wide phenomenon. Muslim legal scholars grew concerned about the obvious stimulatory properties, and an addiction that was indulged by sultans and commoners alike.

They extended the Koranic ban on intoxicants to coffee, but coffee drinking went on apace as sultans and peasants alike imbibed. By the 17th century, famed Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi (An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi) could describe coffeehouses that served up to 1000 patrons, though as a devout Muslim himself he professed to having never tasted so much as a drop.

Mark Pendergrast in his Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World highlights the observation of another traveler of the same period, British poet Sir George Sandys. Sir George spent a year traveling in Turkey, Egypt and Palestine; the Turks, he found, sat drinking their coffee and “chatting most of the day.” My husband and I have long noticed the proclivity of Bulgarians to do the same, enjoying what most Americans would consider the great luxury of unscheduled and unhurried time with friends while paradoxically complaining all the while about the poor standard of living under which fate has compelled them to live.

The various Ottoman bans on coffee were perhaps more particularly on coffeehouses; they fostered gatherings of people who could well be stimulating social upheaval and controversy, and not merely stimulating themselves. The sultans may have enjoyed drinking coffee in the confines of Istanbul’s famed Topkapi Palace, but they worried that the establishments serving the drink to the public undermined social order and security. In a classic “nihil novi sub sole” (“there is nothing new under the sun”), the Communists had a similar reservation. My husband recalls that when longtime head of the KGB Yuri Andropov became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Bulgarian police entered cafés and demanded of patrons “Why aren’t you at work?”

To make Turkish coffee today, the coffee beans must be ground to a very fine powder and added to the water (with sugar if desired). To give a start to the froth, one stirs without touching the bottom of the джезве until the coffee sinks (and the sugar is dissolved). The джезве is then slowly heated but never boiled; one keeps stirring from the outside in to gather the froth in the middle. As soon as small bubbles form and the froth begins to rise, the джезве is removed from the heat. The rising of the froth and the consequent immediate removal from the heat is repeated an additional two times and poured into a cup to be drunk slowly once the coffee grounds have sunk to the cup’s bottom.

At home, we just put our джезве on a conventional burner on the stove, but one traditional method is to place a tray filled with sand over a burner or other heat source. At “Your Coffee on Sand,” there was a large black metal curl-footed barrel. A metal tray some 4-5 inches deep was set into the open top and filled with hot sand, ready to gently heat one’s Turkish coffee, and allow for the optimum amount of foam while eliminating the possibility of any burnt flavor. Following his cousin’s recommendation, my husband ordered a Turkish coffee “on sand” and informed the children that now was a perfect time to run around the square and play. We sat at the outdoor tables watching them at a distance sufficient to allow both responsible oversight and an inability to hear any potential squabbling. Possibly the sultans did not enjoy a more pleasant day in the Topkapi Palace than we did in in Triavna.

Bulgaria 2015: The Year in Review

Yes, it’s entirely arbitrary, but all such “year in review” lists are. Mine pretends nothing authoritative and I offer it only as a sort of verbal prophylactic against the tendency to reduce news from and about Bulgaria to its economic status (“poorest country in the EU”) or regional position (“the Balkans”). With luck, this year in review is also entertaining.


Zhelyu Zhelev, the dissident who became president, died January 30.

Zhelyu Zhelev“Being a rabid anti-Communist does not yet mean that one is a democrat; nor is frenzied ant-fascism a hallmark of democracy. To a democrat, both communism and fascism are abhorrent. Indeed, there has been no greater anti-communist than Hitler, and no greater anti-fascist than Stalin, but neither of them is known to have been a democrat. Moreover, the 20th century has seen no greater butchers of democracy than these two mustached comrades.” Zhelyu Zhelev (Sofia 1997)

Sonya Yoncheva released her first solo album, Paris, mon amour, and sang Violetta in La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera. NPR called her “the pride of Bulgaria” and praised her “creamy lyric voice.” Listen to her sing the rarely heard “Le jour sous le soleil beni (Messager).”


uberBarely a month after beginning operation, the Bulgarian National Income agency, Ministries of the Interior and Transport organized a joint inspection on the activities of Uber Bulgaria. By October, Uber Bulgaria announced a “temporary” halt to its services.


Leah with tomatoAs I wrote in my August 27 post “The Glass Is Half Empty,” Bulgarians repeatedly rank first in the annals of European Union unhappiness, dissatisfaction, misery, and distrust. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, chose the International Day of Happiness to confirm this fact anew. But Bulgarians still know that they have the best tomatoes in the world!




cryptology 2015Eurocrypt 2015 was held April 26-30 in Sofia. This was the first time the International Conference on the Theory and Applications of Cryptographic Techniques was held in Bulgaria. Fortunately, the word for “cryptography” in Bulgaria needs no Alan Turing to break the code; it’s криптография.



Nikolai GrozevNikolai Grozev, mayor of Nova Zagora, determined that sugar may very well be good for one’s health, especially if sprinkled on roads rather than on one’s food.



Greek euroBulgaria showed little sympathy for the financial troubles of its neighbor to the south. Having survived its own financial meltdown in the mid-1990s, Bulgaria’s people and politicians thought Greece should suck it up and do what needs to be done.



Trimona yogurtNPR recognizes Atanas Valev for his Trimona yogurt, naturally made with lactobacillus bulgaricus.




хълмът ТрапесицаThe government of Azerbaijan donates 1.2 million Euros to fund work on the restoration of the archaeological structures on Trapesitsa Hill in Veliko Turnovo. On the one hand, it’s money from a country notable for human rights violations. On the other hand, it’s money sorely needed to restore one of Bulgaria’s archeological treasures. A moral quandary.


The Last SupperIn celebration of Bulgaria’s independence day on September 22, a diving club in Bulgaria attached waterproof replicas of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and “Mona Lisa” to a reef 26 feet under water.



World Puzzle FederationThe 24th World Puzzle Championship took place on October 11 – 18, 2015 in Sofia. Go figure.




Kristalina declares that Kristalina Georgieva, European Commission vice president and chair of the UN High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing, intends to run for the job of UN Secretary-General. Current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s term expires at the end of 2016.


Junior Eurovision held its competition in Sofia on November 21. Bulgaria didn’t win this year, but you can see its entry. Bulgaria’s young musicians did receive second place in 2014.


Miss Bulgaria inspires a meme simply by excitedly gesturing to encourage Miss Phillipines, the winner of the Miss Universe 2015 contest, to receive her crown. Being a good sport is apparently newsworthy.

Snowdrops / Кокичета


The other day, we were talking on Skype to relatives in Bulgaria. In the obligatory exchange about the weather here in DC versus there in Kozlodui, we discovered that it has been unusually warm in both places. So warm, they told us, that in Kozlodui they had already seen кокичета (kokeecheta, snowdrops) blooming. Snowdrops, in December! It doesn’t feel quite right.

snowdrops in shot glass2Snowdrops are the first flowers to appear, sometimes not even waiting until the snow thaws, and are therefore the harbinger of spring. Too small to fit in even the smallest vase and quick to wilt once picked, many people are still irresistibly drawn to pluck a few and put them in a small drinking glass—perhaps the one normally used for 50 grams of rakiya—to proclaim even indoors that spring is truly on its way.

Each bulb produces a single six-petaled white flower no more than six inches tall that points down to the earth it just arose from, in contrast to the many-petaled yellow sunflower the height of a grown man, which points up to the blazing high summer sun. In Bulgaria, the snowdrop grows in mountains and plains, around low bushes and in thick forests, in river valleys and in open glades. One can say the snowdrop is beloved both for its modest size and its vast domain.

Snowdrops apparently do not merely gladden the eye. They also contain alkaloids to treat Alzheimer’s Disease. Bulgarians have also used snowdrops to treat polio. But for most, what is important is simply the enjoyment of the flower and its symbol of the spring to come—not its potential medicinal uses.

St. Clair graveIn 1869, British officer Stanislas Graham Bower St. Clair and British consul Charles A. Brophy published A residence in Bulgaria; or, Notes on the resources and administration of Turkey: the condition and character, manners, customs, and language of the Christian and Musselman populations, with reference to the Eastern question. Inordinately patronizing—even sneering and jeering—and often erroneous, they did manage to capture some of the manners and mores of Bulgaria in the last years under the Ottoman Empire. St. Clair and Brophy note that on feast days, a Bulgarian man changes his sheepskin hat for a small red cap (perhaps the fez) “in which he sticks, if flowers are procurable, a bunch or two of roses or snowdrops…” It is worth noting that St. Clair took the name Hidayet Bey, fought in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 on the Turkish side, and for a time controlled a large area in the Rhodope mountains. Photos of his gravesite show no snowdrops planted.

Честита Баба МартаIn most years, snowdrops begin to poke up at about the same time as Bulgarians celebrate Баба Марта (Baba Marta) on March 1. The ancient, pre-Christian holiday of Baba Marta brings the end of the cold and the beginning of spring. So it is appropriate that the red and white мартеници (martenitzi), donned on that day and worn until the vernal equinox signals spring has truly arrived, are sometimes garlanded with snowdrops and greeting cards join the two iconic spring symbols.

Perhaps climate change is responsible for this year’s early sighting of snowdrops in the Danubian plain. Perhaps snowdrops will bloom ever earlier as time goes on. Will they lose their role as spring’s harbinger, one they’ve held since time immemorial? Maybe in years to come the sighting of the snowdrop around the winter solstice will signal the cold winds of winter rather than the soft breezes of a spring just a few weeks away.



To Bulgaria and Back

One Great Country You Need to Know More About

When I first met my Bulgarian artist refugee future husband in St. Louis, I had no idea that the word “family” in that old cliché “You don’t just marry the person, you marry his whole family” was woefully insufficient. In fact, I was to marry the entire country of Bulgaria, a country that, sad to report, I had at that time no clear idea where in Europe it was located.

From East Bloc to E.U.

I first visited the People’s Republic of Bulgaria alone when it was too risky for my then fiancé to return. We got married there when the shelves were bare. We vacationed at the Black Sea when American television shows were blaring in every sidewalk restaurant in Sozopol. We lived there during total economic and political collapse. My daughter was born there. We recently lived there with both children for two memorably wonderful years. I’m quite sure we’ll do it again.

Shake Your Head “Да

So I have a certain point of view about, lots of opinions on, and an enduring interest in Bulgaria. I speak its language, I read its history, I eat its food, I sleep with a Bulgarian every night (the same one)—now that’s commitment!

Share a Bulgarian Story—Имало едно време…

Whether you are Bulgarian curious about a sometime expat’s observations or a not-Bulgarian curious about the country, I hope you’ll find something to interest and entertain you here. Whether you ever travel or live in Bulgaria for real or just want to do it vicariously, please share your thoughts. Bulgaria is a Balkan country with no war or famine or natural disaster, but it has its own compelling stories. I have mine to tell. Please tell yours too.