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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.


Thracian TombKazanluk, Bulgaria, is probably most famous for two places not precisely in Kazanluk. One is the UNESCO world heritage site of the Thracian Tomb of Kazanluk. It was discovered in 1944 and you shouldn’t miss it. UNESCO calls the Thracian tomb “a unique aesthetic and artistic work, a masterpiece of the Thracian creative spirit. This monument is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world.”

The other is the nearby Valley of the Roses. It has been producing its fragrant damask rose oil since the 15th century. Its fame reached far enough that a 1900 article in Michigan’s The Grand Rapids Herald noted, “The country about Kisanlik (sic), Bulgaria, is the main source for oil of rose.”

KazanlakBut I would like to draw your attention to a building you reach by walking along the pedestrian-only square in the heart of Kazanluk, the Iskra Historical Museum and Art Gallery. Founded in 1901, the museum staff is warm and informative, with a sense of pride in and ownership of the rich and well-documented prehistoric and ancient archeological collections from the Neolithic through the Roman period. The museum also houses collections from the Bulgarian Middle Ages and the Bulgarian Renaissance. Then there are the “New History” and “Newest History” exhibits. The former is devoted to Iskra’s holdings documenting the changes in Bulgaria generally and Kazanluk particularly after the Russian-Turkish War. The latter focuses on the losses and gains made by the 23rd Infantry “Shipchenski” Regiment in the Patriotic War 1944-1945.

The Soviet Union used the term “Great Patriotic War” to describe its long, bitter 1941-1945 conflict with Nazi Germany. Today’s Russia continues to use “Great Patriotic War” to reference this period, but it is a bit startling to see it still used in Bulgaria. It may take many more years for Bulgarian museums to accumulate the archival objects, scholarship, curatorial analysis and perspective to develop exhibits for a true “Newest History” that focuses on the 45 post-war years of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.

For me, the wonderful surprise of Iskra Historical Museum and Art Gallery is the unique exhibition of objects found during the excavation of the fortified city of Seuthopolis, the capital of Thracian tribal ruler Seuthes. The Thracians left no written language, but ancient Greek mythology is rife with mentions of them. So are the works of Herodutus, Thucydides and other ancient authors. The Danube was their northern border and the Black Sea the eastern, precisely that of Bulgaria today.

8594 (33)My daughter had a whole chapter on the Thracians in her Bulgarian history textbook. Among the many Seuthopolis objects displayed at the Iskra museum is a strikingly realistic bronze head, once part of a life-size statue, with a long mustache draping down to a flowing beard. The forehead is wrinkled, the eyes lined, it is thought that the sculpture might be of Seuthes III himself. Had Auguste Rodin not died three decades before its discovery, one would think it was a model for the French sculptor’s work. Fittingly, the head of Seuthes was recently featured in a Louvre exhibit entitled The Saga of the Thracian Kings: Archeological Discoveries in Bulgaria, not so very far across the quai from the many works of Rodin at the Musée d’Orsay.

Seuthopolis was thoroughly uncovered and extensively studied and photographed, with its finds carefully preserved. But it was found in 1948 only because of a nearby dam construction project and after the excavation was completed in 1954, the construction proceeded as planned. Today the “the best preserved Thracian city in modern Bulgaria” is underwater in a flooded valley.

Now a project for making the actual Seuthopolis accessible to visitors might be financed at least partly by the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation of the US Embassy in Sofia. The project has been long conceived. Let’s hope it is not even longer in the realization.



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.



Dolno Ozirovo /Долно Озирово

My mother-in-law comes from a very small northwestern mountain village called Dolno Ozirovo (Lower Ozirovo). There is, naturally, another village very close by named Gorno Ozirovo (Upper Ozirovo), but I have never been there. My mother-in-law once told me that her father was adopted from Gorno Ozirovo. He was not an orphan, but his parents had too many children to support and another family living in Dolno Ozirovo had none. The pair of villages have remnants of Roman times, stones from an ancient observatory and coins that my husband’s cousin Ognian likes to collect on tramps around the hills and caves nearby. Less than six miles away is the nearest small town, Vurshetz.

Долно Озирово

My mother-in-law was the youngest of four children, the eldest Dimitar and three girls following him. When at 19, she married my father-in-law, she went to live with his family in Kozlodui, a far larger village on the Danubian plain. With determination and hard physical labor building the nation’s train tracks, they managed eventually to move to Sofia and obtain Sofia residency permits. Despite being the only one of her family to have left the village behind, she felt very strong ties. When my husband Rumen was born, she brought him there to be cared for by his grandmother for some time. How long is not clear. Rumen remembers calling his mother “Mama Ivanka” and his grandmother “Mama Kana” so it was long enough for him to sense a maternal relationship with his grandmother. At five, he was standing next to a motorcycle when the rider suddenly revved the engine. Rumen began to stutter and Mama Kana took him to a neighbor healer who mumbled incantations and cured him in a single visit.

млечницаRumen is a slow eater and in Dolno Ozirovo that slow eating once awoke a hitherto unknown aggressiveness. At that time, he was the youngest of seven first cousins. As a special treat, his Mama Kana made a large pan of mlechnitsa, a light dessert pudding made with milk, sugar, flour and eggs. So slow was five-year old Rumen to eat that his older cousins had polished it off before he could get his fair share. The result was that he grabbed a nearby ax and chased them around the yard. This forever imprinted on his mind that even the most mild-mannered can be roused to dangerous fury when sufficiently goaded.

кметствоLater he attended sixth grade in the village. It was felt that an application for the prestigious art high school in Sofia would have more of a chance arriving from a small peasant village than “bourgeois” Sofia. Sofia at that time nevertheless being filled in every increasing numbers by peasants from small villages all over the country. Rumen was accepted and the school changed his life in countless ways.

Rumen spent a good deal of his childhood in Dolno Ozirovo, even when living most of the school year in Sofia. One year, the movie The Godfather came to the village. Everyone gathered in the community center to see the much anticipated but not subtitled two-reeler. No one spoke English, so perhaps it is not surprising that whoever was chosen to operate the projector began with the second reel and then, after a short break, showed his audience the first reel. Rumen doesn’t remember anyone complaining or enjoying the movie any less.

Communism in many ways was good to Dolno Ozirovo. The village might have emptied, been nearly abandoned much sooner otherwise if not propped up by central planning and an infusion of resources. When Rumen was growing up, Dolno Ozirovo seemed to be thriving. Even then, though, it could provide education only through the primary grades. Anyone wishing to continue to secondary school had to go to Vurshetz.

овциNow with less then 500 people and many empty houses, even in 1993 Dolno Ozirovo was still a lively village. We were there for the annual village holiday on August 2. Every family slaughtered and roasted a sheep to celebrate. Kept awake all night by a sheep continually bawling, we disgruntedly hoped that it would be the one chosen. Rumen’s uncle had been the village baker until market forces entered the village and the bakery in the next village was the one that survived. So Voycho (Uncle) Ivan became the village slaughterer. Voycho Ivan was Khrushchev in appearance, thick-set, balding, with large, thick-fingered hands. He sat down with Rumen to drink a glass of the Bulgarian fruit brandy rakiya. “I’m going to hell,” he told him. Rumen asked him why. “Because I slaughter all the sheep.” Rumen tried to reassure him; after all, each village family paid him for the service and we were all quite willing to eat the resulting roasted meat. “But I’m the one who takes their souls,” Voycho Ivan sadly mourned. His daughter, Rumen’s first cousin, had died in childbirth years before; his wife Marishka, my mother-in-law’s sister, had passed away recently. A year or so later, Voycho Ivan had a heart attack, fell off his donkey cart, and died from the combined effects of coronary, hard fall, and harder life.

My mother-in-law’s brother Dimitar retained the family plot when his sisters left to live with their respective husbands. While working full-time as a miner, he built a beautiful two-story house catty-corner to the old three-room building he had grown up in with his three sisters and parents. He then ensconced his protesting parents in one of the rooms and demolished the old house. He built a clean cement outhouse with a light—and when you have visited enough village outhouses, you can clearly see that this is the most luxurious, most hygienic, least smelly outhouse of them all. A cement pathway led easily from the house to the outhouse set discreetly in the corner of the large yard, where a substantial and well-organized kitchen garden was laid out. In the far corner stood the barn. The outside of the house had a patio with overhanging grape leaves and the fruit ripened overhead as we sat to eat our lamb soup, roasted lamb, salad, and bread. Growing up, Rumen preferred always to stay with his Voycho Mito and his wife Verka because their house was so comfortable and clean, with no unfinished projects or piles of building materials laying around.

календарOne winter we visited Dolno Ozirovo and of course chose to stay with Voycho Mito, now a widower. Voycho Mito was a committed Communist. Born in 1926, he was old enough to know the extreme poverty and even hunger of the pre-revolution years and he remained an earnest and sincere believer until he died. But his only son defected to Austria and his nephew Rumen to the United States out of hatred of the Communist system, and that surely was a personal tragedy for him. He never said a word in protest to Rumen, never tried to convince him of his views. Yet sitting in his kitchen eating applesauce he had put up himself and drinking rosehip tea from rosehips he collected, he looked carefully at Rumen and pointed to a wall calendar published by the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP). “Who is that?” he tested Rumen. Rumen cocked his head at the photo of Joseph Stalin and composed his face carefully, “I don’t know,” he answered. For the BCP, time has stopped even for calendars.

When we went up to the second floor bedrooms by the outdoor stairwell that all Bulgarian village houses have, Voycho Mito stoked the wood furnace to heat the room. By morning, the room would be cold again and I would gasp from the shock of baring my skin to get dressed, but the fire warmed the room wonderfully and we felt very comfortable under the heavy wool blankets.

река ЧернаMy mother-in-law, her two sisters Marishka and Sedefka, and Voycho Mito have all passed away. Only Sedefka’s house, the one she built with her husband Lazar, is still inhabited. Rumen’s cousin Ognian lives there and his sisters visit regularly. A few years ago, we took our children there and our son splashed around in the river that Rumen had swam in countless times when growing up. A flock of geese was there as well. Something of Dolno Ozirovo is still there.


To Chicago and Back

Българска корицаIn 1894, Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov published a book describing his travels to the Chicago World’s Fair (officially known as The World’s Columbian Exposition). To Chicago and Back inspired many Bulgarians not only to travel internationally, but to travel and even emigrate to Chicago specifically. For years, the U.S. city with the highest number of Bulgarian immigrants was Chicago. Well over a century later, even Bulgarians who have never read the book know its title and author.


Despite the title, Aleko Konstantinov did not visit only Chicago on his 1893 travels. He opens by saying “If I began my travel notes from Sofia, I would be obliged, before anything else, to describe what it takes to obtain an international passport in Bulgaria, and that is such an unhappy story…” The more things change, the more they stay the same, the long unhappy process for my Bulgarian permanent residency card in mind.



pharmacyHe writes in a conversational style, describing what he sees and telling the reader his observations and reactions. In New York City, he complains about tasteless food and lack of dinner conversation while marveling at the tall buildings, wide boulevards and general American efficiency.


Daly's Drug StoreHe’s nonplussed by American pharmacies that don’t restrict themselves to pharmaceuticals, finding that they sell sodas, shoe brushes, postcards and the stamps to put on them.

Arriving at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Konstantinov echoes travelers from around the globe who found—and still find—the simple enormity of America nearly unfathomable. “Well, in the Palace of Manufacturing at the Chicago Exposition you could put not only our entire Plovdiv Bulgarian exposition, but also all of the inhabitants of the second Bulgarian capital, together with all of their possessions and their livestock on top of that.”


The Exposition’s Bulgarian pavilion of course exhibited rose oil and a map indicating the location of Kazanluk’s Valley of Roses. No doubt should there be a Bulgarian pavilion in an exposition today, it too would showcase rose oil. Konstantinov notes that rakiya, musical instruments such as the gaida and the kaval (wooden shepherd’s pipe), and samples of peasant clothing and crafts are all displayed against hanging colorful kilims.

In 1893, Konstantinov has the foresight upon exploring the California pavilion to note that “California wines are little by little pushing out the French ones…” Back east in DC, he visits famous sites such as the Capitol, White House and Washington Monument. He strolls down Pennsylvania Avenue and decides “The city of Washington, if not the prettiest, is at least one of the prettiest cities which I saw in Europe and America.” After jaunts to Philadelphia and Boston, Konstantinov boards the ship back to Europe and muses on America’s appeal. “Whatever the shortcomings there are in the American way of life, America still possesses a power of attraction. He who lives in America for a time does not easily separate himself from her.”

English coverAs Nikola Georgiev writes in his introduction to the English language edition of To Chicago and Back, “Travel notes inevitably describe foreign lands through the eyes of a different culture.” Aleko Konstantinov wrote of what he saw in America. I write what I see in Bulgaria. And I think I can conclude as Konstantinov did. Whatever the shortcomings there are in the Bulgarian way of life, Bulgaria still possesses a power of attraction. He who lives in Bulgaria for a time does not easily separate from her.


Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

turisticko-saobracajna-karta1930sRebecca West, brilliant British novelist, journalist, literary critic, essayist, and more, had a long and successful career, but Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia is universally considered her masterpiece. Given my interest in the former Yugoslavia’s neighbor Bulgaria, I have begun to read it. Thankfully, there is a detailed index and much of interest about Bulgaria itself as well as much to compare and contrast with Yugoslavia. The paperback version is 1150 pages.


I’m not sure I’ll finish it. Not true, I’m sure I will not.

Rebecca West.jpgBut the length of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, written in the late 1930s and published here in the United States in 1941, is not what I find difficult. I can complain about the stilted and pedantic dialogue, clearly making the people—real and composite—in this nonfiction narrative mere mouthpieces of the author. I can complain about the highly opinionated tilt of ostensibly objectively presented history. I can complain about the off-kilter and gratingly insistent sensibility about what constitutes maleness and femaleness, and the relative importance of these in the narrative. But what really gets to me is the balkanization of the Balkans.

Dame West does a disservice by her ready reception of Europe’s tendency to categorize the continent’s peoples. Western vs. Eastern, Catholic vs. Orthodox, Austro-German vs. Slav, Serb vs. Bulgar. Page after page, we hear about such things as “the authentic voice of the Slav” and other gross generalizations. And she further emphasizes what is Serb or Croat or Macedonian or Montenegrin or… All this division, all this compartmentalization, may or may not reflect what her travels were showing her. With Hitler on the rise, perhaps the people she met had a heightened awareness of what divided, rather than what united, them. The writer is not herself intolerant, but the insistent message of regional fragmentation plays into the intolerance of the time and adds fertilizer to the soil that Slobodan Milošević tilled so well five decades later.

blgfThat being said, there are wonderful observations and very cogent analysis throughout. There is, after all, reason why Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is considered a classic and still relevant. Here she says of Zagreb in the 1930s something I feel of Sofia today:

“It has, moreover, the endearing characteristic, noticeable in many French towns, of remaining a small town when it is in fact quite large. A hundred and fifty thousand people live in Zagreb, but from the way gossips stand in the street it is plain that everybody knows who is going to have a baby and when. This is a lovely spiritual victory over urbanization.”

Sofia 1930sD

Sofia 1930sB

In a more somber vein, West names the Achilles heel of the region:

“That is very true of all disputes between the Serbs and the Bulgars that are based on historical grounds. Both parties, and this applies not to old professors but to the man in the streets, start with the preposterous idea that when the Turks were driven out of the Balkans the frontiers recognized when they came in should be re-established, in spite of the lapse of five centuries, and then they are not loyal to it. The frontiers demanded by the extremists on both sides are those which their peoples touched only at moments of their greatest expansion, and they had to be withdrawn afterwards because they could not be properly defended. The ideal Bulgaria which the Bulgarians lust for, and nearly obtained through the Russian-drafted Treaty of San Stefano in 1878, actually existed only during the lifetimes of the Tsar Simeon, who died in the tenth century, and of the Tsar Samuel, who died about a hundred years later. The Serbs are as irritating when they regard their Tsar Dushan not only as an inspiration but as a map-maker, for his empire had fallen to pieces in the thirty-five years between his death and the defeat at Kossovo.”

This was written before World War II, before Communism triumphed, and before Communism fell. It is notable that the Yugoslavians continued to be “irritating” until the irritation grew to such lethal proportions that the country fell apart in the most bloody and horrific of ways and now lies in pieces in a European community those pieces cannot yet fully manage to join. Bulgaria somehow moved on, disputing no borders, making no additional territorial claims officially, its people clamoring for no changes nor hearkening back to empires of the past. Bulgarian textbooks do not teach children about “the Turkish yoke,” but of the Ottoman Empire. Bulgarian politicians of any impact—right, left, and center—generally support Bulgaria’s place in the European Union, looking forward and not back.

Rebecca West died in 1983, just three years after Yugoslavian President for life Josip Broz Tito. Had she lived another decade or two, she might have put on her journalist or essayist hat and revisited those Serbs and Bulgars. I would read that in its entirety with great interest.

Thanksgiving, Денят на Благодарността

I have twice prepared a traditional Thanksgiving meal in Bulgaria, inviting our closest Bulgarian friends to our Денят на Благодарността celebration. It took not a little bit of planning. The difficult items were turkey, sweet potatoes, and cranberries—and what would Thanksgiving be without them?


Turkey was the first problem. If I couldn’t find turkey, I would have to give up the whole project. It’s not hard to find turkey in Bulgaria around Christmas, but virtually impossible one month prior. The first time, I found a tiny butcher on the corner of Graf Ignatiev and Malyovitza. This particular butcher shop had been closed much of the summer and I had never entered it before due to the smell emanating from it when it finally did open. The mother of one close friend avoided it and referred to the dour-faced middle-aged men inside as “the boys.” But the boys were able to supply me with enormous turkey legs imported from Italy (or so they said), frozen to an Artic degree. After considerable time defrosting them, they spent considerable time being brined. They were delicious with sage gravy and stuffing, but the following year Plamen of the tiny grocery next door to our building found fresh turkey legs from a more reputable and hygienic source.


Potatoes have been cultivated throughout Europe for over four centuries, but sweet potatoes have not despite originating in precisely the same place the Spanish conquistadores found the many varieties of regular potatoes. The U.S. is now exporting sweet potatoes to Europe, but they remain hard to find. I finally located a small supply in Picadilly, gritting my teeth against the frighteningly high cost of what I had always considered an inexpensive staple.


I roasted them with garlic and sage (what the Bulgarians refer to as градински чай). Bulgarians don’t cook with sage. Instead it is applied as a poultice, gargled, or drunk as an infusion to cure the usual confounding variety of ills assigned to every medicinal herb (e.g., festering wounds, rashes, angina, toothache, ulcers, diarrhea, and so on). The Bulgarians at the table dutifully tried the unusual potato and wondered at the resemblance to pumpkin. Perhaps the sweet potatoes weren’t worth the bother and expense in the end, but we enjoyed them all the same along with the more easily available green beans with lemon and pine nuts.


Cranberries were a real dilemma at first, but I realized that the easily available дренка (cornel cherry) would make a splendid substitute. And just across the street from “the boys” were village women who sat on empty crates and sold the cornel cherries they harvested on walks just outside their villages. With the market full of apples and pumpkins, the traditional pies were easy to make.

Франклин посреща гости

I was thankful then to have my family, to live in Bulgaria once again and this time with our children, to share the prototypical American holiday with our Bulgarian friends. I was even able to find in площад Славейков, the large outdoor book market in the heart of Sofia, a copy of the children’s book Франклин посреща гости, the Bulgarian version of Franklin’s Thanksgiving by Paulette Bourgeois. And I’m thankful now that Bulgaria, its people and culture, have become an inseparable part of my life. We celebrated a part of America there, we celebrate in the U.S. Bulgarian holidays like Baba Marta in March and Bulgarian Education and Culture, and Slavonic Literature Day in May. Happy Thanksgiving. Честит Ден на Благодарността.