We were sitting at the small kitchen table in the one-bedroom family apartment in the Druzhba complex, the table that was folded down after each meal to save space. It was 1991 and Rumen and I were there with his family to get married for the second time, the first being three weeks prior in Washington, DC with my family. I spoke no Bulgarian then, my future in-laws no English. Rumen’s father Vladimir was known as a bon vivant, a charmer. A construction worker who did hard physical labor, building his own cottage atop the mountains of Rebrovo, he was a small man with the physical affect of Pablo Picasso.
At 25, he entertained the beautiful 19-year old Ivanka with jokes and captivated her with his strikingly bright blue eyes. “I die for blue eyes,” my mother-in-law later told me. They eloped based on not more than that, a giggle, and her fear that at 19 she was already an old maid.
Rumen’s younger brother Emil had a girlfriend Luba who was perhaps captivated by Emil’s blue eyes, but was not inspired by them or anything else to show pleasure—certainly not the kind of full-body laughter Ivanka regularly broke into, the kind that makes you laugh even when you don’t understand the words that started her off. But sour-faced Luba was Bulgarian and lived in Sofia while I am American and did not. So perhaps it was that simple calculation that made Vladimir jerk a thumb towards the hallway where Luba stood and then point a finger to me and raise his hand to show a plane flying away. Rumen translated the words for me. I should leave Rumen there and fly away. Luba would be the one to take care of the aging parents.
I was stricken. Rumen explained that it was all a joke, that Vladimir was known for his jokes, but I couldn’t laugh. Vladimir died the following year, having not survived his third heart attack. He never knew that Luba didn’t stay and that I did. That I would move to Sofia with Rumen, would help keep up his beloved cottage, would put up food for the winter as Bulgarians traditionally do, would learn to speak Bulgarian and speak it with the grandchildren not yet born in 1991. I needed more time to appreciate the jokes, to communicate directly without the need for translation, to get to know him. I would have liked to introduce him to his grandson Yoan, who would have looked back at his grandfather with the same blue eyes.
These are some of the things I know about my father-in-law, with whom I danced at my second wedding to my only husband:
- He was born February 28, 1932, the youngest of his parents’ three children who survived to adulthood—five died in childhood—and he died years before his two elder brothers.
- As a child in Kozlodui, he spoke Romanian—Vlashki, it is known in Bulgarian towns on the Danube—as everyone around him did. His mother never spoke Bulgarian and he didn’t learn the national language until he was sent to school. He left after third grade.
- He brought his bride Ivanka back to his family in Kozlodui, but they were determined to make it to the capital Sofia and within three years succeeded in establishing residency there.
- His favorite restaurant to schmooze with friends was a restaurant called Grozd, Ресторант Грозд. It’s still in the same place, though the street has been renamed since the Berlin Wall fell and it’s now called Boulevard Tsar Liberator. But the restaurant is not at all the same place he knew, with its English language sign on the front and Caesar salad on the menu.
- Usually, it was Ivanka’s efforts that brought Rumen to Kozlodui in the summers and kept up the connection to the paternal side. But on rare occasions, Vladi (as his wife called him) brought his son to his parents, taking the ferry from Lom—a town due north of Sofia—and making one portion of the hard Bulgarian salami lukanka and one 50-gram shot of the Bulgarian brandy rakia last the entire journey.
- There were two families, each with two children, in the Druzhba one-bedroom apartment and Vladi recognized that Rumen could not pursue his education in the prestigious art high school with so little space. He managed to get Rumen a studio in an otherwise abandoned building affiliated somehow with his constuction company employer, promising to provide its janitorial services after hours.
- When I first came alone to Sofia in 1987 (having defected two years prior, Rumen could not come with me), Vladi took me aside and tearily repeated Rumen’s name and the word добре (good) in a questioning tone. I repeated добре several times, one of the perhaps five words I knew then.
He smoked a lot, like so many Bulgarian men, Стюардеса (Stewardess) being his brand of choice. After his first, or perhaps it was his second, heart attack, he reported that his doctor had told him to “smoke less.”
- After our second wedding and just before it was time to leave Sofia to return to our home in Washington, DC, my father-in-law woke up very early and took the train to his beloved cottage in Rebrovo. He could not say goodbye. He died one year and three months later. We got the call in the middle of the night. Almost the last image of him was when he thrust his arms up in exuberant victory as he celebrated his elder son’s marriage. The image after that in my mind was Vladi’s dismay that the Druzhba elevator was broken again and with his weakened heart he would have to walk up five flights of stairs to the apartment.
Vladi was found when his neighbor in the created-from-scratch village that a group of largely Sofia residents brought into being from their higgledy-piggledy collection of weekend Rebrovo cottages noticed that a light had been burning all night. That third and final heart attack occurred in the place he built with his own hands over many years and which he loved best. Cleaning the cottage out years later in preparation for its sale, Rumen came across a small bound notebook his father had kept, of the kind with lettered tabs for keeping telephone numbers. On the back pages of the notebook, he had carefully written out several recipes for snails, each recipe labeled “serving for one.”
- He had requested that he be cremated before internment in the Central Sofia Cemetery. You have to pass Grozd to get there. The urn was placed in a multi-tiered columbarium, like rows of small lockers on one side of a walkway that had actual gravesites lining the other side. This upset Ivanka who thought there would be no peace for Vladi since his remains were “above ground.”
More time. That’s generally what people wish they had after someone’s death, more time. If I had had more time with my father-in-law, I could have:
- Had conversations with him, a one-on-one relationship that precludes the need for a translator. Because jokes don’t really translate well from one language to another, and I’m fairly good with a snappy retort—now even in Bulgarian.
Learned more, perhaps, about the artistic leanings that were evidenced only in the Rebrovo cottage. The decorative wrought iron railings carefully painted green on the back terrace in echo of the bountiful verdant garden below. The garden itself with its central pathway lined with black currant bushes and the pear trees he badgered Rumen into bringing up by foot on the difficult mountain path from the Rebrovo train station. The green circles set into the white plaster under the overhanging roofline shading the brown wood-framed windows of the never finished second floor bedrooms he intended for his children and guests. Vladi’s elder son became studied fine art and became a graphic designer, his younger a famed fashion photographer. I think they might have gotten these talents from their father.
- Watched him play with his grandchildren, the kind of play that his own children seem not to have experienced but that Rumen’s younger cousins still remember fondly.
- Seen a mature relationship develop between him and my husband, who left Bulgaria in his early twenties and so the two never had the opportunity as grown men to know and enjoy each other.
Vladimir Ivanov Buzatov would have been 87 years old at the end of last month. According to World Health Organization 2016 data life expectancy for Bulgarian men is 71, the leading cause of death being coronary heart disease. Vladimir made it to 60. When Emil died at suddenly, improbably, tragically at 41 from smoking-related heart disease, we buried him at the Boyana Cemetery and placed Vladimir’s urn beside him, deep in the ground. It’s very green at the Boyana Cemetery, very close to the ancient Boyana Church with its beautiful, brightly-colored pre-Renaissance frescos. It’s very peaceful.