Tag Archives: Druzhba

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.

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.


Concrete Jungle, Bulgarian Style

In 1987, I had my first glimpse of the ubiquitous concrete, pre-fab, no architecture required, block apartment complexes that the Communists propagated throughout the USSR and Eastern Europe in a mad drive to house as many people as possible. Driving from the airport in the small yellow Moskvich car that my husband’s family had waited ten years to purchase, I saw a mural nearly covering a side of one of the blocks far from the city center. Inexplicably in English—who could have possibly been the audience?—it read, “From Crude Oil, We Derive Confidence.”


As a visitor, I needed to register my whereabouts with the police. We went to an office near the National Assembly building, in a part of the city paved with yellow bricks. There was a very long line. It moved very slowly. Eventually, my future brother-in-law took me to buy postcards while his mother held our place. I was able to fill several postcards, address them, go to the central post office, buy stamps, and mail them. On our return, his mother had barely advanced in line. Finally, it was my turn and I immediately saw the problem. A lone woman sat at a manual typewriter laboriously hunting and pecking to complete the carbon forms. Clickety clack clickety clack clickety clack as the carriage moved across and then “ding” as she shifted the lever to begin again. I was fairly confident that Big Brother could not have been watching me altogether efficiently.

жълт паваж

The enormous pre-fabricated panel concrete block apartment complex where I had to report I was staying is called Druzhba (fellowship). The family apartment is still there and our base whenever we visit. All 199 “blocks” were quickly filled by people like Rumen’s parents fleeing the hard agricultural life of the villages for the capital city, so the government built the equally appealing Druzhba 2. In other parts of the city, there are similar complexes filled with rows and rows of concrete block apartment buildings, each with numerous entrances, each entrance with numerous apartments. Like Druzhba, they often have evocative names like Nadezhda (hope) and Mladost (youth) that belie their drab appearance. Nadezhda and Mladost each sprouted into five like named complexes. All of these complexes have been absorbed into Sofia proper for government purposes, but they function like an American city’s outlying suburbs, with a greater population than the city center and their own bustling markets, small stores, office buildings and small businesses. The blocks have stayed the same as when I first saw them in 1987, but now there is a good deal of development in and around them to serve the multiple generations of residents living in them. Instead of “From Crude Oil, We Derive Confidence” in English, now there is a nearby restaurant with a sign in Bulgarian reading “Pizza Sushi.”


Still, the drab gray blocks themselves are set up in rows, all right angles with none of the curves or organic feel of Sofia’s city center or of the villages— both of which show development that feels more human and more humane. The grid is hyper-organized and all the blocks are built with precisely the same materials and structure. Big Brother’s centralized planning did not extend to the spaces between the blocks; they are entirely undeveloped blocks of “no man’s land.” Druzhba, Nadezhda, Mladost, and countless others are quite literally the Soviet and Eastern European version of U.S. low-income, government-built “projects.” My husband used to say, “Now that they’ve made so many buildings in Sofia, it’s time to introduce architecture.” It’s too late to introduce architecture to complexes built over half a century ago and millions of people live there without the means to buy better elsewhere. And finances aside, it’s not easy to leave friends and extended family after so many decades.

Aesthetics or no, the blocks are home. My husband remembers their excitement at moving to Druzhba after years of living in one room and sharing a common kitchen, toilet and running water with their neighbors. Coming out onto the small balcony of their fifth floor apartment, he was fascinated seeing for the first time from so high a vantage point people on the street below. My in-laws were appreciative not only of the apartment itself, but of the view of Vitosha Mountain. Sofia is in a valley on Vitosha’s northeast foot and even the tallest, ugliest pre-fabricated concrete panel block cannot blot out the mountain’s beauty. In lighter winters, cottony white clouds lie below Vitosha’s snowline, which never fully melts even in summer. The manmade lake is reasonably maintained, with a walkway all around, a bridge, grassy areas, and now restaurants, a new playground, and a fitness center.


Once the 1989 changes happened, the government stopped asking for the nominal rent it had required and instead offered the possibility of ownership through a reasonable mortgage quickly paid off. From that point, the renovations within began as money and materials became available. A few years ago, my brother-in-law renovated the entire apartment down to the floorboards and it now has quite the Scandinavian aesthetic. You can renovate your apartment any way you wish without interference, but the public spaces—the elevator, the stairwells, the exterior walls—these require the cooperation of everyone who lives in your particular entrance.

When we returned to Bulgaria in 1993, it was summer. We frequently went out on the back balcony to water the many plants my mother-in-law tended there, especially the ever-blooming red mushkati (geraniums) that were her pride and which can be seen on block balconies throughout Bulgaria. One day we noticed that the adjacent old three-story, two-entrance block long predating Druzhba was being re-plastered and painted. As the weeks went on, it became clear that only one-half was receiving this treatment. Only the people living in one entrance had agreed to pay for the renovation. By the end of our stay, one-half remained with falling plaster and the other appeared brand new.


In June 1995, we moved to Sofia for a two-year stint. Hanging laundry on the back balcony one day, we saw that the other half of the old three-story block was being re-plastered and painted. Clearly the residents of this entrance now felt they had to maintain appearances with the other. But not all the residents in the entrance felt this way. There was a lone holdout and we knew this because the entire face of the entrance was re-plastered and painted except for a one-sixth square on the first floor. Two decades later, that one-sixth was still untouched. Perhaps the holdout was right since by January 2015 the rest of the building’s façade looked less than fresh, and the line between re-plastered and never touched was barely perceptible. The A4 size nekrolozi (death notices) may proliferate in the block entrances, the uninviting play equipment long consigned to decrepitude, but the blocks themselves solidly—perhaps eternally—continue. With so many people still dependent on them for housing, the only choice seems to be maintaining and improving them. Habitat for Humanity has a program to assist—take a look.