Tag Archives: village

Various and Sundry

My in-laws were the first of their families to leave their respective villages. With great difficulty, they made their way to the dream destination of all dissatisfied, striving peasants—the big city. But moving to Sofia then was difficult. They had no residence permits. They began by working on laying railroad tracks, eventually making it to Sofia to a one-room “apartment” with a communal sink. Everyone referred to the neighborhood as “Atomic Center,” after the nuclear research reactor completed there in 1961, the year my husband was born. They built a life there, made friends, obtained the residence permit. My husband Rumen remembers that when, somehow, they managed to buy a television, children came from their single rooms to crowd around and watch. When Rumen was seven years old, they were assigned a coveted one-bedroom apartment in the then new Druzbha residential block complex. A younger brother was born. Not long after the move, they discovered that another family, also with two children, was assigned to share the same apartment. The village with so little opportunities had far more spacious living quarters.

Rumen spent much of his early years and each summer visiting Dolno Ozirivo (maternal relatives) and Kozlodui (paternal relatives). It was clear to him that there were two sorts of village residents. There was the house-proud resident of the spic-and-span variety. For him/her, everything had its place and nothing extraneous marred building, yard, garden, or animal pen.

Then there was the far more common house-proud resident for whom future building plans necessitated hoarding every possible (and even more impossible) item for potential future use. Chipped bricks in piles, twisted wire netting, wood with nails from previous uses still remaining and now rusted, washed out tins that formally contained sunflower oil or cheese, clay pots, drinking gourds. All leaning up against the side of the house or the barn or perched precariously by the outdoor sink or bench.

Rumen preferred the first kind. He had a favorite place to stay in each village, a spic-and-span relative for whom even the outhouse had to be first-rate rather than indistinguishable from the chicken coop adjacent.

Having worked so hard to obtain Sofia residence permit and apartment, my in-laws embarked upon recreating the village ambiance they had so recently managed to escape. Despite the ruling Communist theology and harsh rules and too many fines to count, they purchased a small plot high in the mountains above the Rebrovo train station. It was a 40-minute train ride from Sofia and a 40-minute walk up. Over many years, they built a small cottage and a large garden. The cottage started with one room, but grew steadily. The first floor had an ample bedroom, living area with another double bed, table, wardrobes, and family photos on the wall. The second floor envisioned two more bedrooms, with the Bulgarian tradition of a narrow outdoor stairway leading to them. The kitchen was equipped with a wood stove and all the necessary implements both for making meals and putting up the garden produce for the winter.

With others of the same bent and after many years of backbreaking work, that 40-minute walk ended in what can only be called a village, albeit made up only of Sofia weekenders. Having hauled up sand, cement, bricks, furniture, pots, pans, wood, perennial bulbs, recycled two-liter plastic bottles, canning jars, and other various and sundry materials, they were understandably reluctant to dispose of anything that might later prove useful. The cottage had a below-earth room for cold storage (and whatever else might be put there in a pinch) and a shed for tools (and whatever else might be put there in a pinch).

My father-in-law passed away in the cottage that he built with his hands and that was his favorite place. My mother-in-law continued to make weekend jaunts and garden there. When we lived in Sofia in the mid 1990s, we spent many weekends there in orgies of shelling peas for canning, taking naps in the sun on the wide porch, fetching water from the spring, taking walks to gather herbs for winter tisanes, digging out parsley roots for fall salads, filling watering cans from the catchments to save the strawberries in a drought year. One chilly late fall mountain night, my mother-in-law heated bricks in the wood stove, wrapped them in towels, and put them at the foot of our bed to keep our feet warm in the first hours of sleep. It was hard work and it was idyllic and we enjoyed it immensely. But we grew tired of constantly fighting the various and sundry that prevented easy access to the tools and materials we really did use. Asking whether this item or that could be thrown away or even moved to a new location always met with a certain hesitancy; my mother-in-law seemed truly pained at the idea. The village ethos had a clear hold.

Then one day she sent me below to get a few onions to start a soup. I had started to peel one when I suspected what I really had was a flower bulb. I was that close to making a truly poisonous soup. Finally, I had enough—enough irritation, enough Bulgarian, and enough courage to tell my mother-in-law I was cleaning it out.

We hauled out the broken ladder that would never be fixed, the single shoes missing their mates, the watering can with a hole at the bottom. She watched, first nervously, then—because she had the ability to laugh at herself—with amusement as the pile grew. After we tossed out the old and the odd, the unused and the unloved, my mother-in-law put a match to the pile and nursed the fire until all that could burn had become ash. What was left, we bagged and asked a neighbor to haul down in his truck. Fifteen years later, my mother-in-law having moved from the dream of Sofia to DC where her grandchildren were, we sold the Rebrovo cottage.

This summer, we will spend a month in Bulgaria. We will visit relatives in the village. We prefer to stay with the spic-and-span relatives rather than the various-and-sundry relatives, but we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. En route, we will pass through towns and villages with many of the latter sort of houses. Houses with the first floor built surrounded by all the building supplies needed for an eventual second floor, so eventual that the second floor likely awaits a second generation. Houses surrounded by the debris of what was demolished to make way for the current structure, because of what might be salvaged for yet another use. Houses that have accumulated various and sundry, because every purchase was a hard-won purchase and is memorable and just can’t be let go unless the owner has a ruthless American daughter-in-law bent on cleaning it out.

Sheep / Овци

When I first went to Bulgaria to meet my future in-laws, I saw flocks of sheep. This was in 1987 in the capital Sofia as we drove from the airport to Druzhba, one of the many concrete panel block residential apartment complexes you see throughout Eastern Europe.

Sofia before independenceBuilding truly began in Sofia after independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and has not stopped so it was and is not in any sense of the word an agricultural center. And yet, between the main roads leading from the airport to Druzhba or from Druzhba to the city center, there were large grassy areas on which I could clearly see shepherds grazing their sheep. They came from the small villages surrounding Sofia that had not yet been absorbed in the city proper, but they don’t come anymore. Perhaps the shepherds and their sheep, together with their villages, have disappeared. The young people leave, the old pass one. Villages in Bulgaria, like the world over, are abandoned, emptied, ghost villages.


Долно ОзиривоMy husband was born and raised, mostly, in Sofia. His mother is from the mountain village of Dolno Ozirivo (Lower Ozirivo). Dolno Ozirivo was never large. Even in my mother-law’s childhood, there were not enough children to support a school beyond the primary grades, though this might have been due less to the sheer number of adolescents than to parents pulling them out of school to work on the village’s subsistence farms. Dolno Ozirivo might, in our lifetimes, become a ghost village. When I first went there in 1993, however, it was still soldiering on. The houses were virtually all inhabited. There were still children being raised there. There were chickens and goats and sheep.


Баба Кана и козлеWe were there for the annual village holiday. 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 Gorno Ozirivo (Upper Ozirivo) was the one that survived. So Voicho (Uncle) Vancho became the village slaughterer. Voicho Vancho 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,” Voicho Vancho sadly mourned.


Връбка и магареRumen spent his earliest years in Dolno Ozirivo and parts of many summers. He remembers his Voicho Lazar tenderly raising his lambs and emotional over each slaughter or sale. Once I saw Voicho Lazar setting out with his donkey cart to sell two sheepskins. I took a photo of the donkey with Rumen’s cousin. Voicho Lazar treasured it for years. Many people in the village had sheep and goats for both milk and meat, and in warm weather the men took turns gathering them together into one flock to drive into the mountain grazing areas for the day.


Whether you go to a small independent corner grocery or to one of the larger supermarkets that are now sprinkled throughout Sofia, you find a large range of dairy products. For each—milk, yogurt, sirene (white cheese)—there is a variant made with sheep’s milk. Feta cheese is made throughout the Balkans, but in 2005 the European Union high court decreed feta cheese a traditional Greek product whose name deserves legal protection. Bulgarians continue to produce their own sirene, which others then blithely translate as feta without concern for court decisions. Sheep’s milk sirene is a favorite.


My father-in-law is from the far larger village of Kozlodui set in the Danubian plain. Rumen’s Diado (Grandfather) Ivan spent much of his time with the village sheep. Like Dolno Ozirivo, he was the shepherd of a flock made up of his own sheep and those of other villagers. There were two or three such flocks, each with a pair of shepherds responsible for them. From April to perhaps September or October, he lived with a flock of around 300 in the common grazing land, working with another village shepherd and their dogs. Periodically, people would bring them additional food and supplies. They always had meat at hand, though, and the joke ran something like this: “Whose sheep is missing this week? Was it a fox/wolf/boar?” Diado Ivan and his fellow shepherd lived in a hut until winter weather brought them back to the village. In Kozlodui, the sheep were then dispersed to their owners to be housed in barns and yards, feeding on hay, corn, and bran until the grass grew again.


Not all the sheep were collected for summer grazing. Undoubtedly some ewes were kept by their owners for milking and tended along with the chickens, pigs, and female goats (also milked). Rumen’s Strinka (Aunt) Sanda kept goats for their milk. Once she sent us off back to Sofia with a two-liter bottle of goat milk. Rumen and his brother had polished it off before we even got on the bus. And once, my then four-year old son Yoan and I were helping out, carrying buckets of water to the pen while Strinka Sanda limped along with her cane. She laboriously sat down on a stool and milked the goat, who then with unerring judgment kicked the bucket over so that the milk ran in streams until disappearing altogether in the dry summer earth. Strinka Sanda heaved herself up, patted Yoan’s head, and told him there would be no glass of goat milk to drink today.


When my in-laws got married in Kozlodui, they received a valuable wedding present of matching sheepskin jackets, beautifully tailored and worn wool side in, skin side out. When I knew them, my father-in-law’s was long gone and my mother-in-law’s jacket was a sleeveless vest dyed a dark blood red. She wore it in the often chilly Druzhba apartment kitchen keeping her arms free and torso warm while she cooked.


By the time Rumen was visiting his paternal relatives in Kozlodui, his grandfather had stopped taking out the flocks. Instead he worked with Rumen’s Baba (Grandmother) Stana tending the garden, chickens, vineyard, corn, and general household chores. He often played the kaval, the wooden flute traditionally played by shepherds. Each time she heard it, Baba Stana was enraged at the work stoppage this clearly implied. She would stomp over, grab the kaval, and throw it in the fire. Rumen remembers Diado Ivan calmly beginning the search for an appropriate piece of wood and settling with his knife to carve a new kaval.


Diado Ivan still enjoyed tromping around the meadows and taking long walks away from the noise, houses, and fenced-in yards of the village. He would take Rumen with him carrying a string bag containing bread, homemade sirene, an onion, tomatoes, peppers, and a pear. They would find a place to sit, and Diado Ivan would take out his knife, this time not to carve a kaval, but to carefully peel and cut off bite-size chunks of pear for grandfather and grandson to share for their dessert.

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.