Baba Marta

I stare at a blank page. I haven’t written for a while, since over the last year or more I have started sliding down toward the fractious and unruly netherworld of politics and contention. I don’t want to be there. Staying abreast of the issues of the day is a good thing, but, well, it’s been hard to think of writing. I want to take a rest from hearing and writing about the hate groups, the deceptions and evasiveness of public officials, the accusations, the guns and shootings, the marches, the relentless wars and the shutdown of merciful welcome to refugees. I need a change of subject, at least here.

Tomorrow is the first of March, a very special day that always recalls a very special time for me, my years in Bulgaria. Let me tell you a story. This is from my book, A Breeze in Bulgaria. It was Baba Marta Day, a Saturday. The excitement had been building at the school where I taught, peaking on the day before with all the students giving each other red and white bracelets and pendants like wearable valentines made of yarn and string. Stormy and I were at home on the big day, grading papers. You can only stand that for so long, especially on a holiday…

Baba Marta and a Prayer for Dyado Petko

March 1 was Baba Marta Day, the day of “Grandmother March.” For weeks before Baba Marta Day each year the center of town was crowded with tables where people were selling martenitsas, a sea of red and white yarn bracelets and pendants. In front of the bus station and in front of cafés and on street corners, old women and old men patiently offered martenitsas for sale on tables and ironing boards and laundry racks.

Martenitsas for sale in the Center.

On the first of March everyone would give the colorful woven yarn charms to each other, and say “Chestita Baba Marta.” The custom required tying bracelets on someone’s wrist, or pinning on a yarn ornament while saying something like “Red for health and white for the happiness I wish for you.” The martenitsas were worn until sighting the first stork of the season, or the first swallow, or if the birds were too slow then seeing the first flower blossom would do. The arrival of spring! Then the martenitsas are removed and tied on the nearest fruit tree, or placed under a rock, to ensure good fertility of the trees or the soil. We had seen the bits of yarn in trees near the blok, the red faded to pink from the year before, and at first we wondered what that was all about.

Grandmother March, the story went [one story anyway], lived on top of a mountain where she could see all the children. When the children were good she smiled and the weather was nice. But when they were not, well, you’ve always known how changeable the weather in March can be, in like a lion… now you know why. It was all up to the children and whether they made Baba Marta smile.

We took some martenitsas when we visited the neighbors who lived on the fourth floor. We knew that Dyado [Grandpa] Petko had gone to the hospital for a heart operation the week before, and that he came back with his leg amputated…. Petko was resting on a bed in the kitchen. We exchanged martenitsas with the couple and dear young Ginka, and visited awhile. Petko said he had a lot of pain, but he could move what was left of his leg and that was good. It was not diabetes, not cancer; just that when he went in to the hospital he had a leg, and while he was there they said it was no good and they had to take it off. It was pretty bad that one day you have health and everything is fine, he said, and the next day you’re not even all there. He also said that in a year he would be able to get a prosthesis.

They offered rakiya and sausages. Grandmother Gencha asked if I liked the sauerkraut I bought from their friends, and mentioned that we should be sure to return the jar. There were no secrets in this town about sauerkraut jars. It nagged us though, that some kind of secret was being kept from Petko, or some knowledge that no one would take the time to give him and his family, about what happened to his leg.

Ginka said she had lit candles in the church and said prayers for Petko. He offered the speculation that if she hadn’t done that he might have lost the other leg too. Gencha shushed him on that.

We said we’d send up a prayer too, that afternoon. Stormy had heard about a town, Rakovski, that was known as the Catholic center of Bulgaria. The population of that small enclave was something like 98% Roman Catholic. We wanted to go there that afternoon since they would probably have Saturday Mass, and see what it would be like. Petko thanked us for the intended prayer and said whatever kind of church it would be sent from was fine with him.

We got to the bus station a little late, with it having been hard to leave from our visit with Petko. It was about a minute before the departure time for the bus to Plovdiv, where we would connect to Rakovski. Since we didn’t have enough time to go in and buy the ticket, we asked the driver if we could pay him, and he said, “Sure.” The drivers kept an onboard stock of tickets for people getting on and off at intermediate stops, with little receipts to fill out for that purpose. After we paid and he filled out the trip information on the receipts, he unfastened a “reserved” sign from the front passenger seat and welcomed us to it. He had martenitsas hanging from the rear view mirror. Stormy thanked him for the ride when we got off in Plovdiv, and he smiled and wished us Chestita Baba Marta.

As we approached the town of Rakovski on the bus out of Plovdiv, the church stood out on the skyline like a giant fortress. We knew it wasn’t an Orthodox church because the bell tower was part of the building, not a separate structure. There were no signs identifying the name of the church, the Mass times, or anything else. But it looked Catholic.

It was just about time for the 4:00 PM daily Mass, so we went in. About twenty parishioners were scattered here and there around the church: four teenage girls, a young nun, and everyone else women in their seventies and eighties. The woman entering ahead of us picked up a slender candle and paid her ten stotinki, as indicated by a small sign lettered in pencil on a piece of cardboard, and set it unlit on a little sand-tray stand. Half a dozen candles stood together in the tray, all unlit. I guessed that they would light them during Mass, as part of a ceremony. Stormy followed suit, paying the fee and setting two candles in the stand without lighting them. We were used to carefully observing what we saw other people doing, for cues on how to act. Observe, evaluate, adapt. Here of all places, in a Roman church, would be the time to “do as the Romans do.”

The pews were straight-backed wooden benches. They were movable, not fastened to the floor. Kneelers, plain boards with no padding, were fixed in place on the back of each bench, to be used by the worshipers in the next row back. Counting and multiplying benches and rows, as I often did by habit, I found the church had 150 seats. As gigantic as it looked from the outside, I would have thought there would have been more than that.

Guardian Angel

Familiar and comforting, all around the world. Photo from Appalachian Magazine.

Painted murals depicting biblical scenes were everywhere, on the walls and on the ceilings, and “unorthodox” statues in various places around the sanctuary. The statue of St. Joseph, on the right as always in the Roman churches, was marked with a label in Latin letters, the only non-Cyrillic writing in the place. The stations of the cross were all in their familiar positions counterclockwise starting from the left front, and they consisted of framed pictures. Above the choir loft in the rear of the church was a painting that was familiar from catechism books and countless holy cards collected by generations of Catholic schoolchildren – a Guardian Angel watching over a little boy and girl as they cross a turbulent stream on a footbridge under storm-darkened skies. Comfort, security, reassurance.

The priest came out with three altar boys. The boys wore white satin cassocks with broad red stripes down the front, looking very liturgical. During the Mass the boys did not recite any of the prayers or the responses. They took care of the hosts and wine and water and rang the bells, and at other times stood and smirked at each other as if sharing an inside joke. The Mass had a familiar rhythm to it, and the people recited all the responses and longer prayers in the monotone of lifelong habit. The teenage girls led songs. Everyone sang. The girls did the readings. The “Peace be unto you” ritual greeting was subdued, with a hand touch rather than handshakes or hugs, and a murmured Posdrave, meaning simply “Greetings.”

After Mass, we saw that the unlit candles had been taken out of the stand and put back in the box with the ten-stotinki sign on it. The good intentions they carried would have to make it to heaven without the little flames to propel them. We would not mention that to Petko.

A little knot of congestion formed at the doorway as people bunched up to leave, for the same reason as in Orthodox churches. Each of the faithful, before leaving, paused to kiss the image of Christ just inside the door. In an Orthodox church it would be an icon in a picture frame or iconostasis, but here the same ritual was observed with the sculpted figure of Christ on the crucifix.

The priest asked us what brought us to town, and ventured a guess that we were visiting our parents. We had heard before that Stormy, at least, “looks very Bulgarian” but still the supposition took us by surprise. He was interested to learn that we had come all the way from Pazardjik just to go to church there in Rakovski. He was becoming preoccupied by the teenagers putting martenitsas on his wrist as we said goodbye.

We walked around the neighborhood a bit, took some pictures of a giant stork nest on top of the church and an old stone tower out in a nearby cornfield, then caught the bus back to Plovdiv as the sun was sending golden streaks out of the west on its way down. The driver on the bus from Plovdiv to Pazardjik was the same one who had brought us there six hours before, who had sold us the tickets onboard. He smiled in recognition as he took our tickets, and again waved us into the “reserved” front seat. It was dark when we got home. It felt like a pretty full day, this Baba Marta Day, just a visit with the neighbors and going to church.


Things I Learned in 2017

Whoo, what a year! Not just politics, everything. The news is unrelenting, one big deal after another. Even the Christmas letters we’ve received from friends have been filled with national news and commentary as well as the expected family doings.

Still, I love Christmas letters. We’ve been receiving cards and letters from people near and far. In many cases they’re from friends whose paths have shifted away from ours, but whose stories and concerns keep dear relationships alive. Most are printed like news bulletins but crafted with loving effort to tell of family events and travels, accomplishments of children and grands, job changes, sad passings, joyful births. A lot of care and reflection goes into these. It’s a generous thing to do, and I love being on the receiving end when I get them. I haven’t reciprocated in mailing out my own Christmas letters. I have, though, taken up a “Peace on Earth” theme about this time of year in this blog, turning my monthly article for December into a Christmas letter of sorts. 1 Peace does seem like a Christmassy topic, since we too seldom acknowledge peace as a concept at other times. Way too seldom. This is my Christmas letter for 2017.

The year got kick-started with a presidential inauguration, the largest celebration in history according to one account, and I learned that many of my friends were glad about that and many were not. In connection with that event and all that has followed from it, I learned that whether one agrees with a friend or not, a friend is a friend.

It was a big year for fifties in our household. There was the 50-year reunion of Stormy’s college class in the summer, and mine in the fall. We learned that friendships forged in youth are strong. Actually I think we already knew that, but being together with good old friends after years and years of being apart served to underscore the point. The same point was driven home again in another reunion, not quite 50 yet for my Pilot Training class but as we’ve observed before, “The older we get the better we were!” Trouble with an old pilots’ reunion is your arms get tired.

2017 marked the 50-year point for our wedding anniversary too. Family and friends were generous with congratulations, as if achieving that mark had required a mighty effort. Sure, there were times… after all, if no difficulties had ever been faced and overcome it would be a shallow celebration. Speaking as the luckiest man I know, however, I can say it’s not the years that make a marriage. It’s the days.

Continuing the 50s theme, the suburban neighborhood where we live put on a 50-year celebration marking that number of years since the first lots were platted and construction began. I went around to some of the original homeowners and interviewed them about what it was like to establish a home out in fields and farmland. I got a kick out of talking with the old folks. They had stories, and some had photos. I learned that if I had been here then, I would not have chosen this neighborhood. I like trees. Before there were any here, I would have said no thanks, something’s not right. Probably from having to move every few years in my young adulthood, I don’t have the patience to wait for a tree to grow.

I learned that there is a link across time and distance that is stronger than one might imagine. One such link took Stormy and me to the far-off land of Australia, where we were met as family and experienced warmth and a sense of belonging that made new memories to treasure for a lifetime.1 We have quite a collection of memories such as these.

In June we took a trip east for Stormy’s AAUW convention, where I had lots of free time to be a tourist while she got convened. The monuments in Washington, DC are still inspiring and instructive to visit, even for one who has done that many times. At the Vietnam Wall my fingers traced the cold letters naming old friends and classmates. I went to the DAR museum and library and looked up names of long-dead ancestors in dry, yellowing books. At the Holocaust Memorial Museum I was shocked that they did not acknowledge the heroism of Bulgarians who saved Jews in their country from deportation. (They said that the King of Denmark stood up for Jews in his country, and was the only leader to do so.) My father’s spirit cracked a grin, watching over my shoulder, as I heard myself say, “I’m gonna write ’em a letta!”

Korean War Memorial, faces on the wall

I stood in awe at the ghostly sculptures that make up the Korean War Memorial, and the images of soldiers’ faces etched onto black marble. My reflection startled me as I saw myself standing among them, in honorable company. An old man stared back at me as I stood among soldiers suspended in long-ago youth, never to grow old.

I saw the White House. It looks like a fortified embassy compound in a vaguely hostile country. Damn shame, not that it is that way, but that it has to be.

I learned some new songs, at least the tenor part, with a group of people I like being around. It’s a point to be made, I think, that if I were to sing my tenor part as a fiercely independent and proud individual you might not even recognize the tune. It takes other voice parts to make a choral arrangement. If one voice tried to dominate, “knowing” that only that particular part is right, and then another would feel obliged to do so, and so on, until the whole effort devolves into a screaming match. We’ve seen that happen, haven’t we? Not in my choir, for sure, but you know where. The world. Everywhere, almost.

This year we learned that not everyone agrees with our personal views, the things that we know in our hearts are right, no question, no argument. Views on old bronze statues, on football game ceremonies, on healthcare, guns, taxes. There’s more, but after all it’s a symphony isn’t it? All the parts are needed lest the song ring hollow.

At this time of year the songs we hear are mostly familiar ones, and overwhelmingly about peace. That’s a good thing to focus on.

Mind if we sing our way out? It’s one of my favorites, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. 2

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men

And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

Then ringing singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And the bells they’re ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
And with our hearts we’ll hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Do you hear the bells they’re ringing? (peace on earth)
The life the angels singing (peace on earth)
Open up your heart and hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Peace on earth, peace on earth
Peace on earth, Good will to men.

Bulgaria to Australia

It’s been a long time. Thirteen years since Stormy and I left Bulgaria. The way time is speeding up for me as I get older, though (I try not to think of it as circling the drain), it doesn’t seem very long ago at all.

For a while, back then, I was a teacher of the English language. I loved that work. My love of language and teaching was enriched not just by being in a distant and unfamiliar place, but also by being part of the sweeping economic and social changes in early 2000s Eastern Europe. It was a shifting frame of reference applied to an unknown starting point while taking on a new vocational challenge.

In that off-balance and constantly surprising situation, I was fortunate to have two sources of support that were inextricably tied to the environment. At school, I could draw from the energy and eagerness of my high school students. On the home front, I learned from friends and neighbors that “everything begins with friends.”

A few years  ago, when I wrote the first in this series of blog articles, a young woman who had been in one of my English literature classes wrote a comment expressing her appreciation for my part in her education. Melted my heart. We stayed in touch. A former student became a special friend.

That girl, now all grown of course, now lives in Australia. That, for her, was the fulfillment of a longtime dream. Far away in the Land Down Under, she is up to her ears in young-family things like Baby’s first accomplishments in each category, children’s birthday parties, juggling work and childcare schedules while both adults work full time, and walking the dog. Busy, involved, doing the things that people want to do. It was totally unexpected, then, that she should reach out to me as a friend and offer to host us for a visit. Australia! Could we really go there? Would Australia have pizza?

Well, yes to all! Our flight, featuring the lowest fare I could find, went through Beijing. A little long but hey, China! We planned for a “layover tour” in Beijing since we were to have a few hours there. Just before boarding in LA we got a call saying the tour operator had advised we call it off. Big convention in town, they said. Streets would be jammed, with blockages in unpredictable patterns. Once we were aboard, reading an English-language copy of the China Daily, we learned what it was: a big deal, the National Congress of the Communist Party of China. “China Will Erase Poverty by 2020 Goal, CPC Says” and “Political Reforms Have Been Historic, Spokesman Says.” Sounds great, too bad we weren’t invited. Move China higher up on the bucket list. Next time.

On to Australia! There is a lot to see, and the most impressive is simply the vastness. Flying in on a clear spring day as we made landfall southbound from Darwin, I thought at first it looked like the arid plains of West Texas, but soon I realized one big difference: where the American West is latticed with section lines, highways, and cultivation of all kinds, in the Outback of Australia for vast stretches there are none. No mark of man. We cruised over a huge desert area with miles-long red and grayish streaks running north and south, then another stretch with long narrow alkaline lakebeds in the same orientation. Cattle or wildlife trails, following terrain and ending nowhere. Then after crossing a river that formed a clear boundary as if drawn on a map there was wind erosion, blowing sand patterns, a bone-dry bleached desert. Roads and paths went from none to scarce, then some dry riverbeds, then creeks and rivers with water. An hour north of Melbourne, a house, then some more, and then soon after I could start to make out huge, faint rectangular patterns of cultivated fields. From there on in the signs of human life and work grew more and more apparent and it became the city of Melbourne, an airport, Customs, and a friend waiting for us.

We had read up on the whole country before coming, a book by Bill Bryson called In a Sunburned Country. He enumerated at length the sheer number of things that would kill you – virtually all of the many kinds of spiders and snakes, lizard-like crawlies, toothed and fanged creatures including of course crocodiles. Our visit was not deadly. We did see the largest crocodile ever, in the Melbourne Aquarium, but he seemed to be napping.

Kangaroos! We saw them out in open fields, in shady gum tree groves, and in the zoo. These in the picture were in someone’s back yard enclosed by a wire fence, and they bounded right over the fence and away when they judged we were close enough.

Melbourne is about the easiest large city in the world to get around. Free trams, friendly people, lots of museums and parks, and I think we did it all. Walking along a rocky breakwater near the port, we saw penguins. Penguins, I tell ya, preening and grooming each other and making their wheezy cooing and clucking sounds to beat the band. Penguins! There were more in the zoo, the larger ice-loving kind, but right there in the rocks at the beach we saw penguins!

We came out ahead, as travelers often do, by taking some wrong turns. Each one resulted in an unexpected benefit: we saw a wallaby on one wrong-way hike, saw a rare kind of deer up in the hills from a dirt road that was not on our planned route, and when we ran off another road into its boggy shoulder, leaving the car hubcap-deep just off the paved surface, we met the nicest most cheerful people who hooked up and pulled us out. G’day mate!

The best part of the visit, though, was the family joy we were made to feel a part of. Slavka and her family treated us like bonus grandparents. To have that kind of welcome so far away from home in a part of the world we never thought we would get to go, well, it’s something to write home about isn’t it?

As I write this, poking at the tiny keys on my phone, we’re on our way back home. It’s been a fair dinkum fortnight. (I don’t know if they say fortnight. Two weeks anyway.) We feel like we did up Melbourne pretty well for beginners. The rest of this awesome country will just have to wait for the next trip. Always great to visit family, no matter where.