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.

 

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 roadblocks materializing 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.

Nice Guy

Bulgaria is full of surprises. I met a Nice guy the other day. That’s the kind of Nice that sounds like niece, not the kind that rhymes with ice. Not that he isn’t nice. He’s from Nice, France. Nice, huh? Rollando, a Frenchman in Bulgaria. If you want to be formal, for example to address an envelope with an engraved invitation to the Ball, you would call him Adrien Rolland Palomba. He also goes by rollandev.com. We met in the lobby of his business, well, virtually of course since his business operates in the online world, and had a nice talk over a virtual cup of espresso.

He is starting to learn Bulgarian, or as he told me, започвам да говоря, “I’m beginning to speak.” He and I communicate in English, mainly because if we had to depend on my one semester of French we could only agree that la plume de ma tante est sur la table. That, and maybe directions to the train station. He speaks a little Dutch too, so if you’re counting don’t forget that one.

Rollando is an IT guy. They’re lucky, those guys, since they can work anywhere. It may be a bit of Gallic understatement when he says he likes to travel. He’s been all over. So he moves to Bulgaria. Bulgaria! Now you may be asking yourself, “Why Bulgaria?” The question has been asked before, eh? (Bulgaria? Why Bulgaria?)

Saint Sofia, representing Divine Wisdom, overlooks the city.

After earning his computer engineering degree, Rollando got started in the business of managing IT (Not it! IT!) and as he says “climbed the steps.” He found himself as the owner and boss of a service that engaged in developing management tools for property developers. After a few years he decided to take a new step and have something of his own. So now that question, why Bulgaria? Let Rollando tell it. “Running a thriving company in France has become a miracle the last decade, unless you have a huge capital and wind at your back. Of course I love France, but I wanted to maximize my chances of success. I found that Bulgaria had a fast growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. Sofia, where I live now, has an efficient airport with cheap flights to most EU destination. Low taxes and low cost of living were a non-negligible bonus.”

A mountain valley, summer. For the winter view, just imagine it all white.

“There were several factors that mattered most in making my choice”, he explained. “First of all, it’s an EU country, even though they’re not using the Euro. It’s just a couple of hours for me to visit France whenever I want to, so being in Europe has that advantage too. And nature, wow! Beautiful! I love the mountains. I happen to like winter too, and temperatures are well below freezing during that time of year. As crazy as it might sound, I like it; I’ve always thought that cold builds spirit and vigor, and helps you feel alive. The seemingly brusque manner of the people is something to get used to, but after all that’s the way of the world.”

That’s how Rollando found himself moving to Bulgaria almost a year ago. He registered his company to sell IT services: developing business process, paperless office, extranet and reporting. Then, as he met partners and developers that he could trust, he decided to start selling websites and mobile apps too which happened to work well. Most of his clients were French or expats living in Sofia at first. “When running a company in Bulgaria, you’d better have a solid network and a big mouth to balance stereotypes that come to mind of potential clients when you let them know where you’re located.” New partnerships recently opened new opportunities in Europe, and Rollando has big clients in the USA in his sights as the next big move. “What I intend to do is show the other side of the Atlantic that Eastern Europe can deliver quality, quickly and at a competitive rate, and that distance or time zones don’t matter if you work with the right persons.”

The Language High School where I taught, named after the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. Students learned German, English, French, and Spanish.

Rollando said that many of the young people learn English, “The language of business,” in school. That was a fairly new development when Stormy and I taught English there as part of our Peace Corps assignment, and I felt a pinch of pride for having been a part of it. The Bulgarian system of “language high schools” is an important outreach to world commerce and culture. He noted that there are even very good French schools. Some of the young Bulgarians he has met have excellent accents, he marveled, “and you wouldn’t tell they’re not French.”

The hardest things, he said, have been ordinary daily activities such as grocery shopping or buying bus tickets. Rollando is on his own, and I can hardly imagine tackling all that without the training we got at the outset of our Peace Corps service. An added problem in daily life, besides the fact that the older people running the shops and driving the buses don’t speak English or French, is that Bulgarian has its own way of saying yes or no with your head. The way you nod to say yes means no, and vice versa. “That once brought me to the exact opposite of where I wanted to go as I asked if the bus would go toward the City Center.” (Boy, could I relate to that!) What looks like “Sure it does!” really means “No it doesn’t!” and you’re happily off to the wrong place. “Still,” he related, “it was a nice bus tour, and I found a supermarket that day which I didn’t know existed here.”

His tales of dealing with the paperwork of setting up a business recalled our travails at City Hall and the Police Department over work permits and visa extensions. He found, as we did, some helpful people to ease the process. That’s the way of Bulgaria. People are used to helping each other.

As for Rollando, he says that having been there for almost a year has confirmed his hunch that it’s a good place to build a business. Though he still likes traveling, for now Sofia is his home base. I’ve read articles from time to time about the advantages of locating businesses in Bulgaria, and how the strong and deep technological strengths of the younger generation are potentially a resource for the world. As Rollando described it, it’s a fast growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. Now it has a Nice guy too!

Good things are happening in Bulgaria.