Bulgarian moments of extreme chaos and extreme chill

Posted by in Dispatches

King and Queen Orthodox StyleWow, where the hell have all the days gone? Let’s see, since I last posted Svetla and I had a wedding in an Orthodox church (quite obviously, pictured above) followed by an amazing party at a huge restaurant nestled in the forested foothills in the mountain range outside of Sofia and oh yes, it also doubled as an all-natural brewery! The wedding ceremony was quite intense yet somehow laid back at the same time. I was expecting one priest and got three, plus a full choir singing from some unseen place in the churches upper reaches. You can imagine how this setting could make even the biggest skeptic feel at the very least warm and fuzzy (or trembling with fear?). There was walking, stopping, chanting, candle holding (I almost melted mine under the intense Hulk-like grip I nervously exacted on the wax form), crown wearing and crown swapping, bible kissing, wine drinking, and of course a lot of photo-taking. The whole thing was positively confusing and marvelous…

The party at Riverside Restaurant and Brewery was fantastic: our DJ Furioso kept the small but eager crowd of 45 or so dancing until the wee hours. I was initiated into Bulgarian culture by performing a traditional dance with my Godmother Villy. I spun and snapped my fingers and impressed the crowd with my knowledge and apparent skill in Bulgarian dance. What everyone didn’t know was that I was merely channeling childhood memories of watching too many Greek films, most notably, Zorba the Greek. Other highlights from the wedding party included Svetla’s now infamous “Balloon Dance,” horas upon horas (Bulgarian crazy group dancing where everyone joins hands and follows someone holding a white cloth and doing kind of a mini can-can) and a healthy dose of Bulgarian wedding rituals. These included Svetla kicking a metal bucket with water and flowers in it – after the flowers are spread on the ground with the water, they tell you how many kids you’re going to have. We are apparently going to have four and the first one will be a boy. I think we should name him Hugh, the name our neighbour friends here at the beach campsite gave me because they couldn’t wrap their Bulgarian tongues around Ezra (we made some negotiations and agreed on Ez-er-a, which when spoken means “many lakes”). Svetla’s mom also gave us honeyed and salted bread for us to share all salty and sweet moments in life, then we had to go back to back and break a giant round loaf of bread. The one with the biggest piece will be the breadwinner in the family. According to me, the pieces were exactly even which follows in line with my Dutch heritage, heh heh.

Svetla\'s AngelsApart from Svetla’s Bulgarian contingency of friends and family we also were lucky enough to have some friends come from Montreal. Elise and Daniel, who live in Bucharest, came down from Romania and thanks to Daniel’s professional photography talents, we have excellent photos of both the ceremony and the party. Michael, who is traveling around Europe for the summer was there as was Sergeo who made the biggest splash by showing up right as we were heading to the mountain, having taken taxis from Thessoliniki in Greece (at a cost of 150 Euros!). There was plenty of delicious food, endless draft beer, kids, a Scot in full regalia (who Svetla’s dad fondly referred to all evening as “English imperialist”), fireflies, Louis Armstrong, and about 75 kilos of meat.

After the dust settled from the wedding we relaxed, especially Svetla’s parents who pulled everything together in the last moments including finding a party spot, having beautiful rings made complete with engravings, having a giant succulent cake made, organizing a professional filmmaker to document everything including the balloon dance, and hiring a driver and giant hybrid Lexus to take us from church to brewery.

We then packed up the Canadians, Svetla’s sister Yoanna and her friend Natalia (or “Svetla’s Angels” as they appear in the photo on the left, waiting so dearly to go on our riverboat trip) and headed to the seaside in a giant 9 seater rental van. I drove there and back, advancing my experience with insane drivers on crazy roads. We survived although on the way back we got lost in Bulgaria’s Bermuda Triangle, a labyrinthine town known as Stara Zagora. For hours. I now can say I hate Stara Zagora for their peculiar habit of boycotting street and highway signs. The beach was great–we stayed in an area with no development, although sinister and hideous hotels perched on cliffs around us (they build so close to the sea you can no longer walk the coastline but must go inland to get from one campsite to another – dynamite anyone?). A party at a beach bar (Bulgarians know how to party and know how to make excellent loungy, unassuming chill bars on their beaches) and a river boat trip down a river in a nature reserve were also on the menu. Of course their were many swims in the deliciously warm Black Sea.

I once again tempted fate by waking up groggy from libations the evening before, heading straight out of our tent in the sand and into the rough sea. I hit the water and swam out for 15 minutes without stopping. I then floated around and decided to head in but much to my surprise the more I swam toward shore the more I stayed where I was. I was in an outward current and I was far, far from shore. Our tents looked like small colourful balls. So I swam furiously, forgetting the water wisdom of going diagonally against the current not completely opposite to it and quickly exhausted myself. I swallowed a bunch of sea water in the big waves and was coughing and running out of breath and energy. That’s when I thought: wow, it’s easy to drown and I’ll be damned if I’m going to drown while on vacation. After a mild panic attack when I convinced myself I couldn’t possibly make the distance against the current, I steadily did the breast stroke saying aloud “breathe” and “relax.” I survived but will not pretend to be an olympic swimmer after shooters again (shooters because the night before we were at the party pre-celebrating Yoanna’s 18th birthday).

After the beach trip we bade farewell to the Canadians (I’m lumping Elise in there as an honorary Canadian even though she’s an American living in Romania) and Svetla and I went to Melnik–Bulgaria’s “smallest town”–for our second honeymoon. Melnik is breathtaking, a southern town snuggled in a deep ravine lined with forests and speckled with sandstone hills and mountains that because of their shapes are called the “sand pyramids.” Melnik is known for its wine and we sampled a few kinds. The best place for sampling but not necessarily the best wine, was atop one of the hills overlooking the town. The wine cellar was a cave carved in the side of the mountain and the brothers serving glasses of white, red and rose for one lev (about 80 Canadians cents) at wine barrel tables were congenial and full of information about the town and area.

Within five hours Svetla knew half the people in the town and who had the best fish, best wine, and best Shopska salad. Small towns dot Bulgaria like charming neighbourhoods of stone, brick, fig trees and grape vines. They feel friendly and welcoming as well, as was apparent when we stopped in Athopol yesterday here on the seaside. Svetla was looking for the woman to take us to the property we’d like to build a house on and we stopped the car to ask a man for directions. Svetla kept thinking he was asking for “where” we were looking for, but indeed he was asking “who” we were looking for. When she told him the woman’s name and her husband’s name, he immediately directed us to the a few streets away to her home. So back to Melnik, it was a little slice of magic: quiet, relaxing, incredible hiking up to breathtaking vistas, gorgeous ancient monasteries atop mountains, and of course the eager Japanese kid we gave a lift to who laughed so much we couldn’t understand what he was saying.

Right now I’m sitting at the beach in Arapya having a Cuba Libré and trying to work myself into shape to get some of the Cinema Politica and academic work done that I’ve been remiss to do these last relaxed weeks. So more on this beach trip and the mountain music festival to come.