Somewhere in a small Bulgarian village near the Black Sea…

Posted by in Dispatches

The following post was written ten or so days ago…we’re now in Istanbul and this is the first moment I’ve found to post it belive it or not!….

Maybe it’s the Rakia talking, but I’m laying here in this bed, Bulgarian crickets if there is such a thing, mixed with melody of rough hound voice in folds of a small coastal village, and I’m thinking about caring and having a higher purpose. I just watched REPORTER, where the idea is put forward that knowing is not enough, the West especially needs to CARE. We’ve been staying in this village for three days in a nice B&B of a friend of a friend of Svetla’s. The owner has a penchant for Dutch furniture and design. The house is actually built from wood, not stone or brick as is customary in these parts. But a large dog has made herself known in the back garden daily and nightly with barks of what I soon discerned to be longing. A large beast needs to move. So, after being supplied with some leather gloves and a rusty chain, I took the thing out for a walk, or rather it took me for a jog.

I became acquainted with locals as the massive dog and I walked along the dusty small roads. An old couple signalled me to wait before passing, as they shooed their herd of goats into their gate; a small pack of large, ferocious and snarling dogs ran at me and my four-legged friend (who remained remarkably calm during the attack) and all I could summon in our defence was “Hey!” three times – a measure about to fail just when an old timer drinking moonshine yelled something in Bulgarian and the pack retreated. On the way back to the cottage the poor old beast collapsed on the dirt road twice, and I had to implore it with my limited Bulgarian to get up and continue home.

During our stay there we visited a “wild” (i.e., NO development) beach with friends and their two boys, four and five years old. After a drive down a crazy dirt road that keeps most of the public out, we hiked down a steep and narrow path and came out on to an oasis. A beautiful white sandy beach stretched out from either side of us, complete with a large bay and rocks for snorkelling. I spent ten minutes filling a plastic bag with garbage that had been left by nature-loving Bulgarians and immediately jumped in the bath-like water to try out my new snorkelling gear. After a while the women decided to go for a walk and left me with the two boys, Alex and Boris.

Between their limited English and my limited Bulgarian we pieced together some things. I was informed by Boris that Alex was making a “monster” out of seaweed, sand and sticks, and the boys taught me “vish!” which is “look!” The day in fact was filled with “Ezra – vish!” as each tried to outdo the other with incredible feats designed to impress me, their audience. While their moms were gone, the three of us played in the sand, went for swims and generally acted like three kids on a beach. The next day, at a different beach, I would initiate them into the ancient sport of wave-wrestling. This was perhaps the most fun I had with the two little rascals: watching their faces change from pure ecstasy to pure fear then back to pure elation as large waves would approach their spindly little bodies and knock them head over heals, was intensely fun and elicited much laughter from all involved.

Sipping white wine in the evenings and looking up at the stars while devouring delicious stuffed peppers, shopska salad, and the odd sip of Rakia rounded out our stay. The last night, after a few drinks, I noticed something odd that was happening in our three-way conversation between myself, Lora and Svetla. Lora would say something, I would look toward Svetla, who would turn her head from Lora to me, and she would translate into English. This has of course become customary for us, with Svetla serving as my translator everywhere we go. The funny thing this time, however, was that Lora was speaking English, not Bulgarian. So Svetla was basically repeating, with some add-ons for good measure, what Lora was saying in English to me, in English. The crazy thing is, it happened for a while without any of us noticing. Once I pointed it out, we all laughed for some time.

Before that visit we had travelled to the incredibly spectacular city of Turnovo and the seaside city of Varna. In Turnovo, a hilly city of 100,000 that has a large river snaking through its beautiful steep streets, we visited the ancient fortress of Tsarevetz, which dates back to the third Century BC (yes, that’s Before Christ). A massive expanse of stone walls, stone roads, ruins of homes, churches and shops, Tsarevetz sits atop a large hill that overlooks the whole city. Turnovo was Bulgaria’s capital during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, but after the Liberation this was changed to Sofia due to the problem of expansion in such a hilly region. Later that night we went to the International Folklore Festival and caught amazing dancing and singing from Brazil, Argentina, Martinique, and Armenia. Sitting outside in the warm air sipping on delicious local beer and watching people perform song and dance that told stories and preserved cultural memory was pure pleasure.

In Varna we visited Niki, a friend of Svetla’s and stayed in his family apartment overlooking the sea. He took us to a beach the first day and that night we went to Koubo, a great seaside bar in the city. The next day Svetla and I drove (Atse and Vera had lent us their car, saints that they are) to the Mussel farm for lunch. The Mussel farm is a treasure on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria: after driving down a long, then very steep road, one finds a large restaurant tucked in among trees and gardens right on the water. One kilometer from the shore, out in the sea, is the restaurant’s Mussel farm, built according to the brochure, in the cleanest area of the coast. After feasting on mouth-watering mussels, we bought 5 kilos for Svetla’s friend’s parents and headed back to Varna.

Bulgarian hospitality as it is, Niki’s family insisted Svetla and I sit for dinner with them, despite the fact we were back to collect our stuff and head off to the village to meet Lora and family. It was a strange moment for me, one of several where I’ve felt I was in a movie, not reality. There was a large table full of plates of various dishes, including of course the cooked mussels we had brought them. At the table sat the friend’s parents, twin aunts, one of the aunt’s husbands, Niki, Svetla and myself. Aside from myself and Svetla, everyone chain smoked, and as far as I could discern, they all smoked the same brand. On the large flat screen TV adjacent the table, a digital cable music station blasted out Guns and Roses. I noticed the friend’s dad inhaled deeply but the smoke never came out of his mouth or nostrils. Where did it go? Did he have one huge exhale at the end of every night? Sitting there, with Svetla introducing me and giving some background information on Montreal, the mom asked in Bulgarian: “So Ezra. You are Jewish, this means you have much money, no?” Everyone laughed, including me, although nervously. These are generally not comments made among mixed company in Canada, for good reason. But it is typical straight-up politically incorrect Bulgarian humour, a cultural difference that just takes a little getting used to…

So we’re back in Sofia now, after surviving a couple of insanely hot days where the thermometer reached into the mid-forties, and waiting for Diana to arrive from Montreal in two days. I’m still trying to remember stories from Portugal and here, but it seems the new ones push the old ones aside before I can get them down in writing!