Sunday, December 27, 2009

We are back in America

Our time in Bulgaria was excellent and we miss all of our friends and colleagues terribly. We have returned to the United States and are adjusting to not feeling as important, looking for work, and enjoying easy access to English-language books, news, coffee shops, etc.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 20, 2009


Christ is Risen! says your Bulgarian language teacher, Indeed, He is Risen!, you struggle to reply - because you just learned the phrase that morning. Christianity is the official religion of Bulgaria and similar to in the States, Easter, along with Christmas, is one of the busiest days of the church. What isn't similar is how embraced the holiday is by the state, with city sponsored concerts, school bazaars, and giant pastel eggs hung on the trees along our main pedestrian street. During the midnight service held when Saturday becomes Easter Sunday, the mayor even stood by the priests helping to hand out the flame the faithful would take back to bless their homes. More on that in a moment!

First, the traditions here are a little different. As you may have noticed the date this year was a week later than in the States. Normally, Easter is celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon after March 21 (the vernal equinox). But the western church uses the Gregorian calendar, which has leap years to correct the inaccuracies of the Julian calendar, which I guess is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church uses the Gregorian calendar for fixed celebrations like Christmas, but the Julian calendar for the movable celebrations like Easter. This year the two dates were actually in alignment, but the Orthodox Church also maintains that Easter celebrations should be held the week after passover, if passover falls on the same scheduled weekend, which this year it did. So because passover celebrations occurred last weekend, Easter was celebrated this weekend.

So this Saturday, we went to a friend's house and dyed eggs. The first egg is always dyed red and is then used by the oldest woman in the house to make the sign of a cross on everyone 's foreheads, thereby blessing them. The eggs are decorated like in the states with special dye you mix with vinegar and also fancy stickers and this thing called 'crystal' which i have never seen but which gives the eggs a sparkly texture. I was quite proud of how our eggs looked when we were finished. The final touch was adding oil to make them shine.

On Easter Sunday, instead of hiding eggs, people have egg battles. This is what it sounds like. You take your egg and you smash it against someone else' egg, and the winner is the one whose egg hasn't broken. I think good luck and health will be won by whoever has the strongest egg. Eggs are also given to other people as gifts. They can be used in an "Easter salad" which is lettuce, radishes, oil, vinegar, cucumber, and sliced boiled eggs. Another easy, tasty dish is simply cutting and mixing the eggs with dill and oil.

On Saturday, we went to the midnight church service, which of course we couldn't understand, but we lit a candle, and held it as we walked around the church three times with hundreds of other Bourgas residents. (It reminded me of candle light services I have attended during Christmas, where the initial flame comes from the pastor and then spreads out to everyone else symbolizing the Light coming and illuminating the world.) After walking around the church, you take the flame home (people put cups around their flame to keep the wind from blowing then out) and you walk into every room with the lit candle to spread a blessing for the year.

Easter morning, we went to a presentation of traditional dancing and the setting out of special Easter bread at the ethnographic museum. Bulgarians bake a very sweet bread with intricate designs on it that is broken and shared with everyone. Our friends from a nearby village whose children do traditional craft projects had invited us. We joined in a little traditional dancing, tasted the bread, and visited the museum. Easter is a relaxed time, spent with families and everyone has the day off of work. In fact, even the Monday after Easter is a holiday from work - we kept the spirit of Easter, spring, and new life alive by planting some flowers and herbs in our new balcony flower boxes.


Tsvetnitsa, or Palm Sunday took place two Sundays ago and brought with it some interesting traditions. I vaguely remember Palm Sunday from when I went to church as a kid, but it took me a while to understand that was what we were celebrating when it arrived. In Bulgaria a palm frond isn't used on Tsvetnitsa, instead people go to church and line up to receive long willow branches that they then form into wreaths. They can then be worn on your head and are taken home and placed above the door to keep out evil spirits. After receiving the willow, we bought candles and lit them inside the church. On Tsvetnitsa Bulgarians not only celebrate Palm Sunday but anyone who was named after a flower (Violetta, Lily, Margarita (Daisy) as well as a variety of boys names) celebrates their name day. Outside the church people had set up stalls to sell flowers and since so many people are named after plants and flowers the restaurants and cafes were packed with people celebrating. It was a perfect day.

Baba Vanga Bulgarian Mystic

At the beginning of April we went on an excursion to Macedonia and South-west Bulgaria with my school. The country of Bulgaria has taken on many shapes over the last couple hundreds of years. We are often told that Macedonia is (shh don't tell them this) really Bulgaria and just pretending to be different. So we traveled through "far western" Bulgaria and on our way back across the border stopped in Petrich and Rupite to visit the house of Baba Vanga (some times called Leila Vanga) as well as her shrine.

Baba Vanga was born January 31st 1911 in Strumica, a town near the Macedonian/Bulgarian border. Legend goes that as a young girl, she was out in the fields one clear day when a tornado like storm dropped out of the sky overtaking her. It picked her up and flung her miles from where she had been. Friends found her there blinded by dust and sand and carried her home. As time progressed her wounds did not heal and she was sent to a school for the blind to learn to care for herself. A few years later she came down with a grave illness and after recovering understood that she had gained the ability to see the future. During WWII she was visited by many people hoping to receive knowledge about their loved ones and looking for reassurance. Throughout her life she attracted many believers and skeptics. She was visited by high government officials, famous people and normal people alike. They would line up en mass outside her house waiting for the chance to speak with her. To this day her house and government built shrine/complex is a very popular Bulgarian tourist attraction where people come to pay their respects to this marvelous mystic.


Towards the end of winter in Bulgarian villages all over the country, the clanging of a multitude of cow bells will seize your attention as a parade of figures known as kukeri, often similar in appearance to those creatures found in the American kid's book Where the Wild Things Are, march through the village and chase away any lingering evil spirits. They shake their sticks, dance around, and nowadays, attract crowds from all over the country to festivals where kukeri groups get to show off their elaborate costumes and rituals.

We went to Shiroka Luka last year for their annual kukeri festival and enjoyed it so much, we convinced some of our Bulgarian friends to join us this year. Shiroka Luka is located along a picturesque river valley in the Rhodope Mountains. All the buildings are white with stone roofs and built in a style where the second floor sits larger on the first. The festival, which started around 10 and lasted an hour, was followed by a giant town dance (the horo) as a live traditional band played bagpipes, drums, horns, guitars, and bass into the city center. Vendors hawked their wares and we enjoyed looking at their traditional rugs, jewelry, pottery, and ate from the many street grill stands. Several different groups performed, some more frightening than pretty. Some had giant cone hats the size of 3-4 men tall, some had traditional dancers, some had bears (men in bear suits) who danced, and some had actual horse-heads crafted into monster masks. Each group had a slightly different ritual, but from what we could understand, a common theme involved an old lady giving birth, devils being chased and beaten, and a giant plouw tilling the ground and grain being thrown. They made a cacophony of noise as each group had members with many cow bells attached to their belts and they jumped up and down in unison. We were told it is an ancient tradition having to do with fertility rituals, preparing for spring, and chasing away evil. If you're interested, a more in-depth analysis by Bulgarians for their English-speaking readers can be found here. Some of our favorites were the groups that had little children in kuker costumes, which reminded us of the Ewoks. We also enjoyed the one that ended with the kukeri jumping over a fire and the one that had a large man beating two other men pushing a plow with a giant branch.

That night we enjoyed a nice dinner with our friends at a traditional tavern. The traditional dish most of us ordered was a potato pancake and while eating, two bagpipe players came in and like something in a movie, another one of the guests stood up and started singing. It was the sort of event I was amazed to witness; the sort of the thing you hope happens when you have guests. There is a ghastly quality to this type of Bulgarian music, regardless of how much the singer or bagpipe player may smile, and despite not understanding the lyrics, a definite sense of powerful loss and mourning permeates the songs.