Bulgaria Diaries: Part I

13 June 2009

Flight to Sofia yesterday! ‘Sofia’ is, I’m told, the name of the ancient goddess of wisdom. We’ve been eating pretty much since we arrived. Is there wisdom in that? And I’m still eating—amazing, fresh cherries from Maria’s garden.

Fresh cherries grow all over Bulgaria.

Fresh cherries grow all over Bulgaria.

Lubo, Ilia’s brother, met us at the airport and gave roses to Ani and me, and Ani got all teary, so I got al teary, and I thought of how very little I know about Bulgaria. But I hope I’m rapidly learning.

We had an interesting taxi ride to Maria’s (Ani’s mum’s) flat. We had to split up into 2 groups because there were five people—me, Dani, Ani, Ilia, and Lubo, and lots of luggage. I went with Dani and Ani in one cab, which turned out to be some ‘premium service’ with a much higher price, and we didn’t have enough money to pay the driver! We were going to wait for Ilia, but he and Lubo were taking awhile, so Ani was able to get some money from Maria. It was interesting for me because I don’t speak Bulgarian, so I thought the cabbie was trying to overcharge us or something like that.

So, we arrived at Maria’s apartment, and said our hello’s and hugs, and immediately the incredibly animated, seriously chain-smoking Lubo asked if we wanted to go see part of a traditional Bulgarian wedding, so we rushed off down the road, where his son Ivo, who got married 2 years ago, was best man at his friend’s wedding. This, in Bulgaria, is a huge responsibility. The best man hosts the groom in a morning party with music, drink, and dancing, which carries on throughout the day.

The wedding party grows as the best man, his wife, and pretty much everyone else remotely related, the groom, and the groom’s party, travel—with the band playing the whole way—to the bride and her entourage, until everyone is at the Town Hall for the legal wedding, and then the church for the spiritual wedding, and then the reception and on into the night…

We seemed in danger of being swept along into all of it, but just saw the first bit, since we had plans for later. So, one hour since my feet touched Bulgarian soil, I found myself in a smoky room surrounded by smiling, very dressed up strangers & relatives, being announced as ‘the American wife,’ or something to that effect, and then a four-man band began blasting traditional music on sheep’s-stomach bagpipe-equivalents and everyone was singing and dancing—Wow! It was an unsurpassable introduction.

Back at Maria’s flat we had a bit of down-time, and she showed us some wonderful black-and-white photos of Ani as a baby, and Maria & Ani’s dad (Maria’s late husband,) when they were all younger. We went for a walk and saw some of downtown Sofia, which, like anywhere, has its shabbier parts and shinier parts. I saw the little playground where Dani and Rali used to play, and I saw the flat they used to live in, including the third-floor balcony where Dani almost pitched himself to his death as an infant—Ani caught him just in time. So, he’s always been a climber…

We had coffee and amazing baklava –more wet and cinnamon-drenched than I’ve ever had. Delicious! Baklava is always good. After that, we walked across the city to meet a couple of very long-time friends of Ani and Ilia’s and their daughter and her husband, who are maybe in their early 30s.

Sofia is a bit like Prague, a bit like Athens, in terms of the climate, architecture, and fashion—tough looks, stiletto heels, painted-on trousers and skirts, jet black or bleach blonde hair. And stray animals, all of which I want to feed, scrub up, de-flea, worm, neuter and cuddle, pretty much in that order. Though if I’m a little objective, though the stray cats and dogs look dusty, they seem otherwise ok. Not like on Mauritius where they were quite obviously, ribs-through-fur, starving.

Raggedy yet regal.

Raggedy yet regal.

We had dinner at a restaurant called ‘The Ruins,’ pretty new but decked out so bits looked like old ruins. Half the menu was Italian-style pizza & pasta dishes, and half was pretty authentic Bulgarian food. The menus here, so far, run to at least 6 pages! There are whole pages for, individually, chicken, veal, lamb, fish…and yes, I am eating meat, but there are plenty of amazing vegetarian choices, too. We all started the (hours-long European-style ) meal with raikia, which is like ouzo, but plum or grape instead of licorice—a hard liquor served straight up and icy cold in a little aperitif glass. Whew! Then we all had salads, which are big enough to get full on alone, and then, eventually, main dishes, and wine…and eventually, coffee and dessert, except, remarkably, no one could manage to fit in coffee. But we fit in dessert.

Dani and I shared an excellent and interesting salad of big lettuce leaves with a cesar-like dressing, topped with amazing, fresh calamari and boiled quail’s eggs. I’ve never eaten quail’s eggs before; they have a very distinct, cool-forest-floor, cedar-and-butter taste. The salad also had anchovies and fat shavings of sharp parmesan. I probably could have just eaten that and been all set, but it was only the beginning! The American ‘parmesan’ that comes in that green shaker can that I grew up with is horrible. Praise real parmesan cheese!

'Cholesterol!'

'Cholesterol!'

 For main dishes, almost everyone had peppered pork steaks—translated here as ‘pork neck’— and French fries. They happily, semi-jokingly cried ‘cholesterol!’ and dug in, the parents frosting their steak with layers of even more salt. I had a (probably not any healthier) baked dish of potatoes with pickles, bits of ham, and cream, topped with cheese. Serious stuff. I also had eggs Benedict with spinach on brioche, and it was, oddly, stone cold, and I don’t think it was supposed to be—it would also have been excellent if it was hot, but I didn’t want to fuss. Those two dishes were meant to be ‘sides,’ but I’m quickly learning that the idea of small portions here is laughable.

I couldn’t bring myself to order dessert, but Dani had tiramisu and shared, and it was really good—I don’t usually like it, but it had more cake and less alcohol-flavour, which was nice, with a lot of powdered chocolate on top. I have no idea how long dinner took—hours—and I have no idea what time we got back. We walked, but it wasn’t nearly enough exercise! Better than nothing, though. We’d been exposed to so much cigarette smoke from first Lubo and then the restaurant that I had to throw myself in the shower before bed. I reeked, and it reminded me of days back at Uni, in Lynchburg, and the Cav, or any other Virginian establishment, really, where everyone smoked.

Our dinner guests were Pavel and his wife Anna, a little older than Ani & Ilia, but youthful and healthy-looking, exuberant and young at heart—this same ‘savoir faire’ ‘joie de vivre’ carefree attitude I get from Ani & Ilia themselves. Their daughter, also called Ani, and her husband Bobby, joind us—Ani & Bobby live in Philadelphia! So we had a good mix of Bulgarian and English conversations. Pavel was fluent in English and Anna could obviously understand me. I love listening to the Bulgarian and I can often get what is going on based on context and body language. My problem is (as ever,) my memory—I learn a phrase and promptly forget it. I know, I need to try harder and use it more.

Ilia & Pavel

Ilia & Pavel

Pavel was especially generous and enthusiastic—at a mention that he plays tennis, I was silly enough to add (I blame the raikia,) that I used to play (for like one year in high school and I now suck and would also be unable to recall the rules,) and he offered to arrange for me to play tennis while we’re here. I think that offer got safely lost in conversation. He also invited us to his mountain villa near the famous ski resort Borovitz, and offered to arrange ‘the best ski instructors’ for us and that we could all ski and eat and drink a lot. I like this guy! His wife, Anna, was equally jovial and I think she simply didn’t speak as much English, because much of the time Pavel and Ilia were catching up, as were Ani and Anna. They just seem to truly love life. I wonder if part of that is because they do know just how good they’ve got it—because they all know how bad things can be…

One thought on “Bulgaria Diaries: Part I

  1. Are you still in Bulgaria? (I note the current date of the post, but the 3-month-back date of the diary.) If so, you must try to find, in the park near Nevsky Church (and across from the University), the amazing bagpiper who plays there most days. ( http://digitalcuttlefish.blogspot.com/2009/02/national-treasure-who-plays-in-park.html )

    Also, I can give some restaurant recommendations, if you like! I spent about 3 weeks in Bulgaria last summer, about half of it in Sofia. I would go back in a heartbeat…

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