Sunday, January 17, 2010


It’s winter, and it’s cold here. Not Wisconsin cold, but cold .In the city of Plovdiv, we see things that we only thought we would see if we had been in a village.  Smoke is one of those things.  Smoke is everywhere around us.  You can smell it the minute you walk out of our building.  You can see it hanging like a deep white haze every day.   And it is spewing from small chimneys on the roofs of homes like it was coming from the furnaces of communist’s factories.  The smoke is a symbol of the work which is put forth to try to keep warm – even in the cities.  

For decades Mike, and I and in time Shawn and Scott had rituals and routines tied to the seasons for the downing, transporting, splitting, stacking and finally the burning of wood to stay warm through the cold winter months of the Northeast. This year"s work was for next year"s heat, giving the wood time to age. It all started when we moved into our first house in Ashland, Ma.,( a little 800 sq ft ranch) and ended when we went south to Texas 23 years later. In a tiny room at the end of the that first house was a Ben Franklin stove which we burned so hot at times it would glow orange.. It is a wonder we didn’t burn the house down! As we upgraded houses though, the wood stoves improved incrementally as well. It was always a good feeling when we saw the three or four cords of wood stacked in the garage ready to burn.

All those experiences swirl in our heads as we watch the many ways in which Bulgarians go about trying to stay warm through the winter. The possibilities range from a central heating systems, to the burning of a variety of materials in stoves to most recently electric “climatiques” which double as air conditioners in summer.They are usually good for heating one room.

During the summer in Varshets we watched as truckloads of wood would be delivered to the front walk of many a household. The work, so familiar to us of splitting and stacking began. My host family had a central heating system and burned wood chips. They too had a truckload delivered out in front of the house, which was then carted by wheel barrel or bucket to a holding bin, much like a coal bin on the basement level of the New England house I grew up in .

So often, Plovdiv feels much like a large village as the activities here mimic the villages. In the fall neighbors had coal delivered to the front yard and worked for days bagging it and hauling it to the basement. The little balconies of little bloc apartments became storage areas for little piles of wood. The “thunk, thunk, of the ax slicing through rounds of trees could be heard coming from hidden backyards, or front sidewalks as families prepared for winter’s cold.

Nothing made from wood is simply discarded. As apartments are upgraded, from old wood framed single paned windows and doors to new double-paned air-tight ones, the old are stored in the back yard to be used as needed or left beside the trash bins for someone else to quickly rescue and transport home. Often it is either the elderly or the Romi, who travel about on their bicycles outfitted with large plastic milk cartons strapped over the rear wheel or with baby carriages converted to wagons that salvage them.

As I travel through Stalipinovo (the mahala where I work) men, women, and children of all ages are participating in some way in the “heating process”. Young boys are sent to buy a bag of coal from a street vendor, hoist it on their shoulder and start climbing the two to eight flights of stairs, to bring it home. Little, little children are responsible for picking up the smallest pieces of wood for kindling on the site where it was split by someone three times their size. Wood splitting is rarely rounds of trees. Usually it will be a shipping palette, pressed board scraps, or broken furniture from construction or renovation sites. One day I stopped to help an elderly woman struggling with three plastic bags full of wet punk wood she was trying to bring home. As I approached her from the back I could see she was having a hard time managing the ripping bags and the weight of the wood as she stopped every few yards to rearrange her load. Together we managed to get them closer to her home, but I couldn’t help but think of how little heat they would provide for such a great effort. She could not afford the luxury of “seasoned wood”. 

Staying warm may also be the result of reducing the size of your living space considerably. Many families, particularly in the larger village homes stay in one or two rooms for the winter, relying primarily on the cook or wood stove for heat. Day beds are part of the furniture (even in the kitchen) year round, but take on a new life as the kitchen becomes the bedroom when night falls in winter. Adding a plaster exterior to the old brick homes helps as well as those new windows and doors, but that requires an income stream larger than the pensions of the elderly.

We are very fortunate. We have a climatique, air tight windows,and insulated walls. Not a draft can be felt. We know how fortunate we are and we are thankful for this good fortune. Many volunteers like many Bulgarians struggle daily to stay warm. If they are totally dependent on a wood burning stove, it may be hours after arriving home before they begin to feel warm. If they are in an old building which "leaks air" like a punctured air mattress, they are fighting  a loosing battle to be warm. Mother nature has been kind to Bulgaria this winter,even to those fighting the battle to stay warm,. It has been unusually mild. We can only hope it will continue that way for another month or two.

Lynn & Mike

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