Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Easter and the Black Sea

View of "Old Town and the fortress

Easter and the Black Sea

My spring break was a full 11 days long. This was a bit unusual because it combined the school break with the four day Easter weekend. The weather was not great, but it provided time to just decompress. I think as the days and tasks of living in a foreign country, working in an environment fundamentally different from one’s life experience and still “only getting by” with the language blend together, we loose track of the little stressors that do add up. As I spent hours just enjoying a novel and staring at the sea I could feel the tensions evaporating.

Mike had the four day weekend off, so we planned a trip to the Black Sea, “a must see” area of Bulgaria. We chose to stay in a small historical town, Sozopol, just south of Borgas one of the two large cities on the coast. It was absolutely wonderful.

The five hour train ride from Plovdiv to Borgas, like most train rides in Bulgaria was a visual delight. The deep rich earth of the freshly plowed fields contrasted with the adjacent bright green fields of winter wheat. The rolling hills were topped off with pom-poms of blossoming apple trees, and carpets of yellow wild flowers and forsythia carpeted the edges of the tracks. In the distance on both sides were the protective walls of the mountains. It is a mystery how and when the fields are turned as there are no farm houses every mile or two surrounded by colorful equipment, standing ready.  Great distances would pass between the tiny villages struggling to survive while its residents live a life of decades past. 

 Cobblestoned streets and wooden Revival style homes.

Sozopol a thirty minute bus ride south of Borgas sits on the tip of a peninsula, jutting into the Black Sea. The tip forks and to the left is “the old town” and to the right is “new town”. The bus dropped us off on the isthmus connecting the two. Waiting were eager residents offering rooms in their homes. We agreed to take a look at one place offered by a cab driver who lived in the center of old town with his family. No pressure, just look and if we didn’t like it …that would be OK. Because his home was in “old town” we agreed to look.  Old town is less than a mile wide and maybe two long, but packed into that space is a labyrinth of tiny cobbled streets with many houses from Bulgaria’s 19th century Revival Period. They have a distinct architectural style with a stone lower level and wooden upper level. Some of these old homes had the original wood siding and others had been beautifully and carefully restored. With stories and history lessons as we made our way the short distance through town we arrived at the guest house and were shown around. We decided to stay. Ramon then dropped us off at a restaurant on the sea for lunch. 

                                                                       LUNCH: The top balcony was a single table for two!  

We had a private little space with just one table for two overlooking the sea and facing a few small islands. We spent the rest of the afternoon just walking and exploring, catching it all in pictures before returning to our very typical Bulgarian guest room. While exploring we had checked out open restaurants and decided on one specializing in fish near the small harbor for dinner. We were the only diners sitting on what in season would be the           outside patio, heated by a propane heater. With only one table to serve, the service exceeded the Bulgarian norm, when there is often one waitperson for the whole restaurant!

Saturday Morning had us out early with the intention of moving to a new location. There wasn’t anything in particular wrong with where we were, but with the sea within sight from so many places, and my soul longing to be reenergized by it, I really wanted to move.

We found a small hotel with a dining room, hanging on the cliff’s edge close the tip of the peninsula. It was perfect, with a corner couch in front of a large picture window with the bay and sea as the backdrop. Walks to “new town”, further exploration of the “old town” more picture taking and hours reading between visits to the dining room filled the rest of our stay.

On Saturday evening we joined residents and visitors outside the church for an Easter Vigil service. Our cab driver had told us about it so we had some understanding of what should happen. Throughout the day people were seen emerging from the church with tall thin candles, some with just a few, and others with handfuls of them. At the vigil, votive candles were brought forth from the church and circulated so all could light their own. For such a little place, the crowd felt large.  Eventually Mike could see a cross bearer exit the church and make his way to the front of the crowd. The procession moved slowly, everyone trying to keep their candle lit. We later learned, the goal was to return home with the lit candle, to bring good fortune and blessings upon one’s home and family throughout the year. We made it back to the hotel with our candles still lit! Not sure if that counts, but we considered ourselves “successful”. What we could not see and did not experience was the tradition of walking around the church three times with the lit candles and the return to church for a service. Only a few devotees participated in these rituals.

The tone of the weekend changed drastically late Sunday afternoon when we left Sozopol behind and visited a fellow B25 in Borgas. Chris lives on the top floor of a Communist block with a view of the Romi/Turkish mahala where he works just below him.

As is always the case, the mahala was quite separate from the city proper. He has done a great job integrating into his “work community” shopping at their little stores, visiting their cafes and in general living with them. He, and as an extension, Mike and I were invited to dinner by a friend of Chris’, a Romi and his family. We were picked up and after checking with us that we felt comfortable going into the mahala, we were off to dinner. The Romi and Turks have their own prejudicial attitudes toward each other, but are often forced into living with each other. This particular mahala has invisible boundaries with Romi or Turkish sections and streets. In general the Romi are poorer than the Turks, and thus live in the worst part of the mahala. So off to the very back corner we went. There certainly was a sense of familiarity about it, as it became more and more difficult to navigate through the people that have no other outdoor space to go to other than the unpaved, rutted streets. Abandoned scrap cars are playscapes for children, and crates, metal scraps or “whatever” are benches for watching the world go by!.

Our host had a lovely family, two sons in the primary grades and the youngest a girl of kindergarten age. Their home had three rooms, with the “living room” doubling as the parents’ bedroom. The edge of the bed provided some seating and an assortment of other sitting stools were arranged around the table lower in height than our norm. Salads and a lamb and rice dish were the main course. Two additional roasted legs of lamb were also offered.  People seemed to come and go throughout the meal: a son sent off to buy juice, a sister–in-law- stopping by to bring news of a funeral in another part of the country the next day, and a mother to meet the Americans.  With antennae up, one tries to be sensitive to the work and effort that went into the meal, while watching to see how much everyone else is eating, knowing what an expense this was for the family. Trying to balance being appreciative while calculating how much to leave behind on the serving platters for future meals is never easy. I have no idea how we did. The special homemade Easter cookies were brought out which we know from our “cultural lessons” takes a lot of time and effort to prepare. Most Bulgarians now buy these Easter cookies. They were sweet with a hint of lemon. Without time to clean up, we rushed off to church.

This young couple (in their early 30s) are members of one of the Evangelical Churches that are taking root in the mahalas. There were about two hundred people of all ages in attendance. As guests we were quickly whisked to front row seats and asked to introduce ourselves at the beginning of the service. The building was a plain hall decorated with construction paper signs and artificial flowers. An electric keyboard was prominent front and center. The children opened the program with song and sayings, led by a woman that had “teacher” qualities about her. Their ages were from about 4 to 14. I was impressed as they sang a number of songs from memory and with heart. So often we hear that the Romi “don’t understand the Bulgarian language”. These children were clearly not having a problem with it as they sang and recited prayers all in Bulgarian. The children were well behaved. They were quiet and respectful, coming and going during the 2 ½ hour service. The women offered praise through song next, followed by a small group of four or five young men. I had the feeling there was something special and different about these young men from most in the mahala. Mike and Chris were brought up front to join the men. Mike’s uncertainty of what was to come next was evident on his face as Chris was asked to say a few words (in Bulgarain). Mike was spared and the singing began. With all the musical praise completed, the preacher took the podium. We could identify the general gist of the sermon, but always became anxious when reference was made to us. At the end, we were greeted by most members of the congregation with warm hearts and kind smiles. Certainly a different Easter, but not without spiritual significance.


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