Bulgaria

Cooked with Love

Many Slavic cultures share a common saying- you display hospitality by welcoming someone “with bread and salt”. The saying has a practical history; bread and salt have alway been the precious and daily necessities. These valuable items were presented in abundance to newlyweds, or special guests, to show welcome.

Though there were no literal bread and salt waiting for me in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, I felt as if I was being welcomed with all the warmth the city had to offer. The weather was perfect, the days were full yet relaxed, and even in my short stay I managed to meet the most wonderful people. Plovdiv is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, with grand public spaces and walking streets. The old ruins of a Roman amphitheater have been integrated into the city, functioning as a public park and concert space. The “old town” section of the city, with uneven and beautiful cobblestone streets, is still full of old-style houses. Plovdiv has also been designated the European Capital of Culture for 2019, which has provided investment for its cultural and architectural heritage.

While I am in Plovdiv, delightful fate intervenes, and a couchsurfing friend recognizes me in a bar. Her and her friends kindly welcome me to the city, and once again, I am struggling to leave. It seems that every place I go, I meet people who convince me to stay longer than I originally planned!

The old Roman amphitheater, which today functions as an outdoor concert hall. There were no events while I was in Plovdiv, but I hope to come back someday and party in an old amphitheater.

A high view of the main walking street in Plovdiv, taken from a friend’s fifth story apartment.

On one tour in Plovdiv, I speak to a Bulgarian woman who currently lives in Germany, back to visit her parents for Easter. When I ask her what she misses about Bulgaria, she is quick to reply. “I miss the food, the fruits, the yogurt. I feel like I can taste the sunshine in the food here, and I can’t find that anywhere else.”

I heard expat Bulgarians echo this sentiment all over Europe- there is something special in the food here. While there are plenty of cheap, basic eateries, local grocery stores still stock amazing local Bulgarian fruits, breads, and dairy products. It’s a chicken or the egg situation: Bulgarians are used to high quality ingredients, and so they demand high quality ingredients.

Young Bulgarians, who are growing more and more urban, are still tied to their families in the countryside. Young people may leave their village to study or work in the city, but they know that the best food is still back in the village. I travel to Sofia, the capital, after Plovdiv. My couchsurfing host, who has lived in Sofia for almost a decade, tells me that every time he travels home to visit his grandmother, he comes back home with jars of homemade yogurt. And if too much time passes between visits, his grandmother tells him to go to the bus station, because she has sent jars of yogurt on the bus.

These connections to the countryside are keeping people healthy, and reminding them what good food tastes like. I saw similar threads, connecting rural families and urban working professionals, in Romania. Even though young people may move from the village, they want to eat the same quality food. This changes their palates, their taste buds. They know what good food tastes like.

Sharing an amazingly diverse Bulgarian cheese plate with some friends. Wine would have been a better choice, but the hot afternoon had made everyone crave a cold beer.

Though I was in Sofia for only a few days before my departing flight, I manage to find time to take a “food tour”, Balkan Bites. We visit many local restaurants, sampling small dishes and soups. Though I love Bulgarian food, it can be difficult to categorize. In the Balkans, an area of constant conquests, trade, and influences among shifting borders, it is difficult to describe a clear history for any one dish. We try foods that can also be found in Turkey, or Italy, but with a Bulgarian twist. Again, I am reminded that food, ever-evolving, cannot be parceled into neat historical lineages or national borders.

But in Bulgarian cuisine, more important than the food’s origin, or the name, I find that I appreciate the love in the preparation. I could taste the sunshine, and the pride, in the best food that I ate in Bulgaria. As the food tour guide related, her grandmother always told her, “If the food isn’t cooked with love, it will become stuck in the throat. So you must cook with love.”

Banitsa (Баница), a filo dough pastry with layers of eggs and cheese. Absolutely delicious, when warm. After a long 12 hour train ride, this is the bread that welcomed me to Bulgaria!

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Easter Eggs and Easter Churches

Spending a holiday in another country is an opportunity to gain incredible insight into a culture, but it can also leave you feeling a bit homesick. This month, as the Catholic Easter came and went, I couldn’t help but think of home, what I would be eating for Easter dinner, and whether they even sold Peeps in Europe. (A special thank you to Mrs. Courtney, who so thoughtfully continued her tradition of providing me with too many gifts on Easter).

Because of numerous delays and schedule errors, I spent the actual Catholic holiday of Easter on an unexpectedly long train trip from rural Romania to Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital city of Bulgaria. When I finally arrived, I was greeted by the old city streets, built into the steep walls of a valley, and magnificent views that suddenly appeared between the old stone houses. The city is stunningly beautiful.

Locals joke that when giving directions in Veliko Tarnovo, indications like “left” and “right” are replaced with “up” and “down”. The city is divided and re-divided by a meandering river, and the nearby mountains have miles of great hiking paths. I spent my first days hiking in these mountains, learning about history from some wonderful walking tours, and exploring the abandoned socialist legacy (The notorious Buzludzha monument is located nearby, which was a blizzarding, surreal experience).

Veliko Tarnovo is, historically, a religious city, and it is not possible to walk more than five minutes in any direction without running into a church. Many of these churches are hundreds of years old, having survived conquests or having been reconstructed. Most Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians, following a church calendar that differs slightly from the Catholic one. It turns out that Orthodox Easter in Bulgaria is celebrated one week later than the Catholic Easter. This is one of the benefits of traveling, even if you are a bit homesick: sometimes you are able to celebrate a holiday twice.

I spent one afternoon hiking to a nearby monastary. The view from the forest ended up being more beautiful than the monastary itself, in my opinion, but I spent some time quietly sitting in the bell tower before heading back home

The Patriarchal Cathedral, slowly eroded over the centuries, was rebuilt in its original architecture, but repainted in a modernist style, in the 1980s. I have never seen such modernist religious art in a church.

A few Bulgarian couchsurfing friends invite me to share the Easter holiday with them, and so, the Saturday night before the Easter Sunday, we head to the midnight mass and special blessing. We are visiting the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, the most famous church in Veliko Tarnovo, located at the center of the medieval Tsaravets Fortress. This popular church is built at a high point in the city. Holding unlit candles, my friends and I join the streams of people climbing up the hill. Deep church music floats down from above, helping me feel warm in the cold night air.

We arrive at the crest of the hill, standing just below the church, to listen to the service. I don’t understand the Bulgarian, but the music evokes emotion anyway, and the energy in the air is palpable. I watch the crowd, in a trance, and the priests. My friend Plamena points out the head priest, the mayor, and all the other notables attending the service. Looking down the winding path, I can see hundreds of people lined up to listen.

A bit after midnight, the church bells begin to ring across the city. With a chorus of “Christ is Risen”, everyone readies the small candles that they have brought. The priest enters the crowd with his candle, and the crowd surges toward him. The flame is passed from person to person, until everyone is holding their own candle.

I light a candle of my own, protecting its flame as we start to make our way back home. Most Bulgarians will keep the candle lit to take home to their family altar. Though I have no altar back at my hostel, I protect my candle as I walk down the hillside. Looking over my shoulder, I realize how beautiful our procession is. A line of pilgrims stretches back behind me, slowly winding down the mountain, each person’s face lit by a candle’s flame.

The view back, looking toward the cathedral, with everyone holding their lit candle after the service.

Me, holding my lit candle after the service.

The next morning, I wake up early, despite having stayed up for the midnight service. It’s a holiday. There is food to be eaten!

Bulgarians have many, many traditions around food on Easter, but there are two absolutely necessary components: dyed eggs, and kozunak, a braided bread. Though I was staying in a hostel as a tourist, the kind Bulgarians would never keep the foreigners out of the biggest celebration of the year. The hostel staff dyed eggs for breakfast, and another Bulgarian guest shared her homemade kozunak with me. Together, the combination made a wonderful breakfast.

At a Bulgarian family table, before you crack open the shell of your hard boiled egg, you “fight” with your neighbor, seeing whose egg will crack the other’s. This continues on until there is a clear winner, the one with the strongest egg. I was told that the winning egg is kept until the next Easter, for good luck. Though my egg broke during the first round, I didn’t mind. It meant that I got to eat it.

Dyed Easter Eggs at the hostel. Delicious breakfast!

With my days in Bulgaria ticking down, I realized that it was best to leave Veliko Tarnovo on Easter. I took a short afternoon bus to Plovdiv, another major city in Bulgaria. When I arrived in Plovdiv, just as in Veliko Tarnovo, the streets were full with celebrating families and happy couples. The sun was shining, making a beautiful spring day, and everyone was outside.

After walking around the downtown, I spent the evening in a new hostel, chatting with the staff and their friends. As the evening went on, more and more people joined us, and practically no one arrived empty handed. Every Bulgarian brought a sweet, some kozunak or biscuits or cookies, until the table had a pile larger than we could eat.

I smiled to myself, because I am reminded how all over the world, we all seem to celebrate holidays the same way: with an excess of food, and good people to laugh with.

And how lucky I am to find these things where I go!

After the midnight service at the cathedral finished, there was a beautiful fireworks show. The lights lit up the castle and everyone cheered as we held our candles. These are holidays to remember!

Glorious Spring!

In Romania, some people say that when you try a new food, you should make a wish. Every time that I’ve tried a new food here, I’ve wished for the same thing: spring, spring, spring!

When I arrived in Romania a few months ago, coming from the oppressively hot Bangkok (and not even in the “hot season”!), I expected to need a few days to adjust. But instead, when I stepped out of the Bucharest airport, I felt an enormous sense of elation and recognition: cold! That spring cold, where the air is frigid but the sun is strong! That spring cold, where the ground has yet to thaw but already the plants are shooting up! That spring cold, where you need to keep moving to stay warm, and yet everyone is outside. I walked around the city for a few hours my first day, feeling like I had reentered my native habitat: the cold ecosystem, just before a spring.

It only snowed a few times while I was in Romania. This particular snowfall, at Iulia’s farm, the snow only stuck around for about two hours in the early morning. But the snow brought out even more vivid colors after it melted.

Flowers in the snow.

And flowers celebrating the absence of snow!

Is there anything more reassuring, or beautiful, than spring? I spent the most recent springs of my life in Wisconsin.  I love that first day that the temperature tops 32°F (0°C). The entire population changes into shorts and sandals, happy to expose skin to wind that doesn’t bite. I love how suddenly no one can sit inside, even when the snow hasn’t yet fully melted. I love that productivity declines inversely proportional to the rising temperatures.

But mostly, I love spending time outside in spring, when things start to grow again. I was happy to have work on farms in Romania as the spring season started, because it gave me an excuse to be outside. Spring is always a busy time on farms, and to me, it always seems to involve the heaviest manual labor: preparing the soil, moving debris that piled up over winter, transplanting, and cutting back early spring growth of unwanted plants. Though many days were bitter and cold, I saw promises of spring everywhere I looked: budding flowers, shoots of overwintered garlic, and happy people shedding winter layers. Springtime on a farm is a joyful time.

The first buds on the apple trees.

Before there are many vegetables and greens in the garden, Ana, a friend of Iulia’s, uses forest plants to spice up our meals. The rice dish on the left is cooked with dockweed and nettles, two native plants she collected from the forest.

Chico, the farm puppy, sniffs the springtime flowers with me in the orchard.

After celebrating spring on farms for a few months in Romania, I headed to Bulgaria for a few weeks to be a tourist. Luckily, Bulgarians love spring as much as I do, and they celebrate in a truly beautiful way. On the first day of March, every Bulgarian buys “martenitsa” (мартеница) bracelets or adornments, which are made of white and red thread. Friends and family give them to one another, and most people wear them on their wrists. Then, at the first sign of spring, usually the sighting of a stork or a budding tree, the wearer takes off the bracelets and leaves them nearby, usually hanging on a budding plant.

This tradition means that spring is consistently in your peripheral vision. The red and white colors of the bracelets add color to the landscape before the buds have fully flowered, and it is a constant reminder of the season.Though I arrive a little too late to fully participate in the tradition, I loved seeing these bracelets hung from every early-budding tree. This is a country that celebrates spring like I do: loudly, colorfully, and with a lot of joy.

A tree, adorned with various martenitsa bracelets, in Veliko Tarnovo.