Farmyard, Grandmother, Chicken, and Ovid in Exile

Village of Kamen Bryag, 2005. Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 400 ASA C41 process b/w film, scan of print.

Village of Kamen Bryag, 2005. Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 400 ASA C41 process b/w film, scan of print.

The woman in the photograph above arrived at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast during the Second World War in the chaos of a forced exchange of populations between Bulgaria and Romania. Together with other “ethnic Bulgarians,” uprooted and expelled from villages they called home, she spent weeks on the road, traveling southward by cart and on foot from the surroundings of Baba Dag, a provincial town that took its name from high nearby ridge (“Mountain of the Father,” in Turkish), the site of one of  five  cenotaphic graves of revered as the resting place of Sarı Saltık, the legendary mystic who spearheaded the advance of the Bektaşi order of dervishes into the Balkans.

On arrival in Bulgaria newly “repatriated” exiles from Baba Dag were arbitrarily divided amongst several villages just over the Bulgarian side of the border, often without the provision of shelter.  In the coastal village of Kamen Bryag, the new arrivals eventually built a new quarter of their own apart and off-grid from the original settlement.  There, they built low-slung, L-shaped houses in the fashion of the region, starting with one room and, as needs arose and materials became available, adding additional rooms one at a time, “railroad-flat” style,” as it were.  Like most villagers, they worked worked the fields by day and, after hours, tended vegetable plots, pigpens, and chicken runs in own their courtyards, yielding autumn harvests of peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, fresh eggs, and meat for curing.

The courtyard in the photo no longer exists.  It and and the vegetable garden next to it were uprooted several years ago.  In their place: a large enclosed restaurant, open during tourist season and desolate in the winter, surrounded by neatly planted flowerbeds on one side and the towering antenna of a local mobile telephone operator on another.  The grandmother still lives on the plot and still tends what little remains of her garden.  She is in her late-eighties now and, at day’s end, often sits on the raised concrete curb of the newly paved road next to what was once her farmyard in vain expectation of passersby.  Roadside benches of the sort pictured in a previous post were removed or left to crumble years ago.

Photographic footnote … and, following it, a story

The photo above was shot in 6x6cm format on C41 process black/white film, a film sort that yielded magenta-tinted black/white negatives when processed in “drugstore” color film developing machines.  The film was fine grained and had a broad exposure latitude, enabling individual shots on a single roll to be taken at different ASA settings, usually within one stop of the rated ASA of 400.  I took the photo at a relatively slow shutter-speed, fast enough to enabled to shot to be taken handheld but not fast enough to take into account the sudden turn of the subject’s head.  Thus, while the neck and dress of the subject are well in focus, her face is slightly blurred.  As a result, I originally rejected the photo but, on examination years later, I felt that the combination of facial expression and setting outweighed the technical demerits of compromised sharpness.

From Ovid to Grandmother

For a long-ago somber treatment of the region of Kamen Bryag, Baba Dag, and surroundings one can flip through the pages of Ovid’s writings during his exile from Rome, Tristia and Ex Ponto (both available in a single file on Archive.Org).  For a somewhat humorous view, one can read a story I wrote a decade ago linking the great Roman poet with the grandmother portrayed above — the full text of the story can be found by clicking here or on “Read More,” immediately below:

In the Garden of Grandmother S.

Sofia, Bulgaria, September, 2005

I divide Bulgarians into two categories — classifications more fundamental than those of gender or politics, ethnicity or religion.  For me the divide is between those who prefer the southern expanses of their country’s Black Sea coast and those who prefer its northern reaches.

Most Bulgarians take to the softer climate, broad sandy beaches, and vacation-time fellowship of resorts and villages further to the south.  The south is the place for “Moreto” (the seashore), a glowing state of well-being grounded in, as British travel agents sometimes put it: “Sea, Sand, Sun, and Sex.”  The far north is for “Pochivka” (vacation, rest), the soothing, albeit to many people incomprehensible, routine of long walks, solitary swims, reading, and silence.

To some, Bulgaria’s northern coast begins at the Black Sea port city of Varna; to others it begins at Varna’s rival Burgas, slightly to the south.  Geographers and meteorologists would fix the dividing line halfway between Varna and Burgas at Nos Emine, a steep cliff-lined cape that protrudes far out into the waters of the Black Sea.  On the continuum from “Moreto” to “Pochivka,” however, I would place the dividing line at the resort town of Albena — Bulgaria’s northernmost outpost of mass tourism and luxury waterfront hotels — and would warn that the line is being pushed northward each year at an alarming rate, as newly built villas arise in once sleepy villages, and as estate agents lead groups of blond-haired, red-nosed, British vacation home shoppers to the most desolate coastal and inland locations.

I am a long-time partisan of the north.  I relish the stark landscape of its coastline, the never-ceasing roar of its wind, the crash of the surf against its rocky coves, the melancholy emptiness of its few isolated beaches, and the subtle patchwork of its geography and ethnicity.  And, I am entranced by its place in the larger world.

Geologically, the final northern-most kilometers of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast mark the southern-most expanse of the great steppe of the Ukraine.  Steaming mineral water gushes from its ground.  Its freshwater lakes — teeming with fish and ending  only meters from the sea — attract legions of migrating birds every spring and autumn.

The northern coast was also a great highway of  human migration, the pathway of the southward wanderings of Getae and Sarmatians, Slavs and Bulgars.  Today, the people of the region include Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christian Gagaouze — descendants of Seljuk Turks who were granted land on the western coast of the Black Sea during Byzantine times — as well as Tatars whose forebears fled Russia’s southward expansion during the nineteenth century, and aging ethnic-Bulgarian farmers expelled from Romania at the outset of the Second World War as part of the cruel redrafting of  borders and forced exchange of populations in the age when Europe’s empires gave way to exclusionary nation states.

Not least, the North has its place in world literature. The Roman writer Ovid, known for his erotic poetry, spent years of exile just across the present-day Romanian border at what is now Constança, Tomis as it was called in Ovid’s day.  Ovid, by the way, was far less enthusiastic about the region than I am.  He may have been a first rate poet but he was also hopelessly effete.  In his letters from exile Ovid complained about the region’s cold winters and hot summers and the barbarism and violence of its inhabitants.  Ovid, it seems, had little eye for the subtle beauty of places far less ornate than Rome.

This summer, I returned to the north after several years of absence.  My destination, as in years past, was the village of K., located on a rutted back road and indicated on few maps, a place most people bypassed.  For years, the approach to K. was marked only by a tattered, rusted road sign on which someone had spray-painted the words: “Not For Everyone.”  And indeed, K. was “not for everyone.” It had no discos, no sandy beaches, and no stores other than a single grocery with attached “Pivnitsa” (bar, literally a “drink-eria”), reminiscent of the Communist era.  Its one “Kretchmar” (restaurant/tavern) was a haphazard affair where one could help one’s self and occupy a table for hours.  What K. did have were geese-and duck-filled streets, perilously steep cliffs, minuscule rocky beaches, a panoramic view of the sea, ancient rock tombs, and a natural gas vent that burned day and night, year after year.  No less important, K.’s mostly elderly population was hospitable, grew first-class tomatoes, and brewed quite passable “Rakia” (clear grape brandy).

This year, the rutted road to K. was freshly paved and the old sign was gone, a shiny new one having taken its place.  K., it seemed, was no longer “not for everyone.”  Real estate prices had skyrocketed and multi-story mansions were under construction on the side of the village closest to the sea.  Parked cars clustered around the entrance to K.’s newest restaurant.  Well-dressed Sofia families were beginning to outnumber the old summer crowd of bearded journalists and filmmakers, taciturn rock-climbers, and contentedly marijuana-numbed university students.

I had been wise enough to reserve a room in advance.  I had telephoned to Baba (Bulgarian for grandmother) S., one of the few old-timers remaining in the village, a widow who had endured the travails of exile from Romania and the hardiness of village life before electricity, running water, and telephones.  Summers, Baba S. took lodgers into her rambling house — a traditional  L-shaped, train-like amalgam of interconnected rooms, each one lower in height than the next — that she and her husband had built room by room in the years after their marriage.

Baba S. immediately recognized my voice: “Styefko, Styefko,” she shouted into the phone, “welcome, welcome; this year the price is only a little higher and if you want privacy pay for two beds and I’ll give you a room for yourself, and, Styefko, Styefko, we have a new “banya” (outhouse and shower), the best in the village!”

The new banya was a modest but significant contribution to the building craze that was sweeping K. and, for that matter, the entire region, infecting natives as well as summer people. White-walled, tile-roofed, and containing a toilet, boiler, shower, and sink within, the new banya had the exact shape and proportions of a traditional outhouse but was several times deeper and wider, and at least twice as high.  Set into the midst of Baba S.’s garden it added a touch of modernity as well as an affront to her neighbors, Babas X. and Y.

Some years ago, Baba X., with the support of a son working abroad, had razed her cottage, uprooted her garden and built in their place a soaring walled-in, multi-story mansion patriotically adorned in fair weather with fluttering Bulgarian flags.  Baba Y.’s family had also built a mansion but preferred to continue living in their low-slung cottage, which they had not razed.  As they explained to the country’s ex-Prime Minister when he stopped in the village some years ago, “Your majesty, the new building is our villa but the old one is our home.”

The building craze seemed to exacerbate generations-old jealousies brought to K. from Romania.  Baba X. dismissed the architectural pretensions of Baba S’s new banya by confiding that Baba S.’s birthplace in Romania was even more distant from the provincial town of Baba Dag than was her own.  Baba S. chided me for buying melons from Baba Y.  “Not sweet,” she pronounced after spitting out the bite she had taken from the piece I cut for her, “not half as sweet as the melons of my sister in the village of H.”  Baba Y., growing suspicious of the number of melons I was buying each day threatened to not to sell me a single melon more if it was even rumored that I had offered as much as a slice to Baba S.

I retreated from jealousies to the beach, the cliffs, and into Baba S.’s garden.  The garden was an Eden of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and squashes.  Chickens ranged free nearby.  Sweet grapes grew on an arbor.  The rhythm was simple: Baba S. rose each morning at 6, drank a half-glass of homemade rakia, and worked non-stop until eight o’clock each night.  And, no days off on Sundays, not even to attend the village’s newly-built church (architecturally a hybrid crossing of a traditional “Paraklis” (chapel) with the fantasy Balkan-Miami-Las Vegas style beloved of Bulgaria’s new middle class and characteristic of summer villas now sprouting up throughout the village): “Styefko, why should I go to the church? God lives in the sky and right here in my garden!”

In the midst of building craze, real estate speculation, summer people, and new banya, Baba S. was living the traditional life of a subsistence farmer, eating nothing other that what her garden yielded, and laboring all summer simply to produce food for the winter.  My offers to help her with her work were declined: “Styefko, your work is to swim and to rest and to write and to photograph.”  So, snacking on tomato salads and roasted peppers and sipping rakia (“Styefko, my rakia is pure, distilled without sugar; rakia with sugar makes the head hurt, it is only fit for treating uninvited visitors”), I watched Baba S. pad barefoot through the garden and work endlessly — pruning tomato plants, separating seeds from radish plants, roasting peppers, crushing tomatoes, and boiling hundreds of bottles of homemade tomato juice — pausing only for a moment of gossip or to stare hawk-like at the comings and goings of neighbors and summer people.

Ovid may have described Baba S.’s ancestors as frightening, marauding warriors, but in Baba S.’s garden peace and a higher form of spirituality reigned.  For someone frazzled by urban life, the garden was an ashram in which to learn the secrets of inner calm.  Baba S. worked task-by-task, concentrating on one thing at a time, putting no task, no matter how tedious, aside until it was finished.  And all was done in silence, only the sound of the wind was to be heard; no music played and no television blared. (“Styefko, go look inside it,” said Grandmother S. referring to her doily-bedecked ancient television, maybe one of the lamps is broken.”)

Tonight I write from my desk in Sofia.  I am frantically “multitasking” — switching back and forth between writing, internet, telephone, and packing for a work trip.  Only a fading suntan, a glass of Baba S.’s rakia, and a plate of her preserved peppers remain to remind me of the village of K.  The last of the summer people have probably left by now and the construction of villas stopped until next season.  Only the old people remain.  I will miss the sea and the landscape of the north, the sound of the wind, the peace of Baba S.’s garden, and the presence of someone calmly working on one task at a time.  “What will you do this winter?” I had asked Baba S.  while I prepared for the long drive  back to Sofia.  “I will stay here alone and rest for next summer,” she replied, “there is no one else to feed the chickens.”

I’ll return next summer to savor the eggs.

  1. Boyan said:

    Damn, I should have demanded the North every time Ivan would turn toward Burgas and, eventually, Tsarevo.

  2. When heading eastward to the Black Sea, the same applies in travel as in politics: bear left, never right! 🙂

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