Sunday, December 27, 2009

Весела Коледа

Religious connotations aside, Christmas to me is all about family. Even more than Thanksgiving, Christmas is a time to gather as a family, give thanks, show gratitude, and celebrate health and prosperity.

Only once before this year have I spent Christmas apart from my family, and it was brutal. I was in New Zealand. We were traveling by bus from Abel Tasman National Park to Franz Josef. The transmission gave out half way between Abel Tasman and the nearest town, along a stretch of narrow, winding mountain passes. With nowhere to pull over and stop, our driver somehow managed to get us up and down the trecherous passes before the bus broke down completely. Shaken but not stirred, she rolled the bus slowly into the town of Westport where we spent the night. The tradional Christmas dinner waiting for us in Franz Josef went uneaten. To make things worse, I got eaten alive by bed bugs and had a bad allergic reaction to the bites. It was a Christmas I’ll never forget, but for all the wrong reasons.

My first Christmas in Bulgaria, which I spent with my host family in Бойчиновци, was much less eventful and far more enjoyable. To better understand how Bulgarians celebrate Christmas (Коледа), it helps to know a little of Bulgaria’s history.

Between 1944 and 1989, Bulgaria was under communist rule. During that time, Bulgarians were not allowed to celebrate Christmas, at least not publicly. As a result, Christian Bulgarians would gather as families and quietly celebrate Christmas together. While communism was unable to prevent such gatherings, it was successful in limiting the adherence to certain traditions associated with Christmas. Since the fall of communism, however, many of the old traditions have been revived. Practices vary from home to home and region to region, but many of these same traditions are still observed today.

The period from November 15th through Christmas Eve is known as Коледни пости. Traditionally, this is a period of fasting during which time all meals are vegan. The consumption of any type of animal based products – meat, eggs, cheese, etc. – is prohibited. Most Bulgarians, including my host family in Бойчиновци, have modified this tradition and fast only on Christmas Eve (Бъдни Вечер). Bulgarians believe that the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus on Christmas Eve but waited until the following day to announce the birth (Bulgarian tradition follows this belief – with mothers announcing the birth of a newborn to the world the day following birth). In any event, the Christmas Eve meal is one of several very important traditions followed by many Bulgarians.

Our Christmas Eve meal began with питка, a traditional Bulgarian bread. Baked into each section of the питка was either a wish or, in one case, a coin. Tradition holds that the person who finds the coin will have good luck and fortune in the coming year. Alas, I didn’t find the coin, just two wishes: С нова хубава кола ще се возиш из града (You will ride around town in a new, good-looking car); and Хубаво преброй звездите в коледната нощ защото толкова ще са мечтите ти сбъднати с разкош (Count well the stars in the Christmas night sky, for that's how many of your dreams will come to life).

In addition to питка, we had several traditional Bulgarian vegan dishes, including roasted peppers stuffed with beans, тиквеник (pumpkin banitsa), and сарма (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice). There also were plates of salad, peanuts, and dried fruit. To ensure prosperity and good fortune in the coming year, there were an odd number of dishes served and an odd number of guests in attendance. I can’t say for sure, but I’m fairly certain the dishes were not cleared until morning. According to tradition, this is again to ensure a prosperous year and to leave some food for the deceased.

With cleansed minds and spirits, we awoke Christmas Day and soon feasted on meat, meat, and more meat. We ate ham, sausage, rabbit, pork, and кюфтета. There wasn’t an obscene display of materialism, but a few gifts were exchanged. I felt guilty for bringing so little, yet I was admonished for bringing too much.

All in all, it was a pleasant weekend, and it was interesting experiencing a traditional Bulgarian Christmas. Perhaps what was most interesting is that it didn’t feel at all like Christmas to me, which was a very a good thing. Had it felt more like Christmas, homesickness would have crept in, and I would have grown sentimental and depressed. Without any of those feelings, I was able to enjoy the weekend and now look forward to partying like a Bulgarian on New Year’s.

A few Christmasesque scenes from around town before I headed to Бойчиновци.

Before heading to Бойчиновци, I also attended a holiday party with my colleagues from work. Needless to say, they don’t adhere to the strict fasting traditions either.

Bulgarians traditionally slaughtered a pig on Christmas. Fortunately, the pig had already met his maker by the time Stoil started carving him up.

Rosi pounding out pork chops Stoil had cut.

Ivo preparing the appetizers.

Rosi making banitsa.

The only present under the tiny, table-top tree was a small bag with pretzels and sweets (a few other gifts were exchanged too).

The garden looks a lot different than it did a few months ago.

So does the fully-stocked cellar.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Безплатни Прегръдки

Several months ago, I went for a walk with a Bulgarian friend. While we were walking, I noticed passersby often stared at me. I asked her why people were staring. I couldn’t understand what they were seeing that made me appear so different; my physical features weren’t that different than theirs, and I was wearing clothes similar to theirs. I wondered how they all knew I wasn’t Bulgarian. She laughed and told me it was the way I carried myself. According to her, my body language and facial expressions reflected confidence, happiness, optimism, and hope, immediately giving me away as a foreigner and making me a curiosity.

In the time that’s passed since then, I’ve come to better appreciate her observations and assessment. A disturbing number of Bulgarians, perhaps the majority, perpetually look depressed, bitter, and even angry. This is especially true in Sofia. If you saw a close friend expressing the same body language, you’d probably ask your friend if everything was alright. Or you’d ask if your friend needed a hug. After noticing the same thing, a fellow Peace Corps’ volunteer decided that’s exactly what we should do – go to Sofia and offer безплатни прегръдки (free hugs). I’m not the type of person who particularly enjoys hugging strangers, and I would typically cross the street as quickly as possible to avoid anyone giving away free hugs. Nevertheless, I was very curious to see how Bulgarians would react to such a concept, so I agreed to participate.

So yesterday, five of us braved 21 degree temperatures (-6 °C) and walked around Sofia for more than two hours giving away free hugs. Besides being extremely fun, the psychology underlying our experiment was fascinating. Here are some of the things I learned:

• It was much more difficult getting hugs from people when walking alone than when walking with another hugger. It was easiest getting hugs when all five of us were together – along with three Brits and a Bulgarian who joined the cause. Apparently, being crazy in a group makes one seem far less dangerous than being a crazy individual or pair.

• Most Bulgarian men will not hug another man, at least not a stranger. Most Bulgarian men will hug any woman.

• I got far more hugs when I held my “безплатни прегръдки” sign over my head than when I held it in front of my chest. The more time people had to absorb the information, the more likely they were to want a hug.

• I was far more successful when commanding people to get a hug by giving an open-armed, “Хайде,” than I was when asking people if they wanted a hug by saying, “Искаш ли?”

• Most of my hugs came from attractive women in their 20s who either were alone or were with another woman of the same age. I also received a large number of hugs from women over the age of 50. I had a smaller number of hugs from women between the ages of 30 and 50 and a few hugs from men. I didn’t get any hugs from kids.

To say our experiment was successful would be a gross understatement. All the hugging took the chill out of an otherwise frigid day and left us all in great spirits. And the Bulgarians were far more receptive than we could have hoped. Sure, there was still a large number of people who walked past us with looks of bitterness and anger plastered on their faces. And plenty of people thought us to be foolish, crazy, or both. But the majority of people we encountered either laughed at us or smiled with us, and, in just two hours in the bitter cold, I saw more smiling Bulgarians than I had previously seen in seven months. Some of the people we hugged came back for seconds, and some didn’t want to let go. One of the most memorable hugs was one of the last ones. After we hugged, an attractive girl in her early 20s asked, “Why only hugs? You need to give free kisses.” Definitely something to consider for next time.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

There is nothing like a beautiful snowfall to mask the bleakness of one's winter surroundings. Here are some shots from an afternoon walk around town.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Winter Gardening

The resourcefulness of the Bulgarian people never ceases to amaze me. Due primarily to my own ignorance, I thought snow and freezing temperatures would bring an end to the gardening season. For many Bulgarians it has, but for many others it has not. Mini-greenhouses made of plastic have sprung up in gardens throughout town, housing hardy vegetables such as lettuce. Meanwhile, empty jars have been placed over roses and other flowers, again creating a greenhouse-type effect. For all I know, gardeners in the states do the same thing; I’ve just never seen it. Regardless, I can hardly wait until spring when I can get my hands dirty and learn more.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The School Holiday

In addition to closing for Christmas break, Easter break, and the usual assortment of national public holidays, Bulgarian schools close for individual school holidays. Our school recently had its school holiday, and I’m still not entirely sure why. All I can do is tell you what happened. On a recent Friday afternoon, all classes were cancelled and the students and teachers gathered at a café (there is no school auditorium or gymnasium or similar venue). The festivities commenced when the mayor arrived. After a pair of students talked about some Bulgarian history, the mayor proceeded to hand out awards to various students. The mayor then departed and a group of students presented a short play. After the play, there were a couple word-find and crossword puzzle type games. Then, a few students and teachers sang karoke and danced horo (traditional Bulgarian dances). I observed and took photos, at least until one of the kids, whose view I was blocking and who just a few months ago couldn’t speak any English, yelled at me, in English, “Sit down, Brian! Sit down!”

After the “show,” most of the teachers met at a nearby restaurant. Some drank rakia, others drank wine, and others drank beer, but we all drank something (or so it appeared). The actual school holiday – when the school was officially closed – was the following Monday, so we had a three-day weekend for which to be thankful. Here are some photos from the event.