Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Баба Ристена

No matter where I go in Bulgaria, there is one thing I see: lots of old people, particularly баби (grandmothers). This isn’t surprising given that Bulgaria has the most rapidly aging population of any European country. And I’m cool with all the blue hairs (interestingly, many of them actually do have blue hair … but more on that later). In fact, my favorite people in the world are old folks and little kids, because they are generally the only honest ones among us. Little kids don’t know any better, old folks simply don’t care, and both the young and the elderly generally have the right priorities in life. Most of the rest of us are too influenced by hormones and a whole host of insecurities to be honest with ourselves let alone with others. So, to be living in a country full of баби isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And, as long as I’m here, I figured I might as well take advantage of it, get to know some of them, and share what I learn with you. It’s a way for me to practice and improve my Bulgarian, learn more about Bulgaria and it’s people, and build relationships within the community. With that in mind, I hope to highlight the story of one баба per week. The first such баба is Баба Ристена (Ristena).

I live in a small house at the back of a garden which Ристена tends to daily. I’m a bit hypersensitive to noises when in unfamiliar surroundings, and I had great difficulty sleeping the first few weeks after I moved in. At odd hours during the night, I would be awakened by strange noises emanating from the garden. I’m probably exaggerating a bit, but it seemed like every time I went to investigate, I saw a small, old woman hunched over carrying a giant axe. The light typically hit her in such a manner that it cast a huge shadow at least four times her size, and I had serious visions of being bludgeoned to death by an axe-wielding баба.

My paranoia intensified after my request for a wardrobe brought Ристена to tears and had her popping pills to deal with the emotional distress. The Peace Corps has a short list of housing requirements for its volunteers. Among other things, we are to be provided with a closet or wardrobe to store our clothes and other belongings. After more than a week of living out of my backpack, I simply asked when I could expect to get a wardrobe. It turned out that Ристена had a wardrobe that was intended for me, but it was packed at the back of an inaccessible room and had not been accessed more than a couple times in over twenty years. The wardrobe was a treasure-chest of memories, many of which were discarded during the cleanout process, and witnessing her life being discarded before her eyes proved to be more than Ристена could bear to watch. And, after seeing the torment and suffering in her face and hearing her say, “всичко за американец (all for an American),” I wondered if my delusions might not become reality.

Obviously, things have improved between us. She worries whether I am warm enough and whether I am eating properly, and she happily shares the fruits (and vegetables) of her labor with me. And now when I notice her creeping around the garden with an axe, I look at her not as the grim reaper but as a guardian angel. As with all old people, there is a story behind each of Ристена’s wrinkles. I heard only a few of them, but my time with her was time well spent. Here is some of what Ристена shared:

• She was born in 1933 in Село Хераково, a small village between where we now live and Sofia.

• She has been out of Bulgaria once in her life, when she took a brief shopping trip to Serbia (the border with Serbia is less than 30 kilometers from where we live).

• She has two daughters and two grandchildren.

• Her childhood was mostly a joyous time filled with happiness and laughter. She jumped rope and played games such as hide and seek and hopscotch. The kids also played a strange game involving the flinging of dried and hardened lamb ligament. I don’t fully understand how the game worked, but the winner was the person who could flip his or her piece of ligament the farthest.

• For most of the year, she would go to school in the morning and then return in the afternoon to help tend to the garden and care for the animals. The family had three horses, three cows, more than twenty sheep, fifteen to twenty chickens, a pig, a dog, and a cat.

• What the family was unable to produce at home, they would go to Sofia to buy. She remembers Sofia being bigger but not much better or nicer than the village. There was a train to Sofia, but most people, including her family, went to Sofia by horse-cart. Sofia was very dirty and there were horses everywhere. The shopping was done at the женски пазар (Ladie’s Market), which remains Sofia's biggest fresh-produce market.

• She recalls Sofia being “on fire” during the Allied bombing raids which took place during World War II. Several of the bombs landed close to the village, and American and British bombers frequently flew over dropping bombs. The school windows were covered with black paper, and the school was frequently evacuated. When the emergency siren sounded, the children would run from the school and hide along nearby brick walls. German soldiers were housed in Село Хераково for at least part of the war, but they never stayed in her family’s home. The family did, however, at one time house as many as thirty Bulgarian soldiers.

• Her parents would not permit her to go to Sofia to study, so she aspired to become a seamstress.

• Contact between single girls and single boys was kept to a minimum. If a girl was seen entering or leaving a room alone with a boy, her reputation and her family’s reputation was ruined. Accordingly, for the most part, the only way for single boys to see single girls was at gatherings called седянка. At a седянка, the single girls would get together and sing, and the single boys were permitted to come watch.

• When Ристена was fifteen, after a neighbor girl had tarnished her reputation and her family’s reputation by sleeping with a boy before marriage, the neighbor’s family devised a plan to kidnap Ристена and force her into marriage, thereby shaming Ристена’s family and drawing attention from their own family. Ристена learned of the scheme from some friends who then protected her. She was carried through knee-deep snow to her grandmother’s house where she hid until the kidnapping scheme had been exposed to all and it was safe to return home.

• Ристена was almost eighteen when she met her husband to be. She knew of him, but she had never really spoken to him until one day when she was walking with a girlfriend. They walked by his family’s house, and the boy and his entire family were standing and watching them (apparently waiting to see the “chosen one” who the boy knew would be walking by). As they approached, he went and separated Ристена from her friend and told her he wanted to marry her. She told him that she wasn’t ready and asked him to wait three years. He told her he would wait three days. She compromised, and they were married six days later.

• With the preceding generation marriages were arranged. The bride never saw her husband until the wedding. All they got to see before then were his pants.

• The historical event which affected her the most was when the communists took over Bulgaria. People living in Село Хераково were forced to turn over anything of value to the communists, and, if they refused, were beaten until they signed the necessary paperwork. Her father had some connections with the communists and was the last person in the village to sign the paperwork. Despite the favorable connections, the family lost its horses, cows, sheep, horse-carts, and a truck. The family land also was deeded to the communist party. The only things they were allowed to keep were the chickens, a pig, and a colt, which the communists eventually seized once it was strong enough to be put to work. The family was then forced to work the land they had given to the communists, but they received none of what they produced. Instead, they were given vouchers with which to buy inferior products at the party-run stores. Nevertheless, Ристена believes the changes democracy has brought to Bulgaria have made life worse not better than it was under communism.

• There were three technological innovations which most affected her life. The first was her family’s first “radio,” a contraption which was the size of a hot water heater. The second was a Singer sewing machine which was stolen by a Bulgarian soldier in Serbia, brought back to Bulgaria, and then bought by Ристена’s mother. And the third was electricity. When she was young, there was no electricity in Село Хераково.

• Ристена’s grandmother used to tell her stories of what it was like to live as a slave to the Turks during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, and Ристена’s husband’s father was a prisoner of war for seven years. He escaped his captors by chewing through the rope which shackled him and shooting the guards.

When I asked Ристена if she had any regrets or if she would do anything differently if she could go back in time, she said she would have waited to get married or married someone else. And then, just as I asked her what is most important to her in life now, she abruptly ended the interview, frantically searched for the remote control, upon finding it turned on a Turkish soap opera, and then planted herself less than a foot from the television. She had answered my question without saying a word.

Баба Ристена now.

Баба Ристена then.

Family portrait.

Ристена's husband gathering sand to be used as foundation for their house (1960).

Ристена (back right), her landlord, and other friends and family (1959).

Ристена (front right) and other family members (1952).

Ристена (second from right), her husband, and other family members (1952).


  1. a wonderful chronicle...hope you can keep this project going. Sounds like the beginning of a very good book to me.

  2. She is a beautiful woman, and I love her story !

  3. Brian, We always enjoy your posts,your pictures and your insights into this country of contrasts. I want to know if your language skills jumped a few levels over the past two weeks though. How else could you have gotten so much information from Baba?? It was great seeing you on the 23rd!

  4. Thanks, Mike. It was good seeing you guys as well.

    In answer to your question, my language skills have not improved. Since I lack the discipline to study on my own, and I've yet to find a Bulgarian girlfriend to motivate me to learn, I decided to implement the "meet the баби" project as part of my tutoring. Alex comes with me and helps with the translation, although I do understand a fair amount on my own. My goal is to be able to conduct the interview of баба 52 by myself.