I was supposed to interview a woman named Лилия (Lilia), but Лилия got cold feet at the last minute and cancelled. Thankfully, while she was slaving away in her kitchen preparing food for our visit, including crème caramel and a chocolate and coconut tort, we sat down and talked with her husband of nearly fifty years, Илия (Ilia). Given how enjoyable it was spending time with him and how interesting a person he is, I felt I had no choice but to share Илия's story even though he is a дядо (grandfather).
• Илия was born in 1937. He was born and raised and has spent his entire life living in the town I now call home.
• He is one of six siblings, but only he and his sister lived to adulthood.
• He and his wife had two daughters, but one of them passed away a few years ago. They have two granddaughters.
• He has been to Serbia many times and once visited Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad).
• During World War II, relatives of his abandoned Sofia and moved in with his family. Every time war planes were heard approaching, his father gathered the family in a horse-cart and they hid under a nearby bridge. One night a pilot (perhaps mistakenly) dropped several bombs on the town, setting much of the town on fire.
• His father died in 1946, and he was raised by his grandparents. Prior to his father’s death, his family was fairly wealthy and his childhood was “colorful.” Following his father’s death, his family was very poor and he lived in “black and white.”
• He was a very mischievous child. Илия’s grandfather used to let Илия sit on his shoulders. While on his grandfather’s shoulders, Илия would tell his grandfather he loved him like honey, and his grandfather would let him reach into the top drawer of his bureau and take money. That all changed one day when Илия tried the old chair pull prank on his disabled grandpa. After pulling the chair out from under his grandpa, Илия didn’t see another стотинки. He remembers his grandpa chasing him around the house and poking him under the bed with a cane screaming the equivalent of “I’ll kill him.” Obviously, he survived.
• The year of Илия’s birth is significant because King Simeon II of Bulgaria was born the same year. All students who graduated from high school the same year as King Simeon II received one grade better than they earned in all their classes. For example, a student who earned a three in a particular class was given a four. Students who earned sixes were given sevens, even though there is no such grade in Bulgaria (Bulgarian grades range from 2 to 6, with 2 being the equivalent of an F and 6 being the equivalent of an A). Graduation rates were low back then, and Илия is very proud to have graduated from high school.
• As a young man, Илия recalls working nearly all day and all night. He was a shepherd, and he routinely walked from our town to Sofia. The walk took eight hours, with the sheep getting two hours to feed along the way. Upon arrival in Sofia, the sheep were taken to a slaughter house, where he helped cut them up. So, after walking the better part of the day, he slaughtered sheep most of the night.
• He had nothing good to say about communism. Despite repeated requests and invitations to join the party, he always refused. He considered the communists liars and thieves who were full of themselves and empty promises. Had he joined, he would have been swimming with the current and against his principles. He is very proud to have swum against the current while maintaining his integrity, even though it meant he worked much harder for much less than he could have had. Despite being regularly bypassed for promotions by less qualified, incompetent party members, he was able to “build his own house,” both literally and figuratively.
• Илия provided two anecdotes to illustrate his contempt for communism. First, at one point he ordered a car. After making a down payment of 1500 BGN and waiting more than fifteen years for the car, he gave up and asked for his money back. The communists gave him 15 BGN. Second, one time he had gone to Serbia. While there, he had visited a bank where he was given American dollars. He went to Sofia to buy some jeans with the money and was turned away by the store clerks at the party store. They thought he had stolen the money and wanted proof from the bank in Serbia that he had not stolen it. After that, he never returned to the party store. Instead, he gave money to traveling friends who brought back whatever items he requested.
• According to Илия, during communism life was all about connections. Under democracy, there is a greater emphasis on ability and merit. The families who stole during communism still have many advantages, but those without communist bloodlines who study hard and work hard are rewarded. He is very hopeful of Bulgaria’s future in this regard.
• He loves watching television and considers the television and the washing machine the world’s two greatest inventions. Unlike Роза and Ристена, he has always lived with electricity.
• During communism, he typically had Friday off. On Friday, Russian movies were aired on Bulgarian television. Despite loving to watch television, he never watched on Fridays because he considered Russian movies nothing but глупости.
• He described four great joys he has experienced: graduating from high school, getting married, the birth of his children, and the birth of his granddaughters. The birth of his granddaughters in particular made him very, very happy, and he considers them the most important thing in his life today.
• He has just two regrets. First, there was a time in his life where he drank too much. He wishes he could go back and relive that time sober. Second, he once dated a very wealthy girl from Sofia who lived in a large, three-story home. The girl wanted to marry him. He asked her whether she could cook, and she couldn’t. He asked her whether she could sew clothes for him, and she couldn’t. So he asked her, “Then how can we live?” Her response was that they could sell her house, move in with her aunt, and hire servants to do all the womanly work she was incapable of doing. He then asked her, “And when we run out of money?” She answered that they could then sell her aunt’s house, move to his village, and hire more servants. Unconvinced as to the merits of her plan, they eventually broke up. Now, he wishes he would have married the girl, realizing that they could have lived at least fifty years off the money they would have made selling her house. And the house is still standing in Sofia, a painful reminder to him of his lack of foresight and vision.
• And here are my three favorite Илияisms:
In explaining why he hasn’t offered his granddaughters advice for dealing with boys, Илия said something along the lines of, “When the door is creaking, you don’t put your finger in it or you might get hurt.”
On the difference between life in Bulgaria under democracy and under communism: “At the gates of hell, every country has guards to make sure the people from their country who deserve to be in hell stay there. Bulgaria has no guards because Bulgaria is a self-regulating society. If a Bulgarian tries to escape from hell, the other Bulgarians will pull him right back in.”
One day Илия saw a very attractive young woman in Sofia. The woman was wearing an extremely short skirt. He stared at her as she went to board a bus, wondering how she would be able to climb the stairs wearing such a short skirt. As he was staring at her, he walked headfirst into a light pole. He said that taught him a lesson he never forgot: “Don’t pay attention to or get involved with pretty girls who wear revealing clothes. You’ll just end up getting hurt.”
Илия with a hunting group.
Илия with schoolmates.
Илия and his wife, Лилия, at a friend's wedding.
Лилия back in the day (looking very much like Pocahontas).
Лилия and her classmates.
Some more photos of Лилия growing up.
Илия's parents on a trip to Sofia.