Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Big 4-0

There is something very cool about birthdays and the way we celebrate them in America (and lots of other places). Typically, when we celebrate something, we are celebrating an accomplishment of some sort – a wedding, an anniversary, a victory, graduation from school, a new job, a raise, a bonus, a promotion. When it comes to birthdays, however, all we really are celebrating is someone’s existence. We are celebrating the fact that that person was born. No matter what the person has done, or hasn’t done, we are glad he or she is with us and we show our appreciation for his or her presence – nothing less, and nothing more. And that’s pretty cool. We show our appreciation by wishing the person well and, oftentimes, by buying the person a drink, making the person a special meal, taking him or her out to eat, and/or showering him or her with gifts, large and small.

In Bulgaria, folks likewise wish each other well on their birthdays, and sometimes presents are given – typically something small. But basically, birthday traditions here are exactly the opposite of ours. It is customary for the person celebrating his or her birthday to hand out chocolates to his or her family, friends, and colleagues. Quite often, the birthday boy or girl goes one step further and treats those closest to him or her to a special meal or a party. Instead of everyone else celebrating the existence of the person having a birthday, that person celebrates being alive and having family and friends around to enhance the enjoyment of living. This is also very cool.

Turning forty, which I did recently, isn’t typically considered cool. When I was a kid, I remember how depressed people seemed when they turned forty and how old they seemed to me. Now that I’m protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and part of the club, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I can’t do all the things I once could, but I can do many things better now than I ever could. And I couldn’t be more content. There’s no shame in admitting it: I’m a man!!! I’m forty!!!

As we all know, society has it's own thoughts on the subject. Superstitious Bulgarians believe that receiving congratulations for your 40th birthday results in bad luck for the rest of your life. As a result, many Bulgarians will try to avoid friends and acquaintances not only on their 40th birthday, but also in the days leading up to and following the birthday. And in America, when one turns forty he is considered “over-the-hill.” I realize this is just an idiom, but it’s never made much sense to me. The climb to the top of the hill is the rough part, with lots of starts and stops, doubts about whether you’ll ever make it, and pain and suffering along the way. And what’s at the top? A nice view but not much else. Coming down might be a little hard on the knees, but it’s typically a lot easier than the climb up. And if you’re on skis or in a sled or on a roller coaster, it’s pretty damn exhilarating.

Last year on my birthday a wise Bulgarian friend told me that a man only becomes old when his memories outnumber his dreams. If that’s true, it would explain why I don’t feel much different today than I did twenty years ago. I’ve lived a blessed life and have a lifetime of great memories. But those memories are dwarfed by my dreams, and I’m hopeful that the best is yet to come.

Of course, life is all about the family and friends who help make dreams possible and who share in creating memories. It's been an awesome forty years mainly because of the great people who I've been fortunate enough to know. Thank you one and all. I'm looking forward to the next forty years being even better, but, regardless of what the future may hold, it's a great day to be alive.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Честита Баба Марта!

A little over a year ago, in the weeks leading up to March 1st, I noticed folks (mostly old women but some young ones and some men) selling red-and-white dolls and red-and-white bracelets on every street corner. They appeared out of nowhere, and they were everywhere. And I had no clue what was going on.

A year later, I anxiously awaited their appearance, knowing all about Баба Марта, мартеници, and Баба Марта Day. And excluding Christmas, Баба Марта Day ranks a close second to Thanksgiving as my favorite holiday.

What makes Баба Марта Day so special?

Баба Марта Day heralds the end of the cold, bleak, gray days of winter and the beginning of spring. And spring is my favorite season. And no place I’ve ever been does spring better than Bulgaria. The country is a giant orchard of blooming fruit trees. Where there are no trees there are huge fields of wild poppy and rapeseed. Roadside ditches are lined with blooming forsythia. Breeding birds return and establish territories, singing from their favorite perches. Cuckoos call like clockwork, and White Storks announce their return by rattling their bills. Spring rains bring out salamanders in the forests and frogs in the marshes. And баби and дядовци turn over their gardens and begin working on the coming year’s crops. It’s simply a great time to be in Bulgaria.

Beyond that and perhaps in part as result of it, Баба Марта Day is a day about hope. People are pleasant to one another. Smiles are common. Wishes for a healthy and prosperous year are sincere. And everyone seems ready to put behind the dreary winter (and past) and get on with a more promising spring (and future).

Of course, Баба Марта has a mind of her own, and many of us are experiencing bitter cold and snow today. Hopefully she's just in one of those moods.

Vendors hawking мартеници in Sofia.