As I settled myself comfortably on the low wooden bench, shaded from the burning sun by the tangled leaves of a gnarled old grapevine, my host, a welcoming villager who’d seen me hot and bothered wandering down the street, carefully lifted the lid of what could only be the well.
What is he doing, I thought?
He just invited me in of the street for a rest and something nice to drink? Carefully, he pulled on a rope and brought to the surface a heavy looking plastic bag. Reaching inside, he produced a white uneven block. Oh, it was cheese! He was going to give me some sirene, the Bulgarian white delicacy, to go with my drink, he must be storing it in the cool of the well, no fridges here.
His wife, dressed in typical village style, floral print dress, held into her comfortable frame by the strings of a clean apron, and topped off by a black headscarf, busied herself cleaning down the pretty plastic tablecloth, setting out two glasses each, a fork, and surprisingly a paper napkin.
First came the traditional shopska salad, of tomatoes cucumber and peppers with the cheese carefully grated on top. Then a carefully poured glass full of bright yellow lemonade, and the compliment to every Bulgarian salad, a glass of home made rakiya. His wife’s eyes met mine, she nodded knowingly. “ nazdrave”, then the eyes of my host “nazdrave”. I sipped carefully at the clear liquid. Careful now, this domashna, ‘village’ rakiya is said to be very strong and rumoured to wipe the memory, if taken in sufficient quantity. What a way to start a meal! Mmm a fiery trail slipped down my throat. “nazdrave”, good health.
Later as the sun slipped lazily beneath the hills, we walked round the dusty streets surprised by a selection of free roaming chickens, donkeys and cows, I said to my now returned friend, “Don’t these animals ever stray”? “They know where they live”, came the scornful reply. Serenaded by the bells of returning sheep and goats from the pasture, we made our way to our hosts for the night. We were staying in what was described as the ‘best house in the village’. I
It had been modernised. New bathroom with shower and hot water, the ‘toaletna, though, was still down the garden as the villagers don’t like the idea of an indoor toilet. New parquet floors, blinds, and a flat screen TV, even a computer for the children, added to the feeling of comfort, if not luxury. “ How do they afford these things on such a meager income, scratching a living from the sun baked land”? I whispered, “Are they Mafia?” My friend laughed, “Ah well,” she nodded, smiling knowingly. “Let’s say, there was a shortage of petrol in Serbia during the war with the Coalition, and this village is very close to the ‘not very well guarded border’ – but that’s another story!”
(Photo: Irina Ignatova)