“It’s a long way off the main road,” I commented as we bumped and swerved down the potholed road to the village, thinking of the tyres and suspension of my car. “Well, it’s right on the Serbian border,” my wife Galya said, “We’ll soon be there”.
After parking the car in a shady spot outside the grandfather’s, old family home, the party of Galya, her mother and brother, left me to wander round the village, while they went to tend to the father’s grave at the hillside cemetery.
It was hot, very hot and I was soon in need of a rest. As I walked down the street looking for a shady spot, an old man, who was intensely interested in this stranger, beckoned me into his yard and pointed to a bench. I settled myself comfortably on the low wooden bench, shielded from the burning sun by the tangled leaves of a gnarled old grapevine. My host, an unshaven old man, as gnarled as the vine, had spotted me, hot and bothered, wandering down the street and taking pity, or out of curiosity, had invited me in for a rest and “something nice to drink”.
He lifted the lid of what could only be the well. Carefully he pulled on a rope bringing to the surface a heavy-looking plastic bag. Reaching inside, he produced an uneven white block. It was cheese which had been cooling in the depths of the well. I guessed he was going to give me some sirene, the staple of Bulgarian summer cuisine.
His wife, whom he had called out, was attired in typical village style, her floral print dress, held on her comfortable frame by the strings of a clean apron and topped off by a black headscarf, soon busied herself cleaning the pretty plastic tablecloth.
Out came two glasses each, a fork and plate. Next came the traditional salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, with the cheese carefully grated on top. To drink, was a glass of bright yellow lemonade and then the complement to every Bulgarian salad, a glass of home made rakia.
The eyes of the old lady met mine, she nodded knowingly: “Nazdrave”.(cheers!). Then the eyes of my host “Nazdrave”. I sipped tentatively at the clear liquid. Careful now, this village home-brewed rakia 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, I croaked.
Later, as I left the yard of my new friends with blagodayria’s (thank yous) and shaken hands, I was heading towards the centre of the village, when behind me I heard a shout, “Anglichanin,” “Anglichanin” (“Englishman, Englishman”) a stout and cheerful man was pursuing me down the street.
He caught up with me and grabbed me by the hand, shaking it vigorously. I gathered he was saying “I am Uncle Peter and I’ve ‘never’ seen an Englishman before”. He was so excited he couldn’t stop muttering Anglichanin. He insisted on conducting me, arm-in-arm, round the principal sights of the village, the library, cinema (showing weekly), café, shop and well-tended park. But not the church – he was an avowed communist. I could see his pride in this place and everything created in the previous “regime”.
After the tour, he guided me back to his and the family house next door to each other. Re-united with Galya, and as the sun was slipping behind the hills, we walked round the dusty potholed streets, I was surprised by the selection of free roaming hens, cockerels, donkeys and cows. “Don’t these animals ever stray?” I asked. “They know where they live,” came the scornful reply’’.
Serenaded by the bells of sheep and goats returning from the hillside pastures, we made our way to Uncle Peter’s, where we had been invited for dinner. We were greeted by a carefully set table in the “living room”, truly a room that they lived in, complete with wood burning cooking/heating stove, dining table underneath the window and beds against the back walls.
“Well this is how they keep warm in the winter, but they stay downstairs in the summer now, as all the family has left home,” Galya said. It was normal for the village.
After a sumptuous dinner, washed down again with home made wine and rakia, we left for our beds. We were staying in what was described as “the best house in the village”, because it had been modernised. New bathroom with shower and hot water, although the privy 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 meagre income, scratching a living from the sun baked land? Are they the village mafia?” I asked. Ah well, Galya laughed and smiled knowingly. Lets say there was a shortage of petrol in Serbia during the 1992 war with the Coalition and this village is very close to the not so well guarded border – but that’s another story!
– June 2012
Return to the village: 2021
We have been again to Galya’s father’s village, Deleyna, with her brother, to visit and attend to mother’s and father’s graves. It is near Vidin on the Danube, in a very remote area, close to the Serbian border and over the river to Romania. In the communist times, it was thriving, with plenty of work on the farms all around and factories in Vidin. It had a cinema, library, shops etc.
The last time I went there was about 10 years ago. It was still populated, as there was work in Vidin and in the fields and quite a few of the old folk were there, tending the animals (many of which roamed the streets) and orchards, living a peaceful life.
Now the young, finding no work in Vidin or the fields, have left for “city life”, it’s semi-deserted and very peaceful. I spent the afternoon in the park – still well maintained. Only the sound of the birds and a cockerel crowing disturbed my nap on one of the benches. Not a human in sight, very sad, isn’t it?
(Photo: Irina Ignatova)
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