Presian Vlaiakov has happy memories of his childhood in Dobrich, Bulgaria: Running outside with friends all day in the summer and playing in United Methodist Church day care after school.
His mind skips over his father, an alcoholic who left before he was born, and the poor neighborhood where he grew up in his town near the Romanian border. Instead, he speaks of his mother, a much-loved community nurse, working hard to support her son and daughter, despite being shunned by family for getting a divorce. Vlaiakov remembers his mother taking him to church and together finding a community there.
“I went to the day care center, then I was invited to participate and go to worship. Since then, I am in the church,” Vlaiakov said.
The church provided stability and safety in an unstable time. Divorce still is a source of stigma in Bulgaria, but even more so during the time of communism. Even now, 80 percent of single mothers get no child care support from family or their children’s fathers, according to the Bulgarian Fund for Women. Bulgarian K-12 public schools operate in two half-day shifts, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. then from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. So, children are on their own for the rest of the time a parent is working, unless child care can be arranged. That’s where the United Methodist Church day care stepped in, Vlaiakov said, and made a difference in his life.
As he grew up, he joined the youth group and took part in service projects. He loved being involved in worship. “The sermon made me think about my personal life. It made a big impression on me. Even though the sermon not written for me, I found myself in the sermon,” he said. When he had a chance to join the worship praise team, he jumped at it. He loved singing and being a part of the service.
Vlaiakov’s older sister was diagnosed with what has come to be called Black Jaundice the year after he graduated from high school. Information about her illness mostly was kept from him, but even when she slipped into a coma he believed she would recover. His singing group was scheduled to give a small concert, and his mother encouraged him to go to the performance. Just as he was about to walk on stage, a red thread bracelet his sister had given him fell apart. He knew something bad had happened.
As soon as the show was over, the music director approached him. With her first words, he knew his sister had died. He could not speak. He was stunned and pushed friends away, then went home and sobbed. His pastor called and offered to let him spend some time with his family.
“When I got into the pastor’s car, he told me that he’s not going to try to comfort me. There are times in life where we just need to cry,” Vlaiakov said. “Several days after the funeral, one of the Methodist day care teachers told me that God calls the best people to him to be his angels. I felt better because whether that is true or not, there is hope for me to think that. So, from afterwards, I’ve learned to live with it.”
His faith deepened, and he no longer took life and living for granted. He saw the need to do good regardless whether anyone was watching or whether someone might do something in exchange. “After that point, I counted on God for everything in my life.”
Now, at 29, Vlaiakov is still at church, intensively. He lives in one of the apartments attached to Sofia United Methodist Church, sings in the choir each Sunday, and is available after his work hours as a store manager to help with maintenance or to assist the pastor. Wherever he lives, he makes sure his apartment is less than a 10-minute walk from the church so that he can be available if someone needs him.
“Even as a young boy, when I called him, he would always find a way to be there,” said the Rev. Mihail Stefanov, who was Vlaiakov’s pastor in Dobrich when he was a child and now is pastor of Sofia United Methodist. “He did not ask questions. He did not say, ‘Why me?’ He always does the hard work. Now, when I need a strong man, he is it. He is the example of an involved layperson. When there is no pastor in the church, the church will survive because of people like him.”
Photos by the Rev. Mihail Stefanov
An edited version of this story appeared in United Methodist News.
Gergana Kutseva wants a Bulgaria where half the seats in parliament are filled with women, where women receive the same pensions on average as men rather than 40 percent less, where fewer single mothers are on the brink of poverty.
To make that happen, the Bulgarian Fund for Women is spreading messages that turn old world assumptions on their head. Rather than highlighting that every fourth woman is a victim of domestic violence, Kutseva, the fund’s development and communications director, worked with a team to create a campaign “Every Fourth Man”.
And the kicker … the women working with the fund decided to go out on limb and call themselves what the country needed to see: Feminists. Like elsewhere in the world, the name feminist can be dirty word.
On one hand, Bulgarian women gained the right to vote Communism beginning in 1945 and long had access to education. However, the utopian ideal created rights on paper, Kutseva said, and not a change in mindset.
“Lots of people think that because Bulgaria is part of the EU, it’s part of developed world,” Kutseva said. “There are huge differences within EU, and we are very traditional. People are not living in the villages anymore, but the mentality is mostly rural.”
Traditional women’s work is not seen as real work, and the result is that women hold two jobs: one carrying for the home and children, and the other that earns money.
“In this patriarchal society, women mostly solely do the housework and care for children,” she said. “Men don’t go to play yards with their children or cook. If they did, people think you might be gay. If you want to take paternal leave, then people will say your spouse is too powerful for you. She is the commander at home, and people will say it is obvious you are not man enough.”
The inequity of expectations hits hard with the national pension plan. Women, very rarely men, take work leave for childcare or care for elderly parents. Then, women are forced into retirement at 61, as opposed to age 64 for men. This is seen as a social benefit for women, but in reality the cost is high. Women end up with on average six fewer years credit in the pension system. Combine that with the gender wage gap and the result is 40 percent less pension for women.
The Bulgarian Fund for Women serves as training ground for those interested in supporting public initiatives. Each year for the past three years, the fund has created a weeklong Feminist Boot Camp. A total of 36 young women so far have spent a week on retreat learning the history of the women’s movement in Bulgaria and internationally, the real meaning of feminism, and the mechanics of setting up NGOs, fundraising, and grant writing. These activists can identify the needs of the local community and build grassroots support for causes important to them.
Building from the Boot Camp experiences, a group of women brought seven NGOs together to create a “Silence is not Golden” campaign to increase domestic violence awareness in eight outlying communities. Another campaign called “Menarchy: the right to bleed with dignity” is raising awareness about the menstrual taboo and its consequences.
The women created a sense of community and safe space to discuss sexuality, sexual identity, and gendered violence. The youngest member of the most recent Boot Camp is a 16-year-old Roma girl from one of the poorest regions of the country. The women learned from each other and saw the intersectionality of their experiences.
“At first, many didn’t like the idea of being feminist,” Kutseva said. “Now, they are 100 percent sure they are feminists and everyone should be.”
Victoria Kostova has long been an activist, even though she is a freshman at Sofia University. She had been to a number of training sessions before her Feminist Boot Camp experience. “The very significant differentiation for me in the Feminist Bootcamp was the flow that we as participants created,” Kostova said. “Despite the diversity, we were all connected by a sense of belonging. We were united by one big topic which we considered important, not only on individual level but as community builders.”
The key is helping women help themselves, rather than just dolling out government funds or grant dollars. That’s why the Bulgarian Fund for Women and sponsor Société Générale Expressbank put together the program “Chance for Invisible Super-Moms.” In its pilot launch, five women living in domestic violence shelters are receiving assistance securing vocational education, job skills, and most important, safe childcare. From the lessons learned in the pilot, the Fund’s executive board hopes to expand “the investment in women’s lives and breaking the cycle of poverty,” Kutseva said.
That is significant because 72 percent of Bulgaria’s 360,000 single mothers are at or below the poverty level. And, 80 percent of single mothers do not have child care support from family or the children’s fathers. The result is either inadequate childcare or the mother left unable to work. By giving the mothers support and educational opportunities, the chances for children to stay in school increase.
Kutseva said the two greatest challenges her organization are raising funds in a national culture without a tradition of philanthropy and a lack of understanding of what gender equity really means. The Bulgarian Fund for Women was at the heart of the national debate over ratifying the Istanbul Convention, which would have established protocols for addressing violence against women.
The future of women’s rights in Bulgaria will depend on increasing the visibility of women in all public arenas, she said.
“I want a vibrant, real movement where women insist for their rights,” she said. “Women are ready to get into the political sphere.”
(Sidenotes: Victoria Kostova is one of my Sofia University students. She sent me her thoughts about the Feminist Boot Camp after I first published this story. You can donate to this and other Bulgarian Fund for Women programs here.)
Bodjidar Popov opened an envelope and pulled out a black and white, ruffled-edge photo of his family on his wedding day. Life in 1956 Bulgaria required that the reception be simple and at home. His wife, Spaska, hugs him tightly as they stand behind a kitchen table surrounded with family and friends. In another photo, his mother Elsa Popova walks with her grandchildren. And in another, his father Simeon Popov is preaching from a pulpit in Shumen, a pulpit he would later share with his son.
Simeon Popov survived both world wars, Soviet take over of his country, and nearly six years in prison work camps. He lived long enough to convene Bulgaria’s first meeting of “survived Methodists” in 1990 after the fall of communism. Only three Bulgarian congregations remained in tact and in their own church buildings through the Cold War.
Now, Bodjidar Popov at 85 is just younger than his father was when he died. He lives in the small apartment he once shared with his wife and is literally surrounded by the chocolates his daughters send him from Switzerland and the new editions of his father’s books.
Bodjidar Popov leaned back in his chair and spoke through his translator, Jessica Morris-Ivanova who now co-pastors the Shumen Methodist Church with her husband.
“I want to start with the year 1937,” Bodjidar Popov says.
That was the year his family moved to Voyvodovo for his father to serve a church just south of the Danube and the Romanian border. Three-quarters of the town were Czech Protestants who had fled persecution. Bulgarians had invited the immigrants to repopulate the borderlands and the town boomed to 800. They were sturdy, hard-working farmers. Bodjidar, whose name means ‘God’s gift,’ was five years old. He was the youngest of three stairstep children, and he really did not want to go. The Czechs dressed funny, he thought. Yet like most children, he quickly found fast friends.
The farmers’ life was intensely hard. The Czech laborers worked from sun up to sun down in the fields five days a week and a half day on Saturday. The women did all the laundry and cleaning on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, everyone arrived church with crisp clean clothes. The Popovs’ was the largest of the three churches in the community.
Life was joyful. Every farmer saved a portion of the field for sunflowers, which could be converted to oil. At harvest, the flower heads were brought in to be cracked open. The young people would break the flowers apart and sing.
In the years that followed, Bulgaria was pressured to join the Nazis in World War II and soon after the Americans began bombing the capitol. The American Methodists’ mission board had been funding many of the pastors’ salaries and the Popovs’ church was truly a mission community. In 1942, their access to funds was cut off.
Simeon Popov called the family together to discuss big decisions that had to be made. A small life insurance policy had matured and with that money they could buy two cows and plow. They would become farmers, like their Czech church members, and the church taught them how to survive.
“We lived in a primitive way,” Bodjidar Popov said. “We had a wood stove but there wasn’t wood in the village. We burned sod from the fields. And, we would burn the shafts of wheat.”
Bodjidar Popov would go to school in the morning, head to the fields till the sunset, then do homework by the light of an oil lamp. They grew vegetables, smoked meat in a hole in the ground, and wrapped eggs in pork fat to allow them to keep longer. Simeon Popov continued preaching even while farming, but he realized he needed some kind of transportation. The family managed to secure the first bicycle in the village. With a basket on the front and back, he could haul wheat in burlap bags. Bodjidar Popov and his siblings competed for permission to clean the bicycle and ran after their father with joy as peddled down the street.
The intense life with two full-time jobs and a family to care for caught up with Simeon Popov, and he developed double pneumonia. “We called the doctor from the next village. He said, ‘Popov you can’t carry two watermelons under one arm. You need to leave one watermelon.’” His illness came at the worst time: the wheat had to be harvested once it turned golden or the grains would fall to the ground. No one in the village could help because they were busy with their own crops. So, young Simeon and his brother Blagavest got tools from a Czech blacksmith and took to the fields. They got up each morning at 2 a.m., ate and dressed, milked the cows, then walked an hour to their plot. Their fields had to be harvested in the cool of the morning because working in the heat of the day was impossible. Exhausted but diligent, they brought in the harvest.
Simeon Popov recovered and returned to his jobs of preaching, caring for the community, and farming. By then, the Soviets had come and Bulgaria became communist. The villagers made almost everything they needed themselves and turned over a portion to the state. They grew hemp and flax, soaked the stalks in the river to separate the strands, then wound them together to make rope and sturdy bags to carry wheat.
One year, the harvest was particularly weak for the village. The Popov land was on a hillside and produced even less then their neighbors. Simeon Popov was called to the municipal offices and told he would be required to turn over his entire crop.
“I said, ‘What are we going to eat?’ My mother said, ‘I am not going to give it away.’” But his father insisted because pastors were already being arrested. “My father said, ‘If we don’t give them the wheat, they will take me and throw me into prison anyway.’” So, with tears pouring down his face, Bodjidar held the sack open as his father scooped wheat with a bucket. They delivered the entire crop to the authorities.
Word spread amongst the village’s 200 homes that the pastor’s family was without bread. The Popovs would wake in the morning to find bags of wheat left in their yard at night. Quietly by day, their neighbors came to retrieve the bags, now emptied.
“We had wheat, not just enough for food but also enough to sow for the crop,” Bodjidar Popov said. “Like the widow in Elijah … she said this is the last wheat and oil. Elijah said to make the bread, and so she did. We’ve experienced these Biblical stories that have been true reality in our lives. It was a testimony to the village that my father didn’t protest or rebel, yet God still took care of him.”
By 1949, the Bulgarian communists cracked down on religious groups. Church members’ farm equipment was confiscated. A man who ran a small meat packing plant had donated oil for the church’s petroleum light. He was beaten in jail and his property taken. The community banded tightly together.
“The faith in God connected us. Whoever was in need, we helped,” Bodjidar Popov said. “When someone was in trouble … a house fire, a horse died … someone else would go around in town for them and ask to give to help. Sometimes people would have more after than before the loss.”
Communist leaders decided the best way to break up Christian communities was to go after church leaders. Simeon Popov was working in the fields when the local militia came. They tore apart his house while an officer was sent to bring him in. In a nearby town, the three children were away at high school. Church members came to tell them what happened.
The oldest, Blagavest Popov, knew his father would be taken by train to the capitol Sofia. He waited for every train and finally saw his father taken on board. He slipped inside, found the compartment, and begged the militia officer to let him sit with Simeon Popov. The guard, breaking protocol, relented, and they road to Sofia together. “My father said God will never forsake us. There is no need to worry.”
That summer, Simeon Popov was put on trial for being a spy and telling government secrets. His wife Elsa Popov was in the courtroom. She was horrified to see her husband visibly shaking, then pleading guilty to all charges. Nearly all the pastors pled guilty, including the Methodist district superintendent Yanko Ivanov, who received a life sentence.
The pastors’ families could not understand why the men would plead guilty. “We all wondered how it was possible for all these pastors to say something that is not true,” Bodijar Popov said. But the superintendent’s son explained his father had held off despite repeated beatings. That’s when the militia brought in his wife, beat her, and threw her into the next cell. Ivanov could hear his wife weeping through the walls, and he relented.
Throughout the country, nearly every pastor trained abroad was placed behind bars. Simeon Popov was sentenced to six years and six months hard labor. Every two days he worked counted as three days toward his sentence, allowing him to finish his sentence a bit early. First, he was in a box plant in Sofia, then was sent to Varna on the Black Sea coast. Occasionally, prisoners were given a chance to have 10 minutes for family visits. Bodijar Popov made his way across country 500 kilometers to the prison.
The visiting hall was a corridor with a two-meter gap in the middle. On one side, family members were held back by chicken wire; the prisoners were behind bars on the other. All the families talked loudly and frantically across the gap. Simeon Popov assured his son that he was well and gave him fast advice: The communists were already confiscating property and farm animals in Romania. This would happen soon in Bulgaria, he said, but not to worry.
“I was looking at my watch to see how much time going by,” Bodjidar Popov said. “At six minutes, the bell rang. The milita man yelled, ‘Dogs leave. Dogs move.’ The visitation time ended. My father was waving his hand at me, ‘God will not forsake us. Do not worry.’ I was so disappointed and discouraged.”
Devastated, he went back to the house of a fellow Christian who had been kind to his family. She saw how distraught he was and decided he needed to go to the opera. There, he discovered what would become a life-long source of joy. “I went with this troubled heart and now the opera is the most wonderful thing to me. I loved Mozart and Bach, and from Romans 8, these words have been true … everything works for the glory of God.”
Bodjidar Popov was sent off for his obligatory military service. Those who were said to be “of good hope” were sent to be soldiers in the army. Those whose fathers were in prison, like him, were sent to become laborers. Bodjidar Popov tried to prove his worth first digging railroad tie trenches then working in a coal mine. Once his service was complete, he was able to earn a certificate as an electrician and took a job in a factory near Voyvodovo.
He was 28 and lonely when driving down a road he stumbled on a family with a broken wagon. He helped put the wagon right, and the farmer offered him his choice of the watermelons they were hauling. Bodjidar Popov turned to the pretty blond daughter and asked her to choose. She picked the largest one from the wagon for him. He kept thinking about her and wondered if he could find her with the other young people who gathered in the park in the evenings. He did. They chatted easily and he was impressed with her character. He offered to walk her home. Young Spaska told her father about this man and he cried out, “He is the finest in the village.”
They married and had two daughters.
After Simeon Popov was released from prison, he eventually moved with his wife Elsa to his hometown of Shumen and began preaching around the country. He was chased out of the capitol by the city officials, and threatened if even he ever put his foot onto Sofia’s ground again. So, he began writing collections of his sermons and other Christian books. They were published outside the country under titles without an author listed. Getting them back into Bulgaria was a challenge.
Bodjidar Popov drove his station wagon to a designated spot in the forest where he and his father met smugglers driving a false-bottom truck. Within three minutes, the Christian literature and Bibles were piled in the station wagon and covered with tarps. Once on a thousand book run, they were heading back into Shumen and saw a long line of cars with police searching each one. Bodhidar Popov knew they were about to get caught, but his father prayed silently beside him. When their car came to the front of the line, they were waved on through without question.
“These experiences are unforgettable. They made us so much closer to God,” Bodjidar Popov said. “They filled in us a hard, unwavering victory-making faith. If we had everything handed to us, it is possible we would not be so close to God.”
Police officers routinely watched the Popov house. Guests arrived with full bags and left with empty ones. Elsa Popov hid Bibles in her stove and refrigerator because the militia inevitably came to search.
“They would look under the bed, and she would never put them there. Once she wasn’t able to put away the literature in time, and they were able to catch her with some Bibles,” Bodjidar Popov said.
The Popovs realized that their house was bugged. When foreigners came to visit, Simeon Popov put his finger to his lips and suggested that they talk outside.
In the late 1970s, Communist Party officials strategized to more subtly remove the influence of Protestant churches while maintaining tight control of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church leadership. Methodist pastor and church historian Margarita Todorova unearthed documentation after the fall of communism that laid out plans to force church mergers, confiscate funds for trumped up financial irregularities, and to eliminate church properties from public view. These party reports called for careful coordination between local leaders and state officials to prevent church members from becoming too vocal when outraged or too “stirred up and mobilized.”
A large international hotel was proposed next to the Shumen Methodist Church. The church, which had been built just after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and stood near the center of town, needed to go. Party officials feared, “it could become a place visited by foreigners staying at the hotel which in itself could stir up and stimulate the church activity,” according to a 1982 report from the Ministry on Foreign Affairs.
Simeon Popov was offered remote space for his church on the far side of town. He countered that the existing building was owned by foreign mission boards, and if the land was confiscated, those boards would protest to the embarrassment of the country. He was not going to let go of the property without a fight. He sent appeal after appeal to the municipal and national authorities. At long last, he won. The property was declared a historic site and could not be removed.
Bodjidar Popov had been working as an electrical technician in a theater company and his wife Spaska was a German teacher in central Bulgaria when they received a call that Simeon Popov had had a heart attack. Bodjidar had sometimes preached for his father and worked in the Shumen church, so he was asked to take his father’s pulpit while he recovered. It was August of 1989, just three months before the Berlin Wall fell.
That spring, a frail Simeon Popov convened the Bulgarian provisional conference meeting. The pictures of him leading the prayer and blessing the communion bread are among that last ever taken of him. He died not long after his birthday in October.
Bodjidar Popov was commissioned to pastor the Shumen church, where served for nearly two decades. At 85, his last life mission is to get new editions of his father’s works, now complete with Simeon Popov’s name, into the hands of Bulgarians. He delivers them to public libraries and churches.
Late one spring evening, he called Shumen’s current co-pastors Jessica Morris-Ivanova and Ivayo Ivanov and asked them to collect a box of books for distribution. I walked with them through the dark streets to his apartment. He told us again how much he has been blessed despite life’s hardships and he again quoted from Romans 8. He gripped my hands tightly to say goodbye and said, “We will meet again.”
Inside the Shumen Methodist Church.
Co-pastors Ivayo Ivanov and Jessica Morris-Ivanova
Bodjidar Popov shows Jessica Morris-Ivanova one of his father’s books.
The name of the first newspaper Margarita Trifonova worked for translates to mean Truth on the River Danube.
In 1979, she was a fresh graduate of Sofia University who had come back to work in her hometown Rousse.
“At that time, all the newspapers had such names. Truth. Spark. Star,” Margarita Trifonova said. “I started to work as an editor for the young people’s page. They gave me that page said, ‘You will tell stories about the young people of Rousse.’ The name of the page was Youth.”
Nearly 40 years later, she owns a chain of newspapers along the Danube border with Romania under the company name, Beach Media Group, Ltd. Her office overlooks the town square of Rousse, rightly described as the Vienna of Bulgaria. The flagship paper is called Bryag, meaning Coast.
Her career, she says, can be divided in two parts: before 1989 when she worked for party-controlled media, and after the fall of communism when she headed privately owned newspapers.
In the first half of her career, she worked her way up to be chief of the political news division. More than 50 journalists worked at the Rousse paper, a staff number she longs for now.
“I was a member of the party,” she remembered. “I couldn’t work at that newspaper unless I was a member. That newspaper and all newspapers belonged to the Communist Party. We were like an organ, a hand, a leg of the communist party. We were their nomenclature.”
Being Communist was just a way of life, she said. No one thought about protesting, or traveling abroad, or free speech because so few had ever seen anything different. “It’s like to taste something, a meal. If you can’t taste it, then you don’t know what it is.”
Margarita Trifonova gave birth to her daughter Mila on Nov. 2, 1989, just eight days before the Communist Party collapse in Bulgaria. She already planned to step away from journalism for awhile, so her exit was not a surprise.
Stress for most Bulgarians at that time was not so much mourning for the loss of Communism, but more of a shock of new way of living.
“We lived one kind of life, which was regulated before 1989. We would go to work and there was work for everybody, a salary for everybody. Everything was regulated. That was probably not good, but it was regulated and the people were used that,” she said.
Gradually, Bulgarians got used to a new way of life. Margarita Trifonova wanted to go back to work as a journalist after two years of caring her for daughter. The newspaper had changed its name to break from its past and abandoned its party affiliation. It became Utro, meaning Morning. By 1995, she was editor-in-chief. As a commercial property, it went through several owners and ended up in an international media group.
Margarita Trifonova decided that if she wanted to do real local journalism, she would need to start her own business. With her husband as her partner, they set out to build their own company in 1998. Even her closest friends questioned her judgment. After all, Rousse already had a newspaper. The first years were the hardest.
At first, they attempted to create a newspaper based in Rousse serving all the surrounding river towns. Quickly, they discovered their mistake. Each community had its own newspaper traditions. Most important, they wanted to see their own citizens on the front pages, not pictures of people from the next city. Rousse’s biggest circulation day was Saturday, but other communities only read on weekdays. And, no regional newspapers ever print on Sunday.
Each paper had its own identity before it was purchased, and it needed to keep its identity afterwards. Gradually, they bought media properties in Plevin, Silistra, Lovech, and Svishto, and offered special pullout sections in Bryag for other small cities. They added City Week, an entertainment magazine, and Citizen Weekend, including television listings, articles, and puzzles.
They had ten golden years of production before the financial crisis of 2012 hit. Meanwhile, the Internet changed the way traditional newspapers everywhere do business. Advertisers still want to hold ads in their hand and find Internet products intangible, even though a web presence is essential to connect with the local audience. Most media companies of their size diversified to other types of products, but Margarita Trifonova believed that would hurt her credibility. Maybe that was a mistake, she says, maybe not. Only time will tell.
The company saved newspapers that otherwise would have gone under. The newspaper in Neva, called Field, had provided community news dating back to the 1930s.
“This paper had failed and was going to vanish from press world,” Margarita Trifonova said. “The journalists there came to us and said, ‘Let us live.’”
The Beach Media Group, Ltd., has a total circulation of 100,000 with publications in five river cities and a staff of 20 journalists. On April 8, the company celebrated is 20th anniversary.
Margarita Trifonova says she cannot really explain her love for journalism that has lasted through her long career.
“So to this day, I have not practiced another profession. Maybe that’s why I love her,” she said.
My friend Alexenia Dimitrova told me I would come to love Bulgaria if I could choose what I came to see. If I only saw the crumbled buildings and the sex shop signs, I would miss the beautiful faces of kind people. The more Bulgarian I learned, the more good things I could see. I tried to explain this to my children.
“It’s a choice: Do you see the cigarette butts in the sand or the sea shells?” I said pointing to beach in our little corner of Varna.
Marie crinkled up her nose, “That doesn’t make sense. What if I see both? I can’t help but see it all.”
“But what do you choose to focus on?”
“I choose to focus on food,” she said. “I’m hungry.”
Today is Karl Marx’s 200th birthday. And Cinco de Mayo. And Derby Day.
This week, the American Embassy served up tacos, complete with spices shipped from Texas, and Bulgarian beer for dignitaries and guests like me. Back in Kentucky, my friends donned their best hats and the girls and I, in solidarity, picked our favorite Derby horses.
And, I got an invitation to the Bulgarian Philosophical Society ‘Marxists after Marx’ Conference. How could I not go? Bulgarians are quick to correct me when I refer to the Soviet era as communist. No country ever achieved communism, only socialism, they explain. What European Marxists call left, most in the West would call the far right. Sort of. This distinction is far more complicated than Bulgarians shaking their head to mean yes and nodding to mean no. The irony is that both Marxists and American Republicans use the word “liberal” as a slur.
My colleague and translator Vice Dean and Professor Nikali Mihailov wanted to know, on our walk over to the Sofia University conference, what side Kentucky was on during the Civil War and whether we still had Confederate statutes. “It’s unfortunately complicated,” I sighed and wished had a better explanation for racial injustice.
About 50 academics and students filled the conference room, with the speakers and leading scholars sitting around the long center table. I eventually would learn that they were a wide ranging mix of Marxists, former Marxists, current and former Communists, democratic socialists, Trotskyists, followers of Lenin and on and on. Some advocated Marxism as a science while others as an alternative to religion. I heard rumblings of something that sounded like anti-Semitism, but I couldn’t quite tell. Professor Mihailov breathed a long sigh, much as I had earlier.
The keynote speaker said almost in passing that the growing numbers of homosexuals in Eastern Europe was caused by capitalism and the Protestant work ethic. Unhappy workers, finding no joy in laboring for the wealthy, turn unnatural perversions to fill the spiritual void. This was a tiny point in a day-long dialogue, but that pronouncement was one that I have yet to get my head around.
Capitalism will fall inevitably as Marx insisted, perhaps by internal collapse, perhaps by overthrow. A breakdown from an environmental crisis seemed to be the agreed-on theoretical prediction. The rampant corruption caused by capitalism in Bulgaria far exceeds anything from the socialist times, thus leading to its demise. All of this spoken in room built in the Soviet era, now with an European Union flag posted beside the Bulgarian one. The speaker’s podium stood in front of the portrait of the university’s Orthodox patron saint, St. Kliment Ohridski. The juxtaposition reminded me of Mao’s portrait hanging in front of the Forbidden City in Tiananmen Square.
Like academic gatherings everywhere, the debate was at times friendly, but often it was not. Senior historian Professor Iskra Baeva rose to speak and the room bristled. She wore a poppy red suit jacket and gold star necklace; she was the best-dressed person in the room and I knew right away she had armored herself for a fight. Her voice though was even keeled, firm but not arrogant. Bulgarians, she said, had never really learned Marxism, only the Soviet version passed down to them in school. Bulgaria will never free itself unless Marxism, real Marxism, is taught.
The Q&A was hardly a Q&A. Thirty-year-old battles amongst former communist party rivals surfaced. It was hard to tell who was accusing whom of what. Professor Baeva was hit with a double barrel question, the first part attacking her personally in ways that I knew were brutal but could not completely understand. She brushed the first question aside and responded to the second. She did not demure, nor assault, nor raise her voice, nor crumble, nor even steel herself. She responded as though the intellectual question was meant as such. She gave an answer that I would not have understood even if I could understand her language, and possibly not even have agreed with; but at that moment, Professor Baeva became my hero.
At the lunch break, she was the one I wanted to meet, and Professor Mihailov took our picture. How did you prepare for such a meeting, I asked her. “I knew my politics from the past would come up, so I was ready,” she said.
Times are tough in Kentucky, particularly in education. Two years ago, I feared for my job, even though I’m a tenured full professor. Some of my colleagues are threatened now in drastic chops to state funding. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know I have a hair-trigger temper that I don’t want to get the best of me. When I go back and try to keep my cool, the image in my head will be of Professor Baeva holding her ground.
Genka Shikerova was the first journalist I met in Bulgaria. She came to my ‘introduction to the faculty lecture’ at Sofia University, and before it was over I knew why she is called the best investigative journalist on Bulgarian TV.
In the Q&A, a small conclave of faculty and graduate students bantered about the challenges of open record access in the country. A seasoned, senior professor said roughly, “Maybe journalists like to complain. The country now is not like what it was before in socialist times.” Genka rose up and leaned in: “Maybe not, but I’ve had my car burned out … twice.”
Genka has been asking the hard questions without flinching for nearly two decades despite challenges and threats. Reporters without Borders ranks Bulgaria as the least free for European Union journalists. Add that credit to others, such ‘poorest in the EU’ and ‘most corrupt.’ She was co-anchoring the No. 1 news program in the country in 2013 when apparently her questions hit someone the wrong way. Late one night, a neighbor rang her doorbell to tell her that her car was on fire.
“I went on the street and saw my neighbors trying to eliminate the fire,” she said in an interview this week. “In such moments, you are empty. I wasn’t angry, nervous or afraid. Maybe it was shock. I was empty of any emotions. Police said my car was covered with gasoline.”
Less than six months later, she was trying to get her sick child to sleep while trying to get comfortable herself. She was in middle of her second pregnancy. Again, her neighbor rang with news of the fire.
“We went out of the balcony, and we saw the fire was bigger than the previous time. We called the emergency number and went out. I sat on the street and was thinking of … nothing. It was unbelievable to do this a second time.”
Journalists from across the national media protested at the Bulgarian Minister of the Interior office demanding that he do something about assaults against reporters and to investigate the attacks. But while lip service was paid, nothing really changed. Genka still doesn’t know which story made which person mad or who burned her car — twice.
She took maternity leave as planned and then made a change from daily newscasts at bTV to hosting NOVA’s Sunday night investigative program, modeled after 60 Minutes in the United States. She has never backed down.
Her most recent major story: The Bulgarian Red Cross, she said, is leasing space in its primary organisational building to a weapons manufacturer and dealer. The Red Cross, like others, receives gifts of commercial property and uses the money raised from leases for its charity work. However, the donor was not happy with the choice of tenants, and international humanitarian regulations bar NGOs from accepting any kind of support, much a less a tenant relationship, with arms dealers.
Many of her investigations involve government officials. Just last week, Genka won a long open records battle to get the auto repair financial reports for Sofia’s emergency management agency and ambulance service. One company offered the lowest bid per hour for seasonal tire changes – a job that should take one hour per vehicle. Genka found sources showing that the bid may have been the cheapest, but the actual charges were for four hours per vehicle. She asked for additional records, but it took two years for the courts to rule in her favor. Genka contacted the center’s director for the documents and is still waiting for a reply. She is used to long waits.
Bulgaria’s President Radev made his “Bulgaria is dark” speech last week, calling for more government transparency and stronger media investigations. The next day, one of his major political rivals asked when the light would be turned on Radev’s own political campaign finances. The source for that retort: Genka’s long research into Radev’s alleged donations from pensioners and poor farmers. She went door to door in villages across the countryside two years ago documenting that most of these donors were unaware of contributions made in their names.
“They didn’t do anything two years ago. Now, they use this for the public to argue and make some political benefits. Nothing happens,” she said.
And yet, Genka continues to do journalism because she says she needs ideas to believe in. Every time she starts her car, she wonders just for a second whether something will explode. But even still, she drives to work and asks questions that she believes must be asked.
I was born at Toul Air Force base beside the village of Rosieres-en-Haye. My mother told stories of the pre-dawn trek to the hospital in a VW bug with my father, a military chaplain, speeding down farm roads as steam rose from the freshly fertilized fields. I was born just as the sun was coming up.
My father went to the Rosieres-en-Haye mayor’s office to register my birth. There were 11 major U.S. bases in France then, including Chambley with my father’s chapel and metal trailers for officer’s quarters, and Toul-Rosieres with the hospital.
When I was in my 30s, my mother, sister, and one of my brothers went back to France to revisit my parents’ lives when they were young. My father had died, and we wanted to see the places that had been important to him. But when we went to Chambley, we found the base in ruins and abandoned. The chapel was a hollow shell and weeds grew where my father’s office had been. My mother cried. We all cried. The officers’ club had been set afire in places. The street where the trailers had stood was overgrown. We left in shock.
With some sense of desperation, we drove to Rosieres-en-Haye. The mayor’s office was closed. A few people were about the streets. We asked, begged, anyone to help us open the mayor’s office. With our very limited French, we understood that one person in town spoke English and were pointed to a house up the street. Raymond stood outside the gate and took us in to his wife. I can still see Rosemarie with a phone in her hand. Just one moment please, she said. She was on the phone with her sister and had just received wonderful news.
Rosemarie’s doctor had called her about the time we pulled into town. Her cancer was in remission, so she wanted to celebrate. Could we please come back soon and she would prepare a picnic lunch. In that moment, our fortunes changed and her happiness took us over. We wandered through the village a bit. Rosemarie led us back to the mayor’s office, now opened, and there were the birth records and my father’s signature. Then we sat in the garden, and with Rosemarie and Raymond, ate bread and cheese and potato salad. We talked of everything and became friends.
In the years that came and went, their son married and had two children. Rosemarie and my family found each other on Facebook and we watched each other’s lives unfold. My sister and I adopted daughters. My brother went to law school. While I was living in Washington, Rosemarie and Raymond came to the states and we had a fortuitous picnic on a sunny day. We posted pictures. Time marched forward. I moved to Kentucky, then my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Raymond developed leukemia. He died six months later, and my mother died a year after that.
My family has always coped with tragedy with movement and intensity. My siblings and I posted pictures of our lives and our children, using Facebook as our scrapbook and history. Rosemarie needed a reason to get up in the morning. So, unbeknownst to us, our story helped her face the day. She would push herself to the computer and say, “Let’s see what the Whitehouses are doing today.”
She watched my daughters grow up: our move to Kentucky, the cheerleading tournaments, archery tournaments, the lost teeth, awards days, and family vacations. So, when I got the Fulbright to teach in Bulgaria, Rosemarie asked me to come back to France and to stay, once again, in the village. Of course we went. How could we not?
When we drove into Rosieres-en-Haye, I did not need GPS to find her house. Rosemarie and the house looked just the same after 20 years. I brought bread from Paris. She explained to my daughters that friends, compagnons in French, means to break bread. We ate and once again walked through the village together.
There is the monument to soldiers who died in World War I. There is the church, now 500 years old. The priest rotates through for mass one Sunday a month. There is where Raymond is buried. And there is the washhouse where Rosemarie’s grandmother knelt on straw plats, scrubbing clothes, and gossiping with her neighbors. There is where her parents’ had a café and grocery.
We looked for morel mushrooms in the woods nearby, but found none in the damp early spring. We found wild violets by the score. Children ran from house to house freely. One decided that I looked like I was Argentinian rather than American. They practiced their English and laughed with me at my French. When night fell, we drove over to Nancy to see the magical Place Stanislas. The 18th Century square, believed to be the most beautiful in Europe, contrasts with the earthen houses and rock walls of the surrounding villages. We drank sodas; my daughters laughed trying to find themselves on the square’s web cameras, and then we took the winding roads back to Rosieres-en-Haye.
Sunday morning came quickly and Rosemarie and I tried to avoid saying goodbye. I realized that I am older than she was when we appeared at her garden gate the first time. She kissed my daughters, hugged me tightly, and whispered, “You know the way back.”
Again we drove over the hills and through the same fields that my parents rode past on the morning I was born. Past the tree-lined paths and the Toul base, now a solar farm. We wound through village after village, until we heard church bells ringing. Leaving the girls in the car, I wanted to at least see a country church. It was Orthodox Easter after all. The bells were still ringing as I entered, but no one was there. It was as though the mass had just ended and the priest stepped out. The architecture indicated it perhaps dated to Medieval times, making it even older than the church in Rosieres-en-Haye. Children’s drawings were mixed in between statues of saints and the stained glass windows. But on the front pillars were modern paintings that made me gasp. A similar one, an abstract of Jesus’ face, had hung in my parent’s house my whole life. The fervent brush strokes were so distinctive, precious, and intense. I knew that these images had been made by the same painter, and somehow I knew my parents had once been here, too. I sat down in awe. The bells stopped ringing, but still no one came. I needed to go. And, I knew my way back.
Snow berms still line the roads and slush sloshes in the sidewalks making climbing onto a tram tricky work. City street workers and shop keepers attack the ice leaving trenches to step from curb to street. It is at last March. Martenitsa is finally appropriate to wear and I have been blessed by friends’ gifts of red and white string in the form of bracelets and yarn dolls Pizho and Penda.
The sky is crystal blue meaning the grumpy old granny Baba Marta is happy to see everyone offering her tribute in her favorite colors. Perhaps spring will come quickly this year.
The tram stops at the Mall of Sofia and pigeons run for cover. Through the crowds, an Orthodox priest emerges, his black cassock blowing behind him in the wind and a kalimavkion planted firmly on his head, a black conical hat with a top brim. His grey white beard extends down his chest. Wherever he is in his mind, the scene is glorious. His eyes shine with a memory I cannot see. The tram lurches forward and I am gone.
I have taken to wearing a Martenitsa on my wrist to remind myself that spring is coming. Vendors selling these bracelets create pop-up stalls at every tram stop and line the walkways in shopping malls across the Balkans. I must wear the red and white string until I see the first bud and then will hang it on a tree branch.
Today, I made my way through the snow to the Sofia United Methodist Church. The Austrian architecture of the church is now painted bright yellow, calling attention to it through a walkway from the street. During the Communist era, buildings were constructed in front and behind to make the church less prominent.
For a few decades, the church was shut down leaving the faithful to meet in their homes. The sanctuary’s excellent acoustics made it an ideal rehearsal hall for the Sofia Opera House across the street. After 1989, a handful of Methodists were able to reclaim the building and the congregation was reborn.
The pastor’s mother-in-law was my translator and also lead the music with a crystal clear voice. Some hymns I knew; others seemed to be Bulgarian. A Christian version of Cohen’s Hallelujah nearly brought me to tears. The gentle passion transcended the language barrier.
The sermon was on Jonah, who ran away from Nineveh because he believed the city was full of brutal Assyrians. After being forced via a trip in a whale to journey onward, Jonah preached a firey message of God’s wrath from one end of Nineveh to the other. The city, according to scripture, repented and Jonah was furious. He was angry that God had not destroyed the Ninevehites. The point of the sermon: Jonah did not want justice; he wanted revenge.
This message was poignant to the Bulgarian congregation. Every conversation with Bulgarians these last few weeks has included some discussion of Syrian refugees. I live beside a Syrian neighborhood and sometimes my Bulgarian friends are horrified … you cannot be safe there. But, I am. This neighborhood was once the Jewish Quarter and then the home to Macedonians and others displaced following World War II. Some places are always destined to be the refuge of foreigners.
The Martenitsa bracelet reminds that I am passing through this city temporarily. My time will end in a few months as surely as spring will come in the next few weeks. The pastor’s sermon also had a message for me. Let God be the judge of the city. My job is to listen, to learn, and to love.
An afternote: My apologies to my Bulgarian friends for breaking custom. I am to put the bracelet on March 1 … will do.