Bulgarian Memories, Part III

Three dozen homes that make up Tsarovo are surrounded by white walls. Think of them as tall, cement privacy fences. The homes have large yards and most of space in the yard is used for gardens. The homes are relatively big and most had red tiled roofs. Most of my time Bulgaria was spent living in the countries two largest cities: Sofia and Plovidiv. I usually lived in one or two bedroom apartments. Though convenient in a lot of ways, I enjoyed the occasional visit to the smaller cities where people lived in something other than communist approved housing. Though many of these small villages lacked the conveniences of larger cities, I had always thought that people in these small villages had the advantage of more personal space and privacy and in some ways more freedom than those in larger cities. It was nice to see places with yards and gardens away from the noises of buses and thousands of people packed into large, concrete buildings.

The house wasn't hard to find. It was the last house on the street. Off to one side were rolling hills planted with tobacco and grapes. We rang the brass bell attached to the gate and waited. A moment later a middle aged woman appeared.

"You're here!" she exclaimed. "I'm glad you've come."

"Lilyana?" I said. From her reaction I assumed we had the right house but wanted to be sure. It was nice to meet someone who was happy to see us.

"Yes, yes! Please come in," she said. She opened the gate and let us into the yard. "Come, let me introduce you to my family."

We followed her down a wide path between the house and a cement wall. Overhanging the path were grape vines. Large clusters of green grapes hung from the vines. They looked sweet and juicy. Mixed in with the grapes were squash. Instead of planting them on the ground and letting their vines spread, the tendrils of these squash plants climbed up the lattice amid the grape vines. Squash plants hung down with the grapes. I had never seen anything like this.

I must have been staring at the plants with a funny look on my face because Lilyana asked if something was wrong.

"No, nothing's wrong," I said. "I've never seen squash growing amid grapes before. Back home the squash spreads out along the ground."

"We plant them this way to help conserve space," she said. "There isn't room to let things spread out all over the ground."

The path led to a large back yard maybe a quarter of acre big. There was a small open space with grass. An old wooden table and chairs were outside. The rest of the yard was converted into a garden and from what I could see there was mostly tomatoes, cucumbers, and cabbage. Each row was separated by small stone paths. Several chickens were clucking and walking between the rows looking for bugs.

An old woman with white fizzy hair emerged from the back door. Her back was hunched and she hobbled in the direction of the garden. She called out and shook a pail of grain she carried. The chickens responding to either the sound of her voice of the sound of the grain in the bucket ran toward her, clucking loudly. The woman threw the grain in wide arcs and the chickens spread out to gobble it up.

The old woman was introduced to us as Lilyana's mother. Her name was Mila and she seemed glad to see us.

"Have you seen Ivan?" Lilyana asked.

"Ivan? He's out in the field playing with the dog," the woman said. "He should be back soon."

"I told him not to leave. He knew we were having guests," Lilyana said. She excused herself and walked out a back gate to find him. Each call for her son grew fainter and fainter.

Mila told us to sit in one of the wooden chairs next to the table. She sat next to us and asked us about home and our families and what we thought of Bulgaria. We answered her questions and tried to find out as much about her as we could. As it turned out Mila was in her late 80s and had been born and raised in this Tsarovo. Her husband, who had died ten years previously, was also born and raised here. She told us that she rarely left the village now that she was older. "I used to travel to the city but not anymore. This is my home," she said. "I have lived here and I will die here."

A dog came running through the back gate, followed by a young boy. The dog was a mutt, and looked to be a cross between at least five different breeds. It ran up to us and tried to climb on our laps and lick our faces.

"Ivan," Mila said. "Control your dog!"

Ivan called to the dog and it ran back to him then darted around the garden chasing the chickens. The chicken ran along the narrow paths of the garden. One chick fluttered in the air a foot or so off the ground then crashed headlong into the wall, momentarily stunning it.


Ivan grabbed the dog by the caller and chained him to a post near the table. The dog strained at the chain when a chicken walked by. Eventually it lay underneath the table and rested its head on its paws.

Ivan seemed excited to see us. He told us how he and the dog were playing down by the river. "I've taught him to fetch anything I throw," he said proudly, "even small rocks." As if to illustrate his point, he picked up a small stone from the garden. The dog perked up when he saw Ivan pick up the rock. Mila made a ticking sound with her tongue -- the sound of general displeasure -- and Ivan set the rock down.

Lilyana came through the back gate. There were beads of sweat on her forehead as if she had been walking quickly to stay with Ivan and his dog.

"I see you've met Ivan," she said.

"He has a lot of energy," I said. "I have a brother about his age. He runs around just like Ivan."

"You have a brother?" said Ivan, "Maybe he can come and play with me." There was an excitement at the prospect of having a playmate I found odd. But before I could say anything to Ivan Lilyana was unhooking the dog from it's chain.

"Since this is your first time in our village," she said. "You must let me show you around."