Monday, July 24, 2017

The Dead are Dancing with Us

Everywhere I walk in in Bulgaria there are death notices. 

I don’t completely understand their history or significance but deduce that they are put up at the funeral time then at important intervals. One was fresh, and marked with a wreath, and a friend of the family walked by and put a bottle of Rakia (the local “fire-water” made from fruit and tasting like pure alcohol) by the door. In more affluent areas I’ve seem plasticized ones. But all the others are weathered xeroxed paper. Face, dates and Bulgarian words. 

They are peeling over time like political posters or concert billings. But relaying the message that the dead are not forgotten. They are always with us.

The Valley of the Thracian Kings

The big tourist draw of the area in which I’ve been living (Kazanlak and Shipka)  is the “Valley of the Thracian Kings.” Meaning tombs. Hundreds of them apparently! Wow! It’s hard to put words to the experience of standing inside of them. There are six in Shipka alone, each with a difference. Some more for burial of a king. Some more for religious ceremony – Orphean, Dionysian… no one really knows the particulars.

One friend remarked that they are “underwhelming.” Not! Look at the perfectly fitted stones rising up in smaller and smaller concentric circles to the ceiling. 

 Look at the perfect column. And the enormous pile of dirt covering it all.  The horizon of the valley is dotted with these mounds. And to think that they (and the metropolis at the bottom of the Koprinka Dam) were constructed 2500 years ago.

 The Treasures

Absolutely NOT underwhelming are the items recovered from the tomb of King Seuthes lll, discovered by archeologists, not looters. In the capital Sofia I sought out his 2500 year old bust. I have never seen a bronze object like it! 

Apparently in the Orphean tradition the head is to be separated from the body, at least figurately, maybe to symbolizes the spriritual realm and the after-life? The bust was found but not the statue it was separated from. Captivating, this striking King looks out in power and dominion. Perfectly formed features down to the mole on the left cheek. Look at the eye-lashes and the vivid eyes formed by semi-precious stones. Wow! 

And a ring with such detail of a perfectly muscled young man. Found in a different tomb but 2500 years old, I repeat! Are there any better gold-smiths today?

The rest of the loot was in the Izra Museum in Kazanlak and I spent the greater part of an afternoon there. No need to rush through the millinia of Neolithic Mother Goddesses, Paleolithic farm tools ...

 And then finally the treasures...

Wow again! A wreath of gold leaves of oak and acorns, large enough to fit over a helmet, radiating the power of kingship. Actually it felt like the power of the sun. The sun god. Yep—authority.

And on a reconstructed fresco in the Kazanlak tomb,  the king and queen clasp arms forever.

But where are the kingly dead now? 

Not in the government, corrupt I’m told. After 500 years of Turkish occupation and then 40 years of Communist rule and the bankruptcies and loss of infrastructure and manufacturing resulting from the Russian pull-out... A democracy struggling for trust-worthiness as, I’m told, those wanting power promise rewards to the gypsies in return for their vote. (Bringing in bus-load of these voters to a town-ship where their residency has been falsified, just for the votes.) Votes are “bought” in many countries but rarely as blatantly.

Nature of course does carry on. I find acorns that descend from these on the wreath.

Where do the dead live on? In the people!

The Thracian blood (and Turkish and Russian) flows in their DNA. A country of too few but much loved children. (There seems to be a little playground by every restaurant and an abundance of twins from in-vitro fertilization..) Traditions live on at the Balgaren Restuarant above Kazanlak where a Kukeri clangs his bells, usually insprings, to clear away the evil spirits of winter.

And a Nestinari (fire-dancer) rakes out her coals and precedes to ...

You can feel that these people are keeping the culture alive as they dance. Performing at the Restuarant or in after-school dance-troops or every weekend in the square.

In a circle-dance of "horo", men, women and children quick-step and skip to an asymmetric meter, around and around, young and old. Some drop out, some join in, just like death and birth, civilizations coming and going.



                                                       And the circle of life keeps on with its joyful dancing...

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Different Fourth of July -- Opera and Ballet in Sofia

It is July 4, our national holiday but there is no talk of the good old USA. 

Here Anita and I are getting on the train to Sofia.  (And I know I'm a bit late getting this blog out...)

There was some acknowledgement to myself and my three friends being Americans by our train companion. 

“Trump is crazy!" she had immediately pronounced. Then she commented on my outstretched legs on my train seat. (Really lady? My legs hurt!). “Americans put their legs up on their desks. We see it in the movies. Bulgarians take their shoes off. On TV Trump puts his feet up!” Then she went on about how difficult it was for a pensioner to live in Bulgaria, even after working as a Math teacher, after dancing in ballet for 20 years. And then showing uncommon interest in us and the fact that we were “pensioners”, pulling from her purse a brochure touting the benefits of an Aloe Vero “Long Life” product. Egads! A multilevel marketing scheme! An American company, no less. Wow – what a way to celebrate our country! After we declined she then asked if we had friends who were parishioners. NO! And she dropped her friendly conversation. 

It’s sad for pensioners here. I see the elderly begging for money, even if offering their picked flowers,  in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. (And am told not to give them my change because the “beggar’s mafia” takes half.) I see too many walking with canes who probably can’t afford knee replacements. Glad I’m American with Social Security and Medicare, to be sure!

Nope. No glorification of the USA Today. No fireworks, BarB Q’s or family gatherings for us.

Instead, in a Sofia’s Opera House I sit through the 5 ½ hour opera, Parsifal, by Richard Wagner. An endurance to be sure! Legs cramped in a low budget seat, butt aching, Act 1 uncommonly slow. The longest Lord’s Supper in history!. Dark, depressing, plodding, with an ill King and lack of governance. My companions bailed at the first intermission. “I’m staying,” I said. “After all I paid  10 good American dollars for it! I’ll walk home alone at 11:30 PM, turning left at the Russian Church and somehow find the hotel.” 

In the line for the toilet, a well-dressed for the Opera Bulgarian guessed that I was American and very generously said, “Happy Fourth of July!” My one and only acknowledgment of the day!

I stretched, enjoyed the extra room afforded by others who had left and thoroughly enjoyed the Act 2. 

Amazing! Parsifal was tempted sensually by scantily glad women all over him, groping, playing, bouncing. The scene was played in the equivalent onstage of a carnival bounce-house. Red inflated rubber filled the stage floor and on this the actors cavorted, fell, crawled and sang. It symbolized earthly temptation.  For Parsifal – sex. For the bad guy—power. For me? Sugar, cravings for recognition and love. All the same. Seductive, alluring and trapping. For America? Consumerism, world domination, rudely putting our feet up on any desk, disregard for the environment…?

Remembering his higher ideals, Parsifal  threw the female temptress into  red rubber folds. 

He dodged and grabbed the Holy Spear and rediscovered his purpose—to return to the King with the Spear and serve the Holy Grail. To find enlightenment through compassion. The triumph of the spirit over flesh, of divine values over the world. Of the need for rulers to be strong and humble, to stress brotherhood and align with the Holy and to perceive their leadership to be spiritual as well as practical. Hmmm... message for America? A freedom from selfishness, egocentricity, cravings for power?

Goodness triumphed in Act 3, after another 30 minute intermission. He returned the Spear, was given the job of leadership and unveiled the Holy Grail, looking up towards heaven for at least 10 minutes while the slow ponderous Wagner music went on and on. (Apologies to any Wagner fans. My first.)

Those who stayed for the finale were in rapture. 

By then I had moved downstairs to the mostly vacated second row. On one side of me a  conductor in training followed the musical score by the light of his cell phone. in A lovely lady on the other side who sings in Opera choruses explained that this Opera House is world famous and that people fly from all over the world once a year to hear Wagner. Maybe she thought that I the American had the good taste to do this? We bonded over talk of gardening. She gave me her email, I exchanged my blog and she encouraged me to have a good journey.

In parting, as I tried to exit on the wrong level,  I told her, "It's already a good journey—I’m already lost! And I gave her Kafka’s wisdom,  "To be free, you have to be lost."

So, my Fourth of July? 

Finding myself with kind Bulgarians and a German composer, having endured, and having seen in a red bounce house the seduction of this world for all of us. America beware! Please choose leaders with high values who can’t be bought --- and we will follow you and celebrate our freedom.

Message about freedom from a 17 year old on the train ride home:

Post script: Zorba the Greek 

The world is suffering. Duh! Whether in the microcosm of a Greek Island, as in the story of Zorba the Greek, with the petty small-mindedness of villagers, the price paid for living independently, or the loss of family and lovers…. A corrupt Bulgarian government, history of wars, poor pensioners and low birth rate. Or the American government (and others) – probable corruption, lack of jobs, student debt, millions to lose medical care, over-consumption and environmental degradation. We suffer. This is the way of the world. 

What does Zorba teach about this “full catastrophe”? Accept it, know it, feel it, grieve it… but don’t end there. Dance it!!! Like the amazing out-door ballet of Zorba the Greek we enjoyed July 5. And no matter what you are dealt you can still dance! It helps to dance with friends and village.

But even if it is an duet or an unwitnessed solo after sadness —Dance! 
Because dance is life and we are alive and we must celebrate that one simple fact!

The ballet needed no words because the story is universal. And the audience enthusiastic! And just as with the opera, the applause lasted 15 minutes. The usual demure head-nod bows. Then the various actors and combinations of actors and chorus and dance troupe coming out over and over – bows getting more dramatic, ending with hands-over-hearts! I asked the lady next to me about the prolonged hand-hurting applause. “Is this a Bulgarian tradition?”   “Yes,” she smiled, “And isn’t it fun!”

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Lest We Be Arrogant.

This is a place of ruins. 

From the Thracian tombs of 2500 years ago to this 40 year old decaying relic of communism. Buzladzha was built for the equivalent of $35 million to celebrate the Bulgarian Communist Party. Now 12 year old  Archie Alfrey calls it a toilet – round bowl, tall stack. Others label it the space-ship with a phallic symbol. But it must have been glorious in the beginning! Covered with bronze, an interior inlaid with mosaics, gleaming atop the mountain as a sentinel for the future. 

Then the Iron Curtain fell. It was stripped of the bronze, exposing leaking concrete joints, and now sports colorful graffiti.The mosaics are in disrepair. One can only gain entrance through a knocked-out hole and flashlight. Now all that glitters are shards of broken beer bottles, displaying a wanton disregard for enforced dogma.

Lest we be arrogant, may we remember that political systems fail. 

In the place of glory, grazing horses gather in the rain and their slurry of dung nourishes colorful bouquets. Swallows swoop and flowers peak triumphantly from crevices of fallen stone. 

As I look out over the undulating chain of mountains, I wonder how on earth the Turks found Shipka pass and were defeated by Russians and Bulgarians in 1877.  (Notice horses in the distance.)

Below, our film crew and Archie Alfrey shoot an appeal for funding of permaculture research. (See Balkan Ecology Project,, in the fall). Hopefully from the good efforts of his parents, Paul and Sophie, and their expanding community, more care will arise for the earth and its people. Hopefully we will become sustainable.

Not being politically savvy myself, nonetheless I’ve  noted that the Europeans I’ve met are incredulous at the last American  election. They express fear over the future of NATO and a possible alliance with Russia. 

May we know that no matter how solid any political victory  seems, it will shimmer and shift faster than these mountains erode. Faster than ancient civilizations are buried. Like the grass-overgrown communist amphitheater appearing at a distance as a Greek ruin, so the once great orations have drifted away in the wind – the very wind that now turns windmills that fuel capitalism in the valley below. 

No matter who you voted for my friends or your fears for the future, don’t lose hope. All will change.

And around me bees pollinate. 

New berry bushes creep over the concrete. Endless cycles of nature renew year after year—we hope. May all good ideas continue to flow, not from force, but from love of of nature and each other.  Like the nourishing  warmth of the morning sun, even as human systems decay, may hope prevail.

Just Along for the Ride

I sit at this picnic-table and observe abundance.

It's remarkable for the drying herbs, ceiling of grape vines and scenery of apple, cherry and mulberry trees. And inside are the remnants of the lunch we had of potato-rice-scallion casserole, sautéed tofu, home-made bread, home-made sour cherry cake and home-grown sun-flower seeds. Ahhh… No wonder we all wanted a nap after lunch.

And then topped that off with a swim in the second largest lake in Bulgaria, located in Gorsko Kosovo, in the middle of nowhere.

What an adventure, you might comment! Yep!

And just how did I end up here, you might ask? Heck if I know!

It started with  a simple request the morning after the Permaculture course ended. I was a bit frustrated that we were told we were “off” (no work) that Friday as well as the entire week-end. I needed an alternative to boredom.

So when my two Canadian friends said there were accompanying their Bulgarian friend on a weekend adventure to parts unknown I simply asked if there might be room for me. “Yes, of course. But we are then driving on to Austria. Somehow you’ll have to get back to Shipka by yourself.” 

I took the chance. And two hours later, winding up the road over Shipka Pass (where the Russians and Bulgarians fought off the Turks and gained their freedom), and gliding down into the valley below, getting a bit lost as the GPS cut out. …. Finally ending at this unique place – Ecovillage Joy.  (See stork nest in background.) None of us knew what we were in for or had any expectations other than that we were promised room and board for 25 leva ($12). My friends were living in a community in Austria and were curious about this intentional community . Me? I had no idea why I was there! Just along for the ride…

Albert and Ivan

Flowers are wafting their odors, bees are buzzing and inside the kitchen Albert is trying out the guitar. He and Ivan, twenty year olds workers from the city, had quite an adventure getting here. As Ivan tells it, he got sick of the city and his job and the “money-values.” They had 6 days of food, water and money plus a leaky tent. They bicycled for five days up and down mountains, getting lost, fighting off jackals at night and arrived just before their supplies ran out. A life-changing hero’s quest, I suspect. And here they are, playing didgeridoo, extolling the value of veganism and deconstructing a community member’s purchased falling-down house brick by brick for $12 a week plus room and board. It works for everyone. Eventually they will learn how to build a house as the bricks are sorted, arranged and reconstructed. The co-founder Hristo complains that the kids these days don’t even know how to put a screw in straight but I suspect  these young men will learn.  And though they claim they will live here FOREVER! no matter what their parents say, I also suspect they will leave and carry sweet memories of fruit, drying herbs and competence with them.

Hristo's Tour

I needed a video recorder yesterday as we followed Hristo on the tour. He started the monologue off with some negative statement about, “It is so difficult. Everyone thinks it is easy. But we work all the time…”  Yet over the next couple of hours  a twinkle of humor shown through. For example, to go to the gardens he asked if we wanted to walk or to ride the horses. He was serious! No saddles, 2 horses, 5 of us …. But he would have made it happen—he loves horses that much! 

As the story evolved, he told us  that that at age 3 he asked his mother for a horse. By the age of 20 he realized he would have to buy one himself. He left out decades of history but here he is with partner Janet from Cyprus, with lovely buildings of wood and stone … and abundance. Apparently few others live here, volunteers come and go and the occasional 20 year old Ivan and Albert. Lessons the’ve learned? People need a “buy-in”, a sense of ownership and privacy. Simple communal living didn’t work for them! And not too many volunteers! “They eat a lot and sit around playing the guitar!”

He gives us lots of pithy advice and I wish I’d written it down. One I remember. “If you want to build a house, first you have to be able to build a chicken coop. But before you build a chicken coop you have to be able to build an out-house.” So, start small.

And he is from a village that taught him about how to plant a tree—related to how to build an out- house. Dig a pit. Use it as a toilet for a year. Move down the row and build another pit, etc… Put a sapling in the first pit. Then the next through the years. Finally you can look down a row and see trees of different heights and at the end, an outhouse.

Gudrun and Arno

A German couple is thinking of buying a house here and be part of the community, maybe. There are lots of legalities re. the purchase. Could do it the Bulgarian way – kind of dicey. Or the German way—takes longer but safer. “Why here?” I ask. “The land, the community or the hope of one, and the water.” The water, I wonder?

And after swimming in the lake I understand. It is vast, it is abundant, it provides very cheap water year round for irritation. Apparently the first community Janet founded had a great mountain view – very spiritual – but no water or fertile land. The trees died. Now they are here with apparently all they need (with capital influx from on-going income from Cyprus.) But really, most of the food is home-grown. We witness the cow milking, egg gathering and vegetable gathering.  The 12 year old son chopping “his”potatoes—"I grew them, I wash them, I chop them. I cook them!”

Today has been “the herb day” traditionally in Bulgaria. 

Coupled with the new moon, the herbs will be extra potent and we have thoroughly enjoyed wandering the fields to gather them. 

Last night was amazing, a new moon. 

Last night felt like some sort of ceremony. (Too dark for pictures.) Solstice a week late? Janet played Indian flute and sang Sanskrit mantras to Shiva. Hristo played his Bulgarian drum (large and loud because shepards needed to reach each other on mountain tops). The boys played digeredoo and drums. What an odd-ball assortment we made!  I had to laugh! Myself, the wanderer. Janet and Hristo the settlers. Catherine and Cisco from Canada on their way to Sweden and having a baby. Vishra from Bulgaria, Austria, and then who knows where. Gudrun and Arno from Germany. The boys. A Bulgarian PhD Entemologist studying “True Bugs” in Sofia… Under the moon. Singing of love or nature or togetherness or just life.

And my return to Shipka? 

There’s no need to figure out a bus schedule. Gudrun and Arno are dropping me off on their way back! And we’ll be stopping in Gabravo for a coffee with  the translator who will help with their home purchase. (Apparently Gabravo is well known for its humor and has a house of humor and satire that promotes the comic arts. See if you laugh… HTTPS:// “The world lasts because it laughs.”

I was just along for the ride. But what have I learned from this weekend? 

That’s it’s possible to live differently. Their formula works for them. The rest of us will find our own way that stresses living in tune with nature, growing much of our own food, sharing resources with neighbors... and coming together with other “odd-balls” to sing under a new moon. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Ahhh... Shipka!

I love this Bulgarian village! 

It’s described in a guide-book as a “rustic huddle of houses.” Poppycock! Well, maybe the old buildings look like this to anyone who just drives through for a minute before they head to the tombs (note the mounds in the back-ground) or over the Shipka Pass.

But not to me. For two weeks I’ve called it home. Finally I can find my way home at midnight, alone except for the scurrying cats who own the streets after hours. I know which of the three little markets carry the best produce. And where the little all-purpose store is that carries toilet paper and pens.

I may have been lost the first day but I got found.

I was told clearly by email to take Bus 6 from Kazanlak (after the train from Sofia) and then to disembark on the second stop in Shipka.  I told this to the ticket taker in my non-Bulgarian who shrugged. The older lady behind me assumed I understood Bulgarian because she chatted incessantly. I learned to stop nodding because that meant I understood – and just gestured that I wanted to get off the second stop in order to find Hotel Shipka IT. She wagged her head from side to side, which actually means yes in Bulgarian, and she got off on the first stop. Mine was actually the third stop – no help from the ticket taker in making the decision, but getting out in the middle of a field would not have been the town square that the email described. Got out, no signs and the phone map didn’t work. Finally a lady in the bar pointed up hill, (me hauling my too much luggage), an electrician pointed up hill and right, and the next electrician offered to put my luggage in his car and take me. When who should appear but the older lady from the bus on her bicycle! She had ridden to find me and escort me to the hotel. That was my welcome and here she is. My first Shipka angel.

And why you might ask, did I end up in Shipka, Bulgaria? 

Well my Florida friend Judy knew Anita who knew Paul and Sophia Alfrey. They are an amazing English couple who with their two boys have created a Permculture heaven in Shipka. I arrived to take a week course in Regenerative Landscape Design along with 17 multi-national enthusiasts.

There is no room here to do their justice to their course or accomplishments at the Balkan Ecology Project. I can just refer you to their website Explore their blogs, pictures and purpose and be inspired!

I stayed at the lovely English speaking hotel for a week. Here is a picture of the breakfast Tosha prepared each morning. Home-made fig jam and too much food.

Each day trudging up a hill to classes or off to the gardens. Each day at least an hour of walking over cobble-stone, or taking a hay-ride to the cherry orchard, making a compost pile with ingredients harvested on-site, witnessing the rush of mountain springs down irrigation ditches, enjoying the unmanicured medians and wildflowers and bees …

The  pace of life in this village is slow.  

A few children are pushed in prams, eating ice cream. Dogs and cats run free. Young people wander safely. Cherry trees planted in the sidewalks give their fruit free to those who pass by and I make cherry juice and compote.

The next week after classes are over and I volunteer in the gardens we work a couple of hours in the morning then buy food to assemble for lunch at the market. Then a nap (hot) and then just enjoy our leisure as the evening cools. Some hikes. Some help in film-making. 

One spa day. Trip to Eco-village. But otherwise a slow-paced village life.

What do I love about Shipka? 

Well, imagine looking out your kitchen window to this community spring. All day people stop to fill bottles or wash their faces. 

Notice the horses contentedly grazing or a goat being led down the street. (And the Alfrey boys were paid in goat milk for cleaning out a neighbor's ditches.)

Imagine walking out of the “volunteer house” to pick mint and lemon balm for tea or dill and savory for flavoring the tomato, eggplant, cucumber dishes. What if you could pick this fruit salad from Paul and Sophie's garden?

And then during an off day exploring the five Thracian tombs. Or the gold-domed Russian church. Or driving with friends over Shipka Pass to EcoVillage Joy (next blog). Or to the decaying Communist monument (next next blog.) You could walk a poorly marked hiking trail to the top of the mountain and be alone. Or join friends for a back-yard puppet show.

You could visit the Forestry museum and witness the early 1900’s degraded mountain tops from sheep grazing, the resulting devastating floods and the reforestation organized by a French consultant. Planting the trees was a community effort as was the maintenance of the irrigation ditches. 

Indeed the flow of water is life itself for the house owners, each of whom gardens little plots or vegetable in their own yards (a Bulgarian tradition even in larger towns.) The timing of the irrigation for each area is sent out by email and each is expected to adhere to the schedule – arranging flow of water into their plots on allotted days and not on others. It's a simple system using sandbags to open or close the flow.) Indeed one day a group of villagers head off to the higher ditches with hoes, cleaning them together.

 Ahhh…Village life. (But not to romanticize it. A mixup wth one lady who did not have a computer schedule had her threatening another neighbor with her stick! Villages also share scant resources.)

I don’t know the underlying politics here or power plays or gossip. But I strongly suspect people feel they belong,. As I do after only two weeks. 

So, if you ever feel inclined to label a group of red-tiled houses huddled under the grand and generous mountains as simply “rustic,” please know that it contains a rich history, vibrant community, living homes and fruitful gardens.

Ahhh… Shipka. Stay for awhile…