Hoof Prints on the Road of Life

Spring 2002. The sweet aroma of blossoming cherry trees and the earthy smell of lush green alpha-alpha fields intensified at dusk. Three figures emerged on the dusty village road. A round-faced man in a camo jacket ambled. The long leather reins escaped his clutch to brush his trousers. The thick mane of the black, svelte mare flitted in the gentle breeze. A beaming girl trotted along.

“Dad, this is my very first horse,” she said.

The girl was ten-year old me. Vera, then a three-year old mare that my dad had just bought, sparked in me adoration and appreciation for horses.

Vera is no longer in the family. Nevertheless, my love never lost its fervor.

 My heart pumped with joy every minute of the past weekend that I spent in Horse Stable “Dvorene” on the outskirts of Razlog.

Once state –owned and dilapidated, today Dvorene sprawls on 54 acres of two horse barns, two sanded maneges, a small family hotel and a pub. Nikolai bought the stable along with its sole trained horse in 2002.

A decade later, some 14 trained and ridden mares, studs and geldings trample the meadows surrounding the barns.  Most of them with their thick chestnut hair and wavy, creamy manes and tails are typical Haflinger representatives.

Haflinger is a horse breed that hails from Northern Italy and Austria. Haflinger horses, fit for mountainous terrain, first left their hoof prints on Bulgarian soil in the 20th century near Bachevo, a small village in Razlog region.

“All the prizes that our Haflinger horses have won at horse beauty pageants, organized by Bulgaria’s national association of horse breeders, are here,” Nikolai said and pointed to the fireplace shelf crammed with gold cups and red-and-blue award ribbons.

The 14 gracious, permanent inhabitants of Dvorene’s barns are not the only horses Nikolai owns.

A 35-strong herd grazes on the rich grass higher in the mountains during the summer months. Once snow falls, it descends to spend the cold winters in Dvorene’s spacious horse pens.

Equestrian life, however, does not always flow smoothly.  The 2012 herd’s arrival at Dvorene was a spectacle for whole Razlog to behold.

“That year we brought the horses back here on Dec. 23th,” said Nasko, one of the three horseback riding instructors. “They refused to wade through the snow, so we had no choice but to guide them through the town. Can you imagine it, 35 horses trotting along the main boulevard. We gathered them at the parking lot of Lidl [a supermarket less than a kilometer away from Dvorene] before the final stretch. People were utterly stunned.”

Even the chaplet of ordinary days in Dvorene breaks into beads of thrilling, sometimes even challenging, activities.

“Horses are just like people,” Nikolai said. “Everyone has a different personality. Some are pretty susceptible to training, others are stubborn. It is up to you to find the best approach to working with them.”

Horses have always been present in the lives of Dvorene’s horseback riding instructors, Nasko and Niki, both 25, and Mitko, 21.

“My grandpa had a horse,” said Nasko, echoing the stories of the other two. “However, what my friends and I used to do was to ‘steal’ the neighbors’ horses from the fields around town, ride them all day long and return them at dusk.”

In no time, Nasko hopped on the back of Velik, a stout Haflinger gelding he trained from an early age, and ushered him on the manege. He padded the horse’s sturdy neck. “Here we go, my boy,” he whispered and went to warmly greet three pre-school children, the first excited riders for the day. 


Blagoevgrad’s Flowers Alley

The mid-November days recede into long, chilly nights. Golden leaves spiral down from tree branches and cover the streets with a thin, ephemeral blanket that rots away in the now frequent autumn drizzles. Blagoevgrad is slowly slipping into its winter gray robe.

Nevertheless, a corner of perennial spring bravely endures the windy arrival of the winter. Squeezed on a tiny paved stretch of a street in the town’s heart, seven puny, white booths bulge with flowers. Firm lush green stems stick out of plastic vases, lined directly on the pavement. Petals in a spate of bright colors and intricate forms flutter in the fall breeze.

“The cut flowers can live up to a week,” said Vitka Urumova, a florist since 1991.

Once their beauty falters, the cut flowers quickly land in dumpsters, replaced in the white vases by new fragrant ones, fresh from Urumova’s garden. The flower plants shipped from the Netherlands, however, can thrive in pots on the booth’s shelves for more than a year, before being purchased.

Urumuva was a furniture designer before the severe economic crisis of the 1990s forced her to turn to other sources of income. By growing chrysanthemums, roses and violets in her backyard and selling  them in a 2-by-4- meter booth in Blagoevgrad’s center, she not only managed to bring a relative financial stability to her family of three, but also to expand her small business.

Today Urumuva cuts, trims and arranges flowers into opulent, bridal bouquets at least once a week. 100 red roses, bundled in a simple yet staggering bouquet for a wedding proposal, were among Urumuva’s most memorable orders.

“I picked a rose and surrounded it with more and more roses until their number reached 100,” she said. 69470_104260723074386_850464899_n“So, the technical execution of the bouquet was not hard. The emotions and feelings are what matters. The man’s sparkling eyes, when picking up the bouquet, are what made me remember it.”

Since her first prosperous years in the flower business, Urumova have taken some hard knocks.  Her garden has significantly dwindled in size due to the recent shrink in demand, while the cost of importing Dutch flowers has skyrocketed.

“It is difficult nowadays to run the kiosk. But I have been doing this for 20 years. I will not give up now,” Urumova said and let her sparkling hazel eyes linger over a pink orchid growing in an earthen pot.

A brown walnut leaf danced in the sudden gentle breeze and rested in the orchid pot. Urumova picked it up. Winter does not come on the “Flowers Alley.”

Storify Bulgaria

Storify is an amazing platform that lets people capture and tell news in a unique way- by lumping together media available on the web. Today I discovered that Storify is also an amazing tool to share the stories of many Bulgarians, I cannot personally reach out to but, nevertheless, can glean into their life narratives through the eyes of those, who had the luck and chance to report them.

People of Bulgaria

Lying in the heart of the Balkans, Bulgaria bulges with amicable, open-hearted, fascinating people from all stripes of life. The life narratives of many other Bulgarians have been captured in moving photos and dynamic videos.

  1. Many Bulgarians are proud of their heritage and traditional way of life, which they are happy to show to those curious.
  2. Photography field trip to Leshten #Bulgaria with #JMC_AUBG students. This lady invited us into her house! t.co/df36TfHFDd


Baking The Night Away

12:00 a.m.

They entered the tiny kitchen through the back door and quickly tossed their fall jackets on cracked wooden hangers.  The mom, Krasimira Murkova, 50, switched the luminous lights on and looked around the cozy bakery, while the son, Martin Murkov, headed for the storage room.

Clad in a yellow apron, Krasi turned the mixer on and Marti dumped into it some 20 kilograms of fine flour, eggs and yeast.

The chipped-bowl mixer first filled the kitchen with its mechanic hum twelve years ago, when Krasi rented the three-room, tin-roofed bungalow on a main boulevard in Blagoevgrad and turned it into a bakery.

“As a student I started working in a sweets shop as a saleswoman to earn my own money and not constantly rely on my mom’s,” Krasi said. Before long, however, she migrated from the counter to the kitchen, where she discovered her love for baking.

Although Krasi tremendously enjoyed getting her hands coated in dough, she left the low-paid job and moved to a lottery retail store to sell tickets. Soon after that she got married and gave birth to her first child, Ventsislav in 1984.

The young family then moved to the Czech Republic, where in 1990 Martin was born.

“Blissfully deluded by the democratic promise of a new, prosperous life, we moved,” she said. “Well, I spent only two years there, then together with the kids I came back to Bulgaria, leaving my husband behind to work there for a little longer.”

When Krasi returned in 1991, she took the bold step to open the bakery that has turned into a successful family business since then.

1:00 a.m.

The dough in the mixer obtained a rich creamy color and a shiny, smooth texture.

“My child, turn the mixer off and cut a portion of the dough for the pizzas” Krasi said to Marti. “You will make the pizzas, won’t you, my darling.”

Marti, a third-year IT student at the South-Western University in Blagoevgrad, looked lovingly at his mom, stretched his thin lips in a smile and obeyed.

“He is of a great help to me,” Krasi said. “Compared to his chatty older brother, Marti is rather shy. But he is deft at making delicious pizzas.”

While Marti rolled out the dough, placed it in curly-edged, iron baking plates and buried it under a plethora of salami, cheese, ketchup and pickled cucumbers, Krasi recalled the time her younger son was away from home.

“He worked in a poultry farm in England this summer, sometimes, earning up to 100 British pounds a week,” she said.

“Which means I had to catch up to 30-40 chicken a day,” Marti quipped. “That, believe me, was not easy.”

Laughing at her son’s remark, Krasi cut a huge lump of dough, staggered to the baker’s table and started forming small balls out of it.

1:30 a.m.

In less than five minutes the small balls metamorphosed into thin sheets, which Krasi sprinkled with cheese, rolled up in spirals and carefully laid in an oil-coated iron pan.

“Gosh, Marti, I forgot to turn the ovens on,” Krasi said, shifting her eyes from the pan to the two bakers ovens. “Would you do it for me, my child?”

1:45 a.m.

Pans of pizzas, banitcas and dzhumaikas hopped into the heated ovens. A delicious aroma wafted in the room. As the smell intensified, the kitchen felt smaller and hotter.

Krasi glanced at the fluffy grey kitten clock face, hung above the door that connected the kitchen to the grand room, where six round plastic tables stood by the plain walls.

“The first customers will be soon here,” she said. “Better go and unlock the front door.”

1:55 a.m.

Holding a slice of pizza in one hand and a bottle of yogurt in the other, Marti left the bakery through the backdoor to go home. Meanwhile, the first customer stepped across the front door’s threshold.

2:30 a.m.

Gaggles of hungry AUBG students, going home after a night of partying, flocked in and quickly depleted the baking pans.

“I like working with students,” Krasi said. “Most of them are polite, chatty kids that view me as their auntie.”

She drifted into reminiscing about Pepi, an AUBG graduate who she described as a tall, doe-eyed boy, who munched on a banitca and sipped a yogurt drink in her bakery every morning for two consecutive academic years.

3 a.m.

Geri, an Albanian student at the South- Western University, came in, grinning.

“What does my favorite bakery offer tonight,” he asked.

“Pizzas, banitcas, dzhumaikas and if you wait for a couple of minutes- milinkas,” Krasi said.

“The guys are waiting outside to eat,” Geri said. “Give me, please, five slices of pizza and three dzhumaikas. And five bottles of yogurt drinks.”

“They are on the way, Geri.”

3:05 a.m.

“He is a regular client of mine,” Krasi said promptly after Geri left the bakery, clutching two black plastic bags bulging with breadstuff.  “It is always a pleasure to see and chat with him. But I should not waste precious time. Let us go back in the kitchen and start making butter croissants.”

The mixer’s steady thrum again floated in the kitchen.