Thoughts Midway Through the Journey

Blagoevgrad rejoiced in a warm, lazy Sunday afternoon.  People had left their autumn jackets at home and strolled the sun-drenched streets gaily, chatted animatedly and laughed loudly.

Credit: Blagoevgrad.eu

1382311_10151627188561981_1165488440_n Credit: Blagoevgrad.eu

The AUBG campus took up the town’s festive ambience. Sporty lads played football on the still lush grass in front of the ABF student center. Other students enjoyed big cups of aromatic coffee and munched on chocolate doughnuts in the AUBG cafeteria. Some raced to take a bench along the sunny, river alley before an elderly couple could claim it.

Sitting on a big comfy couch in the AUBG cafeteria, I caught myself gazing through the French window way too often. My eyes were drawn to the little girl, clad from head-to-toe in purple, who struggled to gain control over her purple bicycle. A elder man, presumably her grandfather, was sitting on a bench, immersed in a deep conversation with two peers. Occasionally, he would stand up to help the girl maintain a steady posture on her bike or soothe and dust her off after a heavy fall to the ground.

Unable to take my eyes away from the sweet and heartening scene the girl and her grandpa created, I suddenly remembered a quote by Jeffrey Borenstein, I have stumbled upon some time ago:

“Just when you think that a person is just a backdrop for the rest of the universe, watch them and see that they laugh, they cry, they tell jokes … they’re just friends waiting to be made.”

Well, let me slightly alter the quote, so it fits perfectly the purpose of my blog: all these people, who constitute the background of my universe, have great stories to tell and enrich my world.

Guided by the desire to dig up some fascinating stories with a potential to change my small cosmos, I embarked on a journey. I have been interviewing and observing Blagoevgrad’s people for the last month and a half.   Their stories now occupy a modest space on the Internet but a significant part of my heart and mind.

Georgi Angelov, a 77-year-old apple seller, was the first person I talked to. He openly narrated both the trivial and major events that shaped his life and emblazoned on my mind the story of an orphan, who asked him for money to buy a new pair of shoes:

“I am 77-year old. Many people in my long life lied to me and took advantage of my amicability. So, I was skeptical at first and asked him whether he had parents to take care of him. The boy said he was an orphan. Although I did not believe him completely, I took pity on him and gave him the money,” Georgi said.

Four days after that, the boy came to Georgi sporting new pair of shoes and gave him a box of chocolates.

Elated and motivated to continue my journey, I next interviewed Pavel Djunev, 31. Pavel overcame the numerous hurdles on his long road to the launch of a news website and today reaps the fruits of his perseverance and determinism.

He revealed the recipe of his success: unyielding positivism.

    “When you begin your day with a smile, you inevitably end your day with a smile.”

541873_226068970886747_1006572716_nYulian Hristov, a 31-year old tattoo artist, added another ingredient to the success recipe: passion and love.

 “Tattooing is a passion, not a profession,” he said. “When you love what you do, you never have to deal with exhaustion or boredom.”

Instilling positivism and passion in Blagoevgrad’s children as well as supporting them in the development of their talents are responsible tasks that the United Children Estate, ODK, executes. Maya Damyankina, the head of ODK, explained:

“ODK is an institution that provides extracurricular activities to schoolchildren,” said Maya Damyankina, head of ODK since 2000. “Kids come to ODK to show and further develop their talents. Here they spend their free time in a meaningful way and broaden their knowledge on various topics that are of interest to them.”

Riding the artistic wave that ODK stirred, I safely sailed to the AUBG main building, which still hosts the painting exhibition “New Roads” by Vladimir Spasenkov and Prof. Nikolay Ruschukliev.

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Prof. Ruschukliev

“I paint the road philosophically, the road within us, people, and the road we walk on, the road to certain people or away from them,” Ruschkliev said in an interview in early 2013.

This blog helped me explore new roads, both metaphorically and literally. I have been walking the mental and emotional roads toward Blagoevgrad’s people as well as the town’s tiny side streets, big boulevards and old cobbled alleys.

New Roads

Blagoevgrad is an artistic hub. People here live and breathe with theater plays, photo exhibitions and traditional dance festivals. The latest in a string of arts events is the painting exhibition “New Roads” organized by the American University in Bulgaria.

“New Roads” comprises of roughly 70 oil paintings by the prominent artists Prof. Nikolay Ruschukliev and Vladimir Spasenkov. The mostly medium-sized paintings, triumphs of color and shape, will grace the AUBG main building October 14- November 1, 2013.

Sweaty and in haste, Vladimir Spasenkov arrived in Blagoevgrad in the early sunny afternoon of October 14. He was carrying with him all the paintings, carefully enclosed in black plastic.  Without wasting even a second of his precious time, he entered the cool grand floor of AUBG main building and started unwrapping the fruits of three years of hard work.

“My first drawing was of my grandpa’s horse. I was three at that time. I love drawing horses and portraying their nobility and nimbleness,” Spasenkov said.

Since the fall of the Berlin wall, he has been living in the German capital for one main reason- the horses on the Brandenburg gate.

AUBG students and locals, alike, will have the pleasure to see and ponder over Spasenkov’s various interpretations of horses’ nature that he views as a “mirror to humans’ nature.”

Spasenkov could not contain his enthusiasm about the exhibition, as it is his first collaboration with Prof. Nikolay Ruschukliev. The two men met more than three years ago, when Spasenkov, fascinated by Ruschukliev’s painintgs, visited him in his studio in Sofia.

Prof. Nikolay Ruschukliev, 80, has been painting roads in their various meanings for quite some time now.

“I paint the road philosophically, the road within us, people, and the road we walk on, the road to certain people or away from them,” Ruschkliev said in an interview in early 2013.

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Hear what came to the minds of two exchange students at AUBG, Luc and Nicki, when they heard about “New Roads” for the frirst time:

Stay Positive. Go far

 

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“When you begin your day with a smile, you inevitably end your day with a smile.”

Pavel Djunev, a 31-year old Ph. D. student of high-speed computer networks, always looks on the bright side.  It was his positivity coupled with a keen interest in computers and the internet that led to the conception of a news website to celebrate the good aspects of life in Blagoevgrad.

The year was 2000 and Pavel’s “Virtual Blagoevgrad” proved to be too innovatory.

“When it was time to think about the realization of the idea, or in other words, to figure out how to finance it, we turned to local companies for support, offering them to advertise with us. But they told us: ‘Are you crazy? We have our clients and credibility, we cannot advertise on the Internet,’” Pavel said.

After a number of firms deemed the prospect of internet advertising too novel and risky, Pavel was forced to halt the project.

However, he never gave up on his idea. In 2009, after finally securing a long-term contract with a sponsor, Pavel revived his project under a new domain name (Blagoevgrad.eu).

Pavel rolled out the website with the intention to stay positive and break away from the prevalent bleak news reports.

“The truth is we were fed up with news that filled our heads with negativity,” he said.

Well into its four year now, the news website enjoys broad popularity in south-western Bulgaria, Pavel said. Although he cannot entirely avoid covering tragedies, the knowledge that he also brings positive news to people delights him.

However, every success comes with a price to pay. For Pavel it is the endless hours of gazing into a computer’s screen and the stress of coping with sudden internet failures.

“I exercise a lot to fight off the stress – fitness and football every other day and tennis once a week,” he said.

Often present at Pavel’s football games is his son Iliyan, 4. Pavel’s voice softens and his brown eyes glow when he speaks about Iliyan.

“When you have a kid, you push everything else to the background,” Pavel said, adding that Iliyan stands at the center of both his biggest joys and fears.

Father and son spend a lot of quality time together, going out for a stroll, a delicious meal or some fun in the park. Pavel tries to give little Iliyan the happy, care-free childhood he had on the street, where he played with his peers from dawn to dusk.

Pavel smiles broadly when he reminisces about his childhood and adolescence. Those were the exploratory years of many “firsts”: first sea vacation with friends, the exciting first kiss, the first girlfriend, whose name, however, he cannot remember.

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Pavel’s nine-month compulsory military service in 2000 is another treasure trove full of memories and funny stories.

Pavel served as a corporal in Sliven, an ethnically diverse town home to Bulgarians, Bulgarian- Turks ad Roma. One day he had to teach 100 of his peers how to march and yell in exultation when greeted by their commander.

“When all those mouths dropped as wide as possible, I could not help it but turn around and burst into laughter. Before me I saw 100 people exposing either gold teeth or a lack of teeth. Moreover, it was a sunny day and the gold teeth reflected the sun light. It is still vivid in my mind,” Pavel said, unable to contain his laughter.

Listen to Pavel share his dreams and most important lesson he has learned so far:

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Dozen of Juicy Apples

 

Georgi

“Girl, these are the best apples you will find in town. Besides, they are really cheap! You simply cannot pass by them!”

The broad smile and warmth in the elder man’s eyes made me stop and buy a kilogram of red, juicy apples. The next day I bought another kilogram and by the end of the week I had a mound of apples under my desk and a new, talkative acquaintance.

The elderly man is Georgi Angelov, 77. Since the beginning of the academic year at the American University in Bulgaria, Georgi has been spending his mornings eloquently and skillfully promoting his home-grown apples and grapes to the students who walk the alley along the river on their way to classes.

“I have two gardens of apple trees outside Blagoevgrad. My life now revolves around them,” Georgi said smiling.

But he has not been a gardener all his life. In 1953 then 17-year old Georgi enrolled at the railway transport school in Sofia and served as head of Blagoevgrad’s railway station for 20 years. After that he took a swift turn in his life and taught metal processing at the local high school for 14 years.

However, Georgi does not talk much about his professional career. The part of his life he most enjoys reminiscing about is how he met Todor Jivkov, Bulgaria’s Communist party leader.

“My daughter, Valentina, was accepted at Sofia University to study medicine. We received a confirmation letter from the university, but when we went to Sofia, we were stunned to find out that her name was erased from the list of accepted students,” Georgi began the story of the memorable meeting.

Nobody at the university could give him a plausible explanation why his daughter’s admission was suddenly revoked, so Georgi decided to take the matter in his own hands. He quickly figured out that the only one who can get his daughter back at the university was Todor Jivkov.

“I went to the guards at his residence and told them I had an appointment with Jivkov. They let me in,” Georgi said.

To Jivkov’s secretary Georgi said he is a good friend of Blagoevgrad’s then governor and has a meeting scheduled with Jivkov.

“Once Jivkov heard the name of governor Aleksiev, he decided to meet me. They were very close friend. So there I was, in Jivkov’s office. I told him about the revocation of my daughter’s university admission and he assured me he will get her back in,” Georgi said.

Well, it turned out that back in Communist Bulgaria it was easier to meet Jivkov than to send your children to university. Jivkov did not fulfill his promise and Valentina married. Eventually, she studied medicine in Blagoevgrad and now works as a nurse in one of the private medical centers in town.

Another story, Georgi loves recalling is the story of a pair of shoes.

A couple of years ago, Georgi was selling his apples in front of the South-Western University in Blagoevgrad. One day a student approached him with a request to borrow 50 levs to buy a new pair of shoes.

“I am 77-year old. Many people in my long life lied to me and took advantage of my amicability. So, I was skeptical at first and asked him whether he had parents to take care of him. The boy said he was an orphan. Although I did not believe him completely, I took pity on him and gave him the money,” Georgi said.

Four days after that, the boy came to Georgi wearing a new pair of shoes and gave him a box of chocolates.

Although a broad smile graces Georgi’s wrinkled face most of the time, his eyes become teary when he mentions his son Slavi, a military officer, and his futile attempts to find a job for seven years now.

Hear more about Georgi’s dreams and hopes for his son and the hostility he sometimes has to deal with as an apple seller:

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