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.”

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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.

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.

Blagoevgrad’s People Through a Foreigner’s Eyes

Isn’t it interesting that we spent a considerable part of our lives, surrounded by strangers? On the streets, in the stores, in restaurants and cafes. But do we really notice them?

The other day, I caught myself doing something I had never done before.

 I was strolling down the main street of Blagoevgrad and everything was painfully familiar: the colorful clothes in the shop windows, the cooking aromas, coming from the restaurants, the people, milling around. But, wait, at the same time, it was fascinatingly different!

The crowd of people had a face. It had numerous faces, actually. For the first time, I was paying attention to people’s faces, not to shop windows.

And while I was walking down the street, shifting my eyes from one face to another, I wondered who those people were, what they did for a living, where they were going, what they were thinking at that moment. Did they see me gazing at them?

I cannot put it in words how enthusiastic I am to launch this blog and get the opportunity not only to gaze and wonder but to SEE people and see them through their own eyes.

But before I embark on my journey, I wanted to see them through someone else’s eyes, a foreigner’s eyes. That is why I talked to Sorin Petrov, a sophomore at the American University in Bulgaria, double majoring in journalism and business administration. Sorin comes from Chisinau, Moldova, and has been living in Blaogevgrad for a year now.

 “I was surprised at first, because Blago is generally a small town, so I’d been thinking that [people] would be more conservative but they are really open to new people, new experiences,” he said.

“[People in Blagoevgrad] have this difficulty in communication,” Sorin said.

Locals use a mixture of Bulgarian and the few English words they know, sprinkled with expressive gestures to communicate with the numerous foreign students, he explained.  As a result, interaction with locals “is a fun experience most of the times,” Sorin said, smiling.

Here are some more of Sorin’s thought on Blagoevgrad’s people:

You can also check his blog, dedicated to “small, just small excerpts of conversations that I find to be the funniest”: http://admitthegeek.blogspot.com/

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