“Thank you” is not enough. But this is all I have.

The early afternoon’s temperature hovered around the chilly 5 °C. Nevertheless, animated chatter and hearty laughter reigned on Blagoevgrad’s main street. Bundled up in winter coats, people zigzagged from one store to the other.  Christmas was just a couple of weeks away.

Absorbed in the process of capturing the festive mood on tape, I did not notice when a middle-aged man, clad in a frayed blue jacket, had approached me. I turned around. My reaction was to shake my head and say I did not have any coins even before the black -bearded, tousled-haired man opened his mouth to speak, exposing a gap where his top left front tooth had once stood.

“Would you buy me some bread,” said the wizen-faced man, pulling his cracked lips in a shy smile. I looked into his dark hazel eyes, still hesitant how to react. “Wait for me here,” I finally replied.

A couple of minutes later I handed him a loaf of sliced bread. He thanked me, said he will mention me in his prayer to God that night and wished me happy holidays.

I quickly returned the wishes. As I watched the man dissolve in the crowd I wondered how happy the holidays would actually be for him.

That chance encounter unleashed a stream of thoughts that flowed in different directions. I pondered on the unpredictability of fate, on the ability, perseverance and courage, or lack of such, to walk life’s swirling path, on the footprints others leave on that path. Some of these footprints dig deep dark pit holes, while others nurture blossoming gardens.

For four months now I have been living in one such heavenly garden thanks to several affable and hearty individuals, who turned the semester into a memorable and enriching journey.

Georgi

Georgi Angelov

Everything started that breeze mid-September morning. Georgi Angelov bent and lined his cloth bags, bulging with apples and grapes, on the alley. When he rose up, he smiled broadly and quipped that his office was set for an interview.

Georgi’s thrilling story how he met communist Bulgaria leader Todor Zhivkov to plead him to examine his daughter’s university admission revocation revealed his courage, love and dedication to his family.

“I went to the guards at his [Zhivkov] residence and told them I had an appointment with Jivkov. They let me in,” Georgi said. “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 taught me that boundaries crumble down when it comes to caring and providing for a loving family. Thank you, Georgi.

A week later, I sat in a neat, white office watching Pavel Djunev’s hazel eyes follow the print on a computer’s screen. His left index finger constantly clicked on the tiny, black mouse.

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Pavel and his son Iliyan

Pavel lives his dream. In 2009, after several years of obstacles, he finally launched a news website, which has now grown into the biggest media outlet in Blagoevgrad.

“When it was time to think about the realization of the idea [the news website], 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.

Pavel taught me to follow my dreams, no matter how thorny the road toward their fulfillment might be. Thank you, Pavel.

October arrived with the smell of ink and the buzz of a tattoo gun. Holed up in a cozy, red-painted studio, Yulian Hristov has brewed his adolescent obsession with tattoos into ever-lasting love.

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Yuli (left)and a colleague showing their finished project

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

Yuli urged me to discover what I truly love and unwearyingly cling to it. Thank you, Yuli.

November’s temperatures dropped to the freezing 0 C.  It felt like all the heat has retreated to Krasi’s bakery.

Cheerful and agile Krasi bakes the wee hours away six days a week.

Krasi explaining how she started baking

Krasi explaining how she started baking

“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.

Once the bakery opens at 2 am, Krasi sprints from the kitchen to the counter and back to fetch mouth-watering pastries for the throngs of hungry customers.  Huge aluminum pans of banitcas, dzhumaikas, pizzas and croissants are fast depleted.

Krasi taught me that the best way to enrich ourselves is to care for others. Thank you, Krasi.

The aroma of Krasi’s bakery morphed into the earthy smell of “Dvorene” horse stables.

Tamina and I

Tamina and I

The late-November’s weekend I spent in “Dvorene” took me back to my childhood, when my family used to raise horses.

Horses have been an inseparable part of the lives of Dvorene’s horseback riding instructors, Nasko, Niki and Mitko, as well.

“My grandpa had a horse,” said Nasko, echoing the stories of the other two. “However, what my friends and I used to

Nasko (left), Nicki and Mitko having a break

Nasko (left), Nicki and Mitko having a break

do was to ‘steal’ the neighbors’ horses from the fields around town, ride them all day long and return them at dusk.”

Thank you, Niki, Mitko and Nasko, for reminding me that life is meant to be simple, filled with   unconditional love toward every breathing creature.

And here I am now, mid-December, thinking that I owe a giant “Thank you” to so many other people, whose faces I have probably never seen.

Thank you, dear readers, for being with me all that time.

May your Christmas be abundant with touching moments of love and joy. May the New Year kick off in an unforgettable way!

See you soon, dear readers!

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.