“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!

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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.”

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.

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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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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