“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!

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

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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.

Inked Up: Passion, not Profession

Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Blagoevgrad, the two-room studio leads its own vibrant life.

Its white front door opened and an acute smell of ink escaped through it. Inside, the tattoo machine was buzzing. The thin needles were mercilessly penetrating the skin, drawing fine lines and shades.

He finished the infinity sign tattoo  in half an hour. A ten- minute break, enough for a cigarette. Then, the next client would come.

Yulian Hristov, a 31-year old tattoo artist, had another busy day, which, however, did not tire him out.379292_419949224750140_1557706290_n

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

Yulian got hooked on tattoos one night in 1998 when he watched a friend of his being inked.  Although, he was only 16 at that time, he took the decision that shaped his life- to become a tattoo artist.

Years of apprenticeship and close observations of tattooing techniques and styles followed. A neighbor was the first person to sit for a tattoo by Yulian. Being a Good Samaritan, the neighbor volunteered his skin without the slightest idea what tattoo he wanted.

“He went through some pictures and picked a tattoo of the dollar sign,” Yulian explained.

In the early years of Yulian’s career as a tattoo artist, materials and resources were scarce. The ink was Indian and sold in a local bookstore. Tattoo machines were harder to come by.

“I made my own tattoo gun in a class in my trade high school,” Yulian said.

Tattooing has undergone a tremendous change since then. Today, Yulian buys his ink from the USA and the UK and uses a US-made tattoo gun, although he occasionally switches to his Bulgarian one.

Although technology, style and techniques have evolved, the process of getting a first tattoo is still  painful and disheartening for an overwhelming number of people, Yulian said. It is because of the inexperienced tattoo artists.

“Many young people go to rookie tattoo artists and get inked for pennies. The tattoo machine buzzes several lines and that is it. Done. The tattooists take the money, but the customers leave unsatisfied,” he said.

Several years ago it took him 12 straight hours and enormous amount of concentration to make the c1369076_514035862008142_1217521246_norrections to a sloppily- executed full back tattoo, Yulian recalled. The piece comprised of a male angel, flanked by two female ones.  Yulain corrected the features and shading of their faces and gave lively, well-rounded forms to their stern bodies.

Yulian described himself as “a weird tattooist” due to all the unusual body parts he has marked with peculiar images.  Being in the profession for more than 15 years, he has tattooed anything from question marks and paws on tongues to Celtic tribal symbols on faces.

Although a skillfully executed tattoo may be pleasing to the eye, the meaning behind it is all- important, Yulian said.  He considers helping customers polish their tattoo ideas and fully grasp the substance of tattoo designs crucial parts of his work.

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