Sunday, September 25, 2011

Village Ceremonies

A few days after the opening of the school, we took part in a couple of events that gave us a chance to experience two very different types of Bulgarian cultural rituals.
In this region of Bulgaria, weddings are as indicative of a relationship between two villages, as they are of a relationship between two people. As the villages often have a population of fewer than five-hundred people, the leaving of a bride to live in her husband's village is an important change to both communities, and everyone is invited to partake in the festivities. In the case of this wedding, the groom was from our village and the bride was from a village a few kilometers away. The festivities began first thing in the morning, with everyone putting on their best clothes and getting ready. Catherine was taken in by some local women to get dolled up - which meant getting her hair crimped and sharing in a delicious crispy-noodle breakfast eaten out of an enormous communal bowl.
Then, the groom's escort began to form a convoy of cars at the edge of the village, where everyone waited for the go-ahead eagerly, holding huge plates of baked goods or dancing to music provided by a three piece Roma band (clarinet, accordion, and drum).

Once we were given the go-ahead, all of us hopped in the cars, covered in balloons and horns blaring, and drove to the bride's village with the intention of bringing her back to Krushevo. Once in the bride's village, we all got out of the cars and formed a procession to the her house, dancing along the way to the wild frenzied music and making our presence known. It's a spectacle that everyone from the village comes out to watch - young girls perch together and giggle, while older villagers stare serenely with happy, curious faces.

As we arrived at the bride's house, her father, uncles, and brothers barricaded the door to force negotiations (as tradition dictates). To persuade them to let us in, a negotiation team from our village moved to the front of the procession and offered gifts of alcohol and sweets. After trading jabs and jokes, her family opened the door to reveal the bride and her mother waiting to receive the invaders with gifts and chocolates. At this point, everyone from our village formed a line and we began to go in, one by one, shaking hands with the bride's family, then with the bride herself, while she placed a gift bundle of a towel, socks, and hand-knitted traditional slippers on our shoulders. A woman on a balcony above dipped flowers into a metal bowl of water and shook droplets over our heads.

After that, we all went to the cars and drove back to Krushevo, for the ceremony and reception. After the very-quick ceremony, everyone began eating and dancing the hora (a traditional dance, in which everybody from small children to aging grandmother babas join hands and dance in a circle). The live music, dancing and eating continued for the rest of the day and into the evening. Once the band left, someone brought their car up and blasted music through its speakers so that everyone could dance well into the night.

The day following, we experienced the other end of the spectrum, as we were greeted in the morning with the news that the schoolteacher's husband had passed away after a long battle with cancer. When the village loses one of its residents, everything slows to a halt, and all attention is then paid to the matter at hand. After putting on our best clothes, we walked with Lily and Yan to the teacher's house, where many of the villagers had already gathered - the women on one side of the street, and the men on the other. Inside the house, close relatives had gathered to console the widow and share her grief, while others began the process of cleaning the body and preparing it for burial. All of it in a delicate, reverent regard. After some time waiting outside, the men move on to the village mosque, where prayers are read and further preparations are made, while the women stay back at the house, offering their support. Many hours passed while Catherine, Lily, and the women sat outside. Catherine sat and drew some of the women, which prompted a crowd of babas to grab her sketchbook to look through it among themselves.

Roy and Yan waited with the village men outside the mosque, then formed a procession and walked back to the house, where the body, wrapped in a white sheet and then a traditional embroidered blanket, had been placed in a shallow, open wooden box. Just outside the house more prayers were read, before the first four men bent down to lift the box. Then, the men of the village began the long walk to the cemetery, with new men moving forward to carry the box every few yards. In this way, all of the men of the village bear the weight of the deceased on their backs until his final resting place is reached. The women followed behind, but stopped at the edge of the village as is traditionally dictated. Once in the cemetery, more prayers are read and songs sung, then a few of the men lower the body, and begin the burial. Once the mound is formed over the grave, a small trough is made through the center of it, and a close family member pours a pot of water into it. The village men then left, and returned to Krushevo. It was a ritual that stood in stark contrast to the funerals we had experienced at home. It's hard to know what to say about it really. It was an experience intended for absorption, and to speak of it seems almost irreverent. It can be said that we feel fortunate to have seen such a different perspective in action.
Forty days after the funeral, a celebration of the person's life occurs in the village. Everyone cycles through the family's house and enjoys a meal in honor of the individual. Strangely enough, on the night of the funeral, one such event was due to happen. The furniture was cleared out of the house, and colorful rugs put down on the floor for sitting on. All of the people of the village were fed there that night - through the evening every room in the house was full of people and quiet chatter. It seemed a fitting close to a very heavy and contemplative day for the residents of Krushevo.


We left Sofia on a southbound bus headed for Gotse Delchev. The ride was four hours of ever-changing and astounding landscape ranging from farmlands, to mountain slopes, to steep gorges. As soon as we got off the bus, we were greeted by our new hosts - Lily and Yan. Leaving their life in the United Kingdom, they had moved to rural Bulgaria to live full time about four years ago, now using Workaway as a resource for workers interested in learning about natural building techniques. We all introduced ourselves and piled in to their four-wheel-drive (the only one in Bulgaria with zebra stripes!) to drive on to Krushevo, the small village where we would be staying and working. Upon arriving in Krushevo, Lily gave us a quick tour of their property, which included their small strawbale home, a cordwood volunteer building currently under construction, a caravan with an attached room and workshop, and various other buildings - all of which have been built by Lily, Yan, and helpers. She also introduced us to their two dogs, Bella the English sheepdog, and Bozdag the Karakachan.

Krushevo is a Muslim village of only 250 people set in the mountains near Bulgaria's southwest border. Although not cash-wealthy, the residents of Krushevo live well, practicing traditions and living techniques that have persisted through centuries. This, in part, leads to Krushevo having an extremely tight-knit and supportive community. People primarily grow their own food, and every house in the village owns a cow to provide fresh milk every day. The village mainly functions as a gift economy, and there is very little exchange with money apart from at the sparse village shop (where one can buy coffee or soda for 25 cents, or a beer for 75). If someone needs something they cannot provide for themselves, they let it known and it is provided for them by whoever in the village has that resource, and in return a gift of some kind is reciprocated. Often the women of the village give hand-knitted traditional slippers (terlitsi) in varying shapes, styles, and colors.


Tobacco hung out to dry.

Thus far, our work has taken place primarily in the old village schoolhouse, which is now part storage space, kindergarten, and soon to be bookshop/local crafts space (run by Lily and Yan). Before Lily and Yan began work on the kindergarten renovation, only half of the space was actually usable, due to large holes in the floor and various other hazards. By the time of our arrival, Lily, Yan, and a small team of village men had already re-roofed the entire structure, patched the floor, replaced the window glass, and painted in some areas, but there was still a lot of work to be done and we got started almost immediately. After a little over a week of hard work, we managed to replace the linoleum, re-plaster (using a natural mud, topsoil, water, chopped straw, and wood shavings mixture), paint, fix various non-functioning things, re-build and paint furniture, deep clean, along the way finding many interesting papers, photographs, and books from the Communist Era. Towards the opening day for the kindergarten, we were informed by the schoolteacher that it had been well over twenty years since the last renovation.

One day during work two friends and fellow workers invited Roy to go hiking with them that evening. Eager to explore the mountains and get to know the villagers better, Roy met them a few hours later and they set off along a trail curving along the mountains, accompanied by five braying hounds. After some labored communication, Roy pieced together that they were actually going hunting for mountain hares, and that was why they had brought the dogs. The three of them hiked for a few hours, somehow managing to communicate relatively well along the way, despite Roy not speaking Bulgarian, and them not speaking English. They explained the local stone and tobacco businesses, which employed many of the men from the village and were vital economic factors in Krushevo. With only a few yards to go before arriving back at Lily and Yan's, and the moon rising, the dogs pounced on something in the grass with an eruption of braying and barking. It turned out they had surrounded a Southern White-breasted Hedgehog (Erinaceus concolor), which had now assumed the typical defensive posture of balling up and exposing its many quills. Roy scooped up the terrified creature and brought it back to show Catherine and photograph it, before releasing it the next day.

The first day of school, we woke up very early so that we could surprise the kindergarteners with the unveiling of the classroom (along with a bunch of balloons). One by one, the children arrived with their mothers, each of them carrying a gift for the schoolteacher, and quickly dove into playing in the new space. All us of were relieved at finishing the project just in time, and excited with the reception.

Some paintings Catherine did for the renovated classroom

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bartering for a Bed in Sofia

After spending twenty-four hours in Rome's Fiumicino Airport, we boarded a plane bound for Sofia, Bulgaria, where we would spend one night before heading to our next work-trade host. In our e-mail correspondence, our hosts generously suggested that we stay at Hostel Mostel for the night, and just as we were about to put down a deposit on a room, Catherine noticed that they offered a free night's stay for "artistic travelers willing to put on a performance." Naturally, Catherine jumped at the opportunity, and e-mailed the hostel asking if she could do portraits of guests and hostel workers in exchange for a bed (which also included dinner and breakfast the following morning!). The hostel replied with a yes, and we were excited at the prospect of using art to barter, and also at the opportunity of meeting new people in an interesting and unlikely circumstance. It turned out to be the best hostel experience we've had thus far, as we were able to meet a variety of new people (from as far as Sweden, Germany, and Korea) in the uniquely intimate instance of a portrait session. The models were all excited to take home the drawings, and we were glad to leave them with a personal memento from the experience. Here are some shots from the night:

We also chanced upon an interesting little book in the book exchange - a beautiful, independently published notebook documenting the 5 year anniversary of the Goat Milk Festival. The festival is held in northeast Bulgaria, on the Black Sea coast, and looks to be a unique and beautiful event honoring community and tradition while provoking questions about perception and personal and collective memory in order to instigate healthy cultural progression. The booklet highlights the people of the town who have contributed to the festival as well as detailing workshops, art and music held there. Despite not attending the festival, we were still inspired by the ideas, ideals, and stories surrounding Goat Milk festival.