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.

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