Christmas Eve in a Bulgarian Village
By Martin Miller-Yianni
Summary: Martin Miller-Yianni provides an amazing glimpse into the village life in Bulgaria. Take a holiday tour in exquisite detail via this article that is one of our all time favorites on Expat Exchange.
It is my first Christmas now living in Bulgaria and shopping is something I used to hate in the U.K. - at Christmas it was even worse. This year I was on my own and it was Christmas Eve, I had to force myself at this point to get the job done!
Arriving by foot to the village centre, it was whisky and chocolates for presents for my village friends. On my way there I saw the old man who helped me get my cart fixed a while ago, I appreciated this very much at the time. He warmly greeted me and warned me to go and get some bread now as they will be sold out soon. He also asked why am I staying here in the village, I replied, in my broken Bulgarian, 'I live here.' He didnt seem to believe me. He was unshaved, scruffy, and if you'd have seen him in England, you would have considered him a tramp and walked past ignoring his beckoning to chat.
Now, as I said, it was Christmas Eve and a panic to get stuff in for the big day tomorrow. Expect the worst in the village as people scramble and get trampled on in the rush for last minutes' gifts and food. Well, there was a rush in the village - two in the queue. Now that is serious in Skaltiza, usually there's no one. After a few minutes I bought a bottle of whisky, 5 balloons, six ping pong balls and some glitter streams, my Christmas shopping completed in precisely 15 minutes, and 10 of these minutes were talking!
Let me explain the reasoning behind the shop:
- Bottle of whisky for the Rakiaman (my alcoholic neighbour)
- Balloons to take to Sanchos house where I was due to be a guest tonight
- Ping pong balls to put in Anka my donkey's drinking water to stop it freezing, hoping she won't eat them
- Glitter streams because they just happened to be there in the shop and it would be nice to put them around the whisky bottles
No food bought, they just don't buy food in the village other than beer for the adults and sweets for the kids - all else is home produced!
I entered another shop - and would you believe it - another queue - this time there was one person being served!! The delays in the village because of panic buying is too hard to take, I had to wait a minute!!! Bought two boxes of chocolates, again for presents for Rosa and whoever may need it as a present. I just heard some kids singing outside - hang on!!... Well these kids were okay, I liked their singing with the banging staff so there goes the box of chocolates!
The gypsy kids came round singing earlier and I gave them one leva each; if Sancho found out he'd tell me off!! Hang on another knock at the door. It was Sancho, telling me to give the gypsies nothing when they come round, ooooops! Daren't say anything, too late now anyway.
Sancho was with a woman with red hair, quite young and attractive called Ivanova, probably find out who she is later this evening, but I'm tired. I have been cut off with water, again. I was going to have a shower or bath, a complete change of clothes, and get rid of this stink on me!!
What stink I hear you ask? Well, pig stink; I just returned from another pig slaughtering from the next village along, this time two pigs at Marias parents place. Her mother collected me and took me back. She rang me up this morning and asked if I wanted to go I couldn't really refuse as she has done so much for me over the last few months. Anyway, I need to socialise, it's what they do over here, more to the point, so do I.
Marias place was now on the cards, but I wanted to be back so I could rest and get ready for the evening with Sancho and family. Again, these people were wonderful as I mucked in with the breaking down and butchering the pig. I really enjoyed every aspect along with the company, the food, (which was out of this world!) and drink. She has a lovely family and I envy the lifestyle they lead, which is very much family based.
Now I could go on for ages about what goes on during the pig slaughtering day, but it is very much like Miko the Milkman's day, only I enjoyed this one even more than before because firstly, I knew roughly what to do with the pig and secondly, I knew some of the people here, and of course Maria, very well. Maria's grandfather played the accordion and sang right next to where I was sitting, He was atmospheric and had total attention and focus from the family encaptured in a trance of his rendering of Bulgarian traditional song; this totally sent a chiver down my spine and brought about a tear, a tear for these things that never happen in England! The heartwarming ambience of the whole occassion just came together during these moments and the thoughts about what I had come to experience in Bulgaria all seemed worth all the chaos and pain I had gone through to get to this point in my life.
I had to leave before dark but wanted to stay. Maria's mother gave me some pork steaks, pig skin and eggs and took me back. I was stuffed something stupid with the food and drink and had just finished a bowl of the traditional cabbage and pork. I hope Sancho doesn't try and force feed me! All in all this was another absolutely amazing thing to go through. The warmth, generosity and friendship these people ooze can not be described but just experienced. This is a taste of the good life for real. I also got to see and speak to Anka's previous owner to reassure her that Anka is a very well and happy donkey.
Back to this evening, it's twenty past six and I am due at Sanchos in 40 minutes, no water, stink like a skunk with blood stains all over my clothes, but, that's Bulgaria!!! I'm off to another village 10 km away for Christmas Dinner tomorrow, walking there, I'll need to do something about all this food I've consumed so this will do me good! Sancho called on me again at dead on 7:00, he was going to personally take me to his house, but I was on the toilet and he had to wait a few minutes. Got there in the end. (Yes! Yes! I washed my hands!).
Ivanova was his daughter and the evening started with getting rid of evil spirits in the room, which was warm cosy and a picture with the TV running all evening. I saw two pictures in the house and two Christmas cards - one of each of those was what I gave them respectfully. This was a family occasion and I was very privileged to be there.
We talked and talked and talked and the food kept coming and coming. There was a lovely bowl of bean type soup and I just about managed to squeeze that in my stomach when near the end Rosa asked me something. I thought she asked whether I liked it. I of course said, Yes, lovely! She took my plate away and returned with another massively filled bowl full of bean soup again. She had asked if I wanted another bowl full! I explained that I was full and that I wasn't used to having big meals as I live on my own and don't bother. The bowl sat there full in front of me for a full two hours, their answer was to eat it slowly. This was in conjunction with other foods already laid out and being prompted at me and more arrived every half an hour or so. So much preparation went behind this that I was humbled by their generosity.
The original table layout with the specially cooked bread in the foreground had twigs on each section. On it there was a curled paper with your fortune for the next year written on it. The cake is turned round by hand and whoever the piece stops at takes the piece nearest them and reads their fortune and eats the bread. Mine was, good sight, good smell, (nose that is) and good taste. But we didn't do this before the evil spirits had been expelled.
Now the Bulgarians are meant to fast prior to Christmas day, but that now is diluted down to not eating meat. So, apart from white fish that was also on the table, all the food had no meat content. The evening was a fantastic calm family evening with warmth and friendship. Sanchos' daughter turned up at about 10:00 and stayed until just before midnight. I was asked if I wanted coffee and I said yes, then, asked if I wanted another cup, and I took this as a message that it was time to go. But no, they expected me to stay up to and beyond midnight as that is what they do - then a fresh source of special food and drink comes out. I said I had to ring my son and would be about 15 minutes, this was at about 10:30 and Sancho accompanied me to my house and back again. When I tried ringing all my sons, they were all engaged or the number not recognised - will have to try on Boxing Day I fear!
On my return it was very much the same thing and an absolutely wonderful evening. Again, the secret is the art of talking about anything and everything, and having some respect to whom you are talking to that was the mode this evening. Sancho said he would teach me to fish and take me to the hill we see in the distance to take a picture from the top, but I asked him about the wolves. He went to the cupboard and brought down a hand gun full of live ammunition, his words - 'No problem.' He let me handle it and it was quite a shock, or maybe not, that this was where I lived and this is what goes on. Everyone took it as normal, including the whole evening, but still special. But it was even more special for me with such good neighbours and now friends for life.
At midnight everyone was given an alcoholic drink and toasted a Merry Christmas, then the special chocolates and salami (now we can eat meat after the fasting period) came out and we ate AGAIN! Finally got home in the early hours of the morning after being given a present and Sancho, armed with a torch, guided the way back. Got in, or rolled in with the food I'd eaten today, and still no water! Seems unlikely to be here tomorrow either, I would think, BUGGER! No water on Christmas Day! Welcome to Bulgaria yet again! Not bothered really though, just very happy and thankful to be living here.
(This is a typical content and extract from 365 daily diaries made in my first year in Bulgaria; this particular diary extract was from 24.12.05)
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About the Author
Martin Miller-Yianni (an Englishman) develops content and information for ourbulgarianworld.com, has 2 years of Bulgarian life under his belt and has a teaching background in the UK.
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First Published: Dec 08, 2007