the skinflint philosopher

Attempting to thrift our way to a better life, with a toddler in tow!


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A knees-up with Granny March

As if the heavy snow didn’t give everyone an excuse for some time off work anyway, (and the schools have been closed for days and when then happens in a country that is used to winter snow that says something about the conditions outside) then today is also a Bulgarian national holiday. Happy March 1st!

 

For the non-Bulgarians out there, see if you can spot someone around the world today wearing a red and white buttonhole or wristband. If you do, go up and say to them Zdravei! Happy Baba Marta!, as I guarantee they will be Bulgarian (or from the Balkans) and will smile back at you with pleasure. This is a custom that is more welcome than Christmas.

 


Way back in the annals of time, in the 7th century the first Bulgarian king Khan Asparuh was busy pitting his armies against the Byzantine empire, and following a fearsome victory he sent eagles with white threads tied around their talons as a message to announce his success to the main camp. The trailing threads picked up bloodstains from the battlefield, and the red and white martenitsa was invented.
An alternative story is that Huba, the sister of Khan Asparuh escaped captivity and in fleeing home to her brother and the new territory he had claimed that would become modern Bulgaria, she could not cross the mighty Danube river to reach safety. She tied a white thread on to the leg of a falcon, and sent him across the river to find a safe passage, while she followed the thread trail below. One of her kidnappers in pursuit shot the falcon with an arrow and his blood mixed with the white thread even as he led Huba to safety across the river.

 


The modern martenitsa token given as a gift to your nearest and dearest on March 1st has now a slightly less gory legend, and where white thread or yarn symbolises purity and beauty, and the red is vitality, love, courage and life. Put the two together and you have the perfect token of friendship, love, good luck and health.  Red and white can also symbol life and death, or the sun and melting snow. Traditionally some martenitsa take the form of two yarn dolls, the white male Pizho and the red female known as Penda. Nowadays though other symbolism has crept in, and Tiddler was quite happy with her ladybird and panda martenitsa that Digger gave her this morning over breakfast.

 

March 1st itself (the start of the traditional Bulgarian New Year) celebrates grumpy old Baba Marta (Granny March) who is the personification of early spring, indicating the coming of future fertility and prosperity, while still being a little bit erratic and unpredictable! Wearing a martenitsa will pacify Baba Marta and bring spring along a little quicker and with slightly less extreme and changeable weather. Bulgarians will wear the martenitsa either until March 22nd, the coming of real spring according to the calendar, or until they see the first stork of the year, or the first blossoming tree, when the martenitsa are then tied on to the branches like a huge shower of red and white confetti.

As I am sitting here writing this, I am thinking of friends and loved ones who I will not see for many months, and I am wishing you all a Happy Baba Marta, and a means to find a way to pacify the angry or awkward Baba Marta’s that may cross your path.

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Twins and time

Rather than my own middling quality photographic attempts, (as a good thrifter I am still using the camera on the old and battered iphone 4 that was given me second hand when a kind friend upgraded, and I was sat up at night feeding Tiddler and kept falling asleep and needed something portable to help keep me awake), I’ve been rootling about learning more about Digger’s side of the family.

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Pictured here in this wonderful image is Digger’s mother, now Tiddler’s Baba (grandmother). She takes centre stage, with her twin brother to the left, their older sister (now the Sofia Auntie D) on the right, and their cousin on the far left. Behind them, both so proudly smiling, are their grandparents, that is Tiddler’s great-great-grandparents. Digger does a spot of maths and estimates the picture was taken circa 1952.
The story goes that the Uncle P, the first born of the twins arrived in the night at home in the rural village. A local ‘midwife’ (i.e. somebody else’s baba) attended, delivered Uncle P but was concerned, and great-grandmother was put on the back of a karuca (каруца), and taken off on a bumpy road to get to the hospital in the town, some distance away. Without prenatal care and scans, they were unaware of a second baby, and our Baba was only born later, unexpectedly, and fortunately with more complex medical care and not on the back of the karuca. This is why the twins have ended up with different dates of birth, one day apart.

I wish this picture was in colour. The twins are wearing terlitsi (knitted slipper socks), and all of the children sport knitted socks and leggings. Great-great-grandmother’s heavy apron and skirt and headscarf can be seen, and the cousin’s skirt and cardigan look to be knitted or woven in a traditional design too. Great-great-grandfather wears a tall kaplak bear fur (or black lamb wool) hat, and what looks like an ex-military coat.
A photo below (iphone 4!) from a modern but traditional style fabric in use today may gives you a hint of the possible colour combinations, or take a look at some of the ornate embroidery and vintage clothing on this webpage. 

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The heavy duty wools are clearly to keep out the cold continental winter air. I’ve also discovered these children’s knickers/shorts tucked away, perhaps sentimentally,  with moth balls in the back of a cupboard in the apartment we are borrowing for our stay in Bulgaria. I ask Digger if they were his when he was little, but he admits to nothing.

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I don’t know about the level of insulation gained, but I imagine an individual wrapped in a pair of these bad boys, plus all the other layers on top, would not be moving anywhere very fast, and you would certainly need plenty of warning for a toddler toilet stop.

It was definitely a different world, nearly three quarters of a century ago, and makes me sit and think a little on Tiddler’s relationship with her grandparents, both the Bulgarian side and those in the Westcountry, and whether she will be looking at pictures of us all in decades to come, and what she will think of us, and what she will remember, and what stories she will have heard. Hopefully she won’t be thinking about our underwear.


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Cartwheel and corn: Bulgaria photos 8

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The wheels are from a karuca (каруца) cart, a horse-pulled low vehicle still used commonly enough in Bulgaria for there to be necessary signs on certain larger roads.
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Many karuca are traditionally painted in intricate folk designs. Image below taken from here
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The modern karuca lives on in many forms. Image below from Varna, here.

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Initiation into a Bulgarian Christmas

Having now lived through our take on a Bulgarian Christmas, here’s a little update on our celebrations- I’ve been giving Digger the Bulgarian Inquisition and have tried to make sense of it all!
We started early with indulgent food right at the beginning of the month on December 6th, which is the feast day of Saint Nicholas. Now in the UK we tend to know the story of St. Nicholas leaving (or throwing over a wall) a purse of coins for a poor family, and hence the legend of Santa Claus began, even though he didn’t end up as the bearded, red and white figure of today until marketing and consumerism really got involved, although this image of him looks like he pretty much had his style down pat.
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Here in Bulgaria he is known as Saint Nikola, and the day is Nikulden. He is venerated as a the protector of fisherman, sailors, travelers and hunters, the master of the underwater world, and folklore includes a tale of how he plugged the bottom of a storm-broken boat with fish from the ocean, and thus saved the lives of everyone on board. Dinner on the 6th must include carp, (sometimes baked in dough to form a ribnik), and bogovitsa bread (bog=god).

(credit for bread images from zanus.eu, snimka.bg, moreto.net)

Traditionally, the bones of the carp must be thrown back into flowing water to allow continuing fertility and prosperity, apart from the head bone which was sewn into children’s clothing to protect them from the evil eye. Now we certainly didn’t go that far, as I personally was not that keen to have Tiddler walking around smelling of fish and acting as a street cat magnet!

This feast day is especially important to us though, as is it also the name-day of Digger’s brother in Canada. Name-days (imen den) are a curious phenomena, and anyone who is named after Nikola, or a derivation e.g. Nikolai, Nikolay, Kolyo, Nikolina, Neno, Nenka, Nikolina, Nina gets to have a day of celebration. Digger actually gets more phone calls and messages on his name-day than he does on his actual birthday. So we drank a toast of rakia (Diado’s eye-wateringly strong homemade fruit brandy) to Digger’s brother, and then ate plenty of cake on his behalf while we chatted over Skype.
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Christmas itself though, while clearly celebrated in Bulgaria, is less ‘in your face’ than Christmas back home. We did see Christmas lights on houses and a tree and sledge display in town, baubles on trees in peoples gardens, shops selling tinsel and reindeer deely bobbers, but there was not the ever present Christmas tunes in the shops, the constant stuffing our faces with mince pies, and the endless craft fairs and Santa’s grottos.

Let me revise that, I tried to find a Santa grotto or a fair to take Tiddler to, but in our provincial town Christmas entertainment was limited. Fortunately, her nursery school organised a party with a visit from Santa (one of the dads) so she got the experience. The system here was parents provided a gift in advance for their own child to be handed out by Santa, and my only comment on that was clearly when Bulgarians give gifts in public, bigger is most certainly the better. Thankfully, Tiddler didn’t clock on to this, and was more than happy with her reasonably sized gift of a board game from us.
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In general, I would say the whole build up to Christmas by Bulgarians was very refined and calm. Snow fell, and people did their shopping without any chaos or upset (as far as I could observe). Not so the British ex-pats living in the area. Panic stations!
From as early as November, ex-pats on Bulgarian facebook groups have been advertising ‘man and van’ runs to the UK, where people can place orders for food or other items. This clearly happens throughout the year anyway if someone is making the journey, but the Christmas orders were coming in thick and fast if the comments were anything to go by. People were requesting mince pies, quality streets, chocolate oranges, jars of cranberry sauce, christmas crackers and so much more. Familiar food from home was clearly an essential luxury, and the ex-pats are willing to pay the shop prices, plus the added purchase/delivery charge for the service that was being provided. Others were busy arranging pick up and drop off points for the van drivers to send and collect presents from family back home. There was a flurry of posts. Nearer to the big day, the concern took a worrying shift closer to home as the perishable goods needed to be sourced.

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I’ve decided the way for Bulgaria to boost its flailing economy is clearly to go into sprout production. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t track any down in our smaller town, so I had to resign myself to a sprout-less Christmas dinner. Digger seems ever so slightly happy at that prospect.

Christmas proper then starts in Bulgaria not on the 25th, but on Christmas Eve. This is a time the family to cook a special evening meal, which has very specific requirements. Firstly, plan wisely, as you need an odd number of people to sit down at your table. We ended up with seven at the table at Diado’s house, as Digger’s aunt, uncle, cousin and wife arrived from Sofia for the holidays, piling out of the car laden down with bags and boxes of food. It was like a vehicular cornucopia exploding into rural V_L_.
The meal is strictly vegetarian (following the Orthodox 40 day advent fast, though we have not kept that of course), and also must include an odd number of dishes often up to thirteen in number, traditionally salads, bean soup, walnuts, unleavened bread (with a coin baked inside) and sarmi (stuffed vine and cabbage leaves), fruit compote and baklava. Straw is pushed under the table cloth to guarantee a good harvest next year, and the dishes and table at the end of the meal was left as it was overnight, in order for any ancestors to come and share any of the remaining food. It sounded slightly creepy to me, and clearly adds extra work to the christmas morning kitchen chores, but we were back in the apartment by that time so no ghostly visits at all. Just Santa, and of course that is perfectly normal.

Following this, Midnight mass is usual, but we settled for a christmas morning service instead with Tiddler, and even then she didn’t last the whole time. She managed to mistake the three priests for the three wise men as they went in procession, spent some time holding a random lady’s hand a few pews ahead of us, and then faked a coughing fit when the incense was swung from the censer. On her way out she bumped into the devotional candle stands and nearly took that out too.
For our first visit to a Bulgarian Orthodox service, I understood the confusion. People were wandering around, coming in late, and then kissing things. Other people were taking photographs of the priests. Things were going on behind the iconostasis and she wanted to see. Other people were chanting and singing up high up in the eaves and she thought the angels had arrived. Digger didn’t help by muttering how miserable everyone looked, and grumbling that I’d made us all come in the first place. ‘I can’t understand the point of a service that is just all chanting and formulaic fancy words’ he says in a stage whisper. Old grannies turn and look at us.

Back to the kitchen quickly then, as we needed to prepare for dinner for twelve. Although I had explained I was doing the dinner, everyone ignored that and turned up with enough food to keep Digger and I in leftovers for the next two weeks. We sat down to start eating at 12.30, and finally cleared away at 5pm. Bulgarians NEED rakia to start a meal, and they need salad to go with that, so they’d munched their way through three enormous enamel serving bowls of cucumber and fennel salad, crab and apple salad, and pasta and pickled gherkin salad before we even got to their main course. Turkey (first time ever cooking by me), lemon and thyme stuffing, pigs in blankets (that created much amusement of the funny English ways), parsnips, roasted potatoes, carrots, broccoli (no sprouts to be found near us!) and sauces and trimmings. Diado didn’t think was sufficient so had brought a huge earthern pot filled with pork stew, the usual Bulgarian Christmas day main, so everyone ate some of that too. After this, plates of salami and banitsa on the table. After this, nuts and raisins and fruit. After this, finally, gin trifle and yule log (from me) and gifted cream cake and baklava that we really didn’t need but ate anyway. Followed by wine and whiskey.

Our little rotund tummies eventually breathed a sigh of relief. Thankfully, with so many visitors, there was plenty of help with washing up at least. Digger and I, stupefied by food and exhaustion, silently surveyed the remains after everyone had gone home. I ask him the general verdict, having missed most of the conversation as it was predominantly in Bulgarian. ‘All good’, he says, ‘they’ll be back for breakfast’.

Link to list of Bulgarian name-days.
Nikulden recipes
Link for more information on Bulgarian Orthodox churches