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Alas, I got distracted eating the chocolate eggs that my American roommates’ parents sent last Sunday and (for a fourth year in row) forgot to paint some eggs for my own Easter! (Bulgarians are predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christians and celebrate Easter together with the Greeks, Serbs, Romanians, Ukrainians, and Russians. This year, our Easter is on April 15th)

So instead, I decided to post a few beautiful photos of painted Easter eggs. Enjoy!

The way you make these patterns is by wrapping a leaf around the egg using a stocking to hold it fixed and dipping it in a jar of food paint

The way you make this pattern is by pouring different paints in a piece of cotton and wrapping the egg in the cotton. It looks like a colorful cloud, doesn't it?

These you make by "painting" lines and shapes with a candle and dipping the egg in the paint. There will be white lines where the wax touched the egg. Coat the color with wax and dip the egg in another color to add more layers to your painting. Bravo, Picasso!

Leaving the religious significance of this day aside, Easter is one of my favorite family holidays! Read more about my family’s celebrations here. The whole extended family gets together for a huge party. The centerpiece of the feast is the whole slow-roasted lamb and my grandmother’s amazing traditional Easter sweet bread with rum and dried fruit), kozunak (see a recipe).

The most fun part of the day is the egg fights (read my instructions) where you duel with painted eggs – the egg that survives without a crack is the champion!

How did you celebrate Easter this year?

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St. Nikola, a Bulgarian icon

Today, December 6th, is one of the bigger holidays in Bulgaria: Nikylden, or the Day of St. Nikola Mirlikiiski, or St. Nikola the Miracle-Maker. St. Nikola is the guardian of fishermen, sailors, travelers, tradesmen, and bankers (Who can tell me what the connection between them is ?). Nikola was a historical figure born in 270 BC in Patara (today in Turkey). Legend says he inherited a great fortune from his father but gave it all away to those in need. The saint also performed many miracles that delivered sailors and fishermen safely from sea tempests. According to another legend, he plugged a hole in a ship with a carp fish and thus saved it from sinking!

Nikylden is more than a religious day for the Orthodox Christians; it is also a nameday for all bearers of the name Nikola, Nick, Nikoleta, Kolio, Nikolai, Nicholas, etc; actually, most Bulgarian families celebrate the holiday even if they don’t have a Nick in the family.

Poseidon (Neptune) puts a pagan spin on the celebration of St. Nikola

St. Nikola is also associated with the sea, ocean, rivers, and lakes, and in this sense is similar to the Greek god Poseidon (called Neptune in Roman mythology). Germanic nations also celebrate St. Nicholas’ day, although slightly differently, and even associate this saint with Santa Claus.

In Bulgaria, we eat fish on December 6th – preferably fish with scales like carp or sheat-fish because “naked” fish without scales symbolized poverty. We bake the fish whole and stuff it with walnuts (check out a few typical Bulgarian Nikylden recipes here).

To me and my family, the Nikylden feast is the equivalent of a Thanksgiving Feast because my father is called Nikola and he is a “tradesman”. This means that my house is always full of guests on this day!

Traditionally, you don’t send official invitations for your nameday: you are supposed to prepare a big meal and expect your closest people to show up for dinner by themselves. So you basically never know who is showing up until they do, but you expect your closest relatives, godparents, best man and woman, and good neighbors to pay a visit. They might bring flowers, alcohol, and other presents.  Don’t expect them to leave before 2am.

Stuffed carp - I want to be home right now!

The table is, naturally, very festive! In addition to the stuffed carp, my mother also prepares salmon, shark, scard fish and turbot (eh, probably not all of them every time!). We have a variety of salads and other yummy dishes and lots of wine – Villa Melnik of course!

I’m so angry I missed it again this year, but HAPPY NIKYLDEN, DAD!

The Russian church St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker in Sofia, Bulgaria

Namedays are very big in Bulgaria, maybe even bigger than birthdays. There are less presents for the person celebrating but more of a communal feel since this day is not a personal celebration, but a celebration of all people who bear the same name, of the saint, and of all the virtues that the saint represents. I love my name, Militza, because it is the name of my great-grandmother and is very rare, but I’ve always been jealous that it is too rare to have a saint or a nameday associated with it! Oh well, I just get to celebrate my birthday and half-birthday!

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You Might Also Enjoy:

The Newborn Baby and the Naming Dilemma

St. Sophia and Her Daughters: Faith, Hope, and Love

Tsvetnitsa: Name Day for All Flowers


It’s not easy to be an international student in the States on Thanksgiving. They kick you out of the dorm for 5 days, all of your friends scatter to their respective places of origin, and you have to be very creative in finding what to do.

Bulgarian-German Thanksgiving at the Grosses, 2008

My strategy has been to try to be as traditional American as possible in order to experience the culture. Funny how that turned out!

 

Thanksgiving 2008: Three-and-two-halves Bulgarians and one turkey

The Grosse family was so kind to invite me and two other Bulgarians to their home in New Jersey over the Thanksgiving break. The Grosses used to live in Bulgaria and their daughters, the two half-Bulgarians as I like to call them, went to my high school in Sofia. So in 2008, they got together me and two other girls from that school who currently go to college on the East Coast. For dinner, we had all the ingredients of an American Thanksgiving Feast, but prepared the German way – potato dumplings, sauerkraut (German red cabbage), turkey breast (without stuffing), mama Grosse’s secret saus, all sorts of delicious German pastry (with strudels instead of pies), and of course, Bulgarian Red Wine Tcherga.  My cultural experience was further enriched with Black Friday shopping in the Short Hills Mall.

 

Thanksgiving 2009: Disney World, Orlando

Another not-so -typical holiday, I guess. Timmy and I went to Orlando, FL, where we spent the day riding on roller coasters, trying to get out of haunted houses, and spinning on all sorts of carousels. We saw a mini-city made up entirely of Christmas Lights, but didn’t really experience anything particularly Thanksgiving-ly other than the roasted turkey leg on the bone that Timmy and I devoured.

 

Thanksgiving 2010: Plymouth, It Can’t Get More American Than That

Now this was the epitome of Thanksgiving! We were in Plymouth, MA, where the Mayflower dropped anchor. We saw the Plymouth rock, which marks the symbolical spot where the pilgrims landed and the “Plimoth Plantation”, which is a living history museum. At the Plantation, we visited a 17th century English village that recreates the way the pilgrims lived. There are costumed  actors who have adopted the roles of actual historical figures and pretend that it is still 1627. So when I told them that I am from Bulgaria, they asked me how things were in the Ottoman Empire! Their historical knowledge was impressive! The other part of the Plantation is the Wampanoag Homesite where you can meet real Native People and talk to them about their culture and history from a modern perspective. Finally, I had a very American, very lovely Thanksgiving lunch with Timmy’s family : with a house full of bubbly relatives, mountains of food, and football! Exactly as Thanksgivign should be!

Read more about my meeting with Timmy’s family here.

 

Thanksgiving at the Arabs, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011: The Middle Eastern Version

My roommates and I organized a pretty interesting semi-traditional feast for our friends. (Actually, Emma, who started preparing the turkey three days earlier and woke up at 7am to start cooking that day, should get all the credit. I simply decorated the living room with real fallen leaves, but then it ended up in vain because our oven exploded the night before and we eventually had to move the party to a different apartment, the so-called “Arabs’ place”.)   So, Emma ended up cooking for 30 people, most of whom were… Arabs! She invited all of us to hold hands and say what each of us is grateful for. Then we all sat down on the floor, Americans, Pakistani, Saudi, Bulgarian, German, and Chinese (in front of the American and Saudi Arabian flag?!), and had the most international Thanksgiving dinner so far!

So I am pretty sure that I now fully grasp the meaning of Thanksgiving! This holiday is about bringing people together and allowing them to share a beautiful experience like one big family! Cheers!

 


Dilma Rousseff and Georgi Parvanov

On October 5th, the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, returned to her father’s birthplace – Gabrovo, Bulgaria. Read more about Dilma’s Bulgarian roots in my previous post.

The Bulgarian president Georgi Parvanov held his welcoming speech for Dilma Rousseff in front of the symbol of Gabrovo, the April High-School, where Dilma’s father, Petar (Pedro) Rousseff had studied as a child. While walking around the school earlier, the two presidents had spontaneously decided to set up a Portuguese class there, as well as to encourage the study of Bulgarian in Brazil. Dilma’s visit, according to Parvanov, was one step further towards bringing our nations closer.

Dilma Rousseff's Family Tree at the Gabrovo museum

Mrs. Rousseff’s speech in front of the April School startled the citizens of Gabrovo with its warmth and wholeheartedness: she shared that this day was one of the most emotional in her life, comparing it to the birth of her child and grandchild and her election as president, because she was fulfilling her father’s dream of one day returning to Bulgaria. She said, “Part of Bulgaria lives in Brazil in the face of her President.” Rousseff also spoke of creating a new world of tolerance where differences in religion, culture, and ethnicity do not matter.

In Gabrovo, Dilma personally met with the relatives of her father, Petar Rousseff. She visited a museum exhibition called “The Bulgarian Roots of Dilma Rousseff” where she shed tears at the sight of her Bulgarian family tree, which dates back to 1730. She was also very impressed by the portrait of her aunt whom Dilma is named after.

Dilma Rousseff's note in the visitor's book at the Gabrovo museum

The presidential visit was indeed as emotional for Dilma as it was for the people of Gabrovo, who were completely won over by the Brazilian head’s sincerity and humanity.

I  am very impressed that one of the world’s most influential leaders took the time to pay respect to her father’s roots and to honor his people. I find it fascinating that the relationship between Petar Rousseff and Bulgaria was so strong (even after he had to flee the country) that it transferred to Dilma. To me this is a striking example of the powerful link between the emigrant and his motherland and of the burning nostalgia for home that can transcend even generations.  


On Sunday, I went to a fabulous Bulgarian-English wedding at the St. Nedelya church in Sofia. I want to tell you more about the mother of the bride because she is an exceptional woman!

She is married to an Englishman, and they have lived in London forever, yet their two children (the bride and her brother) were baptized as Orthodox Christians instead of Anglicans like the father.

This Bulgarian woman has taught her children such love and respect for their roots that the bride decided to marry in Sofia, in an Orthodox church, despite the fact that her groom and his family (and her own family on the English side) are Anglican! Thus, the groom, his parents, and all of their British guests, including some guests from Brunei, had come to our St. Nedelya church for the ceremony! To make everything perfect, they baptized their little baby boy as an Orthodox Christian too!

The wedding ceremony in the beautifully painted church was lead by two priests: one to perform the ritual, and one to sing accompanied by the choir. Then, all the guests, mostly British and a few Bulgarians, went out of the church and reentered a few minutes later for the second ceremony, the baby’s baptism. The baby started to laugh as its feet touched the water basin!

Next, we all headed for the Sheraton, Sofia’s oldest and most renowned hotel. The menu was only typical Bulgarian cuisine presented in a gourmet way. The entertainment was splendid too: four dancers in national garments and a folklore singer and bagpiper kept both the foreign and local guests in good spirits all night long. The Brits picked up our rhythms surprisingly fast!

Wearing the crowns during the wedding ceremony in St. Nedelya church in Sofia

This was a wonderful transnational interreligious wedding, and it was all made possible thanks to the vigor of that incredible Bulgarian mother of the bride who not only preserved her national sprit in the foreign land, but also continued it through her children and grandchildren.

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Read more about traditional Bulgarian wedding rituals 

or about a rather upsetting baptism ceremony in an Orthodox monastery.

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Gourmet Bulgarian appetizers: lukanka, shopska salad, snezhanka salad, kashkaval, kyopulu, grape leaf sarmi

Traditional breaking of the bread: whoever breaks the bigger part off the bread will be the leader in the home. These are two couples: the newlyweds and the bride's recently married brother and sister-in-law.

I uploaded these videos from the party at the Sheraton Hotel. I think it’s obvious who are the Brits and who the Bulgarians! Enjoy!


As surprising as it sounds, studying “double-abroad” for a semester in London, UK, while studying full-time in Boston, USA, has helped me rediscover my connection with Bulgaria and with my family in many new ways.

As I was strolling about South Kensington last week, I happened upon the most beautiful tri-colored flag fluttering above the door, on the side of which there was a golden plaque saying Embassy of the Republic of Bulgaria. What a nice surprise to find out that my Embassy was right next door to me during my stay in London! I wouldn’t have thought about looking for it myself.

Yet the feeling of comfort at the sight of my national flag was nothing compared to the feeling of comfort when I met with my cousin, Petra. Petra bears the name of my father’s mother, and I – that of his grandmother.

Petra just completed her undergraduate degree here in London, and is now looking for a job in the non-profit sector. Because both of us study abroad, we rarely saw each other in the recent years. It was amazing to hear how similar our stories about living and studying abroad sound, and how we both try to popularize the Bulgarian culture and history among our friends. Maybe she too should start a blog.

The highlight of our reunion was when Petra and I went to a folklore dance class at the Embassy.  It is a beautiful building and an arts gallery. We danced in the main hall, surrounded by contemporary Bulgarian paintings, right in front of the grand staircase and a golden Bulgarian Coat of Arms. There were ten-fifteen dancers, both beginners and almost-professionals, and one instructor. We danced to some of the most famous national folk songs. At one point, we were all dancing the horo and singing „Имала майка едно ми чедо, едно ми чедо Никола” (see the video). At this moment, I was sure that everyone felt very patriotic!

The dance classes at the embassy take place every Thursday and Friday from 7:30pm. Usually, both Bulgarians and foreigners of all ages attend. It’s a great way to celebrate the Bulgarian folklore and to get a good work out!

 

Check out the official website of Boiko Andonov, a  Bulgarian folklore dancer and choreographer in London.


Dilma Rousseff is the newly elected President of Brazil

Happy New Year 2011 to all of us! May it be better than 2010 and worse than 2012! 🙂

With the New Year along came the New President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff. She is the first woman to ever hold this office, and she is half-Bulgarian!

The new head of the 8th economic power in the world and “the 16th most powerful person in the world” according to Forbes magazine is the daughter of the Bulgarian lawyer and entrepreneur Petar Rusev (Perdo Rousseff) and the Brazilian teacher Dilma Jane da Silva. Petar Rusev was from Gabrovo, but emigrated from Bulgaria during the political persecutions of 1929. Notably, he was an active communist and a friend of the Nobel Prize-nominated Bulgarian poet Elisaveta Bagriana.

The whole of Bulgaria followed the Brazilian presidential elections with bated breath and crossed fingers. Dilma’s victory received as much media attention in Bulgaria as in Brazil. Truly, Bulgarians feel tremendously proud that someone who we consider very close to us has earned the trust of the entire Brazilian nation and has been elected to the position of one of the world’s top leaders.

Young Dilma (top) with her mother Dilma, brother Igor, sister Vana, and father Petar Rusev (Pedro Rousseff)

The best of it is that the warm feelings seem to be mutual. During an interview in October, Dilma Rousseff said that she “feel[s] tenderness and love,” for her father’s homeland Bulgaria. The 36th Brazilian president has definitely not forgotten her origins. During the last days of 2010, Dilma received the Bulgarian official delegation headed by the Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who presented her with her father’s family tree.

Dilma’s candidacy and election caused quite a media frenzy in Bulgaria. Our TV and newspapers closely followed her 2010 campaign. The citizens of Gabrovo even compiled an exhibition called “Gabrovo Roots of the Brazilian Presidential Candidate Dilma Rousseff” in the town’s historical museum. Her relatives from the Rusev family have already collected old photos and memories from her father’s youth. They are awaiting her visit, which will most probably take place this year. Dilma’s aunts said that they are excited to meet the Rousseffs and to fill in the missing names on the Brazilian branch of the family tree.

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A recent article in The Economist expressed surprise that Bulgarians are cheering for Dilma’s election. After all, the article said, Hungarians’ didn’t claim that Nicolas Sarkozy was one of their own when he became the French president, so why should we. The European media calls the Bulgarian sudden interest in the Brazilian politics “Dilma’s fever”.

Do you think that it is silly for a small country like ours to celebrate the achievements of those who share, at least partially, our common heritage?

I agree that our interest is a bit of an overreaction. The fact that everyone here knows about Dilma’s origins, but hardly anyone knows much about her party or policy speaks enough. But after all, Bulgaria does not claim that this development will have any effect on our countries’ foreign relations.. or maybe it will, I don’t know!  But in response to the skeptics, I would only say that I think the Bulgarian reaction is just a testimony of how important family relations and blood connection are to Bulgarians. Plus, we are happy that Dilma is not one of the many immigrant descendants who turn their back to Bulgaria. In the end, we don’t expect any favors and don’t want anything from her.


Bulgarians are denominated as Greek Orthodox Christians, so we celebrate Christmas Eve on December 24th. (In contrast, other Orthodox countries like Russia, Georgia, Ukraine*, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia follow the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church and  celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6th and Christmas on Jan 7th).  It is a very private holiday, and is always celebrated by the (closest or extended) family at home.

On the morning of December 24th , my mother and I clean the entire house early and start preparing the meals. We are supposed to have fasted for the past forty days, but none of us is that religious or, as a matter of fact, that strong-willed. But even though we don’t fast, we always make sure that the Christmas Eve dinner is free of meat, cheese, butter, etc.

According to the custom, we prepare an odd number of meals. Scroll down to learn more about each one.

My father reads the prayer before dinner

We all sit around the table, and my father (or the oldest person at the table) reads the prayer.  Then he breaks up the pitka, a special bread that my mother makes from flour, salt, water, and yeast only. The first piece is for the Mother of God and Her Son. The second one is for the house, and after that  dad distributes the rest of the bread to the four of us.  Then we look for the hidden coin in the bread, which would bring good luck and prosperity to whoever finds it! This year, the coin was in my father’s piece, which is ok because it takes the pressure off me and my brother!

In addition to the bread, we have bobena chorba (bean soup), zelevi sarmi (rice stuffed in sour cabbage leaves), kolacheta (donut-shaped bread), two types of tikvenik (pumpkin banitza), oshav (fruit compote), and fresh fruit.  We drink red wine (yes, even my seventeen-year-old brother, Viva Europe!). All the meals should remain on the table throughout the night, so that the good luck does not leave our house.

My family exchanges presents before or after dinner. I guess we just don’t have the patience to wait until Christmas Day morning like Americans do. In the past, my mom would make me and my brother walk the dog. Then as we come back in, she would tell us we just missed Santa by a few minutes, and we would rush toward the Christmas tree.

We do decorate Christmas trees and we do have Santa in Bulgaria. The older generation actually knew the Soviet version of Santa Claus, Diado Mraz (Grandpa Frost). Diado Mraz is very similar to Santa with the only exception that he is usually accompanied by his daughter, Snezhanka (SnowWhite) and brings us presents on New Year’s Eve.

We then spend the rest of Christmas Eve watching movies or Christmas concerts on TV or playing games.  It truly is our most favorite family holiday!

The lucky coin from the special bread was in my father's piece

My grandma sent us these donut-shaped breads called kolache

The good bobena chorba takes a couple of hours to make

These are the zelevi sarmi, stuffed cabbage leaves, and the fruit compote called oshav

Tivkenik, or pumpkin banitza with walnuts is the ultimate Bulgarian Christmas dessert. I made this one!


The Coca-Cola Company has always made the best Christmas commercials!  Their new marketing campaign is, once again, memorable, and this time, it even has a connection with Bulgaria!

The “Snow Globes” TV commercial was created in collaboration with Coca-Cola Germany and McCann, Madrid, and was produced by Bulgaria’s Boyana Film Studio in Sofia. Along with the emblematic Christmas Trucks and the reference to the polar bears, the commercial features only Bulgarian actors: Ivan Petrushinov as Santa, Dido Manchev as the store owner, Nikola Kiuchukov and Desislava Kasabova as the young couple, etc. The Californian Grammy Award winning band Train performs the song “Shake Up Christmas”.

I hope the commercial’s message  inspires you for a wonderful holiday with your friends, family and loved ones!


Our extended family has a new member! A perfect little Christmas gift for my cousin and his wonderful wife!

Grumpy BabyBut what a turmoil the little fellow caused, even before he was named!

In Bulgaria, grandparents-grandchildren name continuity is a very powerful tradition. For us, naming our children after our parents is a sign of respect and gratitude.   I was named after my father’s grandmother. My brother, after my grandfather. My cousin, after our grandmother, and so on, going generations back.

We don’t know why, but my cousin’s wife decided to break the tradition and give her son a unique name. It’s not that big of a deal and no one would have normally noticed anything (because many people follow the tradition, but many also don’t), but it somehow created some tension… or should I say, bitterness. The issue is that the grandfather-to-be really wanted the child to be named after him. He actually said out loud that he would love to give his name to the only son of his only son.

Without questioning the mother’s choice not to honor her father-in-law, I was just wondering, what or who do parents in other countries choose to honor when naming their child?

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Did you know that the second names in Bulgaria are derivatives of the father’s first name? The father’s name gets the suffix –ov for boys and –ova for girls.  For example, if Katerina’s father is called Ivan Petrov, her full name would be Katerina Ivanova Petrova (wink wink to all Vampire Diaries’  and Nina Dobrev’s fans!). In contrast, American parents come up with both their child’s first and second name. Some of my American friends’ first name is “regular”, while their second name represents their ethnicity or cultural heritage: like Shalini or Ryan.

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You celebrate Birthdays? But do you celebrate Name Days? Bulgarians do.

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Why do Bulgarians spit on a baby for good luck?


“I’m really sorry. My family is crazy,” Timmy said.

In the grandparents’ cozy dining room, around the festive table, Timmy’s gregarious family members and I were celebrating my first real Thanksgiving, Irish style.  In the beginning, there was a big fuss about who is sitting where because no one wanted to sit next to the two left-handed people; no one wanted to get elbowed from the left. The merrymaking continued throughout dinner, and the most cheerful giggling came from Timmy’s mom and her twin sister’s corner. Next to me, his other aunt was teasing her son, a second-year frat-boy, about his older Latina girlfriend. This aunt also said that I don’t have to eat Timmy’s mom’s jelly if I don’t like it, and instead passed me her own tomato and pesto stuffing.

Meanwhile, the twin and her husband started arguing about their year of marriage. When it turned out that she was wrong, she lovingly nagged him about his Southern accent. In the other side of the table, Tim’s mom was asking if we could please take a bite from a dish that her colleague at work had made, so that she could at least say that we tried it. As a good son, Timmy was trying from everything… several times:  the sweet potato casserole, the cranberry jelly, the stuffed baked clams, and of course the mouthwatering turkey.

At one point, his dad tried to cut the family’s volume in order to hear Timmy’s sister’s greetings from California over the phone’s loudspeaker. In order to send a picture to the cousins who couldn’t make it this year, the grandmother instructed us to pose in front of the camera. We ended up having to take six or seven shots because she kept telling Timmy to put on a normal face. Then everyone praised the grandmother’s special apple pie, and the grandfather proudly pointed out all her handicraft on the walls and shelves. Then In the end, everyone asked her for a different digestive: various teas, coffees, mint candy, and brandy. Timmy’s mom blamed him of being an alcoholic for asking for brandy.

“Every family is a little bit crazy,” was my response.

Thank you for a charmingly crazy Thanksgiving!


Today, September 17, Eastern Orthodox Christians commemorate the day of the martyr Sophia and her three daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (in Greek, Pistis, Elpis, and Agape; in Bulgarian, Vyara, Nadezhda, and Lyubov).

Sophia was a pious woman who lived in Rome under Emperor Adrian (Hadrian), in the first century AD. She had named her daughters after the main Christian virtues, faith, hope, and love.

When Emperor Adrian found out that the family openly observed Christianity, he ordered them to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. When they refused, the emperor ordered that the young girls, age 12, 10, and 9, be tortured until they rejected Christ.  The girls were killed in the name of their religion and became martyrs. After Sophia buried them, she prayed for three days by their graves and finally died herself, believing she would join them in Heaven.

In our culture, this day is the “name day” of those who bear the names Sofia, Vyara, Nadezhda, or Lyubov, and they receive guests at home.  All Bulgarians celebrate, so that their families are healthy, happy, and filled with love.

Today, we also celebrate the holiday of our capital, Sofia. We have chosen this day to honor our city, although Sofia was not named after the martyr Sophia. In fact, the name of our capital signifies Wisdom. In Greek, Aghia Sophia means the Divine Wisdom of God.

So today, I want to tell my mother, Lyubka, that to me, she signifies All the Love in the World.

Честит празник, мамо!


Less than an hour from the capital Sofia, near the village of Skravena at the foot of Stara Planina, or the Balkan Mountain Range, I discoverd the marvelous “Zdravetz” horse riding-school. The owner and horse trainer, Zdravko, believes that nothing relieves the stress and charges us better than a “journey in time on the back of a horse”.

There are no laptops or cell phones in Zdravko’s home. There’s only the mountain, the horses, the tents, and the good friends.

Zdravko’s front yard is in fact an open-air horse school. His guests can put up tents near the horse rink. There is also bar with a grill and a pool table for the tired cowboys. I didn’t take a dip in the swimming pool because it’s for the kids from “Zdravetz” children’s summer camps, but I did take an arching lesson with Zdravko’s son. We used an old Bulgarian recurve bow with rabbit fur decorations on the sides. Such a bow is very suitable for horseback rider hunting in the forest and was used by the Proto-Bulgarian Bulgar nomadic tribes (see pictures of the Bulgar warriors).

Zdarvko’s twelve horses roam free in the field and the wood behind his house. In the distance, there is an old church and just under it, the remnants of another, ancient church where archaeological excavations are soon to begin. We climbed a little bit further up and saw the breathtaking view of the valley’s fifteen villages. On the sides of every mountain passages, there were ruins from old Thracian and Roman watchtowers that used to guard the road passing through the valley.

This time when I went there, Zdravko showed me how to balance on the horse, amble, and trot. He promised me that in only a few more lessons, he and his friends will take me on a ride up the mountain trails. On a horse in Stara Planina, he said, you will  remember your true Bulgar past.


I recently had a conversation about the way Americans and Bulgarians perceive family names and what impact they have on our life choices.

My American interlocutor said that he was once offended when someone tried to learn more about him by asking “What does your father do?” Instead, he though, they should’ve asked “What do you do?”  Why should my father be a benchmark for me, he said.

I disagree. To me, my father and my family are a source of pride. I am honored when I am connected or compared to my father because to me this means that I have lived up to a great expectation.

But I don’t know if I’m thinking in such a way because I’m Bulgarian or because I’m me.  

Maybe it’s because I’m Bulgarian: In the States, you middle name is randomly chosen, just as your first name.  But in Bulgaria, my middle name is the first name of my father. We always carry our name first, then the name of our fathers, then the name of our family kin.

I can’t escape thinking that this concrete bondage creates a feeling of duty.  My interlocutor agreed and said that Americans whose name ends in “Junior” usually belong to a rich and old elite where succession of businesses or careers is also typical (such families are the Bushes, the Kennedys)

But then, maybe it’s because I’m me:  Speaking of family names, maybe my particular family name matters even more than the Bulgarian naming tradition. I know that my last name is unique;  really, it’s very uncommon and you couldn’t even pronounce it. We are an old and large family, and I know that anybody who carries this last name is my relative.

Because our name makes our kin so distinctive, I feel that whatever I do, I have a last name to live up to. Otherwise, my failures will be traced back to my family and might hurt its reputation.

 I wonder, if I had a more common name, if I were called Brown or Smith or Ivanova or Petrova, would I still have such strong emotions for my name? You tell me.


Family bonds can be a marvelous thing! My mother and father were just spending the weekend in the house where he was born, in Bulgaria’s Melnik region. As they were taking a walk in the nearby village, someone recognized him as the son of his father. My grandfather had a good reputation in the region because our clan is old and well-known in Southwest Bulgaria.  The people who recognized my father invited him to sit with them. They told him we were relatives. My father didn’t recognize their family name at fist, so they explained to him how we were related:

A woman from their kin, Elena Talkova from the village of Harsovo, had married a man from our kin, Alexa Milyov from Kapatovo, over 125 years ago! She had a daughter and two sons,  the younger of whom was the father of my grandfather Alexa. Elena had died over a 110 years ago. Still, the family preserved her memory, and the two kinfolk still consider themselves relatives!

Later, one of my father’s uncles confirmed that over 50 years ago, we had family interaction with the Talkovi kin and that we will continue to perceive ourselves as one family as long as the successors remembered the family history.

I believe in preserving family traditions. That’s why my brother is also called Alexa, and I am named after my great-grandmother, Militza.


Today Eva and I were thinking about the eternal songs that never fail to touch our souls.

She named Ederlezi as her all-time favorite. Ederlezi is  a song about the life of Gypsy or Roma people on the Balkans. The name originally signifies a the Muslim holiday celebrating spring, but the Slavs on the Balkans have long ago assimilated this holiday into the Christian St. George’s Day. Ederlezi originated as a folk song and was immortalized by the music of Goran Bregovic. Today, there are versions of the lyrics in Roma, Serbian, and Bulgarian. 

The song I chose as one that always filles me with emotions is Horchat Hai Caliptus, or translated from Hebrew, Eucalyptus Forest. It is a song about the Palestinians and the Israeli, and the beauty of the Jordan river shores despite of any wars. The song is originally sang by Ishtar, but here I am posting a cover by Bulgarian Music Idol contestant Preslava Peicheva. I am sure that Ishtar wouldn’t mind this gentle voice singing her song.

Both songs leave a bittersweet feeling in your heart. They are both about ancient peoples whose historical fates have been filled with turmoil, but whose culture and traditions have been kept alive through the years. I think this is what makes these two songs so powerful.

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