Under the Yoke (Под игото) – Spoiler Alert!

Ask any Bulgarian about their country’s history, and it won’t be long before they bring up the period of Ottoman oppression. The roughly 500 years spent under the Sultan were dark times for Bulgaria. From ~1396 – 1878, Bulgarians endured what is often described as brutal subjugation, or even slavery. Cultural centers were destroyed, literature was lost or confiscated, and many of the country’s most educated citizens fled the country. As a result, Bulgarian culture was stifled, and isolated from technological and cultural advancements in the rest of Europe. But Bulgarians are a proud and determined people. Despite centuries of oppression, they survived, and did the best they could to preserve their religion and culture.

Tensions reached a boiling point in the mid to late 19th century, and Bulgarians started to revolt. Knowing that this was such an important part of Bulgarian history, I wanted to learn more. I decided to read Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov. The book–written by one of Bulgaria’s cherished poets, writers, and playwrights–describes life under Turkish oppression. More specifically, it follows the story of Boicho Ognianoff, a young revolutionary who escapes from Turkish prison with the goal of inciting a rebellion against Bulgaria’s Ottoman oppressors.

After escaping from prison, Boicho goes into hiding, relying on the good will of fellow Bulgarians to shelter him. However, when he witnesses a couple of Turkish guards attempt to rape an innocent 14-year-old girl, he emerges from hiding and kills them. This is just one of many acts of defiance that earns Boicho the reputation of a hero. With the help of several other staunch Bulgarian patriots, Boicho plans uprisings in Klissoura and Bela Cherkva, two Bulgarian towns. Tension builds as plans are finalized, arms are collected, and guards learn of the uprising.

Boicho and his closest compatriots man defenses just outside of Klissoura. Dr. Sokoloff, another key leader and Bulgarian patriot leads the efforts in Bela Cherkva. A mass of Ottoman soldiers are sent to quell the rebellion, and knowing the success of the entire rebellion depends on both cities rising up in unison, Boicho leaves Klissoura to see how things are progressing in Bela Cherkva. Much to his dismay, Bela Cherkva seems as peaceful as ever. Moreover, he encounters Turkish forces heading to crush Klissoura, and while they don’t recognize Boicho in his Turkish disguise, they force him to join the attack party. While he manages to escape and rejoin his men in Klissoura, bravery is starting to falter. Boicho even threatens his comrades as they start to flee. The Turkish soldiers crush the rebellion, and only a handful of revolters survive.

Miraculously, though he was the last to abandon the fort, Boicho survives. After narrowly avoiding capture and certain death, he stumbles upon several of his compatriots who try to convince him to flee with them to Romania. Boicho decides instead to continue to Bela Cherkva after learning that his love Rada was still alive there (he had assumed she was dead after seeing the home she was in burning when the Turks invaded Klissoura).

While hiding just outside Bela Cherkva, Boicho is reunited with Dr. Sokoloff. Boicho learns that “cowardice and treachery” doomed the revolt there. As they are discussing the failed revolt, Rada arrives, and she and Boicho are overcome with joy. However, Rada brings news that the Turks are fast approaching. A local woman had seen Boicho, and reported where he was hiding. Before they have time to think, they notice a large group of about 100 Turks approaching quickly. They took shelter in a mill, but knew they were surrounded. Dr. Sokoloff and Boicho count their remaining cartridges. “Eighteen…enough to die honorably.”

The Turks fire several volleys into the mill, and it’s clear that the trio’s final moments have arrived. They know they must not be captured, so they agree to save the final bullets for themselves. Boicho accidentally fires his last shot, and Dr. Sokoloff only has two remaining. He selflessly gives Boicho his last two bullets, and rushes into the crowd of Turks fighting heroically. A short while later, the Turks are marching demoniacally back to Bela Cherkva, brandishing the heads of their victims proudly.

While this story ultimately ends in a failed rebellion, Vazov conveys an incredibly strong sense of Bulgarian nationalism. He paints what I suspect is an accurate representation of how many Bulgarians felt under Turkish oppression. I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Bulgarian history, or who are just looking for an interesting story with strong characters.

Cooking with Krassy – Banitsa!

So by now, you’ve heard all about my friend Krassy. Ever since my family complimented his cooking during their visit, he has insisted that I learn his recipes and send pictures and instructions back to my Mom. What better place to start than with banitsa (банитца)–a traditional Bulgarian food (often eaten for breakfast) made with eggs, Bulgarian white cheese, and pastry. Here is Krassy’s banitsa recipe!

Step 1: Put on favorite flannel pajamas. Cooking banitsa requires extreme dexterity, so comfort is of paramount importance.

Step 2: Gather ingredients. Point at each ingredient multiple times and make Michael repeat the name after you. He learns slowly, so be patient! Ingredients: five eggs (пет яйца), Bulgarian white cheese (сирене), pastry dough (тесто), soda water (газирана вода) and oil (олио).

Krassy's kitchen

Krassy’s kitchen

Step 3: Remind Michael that he must write down every step so that he can send it to his Mom. Double-check his progress throughout the recipe to ensure each step is properly documented.

Step 4: Spread oil on bottom of circular pan.

Pan with oil

Pan with oil

Step 5: Open pastry dough, and cover bottom of pan with thin layer.

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Step 6: Cut chunks of cheese and spread evenly across layer of pastry. Don’t be shy with that сирене!

Krassy cutting the cheese (tee hee)

Krassy cutting the cheese (tee hee)

Step 7: Add layer of pastry dough, covering the first layer of cheese.

Step 8: Repeat steps 5 and 6 until entire package of pastry dough has been used.

Step 9: Crack eggs and dump into mixing bowl.

5 eggs

5 eggs

Step 10: Throw all eggs away upon realizing that one egg had gone bad.

Step 11: Crack new eggs and re-dump into mixing bowl.

Let's try that again...

Let’s try that again…

Step 12: Add half liter of soda water to egg mixture, and stir until evenly mixed.

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газирана вода

Step 13: Pour egg and water mixture over layered cheese and pastry dough. Cover entirely.

Step 14: Suddenly remember that you forgot a cooking essential–your apron! Consider starting the entire recipe over, but decide to press on.

Apron!

Apron!

Step 15: Put pan in the oven at a “very hot” (много горещo) temperature. Tell Michael the actual temperature isn’t important, or else you will have to go get your reading glasses from the other room. Oven font is small.

Place banitsa in the oven

Place banitsa in the oven

Step 16: Drink rakia and eat shopska salad while you wait for delicious banitsa to cook.

Rakia and Shopska

Rakia and Shopska

Step 17: Squat in front of oven and smoke 2-3 cigarettes.

Almost...

Almost…

Step 18: Explain Bulgarian talk show to Michael while eating.

Bulgarian TV

Bulgarian TV

Step 19: Finagle with temperature incessantly to get that crisp brown banitsa.

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Step 20: Take many blurry pictures of Michael with finished banitsa, so he can send to his family. Make him wear apron because his Mom will surely love that.

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Step 21: Feel sorry for Peshoo because he is stuck with rabbit food.

Poor Peshoo!

Poor Peshoo!

Cooking Banitsa with Krassy was a (delicious) blast. A few days later, we also made some cheese pastries (I can’t remember the name) and a dessert cake (торта)–pictures below! This is as domestic as I get, folks.

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Making pastries

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A work in progress

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In the oven

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Cooling on the porch

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Finished cheese pastries!

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Torta ingredients – pretty simple!

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Chocolate glue

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Spreading the chocolate evenly 

Mom does Bulgaria – Guest blog post!

Last week, I was thrilled to show my parents and sisters around Bulgaria! I met them in Bucharest, and then showed them around Silistra and Sofia before heading to Munich, Germany. Since you hear from me all the time, I thought it would be nice to bring in some different perspectives. The first guest blog post is from my wonderful mother Marilyn! Thank you Mom–Enjoy!

Guest Blog Post – Marilyn Pelehach

Dining with Krassy and his wife, Nadia, was one of the highlights of our family trip to visit Michael in Silistra.  As a Mom, it is wonderful to see that Michael has a “best friend” who really cares about him.  I know that if Michael runs into a medical, cultural, language or transportation problem, Krassy and Nadia will be right there to help Michael navigate through the crisis. He has already prescribed treatment for Michael’s recent congestion, and one day insisted Michael needed a haircut, and took him to his neighbor barber!  Krassy and Nadia greeted each of us with hugs and Bulgarian gifts.

Nazdrave! Cheers!

Nazdrave! Cheers!

Krassy had prepared a multiple course dinner which Nadia graciously served.  Conversation flowed over Lutenitsa (homemade Bulgarian specialty of tomatoes and peppers), shopska salad (traditional local salad of tomato, cucumber and Bulgarian white cheese), sausages, beef, homemade rakia (STRONG brandy), wine and a variety of desserts.  Now keep in mind that Krassy speaks NO English, Nadia holds her own with English, and Michael has a fairly good command of Bulgarian for having been there less than 3 months.  Mostly it is Krassy’s tutelage coupled with Michael’s motivation to learn the language that has given Michael these skills.  Krassy is very dramatic, gesturing, acting out and drawing pictures to communicate.  Humor can even be communicated with a language barrier.  We met “Peshoo,” the female rabbit given a male name that Krassy says is in the Mafia.

Michael with "Peshoo"

Michael with “Peshoo”

Krassy played his favorite Serbian music for us.  Since most of the conversation was in English, leaving Krassy at a disadvantage, he was constantly calling out to get Michael’s attention, teaching him more Bulgarian vocabulary.  Our dinner was very leisurely, the numerous courses spanning about five hours.

Krassy pretending to be relaxing at the beach!

Krassy pretending to be relaxing at the beach!

Displaying his devotion to Michael, the following day Krassy called Michael’s teacher mentor twice trying to arrange a city tour for our family.  While we were unable to take advantage of that kind offer due to our travel schedule, that didn’t stop Krassy! When we arrived at the bus station to board our bus to the capital of Sofia, Krassy was waiting for us with a bag full of two dozen apples and three jars of his homemade Lutenitsa!  Quite a send off for our family!

bus stop krassy

Krassy says goodbye at bus stop

Impressions of Bulgaria

Several things struck me as unique to Bulgaria.  We had learned before our trip that Bulgaria is one of a very few countries that nod their head to indicate “no” and shake their head to indicate “yes”.  This takes some getting used to, especially since with some Western influence, some Bulgarians have started to adopt the Western way and nod for yes and shake for no.  Michael had tipped us off to notice head gestures and pointed out to us that many times Bulgarians will do more of a “bobble” circular motion with their head meaning…well, you are never sure!  At dinner with Krassy and Nadia, we discussed this and they both insisted that they nod and shake like Americans do.  Shortly thereafter, Michael told his family members to watch Krassy’s response to “Do you like Serbian music” (which he loves).  His response was a head shake indicating “yes”.

As you pass Bulgarians on the street, they are sometimes very serious, not greeting others with a smile or acknowledgment.  All the Bulgarians we met were Michael’s friends, colleagues or students and consequently were very friendly to their American visitors. Interestingly, while visiting Michael’s ninth grade class, I was asked to share my impressions of Bulgaria. I stated that I found Bulgarians to be very friendly. The classroom teacher chuckled and told me, “No, we are not friendly.  We are known to be very serious people.” We discussed this with two Bulgarian friends of Michael’s who he had met at the summer Fulbright Institute. They explained that Bulgarians are serious by nature. They have many hardships, and have lived in poverty with much political upheaval over centuries.

House in Silistra

My barber shop (not kidding)

We learned that Bulgarians consider it bad luck to say they are happy or are having fun. On Monday morning he asked his class if they had a fun weekend and asked them to share what they did ( to practice speaking in English). The universal response was that they didn’t have any fun.  Later when dining with his friends in Sofia, we inquired about this too.  They acknowledged that they never respond to a question that everything is fine or they had fun.  It just isn’t the way it is done there.  Unlike here where when someone asks, “How are you”? we almost always respond “Fine”, even if that isn’t the case.