A Bulgarian Winter

Dear Reader,

Today, January 6, is a truly remarkable day in Bulgaria. For one, it is, among many other things, the birthday of poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev, who quite truthfully claimed that we Bulgarians both hated and loved with a passion.

Hristo Botev (1848-1876), a 3D animation by Studio Vrabchev. Now that’s a good-looking Bulgarian lad with a heart in its right place. Looks quite fashionable according to modern-day standards too. And he died only 28…You know, when I light a candle for the departed in a church, I always say a little prayer for all those youths, known and unknown, who have selflessly given – their energy, wit, passion and eventually life, to Bulgaria. Source: Click here.

He also ended one of his poems with the emphatic exclamation “And you, you are idiots!“, his exasperation being directed at his somnolent compatriots who preferred their petty domestic comfort to the risks of raising their voice for freedom.

It is also Theophany, or Epiphany, or The Baptism of Christ in Jordan, a holiday for the Orthodox and also a day on which our Patriarch blesses the Bulgarian battle flags in a tradition kept alive since 917, save for a brief interruption under Communism. You could count on those guys to interrupt and eradicate things that have survived for centuries before them.

In line with the above, January 6 is the Badni Vecher, or Christmas Vigil, that we Bulgarians don’t celebrate together with most of the Orthodox world, since the late 1960s when the Communists, for reasons still not completely understood, moved the country’s religious calendar, single-handedly and overnight, to the Gregorian calendar that has been observed for civilian purposes since WWI.

Driving past the Russian Church right opposite the Military Club at the crossing of Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd and Rakovska Str, January 6. The literary cafe mentioned here was located next to this church which was larger before the WWII bombings but suffered damage and was rebuilt smaller than it originally was. And Rakovska Street is in fact Rakovski Blvd, but we Sofians still refer to a few streets in the centre by their pre-communism names, when there were no boulevards, only streets and chaussees, which were roads leading out of the town. Thus, the currently central Graf Ignatiev Street was once called Samokovsko Chaussee, because it led to the nearby town of Samokov, and a very busy modern thoroughfare is still called Tsarigradsko Chaussee because it was supposedly the way to Tsarigrad, which, as we all know, was Istanbul, not Constantinople.

It was a bit complicated to follow two calendars, I agree, but still, we have failed to preserve the Apostles’ calendar, in place since around the time the Deeds were compiled, and observing religious holidays was not at the top of the communists’ agenda anyway, so apart from creating long-standing lines of division within the Orthodox community, this move has achieved little else.

All people named Jordan, Jordanka and other related names celebrate a name day, in what is perhaps among the top four name-day occasions in the country, alongside the days celebrating the names of Ivan, Georgi, and names derived from botanical species.

The Baptism of Christ in Jordan. Source: Click here.

It is also a day in which the Bulgarian tradition, echoing the baptism of Christ by water, calls on all red-blooded men to dive into the icy waters of the nearest available river in search of a cross which a priest has previously thrown inside. The one lucky enough to find it is supposed to be healthy and lucky throughout the year.

The Bulgarian Orthodox church has been advising against such health-jeopardising acts of bravado for years, timidly suggesting that vanity and superstition may be driving participants more strongly than faith into the nearly freezing waters. 

Also, since I’ve been a teenager, I have always been amused to irreverently associate this cross hunting with a song, Holy Diver by Ronnie James Dio, whose enigmatic lyrics I have, alas, not been able to interpret in a more plausible fashion.

The icy horo in the town of Kalofer, the birthplace of Hristo Botev. Source: Click here.

In Hristo Botev’s birth town of Kalofer, a traditional and quite unique icy horo in the Tundzha River is held. The icy horo is one of the rare occasions in which Bulgarians, traditionally given to pulling in opposing directions, experience a true feeling of community, which, in my book, makes the tradition worthy of respect and support. 

Last, but not least, January 6, this year at least, was the day in which life in Bulgaria stood still.

Oborishte Street, direction is towards the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, Jan 6, 2017, at about 08.30 am.

Schoolchildren are off school because of a raging influenza. Parents are at their wits’ end about what to do with them. Locking them into a cupboard until school starts accepting them back is tempting but regrettably is not an option.

View to Moskovska Street from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, January 5.

Mountain passes and highways alike are closed to traffic, and entire towns and villages are cut off because of heavy snowfalls. Temperature in the morning was about -10 Celsius in Sofia, and less elsewhere in the country today.

Oborishte Street, walking home from my daughter’s kindergarten, January 6.

Traffic in the capital was at about half of what it usually is because many people, me included, thought it safer not to drive and be bothered about parking today. TV and radio news and the papers act as though competing for a prize to be awarded to whoever delivers weather information in the most apocalyptic fashion, scaring those not already sick and bed-ridden right out of their socks.

…One cannot help smiling at the collage above, can one? It shows news titles appearing between 2010 and 2016, each one claiming Bulgaria is to face its harshest winter in living memory in that respective year.

The building of the Holy Synod, January 5.

Well, to all who haven’t noticed – Bulgaria is a country with a temperate continental climate, which means it has four distinct seasons including winter. Winter means snow. When I was a child I remember that snow and sub-zero cold lasted for months and not a week or two, but communist-time journalism had a more stoic approach to life and never allowed weather news to get in the way of triumphant, though rather dubious, feature stories of plan economy over- achievements.

Pre-Communism buildings on Aksakov Street, January 5. I would like to wring the necks of those graffiti scribblers, I tell you.

What has changed now is this – news channels are mostly privately-held and need to shock in order to sell. In addition, as rather amusingly stated here, and corroborating my claim of the harsher winters of the past, weather forecast presentations today have largely been entrusted to pretty girls born in 1995, who have last seen snow in a Dubai mall, have never tended to the domestic sauerkraut, a winter staple that used to be stored at everyone’s balcony, and have spent last January at some tropical resort with their boyfriends. Quite.

Source: Lidl.bg

Now if you have been following my earlier entries, you’d be familiar with the humorous caption of the leeks photo. It says “It’s winter. Big Leeks.” The latter, apart from describing what’s in the picture, is an idiomatic expression meaning “big deal,” as I have explained here. The second caption, next to the oranges, says “Summertime is fresh juice time. With us, wintertime is just as right.

I believe this subtly recalls a reality of the near past, in which oranges and tangerines were available in limited quantities and only around Christmas. Younger Bulgarians who have not lived through these happy times look incredulous at you when you try to explain, that I feel almost privileged for having had the opportunity to live under communism, albeit in its final and most ideologically relaxed years. 

Source: Dalivali.bg

The above is the weather forecast till January 12, dear Reader. As you can see, one would have to muster all one’s internal sources of warmth to get through the cold in good health and spirits. As usual, I’ll turn to good books, good food, good company and good thoughts for sustenance.

As far as good thoughts go, how about dreaming of the soothing, warm and reawakening spring rains that wash away the slush and staleness of winter? This is a very beloved Bulgarian song of the 1980s talking exactly about this, and words fail to express the beauty of its lyrics. I get the goosebumps when I listen to it, truly.

Since a child I have thought about this – Bulgarian songs, even those for children, have long and complicated lyrics with poetic words, great descriptive power and hardly any inane repetitions that may generally be expected in nursery rhymes. Poems put to music, that’s what they are.

Now that’s a bag I could have taken to the opera. Although when I look at it, I always remember a great book on style from the 1960s, authored by a former Nina Ricci designer by the name of Madame Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, who claimed that alligator and alligator-print handbags were for travelling and daily pursuits, and definitely not for formal occasions. I’ve had this since my son was a baby and have always thought I was somehow too young for it. Now it suddenly felt right, so perhaps I’ve matured a bit, as graciously as a cathedral, as a Bulgarian saying goes. 🙂

Warm greetings from chilly Sofia, 

PS. Back home from the cold, I had a cup of that – mysterious Snow Chrysanthemum tea. It has a deep red colour and a grassy-fruity smoky, hibiscus-like taste. Looks amazing too.