From the pen of Turlough Ó Maoláin ...

The Chronicles of Bulgaria

I Did What I Did for Maria

08/03/2021

As I was thrashing at my thicket by the side of the road close to our house yesterday morning, our almost-neighbour, Maria, stopped to talk to me. I call her almost-neighbour because she spends her daylight hours in a lovely little old house about five hundred metres up the lane from us but in the evenings she returns to her apartment in town and becomes someone else’s almost-neighbour until sunrise.

Maria is our oldest neighbour but also our newest in that she’s seventy-one years old but we’ve only known her for a couple of months. Every morning she catches a bus from near her apartment block to the bus stop in the square in our village and then walks for twenty minutes to her country residence, passing our house on the way. Later in the day she does the same journey in reverse. She does this every day of the year. It seems that she can’t not do it. It’s in her psyche, rather like an East African Wildebeest’s need to complete its annual five hundred kilometre migratory loop but without the mating and the territorial battles with dominant group members. She must have been making this daily trek all the time that I have lived here but I can’t remember seeing her until recently.

We first got to know her as we exchanged pleasantries a couple of times when we bumped into her in the street whilst out walking. She always ended our brief conversations with the words ‘life and health’ (живот и здраве, in Bulgarian, and pronounced ‘zheevot ee zdraveh’). Then one day when it was snowing heavily and the top two thirds of our thermometer were well and truly superfluous to requirements, we saw her plodding her way down to the bus shelter where it was so cold that my friend, Alcoholic X, had had to resort to drinking anti-freeze (though he has been known to do this in the summer months too). Priyatelka and I decided that she looked as though she was struggling with life and certainly didn’t look very healthy. So we offered her a lift into town and the warmth of our car seemed to revive her. We had rescued cats from the street in extreme weather conditions before but this was the first time we had ever rescued a Maria.

For the length of the four kilometre journey she chattered incessantly and cried a bit behind the cover of her facemask. At first we thought that this may have been her complaining about the filthy state of our car but from the rapid flow of her Bulgarian words we deciphered that all her family had moved away and in recent years she had lost her husband who she had loved, and consequently she was feeling very lonely.

As the weeks have gone by the weather has improved but we still give Maria a lift whenever we see her, even if she doesn’t want to go anywhere. She’s a lovely old lady (though really not all that much older than me) and whenever she’s not crying she has a big smile on her face. So it was nice that she stopped to talk to me yesterday morning while I was clearing the wilderness that exists in the narrow strip of no man’s land between our garden fence and the road that joins our village with the point where the wilderness becomes wilder.

 

The view from the kitchen window of Maria’s country cottage.

The view from the kitchen window of Maria’s country cottage.

 

For the first thirty or forty minutes of our quick chat I enjoyed listening to her but eventually I began to feel a bit ridiculous standing at the bottom of an embankment in my dirty smelly work clothes surrounded by dead tree branches, old car tyres, a fridge door and a fascinating array of empty plastic beer bottles discarded by the village’s most enthusiastic drinkers of plastic beer while Maria stood on the road above shouting down at me in Bulgarian. Partly because of the distance between us but more so because Maria had had sixty-six more years’ experience with the local lingo than I had, I could only pick out a few words from her discourse, such as those meaning house, dog, flag, guests, wood, bread, feminine hygiene products, octopus and tell the village mayor to clear the rubbish the lazy old eejit.

People tend to talk more freely when they have had a sip of alcohol and I wondered if this was why she took a half litre plastic bottle of a mystery potion from her shopping bag, but then I wondered exactly how much more freely it was possible for her to talk. She removed the lid from the bottle and poured into it a small amount of liquid which she drank before resealing it and saying ‘Rakia! Rakia! Rakia!’ as her eyes shone like diamonds and she gestured to me to take it from her. I was worried that she was expecting me to join her in a mid-morning roadside drinking session but she pointed to our house in a way that suggested that I should put it somewhere safe until later when all my work was done, and you’ll see down the page a few paragraphs why I wasn’t as excited about this as she was. Also, mixing chainsaws and rakia can have unpleasant consequences and may reduce a man’s expectations in terms of life and health.

You may find this hard to believe but I got the impression that she too could see how absurd the situation had become and was really inviting me back to her place so that the neighbours wouldn’t see what was going on, or ask for a glass of our refreshment. I had always been told to say no to strangers and to never go off alone with them, but my curiosity was getting the better of me. So I went to get Priyatelka from the house to act as chaperone and assist with the translation and then the three of us walked up the lane chatting away merrily in a combination of English, Bulgarian, French and a few words that Priyatelka had made up, as she is inclined to do.

 

Maria’s rakia decanted into a posh bottle, because we’re very sophisticated in Malki Chiflik.

Maria’s rakia decanted into a posh bottle, because we’re very sophisticated in Malki Chiflik.

 

As we approached, it was difficult to see Maria’s house because in her garden there were probably as many grapevines growing as there are in Languedoc-Roussillon, the Thracian Valley and Leeds combined. Wherever there wasn’t a vine growing there was a cat or a small dog or a chicken or a beehive. From the inside of her house it was difficult to see her garden because of the dense forest of potted plants. We couldn’t decide if she had brought them inside for the winter to protect them from the cold or if they were inside because there simply wasn’t any more room for them outside in the grapevine jungle. As she showed us around her garden she went to great lengths to point out that she wasn’t guilty of practising monoculture, as between each row of vines she had planted a row of potatoes. She was also very proud of the bucket of small home-produced turnips that she kept by her back door, which would be handy for giving to kids on that trick-or-treat night, if such a thing existed in the Balkans.

On this lovely warm spring day we were in the company of a lovely little lady in her lovely little house from which there was a lovely view of our lovely little valley. Everything was just lovely. I said to Priyatelka ‘Isn’t it lovely?’ and she replied ‘Yes!’ What could possibly go wrong? Well I’ll tell you what went wrong. This lovely day was the first anniversary of the day on which alcohol had last touched my lips. For the first time since I was three I had gone a whole year without a drop of the strong drink. Priyatelka had done the same. We were absolutely delighted with our achievement, even though it had been made easier for us with our social life snatched away in accordance with the Bulgarian Health Ministry’s antivirus rules and regulations, and we had decided to continue in this constant state of sobriety for the rest of our lives. And then almost-neighbour went and got the family size rakia bottle out of the rakia bottle cupboard. In a panic, Priyatelka immediately declared that she never drinks … ha! But Bulgarian people take great pride in offering a glass of their homemade tipple when welcoming guests into their homes and it would have been rude for us both to turn down her hospitality. So muggins here felt obliged to take a drink and consequently fell off the wagon exactly one year to the day from getting on it. Maria’s big smile grew even bigger as we said наздраве! (the Bulgarian word for ‘to health’ or ‘cheers’, pronounced as naz-dra-vee), clinked our glasses together and imbibed sixty or seventy millilitres of Bulgaria’s national pastime. I really hadn’t wanted to break my vow of abstinence. I only did what I did for Maria.

 

The view from the kitchen window of Maria’s apartment in town.

The view from the kitchen window of Maria’s apartment in town.

 

Maria had made the rakia herself from her own grapes with her own bare hands and feet and using her own still (казан, in Bulgarian, and pronounced ‘kazan’) and her own plastic bottles that she had emptied herself. It really was excellent stuff. I had forgotten just how good a feeling it gives you as it permeates every cell of your body and makes you smile like Maria does. It’s important to emphasise this because so many people come here from Western Europe or the world beyond and write off rakia as firewater when in actual fact it is a spirit with much more flavour and body to it than the likes of many types of vodka or gin. I think the problem lies in the fact that foreigners are not usually accustomed to drinking spirits without fancy additives that kill the taste. From day one I have been at ease with rakia drunk the proper way because all of my life I have been of the opinion that if someone is going to the trouble to manufacture a beverage of such excellence then it is very wrong and impolite to pollute it with the taste of Coca Cola, quinine or other types of fizzy pop loaded with chemicals. Maria and I only ever mix our rakia with more rakia.

To make up for her not being able to join us in a drink, Priyatelka was given a tray of freshly laid eggs; so fresh that the chicken excrement stuck to them was still warm and a bit runny. She was also given a jar of some sort of preserved meat items that we decided must have been fresh at some point during the preceding twelve months but in all honesty didn’t look as appetising as the warm runny substance stuck to the eggs. I feel guilty about prejudging these potted animal parts before trying them, particularly as they were animal parts that I didn’t recognise. It’s easy for us to say that we don’t like pork chops because most of us have at least tasted them at some point in our lives but to write off spleens, noses and nipples without any previous experience of ingesting them is very impolite. I’m sure the delicacies in the jar are just as worthy of a place in Bulgarian culinary tradition as rakia is but it’s worth noting that I never heard anyone say ‘for health’ when the jar was handed over to us, and Maria did seem quite pleased to be getting rid of it.

With the help of bilingual friends and relatives equipped with telephones we established that Maria, having lost her husband in the last three years, was lonely and in need of friends, wood for her rakia still and an occasional lift to her other home in the evenings. We all agreed that we liked each other (Priyatelka and I had already been liking each other for almost two years, which saved us a bit of time), that Maria’s first lift of the new agreement would be that very evening and that she would call round for us at 6:00 pm.

 

The outcome of a grape-based refreshment-based incident that Priyatelka and I would rather not discuss.

The outcome of a grape-based refreshment-based incident that Priyatelka and I would rather not discuss.

 

At 5:15 pm she appeared at our garden gate. We offered her a cup of tea but she said no because she was in a hurry to get home; probably desperate for a drop more rakia, we thought. We all got into the car, which had recently been cleaned, serviced and certified safe to travel in by a government appointed inspector, but she still put her mask on and cried a bit. Then she told us that she didn’t want us to drop her off the usual mutually convenient place but instead asked to be taken to her apartment block, so we obliged. We stopped the car by the building’s main door and waited for her to get out but, using only the medium of the Bulgarian tongue, she invited us to join her inside and we were in yet another it-would-be-rude-not-to situation.

The slowest moving white knuckle ride that I have ever experienced was the creaky old lift which successfully did the job of elevating us to the fifth floor even though it appeared to be constructed entirely from 1960’s Formica coffee tables and spare parts from Soviet tractors. Her apartment was much the same inside as her house had been except it had furniture instead of potted plants and framed family photographs instead of potted animal parts. It also lacked the outstanding view of the countryside but from her balcony she had an outstanding view of twenty or thirty more Communist era concrete apartment blocks, which I think are strangely beautiful in their own way.

Once again the rakia bottle appeared and this time I was less reluctant to join our hostess in a glass as it had only been seven hours since my last drink rather than 366 days. Once again I was only having a drink for Maria’s sake. As the amber liquid warmed me in the belly and in the brain, Priyatelka drank a glass of locally produced cola which I suspect does a lot more damage to the internal organs than any grape-based refreshment might but on the other hand it doesn’t seem to hinder attempts to keep the body upright, as rakia might if taken in the wrong / right quantities. Other items brought to the table included traditional Bulgarian dry roasted peanuts, a huge box of chocolates (which Maria boasted to have bought fresh from Lidl that morning) and a block of homemade goat’s cheese. Feeling a bit puzzled, Priyatelka and I looked around the room to see where the goat was kept before realising that the cheese must have been homemade in her other home in our village.

She then proceeded to show us photographs of her children who had moved away to distant parts of Bulgaria and of her granddaughter who was even more distant in a place called London. A job in IT in Canary Wharf could never replace life in rural or even suburban Bulgaria but I suppose the lure of the lucre is greater than the lure of the homemade goat’s cheese, fresh eggs and fresh air. How much happier we would all be without global economics.

 

The view from the bedroom window of Maria’s apartment in town.

The view from the bedroom window of Maria’s apartment in town.

 

After an hour, despite our concerted effort to reduce it, the combined weight of the remaining nuts, cheese and chocolates must still have exceeded two kilogrammes and Maria was still toing and froing between the big smiling face and the crying as she told us about her lovely family as it had been in the past and how lonely she was now that they had gone, leaving her all alone and friendless. We wondered if we would ever be able to get away without offending her. And then the doorbell rang and Kamelia came to our rescue. Kamelia, another nice lady, was Maria’s best friend who had invited herself round for an evening of non-stop chatter and gossip (and probably rakia), the main topic for which I was sure would be Priyatelka and me. After our two to three hundred thank-you’s, a grand tour of her three room abode, and our assurance that we would see her at her Malki Chiflik house sometime within the next few days, the Formica-Belarus deluxe model lift arrived to return us to a place where the air wasn’t loaded with dangerous levels of alcohol vapour. We had ‘escaped’ from what was really a wonderful, heart-warming experience.  

This morning I returned to my work in the wilderness strip. At around eleven o’clock Maria and Kamelia walked by, both in a good mood because they had just been to the cemetery, and both remarked upon what a good job I had done so far with the land clearance. I agreed that my progress had been remarkable, considering how much of my time I had spent talking to passers-by. In addition to Maria and Kamelia there had been several more, the most time-consuming of which was the woman who repeatedly tells me that she doesn’t like our dogs and that I shouldn’t be working on that piece of land as it’s a public right of way, even though no member of the public had been able to make their way through it for years on account of it being totally blocked off by dead tree branches, old car tyres, fridge doors, empty plastic beer bottles and the mortal remains of people who didn’t like our dogs.

It was very cold and light rain had started to fall. Having started early, I was tired and ready to retire for the day. Maria put her hand in her shopping bag and rummaged around for a while, eventually producing a smaller bag with something solid in it. Not more rakia and potted body parts, I hoped, but it turned out to be two chocolate wafer biscuits. It seemed that, having cemented our friendship yesterday, the rakia based honeymoon period was over. My digestive system and I breathed a sigh of relief and cracked on with being sober as we waved goodbye to lovely but lonely Maria and her best friend Kamelia. I suspected that this had been only the first of many episodes in the tale of these two ladies.

 

Number of comments: 1

18/03/2021 09:21:25 - L’âne

C’est très intéressant et très drôle. J’ai ri jusqu’à ce que mon café me coule dans le nez. Envoyez-moi le numéro de téléphone de Maria s’il vous plaît?
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