Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tourism of the Holy

Me in front of the church that sits in the center of the monastery.
I've been letting this idea rattle around in my head since the evening Bill and Lisa Clark drove me up to the Rila Monastery, 40k outside of Blagoevgrad. A half hour after I got off the bus, we got in the car and drove up a winding road, marked every few k with stands of homemade honey, jams, and preserves. Though we were pretty far from any clear location or town, there were people everywhere. They were picnicing by the river and up on the hills. There were many cars. A restaurant we passed had a full parking lot and no seats at the tables. There was a campground.

All of these people were going to see the Monastery and the Holy Rila Forest.

It's a famous place. St. John of Rila was a holy man who lived by himself in a cave for seven years. If you know what winter is like in those mountains, up near the tree line, that was no small feat. So a monastery grew up near his cave and once housed over a hundred monks and novices. Now, four monks hold down the fort while hundreds of people, Bulgarian and otherwise, come to "see" the place.

Stands selling popular fried dough
I've never been exactly comfortable with visiting churches and other locations just to "see" them. But in Bulgaria, where every church is Orthodox, I can't help but be an outsider. I don't know what the icons mean. I don't know the liturgy or what to do and I would be an imposter if I tried. I feel like Charles in "Brideshead Revisited" who visits the chapel in the house and imitates Sebastians handmotions and then is scolded. "You aren't Catholic" he chides. Well, I'm not Orthodox. So I just try to stand as politely as possible and look up at the smoke darkened ceiling where birds fly in the rafters and be as un-touristy and intrusive as possible.

It seems kind of rude no matter how I look at it. People worship here. And I'm just looking at the cool architecture and restored liturgical art.

Then we drove up the mountain a bit more to the cave where St. John lived. We missed the sign that asked us to be quiet and respectful as we walked through the woods--as did the group of teenagers that were walking behind us. A small chapel was at the foot of the path. We climbed up through the cave and Bill told us about the legend that you couldn't get through the back entrance unless you were Holy. But everyone gets through these days, it seems. When we walked back down, we passed a conservative Orthodox family sitting on a stone wall outside of the chapel, quietly chanting/singing prayers.

I again felt like an intruder.

But not quite as badly as I did when we visited a small monastery in another mountain range later that week. The monks drove us in a jeep at break neck speeds up to their farm. They let us see their small, cluttered, well loved church, with thick plaster and stone walls that kept it cool on the hottest of days. They sang a song honoring St. John of Rila that day and I didn't know quite what to do. Because I wanted to pray but I didn't know how to pray with them.

I don't know what to make of this, how churches and temples and mosques become places to see and just to see. They are beautiful places and worth seeing and yet... I feel insulted when I see a sign in Bulgarian and in English stating that it will cost me 5leve if I take a picture in the sanctuary of the church in Elena. Or that there is a stand selling small icons by the front door. Or that some churches I have to pay to go into at all. Or archeological museum in Sofia that used to be a church building, but is now white washed inside to give the appropriate museum feel. Part of me says, "Well church spaces are beautiful and really amazing public spaces." Part of me says, "Why shouldn't all people have access to seeing these spaces and this beauty?"

And the other part of me says, "How dare you." You meaning me. "How dare I?"

Thursday, August 16, 2012

On Moving: On Staying

A response post to Dolce Vita's post "On Moving" to .:westcoastcity:. She asked me to write a post on what it is like to "stay" in the midst of others leaving.

Two Tuesdays Ago: A bright, cool summer morning.

Seth had told me the plan around midnight the evening before when we had showed up to fork the yard for his birthday (another story for another time):

"Some people will be at Saints in the morning around 11. You should come."

It was one of the last days living within a few minutes walk of Saints. I walked slowly, tired and sick from an undiagnosed bacterial infection. Crossed Atherton and moved up the hill towards Frasier. And stopped, winded.

When I stopped to catch my breath, I looked up the several remaining blocks to the cafe and saw a small group sitting outside. Their faces were indistinguishable. But I knew who they were. Dan's hands were moving as he expounded on his point. Seth was laughing and gesturing casually as he tossed back a devil's advocate response to rile him up. They were too far away to hear, but I imagined Robbie and Dolce laughing at the exchange. Dolce would be alternating between her shocked, only partially genuine disapproval and hearty laughter. Robbie would be taking the absurdist argument, or just watching gleefully, observing far more than he ever let on and being entertained by it all.

I knew this, though I was too far away to even make out their faces. I continued to stand for a few moments. Happy. Grateful. At a loss.

Seth and Dolce would move to different parts of the country later that week. This was the last gathering where I was be with both of them together in this small group that makes me laugh so much.


I graduated from college and stayed in my college town. Some people do this. It is not the norm, though perhaps more common in this place than in others. It was like being in the same bedroom but waking up with all the furniture rearranged. I've seen many people leave. I've had to say goodbye. I've learned that goodbyes are rarely satisfying, and that good "goodbyes" have a ring of impermanence about them, as if that person really can't be leaving.

It is impossible to really say goodbye until the person has left and you learn to accept the spaces they left and the way time closes in over those spaces so you don't even remember that those gaps were there.

In short: time keeps going. New people come that you learn to love.

But for a time... even Time seems to mark their absence, make you notice their leaving.

Good friends like Seth and Dolce tend to leave parts of themselves with you. A stack of letters. A new favorite tv show. A top secret recipe. A book recommendation. A poem read aloud. A distinction between real "tea" and "herbal blends". A belief that Indian Food is perfect for Being Sick. A tendency to capitalize things like Science and Art and Things You Must Not Do.  An attention to dance shoes and the new dresses in the window of Mr. Charles. An appreciation for moscato wine and well defined cheekbones (ala Mr. Cumberbatch). Someday, I might not remember that these things came from them. I hope I do. They were good gifts.

I start to look for them. I see a slim Indian figure walking with great purpose in some random neighborhood and I check to see if it is Dolce. A man bikes past on a green road bike and I check to see if the handle bars are green and if Seth is passing on his way downtown--which makes no sense because the roads I now watch from my desk wouldn't be on his route. I hear tangos and think Dolce. I see Scrabble and I think of Seth and Robbie all of this early summer in Websters.

Some definitions of this experience would call it "missing".

Life continues in its normal frantic pace. The gaps close faster than I think they will. I rush from one thing to the next. But in the quieter evenings, when its time to find people to join me for a peach cobbler attempt and my latest version of soup, I notice that I cannot add their names to the list of "The Usuals" and I hope that they are doing well, they who have somehow made it out of this Valley and are making their new stories in other towns, finding new things to love. Because they will. It happens. New places that they will share with new friends in new stories.

And I wonder what would happen if I followed them out of the Valley, to Somewhere Else.

Friday, August 10, 2012


Tuesday It was my first real day on my own in Sofia and I had spent most of it sick. I had envisioned venturing out on my own, making it the mile walk to the downtown area and having some great adventures wandering around, window shopping, visiting museums, etc. Instead, Danche was at work and I was sprawled on the couch praying my stomach would stop rebelling against the new diet of banitsa, shopska salad, musaka, and yogurt. I read. I slept. I skyped with some friends in the US. I tried not to panic as my stomach turned over again and again.

By the end of the day, I was doing better. I had slept through most of it but there were still some hours in the day. Danche wasn't home yet and I decided that I would make attempt to interact with the outside world. I took my set of keys and set off.

I wasn't going to risk a long walk so I went to the Bazaar that was less than a two minutes walk from her apartment building. The Ivan Vasoff Bazarre. Named after the famous Bulgarian novelist.

Interpreting new experiences can be hard. It is difficult and frightening to try to categorize what kind of situation one is in. I was torn between two experiences: the State College Farmers Market OR the bazaar in India. The former was a simple exchange. Things were priced and you paid that price. In India, you haggled to get a fair price. And I had no idea which situation was walking into. My arsenal of Bulgarian words and phrases was pretty low. I had mastered "yes" "no" "okay" and "I don't understand." So I adopted a "I'm-Pissed-Off-Don't-Mess-With-Me" expression, one I had seen quite often on most pedestrians in Sofia. I made no eye contact.

All of this was unnecessary. But being in a place where you can't say things causes some unnecessary actions.

While there, (and it was very much like the State College farmer's market) I spotted several flower vendors. Ed had told me that it was customary to bring flowers to a hostess. I immediately wanted to buy some for Danche. I walked around the flower vendors. Twice.

And then walked back to the apartment.

I stewed for a while, ashamed of my own fear. I was going to do this.

I put some leve (Bulgarian money) in my pocket and set back out.

There was one vendor who had been particularly friendly when I walked by (twice) so I walked directly to him. He was old. White hair. Cap askew on his head. A cigarette burning casually in his mouth. He smiled when he saw me again and (I think) said, "Hello!" but I can't be sure because I hadn't learned that word yet. I picked up the first bouquet I saw. He asked me a question. "Nerazberum" I said, 
shaking my head and smiling. He nodded, picked up another bouquet and handed it to me. I then saw that the one I had grabbed had mostly dead flowers in it. He was pointing this out to me and helping me pick. I chose the fresher one. He found another and held it out again for me to compare. This happened four times before he was satisfied with my choice. I said, "Da" and he nodded and went to make change. Asked if I wanted ribbon on it by holding up different colors. "Ne" I said. He counted out the change for me in Bulgarian to make sure I understood he wasn't cheating me. As I left I said, "Blagodaria" (thank you) and he grinned.

You'd think I owned the world rather than a bouquet of flowers.

Danche loved them.

Flowers from the Ivan Vasoff Bazarre

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Dolni Maryan

From July 6-26th, I was in Bulgaria. Many of the following posts will be concerned with this trip. Just look for the label "Bulgaria".

After a week of various adventures, I rode out with several other Americans to "Camp Lucky" to start as a language partner at a week long English Language camp. I was 10k outside of a small town, Elena, set in a tight valley in central Bulgaria. I was not merely outside of Elena but was outside of a tiny village named Maryan. I was actually in Dolni Maryan (Lower Maryan). This is my attempt to describe the landscape. 

You take a broken, construction marked road from Elena to Maryan. In the afternoons, the clouds of blanched crushed dust rise around the car as is bounces in and out holes. This road is around 10 kilometers in length. The mountains line the eastern view, a low ridge the west, both blue in the haze like the Catskills on the drive to my grandmother's farm.

In Maryan, a small sign points to the left. Don't cross the bridge into the town. Turn before it down the single lane, strangely well paved road. It will feel like gliding after the road from Elena. You are almost to Dolni Maryan. The ridges come in closer around the nearly dry river, that winds to the left. Fields of sunflowers stretch to the right.

Don't look at the holes in the last bridge as you come to the last stretch of road to Dolni Maryan. Just look at the water and the cows that may be wandering through it. It is deep July heat and there is almost no water. What water there is grows small minnows and green algae. Birds cry and crickets. It is the kind of dry brown that sounds like cicada cries. It is quiet instead of the cicada rattle.

The rusted sign marks the final left turn into Dolni Maryan.

The land rolls out. It is farmland. The grass is tall in the fields and there are farmers cutting it with scythes and with tractors. There are goats and sheep with bells on their necks. The sunflower field is for sale.

Sheep dogs, mutts, guard the corner past a low barn and towards the houses. For a stranger on foot, these dogs pose a noisy threat, and run along behind you. In a car, your speed will slow down and the road will rock your car like a jetty in the wake of a storm.

The houses are old style Bulgarian architecture. Wood structure, covered with newer, white plaster. The roofs are red, curved tile. Someone should tell you that these roofs will last for a hundred years if they are sitting on the right frames. The yards are walled in with old stone. There are wells in them, and farming equipment, and televisions connected to satelites, and a solar panel in the hill above the village. Fruit trees sit with their fruit with in reach. Plumbs, still green and tight; or yellow and tart and ripe, falling off onto the windshield of the now parked car.

The quiet has remained, though if you listen you can hear American pop music or a television playing through an open window.

Dolni Maryan does not seem neglected, though pieces of every structure seem slightly sagging and mortar pieces are misses and doors stand on an angle into the tangled, grape vine covered yards. Just sleepy. Just old. Just streets that Time has passed through quietly and steadily, dragging an old grass broom behind her.