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Bulgaria's Forgotten Schools: Kovachevtsi and Popovyane

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

In the early hours of the snowless Christmas day, we take to a place, where the soft hills of Vitosha, Plana, and Verila meet. Leaving the capital, we pass through the pretty Bistritsa, the huddled Zheleznitsa, and the suburb of Yarema and we reach the villages of Kovachevtsi and Popovyane. Here, the vista suddenly changes, and even though the beauty of the mountain is still seen, there are no more colorful fences, brimming gardens, and sowed fields and smoke from every chimney. People in the streets are gone as well and I wonder if it is because they are celebrating Christmas or because of the lockdown, or just because this is how it is. Only 40 km from Sofia and 25 km from Samokov, these two villages seem forgotten and bereft between the three mountains, dominating the horizon, as if they are keeping them safe from visitors.

In Popovyane, there were no signs of life and we met nobody. Only a few village mutts were circling us, because of the smell of the Christmas bread we had brought with us. We easily spot the school building - atop a hill, above the roofs of many small houses, a reminder of the distant past. Its royalty was stunning - this work of architectural art was something you would expect to see on the streets of Vienna, not on a hillside in Plana Mountain. The lack of people around made me seek information online - I couldn’t believe for a moment, that such a beautiful building was fully abandoned. I stumbled upon a text from Plamen Ivanov, from Popovyane, who as it seemed had been gathering pieces of history and memories, to resurrect the past.

The first most basic type of school - a monastic-like “cell” school, opens its doors some 190 years ago, followed a mere century later by this wonderful building in front of me. Here, I also find the reason for the existence of a building like this in a Bulgarian village - it was made by a former resident of Popovyane, who had studied architecture in Vienna and was constructed with donations and free labour of his fellow villagers. It carried the name Primary School “Tsaritsa Joanna”. Even more so - this building showed the dedication of those people to the school - it was at the top, on the most beautiful hill, in the most beautiful building, a product of common effort and faith. The mission of education - to connect, to elevate, and develop - had existed here, but until when?

After 1944 the name changed to the leader of the socialist movement Dimitar Blagoev and it functioned until 1956, after which it took the path of most small village schools and became a home for the elderly, right up until the 1990s. What and how do we make changes, do we have a vision for those changes, and is that vision connected to our most important priorities - all questions I am posing, as I stand in front of another ruined educational building.

Going back to the desolate village square, I faintly hear a melodic rendition of “Stani nine gospodine” (a traditional song for right after Christmas). Excitedly, I try to orient myself where it’s coming from since it’s the first voice I’m hearing. And it’s not only a voice, it’s a child's voice. Not long after a band of koledari (singers in traditional outfits) come out from behind a corner and head towards us - the foreigners. They offer us their small repertoire and look at us with expectant eyes and receive some of the banitsa and bread we have. Then the questions start. They ask us what we’re doing here “right on Christmas” and we tell them we are teachers searching for lost schools. “There isn’t one here, we go to Yarlovo. Well… not right now I mean”. For sure I know they ought to be at school after the holidays, but they tell me they lack electronic devices. What might online classes look like for these kids? “They said we’ll be going back in the spring”. So then we’ll be bearing the fruits of social isolation, emotional distance, high anxiety, and a lack of motivation. Or maybe we’ll just pretend like nothing happened, as we vainly chase our standards and curriculums.

We take the road north to Kovachevci and stop in front of the municipality, which has more broken windows than intact. Teenagers, who have come here to visit, light up firecrackers, on the square, in an old Christmas tradition. Two early-birds masked customers line up on the door of the village grocery store. Compared to Popovyane, life here is busy. I talk to one of the people in line, hoping to find the trail of the local school. My hope rises, as he says that his father Branko was principal for many years, but falls labor again after he can’t seem to remember the school's name. “Peoples Primary School Hristo Botev, that was it...”. A firecracker blast marks the moment I hear the name.

He talks slowly, with a lump on his throat, remembering the past: “There were people, children, they studied here until grade eight. Did you get inside to see it? Your head is going to spin. Everything is totaled, smashed, but that's what happens when there is no one here. It could have been fixed and used for something, but there are no people, no authorities. Nothing, unlike back then...”. As the principal's son gets lost in his mantra, I decided to see the school for myself. His friend has finished grocery shopping and hands him a small bottle of vodka, so I leave them to this most important Christmas morning task.

Entering the fourth forgotten school in a row, I feel like I’ve become numb to the scene. The bitterness has now given way to curiosity and a dose of expectation. I feel like an explorer and somewhat in place - It’s not even strange that I prefer to spend my Christmas morning in this dead space, rather than at home. The truth is that I just miss the school, the classroom, the children, and their smiles, I miss looking out the window, repeating the instructions again and again, and hearing the teenage stories during the breaks. We’ve been having classes online for two months now and whether it is working or not, I can’t say for sure. I know that I feel the school’s spirit here, in this tomb than when I sit in front of my laptop and I see my students constrained in their small video boxes.