Today we go on a journey to one of the many closed schools of Bulgaria. We found it by accident, without looking for it, but it welcomed us with open doors.
Taking the way south to the village of Petrovo, we inevitably remember our recently passed summer, even though right now it is the beginning of October. Locked between the gentle slopes of Southern Pirin and the glorious skirts of Slavyanka, the village is full of the aroma of grapes, herbs, and secrets. We feel like inside a hive, where both bees and people move left and right with their sleeves up. It’s the grape harvest. The big kerfuffle is contrasted by the few small, crooked houses, barely paved streets, and sagging stone fences. The only stillness and sweet chilly air of this southern land are a product of the mountain - as if it knows that the village will soon empty and it’ll be left alone with it.
At the entrance of Petrovo, we are greeted by Krisi or, as everyone here knows her - the granddaughter of Lesnichkov. She waves at us energetically and carries us away with a smile to her grandfather's house. By the many neatly stacked crates of grape, we understand that the house is full of people - an honour, granted to her only twice a year - during the grape harvest and St. Georges Day. Although we are in the midst of the commotion, I am not left with the impression that the village could bear four hundred people, even though that is what I had read somewhere. I pose the question: are there even forty? And how many of them are children? And where do they get their schooling?
We find the school easily - there is usually one in every Bulgarian village and it’s most commonly the biggest structure on the landscape. And as in almost every Bulgarian village, the school here is barren, deserted, falling apart - a mere shell of an extinct organism. I can’t remember who had said: ”Close the school and a village dies”. Here this process is apparent. Bratya Miladinovi (Brothers Miladinovi) Primary School has an almost one hundred year history, the mark of which can now be traced only by the stories of its few remaining graduates. The big building gazes at us in sadness and its many broken windows look like tens of open eyes, stunned by horror.
We are forced to move the many maps, posters, branches, glass, and trash, to enter the school. Once upon a time, this entrance welcomed over seven hundred students daily in grades from first to seventh. Its doors were shut closed many years ago when the student count dropped below 30. The closest school is Hristo Botev PS in Katuntsi, and the next one - in Sandanski. They are the two schools, where the two children from the village get their education.
As if into a temple, we enter carefully and begin exploring the boundless world, once full of children learning how to read and write their first syllables, words, and sentences, play hide and seek and daydream near the map. The floor is full of garbage, glass, old textbooks, and other ancient artifacts. Some blackboards still hold the clumsily written “Classwork” - I wonder who was last to write it. Despite the falling plaster from the walls, the old gentle, calming green paint is still visible, in the sparse light. Looking out the window, I behold the endless forests of Slavyanka - what I would not give for a classroom with a view like this.
I soon am taken aback by Krisi’s voice - “Miss, look at this old school primer”. “Miss” - one word, which these walls have long forgotten. I smile at my student, she smiles back and suddenly the barren room is alight with a drop of sharing, knowledge, and inspiration. I ask her what the most important thing she learned in school was. “The most important thing I’ve learned is to be good and fair with the students and the teachers”. She shares that she likes life here much more - the tranquility, solitude, and the mountain - just to “find some quiet place and listen to the water flow and to study. You can’t do that in the city, no such place there. But here, you can wake up early, see the horizon, and want to stay a day or two more.” I hope these words warmed the soul of this old school.
We go out into the yard and I breathe in the healthy air of Petrovo. Talking with Georgi Shusharov, I learned about the bustling years, when classes numbered over 30 students, kids skipping school, the evening visits of the teachers to the students’ home; how they would check the personal hygiene of every student and how they would do early morning P.E. every day; how they’d water the flowers, grown by the students. Stories, which many people might still keep somewhere in the back of their minds. Stories, which would never exist without this ailing building. Why do we allow the disappearance of a place like this, which houses so many stories? Why don’t we keep them?
The way back takes us through the village Horemag (a popular term for the village hotel, restaurant, and store - a must in every socialist village) and pub which is usually closed at noon. Only grandpa Stoycho sits at the post blissfully sipping a soft drink. We stop by him, get acquainted, and delve into his memories. At first, the school housed only 1st to 4th grade and was in a smaller building, whose foundations we can see behind the church. When the village grew in the ’50s, a new and bigger structure was erected and the old one became а stable. Later it was turned into primitive accommodation for the migrants coming in from Greece. The school has always functioned as a place for something more than schooling. It has been a center of culture, ideas, and in this case - shelter for people in need.
Reminiscing about his younger days, Stoycho paints us a picture of the village, which we find hard to imagine, looking at the empty streets and deserted houses.
“The village was full of people. Saturday and Sunday were days for taking a walk - from the center to the graveyard the road was packed on both sides - coming and going. First, we had a shindig in the school salon, from there we went to the pub until 10 PM, after which our girls would go home and we would go to the girls in the next village (Yanovo) and continue until midnight. I was a bachelor back then.”
Stoycho tells us these stories with a smile on his face, and I begin to image the young man, who would criss-cross villages at night and gather tobacco in the fields. I ask him where all these people are now. “People? There are only ten seniors here. No school children, the older son of Totsilovi studies in Sandanski, and the younger in Katuntsi. That’s it.”
We head back to the Lesnichkovi house, and on the way, Krisi tells me the story of her grandfather Krastyo Lesnichkov. He also studied here up until the seventh grade and was “an excellent student”. When he would go out grazing with his sheep or call them here “bravi”, he would always bring a book and a diary. He loved to read for hours on end, laying in the fields although, or rather because they would forbid him. After seventh grade, he had to end his education, to work for his family. His love for education made him leave his home village and move to Sofia. Until the end of his life though, he saw Petrovo as the most beautiful place in the world - because of the calm, the air, the view, and his favorite peak Gotsev.
I see that Krisi is carrying a thick diary with her and I ask if she is following in his footsteps. Her answer baffles me…
“Through it [the diary], I communicate with grandpa, I write him what I do every day. He and I were very close, he helped me with everything and when he died I felt all alone. Every summer we came here and took a rest from everything. We took the train to Sandanski, then a bus, but the 4-5 hours were worth it to see the morning view and appreciate it. He often came to work in his garden and I would help. Once I was knee-deep in the mud, but I didn’t mind, because I knew that I was making it easier for him. These are unforgettable moments. He was a very special person and now, although he is gone, he sees where I am and I hope he’s happy.”
I’m sure that is the case. And I’m happy that not everything is inevitably lost. It’s enough for one person, one village, one mountain, one child to still exist, and the history, tradition, and love to continue living. A few hours ago I came here as a guest to an unknown village. Now I’m doing my best to look at it through the eyes of Krisi - her grandpa’s house is filled with memories; the fields are bursting with laughter and laughter; the mountains tell me their own stories. I’m proud of Krisi and the way she thinks, I adore the calm and fullness of her inner world. I ask myself whether I too carry my ancestors' memory? Maybe it’s time I visit my northern villages, which have slightly faded, again. Does someone watch me from above as well?
I ask Krisi where she wishes for her grandfather to see her. “I want him to see me on Gotsev peak. I want to go there, because the mountains were his favorites, as they are for me now. However hard it may be, when you reach the top and see the view, you understand how much it's worth it.”
The vines in front of the Lesnichkov house see us off with sadness. We make a promise to ourselves to meet each other here again in just a month, but this time we would go to Gotsev peak.