Bulgaria's Forgotten Schools: The villages of Bregare and Stavertsi
On one of these summer days when breathing becomes unbearable, Kateto and I embark on a trip down my childhood memories. With every mile nearing the town of Pleven, the air temperature rises and my memories race frantically as we listen on repeat to the only album we have in the car. The road takes us through my favorite part of the Balkan mountains where the highway cuts the rock in half. The beauty of that sight used to overwhelm me as a child and I could almost hear the mountain’s whisper that my own path was somewhere within it. I turn inward and I see myself as a young girl in the backseat of my father’s red Opel Kadett, hugging my sister in a cozy cradle of childhood memories. They are so vivid and intact that I can taste the sweet strawberry waffles and fresh watermelon, smell the colorful flower gardens and feel the peace of the Iskar river where once my father learned how to fish with his grandfather. I resurface in reality as we pass the sign of my grandfather’s village and I point the way to his house to my companion. The house could not be mistaken - in this torrid afternoon, it’s the only one with a person quietly waiting outside.
My grandfather is seated under the shadows of a cherry tree as if he has been waiting there for a lifetime. Our visit is like a small celebration that we toast with fine homemade brandy, fresh vegetables from the garden and sun-filled raspberries picked just for us. As we chat casually about the European Football Championship finals, I look over our country house. I am in awe of the difference in perspective - now and in my childhood: how long the flower beds seemed to be, how high the grapes used to feel , how bottomless the well used to appear . Intriguing and yet frightening is how the past shrinks in my mind to the point that it is just a dot that will vanish in nothingness but it’s still present just because I am thinking about it.
The relics of the school await us in the village’s center and we confidently walk inside - after so many visits to forgotten schools we are sure that nothing can surprise us. However, I am stunned by the feeling that children are present nearby since I can almost hear their laughter and tiny footsteps. In the back we stumble upon, as we would later find out, Krisi and Djem, who pass a deflated football around and with their infinite imagination manage to not mind their ruined surroundings. Once they notice us strangers, they stop and observe us with curiosity from a safe distance. That is how it usually goes - whole buildings and institutions crumble in an abyss while a child’s curiosity and a play with a deflated ball remain an unchanged phenomena. I take in the image of the whole school and I don’t attempt to enter - I now know that its history is no longer to be found there. I take my grandfather by the arm and we start walking towards Krastina’s house, an old schoolmate of his and a former Bulgarian language teacher at the school.
Upon meeting, my grandfather and Krastina embrace as the children they once were, their eyes tear up and they stare at one another to remind themselves of a shared past. For the second time in that day our presence causes euphoria in a small village’s house. Krastina quickly starts making coffee as she tells us about the school life, jumping from one story to another as if in a trance. The coffee is burnt a bit bitter while she flips through pictures and postcards from her former students who are in the habit of sharing their life events with her to this day. I get a sense of pride in her tone while she shares their successes and lives. In a poignant way her tone reminds me of my own when I talk about my students. Shivers go down my spine as a thought occurs - today I am not only looking at the past but the future as well.
“The name of our school was “Otets Paisii”. In 1977 was its 120th anniversary. I was a teacher in Bulgarian language, music and singing, and was the director of the school choir. One year we took part in the Regional festival of song in the town of Pleven. The famous Bulgarian composer and conductor Philip Avramov was attending the festival. I was so nervous because we were participating with our small village choir on a regional level. The children encouraged me: ‘Miss, do not worry, we are ready.” I was there in the front row, the children were on the stage and the composer was up in the balcony, and since we were performing his songs I was so nervous that they were going to sing something out of tune that I can hardly remember the whole performance. The children, however, got on the stage with such confidence that I sat back in my chair and thought “Have I made them too eager?” When they started to sing, they were perfect. After the performance I was called to the balcony by Philip Avramov. I was afraid he was going to criticize us and wonder how a small village choir had the courage to perform on a regional level. Instead he stood up, took my hand, and said ‘I want to congratulate you. This is the first time I’ve heard my songs sung with such grace and clarity.”
For my grandfather the school was never a place for knowledge so much as a place for play. “There were around 400 students. At school I didn’t really pay attention, I would always hurry to play with the others. Back at the house we had a cow, a goat, pigs, hens and it was my job to feed them after which I always ran to the field to play football. Sometimes I would forget and your great-grandfather Georgi came to the stadium to bring me home. From the stadium to the house he’d usually discipline me with a couple of smacks with the goad. And he was young and tough, 35 years old, a former cavalryman at the King’s cavalry regiment. Behind the school we had a film theater, where plays were performed and films shown. Our village was flourishing, it set an example. We had a wonderful little stadium, on which one international game was played between Poland and the Czech Republic in 1958. I also played on a national level and wore a shirt with the village’s coat of arms.” I can feel the pride in his tone, filled with nostalgia. I can imagine that young man with a spark in his eyes, who used to run after the football on the field. I can finally see how old he has gotten waiting on the bench in front of our country house.
Following my childhood intuition, I am able to direct Katerina to the Stavertsi house by memory. The blue gate welcomes me with a peeled paint and I can hardly distinguish my ancestors’ initials on it. Outside it is deadly quiet but inside my heart are raging the smells, colors and sounds of a joyous past that can never be taken away from me. My memories play out before me: feeding the hens, the smell of breakfast, the calm eyes of our donkey Neda, the colors of my great-grandfather Iliya’s paintings, the tall pine tree, that my parents scolded me for climbing, the bushy boxwood I used to hide in, my yellow teddy bear Banzi (is it still there behind the windows?)... My whole childhood is in weeds and ruins and disappears in front of my eyes.