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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.



Elena with her grandfather Georgi, 1996

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.


Elena with her grandfather Borislav, 2021

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.


Krisi and Djem

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.


Krastina and her memories

“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.”


Певческият хор на село Брегаре

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.


Elena with her grandparents Vutka and Georgi

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.



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.



I suddenly remember Erich Maria Remarque’s novel The Road Back and I find some solace in knowing that in the end, I am not alone with my emotions. “And suddenly the inexpressible sorrow of fleeting time takes over. Time flies and flies and changes everything and upon returning you find nothing of what you have left behind. Ah, farewells are rough but returns can be even more so.” I jump over the fence of my grandmother’s house, take some photos and return to Sofia without looking back as if to forget what I just saw. Inside I feel a strong desire. The desire of the descendents to immortalize their ancestors’ past in an attempt to distinguish themselves from their own mortality.


Family reunion, the Stavertsi village house

Back in Sofia I pay a visit to my grandmother since I know that this story will not be complete without her. The apartment block is as enormous and gray as I remember it, colored by the different insulations people have installed . Here I spent my formative childhood years running around, learning to ride a bike, drawing with my grandma, learning to read with mom, watching football with grandpa and my favorite, sitting down every evening with my father to look through the world atlas and listen to him as he told me stories about the wonders around the world. Grandma welcomes me with an embrace and a table full of tasty dishes as Balkan grandmothers always do. She is the perfect person to interview, self-sufficient in conversations needing no questions and pointers. I only ask her to tell me a bit about the school in Stavertsi and the story starts flowing.


grandmother Malina and her memories

“There were three schools in Stavertsi, two primary schools and one secondary. The secondary school was a big building on two floors. Uncle Bratan and aunt Tsanka were teachers, and uncle Ivan Borisov was the headmaster. He was tall and strict, and when he walked around the school it was so quiet that you could hear the buzz of a bee. The discipline in school was strict, each morning there was a teacher who would check our shoes and clothes. If they were dirty, he’d send you to the village’s well to wash them and only then you could come back. Uncle Bratan was a math and physics teacher. There were no struggling students in his classes, even those who weren’t motivated to learn eagerly paid attention. Aunt Tsanka was a strict literature teacher but I had the talent to recite well so she would give me parts in every play or celebration. As good of a student as I was in literature, I was equally as bad in spelling and grammar. I would always get an A in literature and an F in spelling which would amount to a total of C. At the time my father was the director of the community center and together with uncle Bratan they would put on plays and performances. My father was the prompter and stage designer, he would draw all of the decor by hand, and uncle Bratan was a great comedic actor. We went to see them perform every week.



“My grandfather Tsvetko was the village’s doctor, the first one in Stavertsi, and was on duty for all villages in the region. I loved helping him and my father when they farmed the land. Father used to wake me up at 2 a.m., wrap me in a fur coat, put me on the wagon and we’d go to the field. I pretended to sleep but, entranced by the rhythm of the wheels, I watched the starry sky and the daybreak. When we’d go to the watermelon field or the vineyard, I’d take with me the classical Bulgarian poets Smirnenski, Yavorov, Botev and read, read, read, then I’d recite them by memory. Afterwards we put the watermelons on the wagon, and it became heavy with more than 200 watermelons on top. I have hundreds of childhood memories like these.”



“After a while my father went to the Naval Academy in Varna to become a sailor. When he sailed in the Mediterranean sea he would send us postcards that he had drawn by hand from all of the places he had been to. Three men from our village, including him, were on board the ship that took Tsaritsa Yoanna from Spain to Bulgaria to marry Tsar Boris the Third. The crew has a picture with the royal family with handwritten signatures from the royalty. When the 9th of September coup d'état happened, my father hid that picture at the back of a drawer and there it remained until the 1990s.”


I wrap myself up in my grandmother’s stories like a warm blanket. Why do we dig into the past? Where does that desire come from? Do we give our lives meaning by keeping old stories alive? Does family memory give us solace that we ourselves will not be forgotten? Million questions which rock my restless soul. And the only thing left to do in that moment of existential panic is to put my soul at ease with my grandmother’s voice and poetry.


“Grandma, read me one of your poems…”



Away away, beneath the clouds gray

You calmly sleep my dear home

You hear the fall winds play

And raindrops from the sky’s dome


And I think of you quite often

Of your dusty village road

And you are cherished, not forgotten

With every corner I have strode.


Sofia, 1958





Text: Elena Tatarova

Photos: Katerina Stoyanova and personal archive

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