You never learn some things, unless you make a gesture of good will
Issue 6, March 2007
by Diana Ivanova; photography by Vyara Stefanova
I don't remember how I first felt when I came to live in this street, but it must have been a strange, depressing feeling. People would beg on the corner of Vitoshka Street and then go into the entrance opposite my apartment building. One of the women made my heart sink. I had never seen a more beautiful woman beg. It seemed to me that she sat there, on the corner, wearing a headscarf and looking down, only to be alone within herself. I never dared put any coins in her begging bowl - I felt that their tinkle would somehow hurt or embarrass her. Sometimes an old man with a grey beard would squat in her place. A couple of people sold flowers on the opposite pavement and occasionally towed a cart loaded with paper to the nearby scrap yard making an unbelievable noise. In the evening, they disappeared into the same entrance to the magnificent old three-storey house with architecture typical of 1930s Sofia and a metal gate with a padlock, a yard with a parasol, a table, some rubbish and a stone littered path, behind which nothing else could be seen. There was never any light there.
The house was inhabited by homeless people. It was the first time I had lived close to street people and beggars and I did not know how I should feel about it.
I tried to establish what their begging schedule was. Several times I even caught myself making wishes before going out - if the elderly woman was there, they would come true.
It took over two years for me to venture to talk to them. A friend even advised me to give it up, "you'll only get into trouble". It turned out I was the only neighbour who didn't talk to them. Everybody in the neighbourhood already knew them and would often give them food, clothes, cigarettes, household goods or furniture. I had not even suspected I lived in a place seething with social solidarity. There are things you never learn unless you make a gesture of good will.
As it happens it is very easy to meet them: you simply cross the street and say "good afternoon, may I introduce myself, we are neighbours."
The beautiful elderly woman is ill and we don't see her, but Pepa, a 50-year-old slim and smiling woman, invites us into the big house. It was she who found it empty in the autumn of 2000. At that time, she had already been evicted from her state flat in Druzhba 2, a district on the outskirts of Sofia, because she could not pay for the electricity and water and she had to live in the street. She saw the house, something made her walk in, and then she moved in, followed by five more people: her present husband, her daughter with her boyfriend, the beautiful elderly woman and an old man. Plus four dogs and four cats. Nobody has ever asked them why they are here and nobody has wanted his house back either. The neighbours have told them that the owner is probably in London, but it is not clear if this is a fact. They live without water or electricity - without owing the state anything. Heat: a stove burning wood or coal; light: candles in the evening; water: rainwater and from the Central Market; bathing: once a week in the Gorna Banya baths.
Pepa is joyful and when learning that I come from northwestern Bulgaria, became more so, because she was also born there, in Miziya. I sometimes feel you can never leave the place where you were born. I know everything in Pepa and her partners' house from other houses in the northwest that I have lived in: the wood-burning stove, the slightly askew icon, the needlework depicting deer, the framed cutting from a women's magazine, the heavy wardrobe and the multitude of objects, cushions and makeshift flower pots. All these houses in the northwest are now empty and padlocked by their owners, who have "shelved" them for some other time. With Pepa it is the opposite: she has brought the spirit of the northwest into an empty, "shelved" house in Sofia. Poor, warm, like a hut, but cosy in its own way. Pepa hardly has any teeth left in her mouth and reminds me of a cousin, from the northwest, who in 1998, at the age of 37, decided he would never go to the dentist again, because otherwise he would never manage in life financially.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers