A text by the 2017 creative non-fiction Sozopol Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Chris Fenton
My gaze passes onto the other hill, Kalakoch, the kale and its mysterious banks and ditches. The place could have been a Thracian hillfort and some say it was later used as a refuge when the Goths and the Huns and the Avar tribes streamed across the Danube to raid the Byzantine Empire. After that it was a place of quarry for building stone and a tryst for young lovers. Out with the sheep they would pick around the stones and pots and tell stories. And there, a young grandfather, hand in hand with his grandchildren, was walking up to the hill in May to pick wild strawberries and to show them the site of the old village where the plague hit.
"Do you remember the old village, dyado?" The grandfather laughs, suddenly feeling his age and he shows them the underground room where the Roman family used to dine and imagines himself as he used to see his own grandfather. An old man indeed. This underground room where the coloured mosaics littered the floor with bunches of grapes and amphorae. But they are gone now.
I am standing with Stela and Mariana, all of us gazing up at the hill. We can hear the bells of Ivanya's cows passing down the lane on the other side of the stream. We strain again to hear the higher pitched chimes that our goats carry. I look over in the distance to the ploughed field where the battle was, to see the white shapes heading down the field track. The sun has disappeared now behind the ridge and the mogila looks even more prominent. Why was this sloping ground chosen as the battle site in 1877 in the early months of the Russo-Turkish war? The Russian army had been entrenched on the hill but then retreated to Byala as the advancing Turkish forces moved down the valley from the north. The overall Russian victory the following year, led to Bulgarian independence from the Ottoman Empire.
The houses have memories too and as the goats walk slowly towards us down the road they pass the house where Tim and Helen lived when, five years ago, they first arrived in the village. Opposite that is the house which Freddy bought and where he lived until his wife ran off with his kids and the police raided the place for unlicensed fire arms. And further up the slope where the goats will eventually walk, Belcho is rooting about in an old garden by the house that used to be owned by Dancho's parents. Dancho was the roofer who died because he refused to eat. We found him in 2012 lying on the floor of his bedroom, his legs like stiff wooden pegs.
As Hrasim approaches with the goats they look like a defeated army. He asks who has died as he heard the bell ringing from the field. Stela wipes her hands on the grass, "I was in the garden. I came straight here." Mariana raises her eyebrows heavenwards and nods her head sharply.
Some of the mud brick walls are still in good order. The green clay paint gives them a smooth liquid coat. These walls with their neat little tiled roofs run along the side of most of the streets and they mark the private spaces of the gardens. The clay for the paint comes from pits in the hillside above Gagovo. It is the roofs along the tops of these walls that go first. One or two tiles might slip or crack and then the water starts to get in, leaving a scar in the mud below. After a few winters, the rain digs in to the actual bricks. The wall that runs around Petar's garden has only a few patches of green left. We can see it from where we stand, waiting on the corner, Mariana, Stela and me. Every brick is a different shade of brown suggesting earlier repairs or maybe the various places from where the mud was taken. The best mud for brick making comes from a small quarry by the side of the road out towards the Kalakoch. But nobody makes mud bricks any more. Petar's wall has not been repainted for over ten years. At the abandoned house on the corner, the old walls are no more than tall pillars of mud. Their tiled roofs have long since been robbed and fallen. We can see the roof beams tilted down inside the body of the house like the carcass of a dead beast.
When visitors first arrive in the village, there is something they have to come to terms with. It is the aesthetics of abandonment. The empty houses with their broken panes and faded curtains, the derelict ones with fallen roofs, the overgrown gardens and the broken gates. From the train, all the way from Sofia, you gaze out at empty factories on the edge of every single town. In Popovo there is a whole street of deserted units including some stylish modernist blocks. The old Vin Prom compound with its grape signs is a wilderness of rubble inside the walls. In the centre of the village, there is a range of shops and stores and units, all of them empty. Ivailo the mayor remembers the time, as recent as the 1990s, when the restaurant was full of people.
Driving down the long straight road from Popovo, you can look to your right and see our village. It is huge, like a small town. The straw-coloured roofs are spread out across the valley side. Each house sits within a compound of trees and gardens giving the place the deep green colour, which makes you think of a summer siesta. A hammock strung out between cherry trees. When you wake up you are suddenly spooked by the thought that only one third of these houses are lived in.
In 1934 there were 3400 people living here. By 1970 the population had reduced to 2291 and thirty years later, in 2001 there were only 851. Today in 2016 there are around 500 inhabitants but the picture is complicated. Some families spend time in both village and town, moving regularly between a village house and a flat in Popovo. Between 1970 and 1990 young people moved out of the village for work in Popovo or Varna or Ruse. Since 1990 the children of the transition have moved for work to Germany, Italy, UK and Spain. There has also been a steady influx of foreign settlers since 2008. At the last count there were sixty foreign immigrants living here all year round. Most of the incomers are British people looking for a different life, attracted by the dramatically cheap prices of property. There are currently about six Bulgarian children living permanently in the village where as the number of British children has recently risen to ten. The average age of the Bulgarian population today must be around 70 and most of these are women living on their own. Every time someone dies, the village bell is rung and everyone stops what they are doing to hear it. It rings from the tower next to the church. These days it is death rather than emigration that accounts for the village's gradual decline.
This story begins in the spring when the goats start going out to pasture again. Sometimes they are bloated with pregnancy, sometimes happy to be released from suckling kids. It all depends on the timing of the Puch or billy goat, the previous autumn. The climate lurches between hot summers and cold winters so the spring months feel like a transition. Mariana often says, "Where do you go when it's hot? To the shade. Where do you go when it's cold? Inside to the petchka." Every house, like every Bulgarian soul, has the provision to cope with both extremes – scorching summers and freezing winters, work and sleep, life and death.
When I left the UK with Claire in 2010, I dreamed of living in a rustic French farmhouse with a scrubbed wooden table and four sturdy chairs, making cider and salami on a smallholding with pigs and chickens and apple trees. After six months of volunteering and travelling we found ourselves crossing the border from Romania into Bulgaria. We had just kept on driving, south and east down German motorways towards the rising sun. At Budapest it was already clear that we had left behind the familiar comforts of Western Europe. We arrived like blown leaves at the far end of the continent. A few more hours driving and we would have reached Turkey. When I read about the Roman poet Ovid exiled by Augustus to a distant outpost of the empire, it seemed impossibly far away. Well, the city of Constanta, or classical Tomis, where he lived, is just across the border in Romania. Like so many travelers and traders we had followed the route of the Rhine and then the Danube through Europe and had almost reached the Black Sea coast. The first night we spent in Bulgaria we parked up in the deserted Rusenski Lom National Park and were plagued by mosquitos. In the morning I could see that the landscape reminded me of the Yorkshire Wolds. Maybe this looks like home? I can't remember any more.
Chris Fenton has worked in the UK for 20 years as an archaeologist, teaching in universities and excavating sites before they were developed. He wrote four books on the archaeology and landscape of East Yorkshire, before deciding to go to Europe in a campervan with his wife, Claire. They eventually ended up in Palamartsa, a village in northeast Bulgaria. His creative writing began in 2011 with poetry about his childhood in Yorkshire and recent encounters with Bulgarian village life and history. For the last year, he has been writing a memoir about the people and history of the village where he lives. It springs from conversations with two of his neighbors and from there explores diverse territories including nationalism, yoghurt-making and derelict houses.
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