Life in the times of covid-19 got me one thing for sure. More time. I finally found my way back to writing. It took me a bit longer than I thought to digest my trip. My hesitation came from different points, one being that I am writing Photo blogs and on this specific trip I did not take many photos. Most was connecting and observing. I put my camera down more than usual. And I just needed time. So the photos you see are mostly shot with my iPhone.
Much has happened since I was in Bulgaria the last time, some things felt familiar and comforting, almost like being finally home again. And then there was new territory, unfamiliar but enjoyable and fun.
As I prepared for my trip to Bulgaria, I was also preparing for the hardest and most difficult trip I ever took.
After a long flight to Istanbul , changing planes, I finally arrived in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.
There I was , 30 years later on fatherland soil. In a small airport , at 8 o'clock at night, just a few people are around. My friend Manu from Germany who was accompanying me on this trip and came from Germany, was already waiting for me. So were my brand new 2 cousins . Manu and those 2 young men, right next to each other. But they didn’t know each other then.
Alex and Alan
What a joy , what familiarity I felt hugging these giant 2 young men , knowing they are my relatives , knowing they are the sons of my favorite cousin who is not on this earth anymore. If I would have made this trip 10 years ago I would have been able to hug him, his father and meet those kids when they were actually still Teenagers. But I didn’t. And I knew I had to stop thinking this way. There was nothing I could do. To enjoy the moment, which is not a given. But sometimes we long for the past and miss the present. I did not wanted to miss anything.
Alan and Alex with their dad Stefko, my cousin
We put our belongings in Alex’s car and drove to our hotel. I stayed close to the airport as we had to get our rental car from there the next morning. After dropping our luggage and grabbing some pictures I printed out for my cousins, we all went to the Hotel restaurant and had a few drinks, Beers and Gin and Tonics for us,like they serve it there. Gin in the glass and a small bottle of tonic on the side, mixing it is up to you.
And we started to get to know each other .
The next morning we started our adventure. I rented a car with a stick shift and enjoyed driving that car very much. My friend Manu said in the end I was driving like a Bulgarian. I took that as a compliment but I think she meant crazy .
Alex,the older of the two had to work, but Alan took the entire time off and helped with the translations, ordering food, pretty much everything. I don’t know how I would done all that without him.
We drove about 4 hours from Sofia to Stara Zagora, the town I knew the best and had spent most of my time there as a child and teenager. We stopped at a rest stop to get баница-Banitsa, a puff pastry filled with the famous white cheese, I remembered from back when and coffee.
The check in in our Airbnb turned out to be our first adventure. The apartment was, what my wife would call it, not up to my German standards. But I let it go. I was here for something else.
We went on our way to see his grandmother, my aunt Zwetanka , which means flower. Turned out she lived just a few blocks away. We got her some flower pots on our way over there, she called cut flowers dead and didn't want those in her apartment; I had some photos printed out for her as well.
Cranked in a small old elevator which played a local radio station, I was about to see my aunt again. It smelled like food and spices and it was scary. So small and you saw the walls moving along with the ride. She prepared lunch for us and we started immediately going through photos, telling old stories, touching each other because we could not believe that we were in the same room again.
She was now 78 , living alone as my uncle died one year before his son passed. I could feel the loneliness but also the love , appreciation and excitement . She asked over and over again about my Mother and I got a chance to show her the next day. Oh technology, how thankful I was for facetime. She had planned lunch for us the next day and the Kurtew family was coming.
Zwetanka with Yildiz,her daughter-in-law and her husband,my late uncle Bojtscho
We said our goodbyes, in nervous excitement and anticipation for the next day. The day I would see so many of them again.
Alan showed us a bit around Stara Zagora before eating dinner at one of his favorite restaurants.
Bulgarian cat who really wanted to come with us
Almost impossible to tell about the feeling of sitting on a table surrounded by people I missed for so long. Family. The invisible bond. Here and there showing the shape of the face, eyes or mouth of someone I got reminded of. More than once I heard how much I look like my father. The kindness of those people amazed me again , the appreciation for family . I remembered their hospitality and friendship.The comforting warmth of their hugs and kisses. I felt like I betrayed them all. But how long did I try to find them? It’s been so many years, so many different approaches and so many failures. Now I was here with them. With the ones that were left. The joy of seeing these humans overturned the pain to miss the others.
my uncle Ivan, aunt Sneja, Alan and his mom Yildiz
cousin Plamen with his dad Ivan and aunt Sneja
cousin Plamen,me,uncle Ivan,aunt Sneja,cousin Alan,his mom Yildiz and Alan's grandma Zwetanka
may late cousin Mirco , me and my mom and Mirco's brother Plamen , Stara Zagora 80ties
A custom in Bulgaria is to print flyers with pictures and dates of your deceased loved ones. You stick them to your door, the apartment buildings door, walls around your neighborhood. The fence, everywhere you want. I remember seeing the face of my grandfather all over town. Some get printed every year ... You are reminded of the pain of losing them but also of the joy they brought to your life. A celebration of their life and ours with them. A reminder how fast it can be over and to enjoy the here and now.
my late uncle Boitscho and his son Stefko
me, my mother Gisela, my sister Gabriele, late cousin Stefko , my late uncle Bojtscho, Stefko's dad in Dresden, East-Germany , 70ties
The mother of Alex and Alan moved to Istanbul years ago and came to Stara Zagora to see me along with some cousins from Plovdiv. I had never met her before , she told me how often he spoke about us. It was a beautiful moment to realize that he remembered our childhood summers the same way I did. We ate Shopska salad ( tomatoes,cucumber,feta cheese and bell peppers with oil and vinegar) with Kufteta (hamburger patty) all summer long and he taught me how to drink Gin and Tonic. He was 3 years older than me and we talked mostly with our hands and feet and some German. I still miss him.
Her kitchen smelled like my grandmother's kitchen, the spices are significant and different. I was able to get them at the market the day after. The lunch was excellent but I can’t really tell you what I ate. We started with Rakir, a homemade Schnapps from Plums , 70-80% proof. I think we had 2 or 3 glasses of that and my aunt made an appetizer which was very delicious. With the main meal we drank Bulgarian rose.
Wine is everywhere. The main way to live is in houses in Stara Zagora. And in front or in the back, wherever people have a patio, there is wine growing.
I was able to meet and connect with the granddaughter of the couple that I was also hoping to see alive. Or their son. But I was not fortunate enough to do so. The couple, Schorro and Tina ( actually Dimitri and Kristina) went to elementary school together with my dad. Best friends ever since. And they both even got to spend their entire life together. Their son Stefan always wanted to marry my sister. At least I got the opportunity to meet up with their granddaughter Kristina and her family, husband and 2 little adorable children. When I stepped in their house the temperature of my body changed and I was afraid to faint. Which is very weird because I don’t faint. Ever. But I did not recognize any of the inside as the remodeled and changed so much. The energy however, was there. Memories of days and endless nights sitting around a made up long table; chairs were brought in from Tina’s sister Maria, who just lived around the corner.
We ate and drank for hours. Schorro disappearing a few times during the night just to appear right back with another bottle of home made wine or Rakir. That was when I saw my Dad as his happiest. Nothing in the world could interfere with being with his family.
We used to take pictures in front of the house and so we tried to recreate the photo. Just us 3 compared to like 15 people. But I wanted it anyway to show my mother. I know that would be the hardest for her to know that they were all gone.
front uncle Schorro and my dad, right behind them my Mom on the left, Maria behind ( Tina's sister) and Tina behind on the right side of my dad, I am on the right sitting on the wall next to Stephan (Schorro and Tina's son) and my sister in front of him
cousin Alan, young woman with husband and 2 kids is the granddaughter of Schorro and Tina and Stephan's daughter , me and my friend Manu
After a few days in Stara Zagora , we had a final dinner with Yildiz , my late cousin's wife. Still amazed that you are able to smoke in restaurants, we were enjoying the food and each other's company. With every meal I had in Bulgaria I had Shopska Salad before , a little homage to the past.
The next day we drove to Plovdiv, an hour away from Stara Zagora. That was not from the Kurtew side of the family, that was from my grandmother's side. She passed when my dad was 19 years old and she had 3 other sisters, Milka, Serefina, and Zwetanka. . One of her sisters Zwetanka, the one we had the most contact with, had 2 daughters of which one is still alive. Kirilka and Antonia, both a favorite of mine. Kirilka has 2 sons, with the oldest Kosio, I have contact on facebook. We arranged that I could see her and unfortunately my cousin was in the hospital, a few hours away when I was in Plovdiv. And he did not want us to visit him in the hospital.Aunt Antonia passed away 5 years ago.
I was so lucky to have Alan with me the entire time. He was able to call my auntie and we arranged for lunch. She was/is looking like she was before. Older yes, but still that fire in her eyes and in her speech. She and her husband worked as humanitarian doctors for 5 years in Ethiopia during the 80ties. We did not see them because of that as often as we saw other families but our connection was as strong as the other ones. She made fun of the Kurtew family , saying that she loves us very much, even though we were Kurtev’s ( Alan and me) . I think she did not get along much with the husband of her sister Milka, my grandfather Atanasov.
my aunti Kirilka with cousin Alan
aunt Kirilka and my mom and Kirilka's sister Anthonia ,70ties before Kirilka and family moved for 5 ears to Ethiopia as doctors to help build a hospital
After lunch we had a walk around old Plovdiv and then she invited us in her lovely small apartment. To demonstrate this huge heart and kindness of this people, she has a condo in the middle of Sofia. But it is too big for her. So she actually let’s a relative of hers with kids live in that condo and she rented a small one nearby. After Kosio got a divorce, he moved in with her in the spare guest room. But she said he is never home, always in the hospital. He took after his parents and became a Pediatrician. She gave me a runner for the table she had from her Mama and I gave her a new one my sister Gabi made for her. After coffee and a few cookies we said our goodbyes and promised to see each other again. And to try to get a re - connection with my mother.
a friends house but she wasn't home
Auntie Kirilka, Plovdiv, Bulgaria 2019
We made our way to Sofia, checked into our Airbnb , which was beautiful, 7th floor overlooking Sofia. Well parts of it. Alan went home for a bit and we met at a grocery store. I needed to buy some salami and feta cheese for my mother as well as a few bottles of Rakir. My friend Manu, who accompanied me the entire tip got some as well for her husband and son. She was such an anchor for my this trip, we did not get any sightseeing in and I hope she enjoyed that trip at least somewhat. I was so glad to have her there. A few times ,tears in my eyes I did not give in .
Alan called Maria, the sister of Kristine ( and Schorro from Stara Zagora) who lived for about 15 years in Sofia. She moved after her sister and her husband died so she could be close to her daughter and grandchildren. Alan called here and she agreed to meet us for dinner. We ordered a taxi and picked her up. Dinner was at a Italian restaurant where his girlfriend worked as a server. So I met her here as well. Alex joined in with his girlfriend as well. Maria could not believe that I found her. Her great niece gave us her phone number and also prepared her for our visit.
We chatted , I FaceTimed my mother so the both could see each other again as well. Another emotional event was going to end. Tears of regret and joy, more joy and longing for each other's company. Again facing the sadly truth to not have our beloved ones here with us in this world. It stuck to me when she said, she was ready to go. 83 years old , she was still fit but she missed her sister, she missed her husband Grosdan which was the love of her life. Yes, she had her daughter and the grandchildren here but she wanted to be with Grosdan again.
Maria with her late brother-in-law Schorro ,Stara Zagora
After saying and kissing goodbye, promising that if possible I will come with my mother the next time, we left for our Airbnb. We said goodbye to Alan and Alex, to their girlfriends Pavleta and Milena which is now engaged to Alex.
Back at the apartment , it was pretty hot, so I opened all the windows and doors, there was no mesh in front of the windows and so we had a herd of Mosquitoes inside. Which turned out that even Bulgarian Mosquitoes do not like my blood but were crazy about Manu’s. Don’t need to mention that we did not get much sleep before flying back . But we opened a bottle of Rakir to make it easier for Manu with all those bites.
Returning the car at the airport was easy, our flights were going around the same time. Manu flew to Leipzig, Germany over Vienna, Austria. My flight was going to Berlin over Athens, Greece.
I felt like I traveled back in time. In some ways, I never left Bulgaria.
It was better than I imagined, it was emotional but not exhausting. I was able to do what I wanted to do for so many years . I am complete.