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Published: June 10th 2017
Geo: 42.7339, 25.4858
The great, empty Danube River is smoothly passing beneath us; it reminds me of that lovely state a cooking pudding reaches just before it turns into a full rolling boil. The river is stunningly calm and widely beautiful here, as we pass from Ruse on our way to Vidin, all in Bulgaria. To me, Bulgaria is a surprise. We never studied about it as school children; Eastern Europe was just that grey area on the map, that communist block region, somewhere near Russia, and we were taught to be very afraid. When I was little, in addition to regular fire drills, we also had other drills, air raid drills, where we learned to hide under our desks to protect ourselves from falling bombs, I think. Adult thinking was very strange: how would hiding under our desks protect us from anything? But to us children it was like a game, not understanding the fear we could see in our teachers' eyes. Now I've been in Bulgaria for two days, and, except for the difficult language, I think this could be a potentially good country in which to live and make a home.
Only seven million people live in Bulgaria, and the several I've met are very proud of their country. Yesterday we travelled by bus from Ruse to Veliko Tarnovo and to Arbanassi. Delightfull scenery! Nesting storks, enormous tracts of agricultural fields (as in Romania), insane drivers on very narrow main roads, excessive roadkill as everyone drives too fast, except when they see the police (just as we do back home). Rolling hills with monasteries nestled up high, half-hidden from the world below, fields of sunflowers just beginning to turn bright yellow, acres of wheat and corn, miles of full-summer green, cows, goats, deep blue sky, this is beautiful Bulgaria on a rather grand scale. It is nothing like the colorless communist countries I pictured when I was in grade school. Isn't is funny what propaganda all countries teach and preach to their naively trusting people?
Our day in Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of Bulgaria from 1186 - 1394, and Arbanassi, a village that flourished in the 17th and 18th centures, felt like taking a trip back in time. In Arbanassi, high above Veliko Tarnovo, are two monasteries, five churches, and eighty houses. Walking in the hot sun under limitless blue skies, we stopped into one of the churches and were treated to glorious chanting by four professional singers. Forgetting that we were sitting in uncomfortable, tiny wooden rows of hard benches in that beautiful little church, listening to the singers' incredibly moving chanting, I felt so lucky to be there, to be hearing this gift of glorious music in a holy place. The experience was exquisite. In Bucharest we had entered a large Orthodox church on Pentacost Sunday, and marveled at the chanting of several Slavonic Orthodox priests during their service, but listening to the music in this small church in Bulgaria was very different; I was transported by its beauty. Later I learned that these singers in Bulgaria were not priests but professional chanters. In Bucharest the men were priests. To become a priest, one needs to believe in the religion, of course, but there are two other requirements as well: priests need to have good singing voices, and they need to be married. I have always thought that anyone who counsels families should be required to be married, as otherwise, how can they even begin to understand what living with a mate and focussing on and providing for the needs of a family can be like?
Growing up Roman Catholic I met many priests and nuns during my childhood. Father Missius was a sour old man; I do not remember his ever smiling even once at our growing family. He said Mass in two languages, Lithuanian and English, so especially on Palm Sunday Mass seemed interminable. I learned to read Latin from my prayer book during many long hours spent at church. And, unlike Eastern European priests, Father Missius certainly did not have a fine voice. My mother told us that the nuns took care of all his earthly needs; they cleaned for him and prepared his meals and did his laundry so that he would have more time to pray, but he did not seem a contemplative or a happy soul. Most of the nuns, however, were quite jolly. They always smiled at us, asked me for kisses (quite embarrassing as I grew older), and would playfully tease my younger brothers by putting their long, wide sleeves over my brothers' heads, and making jokes by offering to feed us popcorn sandwiches. We loved those nuns. Sadly, I do not remember their names, but I still can see their happy faces. Working for God must have pleased them, but I've wondered why Father Missius always seemed so dour.
The connection between the Lithuanian church of my childhood and this part of the world feels quite strong. The older women I've recently seen in Romania remind me of women I had seen long ago at my church; the costumes people wore at Lithuanian parties looked very similar to traditional dress in Eastern Europe; the music and dancing are similar; the serious, hard-faced priests look the same. Perhaps I am being unfair to good Father Missius; I do not know what his personal life was like, whether he had any doubts or challenges to face or work through. As a child I just knew he did not like children, and was never friendly to us. It was always a relief when church was over, when we could finally escape outside, run and talk and play with our friends while our parents greeted the other adults, and then we'd begin our long walk home. That era reminds me of the Eastern Europe I see today, an interesting connection with these contemporary cultures.
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