Meet Bulgaria,
R.H. Markham

Romance in the village


It would be a very serious mistake to leave the impression that village life in Bulgaria has been all grim and barren, that it was spiritually sterile or completely mechanized. There was always, to be sure, a terribly rigid local standardization; everything had to fit into an unyielding framework and conform to authoritative norms, but still nothing could stop the heart from throbbing, the mind from imagining and the soul from aspiring. Though the censors never abdicated and were seldom fooled, even they had yearnings and vanities, so they permitted much frosting, thrills, lace and colors.

The frugal Bulgarians, it is true, did not go to the extravagance of putting steeples on their "kalpaks" (hats) as the Serbs do, nor of turning them into towers as the Rumanians and Russians, nor did they arch the tips of their moccasins as the Montenegrans nor set them off with puff balls as the Greeks nor put long fringes on their collars and rolls of fluffy black sheep's wool on their sleeves as the Albanians; but still they did put flowers over their ears, wore shirts with decorated sleeves and made quite fanciful figures with the black - string which they wrapped in great quantities about their white leggings.

They also worked out a characteristic and attractive style in churches, which although not altogether original remains distinctly Bulgarian. They did some exceedingly beautiful wood work and have left a number of remarkably fine doors and mantels. The silver and gold filagree work of their "maistors" is as delicate and exquisite as a peasant people ever made. They also enjoyed painting eikons or pictures of saints, which seem to me more interesting than beautiful and better expressions of piety than of art, but plainly show that the people greatly appreciated their supposed contact with gaunt, stern faced miracle workers and with a very human and sympathetic Mother-of-God. The men took a good deal of delight, too, in making grotesque masks and images of demons and fiends. They usually put gay figures on their wagons and togged up their horses rather jauntily. Best of all, they made very picturesque and attractive little houses of a Bulgarized oriental style. But it has impressed me that in the realm of folk art the Bulgarian men were rather clumsy, as though they were trying to shine in a field that really belonged to the women. They never did much better than an ordinary man who tries to keep house when his wife is away.

We should worry

It is the Bulgarian peasant woman who in the harsh environment of village life, in the face of unremitting toil, want, sickness, invasions, a lack of gallantry, a paralyzing drabness and unyielding rigidity gave a moving, quivering, captivating and commanding expression to the irrepressible Slavic soul of her people. Nothing ever quenched the fire in the Bulgarian woman's spirit, tense in love, hate, religious rapture, suffering and sorrow. From the time she could talk and spin until her fingers lost their nimbleness and her tongue was eternally silenced there was hardly a task she performed nor an event she participated in which did not evoke a moving sentiment that manifested itself in artistic expression. Though there was no ball room in her squalid village and no' parlor in her house, though she never saw a fashion journal nor heard of a professional dress maker, she filled her bridal chest with exquisitely beautiful garments and devised figures that are the marvel of modern artists. She sometimes gave birth to her baby in the field and more often in a dark comer of a common room, after which an old grandma wrapped it in rough swaddling clothes, but even as the mother lay on a mat on the floor she welcomed her child with as sweet baby songs as have ever been sung over royal cradles and when she went to the desolate grave yard to watch a black-robed priest put her crudely boxed loved one into a hole in the ground she sang such moving and appealing dirges that a stolid people made them echo for centuries in every valley in the land.

* * *

The artistic production of the Bulgarian peasant women which most impresses the ordinary visitor to the country is her costumes and embroideries. It would be presumptuous to say that she has made prettier chemises and sleeves, aprons, towels and handkerchiefs than any of her sisters in any other land, for among the peasants of all nations there have been very gifted and artistic women. In Rumania, Jugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and Poland the peasant girls and their mothers have made strikingly beautiful things to wear and put on their tables, walls and floors. But the Bulgarian women are second to none; they have created things that are surpassed in no other land.

And their work has a character all its own. The Bulgarian decorations are not especially gay, such as would indicate happiness and lightness of heart. They impress me as being essentially heavy, ponderous and dignified. Although many colors are used and especially orange, it is red that predominates in the finest work. It is used in the greatest abundance and at times completely covers the sleeves or an apron or the bottom of a skirt. It is worked onto dark, heavy cloth rather than light and the profusion of the red and the perfection of the workmanship give the garments a regal, imperious aspect. The women in those drab villages made queens of themselves. Every Cinderella even though she wore a moccasin sewed herself a royal robe.

Do you blame the boys for frequenting this fountain?

The figures in the embroidery are both geometrical and natural. There are lines and squares and crosses and circles as well as a vast number of astoundingly effective caricatures of people and cats and birds and fish. You see funny dwarfs with gigantic heads, dogs almost without bodies, birds that are mostly bills and beaks, tigers with prominent tails, flowers, trees and men on horseback. These imitations of objects in nature are, of course, conventionalized and made to harmonize with the pattern. They fit into the general scheme just as rigidly as the woman's life into the village routine, but in spite of everything there is originality, much ingenuity, no end of cleverness and a commanding sense of artistic appropriateness.

What moving spiritual histories are contained in these embroideries! What personal pride and what perseverance they reveal! The girls worked on single garments for years and years. The mothers or grandmothers spun the yarn as they trudged along dusty roads to and from distant fields. The girls wove the cloth on the loom by the fireplace during winter days, and nights. Then perhaps they all hunted roots to make the dyes. How many hours they spent, thinking of the color schemes and devising the figures, in squaring the cats, circling the dogs and making a bird go with a triangle. And there were no good lamps in the houses and no patterns to go by and much of the work was done amidst great family confusion. But not a missed stitch and what a perfect result!

And what did the girls think about as they were doing it? What did those jaunty, grotesque figures represent? When a girl had made an especially gruff old lion, did she think, "Well there's my grandpop, always trying to keep me from seeing Ivan"? And when she had finished a funny crow did she say, "There's Chorbadji Marko, forever trying to run our village"? And when she had finished working a group of sprightly sparrows in the corner of a towel did she point to them and say to a girl chum, "See, those are the boys at the husking bee last night"? And when her needles embroidered a young man on a galloping horse did she think, "There is Dimiter coming for me; we'll fool our parents, flee through nine villages to the tenth and live happily ever after"? There was certainly humor and banter and giggles and satire in the needles of the Bulgarian girls as there were in some of the songs to the accompaniment of which they worked, but on the whole they were quite solemn needles. They put in a few little birds to hop about like court jesters but what they usually sewed into the garments, that were to last a life time, was fidelity, duty, loyalty. That is what leaps from the flaming red of these costumes: duty, duty, duty. That was the royalty these scarlet threads carried. The men travelled short and long roads, they sometimes worked in neighboring lands, they hid in mountain caves, they were imprisoned by despotic Turks, but the women who sewed and wore those heavy red dresses remained utterly faithful, ever waiting for their men's return.

The finest old Bulgarian houses have such ceilings dreams that guided the

And sometimes the needles which made those costumes for the bridal chest did come true. Now and then a rich boy married a rich girl and although the Bulgarian usually frowns on ostentation there were some spacious houses attractively furnished. There were rugs on the floor and walls. A built-in sofa or divan ran around the room and was covered with beautiful spreads and pillows. Curtains to match hung at the windows. The wooden ceiling bore many intricate and delicately worked figures. Gilt handled swords and polished guns adorned one of the walls and the small low tables at which the coffee was served were inlaid with silver and ivory. It was predominantly oriental but with a Bulgarian simplicity and rigor. It spoke of passion in restraint, of flaming desires kept in order.

* * *

But the finest expressions of the sentiments of the Bulgarian peasants were made not with needles or hammers or chisels: they were words, spoken, recited and sung. A great many of these words were preserved by memory through centuries and are collected in large books entitled, "narodnee umotvoreniya", meaning "creations of the folk mind". The chief of these creations are fairy tales, proverbs and folk songs, of which by far the best are the songs. To what extent they were produced by the men and to what by the women, I shall not venture to say. It is probable that the men told many of the fairy stories, and gave form to most of the proverbs; it is certain that they composed words and music for the heroic or epic songs. The women told the fairy stories that are for children, and composed a great many of the songs. Without any doubt the authors of more than half of the best Bulgarian folk creations are women.

As can be readily seen, stories, songs and proverbs almost monopolized the spiritual lives of the peasants, having but one competitor, the church, and silent allies in embroideries and metal ornaments. Imagine what you would talk about if there were no post office, no good roads, no schools nor trains and if you could not read or write a single word. If politics played no role in your life and wars were nothing more than foreign plagues and you had no world to make safe for democracy and the outside universe was completely unknown to you, what would you do when you met your neighbors? Of course you might let the priest tell you about God and the angels and hell and paradise. Peasants like to hear about those things. As you wander among soughing forests and raging streams, as you see the lightning and hear the thunder, as you watch nature smile and frown, you plainly perceive the gods and devils at work. And it is not difficult for priests working for an authoritative church to dominate the minds and imaginations of villagers. But that was largely lacking in Bulgaria. The leading priests were foreigners whom the people did not like and the native ones were not much above the level of their fellow peasants, while no commanding central ecclesiastical authority existed, so, as a result, folk creations were not controlled nor stifled by the church. They were free and luxuriant. In no other country, possible excepting Russia, have the people sung about common things so freely as in Bulgaria. They fashioned their saints to suit themselves, took complete possession of the holidays, filled the heavens with their own angels, almost drowned the religious baptismal songs with popular cradle melodies and actually made the priests share the last solemn rite, the funeral, with the woman dirge singers. And the people added a sting to their secular triumphs by singing a number of very clever songs about their clergy.

painting by Ivan Murkvitchka
Bulgarian folk dances are a little like "Ring around the Rosy"

The proverbs are the simplest, but perhaps the most immediately fascinating of Bulgarian folk creations. Everybody had a hand in their formation and every body enjoyed "getting them off". The women had theirs and the men theirs. Many thousands of them have been collected by one of Bulgaria's first poets, Slaveikoff and there were undoubtedly more. It is certain that the Turks were the authors of many of them, for no one could excel the Turk in the making of pat proverbs. In this province he was concise and wise and very witty. Whenever he intervened in a conversation with a proverb it clinched the argument for one side and put an end to the discussion as well as making most of the hearers laugh and a few of them smart. Many of these Turkish proverbs were the clever sayings at the end of bright, brief stories. Sentences of four or five words kept the stories alive for centuries, without letting them become chestnuts either. Even today, though most of the Bulgarians can no longer speak Turkish, they like 'to throw an occasional Turkish proverb into a speech or conversation. That version of it is considered more effective. It makes one think of an English lawyer or statesman quoting Latin. Not understanding either language and judging only from the visible effects of the quotations I should say that the Turks were far more gifted at using a pat expression at the right time than the Latins and that brighter things are said in Bulgarian village saloons than in elegant Paris salons.

These proverbs contain the basal moral precepts of the people, their philosophy, much of their religion and a vast amount of practical advice to help you in love, in war and in business. If you remember them you can say exactly what you want to about your father or your daughter, your wife or mother-in-law, your priest or mayor, any of your neighbors, and the foreigner within or without your gates; you may assuage the pain of failure, accentuate the joy of victory and arm yourself for every conflict.

Many of these proverbs are not specifically Bulgarian, and one could surely find their counterparts in every peasant land. But it is their counterparts you find. The precise form and wording are Bulgarian derived from Bulgarian surroundings and suited to Bulgarian mentality. Among some of the more interesting are the following which have evoked warm expressions of approval millions of times in these Balkan lands during the last millennium or two. As you read them you can imagine what indignation they have sometimes aroused when their utterance blasted a cherished hope, but still when the wisdom of the ages was pronounced there was nothing to do but accept it, for "a daughter must weave the yarn her mother spins".

A number of Bulgarian proverbs

* If all the horses wore saddles the saddle-makers would eat from gold bowls.

* Mend the rent while it's small.

* The vineyard wants a hoe, not prayer.

* Even a crazy man flees from a drunkard.

* The lie goes first but truth is at its heels.

* Listen much, speak little.

* Whoever is healthy is young.

* Who runs around lots, returns home with spots.

* A wet person is not afraid of rain.

* Begged meat is bitter to eat.

* The sluggard works twice and the miser pays twice.

* If you believe what you hear you'll be going to the sea for rabbits and to the woods for fish.

* You can't slip up on a fly.

* If the wife carries out on a needle what the husband brings in with a wagon, still the house will be emptied.

* Don't go for wood with a child; if your cart breaks he laughs, if his, he cries.

* You can't borrow a sword in war time.

* One blow's enough for a whole wagon of jugs.

* Don't look for sparks in last year's ashes.

* The smaller the dance circle the quicker you tire.

* Short are the legs of a lie.

* Little birdies have big mouths.

* If God listened to the donkeys there'd be no pack saddles.

* If you choose the camel man as a friend you'll have to make your gates higher.

* When the horses kick one another, the donkeys eat better hay.

* Grandma knows all the dances.

* Fatherly advice — filial success.

* An untimely guest is worse than a Turk.

* Clear water — clear head.

* Beat the saddle to warn the donkey.

* Beat the apprentice before he breaks the jug.

* Who's healthy's wealthy.

* God delays but never forgets.

* God gives but does not drive into the stall.

* A goat has a beard too.

* Shake a flour sack as you will, it still sheds flour.

* Hasty horses arrive, hasty words don't.

* Hasty work has to be done twice.

* White dog, black dog — still dog.

* What's seen is surer than what's heard.

* The frog saw them shoe an ox and held out its foot too.

* Cut his cap according to his head.

* Look at the servants and don't ask about the master.

* He made me his guest so's to teach me to fast.

* Wine makes even grandpa frisky.

* Wine first makes you a king, then a wretch.

* One crow doesn't pick out another crow's eye.

* Time’s an old teacher.

* Don't throw stones in thin mud.

* Every pear has a tail.

* No trouble's without end.

* Every gypsy praises his own basket.

* Every one pulls the quilt toward himself.

* Stretch out your feet according to your quilt.

* Every evil for good.

* You don't grab every dog by the tail.

* Every one knows where his own shoe pinches.

* Nothing drowns in a covered pot.

* Drunkards shave on Monday.

* Have confidence in your servant, but more in your key.

* A faitful servant is a strong lock.

* I am telling you, daughter, that daughter-in-law may hear.

* A bagpipe doesn't feed the family.

* A petted wife neglects her distaff.

* A hen with pants is not a rooster.

* Hasn't pants — wants a fiddle.

* A head without cares — a squash in a melon patch.

* A hungry hen dreams of millet.

* You can't charm hunger away.

* A rude guest invites the host.

* Look at his work and ask no questions about him.

* To your guest give — your enemy forgive.

* The potter puts the handle on the jug where it suits him.

* Sit still and 'twon't spill.

* You help the blind man with a staff and he breaks your head.

* He gave a needle and wants an awl in return.

* Grandma gave a dime to get into the dance and now she'd give a dollar to get out of it.

* Two sharp stones grind no flour.

* Measure twice, then slice.

* Two melons can't be carried under one arm.

* Where it itches there one scratches.

* The girl who marries in haste catches only the leftovers.

* If the door squeaks don't enter.

* Big drums drown little ones.

* It breaks where it's thin.

* Where there are biddies there are chickies.

* Where there's fear there's shame.

* Sparks burn where they land.

* Where age is not respected, good is not to be expected.

* Where beauty is, there's envy.

* It's the horse with grain that shakes his mane.

* A kind word — a golden key.

* A good woman is worth more than a farm.

* Good goods need no praise.

* First kill the bear, then sell its hide.

* If there's no fire there's no smoke.

* Don't take off your moccasins till you see the river.

* If you visit the village you must join the dance.

* Words are silver; silence, gold.

* What's cheap, costs lots.

* The tongue is boneless, but bones can break.

* Come evil, for without you worse evil.

* Count your chickens in the autumn.

* With your brother to the sea, with your sweetheart into it.

* The best of guests — after two days pests.

* Don't burn your quilt to kill the flea.

* You can start the piper with a penny, but can't stop him with a dollar.

* ’Tis the fierce dog that guards the flock.

* The black hen lays white eggs too.

* For every good back 300 saddles.

* Having woveoher cloth, she dismantled her loom.

* What the mother spins the daughter weaves.

* They invited the donkey to the wedding and asked him to bring his pack-saddle.

* Wedges drive out wedges.

* If the bear doesn't enter your vineyard don't go chasing after her.

* Dismount before crossing the bridge.

* Watch your chickens the best, when the fox seems at rest.

* Who betrays a trust will some day bust.

* You can't visit the mill without getting flour on your cap.

* Chase two rabbits and catch none.

* After the cart's on its back, you find the good track.

* If you grow a beard, you'll have to buy a comb.

* Who star gazes, wakes up in the well.

* Who wants a sweetheart withou defects will always remain single.

* Who promises most gives least.

* Loaf in summer, starve in winter.

* If you patch not the old, you'll shiver from cold.

* You won't leap in the dance, unless you sweat in the field.

* Who steals a needle will steal the safe.

* Who jumps many stakes will land on one.

* Who's been burned by boiled milk, blows even on buttermilk.

* Even if a fox became a bishop he would still steal chickens.

* Walk slow — go far.

* The caught mare treads the grain

* Every stick has two ends.

* The meek lamb sucks from two mothers.

* Patches keep the house going.

* Don't go with a big basket for over praised strawberries.

* Don't measure a live wolf's tail.

* The found plow makes crooked rows.

* A hundred blows are little for the back of a foreigner.

* The mouse found a little hole and is trying to hide a sqash in it.

* Don't mind how you're cursed, but by whom.

* Don't buy a house with no neighbors.

* Seek advice not from those who are old but from those who have suffered.

* Uncaught birds are worth a cent a thousand.

* Don't call my wife a beauty but a good worker.

* "Wont" and "Cant" are brother and sister.

* The unseen face is soon forgotten.

* He doesn't know how to water donkeys but he's going to write a book.

* Necessity amends laws.

* Though necessity is not iron it breaks stones.

* Shepherdless sheep the wolves will keep.

* He hasn't even moccasins but wants a bagpipe.

* A wasp is a bee too, but its honey's like glue.

* Beware of unreasonable friends but not of reasonable enemies.

* Crows don't become eagles.

* She went for wool and came back with her own sheared off.

* The camel went for horns and came back without ears.

* Silence makes no head ache.

* Work's hard; no work harder.

* 'Tis little coins that make piles of gold.

* It's easy to give from the bag of another.

* The fish is still in the sea, but he puts his skillet on the fire.

* Money doesn't bring health; it takes it away.

* Houses decay, debts remain.

* The best swimmers drown first.

* A grain of brain is worth a ton of brawn.

* Better be envied than pitied.

* Better the master of a dollar than the slave of thousands.

* After the club the switch seems light.

* Your "welcome" fits a man’s clothes, your "good bye" his mind.

* You can't tell a hero by his clothes.

* Swords don't cut off bowed heads.

* The green burns along with the dry.

* The cup makes you an easy "hero".

* Help yourself and God'll help you.

* A scalded dog is afraid even of the rain.

* Hidden coals burn the deepest.

* An empty gourd - always rattles.

* Dust doesn't gather on a drum.

* Even God can't stand too good a saint.

* The goat laughed at the sheep for being greedy.

* Don't consider your enemy a sheep but a wolf.

* A song has no owner.

* A diligent woman doesn't go ragged.

* A candle doesn't shine downward.

* The sun shines in the mud without getting dirty.

* The hen laid an egg and the rooster cackled.

* A silver saddle makes the horse no better.

* Who honors the aged, honors God.

* Wisdom reigns, wisdom serves, wisdom takes geese to pasture.

* It's fear that guards the vineyard.

* Fear has big eyes.

* You can't carry nuts on a pitchfork.

* A tied hound catches no rabbits.

* Three don't wait for one.

* No roses without thorns, no sweethearts without flaws.

* Give advice freely but not money.

* The sea started out to drown itself in the river.

* Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open.

* You can't carry both a baby and a distaff.

* The beautiful bride is beautiful even behind an old veil.

* Beauty doesn't keep the home going.

* You can't eat beauty; only look at it.

* Wormy apples are the reddest of all.

* We are born with tears and with tears we die.

* What a man thinks in sobriety he blabs in drunkenness.

* Money that is not your own burns your fingers.

* Your neighbor's egg is double-yolked.

* Whispering ruins the home.

* An awl won't stay in a sack.

* Peel the apple but not the pear.

* A wolf eats even counted lambs.

* God's high and the King far away. (So the situation is hopeless).

* God doesn't pay every time — once is enough.

* The calf saw a cave and thought it was a cathedral.

* A stream is like a woman; it goes past the place you direct it to.

* One with a bad conscience flees unchased.

* If you want the fire you must endure the smoke.

* One holds the horns, another gets the milk.

* One hand washes the other, but they both wash the face.

* You meet no women's graves beside the road.

* For the wise man a mosquito's buzz is enough; for the foolish a drum is little.

* You may believe neither a woman nor the winter sun.

* The dawn comes even without cocks.

* If you want to eat with a big spoon, work with a big hoe.

* Where there's time there's healing.

* Eavesdroppers never hear well.

* Blood doesn't become water.

* Beards don't shame lies.

* Love doesn't look at the face.

* Your neigbors' hens lay the biggest eggs.

* Bow to the devil until you get across the bridge.

* The tree of a bird's own nest always seems to it best.

* A hungry man has no faith in the sated one.

* “Quiet Boy” ate up the cake.

* It's the quiet water you must look out for.

* Mr. Wood got mad, but the forest didn't even know it.

* Death settles all.

* One stone scatters 300 crows.

* After the rain, an umbrella.

* A beautiful woman for drawing a crowd, a plain one for keeping a home.

* What is needed at home is not given to the church.

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