"Residence in Bulgaria", St. Clair and Brophy




First aspect - The village public - An interior - The gipsy quarter - Habits of the gipsies - 'Notice to quit.'

A SANDY ravine sloping down to the Lake of Varna between ranges of low hills covered with the remains of once magnificent forests, some three score of mud houses, or rather huts, each surrounded by irregularly shaped enclosures of hurdle-work in every stage of dilapidation, two or three fountains, many wild cherry, plum, apple, and pear trees; buffaloes, pigs, and innumerable cur dogs of every size, wandering about listlessly in search of food. Such is the general appearance of our village, and making the necessary allowance for difference of position, such is the aspect of almost every Rayah (Christian) village in the Bulgarian Balkan.

If the landscape be left out of the question, these villages are not picturesque in themselves, and the prevailing brownish tint of the houses, blending with that of the cleared land around, prevents them being easily seen from a distance; enter one of them, and if you happily succeed in avoiding the bites of all the dogs, whom the arrival of a stranger induces to pause from their usual avocations, you will see a mass of cottages apparently thrown together without order or arrangement, built of mud and rudely thatched with reeds, upon which great stones are sometimes placed (as upon the chalets of Switzerland), to prevent the roof being carried away by the wind. Each of the ruinous fences encloses a structure resembling a child's Noah's Ark immensely magnified and upon raised wooden legs; this is the granary, containing the small amount of wheat or Indian corn reserved by the Bulgarian peasant for the use of his family. A rude plough unaltered in form since the earliest days of agriculture, some equally primitive tools, a heap of logs for firewood, a ladder, an araba or springless cart, a few melancholy turkeys, and a brood of famished chickens, trying to pick up their day's meal; these are the invariable appendages of every house.

In the kind of main road which meanders through the village are two or three dwellings distinguished from the rest by their superior size, and by a pergola in front which affords shade from the sun or shelter from the rain: these are the shops of the Bakals or public-house keepers, and before the door of each is collected a knot of men, sitting cross-legged on the ground, occupied in drinking, smoking and discussing their own and their neighbours' affairs, very much as if they were Englishmen in England, except that, as the drugged wine produces its effect, a dispute arises, and they start to their feet abusing one another with all the facile eloquence of Slavonic vituperation, and draw their knives with more than Italian gesticulation. The Italian coltellata is, however, seldom given in these public quarrels, for woman, the universal peacemaker, appears upon the scene, armed with persuasive words and a thick stick. But though her verbal or manual arguments may stay the impending strife, she too often shares the proverbial fate of 'those who in quarrels interpose,' for even here the Age of Chivalry is past, and wives are as soundly thrashed in Bulgaria as in Lancashire or Clerkenwell. There is another reason which prevents these drunken quarrels from ending in bloodshed upon the spot; the Rayah, instead of trusting his cause to the judgement de Dieu as manifested in a duel with knives, prefers to stab his adversary at an advantage, or to adopt the more salent vengeance of poison, one always safe in a country where the police, seldom seen outside the walls of the towns, is looked upon by the Christian as his natural enemy and therefore rarely appealed to, and where post-mortem examinations have yet to be introduced with the many other civilizing agents from France and England, which are, as the newspapers inform us, soon to raise the standard of Rayah education and morality to a par with that of the Nations of the West. [See Appendix A.]

This main road is also the favourite resort of those village pigs who are not out on the pasture land, and of dogs, who find a constant supply of food in the enormous heaps of manure which, unused and unvalued, seem to be preserved merely for the purpose of feeding pigs and of breeding fever.

Near the village, or within it, stands the cheshmeh or fountain, an erection of stone, or occasionally, though rarely, of marble, seldom showing any architectural taste, or even attempt at decoration. It is usually a piece of wall three or four feet high and as many yards long, with a wooden spout, from which the water flows into a trough and thence trickles away to form a vagrant stream for the wandering ducks and geese. Around this spring are several women and girls, each with a wooden yoke, something like that of a London milkman, supporting a couple of copper pails; and as they wait for their turn at the fountain they indulge in the gossip inseparable from a meeting of the fair sex, whether in the Balkans, or on the chairs of Rotten Row, or the Botanical Gardens.

In the early morning a dozen of arabas drawn by oxen or buffaloes and heavily laden with firewood for sale at Varna, four hours distant, pass slowly through with their drivers. During the daytime the village, if it is not one of the too numerous feast days of the Greek calendar, appears deserted, except by women and children, and the habitues of the dram shop; but as evening approaches the men return from the forest or the field, and oxen, pigs, sheep, and goats, arrive from their pasturage under the guardianship of the chobans, or herdsmen.

The houses of the Rayahs resemble one another so strongly throughout Bulgaria that to describe one is to give a fair idea of all: few of them rise above the ground floor, the exceptions being perhaps not more than one in each village, although a taste for more pretentious domestic architecture appears to be slowly developing itself; their size of course varies in accordance with the means of the owners, a family of six or eight individuals often living and sleeping together in one small room not above eight feet square and six high; but hardly any houses have more than three rooms, even amongst the wealthiest peasants. There is, generally a verandah in front of the cottage, upon which each apartment opens separately instead of communicating with the others. The principal apartment is used as kitchen, parlour, and bedroom for the heads of the family, and contains (in a well-to-do house) an array of tin, copper, and earthenware utensils for household use, two or three wooden boxes gaudily painted with impossible flowers, in which repose the gala costumes of the family, and oil a shelf are huge rolls of rush matting, and coarse woollen rugs for bed and bedclothes. Plastered into the wall is a little circular mirror two or three inches in diameter; and huddled away into a corner, or placed in a conspicuous position, according to the piety or indifferentism of the family, are the Eikones or pictured saints of the Greek Church, a roughly-painted wooden triptych, bought from some travelling Russian pedlar, and representing a dusky Madonna and child flanked by St. George and St. Demetrius. In front of this picture is often placed an oil-lamp, but we have never yet seen it burning. All about the room are hung on the walls and from the rafters odds and ends of every kind: dried meat, skins of fox or badger, waiting for the arrival of the skin merchant, a rude hand-loom and some bales of wool; the sofra, a small wooden table standing about six inches high and serving for the family meal; the tekneh, a wooden dish shaped like a butcher's tray without handles and used for making bread; an old pistol, a gull, some pieces of bacon, a string of onions, and all the broken crockery of the household. The other rooms are usually bare, and serve as a sleeping apartment for the juniors, no separation of the sexes being considered necessary.

Bedsteads are unknown; a mat is placed upon the floor, the peasant thrusts his sheepskin cap over his eyes, makes the Greek sign of the cross, covers himself up with a rug or two, and goes to sleep without further preparation.

It is one of the most curious peculiarities of the Rayah homestead that on a moonless night you may pass within fifty yards of a large village without knowing of its existence, did not the barking of countless dogs warn you of your vicinity to human habitations. Even in the coldest winter no cheerful gleam of fire seen through lighted windows promises shelter and hospitality; all is dark and gloomy as the night, for the Bulgarian cottages are distinguished by the entire absence of windows or of any substitute for them, the only media of light and ventilation being the large chimney and the chinks and crannies of the ill-joined door. The reason assigned for this is the universal dread of brigands who might come at night and fire through the windows (if they existed) at the sleeping peasants. Abdurrachman Pasha, a late governor of Varna, recently issued an order that in future no houses should be built without windows; but the villagers, whilst complying with the letter of the law, have artfully contrived to evade its spirit by making the obligatory " window " a mere peephole in the wall, not large enough to pass the hand through, and even this is kept stopped up with rags, in order to prevent the possible intrusion of fresh air or a gun barrel. The simple expedient of strong wooden shutters seems never to have occurred to them, though they might see examples of it in any Turkish village.

The atmosphere produced by these arrangements and by the presence of a dozen persons who do not take off their under-clothing four times during the year, and who are moreover redolent of garlic and raki, is not agreeable to the stranger in Bulgaria; for the Rayah, like the negro, diffuses around him a peculiar aromatic odour by no means Sabaean, which makes one feel inclined to apply to the whole race Dante's description of Geryon,

“Ecco colei che tutto il mondo appuzza;”

more especially as this aroma extends itself in some subtle, manlier even to the cookery, so that it is easy for any one who has eaten food with both Christian and Mussulman to distinguish both by taste and smell the victuals of the one Creed from those of the other.

After what we have just said about the infrequent changes of clothes and linen, it is not surprising that, as a corollary, parasitic insects of every variety abound ill every individual and in every house.

Our village lately possessed a kind of suburb, the Chinguine Mahalli or Gipsy Quarter, which, however, was last June wantonly burned to the ground and its inhabitants turned adrift. These gypsies, following the usual custom of their people in conforming outwardly to the State Religion of the country in which they reside, profess Islamism, though they never enter a mosque, and otherwise observe but few of the precepts enjoined by the Koran: their women (like those of the Tartars) do not even wear the yashmak, the veil which should always screen Mahommedan female beauty or ugliness from the gaze of the too curious stranger.

Amongst themselves the gipsies speak Romany, as well as Turkish; their huts differ but little externally from those of the Bulgarian, except that they are usually smaller and have no verandah, but though they are perhaps more squalid in outward appearance, the interior offers a pleasing contrast to that of their Christian fellow subjects by its neatness and cleanliness.

Our Chinguines exercised the universal gipsy trades of begging, basket-making, tinkering, and forging iron, to which the Bulgarians said that they added in an especial degree that of thieving, but this accusation is probably due in a great measure to the fact that two of a trade never agree, as in all our dealings with the gipsies we found them quite as honest (to say the least) as their Rayah neighbours. Every morning the gipsy women, furnished each with a big sack and a long stick to keep off the dogs, who seem to bear them an especial antipathy, start in couples upon an expedition to beg or buy flour and other food amongst the villagers, who occasionally give it to them without payment, not from any motive of charity, but because they are to a certain extent afraid of them, having a deeply-rooted belief in their power to cast spells, cause rain, and other beneficent or maleficent attributes. The men remain at home mending pots and pans, tinning copper vessels, and doing all the iron work required by the village, whilst the children blow the bellows, or accompany the cattle to their pasturage.

Less nomadic than those of Western Europe, the Turkish gipsies seldom, however, settle in one village for more than three or four years, and the voluntary or forced migration of a tribe in search of fresh quarters is one of the most picturesque sights to be seen in Bulgaria. A long string of oxen, buffaloes, and horses (which we will hope have not been stolen), transports the tents and cooking utensils of the voyagers, as well as the very old men and young children, the former of whom are often magnificent models for a St. Jerome or St. John in Patmos, the latter, dusky monkey-like little imps naked as when they were born: by their side march the younger men and women clad in rags and tatters of every hue, and carrying in their arms infants, poultry, and new-born calves or colts. The gipsy women when young are often exceedingly beautiful, in the style generally considered in England as 'Eastern,' with dark complexions and black almond-shaped eyes, but their beauty fades rapidly, and at thirty years they are already old, wrinkled, and hideous.

As soon as one of these processions halts in or near a village, tents are pitched, fires lighted, and foraging parties organised, whilst the Bulgarians, at the approach of their unwelcome visitors, keep a close watch upon their poultry, pigs, and other moveable goods, for though the Chinguine may to a certain extent respect the property of the village in which he is settled, no scruples restrain him from profiting by any waifs and strays which may come in his way.

The life of the gipsy in Turkey is very much that of a Pariah: disliked and despised by the Turk, hated by the Christian, he yet earns his living by harder labour than that of the latter, whilst his only crime is petty larceny amongst a people with whom roguery is the rule, honesty the exception, and in villages where you will be calmly told, as an interesting piece of information, that the woman, Tranitza or Kaloushka, whom you see quietly chatting with her neighbours, poisoned her first husband in order to marry her second. You ask, “But was she not punished?” and the answer is a shrug of the shoulders and “ Whose business is it?”

The gipsies are allowed to settle in their villages by Mussulmans and Christians, but are usually much worse off amongst the latter than with the former.

A relation of the way in which the Clunguines of Derekuoi were treated by the villagers will give a fair sample of the hardships they endure without a chance of redress; they do not complain, for what would be the use of a Mussulman gipsy in Bulgaria complaining to a Turkish Pasha against the immaculate pets of Russia?

The gipsies, in addition to the profits of their handicraft, live in a great measure upon the produce of their scanty herds and the sale of milk and butter in the towns; but having no fields they are compelled to buy from the Rayah flour for themselves and corn for their cattle during the winter; our villagers exacted from them a price far exceeding the value of the articles they sold - threepence for an oke of flour instead of twopence, and one shilling and fourpence for a measure of barley instead of tenpence - and received payment either in money or in labour: in the latter case their profits were easily increased by a judicious abatement of the price asked by the gipsy.

Thus during the winter the Chinguines were a positive pecuniary advantage to the villagers; but when spring came and their herds found fodder in the pasture lands, they had more milk and butter to sell at Varna, realized more money, and were therefore less dependent upon the village. The Rayahs then called an assembly of the notables, in which it was decided that as the gipsies' cattle were then feeding upon their grazing land without paying for the privilege [It must be remembered that the Rayahs themselves pay nothing for the enormous acreage of pasture land which they claim and profit by.] and they bought but little from the village, it would be well to give them a hint to quit.

This hint was conveyed in the most delicate manner by burning their houses over their heads one night, without any previous notice, and the poor gipsies left; but at the approach of winter many of them returned and asked leave to settle on another spot near the village. As winter is the profitable season to the inhabitants of Derekuoi, this request was kindly granted, and we have again a colony of gipsies, who in the summer will probably be evicted by some process equally summary with that of last year.

Such is an instance of the treatment shown by Christians to Mussulmans, of whom they are not personally afraid; had the Rayahs been the victims of a similar outrage inflicted by Turks, what a glorious theme it would have afforded to the friends of the Oriental Christian or the enemies of Turkey; 'but who in Europe fights the battles of the Mussulman?

Shortly after the occurrence of this act of arson, the Authors mentioned the fact to the then Governor of Varna: he replied that he could do nothing, having received standing orders from Constantinople to favour the Rayahs in every possible manner.

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