Friday, May 28, 2010

Hristo Botev, Poet and Revolutionary

There is no power over those who are ready to lose their lives in the name of freedom and the good of humanity.

- Hristo Botev

Today's "patron saint" of Bulgaria will be Hristo Botev, a poet and revolutionary who lived during the 19th century. He was born on January 6, 1848, and died in June 1876.

The combination of poet and revolutionary is often found in countries with a violent history. What is ironic is that poets, in general are usually very peaceful people, who despise violence and conflict. They are also idealists.

There are a number of countries with a literary history of revolutionary poets, such as Scotland (Robert Burns), Cuba (Jose Martí), China (Mao Zedong), and the United States (Phyllis Wheatley). Hristo Botev and Ivan Vazov (who will be mentioned later) are Bulgaria's contribution to the world of revolutionary poetry.

Hristo Botev died before the age of 30. He wrote 20 poems during his lifetime. Besides writing poetry, he was a teacher, writer, journalist, and revolutionary. He is considered a national hero in Bulgaria. Every year on June 2, the anniversary of his death, sirens sound at noon for several minutes and the entire country comes to a standstill. The city of Botevgrad is named after him, as well as a number of schools, sports stadiums, and even a program on the Bulgarian National Radio!

He was one of the key figures in the overthrow of Ottoman rule in his country, and is much revered by the Bulgarian people.

Bulgaria and a good portion of the Balkans had been under Ottoman Turkish rule for about 500 years, until the the end of the Russo Turkish War in 1878. Their rule was somewhat harsh; the Balkans have always been a hotbed for conflict, especially of the religious kind. The Turks were Muslim, and the Bulgarians, Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Bulgarians chafed under the Ottoman yoke; the Turks suppressed their religion and culture and taxed them heavily. They also took a number of Bulgarian boys away from their families and conscripted them into elite fighting units called the Janissaries. This did not sit well with the Bulgarians, either.

Hristo Botev's goal was to free his country from Turkish oppression. He was especially influenced by the Polish and Russian revolutionary movements and writers; nearly all his poetry was based on patriotic and revolutionary themes. Here is "The Hanging of Vasil Levski" in an English translation:

Vasil Levski was executed for spreading revolutionary ideas, and attempting to start an uprising, and this was Botev’s account of his death. It is very moving, graphic and sad. Poetry is emotion put on paper, and it’s not always about beautiful things. The description and its meaning to the poet, and to his readers, are what constitutes his message.

For more on Vasil Levski, read

One of the most famous incidents in Bulgarian history, and one that was in part, responsible for the overthrow of Ottoman domination of Bulgaria, was the May, 1876 takeover of the Radetsky, in which Botev, accompanied with about 200 men, dressed as gardeners, hijacked an Austro-Hungarian steamship. He, with a group of revolutionaries, exiles, living in Romania, were fed up with the situation in Bulgaria, and decided the time was ripe to return home and overthrow the Turks. Their plan was to cross the Danube into Bulgaria and join other rebels in hiding in the Vratsa region. His group, disguised as laborers, boarded, and as soon as they left Romania, Botev made the following demands to the captain:

(translation from Wikipedia)

“Mr Captain!
Dear passengers!
I have the honour to notify you that Bulgarian rebels, whom I have the honour to be the voivode of, are located on this steamship.
At the price of our livestock and our agricultural instruments, at the expense of great efforts and sacrifice of our goods, finally at the price of everything which is dear in this world (without the knowledge and despite the pursuit of the authorities in the country whose neutrality we respected), we have provided ourselves with what is necessary to us, in order to come to the assistance of our revolting brothers, who are fighting so brave under the Bulgarian lion for the liberty and independence of our dear Fatherland — Bulgaria.
We pray to the Lord that the passengers do not worry at all and remain calm. As for you, Mr Captain, I have the hard duty to invite you to place the ship at our disposal until our very getting-off, while at the same time I declare that even your smallest resistance will put me in the sorrowful necessity to use force and against my will to revenge for the disgusting incident on board the Germany steamboat in Rousse in 1867.
In one case or the other, our battle cry is the following:
Long live Bulgaria!
Long live Franz Joseph!
Long live Count Andrássy!
Long live Christian Europe!”

A poem by Ivan Vazov describes the Radetsky incident. Vazov was also a poet, writer, and revolutionary, and a contemporary of Botev. He lived long enough to see the Ottomans overthrown. Fortunately for him, he did not live to see the Nazis and later the Communists, since he died in 1921.

This is the poem "Radetsky" (translation found on Wikipedia, now deleted) by Vazov and a YouTube video of the song created from the poem. (Translations from Bulgarian can get a little strange but this one is actually quite good).

The placid white Danube is excited
And splashing merrily,
For the Radetzky is proudly sailing,
On its golden waves.
But as Kozloduy is sighted
A horn sounds on the ship,
A banner is unfurled.
Young Bulgarian warriors
Suddenly appear,
On their foreheads lion badges,
Ardour in their stare.
Proudly there stood before them,
Their leader young,
And thus spoke he to the captain
With bare sword in hand.
‘I am a Bulgarian voivod,
And these are all my men.
We are speeding now for freedom
to spill our blood today.
We are speeding to Bulgaria,
To offer our help,
And from oppressive tyranny
To rescue her today.'

The captain, Dagobert Engländer, was quite taken with Botev’s demeanor and described him as personable and well-mannered. He was impressed with the Botev’s willingness to die for a noble cause, and agreed to his demands. He wished the revolutionaries well when they docked in the Bulgarian port of Kozloduy, and this was all accomplished peacefully, without bloodshed.

By the way, the ship was named after an Austro-Hungarian general, Joseph Radetzky von Radetz. He was immortalized in a march by Johann Strauss Senior, this is his most famous work, the Radetsky March. Every year (except for 2005) this piece has been the rousing finale of the yearly Vienna New Year's Day Concert. Another interesting fact: the composer was the father of the man who wrote that very famous waltz about the Danube :)

There is a statue of Radetsky in Vienna, and a town named Radetski in Bulgaria. Everyone in Bulgaria is familiar with the name Radetsky, and it’s written forever in their history books as well as Austria’s.

Here is the account of Botev's death from last year's Bulgarian National Radio entry on the Internet (which is no longer on their web site, so I have quoted it here).

At that point, when Bulgaria was in the fire of the April events, when the houses of the rebellious Bulgarians were set on fire and the bodies of the slaughtered lay unburied, 200 brave young men decided to cross the Danube River and return home to fight side by side with their compatriots. On May 29 they set off from Giugriu determined to fight for Bulgaria’s freedom. Hristo Botev was their leader. On May 30 they set foot on the Bulgarian bank of the River at the town of Kozloduy and headed for the Balkan Range. After heavy and unequal fighting with the Turkish police units and regular army, on June 2, just below Okolchitsa Peak, in the region of Vratsa, Northern Bulgaria, Botev’s detachment was inflicted the heaviest blow and its leader – Hristo Botev was killed in battle. He was only 27.

To this day, Hristo Botev, poet and revolutionary, is one of the most important figures in Bulgarian history.
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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Puerto Rico and Bulgaria.....a cross cultural comparison (or how I became a "Bulgarican")

How did a descendant of Puerto Ricans, raised in the projects of the South Bronx, develop an interest in Bulgaria?

When I was growing up, music and dance were an integral part of our celebrations, especially during Christmas, New Year's, birthdays and weddings. Puerto Ricans love to dance and party. They will find any excuse to do so.

The dances of Puerto Rico are inspired by several different cultural influences: the Spanish, who arrived on the island in 1493, the Taino Indians, who were the natives Columbus and his men found, and the West Africans. The Spanish enslaved the natives, using them to work the gold mines and build the forts. As a result of this cruel treatment, and the introduction of diseases such as smallpox from the Europeans, the native population was decimated. The Spanish, who needed an unpaid workforce, brought in slaves from West Africa to replace the Tainos in the mines. When the gold ran out, the slaves worked in the sugar plantations. When the Africans had a chance to chill and relax (which wasn't often), someone brought out a drum, and people danced to the beat.

Here is a dance called the Plena, which is a blend of Spanish, Taino and African influences, the dominant being African:

And this is the Bomba, a Puerto Rican call and response song and dance, also inspired by African folklore:

Both Puerto Rico and Bulgaria have strong folk music and dance traditions and share a history of domination by foreign powers. Puerto Rico, however, has never been an independent entity. Bulgaria, on the other hand, has been in existence for over 1300 years, and except for the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, and the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe, has been an independent nation for much of those 1300 years.

Spain ruled Puerto Rico for over 400 years, and after the Spanish American War of 1898, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory, and later a commonwealth. One of the reasons Puerto Rico refused statehood has much to do with maintaining its cultural identity, which is a mixture of Spanish, African, and Taino. The original inhabitants, the Taino Indians, lived peacefully on the island for thousands of years until Columbus arrived. He and the Spanish suppressed the indigenous culture, but couldn't destroy it, despite the decimation of the natives and the repression and enslavement of the Africans.

Bulgaria has maintained its cultural identity for over 1300 years, despite the domination of the Ottoman Turks, who ruled the country for five centuries, from the mid 1400's until 1878.

The country is a mixture of a number of influences: Thracian, Slavic, Bulgar, Turkish, Greek and Roma (Gypsy).

The Ottomans conscripted Bulgarian boys to serve as Janissaries in the Sultan's armies, a form of slavery, since these young men never saw their families again. mother's biggest fear was that the Turks would abduct one of her sons. This was a form of taxation imposed on the Christian population of the Balkans.

In the 20th Century, after World War II, the Russians set up puppet governments in Eastern Europe, which lasted until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Communists were as repressive as the Turks, taking away the human rights of the people of these countries, and sending dissenters to prison camps or worse.

Whoever thought Bulgaria and Puerto Rico would have so much in common historically and culturally? Despite the differences in language and climate, they both share a history of oppression and a love of music and dance.

Although immigrants who come to the United States to live try to pass the culture on to their kids, oftentimes it's diluted and eventually lost as Americanization takes over. My parents, although they kept some of the traditions, and spoke Spanish, wanted my brother and me to speak English and be assimilated. As a result, I understand Spanish, but don't speak it very well.

My children, unfortunately know little of their culture except what I was able to pass on to them, via family and friends. One of my daughters has a very close friend who grew up in Puerto Rico, she has been a valuable source of cultural information for both of us!

I have been to many ethnic festivals during my lifetime. I love the authenticity of them, especially when they are connected with a group that has not been here long enough to be Americanized. Here is a Bulgarian event at Mt. Holyoke College that I went to back in March, the beauty of their culture comes alive here.

Cultural identity is very important. That is why I appreciate the culture I was born to. When I grew up and did some traveling, I learned to appreciate and love the cultures of other countries as well, especially Germany, where I lived for four years. When I took up Balkan folk dancing, I fell in love with Bulgarian culture, and it will always be a part of me. That is how I became a "Bulgarican."

I am a citizen of the world.

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fire Walking: Myth or Magic?

Last month, while I was at one of the Friday night dances, someone had requested a dance called the Nestinarsko Horo, which is played during the ritual of fire dancing in Southern Bulgaria. This ceremony is associated with the feast days of Saints Constantine and Helen on May 21st.

A lady from Bulgaria was with us that night and mentioned that she had danced on hot coals during a Nestinari ceremony, and another couple who had traveled to Bulgaria had seen a performance of fire dancers. I found this intriguing and asked the woman about her experience. There is a way to do it without burning your feet, and what she told me was similar to what I saw on a Myth Busters video.

The origin of fire dancing is uncertain, but it may have been connected with pagan rituals.

The ceremony is not officially sanctioned by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and during the Communist era it was discouraged by the government. The fire dancers practiced in secret for many years, and kept this tradition alive.

According to the Bulgarian National Radio web site “Part of the reason for the ceremony is to protect the crops from hail storms. The pre-Christian mythology of the day links to the cult to the sun and its earthly embodiment – fire."

Here’s a short description:

"The fire dancers, called Nestinari, prepare themselves very carefully for this ritual with fasting, seclusion and meditation, and by bathing in a holy spring. They wash the icons representing Saints Constantine and Helen in holy water, dress them in new clothes, and adorn them with jewels.

The morning of the ceremony the villagers create a huge bonfire, so that by sunset, only the coals remain. The ritual starts with a procession towards the embers, led by the churchwarden, followed by the icon bearers, the Nestinari, the musicians, and finally, the villagers."

The Nestinari hold the icons facing heavenward as they move gracefully over the embers in their bare feet. It is believed that their faith in God is what keeps them from getting burned; it's possible that the music, with its hypnotic effect, puts the them into a trance. Here is a Nestinari performance complete with the preparations for the ceremony.

Nestinari performances have become exploited as a tourist attraction except in a few small villages.

A TV show on the Discovery Channel, Myth Busters, had also investigated the phenomenon of fire walking, to see if ordinary people could walk on hot coals without burning their feet. I watched the Myth Busters video, where Matt and David perform a fire walk over a bed of 1,000 degree wood embers. Here they are doing the Nestinari thing, sans music:

Neither man was burned. According to them, the ash over the coals acts as an insulator.

So it seems that fire walking can be done by everyone, provided they use this technique: Walk quickly, walk lightly, and keep your feet flat. If you curl your toes, you disturb the coals, which removes the insulating ash, and you will get burned.

By the way, the world record for fire walking is 328 feet.

Anyone game for a dance over hot coals?

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Significance of Wine in Bulgarian Folklore - Na Zdrave!

Many years ago, I lived in German wine country, in one of the northernmost wine growing regions of Europe, between the rivers Rhein and Mosel. This was a white wine region, with a very short growing season and the vineyards, with rows of Riesling grapevines terraced on steep hillsides to catch the sun, created a beautiful and unique landscape. This is the area I was privileged to live in for nearly four years. This is Bernkastel-Kues, a beautiful wine village, on the Mosel River, 45 minutes away from where I used to live:

The Romans, in their conquest of the continent, spread viniculture far and wide. They cultivated grapevines in the valley of the Middle Rhine, which is at a latitude of 50 degrees north. This was as far north as they could go; in this part of the world the growing season is from May to early October. Wherever the Romans went, so did their vineyards; Spain, Italy, Austria, France, Hungary, Portugal, and Bulgaria. The Greeks were also known for their wine and may have brought viniculture to Bulgaria as well.

The drinking of wine accompanies every special occasion and there are holidays connected with it: Trifon Zarezan in February (when the vines are pruned), and Holy Cross Day in September, which falls around the time of the grape harvest. Both have pagan origins. St. Trifon is the patron saint of vineyards. Here's a Trifon Zarezan celebration, which falls on February 14:

Wine has almost a religious significance in Bulgarian folklore. It is seen as more than just a beverage, but as something that promotes health (there has been a lot in the news lately about the health benefits of moderate consumption of red wine), and since it resembles blood, it is also seen as a symbol of fertility and life. It also promotes a communion to those who partake, and even children are allowed to drink small quantities.

Red wine is the predominant vintage in Bulgaria, and rakia is the distilled spirit made from this wine. Wine and rakia are mentioned in this folk song:

Bulgarians would never dream of having a celebration without wine and dancing.

Bulgarian proverbs mention what happens when there is too much of a good thing, and the hangover after the party is a universal phenomenon. It’s not the wine, it’s the drinking!

"THE FIRST glass is for health, the second - for joy, the third - for fun, the fourth - for madness."

"BLESSED wine, cursed drinking!"

Here’s another folk song about a blonde who has no comb, and is looking for a man to marry her. The chorus: Elena, bring the red wine and the red apples......

Although Bulgaria produces a significant amount of wine, it is very hard to find here in the States, unless you live in a large city like New York or Boston. Part of the reason is that people won’t drink wine from a place they know little about. Maybe their wine is so good they don’t get much of it to export here. I know for a fact that in Germany, the best wine stays in the country; the rest is exported.

I have yet to find Bulgarian wine at a liquor store near me.
The best way to obtain it, probably is to buy it by case, via the internet.
For more about wine and Bulgarian folklore read:
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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

St. George's Day (Gergyovden or Đurđevdan)

Many years ago, my uncle visited Rio DeJaneiro, and while he was there he picked up this picture of St. George and the dragon. My parents have had this picture hung in a prominent place in their home ever since. It was there long before I was born.

It's possible when my uncle brought this souvenir back from far away Brazil, he was thinking of my grandmother, whose name was Georgina. She was certainly a dragon in her own way. She was extremely religious, to the point of trying to convert nearly everyone she met, she kept a Bible and other religious texts in her bedroom, went to church every day and died at the ripe old age of 91.

For some reason Grandma Georgina didn't like it, and gave it to my parents. The picture both horrified and fascinated me when I was a little girl. I felt sorry for the dragon. When I got older, I found out dragons weren't real, but that people believed in them during the Middle Ages. The picture of St. George and the Dragon shows the triumph of good over evil.

According to legend the dragon spread the plague and breathed fire. He was a threat to the people, so they fed him lambs. When lambs weren't available, he ate children, chosen by lottery. One day the king's daughter was chosen to be given as a bride to the dragon. St. George, seeing the young woman in much distress, offered to slay the dragon, provided the people in the town became baptized as Christians.

Atop a white horse, he killed the dragon, the people of the town accepted Christianity and the threat was no more.

The legend of St. George slaying the dragon is very much alive in folklore, not only in Eastern Europe, but in England as well. The anniversary of St. George's death is a holiday in many countries. The Catholic Church and the Church of England celebrate it on April 23, whereas the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates it May 6.

St. George is the patron saint of a number of nations, including England, Greece, Serbia, and Portugal. By the way, when the Portuguese founded Rio DeJaneiro, St. George became the patron saint of the city. That is where my uncle bought his souvenir.

Anyway, in Eastern Europe St. George's Day is a day of celebration, and a day off from work. Here are some St.George Day festivities from Bulgaria, with lots of dancing, singing and shouting. They are certainly having a blast!

Here is some background on the holiday from Radio Bulgaria, along with lots of music:

On April 30, I had the opportunity to go to a St. George's Day celebration in New York City. This was a truly international event, since it was held at the Hungarian House, and the bands played Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Roma music. The featured band was Zlatne Uste, a very popular Balkan Brass Band in New York City. They have been to Serbia several times, and have even performed in the Guca Festival there! Here is a video from one of their gigs in Manhattan. You can't help but get up and dance while listening to them!

Unfortunately I had to travel light that night, so I didn't bring my camera. Let it be said that the dancing was wild and uninhibited, the music fantastic, the food excellent (the event was catered by Bulgarians, and featured traditional foods such as roast lamb, banitsa and Shopska Salad) and the people, very friendly.

Here is a traditional St. George's Day song from Serbia.

This was one of the songs played at the party, with a lot of loud brass and very strong rhythm. We danced it to cocek (pronounced chochek), which is a very popular dance all over the Balkans, of Roma origin.

This was a night to remember, on a par with Balkan Music Night and Lyuti Chushki's visit to Mt. Holyoke College.

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