As a country, Bulgaria surprised me so much.
–the country is very diverse for a formerly Communist country, due to the legacy of the Ottoman Turks and the Tsar saving all Bulgarian Jews during WWII
–people are so open and friendly
–forget about museums, the history is literally in the streets!
I can’t wait to write more about my experiences in Plovdiv, an amazing little city, but for now I’ll talk about the March 1st spring celebrations (I wonder if it’ll be warmer than -15C / 5F by then…) and what I learned from talking to two wonderful local artists / folk art sellers there.
This is Dimitar – the Bulgarian version of Dimitri – but no one knows that. He goes by Peter Pan. Why? While his shop is open, he walks up and down the cobblestoned street playing the various instruments he has in his shop, attracting business for sure but also making friends with children and tourists and creating a positive, peaceful atmosphere on an already quietly peaceful street in the Old Quarter.
I would be lying if I told you this isn’t why I walked into his shop too.
Peter Pan and his wife make all kinds of jewelry, from wood, clay, leather and other natural materials they find. If you look in the middle left of the above photo, you’ll see “kaštan” or chestnut earrings. I wanted to buy them but they were too heavy. Instead I bought wooden bead earrings that looked like pomegranates (one of my favorite symbols ever since I studied in Greece.
I also spent a long time admiring the necklace on the right, which is made out of cut and looped leather. It was beautiful and unique, but I knew I wouldn’t wear it (the color is too bland) so for once I was responsible and put it back.
I did, however, also buy one of his clay necklaces. Mine is bright blue and green clay molded into the shape of a leaf, complete with the fingerprints of Peter Pan (magical! :P) and carved leaf details.
His shop is called Mask Bulgaria. You can find him on Facebook here. If you ever go to Plovdiv, go visit him on the street leading up to Nebet Tepe (one of the best hills in this City of Seven Hills), which you are obviously going to do anyway if you want a complete trip. He was so charming, friendly and talkative, and though his English wasn’t perfect, he was someone you felt was a kindred soul immediately (which means he’s a good businessman!), but his jewelry is handmade and is very, very reasonable.
Some photos of the Old Quarter, complete with 19th century original merchant houses:
As I was walking down from the Old Quarter in search of lunch, of course more jewelry caught my eye. This time it was a ring in the mold of a poppy flower (spoiler alert: I bought it). But I’m glad I was lured in (by the way, Bulgarian shopkeepers in my experience were not at all pushy; they just wait for you), because I ended up having another great conversation.
This is Daisy. She had amazing English for someone who has never traveled to an English-speaking country. Seriously near-perfect. I was amazed. She said it’s a huge asset because she is able to communicate well with the tourists that come by the shop.
She was nice enough to allow me to take a picture of her with all of these red-and-white string bracelets I’d been noticing being sold everywhere around this city, and she even explained the story behind them to me!
A soldier sent a letter to his beloved from the warfront saying he would return on to her on the first of March. Using white twine from a sheep, he tied it to a dove’s foot. While flying to the beloved, the dove was shot/hit (there are different versions) and the white twine became heavily bloodstained. However, the bird survived. This is how red and white became the colors of the spring celebration. The soldier did return on March 1 (and it was happily ever after*). *Story edited for Americanness
Bulgaria alone has these special March 1 celebrations. In the weeks leading up to it, people go crazy buying all kinds of red and white festive things, but specifically the bracelets. Each symbolizes a wish, and when you see a stork – the symbol of spring/summer – you should take it off and put it on a tree.
So the Bulgarian countryside in spring is highlighted by hundreds or thousands of string bracelets tied onto trees. Ecological? No. But no one takes them away – that would be like taking the notes out of the Western Wall (okay so they do that too when it’s totally full…), but Daisy pointed to a tree above our heads and showed me a bracelet that’s still there from last year. So I guess they just stay forever as protected wishes!
We had such a nice conversation that Daisy gave me my own bracelet.
I walked with it through the Old Quarter streets very proudly (and continue to wear it daily), waiting to see my own stork.
I asked Daisy what would happen if I never saw a stork – they may be common in Bulgaria, but not in Czechia – where I live at least. She said I could cheat by looking at a picture online and/or just put it under a rock (Bulgarians do this too if they don’t see the bird) to keep the wish safe :)!
I whispered my wish to Milu, one of the most important residents of Plovdiv, whom I met while on the free tour! Want to know more about who he was? Stay tuned…