Banitza, thin sheets of rolled out pastry filled with a mixture of eggs and crumbled feta cheese, was one of my grandmother’s specialty dishes, which I vividly remember. I see my grandmother carefully walking down the steps from her kitchen on the very top floor, holding in her hands firmly but tenderly a baking pan, covered with a thin cotton cloth. Underneath was her banitza, a cloud of powdered sugar, set on flaky pastry, which was delicate as egg shells in shades of buttery yellow and darker browns. Where the shell had cracked, I glimpsed silky filling of feta cheese and egg yolk. My eyes savored the banitza, while I had a distinct sense that it was not baked just to be eaten.
My grandmother’s banitza was a message. She had baked it for her son, my uncle, whom I had never met but heard a lot about. I knew that my uncle was a gifted mathematician, who in the 1960s had received a scholarship to study at the Technical University in Aachen. At that time, travel to the West from the Communist Block had not been as restricted and the Bulgarian state granted my uncle permission to leave for what was then West Germany. When Soviet tanks tolled into Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to put an end to the Prague Spring, my uncle was ordered to return to Bulgaria. His dissertation was not completed and he refused to obey. His decision secured him the status of an enemy of the Bulgarian state. He was stripped of his citizenship. He could no longer travel back to Bulgaria or any other communist state, not even briefly to see his family. If he attempted to return, he risked imprisonment at a labor camp, torture and even death. My family was blacklisted. For a long time, we could not receive mail from outside the country. My mother begged relatives and friends to receive letters and packages on her behalf. They were oftentimes scared and turned her requests down.
My uncle’s fiancée, who had a West German passport under her maiden name, was the connection between my uncle and my family. She took trips to Bulgaria organized by a travel agency, checked into the hotel booked for her, only to leave and stay with my family. It was a risky undertaking, for she couldn’t be certain that the Bulgarian secret service wouldn’t go after her for breaking the rules. I remember the whispers my family exchanged during her visits, while they were walking around the house as if on egg shells. She made it. She is here. She is tired. Let her sleep. No, you can’t have a snack. Your aunt hasn’t eaten yet. I knew that in my grandparent’s attic there was an old trunk full of West German political publications and books, which my uncle’s fiancée brought on each of her visits. When it was time for her to leave, my grandmother baked a banitza for her to take to my uncle.
While I was looking at the banitza that was about to pass from my grandmother’s into my aunt’s hands and board a plane to West Germany, I imagined that my grandmother’s message read something like this: Vanio, thank you for the sugar, flour and raisins. Thank you for the apron. Thank you for the Bayer Aspirin. It is not easy for me to bake as I used to. My legs hurt when I stand at the kitchen table, and my arms ache while I am kneading. I no longer see that well … Vanio, will I ever see you again? May Sveta Bogoroditza, my mother’s and your grandmother’s saint, bless you. May you be healthy, happy and peaceful. While my grandfather spent long hours waiting in the corridors of police quarters for a chance to explain why a father wants to see his son, my grandmother baked banitza. While the Bulgarian state turned down my grandfather’s requests for an exit visa, my grandmother’s banitza traveled from Communist Bulgaria to West Germany.
After my aunt had left, I would sometimes look at the clouds, which reminded me of powdered sugar, and ask myself how we even knew that my uncle was indeed somewhere out there. All I could sense for certain was my family’s loss, longing, sadness, disappointment and anger.