Come September, our family kitchen would be transformed into a small-scale facility for making Bulgarian pickled vegetables. My mother and father joined efforts to secure winter food reserves for all of us. As part of their benefit package, the employees of the electronics plantwhere my father worked could order produce directly from the state-owned socialist farms. My father consulted with my mother about the quantities to be ordered. Then, he requested as much as he saw fit.
A few weeks later, large sacks of potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and carrots crowded the hallway of our house. Eggplant, cabbage, and cauliflower were hauled from the market to join these other fresh guests. The sink in the kitchen swelled with pickling jars waiting for my mother’s scalded hands. The large, wobbly table crept into the middle of the space. Across its surface, pepper corns, garlic cloves, bay leaves, and salt crystals swarmed around bottles full of vinegar.
My mother’s face would lose its dreamy look. She wasn’t to make any plans until the gaping jars were filled and sealed to my father’s satisfaction. Her books were to remain closed; the invitations of her friends ignored; and her concert tickets wasted. She wasn’t to answer personal letters, which my father opened well before she suspected their arrival. My grandfather and grandmother didn’t interfere. What went into a jar full of vinegar was between a husband and his wife.
At no other time in our lives did abundance cause such despair. The palpable fear of the produce going bad and her family falling short of food in the winter made my mother’s shoulders sink as if she were twenty years older. When I looked into her eyes, I could see the eggplants, peppers, carrots, cauliflower, and cabbage heads multiply to a point where the kitchen could no longer contain them and they rolled out of the open windows. Perhaps to prevent this from happening, my father stood by the window smoking cigarettes. Their brands bore the names of Bulgaria’s natural treasures: Ropotamo (a national river-park near the Black Sea coast), Vitosha (a mountain on the outskirts of Sofia), and Melnik (a village in Sothern Bulgaria known for its unique rock formations).
My mother washed, scrubbed, peeled, chopped, crushed, stuffed, filled, and wiped clean. From time to time, my father would wander over to the table to top up a jar with extra vinegar, add a pepper corn here and there, or adjust the flame under the canner on the stove. It was his job to fetch the lid pump from my mother’s friend and seal the jars. Finally, they had to be sterilized either on the stove or in the oven. Occasionally, the hot jars would explode leaving a mess of torn vegetable pieces and wasted effort. In those cases, my father would stomp off to the balcony where he carried on smoking a Melnik or a Ropotamo. My mother wiped away the debris of the fiasco, which was always hers and never his. Then, she dabbed her eyes with the edge of her apron, a gift from my father’s sister.
My mother had a September birthday, which she willingly ignored. Instead of celebrating, she wiped the family’s mess into oblivion. She felt that she had no legitimate reason to acknowledge the day on which she was born a woman.
The jars of Bulgarian pickled vegetables that survived the high heat, my mother’s drooping shoulders, and the grip of my father’s tongs would descend the stairs into our cellar. There they huddled in cartons filled with old newspapers: the communist Trud (Labor) and Rabotnichesko Delo (Workers’ Deeds) along with the capitalist Süddeutsche Zeitung, which my aunt smuggled into our house on her visits from West Germany. There was no easy way to dispose of the latter without being caught and getting in trouble with the security service of our communist state. Nonetheless, my parents had their private moment of civil disobedience by rubbing the nose of socialist newspaper propaganda into the press from the West.
When the jars of Bulgarian pickled vegetables finally vanished into the cellar, my mother wiped off the last drops of brine from her face. Then she’d return to her books and opened letters. Fears would plague her into the winter that when my brother eventually started dating, he would choose a young woman who delighted in making Bulgarian pickled vegetables. This imaginary daughter-in-law would haul way more cauliflower, carrots, and peppers into our kitchen than my mother could possibly handle. For a while, my mother would lose sleep over the idea that her home would be overrun by colossal quantities of pickling jars, spices, and produce prone to decay.
When frost seasoned the roof above our heads and my grandmother found the stalls at the farmers’ market empty, it was time for the jars of Bulgarian pickled vegetables to make their way one by one to our dining table. My mother’s anxieties were eased by the fact that her shelves full of books towered over the table, and it was my responsibility to retrieve our winter reserves. Regardless of how upbeat my mood would be on the way to fulfilling my share of familial duty, the moment I opened the door to the cellar my mind would be flooded with frightening images.
My adept father had managed to install a gargantuan shoe rack on the basement door. My whole body would cringe as I stepped past the rack onto the first stair. While going down the steps, I would feel the walls on both sides pressing against me. I’d duck my head and lower my body closer and closer to the ground. The incline of the stairs, combined with gravity, pushed me downwards against my will.
The sensations of my contorted limbs and the peculiar scent of damp and disgraced communist newspapers filled the dim space. Light from the single electrical bulb high above wasn’t sufficient to show me where I was going. My imagination teamed up with my memory to make out what I couldn’t see. I felt like I was stepping into a chilling movie scene rather than into my parents’ cellar.
I found myself right in the middle of Tobacco (Тютюн), a 1960s movie version of a novel about the Bulgarian tobacco industry before the Second World War. In the film, the female workers in a tobacco factory go on a strike. They protest against the male capitalist entrepreneurs, who force them to work under wretched conditions for meager wages. While Bulgarian Oriental tobacco is sold to Germany and the US for legendary profits, the women who produce it are reduced to destitution and starvation.
In the scene that I conjured up in our cellar, fascist police officers interrogated under duress a female tobacco worker, who was unwilling to give away the names of the communists behind the strike. While my fingers were searching for a jar of Bulgarian pickled vegetables amidst crumpled Labor and Workers’ Deeds, I’d feel the mistreated frame of the woman, seemingly right next to me. I was certain that I could make out the sensations of her injured limbs, feel her woundedness, and sense her tremor. Her torn clothes and unravelled hair horrified me. I couldn’t bear her defiance that exposed her vulnerability.
So whenever I was asked to fetch a jar of Bulgarian pickled vegetables, I resisted. I didn’t know how to come to terms with the rebellious tobacco worker in our cellar. My mother, having firmly re-established her reading habits, tried to help my fear by telling me how the German eighteenth-century poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe taught himself not to be frightened by the darkness in his parents’ basement. He, apparently, went down the stairs extra slowly. However, what a male poet from a bygone era might have seen in the shadows had little bearing on the visions that preoccupied me.
One unfortunate evening, I was so scared that I dropped a jar of Bulgarian pickled vegetables. It exploded at the bottom of the stairs and left a biting chaos of vinegar, cauliflower florets, chunks of carrots, bell pepper bits, garlic, and bay leaf. In her exasperation over having to clean this mess in an ill-lit, cold, restricted space, my mother vented her anger both at me and herself with the question “Did you drop the jar on purpose because you wanted to starve the family to death?” When my father heard my answer — “I’m no fascist thug!” — he promptly labelled me: “Not even ten, and already brainwashed!”
Later in the evening, we would all harmoniously savor our servings of Bulgarian pickled vegetables at the family table. My father’s transistor radio was tuned to the Voice of America, which reported on the hunger strikes of dissidents against the regime. Silence at the table was the only option available to me. My father didn’t want to miss a single word that the disembodied voice was saying in accented Bulgarian. While watching my father’s fork pierce a cauliflower floret, I contemplated why my mother couldn’t go on strike against Bulgarian pickled vegetables. Why couldn’t she just say ‘no’?