At every breakfast I had as a child in Koprivshtitsa, my grandparents insisted that I had my cup full of milk. The milk came directly from the barn of one of my grandmother’s close acquaintances. It was unpasteurized and non-homogenized, and my grandparents boiled it twice to minimize the risk of getting sick. No communist factory had messed this milk up. It had not been watered down or processed to kill contamination. Neither had it been forced through tubes, poured into dull-looking plastic packaging and sealed shut, so that a grumpy seller could slam down this product of the communist economy in front of a customer, addressing him or her as “comrade.” A comrade who might as well have been number 57 in line. Five more customers served and the rest of the comrades waiting would be turned away to head home empty-handed.
I wish I had contently gulped down the fresh milk from a cow that had happily grazed on Koprivshtitsa’s pastures. However, I didn’t know what to do with its raw richness. The intensity of the taste confused me, and I found its temperature and texture overwhelming. I didn’t want to drink the milk warm, but if I waited for it to cool off, a thick skin formed on the top. I disliked the sensation when my tongue touched the yellowish fat. Once I somehow got past this, there were still tiny bits of fat floating within the milk, which felt weird in my mouth and throat. On a lucky morning, my grandfather would strain the milk and make it more palatable by adding a teaspoon of Nesquick, which my aunt had brought us on one of her visits from West Germany. On most mornings, however, I had to drink the milk as it was. I usually spent about an hour first staring, then licking, and finally taking small sips from the cup. My poor grandfather patiently endured my repeated explanations why I wouldn’t drink the warm, nourishing liquid down, so that we both could get on with the morning. He sat next to me at the table on the covered veranda of my grandmother’s family house, and made sure I swallowed every drop of the wholesome milk that filled my cup.
Koprivshtitsa was not only a cow’s paradise. It was also my grandmother’s most beloved place. My grandfather joked that for my grandmother this picturesque town in the mountains was holier than the Holy Land. Nowhere was my grandmother as happy and content as she was in her family home. She would live here the whole year, if the house weren’t virtually uninhabitable in the cold months because the only source of heat was the fireplace in the kitchen. The house had belonged to her grandparents and was at least 150 years old. My mother had been born here during the Second World War. She and her brother, my uncle, had spent the summers of their childhood in this house. My uncle had left and my mother had stayed. In turn, her children, my brother and I, spent our childhood summers here.
The house was built in the architectural style typical of this Bulgarian region. The foundation and lower story were made of stone, while the upper floor was entirely of wood. The upper story, where I reluctantly drank raw milk every morning, was designed as a covered veranda with a wood lattice screen on the side open to a vast yard. The house and yard were enclosed within a tall stone wall, which made it impossible for passersby to see from the street what was going on inside. The house had no electricity, apart from a hot plate in the kitchen, on which my grandmother prepared our meals and cooked wild strawberry jam, and a light bulb also in the kitchen, which was our only source of electric light at night. There was no running water either. We had to fetch a daily supply from the stream on the outskirts of town. The entrance to the property was through a massive wooden gate, which remained unlocked during the day. At night, in order to make the gate impossible to open from the outside, my grandfather fastened it with a long iron nail of the kind the peasants used to repair their horse carts.
As soon as we arrived in Koprivshtitsa at the beginning of summer, my grandmother ran out of the gate to announce her arrival, quickly visit with relatives, friends and acquaintances, stop by the market, check out what had changed and what was still the same, collect information and hear the latest news: how many lambs had been born in the spring, how many were left after Easter, whose sheep had the thickest wool, and whose cow gave extra milk. As soon as she covered the way back to our house along the cobbled streets, she called out from the massive, wooden gate over the yard to the veranda, where my grandfather was taking care of household chores, “Koto!!! Milenka’s daughter has married and moved to Pirdop. Ivanka’s cow has died. Elena has three grandchildren, all of them girls. On Wednesday afternoon the bakery sells sweet yeast loaves and on Thursday, meringue cookies. Tzevetanka said she would sell us raw milk for the kids.” My grandfather replied cheerfully, “Penche, you should work for the Census Bureau. The amount of information you can collect in half an hour is unbelievable.” I am sure that in the night, my grandmother would have loved to expand on the synopsis of news she delivered from the gate. However, sleeping arrangements in the house in Koprivshtitsa necessitated that my grandmother sleep in the kitchen and my grandfather on the veranda. The rest of the year, when my grandparents shared a bedroom in our family house in the city, my grandmother was able to discuss in detail vital news with my grandfather in the middle of the night (for more on this see here).
I had learned to tell what kind of relationship my grandparents shared at any given moment based on the way my grandmother addressed my grandfather. On the day of our arrival, she called him Koto because my grandfather had successfully managed to get all of us to Koprivshtitsa. The train journey was complicated and involved changing trains in Karlovo. Once we all boarded the train there, my grandfather would get off to buy pastries filled with cheese. My grandmother always implored him not to go. She was nervous that he would miss the train, they would get separated, and she would never be able to make the rest of the trip alone with two children. Her unease was palpable and I could feel her restlessness quickly escalating. I usually burst into tears, fearing that some terrible misfortune was about to descend upon us. I was convinced that my grandfather would not only miss the train, but we would also never see him again. However, we were never ever left alone for the rest of the journey, and my grandfather unfailingly returned with pastries in his hand. Should he have listened to my grandmother’s pleas and miraculously procured us pastries without getting off the train in Karlovo, she would have addressed him with Kotenze, a term of endearment my grandmother bestowed on him whenever he had done something exceptional to win her favor. Should he have missed the train, she would have called him Kostadine, indicating that he was in deep trouble.
My memory has preserved with particular clarity one acquaintance in Koprivshtitsa from whom we received raw milk. I remember my grandmother taking me for a visit to her house on a quiet afternoon. From the outside, it looked like the property had seen better times. The wooden gate was warped and leaned slightly to one side, and there were missing clay tiles from the layer that protected the top of the fence. Once we crossed the gate’s threshold and stepped inside, the yard presented itself as a patch of domestic and wild flowers. A caring hand had planted chrysanthemums, hollyhocks and lilies in flower beds and perhaps cleared some of the weeds. However, the same hand had also let be much of what had spontaneously sprung from the ground. No one had uprooted or destroyed these plants just because they were invading the space of what was domesticated. The grass was not exactly overgrown, but no one had messed with it by cutting it down to keep it short. The lack of strict care didn’t prevent the garden from thriving. There were some tomato plants that were obviously doing rather well, for they were heavy with healthy, ripe fruit.
My grandmother’s acquaintance came out of the house to greet us. She looked as if she were from a time long gone. Her clothes were old-fashioned but mended and neat. Her long grey hair was braided and tucked under a scarf covering her head. Her eyes were full of life and her face was animated. Despite her plain clothes, she looked regal. She and my grandmother sat on low wooden stools in the middle of the yard, and started talking about mutual acquaintances whose names I didn’t recognize. I was told to help myself to the berries. There were raspberries and blackberries, and even some wild strawberries, as well as cassis, which I had never seen or tasted before. The berries had glossy skin that made them look like red pearls. The strange sounding name reminded me of the French novels that my grandmother read in the afternoon, when the cooking was done. Usually, when we were in an unfamiliar place, I would be fearful and hardly leave my grandmother’s side. In this wild garden though, I moved away from her and let my body sink onto the ground. The earth supported my weight. I was calm and safe.
I looked at the daisies, poppies, chamomile and clover blossoms, and my eyes drank in their color. I held out my finger for the ladybugs to crawl upon until they spread their wings to fly off. I tasted the sweetness of clover, and I took a stem of long grass to string berries on. I imagined that the beautiful wild plants whose names I didn’t know had the names of my family. I imagined that we ate sweet yeast bread every day, that there were no “comrades,” but that there was raw milk for everyone in the city. I imagined my grandfather turned up his radio for the neighbors to hear. I imagined his bouts of anger stopped, and he no longer threw his books onto the floor only to pick them back up sobbing. I imagined my uncle returned home. I imagined that Bulgaria was not a Communist Republic.
I walked over to my grandmother to tie the string of berries around her wrist. I didn’t understand why my grandfather said she should draw her eyebrows. For me, with her milk-like skin, she was beautiful. She looked up and said, “It’s getting late. We need to return home. Let’s go.”