One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather taking me to pick wild strawberries in the surroundings of Koprivshtitsa, a town of some 2,000 inhabitants in the Sredna Gora mountains. We would set out in the morning before the sun had a chance to turn hot, cross the stream on the outskirts of town, from which our household fetched its daily supply of water, and head through the open fields in the direction of the forest. Leaving pastures with grazing cows behind, we soon disappeared under the shady trees, looking for a spot that other strawberry pickers had not discovered yet. Once my grandfather bent and let his hand glide over the greenery, I would follow his cues and start looking for the delicate berries. He urged me to move carefully not to disturb the living things who inhabited the forest floor. I would take a garnet drop between two fingers, pulling cautiously to separate it from its stem, taking the ripe fruit but leaving the delicate wild plant undamaged. The fragrant berry made a hollow, hardly audible sound, when it dropped into my empty tin can. Behind my grandfather’s back, I sometimes put my nose right at the can’s opening to breathe in the fine smell of sweetness mixed with tartness, moisture and bark. I took special pleasure in rolling a tiny berry between my fingers and watching the juice make my skin change color.
When my grandfather was in a good mood, he would hum a song about the majestic beauty of the forest. When he was in a foul mood, he would take the communists to task. First, they were partisans, hiding in the forest like criminals, stealing from the peasants, and taking liberties with women. Then, when the Soviets helped them seize power, they plundered the forest, cutting trees down and murdering bears, wolves and deer to crudely affirm their rule, enrich and entertain themselves. Tsarist Bulgaria had been known as the Switzerland of the Balkans for its natural beauty and riches. The communists showed no respect and destroyed it all. I knew that I was to keep my grandfather’s political views to myself. If I mentioned any of it to someone outside of the family, we could be denounced and get into nasty trouble. Every afternoon at 5 p.m., my grandfather disappeared into the kitchen to put his ear to his transistor radio so that only he could hear what the distant voice said on the West German station Deutsche Welle. This was also to be kept hush-hush and not discussed with anyone, if we didn’t want the secret service knocking on our door in the dead of night, taking family members away, dragging them into the forest for interrogation and who knows what. Sometimes, while listening to my grandfather’s political diatribe, I reached to drop a wild berry into my can and missed, letting the garnet fruit fall back into the sea of greenery. I would pause for a minute, suspended between the regret of having a delicious gem disappear for good and the anxiety of feeling with my fingers into the dark, invisible unknown in order to retrieve it. What could be lurking down below? A spider? An ant of proportions I couldn’t possibly image? Or maybe even a lost communist partisan, taking liberties with women (whatever that might mean)? I usually opted for letting go of the tiny treasure and moving on.
Once back home, I was allowed to have some of the strawberries mixed in yogurt. However, the majority of the wild berries we picked disappeared into my grandmother’s pot to emerge back as rich, red jam. Jars of the jam accompanied my grandmother’s Banitza in my aunt’s suitcase on the plane back to West Germany. In my mind, we received radio news from the West to be kept secret in fear of punishment and sent in return wild forest strawberries that the communists had somehow spared.