February 29, 2020

The first time I knew for sure that something was wrong with my Grandpa was on the night Ludmila died. We were at our villa at Old Mountain, listening to BBC radio.

Grandpa got really drunk and started banging on the table:

“I’ll shit in her grave!”

I was seven years old and this shocked and horrified me.

Ludmila was the daughter of our party leader. I adored her. She was in charge of everything to do with culture, peace, children, art, music, double basses, doves, assemblies. She walked around wearing a white turban and gave endless speeches about world peace and nuclear disarmament. She brought children from other countries together. Countries like Poland, Hungary, Cuba, North Korea and even Sweden. They all came to Sofia and sang Communist songs with titles like “The Sky is Orange” and drew pictures of rainbows and doves in Freedom Park.

The news came suddenly on a hot July evening. Ludmila’s bodyguard had found her floating face down in the swimming pool of her residence in the outskirts of Sofia. No word about her turban. The cause of death was determined as accidental drowning or “thunder from clear skies.” The country went into mourning immediately and her body was laid out in the Communist Party headquarters.

Ludmila Jhivkova’s Funeral

Later there were rumors. Did she kill herself? Were there pills? Was it the KGB or the CIA? Or perhaps it was an order made by her dictator father? Did she have a tumor in her brain? Why couldn’t her fortune teller, the old blind witch Vanga warn everybody and try to save her? Did Ludmila really fly to Paris every weekend? What was she hiding under her turban? To this very day people are speculating about her death and floating all kinds of conspiracy theories. Nobody believed the official version, because nobody believed anything that came out from the government.

Our villa was Grandpa’s sanctuary where we would escape every weekend. Far away from all the spies and party leaders. There he drank and did as he pleased. For the majority of time he listened to Western radio stations like BBC World Service, the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, as one did in those days to get the news. He also liked to listen to Serbian and Greek music and whistle along with the tunes.

It took 45 minutes by train and another 45 minutes of hiking up the Old Mountain to get from Sofia to our villa. It was located right above a village named Batouliya. Grandpa had bought a small piece of land there, all his own, and built a cottage with his own hands. The cottage had no electricity or running water and we brought all of our food from the city in reusable containers and bottles. A journey to this cottage was a journey back in time.

Every morning Grandpa and I went to the local villagers who lived in tiny clay cottages right next to their cows, chickens, and pigs. We walked together, hand in hand, him carrying a large milk jug in his free hand and I, lugging a smaller version of the same jug in my little hand. The air was fresh and misty and as we approached the clay houses we heard and smelled the animals.

The women of the village stayed at home making yogurt and cheese, while the men went out with their herds of sheep and cows like they had done for hundreds of years. We always stopped by and talked to them, hoping that they would sell us fresh milk, eggs, and cheese. To this day I have not tasted better cheese than the goodness those old village women made. Grandpa would tell them “just a liter of milk for the kid, please … and a little cheese if you can spare.” He would pay them generously, but money meant nothing to them.

The villagers took pity on us and gave us what they could, reluctantly. I always had the feeling that they were very suspicious of us, city people, and no matter how much we said “good day” and “good afternoon” to them, they always looked at us funny.

Houses (now abandoned) in Batuliya village, Old Mountain, Bulgaria

Grandma cooked on a small gas stove and washed her dishes with either rain water, collected in large barrels, or water from a well near the villa. She made delicious crêpes on Sundays, which she served with wild berry jam from the nearby forest. Occasionally we would pick mushrooms in the forest, always checking in a small book not to pick any poisonous “doubles.” We also had a large garden where Grandma planted strawberries, raspberries and even tomatoes. The climate was tough though and things didn’t grow easily. But when they did, they tasted better than any berry you have ever dreamed of.

In front of the cottage Grandma planted roses of all shapes and colors. In summer they grew tall, reaching all the way up to her kitchen windows. Red, white, pink, orange and yellow, they moved with the sun and the wind and reminded Grandma of her youth, times long gone, far away, in the city of her birth, Istanbul. She called the city “Tzarigrad” and often spoke of the market where she would buy bouquets of roses every Sunday afternoon after going to the pictures. She would retell the films of her youth, enchantingly describing Clark Gable and Fred Astaire, how they kissed and how they danced.

In those days the only entertainment we had at the villa was the transistor radio as well as a few books and magazines, which we had brought with us up from the city. Other than that I entertained myself by collecting crickets, lizard tails, and herbs. Grandpa worked on fixing up the cottage during the day while grandma cooked and arranged things inside the cottage.

Every evening we sat together at the outdoor dinner table, watching the stunning views of the surrounding mountains and listening to forbidden radio stations or the sounds of the mountain around us.

Parents and grandparents kept lots of secrets from their children. They were trying to protect us and we were trying to not get in trouble. That was more or less the basic dynamic of the relationships between children and adults. Their philosophy was “the less kids know, the safer they will be.” Our philosophy was “the less adults know, the safer we will be.”

So no one ever told me much about my grandfather. What he did for a living. Why he did not go to University. Why his name was Mehmed Ali. Why he spoke Turkish whenever he and grandma got in a fight. And why he got drunk every night and said unacceptable and dangerous things about our party leaders.

In the 1980s the Communists forced my Grandpa to change his name to a Bulgarian name. In addition, he was no longer allowed to speak Turkish in public. He was renamed from Mehmed Ali to Metodi, the name of one of the brothers who created the Cyrillic alphabet. I was not told anything about the so called Revival Process at the time and did not know about the name change. One day, however, I found out from the news on BBC World Service that the famous Bulgarian weightlifter Naum Shalamanov had defected to Turkey in protest, because his actual name was Naim Suleymanoglu and he too was forced to change it. Around the same time Grandpa removed the shiny plaque with his Turkish name from his front door, never to replaced it again. While I was marching around in school singing praises to Ludmila and her government, my Grandpa was being robbed of his identity.

I didn’t know personally or spent any time with any gypsies, muslems or anyone else who was a Turk, except for my Great Grandma — Baba Zubaide. She occasionally visited us in Sofia to make baklava. She took the recipe to her grave, because she was illiterate and couldn’t write it down, but even if she could I doubt anyone would bother to go through with it, her recipe took several days of work. Baba Zubaide would always visit us in early autumn when the walnuts were just right, not too young, not too old, and would carefully select and hand-grind her nuts, make the syrup and filo and bake her masterpiece. She would then cut it and embalm it in syrup, cover it in clean white cloth as if it was a baby and leave it out on the counter for a night and a day for all the tastes to blend perfectly. At age 80 she too had to change her name.

At school I avoided mentioning my Turkish family. The few times I said something, I got asked questions to which I had no answers. Like where was my Grandpa from, what he did for a living and so on, which University he graduated from. More often than not, people would be completely shocked to discover that my Grandpa was a Turk.

I was not stupid. I knew that mentioning my Grandfather would surely enrage people. It was very likely that his grandfather’s grandfather was one of the Ottomans pictured in our history books who enslaved and raped all the Bulgarians and rode on their backs as if they were horses for five centuries straight. I tried to explain to myself the whole thing with the horse riding, because it made no sense. I thought that perhaps horses were scarce during the times Bulgarians were slaves to the Turks. Perhaps the horses were killed and made into salami in Romania and that would explain why the Turks had no other choice to get around, except for riding on the strong backs of their Bulgarian slaves.

Grandpa was big and tall. He had piercing blue eyes and in his youth must have been quite good looking. He would have needed several slaves to carry him around. At least four. I imagined him dressed as a sultan in a long golden robe with a huge turban on his head, decorated in rubies and giant pearls. Smoking a narghile and giving orders to a his harem of veiled Bulgarian women in shalvars.

In reality Grandpa got around by riding the stinky, crowded Sofia buses and clanking trams just like everybody else. The only slave my Grandpa ever had was my Grandma who used to cook, clean and do laundry for him all day long or so she used to say. After work he repaired shoes in a little shed in Hope neighborhood. He used to say that one day he will make me a perfect pair of shoes, but he never got around to it. He loved drinking Coca Cola and always managed to buy liters of it in the black market and mix it with his rakija.

Other than that, growing up, I knew next to nothing about what he did for a living. I assumed that he worked in the shoe factory.

After he died his colleagues and friends made him a beautiful marble headstone with his real Turkish name inscribed on it. That’s when I found out that he had worked at the Sofia Central Cemetery.

I still wonder to this day if what he said the night Ludmila died was meant literally.

Gloria and Isabel are the writing pseudonyms of Bulgarian pianist, teacher and concert presenter Lora Tchekoratova, based in New York City.

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