Bulgarian Rhapsody – Our Travel Adventure in Bulgaria

First Parish Watertown – Summer Service – August 5th, 2018

PreludeBulgaria Welcome Song – Choir Slaviansko Edinstvo in Gorna Oryahovitza

Why go to Bulgaria?
Izzy named this sermon “Bulgarian Rhapsody” before we took this trip. Like an epic poem, or “an effusively enthusiastic expression of feeling,” I hope we share some intriguing bits of this country with you today.

I admit, Bulgaria has always flown well under my “Bucket List” radar. My sense of geography of the region was slim to none. In my world of health care business, where large provider groups centralize and decentralize administrations on a regular basis, the term “Balkanization” was one with which I am very familiar – the equivalent of “going to hell in a hand basket” because we can’t get along. So, my mother-in-law’s announcement that the New Hampshire Friendship Chorus was going to Bulgaria intrigued me… something out of the ordinary! the chance to share music not simply tourism! Moreover, Izzy’s enthusiasm captured my imagination and made this opportunity real.

For me, I had 3 reasons to jump at the chance for this trip to Bulgaria:
1. My mother had raved about her trip to Cuba in 2016 with the New Hampshire Friendship Chorus – and to me the idea of vacation organized around singing and traveling with a purpose felt like heaven. Rehearse in June, travel in July – totally my kind of commitment!
2. Mom has just turned 92 and I wanted the chance to travel with her on an adventure as it was something that I had not done since an ill-fated hiking trip when I was in my late 20’s (yet this is a story for another time…).
3. The idea of exploring Bulgaria musically intrigued me largely due to an unusual childhood memory. 40 years ago, in 1978, I was 16 and living a socially isolated life in Connecticut when I fell in love with my first girlfriend, who happened to live in Michigan. Becky had access to a very strong feminist community in East Lansing, and she sent me musical gifts from a then thriving Women’s Music industry. I secretly listened to those songs over and over as some sort of lifeline to sanity. One of those albums, called Living With Lavender Jane, was by an infamous lesbian-separatist named Alix Dobkin – and in one of the songs that I found mesmerizing, Alix spoke of a musical tradition of strong women’s voices in the Balkan Mountains.

In planning for this trip, I actually remembered this music on a physical level – and thus I realized my hope that this trip might prove to be some sort of musical pilgrimage for me – to witness that strong female vocal tradition.

For my indulgence, I hope you also enjoy the Bulgarian folksong from that album that called from my childhood memory – It is titled Dekka Slunseto and sung here by Alix Dobkin.
Getting Ready to Travel – What to Expect?
Other than reading through a trip itinerary with a bunch of difficult to pronounce cities and the familiar UNESCO site reference, none of us really knew what to expect from our trip to Bulgaria. Prior to our rehearsals with the chorus, that didn’t start until June, we knew none of our travelling companions. In February my mom read an internet article called “7 Uncomfortable Truths About Being LGBT in Bulgaria”, which concerned her, but after some back & forth discussions, we decided to move ahead with plans.

Our June rehearsals and concert with the New Hampshire Friendship Chorus proved to be quite fun and rewarding. We worked hard as a group to master our music, some in Bulgarian and Russian and some classic American tunes. Our music director Dan turned out to a very left-leaning, enthusiastic, college music professor. He cajoled and challenged us to memorize our music and to follow his free-style conducting. We loved his selected songs. The Bulgarian orthodox tune Tebe Poem was beautiful. The American songs chosen spoke to us of resilience and hope – we felt that perhaps we could bring a positive theme from our country to the former Eastern bloc country and perhaps apologize for Trump. Songs like The Storm is Passing Over and Like a Mighty Stream – set to the vision of Martin Luther King – carried an obvious hopeful message.

Honestly, we had no clue what kind of reception we would receive as Americans in Bulgaria. We heard rumors of “orthodox conservative” and were advised to “dress modestly.” But when Dan pulled out his acapella arrangement of Buffalo Springfield’s song of authoritarian protest,  For What It’s Worth, we knew that we were going to arrive in Bulgaria with tools to highlight the clearly left-leaning politics of our friendship message.

What We Learned and Loved About Bulgaria

Nature and Sight Seeing
Bulgaria is bordered by the Danube River & Romania to the north, Serbia & Macedonia to the east, Greece and Turkey to the south, the Black Sea to the east, and has a spine built by two mountain ranges, the Balkans and the Rhodope. It has mountain views everywhere you go. The cities and towns are clean, architecturally fascinating and pedestrian friendly. There are Roman Ruins, medieval frescoes, amazing archaeology museums, monasteries and cathedrals, gorgeous beaches, delicious, fresh food – it has all that Europe has to offer packaged in the size of Virginia and with affordable prices.

Did you ever think about sunflowers as an agricultural production? Well, maybe you did, but I didn’t. I love gardens with these – 3 years ago successfully grew my first after many years of trying. And here we were – in Bulgaria with fields and miles and yellow on every hill… on one side of the bus, their backs as they faced the sun; on the other side, the full yellow radiant faces. OMG. it was amazing.

Remember singing about paving paradise to make room for a parking lot? What if they were unpaving paradise to renew a parking lot and found a first century Roman stadium, or two… This is my impression in which underground malls are built in and around archaeological finds, and parking for at least 2 hotels was no longer existed because they were busy figuring out what was under the dirt, and where a landslide in 1972 unearthed a glorious amphitheater… where history and cultural sights merge into one breath-taking moment.

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OffertoryTropanitsa – BooCheeMish (The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices)

Politics and History
Throughout our travels we learned about Bulgarian history and politics from our amazing bus guide.  Kamen, who trained as a musician in Arkansas and Michigan, was a master historian by avocation. Wherever we traveled, he wove together details of Bulgaria’s complex past – its struggles with foreign invasion and authoritarian leaders. Human life in Bulgaria has been traced back over 1 million years. Bulgaria was the home of the Thracians (of Spartacus fame), the home of the first Cyrillic written language. It was the central route of land trade between Turkey and what is now western Europe, and thus was conquered by the Greek Alexander the Great and then by the Romans. The First Bulgarian Kingdom was established in 632AD, but that Kingdom, which is symbolically represented by lions and horseman everywhere, was cyclically conquered and reestablished over the centuries – first by the Byzantines in 1100’s, then by the Ottomans in the 1300s, then again by the Nazi & and by Russia for 3 years following WWII.

Kamen’s darkest tales were saved for the end of our trip. Coinciding with Trump’s frightening fawning to Putin in Helsinki, Kamen recounted his childhood experiences growing up under the Bulgarian Communist Party that was planted during the Russian invasion. The Communists held authoritarian power for 45 years but that regime fell the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Though Kamen loved our musical performances throughout the trip, to my surprise I did not end up feeling that our leftist music was enlightening the Bulgarians. Rather, I ended the trip with an overwhelming sense of sympathy from the Bulgarians, because they have lived through what they clearly see as the dangers of our Trump regime. I ended the trip with a whole new perspective on the Buffalo Springfield line – ‘Paranoia runs deep… Into your life it will creep!’

Today, Bulgaria has been a member of the European Union since 2007 – has been developing economically since 2000, while retaining socialist ethics and strong community centers under a parliamentary democratic republic. It still uses a currency called the Lev, which has a fixed value against the EURO. Sofia, the capital, now has a what is called ‘The Square of Tolerance’, where on each corner stands a house of worship from the four major religions – and this square is watched over by, where once stood a likeness of Lenin, a grand statue of the Roman goddess Sophia – the goddess of Wisdom.

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First there was a king – – his army was defeated and sent home blinded – except for every 100th soldier who was left with one eye so he could guide the others home. The king had a heart attack in despair… that was 1014. There was a second Bulgarian kingdom, some time under Constantine, a long time under the Ottoman Turks, 40 years under Communism… Each leader left its mark. Bulgaria sided with the Germans in 2 world wars, the US bombed Sofia, their Jewish population (who were basically allowed to live without persecution within Bulgarian boarders during WWII) emigrated to Israel. The border lines of the area have been drawn, redrawn, from the Balkans to the Danube to Macedonia, the Rhodopes, the Black Sea, the Bosphorus and beyond, and then not. Many smaller countries joined together, and then not… many times with ugly wars. The Balkans. Balkanization. THEN! in 2018, there was a World Cup, for football, and Croatia was the first Balkan country to make it to the finals in so many years. The hue and cry in Varna was “we’re all Croatian today!”

We sang “FWIW” – the 50 year-old anthem pleading to organize ourselves to a loving world. We experienced full embracing from audiences and other choruses… ironically, there we were – in a world released from full Communist grasp less than 30 years ago, and our President was meeting with Putin. It didn’t make sense in so many ways – and our guide asked our attention and thought on the meaning and possibility of this situation. As we left to return to the US, flying from Sofia to Istanbul and on to Boston, we lived the “paranoia strikes deep” experience. Aided by US passports, pale skin, and no outward signs that we were linked to “bad people,” we eased through 4 extra (portable) security steps at the gate. After the added security layer, our 3 hour lay-over was finally less than 1 hour – in a waiting area with no water to drink, no shops allowed to open, no wifi. I know – #firstworldproblems… we quantify how lucky we feel in odd ways. The concept of security is unevenly applied; I suspect had we flown from any non-Muslim country, the impersonal suspicious nature of our final stop to get home would have been less cumbersome and anxiety-producing.

Culture and Shared Singing
… and so the Christians divided into Catholicism (west) and Orthodoxy (east), more or less. Bulgaria has a host of Bulgarian orthodox churches, kept discreet from the Ottoman rulers (through the late 1800’s) by being low in the ground (no higher than a man on a horse) and plain on the exterior. They are religious survivors next door to Romania, Transylvania, the birthplace of UUism. In Varna, at the sweeping Cathedral of the Dormition (built in the late 1800’s post-Turkish rule), is a painting: Jesus in hell. It is the depiction of universal salvation, Jesus taking the hands of Adam and Eve to take them to heaven with him. It is a simple message, a story not often told in my experience, but one that speaks to our UU roots, there in the heart of Bulgarian Orthodoxy.

The idea of the trip was music… it is to be discovered, experienced… it can build bridges and speaks volumes for peace. I even had a startling and delightful moment in Varna when a former coworker’s mom, who is Bulgarian, showed up at our concert with gifts and hugs and smiles, making the world deliciously small. I went on this trip knowing Izzy’s descriptions of hearing Bulgarian women’s choruses, but I was not prepared for the first sounds of the nasal throaty chanting coming from the choir on the stage in Gorna Oryahovitsa: how it wakened every cell in my body and demanded attention and wonder. Also new to my ears, the street musician playing the gadulka (an upside-down violin), sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, or the casual fun of a Bulgarian folk song sung for us at a reception with another choir – followed by dancing. There truly is a universal bond of music – we have to make more opportunities to listen.

When we were at the Tsaravets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo, we learned that the site of the king’s palace (ruins mostly) is now the site of summer opera. That night was “Mme Butterfly.” A hot 40 minute sprint around the town, a couple of wild taxi rides on closed roads, a short hike up the hill to the setting… and a magical performance. This is my ode to my Dad – “Mme Butterfly” was the first opera I strongly remember seeing, memorizing the English translation of parts of it. He was the spur-of-the-moment guy especially when traveling – always looking for the cool local event we could join. It was fun to imagine how much he would have reveled in that night.

My coworkers asked my impressions of Bulgaria:  so many thoughts, but here is my summary – sunflowers, singing, new friends, amazing beauty, sunflowers, the Black Sea, mountains, history, (did I mention sunflowers?) … just go!


It is a bit hard to explain the warmth and kindness we experienced in Bulgaria. On one hand, I have actually felt similar warmth and welcoming in all the countries that we have visited. But, on the other hand, I think as an American it is hard to escape the trained belief that we are the most open country in the world. In fact, my experience tells me that America may actually be the least welcoming of countries.

But Bulgarians are largely generous in spirit. The slight effort of learning to say “Dobra Utro” (“Good Evening!”) or “Blagodarya” (“Thank You”) was rewarded with heartfelt smiles of appreciation. We witnessed kindness and strong community fidelity in the care that we could see given to street dogs and cats, and in several community centers and a home for the elderly that we visited.

And furthermore, Bulgarians love music. We sang exchange concerts with choirs in the cities of Sofia, Varna and Gorna Oryahovitza. The concerts were all filled to capacity with enthusiastic audiences. After each concert we were honored with receptions where we were fed Bulgarian desserts and wines, given handmade gifts, taught to dance Bulgarian line dances, and treated to performances of traditional Bulgarian folk singing and dancing.

Beth and I made a special connection by recognizing that one of the singers in a host choir was a young lesbian. We met her family and became FaceBook friends. She is clearly welcomed and appreciated in her community choir. She hopes to marry her partner some day in France, as we learned that same-sex marriages are reciprocal across EU countries. All of this warmed my heart, particularly because of mom’s pre-travel LGBT anxiety.

Unfortunately, none of the choirs we sang with turned out to be of the strong-voiced mountain women variety of my pilgrimage. However, Beth and I were stunned by the generosity of our guide Kamen, who, because of his love for music and his apparent fondness for us, made it his mission to make sure that we could find music stores in every town we visited – and even went so far as to visit the music stores ahead of us so that the owners would know what kind of music we were looking for. And thus, we returned home with our CD library happily enhanced – Bulgarian rock and metal music for our son, and for me, the album BooCheeMish by the women’s vocal ensemble called ‘The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices’ who have famously captured this 1000 year-old female mountain singing tradition.  Think about that imagery for a moment – for over 1000 years, disregarding waves of political change and authoritarianism and paranoia, there may well have been strong women singing loudly in the mountains of Bulgaria. That imagery fills my heart with hope for our future.

My musical sojourn and my new love for Bulgaria is complete.

Closing Words (Beth)
Our closing words today are from Pat Conroy: “Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”
PostludeRano Ranila – BooCheeMish (The Mystery of the Bulgaria Voices)

***And for a post-service extra, please enjoy this live performance of the group ‘Mystery of Bulgaria Voices



About Respect The Paw

Izzy Tappan-deFrees is a compassionate animal groomer, a musician and songster, a teardrop camper lovin' traveler, a daughter, a wife & mom, a trail hiker, a campfire devotee, a wood carver, a student of spirit around the world, a good listener, a part-time poet and a former data analyst and programmer.
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