A single regret, a visit to a monastery, then off to Latvia

After nearly a week in Bulgaria and now two days in Latvia, I have only one regret. It is that I had only a few minutes to stop at the junk shop pictured above.

I was on my way to see the Rila Monastery with Matt Hagengruber, my old Gazette colleague now working in Sofia, Bulgaria, as a U.S. Embassy cultural affairs officer. We were on our way to the American University in Bulgaria, a private university in Blagoevgrad, about an hour south of Sofia, and we had only a short time to make the detour to see the monastery.

On the narrow, winding road leading to Rila, I spotted what looked like a junk yard full of ancient, dust-covered automobiles, so I asked Matt if we could stop on the way back for a couple of photos. Well, as soon as I got out of the car and stepped under an archway into a kind of courtyard, I knew it was no mere parts junk yard. In addition to the old cars — the Soviet-era clunkers I had half expected to see still clogging the Bulgarian roads — there were old implements and tools, weapons, toys, hardware and knick-knacks beyond number.

If I had to choose between a museum, an art gallery, some natural wonder like a waterfall and a good junk shop, I’m afraid I would always choose the junk shop. If I were in America and I were to stumble upon a place like the one pictured above, and I had only a few minutes to spare, I could at least carry around with me like a gift the consolation of knowing that I would one day return.

More antique clunkers inside the barely explored junk shop.

But a place on the outskirts of Blagoevgrad in far-off Bulgaria, crammed with outlandish artifacts? What were the chances of my ever coming back to it? I do want to return, but life is short, and I may go to my grave wondering what treasures were buried under those heaps of oddments and blankets of dust. And yes, that is a bust of Stalin glowering inside that ancient vehicle. (Side recommendation: On the flight from Newark to Frankfurt, I finally got to watch “The Death of Stalin,” undoubtedly the funniest movie ever made about mass murder. As you might imagine, the humor is a bit on the dark side.)

In the few minutes I had to take photos, a man driving a small tractor with cart attached to the back came rumbling out from the rear of the place, waved at me and pulled over. I asked him if he spoke English and his wagged his finger to indicate “No,” then walked into a shed and emerged with a small sign explaining, in three languages including English, that this was indeed a junk shop, with some information about when it was open at different times of the year. “I’ll be back!” I said to him, knowing he couldn’t understand but hoping by saying it aloud I was making some kind of compact with the cosmos, or myself.

And so on to the monastery, where we had about an hour to poke around and soak up its medieval splendors. Like all the Orthodox churches in these parts, photographs inside the church are prohibited, as are scanty or otherwise disrespectful clothing and behavior. I hope this photo from the outside of the church will give you some idea of what was inside:

Living quarters for monks are visible beneath the arches of the church inside the Rila Monastery.

Really, though, you can hardly imagine the inside unless you’ve been in an Orthodox church yourself. Every single inch of the walls and ceiling are covered in gorgeous murals and icons, depicting scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints, and no end of depictions of the horrors of eternal punishment in that world below. The icons, or portraits of saints and other holy figures, are festooned with detailed ornamentation of carved wood and worked silver and gold. Then there are elaborate candelabra and chandeliers just as richly and expensively ornamented.

The last measure of magnificence, though, is always saved for the iconostasis, the wall bearing icons that separates the congregation from the mysteries of the mass. In Catholic churches when I was a boy, the priests prepared the materials of the sacrament of communion with their backs to the congregation, but in Orthodox churches, a goodly portion of the long service is given up to such preparations, all done in privacy behind the iconostasis. Church-goers pass the time listening to the intricate intonations of the choir, or feasting their eyes on a form of art that existed for the sole purpose of inducing exaltation.

At the monastery, a glimpse of the torments of the damned.

All of which makes it even more difficult to admit that had I known what lay down below, I might have spent an hour in the junk yard and dashed into the monastery for a few photos afterward.

At the American University in Bulgaria, Matt and I first had dinner in the cafeteria of what I suppose was the student union building, or its near equivalent. It was a beautiful, modern building, constructed with American funds, public and private. There are those who begrudge every dime spent overseas, just as there are those who begrudge every dime spent on “nonessential services” at home, but I felt stirrings of pride at seeing some of our money going to help a country that has been subject to invasion and occupation almost since the dawn of civilization. When I was much younger, during the Cold War, Bulgaria to me was a sort of Monty Python-like backwater of low intrigue, secret police and cars that would eventually kill you with pollution if they didn’t fall apart and kill you on the highway first.

Now its ancient ruins sit alongside gleaming glass mega-malls and its highways are crowded with Mercedes, Hondas and Subarus, and its comical but deadly cars are found only in roadside junk shops.

In the cafeteria, we were joined by two young women who were studying journalism at AUBG and would also be attending the presentation, but wanted to talk more in depth beforehand. They were, like so many of the people I’ve met here, a real tonic. They were bright and articulate, hopeful and yet skeptical in a healthy, youngish way, and their English was impressive, as they had both been to the United States on work visas. One of them knew the language well enough to have a kind of American edge to her humor, a quickness on her feet that is only available to the fluent.

I then made my presentation to an audience of 20 or 30 students and faculty, including an English teacher from Maine who was full of good stories. Once again, I dare say the most effective part of the talk was the portion devoted to a sketch of Montana history. I show them a couple of slides of Glacier and Yellowstone, all the touristy beauty that most Americans associated with the Big Sky State, then jolt them with a black-and-white photo of the Butte Hill at the height of its wretched glory, followed by a history of Anaconda domination of the press, society and politics. Some of what I have to say is a bit generic and could perhaps be delivered by any visiting journalist, but the Montana stuff is a revelation to them, and I have not yet got tired of watching eyes grow wide with wonder.

And of course I love talking about Last Best News. I may have pandered somewhat by going into some detail about one of the last big stories I worked on, the one involving the cops busted for having on-the-job sex. Even the few students who were nodding off by then suddenly sat up straight, all ears. And it really was a good story to talk about in a place where bad news about any branch of government is avoided by a majority of news outlets.

That was my last full day in Bulgaria. Matt dropped me off at the hotel, we said our goodbyes, I thanked him for being the catalyst of this mind-boggling adventure and I left the next morning on an early flight to Latvia. That was yesterday. I arrived here about 2 in the afternoon and it is now 10:30 the next night. But so much has happened that I don’t dare begin to describe any of it, since I have one more day of activities tomorrow, after which, two days entirely on my own in the capital city of Riga, then home on Monday. I will pick up the thread of my travel narrative  tomorrow or on Saturday. Here’s one more look at the monastery:

And here’s a quick update: because I had already posted on Facebook a link to a radio interview I did, I completely forget to mention that before Matt and I went to AUBG, we stopped in at the studios of Bulgarian National Radio Blagoevgrad, where I met broadcast journalist Eleonora Tahova. You might get tired of my saying this, but here was yet another bright, young, curious Bulgarian, whose questions on and off the air were articulate and to the point and whose English, despite her protestations, was excellent. I hope I sounded half as good as she did. Thanks!

1 thought on “A single regret, a visit to a monastery, then off to Latvia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s