By Savina Velkova
Just before the turn for the monastery we see a limbless tree with a rusty sign: Skara “Stalin.” Here’s where Joseph Stalin stopped to eat fresh trout from the cold streams of what was then known as the Balkan and is now called Old Mountain. A village legend popular in these parts tells that once he choked on a bone, turned red as the Soviet flag and was saved by a Bulgarian waitress who hit him between the shoulder blades until he coughed the bone out.
I wonder if Gosho knows this story. It seems like a good story to share while we wait for our food. It is a very fine day and the parking lot of the restaurant is filled with muddy Volkswagens and heavy-bottomed Opels taking in the spring sun under the square glances of a couple of rusty Ladas, stern like policemen.
We park and walk through tables of people eating grilled trout and skara garnished with thin slices of cucumbers and parsley. By an old habit I glance around at people’s plates to judge the quality of the food.
The place is a single room with an opening towards a back area where the kitchen is located, through which dishes come out at irregular intervals. The majority of the tables are on the terrace, with a view of the river. We see a family of four get up and gather their belongings and we take their seats under a faded umbrella with the Coca-Cola logo scribbled all over the red and white fabric. Gosho pushes the pile of dirty dishes left over from the family’s lunch to one side and puts his hands palms down on the table in front of him. The tablecloth is sprinkled with breadcrumbs, white and angular like snowflakes.
“Ah,” Gosho grins, “I could go for some mixed skara with a nice cold beer.”
It’s been years since I’ve had any of the grilled meat dishes that go into a traditional Bulgarian skara: the big plump meatball spiced with cumin, onions and parsley called kiufte and its tall counterpart the kebapche, made from the same mixture of minced pork and beef but with more cumin, pepper instead of onions, and kept on the grill until it resembles a thick, long finger burned regularly at the phalanges. Even the simple pork chops that are usually thrown in the mix I’ve avoided since a doctor told me I had to choose between red meat and cigarettes because you can’t have all the sweet evils of life after the age of sixty and two minor heart attacks. And then there’s always alcohol, strong Bulgarian rakia to make you forget your name.
Gosho, who at forty could be my son, is a well-built man with the positive attitude of the young who believe they can do anything. Although he is many years my junior, we get along and I often take him to visit the factories with me. I like to think that I show him things he has never seen before during these trips.
A waitress comes over chewing gum behind a bored smile.
“What would you like?”
“Ooo, what’s good, Mimi?” Gosho asks, both cheeky and seductive.
“The fish is good today,” Mimi wipes her hand on her short apron and takes out a notepad and a pen from her back pocket.
“And how’s the meat?” Gosho asks.
“Young,” she says.
“And fresh,” she adds and lowers her chin without moving her eyes from his, all the while chewing her gum.
“You know, Mimi, I want it all. Kiufteta, kebapcheta – two of each. And bread. I am hungry as a bear. And the coldest beer you have. One from the river!”
Mimi takes notes and turns to me.
“I’ll have the trout. Tomatoes instead of fries. And an ashtray.”
“Anything to drink?”
She lingers. The gum in her mouth is pink. She blows a tiny bubble and it bursts almost tenderly on her lips.
“Go on now,” Gosho reaches and slaps her behind. “Feed the bear first, then maybe he’ll play.”
Mimi gives a small laugh, gathers the dirty dishes with both hands and walks away. We watch her and then Gosho gives me a meaningful look with arched eyebrows and slaps his palm on the table, making the breadcrumbs jump. Suddenly I feel like a cigarette.
“Want one?” I extend the pack.
“I quit. The wife made me.”
“Ah. It’s a rotten habit anyway,” I say and remember the story about Stalin. “You know why I started smoking?”
I give him a chance to ask and then I wait another moment to set up stage.
“It was Stalin’s fault.”
“Stalin was a big smoker and it was well known that he had a weakness for Herzegovina Flor cigarettes. But that created an issue for the party because Herzegovina Flor was very fine tobacco popular with the bourgeois before the revolution.”
Gosho pushes a gust of air through his nostrils in a small laugh. Mimi saunters over and places a beer bottle and a glass in front of him. The bottle is wet with condensation and, even though Gosho lifts it almost instantly and fills his glass, the bottle has already left a ring of moisture on the faded red tablecloth. Mimi lays the ashtray in the middle of the table and I rest my cigarette in the holder.
“So what the old fox did was he started smoking a pipe but he filled it with the tobacco from the cigarettes,” I say.
“Herzegovina Flor didn’t make pipe tobacco?”
“No, they were truly bourgeois. And I was eighteen and thought, it must be some fine tobacco if the party is willing to make such a symbolic exception.”
Gosho is amused by the story and I tell him the other one about the restaurant and Stalin choking on a trout bone. Mimi comes with the skara and the trout and Gosho orders another beer. He is too young to remember Stalin or any of them with any fondness. If he feels any nostalgia for his youth it probably sounds like the Beatles and the Stones, not like the partisan songs you can still hear around these parts.
“Careful with the bones,” he jokes as he forks a piece of meat into his mouth and takes a bite of white bread in quick succession.
“Careful with the meat,” I say for no obvious reason.
“No need to worry,” he responds, “Mimi and I are old friends.”
The river is full in early spring and carries the faint smell of watermelon I have always associated with freshness. It almost feels wrong to spoil it with a cigarette but the old habit calls. I look towards the other bank where a single early tree has already bloomed and glistens in the sun. I feel the urge to swim across the river and breathe in the aroma of those apple or cherry blossoms, to lie underneath them like a twig or a blade of grass, not a person and an animal.
Then I remember another story, which may or may not be true. Stalin had a trusted friend and fellow party comrade who had a stunning wife. She was a real beauty and at all the party functions she shined like that blooming tree across the river. When he became general secretary, Stalin got it into his head that he had the right to sleep with his friend’s wife. First with good, he tried to persuade his friend to lend him his wife just once, but the friend would not have it. Stalin got angry and the friend, who had been a loyal party member, was removed from his post and sent to a labor camp. Then Stalin approached the woman directly but she also refused, she was too proud. To convince her, Stalin ordered for her son to be kidnapped for three days. Then he personally accompanied the boy back to his mother’s house, planning to ask her again if she would spend a night with him. But when the woman opened the door, he saw not his former friend’s stunning wife but someone aged, extinguished, a tormented face under strands of grey hair. So he didn’t ask.
I wonder whether I should tell Gosho this story when he comes back from wherever Mimi is taking her lunch break. Then I decide against it. After the turn it is only a few minutes down the road to the monastery. We are not in a hurry so we could stop by to light a candle.
Savina Velkova grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria, and studied literature at Pomona College in California. Over the last decade she has lived and worked in Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, London and Oslo, drawing creative inspiration from adaptation, travel and relationships across cultures and geographies. Savina’s literary fiction and non-fiction have appeared in university magazines and on Medium. Her essay collection Love in a Time of International Living was published in 2016. She is currently watching the days grow longer and working on her first novel from a book-filled room in Oslo. Visit her at savinavelkova.com.
Art by featured artist Sirena Hildebrand
Monsters and Lace was created by Sirena the Mermaid and Chris the Troll. They live in Lancaster, PA, with their many plant children, such as Mary the Mint and Bert the Dracaena. On any given day, you might find them romping through the forest, toting reflectors, camera gear, smoke grenades, and who knows what other props. The aim, is to tell a story via pictures, whether it be a hard road a friend has travelled, or a light hearted children’s tale. To view the world through a lens is a beautiful thing! To capture someone’s soul within a photo is a hard task, but one they aim to master.