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What Memories May Come, Part 1
The nostalgia of a Rufo the Redhaired, the origin of a Tonika, and the magic of a July Morning
I’ve waxed on plenty about pandemic issues and technocratic dystopian scenarios so I hope my readers accept the occasional personal blogs. Some of these words are lifted directly from my journals and some are my commentary in retrospect. A bit of what you’ll read in the next few posts would be considered heretical by some, and a bit would be considered personal and intimate. Either way, I find it necessary to scribe it because ultimately it’s about this grand ol’ adventure we call life. My trip in Bulgaria lasted from June 14th ‘til August 3rd, 2023, but the memories it yields span some generations deep.
June 28th, 2023
My radio silence is due to my travels - my family and I are in Bulgaria, taking in my native land, enjoying some delicious meals, and inhaling second hand smoke everywhere we go. It’s crazy how ubiquitous cigarettes are in BG, it’s like being stuck in a 60’s movie. On the other hand, I haven’t seen a single person in a mask so there’s that! I’ve had crappy internet so I’m catching up on current events in the library where the wifi is passable, the AC is on and it might be the only place where smoking isn’t allowed. I almost made a crack about missing breathing the nice Chicago air to a friend when she sent me this:
Which might as well be this:
There’s something fishy about these wildfires. [This is in reference to the Canadian fires, but since then there’s been a fire in Hawaii too, so I shall say it again: There’s something fishy about these wildfires.] So far, I’m in love with this library. Not only is the air clean and cool, but the facility is open 24 hours and the bathrooms are pristine. On the first day I got a membership card, I ventured into the kids section to ask for a book I remember from my childhood. The last few years I’ve visited Bulgaria, I’ve browsed antique book stores and old biblioteques but no one had even heard of this out-of-print book, let alone have it. When I first inquired, the librarian checked the catalogues and returned with a non surprising negative shake of the head (although, in Bulgaria, it’s actually a negative ‘nod’ of the head. This might be the only country in the world that shakes its head for a “yes” and nods for a “no”, it’s confusing as hell, please be aware if the cops every pull you over and ask if you have a license. No surprise why BG is the wayward stepchild of the Eastern European family.) But on my way out the main door, the librarian caught up with me, panting, clutching in her hand the long wistfully searched for Rufo the Redhaired.
The book couldn’t have expected a forty-four year old me to have the reaction that I did and neither did the librarian, but my heart skipped a beat and my eyes involuntarily welled up; I was eight again and in front of me was childhood and it smelled exactly like I remembered it. I’ve spent every afternoon post beach adventures with the kids flipping page after page and giggling to myself much to the book’s puzzlement, allowing myself to read only one chapter at a time, lest I run out of chapters to cherish and I’m convinced Rufo the Redhaired has never felt as loved.
When pressed to think of something that Bulgaria is known for, most people come up with Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, the essential bacteria for the fermentation of yogurt, or the Bulgarian Rose Absolutes as the most sought after oil concentrate base for perfumes, or the choral dissonance of Bulgarian folk music which boasts a song on Voyager’s golden record in search for sentient life in space as featured in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
For me, it’s fig trees heavy with fruit within reach, the cacophony of seagulls at any hour but especially when it’s about to rain, the smell of homemade lyutenitza (ajvar) wafting from backyards in September right before school starts up, the freshly caught mussels cooking on a tin at dusk on the beach, the obituaries taped at doorways,
the stray cats that roam the streets and await the kindness of strangers… Bulgaria is a country smaller than the state I currently call home but a piece of my spirit forever echos its song. I’m romantic for it.
The people are a strange breed. There’s plenty of talent to go around but for the most part Bulgarians are natural born pessimists and their time is often wasted on complaining. However, they are not homebodies and especially enjoy going out as a family, children in tow. I spent many an hour as a kid playing with random children while the adults sipped rakija and smoked for hours prior to ordering the actual meals at restaurants and patios. To this day, Bulgarians drag their kids around everywhere. It’s part of the culture. People tend to dress up even if they’ll only be seen out for a spell and I hold memories of my mum putting on make-up just to go to the corner store. In all fairness, if you’re from my hometown, you can never just go to the store because it takes you in the ballpark of two hours: you will inevitably see a handful of people you know on the way - someone who’ll ask about your tomatoes this season, someone whom you help unload a car, someone who invites you to sit down at their table at the cafe next to the market... People in Bulgaria have no concept of minding their own business. Unlike in the United States where most people don’t get involved if something befalls a stranger, or even worse, they pull out their phones to film it, Bulgarians will cross the street to come see what that hubbub is about and offer solutions, some more useful than others. If your toddler is prone to tantrums, you’ll also get a litany of unsolicited advice. I don’t think telling Frankie his face looks ugly when he cries is helpful, IMHO.
My hometown of Burgas has a bohemian despositian. Nestled in an alcove on the Black Sea, it’s the home of artists, singers, poets, and theatre makers and it’s where I first set foot on a stage. Much has changed in the last 30+ years, yet some things have stayed stubbornly the same. There’s nothing like completely forgetting about a thing only to stand in the same space where the memory of it dusts off the cobwebs, clears its throat and turns on the crackling film projector of your mind: this is the backyard with the strange flowers where summers were spent with your childhood friend Maggie while your mothers smoked cigarettes and commiserated about single parenting,
this is the movie theatre where you saw The Empire Strike Back 41 times,
this is the school where on your way out the door for the last time, the class bully came running to say goodbye because he didn’t expect to ever see you again.
He was right. He OD’d in the late 90s when drugs were the most accessible escape the Bulgarian youth could afford. My old school is located meters away from the center,
and across the square from the Cyril and Methodius Cathedral where during Communism you were forbidden from attending or you risked school expulsion. Certain isms just don’t dance together.
Some of the houses, including my own childhood home, are a century old. As a matter of fact, it is exactly a hundred years old as the plaque on the façade states.
There are many houses like ours, built by the same architect, some in disrepair…
Others have been well taken care of.
Some houses appealed to my conspiracy sensibilities because look what I found prominently displayed at the threshold of a backyard:
My first baby tooth was tossed on this roof as per tradition. This used to be the Children’s Puppet Theatre building. Now it’s shops under residential.
In some insignificant way, my DNA is part of this town. Even more so, that of my mum whose stories craft the tapestry of my past one knitty loop at a time. When I first returned to Bulgaria in 2005 after fifteen years, my childhood home was falling apart. The little tiny cottage that served as my grandfather’s abode was crumbling. My mum’s father, a nautical man who spent years at sea, was my only grandparent in my life. The last time the tiny cottage had enjoyed people, was when my extended family, gathered by my dying grandfather’s side stepped out for a cigarette and their prolonged silence was broken by the blaring screech of a gull. Exactly then, my mum’s cousin who was keeping watch, opened the door and told the rest: “The Captain has passed.” The Captain’s last words were: “Just a little black coffee, thanks.”
The below video was made when I was in my 20s and you can hear my ignorance in between f-bombs. It was made on now corrupted miniDV tapes and I’ve sliced it together as best as I could. The smaller structure that was my grandfather’s abode was later entirely demolished. The video also offers a rare glimpse of my mom and dad breathing the same air together.
A house is hardly just a cold concrete thing. If a house feels lived in and loved, it’ll keep itself going for its inhabitant’s sake. Its spirit won’t let it mold up and crumble because it knows it’s needed and wanted.
Back in the day, of course, the inside looked more like this:
One had to call a photographer to come to the house if you wanted your picture taken.
The house got a face lift by the time we stayed in it in 2015. But knowing how close it was to game over still gives me pause.
Luckily for us, our front-of-house neighbors insisted we keep the original building unlike the rest of our street who opted to demolish and build apartment buildings with storefronts underneath. The ol’ lady gets to enjoy landmark status now and hearing kids voices and hullabaloo echo in her rooms again seems to have perked her up. Even our neighbor likes having the kids around!
Nikolai is a real class act and he came in clutch this summer. Not only picking us up and dropping us off at the Varna airport two and a half hours away at the crack of dawn, but his gentle nature and sly humour hit it off with everyone in the family. There are other casts and characters in this Balkan adventure, but I’ll try not to get in the weeds so early on. I’ll start with my family.
My mum who preceded us to the old country by six weeks (during which I juggled so much by myself, my body got violently ill the week before my departure and for a spell there I didn’t think we were gonna get to go) really spruced up the house and bought basic furniture. No AC though. It hit 106 one of them days. And no internet. Three children under twelve and no internet, no TV, no video games. When the twins were four we had decided to take them to Bulgaria every year so they can immerse in the culture, learn the language and expand their perspectives. Now at twelve, they had only gotten to go three times prior because one year I was working on getting our Chicago house ready for us to move in, one year I had an infant and everything was harder than I remembered it, and then the world was doing its covid thing. It’d been five years since I’d gone home. Now the toddler was turning four and it felt like the right time. I wanted my dad to meet Frankie for the first time, especially because we received news of his ailments as we were gearing to leave. I wanted Calvin and Jaxon to reconnect with each other as they had started to drift apart since Jaxon decided to try out normie school and Calvin still practices autonomous learning at home.
And I wanted to know if it was possible for me to live in Bulgaria months at a time. The older boys love it there. They are allowed to roam the town unsupervised. They get to try all the ice cream flavours. They get lots of attention and quality time with us, not to mention beaching it almost daily. One of our favourite activities is to recreate photos from their past visits.
It gives me joy that the kids find Bulgaria interesting. In subsequent posts I’ll share some of their adventures that have elevated their experience this year. Suffice it to say that Calvin didn’t want to come back. And there is something particularly special about Burgas. It’s on the Black Sea and it has miles of beach front but it hasn’t been invaded by the tourists. Fun fact: my ma and I used to be part of the artistic tapestry of the city. Her two best friends had become famous in their own right, one ending his life at its apex, the other dying at the height of the covid closures which had derailed our traveling plans that year. Both wrote music and lyrics for the city’s most popular band which also included several other members tied into the community, most notably the father of my childhood best friend Maggie. The name of the band? Tonika. My name sake. I used to joke that we didn’t know who came first, me or the band, but they had been around since the early 70s and I didn’t make my debut until the later part of the decade. My mother wasn’t allowed to name me Tonika at first. It was a Commie time, only approved names were allowed so for the first two years of my life, my birth certificate read ‘Toni’. It took my grandpa making a stink in City Hall and a few bucks under the table later, the two remaining letters were added. Or maybe it wasn’t Communism, maybe it was the stint the band pulled right when I was born:
Tonika was formed in Burgas in 1969 by a graduate of Bulgaria's National Academy of Music, Stefan Diomov. Tonika grew in national recognition and was part of the 1974 New Year’s celebration on Bulgarian National Television. In 1975, the group moved to Sofia and released their debut LP on the Balkan-ton label, which was the national record label.
In 1976 and 1977, Tonika won the Bulgarian national music award Zlatniyat Orfey (Bulgarian: Златният Орфей), or Golden Orpheus, which further confirmed their status as pop stars. In 1978, Tonika released their second LP, which featured many of the best studio musicians in Bulgaria. Tonika won many awards during the yearly music festival in Aytos for over two decades, particularly in the 1970s.
Music has always been important in the culture of this former Iron Curtain republic, and Tonika has a considerable following today. Tonika performed more than 200 concerts per year in the 1970s in addition to their TV appearances, recordings, and rehearsals.
The band is also known as Tonica, Tonica SV, Domino, and Familia Tonica (Tonika Family).
In 1979, almost all of Tonika’s records and taped TV appearances (except a few hidden copies) were destroyed by the Bulgarian government and banned due to a political scandal that occurred during a tour of Western Europe and Asia. The group was forced to disband and they were not allowed to perform for two years. [Well, rebels, I didn’t fall too far from your tree.-T.T.]
I was teased about my name in school as the band’s popularity grew. Everyone remarked about how unusual it was that I was named this way. At that particular time, I was the only Tonika in the name directory of the entire country. Meanwhile, one of Tonika’s biggest hits, Burgas Nights, had become the city’s anthem:
Years later, two of the members (the leads in the above song) came to play in Chicago and I went in for an autograph. I told them I knew the guys who wrote some of their music, that they had been my mum’s best friends. But it wasn’t until they asked me my name that they fully made the connection. There I was, a tiny piece of Burgas and there they were, almost forgotten legends, and we were meeting in a tiny concert venue on the other side of the world. Life is funny sometimes.
June 28th, 2023 cont’d
The amount of stray cats in Bulgaria rivals that of San Juan. There used to be stray dogs too, but now Bulgarians have gotten pretty bougie about their dogs. The cats, however, remain. Immediately upon our arrival in the old house, two strays began showing up at the doorstep every morning. We called them Hungary (because Calvin noted the cat was hungry all the time) and Aqua (because her two eyes were slightly off but still the color of seaweed).
Aqua is a special kind of cat. Not only does she share her food with Hungary as he is more skittish around humans, but she also stuffs her mouth full with as much sausage she can hold and runs over to the yard with the little kittens to feed them. Their own mother doesn’t do that. Their mother would sometimes steal the food that Aqua brings the kittens. Aqua is a bit extra.
There’s quite a lot of cat behaviour that can be observed when the house you’re staying at has no internet.
Update: Aqua has started to let us pet her.
Every trip to bulgaria fills my phone with cat photos. Here they are compiled for those who meow.
One of these cats I caught on camera was a beautiful white feline laid out in the basement window of Maggie’s (my childhood best friend) old home. Her mother still lives there and rents out the basement. The cat gets lots of looks.
June 29th, 2023
“You like my cat?”
I spun around to look upon an older gentleman with weathered clothing. My neighbor Nikolay had told me a few days prior that he saw my son offer him coins because he thought the guy was homeless.
“She is yours?” I asked, “You live here? That’s my friend’s house.”
“Yeah, I live here. I’m friends with her dad. We were in a band together once.”
“You were a part of Tonika?”
Pause. His mouth slowly drew out a toothless smile.
“I was Tonika’s first soloist,” he said, surprised that I knew, that I brought him back to his glory days for a brief hot second. “What’s your name?”
“Well, you’re not gonna believe this…”
June 30th, 2023
My dad is saying they are keeping him in the capital for more chemo and he won’t be back in Burgas like he imagined at the end of June. He won’t be back ‘til end of July. This leaves me with only a few days to see him before I return to the States. I have offered to go to wherever he is on several occasions, but he has refused. He wishes to see me when he is feeling well enough, back at home. He is a stubborn man. I try to chase away unpleasant thoughts such as “If things turn to shit, don’t you want to see me one last time?” But this is a face of someone who is used to getting his way.
Total Tom Selleck vibe. And those aviators!
The first three weeks of our trip dragged slow. Our favourite activity was hitting the beach and the sun’s kisses turned our Mediterranean olive skin bronze.
In the next post some gypsies offer to show me the way to the healing waters, Nick arrives and we celebrate Frankie’s 4th birthday, and we sing an old folk song under the Eyes of God accompanied by bats and swallows. But before all that happened, a most magical highlight came on the morning of July 1st, or ‘July Morning’ as this fairly new holiday goes by. Young and old gather on the beach of the Black Sea and watch the sun rise together. Most take a dip in that first flush of daybreak. The sky softens like a velveteen rabbit. The hues begin to blend like melting pastels. A little pinkish at first, a violet streak reflects on the shimmering sea, and then a sharp bright edge pierces the horizon. Before you know it, the sun enters the stage nonchalantly like it always does, because it’s just doing its job. The exquisite manifests in the unpretentious way it so casually is, in the way it so carelessly performs its purpose. What it reminds you of isn’t just beauty, although it is quite beautiful. And it does more than reconnect you with nature, which you do feel with every electric particle coursing through your spirit. What the sunrise does so effortlessly, is echo back the magic that is you.
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
― Christopher McCandless
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