Berlin with cousins

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A parked Trabi limousine we saw on our tour.

Two of my cousins that I haven’t seen in years, Sarah and Daniel, have flown in from England to meet me in Berlin! Their sister Mary would probably be happy to join, but she just wrapped up celebrating her birthday and got engaged so she has work and wedding planning. (Is it just me, or suddenly is everyone you know getting married too?) We buy tickets for a hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus around the city and spend the day as tourists. It’s probably good for me, since I haven’t actually seen much of Berlin beyond our Airbnb, some flea markets, and a nearby grocery store.

We catch one of the buses and spend the day exploring, listening to the bus’s pre-recorded tour information and disembarking when we please.

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So it’s not a glorious royal coach. But it’ll do!
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Walking around.

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There are trampolines with awesome bounce built into the sidewalk near Potsdamer Platz!
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Another tourist figures out where we are on an old aerial photograph of the Berlin Wall.

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Trabi world, where you can get all of your Trabant-related merchandise. For those who don’t know what a Trabant is, it’s a “famous” East German car brand.
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Sibling hug!

At the end of the day we say goodbye over glasses of wine. Sarah and Daniel will return home tomorrow, after less than 48 hours in Berlin. I’m so lucky they came to visit, since I won’t get a chance to visit them in England before heading back. Speaking of, there is less than 72 hours before I board a plane as well, bound back to the U.S.

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Nikolaevo Farm Days

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It’s harvest season here in Nikolaevo and Lela Stanka has relented to our requests to help her out on the Stoytchev farm. The first day we pick sweet peppers from rows of densely-packed plants. The plants sag from the weight of the peppers, some brilliant scarlet, others in stages of green and orange. We pick only the darkest reds, leaving the rest for Lela Stanka’s next harvest. She grins as she tells us that she’s already harvested peppers from these plants a dozen times. But there are always more peppers.

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By the end of an hour, we’ve filled an entire 20-lb. sack with peppers, soon to be roasted and peeled and turned into delicious meals and preserves for the winter.  I’m personally hoping for lutenitza, a Bulgarian variant of red pepper spread that pairs beautifully with everything from bread to eggs to meat to yogurt. Seriously, it’s good on everything, ok? Don’t worry, a recipe is coming (in a later post).

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We return the following day to harvest potatoes, a slightly more complicated task that involves digging and dust. Harvesting the potatoes well takes effort, and Lela Stanka shows us how to dig between the rows of shriveled potato plants to find the potatoes hidden beneath the soil without accidentally slicing too many in half.

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The dry summer has been hard on the potato crop, and this year’s yield is supposedly a modest one. Busy with chores and unworried they would rot in such dry weather, Lela Stanka left them in the ground. With a few hours of hoeing and digging, though, we’ve littered the ground with an abundance of potatoes. Most are red-skinned, and as we collect them Lela Stanka remarks on how well they’ve done. “They’re a family heirloom, passed down in the family and planted for decades. I’ll plant them again next year too.” We finish gathering the potato into sacks and boxes, store them in a nearby shed, and head home to scrub the dirt from our hands, feet, and faces.

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Later, when we speak on Skype with Stoytcho’s dad, we tell him about our work on the family farm. He worked the farm when he lived here too before moving to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in physics. He probably hasn’t done farm work in decades. But when we mention our potato harvest he pauses, then replies, “Potatoes? It’s a bit late in the season for that, isn’t it?”

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Nikolaevo

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A street near the town’s center, looking northward to the nearby hill. You can see the edge of town from here. 

Nikolaevo is a 2,800 person town to the north of Stara Zagora at the foot of the Sredna Gora Mountains. While not a standard tourist destination, it is home to Stoytcho’s aunt and grandfather. Stoytcho’s grandfather, also Stoytcho, was the school’s math teacher and principal during the communist regime and his aunt, Lela Stanka, teaches Bulgarian there today. Together, they also still farm the plot of land that belongs to the Stoytchev family.

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Lela Stanka, Stoytcho elder, and Stoytcho younger.
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We offer to help Stoytcho elder with chopping firewood.

We stay with Lela Stanka in two-bedroom apartment at the northern edge of town. The school is still on summer holiday, so we take long walks with her in the remaining days of the countryside summer. She points out landmarks and updates Stoytcho on life here. Nikolaevo was once a larger town, with most inhabitants employed by a factory that made ceramic parts for electrical wires. “A competing Turkish company bought the factory and shut it down,” she tells us, “and most people left.”

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Old equipment lies in an empty lot near the town’s edge.
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A snake slithers through leaf litter at the edge of town.

Now, the people living in Nikolaevo are predominately Roma, but each year brings something new. British expats started coming a few years back, not just pensioners but also families with children, lured by the cheap cost of living. Bulgarian families have also moved in, lured by cheap fertile land on in the surrounding area that is ripe for planting vineyards. Winemaking is a growing industry in Nikolaevo, evident from the rows of grapevines stretching from the north edge of town and up the nearby hill, where Stanka says ancient Roman ruins lay buried in underbrush.

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Wine grapes in a vineyard to the town’s north.
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Two Roma men greet us as they pass. 

Nikolaevo is a small town like so many others in Bulgaria; things move slowly, things change slowly, and for now at least, things continue.

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A herd of sheep and goats wander beneath Nikolaevo’s highway overpass.

Visiting family

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One of the best parts of going back home is family. For me seeing family is synonymous with eating – lots and lots of eating. Since we normally see each group once every few years, they make a point of pulling out the stops and setting a table for at least twice as many people as there actually are. This time was no exception, other than having a smaller crowd.

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This is part of my dad’s side of the family – they’re in Plovdiv and I’ve always been happy to see them. I haven’t been surrounded by so many relatives in very long time. In years past my dad’s entire family, or as close as possible, would gather in their apartment when we visited, more than a dozen people all around the table drinking, laughing, and eating.

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It’s a bit strange to take pictures of food in Bulgaria, at least at my relatives’ house, but I did it anyway, just for the memories. The theme of most meals is homemade meat, potatoes, breads, spreads, lots of dairy, and alcohol. My dad’s uncle brews his own plentiful and delicious rakia, some of the best I’ve had. Rakia is a plum brandy sort of hard alcohol found all over the balkan peninsula and the area beyond. It’s clear or yellow, fruity, and sometimes a little sweet. The store bought stuff is usually ok, but the real deal is home made from the family orchard in a small village somewhere. The white soup front and center is tarator, or cucumber soup in the states. Delicious and refreshing during the summer months. Since there were only four people eating at this meal, it’s a bit smaller than usual but no less delicious. Missing from the spread this time around is my aunt’s delicious homemade banitsa – more doughy than flaky and chock full of white cheese.

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Interestingly enough, the gauntlet of family visits that awaits every time we come back to Bulgaria has kept me from seeing much of the country outside the four or five cities where my family has spread to. This trip was not particularly different, but we did get to stop more along the way, and because we had a car all to ourselves we got to travel around and see landmarks and attractions that were not on the two-week all-family-all-the-time trail of the visits of my childhood. It’s sort of nice to be a tourist back home.

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Next time, exploring the sights outside of Plovdiv!

Dachas

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The Russian (and also other eastern European countries but really mostly Russia) tradition of the ‘dacha’ goes back a long way. It started out as a large house in the countryside, and is now, after some turmoil, basically the same. A house with a plot of land, somewhere near but definitely outside a city’s borders.

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The royalty back in pre-communist days had dachas as summer estates, large houses and ornamental gardens for entertainment and repose. The industrial revolution brought about a larger upper and middle class who also wanted to join in the quiet country life, so they too bought land and built dachas.
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Then came the Soviets. They took the dachas and redistributed them and placed rules on the size and scope of newly constructed ones. Dachas became a reward mechanism for those in the party’s good graces. Did a good deed for a party higher-up? You get to use a dacha for a while. Become a rising and prominent member of the elite? You get assigned a dacha all to yourself. Until you fall out of grace and the dacha is revoked along with probably a few other things.

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Around this point in time, dachas were summer homes. They didn’t have indoor plumbing and they had relatively small plots and house sizes. They usually didn’t have great insulation, so they weren’t ideal for living out the cold Russian winter in.
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When the USSR fell dachas once again became private property. Construction rules were relaxed and those who had income built their dachas to be large, year-round houses. Their garden plots became functional gardens growing potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. Many of the dachas we saw had little greenhouses in the plot so they could grow long into the shoulder seasons.

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Modern dachas come in two neighborhoods – specific dacha-only areas, and small villages. The dacha-only areas are traditional. Large chunks of land are divided and then used as summer retreats. The small-village dacha is an outgrowth of everyone ever moving to the cities, leaving the outlying villages empty. Cheap property leads to more people being able to afford a house, and so, former actual villages, now filled at least partially with part-time dacha residents.

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For most, the dacha is a source of enjoyment and pride. The garden provides a little extra, and the ability to get away from the city on a regular basis – for long periods during the summer – refreshes the soul. In poorer areas of Russia, the food that a dacha garden brings is often enough to help a family feed itself during the year without cutting back drastically on other expenses.

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The family we stayed with for a night on the shore of Lake Baikal were at their dacha, preparing for a summer celebration. When we got to Moscow we met with my mom’s aunt who was residing for the summer at her family’s dacha. It was lovely to meet her and speak Bulgarian again for a bit.

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We helped out in the garden, but mostly relaxed, took pictures, went swimming in the local pond, and walked around. The dacha lifestyle is meant to be relaxing, revolves around walking and meals, and is meant to be shared with family.

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My Dad’s Home

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Today’s excursion out into the city is a solo one. Though my dad is still busy teaching and couldn’t meet us in Taipei, I’m curious to know where he grew up so I sent him the question via email. He responded with a snapshot of Google Maps containing a rough-drawn circle over a bit of Yonghe District. “I lived at “#30 Baofu Road Section 2. […] No physical trace of my house or the neighborhood remained. The only tangible thing left is the Baofu temple. I fell into the pond in front of the temple when i tried to pick some lotus flowers. Still remember the underwater image, green water and a lot of straight underwater stems.” So today I’m going out, alone, to try and find Baofu Temple and what remains of #30 Baofu Road.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t know much of my family’s life in China before the Communist Party took power or here in Taiwan after they fled, and what little I do know is gleaned from secondhand sources. I only really know my grandmother’s side, the Hu Family, because they were the most numerous among the survivors and the relatives that lived nearby in Southern California. I know that once my grandmother’s family was once wealthy and lived in Suzhou, a city about two hours outside of Shanghai. I know that the family house still stands there, an immense traditional family compound enclosing an inner garden, used when I last visited as excess storage space for a nearby hotel. And I know that to escape the Chinese Civil War and communist revolution, my grandmother and her husband (of the Ma Family) fled with my uncle and aunt here to Taiwan sometime in the early fifties, where my dad was born. They lived here until my grandfather died, when my grandmother decided to emigrate to the Albequerque, New Mexico, bringing my dad to the United States somewhere during his high school years. But that’s where the facts end, and beyond them lie is a series of nebulous, achronistic anecdotes and stories.

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Back in the real world, I’ve found my way to Ren’Ai Road and turned right, in the direction of Baofu Road, navigating busy traffic stops and dodging people, equipment, and motorbikes planted on the sidewalks. When my dad described his childhood, it sounded like he grew up more in the countryside or in a sparse suburb. He told me about catching frogs and bugs, and to this day he doesn’t like the smell of cinnamon because it reminds him of the stinkbugs found here in the summertime. But any semblance of nature has long been paved over in this district. As people flocked here to live and commute to Taipei City across the river, the buildings here were flattened and then-new apartment complexes rose more steeply and densely in their place. The population continued to grow. In 1979, before being swallowed up into the New Taipei City municipality, Yonghe City was one of the most densely-populated places in the world.

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I make a final turn onto Baofu Road, Section 2 and take a look around. There are no visible numbers on the apartments here, although again any building around here was built after my father left. But Baofu Temple still stands, a brilliantly-painted building with traditional curved roofing and an open front façade leading to the altars indoors. To my dismay, there’s no sign of the pond my dad mentioned, likely a casualty of the construction process of what is now a parking lot in front of the temple building. There’s also no one else around to ask, although what would I ask them? “Did you know a kid back in the early 60’s who went by the name Ma Tzen and once fell into the pond here that no longer exists?” I could ask something akin to with my rudimentary Chinese and Google Translate, but then what? Would I understand the response? And would anyone here now have even lived here back then?

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I walk around inside the temple, where decades and a few renovations ago my family would have visited for festivals and prayers and offerings to the deceased. I can’t read much on the walls, for things are often not only in traditional characters, but also in “grass writing”, a stylistic form of Chinese characters akin to cursive for us English speakers and unintelligible for those who can barely read to begin with. In one corner, though, I find a stack of incense sticks wrapped with gold foil-inlaid papers and a price written above them on a shelf. I’ve visited temples and gravesites of family members enough to know that these are offerings for the dead, to be burned so they reach the deceased on the other side. I drop Taiwanese dollars into a nearby lockbox, grab a packet, and head outside.

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Knowledge about is less powerful than knowledge of, and I find myself fumbling with what to do next with this packet of goods for my deceased family members. I decide to light the incense first, and though I have no lighter, someone has thankfully just finished burning offerings in the nearby oven. I hold the tips of the incense sticks over the remnants of their offerings to catch the twisting orange tongues, and in a few seconds the sticks catch fire. After shaking them to put the flame out, I carry them over to the altar, bow three times, and push the incense sticks into the altar’s sand.

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The gold-foil papers are a bit more more difficult to burn, and it takes me a few minutes of piling them into the oven and turning over the remnants of the still-smoking previous offerings to get them to light. Then I add the remaining sheets slowly, pausing to step back and out of the stinging smoke. Bit by bit, the sheets disappear into the flames, transmuted from paper into smoke and ash, disappearing into the atmosphere.

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