This Sort of Thing...


Rakia Maria


I love the month of March in Bulgaria. It heralds the beginning of a four-month long explosion of nature straight off the back of the iciest winters I have ever known. Buds burst and blossom on plants and trees at an astonishing rate, pairs of suntanned migrating storks are seen arriving home from their holidays in North Africa, frogs croak all day and all night to tell the world that they want to make babies (if I did that I’m sure the police would be called), elderly folk in the villages reclaim their spots on benches in the street outside their houses where they sit for hours with friends to chat and criticise their neighbours’ cats, dogs, husbands, wives, hats, coats, kids and goats.

Round about the time of the outbreak of the global pandemonium my world was turning vernal but I was feeling a little frustrated that I couldn’t go anywhere without having to wear a facemask, that I had to keep my hip flask topped up with household bleach whenever I was out, that I might have to explain my movements to the police whenever I turned a corner in my car and that there was the risk of coming face to face with diseased people. I was luckier than most people as I had already become accustomed to these inconveniences long before Covid 19 became fashionable. It turned out that there had been advantages to living in Dagenham in the mid-1980s after all.

So I came to the decision that I should make good use of my period of incarceration by tidying up the wildest bits of the land on the periphery of our extensive but lovely garden. Some of it belonged to us but other bits belonged to the people who govern the Republic of Bulgaria. I would be doing them a bit of a favour but I didn’t mind because they had been very kind to me in letting me come to live in their beautiful country where the cost of living was inexpensive to the extent that I no longer had to go to work to earn a living and consequently had free time on my hands that could be used for tidying up wild bits of land. Irrespective of the ownership situation there were areas that looked like a jungle with trees and bushes strangled by the wild hops that grow at a rate of thirty centimetres per week during the hot and wet weather of the early summer. Decades of rubbish had accumulated too and the existence of old rubbish seemed to be encouraging people to add new rubbish.

One bright morning, round about two weeks into my project, while I was feverishly thrashing at my thicket by the side of the road close to our house, our almost-neighbour, Maria, stopped to talk to me. I call her almost-neighbour because she spends her daylight hours in a lovely little old house about five hundred metres up the lane from us but in the evenings she returns to her apartment in town and becomes someone else’s almost-neighbour until sunrise. Priyatelkata and I suspected her of living some sort of vampire-esque lifestyle but that wasn’t really possible because she was always complaining about the trouble she was having with her dentures and really, all the best vampires in our area tend to go and live up the road in Romania. They’re allowed to do this now that we’re part of the European Union.

Maria is our oldest neighbour but also, back then, she was our newest in that she was seventy-one years old but we’d only known her for a couple of months. Every morning she catches a bus from near her Communist era apartment block in Veliko Tarnovo to the bus stop in the square in our village and then walks for twenty minutes to her country residence, passing our house on the way. Later in the day she does the same journey in reverse. She does this every day of the year. It seems that she can’t not do it. It’s in her psyche, rather like an East African Wildebeest’s need to complete its annual five hundred kilometre migratory loop but without the mating and the territorial battles with dominant group members. She must have been making this daily trek all the time that we had lived here but we couldn’t remember seeing her until round about January 2020.

We first got to know her as we exchanged pleasantries a couple of times when we bumped into her in the street whilst out walking. She always ended our brief conversations with the words ‘life and health’ (живот и здраве, in Bulgarian, and pronounced ‘zheevot ee zdraveh’). Then one day when it was snowing heavily and the top two thirds of our thermometer were well and truly superfluous to requirements, we saw her plodding her way down to the bus shelter where it was so cold that our neighbourhood alcoholic had had to resort to drinking anti-freeze (though he has been known to do this in the summer months too). Priyatelkata and I decided that she looked as though she was struggling with life and certainly didn’t look very healthy. So we offered her a lift into town and the warmth of our car seemed to revive her. We had rescued cats and dogs from the street in extreme weather conditions before but this was the first time we had ever rescued a Maria.

For the entire duration of the four kilometre journey she chattered incessantly and cried a bit behind the cover of her anti-Covid facemask. At first we thought that this may have been her complaining about the filthy state of our car but from the rapid flow of her Bulgarian words we deciphered that all her family had moved away and in recent years she had lost her husband who she had loved, and consequently she was feeling very lonely.

As the weeks went by the weather improved but still we gave Maria a lift whenever we saw her, even if she didn’t want to go anywhere. She’s a lovely old lady (though really not all that much older than me) and whenever she’s not crying she has a big smile on her face. So it was nice that she stopped to talk to me that morning while I was clearing the wilderness that exists in the narrow strip of the Republic of Bulgaria between our garden fence and the road that joins our village with the point where the wilderness becomes so wild that even a fool like me would be a fool to take it on and try to cultivate it.

For the first thirty or forty minutes of our quick chat I enjoyed listening to her but eventually I began to feel a bit ridiculous standing at the bottom of an embankment in my dirty smelly work clothes surrounded by dead tree branches, old car tyres, a fridge door and a fascinating array of empty plastic beer bottles discarded by the village’s most enthusiastic drinkers of plastic beer while Maria stood on the road above shouting down at me in Bulgarian. Partly because of the distance between us but more so because Maria had had sixty-six more years’ experience with the local lingo than I had, I could only pick out a few words from her discourse, such as those meaning house, dog, flag, guests, wood, bread, feminine hygiene products, octopus and tell our workshy eejit of a village mayor to come and clear the rubbish because it wasn’t really my responsibility.

People tend to talk more freely when they have had a sip of alcohol and I wondered if really she was a bit shy and this was the reason she found the need to take a half litre plastic bottle of a mystery potion from her shopping bag. But then I wondered exactly how much more freely it was possible for her to talk. She removed the lid from the bottle and filled it with some of the liquid which she drank without pausing. Saying ‘Rakia! Rakia! Rakia!’ at the top of her voice, her eyes they shone like diamonds as she gestured to me to take the bottle from her. I was worried that she was expecting me to join her in a mid-morning roadside drinking session but she pointed to our house in a way that suggested that I should put it somewhere safe until later when all my work was done, and you’ll see a few paragraphs further down the page from here why I wasn’t as excited about the strong drink situation as she was. Also, mixing chainsaws and rakia can have unpleasant consequences and may reduce a man’s expectations in terms of life and health.

You may find this hard to believe but I got the impression that she too could see how absurd the situation had become and was really inviting me back to her place so that the neighbours wouldn’t see what was going on, or ask for a glass of our refreshment. We certainly didn’t want to have to share our alcohol with the neighbourhood alcoholic. I had always been told to say no to strangers and to never go off alone with them, but my curiosity was getting the better of me. So I went to get Priyatelkata from the house to act as chaperone and assist with the translation and then the three of us walked up the lane chatting away merrily in a combination of English, Bulgarian, French and a few words that Priyatelkata had made up, as she is inclined to do.

As we approached, it was difficult to see Maria’s house because in her garden there were probably as many grapevines growing as there are in the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region of France, the Thracian Valley wine region of Bulgaria and the Central Bus Station wine region of Leeds combined. Wherever there wasn’t a vine growing there was a cat or a small dog or an item of rakia producing equipment or a beehive. From the inside of her house it was difficult to see her garden because of the dense forest of potted plants. We couldn’t decide if she had brought them inside for the winter to protect them from the cold or if they were inside because there simply wasn’t any more room for them outside in the grapevine jungle. As she took us on a tour of her garden she went to great lengths to point out that she wasn’t guilty of practising monoculture, as between each row of vines she had planted a row of potatoes and in every small space there were herbs or peppers growing. Tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines had their own patch to grow in near to the barn where the goats, rabbits and chickens lived in the shade of the fruit trees. She was also very proud of the bucket of small home-produced turnips that she kept by her back door, which I thought would be handy for giving to kids instead of sweets or money on that trick-or-treat night, if such a thing existed in the Balkans. We never found out what she really did with them but I’m sure they didn’t go to waste.

On this lovely warm spring day, we had found ourselves in the company of a lovely little woman in the wonderful garden of her lovely little house from which there was a lovely view of our lovely little valley with its forested slopes bathed in sunshine. Around us a million bees buzzed, the birds twittered and chirped in the walnut trees and the bells that hung from the necks of the cattle and sheep tinkled and clanged to celebrate their return from the winter barns to the verdant grazing land on the hillside above. Everything was just lovely. Even the elderly women sitting on the benches outside their houses could think of nothing to complain about.

So I said to Priyatelkata ‘Isn’t it lovely?’ and she replied ‘Yes! It’s very lovely.’ Maria added, ‘Life and health!’ in Bulgarian, of course.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well I’ll tell you what went wrong. This lovely day was the first anniversary of the day on which alcohol had last touched my lips. For the first time since I was three I had gone a whole year without a drop of the strong drink. Priyatelkata had done the same. We were absolutely delighted with our achievement, even though the task had been made so much easier for us with our social life having been snatched away in accordance with the Bulgarian Health Ministry’s antivirus rules and regulations. I think it was rule number six that stated that enjoying yourself was strictly forbidden. Having loved every moment of their sabbatical, my liver and kidneys had put the bunting up to celebrate not having to go back to working long hours in the evenings and at weekends and were ready to party themselves, and my heart almost had a heart attack on hearing the news. Now I’m no physiotherapist but I had always believed that if you don’t use a muscle in your body often enough it will seize up, so a good swallow of Jameson’s every now and again would do these workshy wee organs the power of good.

With a twinkle in her eye, which would become two twinkles before the day was out as the double vision set in, almost-neighbour said, ‘My name’s Maria and I make rakia faster than I can drink it, even though I drink like a formula one fish.’

My loved one and I had never had an alcohol problem (scones and bits of cheesecake were more to our liking when it came to substance dependency) but soon after giving up the bottle we felt oh so healthy in our bodies and our minds. So we had decided to continue in this constant state of sobriety for the rest of our lives. And then, as the twinkle escalated into a blaze of light, almost-neighbour went and got the family-sized rakia bottle out of the rakia bottle cupboard in her kitchen. The bottles were all family-sized, apart from the ones that were party-sized. Oh, and the flagons! Maria had a lot of those, probably because they were too big to be concealed in her shopping bag for a crafty swig on the bus home. It also appeared that all of her cupboards were rakia bottle cupboards. There wasn’t even a sniff of a tin of Alphabetti Spaghetti or a jar of Schwarz marjoram.


Rakia Maria - The Drink


Homemade rakia tends to be stored in re-used plastic bottles, Fanta seeming to be the most popular of these from my experience. But Maria is a woman of dignity and sophistication so she would never put a Fanta bottle on the table when entertaining guests. Instead it is decanted behind the scenes into a posh bottle. Every house in Bulgaria has a posh bottle and I’ve often heard it said that you will never see a more intense look of concentration on a Bulgarian’s face as when he or she is decanting the heavenly distillation from Fanta bottle to posh bottle. Spilling rakia is worse than spilling blood! Please note: other plastic bottles are available.

In a panic, Priyatelkata immediately declared that she never ever drinks alcohol, no matter how posh the bottle. But Bulgarian people take great pride in offering a glass of their homemade tipple when welcoming guests into their homes, especially for the first time, and it would have been very, very rude for us both to turn down her hospitality. So muggins here felt obliged to take a drink and consequently fell off the wagon exactly one year to the day from clambering onto it. Maria’s big smile grew even bigger as we said ‘наздраве!’ (the Bulgarian word for the Irish ‘sláinte’ which also means ‘for health’, and is pronounced as naz-dra-vay), clinked our glasses together and imbibed sixty or seventy millilitres of Bulgaria’s national pastime. I really hadn’t wanted to break my vow of abstinence but I did what I did for Maria.

This delightful Balkan woman with flashing eyes and stainless steel teeth had made the rakia herself from her own grapes with her own bare hands and feet and using her own still (казан, in Bulgarian, and pronounced ‘kazan’) and her own plastic bottles that she had emptied herself. It really was excellent stuff. I had forgotten just how good a feeling it gives you as it permeates every cell of your body and makes you smile like a Maria. It’s important to emphasise this because so many people come here from Western Europe or the world beyond and write off rakia as firewater when in actual fact it is a spirit with much more flavour and body to it than the likes of many types of vodka or gin. I think the problem lies in the fact that foreigners are not usually accustomed to drinking spirits without fancy additives that kill the taste. From day one I have been at ease with rakia drunk the proper way because all of my life I have been of the opinion that if someone is going to the trouble to manufacture a beverage of such excellence then it is very wrong and impolite to pollute it with the taste of Coca Cola, quinine or other types of fizzy pop loaded with chemicals. Maria and I only ever mix our rakia with more rakia. I don’t even put milk in my tea and coffee, though I do enjoy dunking a digestive when nobody’s looking.

To make up for her not being able to join us in a drink, Priyatelkata was given a tray of freshly laid eggs; so fresh that the chicken excrement stuck to them was still warm and a bit runny, much to the delight of the flies that had given up on the goats’ nether regions because they had found them a bit too hygienic. She was also given a jar of some sort of preserved meat items that we decided must have been fresh at some point during the preceding twelve months but in all honesty didn’t look as appetising as the warm runny substance stuck to the eggs. I felt guilty about prejudging these potted animal parts before trying them, particularly as they were animal parts that I didn’t recognise. It’s easy for us to say that we don’t like pork chops or sausages because most of us have at least tasted them at some point in our lives but to write off spleens, noses and nipples without any previous experience of ingesting them is very impolite. I’m sure the delicacies in the jar are just as worthy of a place in Bulgarian culinary tradition as rakia is but it’s worth noting that I never heard anyone say ‘for health’ when the jar was handed over to us, and Maria did seem quite pleased to be getting rid of it.

With the help of bilingual friends and relatives equipped with telephones to do a bit of translating from afar, we established that Maria, having lost her husband in the last three years, was lonely and in need of friends, wood for her rakia still and an occasional lift to her other home in the evenings. We all agreed that we liked each other (Priyatelkata and I had already been liking each other for almost two years, which saved us a bit of time), that Maria’s first lift of the new agreement would be that very evening and that she would call in at our house at 6:00 pm.

At 5:15 pm she appeared at our garden gate. We offered her a cup of tea but she said no because she was in a hurry to get home; probably desperate for a drop more rakia, we thought. We all got into our car, which had recently been cleaned, serviced and certified safe to travel in by a government appointed inspector, but she still put her mask on and cried a bit. Then she told us that she didn’t want us to drop her off at the usual mutually convenient place but instead asked to be taken to her apartment block, so we obliged. We stopped the car by the building’s main entrance and waited for her to get out but, using only the medium of the Bulgarian tongue, she invited us to join her inside and we were in yet another it-would-be-rude-not-to situation.

The slowest moving white knuckle ride that I have ever experienced was the creaky old lift which successfully did the job of elevating us to the fifth floor of her block even though it appeared to be constructed entirely from 1960’s Formica coffee tables and spare parts from Soviet tractors. Her apartment was much the same inside as her house had been except it had furniture instead of potted plants and framed family photographs instead of potted animal parts. It also lacked the outstanding view of the countryside but from her balcony she had an outstanding view of twenty or thirty more Communist era concrete apartment blocks, which I find strangely beautiful in their own way.

Every square centimetre of the walls of her living room was covered with framed photographs. We could tell how much she loved each individual member of her family by the varying amount of tears shed as she explained who each of them was. We commented that one of her young female offspring was particularly pretty only to be told that we were looking at a photo of a woman dressed up as Saint Zlata of Maglen (the patron saint of Bulgarians living abroad) on Saint Zlata of Maglen’s Day (18th October, apparently) who she prayed to every day for the safety and protection of her entire family, all of whom had moved away. Most had gone to distant parts of Bulgaria but her granddaughter was in an even more distant in a place called London, that we might have heard of. A house in Potters Bar and a job in IT in Canary Wharf could never replace life in rural or even suburban Bulgaria but I suppose the lure of the lucre is greater than the lure of the world’s best yoghurt (rich in delicious lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus), fresh but mucky eggs and fresh air. How much happier we would all be without the stresses and strains imposed upon us by global economics? I thought.

Other saints’ pictures filled the gaps along with scantily clad Bulgarian pop stars and a huge portrait Boyko Borrissov, the former prime minister, former (and possibly current) mafia supporter, former Communist Party employee and former hero of Maria and her former husband. In fairness to the man, Boyko does seem like a nice bloke when he’s on the television or in the papers. He always has a warm smile on his face and I’m sure he’d be an entertaining sort of a fella to go for a pint with but I’d worry about exactly where the money was coming from when it was his turn to buy a round.   

Once again the rakia bottle appeared and this time I was less reluctant to join our hostess in a glass as it had only been seven hours since my last drink rather than 365 days so there was a lot less to lose. Once again I was only having a drink for Maria’s sake. As the amber liquid warmed me in the belly and in the brain, Priyatelkata drank a glass of locally produced cola which I suspected to be a lot more damaging to the internal organs than any grape-based refreshment might have been, but on the other hand it doesn’t seem to hinder attempts to keep the body upright, as rakia does if taken in the wrong quantities, or right quantities, depending on how you look at it. Other items brought to the table included traditional Bulgarian dry roasted peanuts, a huge box of chocolates (which Maria boasted to have bought fresh from Lidl that morning) and a block of homemade goat’s cheese. Feeling a bit puzzled, Priyatelkata and I looked around the room to see where the goat was kept before realising that the cheese must have been homemade in her other home in our village. The chocolates tasted more like goat’s cheese than the goat’s cheese did.

After an hour, despite our concerted effort to reduce it, the combined weight of the remaining nuts, cheese and chocolates must still have exceeded four kilogrammes and Maria was still toing and froing between the big smiling face and the crying as she told us about her lovely family as it had been in the past and how lonely she was now that they had all gone, leaving her all alone and without friends. We wondered if we would ever be able to get away without offending her. Suddenly the doorbell rang (do they ever ring any other way?) and Kamelia came to our rescue. Kamelia, another dear lady of more or less the same build and teeth, was Maria’s best friend who had invited herself round for an evening of non-stop chatter, goat’s cheese and gossip (and probably, nay unquestionably, rakia), the main topic for which I was sure would be Priyatelkata and me. After our two to three hundred parting thank-you’s, a grand tour of her three room abode, and our assurance that we would see her at her Malki Chiflik house sometime within the next few days, the Formica-Belarus Deluxe model elevator arrived to return us to the ground floor and the twenty-first century at a velocity at least ten times greater than that at which we had arrived. Formica, it seemed, had been developed by scientists during the Space Race of the 1960s and 1970s and all Soviet space capsules had been coated with it to stop them burning up as they re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.  We, like Yuri Gagarin, had survived what was really a wonderful, heart-warming experience. 

The following morning, I returned to my work in the wilderness strip. At around eleven o’clock Maria and Kamelia walked by, both in a good mood because they had just been to the cemetery. Both remarked upon what a wonderful job I had done so far with the land clearance project. I agreed that my progress had been remarkable, considering how much of my time I had spent having to talk to passers-by. In addition to Maria and Kamelia there had been several more, the most time-consuming of which had been the woman who repeatedly told me that she didn’t like our dogs and that I shouldn’t be working on that piece of land as it was a public right of way, even though no member of the public had been able to make their way through it for years on account of it being totally blocked off by dead tree branches, old car tyres, fridge doors, ironing boards, empty plastic beer bottles and the mortal remains of people who didn’t like our dogs.

It was very cold and light rain had started to fall. Having started early, I was already tired and ready to retire for the day. Maria put her hand in her shopping bag and rummaged around for a while, eventually producing a smaller bag with something solid in it. Not more rakia and potted body parts, I hoped, but it turned out to be two chocolate wafer biscuits. It seemed that, having cemented our friendship the previous day, the rakia-based honeymoon period was over. My digestive system and I breathed a sigh of relief and cracked on with being sober as I waved goodbye to lovely but lonely Maria and her best friend Kamelia who seemed to be in a bit of a hurry to be off which, I assumed, was because they were in need of a drop of something to take away the chill and the dampness and the reality.


Rakia Maria - The Woman

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