Sitting in a wonderful Cob house, built by the fair hands of my dear friend Su Hagan, we chat about life in Bulgaria. Visiting a small village like Hotnitza is like stepping back in time – goats go out for the day with the goat-herd, the garden is a source of much needed winter rations, the stream provides a cooling swim when the heat gets too much. And people speak to each other as they walk by.
So I was fascinated to understand how ageing differs here, if at all. It certainly looks different to UK – Sveta, Su’s neighbour, is much more the classic ‘older lady’. In fact I discover she is the same age as Su bar two weeks – 67. Life is tough here, with women doing much of the heavy lifting, so no wonder.
Yet, there is a strong sense of respect for age. Your place in the family – whether nuclear or extended – is respected and valued. Grandmother is Baba, a status to be proud of. If you have no children, you are ‘Auntie’, a badge of honour, central to the family. And all are proud of their age, making it part of a first introduction – ‘I am Sveta and I’m 67’.
The magic of community
It’s all about ‘Chovek’ – your people; those you know well; those you can rely on to help when you need it. Family comes first, then neighbours, finally the villagers. Even when you don’t get on so well, if help is needed, it will be given. So a tough life can have it’s advantages; no place here for feuds about boundaries and rubbish bins!
Su’s experience of living in Bulgaria for eight years is that “village community has a strong, positive, spirit. It also has an element of competition – ‘I’m older than you, so I will be wiser’! Coupled with this, your ‘Chovek’ will ask how you are, so people ‘off load’ more often, which has got to be healthy.”
The Old Barn
A perfect example is Yordanka’s barn. As Su sat in the garden one balmy summer evening, she heard a strange ‘whooshing’ noise. Turns out it was the barn next door gently descending into rubble. Worried that Yordanka would get flattened by a falling beam, Su called all the people she knew to a pizza/demolishing day. They had a good time working together, taking down the ramshackle structure together to make sure their neighbour was safe.
Yordanka won’t forget that. In fact, at the first local gathering after that, she made a point of telling everyone just how much these people had done for her. My guess is she’ll speak about that for a long time to come.
Where does that leave us?
I’m left wondering when was the last time I gave my time so generously? Would we galvanise help if we knew someone needed it – or assume it was for their family or the state to deal with?
I’m blessed with a strong Chovek – at the family and friends level at least. As for neighbours, we do smile when we see each other, generally rushing out for a train or getting into a taxi. As for villagers – the best I can think is the packed commuter train I rush onto most mornings – their main interest in my well being is to hope I don’t fall sick and hold the train up!
So which is most ‘advanced’? Us or the Bulgarians with their Chovek?
And how can we, as Baba and Auntie, use our wisdom to create a better place to live?
I’d love to hear your stories – do you experience caring or neglect? Do you care for those around you or turn a blind eye? What do you think we could do differently?