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A Bulgarian Birthday

Galia and I had been invited to the birthday party of one of her friends who lives just a five minute walk from our house in Yambol. I had been told that her husband was a hotel chef and that the food was to be scrumptious and in plentiful supply, with homemade rakia to accompany it. I'd had a bad day and to be honest I didn't really want to go, but we had promised and Galia said that a few rakia in the evening would be good after such a terrible day.

We took the simple gift of a jersey and a single flower, along with a chocolate bar for their 3-year-old son, and set off along the cobblestone streets towards the house. This young Bulgarian family live right next to a Roma neighbourhood, and we could hear the music of a Roma band as we got closer.

It got louder and louder and when we turned into their street there was a Roma street party in full swing, and it was only 6:30 in the evening. This is a daily happening in Yambol in this area and can be heard far and wide. No one complained, as the pulsating, heaving beat of the chalga was a privilege to have around - and free! I can imagine many foreigners looking at the same situation and pulling their hair out. This is what happens here, and now I really can see the sense in enjoying the situation rather than getting frustrated and stressed out with what before I would have described as an invasion of unwanted sound in my space.

We approached the front door - a better term might be barricade - a thick metal red-painted facade, with no discernible features. Well, this was Roma territory; perhaps even letterboxes would present a possible breach of security here. From an outsider's point of view this was a dump of an area, and the birthday house was on the side of a litter-covered road in a state of total disrepair; it looked like a field ploughed up for winter.

Somehow I knew that inside the house would be a complete contrast to the chaos outside, just like the apartments in the tower blocks - simply, beautifully-kept and very clean Bulgarian havens. I wasn't disappointed. We took off our shoes to walk on the pristine carpets and ceramic tiled floors that you really felt the urge to skate on.

The iron door slowly swung shut, and the open-air Roma concert gradually segued into Bulgarian folk-pop music playing somewhere in the house. Katia, the hostess and Bulgarian birthday girl, was given birthday greetings and was wished good health, good luck, good business and luck in love, which is a traditional greeting after the initial birthday compliments. The gifts were gratefully received and the formalities were over.

The inside of the house was completely modern, spotless with plain white walls and ceiling. As we were led into the living area a table with food fit for a king was laid both meticulously and symmetrically. The snow-capped shopska salad mountains stole the limelight from the myriad other delights, still in their virgin state! Another Bulgarian couple turned up half and hour later; more friends, more talking, more food and drink and the party began to swing.

As always the women worked around the men, who only moved to have their pictures taken or change the music, and the latter only because the women were in the kitchen preparing more food. Well, that isn't entirely true: the husband, as I said, was a chef; furthermore, he had prepared all the food before we arrived. This is very rare, so I am told, and from what I see on a daily basis I entirely believe it.

It was now approaching midnight, the first occasion that the time was remarked upon; time is not so important here, it is how you feel that counts, and we were all full of the food and drink that just kept on flowing: rakia with the salad and beer with the meat course, a beautiful, melt-in-the-mouth pork with mushrooms and a sauce moat around a rice castle. The dessert was no less special: home-baked sponge cake (they save the candles from birthday cakes to use during power-cuts). This was moist and delicious, with a middling sweetness, enough to satisfy these sweet-toothed Bulgarians but not too overpowering for me. All washed down with lemonade.

I said it was food fit for a king - midnight had struck, but the only thing that had turned into a pumpkin was my stomach!

The characteristic elements of a Bulgarian birthday party are the same for any gathering of Bulgarian friends and family - food, drink, music and not least talk.

We left in the early hours of the morning, when even the Roma party in the Yambol streets had run out of energy. It was only then, in the dead quiet of the night, with an almost full moon showing us the way home, that time suddenly seemed important, with the spectre of work the next morning. But in true Bulgarian fashion we didn't rush home.

Simple Treasures in Bulgaria by Martin Miller-Yiani

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