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Profile: IN BULGARIA, A ROSE AMONG ROSES

December 2nd, 2009 46 comments

Text and Audio by Joe Linstroth

Photography by Evan Martin

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“The whole world renders homage to me, and I render homage to the Master Petar Deunov from Bulgaria.” — Albert Einstein

KURTOVO, BULGARIA — For Dimitra Grambelova, affectionately known as “Baba” Dimitra or Grandmother Dimitra, her daily hikes up to the crest of a foothill near the base of the Stara Planina mountains are more than just healthy doses of exercise. The dirt path worn in the tall grass above this hamlet in central Bulgaria is where she finds inspiration for her songs and poetry.  It’s where she has built her temple of worship, or perhaps where one has been built for her. The chirping finches and mimicking mockingbirds, the bells and bleats from the village flock interrupted by the shepherd’s occasional barking, the worn rocks that time and weather have shaped into a frog or a woman’s lips; they all speak to her in a single voice — the voice of a place only a divine hand could bestow.

Baba Dimitra’s spiritual connection to the land here is forged by the teachings of the Bulgarian philosopher Petar Deunov. Though the height of his popularity began at the turn of the century, Deunov still has a smattering of devoted followers in Bulgaria, as well as around the world. These devotees call themselves the Universal White Brotherhood, a reference to purity not racial bigotry.

Deunov’s philosophy is a combination of physical meditation exercises, spiritual writings that stemmed from his peripatetic lecturing, and rhythmic, circular dances, often done in groups, that all strive to bring one closer to the Divine. Some of his stuff is out there, like his practice of phrenology, but as a whole Deunov’s philosophy seems to blend the more enlightened tenets of other religions, both Eastern and Western, into his own cohesive set of Christian beliefs. Central to them is the notion that all things in nature transcend their physical form and offer the purist way to grow closer to God.

At age 76, Baba Dimitra believes that her conversion to Deunov’s teachings 15 years ago was what rid her of the various ailments, including kidney problems, that were starting to pull her down life’s rickety back slope. She credits the thinker for her decision to return to her childhood home in Kurtovo after years of working as a forester and living in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city. He also gave her the youthful energy that fuels her daily hikes, and the motivation, five years ago, to plant a field of roses here.

The village of Kurtovo is situated on the eastern edge of the Karlovo Valley, one of two flat, fertile expanses that stretch along the southern base of the Stara Planina mountain range. Roses have been grown for their oil in the two valleys for more than 300 years, and to this day, Bulgarian rose oil is prized around the world for its purity and fragrance.

The roses in Baba’s field will make their way from the valley’s sandy soil to a local distillery, which will extract the oil using only water and heat. The yield from each rose is astonishingly miniscule. It takes approximately 5.5 million roses to make one kilogram of rose oil, which sells on the international market for about $7,000. The distillery will most likely export the finished product to France or the U.S., where it will be added to the cosmetics and fragrances of well-known brands like Estee Lauder and Aveda. More recently, Bulgarian rose oil has also become popular as a food supplement in Japan. Some believe that when ingested, the oil’s bouquet permeates the sweat glands.

The profit for rose farmers is meager. Baba Dimitra will fetch only about $1 for every 1,100 roses, which she picks by hand. But for her the profits are secondary to the beauty they add to what would otherwise be an overgrown field. Through Deunov’s teachings, she has developed a preference for the simpler life, no doubt augmented by the generally depressed conditions of life in Bulgaria’s villages. A small pension covers the bare essentials.  She grows fruits and vegetables and crafts cheese from local sheep’s milk. What she can’t buy, grow or make, she barters for with her neighbors — a common practice in village life here. Last year, she traded her grapes to a nearby winemaker for his hand in chopping the winter firewood. She lives alone, with occasional visits from family and friends, but she says she is never lonely with Deunov and the mountains close by.

To the more empirically minded, Baba Dimitra’s beliefs may seem like bloated hyperbole at best. Others may just dismiss her as a crazy old woman. They wouldn’t be alone. Many of the village’s 250 pensioners and farmers, as well as some of her family members, already think she’s been pricked by one too many thorns. It is doubtful, however, that any of them have ever gazed across the valley at the sun sliding behind the distant peaks while the crickets lend their rhythm to one of Baba Dimitra’s melodies. After such an experience, only the most frigid of souls could deny the possibility that something or someone unseen has touched this place. And the goose bumps are evidence enough that the old woman’s mind is as fit as they come.

Youth Still Have Ways to Go to Realize Power

May 25th, 2009 112 comments

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Krassimir Kolev (left), an attorney for the Interior Ministry, moderator and journalist Alexander Andreev, and Dimitar Dimitarov, Varna's Chief of Police, address security and privacy concerns with young people in Varna. On the board it reads: "State -- Citizen; Security -- Freedom." EVAN MARTIN

By Joe Linstroth

VARNA, BULGARIA — There was a disappointing turnout, to say the least, last Wednesday, in this city on the Black Sea, where a rare opportunity was missed for young people to discuss, face to face, privacy and security issues with high-level officials. Just 25 people, mostly university students, sat in a corner of a large lecture hall at the economics university here as the chief of police of Varna, the country’s fourth-largest city, and an attorney from the nation’s Interior Ministry, addressed growing concerns over the lack of police protection and increased monitoring of online activity. With the poor turnout, however, it is unlikely the officials left with anything to seriously reconsider.

The meeting was the seventh in a series organized by New Moments, New Ideas, a public relations firm subcontracted with EU funds to hold similar forums at universities throughout Bulgaria to engage young people on issues related to the European Union in advance of the upcoming June elections. Aglika Georgieva, the project’s director, said the sparse attendance at all of the meetings has been a disappointment, despite publicity campaigns and direct phone calls. The offer of free cocktails couldn’t even penetrate the apathy and mistrust.

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Project Director Aglika Georgieva says attendance at the meetings, designed to engage young people in Bulgaria with EU issues, was extremely disappointing. EVAN MARTIN

In Aglika Georgieva’s own words:

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The topics of the meetings varied depending on the region and the university. For example in Svishtov, which has a prominent economics university, Georgieva succeeded in bringing in the head of Bulgaria’s National Bank. The attendance was even less than in Varna.

She chose security and privacy issues for the Varna gathering because there have been recent protests here over inadequate policing and corruption after two young people were murdered outside nightclubs earlier in the year. Some of the largest protests were led by the Union of Students and Young People, whose leaders in Varna and Sofia assured Georgieva that they would rally members for the meeting.  None showed.

One person who did was Misho Shamara, aka Big Sha, a well-known Bulgarian hip-hop artist who cut a music video with Snoop Dogg and another Bulgarian pop-singer last year. His concern was mainly about the growing lack of privacy, from street cameras around Varna to the increased monitoring of the internet proposed across the entire EU.

Misho Shamara, a prominent Bulgarian rapper, in his night club, Chocolat, in Varna, Bulgaria, in May 2009.

Misho Shamara, a prominent Bulgarian rapper, in his night club, Chocolat, in Varna, Bulgaria. EVAN MARTIN

In Misho Shamara’s own words:

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With Bulgaria’s seat at the EU table only two years old, it has been a struggle to inform many Bulgarians, both young and old, about the ways in which a governmental body located 1000 miles away in Brussels can improve their lives, especially after years of disappointment in their own government.  More investment, both in time and money, must be made to encourage young people to become more active citizens, to participate in the democratic process, and to volunteer for causes they believe in.  Currently, Bulgaria’s allotment for the EU’s Youth in Action Program, which supports such efforts, has gone largely unused because few are aware that the funds even exist. 

This lack of interest from university students is disheartening. They are the ones who will lead Bulgaria into the future and without their involvement — without the recognition of their power in numbers — it’s more difficult to see where the impetus for change will emerge.