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Letters From Bulgaria

Jennifer H. Fortin

Female/Male March

I had been looking forward to Baba Marta, a Bulgarian holiday falling annually on the first of March, more than I'd anticipated any holiday–for the pith of the day itself, excluding external consequences such as visitors, a day off work or any associated candy–in a long time. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, a primary school English teacher, and I just missed Baba Marta last year when I got here in April. I couldn't help but detect an unexpected kind of subterranean motif on my first Baba Marta, pulsing under the surface; that night, I realized the repetition that had spotted the day and wondered whether or not it was related to the holiday.

All the months in Bulgaria are male except March (Mart); the month is female because of its typical vacillation, masquerading as mid-December one day, all snow and ice, and tauntingly Spring-like the next. March is supposed to be the younger sister of the other months, even though baba means grandmother. Baba Marta is a seasonal rite marking the beginning of Spring. I woke to a wet unruly snow covering Shoumen in messy off-white.

The tradition is to buy martinitsi for your friends and family: red and white threaded bracelets or, rarer, tassels to pin to your shirt. I saw the bracelets and immediately recalled summer camp/12-year old girls exchanging friendship bracelets. It's such an honest act of creation, purposeful, selfless. I've been there. You make the bracelets, someone specific in mind, focusing on just how the threads should twist together, finally presenting it to your friend and loving the secure-securing of it around one of the finest parts of the body: the wrist. I'm not denying that boys do this, too, but it's definitely a more popular activity with the girls. Keeping them on (even in the shower!) through the sweatiest summer months until your mother begs you to get rid of those ratty things, but she probably doesn't understand what they mean.

Street vendors and shops start to sell martinitsi a couple weeks before March first, but some people make their own. The red and white stand for health and life. On Baba Marta, absolutely everyone decorates one another, tangles of arms and hunched torsos to tie. Nobody is without at least one martinitsa. You fasten them with three knots: life, love and health. You're supposed to keep them on until you see either your first stork of the season, migrating back north from a warmer winter in Africa, or your first budding tree. Then, you remove your martinitsi and tie them to tree branches or put them underneath a stone. I can't wait to see the country brazenly-dappled-red-white and to trade surreptitious brief looks with the stones, which may be flushing red+white=pink beneath.

My landlady, who is like a mother to me here, stopped by on her way to work to be the first to give me one, wishing me life and health as she tied it on. I gathered more as the day advanced, one of my colleagues pinning red and white tassels to my chest. It was a fast day, busy, with an undercurrent of holiday-out-of-routine, but a few particular moments stand out from the rest now.

As I entered the staff room after one of my classes I talked with a middle-aged male co-worker. He wished me a Happy Baba Marta and asked who had given me the martinitsa pinned to my shirt. He fingered its dangling poufs innocently. Another male colleague instantly came over and made loud comments, intimating that the other was being inappropriate with this contact. There had been nothing besides harmless curiosity from my friend, but the second man who interrupted the conversation succeeding in making the situation awkward as he continued with his observations. Having no time to deal with it, I pretended not to understand (as everything was in Bulgarian), a cop-out but also a useful tool any foreigner has employed once or twice.

During my next class, , I presented a lesson to one of my eighth-grade groups on narrow escapes: what they are, examples? I asked the students whether any of them had had a narrow escape, and I called on one boy who's usually very subdued and sweet. He told an anecdote of leaving a group of friends one day, walking backwards towards the road (Good, I had thought, impressed by his vocabulary) while saying goodbye to friends, when a car swerved to miss him by centimeters. "It was a woman, and that's why I think women are bad drivers," he finished, surprising me. I tried to give a diplomatic response about it being okay for him to have his opinion, while pointing out that there are plenty of reckless male drivers, too.

Next, I had class with another group of eighth-graders who are wont to be, rowdier; I suppose that would be the tactful word to use. I do not know what the problem was that day, but some collective sentiment of anger darted around the room–-more than usual–-emanating from the boys. I'm not generalizing: all six males in the class (out of the fourteen total, and, to be fair, some of the girls did seem a tad sullen, out-of-character) disrupted the class, putting into use any of various methods such as starting a fire under a desk with last week's dictation as fodder, screaming obscenities in English, outright refusing to do work or even sit down, and one puffing out his skinny adolescent chest and telling me in Bulgarian that I'd better be careful and be scared of him. The level of pandemonium in the room had reached a record peak. All I had wanted to do was review the grammar structure so . . . that, but they were so something I'd hypothesize about later, that it took all I could muster not to throw up from the drumming headache they had instigated.

Well, machismo is not so unusual here. It lives in the modern Bulgarian household along with families, making it socially-unacceptable for a woman to earn a higher salary than her husband. One Bulgarian woman told me that if these are the circumstances, women will lie to the couple's friends (because people do talk openly about money here). Women are the cookers and cleaners and child-rearers. I suspect machismo's what made a former employee of the City Hall here, within the first thirty seconds of meeting me, helpfully inform me that women are much slower at learning languages than men. It causes teenage boys to walk around town with their girlfriends in what could be mistaken for some arm-around-neck wrestling move, saying mine.

Reflections, questions on Baba Marta: regarding the supposed femininity of March–is it really only women who are intemperate, near-hysterical (that word etymologically-bound to the female)? Could my eighth-grade boys resent wearing bracelets, standard accessories for females? Are they really jealous of the doting interactions between girls, tired of trying to be so manly? Do they want to be more open and fervent about platonic love, like teenage girls? Was my colleague embarrassed by the loud man's unfair accusations, and will he stop talking to me now because of them? Was there a connection between the behavior I noticed that day and the holiday, or was it coincidental? All this focus on Spring, renewal, rebirth: did a thread of envy go through the day, the men subconsciously begrudging the fact that they'll never have the ability to give birth? Finally–what will tomorrow's March, the sixth, force all of Bulgaria to do? Carry umbrellas, bring mittens, shed layers?


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