I had been looking forward to Baba
Marta, a Bulgarian holiday falling annually on the first of
March, more than I'd anticipated any holidayfor the pith of
the day itself, excluding external consequences such as visitors,
a day off work or any associated candyin 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.
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
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
Reflections, questions on Baba Marta: regarding the supposed femininity
of Marchis 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? Finallywhat
will tomorrow's March, the sixth, force all of Bulgaria to do? Carry
umbrellas, bring mittens, shed layers?