As is normal here the local bus I am riding slams to a stop with little warning, sending nearly every grandmother aboard into a frenzy to protect their day’s produce from flying to the other side of the vehicle. A split second later, exactly like in one of those perfectly choreographed scenes of a foreign film where the woman is spat from the bus and left in a cloud of beige dust and exhaust at an unrecognizable bus stop in the middle of nowhere, I find myself with my backpack in Novi Iksar, Bulgaria.
A Western-Bulgarian town formed by the merging of three villages, Novi Iksar has never been featured in a travel guide, and with a population of just under 17,000 boasts nothing exceptional to call tourists to travel the 30-minute bus trip from the capital city. Yet here I am and here I would come to learn more about Bulgaria than in any museum in the capital city.
June. It’s a warm summer day, where the clouds hang heavily above miles of green rolling hills, and fields of golden sunflowers reach skyward soaking up the afternoon sunlight. If not for the interruption of a few low-hanging telephone wires, the view is meadow green and yellow as far as the eye can see. The feeling of complete tranquility here is nearly indescribable and even more impossible to photograph. Bulgarian countryside is a world of its own kind, a novelty to be read about in books, yet rare to come to mind when hearing the word ‘Europe’. When I imagine Europe I think of complexity and countries whose cities are a timeless mixture of old and new; the birthplaces of western culture, art, politics, and which remain the stomping grounds of progression and development today. But Bulgaria, outside of a handful of larger cities, is characterized by pure simplicity. Imagine going back in time to a world where city sounds are still unheard of, where life moves in slow routine. It remains a place spared from change throughout decades. I think I could come back to Novi Iksar ten years from now and find that nothing has changed, which is something like magic to me as a traveler whose life sees little permanence.
The bus stop that I stand under now has probably been here for many years already, showing its age only in the thin deposit of rust under peeling white paint, and will probably continue to be here in the decades to come.
It’s in this moment, still standing under the tin roof unsure of which direction to walk first, that I notice the faces which fill every inch of empty space on the bus stop. What I had assumed from a distance to be typical advertisement flyers are in fact images of people. People young and old alike, their images plastered here permanently, or at least I assume so by the looks of the torn, weather-worn leaflets overtime buried underneath layers of those with fresher ink.
Similar sheets of paper cover nearly every public space here. Faces watch in color or more often in black and white from telephone poles, bulletin boards, the walls outside the grocery store, park benches, and bus stops.
Every country and culture has a method of remembering their people and those who have passed, and in Bulgaria the latter are honored in these roadside obituaries.
By foreigners the papers, illegible as they are usually written in Bulgarian with Cyrillic characters, are often mistaken for wanted signs or job offers. I believe the same thing until a local family, whose house I would live in for a few weeks, explain them to me and consequently give a new, heavier significance to my daily wanders around town.
When I see older people checking the telephone polls on my street for new papers I can’t help but feel pain in that they might be looking for the faces of family and friends. Bulgarians, however, don’t find this ritual morbid. In fact, it is a completely normal part of their lives.
The more I think about it the more I realize how they are right, and how much there is to learn from this simple recognition and normalization of death in Bulgarian culture.
The obituaries are pasted in the most common public spaces, those which are habitually passed over by everyone. In this way, they are a constant and everpresent reminder of the nature of time, and especially how no one can escape it. They keep us grounded and instill humility by reminding that we as humans are all the same regardless of geographical location, culture, language, or level of education. Our lives follow a natural cycle that transcends everything else. There is no alternative outcome at the end of 100 years of life for humans who feel their lifestyles are somehow superior to those of others.
In addition, they are a reminder of not just the beauty but the importance and validity of a simple life. Many of the obituaries list the family members of the person who has passed, showing how family is one of the greatest legacies we leave. It might even be the most important of them all. A great life doesn’t have to be recognized by a great number of people. The majority of humanity will never be known outside their small circle of influence. Not only is that okay, but it is something that should be honored. It’s okay to strive to be known and remembered by many, but it should be understood that the lives of those who don’t are no less significant.
Finally, my attention remains drawn to the element of the obituary ritual in which they are never taken down, just covered by new ones. I’m not sure if such practice is intentionally done, or merely because it’s easier to layer the new instead of taking down the old. Either way, I feel that doing so is symbolic of how in life and death we are remembered, and before long less so as our histories become older with the passing of time. The faces I see are old and young, some young enough that I know they died before their time, another reminder to be grateful for the time you have had and to know it could be taken from you at any moment.
This trip was a year ago and thus far since leaving Bulgaria I haven’t seen anything similar in any other country. In many senses, I definitely don’t miss seeing obituaries on every corner. However, I do agree with the Bulgarians that it is not and should not be morbid to think about life in this way. There is nothing extraordinary about death, but even beyond that fact, I believe the way Bulgarians normalize death teaches an exceptional lesson about the excellence of life.
Published 21.01.2019 from Barcelona, Spain.