On the second floor of my host family’s village house, I was given one of the sweetest gifts I’ve ever received – a bag of old threads and a few half-finished embroideries. Sounds glamorous, I know. The backstory explains all.
Two summers ago, I lived in Sofia, Bulgaria as a participant in the Balkan Language Initiative, to study Bulgarian. The mother and father of my host family, Georgi and Kameliya, grew up in the northwest region of the country but raised their children in Sofia, where they now live — and where I am again studying Bulgarian for the summer. I’m living in the same apartment, in the same room, making the same brand of coffee, taking the same route to the metro stop. Much is the same with family life at home.
What’s different is our comfort with each other. My previous summer studying in Sofia was wonderful, but also new. My host family was accepting and supportive of me from the start, though, and by the end of the summer I felt like I’d found a second family.
One of the highlights of the previous summer was a weekend trip to the family’s village home in the northwest region of Bulgaria. While there, I learned the family history as they learned more about my interests. I scampered around the villa, wandering through the garden and exclaiming over the handicrafts placed casually around the kitchen and bedrooms. I study folklore and folklife, and as such am much intrigued by handcrafted household goods.
Sewing and embroidery are hobbies of mine that I learned at the knee of my own grandmother. When I spotted embroideries donning tables and being used as bread covers in the villa, I knew I wanted to try my hand at some Bulgarian patterns. So, I took extensive notes of the technique in order to recreate the patterns back home. I carefully photographed one of the embroideries and took notes of its dimensions, the edging, and the design. I made a replica of one embroidery (below) and now use the cloth as a bread cover, just like my Bulgarian host family.
That was two years ago. This past week, I returned to the family’s village home once again. Before we traveled to the village, I showed my host mother a picture of my embroidery recreation. This brought her such joy that she promised to show me more patterns and cloths once we arrived. After a dinner of salad, rice, pork and homemade bread, Kameliya and I spent an evening looking at old patterns, threads, and embroidered pillowcases made long ago by her mother, all stowed at the village home. We chatted in Bulgarian in the cool upper floor of the villa house, turning pillowcases inside out so I could photograph all angles of the patterns as I listened to stories about her mother. I also learned new vocabulary specific to handicrafts, such as “igla” for needle, “kontsi” for threads, “panama” for material, and “modeli” for patterns. Kameliya then surprised me by gifting her mother’s old embroidery threads and some half-completed table covers, so that I could finish and keep the precious treasures.
This moment was so sweet that it brought tears to my eyes – the materials were touching in and of themselves but were made all the more so for having belonged to her own mom. I also felt the weight of the gift, as these were not just cast offs but were being given to me in good faith that I’d make use of them, rather than letting the old things just gather dust in a drawer. I plan on taking my new projects with me to the city center each day, as embroidery offers a wonderful way to occupy oneself while still keeping the ears open to conversation in places like parks and restaurants. I’m looking forward to working on the unfinished embroideries throughout the summer and to the conversations I’ll have with my host mom as I work.
By: Sarah Craycraft
Program: Balkan Language Initiative
Term: Summer 2019