This week I was going to write about a flock of snow buntings I saw last month over a field in Dixmont, but then Russia started bombing Ukraine and I got thinking about Eastern Europe.

We lived there, in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, to be exact, for two years in the mid-1990s. We arrived just four years after the collapse of the Communist government, and life was bleak compared to what we were used to in Maine. The nearest supermarket was in Greece, an hour and a half drive south. The Bulgarian shopkeepers, meanwhile, were still hiding their best products behind the counter for preferred customers, such as the Americans who could afford to pay extra for a bottle of shampoo.

In our second winter the value of the Bulgarian currency, the lev, collapsed when, along with other instabilities, some greedy bureaucrats sold off most of the country’s wheat. I had never seen bread lines before, let alone stood in one. It’s scary. There was literally not enough food. The faces of the hardscrabble Roma kids grew more sallow. When we could find banitzas, a cheese pastry sold from carts on the street, we’d buy a couple and give them to the kids, who rushed away and ate them ravenously. The currency crisis did not last long enough for reportable numbers of Bulgarians to die.

Meanwhile less than 300 miles northwest of us in Bosnia, people were dying in a war with superficial resemblances to what’s going on in Ukraine now. Some of our students were from Serbia, which was perpetrating the killing, and from Kosovo, which was an explosion waiting to happen.

All these places are in what may be called “Eastern Europe.” Our students at the American University, especially the Polish kids, took patient pains to explain that this place “Eastern Europe” is a geographic lump next to another lump, “Central Europe,” imagined for the convenience of political scientists and journalists. Poland differs significantly from Hungary; Hungary from Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia. Ukraine, named from a Slavic word meaning “borderland,” is either part of Eastern Europe, or part of Russia, or both, or neither. Different peoples speaking different but (except for Hungary and Romania) related languages, sharing borders and certain cultural similarities.

To get to Ukraine from Bulgaria, you travel northeasterly through Romania, and depending on what train or bus you’re taking, possibly Moldova. We never went to Ukraine, but we did visit Romania. In those days a dreariness that was hard to put your finger on pervaded these places. Maybe it was the darkness of their shared history, from the brutality of Ottoman Turkish times through World War II and the political, social and economic claustrophobia of Soviet Communism.

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The land- and city-scapes we see of Ukraine in news images look very familiar. The people, their dress and bearing, familiar. Events in Ukraine also look strikingly similar, in their inner workings, to something that happened in Bulgaria.

Our first year there, Bonnie’s daughter, Jenna, then 14, was going to fly home to Maine by herself to visit her dad at Christmas. So Bonnie took her on the bus, an hour and a half or so ride from Blagoevgrad to the airport in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. (Pronounced SO-fee-ya.) When they got there, the flight was canceled due to a snowstorm in New York, so the airline would put up Jenna for the night. Because of vestigial Communist-era rules about who could sleep in what room, some shenanigans were furtively orchestrated by a desk clerk – who like all Eastern Europeans was well-practiced in closing ranks against the authorities – so Bonnie could spend the night in Jenna’s room.

The next evening, Jenna got on the flight to New York. Now Bonnie had to get home. She got a taxi to the bus station, went to the ticket window and with rudimentary Bulgarian asked a severe-faced woman straight out of a Cold War spy movie, when was the next bus to Blagoevgrad. Even little scraps of power addle minds. The woman said with well-rehearsed annoyance, “Last bus gone!” and slammed the window shut in Bonnie’s face.

Now what.

You don’t want to be stranded in a Bulgarian bus station. The one in Sofia at that time was legendarily dismal and filthy. The logistics of negotiating a taxi to a hotel would be perilously fraught at this hour. A phone call home to me in Blagoevgrad, even if accomplished, would be useless – last bus gone.

Bonnie her whole life has never been a target for mischief makers. In fact the opposite – she could always project a sense of wily danger. When the currency crash disappeared cigarettes in Blagoevgrad, she became a university hero when she scored two black market cartons off the street. But she must have seemed as lost as she felt there in the bus station, because a small man with sunken eyes, wild gray hair and a tattered wool coat like a character out of a Gogol story began sidling up to her with chilling leers. She shoved him away.

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Another man was watching. Larger, better dressed. He stepped over, sternly warned the first man off, and said to Bonnie, “Where you go?” Bonnie told him Blagoevgrad. He looked at her for a few seconds, she looked at him. “OK, you come with me.”

The street-smart that scored the cigarettes kicked in. Bonnie decided to trust the guy’s bearing and demeanor, and followed him. He hardly spoke English, and Bonnie hardly spoke Bulgarian, so it was not exactly clear what was happening. His name turned out to be Angel (hard g). They got on another bus for a long couple of hours. When he motioned Bonnie they’d arrived, they were in the city of Plovdiv, southeast of Sofia.

Soon he was ushering her into his home, his wife who spoke no English at all warmly welcoming Bonnie in. They immediately showed her the phone so she could call me. They fed her and gave her their bedroom for the night. Where they slept in the small apartment, Bonnie never knew. In the morning there were coffee and rolls. Angel took her in a taxi to the Plovdiv bus station, haggled with several drivers while Bonnie stood by, and then pointed her in the direction of one of them. “OK, he take you Blagoevgrad.” He raised his hand, said, “OK, good-bye,” and walked off. Bonnie never saw or heard from him again. He had paid the bus fare.

Now, that is a microcosmic version of what we are hearing about in Ukraine. People speaking a different language, living in unfamiliar houses, wearing unfamiliar clothing, but working and living lives in families exactly like ours, closing ranks and finding ways to help each other while they’re being bombed and murdered by power-addled politicians in Moscow.

We can only hope that the Eastern European generosity of spirit, that active moral force that helped Bonnie out of a jam and that’s holding Ukrainians together now amid cold brutality – we can only hope that such generosity pervades our moral nature too, and be thankful that tanks and bombs are not forcing us to find out.

Now I’ll go back to wondering about the snow buntings.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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