A Bath Without Soap
Long ago the Orthodox Church would only baptise a child if they were old enough to understand the words of the service. This changed when the church realised that many children would not make the age of comprehension because of disease.
The problem with baptising a three-month old baby, however, is they generally cry throughout the dignified event. Alika didn’t cry as the priest’s baritone singing cast her off to sleep (and nearly me). But she certainly didn’t understand a word of the service.
The Orthodox baptism is both to introduce a person into the church and to atone for one’s sins. Alika hasn’t really done anything sinful, apart from a few milk-related incidents and a habit of vomiting on my shoulder, but I agreed to the ceremony despite my agnostic persuasion.
The obvious question is then why baptise her at all. I can only speak for myself here. The answer is to do with following a cultural system and recognising some ceremonies are intrinsically important to create a shared history. And the wife wanted to do it. And it’s a good party afterwards. And you get to see lots of friends and family. And it is good to hedge your bets.
We baptised Alika in Varshets, a small town in the northwest of Bulgaria. This forgotten and heavily forested region of the country is sparsely populated with clusters of industrial towns and underutilised farming land. You can travel all day and not see a fence; instead peripatetic shepherds tend the few livestock around.
Varshets is an old spa town of piddling size. During the communist years it was popular as a resort for factory workers to escape to on an all-expenses-paid holiday. Scattered around are the remnants of large and ornate houses attesting to a former bourgeois wealth before the onset of proletariat socialism.
With its dearth of streetlights the evening falls heavily here. Coupled with the morbid tradition Bulgarians have to place photo obituaries on street walls and doorways, it makes the night more suitable for vespillos than lovers on lonely walks.
During the day it’s a lovely place, but we decided to baptise Alika in Varshets mainly because Maria spent much of her childhood here with her grandmother and many of her family still live in the town.
During the baptism godparents are the centre of the service and the parents demoted to the background. In the Orthodox tradition, the godparents also become family – meaning that their offspring cannot marry Alika.
Alika’s new godmother, a school friend of Maria’s, came from Sofia, and the godfather and his wife came from Romania following their wedding. (I had attended this wedding the week before, originally wanting to fly to Romania and then to Bulgaria. Iceland’s ash cloud meant that I spent 40 hours in trains crossing central Europe, including, unbeknown to me at the time, the most dangerous one on the continent, the overnighter from Vienna to Bucharest. That’s what I got told at the wedding. I think the train got robbed once in the 1990s and the story perpetuated.)
Maria and I brought Alika into the church while waylaid observers awaited her arrival. We passed her to the godparents and retreated to the back of the church.
There is a lot of chanting by the priest as he reads out the blessings – the priest is apparently known in Bulgaria for his beautiful voice – then the ceremonial baby dip in the water font, and ends with the baptised child dressed in new white clothes by the godparents and given back to the parents. In the old days, the godparents would exclaim at this point “you gave us a Jew, and we give you back a Christian” though this tradition is no longer adhered too. Apparently.
Although I didn’t understand a word of the service the priest apparently gave a very kind and emotional speech about Maria’s family whom he had known for years, and one of Maria’s cousins who had trained as a priest gave part of the prayer.
After a while in Bulgaria, you get used to this “personal family involvement” in aspects of your life, particularly with food. For example, at the baptism lunch the rakia (a local spirits like schnapps) was made by an uncle from the paternal side, the wine came from vineyards owned by an uncle from the maternal side, and the lambs we ate were raised locally on a neighbour’s farm. The next day we took Alika on a picnic, and ate sausages made by her grandfather’s uncle. Yet another cousin gave us homemade goat cheese, and fresh milk and eggs from his property. Mostly this food and drink is made for personal consumption. Note that none of these people are farmers per se, but all this output is done on the side while they’re not working as doctors or engineers.
I am not trying to create a “pastoral idyll” of the country, but I have nothing comparable from Australia. I spent a bit of time on a sheep and cattle farm, and my brother is a beef farmer, but cannot remember eating the produce; most of it got sold to either McDonalds or Japan.
Though the country is not a “pastoral idyll”, it is a smokers’ paradise. But finally it seems Bulgaria is catching up with the rest of Europe regarding smoking laws. While we were in the country, the parliament debated a plan to ban smoking anywhere indoor such as restaurants or cafes. This was seen as bit of a harsh shock, so instead the government decided to ban smoking only in hospitals, schools and public transport.
So Bulgaria is not quite the Western European “nanny state” that looks after your best interests, but we get a lot of parenting advice from the family. This is not entirely unwelcome since I have yet to properly read a book on rearing babies, which says more about my laziness than any parental confidence. Some of this advice is based on experience, some on wife’s tales, but some of it was just contradictory, such as the advice that we were underfeeding Alika, and then the next day from the same person, we were overfeeding her.
After a few rakias at the baptism lunch, I think I agreed with both her differing opinions at the same time.