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In the Orthodox Christian church, Easter falls a week later than when it's generally celebrated in the U.S., and I arrived in Bulgaria just in time to join in. Malvina Rousseva, who guided and interpreted for me and for photographers Ken Garrett and Mark Thiessen, also invited us to her flat in Sofia and shared her holiday with us.
On Easter Saturday, we had work to do—a meeting with an archaeologist in the morning. But then we went to Malvina's to dye Easter eggs. The colors in Bulgaria are richer than any I had ever used: deep emerald, burnt orange, dark sapphire, and blood red. And some of the techniques are different too: wrapping dye-splotched cotton batting around an egg or holding foliage against the egg with a net tied tightly to create lacy leafy patterns in the color. I tried them all. Then off to work again—we had artifacts to photograph at a museum.
When we finished about 10 p.m., we raced back to Malvina's place for a traditional feast: eggs, of course, along with a flaky phyllo-and-cheese pastry called barnitsa, a green salad, an herb-infused sausage, and fabulous local wine. Just before midnight, we walked up the hill to the local church along with hundreds of neighbors, lit our candles, and carried the primal lights back home, flickering through the streets like fireflies.
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Along the shore at Sozopol, the building boom on the Black Sea coast has uncovered a cemetery from around 400 B.C., when the town was a Greek colony. I started to explore a section on a cold, windy afternoon in early May near the end of my trip. Picking my way between stones and trenches and small piles of pottery, I was oblivious to everything but my notebook, my pen, the ancient ruins, and the soft, golden sand that pulled at my shoes with every step. Sometime later, I reached the stretch of beach where Ken and our interpreter, Malvina, were working, and as I began to talk to them, I realized something was wrong. Finally, I figured it out: My clip-on sunglasses were missing. The wind must have whipped them right off my glasses without my even noticing. There was no hope of finding them. Something that light could have skittered anywhere on the beach, which stretched for miles. I was annoyed at first, but then I came around. If that's as bad as it got, my trip had actually been pretty good.
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A cherished Easter tradition in Bulgaria, dyed-egg cracking competitions continue for days until all the hard-boiled, brightly colored orbs are eaten. The trick is to knock your egg against someone else's, breaking the other person's egg but keeping your own intact. I first tested my skill with Ken and Mark on Easter Saturday night while waiting in a crowded Sofia churchyard for our turn to light candles. We butted our eggs as many other groups were doing, and, inexplicably, I won. But the next day was a different story.
Bojidar Dimitrov, director of the National History Museum, took us for a drive in the country. Stopping for lunch near a medieval monastery, we had a go at egg-cracking once again. This time Dr. Dimitrov won. With the smile of a man accustomed to controlling the outcome of any situation at hand, he held his egg aloft and announced, "Director!"—offering his title as the perfect explanation for his success.