I shed my Martinitsas this week, the red and white bands that I was so excited to tie onto my wrist on the 1st of March. Chestita Baba Marta, the Bulgarians say, Happy Grandmother March. The bands are given, not bought, and must be worn until you see your first stork. I must have been keeping my head down, focused on my feet, because I didn’t see any for weeks after I knew they’d arrived. Just empty villages and bare roads, wide open lands outside the settlements.
One morning I walked into a shop and the woman gestured at my wrists, flapped her arms to signify the bird and pointed outside. Took me outside to show me. I couldn’t see where she was pointing and she gave up, sold me my banitsa and fruit and didn’t labour the point. It wasn’t until I was sitting for a while, in the shade of the trees that lined one edge of the village square, locals gathered in groups for small chats, a children’s playground across the road, that I saw it. Across the small river, on top of the tall chimney of a crumbling empty cottage, was a fuzz of spiky sticks and in the centre, quietly standing, a bird. It seems tiny in the distance but I’ve been told they’re huge, stately with long beaks that hang down onto their chests. The stork, returned from an African winter and heralding the spring. I go back to the shop, excited and tell them, ask where the nearest fruit tree is. Now I’ve seen a stork I must take off the bracelets and tie them to a fruit tree, that’s why the shop lady was showing me the stork. It’s past time for me to be wearing them.
The week of walking has gone really quickly, I can’t believe I’m here, at another rest day already. I was focused on staying hydrated, on buying my next meal, on getting to another small town shop of varying abundances of shelf stock so I could see if they had ayran, the salty yoghurt drink I think I’m a little addicted to.
I have seemed to be in this limbo of walking parallel to mountains and never reaching the point where I will cross them, always seeing them hovering in the background but never coming close. There have been conversations with goat herders, small sips of rakia, proposition swerving. There have been long stares upwards at cliff sides overhanging me, watching swifts swoop from crevices and marvelling at fully grown trees blossoming vertical from tightly clinging roots. There have been nights close to freezing, snuggled down under my silk head covering, the summer version of my winter insulation. I have found ticks crawling on me, swallowed flies, watched pheasants fighting and heard the eternal jackal whoops and hollerings.
I walk and the Brexit mess churns. Dates pass and nothing happens. Nobody agrees, voters dissent, others disengage. Everybody is dissatisfied.
We are all in limbo. I walk to a destination that never seems any closer, on an earth that is turning underneath me so I never make progress. Bulgarian pensioners go to the same shop, talk to the same people, hoe their gardens, vegetable growing as survival not hobby, tired of a government that never gives. Britain holds its breath.
We are living in the age of the eternal crisis, climate, political, economic are all constant, and everybody feels distressed.
Only the stork has changed places, flying up from the south with the new season.
On the way out of the village I tie my martinitsas to the branches of an apple tree, pink blossoms flowering bright for nobody. This house is empty, newspaper at windows and a garden choking in long grasses. I tie them to join in, to belong to Bulgaria, to be more than transitory and to honour tradition. I tie them to keep everything the same, to connect me to those who went before.