By Witold Szabłowski, from Dancing Bears, a book of reportage that will be published next month by Penguin Books. Szabłowski is a journalist. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Gyorgy Marinov hides his face in his right hand, and with his left taps the ash from his cigarette onto the ground, which in the village of Dryanovets is a deep brown color that passes here and there into black. We’re sitting outside his house, which is coated in gray plaster. Marinov is a little over seventy, but he’s not bent double yet, although in Dryanovets, a village in northern Bulgaria that’s inhabited mainly by Roma, very few men live to his age.
It’s not much better for the women either. There’s a death notice pinned to the doorframe of Marinov’s house, with a picture of a woman only a little younger than he is. It’s his wife — she died last year.
If you go through that door, passing a cart, a mule, and a heap of junk along the way, you come to a dirt floor. In the middle of the room there’s a metal pole stuck into the ground. A female bear called Vela spent almost twenty years tied to it.
“I loved her as if she were my own daughter,” says Marinov, casting his mind back to those mornings on the Black Sea when he and Vela pointed their noses in the direction of the water, had a quick bite of bread, then set off to work along the road as the asphalt rapidly grew warm in the sun. And those memories make him melt, just as the sunshine would melt the asphalt in those days, and he forgets about his cigarette until the burning tip starts to singe his fingers; then he tosses the butt onto the brown-and-black earth, and he’s back in Dryanovets, outside his gray house with the death notice pinned to the doorframe.
“As God is my witness, I loved her as if she were human,” he says, shaking his head. “I loved her like one of my immediate family. She always had more than enough bread. The best alcohol. Strawberries. Chocolate. Candy bars. I’d have carried her on my back if only I could. So if you say I beat her or that shehad a bad time, you’re lying.”
Vela first appeared at the Marinovs’ house at the beginning of the gloomy 1990s, when Communism collapsed and Bulgaria’s collective farms began to go under.
Marinov had to ask himself the basic question of every redundant worker: What else am I capable of doing? “In my case the answer was simple,” he says. “I knew how to train bears to dance.”
His father and grandfather were bear keepers, and his brother, Stefan, had kept bears ever since leaving school. “I grew up around bears,” says Marinov. “I knew all the songs, all the tricks, all the stories. I used to bottle-feed my father’s two bears by hand. When my son was born, he and the bears were kept together. There were plenty of times when I got it wrong — my baby drank from the bear’s bottle, and the bear from his. So when they fired me from the collective farm, there was one thing I knew for sure: if I wanted to go on living, I had to find a bear as fast as possible.
“I went to the Kormisosh nature reserve. The forester brought out a little bear. She was a few months old. She’s looking at me. And I’m looking at her. I kneel down, hold out my hand, and call, ‘Come here, little one.’ She doesn’t move, just gazes at me, and her eyes are like two black coals. You’d fall in love with those eyes — I tell you.
“I took a piece of bread out of my pocket, put it in the cage, and waited for her to go inside. Again she looked at me. She hesitated for a moment, but then she went in. ’Now you’re mine,’ I thought, ‘for better or for worse.’ Because a bear can live for thirty years — half a lifetime. I thought, ‘Your name will be Valentina.’ Vela for short.”
“When I suddenly appeared at the front door with a bear, my wife went crazy.
“ ‘Are you out of your mind? What sort of a life are we going to have?’ she screamed, and came at me with her fists flying.
“I did understand her to some extent. The life of a bear keeper isn’t easy. Of course, he can earn a living. On a good day at the seaside I earned more than I did in a whole month at the collective farm. But you have be on the alert the whole time to make sure the bear doesn’t go wild and harm you — you don’t know when its instincts might awaken. Vela sometimes had hens flapping around her head while she slept, and it never occurred to her to eat them. But a bear has no sense of gratitude, and if it goes wild, it won’t remember that you’ve fed it corn and potatoes for the past fifteen years.
“The moment my wife saw that shaggy little creature she also saw the nights we would spend out in the rain, trailing from yard to yard in the hope that someone would toss us a few pennies, and the people who would laugh at us.
“But by the time the first winter came, my wife was urging me to make Vela a shelter. And whenever it rained, she took an umbrella and ran to the tree where Vela was tied up. If she could have she’d have kept her in the house, the way some city folk keep dogs.”
“I would never have hit Vela. My God! Just the thought of it brings tears to my eyes. I’d sooner have tormented myself than her.
“So in that case, how did I train her? Easy. I just took her a short way out of the village, brought out my gadulka and some candy, started to play, and tried to persuade her to stand on her hind legs. When she did, she got a piece of candy.
“She caught on very quickly. When spring came, I started to teach her more complicated things. For instance, I’d say, ‘Now, Vela, show us how the bride kisses her mother-in-law’s hand.’ And she’d give all the ladies a beautiful kiss on the hand, which got us very big tips once we were traveling around the country.
“We had a famous gymnast named Maria Gigova. Sometimes Vela and I would find a place to stand in the middle of a town and I’d say, ’Now, Vela, show us how Gigova won her medals.’ And Vela would hop around, folding her paws exquisitely, and to finish she’d take a bow. People laughed, clapped, and took pictures, and we earned a few coins.
“There was also a guy called Yanko Rusev, an Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion weight lifter. I’d say, ‘Show us, my dear, how Rusev lifted weights.’ And she’d squat down, arrange her paws as if grabbing hold of a bar, and pant heavily.
“And when our great soccer player Hristo Stoichkov started playing for Barcelona, I’d say, ’Now, Vela, show us how Stoichkov fakes a foul.’ And Vela would lie down on the ground, seize hold of a leg, and start howling dreadfully.
“One of my friends used to make fun of Tsar Simeon, who was our prime minister. When he took over the government, he promised to improve life for all Bulgarians within a hundred days. My friend would say to his bear, ‘Show us, my dear, how Tsar Simeon improved life for the Bulgarians.’ And the bear would lie down on the ground, cover its head with its paws, and roar terribly. That trick showed very well how life has changed in Bulgaria since they got rid of Communism.”
In 2007, when Bulgaria joined the European Union, the last of the country’s bears were taken from their keepers and relocated to a special park in Belitsa that was run by an Austrian organization called Four Paws.
“Just before she died, my wife told me she couldn’t imagine a better life than the one we had with Vela,” Marinov says. “She reacted very badly when they took the bear away from us. Neither of us could eat for a month. We pined for her like mad.
“One time I said, ‘Come on, let’s get on the bus and go to Belitsa. Let’s go and see how our Vela’s doing.’ My wife just brushed me off.
“I wondered, Will she recognize us? Has she gone wild by now, or will she still dance? If she starts to dance at the sight of us, that’ll mean she still loves us.”