“The mother was in shock! Her eyes opened in awe of the table overflowing with delicacies.”
It was New Year’s Eve 2020/21, and on the table, irrestibly luscious, lay an enormous appetizer in the shape of the number 21 – leaving every mouth watering in the family Nadia Varadinova is working for. Cubically cut paprika, avocado and onion covered tiny whipped peninsulas of crème fraîche. Thinly sliced salmon pieces are curved inside the dome of fresh and soft textures. Bellow all that, crisp, airy knots of puff pastry twist and turn to form the foundation of what can only be called a composition. Someone takes the first piece. The tension is broken and the rest follow, all asking themselves how anyone can do this.
What can Nadia Varadinova’s story possibly be?
Varadinova’s ancestors left a strong imprint. One was her grandfather, a baker, who taught her the importance of sitting together around the table and creating a shared experience. Her other grandfather on her father’s side, a hairdresser by profession, fled to Vienna from Sofia, because of his name, Georgi Dimitrov, also the name of the first leader of the BKP (Bulgarian Communist Party). His son, her father, never managed to follow, but Nadia still wonders if she might have family in Vienna she has never met.
Although Nadia Varadinova speaks neither German, nor English, you can breath in her warm-hearted generosity through the food she makes. We met her for a coffee at the Stadtpark, one of her favourite places, she says, where her mind can run free. It was a sunny early spring day, and the paths were full with people jogging, a thrilling sight after the winter months of the lockdown. Her presence was calm and we immediately felt at ease. We began our conversation about the hats and socks she knits: She smiled and offered to make one for me too.
“Kids, let’s make your mother angry, I feel like eating one of her pastries today…,” Varadinova’s husband used to joke. “My best dishes always came to life at my lowest points,” she remembered. She never worked professionally as a cook, but basked in the praises of her near and dear for the wonders she made in the kitchen. This is a “fire woman,” as we say in Bulgarian. She has lived her life on many fronts, as a mother and as a wife, as the hard worker who brings money home and draws everyone irresistibly together for an evening meal.
The Fire Woman From Bulgaria
“There is no shameful job”, she says.
Now in her 60s, Nadka Varadinova spent most of her life in Sofia, until unimaginable circumstances brought her to Vienna. She had been laid off her job as an accountant at Chistota, the company responsible for garbage collection in Sofia. But her late husband was becoming increasingly sick, and staying idle was out of the question. At her age it was hard to find a job of any kind, and eventually, she found work with a cleaning services company. Her career as a cleaning lady began.
When Varadinova was feeling unwell and couldn’t sleep, baking was her life boat. She would occasionally bring some homemade sweet and salty pastries to work, and found joy in making special things for the people around her.
Her delicacies did not stay underdiscovered for long. All the while, her cakes, banitsa and milinki had been making their way to the CEO, and it wasn’t long before he invited her to come work as a cook in his summer house. His Austrian-Bulgarian family, fell in love with her cooking and with Bulgarian cuisine, especially with sarmi (filled Sauerkraut leaves with rice). So on Oct. 24th, 2017, Varadinova moved to Vienna, where her boss and his family live, where their son became her biggest fan. Soon she was also helping with the household.
Even after three and a half years in Vienna, Varadinova told us, it still fascinates her how well-used and well-maintained the green spaces in the city are.
“In Vienna there is a place for the elderly and the disabled. They are visible and part of life.” Nevertheless, it is not always easy to be in a country where you do not speak the language and have limited possibilities to meet new people. Especially in a pandemic, when it becomes harder and harder for her to be independent.
So every now and then, she travels back to Sofia to see her daughters and her nephews – whom she misses immensely – and once again be part of the world she left behind.