Tsvetana Beleva ’42: Laughter Is the Best Medicine

April 12, 2016 by American College of Sofia

Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97

Tsvetana Beleva owns a strikingly young voice. Talking with her over the phone, I imagined her up and about the whole time, and though she had mentioned staying in bed most of the day, I was still surprised to find her in bed on the grey January day of our interview. But her eyes sparkle and she uses every opportunity to crack a joke, sometimes not entirely appropriate. She drinks a small coffee at 10 o’clock and then moves on to tea for the rest of the day, “because of the high blood pressure.” Good thing a College mug is the gift I’ve brought, as it will come in handy.

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Tsvetana flipping through the pages of the 1940 Yearbook

Tsvetana, can you tell us about your origin?

My father’s family is of Macedonian stock, and my mother’s is from the town of Kyustendil. My grandmother Alexandra, a thoroughbred Greek from Patra, named her son, my father, Alexander after herself. Such are the Macedonian traditions. There are three of us cousins named Tsvetana, three Katyas, three or four Kolyos and Hristos, but no other names. Everything revolves back, history repeating itself. At the same time, a Macedonian family is very united.

My grandfather Ivan Belev of Bitola was a courier delivering mail from Belgrade. He had a small restaurant in Bitola, he was a very good cook and had many customers, among them Ottoman pashas. One of his servants slandered him and he was thrown in the Thessaloniki jail, Beyaz kule (the famous White Tower of today). My grandmother sold everything, put the golden coins in a small pouch on her chest and took us to Bulgaria – Sofia. At first they rented a small place on Ivaylo St. It took them some time to get on their feet again. My father, Alexander of course, studied by correspondence to become an engineer in Nancy, France.  Our family name, Belevi, was given to us because of our fair-skinned faces and our white hair.

And how did you come to attend the College?

Enrolling in the College was a logical step after I graduated from the American Grade School. There, I had studied alongside another future college classmate, Zlatka Vlaycheva (later Alice Zlatka Litov ’42). I recall the first words of Mrs. Woodruff, the American Grade School principal “Children, never cheat!” When crown prince Simeon was born in June 1937, the grades of all students around the country were increased by one mark. Mrs. Woodruff’s comment to that was: “Congratulations on the birth of your crown prince! This has nothing to do with your grades. Those remain unchanged. We don’t compromise!”

Do you still have vivid memories from your time at the College?

Yes, I do. So many memories, actually…

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Tsvetana in the 1940 Yearbook

For instance, this one took place somewhere around 1939-40. The German song, Lilly Marleen, had been released. The plot of the one-act play based on the song was the following: a soldier who has joined the army misses his beloved. They arrange for her to come out and meet him one evening. The ironing boards were turned into the barrack fence, each appointed student standing behind a board and holding it. One girl stood up on a chair, holding up a round platter – the moon. The couple stood conversing at the barrack gate. Suddenly, the general comes out. This was my part. I had put on the brown uniform of night guard, had tightened it with a belt to fit and headed towards the two lovebirds. To be more genuine, I was imitating Mr. Dyakov, the Dean of Boys’ School. Actually, everyone knew this, thanks to my successful mimicry. When we finished, thunderous applause burst out from teachers and students. We won first place that Stunt Night. On the next school day during the big break, I was summoned to Mr. Dyakov’s office. Stunned, I feared I would be punished. Instead, he welcomed me heartily, saying: ”Tsvetanke, you made me look so good! Thank you!“ I left relieved. What a lesson on how to take jokes at your expense, if you are intelligent! Teachers and the President were friendly with us outside classes but strict in the classroom.

Mr. Bliss, probably my favorite teacher at the College, recited poems and sang beautifully. He once told me he was watching me because I articulated so successfully and he was trying to learn from me.

Another story I recall was from the 1940-41 school year. Carl Djerassi from Vienna, who later developed the oral contraceptive, joined the school and my class. He spoke German and English, but was somehow placed in a French-studying class. Our French teacher examined him and gave him a four minus (C). Disappointed, Carl turns to our teacher and swears with a few perfectly French ‘r’s : ”Mama mu stara, Mr. Hristoforov…“ Terrified, the teacher in question turns to another classmate to transfer a message to the newcomer: ”Ikonopisov, do tell Mr. Djerassi not to swear in class.“

A couple of years ago, Carl Djerassi came to the College, attended an official lunch at the College President’s house where other classmates of ours – Lilly Ikonopisova (maiden name Zaharieva) and Nikola Alexiev – were also present; they reminded him of this incident and everyone laughed heartily.

On September 20th, the first day of school, we were welcomed in the foyer of the Assembly Hall. Our teachers were standing in a semi-circle, everyone with a pile of their textbooks, we shook hands and they gave us our copy of the textbook, so the school year could officially start. Tests started the first week – no joking around. They kept a firm hand on us but we benefited from this as we got used to honesty, hard work, perseverance, responsibility and reliability. In comparison with today’s situation in Bulgaria, I would say we still have a lot to learn, Europeans or not.

I recall having to clean the desks in Mrs. Dodov’s classroom but don’t recall why; it must have been for a minor misdemeanor. I have always been a good and well-behaved student. My mother was a teacher and it was of great importance to her that I be an exemplary student. Did you know that she had to pay a fine for sending my little sister and me to non-Bulgarian schools? Kathy went to an Italian one, as my mother couldn’t afford two College tuition fees. I received a scholarship, too, because I was an orphan; my father died when I was only 9. My friend Lilly lost her dad when he was 100 years old; whenever she said “my dad will help me with this,” tears started rolling down my cheeks (tearing up). Human destiny! So yes, my cousins were paying my tuition as a way to repay my father who had helped them many times earlier. Yes, the College was expensive, 24,000 leva then, probably 2,400 in today’s currency. There were quite a few rich kids, one was a minister’s daughter, but she had fours (C’s), her father’s position was not a reason for compromise; in this respect, it was very fair. I am grateful to everyone, and I mention them in my prayers because I was only met with goodness and they taught me honesty, decency, responsibility and reliability – all things that Bai Ganyo has to master one of these days, not just to brag about being a European and then falling back upon his old Bai Ganyo type of tricks.

Did you have a sweetheart at ACS?

(smiling) I may have had my eye on Vladko (Palankov), you know, him being an excellent athlete like myself, but no, we did not have a romantic relationship. Studying was the most important thing for me then. But there was at least one romantic couple per class year.

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Vladimir Palankov in the 1940 Yearbook

How did you experience the closing down of the College in 1942, your senior year?

We were so lucky that the American faculty stayed on until we graduated. Bulgaria had already declared war on the US, but the older teachers stayed and made it possible for us to graduate. They distributed our diplomas. After that, the College became a foreign language school but something was missing- the atmosphere, I guess, this most important aspect, had changed. Some of the younger students went to Lovech for its English language high-school, while others stayed here. Some must have transferred to Bulgarian schools, but not our class. I must have been born under a lucky star to have had this opportunity to graduate – and I wrote this to your President – the happiest period of my life was the one spent on the College campus.

You mentioned earlier that discipline was strict at the College, yet it turns out that the years spent there were some of the happiest in your life. Aren’t strict discipline and personal happiness (through freedom) mutually exclusive?

Not necessarily. We had so many fun outdoor activities. Have you looked at the Bor Yearbook? We learned so much. (going through the 1940 Bor) We are sophomores here. That’s me. ”You want to laugh? Go and ask Tsetsa to imitate someone for you!”

How did your life change after graduating the College?

After I graduated, I enrolled in the Physical Education Academy, where I finished my studies in 1946. I was the top student of the class. I started work at the First All-Girls’ High School, where I taught for a year. But what I really wanted to do was study more, and English was my dream. I got accepted to study English Language and Literary Studies, and was a regular student for three years and an external student in the fourth. I was actively engaged in sports, and was even the captain of the female national basketball team. I played volleyball, as well. It was kind of heroic when you think of it – working, studying, and doing sports at a professional level. I completed my English Language and Literary Studies degree successfully.

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The College Girls’ Basketball team (Tsvetana is first from right), 1940

Next, I started working in the library of Sovbolstroy, a Soviet-Bulgarian construction company with sites in Madan and Rudozem, among others. The Soviet senior administration members had to study English.

After that, I became dorm supervisor at the English HighSchool in Gorna Banya – many of the students were from outside Sofia – and sometime later I became a teacher.

A couple years later, in 1963, the Ministry of Education made me an offer to move to Ruse, where an English language high school was being founded. That was how I became a founder of the school. My work was strenuous but rewarding. I taught and took care of the students. Six months after I started working there, we invited parents to come visit and see the progress of their children for themselves. One student, Nelly Notova, took over my role as the teacher. She put on my blue apron, her hands all chalky, exactly as I had done. She examined her classmates. At the end, we sang an American song. The parents were pleased.

My happiest years as a teacher were the years spent In Ruse. My class was outstanding, with the highest GPA. “Mrs. Beleva, how are we ever to repay you for all that you taught us?” they would ask. I was so sad to leave when I eventually had to, on occasion of the construction of our apartment building.

One of my students, Ivan Petrov (John), now living in USA, came to see me not very long ago, and hugged and kissed me. I had good relationships with my colleagues, too; they came to visit, as well. But such is life that everyone grows old; at least I kept my mind as good as intact, thank God. Many have it worse than me; I walk around the flat at least, and until recently I was going out daily, but I stopped after breaking my leg twice. This is an inevitable business.

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Tsvetana

After the language high-school in Ruse, I started work in the Foreign Language Learning Center close to the Electronica factory. Teachers and university professors, technicians and other specialists were learning English intensively. Our manager did not have much knowledge (of foreign languages). He tried to criticize me for having studied at the American College. I replied that I was taught only good things – honesty and hard work, never to lie or cheat, not to be ashamed of any work. A person with such qualities would succeed in any society.

After spending 10 years there as methodologist, visiting and assessing other teachers’ classes, I decided to retire. I continued teaching small groups of up to 10 people privately. At 75, I stopped all together. I read fiction, translated for pleasure, listened to CNN, and translated the news into Bulgarian.

Which of your College classmates do you still keep in touch with?

Alice Zlatka Litov ’42 has been my best friend for 80 (!) years now; she is in California now, but we write to one another constantly, with my granddaughter sending her emails. Last year, Lilly Ikonopisova and Professor Nikola Alexiev came over to celebrate 73 years since our graduation. We had a great time; it was hard to say good-bye in the end. We sang the College anthem, which I do daily, by the way, and then “Should old acquaintance be forgot…” (Auld Lang Syne). Kolyo is a very good pulmonary disease specialist. He consults people for free; he’s a rare idealist, a curious mind interested in everything.

What is your message to our readers?

Laughter is the best medicine. So keep on smiling, everyone!

Sofia, January 2016

Translation Petia Ivanova ’97
Editing Sophia Kleinsasser

 

 

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