SOFIA, Bulgaria — Pensioner Vaneta Josifova considers it a good day when her peddler's stand in the muddy yard of a high-rise apartment block clears the equivalent of 70 cents.
From atop a board stretched between two chairs, she offers cut flowers from her son's garden, disposable razors bought from a speculator and lottery tickets that keep alive Bulgarians' dreams of escape from poverty.
As her 39-year-old son Sashko describes for two foreigners the trials of conducting commerce in a busted economy, Josifova plucks six of the best red tulips from her bucket, lovingly sheathes them in two cellophane bundles and presents them to the strangers to mark the occasion of a fleeting friendship.
Slavic culture is so tightly bound with the rituals of hospitality and gift-giving that neither the retired charwoman nor her unemployed son stop to consider that their friendly gesture has just cost them a day's pay.
Westerners often bridle at what seems like foolhardy generosity by people struggling to survive. They hesitate to accept the proffered gifts, fearing that to do so is tantamount to taking food from the starving.
Yet even amid the worst depression in half a century, Bulgarians are loath to put much constraint on their open hearts. With little else to shore up their dignity, they say, sharing makes them feel rich, at least inside.
"We have lost so much of our humanity that it is the last thing we want to do--not to share what we have left," explained Boriana Draganova, a 47-year-old writer. "I can't imagine we'd ever be so poor as to hold back with a guest or a new friend."
Everywhere visitors go in the vast Slavic lands that stretch from the Adriatic to the Ural Mountains, they are pressed with flowers and fruit, candy and kindness. Bulgarians, especially, seem to derive a special pleasure from pleasing others.
All nations of the former Soviet Bloc have been doing daily battle against encroaching poverty since the collapse of communism thrust them into the unfamiliar world of capitalist competition. While hard times have bred suspicion and resentment among the peoples of Hungary and Romania, the Slavs of Bulgaria and neighboring Serbia tend to be more trusting and concerned with the welfare of their people.
Bulgaria's economy has been devastated by the sharp drop in trade with the Soviet Union, on which the country was almost wholly dependent for sales of its industrial goods.
Living standards have plummeted amid rising unemployment and skyrocketing prices. Sofia authorities, helpless to soften the social blows, say they can't even estimate average income for the country's 9 million people.
Poverty is officially defined as anything below 600 leva a month per person, or about $43.
"But a lot of people in Bulgaria are living below the minimum," concedes government spokesman Yassen Indzhev. State pensions for the nation's 2 million retired people seldom exceed 400 leva.
Still, florists, both state and private, appear to be faring better than most retailers in the current crisis--despite the staggering cost of flowers in relation to typical wages.
Bulgarians give flowers on numerous occasions, from a brief visit over tea and cookies at a friend's home to greeting or saying farewell to a traveler at an airport or train station. Single flowers are a mark of courtship and even numbers are considered bad luck, so a casual gift of blossoms has to number at least three.
That costs the giver upwards of 4.50 leva, only 32 cents at the official exchange rate but half a day's pay for many Bulgarians. Candy or wine--other favorite tokens of affection--can eat up several days' budget.
Westerners learn quickly never to compliment a Slav on an item in his home, because the host will insist on making a gift of it. Admired bric-a-brac, jewelry--even paintings--are invariably bundled up for the guest to take away.
Despite the present circumstances of widespread desperation, families harbor stashes of chocolates, cookies, wine and regional liqueurs or cognac, to be prepared in the event someone drops by.
An innate passion for being a good host or hostess overwhelms Slavs even outside of their homes. Returning from a shopping trip to replenish guest goodies eaten up by visiting friends, Ekaterina Dasheva paused to speak to a foreign journalist about the economic crisis gripping Bulgaria.
A 24-year-old mother of two, Dasheva explained that her husband was recently laid off, so the family was reduced to surviving on the 600 leva ($43) per month she receives from the state during maternity leave.
"I have to make this last for the whole month, so all I could afford was bread," the young mother said, pointing to two loaves intended for the family dinner. Then she delved deep into her cloth shopping bag to produce a box of chocolate-covered sweets that had been destined for the cupboard.
When the foreigner tried to decline, an aghast translator interceded with a remonstrating whisper: "You can't say no. That's like a dagger in the heart."