May 1, 2024

Samo Aleko

“Who are you following, Aleko? Those yellow pavement types who leave us with nothing,” Aleko’s neighbour had spat. They faced each other by the fence, the open valley behind, ‘traitor’ echoing deep within him. But he had scoured every village along the river; nobody had work.

On their small balcony, Aleko’s wife, sipping coffee, gently pulled him back from his reminiscing to the present.

“The greenhouse, Aleko. We need to plant our peppers.”

Aleko’s head tilted, weighing the task against another: he was looking across the river, analysing a house he knew since it was an empty field — before he left the village to venture Westward. Now, it’s roof, only rot.

A young family was returning, that same neighbour’s daughter no less, reconnecting with her roots. Her roof across the river needed rebuilding; the house inhabitable. It mirrored the grand, neglected structure Aleko left for his son, casting a shadow across the yard beside the smaller home he built for just his wife and himself.

His son, now distant, had been seduced by easy money. On his eighteenth, Aleko gifted a toolkit—a legacy symbol. The boy scoffed, leaving in a friend’s tattered, black Audi. They talked about big companies and free European money. The old man’s calloused hands could only offer hard work.

Aleko sighed, remembering when he had returned to Bulgaria. After a few years in Germany, he had no interest in disguising shortcuts under modern materials. So even though the mountain resorts were near his village, he looked elsewhere for employment.

In the capital, he had navigated around building projects claimed by black Mercedes. The elite who stepped out in sharp suits, spoke of rebuilding the nation on TV. Everyone knew they trafficked in seized public lands for private gain.

The city taught him how to read truth in the facades, just by looking at old apartment blocks. Mouldy corridors and exposed wiring in an entrance revealed a lack of solidarity within. Buildings that looked like patchwork blankets, insulated apartment by apartment, betrayed how the young isolated themselves, abandoning the proud babas to the cold.

Rooftop apartments were always the last protected, shielding the storms alone. It never mattered what these matriarchs had weathered in the past, or how frail they’d become, the burden to maintain the roof over a building was always left to them.

But roofs laid bare one’s true labour. This was honest work, mostly unattractive to swindlers. So the city became the couple’s new home.

He never imagined he’d be back here in the village, let alone helping this neighbour and his daughter. He looked at the horizon. Young people are fickle and the rainy season was coming. Besides, the scent of timber, the texture of tile, always captured him.

His next days were spent preparing the materials for her project, the mild morning sun helping relax the back pains brought by years of heavy carrying. And then, a few men from the village joined to start the real work: chopping away the spongey beams, hoisting fresh wood up to the exposed attic with ropes and pulleys.

The roof’s new skeleton took shape firmly. One day, his wife called from below: “Will you finish before the rains?”

Pausing, wiping sweat away, he glanced at his neighbour, nailing down wooden sheets.

“It’ll hold,” he assured.

Descending, they savoured wild garlic and tarator beneath a tree, reminiscing about his bland diet when he’d worked in the West: insubstantial bread, watery tomatoes.

The days were quickly getting longer, and every morning Aleko and his neighbour rose earlier to avoid the heat. They worked tile by careful tile, echoing birdsong with rhythmic hammering.

One dewy morning, the pulley snapped loudly and fell to the ground. His neighbour, handing the fallen wheel to Aleko from the top of the ladder, asked, “Remember how we thought Videnov would save us?”

Aleko nodded, re-attaching the wheel, then added, “And again with The Fireman.”

“Don’t forget the Tsar.”

“Which one? The Bulgarian or the Russian?”

They both laughed, and then fell silent. Without a word between them, they threaded the pulley with new rope, re-attached its hooks to the palette, and tested it with firewood. The fix complete, the two could again lift more than a gang. The neighbour hauled tiles from below. Aleko unloaded them from the top.

He thought of the seasons that had passed. Heat brings expansion, cold brings contraction, dry brings pests and wet brings mould. Every structure is impermanent even if those inside, just centimetres from these relentless elements, deceive themselves that they’re out of nature’s reach.

In their breaks, they talked about their families. Calls from their children were polite, distant, sparse. Their lives filled with incomprehensible stories, incomprehensible except for the disdain for the old ways.

“He talks in circles — flipping apartments, then gambling websites. Always a scheme,” Aleko confided, puzzled. “Sounds like selling smoke from someone else’s fire.”

Rumours of white Teslas hinted at a new elite, silent but familiar. “Innovation and transparency,” they claimed, yet their games mirrored old schemes: diverting funding in their twisted networks.

The evening they finished the roof, Aleko thought to invite his helpers for a meal. They each shared the bounty from their own gardens: potatoes, radishes, parsley, cherries, strawberries, mint and early basil.

As they gathered in the kitchen, one of the neighbours raised a grater and teased, “Aleko, you spend so much time on those tiles. Tonight, let’s save time — nasturgan tarator for everyone!”

Aleko, washing the cucumbers in the sink, shot a stern look. “If you don’t mind, Honourable Prime Minister, we don’t eat traitor’s tarator here. I’ll chop the cucumbers correctly.”

The others laughed in agreement as Aleko picked up a knife and diced every cucumber with precision.

The next morning, the phone rang. Aleko’s son said a polite hello before passing to his granddaughter.

“Grandpa, our old house needs you. Can you fix it?”

“Yes, it’s still here,” Aleko responded, looking across his garden at the old house he hoped his son would reclaim. They’d finally return, having decided to spend summers in the village.

Invigorated for the next weeks, Aleko worked tirelessly on his son’s house. His work absorbed him in quiet meditation, a communion with the home that had sheltered his family for generations.

His knees strained from years of scaling ladders. His wrists throbbed from the firm grip needed to manoeuvre heavy tiles and windows into place. Yet each hammer swing renewed his spirit.

Excited calls from his granddaughter marked his days; they dreamed of summer games under the village’s vast skies. His wife, undeterred by the absent greenhouse, planted peppers directly in open soil, each seeding a memory of a family meal, yet to come.

Then the day arrived. Aleko and his wife saw the car driving up the hill: a black BMW spraying a dusty cloud. Aleko’s heart tightened at the sight but as his family spilled out of the car, his apprehensions melted away. His son, his daughter-in-law, his grandchild—all safe, all home.

Laughter filled the yard, mingling with the scent of zucchini, dill and peppers.

As twilight deepened, his son walked with him around the garden, their steps slow and reflective. “Why no greenhouse, Dad?”

Overhearing this, his granddaughter called, “Grandpa? I have a question,” and ran to take his hand.

“Can I help you build one?”

Did this mean something to you? Have any feedback (good or bad)? I’d love to hear it – please leave me a note.

🙏🙏🙏 Thanks to everyone who gave me feedback, especially Deo, Angelo and Rumen for extensive feedback (and Rumen’s idea of “traitor’s tarator”)

What am I up to these days?

I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family. I’m also having fun with slow creative pursuits: making a few apps, writing, etc.

Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, with a few non-exec, advisory roles for cryptography and microchip manufacturing programs.

In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Contact me

Books & collected practices

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled
  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams