The Woman Today / Жената Днес

I avidly read the column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” in my grandmother’s monthly Ladies’ Home Journal magazine whenever we visited her. I was in elementary school when this interest was sparked so either I was precociously preparing for what might lie ahead or being a voyeur into other lives in perhaps the most conservative way possible. “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” and idly looking at the covers while waiting my turn in the grocery line are the sum total of my experience with women’s magazines.

Recently, however, I bought two 1942 copies of women’s magazines as a birthday present for my mother—the idea being that she could browse and see what her mother may well have been reading in the year my mother was born. There was also the aspect of seeing how far women have—and have not—come. Leafing through them at this remove of time piqued my interest. As I noted in an earlier post, it is often true that I find myself thinking about or surprised by steps that seem to inexorably lead to Bulgaria. My brother-in-law was a fashion and interior photographer and Bulgarian women’s magazines were often clients.

Some of the women’s magazines in the United States have been around since the 19th century. Ladies’ Home Journal managed to last 131 years before it acknowledged it could not be saved and folded in summer 2014. Given the category’s monthly publication schedule, news is not the business of women’s magazines, be they considered “service” or fashion, for suburban mothers of young children or urban singles. The operative question is the “how to.” How to dress, how to cook nutritiously, how to diet, how to save time/how to shop, how to travel, how to improve sex/relationships/appearance/parenting as a verb/maximizing time to oneself because you deserve it.

spam-and-limas”Women’s service” magazines were traditionally aimed at stay-at-home mothers with a need for laborsaving devices, relationship-preserving ideas and innovative ways to satisfy children clamoring for food. There are plenty of recipes that would never be included in an actual cookbook, courtesy of the ads for various canned and packaged food that encouraged women to just add lima beans to spam for an instant wholesome meal.

Looking at the vintage copies made me wonder about the existence of such magazines in Bulgaria and how Communist ideology and control affected the approach to Bulgarian women with children clamoring for food and who had concerns about appearance, relationships, and laborsaving devices despite living in a worker’s paradise with a standard of living that was constantly sold as far higher than that in the mythically degenerate West on the verge of collapse. But who wouldn’t be still better off with a washing machine and canned pork seasoned with potato starch and sodium nitrite?

Жената ДНЕС (Zhenata DNES/The Woman TODAY) is perhaps the oldest women’s service magazine in Bulgaria still in publication. From its inception in the mid-1940s, the monthly magazine is now—according to its website—“a 70-year institution for generations of Bulgarian women.” For the first 45 of those years, it operated in a highly-restricted environment under a government that viewed all media as key to maintenance of Communist party power. After all, Vladimir Lenin had clearly said in 1901: “A newspaper should not only be a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses.” Like all publications, Жената ДНЕС was in many ways a means to a political end.

But not entirely. If the publication had to meet political standards, Жената ДНЕС as well had to be sufficiently interesting, relevant, and appealing to the women it targeted. The cover, the features, the regular columns, the supplements, the photography were carefully planned to be familiar and recognizable enough to build readership and distinctive enough to attract purchasers at the newsstand.

The differences between, say, Ladies’ Home Journal and Жената ДНЕС in the latter’s first 45 years are clear. For most of those years, the cover of Жената ДНЕС displayed only the masthead, a single cover image, the issue date and number, and the notation “published by the Committee of Bulgarian Women.” The price of each issue must have been noted at the newsstand because it appears nowhere on the cover. It’s not at all clear how to obtain a subscription, though subscriptions to magazines were possible. There are no advertisements anywhere. This may seem obvious in a Communist country, but in fact the government of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was careful to set up a number of branded products in such categories as cigarettes, book series, alcohol, household cleaners, and sweets. Advertisements did appear from time to time in other media.

Ladies' Home JournalThe January issue of Ladies’ Home Journal displays the masthead, a single cover image, the issue date, and the following cover lines: Pat Boone Talks, The Burning Eye Condenses Complete Novel In This Issue, How to Lose 125 Pounds and Stay Thin, Lovable, Wonderful Dr. Spock, and Teen Age Report to the Nation Are They Beat…Boho…or? The four-color, glossy paper issue is filled with advertisements.

1960_01In many ways, however, the magazines are strikingly similar. Principally they are aspirational. They show people and lifestyles to aspire to and direction on how to achieve those aspirations. The January 1960 issue of Жената ДНЕС shows an airbrushed pretty woman with stylishly short hair, red lipstick, and blue earings perfectly matching her blue sweater. Her age is indeterminate—anywhere from late 20s to early 40s–maximizing the number of readers who could see themselves in her if they could just find out where she got that lipstick. Turn the page and you see the very first article “More Women in Leadership Positions in [Agricultural Collectives].”

Yes, even in 1960 in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria women are promised that they can have it all; they can lead the country to a new stage in agricultural production and when they’re done can look perfectly put together with nary a wrinkle or sunspot from all that outdoor hard physical labor.

Turn the page and celebrate the “50th Anniversary of the International Day of the Woman” with a two-page spread of three short pieces. One shows a historical photo a well-dressed young beauty, born of a poor family, who rose—just as surely as the Жената ДНЕС reader might similarly rise—to become a brave revolutionary serving now as an example to all women. Another is titled “Towards Freedom, Towards Light,” as aspirational as a headline could possibly be.

Leaf through further pages and read a variety short fiction, a poem or two, a first-person account of a factory weaver and her trainees. International affairs are not ignored with a dutiful spread on some doings in the Soviet Union. “By demand of our readers,” there is a profile of Yma Sumac, the Peruvian-American singer famed for her five-octave range; Жената ДНЕС was careful to excise the “American” half of that identity, despite Sumac being an American citizen by the time the profile appeared.

Television was praised though almost no Bulgarian at that time had seen one. Reader letters are given their due as are education of preschool children, hygiene in flu season, and advice for the housewife. A cartoon has one man complaining to another “The more women rise up in leadership, the more it’s frustrating that they are always busy.” The issue makes space for a “Style” section with photos of modern fashions credited to the West German sewing magazine Neue Schnitt, the monthly Sybylle from East Germany (“the Vogue of the East”), the French Modes & Travaux (a monthly dating back to 1919), and the Sofia Style Center. The closing spread offers recipes, including nutrition for the breastfeeding mother, and ideas for cardigans and pullovers for everyone in the family.

The parallels between the two publications are clear and unless one counts paper and printing quality, it’s difficult to say that is one is more sophisticated than the other or serves its intended public better. It seems no matter the time period or the political environment in which they operate, women’s service magazines are an institution for generations of women. No matter how many recipes have been served up or fashion advice disseminated, how many relationships saved or leadership positions flaunted, the women’s service magazine reader is always in need of a little more help.

Stoyan and a Village / Стоян и село

Satirical TheatreFor three years after serving his mandatory two years in the army and fruitlessly applying to the Art Academy in Sofia, my husband worked for the Сатиричен Театър, the Satiric Theater at 26 Stefan Karadja Street. His politics prevented his acceptance in the higher levels of academe, but seemed to be of little importance when working in theater set design.

The work wasn’t onerous, it was in a creative environment, the theater operated at a very high professional level in all aspects, and he met a friend he still has more than three decades later.

Станислав СтратиевThe Satiric Theater’s literary director at that time was Stanislav Stratiev. Stratiev was a playwright, screenwriter, satirical essayist, and short story writer. According to his website, “Stratiev’s plays have been performed in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sweden, the Slovak Republic, Turkey, the USA, and others.”

Stratiev died in 2000, having worked at the Satiric Theater since 1975 and producing an enormous body of work, much of it still performed and read and cherished.

Not long ago, my husband pulled off the bookshelf a volume of Stratiev’s short fiction, Избрано 1. Белетристика (Selected Works 1. Fiction). After a few minutes of listening to him chortle, I had to see for myself. The character Stoyan is a sort of Everyman, or perhaps Everypeasant. Bulgaria has seen enormous changes in the last 130 years, but the village is the ironic harbinger of the news that for many even seemingly cataclysmic change results in little advancement in day-to-day life—and sometimes in reversals. Here then is my translation of Stoyan and a Village.

Stoyan and a Village

Somewhere—mineral water, elsewhere—oil, in Stoyan’s village—backwardness.

Backwardness and barbarism.

Mountains, forests, rocky peaks, and hobgoblins.

The population, of course, doesn’t believe, but when it comes and sits at your table, how can you not believe?

Either that, or it reaches for you in the middle of the day so that you circle the village while someone knocks the head off a black hen and throws it across the path of the hobgoblin.

The village is small, twenty houses, but when a hobgoblin is chasing you it appears to you as large as the capital Sofia.

Big backwardness.

The last hope of the population is at least democracy to come, because electricity and water don’t come, and they don’t have anywhere to come from—no road, and it also is not coming.

Instead bears come and they blow in your eye in the middle of the square.

Wolves throttle the sheep, boars ravage the potatoes.

The people number less than the beasts.

Big backwardness.

Big backwardness and explosives.

The village lays on explosives.

Somewhere God gave gold, elsewhere—pyramids, here—explosives.

On the very top are those from the Second World War. They are, let’s say, two hand spans down. You dig the cucumbers in a little deeper and you fly in the air.

Below this layer are the explosives from the First World War. They are at the depth, let’s say, of a latrine.

The population is in shock and has already stopped digging latrines. At the smallest occasion, one runs into the woods.

Big backwardness.

Backwardness and barbarism.

Under those are the ones from the Russian-Turkish War.

You go to dig a well and after forty-five minutes, you don’t need either water or food.

So the village has no water, and the population drinks like beasts from bear paw prints and from forest springs.

Farther down no one has reached; no one knows what is below this layer.

The population with reason supposes that further down are sabers and maces.

One can’t say that this is fertile soil and that the harvests are very bountiful in Stoyan’s village.

Despite everything, life here passes like it does everywhere.

One’s birthplace, there’s nothing like it.

Judgement in Sofia

In January, I wrote the following:

I have an unwritten rule that my blog will not discuss politics. Not because I do not have strong feelings about various matters political, but because most people do and the possibility of unknowingly giving offense is quite large. Giving offense is unpleasant and unproductive so one should try not to do it, however much politics seems often to depend on that very thing. I know more about U.S. politics than I care to and not enough about Bulgarian politics to form any but the most general of opinions.

But to the extent that we wish our politicians to act ethically, to make and uphold laws against behavior that most would call wrong (e.g., murder, theft, rape), and to straightforwardly and firmly denounce contemptible behavior by those in office, politics is something about which we can all have an opinion. I know quite little about Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and only slightly more about Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, but I took note of their respective reactions to an ongoing scandal highlighting what Radev referred to late last week as “a creeping indulgence of Nazism.”

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov recently formed a coalition government that includes the far right Patriotic Front (sometimes referred to as United Patriots) party, whose leader Valery Simeonov currently serves as Deputy Prime Minister. Simeonov has refused to resign over the scandal of two Patriotic Front members appearing in photographs making the Nazi salute: Deputy Minister for Regional Development Pavel Tenev and Ivo Antonov, an official in the Ministry of Defense. Tenev resigned on May 17. Antonov has not yet offered his resignation. Simeonov dismisses the photos as having no significance or relevance.

After too much time spent silent on the subject, Borissov finally commented on Tenev’s Sieg Heil explaining “it’s human while on business trips to make such jokes.” BNE Intellinews reported that “Borissov assessed that Tenev was the best and the most prepared of all the deputy ministers from the United Patriots, and the scandal is a blow to his career.”

right-wrongWhatever his motives may have been, whatever policies he may wish to forward in other spheres, however much easier it may have been in his capacity as head of state rather than in Borissov’s as the head of government, it is laudatory that Radev for his part did not mince words or equivocate.

“We do not accept the approach where in order to wriggle out unscathed those in power offer evasive commentary about the perpetrators’ professionalism. That [professionalism] is not the issue—do we condemn these phenomena or not? I am buoyed up by Bulgarian society and its reaction. I think that the condemnation of Nazism must be absolutely obligatory.”

Radev went on to criticize the notion suggesting that it is permissible for an ordinary citizen to pull stunts like this, but absolutely forbidden if one enters in government. “We are all part of society, irrespective of whether you are an ordinary citizen or a politician with responsibility. These roles change very fast, especially in our time,” the President declared. And he emphasized, “No one doubts the high professionalism of these people, the problem is a moral one. Whether the representatives in question withdraw themselves [from office] is also a moral choice, one which each must decide for himself.”

good-evilIt seems to me that no matter with which political party or politician one is affiliated, one can appreciate an absolute condemnation of the expression of Nazi ideology or symbols and that such expression has no place and no excuse. And if Nazism in all its forms is widely, frequently, and strongly condemned, such expression will find no safe haven and utterly fail to thrive.

Italy, Libya, and Bulgaria: Not a Love Triangle

Some months ago, I wrote that it can seem to me that all roads lead to Bulgaria in a mysterious, six degrees of separation sort of way. It is of course a matter of interpretation, of if not looking for such connections then of being open to observe them when they happen. Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Novel talks not of six degrees of separation but instead of six chance happenings. Six fortuities. Things just happen to have happened, things that could “just as well be otherwise,” but afterwards seem to have been in some way fateful and even inexorably to lead to a fixed point.

 

Thus when I first saw the classic film Casablanca, I never noticed that Rick’s silent fixing of the roulette game is for a Bulgarian couple. I didn’t notice because I hadn’t yet met the Bulgarian whom I would marry and Bulgaria meant nothing to me. Now I can’t help but notice—particularly when these Bulgarian chance happenings occur entirely unexpectedly in places that seem rather more than six degrees of separation away.

I was reading Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, a contemplative, sometimes melancholic, and often beautiful memoir of his family, his father’s disappearance, and the dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Trained as an architect, Matar muses on downtown Benghazi and its development under Italian colonization in the 1920s and 1930s. The Italians in fact gave the name “Libya” to the colony it ruled.

 

The Roman Catholic Benghazi Cathedral (left above), he notes, was designed by Guido Ferrazza who led a life far from his birth in the small Italian Alpine village of Bocenago. And where did Ferrazza go after graduating from university in Milan? To Bulgaria, to consult on the already decades-long project of building the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (right above) in Sofia, Bulgaria. That Cathedral honored a 13th century Russian prince and that in turned honored the Russians who had freed Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War.

Tzar Alexander the LiberatorJust a few years before Ferraza left Italy for Sofia, Italian sculptor Arnaldo Zocchi did the same. Zocchi designed the enormous equestrian statue and monument to the Russian Tzar known as Alexander the Liberator. Zocchi had won earlier commissions in Bulgaria, and though now largely forgotten once was admired by Bulgarians as “The Divine Florentine.”

 

Bulgaria had its own connection with Libya apart from Guido Ferraza’s peripatetic cathedral involvement. Because Muammar Qaddafi styled himself as something of a socialist, he developed relationships with the Soviet Union. That relationship, according to the U.S. State Department, “involved massive Libyan arms purchases from the Soviet bloc and the presence of thousands of east bloc advisers.” On Christmas Day 1976 (a day neither country presumably celebrated), Libya and Bulgaria signed five agreements on trade, economic, scientific, and political cooperation at the end of a four‐day visit to Libya by Todor ZhIvkov, Communist leader of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria from 1954 to 1989. It was such a delightful visit that Zhivkov repeated it, though he appears somewhat awkward as he attempts to recline on the pillows placed on the ground for the reunion.

Qaddafi and Zhivkov
Qaddafi meets Zhivkov in the Libyan Desert, 1984

Later and in quick succession, there was Libya’s 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and in 1989, the collapse of the East Bloc. Perhaps, however, because of the existing longstanding relationship, Bulgaria did not seem to view Libya as a pariah state in the same way as most did in the West. The Bulgarian state-owned company Expomed recruited doctors and nurses to work at a Libyan hospital at generous salaries relative to what they were receiving at home. Other Bulgarian healthcare providers also found what seemed to be attractive positions in Libya. Most began their work in the port city of Benghazi in February 1998. Throughout his book, Hisham Matar longingly describes the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea as it is seen from Libya’s coast.

Benghazi SixIn November, the first news came of a HIV health crisis at the El-Fatih Children’s Hospital in Benghazi. Ultimately, over 400 children were affected. International experts from myriad organizations and the most renowned HIV specialists in the world pointed the finger at poor hygiene practices in the hospital that predated the arrival of the Bulgarian medics by at least a year. But the families of the children needed someone to blame and Qaddafi needed to deflect that blame. In March 1999, five Bulgarian nurses and a colleague, a Palestinian doctor, were arrested (initially more were detained, all but these six released) and tortured into confessing that they purposely injected the children with the virus. Sentenced first to death and then to life imprisonment, their case became an international scandal.

In April 1999, Libya fulfilled one of the United Nations Security Council requirements by surrendering for trial two Libyans suspected in connection with the Pan Am bombing. That began a long but sure process of easing relations with many countries, but for the Benghazi Six the suffering had just begun. It took over eight years before their final release was obtained with no admission from Libya that they were in fact innocent or that they had been in any way wronged. Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of Muammar Qaddafi’s eight children did, however, concede that there had been some coercion of confessions after the Benghazi Six began sharing their painful stories upon their 2007 return to Bulgaria.

Just one year later, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Qaddafi signed the 2008 Friendship Treaty between their two countries. There was much talk about a “special relationship,” “reciprocal economic interests,” and recognition of Libya’s “gradual and prudent reform.”

Qaddafi and Berlusconi

In October 2011, Qaddafi’s over four-decade dictatorship ended when he was killed in his hometown of Sirte. In November 2011, scandal-ridden Berlusconi announced from Rome his resignation as prime minister.

Far from signing a treaty, Bulgaria instead warned its citizens against all travel to Libya and strongly recommended Bulgarians currently in Libya leave. Benghazi’s Mediterranean Sea locale has little to recommend it when Bulgarians can safely enjoy their own Black Sea coast. Kundera notwithstanding, it could not be otherwise.

Folktales / Народни Приказки

I’m not an anthropologist nor an ethnographer nor a historian nor a philosopher. So I’m fairly certain that my assumptions about the relationship of national folklore to national values are neither new nor expert. Still, I find the relationship interesting to think about.

When I first met the Bulgarian man who would become my husband, I didn’t even know where Bulgaria was. We were in the United States and the Cold War showed little if any sign of ending so most of the cultural education was on his end. When we first lived in Bulgaria and I began learning the language, народни приказки (folktales) didn’t even make the list of all the Bulgarian language learning I set out to do.

Then came our daughter and I was determined to speak to her in Bulgarian—and that included children’s literature. Naturally we received many collections of народни приказки as gifts, and my Bulgarian language and cultural education suddenly entered an entirely new arena. Since folktales come down through oral tradition, they predate industrialization no matter what country or culture tells them. They are far older than we know so they tend to start with a stock phrase that deliberately pinpoints nothing. In Bulgarian, that’s Имало едно време (Once upon a time)…

While there are plenty of American folktales, I can’t say I know very many. Most folktales that I am familiar with are from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen. Perhaps because I was not introduced to them as an adult, I have never spent any time analyzing the values and heroines/heroes promoted. But my experience with Bulgarian folktales was altogether different.

I met Ежко Бежко (Ezhko Bezhko) the sincere hedgehog, Баба Меца (Baba Metza) the protective bear, Кумчо Вълчо (Kumcho Vulcho) the dimwitted wolf, Зайо Байо (Zayo Bayo) the fainthearted rabbit, and Кума Лиса (Kuma Lisa) the sly fox. I liked many of the folktales I read first to my daughter and then later to my son, but some were very discomfiting. Trickery as a winning strategy seems to appear more often than you want small children to hear as a value to emulate.

Of course, the trickster appears in many cultures. We enjoyed reading stories about the African trickster character Anansi the Spider (and of course there’s the American Brer Rabbit), but Anansi doesn’t always win and the other characters often have his number. I remember as a child enjoying the Yiddish folklore trickster, Hershel of Ostropol, who was something of a court jester. The Bulgarian Хитър Петър (Sly Peter) is also a figure of fun and one of the non-animal stock characters.

I wonder if craftiness and trickery feature so prominently because Bulgaria spent so long—five centuries—as part of the Ottoman Empire. If one feels perpetually the little guy, does that mean that one sees guile as the way to stick it to the [Ottoman] man? And if that Ottoman Empire is replaced just two generations later by the Soviet empire, perhaps the same values seem, well, still valuable. And if one continues to read such folktales, is one continuing to inculcate values that in the present day might be outright disadvantageous to a country where honest dealings are needed to overcome the trickery that is today’s endemic corruption?

But to end on a lighter note. Here is my own retelling of a Bulgarian folktale in which Kuma Lisa’s mean-spirited trickery is vanquished by the goodhearted Ezhko Bezhko’s resourcefulness.

Ежко и Кума

Kuma Lisa and Ezhko Bezhko

One time, not so long ago, Kuma Lisa the fox and Ezhko Bezhko the hedgehog were as close as sister and brother, and went everywhere together. Wherever the fox went, the hedgehog went too. One day the fox said to the hedgehog. “Ezhko Bezhko, will you come with me to the farmer’s grapevines? We can feast on sweet grapes.”

“I’ll come Kuma Lisa, why shouldn’t I come? But I have to tell you, I’m scared that we’ll come to grief over it. Last night I had very bad dreams,” worried the hedgehog.

“Ooh, what’s wrong with you? When I’m with you, there’s no reason to be scared. I have who knows how many clever schemes—we’ll always find a way out!” boasted the fox. “But, um, do you have any tricks yourself?” she added.

“I know only three little tricks, but they are good little ones and I save them for a rainy day,” the hedgehog assured her. “Well, let’s go.”

Kuma Lisa and Ezhko Bezhko set off for the grapevines, crawled under the fence, and started to eat the sweet grapes. But wouldn’t you know it? Click!—Kuma Lisa got caught in a trap.

“Help! Oh my! Quick, Ezhko,” she yelled, “tell me one of your little tricks. I’m so scared I can’t remember any of mine.”

“Alright Lisa. Pretend that you are dead and when the farmer frees you, run for your life!”

Kuma Lisa stopped yelling. She closed her eyes. She lay very still. She breathed so softly no one could tell she was just pretending. Soon the farmer came. He saw Kuma Lisa lying on the ground with one leg in his trap. He freed her, just as Ezhko Bezhko had said. Kuma Lisa jumped up, ran like the wind, and crawled back under the fence to where Ezhko Bezhko was waiting for her on the other side.

Not many days passed and Kuma Lisa again suggested, “Let’s go, Ezhko, to eat sweet grapes from the farmer’s vines.”

“Did you forget, Lisa, that the last time you barely escaped with your fur still on you?” Ezhko asked.

“Come on, hurry up, whatever happens, I’ll take the responsibility! Whatever happens, I’ll think up some clever escape,” Kuma Lisa reassured him.

Ezhko Bezhko agreed to go and they set off for the grapevines. Soon they were enjoying the sweet grapes. But suddenly, the hedgehog fell into a pit!

“Help! Oh my! Quick, Lisa, help me” he called out. “How can I fool the farmer? You have a whole bagful of schemes and tricks, don’t you?”

“Oh, Ezhko,” sighed the fox, “I did know a lot, but I’ve forgotten them all. You’ll have to figure it out yourself as best you can,”

“Well then, Lisa,” Ezhko shrugged calmly, “it’s clear that there is no escape for me. But come closer now and we’ll kiss each other goodbye to seal our friendship.”

Kuma Lisa bent down over the edge of the pit. But instead of kissing her, Ezhko Bezhko jumped as high as his little legs could carry him and caught hold of Kuma Lisa’s nose!

Just then, the farmer appeared. As soon as Kuma Lisa saw him, she dashed away at top speed. And Ezhko Bezhko went with her, because he was still grabbing hold of her nose.

And that’s how Ezhko Bezhko used two of his good little tricks. And he still has one left, just in case.

 

 

 

 

Empire / Империя

I was listening to Terry Gross’s interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick and staff writer Evan Osnos and thinking about the psychology of empire. How does it feel to be the country whose name is imprinted on the empire, be it the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire? How does it feel to be one of the countries involuntarily made part of that empire, be that action by military might or political fiat? And what happens to the psyche of both when the empire, as all empires eventually do, ends?

The interview focused on Putin’s Russia and Remnick astutely noted that the end of an empire, even the end of a particularly dictatorial empire, is not always welcomed by all its citizenry.

“This was experienced not as a triumph by so many, but also as an incredibly disorienting, humiliating passage of history in which the great empire had disintegrated. … An economic depression came along that, for many people, was incredibly painful, like the ’30s in the United States. … A lot of people in Russia, exemplified by Putin, saw this as a crash followed by chaos, followed by poverty.”

Even without experiencing chaos and poverty, many in Britain felt the loss of empire on which the sun never set as disorienting and humiliating. How else to feel when all one’s education taught you to view the world as turning on your very particular axis?

Bulgaria had two medieval empires, but the second one ended in 1396 when the Ottoman Empire used a series of bloody military invasions to conquer it. Bulgaria remained part of the Ottoman Empire for the next 500 years. Even now, many Bulgarians can recall their childhood history textbook lesson on Tzar Simeon the Great (864-927) and the reach of his empire to three seas: the White Sea (Бяло море), the Adriatic Sea (Адриатическо море), and the Black Sea (Черно море).

But of course, it is the far more recent experience of empire that is the psychologically disorienting. From 1944-1989, Bulgaria was part of the Soviet Empire. As with the other “East Bloc” countries, Bulgaria was nominally an independent country, but the Soviet Union both directly and indirectly controlled the political, economic, cultural, and ideological activity. And while many certainly resented such interference, many also had some comfort in being part of something larger. Be it a cult or a club, a family or a tribe, a religious institution or a labor union—most people are buoyed by being a member of a group.

Remnick went on to say of the dissolution of the Soviet Empire:

“I think most Westerners experienced it and many Russian intellectuals and people of the rising, the nascent, middle class and educated people in particular, and people in cities, they experienced it largely as a great passage forward in history. And we forget that even then … a lot of people were made deeply anxious about this.”

Bulgarian intellectuals and those who had been part of what was for many years derided as the bourgeoisie as well experienced the fall of the Soviet Empire and true independence as a shaking off of the shackles and a great step forward. But construction of something entirely new does not immediately follow destruction of the old. Those who stood to lose everything fought to claw back what they could…and often far more than they had had previously. Corruption and poverty and uncertainty produced nostalgia for the very shackles that had tied them to stability and consistency. Anxiety can be debilitating and it’s natural to reach for what seems to be the cure. Much of Putin’s popularity in Russia may well be based on his ability to soothe that after-Empire anxiety for many of his countrymen.

Bulgaria’s anxiety was in party soothed by being a joiner, first of NATO and second of the European Union. One can be glad to now be part of that vaunted EU club, but still feel humiliation at being always referenced as the poorest member, the corrupt member, the suspect member, the member one doesn’t wholeheartedly welcome into one’s house.

russian-tankSo it is not altogether surprising that Bulgaria has voted for a president that had a career in the military and is considered “pro-Russia.” It is not surprising that various extreme candidates promising all sorts of certainty garner more votes than is healthy for a still nascent democracy. It is not surprising that people to whom empire was for 45 years a promise before abruptly being taken away should yet feel unsettled. What do Bulgarians just now reaching adulthood feel about their country’s place in the world? Do they see their world turning on a particular axis or is empire for them as historical a notion as the 20th century their parents lived through?

You Say Да, I Say Нет

kick-meLast week The New York Times published an articled entitled “Bulgaria Grows Uneasy as Trump Complicates Its Ties to Russia.” Given the media’s only rare nod to Bulgaria, it’s not surprising that journalists do not have sufficient acquaintance with its history to elucidate just how longstanding the Russian complications are. Thus the article has the following:

“With one foot in the West and the other in the East, Bulgaria has long engaged in a delicate balancing act…Countries like Bulgaria have spent decades balancing East and West, and playing one off the other.”

Well, there is nothing deceptive or untrue about that—except that the balancing has been going on for nearly four decades plus a century. Russian Tzar Alexander II is famed in Bulgaria as Alexander the Liberator since under his reign the 1878 victory in the Russian-Turkish War won Bulgaria its autonomy after five centuries of Ottoman rule. The autonomy was welcome, but Russia’s “little Slavic brother” felt compelled by circumstance and pressure by all and sundry to immediately perform its balancing act. It had to, as the treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Great Powers immediately had Russia (Treaty of San Stefano) battling Germany and Great Britain (Congress of Berlin) for control of Bulgaria’s new borders.

An enormous equestrian statue and monument to Alexander the Liberator is in Sofia’s city center directly opposite the National Assembly. But from 1878 to 1944, Bulgaria’s own tzars, prime ministers, politicians, and opinion leaders leaned variously eastward, westward, or kept the two sides guessing as to which way the Bulgarian wind was blowing.

Of course, the 1944-1989 period had no balance given the Soviet control over all of Eastern Europe. After the fall of communism, Bulgaria joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and became a full NATO member in 2004. General Hastings Lionel “Pug” Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, famously declared that the organization’s goal was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Notwithstanding German membership since 1955, Bulgaria clearly was thinking along the same lines as Lord Ismay in positioning itself with Western Europe and the United States, and thereby making a bid to “keep the Russians out.” Balance.

Language has played a role, both symbolically and as a matter of orientation. French and German were the leading foreign language choices in the early decades of the nation’s new autonomy. During communism, learning Russian as a second language was compulsory in Bulgaria as in the rest of Eastern Europe. Since 1989, the number of Russian speakers has declined and English has become the compulsory foreign language in the public schools.

Russia is not, to say the least, indifferent to the loss of its influence. It may well keep Bulgaria in its sphere by threat of economic punishment, but it certainly wants as well to solidify the emotional ties of Slavic brotherhood and religious connection.

In the heart of Sofia, there is an informal but well-used skateboard park set next to a very large monument to the Soviet army erected in 1954. The steps of the Monument to the Soviet Army (Паметник на Съветската армия) provide a convenient viewing area for both the audience and waiting skaters. This monument arouses strong emotions on opposing sides: keep it and get rid of it.

%d0%b2-%d0%ba%d1%80%d0%b0%d0%ba-%d1%81-%d0%b2%d1%80%d0%b5%d0%bc%d0%b5%d1%82%d0%beOn June 11, 2011, anonymous artists one night painted the bas relief sculpture on one side of the memorial. The bas-relief shows heroic Red Army soldiers moving forward. After the brightly colored paint job, the bas-relief showed the soldiers remade into Captain America, Superman, Wonder Woman, Santa Claus, the Joker and Ronald McDonald. As a final touch, large black capital letters spelled out “in step with the times.” The Russian government protested vigorously and indignantly at this shameful insult and the bas-relief was cleaned. A short documentary of the incident was later made and shown in a 2013 film festival in Poland. The monument has been repeatedly painted since—each time as a commentary on Russia power and influence either past or present.

Yet many Bulgarians are nostalgic for the Russia/former Soviet Union they know and with which they have an affinity, and uncomfortable with the West that often pressures changes they feel ill-equipped to make. They simply don’t feel in step with these particular times. Hence this past November they voted for an air force officer—the candidate of the Bulgarian Socialist Party—who made clear he wished to lean more towards Russia than the country had been leaning. Nevertheless Rumen Radev chose both in the 1990s and in the 2000s to further his military studies in the United States rather than in Russia.

Thus The New York Times quoted new Bulgarian president Radev as saying, “We have a clear road map to follow, [s]taying in the E.U. and staying in NATO. But at the same time, we have a deep historical relationship with Russia.”

Indeed. To repeat the NYT article, “With one foot in the West and the other in the East, Bulgaria has long engaged in a delicate balancing act.” It appears that this balancing act will continue many decades into the future.

Not About Politics

I have an unwritten rule that my blog will not discuss politics. Not because I do not have strong feelings about various matters political, but because most people do and the possibility of unknowingly giving offense is quite large. Giving offense is unpleasant and unproductive so one should try not to do it, however much politics seems often to depend on that very thing. I know more about U.S. politics than I care to and not enough about Bulgarian politics to form any but the most general of opinions.

I have lived both in Washington, DC and Sofia, Bulgaria, and so I know it is quite possible to live in a country’s capital and focus on the day-to-day of one’s family and friends, of errands and long walks, of work and leisure, of outings and of hours spent at home with a mug of tea and a book.

cartoonOur Bulgarian friends in Bulgaria often comment longingly on what they see as the absence of corruption, the rule of law, the lack of mafia influence, etc., etc. present in the United States. Our Bulgarian friends in the U.S. often comment to their children that here success doesn’t turn on one’s connections, that money doesn’t buy power, that this country, America, is a “normal country.”

I feel less sanguine about these assertions made on both sides of the pond. I am not full of happy talk about Bulgaria’s endemic corruption and other problems, but I am not sure anymore what constitutes a “normal country.”

politics-is-not-about-moneyOne doesn’t have to be a Christian to be familiar with Pope Gregory I’s famous list of seven deadly sins (седемте смъртни гряха). Not surprisingly, there is at least one website devoted to them. And also perhaps not surprisingly, the seven deadly sins seem fairly good descriptors of the current state of political affairs—or at least of the politicians.

  1. Lust (похот)
  2. Gluttony (чревоугодие)
  3. Greed (алчност)
  4. Sloth (леност)
  5. Wrath (гняв)
  6. Envy (завист)
  7. Pride (гордост)

So it seems at this juncture that the horizon of “normal” may be receding in one country while hazily if haltingly nearing in another. There is reprehensible behavior everywhere. One should call out that behavior loud and clear not merely in places it’s seen as entrenched, but in places it is trying to establish itself as a standard.

george-carlinFor myself, I can say that I am not feeling particularly proud of the United States right now, and wrath is getting the better of me too often. When not wrathful, despair over the naked and undisguised lust, gluttony and greed for power has some days made me quite slothful. I feel, therefore, a bit envious of our cynical Bulgarian friends. Their pessimism is so second nature that they manage just to get on with it and live their lives. Mine, and that of so many of my American friends, is an excruciating and galling thing—and however cynical we are it doesn’t seem enough to keep up with developments.

Perhaps we need to live in Bulgaria again, and soon. We’re certainly thinking about it.

albert-einstein

The Language of Music

“Music is,” said renowned American poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “the universal language of mankind.” When we moved to Sofia, Bulgaria in 2010, our son was three and a half years old. Yoan loved music. He sang incessantly then and, in the unselfconscious manner of very young children, without regard to the presence of others. So we might be at the playground at Седмочисленици (Sedmochislenitzi) and he would give a free impromptu concert standing not far from the church doors blissfully singing in succession the American folk song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” the Bulgarian children’s song “Хей ръчички” (“Hey Little Hands”), the Hebrew “Mah Nishtanah” chant (the Passover Seder recently having been celebrated), and Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”

violinYoan had also begun a very strong interest in the violin. As do so many cities, Sofia has its street musicians and he stopped before each one with great interest. For each, he requested coins to give and for each he gave long and undivided attention—particularly long and undivided attention to the violinists. He wanted lessons, he asked regularly, it was clear this was not a passing fancy.

%d0%bd%d0%b0%d1%86%d0%b8%d0%be%d0%bd%d0%b0%d0%bb%d0%bd%d0%be-%d0%bc%d1%83%d0%b7%d0%b8%d0%ba%d0%b0%d0%bb%d0%bd%d0%be-%d1%83%d1%87%d0%b8%d0%bb%d0%b8%d1%89%d0%b5We asked a good friend who is a flutist. Връзки (connections). A phone call, a name, another phone call, and when Yoan was four years old we found ourselves in one of the studios in the Национално Музикално Училище Любомир Пипков (Lubomir Pipkov National Music School) on Oboroshte Street for an audience with a renowned teacher. She sat at her piano and invited him to sing a song. “No,” he said. She was encouraging. He could sing anything he wanted. He pursed his lips. She suggested songs and began playing as an inducement. He pushed her hands aside so that he could try playing those extremely enticing white and black keys.

“He’s too young,” the renowned teacher pronounced. “Wait a bit more. He’s too small”

We the parents had no problem waiting. The four-year old was not so sanguine about either the waiting or being told he was too small. But the Suzuki method to teach very young children was not available in Sofia and so wait he must.

middle-cA year back in Washington, DC, and Yoan’s interest in learning to play the violin was undiminished. So at age six and a half, he began his lessons at Middle C Music. Classical guitarist Myrna Sislen is the owner and has created a stellar and warm musical community of professional musicians, students, and music lovers, and the teachers are excellent.

Yoan began violin lessons with Frederik Spiro, a former member of both the Albanian Radio Television Symphonic Orchestra and the Albanian National Opera and Ballet Orchestra. He’s been taking lessons from Frederik for 3-1/2 years now and regularly gives free impromptu concerts over the phone to his grandparents.

“Wenn Worte aufhören, beginnt die Musik” (“Where words leave off, music begins”), said German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine.

Nonetheless, I am struggling to find the words to begin. I speak to Yoan largely in Bulgarian. I know how to say цигулка (violin), струна (string), лък (bow), косми на конска опашка (horsetail hair), калъф за цигулка (violin case), нота (note), and музикален статив (music stand).

rosinBut I don’t know how to say “sheet music” so I haven’t been able to find Тих Бял Дунав or Мила Родино/Химн На Народна Република България, both of which Yoan would like to play for his father. I don’t know how to say “Did you tune your violin?” because I don’t know how to say “tune” in this context. I don’t know how to say “rosin” so I can’t sigh heavily while asking why that just purchased little box is on the floor to be stepped on and broken again.

So if you know or can direct me to such musical terms in Bulgarian, I’d be very grateful. Because though Shakespeare may be giving a fairly apt description of Yoan on a good day, I do need both words and book to manage.

He plays o’ the viol-de-gamboys, and speaks three or
four languages word for word without book,
and hath all the good gifts of nature.
(Twelfth Night, 1.3.24)

 

Happy New Year / Честита Нова Година

I often feel that I am supposed to be having a lot more fun on New Year’s Eve than I am actually having. If you stay home, it seems like just another evening and it’s easy to fall asleep before that magic midnight moment when the old year becomes the new. If you go out to some event, it seems that you’ve spent far more than you’ve gotten in return. Once we planned a quiet dinner and a classic movie with another couple and that made it easy to meet expectations. Too often, though, the big day is upon us all too soon and without the necessary planning.

Once in Sofia, though, our friends Nasso and Dessi suggested we spend New Year’s at Spaggo at 9 Dr. Peter Beron Street near the National Palace of Culture. We had been to Spaggo several times with them before and loved it. It was, at least for Rumen and me, a unique place because it had what Bulgarians refer to as a детски клуб (children’s club) on the second floor. You simply take your children to the second floor, sign an exceedingly brief form relieving Spaggo of obligation should your children injure themselves, and go back downstairs to enjoy the company of other adults and very nice mostly Italian cuisine.

The children are cared for and entertained by young, energetic, and very caring young women and the entire floor is a playground with soft play equipment, arts and crafts, and child-sized tables and chairs. You can send meals up to the children or having them eat downstairs and go back up again. They’re happy because they can be children and you’re happy because you can be adults with names and not merely parent-policemen moderating behavior and encouraging more salad before dessert. The fee for the children’s club was so minimal I’ve completely forgotten what it was. The value was, of course, incalculable.

Many times Rumen and I thought how much families in the United States would appreciate such a restaurant. Not a family restaurant, not a chain, not dull food, but an actual adult restaurant with ambiance, good food, AND a place for children. We imagined what a draw it would be, but at the same time knew that in the United States it would be simply impossible. Either the lawyers would make it prohibitive or the cost of the childcare would.

So when Nasso saw that Spaggo was planning a New Year’s Eve celebration complete with multi-course meal and DJ, we were in. We made reservations, chose our courses from the prix-fixe menu, and told the children they definitely were staying up past midnight (naps for all being the requirement).

The children now being old hands were eager to get to the second floor. We adults enjoyed a wonderful meal, danced like we hadn’t in years, and tried a few karaoke numbers with one of the waitresses happily accompanying me to the tune of “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash. Yes, Happy 1972 for a few musically nostalgic moments. Four-year old Yoan came down to see how we were doing, and immediately saw the possibilities of a microphone and a bigger audience than heretofore imagined. He promptly rattled off the entirety of “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—stunning his Bulgarian audience, most of whom very likely had no idea what hit them—concluding with “and to all a good night” before triumphantly running upstairs for more games and face-painting.

dessi-new-yearsmallSpaggo is no longer on Petur Beron Street, but they have other locations and are still offering the adult and young alike New Year’s Eve meals and entertainment. For that, and many other reasons, I wish I were celebrating the holiday in Sofia. Wherever you may happen to celebrate, whether in ways large or small, Happy New Year! Честита Нова Година. За много години!