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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.

politics

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.

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berthold-auerbach

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)

 

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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!

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10 Years in the European Union / 10 Години в Европейския Съюз

We like to organize time in easily measurable spans. We like to label those spans and ascribe certain characteristics to them. It’s all in retrospect, and in retrospect anew we re-label. The Dark Ages are now the Middle Ages and the longer we go on the more “Middle” seems a bit miscalculated, a misnomer needing a new name. We might now be in need of a second Age of Enlightenment and the world is still painfully reckoning with the fallout of the Age of Exploration. And of course of all of the foregoing is Eurocentric and says nothing of the way time is divided, referenced, and assessed by other cultures.

In our own lifetimes, we tend to fall back on the decade. And we tend to do the easy thing of measuring these spans of ten as beginning in a zero and ending in a nine even when, as in “The Sixties,” the cultural and political trends ascribed don’t actually begin and end so neatly.

However arbitrary a measure of time and whatever the starting and ending digits, a decade does allow us to take a fixed look at life in a way that would be insupportably broad without such parameters.

On January 1, 2017, Bulgaria will have been a member of the European Union for a decade. But even as the BBC noted the elation on January 1, 2007, it noted the lack of enthusiasm by other member states. The reckoning had already begun.

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The New Republic didn’t wait for the ten-year anniversary to damn EU membership when in 2013 it used Bulgaria as proof that “agreements with the European Union don’t always work in your favor.” Having neatly wrapped up the foregone conclusion, the article’s author found no necessity to take a look at the situation in Bulgaria pre-EU membership, let alone pre-1989.

Earlier this year in advance of the March 20 International Day of Happiness, Eurostat published the findings of its “new multi-dimensional data collection answering the question “How satisfied are people with their lives in the European Union?” It found that “residents in Bulgaria were by far the least satisfied.” Many such surveys about happiness and satisfaction have been done having nothing to do with the EU question and Bulgaria is perhaps singular in its constant position at or near the bottom. Consequently, whether EU membership has anything to do with longstanding Bulgarian pessimism is doubtful.

The London School of Economics’ Dimitar Bechev observed, “Joining the EU has not made Bulgarians happy…perhaps expectations were higher, they thought it was the silver bullet. Bulgarians saw their own government as problematic and Europe as the solution.” On the January 1, 2007 accession, The New York Times noted the closer-to-home pocketbook issue “Romania and Bulgaria, now the European Union’s poorest members, hope that membership will help them raise per-capita wealth, which is one-third of the union’s average.”

It’s clear no matter whom you ask that Bulgarians expected more out of EU membership than they have. They expected to be farther along in the battle against corruption, in judicial reform, to have less Kafkaesque bureaucracy and more effective institutions. They thought by now they would have more money in their pockets via having higher salaries and lower prices, less worry about the cost and efficacy of their children’s educations, better jobs that were obtained by merit and not by connections. They believed their cities would resemble those in western Europe as if EU membership conferred the eradication of the graffiti ubiquitous in even the best Bulgarian neighborhoods, the repair of all potholes, modern sewers and gutters, re-plastering of all building facades, and a good paint job when the other work was done.

Of course, there are major highways, environmental projects, educational and health system investment, business partnerships, entrepreneurial training, and other benefits of EU membership that can be seen throughout the country.

But naturally membership in the European Union, even after ten years, can only do so much.

The psychology of EU member benefit expectation and reality in Bulgaria may be something like this. If I were to swim regularly with a competitive swimmer, I would certainly improve my swimming. No doubt she would advise me, and my observations of her and my natural tendency to want to catch up would make me faster and better than I otherwise would be. But I would not be at her level because—natural talent aside—she started far earlier, has been on the international stage for many years, and has had a coach all along.

If I somehow embedded myself at the Supreme Court and listened to all the discussions made in conference and in the individual judges’ chambers, I would learn a tremendous amount about law, but no one would confer a Juris Doctor degree on me unless I myself successfully completed law school study.

If a team of volunteers cleaned and painted my entire apartment building and a group of miscreants and malcontents the very next day spray painted rude words all over the façade, the volunteers would more than likely not return nor would they go to the building next door to invest the same sort of effort.

passportWhen the BBC reported the January 1, 2007 accession, it quoted then Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov. Parvanov was enthusiastic and optimistic. He also gave a warning that seems to have been immediately forgotten or discounted.

“But let’s make it clear, our future success as a nation depends not on European funds and resources, but on our own work.”

Indeed it does. Perhaps this first decade can be labeled something akin to Bulgaria’s adolescence in the EU. Everything seems black and white. There’s some lashing out, there’s bad behavior, there’s testing the boundaries and a refusal to understand the consequences. Homework isn’t done and bad grades result and yet righteous indignation is the reaction of choice. There’s I have no friends in my new school and the popular kids don’t like me and the old gang (e.g., Russia) is beckoning and saying there’s still a place for me even though I don’t really like them anymore.

What will the second decade bring? The reckoning no doubt will begin even before another ten years passes.

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Close Proximity

The first time my husband left Bulgaria it was with his family for a New Year’s vacation in Bucharest, Romania. It was also the first time anyone of them had been on a plane and Rumen remembers his father muttering with closed eyes, hands gripping the armrests, that it would be the last time he would venture that again. They stayed with friends. Rumen’s father had met Emil Balunescu, a wrestling coach, by chance in a Sofia restaurant. My father-in-law Vladimir was known as a bon vivant, a joker, a hale fellow well met who liked to have a shot of the classic Bulgarian brandy rakiya (ракия, 50 grams, perhaps even 100 on occasion) together with a few slices of the classic Bulgarian hard salami lukanka (луканка).

Being from Kozlodui, my father-in-law spoke fluent Romanian. The villages in Bulgaria just along the southern shores of the Danube have long spoken what they refer to as Vlashki (Влашки). “Vlashki”—the word, not the language—may be derived from the southern region of Romania that used to be known as Wallachia and which ended at the natural border of the Danube’s northern shore. When Rumen was young, many older residents of Kozlodui had never learned Bulgarian, though those days have long passed. This was the case with my husband’s grandmother and so consequently my mother-in-law learned Romanian as a young bride and Rumen as a young child so that he could speak to his grandmother.

It was therefore easy for my father-in-law to strike up a conversion with Emil Balunescu, to feel—in the casual, uncomplicated connection that effortlessly becomes a real friendship in that part of the world—that they had a bond that would extend beyond the rakiya and lukanka. Perhaps they met in my father-in-law’s favorite restaurant, Grozd, on what used to be called Boulevard Russki before the fall of the Communist regime. Unbelievably enough, despite all the changes in Bulgaria over the intervening decades, Grozd is still there (Ресторант Грозд), but with a menu and ambiance my father-in-law likely wouldn’t recognize had he lived to see it. It’s certain he would be perplexed by the Spaghetti Bolognese for 12.90 leva and the cheesecake for 7.00 leva, both simply transliterated on the menu with the assumption that if you have to ask you shouldn’t be ordering it.

In Grozd or elsewhere, Emil Balunescu clearly was just as delighted by the chance meeting. He warmly invited his new friend to come for the New Year’s holiday to his home in Bucharest and wrote down the address. My father-in-law went home and the planning began. They made their first airplane reservations for the flight to Bucharest.

CPSU delegation on visit to Romania, 1970
Bucharest Otopeni International Airport, Communist Party of the Soviet Union delegation, 1970

It was the winter 1970. Excited by this first international trip, they arrived in what Rumen remembers as a really nice airport in Bucharest. They undoubtedly did not have the reception given a Soviet delegation in the summer that year. They took a cab to the Balunecus and knocked on the apartment door. The neighbors peered out to assess the visitors: Rumen, his father, and his eight-months pregnant mother. The Balunescus, the neighbors reported, were not at home. They had left for their New Year’s holiday in Pitești, about 75 miles northwest of Bucharest.

The Balunescus had no telephone in Bucharest. My in-laws had no telephone in Sofia. Almost no one they knew had a telephone. When I first went to meet my future in-laws in 1987, they still were waiting for a telephone. So no one had been able to call and confirm details of the inaugural flight, to confirm plans and discuss details. My in-laws had the address and to that address they went. Rumen remembers that no one seemed perturbed by any of the proceedings. Instead the neighbors invited them over. A hotel was out of the question. No one would have suggested it and no one would have had the resources for it. Over four decades later, Rumen remembers that first night in Romania with great pleasure. The neighbors gave him the best bed he had ever slept in, with beautiful, clean white sheets and the softest pillow.

The next day, the neighbors supplied them with the address in Pitești. Whether they were driven or took a bus isn’t clear all these many years later, but the Balunescus apparently showed no surprise at their guests’ appearance and welcomed them. They stayed with Emil’s father, the Balunescu patriarch and a Romanian Orthodox priest, who was dressed in black robes and welcomed them to his large home, perhaps the rectory. The Balunescu’s son was Rumen’s age and they quickly befriended each other. Rumen still remembers the long table at which meals were served and the many women in black who bustled around. After a few days, both families returned to Bucharest, a good time had by all.

star-wars-movie-posterThe second time my husband left Bulgaria, albeit with some difficulty in obtaining official permission to do so, it was 1978. He was 17 and traveling alone. He went first to Budapest and then to Lake Balaton. In the Budapest train station, there was a service to match travellers with rooms in private homes; we used the same service when together we found ourselves in Budapest from Bulgaria en route to DC in 1991. In Budapest, Star Wars was showing in the theaters. Rumen understood none of the English spoken, could read none of the Hungarian subtitles, but garnered enough of the plot to have bragging rights back in Sofia where the movie was a forbidden Western treat and not showing anywhere. Then he made his way to Siófok on the far eastern part of Lake Balaton, sleeping in the train station with other backpackers and encountering only token resistance from the police.

lake-balatonEva Hoffman, in her excellent Exit into History: A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe, writes about the way in which a group of people—friends, relatives, multiple families—are able to share living quarters without undue fuss or discomfort. She writes specifically about a vacation house on Hungary’s famous Lake Balaton. It is clear from the beaches and resort towns clustered around the nearly 100-mile long freshwater lake that the Hungarians “take their vacations seriously and do them with zest.” I think about Hoffman’s description when I think about the Romanian vacation. Her observation below is equally true of how we lived for a year in my mother-in-law’s one-bedroom apartment for a year after my father-in-law passed away—with my mother-in-law sleeping in the kitchen, we in the living room, and my brother-in-law in the bedroom:

“The house where I stay with friends is shared by several families, and during the day the garden is occupied by people engaged in their different activities: a grandmother knitting, a father playing ball with his son, people eating picnic lunches, and my three friends working on their various manuscripts in the sun. Somehow, no one disturbs anyone else, and the mornings pass in companionable quiteness. In “civilized” circles, the culture of coexistence seems highly developed here, and people seem to have learned the trick of being neither unduly reserved nor getting in each other’s way: the better lessons of living in close proximity.”

The third time my husband left Bulgaria, it was 1985. He defected, obtained political asylum in the United Stations, and had no notion that he would ever be able to return to Bulgaria. Many years have passed. We have lived in small apartments, a large maisonette, and a substantial house. We have lived in Sofia twice for two-year periods and many years in DC. At this moment, we are again living in a small space. Our young son is unperturbed. Our teenage daughter wants her own room. Sometimes I think of Virginia Woolf’s classic A Room of One’s Own and long for that for myself.

But I also find Hoffman’s observation admirable and well worth pursuing not just for oneself but for ones’ children. Perhaps mine will look back on this period in their lives and find that long before college dorms, they had learned “the better lessons of living in close proximity.” If we can, we’ll throw into the mix a vacation at Lake Balaton though we’ll be sure to find better accommodations than the train station.

six-degrees-of-separation

Degrees of Separation

It’s not exactly true that all roads lead to Bulgaria. It’s perhaps not even true that there are six degrees or less of separation between everything else in the world and Bulgaria. But it is true that I often find myself thinking about or surprised by steps that seem to inexorably lead to Bulgaria.

Here’s an example. My husband has seasonal allergies. My son has seasonal allergies. I silently pooh-poohed my husband’s request to get local honey to help alleviate allergic sensitivity, but gave the idea a bit more credence when the pediatrician said it just might help. I should have had more faith in my husband, I know. But whether I believed it or not, the search for local honey was—forgive any unintended food pun—fruitless. And as I browsed the honey on offer at the supermarket, at Trader Joe’s, at Whole Foods, I thought how easy this would be if we were in Bulgaria. We would visit relatives in Kozlodui who would certainly press upon us jars of their own honey. Or walk down Graf Ignatiev Street in Sofia and buy a jar or two from one of the many women coming in from the villages to sell their wares. Or come upon a hand-lettered sign on a main road fronting a small stand with jars of honey when coming back from some trip or another.

 

Allergy→Local Honey→Bulgaria

 

Another example borne from the first. Thinking about honey naturally makes one think about bees. The first time I was ever stung by a bee, I was less than four years old. I don’t think I remember the sting on my finger at all. But I remember the aftermath because we were at the zoo and my physician father knew that sugar can draw out the bee sting’s toxin and reduce pain and swelling. Thus cotton candy was bought for the purpose and a strip wound around my finger. I ate it right off. A new strip was wound. I ate that one off too. I don’t know how often this was repeated, but either the sugar on my finger or the sugar in my mouth took the pain away. The second time I was stung, I was ten or twelve and it was my own fault for presuming that the bee floating in the swimming pool was dead when instead it recovered full and vindictive energy the instant I cupped it in my hand to throw it out of the water. The third incident was the first time I was taken to Kozlodui in 1993. A young cousin was taking us on a walk in the center of town. She was eager to question me about all things American. “Как е хамбургер на англиски?” (“What is hamburger in English?), she asked. I had just answered “hamburger,” when a bee stung me on the thigh. She felt badly. Neither ice nor захарен памук (cotton candy) was available. The pain passed. I’ve returned to Kozlodui many times, but never been stung there again.

 

Honey→Bee→Bee Sting→Bulgaria

 

The Washington Post newspaper awards “Pinocchios” for lies, egregious and not so egregious, as part of its campaign Fact Checker series. Perhaps regrettably, the noses of politicians so awarded do not seem to grow with every lie they tell. After the fall of communism in the East Bloc, expatriate George Ganchev returned to his native land and started a political party called the Bulgarian Business Bloc. He ran for president three times, quite unsuccessfully, but did win a seat in parliament. Early this year, he announced his fourth bid. On the BTV channel he proclaimed, “I am running for president, because I can’t look at what is happening here. For me it is an honor to be a Bulgarian, that’s why I am 26 years in my fatherland.” He proposed as his running mate a general accused of embezzlement, but Ganchev called him a hero. In 1994, Ganchev was much in the news, perhaps as much for the novelty of his anglicized first name and right wing views as for anything else. Though one can’t discount the attention-attracting power of his twin passions of fencing and theater combined with entitling his party a “Business Bloc.” No experience in government service in Bulgaria, the UK, or the U.S.—in all of which he has lived for extended periods. The satirical television program Kanaleto pounced. Periodically a Pinocchio puppet would appear, with a clear resemblance to the big man with his Hitlerite facial hair. The puppet would appear to quote Ganchev and his nose would grow and grow. Perhaps The Washington Post would have done well to give such a pictorial. Despite his name recognition and his long years striving for votes, George Ganchev and his Christian Social Union party received only 0.73% of the vote on November 6.

 

The Washington Post→Political Candidates→Lying→Pinocchio(s)→Bulgaria

 

Less than six degrees of separation between almost anything and Bulgaria. Surprising how often that happens.

The Balkans Explained - 50p.

The Balkans / Балканите

toonpool.com Tchavdar Nikolov2

 

The Balkans. The highest peak in the Balkans is Musala in Bulgaria. The U.S. State Department has a Balkan region policy that includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia but not Bulgaria. Politics, semantics, diplomacy.

politicalcartoons-com-christo-komarnitski

 

The Balkans, geographically speaking, is also referred to as the Balkan Peninsula, easternmost of Europe’s three great southern peninsulas. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists the countries therein as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. The Encyclopaedia Britannica also confesses that, “There is not universal agreement on the region’s components.”

 

Even the Balkans, it seems, can be balkanized. Goodbye to Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe and hello to the Western Balkans—though, strangely, there doesn’t seem to be the corollary one would expect in references to the “Eastern” Balkans. The United Nations and the European Commission both have programs and reports and round tables on what’s being done and not done in the Western Balkans. There is a web portal devoted to this new piece of an old region. It’s aptly titled European Western Balkans, though that does beg the question of what other continents may contain a “Western Balkans.”

The Oxford University Press’s dictionary defines “balkanization” as Divide (a region or body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups. The term was coined to describe what happened as the Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe” was giving out its last gasps and all its bits and pieces found their long-lost nationalism in making aggressive territorial claims on the other bits and pieces. Two Balkan Wars ensued as did World War I.

condenaststore-com-the-balkansThe Balkans, in whole or in part, geographically, historically, diplomatically, semantically, west or east—what really does that name tell us? Any story it might tell is disingenuous, because even when it was coined it described a past and not a present, let alone a future. And because whenever it has been used, it has meant different things to different people who all imagined they understood the same single and true story behind it.

 

The Balkans. Using this term is like talking about Africa. What can one say about an entire continent that has any real meaning? What can one say about the Balkans that has any real meaning? And yet people will go on and talk about Africa in a way they do not ever seem to talk about North America.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke famously about “the danger of the single story…The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” The single story promulgated again and again about the Balkans is that it is tribal, war-torn, with bred-in-the-bone hatreds from time immemorial. The Balkans, as Adichie lamented about Africa, are spoken about as one single, seething mass—a single story.

For me, this blog To Bulgaria and Back in large part aims to do the opposite. I try to tell many different stories about a single “Balkan” country, Bulgaria. If you have stories to tell, please do share them.

ww1-cartoons-raven-hill-punch-magazine-1915-09-29-263

look-back-in-laughters

Look Back in Laughter / Обърни се със смях на зад

I need to read more in Bulgarian. I have been saying this since the mid-1990s. Had I been reading in Bulgarian steadily since, my vocabulary would be far richer. Thus just before our summer vacation in Bulgaria ended, I marched into Booktrading, my favorite bookstore in Sofia, and asked the lovely young woman there for help. “What do you recommend that’s not a translation from the English [my usual go-to], that’s modern and light, but not too frivolous or a love story, something not too long, something humorous without too much slang, something I could possibly enjoy truly reading without it being instead an exercise in dictionary use?”

It was a tall order and she was not only unfazed but enthusiastic. She seemed delighted by the challenge, excitedly pulling books off the shelves. In the end, I bought two. One is called Обърни се със смях на зад, Turn Back in Laughter by Mihail Veshim. Veshim in his introduction notes that his title is inspired by John Osborne’s famous 1956 play, Look Back in Anger.

I had never heard of Mihail Veshim so I can’t say if he is universally loved or reviled, critically respected or a bestseller in Bulgaria. What I can say is that the lovely young saleswoman at Booktrading succeeded marvelously in filling my tall order. I am reading this book of short essays with pleasure, with understanding, and yes, with laughter.

The essays are satirical and pointed, specifically Bulgarian with enough observations about general human nature and modern life to be broadly understood. So I thought I would give you my translation of one of Veshim’s essays entitled “Реклама-Мама” (“Reklama-Mama,” the English translation “Advertising-Mama” doesn’t have the same satisfying rhyme).

Let’s reduce the volume of the advertisements, they decided in CEM [Съвет за електронни медии, Center for Electronic Media].

I remember a French caricature twenty years or more ago—the speaker on the screen announces to the listeners: “And now for those of you who were in the bathroom during the advertisements, we will repeat them.”

At that time for us the advertisements weren’t such a scourge—we had two programs on television, and in the stores there were no goods. Whatever they released—on television, and in the stores—sold…on account of the absence of anything else.

For this reason the French caricature didn’t seem to me especially witty. Only now in Bulgaria has its time come.

Its time didn’t come all at once, but gradually. Gradually the advertising replaced journalism—in print and in electronic media. First one of the owners of a foreign newspaper group, which used to lead the newspaper market in Bulgaria, admitted “the role of journalism,” said the foreigner, “is to fill in the empty spaces between the advertisements…”

The same symbolic doctrine started to hold as well in television, old and new—the task of their nimble anchors, reporters, and team was to fill the spaces between the advertising blocks.

Thus journalists—sometimes obviously, sometimes secretly, sometimes paid, sometimes as a friendly gesture—turned themselves into advertisers—not only for food and everyday goods. But as well for political goods—parties, coalitions, and leaders. Which afterwards did not give out the goods, but the people chose them and that’s mostly because of their beautiful media images and high ratings created on the screen.

After which the advertising obliterated the journalism like white correction fluid. Already there is no literary criticism to tell you which book to choose and which not. There is advertising—the raising of noise from the publisher, from the author’s friends, or from the author himself. The writer pats his own back—this is something ordinary, we see it everyday and it passes for normalcy. It passes for normalcy when from his own pocket the writer pays the critic in order to praise him in public and afterwards to print a review in some publication. And one literary publisher directly gives out its rates—50 leva for a review for a newly published book. Laudatory, of course.

The same situation as well in the cinema—the praises for successes are greater than the successes. But the television series have thought up even an even more successful formula for the acquisition of resources—product placement. The hero lights his cigarette with a lighter showing a definite brand, drinks a carbonated drink showing a definite brand, eats a sandwich from one chain of snack bars, fills the gas tank from only one chain of gas stations.

In this way the producers of the series positioned themselves like the proletariat at one time*—they stand to lose nothing except their chains. Their chains of snack bars and gas stations. For the listeners they could care less.

Recently a PR woman from a large and rich firm told me that a producer of a new television series came to her with a few suggestions for a product placement—in the episodes only the firm’s logo will be seen, their firm’s brand products will be included in the dialogue of the leading characters, and—most enticing—the screenwriters will write a special episode on the activities of the firm… A question of a little contract and of accounting.

So in all the arts in Bulgaria the most important is the accounting. And the product placement. Therefore the inscription before the series should read: “Within the product placement there is a little film”

What do we do meantime? Prime time…

… Let’s reduce the volume of the advertisements, they decided in CEM [Съвет за електронни медии, Center for Electronic Media].

The regulatory agency finally succeeded in regulating something…at least it turned the “volume” to “min.”

For many years I have expected from CEM different regulations—to turn down the level of the stupidity on the screen. And not just once have I written about this. But from the agency they have answered—not to me personally but to the viewers, indignant about the obscenity in the shows—that it’s none of our business.

It’s none of their business to sanction the obscenity, the vulgarity, and the stupidity. They could not impose censorship, restrict this particular kind of humorous and free display. And besides the showmen comply with regulations—they use obscenity, but with a red dot [warning viewers]…

If I had power, I would place a red dot on CEM. But be still my heart…

But my heart is not still when I call to mind one quiet Christmas Eve night when we were at home decorating the tree in a celebratory mood, when all at once a voice from the screen startled us: “Only Jaro could produce such shit!…”

The public television spoke to us, that’s how it chose to advertise its series. That television supported by our taxes.

“Not just Jaro,” I said to my children, “and others can produce it.”

* The proletariat was said to have nothing to lose except its chains.

 

 

 

2013-bulgarian-school2

The (Bulgarian) School Year Begins

The Bulgarian school year always starts on September 15. The school year for Bulgarian weekend schools outside of Bulgaria starts on the closest Saturday to that date. That’s today. So my 15-year old daughter and 9½ -year son gave up the first of many Saturday afternoons until the end of May and trooped off to St. Kliment Ohridski Bulgarian Educational and Cultural Center. They complain from time to time, but they go. Each year, we ask them do they want to go the following year and they say yes. So it appears that having Bulgarian friends, hearing the Bulgarian language, celebrating Bulgarian holidays, and being surrounded by Bulgarian culture has value not merely to parents but to the children themselves.

The St. Kliment Ohridski school in Washington, DC was founded in 2002 and it is one of many such weekend Bulgarian schools and educational centers throughout the world. In 2007, our founding director Boian Koulov helped found the Sofia-based Association of Bulgarian Schools Abroad. The Association’s website lists over 80 members. The Bulgarian Ministry of Education supplies textbooks specifically written for Bulgarians abroad and provides financial support through its Native Language and Culture Abroad program.

Still, it’s not easy. The teachers are all native speakers, the books in Bulgarian, the cultural programming upholds tradition and custom. But as soon as the children go out for recess, they speak in English. They sneak Pokemon cards in the fourth grade or linger getting coffee in the ninth. But they do maintain a connection to the land of their birth, or their parents’ birth, and they see themselves as citizens of two countries. It’s not like the Diaspora of earlier immigrant groups wherein once the move was made, you stayed. Once the first generation assimilated, the language was lost. To go back and forth, to hold both countries, both languages, both cultures in your life and mind at the same time, it wasn’t done, wasn’t possible. You were there, or here. There was before, and after.

But not anymore. If you haven’t fled from war and/or oppression, or at least there isn’t still today war and/or oppression, you can in fact have it all. The world, as we so often are told, is small and technology makes it smaller. The old country isn’t a picture frozen in time at the moment of departure. It keeps developing and we are there. Bulgaria’s old Soviet-style concrete panel apartment blocks become the jumping off point—literally—for a cool youtube video that could only be made today.

 

Whole Foods has Bulgarian feta (though you can get it cheaper at the food mecca of the entire Bulgarian Diaspora in the U.S., malincho.com). Etsy sells Bardo Art Bags, handmade Bulgarian purses and totes. This year’s New York Independent Film Festival screened the Bulgarian film Losers. Rick Steves recently touted Bulgaria as a vacation destination in The Seattle Times. It’s not everywhere, it’s not often, but if you open your eyes wide enough, you can find Bulgaria’s presence without having to get on the plane. That’s important because when you and your children do get on that plane, and then the requisite second plane, and arrive in Bulgaria, you and they will find that the country doesn’t seem a foreign one. There’s no culture shock, just culture calm and familiarity. That makes school on Saturday afternoons well worthwhile. I think even the children might admit to that.