Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Glass Is Half Empty

In 2009, the University of Kansas and Gallup presented the findings from a survey of more than 150,000 adults in more than 140 countries, a representative sample of 95% of the world’s population. “[The] results provide compelling evidence that optimism is a universal phenomenon,” said Matthew Gallagher, lead researcher of the study. Indeed, it appeared from the study that optimism could be found in countries rich and poor and in people young and old. But not, apparently, in Bulgaria, which ranked first in pessimism along with Zimbabwe, Egypt and Haiti.

light at end of tunnel

The results were not altogether surprising. Bulgarians cultivate pessimism with an almost peculiar sense of care and national pride. The origins of Bulgarian pessimism are unclear. Could it be rooted in the five centuries under the Ottoman Empire that Bulgarians for years referred to as “the Turkish yoke”? Could it be the inheritance of 45 years of Communist dictatorship that a large part of the current population lived through? Could it be the near collapse of the country politically and economically during the mid-1990s? Well, it could be any or all, but the University of Kansas and Gallup found optimism in countries with equal or worse histories to those of Bulgaria.

The Geography of Happiness

Whatever the reason, Bulgarian levels of dissatisfaction and general pessimism run deep and wide and not just in 2009. The rather dramatically titled “Global Barometer of Hope and Despair for 2011” aimed to ferret out people’s feelings about what the coming year might bring. In response to the question “So far as you are concerned, do you think that 2011 will be better, or worse than 2010?,” only 21% of Bulgarians thought the year to come would be an improvement. Bulgarians almost defiantly insist that as the poorest country in Europe economic difficulty is a matter of course. A lower living standard than in Western Europe in truth serves the country well by providing the theme upon which all authentic Bulgarian café conversation of any length is based. The economic means for adequate supplies of small potent cups of coffee (espresso by another name) and cigarettes can somehow always be found to energize the sometimes mournful, sometimes energetic debate that fed a 2010 worldwide economic study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Reporting on the NBER study’s conclusions, The Economist magazine noted “the saddest place in the world, relative to its income per person, is Bulgaria.”


More recently, the World Happiness Report has assessed the state of global happiness in 2012, 2013, and 2015. In 2012, Bulgaria came in tenth from the bottom, seemingly happier only than Congo, Tanzania, Haiti, Comoros, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Benin, and Togo. In 2013, Bulgarians were a tad less morose, coming in at 144 of 156 countries. By the 2015 report, Bulgarians were comparatively ecstatic at number 134 of 158 countries studied. So there is some improvement. Nevertheless, Ivan Krastev, head of the Sofia-based NGO Centre for Liberal Strategies, only one minute into his 2012 TED Talk felt he should warn his attendees that “according to the surveys, [Bulgarians] are among the most pessimistic people in the world.”

Over the years I’ve been visiting and living in Bulgaria, I have sometimes been reminded of the character Glum in the old “The Adventures of Gulliver” cartoon: “It’s hopeless;” “We’re done for;” “We’ll never make it, never.” Sometimes conversations play out with one or more in a Bulgarian gathering playing the Glum character and the others countering with what should be the self-evident examples of all the positive changes that have developed in Bulgaria since 1989. By no means is everyone you meet filled with doom and gloom. But generations of living with a pervasive and very real fear of a repressive regime quick to silence, however much that fear might have been largely in the background as people carried out their daily lives, has led to a natural reticence, an instinctive reserve and a tendency to disparage and underrate as a protective measure against at best disappointment and at worst real loss. Babies born in 1989 are now university-age students with no memory of a dictatorship, but many parents have taught by word or deed that same glum worldview. For many, despite the fact that the glass may in fact be half full if not sloshing over the rim, pessimism is an engrained cultural habit.


Europeans across the continent often comment on the degree of friendliness shown by Americans and this might be explained by the American tendency not to separate one’s public, social face from that one shown in private with friends and family. In many European cultures, however, one learns early how to draw a line between public and private behavior and this is true in Bulgaria as well. Civil servants, from a Ministry staffer to a city bus driver, seemingly cannot conceive of smiling during the working day—not professional, not good form—and would be astounded to learn what Americans consider to be an essential part of the good customer service they so highly value. In 1997, when the Bulgarian “socialist” (read former communist with a new name) government headed by Jan Videnov collapsed in the face of national protest against colossal economic mismanagement and hyperinflation, Sofia mayor Stefan Sofiyanski was appointed interim prime minister. One evening, the dark-haired and handsome 46-year old Sofiyanski appeared on the television news. I’ve long forgotten what the topic was or what his reassurances were in order to regain people’s confidence, but I do recall that he did not at all present a grim face and in fact seemed cheerful and optimistic, a real person instead of an automaton. Then the camera passed on to a Bulgarian woman watching him nearby and recorded her appalled reaction “Why is he smiling? I don’t see what he’s got to smile about.”

The reverse side is the absolutely tremendous, wonderful private face; the generous hospitality, the gift of one’s time, table and friendship. Hours are spent entertaining adults and children alike, whether with lavish meals or a few mezze (small dishes or appetizers)—no one looks at a watch, no one has a prior commitment or must dash off or conforms to a strict regime in getting the children to bed; there are no rigid children’s schedules to control the social interactions of the adults in their midst. No host or hostess would dream of even hinting that the guests should begin to make their way home—whether the gathering is in a restaurant or in someone’s apartment. Meet someone through a friend or even use that friend’s name as a calling card and that someone will be unstinting with kindness and attention and invitations to meet again or to show you his/her town if living elsewhere. When we travel, we look for semayni hoteli (family hotels). Getting to know the family adds to the pleasure of the travel itself. Despite all of the professionally documented and personally observed pessimism that certainly continues, if undeniably abating, what I miss most about living in Bulgaria is the warmth and generosity of the people and the time that is always available to spend together.

Book Archeology at 37 Han Krum Street

We had been living in our rented apartment at 37 Han Krum in Sofia for some time before I paid much attention to the bookshelves the owner had left behind. Then one day, I began examining and sorting them out. They were published during the period 1950-1990. In some way, they represented Bulgaria during these 40 years—and not just in the world of literature and publishing. In some way, these book titles, subjects, authors and publishers had something to say about what people and/or their government were thinking or being told to think, experiencing or not being allowed to experience.

Зигмунд Фроид

From finding a book I might read, I moved to viewing the volumes as a literary archeological dig. Instead of stratified layers of dirt, the books offered their subjects and publishers. Instead of looking for soil shapes and colors, I looked at titles and themes. Instead of the context of found objects being their physical location, the context of the books was the political mood of the time. The impact of over 40 years of communism in Bulgaria as well as the changes since 1989 was clear. Highly censored were each and every book and publishing house, but I had free rein to sort the books as I saw fit. Without the experience of growing up in what was a totalitarian state—one in which the Sigmund Freud book my husband for years requested in the national library was always dutifully reported as being “out for repair”—I felt free to sort the books into categories as I saw fit. I didn’t have the knowledge or reference points to be able to recognize books or authors or ideologies, but on the other hand I was free from emotional baggage as I sorted away according to my own ideas and sensibilities. Here are some sample finds.

Layer 1: Publishing Houses

Милан Асадуров

Despite the Bulgarian state being the only legal publisher and the owner of all publishing enterprise, it mimicked the appearance of a varied publishing industry with multiple players by establishing not only publishing organizations with individual names and specialties, but distinct series or “libraries” within. In 1979 Milan Asadurov had an idea for a new series of popular fiction, the Galactic Library, and procured 500 books from the United States for this purpose. For this idea and the 500 books, he and his colleagues were held for several months by the secret state security apparatus. Released after Asadurov provided evidence that these same titles were translated and published in the Soviet Union, he apparently had not bothered to mention that the staff of the Moscow-based Young Guard publishing house had been dismissed 11 years prior for ideological sabotage.


For 19 years, the Galatic Library published over 120 works of science fiction and crime/detective novels by Bulgarian and foreign authors including Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendevous with Rama, Arthur Hailey’s Airport, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely—thus managing to survive for nearly a decade after the state system that birthed it had itself ceased to survive.

Layer 2: Bulgarian Authors

The publisher People’s Youth is the former publishing arm of the Central Committee Dimitrov Communist Youth Union (known more commonly as the Komsomol, an acronym formed from the Russian organization it mirrored). Clearly our landlady enjoyed People’s Youth author Angelina Dicheva (or perhaps she was a personal friend) as the author wrote notes and signed three books, Surfing in the Ocean of Workdays, Dreams in Jeans and Safaris and—for publishing house Profizdat—With Palms I Cover the Fire. Bulgaria has no surfing, no safaris or, at the time these books were published, jeans available only from abroad or through special hard currency stores inaccessible to all save western diplomats, visitors and the elite nomenklatura. What became of Angelina Dicheva after Bulgaria’s political and social changes? If she’s active, she’s managed to keep those activities off-line; not even the Bulgarian version of Wikipedia has a contemporary mention of her or her books.


People’s Youth also published artist, author (11 novels and short story collections) and professor Evgeni Kuzmanov’s Seagulls Far from Shore; during a 1999 state visit, Bill Clinton was presented with one of Kuzmanov’s sculptures as a gift from the Bulgarian people.

Publishing house Science and Art released Yaroslav Radev’s Thoughts in 1980, Radev being an academician and “the right hand” of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, who led Bulgaria for 35 years. Thoughts contains 1127 epigrams by Radev. Epigram number one presents itself as a rather cryptic axiom:“Nature contains in itself everything and is a measure of nothing.” The last, epigram number 1127, is “The community must repent that it doesn’t exterminate in turn the evil-doers.” I prefer Oscar Wilde’s “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” Radev died at age 89, ten years after the Berlin Wall and the Communist dictatorship in Bulgaria fell. His body, already cold, was found in the entrance of his apartment, dark due to the electricity being cut off, while his 80-year old wife explained to the inquiring neighbor that Radev was simply resting.

Layer 3: The Russian Impact

From the time of the 1877-1878 Russian-Turkish war in which the Russian victory gave Bulgaria autonomy after 500 years of Ottoman rule to the end of World War II when the USSR firmly esconsed Bulgaria in its orbit, Bulgaria was heavily influenced by its “Slavic brother” on the other side of the Black Sea. Their shared Cyrillic alphabet and the communist Bulgarian education system’s requirement that all students learn Russian allowed Soviet/Russian culture an outsized presence and importance in Bulgaria. So our landlady’s books include the likely not intentionally ironically named Little Soviet Encyclopedia (1959), all nine volumes of which are over 1200 pages. English textbooks published in Russian, a 1975 hagiographic biography of Nikolai Ivanovich Kuznetzov (per the book cover “the glorious Soviet chekist,” the Cheka being the predecessor of the infamous state security apparatus, the KGB) published by the State Military publishing house under its Invisible Front Series imprint.

Сивата Сова

Russian poet and novelist Mikhail Prishvin (1873-1954) had a particular interest in nature and his 1949 The Gray Owl follows Native American man Gray Owl and his relationship with the animals around him, particularly beavers. An unspecified “state publisher” printed the Bulgarian translation in 1966 under the Neptune Library imprint. Neptune might have been a useful rubric for environmentally-themed books, because the same “state publisher” and “Neptune Library” published the 1971 Bulgarian translation of Slovakian ichthyologists Eugen Balon and Ján Seneš’ Expedition Key Largo: Natural History of the Antilles Coral World. Austrian diving pioneer and zoologist Hans Hass’s 1957 We Come from the Sea was also brought out by the Neptune Library. Unfortunately, Neptune Library, like all of Bulgarian publishing of the time, printed on less than optimum paper with less than optimum legibility and its photo reproduction was extremely poor—truly egregious when one is illustrating the beauty and power of the natural world. The same horrendous photographic quality was evidenced in publishing house Zemizdat, when it published a 1976 translation of Silesian-German zoologist and author Bernhard Grzimek’s Among Animals of Africa. Professor Grzimek fared better with publisher Science and Art’s 1967 translation of his 1964 book Serengeti Shall Not Die; possibly that’s why Science and Art is still publishing.

Named in 1964 “Hero of Socialist Labor,” General Lieutenant Ivan Vinarov was a communist from the time of the first world war, a member of the USSR’s Red Army, an intelligence officer in China, commander in the second world war, one of the creators of the Bulgarian People’s Army, holder of various Bulgarian government positions, principal creator of the Kaylaka park and reserve near his birthplace in Pleven, and apparently had the time to author Fighters on the Quiet Front in 1988. It must have been popular (or perhaps required reading) as the copy on the shelf is from the third printing by Partizdat, publisher of party literature in Bulgaria under the communist government.

Layer 4: Translations

In 1985, the publisher People’s Culture put out Norwegian author and Nobel Prize Laureate Sigrid Undset’s 1911 Jenny. People’s Culture also published German author and Nobel Prize Laureate Hermann Hesse’s 1919 Demian. Publishing acknowledged classics that pre-dated the 1949 Communist takeover was a safe move, less likely to be found to be politically incorrect at a later time. Despite this, publisher Christo G. Danov dared (but didn’t exactly put its neck out) released more contemporary works, like Spanish author Juan Goytisolo’s The Island, first published by Havana’s Revolutionary Edition. Goytisolo likely appealed to both his Cuban and Bulgarian publishers as an outspoken bourgeois-born convert to Communism who had visited Cuba, initially supported Fidel Castro’s revolution, and continues to critique post-Franco Spain in his work. Surprisingly the same publisher did seem to put its neck out by publishing in 1967 Scottish physican and author A.J. Cronin’s memoir Adventures in Two Worlds—though Dr. Cronin’s lineage, upbringing, career, and life choices were as bourgeois as could be.


Bulgarian Agricultural National Union waited until 1990 and the fall of the Communist government to publish French author Henri Troyat’s Snow in Mourning. Troyat was born Lev Aslanovich Tarasov in Moscow of wealthy parents who relocated to France after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Thus the publisher’s notes at the back include the heading “New Themed Series: Banned Books” and list the now possible-to-be-released The Facism by Zhelyu Zhelev, former dissident and first democratically elected President of Bulgaria. The Facism had originally been published in 1982, but the controversial work comparing socialism to fascism was banned and removed from bookstores and libraries only three weeks later. Also listed is Nedialko Geshev’s Belene: Island of the Forgotten about one of the most infamous forced labor and concentration camps in Bulgaria’s homegrown gulag and Yosif Petrov’s Cry from the Penal Colony about the improbable creation of poetry in Belene.

Detective and mystery fiction seem to have been safe from political analysis and judgment. Publisher Fatherland collected stories by luminaries such as Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, and George Simenon and published it as Tangled Trail. Publisher Christo G. Danov had its pulse on Soviet detective fiction, putting out Russian author Arkady Adamov’s Loop, second in a trilogy centered on Inspector Losev.

Hans Helmut Kirst

History is always fraught with problems in a Communist society. The power of propaganda in controlling and convincing the population was crucial to sustaining the system, and that meant utter control over history, Communist and pre-Communist. So Partizdat published German author Hans Hellmut Kirst’s Aufstand der Soldaten about the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler—a safe, anti-fascist choice. Georgi Bakalov published Italian Renaissance scholar and traveler Antonio Pigafetta’s First Voyage Around the World—a safe, staid choice originally published in the late 18th century. Fatherland Front was perhaps offering a warning about criminality when it published French-American Rene Belbenoit’s Dry Guillotine, an account of his imprisonment and escape from the French Guiana penal colony—don’t let this happen to you!

Recently I did some research on the Library of Congress website. In addition to the Bulgarian material available at the LOC, I discovered that you can link directly to Bulgaria’s National Library Saints Kiril and Metodi, precisely the library in which my husband tried to find Sigmund Freud. There’s even an electronic catalog listing 55 volumes by Freud. All but three of these date from 1990, but those published in 1927, 1932, and 1947 have presumably had their repairs completed by now.

Help Wanted for “Summer Help”

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Melody Gilbert is making a film about two Bulgarian university students working in the United States during their summer break from school. It’s called The Summer Help. Take a look at the trailer. Then think about making a donation to the Kickstarter campaign so that the film can be completed and distributed. If you’ve met what seems to be a remarkably international employee contingent at boardwalk stores, amusement parks, hotels, pool clubs, and so on, you’ve probably met people like The Summer Help’s stars Elena and Nikoleta who are here via the U.S. State Department’s Work and Travel program. Kickstarter is “all-or-nothing” crowdfunding, which means Melody and her team don’t get to keep the funds unless they reach their goal. Please help bring this film to the screen by giving what you can.

The Crossroads Between East and West

It is a commonplace to describe innumerable cities and even countries in this part of the world as “the crossroads between East and West.” Bulgaria is one of those laying claim to that geographical and cultural locus. Rudyard Kipling famously wrote “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” but Mr. Kipling, I think, was not correct. Meet they continue to do and the resultant compounds and conflicts are ever in flux, even well over a century after Bulgaria’s de facto 1878 independence from the Ottoman Empire. Even decades before independence, Bulgarians had mixed emotions and formed different schools of thought as to Ottoman and European influence and what could truly be identified as Bulgarian. In Balkan Smoke: Tobacco and the Making of Modern Bulgaria, Mary Neuburger’s description of that post-1878 period could as well describe post-1989: “As the normative values of European superiority swept in at a torrential pace, Bulgarians were enticed but also wary about trading one set of ‘foreign’ forms (Ottoman) for another (European).” Bulgarians often complain about inefficiencies and poor quality of services and products—“Bulgarkska rabota” (Bulgarian work), they say dismissively, waving a hand at something they consider second-rate. But at the same time they are loathe to lose the satisfactions of a life lived small at a humane pace. Communism ironically reinforced, or perhaps even created, not a collective of like-minded citizens working together for the common good, but a nation of stubborn individuals.


The surface impression of the relative westward or eastward lean is a lesson in the wisdom of judging by the book cover. I used to think that cultural differences made their impact most strongly in the obvious—language, food, dress, architecture, and so on. And so when I lived in Bulgaria 1995-1997, I was often fooled into thinking that I was not being affected by cultural differences. I used a telephone to call and to schedule a business appointment. I went to an office that resembled those I had seen all my working life in the United States. Western business suits were worn, business cards passed around, agenda items discussed. I went back to my office to discuss the results with colleagues. Things went awry at worst and at best I was often bewildered by the outcomes or lack thereof.


Later I understood that cultural differences are found far below the surface and extraordinarily difficult for people to identify not only in others but even in themselves. Despite the well-worn English adage “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” it is often a tenet of the essential Western business model that personal relationships can muddy the waters and straightforward, impersonal exchanges of information and services and goods maximize efficiency and productivity. Not so in Bulgaria where one’s success in any venture depends on developing social and personal relationships. You drink small cups of coffee, have small talk, learn that a nephew is trying to get into a good school and needs a recommendation, you write that recommendation, the father of that nephew who it seems works in the ministry you are trying to get an appointment with in order to request movement on a pending application for a key permit calls personally to assure that the permit is now ready to be picked up, you pick up the permit leaving a box of chocolates for the clerk handing it over, the clerk mentions that her dermatologist can help you with that nagging rash on your hand and tells you to stay a minute while she calls personally to make you an appointment for that day…

These rites governing interpersonal relationships are learned and absorbed only by those born of that culture or living with it for a very long time. It can be a fascinating experience to see your spouse exhibiting his or her cultural behavior and mores and wisdom in a way you don’t have the opportunity to see in everyday life as a couple. Rumen and I spend the 2001-2002 winter in Bulgaria and during that time took a four-day New Year’s holiday in Istanbul. Naturally we visited Istanbul’s famed covered market, the Kapali Çarşi or Grand Bazaar. After some time of wandering around, we decided to purchase a small rug from one of the hundreds of small shops. We determined beforehand to only speak Bulgarian between ourselves so that the shopkeeper wouldn’t know that I am an American. Bulgarians of course hear my accent and know immediately that I’m not a native, but a Turkish shopkeeper wouldn’t know and so my American identity wouldn’t affect the ultimate price he would demand. Rumen and the shopkeeper spoke in English, a second language for both, out of necessity and began the delicate and masterful purchase process.

turkish tea

In the novel Pascali’s Island, author Barry Unsworth writes “All bargaining in the Levant begins and ends on a note of aristocratic indifference.” Neither Turkey nor Bulgaria is ordinarily included in the list of countries of the Levant, but the observation is true nonetheless. The slim shopkeeper of ambiguous age began by offering me a perch on top of a pile of rugs. He poured hot tea into glasses with an outward curving rim that allows you to avoid burning your fingers. As in India, as in Turkey, the Bulgarians also call tea “chai”. I sipped my glass of chai and watched the two men. They were exquisitely polite, made no mention of price, looked at kilim after kilim (rug in both Turkish and Bulgarian), commented on their provenance, examined the patterns and symbols, discussed weaving methods and materials. Periodically Rumen and I conferred in Bulgarian. At last we chose and then the men started talking price, never raising their voices or losing the measured conversational style they had been using throughout. Finally the correct price was found, that magical number that allowed the purchasers to believe that they had made a good deal and the seller to feel he had retained his dignity and the rug its value. Only then did I thank the shopkeeper in English. He complimented me, asking where I had learned English so well and I then confessed it was my native language.

Naturally culture is also expressed in holiday celebrations. A very old tradition of celebrating name days is still widely popular in Bulgaria. Following the Bulgarian Orthodox church calendar and saints, for many the name day remains more important than the individual birthday. Some name days, like Yordanov den, command more attention than others.

But whether major or minor, whether always the same date on the Gregorian calendar or changeable depending on the Orthodox church calendar, everyone celebrates his/her personal name day. On Ivanov den, perhaps the most popular name day, everyone with the name Ivan or a derivation thereof celebrates. So on Ivanov den, you must call all your relatives, friends, acquaintances and colleagues named Ivan, Ivanka, Ivana, Yoan, Yoanna, Iva, Ivona…


You wish them a happy name day, you send a card if you have remembered enough in advance, you visit and bring a gift or flowers or chocolates. In turn the celebrant will have treats at home to celebrate with visitors and take treats around throughout the day, offering to all in honor of his or her name day. Offering treats to others is not reserved only for name days; it is the custom on any occasion worthy of celebrating, be it a name day, birthday, graduation, new job, new baby and so on. And the customary words for congratulation or greeting on a name day or holiday—chestit imen den or chestit praznik (happy name day or happy holiday)—are commonly used for even smaller, more pedestrian happy moments. Your barber will say chestito upon completing your new haircut as will the salesgirl when you settle upon a new pair of boots. The gift of celebration is thereby given to these smaller pleasures as well.


A majority Christian country, a country prevented during Communism from explicitly emulating Western culture (and therefore cultivating in many a perverse longing for the forbidden) and a country today part of the European Union, Bulgaria has firmly aligned itself with the West. But many Bulgarians remain conflicted. Boza is a drink that since ancient times has been made out of fermented wheat or millet; most likely it was introduced into Bulgaria during the Ottoman Empire. You can still find plastic bottles of boza, which is often drunk with banitza, a filo dough-based pastry usually eaten for breakfast. But boza is also a metaphor. In the mid-1990s, I was invited to a colleague’s house for dinner. Her father told me “Where boza starts, Europe ends.” Neuberger quotes Bulgarian memoirist Rayna Kostentzeva (1885-1967) as she comments on the early 20th century: “’Western civilization’ penetrated quickly into our life, seducing us.” Then and now, some Bulgarians are proud of their unique mix and seek to preserve and celebrate it; some fear loss of the old Eastern influence and the ascent of the new Western; some ascribe Bulgaria’s lower standard of living to not having shaken off Ottoman remnants and being Western enough.

Sveta Troitza

Often when we’re in Bansko, we eat at Dedo Pene’s, right next to the still used 1835 Sveta Troitza (Sainted Trinity) Church. At one point, our young waitress stood on a chair and expertly danced a kyochek, an eastern dance full of the gyrations used in belly dance. The crowd cheered her on. Outside, the storks slept in the Sveta Troitza church tower nest they use every year after returning west from their eastern winter migration across Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula.