Monthly Archives: September 2015

Стъпка по стъпка —Step by step

When you learn a foreign language in your junior high or high school in your home country surrounded by your native language, it is very hard to grasp the culture behind the words and grammar. When you are learning a foreign language as an adult not in school but in country, it is altogether different. On the one hand, you have no textbooks, no instruction of a formal kind—though plenty of the informal, offhand kind that friends and strangers offer you intentionally and unintentionally—there is no lingua franca roadmap.

On the other hand, you hear the word да as you see the head move from side to side, and you hear it said not one but twice or thrice, as in да, да or even да бе да. You hear somone derided as луд and see the speaker’s hand raised parallel to the head, palm facing you and wagging side-to-side. You go to someone’s house and take off your shoes just inside the door. You learn not just how to set the table with seasonal appetizers, but oh how very long the appetizer part of the meal can go on before the main course is served. One could argue, and I do, that you might never learn all your tenses properly as you would in a high school language course, but you will learn the language intrinsically because each word absorbed has a context and an experience tied to it. Immerse yourself long enough and you find that the language eventually is no longer at all foreign. Instead it has nestled itself into you in an organic and irrevocable way.

Learning culture along with language means that you can appreciate a good joke and laugh at it even when you can’t tell the joke yourself. That’s why understanding humor in another language is such a marker not merely of linguistic ability but of real cultural comprehension. Within one year of beginning my journey of Bulgarian language learning, I began to joke with friends and family that I had discovered all of Bulgarian culture could be condensed to the advice I heard continuously from all and sundry. It goes like this:

Стъпка по стъпка, малко по малко, лека полека, ще стане, ще стане, има време.

Step by step, little by little, lightly more lightly, it will happen, it will happen, there’s time.

Bulgaria Is Famous

On October 10, 2011, Bulgaria’s daily newspaper 24 Chasa published an article entitled “They Found Proof That We Thought Up Rakiya,” in which is detailed the Old Bulgarian inscription “I drank rakiya during the feast” on a small 14th-century bowl fragment found at Veliko Turnovo. Naturally this was thought to go some way in forwarding the country’s efforts to register rakiya as a Bulgarian national brand with the European Commission. Reflecting both the excitement of the discovery and the urgency of establishing once and for all rakiya’s Bulgarian provenance, one professor was quoted as saying “Photos, together with the expert opinion of the National History Museum, will be sent with lightening speed…in order to nail the rakiya, otherwise the Albanians will go and take it from us.”

feta sirene

Like many small countries, Bulgarians are eager to show both to themselves and the world at large that they have made significant contributions to the world. With borders shifting over the centuries, who can claim what can be a difficult proposition. Feta cheese is made throughout the Balkans, but in 2005 the European Union’s high court handed down a decision meant to resolve nearly two decades of fighting, decreeing feta cheese a traditional Greek product whose name deserves legal protection. Bulgarians continue to produce their own sirene, which others then blithely translate as feta without concern for court decisions.

Stamen GrigorovYogurt is so broadly produced that no country dares to call yogurt its own invention. But Bulgarians can be proud that one of its own, Stamen Grigorov, was the first to examine and identify lactobacillus bulgaricus, the natural bacteria that allows the milk to ferment. Grigorov managed to be born just months after Bulgarians gained their autonomy from the Ottoman Empire and to die a year before they essentially gave it all up to the Soviet Empire. The contribution of Dr. Grigorov is deemed considerable enough that in 2007 a two-story house near his Studen Izvor (Cold Spring) village birthplace was turned into the Museum of Yogurt.

Grigorov is not the only Bulgarian chemist to achieve fame. Carl Djerassi, who died in January, was a chemist, playwright, novelist, poet, and founder of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program near Woodside, California.

carl djerassi playwright chemist But he is most famous as the leader of the team that synthesized the first oral contraceptive pill, for which he received the National Medal of Science. Djerassi’s mother was Austrian, his father Bulgarian; both were doctors, with his father specializing in venereal disease. Carl emigrated to the United States with his mother at the age of 16. Three years ago, In a January 2012 interview with 24 Chasa, he lamented the low birth rates in Bulgaria and other European countries, noting that Bulgaria’s population has declined faster than any other in the world.

On a more positive front, in that same interview Djerassi proudly proclaimed that he loves yogurt with lactobacillus bulgaricus and regularly makes his own using an old Bulgarian recipe.

But lest you think Bulgarian creativity is all about what you can put in your mouth, Bulgarians most often point to one of the most important inventions of the 20th century—the computer. “Did you know that a Bulgarian invented the computer?” countless Bulgarians have asked me. Indeed, John Vincent Atanasoff is the inventor of the first automatic electronic digital computer and, despite being born in New York and dying in Maryland, had Bulgarian antecedents in which he took pride.

John Vincent Atanasoff

It seems churlish to mention the dark side; that for many years Bulgaria was considered a leader in computer virus production. On December 21, 1990—just one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall—The New York Times published an article entitled “Bulgarians Linked to Computer Virus” which included the dubious compliment: “Not only do the Bulgarians produce the most computer viruses, they produce the best.’” Still alive at the time, one can only hope that Mr. Atanasoff did not read the article. By November 1997, a Wired magazine journalist traveled to Bulgaria and reported that while “no longer a significant source of new viruses…Bulgaria exists as a kind of cybernetic bogeyman, the birthplace of viruses.”

Often Bulgaria seems to be used as an example of the extreme, strange or exotic, popping up when you least expect it. Perhaps this is because most people know little or nothing about Bulgaria and so they’re not in a position to challenge misinformation or misrepresentation. In the classic 1942 film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick helps a young Bulgarian couple obtain the money for a desperately needed American visa. The couple’s names, Annina and Jan Brandel, are in no way Bulgarian; in fact, given the wartime situation in which the film’s characters find themselves, the irony is that the Bulgarian couple’s names are rather Germanic. What’s more, Annina and Jan do not speak with anything like a Bulgarian accent—in fact they have no accent at all.

George Bernard Shaw in Arms and the Man employed a similar tactic of tacking on Bulgarian identity without any real Bulgarian connection. As Stoyan Tchaprazov quotes him, Shaw explained that “[Arms and the Man] was nearly finished before I had settled on its locality. I wanted a war as a background. Now I am absolutely ignorant of history and geography; so I went about among my friends and asked if they knew of any wars…At last Sidney Webb told me of the Servo-Bulgarian [sic] war, which was the thing…So I looked up Bulgaria and Servia [sic] in an atlas, made all of the characters end in ‘off’, and the play was complete.”

On the other hand, the popular Harry Potter book series more successfully presented Bulgaria with its star Bulgarian Quidditch player Victor Krum. “Krum” is not a real Bulgarian family name, but on the other hand is the name of a medieval Bulgarian monarch whose name appears in every Bulgarian elementary school child’s history book and as well is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Madara Rider. And though author J. K. Rowling inaccurately represents a Bulgarian accent in the books, the films based on the series actually used Bulgarian actor Stanislav Ianevski to play the role and the character was one to be admired.

Speaking of movies… On September 11, 2011, the Los Angeles Times published an article headlined “Big-budget movies find low-cost haven in Bulgaria.” Israeli-born, Hollywood-based action film producer Avi Lerner bought the old film studios located in Boyana, a Sofia neighborhood formally known for housing high Communist officials and nomenklatura. Says the Los Angeles Times, “The studio now employs about 1,000 workers and has 13 sound stages, with the largest more than 6,500 square feet, as well as a replica of several downtown Manhattan streets and a faux ancient Rome, complete with a coliseum.”

The Expendables 3

When it came time for Arnold Schwartzenegger to bid “Hasta la vista baby” after filming The Expendables 2 at Nu Boyana Film Studios, the Sofia News Agency quoted him as saying that “the Bulgarian team had been one of the most professional and talented ones he had worked with through his entire movie career, stressing he felt great in Bulgaria.” In 2013, he, Sylvester Stallone and all the others returned for The Expendables 3.

Perhaps the most famous Bulgarian outside of Bulgaria is Christo Vladimirov Javacheff, known simply as Christo. Christo was born in Gabrovo and went to the Art Academy in Sofia, before leaving Bulgaria at the age of 21. It was the year of the brief Hungarian Revolution and he was able to get to Prague, then to Vienna, to Geneva, and finally to Paris. He lived off his portraits until he began to earn fame for what he has done ever since, first wrapping small objects and then completing large outdoor wrapped environmental art works. Until 1989, the internationally famous Bulgarian artist defector was persona non grata in his home country.


Although Christo ascribes to his Bulgarian academic art training his ability to do the architectural drawings that fund his projects, he demonstrably has no interest in Bulgaria itself. He has never returned to his native country. On the other hand, he declared in a 1973 interview, “First, I am born Bulgarian. I have no complex about anything.” Except, it seems, Bulgaria itself—and that with good reason. The family factory in Gabrovo was nationalized by the Communists and not long after the property was restituted the municipality ceased paying rent for its use. In 2013, after a suit regarding the Gabrovo family property, the European Court awarded Christo and his two brothers 20,000 euros compensation for material and moral damages and 1,677 euros for costs and expenses incurred in the case.

Back in the United States, while waiting for the case to be resolved, Christo gave an interview to a San Diego radio station. Asked what he had for breakfast that morning, Christo responded “I had a double espresso, plain yogurt and one head of garlic. Raw garlic…an entire head of garlic.” Famous or no, it seems you can take the Bulgarian out of Bulgaria, but you can’t take Bulgaria out of the Bulgarian.

In 1994, the Bulgarian national team played in the World Cup, having only qualified five times before and never winning a single match. The New York Times did not mince words in labeling the Bulgarians an “unglamorous, little-noticed team.” England got more attention for shockingly not qualifying for the tournament. The Bulgarian team’s underdog status and unexpected match wins gave the media a great Cinderella story. But the star of the Bulgarian team was volatile striker Hristo Stoichkov. Stoichkov was already famous throughout Europe as a top player with Spain’s legendary team FC Barcelona.

Hristo Stoichkov

As the Bulgarian team advanced, Stoichkov and his teammates received more and more attention, but they did not seem overly stressed. For most of the two days preceding the upset game with Germany, the Bulgarian team relaxed in their New Jersey hotel swimming pool. It turned out that leisure time was good preparation. Many of Bulgaria’s national team had been honing their skills for years in Europe’s top leagues. The team approached the World Cup with a “no guts, no glory” attitude, but Hristo Stoichkov knew of perhaps an even more important spirit behind their success. “Now I am sure that God is a Bulgarian,” he proclaimed.

Nothing New Under the Bulgarian Sun

Time may pass at a fixed rate, but the velocity of history is ever swifter and ever more incomprehensible. Consciously or unconsciously, we seem to exercise some level of control or sanity or comprehension by repeating patterns of history, behavior—even ways of thinking. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun,” goes the famous line from Ecclesiastes, even as the earth appears to revolve ever faster around that sun.

The Balkan Trail

Some weeks ago, I blogged on how National Geographic writers in the early 20th century unknowingly provided fascinating historical parallels: what they observed in Bulgaria’s potential and progress after the long period under the Ottomans is often echoed in contemporary Bulgaria’s potential and progress after the long period under Communist rule. Two books published almost just one year apart over a century ago do much the same. Frederick Moore’s The Balkan Trail was published in 1906. Harry De Windt’s Through Savage Europe: Being the Narrative of a Journey (undertaken as Special Correspondent of the “Westminster Gazette”), throughout the Balkan States and European Russia was published in 1907. Neither focuses solely on Bulgaria, but each gives ample space to the country.

Through Savage Europe

Like the National Geographic writers, Moore and De Windt are primarily journalists. And like their fellow early 20th century National Geographic journalists, they were not shy about their prejudices nor were they loathe to generalize about the peoples and countries they encountered. And yet, “The newspapers are making morning after morning the rough draft of history.” It is striking how many of Moore and De Windt’s observations demonstrate the repeating patterns of history. This is particularly apparent in Bulgaria’s relationship to Russia, Russia’s continual attempts to dominate Slavic peoples, and Bulgaria’s search for an identity that will smoothly meld its Western and Eastern influences, associations, and leanings.

Then Tzar Nicholas II of Russia, Now President Putin of Russia

  • Bulgarians of intelligence and education put little faith in the promises of the present Russian government, But Russia holds a fast grip on the masses of the people, the peasants are grateful for their deliverance, and many of the politicians are open to bribery. (Moore)Nicholas hunt
  • When the Bulgarians began to show an independent spirit and diplomatic connections with Russia—which assumed the form of a dictatorship on the part of the boasted liberator—came to be severed for a term of years, that ‘interested’ Power adopted Servia as its ward, and is still at work disciplining the other little country that dared to dispute its honesty of motive. Russia among the Balkan States does a work similar to that of the Sultan in Macedonia; she aids the weak to rival the strong, fosters their jealousies, and maintains a dominant influence on the distress she begets; and, unlike the Sultan, she does this in the guise of Christian sympathy. (Moore)
  • Putin hunting…they have realized, since the Treaty of Berlin, that Russia is an infinitely harder taskmaster than the indolent, easy-going Turk. And it says much for the national grit of Bulgaria that she has generally held her own against the intrigues and threats of the Powers that be at Petersburg. (De Windt)

The Crossroads of East and West

  • The Bulgarians are anxious to be classed with the people of the West, and they strive hard for civilization, though a streak of Eastern origin sometimes displays itself. (Moore)
  • east-west
  • The new Palace and “Sobranié,” or House of Parliament, would grace any European capital, and so would the hotels, theatres, restaurants, street cars, and electric light. Everything here is more up-to-date than in Belgrade…Sofia has been called a “little Brussels,” and it certainly resembles the latter… (De Windt)
  • …this is a land of contradictions. For instance, the man who drove us to our hotel from the station was an essentially modern Bulgar who, as far as dress was concerned, would have walked unnoticed up Regent Street, and who was a loquacious and full of information as a Maltese guide. Indeed he was up-to-date on every subject…And yet his wiry little pair of ponies were adorned with the necklets of blue beads as amulets against the “Evil Eye,” any allusion to which was strongly resented by their driver. (De Windt)

Yup, there is nothing new under the Bulgarian sun.