In 1894, Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov published a book describing his travels to the Chicago World’s Fair (officially known as The World’s Columbian Exposition). To Chicago and Back inspired many Bulgarians not only to travel internationally, but to travel and even emigrate to Chicago specifically. For years, the U.S. city with the highest number of Bulgarian immigrants was Chicago. Well over a century later, even Bulgarians who have never read the book know its title and author.
Despite the title, Aleko Konstantinov did not visit only Chicago on his 1893 travels. He opens by saying “If I began my travel notes from Sofia, I would be obliged, before anything else, to describe what it takes to obtain an international passport in Bulgaria, and that is such an unhappy story…” The more things change, the more they stay the same, the long unhappy process for my Bulgarian permanent residency card in mind.
He writes in a conversational style, describing what he sees and telling the reader his observations and reactions. In New York City, he complains about tasteless food and lack of dinner conversation while marveling at the tall buildings, wide boulevards and general American efficiency.
He’s nonplussed by American pharmacies that don’t restrict themselves to pharmaceuticals, finding that they sell sodas, shoe brushes, postcards and the stamps to put on them.
Arriving at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Konstantinov echoes travelers from around the globe who found—and still find—the simple enormity of America nearly unfathomable. “Well, in the Palace of Manufacturing at the Chicago Exposition you could put not only our entire Plovdiv Bulgarian exposition, but also all of the inhabitants of the second Bulgarian capital, together with all of their possessions and their livestock on top of that.”
The Exposition’s Bulgarian pavilion of course exhibited rose oil and a map indicating the location of Kazanluk’s Valley of Roses. No doubt should there be a Bulgarian pavilion in an exposition today, it too would showcase rose oil. Konstantinov notes that rakiya, musical instruments such as the gaida and the kaval (wooden shepherd’s pipe), and samples of peasant clothing and crafts are all displayed against hanging colorful kilims.
In 1893, Konstantinov has the foresight upon exploring the California pavilion to note that “California wines are little by little pushing out the French ones…” Back east in DC, he visits famous sites such as the Capitol, White House and Washington Monument. He strolls down Pennsylvania Avenue and decides “The city of Washington, if not the prettiest, is at least one of the prettiest cities which I saw in Europe and America.” After jaunts to Philadelphia and Boston, Konstantinov boards the ship back to Europe and muses on America’s appeal. “Whatever the shortcomings there are in the American way of life, America still possesses a power of attraction. He who lives in America for a time does not easily separate himself from her.”
As Nikola Georgiev writes in his introduction to the English language edition of To Chicago and Back, “Travel notes inevitably describe foreign lands through the eyes of a different culture.” Aleko Konstantinov wrote of what he saw in America. I write what I see in Bulgaria. And I think I can conclude as Konstantinov did. Whatever the shortcomings there are in the Bulgarian way of life, Bulgaria still possesses a power of attraction. He who lives in Bulgaria for a time does not easily separate from her.