Monthly Archives: August 2016

Big Things Come in Small Packages

Large countries presume their power and importance. Small countries presume nothing. They might rely on bluster, ardently asserting their strategic location. They might point to a glorious history when once they led an empire, or two, and belligerently note that what was taken from them oh so many years ago could just as easily be taken back. They might itemize a list of firsts or bests, of inventions or goods or cuisine or landscape. They might have famous people whose very fame promises to throw at least an occasional spotlight on the country that birthed them. A lot of small countries do all of this and more. It’s hard to get airtime otherwise. China, Russia, the United States, they can suck all the air out of the room.

I was thinking about this when I read about a story about a recent archeological find in Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a small country spoiled for choice when it comes to archeologically important sites and finds dating back thousands of years and across many cultures and peoples. The discovery of what seems to be certainly Europe’s oldest worked gold, and possibly the oldest gold artifact in the world, is not diminished by the find’s tiny size, a bead measuring just 1/8 inch. It was discovered not far from Пловдив (Plovdiv), the oldest inhabited city in Europe.

Yavor Boyadzhiev of the Bulgarian Academy of Science said, “It is a tiny piece of gold but big enough to find its place in history.”

“Big enough to find its place in history” is a broad notion that all small countries can affirm.

My daughter spent her fourth and fifth grade years in a Bulgarian public school, the Georgi Sava Rakovski elementary school 120. Parents did not complain that there wasn’t enough Bulgarian-centered literature, social studies or natural history to fill class hours or textbooks. No, they complained that the Bulgarian curriculum was too full and too dense with material for the children to have time to absorb and truly learn. Clearly each country, no matter its size, is a big world unto itself.

This is not to say that that small countries can or should stand alone in the affairs of the world, but of course that is equally true for their larger fellows. National pride, national loyalty, national spirit are strengthening. But in the same way that we praise assertiveness and decry aggressiveness, patriotism loses its charm and benefit when it turns to chauvinism. That’s the story of the Balkan Wars between nations a little more than a century ago and the wars within the federated states of the former Yugoslavia that began 25 years ago.

Bulgaria on the rare occasions when it appears in the news is generally given the appellation “the poorest country in Europe.” It is correctly criticized for its endemic corruption. Its politics are nearly as unpleasant as those currently holding the United States simultaneously in the fifth and eighth circles of hell.

Bulgaria, however, never receives attention for its rigid determination to keep its chauvinism as a relic of the past. All of its governments since 1989—be they red, blue, pink, or purple—have maintained that Bulgaria’s power and importance lay in its healthy relationships with its neighbors and in its own contributions to world culture and history.

That’s why a tiny bead for me is so emblematic. Boyadzhiev’s comment that “It is a tiny piece of gold but big enough to find its place in history” is really not merely about the bead, but as well about small countries that are always big enough and always have a place—not merely in history but in our world today.



Bulgaria, When Not In Bulgaria

We returned from our Bulgarian vacation 2½ weeks ago. As is always the case, all too soon one is subsumed in the everyday and the local. The vacation, the sense of place where one was seems immediately substituted for the tasks at hand in the place one is now. And yet, as if one is wearing an unmistakable identifying scent, Bulgarian encounters have a way of happening even outside Bulgaria.

My son and I were at a farmer’s market near where we live in DC. We were choosing from a variety of luscious-looking tomatoes—not yet ready to give up the wonderful taste of garden tomatoes in Bulgaria—and talking, in Bulgarian, about our choices. And then we heard agreement about those choices, in Bulgarian. I whirled around and was greeted by a smiling face. “Здравейте (Hello)!” We did not know this woman, this Bulgarian who told us she had emigrated to DC over two decades ago, but we had a lovely conversation between the crates of tomatoes and the crates of eggplant. After we progressed to the cashier, her American companion told us how happy we’d made her friend by connecting her in this unanticipated way to her language and country.


We were at the pool, having it nearly all to ourselves on a weekday early afternoon. The lifeguard had a familiar accent. Then he heard us talking. He was not Bulgarian, but Serbian, and recognized familiar words. We began to talk about life there, life here. He asked would we want to live in Bulgaria again. Eastern Europeans generally, in my personal experience, often wish to hear the experience of here and there compared and contrasted—assuming that one will confirm the belief that life here is better, easier, richer. I said yes, yes, we did think that someday we would live in Bulgaria again. And as I spoke about the things we valued—the easier, more fluid and informal social life, the balance between work and leisure, the more human pace, less expectation that one must continually strive for more—he found himself nodding in assent. And when I mentioned that the children are dual citizens of the US and the EU, I inadvertently held up Bulgaria as a country to be envied by a Serbia without that advantage.

The other day we attended a funeral for a relative who died after a years-long debilitating illness. At the service, we heard of the love story he and his wife had, people from two sides of the Atlantic meeting in a third country. We heard of how they took a lengthy trip through Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and on through Western Europe to marry in her English hometown. I had known about this 1967 travel in Bulgaria, but had forgotten it. Later that day Kathy asked me if I’d been to Петрич (Petrich). I haven’t. Then she recounted a terrible summer rainstorm outside of Sofia. “It rains, of course, a lot in England, but not that kind of hard rain. I was very scared.” And I said I had rarely experienced a true rainstorm in Bulgaria, one with thunder and lightening, but we had to stop on the road up to Витоша (Vitosha) Mountain this summer because the rain and the hail made for such dangerous going. “It was probably the same place,” she said. Same Bulgarian experience, nearly five decades later.

Rarely does Bulgaria appear in American media, and I do search regularly on websites of major media outlets. Yet twice last month The New York Times covered Bulgaria, once highlighting a small village, “Bulgarians Hope Che Guevara and Brigitte Bardot Can Save Their Village” and once the Black Sea, “By Bulgaria’s Beautiful Black Sea.” Lucas Peterson, author of the latter article, wondered why he “hadn’t made it to this part of the world earlier.” My mother, who has been to Bulgaria twice and who hasn’t read Mr. Peterson’s article, often wonders why people haven’t made it to this part of the world. She and my father find it as beautiful as my husband and I do.

shaking hands

In a little over a month, Bulgaria when not in Bulgaria will show itself most strongly in our Saturday afternoon Bulgarian school. Българският Образователен и Културен Център “Свети Климент Охридски” (St. Kliment Ohridski Bulgarian Education and Cultural Center) will hold classes in Bulgarian language, literature, social studies, history, and the natural world. There will be classes in theater, national dance, and art. And all will be taught in Bulgarian by native speakers and educators. For a few hours, within the boundaries of the United States capital, children from pre-school through 12th grade will feel they are in Bulgaria. They may or may not ever live there, but something of the country will live in them.