Monthly Archives: September 2016

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.




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., 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.