Monthly Archives: December 2016

Happy New Year / Честита Нова Година

I often feel that I am supposed to be having a lot more fun on New Year’s Eve than I am actually having. If you stay home, it seems like just another evening and it’s easy to fall asleep before that magic midnight moment when the old year becomes the new. If you go out to some event, it seems that you’ve spent far more than you’ve gotten in return. Once we planned a quiet dinner and a classic movie with another couple and that made it easy to meet expectations. Too often, though, the big day is upon us all too soon and without the necessary planning.

Once in Sofia, though, our friends Nasso and Dessi suggested we spend New Year’s at Spaggo at 9 Dr. Peter Beron Street near the National Palace of Culture. We had been to Spaggo several times with them before and loved it. It was, at least for Rumen and me, a unique place because it had what Bulgarians refer to as a детски клуб (children’s club) on the second floor. You simply take your children to the second floor, sign an exceedingly brief form relieving Spaggo of obligation should your children injure themselves, and go back downstairs to enjoy the company of other adults and very nice mostly Italian cuisine.

The children are cared for and entertained by young, energetic, and very caring young women and the entire floor is a playground with soft play equipment, arts and crafts, and child-sized tables and chairs. You can send meals up to the children or having them eat downstairs and go back up again. They’re happy because they can be children and you’re happy because you can be adults with names and not merely parent-policemen moderating behavior and encouraging more salad before dessert. The fee for the children’s club was so minimal I’ve completely forgotten what it was. The value was, of course, incalculable.

Many times Rumen and I thought how much families in the United States would appreciate such a restaurant. Not a family restaurant, not a chain, not dull food, but an actual adult restaurant with ambiance, good food, AND a place for children. We imagined what a draw it would be, but at the same time knew that in the United States it would be simply impossible. Either the lawyers would make it prohibitive or the cost of the childcare would.

So when Nasso saw that Spaggo was planning a New Year’s Eve celebration complete with multi-course meal and DJ, we were in. We made reservations, chose our courses from the prix-fixe menu, and told the children they definitely were staying up past midnight (naps for all being the requirement).

The children now being old hands were eager to get to the second floor. We adults enjoyed a wonderful meal, danced like we hadn’t in years, and tried a few karaoke numbers with one of the waitresses happily accompanying me to the tune of “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash. Yes, Happy 1972 for a few musically nostalgic moments. Four-year old Yoan came down to see how we were doing, and immediately saw the possibilities of a microphone and a bigger audience than heretofore imagined. He promptly rattled off the entirety of “Twas the Night Before Christmas”—stunning his Bulgarian audience, most of whom very likely had no idea what hit them—concluding with “and to all a good night” before triumphantly running upstairs for more games and face-painting.

dessi-new-yearsmallSpaggo is no longer on Petur Beron Street, but they have other locations and are still offering the adult and young alike New Year’s Eve meals and entertainment. For that, and many other reasons, I wish I were celebrating the holiday in Sofia. Wherever you may happen to celebrate, whether in ways large or small, Happy New Year! Честита Нова Година. За много години!

10 Years in the European Union / 10 Години в Европейския Съюз

We like to organize time in easily measurable spans. We like to label those spans and ascribe certain characteristics to them. It’s all in retrospect, and in retrospect anew we re-label. The Dark Ages are now the Middle Ages and the longer we go on the more “Middle” seems a bit miscalculated, a misnomer needing a new name. We might now be in need of a second Age of Enlightenment and the world is still painfully reckoning with the fallout of the Age of Exploration. And of course of all of the foregoing is Eurocentric and says nothing of the way time is divided, referenced, and assessed by other cultures.

In our own lifetimes, we tend to fall back on the decade. And we tend to do the easy thing of measuring these spans of ten as beginning in a zero and ending in a nine even when, as in “The Sixties,” the cultural and political trends ascribed don’t actually begin and end so neatly.

However arbitrary a measure of time and whatever the starting and ending digits, a decade does allow us to take a fixed look at life in a way that would be insupportably broad without such parameters.

On January 1, 2017, Bulgaria will have been a member of the European Union for a decade. But even as the BBC noted the elation on January 1, 2007, it noted the lack of enthusiasm by other member states. The reckoning had already begun.

eu-flags2

The New Republic didn’t wait for the ten-year anniversary to damn EU membership when in 2013 it used Bulgaria as proof that “agreements with the European Union don’t always work in your favor.” Having neatly wrapped up the foregone conclusion, the article’s author found no necessity to take a look at the situation in Bulgaria pre-EU membership, let alone pre-1989.

Earlier this year in advance of the March 20 International Day of Happiness, Eurostat published the findings of its “new multi-dimensional data collection answering the question “How satisfied are people with their lives in the European Union?” It found that “residents in Bulgaria were by far the least satisfied.” Many such surveys about happiness and satisfaction have been done having nothing to do with the EU question and Bulgaria is perhaps singular in its constant position at or near the bottom. Consequently, whether EU membership has anything to do with longstanding Bulgarian pessimism is doubtful.

The London School of Economics’ Dimitar Bechev observed, “Joining the EU has not made Bulgarians happy…perhaps expectations were higher, they thought it was the silver bullet. Bulgarians saw their own government as problematic and Europe as the solution.” On the January 1, 2007 accession, The New York Times noted the closer-to-home pocketbook issue “Romania and Bulgaria, now the European Union’s poorest members, hope that membership will help them raise per-capita wealth, which is one-third of the union’s average.”

It’s clear no matter whom you ask that Bulgarians expected more out of EU membership than they have. They expected to be farther along in the battle against corruption, in judicial reform, to have less Kafkaesque bureaucracy and more effective institutions. They thought by now they would have more money in their pockets via having higher salaries and lower prices, less worry about the cost and efficacy of their children’s educations, better jobs that were obtained by merit and not by connections. They believed their cities would resemble those in western Europe as if EU membership conferred the eradication of the graffiti ubiquitous in even the best Bulgarian neighborhoods, the repair of all potholes, modern sewers and gutters, re-plastering of all building facades, and a good paint job when the other work was done.

Of course, there are major highways, environmental projects, educational and health system investment, business partnerships, entrepreneurial training, and other benefits of EU membership that can be seen throughout the country.

But naturally membership in the European Union, even after ten years, can only do so much.

The psychology of EU member benefit expectation and reality in Bulgaria may be something like this. If I were to swim regularly with a competitive swimmer, I would certainly improve my swimming. No doubt she would advise me, and my observations of her and my natural tendency to want to catch up would make me faster and better than I otherwise would be. But I would not be at her level because—natural talent aside—she started far earlier, has been on the international stage for many years, and has had a coach all along.

If I somehow embedded myself at the Supreme Court and listened to all the discussions made in conference and in the individual judges’ chambers, I would learn a tremendous amount about law, but no one would confer a Juris Doctor degree on me unless I myself successfully completed law school study.

If a team of volunteers cleaned and painted my entire apartment building and a group of miscreants and malcontents the very next day spray painted rude words all over the façade, the volunteers would more than likely not return nor would they go to the building next door to invest the same sort of effort.

passportWhen the BBC reported the January 1, 2007 accession, it quoted then Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov. Parvanov was enthusiastic and optimistic. He also gave a warning that seems to have been immediately forgotten or discounted.

“But let’s make it clear, our future success as a nation depends not on European funds and resources, but on our own work.”

Indeed it does. Perhaps this first decade can be labeled something akin to Bulgaria’s adolescence in the EU. Everything seems black and white. There’s some lashing out, there’s bad behavior, there’s testing the boundaries and a refusal to understand the consequences. Homework isn’t done and bad grades result and yet righteous indignation is the reaction of choice. There’s I have no friends in my new school and the popular kids don’t like me and the old gang (e.g., Russia) is beckoning and saying there’s still a place for me even though I don’t really like them anymore.

What will the second decade bring? The reckoning no doubt will begin even before another ten years passes.