We spent the New Year’s holiday with Bulgarian friends in New York. Lubo and Vessi have lived in the United States since 2003. They’re educated, were already fluent in English when they arrived, live well, are successful, don’t regret their decision to immigrate. Vessi translated for me during my first visit to Bulgaria in 1987 so our friendship has a long history.
In the years just before and just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism throughout Eastern Europe, I noticed a difference in the attitudes of Bulgarian immigrants to the country of their birth. If they had immigrated long ago and thus it had been years—sometimes decades—since they had seen Bulgaria, their break was entire. They identified with Bulgaria, but as one identifies with long deceased relatives or one’s own early childhood. A handful of recipes, an affiliation with a small Bulgarian Orthodox congregation that rented space from an established Greek or Russian Orthodox church, a holiday remembrance. Politics had made the living country anathema and as a practical matter a place to which there was no return, even for a visit. Some actively and vociferously railed against the Communist government that forced them to abandon Bulgaria, but most were well enough ensconced in the United States that apathy had set in. Feelings did not run high. Even those children who had been given Bulgarian names out of a sense of nostalgia or pride often couldn’t speak their father or mother’s mother tongue.
Those who immigrated not long before the political changes had made no such final break. They had barely become fluent in English before the day came when they could buy a plane ticket to Sofia to visit the parents or cousins or friends who had remained. They gorged on the summer tomatoes that have no superior, spent hours in cafés, visited old haunts, and showed photos of their new lives. They enjoyed being princelings bearing gifts from abroad. As the years went on, their parents became regular visitors to their American homes, taking care of grandchildren and forming their own communities of pensioners who despite having little to no facility in English had become international travelers crisscrossing the Atlantic with regularity. Recent immigrants could tie the two halves of their lives together, the Bulgarian and the American flowed mostly seamlessly; it was easy to spend summer vacations there and live here, easy to keep one’s hand in the Old World while holding two passports. One could fondly plan to spend retirement years in Bulgaria, with Social Security payments dependably being direct deposited into an FDIC-insured bank account.
But Vessi and Lubo represent a third group, Bulgarians who celebrated the fall of Communism while still living in Bulgaria. People who had long resented the totalitarian regime and held out hope for change. People who felt immeasurably disappointed that the road was rocky and were disheartened to find, again and again, that much of what corrupted and shaped society survived the cataclysmic political change. Corruption, petty and large, received—then and now—most of the attention if not effort to substantively address, but there were other irritants named bureaucracy, mismanagement, greed, ignorance, envy, a stark realization that the problems were great and the gap yawning and the resources small and enough blame to go all around. And if the blame was endemic, then correspondingly the Bulgarian people were the problem and the solution could nowhere be found.
So as at other dinners, after the children had finished and left the table for more scintillating activities, our longstanding debate carried on. We, my husband and I, expressed optimism, our fond memories of living in Bulgaria and our hope to do so again. We pointed out the strengths both historically and currently. We argued there was much to be proud of—literacy surpassing all the Balkan countries as early as World War I, ability to engage diplomatically with Turkey after five centuries under the Ottoman Empire, nationalism that never descended into the dark and vicious racialism of Romania and Yugoslavia, fiscal stability since 1997, tourists raving about the country’s natural beauty and hospitable people, and progress, however maladroit, that nevertheless inched Bulgaria ahead.
Vessi countered our optimism with pessimism about the state of Bulgaria and its people; such pessimism may be said to be endemic as well, as I wrote in August 2015. A Bulgarian, she insisted, can’t tolerate seeing his neighbor do well. A Bulgarian would rather pull her colleague down than rise up to meet her level of achievement. There was little to be proud of and much to despise. She had no desire to go back and felt there was nothing to go back to. Yes, we had enjoyed our adventure living there for two years, but that was due to my being American. I was treated differently, she asserted. Having not grown up there, I couldn’t know, could never sense, the rot that would always pervade any attempt to gain momentum.
It’s a debate that has no end. My status as an American doesn’t mean I look at Bulgaria with rose-colored glasses, but it does mean I carry no baggage. I quite naturally have no resentments because I have suffered no injury. But then again, my husband has both baggage and injury. He defected in 1985, but still has much the viewpoint that I do. Perhaps Vessi reflects what Ivelin Sardamov called The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Puzzle of Bulgaria’s Transitional Pessimism. Perhaps it is easier to forge a new life and fully commit to that life if one not only closes the door firmly, but barricades it with a crossbar in the manner of a medieval castle.
Along with the pork loin and roasted vegetables, there was shopska salata on the table. After dinner, we took turns in an improvised karaoke night. On one of Vessi’s turns, she chose the Emil Dimitrov classic “Моя страна, моя България” (“My Country, My Bulgaria”) and on another turn the Bulgarian national anthem, “Мило родино” (“My Motherland”). She sang quite loudly, drowned the rest of us out it must be said, and perhaps she sang with some forgiveness. Честита нова година. Chestita nova godina. Happy New Year.