Category Archives: Eastern Europe

Extra, Extra, Read All About It

Bulgaria is not one of those countries that are regularly seen in U.S. news media outlets. Considering that news organizations often seem to conflate bad news with news worthy of coverage that may well be a good thing. Bulgaria is not collapsing from debt burdens or desperate from natural disasters or reeling from civil war or fomenting ethnic cleansing.

But just the same there is news coming out of Bulgaria that has made its way through the ether and a good bit is either interesting or just sheer fun. Here is a sampling.

Rosen DaskalovA Bulgarian businessman who opens up about his finances to a journalist? Apparently Rosen Daskalov is such a Bulgarian businessman. He somehow merged his adolescent go-kart experience with his education as a mechanical engineer to make a whole greater than the sum of its automotive parts. Sin Cars has a very specific market—and a name that one really can’t forget—and seems ready to compete for more than media attention.

impunity indexBulgaria has a lot to answer for—and improve—in terms of transparency, corruption, and the effectiveness of its judicial system, so it was somewhat surprising and rather encouraging to see it rank quite well on 2017 Global Impunity Index. So well in fact that only Croatia did better and the United States was rather far behind. Impunity was held to have three major dimensions: security, justice, and human rights. Though the MSN coverage focused on the bad actors, and in fact on the very worst actor, it does as well note Bulgaria’s happy place with the good guys.

Bulgaria is the archeological gift that keeps on giving. It sometimes seems impossible that land that has been traversed and settled and resettled since ancient times can still be revealing relics from the past, but in fact there is a great deal still being uncovered. A site near Балей (Baley) near Vidin in northwest Bulgaria has been studied for over four decades, but recently discovered gravesites revealed Bronze Age pottery circa 1400 BCE. Meanwhile at the other side of the country and at the bottom of the sea, the Black Sea Maritime Archeology Project (Black Sea M.A.P.) has been investigating shipwrecks dating from Hellenistic to medieval times. Some of the ships were found erect and seemingly ready to sail, albeit nearly 6000 feet below the surface.

Bulgaria ChinaIn February 2016, I wrote a post focusing on China’s Great Wall car company in Bulgaria. I did not know then that when some Chinese business leaders were scouting Bulgaria to build a modern convenience within the country, others were scouting an ancient bacteria to bring back home—Bulgarian yogurt. Lactobacillus bulgaricus apparently translated well into Chinese. Now there is a Chinese-Bulgarian Yogurt Festival in the village of Momchilovtsi, Bulgaria, and one visitor from Shanghai asserts “There’s two things every Chinese knows about Bulgaria—yogurt and roses.”

From the newest of the new back to the ancient and the ancient appreciated anew, there is, ahem, some good news coming out of Bulgaria. If you hear of other good news, please do share

Back in the Summer of 1960, Part 2

Summer is winding down, but as a Kitchen Traveler you can always be on vacation. Here are a few more Bulgarian recipes from a long-passed summer. As in the last post, Bulgarian recipes of a certain era combine precise metric measurements with a trust that the cook somehow just knows what to do in the way of quantity or oven temperature. Is the “spoonful” a teaspoon or a tablespoon? Only the cook knows. How hot should the oven be? Only the cook knows. How long should the cookies be baked? Until they are done, of course.

And recommending the use of a lemon was pure fantasy since the home cook had no way in 1960 to find a lemon in the market and only once yearly—on the New Year’s holiday—were oranges to be found. The vanilla was and continues to be sold dry in packets, each one being roughly the equivalent of one teaspoonful liquid vanilla extract. By the way, the last line in the Drunken Peaches recipe is not my editorial, but is on the original recipe. Clearly, the recipe was well tested by the publisher.

But my favorite in all these recipes is the measurement provided for baking soda, “the edge of a knife soda for bread.”

Remember that no matter what the recipe includes or excludes, all jars of preserves should be boiled for ten minutes with the water level one inch above the lid before allowing them to cool and be stored.

Drunken Peaches

Ingredients:
2 kg (4½ pounds) sugar
2-3 cups water
3 kg (6½ pounds) peaches, not too ripe, skins removed
½ liter (2 cups) grape rakiya

Directions:
Simmer the sugar and water to form a thick syrup. Place the whole peeled peaches in the syrup. When the syrup returns to the boil, use a slotted spoon to remove the peaches and let them cool. Layer in jars peaches, a little of the syrup, and a little of the grape rakiya (or other fruit brandy), repeating until the jars are full. Cover with parchment paper and cap the jars tightly. Let mature 5-6 weeks. It has a good taste.

Дренки (pronounced “dren-key”) is the fruit of the cornel cherry, a relative of the dogwood. The fruit is small, red, and quite sour. The cornel cherry is native to Eastern Europe. When living in Bulgaria, I used it as a substitute for cranberries at Thanksgiving so you can probably do so the other way around if you wish to try out the recipe below and don’t happen to have a few cornel cherry trees handy.

сироп от дренкиCornel Cherry Syrup

Ingredients:
2 kg (4½ pounds) cornel cherries
1 kg (4 cups) water
1½ kg (3¼ pounds) sugar
½ teaspoon citric acid (or 1 tablespoon lemon juice)

Directions:
Mash the cornel cherries and leave them to ferment together with the pits for 24 hours. The next day, strain through a sieve, and then again through a cloth into a pot. Pour in water, add sugar, and boil until the mixture reaches the desired thickness. Add citric acid (or lemon juice).

татлииSyrup Pastries

Ingredients:
¼ kg lard or butter
1 egg yolk
4 tablespoons yogurt
2½ flour
½ kg (1 pound) sugar
2 cups water
vanilla or lemon rind

Directions:
Cream lard or butter together with the egg yolk. Add the yogurt and flour. Mix until you have a soft dough from which you make walnut-sized balls. Lightly press them with a grater with which lemons are grated; arrange them on a greased baking sheet and bake. While still hot, pour over a syrup made by boiling sugar and water flavored with vanilla or lemon rind.

I translated “ванилички с мармалад” as vanilla sandwich cookies as they literally are called “little vanilla ones with marmalade.” Such an endearment provided the same translation challenge from Bulgarian as translating my brownie recipe from English for my Bulgarian friends.

ваниличкиVanilla Sandwich Cookies
with Marmalade

Ingredients:
200 grams (7 ounces) butter
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
3 cups flour
1 egg
1 egg yolk
rind of 1 lemon
juice of ½ lemon
the edge of a knife baking soda
additional powdered sugar for rolling
2 packets vanilla powder

Directions:
Cream the butter and sugar. When the butter is foamy, add the egg, egg yolk, lemond rind, lemon juice, and baking soda. Mix everything well until there is a smooth dough. Roll the dough to a thickness of ½ cm (just under ¼ inch) and use a rakiya glass to cut out circles, arranging them on a greased baking sheet. Bake in a hot oven until lightly browned. While still hot, stick them together two by two with marmalade or jelly. Roll them in powdered sugar, flavored with two packets of vanilla. It’s good if the sandwich cookies are left overnight in order to soften.

Quince can be very difficult to find even when seasonal, and upscale markets who do sell them do so at a price that this oft ignored sister of the apple family shouldn’t have to bear. Last fall, I had an outdoor market vendor stab the air and venomously accuse the quince of a blight that would kill her apple harvest. Putting even one or two peeled and cut up quince to a pot of applesauce adds flavor. If you can find a few pounds, quince jam is easy to make and store.

сладко от дюлиQuince Jam

Ingredients:
1 kg (2¼ pounds) sugar
300 grams (1¼ cups) water
1 kg (2¼ pounds) quince, peeled and grated on the large size of a box grater
water to which 1 packet citric acid (or 1 tablespoon lemon juice) has been added
citric acid (or 2 teaspoons lemon juice)

Directions:
Boil a syrup from the sugar and water. Into the hot syrup the prepared quince. In order that the peeled quince do not brown as you grate them, let them sit in the water and citric acid (or lemon juice). Boil the jam at high heat until the desired thickness. Before pouring into jars, add additional citric acid or lemon juice.

 

 

Back in the Summer of 1960

Kitchen Traveler—yes, you read it here first. I am officially coining the term (unless of course someone else has beaten me to it) for those that travel through cooking recipes from other countries. If reading books about foreign locales makes you an armchair traveler, then preparing foods from foreign locales makes you a Kitchen Traveler. Even if you have never been to Bulgaria, therefore, you may now find your way there through paths salty and sweet.

I found some old recipes that my mother-in-law might very well have followed as she started out her married life and thought I’d pass them along. Bulgarian recipes of a certain era combine precise metric measurements with, shall we say, slightly less precise direction in keeping with what the cook of the time had available. Forget tablespoon and teaspoon, the recipes below call for a spoonful or the diminutive “little spoonful.” My mother-in-law’s oven did have temperature settings, but I have friends who grew up with ovens that simply had the numbers one through four on the dial to indicate heat gradations. Thus the first recipe calls for baking in a “hot oven.” The tone of the recipes is quite different from those written some years later. These partner with the reader cook—we cut one kilogram onions, we add 1-2 carrots—whereas later recipes use the third person.

The original recipes also are written in paragraph form so that you have to carefully read through them to figure out the ingredients and prep work. My translations show those first, as indeed most Bulgarian recipes published today do, and offer both metric and American standard measurements where applicable. If the measurement references cups, then so does the original and you just have to presume a teacup rather than an espresso coffee cup is what is being referenced. If there is no measurement, that’s because the original offers none, and so you are—as Bulgarian women were then—left to your devices. And if you are offended that I write only of housewives and women, well, that’s how it was in 1960.

Baked Fish

Ingredients:
1 kg (2.2 pounds) onion, cut into thin slices
½ cup fat
1-2 carrots, cut into pieces
garlic, chopped
2 even spoonfuls flour
1 little spoonful paprika
several peppercorns
2-3 bay leaves
1 cup water
salt
tomatoes, sliced
whole cleaned fish rubbed with a little oil and sprinkled flour and paprika

Directions:
Saute onion in fat along with carrots and garlic. When the onion is a golden color, add flour and lightly saute briefly. Add paprika, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Add water and salt, and then pour it all into a large baking pan. Cover the sauteed vegetables with thinly sliced tomatoes. Place prepared fish on top. Bake in a hot oven.

String Beans in the Oven

Ingredients:
1-½ kg (3.3 pounds) fresh string beans
onion, chopped finely
salt
thin paste of 1 spoon flour, paprika, and water
2-3 tomatoes, chopped fine
bunch parsley, chopped fine
water
1-2 eggs
1 cup milk

Directions:
Clean string beans and cut in two length-wise. Steam them in a pot together with onion and salt. When the beans and onion have softened, put them in a baking dish and pour over them the paste of flour, paprika, and water. Add tomatoes, parsley, and enough water to cover the vegetables. Bake in the oven. When the vegetables have browned, pour over them the eggs beaten together with the milk. Bake in the oven again until eggs have cooked. Beans prepared this way are very tasty.

Potatoes Baked with Feta Cheese

Ingredients:
1 kg (2.2 pounds) potatoes, peeled and cut into slices
fat
¼ kg (½ pound) feta cheese, mashed (or kashkaval, a cheddar-type cheese, finely grated)
parsley, finely chopped
1 cup milk
2-3 beaten eggs
garlic (optional)

Directions:
Stew potatoes in fat. Add feta cheese (or kashkaval) and parsley. Beat eggs and milk together and pour over. Bake until browned. If desired, serve with garlic.

Burek–Eggplant

Ingredients:
eggplant, peeled and cut into slices lengthwise
salt
fat
stuffing made from mashed feta cheese, eggs, and bread crumbs
flour for rolling
beaten eggs for dipping
yogurt mixed with chopped garlic

Directions:
Salt eggplant slices and let rest until they release water. Fry them in fat and remove from pan. Take eggplant slices two by two, filling each pair with stuffing. Roll first in flour, then in beaten egg, and sauté in very hot fat. Serve hot with yogurt flavored with garlic.

Baked Plum Confiture

Ingredients:
5 kg (11 pounds) blue plums, pitted
2-½ kg (5-½ pounds) sugar
several cloves
several cinnamon sticks
1-2 cups toasted walnuts (optional)

Directions:
Pour sugar over plums and add cloves and cinnamon sticks. Bake in the oven in a not very high temperature. From time to time, stir so that the top layer does not burn. When the plums become wrinkled and the juice thickens, remove them from the pan, pour into jars, and cover them well with parchment paper. If desired, add walnuts. My Note: Aside from the fact that not once in decades of eating homemade preserves in many Bulgarian homes did I ever see parchment paper used, one should always—and Bulgarians do—cap jars securely and boil for ten minutes before storing.

Next time, I will post recipes for Drunk Peaches, Cornel Cherry Syrup, Syrup Pastries, Vanilla Sandwich Cookies with Marmalade, and Quince Jam—all to make the summer sweeter as it winds down.

Letters to the Editor / Писма до Редакцията

Last month, I wrote a post on the grande dame of Bulgarian woman’s magazines, Жената ДНЕС (Zhenata DNES/The Woman TODAY). While working on a longer essay on Zhenata DNES as it was published in 1960, I thought I would offer some tidbits from the January-April issues of that year. However much things have changed the world over since 1960, much does—as the saying goes—stay the same.

The Letters to the Editor column is not offered in every issue, but the Zhenata DNES editorial staff clearly take the time to guide their troubled readers with lengthy and detailed responses. Here is a letter from a 19-year old who has fallen in love with an older, married man. The answer is quite firm about how she must proceed.

What to do?

I love a married man with two children. He also loves me. He and his wife haven’t understood one another for many years. He says that he agrees to divorce, but is scared that I am unable to care for his children who he loves very much. But it’s not like that. I love the children, I constantly think of them and him. I often walk to the school in order to see them without them knowing.

In spite of being 19 years old, I think that if I become their mother I will look after them as one should and I will love them even more. But the father of the children sees my love and now is hiding himself. He says that he has to break off everything. But I can’t do that and am even more infatuated. B.I.B–Pleven

Answer

When a love is wrongly directed, it ordinarily carries more regrets and grief. Naturally at your age, you should come to love some appropriate for you young man. When you connected with this married man with two children, of course you hoped that he would marry you. You hoped, but not he as well. Now that your relationship has deepened and he is faced with the need to decide, he starts to pull back. So think for yourself—did this father really just now notice that he has two children and that you won’t be able to raise them? This is simply a specious pretext to break a frivolously started connection that already weighs on him.

Even if you were to marry this man, the situation is not going to be a happy one. The two children are already older, students, presumably the difference between you and them is no more than ten years. They will never be able to forget the mother who gave birth to them. For them, no matter how old you grow, you will always be the “the other woman” who drove Mama from the home.

Now it seems to you that you will never be able to go on without this person. But time will pass, your mind will ease, you will forget, and you will be satisfied that you didn’t take a mistaken step in your life.

The editors include reader letters raising a wide range of topics, many quite sensitive. Communist countries took pride in promoting women’s equality in the workplace and in the professions, but ideology tended to leave the domestic front untouched. In practice, this meant that women could work all day as doctors, factory floor managers or building railroad lines, but still be expected to cook the meals and do the laundry. Whether in 1960 Bulgaria, there was still somehow an ethos of empowering women in their personal lives is hard to say, but the editors at Zhenata DNES not only legitimize their readers’ desires to take their lives into their own hands but urge them to take action.

One reader wrote in desperation of the terrible physical abuse she endured from her husband and the admonition of all around her that divorce was too shameful to consider. The editors at length advise her that while marriage required a spouse to compromise to some degree, in no way did it require one to tolerate abuse; she should ignore those around her, obtain a divorce, and live a life worthy of her. Another young wife married at age 15 and left school, but enjoys books. However, her husband hates books, maintains that wives don’t need them, and forbids her to read. In a lengthy and detailed answer, the editors encouragingly explain that books are valuable and for everyone—not simply the well educated. They propose a strategy in which the wife should try to find out her husband’s interests (say, metallurgy or agriculture) and get books for him to read either on his own or by the two together, thereby gradually acclimating him to the value and pleasure of reading.

A related column offers readers the opportunity to ask health-related questions to be answered by a doctor. The idea that purging the body provides health benefits didn’t start with today’s celebrities, but has gone in and out of fashion since perhaps time immemorial. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the older brother of the Corn Flakes™ inventor, presided over a sanitarium whose aim was to cleanse patients of the toxins in their bodies—chief among the methods used was the application of many enemas. European wellness culture had its own love of the purge and the cleanse, so it’s not surprising that one1960 Zhenata DNES reader asked, “Is it harmful to frequently use laxatives?” “Yes,” firmly said the doctor Zhenata DNES had answer such questions, “instead drink mineral water containing sulphur, for example the Sofia mineral water.”

A Communist country can have an uneasy relationship with the idea of material possessions. On the one hand is the idea of communal and national ownership, on the other the belongings of an individual. One the one hand is the idea of raising the standard of living to meet or exceed that of the capitalist West, on the other is the ability to produce products that can accomplish just that. A periodic Zhenata DNES column promotes household items that a woman cannot really run her household effectively without. In one issue, “Необходими помощници в домакинството” (“Necessary helpers in the household”) begins:

The more kitchen pots and utensils a homemaker has at her disposal, the more pleasant and easy her work will be, the less time she will use in preparing food, and the better hygiene requirements will be met…

No brand names are being proffered, but the message is clear—you need to buy more things so your life will be better. Were state factories making those vaunted kitchen pots and utensils? Could they be found in state stores in enough quantity? Could my mother-in-law, in 1960 living in one room with my father-in-law and using a communal kitchen, even find a place to store more than an absolute minimum of household goods? If readers submitted such questions, Zhenata DNES didn’t find it politic to publish them.

The Woman Today / Жената Днес

I avidly read the column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” in my grandmother’s monthly Ladies’ Home Journal magazine whenever we visited her. I was in elementary school when this interest was sparked so either I was precociously preparing for what might lie ahead or being a voyeur into other lives in perhaps the most conservative way possible. “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” and idly looking at the covers while waiting my turn in the grocery line are the sum total of my experience with women’s magazines.

Recently, however, I bought two 1942 copies of women’s magazines as a birthday present for my mother—the idea being that she could browse and see what her mother may well have been reading in the year my mother was born. There was also the aspect of seeing how far women have—and have not—come. Leafing through them at this remove of time piqued my interest. As I noted in an earlier post, it is often true that I find myself thinking about or surprised by steps that seem to inexorably lead to Bulgaria. My brother-in-law was a fashion and interior photographer and Bulgarian women’s magazines were often clients.

Some of the women’s magazines in the United States have been around since the 19th century. Ladies’ Home Journal managed to last 131 years before it acknowledged it could not be saved and folded in summer 2014. Given the category’s monthly publication schedule, news is not the business of women’s magazines, be they considered “service” or fashion, for suburban mothers of young children or urban singles. The operative question is the “how to.” How to dress, how to cook nutritiously, how to diet, how to save time/how to shop, how to travel, how to improve sex/relationships/appearance/parenting as a verb/maximizing time to oneself because you deserve it.

spam-and-limas”Women’s service” magazines were traditionally aimed at stay-at-home mothers with a need for laborsaving devices, relationship-preserving ideas and innovative ways to satisfy children clamoring for food. There are plenty of recipes that would never be included in an actual cookbook, courtesy of the ads for various canned and packaged food that encouraged women to just add lima beans to spam for an instant wholesome meal.

Looking at the vintage copies made me wonder about the existence of such magazines in Bulgaria and how Communist ideology and control affected the approach to Bulgarian women with children clamoring for food and who had concerns about appearance, relationships, and laborsaving devices despite living in a worker’s paradise with a standard of living that was constantly sold as far higher than that in the mythically degenerate West on the verge of collapse. But who wouldn’t be still better off with a washing machine and canned pork seasoned with potato starch and sodium nitrite?

Жената ДНЕС (Zhenata DNES/The Woman TODAY) is perhaps the oldest women’s service magazine in Bulgaria still in publication. From its inception in the mid-1940s, the monthly magazine is now—according to its website—“a 70-year institution for generations of Bulgarian women.” For the first 45 of those years, it operated in a highly-restricted environment under a government that viewed all media as key to maintenance of Communist party power. After all, Vladimir Lenin had clearly said in 1901: “A newspaper should not only be a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses.” Like all publications, Жената ДНЕС was in many ways a means to a political end.

But not entirely. If the publication had to meet political standards, Жената ДНЕС as well had to be sufficiently interesting, relevant, and appealing to the women it targeted. The cover, the features, the regular columns, the supplements, the photography were carefully planned to be familiar and recognizable enough to build readership and distinctive enough to attract purchasers at the newsstand.

The differences between, say, Ladies’ Home Journal and Жената ДНЕС in the latter’s first 45 years are clear. For most of those years, the cover of Жената ДНЕС displayed only the masthead, a single cover image, the issue date and number, and the notation “published by the Committee of Bulgarian Women.” The price of each issue must have been noted at the newsstand because it appears nowhere on the cover. It’s not at all clear how to obtain a subscription, though subscriptions to magazines were possible. There are no advertisements anywhere. This may seem obvious in a Communist country, but in fact the government of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was careful to set up a number of branded products in such categories as cigarettes, book series, alcohol, household cleaners, and sweets. Advertisements did appear from time to time in other media.

Ladies' Home JournalThe January issue of Ladies’ Home Journal displays the masthead, a single cover image, the issue date, and the following cover lines: Pat Boone Talks, The Burning Eye Condenses Complete Novel In This Issue, How to Lose 125 Pounds and Stay Thin, Lovable, Wonderful Dr. Spock, and Teen Age Report to the Nation Are They Beat…Boho…or? The four-color, glossy paper issue is filled with advertisements.

1960_01In many ways, however, the magazines are strikingly similar. Principally they are aspirational. They show people and lifestyles to aspire to and direction on how to achieve those aspirations. The January 1960 issue of Жената ДНЕС shows an airbrushed pretty woman with stylishly short hair, red lipstick, and blue earings perfectly matching her blue sweater. Her age is indeterminate—anywhere from late 20s to early 40s–maximizing the number of readers who could see themselves in her if they could just find out where she got that lipstick. Turn the page and you see the very first article “More Women in Leadership Positions in [Agricultural Collectives].”

Yes, even in 1960 in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria women are promised that they can have it all; they can lead the country to a new stage in agricultural production and when they’re done can look perfectly put together with nary a wrinkle or sunspot from all that outdoor hard physical labor.

Turn the page and celebrate the “50th Anniversary of the International Day of the Woman” with a two-page spread of three short pieces. One shows a historical photo a well-dressed young beauty, born of a poor family, who rose—just as surely as the Жената ДНЕС reader might similarly rise—to become a brave revolutionary serving now as an example to all women. Another is titled “Towards Freedom, Towards Light,” as aspirational as a headline could possibly be.

Leaf through further pages and read a variety short fiction, a poem or two, a first-person account of a factory weaver and her trainees. International affairs are not ignored with a dutiful spread on some doings in the Soviet Union. “By demand of our readers,” there is a profile of Yma Sumac, the Peruvian-American singer famed for her five-octave range; Жената ДНЕС was careful to excise the “American” half of that identity, despite Sumac being an American citizen by the time the profile appeared.

Television was praised though almost no Bulgarian at that time had seen one. Reader letters are given their due as are education of preschool children, hygiene in flu season, and advice for the housewife. A cartoon has one man complaining to another “The more women rise up in leadership, the more it’s frustrating that they are always busy.” The issue makes space for a “Style” section with photos of modern fashions credited to the West German sewing magazine Neue Schnitt, the monthly Sybylle from East Germany (“the Vogue of the East”), the French Modes & Travaux (a monthly dating back to 1919), and the Sofia Style Center. The closing spread offers recipes, including nutrition for the breastfeeding mother, and ideas for cardigans and pullovers for everyone in the family.

The parallels between the two publications are clear and unless one counts paper and printing quality, it’s difficult to say that is one is more sophisticated than the other or serves its intended public better. It seems no matter the time period or the political environment in which they operate, women’s service magazines are an institution for generations of women. No matter how many recipes have been served up or fashion advice disseminated, how many relationships saved or leadership positions flaunted, the women’s service magazine reader is always in need of a little more help.

Stoyan and a Village / Стоян и село

Satirical TheatreFor three years after serving his mandatory two years in the army and fruitlessly applying to the Art Academy in Sofia, my husband worked for the Сатиричен Театър, the Satiric Theater at 26 Stefan Karadja Street. His politics prevented his acceptance in the higher levels of academe, but seemed to be of little importance when working in theater set design.

The work wasn’t onerous, it was in a creative environment, the theater operated at a very high professional level in all aspects, and he met a friend he still has more than three decades later.

Станислав СтратиевThe Satiric Theater’s literary director at that time was Stanislav Stratiev. Stratiev was a playwright, screenwriter, satirical essayist, and short story writer. According to his website, “Stratiev’s plays have been performed in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sweden, the Slovak Republic, Turkey, the USA, and others.”

Stratiev died in 2000, having worked at the Satiric Theater since 1975 and producing an enormous body of work, much of it still performed and read and cherished.

Not long ago, my husband pulled off the bookshelf a volume of Stratiev’s short fiction, Избрано 1. Белетристика (Selected Works 1. Fiction). After a few minutes of listening to him chortle, I had to see for myself. The character Stoyan is a sort of Everyman, or perhaps Everypeasant. Bulgaria has seen enormous changes in the last 130 years, but the village is the ironic harbinger of the news that for many even seemingly cataclysmic change results in little advancement in day-to-day life—and sometimes in reversals. Here then is my translation of Stoyan and a Village.

Stoyan and a Village

Somewhere—mineral water, elsewhere—oil, in Stoyan’s village—backwardness.

Backwardness and barbarism.

Mountains, forests, rocky peaks, and hobgoblins.

The population, of course, doesn’t believe, but when it comes and sits at your table, how can you not believe?

Either that, or it reaches for you in the middle of the day so that you circle the village while someone knocks the head off a black hen and throws it across the path of the hobgoblin.

The village is small, twenty houses, but when a hobgoblin is chasing you it appears to you as large as the capital Sofia.

Big backwardness.

The last hope of the population is at least democracy to come, because electricity and water don’t come, and they don’t have anywhere to come from—no road, and it also is not coming.

Instead bears come and they blow in your eye in the middle of the square.

Wolves throttle the sheep, boars ravage the potatoes.

The people number less than the beasts.

Big backwardness.

Big backwardness and explosives.

The village lays on explosives.

Somewhere God gave gold, elsewhere—pyramids, here—explosives.

On the very top are those from the Second World War. They are, let’s say, two hand spans down. You dig the cucumbers in a little deeper and you fly in the air.

Below this layer are the explosives from the First World War. They are at the depth, let’s say, of a latrine.

The population is in shock and has already stopped digging latrines. At the smallest occasion, one runs into the woods.

Big backwardness.

Backwardness and barbarism.

Under those are the ones from the Russian-Turkish War.

You go to dig a well and after forty-five minutes, you don’t need either water or food.

So the village has no water, and the population drinks like beasts from bear paw prints and from forest springs.

Farther down no one has reached; no one knows what is below this layer.

The population with reason supposes that further down are sabers and maces.

One can’t say that this is fertile soil and that the harvests are very bountiful in Stoyan’s village.

Despite everything, life here passes like it does everywhere.

One’s birthplace, there’s nothing like it.

Judgement in Sofia

In January, I wrote the following:

I have an unwritten rule that my blog will not discuss politics. Not because I do not have strong feelings about various matters political, but because most people do and the possibility of unknowingly giving offense is quite large. Giving offense is unpleasant and unproductive so one should try not to do it, however much politics seems often to depend on that very thing. I know more about U.S. politics than I care to and not enough about Bulgarian politics to form any but the most general of opinions.

But to the extent that we wish our politicians to act ethically, to make and uphold laws against behavior that most would call wrong (e.g., murder, theft, rape), and to straightforwardly and firmly denounce contemptible behavior by those in office, politics is something about which we can all have an opinion. I know quite little about Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and only slightly more about Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, but I took note of their respective reactions to an ongoing scandal highlighting what Radev referred to late last week as “a creeping indulgence of Nazism.”

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov recently formed a coalition government that includes the far right Patriotic Front (sometimes referred to as United Patriots) party, whose leader Valery Simeonov currently serves as Deputy Prime Minister. Simeonov has refused to resign over the scandal of two Patriotic Front members appearing in photographs making the Nazi salute: Deputy Minister for Regional Development Pavel Tenev and Ivo Antonov, an official in the Ministry of Defense. Tenev resigned on May 17. Antonov has not yet offered his resignation. Simeonov dismisses the photos as having no significance or relevance.

After too much time spent silent on the subject, Borissov finally commented on Tenev’s Sieg Heil explaining “it’s human while on business trips to make such jokes.” BNE Intellinews reported that “Borissov assessed that Tenev was the best and the most prepared of all the deputy ministers from the United Patriots, and the scandal is a blow to his career.”

right-wrongWhatever his motives may have been, whatever policies he may wish to forward in other spheres, however much easier it may have been in his capacity as head of state rather than in Borissov’s as the head of government, it is laudatory that Radev for his part did not mince words or equivocate.

“We do not accept the approach where in order to wriggle out unscathed those in power offer evasive commentary about the perpetrators’ professionalism. That [professionalism] is not the issue—do we condemn these phenomena or not? I am buoyed up by Bulgarian society and its reaction. I think that the condemnation of Nazism must be absolutely obligatory.”

Radev went on to criticize the notion suggesting that it is permissible for an ordinary citizen to pull stunts like this, but absolutely forbidden if one enters in government. “We are all part of society, irrespective of whether you are an ordinary citizen or a politician with responsibility. These roles change very fast, especially in our time,” the President declared. And he emphasized, “No one doubts the high professionalism of these people, the problem is a moral one. Whether the representatives in question withdraw themselves [from office] is also a moral choice, one which each must decide for himself.”

good-evilIt seems to me that no matter with which political party or politician one is affiliated, one can appreciate an absolute condemnation of the expression of Nazi ideology or symbols and that such expression has no place and no excuse. And if Nazism in all its forms is widely, frequently, and strongly condemned, such expression will find no safe haven and utterly fail to thrive.

Italy, Libya, and Bulgaria: Not a Love Triangle

Some months ago, I wrote that it can seem to me that all roads lead to Bulgaria in a mysterious, six degrees of separation sort of way. It is of course a matter of interpretation, of if not looking for such connections then of being open to observe them when they happen. Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Novel talks not of six degrees of separation but instead of six chance happenings. Six fortuities. Things just happen to have happened, things that could “just as well be otherwise,” but afterwards seem to have been in some way fateful and even inexorably to lead to a fixed point.

 

Thus when I first saw the classic film Casablanca, I never noticed that Rick’s silent fixing of the roulette game is for a Bulgarian couple. I didn’t notice because I hadn’t yet met the Bulgarian whom I would marry and Bulgaria meant nothing to me. Now I can’t help but notice—particularly when these Bulgarian chance happenings occur entirely unexpectedly in places that seem rather more than six degrees of separation away.

I was reading Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, a contemplative, sometimes melancholic, and often beautiful memoir of his family, his father’s disappearance, and the dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Trained as an architect, Matar muses on downtown Benghazi and its development under Italian colonization in the 1920s and 1930s. The Italians in fact gave the name “Libya” to the colony it ruled.

 

The Roman Catholic Benghazi Cathedral (left above), he notes, was designed by Guido Ferrazza who led a life far from his birth in the small Italian Alpine village of Bocenago. And where did Ferrazza go after graduating from university in Milan? To Bulgaria, to consult on the already decades-long project of building the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (right above) in Sofia, Bulgaria. That Cathedral honored a 13th century Russian prince and that in turned honored the Russians who had freed Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War.

Tzar Alexander the LiberatorJust a few years before Ferraza left Italy for Sofia, Italian sculptor Arnaldo Zocchi did the same. Zocchi designed the enormous equestrian statue and monument to the Russian Tzar known as Alexander the Liberator. Zocchi had won earlier commissions in Bulgaria, and though now largely forgotten once was admired by Bulgarians as “The Divine Florentine.”

 

Bulgaria had its own connection with Libya apart from Guido Ferraza’s peripatetic cathedral involvement. Because Muammar Qaddafi styled himself as something of a socialist, he developed relationships with the Soviet Union. That relationship, according to the U.S. State Department, “involved massive Libyan arms purchases from the Soviet bloc and the presence of thousands of east bloc advisers.” On Christmas Day 1976 (a day neither country presumably celebrated), Libya and Bulgaria signed five agreements on trade, economic, scientific, and political cooperation at the end of a four‐day visit to Libya by Todor ZhIvkov, Communist leader of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria from 1954 to 1989. It was such a delightful visit that Zhivkov repeated it, though he appears somewhat awkward as he attempts to recline on the pillows placed on the ground for the reunion.

Qaddafi and Zhivkov
Qaddafi meets Zhivkov in the Libyan Desert, 1984

Later and in quick succession, there was Libya’s 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and in 1989, the collapse of the East Bloc. Perhaps, however, because of the existing longstanding relationship, Bulgaria did not seem to view Libya as a pariah state in the same way as most did in the West. The Bulgarian state-owned company Expomed recruited doctors and nurses to work at a Libyan hospital at generous salaries relative to what they were receiving at home. Other Bulgarian healthcare providers also found what seemed to be attractive positions in Libya. Most began their work in the port city of Benghazi in February 1998. Throughout his book, Hisham Matar longingly describes the beauty of the Mediterranean Sea as it is seen from Libya’s coast.

Benghazi SixIn November, the first news came of a HIV health crisis at the El-Fatih Children’s Hospital in Benghazi. Ultimately, over 400 children were affected. International experts from myriad organizations and the most renowned HIV specialists in the world pointed the finger at poor hygiene practices in the hospital that predated the arrival of the Bulgarian medics by at least a year. But the families of the children needed someone to blame and Qaddafi needed to deflect that blame. In March 1999, five Bulgarian nurses and a colleague, a Palestinian doctor, were arrested (initially more were detained, all but these six released) and tortured into confessing that they purposely injected the children with the virus. Sentenced first to death and then to life imprisonment, their case became an international scandal.

In April 1999, Libya fulfilled one of the United Nations Security Council requirements by surrendering for trial two Libyans suspected in connection with the Pan Am bombing. That began a long but sure process of easing relations with many countries, but for the Benghazi Six the suffering had just begun. It took over eight years before their final release was obtained with no admission from Libya that they were in fact innocent or that they had been in any way wronged. Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of Muammar Qaddafi’s eight children did, however, concede that there had been some coercion of confessions after the Benghazi Six began sharing their painful stories upon their 2007 return to Bulgaria.

Just one year later, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Qaddafi signed the 2008 Friendship Treaty between their two countries. There was much talk about a “special relationship,” “reciprocal economic interests,” and recognition of Libya’s “gradual and prudent reform.”

Qaddafi and Berlusconi

In October 2011, Qaddafi’s over four-decade dictatorship ended when he was killed in his hometown of Sirte. In November 2011, scandal-ridden Berlusconi announced from Rome his resignation as prime minister.

Far from signing a treaty, Bulgaria instead warned its citizens against all travel to Libya and strongly recommended Bulgarians currently in Libya leave. Benghazi’s Mediterranean Sea locale has little to recommend it when Bulgarians can safely enjoy their own Black Sea coast. Kundera notwithstanding, it could not be otherwise.

Folktales / Народни Приказки

I’m not an anthropologist nor an ethnographer nor a historian nor a philosopher. So I’m fairly certain that my assumptions about the relationship of national folklore to national values are neither new nor expert. Still, I find the relationship interesting to think about.

When I first met the Bulgarian man who would become my husband, I didn’t even know where Bulgaria was. We were in the United States and the Cold War showed little if any sign of ending so most of the cultural education was on his end. When we first lived in Bulgaria and I began learning the language, народни приказки (folktales) didn’t even make the list of all the Bulgarian language learning I set out to do.

Then came our daughter and I was determined to speak to her in Bulgarian—and that included children’s literature. Naturally we received many collections of народни приказки as gifts, and my Bulgarian language and cultural education suddenly entered an entirely new arena. Since folktales come down through oral tradition, they predate industrialization no matter what country or culture tells them. They are far older than we know so they tend to start with a stock phrase that deliberately pinpoints nothing. In Bulgarian, that’s Имало едно време (Once upon a time)…

While there are plenty of American folktales, I can’t say I know very many. Most folktales that I am familiar with are from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen. Perhaps because I was not introduced to them as an adult, I have never spent any time analyzing the values and heroines/heroes promoted. But my experience with Bulgarian folktales was altogether different.

I met Ежко Бежко (Ezhko Bezhko) the sincere hedgehog, Баба Меца (Baba Metza) the protective bear, Кумчо Вълчо (Kumcho Vulcho) the dimwitted wolf, Зайо Байо (Zayo Bayo) the fainthearted rabbit, and Кума Лиса (Kuma Lisa) the sly fox. I liked many of the folktales I read first to my daughter and then later to my son, but some were very discomfiting. Trickery as a winning strategy seems to appear more often than you want small children to hear as a value to emulate.

Of course, the trickster appears in many cultures. We enjoyed reading stories about the African trickster character Anansi the Spider (and of course there’s the American Brer Rabbit), but Anansi doesn’t always win and the other characters often have his number. I remember as a child enjoying the Yiddish folklore trickster, Hershel of Ostropol, who was something of a court jester. The Bulgarian Хитър Петър (Sly Peter) is also a figure of fun and one of the non-animal stock characters.

I wonder if craftiness and trickery feature so prominently because Bulgaria spent so long—five centuries—as part of the Ottoman Empire. If one feels perpetually the little guy, does that mean that one sees guile as the way to stick it to the [Ottoman] man? And if that Ottoman Empire is replaced just two generations later by the Soviet empire, perhaps the same values seem, well, still valuable. And if one continues to read such folktales, is one continuing to inculcate values that in the present day might be outright disadvantageous to a country where honest dealings are needed to overcome the trickery that is today’s endemic corruption?

But to end on a lighter note. Here is my own retelling of a Bulgarian folktale in which Kuma Lisa’s mean-spirited trickery is vanquished by the goodhearted Ezhko Bezhko’s resourcefulness.

Ежко и Кума

Kuma Lisa and Ezhko Bezhko

One time, not so long ago, Kuma Lisa the fox and Ezhko Bezhko the hedgehog were as close as sister and brother, and went everywhere together. Wherever the fox went, the hedgehog went too. One day the fox said to the hedgehog. “Ezhko Bezhko, will you come with me to the farmer’s grapevines? We can feast on sweet grapes.”

“I’ll come Kuma Lisa, why shouldn’t I come? But I have to tell you, I’m scared that we’ll come to grief over it. Last night I had very bad dreams,” worried the hedgehog.

“Ooh, what’s wrong with you? When I’m with you, there’s no reason to be scared. I have who knows how many clever schemes—we’ll always find a way out!” boasted the fox. “But, um, do you have any tricks yourself?” she added.

“I know only three little tricks, but they are good little ones and I save them for a rainy day,” the hedgehog assured her. “Well, let’s go.”

Kuma Lisa and Ezhko Bezhko set off for the grapevines, crawled under the fence, and started to eat the sweet grapes. But wouldn’t you know it? Click!—Kuma Lisa got caught in a trap.

“Help! Oh my! Quick, Ezhko,” she yelled, “tell me one of your little tricks. I’m so scared I can’t remember any of mine.”

“Alright Lisa. Pretend that you are dead and when the farmer frees you, run for your life!”

Kuma Lisa stopped yelling. She closed her eyes. She lay very still. She breathed so softly no one could tell she was just pretending. Soon the farmer came. He saw Kuma Lisa lying on the ground with one leg in his trap. He freed her, just as Ezhko Bezhko had said. Kuma Lisa jumped up, ran like the wind, and crawled back under the fence to where Ezhko Bezhko was waiting for her on the other side.

Not many days passed and Kuma Lisa again suggested, “Let’s go, Ezhko, to eat sweet grapes from the farmer’s vines.”

“Did you forget, Lisa, that the last time you barely escaped with your fur still on you?” Ezhko asked.

“Come on, hurry up, whatever happens, I’ll take the responsibility! Whatever happens, I’ll think up some clever escape,” Kuma Lisa reassured him.

Ezhko Bezhko agreed to go and they set off for the grapevines. Soon they were enjoying the sweet grapes. But suddenly, the hedgehog fell into a pit!

“Help! Oh my! Quick, Lisa, help me” he called out. “How can I fool the farmer? You have a whole bagful of schemes and tricks, don’t you?”

“Oh, Ezhko,” sighed the fox, “I did know a lot, but I’ve forgotten them all. You’ll have to figure it out yourself as best you can,”

“Well then, Lisa,” Ezhko shrugged calmly, “it’s clear that there is no escape for me. But come closer now and we’ll kiss each other goodbye to seal our friendship.”

Kuma Lisa bent down over the edge of the pit. But instead of kissing her, Ezhko Bezhko jumped as high as his little legs could carry him and caught hold of Kuma Lisa’s nose!

Just then, the farmer appeared. As soon as Kuma Lisa saw him, she dashed away at top speed. And Ezhko Bezhko went with her, because he was still grabbing hold of her nose.

And that’s how Ezhko Bezhko used two of his good little tricks. And he still has one left, just in case.

 

 

 

 

Empire / Империя

I was listening to Terry Gross’s interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick and staff writer Evan Osnos and thinking about the psychology of empire. How does it feel to be the country whose name is imprinted on the empire, be it the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire? How does it feel to be one of the countries involuntarily made part of that empire, be that action by military might or political fiat? And what happens to the psyche of both when the empire, as all empires eventually do, ends?

The interview focused on Putin’s Russia and Remnick astutely noted that the end of an empire, even the end of a particularly dictatorial empire, is not always welcomed by all its citizenry.

“This was experienced not as a triumph by so many, but also as an incredibly disorienting, humiliating passage of history in which the great empire had disintegrated. … An economic depression came along that, for many people, was incredibly painful, like the ’30s in the United States. … A lot of people in Russia, exemplified by Putin, saw this as a crash followed by chaos, followed by poverty.”

Even without experiencing chaos and poverty, many in Britain felt the loss of empire on which the sun never set as disorienting and humiliating. How else to feel when all one’s education taught you to view the world as turning on your very particular axis?

Bulgaria had two medieval empires, but the second one ended in 1396 when the Ottoman Empire used a series of bloody military invasions to conquer it. Bulgaria remained part of the Ottoman Empire for the next 500 years. Even now, many Bulgarians can recall their childhood history textbook lesson on Tzar Simeon the Great (864-927) and the reach of his empire to three seas: the White Sea (Бяло море), the Adriatic Sea (Адриатическо море), and the Black Sea (Черно море).

But of course, it is the far more recent experience of empire that is the psychologically disorienting. From 1944-1989, Bulgaria was part of the Soviet Empire. As with the other “East Bloc” countries, Bulgaria was nominally an independent country, but the Soviet Union both directly and indirectly controlled the political, economic, cultural, and ideological activity. And while many certainly resented such interference, many also had some comfort in being part of something larger. Be it a cult or a club, a family or a tribe, a religious institution or a labor union—most people are buoyed by being a member of a group.

Remnick went on to say of the dissolution of the Soviet Empire:

“I think most Westerners experienced it and many Russian intellectuals and people of the rising, the nascent, middle class and educated people in particular, and people in cities, they experienced it largely as a great passage forward in history. And we forget that even then … a lot of people were made deeply anxious about this.”

Bulgarian intellectuals and those who had been part of what was for many years derided as the bourgeoisie as well experienced the fall of the Soviet Empire and true independence as a shaking off of the shackles and a great step forward. But construction of something entirely new does not immediately follow destruction of the old. Those who stood to lose everything fought to claw back what they could…and often far more than they had had previously. Corruption and poverty and uncertainty produced nostalgia for the very shackles that had tied them to stability and consistency. Anxiety can be debilitating and it’s natural to reach for what seems to be the cure. Much of Putin’s popularity in Russia may well be based on his ability to soothe that after-Empire anxiety for many of his countrymen.

Bulgaria’s anxiety was in party soothed by being a joiner, first of NATO and second of the European Union. One can be glad to now be part of that vaunted EU club, but still feel humiliation at being always referenced as the poorest member, the corrupt member, the suspect member, the member one doesn’t wholeheartedly welcome into one’s house.

russian-tankSo it is not altogether surprising that Bulgaria has voted for a president that had a career in the military and is considered “pro-Russia.” It is not surprising that various extreme candidates promising all sorts of certainty garner more votes than is healthy for a still nascent democracy. It is not surprising that people to whom empire was for 45 years a promise before abruptly being taken away should yet feel unsettled. What do Bulgarians just now reaching adulthood feel about their country’s place in the world? Do they see their world turning on a particular axis or is empire for them as historical a notion as the 20th century their parents lived through?