Category Archives: Europe

You Say Да, I Say Нет

kick-meLast week The New York Times published an articled entitled “Bulgaria Grows Uneasy as Trump Complicates Its Ties to Russia.” Given the media’s only rare nod to Bulgaria, it’s not surprising that journalists do not have sufficient acquaintance with its history to elucidate just how longstanding the Russian complications are. Thus the article has the following:

“With one foot in the West and the other in the East, Bulgaria has long engaged in a delicate balancing act…Countries like Bulgaria have spent decades balancing East and West, and playing one off the other.”

Well, there is nothing deceptive or untrue about that—except that the balancing has been going on for nearly four decades plus a century. Russian Tzar Alexander II is famed in Bulgaria as Alexander the Liberator since under his reign the 1878 victory in the Russian-Turkish War won Bulgaria its autonomy after five centuries of Ottoman rule. The autonomy was welcome, but Russia’s “little Slavic brother” felt compelled by circumstance and pressure by all and sundry to immediately perform its balancing act. It had to, as the treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Great Powers immediately had Russia (Treaty of San Stefano) battling Germany and Great Britain (Congress of Berlin) for control of Bulgaria’s new borders.

An enormous equestrian statue and monument to Alexander the Liberator is in Sofia’s city center directly opposite the National Assembly. But from 1878 to 1944, Bulgaria’s own tzars, prime ministers, politicians, and opinion leaders leaned variously eastward, westward, or kept the two sides guessing as to which way the Bulgarian wind was blowing.

Of course, the 1944-1989 period had no balance given the Soviet control over all of Eastern Europe. After the fall of communism, Bulgaria joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and became a full NATO member in 2004. General Hastings Lionel “Pug” Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, famously declared that the organization’s goal was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Notwithstanding German membership since 1955, Bulgaria clearly was thinking along the same lines as Lord Ismay in positioning itself with Western Europe and the United States, and thereby making a bid to “keep the Russians out.” Balance.

Language has played a role, both symbolically and as a matter of orientation. French and German were the leading foreign language choices in the early decades of the nation’s new autonomy. During communism, learning Russian as a second language was compulsory in Bulgaria as in the rest of Eastern Europe. Since 1989, the number of Russian speakers has declined and English has become the compulsory foreign language in the public schools.

Russia is not, to say the least, indifferent to the loss of its influence. It may well keep Bulgaria in its sphere by threat of economic punishment, but it certainly wants as well to solidify the emotional ties of Slavic brotherhood and religious connection.

In the heart of Sofia, there is an informal but well-used skateboard park set next to a very large monument to the Soviet army erected in 1954. The steps of the Monument to the Soviet Army (Паметник на Съветската армия) provide a convenient viewing area for both the audience and waiting skaters. This monument arouses strong emotions on opposing sides: keep it and get rid of it.

%d0%b2-%d0%ba%d1%80%d0%b0%d0%ba-%d1%81-%d0%b2%d1%80%d0%b5%d0%bc%d0%b5%d1%82%d0%beOn June 11, 2011, anonymous artists one night painted the bas relief sculpture on one side of the memorial. The bas-relief shows heroic Red Army soldiers moving forward. After the brightly colored paint job, the bas-relief showed the soldiers remade into Captain America, Superman, Wonder Woman, Santa Claus, the Joker and Ronald McDonald. As a final touch, large black capital letters spelled out “in step with the times.” The Russian government protested vigorously and indignantly at this shameful insult and the bas-relief was cleaned. A short documentary of the incident was later made and shown in a 2013 film festival in Poland. The monument has been repeatedly painted since—each time as a commentary on Russia power and influence either past or present.

Yet many Bulgarians are nostalgic for the Russia/former Soviet Union they know and with which they have an affinity, and uncomfortable with the West that often pressures changes they feel ill-equipped to make. They simply don’t feel in step with these particular times. Hence this past November they voted for an air force officer—the candidate of the Bulgarian Socialist Party—who made clear he wished to lean more towards Russia than the country had been leaning. Nevertheless Rumen Radev chose both in the 1990s and in the 2000s to further his military studies in the United States rather than in Russia.

Thus The New York Times quoted new Bulgarian president Radev as saying, “We have a clear road map to follow, [s]taying in the E.U. and staying in NATO. But at the same time, we have a deep historical relationship with Russia.”

Indeed. To repeat the NYT article, “With one foot in the West and the other in the East, Bulgaria has long engaged in a delicate balancing act.” It appears that this balancing act will continue many decades into the future.

Not About Politics

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.

I have lived both in Washington, DC and Sofia, Bulgaria, and so I know it is quite possible to live in a country’s capital and focus on the day-to-day of one’s family and friends, of errands and long walks, of work and leisure, of outings and of hours spent at home with a mug of tea and a book.

cartoonOur Bulgarian friends in Bulgaria often comment longingly on what they see as the absence of corruption, the rule of law, the lack of mafia influence, etc., etc. present in the United States. Our Bulgarian friends in the U.S. often comment to their children that here success doesn’t turn on one’s connections, that money doesn’t buy power, that this country, America, is a “normal country.”

I feel less sanguine about these assertions made on both sides of the pond. I am not full of happy talk about Bulgaria’s endemic corruption and other problems, but I am not sure anymore what constitutes a “normal country.”

politics-is-not-about-moneyOne doesn’t have to be a Christian to be familiar with Pope Gregory I’s famous list of seven deadly sins (седемте смъртни гряха). Not surprisingly, there is at least one website devoted to them. And also perhaps not surprisingly, the seven deadly sins seem fairly good descriptors of the current state of political affairs—or at least of the politicians.

  1. Lust (похот)
  2. Gluttony (чревоугодие)
  3. Greed (алчност)
  4. Sloth (леност)
  5. Wrath (гняв)
  6. Envy (завист)
  7. Pride (гордост)

So it seems at this juncture that the horizon of “normal” may be receding in one country while hazily if haltingly nearing in another. There is reprehensible behavior everywhere. One should call out that behavior loud and clear not merely in places it’s seen as entrenched, but in places it is trying to establish itself as a standard.

george-carlinFor myself, I can say that I am not feeling particularly proud of the United States right now, and wrath is getting the better of me too often. When not wrathful, despair over the naked and undisguised lust, gluttony and greed for power has some days made me quite slothful. I feel, therefore, a bit envious of our cynical Bulgarian friends. Their pessimism is so second nature that they manage just to get on with it and live their lives. Mine, and that of so many of my American friends, is an excruciating and galling thing—and however cynical we are it doesn’t seem enough to keep up with developments.

Perhaps we need to live in Bulgaria again, and soon. We’re certainly thinking about it.

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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!

The Balkans / Балканите

toonpool.com Tchavdar Nikolov2

 

The Balkans. The highest peak in the Balkans is Musala in Bulgaria. The U.S. State Department has a Balkan region policy that includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia but not Bulgaria. Politics, semantics, diplomacy.

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The Balkans, geographically speaking, is also referred to as the Balkan Peninsula, easternmost of Europe’s three great southern peninsulas. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists the countries therein as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. The Encyclopaedia Britannica also confesses that, “There is not universal agreement on the region’s components.”

 

Even the Balkans, it seems, can be balkanized. Goodbye to Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe and hello to the Western Balkans—though, strangely, there doesn’t seem to be the corollary one would expect in references to the “Eastern” Balkans. The United Nations and the European Commission both have programs and reports and round tables on what’s being done and not done in the Western Balkans. There is a web portal devoted to this new piece of an old region. It’s aptly titled European Western Balkans, though that does beg the question of what other continents may contain a “Western Balkans.”

The Oxford University Press’s dictionary defines “balkanization” as Divide (a region or body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups. The term was coined to describe what happened as the Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe” was giving out its last gasps and all its bits and pieces found their long-lost nationalism in making aggressive territorial claims on the other bits and pieces. Two Balkan Wars ensued as did World War I.

condenaststore-com-the-balkansThe Balkans, in whole or in part, geographically, historically, diplomatically, semantically, west or east—what really does that name tell us? Any story it might tell is disingenuous, because even when it was coined it described a past and not a present, let alone a future. And because whenever it has been used, it has meant different things to different people who all imagined they understood the same single and true story behind it.

 

The Balkans. Using this term is like talking about Africa. What can one say about an entire continent that has any real meaning? What can one say about the Balkans that has any real meaning? And yet people will go on and talk about Africa in a way they do not ever seem to talk about North America.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke famously about “the danger of the single story…The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” The single story promulgated again and again about the Balkans is that it is tribal, war-torn, with bred-in-the-bone hatreds from time immemorial. The Balkans, as Adichie lamented about Africa, are spoken about as one single, seething mass—a single story.

For me, this blog To Bulgaria and Back in large part aims to do the opposite. I try to tell many different stories about a single “Balkan” country, Bulgaria. If you have stories to tell, please do share them.

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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., malincho.com). 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.

 

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 Summer 2016

We’re going to Bulgaria this summer. We’re going for a month, all four of us, and we’re getting excited. A month sounds like a lot of time, but we know it will pass in a rush and we won’t get to see or do nearly all the things we would like. A good trip needs to balance just the right amounts of planning (so you’re not spoiled for choice) and serendipity (so you’re not so scheduled you miss unforeseen opportunities). Of course, each of us likely has in mind a different itinerary. I have a little Да Правим (To Do) list on my desktop that assures me all my decisions are the right ones—at least until the others in the family assert their opinion.

Cherni Vruh August 1894We’re planning to start off in Sofia. Assuming cooperative weather, at least one visit to Vitosha seems a must. I’d love to get our son and daughter to agree to a hike up to Черни Връх (Black Peak). In the late 19th century, beloved Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov founded the Bulgarian tourist movement with calls to “Sofia lovers of nature” to re-energize themselves physically and mentally by climbing Mount Vitosha.

Алеко Константинов2In the photo of Black Peak from 1894, Aleko—it seems no one ever refers to him as Konstantinov—is on the far right. Mountain air is lauded for its clean air, critically important for physical and mental health. Mountain hiking is a strong part of the national ethos. So that’s how I hope we’ll spend at least one day while in Sofia. If we walk down Vitosha Boulevard, we can meet Щастливеца (The Happy One, Aleko’s pseudonym) face-to-face, via the statue just placed there this month.

We’ll eat a lot I know. We’ll have кифли с шипков мармалад (something like brioche with rose hip jam). We’ll stop by the Turkish woman’s small bakery on Graf Ignatiev Street, opposite Sedmochislenitzi park, and have some baklava. We’ll wаnder through Борисова градина (Boris’s Garden) while munching on popcorn. And, it goes without saying, we’ll enjoy the best tomatoes in the world in our шопска салата (shopska salata).

Our daughter will want to take a horseback riding lesson or two in Борисова Градина (Boris’s Garden) at the entrance just south of the Vassil Levski metro on Dragan Tzankov Boulevard. Our son remembers feeling humiliated that he was too small to ride when we lived there. He had sit on a small pony and be led around in a circle so he’s anxious to prove himself on a horse just like his big sister. He’s still a bit smaller than she was then, though, so our fingers are crossed that he isn’t disappointed.

Where to after Sofia is the question.

My imagined southern route would take us to Rila—monastery and mountain, which the children have never seen and which neither of us adults have seen since the 1980s. But that is what is so wonderful about seeing something timeless, three decades is meaningless for an ageless mountain and a monastery founded over a millennium ago. From Rila to Blagoevgrad so that our daughter can see American University in Blagoevgrad, just in case, since she’s in high school and college is beginning to get a foothold in our thoughts. Then on to Bansko, one of our favorite spots so that we can spend hours eating, drinking, and talking at Dedo Pene’s. From Bansko in the Pirin Mountains, we might go to the town of Kovachevitza in the Rhodope Mountains. We’ve never been and who knows what we might fall in love with there.

From Sofia, we could well take an eastern route and stop off in Koprivshtitza to stay at Pri Bai Gencho, the very small семеен хотел (family hotel) and restaurant. Maybe we’ll get to stay in the same room as twice before, the one with the New York City souvenir key chain to open the door. Below is Bai Gencho flanked by his son Bai Toshko and daughter-in-law Ani.

Pri Bai Gencho

Hotel-Restaurant “Pri Bai Gencho”, City of Koprivshtitza, Behind the school

Home telephone 07-184-2068, Mobile 0878-889-264

IDevetashkan the morning we’ll have hot milk and мекици (something like the New Orleans fried dough specialty beignet) with homemade jam made from tiny wild strawberries. We’ll wander around the town’s cobblestone streets admiring the beautifully painted Bulgarian Renaissance (19th century) houses. When we’ve had our fill of Koprivshtitza, perhaps we’ll go on to see the remarkable Пещера Деветяшка (Devetashka Cave) and Крушунски Водопад (Krushunski Waterfall). In Bulgaria, there is an embarrassment of riches in terms of natural beauty.

My daughter wants to know exactly how long we’ll stay and where we’ll stay, but I can’t give her a satisfying answer. If we love it, we’ll stay longer. If we’re done, we’ll leave. If we get distracted by something unplanned, we’ll be sure to give in to the moment.

Natural beauty, archeology, history—we can do all of that with a trip north of Sofia. We can go to Пещера Леденика (Ledenika Cave) and then spend some time, a day really, at Белоградчик (Belogradchik) fortress and rocks.

From Belogradchik, we’ll go visit family in Kozlodui. There I want to see what I can find out about my father-in-law’s family history for a future blogpost I’m planning. I would like to poke around in the cemetary and see the names and dates on the headstones, perhaps go to the municipal office and see what can be found that seems lost to memory. Kozlodui is both a substantial town supported by the nuclear reactor there and a traditional village. Much has changed, but the steady employment from the reactor has in its own way financed the continued village life that remains. And village life means that we’ll be fed within an inch of our lives.

Of course, it just might happen that we do not want to be fed within an inch of our life and we just might not have any room left having just come from another relative’s before reaching the current one. We cannot with any ease say no because this is to insult our hosts. At a minimum, we will be encouraged not to be shy and we will insist to anyone listening that we are not being shy—we are simply not hungry. And being slim, we will of course be encouraged to eat all the more as it is obvious none of us are eating enough and more food could only be to our benefit.

PlovdivBut maybe we’ll mix it up and the idle plans above will be shifted around. Maybe we’ll go to Koprivshtitza on our way to Plovdiv. We’ve always loved Plovdiv and it’s apparently blooming more than ever now that it’s been declared the European Capital of Culture 2019. I’ve read more posts than I can count, seen more photos of reborn neighborhoods and cafes and artisan shops and street art—amazing street art—so we have to go to Plovdiv. From city life maybe we’ll plunge back into the natural wonder of the Rhodope Mountains and see the famed Дяволски Мост (Devil’s Bridge).

 

It’s the summer. There has to be ample beach time built in. So this summer we’re planning our first visit to Синеморец (Sinemoretz). This we have not left to serendipity, but have reserved a room.

Did I say we’re excited to go to Bulgaria this summer? We’re leaving in just four weeks. We all need bathing suits. We need a t-shirt or two. Passports both US and BG. Everything else is there. Because as Bulgarians are fond of saying—despite massive societal pessimism documented by countless international surveys and complaints galore (often valid) about their country’s problems—“България е райска градина” (Bulgaria is a Garden of Paradise).

 

 

Fellow Travelers

Recently I picked up a favorite book, What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin, to re-read after many years of its sitting on the shelf. Something caught my eye in an essay on André Malraux: “His flair for personal publicity never deserted him; haranguing meetings of the Front Populaire; dashing with [André] Gide to Berlin to plead for the Bulgarian Communists falsely accused of lighting the Reichstag fire; or irritating a conference of Marxist writers in Moscow with his liberal opinions.”

Wait, Bulgarian Communists, Reichstag fire, I know this story. But how did André 1 and 2 get into the picture? Before I met my Bulgarian husband, learned Bulgarian, and lived in Bulgaria, I imagined all that would happen about 1400 miles west of Sofia in Paris and spent many years unsuccessfully trying to learn French in preparation for living in France. As did, by the way, my Bulgarian husband. And now the French seem to have entered into Bulgarian history in a way I hadn’t expected.

“Curiosity is only vanity. We usually only want to know something so that we can talk about it.”—Blaise Pascal, Pensées

So I had to know more so that I could talk about it.

I knew that in the aftermath of World War I, then known as the darkly hopeful “war to end all wars,” there were many coalitions formed to prevent another such calamity. Anti-militarist, anti-fascist, progressive, leftist, communist sympathizer, Worker’s International member, Communist Party member—adherents of incredibly disparate causes joined in ever evolving, breaking apart, and reforming organizations between the wars.

Andre MalrauxAndre Gide

Malraux (November 3, 1901–23 November 23, 1976) and Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951) were a generation apart, but fellow travelers both and they had a lot of company.

 

 

Henri BarbusseHenri Barbusse (May 17, 1873–August 30, 1935) was a French novelist and an actual member of the French Communist Party. In January 1918, he left France and moved to Moscow, where he married a Russian woman, joined the Bolshevik Party, and later worked for the Comintern.

 

 

Romain RollandRomain Rolland (January 29, 1866–December 30, 1944) was also a French novelist. The length of his epic work Jean-Christophe, perhaps the principal reason he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, makes Tolstoy look like a writer of novellas. Of himself, Rolland said, “In politics, he has always been a republican with advanced Socialist sympathies, and internationalist at heart, and, as they said in the eighteenth century, a ‘citizen of the world.’” So he moved to neutral Switzerland in 1914 and did not return to France until 1937.

Malraux, Gide, Barbusse, and Rolland led the World Committee against War and Fascism with prominent thinkers from around the world. When and how Georgi Dimitrov met these men, I haven’t yet discovered, but the relationships he developed were strong enough to call upon from a Nazi jail.

On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire and nothing in Germany was ever the same. One month later, Adolf Hitler was the dictatorial sole leader of Germany, the Reichstag arson having paved the way. Georgi Dimitrov was arrested on March 9, 1933. He was 51 and already in declining health. Dimitrov had lived in Germany for ten years. He wrote articles for the Communist International Press Correspondence magazine (1921-1938), published in French, English, and German. He was known, but the Nazis who determined to use him and two other Bulgarian Communists in a pro-Nazi show trial ended up making Dimitrov an international star.

Dimitrov began writing his friends immediately. On April 5, he explained his predicament to Henri Barbusse—the arrest, the ill-health, and “no means to buy the much-needed extra food.” He asks that Barbusse pass on the information to Romain Rolland before signing off “with most cordial comradely greetings.” On April 22, he wrote to Marcel Cachin (September 20, 1869–February 12, 1958), founder of the French Communist Party and Member of Parliament representing Paris and its immediate suburbs. He reiterates his hardships and gives directions for sending him money.

Paraskeva DimitrovaOn May 10, he sent a letter to his mother Paraskeva Dimitrova and sister Magdalena Barumova. Religion may well be, as Karl Marx famously stated, “the opium of the people,” so it is a little surprising that hardcore Marxist Dimitrov wrote, “I—like Apostle Paul…—will bear my cross with the necessary courage, patience and fortitude.”

 

He also felt “rather dejected at being unable to learn anything about the situation in my country. I do not see any Bulgarian newspapers, of course. I read the German papers from time to time, but usually they don’t write anything about Bulgaria.” Ah, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same), I feel similarly when seeing the news here in the United States.

On August 31, he thanked Romain Rolland, expressing his “sincere gratitude for [Rolland’s] categorical statement in defense of [Dimitrov’s] innocence.”

And Yet It MovesDimitrov correctly suspected any lawyer assigned to him by the German court to be more danger than help, and his French friends came through hiring lawyers for him. But the court refused to accept French lawyers and Dimitrov famously defended himself. It is often said that a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client. But Dimitrov’s Leipzig trial was heard around the world and in the end he and his Bulgarian co-defendants were acquitted. He cross-examined Joseph Goebbels. He quoted the law to the judge. He highlighted who benefited from the fire and suggested how and why it was truly set. His concluding speech at his 56th court hearing on December 16 is as full of Communist propaganda as he could possibly fit in. Still, on December 23, Dimitrov was acquitted.

Acquitted, but not released. On February 2, 1934, he was moved to the Gestapo catacombs in Berlin, but allowed visitors. On February 5, he recorded in his diary snippets from an interview he gave to an unnamed American correspondent:

Q: The world is very interested. In America a film is even being made, and so forth. Are you healthy and being treated well?

A: I give no interviews, no explanation, for I am not a free man. I am a prisoner of war; I am a hostage.

Q: Have you given up your Bulgarian citizenship?

A: No! I will never give it up!…I will live another twenty years and fight for communism and then die peacefully.

While still being held by the Gestapo in Berlin, Dimitrov gave an interview published in the February 7, 1934 issue of London’s Daily Express in which he predicted further legal woes, this time in his own country. “When set free,” explained Dimitrov, “I shall not go to Russia. Russia is the motherland of every revolutionary, but I have not lost my Bulgarian citizenship, and I wish to go to my own country. I sent a letter to the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Moushanov, but do not doubt that he will have me arrested at the frontier…”

CODA

  • On February 15, the Soviet government responded to the international Communist hero’s plight by granting him Soviet citizenship. The Nazis, by now wishing only to get rid of him, bundled Georgi Dimitrov off to the airport and sent him to Moscow. He expressed delight upon arriving and Bulgaria promptly took away his Bulgarian citizenship.
  • Henri Barbusse first came to fame with the publication of his novel Le Feu (Under Fire (Penguin Classics)); it won the Prix Goncourt. However, it was published years prior to the Reichstag Fire and was instead about the conflagration of World War I. He died in Moscow having just published a book defending and glorifying Stalin, but is nevertheless buried in Paris’s famed Père Lachaise Cemetery.
  • Shortly before Marcel Cachin died, this “Grandfather of the Communist Party” became the first foreigner to receive the Order of Lenin, the highest decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union.
  • Georgi Dimitrov did not live 20 more years, but only 15. This, however, was enough to return to Bulgaria and model his own repressive dictatorship on the Stalinist cult of personality model.

 

 

 

 

 

Nellie / Нели

old Sofia mapFor two years, we lived on Han Krum Street. Han Krum or Khan Krum is something like a founding father in Bulgaria. He led the First Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the ninth century and is probably best remembered for instituting the first written laws in his people’s history, mostly along the lines of no drinking, no stealing, and no lying. Like all good monarchs, Han Krum—aka Krum the Fearsome—vastly increased the territory over which he ruled. He defeated the Bulgarian arch nemesis the Byzantine Empire and made it as far north, east, and west as Hungary and Ukraine. He died before he could attempt taking Constantinople, though his preparations were apparently well underway. A map of Sofia marked “Plan of Sofia 1887-1912” shows the street with the name of “Tzar Krum,” but really the first Bulgarian leader with that title was Simeon the Great who won it after his own defeat of the Byzantines. It’s odd to see a map purporting to represent a city undergoing near constant change and development labeled as though frozen in time for 25 years.

Actually many maps use the name Tzar Krum Street well into the 1930s and so do the engraved words in the wall at William Gladstone Street, Tzar Krum Street’s north terminus. Perhaps the Communists changed the name not for historical accuracy but instead to remove monarchical presence of every kind. Having ousted the royal family, the change of a street name was likely a simple matter.

Sofia, like all cities, continues to change even as there are streets and buildings in the city center still recognizable from photographs a century old. Though car ownership has skyrocketed since the political changes of 1989, the garages that could be housing them have generally been converted to stores and offices and ateliers, perhaps nearly as many as those built specifically for those uses. All the garages of our small apartment block save one had been converted. One of these now serves as a плод и зеленчук (fruit and vegetable store). Tall and smiling black-haired Nellie presides.

In two years of daily shopping, I never saw anyone working there but Nellie. Her husband Sasho was sick, so much so that not only could he not help her but frequently could not even take care of their large, brown dog. The dog therefore is often in the tiny back room or curled up behind the desk that serves as Nellie’s office. Behind the desk, she watches movies, usually American children’s movies dubbed into Bulgarian, when business was slack. She has an identical twin who I never met. Nellie is not merely tall, but had a certain heft that one doesn’t associate with a purveyor of fruits and vegetables. Periodically she comments self-deprecatingly on her need to lose weight. “I used to be the thin one,” she said, “then my sister lost weight and I gained what she lost.”

We talked almost daily. I would wait until there was a break in customer traffic. The store was so tiny this necessitated a delicate dance with the one or two other customers who might be positioned between the crates, peering closely at apples imported from Greece or which bunches of green onions appeared the freshest. We talked about Clinton (she didn’t like him, didn’t find him sincere) and Obama (she felt enthusiastic). We talked about Bulgaria’s endemic bureaucracy and endemic corruption and how those might be entwined. We talked about her husband who she always referred to as “the boy” and “the poor thing.” When I visited a couple of years after we moved back to DC, she told me Sasho had passed away the year after we left.

white vanNellie has a round, childlike face and short-cropped hair only just beginning to show some flecks of white. She is younger than me, but she has a grandson just a few years younger than my son. Despite her daily, lonely grind, despite her sick husband, Nellie smiles a lot. Her eyes crinkle up, she laughs aloud, and she lets you know without actually saying it that the world was ever thus and ever will be so why complain. Her dog curls up on the floor. Her white van is parked out front, visible even in DC when I look the address up on GoogleMaps.

She knows her fruits and vegetables. She used to be an x-ray technician before the hospital downsized and before that a furniture maker, but now it’s the fruit and vegetable stand and she doesn’t look back. If you ask, she tells you what is Bulgarian-grown vs. a Greek import, which apples are the firmest, when the tiny sweet seedless oranges known as мандаринки (mandarinki), often with the stems and bright green leaves still attached, will be available. She advises you to buy the French-grown potatoes. Once I saw a neighbor point to some fresh apricots and ask Nellie, “Do they speak Bulgarian?”

Iranian datesNellie introduced me to large, fresh, soft, candy-sweet dates imported from Iran. The dates are a bit expensive for many and she doesn’t have a big demand for them, but she would make sure to have a box or two on hand whenever I asked. In the winter, she and many market stands and small stores have vats of pickled vegetables, but you have to plan in advance and bring your own empty jars to fill.

 

Sometimes I’d discover in the midst of cooking something that I was missing a key ingredient and was able to run downstairs, buy it, chat with Nellie, and return before the contents of the pot even started to simmer.

My daughter took riding lessons when we lived on Han Krum Street and often went herself, quite early before her lesson, so that she could go into the barn and feed the horses, avoiding the small white one whose stall sign warned he was a biter. She made sure that she had some coins, asking Nellie en route which apple or carrot was the best for horses. Nellie agreeably advised for even this request of her fruit and vegetable expertise, “Пиленце (Peelentze), little chick, the horse will eat any one you choose,” holding in her laughter until reporting to me later.

 

Seuthopolis

Thracian TombKazanluk, Bulgaria, is probably most famous for two places not precisely in Kazanluk. One is the UNESCO world heritage site of the Thracian Tomb of Kazanluk. It was discovered in 1944 and you shouldn’t miss it. UNESCO calls the Thracian tomb “a unique aesthetic and artistic work, a masterpiece of the Thracian creative spirit. This monument is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world.”

The other is the nearby Valley of the Roses. It has been producing its fragrant damask rose oil since the 15th century. Its fame reached far enough that a 1900 article in Michigan’s The Grand Rapids Herald noted, “The country about Kisanlik (sic), Bulgaria, is the main source for oil of rose.”

KazanlakBut I would like to draw your attention to a building you reach by walking along the pedestrian-only square in the heart of Kazanluk, the Iskra Historical Museum and Art Gallery. Founded in 1901, the museum staff is warm and informative, with a sense of pride in and ownership of the rich and well-documented prehistoric and ancient archeological collections from the Neolithic through the Roman period. The museum also houses collections from the Bulgarian Middle Ages and the Bulgarian Renaissance. Then there are the “New History” and “Newest History” exhibits. The former is devoted to Iskra’s holdings documenting the changes in Bulgaria generally and Kazanluk particularly after the Russian-Turkish War. The latter focuses on the losses and gains made by the 23rd Infantry “Shipchenski” Regiment in the Patriotic War 1944-1945.

The Soviet Union used the term “Great Patriotic War” to describe its long, bitter 1941-1945 conflict with Nazi Germany. Today’s Russia continues to use “Great Patriotic War” to reference this period, but it is a bit startling to see it still used in Bulgaria. It may take many more years for Bulgarian museums to accumulate the archival objects, scholarship, curatorial analysis and perspective to develop exhibits for a true “Newest History” that focuses on the 45 post-war years of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.


For me, the wonderful surprise of Iskra Historical Museum and Art Gallery is the unique exhibition of objects found during the excavation of the fortified city of Seuthopolis, the capital of Thracian tribal ruler Seuthes. The Thracians left no written language, but ancient Greek mythology is rife with mentions of them. So are the works of Herodutus, Thucydides and other ancient authors. The Danube was their northern border and the Black Sea the eastern, precisely that of Bulgaria today.

8594 (33)My daughter had a whole chapter on the Thracians in her Bulgarian history textbook. Among the many Seuthopolis objects displayed at the Iskra museum is a strikingly realistic bronze head, once part of a life-size statue, with a long mustache draping down to a flowing beard. The forehead is wrinkled, the eyes lined, it is thought that the sculpture might be of Seuthes III himself. Had Auguste Rodin not died three decades before its discovery, one would think it was a model for the French sculptor’s work. Fittingly, the head of Seuthes was recently featured in a Louvre exhibit entitled The Saga of the Thracian Kings: Archeological Discoveries in Bulgaria, not so very far across the quai from the many works of Rodin at the Musée d’Orsay.

Seuthopolis was thoroughly uncovered and extensively studied and photographed, with its finds carefully preserved. But it was found in 1948 only because of a nearby dam construction project and after the excavation was completed in 1954, the construction proceeded as planned. Today the “the best preserved Thracian city in modern Bulgaria” is underwater in a flooded valley.

Now a project for making the actual Seuthopolis accessible to visitors might be financed at least partly by the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation of the US Embassy in Sofia. The project has been long conceived. Let’s hope it is not even longer in the realization.