Tag Archives: София

Lamartine in Bulgaria

Many years ago in graduate school, I took a course that required each student to have a subscription to the renowned and self-described “authoritative” British weekly magazine The Economist. I don’t recall what the professor’s purpose in such a requirement was, but for me the unexpected benefit was reading about the world—and in particular the United States—from a non-American vantage point. I understood then how different the view of a country, its history, its current events, its people could be from the outside looking in. Enlightening and sometimes even salutary. Perhaps my writing about Bulgaria offers that sort of vicarious vantage point for Bulgarians. And this sort of prism disperses even more light on the subject when the author is writing not only from another place, geographically and culturally speaking, but from another time.

Lamartine House PlovdivPlovdiv is said to be one of the oldest cities in Europe and has seen many peoples— invaders and locals—call it their own. Next year it holds pride of place as the European Capital of Culture and will surely welcome many who have never visited before and who will jot down observations and take pictures that will be instantly conveyed to a wider audience. Some of these might wander the Old City and take note of a house built in the classic Bulgarian Renaissance (1762–1878) architectural style called the Lamartine House.

Lamartine stampAlphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine (October 21, 1790-February 28, 1869) was poet, historian, writer, and statesman. An aristocrat whose parents remained loyal to the monarchy after the French revolution, Lamartine both headed the provisional government of the Second Republic and sympathized with the plight of the working class, predicting that it would rise up in rebellion. That he wrote about such things while Karl Marx was still studying art history, translating Latin classics, and writing love poetry to his fiancé no doubt was met with approval by the Communist government that allowed the house to be named after him—and even circulated a stamp featuring the house shortly after their takeover of the country.

This despite the fact that Lamartine didn’t own the house, live in it, or even stay there for more than three days during the summer of 1833.

What allowed that 1833 three-day stay to last beyond the momentary impression of a French traveler passing through town is that Lamartine wrote a book, Travels in the East, Including a Journey in the Holy Land. Given Lamartine’s fame, it was quickly translated into other languages. He did not write much about his time there (see text beginning on page 164 in the link above), but he wrote enough of Bulgaria to endear himself to Bulgarians. He entered Bulgaria on his return journey from his eastern travels and described the three days in Philippopolis (as Plovdiv was then known) as “passed…in the enjoyment of the agreeable hospitality of M. Maurides, in going through the environs, and in exchanging visits with the Turks, the Greeks, and the Armenians…The position of the town is one of the most beautiful that can be imagined…”

What likely was Lamartine’s most enduring gift to Bulgaria was his identification of its people, already more than 400 years an unwilling dominion of the Ottoman Empire, as Europeans. Seeing themselves as closer to the Christian West than a subjugated people of the Muslim East, Bulgarians were actively forming the nationalist sense that would form the basis of serious indendence efforts. It no doubt was reassuring and uplifting to be told that peasants they might be, but of the sort seen in the Western Alps. “They are quite the same as those of the Swiss and Savoyard peasants…I have witnessed rural dances amongst the Bulgarians, exactly the same as our villages in France.” And he pleaded their cause; “they are quite ripe for independence..The country which they inhabit would soon be a delightful garden..” He praised the mountains (“very similar to those of Auvergne”), though he gave Sofia short shrift. “There is nothing worthy of remark in the town.” And if you look at photographs of Sofia and Plovdiv taken around 50 years later, you can see why the latter impressed Lamartine more than the former.

 

Пловдив около 1878-1880
Plovdiv, circa 1878-1880
Пловдив в центъра “Куршум хан”, 1895
Plovdiv, 1895

So enduring are Lamartine’s words that the Sofia News Agency published an article in 2012 entitled Lamartine’s Hardworking, European Bulgarians as though to reiterate, in this time of persistent European refusal to allow Bulgaria into the Schengen area, that Bulgarians had their European bona fides given weight nearly two hundred years ago by a French icon. A Western icon, by the way, who admired the East, famously writing “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul” and “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”

Sufficient French travelers wrote their impressions of Bulgaria that that Engin Deniz Tanir was able to write an entire doctoral thesis, The Mid-Nineteenth Century Ottoman Bulgaria from the Viewpoints of the French Travelers, on the subject. But for Bulgarians, Lamartine holds a special place as one of the earliest. And Sofia citizens hold nothing against him for finding nothing worthy in their city; they named the French language high school in the capital, Alphonse de Lamartine.

френска гимназия

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.

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.