Swans Commentary » swans.com May 4, 2009  



Bulgaria Unter Alles


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - May 4, 2009)   The current crisis makes me homesick for Bulgaria. Experts say that Europe is worse off than the USA, and Eastern Europe in more trouble than both. The binge on easy international credit ended in agony for the thirteen countries that were once part of the Soviet system. By 2008 they owed more than $1 trillion either in foreign currencies or to foreign banks. Those banks had to beg their own governments to bail them out and could lend no more cash to the debtor countries. Money went back the other way as Eastern Europe sought foreign currency. Exports dried up. Bulgaria once more drifted up Excrement Creek with nobody lending a paddle, even at high interest rates. The country was back to normal.

It was the somber Bulgaria I knew before the false dawn of adhesion to the European Union in 2007. It's the Bulgaria that I again have a ghoulish yearning for. In 1993 I arrived for a first look, found the total disarray instructive, and stuck around until 1998. I've been back since but never again felt that first gob-smacking awe of a country in complete meltdown. Myths flourished at the time, for no one needs them more than losers. Far-fetched explanations filled shelves emptied of consumer goods. Bread was still the staff of life and often the only thing to eat. As I stood in line at the bakery waiting for a loaf, the morose crowd blunted its appetite chewing over the reasons why there were so many of us waiting so long.

Bulgaria had been so locked into the Soviet economy that to stand alone was an impossible balancing act. But the former alliance didn't get much blame, the reasoning being that yesterday you could count on more than bread and watery yogurt for lunch. A stagnant, supervised existence with a guaranteed minimum looked good in retrospect. Who needed movement? The politicians had been galvanized into action and sold the grain reserve abroad, gambling on a fall in prices. But prices continued to rise and the only free speech the bakery assembly cared about was to bewail the baker's adulterated flour.

While that conspiracy theory rang true, others echoed hollowly out of a distant past. A retired schoolmaster thundered away about the Bulgarian 13th century realm that covered the Balkans from the Black to the Aegean and Adriatic Seas. Did I (the only foreigner in canon range) know who took that from us? I shook my head no, which in Bulgarian is a vigorous nod. (How could you dislike a country where no was yes?) Of course I knew the answer. It was the Serbs when they made their imperial grab, then the Romanians and afterwards the Greeks when they each made theirs. The Balkan enigma was how each of these wronged peoples could expect to have empire over the same stretch of geography at the same time.

All that was in the misty past when facts weren't floodlit. A more modern voice in the bread line piped up with the central Bulgarian myth: We had the Turks on top of us for five hundred years. This was the game-changer, the ultimate squelch, the open sesame that closed all mouths. It had worked since the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-8 when the Ottomans pulled out and went home. It furnished the small change for the golden rhetoric of the new nationalism. The country had polished this alibi for a century and a half when the post WWII Soviet-aligned regime adapted it for its own purposes. The 1980s saw the myth turn lethal when Todor Zhivkov, his control waning, distracted the snapping populace by throwing it the Turkish minority as a bone to gnaw.

The less historical minded of the bakery crowd saw mysterious outsiders as the culprits. These dastards were driving a wedge between the Soviet Union (that no longer existed) and its stepchild ally in order to lay hands on Bulgarian riches (that no one could name). Native Gypsies, at the time reduced to eating their dogs, were seen as part of this plot fomented by others. I nodded -- I mean wagged my head -- in agreement as I finally stuffed a hot loaf into my briefcase. I'd adopted the practice of the ex-middle class Bulgarian male. He always carried a case emptied of briefs making space for anything edible that he might encounter. I ran for the tram that would get me out of the threadbare suburb into Sofia and its regal poverty that disdained all apologies.

I loved that long tram ride though it was punishingly cold on a winter's day. The absence of heating made me remember a character in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Kindly Upton pitied this Union Stockyards' proletarian for having to travel in an unheated Chicago streetcar. That was in 1906 and here I was at the end of the second millennium, groping my bourgeois façade of ersatz leather to warm my hands on a loaf of bread. Like any other interloper from the west I could at least gloat over how little the trip had cost me in stotinki, the local cents.

The other passengers all seemed to be sleepwalking in a dream where they felt acute embarrassment. At first I thought they were ill at ease because of the old folks, some crippled with arthritis, settled in the tram besides their demijohns. They had gotten up early to fetch spring water from the suburb. The supply in Sofia was irregular and tainted. But more likely my fellow travelers were trying not to see the inspectors who circulated in the tram -- who may indeed have made their beds there. These officials of pensionable age, invariably down at the heel, worked on commission. They were in civilian dress but wore a pathetic identity patch that would have made Upton Sinclair feel for them. If they found someone who hadn't punched his ticket -- the manual ticket punches were mostly broken -- they could claim a reward in stotinki. You wanted to weep. The scene evoked more than the last gasp of the authoritarian subsidence regime. The inspectors were as ashamed of themselves as their victims were of them.

I turned away to look out the smudged window of the tram, deciding once and for all not to seek the whys and wherefores behind the Bulgarian dog's breakfast. I'd simply try to take in what was out there. Just then we followed a broad, tree-lined boulevard of pre-WWI generosity flanked by stylish two-story houses that were run down but reassuringly human in scale. Leaving the tram, I walked to the open-air market. It always renewed my faith in people. Of food there wasn't much these days. Along the lane were cabbages in heaps and huge leeks piled like firewood that somehow got Bulgarians through to spring. Farther on, peasants from the mountains sat just beyond reach of the folding tables that held their mushrooms. Buddha-like they gave the lie to the idea of any perturbation. Their silence and detachment were what I liked best about Bulgaria. Of street markets I was a connoisseur and had recently been in Catania's. Approaching Sicily by boat I heard the hawkers while I was still out at sea. These Bulgarian rural folks refused to acknowledge any such thing as a customer. He had first to stand before their table and convince them that the mushrooms were theirs and for sale. Then they would shrug and grant him the favor of dribbling a few into a cone of newspaper, noblesse oblige. I stowed mine with my loaf and went along to see the Rom blacksmith. Gypsies clung to life helter-skelter across Eastern Europe, but to see one exercising his traditional métier with panache always did my heart good.


* * * * *


I sound like the sightseer that I was. No matter how poor I might be at home in my Western context, I could always, in Bulgaria, come up with some hard currency in a pinch. I had a passport that could get me out of the country if even the bakery and market went the way of "Tato" (Pops) Zhivkov's People's Republic. Settled in for a while I might be, but I was still what the Irish call a "blow-in," an outsider, only some months less guilty than a tourist. Everyone knows that a visitor sees another reality than a native. That's why now in 2009 I've looked around for someone whose experience of Bulgaria might put mine to the test. I found Kapka Kassabova, a Sofia-born poet who published a travel memoir last year.* Her reflections, which deserve a full review and not merely this cursory glance, are sharp and deeply felt.

Kapka Kassabova was born in 1973. As a child she made her mother cry when she asked her why everything was so ugly where they lived. Her young parents had managed in 1979, at the birth of their second daughter, to get a two-room apartment in a new gimcrack high-rise that stood in a sea of mud outside Sofia. They were now four and had been fortunate to move on from their one-room in a similar high-rise with a single kitchen and bathroom per floor.

Young Kapka's disgruntlement may have come from her sense that something was out of joint. Her parents had been bred in the city center. They were hardworking and highly educated. Her father had done a Ph.D. in mathematics, been taken away for two years of army service, and returned to work as an engineer. Her mother worked in the Central Institute that developed Bulgarian computers. Later Kapka would be able to express what she saw as a contradiction. The regime praised education and culture to the skies, but the country was run by jumped-up bumpkins who stumbled over long words and who all wore the same brown suits.

It would have taken a masochist not to emit this note of social superiority. The high-rise, according to party slogans, was meant to make stalwart citizens of transplanted peasants and wandering gypsies. In fact it supplied workers for a pestiferous factory nearby and housed professionals who lacked connections to the powerful. Kapka was unhappy in the rough social mix that she found in her school at the foot of the high-rise. The citizen-making process there involved strict adherence to a fairy-tale party line, the pursuit of mediocrity, and the forced learning of Russian.

Free secondary education meant you had to pay for private lessons if you wanted to get into a good school. Kapka followed this path and with no recommendation from on high failed her exam to enter a classical college. Her luck changed when she was accepted at the French Lycée. Familiarity with a foreign Western culture would seal her attitude that she summed up as, "We believed in nothing that was on offer to us, and we wanted everything that wasn't." (Page 118) She watched her parents' shame as they hosted Western friends. Emigration became a fixed goal and, when the Berlin Wall fell, a reality. The family went to Britain where her father had found a job for two years.

They had to return to Sofia in 1992 to await a renewal of their British visas. In my tram rides I might have brushed against the 18-year-old Kapka. Her dissatisfaction with Bulgaria changed with the speed-up of history. She no longer brooded over Chernobyl and the slow death of several relatives by cancer. Hyperinflation increased the chaos quotient daily. Her father returned to his Sofia job but the salary now only paid for one phone call to England. The mostly empty stores of socialism had been completely emptied by democracy. Her mother gave up her job to spend the day searching for food and other necessities.

On April 1, 1992, a Bulgarian TV channel announced that there had been an industrial accident at the Kozloduy nuclear plant on the Danube. (A US report would call it one of the ten most dangerous reactors in the world.) It was only six years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and panic quickly took hold of Bulgaria. People forgot that they were in a new era where life was all fun. In an hour the channel admitted that the news had been a practical joke. The mind boggles to imagine how Todor Zhivkov, three years before, would have dealt with this stroke of humor.

The electricity supply was sporadic, hot water a memory, gasoline hard to come by. Crime was present in a big way, no longer a state monopoly. The nouveaux riches brandished the new vulgarity. Religion made a comeback. Capitalism and begging invaded the streets, sometimes combined in the same peddler. Carefully dressed old ladies would faint in the park because they hadn't eaten. The Secret Police no longer watched from the cupola of the Sveta Nedelya Church. But the mangy bear in chains still danced nearby, his fate unchanged by democracy.

Kapka's family had never thought in terms of ideology. Dissidence had been as foreign to them as Tantric Yoga. They had never even been sarcastic about the "Mother Party's" mendacity. The empty slogans blew past like so much bad weather. They hadn't seen the Zhivkov regime in emotive terms but as a series of obstacles in the way of a decent life. That was still what they were trying to obtain for themselves. Nor had Kapka and her schoolmates been any more political in their thinking. The government, by cutting off options, had simply reduced them to boredom that they drowned with rock music and dreams. Now they were at a loose end. The preoccupation with emigration had become a practical matter of how to join the exodus. The Kassabova family's return to Britain didn't work out. They emigrated instead to New Zealand. Kapka's break with Bulgaria was a tangle of confusion, "I don't know where the hell I'm going, but I never want to come back." (Page 137) But her confusion would give more to the reader than any facile certainty could.

And years later she did come back. She was chastened in her enthusiasm for the West, but still very hard on Bulgaria as it staggered into the European Union. Sightseeing, she was a native in the guise of a visitor, at times even talking like a dyspeptic tourist. As an exile she could seem like a drifter in space waiting for a new world that would be more to her liking. Then only family ties, often painful and long dissolved, kept her from disappearing into the ether.



*  Kassabova, Kapka: Street Without A Name, Childhood And Other Misadventures in Bulgaria, Portobello Books, London, 2008, ISBN 978 1 84627 1223 6, illustrated, 337 pages, UK pounds 15.99.  (back)


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Published May 4, 2009