“Tales from the Crypt”Posted: August 5, 2013
[Spanish translation attempt here]
Sofia, August 4
There is one more layer missing. People here have rightly pointed this out to me. The fourth dimension.
Imagine time. Imagine people, cities, nations, empires. Imagine birth, growth, stagnation, decay, death. Over and over again. Imagine the fog. You’re somewhere on the line of time. Actually, you’re exactly in the middle, always. When you look forward, you can’t see where you’re going, which is frightening. When you look back, you can distinguish the road appearing out of the haze. You see yourself, your parents, your tribe, your species.
Here in Sofia I met a Russian girl, an archaeologist, who had come all the way from California to dig up pieces of an old Thracian city. It’s the furthest point of the road behind us that we can still vaguely see. We know it’s much longer than that. This fertile land between East and West we now call Bulgaria has been inhabited long before that by nomadic tribes. The whole idea of settling down in cities, and keeping records, is pretty recent.
So what’s the use of history? Well, quite simply, it serves to understand who we are, and more in particular what distinguishes us from ‘the others’, what makes us special. We look back, we downplay the tragedies, the defeats, the decline and instead we try to focus on something that boosts our national ego. The Dutch for example, they concentrate on the ‘Golden Age’, when the trading fleets from the Lowlands ruled the seven seas, when great painters left their immortal masterpieces, when those who were persecuted for their ideas or their beliefs found refuge in a climate of relative tolerance.
Here in Bulgaria, like in other places around Europe, you have your Romans and your Greeks and your Christian missionaries, who are used to define us as a civilization. More in particular, as far as the nation is concerned, people learn in school about the Bulgarian Empires, first and second, which ruled the greater part of the Balkans during the middle ages.
In my conversations with the people here, most of the highlights and lowlights of Bulgarian history have made their brief appearances. The people remember with pride how the Bulgarians besieged mighty Constantinople more than once. But then, then came the Turks. For four centuries they dominated the land, and schoolbook history pictures them as cruel heathen overlords.
There is a significant minority of Turks still living in Bulgaria. Many Bulgarians don’t like them, as a result of what they are taught. They also say the Turks refuse to speak to Bulgarian. They can’t stand to see a Turkish minister in the Bulgarian government. During communist times, the Turks were forced to bulgarianize their names. After the fall, they quickly turkified them again, which angered many nationalists. From their side, Bulgarians generally don’t speak Turkish, except for maybe one single phrase, a particularly insulting one.
In opposition to the Turks, Bulgarian history paints the Russians as a big brother, if only because they helped the country regain its independence from Ottoman rule at the end of the 19th century. Fortunately, local wisdom also includes a sense of irony. The saying goes that if you put three Bulgarians together, then one is a leader, one is a follower, and one is a traitor. To which people usually add: “Most probably, two of them are traitors.”
Bulgaria sided with the losing coalition in both world wars and ended up under direct Soviet domination. Forty-five years of communism really screwed this country up. It’ll take time for people to get the communist heritage out of their system. It’s still present all around. The other day I went with a friend into the outskirts of Sofia. Contrary to the centre, which is pretty charming, the outskirts are like a cemetery. People live in huge concrete tombstones, which are heavily suffering the passage of time only decades after they were built. They are lacking maintenance, they start falling apart. Some of them are mere skeletons.
It was here that I heard a few of the ‘Tales from the Crypt’, as my friend called them, the stories of pure Bulgarian hopelessness. He told me about poverty, corruption, emigration, and about the people staying behind who try to avoid the bitter reality by getting drunk on cheap booze every day.
In the 90s, omnipresent authority in Bulgaria transvested itself from the communist party into the mafia. If I’m to believe what I hear, the mafia is not simply a criminal organization that leeches off the economy. Much like in southern Italy, the mafia is the economy. It make things go around, and either directly or indirectly, people depend on it to get by.
I got to see one of the outskirt flats from the inside the other day. It’s everything you expect it to be. The small dark rooms, the leaking tubes, the flaking plaster, the rusty window frames, the broken doors. Then there’s the 1970s furniture, wall paper and curtains. The mix of brown and orange and dark green. There is a world map on one of the walls that still shows the old Soviet Union. The television comes from the era when screens were not flat yet and had a big butt behind them. You know, the kind of screen that used red-blue-green cathode ray tubes. Even the programs it broadcast matched the environment: 1980s trash horror with ditto special effects.
Nothing worthwhile to do here but drink, I begin to understand that. Drink and play ‘tavla’.
Now, getting back to the culture discourse, there are numerous ways to classify a civilization. By mobility (nomad or sedentary), by religion (polytheist, monotheist, atheist), by dominant status symbol (property, knowledge, age, valour, etc.) by language, by dominant cereal type (grain, corn, rice), by preferred or endorsed drug (alcohol, coca, caffeine, weed, opium, etc.), or by games. One of the oldest artifacts found in the tombs of Egyptians faraos was a board game. Nowadays you have chess civilizations, mahjong civilizations, poker civilizations, etc. Bulgaria, like Turkey, is part of the backgammon civilization. It’s a beautiful game that adds a touch of luck to strategy and tactics. Me, coming from a different civilization, I had the pleasure to be taught some of the game’s tricks in an original communist environment.
In Sofia’s outskirts you will still encounter the Lada’s and the Moskvitches. I am amazed that these cars haven’t disintegrated yet. They are famous for their crappiness. Let me give you an example. My dad once brought me a toy Zil from the Soviet Union. The Zil was the limousine of the party officials. Usually, toy cars are pretty much indestructable. You can throw them off a skyscraper and continue to play with them without trouble. But the toy Zil fell apart by itself. So imagine the original limousine. Imagine the common man’s Lada.
On our way back to the centre, we don’t pass by the Gypsy ghetto. Bulgarians like to avoid those places. Generally, they hate Gypsies. Their motives are the same ones you will hear in other countries. “They don’t work. They steal. They breed like rabbits.” This is quoted from one of the most open-minded and reasonable people I met here. The Turks are at the penultimate rung of the social ladder. Then there’s a big gap, then there’s the Gypsies at the bottom. The hatred of Turks is mainly based on “stupid prejudice”, and in some cases on envy (one of Bulgaria’s big business tycoons is a Turk). The hatred of Gypsies on the other hand is mainly based on personal experience: “You get robbed a few times, and you turn into a racist.”
It comes down to pure incompatibility. The Gypsies are fundamentally nomads. Most societies try to assimilate them, turn them into “normal people”, store them in big building blocks. The Bulgarian government made similar efforts. But the Gypsies treated the flats as tents, they lit fires in the living rooms and parked their horses on the balcony. They don’t pay for utilities. They tap their electricity directly from the source, which is cited as another reason why electricity companies raised prices out of proportion, causing yet more ethnic animosity.
The Bulgarian population is shrinking, the Gypsie population is thriving. They usually don’t send their kids to school. But the schools are funded on the basis of the amount of students. And it’s obligatory to send your kids to school if you want to receive child benefits from the government. So officially they are registered and attending. This way the school receives funding, and the Gypsies as well. It’s the kind of minor corruption that most people will understand and forgive. But it’s also a symptom of a wider and broader corruption on which Bulgarian society is based. All of this will not change overnight should the current government resign.
Friday marked the fiftieth day of protest. To celebrate it there was a re-enactment of last week’s siege on the parliament. People had built a cardboard bus, which featured the images of members of the government. It was escorted by Star Wars stormtroopers and medieval knights who ruthlessly yet playfully attacked any camera who tried to catch the scene.
The fiftieth day also marked the end of this stage of the protest. Parliament will go on holiday. Some people have vowed they will continue the protest here in Sofia, others have said they will follow the government to the seaside and continue to make noise on the beach and even offshore. In any case, the protests are likely to pick up again in September. One of the protesters hinted to this by paraphrasing a famous verse from a Bulgarian poem: “September will be May.”
“September will be January”, the sign said, in reference to the last popular uprising against the post-communists in January 1997. At that time, exasperated by hyperinflation, the people stormed parliament, entered, and brought down the government by force.