Category Archives: culture

In Praise of Email

Nearly a year ago, my wife and I moved from California to the Balkans. I knew that this would involve some sacrifices, especially as far as communication with my friends and family, and that seeing loved ones would go from being an everyday event to a rare joy. It was obvious that keeping in touch would be a lot more important for maintaining relationships, but it didn’t seem like it would be a lot more work. The small country to which we were moving has some of the fastest Internet in the world, so there are no technical obstacles keeping us from being in touch with friends in America. There’s a bigger problem putting a serious damper on my correspondence, which I wasn’t even aware of  before moving to a different hemisphere. At some point in the recent past, email has become nearly as archaic for most people as physical correspondence. Receiving an email and being expected to reply to it has taken on the baneful weight of an imposition. A long personal email has become something the recipient has to grudgingly deal with, like a homework assignment or being left in charge of an ex’s dogs after a breakup.

There’s a decent amount of research online charting email’s path to the status of an anachronism. More and more each year, email is something that’s used solely for work. Among the next generation of Internet users, teens, email is as popular as learning cursive and opposition to same-sex marriage. The tech press reliably releases headlines declaring email doomed, if not dead already. I didn’t learn how unpopular personal emails are from Wired, though, or from marketers wringing their hands over the inaccessibility of tweens’ wallets. Once I was no longer accessible to my fellow American by phone, it became clear that email has been dragged to the desktop recycle bin in our hearts.

It’s a shame, because if you want to communicate long-distance, email is an excellent medium. It’s not perfect—written online communication cuts out the nuances of tone present in spoken conversation, but it has no space constraints and is transmitted instantaneously. Given the popular affection for minimalism embodied in the simple design of Apple, it’s a little surprising that email hasn’t become unexpectedly fashionable: what could be more flat and clean than a big, white box ready to be filled with black sans-serif type? As soon as you find yourself alone in a strange new permanence, you have a lot to tell the folks back home. Email is perfect for laying out your ideas, comfortably rolling out a story in rich detail to the only sympathetic eyes you may have.

However, I quickly noticed that most of my friends weren’t interested in continuing an email chain beyond more than a few exchanges. Emails started getting responded to with terse, sentence-long prose, or simply going unanswered. I expected this from my friends who were teachers, working 60-hour weeks, but it happened just as often with friends who are fellow partially employed freelance writers. One non-responder could be found on Tumblr some weekends soliciting questions from strangers, in hopes of curing his single man’s Saturday-night boredom.

At the same time that emails were going unanswered, many of the recipients were telling me about the latest must-have apps that would bridge the gap between our physical locations. One friend enthusiastically boosts Instagram so he can send me pictures, one hypes Snapchat so we can chat in short bursts. Both of these functionalities are currently available to us through email, to which all can avail themselves if they so choose.

Embedded in these pitches is a certain brand of cyber-utopianism. If only we had the newest app, the reasoning goes, we’d finally have the right platform for keeping in touch. It sells users based on the idea of a glaring deficit in existing online communications technology, to be rectified with a soon-to-be-released solution. WhatsApp, for instance, bills itself as the “easiest and cheapest” way to chat with friends—finally, a way to send online messages for free! Email seems like a perfectly functional way to accomplish the tasks of sending text and pictures, so it’s hard to grasp the appeal of platforms whose only innovation over email is built-in word limitations. To those less invested in the cyber-utopian narrative, it looks less like a communications revolution than a shift in consumer tastes driven by hype. Continue reading

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“Deacon Levski” Review / Дякон Левски ревю

Written by Lorenzo, and also published on sabinap.com. Thanks Sabina!!

As someone who neither is Bulgarian nor speaks Bulgarian, I’m not Dqkon Levski‘s target audience. However, my wife and I attended the premiere at NDK on account of our friend Milena’s horse, a magnificent animal named Karina who was a credit to the film. With a beautiful, tawny coat and mighty, piston-like haunches, Karina brightened the film during the roughly 18 seconds she was onscreen, hurling the poor child-Levski into a pond. Unfortunately, having brought class to the proceedings, Karina promptly disappeared and the film took another 4 hours to reach its inevitable and merciful conclusion.

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Breakout star Karina, literally and figuratively saddled with the film’s dead weight.

As I said, I’m not the target audience for this film. When you’ve been studying Bulgarian for 7 months as I have, one of the most frustrating experiences you encounter is not understanding something. Not understanding nearly a word of a 4-hour-plus film is enough to make an exacting person like me nearly suicidal. At 2 hours, I was so thoroughly discouraged that I was planning to drop Bulgarian and just learn German instead. The, the intertitles announced PART 2, and I was debating which key to best cut my throat with. Seriously, I understood as much Turkish as I did Bulgarian. My wife tells me they were speaking an archaic-sounding version of Bulgarian, which may be true or may be something to protect my feelings. However, judging by Levski’s 4.7 rating on IMDb, I’m guessing a lot of Bulgarians didn’t get much of it, either.

The film begins inside a church. Ottoman soldiers and their mustaches have their swords drawn, menacing Bulgarkas with death and implied defilement. So far, so legible. The imagery of a leering Turk raping an innocent Bulgarian maiden in Christ’s house is imagery even I can understand. Hopefully that communicates what kind of register Levski is working in, and what level of grace, artfulness, and subtlety the audience can expect.

We’re introduced to a baby named Ali Aslan. A reader may ask: why is the audience being introduced to important babies? Especially fictional ones? It’s a great question! As a fan of film specifically and being entertained in general, I’ll say here what I tell every new parent I meet: children are boring. They don’t do interesting things or have valuable things to contribute. No one needs to get in front of a camera before they’re at least 25.

However, we meet Ali and li’l Vasil Levski. I’ll admit that I was a little harsh on the film for the first half hour, since I had no idea that the apple-cheeked little scamp we saw onscreen was the future Apostle of Freedom. Maybe that was my fault: it definitely seemed like he introduced himself as “Boyan,” and his father’s grave revealed his family name as Kunchev. I thought to myself, who the hell is this “Boyan Kunchev” kid, and why have we still not met Vasil Levski 30 minutes into the film? And WHERE IS MILENA’S AMAZING HORSE??

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3 Weirdest Things on Bulgarian TV

3. Every folk channel

Summer of 2008, I ended up at a barbecue in a stranger’s backyard. I made friends with the only guy there my age, partially because that’s basic social self-preservation and mostly because the majority of the party’s milieu was possessed of an uncanny foreign mien. In front of two goats roasting on spits, we sipped margaritas and chatted up girls while everyone else spoke to each other in Slavic-sounding languages of unknown origin.

The vibe got progressively more Wicker Man as homemade instruments materialized and the backyard was filled with weird, discordant folk songs. As a man near me blew into a ten-gallon goat-stomach bagpipe, we got swept into a plodding circle-dance, and I did my best to mimic the kicks, steps, steps, kicks and steps.

I was at a Bulgarian house party, and only years later did I realize that I had faked my way through my first horo.

That was my introduction to the strange world of Bulgarian folk music and dancing, but today I can enjoy not one nor two but five folk music channels. Each of these five channels plays videos like the one above all day, every day. The videos all have the same basic visual elements. They are filmed in a “traditional” Bulgarian location: either a scenic outdoor locale or in front of an old building like a hizha or mehanaThere is an all-male band, playing a cacophony of horns, woodwinds, and animal-guts instruments. Finally, there is a singer, male or female, usually in traditional Bulgarian dress, who dances by swaying gently from side to side and waving their arms.

As you can surmise from the staggering number of folk music videos that play ’round-the-clock, there’s a ton of Bulgarian folk, and it all sounds and looks very similar. Actually, not only does it sound alike, but I need to confess something here that’ll forever make me an outsider in this country (don’t tell the babas). People here crap a lot on Bulgaria’s domestic pop music genre, Chalga, but I’d probably rather listen to an hour of chalga than an entire folk song.

Not being a music “person,” I can’t explain what’s so off-putting about all these songs: the instruments involved, the time signatures, the sheer relentless repetition, and some demonic x-factor combine to make this genre uniquely madness-inducing for me. If I have to compare what these tunes sound like to anything else, it wouldn’t be another music genre. Instead, the effect reminds me of what I’d hear when I’d watch South Park episodes online, accidentally open a window twice, and have to hear Primus’s demented theme song doubled-up.

2. English for Peacekeepers

In 2004, Bulgaria joined NATO. For a tiny country that lost two world wars, it doesn’t seem useful to get entangled into a military alliance. First, Bulgaria had to buy its Navy a bunch of submarines to comport with NATO standards. Since Bulgaria’s greatest maritime threat is counterfeit cigarette smugglers, they purchased 4 nuclear submarines, acceded to NATO, and promptly decommissioned them. Then, there’s the indignity of having to do a ton of extra work. Not only do Bulgaria’s armed forces have to impress some bigshot American generals, but some poor airmen who probably just want to drink Nescafe and smoke have to fly sorties around the Black Sea every time a Russian MiG pops up.

On the other hand there’s like, prestige, and the fact that Albania definitely can’t push us around any more!

Some of the extra NATO-mandated work is learning “English for Peacekeepers.” The “show” is a half-hour program where narrators with thick accents teach viewers military-oriented English. The lessons seem be aimed at Bulgarians in the armed forces, who will have to communicate in English with their north atlantic counterparts.

As you can see from the clip above, in addition to being stilted and bizarre, the show is also really boring for a military-themed programming block. Granted, if your jet is on fire, the word for ejector rack will probably seem really important. But instead of teaching cool war things, every installment of English for Peacekeepers is more like “I had the opportunity to learn mine-clearing techniques,” or “There’s a possibility we will attend the defense summit in November.”

1. Agro TV’s Techno-tools block

Life in Europe is governed by one simple maxim: anything that can be set to a throbbing techno beat will be set to a throbbing techno beat.

As the son of a European, I’ve known this since I was a kid. In the mid-90s, when the Space Jam soundtrack ruled the Earth and American parents still listened to, I don’t know, Rush or Hall & Oates, my dad was playing the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy. More recently I’ve been told this sounds cool–but at the time, dad’s beloved machine-gun synth beats and downtempo basslines were just another one of those things that makes the child of an immigrant feel perpetually out-of-place.

Now that I live here, I can attest that the stereotypes about this continent moving to an electronic beat is pretty true. I’ve heard pumping techno songs piped into my bank as I stand in line, and been served coffee by a woman cheerily singing along to that Romanian “Numa Numa” song that went viral some years ago. So I was barely surprised that Agro TV, the agricultural channel, features half an hour of farm equipment action-footage set to techno.

Most of Agro TV’s programming is news relevant to the daily operation of running a farm: weather, weekly temperatures, commodities prices, boring stuff. But for half an hour, farmer Ivan ditches the milking pail for the EDGE OF HIS SEAT, as Agro TV brings Ibiza to rural Bulgaria. This show is half an hour of German-made farm machinery, threshers and combines tilling fields and baling hay to thumping electronica. It’s like a real-life version of the Upright Citizens Brigade‘s “Crane Wars” sketch, where a breathless hype man sells footage of construction with the language of a monster truck rally: Crane Wars Crane Wars CRANE WARS! Watch inclined planes PUNISH Earth’s gravitational pull!

Knitting in Bulgaria

sweater sighting at Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria

sweater sighting at Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria

While Lorenzo’s busy learning Bulgarian at breakneck speed, and sharing his keen insights into our charmed lives here in Bulgaria, I’m knitting.

Living here provides endless inspiration, and a welcome new perspective on my hobby/obsession. Recently I posted a piece on my blog, entitled, Knitting is a Right, Not a Privilege, about how learning from Bulgarian knitters has completely changed my outlook. I wrote the piece for other knitters, but anyone who’s ever worn slippers made by their baba will probably relate:

Here, handknits are widely available, and consequently, not treated gently. When I knit in public, no one suggests I should sell my work. Instead, people remark that their grandma makes new socks for them every winter, or that they buy all their slippers from a prolific neighbor. At the market, I like to compliment anyone I see wearing a handknit sweater, or a garment that’s been visibly mended. Usually, the wearer will beam and tell me who made or mended it for them, or if they did it themselves.

You can find the full article here. Enjoy!

Bulgaria’s Museum of Socialist Art

IMG_1081Like any post-Soviet country, Bulgaria has a wealth of socialist-realist art left over. Socialist realism is a style of art that’s one of the things most indelibly associated with Communism. Marxism-Leninism would create a proletarian paradise, a world of plenty in which individuals didn’t suffer the alienation that capitalist exploitation. In a world like this, what would be the point of representing something that didn’t exist?

Socialist realism, reacting against the avant-garde trends of styles like Expressionism, sought to glorify this world that workers had created. The fact that the style avoided abstract forms was also an ideological rejection of the “decadent” values of other art. This was art that would speak to all of society, not solely the bourgeois leisure classes, whose domination of the means of production afforded them the time to ruminate about what that cluster of cubes and cones represents. Art that invites one sole interpretation (Like “Youth Meeting at Kilifarevo Village to Send Worker-Peasant Delegation to the USSR”) is also a useful tool to impose uniformity of thought, at least on paper.

Factory worker snaps cameraphone picture

Factory worker snaps cameraphone picture

Since socialist realism was the official state style of the Eastern block, art was the site of a heated Cold War battle. During the Red Scare, American reactionaries decried, hunted, and blacklisted countless artists who possessed even the most tenuous connections to socialism. Concurrently, the CIA was covertly funding modern art through countless government-backed funds and foundations. CIA money brought abstract expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Koonig to the world through a fruitful relationship between the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and America’s clandestine services. Music journalist Adam Krause explains:

Why did abstract expressionism fit the CIA’s needs so well? The CIA’s goal in the Cultural Cold War was not just the denigration of Soviet Communism, but the promotion of the free market as well. Jackson Pollock and the other abstract expressionists were useful for each of these goals. The collectivism glorified by (the often rigid and never abstract) Soviet Socialist Realism could be set in stark opposition to the rugged individualism and “freedom” of these distinctly American abstract expressionists.

A Communist St. George (Bulgaria's patron saint) vanquishes the many-headed chimera of fascist imperialism

A Communist St. George (Bulgaria’s patron saint) vanquishes the many-headed chimera of fascist imperialism

Just as indelibly as rock and roll is associated with America (and later, Britain), the visual signs of socialist realism will be instantly recognizable to those who visit the Museum of Socialist Art. As mandated by the Bulgarian Communist Party, art featured workers manning gargantuan machines in factories and farmers reaping wheat in the fields. The museum’s exhibits are devoted to the September uprising of 1923 (“then defined as the first anti-fascist uprising”), the Second World War, “portraits of the great leaders,” and “various topics, some related to socialist construction – co-operating on the land, the brigadier movement, industrialization.” A legacy of “great leaders,” engineering achievments, and defeating Nazis. Say what you will about the shortcomings of Marxism-Leninism: things were built to last, and they really hated fascists. Continue reading

A Trip to Real Europe

A small portion of Hungary's Parliament.

A small portion of Hungary’s Parliament.

Last week, we left humble Bulgaria for the ornate charm of Real Europe. We spent a week in Hungary, and I say Real Europe because Budapest has everything that people associate with Europe when they fantasize about studying abroad, or “finding themselves” on a journey of self-discovery with topless beaches.

Budapest is usually linked with Prague and Vienna as one of three uniquely beautiful European cities. Hungary’s capital is truly breathtaking: a blend of ornate Gothic splendor, baroque Hapsburg grace, and the charm of art nouveau. Budapest boasts a railway station designed by Gustave Eiffel, and its incredible parliament building makes the mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein look like a puddle of piss. Ludwig II spent the duration of his reign and much of the royal Bavarian treasury building otherworldly castles—Neuschwanstein inspired the castle in Disney’s Cinderella—and NOW HE LOOKS LIKE AN IDIOT.

St. Stephens Basilica, one of the countless buildings in Budapest that make the Swan King of Bavaria look like a mouth-breathing waste of space.

St. Stephen’s Basilica, one of the countless buildings in Budapest that make Bavaria’s Swan King look like a mouth-breathing waste of space.

As our bus wove through Serbia towards Hungary, we noticed how much the scenery resembled what we’re used to in Bulgaria. Along the highway were countless signs in Turkish and red-with-white-crescent Turkish flags, advertising Turkish food and roadside mosques for weary truckers on long hauls from Anatolia. There were even separate lanes for trucks coming from Turkey at the border, a sign of how dependent the Balkans are on trade and commerce from our regional power. As our friend observed, kind of like a mini-China.

But Alhamdulillah for the Turkish influence, because by the time you get to Hungary, everything is German-inflected. Hungarian food is delicious, but it’s very Central European. After a few days of eating animal fats, fry, carbs, and starch, you’re ready for plain yogurt again. Eating in Hungary starts to feel like dining at an upscale county fair, and funnel cake gets old fast.

Part of the Dohány Street synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe.

Part of the Dohány Street synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe.

The richness of the food and the grandiose architecture are awe-inspiring, especially coming from Sofia. The perverse course of history conspired to make Sofia a warren of Brutalist Soviet-era concrete bloks, with the occasional Stalinist Gothic and Byzantine revivalism thrown in. To put it euphemistically, living in Sofia has a certain lo-fi charm. In contrast, Budapest is very developed, with first-world touches like the availability of pour-over coffee and toilets that can handle paper. It’s amazing what a difference it makes when every local you encounter speaks excellent English. A testament to both Budapest’s status and the bizarre and inscrutable nature of the Hungarian language.

Budapest’s stature isn’t just written on the façades of its buildings, it’s on the street. After driving through 3 countries in this neighborhood, I noticed that the trash bins are a good indicator of whether the coffee is imported from Ethiopia or dispensed from outdoor Nescafé vending machines. The ritzier parts of Europe have new trash and recycling bins, while these Czech-made aluminum whales are omnipresent in Bulgaria and Serbia.

The charming trash bins that keep the Balkans clean

The charming trash bins that keep the Balkans clean

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Can Azerbaijan Buy Its Way Into Europe?

european orientWhat do you get the leader that has everything? Ilham Aliyev, the President-for-life of Azerbaijan, was lucky enough to inherit his post from his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003. The country sits on enormous Caspian Sea oil and natural gas reserves, and in an ostentatious display of autocratic petrostate pride, the world’s tallest flagpole was built in the capital, Baku, in 2010 (It was subsequently edged out by a 10’-taller pole in Dushanbe, Turkmenistan).

However, there’s one thing that could confer legitimacy and a certain je ne sais quoi that Azerbaijan doesn’t yet have—European respectability.

“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” –Rudyard Kipling

In 2011, Azerbaijan unveiled its new slogan: “European Charm of the Orient.” Replacing the less inviting motto “Land of Flames,” the slogan is part of a PR campaign to project a certain image. One typical tourism video opens with attractive people sitting poolside. A laughing couple races along a coastal highway in their Porsche, on their way to sheep-covered hills which give way to endless forests. The parts with the smiling, telegenic people bring to mind the French Riviera, and the verdant landscape looks like Ireland or Burgundy. The country is emphasizing its European charm, rather than situating itself in that space called the Orient. Besides a brief shot of a Mosque in a panoramic long shot of Baku (and an Azerbaijani rug on TV in a blonde woman’s hotel room), markers of Azerbaijan as “non-European” are conspicuously absent. The video signals to prospective visitors that Azerbaijan is European, like Amalfi or Barcelona; not “Oriental,” like Istanbul or Dubai.

Dividing Europe and Asia are the Caucasus mountains: home to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. All three had been part of the Soviet Union, gaining their independence in the 1990s. Azerbaijan is a republic of 9.5 million people that borders Turkey, Russia, and Iran in addition to its Caucasian neighbors. Azerbaijan is physically located in a boundary space, and it’s trying to decisively mark itself as a member of Europe. The country has been “culturally” non-European; for centuries it’s been represented and described it as an Other.

What it has going for it, in addition to the European charm from the ads, is oil and gas. On Azerbaijan’s official tourism webpage, one of the tabs highlighted by the republic’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism is a page for the Naftalan medical resort. Alongside “national cuisine” and “top 10 reasons to visit Azerbaijan,” the Ministry sells the spa as one of the most compelling reasons to visit the country. The page exhorts you to book a trip to the spa for Naftalan oil treatments, and boasts of the countless health benefits from taking dip in the unique hydrocarbon.  The Caspian is estimated to hold as much as $5 trillion of oil reserves: Azerbaijan has so much oil that one of their main attractions is bathing tourists in it.

In 1998, Dick Cheney, then-CEO of Halliburton, said “I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.” Three years later, Azerbaijan had joined the Council of Europe. Their resources can pay the price of admission, but Azerbaijan is cementing its European aspirations with a grand, multi-billion dollar public relations project. The case of Azerbaijan says a lot about cultural borders, nationhood, and how far money can really take you.

“Europe is a cultural continent, not a geographical one. It is its culture that gives it a common identity. The roots that have formed it…are those of Christianity.” –Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

19th century German map of Europe in 1250 CE

19th century German map of Europe in 1250 CE

Most Americans associate European culture with white people who enjoy day-drinking, fütbol, and techno music. However, for most of its history and today, “Europe” has been used synonymously with “Christendom.” As with all identity, what Europe isn’t is as important as what it is. “Europe and Islam have been considered to be two terms with contrasting historical connotation,” says Dr. Ioannis Grigoriadis, “European and Islamic cultures were juxtaposed, with the borders of Europe contiguous with those of Christianity.” Europe hasn’t just staked its identity on Christianity. Equally important is that it be considered an entity contradistinct from the Muslim world. Continue reading