Everything’s Worse In Bulgaria*

*according to lots of Bulgarians

One of the most common conversation tropes that one encounters when talking to Bulgarians is the idea that Bulgaria is worse in every way than some country. It was literally the first conversation I had in Bulgaria. Minutes after our plane landed in Sofia for the first time, we spoke with a woman at customs who saw that we were American. The conversation quickly turned into her wondering why we would move here, particularly since everything is more expensive in Bulgaria (untrue). When Huelo pointed out that tomatoes cost the equivalent of 10 or 11 leva a kilo in the States (and taste like cardboard), versus 2 leva a kilo in Sofia during the off-season, the woman quickly conceded that, okay, tomatoes were cheaper in Sofia, but everything besides the cost of that specific fruit is worse.

The same goes for healthcare. Getting signed up for the national health service or private insurance (as we currently are) leads to a lot of conversations about how much better the situation was under Communism. Unfortunately, capitalism has provided a structural incentive to abandon people to die, which is how the American system works. Everything to do with Bulgaria’s healthcare system is cheaper and easier by orders of magnitude than the American system, which is extraordinarily cruel and objectively the worst in the industrialized world. Doesn’t matter, though, Bulgaria’s system is terrible, according to Bulgarians.

This is such a common trope that it just popped up in the New York Times. The story was concerning the recent collapse of the South Stream pipeline, a Russian energy project that would pump Russian hydrocarbons under the Black Sea and into Europe through Bulgaria. The Times has a very typical New York Times-y approach to the story, discussing Russian statecraft with the sort of overwrought, conspiratorial tone that the Times shares with the John Birch Society. In one of the opening grafs, the typical Bulgarian lament pops up:

While Bulgaria’s Energy Ministry ostensibly wrote the legislation, documents reveal the hidden hand of the Kremlin: Not only did much of the language come from a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned energy giant, Gazprom, but Mr. Putin’s energy minister was directly involved.

If this happens in the U.S., the whole government would resign,” said Martin Dimitrov, a minister of Parliament from Bulgaria’s Reformist Bloc. “Not in Bulgaria, apparently.”

Dimitrov, like most Bulgarians, doesn’t have a great deal of faith in the government. Bulgarians routinely list themselves as some of the unhappiest people in Europe, and at the root of a lot of it is a state that’s openly corrupt. The political situation even led to a spate of self-immolations in 2013–the most desperate and extreme public statement a human being can make.

As usual, though, the idea that this is impossible in the US, rather than exactly the same, is a very Bulgarian attitude. Despite Dimitrov’s naïve and ahistoric view that this would cause the government to fall, American legislation is entirely written by the interested private parties who will benefit from it. The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”), for instance, was written by a health care industry lobbyist, and is a multi-trillion dollar gift to the private insurance industry. That’s how all American legislation works: it’s why a recent study by Princeton and Northwestern Universities found the US was a functioning oligarchy, which Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen–the person in charge of all the moneytacitly confirmed. The government didn’t fall.

Similarly, the last time the Bulgarian government came under question, it had to do with the appointment of an oligarch’s cretinous son to head the Bulgarian equivalent of the NSA. That action, perceived by tens of thousands as an unforgivable affront to democracy, did cause mass resignations. In America, no amount of revelations about the NSA, whether it’s a similar instance of public-private cronyism or revelations of mass spying, have ever caused so much as one substantive improvement in American political life.

We’ve come to Bulgaria with foreign eyes and can see how much it has going for it. Unlike America, Bulgaria has great fresh food, a healthy work-life balance, and a health care system that’s more functional and less a blight on the civilized world. Also, everyone complains, but simultaneously has 3 houses. Talk to most people, and they have an apartment, their parent’s house outside of town, and Baba’s house in the village, all of which they can live in and will inherit someday. Bulgarians may see a lot of problems here, but their country would benefit from correctly perceiving their problems in relation to those of others. They definitely wouldn’t be the most depressed people in Europe if they did.


Bulgaria: Paint it Wacky

Bulgaria doesn’t make international news very often. For a country of 7.3 million people to show up on the BBC or BuzzFeed, something really remarkable or ridiculous has to happen. In the case of the teal tabby of Varna, it’s the latter.

This green cat has been a big hit on the internet this week. There was speculation that the cat had been painted that color as a cruel prank, but according to locals, it’s more likely that the cat slept in green paint and washed itself green. The guy in the video below says this happened to a cat last year. While we discussed the teal cat with a friend of ours, she told us that 3 dogs in her neighborhood dye themselves blue every year. Evidently things getting painted weird colors is more common than one would think.

This is also true of the last time Bulgaria made the rounds on social media. Last summer, Russia asked Bulgaria to stop vandals from painting over the Monument of the Soviet Army here in Sofia. The monument, which depicts the Red Army surging triumphantly forward, has in recent years been painted to make political and artistic statements. It’s been painted to look like American corporate mascots and comic book heroes, painted the Ukrainian colors after the annexation of Crimea, and painted pink as an apology for Bulgaria’s participation in crushing the Prague spring.

"In step with the times." Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“In Step With The Times.” Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

During the Cold War, Bulgaria was Moscow’s closest satellite. Since The Changes, Bulgaria has forged bonds with the EU and NATO to escape Russia’s orbit. Consequently, their relationship with Russia is contentious–3 days ago, Vladimir Putin told Turkish PM Tayyip Erdoğan that he was “fed up with the Bulgarians.” The Monument has become a site where anonymous Bulgarians can communicate their feelings about this as long as they have paint.

Most of the time, Bulgaria flies under the international media’s radar. However, all it takes is for something to get painted a weird color and you’ll probably hear about it.



Bulgaria’s Witchy Traditions

IMG_0942My first Halloween outside the US came and went, mostly without requiring any effort on my part. Halloween has always been a holiday that strikes me as fun for a few committed participants and mostly annoying for the rest of us. On paper it sounds like an outlet for a lot of ungodly, atavistic energy; in practice it’s a vaguely juvenile thing that we have to hear about for weeks that includes a dress-up component. Great, an excuse to party, but now I have to put on a costume before I can get drunk with my friends? Ужас.

We did get a couple o trick-or-treaters, though, who we treated to the legit American Halloween experience of receiving apples instead of candy. Enjoy, kids, just be glad it wasn’t dental floss or UNICEF pennies. Like Angry Birds and Spongebrat Strangebob, American pop culture is forcing Halloween on people here. It’s interesting seeing American cultural imperialism bring Halloween to Bulgaria, specifically because Bulgaria already has a wealth of pagan holidays and traditions. Check out the tableau up top that I found on TV—a bunch of kids singing in folk costume, jumping over one of the stick-creations from True Detective:

Dancing in a circle... a flat circle.

Dancing in a circle… a flat circle.

Due to its status as one of the oldest-inhabited regions on Earth coupled with its Cold War isolation, Bulgaria has successfully retained a lot of awesome, millennia-old traditions that haven’t been wiped out—yet.

Bulgaria’s witchiest traditions are clustered around the quarter between the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Beginning with survakane on 1 January and going until Baba Marta on 1 March, the oldest holiday traditions exist to hasten the end of the dead winter season and bring about the rebirth and renewal heralded by spring. Obviously, from time immemorial until relatively recently, this was the most challenging time of year, and you needed to enlist all the help you could get.

The first day of the new year is Survakane. People make survaknitsi, which are “cornel rods [whose] side branches are tied to form the Cyrillic letter F (‘Ф’).” It’s cool for craft reasons alone, since the end result is an ornately shaped branch garlanded with string, coins, threads, and shiny things. The history behind it, though, is thousands of years old. Suvaknitsi are supposed to resemble the World Tree, an Indo-European symbol that’s one of our species’ oldest religious motifs. Survakane happily helps purify and cleanse evil spirits and summons good spirits, as Bulgaria’s tourism pamphlet cheerily informs me. Continue reading

Flag Politics & The Balkan Flag-Based Sports Catastrophe

slavic flags

Flags with pan-Slavic-inspired patterns. Top Row: Russia, pan-Slavic flag Middle Row: Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia Bottom Row: Serbia, Czech Republic, Croatia

I love flags. Flags are endlessly fascinating—each one is not only a piece of design work, but carries with it centuries of history. For instance, here in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, many of the flags are similar tricolors of white, blue, and red. Sometimes, they’re exactly like the flag of Russia with different seals on them. These flags all share the same genealogy, laying claim to a shared historical heritage. You can see the same history at work in the flags of many Arab states.

bosnia kosovo flags

Flags of Bosnia & Herzegovina (l) and Kosovo (r)

In the same way that these flags indicate a national kinship, some attest to a willful separation. The flags of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo share similar design elements, none of which look remotely like the Pan-Slavic colors of the former Yugoslavia. Here, the blue and gold represent an EU future rather than a Balkan past, reflecting the acrimony tied up in their nationhood. If the design elements seem designed by consensus—anodyne white stars, shapes indicating national boundaries—it’s because they essentially were, indicating the external actors like the UN and NATO which led to the original Balkanization.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot of history that goes into making a flag, and around here, a lot of it is painful—and continually contested. Vexillology doesn’t often make the news, but a Balkan sporting event is just the sort of thing to turn a flag into an international incident.

That’s what happened last week, during a football* match in Belgrade. Serbia and Albania were playing a qualifying match for the 2016 European cup when a consumer drone flew over the field carrying an Albanian nationalist banner. A Serbian player grabbed the flag and tried remove it from the field, and all hell broke loose. Continue reading

7 Cool Bulgarian-English Translations

One of my favorite things about learning a new language is discovering cool translations. It’s one thing for a word to be similar, like how railroads are iron roads in Bulgaria. I get a big thrill when a word communicates its meaning using totally new signifiers. A good example is the the German word for a lighter, feuerzeug, which literally means “fire thing.” No one can say it’s not a “fire thing,” that’s for sure.

As I learn Bulgarian, I’m encountering some of these cool translations. Here are 7 of my favorites so far:

7. Curiosity (Любопитство) — “Love-to-ask”

Living outside the States for the first time, I have a mighty lyubopitsvo (to Huelo’s probable annoyance, I imagine) about everything we encounter. Every few minutes, it’s “sweetie, who was ‘General Totleben’?” or “Wait, what village did Baba Stoyanka live in, again?” Unfortunately, I don’t bring this curiosity to my language lessons, which is why it took me 7 months to learn the words for left and right. Actually, maybe that makes the Bulgarian word more apropos for me: I definitely love to ask more than study.

6. Slug (Гол охлюв) — “Naked Snail”

Bulgarian isn’t always like German, whose compound words make it so every animal is a different animal with an adjective. For instance, what could a “shield toad” be but a tortoise? My university mascot, the Gol ohliov, is the first Bulgarian critter I’ve discovered so far who gets stuck with this ignominious convention. “Naked snail”: not only is it evocative, it’s adorable. As a less PG-13 entry, Bulgarian also borrowed another German compound-name for something else. It’s a part of the anatomy, and it’s been dubbed “shame lips.”

5. Impression (Впечaтление) — “En-stamp-ment”

When something makes an impression on someone, it imprints itself in their memory. The image conjures up the empty space that’s left after something comes into our lives momentarily and departs, and the contours that leave its shape behind. Bulgarian has a similar word, with a pechat, a stamp, doing the impressing.

Continue reading

Surviving Na Gosti

Na Gosti - comic 1

Bulgaria is one of those countries with a hospitality culture that guidebooks and Sunday newspaper sections rave about.

This means that you will be cared for in a way that can be both warm and oppressively overbearing, welcoming and kind of weird. Spend any time here and make friends with any locals, and you will end up invited На Гости (Na Gosti). The literal translation of na gosti is “as guest,” which makes gosti the rare Bulgarian word that sounds remotely like its English counterpart. Na Gosti isn’t just going over for dinner—it’s more like participating in a local folk dance, where everyone knows the steps except you. Here’s the choreography for surviving Na Gosti:

Na Gosti - comic 2

First, there are 3 things you need to know:

  1. You need to eat and drink slower than you ever thought possible, because
  2. It is your host’s duty to force-feed you, and
  3. You will be there for at least 5 hours.

Na gosti is a battle between host and guest: the host must make you eat, and you must avoid excruciating gut pain. Continue reading

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