Making connections: Bulgaria

Today let’s revisit Bulgaria.

Last April we went on an extended city break to Sofia. Despite being an eastern Europe fan of many years standing I was embarrassingly ignorant of Bulgaria, the only country the other side of the Iron Curtain I hadn’t visited before.

This seems to be a recurrent problem. Kapka Kassabova (more below) calls Bulgaria “a country without a face” in the western mind, the shortest chapter in the book beginning with “an edifying sentence about its unjust obscurity”. Helpfully, her poem The travel guide to the country of your birth helps visitors get up to speed.

Rather more prosaically, Bulgaria:

  • borders Romania and the Danube (a 472km stretch of the river forming the southern border of the old principality of Wallachia, dividing Mitteleuropa from the Balkans) to the north, the Black Sea (194km of beach) to the east, Greece and Turkey to the south, Serbia and Macedonia to the west
  • is shaped like “an animal hide spread out, with the head end looking to Europe and the rear end sitting at the Black Sea” (Kapka again)
  • was part of Ancient Thrace, which also spanned parts of modern Greece and Turkey; famous sons include Orpheus and Spartacus
  • had its own golden age from the late ninth to the late tenth centuries, when its territory included today’s Romania, Macedonia, parts of Serbia and Albania, half of Greece, and European Turkey down to Gallipoli and Constantinople; Tsar Simeon’s mission in life was to be crowned as a Byzantine-Bulgarian emperor
  • was occupied by the Ottomans for nearly 500 years after two catastrophic defeats (in 1018 and 1396)
  • was on the losing side in both world wars, sustaining the highest per capita casualty rate in 1914-18, then saving most of its Jewish population from deportation in 1944
  • received Russian assistance in the 1878 War of Liberation, leading later to a special relationship with the Soviet Union and a possibly apocryphal tale about an application to become the 16th republic of the USSR; planes from Sofia landed in the domestic terminal in Sheremetovo
  • in a case of bad timing, joined the European Union in 2007; EU membership, like democracy, was previously fetishised but is now mainly associated with economic decline
  • is the birthplace of the Cyrllic alphabet, called after Cyril, one half of monkish brothers Cyril and Methodius and celebrated on World Cyrillic Alphabet Day; see Contesting an alphabet
  • claims yogurt and produces 10% of the world’s rose oil

The Danube, Ruse and Elias Canetti

How do you starting making some connections to a country and a culture? Prior to our Hapsburg capitals trip I was able to dive head-first into my bookshelves, and this time I found more about Bulgaria than I had initially anticipated.

Most Danube related books tail off before they reach Bulgaria, the notable exceptions being Nick Thorpe’s jurney upstream and Nick Hunt reworking Patrick Leigh Fermor (Seven days of thunderstorms | East and south | Summer metropolis). Update: River Danube (extract from Atlas of Vanishing Places).

In a chapter in his 1986 Danube entitled ‘Doubtful cartography’ Claudio Magris reaches the Serbian border at Kladovo wondering where he is, with “geography getting vaguer and vaguer”, and maps marking places that don’t exist and not marking those which do – on that note Kladovo seems to share a border with Romania rather than Bulgaria. Only two bridges cross Bulgaria’s Danube border – the New Europe Bridge, a road and rail bridge between the cities of Vidin and Calafat, opened in 2013, while the 1954 doubledecker Danube Bridge, previously known as the Friendship Bridge, links the cities of Ruse and Giurgiu (see this 2003 blog post). At 2224 metres it was for a while the second longest bridge in Europe. Dwarfed now by The Bridge (the Øresund Link, 7845 metres, 2000) for starters, it retains the title of longest steel bridge in Europe. For completists, there is also a ferry which takes 10 minutes to cross the Danube from Silistra, the Roman Empire’s easternmost town in Europe, to Calarasi.

Jockeying for position with Czernowitz at the top of my places to visit list is now Ruse, the birthplace of Elias Canetti (on 25 July 1905), which Magris calls a “tiny reproduction of Vienna, with yellow ochre merchants houses and buildings laden with caryatids, the familiar atmosphere of hard working Mitteleuropa…the reassuring uniformity of the Danubian style”. The Romans built a fortress there in AD 70 to stand guard over the Danube, and while the town declined under the Byzantines and the Bulgarians it was restored and modernised by a Turkish governer, becoming the first station on the first railway line in the entire Ottoman empire in 1866, linking the Danube with the Black Sea at Varna. At independence Ruse was the largest and most prosperous city in Bulgaria, with the first bank in the country, known as Little Bucharest.

Canetti moved to Manchester in 1911, then in 1912 to Vienna and subsequently to Zurich, but the first 30 pages of The tongue set free (1997), his first volume of autobiography, are a paean to Ruse, then known as Ruschuk:

People of the most varied backgrounds lived there, on any one day you could hear seven or eight languages. Aside from the Bulgarians, who often came from the countryside, there were many Turks, who lived in their own neighbourhood, and next to it was the neighbourhood of the Sephardim, the Spanish Jews – our neighbourhood. There were Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, Gypsies. From the opposite side of the Danube came Rumanians…there were also Russians here and there.

Anything I susequently experienced had already happened in Ruschuk. There, the rest of the world was known as “Europe”, and if someone sailed up the Danube to Vienna [a four day journey], people said he was going to Europe. Europe began where the Turkish Empire had once ended.

Canetti’s parents were both schooled in Vienna, and the young Elias spent three summer vacations in parts of the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy: Carlsbad (now in the Czech Republic), Lake Worther (Austria) and Kronstadt (Siebenbürgen; now Brasov, Romania).  His parents conversed with each other in German, while the family vernacular was Ladino. Seven or eight languages were spoken in Ruse: “everyone understood something of each language. Only the little girls, who came from villages, spoke just Bulgarian and were therefore considered stupid.”

At the time of Magris’ visit Canetti’s house was divided into small apartments in a sort of crumbling limbo. Today it has been restored by the International Elias Canetti Society, who have produced the documentary film Ear Ohrenzeuge, “a unique walk through Elias Canetti’s childhood combined with selected excerpts (in Bulgarian and German) from his autobiographical books”.

Canetti calls Bulgaria the most unknown of the countries of the East, concluding thus:

Anyone who has seen…the spruce orderliness of Sofia and compares these with what obtains in cities or countries held up as paragons of civilisation is included to use the term ‘Balkan’ as a compliment, as others tend to employ the word ‘Scandinavian’.

Bulgaria after 1989

Eva Hoffman’s Exit into history (1993) echoes the feeling of unfamiliarity where we came in: Bulgaria is “beyond my preconceptions and prejudices…a few exotic echoes reverberate…the real site of Shakespeare’s Illyria, and also of ancient Thrace, the country of Orpheus; it’s the crossroads of Byzantine and Ottoman and Slav influences and of old trade routes…a country beyond the periphery; a remote place…self-contained and tucked away from the contemporary main drag”. Bulgarians make up for this with the “great, vertical density of their past…the cultural ‘sense of self’ which has accumulated over centuries…a sense of their own, independent sufficiency”, with the inferiority complex found in some other eastern European countries absent.

Bulgaria has an uneasy relationship with its neighbours due to the Balkan Wars and a number of territorial handovers more often than not involving Macedonia. (Magris on The Macedonian question: for a long time Bulgaria claimed Macedonia, both politically and ethnically. The question can be summed up in the story of the many named Mr Omeric/Omerov/Omerski – his original name, Omer, was Turkish). Relations with Yugoslavia were sour during the Soviet period, while her relationship with Romania “traditionally consisted of peering over the Danube to make sure the other is doing worse”.

It’s easy to lump ‘eastern Europe’ into one, but it was largely a Cold War construct. The Balkans, the space between Vienna and Istanbul, often viewed as provincial and peripheral, has a post-Ottoman legacy in common, almost post-colonial. All rather different from ‘central’ Europe, with whom the Balkan countries share a post-Soviet culture, although their histories of transition are different.

All of which brings us to emigre/expat/international Kapka Kassabova (@Kapka_Kassabova), born and brought up in Sofia in the 1970s and 1980s, who left Bulgaria in 1992 for New Zealand, moving to Edinburgh in 2005. Her Street without a name: childhood and other misadventures in Bulgaria (2008; Amazonreview), a memoir cum travelogue, bookended our trip to Sofia. A two parter in two genres, and none the worse for it, the book combines “the irreverence of an expat and the curiosity of a visitor”.

Kapka has also written some thought provoking poetry, including the haunting line for rootless people everywhere:

Let me be a tourist in the city of my life.

Filling in more gaps is journalist Dimiter Kenarov, whose From Black to Black looks at the Danube from a rather different perspective. See too his piece on Georgi Markov, more known in English for the umbrella incident than his writing, and interview on East-Central Europe Past and Present, well worth the time of the prospective visitor to Bulgaria. 2018 update: on Julia Kristeva.

Interesting times

In a 2010 survey, Bulgaria came out as the unhappiest country in the world relative to income per capita. I’ll take this with the same grain of salt as Denmark’s constant chart-busting performances – you really don’t get an impression of boundless Danish joy on a day to day basis, and the Bulgarians seemed chirpy enough in the spring sunshine. In other eye popping statistics, 40% of Bulgarians smoke, and they have a flat income tax rate of 10%. The 2015 World Happiness Report, released just before we left for Sofia, showed Bulgaria in 134th place out of the 158 countries surveyed, way below any other EU country as well as the Palestinian Territories (108) and Myanmar (129).

Georgi Gospodinov‘s novel The physics of sorrow (AsymptoteNew Yorker | Three Percent | 2018 interview) came out in the UK last year, translated by Angela Rodel. Echoing the happiness surveys (and perhaps Ivan Vasov, who in Under the yoke (1889) wrote that “oppression has the privilege of making people happy…when the political arena is closed, society seeks consolation in the immediate good things of life)”, this feels like a good point to conclude my pre-trip research:

Gospodinov’s tuga [sorrow] is “a longing for something that hasn’t happened…a sudden realization that life is slipping away and that certain things will never happen to you, for a whole list of reasons—personal, geographical, political.

self portrait by Petar Dochev (1934-2005)

self portrait by Petar Dochev (1934-2005)


3 thoughts on “Making connections: Bulgaria

  1. Beautifully done. As an avid reader and a Bulgariaphile, it was refreshing to read a blog that is more essay than travelogue and more edifying than the “cheap drinks at Sunny Beach” blogposts that more often try to serve as some sort of introduction to the country. I have just requested Eva Hoffman’s “Exit Into History” and look forward to reading it. By the way, I wrote a blogpost on the pessimism issue, Thanks for your post.

    • Thanks Risa. I’ve a post on our time in Sofia coming up soon too – mainly about buildings, which is often the way with a short trip, but I think a good start in getting to know a place.

      I’m looking forward to taking a proper look at your blog. The pessimism post is very thought provoking, not least in the light of posts on Happy Denmark. (I’ve been living in Denmark for 10 years. I’m from Scotland and living with a Belgian. It’s complicated!)

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