Bulgaria 2009


  1. Bulgaria 2009

    November 27, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    What I learnt in Bulgaria this summer

    Penyo Penev, the manic depressive young poet of Stalinist Bulgaria, should now be remembered for his secret verse. Forget about his celebrations of factory routine and five year plans. His obscene verse is quintessentially Bulgarian and puts him up with Rabelais. Here is his terse summary of a Bulgarian survival strategy.

    When the violets flower
    And nothing is going your way
    F**k everyone else’s mother
    And make sure you are OK

    F**ck everyone else’s mother
    And stop yourself feeling blue
    And if you are still feeling bothered
    Go f**k your own mother too.

    Anyone interested in a translation of his epic Kuncho Putkoderov can contact me direct via e-mail.(sozopol456@yahoo.com) Warning: this celebration of Balkan virility is extremely brutal if taken at a literal level. It also besmirches the names of illustrious class enemies like Churchill and Eisenhower.

    Bulgarian elections throw up the most unlikely candidates. Everywhere in Burgas posters lined the metal fences of building sites. In one a fat bald man with a simpering grin demanded More for Burgas. In another, a fierce unshaven man pointed his finger at me with the slogan Hey ’nuff Shame! Neither man represented any of the major parties and therefore had about as much chance of getting elected as Screaming Lord Such. One turned out to be an ex-football boss who has managed to put off a charge of causing death by drunk driving for ten years. The other used to be described as the fist of Ataka – the far right nationalist party. Following the beating of a driver on the Trakia motorway, he fell out with his boss. Both candidates turn out to be the detritus thrown up by the turbulent sea of judicial failure. They had their weeks of street poster attention; but neither man was rewarded by the votes he believed he deserved.

    Galvanized by the unfair neglect of Bulgarian writing on the world’s literary stage, I have begun re-reading the classics – starting with Wolf Hunt by Ivailo Petrov and Gold Mine by ST. L. Kostov. Kostov’s plays have a really contemporary ring – like Armando Ianucci without the swearing. Wolf Hunt has to be one of the greatest novels written in Bulgarian. In Koprivchitza I doused myself in the sad life of the poet Dimcho Debelyanov. Here is a translation of his last poem just before his brain was blown away on the south eastern front in 1917

    Orphan Song
    If I die in this war
    Regret will sting no-one.
    I lost my mother; but I wedded
    No wife; and I have no friends

    But my heart does not grieve –
    I live, an involuntary orphan,
    And maybe Death waits for me
    Bringing comfort in victory.

    I know my hapless path.
    My wealth is stored within,
    For I am rich in sorrows
    And in joys unshared.

    I shall depart this world
    As I entered it – homeless,
    Tranquil as the song that
    Shores up needless memory

  2. Yovkov, you should be living at this hour.

    November 19, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    Turkish serials outsoaped by Bulgarian Reality

    A phone call from Bulgaria has alerted me to the fact that a single story has distracted the populace from its panic about Swine Flu. It has even supplanted Turkish Soap Operas in peoples’ imaginations. It is a story of village passion worthy of the pen of Yovkov.

    A modern Romeo and Juliet – the headlines scream below the mastheads of even the most pretentious newspapers. Successive days have provided pictures of only one of the main protagonists – a blonde sixteen year old whose beauty rivals that of her fictional namesake, Albena.

    In Yovkov’s story the fate of the doomed beauty provokes swiftly changing extremes of emotion from her neighbours.

    The real Albena, only child of the Mayor of Knyazhevo, has provoked an even wider range of reaction, having clasped her fifteen year old boyfriend in her arms as together they threw themselves into the path of a slow moving but unstoppable freight train.

    What initially captured the imagination of millions of readers was the fact that while Albena was a promising pupil at the Economics Gymnasium in Vratsa, her boyfriend was a gypsy. In America he would be described as coming from the wrong side of the tracks. Actually just a field separates Knyazhevo from Dyankovo and its gypsy quarter, and it appears that over the summer, Albena crossed that field and fell in love with Tsvetan.

    Interestingly though there have been many pictures of Albena, I have yet to see a photograph of the “handsome” Tsvetan in any newspaper. This may reflect a disquiet among Bulgarian editors. By all means milk this Romeo and Juliet story for all it’s worth but let’s not have a picture of a gypsy on our front page.

    References to doomed love abound. It turns out that Albena’s father had crossed the field to retrieve his daughter from her boyfriend’s hovel, whither his daughter had fled. It is alleged that supported by a cousin, he had entered Tsvetan’s home, threatened to kill Tsvetan, grabbed Albena and dragged her home.

    The contrast between the two families could not have been starker. Tsvetan is the youngest of five in a family where no-one has regular paid employment. Life is grim. His mother travels to Sofia to beg. Tsvetan has been in trouble for breaking into empty houses and stealing property. “Dirt poor – what else could you expect?” The Dyankovo Mayor is quoted as saying, while at the same time expressing her sympathy for her colleague, Albena’s father.

    “What would you do if your daughter wanted to marry a…..?” is a recurring fantasy topic of conversation throughout the world. It can allow for unrestrained racism and assumptions of patriarchal power. As we know in the UK, such speculation can light the touch-paper for so called “honour killing”, when a father wakes to the reported reality of his daughter’s unsuitable relationship.

    This summer in Bulgaria I suddenly found myself out of my Guardian reader’s comfort zone. I was sitting at a table loaded with goodies, drinking rakia with friends, listening to the good natured banter. Into this came a story – Stoycho’s daughter was going to Africa on a business trip. Stoycho told her – hey, don’t you come back with a black boyfriend ‘cos you know what I’ll do. I’ll take him on a hunting trip. Cue knowing laughter from everyone.

    Like the villagers in Yovkov’s story Albena, local feeling, reported in newspapers, sways violently between sorrow for the doomed lovers and sympathy for the position of Albena’s father. Tsvetan still struggling for his life in the local hospital perfectly fits the racist stereotype of thieving gypsy. His family is currently desperately trying to raise the money necessary for operations on his crushed hands and brain trauma. However villagers have told reporters it would be better if he died and joined Albena in Heaven, where perhaps God would look more kindly on a love between a blonde beauty and a gypsy.

    So for a while, people can wallow in the sentimental glow occasioned by the fate of “star crossed lovers”. The story is not likely to change entrenched attitudes however. As good people travel to work they’ll read the latest crime stories, pass the Graffiti calling for Gypsies to be boiled down to soap and tut-tut over the problem of its impoverished minority.

  3. Death of Big Ginger

    September 26, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    Or how Bulgarian media distort crime stories

    Students of physiognomy would delight in the expressions of Bulgarian incredulity when foreigners remark how peaceful and crime free the streets of Bulgaria seem in comparison with their home towns in England, France or Italy. Last year, Kapka Kasabova’s statement that she felt safer in Sofia than in Edinburgh was reported in every Bulgarian newspaper and provoked extreme astonishment.

    Bulgarians don’t like to be told about the frequency of murderous violence and vandalism in countries they regard as being more advanced than theirs. While there is abounding evidence of corruption in high places and routine failures of the police and judicial system, at ground level Bulgaria remains an extremely civil society. Standards of public conduct are still enforced on the street. Balkan morality or plain nosiness means that people generally do not look the other way. Streets of big towns do not routinely become no-go areas thronging with drunken youths.

    The perverse belief that the country has unparalleled levels of crime is partly down to Bulgarian desire to see themselves as uniquely unfortunate but mostly as a result of media exaggeration and glamorization. The Bulgarian media’s love affair with crime began in 1990 and the downfall of communism. For the first time since the war newspapers were allowed to report crime. And of course they learnt the simple rule that crime sells copy.

    The recent death of Kaloyan Stoyanov provides a perfect case study for current media values and practice. In their rush to get the story out accuracy of detail is the first casualty. Then in the desperate fog of speculation comes the problem of how to frame the story.

    The bare facts are these: Kaloyan Stoyanov, a relatively insignificant racketeer, was being driven by a friend out of the Meden Rudnik complex – an unattractive high rise suburb of Burgas. At an intersection they were cut up by a 39 year old motorcyclist, Petko Lisichkov. Petko was then attacked and kicked on the ground before first pulling out a truncheon and then a gun and shooting Kaloyan three times. Lisichkov then rang the police, handed over his gun and submitted himself to arrest. Kaloyan’s friends gathered and shouted threats.

    Every criminal seeks glory from their otherwise banal and short lives. Of course the media are keen accomplices so over the past nineteen years we have become familiar with a series of colourful nicknames that reel off the pages like characters in a Batman comic – the Doctor, the Beak, the Potato, the Eyes. And so Kaloyan is better known as Big Ginger.

    First reports had Lisichkov attacked by not two but four assailants. The story then could easily be framed as self defence – particularly as it turned out that Lisichkov was an ex cop and legally entitled to own a gun. Under attack by knife wielding monsters what choice did the older man have?

    However newspapers like to have their cake and eat it, so Standart’s first report uses the word execution more than once in a story which otherwise stresses aspects of heroic self defence. But by the next day all the media seemed to agree on the latter. It was typical of the Bulgarian justice system that the victim of a crime should be the one who suffers. Sympathy was encouraged for poor ex-policeman Lisichkov who faces a possible five years in prison on a strangely verbose charge of causing death under extreme provocation and threat to own life. Demonstrations by former police colleagues and Rocker motorcyclists are planned.

    Ex-policemen do not normally attract such public sympathy. Lisichkov who left his short police career in 1993, was declared to have no criminal record. The fact that he doesn’t even have a nickname must be the clincher – just a normal private citizen going about his business with a gun and a truncheon.

    The media love binary opposites and of course Big Ginger has got a significant record – from petty extortion outside discotheques, to working for drug dealer Dian the Boxer.

    “When Big Ginger’s gang gets out their knives, they show no mercy,” says a Meden Rudnik underworld source. Ah where would the media be without such sources? The knives are of course lovingly measured as though they were giant penises. But If there was ever evidence needed of Big Ginger’s stupidity – it clearly lies in his weapon of choice. You’d think he would have learnt his lesson in 2007 when he attacked Greasy Ivan in the main street in Burgas. A knife however large is no match for a gun and Big Ginger ended up in hospital with a bullet in his loins.

    So that’s that then – virtue triumphed and Big Ginger is dead. His brother Little Ginger is under arrest along with other members of the gang who shouted threats at Lisichkov that he was a dead man and brandished their knives. The only concern is for the safety of a heroic ex-cop. But hang on a moment! Lisichkov does have a past. In 2003 he was arrested at the Kulata border crossing carrying a lorry load of chemicals used for synthetic drug manufacture worth 3 million dollars.

    With no rules of sub-judice, the Bulgarian media will run and run with variations of this story, and their audience’s sense of hopelessness can only increase.

  4. New Turkish Slavery?

    September 19, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    Grannies under the yoke? Turkish soap operas rule Bulgarian TV channels.

    Bulgarian nationalists eat your hearts out! Pensioners in their thousands have become glued to Turkish soap operas and numerous travel firms (presumably unregistered) are offering trips to the colourful locations and sets where these passionate stories are filmed. Each advertisement of course hints at the chance of meeting the stars in the flesh.

    It’s enough for Ataka leader Volen Siderov to require new teeth to gnash. Just as he had established in his recent election campaign that Bulgarian Grannies love him, he finds himself forsaken and forlorn. As he jumps up and demands public apologies and financial reparation for the five hundred year “Turkish Slavery”, so he finds his very supporters have embraced a new slavery as they sit engrossed in the latest twists and turns of the Turkish plot.

    Presenters at SKAT TV, the mouthpiece for anti Turkish propaganda, certainly suspect a plot – and one of international proportions. American media money and resources must have gone into the making of these shows. Everyone knows (at least at SKAT TV) that Bulgaria is the potential victim of a dastardly Jewish, American, European, Turkish conspiracy. SKAT TV has seated kindly white haired gentlemen on the main squares of major Bulgarian cities, to enlist signatories to the campaign to stop the broadcast of the news in Turkish on Bulgarian National Television. Perhaps a campaign to stop all Turkish Soap Operas would have been more logical.

    Meanwhile the full horror is beginning to sink in. Bulgarian viewers watch these soap operas in wonder. Could it be that Turks do not sprout five serpent heads with fezes and teeth dripping with Bulgarian blood? Could it be that their houses are rather nicely furnished; their estates clean and rubbish free? Why aren’t the women covered from head to foot? Why aren’t they wearing shalvari? Good Heavens – these Turkish women have hair! No wonder Ataka and SKAT sense an evil propaganda campaign. The Turkish Government must be behind these soap operas. They want Bulgarians to think that Turks are just like them – only more prosperous.

    And indeed the characters conform to Balkan stereotypes. The melodrama centres around patriarchs with bristling moustaches, lean suspicious Grannies, smoldering wives with luxurious hair, duplicitous husbands, violently jealous boyfriends, naïve fresh faced girls, precocious adorable children – very similar to their Bulgarian equivalents. The story lines allow for heart rending situations sufficient for hours of shared speculation on the benches where pensioners congregate in the hours between transmissions.

    In Tears by the Bosphorus, Lale is diagnosed with brain cancer. Sure that she will die and unwilling for her husband and children to suffer, she disappears with the help of her long time doctor admirer. Her abandoned husband hires beautiful Zeinep to look after the children and of course they fall in love and marry. Soap Opera fans can guess what happens next. Pearl has a similar return-from-the –dead motif. This time it’s Mehmed who visits his girlfriend’s grave, desperate to expiate the guilt of causing her death in a car crash. Little does he know that seated in a nearby wheelchair….

    Well I thought I’d seen it all, until a cousin introduced me to Marriage with a foreigner. This must be the most ambitious and mischievous Turkish production yet. It feeds on every Balkan prejudice and it’s funny. The plot hook is simple – girl from prosperous family of master Baklava maker falls in love with Greek son of diplomat. There couldn’t be a story more likely to appeal to the Bulgarian viewer who of course understands every Balkan nuance. There’s the Turkish grandfather, chaining himself to a statue of Ataturk and proclaiming that he will never give his grand-daughter to a Greek. There’s the girl’s father, feeling increasingly uncomfortable as he is told that baklava, lokum and Turkish coffee are Greek. There’s the Greek mother who cannot pronounce Istanbul, but must call the city Constantinople. There’s the presence everywhere of the younger generation wanting to forget the past.

    And of course it is the stereotypes created by versions of the past that SKAT and Ataka want Bulgarians to remember – the five hundred years of brutal slavery. Turkey must be punished and of course Ataka fervently believes that every Turk is desperate to get into Europe. Recent statistics prove the opposite. Keep Turkey out of Europe was Ataka’s main slogan in the recent European campaign. French German Italian and perhaps more importantly Turkish opposition to entry of course fades into insignificance beside Ataka’s brave stand.

    In contrast to divisive nationalist campaigns, Turkish Soap Operas remind viewers of their common background. Attitudes displayed in these programmes are exaggerated but the final message is clear. You can keep Turkey out of Europe but you can’t keep her out of Bulgaria.

    (I’d like to thank my consultant Vanya Valkanova for her help with details for this article)

  5. Chaos in Starosel

    August 28, 2009 by Christopher Buxton

    I rob banks for a living, what do you do?

    My name’s Ivan Dillingov – yes that’s me – the leader of the best band of robbers you’ll ever see. I’m careful on my recruitment policy – only hire the best.

    Let me introduce the team. There’s Babe Nelzov – he’s crazy but he’s got a face as round and smooth as a billiard ball. But don’t rile him. He’s meaner than Balkan bear – only not as hairy. There’s Kalashnikov Kelsky – he’s kind of sweet natured but he can’t exercise no more control on his machine gun than he can on his women. And driving the getaway-mobile is Clyde Barovski – both feet on the gas and both hands around his moll, Miss Bonnie Parkova, possessor of the cutest ass you ever did see perched on a steering wheel.

    Well Bulgaria’s been good to me. Police, lawyers and judges all return my calls for a just a little percent of the takings. I feel well looked after wherever I go. There are so many banks! Gee whizz! I can’t remember all their names. Still – it’s pretty dang straight forward. Clyde just drives us up, and I shout “Hey boys, time to make a withdrawal!” We go in, ignoring the signs that say no guns allowed. Everyone’s happy to hit the floor. Babe Nelzov gets to scare the pretty tellers a little. I shout: “These few levs you lose here today are going to buy you stories to tell your children and great-grandchildren. This could be one of the big moments in your life; don’t make it your last! That usually cracks up the public and gets us reported in all the best newspapers. We grab the cash. And hightail it out while the police go off in the opposite direction and crack a few heads in the gypsy part of town.

    Everything’s just high and dandy till I get this recommendation. Go rob a joint in Starosel. Boy did that turn out to be a hedgehog in the undershorts!

    Clyde picked it out on the map. One road in and one road out – straight through the centre. It looked such a knockover! We didn’t even bother to case the joint. Besides it’s in Plovdiv county and I’ve got good friends in that state. Bonnie Parkova said there’s some old tomb just outside the town. I say it’s probably the resting place of some ancient gangster – but we won’t have no time to pay our respects.

    We spent the night before holed up in some wooden dive in old Koprivchitza. Bonnie thought it was kind of pretty – she’s cultural that way. We set out late the next morning, due to Babe finding it difficult to locate anything worth shaving.

    I should have known we were in for a rough ride even before we got into Starosel. Boy the bumps and holes were like a drive on the moon without the low gravity. Clyde had his hands full of steering wheel for a change and Bonnie felt neglected.

    Coming in to Starosel was like coming into the Oklahoma dustbowl. Clyde nearly went into the diggers, cranes and earth movers. It was like the town knew we were coming and had barred our way. Bonnie had to rip off her skirt to wipe the windshield and Clyde drove us down a side street that looked like an alley in some foreign legion film. I rolled down the back window and hailed a local. “Hey old timer! We’re the Ivan Dillingov gang. Tell us where your bank is at!”

    I have to say – he kind of looked confused. He spent so much time scratching his head I had to stop Nelzov from shooting him. In the end he just told us to follow the signs.

    Well there were no signs at first – then there were some arrows – but none of them labeled – so we had no idea where we were headed – except everywhere was just dust and sand and holes and raised manhole covers. I reckon we’d have got to the bank faster by drain.

    We met lots of foreign folks coming the other way. At first I thought they were from a rival outfit. I almost got Nelzov to shoot them up a little. But it turned out that they were just looking for this old bloke’s tomb. Some of them had been driving round Starosel for hours. Mind you when they got an eyeful of Bonnie in her bloomers they soon found her mounds a whole lot more interesting.

    But every five yards of road was a burial mound as far as I was concerned. I just had to grit my teeth to stop them from falling out. One point we were directed off the road and through a children’s playground. At least there weren’t so many bumps past the slides and swings. I could see Babe was hankering after a go but I had to remind him of our mission.

    At the end of the park we rolled into the dust again. As Clyde took a track down to a hump bridge, I was feeling pretty gloomy about a quick getaway.

    Over the bridge, there was some big swanky restaurant – well it was dust-swanky and there was a whole mess of reversing cars. Well, dang me – if we don’t see some asphalt – the only asphalt in the whole town – but it’s being rolled by a steam roller. This is it boys, the centre!

    I wave my gun. “ Yonder’s the bank! Let’s make a withdrawal boys!” But Clyde’s in no mood to argue with a steam roller and the prettiest waitress you ever did see jumps out waving her hands at me to reverse.

    “Sorry, Mr. Dillingov, but our little town centre’s closed for traffic – even for important folks like you.” She then burst into tears. “Gee! It’s been like this for a year – all the streets of our town ploughed up. Mr. Dillingov, you know some important people in this country! Please use your influence. We ain’t got a mayor worth a rattlesnake hide and the contractors are so ornery. It’s getting so even local folks don’t know their way around. And all these foreigners bashing up their cars. They don’t stop no more and so there’s no money in the bank.”

    If there were any police I’d have got them to guide us out of town. But they’re only interested in good roads where they can fine speeders. I got Clyde to reverse out and don’t ask me how we found our way out of town.

    Babe says next time he’ll bring a tank.