Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Do You Like Bulgaria?" A Year in Reflection: Bulgaria 2013-2014

The next few posts will be part of a "Year in Review" report I gave to the Fulbright Commission on May 16, 2014.  I will address the "internal landscape" context that shaped my year as well as some specifics on what helped me adjust and what ways I was limited in that adjustment.

 The pieces retain some of its "for presentation" content but is more essay than the presentation one could permit. Forgive its cross-genre and conflicting-audience issues.

What do you think of Bulgaria?

            We have each been asked this question more times than we can count. The new acquaintances in our train compartment. Teachers. Students. We have each seen the look of doubt and hope, the squint of the eyes. Sometimes, the question comes more directly, a thinly veiled guide to the answer they want: Do you LIKE Bulgaria? I am stuck between two polar answers. Yes. Or no. To which I always reply YES, I like Bulgaria. I can even say, truthfully, that I love it.
            But this answer does not satisfy me and only rarely does it satisfy the question asker. My students have started to say, “Yes but… you’ve lived here now. What do you think?” To these questions, I flounder for an answer and deflect with playful sarcasm.
            Yes or no does not do justice to the place I am supposedly justifying or affirming. Nor does it do justice to the complexity of my experience here.

Summer 2012
What about this place made me reapply to Fulbright after one rejection and then a 3 week trip here in 2012? Something other than merely “liking”. And I’m not sure this quality has a word. It is not majestic, not in the way of the American Rockies or the Swiss Alps. It is not Regal, not in the ways western Europe totes around its monarchies and crown jewels. It is not ethereal; too grounded and earthy for that. Perhaps it is like new wine aging into old wine, stubbornness and experience aging into wisdom and humility, slowly, painfully slow, but enduring. Like Tolkien’s description of the The Shire, “where change comes slowly if it comes at all.”
I sometimes call these sneak attack Bulgarian beauties. It is the quality that I saw this past Sunday after nearly 24 hours in transit back from Croatia, in a Biomet bus tugging its way across north Bulgaria, the fields bright yellow with spring flowers, low rolling hills and cliffs, the deep yellow light in the evening.
            It’s the quality of the Rila Monastery in a December snowfall, snap shot still, pine and snow breeze not even disturbing the lines of fresh snow on the edges of the church roof.
            It’s in the abandoned train station across the street from my grim and rusting apartment block, the setting sun lighting up the windows and doors as if the building were on fire.

            It’s in the low cloud of coal smoke on a clear winter night, a bright halo of light-catching dust over my city.

My student, Gergana, unintentionally described this quality in an essay about her grandmother. She describes her grandmother in the kitchen: “She is dressed in her casual but comfortable clothes, chopping potatoes and then putting them in a pan on the cooker. She looked so focused on frying that for a moment I forgot about my questions.” A moment has sprung on Gergana by surprise, a kind of waking dream attention to something very common. Her grandmother’s attention for the potatoes is unexpectedly beautiful and distracts her from her questions.
            But everyday life does not sustain these moments. Bulgaria is like a waking dream AND (simultaneously!) the first sip of coffee after waking from that dream, strong and bitter.
            Bulgaria and I are similar. We have found the gap between the vision and the everyday rather bitter. There is a temptation to numb it out, one that I’ve found my students and friend embrace. The gap is numbed in discos and chalga clubs and glasses of rakia; the numbing is my 14 year old student chain smoking before tests and absent parents working in other countries.
            And yet, Bulgaria is beautiful.
My year has been a long road of ambivalent emotions. The ones who have known me best know that I have not been entirely happy, though I have given my heart with my full energy.
Bulgaria is worth every moment of not entirely happy.

There is a strength and poise to this place. It is one that presents itself again and again for attention and recognition. This beauty is not just in Bulgarian scenery, but in its people. There is a deep desire to have well lived lives. Desire is strong and moving, and one that challenges me daily. The directions for this are unclear here as they also can be in my own life. I understand the confusion and even the pain that such a deep desire can cause.

I firmly believe that this desire is the Bulgarian stubbornness aging into deep rooted wisdom. It will come. And in some, it already has.

Until then, Bulgaria remains a place deeply ambivalent. It is ambivalent about itself, resulting in ambivalent experiences for its visitors, both the short and the long term ones. It's complicated. It's been a difficult year. Bulgaria is a complicated and difficult place. Bulgaria is also a place worth knowing, worth returning to. And someday, I will.

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