'THE OLD DOG' OF DIPLOMACY...
Or one hundred and one ways to escape boredom
This essay was originally included in the anthology Fathers Never Go Away (ICU Publishing, 2020), edited by Nevena Dishlieva-Krysteva and translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova
My father is a hero! A cliché from movies and novels, an exclamation by the neighbor kid, the thought you fall asleep with at night. Your father, my father, their father, your love, your roof, your raincoat or light saber, your Titan against Zeus. While still just a small child, my humble persona pronounced herself to be Pallas Athena and jumped straight out of his wise Olympian head in all my glory and godliness. Period! And Mom gave me a nice warm embrace after His Highness screamed at me for translating "shallow plate" into Russian literally. But anyway, through our joint efforts – actually, mainly his – we were able to win the quizzes in history, then Russian (we beat them on their own territory, so to speak, or more precisely, at the Russian school in Yemen), and mathematics. We pulled off a real Turkish Gambit, enough to make Akunin and his Fa-fa-fandorin lose their bearings and their minds.
I don't know what Oedipus Rex's problem was exactly, but my problem with my father is gigantic – a complex as big as an iceberg. And how could it be otherwise, when "Zdravko Velev was a big deal," as that most natural source of cleverness, the writer and friend Georgi Milkov, once said. And he added: "He was one of those old dogs of diplomacy, from whom you could learn more than from all the Soviet and American textbooks. He was from that proud breed of remarkable people who, even with their mere presence, never leave you indifferent, regardless of whether your emotions are positive or negative. He was quite the character." With these words, Georgi also summarized what we wanted to say as our farewell to Dad.
It's true, he was a big deal, and a big mouth, and a big heart, and a big hug, and a home, and a table.
Our home was open to everyone at all times. Always. Regardless of the time and space it was positioned in – whether it was in Bulgaria, Libya, or Yemen; in Sofia, Tripoli, Aden, or Sana. Besides always being open, our home was also filled to the brim with emotions, with excitement, with loud conversations, with eating and drinking. It was all "sans frontières" and happening under the motto: "Let there be plenty!" No matter what his contemporaries might say, I'm convinced that it was precisely Dad who came up with the legendary call of his generation: "For God's sake, brothers, go buy things!" Many times, while barricaded in my room and studying for yet another damned exam (when it came to exams, for me – mostly thanks to Dad – the rule that usually applied was: the more, the better), I would pray to God and the Devil to spare me from yet another posse of friends and their endless stories told in the first person about past and present grandeur, their jokes that could bring redness to Scarlett O'Hara's cheeks, their collective variations on the piano. Our poor piano, it never fulfilled its true potential in our musically disabled yet maniacally music-loving family. Dad owned everything the world's musical genius had ever created. During the 1960s, the whole paychecks of our dear cultural attaché in Tripoli – i.e. my father – were invested in the purchase of all the "imported" records on the local market, so that he could throw yet another gigantic party in the heart of the Jamahiriya, with Elvis drowning out the muezzin and Dad scoring extra points with the female company at the soirée, which often turned into a matinée. A representative sample of the fairer sex's presence at these legendary parties "chez Velev" included Mom as well. The exquisite Madonna or Jackie was what they called her – not because of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, but short for La Joconde. And so, the French College in Tripoli and the francophone aspirations of the Embassy of the People's Republic of Bulgaria in Libya gave birth to the love between a high-school student with her white collar and the gallant Arabic scholar. A love that shaped the life of both of them. One life – one love. For me, their love will forever remain ingrained in the wonderfully raspy voice of Anthony Quinn and the song that Dad played for Mom at every anniversary, at every birthday, and of course, at each and every transgression, whether voluntary or not. And we knew that everything was all right: "I love you, you love me, I love you, Ich liebe dich, Te quiero, Je t'adore."
There were also the paintings. The one of Plovdiv by Zlatyu Boyadzhiev. And the black-and-white drawings by Peretz – I adored them. Daaad, Daaaad, give it to me, pleeeease, give me Zlatyu! The painting is so warm, full, colorful, homey – and it has invariably kept its location in the apartment, even after all of Mom's complete renovations. And when I come back after a long absence and look at it, I know he's there and I'm home.
As Fandorin, whom I mentioned at the beginning, would say while investigating a complicated case: Painting – that's first! Music – that's second! Books – that's third!
The library at home. It was an institution; a cultural phenomenon. An architectural landmark. An achievement in interior design and in the patience of the master carpenter, who somehow managed – I still don't know how – to accommodate part of his bibliophilic treasure in the space provided to him, which consisted of four walls in my so-called room. How I loved the scent of the antique stores that we used to roam around in like a pack of starved wolves each weekend! We were often able to find some half-hidden treasure or other that had managed to escape the eyes of others – on some dusty shelf or in a crushed cardboard box. It was a feat and a reward. This is where the rest of the money went that hadn't already been spent on records. The master builder never did build a house in the Boyana neighborhood, but he did make a library on 8 Balchik Street. It contained all kinds of things: from prehistoric editions that belonged to my great-grandparents; to the Zlatni Zarna book series; the oh-so-wonderful four volumes on the Dreyfus Affair with their most beautiful, supple, almost sexually scented leather binding; the tattered, falling-apart War and Peace; the still-kept photocopies of Children of the Arbat made by the Soviet ambassador in Yemen; the marked, underlined, corroded History by the undefeatable Professor Zlatarski with its title in beautiful golden lettering.
During one of those moments that his family, friends, and colleagues were painfully familiar with, when just like that, out of the blue, he would decide that I "must be bored," he went out and bought me a tidy notebook whose pages were divided into columns – its ambitious cosmic purpose was to gather on its pages, neatly described and classified, all the countless titles that lined the new book- shelves, which reached from floor to ceiling. I lost my mind. I maybe got to the fifth shelf on the third row from right to left, and then I capitulated like Marshal Pétain at Compiègne, like the Spanish Armada at Trafalgar, glory to the one-eyed and handsome Admiral Nelson. I can't be sure, but I think I really disappointed Dad with my failure to complete the mission and put together the much-longed- for library catalogue.
The family annals also keep a record of another well-known instance of "boredom," which took place when my younger sister Inna was born, on a Christmas morning some time ago. That year Dad was left to serve in Yemen on his own, while Mom and I awaited the holy event in the homeland. He celebrated Christmas Eve with his colleagues befittingly, until early in the morning. But at 5 a.m., right after the drunken revelers had gone home, the good tidings from Sofia reached Aden. And what could the proud parent do but order an evacuation – this, after all, was a very natural ambassadorial reflex, and it was effective, as practice had proven. How else was he to bring them back to the table? And how else was that great moment in the history of the world – the birth of Inna Veleva – to be commemorated? And so they started all over again – guitars, accordions, and pom-poms were brought back out – the fiesta was back on, and Velev Senior was satisfied! Evacuees of the world, make sure you evacuate on time, because you never know what crisis might happen at home or abroad!
Another story about boredom, which has to do with Dad's staggering, embarrassing, scandalous, often-misunderstood, and black-as-tar sense of humor. "I'm bored," he announced one sleepy afternoon, while we were all dozing off on the couches with books in our hands. He picked up the phone and evacuated the embassy in Yemen. Literally. He declared a state of emergency in the country, and the employees were instructed, in accordance with the manual, to pack their essential belongings and gather together at the ambassador's residence. Then he took out one bottle (or three) of Johnnie Walker Black Label. The guitar was brought in. And he was no longer bored.
He couldn't live without people. That was the thing. Many people. Constantly. He sometimes went into the other room briefly, sometimes even napped for half an hour, but nobody was allowed to leave the battlefield. He needed people to be there. Us. Mom. The kids. The relatives. The friends. The colleagues. They weren't colleagues – they were his crew, as we would say now. They were his people, his family.
And so: the music, the books, the family, the loved ones, the friends, the crew from the ministry.
That's what Dad is. Dad is everything. Dad is like our daily bread, and without him life is impossible.
Margarita Veleva is a diplomat, currently living in The Hague. She's worked at the Bulgarian Embassy in Zagreb and Bulgaria's permanent missions at NATO in Brussels and the UN in New York. She's a passionate lover of Russian and French literary classics. You're unlikely to catch her hiking in the mountains or working out at the gym, but she'd happily recite the libretto of any given opera by heart. She is the daughter of Zdravko Velev.
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