by Anthony Georgieff; illustration by Jordan Marinov
Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. When Leo Tolstoy created one of the most famous clichés in modern literature, he forgot one important thing: he didn't mention how unhappy families act when they try to hide their misery. They may argue, they may fight, they may smash aristocratic vases pilfered by Soviet soldiers or knick-knacks made of Chinese plastic from the Everything-for-One-Leva stores. Yet the moment an outsider steps into their home, harmony reigns. Tears and snot are wiped away. Bruises are covered up with makeup and the table is adorned with a Duralex set that, as a rule, spends more of its time in the glassed-in cabinet in the dining room than in use. If a casual visitor – or even a friend – were to ask, "Is anything wrong?" he would receive this answer in chorus, "Noooo, of course not!" And he'd never be invited back.
Bulgarians, at least according to most polls during the past 20 years, are one very unhappy family – the unhappiest in Europe. When I say "very" I mean "for years and generations on end without the hope of things getting better in the near and not-so-near future." Deep down we know it, yet we prefer to hide our problems from outside observers behind patriotic clichés – such as how great we are because Khan Krum drank wine from the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros' skull 1,195 years ago. Not surprisingly, outside observers don't take our boasts too seriously – probably because they weren't raised on chest-thumping anthems like Poiskal gordiy Nikifor, or Proud Nikephoros Demanded.
Bulgarians, however, believe their own hype. A Bulgarian looks in the mirror and he likes what he sees: "Not bad for a descendent of Khan Krum!" – disregarding that pimple on the nose. He would be highly offended if some passerby were to look at him and ask, "You're pretty cute, but who is this Krum guy? Oh, and by the way, you've got a pimple on your nose."
The sweet illusions Bulgarians have about themselves have turned into rock-hard beliefs. And they don't stop with one king who drank his wine from a pretty creepy cup all those centuries ago.
BULGARIANS ARE HONEST
This, of course, is true. As long as you don't count the waiters who take the 10-leva bill you use to pay for your 7.20 mojito, give you back a lev in change and then tell you "Have a nice day." You also shouldn't count all those employees who extend their breaks and cut short their working days; the police; waste management concessionaires in Sofia; sirene and kashkaval producers who convince of the merits of kashkaval made in Germany; people who don't buy tickets for the train or bus; the "workmen" renovating your apartment; salespeople in electronics stores who sell you already-opened mobile phones; sausage and hotdog makers who tell you they put "real" meat in their products, and – yes – property sales people along the Black Sea coast… I'm sure you can add to the list – or just give EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner Meglena Kuneva a call.
BULGARIANS ARE CLEAN
I have no idea where this idea came from. Perhaps it was a legend born from the hygienic habit known as the "weekly bath." The Ottomans introduced it to Bulgaria long before the birth of Louis XIV, who boasted that he had bathed only twice in his entire life. One ride on the Sofia underground or bus route 76 during rush hour is enough to prove that over the past few centuries a fair portion of the Bulgarian population still has not abandoned the idea of bathing every seven days.
Could the myth of "Bulgarian cleanliness" stem from the pedantic attitude towards cleanliness at home? We shouldn't forget, however, that if cleanliness were such a high priority, why did our forefathers come up with the didactic tale Slivi za smet, or Plums for Litter, in which a wily father looking for the perfect bride for his son tricks the village ladies into revealing their slovenly housekeeping habits. Aleko Konstantinov probably wouldn't have begun his story Pazi Bozhe slyapo da progleda, or God Forbid the Blind Man See, with the apocalyptic filth of a Bulgarian village and the children in it. Sometimes I think there's not a whole lot of difference between the 19th Century writer's fictitious village and Vitosha Blvd.
Just so you don't think I'm exaggerating, here's a recent example. A woman from a company expanding a chain of snack shops in Bulgaria was having difficulties coping with the following problem: "I have to teach the future sales girls about hygiene and customer service. Yet some of them were unable to understand why it isn't appropriate to sell food with peeling-off fingernail polish." Most of the salesclerks were young ladies fresh from their high school graduation balls.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers