Aleko Konstantinov's 1893 travelogue is as much about America as it is about the Bulgarians. It sounds as current and vibrant now as it did in the late 19th Century
Issue 23, August 2008 Special USA Issue 2
compiled by Minka Vazkresenska
One of Bulgaria's greatest writers, Aleko Konstantinov, went to the World's Columbian Exhibition in 1893 and returned with a travel book that has been set reading in Bulgarian schools for generations. Thanks to Aleko, or Happy Man as he was referred to, there is no Bulgarian secondary school student who does not know about the Niagara Falls and the Chicago slaughterhouses. Although Happy Man had travelled widely throughout Europe and was well read, he realised the moment he arrived that nothing could have prepared him for the culture shock he experienced on seeing New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. Following are some excerpts from To Chicago and Back that you will be shocked to find as relevant and spicy today as they were at the end of the 19th Century.
Arrival in New York
I approached the customs officer too. He asked my name. On hearing a surname ending in "off", he muttered:
"You are Russian?"
"No, I am Bulgarian"
"I am Bulgarian, from Bulgaria."
"Bulgaireean!" I spoke up stressing the syllables, because the carelessness of this American was beginning to offend me. Was he deaf or something?
"Hungary," he corrected me.
"What Hungary! Bulgaria, on the Balkan Peninsula." I was both angry and felt like laughing at the same time seeing him racking his brains to remember - where for Christ's sake was this kingdom! I realised that I may not have pronounced the name of our principality correctly in their tongue, so I took out and spread a map of Europe before him and poked my finger into the centre of Sofia.
"Oh, yes, Turkey, all right!"
"No, sir," I objected, but he wouldn't listen and wrote me in as a Turk. In the same manner he Turkicised Filaret and the doctor. The latter was disillusioned and conceived a hatred for the Americans.
New York Policemen
What giants, what good lookers! You will see them from afar, standing on the edge of the pavement and at crossroads, tall, athletic-built, handsome, with clean, as if just put on, uniforms of grey broadcloth, with belts around their modest bellies, grey helmets, white gloves and, instead of swords and revolvers, carrying only a short, 50-centimetre-long stick in hand. You will think they are monuments put there to adorn the city.
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