This essay was originally included in the anthology My Brother's Suitcase: Stories About the Road (ICU Publishing, 2020), compiled and edited by Nevena Dishlieva-Krysteva
Why is it that there are places in the world which chime with us, even if we've never been there before? While others make us ill at ease, in some subtle but incurable way not unlike a dysfunctional relationship. When I was in my late teens, our family emigrated from Sofia to the south island of New Zealand. It was immediately obvious that we had landed in the world's most beautiful landscape, which is why it felt perverse to feel as disconnected as I felt from the start. It felt wrong that nothing – not sheer natural beauty, not the new life we made for ourselves there – could heal the chasm I experienced between inner and outer reality, and that time and familiarity couldn't either. The irrational malaise lasted for several years: now everything around me, the blue carpet of the Pacific that hemmed the island in, the steep drafty streets, the violent red pohutekawa, everything felt strangely remembered. Was it precisely because this was an island, and my young, inexperienced land-locked psyche linked islands with the shipwrecks and penal colonies of adventures gone wrong? I didn't know, but around that time I met a psychologist from Buenos Aires who quoted one of his patients, and old man with melancholia. I was born in Argentina of Italian parents, the old man had said, but when I look at the Pampa, I feel a chilling emptiness. This is not my landscape. I don't know who I am here. I feel as if my life has unfolded elsewhere, in Europe, and now it's too late.
That psychologist believed that melancholia is the manifestation of a spiritual problem of belonging, which we may call the problem of home. It is possible that there is a special kind of topographic melancholia which is what the Italian Argentine was suffering from in the Pampas, something the exiled Polish writer Witold Gombrowitz described in detail in his Diarios Argentinos – compulsory reading for any of us exiles, émigrés, immigrants and internal immigrants, topographic melancholics and ecstatics. Because I now believe that there is such a thing as topographic ecstasy, the sense of being at home in a landscape, at the center of your private psychic earth.
During those dislocated antipodean years, I didn't know that in some other future decade I would finally find a home on another island, despite warnings that Scotland and the South Island of New Zealand have a similar landscape – and sheep, people added, as if that was key. As soon as I arrived in the Highlands with their ruinous castles and wind-nibbled cottages and obstinate drywalls, with their great sweeping sadness and folding blue ranges, their violent rivers, peat-purple lochs, and people with faces full of secrets, there was a recognition – the recognition of the old world. I had no ancestral history in this landscape but it felt like a homecoming. It was two things that did it – the mountains and the ruins.
Some of Scotland's ruins are the poignant remnants of what's known as the Highland Clearances of the 1800s, when greedy land owners forced people to move off their land, so that they could turn the ploughed fields into grazing pastures for sheep. A million sheep. Sheep made more money than subsistence agriculture, and this is how rich Scots became richer and poor Scots became one of the great immigrant nations. The displaced had no choice but to set sail for the new world and turn bitter exile into opportunity.
But ruins belong to the old world and perhaps old worlders have an ingrained ancestral need for them, something in our genetic make-up that simply responds to old things. Let's call it ruin blues.
I got a large dose of the ruin blues one summer, travelling around the less-visited parts of the Bulgarian countryside. I spent the first eighteen years of my life here and it is the only place on earth where I don't have to spell my name, which brings to mind the Irish saying "Home is where they can say your name."
Perhaps that is why I was sweating in the rented Dacia along what looked and felt like Europe's most wrecked road, while ritualistically eating my way through a packet of cheap Borovets wafers whose taste and packaging has retained its comforting shabbiness since the 1970s, perhaps even the 1950s. The road, identical in its lunar surface to many Bulgarian roads that appear on the map as "secondary," runs inland from Burgas and has retained its holes since the 1970s, too. Not another car in sight. There were, however, a gaggle of slow-moving road workers and, for a moment, I thought they were repairing the road. But no – they were numbering the holes, perhaps in preparation for some distant moment when the repair work would be done. Hole number fourteen proved too much for the car, and I stopped in the middle of the deserted road to check that I hadn't lost a wheel. I hadn't, but when I waded further into the field of wild wheat on the side of the road, I came up to something that blended in with the scorched, worn-out landscape of late summer: a ruin.
The lone skeleton of a Soviet-era tractor was bleeding rust among the weeds that had reclaimed the husk of a long building. Twenty years of rain and snow had caved the roof in. Through a hole in the wall, you could almost reconstruct the agricultural equipment from what was left after the metal had been lifted for recycling. Some road signs had been lifted too – once a nation of prosperous peasants, now a nation of resourceful recyclers.
Overgrown fields, so lush they were almost self-reproducing, stretched between the villages of Kabile and Debelt. In Debelt, formerly Turkish Yakezli and more formerly Deultum in the province of Flavia, the ruins of Roman baths – genuinely Roman, unlike those seventeenth century Roman (code for Ottoman) bridges scattered around the country because, in the Balkans, some ruins are more desirable than others. Thracian ruins are welcome, Ottoman ruins are not. In Kabile, a gaggle of men with dicey teeth sat at high noon, drinking warm beers. To see historic Kabile, the remains of a Thracian town, I climbed the snake-infested hill past the closed museum, past the rusted explanatory signs, past the lone treasure-hunter stripped down to his boxer shorts and digging under an early medieval basilica, and to the top, from where I could see the fertile Thracian plains that had made this a country of prosperous peasants.
"A journey through Bulgaria is marked at each turn by the catacombs of disappeared peoples and eras," said the nineteenth-century ethnographer Felix Kanitz, and this is even truer now than it was a century and a half ago. Since then, a whole new category of catacomb has appeared – the ruins of the Soviet experiment. Disused co-operatives like this one. Derelict factories. Rusty convention centers in the shape of broken-down UFOs on top of panoramic hills. Empty villages like the ones which line this ruin of a road.
Between Kabile and Debelt lie the ghostly villages of Svetlina [Light], Zornitsa [Dawn], Chelnik [Frontline Soldier], Okop [Trench], Pobeda [Victory]. In Dawn, a stork nested on the head of a manly proletarian with a raised fist. An old woman bent at ninety degrees crossed the empty square on her way to what resembled, to borrow from Francis Fukuyama, the "end of history." Here in Dawn, the end of history takes the shape of a former communist-era shop gutted as if after a bombardment, with a little corner of it occupied by a café where the familiar gaggle of unshaven men chain-smoked and observed the passing of the daily car. There are not enough people left in the village to warrant a proper shop and one of the reasons is the disused co-operative. When it opened, everything owned by the people of Dawn, Victory, and Trench, which then must have had more modest names, was claimed by the communist state – cattle, land, vineyards – forcing the villagers to voluntarily join the co-op or voluntarily seek work in the urban five-year-plan Bulgaria of factories, dams, and mega-constructions like those concrete schemes on the outskirts of towns that make your heart sink as you drive through. I grew up in one of these, outside Sofia; it was called Youth 3. There were four Youths, and rumor had it that Youth 15 would have sea views. But by the time our family had moved into Block 328 in Youth 3, after years on a waiting list, the newly built apartments looked old. Today, these active socialist ruins are draped in giant capitalist advertisements, with the perennial washing on their crumbling balconies flapping like a million flags of distress.
But if urban ruins like Youth 3 are now densely populated because that's where the jobs are, villages are down to ten percent of their pre-1945 population. If a village had two hundred inhabitants, today it has twenty. It's the same story all over the country. The only exceptions are the actual ghost villages, like Moryane on the Turkish border where the entire population was displaced after a border fence was built in the 1950s, leaving one old man to turn the lights on and off at night. To make the NATO enemy (Turkey) think there was somebody there. There isn't anymore and there isn't even a road to it. The only building left is the ruin of the village school, an unintended monument to the unborn children of Moryane.
Now we mention it, derelict village schools and broken Soviet-themed monuments are another major category of ruin, more virulent and more visible than all the ancient catacombs of Bulgaria put together. In a country where a Thracian tomb is dug up every other year and people use the stones of Roman agoras to build their houses, such virulence is yet another perverse achievement of the Soviet experiment.
"A ruin is a dialogue between an incomplete reality and the imagination of the spectator," Kenneth Clark said rather romantically, but he didn't go to post-communist Bulgaria, where it isn't so much imagination as memory, and it isn't so much an incomplete reality as a failed one. Unless they are the same thing, of course, which is possible. Either way, it seems to me that all ruins have something to do with our acceptance of failure and impermanence. No wonder we are fascinated by them.
No wonder I miss them when they're not around. There is something honest about a ruin.
But the real reason for this journey was to do with the present, not the past: it was to meet the people behind a radical new movement of self-sustenance through farming. Their irresistibly charming motto is "Be yourself, become a peasant" ("Okay!" You want to say). Their lifestyle choice can be seen as an act of resistance anywhere in urban, materialistic, disillusioned post-recession Europe, but it is doubly so here, where the totalitarian tradition still rules: state and crime are two heads of the same hydra. And if you can't entirely escape the state by moving to the countryside, at least you can feel as if you have. A return to your grandmother's depopulated village where you can grow your own vegetables, make your own daily laws, and be at peace with your neighbors – if there are any left – is a brave and ingenious solution. To emigrate from the urban daily neurosis to the early morning crowing of the rooster – it seems odd that to connect with the land has become a luxury only the very resourceful or the very desperate can afford. When in fact, to connect with the lost, ancient parts of ourselves – the selves that dwelled in the natural realm – is a spiritual necessity.
Unconsciously, I was doing the same in the rented Dacia, with my neutral New Zealand passport and my Borovets wafers: trying to connect with something lost. Lost, in my case, through twenty years of emigration and a deliberate distancing from what I can't even bring myself to call a "homeland" – because what is a homeland if you don't live there and if, when you did, in your tender years, you wanted to run away? Of course, you wanted to run away precisely because you knew you couldn't.
In The Songlines, his journey through the Australian outback, Bruce Chatwin writes of the Aboriginal belief that a place can only be home if you have at least four ways out, at any given time. You don't need to be a native of the extinct village of Moryane to grasp that a state which exiles its own people by replacing their vegetable gardens with barbed wire and putting a military garrison in the village school is not your friend. A land that has the Berlin Wall in lieu of a door is a prison, and a prison is the opposite of home.
This is why I regard nostalgia – memory edited to suit the ruling emotions of the day – with suspicion. Nostalgia is the exiled mind's propaganda to itself. The exiled mind is by definition unhappy, and in the Balkans we have especially recent examples of what happens when such minds assume power. By indulging our nostalgia, we make ourselves doubly exiled, once from the past and twice from the present. The Egyptian émigré writer Andre Aciman describes an exile thus: "not just someone who has lost his home; it is someone who can't find another, who can't think of another." Nostalgia's post-communist cousin Ostalgia (from Ost, German for east) implicates its sufferers in a difficult question: are we forced to love something just because it is lost forever and, failing that, are we forced to hate it? And if neither – it must be neither or that way misery and insanity lie – what then is the alternative? Perhaps the answer lies in ruins.
Wild Thyme is the name of a small eco-farm I visited in the northern village of Palamartsa, and it belongs to an expat British-Irish couple. They bought two handsome ruins at the end of the village and turned them into their dream life: a house for them and a house for guests, large gardens, goats, dogs, good neighbors.
They are one of twenty expat couples and families here, mostly Britons, who have seen potential in the ruins of Palamartsa, an unfamous but quintessential Bulgarian village where hundreds of large abandoned houses are what remains of its glory days. An English-Welsh couple run a bar on a steep street and one evening I joined the customers, all eight of them. Beer, meatballs, fried potatoes with the grated feta cheese on top, pink light over the hills, birds. Wild cherry trees in derelict gardens shed their fruit onto the street. The village houses looked at us with their empty windows, and the cows were coming home. Old women sat on benches, their faces overwritten with history. Perhaps when they stare into space, they see thousands of ghosts walking to the ghostly bakery, the ghostly shop, the ghostly village hall for a ghostly music festival. The ghosts of those who were forced to become factory workers, then gastarbeiters abroad, then like me global souls – the glamorous term for those forced by bitter exile into opportunity.
Here we were in the grubby pink dusk, Brits, Bulgarians, and those in between, more or less voluntary exiles from our homelands, deflecting nostalgia by feeding our unnamed hunger with home-grown courgettes, goat yogurt, and Borovets wafers. Here we were, strangely at home among the ruins.
Come to think of it, the key happy moments of my childhood involved ruins. Romanian Queen Mary's Palace in the seaside town of Balchik, where I holidayed with my grandparents, wasn't really a palace but a giant garden of crumbling sea walls, chipped stone thrones from Bessarabia, echoey Moroccan amphorae full of stagnant water, mossy Ottoman tombs, and – most enigmatic of all, at the end of the jetty – a concrete penguin with a missing wing. A recent ruin with a personality, the penguin looked out to sea while the algae-thick water lapped at his broken feet. I would sit there in the sleepy afternoon with a cone of vanilla ice-cream and contemplate important matters lost to history. Up above the town, the limestone cliffs crumbled invisibly and the asphalt promenade had cracked open like chocolate cake in the oven of summer – erosion. In twenty years, people said, it would slip into the sea. They were right; I went to check twenty years later, when my grandparents were both dead. The penguin was gone and the pretty hillside resort village where we had stayed was a snake-infested ruin slipping into the sea.
But the afternoon ruins of my childhood gave me something that transcends the brief sorrow of time's destruction. They gave me a magic sense of time, the ability to apprehend the secret life of things. As the Fox said to the Little Prince, the essential is invisible to the eye.
I wonder whether humans carry the ruin blues from a faraway place, perhaps an ancestral knowledge of the mysteries of time, of how time moves through love and landscape, mortar and body, and molds everything into a ruin so that new things can emerge, or not. Either way, the need for a narrative of continuity is probably encoded in our collective psyche. To live in an outer world without ruins is, for me and maybe for that Italian Argentinian in the Pampa, to live without this narrative, to live in an outer world that does not reflect your inner world.
It might be that beauty, order, and prosperity are enough to make a home for our ego, but they are not enough to make a home for our imagination. For our individual and collective reality to be complete, we need a conversation with failure, which is also a conversation with hope. This may well be the only honest alternative to nostalgia's dangerous bipolarity of love-and-hate. The Jesuit philosopher Michel de Certeau said it in fewer words: "Haunted places are the only ones people can live in."
Kapka Kassabova was born in Sofia and immigrated with her family to New Zealand at the beginning of the 1990s. Ten year later, she decided to settle in Scotland. She has published novels, poetry collections, and several difficult-to-categorize but highly impactful narrative non-fiction books, including: Street Without a Name, Twelve Minutes of Love, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, and To the Lake. A good listener, Kapka takes great interest in new places and people, but at the same time leaves her interlocutors with the feeling that their personal boundaries are respected and left intact.