WHAT'S IN A SYMBOL?

WHAT'S IN A SYMBOL?

Mon, 09/01/2008 - 12:35

The Symbols of Bulgaria @ Vagabond campaign has raised an important new question: do foreigners living in Bulgaria have the right to be less than gracious about their adopted homeland?

Sometime during the 1930s, the underage Hollywood star HoH Shirley Temple decided to watch her newest film in the movie theatre. She had become famous long before her 10th birthday for her touching performance as a child who had lost one of her parents. Yet as Erich Kästner describes in his novel Lottie and Lisa, Shirley wasn't able to watch her own movie – children weren't allowed to see the film. She was old enough to act in it, but not old enough to watch it.

Foreigners living in Bulgaria find themselves in a similar predicament – or so it seems from the reactions to the Symbols of Bulgaria @ Vagabond campaign. Foreigners can buy houses in Bulgaria, invest in the economy, marry Bulgarians and come on holiday. But they don't have the right to express an opinion that doesn't mention roses.

The launch on 22 July of The Symbols of Bulgaria @ Vagabond campaign met with overwhelming interest. Only 24 hours after the press conference, nearly 700 people had voted at www.vagabond-bg.com for the 10 nominations shortlisted from among the most popular suggestions submitted by readers between 15 June and 15 July. The newspapers Kapital, Dnevnik, 24 Chasa, Trud, Novinar, Monitor, Telegraf, Klasa and Ekspres printed news, analyses and interviews about the campaign. The Bulgarian National Television, the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency, as well as BGNES and Focus news agencies reported, as did the Bulgarian National Radio's Horizont and Hristo Botev programmes, the private nationwide radio station Darik Radio and the private TV channel TV7. The campaign was a featured topic on the popular evening "The Slavi Show" where Associate Professor Georgi Lozanov was invited to comment. "We Bulgarians would rather run away to the past and feel great and significant there," he said about the official campaign for the symbol of Bulgaria in which Bulgarians had chosen the Madara Horseman for their national symbol. "However, the dead are never more important than the living, so I like Vagabond's idea to hold a 'corrective' campaign," he added.

The Internet was abuzz with opinions. The campaign appeared on www.mybulgaria.info, one of the most popular expat sites, and became a major topic also on the news site www.mediapool.bg. Some readers expressed regret that the nomination of President Parvanov as a symbol of Bulgaria was not among the final 10. "He is the statistically average Bulgarian – he comes from a village, he made it in the city; he was against the United States and capitalism, and now he supports the market economy and the West. He's the type you can't depend on to be the same tomorrow as he was today. He doesn't have a constant image, he's rural-urban, Communist-free market, Russian-American," wrote a forum user.

Websites for Bulgarians living abroad also spread the news: www.budilnik.com, among those in the UK, and www.viennadnes.com, in Austria. The Bulgarian blog www.de-zorata.de/blog also mentioned the campaign. The renowned London-based Bulgarian journalist Julian Popov used "Vagabond magazine's noble initiative" as a starting point to argue, on mediapool.bg and on his blog www.julianpopov.com, for the necessity of translating the Bulgarian word dano, or "let's hope so," into foreign languages.

Unfortunately I can't cite the Macedonian blog arschloch.blog.com.mk. Several days after it published an article on the difference between the way Bulgarians view their country and the way foreigners perceive it, the posting mysteriously disappeared. In its place the following message appeared: Stranitsata ne e pronaydena (404). Navistina ya nema, ne e deka me mrzelo da ya baram, or "The page cannot be found (404). It really isn't there, it's not just that I'm too lazy to go get it."

Luckily, comments and postings on the coin collectors' site www.worldofcoins.eu, on the Romanian site about Bulgaria www.vinolabulgaria.weblog.ro and on a similar Russian site, www.aboutbulgaria.biz, were unharrassed. You can also find news on the campaign in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse. The article on www.diepresse.com was titled Bulgarien: Mafia Gegen Madara, or "Bulgaria: Mafia Versus Madara."

Some emphasised the positive side of the campaign. "At first glance the nominations brought on a sense of negativism, but in fact they are dominated by satisfaction and a culture of celebration," said Georgi Lozanov, quoted by mediapool.bg. "Vagabond didn't spend millions of taxpayers' money to find out that the martenitsa is a unique, self-propagating symbol of Bulgaria. At last I could see that somebody in my country has some common sense and a humorous approach to travel experience and marketing," commented Rossitza Ohridska-Olson on her blog, www.culturalrealms.typepad.com.

Most comments overlooked the martenitsa and the misty morning the Rhodope, however, and focused on the mutri, the sexy girls and the street dogs. Half of the Bulgarian population seems to agree that their country really does look that way. "The truth hurts – we deserve the symbols, they are what is real. The present shows how different we are from what we convince ourselves that we are," a user commented on the article "Foreigners Among Us: Martenitsi and Mutri – This Is BG" on www.dnes.dir.bg.

Many prefer to meet criticism with criticism.

"Criticism" is putting it mildly, however. Vagabond was called a "smug, 'buy-me-and-let-me-insult-you' type of Western magazine" (an anonymous comment on an article in theplamen.blogspot.com). A user on the Mediapool forum said, "that gay magazine should be publicly burned on the city square." A user commented on the Die Presse article on www.dnes.dir.bg threatened legal action: "I'll sue Vagabond for offending my national dignity." Maybe the State Agency for National Security, or DANS, will pay us a visit first – a vigilant reader from the same forum suspected that we served "foreign interests": "some people really want to smear the Bulgarians."

However, most of the verbal aggression was directed at the foreigners themselves. "Austria's problem is the crazy people who hide their evil secrets in the basement," wrote an user on www.dnes.dir.bg following the article in Die Presse. "When the Bulgarians created the Madara Horseman, the Germans were still living in caves," added another. "Please, please, what kind of English people are we talking about here? These people are uneducated, and you bow down to them!!!!" wrote a user with the nickname ????. Another posted the following accusation: "Foreigners should respect Bulgaria. Crime here is their fault, they come to steal and create chaos."

Someone from the forum at www.vagabond-bg.com summed up the situation. Writing in Bulgarian, he said: "Let's admit it – these are things that annoy every sane Bulgarian. It's just not very pleasant to hear them from an outsider. But this raises another question" – and he continued in English – "What the f*ck are they doing here, when don't like it? We don't like it too, but that's our country and this is the place we are born, the place we want to die!"

If you're still not convinced that foreigners living Bulgaria are like Shirley Temple at the movie theatre, then read this: "The Bulgarian model is like the Pyramid of Cheops or the Tower of Babylon – our contribution to humankind's treasure trove. To put it simply – it's the opposite of everything. Columbus set out for India and discovered America. We set out for America and reached India. According to this model, Bulgarian dwarves are the shortest in the world and Bulgarian men are the most virile. The Bulgarian model isn't for things to be good for me, but to be bad for you. The Bulgarian model is indestructible. It will finally end when we all go to Canada. It will also be the end of Canada itself."

Bulgarian dramatist Stanislav Stratiev wrote this in his 1991 play The Bulgarian Model. Maybe you've already guessed – Bulgarians consider him one of the modern classics of their contemporary literature.
 

LIGHT ON LIGHT

The love-and-hate letters the Symbols of Bulgaria @ Vagabond campaign generated were best summarised by the weekly magazine Capital Light, a publication that normally tries to inform Bulgarians of things that happen in the West from a neutral if slightly patronising standpoint. In its fLIGHT-fALL section, which gives a thumbs up or down to various things that took place during the week, it slammed the "foreigners living in Bulgaria" for taking part in the Vagabond's poll that lists "horse carts next to glitzy jeeps or mutri and sexy girls". "Not well behaved," stated Capital Light on 26 July. A few lines earlier, however, the same section gave a thumbs up to The Guardian for criticising Norman Foster's plans to start construction at Karadere, one of the last pristine stretches of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. "We are laughable," Capital Light concluded. The conclusion, sadly, is Gogolesque: Don't blame the mirror if you have a crooked face.

Issue 24

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