TO CHICAGO AND BACK

TO CHICAGO AND BACK

Fri, 08/01/2008 - 15:17

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

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?

"Bulgaireean!"

"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.


A Serbian Immigrant in a Bavarian Pub Explains the American System to the Bulgarians

I started expressing my admiration for American freedom, equality and the state system, but Bay Nedelkovic poured cold water on my enthusiasm when he began telling me that "here, there's such great corruption that you can't find it anywhere else; not in your country, not in Europe. Here, gold is emperor; who has the most gold, has the most power. Money is king. With gold, you can even buy the president".

In the Restaurant

We looked around to see if anybody was smoking. No one. A smoker? All the room would have thought this man an utterly illbred lout; especially if there had been a lady in the room, well, this would have been the greatest of scandals! But even if there had been three hundred ladies present, these same well-mannered Americans would regard it as completely natural to be there wearing only a waistcoat, with their feet up on a chair or even on the table, reading a newspaper in this picturesque position.

In Central Park

Pretty maids are aplenty, but not a single beauty; they are thin, delicate, pale, longfaced. New York maids are said to be debonair. What is debonair about them - God only knows!

The White House

We went in freely. There was a servant at the door who did not even ask what we wanted. The White House is an ordinary white building with several columns at the front. We kept an eye on the windows on the upper floor to see Mrs Cleveland, but she was not there.

Chicago Slaughterhouses

I had read a detailed description with illustrations back in 1886. I envisaged huge, well-lit and clean buildings with neatly dressed workers. But oh my God, what a difference! I saw some cattle that were entering the pen, raise their heads and on seeing hundreds of their kind killed, skinned and severed into pieces, were taken by such utter terror that they gazed open eyed and stood petrified; at this point the butcher would raise his hammer indifferently and fell the ox on the planks with a measured blow between the horns. They pierced the animal's neck with a knife and a stream of blood and filth gushed out onto the floor.

Several machines cut the meat into pieces; numerous workers filled endless bowels on dirty wooden tables, then tied them with twine, loaded them onto carts and took them to the storerooms. Everywhere was dark and slimy with offal - and the stench!... I felt sick; had I stayed for five minutes longer, I would have succumbed and passed out.

Afro-Americans

It is interesting to watch the Negroes taking their evening walk, elegantly dressed, with top hats and gloves, and especially the ladies: most of them wearing white, clean summer suits in the latest fashion and light hats, their black delicate snouts sticking out like they were clothed monkeys - when they show their teeth and roll the whites of their eyes, your heart melts at such beauty! If there are poor people in America, they are Negroes again. They do all the heavy and menial work. Negroes are preferred to whites only as waiters in restaurants, lackeys and doormen. It is considered more comme il faut to see Negroes doing these jobs.

Niagara Falls

Several steps down, a semicircular stone fence and... Niagara Falls! Here at last!!... It took many minutes until we came to ourselves! All observers stood benumbed as in a tableau vivant! Everybody's face bore an imprint of infinite awe! All faces were serious, slightly pale and as if frozen! As if they were standing not before God's creation, but before God himself!... If anyone can describe this picture, please describe it; if anyone can photograph or paint it, please do so!... I cannot.

American Food

New world, new customs! We took the spoons and began scooping out the melon. A Negro appeared, cleaned the table and asked us: "Tea or coffee?" Well, well! Was this all the dinner! We couldn't argue, so we said: "Coffee." He went to a table and then returned, dumping half a dozen of knives, forks and spoons before each of us! A rum thing! Are they all for the coffee? But then the swarthy devil started toting all sorts of dishes: fishes, meats, lobsters, sauces, salads, sweets, refreshments, fruits – we froze and stared at him. And we felt like laughing. Can anyone understand those Americans? The blacks stood at one side as if expecting to see the "savage" Europeans eat bananas with fish or custard with salad.

I don't know what they thought of us but at the end of the dinner we unanimously decided that there would hardly exist in any part of this world a more tasteless food than the English, which was also transplanted to America.

They brought the coffee: good coffee in its essence, high quality, but wracked by an American hand.

American Way of Life

This breakneck speed of trains, ships, trams and lifts; these wire-entangled streets; this smoke; this noise; this ado... and those troubled faces; those mute mouths that seem incapable of giving a smile any longer... Brrr! Cold! Rushing, scurrying - as if unconsciously, like machine cogs, all the Americans automatically shuttle to and fro and interlock; the machine spits dollars; they take the dollars and put them back into the machine and move like cogwheels again... Eh, when will there be time to live?...

On the other hand, when we compare the situation of the working population in American cities with that of London, the well being of the former and the poverty of the latter stick out a mile. All the populace is well dressed. You see them in the streets, at the harbours, in the factories, in public institutions and in the churches: you can hardly tell the difference in their social status judging from their appearance. Go on a train or a ship: a cobbler sits alongside a governor or a millionaire, a cook sits alongside a professor - all of them wearing similar clothing, with a newspaper in hand, a cigarette in their mouths, their feet up wherever possible and nobody caring that this man is a big shot and that one a worker. Aren't they lovely, those Americans!

Issue 23 Bulgarian literature

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