One of the greatest problems a visitor to Bulgaria faces is what to bring home as a souvenir. On the surface, one is spoilt for choice. The tiny streets of traditional towns like Nesebar, the stalls at folklore festivals and the souvenir shops in large cities are all crammed with merchandise.
The trouble is that most of it is obviously ugly, kitschy, smelly, or all of the above. There are the crude fridge magnets and the decorative plates and coffee mugs with amazingly incompetent representations of local and national tourist sites. There are the decorative glass bottles filled with a concoction you are told is Rakiya (well, it might be, but just don't drink it). There are the dolls in national costume, the scaled-down wooden models of the cannons used in the 1878 April Uprising, the Bulgaria-shaped postcards combining "magical" sunsets and roses in ways unseen since the dawn of Photoshop, and the T-shirts with the Bulgarian alphabet or the "realistic" portraits of 19th century revolutionaries. For more affluent customers there are replicas of some piece of a Thracian treasure, oil paintings of idyllic traditional village and stuffed wild animals in "funny" poses.
Then there are the rose oil products: the blindingly pink-coloured bars of soap, the creams and perfumes.
The Bulgarian souvenirs one can buy without a sense of self-loathing or the pretence that one is doing it ironically are mainly limited to the genuine crafts bought from some workshop in a traditional village or town.
Of course, bad souvenirs exist everywhere: from the obviously nasty plaster Davids sold in Florence and the violently blue fridge magnets in Greece, to the fake traffic police batons in Ukraine and the hand-knitted doll socks in Armenia. And yet, Bulgaria scores high in terms of bad souvenirs.
Why are Bulgarians seemingly unable to manufacture aesthetically pleasing souvenirs?
Good souvenirs are those that represent a particular feature of a country or city, are immediately recognisable and are made with at least a modicum of aesthetic sense. Self-irony is a plus. Think about not only the iconic I[heart]NY logo on T-shirts and coffee mugs, but also something as widely recognised as Venetian carnival masks. In this respect, Bulgarian souvenirs reflect this nation's continuing search for a clear identity. At the beginning of the 21st century, it is still stuck in the folklore, Revival Period struggle for independence and rose oil production, peppered with nostalgia for Communism and a vulgar sense of humour.
The situation has barely changed since 1893, when Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov travelled to the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. While he marvelled at the pavilions of other nations, he was bitterly disappointed by how Bulgaria, in the guise of an entrepreneur named Ayvaziyan, advertised itself and its achievements to the wider world. "In front of the shack stand dummies in male and female folklore costumes. The glass shop windows at the entrance display a variety of old and new coins, postage stamps and maps; on the other two sides is exhibited all that Ayvaziyan has managed to buy from our village women in the span of a few years: kerchiefs, socks, belts, rings. Inside, the shack is decorated with rugs on which hang bagpipes and other traditional musical instruments, wooden flasks, and horns. At the end is a wax figure in traditional bride attire. On the walls around it are portraits of the Bulgarian prince, the president minister and the defence minister. Ayvaziyan sits by the cash desk and eyes the curious visitors mistrustfully." More than 100 years later, many Bulgarian souvenir shops sell almost the same paraphernalia. The only difference is that now the portrait of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov is also on the wall.
Before 1944 souvenir production was a private enterprise, but under Communism it came under state control, just like the rapidly developing tourist industry. A special organisation of craftsmen (the organisation is still active, although much less influential) produced souvenirs based on folklore and national traditions: woodcarving, textiles, ceramics. The ordinary people, however, craved something different, and when small and limited private production was allowed, entrepreneurs filled the niche. Lacking artistic training or talent, they filled the market with an outpour of kitschy souvenirs, best represented in one of the most loved Bulgarian movies: Opasen Char, or Dangerous Charm, (1984). In it, a con artist pretending to be a policeman visits a place for the semi-legal production of souvenirs and discovers in its warehouse hideous things: a "Martian woman" that "looks like a snake"; money boxes in the shape of dogs, houses, rabbits, dice and helmets; a pen in the shape of a crocodile which looks more like a green dog, and so on. When the fake policeman asks, with contempt, "Who is the designer of this enterprise? Who makes the models?," the owner replies: "Well, I am." Looking at him, you would hardly mistake him for an artist.
When Communism collapsed, the souvenir market opened up. The products of the professional craftsmen suddenly started looking too old-fashioned and dull and, as the media, literature, cinema and stage arts were also enjoying their new freedom of speech with overtly sexual language and plots, Bulgarians developed a taste for vulgar souvenirs. The obscene, "funny" mugs and figurines of these times started to go out of fashion sometime around the mid-2000s, when a new fad arrived: nationalism with all of its rose-scented soaps, patriotic T-shirts and fake Thracian treasures. As was evident from the quality of their souvenirs, few of these companies employed talented and/or properly trained artists and designers.
And then, the Chinese came.
Due to lower production costs, many Bulgarian souvenirs, including the famed Bulgarian Martenitsa, are now made in faraway China. The inevitable cultural barrier and the cheap materials and labour used in the manufacture have resulted in memorabilia which looks really ugly, and sometimes there are comical consequences.
A few years ago, the owner of a One Lev shop in a Bulgarian town bought some "Welcome to Bulgaria" souvenirs from the local warehouse of cheap Chinese knickknacks. The souvenir was a photograph of a man in traditional Bulgarian costume, with a frame decorated with fake roses and tin coins. When the shop owner looked closely at the man in the picture, however, he was amazed to recognise the face of an American who had stayed in that very town for several years as part of an American Peace Corps mission. The American had donned the traditional Bulgarian costume only once, but his random decision, via Google, was enough for some Chinese designer to feature him in the "Welcome to Bulgaria!" souvenir. Frank, for years now back in Kansas, was at least bemused.