by Anthony Georgieff; cartoon by Jordan Marinov

12 myths Bulgarians believe about themselves


Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. When Leo Tolstoy created one of the most famous clichés in modern literature, he forgot one important thing: he didn't mention how unhappy families act when they try to hide their misery. They may argue, they may fight, they may smash aristocratic vases pilfered by Soviet soldiers or knick-knacks made of Chinese plastic from the Everything-for-One-Leva stores. Yet the moment an outsider steps into their home, harmony reigns. Tears and snot are wiped away. Bruises are covered up with makeup and the table is adorned with a Duralex set that, as a rule, spends more of its time in the glassed-in cabinet in the dining room than in use. If a casual visitor – or even a friend – were to ask, "Is anything wrong?" he would receive this answer in chorus, "Noooo, of course not!" And he'd never be invited back.

Bulgarians, at least according to most polls during the past 20 years, are one very unhappy family – the unhappiest in Europe. When I say "very" I mean "for years and generations on end without the hope of things getting better in the near and not-so-near future." Deep down we know it, yet we prefer to hide our problems from outside observers behind patriotic clichés – such as how great we are because Khan Krum drank wine from the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros' skull 1,195 years ago. Not surprisingly, outside observers don't take our boasts too seriously – probably because they weren't raised on chest-thumping anthems like Poiskal gordiy Nikifor, or Proud Nikephoros Demanded.

Bulgarians, however, believe their own hype. A Bulgarian looks in the mirror and he likes what he sees: "Not bad for a descendent of Khan Krum!" – disregarding that pimple on the nose. He would be highly offended if some passerby were to look at him and ask, "You're pretty cute, but who is this Krum guy? Oh, and by the way, you've got a pimple on your nose."

The sweet illusions Bulgarians have about themselves have turned into rock-hard beliefs. And they don't stop with one king who drank his wine from a pretty creepy cup all those centuries ago.


This, of course, is true. As long as you don't count the waiters who take the 10-leva bill you use to pay for your 7.20 mojito, give you back a lev in change and then tell you "Have a nice day." You also shouldn't count all those employees who extend their breaks and cut short their working days; the police; waste management concessionaires in Sofia; sirene and kashkaval producers who convince of the merits of kashkaval made in Germany; people who don't buy tickets for the train or bus; the "workmen" renovating your apartment; salespeople in electronics stores who sell you already-opened mobile phones; sausage and hotdog makers who tell you they put "real" meat in their products, and – yes – property sales people along the Black Sea coast… I'm sure you can add to the list – or just give EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner Meglena Kuneva a call.


I have no idea where this idea came from. Perhaps it was a legend born from the hygienic habit known as the "weekly bath." The Ottomans introduced it to Bulgaria long before the birth of Louis XIV, who boasted that he had bathed only twice in his entire life. One ride on the Sofia underground or bus route 76 during rush hour is enough to prove that over the past few centuries a fair portion of the Bulgarian population still has not abandoned the idea of bathing every seven days.

Could the myth of "Bulgarian cleanliness" stem from the pedantic attitude towards cleanliness at home? We shouldn't forget, however, that if cleanliness were such a high priority, why did our forefathers come up with the didactic tale Slivi za smet, or Plums for Litter, in which a wily father looking for the perfect bride for his son tricks the village ladies into revealing their slovenly housekeeping habits. Aleko Konstantinov probably wouldn't have begun his story Pazi Bozhe slyapo da progleda, or God Forbid the Blind Man See, with the apocalyptic filth of a Bulgarian village and the children in it. Sometimes I think there's not a whole lot of difference between the 19th Century writer's fictitious village and Vitosha Blvd.

Just so you don't think I'm exaggerating, here's a recent example. A woman from a company expanding a chain of snack shops in Bulgaria was having difficulties coping with the following problem: "I have to teach the future sales girls about hygiene and customer service. Yet some of them were unable to understand why it isn't appropriate to sell food with peeling-off fingernail polish." Most of the salesclerks were young ladies fresh from their high school graduation balls.


Everyone knows the Bulgarians are the second most intelligent people on earth – after the Jews.

Our intelligence is somewhat different, however. It's the kind of smarts you develop when you're forced to fix your tube television set with a pair of pliers or to struggle for survival under continually stressful conditions – such as ornery bureaucrats, the Communist regime, or electricity rationing. What amazing lights were made from old batteries during the 1980s!

We're intelligent enough to win mathematics olympiads, and Bulgarian doctors are sought after abroad because they can work in rough conditions – or at least that's how the urban legends go.

Yet there's something we can't quite figure out. We still haven't "produced" a mathematician like Fermat or a physicist like Fermi. OK, John Atanasoff was half Bulgarian, on his father's side.


Intellectuals from Georgi Parvanov's circle speak of the "proverbial Bulgarian industriousness," but have you ever heard a proverb that combines Bulgarians and work? "As hard-working as a Bulgarian?" No? Me neither. There's no such saying. However, we all know what locals from the Shopluka region think about urgent work – Koga ima speshna rabota legam da spim, oti ako e speshna nekoy drug ke ya svarshi. Ako nikoy ne ya e svarshil znachi ne e bila speshna. Remember this in translation: If there's urgent work to be done, I take a nap – if it's really urgent, somebody else will finish it, but if it doesn't get done that means it wasn't urgent after all.

Our forefathers might have slaved from dawn till dusk coming up with ways to grow more grain, make more woollen braid and frieze to sell to the Ottoman army and so on. After 45 years of Communism, which gave rise to the saying "they pretend to pay me and I pretend to work," diligence has been relegated to the realm of science fiction.

Here's a scene I witnessed one day at a large Bulgarian insurance company. The sign on the door of the agents' office had nine names on it. There were two people inside. "You see?" the manager complained to me, "The other eight don't come into the office and certainly haven't sold a single insurance policy in the last 10 days. Yet when payday rolls around, they'll all grumble about their low salaries."


The opposite is probably closer to the truth. Last year the United Nations announced its labour productivity rankings. Bulgaria came in dead last among developed countries. In Bulgaria, one worker's contribution to the GDP is only 36 percent of his average counterpart's contribution in the 25 countries that were part of the EU before Bulgaria and Romania joined.

However, workers in Bulgaria fervently believe in Myth 5 and are ready to fight for their rights. The headquarters of a large international company in Sofia has been looking for a front-desk girl for some time but has been unable to find the right person for the job. Young and eager candidates make demands such as "a monthly salary of 1,500 leva, a company car and a telephone." When they find out that the salary is higher but that they won't be getting a car, they turned down the job offer. Bulgarian offices are full of managers who don't know how to send an e-mail and with secretaries for whom Excel may as well be NASA software for calculating the trajectory of the space shuttle in orbit. We also shouldn't forget those PR folks who write their press releases in maymunitsa, or Bulgarian instant-message speak that uses Latin characters and symbols like "4" for the letter "ch" and "6" for "sh." When they do actually use Cyrillic, it's so full of mistakes that you end up wishing they'd used maymunitsa instead. Even bakers can't make a decent loaf of bread. Well, maybe they could if they had to, but they're economising…


The fuss kicked up over the adoption of the new Family Code and its highly controversial legalisation of cohabitation has forced a nearly forgotten cliché back out into the open. Traditional family values are in danger! Back in the Communist days, in workers' collectives comrades would criticise the "morally corrupt." Now the newspapers report that according to the National Statistics Institute, every second marriage ends in divorce. For 2006 the marriage-to-divorce ratio was 32,000 to 15,000.

Of course, no one ever says what they mean by a "traditional family" and its "values" in the Bulgarian case. Is this a patriarchal clan with three generations living in connected houses as in western Bulgaria during the 19th Century? Or is it the classic Socialist family made up of parents and two children – a model which in fact played a significant role in the so-called demographic crisis? No one seems to have the answer to that. As a case in point, one of the most rabid defenders of traditional values that I've met knows very well that his wife is having a fling with someone else.


Bulgarians aren't in the habit of raiding minority neighbourhoods with torches in hand wearing white hoods. We are proud of the Jews Bulgaria saved from sending to the Nazi gas chambers, and have allowed the last few governments to serve out their terms – not that we have ever really forced anyone from power. Even Todor Zhivkov was given the boot in an internal coup.

On the other hand, we all know plenty of jokes about Armenians, Jews, Gypsies, blacks, the Japanese and blondes. Last summer a gay pride parade in Sofia inspired the Bulgarian National Union, or BNS, to begin a campaign entitled "Be Intolerant, Be Normal." In 1995 skinheads severely beat actor Asen Kisimov in front of dozens of ordinary citizens – like you, me and the Germans of 1933 – because they thought he was a Turk, Gypsy or – God forbid – Albanian.

And we prefer to blame the Germans for deporting nearly 11,000 Jews from Macedonia and Thrace to death camps – never mind that Bulgaria administered those territories.

Check out what a research study by the Open Society Institute, a liberal think tank, discovered about Bulgarians' attitude towards foreigners.

Thirty-five percent of us would not want to live in the same street with black African refugees, while 38 percent wouldn't want to live near Shia Muslims or Kosovar Albanians.

The most universally scorned group are the Gypsies – 47 percent of Bulgarians wouldn't want them as neighbours. Between 10 and 14 percent of Bulgarians would rather move than rub shoulders with such folks on their morning commute.


You don't have to be an Ataka supporter to believe that the Turks are hatching a dastardly plan to take over the Rhodope either by force or by turning it into the Bulgarian version of Kosovo. The president himself suspects an anti-Bulgarian campaign is behind foreign journalists' investigation into brutal practices such as baby selling or the maltreatment of children in Mogilino. Former dictator Todor Zhivkov's son-in-law was also a victim of vicious Bulgarian haters who exposed his corruption while a member of the International Olympic Committee.

The Communist-era State Security, or DS, had nothing to do with dissident Georgi Markov's death, and it was just pure coincidence that Pope John Paul II's would-be assassin, Ali Ağca, lived for a while in the Vitosha Hotel in Sofia, expenses paid by the government, before going on a sightseeing tour to the Vatican.

At any moment I'm expecting them to accuse the EU of anti-Bulgarian bias. Wait, while I was writing this article Georgi Parvanov already did!


We stopped the Arab invasion of Europe in 717. We slowed the Ottomans down just enough in the 15th Century so that they weren't able to take Vienna. We gave the world the Cyrillic alphabet. To save Europe from "barbarian" invasions, we sacrificed our freedom. We sacrificed our palaces and the remnants of our ancient Thracian and Roman heritage, which were further decimated by every new conqueror. We also sacrificed our future, because a slave mentality is very hard to shake off.

And what gratitude have we received in return? None. Just ask Bozhidar Dimitrov!


The Bulgarians are a very old people, but Bulgaria is a very young state. It's simple to do the maths. If we assume that our direct ancestors were Asparuh's proto-Bulgarians and the seven Slavic tribes that settled in Byzantine lands a century or two before 681, it would mean that we've been a nation for slightly longer than 1,300 years. After Asparuh's dynasty collapsed, the next 167 years passed under the boot (or rather, the sandal) of the Byzantines until the brothers Asenevtsi rebelled in Tarnovo. From 1185 to 1396 the Second Bulgarian State managed to become a leader in the region. After that, however, five long dull centuries followed in which the Bulgarians were for the most part subjects of the Ottoman sultan. No matter how you count it, the modern Bulgarian state has existed for a mere 130 years, interrupted by two or three wars and 45 years of Communism. Even the United States – OK, and Italy – have longer traditions of statehood than we do.


On the one hand, our understanding of loyalty is very extreme. When Gyuro Mihaylov was on sentry duty one night in 1880, a fire broke out. Instead of grabbing the flag and running, he stayed at his post and burned to death along with it. Even now Russophiles continue to argue that Russia fought the sultan in 1878–79 – and for the whole century before that – with the single lofty goal of liberating Bulgaria. Maybe that explains why the war's second front was to the south of the Caucasus. The Russians only gave up Beyazıd and Kars after the 1918 Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty.

On the other hand, however, for many of our fellow countrymen loyalty is a word they need to look up in the dictionary. A friend of mine had a warehouse in Varna. A big one. It needed a manager, so my friend hired a young man for the job. Three days later the manager quit – without bothering to inform anyone or even locking up. Days later, when my friend finally found him, the employee explained that he had quit in order to study. My friend fired him on disciplinary grounds. Four years later, they're still suing each other. The effectiveness of Bulgarian justice is a matter for other reports – EU reports.


Some might argue that none of the things listed above are characteristic only of Bulgarians. That's true. In Hollywood the percentage of divorces is much higher. The Turks also have a hero like Gyuro Mihaylov. Bayraktar Baba, or Baba the Banner-Bearer, didn't immolate himself with the flag, but instead ate it during the battle at Gallipoli during the First World War – and, of course, died. The Turks also have developed quite an extravagant conspiracy theory. According to it, Turkish scholars discovered all the Ottoman Empire's gold in the Golden Horn. The World Bank, however, refused to allow them to fish it out, in order not to disrupt the world gold balance...

People who don't like bathing can be found everywhere and every Balkan people – except for the Turks – relishes telling stories about how they heroically saved Europe from invasions.

The Poles and the Germans have a much darker history of minority relations, while dishonest people, layabouts and regular old duffers are a universal plague.

So there's nothing unique about us in any of this. Likewise, we don't hold the exclusive rights to kebapcheta, shopska salata, rose oil, UNESCO world heritage sites and opera stars. In fact, we Bulgarians aren't very unique at all in either our good or bad qualities – a realisation that goes against what most of us believe wholeheartedly.


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