Sat, 12/01/2007 - 13:50

Christmas Fiction

I have known Dancho since the beginning of the 1980s, when we used to have some friends in common, and met up at parties (or “stews” as they were referred to in those days). On two or three occasions we woke up after some heavy drinking on different, yet always alcohol-smeared sofas; and once, we even tried to have simultaneous intercourse with a girl known amongst the guys in our group for her inclination to do just that sort of thing every now and again.

We were in high school, and I admit nothing related to high school was alien to us: those years were a lot more soaked in booze and the unbridled desire “to have fun at all costs” than in any enthusiasm toward academic development. Our parents gave us money (which was important) and we tried to spend it (successfully) on the sort of things they advised us to avoid. Those were the days when “Developed Socialism” flourished, and we never suspected that in a few years it would fall into the grave it had been digging for someone else.

Progress in the system depended mainly on the necessity to put your name on a waiting list if you wanted to buy a Lada; and we only understood the values of Western democracy, welfare, or just the dolce vita mostly by the handful of Western magazines that were sporadically smuggled in to us. At that time we really thought that that was the West.

I cannot remember when I met Dancho for the last time. It must have been some time at the beginning of the 1990s, when freedom had already broken out in Bulgaria. To the people it meant mainly shops empty of foodstuffs, packs of stray carnivores roaming the streets of Sofia, and Andrey Lukanov in charge. There were no Western magazines yet. There was Friday Evening instead.

Dancho graduated university, but his refusal to take a state job was a sonorous slap in the face for his parents – despite the fact they'd always insisted that he should take “his diploma in his hands and then do whatever he wanted”. At the dawn of the new era Dancho decided to do just that, even though his parents – traditional, conservative folk – had other ideas. I don't know the details but I think the bits of information I would receive intermittently from mutual acquaintances during the following years built up a credible picture of Dancho's life's journey. He never became the engineer of his mother's hopes, or the writer of his own dreams. Neither of those professions would put bread on the table in those years, and Dancho, like many other schoolmates of ours, tried to turn his hobby (or the thing he could do best) into his job. For some that was car repairing (converting their family's garages or basements into little repair shops); for others it meant running a pub (many of these went bust very soon because it emerged that it was difficult to make money with yourself as the main customer); yet others jumped into the adventure of the free market, which in those years meant mainly trading in stocks or underwear made in Turkey. For his part Dancho became a musician.

Perhaps I should have said earlier that what brought us close to each other in high school was rock-and-roll, which we took to be one of the symbols of the kind of life we aspired to (even more powerful than the semi-undressed chicks and the glossy ads in the Western mags). Indeed, the main part of Dancho's brain might have been occupied by literature, but whenever he tired of putting words next to each other, or it dawned on him that nothing would come out of them, he took up his guitar. To us it was entertainment, but to him it was a kind of therapy. I can state with authority: Dancho was good. It would take a long time to describe in detail his musical tastes, so suffice to say that in many areas they were very similar to my own. The difference was in the degree of skill: I never progressed further than the starting chords of “Smoke on the Water” while Dancho was something else. In my memories as a complete amateur in music, Dancho will remain as the only person other than Paul McCartney who could do the whole of “Blackbird” without a hitch. Perhaps he was even better than Sir Paul because he didn't use a metronome.

When he became a professional musician Dancho was both accomplished and a beginner. He was accomplished because he played his guitar very well, had been a member of several bands, and had a few gigs (and the accompanying one-night stands) under his belt. But the combination of ambition, and the lack of both money and prospects, made him feel like a learner driver who'd suddenly ended up in the wrong lane. Professionals would know what to do in such a situation. The amateur, however, would be helpless. Dancho knew what to do on stage if a string broke, but had no idea how to cope with a bar owner who'd refuse to pay what little fee they had previously agreed on.

The money Dancho made as a musician was barely enough to cover his daily expenses. Sometimes it didn't (but this wasn't crucial as, like many other Bulgarians of his age, Dancho still lived in his parents' flat). Relatively quickly he learned that the dough to be made from Bulgarian clubs, bars and other professional music venues was minimal. As the series of attempts to “make ends meet” through tours, weddings and even some chalga (strictly for the money, bastards!) failed, Dancho slowly started to reach the logical conclusion that he should travel abroad where he could “hit the jackpot”.

I hate generalisations, but Dancho was beginning to seriously resemble those amongst whom he lived; he had become, metaphorically speaking, the owner of a car repair garage or a Turkish underwear shop. He had sincerely begun to believe that his professional trouble came from the fact he'd been born in Poduyane, not Manhattan; that all musicians West of what used to be Yugoslavia could easily become millionaires and win Grammies; that everything “there” was clean, correct, well organised and functioned like clockwork; and that life in the West was easy, pretty, calm and predictable.

To make his dreams a reality Dancho started filing applications for work abroad. First, he wrote to the large music companies offering his services as a musician. When he received a dozen polite, but firm refusals (most didn't even bother to answer, in fact), he lowered his expectations and wrote again, this time offering himself as a backstage boy, a support guitar player, a stage assistant, as anything requiring low qualifications that could convince his would-be employer that the wages and the effort to procure a work visa would be repaid.

When his strategy failed, Dancho did some market research. He used his own acquaintances to get in touch with famous people in the music industry. It took him some time and effort to meet someone who knew someone who knew a musician, producer or a sound engineer abroad, and when that failed, it took him even longer to find someone who knew someone who knew someone who just lived abroad.

“To get away from all this” was slowly evolving into the idée fixe in his life that would justify all means. Bulgaria, Dancho thought, was becoming increasingly provincial, corrupt and dirty. The years were going by, and he caught himself thinking that he was missing the very last train. To fund the international phone calls, demo tapes and DHL, Dancho had to sell some of his belongings. The books and the cassette tapes were easy; some of the CDs caused a bout of melancholy; parting with the leather jacket was plain melodrama. The girl he was trying to live with followed the jacket. Dancho thought that her constant nagging about starting a family etc. distracted him from the incomparably more important, and ever so imminent, departure. Eventually, that very same girl ended up abroad.

Several months, almost a year, passed in this way. All of Dancho's attempts inevitably wound up in the wrong lane. However, as usually happens in life, whenever everything seems lost, some new light appears on the horizon; some new hope gives us the power to go on, even though we realised a long time ago that the light at the end of the tunnel had been switched off. Or it never existed.

The grand event for Dancho, in the middle of the 1990s, was his contact with an impresario in Norway. Simeon had left for Norway about 10 years before, had got married, and the moment he got a permanent residence permit that would later enable him to apply for citizenship, divorced. Initially he was also a musician, not a bad one at that. He got reasonably frequent offers to play in bars, mainly in the Norwegian North, where the fees were OK and where the people rarely anticipated anything outside the standard collection of covers. A few years later, however, he got tired, and decided that he needed something more stable; something that would secure him a better income with less effort.

Norway is in many respects a strange country. It has one of Europe's richest societies and most beautiful landscapes, but life, especially in the more isolated areas, can be rather dull, especially for the younger people. The entertainment industry around the tourist stops, Bodø, Tromsø and Kirkenes, is limited to a few luxury hotels and restaurants that the locals would also visit at weekends. These establishments are usually in specially designed buildings with modern amenities; the equipment is of a very high standard; in addition to the usual swimming pools and saunas they would have a first-class restaurant, a piano bar with heavy leather furniture, and probably a basement disco. In Norway, these hotel complexes can function as self-styled culture centres as well. Those who live in the surrounding 50-kilometre area would visit them for dinner, drinks or just fun.

Simeon had researched the music scene in the Norwegian Far North, and had discovered an obvious niche. Few professional Norwegian musicians would be willing to spend more than a month or two in such a place for a simple reason: why go to the north of your country when you can take on Hamburg or London, where “real” music happens? As a result, the hotel owners have to offer higher fees to attract travelling artists. Still, there was the obvious shortage of qualified musicians willing to spend more than a few weeks in those beautiful, but severe climes.

Just the job for East Europeans, Simeon thought. First of all, they would be a lot cheaper than the Norwegians. They would be happy with just the pocket money. They were well qualified (in many instances overqualified), and there were plenty of them, which would make the selection easier. In many cases they wouldn't speak a word of Norwegian, and their English probably wouldn't enable them to understand their legal rights as temporary residence permit holders. He would offer them both good wages and the opportunity to get rid of the shit in Eastern Europe. He thought, “I will get them visas, I will draft their contracts, I will secure them places to sleep and food to eat. They will only have to arrive at the airport and become my slaves.”

Simeon called up immigration to discover that it would look favourably upon artists coming from outside the Common Market. That was the beginning of his new job as an impresario.

The first group of East European musicians consisted of a violinist and a piano player, two charming girls just out of the Warsaw Music Academy – and unemployed. The two turned into an instant hit. They played jazzy versions of popular classical pieces (a bit of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, a bit of the Quattro Stagioni, a bit of Irving Berlin); both were gracious and sexy in an endearing Polish sort of way. Everyone loved them instantly. Simeon collected 50 percent of their fees, in addition to the 20 percent cut from the hotel owner.

The next step was to present a whole East European band. No one can remember its name (something very commonplace like Temptation, Salutation, Consolation or Fornication), yet the band was exactly what was needed: quality equipment, a good professional sound, strictly covers (Elton John, Hot Chocolate; Italian songs sounded a bit unusual and were therefore intriguing), two insipidly peroxide Romanian singers with huge bosoms.

Fornication was a bigger success than the two Polish girls. The Norwegians were enthralled. They were given the chance to get drunk, have fun and dance to live music without having to spend a fortune. Most of them thought that it was better to listen to “Blue Eyes” live than on a recording. To Simeon's relief, the owner of the hotel thought likewise.

Before he met Dancho, the impresario had already made a few million Norwegian kroner. He imported rock bands, jazz bands, folk bands, classical soloists, duos and trios; he supplied fresh musical talent to bars, clubs and discos. At any one time he had about 30 musicians spread out at different locations. He took a 50 percent cut from each of them, and sometimes even administered penalties if a musician flopped. It was the perfect business as everyone was happy: the hoteliers managed to do it cheap, the guests were captivated, the guest musicians made about $1,000 a month – and they didn't have to live in Eastern Europe.

When he got in touch with Simeon, Dancho knew that he had found what he had been seeking for a long time. In his new acquaintance he saw a chance to get away from Bulgaria. This was serious and Dancho didn't want to blow it. Therefore, he decided to act cautiously.

Before he went to the audition, Dancho did a little research. It wasn't difficult to establish that our man, the impresario, didn't drink much, but rarely said no to good red wine, especially if taken in the company of young women. Dancho also discovered, through acquaintances, that his future impresario rarely refused one-night bangs. Obviously, he was in no shortage of proposals as 80 percent of the aspiring singers and players would happily turn the other way in exchange for the generous offer of a career in the West and the tempting opportunity to get out of their homeland for at least a short while. Significantly, Dancho found out that our man was a professional who wouldn't compromise with quality. He wouldn't tolerate second-class sound or show. Translated into the language of the music industry that meant investment in equipment and clothes.

As Dancho saw our man as his only potential saviour, the preparations for the audition were impressive. With the money he got from the period map (of the Balkans, from before the First World War; crumpled and faded, but evidently of good collectable value) he called a former girlfriend, a design graduate, who was working as an assistant seamstress. She redid almost for free an old suit. That would be Dancho's Versace. When the moment was right, just like an Eric Clapton, he would take off the jacket on stage and remain in his T-Shirt.

Everything was spic and span on audition night, which was held in a small hall in a hotel somewhere on the Black Sea coast. Dancho was fresh and sober, his stubble was just right; Dorothea had agreed to accompany him, partly to stand by him, partly to distract herself from the boredom of the sweatshop.

I don't know many details about the audition itself, save for the fact that over 60 musicians from all over the country attended. I heard that our man, the impresario, allowed himself more Merlot 1991 than usual, was brutally courted by at least five singers, two of whom were opera performers; that Dancho was brilliant; that he was offered a six-month contract the very same night, and that he went back home alone because his former girlfriend decided to stay three or four more days at the seaside, in the company of the impresario.

It is difficult to describe the joy, relief and agitation that gripped Dancho after that evening. He felt that several years of his determined labour were finally rewarded, and that the world had now assumed smaller, easily traceable dimensions. Now was the time for a real career in music; to prove to all the sceptics that only he was the master of his destiny, and that the outside factors, good or bad, were important, but not decisive.

Along with the contract came an information packet about Dancho's future workplace, a hotel in the Norwegian mountains, at whose bar Dancho was supposed to do a three-hour solo stint every evening except Mondays. The hotel, Dancho asserted, was “super-European”, and his wages were you-won't-believe! The contract would start in the autumn, which meant Dancho had two months to digest the news and prepare.

These two months, before Dancho was about to start on his new, dollar job, were the most critical in his life for reasons I am unable to understand. On the one hand, Dancho had outgrown his peers because he unconditionally believed that talent and professionalism would triumph in the end. He was a reasonable man, whose past as an enthusiastic, but failed writer had taught him a few simple truths, like the one that if you failed several times you should be trying something different. The key word, which others couldn't or wouldn't understand, was “inevitably”. Now things were happening exactly the way Dancho wanted, but still, as he was born in Bulgaria, he felt some angst about the uncertainties the future held for him.

Dancho spent the first few weeks in the music library, where he meticulously photocopied music to use in his future job in Norway. He also borrowed a few books about Norway, from which he learned a number of valuable facts about the life and places of interest in that remarkable country. Things really looked fantastic, and Dancho started to convince himself that the initial six-month contract was just the prelude to a glittering career and permanent life in the West.

At a certain point, however – toward the end of the fourth or fifth week after the audition, Dancho's fears started to gain the upper hand. He had done what he was supposed to do, and now decided to spend his improvised and unexpected holidays with some friends at the seaside (for which he had successfully borrowed money from one of his pals, leaving his Norwegian contract as collateral). He left for the seaside; lay on the beach; got a suntan; and the increasingly boozy nights started to take him into a deepening depression that he called “getting my balls squeezed”. “I am getting my balls squeezed, chum. What if I fail?!?” Dancho started thinking. “What if I fall ill? What if I can't get my contract renewed? Will I have to start everything again from scratch?”

Then came Antje.

The sequence of coincidences that life is made up of is sometimes stranger than even the wildest imagination of a writer; and I have often convinced myself that the true call of anyone who writes is not to imagine, but just to describe. The story of Dancho and Antje is unexpected, incredible, absurd, but true – truer even than what the most trained brain could have fabricated.

Antje was a Norwegian girl of 25, who'd come to Bulgaria with her parents on one of the package tours that, from a Western standpoint, look both slightly exotic because no one's been here, and are really cheap.

I don't know how they met, and how the first several days of their acquaintance passed, but at a certain point it emerged, to my utter amazement, that Dancho and Antje were madly in love with each other. I suspect that it all started as a banal summer flirtation, the sort of thing local boys do with girl tourists, but a few days later the two obviously started having very deep feelings for each other. They must have been a pretty sight: Antje, blue-eyed and blonde, holding hands with auburn, sun-tanned Dancho... the Black Sea locals must have been nodding in conspiratorial understanding.

The dangerous part started when the two of them began spending 24 hours a day together. During this time Antje's parents took long walks in the shady maritime parks, or read books on their hotel room balcony. They were elderly people.

Realising that no true feelings can develop within the straitjacket of a fortnight's holiday, Dancho and Antje started making plans for the future. I was surprised: Dancho was not at the right age for this, and besides his priorities were different. But... as we all know, love rarely can be planned ahead.

Antje lived in a small town in central Norway, not far from one of the large fjords. It is one of the most beautiful areas: snow-capped mountains falling into the icy waters of the North Sea. There weren't many towns in the area and the locals, forced by nature, lived in isolated – at times very isolated – houses in the flatlands around the fjord. Antje lived with her parents and her sister in a house like that. The nearest shop was 25 kilometres away; in spring and autumn you could take a boat to cover the distance, in summer you could use your bicycle, but in winter you needed skis or a jeep. This kind of life was not that unusual for the European Far North, but Dancho perceived it as being exotic. He couldn't imagine what the world looked like for six months without a night, and then for the following six months without the sun. He couldn't understand how people could live so far apart from each other, surviving for weeks on end without going about with friends, having a drink, or having fun. I can't imagine Antje inhabits such a place, thought Dancho. But it may actually be good.

The shock came when I realised that during those days Dancho and Antje hadn't even had sex. Both felt as if they were on top of the world, and both instinctively knew that they were on to perhaps the most significant thing in their lives, yet Dancho didn't press too much for fear he might scare Antje, and she made it plain that she didn't want sex, at least not for the time being. Being born with southern Balkan passions and complexes, Dancho was slightly hurt, and could not understand how was it possible that a beautiful woman of 25 wouldn't do what the Bulgarian girls of 16 had already matured for? What about the mythology about promiscuous Scandinavians who only had to have three beers to get the urge to jump on the first southerner they met? Dancho was unable to get rid of what he had grown up with. In a characteristic Bulgarian fashion, the desire to penetrate her body the way he had penetrated her soul became a matter of, yes, honour.

Antje did have her reasons. She was a modest and rather conservative Norwegian girl. She had just graduated theology and was helping her father, a Protestant minister, in his attempts to write a paper on the importance of the Trinity. It was a topic Dancho neither knew anything, nor cared about. He considered it pretty meaningless. Antje's sister, two years her junior, was a student at the University of Tromsø, about 600 kilometres beyond the Polar Circle. Both girls spent their holidays with their parents who were, it emerged, quite religious in that Protestant way people in the South cannot really understand. Work Hard and Fear God were principles this family adhered to with unfaltering enthusiasm. People in the South do not think that way.

In addition to religion, Antje's family also upheld a series of social behaviour codes that few people, especially southerners, would take seriously. Polite language was one of those. Every second sentence would start with a please or an excuse me; verbal or physical obtrusiveness was out of the question. This also applied to smoking, alcohol and a number of other things including extramarital sex, as Dancho had come to understand.

Of course Dancho was unable to fathom Antje's arguments, but as he loved her so much, and he saw in her an even more reliable saviour than the impresario, he began to respect them.

The Norwegian family's holiday was nearing its end, and a couple of days before the return charter flight there came the feeling of imminent separation. During that last infatuated night on the sea shore, Antje and Dancho began to ponder what would happen once they were no longer with each other. Dancho's new workplace was to be about 700 kilometres away from Antje's home, an insurmountable distance if you didn't have a car, money or spare time. He thought that he had discovered the woman of his dreams and was determined not to lose her. Antje was also exhilarated, but her common sense wouldn't allow her to do anything drastic. The last night of their relationship passed and ended in the dead-end of such depressing thoughts. The only thing Dancho would remember of the following day was the SAS aircraft lifting its wheels from the tarmac.

Every separation is a kind of death and can logically be divided into several stages. Anger is followed by denial, then comes bargaining. Then, just before acceptance, comes depression. In the case of Dancho, misery came all too fast.

He was separated from his planned departure to Norway by just a few days, but he now discovered that Norway had ceased to interest him. His love for Antje, rather blindly, forced him to turn his back on all the years he'd spent to capture the bird in the hand. Now the bird was there, but Dancho was slowly yet willingly opening up his fingers.

The depressing thoughts became even deeper as a result of the many bottles of alcohol he was feeding himself on. What did a job matter when there were so many more important things? Even if he went and earned money for six months, he would again be as lonely, wouldn't he? Would Antje find someone else because he could not be by her side?? After a night like this, Dancho woke up with a terrible headache. He had some coffee, which only worsened his headache, then took a shower and shaved. None of these made him feel any better. Then he went to the telephone and dialled Antje's number. In the next three minutes he proposed marriage.

At this point things started unravelling at lightning speed. Antje accepted; in the afternoon Dancho called his impresario and cancelled the contract. A couple of hours later Antje's father spoke to his brother, a civil servant, and asked him to use his connections in the Foreign Ministry to speed up Dancho's visa application. The visa materialised in three days, and two days later Dancho landed in Oslo.

On a cold and rainy September afternoon (still summer in Bulgaria) Antje's family gave Dancho an emotional welcome. Tears and flowers, endless talks and niceties, then an almost 13-hour drive up north. Autumn would settle in soon. In those latitudes it meant the sun would go under the horizon and reappear the following March.

Antje's family received Dancho with extreme warmth, and soon he started to feel he had lived in northern Norway for years. True, his daily routine had nothing to do with what he'd been used to in Bulgaria, but everything, from TV to the long afternoon walks along the fjord, was interesting and fascinating. During these first days Dancho was never bored. On the contrary: he was open to everything. He studied Antje's father's books with great interest. Once or twice he went fishing with a neighbour, and he put a great effort into the Norwegian for Beginners books his would-be mother-in-law had presented him with. The wedding had already been arranged. It would take place in the first days of the New Year.

A few days before Christmas Antje's parents decided to invite the extended family to meet the future Bulgarian groom. Most of them were very interested to meet him, partly because he would soon become their relative, partly because he was the representative of a nation they knew nothing about. All the family members and friends started arriving from all corners of Norway. Dancho was agitated: he was about to meet Uncle Knut and Aunt Merette; and Olaf, the son of Antje's mother's departed sister; and Mr Holgersen, a judge in a small town in southern Norway and a close friend of Antje's father; and a dozen cousins and nieces. All of these had an intimate relationship with the Church and shared its values. They spelled Morality, Reserve, Modesty, Perseverance and Faith with a capital letter (everything is so different, Dancho thought). Organising such a big party in Norway is a serious business, and Antje's parents spent more than a week putting everything together.

Surprise was an important element of the party. Dancho was told that all the friends and relatives would come for something of a reunion party, not specifically to meet him; they would remain for a few days and then be present at the wedding. Dancho was so agitated and enchanted by his new life that he accepted everything at face value. His Norwegian wouldn't allow him to understand the conversations around him, and the anxiety about the future wedding obscured his common sense. The strong emotions had converted Dancho into a bashful teenager, which in fact is the purpose of all strong emotions.

Finally came the day of the surprise party. All the guests had arrived and been allocated to either the local hotel or to neighbours' guest rooms. After lunch, an immediate family affair, Antje took Dancho for a long walk along the fjord. During that time dinner for about 30 people would have to be prepared. In the late afternoon Antje and Dancho returned home. Antje excused herself and he was left alone in the sitting room, which opened on the dark sea.

Dancho sat comfortably in an armchair and started thinking about what had been bothering him during the past few weeks: How did Antje look without her clothes on? How did she make love? What taste did her nipples have? Quite understandably, Dancho was gripped by unease.

He stood up from the armchair and went to the window. The polar night over the fjord remained unchanged; the lighthouse at its mouth flashed at regular intervals, and that notorious winter omni-penetrating drizzle, had begun again. It only rains between showers in these latitudes, he thought.

The sitting room was exceptionally large. Its space had been divided into several partitions: an opaque-glass door here, several bookshelves there; the dining table was hidden behind some furniture; the TV set and the stereo were out of sight. Because of its layout and its sheer size, the room was impossible to survey at once glance. Unless all the lights were on, which wasn't the case now, it was impossible to see from one end to the other.

Dancho was preoccupied with other matters however. He sat in the armchair again and took a book. It was a textbook, but instead of focusing on the strange characters Å, Ø and Æ he was thinking intensively about the spot where Antje's thighs touched. What would it feel like to trace her body with a finger all the way from chin to pubic hair? Dancho was gripped by unease once more. He stood up.

At this moment, for some reason that only human nature can be held accountable for, Dancho felt a cramp in his stomach... and he farted. He did it the real way: a long, resonant fart – the kind we used to practice when we were children – and very, very stinky. Naturally, he felt embarrassed immediately, and started to cover up the traces of his misdemeanour. If this had happened in Bulgaria, he thought in a second, I would be commended, someone would congratulate me. Well, here...

During the next minute the stink of Dancho's fart enveloped the whole room. It just stank of rotten eggs and Dancho was hurled into a panic. He jumped to the huge window, only to find it couldn't be opened. He grabbed the Norwegian textbook, opened its pages, and tried to use it as a fan to dispel the odour. No success. Dancho started sweating. He jumped around the room, cursing and waving his hands like a mad clown in a desperate attempt to chase away what he thought was terribly profane evidence of his Balkan origin. A minute later, the fart had started to wane away and Dancho's heart was beating crazily out of control.

At this time, from somewhere unknown, light came. All the lamps in the roomlit up at once. It became so bright that Dancho had to blink. When he opened his eyes again he saw all the Jensens' guests: all the aunts, uncles, nieces, cousins, friends; all dressed up in beautiful clothes, wearing long skirts and perfectly shining shoes and bowties; all smelling of expensive perfumes – they all stared at Dancho as if they'd just drunk a glass of poison – a huge tableau vivant – and all, as if conducted by a magic wand, shouted in one voice: “Surprise!”

Issue 15-16

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