This seemingly innocent conversation starter has taken on new dimensions in our age of increased mobility and migration, and it's one that proves tricky for writer Kapka Kassabova to answer. Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, she emigrated with her family to live in New Zealand at the age of 17. Today Kapka lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Along the way she has criss-crossed the globe, feeding her passion for travel with journeys to widely different destinations, from Morocco and India to Argentina.
This mix of cultures is at once a source of rich experience and of conflict, and it is these conflicts of culture and identity that are the backdrop for Border Crossing, Kapka's latest work in progress. In Border Crossing, she addresses not only the physical borders between countries, but also the less tangible borders that separate us from each other, the borders we construct between local and outsider, compatriot and foreigner, us and them, me and you.
Border Crossing is very much bound up with issues of identity and there is a sense of alienation from your country of birth. Where do you now call "home", and how would you describe yourself - as Bulgarian, New Zealander, expatriate, or something else?
I have spent the second half of my life outside Bulgaria, mostly in New Zealand, which means I should feel roughly 50 percent Bulgarian and 50 percent Kiwi. But maths is not my strength, and nor is national self-definition, which is why I have a slight problem when I have to tell people where I'm from. Perhaps "East-European Antipodean" will do? When you've had a life away from your birth-country, you inevitably feel alienated, though I prefer the word estranged. That is, you are a stranger there, the opposite of a local. This is doubly so in the case of Bulgaria, which in the space of 15 years hasheroically tried to reinvent itself. Every time I return, I return to a slightly different place.I have a love-hate relationship with Bulgaria, the way we do with our childhood sometimes, while New Zealand is a comfortably neutral long term home. The UK, which is my current home, is stimulating, but I'll always feel more European than British or Anglo-Saxon. I don't drink for starters!
Many of our readers are also living abroad. As someone who has a lot of experience of living in different countries and cultures, what advice can you give them to help them adapt to their new surroundings?
The life-line to a place is its people. For me, making friends and local connections - anything from chatting to the postman to having mates to invite round for dinner - is the only way to adapt and understand. Bulgarians in particular are sociable and open. The UK is harder in this respect, people are more distant and shy. Learning at least the basics of the language opens doors and works wonders for you, in Bulgaria or anywhere else. Learning a bit about the past is probably essential if you're spending any time in Bulgaria because a.) it's an interesting past, and b.) it explains a lot about the present.
What three things do you always take with you when embarking on your travels?
A notebook, a hot water bottle, and a pocket knife, of which typically only the first gets used.
Kapka Kassabova won the 2000 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Asia-Pacific for her first novel Reconnaisance. She is also the author of the novel Love in the Land of Midas, three poetry books, and two travel guides. Her Globetrotter Guide to Bulgaria will be out in 2007, along with her new poetry collection Geography for the Lost.
by Kapka Kassabova
In an Istanbul hotel, I was mispronouncing the Turkish for "Thank you" to the hotel cleaner, when suddenly she spoke crystalline Bulgarian. She was strangely pleased to see me, like a long-lost relative from back home. Except that Bulgaria wasn't quite back home for either of us.
We stood on the landing, her bucket and broom between us. The Western guests of the hotel filed past on their way to the breakfast terrace, trying to work out whether we were speaking Turkish or something even more weird.
"We're from a village near Varna, 15 km from the coast," she said. "We moved here 13 years ago. We have a decent life. You can make a good living here if you work hard. Even so, my husband keeps going back to Bulgaria. He doesn't work, he just collects the rent from our house over there. I don't know, he misses it a lot, his friends, the town. He keeps saying he's going to retire there, on the Black Sea. I say to him, Turkey is beautiful, we haven't even begun to see it, forget Bulgaria. But he's stubborn, he says no, there's nothing like the Bulgarian Black Sea. That's where my memories are, he says. He's become sentimental in his old age."
She shook her head. There was no place for sentimentality in her pragmatic world. Her family were among the tens of thousands of Bulgarian Turks who emigrated across the border. In the late 80s, the ossified Communist government of Bulgaria mounted a sudden campaign against them, obscenely called "the revival process" and reminiscent of what the Argentine junta in the 70s called "el proceso", in an attempt to create an enemy within. Enemies are useful for doomed regimes clinging to power. In a primitive historical reversal typical of Balkan politics, Muslim names were forcibly Christianised. Ahmed became Assen. The Ottomans had brutalised Bulgarians for five centuries, so why not brutalise their distant descendants a bit? Few stood up for them, because few stood up for anything under the low ceilings of Communism. Many Bulgarian Turks were driven across the border. They were no longer welcome in Bulgaria, but in Istanbul they were just more human cargo on the already overloaded ship. Some eventually returned to Bulgaria.
When we said goodbye, she held my palm between her rough hands, wishing me all the good things in the world. I was grateful to her for treating me as a fellow countryman. It would have been so easy not to.
The next day, we left Istanbul. Between Istanbul and the Bulgarian border, the bus gradually filled with Bulgarian Turks. We were the only "travellers" on the bus. Behind us was seated a tiny, toothless woman in faded black, no bigger than a child, straight out of the 19th Century. She was with her two grandchildren. She wore a black headscarf with he ends undone and hanging from her squashed face. She chewed soft pastry with her gums, listened with dismay as my New Zealand boyfriend and I spoke a strange foreign tongue, and stared at people's faces with the vacant eyes of history's survivor.
I was travelling with Michael. It was his second time in Bulgaria. The first time, he came here in the mid-90s. The only other tourist he met was an unhinged American at the Sofia Railway Station, who ranted about being ripped off by a Bulgarian bank and trying to get his money back for the last 10 years. Fortunately, Michael had no money. He had no money, no map and no clue, and it was the middle of winter. He slept in a tent in the snowy mountains because he couldn't afford to rent a room. He stumbled into Gypsy shanty-towns, then stumbled across the Danube into Romania where beggar children turned his empty pockets inside out, then back to Sofia where the lovely girl who put him up took a shine to him - but he couldn't afford a condom, besides she had got pregnant from a passing Australian who had vanished after the act. He was taken in by locals in small provincial towns. A young man in a village took him in for a few nights. His family slaughtered a pig in Michael's honour and gave it to him to skin. As a farewell gift, the guy gave Michael an eerie black and white photograph of himself in the Army, in an antiquated woollen Balkan uniform against a snowy backdrop, the scene reminiscent of Stalingrad. This was Michael's only memento of his Bulgarian trip.
When we started approaching the Bulgarian border, the driver stopped the folksy Turkish tape that had been playing for hours, and put on a Bulgarian tape. The popular, vulgar Bulgarian pop-folk known as chalga was the ideal musical switch from Turkey to Bulgaria. Chalga is derived from a Turkish word derived from Arabic, and the music is a Balkan hotchpotch with Middle-Eastern overtones. In fact, the main difference between the Turkish tape and the Bulgarian tape was the language. Now, unfortunately, I could understand. "Only you, only you", the crooner wailed. The moustachioed twins in front of us, sun-burnt to a crisp on some Turkish beach, sang along, sneering at the stupidity of it and loving it.
At the Bulgarian border, the merriment quickly died down. A thick-set border guard clambered onto the bus and collected everybody's passports. He didn't miss the opportunity to abuse the Bulgarian Turks who curled up defensively by an old reflex. The uniform of officialdom didn't disguise the fact that he was just a common or garden Balkan thug, the kind that in the event of a civil war would be recruited by a paramilitary force to terrorise the population. He turned to the toothless old woman: "Where is your Turkish passport?" She produced her second passport, muttering something in Turkish. "Speak Bulgarian, grandma," the guard said roughly, "you have a Bulgarian passport, you speak Bulgarian to me." The old woman resentfully shrank into her headscarf. An unhappy silence hung over the bus. The passengers knew that it was within the power of the border thug not to let them across that barrier down the road. The guard turned to me: "You have another passport?" "Yes," I said, "from New Zealand. Do you want to see it?" "No, that's okay," he said, "You can keep your New Zealand passport." He glanced at Michael, as if to say, "And your New Zealand boyfriend too." We were kept waiting for an hour. The passengers trod around the bus smoking, chatting, and basking in the August sun. A Kontiki tour bus heaved out of the Bulgarian side. It was full of young western travellers with an alarmed look about them. They curiously studied us - the "locals"- from the height of their bus, like Sunday strollers watching fl ea-ridden animals in the zoo. Their passport checks were over and done with in five minutes, and their bus continued on its picturesque journey.
Eventually, our mild-mannered driver came back with all the passports and called us name by name. All the names except mine and Michael's were Turkish. One traveller didn't make it across. It was the nervous, unshaven man in a threadbare jacket who had been sitting alone at the back of the bus. The driver, suddenly shedding his mild persona, shouted at him in harsh Turkish and threw the man's tatty bag out of the luggage trunk. He caught the bag, slung it over his shoulder, and without a word turned back the way we had come. I asked the driver what had happened. "A Romanian. Trying to sneak in. With an invalid passport."
The wretched Romanian was shuffling away hopelessly, looking down at the dusty road of no man's land, his tracksuit pants flickering around his ankles. The mountains rose forbiddingly on every side, an indulating nightmare of dark velvet. There wasn't even a village for miles either way of the border, just mountain, dust, and road.
The peach seller
On a hot August day, we came to the Ladies' Market in Sofia to buy peaches. This is the cheapest of Sofia's outdoor markets. Around the corner is the more expensive indoor market Halite, which sells Bulgarian honey by the vat, German delicatessen items made in Bulgaria, Italian clothes made in Turkey and Greece, domestic appliances made in Spain, and Bulgarian souvenirs that would have been made in China if Bulgarian labour weren't so cheap. At the Ladies' Market, farmers and fruit growers from around Sofia come to sell their produce. They dislike and mistrust the capital for the same reason country-folk everywhere dislike and mistrust the big smoke.
Michael had his most expensive earthly possession with him - a digital camera - and his most prized possession, an oilskin musterer's hat from New Zealand. The peach mission went badly from the start.
"I don't sell less than two kilos," spat out the little gruff man in overalls, glancing at Michael inhospitably before he turned his back to us. Same story at the second stall. At the third stall, a short man in his 20s stared into the middle distance, hands in his pockets. His peaches had come directly from heaven: large, golden, velvety and radiant, totally unlike him. He gave us the briefest and darkest of glances without moving from the upturned crate on which he was sitting.
"Can I have four of your peaches please?" I said sweetly, determined, like a Jehovah's Witness, to break him with sheer friendliness. He looked away without a word. We waited. "What's going on?" Michael said. "Hold on," I said, feeling the first signs of apoplexy. Still looking away, the young peasant said: "They don't come in fours." "I'll have two kilos then," I said breezily, though by now I wanted to kick his stupid peaches. He spoke quietly, avoiding my eyes. "Why don't you take your foreign boyfriend to Halite, and you can go for a nice shopping spree there." He said this stubbornly, but without anger. I was so startled, all I came up with was: "I'm not going to buy your peaches if you're so rude." "I couldn't give a shit." He said cavernously, and got up to stack some crates. He hadn't looked me in the eye once. "Let's go," Michael said, getting the drift, "I don't want peaches anymore." "Me neither."
We walked through the market in a peachless daze. There was hawking but it wasn't for us. The sellers' demeanour said: what are you doing here? Don't you know this is a market for Bulgarians only, for the poor? Piss off, with your expensive camera and your cowboy hat, and your stupid friendly smiles. Piss off with your money. Or perhaps it only seemed so to me. By now, I felt paranoid.
"What was all that about?" Michael asked, dodging the crossfi re of hostile peasant looks. Or were they just curious? "What have I done to that joker?" "I don't know," I said miserably. But I should have known. I should have recognised my own anger and frustration, now forgotten, in the peach- seller's rotten attitude. It went like this. "Here's a foreigner with lots of money: he has come to Bulgaria with an expensive camera. He's also a show-off with this cowboy hat. And he's bought himself a Bulgarian girl. Not because he's smarter than me, but because he's a foreigner. He thinks he has the right to steal our women. He thinks he can prance in here and eat my peaches, the bastard. Let him buy peaches somewhere else, and his girlfriend who thinks she can talk to me like I'm her servant can go fuck herself. They all love the foreigners. They sell themselves like cheap whores. What's wrong with us? Aren't we hardworking, honest men? Soon we'll be Europe, and then those foreigners won't stride in here like they own the place."
In her essay "A Smile in Sofia", the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic talks about the "non-smiling culture" of the former Eastern bloc, brought on by decades of drab public service. The non-smiling culture doesn't go away just because the shops are full and the peaches are golden. The non-smiling culture is not simply about not smiling - it's about honour. The peach-seller would rather miss out on our cash than "humiliate" himself by serving me - the Sofia girl who in his mind had sold herself to a foreigner. Serving me amounted to serving the man who had obviously bought me, and that amounted to condoning the export of Bulgarian women. His only advantage over us, which is to say over the Foreigner, was the ability to withhold his peaches.
Even though he hadn't lived through it as an adult, the peach-seller was the child of 40 years of egalitarianism. His orchard was privately owned, but his capitalism was only skin-deep, what Drakulic cleverly calls "facade capitalism". These were capitalist peaches with a communist heart. They were also the weak man's peaches. His principle power was to deny them to those who wanted them.
On the train
I sat in a train compartment with Michael. We were travelling around the country. There was a lively elderly couple by the window. The man read a newspaper and supplied barbed comments on current affairs for the benefit of the compartment.
"Listen to this. King Simeon went to Athens for the Olympics. And there, in downtown Athens, he ran to catch the bus, leaving his wife behind. What a gentleman! Is that why he studied how to be European for 50 years in Spain? Is this how Europeans behave?" He snorted dismissively.
A couple in the corner laughed. They probably didn't think of themselves as Europeans, but they couldn't care less. They held hands and looked happy with their suntans. She had a prematurely aged, pockmarked face, bleached hair and pink lipstick, and the pleasant, horsy man looked like a Gypsy who'd made it. Across from them sat a humourless, middle-aged woman with a heavy Tartar face and thick ankles who talked continuously and in monstrous detail about her life, marriage, sons, money problems, native town Pavlikeni, modern times versus old times, work, and how other people were generally wrong about everything.
The old couple escaped her undramatic monologue by playing cards for a while. Lulled by the rocking of the train and the music of a language he was tired of trying to decipher, Michael fell asleep. Nobody had tried to speak with him or with me. As soon as he nodded off, the young couple looked at the cover of his language book.
"It's in German," the man whispered to his girlfriend. "It's Teach yourself Bulgarian for Germans." "He's not German," I said, "It's just the book, he got it in Germany." "Where is he from?" asked the old woman, peeking from behind her cards.
"New Zealand." "He's very nice," she said, wobbling her head approvingly, "a very nice young man."
"Ah, New Zealand," the old man said competently and put his cards down. "I've heard that lamb is very cheap there."
"That's true," I agreed quickly. Was it? It's amazing what you can learn about New Zealand from people who've never been there. "Is it true that they drive on the other side of the road there?" the horsy man asked. "Yes, it's true." I said. "I thought so," he grinned, satisfied. "It's because it's an island. All islands drive on the other side of the road. "
"Really?" "Yes, that's what I've heard."
"But they drive on the other side in Britain as well."
"Well, that's because Britain is an island too," he said. "That's interesting," I lied. I didn't want to give counter-examples for fear of breaking the friendly, egalitarian vibe in our compartment. "What is it like living there?" the old woman asked. "It's nice. Beautiful country, civilised people." Then, seeing the wistful faces, I hastened to add: "They have their problems of course." "Well, every country has its problems," the old man said, "but theirs are problems of a different order. A rich country's problems." I felt I had to protect the sleeping New Zealander from the calumny of wealth. "Well, not that rich. There are richer countries. But the main wealth of New Zealand is its nature, its farmland." "That's right," the old woman said, "they know how to exploit their farmland. What did we do with ours? Turned it into a giant factory. Crushed the agriculture. Industrialised it. Now it'll take decades to sort out the mess." Everyone agreed sullenly. The Tartar-faced woman had lost interest, since she could no longer hold forth. She was now extracting sandwiches from a bag. Everybody else followed suit. The old couple produced a bottle of beer and a huge salami. They started cutting slices and offering them around on the tip of the knife. "Bavarian,"they commended it. The happy couple had homemade pastries which they also offered around.
"It's good that he's asleep and can't see us with our salami and stuffed pastries," the bleached woman said with a sheepish smile. "Oh, on the contrary, he loves that sort of thing," I said. But she didn't believe me.
She probably thought the New Zealander drank champagne from crystal goblets and cut his cheap lamb with a silver knife. The old manwent to the toilet and returned at once, scandalised. "Have you seen the toilet?", he cried out. "It has to be seen to be believed. No toilet seat, all rusty... How are we going to get into Europe with this rust? Tell me, how?" Everybody shook their head indignantly. "Don't translate this for your husband," the bleached woman said to me. "It's too embarassing." "He'll see it for himself," the old man said grimly. "It's okay," I said, "He's seen worse in his travels." When later Michael got up and went to the very same abominable toilet, the train stopped and a large woman with stuffed bags burst into our compartment, heading for the empty seat. But she didn't stand a chance. "No, " everybody cried at once, "that's taken." "There's a boy from New Zealand sitting here," said the old woman putting a protective hand on the empty seat and giving the new arrival a dirty look.
But the boy from New Zealand retained only boredom and silence from that train journey. Nobody had spoken to him or even made eye-contact. In Istanbul, people had stopped us on markets to chat, comment on the "Texas" hat, ask where we were from, sell us peaches, anything to practice their English and meet foreigners. Crossing the border into Bulgaria, Michael became the invisible man. Only one person addressedhim directly - a Palestinian.
* Extract from a book in progress. Read part 2 here