A Bulgarian Job

Dear Reader, 

Are you one of those people who equate the tag, say, “Made in Germany” with high quality? Or perhaps “Made in China“, or Turkey, with low quality? Do you think fashion has to be “Designed in France,” or Italy, for it to be worthy of your attention? Do you think Scandinavian Design is synonymous with modern, minimalist, pure, and crisp? How about “Made in Bulgaria/your country” then? 

A street shoe polisher who also offers clients to weigh themselves on a mechanic scale – that’s a job already extinct in Bulgaria. The ubiquitousness of street shoe polishers in the past had to do with the clouds of dust from the unpaved streets soiling shoes jn no time, and present-day fixation on shoe polishing, unlike the fixation on owning shoes, has to do with attention to detail and a consumption pattern favouring quality over quantity. Source: Dnevnik.bg

Bulgarians are full of stereotypes about others, and find it notoriously difficult to think positively of themselves, or of the goods they produce. We tend to think of our foods as more genuine than the Western European/American ones, but we always suspect malpractice and chicanery; we usually think our clothing is well-sewn but the lack of a recognised label disturbs us; and we generally believe our furniture is solid and quality, but we dash off to IKEA every time we need something with a guaranteed cosmopolitan feel. 

A curious thing that I have recently bought from a second-hand web portal – a wooden shoe shining box of the early 1960s with storage underneath the top panel.

On the other hand, we’re not entirely dour and during soccer matches of the national team we ecstatically shout “Brave Bulgarians” at the top of our lungs, and we’re proud that the armies of Khan Tervel fought on behalf of Charlemagne in the war against the Avars, or Huns, that subjugated the Avars, thereby allegedly saving Europe from Islamisation in the late 8th century. 

These are the more daily polishing things. I have another box of polishing and waxing stuff in the pantry.

Thus we demonstrate, I’d say, a wholesomely ambivalent self-assessment that apart from highlighting our strong points, does not fail to pinpoint our weaker ones. Strong individualism and lack of constructive problem-solving skills within a community is our arch-sin. Putting profit above reputation is another, putting private interests above community ones, or the law, is yet another, and low self-confidence and idolatry of all things foreign is yet another. 

Polishing! It may look a total mess now, but oh, the comfort when ones opens a box of shoes on a weekday morning and they’re clean and ready.
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The professional man’s equipment looks more serious. Source: Dnevnik.bg

I believe some of the traits I mentioned above can be observed in other nations that have shared a similar past. However, the long interplay of these traits in the Bulgarian mind has resulted in Bulgarians’ being perhaps the only people in the world to have coined a phrase describing the process of undermining a sound or commendable initiative through ignorance, neglect, procrastination, intrigue, and corruption. This process, and its results are called A Bulgarian Job.

Box bottom. Label says State Machinebuilding Factory Georgi Dimitrov Russe; Division: Household Items; Shoe Box; Retail Price BGN 2.90 according to price list 35 of 1962. Nice, no? By the way, the thing I translated as “Household Items” is actually a quite untranslatable term meaning “common articles for broad daily use.” The term, a ridiculous abbreviation of two words the Soviet style, was coined during communism and with the years has come to apply to anything that is mass in scale and low in quality.

The Bulgarian Job, or българска работа, is essentially the result of passive aggression and Resistance as described here. It is a state of inability to look in one direction and work to a common purpose.

It might be, arguably, the everyday-life manifestation of a unique Balkan invention, the Balkanisation, which, unlike Californication, neither has to do with fornication, nor is something particularly coveted in other parts of the world.

In fact it is, according to the Wikipedia definition, “a pejorative geopolitical term originally used to describe the process of fragmentation or division of a region or state into smaller regions or states that are often hostile or uncooperative with one another.” 

Since we somehow ended up on the topic of wardrobe maintenance, here’s a Pink Wardrobe for you, by Atanas Yaranov, of 1976. Most Bulgarians use armoires to store their clothes, and not closet rooms. This painting is part of an exhibition called Interior, currently on display at the National Gallery. Source is exhibition catalogue.

The meaning of terms varies by context of course, so according to the FT Balkanisation is “a way to describe the breakdown of cross-border banking, as nervous lenders retreat in particular from the more troubled parts of the eurozone or at least try to isolate operations within national boundaries. The term stems from the historical break-up of the Balkans, whose national boundaries have fragmented at various points over the past 200 years.” To each their own. 

A quite typical, messy and clashing Bulgarian interior of circa 1966, by Slavka Deneva. Many Bulgarian homes looked like this during communism, right up to the unshaded light bulb. Reasons include lack of space, inherited woolen blankets or bed covers in whatever colour, and lack of colour choices in the clothing and home decor merchandise of the day. My spouse, who is five years older than me, was telling me today that Benetton, the popular Italian popular fashion brand, was hugely popular in Bulgaria when it was launched here in the early 1990s because, imagine that, one and the same piece of clothing was available in half a dozen colours. Source: Interior exhibition catalogue.

According to Polish essayist Kazimierz Brandys (1916-2000), of whom I’ll definitely tell you more sometime soon, there is no getting away from our nations, identities, home-grown problems, and family affairs, so we have to endure with dignity the challenges they inevitably pose. 

Urban Bulgarian endurance. Always something luxurious about a view to a church. And Sofia IS a green city, isn’t it? The Open Window of 1959, by Bencho Obreshkov. Source: Interior exhibition catalogue.
Rural endurance. Grandmothers in a village close to Silistra in northeastern Bulgaria. Author is Antony Georgieff for The Bulgarians. Picture shows the pastime of the Bulgarian elderly who, unlike their western counterparts, wear black clothes and head cloths, and sit for hours in front of their houses, chatting, instead of hopping on a deluxe ferry in bright silk tunics to have a cruise of the Mediterranean.

Along the lines of endurance and being dour, which now I am not, a great ballad by Alcatrazz, a metal band that boasted among its members great musicians such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Martie Friedman of Megadeth, and Graham Bonnet, who at one time was singer at Rainbow. Title, very appropriately, is Suffer Me.

Suffering is addictive, but one does have has to approach endurance practically at some point. This song, by Bulgarian 1980s rock band FSB, suggests the coping strategy of raising one’s mind above envy, resentment and intrigue. In this way, the song argues, the elevated individual would emerge from the common mud, and would become visible to those who love, or want to love, them. The lyrics were written by great Bulgarian poet Evtim Evtimov, who has recently died and some of whose poems I have covered in earlier posts, when I was struck by an inexplicable urge to translate poetry. Wonders never cease, and this song is certainly one of them, alongside the breathtakingly beautiful Bulgarian mountains displayed as song video.  

3953151603_0ec68b18f7_bI’ve just remembered a Baudelaire poem that speaks of exactly the same – elevating and cleaning oneself of “this morbid, vaporous place” full of “ennui, past troubles and ordeals.” So I just can’t not end on it as a positive note today.

That’s not a very Bulgarian job, I can assure you, but what to do, a person I have recently been introduced to has later commented that I appeared foreign

Happy endurance, elevation, and shoe polishing,

Translation by James McGowan for Oxford World’s Classics.