Tag Archives: balkans

Comedo, ergo sum.

If you tune back to 30 years ago, you’d realize how huge the invasion of food into our lives has become today. And I don’t mean the substance itself, which we used to put the emphasis on in the past. I’m talking about images of food: recipes, celebs being photographed while cooking or eating food, culinary globe-trotters sharing their gastronomic experiences from around the world, bloggers displaying their fave meals before (and often instead of) consuming them. These days, it seldom happens that a bunch of folks would sit at a table somewhere, and not bring the conversation to food (book talk used to be the fad in the days of yore; but no more).

First, our newly emerged middle class figured that you don’t just spend your time mooing while munching: “Yummmm, tasty! Gimme some more!”, and that’s it. Socializing while eating is a chance to utter complex and sophisticated conclusions about the consistency and texture of the sauce as well, or demonstrate your ability to discern saffron from cinnamon, and maybe even tell a story about that one time when you ate some awesome rice while you were in Goa (you did have heart-burn for days afterwards, but don’t you mention that). Of course, as in every cultured conversation, you should insert little bits of pretentiousness and idiosyncracies – detailed insight about ingredients people should never combine with fish, others you’d never dare taste even if you had a gun pressed to your head (supposedly), and still others that you’ve unsuccessfully tried to convince your little daughter to learn eating. Oh, and let’s not forget the subject of all those religious culinary taboos that have somehow sneaked back into our lives along with the latest “lifestyle shift”.

But the kitchen talk goes most smoothly when we’re talking about healthy food, whatever that’s supposed to mean. You’re either for or against saturated fats, gluten, fibers, iron and other heavy metals. And if you happen to have a vegetarian in your company, or God forbid, an all-out vegan, there’s no way in the world the conversation could stray away from the food thematic. All the books about looking after oneself and improving oneself that Foucault wrote, rely heavily on reviewing the various vectors of individualization and self-expression, now sexuality being pushed aside by food habits as the prime subject. Losing weight, detox diets, cleansing the thoughts and spirit – it’s all there. A friend of mine who lives abroad, comes every summer for vacations back here, and each time she fiollows a brand new diet, which she is always so eager to promote through personal example. Last time she had gone crazy about that US-inspired “paleo-diet”. Eating only stuff humans used to be able to afford before they became a sedentary species and started growing wheat and potatoes, milking cows, and keeping bees. Thus, the whole company around the table would teleport themselves into the imaginary Paleolite, and spend hours discussing what sorts of roots and berries people used to eat back then, how long they used to run in chase of antelopes, and how good and healthy they felt because of all that. Oh, by the way, does whiskey count as fermented paleo-fruit? Hmmm. Must check that with my Facebook paleo group to be sure.

What’s remarkable is that today, a more global meta-conversation around the Web is getting shaped up, transcending mere food conversation. See, I’m no longer just eating food and sharing my perceptions with those around me: I feel compelled to rub my awesome experience into the face of people whom I’ve barely met, but who I’m sure would be more than happy to vicariously “taste” my meal, even though they can’t really take a bite or smell it in real. It doesn’t matter – I HAVE to share it with the world! Otherwise why even bother eating? A new term sprang up in the 80s, “food porn“. As in sumptuously putting delicious food on display, manipulating the images with photographic filters and special lighting, even sprinkling colorful fake food elements made of plastic here and there – and making it all look even more natural and healthy than the original product. Today, everyone with a decent mobile phone can be an amateur “food pornographer” so to speak, and entice their friends and make them jealous by displaying the meal he’s just been served at the restaurant. You may not like seafood at all, but the spectacular sight is so mesmerizing, how can you resist uploading it in Instagram? You brag before your virtual friends, and you believe yourself so much, you even start feeling jealous about yourself! Because gradually, without noticing, you’ve experienced a grand cultural shift: now you’re enjoying the food much less; rather, its very images appear more savory than the food itself.

The same effect, though now with a trace of abstract thinking, can be noticed amidst the flood of meal names that bombard our senses at every corner. Boeuf Stroganoff, Duck Magret on A Bed of Geese Liver… It’s not very different with the salads, same exotics there: a few fresh straws guarantee you a quick trip to Nice, California, Morocco. The salad genre is very well represented in my local cuisine here, it provides huge opportunities for variations. Still, there’s the debate what is truly local national cuisine, and what was borrowed from (and more infuriatingly, by) our neighbors. National pride hasn’t bypassed the food domain either, obviously. There’s also the tendency to put food names in diminutive form, thus making them sound more “homely”, creating a sensation of delicious, grandmother-style old-school cosiness in the mouth and mind. Besides, like I said, there’s the heroics of gastronomic nationalism. It’s a big thing around my place. A shashlik could still be quite oriental, but if it’s got a “haiduk” prefix attached to it, its very mentioning causes something to stir in your chest, and you’re ready to stick a 20 buck bank note to the forehead of the clarinetist who’s blowing his mind off a couple feet away from the table (any self-respecting traditional restaurant should have a loud band of wind instrumentalists, no?)

An inexplicable notion seems to persist that the further back in time we dwell in our imagination, the better our ancestors used to eat. Better, meaning healthier, tastier, more accomplished as a whole. It stands to reason that those glorious folks of yore would feast just as gloriously, right? Oh well, when the belly talks, reason sits silently somewhere in the corner. Because we don’t even need to go back as far as the Paleolite to realize that the cuisine of our predecessors may’ve looked a bit… well, boring. If we remove things like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, beans and all those spices, that is. And think about it: we often like identifying with the downtrodden common-folk, but when it comes to food, we suddenly prefer the Sultan’s dinner. How come?

I’m not sure if we’ve given up on developing a truly unique national culture of our own at this point and frankly I don’t care, but as far as national cuisine goes, we’ve been working on that one quite actively as of late. The idea is to eat certain things that are trademarked within our touristic-political borders without anyone else having a chance to claim them: our white cheese “sirene“, our rakia… oh, and don’t you dare touch or rename our “sour milk” that you so stupidly call yogurt! We’re prepared to grab the yatagans right away! The problem with national cuisine is, there’s been no one to hold the food canon in check for the last 30 years, since the demise of communism, and the almighty Balkantourist institution along with it (you know, the one that pulled the so called “Shopska salad” out of their ass, and retroactively created a whole pre-history around it). Who knows if it’s made with or without peppers, parsley, ham and olives any more? Take such a typically patriotic meal like Tarator (essentially, yogurt diluted in water and mixed with minced cucumbers). Should it have garlic in it? Should there be walnuts and fennel? I’m confused! We all are! Let’s just add whatever we can find in the fridge then! I recently found an essay entitled “The Basic State of Tarator” in a recipe book, by the way: all you need is 1) yogurt, 2) water, 3) cucumber, 4) garlic, and 5) vinegar. Nothing more. Yes, building and maintaining a national identity used to go through raising monumental buildings, dams, power lines and ports – now it has descended into crafting recipes, and posting them on Youtube.

I don’t know how exactly food has ended up in the center of culture. Perhaps the reason is that eating remains the most egoistical action there is; even having sex requires some form of cooperation. And my belly is only mine! A society where the individual is an end in itself, the first, last and only carrier of the meaning of life, the only thing worth caring about, the substances sinking into our digestive systems have increasingly taken the front row, the way we consume them is seated at the helm, and is steering the ship to… wherever. Everything else comes next, it’s of secondary importance: from exalted aesthetics and gustatory expertise, to a scientifically grounded and reasonably articulated understanding of the benefits that eating brings to the soul and body, to the paranoid fear that the corporations are deliberately poisoning us with… chemistry(?) And thus, what used to be one of the most solitary physiological experiences has turned into the most contagious spectacle.

Stealing history

Historical Revisionism is a fascinating topic. And for us folks in the Balkans, the most obvious example that instantly comes to mind is probably the way the new nation of Macedonia has been crafting its new identity where none existed: by stealing history from neighboring nations. We’ve all heard of Skopje 2014, the huge, majestic, ultra-megalomaniac re-doing of the city center of the Macedonian capital. They put a huge golden statue of Alexander the Great on a horse – so huge that when you stand on this huge square and look to the statue, the only thing you’d see is the horse’s golden balls. And that’s just the centerpiece of a much larger complex of buildings that look as if they’re in the capital of the Roman empire at its zenith. All the while, the rest of the country sinking in squalor and being torn to pieces by lingering ethnic tensions.

It’s a mess. But I digress. This is just a symptom, the tip of the iceberg. It’s a sign of something bigger, deeper about the Macedonians that’s troubling. And it’s not just the fact that the Macedonians have struggled to find their identity ever after the artificial creation of their nation back in the early 20th century at the behest of the Soviets who wanted to split a nation (the Bulgarian one) into pieces to rule the region more easily, and favor their buddies the Serbs. Geopolitical games have such consequences, you know – they pull people apart, often even people of the same nation. The Macedonians have gone to tremendous lengths since that time – they’ve turned a certain variety of the Bulgarian language into a new language that they call Macedonian (the joke goes that it’s Bulgarian, written on a Serbian typing machine); they named their territory after a province in Greece which is traditionally associated with an ancient Greek group called Macedon (Greece has blocked their EU integration because of that, which has forced Macedonia to name itself FYROM); and they’ve completely re-written all their history books, and indoctrinated their children for a couple generations now, to believe that today’s Macedonians (predominantly Slavic people with quite a bit of Thracian DNA in them, just like the rest of the peoples living around these regions) are somehow the direct descendants of Philip and Alexander. They’ve even claimed many great historical personalities and current celebrities have some Macedonian ancestry – hell, even a Macedonian discovered America while sailing alongside Columbus! (Except, that sailor never called himself Macedonian). What’s next, we often joke here – claiming the Moon is Macedonian territory as well? (“Oh Moon, you Macedonian land! Are we gonna fight over you too?“)

If that’s not an example of historical revisionism in desperate search of a non-existent identity, I don’t know what is. It’s all a consequence of the many complexes and frustrations that the Macedonian people have had through the centuries. A small country, squeezed between several larger ones, always kicked and moved around, always used as a pawn, and cannon-fodder in someone else’s wars. I understand them. WE ALL understand them. Which is why we’ve given up trying to argue with them. We’ve stopped trying to convince them that they’re not what they claim they are. It’s not worth it. We gain nothing from it. We’ve thrown our hands in the air, and decided on a different approach. Which is why my country was the first to recognize Macedonia’s independence when they split away from Yugoslavia. We accepted the name Macedonia (unlike the Greeks, who’ve had their reasons to vehemently oppose it). We recognized their language, although we all know too well that it’s just a dialect of ours. Even most Macedonians, when you ask them off-camera, would say they feel Bulgarian. But don’t tell that to their leaders and politicians, it’s a different story there.

Who cares. It’s all in the past. They can define themselves as they wish. They can claim all the great glory of the world if they like. The rest of us know the truth. Let them think of themselves as they wish. We should be looking to the future now. Together. Which is why our governments signed an agreement for neighborly cooperation just yesterday. It was carefully crafted in a way not to insult anyone’s sensibilities. Because there are lots of sensitive questions surrounding Macedonia. Yet, some in Macedonia still opposed this large step toward regional peace and harmony. There’ll always be those who’d want to draw political benefits even from the most noble of occasions. Anyway. We’ve done a big step into the right direction, and the process now looks irreversible. Because the Balkans have always been a powder keg, split up and divided and kicked around and used and abused by various “Big Powers”. And if there’s one solution to all that, it’s to take matters in our own hands, forget our differences, and walk together in the same direction. Hopefully, that step will be followed by many more. And hopefully, the Macedonians will stop living in the past, and finally look forward from now on. Because the alternative is quite disastrous. And to all big players in the West I must say: hands off from the Balkans!

Bit warm, aint’cha?

I was in Greece a while ago. Vacation, you know. It’s very close to home, you know… the beaches are fine, they’ve got islands, and cold frappe, and delicious salads and ouzo. Anyway, I digress. One thing that annoys tourists, mostly those coming from “organized” societies in the north, is how the Greeks seem so lazy. We’ve heard all sorts of stories, the Greeks don’t give a damn about a thing, all they care about is drinking their frappe, eating their gyros, and chatting about soccer and politics. Oh, and getting all those euros from the stupid Euros.

Same goes for Italy. I was there recently, too. And in Spain as well. Saw the same thing there (we’ve all heard of their siesta, it’s world-famous). Come noon-time, you won’t find a single shop working. You won’t be even able to fuel your car, because everything is closed, and the locals seem to have vanished somewhere. And this goes on until the sun starts setting.

But really, think about it. It’s 40+ ‘C outside. We have a saying here, when it’s 40’C, the only ones walking on the streets are the stray dogs… and British tourists. Haha, funny, right? But it makes sense. Nothing can survive outside when the asphalt is melting. People are not that stupid, as to put their health at risk for my convenience. And I understand them. Are we sure they’re really lazy, or it’s more like they’ve got a sense of self-preservation?

And the problem has started shifting northwards now, what with climate change and all. We might soon need to introduce the siesta here as well – a thing no one would’ve imagined around these latitudes. And this is potentially one of the many ticking time bombs that climate change is presenting us with. Aside from the more obvious ones, like the various manifestations of more extreme weather (droughts are alternating with huge floods these days, more than ever in recorded history). It’s starting to be felt everywhere. We’ve had heat waves before, of course. We even have a period in mid July that we traditionally call “Heat days” (this year they happened to be rainy and cold, but then 43’C followed).

We’re now able to grow plants like citrus fruits that we weren’t able to, until a few years ago. Sounds nice, eh? But in the meantime, we’re losing our traditional crops now. And we’re only now getting acquainted with pests that we never heard before, with which people in Egypt and Israel are more familiar. Mosquitos, big scary-looking bugs that bite like piranhas, etc. Only, we don’t have the immunity to those because we never needed to develop it. Our health-care system sucks even without those threats, now it’ll have to cope with them too. And don’t forget the huge electricity consumption for air-conditioning.

The list could go on. My point is, we’re like the frog in the boiling pot. Literally. He never notices he’s boiling, because it’s all happening too gradually. Well, maybe not too gradually any more. Not at this point.

But of course, it’s all China’s FAKE NEWS baby. Their plot to make America un-great again. Never mind that China is now the most ardent advocate for “doing something”, and is about to become the biggest investor in renewables. But it’s their fault anyway. Also, THANKS OBAMA! Or something.

 

The Frozen Dance

Hi folks! Today I’d like to point your attention to this tradition which we celebrate here in Bulgaria every Jan 6, which is Jordan’s Day (we’re very fond of our name days, they almost have the status and weight of birthdays; it’s always nice to have twice as many reasons to drink and celebrate, right?) The ritual follows an old tradition probably predating (but bearing obvious parallels to) Epiphany – or Twelfth Day as it’s known – and all Christianity, rooting back to the ages of the Thracians who lived around these places in Roman times. The dance is called “horo“, a traditional feature of every Balkan feast, where people line up and make a series of elaborate steps in rhythm with the music.

This particular one is a bit special though, because it marks the beginning of the coldest season by… plunging the “horo” into the frozen waters of a small river! It’s done exceptionally by men (for understandable physiological reasons), and it’s meant to send wishes to the God(s?) for health and prosperity throughout the new year. First the leader of the horo goes in to break the ice, then the drummers enter and start the rhythm, and the rest follow, normally by order of seniority. The whole thing lasts for about 10 minutes, and is preceded and then followed by feasts, eating a lot of meat and of course drinking a lot of wine and rakia. Anyway, behold the weirdness!

(Warning! Do not try this at home without proper preparation! And by that, I do mean industrial amounts of alcohol conveniently infused into your blood system!)

This horo is from the small mountain town of Kalofer, home to legendary revolutionaries, and considered part of the historical heartland of the country. The ritual has been there for many years, and it has been attracting ever growing crowds each year.

This of course brings us to the next local tradition, the Kukeri, an even more ancient tradition which we talked about a while ago.

Concrete, Neon And Silicon In The Palace Of Un-wisdom

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Did I get your attention with that pic, eh? Well, that’s because this is a regular sight at the place where I’m currently writing from. See, there’s hardly a hotel left in Bulgaria, which doesn’t proudly wear a grand-sounding name like “Something-something Resort”, “Something Spa Palace”, or “A-lot-of-Something Resort & Spa Palace”. In the worst case, either “Something Beach”, “Anything Del Mar” or anything related to a lot of awesomeness amidst a presumed sea of tranquility and relaxation.

In reality, though, the picture looks much different. The BG seaside resorts are a curious and colorful ecosystem of its own that’s full of internal inconsistencies and abounds of striking paradoxes.

See, the 4-5-month summer season at the Black Sea coast passes along laws of physics and biology of its own, as if pulled out of some sort of parallel universe. For many visitors, the few days/weeks they spend there with the intention to relax, often turn into some kind of resilience and endurance test – both for the human body (primarily through various types of intoxication), its physiology (after (un)intentionally falling down from balconies of varying height), or a test of the limit of human tolerance to physical confrontation, and excessive amounts of loud, horrible music.

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Both to the north and south of the place where the long Balkan mountain range plunges into the sea (a spot that happens to be near the location where my employer company operates, and where I spend most of the summer time, working amidst all those cheerful procrastinating folks), there are tons of unique local color that’s capable of capturing the imagination of any connoisseur of abstract art, post-modernism, gangster cinema and horror literature. And oh, where without the so-called Thug-o-Baroque style, of course. From June to September, now world-famous places like Sunny Beach, Golden Sands, Nesebar, St.Vlas, Primorsko, Sozopol, Kiten, the larger cities of Varna and Burgas, and the many locations along the Black Sea aquatorium, many of which have now practically merged into one humongous Spain-style conglomerate of resort craziness, attract hundreds of thousands of seekers of extreme sensations.

The ceaseless flow of crowds who love to “unhinge their heads” as the local saying goes (meaning, to blast oneself with drinking), are staggering. Many of those peeps spend most of their time around here in a constant state between alcoholic nirvana and aesthetic inferno. And they all love it. Because it’s cheap, it’s crowded, and it’s crazy.

I once saw a few UK guys being interviewed for a local TV after a week’s stay at a local all-inclusive hotel. “Did you guys love Bulgaria?”, the reporter asked. “Sure we did! We didn’t leave the room for six days; the drinks are really cheap here, and the room-service is 24/7, way cool!”, they retorted. Yep, that’s all this is about. Boobs, drugs & booze all night long. What more can you wish for? Doesn’t matter that there’s an ancient town sporting some of UNESCO’s most notable sites of interest just a couple of miles away. Who cares.

If they could squeeze 15 minutes of relative sobriety out of their almost uninterrupted state of amok, perhaps some of those tourists would’ve realized that the formerly cute, cozy little resort towns along our cost that used to harbor a unique atmosphere and culture, have now grown into gigantic super-urbanized mastodons of concrete, glass and steel, with their own unwritten rules of existence. It’s good that most people tend to leave this place with almost no memories remaining within their alcohol-filled skulls anyway, which is a form of bliss, I presume.

A short stroll across the most crowded of these resort places leads you alongside rows of artificial palms, in turn lined with tasteless (but expensive) hotels with prefixes like “Golden” and “Grand”, and suffixes like “Beach”, “Resort”, etc.

The showcase of posh, kitsch resort places begins from the very beach line, and ends at the nightclubs. A 24/7 spectacle, drowned in neon lights and loud pop-folk (“chalga”) music, that’s become the symbol of the post-communist “Transition period” that’s been going on for decades here now.

The nature of local resort life is quite eclectic. There’s huge amounts of virtually everything: classic thugs (called “mutri”, i.e. ‘mugs’ in local slang), a remnant of the 90s, which were the years of the peak of thug-o-cracy during the height of the Transition to Democracy(TM); confused foreign tourists representing the cream of the working class of Western and Northern Europe; Russian parvenus with their families and huge SUVs, as well as local BG students who’ve been saving money from their meager stipends all year, just to come here and splash them over booze, drugs and boobs for the 5 days of their stay at the Bulgarian Riviera(TM).

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Meanwhile, the more posh places of nightlife provide an opportunity to check your watch with the latest tendencies of plastic surgery. Silicon is more abundant in lips than in boobs. The modern-day Cinderellas of the pop-folk “chalga” generation have magically transformed themselves into princesses of kitsch. They dismount lushly tuned pompous carriages, the metaphorical steel pumpkins of modern time, in turn driven by pumpkin-heads looking like brainless Terminators. Mounted on their 9-inch shoe platforms, tattooed from top to bottom with trendy hieroglyphs, thick artificial suntan and leather dresses of tiger patterns, these modern Cinderellas proudly enter the palaces of kitsch and “chalga”, nose up and shiny purse in hand.

In the larger resorts like Sunny Beach (where I’m currently stationed), one could clearly notice the gap between the local show-off parvenus and the “deluded” all-inclusive foreign tourists. The newly spawned local “upper class” can be noticed from a mile within this famous Black Sea reservation of special humanoid species. They park their second-hand limos worth 200 grand right in the mud beside the huge nightclubs at the very sand dunes on the beach, essentially “chalga” clubs and palaces of vanity and pomposity. Their very presence there is considered a sign of social prestige. Inside those mysterious places, a fierce competition rages between the various thug-o-cliques: everyone is striving to show off as the one commanding the largest horde of the most scary-looking, neckless, and utterly useless gorillas that in some circles are passing for “security”. The unsuspecting observer could be shocked at the sight of a club table, densely encircled by a dozen of those monsters, who’ve blocked any access and any vantage point of observation towards their precious untouchable employers. Every now and then, behind the forest of muscled arms and skin-shaven, neckless heads, a tender female arm or two would pop up, clapping in semi-trance or clicking their jewelry-laden fingers in rhythm with the sound of loud pop-folk.

While (in)famous (and quite successful) local drug dealer and pimp Tosho the Shark orders malt elixirs 400 bucks apiece (but not before having filled his nostrils with an ounce of the most expensive coke in town), just a few blocks away from this palace of grotesque luxury, the average Sven from Sweden is actively turning himself and his peers into a semi-sentient cretin, by means of gargantuan amounts of super-cheap, super-shitty Bulgarian alcohol. Cheers! Nazdrave! Or as they say in Sweden, “skål”!

Somewhere after the 15th shot, Sven and his folks will stagger out into the Main Street of Sunny Beach, now on all-fours, without knowing where he is, what he’s doing, and what sort of creature he is any more. He’ll then be stopped by a tender voice emerging from behind the open back-door of a parked yellow taxi, a local nymph of unspecified ethnic origin inquiring in broken English whether he wouldn’t like to perform a sexual contact with her, in exchange for some coins. The almost dead-drunken Sven will gladly accept the offer, and a quarter of an hour later he’ll have parted ways with 200 bucks of the money that his oldies had given him for this vacation, after a quick and instantly forgotten coitus. Much of those 200 bucks will then end up straight in the luxurious leather man-purse of the above-mentioned Tosho the Shark, who’ll be spending it responsibly on more cocaine and malt. No surprise the likes of IKEA have come up with adverts of this sort:

That said, no doubt, next year Sven will be recommending this amazing place to his cousin, along with another 10 of his pals back in Sweden. They’ll come to Sunny Beach or Golden Sands, and in turn, duly “unhinge their heads” in quite a similar manner. They’ll have joined innumerable hordes of Russians, Germans, British, Norwegians, Poles, and our very own local brand of super-dudes. One or two of them will end their holidays with fractured limbs after one of those famed “balconing” sessions after having consumed a litre of alcohol in their hotel rooms. Granted, that’s a practice so tempting that there’s no way it could be resisted, so there goes.

And all of that, at the background of the concrete brutalism and infrastructural insanity that reigns supreme along our seaside, where every vacant square inch of interior has been turned into rooms for rent, and every inch of exterior – into parking lots.

The only thing that’s saltier than the sea itself, are the local prices. A litre and a half of simple water is worth 4.50 bucks at the beach. Tap water being posed as mineral water, presumably (but not really) originating from our famous spa resorts in the interior of the country, ya know. Horrible, yet expensive food. Tons of concrete and silicon everywhere. These resorts sometimes resemble a students’ town on steroids, and at other times a shooting site for a crappy low-budget Felini movie.

But no one can take the spectacularness and grandeur away from these monstrous chalga-polises. They’re the aggressive, concrete confirmation of William Blake’s famous words, “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom… You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough”.