Tag Archives: culture

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.

Lidl: the backlash

Notice something wrong on these pictures? Well yeah, duh! A famous church in Santorini, Greece, was used to advertise a Greek cheese product in one of the Lidl stores (a German chain). Except, the most prominent feature of that landmark (beside the blue roof) was removed:

Lidl airbrushes Christian cross from church pictured on its Greek food range because the supermarket chain ‘does not wish to exclude any religious beliefs’

Well, guess what. You’ve done just that – excluded a religious belief. And I’m saying it as an atheist. Savor the irony.

There was indeed a huge backlash (mostly around the social networks) about this picture. Lidl even had to come up with an official apology for screwing up on this one. People were shocked, shocked I tell you! Selling Greek products while trying to remove an important part of the Greek identity from sight. People have called for boycott. And probably rightly so. Why?

Because it’s one thing to be sensitive to religious and ethnic identities, be inclusive, tolerant, etc. But it’s quite another to bend over backwards and scrap one identity for another, for the sake of pandering to a particular customer segment. This is just business, some would say. You’re free to go buy crappy food elsewhere. Sure thing, Ahmed! (HA!) And that’s exactly what people are doing here. Voting with their feet. And with their wallets. You wanted to appear super-tolerant and super-inclusive, and attract a few Muslim customers? (Hey, Lidl may claim they don’t want to offend anyone so they prefer to remove all religious symbols from their shelves, but how do you explain the fact that their German and Dutch stores have entire sections dedicated to Halal food!?) I guess you were prepared for the backlash from non-Muslim customers, then! Being inclusive through exclusion – how does that work, Ahmed?

Removing the cross from a Greek landmark is NOT an act of religious neutrality. It’s an act of cowardice. It’s removing the very identity of that landmark, the part that makes it Greek. The cross is probably 80% of the “Greekness” in that Greek landmark, like the crescent is 80% of what makes a Saudi, Saudi. And to use Photoshop to delete this, and hope no one notices? Wow. You’ve got to have balls for that much cowardice (amazing, huh?)

That’s cultural castration, sorry to say it. It’s multicultural idiotism. It’s PC schizophrenia. And no, this isn’t just about some food store, or just about a business, one of many. It’s a symptom of a much wider phenomenon. The same one forcing German mayors to look their own constituents in the face and advise them to avoid walking near certain areas of town while wearing short skirts from now on, lest they offend the refugees residing there.

I’m all for cultural inclusiveness. But this is not right. It just isn’t.

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.

On booze, and Russian national security

On the day when a rampant terrorist shot the Russian ambassador in Turkey dead, the Russian people didn’t give a damn about that news, as much as they were shaken by other news coming from the heart of Siberia. And there’s good reason they cared about it so much, because it directly impacts their sense of safety and security – to such an extent that the local authorities declared a state of emergency in Irkutsk, banning all liquid sales. The reason? 60+ people went to meet their creator after having ingested fake alcohol. And that’s not just some obscure footnote in some online media, it’s the News.Ru being the first to report on it. So it must matter a lot, guys!

If that’s not the most Russian thing ever, I don’t know what is.

Just think about it. Those poor sods didn’t die of over-drinking, which is what you would’ve expected. No, it’s the stuff they drank that bought them a one-way ticket to Hell. It’s some sort of hawthorn potion called Boyarishnik (literally: ‘hawthorn’), used for cleaning bathrooms. Something like a liquid lotion. There were three-score fatally affected within a single day. 7 somehow survived – according to the local doc, the reason is they had consummated the potion with potatoes and some soda beverage. The rest had ignored this tiny detail, so they had had at it in full-force without any meal. They gulped the Boyarishnik, and soon they relocated to the netherworld.

If there’s one place such weirdness is seen as the norm, it’s certainly the vastness that is Russia. NTV reported that 33 had died on the spot, another 17 had woken from their coma just for a short while, only to report about the circumstances of the incident… and still another 2 were found dead in the… wait for it… collector tanks of the local heating company?!

Oh, by the way, this massive intoxication happened in the Novo-Lenino residential area of Irkutsk. Those who managed to testify said they had all drunken from the hawthorn concentrate, even though they had clearly read the label, saying it shouldn’t be consumed. Apart from the classical ethanol alcohol, there was also methanol (poison), and antifreeze in the mix. Soviet innovation, you know.

The ensuing investigation found thousands of bottles of the potion in the vicinity, so Irkutsk now has an all-round ban on selling any liquids, even ones with the tiniest possibility of containing alcohol. A similar thing happened about a month ago in neighboring town Sayansk, except back then the scandal was somehow covered up because of the relatively “small” number of casualties.

Now after the fact, the Russian media report on the fact that this sort of alcohol substitute has been quite popular among Russians because of the lower price compared to real alcohol. The deeper the economic crisis gets, the more rampant this problem becomes. In this sense, the prevalence of fake-alcohol intoxication is a fine indicator for the real economic state of affairs in Russia. In 2010-2014 for example, such drinks had killed 45,000 people in Russia. This, within half a decade. Seems like Russians don’t really need wars or terrorism to threaten them – they’re already losing entire cities worth of population to bad alcohol on an annual basis.

But let’s face it. Despite the localized, temporary measures, nobody is able to stop Russians from passionately loving alcohol. Just try to ban it nationwide, and you’ve got a revolution on your hands. And because legal alcohol is expensive, and they can’t stop drinking, they come up with all sorts of ingenuous alternatives. In October, the town of Kaluga witnessed a huge scandal, because suddenly a street vending machine popped up in the city center, where one could buy thornapple tincture for 20 roubles (30 euro-cents). Without any regulation or oversight. One could drop a coin, get a 100 g bathroom-washing chemical containing some alcohol, then drink it. Needless to say, a long line immediately formed behind this machine, dead-drunk folks queueing all day for the elixir of oblivion. This caused quite some outcry.

Then there was a similar vending machine in Chita in the Far East. This new fad spread so widely, federal MP Nikolai Govorin proposed a bill banning alcohol vending machines altogether, plus forceful court-imposed rehabilitation for alcoholics. On top of that, PM Dmitry Medvedev has now officially commented on the Irkutsk tragedy, finally recognizing it as “a grave problem”, and the illegal alcohol trade as “a national-security threat”.

He’s very correct, of course. Russia don’t need no Chechens, Taliban, Ukrainians, Americans, sorosoids or Europeans. The real threat to Russia is this innocent liquid called alcohol, which keeps decimating the Broad Russian Soul at the rate the Mongols did: low-quality alcohol, fake methyl alcohol, lotions, perfumes or dish-washing liquids, you name it. Turns out, as soon as the Russian sniffs alcohol, all national security goes down the sink. Literally. So, don’t be tellin’ me nuffin’ about no Russian hackers tilting US elections for Trump or anything like that! That wouldn’t make any sense – not in a country where you’d hardly find enough sober people to do a job so specific and sophisticated.

An old acquaintance of mine once used to work in Siberia for a few years. Bulgarians mostly used to work in the Republic of Komi during commie times, near the Urals. You make good money there, which you don’t have where to spend – and alcohol becomes your regular companion in those frozen forests. So he spent a couple years in Syktyvkar. He came back a complete Russian-style drunkard, but at his rare times of sobriety he used to say, “I saw such wonders there that I can’t find the words to describe – but at some point it would all sink into an alcoholic haze for me, when the vodka took over. Down and down you spiral, until it all merges into a blur. Even the Mariana Trench has been better explored than the drunken Russian!” At some point he went back to Russia (this time Moscow). Not because he needed the money, but because he “couldn’t drink here as much as he wanted” (and mind you, I’m talking of Bulgaria here!) In a few months, the terrible news came that he had been found frozen to death in a ditch, a couple blocks away from his home – a half-empty vodka bottle in hand, a smaller one in the pocket of his coat.

That was a long time ago. Communism may’ve fallen since then, but the Russian’s love for alcohol hasn’t faltered even one bit in the meantime. Hackers, terrorists, and national security? Pfeh! Those are a joke. Just give’m vodka, hawthorn concentrate and bathroom-washing lotion, sit back, and watch!

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.

black-sea-coast-resorts-map
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”.

An Exercise In History Deletion

This is going to be about the way history itself can be treated, and twisted, and perverted, for political purposes. Do bear with me. For the target of my contention is your fave boxing bag too: Russia. And for a good reason.

December 5, 1931 was a dark day in history. One of many at the time. It was the day that Stalin ordered the demolition of the Christ the Savior cathedral in downtown Moscow. That same day, the magnificent Memorial of the Bulgars was also blown up in Kazan, in Tatarstan, to the east of Moscow. In the meantime, along with this destruction of massive cultural treasures, a hectic effort in rewriting the history of the Russian Empire was going on. Because it was supposed to be substituted with the glorious history of the emergent Soviet Union. The drive of the Bolshevik propaganda to redraw not just Russian history but the history of all the parts of the world it could put its paws upon, was meant to prove to the peoples of the new empire that the spiritual and historic legacy of imperial Russia was supposed to be perceived as solely the achievement of the Russian people and no one else – and not just any Russian people, but the “right” social groups. Everything that dared to contradict this fantasy, was doomed to oblivion. As collateral, the Bulgar(ian) role in Russian history became a victim as well.

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Saints Cyril and Methodius were two titans of the Early Medieval Renaissance with huge significance for the Balkans, East Europe and the Slavic world. Their disciples brought their legacy and their work to Russia as well, among other places. This fact became a primary target for the Soviet historiography, and was a taboo topic in Russia for a long time. The very thought that the Slavic alphabet that was so important for an entire civilization, was brought by a tiny country like Bulgaria (an empire at the time), was unbearable and unacceptable for the Kremlin. Russia had to be the standard-bearer of the Slavic civilization, and it wasn’t meant to share that pedestal with anybody else. So, the historical truth was quickly substituted with a pseudo-scientific theory about Cyril and Methodius’ imaginary “mission” to the Crimean Khazars in 860. A scribe at the time wrote that Cyril was shown a Bible that was written in a local runic alphabet. That detail is at the core of the Soviet myth that the Slavic alphabet was created in Russia (or under Russian influence). What’s more likely than that story is that Cyril was familiar with the Varangian (Viking) runes that were popular among the northern merchants who were quite influential in Byzantium at the time, and who, among other things, were the trigger factor for the creation of Russia. In fact, the Russian tribes intentionally invited a clan of Swedish Vikings (later dubbed the Rurikids) to come show them how to build a state of their own. Another historical fact that was (and still is largely) a taboo topic in Russia, by the way.

Even a cursory glance at the Grand Soviet Encyclopaedia shows that Cyril and Methodius’ mission and significance is deliberately disparaged, and for political reasons. Instead of clearly stating their South Slavic identity and the explicit Bulgarian patronage of their disciples’ work, they’re being associated with some sort of vague “Slavic influence”.

Plenty of Bulgarian history teachers now recall that in the Soviet era, they would frequently hit all sorts of road-blocks and wade into all sorts of trouble if they ever dared to cite actual historical facts about the key role of the First Bulgarian Empire for the development and popularization of Orthodox Christianity throughout East and Central Europe, including Russia. The fact that Bulgaria was the first enlightenment factor in this half of the continent, long before Russia, was yet another taboo topic. Which hadn’t been the case before the Bolsheviks – in fact, many Russian writers and academics have acknowledged that “our southern cousins taught us to read and write, and to pray to God”. Citing these was also forbidden in Soviet schools, and severely frowned upon in Bulgarian schools, pre-90s. A pre-Bolshevik professor named Yuriy Venelin (whose words I’ve just quoted) had his grave and memorial plate blown up by the Soviet Moscow authorities in the 30s in result of that stance.

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Another victim of this hectic historical revisionism was St. Cyprian of Bulgaria. He became a Bishop of Moscow and All Russia in the late 14th century. He was born in Tarnovo, Bulgaria, and was among the most influential figures in Russian history, with huge importance for the Russian Orthodox Church. As is the case with Saints Cyril and Methodius, Constantinople was the facilitator of the Russo-Bulgar relations at the time. Cyprian, who was a friend and ally to our own legendary patriarch Euthymius of Tarnovo, was sent on a mission to Russia to help spread Orthodox Christianity in a country that was being torn by civil war and threatened with Asian invasions. The tremendous talent of the Bulgarian cleric managed to bring the warring lords to the table, achieve internal peace, and mobilize the Church and hence the populace to unite against the Tatar threat. Cyprian gained huge support among the people, and embarked on a unifying and enlightening mission until his death in the early 15th century. He was head of the enormous Muscovite and All-Russian Patriarchy.

Centuries after he was canonized and proclaimed a Saint though, his origin and role for unifying Russia and the Church began to be undermined and questioned. At times he was declared a Greek, and his contribution as leader and reformist of the Russian faith started to get ascribed to some imaginary Russian hermit. After long negotiations between the Bulgarian and Russian Patriarchies, about 16 years ago Cyprian’s bones were re-buried at the Uspenski Cathedral within the Kremlin complex. The visitors can now see his tomb, with an inscription from the Russian Orthodox Church, acknowledging his true origin and his significance for the formation of the Russian nation. He had to wait nearly a century to re-gain his status. And that says a lot.

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There’s yet another episode in the history of the bilateral relations that is much darker than this. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution gave way to illusions among the heirs of the Volga Bulgars (living between the Volga and Kama rivers) that they’d be granted a revival of their national identity. They did not want to be falsely given the identity of the Tatar invaders who had conquered Volga Bulgaria centuries before, so they were naive enough to believe the new Soviet regime would help them. But the Bolsheviks first used them for their civil war, and then removed the threat from a possible Bulgar revival by either massacring, deporting, or generally repressing any and all activists who were hoping for a Bulgar autonomy. Instead, the Tatar Autonomous Socialist Republic was created around the city of Kazan. And the dream of Khan Kotrag’s heirs was drowned into the Volga and Kama rivers.

A USSR census conducted at the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika gave a chance to the long-oppressed people to raise their head once more. However, as soon as our newly born democracy attempted to voice its support for our cousins around the Volga, Moscow sent us an angry note, ordering us to refrain from “meddling in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation” (while simultaneously not shying away from meddling into our own domestic affairs, regarding our energy industry, etc). Naturally, being true to its old instinct of laying lower than the grass until all storms have passed, BG duly obliged and shut up. A few years later, a petition was signed by 150 thousand Volga Bulgars who demanded that a Bulgar nation be recognized within the Russian Federation was sent to the Russian embassy (other nations have been recognized for far less, btw). But it so happened that the Second Chechen War broke out at that moment, so our “leaders” figured the moment to press such claims that could be interpreted as “separatists”, was inappropriate. So the cause of the heirs of the Bulgars was again drowned somewhere into the bog of political expedience and coyness.

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Of course, Soviet “national engineering” has been well-known far and wide for years. Formerly influential regional powers like my country have been of particular interest in various partitioning efforts, for the sake of fulfilling various geopolitical purposes. The peak of this was reached during our own pro-Soviet regime (1944-1989), where our obedient Soviet marionette governments were actively used to “create” such mongrels like a Macedonian, Moesian, Thracian and Dobrudja nations. Moscow built a neat and nice theory regarding the establishment of a new “Gagauz” nation in the Ukrainian and Moldovan autonomous republics, especially in the regions tightly packed with ethnic Bulgarians. The ripples of all this nation-building can be felt even today. Brothers are pitched against brothers, arguing who’s more authentic than the other. The purpose of all this was clear: rob nations of their identity, dilute their historic legacy. Divide and rule, you know.

We’ve often been told that we owe our freedom to the benevolent Russians, because they liberated us from the Ottomans. In fact, ever since the Russo-Turkish wars of the 19th century, we, along with a number of our Balkan neighbors, have consistently been used as both a source of manpower for the Russian nation-engineering and re-population purposes (the Southern Steppes of Crimea and Caucasus had to be Russianized and absorbed into the expanding empire, after all), and as a host territory to dump the respective indigenous Crimean and Caucasian peoples into, in exchange (particularly in the eastern portion of Bulgaria). Given the Russian efforts from the near past to erase our legacy and diminish our role for the formation of the Slavic civilization, I could say that if anyone still believes that Russia’s intentions towards my country have ever been benevolent (and I’m speaking of Russia the state and the government, as opposed to the Russians-the-people), then they’re as naive as a 3rd-grader. Because if anyone has been paying attention in history classes, they’d have noticed by the 3rd grade that something’s terribly wrong with the whole “Russia is our friend” narrative.

Of course, that’s not just directed at us. We’re no special snowflake. In fact, Russia likes to do that all the time, with anybody. Kremlin’s historical revisionist prowess has been well-known. As any other craft, it’s been passed from master to apprentice. Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise that the various artificial nations that have sprung from this nation-building frenzy would start inventing histories of their own at some point. Just look at the way the “antique” history of the Former Yugoslav Republic of…. Blabla-bla, was invented, perfumed, put in a shiny package, and sold to the public. After all, the complexes and deficiencies of a (quasi-)nation that has not existed until recently and is therefore rather confused about its own identity, always tend to reflect on the way its (hi)story starts to look under closer scrutiny. And some national stories do reek of cartoonish ridiculousness, indeed.

Life in the kommunalky

Communal apartments, or Kommunalky. You can see most major Russian cities being encircled by those mastodons of Socialist-realist architecture. They look grand, imposing, intimidating even. But what’s life like in those? And I do mean *is*, not *was*. Because a huge chunk of the Russian people still live there. I’ve been to Moscow over a dozen times through the years, but I must admit this is the first time that I’ve come to know Russians so intimately.

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So, about the kommunalka. Visitor’s first impression: the staircase stinks! It literally reeks. I’ve thought Russians bake and boil and fry stuff at home only when they’re on holidays at the apartment complexes that they’ve bought along the sea coast of my country, but no. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. When you enter an actual Russian kommunalka, you get instantly hit by a thick wall of odors. All sorts of meals can be felt from a hundred yards. They mix with each other into some sort of omnipresent, omnipotent, all-enveloping, invisible (and often visible) mist of smells, among which, after taking the second breath, you can no longer distinguish the separate meals.

If you somehow manage to survive this initial shock and make it to the, let’s say 3rd floor of this shabby juggernaut of a building, you’d go through another shock. You’ll end up in Heaven! Or rather, a haven for voices and moods, and all sorts of opinions, and meals, and rumors, and stuff.

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Actually the typical communal home does encompass the entire floor (and it’s a huge floor, mind you). On both sides of the long corridor there are tiny rooms. Each is no more than 10 sq m. At the end of the corridor, there’s the bathroom and toilets. And one kitchen, shared by all 16-24 families. All women and men, children, elderly folk. They’re all in this together.

It’s a dark corridor. The plaster is coming off the walls, and you can’t recognize what color it might have been once. Most lights have gone dead way ago. There’s a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, though. It’s the kitchen window. There’s one. It’s the kitchen that these 16-24 families consider their HQ, the heart of the community, the very command center of the kommunalka. I meet a lady called Nastya who was born here, has always lived here, and has almost never left the area. She’s something like a chieftain here. That’s an interesting and long story really. While Russian men may appear manly and powerful in politics and sports, deep in the bowels of these homes of theirs, they’ve been ruled by their women ever since the two world wars, when women became the dominant power due to the shortage of men, and the fact that women were running the whole economy – and they’ve never relinquished that position since. Anyway; Nastya has some special privileges in this place. There’s a certain hierarchy, practically a matriarchate. Those who’ve lived in the kommunalka the longest have the most rights. They can choose which corner of the table they’ll sit on at dinner (or even have separate tables of their own). Or which side of the stove they’ll sit beside (that’s kind of important; Russian winters are quite tough).

There are 5 tables and 2 stoves in the kitchen. And 16 families. If you want to cook, you’ll have to wait for your turn. The single washing machine works non-stop, 24/7. There’s lots of pants and shirts and diapers to wash, after all. I wait in line for the toilet. In a minute, Pavlik, Nastya’s son, comes out, pink toilet paper in one hand, a round wooden board with a hole in it in the other. Yep, every family brings their own toilet board with them. Hygiene matters! You know, the line between privacy and community are kind of blurred in a place like this. At that point, another lady goes through the corridor (littered with personal stuff, btw – I thought Russians were weird for putting their shoes in front of their doors at our holiday complexes, despite having all that space inside, but now I understood where that habit comes from; they’re just not used to having space). The lady is wearing pink bunny slippers. They’re fluffy. She looks Asian. I start a conversation. Turns out she’s Uzbeki. Never learned her name, though. Almost half of the 16 families on that floor are Uzbeki or Turkmen, I later learned. Guest workers who are treated like cattle in Russia, but still make double the money they’d make back home. Or triple. Most seem cautious about making new contacts, at least initially. After some ice-breaking, they open up and tell me curious things.

Unlike them, Nastya is quite talkative. She knows everything that’s going on in their section of the kommunalka (there are about 20 sections, each with its own entrance, separate lift – it’s another society, another planet; you rarely meet many people from outside your own entrance). Nastya invites me to their family’s room (I wouldn’t even call it home, or apartment; it’s just one room). I’m welcomed by their cat, who looks at me from his personal armchair with suspicion. The cat’s armchair, all in scars, is a separate sovereign territory, I’m told. I dare not dispute this.

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We sit around the tiny table. And then I ask the question that’s been on my mind all the time: why do you guys live in such a place, if there’s so little space and almost no comfort? Why not somewhere in the burbs, you could have a small house and yard there? It’s actually quite comfortable, and it’s very cheap, she responds. They pay a quarter of what folk would pay living in the center. Besides, it’s actually quite cosy. There are all those typically Russian carpets on the walls (and floor). Only problem is, the Uzbeks are increasing in numbers, and taking over, she says. The Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks and Kyrgyz have become a feature of the big Russian cities for quite a while. You won’t see a cashier at a supermarket who isn’t Asian any more. Or a taxi driver. Or street cleaner.

One word: “pilaf”. That’s what the Uzbeki woman with the fluffy bunny slippers drops at me while passing beside Nastya’s open door. Sounds like an invitation. Seems like there’s a hospitality competition going on here, so I can’t refuse. I’ll be treated to the traditional Uzbeki meal with rice, lamb and carrots. Top taste, I must say. But if you thought the inhabitants of the kommunalka dine together, you were wrong. The meals they cook together in the kitchen are soon distributed to their respective recipients. Yeah – they eat in their rooms, where they sleep and raise their kids. Some families even eat on the floor, as they don’t have enough chairs. The hospitable Uzbeki family are no exception. I bend my knees and sit the Eastern way on their amazing carpet (stained, unfortunately), and I enjoy the pilaf.

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Soon I’m back with Nastya. There’ll be vodka and gurkins, I’m promised. Can’t miss the vodka. But first there’ll be coffee. “We live all in peace, together”, Nastya tells me later while we’re having coffee back in her single-room home. It’s Kitchen Philosophy lecture time, apparently. “There are parliamentary elections in a week, you say? Hmm, let me think. When was the last time I voted on those?” Her son Pavlik reminds her it must have been the year 2000. “So who are we voting for this time? There’s no real opposition with a program of their own, no one to promise us a better life. Cherish what you have, they tell us. And we do”. Pavlik, who seems more philosophically inclined, remarks that in a huge country like Russia, the only way to keep so much folk in line is to rule with an iron fist, govern with an imperial style so to speak. “There’s no way Russia could ever have democracy. No way. We’d plunge into chaos. We tried that for a while, and it didn’t work”, he concludes. He means Yeltsin’s time, obviously. “It was total chaos. And we don’t want chaos. We fear chaos. We’ve seen what chaos looks like, and we don’t want that. We prefer stability, no matter the cost”.

I quit my intentions to question their relationship with totalitarianism. It’s pointless. Russians obviously do like their oppressors the way they are, and they even love them. Because they bring stability. Period.

“Today’s Russia reminds me of the 70s”, Nastya says. “I was young then, but I remember”. Her prediction sounds ominous: “Everything will collapse eventually, everyone knows that. And there’ll be a revolution, and then we’ll all live a new life. But I won’t be around to see that. It won’t be too soon. So I’m not making any long-term plans for the future. No one is”. Pavlik adds, “We live here and now, for this moment. But that doesn’t stop us from being happy in our own way. Of course our country has many flaws. Who doesn’t? But we love what we have, and we’re happy with it”.

Comrade Putin has enjoyed a 70%+ landslide victory because of people like Nastya and Pavlik. Of those there are many. His future, and that of his clique and whoever he happens to hand-pick for his successor, is ensured because of people like them. But for how long? Given the current economic insecurity, Russia’s mid- to long-term future seems rather uncertain at this point. Despite the strict hierarchy, the total government control on all institutions, the media, and the economy. And despite the deeply inbred proneness of the Russian people to put up with whatever form of oppression they’re presented with. Whatever happens, the kommunalky will still be there, standing tall above the cityscape. It’s where people will keep finding their safe, cheap haven – or Heaven. Despite the strict hierarchy. Or maybe exactly because of it. It brings stability, doesn’t it?