Letter from a Wahoo in the Balkans

On a Fulbright grant in Bulgaria, John Dyer is collecting stories, encountering a new attitude in retailing and learning what happens when capitalist spirit and traditional attitudes combine.

By John Dyer (MA, English '96)
John Dyer

Dyer and a friend in Bulgaria.
Photo courtesy of John Dyer.

Living and working in Bulgaria has been a juggling act. In the Balkans, a lot is happening at the same time.

At the Rozhen Monastery near the Greek border, for example, a monk told me stories that touched on classical history, the Byzantine and Turkish empires, communism and the 15-year-long “transition period,” as Bulgarians call the present chapter of their history.
 
Father Barnabas talked about southern Bulgaria’s vineyards, which helped inspire the myth of Dionysis, the Greek god of wine who hailed from the region. He talked about the monastery’s centuries-old icon of the Virgin, which he said bled when a pirate tried to destroy it in the Middle Ages. He described the monastery as a redoubt for Bulgarian Orthodox culture when the Islamic Turks controlled the country.

And, as he served me a traditional repast of pickled figs, water and rakia, a strong Bulgarian brandy, he said he was tired today, because he was making an inventory of everything the monastery owned. The current Bulgarian Orthodox patriarch was appointed by the country’s former communist leaders, he said. A group of monks rejected his authority and had absconded with some church property. Barnabas, who was loyal to the patriarch, was trying to figure out what was gone.

As a journalist on a Fulbright grant in Bulgaria, I’ve been collecting stories like Barnabas’ while teaching newswriting at Sofia University. It’s been an amazing challenge, both as a writer and as a regular guy living in a foreign city.

First of all, a journalist tries to cut through things to find the story. But in the Balkans, that’s not done easily. It’s hard to pin down the origins of anything here. There’s always another layer. Second, communism created modes of behavior that I sometimes just find bizarre.

For example, I bought a computer printer, and the printer cartridge ran out of ink within a month. So I went to the store to buy a new one. There I asked for five cartridges, thinking I might as well buy a bunch if I was going to go through them quickly. Altogether they cost about 70 bucks.

The clerk said no. He only had five cartridges. If he sold all of them to me, he asked, what would happen when someone else needed one? He’d only let me buy one cartridge at a time. I tried to explain that he shouldn’t care who buys the cartridges. As long as he received money for them, his business was doing well. But, again, he said no. Then I suggested he sell me all the cartridges and immediately order more. Nope, no deal.

I was thinking like an unrepentant capitalist. He wasn’t.

My students sometimes reflect a different ideology, too. But their perspective stems from being the first generation not to grow up under communism in 50 years. Imagine the clashes that erupt between them and their elders, who were raised with a very different attitude toward authority.

Bulgarian students are used to professors lecturing at them and rarely asking their opinions, for instance. As a result, my classes, which were planned as discussion seminars, were rather slow at first.

“Would you join a militia like Orwell in ‘Homage to Catalonia’? Or would you report on the Spanish Civil War like an objective journalist? Is there such a thing as objectivity? Does it exist?”

Silence.

“Do you sympathize with Orwell when he talks about being cold in the trenches or do you think he’s exaggerating? I mean, he could always get up and leave Spain. It wasn’t his country, right?”

Stares.

It took around a month for them to open up. Once they did, however, a new problem arose. I realized I rarely saw the same faces in class two weeks in a row. Students were coming only intermittently.

Finally, over coffee, they explained the situation. Most had 40-hour-per-week jobs and took 10 other courses. Since most professors just lectured, it didn’t matter if you were in class or not. You could always get notes from your classmates, and, since your whole grade was determined by an exam at the end of the semester, you could cram a week before and still pass.

Bulgarian students pack their schedules so tight, they’re always blowing off work to attend class, or class to go to work, or a combination of both. They just rotate who they blow off in order to never ignore anyone completely. Their mentality reflects a new, capitalist spirit as well as a traditional southern European “It can be done tomorrow” attitude.

When I left for the Balkans, many of my friends scoffed, thinking I was heading to someplace cold and dreary and Russian, like Siberia. But Bulgaria, although a Slavic nation, has a Mediterranean character. It borders Turkey and Greece. Its villages, filled with white-stucco houses and red-tiled roofs, resemble Santa Barbara, California more than Moscow.

I’ve walked to the gym at noon, past patrons in a café, and seen the same people still chatting, coffees seemingly untouched, two hours later as I returned home. When you make an appointment for two o’clock, you show up 20 minutes late, which is right on time. If a neighbor invites you for tea, be prepared for a two-hour sitdown.

In this sense, I’ve relaxed in Bulgaria. Before I came here, I lived in New York City. Over the past five months, my walking speed probably dropped from six to three miles an hour. It’s a lesson that comes from living in a place with a more far-sighted view of time.